|Willow (the_willow) wrote in 100_willow,|
@ 2011-07-20 11:04:00
|Entry tags:||access: online, culture: european, genre: historical fiction, reading mode: kindle|
Mistress of The Art Of Death - Ariana Franklin
So I read this book recently and I've no idea how I feel about it. Or rather I feel like I should feel more positively about it, but I don't, and the reasons are complex. This whole first book in the series is about the Jews of Middle Ages England (Henry II's time) and accusations of Blood Libel. So yeah, I was twitchy ALL THROUGHOUT.
* Some Minor Spoliery Text *
Maybe I can't read a book where there are people convinced that Jews are murdering little children. Maybe I can't read a book where the Jews of an area end up practical prisoners in a Sheriff's castle to save their lives, while their homes have to be abandoned and are riffled through, stolen from, peed in. Maybe I can't read a book where Jews, innocent of any wrong doing, have members of their community ripped limb from limb and hung and well, lynched basically and at the story's end, and the mystery's conclusion there's no consequences for that. No one in the mob gets punished. Heck, there's a point in the book where they try to dig up a dead Jew to desecrate his body and even by story's end there's nothing done about it.
Maybe I can't read historical fiction. Maybe I just can't. Maybe there's no enjoyment or escapism or day dream fantasy for me to read about persecution and prejudice and helplessness before governments and dependence on the good wills of this or that ruler. Maybe I've got too many intersecting oppressions of my own not to get that heavy lead feeling in my stomach and tightness in my chest.
But then my other problem is with the protagonist, the Mistress of Death. She's not an inherently bad character, or at least she might not be for others who read the book or series. But for me, she was one more exceptional white woman making it above and beyond the odds. She's an orphan, who was raised by a Salerno(Sicilian) Jew, a doctor, one married to a female doctor, a Christian, but who herself follows no faith but science. It meant that she had inside knowledge of Jewish customs and ritual and community but isn't a Jew. She speaks Hebrew, but she isn't a Jew. She's outside of Jewish culture and commenting on it as pertains to the main plot; on how they treat women and how that affects her job.
Fortunately she isn't some complete insider without also having the Jewish outsider status (if only a touch). But she doesn't get some concepts. And she gets to be blithely naive about what will happen once it's proven the Jews have not murdered Christian children. But that's part of what irks me. It's her status as non English and as a woman that's mostly focused on, particularly her status as a woman. And yes, it is historical fiction, but it was difficult for me to see it as any different than many tales written now in contemporary or analogous to contemporary times where women's equality and respect has no overlap.
Then there's the faithful, castrated (as in castroni) Muslim man-servant. The one everyone in England calls 'The Darkie'. The one who's been assigned to watch over her ever since she entered medical school in order to protect her. And I have a serious, personal, twitching antagonism for the concept of personal protector buck for the white woman.
It's difficult for me to read about a white woman (even in historic fiction) complaining at her own stupidity for walking away without protector or another female companion, discussing how it's like having a RAPE ME sign up on her ass, and how no one will ever blame the man for not controlling himself - when, perhaps it is in how it was expressed I ended up thinking very harshly of slavery and the label of Jezebel and how little black baby girls were (and unfortunately in this day and age often still are) accused of similar. To have the protections provided for the age but find them chafing... I mean to have protections.... I just couldn't warm to that bit of 'independent' thinking. I didn't find it endearing or establishing of proper feistiness or wtf ever.
I also didn't like that she's set up as this supposedly plain, dedicated medical person, perhaps somewhat scary in that she deals with dead people and she envisions herself as forever alone and celibate and consumed by her chosen path - but there's a need for her to have and bond to, bond with, a child sidekick. She can't possibly be a woman so outsider to not get along with a child! Especially not an intelligent male child! Heaven forbid.
In writing it out, I think I just can't like the character. I can't like warm but cold, independent but protected by so many damn powerful men, modest but insatiable, demanding. I recognize a person (real and fictional) is complex with layers and loops and circumstances, and yet I think the problem is I just can't stand this character as written; I can't stand her within the world she's been put in.
I'm reminded now of a scene wherein someone else's loss is, perhaps subtly, turned around to be all about her; her loss, her isolation. Then again it becomes apparent in the text that she does feel above and beyond what's going on around her; untouchable and therefore shocked when she is touched. But I couldn't find it a function of her upbringing or mentality. I just kept seeing the author's hand everywhere.
In sum, perhaps I can't call this book universally unpleasing, but it may definitely not be for me. I am very grateful to have recently experienced truly enjoying a book and series (please CJ Cherryh don't be an ass), so I can remember what that feels like and compare it to this and know I did not. That a book can be adequately written and I still just not enjoy it.
*Enjoying a book means I can turn right around and re-read it immediately, or re-read the whole series immediately and also NOT just be waiting for fav lines, scenes or moments.