Review: ‘The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's DaughterThe Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine “monsters” from science fiction and horror classics written by H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Lewis Stevenson working together with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade to track down the killers in a string of gory London murders.

Odds are, the resulting story would be a chaotic, unbelievable mess. Or, if the muses were kind and the odds were defied, the resulting story would be a breathtaking and expertly plotted Victorian-era fantasy in which the plots, characters and themes of fictional legends fit together in a believable, wondrous harmony.

Theodora Goss’ muses were kind.

The protagonists of legend believed they could create evolved humans out of bits and pieces of the dead. They failed. The evil scientists in Goss’ story have similar ideas. “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” has been assembled from the remains of its legendary predecessors, yet unlike the “monsters” of yore, it is strikingly beautiful, functions elegantly with the well-focused skills of its creator, and contains a radiant soul.

Readers familiar with the original stories will enjoy references to even the smallest of details. For everyone else, no footnotes are required because the story stands on its own.

The plot is complicated and compelling and the pace is rapid and perfectly synchronized with a dash of humor. As a writer, I wonder how Goss created a novel that is better than the works from which it takes it themes. I suspect her precision as a poet and short story writer, her love of fairy tales and folklore, and her long-term research into the “monsters” of literature are factors. But those factors are only bits and pieces of the author’s craft, imagination and creative spirit.

Rather than analyse how Goss turned an accident waiting to happen into one of the best novels of the year, I’m willing to write it off and say: “It must be magic.”

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–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, folklore and magical realism short stories and novels.

Returning to Sunetra Gupta’s ‘Memories of Rain’

memoriesofrainIt’s been 24 years since I first read Memories of Rain by Calcutta-born Sunetra Gupta who, when not writing fiction and translating Tagore Poetry, works as a Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. It’s one of my “go to” books whenever I run out of factory fresh books. I’ve read it numerous times and find the prose fresh and new every time I return to it.

Moni, who is Bengali, marries an Englishman who, in those early days that began on a rainy day, ignited her passions and promised her everything. Years after that day, Moni is planning to leave him because he not only has another woman, he has brought her into their home in what he sees as a perfect love triangle. Flashbacks tell much of the story.

When the book was released, Kirkus reviews said: “A stunning, luminous debut set in Calcutta and London by a young, true heir to Virginia Woolf. The forward action of Gupta’s hypnotic novel takes place during a single weekend: Calcutta-born Moni, despondent over her English husband’s infidelity, secretly plans to take their daughter and return to India on the child’s sixth birthday. But the stream- of-consciousness narrative weaves together memories and images, providing not just the history of a fragile love but of a woman’s psychology and soul.”

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, so I was stunned to see such adulation on the back cover of the novel. It turned out to be true, though I wonder how Gupta survived it and was able to write four novels after that one without losing her nerve or her voice. Her most recent is So Good in Black (2011).

Unfortunately, the book is out of print, though you can still find used copies available on Amazon. Several reader reviews on Amazon’s US and UK sites are less than kind, proving my thesis that if you don’t normally read a book in a certain genre, you shouldn’t be writing a review. Such reviewers lambaste the style which is essential to the kind of book it is.

The Independent said, “Do not be put off by this (Kirkus’ viewpoint) – the comparison might have been provoked by the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but Ms Gupta has a refined sensibility and a graceful style all her own. She shows an intelligence, wisdom, and judgement astonishing in so young a writer – she is only 27.”

Ms. Gupta and I have corresponded by e-mail from time to time, and when she came to Georgia for a medical conference several years ago, we planned to meet for a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the conference schedule changed, and we couldn’t make our schedules match. I was one of the early reviewers of So Good in Black and had despaired that it took so long for a U. S. publisher to discover and publish the book, so I expect we might have talked about the book.

Her research of infectious diseases has brought her awards. I marvel at how she juggles two loves, science and art, biology and fiction, and novels that immerse readers in other worlds while she is otherwise focused on the health of this one. Is she Woolf’s heir? Yes and no. If she wrote more fiction, then yes. But since she doesn’t, then probably not. Either way, I think Woolf would appreciate her work.

Perhaps I should hold a seance and talk to Ms. Woolf. Who knows what she would say. Or, if Ms. Gupta comes to Georgia again, perhaps our schedules will match. Meanwhile, I read and re-read Memories of Rain and continue to wonder at its words.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and fantasy, including Conjure Woman’s Cat.

 

Brief Review: ‘The Girl on the Train’

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This mystery, narrated by three London-area women, is tightly written with multiple who-dunnit style twists and turns. Rachael takes the train into London every day and has gotten into the habit of fantasizing about the lives of two people she’s never met in a house near the tracks several doors down from the house where she used to live. She builds a perfect life for the unknown couple in the house and almost comes to believe she knows them–until the woman who lives there ends up missing.

The interesting plot is dulled to some extent due to the fact that Rachael, Anna and Megan seem some hopelessly inept in maintaining any order and purpose in their lives other than, perhaps, a focus on their relationships with men.

The author brings a nice touch to Rachael’s chapters because her excessive drinking makes her an unreliable narrator. The police–and the readers, as well–won’t be sure until near the end of the book what she saw and what she did during a black-period on the night “it happened.”

The train imagery is pitch perfect and the ending is satisfying.

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–Malcolm

Review: “Burning Bright”

Burning Bright Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
London at the time of the French revolution takes center stage in this beautifully written novel featuring location and themes over plot. When craftsman Thomas Kellaway moves his wife Anne and teen-aged children Jem and Masie from the Piddle Valley in Dorset to London in March of 1792, they are all but overwhelmed by the contrasting grandeur and ugliness of the big city. Thomas hopes he can better support the family making chairs for the circus and Anne hopes distance will heal her tortured mind after the accidental death of their son Tommy.

Tracy Chevalier has drawn a deep and richly detailed portrait of London, especially the Borough of Lambeth where the noisy, dirty and boisterous lifestyle of the poor that differs so greatly from the quieter world of Dorset is accentuated when the circus comes to town.

Contrasts flow through the Kellaway’s lives as surely as the Thames flows through London, and here the author draws upon William Blake’s focus on “contraries,” or pairs of opposites, for the novel’s theme. London, in “Burning Bright” becomes an alchemist’s athanor wherein the Kellaways will undergo their transformations beneath the piercing gaze of Blake, the adept who applies his “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” within the novel as Holy Scripture.

Blake serves as a catalyst within the story line, yet he is a one-dimensional character who primary speaks in philosophic riddles and quotes from his favorite poems. While Jem, Masie and their new, streetwise friend, Maggie, view the home of William and Kate Blake as calm sanctuary within a world where the trials of childhood are greatly magnified by the dangerous environment, the reader will come away having learned more about the Borough of Lambeth and than the famous poet and print maker.

Like her adult characters in “Burning Bright,” Chevalier appears unwilling to step past Blake’s fame, notoriety and fiery persona and confront the poet head on. Doing so would have brought closure to the novel for readers and characters alike. We have a well-crafted slice-of-life portrait of a rural family’s brief sojourn into the big city. What we don’t have is an overt look at what it finally meant to them.

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