by Renee Kimball
It has been a year of extremes—Covid, freezing weather, and higher than average temperatures forecast for the summer ahead.
During Covid quarantine, I read many, many books of all kinds. I forgot some of those within an hour of finishing, but others, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.
The stories that remained with me included specific historical, geographical, even philosophical backstories, that despite of a kind of literary density, held my attention. Each author had conducted meticulous research, and their obvious investment of time, effort, along with many complex details, was an achievement. Each story was the kind the reader falls into and stays to the end.
Similarities between them were clear; all were written by female authors; all contained resourceful, intelligent female protagonists; and each flawlessly merged a complex backstory within the main theme. What could have been unintelligible and unenjoyable was successful, even riveting. These stories were not mired in dry, mind-numbing facts, and the characters were believable, even likeable; what more could a reader ask?
In the first novel, The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, we meet the protagonist, Alma Whittaker. Whittaker’s character is loosely based on the historical women explorers of the Victorian age. Alma’s story is engaging, and she not only became an explorer, but a respected scientist through her groundbreaking global research in Bryology, the study of mosses, a branch of Botany.
Alma, an unattractive baby, then a precocious child, develops into a brilliant multi-talented adult. Alma’s insatiable need to know everything, to her credit, gives her an unstoppable confidence that keeps her strong and saves her in the later decades of life. Her greatest disappointment is her failed marriage, the husband unable or unwilling to give Alma the love that she desperately wants, eventually leaving her unhappy and alone.
Gilbert’s rigorous research details the severity of the life of a Victorian woman. Blocked from entering or studying within male dominated scientific fields, any findings women might make were dismissed or stolen by men who took credit for the original work, or disregarded completely. In spite of this overall disregard, many women persevered, becoming explorers or scholars in their own right, and laid the groundwork of the first inklings of female equality.
The second novel, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, introduces a dual timeline and two female protagonists: the present-day London historian, Helen Watt, who discovers an ancient cache of valuable correspondence, and Ester Velasquez, a Jewish female scribe, who was the actual author of the historical letters. Two stories run side by side, back and forth, jumping from present day London to the Jewish community of 1660s plague-ridden London.
Intrigue and tension rise as a present-day scholarly battle throws university professors and researchers in a race to establish control over the translation of the letters, while, in tandem, Ester’s life-story is picked apart as the letters are slowly translated, revealing her character and brilliant inquisitive intellect.
Ester, an orphaned Jewish adolescent, is sent to London along with her brother, from Amsterdam, when their family home burns, killing both parents. The children become wards of the venerated but blind Rabbi Moseh Ha Coen Mendes. Ester’s brother, slated to become a scribe for the Rabbi, refuses, runs away, and dies shortly after.
Hiding behind a fictious “male” persona, Ester becomes the Rabbi’s scribe. A scribe was traditionally a male only position, but the Rabbi silently allows Ester to hide behind a false identity and to transcribe his weighty correspondence. It does not take long for Ester’s razor-sharp intellect to rise to the surface when unbeknownst to the Rabbi, Ester modifies the Rabbi’s responses with her own commentary and questions. This correspondence is composed in reply to some of the greatest thinkers of the day, a list that includes the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, among others.
Kadish presents an intellectually strong and resourceful woman trapped by gender, religion, tradition, and social constraints in the frantic environment of plague-ridden London. Ester’s character refuses to be cowed and questions centuries of Rabbinical teaching and beliefs, even questioning Spinoza’s philosophies.
Kadish’s language flows, integrating the complex philosophical theories of Judaism and those of Spinoza through Ester, and again through Helen Watt, a specialist in Judaic history who demands Ester’s letters be given the prominence and respect they deserve. With Kadish, the reader becomes nothing less than a captive to the story—Kadish has created an historical page-turner.
The The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1 by N.K. Jemisin, unlike the first two novels, is pure science fiction in imaginary time. The novel takes place on an Earth-like planet of broken islands, what Jemisin’s calls the “Stillness.” The ever-changing geological landscape breaks, fuses, rises and sinks, entire enclaves disappear, only to rise again elsewhere. Time runs in Seasons that begin and end with land-mass upheaval while creating a daily apocalypse for its inhabitants.
Essun, the protagonist, a middle-aged woman-healer, lives in the ever-changing Stillness, confronting numerous small enclaves of hostile caste-ridden survivors with bizarre magical abilities.
When her own toddler son displays telekinesis, he is murdered by her husband. Essun had hidden the child’s gift from her husband to protect the child, and although Essun has these same gifts she keeps them hidden because she too would be killed. After murdering the son, the husband takes their remaining daughter and flees. The novel is based on Essun’s search for her husband and daughter within the ever-shifting geological nightmare landscape.
All three novels are a testament to the authors’ exacting research and story-telling abilities.
Gilbert became an expert in Victorian mores, women explorers, and scientific standards of Botany and Bryology during the 1800s.
Kadish grounded her story in Judaism, Spinoza’s complex philosophies, the history of Amsterdam and the London plague. She successfully tackled the difficult job of two protagonists with parallel timelines, one present day, one historical, with finesse and without alienating the reader or breaking the thread of the story.
Although science fiction, Jemisin incorporated ever-changing geological manifestations—shifting tectonic plates, volcanic fissures, and violent changes resulting from those stresses. Notably, Jemisin’s characters are believable despite the imaginary violent landscape of the Stillness. Jemisin’s story is a woman’s fight for survival.
Countless other authors have successfully incorporated complex concepts into successful fiction novels. For me, Gilbert, Kadish, and Jemisin, prove that although the backstory may be scientifically and philosophically dense, it is possible to create stories both engaging and understandable to the reader
Their skill to weave complexity into writing is something to be admired, even envied.
Image Extreme Weather courtesy of Pixabay
Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon
Heller, Jason. ‘Fifth Season’ Embraces The Scale And Complexity Of Fantasy. August 4, 201510:03 AM ET
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.