by Mary Doria Russell
A forty year old school teacher comes in to a bit of money after the rest of her family dies in the great flu epidemic, and decides to go abroad for the first time in her life, to the Middle East. That may sound unlikely, but what if I told you she winds up befriending Lawrence of Arabia, getting catty with Lady Getrude Bell, arguing with Winston Churchill, and having an affair with a Jewish German spy?
It sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? Yes, it does, but I didn’t really care. I so loved her first two books, The Sparrow and Children of God, that I’m willing to follow Mary Doria Russell just about anywhere. She opens well, with a great hook:
I suppose I ought to tell you at the outset that my present circumstances are puzzling, even to me. Nevertheless, I am sure of this much: my little story has become your history. You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.
See, Agnes Shanklin (the forty year old teacher) is telling this story after her death. If you are unfamiliar with Russell’s writing, I can understand how your willingness to suspend disbelief may just have evaporated.
But she is great at exactly this kind of thing: taking the seemingly impossible and through specific details turning it into an utterly believable reality. (She did manage to launch Jesuits into space — more than once — and I believed every word.) Agnes was real to me because the arguments she had in her head with her dead, tyrant mother made complete sense. She was a dog person.
Agnes was real to me, but because she was already dead she seemed as much an observer as participant in the story. Russell’s last novel, Thread of Grace, was sweeping in scope and while I did not find it as magical as her first two books, I was still emotionally invested in her characters. I cared what happened to them and was frustrated when I felt held at arms’ length from them. That was different here: it wasn’t that I was closer to Agnes, it was that I wasn’t frustrated about it.
I can’t imagine a Mary Doria Russell writing a novel that isn’t worth reading. This is, and on most counts (once you start, you’ll want to keep reading it, even if historical novels are not your thing) it’s good. Drawing parallels from events of Agnes Shanklin’s day (the list of place names reads as though it was taken from the last six months of news) worked for me earlier in the book. I admire her apparent desire to take on issues of today — the mess in the Middle East, the U.S. government’s War on Terror — in her art, and by using the past as a mirror to do it.
Yet the last chapter, with Agnes musing on history and war from her afterlife perch on the banks of the Nile was just too much. The tone wasn’t right, it wasn’t the end I thought she was building to. Agnes’s actual death being a nonevent wasn’t really the issue — it was feeling that Russell’s story had played out, but she wasn’t done talking. It isn’t that I disagree with the very end, but the rest of the chapter wasn’t needed to get there. I was there by the real end of Agnes’s story, one chapter back.
Faith and redemption have been key themes in her previous novels. Here, there is less hope than in her other books. She gives us self-determination, self-sacrifice when it is thoughtful as well as a reflexive response, and exhortations to really live instead of confine oneself to other’s expectations and rules. A key message is that war is inconceivably messy and we don’t understand the real costs.
I’m not usually one for happy endings, and that isn’t what I wanted here, but I did want this to end differently. Yes, “never buy anything from a man who is selling fear” is great advice, and I do read it as indictment of the current president and certain candidates hoping to next sit in the Oval Office. As a sentiment, I agree with it. It just doesn’t ring as true as I want, the way Russell gets to it here.
I admire the effort and what I see as the intent behind it more than I loved the story. It’s not The Sparrow, but it’s still a good curl up with some tea on a long afternoon-style read.
[Note: I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. That means I didn’t pay for it, and that what I have quoted does not come from the final print edition of the book, due out in March 2008 from Random House. I will update the quotes in this review if the text changes in the final edition. Participation in LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer is not dependent on writing a positive review; writing a review is all that is expected.]