Books become very enjoyable when there are lots of points of contact–places we’ve been to, experiences we’ve had, or activities we are familiar with. The Gown is historical fiction about the women who embroidered Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. It brilliantly highlights the postwar era in which the wedding took place and points out how in many ways excitement around the wedding was meant to lift the mood of a war weary country. The novel captures that spirit of hope.
For me it was a treat to read because it was about sewing, embroidery, the city of London, the royal family, and immigration to Canada–all points of contact and interest for me. Three women narrate the story that is woven together so well–a seamstress from France, an embroiderer from England, and a granddaughter in Canada blend their voices to move the story forward. This highly readable novel isn’t only about sewing. It’s also about the value of friendship, the intrigue of legacy, and the revelation of family secrets.
This Canadian author also published an article in Time magazine with interesting background information about the real event as well as Norman Hartnell’s Fashion House commissioned to make the gown. Click here.
The librarian where we meet for book club, described this as a very good read when she handed us our latest assignment and called it “a proper story.”
I did thoroughly enjoy this slice of Australian history because it didn’t try to be too epic nor did the author take sides in the conflict–she lets the reader decide and wonder what they would have done in the same situation. Though full of great literary themes, the story is focused primarily on one couple and their young children as they try to survive in a harsh and foreign land. This makes it simply readable as a story, but at the same time the reader cannot help but examine the choices that this couple make.
William Thornhill and his wife Sal travel to Australia from London on one of the early convict ships. Will is not a bad man, driven by impoverishment to make unsavoury choices. He escapes the gallows but ends up in another sort of prison and engages in another type of theft. Sal dreams of returning to London one day, but William falls in love with the land on the Hawkesbury River and this becomes his fatal flaw. It is a wild and lonely place except for the indigenous people who are living there already, but who are discounted as savages by those settling and ‘civilizing’ New South Wales. A settler’s dream becomes an Australian nightmare. It is a painful history familiar from so many colonial stories. Grenville does a beautiful job of quietly crafting the Aborigines’ voice and representing their loss.
Every one of the settlers in the book has chosen a different way of interaction with the indigenous people. Miscommunication and misunderstanding abound, but for some, a quiet “give and take” is what works best. In that regard it reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible, a novel offering several different approaches to missionary work in Africa embodied by various characters. Grenville’s great-great-great grandfather was a convict himself, sent from London to Australia in 1806. It was the desire to understand the history of her ancestors that motivated her to write these books.
The Secret River is part of a three book ‘Colonial Trilogy’. The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill being the other two. The Lieutenant was written after but is set before The Secret River and is an exploration of the first contacts between whites and blacks before the violence took over and when conversation was still possible. Sarah Thornhill is a loose sequel to the other two, taking up the story in a third generation that must deal with what history has created. I definitely will read the other two in the trilogy at some point. Grenville gives a masterful touch to a troubled tale–a proper story indeed. I know we will be having a great discussion at book club this month. The Secret River has been adapted for stage and screen.
Winner of the Carnegie Medal, in the UK this book is titled ‘A Gathering Light’. Publishers in UK always give books a different cover (which I love to compare with the US cover) and sometimes, as in this case, even a different title. Same book in every other regard.
‘A Northern Light’ is based on a true story from the Adirondack Mountains where a body of a young woman was pulled from the waters of Big Moose Lake in 1906. The boat she’d been in with her male companion was capsized so it appeared to be an accident, but the other body was never found. The mystery of that night ended up being one of the most sensational murder trials in New York’s history.
Donnelly’s fictional account features Mattie, a young girl working at the tourist hotel on the shores of Big Moose Lake. She is given a package of letters by a young woman guest who is obviously distraught. The instructions are to burn the letters, but Mattie never gets a chance until the body of the woman is recovered from the lake. What do those letters contain? Should she be true to the woman’s instructions now or are there clues in the letters that might explain what happened?
There is much more in the story than the murder mystery on the lake. Mattie is growing up in hard times on the farm and is torn between her desire to go to college and her sense of responsibility to stay home and help the family, or even have one of her own. Though not as epic, I found the book similar to The Invention of Wings in style and tone. It’s an engaging and well written novel that was a pleasure to read.
Though classified as a Young Adult novel, Donnelly handles many very adult topics deftly and creatively and is a book that anyone would enjoy. It’s definitely one of those YA cross-over gems. I do love finding those!
Jennifer Donnelly Website
This work of historical fiction is a highly readable, earthy, unique love story set in the midst of the First World War. It has a very “real” feel to it and I realized halfway through that much of the novel is true! The characters are well developed and memorable. There is some fascinating medical stuff in it that was new to me. I struggle with how much to reveal about the book, because much of the pleasure of reading it is in discovering how the story unfolds. So I won’t say much, except that parts of it may not be for the feint of heart.
Louisa Young has not included much about the battle details of the war itself, but rather has focussed on how people coped personally. She deals with relationships and what it was like when your loved ones went “over there”. And the myriad of reasons why they went. So many personal battles were fought in the living rooms and towns where no shrapnel flew, and the medical people who were ministering to the dead and dying were as affected as the soldiers in uniform. Young captures the longings and loss of war so well, and how a generation could never be the same again.
Included here are two links about medical advancements that you will find fascinating to read after you have finished the book if you don’t want any spoilers.
This original tale just leaps off the page. It is based on the true story of an unsolved murder of a frog catcher in San Francisco during a rare heat wave in 1876. A smallpox epidemic hits at the same time. It is an unusual but compelling piece of historical fiction, impeccably researched and entertainingly told.
Jenny Bonnet literally bumps into Blanche on the street while riding her high wheeler bicycle one day, and the encounter results in a unique friendship between the two women. Blanche is an exotic dancer, and works in a brothel. Her lover Arthur and his friend Ernest squander her earnings and form an odd ‘menage a trois’, until Jenny arrives on the scene and changes all of their lives forever. It is no spoiler to say that Jenny is shot in a grimy bar on the outskirts of town, because it happens on the third page.
Donoghue wittily captures the raucous atmosphere of this seedy, sticky and unhygienic world of San Francisco’s Chinatown, with the same panache and precision as she captured the claustrophobia in a small shed in Room. As an author she doesn’t believe in pages and pages of description, so the characters’ lives tell the story which keeps it moving. The dance tunes are woven seamlessly into the novel and further notes on them are given at the back. There is a glossary of French phrases given as well.
‘Frog Music’ is fiction but is completely based on true events. Only a few minor characters were invented. There are raw and crude scenes which may be a bit much for some, but are part of the story and the author handles them well. The appalling conditions that some women and children had to endure was admittedly hard to read, but the spirited determination of Blanche and Jenny is uplifting.
The book is sort of like “French bohemian meets the Wild West” – a quirky time and place which I enjoyed learning about, all wrapped up in an intriguing murder mystery! C’est si bon!