Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Sacred Ends

Sacred Ends (Part 2 of the Belle Époque Trilogy)
Lisa Appignanesi
Arcadia Books
£8.99, 352 pgs
The most dangerous phrase in any language is, “But we’ve always done it this way.”
Lisa Appignanesi is back with her signature blend of history, psychology, politics, caste, art, science, sex, religion, madness and murder. The emphasis in part two of the Belle Époque Trilogy is on religion; most of all the still-present conflict between the new-and-improved and superstitious tradition. Marguerite de Landois and Chief Inspector Durand reprise their roles in Sacred Ends, part two of Appignanesi’s Belle Époque Trilogy that began with Paris Requiem. (You can follow this link to read my review of part one.) It is a brand-new century, January 1900, and Marguerite has high hopes for a brand-new era. Unfortunately, the Comtesse has received an urgent letter from her husband, Olivier, calling her away from her adored, bustling Paris, back to the family estate in the countryside. Marguerite boards a train for the chateau with her newest waif, Martine Branquart, in tow. The only good thing about being recalled to the hinterlands is that she’ll now be better able to help Martine find her missing sister, as they are from the same area.

Marguerite arrives to find that Olivier has made many changes in her absence: new décor; some of the staff has been replaced; there’s a young sculptor in residence; a new Catholic priest with political ambitions hanging about; and a baby – a foundling. All of a sudden, Olivier has discovered traditional family values. He wants to abandon their understanding of lengthy duration (living apart ten months of the year and generally staying out of each other’s business) to form “a proper family.” Marguerite “…could feel an iron gate coming down with a clang in front of her.” As she applies herself to solving the mysteries of Martine’s sister’s disappearance, Olivier’s abrupt personality transplant, and the true parentage of the foundling, all hell breaks loose and she calls in Chief Inspector Durand from Paris to assist her.

The sexual obsession in Sacred Ends reminds me of nothing so much as Esmeralda and the High Priest in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is still so very topical in this day and age. The characters are diverse and complex, although most of their motivations are horrific; this is not their fault, mostly. The plotting is impeccable and the pacing swifter than in part one. The setting is visceral; such a complete picture of the age and place, remarkable. And, best of all, the sumptuous sentences are back, as well. For example, a passage describing the rural landscape, page 45:
Outside it was so cold the air cracked and whistled. The stairs cut into the crag were steep, the road unpaved. The houses huddled into the rock face like the Neolithic caves out of which some of them had grown. …There was an adventure to the world growing older and older as it bounded into the future.
And this, as Marguerite is reflecting on the authority of the church in the provinces: “The power of the clergy over people’s minds in this region remained enormous. Men, dressed as God’s minions, infringing private boundaries by right. The prurience of the righteous.”

There is more humor in Sacred Ends. Such as when the new village doctor explains his frequent visits to a particular estate, “Madam Tellier suffers from two unmarried daughters, amongst a number of other perennial complaints.” And this, as the same doctor is explaining to Marguerite that the poor man whose body was found under a train was already dead when his body was placed there. Her reaction: “You mean he died of a prior dying?”

Lisa Appignanesi
The only flat note in Sacred Ends is a subplot involving Inspector Durand and a police case back in Paris. I found it extraneous and do not believe that it added to the story the author was telling. Perhaps it will show up in part three of the trilogy to explain its inclusion. I’ve already asked Arcadia Books when I can get my hands on part three. So, to sum up, if you love Paris Requiem as I do, you will definitely want to read Sacred Ends.

I’ll leave you with this, page 351:
…She [Marguerite] had been complaining of her sense that she had come to La Rochambert to enter some strange, hoary clime far from this new twentieth century, a space where medieval tortures and consciences abetted by ideas of sanctity were still at their destructive work and no one seemed to notice. A place where families were allowed to abuse and women were mistreated; where the Enlightenment had never taken place and the Republic might as well never have been born. All that, plus the murder of innocents. How could such a world still exist in the twentieth century?
I hate to tell her this but that world still exists in the twenty-first century. She could be talking about us.

Lisa Appignanesi is the author of numerous novels and works of nonfiction, including the prize-winning Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors. Appignanesi is a past-president of English PEN and is the chair of the Freud Museum, London, and Visiting Professor in Literature and the Medical Humanities at King's College London. She was awarded an OBE in 2013 for her services to literature.

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