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?