Frigid weather, fiction to warm your spirits by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane  is as effective a thriller as his previous books, once again taking a deep dive into the social and political environment in South Boston, this time in the lead-up to the 1974 school busing crisis. That event was raw, for both Blacks and Whites, but it’s just the backdrop for a mysterious murder with characters familiar to those even marginally aware of the fraught headlines during that era. The case includes “wise guys” like Marty Butler, based not very subtly on murderer and drug lord Whitey Bulger.

Life in the projects was brutal. The community ethos of neighbors helping neighbors only goes so far. People are always angry. Their families are dysfunctional, often broken. Alcoholism and drug addiction are rampant. Despite the efforts of parents (most often the tough mothers) to keep their kids on the straight and narrow, they themselves model behavior that jumps to physical violence as a primary tool of problem solving. They pass on their biases and hatreds from one generation to another. Teenage pregnancy, rape, failure in school, you name the problem, it was writ large in the Southie projects back in the day.

Lehane gives the reader a clear-eyed, gut-wrenching understanding that hopelessness, cynicism and despair are the inevitable outcome, both in Southie and in Roxbury’s black neighborhood. His writing is crisp; his humor, acid; his language, raw. If you live anywhere near Boston, you will remember these characters from decades of news stories, and you will perhaps understand them all the better after sailing through this recent Lehane masterpiece.

Rose by Martin Cruz Smith is set in 1870 in the small coal town of Wigan, midway between Liverpool and Manchester.  Cinematic in its telling, the narrative centers on Brian Blair, a rough-and-tumble mining engineer and investigator recently returned from gold mining in Africa to unearth the facts behind the mysterious disappearance of a young curate, John Maypole. The powerful force in Wigan is Bishop (also Lord) Hannay, owner of the coal mine and other enterprises, who has contracted with Blair to figure things out. In searching for Maypole, Blair must unravel the covered-up cause of a mine explosion, which resulted in 76 deaths.

The author paints his characters in intense color, always outlined in black. He is to Wigan what Dickens was to London. Wigan’s streets are muddy; the houses, flimsy; the poverty, extreme; the smells are rank and the air thick with mining byproducts. The Hannays and others at the top of Wigan’s silk stocking “society” are the only ones whose faces are not streaked with coal dust. As it turns out, there’s blood on many hands. The book is highly detailed, from the brutality of certain characters to the intricacies of the mining process, the latter occasionally too granular but essential to the unraveling. The novel takes its name from that of a pit-girl, one of many poor women who work at the mine sorting the coal carted to the surface. She is but one of several mysteries that Blair unravels but as central to the story line as is the drug-addicted, malaria-ridden, alcoholic Blair himself.  Interestingly, Blair is the family name of the author who wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, a 1937 study of poverty-stricken coal towns in northern England.  That author? Eric Arthur Blair, who wrote under the name of George Orwell. A coincidence?  I think not.

The Fraud by Zadie Smith is a little crazy, a little disjointed in its timeline, and a very different take on 19th century English writers who figure prominently in English literature.  The characters are colorful, raucous, naïve, easily swayed and often perplexing. The main character is Eliza Touchet, a highly educated widow, who lives with her cousin (by marriage), William Harrison Ainsworth, a well-bred and previously successful writer of novels. Long ago, Eliza had been enamored of him, but she came to love his first wife, Franny, with equal passion. When Franny dies, Ainsworth remarries a lower class, uneducated but energetic woman, who gets swept into public hysteria surrounding two trials of one Sir Roger Tichborne, who claims to be the rightful heir to the Tichborne estate. Is he? Or is he a fraud? Is he really a butcher named Thomas Castro? Or Arthur Orton, from Australia? Eliza offers ongoing social commentary.  An abolitionist, she explores racial inequities through the persona of Andrew Bogle, a Jamaican involved in the defense of Tichborne, the Claimant.

The richness of this novel is its historic roots.  Ainsworth was a real author, successful in his day, who traveled in circles populated by Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle and William Thackeray.  Illustrator George Cruikshank was a real-life collaborator with Ainsworth.  Smith imagines their circle of intellectuals, endlessly discussing over glasses of port current events and characters, their petty jealousies and inner-circle competition.  It’s a book about novelists, a delicious, gossipy read about the robust 19th century in English literature.  But today’s reader may also see Trump’s America, the angry working class, the criminal who becomes a hero to them,  the truths about class, economic inequities, race, and gender.

Like the little girl with the little curl, when this book is good, it’s very very good, and when it’s bad, it’s discursive, tedious and rambling. It’s worth reading, but, when you do, you shouldn’t feel bad about skimming those sections that yield less pleasure. You’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.

One Response to Frigid weather, fiction to warm your spirits by Marjorie Arons Barron

  1. Louise says:

    Thanks for this review of “Small Mercies.” As a long-time Dennis Lehane fan who’s probably read every page he’s ever written, I agree, it’s a “masterpiece.”

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