20 October 2014

Library Limelights 70

Nathan Dylan Goodwin. The Lost Ancestor. www.nathangoodwin.co.uk, 2014.
Goodwin's novel is a dilly that sucked me right in, not an easy thing to do with my predilection for Scottish noir and Swedish perverse. It's the second book after Hiding the Past in a planned series. Based in East Sussex, England, forensic genealogist Morton Farrier gets a dream job: find out what happened to the missing sister of an ancestor one hundred years ago. Mary Mercer was learning the ropes as third housemaid in an upper-class mansion (Downton Abbey fans will love the minute details of service life); she suddenly disappeared, leaving a hole in a family tree. It's hard to avoid spoilers, so let's just say this is a lively romp through Edwardian times and someone (or two?) is prepared to kill Morton to stop his research meddling.

Identity is a major issue as a twisting, strange scenario unfolds. Technicalities of the genealogical research are not intrusive for a non-family historian reader, quite the contrary. You might say certain unusual documents coincide rather conveniently to drive the plot, but Goodwin skillfully builds credibility. Even better is how the author carefully parallels Morton's progress with Mary's own story, a challenging device handled admirably. Dialogue and characters integrate naturally with just the right touch of our hero's own family problems. One quibble: overly-long paragraphs can be a drag. Nevertheless, The Lost Ancestor is a winner in my books.

Mary reflects:
Her mother's words and a flashback of a visit to see her granny in the Rye workhouse filled her mind. Now she understood why Granny, spirit and body broken, was dead and buried in a pauper's grave at the age of sixty-two.
The chunks of willow in the grate had all but disappeared when sleep finally came for Mary. She had cried for what seemed to her like an eternity: she cried for the pain in her body; she cried for her granny; she cried for her sister, Edie; she cried for the life she wanted; but most of all, she cried for the life to which she had given herself over. (53)

Whilst he was alone in the room, Morton stared at the wall that Juliette had dubbed haphazard. It might look chaotic, but each little pin, Post-it and string connection made sense in Morton's head. At the centre of it all was the photo of Mary. The last known picture ever taken of her. He sent the latest email from the Nova Scotia Archives to the printer and added the information to the wall then emailed Ray Mercer asking if he knew when his grandmother divorced. (178)

Friend speaks to unfriendly archivist:
"You know, we really must meet up for dinner sometime."
"Well, I'm free after work today if you'd like?"
"I can't today, I'm afraid―I came in Morton's car." She turned to Morton. "Unless you'd care to join us?"
Morton waited for his life to flash before his eyes. This had to be a near-death experience. Dinner with Deidre Latimer would be one of the worst tortures imaginable. At the moment, he could not think of a single thing that was a worse idea. He tried to disguise the look of horror on his face. (203)

[Paperback copies of The Lost Ancestor can be ordered on the website; the Kindle version is currently only available in the UK and the US.]

Jonas Jonasson. The Girl Who Saved the Swedish King. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014.
Um, I have to say a little disappointing. Perhaps not unusual in a second novel, but not matching the lighthearted and (what I consider) exquisite The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Take an illiterate Soweto girl, an addled engineer, a pair of unlikely-named twins, Mossad agents, and a variety of time-warped hangers-on: stir briskly to see what floats to the top. Our protagonist Nobeko is something of a prodigy, rising from South African slums to advising international heads of state. She spends a long time locked up in the Pelindaba nuclear facility where she is treated no better than a stick of furniture (ten years of being called whatsername). Then she meets the king-obsessed twin just as her Chinese friends commit a huge blunder with the diplomatic mail ― and the plot truly takes off.

A potato truck, an atomic bomb, and some volatile activists in Sweden become central to much of the book. Yes indeed, another Jonasson screwball comedy but with political intrusions more polemically spiteful than his usual brand of black humour. Maybe that's because they can't mask the disenfranchised poverty in African history. The more I read, the more I felt a lot of strain going on here to maintain an effortless whimsy that evaporated along with some of my attention. At the the end, the characters became strangely repetitious; did they (or the author?) run out of steam? Not to kvetch further; The Girl does have redeeming moments.

Word: Klipdrift – An honest-to-gawd South African brandy (I thought he made it up) apparently favoured by Australians and nuclear scientists.

South Africa's prime minister Vorster:
He was very busy from early in the morning to late at night. The most pressing matter on his desk right now was that of the six atomic bombs. What if that obsequious Westhuizen wasn't the right man for the job? He talked and talked, but he never delivered.
Vorster muttered to himself about the damn UN, the Communists in Angola, the Soviets and Cuba sending hordes of revolutionaries to southern Africa, and the Marxists who had already taken over in Mozambique. Plus those CIA bastards who always managed to figure out what was going on, and then couldn't shut up about what they knew.
Oh, fuck it, thought B.J. Vorster about the world in general.
The nation was under threat now; not once the engineer chose to take his thumb out of his ass. (44)

The angry young woman:
Nombeko sat down in the angry young woman's kitchen and said there was probably an awful lot of lying in every country. And then she opened the conversation with a simple and general question:
"So how are things with you?"
The angry young woman turned out to be angry about everything. She was angry about the country's continued dependence on nuclear power. And oil. About all the rivers harnessed for hydropower. About the noisy and ugly wind power. About how they were going to build a bridge to Denmark. At all the Danes, because they were Danes. At mink farmers because they were mink farmers. At animal breeders in general, actually. At everyone who ate meat. At everyone who didn't (she lost Nombeko here for a moment). At all the capitalists. At almost all the Communists. At her father because he worked at a bank. At her mother because she didn't work at all. At her grandmother, because she had some noble blood. At herself because she was forced to be a wage slave instead of changing the world. And at the world, which didn't have any good wage-slavery to offer. (169-170)

Swedish history, by Gustav Adolf IV:
It all started when his father was shot at the Royal Opera House. The king's son had two weeks to get used to his new role while his dad lay there dying. This turned out to be too little time. In addition, his father had succeeded in hammering into the boy that the Swedish king was given his post by the grace of God and that the king and God worked as a team.
A person who feels the Lord watching over him finds it to be a minor thing in order to defeat both the emperor Napoleon and Czar Alexander―all at once. Unfortunately, the emperor and the czar also claimed to have divine protection and acted accordingly. Assuming they were all correct, God had promised a little too much in too many directions at the same time. All the Lord could do about that was to let their true relative strengths settle the matter. ...
"Well, look at that," said Holger One.
"I'm not finished yet," said the king. (338)

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