Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jane Hamilton: A Map of the World and Ariana Franklin: Mistress of the Art of Death

I borrowed the Hamilton novel on a whim, as I said. There was nothing on the cover indicating what it was about, just a lot of positive reviews, so I went for it. Started reading, very happy, good writing - then realised this was about children dying and suddenly was not so keen any more. Hamilton is a very good writer, so I was getting all worked up about it since it all seemed so realistic. I had to put it down. I can't take real horror right now. Which is why I declined to watch the film Grave of the Fireflies that Maxima got from a friend for her 14th birthday. I had a hunch that was going to be about babies dying too, and my suspicions were indeed confirmed when my red-eyed sobbing daughter met me in the hall after watching it the other afternoon. It was the saddest film ever she proclaimed and snivelled off to share her anguish with her friends on msn.

Anyway, I returned poor Jane Hamilton to the library (and of course immediately started to regret it, but done is done, I'm not reading it now so there). I wanted to write about it now though so I can remember to re-loan it sometime when I'm more relaxed (ha).

Which brings me to the second book of this post, an historical crime novel about a serial killer who, ironically, murders children, in a very gruesome way. Why can I take this and not Hamilton's? I think because Mistress of the Art of Death is, in the end, not real. It may be rooted in real history, it may be not flippant about human suffering and pain... yet there is something fundamentally escapist and distant about crime fiction that enables you to read the most horrible things without feeling too touched by them.

I wasn't expecting to like Franklin's novel as much as I did. I suspected that the female doctor Adelia, who comes to Cambridge to help find the murderer by reading the bodies of his victims, would be one of those larger-than-life characters that modern authors like to stick into the past to somehow avenge themselves on all that historical misery. However, Adelia is surprisingly likeable and imperfect, and the society is a rather nice blend of bad mediaeval and good mediaeval. People aren't just super-bigots and dirty xenophobes, but also just... well, people. I'll definitely be reading more of Franklin, it was fun.

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