‘Mrs. Engels’ and the Triumph of Voice

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I read “Mrs. Engels” by Gavin McCrea, but it’s stayed with me. The memory, not the actual book, which I immediately mailed it to my brother-in-law upon completing, because it’s also the sort of work one feels compelled to share. In short, it was amazing.

At my office, there are always piles of review copies here and there — some not yet published, others that have been hanging around a while. A great source of free books; also a cautionary lesson to any aspiring author about just how many of them are constantly coming out and mostly languishing in near-total obscurity. But I focus on a more educational angle: trying to sharpen my critical powers. Typically, I have never heard of the book I pick up to examine, to decide if I want to take it off the table and away with me. Does the idea seem interesting? Do the first few pages captivate? There is no risk but that of wasting time, yet time is precious, and I read as an agent or an acquiring editor might, looking for a reason to stop more than to continue. And though by definition someone has liked each book enough to publish it, rarely do I like one enough on first look to give it more than that.

I encountered “Mrs. Engels” this way, knowing nothing about it, and my reaction was unusual: I felt certain, as I almost never do, before I was even through the first few pages, that I would like this book.

I was not wrong.

I picked it up for the genre and the idea, but I kept reading for the voice. I’m drawn to historical fiction these days, interested in seeing how other people have solved the problems I face: how to make a distant place and time feel real, how to get the needed information in without sounding like a textbook. So though I have no special interest in Friedrich Engels, he’s an intriguing and contradictory figure — the capitalist mill owner who bankrolled Karl Marx’s ideological battle against capitalism — and a novel told by his lover seemed like a promising notion. It is told in first person, and I am much more alive to the promise and the peril of the first-person narrator than I ever was before I started trying to write a book in one. And this narrator got me. Wow, did she.

A first-person narrator done really well is a terrifyingly powerful thing. It grabs you by the throat, like in “Jane Eyre,” and refuses to let you go until you’ve heard her or him out. Resistance is futile and not to be thought of — you are having too much fun. Mrs. Engels, an illiterate Irish mill worker from Manchester (who throughout much of the story is not Mrs. Engels at all; though she’d like to be safely established as such, Friedrich considers marriage incompatible with his revolutionary outlook) is such a narrator, and the success of this story comes from the power of her narrative idiom: funny, ribald and constantly delivering pleasant little shocks, whether in her choice of words, wry outlook, or unexpected actions. It’s a sideways approach to history that never feels preachy, with the irony of an actual proletariat’s total indifference to Communist revolution ever-present but never overdone.

Though some books come closer to it than others, perfection is a state that can never be reached in fiction. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how I love some books despite their imperfections, while for others the things that are done well are not enough to make up for the things done badly. “Mrs. Engels” is more character than plot — but what a character! And there are some perplexities about chronology that might have sunk a lesser work, but seem mere trifles here, blown away by the power of the narrative voice. It’s an amazing achievement, and I look forward to what this writer will come up with next.

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