Tag Archives: Louis Bayard

Review: MR TIMOTHY by Louis Bayard

Over the holiday, I reread a book I’d loved the first time I encountered it: Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard. Originally published in 2003, the book is a literary thriller. If you enjoy a good mystery wrapped in history, poignance, and a great tip of the hat to a well-known piece of literature, Mr. Timothy won’t disappoint.

Bayard breaks your heart with his portrayal of Timothy Cratchit — yes, that Cratchit, Tiny Tim from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Now a young man, Timothy is adrift in life, supported by monthly payments from his “Uncle N,” Ebenezer Scrooge, whose home is now perpetually decorated for Christmas and whose generosity is so well-known that a queue of donation-seeking do-gooders fills his parlor waiting for audiences.

But Scrooge’s munificence colors Timothy’s life in a softly malignant way. Instead of finding his way to great things or even a modest occupation, Timothy suffers from the ennui of the existentially disappointed.

About a third of the way into the novel, Bayard sums up Timothy’s problem with a poignant “letter” from the protagonist to his now-dead father, Bob Cratchit. Timothy writes:

Are you ready for a story, Father?

A young boy — roses blooming in the hollows of his cheeks — is deprived by cruel Fate of the use of one limb. He is clasped in the bosom of a warm, distracted family, who dote upon him but fail to understand his intrinsic worth. For this boy, the reader soon learns, is nothing less than a changeling, a prince of nature, whose birthright was stolen from him in infancy (even as his leg was robbed of its motive force). The infamy might have stood uncorrected were it not for the intervention of a kindly family friend who detects something unusual in the boy, something no one else can see, the boy least of all…And so this kindly old gentleman resolves to restore the changeling to his proper place in the cosmic hierarchy — to raise him up, as it were, to the life for which he was originally destined…

…he sits, still dreaming, still waiting for The Event, which is his private term for the public realization of his destiny. He envisions it as a carriage, a grey brougham pausing at the curb in front of his house, openings its door.

The carriage never comes.

How can you read that and not throb with the heartache of Timothy as a boy, to whom “much was given” and thus “much expected.” He ends up disappointing himself, though, as he waits for that “carriage,” never settling on anything of value to do other than tutoring the madam of a whorehouse, teaching her to read.

164792500But it is near this den of prostitution that he encounters a mystery–the corpse of a young girl whose body has been branded with a stylized “G.” Soon after, he encounters another young girl, aged ten, on the run. And the mystery truly begins — who is she running from, what does the “G” signify, and who in the halls of Scotland Yard and the peerage is involved in a dark and ugly crime?

Timothy solves the puzzle, eventually, but not before experiencing thrilling adventures which involve good policemen and bad, London carriage drivers, a likable (and ill-fated) river dredger, prostitutes, other members of the Cratchit family, a young man on the con, “Uncle N,” and the strong, resolute little girl, Philomela, who started his detective journey. The story winds through life in Victorian London like the snow swirling on Christmas Day, a fitting ending point for this complicated tale that combines pathos with page-turning mystery.

The pathos comes mostly in the form of Timothy’s reflections on his late father. He sees him everywhere, and if you have lost a family member, you will know precisely what he is going through as he sees the body shape, the face, the physical attitude of his father in men he chances upon. But it is in his “letters” to his dad that his grief pours out, his grief at having discovered, too late, just how much he loved the tender man who’d carried him on his shoulders everywhere to spare him walking with a crutch.

I reread Mr. Timothy on my Kindle. I’ll now look for a print copy. This is a book to own as an object as well as a story.

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TGIW: Try them, you’ll like them: two authors you might not know

by Libby Sternberg

If you’re in an adventurous mood and want to try a new author, maybe something literary or at least upmarket, may I make a suggestion? I have two favorite authors who, while not obscure, are not household names. I heartily recommend their works. They are: Mark Helprin and Louis Bayard.

soldier of the great warMark Helprin: I discovered this author when I read a review of his novel A Soldier of the Great War that intrigued me. Then I was entranced by his soaring prose. To say he writes prose that sings doesn’t quite capture it. His storytelling is  a Mahleresque symphony that combines light and dark, humor and heartache, whimsy and grit.

If you’re reluctant to dive into his longer novels, however, his short story (almost a novella) “Ellis Island” is a good place to start. Around 70 pages long, it contains all his strongest elements–sepia-toned historical setting, fantastical narrative, humor, orchestral writing, and poignant heartbreak. Listen as he describes a voyage of immigrants in the early 190os:

The sea moderated, and the land sent out signs–not doves, but gulls as white as wave crests, who came to join us days before our landfall, and followed on vibrating wings that seemed unsteady but had been strong enough to carry them, through winter air, across hundreds of miles of sea….a day from port I saw a cloud bank that seemed anchored in place over all of North America. Only on the sea was the sky clear, in patches of the palest blue, and the sea itself was as flat and glassy as oil. Then there was nothing but cold fog and blasts of the whistle. The officers doubled their watches, standing outboard on the flying bridge, listening like hunting dogs or men who are awaiting a miracle. The first time our blasts were answered, they lifted their binoculars and peered out to sea. They closed their eyes like symphony conductors and strained after the sound.

At Ellis Island at last, our protagonist disembarks, only to be smitten by an enchanting beauty in line, a girl he is determined to make his own, no matter what the obstacles. And obstacles abound, including getting through quarantine and off the island into New York.  One of his immigration interrogators asks what he does, and his response is one most authors could sympathize with:

“I write books,'”I said. Little did I know that in America no one ever believes this, as if all the books that appear are written not by living people, but by hairbrushes, watermelons, and branding irons. She looked at me the way one looks at a madman.

ellis-island-english-6.previewEventually, our hero lands in the city and goes from adventure to adventure, trying to find lodging and work. When he’s told that Jews “were not wanted for manual labor,” he determines to give a name he thinks sounds all-American: Whiting Tatoon.

Whiting finds happiness and love and work, settling into the “dreamworld” of America. As for the girl he pined for on Ellis Island….he goes back to find her, and the story ends with him seeing through fresh eyes arrivals of new immigrants . No longer one of that crowd, he observes that the journey “takes from you as much as it gives, and that their difficult voyage was far from over–for the city itself is like wild surf, and lessons are hard to learn when one is breathless in a cold and active sea.”

“Ellis Island” feels breathless when you read it, as much poetry as prose. Helprin’s soaring novel Winter’s Tale is set to be released as a movie next year. I recommend reading his Memoirs from Antproof Case, A Soldier of the Great War, and stories in the collection The Pacific.

mr timothyLouis Bayard: I first discovered Bayard when I picked up his book Mr. Timothy. I was in the middle of writing a retelling of Jane Eyre (Sloane Hall, cough::cough shameless plug), and I was interested in other re-creations of famous tales. Mr. Timothy isn’t a retelling as much as a continuation. In it, Bayard covers the sweet and sad story of Timothy Cratchett — Tiny Tim from Dickens’s Christmas Carol. What a brilliant idea! But as many readers know, not every bit of genius translates into a compelling story. Mr. Timothy delivers, however, in both storytelling and characterization.

In Bayard’s vision, Timothy has lived his life on the generosity of his “Uncle” Scrooge who has continued to subsidize him into adulthood. This has left him without ambition and generally drifting, until a murder mystery presents itself.

But Bayard writes more than just a good mystery. His specialty is plumbing the depths of ennui. His main characters end up confronting some buried sorrow before the story is over, and even if the mystery is solved and the catharsis of discovery endured, sometimes the ensuing flames still consume those they cleanse.

If Mr. Timothy sounds like too far a stretch for you, start out by reading The Pale Blue Eye, a mystery set in 1830 West Point where an old detective sets about solving a murder with the help of a dreamy cadet….Edgar Allan Poe.  The Poe that Bayard paints is youthful and different, already a man apart from his peers. When the detective confronts Poe with various false tales Poe has told of his past, the young writer vows revenge…in his own way:

There comes  a time, I think, in every man’s life when he is forced to see his utter helplessness. He spends his last penny on a drink, or the woman he loves sweeps her plate clean of him, or he learns the man he trusted with everything wishes him only evil. And in that moment, he is bare.

That’s how Poe stood now in the middle of that room, as though every last strip of skin had been peeled away. His bones wobbled inside him.

“I assume you are finished,” he said finally.

“For now. Yes.”

“Then I will bid you good night.”

Dignity, yes, that would be his last redoubt. He would hold his head high as he made his way to the door….Something would make him speak, in a scalded voice.

“You will one day feel what you have done to me.”

pale blue eyeWhat a magnificent back story to come up with for Poe’s haunting writing–that he was trying to make all his readers feel the pain he’d suffered as a callow young man trying to impress, to be loved, and rudely brought back to reality.

Just as you think The Pale Blue Eye’s mystery is solved, Bayard throws in a final scene that will break your heart. It’s a tour de force piece of writing. I now read whatever new mystery he releases: The Black Tower, The School of  Night, and I eagerly await next year’s Roosevelt’s Beast.

Coming soon, I’ll share with you information on a series of books that should appeal to Downton Abbey fans!

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. If you buy her books, she can buy books, too.

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