Thursday, September 06, 2012

If You're Reading Louise Penny, Grab Vicki Delany's New MORE THAN SORROW

I'm a committed fan of Vicki Delany's police series featuring Constable Molly Smith, with its solid traditional mystery format and beguiling protagonist. So I took a leap of faith and picked up her newest title, which is NOT part of that series. Instead, MORE THAN SORROW (Library Journal starred review!) is a gothic novel: that is, a dark, suspenseful work of fiction that hinges on the disturbances within its characters. There may indeed be crime involved also, and that's certainly true of MORE THAN SORROW, where death threats and other criminal activities have destroyed the idyllic back-to-the-land organic commitment at the little vegetable farm owned by Hannah Manning's sister.

But it's Hannah who's fascinating here: An internationally recognized war journalist, she's recuperating at her sister's home, from a traumatic brain injury that threatens to rob her of more than her career. Plagued by debilitating migraines, unexpected collapses, and frightening flashbacks to the "IED" that blew her life into grief and loss, Hannah reaches out to an Afghan refugee staying on a neighboring property in the rolling fields and woods of Prince Edward County, Ontario.

If you read my "headline," by now you are saying, "What on earth does this have to do with Louise Penny's books? Is it just that this is another Canadian author?"

Much more than that.

Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in Three Pines, is a dark exploration of how murder arrives within "nice" communities, grows from otherwise tender hearts, roots in compromises of loyalty and integrity. And is seeded by the past. Three Pines, in fact, is named for the three pine trees planted (and since then, re-planted) by "Loyalist" settlers of the region -- British citizens appalled by the rebellion taking place in America. I've mostly ignored that aspect while reading Penny's crime fiction, while chasing her compelling characters and plot. But listening to her last week, I realized that the tension between the Loyalist settlers and today's French Canadians is a large part of the roiling tension underlying her Gamache series.

And that brings me back to Delany's MORE  THAN SORROW, in which Hannah Manning -- unable to make her damaged brain/eye circuits cope with typed pages of today's books -- grows obsessed with old hand-written letters that document the 1784 Loyalist refugees from America, who arrived in Canada and had to put their once-wealthy, cultured lives on hold, while becoming farmers. And for letter writer Maggie Macgregor, whose husband and child are dead and whose "extended family" has brought her to this harsh northern frontier, there are worse consequences than laboring with her hands. Will she be sexually abused as well? Hannah's own brain injury somehow short-circuits into Maggie's life, and the puzzle of three refugees -- Hannah, Maggie, and Afghani Hila Popalzai -- takes on risk and tension, especially threatening to Hannah's ten-year-old niece Lila, who may be the only person who still believes and adores her aunt.

As Hannah begins to grapple with solving the criminal threats to her community, she also struggles to regain her old capacities. And she works against something darker, that ineffable something that makes a modern Gothic novel dig its way into our own doubts and fears.
An explosion. A car on fire. Guns going off. Men firing rifles and cheering the flames on. Women weeping horror. Children screaming, calling for their mothers.
That's Hannah's recollection. But it connects in haunting fashion with the letters in her fist.

So -- not only is this a great read to gather a sense of the Loyalist history that threads through Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada (and lies under the Louise Penny setting in Three Pines). It's also a disturbing and ultimately confirming exploration of how one woman takes a stand in her own life. Thanks, Vicki Delany; I'll keep thinking of Hannah, as I explore more of your books.

SPECIAL NOTE!! Vicki Delany explores what "the modern Gothic novel" is, and why it is that way, from the point of view of an expert in several fiction genres. Check out her guest post here in the evening on Friday Sept. 7. We've got a lot to enjoy in this!

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