Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Rewind Files

The Rewind FilesThe Rewind Files by Claire Willett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I stay away from espionage. I also (at least in my own writing) tend to stay away from time-travel. Things get far too complicated too quickly, and it’s all I can do to try to wrap my mind around the paradoxes inherent in even a simple time loop. I also– to my shame– tend to avoid twentieth-century history in particular and American history in general in my own work, which revolves around astronomy in the 1800s. The Rewind Files, by Claire Willett, involves all of these.

On the other hand though, I do love a good scifi yarn.

In this instance, I was in no way disappointed.

Claire, who among other really cool things has written plays on the history of astronomy, has quite simply written a very smart, very compelling, very impressive 20th-century, time-travel, espionage adventure. It fits together beautifully, it has dizzying twists and turns, and it has sharp characters with crackling dialogue. It’s just really, really good.

But that’s not a very insightful review, so let me try to unpack that a bit.

First, let’s start with the nuts and bolts: the history and the time-travel. I’m embarrassed by how little I know about my own nation’s history and in particular the Watergate scandal, which forms the historical backdrop to this misadventure. But it’s clear Claire has done her research– and not simply as a dutiful student but as someone who is passionately interested in the characters and the narrative of these events. She doesn’t just make this history come alive: she plays with it, dances around it, and makes it give her a quick peck on the cheek. But it works because she knows what she’s talking about. And she loves what she’s talking about.

Now the time-travel: this is where she gives even classic popular time travel treatments like Back to the Future or pick your favorite Babylon 5 story-arch a run for its money. All the loops (and there are several of them) get tied up and make all of the questions from earlier make sense. All of the snakes bite their own tails quite nicely. And the complexity of the time-hops and transporting (superimposed on the additional complexity of a branch of the government dedicated to preserving the integrity of the timeline) is handled with the dexterity of someone fluent in technobabble: creating a system of constraints and then playing fairly within it but also surprising the reader. I might even use the term elegant.

But those are the nuts and bolts of a good episode of Dr. Who: what about the things important in a novel, characters and plot? Claire gets awards for writing plays, so you’re in good hands here as well. The plot is solid, and though I admit it was a bit slow to start, a) by the time the penny dropped about halfway through I was hooked and couldn’t put it down for the rest of the novel and b) my confusion in the first half from getting dropped right into things cleared up with the reveals in the second half. As soon as Gemstone hits, we don’t get another breath until the end of the book. The twists are satisfying because though nothing is out of left field (you have some inkling of some of the big reveals), they’re handled in an unexpected manner that makes them all the more effective.

And then there are the characters. I put the book down several times while I was reading and told my wife, “You have to meet Reggie.” Claire’s main character is nearly flawless (not as a person, but as a character). She’s snarky, self-deprecating, and competent. She loves her family, all of whom play a major role in the action. The cadre of time-bandits Claire builds up around Reggie are the most endearing part of the story, and more than anything else you get the sense that all the deftly-handled history and time-twists are more than anything to give these characters a fascinating canvas to run around on. You like Reggie, but more than anything else you believe in Reggie.

The Rewind Files being a time-travel odyssey of course could have a sequel tacked on, though it’s more structured to allow a prequel or even a concurrent novel following the exploits of Reggie’s famous father. I don’t know if I want this though. I want Reggie and her friends to have an enduring happy ending, one no longer threatened by major distortions in the timeline.

More than anything, I just want Claire to create some more characters and do this again– only completely different this time.

Possession

PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was embarrassed when this book came for me through inter-library loan. The problem is that it’s been made into a movie (which I have not yet seen) and I got the movie-cover version. So I have Gwyneth Paltrow looking moody in one corner while some unshaven guy stares at her, and down in the other corner I have two fuzzy Victorian lovers doing fuzzy Victorian love stuff. Plus, it doesn’t help that Byatt subtitled the work “A Romance.”

So much for subtlety.

This is a romance. It is about people falling in love, both in modern times and in the mid-eighteen hundreds. But for me, it was also (and maybe mainly) about scholars, about the people who spend their careers trying to get inside the minds of individuals from the past through their writings. Anyone who has done historical research will resonate with this on some level.

The book’s two main characters are modern day literary scholars who stumble upon previously unknown correspondence between their relative scholarly subjects, two Victorian poets. What follows quickly becomes an absorbing story of these two scholars trying to put together clues through these letters as well as hints in journals and the published poems of both (and of course ultimately falling in love themselves). One of the strengths of this work is that it shows both the appeal and power as well as the pitfalls of literary analysis: the meanings of the poems throughout the book change as the scholars discover new information and connections between their two poets.

Possession does a great job illustrating what historical or literary scholarship can look like, how people would find it compelling to try to piece together past lives through a person’s published and unpublished writings. The excitement they feel in finding something previously unknown about the poets and the ramifications it will have on their fields of scholarship is spot on. This is action and drama for historians. This is what we find exciting. The burgeoning relationship between the two protagonists is nice as well, but it’s almost secondary. This is a story about the letters, about the chase, about finding out what happened and who people really were. Why did they write these poems? What were their influences? What shaped their thoughts and language? I suppose on some level this is similar to The Da Vinci Code though done with more skill, knowledge, and a great deal more believability and style.

Another aspect that Byatt lays out nicely is the characters themselves and the academic realities that accrue around specific research programs or schools of thought. The secondary characters are almost livelier than the two main characters: the acquisitive, flamboyant collector, the careful, ponderous researcher—even some of the caricatures about British versus American scholarship—these all ring true. I know people like this. I know how letter collections work and what can happen when the ins and outs of copyright and possession (one possible meaning for the title) come into play. Again, spot on.

I should have had more patience with the poetry, journal entries, and letters that Byatt uses to form the mosaic of this tale. For the most part, this is how we get a window into the unknown Victorian romance our heroes are putting together. But I admit I did a lot of skimming through this, trying to—perhaps as the fictional scholars were themselves—get out the nuggets of real information and hurrying to where the plot got going again. And I was truly disappointed when Byatt reverted to actual flashbacks to give us all the exact details of the culmination of the Victorian love affair, so we would know that it did not indeed remain unrequited. To me, that felt like cheating. I wanted to be constrained to what the heroes themselves knew. I didn’t want the benefits of an omniscient narrator here.

Byatt’s Victorian characters are fictional, as far as I know, but they inhabit a real Victorian world and rub shoulders with actual historical characters. They lived in a real world. This allowed Byatt in the course of the story to offer real insights into the minds of historical actors. One highlight of this work, an illustration of the power of this form of writing for making the period come to life, is in the spiritualism episode. The Victorian couple has been parted for years, but our scholar heroes unearth evidence that they met again at a séance at the home of a Victorian medium much later. Byatt uses this episode to show why spiritualism—table-knockings, séances, attempts to contact the spirits of the dead, etc.—had such a resonance for a period paradoxically known for its scientific outlook. People like the astronomer William Huggins, the chemist William Crookes, and the physicist Oliver Lodge gave these activities serious consideration.

Byatt first shows the account of a skeptic who interrupted the happening of a séance and felt he had confirmed that it was all charlatanism. But then she also reproduces the account of the medium herself, explaining the events in materialistic terms (recall that this age of auras and emanations was the same period seeing the first detailed studies of electricity and magnetism). For her, there was a completely logical and consistent explanation for why only those acclimated or prepared could observe spiritual effects. The observer himself altered the state of the experiment. It’s a relatively minor part of the plot, but it’s powerful in that it removes the reader– at least momentarily– from the privileged position of viewing a “discounted” science in hindsight.

Possession is intellectual, exciting, and rewarding. It gives a glimpse into two rich worlds: that of scholarly pursuit and the Victorian literary age. And it’s about people falling in love in different periods and cultures. This alone—and I’m only realizing this now—provided one of the book’s most poignant messages: the past is indeed a foreign country. Men and women are going to have affairs, but pairs of affairs separated by one hundred and fifty years can be as different as, well, the face of Gwyneth Paltrow and the fuzzy form of a half-glimpsed Victorian poetess.

Godric

GodricGodric by Frederick Buechner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The life of a saint is a peculiar thing. As I mentioned in a recent review of the writings of St. Seraphim, hagiography can make me acutely uncomfortable. Time and distance tend to polish the contours of anyone’s life, and a saint viewed through the lens of their own writings is often more comfortable than one in the flesh or even one depicted by contemporary accounts.

Frederick Buechner brings a saint to life in Godric, but it’s a real life, and in more ways than one. Buechner took an account of a historical saint from medieval England and built a life with the pieces history had provided. The skill with which he accomplishes this alone makes the book worthwhile, as England is a land with a rich and deep history entwined with Christianity. Godric would pair well with something like the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede. Buechner’s Godric is born the year before the Norman invasion and provides a Zinn-like “people’s history” view of the rise and fall of monarchies through the eyes of a merchant, a pilgrim, and finally a monk.

Then there is what the book says about sanctity, and this is where Buechner’s genius really shines. The book is not plot-driven, not riveting in the sense of chapters ending on cliffhangers or some over-arching mystery to solve or eminent peril to resolve. It’s something much more real: it’s a life. It’s about how Godric tried to find God. There are brushes with the supernatural, but they are merely hints and shadings. What Buechner drives home is Godric’s own, very human, search. There is no dramatic conversion. There are instead seemingly aimless wanderings as Godric tries to come to grips with his own fear, his own selfishness, and his seeming inability to do true good to those around him. It is in some respect an account of everyone’s life.

What makes Godric a saint? For Buechner it was two things: the perception that people formed of his sanctity, as he lived out the final half of his life in a hermitage beside the River Wear, and something much harder to define. It wasn’t his miracles. Those could be explained away. It wasn’t his holiness or sinlessness, as Buechner makes abundantly clear. As an anchorite, Godric is crotchety, impatient, and sometimes despairing. Moreover, the single more or less constant theme in his life is a relationship that provides the impetus that sends Godric wandering in the first place and which is ultimately culminated in incest and murder.

The thing about sanctity that Buechner might be telling us (and he is indeed saying much, and saying it very well in this book) is that Godric is a saint because he is desperate. He desperately wants to divorce himself from his own sinfulness. He desperately wants to know the love of God, and he’s crazy and stubborn enough to become one of those people who live out this desperation not enmeshed in the relationships within which most of the rest of us live out the struggle but in isolation, discipline, and constant prayer.

There is something else that makes this book wonderful. This is the voice Buechner creates for Godric; it is what makes the novel truly come to life. There’s not only the tone and the style in which he speaks, nor the harsh clarity that makes you know there was a real, breathing person behind these thoughts. There’s also the rhythm. The entire novel reads like a prose poem, with the flow of each sentence and phrase running with a steady cadence, fitting for the life of a saint who is credited as the first English lyric poet. It is almost intoxicating, carrying the reader along like the River Wear must have whispered constantly to Hermit Godric. Godric is a beautiful book beautifully crafted, and I’d love to find an audiobook version by a talented reader.