Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead


Knopf, 2021
593 pp


I bought this book back in May and since then it was awarded a spot on the Booker Prize longlist; recently it moved on ahead to the shortlist.  I had originally picked it up due to the dustjacket blurb, which promised an "unforgettable, mesmerizing new novel," along with the story of "an epic tale of two extraordinary women whose fates collide across geographies and centuries."   I hadn't quite planned to get to the novel as quickly as I did but its placement on the shortlist moved up the reading timeframe.  My thinking here was that "oh! It made the shortlist so it must be awesome."   More on that later. 

In 1950 a young woman by the name of Marian Graves disappears along with her navigator Eddie Bloom  during her attempt to "circumnavigate the globe longitudinally," flying "by way of both the North and South Poles."   After leaving Queen Maud Land, where they had last been seen, the plan was that they would fly over Antarctica, passing over the South Pole and then on to the Ross Ice Shelf to Little America where they would land and refill the plane with gasoline that had been previously cached.  The last leg of their journey would take them to New Zealand, but something happened and the Peregrine was never seen again.  Years later, during a scientific expedition to explore the remnants of Little America III, Marian's handwritten journal was discovered protected by a life preserver.   Her journal was published, as was a novel based on her life;  in the 21st century,  young actress Hadley Baxter is handed a script for a movie called Peregrine based on that book.  Hadley, whose career was looking pretty hopeless at this point due to her own recklessness, gets a second chance when she is asked to take on the role of Marian in the film.   The stories of both of these women are presented in interwoven narratives that move back and forth through time as,  according to the dustjacket notes, "the two women's destinies -- and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different places and times -- intersect in astonishing ways."   

The description ticked many of my reader boxes, and with the judges' decision to forward this one on to the shortlist, I was eager to get to it.  Not too long into the story I was already wanting to put it down and never pick it up again, but I perservered.  First of all, I really disliked Hadley's story -- I could have cared less about her Hollywood experiences, her sex life and her stupid self-destructive behavior;  that entire storyline could have been completely removed leaving only Marian's story and I wouldn't have minded at all.   And even that took time to get rolling, beginning five years before Marian was born with a botched christening of a ship, a young woman's seduction of the captain of that ship (Marian's future parents),  her memories of childhood incest, their subsequent marriage and the birth of twins leading to post-partum depression before a Lusitania-like explosion during which mom abandons the babies and dad saves them and then spends years in prison, leaving the twins with his brother in Montana.  Moving on with the story from there, it's pretty much a continuation of the kitchen-sink approach where anything and everything happens, covering Marian's life from eight years old on to her decision to make the pole to pole flight in 1949, culminating of course in her disappearance in 1950 .  Of course, by the time we discover what really happened, the book is almost over; in my humble reader's opinion, some solid editing and judicious paring would have tightened it all up to make the book a much better read.    There's also the matter of the destinies of the two women intersecting -- all I will say is that there are a number of parallels between the two that seemed forced, as well as a number of coincidences in this story that defy the imagination.  Finally, there is more than one instance where the novel just plods, testing my patience to its utmost.    I have to say that the best part of this book is at the end with Marian and Eddie as they make their journey around the world; some of the best and most beautiful writing in the novel is found there.   

Current stats for this this book show that sixty-three percent of Amazon readers have given  it a 5-star rating and forty-two percent of goodreads readers have done the same.    For me, there was an over-the-top, melodramatic component to this novel that just left me cold and had me skimming pages.    I really wanted to love this story, but I just didn't.  I've read too many truly fine novels recently to count this one among them.  

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed


Viking, 2021
372 pp

(read twice)

The Fortune Men focuses on a Somali immigrant, Mahmood Mattan, who in 1952 was accused of the murder of a shopkeeper in Tiger Bay, Cardiff.  I had absolutely no idea going into this book that it was based on a true story,  one I'd never heard about but one which the author obviously believed needed retelling; in this interview she notes that she had a "feeling" that it was a story she "couldn't shake."   By the way, clicking on that first link gives away the story, so don't go there unless you've read the book first. 

The novel begins as the radio announces the news of the death of King George VI in Berlin's milk bar, a hangout for "many of Tiger Bay's Somali sailors."  Mahmood had been to sea as well, but has spent the last three years doing "just foundry work and poky little boilers in prisons and hospitals."   As we're told, "The sea still calls" to him, but his Welsh wife Laura and their three young boys "anchor him here."  On that night, as "news of the King's death drifts from many of the low-slung wind-blown terraces," he walks down Bute Street and notes "a few lights still on" at some of the businesses he patronizes, including that of Volacki's, "where he used to buy seafaring kits but now just bags the occasional dress for Laura."  It is a small shop left by her father to  Violet Volacki, who lives there with her sister Diana and niece Grace.  After the shop closes, and as they are having dinner and making plans for the upcoming Purim festival, the doorbell rings.  Although Diana encourages Violet to let whoever it is wait until tomorrow, "that bell and the shop have a hold on her that she can't resist," and she goes out to answer the door.  That will be the last moment that Diana and Grace see Violet alive; she is later found dead, murdered in her own shop.  

Word quickly spreads that the killer was a Somali man, and Mattan is arrested, first on two minor charges for which he is put behind bars, while the inspector handling the case also knows Mattan will be going down for Violet's murder.  There is absolutely no evidence pointing to Mahmood as the killer; Diana and Grace both say that he is not the "coloured" man they viewed from the dining room as Violet went to answer the doorbell.    As the dustjacket blurb reveals, and as the author fully establishes here,  Mattan is a 
"chancer, sometime petty thief... a smooth-talker with an eye for a good game. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer." 
However, none of that matters -- as is made clear to Mahmood, "You'll hang, whether you did it or not."  

This book, with its subject matter, should have been right up my reading alley, and the first time through I thought perhaps there was something wrong with me because I didn't really engage with it all that well.   That fact really bothered me for a long time, leading me eventually to  believe that I must have read it at the wrong time while  grim happenings were going on in my own world and my attention was mentally elsewhere.   That was three weeks ago, and I decided to give it another go this past week since the situation at home has drastically improved.  The second time through (and this time with hindsight into the reality behind the fiction),  I engaged with it much more, catching many things I'd missed the first time, and while certain parts of the novel still seemed to drag a bit in the telling, all and all it became a better book on this last reading.  

I keep thinking about the epilogue, considering the fact that the real Mahmood Mattan had someone in his corner to try to right the egregious wrongs done to him (albeit posthumously);  it makes me wonder how many people of that time and that place had been victims of the same racism, xenophobia, betrayal, and  police complicity and have similar stories yet untold.  The Fortune Men is not at all a feel-good novel, but it is a very human story, bringing forth from the past a sad truth that remains extremely relevant today.