Recent reading: regicides, the blitz, Kerala

It’s been silent here for a few weeks. Mrs TD and I have been busy, and then had a pleasant holiday in southern Italy. She passed on to me in that time three books she’d just read.

Robert Harris, Act of Oblivion. (2022) This is another of this prolific author’s highly charged historical novels. This time it’s about one man’s obsessive hunt for the few remaining regicides – the men who’d signed the death warrant of Charles I. The civil war is over, the Cromwell puritans have had their day and monarchy is restored. The title refers to the act of parliament that deceitfully offered leniency to the regicides; those who came forward expecting amnesty were imprisoned, tortured and brutally executed.

The first half is far too slow, but then the pace picks up as the relentless hunter tracks down his prey. They’re hiding in various friendly places in New England. It isn’t until almost the very end that we learn (in the best spirit of this genre of ‘thriller-historical reimaginings’) the reason for his manic determination to find them.

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch. (Virago, 2006). Much more to my taste. It’s a passionate account of the lives of various women during the blitz in London between 1941-47. Waters daringly structures the chronology in reverse order, so we begin at the end, and have to figure out from weirdly incongruous clues and actions what caused these characters to behave the ways they do with each other.

There are some heartbreaking love stories and not-quite-convincing intrigue about the reason the brother of one of these women wound up in jail, and what he did on release. But it’s a really engaging, largely successful story of how the war gave women a rare opportunity to become themselves, untrammelled by societal  and gender expectations. There’s also a lot of business about a special gold ring that puts Tolkien in the shade. Recommended.

Abraham Verghese, The Covenant of Water. (Grove Press, 2023) It’s interesting to read a family saga set in that part of southern India now known as Kerala. The author succeeds in making us feel the teeming environment of the inhabitants of a small rural community there in a climate and setting that’s often harsh and unforgiving.

The portentous title points to a central plot feature: generations of this family have died directly or indirectly as a result of an uncanny ‘condition’: a morbid fear of water and drowning.

We follow several generations of this family, from a 12-year-old girl (Marriam) who’s married off to a much older man, through her children’s and grandchildren’s family lives. There’s a great deal of joy and pain, bereavement and love. The central mystery of that ‘condition’ becomes the research interest of Marriam’s granddaughter. She studies medicine and becomes a doctor, determined to trace the genetic flaw that explains what had largely been explained away as a kind of curse. A Scots doctor who ends up in this region also plays a significant part, with a very obviously signalled twist near the end.

It’s an enjoyable read, but the author’s day job as a doctor becomes intrusively apparent rather too often, as we are given lengthy medical scenes involving many of the huge cast of characters. That’s another aspect I found confusing: there are just way too many of them, and the narrative seems never-ending (the book weighs in at over 700 pages). At its best, however, this is a highly readable, unusual, densely packed novel.