Night Over the East. (Sheed & Ward. 7s. 6d.) The Death Box. By Alexei Tolstoi. (Methuen. 78. 6d.) Little Mascot, By Carmel Haden Guest. (Hutchinson. 7s. 6d.) Secret Marriage. By Kathleen Norris. (Murray. 7s. 6d.)
Reviewed by FRANCIS BURDETT
Night Over the East is a long and stirring novel. It is sufficiently important to make us want to know who wrote it and to regret that the title page contains nothing but the announcement "translated and adapted from the German by Edwin and Willa Muir.We wonder, too, how much lies behind the word "adapted:" For what we have is good but leaves an impression of incompleteness. There is a lack of form and a crying need for some sort of introduction.
It deals with the Balkans and is of real importance for those who would have a better understanding of countries often rcferred to as the danger spot of Europe. A large field is covered and many places are mentioned that are practically unknown to the average Englishman. Sheltered as we are by our geographical position, to say nothing of the carefully-controlled news that reaches us through the papers, readers may well be tempted to incredulity when the sufferings of Macedonia and the persecution of the Croats by the Serbs are so vividly forced on their notice. But there is a sincerity and depth that carries conviction, combined, as they are, with a wide knowledge.
The hero is a Hungarian noble. The peace treaties confiscated his estates, but his personal loss was swamped by the horrors and tragedies that followed the destruction of the Habsburg empire. He fled in despair from Budapest to the peace and isolation to be found in Lappland, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Later, conscious of the cowardice of his flight, he returns to Hungary, where he gets interested and involved in the struggle of the Croats, and of Macedonia, to obtain freedom. It is absorbingly interesting and wholly free from superficiality or triviality. We get an insight into many problems and many personalities. The ending is unexpected and disappointing, but the author may not be wholly to blame for that.
It seems ridiculous, as the jacket does, to compare The Death Box with the works of Golgol, Dostoievsky or Alexei Tolstoi's own uncle. It lacks, and does not pretend to, the depth, subtlety, understanding and genius found in their work. It is, in fact, a sort of super-thriller. It would, we think, make a tremendous film, filled with movement, tension and a growing excitement.
A Russian scientist discovers a death ray capable of destroying life and property with incredible speed and facility. After many adventures he compels an American financier, who was buying up Europe in the interests of a chemical combine, to unite with him. The excitement grows, until the Russian becomes ruler of the world, with his home at Washington. The American, defrauded of his trust and of Zoe Montrose, whom he genuinely though irregularly loved, commits suicide. An unusual and successful thriller in which politics play little overt part. But sympathy is shown throughout towards the Russian soviets, and digs (or is it one big dig?) are made at the unscrupulous selfishness of capitalists exemplified by those supreme villains, Garin, the Russian, and Rolling, the American.
There is an unexpected sparkle and fun about Little Mascot that raises it above the average light novel. Christine's unhappiness sprang from the fact that her mother had created a scandal (it happened in Victorian days). Her parents arc living, but they ignored her. She was boarded out with a poverty-stricken old country-woman and later recalled to London to live with her grandmother in Bryanston Square. But she was kept in harsh subservience and never allowed to forget that children must suffer for the sins of their parents.
We arc given a striking picture of an unfortunate type of Victorian home. Christine, of course, runs away and goes on the stage. There is some ready amusing dialogue. Sir Gilbert Hess, the actor and "perfect lover," escaping from success to domesticity at Brixton, is wholly delightful, however irregular, whilst Tibbet, the unsuccessful actor, first met at a Dickens fete at Broadstairs, excites that mixture of tears and laughter that is wholly Dickensian.
Mrs. Norris's gift for amusing and profitable story-telling is inexhaustible. She knows how to tell a tale. For many, no doubt, her very faults enhance her gift. In Secret Marriage Mary, an eldest daughter aged nineteen, is suddenly left in charge of her numerous brothers and sisters by the death of her mother. Peter, her eldest brother, helps her nobly, but Mary is the mainstay of the family. They are compelled by poverty to move from the old luxurious home of their childhood into a miserable slum house. The scene is laid in California. Mary's secret marriage leads to many complications, but selfsacrifice, humour and pluck win through to a happy ending.