The 1979 new wave hit “Pop Muzik” had an infectious chorus that began: “New York, London, Paris, Munich.” PEN/Faulkner winner Sabina Murray sends her characters to all four of these locales—and many others—in her sprawling, colorful new novel.
Based on real-life events and people, Valiant Gentlemen opens in 1880s Africa and closes in postwar Paris, where Murray’s characters, and the world, have been changed utterly by World War I.
Murray’s tone is light at the outset. Englishman Herbert Ward and Irishman Roger Casement are in Belgian-ruled Congo, just two of many young, careless expeditionaries. They mingle with the local population and brainstorm about how to make money; Ward eventually decides to write for magazines about his time living amid “naked natives and cannibalism.”
The story picks up steam with the introduction of Sarita Sanford, a sharp-tongued heiress who marries Ward. Casement, meanwhile, must deal with multiple identity crises: He is a revolutionary for Catholic Ireland, but a Protestant, and is often taken for an Englishman. He is also living a closeted gay life. Complex characters in exotic locales combined with Murray’s deft use of language (trees in Niger, for example, are described as having “crabbed fingers”) are the strongest aspects of Valiant Gentlemen.
The approach of World War I creates tension between Ward and Casement, and their differences build to an emotional, even wrenching climax. Valiant Gentlemen offers some sharp satire on culture clashes and colonialism. Casement even makes a flip remark about some “horror,” echoing the conclusion of Joseph Conrad’s African-journey classic, Heart of Darkness. Though a bit too long, Valiant Gentlemen is ultimately an impressive accomplishment, offering an immersive read for historical fiction fans.