My favorite moment in Caldwell’s novel of political upheaval in China during the 1930s, and the corresponding personal upheaval in a small American family living there, comes late in the story. The heroine, Anna, is a young adult living in Pasadena, and has a job at the Huntington Library ( a real place for those of you who aren’t in Los Angeles). Anna’s job is to read letters and documents from local estates that have been left to the Huntington, and make notes of information relevant to Pasadena’s history. If I were to invent the most perfect job in the world it would be no different from Anna’s.
Caldwell clearly feels similarly, because The Distant Land of My Father reads like a story created from journals and correspondence. The narrator focuses in and out, from micro images of a mother’s hairclip or a Chinese wax seal that seem pulled from an attic inventory to factual historical events, straight from newspaper clippings or soldier’s letters.
As a lover of details, I found The Distant Land of My Father’s slow pace and quiet tone soothing, although I could imagine more active readers growing restless. Caldwell describes Chinese breakfast menus and South Pasadena gardens with the same tone as she depicts the horror of political prison camp and Japanese bombing. It’s slightly disconcerting. In the end, the story of personal forgiveness is less interesting than the details surrounding it, but this is worth a read for any fans of Pasadena or Shanghai. It’s really a story of cities.
Much like In the Woods, World Without End also starts with some children of the British Isles having an intense experience in a forest. The similarities end there. World Without End is a much more externally based bit of story telling.
Ken Follett is a writer of historical fiction based in the middle ages. He’s most well known for The Pillars of the Earth, which tells of the building of a cathedral, from the structural details to the social consequences.
World Without End is a sequel to Pillars, taking place two centuries after the building was completed and following the lives of the people in the town as they plot, scheme, build and romance against a backdrop of plague and warfare. The dialogue is awkward and the characters are cartoonish. One can easily see a casting agent perusing weaselly mustached cowards and meat faced bullies to play the villains in the movie version. The heroine is so good as to be almost irritating and everyone in-between is a bit of a sheep.
There is a love story, (several in fact) and lots of medieval sex, with Follett taking the time to work a bath in to the story each time. Apparently he’s concerned that all his detail of moist clefts and engorged shafts might not be as appealing if they weren’t both freshly washed.
The building and fighting facts are good even if the sex scenes are not. I feel much more prepared should I find myself facing the challenge of rebuilding a stone bridge in a fast moving river so that the fleece fair can take place as planned. I also have a much more coherent plan to fight the French. Now what’s this painful swelling in my armpit?
Filed under Fiction, Review