The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

The Clockwork Girl is Anna Mazzola’s third novel and, I think, her best so far. Not only is the cover beautiful, the setting is also wonderfully dark and atmospheric and the story is fascinating.

The year is 1750 and Madeleine Chastel, daughter of a Parisian brothel owner, is about to start a new job as a maid in the household of Dr Reinhart, a Swiss clockmaker. Madeleine is pleased to have an opportunity to escape from her mother’s clutches, but this particular job is not one she has chosen for herself – she has been forced to take it by the chief of police, who wants her to spy on Dr Reinhart and report back on any suspicious activities she witnesses. But although Madeleine soon becomes convinced that the police are correct and something strange is going on in the Reinhart household, she finds that she is growing fond of the clockmaker’s daughter, Veronique, and is reluctant to betray her new friend.

The novel is written from the perspectives of three different characters: Madeleine is one, Veronique is another and the third is Jeanne Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. I found the choice of narrators very effective as it means we are given insights into every level of Parisian society – the working class, the bourgeoisie or middle class, and the aristocracy. Our story takes place several decades before the French Revolution would begin, but you can see the foundations being laid here as tensions start to simmer. The various locations in which the novel is set are vividly described, with sharp contrasts between the dark, dirty streets where the poor people live in squalor and the luxury and opulence of the royal palaces of Versailles and the Louvre.

Although The Clockwork Girl is a work of fiction, it is inspired by several real historical events. First, the disappearance of children from the streets of Paris in 1750, a scandal known as ‘The Vanishing Children of Paris’. And secondly, the technological advances during the 18th century in the creation of automata – clockwork dolls, animals and other machines with moving parts. Anna Mazzola weaves both of these things into the plot and the result is an engaging and unusual novel that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

If this book doesn’t appeal, you may prefer Anna Mazzola’s first book, The Unseeing, based on a true crime (the Edgware Road Murder) or The Story Keeper, a novel set on the Isle of Skye. I enjoyed both of them.

Thanks to Orion for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 9/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils

Translated by Liesl Schillinger

As a fan of the elder Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and many more, I thought it was time I tried the work of his son, Alexandre Dumas fils. His 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias – often published in English as The Lady of the Camellias or Camille – was on my Classics Club list and when the Club announced another of their ‘dares’ this February (“Simply read a classic book from your #CClist that you classify as romantic, glamorous, sexy or alluring. It could even be a book or author that you are predisposed to love”) I thought this would be a good opportunity to read it!

The lady of the title is Marguerite Gautier, a Parisian courtesan or ‘kept woman’, who is the mistress of several men including a wealthy duke. Her nickname comes from the fact that she is rarely seen without a bouquet of camellias, red on the days of the month when she is unavailable to her lovers, white when she is free again. One evening at the opera, she catches the attention of a young man called Armand Duval. Armand becomes obsessed with Marguerite and although she informs him that he isn’t rich enough to maintain her extravagant lifestyle, he is determined to become her only lover and put an end to her involvement with other men.

We know from the beginning of the novel that Marguerite will die of consumption (tuberculosis), that she will be in debt at the time of her death and that her possessions will be sold at auction. It’s at this auction that our unnamed narrator buys a book belonging to Marguerite with an inscription by Armand Duval. The purchase of the book leads to a meeting between Armand and the narrator during which Armand tells him the tragic story of his relationship with Marguerite.

Despite knowing that the story was not going to end happily and despite not particularly liking either Armand or Marguerite, I still found The Lady of the Camellias quite gripping and difficult to put down. It’s also beautifully written (and beautifully translated from the original French by Liesl Schillinger in the Penguin Classics edition I read). Although I prefer the style of Dumas père, it’s worth remembering that Dumas fils was only twenty-three years old when he wrote this book, basing it on his own relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis, which probably explains the immaturity of the young Armand Duval in the novel.

After falling in love at first sight, in the way only characters in 19th century novels do, and before even getting to know Marguerite, Armand decides that he must ‘possess’ her – and then, once he has her, doesn’t trust her and fails to understand or appreciate the sacrifices she is making for him. My sympathies lay much more with Marguerite, although it took me a long time to warm to her. I think it would have helped if we had been given more information on her background, to explain why she was so obsessed with money and jewels and how she had come to live the frivolous life she was leading. Still, her story is very sad and a good example of double standards between men and women.

If you think this story sounds familiar, it has been adapted many times for stage and screen and was the inspiration for Verdi’s opera La traviata and the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.

This is book 27/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons

Many of us will, on a trip to Paris, have stood in the Louvre in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. We may also know some of the details of the painting’s history – its creation in Renaissance Italy, its theft from the Louvre in 1911. However, this new novel by Natasha Solomons adds a whole new dimension to the Mona Lisa story, taking us inside the mind of the painting itself and showing us the world through the eyes that look out from the portrait. Whether or not you enjoy this book will probably depend on whether you can accept that a painting is narrating the story. If you’re happy with that idea, then I think you’ll find I, Mona Lisa an interesting and entertaining read.

Most of the novel is set in 16th century Florence, during the period when Leonardo is working on his most famous masterpiece. From the painting’s own perspective, we get to know some real historical figures such as Lisa del Giocondo, the woman who sits for the portrait; Michelangelo and Raphael, da Vinci’s rivals; Niccolò Machiavelli, who approaches da Vinci with a scheme to divert the Arno River; and Salaì, a student in Leonardo’s workshop who is jealous of his master’s relationship with Mona Lisa. Although Mona is an inanimate object, she is portrayed in the novel as having the thoughts and feelings of a real woman, with an emotional attachment to her creator Leonardo.

When Leonardo eventually dies, leaving her vulnerable and unprotected, Mona embarks on the journey that will lead her to France. As the centuries go by, she spends time at the court of the Sun King in Fontainebleau and then at Versailles during the French Revolution, before finding her way to the Louvre where, as the 20th century dawns, she forms a new friendship with another great artist.

I, Mona Lisa is an unusual novel and a unique way of exploring some key moments in history. However, because so much time is spent in Renaissance Italy, the parts of the novel set in France feel more rushed and the characters less well developed. This was maybe the author’s intention, as Mona finds it difficult to bond with the people she meets after Leonardo’s death and makes it clear that her heart will always be in Florence, but it also meant that I felt less engaged with these sections of the book.

I do think that if you’re going to write a book about a painting with human emotions, the Mona Lisa is a perfect choice as it’s such a realistic and iconic portrait. The Mona of the novel is obviously very limited in what she can see and experience (and with whom she can communicate – just Leonardo and a handful of other painters and paintings), but Natasha Solomons does a great job of bringing Mona and her world to life. This is the third of her books I’ve read – the others are The Novel in the Viola and House of Gold. Three very different books, but I would recommend any or all of them.

Thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 4/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Death of a Tin God by George Bellairs

This is the fourth book I’ve read from George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn series and although I haven’t been reading them in order, it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Each novel works as a standalone mystery and there’s very little focus on Littlejohn’s personal life so you can easily jump around from an early book to a later one and back again without feeling that you’ve missed anything important.

Death of a Tin God was first published in 1961 and begins with Thomas Littlejohn (now a Superintendent rather than an Inspector) flying from Dublin to the Isle of Man to visit his friend, Caesar Kinrade, the Archdeacon of Man. Littlejohn is looking forward to a quiet break, but his arrival coincides with the death of Hal Vale, a Hollywood star who has been filming on the island. Hal is found electrocuted in the bath in his hotel room and the circumstances suggest that it was not an accident. Littlejohn finds himself assisting the local police with their investigations and as the mystery deepens, he travels to the South of France to look for the answers.

I enjoyed this book but found the solution a bit predictable as the murderer turned out to be the person I had suspected from the beginning. There were some clever twists and red herrings along the way that did put some doubt into my mind, but I still wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. However, I very rarely manage to solve a mystery before the detective does, so I don’t mind too much when it occasionally happens! And I do like spending time with Littlejohn and watching him carry out his investigations; he’s not the most memorable of fictional detectives, but that means the focus stays firmly on the plot without his own personality getting in the way. His usual sidekick Sergeant Cromwell is absent for most of the book, but instead he teams up with Inspector Knell of the Manx police and Inspector Dorange in Nice who I believe are also recurring characters in the series and have good working relationships with Littlejohn.

One of the things I’ve loved about the other Bellairs novels I’ve read is the way he creates such a strong cast of supporting characters and suspects. In Dead March for Penelope Blow and A Knife for Harry Dodd in particular, there are some very colourful, larger than life characters who could almost have jumped straight out of the pages of a Dickens novel. In this book, I found the characterisation more bland and less interesting, but maybe that was a reflection of the shallow, vapid celebrity world Bellairs has chosen as the setting for this particular novel. Littlejohn is described several times as feeling slightly out of his depth amongst this assortment of glamorous film stars, ruthless publicity agents and millionaire bankers with yachts, so perhaps the reader is intended to feel the same.

I liked the idea of the book being set on the Isle of Man, as it’s not a common setting for mystery novels (or fiction in general), but it turned out that half of the story actually took place in Aix-en-Provence in France – and neither setting was described as vividly as I would have liked. I know Bellairs set some of the other Littlejohn books on the Isle of Man too, so maybe some of those have more local colour than this one. Although this is not one of my favourite books in the series so far, I’m still looking forward to reading more of them.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 5 for R.I.P. XVI

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

When An Evening with Claire was originally published in 1930, Russian author Gaito Gazdanov was living in Paris and hadn’t seen his home country for nearly a decade. This, his first novel, was a success for Gazdanov, bringing him to the attention of other émigré writers, and now that I’ve read it I can understand why. It’s not my usual sort of book but I was drawn to it because I’ve enjoyed other books which have been reissued by Pushkin Press recently and because, apart from Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak, I can’t think of any other 20th century Russian authors that I’ve read. This new edition has an introduction by Bryan Karetnyk, who is also responsible for the excellent English translation, which I found very readable.

The novel opens with our narrator, Kolya, in Paris spending an evening with Claire while her husband is away from home. Although we know very little about Kolya’s relationship with Claire at this stage, we do learn that he first met her ten years ago and has been in love with her ever since. However, they have spent most of that time apart and have only now been reunited. Later that evening, while Claire is asleep, Kolya remembers their first meeting, along with many of the other significant moments in his past. As he continues to remember and reminisce, the story of his life begins to take shape: his childhood, his schooldays, his relationships with family members and his experiences during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

We actually see very little of Claire herself and I never really felt that I knew her or understood the sort of person she was, but that didn’t matter too much because the main part of the novel concentrates on Kolya’s own history as it unfolds through a chain of memories. His love for the absent Claire is always there and can be seen as a symbol of hope as he dreams of meeting her again one day. I enjoyed the first half of the novel, which includes anecdotes from Kolya’s childhood and his education at a strict military school and gymnasium, but the second half is more interesting as he begins to remember his time serving with the White Army in the Russian Civil War. It all feels very autobiographical and although I don’t know much about Gaito Gazdanov, I’m sure he must have been drawing on some of his own personal experiences and feelings in the writing of this novel.

At just over 200 pages in this edition, An Evening with Claire is a very short novel, but I thought it was the right length for the story being told. In general, I prefer books with more plot and this one has very little, but while this might have been a problem for me in a longer novel, there was just enough here to interest me and hold my attention throughout those 200 pages. This may sound like a strange comparison, but I was reminded of one of my other recent reads, Goodbye Mr Chips, another short book published in the same decade in which a man is looking back on episodes from earlier in his life. They share a focus on the power of memory, recollections of better days and regret for a disappearing world – which are also the reasons why I think An Evening with Claire would have resonated so much with other Russian émigrés of the 1930s. I would be happy to read more by Gazdanov and I see there are four of his other books available in English from the same publisher.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies

After six novels set in Asia, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed, Dinah Jefferies has recently switched her focus to Europe during World War II. Last year’s The Tuscan Contessa was set in 1940s Italy; her new book, Daughters of War, is the first in a new trilogy set in wartime France.

It’s 1944 and France is occupied by the Nazis. In a cottage in the Dordogne live three sisters, all in their twenties, who are each doing their best to protect themselves and their friends and neighbours and to ensure that they all survive the war. Hélène, the eldest, took on the responsibility of caring for the other two after their father died and their mother departed for England, and as well as trying to look after her little family, she also works as a nurse alongside the village doctor. Élise is the rebellious and daring sister, the one who is determined to do whatever she can to help the Resistance, whether that is hiding weapons in the cottage grounds or intercepting and passing on messages. Finally there’s Florence, the innocent and kind-hearted dreamer, who is always happiest when she is at home, spending time in the kitchen or the garden.

As the Occupation continues and liberation still seems like a distant dream, the sisters are faced with a series of important decisions to make. Should they give shelter to Tomas, a deserter from the German army? Can they trust Jack, a British SOE soldier who arrives injured at the cottage one night, asking for help? All they can do is follow their instincts and try to find a balance between keeping themselves safe and working to regain France’s freedom. Along the way, each of the sisters has her own set of personal challenges to overcome, family secrets are exposed and the bonds between the three of them are tested. As the first in a trilogy, not everything is resolved in this book, but the foundations are laid for the characters and ideas to be developed further in the second and third novels.

The book is written from the perspectives of all three sisters; we spend a few chapters with one, then a few chapters with another. I felt the closest to Hélène, although each of the sisters is a strongly drawn character with a distinct personality of her own. Élise has potentially the most exciting storylines, but I would have liked to have read about her activities with the Resistance in more detail – they are skimmed over quite quickly and I thought this was a missed opportunity. I also found it unconvincing that the sisters are so ready to trust and confide in everyone they meet, even when it appears that someone around them might be a traitor; I would have expected them to have shown more caution.

Those are the negatives, but there were also plenty of positives; I particularly loved the descriptions of the beautiful countryside and villages of the Périgord Noir, the region of France where the story is set. I’m sure I’ll be reading the other two books in the trilogy, whenever they are available.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 42/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Country of Others by Leïla Slimani

I’ve never read anything by Leïla Slimani until now, but her latest book, The Country of Others, sounded appealing to me – and as it’s translated from French, it means I can contribute to this year’s #WITMonth (Women in Translation Month).

Originally published as Le pays des autres and available now in an English translation by Sam Taylor, the novel is set in France and Morocco during the 1940s and 50s. Mathilde is a young woman from the Alsace region of France who, in the final years of World War II, falls in love with a Moroccan soldier, Amine, who has been fighting for the French. Bored with her life and looking for adventure, Mathilde marries Amine and moves with him to Meknes in Morocco where he has inherited some farmland. Here, as she struggles to settle into her new home, Mathilde begins to think she has made a huge mistake; this is certainly not the romantic, idyllic life she’d imagined herself leading. Loneliness, hostile neighbours, financial difficulties, an unhappy, abusive husband and political upheaval as Morocco tries to gain independence from France are just some of the problems Mathilde has to deal with.

Mathilde finds that the other French people in Meknes look down on her for marrying a Moroccan Muslim, while Amine’s Moroccan friends are suspicious of his white, European, Catholic wife. It’s not an easy situation for Amine either and he becomes torn between admiration for Mathilde and embarrassment at her refusal to behave the way he believes a woman should, which leads to some unpleasant scenes of domestic violence and cruelty. The novel is written from the perspectives of both Mathilde and Amine, as well as several more characters, all of whom are trying to find a place for themselves in this ‘country of others’: these include Aïcha, Mathilde and Amine’s daughter, who is aware that her mixed race makes her different from the other children at school; Selma, Amine’s teenage sister, a young woman who feels trapped in this male-dominated society and is desperate for freedom; and Omar, their brother, a fierce and violent man who has joined the fight for Moroccan independence and wants the French out of his country.

Although I did have a lot of sympathy for the circumstances in which most of the characters found themselves, many of them were such unlikeable people I found myself less moved by their stories than I would have expected. It didn’t help that the book is written in a strangely detached, passionless style, which I suppose is appropriate for the bleak and miserable events that are being described, but didn’t enable me to form any real emotional connection with any of the characters, not even Mathilde or Aïcha. Sometimes I almost felt that I was reading a work of non-fiction rather than a novel – and in fact, I discovered when I was halfway through the book that it’s the first in a planned trilogy drawing on Slimani’s own family history, which probably explains why it felt like a memoir.

Despite not particularly enjoying or even liking this book, I still found it interesting. I wasn’t really prepared for something so relentlessly depressing and completely without hope and I probably won’t continue with the other two books, but I do feel that I learned a lot from this one – about the challenges faced by interracial couples, the place of women in 1940s Moroccan society, and the political situation as the country moved towards independence. This was a worthwhile read, but I don’t think Slimani is an author for me.

Book 36/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.