The House of the Wind

It’s sometimes been remarked upon in the past by real life friends that it’s odd I like both literary and genre fiction. I can understand that. Genre fiction is all about pleasing its audience by conforming to their expectations for what a story should do. So a romance must be romantic, while crime fiction must employ a process of investigation in order to identify the villain. Genre fiction takes our dreams and daydreams (and sometimes nightmares) and represents them as a reality for the characters. So the heroine’s love interest really will turn up at her door on a dark and stormy night when she is wracked with misery because he empathetically realises that she needs him to hold her in his arms, when in mundane reality he’d be stuck on the M25 in heavy traffic, or down the pub with his mates without a thought in his mind for his lady love. This for me is the big difference between genre and literature, as the latter does not primarily seek to please its audience by making life more reliable, coherent and responsive than it really is. But I do like both, because writing cannot help but give away more than it intends, and genre fiction often says a great deal about the things that bug us and trouble us in the here and now, the sorts of things we can only solve by fantasy because life remains truculent and indifferent. And I think that’s intriguing.

The House of the Wind is a time slip novel, focusing on two young women living in troubled times but separated by seven centuries. In the present there’s Maddy, a young lawyer living in San Francisco who is excitedly preparing for her English fiancé to visit; only he never turns up. The night before he should fly out, he is killed in a car crash with a drunken driver. Numb with grief, Maddy must somehow find the strength to carry on with her work, as her law firm gears up for an important test case. They are attempting to sue an important corporation for subjecting their employees to chemical poisoning, which has resulted over time in a large number of fatal illnesses.  There’s awkwardness here for Maddy, too, as Pierce Gray, the CEO, is a friend of her family and, possibly, a romantic interest. In the past, the young Mia lives in a Tuscan villa in the mid-14th century with her aunt, Jacquetta, after the traumatic death of her mother has left her orphaned and speechless. One midwinter night, a couple seek refuge in the villa. The woman is on the run from the authorities who seek to torture and imprison her for failing to submit to her parents’ wishes that she enter a nunnery. Accompanying her is the man she has fallen in love with. The situation is complicated enough, given that both Mia and the young woman are caught up, unwittingly, in the political machinations of their time and country, but worse is to come in the form of the plague that is about to menace Europe.

Both Mia and Maddy have to work through their personal tragedies, while battling against life-threatening illnesses that affect people for whom they feel responsibility. Into this mix, author Titania Hardie adds a great deal of information about medicine, religion, superstition and law. There’s a strong spiritual dimension to this narrative, and one that is aligned with all that might be called pagan (don’t read this book if the mere mention of a horoscope causes you to roll your eyes). The storylines intertwine when Maddy is sent to Italy to recuperate from her grief and stays in the same Tuscan villa, awakening a connection in her to her ancestors, who, as chance would have it, are by implication Mia and her family. It is a very lush mix, but gentle and philosophical enough in tone to carry its coincidences and reverberations without too much suspension of disbelief .

But what interested me most, I confess, was the spotless characters of the people in the book. Although there are baddies, they hardly get a look in (which was a missed opportunity in the case of Pierce Gray who turned out to be a very toothless villain). At first I thought this was due to the overbearing pressure in genre for characters to be ‘sympathetic’ (and they don’t come much more sympathetic than this). But then I wondered whether there wasn’t a deeper concern at work here, even if unconsciously. This book is essentially about the desire for healing, and what happens when there is no healing to be had – in the case of the plague victims, or those facing fatal illness due to corporate negligence. And even more emphatically, it’s about those bad things happening to good people, who have done nothing to deserve them. Is it possible for their lives to come right? Is it possible to see justice done when criminal self-interest is the opponent?

It’s a convention of genre that you can upset your readers quite a lot, so long as things come good in the end. Obviously, I can’t tell you about that, but for all the reassurings and assuagements that Titania Hardie spreads across this narrative, that big question, whether justice is available to good people, is rewarded with an answer that is at best ambivalent. I rather felt that the good fantasy things heaped on Maddie were in some way to distract us from the bleaker message elsewhere. But please don’t think this is the experience of reading the book – far from it. It is a tender and charming read, and the historical sections are (as is so often the case) extremely well done. It works hard to convince the reader that redemption and recovery are possible, that hope and love are never exhausted, that there are always people who care passionately about justice, even when it concerns complete strangers, that the extraordinary courage of our ancestors is still to be found within us today. And if these things are wish-fulfilments to some extent, well, isn’t that what genre fiction is all about?

10 thoughts on “The House of the Wind

  1. It sounds like a good one. I like some genre fiction as well as lit, mainly mysteries/crime but I can’t do too much gritty, and Terry Pratchett. I don’t generally like fantasy but love his because it’s primarily parody and satire.

  2. I agree that there is some wish fulfillment in the readers of genre fiction. I definitely have a thing for mysteries. I think the fact that they are (generally) resolved by the end of the book gives me a satisfying sense of closure that I don’t have in real life. I am not sure anyone does, but maybe other people are better at dealing with this than I am! I also have a friend who is very involved in social justice and fighting racism and he reads (what I think is) an inordinate amount of SF/Fantasy. I wonder sometimes if this is a direct correlation to the unfairness he confronts in the “real world” since SF/Fantasy often deals with the fight of good vs. evil and in fact many times present stories which are allegories for contemporary issues such as racism and religion etc.

    Your review of The House of Wind reminded me of Tracy Chevalier’s The Blue Virgin, which also has two female characters with parallel stories: one modern, one set in the middle ages. Alas, I abandoned The Blue Virgin after about 50 pages and I don’t think I will pick it back up. It didn’t really appeal to me, although I did enjoy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring.

  3. As my eyes started rolling at the mention of horoscopes, this may not be the book for me! But your thoughts on genre fiction are interesting. It’s fun to examine the borderline between genre and literary fiction — genre novels that push the boundaries a bit, or literary fiction that plays with genre conventions. It shows the value of having some “rules,” so that one can play around with them.

  4. Putting my hand up here as a lover of both literary and genre fiction. I particularly love novels that blur the distinctions a little, which is what I hope I achieved with BG (time will tell). I have a friend who, when she is feeling emotionally vulnerable, can only read genre fiction because she ‘knows’ what is going to happen and only reads literary fiction when she is feeling emotionally robust, because it is presumably more unpredictable. This seems to chime with your thesis!

  5. Yeah, I’m waving with both hands too, LL. I agree with Charlotte on appreciating the blur, but I really find there’s a time and place for both literary and genre fiction in my reader’s heart and habits. I love a bit of good old fashioned wish-fulfillment – sometimes the times call for it.

  6. I never really understand wh people should only read this or that and think, in some cases it says a lot about people’s uncertainties. There certainly are some who just don’t like genre but many seem to avoid it like the plague. Wherever there is too strong a reaction, something else might be hidden. Genre doesn’t equal trash as some people seem to think.
    On the other hand you will find a lot of prejudice coming from genre readers as well. From here I could smoothly move over to Voltaire as he played exactly with these expectations in his novellas…. 🙂
    I know this isn’t a book for me, or I guess so, as I’m not too much into historical fiction but I’m glad you liked it but when I saw it in the book shop yesterday after having read your review, I was still tempted a bit as I like to read about charcaters who have to deal with grief. And who doesn’t like to see characters heal?

  7. Lilian – I certainly read more crime fiction than any other kind of genre, although I will try all sorts of things. However, that has never seemed to include Terry Pratchett. I don’t know why really, other than that I’ve never felt like picking up one of his books. Perhaps I should!

    Ruthielle – the time slip novel seems to have become really popular of late, although I admit I have yet to read Tracy Chevalier (I’d like to – the book group I attended was going to do Remarkable Creatures next, but I couldn’t make the date). The idea of genre as wish-fulfillment isn’t really mine, alas, but a literary critical thing. Most academic study has focused on crime fiction because the formula is most obvious there, as well as having attracted a large number of alternative or postmodern texts that play about with it. But it fits into the category of rescuing narratives, in which some problem is posed (whodunnit being the obvious one) and the story works to bring about a satisfying answer, whilst isolating evil and securing a community. I used to do a lot of crime fiction research because it was fun! And crime is also good to read. It makes me laugh to think I find reading about people killing one another an excellent way to de-stress! 🙂

    Rebecca – no, not quite the book for you! But playing with conventions and formulas can be really interesting. Have you ever read any Patrick Modiano novels? Or those by Sebastien Japrisot or Robbe-Grillet (only the crime-related ones, not the other postmoderns ones)? They play with the rules of detective fiction in really intriguing ways, and you might like them.

    Charlotte – Mills and Boon absolutely conquered the ‘know what you’re getting’ thing. They had focus groups fill our reader questionnaires in order to make sure that novels were exactly aligned to reader expectations. That sort of ideology has spread into a lot of genre these days. But I too love the crossovers, as they almost always end up doing something fascinating!

    Doctordi – oh indeed it does. Absolutely nothing wrong with pleasurable comfort reading. I am all for escapism at times!

    Caroline – I agree, dealing with grief is a very interesting topic. Genre and literary really do seem to split people ever more these days, and I don’t understand it either. Some days you want one and some another. But I do think that a lot of insecurity about intelligence gets projected onto books, which are after all, the only form of entertainment that also asks us to be wise. Difficult topic to talk about (although I’ve done it here several times, fools rush in, etc, etc! 🙂 )

  8. See, this is why I love your posts–you always turn a book on its head (in a good way of course) and show things that I don’t obviously always see. I like both genre and literary fiction–of late I seem to be reading more of the sort where I can rely on certain outcomes, but it only seems natural when life otherwise is throwing you for a loop. It’s interesting that you mention wish-fulfillment, as I’ve seen this phrase used very disparagingly (belittlingly) at times. I’m not sure how I feel about that–is it bad to sometimes want things to end happily?

  9. Danielle – I’m so glad you liked the post! I really did try to do something a little different with it, so thank you for noticing. I think wish-fulfillment is one of the great props of the human psyche, and people can belittle it if they wish, but it won’t mean they don’t rely on it as much as anyone else! When we are creatures almost entirely motivated by desire, how on earth could we get away from wish-fulfillment and its attendant fantasies? Not possible. And one of the great things books and movies can do is offer a person escapism and security when we most need it. I wouldn’t give that up for the world.

    Stefanie – ah my friend, no I don’t think this one is quite for you. There’d be parts of it you would appreciate (all the pagan symbolism and so on is very interesting), but other parts that would not be quite so satisfactory. Isn’t it nice when there’s a book one doesn’t have to add to the list? 😉

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