This week: an atmospheric Victorian thriller, plus the latest from Laurie Halse Anderson.
Picking up in June 1781, three years after Forge (2010), this thrilling conclusion to Anderson’s Seeds of America trilogy finds former slaves Isobel and Curzon finally locating Isobel’s younger sister, Ruth, on a South Carolina plantation. The reunion is not a happy one: while Ruth, now 12, has been cared for by fellow slaves on the plantation, she rebuffs Isobel. Curzon and Isobel are also at odds over his desire to enlist in the fight for independence. Despite the discord, the three head north—joined by Aberdeen, an escaped slave from the plantation—stopping in Williamsburg, Va., where patriots are preparing for an assault on Yorktown. As in the previous two books, Anderson’s vividly detailed writing immerses readers in the hardships of her heroes’ travels and the harsh realities of war. Isobel’s eventual reconciliation with Ruth, her growing understanding of Curzon’s need to fight, and her recognition of the true feelings between them all work to guide the story to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. It’s a gripping finish to an epic journey that speaks resoundingly to the human capacity to persevere.
In Chang’s sparkling debut novel, a family whose fortune has been lost in the 2008 financial crisis takes a cross-country road trip in an effort to regroup. Bouncy patriarch Charles Wang, who immigrated to Los Angeles from China by way of Taiwan when he was a young man and made a fortune manufacturing makeup, drives his daughter, teenage Grace, an avid fashion blogger, and his son, Andrew, an aspiring stand-up comic, across the country with Barbra, their stepmother. Their destination is a little town in the Catskills, where his oldest daughter, Saina, a conceptual artist who has retired in shame from the New York City art world, lives. The family stops in New Orleans, where virginal Andrew becomes temporarily involved with an older woman, and in Alabama, where Charles attempts to deliver a U-Haul full of custom makeup to a boutique country store. Various small crises, notably Saina’s attempt to decide between a sweet new lover and an unreliable older one, keep the plot percolating. Chang’s charming and quirky characters and comic observations make the novel a jaunty joy ride to remember.
In the introduction to this illuminating study of so-called true hauntings and the American public’s enduring fascination with them, Dickey (Cranioklepty) posits that “ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way.” Grouping haunts into four categories—houses, hangouts, institutions, and entire towns—he shows how the persistence of these ghost stories, especially when their details change with the times, say more about the living than the dead. Noting how popular accounts of the ghost of Myrtles Plantation has shifted over the years from that of an abused slave to revenants from a Native American burial ground beneath the plantation, Dickey notes that “ghost stories like this are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past.” Describing the ghost stories that cropped up in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, he writes that ghost stories “are how cities make sense of themselves: how they narrate the tragedies of their past, weave cautionary tales for the future.” In contrast to many compendia of “true” ghost stories, Dickey embeds all of the fanciful tales he recounts in a context that speaks “to some larger facet of American consciousness.” His book is a fascinating, measured assessment of phenomena more often exploited for sensationalism.
In this grisly fantasy from Kirby (the Dark Gravity Sequence), the year is 1888 and London’s slums are soon to be terrorized by Leather Apron (later known as Jack the Ripper), who murders prostitutes in the most gruesome manner possible. In a nearby East End hospital resides a monster of a gentler sort: Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who has a new maid, 17-year-old Evelyn Fallows. Some would label Evelyn a monster as well, her jaw destroyed by phosphorus necrosis from working in a match factory. Evelyn is initially repulsed by Merrick’s deformity, but she soon recognizes him as a gentle soul. After the murders commence, the ghosts of Leather Apron’s victims begin to appear in Merrick’s room. Concerned about the effect of these monstrous apparitions on Merrick’s health, Evelyn ventures into the slums in an attempt to put the suffering ghosts to rest. Evelyn—all grit, anger, and distrust—is a complex and engaging character, the slums and slang of Victorian-era London are carefully delineated, and the eventual revelation of Leather Apron’s identity and fate will leave readers gasping.
O’Sullivan describes this debut as “an attempt to put Oscar [Wilde] in the context of his family and the family in the larger context of the history of Ireland.” Her “attempt” is a success worthy of celebration. She follows Wilde from his earliest writing efforts to his star-making lecture tour through the U.S. and Canada, then on to the triumphs of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. She also explores how Wilde’s family influenced his life and works. Included are his father, a surgeon who championed Irish culture; his mother, a “fiercely independent” poet and intellectual who died a pauper; and his older brother, a lawyer turned journalist who was destroyed by alcoholism. Then there were Wilde’s lovers, including Lord Alfred Douglas, and Wilde’s wife, Constance Lloyd, an acclaimed beauty whom O’Sullivan describes as loving, forgiving, and naive. Central to the portrait are two court cases. In one, Wilde’s father was cleared of having raped a former patient but nevertheless had his reputation destroyed. In the other, Wilde himself was found guilty of “indecent acts” and served two years in prison. O’Sullivan’s impressively comprehensive biography is equal parts political history, literary criticism, and Shakespearean tragedy.
Price’s elegantly written, vividly evoked second novel (after Into That Darkness) marries historical suspense with literary sophistication. In 1885 London, a woman’s dismembered body is identified as that of Charlotte Reckitt, a longtime grifter for whom two very different men are searching. William Pinkerton, the 39-year-old son of American detective-agency-founder Allan Pinkerton, is struggling to accept his larger-than-life father’s recent death. Along with the agency, he has inherited the elder Pinkerton’s obsession with Edward Shade, an elusive master criminal his father could never apprehend. Having received a letter from Reckitt requesting his help, thief and confidence man Adam Foole hopes to reunite with Charlotte, the lover he lost 10 years before but hasn’t forgotten. Both men are obsessed with getting to the bottom of Charlotte’s apparent demise: Pinkerton because he believed she could lead him to Shade, Foole because he harbored tender longings for her. As the two circle each other, each probes his own past and both realize they are more similar, and more closely connected, than they believed. With its intricate cat-and-mouse game, array of idiosyncratic characters, and brooding atmosphere, By Gaslight has much to please fans of both classic suspense and Victorian fiction. Yet Price’s novel is entirely contemporary, and assuredly his own: a sweeping tale of hunter and hunted in which the most-dangerous pursuer is always the human heart.
Slippery and terrifyingly urgent, funny yet despairingly so, Ritvo (1990–2016) hits all the right notes in an accomplished, surprising, and bizarrely erotic debut made more poignant by his death weeks before publication. Diagnosed with terminal cancer at 22, Ritvo produced vital and unflinching poems that emerge from the unflagging energy of a mind embedded within, yet constantly struggling beyond, the suffering of his body. His mind, he says, is “like a black glove/ you mistake for a man/ in the middle of a blizzard.” Alarming imagery, paired with supple and electric turns of logic and sound, define the collection: “I’m told to set myself goals. But my mind/ doesn’t work that way. I, instead, have wishes// for myself. Wishes aren’t afraid/ to take on their own color and life—/ like a boy who takes a razor from a high cabinet/ puffs out his cheeks and strips them bloody.” In his poem “The End,” Ritvo muses whether “death just meant spending/ all your time with your past.// The more there is, the more loss there is—/ true not only of the world, but of perceiving it,/ even the imagination sizzling on top of it.” Ritvo’s poems sizzle over the all-too-brief fire of his hungry and staggering imagination.
Suicidal Jimmy Yee’s multiple attempts at killing himself result in a Groundhog Day–like resetting of where he began, but with bodies piling up with each try. To say any more would spoil intriguing revelation after revelation, as Jimmy begins to sort out what’s happening and comes to a startling conclusion—one that solves the mystery but adds a new layer of horror. What can be said is that Shiga (Meanwhile) has woven a tight and tense narrative that keeps readers intrigued and guessing along with Yee, as he endures the mind-bending ramifications of his situation. Shiga’s art style is a perfect accent to the story, largely due to its resemblance to clip art and the aesthetic of Sesame Street. The rounded, cartoony cuteness adds a perfect icing of incongruity to Shiga’s rich cake of twisted tension. As with Shiga’s other books, there are puzzles aplenty to solve, with an added layer of urgent narrative drive. Originally serialized as a webcomic, the story will prove just as addictive for readers finding it in print.
Known today almost exclusively as the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker (1847–1912) is thoroughly scrutinized in this sumptuous biography. Drawing on a wealth of research, Skal (Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen) finds credible influences for Stoker’s classic novel in several key figures in his life: his strong-willed mother, who entertained her sickly young son with terrifying accounts of a cholera epidemic she lived through in the 1830s; Oscar Wilde, whose mother’s salons he frequented and whose onetime love interest, Florence Balcombe, he eventually married; and Henry Irving, the renowned actor whom he served as business manager. As depicted by Skal, Stoker was a tireless workaholic who readily absorbed creative ideas from his experiences. Skal also breaks new critical ground, noting Dracula’s similarities to Drink, a novel by Hall Caine, to whom Stoker dedicated his novel. Skal writes with intimate familiarity about his subject and his habits, and he has organized a remarkable amount of information into an engrossing narrative. There will likely be more biographies written about the author of Dracula, but they are not likely to surpass the achievement of this one.
In an illustrated biography that invites slow perusing, two-time Caldecott Honor–recipient Sweet (The Right Word) unspools the life of author E.B. White (1899–1985) in meticulously crafted, scrapbook-style pages. Her carefully assembled, whimsical collages feature watercolor illustrations, homemade paper, wood scraps, and maps merged with cartoons, family photographs, handwritten rough drafts, and other archival material. Over 13 chapters, Sweet recounts White’s near-idyllic childhood in New York state, his postcollege wanderlust, a writing career with the New Yorker and Harper’s magazine, and the acclaimed children’s books he created amid marriage and fatherhood. Aimed at elementary-school-age readers, this fond tribute will be best appreciated by those with some context for White’s classics, e.g., the title’s reference to Charlotte’s Web, though familiarity with his work isn’t required: Sweet gorgeously melds story and art to create a detailed portrait of White as an observant, humble, brilliant wordsmith with an affinity for nature. An author’s note, an afterword by White’s granddaughter, source notes, a selected bibliography, and a chronological list of his books conclude an excellent guide to the life of a celebrated writer.
Szalay (London and the South-East) delivers a kaleidoscopic portrayal of nine men at various stages in their lives, each in the throes of extraordinary change. Despite their diverse circumstances, they are all somehow connected, engaged in a search for relevance and—dare they even consider it—meaning. English teenagers Simon and Ferdinand arrive in Berlin with competing ideas of how best to enjoy their time abroad; Bérnard, working halfheartedly in his uncle’s window shop outside Lille, France, experiences a life-altering holiday at a Cyprus beach resort; Kristian, a successful Danish tabloid editor, brings down the country’s defense minister after an indiscretion; Aleksandr, a disgraced Russian oligarch, contemplates suicide; an aging diplomat considers his mortality while recuperating from a heart operation in an Italian villa and notes, in what could be the book’s tagline, “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window.” Without exception, the stories—subtle, seductive, poignant, humorous—bear witness to the alienation, self-doubt, and fragmentation of contemporary life; each succeeds on its own while complementing the others. Szalay’s riveting prose and his consummate command of structure illuminate the individual while exploring society’s unsettling complexity. In 2013, Szalay was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. This effort exceeds even that lofty expectation.
Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist (Wizard of the Crow) and a UC Irvine English professor, has penned an eloquent, perceptive memoir about coming into his own as a writer. He focuses on his four pivotal years as an undergraduate at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where he wrote articles, composed plays, and discovered his voice as a novelist. Outside the university’s confines was a continent in flux; Thiong’o entered Makerere in 1959 as a colonial subject, and left in 1964 as a citizen of independent Kenya. He vividly describes how the colonial regime’s atrocities haunted him and shaped his sensibilities. As he taps his memories and his country’s history for material, he includes insightful commentary on the Land and Freedom Army resistance movement (once known as Mau Mau, a now-disavowed term), the distortions in European and American views of Africa, his social rites of passage at the university, his discovery of the Négritude school of poetry, his uncle’s imprisonment in a British concentration camp, and his mother’s (and mother country’s) sacrifices for his education. Evocative, poignant, and thoughtful, Thiong’o’s courageous narrative will linger in readers’ minds.
Wilson (How to Survive the Titanic: or, The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay) will enthrall readers with this mesmerizing and agile biography of English writer Thomas De Quincey, “the last of the Romantics.” De Quincey (1785–1859) is best known for the autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which kicked off his literary career and arguably gave birth to the genre of literature devoted to addiction and recovery. Wilson makes a good case that opium, which De Quincey began taking at 19, was the making of him, freeing him from his “torments” and allowing him unfettered access to his inner life. Wilson captures De Quincey’s riches-to-rags story, complex personality (“at [its] core were his addictions. Opium was one and debt another”), and obsession with the poet William Wordsworth, whose writing he revered, but whom he grew to loathe personally. Wilson also reveals that, for all of De Quincey’s classical learning, he was a “born journalist” with a taste for sensationalism, as well as a talented biographer responsible for some of the best portraits of Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. In an impressively researched biography as dazzling as its subject, Wilson highlights De Quincey’s influence on Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire, and many others, amply demonstrating his lasting influence.