Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Gabriel Hounds - Mary Stewart's Damascus, now much dog-eared?

Gabriel Hounds, according to some legends in the UK, were human headed dogs. If they fly over a home, it is an omen of death or bad luck. There are many colourful stories around these airborne canines. In Mary Stewart's The Gabriel Hounds, a character says:
I think myself that the idea must have come from the wild geese - have you heard them? They sound like a pack of hounds in full cry overhead, and the old name for them used to be 'gabble ratchet'. I've sometimes wondered if the'Gabriel' doesn't come from 'gabble', because after all Gabriel wasn't the angel of death...
And, from those legends, we leap to a more personal myth in the story. Young Christie Mansel is rich and twenty-two. She has come to Lebanon to look after an aunt. Aunt Harriet is an eccentric lady who lives in a rundown palace called Dar Ibrahim.

Now, in that region, there are some well known hunting dogs such as the Saluki. And Lady Harriet loved going hunting with them. 

Saluki dog, CC BY-SA 4.0 

But it is said that, if Gabriel Hounds run around and howl in Dar Ibrahim, there will be death. The palace is full of secret passages and strange servants - an excellent setting for murder and mystery.

Bayan Almaarawi - Maktab Anbar - Old Damascus
The deep blue oblong of sky above the open court was pricking already with brilliant stars. No ugly diffusion of city light spoiled the deep velvet of that sky; even hanging as it was above the glittering and crowded richness of the Damascus oasis, it spoke of the desert and the vast empty silence beyond the last palm tree...
The story takes place in the nineteen-sixties. Christy Mansel, touring Syria and Lebanon, bumps into Charles, her cousin. Since they are in Damascus, why not meet Great-Aunt Harriet who lives near Beirut. She is over eighty and lives in a decrepit palace by river Adonis. She dresses like the famous Lady Hester Stanhope.
Lady Hester Stanhope on horseback, via Wikimedia Commons

Harriet does not meet anyone other than her servants and a young Englishman. Christy feels unwelcome but spends a night there. She senses something is wrong and, with Charles, decides to investigate.

The novel is rich with twists and turns as well as poetic descriptions of the beauty of the region. With an action-packed ending, The Gabriel Hounds will make nice reading this autumn, taking the reader down the highways of the history of a troubled but once very beautiful region. 

Alas, like the ill-omened flying Gabriel Hounds, planes from some countries have brought death and devastation to the place, once known as the Paris of the Middle East.

Sneak a preview:

The chapters of Mary Stewart's The Gabriel Hounds open with quotes from The Koran and from Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat

Given the times, we have to excuse a certain degree of racism in the novel where Arabic is said to sound like 
an angry cat spitting. However, it will be a pity if we turn away from such historical phenomena. We not only deprive ourselves of a sense of history but also become no less prejudiced. 

This post concludes the Mary Stewart journey. The next one tackles a contemporary novel from India where forbidden love flowers in a region rich with gangsters.

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Monday, October 01, 2018

Airs Above the Ground - Circus, Smuggling and Stallions

Some stallions are specially groomed to perform stylized jumps called 'airs above the ground'. Airs Above the Ground, yet another romantic thriller from Mary Stewart, takes the reader galloping airily through adventures in Austria, home of a famous training school for Lipizzaner stallions.

A Lipizzaner Stallion performing the levade - Sean

Vanessa March, having tea with a school friend of her mother's, hears some distressing news. Her husband, whom she thought was in Stockholm, appears to be in Austria! As luck will have it, her tea companion asks if she would accompany her teenage son to Austria, assuming Vanessa is going there to join her husband.

Harrods of London cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Ann Harrison - geograph.org.uk/p/2988885

And, thus, she's plunged into an adventure of a lifetime. Lewis, supposed to be in Sweden, appears in a documentary about a fire in a circus in Austria!

All at once there it was. ‘Circus Fire in Austrian Village . . . Sunday night . . . Province of Styria . . . An elephant loose in the village street . . .’ And the pictures. Not of the fire itself, but of the black and smoking aftermath in the grey of early morning, with police, and grey-faced men in thick overcoats huddled round whatever had been pulled from the wreck. There was the circus encampment in its field, the caravans, mostly streamlined and modern, the big top in the background..

A village in Styria - Bernd Thaller 

When Vanessa and the teenager, Tim, reach Vienna, they find out that that Tim's real purpose for the journey is to work in the famous Spanish Riding School. Vanessa, in turn, reveals the truth behind her reason to be there. They hire a car and set off for Graz. Near Graz there is a Lipizzaner stud farm. Also, Vanessa thinks the circus she saw in the documentary was there.

Castle mountain Graz - Ralf Roletschek - Wikimedia Commons

Vanessa and the boy find themselves mixed up with drug runners and missing horses. The novel is packed with action scenes, car chases and chases through old castles.
Next moment we in our turn were sweeping over the crest of the hill, and there in front of us, as Lewis had said, was the sprawled darkness of the wood, an avalanche of thick trees spilled down from the mountainside above, and flooding the valley right to the river bank. Beyond this, clear in the moonlight, shone a cluster of white painted houses, and the spire of a village church with its glinting weathercock. Only a glimpse we had of it, and then the car dropped quietly down the hill with a rush like that of the castle lift, and we were whispering through the dark tunnel of the pines. The road slashed through the forest as straight as a footrule, and at the far end of the wooded tunnel we could see yellow points of light which must be the lamps in the village street.
Preview Airs Above the Ground below:

Austria is not as cheap to visit as Greece but it is a place rich in culture. Apparently, it is the next big romantic destination for Indian tourists

In the meanwhile, the best thing to do is to read Airs Above the Ground! With the next post we conclude our tours with Mary Stewart novels, visiting Damascus with The Gabriel Hounds.

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Thursday, September 27, 2018

This Rough Magic - A Tempestuous Adventure in Corfu!

Corfu, in Greece - Shakespeare's supposed setting for The Tempest - is a dream come true for any actor to visit. Naturally, young actress, Lucy Waring, is delighted when her sister invites her to the island. Especially since she is out of employment.

The Tempest - oil painting - William Hogarth - Public domain

British author, Mary Stewart's romantic thriller, This Rough Magic, uses quotes from Shakespeare's play. In fact the title is from Act 5, Scene 1 of The Tempest where Prospero decides to give up magic and return to his former life as Duke of Milan.

Some scholars think that it was Corfu that Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the drama.

And it is in Corfu that Lucy’s sister, Phyllida Forli, owns three houses, all near each other, in a bay of their own. Phyllida is married to Leonardo Forli, a rich Italian banker. Forli and family live in Villa Forli. And rent out Villa Rotha and the Castello dei Fiori. 

Since Leonardo travels a lot, they asked Lucy over as Phyllida is pregnant. It is their third child, whom Phyllida has decided to name Prospero, after the old duke in the Tempest.

At the villa there is also a maid, Maria, a local peasant with a daughter called Miranda. Shakespeare's Miranda was duke Prospero's daughter and only child. She grew up isolated on the island where they have been abandoned. Maria's daughter, Miranda, however, like her mother, works for the Forlis.

Miranda - The Tempest. John William Waterhouse - Oil Painting Public Domain

Miranda's father has vanished into nearby communist Albania. Her twin, Spiro, is also employed by the Forlis. He is named after a Corfu saint, St Spiridon.

Saint Spyridon Icon, Public Domain

Spiro works at Villa Rotha which has been rented by Godfrey Manning, a photographer. Godfrey Manning is rich and loves fishing and traveling. He even has his own boat-house. Godfrey takes photos of Spiro swimming with a dolphin.

Lucy feels she's in paradise, especially when she gets to swim with a dolphin.

Dolphin, Greece - Harrygouvas

However, someone tries to shoot the dolphin and almost hits Lucy. Lucy thinks it must be a man she sees near the Castello dei Fiori. The man is rude to her, assuming that she is a trespasser. The Castello is another Forli mansion.

Corfu: the Achilleion - Marc Ryckaert, Wikimedia Commons

And the man is Maxwell Gale. Max is trying to protect his father's privacy. His father was a famous actor, Sir Julian Gale. Four years back, Gale's wife and daughter died in an accident. Since then, the actor likes to be by himself. Even so, Lucy's sister finds father and son odd.

Lucy knows that, since two years, the actor has vanished from the drama circles in England. She had seen him act as Prospero in an enactment of The Tempest. Son Max composes music and is working on some for a film based on The Tempest.

Actor Gale is also godfather to Miranda and Spiro, and gave the teenagers their names.

Lucy returns home to find that her sister very upset because Godfrey says that Spiro fell overboard during a night time photography trip.

The next day, Lucy is wandering around the village when she meets Miranda. The girl is with a young man with whom she is having an affair. He is another Forli family employee: Adoni.

Adonis - Painting by Benjamin West [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
In a country where beauty among the young is a commonplace, he was still striking. He had the fine Byzantine features, with the clear skin and huge, long-lashed eyes that one sees staring down from the walls of every church in Greece; ... This youth had, indeed, the air of one who had faced the sinful world for some years now, but had obviously liked it enormously, and had cheerfully sampled a good deal of what it had to offer. .. And not, I judged, a day over nineteen.
Adoni works for the Gales. And it is to their mansion that Lucy is led, one day, by a cute cat:

Somewhere to one side was a thicket of purple judas-trees, and apple-blossom glinting with the wings of working bees. Arum lilies grew in a damp corner, and some other lily with petals like gold parchment, transparent in the light. And everywhere, roses. ...  I had forgotten roses could smell like that.

There she meets Sir Julian Gale. The cat is his and it is called Nitwit. A cat is almost always present in a Mary Stewart novel.

On another day, Lucy goes to the beach with her sister and finds a body washed ashore in their bay. A young man. It is Yanni Zouglas, a local smuggler, says Godfrey who suddenly appears. Max also shows up and Lucy suspects Max of mixing with the smugglers. There is a lot of smuggling between Corfu and Albania, which is just across from the island, separated by a thin strip of water. 

That evening, Lucy's sister is in a panic as she thinks she left her diamond engagement ring in a bag on the beach.  She sends Lucy back to the beach.

The woods were still and silent, the clearing full of starlight. The frogs had dived at my approach; the only sound now from the pool was the lap and stir of the lily pads as the rings of water shimmered through them and set them rocking.

There, Lucy finds the dolphin, lying on the shore. Max, who happens to be there, helps her put it back into the sea. After which he kisses her! They go back to the Gale mansion and there is some more kissing. And some good news.

Spiro is alive but has a broken leg. He is in the mansion with Max, Sir Gale and Adoni. Max says that Godfrey pushed Spiro off the boat and we begin to suspect the photographer of being a smuggler.

Then, Miranda tells Lucy that Adoni has found books in a cave near the Castello villa. Miranda believes they are the mythical magic books of Prospero. Miranda takes Lucy to the cave. Lucy thinks that the 'books' are packages. 

At that moment, Godfrey comes there. The girls hide as he takes away the packages. 

Lucy decides to go after Godfrey and get the packages back. They might be evidence that he is a smuggler. She goes to his boat. She searches the boat for the packages. However, just when she finds them, Godfrey appears and starts the boat. 

When they are well into the sea, Godfrey discovers Lucy. And, though she pretends that she had come on the boat for fun, he soon realizes what she has been up to. There is a struggle between them and Lucy falls into the ocean.

The brave girl swims to the shore somehow. And makes her way to a village. There she finds that she is ten kilometres away from the villas. A young villager takes her home on his motorcycle.

We roared off with a jerk and a cloud of smoke. The road was rutted, surfaced with loose gravel, and twisted like a snake through the olive groves that skirted the steep cliffs, some three hundred feet above the sea. Not a fast road, one would have said—but we took it fast, heeling over on the bends ... The feel of the wind in my hair and the bouncing, roaring speed between my thighs were at once exciting and satisfying after the terrors and frustrations of the night. And I couldn't be afraid. This was—quite literally—the "god in the machine" who had come to the rescue, and he couldn't fail me. I clung grimly to his leather-clad back as we roared along, the shadowy groves flicking past us in a blur of speed, and down—way down—on our left the hollow darkness of the sea...

All at once we were running through a village I knew, and he was slowing down. We ran gently between walls of black cypress, past the cottage in the lemon grove, past the little tea garden with its deserted tables, under the pine, and up to the Castello gate, to stop almost between the pillars.

There she finds Inspector Papadopoulos at Villa Rotha. Max, Adoni, Spiro, Miranda and Godfrey are also there. Godfrey grabs Lucy to try to take her hostage. Foiled, he runs to his boat which explodes.

The novel mixes tense action scenes well with descriptions of the beautiful island and the wonderful villas. Help yourself to a preview on the book cover below:

As with Mary Stewart's other books about Greece, Greek people in This Rough Magic are described as childish folk. But, then, in those days, the Greek was as exotic to the people of the 'West' as we Indians were. A good example of such views was the film, Zorba, the Greek

With the next post, we visit Austria, for a change - the setting for Airs Above the Ground. 

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