The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown • $26 • ISBN 9780316228114
On sale January 14, 2014
Rachel Urquhart's debut novel takes place in a Shaker community in the 1840s—the place where 15-year-old Polly and her younger brother flee after burning her house down to conceal the murder of her abusive father. But she finds that safety comes at something of a price in this harsh and restrictive community.
"Why must I pretend my brother is not my brother?" she asked. She no longer felt afraid of this stranger. Nothing moved her anymore, not love, not worry, not even sadness. She had become as hard and dry as a winter seed. "Mama said she had business to attend to," Polly said, not intending to speak her doubts out loud. "Perhaps. And yet, how could she have left us in a place where there can be no love?"
The girl let out a sigh. "There is love here, you will see. Brother for brother, sister for sister. But flesh bonds are forged in the fires of carnal sin. Your Ben, like you, was born of a filthy act. Here, that filth will be lifted. You shall see for yourself, if you are willing to renounce your blood ties and confess. Should you refuse, then you do not belong among us."
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Helene Wecker's first novel announces the arrival of a formidable imagination. The Golem and the Jinni expertly blends Jewish and Arabic folklore against the vivid backdrop of 1899 New York City, where her title characters—golem Chava and jinni Ahmed—meet. Chava and Ahmed at first clash due to their opposite natures, but are drawn to one another by their shared experience as supernatural beings in a city of humans—not to mention their shared experience of being at the beck and call of various "masters." It soon becomes clear that combining their powers is the only chance for freedom . . . and perhaps even for survival.
Suspenseful, creative and entertaining, this book should delight fans of both fantasy and historical fiction. (And one of the best debuts of 2013!) Don't miss it.
Watch for our full list next week!
In an imaginative prelude to Charles Dickens' acclaimed classic, Great Expectations, Scottish novelist Ronald Frame allows readers a glimpse into the life of Catherine Havisham, a character who has chilled readers with her dour and ghostly literary presence for well over a century.
With Havisham, Frame nimbly explores what some could call hallowed literary ground—we first meet Catherine as the precocious child of a wealthy brewer and follow her through her years of growth and social refinement. Yet it is Frame's detailed account of her (infamous) relationship with the roguish Charles Compeyson that makes us truly sorry for saying such ugly things about her in our high school English classes.
Our reviewer Elizabeth Atwood gave high praise: "An excellent example of a present-day writer taking on a classic, Havisham gives the reader food for thought while reviving one of the great characters of Victorian literature."
Sounds like a true book nerd's story to us! Watch the stylish trailer below:
What do you think, readers? Have you picked up a copy of Havisham yet?
Emma Donoghue became a household name for readers after the her 2010 novel, Room, sold more than 1.5 million copies. But Room was actually an anomaly for Donoghue, who was known as a historical fiction writer—or, as she puts it, a "fact-based historical writer." She returns to the past on April 1 with Frog Music (Little, Brown), a story set in 1876 San Francisco that's based on a real-life crime. A heatwave is sweeping the city—and so is a deadly smallpox epidemic. But French burlesque dancer Blanche Beunon has even bigger problems: Her friend, Jenny Bonnet, has been shot dead, and Blanche is determined to bring her killer to justice.
As Blanche pieces together Jenny's past for clues, she discovers that her frog-hunting friend had more than a few secrets. Will she be able to solve the mystery of Jenny's death before the killer catches up with her?
In 2010, attorney Ronald H. Balson self-published his first novel, Once We Were Brothers, a haunting, fast-paced tale originating in Nazi-occupied Poland. The book opens in 2004, though. Philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig is accused of being former SS officer Otto Piatek. The accuser is Ben Solomon, whose family took in the orphaned Piatek as a child, only to be brutally betrayed by him during the war.
Inspired by Balson's travels in Poland, Once We Were Brothers became a runaway hit, selling more than 120,000 copies. Three years later, the film rights have been optioned, and St. Martin's Press has published a new edition—released today—that will introduce this enthralling page-turner to an even larger audience.
In this guest blog post, Balson discusses how he was originally inspired to write the book:
In the early 2000s, I was hired by a small Chicago company that had an exclusive license to install telephone service in the Nova Sacz province of southern Poland. Unfortunately, they couldn’t deliver the project on time, and they lost their license. They, in turn, sued the manufacturing company. Although the lawsuit was filed in Chicago, the witnesses, the documents and all the evidence were in Poland. So, off I went. Many times.
I had read a lot about Poland during World War II, but I didn’t really know what to expect on my visits. I knew that Hitler had bombed 80 percent of Warsaw, and I knew the city had been rebuilt under the Soviet regime. But I failed to anticipate how much of the landscape would still show the wounds. Bullet holes remain in buildings. Plaques on brick walls commemorate ruthless murders that took place there. And the monuments. So many monuments, statues and memorials. Memorials to the fighters of the Polish Uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish airmen and even the code breakers. And then there are the heartbreaking memorials to the camp victims.
Poland never stood a chance. It was facing the world’s largest, most menacing war machine. Yet, here and there, all across Poland, are glorious monuments in praise of heroism—to those who resisted, to those who fought in the uprisings and in the underground, and to those ordinary families who just tried to carry on and maintain their dignity in a time of insanity. They were heroes, all. That’s what the monuments tell us.
I became fascinated by the monuments and spent more time than I should have thinking about the people to whom they were dedicated. It was an easy step from there to Once We Were Brothers. My novel opens dramatically: A prominent philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, is accused of being a former Nazi SS officer known as the Butcher of Zamosc, Poland. His accuser, Ben Solomon, claims that they grew up together in the same household, only to be betrayed by Rosenzweig during the war.
The underlying message of Once We Were Brothers, though, is one of heroism. Like the monuments, it lies in praise of the ordinary families of small-town Poland, who tried to live their lives in the face of the Nazi scourge. When their dignities were stripped from them, piece by piece, they did their best to carry on. The book’s message is also praise for the courage of those who resisted and those who served in the Polish underground.
An important section of the novel concerns a Catholic priest who risks his life to save the Solomon family. In a time when many averted their eyes and showed moral indifference, others, in the face of extreme consequences, displayed extraordinary courage. They are the ordinary folks—families, clergy, businessmen—who are honored at Yad VaShem as the “Righteous Among Nations.”
Ben Solomon seeks the help of a young lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Over a series of interviews, he narrates the moving story of his family and of Rosenzweig’s betrayal. Although overmatched by Rosenzweig’s powerful team of lawyers, Lockhart must find the courage to confront them. To do so, she draws strength from Ben and his story. And isn’t that akin to the residual effect of the monuments? They are there to remind us of courage and moral conviction. Do we not draw strength and resolve from remembrance of these heroes?
If Once We Were Brothers entertains and informs, I am pleased with the result. But if the message of heroism is conveyed as well, then I have accomplished something that was born out of my visits to those emotionally powerful monuments several years ago.
Marlen Suyapa Bodden was working at the Legal Aid Society in New York when she stumbled upon the story that would turn her from a lawyer to a novelist. She first published The Wedding Gift herself, but intense reader interest led to it being picked up by St. Martin's Press, who will re-release the novel next week. In a guest post, Bodden shares the inspiration for her compelling debut.
In 1999, I was reading a nonfiction book on runaway slaves and came across a few lines and an endnote about an Antebellum divorce case from the Circuit Court in Talladega, Alabama (the city’s lovely courthouse, built in 1836 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is still in use and is the oldest working courthouse in the U.S.). A slaveholding man sued his bride for divorce because the child she gave birth to was not his. The court ruled in his favor and granted him all the property his wife brought to the marriage, including a young slave woman, who was a wedding gift from her father.
The fact that a person was given to another as if she were china or a tea service is shocking to our 21st-century minds, but what I learned while researching slavery, historical and modern, is that dehumanization is the chief tool that slave owners have used throughout time to control people and keep them enslaved. It was common for wealthy Antebellum slave owners to give their daughters maids as wedding presents, so the brides would have familiar faces in their new homes.
Though the Talladega case captured my imagination, I did not begin drafting The Wedding Gift until 2003, when another real-life story shocked me into action. A social worker at a women’s homeless shelter in New York City contacted me about a resident of the shelter who wanted to sue her former employers for unpaid wages. I found out that she had been brought from an Asian country to New York as a slave, and eventually escaped with the help of police. It occurred to me then that, like most people, I had thought slavery was in the past—but there I was, looking into the eyes of a former slave.
When I started writing The Wedding Gift, I was not predisposed to write a novel that cast White people as villains and Black people as heroes. As a novelist and reader, I think characters who are either complete demons or saints are boring. Sarah Campbell, the young slave who is given to her half-sister as a wedding present, is a heroine, but she is not perfect. Similarly, Theodora, wife of master Cornelius Allen, may be kind to Sarah, but she remains a slave owner. Even Cornelius, the villain of the novel, engages in acts of kindness, although he is motivated by keeping his slaves in good health so they can reproduce.
I first went to Alabama in 1997 to work on a civil rights case (I am also a lawyer) and since then have traveled throughout the state, including Talladega, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. The people of Alabama, of all races, have Southern charm and could not have been kinder to me. In The Wedding Guest, I hope to have done their complicated history justice—and to have given voice not only to the more than 27 million slaves of today but also to my own ancestors who, beginning in the 16th century, were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the New World.
Thanks, Marlen! For more on The Wedding Gift, on sale September 24, visit her website.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh, a novel that was one of the most buzzed-about releases of 2003—it sold within a month. Tackling the difficult subject of why women think they have to marry with elegant writing and plenty of insight, Haigh's ambitious debut is well worth looking back on (and her later work has fulfilled its promise and then some).
"Ken Kimble is what I call a serial marrier," Haigh says by phone from Boston, where she moved after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop last year. "He has these serious character flaws, but he has no problem finding women to marry." Haigh has firm opinions about why such a man can always find a bride. "We're raised as women to value marriage and family," she says, "and to believe that unless we've achieved those things, the rest of our accomplishments don't really count for very much."
Read the full interview from our February 2003 issue here.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent. Set during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the story follows the real-life Carrier family, whose sharp-tongued matriarch is accused of consorting with the devil.
A descendent of the Carriers, Kent relates the story quietly, with moments of beauty that give way to horror, then to redemption. The Heretic's Daughter not only chronicles the insanity of the witch trials, but a family learning—maybe too late—to truly value each other.
Read the full review from our September 2008 issue here, and keep a lookout for Kent's next novel, The Outcasts, coming in October.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean, a historical novel set during the 1941 Siege of Leningrad. For months, the city was cut off from supply routes, driving its residents to desperate measures. One young woman, Marina, takes refuge in the Hermitage, wandering the bare halls while preserving in her memory the artwork that used to hang there. Near the end of her life, her memory failing, this time returns to Marina, and she begins to share her wartime experiences with her own daughter for the first time.
Dean merges past and present in prose that shines like the gilt frames in the Hermitage. The story shifts seamlessly from 1941 to the present, just as Alzheimer's shifts time within Marina's mind. The heart of the story is its flashbacks, when we walk the Spanish Hall with Marina, aching with loss and hunger. As she commits scenes, colors, even brushstrokes to memory, the paintings come alive. Chapters narrated by her daughter Helen show us the present, when Marina slips away at a family gathering. During the search, Helen, herself a mother and an artist, wonders about the memories parents choose to tell their children and the memories they keep secret.
Read the full review from our April 2006 issue here.
The Rosatis thought they were safe from the war hidden away in their ancient villa, until two soldiers walked into their lives. Twelve years later, the Rosatis are being targeted by a serial killer. Serafina Bettini begins investigating the case, but every step closer to an answer brings back her own hidden past. In a world that is trying to recover from the pain of war, Bohjalian expertly knots the threads of his characters, creating a story of love and revenge.
Chris Bohjalian, New York Times best-selling author of The Sandcastle Girls, delivers another mysterious novel, this one set in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. Our reviewer calls The Light in the Ruins "a brilliant blend of historical fiction and a chilling serial killer story."
Be sure to read the full review here and check out the trailer below from Knopf Doubleday for more:
Will you read The Light in the Ruins? What other mysteries have you read during Private Eye July?