The au­thor of Cold Moun­tain re­turns to the civil war for this novel of flight, sep­a­ra­tion and a di­vided Amer­ica

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Al­fred Hick­ling

In Fe­bru­ary 1911, at a whitesonly cer­e­mony in New Or­leans, the Jef­fer­son Davis mon­u­ment was erected to mark 50 years since the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the first and only man to hold the of­fice of pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­ate States. School­child­ren in red, white and blue sang “Dixie” and were chore­ographed into a liv­ing Con­fed­er­ate flag. On 11 May 2017, un­der cover of dark­ness, the statue was taken down.

If his­tor­i­cal fic­tion seeks to to shed light on the present, now is the time for Charles Fra­zier to re­turn to the civil war pe­riod that pro­vided the back­ground for his mil­lion-sell­ing debut, Cold Moun­tain . Fra­zier has cho­sen to fo­cus on the pres­i­dent’s se­cond wife, Va­rina How­ell: blue­stock­ing, opium ad­dict, friend of Os­car Wilde and surely the most ob­scure woman to have borne the ti­tle first lady in Amer­ica.

The novel opens in 1906 in a fash­ion­able up­state New York sana­to­rium where the 80-year-old Va­rina is at­tempt­ing to detox­ify from a life­time of nar­cotics rou­tinely pre­scribed to south­ern ladies “monthly and be­fore im­por­tant dances”. She is vis­ited by a black gentle­man, James Blake, who iden­ti­fies him­self as a slave child the Davis fam­ily had adopted and is known, ow­ing to his re­mark­able dou­ble-joint­ed­ness, as Jim­mie Lim­ber. At first, Va­rina re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge the events that caused her to flee with Jim­mie and her chil­dren from the Con­fed­er­ate cap­i­tal at Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, when the city was be­sieged by north­ern forces in April 1865. But Va­rina’s re­luc­tance to dis­cuss the past sig­ni­fies the novel’s clear en­gage­ment with the present. As she tells Jim­mie: “We’re a fu­ri­ous na­tion, and war drums beat in our chest. Our lead­ers pro­claim bet­ter than they ne­go­ti­ate. The only bright spot is, the right side won.”

As the in­tel­lec­tual daugh­ter of an un­suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, Va­rina does not make for a spec­tac­u­lar catch. Her mar­riage to Davis, al­most 20 years her se­nior, is pre­sented as a prag­matic bid for eco­nomic by Charles Fra­zier, Scep­tre, £20 If was Hol­ly­wood fod­der,

is a clear­sighted de­pic­tion of cul­pa­ble lead­ers se­cu­rity. Even when in­stalled in the pres­i­den­tial man­sion – which Va­rina refers to as “the Grey House” – she never es­capes the in­sin­u­a­tion that she is a cuckoo in the Con­fed­er­ate nest: “Rich­mond pre­sented a ve­neer of re­fine­ment over a deep core of bru­tal­ity. And yet the women from the best fam­i­lies call­ing her too western, too fron­tier, too crude.”

Like Cold Moun­tain, Va­rina is a novel of flight and sep­a­ra­tion. Un­like the ear­lier work, it’s a nar­ra­tive in which nei­ther main pro­tag­o­nist has any great de­sire to see the other again. Va­rina laments the fact that her hus­band’s at­tempt to catch up with the fam­ily ul­ti­mately de­liv­ers them into fed­eral hands: “If he had left us on our own we would have made it to Ha­vana … I wanted to es­cape and he didn’t.” The mo­ment of ca­pit­u­la­tion to north­ern forces is pure farce, with Davis scam­per­ing to­wards a creek dis­guised as a wash­er­woman.

The Homeric par­al­lels of Cold Moun­tain were fre­quently re­marked upon, as the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Con­fed­er­ate de­serter In­man seemed to mir­ror the di­ver­sions and pri­va­tions of Odysseus’s long jour­ney home. Such al­lu­sions are made ex­plicit here: “Warred over land­scapes lie burned and salted as throughly as Troy af­ter the Greeks sailed home”; while Va­rina even likens her­self to Euripi­des’ ver­sion of He­len, mus­ing that she played no part in the war, but that an ei­dolon, or phan­tom dop­pel­gänger, took her place.

The rather grandil­o­quent as­sump­tion might be that if Cold Moun­tain was Fra­zier’s Odyssey, Va­rina has been con­ceived as his Iliad . Yet there’s a dis­ori­ent­ing un­even­ness to the nar­ra­tive tone, in which Va­rina’s rem­i­nis­cences, as told to Blake, are in­ter­rupted by an om­ni­scient voice who refers to the pro­tag­o­nist as “V” when pass­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal judg­ment: “V has never made any claim of per­sonal high ground. She grew up when and where she did. From ear­li­est mem­ory, own­ing peo­ple was a given.” The non-chrono­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive be­comes so com­plex that even Fra­zier seems to lose his place in it at times. The early pages es­tab­lish an im­age of “North and South like grotesque re­flec­tions of one an­other in a car­ni­val mir­ror”. The metaphor feels less ef­fec­tive, 200 pages later, when Va­rina moves into “a White House re­flected in a grotesque car­ni­val mir­ror”.

Above all, the novel inevitably lacks the big, boxof-tis­sues fi­nale that pro­vided Cold Moun­tain with its emo­tional heft, as few peo­ple are likely to be moved to weep for Va­rina or her cold-blooded, “rap­tor-like” hus­band. But per­haps this is not the time and place for ro­mance. The sig­nif­i­cance of Fra­zier’s novel has less to do with its po­ten­tial as Hol­ly­wood fod­der than its clear-sighted de­pic­tion of cul­pa­ble lead­ers in a di­vided Amer­ica. As Blake re­flects af­ter his fi­nal visit to the sana­to­rium: “He [Davis] did as most politi­cians do – ex­cept more so – cor­rupt our lan­guage and sym­bols of free­dom, per­vert our he­roes. Be­cause like so many of them, he held no beloved idea or phi­los­o­phy as tightly as his money purse.”

Cold Moun­tain

Va­rina

To buy Va­rina for £17.60 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Charles Fra­zier

Va­rina

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