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Historical Novels

Words on paper, and the dangers they present

By Anna Mundow
June 21, 2009
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BRODECK
By Philippe Claudel
Doubleday, 336 pp., $26

A SECRET ALCHEMY
By Emma Darwin
Harper Perennial, 448 pp., $14.99

A PROPER EDUCATION FOR GIRLS
By Elaine diRollo
Crown, 368 pp., $25

Countless dramas - from Sophocles’s plays to Clint Eastwood’s movies - have taught us that the arrival of a stranger in town can spell trouble. In Philippe Claudel’s disturbing new novel, “Brodeck,’’ a spasm of such violence has already passed. The mysterious stranger has been dispatched and Brodeck, a lowly bureaucrat, is asked by the village bigwigs to write an official account of the man’s disappearance. Brodeck can write; he has been to university; he owns a typewriter. More importantly, Brodeck is afraid. He knows what these men have done.

“I would have liked to bind my memory fast and keep it that way,’’ Brodeck confesses, “as subdued and still as a weasel in an iron trap.’’ Denied this luxury, he agrees to compose the report but secretly vows also to write the truth. Brodeck’s truth is what we read, and it is harrowing; a layered recollection of wartime crimes, atrocities, cowardice, and betrayal.

Which war? Claudel doesn’t say. Brodeck’s mountain village could be anywhere in “the rotten belly of Europe,’’ and Claudel’s opening sentence - “I’m Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it’’ - strikes a declarative note reminiscent of a folk song or fairy tale. Nonetheless, Brodeck’s recollections of jackbooted occupiers; of being transported, along with hundreds of others, in boxcars to a labor-death camp; of torture, survival, and a homecoming to a wife driven insane and to neighbors who were collaborators at best, rapists at worst, make it brutally clear where we are. “Brodeck’’ is no myth. And the benevolent visit by the smiling stranger, who says little (“People are afraid of someone who keeps quiet,’’ Brodeck notes) cannot elevate this nightmare. By the end, we, like Brodeck, have seen too much to believe in sacrificial lambs, let alone miracles.

“My habit is silence . . . Words set on paper are dangerous.’’ This is not Brodeck, although it might be, but Louis de Bretaylles, a 15th-century French knight who appears briefly but pivotally in Emma Darwin’s engaging novel “A Secret Alchemy.’’ The War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster and the attendant murder of the princes are the central historical dramas here, and Darwin dramatizes both with a judicious blend of scholarship and poetic flourish.

Readers with scant knowledge of these events may occasionally founder, but matters of the heart, not history, are at the novel’s core, and the period details are delightful. There are fine descriptions of falconry, chivalry, court manners, and intrigue, of the natural world, and of lust. There is also the perennial obsession with blood. For we are reminded that “it was a family matter, the business of the kingdom.’’ The character making that observation, however, belongs to the present. Una Pryor, a widowed historian, is one of the narrators, the others being Elizabeth, wife of King Edward IV, mother of the doomed princes, and Anthony, Elizabeth’s equally doomed brother. As heads roll and crowns fall, we learn of Anthony’s secret love and of Una’s dormant passion; one hopeless, the other finally not.

The intimacy that Darwin creates in her parallel stories of Elizabeth’s bloody trials and of Una’s immersion in the past is touching but occasionally cloying, as is the persistent stench of bloodlines, ancient and modern. “We wouldn’t do anything vulgar,’’ Una’s uncle declares when the future of the family house is discussed. Of course not. Una may find love outside her family’s Bloomsbury-like circle, but only with a craftsman ennobled by his contact with her. For the right sort - in any century - everything is still a family matter.

The irreverent heroines in Elaine diRollo’s rollicking novel “A Proper Education for Girls,’’ are a bracing contrast to Darwin’s sensitive souls. Alice and Lillian are twins raised by their scientist-collector father in mid-19th century England to become dutiful helpmates. When the novel opens, however, Lillian has already strayed and been married off to a weakling whose mission takes him to India where Lillian thrives in unexpected, scandalous ways. Alice, heartbroken yet formidable, remains at home where she must assist the young photographer employed to record her father’s bizarre collection. Alternating chapters chart Lillian’s adventures, which include a tiger hunt and the Indian Mutiny, alongside Alice’s attempts to escape first boredom and then surgical treatment by the loathsome Dr. Cattermole for her perceived mannishness.

Many of the novel’s characters, scientific theories, and medical practices are based on historical personages, accounts, and treatises, among them the memoir of Fanny Parkes in India. But the novel’s spanking pace, irrepressible heroines, and sense of adventure leaven diRollo’s erudition and feminist indignation. I only wish that she had not allowed one of her characters to recline naked in a large, disused linen cupboard. J.G. Farrell did this first and far better in his sublime novel “Troubles’’ (1970) when he steered Major Archer into an equally inviting closet. The details here are similar to Farrell’s - both characters, for example, make “a nest’’ and luxuriate in the warmth of the chimney breast - but diRollo’s version seems thin by comparison.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.

BRODECK By Philippe Claudel

Doubleday, 336 pp., $26

A SECRET ALCHEMY By Emma Darwin

Harper Perennial, 448 pp., $14.99

A PROPER EDUCATION FOR GIRLS By Elaine diRollo

Crown, 368 pp., $25

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