Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review - "The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great" by Eva Stachniak

I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars.

This was an entertaining novel that read like a melodrama. The plot is believable and fastidiously executed. The writing is melodious and sentimental. The novel is immensely rich in descriptive details, especially about court etiquette, palatial decor, clothes and jewelry. Having recently read Robert Massie’s factual non-fiction title Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, I can avow that this novel is based on meticulous research.

The novel is written from the perspective of Varvara, a bookbinder’s daughter turned spy in the Russian court during Empress Elizabeth’s reign. The first two-thirds of the novel dwell on Elizabeth’s vagaries, her extravagance and her suspicious and jealous nature, all seen through Varvara’s critical eyes. By comparison, the character of Catherine the Great is given a much less detailed treatment, although it can be said that Catherine is shown in a much less flattering light here, compared to Massie’s biography.

Often, the narrative is bogged down with Varvara’s personal maturing pains and many unnecessary details about places and things that are unrelated to the royalties. As much as Varvara functions as an effective narrator, it seems that she occupies the center stage for too much of the novel to leave enough room for the leading character – who should be Catherine, as the novel subtitle suggests.

On balance, it is a remarkable historical novel about 18th century Russian court life. I’m giving it 3.7 stars.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review - "The Rice Sprout Song" by Eileen Chang

This novel is the first novel that Eileen Chang wrote originally in English with a later version in Chinese (秧歌). I chose to read the Chinese edition as I wanted to feel closer to the characters in the novel as well as to the author. Before this novel, I had never read any of her works, because as an adolescent I had preferred to read novels by the Taiwanese novelist Chiung Yao (瓊瑤).

The title of the novel refers to a festive folk song that used to be sung by villagers in rural villages to celebrate abundant harvests. It is oxymoronic when placed alongside the theme of the novel, which is about starvation and hunger. The novel is set against a backdrop where the land reform introduced by the Communist Party promised the rural populace great hope but soon led to the absurd collectivization scheme, starvation and death on a horrifying scale.

The author notes in the Epilogue that her story is based on an essay in the publication called People’s Literature, written by a young Communist cadre to record his eyewitness account of what had happened in the spring famine of 1950 in a North China rural village. He had been sent there to live exactly like the peasants and learn from them. While experiencing hunger himself, he noted that everyone was forbidden to utter the truth, i.e., the unbearable sufferings during a famine. Anyone who dared whisper the truth would be deemed a nationalist spy and arrested.

In the novel, hunger is described as “having for every meal a bowl of watery rice gruel with a few inch-long strips of grass floating on top”. Gold Root with his wife Moon Scent and daughter are just a typical family in the Tam Village silently bearing with crushing poverty and slow starvation until one day his deep-seated rage explodes. He fulminates against the village leader Comrade Wong for stubbornly denying that the peasants are starving to death. The climax comes when a hungry and furious crowd starts storming the government granary….

My heart remained tightly knotted for a long while after reading the novel. How I wish that the novel were purely fiction, but the mere thought would be sacrilegious to those who have had the misfortune to have a taste of what constant hunger is like.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review - "Blood & Beauty: The Borgias" by Sarah Dunant

This was the first historical novel about the Italian Renaissance period that I’ve read and, for me, it was undoubtedly one of the most thrillingly dramatic of such genre. Like icing on the cake, I also thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Dunant’s imagery-rich but non-cumbersome style of writing. I’m giving it 4 full stars.

For most European historical fiction lovers, the name “Borgia” is probably quite familiar. For me though, it is a historical name that I first came across while watching a few episodes of the Showtime TV series “The Borgias” several years ago. But the story didn’t even stick with me. While reading the novel, I couldn’t resist jumping over to Wikipedia from time to time to dig out facts relating to certain characters or events. Even so, and always bearing in mind that history is written by the winners (i.e. the enemies of the Borgias after the latter's fall from grace), I find it impossible to make up my mind over what to believe to be the true faces of the two principal characters: Rodrigo Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia. My mind boggles and oscillates between what historians claim to be facts, what the author portrays in the novel, and what has become over the years popular belief. The question that keeps reeling in my brain is: was Rodrigo Borgia a kind and loving father and suave politician on an even keel, whose hand was sometimes forced by circumstances, or was he a power-lusting, lascivious and materialistic glutton, or was he an innately duplicitous being? Another lingering doubt is about his daughter Lucrezia. Was she an innocent and malleable pawn in his father’s and brother’s elaborate political schemes, or was she a hypocritical, materialistic and licentious hedonist, or a bit of both? Perhaps of the principal characters, the painting of the blood-thirsting, vengeful and merciless Cesare Borgia seemed to be most consistent in all the three areas of history, fiction and popular belief.

The author does declare in the Historical Epilogue:

“While Blood & Beauty is unapologetically an act of the imagination, the novel draws heavily on the work of modern historians whose judgment on the Borgias is more scrupulous and discriminating than many in the past.”

“….I have taken the liberty of writing what feels to me to be the psychological truth of the personalities as they have emerged from the research. In this I am no more right – or possibly no more wrong – than anyone else.”

Fair enough. That said, the Renaissance period in Italy, or the parallel époque elsewhere in Europe for that matter, was one marked by ruthless power- and territory-grabbing and rotten-to-the-core corruption and immoral dealings both within and without the realm of Christianity. That those times were the nursery bed for players like the Borgias would render their story almost a natural course of event.