The following reviews first appeared in the November 2015 online and print editions of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.
THE WAKE, Paul Kingsnorth, Graywolf
Paul Kingsnorth’s challenging, heavily researched first novel The Wake is written in what he describes as a “shadow tongue” of Old English, or, as it would be in the language of the book, “sceado tunge.” He includes a brief glossary for the words that have no relation to modern English (such as “fugol” for “bird”), but generally the reader must learn to translate as the story unfolds. The raw human tragedy that the damaged and damaging narrator Buccmaster of Holland relates makes the searing story clear enough.
Buccmaster is an important man in his world, as he often reminds those around him: a free tenant farmer with land, a large house, people who work for him, and a seat in local government. All that changes when William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, invades, and Normans sweep through the countryside in an orgy of pillaging, burning, raping, and killing. Buccmaster loses everything, including his family–everything, that is, except for a misplaced sense of his own superiority as a leader and as the one chosen to cast out the foreign invaders. For him, this includes Christianity, which he sees as a false, foreign religion that rules by fear of damnation. Buccmaster looks instead to the old gods of England, as his grandfather taught him. They speak to him, goading him to act, telling him to trust no one, and he listens too well.
If, as it has been said, the past is a foreign country, it’s worth learning the language to make this visit.
CROOKED, Austin Grossman, Mulholland
Take Richard Nixon’s well-documented political biography and much-analyzed personal foibles, throw in some good old-fashioned Cold War spy craft, and finish it off with an odd mix of National Treasure and Men in Black, and that approximates what Austin Grossman serves up in his latest novel. His inspiration, apparently, is that no one has ever definitively explained the motive behind the Watergate break-in. That Grossman is a video game designer (Tomb Raider, Deus Ex) hints at what to expect.
Decidedly, this is Dick Nixon as you’ve never seen him before, along with a whole cast of historical figures playing wildly against type. In particular, there’s Ike Eisenhower as Wizard-in-Chief, an other-worldly Henry Kissinger—“no one liked to be within two feet of him”, and with good reason—and not-so-dutiful wife Pat, whom Nixon, as first-person narrator, describes as even more misunderstood than he. Though this is wildly alternative history, Grossman effectively captures the zeitgeist of the late ´40s and early ´50s as the Cold War blossomed and the atomic age and its doomsday implications hung like a mushroom cloud over everything. The premise here is that the world is filled with demonic beasts and various extraterrestrials, that the New World population was allowed to survive based on black magic and shadowy deals with this other populace, that every U.S. president has had more or less knowledge and mastery of these forces, and finally that part of the Cold War arms race was the competition to control and deploy these unpleasant forces. While Grossman offers glimpses of these sinister projects, he never gives us the big reveal; he only alludes to the showdown Nixon orchestrates to allow mankind to continue, paid for with his own downfall. Nixon tells us that he’s seen the devil, but we never do. What a letdown.
THE BIG GREEN TENT, Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon), Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 500-plus page, classically Russian novel The Big Green Tent offers a tale of three schoolboys drawn together by their shared status as outcasts—intelligent, artistic, regular targets of the schoolyard bullies—who become lifelong friends. This is a richly layered story that manages to be both intimate and grand in scale simultaneously.
When Ulitskaya appears to complete the entire life story of two of the main characters within the first 150 pages of the book, a reader is tempted to wonder where else she is going to take the story. The answer is that she circles back again and again to explore different elements of her characters’ lives, to expose more details and to follow various trajectories of actions and events that in turn spawn other trajectories. Each chapter or section, as tangential to the central action as it may appear to be, eventually ties back to the main characters and reveals yet another facet of the expanding story. Permeating every aspect of the novel—in both mundane details and in seismic, life-changing events—is the calculated, heartless, and systematic brutality of the Soviet regime, which retains its character well beyond the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev, an era the characters misread as offering a respite from the cultural chokehold of Stalin. Each of the main characters is tripped up in one way or another by the system, and must choose a path forward. Sharing a love of Russia and a hatred of the regime, some would do anything to leave and others would do anything to stay—anything, of course, but accept the mindless, unquestioning obedience the Soviet system demands of them.