Monday, September 8, 2014

Thank you for smoking

As I begin to gather my thoughts here about Clare Clark's Beautiful Lies, two months or so after finishing it, I realize that it bears a somewhat embarrassing resemblance to a more recently completed audiobook, Mary Doria Russell's Doc. Both are historical fiction (taking place just ten years apart) based on actual people.  If I hadn't already declared myself deeply enmeshed in World War II, I would say that I have another unhealthy fixation on the Victorian era. But, as happens so often, I digress.

Beautiful Lies is the story of Maribel Campbell Lowe and her bohemian circle in 1887 London. Maribel is married to a radical member of Parliament, an avowed Socialist who is agitating for the rights of working class and unemployed Englishmen and women. She has exotic origins (born in Chile, educated in Paris), is addicted to nicotine in the form of cigarettes, she's recently taken up photography, and she (and her beloved -- if philandering -- husband) is hiding a really, really big secret about her origins. Should this secret come out, it would be the end of Edward's career and their prominent place in society. So, when an inquisitive newspaper reporter comes sniffing around at the same time that Maribel hears from her long-absent mother, the Campbell Lowes face possible ruin.

Clark's expertise in this novel is the way she incorporates an awful lot of strands into her basic plot -- we meet Buffalo Bill Cody and some of his Indian performers and watch a performance of his Wild West Show; the intricacies of early photography are explained in detail, as are the unusual natural portraits that Maribel specializes in; the Bloody Sunday Trafalgar Square riot and its aftermath (including an appearance by William Morris) is described; there is a brief foray into spiritualism; we even take a trip to Spain to explore a depleted mine. The novel doesn't feel stuffed, at least to me (I love details like this), but it makes it more impressionistic than a story with a compelling plot line (the oh-my-god-he-will-expose-us plot line turns out to be a bit of not-very-much).

Still I can't deny that the in-depth look into late Victorian political intrigue and society was fascinating to me. Maribel and Edward Campbell Lowe seem very modern in many ways, particularly Maribel with her cigarettes and camera. The couple is closely based on Robert and Gabriela Cunninghame Graham (although if you click on this link, the "secret" will be revealed ... as it is fairly early on in the novel), who are among the ranks of the many Victorians who belie the era's reputation for conservatism and a love of the status quo. Clark's lengthy author's note is full of interesting information and she draws excellent parallels between 1887 and 2012, including our cult of celebrity.

A long-time narrator with several narrator alter egos, Wanda McCaddon, reads the novel. She reads clearly and smoothly, with a pleasant nasal quality, and supplies plenty of honest emotion in this novel of Victorian sentiment and enthusiasms. Her characters (of both genders and many social classes) sound natural and are easily distinguished one from another, and she is able to provide authentic accents for all of them, including a slightly Spanish-tinged lisp for Maribel's public persona.  

A somewhat familiar piece of flute music that sounds like an actual musical work rather than just a little tune for intro purposes plays at the beginning and end of the novel. And yes, Dreamscape, I appreciate the music, but this audiobook's cover is way too generic. The original cover shows Maribel smoking in a highly stylized way, was that too dangerous? (I'm really never going to not be a children's librarian.)

I had this audiobook checked out for a long time before listening to it, and when I finally got it into my ears it was not the novel I'd expected. A few years ago, I'd read and enjoyed Clark's first novel, The Great Stink; as you know I enjoy certain compulsions, one of which is to read an author's books in publication order (not just series' books, although I'm rigid in this regard). In this case, I thought I was listening to an earlier (although, true confession time, not her very next book) Clark novel, one that takes place in 18th century Louisiana. It's funny how things go screwy in your mind when something is not what it's "supposed" to be. There were a few tracks of listening before I admitted my confusion and went to the catalog to find out that I was really more than 150 years into the future and in another country. Still, as a lover of historical fiction, I'll probably get to Savage Lands eventually. I wonder if it, too, is based on the life of a real person?

[This portrait of the "Chilean" beauty, Gabriela Cunninghame Graham (no hyphen, please!), was taken by Frederick Hollyer and resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections in London. Do you suppose that fur hat came from Wild Bill Cody?]

Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark
Narrated by Wanda McCaddon
Dreamscape, 2012. 15:02

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