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Monday, May 11, 2009

Stone's Fall by Iain Pears (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Iain Pears at Wikipedia
Order Stone's Fall HERE

INTRODUCTION: Iain Pears has been writing mostly contemporary art scene mysteries until in 1998 he truly "burst" onto the wider scene with the acclaimed bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost which ranks high in my top historical fiction novels.

Set in Restoration England cca 1663, Instance has an unsual narrative scheme, being told in first person by four succesive and quite different men, two of them "historical" figures (John Wallis and Anthony Wood) and two invented. Each of the narrators presents his version of events and sheds light on the "true" story of the previous narrators. A masterpiece of misdirection and deception, the novel
deservedly shot to the top of bestseller lists. Its opening paragraph HERE will give you a taste; all there is true in so far the novel is concerned and all is misleading.

"Marco da Cola gentleman of Venice presents his greetings.
I will leave out much but nothing of significance"

The second panoramic novel The Dream of Scipio published in 2002 is very different in structure as well as being quite darker in tone, but it remains to this day one of my top novels of all kinds and I re-read it quite a few times. It starts this way and those lines are the kind that hook me instantly into a novel, make me drop anything else I read and do not stop reading the excerpted novel until I *have to*.

"JULIEN BARNEUVE died at 3:28 on the afternoon of August 18, 1943. It had taken him twenty-three minutes exactly to die, the time between the fire starting and his last breath being sucked into his scorched lungs. He had not known his life was going to end that day, although he suspected it might happen.
IN SOME WAYS, his fate was sealed the moment Olivier de Noyen first cast eyes on the woman he was to immortalize in his poems by the church of Saint Agricole a few hundred meters from the Pope's new palace in Avignon. Olivier was twenty-six, having been fated to live and die in what was possibly the darkest century in European history, an age men called cursed, and which drove many all but insane with despair at God's vengeance for their sins. Olivier, it was said, was one such. "

Wikipedia has a great overview without spoilers of The Dream of Scipio HERE.

So when I discovered absolutely by chance that Iain Pears has a new panoramic novel coming out I bought it the moment it was released.

Stone's Fall turned out to be an astounding novel, one that threw some of the most unexpected twists at me and it has done so in a very understated manner, so for the first one I almost did not get it, the second I could not believe it, had to reread the respective lines three times, and while I expected a third, it still came out of the blue - more precisely, once certain things were made clear, I got it and did not have to wait for the chilling confirmation, and while in retrospect it was the only natural explanation, it still makes for a stunning ending:

"And there were only a few more questions left to ask. I didn’t expect the answers to be anything but banal, uninteresting, a tidying up. I was perfectly calm, almost relaxed. Just a bit of unfinished business before I could leave. I almost didn’t bother to ask at all."

OVERVIEW: Stone's Fall is a multi-layered novel about two of the most astounding fictional characters I encountered in a long time.

John William Stone, Lord Ravenscliff
(1841-1909) is a mystery at the start of the novel; little known to the public, except as a rich City (of London) industrialist recently ennobled (1902) for services to the Empire and with a younger wife, former famous society beauty and "salonniere" in Paris cca 1890, he has died falling from the window of his second floor study on March 27, 1909; no foul play is suspected, the newspapers ran only the most cursory obituaries, but his recent testament has a short codicil added six months after that throws a span into its probation.

Elizabeth Stone, Lady Ravenscliff, former Countess Hadik-Barkoczy von Futak uns Szala (186?- 1953) was his wife of about twenty years; a seemingly perfect companion and soul-mate, the only thing marring their union being the lack of children since the only one they had was born abnormal and died soon after birth; doctors warned that another pregnancy was likely to kill both mother and child.

We see them through the eyes of:

Matthew Braddock (1884/6-) is a young talented journalist with socialist leanings who is hired by Lady Ravenscliff to investigate the mysterious codicil hinting at a possible unknown child of John Stone; the presumed child has been left a considerable legacy, not that significant compared to the wealth of his/her father that was mostly left to Elizabeth, but enough to require investigation.

Later in 1953 as a veteran BBC announcer, just retired and on a farewell tour to Paris, Matthew comes upon the obituary of Madame Robillard, as Elizabeth became on remarriage, dusts his memoirs of the investigation, while receiving a package with two
other secret memoirs, specifically addressed to him and to be delivered after Elizabeth's death.

One is from Henry Cort (1863-1944) former "journalist" and reputed leader of the Imperial Secret Service who seemingly took care of all the details involving John Stone's death; the memoir details his upbringing, his involvement in the business of the Empire and culminates in the events of 1890 Paris, where quite a few things happened, including the apparition in high society of Elizabeth, her engagement with John as well as high level political and financial intrigue and shenanigans with far reaching consequences.

The other is from John Stone himself and is accompanied by a letter addressed to Henry Cort several days before his death, mostly detailing the events of his visit to Venice in 1867 as a young and moderately wealthy businessman on a vacation, just before he began his meteoric rise.

Outside of these there are quite a few other important characters, including Henry's parents, John's top managers, a mechanical genius, low born and with a talent of getting in trouble beacuse of his no-compromise straightforward, abrasive personality residing in Venice 1867, an expatriate former Confederate soldier who makes appearances at quite unexpected times, and lots and lots of cameos of the rich and famous of the times.

The novel stands at roughly 600 pages and is divided into the three narrations: London 1909, (Matthew), Paris 1890 (Henry), Venice 1867 (John). The ending is stunning but the only natural one in hindsight, given all that we find out and noting that in this novel all narrators are by and large "reliable" as the facts go. The huge misdirections and twists lie in the facts.

ANALYSIS: Stone's Fall is a panoramic novel that explores the golden age of pre-Great War Europe in 1890 Paris, as well as containing an investigative inquiry by a naive but endearing journalist in a London of 1909 before the storm that will essentially destroy that golden age, and to top it all it, a stunning personal memoir of a young man in a strange, decaying but enchanted land where ghosts may exist and people behave in ways that would be totally out of character in staid England.

But more than anything the novel is about Fate, Destiny, Luck, however you want to put it. Chance encounters shape characters fates, and ultimately no one can escape the weight of their past deeds, however distant and forgotten.

The rise of the modern capitalist machine that built our era, the financiers that understood how to control huge asset values with moderate capital base through high leverage appear here with John Stone the epitome of the early titans of finance. The military industrial complex, the hand in hand relationship between politicians and special interests, all the stuff of today's headlines is mirrored too.

But there is action: shootouts, assassination attempts, cold blooded murders; glitz, balls, and Chinese porcelain also have their place in this special novel.

Stylistically, the three narratives are very well done. The young journalist as seen by his older self almost half a century later:

"I was a great patriot then. I do not know whether I say so in pride or in sorrow"

the imperial secret agent at his first high level success as seen through his eyes at the pinnacle of his power:

"you would be astonished if you knew how many spies are authors manque"

and the up and coming young businessman that takes a holiday and meets "Destiny" as seen in his old age:

"although when I told Elizabeth of my reaction (to Venice) she suggested that it was because I did not wish to resist its charms; that, having been disappointed by Florence and Naples and all the other places I visited, I wished to be seduced, that I fell not for what it was but what I needed it to be, at that particular moment. And that having generated such feelings in me, it became associated with that feeling forever after.",

have very clear distinctive voices, neither a perfect hero or villain, just people caught in an extraordinary web of circumstances and events.

And of course Elizabeth as seen through the eyes of these three very different people is such a complex and interesting personality to close the quartet of four main characters. It is very fascinating to see Elizabeth through the alternate adoring and despising eyes of young Matthew, through the "how can I use her" lens of Henry and then through the glimpses that John Stone reveals from his marriage with her.

There are several other very important and powerful characters though I will leave the reader to discover them and their significance since I do not want to spoil the enjoyment of the novel. Once I finished it I had to re-read it immediately to truly understand the significance of early (page-wise not time-line wise) events and greatly admire the great plotting skills of Mr. Pears who makes everything fall into place smoothly. I enjoyed it as much if not more when knowing "what is what" so to speak. I expect I will re-read Stone's Fall for years to come and the stunning "revelation" passages here and there are still powerful even when "expected".

Highly, highly recommended and an early candidate at the best overall novel of 09 for me.


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