Mini-reviews: Ashes; A Net for Small Fishes; The Lost Diary of Venice

Although I usually devote an entire post on my blog to every book I read, sometimes I find that I have very little to say. That’s not always necessarily a reflection on the quality of the book or how much I enjoyed it, but more an inability to put into words my thoughts about a particular book and an awareness that if I don’t just write something soon I will never get round to reviewing it at all! Three of my recent reads fall into that category, so here are a few paragraphs about each of them:

The first is Ashes by Christopher de Vinck, a novel set in Belgium during World War II. Simone Lyon, the daughter of a major general in the Belgian army, meets Hava Daniels while volunteering with the Red Cross in 1939 and despite their different backgrounds – Hava’s family are Jews from Poland – the two become close friends. In those innocent days at the beginning of the war, the girls believe their country will remain safe and neutral, untouched by the horrors starting to sweep across the rest of Europe. Less than a year later, Brussels is under German occupation and Hava and Simone become caught up in everything they’d hoped to avoid.

I found this a moving portrayal of friendship and loyalty, although I struggled to believe that Simone and Hava were really supposed to be eighteen years old as they felt a lot younger than that to me – in fact, I thought the whole story and the way in which it was written felt more like YA fiction than adult. Not a problem, but not what I’d expected! It was interesting to read about the Holocaust from a Belgian perspective and the quotes from politicians, news articles and Nazi propaganda which begin every chapter help to put everything into historical context, but the story was not quite as harrowing as books on this topic usually are. Maybe that was due to the pacing, as a lot more time is spent on building up Hava and Simone’s friendship than on describing the events that follow the Nazi invasion. Overall, this was a worthwhile read, but just didn’t have the sort of depth I prefer in a novel.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is set much earlier, in Jacobean England, and tells the story of the real life Thomas Overbury Scandal from the perspective of Anne Turner, one of the people involved in the crime. Anne, the wife of a London physician, is also a businesswoman in her own right, holding the patent for yellow starch for collars and ruffs. Early in the novel, she becomes dresser and companion to Frances Howard, the young Countess of Essex – and when Frances falls in love with Robert Carr, the king’s favourite, it is Anne to whom she turns for help. Frances wants to marry Robert, but his friend Sir Thomas Overbury stands in their way; if only she and Anne could somehow get rid of him!

I think I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I hadn’t already read several other versions of the Overbury story, most recently EC Fremantle’s The Poison Bed and Rafael Sabatini’s The Minion. Being familiar with the story in advance took away the suspense and what was left wasn’t really enough to hold my attention. The choice of Anne as narrator, while interesting from the point of view of showing us how an ordinary citizen of the time might have viewed royalty and courtiers, took us further from the action, often leaving a sense that all the excitement was happening elsewhere. I also found Anne’s habit of referring to Frances as ‘Frankie’ very irritating as I didn’t think that name was in common use in the early 17th century. This book just wasn’t for me, but most of the other reviews I’ve seen are much more positive than mine! I do like the title, which is a reference to ‘small fishes’ being caught in the net of justice while the larger fish swim away.

The Lost Diary of Venice by Margaux DeRoux is a dual timeline novel; the present day narrative follows Rose, an expert in book restoration from Connecticut, and the historical one is set in Renaissance Italy. The connection between the two comes when William, an artist, brings a 16th century manuscript into Rose’s bookshop. Rose quickly discovers that the document is a palimpsest, where one set of words has been written over another which has been scraped away. On the surface it is a treatise on art by the great Italian painter Giovanni Lomazzo, but it’s the hidden diary entries and sketches underneath that really intrigue Rose and William.

It’s often the case that when a novel is set in two time periods, I like one much more than the other; with this novel, however, I didn’t find either of them very compelling. The book is well written, with some beautiful descriptions of Venice in the historical sections, but I didn’t feel any emotional connection to any of the characters. Rose’s relationship with the married William didn’t interest me and I was unmoved by Giovanni’s romance with the courtesan Chiara too (although I did have some sympathy for Giovanni as he discovered that he was losing his sight, a terrible thing for an artist to have to come to terms with). I also loved the glimpses we are given of the political situation in Venice at that time, the conflict between the Venetians and the Ottoman Empire, and the events taking place in Cyprus ahead of the Battle of Lepanto. I wished more time had been spent on all of this, as every time I started to become gripped by what was happening, the chapter ended and we switched back to the modern day story. This is not a book I can say I particularly enjoyed, but I’m pleased I was at least able to learn something from it.

Have you read any of these? If so, let me know what you thought.

Book 10, 11 and 12/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

The Professor was Charlotte Brontë’s first novel. She was unable to find a publisher for it during her lifetime and it was eventually published posthumously in 1857. Like Jane Eyre and Villette, this book is written in the first person, but with one difference – the narrator is a man. This is interesting as it shows us Charlotte’s views on how a man would think and behave and what his feelings towards women might be.

The narrator’s name is William Crimsworth, and at the beginning of the novel he is starting a new job as a clerk, working for his brother Edward, a rich mill-owner. However, William finds Edward impossible to get along with – he’s cruel and cold-hearted and treats William badly. Finding himself out of work again, William takes the advice of another businessman, Mr Hunsden, and goes to Belgium to teach English at a boys’ school in Brussels. Here he becomes involved with two very different women: one is Zoraide Reuter, the headmistress of the neighbouring girls’ school, and the other is a poor friendless student-teacher, Frances Henri.

This is the third book I’ve read by Charlotte Brontë. I first read Jane Eyre when I was a teenager and it immediately became one of my favourite books, but I didn’t begin to explore her other work until just last year, when I read Villette. Villette, like this book, is set at a school in Brussels and in many ways is a very similar story to The Professor, but with a female narrator and a more complex, layered plot. In both The Professor and Villette, Charlotte was able to draw on her own personal experience of teaching and studying in Brussels. This is obvious both in her descriptions of the city and in the way she could write so knowledgeably about education and the relationship between teachers and pupils.

What I love about Charlotte Brontë’s writing, as I mentioned in my earlier post on the author, is the way she writes about feelings and emotions. In The Professor she perfectly captures the loneliness and isolation a man might feel on arriving in an unfamiliar country with no money and without a friend in the world.

William is not as sympathetic a character as he should be though, due to Charlotte Brontë expressing some of her own views and prejudices through his narration. There’s a lot of racism and anti-Catholicism throughout this story, particularly when William is describing the girls in the school, making assumptions about them based on their nationality and considering them inferior to Protestant English girls. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the scheming, manipulative Zoraide Reuter is Catholic, while the quiet, honest Frances is Protestant (and half-English). Even allowing for the fact that the book was written in the 19th century, some of these passages were uncomfortable to read. And because I could never really warm to William’s character, I didn’t find this book as moving as I might have done otherwise.

Brontë also includes a lot of French dialogue in this novel, which it is assumed that the reader can understand. Some editions of the book provide translations in the notes, but the French is not translated in the original text and it can be frustrating to feel that you might be missing out on something essential to the plot. Also, the constant references to ‘physiognomy’ started to really irritate me (physiognomy is the concept of judging a person’s character based on their appearance). The word seemed to appear on almost every page, whenever William met someone new!

I know I’m probably giving the impression that I didn’t enjoy this book, but that’s not true. Charlotte Brontë’s writing is beautiful and for that reason alone I would say this book is definitely worth reading. Just don’t choose this one as a first introduction to Charlotte’s work – my recommendation would be to start with Jane Eyre and then move on to Villette before deciding whether to try The Professor. I can’t comment on her other book, Shirley, as I still haven’t read that one – maybe later in the year!

Review: Madame Verona Comes Down The Hill by Dimitri Verhulst

I’ve read good reviews of this book and really wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t. Although it’s very short (only 145 pages) it took me almost a week to finish it because I found it difficult to get interested in the story.

The book is set in the tiny and remote village of Oucwegne, a place that is slowly dying due to the lack of girls being born in recent generations. Madame Verona and her musician husband Monsieur Potter live in an isolated house at the top of a steep hill overlooking the village. As they get older, it becomes more and more difficult to walk up and down the hill. When Monsieur Potter hangs himself from a tree after being diagnosed with cancer, he leaves his wife enough firewood to last another twenty years. During those twenty years, Madame Verona lives alone with only an assortment of stray dogs for company, waiting for a luthier (cello-maker) to build her a cello using the wood of the tree from which her husband hanged himself. Eventually she places the last log on the fire and, as the title suggests, comes down the hill, knowing she won’t have the strength to go back up ever again.

The problem I had with the book is that there’s very little action, there’s no suspense as we know what’s going to happen right from the beginning, and there’s almost no dialogue. However, this is more to do with my own personal reading preferences rather than a criticism of the book itself – it’s not supposed to be a thriller after all. Most of the 145 pages are devoted to a string of humorous anecdotes describing life in an isolated village where only six people attend church, the men are obsessed with playing games of table football and a cow was once elected mayor. Most of the characters Verhulst describes are portrayed as eccentric and not particularly likeable. It’s easy to see why Madame Verona was in no hurry to rejoin the community, preferring to stay on the hill with her memories of her husband. The final few chapters, though, were poignant and moving and will be understood by anyone who has lost someone they love.

This book has been translated from the original Dutch, but even in translation Dimitri Verhulst’s writing is poetic and thought-provoking. If you can appreciate the beautiful writing for its own sake and are happy to read a book where nothing really happens, then you would probably enjoy Madame Verona. I would be prepared to try more of Verhulst’s books because he does have a very nice style, but this one just didn’t appeal to me.

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 145/Publisher: Portobello Books (translated by David Colmer)/Year: 2009/Source: Won a copy in contest