History fiction: wit, poetry, learning

Novels Of Summer

June 20, 1999|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

Call it the summer of the historical novel. This month's fiction offers first-class tickets to a teeming Restoration London, an early Victorian mill town, and 1950s rural Mississippi. None of them easy worlds to inhabit -- but all, as rendered in these books, impossible to resist.

Petal, Miss., is the kind of place where names openly announce character. Even Grade, Valuable Korner and Just Plain Grace live there; they are just a few of the memorable people in Melinda Haynes' stunning debut novel, "Mother of Pearl" (Hyperion, 464 pages, $23.95).

Haynes' voice is piquant and poetic, carving out its own kind of perfection. Her language comes on with a startling newness that only takes a moment -- an exciting moment, for the reader -- to settle into seeming exactly right. Looking at October sunflowers, she sees "dead stalks still hollering out like so many tall dead things that don't like being dead any more than they like watching their inky black seeds drop to the ground as fodder for the birds."

The novel's poetry doesn't preclude humor. Like characters in a Robert Altman movie, the people of Petal are at their funniest when they're just being human. The fun Haynes pokes is rooted in fellow feeling. When Mr. Willard, the bachelor mortician, finds the woman he's been looking for, he stops to wonder how she has remained single, and "how such a woman would look laid out as a brochure model in the top of the line premium casket, the Heavenly Supreme." His conclusion? "Heavenly."

The plot, comfortably shaggy rather than streamlined, includes fateful travels across the color line, uncovered ancestral secrets and sexual discovery. Spilling over with color, beauty, violence, wisdom and simply astonishing writing, "Mother of Pearl" is a gift to readers everywhere.

An altogether more somber affair, "Mr. Wroe's Virgins" (Overlook, 288 pages, $24.95) unfolds in early industrial Lancashire, when English workers were collectivizing at work and Puritanizing at church. The novelist Jane Rogers, who lives in Lancashire herself, has done her homework in fictionalizing the real historical figure John Wroe. Prophet of the Christian Israelite religion, he declared one day to his congregation that "The Lord has instructed me to take of your number, seven virgins for comfort and succour." Seven daughters were offered and came to live at Wroe's mansion.

In imagining what happened in this nascent New Jerusalem, Rogers skips among the first-person narratives of four of the young women who live with Wroe. Joanna, the pious leader of the bunch, models herself after the Prophetess Joanna Southcott. Leah is pretty, vain, unvirginal, and in the end pure poison. Hannah is the resident skeptic and Martha is a grotesquely abused girl for whom life with Wroe's virgins amounts to personal salvation.

The novel begins as an illuminating chronicle of daily life in this makeshift convent, and an admirable imaginative habitation of four very different inner lives. The women's most mundane activities, such as washing day, snap to life under Rogers' attentive pen, reanimating some of the everyday human experiences that traditional history leaves under dust. By the middle, however, "Mr. Wroe's Virgins" turns to intrigue. The pages turn faster as scandals crop up, but the verisimilitude remains remarkable.

Re-creating the texture of 1830 requires writerly research, discipline and prowess enough. Another new novel reaches even farther back into English history, to the 17th century and the lifetime of England's most famous diarist, Samuel Pepys. "Jem (and Sam)" by Ferdinand Mount (Carroll & Graf, 432 pages, $25.95) sets up a riotous battle of the books by pulling an extremely marginal character out of Pepys' chronicles and putting him center stage with a pen of his own.

Novelist and historian Mount, who edits the London Times Literary Supplement, endows this forgotten figure with a picaresque imagined life in and around London during the Restoration. Jem fumes over Pepys' successes, trying to outdo him by hook or by crook. But his calculating and ambitious nature can't overcome native dopiness and atrocious ill luck. It isn't until the somber end of his life of indignities that he discovers his calling as a diarist -- one who is especially qualified to give "the worm's-eye view."

The sheer historical knowledge displayed in "Jem (and Sam)" is amazing. Moreover, it takes a bold imagination to make such hay with history, and to re-create the period voice so convincingly. Jem's fictive diary is a thoroughly delightful romp that also stirs the reader's compassion, and affords a pretty thorough lesson in 17th-century history into the bargain.

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