Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk (tr. Ekin Oklap)

This is the first book I’ve read by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. It sounded fascinating – a murder mystery set on a fictional Mediterranean island during an outbreak of plague at the turn of the 20th century. However, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting!

It would be easy to assume that this was a book written in response to the Covid pandemic (I certainly did), but it seems that Pamuk actually started work on Nights of Plague in 2016. Obviously now that we’ve all had experience of living through a pandemic, that element of the novel has taken on new relevance, but it’s made clear that the illness described in the book is a form of bubonic plague rather than a respiratory virus like Covid, so the causes, symptoms, methods of transmission and outcomes are very different. On the other hand, there are also lots of parallels – in 1901, just like in 2020, with no vaccine available the only way to really tackle the progress of the disease is through quarantine and isolation. People protest against the restrictions, members of government break their own rules, and while the crisis brings some communities together it creates division in others.

The fictional island at the heart of all of this is Mingheria, an outpost of the Ottoman Empire with a population made up of both Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. The governor, Sami Pasha, is doing his best to implement quarantine measures on the island but they are having little effect and he is being held back by having to wait for official orders from the Sultan in Istanbul. As the novel opens, a ship is on its way to Mingheria from Istanbul carrying the Sultan’s niece Princess Pakize, her husband Doctor Nuri, and the Royal Chemist, Bonkowski Pasha. Bonkowski’s job is to investigate the outbreak of plague, but before he is able to draw any conclusions he is murdered.

With Bonkowski Pasha dead, it’s now up to Doctor Nuri to give advice on quarantine arrangements, while also looking into the circumstances of the chemist’s murder. The Sultan, who has become a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sends instructions that he must use ‘the methods of Sherlock Holmes’. There’s the basis of an exciting story here – yet the mystery element is virtually abandoned until much later in the novel and even when we return to it, it turns out not to be all that exciting after all. Much more time is spent describing the plague and the attempts to get the outbreak under control. With Covid in mind, I found this quite interesting to read about, but the book is written in such a factual and impersonal style it might as well have been non-fiction. There’s a reason for the dry style – we are told at the beginning that the whole book is supposed to be a history of Mingheria compiled by a modern day historian based on letters sent by Princess Pakize to her sister – but it means the book isn’t much fun to read, there’s not a lot of dialogue and there are pages and pages of exposition.

I felt that what Orhan Pamuk was really trying to do was tell the story of the final years of the Ottoman Empire through the lens of Mingheria’s plague response and the political change that follows on the island as a result. He has a lot to say about national identity, the reclaiming of the Mingherian language (almost forgotten as those who once spoke it grow old and die), the challenges of breaking away from rule by a larger power and the tensions between different religious groups who share the same small island.

So, lots of interesting ideas and themes in this book, but I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading it. It was far too long and slow and needed some editing, in my opinion. Ekin Oklap’s translation seemed fine – I think my problems were due to the overall style and pace of the book. I did become quite immersed in it after a while, but I was pleased to reach the end and I think a non-fiction book about the fall of the Ottoman Empire might have been a better use of my time! I don’t know whether this novel is typical of Orhan Pamuk’s work but I’m not really tempted to read any more just yet.

Thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Mysterious Mr Badman by W.F. Harvey

The British Library are doing a great job of bringing the work of obscure or long-forgotten authors back into print with their Crime Classics series and William Fryer Harvey is another. Better known for his horror stories such as The Beast with Five Fingers and August Heat, he also wrote a crime novel, The Mysterious Mr Badman, which was originally published in 1934. I was immediately drawn to this book not just by the title, but also the subtitle, A Yorkshire Bibliomystery!

As Martin Edwards points out in the introduction, this must be the only crime novel with a blanket manufacturer as the protagonist. His name is Athelstan Digby and as the novel opens he is visiting his nephew in the Yorkshire village of Keldstone. One day he offers to take charge of the village bookshop so the bookseller and his wife can go to a funeral. Digby is expecting a quiet, uneventful afternoon so he is amazed when three men separately enter the shop within the space of a few hours, all asking for a copy of the same book: Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr Badman. Digby is unable to find this book on the shelves, but when a boy arrives at the shop later that day with a pile of old books to sell – including Mr Badman – he becomes even more suspicious. What is going on – and why is that particular book so important?

This is a short novel, so I won’t go into the plot in much more detail…except to say that it’s great fun. There are murders, incriminating letters, political conspiracies, a touch of romance and a lot of humour! With character names like Athelstan Digby, Euphemia Upstart, Olaf Wake and Kitchener Lilywhite, you can see that it’s not a book to be taken entirely seriously, but at the same time it’s a clever, interesting and well written novel and one of the most enjoyable I’ve read from the British Library Crime Classics series for a while. Just be aware that it’s more of a thriller than a conventional detective novel; the mystery is actually solved quite early in the book and the significance of Mr Badman and the identity of the villain are revealed much sooner than you would expect. The fun is in watching Digby team up with his nephew Jim Pickering and Jim’s love interest Diana Conyers to try to decide what they should do with the information they’ve obtained.

As always when I read mysteries written in this period, I was struck by not only how much more difficult some aspects of crime-solving were in those days (no internet, no DNA testing) but also how much easier other aspects were. It was far simpler to trace a particular car when there were so few of them on the roads and everyone would notice an unfamiliar one driving through their village. I really enjoyed watching Digby, Jim and Diana investigate the mystery using the methods available to them in the 1930s, even if they occasionally walk straight into traps that are quite obvious to anyone who reads a lot of Golden Age crime fiction! I also loved the Yorkshire setting, although not all of the novel is set there.

Although, as I’ve said, Harvey is better known as a horror writer, it seems that the character of Digby previously appeared in a book of short stories, The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby. I hope that one will become available as a BLCC book soon too.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – #NovNov22

I hadn’t really considered reading this book until my post on the HWA Crown Awards for Historical Fiction, when several of you commented that you had read and loved it. Around the same time, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and again I saw a lot of praise for it, so when I saw how short it was (128 pages in the edition pictured here) I thought I would give it a try for this year’s Novellas in November.

Small Things Like These is set in a small town in Ireland during the winter of 1985. The weather has turned cold and frosty and Bill Furlong, coal and timber merchant, finds his deliveries very much in demand, with customers desperate to heat their homes. Seeing how his friends and neighbours are struggling, Bill knows how lucky he is to have his own business and to be happily married with five lovely children.

Just before Christmas, Bill delivers coal to the local convent and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed, worrying about her hungry baby. Bill is left greatly disturbed by this encounter, particularly as he himself was the child of a single mother and if it hadn’t been for the kindness of his mother’s employer who helped to care for them both, they might also have been sent to a convent. His wife, Eileen, advises him not to get involved, but Bill continues to feel uneasy about the girls working in the convent laundry and the way the nuns are treating them. He knows he will eventually have to make a decision – but what will it be?

This is a quiet but powerful story, with the details of daily life in a small Irish community beautifully described. It didn’t feel like the 1980s to me, though – if I hadn’t known I would have thought it was set at least a few decades earlier. Maybe that was intentional, as some stories really are timeless. Considering how short the book is, Bill’s character is fully developed and his emotional dilemma is portrayed in depth.

Before reading this book, I had never read anything about the Magdalene Laundries, which were run by convents and were really homes for unmarried mothers and ‘fallen women’. There were allegations of women being beaten, punished and treated as slaves and although the last of these laundries closed in 1996, the Irish government didn’t issue an apology until 2013. Through Bill Furlong’s story Keegan explores the question of complicity and whether by staying silent when we know something is wrong we can be held partly responsible. This aspect of the book reminds me of A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, which looks at another scandal within the Catholic Church.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve come to the end of a hugely popular book feeling that although I liked it and found a lot to admire, I didn’t manage to love it the way everyone else did. In this case I think I just wanted a little bit more. It ended quite abruptly just as I was getting really interested in it and I would have liked to have known what happened to the characters next. I’m sure other readers will have thought it was the perfect length and ended in exactly the right place! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more by Claire Keegan and will think about reading Foster for next year’s Novellas in November.

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by ETA Hoffmann

Translated by Anthea Bell

Last year I read a book based on ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and although I wasn’t impressed, it left me longing to read something by Hoffmann himself. I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to read The Nutcracker, so I decided to see whether one of his other books appealed to me more. That’s how I came across his 1819 novel, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which sounded absolutely fascinating!

This very unusual novel could almost be described as two books in one. First of all, it’s the autobiography of Murr, an exceptionally intelligent tomcat who lives with the magician and alchemist Master Abraham. As a kitten he secretly teaches himself to read and write and proceeds to educate himself from his master’s library. Having had a series of adventures, he decides it’s time to write his memoirs…but his pages accidentally become mixed up with pages from a very different book:

When Murr the cat was writing his Life and Opinions, he found a printed book in his master’s study, tore it up without more ado, and, thinking no ill, used its pages partly to rest his work on, partly as blotting paper. These pages were left in the manuscript – and were inadvertently printed too, as if they were part of it.

This other book turns out to be a biography of Kapellmeister (conductor) Johannes Kreisler, a musical genius and friend of Master Abraham’s. Kreisler’s story unfolds alongside Murr’s, with a few pages of one followed by a few pages of the other, often breaking off mid-sentence as the end of the page is reached. Murr’s sections are marked with ‘M. Cont’ while Kreisler’s are headed ‘W.P.’ (Waste Paper). However, despite the Kreisler biography being printed on ‘waste paper’ and seemingly finding its way into Murr’s book by chance, the two stories are linked by the character of Master Abraham and, towards the end, there are hints of a much stronger connection between the two.

I found Murr’s story great fun to read. He has a strong and unique narrative voice, being vain, precocious and over-confident, but still with the qualities of the cat he is and always will be – he has an instinctive wariness of dogs and is easily tempted by a bowl of milk. His memoirs are told in chronological order, describing his kittenhood, his self-education, his romance with a beautiful female cat and his uneasy but close friendship with Ponto the poodle, who is less well-read but wiser in the ways of the world.

Kreisler, by contrast, is a very different personality – quiet, nervous and melancholic. His story becomes very convoluted, being intertwined with the lives of German royalty as he finds himself at the fictitious court of Prince Irinaeus of Sieghartshof and is drawn to two young women, Princess Hedwiga and her friend Julia Benzon. I found this much less interesting to read than Murr’s story, although if I’d had more knowledge of early 19th century German society and its intricacies it’s possible that I would have appreciated it more. At times I struggled to stay engaged with the Kreisler sections of the book and found myself looking forward to rejoining Murr. I’ve read that Hoffmann apparently based Kreisler on himself and used him as a character in several of his other books – and again, maybe if I’d know more about Hoffmann himself this would have had more significance for me.

My Penguin Classics edition of the novel contains two volumes of The Tomcat Murr which were published between 1819-1821. Sadly, Hoffmann died in 1822 and a planned third volume was never completed. That’s not really a problem, because the second volume does have quite a satisfactory ending, but there are still a lot of loose ends that aren’t tied up and it’s slightly frustrating not knowing how the story would have concluded! If you’re interested in reading the book, I can recommend this particular edition – the translation by Anthea Bell is very readable and there’s an excellent introduction by Jeremy Adler (best read after finishing the book), as well as notes and suggestions for further reading.

Have you read this or anything else by Hoffmann? I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 34/50 from my second Classics Club list and also counts towards this year’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life

The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough

I acquired a copy of this book when it was published in a new edition in 2015 following Colleen McCullough’s death that year. For some reason, despite loving The Thorn Birds (which I read long before I started blogging so have no review to link to here), I had never read any of her other books and was looking forward to this one. Then I read that there had been accusations of plagiarism when the book was originally published in 1987 due to it apparently being so similar to LM Montgomery’s 1926 novel, The Blue Castle, and that put me off for a while. However, I was looking for something to read for Aus Reading Month (hosted by Brona of This Reading Life and thought I would give it a try. I was unsure whether I could also count it towards Novellas in November as there were 224 pages in my edition (more than the upper limit of 200 for a novella) but several of those pages turned out to be an excerpt from another McCullough book, so I think it counts!

The Ladies of Missalonghi is set in the early 1900s in the small town of Byron in Australia’s Blue Mountains. For generations the Hurlingford family, descendants of the town’s founder, the first Sir William Hurlingford, have held all the power in Byron, owning most of the land and running almost all of the businesses. Only the male Hurlingfords are able to inherit financially, so any unmarried or widowed women find themselves impoverished and relying on the charity of their relatives. Thirty-three-year-old Missy Wright is one of these women; she has never married and lives with her widowed mother, Drusilla Wright (formerly Hurlingford), and spinster aunt, Octavia, in a house known as Missalonghi after the Greek town where the poet Lord Byron died in 1824.

Plain and dark-haired in a clan of tall, blonde Hurlingfords and always dressed in brown to save money, it is now looking likely that Missy will remain single, but she has never given up hope of one day owning a red dress and escaping from her humdrum existence. The romance novels provided by her librarian friend Una are her ‘only solace and sole luxury’ – until one day a stranger arrives in Byron. His name is John Smith and he has bought land in the valley nearby. Has Missy found a way to escape at last?

The Ladies of Missalonghi is in many ways a typical romance novel but it’s an enjoyable one and has a few elements that I found particularly interesting. First, there’s the portrayal of the fate of unmarried women in the years just before World War I, women like Missy, Drusilla and Octavia who lack financial independence and have limited options for improving their position in life. The women of Missalonghi have been treated badly by the men they are forced to rely on for support and scorned by the wealthier, more privileged Hurlingford women. Missy is determined to see these people get their comeuppance, but I won’t tell you how she goes about it as that’s part of the fun of the story!

There’s also a supernatural element that I wasn’t expecting – quite a subtle one, but it’s there and I’m not really sure that it was necessary, particularly as it only emerges at the end and there weren’t any clues to suggest that it was going to happen. On the other hand, it fits with the whole fairy-tale feel of the plot (with Missy as Cinderella). It was actually the romantic thread of the novel that I found least interesting as there didn’t appear to be any chemistry between hero and heroine and their relationship seemed to be based on lies and deceit.

As for the plagiarism issue, I have never read The Blue Castle so can’t comment. McCullough denied the allegations, saying the similarities were unintentional – she had read the book as a child and the details must have stayed with her subconsciously. Whether that’s the truth or not, I can’t see why an already successful author would do something like that deliberately, knowing she would be found out. I’ll have to read The Blue Castle one day to see what I think.

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2022 is ‘a story featuring train travel’. I had already read most of the possibilities – The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express and The ABC Murders – but hadn’t yet read the Miss Marple novel 4.50 from Paddington, so that was my choice for this month.

The ‘train travel’ element of the story appears in the very first chapter, with the elderly Elspeth McGillicuddy taking a train to the village of St Mary Mead to visit her friend, Miss Jane Marple. Mrs McGillicuddy happens to glance out of the window just as her train passes another train running parallel in the same direction. At that moment, a blind flies open in the window of the other train and she is horrified to witness a man standing with his back to her strangling a woman. She reports the incident to the ticket collector and the police are informed, but when no dead body is found on the train Mrs McGillicuddy is dismissed as an old woman with an overactive imagination. Miss Marple, however, knows her friend is telling the truth and is determined not to let the matter drop.

Convinced that the body may have been thrown from the train as it passed the grounds of Rutherford Hall, Miss Marple enlists the help of Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a young woman she knows who has established a reputation for herself as a professional and efficient cook and housekeeper. Lucy’s skills mean she is very much in demand and never short of work, but Miss Marple persuades her to take a position at Rutherford Hall for a few weeks so that she can search for the body while she’s there. Settling into her new job, Lucy begins to get to know the residents of Rutherford Hall – the family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe, his sons, daughter, in-laws and grandchildren – and begins to wonder whether their connection to the murder on the train really was a coincidence after all.

I found this a particularly enjoyable Miss Marple novel – probably in my top two or three. It seems that it has had some criticism due to the lack of clues and logical deductions and I do understand that complaint because we never find out exactly what leads Miss Marple to identify the correct suspect. However, I didn’t have a problem with this. The solution does make sense, even if we don’t know how she arrived at it, and the culprit was actually the person I suspected myself (again, not based on any real evidence – just a hunch!).

Although Miss Marple is the one who solves the mystery, we don’t really see very much of her in this book. Unable to infiltrate the Crackenthorpe household herself, she sends Lucy Eyelesbarrow in her place, which means a lot of the story is written from Lucy’s perspective. Luckily, Lucy is a great character – independent, intelligent and courageous. Several of the male Crackenthorpes are drawn to her and there’s a hint at the end of the book that she’s going to marry one of them. Which one she chooses is left for the reader to decide – although I’ve since discovered that Christie reveals Lucy’s choice in her Secret Notebooks, published in 2009.

There’s only one month left in this year’s Read Christie challenge and the December theme will be ‘a story containing precious jewels’. However, plans for Read Christie 2023 have already been announced and you can register your interest here: https://linktr.ee/OfficialAgathaChristie

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

I originally intended to read The Ghost Bride for this year’s RIP challenge but ran out of time. I then thought it might be suitable for Chris and Lizzie’s Witch Week earlier this month (it seemed to fit their theme of Polychromancy – fantasy/sci-fi by authors from diverse backgrounds) but I didn’t finish it in time for that either. Never mind – I’ve read it now and enjoyed it, although it wasn’t really what I’d expected. Having previously read Yangsze Choo’s other novel, The Night Tiger, a story steeped in Chinese and Malaysian folklore but with only a small amount of magical realism, I had thought this book would be similar. However, I discovered that this one has a much stronger fantasy element.

The Ghost Bride is narrated by seventeen-year-old Li Lan, a young Chinese woman who lives with her opium-addicted father and her beloved amah (nursemaid) in 1890s Malacca, a city in what was then known as Malaya. The time has come for Li Lan to marry, but her father has fallen into financial difficulties and her options are limited. When she receives an offer from the wealthy Lim family to become the wife of their son, Lim Tian Ching, this should have been a wonderful opportunity for Li Lan, but instead she is horrified – because Lim Tian Ching is dead. This arrangement would provide financial security and comfort for Li Lan, but it would mean living the rest of her life as a widow.

Li Lan vows to resist the attempts of the Lim family to turn her into a ‘ghost bride’, but Lim Tian Ching has other ideas and begins to visit her in her dreams every night, claiming that he was murdered by his cousin, Tian Bai. Li Lan wants nothing to do with the whole situation, but when her soul becomes separated from her body during an illness, she finds herself thrust into the afterlife. In this world populated with ghosts and spirits, she must try to discover the truth about Lim Tian Ching’s death if she wants to have any chance of returning to her body and living in peace.

As you can probably tell, this is a book with a very strange plot – I’ve never read anything quite like it! It’s definitely not my usual sort of read and as I’ve said, I was expecting something more like The Night Tiger – historical fiction with just a little bit of fantasy. Instead, I found I was reading a book set almost entirely in the Chinese underworld, complete with dragons and ‘ox-headed demons’. It was interesting, though, and Yangsze Choo’s worldbuilding is excellent. I was fascinated by the way she incorporates the Chinese custom of burning ‘funeral money’ as offerings for the dead into the plot, with the paper money burnt in the real world corresponding to the appearance of paper houses, paper animals and even puppet-like paper servants in the afterlife.

Although a lot of time is spent on describing the bureaucracy of the world in which Li Lan finds herself, the court cases that take place in the Plains of the Dead and the ways in which the souls of the recently deceased are judged, the focus is always on Li Lan’s personal story and the people she meets in the underworld who can help her with her task. There’s even a touch of romance, although Li Lan’s love interest is certainly not Lim Tian Ching, whom she despises from the beginning. I won’t tell you who he is, but he ended up being my favourite character.

I felt that this book was longer than it really needed to be and some of Li Lan’s adventures in the Plains of the Dead were too drawn out, but overall I found The Ghost Bride an unusual and intriguing novel which has left me wanting to know more about the Chinese afterlife!