Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Charles Frazier, in his new novel Varina, takes the reader back to the American Civil War years in America, just as he did in Cold Mountain, a very well-known novel of the recent past.
The novel switches from the early 20th Century back to the 1840s quite seamlessly as we journey with mixed-race teacher, James Blake, as he searches for information about his earlier life.
Walking down a street one day he heard snatches of a song which triggered hazy memories of an earlier time and feelings of love. Later on reading a marbled journal which had caught his attention, he had the feeling that the boy in the text might be him. To solve this problem he searches out Varina Howell Davis, the wife of the only president of the Confederate States of America.
This novel follows the journey both take to draw on their memories of a time of great upheaval in American history, as they meet weekly in a hotel retreat which is now Varina’s home and where James is barely tolerated because of his colour.
Although the catalyst was James’s search for answers, the novel is really a story about Varina, who is known to her friends a V and is what the author calls her throughout the book.
As the story unfolds we learn about Varina’s life and that of her husband Jefferson Davis, who was a melancholic widower 19 years her senior, when she first met him. A stirring orator in public, he makes a political career of his military experience, representing Mississippi in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, as well as serving as the Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce before being elected president of the Confederacy in 1861.
Although Varina’s life is closely affected by her husband’s career she is herself an educated and fiercely independent person in her own right which becomes evident when at the end of the war she becomes the one who holds the family together as she flees from the advancing army. -Those fugitive months…they’re the axle of my life. Everything turns around them (p115).
On first meeting James Blake, V tries to brush him off but soon realises that he is Jimmy Limber, a child she once rescued from a beating, and took into her own home.
As they meet, prompted by each other, memories surface and the past and the present flow easily into each other in each of the chapters. -I’ve been wondering how you came together.
-It was biers and hurricanes right from the start, V says (p61) and then another piece from the past emerges.
When the past is revealed, little by little, it is not presented in chronological order but more like pieces of a puzzle which will eventually come together to provide the big picture.
The author uses some unconventional methods of presentation. The use of the initial V to represent the main character and the use of a dash to signify speech rather than quotation marks. The imagery in this novel is striking. When describing people standing in the rain at a political event the author says, “Most stood under umbrellas – a field of tight black satin domes – and hunched shoulders against the cold and wet”(p223) and on another occasion-
“The audience turned to V. An ominous swivel of necks and shoulders and backbones to aim hundreds of eyes through the veil into her too. She believed she heard the faint mechanical sound of those thousands of vertebrae shifting, clicking, grinding as the audience pivot her way”(273).
When James sought out Varina she was an old woman whose memories were filtered “through a slight haze of morphine, which back in her youth doctors said V needed before important occasions” (p70) so it was no surprise that not long after she succumb to pneumonia.
In his book James writes of the occasion of her burial, “Every beautiful thing in the country darkens to one degree or another by theft of lives” (349).
Then he jots a thought about V.
“Her last years, she was in many ways a very modern woman – unanchored and unmoored, unconstrained by family, poverty, friends or love of place. Making a major portion of her living from her own work and talent. So why such sense of crisis in her life near its end? Yearning for the reconciliation with the past – the country’s and her own. Her need to shape memory into history” (p349).
This was not a book about the Civil War but more a book about people and their thoughts, beliefs and actions who were there at that time and in the public eye. From this book I have generated an admiration for this woman and all women in similar positions.
By Charles Frazier