I’m really enjoying rereading this — and no wonder, I now see

Rose 1

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had this fatigue thing going on since my stroke. So maybe once a day — twice on a bad day — I’ve left the desk here in my home office to go lie back in the recliner in the same room and take a snooze. Which usually, but not always, refreshes me wonderfully and enables me to get back to work.

On one of these days, I looked across at the bookshelf several feet from the chair, and noticed a book I’d read several times, but not in quite a few years — Rose, by Martin Cruz Smith.

Ever read it? You should. If you don’t read another novel, read this. It’s not what Smith is best known for, but as much as I love his Arkady Renko novels — especially the first three — this may be my favorite.

And I’m rereading it now, and loving it.

No wonder.

I discovered how long it had been since I’d read it when I looked at the quote from a review on the back. See it below? When I saw it, it kind of blew me away: It’s from Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, or the “Master and Commander” books, as some might call them. I had never noticed the review before. Why? Because apparently, it’s been so long since I’d read this book that the last time I saw it I had never heard of O’Brian — who now may be my favorite novelist. Y’all know how much I read and reread his novels.

I think I started reading about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin more than 15 years ago. So it’s been awhile, Rose.

Of course O’Brian loved this book. Because in their own, very different and individualized ways, he and Smith were both masters of the same thing: They were capable, to an extent I’ve never seen anywhere else, to take their readers to an alien place and time and make them feel like they are really there.

That’s how Mike Fitts first told me I would enjoy O’Brian’s novels (something for which I will always be grateful). It’s a little hard to explain to the uninitiated why these books are so wonderful, but Mike got there by telling me that these books were about a Royal Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars, and they recreated that world with such living, breathing detail that you feel like you’re really there.

This is absolutely true. And it’s also what Martin Cruz Smith is famous for. He earned this reputation with his breakthrough, landmark novel Gorky Park. It was stunning, and if you haven’t read it, go do so right now. It was a story about a Moscow murder detective, written in the middle of the Cold War, told from that man’s perspective, and it magically makes the reader think he is actually in that world. I was stunned, years later, when I read that Smith had never been to Russia before writing the book. (Did I dream that? I had trouble confirming it on the Web just now.) It seemed impossible.

That’s his famous one, but Smith has done it time and again, particularly with his other Arkady Renko books.

But with Rose, he takes the reader to a very different place and time from any Renko ever visited. Specifically, the dark and dirty coal-mining and manufacturing town of Wigan in Lancashire in 1872.

Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes the premise:

Jonathan Blair, a mining engineer, returns from Africa’s Gold Coast and, on finding his native England utterly depressing, falls into melancholy and alcoholism. Blair wishes desperately to return to Africa, so, in exchange, he agrees to investigate the disappearance of a local curate engaged to marry the daughter of Blair’s patron….

Which doesn’t even begin to tell you anything about Blair, or what he finds in Wigan. But I assure you, you feel that you are really in the place and time among people who are of the place time. And these people are worth getting to know.

I won’t say anything more, except to note that when O’Brian mentions “the last, most satisfying page,” he knows what he’s on about. I can’t wait to get back to it myself. And I know that in the days I get to it, I’ll go back and read that page several more time, to experience the satisfaction.

It’s pretty great…

Rose 2

5 thoughts on “I’m really enjoying rereading this — and no wonder, I now see

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, by the way, I was being lazy in quoting Wikipedia’s description of the book, especially this part:

    Jonathan Blair, a mining engineer, returns from Africa’s Gold Coast and, on finding his native England utterly depressing, falls into melancholy and alcoholism. …

    Technically, it’s his “native” England, but he’d grown up in America, which is one reason why he doesn’t feel the slightest bit at home in England, especially in Wigan. He doesn’t “find” England depressing; I’m pretty sure he already had a low opinion of it.

    As for falling “into melancholy and alcoholism,” I don’t see any melancholy. He’s ticked off. He’s sarcastic, and unhappy to be where he is instead of in Africa, but I see no sign of depression. In fact, he’s pretty energetic for someone as sick as he is, and very motivated (to get done and back to Africa). He has malaria (and maybe something else), and is constantly taking drugs for it, some of them rather startling.

    He does take a drink whenever he can, but I don’t think that’s a new habit. He washes down his quinine and his arsenic — yep, arsenic — with gin and brandy and beer and pretty much anything else he can get his hands on.

    He shows restraint once with regard to drugs. He’s buying supplies from a chemist. The guy asks him whether he wants some arsenic and he says oh, yes, and starts tasting it in front of the guy. The chemist asks whether he’d like to add coca to give it an extra kick and he declines….

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Blair was very sick at the start of the book, penniless in London. He could barely get out of bed, and passed out a couple of times trying. But he seemed to do better once he could get some drugs.

      Of course, this being a Martin Cruz Smith novel, he is subjected to violence and has to take to the bed of his hotel room in Wigan for a time. I think this happens more than once, but I haven’t gotten to the end yet.

      The first time, he had bad bruising on his hip and applied leeches and left them feasting while he pored through the inquest report from a mine disaster that becomes central to the plot. At one point he reflects that, as he drinks and takes his drugs, the leeches are probably getting intoxicated…

      Smith’s characters get badly hurt, nearly killed, and have to hide away from their enemies for a time. Renko did in Gorky Park. So with Blair….


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