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.

14 thoughts on “Recent reading: regicides, the blitz, Kerala

  1. Hello Simon!

    I was just thinking of you, on this muggy Washington DC morning. Then, like magic, you appeared in my email inbox! Would enjoy reading all three of these, based on these thumbnails. As my attention span for most novels is shamefully low, I think I would simply begin them all together, and alternate, depending on mood. Interesting observation about the intrusiveness of the author’s profession. That is a great checkpoint to keep in mind for editing, whether one’s own work, or someone else’s.

    Would love to hear more about your trip. Italy is always wonderful. Was it terribly crowded?

  2. Hi Simon! I’ve only read one of your three — Sarah Water’s Night Watch — and this was many years ago, shortly after it was published. Although many of the details have faded, the memory of just how much I enjoyed it is quite strong! The reverse chronology narrative was very effective, the characters strongly drawn and appealing and the setting marvelously dramatic. I’ve always meant to re-read it. I’ve tried and enjoyed some early works by Harris but haven’t been too tempted in the last few years and TBH made a reasoned decision to avoid Covenant of Water (I’ll read something that long but I have to be really drawn to the subject).
    That holiday in southern Italy sounds marvelous . . .

    • Yes, the characters in Night Watch are richly drawn and complex – very sympathetic. Puglia was lovely – Otranto Castle not as Gothic as anticipated. Loved the trulli houses, too.

  3. An interesting set of books! How handy to only have to take one set away with you to share! Sometimes I’ve managed to persuade Matthew to pack something from my TBR to take away with us for us to both read (we did both read Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow on a holiday at the end of last year but I think I read the book and he got an e-book!).

  4. Welcome back!
    I came to the same conclusion about Verghese when I read his Cutting for Stone. Initially very interesting indeed, and then I wavered a bit as it became longer and longer and there were all those medical scenes, but overall, worth it.

  5. Hello Simon!
    I’ve only read The Night Watch and although I can hardly remember it I do remember thoroughly enjoying it, Sarah Waters does seem to be dependable! Swapping books is such a good idea, we’ve only done it once with Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes.

    • I’ve read a few of S Waters’ novels now, and agree that she’s highly dependable! Once we’ve swapped books, my wife usually then passes them on to her sister!!

  6. Good reviews – I’ve read all three and enjoyed them. I agree Covenant in the water was a bit long and had a lot of medical bits but as someone who would have liked to have been a doctor and interested in anything medical – I enjoyed it. Puglia sounds interesting, tell us more

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