The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman ****
Alice Hoffman’s The Ice Queen is another of the library books which I borrowed during my first trip there for quite a while. I have long been a fan of Hoffman’s work, and was so pleased to see that my branch stocks so many of her novels, many of which I shall be borrowing in the future. She somehow manages to write incredibly intelligent novels without making them feel too heavy in their style or tone, most of which can be read in just a few hours. A review on the book’s blurb writes of Hoffman favourably, and states – quite rightly, I feel – that her work can be compared to that of writers like Carol Shields and Alice Munro. It has the same brand of distinctiveness and power which their writing is suffused with.
The Ice Queen is intriguing from the very first page. It centres upon a female narrator, who is struck by lightning after wishing it upon herself. Everything becomes the ‘colour of ice’ in consequence. She works a librarian and moves from New Jersey to Florida after her grandmother’s death, in order to live closer to her brother, who becomes her only living relative. Our protagonist believes that she is cursed, and that she wished death upon her mother when she screamed in a childish fit of fury that she never wanted to see her again. Her mother was killed in a car crash that very night.
The way in which the narrator remains nameless works well. She is a strong enough presence that she does not have to be defined by a name, and an almost enigmatic quality surrounds her because of it. The Ice Queen is a wonderfully absorbing novel, and I for one am so glad that Hoffman is such a prolific writer.
Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie ***
Apparently, Death Comes as the End is the only one of Agatha Christie’s novels to have an historical setting. It is set in Egypt – on the West Bank of the River Nile at Thebes, to be precise – in 2000BC, ‘where death gives meaning to life’. The novel begins with a widow named Renisenb, who has returned to her childhood home with her child, Teti.
From the very beginning, Christie sets out the familial relationship within Renisenb’s home rather well. Unlike some of her other novels, the murder in Death Comes as the End does not come to the fore until around a third of the way in. Instead, the sense of place and the building of the characters have been focused upon. Whilst the setting has been well considered, the novel does not feel as though it has been entirely fixed in time. Parts of it seem suspended without any real, concrete details, and could quite easily relate to a different time period entirely. Nothing really made it feel as though it was fixed within Ancient Egypt, as I was expecting it to.
Whilst the plot of Death Comes at the End was rather clever, I must admit that I did guess it whilst it was still quite a way from the end. It is not my favourite of Christie’s works by any means, but it was interesting to see how an historical setting both inspired and affected her work.
The Lesson of the Master by Henry James ****
I really enjoy Henry James’ work, and spotted this lovely Hesperus edition quite by chance in the library. Whilst I had heard of it, I did not know anything about the novella before I began to read. Colm Toibin’s foreword provides a nice little introduction to the story, and also sets out the details which drove James to write. The Lesson of the Master was first published in 1888, but parts of it feel as though they are of a far more modern era.
The story’s protagonist, Paul Overt, is an ambitious young author, who has had work published. The ‘master’ of the novella’s title is an established and revered novelist named Henry St. George, who quite happily decides to take the surprised Paul under his wing, so to speak. I much admired the way in which the characters throughout were portrayed, Paul particularly. He is such a believable creature that one could imagine walking around a corner and bumping into him as he sauntered out of his club. The way in which he presents different characters is quite splendid. When speaking of Henry’s wife, James writes: ‘She looked as if she had put on her best clothes to go to church and then had decided they were too good for that and had stayed at home’.
James has such a marvellous grasp of language, and demonstrates his skill tremendously throughout. The Lesson of the Master is a very character driven work. Whilst part of it is quite a tasteful love story of sorts, it is still ultimately an impression of the cast of protagonists which one comes away with. The novella is an enjoyable one; a great classic work which can easily be read in just a couple of hours, and which will leave you with a thirst for James’ other work.