The Brontës, Ruth Rendell, and This Week’s Hot Reads: August 19, 2012

From an essential biography of the Brontës to Granta’s exploration of physical and mental ailments. By Jimmy So.

The Brontës by Juliet BarkerA revised and updated edition of the monumental, definitive biography of the tragic family comprising the three Brontë sisters.

This revised and updated edition of the definitive 1994 biography of the literary family sports a “new” discovery: Charlotte Brontë’s letter about her wedding dress is “particularly delightful,” as Barker writes in her preface. “White I had to buy and did buy to my own amazement—but I took care to get it in cheap material … If I must make a fool of myself—it shall be on an economical plan,” the Jane Eyre author wrote. The few who caught a glimpse of her in the white muslin dress “thought she looked like a snowdrop,” Barker notes. It is to the biographer’s credit that she piles on almost 1,000 pages of such details and never makes it boring—tedious, perhaps, and a steady chore if you want to conquer the book, but never boring. Barker’s greatest service is to rescue the family of Charlotte, Emily (Wuthering Heights), and Anne (Agnes Grey) from myth. Most of all, she does justice to the male members, who were provided particularly hideous stereotypes by Charlotte’s first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. The doom and tragedy are there, for there’s no denying that the sisters all died young. But there were also plenty of moments when they looked like a snowdrop.

The St. Zita SocietyBy Ruth RendellOne of Britain’s leading crime writers turns her attention to orchestrating the tangled and secretive lives of masters and servants on a London street.

Rendell might be known chiefly as a mystery writer, but her new book doesn’t feel much like a crime novel. Not that there isn’t any crime. There’s an extraordinary amount of it, including murder. But much of it would fall under the “crimes of the heart” category—for example, a valet sleeps with the lord’s wife and his daughter. The St. Zita Society reads more like a comedy of manners mostly because there isn’t the presence of a strong detective, as there is in Rendell's Inspector Wexford series. What the novel resembles is Upstairs, Downstairs in sordid hyper-drive. This is a book about a street in London, and the tangled community of its naughty or complicit owners and servants. It’s set in contemporary times, with references to the Internet—Dex the gardener hears through his cellphone the malevolent voice of “Peach,” a manifestation of his violent paranoia. But the novel has an old-fashioned feel—a “Princess” on the street is 82 years old and has a maid who is 78, and they get tipsy together watching soap operas. The way that everyone knows one another on Hexam Place might even seem downright medieval to residents of modern cities who have no idea of the name of the person living across the hall.

The Double GameBy Dan FespermanA spy novel that is very much a game, filled with mentions of the classics like Graham Greene and Le Carré, which can make it seem like an unnecessarily anxious defense of the genre.

Perhaps The Double Game is closer to the “mystery” novel that you might be familiar with, much more of a whodunit than the whydunit that Rendell is known for. It is a spy novel, but more than that, it is a spy novel about spy novels, calculated to deliver a maximum dose of fun for the genre fan, since it is filled to the brim with mentions of Graham Greene and Le Carré. I’m not talking about allusions or references. I’m talking about the protagonist, a journalist-cum-publicist named Bill Cage, who constantly reads, remembers, and quotes his favorites, which makes breezing through The Double Game like encountering 30 spy classics. Cage has to figure out whether novelist Edwin Lemaster—the author of the book called, you guessed it, The Double Game—ever spied for the enemy, and whether his own dad used to work for the CIA. Fesperman’s book is a triple, quadruple, quintuple game, thrilling and fun, though it lacks the philosophical urgency of Le Carré or the religious torment of Greene. Reading Fesperman will surely make you want to revisit them.

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiayeAn agonizingly poignant look at the relationship between Europe and its African immigrants—one of the most pressing issues of our time.

The ending of Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold reappears in Three Strong Women, but the border to be crossed is no longer the wall between Communist East Berlin and democratic West Berlin. It is the huge gulf between Africa and Europe, the vital and all-too-rarely explored theme of NDiaye’s tragic novel. NDiaye is the first black woman to win the national literature award of France, the Prix Goncourt, and film buffs might know her as the co-writer of Claire Denis’s pain-filled White Material. Three Strong Women's title is misleading, as the novel chronicles two women and one man. The triptych begins with Norah, who’s back in Senegal to see her dying father, leaving behind her life as a lawyer in Paris. The second narrative follows a day in the life of Rudy, a Frenchman in the provinces who uprooted his wife from Senegal to be with him, though she can’t find employment. The gut-wrenching finale moves us back to Senegal, where a young widow named Khady is trying to make her way out of Africa and into Europe. Perhaps NDiaye’s agonized work would seem melodramatic in another time. But right now, the very second you put down this book, you might feel that nothing is as urgent as Europe’s relationship with its immigrants.

Granta 120: Medicineedited by John FreemanThe literary journal explores how we deal with the ailments that our bodies face, though perhaps it is the soul that takes the most beating.

Two elements appear most often in writings about health: medical names and medical disclosures. The former contaminates everything, as if the other words on the page are in a race to sound as smart and jargony. The latter makes the authors seem superior and exceptional, as if the reader ought to commend them for their conditions, so courageous are they to be surviving at all. The melodrama about death and suffering doesn’t help. Neither does a gruesome cover revealing organs inside the body of a black-haired girl. But it is to the credit of Granta that much of what is presented in the new edition are stories told simply and powerfully. You could hardly guess the theme if it were not already told to you. For the most devastating effect explored in these pieces are psychological, though they may accompany a good amount of physical ailments. In Gish Jen’s “The Third Dumpster,” a pair of brothers fix up a house only to see their father trip over a toolbox—the injury is only a symptom of the anxiety that everyone is inflicted with. A.J. Kennedy’s “Ordinary Light” explores the body, whether through a kiss or an X-ray scan or her “strong and huge and tender grandfather.” M.J. Hyland’s “Hardly Animal” is perhaps the most conventional of the lot, since she has a condition that not only can’t be ignored but affects every aspect of her life. She lives with multiple sclerosis, and her “pact with dying” doesn’t seem an overreaction—the body and soul are subject to a lot of abuse over our short lives. But we carry on, and then say goodbye.