Review: “The Devil’s Consort” by Anne O’Brien

Devil's Consort

So, funny story. I bought a copy of The Devil’s Consort without looking at the synopsis and the cover (local indie bookseller recommendations FTW), thinking it’s another Philippa Gregory. Instead, as you can see, the cover said, “Better than PHILIPPA GREGORY” like it could read my mind. Mildly apprehensive but buoyed by the tagline of “England’s Most Ruthless Queen”, I settled in to read a book where I knew I wouldn’t stop making comparisons. Despite my negative (and totally wrong) preconceptions, I found it to be action-packed, full of intrigue and emotional drama, very similar to chick-lit but with greater impact because it’s loosely based on historical fact.

For those of you who are as ignorant as I was on the subject of the European monarchy in the Middle Ages of the non-Tudor variety, Eleanor was a pretty powerful lady; Duchess of Aquitaine (a sizeable region of France) in her own right, she was also the only woman ever to have been queen of both France and England. Documenting the early part of Eleanor’s life, the first person narrative of Devil’s Consort keeps the reader privy to the Duchess’s most intimate thoughts throughout her disastrous marriage to King Louis VI and the initial years of her relationship with King Henry II. Those amongst you who don’t consider yourself history buffs should feel a little more well-educated on the subject of Eleanor of Aquitaine after reading this book, thanks to O’Brien’s in-depth portrait.

A former history teacher, the author has obviously used her passion for the subject to drive her writing, although in places it seems like O’Brien has been so desperate to display her knowledge surrounding the subject that it detracted from the flow of the book.  In particular, parts of Louis’ Crusade were so drawn out that just reading these sections felt slightly like a crusade in itself. Like most historical novels, Devil’s Consort probably takes a fair few liberties with the truth by filling in the blanks in order to make the story as interesting as possible, but from reading around the subject it seems O’Brien managed to stay fairly true to historical accounts. Whilst Eleanor is not the easiest character to love, I did empathize with her frustration at the misogynistic laws which rendered her largely impotent in comparison with her male counterparts.

Devil’s Consort’s main fault lies in its length and the author’s sense of timing.  Over the course of the novel the narrative varies from covering a few days in several pages to many years in one page, and there doesn’t seem to be a good balance. As O’Brien has chosen to document a real person’s life which readers may already be familiar with (even those who aren’t are greeted with an Aquitaine family tree before starting the story), I would have preferred a little more emotion and excitement into the writing in order to truly grip the reader.

Sadly, Devil’s Consort is not quite captivating enough to obtain the affections of those who don’t have the best relationship with historical novels. Overall, it was a decent read, particularly as the reader’s guide at the end gives you further suggested reading to delve more deeply into the historical background and more factual research into the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I am particularly excited to read more on what happened to Eleanor and Henry after the novel drew to a close.

Review: “The Family” by Mario Puzo and Carol Gino

The Family

Let me begin by saying that I am a die-hard Mario Puzo fan. Unlike a lot of people, I was introduced to his writing through The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim. However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer brilliance of The Godfather, a book so insanely popular it created an entire subgenre in American literature. Culturally speaking, it was one of the most influential film series until a young English boy arrived at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Nevertheless, here I will be talking about Puzo’s last book, The Family, which was completed after his death (July 2, 1999) by his longtime companion, novelist Carol Gino. It is the part adventure saga, past historical romance that Puzo reportedly spent the last 15 years of his life researching. Unfortunately, while the research is excellent, the novel is not.

The story centres on one of history’s most fascinating families, the Borgias. It begins in 1492 as Rodrigo Borgia, utilizing the bribery and political intrigue that were to subsequently mark his reign, becomes Pope Alexander VI. Quickly, Alexander moves to consolidate his family’s power, and thereby its future, by placing his four illegitimate children in positions of authority and privilege. The children, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofre, are simultaneously spoiled and corrupted by their father, who is portrayed as a forerunner of the Mafia dons Puzo had previously written about.

Yet neither the Pope nor his children ever realize their full potential as rich historical characters. Although all of them played prominent roles in Italy’s history, none of them rose above cardboard stature in the novel. Their lives, which were dominated by murder, intrigue, war, rape and even incest, are presented in The Family with soap-opera dialogue in scenes that become increasingly repetitious. At no time do the characters come alive; at no point do they take over the novel. In an effort to portray the historical richness of the Renaissance, the book is stuffed with unnecessary details. Time after time, scenes are presented that add nothing to the central characters or the story itself other than to accommodate the appearance of such historical figures as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, da Vinci and the fanatical Florentine monk Savonarola. Regrettably, the novel fails at even this level.

The Family does not read like a Mario Puzo novel, even a lesser one. A work of such historical depth requires strong, interesting dialogue and even stronger characters to deliver it–the very qualities that always raised Puzo’s work to a higher plane. Neither exists here.

So we are left with two questions. How much of this novel did Mario Puzo actually write? How badly did his talent atrophy during the years of illness that preceded his death? In a touching afterword, Carol Gino writes lovingly of her long relationship with Puzo. She also informs us of his longstanding fascination with the Borgias and the years of research he devoted to what he hoped would be his finest novel. On the final page of the book, Gino tells how she came to complete it.

Two weeks before he died, though his heart was failing, Mario was completely lucid. And one day, as I was sitting in his study across from his desk, he reached down and pulled a bunch of pages, handwritten in red felt marker on yellow lined paper, from the bottom drawer of his desk. I thought it was something from Omerta, but it wasn’t. “Read it,” he said, and handed it to me.

And as I read I began to cry. It was the last chapter of the Borgia book.

“Finish it,” he said. “Promise me.”

And so I did.

I feel like a complete bitch saying that Mario Puzo would have been better served had Gino returned those pages to the desk drawer. But yeah.

1984

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Those are the three tenets of George Orwell’s uber-dystopian world of Oceania, one of three super-states in the future where there is perpetual war, which is a mash-up of the UK, the Americas and Australia. 1984 is Orwell’s disturbing image of a post-World War II scenario where he thought democratic values wouldn’t survive. Instead, we have the Party led by this man called Big Brother (if you thought the show was annoying, wait till you get a load of this) and there are “telescreens”, which are just TVs spouting government propaganda and spying on your actions 24/7. The world is divided into Party members (Inner and Outer) and the “proles”, which, if any of you have ever heard of Marx, is pretty self-explanatory [Harry Potter fans, think Deathly Hallows and Magic is Might]. Except for the fact that these uneducated proles are 85% of the population and they are effectively controlled by the Party by no concrete regulations since there are no laws in this world. The only wrong you can do is “Thoughtcrime” (holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the Party), which can only be committed by Party members. If caught, all traces of you ever having existed will be destroyed and you will be vaporized or turned into an “unperson”. Frightening yet cool.

Our hero, for lack of a better word, is Winston Smith, a morose, paranoid, frail 39-year old who is an editor in the Minitrue (Ministry of Truth), where he falsifies historical records to keep up with the ever-changing party line and deleting the existence of people who have been vaporized, secretly hoping for an invitation to the Brotherhood, the hush-hush anti-government organisation led by Emmanuel Goldstein. Just like Joseph Stalin used to airbrush his “fallen comrades” from photographs and remove their names from books and newspapers. Constantly being forced to rewrite it, Winston is fascinated by the past and makes clumsy attempts to know what truly happened, either by talking to really old drunks in prole bars or going to antique shops and buying journals and coral paperweights. Total badass.

He falls in love with Julia, a young, hot member of the Junior Anti-Sex League. Yes, these existed, because in this world one of the Party’s aims is to take the joy out of sex. Children are born through “artsem” and as soon as they grow up they join this terrible organisation called the Spies where they get to listen in on doors and report suspicious activities of adults they don’t like. Try making your kid eat veggies now, Mom. Anyway, Winston and Julia have the oddest flirtation ever. He dreams of raping and killing her and she falls passionately in love with him by stalking him. Total fairy tale romance. They have sex in hidden meadows and bombed churches before, finally, getting a room. And real bread and jam. And coffee with real sugar. And Winston gets invited to join the Brotherhood with his own copy of the manifesto and all.

Wait a minute. I thought they were living in a super-surveillance state which is perpetually at war. Yes, they still are. Except Winston’s apparently been having the biggest lucky streak of his life and never thinks to question it. Then he gets caught. Shocker. Which is when the real fun begins in the Ministry of Love (aka Miniluv, LOL). Starvation. Beatings. Torture. Betrayal. And, RATS.

 

The book is rife with symbolism from wartime Britain and Russia-bashing. For instance, Oceania changing allies when it suited them (Russia and Nazi Germany); Goldstein being a facsimile of Leon Trotsky, animal transformations and all and Big Brother as Stalin. The Thought Police could be the NKVD. Even the lovely contractions are derived from Mother Russia (Dialectical Materialism=DiaMat). The slogan “Our, new happy life” a copy of “Life has become better”. Personally, I think of NaMo’s “Achhe din aa gaye”

Jokes aside, I think 1984 is one of the most well-written and chilling books I have ever read. Orwell, a democratic socialist at heart, has brilliantly demonstrated the perils of authoritarianism. Written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it shows a chilling view of the future as a place where the language has been pared to so great an extent that it only serves the purpose of officialdom and people have been reduced to being tools of the Party. The “proles” are nothing more than the silent masses subjugated to the elite. Your thoughts, your home, your family, your leisure time are all subject to constant surveillance and you like it. It shows how the freedoms we take for granted and the past we derive them from are so fragile and can be snatched away so easily by those in power.

I would recommend this book to everyone who loves a good read. It is a searing political and social commentary as well as a thriller. Read for the masterful way Orwell has used the English language. Read because it is as relevant today as it was 65 years ago. (I’m talking about you, NSA) The book may be a bit dry but Winston humanizes the more abstract themes in a relatable manner. It is a very worthwhile read with rich and layered meanings. It even has cool dialogues like “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness” and “Until they become conscious they will never rebel and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious”.

So if you’ve somehow managed to avoid this book in your school years, do yourself a favour and read it today. If you’ve read it and hated it, give it another try. Don’t believe me? Read Isaac Asimov’s review of 1984 at the New Yorker here