Sunday, 4 June 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin, 2016

It’s 1886 and Paris is divided over the ‘monstrosity’ of a tower being built in its midst. Scottish widow Caitriona Wallace is playing chaperone to the wealthy and unworldly Alice Arroll and her hapless engineering apprentice brother Jamie. And Emile Nouguier, a partner of Gustave Eiffel, is looking to soar higher, in his designs or in hot air balloons, over a city filled with gossip, intrigue and seduction.


To Capture What We Cannot Keep manages to evoke the atmosphere of Paris in the 1880s, while keeping us at something of arm’s length, never letting us forget that Cait and the Arrolls are outsiders, uneasily navigating a society where morality is optional but reputation is paramount.

Colin gives us rich historical detail and the characters do feel like products of their time, helping the novel read like a story that could have unfolded. But lovers of plot and unexpected twists may be disappointed. The romance unfolds with few surprises and its pacing suffers at times. Cait is complex and Emile a worthy love interest for her, but the supporting cast plays stereotypical roles — devilish count, foolish virgin, plotting former mistress.

Beatrice Colin, 1963-
The novel also suffers from an overloading of sensual detail common to the genre, where historical heroines often read as more enamoured of scents, fabrics and their corresponding metaphors than their male counterparts. The exception to this is in her descriptions of the tower, where Colin does a good job of capturing its delicate precision balanced against its growing domination of the city’s skyline, its masculine assertion against the fear that it may sway, teeter and fall.

The novel takes patience and will appeal to Francophiles and romance readers perhaps more than to lovers of literature from the period. One of the best things about it is the title, which encapsulated my feelings upon finishing the novel. It’s a story of transition, of longing for something that we cannot hang onto, as the story, and the building of the tower, moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Do you know of any more 21st-century novels set in the 19th century that you think the Secret Victorianist should read? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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