Category Archives: historical fiction

Read 212 of 2021. Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Title: Matrix
Author: Lauren Groff
Publisher: Hutchison Heinemann
ISBN: 978-1785151910
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I am not a fan of historical fiction at all. I mean sure I have liked some books over the years, but I do not dig the genre per se. So, I was initially quite hesitant to read Matrix. A book set in the 12th century wasn’t for me. Till I read a couple of reviews, and was intrigued by the plot as I read more and more. After finishing the book, it is now safe to say that I am a fan of the way Groff has written this piece of work. Of how even a book set in the 12th century could feel so relevant and timely.

Matrix is a novel that is not only bold (well, in a sense and more), but also displays great sensitivity when needed, is driven by characters that are unique and yet relatable, and more than anything it is a novel that isn’t preachy at all, given how easily it could have taken that road.

Like I said, the book is set in the 12th century and is about Marie – a poet, a free-thinker, someone who yearns for the love of her queen, and it is that very queen – Eleanor of Aquitaine who has her ejected from court, sent to be prioress at a remote royal abbey in England. From thereon, everything begins.

Matrix is a reimagining of Marie de France, no holds barred. Groff speaks less of her lais but when she does it is with great affection and joy. At the same time, her love for her long-time help Cecily and Queen Eleanor is devoted. I think those parts moved me the most. I could sense the longing Groff transfers to Marie, the yearning with which each thought is processed by the prioress – and how ultimately in all of this, she makes the abbey her home and is determined to resurrect its rundown status.

It took me about two chapters to get into the book, but when I did, I was hooked. Marie’s mother’s side of the family had me wanting to know more about them. The crusaders, the tales, the passing down of stories connected to a large extent with me. I loved the routine of the abbey. In fact, I found myself looking forward to those descriptions that Groff brings to fore with so much talent and nuance. I can only imagine the kind of research that must have happened in the writing of Matrix.

What I also enjoyed a lot was the absence of male characters, or when they appeared they took a back seat. The writing focuses on the women and rightly so. The sisterhood that is built from scratch had me cheering for them at the turn of every page. Every decision that Marie makes isn’t perfect. Groff lays out the flaws of characters that somehow makes them more endearing to the reader. Marie’s visions are beautifully explained through the prose. A feat if you ask me.

Matrix is a book about women who do not find a place anywhere in the world and how they come to live together in the abbey. The way Groff works with history – more to reimagine it is a splendid task. I loved how Marie offers herself to the Queen without any expectation (well, there is some at some points), bares her soul, and how she refuses to be trapped anywhere under any circumstances. It is all about things happening on her terms, which bring out the true warrior woman element.

Matrix is a medieval romance, it is political novel, it is a story of friendship, of sisterhoods even in disagreement, of a queer abbey, and of a spirit that is grand and not afraid to show it. You have to read Matrix to appreciate and feel the joy.

Read 201 of 2021. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

Title: China Room
Author: Sunjeev Sahota
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House India
ISBN: 9780670095070
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I honestly picked up China Room without any expectation. There was zero expectation as I started the book, and savoured it over a period of a week or so. China Room was a revelation of many aspects. It unravels itself as you turn the pages, and with such elegant and deceptively simple prose that makes you go back and read some sentences all over again.

China Room in brief is about three women who are married away to three men in the year 1929, in rural Punjab. Mehar is one of the brides who is trying to find out the identity of her husband, since she has never seen him. The wives are cut off from their husbands during the day and only called on at night if their mother-in-law Mai wills it. All of this of course because there is need of an heir. What comes of it is the rest of the story.

In another time, in 1999 to be precise, another story unfolds. That of a young unnamed man who travels from England to a farm that has been abandoned for decades, with his own demons. The trauma of his adolescence – his experience with racism, addiction that continues, and more importantly the chasm between him and his culture.  In the process of finding himself (or coming of age in some sense), he finds his roots linked to Mehar.

Sahota does a brilliant job of intertwining the two threads. At the same time, at no point as a reader did, I feel I needed to know more. Sahota’s storytelling skills are totally on-point, and at most times I felt I was reading a literary page-turner (which I think it was). The issues that this book brings to light are so many. There is the awareness of India’s struggle for independence looming large, the idea of women’s liberation (that doesn’t exist at all, whether it is 1929 or 1999 in a country like India), and above all the concept of family and loss that makes for the entire arc of the story.

China Room is also to some extent based on what the author heard from his parents and ancestors, of what happened in his family and that’s why you resonate so much with the writing. It is told with a lot of heart and soul. It explores lives that go by without being chronicled, the book aims to understand the human heart, and what often transpires inside of it. A must-read in my opinion.   

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow Title: A Gentleman in Moscow
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670026197
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

What do you say about a book that has received so much acclaim, praise, adulation, and applause? What do you say that hasn’t been said already? Just how do you put your experience of reading the book into words, that come from a deep-seated place of multiple emotions? I think I am one the people who were late to the Amor Towles party, but boy am I beyond myself that I attended it – better late than never.

A Gentleman in Moscow to me is an experience. An experience and more so a lesson on kindness, compassion, elegance, and different ways to view the world. We all need perspective. We all need that much needed point of view, and Towles through this book presents plenty of them.

The book is beyond a one on exile, of Count Alexander Rostov being exiled in the Metropole Hotel for writing a poem – this exile is from the year 1922 to 1954. Thirty-two years of a life – of so many losses and much more gains that Towles magnificently writes about in this masterpiece.

Why do I call this book a masterpiece? Well, to me it covered the gamut of human emotions – there is love, anger, loss, helplessness, friendships that last a lifetime, and the grace to let go and forge new relationships. I could go on about the writing – the book opens like nesting dolls – Matryoshka dolls – one inside the other, a plot that opens up, a character that enters and takes your heart away, and something that you overlooked suddenly comes to light. Towles’ writing is beyond superlative, and how do I begin to count the number of times I have highlighted in the entire book – a sentence there, a passage here, a line that reminds me of my life, of a friendship that doesn’t exist, of a love that got away, or of a time when things were simple and kind.

Time is of such an important factor in the book – everything historical that takes place – the Cultural Revolution in the Soviet Union, the rise of Stalin, Gulag, and how everyday humans are caught in it all. Time centres on nostalgia, on what happens, on how it passes, on the everyday living – of books, movies, music, food, and people whose memories are attached to it all, with the Count at its center. Whether it is with a precocious twelve-year-old Nina to then the relationship he shares with the actress Anna, and more, time passes. Sometimes with great significance and at other times – the passage of time is enough to acknowledge the beauty and tragedy of life that Towles puts in so many words so masterfully.

A Gentleman in Moscow is almost like a poem that speaks to one and all, if you have the patience, and intention to pick it up. A Gentleman in Moscow is the kind of book that stays. You might perhaps forget about it after a couple of days, but some parts will come back as you are going about your life – there will be that connect to life, dreams, imagination, and how we relate to one another as humans. Of how we are all connected somehow, and what it takes to understand that. A magnificent read. A read that will make you feel small in the larger scheme of life, universe, and everything.

Note: 

There is a lot of literary references in the book. Here are some that I could take note of:

Books and Authors mentioned in A Gentleman in Moscow: 

  • Anna Karenina
  • War and Peace
  • Tolstoy
  • Chekhov
  • Gogol
  • The Cherry Orchard
  • The Seagulls
  • Maxim Gorky
  • Bulgakov
  • Akhmatova
  • Osip Mandelstam
  • Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • Dostoevsky
  • Karl Marx
  • Michel de Montaigne
  • Socrates
  • The Nose by Gogol
  • A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev
  • Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Idiots
  • Demons

And here’s a trailer of the book released by Viking when the book was out:

 

 

A Long Petal Of The Sea by Isabel Allende. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende Title: A Long Petal of the Sea
Author: Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526625359
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I think it was the year 1997, when I picked up my first Allende – like most readers it was The House of the Spirits and I was fascinated, to the point of being mesmerised. I remember the moment as though it was yesterday. I had borrowed the book from the library, and I started reading it. I left it after twenty pages, but the thought of it being incomplete nagged me end on (those days I would not toss books that didn’t hold my interest). I picked it up again and since then I have never dropped an Allende mid-way.

I had heard a lot of mixed reviews about this one, but of course I had to read it to figure it out for myself. I may not have loved it as her other books, but to be honest, I enjoyed the read. A lot. Historical fiction isn’t my cup of tea, but this one had me by the throat, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

The time is late 1930s. Civil War has gripped Spain. General Franco and his fascist regime have succeeded in overthrowing the government and hundreds and thousands of people are overnight forced to flee their homeland, over to the French border. In all of this, there is Roser, a pregnant young girl, whose life is closely intertwined with Victor Dalmau, an army doctor, and the brother of her deceased love. They have to marry to be able to survive and that’s when the story begins.

Victor and Roser embark on SS Winnipeg, a ship that will carry them to Chile, and chartered by Pablo Neruda. Their trials and tribulations have only begun. At the same time, the book is mainly about hope and freedom and once again speaks of the times we live in. It is about humanity and how we find comfort in the strangest of places.

The book starts of in the 30s and ends in the 90s. In all of this, not once I was bored or thought I couldn’t take it anymore. There is a lot of detailing, and Allende is well, known for it. However, the detailing according to me is much needed – including Neruda’s role in the war, and what it did for so many refugees.

The translation is on-point and perfect. So much so that it doesn’t feel that you are reading a translated work. It is that natural and precise. A Long Petal of the Sea captures the lives of ordinary people caught in circumstances that they didn’t want to be a part of. It shows us the mirror to what war does and how there is sometimes no surviving it, though you think you have.

Allende’s prose is glorious, and exacting. The book travels from Spain to France and Chile and Venezuela, and each detail is well-cared for. More than anything she speaks of a better tomorrow, the one that we all need to hope for and believe in even though it is tough to do so.

 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Fleet Books, Hachette
ISBN: 9780708899434
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2.5 stars

There are some books you wish you love when you read them. You want to love them with all your heart and soul. The Nickel Boys was one such book for me. I quite enjoyed and liked The Underground Railroad and I wanted more out of The Nickel Boys. I did. I was expecting a lot – to be emotionally turned inside-out by the end of the read, which sadly did not happen to me at all.

When any book is such a struggle to read and get through, you know you will never revisit it or recommend it. The Nickel Boys sadly is that book for me this year.

The book starts off with great promise. The first part of the book is written with great insight, sensitivity, and empathy throughout. It is about Elwood Curtis and his life out of the juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy and inside of it. For a black teenager in the early 60s, all it takes is one mistake to destroy his future. The Nickel Academy is a hellish reform school, who has the outer façade of creating moral and upright citizens of delinquents who have lost their way. Beneath all of this, is a world of torture, discrimination, and instances that end in death.

Elwood’s grandmother Harriet, his dreams, his ambitions, and his idea of a free world are all left behind when he enters The Nickel Academy by no fault of his. Whitehead’s inspiration of the Nickel Academy came from the infamous Dozier school that made headlines as fake graveyards were discovered on the closed school’s grounds.

The Nickel Boys is mainly set outside of the school – part one and part three at that. While a lot is also set in it, as you can read in part two, as a reader I was left underwhelmed and wanting more. Also, Elwood suddenly is thrown in a world where he meets several characters (but naturally) and yet I could feel nothing for them. I wanted to. I so wanted to be immersed in this book, but I just couldn’t. For instance, Turner (one of the boys Elwood befriends) was one such character that wasn’t explored enough in my opinion. The constant battle of his pessimism and Elwood’s optimism is the only thing that stayed (beautifully done at that).

I understood the book – the nuances, the being an accomplice to what was going on inside the house for every boy once you walked into its doors to even the question of loyalty in a place like The Nickel Academy. Yet, with all its nuances and sometimes brilliant prose, I was left wanting more. The threads somehow didn’t connect and by the time I reached Part Three, I was drained of any comprehension to move on with the read. There is also no iota of character development. The book could’ve been longer and perhaps more time spent in letting us know about the characters and their lives, which sadly did not happen.

And yes, the dignity of human life, the assertion of black lives mattering, the understanding of injustices, and more than anything else persistence of the human spirit comes across in the book in bits and pieces, but I wish it was held together strongly. The book falters and stumbles, without any direction. The Nickel Boys was one book I was waiting to read with great anticipation. I wish I had enjoyed it with similar enthusiasm.