A Time For Legends is the original name of the book, as published by Berkley. Norma would have preferred her title, The Unicorn’s Daughter, which is the title she’s re-releasing it as for an ebook. The novel is a sprawling tale, set over several decades between World War Two and the 1980s, using world events as a backdrop. The emotional core of the story, and its greatest strength, is the bond between a father and daughter.
James Lynde starts out the story, signing up for service in the OSS during the war. He serves behind the lines throughout with resistance fighters in occupied Europe, aiding the efforts to overthrow the Nazis, and quickly discovers he’s rather good at the work he does. He and his colleagues have codenames drawn from mythology, and his is the Unicorn. He comes through the war in one piece, and gets the opportunity as the Cold War heats up to join the fledgling CIA, doing the same thing he’s already been doing, just with a new adversary.
His boss, Harry Warner, warns that he’ll have to develop a good cover to move through the new Europe, and he comes across one, marrying into the family of a former senator and going to work in the family investment firm. It gives him a place in society, a reasonable cover, and the opportunity to travel in rough places without excessive scrutiny. Unfortunately he doesn’t actually love the woman he married, though he does a good job (at first) of covering it up. A few years into their marriage, his wife Fran gives birth to a daughter, Jaime, who from the start has her father wrapped around her little finger.
Problems arise, of course. Fran becomes depressed and withdrawn, resentful even of her daughter, who’s headstrong and stubborn. The state of her marriage and her life leads her to take her own life, an event that weighs heavily on both father and daughter. Later, James disappears on one of his trips abroad, and Jaime is told that he’s dead, a fact that she cannot accept, a status that continues to have an effect on her.
Jaime grows up in the custody of an aunt and uncle who have their own secrets. She becomes successful as a photographer, but still haunted by the absense of her father. She discovers that her aunt and uncle have lied to her about James’ death when she finds letters and packages from him posted after his death, causing her to wonder if she’s even related to them at all. And it drives her to start asking more questions, to seek out the truth about her father. Death follows close behind as Jaime presses for answers. The journey brings her to hearing conflicting stories about what really happened to him, including the allegation that he’s committed fraud and treason. It takes her to Europe and North Africa, meeting an American embassy official, Nicholas Kendall, along the way, a man she falls in love with. And the trail leads right into Libya, at the same time as Gadhaffi (take your pick on the spelling of the First Rate Nutbar’s name) is increasing tensions with the United States.
With Angels At Midnight, the story was about revenge, but it was also a love story. Here, the love story is a sideshow to the real plot. Nicholas, indeed, doesn’t show up at all until halfway through the book. The bond between father and daughter is integral to the narrative, and even in his absense, the reader feels his presence. Norma does a terrific job in conveying the strength of that bond, and it drives the action forward. It’s the heart of the book, and it breathes life into what’s happening. I really enjoyed the way she brought this about, giving it a very natural feel to the way the story unfolded.
And she’s gifted with characters. Fran’s point of view as her mental stability deteriorates is a good example. We feel empathy for the character, seeing the world through her eyes, and her choice is tragic. Indeed, so much about her is tragic, and getting into her head helps us to understand. The connections- and similarities- between James and Jaime also come across beautifully in their characters. They’re both strong, stubborn minded people, both seeming to be of the “hang the consequences” way of thinking. Even with minor characters, such as Jaime’s “uncle” Harcourt, we see a man who feels regret over his own part in the deceptions- even though we understand in the end that it was nessecary.
Norma also has a talent for paying attention to details. This can be found throughout the book, in terms of Jaime’s journies and the places she sees, the observations she makes about people. One moment that I liked in particular features Jaime, Nicholas, and her father’s old partner Jack Forrester having dinner in an Algerian hotel, and Norma describing the meal itself… I’ve had a meal like that, and yes, it’s delicious. It’s small details like that which open up a fictional world.
The book is firmly set in the real world, which I really like. The events of world history form the backdrop of the novel, and particularly towards the end, we see the power brokers of Washington playing roles in what was actually going on. The novel reaches its climax during the highest tensions of the Libyan crisis in 1986, and Norma uses the air strikes ordered by President Reagan as part of her narrative. It’s a thrilling finish, and a terrific, satisfying resolution to the narrative.
I highly recommend the novel. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of sorts, and I like jigsaw puzzles. Jaime Lynde is a sympathetic character with depth who seeks to move on with her life by resolving the unanswered questions of her past. She has to sort through the secrets and lies, put the puzzle together. Along the way, we the reader are doing the same, wondering what’s true and what’s a cover story. And by making the novel so close to the real world, Norma succeeds in giving it the extra edge of authenticity. With the way the Middle East has been turning about lately, it’s all the better to read.
William Kendall is the author of the upcoming Heaven & Hell (WMD Books 2012)