Three books new on the table this month all have to do with history: history of the past, history now in the making, and history yet to come.
The Cold War may not seem like ancient history (to some of us, at least), and as Lara Prescott’s compelling new novel shows, its echoes can still be heard in our modern world. Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept (Knopf, $26.95) tells the real-life story behind the writing and publication of Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, as seen through the eyes of the women crucial to the story, but generally left out of the historical record. Olga is Pasternak’s mistress and muse, the inspiration for the character of Lara in the novel. Her deep love for and loyalty to the great writer is sorely tested when she bears the brunt of the Soviet machine’s displeasure over the still unfinished book and is sentenced to the Gulag. Irina, American daughter of Russian immigrants, works as a typist at the male-dominated CIA and is captivated by the glamorous Sally, ostensibly a receptionist, but obviously a woman with a past. Alternating between these three women’s voices, Prescott paints a page-turning picture of the CIA plot to publish Zhivago after it has been banned by the Soviets. In a wonderful demonstration of the power a single book can carry, the CIA sees the novel’s publication as a weapon in a propaganda war. Pasternak, once regarded as Russia’s greatest living writer, just wants his life’s work to find readers, regardless of the danger to himself and those he loves. Olga, Irina and Sally all struggle against the expectations set for them by family, fate and society, each taking on new roles and personas (watch the chapter heads) as the story unfolds. The Secrets We Kept is a well-written, fast-plotted and moving tale of international espionage, authoritarian repression and the universal and lasting power of great literature – and a reminder that the need for freedom of expression, whether in a novel or in choosing who to love, can never be denied.
Like many Americans, I have struggled over the last few years to understand the current state of political affairs in Great Britain. Brexit, no-Brexit, hard Brexit, soft Brexit – how in the world has this all come to pass? I have finally found some real insight into this mess, not from reading untold news articles, but in reading Jonathan Coe’s brilliant new novel, Middle England (Knopf, $27.95). Through the intersecting lives of a vivid and varied cast of characters, Coe paints a picture of a nation at odds with itself, its people divided in their very definitions of what that nation means (sounds a little familiar, eh?). On one level, Middle England can be read simply as a story about family; people dealing with angry teenagers, aging parents, newfound love and middle-aged angst. Newlyweds Ian and Sophie, having met by chance, believe that love will see them through the differences in their backgrounds and aspirations. Political columnist Doug struggles to understand his increasingly angry, increasingly radical teenage daughter. Benjamin decides after the death of his mother that it is now or never for publishing his ponderous, decades-in-the-writing first novel. His father Colin grows ever more agitated about the loss of the Britain of his youth and the bewildering changes around him. Each of these lives is portrayed with a fine mix of sensitivity and satire, with their hopes, dreams, failures and foibles standing in as symbols of the nation as a whole. And that’s where Middle England succeeds on a second level: as a wise and witty critique of the bitter political divide that seems to afflict so many Western democracies these days. As an American reader, I had no trouble drawing my own parallels, even as I felt just a touch of schadenfreude to find that we are not alone in our confusion.
And speaking of the rise and fall of great nations… Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep (Knopf, $26.95) takes place on that same island of Britain, but way post-Brexit. It is the year 1468, eight hundred years after the world collapsed. In this distant future that looks much like our own distant past, a young priest arrives in a small Wessex village to conduct the funeral of the local cleric. Father Christopher Fairfax is confident in his beliefs and his place in the natural order, eager to do his duty and return to his budding career with the enigmatic Bishop Pole. But all is not as it seems in the tiny town – Father Lacy, the previous cleric, has died a brutal death, perhaps the victim of murder. The local parishioners are a suspicious lot, harboring plenty of old grudges and carrying secrets tied to a mysterious ancient tower looming over the town. Fairfax decides that his religious duty demands he stay in the village long enough to solve the question of Father Lacy’s death, although we begin to see that there might be other, more earthly reasons for his delay. Add to the mix a cache of ancient bones, a local landowner intent on finding treasure, a bit of folklore that seems to date back to the days of the Apocalypse, and Father Fairfax finds himself in real trouble – spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Harris, who usually writes historical novels, is in perfect form with this back-to-the-future thriller that is both a real page-turner and a philosophical reflection on what traces our present culture might leave behind, and what our descendants might make of them.
Kristine Kaufman is a retired bookseller and forever bibliophile. She was a co-owner of Snow Goose Books and Frames, which was in Stanwood, WA. She still calls the Pacific Northwest home.