"Edwin: High King of Britain" by Edoardo Albert

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Edoardo Albert fictionalizes the life of an ancient monarch in Edwin: High King of Britain. Edwin’s 7th-century reign is known by only a few sketchy details, many of which can be called legends. In some ways such an undertaking gives the author a great deal of freedom, but in others, the task depends on a great many of the same skills which novelists must use. The author must imagine conversations, scenes, battles, storms, etc., and fit them into the framework he or she has chosen as the subject. Mr. Albert has done an admirable job of this.
Cover blurbs and statements by previous reviewers state that the book is the first of a trilogy, and I thought they would all deal with Edwin. Not the case. However, the two salient facts of Edwin’s reign (as portrayed here) were to unite the British island into one kingdom, and his decision to take Christian baptism. To achieve the first goal, Edwin must unfortunately engage in the very behavior he deplores – he must skirmish and squabble and make minor wars with other pretender-kings. Relating to his conversion to Christianity, we are treated to the soul-searching of a sober, practical sovereign who understands that unless his chief subjects also convert, it will mean nothing. There’s no reason to believe he compelled anyone else to convert, and indeed, the author shows the king as leaving it up to the individual.
If you have interest in British kings of late antiquity, then by all means, take this up. There are vivid scenes, fair adherence to known or surmised facts, and a decent rendering of historical milieu. Mr. Albert’s storytelling has potential for improvement – conversations, particularly Edwin’s spoken words, become less stilted as we progress through the book. This bodes well for subsequent entries in the series. Other than that, though, this book doesn’t have much for the general reader.

"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

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Modern fiction comes in any number of structures, and I love the experimentation I’ve encountered. The Sense of an Ending doesn’t really have an unusual structure, being a confessional, but its unique and wrenching conclusion gives the rest of the book an entirely new and unexpected meaning. The revelations of the last page force one to reconsider much – all – of what has gone before in this remarkable book, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

From beyond his sixtieth year, Londoner Tony Webster takes to reconsidering certain personal episodes from 40 years before, specifically, when he finished his secondary education and started at university. This reconsideration starts when he receives a surprise bequest from a onetime girlfriend’s mother. The legacy includes the diary of a long-dead friend, which for a variety reasons, he is very anxious to see and own. Except that the former girlfriend has it in her possession, and won’t give it up.

I’ve seen the term “Darcy” used to indicate a dashing, desirable leading man; it’s not a stretch to think that “Webster” – for Ending’s leading character – might become synonymous with clueless jerk. He and the girlfriend parted quite acrimoniously all those years ago, and the relationship never mended. Unfortunately Webster renews the acquaintance by politely nagging the long-ago girlfriend – Veronica – for his property. They meet a few times over this and other issues, and the one constant throughout these meetings is Webster’s denseness and insensitivity.

Author Julian Barnes balances his story’s needs with reader interest on a razor’s edge. He expounds on memory’s tricks and seeming subterfuges. He takes pains to establish the theme of the illusory nature of history: it’s the self-congratulatory spin of the victors and the desperate rationalizations of the vanquished. Victor or vanquished – which is Webster, and who can cast him in either of these roles – but himself? I was reminded of the flavor of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, in which we find another narrator-protagonist hopelessly out-of-the-loop with life.

The Sense of an Ending contains such perfection from the first word to the last. It’s an absolute clinic in how to write, but for all the pains Mr. Barnes took with its form, its point and true strength flow from its powerful emotional wallop. A stunner – from every angle I consider this book, it’s a stunner. An essential read for anyone interested in modern fiction.

"A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar" by Suzanne Joinson

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Like a wily veteran writer, first-time author Suzanne Joinson weaves two equally compelling narratives, separated by 90 years, and by subtle stages reveals to us the relation between the two. In A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar Ms. Joinson appeals to our lust for far-off places, for epic travels and sacrifices, for convulsive moments in history, and satisfies – oh, so graciously – our desire for first-rate, lovely fiction.

In one narrative strand we follow the life of Eva, a missionary traveling in 1923 from England to the remote desert in which China, Turkmenistan, and the Soviet Union all border each other. Arriving in the city then known as Kashgar (present-day Kashi, of China), she and her two fellow missionaries fall immediately into turmoil with the native Mohammedan population. These misadventures lead to estrangement, imprisonment, violence, and death. The second story exhibits the troubles of anxious and rootless Frieda, of present-day London. She is also a professional traveler to the Middle East, and is on a quest of her own, no less daunting in its way. Each narrative is as interesting and compulsively readable as the other.

For debut fiction, this work’s maturity, subtlety, compassion, and sophistication strike me as astonishing. Western women sallying into the Moslem world, encountering Moslem men and mores, the demands of family and faith, how
the world overflows with possibility – Ms. Joinson treats these themes with balance and a highly engaging consideration for her readers. She likewise yokes the two stories together in a full and timely way, with satisfying results all the way around.

This novel presents the undeniable case: here is a remarkable authorial talent, who has hit her stride with her very first entry. Take it up!

"The Vanishers" by Heidi Julavits

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Imagine an emotional story in which a promise never to forgive is a demonstration of love, where a young woman keeps meeting and encountering mysterious older women (who may or may not have her interests at heart), here on Earth and on the astral plane. Imagine an irreverent, acerbic young woman, by turns evasive and brutally honest, with high psychic ability, and her search for her dead mother. You might come close to Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers.

Young Julia Severn matriculates at The Workshop, a college-level institution for training psychics. She proves to have a little too much ability for the star instructor, who punishes her with a psychic “attack” and sends her away from the school. Julia travels to Paris and Vienna, where she is incarcerated, sort of, in a spa for her health. She encounters a series of characters who each want to use Julia and her abilities for their own ends. Her main occupation during this time is to try to ferret out the existence and/or location of an avant-garde feminist film director, who may or may not be alive.

The overarching story does not have a convoluted plot; the energy in the narrative stems from the roller coaster ride that is Julia’s internal life. She sees scenes and encounters people both on the astral plane and in “real life,” and these are described in the same tone and with the same attention to detail, so that it becomes a challenge telling them apart.
The principal characters, all women, have ongoing pitched battles, trying to manipulate Julia into doing their bidding – sometimes Julia fights back and sometimes she becomes a dupe. She’s definitely having a struggle learning things at the outset of her career.

I mentioned irreverence and acerbity – this book has both in spades. It’s a delicious, fun read, but a little confusing sometimes. Additionally, characters do little to attract our interest or sympathy. There’s a lot of competition for the main character’s attention and services, and the motivation of some of the backbiting and simple personal toxicity was never clear to me. This is a highly entertaining and inventive read; I do have to say however, that I question whether the conclusion was worth the tortuous path.