Sharratt’s gift for grounding larger issues in everyday lives makes for historical fiction at its best.

REVELATIONS

With this novel about Margery Kempe, mother of 14–turned–pilgrim and preacher, Sharratt’s obsession with medieval women mystics continues.

Margery, like most middle-class young women in 14th-century England, is not allowed to choose her own husband, and her true love is lost at sea. At first, she’s resigned to her parents’ choice for her, John Kempe, a brewer in the provincial town of Bishop’s Lynn, but after the birth of their first child, she suffers what now might be diagnosed as postpartum psychosis: She is hounded by hellish visions of demons, but one day, an unforgettable vision of Christ restores her to sanity. Her contentment with domesticity sours over years of nonstop childbearing—the effects of 14 pregnancies are recounted in chilling detail. In desperation, Margery insists that John join her in a mutual vow of chastity, and he acquiesces, letting Margery embark on longed-for pilgrimages, first to Jerusalem and later to Spain, to follow the path of Santiago de Compostela. Before leaving England, she meets Julian of Norwich, a mystic and “anchoress” voluntarily confined in a cell attached to a church. (Readers will recall Hildegard von Bingen’s ordeal as an anchoress’s companion in Sharratt's 2012 Illuminations.) Julian validates, by example, Margery’s belief in a personal relationship with God, free of clerical mediation. Julian also entrusts her own manuscript—doubly transgressive because it's in English and a woman wrote it—to Margery. In the Holy Land, Margery’s religious ecstasies, marked by loud weeping, are offensive, as Sharratt wryly notes, only to English Catholics; Eastern Christians are fine with it. Drawn from Kempe’s actual autobiography, the novel is enhanced by Sharratt’s storytelling ability. The pilgrimage sections are rescued from tedium by Margery’s heedlessness of social opprobrium and her resulting clashes with fellow pilgrims. Readers will root for Margery as she wins friends among a minority of kindred spirits, who, like her, dare to imagine such heresies as Scriptures in English and women writing books.

Sharratt’s gift for grounding larger issues in everyday lives makes for historical fiction at its best.

Pub Date: April 27, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-328-51877-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Dec. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2021

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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