Best of 2018, Two: Literary Fiction

December 23, 2018 at 11:29 pm (Best of 2018)

This is the area in which I read the least this year. I had trouble finding novels that appealed to me; I started quite a few more than I finished. I repeatedly encountered awkward writing, structural oddities, plotting peculiarities, and other off putting elements. I readily concede that the problem may lie more with me than with the books in question. Nevertheless, this is what I experienced.

There were, thank goodness, a few notable exceptions.

I’m no more immune to the artless charms of Anne Tyler than are her many other admirers. I know of no other writer currently at work who can write so convincingly about seemingly ‘ordinary’ people, including and especially children. She makes you care deeply about  their hurts, their small portions of happiness, their ultimate fate. So it is with Willa and company in Clock Dance..

At first, I had my doubts about this book. If it had not been a book club selection, I might not have stayed with it. But I did, and I’m glad. The novel opens with a rather unworldly college freshman, the oddly named Greer Kadetsky, going to a fraternity party and getting what we used to call “felt up” by an overweening male student. I assumed that the fallout from this iincident would be the focus of the novel, but it proves to be more of a springboard.

My problem with the book was that it had multiple foci; too many characters whose back stories were  minutely and laboriously explored. I sort of wanted to push them out of the way and get back to Greer and her coming of age tale. But gradually, as feminist themes became more pronounced, I was increasingly drawn into the narrative.

Early on in the novel, Greer is befriended by movement icon Faith Frank, a character that seems, at least in part, to be modeled on Gloria Steinem. The twists and turns of that relationship reflect different aspects of feminism: where it has been, where it is headed. Their conversations are very interesting. Additionally, Greer has a boyfriend, Cory Pinto, with whom she’s been in love since high school. Inevitably, their relationship is headed for some trying times. The other main character is Greer’s best friend Zee Eisenstat. Their friendship is tested to the limits by a betrayal that seemed to me rather arbitrary and deeply troubling.

To live in a world of female power—mutual power—felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.

So yes, ultimately there was enough in The Female Persuasion to  hold me. I’ll be attending a discussion on it next month; I’m looking forward to hearing the reactions of other readers.

  As best as I can determine, sensation fiction is a cross between horror literature and crime fiction, exclusively beholden to neither. It reached the height of its popularity in Britain in the 1860s and 1870s. Two of the best known practitioners of the craft were Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Several titles by Dickens could be said to fall into this category, namely Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There’s even a  Thomas Hardy novel, Desperate Remedies, that is often mentioned in this context.

The chief characteristics of sensation fiction are enumerated by Michael Grost on his essential site A Guide To Classic Mystery and Detection:

  • secrets from the past, often involving people’s identities
  • written records of key moments of people’s lives: wedding certificates, gravestones, parish registers, inscriptions in books
  • well to do women with secrets
  • criticism of socially approved roles for men and women, and ideas of femininity
  • victimization of socially naive young people, by older, more experienced criminals
  • criminal conspiracies, often involving major life transitions: marriage, death and inheritance
  • marriage as a sinister event, leading one to being fleeced of money, then killed
  • crimes which the reader sees unfold from beginning to end; rather than being solved after the fact, detective story style
  • characters who serve as doubles of each other
  • dreams
  • mind controlling drugs
  • the use of mirrors and paintings to suggest hidden truths, especially about the villains
  • satire of the religiously active

Further information on this topic can be found on The Victorian Web, another extremely useful site.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s best known work is Lady Audley’s Secret (1863). I was motivated to read it after encountering it in Kate Summerscale’s riveting account of the Road Hill House murder, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I was amazed at the sheer readability of this novel.  Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

Even more contemporaneous with the Road Hill House were the so-called novels of sensation, the most notable of which was Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  According to Henry James, works of this type dealt with “‘those most mysterious of mysteries,the mysteries that are at our own doors…the terrors of the cheerful country house, or  the busy London lodgings.’”  Summerscale elaborates:  “Their secrets were exotic, but their settings immediate – they took place in England, now, a land of telegrams, trains, policemen. The characters in these novels were at the mercy of their feelings, which pressed out, unmediated, onto their flesh: emotions compelled them to blanch, flush, darken, tremble, start, convulse, their eyes to burn and flash and dim.”  The worry at the time was that readers were experiencing the same scary subcutaneous reactions!

(Of course, authors of these works were employing every trick they knew to evoke that very response.)

Several months ago, Ann R of the Usual Suspects gave me a copy of Wyllard’s Weird, a later novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Once again I was enchanted by this author’s almost hypnotic prose style – graceful yet commanding. As with Lady Audley’s Secret, the storytelling was first rate. The novel opens with the description of a journey by railway:

There are some travellers who think when they cross the Tamar, over that fairy bridge of Brunel’s, hung aloft between the blue of the river and  the blue of the sky, that they have left England behind them on the eastern shore – that they have entered a new country, almost a new world.

The Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened in 1859

The idyllic description continues, but not for long. On the very next page, a sudden and shocking event occurs. A young woman falls out of one of train’s carriages. She plummets to the earth far below and is killed instantly. Upon subsequent investigation, it turns out that no one knows who she is or why she  fell. Was it an accident, a suicide, or something more sinister? From the seed of this mystery a fascinating narrative grows.

I’m no end grateful to Ann for this marvelous novel. Now I need to go back and reread Lady Audley’s Secret.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, by William Powell Frith, 1865

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