Gordon Henderson’s Man in the Shadows (2014)
“As he helped her into the carriage, Agnes Macdonald whispered demurely, “I can lean on no other arm like yours.” Macdonald sat back contentedly and called out to the driver, “Buckley, take us to the office.”
It would have been simple, the man across the street thought, lifting the collar of his old grey coat. A flick of the blade and a slit throat. So easy. But the time wasn’t right. Not yet.”
A fictionalized account of the early years of Canadian history, opening on the day of Confederation, July 1, 1867, has the makings of a thriller. Not only are citizens divided on the matter of whether unity is the best option, but the threat of American incursions is still real and pressing. Then, add an assassination into the mix, and the stakes are raised.
At the end of the novel, Gordon Henderson discusses “What’s True and What’s Not” but many readers will already be familiar with the assassination of D’Arcy McGee, a murder which remains unsolved. So a scene that like quoted above is credible during this time, given that John A. MacDonald is emerging as a national leader and warring interests abound.
The novel revolves around a figure on the margins of these events, however, which is most entertaining for the reader, who longs for a variety of tableaux. Thomas O’Dea is an Irish-Catholic immigrant, a “very promising young man pulling himself up from the dirty streets”, who brushes elbows with the prime minister through his work as an assistant and his employer’s patronage of the various drinking establishments which John A. also frequents.
The O’Dea family, from the other side of the river, offers readers a satisfying contrast in a tale chiefly preoccupied with the doings of lawmakers and moneyed lawbreakers who are seeking shifts in power to increase their own wealth and influence. Nonetheless this is a plotty novel, and one preoccupied with the targets of the man in the shadows, so the surrounding characters needn’t extend beyond the page.
The most intriguing element of Gordon Henderson’s novel is the dance between history and fiction. Readers who enjoy that kind of interplay will appreciate the fact that the author’s notes appear at the end of Man in the Shadows, so that they can imagine which of the characters have been invented and which have been borrowed and tease out the possibilities related to their roles in the assassination plots which dissenters have hatched.
Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (2014)
Tooly Zylberberg has a bookstore that will make bookish folk twitch with envy. Located strategically nearby Hay-on-Wye (but not strategically enough to ensure profitability beyond the literary festival dates), readers meet her in a comfortable bookish scene, contemporary but feeling out-of-time because of the mass of old books.
And Tooly is not the only bookish character; just as readers would expect from the striking cover image, books proliferate in Tom Rachman’s novel.
‘Books,’ he said, ‘are like mushrooms. They grow when you are not looking. Books increase by rule of compound interest: one interest leads to another interest, and this compounds into third. Next, you have so much interest there is no space in closet.'”
The bookstore setting, however, operates as more of a bookend. In the following segments, the action shifts more often to the past, and readers get acquainted with a younger Tooly, who has varying degrees of understanding about the great powers which rise and fall in her young life.
The exact nature of her relationships with an eclectic group of characters is unclear for much of the novel, but what is clear are the personalities, vividly drawn and dynamic. In the novel as a whole, Tooly is clearly the main character, but within each segment, certain characters step forward to meet the reader, just as Humphrey describes, blurring the line between hero and extra.
“Only one form of book did Humphrey disdain: made-up stories. The world was far more fascinating than anyone could imagine. In made-up stories, he contended, life narrowed into a single tale with a single protagonist, which only encouraged self-regard. In real life, there was no protagonist. ‘Whose story? Is this my story, with my start and finish, and you are supporting character? Or this is your story, Tooly, and I am extra? Or does story belong to your grandmother? Or your great-grandson, maybe? And this is all just preface?’”
In some ways, Tooly’s bookstore story is just preface. But it also sets the tone for the novel. Settings and times shift, but the real drama in the novel is rooted with the idea of home and how one leaves, returns, and stays in one. For much of the story, Tooly is too young to affect her own arrivals and departures, which adds to the novel’s sense of mystery.
“Being young was so unfair, and you couldn’t leave. That was the difference between childhood and adulthood: children couldn’t go; grown-ups could.”
But readers expecting a dramatic reveal as the timelines begin to connect will be disappointed; as is so often the case, what is truly surprising is not necessarily the reality of a situation but how long it can take one to recognize that reality.
Before Tooly (and readers) can return to the idyllic bookstore, she must catch up with her past before it slips out of her reach. And a journey, however long, can’t help but be satisfying when it begins and ends in a bookstore.
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014)
All the Light We Can See is paradoxically soaked with darkness. Partly this is simply a question of timing.
“It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled.”
But even beyond the war, there is a looming threat on the horizon. As young Werner comes of age, for instance, possibilities become increasingly eclipsed.
“Even now Werner can hear a mechanical drumbeat thudding in the distance, first shift going down in the elevators as the owl shift comes up – all those boys with tired eyes and soot-stained faces rising in the elevators to meet the sun – and for a moment he apprehends a huge and terrible presence looming just beyond the morning.”
And for Marie-Laure, blinded as a girl, darkness is a backdrop of her life, but Anthony Doerr’s writing capitalizes on the sensory details available to young Marie-Laure and her presence is the novel’s most consistently bright element.
“The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.”
Anthony Doerr’s setting is inherently rich, geographically and politically. In combination, his prose style, phrases upon phrases and generous descriptive detail, could strike some readers as overwriting. But the characters are created with an equal abundance of detail, and readers who connect with them will recognize a synergy between these aspects of the novel and find it hard to imagine it having been written in any other way.
Have you read any of these? Or, are they on your TBR list/stack?