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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

A Return to Even Less Enlightened Eras

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The freshly liberated narrator of David Wright Faladé’s stirring Civil War novel BLACK CLOUD RISING (Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pp., $27) has much more than emancipation on his mind. Raised on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a region with its own distinct traditions, “as remote from the mainland South as it was from the far-off North,” Richard Etheridge is also struggling with a deep sense of emotional isolation. Although he’s the son of an enslaved woman, he proudly bears the last name of the white father who owned him. A sergeant in the recently formed African Brigade, he owes his position less to his stature among his comrades than to the education imparted by his white half sister. “How much,” he’s forced to ask himself, “did I hate my own skin?”

Based on a real historical figure and the real historical forces that sent Black soldiers, commanded by white officers, in search of rebel guerrillas through territory they’d once inhabited as chattel, Faladé’s fast-paced narrative is filled with dramatic confrontations. But its military skirmishes are made even more tense and powerful by the personal clashes that set some soldiers against one another and illuminate the dangerous uncertainties that shadow both the hurriedly assembled Black forces of the Union Army and the local communities being wrested from the Confederacy.

As he works his way through a system with a chain of authority eerily reminiscent of a plantation — in which he sometimes seems “more a dancing bear than a soldier” — Etheridge must also reassess his relationship with the strong-willed Black woman he hopes to marry and the equally strong-willed Black woman who raised him, who refused to allow the word “master” to be spoken in her cabin. Acknowledging the complexities of the life to come, he yearns for an honest definition of equality between men and women, Black and white, a sense that “each of us would, without forethought, understand the other to be as simple and as inscrutable, as vexing and as compelling, as we were ourselves.”

“Vexing” doesn’t begin to describe the intricate maneuverings of the two narrators in Peter Mann’s quick-witted World War II caper, THE TORQUED MAN (Harper, 384 pp., $26.99). But “compelling” certainly does. The title character is a clubfooted translator, in grudging yoke to Germany’s military intelligence service, whose journal has been liberated from the rubble of the Reich. A gay intellectual forced to be “a reluctant middleman for book-burners,” Adrian de Groot has been “pulled one way by inclination, and another by propriety.” Falling in love with his most audacious agent has only added to his obvious distress.

That agent, an Irish Republican Army fighter and socialist agitator named Frank Pike, is heard from in alternate chapters — a rollicking account of his adventures called “Finn McCool in the Bowels of Teutonia,” in which he adopts the identity of the warrior hunter of Irish myth, “the antihero’s hero.” Liberated from a Spanish prison by the Germans, who want him to aid their cause in his homeland, Pike instead bides his time in Berlin. Waging a clandestine attack on the heart of the Nazi regime, he kills off well-connected doctors as he tries to get closer to his real prey: Hitler’s personal physician.

Who is Pike actually working for? The I.R.A.? A splinter group of international socialists? The British? Or has he simply gone rogue? As Pike’s schemes become ever more bizarre, de Groot’s besotted cluelessness could be a help or a hindrance. And eventually there must be a reckoning. “You and I are extinct breeds,” de Groot tells Pike, “whose instincts told us to run in opposite directions, but both ways led us off the same cliff.”

The narrator of Karen Brooks’s THE GOOD WIFE OF BATH (Morrow, 560 pp., paper, $16.99) has followed her instincts through multiple marriages and enormous turns of fortune. But as Eleanor looks back on her life, she’s determined that Geoffrey Chaucer, a distant relative who has often acted as her friend and adviser, should not have the last word on what that life was really like. So she proceeds to present her own rousing version of the woman he made famous — some would say infamous — in “The Canterbury Tales.”

In a tart commentary on the status of her sex in medieval society, the novel is often divided into “tales” that correspond to Eleanor’s various husbands, starting with an elderly sheep herder (“the most despised and dirty man in Bath”) who, for all his reduced circumstances, may turn out to be the best of the lot. Luckily, she finds in his household the sort of female companionship that will bolster her through a brace of marriages that are more like business partnerships and two others in which passion will provoke violence, even murder. In trying to “tune my desires using the instrument of wedlock,” she succeeds only in proving how fragile a wife’s position can be.

As Brooks follows her heroine’s journey from Bath to London and beyond, she sketches a colorful portrait of 14th-century Britain, from the mansions of wealthy wool merchants to the squalid huts where peasants spin and weave, desperate merely to stay alive. It ought to come as no surprise that the world of prostitutes should intersect with that of a woman as lusty as this outspoken redhead, condemned by a priest even in her youth as “hell-bound.” Or that one marriage gone very very wrong should cause Eleanor to shed her old name and escape with a new one. Brooks gives us a credible, if not always sympathetic, character, amply demonstrating the way an “imperfect child” grows into “an imperfect woman — experienced, foolish and clever too.” And “oft at the same time.”

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