Title: All The Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Title: All The Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Over the past year I’ve had a few opportunities to revisit the genius that was Edgar Allan Poe, a main character in the thoroughly engaging new novel Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen. Poe’s literary work has inspired every dark fiction writer who succeeded him as well as an inconceivable number of other twisted, creative minds. Late last autumn I watched The Raven, an interesting but flawed graphic crime thriller about a madman committing murders in the mid 1800s inspired by Poe’s writing, starring John Cusack and directed by James McTeigue. Earlier in 2013, I became addicted to a brilliant new television series called The Following starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. It’s about a charismatic, yet psychotic serial killer who engages with other killers and psychologically disturbed individuals to create a cult who follows his every, Poe-inspired command. I’ve had a volume of Edgar Allan Poe Stories (published by Platt & Munk in 1961) on my book shelf for years and was compelled to start reading it after I finished reading Mrs. Poe so that I’d be more familiar with his most popular work. I’m not the only one who is captivated by the mythology of Poe and if you’re equally interested, I’d recommend adding Lynn Cullen’s novel to your reading list.
Based on the true story of Edgar Allan Poe’s obsessive liaison with Frances “Fanny” Sargent Osgood, Mrs. Poe begins in the winter of 1845 and concludes in the winter of 1847. During that period we’re transfixed, like peeping Toms gazing through a forbidden window, by Cullen’s spin on the mythology of Poe. In her story, he’s at the height of his literary fame in New York City following the publication and astounding success of “The Raven.” He’s married to his much younger cousin Virginia Clemm who is slowly dying from tuberculosis and they live in poverty with Virginia’s mother, Maria (“Muddy”) who runs their household while subversively trying to rule their lives. Poe is constantly writing and attending literary conferences as well as a weekly gathering of New York’s literary crowd hosted by Miss Anne Charlotte Lynch, where he meets and is captivated by the writer Frances Osgood. Unfulfilled in his mainly chaste marriage, Poe cannot help but be drawn to lovely, yet lonely, Mrs. Osgood but is soon surprised to discover that his wife is also interested in getting to know her better.
Mrs. Poe is narrated by Fanny, whose no-good, cheating, artist husband, Samuel, is usually nowhere to be found, leaving his wife and two daughters to subsist on the charity of her dearest friends, Eliza and John Bartlett. We care about Fanny, an intelligent, attractive woman of 33 whose talent as a writer has impressed Mr. Poe. Although he’s a man appreciated by the ladies, his image is that of a moody alcoholic who doesn’t seem to have many friends and who no one really knows, although that doesn’t stop them from speculating about his character. In particular, critic Reverend Rufus Griswold, loathes him because he has an obvious crush on Fanny. Griswold encourages her to stop writing the flowery poetry and children’s stories that she’s known for and start to contribute stories of the macabre to The Evening Mirror. Fanny finds that too difficult a task but agrees to interview the Poes for an insider’s look into their personal lives for a payment that she can’t afford to turn down.
In the meantime, Mrs. Poe asks Edgar to bring Fanny home to meet her, not realizing at first that he already has feelings for her. Although her mind is sharp, Virginia is a small, pretty, fragile woman who depends on both Edgar and her mother for everything. Fanny’s visits continue for over a year and steadily become more unpleasant for her as she becomes more deeply embroiled in a secret affair with Edgar, with whom she has been exchanging public love poems that incite gossip among their readers. Edgar makes every effort he can to be in Fanny’s presence without revealing his motive, but she can’t help but notice that Virginia is becoming very suspicious. Strange mishaps and accidents occur involving Fanny, who worries more and more for her own safety as she pieces together evidence that points directly at Mrs. Poe.
Lynn Cullen infuses her historical novel about unfortunate love with equal parts mystery and sensuality and does an excellent job of creating a backdrop for the New York literary society, on which she paints a vivid cast of characters. Poe is depicted as the complex man that he undoubtedly was…someone who took his writing very seriously but who was largely insecure about his talent despite the public’s reaction to it. A man who marched to the beat of his own drum, he cared little for what people thought of him personally and was ready to leave his wife for Osgood.
An essential supporting cast assists in setting up opportunities for Edgar & Fanny to meet while peppering the background with references to famous people of the time (Walt Whitman, Audubon, the Astors). Although the cover is lame in my humble opinion, the prose is well written and easy to read while suspense builds with a slow burn that ultimately leads to the final explosive denouement.
This tale is not unlike a Merchant Ivory film: slow moving, filled with dialogue, gorgeously depicted and ultimately rewarding to those who watch the whole thing. If you read Mrs. Poe to the very end, you’ll be satisfied that it was worth the effort. Now that I’ve read it and Poe’s most celebrated stories, I want to go back and re-watch Season 1 of The Following all over again.
In The Wolves of St. Peter’s by Toronto’s Gina Buonaguro and Kingston, Ontario’s Janice Kirk, young Francesco Angeli is the unenthusiastic houseboy/assistant of the irritable, arrogant and eccentric Michelangelo (he keeps a three-legged chicken as a pet!) who is busy at work on his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Although educated and a lawyer by trade, Francesco’s libido has got him into trouble. After becoming involved with Juliet, the wife of his employer, Guido del Mare, his father sends him from Florence to Rome to work for Michelangelo.
Francesco often shirks his responsibilities to either bed the married gypsy girl Susanna who lives next door, or to hang out with his friend Raphael and the artists who gather socially at the home of Imperia, a madam who operates a brothel near the Vatican while Pope Julius II ignores its activities.
One rainy morning, Francesco witnesses a golden-haired woman’s body being pulled from the Tiber River and is shocked when he recognizes her as being one of Imperia’s prostitutes, Calendula, (who reminds him of his illicit lover and who had been flaunting an expensive ring given to her by an unknown paramour) or so he believes. And if her death wasn’t enough of a mystery, Francesco is even more horrified when other people he knows turn up dead as well.
In the meantime, the rising waters of the Tiber are flooding city streets and turning the citizens of Rome – who are terrified by the possibility of a plague – into refugees and the Coliseum into an emergency shelter. Hungry wolves descend from the hills at night to “stalk the city like ghosts,” but these wolves are really just a metaphor for the true wolves of the city that are far more dangerous than their canine counterparts. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but are inside ravenous wolves.”
As Francesco follows the deepening mystery from the backstreets to the pope’s inner sanctum, he begins to realize that danger and corruption may lurk behind the most beautiful of facades.
The cast of lively characters include not only Michelangelo and Raphael, but also Marcus, Calendula’s artist lover; a rich shipping merchant and admirer of Calendula’s referred to as The Turk; Guido del Mare’s brutish bodyguard Pollo Grosso “Big Chicken”; the Pope’s suspicious right hand men Cardinal Asino and Paride di Grassi; and Dante, a fine wood-carver who with every full moon undergoes a transformation and believes himself to have changed form, this time into a bat.
I loved The Sidewalk Artist by Buonaguro & Kirk and read it in 2011 which is the reason I said yes to reviewing The Wolves of St. Peter’s. I understand that this book is the first of a planned trilogy. The authors are currently working on the second installment which is set in Venice during the carnival season of 1510 and also stars Francesco Angeli as its protagonist. I also discovered in an article written about the book and its authors by Wayne Grady of the Kingston Whig-Standard on April 18, 2013 that Gina and Janice discovered, “From their reading of the contemporary historian Benevenuto Cillini, they gained a sense of the casual nature of violence in Renaissance Italy — “Everyone carried a dagger, and thought nothing of using it.” As a result, 16th century Rome emerges as a dark, dangerous and curiously ironic place. Its plot was informed by their discovery that painters of the images of the Madonna and Child found in nearly every Roman household often used prostitutes for their models.”
What strikes me most about Buonaguro & Kirk’s writing is the detail with which they sculpt their superior prose. The amount of research they undertake for their stories is obvious, the settings are captivating and their characters are quirky, interesting and complex at the same time while remaining totally accessible to the reader. They allow the characters to describe their point of view and I loved the characters of Michelangelo and Raphael who were so different but who would each go on to become two of the most famous, celebrated artists in history. Francesco’s scenes with Michelangelo and the three-legged chicken were particularly entertaining.
The romantic and somewhat gothic setting of corrupt, Renaissance Rome in 1508 sets the tone for this captivating murder mystery and the writers’ inclusion of humour at key points in the story perfectly balances the dour atmosphere in which the main characters find themselves. I must say that I didn’t solve the mystery myself until it was revealed near the end of the book. This is an immensely satisfying read for fans of historical fiction or Renaissance Italy and the artists of its time that would translate delightfully into a stunning feature film.
Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk, who now have a new Facebook page, will be signing copies of The Wolves of St. Peter’s at Chapters Kingston on Saturday, September 28th from 12-3 pm while they’re in town for Kingston WritersFest so don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to meet two of Canada’s finest writers.
A book could have all the rave reviews in the world from prestigious sources (as this one does); it could have a beautiful, stylish jacket, an author who is a PhD, and be set in countries that you have an interest in, and still not be what you expected it to be. This is the case for me with The Time In Between by Maria Dueñas. Simon & Schuster Canada generously gifted me with an advanced reader’s copy of this bulky, literary spy novel because after I read its synopsis, I really wanted to read it.
“The Time In Between by Maria Duenas is an international bestseller that spans the Spanish Civil War to World War II. This beautifully spun novel tells the story of a seamstress who rises to become the most sought after couturier and an undercover spy who passes information about the Nazi regime to the British Secret Service through a secret code stitched into the hems of her dresses.
The Time In Between is one of those rare, richly textured novels that, down to the last page, has you hoping it won’t end. Written in splendid prose, it moves at an unstoppable pace. An exceptional debut, it is a thrilling adventure through ateliers of haute couture, the glamorous elite, political conspiracies and obscure secret service missions blended with the unhinged power of love.”
The fact that it took me over two months to read and I seldom found myself wanting to make time to finish it is definitely not a good sign. I’m trying to figure out why I feel this way about the book because it certainly has an interesting storyline and I enjoyed the section that was set in the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco (Tetouan) very much. However, I just didn’t really connect with the main character, Sira Quiroga, because she felt quite restrained and lacking in passion for life and love and that’s not how I expected to feel. She evolves from a being an uneducated young woman who is foolish in love, to a self-doubting, fearful entrepreneur, to a confident, globetrotting secret agent. I pictured her as Angelina Jolie: someone who is beautiful to look at, interesting for a while, capable of acting fragile or tough, and then you just get sick of her. Perhaps some of her character traits didn’t translate well from the original Spanish (Daniel Hahn translated), but I found it hard to really empathize with her or understand why she would decide to become a spy for the British when she didn’t seem to have any real understanding of what was going on in her own homeland of Spain nor in England during World War II at the time that she became a spy.
The novel begins in Madrid at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War with a young, naïve Sira about to marry a “modest government clerk” after knowing him for only a few weeks. She works as a seamstress with her mother in a local dressmaker’s shop that services a distinguished clientele. As she is considered a girl with no professional expectations, it makes sense to her to marry Ignacio and become a wife and perhaps later, a mother. But she doesn’t really love him and it doesn’t take long for her to be completely swept off her feet by a smooth-talking, tall, dark and handsome typewriter salesman named Ramiro who she meets when Ignacio convinces her that she should learn how to type and takes her shopping for a typewriter. Sira quickly breaks Ignacio’s heart when she leaves him for Ramiro.
Sira’s mother, who had raised her as an only child on her own, introduces Sira to her father, a wealthy engineer and foundry owner named Gonzalo Alvarado, who is married and has two sons from whom he is estranged. Gonzalo is worried about the state their country is in under Franco’s dictatorship and fears for his life so he decides to put his affairs in order and acknowledge his daughter by giving her an inheritance consisting of boxes of family jewels. He convinces Sira that she must leave Madrid for Morocco where it will be safe and although her mother refuses to join her, Ramiro goes willingly to Tangiers, and later, unsurprisingly, deceives Sira by leaving her and stealing her family jewels.
Alone and unable to pay her hotel bill, Sira flees to Tetouan with next to nothing, only to be apprehended by Commissioner Claudio Vázquez who then decides to help her get back on her feet so that she can repay her debt, by putting her in the care of a street smart boardinghouse owner named Candelaria. Candelaria the Matutera (the Smuggler) is one of my favourite characters in the book because she has a large, fearless personality to go with her heart of gold. She doesn’t always operate on the right side of the law, but she’s a survivor who is willing to help those who are less fortunate and will do whatever it takes to keep food on her table and the authorities off her case. It’s not long before Candelaria and Sira embark on a dangerous, exciting adventure that leads to Sira being able to set up her own dressmaker’s shop where she suddenly finds herself making clothes for wealthy Nazi’s wives and meets a mysterious blonde British waif named Rosalinda Fox. Rosalinda is involved in an extramarital affair with Spain’s high commissioner in Morocco, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Luis Beigbeder and they (who were in fact real people) are responsible for recruiting Sira for a life of espionage.
I was quite transfixed with the story up until this critical juncture. Sira’s friendship with Rosalinda presents a pivotal turning point in her life. Dueñas’ narrative prose is exceptional and historical research thorough. The story moves quite quickly in Part One and is still captivating in Part Two (Tangiers in the 1930s) where we meet another interesting character named Félix who becomes a good friend to Sira. However, as the plot becomes more about politics and espionage, the characters who are introduced are unsympathetic and tedious, with the exception of Marcus Logan, but even he isn’t allowed to be truly remarkable until the very end and by then I just didn’t care.
A lot more occurs in The Time In Between, but I won’t give away the entire plot. It’s full of twists, turns and individuals whose lives later intersect. By Part Three, Dueñas started to lose me and from there on it took me a long time to finish reading the book. In Part Four, Sira, now using the name of Arish and pretending to be Moroccan, departs for Lisbon to try to infiltrate a textile distributor named Manuel Da Silva who is in business with the Third Reich.
So in contradiction of Simon & Schuster’s synopsis, I found myself wishing the book would end because it moved from the second half on at a sluggish pace and I didn’t find much emphasis was put on the power of love at all. This is not a love story but rather the story of a gifted seamstress who discovers that she has what it takes to be a great spy, in spite of the people she cares about. This is just my opinion. A Nobel Prize Laureate loved it so I think you’ll have to decide for yourself.