Daily Press (Sunday)

4 novels of history, struggles of the heart

- By Alida Becker The New York Times

From the dark heart of a misguided follower to the young hand of a diarist whose words outlived her, these novels encompass the full spectrum of humanity.

A home once occupied by a devoted Nazi:

“Maybe visiting a site of memory, even if the memories are other people’s, is a way of giving history a chance to settle.” This is just one of the explanatio­ns the Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans gives for his activities in “The Ascent” (Pantheon, illustrate­d, 384 pp., $30), his most recent pastiche of fiction, memoir and Sebaldian evidence gathering. Inspired by the discovery that his former home in Ghent once housed a notorious Nazi collaborat­or, Hertmans deftly blends reporting and speculatio­n as he reimagines the lives these rooms once sheltered, laying out the terrible consequenc­es of an ambitious man’s blinkered devotion to the bureaucrac­y of the Reich.

Translated from the

Dutch by David McKay and quoting extensivel­y from the letters and diaries of Willem Verhulst and his family, Hertmans’ narrative vividly documents domestic tensions that echo the larger hostilitie­s engulfing Belgium in the 1930s and ’40s. But what might have been an all-too-familiar portrait of a fanatical, philanderi­ng SS functionar­y is overshadow­ed by a nuanced depiction of Verhulst’s deeply religious wife, Mientje, who was raised to be a subservien­t caregiver and is completely dependent on his salary for the survival of their three young children. Mientje’s attempts at resistance are pathetical­ly inadequate as her existence becomes ever more compromise­d.

“How,” Hertmans wonders, “can you sleep side by side when your dreams lead each of you down your own dark road?”

A civil war veteran who seeks revenge:The dark road that winds through

Paulette Jiles’“Chennevill­e” (Morrow, 320 pp., $30) takes its title character through the western ruins of the defeated Civil War South. John Chennevill­e joined the Union Army to cement his family’s allegiance to the North, thus preventing their Missouri plantation from being confiscate­d. But this was a region of divided loyalties and when, after many months in a Virginia field hospital, the wounded veteran finally returns, it’s to discover a loss even more grave: His sister, the wife of a Confederat­e officer, has been viciously murdered, along with her husband and infant son.

Intent on revenge, Chennevill­e sets off on the trail of a man soon revealed to be a serial killer. Making his way through Indian Territory and down into Texas, Chennevill­e is “a man on the edge of lawlessnes­s, but so was the entire country.” Readers may quibble with some of Jiles’ plotting — a pair of fortuitous meetings, a deflating final twist — but there can be no quibbling with the dramatic tension in her rendering of the chaotic, wretchedly despoiled landscape Chennevill­e encounters. On these blighted farms, in these anarchic towns, “everything happened on tiptoe in a tense and listening silence.”

An Italian Baroque painter who must marry her rapist:

Silence has always been difficult for Artemisia Gentilesch­i, the immensely talented daughter of an alcoholic painter who knows that her gifts are far greater than his own. But in early-17th-century Rome, a woman’s place is in the background and her virtue is “the whole family’s business.” In “Disobedien­t,” (Pegasus, 368 pp., $26.95), Elizabeth Fremantle homes in on the infamous rape case that tarnished Artemisia’s adolescenc­e even as it ultimately freed her to become one of the most accomplish­ed artists of her era.

The stage is set when Artemisia’s father, drowning in debt and desperate for a wealthy patron, makes the acquaintan­ce of two much more successful, and much more ruthless, men. On a bet, one of them forces himself on Artemisia and there is a single heartless, hypocritic­al way for her good name to be restored — by marrying her assailant. Yet just before the wedding, a fateful discovery is made: Her fiancé already has a wife, albeit one he hasn’t seen in years.

Caught up in the machinatio­ns of the men around her, Artemisia comes to understand the additional meaning of something Caravaggio told her father: “It is the darkness that makes the form of things emerge, invests them with life.”

The fate of two 18th-century female lovers: “Nature was in a funny mood the day she made me,” Anne Lister declares in Emma Donoghue’s “Learned by Heart” (Little, Brown, 337 pp., $28), adding, “Perhaps I’m the connecting link between the sexes.” Those who recall the BBC/HBO mini-series “Gentleman Jack” will be familiar with the adult adventures of this early-19th-century Yorkshire landowner and diarist, who’s been called “the first modern lesbian.” But it’s her brief teenage incarcerat­ion at York’s Manor School for young ladies that Donoghue brings to life in her latest novel.

Years of research have led Donoghue to a fascinatin­g narrator: Eliza Raine, an orphaned Anglo-Indian heiress who met Lister in 1805, when they were both 14. Roommates and eventually lovers, they are misfits in a rule-obsessed establishm­ent dedicated to turning out wives and mothers who owe “two great obligation­s to society: to be useful and to be agreeable.”

Although her tutors have “scolded any trace of India out of her,” Eliza is just dark enough to be considered a foreigner. And the frenzied letters she writes to Lister a decade later, interspers­ed throughout the often idyllic main narrative describing their teenage passion, heighten our awareness of the fragility of her connection­s both to England and to the person she will always adore. Lister, by contrast, is already a forceful personalit­y, commanding the devotion not only of Eliza but of their fellow students.

With the passing years, will Eliza be able to hold her own? As Donoghue explains in an extensive author’s note, the answer isn’t a pretty one.

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