This book is the closing volume of the Beulah Quintet, which I see mentioned on Goodreads as Settle’s best known work. The incidents that are narrated in this novel are mentioned in the introductions to all the previous volumes, the shock of something in the past – presumably in Settle’s past – that incited the search for the roots of what she terms American freedom. Let me state that I have admired the first four books in the series especially for the quality of the writing, but have been at times troubled by the content, as I have detailed in posts on volumes one through four. Settle is a remarkable writer of historical works, delving into the characters and depicting them as they were in the era, however uncomfortable that might be for modern readers, given that the books are populated by slaveholders, slaves, First Nations peoples, and a wealth of others. She has an eerie ability to enter into the modes of thinking of her creations, and this is often disconcerting, for she understands that these people of the past are alien to modern readers, but she forges ahead with her work, convinced of its purpose. What has convinced her of this purpose is what she writes about in this last volume of the set. The protagonist of the book is the writer of the Beulah Quintet, and so one is justified in relating her as Settle. So I will not make much distinction between the two in my response. It is utterly disappointing to find that the impetus for this long historical delve is the death of her brother, Johnny, and we are somehow to see his figure as tragic, when he appears to be more or less a wastrel, a drunk, and a dog. Exactly how he gets himself killed is less important than the aftermath of his death, when all his friends (who are of course of the best families in Beulah and environs) mourn him and search for the meaning of his wasted life. In Settles’s vision, Johnny is as much a victim of the past as are all the descendants of slaves, all the poor people who worked in his ancestor’s coal mines – I won’t belabor this as I have nothing to say about the conceit except that it borders on lunacy for me. This book is emptier and less appealing. But I don’t feel that I wasted my time in reading this book, and certainly not in reading its predecessors. What is interesting in it is the theory of the novel, that suddenly we can meet the author of the previous four and read her as a fictional character. There are some vivid episodes throughout the text. But there is a presumption of the importance of the rich and their history – they are the people who matter most, and it is in them we find the core of history. For me, this is a deal-breaker.
The Scapegoat by Mary Lee Settle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is probably the best of the Beulah Quintet in terms of unity and approach, telling the story of one of the heirs to Beulah who grew rich on coal, a quiet and ineffectual man who married sensibly, managed his coal mine with some humanity, but lost himself to the larger coal interests who entered West Virginia during the era of the robber baron capitalists. Mother Jones features in the book, a legendary figure among community organizers. The incident at the center of the book, a mine strike that the coal bosses must crush, is offered in counterpoint with the more private side of the book – deft, exact portraits of the women who are the central characters, much richer and more tangible than the men. Settle has a fine eye on these people and their nuances of attitude and voice are clear as they can be. This is a period of history and a place that I have read little about, and the novel on the whole is satisfying. But I found myself standing outside the story and carping at it nevertheless. The novel constantly pushed me out of immersion by constant shifts in point of view; I am to follow everyone’s story equally, it seems, even though not all the loci of character are equally interesting. The technique here is something between Faulkner and Woolf. It is not the method of the novel that falters for me; it is the fact that the method really exposes the triviality of the people at the center of the story. Settle is not as successful as Woolf at making the objects of everyday appear luminous and singular. And the fact that we move so readily from head to head in the story made me critique each character again and again as though I were being introduced to them over and over again. The story never could build up much momentum. The novel survives its weaknesses, though, and resonates with the pathos of these people and their struggle. The fine writing carries it.
Remembering Babylon by David Malouf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This novel approaches its subject, the return of a white man raised by indigenous Australians to his community of origin, with a succinctness that almost renders the story slight. But the beauty of the prose and the deftness of the Malouf’s choices make the book a surprise. There is a hint of Omensetter’s Luck in the shape of the tale though Malouf is very much clearer in his prose than Gass. For me clarity is a plus. There is a story that emerges, and it has Gemmy at its center, but it ranges afield into the vivid others who surround him, question him, presume to know him, who once shared kinship with him, but who find him strange and dangerous in his return. The story is important, the depiction of the original peoples of Australia, though scant, is pure, though it has elements of the magical other. As if wiser, nearly invisible elves moved amongst the white settlers. There are moments of the fantastical in the effect of these people on Gemmy, in the way their culture has aligned him to different ideas of the world. This part of the book is unerring and really wonderful. For the first half of the novel I felt as thought I had stumbled on a treasure, though Malouf is, of course, well known. But the latter part of the book whimpers and fades. There is an odd choice to have Gemmy simply dissolve out of the book and the passage of time to take the place of the culmination one expects. I admired this as a choice but am sorry that the book did not end in some stronger way.
I took up this book after having attempted to read it once and failing. I have much respect for Mary Lee Settle but, at times, I have very little liking for her work. (And at times I have a very great liking for it, as well, but that is for another day.) As she states in the introductions to most of the Beulah Quintet, it is her purpose to submerge herself in history and to become a creature of the era of which she writes. In the case of Know Nothing, this means inhabiting the mind of slave holders, poor settlers, and sometimes, at least in passing, of enslaved people. While it is impossible to write of this era of history without using the n-word, which is now among the most taboo of all words, the way in which an author conducts herself in the employment of the term and the inhuman purpose that lay behind its application is important. In the case of this novel, the shape of the minds of the white people feels true and harsh to the point that it is almost impossible to read passages of the book. She both represents the holding of people as slaves as a necessity and as a curse but her focus is on the slave owners and those who supported them. The presence of the slaves is almost incidental to the novel. Black people are only seen in their relations to the white people around them and not as people in themselves. This becomes an overwhelming concern when reading this book in 2021. We are still writing and rewriting this history and battling over its implications and consequences to this day. So that the novel itself feels incomplete and unsettled in its approach to the core of the story. The story she is telling is overshadowed and feels almost trivial. The struggle to tell the story becomes the foreground of the novel.
No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The title of this novel is curious, encapsulating the pervasive discomfort of the most modern period of Africa in Achebe’s trilogy. Obi Okonkwo, descendant of the protagonist of the first novel, has been sent to England to be educated in the Western manner so that he can join the bureaucracy in Nigeria; the people who sent him are the members of an Igbo social club who have organized to retain their collective identity in their new urban surroundings. They have pooled their money for Obi’s education and look on him as an investment for their own future, a sign that their people can cope with the new order as well as their neighbors have. This is a parallel to Ezeulu sending his own son to be educated in Christian ways in Arrow of God, and in the same way as the earlier novel the end result is not predictable or simple. Obi learns too much in his sojourn in England and is no longer quite of his people when he returns. He joins the civil service but sees its corruption, officials taking bribes at every turn. In fact the book begins with Obi’s arrest and conviction for taking a bribe himself, so that his downfall is already complete at the start, and the novel backtracks to show the disintegration that preceded his crime. He never intends to be dishonest but his moral character is not strong. As is usual with Achebe, the novel does not depict these events in a didactic or heavy-handed manner; we simply witness Obi’s life as though we were perched on his shoulder. The book is skillful but much less engaging than the earlier novels because it is a study of weakness and uncertainty; Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart may be caught up in his own blindness but he has great purpose, bent as it is; and Ezeulu in the second novel is a pillar of surety. Obi, by contrast, has lost his sense of who he is and his trajectory is downward. This kind of novel suffers from Achebe’s detachment. He is meticulous in cataloguing Obi’s small and continuous failures without creating much sense of empathy. In this kind of novel it would be better to offer more of his feelings, his interior, which was never necessary in the earlier books. It is nevertheless a fine book, but not a fine read. But it is a true depiction of what has been implied from the beginning of the cycle by the changes that overtake the Ten Towns and Nigeria through contact with Britain.
This novel follows Things Fall Apart in time sequence and offers a look at a later period of the history of the Ten Towns, after the British have become more established in this region of Africa but before the extreme alterations of the homegrown culture of the Igbo people. Here Achebe tells the story of Ezeulu, whom he refers to in his preface as “that magnificent man,” the priest who carries the god Ulu inside him and who lives as the presence of the god among the Ten Towns. This notion of divinity as being present and tangible within the circle of believers is one of the most fascinating in the novel and in the culture that it describes. In the long ago the Ten Towns performed a powerful magic that brought Ulu into being as their supreme deity, and the story of his creation is part of the tapestry of their tales and history. This idea is a window on the interplay of spirit, world, and cosmos that overlies the people of the towns; there is no contradiction in the notion that a god can be created by his worshipers but nevertheless be a god and partake of eternity. This is simply how the universe works. The culture of the Igbo is beautiful and complicated and belies any notion to the contrary – contradicting Western notions of what is savage or barbarian. The most beautiful moments of the book are the conversations as they veer from tale to proverb to history; the debates among the elders are the most lovely moments. These people share a common knowledge base that makes certain ideas like bedrock – what a father says to a son cannot be a lie, for instance. The final conflict between Ulu and the British unfolds with a deep blindness from both sides. This is a very beautiful novel if you open yourself to the way these people communicate with each other. It defies description; it is not a critique or condemnation; it simply presents events and allows them to unfold.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a book I have read at least a half dozen times, most recently a couple of weeks ago when I decided to read Achebe’s entire African Trilogy. When I first took up the novel, it taught me what simplicity of style could achieve. Achebe can write gracefully and sometimes lyrically but he is not very much interested in that side of language. I don’t mean that he has no interest in writing well. His purpose, I think, is to be clear, and to write plainly about a vanishing life, and through that, about all vanishing lives. His particular focus is to capture the way these people speak to one another, in parables and references to shared storie. The protagonist Okonkwo and his people have an intricate, ceremonial, specific life that they live. His world encompasses a few miles in every direction, a small cosmos of peoples, villages, kinship relations, gods, ghosts, families, obligations. Achebe employs a kind of omniscience in the telling of this story that remains tightly focused on the people of Okonkwo’s village. The characters are rich even though their part in the novel is often small. Achebe is not writing a psychological novel though he does illuminate the psychology of his protagonist. The book focuses on the story of Okonkwo’s obsessive sense of duty to himself, to his image in the community, and to the traditions of his ancestors; he is particularly interested in wiping away the memory of his slackard father from village memory. The appearance of
Christian missionaries in the second part of the book add the layer of disintegration to the already complex story. You understand that you are watching a way of life that is facing a drastic transformation. For such a slim volume to contain such a vast world, a whole cosmos in fact, is a feat that is belied by the simplicity of the book. This novel is always in my top ten list.
Gordimer is well established and has no need of another fan, which is a good thing, because I am not quite one. This is the third of her novels that I have read, if memory serves, though the others were decades ago. She is an extraordinarily accomplished stylist though there are occasional passages that struck my ear as clumsy. She has a habit of remarking repeatedly on her protagonist’s breasts, which are apparently quite fine; were this the book of a male writer I would mock that a bit. In her case I figure that it means something but I’m not quite sure what. The figure of Hillel, the woman at the center of the book, is easily the most puzzling Gordimer character I have encountered, and I think this is deliberate since she draws Hillel so very enigmatically. Again, were this book by a male author, I would simply dismiss it as a statement that Hillel’s importance arises from the men she sleeps with, which is a true statement no matter how sympathetic you are to the book and the author. What makes her interesting is that in her course of partners she takes us on a tour of politics in Southern Africa at the time just prior to the end of South Africa’s apartheid. But the journey has a rather empty feeling and Gordimer is left to struggle for an ending. Hillel, who does very little other than float mysteriously through parties, political meetings, and along sunny beaches, has no real narrative that can resound as it ends. Even when one of her husbands is killed, even in her grief, she is pale and uninvolving. This is a deliberate choice by Gordimer and it is accomplished with such exactness that it can scarcely be an accident, but exactly what the book intends to convey is lost on me. My reaction to the earlier novels that I read was more or less in the same vein. It is the importance of her material that draws me to read her from time to time, and that importance is quite real. But her kind of fiction is not really what I look for.
The House by the Churchyard by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When you read the work of a good writer, you feel its distinctiveness, and if the book is a surprise to you, it feels as if there is nothing else like it. I had read Sheridan stories years ago but had never cracked this book until recently. What a treat to read something so sure-handed! The world of Chapelizod unveils itself as if it were the center of everything, a village and countryside quite taken with itself. Sheridan colors every foible of each person we encounter: there are the mysterious figures in the background, of course, but it is the foreground where the book takes flight. There are so many people, such an ensemble, Puddock and Aunt Becky, Magnolia and her mother, the two doctors and their wives, the virtuous Lily, the tremulous Gertrude, the sleepwalker gentry, the wicked old witch. Lovely rich portraits. Having read only Le Fanu’s shorter works before, I found his sprawling Irish village to be a world unto itself, as rich as any such locale in any novel I remember. His focus is so drawn to the periphery, to the comic possibilities of nearly every character we meet, even the slightest, that the novel nearly forgets itself. The story of the villain and the hero, with all its tinge of the supernatural, is secondary to the landscape. Le Fanu was more fascinated by Chapelizod than by the mystery that dutifully appears and resolves; it’s not that this aspect of the book is bad, it’s just that the world overshadows the story so completely, through Le Fanu’s really wonderful eye and ear. The book does require patience, and you need a taste for the leisurely manner of the writing.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I entered this book with high hopes and exited with a sigh that it had taken it so long to do so little. The story telegraphs its next move so far ahead of time that it becomes a slog to read. The writing is clear and precise; would that it were more concise. From the moment the death of Sarah, the oldest and forgotten daughter, is mentioned, it’s clear that what’s coming is something like a poltergeist novel. It is not Waters’ fault that I am tired of reading about the upper class of England; that’s my problem. But it would be a blessing if she added something new to the mix. The novel feels as if it will never end, especially once you realize that the cause of the disturbances at the Hundreds is never going to be clear. Ambiguity is a fine thing but better when paired with brevity. In a book like Le Fanu’s The House by the Churchyard the story also takes forever but the writing is lively, the portraits of the Irish villagers rich, and the comic turns make the waiting for the mystery to reveal itself worth all the time. In this novel, the characters are uniformly bitter, dark, depressed, unhappy, living in the wrong era, decaying like the house. The house itself is a bright spot, depicted in such delapidated detail, you feel as though you are sitting under a ceiling that is about to collapse. The high point of the haunting is told by the “as I heard this story later” device made necessary by the fact that the novel is in first person and the person in question was not in the house during those events. This is the most perplexing choice. It renders the crux of the book as a ghost story told to us rather than one that we experience in the direct way that is possible with fiction. This was flat disappointment, I am sorry to say, since I know how good Sarah Waters can be.