September 22, 2009

Turning Pages: History, Assumption and Mystery

Happy Tuesday! Time now for another jaunt through the world of What I've Been Reading:

In 1885, there are names for children born from husbandless women. Marianne has known the name and known the word all of her life, and borne the brunt of its cruelty. No matter what the village girls in Grimsby say, her mother loved her father, and the two had made promises. The Danish boy had said he would come back for her, and she'd held on to the promise, borne her baby alone, been turned out of her father's house with barely more than the clothes on her back. She and her daughter have eked out a living with embroidery and thrift, but in the end, it isn't enough. She is dying, and has only her dream left to give.

Just before her death, Marianne's mother shows her daughter the store of coins she has been hoarding to buy their passage to Denmark, in hopes of finding her lost love. There was never enough for both of them, but now, there will be well enough for Marianne alone. It's time for her to find her father.

Burdened with a letter for her erstwhile father, and by this new knowledge that her mother withheld money that could have eased her long illness, knowing nothing other than England and terrified of being alone in the world, Marianne nevertheless promises her mother that she will fulfill her final wish, leave the village, and set out for shores unknown. And when her mother dies, Marianne sets out alone on a search for her identity that takes her worlds away from England, to a ramshackle fishing village with a stern old man, a wily artist, needy children, kindly villagers, and a pair of young men who become more dear to her than she could have guessed.

This book was put out by Oxford University Press, and it's just not that often that you find YA novels from that a university publisher. However, this novel is so richly layered with historical detail about 19th century Denmark, the artisan villages of Skagen and Frederikshavn, and Danish life in the 1880's that it definitely rates that Oxford cachet. Marianne is stubborn and brave, and though there are few surprises, readers will give a sigh of satisfaction as she weathers the bumps and bruises of living on her own, and achieves her happily ever after.

But don't take my word for it, read the Guardian's review.

When Pakistan-born Halima's father moves the family to London, their whole world expands. Halima and her siblings make friends, and unlike their non-English speaking parents, are able to make their way in British society. For awhile, it seems that Halima can do anything. But a family secret is uncovered when she confides a budding crush to her older, married sister. Halima discovers that in return for a favor, when she was eight, her father arranged her marriage to the son of a stranger, who now works in Saudi Arabia. Halima is told she is owed to this man, and as the novel tagline repeats triumphantly, "It's Payback time."

I can't tell you how much I hate the title of this book. However, I believe that visceral reaction is deliberately provoked. Here's why: It's fairly significant that most of Western society has one fixed idea about women in Islamic culture. Because of the largely patriarchal society of most of Muslim countries, there is the assumption that all Muslim women are victims.

Rosemary Hayes uses an Irish character to act as a foil to Halima's understanding of the world. At every turn, Kate challenges Halima, as if without her Western understanding of the women's rights and the world, Halima just wouldn't "get it." Though Halima is characterized as brave, it's a bit sad to me that anyone else who loves her, including her mother, are characterized as powerless -- except if they're British. Once the specter of an arranged marriage is raised, Saudi Arabia and the full burqa are only a few steps off.

To read a book that doesn't play on Western fears of the Muslim world and fails to allow a handsome prince to save the say, read Does My Head Look Big In This? or Skunk Girl. While there's definitely good and bad in every religion or culture, when we don't understand something and prejudge it/write about it anyway, we're walking on thin, thin ice. It's really important, as a reader and a writer, to remember that old saw about what happens when people assume.

Initially I resisted picking them up. Georgette Heyer was a name I associated with long afternoons after church, sitting quietly and choking on Grace Livingston Hill novels given to me by a well-meaning auntie. I thought that Heyer wrote the particularly Moral and awful romances where a saintly, pious maid was handed her Happily Ever After and her Perfect and Bland Prince on a spotless polished platter when a Willful and Stubborn girl who had tried to take her own happiness in hand and find someone with actual blood in their veins was appropriately punished for her Waywardness and Wicked Deeds. Even when I was ten I knew there was something VERY WRONG with that scenario, thus I avoided Georgette Heyer -- whose name I had somehow mixed up with Grace Livingston Hill's -- like the plague.

Except Leila said she was such a good writer.

Leila isn't usually wrong about romances. Leila isn't usually wrong about mysteries. Leila is not usually wrong about historical fiction. Leila isn't usually wrong about anything bookish. Which kind of sucks, because there's nothing I like more than a good argument, but there you have it. Some people just aren't wrong.

So, when seeing a carelessly flung aside Heyer on a library shelf in the Crime section, I thought of Leila, and picked it up. It was published in 1953, which would at least be amusing, I thought.

It was a bit more than that.

And oh, the artless women, the scheming men. The snooty British disdain. The callow and American gangster-obsessed youth. The hilariousness. Oh, the snarky, well-written prose. Oh, the funny.

An unexpected surprise, the funny was.

This book has such a labyrinthine plot that I hardly want to tell you any of it, for fear that the way I tell it will give something away. Facts I can tell you are this: there was a very dull family party, to which a few business people were invited. During the course of the party, before the business persons took their leave, a venture was discussed. The person who would finance it turned it down as a bad risk.

When the guests were gone, the financier took his usual nightly walk in the fog, except this time he fell to his death. A shame, really, on the night of his 60th birthday. Well, accidents happen. Of course, not everyone thinks it was an accident...

You'll meet a reoccurring member of the Scotland yard, the exasperated Superintendent Hannasyde, as well as a razor-tongued old lady, a convenient thug, and manifold other Characters. Like the novel version of Clue, this book is a romp, and I can't wait to delve through various used bookstores and large-print library selections to find the rest of Heyers' mysteries.

So, that's what I've been reading lately. Good times. You can find Between Two Seas, as well as They Found Him Dead, and, after November, 2009, Payback from an independent bookstore near you.


Anonymous said...

Georgette Heyer wrote 3 types of books; mysteries, Regencies and historicals. Like you, I had the same association, but in fact she INVENTED the Regency romance. It was her pale imitators that gave the genre its bad rep. I like her Regencies much, much better than the mysteries, which have their merits but all in all haven’t aged well.

The historicals are a mixed bag and on average I put them between the Regencies and mysteries. Some of them are more tedious and some more enjoyable.

So if you liked the mysteries, you have further joys awaiting you if you go on to the Regencies. She never wrote the same book twice, and her heroines, while not anachronistic, are spirited and funny.

Jen Robinson said...

Between Two Seas is definitely catching my eye now, Tanita. Thanks for the recommendation!

I LOVE Heyer's regencies. Never cared much for the mysteries or the historicals (though I may not have given those a fair chance), but I think that the regencies are delightful. Witty banter, gorgeous clothes, interesting characters... They are among my favorite comfort reads. There are admittedly a limited number of different plots across all the books, but I still love them. Glad you enjoyed the mystery!

Sarah Stevenson said...

I'll have to check out Between Two Seas for sure. I've never read Georgette Heyer, either, so I'll have to give those a try, too.

Ethel Rohan said...

So many great books, and never enough time. Sigh. I'm intrigued by "Turning Pages" -- I loved "The Scarlet Letter."

leila said...

Clearly I need to add a romance tag to my blog.

Thank you so much, Tanita. Nicest. Post. Ever.