Shattuck’s characters represent the range of responses to fascism. Her achievement — beyond unfolding a plot that surprises and devastates — is in her subtle exploration of what a moral righteousness like Marianne’s looks like in the aftermath of war, when communities and lives must be rebuilt, together.
THE CHILBURY LADIES’ CHOIR
By Jennifer Ryan
371 pp. Crown, $26.
Ryan’s first novel represents the sunnier side of World War II fiction, where women stand up for one another, frolic with whatever stray men are still about (dashing, flat-footed and otherwise) and solve a few mysteries. The empowerment is genteel. In Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” such ladies (and a few gentlemen) tackled literature. Here they take up singing.
Although the vicar has put the village choir on hiatus until the men return, Miss Primrose Trent, a music tutor from the local university who is prone to sweeping into rooms majestically (a role made for Emma Thompson), announces that the women will form their own singing group. Plotwise, a carrot in the form of a public choir competition is dangled, but the narrative is driven by the ladies’ reconsideration of their own worth, whether over- or underinflated.
Set during six months in 1940, the story unfolds mostly in letters and journal entries from nearly a dozen vantage points. Four dominate: Mrs. Margaret Tilling, a middle-aged widow about to send her only child off to the front; Edwina Paltry, a midwife of suspect ethical standards; and to-the-manor-born sisters, Kitty Winthrop, 13, and minxlike Venetia, 18, whose brother has just been killed in a submarine explosion. Dry your eyes: “He was a disgusting bully,” Kitty writes in her diary.
This death sets in play a baby-swapping plot hatched by the Brigadier, Kitty and Venetia’s mustache-twiddling father, who needs a male heir. It’s all quite diverting, even if Ryan sometimes seems more interested in describing her characters’ clothing than their inner lives (skirt-swishing Venetia is a veritable Carmen Miranda). As for the war itself, it’s mostly a narrative convenience, a way to get rid of supporting characters we’re merely fond of, including one whose demise, while sad, neatly solves a dilemma. World War II is a way to tame a shrew and a bully and to pair off adorable couples of multiple generations. The fact that the fighting is still going strong at the book’s end confirms that this isn’t a story about war in any real sense, but rather a novel set in a time of war. To a tune called pleasing.
MY LAST LAMENT
By James William Brown
341 pp. Berkley, $26.
An American scholar travels to a Greek village to interview a woman named Aliki, its last professional lamenter, a composer of poems for the dead. Due to her reticence and some technical difficulties, the visit is a failure, so the American leaves behind a tape recorder, hoping Aliki will record herself when she’s in “the right frame of mind.” The elderly Luddite does a lot of precious fumbling (“Now let me see, how do I turn this thing on?”) before delivering a very personal lament, one big enough to fill six cassettes — less poem than novel.
At 14, Aliki saw her father executed by the occupying Nazis and was rendered mute. Another act of violence brings back her voice; in a sense, she’s shocked into her professional calling. When the Nazis clear out, she and two other children, a Jewish teenager named Stelios, who had been hiding in her village, and an orphaned 11-year-old boy, Takis, set off on an odyssey around Greece, looking for everything from food to a more viable future.
Brown struggles to make his characters entirely plausible, sporadically resorting to jarringly modern language. “It was only after the Germans came,” Aliki says, sounding as if she’s chit-chatting after yoga class, “that the — I don’t know what — the glow just went out of everything.” And yet there’s a lot to hold one’s attention: The Greek setting is far less traveled ground in the English-language World War II novel, and Brown’s pacing is strong and engaging, at least at the outset.
The children become street performers of folkloric shadow puppetry, eventually traveling to Crete looking for paying audiences. This is when Brown loses narrative control, bogging down in an account of their journeys through the violent times that followed the war. There’s a love story, but what stays with you at the end of this ambitious but unruly narrative is Takis, Aliki’s orphan companion. Brown veers between making him the creepy child right out of a horror movie and the touchingly misunderstood victim of mental illness or post-traumatic stress. There are good larger points to be made here — about assigning blame in wartime and what it means to soldier on under deeper burdens than immediate circumstances, however awful. But, like Aliki with the cassette recorder, Brown fumbles when he sets his hand to them.