Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: Lent, by Jo Walton

 Lent, by Jo Walton

a review by Rich Horton

Lent is Jo Walton's 14th novel, from 2019, not counting an unsold early novel that was finally published in 2015. I was privileged to know Jo as one of the smartest, most interesting, most perceptive posters on the great Usenet newsgroups and rec.arts.sf.composition in the late '90s (For those who weren't there in that time period ... these Usenet groups featured probably the very best online disussion of SF ever, and I miss them dearly. (They persist, but they haven't been the same for a very long time.)) It's quite wonderful, then, to see where Jo has gone as a writer since then. As for Lent specifically ... I didn't exactly "read" this, I "heard" it, in the Aubible version, read by Will Damron. 

Lent opens with the monk Girolamo Savonarola banishing demons from a convent in Florence. We learn that Brother Girolamo actually can see the demons; and he is surprised at how many of them there are. He traces the infestation to a book in the convent's library in which he finds a curious jade stone. After leaving the convent he agrees to visit Lorenzo de' Medici, the de facto leader of Florence, who is dying. At the Medici home we also meet Lorenzo's sullen son, Piero, and two friends of Girolamo, the Count Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano. Girolamo's meeting with Lorenzo is surprising, as Lorenzo seems to be radiant, as if blessed by God. All this serves to introduce many of the key characters of the book, and to show Girolamo's other special gift: prophecy, for he foresees that a King from the North will invade Italy within a few years.

All these major characters are historical personages. The reader has probably heard of the main character, Girolamo Savonarola. If you are like me, you knew the basic outline of his life, and of his reputation as a "mad monk", an ascetic religious fanatic, who was eventually burned by the Church. As the novel continues, it begins to seem an historical novel, resembling in a sense Hilary Mantel's series about Thomas Cromwell -- for much as Mantel tried to rehabilitate Cromwell's reputation, Walton seems to be rehabilitating Savonarola's. (I have since learned that Savonarola has long been mostly rescued from the caricature I learned about in my Catholic school, and that some consider him a key pre-Reformation figure, because of his stance against the corruption of the Catholic Church. As Walton points out in an afterword, he'd have been horrified to be associated with people who broke from the Church -- his goal was true reform within the Church, and nothing so significant as the theological changes Luther and Calvin spurred.) The only fantastical element we see is Girolamo's special gifts -- to be able to see demons, and to prophesy.

So, indeed, for the first half of Lent, this continues: Savonarola's life from about 1492 to 1498 is described, quite involvingly. The turmoil in Italy, resulting from Pope Alexander Borgia's corruption, and from the invasion of King Charles of France, is shown, as well as Savonarola's role in persuading Charles to spare Florence, and his increased influence in the city, trying to inspire a more holy, more virtuous life for all citizens, including such things as the "Bonfire of the Vanities", and finally, tragically, an attempt by one of his allies to prove their miracles by walking unharmed through fire. This last effort literally fizzles, and the already excommunicated Savonarola, along with two of his fellow monks, are hanged and burned.

So far this is indeed a very effective historical novel. One might quibble a bit that on occasion the author's research is a bit too thoroughly displayed, or that the language stumbles a bit in balancing contemporary English with something that feels true to 15th Century Italy (trivial example -- when a character mentions that "King Charles VIII of France" is coming in a situation where they would surely be saying simply, say, "Charles of France"), but on the whole it really works, the characters live, and Savonarola is believable and sympathetic.

But this gets us to pretty much exactly the halfway point. Any thing after this ends up begin a really big spoiler, so perhaps you want to stop here, and I'll simply assure you that the novel remains very satisfying in its second half, and that it eventually sticks its landing.

SPOILERS ... after the cover of the Audible version!


Then, having been executed, Girolamo falls into Hell. And once there, realizes that he is not only damned, but especially damned, for he was one of the angels who rebelled against God. There is no hope for him. Worse, he realizes he cannot even pray. After a long "time" in Hell (in Hell there is no time, of course) Girolamo returns, and he's back to when he was at the opening of the book, expelling demons from the convent. But this time, he remembers his previous life. And he also remembers that he is in truth a demon, which fills him with despair. But, aware of the failure of his previous efforts to make Florence holy, he vows at least to try something different. And with this in mind, on his meeting with the dying Lorenzo, he reveals his true nature to him and a few of his friends, and they are (perhaps a bit surprisingly) sympathetic, and they plot a different strategy for Florence. And they also try to to convince Girolamo of the possibility of redemption for him, though Girolamo cannot believe this.

This sets the template for the rest of the novel, which in increasingly short segments, portrays the attempts of Girolamo and his friends to change history, and Florence's fate. Girolamo tries many things -- abandoning his vocation (once even marrying), or leaning into his vocation and even becoming Pope. They try different political strategies -- banishing Lorenzo's venal heir Piero, or trying to educate him; giving more power to the women of Florence (Girolamo even in the first half worked with many women as allies or respected foes: notably Pico's lover Isabella, also Lorenzo's daughter Lucrezia, and Camilla, who has dissolved her marriage in order to found a new convent), and so on. (We also end up meeting quite a few historical personages, from Richard III to Michelango to several more, as well as of course the many associates of Savonarola who are almost all real historical people.) These strategies have varying success temporally, but none seem to help Girolamo find redemption, nor to achieve what becomes his true goal: a chance at least for redemption for all the demons in Hell. But another key character who turns out to be a demon (who this is I will leave for the reader to find out) may be, in the final analysis, the key ...

This novel is inevitably described as "Groundhog Day in medieval Florence" or something like that, though I think a better comparison might be to Ken Grimwood's novel Replay. (And the whole Groundhog Day genre is becoming quite the thing: I can recommend one of the 2021 Hugo Nominees for Dramatic Presentation, Palm Springs, as an excellent example.) But Walton's interests are broader and more philosophically interesting than most of these examples, as might be indicated by the importance of such characters as Della Mirandola and also Marsilio Ficini, critical Humanist thinkers of that period who also had roles in her Thessaly trilogy. Philosophical and religious debates are often appropriately foregrounded. Key too is the role of women. And the end goal, a decidedly Universalist goal (in Christian terms): the redemption of all, including demons; is inspiring.

Jo Walton remains one of our most interesting novelists, and, it seems clear now (and was already clear at least by the Thessaly books) one of our most intellectual, indeed philosophical novelists. But also, I emphasize, one who tells a good story, even when it's a story we already know, and who makes us care intensely for her characters, and who moves us greatly -- in this novel, Girolamo's personal struggle, his sincere faith, and his enventual fate are quite powerfully displayed. 

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Old Bestseller: Rhododendron Pie, by Margery Sharp

 Rhododendron Pie, by Margery Sharp

a review by Rich Horton

To begin with, I should note that this book was not really a bestseller. But Margery Sharp was a notably successful writer in her lifetime, with early adult novels such as Cluny Brown, The Nutmeg Tree, and Britannia Mews becoming movies, as too her later children's novels beginning with The Rescuers spawned a couple of Disney animated features. Indeed, at least one Rhododendron Pie dust jacket* featured the line "Author of the Outstanding Bestseller "The Nutmeg Tree"". So I think I can shoehorn her into "Old Bestsellerdom".

(*It seems that Rhododendron Pie was never reprinted until recently, so this particular dust jacket must have been slapped onto remaining unsold copies of the book after The Nutmeg Tree appeared. It's worth noting that the copies of the book's 1930 American editions that I found on Abebooks are priced between $210 and $500! All the more reason to celebrate these reprints!)

I have read a number of Margery Sharp's novels for adults, such as Cluny Brown, The Stone of Chastity, and Brittania Mews; and I also read many of her novels for children when I was a child, and again when my children were children. She's an extremely enjoyable writer, comic with a (usually somewhat gentle) satirical edge. She tends to write about somewhat unconventional women -- women who usually know their mind, and who often have to resist others' expectations. Her novels may be love stories, but often are not, even when the structure suggests it; and at any rate you can't necessarily expect the obvious conclusions. I think she is one of the best of the great many outstanding 20th Century British women writers working in the mode of social comedy. And yet, her novels have been hard to find for quite a while. This despite a fair amount of success in her lifetime: or perhaps because of that success she might have been too well known to deserve a rediscovery, unlike say Barbara Pym; or too popular in idiom to achieve the status of, say, Elizabeth Taylor. At any rate, for years I couldn't find her books, not even used copies in antique stores and the like.

So it is with great happiness that I greet the republication of six of her novels by the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press. Furrowed Middlebrow is the project of Scott Thompson (and the name of his blog.) Scott's primary interest is British women writers of roughly the first half of the 20th Century. And in the past few years Scott has ushered several of his favorite books and writers back into print -- women like Frances Faviell, D. E. Stevenson, and Miss Read (one of my mother's favorite writers back when I was a kid.) And now it's Sharp's turn.

Margery Sharp was born in 1905 and died in 1991. She took a degree in French from the University of London in 1928, by which time she was publishing short fiction. She married Geoffrey Castle, an Aeronautical Engineer, in 1938 (after their affair led to Castle's divorce from his first wife). Castle wrote two science fiction novels himself, while Sharp eventually published 22 novels for adults, another 13 for children, and a fair amount of short fiction and some plays. She seems to have retired in 1978, with her last Rescuers novel, her final adult novel, Summer Visits, having appeared the year before. (I should note that while I read many of the Rescuers books when quite young, and a few of her adult novels in my late teens, I didn't recognize that the writers were the same person until rather later.)

Rhododendron Pie was her first novel, It appeared in 1930. The prologue introduces the Laventie family on the occasion of Ann Laventie's 10th birthday. We soon gather that they have family wealth, and very highbrow and eccentric tastes. The mother is wheelchair-bound. Ann is the youngest. It is the family tradition to have a special pie for the children's birthday -- a pie made of flowers. A cute and clever notion, we think ... but the fulcrum of the novel is revealed at the close of the prologue, when we learn that Ann is a renegade -- she would really rather have had apple pie.

The main action takes place 10 years later. The older siblings, Dick and Elizabeth, have moved to the city, where Dick is trying to be an artist, and Elizabeth is writing sophisticated articles. Dick and Elizabeth spend a summer with the family, and a friend, avant garde film maker Gilbert Croy, has joined them. In the mean time Ann has made friends with the impossibly bourguois neighbours, the Gayfords. John Gayford is clearly interested in Ann, but she seems to feel that her family expects them to do better than the Gayfords ...

Gilbert Croy is an interesting person ... one supposes ... and soon Ann has convinced herself she's in love, and he seems to be interested as well. Ann is also still involved with the locals, and she meets the Gayfords' redoubtable Aunt Finn, and with her family attends the local Fete ... and when they unexpectedly win a prize Ann goes up to accept it, to avoid embarrassing the man who is hosting the Fete.

Ann goes up to London to visit Dick and Elizabeth, and she finally gets a real flavour of their life there. Dick is clearly a mess, no sort of artist at all, and variously involved with a variety of fairly vapid girls. Ann makes friends with one of them, not so vapid, who clearly knows what she wants and is in charge. Gilbert remains interested in Ann but his "proposal" is not a proposal at all ... and Ann finally realizes that she is not like these people (or, I should say, begins to realize it.)

I won't detail the resolution, but it's something we've expected for a while. And if we've been paying attention, we've noticed all along that the Laventies -- mostly due to Richard's "leadership" -- are rather priggish shits. (With the exception of Mrs. Laventie and Ann -- and we learn how important Mrs. Laventie is to the family, and that she knows very well the worth or lack of it in her husband, and what her husband gets up to when away from her.) Elizabeth seems trapped by the fact that she really is able to keep up with all the pretentious folks in the city, including Gilbert, whom she too thinks she loves. Ann has known all along that she doesn't like rhododendron pie -- she likes apple pie, so she is happy to give up any notion of an artistic future.

In some ways this really shows us very much what we can expect from Margery Sharp throughout her career. Characters she mostly likes, but is willing to see in full -- faults as well as virtues. A distinct satirical edge, but softened by her affection for most of her characters. A willingness to defy expectations as to conventional resolutions -- though this is not wholly clear in this book, unless we expected Ann to reveal unexpected artistic depths that outshine Dick's artistic failings and Elizabeth's perhaps empty intelligence. But, mostly, a novel that is simply enjoyable reading incident by incident. 

I really liked this book, and I've already bought another Furrowed Middlebrow Sharp reprint, and -- as I intended all along -- I hope to eventually make my way through all of Sharp's oeuvre.