Updated: Jan 25
Janet Somerville Toronto Star
Friday, November 12, 2021
Once Upon a Wardrobe
HarperMuse, 320 pages, $24.99
It’s December 1950 and C.S. Lewis has recently published the first of his Narnia novels, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Mathematical prodigy Megs Devonshire is studying at Oxford, while her beloved eight-year-old brother George is mostly confined to his bed due to his congenitally weak heart. While Megs abides by “the mysteries of physics,” George believes the world is “held together by stories.”
George asks his sister to try to find out from Lewis, a lecturer at Magdalen College, where Narnia came from. After attending Lewis’s lecture about Edmund Spenser that captures Megs’s mind “quick as a heartbeat,” she decides to try to speak to him at his home, the Kilns, where he lives with his brother, Warnie. The Lewis brothers welcome her into their lives and offer anecdotes of their own childhoods to lead George to his own answer.
There are parallels between Lewis’s childhood and George’s such as the solace both choose to take in created worlds, which to them are “as important as breathing.”
"Beautifully written, this love letter to imagination is a balm."
The Woman at the Front
By Lecia Cornwall
Berkley, 448 pages, $23 When the Countess of Kirkswell learns that her son, Lord Louis Chastaine, has been wounded at the front and is recovering in France, she tasks Dr. Eleanor Atherton, a local Yorkshire woman, with travelling to retrieve him and accompany him safely home in January 1918.
Although Eleanor recently completed medical training in Edinburgh, when her father refuses to let her practice, instead insisting she wed a doctor, Eleanor leaps at the chance to be useful by accepting the assignment.
When she arrives at the casualty clearing station and realizes that Louis does not really need her support, she helps to triage cases and soon assists in surgery. Her fellow physician, Dr. David Blair, pragmatic and progressive, insists “hope … doesn’t care whether you’re male or female.” Eleanor uses her training, knowledge and compassion to ease patient suffering and feels alive, doing what she is meant to do, focusing on essential work in the face of daily horror.
Realistic and emotionally engaging, you’ll believe every word.
The Show Girl
By Nicola Harrison
St. Martin’s Press, 400 pages, $37.99
With a heady mix of history, drama and romance, Harrison transports readers to 1927 New York City, following Olive Shine, a young Midwestern woman who makes a name for herself in the storied Ziegfeld Follies.
The glamour and excitement that Olive imagined that life as a showgirl would bring meet her dreamy expectations and then some. But she has made dark personal sacrifices to get there, sacrifices that haunt her even when she falls in love with Archie Carmichael, a successful businessman who is the only man she’s met who seems to embrace her modern, independent ways.
An unexpected, genuine friendship with an opera singer provides Olive with the advice she needs most: “Be careful with your heart, be careful with your talent.”
The portrayal of the tension between love and ambition resonates.
The Singing Forest By Judith McCormack Biblioasis, 298 pages, $22.95 Toronto lawyer Leah Jarvis is working on the deportation case of Stefan Drodz, an elderly war criminal who fled Belarus for a new identity in Canada as an industrial glass-blower. There are facts of brutality, torture and murder, and a mass grave in a Kurapty forest where Stalin’s police killed and buried unofficially 200,000 citizens. Jarvis is faced with the problem that “however terrible the crimes, the passage of time has dehydrated them into a piece of history.” Liaising with War Crimes Section bureaucrat Owen Menzies, she travels to Belarus to meet with a farmer, a welder, a mathematician and a teacher, “each with a harrowing tale, each with only the most dubious identification of Drodz.” A series of affidavits adds authenticity to the interview process. In a parallel narrative thread Leah learns of truths about her own past that shift the ground and redraw the lines of her own understanding, and she realizes that memory is “so wily, so brittle. So corruptible.” Questions of morality and justice are explored with aplomb.
Janet Somerville is the author of “Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love & War 1930-1949,” available now in audio, read by Ellen Barkin.