Kids in 1930s Australia

The Strays     Emily Bitto     (2014/2017)

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This mesmerizing novel from Emily Bitto, first published in Australia in 2014, is now available in the United States. Set in Melbourne, The Strays is the first-person narrative of Lily, who finds a fast friend in Eva when they meet as children in third grade. It’s 1930, and the worldwide Great Depression has led to downward economic mobility for Lily’s family. She’s a friendless only child of conventional parents, so she jumps at the chance to become one of “the strays” taken in by Eva’s parents, Evan and Helena Trentham.

Lily’s parents don’t have a clue what they are exposing their daughter to when they allow Lily to spend increasing amounts of time with Eva and her two sisters. The Trentham household is unusual, to put it mildly. Evan Trentham is a modernist painter in a society that prizes more traditional art. He breaks with convention in other ways, too, for example by walking around the house nude and by squatting to defecate on the patio in full view of his family and Lily. Helena is a frustrated artist whose inherited wealth keeps the Trenthams afloat. Evan and Helena are terrible parents, by any standards, seldom attending to the basic needs of their three daughters. The young girls have to scrounge in the kitchen to find minimal food to eat, but they have ready access to alcohol and marijuana.

Yet Lily is entranced by the Trenthams, their huge old house, and their overgrown gardens. She’s especially besotted with Eva, in what she calls “that first chaste trial marriage between girls.” (55) Novelist Bitto’s descriptions of the girls’ closeness are striking: “I felt giddy as we walked arm in arm to the train station, playing our usual game, involving one of us attempting to walk in time with the other, while the other tried to avoid being walked in time with. This led to such a strange, hopping, arrhythmic gait that we always ended up laughing hysterically, pulling on each other for support and lurching all over the pavement. Some of the other girls in our class aimed disdaining glances at us as they passed on their way to the station, but this pleased us.” (81)

Alas, the situation gets out of hand when Evan and Helena invite several young modernist artists to move in with them, creating a kind of commune. The sexual liaisons of the artists are not described in detail, because we’re hearing the story from Lily, who is a young innocent. “There was a darkness that fluttered at the edges of my feeling, a tiny trace of rot on the jasmine-scented air, aroused by these rumors of sex that wafted toward us on our chaste couch-back; but I swatted them away.” (102) Several shocking crises ensue, and Lily leaves the Trentham household permanently at the age of fifteen.

The Strays is set up in four sections, with the first and last sections set in 1985 and the middle two sections set in the 1930s, as Lily’s memoir, after a fashion. The language in these two middle sections is particularly rich in imagery: “The light in the foggy kitchen window was a deep blue. The jagged leaves of geranium pressed against the glass were coral, and we were staring out into deep water from some sunken domestic bathysphere.” (155)

I have a couple of very minor complaints about this novel. The ages of the characters don’t quite square with the timeframes (1930s and 1985). And the transitions in the last section of the book are somewhat ragged, as Lily goes back and forth in time, filling us in on the years between her childhood and her late middle age. But this piercingly moving story about loneliness and friendship and the choices we make is a winner.

For other historical novels set in Australia, try The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman and The Golden Age by Joan London.

 

New York Noir, Plus

Manhattan Beach     Jennifer Egan     (2017)

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Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The form of her fiction before 2017 was unconventional, so critics seem shocked that Egan was capable of producing, with the publication of Manhattan Beach, a traditional historical novel, especially since such novels are not fashionable at the moment. I had never read anything else by Egan, so I approached Manhattan Beach as a seasoned reviewer of multitudes of historical novels, and it’s a good one.

The setting is New York City, first in the depths of the Great Depression and then in the midst of World War II. Keep your finger on the front or back endpapers of Manhattan Beach so that you can refer to the map of the Brooklyn Naval Yard as it existed during World War II. This may help you locate and picture the scenes of the novel that take place there.

The plot? I hesitate to reveal much, since one of the pleasures of this novel is the intricacy of the entangled story lines, which the reader unravels with every turn of the page. The central character is Anna Kerrigan, whom we first meet as a child in 1934, when she accompanies her down-at-the-heels father, Eddie, on a visit to a mobster’s home, which overlooks Manhattan Beach. Both this locale and the title of the book point to the prominence of bodies of water as recurrent images in Egan’s writing. The mobster is Dexter Styles, whose back story we’ll learn. We’ll follow Eddie, too, as well as Anna’s severely disabled younger sister, Lydia. The characters in Manhattan Beach have to confront organized crime, Wall Street bankers, Park Avenue doctors, and Nazi submarines. It ain’t dull!

The main line of interest, however, is Anna, who reaches the age of 19 during World War II and is able, like many women of the period, to secure war-related employment at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She hates the tedium of taking quality control measurements of small parts and escapes on her lunchtimes to the piers that jut out into the East River. Gazing at the water, she sees a diver in a bulky canvas suit slipping below the surface, and she has an epiphany. “Jealousy and longing spasmed through her. . . she felt a seismic rearrangement within herself. It was clear to her now she had always wanted to be a diver, to walk along the bottom of the sea. But this certainty was fraught with worry that she would be denied.” (62-3) Anna single-mindedly and aggressively pursues her quest to become a diver, repairing the underwater portions of vessels heading out to war. Although Rosie-the-Riveter was welcomed in factories that turned out bombers, Anna-the-Diver has a tougher time convincing the male authorities at the ship yard to connect her to an air hose and let her clamber down the ladder into the depths.  

As Egan has explained in several author profiles (and as her acknowledgements at the end of the novel reveal), she exhaustively researched all the arcane detail in Manhattan Beach, learning not only about diving but also about the New York waterfront,  nightclubs, Irish Americans, gangsters, and merchant marine ships. At times, Egan seems so anxious to assure her readers of the historical authenticity of her novel that she piles on the data, listing, for instance, too many product brand names or too many seafaring terms. This is a small complaint, as is my sense that some turns of plot are clichéd and that the denouement of Manhattan Beach is somewhat abrupt. Still, I was left with the feeling that I’d like to know more about the later lives of the characters, and that’s always a sign that the novelist has done a very good job of constructing those characters.

Manhattan Beach has been touted as one of the great novels of the decade. I wouldn’t go that far in my praise, but I did find it very well-crafted and solidly entertaining. Check it out! And for more New York mystery/adventure, read my reviews of Brendan Mathews's The World of Tomorrow and of Colin Harrison's You Belong to Me.

Amazing Maisie Mysteries

The Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series     Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear has recently published the thirteenth entry in her outstanding mystery series starring Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working in London (and abroad) in the 1920s and 1930s. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you should definitely get your hands on this series. It’s essential that you read the books in order from the beginning, so I’ve included the list at the end of this post.

Maisie gets her start in the detective field in a roundabout manner. At the age of thirteen she goes to work as a maid in a wealthy London household. Her employer, Lady Rowan Compton, finds Maisie reading philosophy texts in the home’s library and decides to support the girl’s education. A family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who is himself an investigator, becomes Maisie’s mentor. In 1914, as she is starting her Cambridge university career, World War I commences. Maisie drops out to train as a nurse and then spends the war in France, in hospital tents right behind the front lines.

The war scars Maisie, both physically and emotionally. Her fictional experiences remind me very much of the factual story of Vera Brittain, whose bestselling 1933 memoir of World War I, Testament of Youth, is a tragic account of the casualties of that war and of the profound impact that the deaths and injuries had on families, particularly women, in England.

On the fictional side, back in London after the war, Maisie experiences  romance and despair and hardship. Following more training with Dr. Blanche, she’s ready to open her own practice as a “psychologist and investigator” in 1929. By chance, she meets Billy Beale, a veteran who had been a patient of hers in France, and ends up hiring him as her assistant.

Other recurring characters in the novels are Frankie Dobbs, Maisie’s father, a former costermonger; James Compton, son of Maisie’s first employer; Priscilla Partridge, an affluent and fashionable friend from Maisie’s Cambridge days; Simon Lynch, a brilliant physician in the war; and Detective Inspector Richard Stratton of the London police.

What I love about the Maisie Dobbs series:

  • the character of Maisie, who is a strong, intelligent, independent woman bucking a society that often doesn’t acknowledge her gifts.
  • the way that Dr. Blanche teaches Maisie to breathe slowly, observe closely, and get an intuitive sense of people and situations in her investigations.
  • the weaving into the stories of Maisie’s romantic attachments, mostly tied in some way to World War I and its aftermath.
  • the secondary plots involving Maisie’s relatives and patrons.
  • the meticulously depicted setting of Depression-era London, including everything from the bread lines to the women’s clothing.
  • the wrap-up of every case, in which Maisie goes back, after the crime is solved, to the places and people involved and seeks closure.
  • the irony of Winspear’s placing of a female detective in the period of the great classics of detective fiction. (See my post on this subject here.)

What annoys me about this series:

  • the assumption that the British nobility in the early twentieth century would actually support the education of a teenage maid in their household. I call this plot device “The Downton Abbey Propaganda,” since the same false assumption of noblesse oblige permeated that story.
  • Winspear’s breaking of the fair-play rule of detective fiction, which dictates that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows.

I want to emphasize that, despite these two objections of mine, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of the Maisie Dobbs novels. In This Grave Hour (2017), set at the beginning of World War II, is unfortunately the weakest of the lot, with a poorly designed mystery and repeated authorial spurning of the fair-play rule. But do read the rest of Winspear’s books, starting with the award-winning Maisie Dobbs (2003), and continuing with Birds of a Feather (2004), Pardonable Lies (2005), Messenger of Truth (2006), An Incomplete Revenge (2008), Among the Mad (2009), The Mapping of Love and Death (2010), A Lesson in Secrets (2011), Elegy for Eddie (2012), Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013), A Dangerous Place (2015), and Journey to Munich (2016).