Paperback reviews: My America: Second Acts in a New World, Burial Rites, The Fun Stuff and other Essays, The Voyage, Fallen Land

 

My America: Second Acts In A New World by Sara Wheeler (Vintage £10.99)

“Ahead of me the Frumpy Years stretched out like a downhill catwalk.” In her introduction to her spirited account of six very spirited individuals, Sara Wheeler acknowledges an unacknowledged idea about “the second age” that women experience as they get older: that it is a time for them to quieten down and become invisible. From Fanny Trollope to Catherine Hubback, though, she traces the decision of these 19th-century women not to go quietly into that good night of old age, but instead to exchange the Old World for the New and re-invent themselves.

Wheeler’s history partly makes a case for the 19th century as a time for the expansion of the horizons of women. Unable to reinvent themselves at home, they were nevertheless able to slough off their marital woes to experience the freedom of post-colonial America

And it changed them. The novelist and mother of Anthony, Fanny Trollope, a liberal, became a conservative: previously a champion of equality, she found she didn’t quite like it in practice, when American shop-girls spoke directly to her, or servants wanted to eat with the family. The celebrated actress Fanny Kemble, too, found America oppressive because of her slave-owning husband, but for both women the experience led to literary efforts that established them on both sides of the Atlantic.

Working-class Rebecca Burlend is particularly impressive, taming the frontier as she did, but so too is Catherine Hubback, the writer niece of Jane Austen, who restored her sense of self in America, travelling in mud wagons on dangerous trips after her husband went mad. The idea of America as a haven was not dissipated for these women by the hardships they endured there, and Wheeler responds to them appealingly, with imagination and a clear-sighted sympathy.

*****

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador £7.99)

Kent’s debut is an effective historical thriller, but it’s also a perceptive and more profound study in prejudice against women born on the wrong side of the tracks. With an atmosphere more redolent of 17th-century witch-hunting, she conjures up Iceland in 1829 and the real-life conviction of three individuals for arson and murder. One of those convicted is an impoverished young servant named Agnes Magnusdottir who, in an extraordinary move, is sent to live with a remote rural family until her execution. Whether Agnes is guilty or not, is a question that worries away continuously at the narrative, and it starts to plague those around her, too. As her private sessions with a young clergyman reveal more about her appalling early life, they give her, ironically, both motivation for the killing as well as exemption from it. Agnes herself is thus a suitably complex figure, neither saint nor sinner, and the family’s confused reactions to her, as well as the clergyman’s, help, maintain the suspense and sense of ambiguity that Kent so ably builds up.

****

The Fun Stuff And Other Essays by James Wood (Vintage £8.99)

While this collection of essays rather starkly reveals Wood’s own literary predilections – hardly any women writers figure here at all – his insight into writing is impressive and the sheer joy that he takes in others’ literary dexterity is infectious. He is didactic about other writers in a friendly way (“Look again at the passage,” he exhorts us, in a defence of Norman Rush), and blunt when he needs to be (“Brutally put, [Richard Yates] has about 10 good years”; “[Cormac McCarthy] is an American ham”). But he has an awareness of writing that comes from his own experience and practice, which grants understanding with a contradictory mixture of awe and healthy disrespect.

****

The Voyage by Murray Bail (Maclehose Press £8.99)

Bail’s way with words may well infuriate some while inspiring adoration in others. His sentences break all the rules, beginning with gerunds that seem not to lead anywhere, or breaking into parentheses that cry out to be finished, and the effect is constantly to disturb your concentration. His anti-hero is an ordinary middle-aged Australian, Frank Delage, who has travelled to Vienna in the hope of establishing a market for his piano-making. After his unsuccessful attempts, though, he starts the journey home, but with a young woman he has met on his trip. There are ruminations – on art, on relationships between men and women, and on writers – which veer between the comic and the tragic.

****

Fallen Land by Patrick Flannery (Atlantic Books £8.99)

There is an ingenious premise to this tragic tale, which shows a failed property developer, Paul Krovik, so unable to leave the houses he has built that he remains hidden in the special bunker he constructed beneath one of them, and in the process drives himself slowly mad, as a new young family arrives from Boston to move into the property. The family has its own problems, with the father, Nathaniel, reluctant to move, and son, Copley, partly autistic. The house is built on land once owned by a descendant of slaves, and on the site of a racist murder. It is juicy enough material for any tale, but Flannery’s prose is extremely descriptive-heavy, and while some will welcome its often mundane quality, others will chafe at the slow pace.

***

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