A Novel That Unfolds in a Day, and Other Historical Fiction


One of the many pleasures of Marina Endicott’s exhilarating new novel, THE VOYAGE OF THE MORNING LIGHT (Norton, 400 pp., paper, $15.95), is its celebration of life on the open sea. From the very first pages, when the barque Morning Light sets sail from Nova Scotia in 1911, Endicott’s heroine knows she’s in a new world. “In the rush of the elements, in the star-jangling wind of the night and the full moon shining ahead,” 12-year-old Kay Ward finds both unexpected beauty and an equally unexpected release from memories of experiences no child should have to endure.

Kay wasn’t meant to be on the voyage, which doubles as a honeymoon for her half sister, Thea, whose new husband, Francis, will take charge of this sleek vessel as it hauls cargo down the Atlantic coast, then across to Africa and on to Asia. But many deaths back in Alberta at the Indian school led by her preacher father have left Kay with nightmares only gentle Thea seems able to soothe. So off they go, a makeshift family that will be expanded (temporarily) to include a scholarly missionary bound for an outpost in Tonga and (more or less permanently) a young boy Thea “rescues” from some starving South Pacific islanders in exchange for a few tins of tobacco.

Kay’s gradual awareness of what she can and can’t escape works in deft counterpoint with the wider-world encounters of the dark-skinned child she calls Aren, considered by Thea and Francis to be their adopted son. But how will this arrangement play back in Canada, if Aren even makes it that far? The second half of the novel picks up the action a decade later, when the Great War has destroyed the last remnants of the great age of sail, as it has so many other things. There are new troubles on the horizon, but the sea, with its invigorating attraction, remains.

Like Kay, the four central characters in Alex George’s THE PARIS HOURS (Flatiron, 272 pp., $26.99) are all seekers, but their activities are confined to one city on a single day in the summer of 1927. Souren Balakian, a lonely Armenian émigré longing for a sense of connection with his new home, stages disturbingly unconventional puppet shows in the Luxembourg Gardens. Guillaume Blanc, a talented but as yet undiscovered artist, engages in an increasingly desperate search for enough cash to fend off a thuggish moneylender. Jean-Paul Maillard, a war veteran, pursues his career as a journalist while ever alert for a sign that his daughter, supposedly killed a decade earlier along with his wife, might still be alive. And Camille Clermont, horrified to learn that her husband has sold a valuable notebook belonging to her former employer, must retrieve it before anyone can learn its dangerous contents.

The notebook Camille hunts was the only one she failed to destroy on the orders of Marcel Proust, a single act of disobedience after her many years of devoted service. Proust will appear in background scenes that flesh out Camille’s story, as will other famous figures who serve as a supporting cast for Guillaume, Souren and Jean-Paul: Maurice Ravel, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, Josephine Baker. By design, we’re told in an author’s note, “they exist on the periphery of the novel.”

And what a design! George expertly crosscuts between various plots, coaxing them closer and closer as evening draws on. The tinder has been set and the fire is lit as the action converges on a raucous cabaret in Montmartre. “It’s not just objects that warp and disappear in the flames’ embrace,” it’s the characters’ notions of what they’re capable of doing, of what sort of people they’ve become in this combustible present.

Asako Serizawa takes a different approach to the legacy of the past in her ambitious collection of linked stories, INHERITORS (Doubleday, 288 pp., $26.95). Intended, as she puts it, to “spark questions about how history is made, how it is lived, remembered, reproduced and used,” this kaleidoscope of narratives takes a cast of Japanese and American characters from the early years of the 20th century through the near future. At first their voices come to us from scattered points on that timeline. An uncomfortable interview with the elderly Japanese widow of a rice farmer, asked to recall her early years through the fog of Alzheimer’s, is followed by a bristling account of a Japanese-American family’s visit to the father’s homeland in the mid-1980s, which in turn gives way to a Japanese journalist’s brutal revelations of what it took to survive World War II and the American occupation.

Connections — and missed connections — are gradually revealed, as are the ways one generation’s traumas are passed along to the next. Serizawa’s most gripping stories capture the horrors of the Japanese experience of the war and its aftermath: the testimony of a doctor forced to take part in “the harvesting of living data”; an account of an orphaned boy’s efforts to survive in bombed-out Tokyo; the chilling sequence in which a miraculous survivor of numerous battles is given a final order, strapping himself into a torpedo and steering it on a suicide mission toward the enemy fleet.

Neither the Americans nor the Japanese emerge as anything but tragically, sometimes barbarically, human. Occasionally the visceral power of these stories is undermined by forced exposition: a lengthy passage in which two men engage in convoluted parsing of an already convoluted story by Borges; a labyrinthine section, set in the 2020s and mid-2030s, featuring the creation of a “crowdsourced weather pattern recognition program.” But for the most part Serizawa’s fiction is convincingly rooted in the intimate, yet still provocatively collective, quandaries of her characters. As one late-20th-century Japanese-American woman is told when trying to understand her estranged father, “His concern wasn’t where he belonged but how he wanted to fit in.”

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