The Difference – Marina Endicott

Although I generally do not read much historical fiction (Washington Black is an obvious exception to this statement), Ms. Endicott is just an excellent storyteller. The book has two parts. The first is an around-the-world journey by a sailing ship in 1911-12. Two disparate sisters are on this long sea journey, 12 year-old Kay and her much older sister Thea who is married to the ship’s captain. Kay is temperamental and impetuous but is a keen observer; she is also tormented by memories of her early childhood in Alberta where her stern father ran a Residential School. After two miscarriages at sea, Thea “acquires” young Micronesian boy they name Aren, an exchange for four tins of tobacco. The second part of the book takes place 10 years later at the sister’s home in Nova Scotia. Predictably Aren does not fit in so Kay ranges for a second sea trip back to the island of his origin. The writing is enchanting; a description of a mid-Pacific eclipse is breathtaking. This is a powerful story about differences, especially those that cannot be overcome.

Affinity – Sarah Waters

Affinity - Sarah WatersThis is an early book of Ms. Waters (1999). The setting is England in 1873-74. Margaret Prior, a 29 year-old woman with a troubled past decides to preoccupy herself with good deeds by visiting women prisoners in at Millbank, a notoriously dark and evil prison. There she becomes entranced by a spiritualist, Salina Dawes. The story slowly and inexorably become one of obsession and almost possession, and has a cracking good ending. This book is from a VPL list of “books that broke our hearts”.

The Island of Sea Women – Lisa See

A detailed account of a friendship between two Korean women who are part of a woman’s diving collective (Haenyo) on a Korean island. The story begins in 1938, then progresses through the Japanese occupation prior to and during World War II. Their friendship is ruptured by an act of atrocity; the post-war years leading to the Korean War are filled with hardships. The latter part of the book is a poignant recalling of broken trust and how difficult it is to achieve reconciliation and grant forgiveness. This is a profound story of women who are powerful in the sea but overcome by extreme forces on  land. The history of Korea, especially the post-war chaos, makes for a powerful book.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

A re-telling of the Iliad from the point of view of Briseus, the daughter of the King of Lyrnessus who is awarded to Achilles as a trophy. The best part of this book is the portrayal of the ensuing 9-year Trojan War as the folly of men, waging war because of a mis-guided sense of honour usually manifesting as petulance. Achilles is especially blood-thirsty, driven by a rage and compulsion to kill. The savagery of war is described wonderfully by the author of the Regeneration Trilogy, a masterful treatment of war and its collateral damage.

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver previously wrote the marvellous The Poisonwood Bible. Her new book has two story lines, about people who live in the same house in New Jersey: one family in 1874 and a contemporary family in 2012. Both stories involve dealing with hardships. In 2012, the issue is economic instability and insecurity (making me think of some classic Lionel Shriver books). In 1874, a biology teacher is conflicted by the controversy about Darwin versus traditional religion. The way Kingsolver links the alternating family stories is masterful and her knowledge of biology is exceptional. This is a very interesting worthwhile read.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted – Robert Hillman

Perhaps predictably, this library book was chosen from the new releases bookshelf entirely based on the brilliant title. The story takes place in rural Australia in the 1960s, with two vivid characters: Tom, a farmer, has been abandoned by his wife,
Rand Hannah, an Auschwitz survivor who has a dream of operating a bookshop in a small town. Theirs is an unlikely romance, a complicated relationship to be sure. The combination of complex issues in a wonderful setting is intoxicating.

The Home for Unwanted Girls – Joanne Goodman

The Home for Unwanted Girls - Joanne GoodmanOne of the things we learned from Heather O’Neill’s very fine The Lonely Hearts Hotel was that Quebec orphanages were tough places. Goodman’s novel reinforces that reality, beginning in 1950. Even worse, the Duplessis Quebec government transferred illegitimate orphans to mental institutions in order to obtain more federal money for institutions. So this is an angst-filled story over 20 years, the mother who was forced to give up her illegitimate daughter and the daughter’s experience in horrible institutions, so be warned.