Released today, A Man in Uniform is, according to the description offered by the publisher, Doubleday Canada,:
“A seductive new novel from the author of the award-winning bestseller Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen.
At the height of the Belle Epoque, the bourgeois lawyer François Dubon lives a well-ordered life. He spends his days at his office, his evenings with his aristocratic wife — and his afternoons with his generous mistress. But this complacent existence is shattered when a mysterious widow pays him a call. She insists only Dubon can rescue her innocent friend, an army captain by the name of Dreyfus who has been convicted of spying. Against his better judgment, Dubon is drawn into a case that will forever alter his life.”
I read this novel quickly, over one weekend. I feel Taylor has created a compelling story using an historical event that divided the nation of France. The Dreyfus Affair began in 1894. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an innocent Jewish Officer in the French Army, was convicted on false evidence, manufactured with military approval, for a crime of high treason. He was stripped of his rank, publicly degraded and deported to the penal colony of Devil’s Island to serve a sentence of life imprisonment, in total isolation, and under inhumane conditions. The fight to prove his innocence lasted 12 years.
The Dreyfus Affair caused a deep rift between intellectuals not only in French society, but in all of Europe and the United States. It unleashed racial violence and led to the publication of history’s most famous call for justice, J’accuse, addressed to the President of France by Emile Zola (in January 1898); Zola became, in the words of Anatole France, “the conscience of mankind”.
This event in France’s history involved not only political and military scandals but also murder, deceit, corruption and treachery. Using the documented truths of the Dreyfus Affair as the launching point for her second novel, Taylor becomes a master weaver, braiding the intricacies of historical fact with her own imagination and linear storytelling. Taylor also punches up an already bountiful chain of events through the introduction of femme fatales, seduction and villainy. Characters, both real and invented, co-mingle in her mostly solid novel.
I have had a hard time creating a review for this work because, while so many elements work ~ the plot, the historical context, the characters ~ I was very let down by the use of coincidence and convenience. Taylor is a gifted writer and a talented, award winning Canadian journalist. (She writes an Arts column for the Globe and Mail, was previously their Theatre critic and has been on staff with the paper since 1989). Through research, I discovered the initial manuscript for her new novel “went through three significantly different drafts that involved major plot changes… Draft number two had serious tweaking…Draft number three involved a major rewrite then a major set of cuts” before the manuscript was considered ready for publication. Learning these details made me wonder what elements were sacrificed from a story that could have achieved literary perfection in order to make the novel more broadly appealing?
The novel is very well-paced and enjoyable; I debated calling it a fun read; it definitely makes for a perfect “summer read”. While looking at other reviews for A Man in Uniform, the terms “a romp” and “rollicking” were encountered again and again. The novel definitely engages the reader and seems to have all of the components of a very good historical, literary mystery. For me, the novel is hard to categorize by genre. I have read many reviews that refer to the book as a ‘hardboiled mystery’, but to my understanding, these types of stories are distinguished by an unsentimental portrayal of crime, violence, and sex. I think there is a lot of emotion in Taylor’s novel, and her writing, so I am a bit dismissive of that particular classification. In the end, though, I don’t think this matters. My only issue, really, has to do with how “neat” the story was; how conveniently it climaxed and resolved. The novel is good so I am hopeful it will be embraced and enjoyed by readers. Kate Taylor is a great writer and the story is strong.
I recommend A Man in Uniform and rate it 3.5 our of 5.