Oh dear, another contender for a spot in my top ten books of the year. It's a crowded field this year.
This was a challenging read as there were multiple interwoven plot lines and the complex history of Portugal and the end of its empire in Africa to take in. Wikipedia was my friend here as historical figures and events were important in this story.
In the 1980s David, an American college student from the South spent a year at a second tier (non-Oxbridge) university in England and when his year is finished, he wants to remain because of his girlfriend. Though he has never taken care of anything or anyone in his life, he takes a job caring for a quadriplegic who lives with his sister and niece. Elizabeth, the sister, tells the story at night as she knocks back shots of vodka and the story unfolds slowly over course of the book, interspersed with David's story.
Elizabeth and Hans Bromwell and their parents are dramatically eccentric figures. Gordon is a figure from another era, a Tory through and through as one of his special interests was the protection of fox hunting. Hans reacts to his father by becoming a slothful wretch. Elizabeth's education is limited to Shakespeare which she quotes throughout the book. Her mother did not see the value in her learning anything else, including math or history. Hans escapes the bonds of his family by going to Paris while Elizabeth goes to the Algarve in Portugal for a vacation. She meets a young Portuguese doctor there and marries him, knowing that he has a military obligation to go to Guinea in a short time.
At this point (the early 1970s) Portugal is fighting to retain Guinea, Angola and Mozambique in its empire and the horrors of that are recounted. The fascist Salazar, in power since 1932, was not going to cede any territory of the empire.
These were not colonies, he declared. They were provinces of Portugal, equal in every way to the lands of Iberia, save the forced labor, the whippings, the poverty, the caste system and endless war and violence–all in the service of empire, o ultramar maior.
Elizabeth, her husband the military doctor João, and their daughter Cristina are present for the messy end of empire and escape death only by the combined efforts of Gordon Bromwell and South African friends who are even more sinister than the Portuguese. Though the end of empire was inevitable, it was surely hastened along by the end of the fascist regime in Portugal, the Carnation Revolution. The combination of a riveting plot of the fictional characters and the history of that period in the 1970s made this a wonderful read.
The story of David's time with Hans, Elizabeth, and Cristina was also riveting, especially David's connection with Hans. The Bromwell parents had been at the pinnacle of the aristocracy in England, but care for Hans over the years changed their circumstances. For decades Elizabeth sold off priceless furniture to keep them afloat. The story of their tumble mirrors that of the end or Portugal's empire, though no one died.
The author writes about economics and politics for the New York Times; perhaps that explains why he is so good at writing about the politics of Portugal and Africa of the 1970s. But that doesn't explain how it is that his first work of fiction has exceptional characters and a wonderful plot.
Jonathan Weisman, No. 4 Imperial Lane, Twelve (Hachette Book Group), 2015, 352 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.