Tess Gunty took me to The Rabbit Hutch. My first thoughts as I read the novel were how much novels have changed in the twenty-first century. The story structure wasn’t new. There have been stories about the tenants of apartment buildings in other books. But characters have changed a lot and the culture has changed a lot. Everyone seems to be more unhinged. The deep flaws in the characters are reflected in our real-world examinations of the deep flaws in our societies and in ourselves. Perhaps it is that we feel more crowded as population nears 8 billion souls on the earth and it is far easier to feel lost. At one time an apartment building may have been a small community, but the inhabitants of The Rabbit Hutch hardly exude communal spirit.
We have Joan in C2, a woman who keeps to herself, has no friends except the people she knows at work. She scans the comments people make on obituaries and weeds out any negative content. That’s her job. When Elsie Blitz dies, the famous star of Meet the Neighbors, and her son writes scathing remarks, Joan eliminates them. The son of Blitz, now in his forties will soon pay her a luminescent and scary visit without violent intent.
In C8 we have a new mom named Hope who is afraid of her new baby’s eyes, obviously fighting post-partem depression. She has a loving and patient husband. Will that help?
And in C4 we have 3 teenage boys and one teenage girl, recently released from foster care to take part in an early release program, turned loose from woefully few role models, bad foster parenting, and without mentors. The teen girl in apartment C4 is our heroine, Blandine née Tiffany Watkins, a beautiful girl, abused in the way women are abused by someone who makes them believe they are loved, in this case her high school music teacher. Blandine refuses to accept a view of herself as a victim, although she cannot face going back to the private school where she was a scholarship student, and she gives up the promising future the school had opened to her.
Blandine loves her hometown, Vacca Vale and one reason she loves it, and one reason for all the animals that appear in this story is that the town fathers had created a green space they call Chastity Valley. Developers want to build expensive homes in place of this park. The town of Vacca Vale is on a river which has 100-year floods that are not always 100 years apart. Chastity Valley protects Vacca Vale from the worst effects of this flooding. Blandine does not know this fact, she just wants her town’s best feature left alone. Blandine seems unaware of her beauty, but the boys and men around her are not unaware.
When a load of dirt and bones and sticks falls out of the ceiling of the Vacca Vale Country Club during a meeting between the town and the developers no one knows who could have done such a thing. It is a statement of environmental activism and a sign to us that one young woman has not lost her sense of personal power and agency. Blandine has been studying the lives of the mystics.
However, back at The Rabbit Hutch, we have three teen boys with little education, access to social media, and too much time on their hands, living with a beautiful mysterious teen girl. These boys have made a wrong turn.
The flaws in our society are reflected in the tenants of The Rabbit Hutch in way that points out the lack of a center in our culture. Historical novels often are centered on royalty or a hierarchical social order. War novels focus on ways that war is full of terror and uncertainty which tends to make humans closer and give them a purpose. We live in times where we seem to have lost our center, where individuals go it alone and where life does not offer people much satisfaction or many clear goals. Tess Gunty’s book reflects our times very well, but it is disconcerting to read new authors when your best reads are from the twentieth century. Don’t avoid modern novels. Although depressing they are quite honest.
“…so Blandine exits herself – she is all of it. She is every tenant of her apartment building. She’s trash and cherub, a rubber shoe on a sea floor, her father’s orange jump suit, a brush raking through her mother’s hair. The first and last Zorn Automobile factory in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a nucleus inside a man who robbed her body when she was fourteen, a pair of red glasses on the face of her favorite librarian, a radish tugged from a bed of dirt. She is no one.” (pg 10)
I set a course to read all the Bosch books by Michael Connelly this summer. Well, I didn’t quite make it before fall set in but, except for the newest book, which is not available yet, I finished all of them. I did not review each book as I finished it because I decided to classify them as recreational reading, but characters like Bosch deserve a few words. Harry or Hieronymus Bosch is a police detective in the homicide division when Connelly’s series begins. He has a sad past as he was born to a single mother who did not share the name of his father with him. They lived in run-down apartments in poor neighborhoods and his mother sometimes prostituted herself to earn enough money to live. She was found murdered in an alley; a victim of a crime Bosch eventually solves. Bosch is sent to a home for orphaned children, a place that locked defiant children away in a dark cubbyhole in a time when there were no laws about such abuse. Bosch was a defiant child and a frequent runaway.
But Bosch developed an anathema to the evil side of people, people whose acts create the dark corners of our society, its dark hidden alleys, and the twisted actions of those who are damaged. So, despite Bosch’s obvious issues with authority and his contempt for the politics of policing he is a detective who doesn’t quit. He breaks rules only if they prevent him from pursuing a case using rules he deems trivial. If his current LT (Lieutenant) happens to be a stickler for rules or in cahoots with the big wigs on the tenth floor, he is likely to be suspended once he solves a case (sometimes even before he solves the case). In some of the Bosch books he is a private detective. In later books he works to solve cold cases or volunteers at the San Fernando police department, gets hired there, gets suspended from there and finally retires for good, but still mentors Renee Ballard, a smart young policewoman.
Bosch’s house, where he spends far too little time, is an oasis above the city, a legacy of a movie that was made about a case he solved. It sits high above the city cantilevered out over scrubland and coyotes with a wall of windows and outside an open deck with a convenient railing. Jazz music fills the space which is somewhat minimalist and rather shipshape as if floating in air is like floating at sea. It does have three bedrooms however, which is fortunate when Bosch discovers that he has a daughter from his only wife and only love, the former FBI agent and very successful gambler, Eleanor Wish. Wish and Bosch do not work as partners but their daughter, Maddie, is a great addition to the series. She plays a more prominent role in the TV series, but she and Harry have an easy and positive relationship even though or perhaps because Harry is hardly ever home. Maddie understands what drives her father and she finds herself driven by the same desire to rid the world of evil doers. She humanizes Harry.
Michael Connelly creates a thinking detective, not an action hero, and he takes us through cases that come out of the news of the moment. This gives his books a historical perspective on what different eras have brought to life in Los Angeles and to the world.
I thoroughly enjoyed my summer of Bosch. It offered a nice break from the ever more chaotic politics of America and everywhere else. To go along as a hero follows the trail of a criminal murderer or rapist, an arsonist who burned up children to cover a crime, or people who committed ‘all the sins that flesh is heir to’, to use a “murder book” to catch a criminal, brought a sense of balance back into my life. Seeing wrongs righted offers satisfaction even if the heroics are fictional. I also find, whenever I read a book set in LA, that we are given lots of highway routes in case we ever want to follow in Bosch’s footsteps. Don’t bring a gun; bring some Charles Mingus and some good fast food. You won’t need a GPS. Just take the 405 to Mulholland
From an SNL skit:
Yes, Californians yak about traffic the same way Oregonians talk about the weather, effortlessly working it into conversations.
A hilarious example from jealous boyfriend Fred Armisen during Saturday’s SNL skit “The Californians”:
“I think you should go home now, Devin! Get back on San Vincente. Take it to the 10. Switch over to 405 North and let it dump you into Mulholland…where you belong.”
Thank you, Michael Connelly. You provided a great bridge to take me out of COVID isolation and sorrow, back to fighting the good fight to save democracy and enjoying life.
How shocking to hear that Dame Hilary Mary Mantel died at 70 years old of a stroke at the end of September 2022. I did not even catch on to Hilary Mantel until she wrote Wolf Hall, and even then, the title didn’t attract me at first. But once I started Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his importance to the volatile Henry VIII, I was glad I waited because I got to read all three books with barely a pause.
These are hefty books, about 500 pages each, and they are historical fiction. Some historians are purists and will not read historical fiction, but in truth all history tends to be slanted by the point of view of the recorder of the events that make up the history that is being observed and set down. It is almost impossible to be totally objective about human history. If you are a reader, it is a joy to begin a really large tome or series of any genre, one that deposits you into a world different to your own, one that makes you sigh with melancholy and satisfaction when the books are done. Hilary Mantel gave us just such a trilogy before her body, which had often caused her pain, set her free to go wherever great authors go when they die.
If you want to read an obituary that tells you about Dame Mantel’s life in greater detail this article from The Guardian. The Guardian is not behind a paywall, but they may hit you up for a donation. Follow your budget on this one.
I include the review I wrote of each book in the trilogy. I think one day soon I will read them all again.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is the story of Thomas Cromwell, an abused child of an English blacksmith who ran away to be a soldier to save his own life, a choice that strikes me as an unusual way to save your life, but there were not a lot of choices then. He did much more in his travels than just soldiering and, by the time he returned to England, his experiences had turned him into a formidable young man. He became the advisor and confidant of the King and held so many royal offices and honors that envy earned him aristocratic enemies who did not dare to act as enemies
In Wolf Hall, named after an estate that actually figures very little in the first book, we find Henry VIII who wants to set aside his first wife, Katherine, the Queen, so he can marry Anne Boleyn, a woman with many seductive skills. Henry needs a son as heir and since Katharine has not given him one, he hopes the younger, prettier Anne, will.
England is Catholic and there are all kinds of problems with the Pope and the Cardinals who believe the first marriage is legal and cannot be set aside. Cromwell has an ingenious solution to make this marriage happen, a solution that turns England upside down. Maybe you already know what it is, but you didn’t hear it from me.
The history of England has always interested me. My mother’s ancestors trace back to Shoreditch, which was an actual place near London even in the days of the Tudors, so perhaps I am genetically inclined to be an Anglophile, or perhaps I am just a fan of royalty. But I don’t think the attraction comes from either of these passions. I think it has more to do with the longevity of British history. The nation is old, and the human kindnesses and cruelties get so exaggerated when a succession of kings and queens becomes the focus of both hope and despair for an entire nation, one generation at a time. It’s fascinating. All the best and worst traits of humans, especially humans with power, are revealed., but at a safe historical remove.
If Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall, starts a bit slowly at first, it may be the pronouns that are at fault. It sometimes seems difficult to figure out the antecedent to “he” or “her” or “they.” There are so many characters involved. Just don’t get hung up on figuring our exactly who is talking. The writing pace is quick, and the pronoun trick helps speed things along. Stay with it. It does not take long at all to get your Brit geek in gear. On to Book 2. (It’s a trilogy!)
Bring Up The Bodies
Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s books are full of detail and paint a picture of life in 1500’s England. Her prose is exceptional, and her descriptions are so well done that the book plays like a movie in your head.
Apparently, Cromwell has not been the subject of in-depth research. Mantel brings him to life using the known to extrapolate about the unknown. She fleshes the man out. She uses fact and imagination to make him a living contemporary of Henry VIII. In this second book, we begin to understand why Cromwell was a formidable figure. Cromwell, in Wolf Hall, had been loyal to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Great men trained up younger men with promise, and Wolsey saw much promise in Cromwell. When Henry VIII wanted to set aside his first wife Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn, the Catholic Church stood in the way. Cardinal Wolsey, wealthy, learned, and powerful, represented the Catholic Church in England.
Wolsey could not approve the King’s divorce. His property was seized, and he lost all his comforts, was forced to live in rougher circumstances than his advanced age could tolerate, and he died of illness before he could be executed. Cromwell happened upon a play that mocked the fall of Wolsey. This masque was described in Wolf Hall, Book 1. Cromwell looked behind a screen as the players shed their disguises. He makes a mental note of who is the left front paw, the right front paw, the left rear paw, and the right rear paw of the beast in the play.
In Bringing Up the Bodies, Cromwell gets his revenge. He also reveals himself as so much more than the intelligent businessman and mentor of his own domain and the friend and ally of Henry, the King. We see his dark side. Previously we understood people’s envy and incredulity that this commoner could rise so high; now we understand how Cromwell becomes an object of fear. He becomes a man to deal with cautiously. Henry is now convinced that he needs to be free of Ann Boleyn so he can marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell makes it so in horrifying fashion. I was liking Cromwell. However, he is slipping in my regard, even though I still admire his many talents.
Cromwell and the King have already found a way to make the King the head of the church of England. Now they are beginning to dismantle the holdings of the Catholic Church and transfer the wealth to the King. Cromwell is ‘way out over his skis.’ Will he fall or remain upright? People near the King are falling like flies. Cromwell might be making too many enemies. I could look up the outcome online, but I want to wait and let Mantel take me there. I’m looking forward to Book 3.
The Mirror and the Light
The Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel gives us in her trilogy, and especially in this last offering, The Mirror and the Light is half real, half imagined and yet he seems entirely real. Thomas Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith who drank. Thomas never knew when his father, Walter, would turn abusive and beat him, but he was always bruised and on the verge of running away. He grew up in a situation that could have led to a harsh life and an early grave. A few relatives intervened when they could and eventually, he was given a place in the kitchen of a wealthy family. Then he, in a fit of anger, killed a boy his own age who liked to bully him. He did not intend to kill him and there was never a charge resulting from his violence. But killing someone changes you.
This third book in the trilogy has Thomas in his 50’s. He has succeeded in law, in business, and he has become the closest advisor of the King, Henry VIII. Henry needed to bypass the Pope in Rome when he wanted to divorce his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell knew the sins of the Catholic Church, the usual sins of greed, gluttony, lust, and the scams involving the sale of relics and the statues that cried blood. He did not think the Catholic Church represented any true connection to God. It is the time of Martin Luther, but he is considered a heretic. Anyone who challenges the church in Rome is, by association, also considered a heretic. When Henry declares himself the head of the church in England, when he basically combines the functions of Pope and King in one body (his), Cromwell backs him up, and keeps sending emissaries into Europe to keep track of repercussions against England. Will the Catholic nations go to war against Britain. Cromwell also helps Henry break up the monasteries and nunneries and move their wealth from the church to Henry’s treasury. He helps himself to some of the properties that become available and divvies others out to British royals and aristocrats. He is valuable to the king. He has become a very stable, organized, and talented man – and very rich.
Cromwell straddles the Catholic religion and the new religions that allow even poor people to read the Bible, now that it has been printed in every language. His mentor in his early years was Cardinal Wolsey, a Catholic who is turned out of all his houses and left, as an old man, in conditions far cruder than he is used to. Wolsey will not back the King’s divorce. He is on the way to his execution when he dies of natural causes. When Cromwell is asked to rid the King of Anne Boleyn, he sees his chance to also take down Wolsey’s enemies, the men who mocked him in the play in the second book. Cromwell holds this grudge and takes his revenge. Killing so many courtiers though may lead to his eventual downfall.
Cromwell lives, in this third book, both in his past and in his present. Is he too distracted to make the decisions he has always made with confidence? Henry VIII is a very unstable king to serve. He imagines that he is still young and heroic, when he is actually old and portly, with an injured leg which will not heal. He looks in his mirror and he finds himself bathed in the light of earlier days (there are many mirrors in this book so full of self-reflection). He is shocked when his new wife, in a marriage that Cromwell helped arrange, cannot hide her disappointment that she will marry this old man. She is not as beautiful as Henry thought she would be. The marriage does not take and Henry blames Cromwell. He wants out.
At this critical time Cromwell has a return bout with the malaria he picked up in Italy and while he is ailing others in the council and the parliament creep in and influence the King. Cromwell is arrested and charged as a heretic who supports the church of Luther, and he is charged with treason because jealous men attest untruthfully that Cromwell wished to marry the King’s daughter Mary and place himself on the throne of England. Although Cromwell is guilty of pride and has feathered his own nest and enjoyed the advancements the King has offered, although he has his fingers in every British pie, he is not guilty, according to what records are available, of either heresy or treason. But the King is ever worried about betrayal and once he thinks you have betrayed him all your loyalty means nothing.
These books are a tour de force and I am sorry to leave the England of Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s writing alone evokes the mid 1500’s in the reign of Henry. There is an immediacy in her prose:
“The Cornish people petition to have their saints back – those downgraded in recent rulings. Without their regular feasts, the faithful are unstrung from the calendar, awash in a sea of days that are all the same. He (he is always Cromwell) thinks it might be permitted; they are ancient saints of small worship. They are scraps of paint-flaked wood or stumps of weathered stone, who say and do nothing against the king. They are not like your Beckets, whose shrines are swollen with rubies, garnets and carbuncles, as if their blood were bubbling up through the ground.”
And this is just a tiny taste. It’s a long book, but since I didn’t want to leave it, the length made me happy.
I am sorry that we didn’t get to have Dame Hilary Mary Mantel around to write a few more immersive tomes. I hope that if you haven’t read the Thomas Cromwell books that you will. You could spend an entire winter in the reign of Henry VIII, who is not so different from leaders we encounter today.