“When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete. Not only was everyone there certain of a kiss, they claimed they could identify the type of kiss: it was strong and passionate, and it took her by surprise. They were all looking right at her when the lights went out. They were still applauding, each on his or her feet, still in the fullest throes of hands slapping together, elbows up. Not one person had come anywhere close to tiring. The Italians and the French were yelling, ‘Brava! Brava!’ and the Japanese turned away from them. Would he have kissed her like that had the room been lit? Was his mind so full of her that in the very instant of darkness he reached for her, did he think so quickly? Or was it that they wanted her too, all of the men and women in the room, and so they imagined it collectively. They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?” ‘Bel Canto’ by Ann Patchett
You know that feeling, it happens once in a while, when you finish reading a book that was so good you want to go back to the beginning and start again? Well, it was like that for me with CJ Sansom’s Dominion.
It was the premise that caught my attention as soon as I read the pre-publication reviews: an alternate history set in Britain in 1952, peace is made with Hitler in 1941 which changes the direction of World War Two. An alternative world. Previously I had read one Sansom novel, Winter in Madrid, which I enjoyed; three of his Matthew Shardlake mysteries sit on my to-read shelf. After Dominion, I will turn to them quickly.
The story focusses on four main characters, a scientist, a civil servant, the civil servant’s wife, and a Gestapo officer based at Senate House in London, the tall university building being the Gestapo’s London HQ with torture cells in the basement. This is a different Britain, where Jews are being rounded-up and transferred to camps in the country, where the Isle of Wight is occupied by the German army [which is still fighting in Russia], and where it is rumoured in Berlin that Hitler is either dead or dying.
To say more would risk spoiling the plot twists, of which there are plenty. The darkness of the time is shown symbolically by the Great Smog which actually happened in London, December 1952. It sheds a stifling blanket of choking fog which stops life and blinds everything more than a foot away. The smog is a metaphor of course for the blindness of the Government, and much of the population, who accept their situation with apathy and do nothing to aid the Resistance led, inevitably, by Churchill.
Sansom’s central message is about the danger of nationalism and xenophobia and what, in the extremes, they can lead to. A subject which, as he says in the Appendices, he fears is all too relevant in modern Europe.
A thought-provoking read. ‘Dominion’ by CJ Sansom
“There wasn’t much to be said for the place, really, but it had a roof over it and a door which locked from the inside, which was all I cared about just then. I didn’t even bother to take in the details – they were pretty sordid, but I didn’t notice them so they didn’t depress me; perhaps because I was already at rock-bottom. I just threw my one suitcase on to the bed, took my few belongings out of it and shut them all into one drawer of the three-legged chest of drawers. Then there didn’t seem to be anything else I ought to do so I sat in the arm-chair and stared out of the window.” ‘The L-Shaped Room’ by Lynn Reid-Banks
“On Friday 25 October, exactly one week before the first body was discovered at the Dupayne Museum, Adam Dalgliesh visited the museum for the first time. The visit was fortuitous, the decision impulsive and he was later to look back on that afternoon as one of life’s bizarre coincidences which, although occurring more frequently than reason would expect, never fail to surprise.” ‘The Murder Room’ by PD James
“All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.” ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ by Kiran Desai
Yet again, Philippa Gregory brings history alive. Her story of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, from her first encounter with Joan of Arc, kept me riveted. She is so attuned to the period and the language that her writing is seamless. At no point does the research show itself. And there is a lot of research, Gregory herself admits she does four months of solid research before starting to write. She also says that she often finds the idea for a different novel when she is researching another.
It may seem to the outsider that Gregory re-invents the same story – ‘what another Tudor woman?’ But this could not be further from the truth. Witchcraft is an intriguing story thread throughout this book, something introduced in The White Queen about Jacquetta’s daughter Elizabeth Woodville. Women are obliged to hide their knowledge and skills in order to survive, knowledge that today we would think of as alternative medicine and gardening by the phases of the moon. My knowledge of the period, the Wars of the Roses, the various kings and factions, is definitely improving though I was concerned that the reverse-telling of the Cousins’ War series would eliminate some of the tension. After all we know the fate of many of the characters, but her plotting and the scheming of the characters kept me reading.
I do think, though, that the titles and cover design is getting a little repetitive and lends confusion. I have been given duplicate copies as gifts, because of confusion between The Red Queen and The White Queen. ‘The Lady of the Rivers’ by Philippa Gregory
“I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate – at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time.” ‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie
“The first person I met at Eden-Olympia was a psychiatrist, and in many ways it seems only too apt that my guide to this ‘intelligent’ city in the hills above Cannes should have been a specialist in mental disorders. I realize now that a kind of waiting madness, like a state of undeclared war, haunted the office buildings of the business park. For most of us, Dr Wilder Penrose was our amiable Prospero, the psychopomp who steered our darkest dreams towards the daylight. I remember his eager smile when we greeted each other, and the evasive eyes that warned me away from his outstretched hand. Only when I learned to admire this flawed and dangerous man was I able to think of killing him.”
“Gina turned the car off the road and into the driveway of Allersmead. At this point she seemed to see her entire life flash by. As the drowning are said to do. She thought of this, and that the genuinely drowning can never have been recorded on the matter.”
If you have read Diana Gabaldon’s time-travelling Outlander series, you will be familiar with the character of Lord John Grey. This is a historical detective story starring Lord John in his own right, without Jamie and Claire Fraser. Many Gabaldon fans will bemoan the lack of the Frasers, but Lord John is a quite capable protagonist. Gabaldon is an experienced storyteller and she paints a picture of London in 1757 which the reader trusts as authentic. The plot pushes on as Lord John gets involved in two separate matters which in the beginning I found a little confusing, but which inevitably became neatly entwined. Along the way he encounters an eccentric German, a sweet whore and a dodgy molly house, all of which he deals with in his distinctive charming and intelligent manner. Lord John is certainly worthy of his own standalone series, and can be read independently of the Outlander series. This book is more than just a tale for readers suffering from Fraser-withdrawal syndrome. And it is also much shorter, Gabaldon could never be accused of writing novellas. ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’ by Diana Gabaldon