The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger


Another novel based on the lives of real people, The Mistress of Nothing is the story of Sally Naldrett, lady’s maid to Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon.

In August of 1862, thirty-year-old Sally sets sail for Egypt with her mistress, where it is hoped that the warm dry climate will ease Lady Duff Gordon’s tuberculosis. While Sally is thrilled at the prospect, having thoroughly enjoyed their previous stay in South Africa, she knows that behind Lady Duff Gordon’s brave front, her mistress is miserable.

Author of several books, translator of others, Lady Duff Gordon enjoys the scintillating company of friends such as George Meredith and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As Sally can see, the only thing worse than leaving behind her intellectual life is the separation from her husband and children, the youngest of whom is only three. In addition to the physical suffering she endures from her advanced tuberculosis, Lady Duff Gordon resents and tries hard to hide her physical decline.

As lady’s maid, Sally tends to her mistress’s illness as well as to her clothing. When Sally declines a last-minute proposal, she declares that she is devoting her life to caring for Lady Duff Gordon.

Sally’s descriptions of Egypt are entrancing, from the crowded streets of Cairo to the time spent traveling on the Nile in their dahabieh to setting up housekeeping in Luxor. They are accompanied by a dragoman hired in Cairo, Omar Abu Halaweh. The three fall into an easy rhythm of life in Luxor, enhanced by various townspeople.

Battered by the heat, the two women shed their English clothes for loose-flowing Egyptian costumes. Both study Arabic and Islam with Omar, and the three begin to have their meals together, sitting on cushions on the floor per local custom. But differences remain. Lady Duff Gordon adopts the clothing of Egyptian men while Sally hesitates and finally choses women’s robes. Sally practices her Arabic in the marketplace while her mistress uses hers in entertaining local notables.

The English class structure is not abandoned as easily as the stiff stays that the women toss away. Sally soon finds that their free and easy their life in Luxor is an illusion. The structures of Egyptian society and politics also close in on the small household.

I raced through this novel, fascinated by the characters, entranced by the descriptions of floating on the Nile and viewing Luxor by moonlight. Most of all, I was caught up in Sally’s story, afraid of how it might turn out, shocked by some of the privileges claimed by English aristocracy that even I, with all my reading, was not aware of. If you want a good read that will also make you think about class and race and religion in new ways, this is a book for you.

In this book, the actual people involved are from the past, which makes me wonder if that is better or worse. We may be able to discover more about them now that they are gone. At the same time, they are not around to defend themselves. Pullinger has done a lot of research and I am pretty confident that the events are accurate. However, she has had to imagine the emotions and motivations of Sally, Omar and their mistress.

It is clear from her comments in the interview at the end that Pullinger has tried to follow the same advice I give in my memoir-writing classes: treat the people in your story with respect. Genuinely try to understand why they thought they were doing the right thing. Remember that each of them thinks he or she is the hero of the story.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway


It seems a good moment to be reminded of those who retain their integrity even in the worst of times. Like Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book, this novel is based on a true story of courage and honor during the siege of Sarajevo.

Galloway’s novel is based on the actions of Vedran Smailović, a former cellist in the Sarajevo String Quartet, who during the siege played among the ruins, especially the Albinoni piece, and at funerals, even though funerals were often targeted by snipers. Unsurprisingly, Smailović was furious that his life and story had been co-opted by someone else without his permission, calling it an invasion of his privacy. He also said,

“I didn’t play for 22 days, I played all my life in Sarajevo and for the two years of the siege each and every day.

“They keep saying I played at four in the afternoon, but the explosion was at 10 in the morning and I am not stupid, I wasn’t looking to get shot by snipers so I varied my routine.

“I never stopped playing music throughout the siege. My weapon was my cello.”

Galloway, on his part, defends his actions by saying in the same article that Smailović’s actions had been “an extremely public act” and that a writer need not get permission from his sources of inspiration. Apparently they have since begun to move towards reconciliation, but I still am concerned about defining the grey area between a private person and a public figure.

In Galloway’s story, on 27 May 1992 an unnamed cellist sees a mortar bomb explode in the square outside his room, killing 22 people who had been standing in line for bread. He decides to put on his formal clothes, go out to the spot where the bomb exploded at 4:00 pm and play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, a piece composed around a fragment found after the bombing of the Dresden Music Library in 1942. He will do this every day for 22 days, if he survives that long.

The rest of the story revolves around three fictional characters, ordinary citizens whose lives have been derailed and distorted by the war. Arrow is a young woman who reluctantly became a sniper for the city’s defenders because of her previous experience on her university target-shooting team. To separate herself from that person who would never have used a rifle to kill, she has taken a different name. Yet she still struggles to align her actions with the remnants of her belief system. “The Sarajevo she fought for was one where you didn’t have to hate a person because of what there were . . . You could hate a person for what they did.” What could be more timely?

Dragan was able to send his wife and son out of the city before the siege and now lives with his sister and her family. He is trying to get to the bakery where he works, even though it is his day off, to eat in the employee cafeteria—one less burden for his sister. Dragan imagines Sarajevo as it was before the war, the parks, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Olympic venues from 1984. He is delayed by the people he encounters and the terrifying hesitation at street corners. Crossing a street means exposing yourself, and Dragan falls into magical thinking about what might save him. This is a choice I see people resisting today: to hide in memory or indulge in magical thinking. Only by facing reality can we address it.

Another person out on the streets is Keenan who must travel across the city to get water for his family and for his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Ristovski, even though he is almost paralysed by the thought of venturing out into the sights of the snipers in the hills. As he makes agonising decisions about which bridges to cross and whether to abandon Mrs. Ristovski’s cumbersome bottles, he becomes aware of tankers of water servicing the rich, those who are making money off the beleaguered residents. Keenan must find a way to live with his fear of death and decide whether it is worth going on.

Nothing is more relevant to today’s fears than this chilling reminder from late in the book. Although Galloway is referring to Sarajevo, he could be talking about any of several nations in the throes of change today.

. . . civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible.

What novel have you read recently that has given you new insight about current events?

The Lord of the Rushie River, by Cicely Mary Barker


When in need of comfort, I often turn to beloved books. In a recent article on the great writer’s website Writer Unboxed, author Juliet Marillier described some of her favorite and most treasured books, her keeper books. This picture book was the very first one she named. It is by the author of the Flower Fairy books, which I have long adored.

This story opens with Susan’s father, the Sailor, bidding her goodbye as he heads to sea again. In her sadness, she is comforted by a family of swans swimming nearby, one of whom, as a cygnet, had been rescued by her father when some boys had broken its leg.

Dame Dinnage, hired by her father to care for Susan in his absence, immediately drops her pretense of loving Susan, feeding her scraps and watered milk, refusing to mend or replace her clothes. All Dame Dinnage cares about is her stocking of money that grows heavier and heavier. Then she moves them to the city.

In her despair at never seeing her father again, Susan runs away, trying to make her way back to Rushiebanks. She is rescued by a swan, the one her father saved, now grown large and strong, and lives with the swans until he returns.

I’ve given away the ending, but you knew it would end happily. The delight is in the details and in the drawings by the author, some in color. Barker perfectly captures the timeless voice of a young girl. Here is a short passage from Susan’s flight from the city:

It was still the dark night; but in one house a dim light burned in an upstairs window. It gave her a feeling of company; it might be the night-light of a little girl like herself. She crept into a corner of the creeper-covered porch, and rested there.

I was lucky to find a used copy of this lovely book and will treasure it and share it with the young people in my life. I’m grateful to Juliet Marillier for introducing me to it.

One of the benefits of the Writer Unboxed site is that people leave comments on every post. I culled more ideas from other people’s comments on Juliet’s post. Here are the keeper books that I posted in my comment:


The Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton. As a child I didn’t realise that this tale of magic and danger was based on aspects of Transcendentalist philosophy. I simply loved it, and the images in it are still touchstones for me.


The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett inspired a lifelong love of gardening and Yorkshire. I walked the Dales Way this summer.


The Scent of Water, by Elizabeth Goudge. I first read this as a teen and, on re-encountering it later, realised how much it had influenced my personal philosophy, my beliefs, and my view of the world and relationships.


Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Innocence, quests, and honor: this book took my childhood love of King Arthur stories into adulthood.


The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. One rarely mentioned aspect of these books is their maps and songs and barely remembered histories, which gave me a love of scholarship that has carried me through formal schooling and beyond.

Birds of Paradise, by Paul Scott. This early novel by the author of the Raj Quartet resonated so deeply with me that I come back to it again and again. A coming of age story, it makes me consider the unreliability of childhood memory and the place of Arthurian honor and glory in today’s world.

What are some of your keeper books?

The Door, by Magda Szabó


I have been thinking a lot about doors this week, what doors are closing, what doors are opening. It is a time of great change for me personally, for my country, for the world.

Szabó’s brilliant novel opens with a recurring nightmare of desperately trying to force a door open; there is someone inside who needs saving. Yet she cannot even call for help; she has no voice.

The narrator of this first-person story is a Hungarian writer, also named Magda. She and her husband, also a writer, have no children, indeed no family, for Magda’s mother has recently died. After 10 years, the government has finally lifted its restrictions on Magda’s writing and, overwhelmed with opportunities, Magda decides to hire a housekeeper. Thus, Emerence enters their lives.

A sturdy older woman, Emerence takes control of the interview, announcing that she will decide whether to work for them, rather than the other way around. With great physical strength and an unrivalled understanding of how the world works, she performs herculean tasks to maintain the apartment building where she lives, clearing the snow for 11 buildings, providing meals for the sick, finding homes for stray animals, and the many other duties she has assumed.

Emerence is proud of her role as the bulwark of the neighborhood. She is the one they turn to with their problems, holding court on her front porch with strong tea or coffee. However, no one is allowed inside her apartment, which Magda calls the Forbidden City. This is only one of many mysteries about this remarkable woman. Did she steal the valuables Jewish neighbors had to leave behind when they were rounded up during the war? Did she kill a man and bury him in the back yard? Who is the young woman whose arrival she anxiously awaits?

Magda and Emerence frequently clash, more and more violently as they grow closer. Emerence has a laborer’s contempt for the idea that tapping on a typewriter could be considered work. She disapproves of Magda’s faith and criticises her when she attends church services. In her turn, Magda dismisses many of Emerence’s gifts as not being up to her standards and resents the way Emerence has appropriated the love and obedience of Magda’s dog.

Miscommunications and misunderstandings plague the relationship. In one hilarious scene, Magda takes Emerence to where a film is being shot, thinking to give her a treat. Upon learning that there are machines making the tree branches dance during a passionate love scene, Magda is disgusted and accuses Magda and the other filmmakers of being liars and cheats. Magda asks her, “‘Don’t you think it’s a function of art to create the illusion of reality?’” Emerence’s response changes how Magda understands her own art.

“Art . . . If that’s what you were—artists—then everything would be real, even the dance, because you would know how to make the leaves move to your words, not to a wind machine or whatever it was.”

Neither woman is spared in this brutal, yet subtle work. Every page reveals Szabó’s profound understanding of human behavior and motivations. I am grateful for the work of translators like Len Rix and publishers like New York Review Books for enabling me to read novels from other countries such as this one.

The book works on many levels. Some have seen it as old Hungary versus new Hungary or peasant versus educated elite. Perhaps it traces the difference between art and physical labor. In the end, though, it is a story about how difficult it is to love someone, and how necessary.

Have you read a book translated from another language? What did you think of it?

A Cup of Tea, by Amy Ephron


I once read a novel where a man enters a room and the woman there, who has never seen him before, just says, “Yes.” And she goes with him, even though she is married and has two children. I was at a susceptible age, young and a bit cynical, and wondered how that could even be possible, to recognise someone in that first moment.

I found out later that it was indeed possible, though I couldn’t explain how. Perhaps it was the circumstances; perhaps the way he looked or the sound of his voice, the peculiar scent of his skin. I don’t know.

Such a moment occurs in this slim novel, based on a short story by the same name by Katherine Mansfield. On a shopping expedition in New York City, wealthy Rosemary Fell sees a young woman standing under a streetlight in the cold rain. Moved by a surprising impulse of generosity, she invites the destitute woman home with her for a cup of tea.

Navigating the concerns of her driver, her housekeeper and her best friend, Jane, Rosemary presents the girl with a dry change of clothes. Before she has decided how far to go in befriending the girl, Rosemary’s fiancé arrives. Philip immediately notices the strange girl who is studying him. After being introduced, he takes Rosemary to another room to find out what is going on. Although unconvinced by his lecture on the unwisdom of bringing home strange girls, Rosemary does return and sends the girl—Eleanor Smith—away.

It’s 1917 and many of society’s mores are changing. The U.S. will soon enter the Great War, sending men overseas and disrupting lives even as comfortable as Rosemary’s. The story follows these four characters, Eleanor, Rosemary, Philip and their friend Jane.

While it seems like a simple story, the complexity of the characters and the intensity of the times give it depth. Rosemary is no empty-headed debutante, and Jane’s motives only gradually take shape. Although of a good family, Philip has had to build his shipyard business from scratch. And Eleanor is a bit of a mystery. A woman who has reinvented herself, perhaps more than once, she moves through the months, taking shape herself along with the story.

People sometimes argue the difference between character-driven novels and those that are plot-driven. To me, the best novels are like this one, where plot and character are fully integrated. Things happen; people change; larger themes of class and materialism lurk around the edges: I couldn’t ask for anything more. And the setup, a moment of just saying yes, was entirely believable to me.

What story have you read that resonated with your own experience?

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith


I must have been ten or eleven when I first read this novel of an eccentric English family living in a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. I didn’t remember anything except that I’d loved it despite my initial disappointment that it wasn’t about King Arthur or magical doings—I’d come to it from The Once and Future King and somehow thought it was going to be similar.

Yet I only had to read the first sentence for the whole story to come flooding back to me, plus a precise memory of where I was when reading it. The voice of Cassandra, who tells the story, is that strong.

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent.

Her father, a writer, had a very successful book many years ago but hasn’t written since. Her stepmother, Topaz, is a model for whom there aren’t many work opportunities in the depths of the country and London is too expensive. Although a bit drifty, Topaz is even-tempered and has turned out to be adept at fashioning meals out of almost nothing. There’s a brother, Thomas, two years younger, and Stephen, a year older than Cassandra, the son of their maid who stayed on with the Mortmains after her death even though they can’t pay him.

Of her older sister, Cassandra says: “Although I am rather used to her I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life.”

See what I mean about the voice? Wanting to be a writer, Cassandra has decided to keep a journal, the book we are reading. She intersperses her record of the oddities of their daily life with her own quite original thoughts and interpretations. I say original, but I remember reading them and thinking Oh yes, that’s EXACTLY the way I feel. And she’s hilarious, sometimes without meaning to be.

I was too young then to recognise the inciting incident, the happening that upends their odd but stable lives. On a rainy night, while Cassandra is taking a bath in front of the kitchen fire, a young man knocks at the door and enters. He and his brother are moving into nearby Scoatney Hall, empty since the death of their uncle who is also the landlord for the Mortmains’ home. The sisters actually joke about Austen’s novel.

In trying to decide what most delights me in this story, I have to give credit to the setting: the peculiar house/castle with its moat and nearby ancient tower. I love the room over the gate where Father retires to “write” every day, but actually reads mystery novels. And Cassandra’s descriptions of their life at home, their jaunts in the English countryside, etc. are quite distinctive. Here’s a bit from her first visit to Scoatney Hall:

We left our wraps in the hall—Topaz had lent us things to save us the shame of wearing our winter coats. There was a wonderful atmosphere of gentle age, a smell of flowers and beeswax, sweet yet faintly sour and musty; a smell that makes you feel very tender towards the past.

I love their hijinks. Not just the imaginative way they live—calling the room between the girls’ room and the adults’ bedroom the “buffer state”, using a dressmaker’s dummy as a confidante and mentor—but the accidental mischief they fall into, like Rose being mistaken for a bear.

Most of all, though, it’s Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises. If you’ve never read this book, you have a treat in store for you. If you have, try reading it again.

Have you reread a book that you loved when young? Was it as good as you remembered?

Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship, by Terese Svoboda


The poems in this new collection by Terese Svoboda get to the heart of what it means to be human. I wrote a woman at first, but I think their truths transcend gender. Allusive, often playful, they are deeply moving.

Take the first poem, “Whose Little Airplane Are You?” With light but deft touches, she conjures a mother speaking of apricots and clouds and planes, as though in answer to the question What was it like when I was a baby? She apologises for all she had not apprehended then. Yet the immense love comes through, together with the hint of threat that the image of planes coming out of clouds now holds for us.

In “The Talking Tea-Kettle” an enchanting and amusing discussion of spiritualists and their debunkers is sprinkled with calls from a daughter trying to connect with her mother.

Other poems take us into different territory, such as “Orlando is Us” which imagines what it must have been like to be in that nightclub on the night of the attack. “Airport News” uses Dante’s Purgatorio to describe a flight, and will have any frequent flyer nodding and chuckling. Another intensely imagined piece has a father trying to find his son in a parking garage in “Boy on Crutches”. Others, such as “Baghdad Calls” and “Hope Wanted Alive”, speak to our fractured world.

The long poem that makes up Part III and provides the book’s title, looks at our race pell-mell into the future. With allusions, puns and other word-play, Svoboda takes us on a balloon ride of a marriage. She invites us to look at the space between concepts such as “Transportation as transport:/Court-ship.” With references to Spock, DNA, and the Jetsons, she circles around the idea of invention, the future, and the stories we imagine about them.

It is the last section that keeps bringing me back. She begins with the lines “No one imagines/night at noon.” With compelling imagery and concrete details, like gingko trees and the triangle on the Play button, these poems of a loss conjure in us, not just the memory, but the experience of our own losses and help to heal them.

I’ve written before about Svoboda’s earlier collection, When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley, and Anything That Burns You, her incredible biography of the influential but now mostly forgotten Modernist poet Lola Ridge. This new collection builds on the strengths of those earlier works. If you enjoy word-play and are ready to be moved, I encourage you to explore these poems.

What poem have you read recently that moved you?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky


I remember this book from my childhood. It was on a top shelf in the study, a small room lined with bookcases. Aside from the many-volumed encyclopedia and my grandfather’s law books, most of the shelves were filled with my father’s medical books. We children would pull them down when we wanted to scare ourselves and each other with the photos of rare diseases. So when I saw this book with the title in large letters on the spine, above my reach, I assumed it was another medical book, describing some form of mental disability.

I must have been curious, though, because it is the only title I remember from those walls.

Although I read a lot, I’ve only recently begun to catch up with the classic Russian authors. The Idiot begins with young Prince Muishkin, 26 or 27 years old, traveling by train to St. Petersburg from Switzerland where he’d spent several years being treated for severe epilepsy. He meets two men: Parfen Rogojin, a pale man of about the same age with fiery eyes, and Lebedeff, a social-climbing clerk of about 40.

The two are amused by the prince, who is inappropriately dressed for the cold and who answers their questions with a naive honesty and openness that makes them think him simple-minded. The prince reveals that he has no other plan but to look up a distant relative, Mrs. General Epanchin (Elizabetha Prokofievna). The two take him in hand.

I won’t try to summarise the complicated plot and large cast, but the heart of the book is the prince, whose artless innocence wins over everyone he meets. Dostoevsky said that he wanted to write a novel about a completely good and moral man. Of course, like others the prince has been compared to since, such as Don Quixote and Jesus himself, he brings trouble on himself and those around him. Most people, including the prince himself, call him an idiot, thinking his innocence and epilepsy symptoms of a feeble brain. Gradually, though, they come to appreciate his wisdom and deep insight into those around him.

The prince falls in love with two women who—to their own surprise—both love him back: Nastasia Philipovna, a woman who has been used as a concubine by a man who adopted her as his ward and whom Rogojin also loves, and Aglaya, the youngest and most beloved Epanchin daughter. As A.S. Byatt astutely observes in her review of a recent translation:

The women think they are in a story about seduction, rape, proposals, money and marriage, like most novels in the realm of the passions and economic forces. The prince is in some absolute moral world in which he can instinctively gauge who is being cruel to whom, who is in need and who is tormenting or tormented, without having in him any genuine sexual response of his own to help him to judge his own effect on people.

I found this novel compelling, though I certainly understand the complaints of critics who find the plot contrived and the characters flat. What most impressed and unsettled me was Dostoevsky’s technique of presenting some incident or fact as though we already know all about it, whereas in fact he only explains it some pages or chapters later. At first I was annoyed, but then I realised this was how the prince must feel, adrift in a world where everyone seems to know the rules except him. At the same time, he is utterly sure of his own understanding.

As writers, we are taught that to make characters seem real they must be neither entirely good nor entirely bad, but some mixture. Dostoevsky’s challenge here is to make the purely good prince seem real. He makes the other characters complex enough, like Mrs. General Epanchin berating those whom she most cares for and worries about, or Rogojin who is alternately selfless and grasping.

I think Dostoevsky succeeds in making the prince real. Perhaps that is because I have known a few such people, not perfect certainly, but so innocently good that your heart aches for them, knowing the hurts they will encounter. I’m glad I waited to read this novel. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it so much if as a child I had pulled it down from that top shelf.

What Russian classic have you read that impressed you?

The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende


Allende’s new novel takes place primarily in Lark House, a fictional nursing home in California, where strong-willed Alma Belasco has established herself. She’s left the family mansion where she has lived ever since being sent out of Poland at the beginning of World War II, first with her aunt and uncle and then with her husband. Now she has entrusted it along with her philanthropic organisation to her bewildered son and daughter-in-law, who cannot fathom why a healthy woman would abandon her privileged life in favor of a modest room in a nursing home.

Irina Bazili, a care worker at Lark House, catches Alma’s eye and allows Alma to persuade her to work part-time as her personal assistant. However much she enjoys working with Alma and the other residents, Irina refuses to share anything of her own past or her private life, and resists the overtures of Alma’s grandson Stephen. Eventually, though, Irina and Stephen become intrigued by Alma’s past and the mysterious letters and bouquets that arrive for her and decide to find out the truth.

Along with the two young people we explore Alma’s past and her connection with Ichimei Fukuda, a calm and sensitive Japanese gardener who worked at her aunt and uncle‘s estate. Alma’s personal journey, as an artist and as a woman, takes place within the framework of late 20th century events, such as the French Resistance, the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war, and the AIDS epidemic.

I found the book a pleasant read, though rather flat, an opinion echoed by several members of my book club. What made it seem superficial was the lack of dramatic scenes; the story was almost entirely told as a narrative. One person who loved it had listened to an audio version, which would have been particularly appropriate for this story. Others found it a soothing, easy read, something sweet just before bed.

Not too sweet, though. The stories of the two couples—Alma and Ichimei, Irina and Stephen—are well-balanced and play against each other. Past losses and traumas come to light, shading the romantic and nostalgic elements.

It seemed to me that we skipped over large dramas, such as the war and the internment camps, too lightly. Having recently read Gretel Ehrlich’s Heart Mountain which beautifully explored the experience within and without such a camp, I felt let down by the brief nod to the experience.

Some of us had trouble keeping the characters straight. Although pleased to see an elderly woman as the protagonist and portrayed realistically, I had little interest in the characters. I was most curious about Ichimei’s wife, but she has only a miniscule role.

One person was offended by the romantic depiction of infidelity, calling Alma and Ichimei’s bond merely a fairy tale to mask what was only a sexual relationship. I confess I was a little put off by the infidelity being presented as a purely gorgeous and wonderful gift (hence my interest in the betrayed wife), but joined with the rest of us in appreciating the unusual love story. I wondered how many of my friends had ever felt a profound connection—some even referred to Alma and Ichimei’s bond as mystical—to someone aside from their spousesbut was afraid to ask. I have. I would not call such a bond a fairy tale, but I am also aware of the costs.

I did not think my book club would have much to talk about with this book, but was delighted to find that I was wrong.

However, our meeting was not the place for the deeper discussion that could have followed. I found myself wanting to ask questions like: What would you do if your spouse had this kind of deep connection with someone else? Would you insist that they never see the person again? Or would you be happy for them as long as it didn’t interfere with your own marriage? Would you rather not know?

Have you read any of Isabel Allende’s books? Which one is your favorite?

The Dogs of Riga, by Henning Mankell


I came to the corporate world from teaching where even the most cynical and disillusioned co-worker started from a place of caring about the children. When I started working in the corporate world, however, I quickly realised that there were two sorts of people there: those who cared only about getting ahead and those who cared about the work itself. Inspector Kurt Wallander is one of the latter.

Here, Wallander investigates the case of two dead men washed ashore in a life raft. Apparently in their mid-30s, dressed in expensive clothes with their arms wrapped around each other, both men have been shot through the heart. The previous day, one of Wallander’s younger colleagues had taken an anonymous call that a raft with two dead bodies would be washing ashore. At the time, Wallander decided to alert the coast guards and then wait and see what happened.

Wallander is not averse to waiting. He can act and does, but he takes a measured and intelligent approach to his job. Unfortunately for him, the ramifications of the case take him out of his comfort zone, out of his city and even out of his country. He must take action in an atmosphere of uncertainty, guesswork, and peril for both himself and others.

Once it is determined that the two men probably came from Latvia, Wallander is relieved to turn over the investigation to his Latvian counterpart, Major Liepa, whom he recognises as a policeman after his own heart. When the two talk late into the night over a bottle of whiskey, Liepa explains that he is a man of faith, though he does not belong to a religion. He cares about “the fight for survival”, which to him includes “the fight for freedom and independence.”

Another murder drags Wallander back into the case and sends him to Latvia, where he has to negotiate places, people and power structures that are foreign to him.

This is the third book in the Wallander series, first published in Sweden in 1992. The date is significant because, as Mankell describes in his Afterword, “Just a few months after this book was finished, in the spring of 1991, the coup took place in the Soviet Union—the key incident that accelerated declarations of independence in the Baltic countries.”

While the story is intricately plotted, with many unexpected twists and turns, the real joy of the book for me is Wallander as a character. We see much of his life outside of work: oppressed by the intense cold, navigating a difficult relationship with his elderly father, thinking of his daughter Linda who is away at college, and often missing his friend and mentor Rydberg who has died of cancer only a month previously.

Such scenes, which seem irrelevant to the puzzle of the two men in the life raft, help us with the puzzle that is Wallander himself. And each scene echoes through the story, adding context and color to Wallander’s thoughts and choices and actions.

I love the realism of this portrayal. Wallander gets discouraged; he needs to stop and rest sometimes or eat or use the washroom. He questions himself, at one point describing himself as “a Swedish police officer in early middle age, one who has completely lost his sense of judgment and gone out of his mind.”

But he goes on. Offered opportunities to leave and return to his safe desk in Ystad, Wallander is tempted but plows ahead, driven by the core of integrity that I most appreciate in those around me and in the protagonists with whom I choose to spend my time. These are my heroes, whether sitting at a desk near me or in the pages of a book: however flawed, they labor for something larger than themselves.

Who are some memorable characters from novels you’ve read?