Friday, September 20, 2013

Patience is rewarded

I appear to be in the grip of historical fiction in a lot of my reading this year. I emerged from more than a decade of largely reading stuff written for children and teens occasionally interspersed with adult material and I am reverting to an old favorite genre of mine: painless history lessons delivered via fiction. Fifteen years ago, Iain Pears (his last name was pronounced in the audiobook credits as we Americans would pronounce Pearce) wrote what I remember as a terrific piece of historical fiction, The Instance of the Fingerpost, where -- in the interests of self-education -- I learned a lot about Oxford University and the part it played in England's Interregnum. In my continuing attempts to remain caught up here, I am looking for the big books and Stone's Fall (24 hours!) fit the bill when I needed something new for the ears. (And incidentally, I did catch up while listening to this one ... but now I'm behind again.)

Pears' novels are classically styled as the narrative of a single event from many viewpoints. I love this approach, mostly because I like the comfort of knowing that everything is a clue to what comes after. In Stone's Fall, the conceit is what we know about wealthy businessman John Stone at his suspicious death in 1909 will all make sense when he (Stone) finally tells us what happened 40 years earlier. But first we have to meet a callow reporter -- Matthew Braddock -- hired by Stone's exotic widow, Elizabeth, to find a hitherto unknown child alluded to in Stone's will. The novel moves backward to 1890, where an equally self-centered young man, Henry Cort, embarks on a career of banking and espionage that reveals a little more about Stone and his wife. And finally, we "begin" in Venice in 1867 where Stone, a young man himself, makes some decisions with those delicious repercussions 40 years on.  All I'm saying is think about that child as Anton Chekhov's gun.

Aside from the payoff, the pleasure in this book is its attention to period detail (and there is a lot of it) about 19th century banking and arms production and journalism and espionage (and I concur that this may make a lot of people sigh and move on), its precise descriptions of time and place (Paris in the fin de siecle and most vividly the fetid backwater that was Venice in the years just following Italian unification), and its vast and entertaining cast of characters. There are few things more satisfying in fiction to greet a new character -- whose name resonates from earlier in one's reading and await the revelation of why they've shown up.

The three sections are all in first person; each is read by a different narrator.  John Lee takes the role of Matthew Braddock, Roy Dotrice reads Henry Cort and Simon Vance becomes John Stone.  Each brings his personal style to the narration.  Lee has that precise diction and slight lilt that seem a natural for the aspiring-to-wealth-and-power Braddock. Dotrice (the only one of the three whom I have never heard before) is voicing a long (long) letter written when his character is in his 80s relating events of 50 years earlier and brings an old man's raspiness and breathlessness to the narration. I wasn't entirely crazy about this, but it works. Vance's cool distance and warm emotions bring out the contradictions in ambitious John Stone (contradictions we know about but that the character is not yet aware of). Each man is a master of international accents and phrasing, I particularly enjoyed Lee's interpretation of an accent that Pears describes as Manchester-Italian.

This novel is catalogued Mystery at my library (and others), but I don't really see it as a mystery. Yes, there's a puzzle to be solved, but it's not obviously a crime and doesn't really involve a character getting to the bottom of something. The reader is trying to get to the bottom of it though, so I guess I'm not as convinced as I thought I was. (Here's what the NoveList Plus database says about capital-M mysteries: "Mysteries are puzzles. This puzzle involves a crime, usually murder, and the resulting body. An investigator, whether professional or amateur, solves the question 'who-dun-it,' and the culprit is brought to justice. The Mystery tracks this investigation, with its concomitant exploration of the victim's the murderer's, and the detective's lives.")

For part of the time I was listening to this, I eye-read an installment in Pears' conventional mystery series, where art thefts and forgeries are conventionally solved by two sprightly contemporary art historians. They couldn't be more different in tone and accomplishment. I wonder if working on these is the occasional palate cleanser for when he needs a break from his major works. Still, I can see the glimmers of Pears' descriptive prose and sparkling dialogue in these novel-ettes.

[The view of Venice painted in the 19th century is by an unknown artist and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears
Narrated by Roy Dotrice, John Lee and Simon Vance
Books on Tape, 2009.  24:11

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