The Exiles: Good but Not Transcedent



By Cristina Baker Kline

HarperCollins, 384 pages.



In her latest work, Christina Baker Kline returns to a subject that has interested her in the past: orphans. It is set in the 1840s, the height of British imperialism and a time in which the slightest infraction led draconian judges to impose exile sentences to ill-begotten colonies. Said judges were seldom moved by the age or circumstances of the accused.


Evangeline is an intelligent preacher’s daughter who became a governess when her father died when she was still a minor. How many Victorian novels involve rakish sons of privilege ruining a trusting female? So too this one, whose only twist is that a stepson is the culprit. In the eyes of English law, Evangeline’s word is no good when leveled against a prominent family, so it’s exile to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania).  


Aboard the transport ship she meets pickpocket Hazel Ferguson, the daughter of an absent alcoholic mother. Her skills as an herbalist and midwife also make her suspicious in the eyes of the ship’s crew, though physician Dr. Caleb Dunne is impressed by her. Also on board is salty-tongued Olive, who is with child. It is implied that she was a prostitute. Post for present status scarcely matters; all the women are viewed as disposable trash. Moreover, a long ocean journey exposed females to danger of physical assault.


On the other side of the world, an Aborigine named Matthinna, is taken from her homeland on Flanders Island for no good reason other than that Sir John Franklin of Arctic exploration infamy and his wife wish to undertake a social experiment they believe will fail. They seize a child to see if they can civilize it. The lighter-skinned Matthinna is chosen because she’s not “too” black as to be irredeemable. She too is bound for Van Diemen’s Land, where Franklin is governor.


One of the more fascinating details of the novel involves the little-known aftermath for those exiled from England. Did you know exiles were jailed when they went ashore? They had to earn their way to freedom (of a sort) in a place where European men vastly outnumbered women. And remember the time period. The idea of a woman earning her own bread was not impossible, just mostly so.


For a time, Matthinna fares better. She lives amidst luxury, though she’d rather be with her own people. She is smart enough to know that her ticket home is compliance. Rechristened as Mary, she excels in her studies and deportment. But she still a “black,” as Europeans reference Aboriginals– when they’re being semi-polite. The Franklins use Mary as a French-speaking trained monkey at parties. For Mary, the calculus is simple: Will she play out the game or succumb to hubris?


As you might anticipate, the worlds of the ship’s European white girls and that of Matthinna, will collide. The Exiles is a test of the reach of women’s networks under unusual circumstances. The immigrant story is often told in triumphant tones. The usual arc is that the first generation struggles but works hard to leave a solid bequest for their children. Kline knows it’s messier than that. What do words such as success, acceptance, and freedom mean?


Kline does her homework but it’s not quite enough to push this novel over the fence that divides good from extraordinary. Several slips mar an otherwise noble effort. First, she builds sympathy for her characters by placing them in her peril’s way. That’s effective, but she often resorts to melodramatic moments of double Kleenex sentimentality. Kline also breaks historical character in places. This introduces anachronistic contaminants in which characters act as if they are plucked from the 21st century not the 19th.


This is related to another picked nit. Exiles is an odd mix of imagination and convention. The central protagonists are so compelling that we come to expect much of them. Their flights, though, sometimes thud where they should soar and vice versa. I wonder if Kline realized this as well. Is this why she introduces a vendetta coda set 20 years in the future? It fleshes out several characters, but the device isn’t done with enough nuance to make readers unaware of the author’s intervention.  


If these critiques suggest that I lamented reading Exiles, that’s not so. I admire Kline’s work and you will find a glowing review of A Piece of the World in this blog’s archives. It is merely the case that Exiles never surmounted the aforementioned fence. Kline tells her story well, which is a good reason to read it. That it could have been more is a reason not to re-read it.


Rob Weir



All the Devils are Here a Middling Louise Penny Effort




By Louise Penny

Minotaur Nooks, 448 pages.



If you are a Louise Penny fan, a new Armand Gamache novel is a call for celebration. In all candor, All the Devils are Here is worth reading, but is not Penny’s strongest offering. The title comes from Shakespeare: “Hell is empty, all the devils are here.”


Here, in this case, is Paris. Unlike most Gamache tales, the Quebec village of Three Pines gets only passing mention in the 16th book in the series. Armand and his wife Reine-Marie are in the City of Lights to visit their son Daniel and his family; and daughter Annie, who is about to have her second child with Jean Guy, Gamache’s former second in command at the Sûreté du Quebec. Paris is also home to Stephen Horowitz, Gamache’s godfather and the man who helped raise him when his parents died in a car crash when Armand was just nine. Thus, Armand knows Paris very well and he and Reine-Marie maintain a small apartment there.


Stephen, a very rich investor, is 93 and slowing down, but his mind is still sharp. Why though, would someone deliberately run him over in a Paris crosswalk. That’s a question Gamache wants answered and he enlists the services of an old friend, Claude Dussault, who is now prefect of police for all of Paris.


Readers of Penny’s previous novel know that Jean-Guy left Quebec to stop dodging bullets and take a job with an engineering film in Paris. That company, GHS, factors into All the Devils. So do many other things: the Rodin museum, venture capitalism, security forces, the Eiffel tower, rare earth minerals, a Patagonian disappearance, corporate politics, magnetic coins, and France’s shameful past treatment of Jews. On the micro level, Gamache wrestles with the unknown cause of Daniel’s estrangement from him, and with issues such as childhood trauma and the past bleeding into the present.


There are lots of characters in All the Devils – perhaps too many – and that also goes for all the irons in the fire. As in previous books, there is suspicion of malfeasance in high places. It is to Penny’s credit that we do not know until the end which ones are real and which ones are red herrings. Gamache comes to distrust everyone – including Daniel – but he has many from whom to choose, especially after he visits Stephen’s apartment and finds the corpse of a man later identified as Alexander Plessner. Among the many dodgy characters are Irene Fontaine, Jean-Guy’s resentful underling at GHS; Eugenie Roquebrune, its CEO; security guard Xavier Loiselle; Alain Pinot, another corporate bigwig; and perhaps even the Paris police and Dussault himself. At times the novel reminded me of a scene from I Claudius in which Herod tells Claudius, “Trust no one, little marmoset.”


Gamache has much to unravel, including what the mysterious letters AFP mean. (There are numerous possibilities, including that they mean nothing important at all!) There is also the matter of why Stephen, who had a luxurious art-filled apartment, was spending a king’s ransom to stay at a hotel near where he lived.


So many threads, and there is the sense that Penny got a bit lost in them. When the beat-the-clock resolution and aftermath come, both feel forced and tacked on. Maybe it’s Paris and all of its visual and visceral distractions.  Book # 17 is due this year and I, for one, hope it’s set in Three Pines amidst familiar faces and places. Perhaps fewer devils will make for a tidier mystery.


Rob Weir



Tenet is Junk Science



TENET  (20200)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Warner Brothers, 150 minutes, PG-13 (fake physics)


On the website RogerEbert.com, Brian Tallerico nailed it when he called Tenet a film “crafted for YouTube explainer video culture.” Another way to say this is that it is a pretentious video game tricked out to look more profound than it is. Still another is to call it a James Bond movie marred by pseudo physics.


The intellectual bankruptcy of Tenet is masked by its biggest bit of chicanery: all of the explanations for important plot pivots come in machine gun-like verbal bursts that are too fast to deconstruct. And who in their right mind wants to stop and rewind a film that’s already an hour longer than it needs to be? By now you can probably tell that I hated Tenet. Were it not for its shimmery exteriors and its superb performances from John David Washington and Kenneth Branagh, I would have given this bloated waste of time zero stars.


In brief, which is more than can be said of the film, Washington is “The Protagonist,” a spy/secret agent charged by his boss (Martin Donovan) with saving the world. OK, hero territory, but with a twist. Humanity’s Armageddon-triggering event has already happened. Huh? It seems that the present has been invaded by those from the future who wish to alter the past. But they already have. Double huh? If this premise is true, then none of the other stuff in Tenet matters a fig, so roll the credits already.


Instead, we have subplots involving international arms dealers, characters meeting themselves inside of temporal inversions, and a sappy bit of nonsense involving The Protagonist trying to save a woman named Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) from her cruel husband, Andre Sator (Branagh), the arms dealer linchpin of the story, (Or not, if all this has already happened.) At one point, The Protagonist hands over the piece needed to complete a Doomsday Machine because Sator threatens to kill Kat and her son if he doesn’t get what he wants. Moral dilemma test time: Would you save the kid or the mother if by doing so meant that the madcap father will now destroy the world?


If only that were but the only thing that made no sense. There is, for instance, a weapon that looks as if a demented five-year-old assembled a tinker toy from random steel lugnuts and washers. There is also an idiotic ending that’s a mere baby step above “it was all a dream.” To follow any of the movie involves asking who is temporally inverted and who isn’t. A better question to ask is: Who cares?


 I will say this for Tenet: it looks good. How can you go wrong with a visual travelogue that takes us from Kiev to Denmark, Norway, Estonia, India, Siberia, and –best of all –the Amalfi coast? A few good performances also make the film semi-bearable. Washington – I had no idea he was once a pro gridiron player – is a nice combination of smarts, charm, and intensity. Branagh once again proves that no one does accents as convincingly as he; this time he’s Russian. Dimple Kampedia and Robert Pattinson are also decent as arms dealer Priya and agent Neil, respectively, though both roles are mere contrivances. Speaking of which, the rail-thin Debicki appears to have been cast for no better reason than looking good when diving from a yacht into the Gulf of Salerno.


Tenet has been $100 million bomb for Warner Brothers, which sank way too much money into production and distribution. As for Director Christopher Nolan, let’s just say that Tenet is no Dunkirk or Memento. It’s not even Inception II, though some explainers have cast it in that light. But who knows, maybe the explainers are from the future and are just trying to offload a toxic turkey.


Rob Weir