The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Simon Mawer

August 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m always intrigued by writers who have day jobs unrelated to writing, which was the main reason (along with a lot of positive reviews) I picked up The Headmaster’s Wager (Lam is a doctor). At first sight it’s very much the expected prose style for this kind of historical novel. Lots of description, heading towards the poetic without being especially original—it doesn’t come across so much as the voice of the author but of the genre. For me, this kind of writing usually loses in character investigation and emotional development more than it gains in evocative setting and convincing detail. The novels I love the most are those that examine the human condition, and these rich historical novels always seem to lack something crucial that would really give the reader a sense of what it was like to be that person—or, perhaps more to the point, so that the reader can become that person for the duration of the novel.

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I recently learned from Nicholas Carr’s essay in Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative” to the extent that “when…a character in a story puts a pencil down on a desk, the neurons that control muscle movements fire in a reader’s brain. When a character goes through a door to enter a room, electrical charges begin to flow through areas in a reader’s brain that are involved in spatial representation and navigation.” This is fascinating stuff, and got me wondering if it could be extended to show that people respond more strongly to certain kinds of writing than to others. Could it mean that the more or less a reader likes the writing style, the more or less he or she will be able to clamber into a character’s head and actually live out the novel? Is that why I find it hard to relate to the characters in novels of this style?

Nonetheless, The Headmaster’s Wager kept me reading where a lesser story might have failed. The detail is fascinating (Lam recently said somewhere that he learned about ten thousand things to write about a hundred; this is obvious from the quality of the novel, yet he handles the research very delicately) and Lam’s writing style grew on me. It describes the life of Percival Chen, or Chen Pie Sou, a Chinese-born headmaster and businessman living in Vietnam. When his teenage son gets into political hot water, Percival begins to understand that bribery and connections can only go so far. As the Vietnam War continues, Percival makes bad decision after bad decision and ends up losing almost everything. Despite some flaws (Chen, for example, is implausible, crammed with too many contradictory principles and morals) his is a book at the top of its genre written by a talented and intelligent writer.

Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is another historical novel, this time about the Second World War. Sometimes it starts to feel as though novels about that period—which are produced relentlessly, and for which I am always an easy target, having been fascinated by it since I was seven—are no longer about the war but about the whole conversation of literary representations of it. This is one that rises above such concerns (which are usually related to flat, unconvincing types going through predictable experiences instead of vivid characters following an individual path). The girl who falls from the sky is Marian, or Anne-Marie, or Alice, who undergoes astonishingly strenuous training so that she can be parachuted into France to help with the resistance. The novel is about the politics, intrigue and danger of this life in general, and Marian’s in particular, but at the same time it is also a coming of age tale and a complicated love story. Mawer is exceptionally good at the tense scenes of danger where Marian evades capture.

Is it impossible, though, to write a historical novel that truly captures the human condition from the inside? It’s not as though people thought any differently; I’ve just been reading Hardy and regularly fell into that pleasing sensation of “Oh, that’s exactly right. This writer has been inside my mind.” Is that what every reader looks for in a book? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly what fills me with elation and delight. Perhaps too much interiority negates the writer’s efforts to create historical authenticity.  Mawer’s writing style is clean, crisp, uncluttered and unshowy. It’s deceptively simple, evocative and effective. It gets me much closer than Lam’s style to an interior experience of the character’s world: I’m seeing London, the brutal training, the parachute drop, France and the secret missions from Marian’s eyes, rather than observing everything as a fly on the ceiling in Percival Chen’s house. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is gripping, well-written and well-conceived, but ultimately it is—perhaps both of these books are—a practical illustration of the concept that you can give a book ten out of ten and still not put it in the small category of life-changing writing.

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