Tides of War: Will This Dog Hunt?

I’ve started “Tides of War” by Stella Tillyard, which I found lying around the office, a forlorn-looking review copy. (But the first forlorn-looking review copy I ever came across enriched with a glowing blurb from the awesome Simon Schama.)  “An epic novel about love and war, set in Regency England and Spain during the Peninsular War (1812-15) by the acclaimed historian and best-selling author of ‘Aristocrats.'” How could you not pick this up?

I’m on Page 106 of 368, and it seems worth it to say something about it now, while it is still alive and in flux in my mind. (For even books that I’ve  loved take a past-tense quality once I’m done with them, unless I am willing to read them repeatedly over the years, like “Middlemarch” and “Anna Karenina” and “Unbearable Lightness” and  “Persuasion,” and there are only so many hours in a day. “Wolf Hall”  and “Freedom,” as much as I loved them, I cannot read again right away, with no insult intended to the authors. Maybe in five years, god willing.)

So: “Tides of War.” The author is a historian, and a debut novelist. This brings a certain weight of both expectation and confidence. I can relax about the history part, fearless that she will get it right. On the novel-writing part, the jury is still out as I start reading. Will it be dry? Too much exposition? As if to blast these fears, the author lays down formidable suppressive fire in the form of figures of speech. This is a woman who knows her way around a simile. This is just one paragraph, and not an uncharacteristic one, from page 15:

Harriet heard a knock at the door. Here he was, then, come to take her downstairs and to the hotel in the square, where the officers of the 9th had assembled in farewell. A vibrant picture of James, tall, fair and muscular, came complete into her mind, like a gloved and golden Florentine on a white horse. She turned to greet him. It was not James who stood there, but Dr. McBride, ponderous and solid as a seal, with his hands behind his back and his topcoat made lopsided by a book in one pocket.

There are so many things I like about this. “Ponderous and solid as a seal” for example; Dr. McBride has been fixed in my mind for the next 368 pages with this unexpectedly apt image, and it’s told me something about Harriet too, for of course it is Harriet’s mind registering this impression. Her husband’s friend. Her husband, by contrast, is the “gloved and golden Florentine,” and that is even odder, yet it works too. Her romantic and strange nature is on full display here.

But metaphor, schmetaphor, it’s no walk in the park sustaining this kind of thing for 368 pages, and one concern I’m having, on Page 106, is whether we have too many people and too many points of view and whether I care enough about what’s happening to them all, no matter how many great metaphors I’m encountering on every page. We’ve met (I am sure this a partial list) Harriet; James; Dr. McBride; Lord Wellington and his wife; James’s commanding officer, Major Yallop, and his wife; Mrs. Fitzwilliam, with whom Wellington had an affair; the financier, Nathan Rothschild;  Ned Pakenham, Lord Wellington’s brother-in-law; Robert Heaton, a volunteer whose narrative function is still unclear; James McGrigor, another military doctor; Charles Herries, the perpetually horny commissary-in-chief to the army;  Frederick Winsor, who seems poised to invent gas lighting. And  I haven’t even mentioned all the supporting figures, just the ones who seem like they might do something, plotwise. This is lot of people to care about, however vividly they are introduced (and mainly they are).

I’ve found myself thinking about two observations Jane Smiley makes in “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.” One is that you can have breadth or you can have depth, but it’s hard to have both; to the extent that you achieve one you lose the other. Ms. Tillyard is clearly working on a large canvas here, and while I am interested in what will happen to her characters, I am not dying to find out, as should be clear from the fact that I stopped to blog about it instead of being compelled to keep reading. (Although this is not intended as a slight to TOW. Compulsive readability is often overrated, something achieved by cheap narrative tricks rather than solid writing. I could put “Clarissa” down, too. Sometimes for days at a time. But it did not mean I stopped being enthralled by it. Sometimes it’s better to take a break, let the book settle in your head, and then keep reading.) She has done her best to make these characters alive and real and succeeded to a considerable extent. But there are still too many of them. She’s doing better on breadth than depth.

The other Jane Smiley observation that I’ve found myself returning to over and over is that by the 10 percent mark in a novel, you should know what the central question is; where the thing is going, in a general sense. A cursory glance at some random books nearby confirms the truth of this.

On Page 32 of a 324-page Signet classic edition of “Pride and Prejudice,” we are in the drawing room at Netherfield with Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst  mocking the absent Elizabeth, who walked several miles through the mud to see her ill sister Jane earlier that day, while Darcy and Bingley defend her. We’ve already got the Jane-Bingley love interest well under way, a sense of Darcy’s sneaky feelings for the feisty Elizabeth, and an outline of the social obstacles standing in the way of both romances.

On Page 24 of a 245-page Signet classic edition of “1984” we have Winston Smith thinking about again writing in his forbidden diary and remembering a long-ago dream involving O’Brien: We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness. We’ve gotten Hate Week, Big Brother, the general fearsome dreariness of life in Oceania. We know where we are, even if not quite where it’s going.

Page 36 of Tides of War is the start of Chapter 2. We’ve had Harriet and James’s parting as he leaves for the Peninsula and the history of how they met. We’ve got Rothschild and Lady Wellington, secretly being advised by him on investments. We’ve got Dr. McBride and his scientific interest in blood transfusions. We’ve got Lord Wellington, who will obviously be both important and a piece of work. What I don’t have is any clear sense of how these pieces will all fit together, though maybe it will become obvious later.

I’ll report back when I finish.

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