In his iconic 1982 novel, War Horse, Michael Morpurgo told the story of the First World War narrated by Joey, a halfbred conscripted by the British Army to fight in France. Joey has no idea about the politics of war or nationhood as, being a horse, he only understands concepts such as food, galloping and pulling a cart.
In Flamingo Boy Morpurgo invents a similar concept. This novel is set in the remote French region of the Camargue. Lorenzo is the autistic son of farmers Nancy and Henri. They raise white horses and bulls on their ranch – land dotted by flamingo and egret lakes. Whilst it would clearly not be politically correct to have Lorenzo voice the story Morpurgo uses a collection of devices to limit his own articulacy so that effect on the reader is similar.
The book is blurbed ‘it’s the people who don’t fit in who change the world’ and there are other characters who are ‘different’. When the Germans arrive and build gun emplacements to fire at American ships the farmers take in their neighbours, a Roma family of three. They dwell in a wooden caravan behind the farmhouse and the daughter, Kezia, and Lorenzo form an indissoluble partnership which lasts until death.
At one point Kezia’s parents are taken to a prison camp and she stays with Lorenzo’s family, protected from the evil collaborators who seek to eradicate ‘gypsies’ in the same way that they have treated Jewish families. As befits a children’s book, perhaps, the characters are black and white. Bullies and murderers against kind, tolerant people.
But there is a good German, just as there was in War Horse. Luckily he is the commander of the Nazi forces who come to occupy this area of Vichy France. As he is a man of discrimination he is supportive of anyone who could be seen as ‘other’. He helps the Roma family. He helps the autistic boy. His mission is ‘only to save children’.
Morpurgo gives the narrative to Vincent, a man in his fifties, who in 1982 at the age of 18, travels to the Camargue and collapses on an obscure road. Through the night comes Lorenzo, now over 50 himself, who shoulders and carries him back to the farm. Kezia is there and over some weeks she and Lorenzo nurture him back to health. Lorenzo although loving and physically kind speaks only a few words and of these he knows only half. So the flamingos he loves are ‘flams’ and his friend is ‘Zia’.
Kezia has learnt a bit of English from an ornithologist and she tells Vincent what happened during the war. In these ways Morpurgo distances now from then and the reader from the events. Vincent looks back from middle age to his youth when Kezia told him a story which occurred 40 years previously.
Morpurgo uses language to tell the story in a way that downplays, as War Horse did, ideas of geopolitics and history. Instead in Flamingo Boy it is the physical language of care and healing which is foregrounded through Lorenzo whose magical touch and humming tames and calms the most terrified bird or animal. Kezia explains that for Lorenzo ‘trust is the most important thing, and loyalty is simply repeated trust’. As a boy and as an adult Lorenzo needs repetition as he finds it reassuring. Morpurgo uses repetition throughout the novel as if reassuring the character whom he based on his autistic grandson, Laurence.
What seems to be a children’s story told in a childlike style is, in fact, a tour de force of technical skill. Morpurgo’s choices of structure and diction construct a sophisticated artifice of simplicity. An utterly brilliant moral tale.
Morpurgo, M. Flamingo Boy. Harper Collins. 2018.
—. War Horse. Kaye and Ward. 1982
A version of this review was first published on page 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 22nd December 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.
A Well-Behaved Woman: a novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler
Marvellous. As demonstrated by all those Henry James and Edith Wharton novels there is nothing better than a tale of genteel poverty. Of course, Charlotte Brontë’s iconic Jane Eyre is a fine example the genre. With this fictionalised biography, A Well-Behaved Woman, Therese Anne Fowler follows in august footsteps. Impoverished Alva Smith enters, and eventually drives, the North American Vanderbilt dynasty,
One of four sisters, Alva, had a comfortable girlhood, as a pupil and debutant, in Paris. Now it is 1874 and in New York she is faced with the consequences of her Confederate father’s loss of fortune and her mother’s early death. Alva, as the most marriageable of the young women, must save the day by securing a rich husband.
Alva’s family goes back through four generations of Southern gentlemen whereas her fiancé, William Vanderbilt, is the first gentleman in his family. His antecedents made money through farming, steamships and railroads and his grandfather, the Commodore, failed to build a mansion in Manhattan until 1846, so he is not among the ‘best New York Dutch but a ‘Johnny-come-lately’.
It seems a match made in heaven. Alva contributes the breeding and William the cash. Alva comforts herself, although she is not in love, with the thought that ‘at the very least she would be a prominent second-tier society matron’. The Vanderbilts expect that Alva will be able to influence societal attitudes so that they can avail themselves of a box at the opera and invitations to fashionable balls.
Fowler wrote a draft of A Well-Behaved Woman before coming to an important realisation. She didn’t like Alva. Then in an inspired moment Fowler envisioned her protagonist alongside Hillary Clinton. Alva, like the Presidential candidate, had been ‘characterised negatively through a sexist lens’. What Fowler did next was to appropriate some positive adjectives; those usually assigned to men. Alva is ‘visionary, intelligent, determined, strong’ and Fowler loves her.
In previous centuries the plots of this genre generally concluded with a wedding and the promise of happy-ever-after in the vein of ‘Reader, I married him’. But in this more enlightened age women, for even now most readers attracted by the title, the cover and the reviews will identify as female, expect more. They want to witness what happened next.
How, as the nineteenth century evolved into the twentieth, did this feisty woman manage to inveigle herself into the top tier of elegant New York society? Alva’s sister-in-law, Alice, attempts her own assault on the upper echelons by merely tilting ‘her nose up and going about her business’. Alice considers herself a cut above and repeatedly explains that she and other ladies disapprove of Alva because of her black maid. Alva, who sees Mary as more of a sister, protests that she is uniquely skilled because a French lady’s maid trained her.
When Alva complains, to Mary, that she is ‘tiring of this nonsense’ the black woman answers that her whole race is oppressed and thus Alva’s problems seem rather petty. The mistress of the house does not engage with this comment. Nevertheless Mary advises action and determination like the abolitionists. Sadly, and in spite of her peerless needlework, it is not long before the Vanderbilt siblings dismiss Mary and she returns to her former position with Alva’s sisters.
Alva works alongside a society fixer, Ward McAllister, and eventually, after more than seven years of effort, Mrs Astor, the ‘queen’ of New York acknowledges Alva Vanderbilt and visits her home. To achieve this Alva has had to build an ornate mansion, hold a ball, provide exquisite fitments and fittings, along with delicacies and wines. Her final stratagem is to tempt Astor’s daughter into joining the dance group performing the opening quadrille of the evening. Alva and Caroline Astor are never friends but they admire each other’s Machiavellian attributes.
After some 200 pages the reader might be growing weary of the machinations of the central character. Is she going to build an opera house so that the Vanderbilts can have their own box? Or can she persuade the managing committee to allocate a box at the current theatre?
But there are other areas of interest as the page numbers veer towards 400. The Vanderbilt fortune multiplies until Alva finds herself with more disposable income than any other woman in the world except her sister-in-law and Queen Victoria. Does money bring happiness? Alva is not entirely content.
She knows that some men and women share sexual passion and she and William do not. She has lain like a plank during the conception of her three children. William, known as a playboy, is away for long months at a time and Alva’s friends hint at infidelities. It seems that men can behave badly without facing any consequences.
Alva’s reputation, on the other hand, would not survive any hint of an affair. She must maintain it if she is to lead New York society, give balls and have a box at the opera. There is one man to whom she is attracted and she is encouraged to take him as a lover by her friend, the future Duchess of Manchester, Lady C. But Alva stands firm, experiencing her moments of eroticism only in her dreams.
Would it be possible for those ‘shameful’ dreams to come true? A well-behaved woman such as Alva has her children to consider, especially her beautiful daughter, an heiress named Consuelo after Lady C. Like her brothers, Consuelo is educated. She knows four or five languages, geography, history and literature. She is a fit mate for minor European royalty. But only if her reputation and maidenhood remain intact. Prince Francis Joseph of Bulgaria proposes. But the unstable Balkans?
Manoeuvring within the restraints placed upon the second sex Alva arranges a match. Taking advice from the Vicereine of India, she and her daughter travel to Europe where Consuelo is dressed by Worth in Paris before ‘coming out’ at the French court. London is next on the itinerary.
In a Well-Behaved Woman Fowler is at pains to paint an accurate picture of the life and times of Alva Vanderbilt. At the same time it is obvious to her dear reader that parallels can be drawn with royals of more recent times such as Charles and Camilla.
There are also interesting insights into the way the media covers high society. It is possible for William Vanderbilt to pay newspaper owners to suppress stories that he prefers kept private. When Ward McAllister writes a book about how he helped people climb the social ladder he is cut by his elite former clients. Finally McAllister and Alva reconcile and he expounds that society scorns the two of them because they are both excellent.
But in spite of the likenesses to the present time Fowler shows that patriarchal standards prevented even the richest and cleverest women from equal achievement. Nowadays that would not be the case. Or would it? Was Clinton defeated by misogynism? Can Trump get away with anything, like William Vanderbilt?
Words, words, words as Hamlet said. Fowler is aware of their power but sometimes slips at bit with her own usage. No one in polite society would have split an infinitive. Such anachronisms are annoying for the pedant. But for those who are more forgiving this novel is like wallowing in a jacuzzi. Relaxing and re-invigorating. Delightful.
Fowler, T. A. A Well-Behaved Woman: a novel of the Vanderbilts. 2018. Two Roads.
A version of this review was first published on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 27th October 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.
The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel byErika Mailman
Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done she gave her father forty-one!
Bridget Sullivan was one of 13 children born into the copper mining community in Allihies, on the Beara Peninsula. Squirreling away a small piece of blue copper for luck, Bridget shipped out to America in 1883. Money earned as a maid was sent back to West Cork.
Andrew Borden, a wealthy mill owner, lived thriftily, in a clapboard house which was strangely and inconveniently conformed to keep family members apart. Meals were taken in shifts for the same reason. Miss Emma and Miss Lizzie, the sisters, born to Andrew and his late wife Sarah, ate together after the patriarch and his second wife, Abby had dined. Borden confides ‘we have some odd arrangements in this house, and I’ll welcome you keeping quiet on personal matters’.
The atmosphere in the house was tense, partially poisoned by Mr Borden’s miserliness but also heightened by the siblings’ unpleasant behaviour. Bridget endured it all for a number of reasons. At least Mr Borden, unlike her two previous masters, kept his hand off her. And she felt compassion for the second Mrs Borden whose life was made miserable by her resentful stepdaughters. Lizzie’s somnambulism made Bridget nervous as did other strange occurrences such as mysterious appearances and disappearances of menstrual napkins. Bridget’s attempts at resignation were challenged by large cash bonuses destined for her impoverished family in Ireland.
The entirely fictional narrative centres on Brooke Hernandez, who has secreted her birth name, Felicita, behind a tangle of aliases. Brooke is convinced that someone, maybe the same person who killed her mother, is pursuing her as she flits from one state to another, working below-the-counter waitress jobs and living in temporary accommodation.
Brooke seems to think that reading true crime will help her keep one step ahead of her putative murderers. When she reads about Lizzie Borden’s trial, however, she is astonished to be immersed in the story of ‘women whose skirts drag the floor, who use privies and chamber pots and ride in horse-drawn buggies’.
After her mother’s death Brooke met a young boy, Miguel, at the group foster home in which they were raised. Although separated by distance the two friends keep in daily touch online. No one else is Brooke’s friend on Facebook and when an egg icon pops up named Randy Shotglass Brooke replies ‘I’ll crush you, eggshell’. Over the years small incursions into her various rooms have prompted Brooke to move on. A pot or magazine might have been moved marginally suggesting that ‘he’ has found her. Brooke, however, is distracted by a new relationship with attorney, Anthony, whom she met at her place of work.
Bizarrely she and Anthony take a weekend break in Fall City, staying at the Lizzie Borden B&B. The unique selling point of the guesthouse is that inside Abby and Andrew Borden were axed to death. On sale is a wind chime with a dangling axe suspending ‘iron blood drops’ and a ‘bobblehead, spattered with blood and holding an axe, glaring with wide-open, creepy eyes’.
The Murderer’s Maid is an engaging book championing two young women from humble backgrounds. It seems churlish to compare it with Margaret Atwood’s excellent Alias Grace, also based on a notorious crime committed in a household of masters and servants. That was a serious novel which examined, forensically, class and gender. This tale resembles the books that inspired Mailman: Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. In other words it’s not quite grown up.
Alcott, L. M. Little Women. 1868/69. Roberts Brothers. Print.
Atwood, M. Alias Grace. 1996. McClelland & Stewart. Print.
Mailman, E. The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel. 2017. Bonhomie Press. Print.
Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. 1908. L. C. Page & Co. Print.
Pearce, P. Tom’s Midnight Garden. 1958. Oxford University Press. Print.
A version of this review was first published on page 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th May 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.
Friends and Traitors took years to write. Lawton would pick it up and have a go at it and then be distracted by another book that needed writing. Finishing it finally only after reading Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie (2015) Lawton says that he could not ‘have written this novel without his help’.
In an addendum titled ‘Stuff’ Lawton explains the difficulties he had with the story of Guy Burgess because it is a tale that has been told so many times, in various media, but not recorded by the spy himself nor by his partner-in-defection, Donald Maclean.
Lawton specialises in the line between fact and fiction and it is not surprising that his one non-fiction publication is subtitled History as Melodrama. In Friends and Traitors, the eighth novel in the Inspector Troy series, the Scotland Yard superintendent has a melodramatic meeting with Burgess in Vienna in 1958. The spy indicates that he wants to ‘come home’. Obviously, in history, this did not happen.
Instead Burgess attempted repatriation in 1959 when another character from this novel, Harold Macmillan, was on a state visit to Moscow. Earlier in the book, Lawton includes a little joke, amusing in hindsight. He describes Macmillan in 1935 as ‘a backbencher with about as much chance of cabinet office as our cat’. In history he became Prime Minister of England. Ho ho ho.
In Friends and Traitors Troy’s father, a newspaper baron, has reluctantly agreed to sponsor his second son, Frederick, through cadetship of the Metropolitan Police.
Troy is too short to be a policeman and so has to go with his father’s employee, Burgess, to Gieves in Old Bond Street to have his ‘blue-black serge uniform’ retailored. They then go drinking at the Burlington Arms from which Troy, in spite of being cute and only 18, emerges unmolested.
Sir Alex Troy, a White Russian, now a respected member of the British establishment is aware that any scandal involving his family and Burgess would end in disaster. In possession of inside information the baronet warns his sons to avoid the colourfully camp undercover agent. But Troy could not always avoid Burgess.
Later in the story when old Etonian Burgess has been living in the Soviet Union for many years he lists the things that he misses. Over two pages the items include many elements of Englishness, such as ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, that would probably appeal to Brexiteers. There are other items, including ‘the little blue bag at the bottom of a bag of crisps’, which no longer exist.
Although the central family in Friends and Traitors are Russian emigrants, and several of the other characters Soviet spies, this book is quintessentially English. The passages set in the underground clubs and hotel bars of Blitzkrieg London are detailed and well crafted. And the depiction of the capital’s wartime queer underbelly with its gents’ bogs, rent boys, randy guardsmen and priapic sailors is nothing if not colourful.
Faithful readers of the Inspector Troy novels will be able to make cogent connections to Lawton’s other titles, five of which chronologically precede 1958. Nevertheless those new to the series are not at a disadvantage and might feel encouraged, by brief references to the murders of the rabbis or to Troy’s former lover, Zette Borg, to venture further into the hinterland of Troy’s professional and personal lives.
One should warn the gentle reader that the language and action are somewhat coarse and vulgar and not what one would necessarily expect from the pen of an English gentleman. Lawton was, he admits, although this might be another of his jokes, named in a Parliamentary Bill in the British House of Lords, as an offender against taste and balance.
Below: photographs of John Lawton are rare.
Lawton, J. Friends and Traitors. Grove Press. 2017. Print.
Lownie, A. Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. 2015. Hotter and Stoughton. Print.
A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th May 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.