If historical fiction seeks to to shed light on the present, now is the time for Charles Frazier to return to the civil war period that provided the background for his million-selling debut, Cold Mountain. As statues of Davis and other Confederate leaders come down across the south, Frazier has chosen to focus on the president’s second wife, Varina Howell: bluestocking, opium addict, friend of Oscar Wilde and surely the most obscure woman to have borne the title first lady in America...Above all, the novel inevitably lacks the big, box-of-tissues finale that provided Cold Mountain with its emotional heft, as few people are likely to be moved to weep for Varina or her cold-blooded, “raptor-like” husband. But perhaps this is not the time and place for romance. The significance of Frazier’s novel has less to do with its potential as Hollywood fodder than its clear-sighted depiction of culpable leaders in a divided America. As Blake reflects after his final visit to the sanatorium: “He [Davis] did as most politicians do – except more so – corrupt our language and symbols of freedom, pervert our heroes. Because like so many of them, he held no beloved idea or philosophy as tightly as his money purse.”
In lesser hands, Varina might have been unlikeable, but Frazier counterbalances her imperiousness with a wicked sense of humour... As in Cold Mountain (1997), his bestselling debut, Frazier excels at Southern Gothic, and his lush, lyrical prose style renders the American landscape and its rural inhabitants both mythic and mystical. He avoids the battlefield, instead depicting the monstrosity of war through what it has done to the survivors, often civilians... His style is highly visual, on occasion faintly hallucinatory, echoing perhaps what Frazier imagines as Varina’s sometime opium-induced haze (opium was a common prescription at the time for ‘managing females’). Frazier wears his scholarship lightly: whether it is in the appearance of Varina’s friend the South Carolina diarist Mary Chesnut or an ad hoc smallpox inoculation, the learning is woven in so neatly you cannot see the stitches... the unrelenting Jefferson, a man who gave his wife a present of a suicide pistol, could never hope to fill the shoes of Frazier’s glittering, multifaceted creation.
In this, only his fourth novel, Frazier’s writing is, as ever, spectacular in places. However, it is marred by the lack of speech marks around direct speech. A device used by Hilary Mantel and continued by the likes of Sally Rooney in her recent novels Conversations With Friends and Normal People, the technique gives a feel of internalising dialogue and creates a casual air. For Rooney’s characters, the lethargic teenager tone seems to work, but in this novel I found it distracting. Sometimes speech is marked out by a long dash; at other times, it is just run into the prose: “V looked to the women and said, Are your people all right?” It feels as if the author has simply forgotten to add them in – or worse, is a teenager used only to communicating by instant message, where such niceties are invariably omitted. I know, I sound like my own grandmother, but please, can we just stop?
...a seemingly more relaxed Frazier lyrically unspools Varina’s history in the picaresque style of “Cold Mountain.” The flight of Varina and her motley caravan from Richmond is beautifully rendered; they pick their way through a terrain “scoured to bare nubs” and encounter refugees “pushing wheelbarrows heaped with quilts and cookware and canvas.” They meet the Wiggins family, white Southerners without slaves, who killed Union soldiers in search of plunder and now suffer the terrible guilt of choosing “them or us.”