Friday, 21 August 2009


Among the M.O.D. heritage buildings open to the public at Gosport is the Royal Navy's former armaments depot of Priddy's Hard: the museum is called Explosion! The Museum of Naval Firepower. Not at all my kind of thing, but in Googling I ran into yet another book I want to read: The Explosionist (Jenny Davidson, HarperTeen, 2008, ISBN: 9780061239755).

A series of mysteries.

An explosion of truths.

The Explosionist: Someone sets off a bomb outside fifteen-year-old Sophie's boarding school, but no one can figure out who.

The Medium: Soothsayers and séance leaders are regular guests at her great-aunt's house in Scotland, but only one delivers a terrifying prophecy, directed at Sophie herself.

The Murder: When the medium is found dead, Sophie and her friend Mikael know they must get to the bottom of these three mysteries in order to save themselves—even as the fate of all Europe hangs in the balance.

The part I've omitted is that in the world of The Explosionist, Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo. In 1938, when the novel is set, Scotland is independent and allied with the New Hanseatic League, which is comprised of Scandinavian countries and Russia. Spiritualism is a science. Oscar Wilde is known as the eminent obstetrician who invented the incubator. Freud is a crazy radio show host nicknamed "Thanatos". And so on. It looks great fun, and a skim of the extensive HarperTeen preview shows that it doesn't clumsily lay this this background on us in one information dump, but introduces it piecemeal through conversation and events, so that the reader is progressively drawn into a world that has diverged from our own.

Unlike most grown-ups, the professor did not tell Sophie that she was too young to understand the sort of thing she liked talking aboout, whether it was the theology of Count Tolstoy, the novels of Richard Wagner, the verse of Albert Einstein, or the operas of James Joyce

This is no mere substitution joke: these are feasible might-have-beens. Tolstoy wrote considerably on theology, Richard Wagner was a prolific writer, Einstein wrote poetry, and Joyce was "a passionate musician as well as a writer [who] grew up hearing his father sing opera arias and for a time aspired to become a singer himself" (Joyce's Grand Operoar: Opera in Finnegans Wake, Hodgart & Bauerle).

Must find it. It looks a fine example of what I've discussed on and off with Felix Grant of The Growlery: the sophistication of adolescent-readership novels these days.

Jenny Davidson's blog, The Explosionist, has ongoing links to discussion, reviews and news. This too looks fun: the forthcoming sequel is a loose retelling of The Snow Queen. Jenny Davidson, by the way, is an associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She's written a previous novel, Heredity: see Clones, Criminals, and Plotted Sex, Andrew Lawless, Three Monkeys Online, March 2005.

Addendum Unfortunate, as discussed in the comments, that The Explosionist is only in hardback so far. From reading the intro, in which a school chemistry lesson on explosives is interrupted by a terrorist explosion, I strongly suspected allusions to Joseph Konrad's The Secret Agent, with its terrorism-by-explosion theme. A quick Google confirms that Jenny Davidson is well aware of the book: see The dynamite romance at one of her other blogs, Light reading, which recommends this Tom Armitage article about a forgotten genre that focused on dynamitards of the late 19th / early 20th century Illegalist anarchists and other political movements (this is the same era that gave us the cartoon stereotype of anarchist with bowling-ball bomb). Only The Secret Agent and GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (both published in 1907) are generally known. Another is The Dynamiter (Gutenberg EText-No. 647, Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny van de Grift Stevenson, 1887), a sequence of short stories about various characters connected by a bombing campaign in aid of Irish independence. Many more are listed and discussed in chapter 8, Dynamite romances of Barbara Arnett Melchiori's 1985 Terrorism in the late Victorian novel. Typical plots involved a young woman in love with a dynamiter and attempting to reform him through lurve, as in Matilda Betham-Edwards' 1885 The Flower of Doom and Grant Allen's 1886 For Maimie's Sake: A Tale of Love and Dynamite. This wasn't just an arbitrary fad: from the late 1800s into the early 1900s there was a cultural scare about dynamite - highly akin to modern post-9/11 paranoia and fear of suitcase nukes - following Fenian dynamite attacks on English cities in the 1880s, and the realisation of dynamite's portability

The 1867 attack on Clerkenwell Prison had involved barrels of gunpowder which, because of the amount needed to produce the desired effect, was an unwieldy substance for subversion. But with Alfred Nobel's inventions of dynamite in 1863, and the fulminate mercury detonating process in 1867, the possibility of carrying out successful, clandestine operations was greatly increased.
- Terrorism and modern literature, from Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson, Alex Houen, Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0–19–818770–X

There's further discussion of the historical and literary context in "Homeland Insecurity: Dynamite Terror and the Textual Landscape of London", a dissertation draft by Sarah McLemore, University of California.

Addendum 2 Coincidentally, via MetaFilter, see the works of Evelyn Rosenberg, who makes ornate bas-reliefs by "detanography": a technique using plastic explosive to force metal on to a carved substrate. Swords into ploughshares again.
- Ray


  1. It sounded so interesting that I ent straight off to Amazon to look for it.

    Unfortunately it's only in hardback so far ... as one who carries books around everywhere as I read them, I will wait for the paperback – but I look forward to it!

  2. There is a Kindle edition for $9.99. (I have a Kindle.) I bookmarked it, but it says it's 450 or so pages -- I'm not sure I want such a long book to distract me from the already towering stack of waiting-to-be-read books.

  3. Wow, the credentials look better and better: Jenny Davidson is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, specialising in "eighteenth-century British literature and culture; cultural and intellectual history, especially history of science; the contemporary novel in English".