02 September 2009

Two historical fictions

I've neglected books lately. There have been several good ones, which I've intended to mention ... but then time and a half slipped by... (Ray Girvan used to have a link to my books tag but I notice that he has tactfully removed it to spare my blushes.) One of them I really must address because it's one of the most impressive fictions I've ever read ... watch this space, “real soon now”. The rest, since time is finite, will have to drift away.

I will, however, briefly mention a young adult novel which I read on the recommendation of The conscience pudding – Jennifer Donnelly's “lovely, plaintive book”, A northern light. I won't review it here; Watoosa has done that for me. I'll just add a couple of comments. First, to register a small reservation (as she does in her current post) about the tendency of fiction in general, and young fiction in particular, to "prettify" or idealise the past – there are some social aspects of Mattie's world which are more generous than true. At the same time, I nevertheless am impressed by the way difference between “then” and “now” is soaked into the fabric of the book in a way which brings it home to the intended audience. Chrissie, a 16 year old of my acquaintance, was deeply affected by the description of life only a hundred years ago and embarked on a library search to fill out her understanding of social development in the century between. (Aside: this book is an example of the irritating practice, mentioned by Watoosa, of changing titles as they cross the Atlantic: in Britain it is for some reason known as A gathering light which somewhat misses the original point.)

Also a hundred years ago is the story within a story of Salvador Carriscant, a surgeon in the early 20th century, told in retrospect by the narrator of William Boyd's A blue afternoon. The descriptions of surgical and medical knowledge (or, from our viewpoint, lack of it) didn't actually tell me anything I didn't already intellectually know, but they did for the first time bring many things home to me in visceral (literally!) and vivid context just as A northern light did for Chrissie. Two days after reading this, serendipitously, I found Unreal Nature's post on surgery and poetry and the ensuing discussion in its comments.

  • Jennifer Donnelly, A northern light. 2004, San Diego: Harcourt. 0152053107 or 978-0152053109 (published in the UK as A gathering light. 2003, London: Bloomsbury. 0747570639)
  • William Boyd, The blue afternoon. 1993, London: Penguin. 0140238255 (pbk)

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