Category Archives: historical fiction

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar Title: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
Author: Imogen Hermes Gowar
Publisher: Harvill Secker, Random House
ISBN: 978-1911215721
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical
Pages: 496
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The year is 1785 and merchant Jonah Hancock has to cope with the tragic news that one of his captains has sold his ship in exchange for a mermaid. Sounds intriguing, isn’t it? I was sold at this premise. But wait a minute. There is more to this story which is more fascinating to me. The side story of Angelica Neal that quickly comes to fore. Neal is London’s most beautiful courtesan who wants to marry rich and secure a future for herself. And who better than Mr. Hancock who has a mermaid to be put on display and make easy money? And all of this is possible through Mrs. Chappell’s brothel (there is more to what meets the eye really) and given she has a soft spot (or so it seems) for Angelica.

Phew! That is not it by the way. There is a lot more going on in the book and let me tell you, that despite its size (500 pages), this is one racy romp of a read. There is a lot of decadence in this book (which I love by the way), there is misery, power, envy and fantasy. If not for the mermaid angle, I would classify this book purely as historic fiction, but let the two merge and work its magic on the reader. Also, might I add the magic of London (and its claustrophobia, its stench, lecherous men and grotesque women) is brought out beautifully by Gowar.

Angelica Neal’s character is so strong that she overpowers everyone else (in some bits and parts) and in a very good way because you’d want her to appear more as the book progresses. There is also a surprise in the form of Polly but I won’t ruin it for you by talking about her. You might want to discover her yourself.

“The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is set in a vivid and uproarious time. It is the kind of book that must be read again and more than anything for its female characters that stand out and well-deservedly at that. Mrs. Chappell, Angelica and Polly (there is also Mr. Hancock’s niece who makes a brief appearance) are the heroes of this book in all honesty. This is the kind of book that will keep you up all night and you wouldn’t want it any other way. “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is all rolled into one – a comfort read (yes, at most times) and a thriller, literary fiction with the much-needed historic setting.

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z Title: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Author: Therese Anne Fowler
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
ISBN: 978-1250028662
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 375
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When I started reading Z, I knew about Zelda Fitzgerald but not all that much. I knew only what I think the rest of the world did (well some part of the rest of the world at least) – that she was deemed crazy, that she was unstable and highly emotional and also that F. Scott Fitzgerald had plagiarized from her works to create the classics that would be called his. I also knew of the love between them but also of his affairs and how she took to them. However, after reading “Z” by Therese Anne Fowler, I got a better idea of how much of it was true (given Therese Anne Fowler’s research was to the mark) and how much of it wasn’t. To complement this book, you might also want to read “Careless People” by Sarah Churchwell that traces the life of the Fitzgeralds to the time of The Great Gatsby’s publishing.

“Z” starts in 1918 when a reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance. She is only 18 and life is waiting for her with both arms. He is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama and has nothing to his name. She comes from lineage – a judge’s daughter. Her father does not approve of him. He sells his first novel “This Side of Paradise” to Scribner’s and she boards a train to marry him. The rest as we all know is history.

The darling couple of the literary world had the universe at their feet and more. The Jazz Age as we know it. The roaring 20s, the time when everything seemed possible, the era of bright lights, fast music and when anything could be said. Everyone wanted to be with the Fitzgeralds. He for his book and she for her wit and sharp tongue. But there is also trouble in paradise and that is also what Fowler touches on in her book – the fame, its cons, the egos of the husband and wife (and rightly so in her case in my opinion), who was Zelda really and also the doomed Lost Generation with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and more.

Therese Anne Fowler writes about the literary world no doubt but what she manages to do is also show us who Zelda really was, or who she might have been. The wives of famous men are often in the background and Fowler brings Zelda’s story to the front like perhaps no other author has. The ups and downs of their lives are heartbreakingly told and one can connect with her instantly. I don’t consider this book to be a woman’s perspective but that of another author, another talent who shared the same space as her husband and wrote gregariously but never really got her due. Fowler touches on so many aspects of their lives and also of hers that the book feels complete at every step. Never once did I think I want more. I love literary biographies, though this was touted as a novel, it could have very well been a biography. Read “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” if you also want to know more about her.

Don’t forget the watch the series Z: The Beginning of Everything on Amazon Prime, based on this book.

Winter by Christopher Nicholson

winter-by-christopher-nicholson Title: Winter
Author: Christopher Nicholson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609452957
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I was in college and I remember devouring everything by Thomas Hardy. He was and is one of my favourite writers. I know that most think that he doesn’t fit in today’s scheme of things but I beg to differ. I think the topics that he raised in his novels are as relevant today as they were then. Feminism though is at its core, if you read his works closely enough. But I digress, or maybe not, given this review is about a book titled “Winter” where one of the protagonists is Mr. Hardy himself.

“Winter” is in turns a charming, a terrifying (some of it) and most graceful read. It is set in the last years of Mr. Hardy. He is in his eighties and lives in Dorset with his second wife Florence. Enter Gertrude, the lovely eighteen-year old actress who has been cast to play Tess in a local performance. Hardy cannot help but fall for her. She is young, nubile and everything that he cannot see in Florence. Thus begins one of the best marital dramas I’ve read in recent times. Marital dramas are not written about all that much and when one does attempt to try his or her hand at it, it has to be perfect and almost precise, which is what “Winter” manages to achieve.

There are three shifting views and narratives to this novel – of course, of the three protagonists. Hardy’s view though is always third person. Gertrude and Florence have first person narratives. It is as though Hardy’s voice is just reduced to those in his books – background and full of insight. There is love between Florence and Thomas – but it cannot be expressed. Most love is inexpressible or reaches that stage as the novel progresses.

Gertrude is married to her cousin who is a butcher and Hardy cannot help but feel sorry for her and at the same time envious of her husband. Florence wants to make her husband happy but is unable to do so. At the end of the book, I could not really take sides but I did feel sorrier for Florence. My empathy was tilted in her direction.

The tone, atmosphere and feelings of characters are most precisely etched by Nicholson and those add to the layers of the novel or merge and become one with it. “Winter” is a story that is of the past – of love, secrets, lies, stories we tell ourselves in order to live and Christopher Nicholson does a super job of communicating its raw and almost unseen parts.

Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People: Edited by Tarnya Cooper

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper Title: Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People
Edited by Tarnya Cooper
Publisher: National Portrait Gallery Publications
ISBN: 978-1855144552
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

A picture tells a thousand words they say. We have all learnt it as we were growing up. Yet how many of us can actually make pictures talk? Do we even care about what they have to say? The National Portrait Gallery in London receives portraits on a daily basis. Sometimes there are portraits that cannot be identified and belong to a century and time long gone.

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

So this is what the gallery did. They commissioned eight contemporary authors of Britain and Ireland to weave stories around fourteen unidentified portraits. Who are these men and women? What were their life stories? What were their thoughts? The book is about the lives of these unknown sitters from a time gone by.

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

The stories are deliciously written. Tracy Chevalier brings to life a painting and terms it “Rosy” about a man and his affair with another man. “I am Mary Douglas” by Minette Walters is a reflection of a time to connect emotionally with. You just want more of these stories recorded in the form of short memoirs, character sketches, diary entries and just a brief page or two about the subjects. There is also a brilliant story by Terry Pratchett on one of the portraits’ subjects meeting Queen Elizabeth. To me, that was the best piece in terms of humour.

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper - Image 3

Each portrait is written about and analyzed in detail – not a single element is missed out on. Alexander McCall Smith for instance does a wonderful job in “False Mary” where there is a sit in for Mary Queen of Scots herself. It is delicious and so absolutely believable that you want more from where that one came. Toward the end of the book is a brilliant explanation of how these portraits came to be by the chief curator of NPG and editor of the book Tarnya Cooper, titled “Did my hero look like that?”

“Imagined Lives” is a book about lost souls. It is about life and art merged and seen individually. I just chanced on this book and took to it. The stories and the portraits are something. Definitely something worth reading and owning.

In the City of Gold and Silver by Kenizé Mourad

In the City of Gold and Silver by Kenize Mourad Title: In the City of Gold and Silver: The Story of Begum Hazrat Mahal
Author: Kenizé Mourad
Translator: Anne Mathai in collaboration with Marie-Louise Naville
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609452278
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I love books set in the period when India had just begun fighting for their independence or had started again way back in the 1940s. Historical fiction has always been close to my heart and will continue to hold that spot – whether the books are set in India or any other country.

“In the City of Gold and Silver” by Kenizé Mourad was the first historical fiction novel read this year and I was completely taken in by it. Set in Awadh during the time of the first Mutiny in India – this book traces the life of the fourth wife of King Wajid Ali Shah – who ultimately had to give up on Awadh when it was annexed by the British like most other princely states and territories in India during the East India regime.

What is different about this story though is that the book doesn’t end with Wajid Ali Shah being exiled, but begins with Begum Hazrat Mahal taking charge of the affairs in the state of Awadh and how she seized control of Lucknow.

The book to me beautifully charts a part of history – which isn’t forgotten but is often not spoken of. Yes, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 is linked to this region as well and is fleetingly mentioned in the book – but the book is mainly about the king Wajid Ali Shah and his wife – Hazrat Mahal – the formidable, strong and independent woman that she was.

Mourad’s writing is in third person and she does a clever job of introducing her characters and etching them. The fluidity of language and perspectives of each character blends in beautifully – from Wajid Shah to Hazrat to the deputy in charge of playing the middleman between the king and the Governor General to the farmers and the sepoys, Kenizé takes you back in a place and time that you cannot imagine and yet as you turn the pages, they come alive.

The book in a sense is a big fat historical lesson – in how one woman succeeding in changing the face of Awadh in troubled times and how she rose from being a courtesan to the fourth queen. That to me in the true sense of the word is “feminism” – how she refused to back down and let go. I think more than Wajid Ali Shah, of course the focus was on her and her story – which is how the book delivers and stays on target with it.

“In the City of Gold and Silver” is a book that will educate you, will make you wonder, will also make you feel really sad for the sovereign and hoot out loud for Begum Hazrat Mahal. I recommend this book very highly if you want to know more about that era or you just want to start reading some good historical fiction.