Interested in a little trip through the past this month? You have your choice of places and periods to explore, from the hellish experiences of twins in Auschwitz to the 1850’s in Ireland to a hotel attic in Moscow in the 1920’s to the lives of Chinese-Americans from the 19th century to the present day.
Let’s start with the earliest period, rural Ireland in the 1850’s, the setting of Emma Donoghue’s new book, The Wonder. Donoghue, the author of Room, is not only a best-selling author but one who’s been recognized with numerous award nominations, and she knows how to set the scene and create memorable characters. In The Wonder, a young girl has been on a fast for a number of weeks, subsisting, according to her and her family, only on “manna from heaven.” She’s become something of an international sensation, her survival an apparent miracle, and tourists as well as journalists crowd to her family’s cottage to witness her miraculous condition. Not everybody is convinced that there’s something supernatural going on, however, and Lib, a young nurse trained by Florence Nightingale herself, is sent to the cottage to watch the young girl for a couple of weeks to discover whether she’s a fraud or the genuine article. The more Lib looks into the matter, the more she worries about the child’s deteriorating health, and the more she suspects that she’s not really witnessing an expression of faith but a murder in slow motion.
Leaving Ireland for Moscow, we turn to Amor Towles’ new book, A Gentleman in Moscow. Count Alexander Rostov, the protagonist of the book, is an aristocrat, a gentleman, a man who has never had to work a day in his life, like many of his predecessors. It’s just his bad luck that he happened to live in the time of the Russian Revolution. He is judged to be an unrepentant aristocrat by one of the Bolshevik tribunals in the 1920’s, and is sentenced to virtual imprisonment in the Metropol, a grand hotel in Moscow across the street from the Kremlin. He’s lucky at that, considering the fates of many other aristocrats in Russia in that era, though he doesn’t particularly feel fortunate to be living in a small attic room, cut off from all the things he thought were necessary for life, and placed in a position to witness some of the most tumultuous years of Russian history. Strangely enough, as his physical circumstances shrink, his emotional ones broaden. A Gentleman in Moscow is history as revealed through the particular vision of a fascinating man.
The horrors of the Nazi concentration camps are the setting of Mischling, by Affinity Konar, and in particular “Mengele’s Zoo” in Auschwitz, where the infamous Dr. Mengele conducted his experiments on identical twins. Pearl and Stasha Zagorski are a pair of identical twins taken to the camp with their mother and grandmother, and are immediately chosen for Mengele’s experiments. In some respects they are privileged over other inmates, but in other respects their lives are more gruesome, and when Pearl disappears from the camp, Stasha mourns but refuses to give up hope that her other half might still be alive somewhere. The camp is liberated by the Red Army in 1945, and Stasha joins up with Feliks, a boy seeking revenge for the loss of his twin, to find their way through the devastation of post-war Poland, seeking justice for all that Mengele did to them and to those like them.
Finally, we turn to a multigenerational novel about the experience of Chinese Americans over the last century in The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, The book tells the stories of four different Chinese Americans in four different eras and illuminates how family, one of the pillars of Chinese society, became shattered and changed as a result of immigration to America, and how a new kind of Chinese family developed in the new world, based on different ties. From a railroad baron’s valet who inadvertently causes an explosion in Chinese labor in America to an early Chinese American movie star through the victim of a hate crime that ignites outrage in the Asian American community to a biracial couple heading to China to adopt an orphan, The Fortunes brings history to vivid life.