Birth, hunting and holy fools

Barbara Trapido’s sixth novel, Frankie and Stankie (Bloomsbury), has all the aplomb of her earlier work and again the witty style and sometimes flippant tone tend to conceal her deep concern with serious issues.

The book chronicles the life of Dinah de Bondt and has a strongly autobiographical flavour. Dinah’s story is set against a powerfully detailed history of South Africa from the Nationalist election victory in 1948 to Dinah’s emigration in the 1960s.

Dinah’s personal history is skilfully integrated with the vast sweep of historical events as the South African political landscape changes dramatically with the passing into law of such Bills as the Separate Representation of Voters’ Act and the Suppression of Communism Act.

The maturing Dinah becomes increasingly politically aware as the fictional characters rub shoulders with real-life activists and their perilous endeavours.
Always keeping the balance between the personal and the political, Trapido’s insights are sharp and telling. Dinah and her husband feel impelled to leave their beloved homeland only to discover — as so many South Africans have before and since — that England is a foreign country, despite their Natal upbringing and a common language.

Political upheaval of another sort is the subject of Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus (Little, Brown), described by the historian Simon Schama as “a beautiful serpent of a novel, seductive and dangerous”. Set in 15th-century Florence, the action revolves around Alessandra Cecchi. The background is the Medici conflict with the growing power of Savonarola, who preached political and religious reform. Dunant is a well-established thriller writer and for those who like their history racily wrapped, exciting and romantic, this is the ideal novel.

Joanne Harris’s Holy Fools (Doubleday) is also a historical novel set in early 17th-century France. The heroine, Juliette, is a travelling actress and rope-dancer; betrayed by her treacherous and scheming lover, she seeks shelter from persecution in an isolated convent.

Unlike Harris’s other novels this book makes little reference to food except for the austere fare of the nuns which is anything but appetising. The circumscribed yet microcosmic life of the convent is effectively conveyed, especially when an 11-year-old aristocrat is sent to be the new abbess and to introduce rigorous reforms.

The narrative is fast-paced and good on period detail. Harris describes particularly vividly the fickleness of crowds such as the ones looking for scapegoats outside the convent and within it, where the group moods and loyalties are easily swayed.

Also set in an earlier century is Another Kind of Life (Picador) by Irish author Catherine Dunne. The plot centres on two sets of sisters, one is middle-class and lives in Dublin, and the other is working-class and lives in Belfast.

The way in which their lives coincide after a horrific attack on the Catholic Cecilia by Protestant girls outside a Belfast linen mill in 1893 forms the hub of the plot. Both families endure reversals of fortune that alter their lives radically and which are integrated into a compelling whole by Dunne’s mastery of form and style.

In contrast to the historical approach, Ruth Ozeki deals with distinctly contemporary problems in All Over Creation (Picador). As in her debut, My Year of Meat (1998), in which she exposed the horrors of the meat industry, Ozeki pulls no punches in her present exposé of chemical pollution throughout the food chain.

Against this background we have the story of Yumi Fuller’s return to her parents’ Idaho potato farm after an absence of 25 years. At the same time a revolutionary group, The Seed of Resistance, tries to undo the harm wrought by agribusiness with its genetic engineers and bottomless resources.

Both an ecological protest and a tale of love, family and conflict, All Over Creation gives the lie to the claim that second novels never live up to their predecessors.

Two equally fine books published last year and now reissued in paperback are The Hunters (Picador) by Claire Messud and Negative Space (Picador) by Zoë Strachan. The Hunters is, in fact, made up of two novellas. The first — A Simple Tale — concerns Maria Poniatowski, who as a displaced person ends up in Canada after World War II, working as a cleaner and companion to the difficult Mrs Ellington. As she contemplates the failing strength of her employer she fears her imminent aloneness and thinks back on her harrowing past, always blotting out the memories she cannot confront.

This poignant story is paired with The Hunters, related by a nameless American scholar living in a bleak Kilburn apartment. His rabbit-keeping neighbours arouse his suspicions when he meets the unappealing daughter, a professional carer, whose elderly clients all seem to die soon after she takes them on. This is a slight but intriguing tale with an unexpected ending.

In Negative Space the young protagonist’s sense of self has been badly damaged by the death of her beloved brother. Her life is meaningless and monotonous, wasting away against a colourless Glasgow backdrop. It is not until she decides to leave the city that her identity begins to reassert itself and a glimmer of hope breaks through.

Strachan’s treatment of grief and loss is so accomplished that it is difficult to realise this is a first novel. The same is true of Sarah Emily Miano’s debut, Encyclopaedia of Snow (Picador), the complex structure of which is handled with aplomb.

Mock journalistic reports describe a blizzard in Buffalo in December 2000 while a fictional preface points to a manuscript ostensibly compiled by a victim of the storm. This complicated device forms the frame for the off-beat “encyclopaedia” which is the substance of an unusual, imaginative and fascinating book.

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