I’m delighted to welcome Penny Waugh as a guest reviewer. Penny is a prolific reader and book lover whom I’ve known from an online book forum for several years
Published on 1 August 2013 by Arcadia Books
This novel, set in 1899, gives a rich sense of Paris in a year of grudgingly changing ideas amid the frantic preparations for the 1900 Exposition, the return from Devil’s Island of an exonerated Captain Dreyfus, riots and political instabillity. Many are very unhappy with the outcome of the Dreyfus affair and anti-semitism is rife.
Into this milieu comes James Norton, a lawyer from Boston, sent by his mother to persuade his brother Rafael and invalid sister Elinor to return home. He quickly discovers that this will be easier said than done. His brother is in love with a Jewish actress who, on the very night James arrives in Paris is found dead in the Seine, apparently drowned.
Raf cannot bring himself to believe that Olympe committed suicide and on discovering that several Jewish girls have been recently found dead in suspicious circumstances concludes that there is a conspiracy. His investigations lead him and his siblings into danger from the law and criminals and truth is hard to come by.
I really enjoyed this book. The story is highly-charged and fast moving and the characters often slightly over the top but believable. James is a bit of a prig, his brother Raf a hothead, his sister an enigma, as indeed is Marguerite de Landois, a rich benefactress with a past, but they and many minor characters have a humanity that takes them well beyond stock caricatures.
Paris here feels very real, very gritty, from the mansions of the rich to the hovels of the poor and the tatty brothels. You can practically smell it.
Very important to the story, and clearly to the author, is the place of women in society, in this case French society. Expected to be brainless obedient ornaments or disposable playthings for the superior male some are not prepared to fit the illusion but beyond this, people-trafficking existed in 1899 as now, with girls from Russia and Eastern Europe, many Jewish, being brought to Paris and forced into prostitution. At the same time notorious asylums flourish where people, mainly women, mainly Jewish and often picked up by the police while legitimately out of their houses are brutally treated in doctors’ attempts to find a physical reason for ‘female hysteria’.
I’ve read books by Lisa Appignanesi before and I like her work very much. The mixture is rich, maybe occasionally a trifle too rich, but this book is immensely readable and I recommend it heartily to anyone interested in the period and a good story.
In rating it, I would give it four and a half stars.
Thank you very much Penny for this great review and to Arcadia Books for the review copy
About the author:
Lisa Appignanesi OBE is a prize-winning writer, novelist, broadcaster and cultural commentator. She is past president of English PEN, served as deputy director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and is chair of the Freud Museum. She appears regularly on R3’s Night Waves and R4’s Saturday Review. Her many books include The Memory Man (Arcadia, 2004). She lives in North London.