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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, September 1, 2002

Four Novels Show Skill and Versatility of British Writers

I adore complex novels that wind through time and space to depict worlds and events outside of my range of experience. After descending into the dark and murky world of four contemporary British novels, I've emerged impressed, once again, by the depth and skill with which the British dissect the past.

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru (Harper Audio, 2002).

I listened to the unabridged 10-cassette version of this wondrous work while walking my black pug Homer.

Hari Kunzru, born in London and educated at Oxford, reads his first novel with a delicious Hindi-British accent and dramatic flair. He weaves an amazing story of Pran Nath Razden, an arrogant young boy who is tossed out into the 19th century Indian streets by his wealthy high-caste father when he discovers that the boy was actually sired by a passing Englishman.

Pran endures various tortuous hardships but learns to fend for himself, eventually being adopted by an eccentric British missionary couple, then later assuming the identity of an orphaned English boy, thereby gaining passage to England. As Oxford student Jonathan Bridgeman, Hari learns that he has honed his skills as an Impressionist to such a point that he no longer has his own identity. He has become a chameleon, assuming the habits and ways that he needs to survive. In a dark journey to Africa to study a native tribe, he will touch base once again with his true nature.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (Riverhead Books, 2002).

A female version of Oliver Twist, this 500-page novel is inventive and romantic. Set in Victorian times, the protagonists are two young girls, one the poor orphaned daughter of a hanged thief (also known as a "fingersmith"), the other an heiress.

A con man known as Gentleman enlists orphan Sue Trinder to pose as a lady's maid to the wealthy young Maud Lilly, who he intends to marry, then lock away in a lunatic asylum, in the process stealing her money.

There are enough twists and turns in this atmospheric novel to keep you guessing right up to the end. I must warn you, however, that if you are easily offended by the idea of a brief romantic encounter between two women, you should keep your distance. Otherwise, proceed with haste.

The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine (Shaye Areheart Books, 2002).

Ruth Rendell, long considered one of the best mystery writers in the English-speaking world, also publishes psychological suspense under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.

Martin Nanther, a Heredity Peer in the House of Lords, learns some unsavory details when he sets out to write a biography of his great-grandfather, Sir Henry Nanther, whose expertise on hemophilia led to his becoming a family physician to Queen Victoria and a Knight of the Realm. Queen Victoria was a carrier of the hemophilia gene (then known as the "bleeder's disease") and tragically passed it along to her children.

We probably learn more than we ever wanted to know about genetics and blood, but we also uncover interesting tidbits about 19th century medicine and manners, as well as contemporary Britain. I didn't realize until I read this book that The House of Lords Act 1999 removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit and vote. Any Commonwealth citizen is now eligible for nomination and election to membership in the venerable House of Lords.

Acid Row by Minette Walters (G. P. Putnam's, 2002).

After spending so much time immersed in the past, it was almost a relief to find myself in contemporary London in this fast-paced thriller.

Walters, a veteran of psychological suspense, sets her latest in a crime-ridden, decaying housing project commonly known as Acid Row. When a young girl disappears and local residents discover that a convicted pedophile lives in the neighborhood, rumor leads to action and violence erupts.

If you've never read Walters, start with The Ice House, which is also available at the library as a Mobil Masterpiece Theatre video.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.