I generally start a novel with apprehension. Will it reward the time and effort I am expending on it? Will the things to like about it outweigh the imperfections? Will the ending disappoint?
And there is nearly always a moment, if the magic works, when the novel achieves escape velocity and I know I am going to like it more than I fault it (even if the ending disappoints, a separate problem). I don’t always notice when that moment comes, but in the case of “Tides of War” I did. It was on Page 117, when Goya appears as a character, painting Wellington’s portrait and thinking his own thoughts. It was immediately obvious that Goya was not going to influence the plot; he was just there, observing his little corner of the action in this large canvas. And this told me something about the book I had not grasped until then: this wasn’t going to be so much about what happens (despite its fact-based, seemingly plot-driven nature) as how. Goya signaled I was free to enjoy the trip and not worry about where it was going. Additionally, he was imagined with such brio and such a feeling for his Goyaness that I decided to trust the writer, to give her the benefit of the doubt on things I had been doubtful about.
And what were those things, a person deciding whether to read this book might ask? Although the writing in general is of very high quality, it is not flawless. Sometimes the dialogue struck me as clunky, with people using each others’ names to a degree people don’t, for instance, or pointing out the obvious. At other times it got the job done, but seldom astonished me with its rightness, the way her descriptions often did.
Things seemed to happen too easily for the characters; this was particularly true of Harriet. She arrives at Lady Wellington’s with a letter of introduction and Lady Wellington, immediately struck by her air of … something, decides to befriend her. Just like that, they become intimates, start calling each other by their first names and attending assemblies and lectures together. Fiction would be arid and lonely if characters were not allowed to strike up fast friendships, but this felt unrealistic, considering the gulf in age and circumstances between the two women. But this is connected to a larger problem with Harriet, who as the person the book opens with has a special importance, although it recedes somewhat as the cast of characters grows.
When we meet Harriet, she is in her father’s laboratory, playing with the chemicals and quoting Shakespeare to herself (the latter an eccentricity she indulges in a great deal at the start of the work and then seems to cease entirely, without explanation, unless I missed it.) We perceive she is quirky in ways we are not supposed to fully understand at first: she is sexually bold for a gently brought up lady of the early 19th century; she is interested in science, she has studied the classics; there is some kind of mystery about her mother; she does not have the proper feminine interest in her own appearance. And everyone is fascinated by her: Lady Wellington, her husband, her husband’s friend Dr. McBride, the officers of the 9th, Frederick Winsor. No one seems immune to the spell of Harriet, except me. I did not dislike her, but she never solidified as a character; I did not understand what was motivating her. Everything she wanted (and she did not badly want things, another problem) came with little effort, except for the problem of her mother. She was sexually attracted to Frederick Winsor; well, he was attracted to her, too. Though she has an affair lasting several months, she neither becomes pregnant, nor has a moment’s worry that she might. She walks London alone, visits her lover openly, seemingly unaware of the constraints other women face. Harriet’s essence eluded me. She was not the only one, although she was the most notable example
Captain Heaton was another, the mysterious volunteer who skated through the Peninsular Campaign, always perfectly dressed and beautifully mannered, seeming untouched by anything until Major Yallop’s death. I spent a lot of time speculating that Heaton and Major Yallop were lovers; there seemed this strong affinity observed by the other characters, yet they were never depicted alone together, so it remained a question mark. But then Heaton went back to London and became Lady Wellington’s lover (or at least, special friend), leaving me more baffled than ever.
The author keeps a respectful distance from her own characters, a discretion admirable in many respects but which made it harder to care about them deeply. By the end, though, I had come to care for most of them: the sheer piling up of incident, if done well, as here, convinces and seduces. In addition, she writes about sex very well — not the actual act, but about desire and loss — and this, perhaps more than anything, made many characters seem real (though not Harriet, even though she sees more action than many).
I’ve written and thought a lot about endings: about how many books start promisingly, continue excitingly, and then disappoint at the end. “Tides of War” is not one of those books. After a slowish start and a meandering middle, the end is a thing of beauty. And a surprise, in that just when I had given up caring where the plot was going, it turned out to be going somewhere; had been headed there all along. Too convenient for Harriet, as the whole book was. But I forgive even that; this work is more than the sum of its parts. And the last scene is perfect, absolutely effing brilliant.