Posts Tagged ‘Victor Hugo’

The-Plague-Charmer

As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

This was not what I had expected from Nesbø. And I’m saying that in a good way.

Nor is it what the sticker on the front proclaims it to be, “The Brand New Thriller” from the author of The Snowman. Well, it obviously is from the author of The Snowman, which is the only other Nesbø book I’ve read. But it’s not a thriller. It is something different, something more.

Describing the premise of the novel, however, will make it sound like a thriller. Our narrator is Olav Johansen, a “fixer” or assassin for one of two criminal bosses in Oslo. His assignment is to kill the wife of his own boss who has been having an affair. Which then puts him in a position where he is concerned that he knows too much and will become the target rather than the fixer.

So far, so thriller.

But Olaf is an unconventional fixer. He is dyslexic but an avid reader and the prose is littered with explicit references. Facts are offered with an appended “Or so I’ve read somewhere”. Sometimes the specific book and volume are cited, along with the library in which he’d read it. There’s an extended allusion to and echoes of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables  throughout the novel.

Although not explicitly stated, there’s also traits of the autistic spectrum in the presentation of Olav. He comments that Darwin had identified “only six universal facial expressions for human emotions” and he struggles to identify those emotions, describing himself as “completely tone-deaf when it comes to noticing the undertones and subtexts in what people say”.  As I say, he was as unconventional narrator as he is a fixer.

Hoffmann and The Fisherman, the two rival crime bosses, were fairly standard fare. But there are also two rival women in the novel: Corina, Hoffmann’s beautiful cheating wife; and Maria, the fiancée of a junkie who was being forced to prostitute herself to pay off his debts. These two women were beautifully portrayed, with a control and sparseness, especially with Maria, which I hadn’t expected.

In fact, sparse is not a bad word to describe the novel. There is a single plot that plays out, interspersed with fragments from Olav’s own past. And it comes in a not much over 100 pages (on my ebook edition). There is an economy and a precision here to the prose: there is enough to create the characters and no more. Nothing is wasted. The opening scene of the book contains the image of red blood pooling on snow which “made me think of a king’s robe, all purple and lined with ermine, like the drawings in books of Norweigan folk tales my mother used to read me”, and describes the way the snow “sucked the blood up as it fell, drawing it in under the surface, hiding it, as if it had some sort of use for it. As I walked home I imagineda snowman rising up from the snowdrift, one with clearly visible veins of blood under its deathly pale skin of ice”. The final scene of the book returns to and inverts the same image in a wonderfully macabre fairytale image.

At its heart, however, it is a book about stories and narratives. The stories we tell each other – but more importantly ourselves – in order to make some form of sense of the world we inhabit. Even if we are confronted with evidence that contradicts the story.