All of the stories for this month were nominated for the UK’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt
In this grim picaresque novel we follow the Charlie and Eli Sisters as they make their way to San Francisco from Oregon City to kill a man. They are notorious criminals working for the shadowy “Commodore” and this is all part of the job.
Thankfully this story is told from the point of view of Eli, the less blood-thirsty of the two brothers and the reader is able to see how he quickly grows weary of this life on the road and on the other side of the law. Eli’s narration is remarkable in that he is so far removed from your typical gun-for-hire. While most of the story he tells is blood-soaked murder, (with the rest consisting of crippling hangovers, spider bites, whores, and a creepy little girl who poisons a dog) the story actually is a calm and easy read told from his point of view.
The novel comes together in an unexpected way when they meet Mr. Warm, the man they are supposed to kill and the Charlie and Eli Sisters find themselves re-thinking their loyalty to their boss and imagining a better life.
Without going too much in detail as this is one of those stories where I wouldn’t want to give everything away, I will say- as you can imagine- it’s not a typical happy ending for the brothers. Those that live by the sword die by the sword, right? But DeWitt does manage to leave a little room for hope and much needed redemption at the end of the a very bloody story.
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
At it’s best, Half-Blood Blues truly sings. And that’s not something you can say about many novels, even ones about music. Edugyan creates melodic prose worthy of Langston Hughes, and when she’s describing her characters music sessions and love of Jazz, even someone like me can hear the wailing trumpets and rhythmic beat of the drums.
Half-Blood Blues tells the story of a ill-fated Berlin-based Jazz group at the beginning of World War II, focusing on the three black members who leave for Paris just as war is breaking out and make the eponymously named record, which goes on to create a legendary status for one of them- Hiero, the trumpet player who rumor has it died shortly after leave a Nazi prison camp.
Yes it’s not a cheery story and it’s starting to create a theme for good historical fiction- it’s quite sad. Granted, when your characters are Black people in Berlin and Paris at the begining of WWII, you’re probably not going to have light and fluffy story. But this is a story of friendships, and aside from even Hitler and Vichy government the truly heartbreaking moments come when these friendships are betrayed. At the end of reading Half-Blood Blues that’s basically what I felt- it’s beautiful and wonderfully written and terribly sad.
Edugyan deftly weave betrayal and loyalty, the beauty of Jazz and the filth of Nazi propaganda, so it’s a little bit of a let down when the attempt at a love interest in the story falls flat. I guess we’re supposed to like Delilah- at one point I did and then later I didn’t and by the end I didn’t care about her any more. In all honestly I feel she could have been completely written out of the story. So it’s not the perfect novel, and the end is not the most satisfying, but as I’ve mentioned above, when it’s good, it’s real good.
Pure, by Andrew Miller
In what I see now is true “historical fiction style” Andrew Miller tackles quite an unseemly topic in Pure- The removal of a centuries old cemetery that is polluting the surrounding Parisian neighborhood. What is interesting, though, is the true tenderness and warmth (and even love) evidenced in what at its outset appears to be a gritty novel. Our main character, the young engineer charged with this grim task, and the motley cast of friends he assembles (or looses) by the novels end, are not mere 2-dimensional historical figures. They see themselves as ‘modern men’ and are thoroughly relatable to this modern reader.
This is a truly great book for various reasons from its voice, cast of characters, and compelling story- with what I’m sure is great historical accuracy (Of course I’m not the best authority on that topic). What sets Pure apart, though, is more than just mere historical accuracy, it is Miller’s ability to truly place the reader at the center of these events and these times. The novel is set right at the cusp of the French Revolution and there is a certain poised stillness that the reader can feel- a city tensely waiting, knowing but not knowing what is about to come- a city on the brink.
In the scenes set at the cemetery (which is to say the majority of the novel) Miller is able to truly evoke the putrid air of the place- I even could taste it as I read. To say that Pure is ‘atmospheric’ seems like a bit of a weak and over-used description, but it is- in the finest sense of the word. Not to be missed.
Also read this month: Swim the Fly, by Don Calame; and Monument 14, by Emmy Laybourne
Next Month’s theme: “Pulitzer Novels”