Saturday, December 31, 2011

A late addition to the year's-best list

I was premature a few weeks ago when I listed the best crime fiction I'd read this year.

Ronan Bennett's Havoc, in Its Third Year is more historical fiction than crime fiction, if one must squeeze it into a genre, but it's mainly a fine, penetrating, and moving piece of fiction, no need for labels, and it may be the best novel I've read since I started this crime-fiction thing five years ago. Its hero is a coroner investigating a murder, so crime is as good a label as any other.

It's also a serious and frightening meditation on the dangers of faction, fanaticism, and hypocrisy (it's set as religious war moves ever closer in seventeenth-century England), on the blessings of true charity, on the elevating powers of love religious and sexual.

Finally, it's beautifully written, not a word wasted, description reinforcing narrative, plots reinforcing one another, character, plot and setting of a dense, immensely affecting piece. And how can even such a hero as Atticus Finch be as admirable and noble a character as Bennett's loving, strong, vulnerable, wise, compassionate, truth-seeking John Brigge?

I once wrote that The Coffee Trader, David Liss' novel of love, religious prejudice and commodities trading in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, offered the most thorough, convincing fictional world I had ever entered. Bennett's book stands besides it, it not outright elbowing it to one side.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , , , ,

18 Comments:

Blogger Susan said...

It might be a late addition for you, but it's made me add it to my to-get list! It sounds really good. Now to go look at your other list.

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I read Bennett's book quite some time ago, Peter, but remember it well. I'm leery of historical fiction, and so don't read enough of it to make a definitive judgement re the quality of Havoc measured against other works, but I was mightily impressed and agree with your general observations.

(Definitive: There's a candidate for the currently most misused work. Soon we'll have lost 'definite' altogether.)

December 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Good. It's in the mail. :)

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

The cover art would have caught my eye even without the glowing review.

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Susan, I'm a latecomer to this book as well; it was published in 2004. Enjoy the other list! Like some of that list, this book is by an author from Northern Ireland. As you might guess, I see the world center of fiction a bit to the southwest of Scandinavia.

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Just dropping by to wish you every happiness for 2012... not to mention a wealth of new novels to read.

As ever, thank you for such an enjoyable blog.

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Definitely will live on, though, Philip.

We liked Bennett’s book for the same reasons. It’s a hell of a novel even though it was long- or shortlisted for one of the major literary awards. It’s historical diction people who think they don’t like historical diction.

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I'll be especially eager and curious to learn what you think of this book.

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, the cover art is evocative of the time and appropriate to the story.

December 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

OK. Hasn't arrived yet. Am reading Charles Todd at the moment and getting very tired of the persistent presence in all of the novel of the incubus Hamish.

I also thank you for a great blog. And I also wish you a very Happy New Year!

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A happy New Year to you, too, Tales. Thanks for the kind words, and happy reading!

December 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: Once again I marvel at your ability to persist in reading books you don't like. I'm too impatient a reader to do much of that.

I don't remember any incubi (or succubi, for that matter) inhabiting my crime reading, but a bit of the spiritual -- visions, and the like -- don't necesarily go amiss if suitable for the time and place.

Thanks for the compliments, and a Happy New Year to you as well.

December 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, Todd (mother and son) writes very well and the plotting is good. It's just this device of an in-dwelling dead guy (dead because of an order R. gave in battle) fixed in Rutledge's mind, commenting on all that happens in Scots and (very silly) occupying invisibly a seat in his car. 12 novels along, this gets rather old, even if we bought it the first few times as an example of PTSD.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The occasional convincing invocations of the spirit world I've read in crime fiction tend to be religious or, as in the Todds' case, apparently, psychological. Havoc, in its Third Year makes effective and even moving use of of dreams and religious visions. They work because those characters in that world could easily have seen the world that way. I'm not sure how well it would work for 12 novels, though.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I've blogged about Bennett and this book about four or five times so I'll just say this...it should have won the Booker Prize. I don't think I've read a book about this period that even comes close to conveying the poisonous atmosphere of the time.

And I don't think its a coincidence that Bennett is a Catholic boy who grew up in Rathcoole Estate near Belfast.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, after I made this post, I went back and read some of what you'd written about it at your place and at Declan Burke's.

I'm still in awe at how Bennett could depict that poisonous atmosphere without slipping into melodrama.

Rathcoole, or Merville Garden Village?

January 01, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

They're very close. You wouldnt want to get lost in either.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Is or was Merville Garden a particularly intimidating place for a Catholic to live?

In any case, both in this bookand in Zugzwang, I'm impressed by how Bennett can evoke one time and place while writing about another without sinking into simple-minded parallels and allegory -- even when he has a character near the end of Zugzwang say: "It's Bloody SUnday all over again."

January 01, 2012  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home