Dangerously in love

Barbara Ludman reviews The 19th Wife , by David Ebershoff,

  • Wounded
  • by Percival Everett,
    Master of the Delta and The Chatham School Affair , both by Thomas H Cook.

    Ann Eliza Young was the 19th wife of Brigham Young, leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) after its founder was killed by a mob in the 1800s. She was in her twenties when she married Young. He was in his sixties and had many wives and “friends”, as he referred to wives he no longer cared about.

    The 19th Wife is about two women: the real-life Ann Eliza Young and the fictional BeckyLyn Scott, the 19th wife of a big shot in a breakaway faction of the polygamous Mormons.

    BeckyLyn is the mother of 20-year-old Jordan Scott who was expelled from the community when he reached puberty. Scott was expelled because he might compete with the older men. He returned because his mother was in jail, accused of shooting her husband.

    The fascinating book, which swings between the 19th and 21st centuries, has done well overseas.

    Ebershoff researched the “sister wives” and also devised wonderful characters. He has included genuine excerpts from Ann Eliza’s articles, written after she divorced Young and toured the United States, speaking out against polygamy. Ebershoff invented a range of other bits and pieces, such as letters from her descendants and a fake Wikipedia entry.

    It’s a long, absorbing book. If you take it on your Christmas-New Year break you won’t have time to trim the tree, but you might get a break for Christmas lunch.

    Percival Everett, an English professor at the University of Southern California, writes stereo­type-busting books, and he writes them beautifully. A novel entitled Erasure features a black academic irritated by the success of authors whose fiction is populated with stereotypes—pimps and whores in the ghetto or sad, shufflin’ figures in the deep south. His academic writes a parody called My Pafology which contains lines like “The world be stinkin’ so why not me? That’s what I says — ” which is sold to a major publisher for a huge advance and shortlisted for a national book prize.

    The protagonist of Wounded is a black horse trainer called John Hunt who lives in Wyoming and is looked after by his uncle, a devotee of healthy gourmet cuisine who did some time for murder. None of the white farmers or ranchers or shopkeepers has anything but respect and affection for Hunt, although when his old (white) university buddy sends his son to stay, and his son brings along his gay lover, there are some raised eyebrows. A young gay man has been horribly murdered in what is clearly a hate crime, the only suspect has killed himself and now somebody seems to be harassing an elderly Arahapo woman. The book is moving, funny in parts and disturbing.

    Everett has so far written more than a dozen novels and three short-story collections. It might be a good idea to find them all.

    The British publishers Quercus—small publishers of the year 2008—have been scooping up crime writers who are popular in the US and Australia and reprinting their books for a wider public.

    They’ve been publishing United Kingdom editions of Peter Temple’s excellent thrillers set in Melbourne and Donald Westlake’s US capers. Both Temple and Westlake write crime with a light touch. This is not the case with American crime writer Thomas H Cook, another author Quercus has brought to our attention.

    Cook’s books are deliberate, slow-moving, full of atmosphere. Quercus has published two: The Chatham School Affair, which won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and Master of the Delta, also set in a school. In Chatham a young female teacher arrives at a boys’ school, with tragic results.

    In Master of the Delta the headmaster’s son has come back to teach. Among his students is Eddie, a withdrawn teenager whose father killed and dismembered a local girl. Whenever anything goes wrong, suspicion automatically falls on Eddie. This also ends in tragedy.

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