I wish to express my deepest condolences for the victims of the tragedy in Connecticut, and their families. Please know that we are heartsick for all of you.
President Obama said, “‘We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years…’” One can but agree, although this one is especially horrific. It also serves as a fearful reminder: This could happen to any one of us.
I keep thinking of what Francisco Goldman wrote in Say Her Name about the loss of his young wife:
Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to all the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair and breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it.
As the President also said, these communities are our communities; these children belong to all Americans. We are all mourners today.
It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.
I am pleased to report that matters continue pretty much in the same vein. In Death Comes to Pemberley, the Baroness emulates Austen’s gracefully antique prose style with nary a lapse.
Before launching into the main body of the work, James brings us up to speed on the doings of the Bennet family. Then the action of the novel commences with a description of the preparations for Lady Anne’s Ball. This is a lavish celebration traditionally given at Pemberley, the great estate belonging to Mr. Darcy. He now shares this fabulous domicile with his wife Elizabeth, nee Bennet. (Darcy is considered to have married beneath his station; neither Elizabeth nor the reader can long remain oblivious to this glaring and, to the modern reader at least, irritating prejudice.)
Death Comes to Pemberley gets off to a slow start. Actually, glacial might be a more accurate description of the pacing of the narrative in its early stages. Had it been anyone but P.D. James, I might have thrown in the towel early on. But this is an author whose work I revere, and besides, where books are concerned I’ve been doing so much towel-throwing lately that it behooved me to stick with this one a bit longer. And the fact is, the Baroness’s novels are wont to be somewhat measured in their approach to storytelling, especially as regards their first few chapters. And sure enough, around page 51 of the hardback, things began to happen. The pace quickened; my interest was piqued. Why was this so? A murder happened, of course!
Elizabeth’s sister Lydia is now married to George Wickham. In Pride and Prejudice, these two precipitate a crisis by their impulsive and ill considered behavior. In James’s novel, they are once again at the center of the storm. Yet oddly, the reader spends relatively little time in their company. I found this particularly frustrating with regard to Lydia. I was surprised that James did not allow that feckless and foolish young woman more opportunity to vent her spleen in reaction to the dire situation in which she and her husband find themselves. I am sure that she would have been deliciously outrageous!
This is not to say that Death Comes to Pemberley is without comic relief. Particularly in the early parts of the novel, James’s sly wit is a delight and very much in keeping with the spirit of Jane Austen. Some instances:
…if Miss Elizabeth had entertained any doubts about the wisdom of her scheme to secure Mr. Darcy, the first sight of Pemberley had confirmed her determination to fall in love with him at the first convenient moment.
This is said of Mary, another of Elizabeth’s sisters:
An assembly ball was a penance to be endured only because it offered an opportunity for her to take centre stage at the pianoforte and, by judicious use of the sustaining pedal, to stun the audience into submission.
P.D. James has always had an almost uncanny ability to set a scene:
Entering the library, Darcy saw that Stoughton and Mrs. Reynolds had done their best to ensure that the colonel and he were made as comfortable as possible. The fire had been replenished, lumps of coal wrapped in paper for quietness, and added logs lay ready in the grate, and there was a sufficiency of pillows and blankets. A covered dish of savoury tarts, carafes of wine and water and plates, glasses and napkins were on a round table some distance from the fire.
She also can’t resist slipping in an intriguing bit of information about a singular innovativion in English country houses in the early nineteenth century:
‘…Mason complained that his legs were stiff and he needed to exercise them. What he probably needed was to visit the water closet, that newfangled apparatus you have had installed here which, I understand, has caused much ribald interest in the neighborhood….’
What do you know: indoor plumbing comes to Pemberley! A reference this specific would surely not have made it into an original Austen novel; nevertheless it was enjoyable to encounter it in James’s narrative. For the most part, James manages to steer clear of glaring anachronisms. But there are times when the writer of detective fiction trumps the novelist of manners. I’m thinking in particular of a scene in the woodlands belonging to Pemberley . When several persons find some letters carved in a tree, they fall into speculation as to what kind of instrument was used to do the carving. The scene began to resemble something out of CSI rather than a novel of manners from the early 1800′s.
In point of fact, those very woods hold more than one secret concerning the mystery of the murder at the Pemberley estate. Toward the novel’s climax, there is a veritable cascade of revelations. I found these late-breaking developments at times hard to follow. For me, the best “”Aha!” moment actually had nothing to do with information concerning the crime and everything to do with an almost offhand mention of the cast of characters from another Austen novel. James pulls this off seamlessly; it is probably my single favorite moment in the book.
A great idea for a book discussion group would be to read Pride and Prejudice and follow that meeting with a discussion of Death Comes to Pemberley. Indeed, I felt somewhat hampered by the fact that at the time I was reading James’s novel, Pride and Prejudice was not at all fresh in my mind.
I’ve talked to a number of people who did not care for Death Comes to Pemberley. They found it labored and/or unconvincing. On the whole, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would place it in the front rank of my favorites in James’s oeuvre. At this point in time, that accolade goes to A Certain Justice.
There can be little doubt that Death Comes to Pemberley was an enjoyable exercise in authorship for the Baroness, a lifelong devotee of the works of Jane Austen:
Indeed, the novel was a pleasant romp, but I found it neither profound nor especially thought-provoking. I felt keenly the absence of a brooding and introspective, not to mention deeply attractive (especially as portrayed by Roy Marsden in the TV version) central character. In other words, I missed James’s superb series creation, Commander Adam Dalgliesh.
American literature is replete with paeans to baseball. Over the years, they’ve appeared in the sports pages, in novels, and in stories. But Colum McCann’s essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times is so moving and beautifully expressed, I want to share it with you.
It is about our National Pastime, and much more.
Sometimes you ponder the meaning of life….
Sometimes you worry about the state of your soul….
Sometimes you wonder about the nature of love….
And sometimes you just want to hear the Beach Boys sing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice:”
Dear Reader, I’d like to direct you to the blog “In so many words…(Yvette Can draw). ” It is a true visual feast!
Yesterday’s Washington Post brought news of the passing of British author Beryl Bainbridge. In the course of her writing life (she was an actress first), Bainbridge was nominated for the Man Booker Prize five times. She never actually won and, as a result, was sometimes referred to as a “Booker bridesmaid.”
She did, however, win other literary awards, most notably the Whitbread – twice – for Injury Time and Every Man for Himself. I really enjoyed the second title. In Every Man for Himself, Bainbridge takes us on board the Titanic and places us among the doomed vessel’s passengers and crew members. You may think there’s no opportunity to create suspense here, but you’d be wrong. Yes, we readers know what’s going to happen, but the characters, of course, do not. You want to cry out a warning. I’m reminded of a scene in Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii in which the aquarius, Marcus Attilius Primus, is riding his horse up the slopes of Vesuvius. I wanted to grab the reins and shout, “Be afraid! Turn this horse around and ride like the wind in the other direction!”
(This serves to remind me that a little over a year ago, I was in a tour bus riding up the slopes of Vesuvius. I and my fellow travelers then got out and hiked a further way up the mountain. Was I fearful? No – I was exhilarated. On the way up, we saw lovely houses with pantile roofs and gardens nurtured by the rich volcanic soil. This is the so-called Red Zone. People live here because it is a beautiful place affording stunning views of the Bay of Naples. The mountain is, for the time being, quiescent. The scene put me in mind of spectacular dwellings I’ve seen magnificently and precariously perched on the steep hillsides of California.)
My favorite Bainbridge novel is According To Queeney. In it, the author vividly depicts eighteenth century England as she tells the story of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his intense, rather strange friendship with Hester Thrale, wife of a wealthy brewer. I read this book a awhile ago, but I still recall Hester’s repeated childbearing. Unfortunately, her infants tended to be frail and did not live long after their birth.
Bainbridge practiced the less-is-more method of writing historical fiction. Her novels are short. With a few masterful strokes, she brings the past to life. Sometimes a well placed detail can be more evocative than a grand, broad canvas. While it’s true that I loved every word of Hilary Mantel’s magisterial Wolf Hall, I love several much shorter historical novels just as much. There are the two by Beryl Bainbridge, discussed above, and these marvelous masterworks by Penelope Fitzgerald:
Click here for a complete list of works by Beryl Bainbridge. Her name also appears on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945,“ compiled by the Sunday Times of London in 2008. Don’t know about you, but the names of a fair number of my favorite authors appear on this list.
The appearance of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third and final volume in Stieg Larsson’s massively popular Millennium Trilogy, has prompted a number of interesting reflections from critics and reviewers:
The Girl Who Conquered the World, by Laura Miller (Salon);
The Secrets of Stieg Larsson, by Malcolm Jones (Newsweek);
The Afterlife of Stieg Larsson, by Charles McGrath (New York Times Sunday Magazine).
Several commentators have taken a look at the phenomenon of Scandinavian crime fiction in general:
Very Cool Cases, by Neely Tucker (Washington Post);
A Scandinavian Hit Sets Publishers Seeking More, by Julie Bosman (New York Times).
Neely Tucker omits my personal favorite, Norway’s extremely gifted Karin Fossum. And neither article mentions the team of writers whom many consider the founding parents of Scandinavian crime fiction: Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Together, these two penned ten novels between 1965 and 1975, before Wahloo’s untimely death. All ten books are currently in print, courtesy of Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. They are, each of them, eminently worth reading.
At any rate – thanks are due to all of these fine writers for infusing such vitality into the mystery genre.
I confess I approached last Tuesday night’s discussion with a certain diffidence. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher presents such an array of complex issues, I doubted I could do the book justice. But – doubts were vanquished almost as soon as we began. I have the incredible good luck to be associated with The Usual Suspects, a gratifyingly brainy group of people who brought their impressive intellects to bear full force upon Kate Summerscale’s many-layered, remarkable narrative. (Click here to read my original review of this book. Also, be warned: this post contains spoilers.)
I began our discussion by a reading a passage from the introduction:
“A Victorian detective was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes – the vestiges of the beast in man – into intellectual puzzles. But after the investigation at Road Hill the image of the detective darkened. Many felt that Whicher’s inquiries culminated in a violation of the middle-class home, an assault on privacy, a crime to match the murder he had been sent to solve….
That paragraph in its entirety summed up many of the issues explored by the author in this book.
I next asked everyone to look at the Kent family tree. Several of the birth and dates there given serve as a sobering reminder of how prevalent infant death still was, even in the mid-nineteenth century in a progressive Western country.
I then went on to provide some biographical information on Kate Summerscale. This Wikipedia entry pretty much sums up what I was able to find. In addition, here is an interview with the author:
Then it was time to look at the murder itself, and the context in which it took place. When I asked what emotion this core aspect of the book evoked, someone immediately responded, “horror.” Everyone agreed at once. It seemed an especially heinous crime, compounded as it was of cool calculation and unimaginable rage. As Summerscale puts it, concerning the weeks that followed the grisly revelation :
“The puzzle of the Road Hill case lay in the killer’s peculiar combination of heat and cold, planning and passion. Whoever had murdered, mutilated and defiled Saville Kent must be horribly disturbed, possessed by unnaturally strong feelings: yet the same person, in remaining so far undiscovered, had shown startling powers of self-control.
The author concludes this paragraph by pointing out that “Whicher took Constance’s cold quiet as a clue that she had killed her brother.” And though he was made to pay dearly for it, he was exactly right to do so.
We all agreed that this book was greatly enriched by the frequent allusions to works that were seminal in the evolution of the detective fiction genre. Some time ago, the suspects had discussed The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, so it was particularly enjoyable to encounter this great writer once again, in this context. Collins coined the phrase “detective fever,” declaring that Charles Dickens had a bad case of it where the Road Hill House crime was concerned.
Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone are both to some extent modeled on the real life character of Jonathan Whicher. Another novel mentioned in connection with the Road Hill House case is Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. When I first read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, I was intrigued by the mention of this title. It was a book – and author – which rang only the faintest of bells for me, dating from my English major days at Goucher College and Georgetown University. I then tried to read it, but got bogged down in the rather protracted description of Audley Court with which the novel begins.
This time, after completing my second traversal of Summerscale’s book, I decided yet again to read Lady Audley. And a strange thing happened:I was mesmerized by this novel! Once past that slow-moving opening passage, I found myself completely engrossed in a genuinely fascinating story. It was hard for me to believe I that a work of such positively juicy readability was originally published in 1862. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you sorceress – where have you been all my life?
Lady Audley’s Secret is the exemplar of a genre known as the novel of sensation. Attaining great popularity in the 1860′s and 1870′s, such works aimed to jolt the reader by turning certain staid Victorian conventions on their collective heads, and by dealing deliberately in shocking subject matter, such as “adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder” (Wikipedia). Well gosh, no wonder that was so much fun!
To a considerable extent, novels of sensation were the forerunners of the detective story, so they should naturally be of interest to those of us who are ardent readers of crime fiction. Kate Summerscale advances the possibility that “…the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional…[is] to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.” Summerscale goes on to quote Raymond Chandler to the effect that “The detective story…is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Our group kicked this provocative observation around a bit. IMHO, this is Chandler speaking with tongue firmly in cheek. This is, after all, the man who wrote, at the conclusion of one of the greatest mystery novels ever written:
“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
No happy ending there ( though the writing itself is stunning.) Summerscale’s theory, on the other hand, has real merit.
I’ll have more to say about Lady Audley’s Secret in a later post. But first: more on the book under consideration Tuesday night.
As with much sensation fiction, madness runs as a dark undercurrent throughout Kate Sumerscale’s narrative. The Kent family was a blended one, comprising Samuel Kent’s children by his first wife, Mary Ann Windus, and those he fathered subsequently by Mary Drewe Pratt.
Mary Ann Windus was a sad case. Married to Samuel Kent in 1829 at the age of twenty-one, she became repeatedly pregnant. Out of a total ten live births, only five children survived infancy. When still young, Mary Ann purportedly showed signs of ‘weakness and bewilderment of intellect.’ The repeated pregnancies and infant deaths she had to endure can only have made matters worse.
Also unhelpful was the introduction into the household of Mary Drewe Pratt as governess to Constance, who was born in 1844. Pratt, an apparently imperious presence on the domestic scene, disparaged and marginalized Mary Ann Windus. The latter finally died in 1852. A year later, Samuel Kent married Mary Drewe Pratt. Proving to be just as fecund as her predecessor, Pratt gave birth to three children in quick succession. Francis Saville, born in 1856, was the murder victim in 1860.
The initial revelations concerning the murder caused a kind of feeding frenzy among members of the public and the press. Jack Whicher obstinately insisted that Constance Kent was the culprit, but his methods were blunt and ham handed, and he lacked any convincing evidence. People found another theory more compelling; namely, that Samuel Kent and the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, were lovers and had been observed in flagrante by little Saville. Gough slept in the same room with the younger children and was present when Saville was taken from his bed. Although she insisted that she had slept through the abduction, neither seeing nor hearing anything, she nevertheless made an attractive suspect.
In the short term, no further compelling evidence appeared. No breakthrough was achieved. The hubbub gradually died down. Whicher, his investigative techniques and seemingly arbitrary conclusions thoroughly vilified by both the press and the public at large, slunk back to London. The public’s attention was diverted to other matters. (Whicher stayed with the police force for several more years. After retiring from the force, he became a private “agent of inquiry,” a career path similar to that of Anne Perry’s fictional protagonist William Monk. It’s also worth noting that amid the general disapproval, Whicher did have his defenders.)
Then, in 1865, Constance Kent came forward and confessed to the murder of her step-brother. Her initial explanations in regard to her motive tended to be murky and contradictory. Ultimately, however, it emerged that Constance was possessed of a great animus toward her stepmother. Mary Drewe Pratt had sewn a huge resentment in the bosom of Mary Ann Windus’s daughter by denigrating and ultimately seeking to replace her own mother. To make matters worse, Pratt displayed blatant favoritism toward the children she and Samuel had together. With Saville’s murder, she seems to have reaped the fruits of her own actions. If her sole aim was to secure Samuel Kent for her husband and thereby make a place for herself among the middle classes of nineteenth century England, she achieved her goal, but at a terrible price.
When it became known that Constance had confessed of her own free will, the question arose as to whether she, like her mother, suffered from “the taint of madness.” How else to account for an adolescent girl’s commission of such a terrible act? In recent years, the theory has surfaced that the real trouble – or at least, the medical trouble – in the Kent family was caused by Samuel’s having had syphilis, and having passed the infection on to Mary Ann Windus. Among its other scourges, this disease can cause early infant death and mental instability. Men were extremely reluctant to seek medical help for this particular ailment, or even to admit to be suffering from it.
At any rate, Summerscale advances this theory cautiously, warning that “Syphilis is an affliction easy to suspect in retrospect.”
We talked about the strange lack of emotion displayed by members of the Kent family. Samuel is reported to have been seen weeping at one point, but we are not told of any other demonstrative displays. This is perhaps understandable in the context in which the crime occurred. First of all, Summerscale could report on only what was supported by written testimony. And this was an era in which people – especially those belonging to the upper classes - were taught to reign in their emotions.
The one member of the Kent family to whom Constance felt genuinely close was her brother William. Indeed, several years before the murder, the two had attempted to run away to sea. Some commentators on the crime believe that it would have been impossible for Constance alone to have abducted and killed Saville. She must, in other words, have had an accomplice. Was that accomplice William? Proof positive of this has never been found. Many, though, consider it to be highly likely. Our group was of that opinion. We felt it likely that Constance deliberately “took the rap” for the crime, insisting that she acted alone. This admission effectively lifted the cloud of guilt from other members of the Kent family. Constance would have been especially keen to have William no longer suspected of complicity. And in fact, William went on to enjoy a distinguished career in microscopy and marine biology.
As we discussed this outcome, Pauline put this question to us: in the matter of the murder of Saville Kent, was justice done? The group’s consensus: in the main, it was not. Constance Kent did serve a 20-year prison term, but she was still only 41 years old upon her release. Assuming the name Ruth Emilie Kaye, she emigrated to Australia, where she received training as a nurse. She never married and spent the remainder of her life in service to others. And it was a very long life: Constance Kent, aka Ruth Emilie Kaye, died in 1944 at the age of 100. Her obituary mentions that at one time, she nursed lepers.
It would appear that Constance was trying to make restitution for her crime to society. Did she achieve this? It’s a subjective question, one that can never be answered conclusively. (And the same question could be asked of the aforementioned Anne Perry.) Even if one wishes to concede that a good faith effort was made here – What, then, about William Kent? His role in the events at Road Hill House was never proven and remains a matter for speculation. As an adult, he was free to live a full and productive life.
From the question of justice in this particular instance, our discussion widened to include the issue of the death penalty. It was necessary to tread carefully here, as people have strong opinions on this issue, but I thought our group handled that part of the discussion with admirable tact and diplomacy. I observed that Britain had come a long way since the day when executions were a form of public spectacle. Pauline, our “token Brit,” told us about the John Christie and Derek Bentley cases. Both involved wrongful execution; the ensuing revulsion proved instrumental in the decision to abolish capital punishment in the UK.
Several of us had read “Trial by Fire,” an article in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker concerning the possible wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. (At one point in this article, author David Grann recounts the following case from British history:
“In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, and eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged.
Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted, fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the Perrys.
We talked about other high profile murder cases in which justice has proved elusive. We’ve all had the experience of learning of a verdict or a sentence and exclaiming in disbelief: How could they? or words to that effect. What is the answer to this perennial question? Mine is that just as human beings are hard wired to want to solve puzzles, so are we equally hardwired to yearn for justice – and to keep up the relentless effort to see that justice is served.
Kate Summerscale won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.
On the face of it, To Heaven By Water is not a plot-driven book. Nevertheless, I found it impossible to put down. The characters are not especially unique; still, they enthralled me. I could not wait to find out what they would do next, or what was about to happen to them. Most of all, I loved the glimpses into their restless, constantly churning minds.
David Cross has recently been widowed; the ghost of his briskly efficient wife Nancy hovers constantly in the background. He has two grown children: Ed, a lawyer; and Lucy, an appraiser and researcher at an elite auction house. Ed and his wife Rosalie have been trying, without success, to have a child. Lucy, meanwhile, is in a relationship that’s proving increasingly unsatisfying.
David Cross has recently retired from a high profile job as a news reader for the BBC. He fills his newly won spare time by working out at a local gym:
“David rows away. It’s far from certain where he is heading. The upper body is something new, a sort of unexplored region attached by the isthmus of the waist to the lower body, which houses the restless sex organs and is also the terminus for the legs. The rowing machine is good for the upper body and the legs. Straightening his back, using his legs (all the power in rowing comes from the legs), imagining the water flying by, ducks happy to get away unscathed….He rows on for half an hour until he has floated free of the gym and on to a sea of tranquility.
He whispers to himself, To heaven by water.
(The italicized phrase is from James Joyce’s Ulysses:
“James M’Cann’s hobby to row me o’er the ferry…
To heaven by water.)
In his youth, David had aspired to be an actor. He had spent some time in Rome shooting a film version of Christopher Marlowe’s Faust. The title role was played by Richard Burton:
“As David watched him and heard that astonishing voice swelling to fill the huge stage in Dinocitta with its anguish, he found himself shaking: a forty-two-year-old Welsh miner’s son had dissolved the barriers between the immanent and the transcendent worlds.
The memory of that season of adventure retains its fabulous aura as David grows older. As often happens with youthful epiphanies, later life has not provided any experiences of comparable brilliance. But there are compensations, even revelations, as he heads into late middle age.
All throughout, this narrative is fairly bursting with wit, vitality, and irreverence. In a moment of resentment, Ed decides that “There’s a determinedly conservative cast to upper-crust Scots, with their love of roast meat and their distrust of central heating and their use of the word ‘aye’.” Later, Lucy is appalled to learn that Ed and Rosalie might be moving to Geneva. When Ed asks defensively what is wrong with that city, Lucy replies that it is “famously dull,” and that “everyone wears a suit, even in bed.”
But in an instant, Cartwright jerks you back from wisecracks and facile (if amusing) generalizations into moments of profound intimacy. Here, Lucy recalls her vigil at the bedside of her dying mother:
“Lucy knows that Mum was particualrly concerned about her, as if she was especially vulnerable. Just before she died, she held Lucy’s hand with the grip of a very small bird. The lightness of her hand spoke eloquently of the nearness of her death; it had lost all its warmth and motive power. Her eyes, deep in their last retreats like Byzantine hermits in caves, retained a broad range of expressiveness, and the anguish in them was heartbreaking.
(Reading this passage, and other like it, I felt glad and relieved that I had never pursued my youthful ambition to become a writer. I could never have crafted sentences of such crystalline beauty. It was never in my power, but I am grateful that it most definitely is in Cartwright’s.)
Although some part of this novel take place in Africa (where David Cross’s brother Guy has long resided) and in Italy, To Heaven By Water is essentially about life in today’s London. There is a sense that this great metropolis, in its headlong rush into twenty-first century modernity, has left some of its denizens in a quandary concerning the old values and verities. There is some surprisingly bad behavior by people who, one feels, ought to have a more effective moral compass. Such is the paradox of the human condition, as it aspires to greatness while happily wallowing in venality!
The novel begins and ends with a boisterous convocation of old and dear friends. Here, at least, is one value still unquestioned and enduring.
With its compelling depiction of the confusion, contradiction, and exaltation that seem to go hand in hand with life in today’s great cities, To Heaven By Water reminded me of The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. In that work, a group of friends (and the distinguished father of one of them) struggle to find their way in a New York City forever altered by the attacks of September 11, 2001. I greatly enjoyed Messud’s novel, but I think Cartwright’s has greater reach, and greater staying power.
I’ve read two other books by Justin Cartwright: They were both excellent. This author has a knack for crafting precisely apposite conclusions to his narratives. (I’ve never forgotten what happens at the end of Interior). Unsatisfactory endings are one of the chief disappointments I regularly encounter in contemporary fiction, so I especially appreciate this gift of Cartwright’s.
As one does with all great reads, I regretted finishing To Heaven By Water. It was quite simply superb.
In a recent article in the Boston Globe, Katherine A. Powers states: “It is a great mystery to me why the South African-born, London-dwelling novelist Justin Cartwright is not better known in this country.” Alas, with my cynical, near-despairing view of the current state of America’s cultural landscape, I don’t feel that the mystery is quite so unfathomable. Nevertheless, I appreciate the sentiment, and I appreciate Ms Powers’s insightful piece.