Posted by Sari
David Leavitt: Indian Clerk
I don't know if it really is a recent phenomenon, but I have a sort of gut feeling literary historicals fictionalising the lives of real people might be in vogue. (Wolf Hall, Arthur and George, True Story of the Kelly Gang...) In these novels the authors seem to be adhering to historical facts as we know them, and imagining the interior lives of the subjects based on what sources and research there is. It is a strange balancing act for an author, and for a reader – especially one interested in the history behind the characters – it is a reading experience full of caveats.
Leavitt's Indian Clerk is firmly in this category. It tells the stories of a Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy and his colleague Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian clerk of the title. In early 1900s Ramanujan writes to Hardy from Madras telling he is very near of solving Riemann-hypothesis and when Hardy and his colleague Littlewood bring him to England, he becomes an instant sensation, ”a hindoo calculator”. Unfortunately, the devout Ramanujan is trapped in England by the First World War and his health deteriorates badly, partly because of misdiagnosis and the difficulties of maintaining a nourishing vegetarian diet in war-time England, and he dies shortly after returning to India.
Unlike many other american novelists Leavitt has an understanding of the meaning of class in British society and Indian clerk is both a sensitive and insightful portrait of Hardy, and an examination of class and race in early 20th century Cambridge. Hardy and Ramanujan have very little in common beyond mathematics, and Hardy almost wholly fails to understand his colleague, even though he – both fictional and historical Hardy – describes meeting him as the one romantic incident in his life. That disconnect and - on the other hand - the connect the men share when talking about mathematics works well, espcially when viewed in contrast to the larger societal questions the novel examines. Leavitt isn't quite as succesful with the structure and plot of the novel which does leave a reader feeling little aimless.
Megan Whalen Turner: The Thief, Queen of Attolia, King of Attolia, Conspiracy of Kings
Turner's series of YA fantasy novels have for quite a while been among my favourites, the kind of books I reread every now and again as comfort fic because they feed my id. The Thief and Queen of Attolia were published some time a go, and in the past few years Turner has returned to her world with two new novels. The Thief turns on a narrative sleight of hands which is either clever or irritating depending on what sort of reader you are, and even stating this is a bit of a spoiler. Queen of Attolia is a very strange romance mixed with war maybe war mixed with strange romance, and King of Attolia a straight sequel to that. Conspiracy of Kings is a parallel novel to King of Attolia where another character from the Thief gets mixed up in a coup in a neighbouring kingdom.
Turner's fantasy world is refreshingly not a pseudomedieval one, but one riffing off from ancient Greece and its city states. The world is well-imagined, though I am not a great fan of the ”folk tales” she frequently inserts to her novels to created depth and further a point. The plots move nicely and there is plenty of conspiracies, war and action but also engaging characters and human relationships.
My absolute favourite, and the one I return to quite regularily, is King of Attolia because it utilizes one of my favourite tropes in all fiction: looking at familiar characters through the eyes of a new one. Here the Queen of Attolia and her newly crowned King are seen through the originally quite hostile eyes of a member of the Queens guard who slowly begins to understand his monarchs and their difficult relationship.