The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D : A Novel by Nichole Bernier

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is an insightful novel about friendship and marriage that is a beautifully written and compelling read. It is also a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination the impact of fatalism and determinism on friendships and marriages in the post 9/11 world.

When The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D opens, post 9/11, Elizabeth has died in a plane crash leaving behind a husband, Dave, and three young children. She and Dave had an apparently happy marriage — friends enjoyed socialising at their house where children had space to play and adults could relax and talk.

From her early teens, Elizabeth had kept a journal and recorded her thoughts, described day to day experiences and meditated on her relationships. In her will, she left instructions that her friend Kate should read these journals. We don’t know why she has selected Kate over Dave for this task or what she hoped that Kate would take away from the exercise.

Elizabeth’s journals are both fascinating and a burden for Kate who realises how little she really knew her friend. Certainly, Elizabeth’s life experiences had left her with a bleak view of friendship and marriage: “In the end I go back to that same feeling I’ve always had about confidences. The other person rarely has anything useful to offer and usually you leave feeling no better, sometimes worse.”

As Kate reads the journals and reflects on Elizabeth’s often troubled writing, she too questions how much anyone really can know another person.

By leaving the journals to Kate, Elizabeth creates a tension between Dave and Kate that comes to the fore as Kate becomes  increasingly absorbed in the journals. From the journals, Kate learns more than she might have wished to know about the problems in Elizabeth’s marriage. This new knowledge comes as a burden but it also brings her closer to Elizabeth and makes her miss her even more.

Throughout the journals, we  see that Elizabeth was always aware of the complex interrelationship between fatalism and choice. As she puts it, “It was the opposite of fatalism, this stark recognition of the effects of choices that had not seemed much like choices at the time.”

And, the more she reads, the more Kate herself begins to muse on the fatalistic choices and consequences that determine lives.

This is a skillful and a well told tale that is driven forward by a good mystery but at its heart The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is a serious novel that tackles universal themes and will leave you mulling on the issues it raises long after you close the covers.

An advance copy of  The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D  was provided free of charge by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. : a novel by Nichole Bernier is published by Crown Publishing, New York, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-307-88780-1
eISBN 978-0-307-88781-8

Published: 05 June 2012

 

Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto

“I’m only here because you needed a storyteller,” Shelley Gallus tells Paolo Rossi in Before Ever After by Samantha Rossi. And, in a way, that sums up the structure of Sotto’s original and very entertaining first novel which has as its theme the human dilemma of wanting to build permanent relationships in lives that are inherently impermanent.

Before Ever After is a love story but it is more than that: part romance, part historical novel, part mystery and part fairy tale it is an unusual and accomplished novel that has good pace and style.

It tells the story of Max Gallus — an attractive Dr Who-like figure —  who is a tour guide with an unusual affection for chickens.

Max runs his tour business from a battered VW minibus which he uses to ferry clients to locations of  minor historical interest across Europe. It is through this business that he meets and marries Shelley and she hears him recount stories of a family whose members’ lives touched on various historical events across Europe including the French Revolution and the destruction of Herculaneum  in AD 79.

When Before Ever After opens, Max has been dead for about three years. His widow, Shelley, is just beginning to emerge from a period of deep grieving when Paolo Rossi turns up on her doorstep looking uncannily like Max and claiming to be his grandson. The mystery kicks off from this point and, together, Paolo and Shelley fly to the Phillipines in search of answers. Their conversation over the course of that long flight provides the framework for the novel as they piece together what they know of Max’s life.

Once the story gets underway, Before Ever After is an enjoyable and entertaining page turner. Samantha Sotto builds momentum and suspense and never loses the attention of her reader.

A paperback edition of  Before Ever After  was provided free of charge by the publisher for the purpose of this review. 

Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto is published by Broadway Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-307-71988-1. eISBN 978-0-307-71989-8

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

When Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize I read the reviews and added it to my ‘must read’ list.

Then, partly because I was daunted by the length, I carried it around unread for some time.

All that changed about two weeks ago when I was invited to review Bring Up The Bodies on this blog.

Since I couldn’t very well review the second part of a trilogy without having read the first, I duly bought Wolf Hall.  To my surprise and delight, I found absorbing from the outset. It is a timeless tale of power and influence.  Intrigue, passion and a compelling cast of characters make for an enjoyable read.

Essentially it describes the role played by Thomas Cromwell during the years when Henry VIII was setting aside his first wife Catherine of Aragon and in pursuit of Anne Boleyn who was to become his second queen. It is the story of the waning influence of the Roman Catholic church in England and difficult relations with Rome brought about largely by King Henry’s desire to be rid of his wife.

There are obstacles aplenty to be overcome as the King struggles with his conscience and embraces a new faith that more readily accommodates his marital requirements. Henry, of course, is driven at least partly by the pressing need to produce a son and heir to the throne and to protect the realm. Thomas Cromwell is the agent who methodically and ruthlessly clears all obstacles from the path allowing the King to proceed within the law.

As a fictional character, Mantel’s Cromwell has tremendous depth. There is much to dislike in a man who is so driven and ruthless in pursuit of a goal and yet we find ourselves drawn to him. For all his flaws, Cromwell is a family man with a sense of humour, a good companion and a sage adviser — in many ways the kind of man you might wish to have in your corner — all of which makes him surely one of the most fully realised fictional characters of our time.

Bring Up The Bodies finds Cromwell still centre stage as Mantel takes up the tale at a moment when Anne Boleyn is at the height of her powers. With Catherine locked away in a convent, her marriage to the King annulled, the path is cleared for Anne’s ascent to the throne.

The Dark Anne Boleyn

Whatever about Cromwell, Anne Boleyn is truly the  dark character in this novel — deceitful, manipulative and lacking in mercy — and yet, despite her failings, she wins some sympathy. Her desperation grows when she fails to produce the required heir to the throne and her power begins to fall away.

Any school child can recite the fateful order of Henry’s wives — “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded Survived”  — so it does not come as any surprise that Anne’s power wanes when Jane Seymour catches the eye of the King.

We get some insight into Henry’s motivation and see him struggle with his conscience but we also see him disengage from Anne and, as the queen moves closer to her inevitable fate, Bring Up The Bodies becomes ever more frightening, culminating in a moment of palpable terror when Anne takes her final walk towards the  executioner —  a moment, so perfectly described by Mantel that the reader might be one of the assembled crowd.

Meanwhile, and all the while, Thomas Cromwell — the King’s advisor and the main character in both these novels — grows in power and influence, drawing ever closer to Henry VIII and amassing wealth in his own right along the way.  Thomas is ruthless, manipulative, power-driven but also efficient, organised and quick witted. He can be charming, he can be cruel, yet he is a family man and, as his father observed, the kind of person who would buy a drink for anyone.

Thomas, being nothing if not a forward planner, is well able to read the lie of the land when the influence of the Boleyns declines and the Seymours begins to rise. So, he smooths the way for the Seymours, positioning himself to benefit  just as he had done previously when he cleared for the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Bring Up The Bodies opens with Cromwell well-established and extremely powerful and influential, a position he still retains at the end of this novel but the reader is left with a sense of foreboding that there are dark clouds still on the distant horizon but drawing closer to Thomas Cromwell all the while.

Page turner

So, for me, Wolf Hall was a page turner. I read it in three sittings over a single weekend. Great job, Ms Mantel. Keep them coming!

An advance reader’s edition of  Bring Up The Bodies was provided free of charge by the publisher for the purpose of this review. 

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel is published by Fourth Estate, May 2012.

ISBN 978-0-00-731509-3. Stg£20.