Unnatural Ends: A Novel by Christopher Huang

Unnatural Ends: A Novel
by Christopher Huang

Unnatural Ends reads like a French six-course dinner prepared and delivered by the latest cohort of Top Chef, served in the very classy digs of Downton Abbey, while you and your guests find yourself flung into a live-action Gosford Park; in short, this novel is the quintessential English manor-murder-mystery, updated for the 2022 reader. There is a hint of Mavis Hay’s (1936) Santa Klaus Murder here, a bit of Agatha Christie, and a good strong nod to the immorality of the British Empire (though, nothing quite so dark as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day). This novel is unbelievably English.

I loved it.

It did take me a few chapters to fully dig into the thrill of the case, but the family was so immediately deranged and dysfunctional, I couldn’t look away any more than if I encountered a train accident and found it to be the wreckage of the Orient Express.

The story begins with the death of the patriarch — his ghastly murder — and the strange clause in his will that disproportionately favors any of his adopted children who solves the crime. The novel unfolds from that point on in a predictable fashion for any mystery, but the ending and the twists of blood, family, and the loyalties of genetics kept this reader on her toes. Just when this reader thought she’d solved it, something emerged which threw her off! Between the three siblings, the pathetic mother and widow, the overbearing and sadistic father, and the eye-rolling police, Unnatural Ends delivers a very witty enjoyable read from start to finish.

For the reader who enjoys more than mystery, the novel also possesses several threads of underlying social and historical commentary. Britain’s dark imperial history, rife with its undeniable racism and eugenic standards of morality, are key foundational elements of the plot. Indeed, the cruel history of eugenics and colonialism are integral to the constituency of its characters and the motivations behind the twists and ruts of this mystery. On that note, however, the novel is not pedantic or a history lesson: it is wholly a mystery novel.

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World
by Malcolm Gaskill

Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches straddles the worlds of scholarship and fiction, the latter built on the solid foundations of the former. In doing so, this book takes the best of both literary domains to produce a richly detailed landscape of Puritan culture and society in England’s Old and New World. It centers on a Puritan couple, John and Mary, accused and tried for witchcraft in Thomas Pynchon’s New England. It starts long before their relationship begins and carries the reader through to its agonizing disintegration. Along the way, readers are engaged in the lives of a full cast of village denizens; this is a wonderfully immersive read.

Not merely backdrop to the main events, but integral for the reader’s understanding of the whys, whens, and hows of the witch hunts that followed, are the economic and political developments of Pynchon’s New England in the New World and the maneuverings of Royalists and Cromwellian supporters (rebels) in the Old. Gaskill delivers all the necessary context for the reader, leaving them with an almost palpable texture of English life in the 17th century (really, one can’t call this “American” in any sense of the word, though the New World does eventually become that.)

Readers should be prepared for a long read; detail like this does not come short, but the delivery is concise and succinct, leaving off unnecessary descriptions and fictions that do not add to the narrative. The descriptions that remain convey an authenticity, evidence of Gaskill’s skill of drawing out richness from (what is often, dry,) archival text. We can not only envision John and Mary, young and hopeful at the beginning, withered and waning at the end, but the humanity of their shortcomings are recognizable so as to make them and their community as near to us as our own flesh.

History, that remote and abstract object, comes alive in The Ruin of All Witches.

Two Houses, Two Kingdoms: A History of France and England, 1100-1300 by Catherine Hanley

Two Houses, Two Kingdoms: A History of France and England, 1100-1300
by Catherine Hanley

Of the books I’ve read lately, this is by the far the most academic and “historical” in subject, language, and depth of detail. Yet, at the same time, this is not strictly for an academic audience. Readers will find that Two Houses, Two Kingdoms is suitable and accessible for all adults interested in the Medieval age, the ins and outs of politicking and the martial exploits of kings, queens, and the nobility in Western Europe. (I say “adult readers” because this is really not accessible for a younger, less mature reader. Its audience is a small sliver of the total general reading population; children, juvenile, and young adult readers will likely find this plodding.)

The structure of the book follows a traditional, chronological form, moving from the 1100s to end at the beginning of the 14th century, allowing readers unfamiliar with the dynasties and generations of these royal houses to follow along with who was whom’s son, daughter, niece, cousin, and so on. It was a tangled mess of consanguineous relationships. This is a historical monograph in the traditional sense of the word.

The prose however, is refreshingly modern, flowing with an ease that many older monographs lack. In many ways, Hanley’s narrow focus on the royal and noble houses attached to them is what keeps the reader’s attention: the chapters read like episodes of a family drama. There is a soap opera like quality to the mechanics of politics in this age; there are kidnappings of maidens and children, sordid adult-minor affairs and marriages, betrayals of the deepest cuts, adulterous liaisons leading, The men and women Hanley depicts in these pages could achieve viral fame on The Jerry Springer Show or feature on a highlight of Judge Judy. No joke.

What the reader should not expect is a cultural or social history of the Medieval period; the ordinary, non-royal, non-noble classes do not make an appearance in this text, nor does it dwell on cultural norms or landscapes of the time. This is a political history focused on the highest classes of society at the time. Hanley is clear from the beginning this is what the book centers on.

As a text for the classroom then, this is potentially useful and not. For a course on Medieval history, say, a graduate level seminar, Hanley’s monograph would be perfect — except that by that stage in students’ careers, they are liable to be already familiar with its content. And Hanley does not delves into the historiographical literature or methodology. This is far less suitable for an undergraduate seminar. It is too long and dives too deeply into the nitty gritty for an introductory course. This is better suited to a general adult non-fiction audience than the classroom.

As a historian reading for pleasure, I found it enjoyable. The prose was smooth, flowing, logical, and concise. Hanley did not waste words; this economy delivered what was necessary to understand the course of events, the personalities involved, their ambitions and motivations. The depth of detail warrants praise; Hanley is an expert in this period and the level of research and analysis they invested in this scholarship is apparent, even if their methodologies were not. An excellent monograph well worth any interested reader’s attention and time.

The White Hare: A Novel by Jane Johnson

The White Hare: A Novel by Jane Johnson

It would be hard not to fall in love with this magic-tinged historical fiction. I loved this book so much I stayed up several nights to read it, refusing to bookmark it until I absolutely could not hold my eyes open any longer. The loss of sleep was worth it!

The White Hare is set in post-WWII England. The narrator, Mila, her daughter Janeska (Janey), and her mother Magdalena have left London and bought a large house in Cornwall, which Magda and Mila hope to refurbish and turn into a hotel. Mila also hopes the change of location will allow her to move on from a toxic relationship. Magda too has lost her husband of many years to the War and is seeking to rebuild a life for herself in a new place. The two women are Polish evacuees/refugees of the war; England is their home now.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that it will not be so easy to shed the past for the three of them; it comes back to haunt them in real and imagined ways. The house and land too that they see as their revival brings its own hauntings and histories into the present. This magic interacts with Mila, Janey, and Magda in positive and less-pleasant ways; it becomes clear there is something afoot at the house at White Cove.

The White Hare is not only a tale of magic and myth; what drew me back to its pages night after night was the deep, terrible past between Mila and Magda, the angry relationship between Janey and her grandmother, and the wedge and glue that comes into their lives, causing friction and connection all at the same time, in the form of another character, Jack. In many ways, this is a novel of intergenerational histories; the ways in which understandings of the self and our place in the world are inherited. That said, Johnson does not suggest that the past dictates the characters’ present or future; there is hope for change.

And there is plenty of change in this story. (The plot revolves around the revival of a place and its new denizens after all.) The novel is not a vehicle to retell history; it is much more subjective than that. This is a novel about how a group of people who have individually suffered ordinary and terrible events struggle to reconcile their pasts with their futures. Every one of the characters’ actions and choices are imbued with a history, sometimes a good one, often a tragic one. As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses how the characters’ histories and their knowledge of another’s helps them shed those ghostly pasts and create a new future for themselves and each other.

The White Hare immerses the reader in a poignant lesson of how the past and present are ever intertwined. Lingering in the latent, vibrating background is the White Hare herself, a spirit that inhabits the land and the haunted history that comes alive in her presence. The novel suggests that there is a world beyond our own mundane one, in which we are embedded. In The White Hare this is the magical, historical world, a state of being in which the past and present are not constrained by the physics of time.

What was also very satisfying for me was the way in which the novel resolves. Not only do the characters come to their own organic conclusions, but history also is validated and finds a place of belonging in the present in a very real, tangible way. It emphasizes Johnson’s narrative: that the past is never as far away as it might seem, it is really buried — sometimes literally — in our contemporary moment. For readers who love long, nuanced resolutions and endings, The White Hare delivers in abundance; nothing is left hanging.

This is a novel that takes the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions, from sadness to anger to pity to redemptive hope. It is inspiring. It is queasy in some parts. Reader, be warned, there are mentions of abuse, gendered and sexual violence, violence and murder. Ultimately, for me, this was an inspiring tale of vindication and hope.

London 2010 – Portobello Street Market &tc.

Traveling solo does something to the eyes. It opens them up to things you never noticed before because you were too busy paying attention to another person. In 2010 I got to visit London on my own, and since I didn’t have a lot of money, I spent a lot of time walking around and just looking at things through my camera. Mind you, it wasn’t a great camera either.