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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Rochester Knockings

Hubert Haddad

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To purchase Rochester Knockings

Title: Rochester Knockings
Author: Hubert Haddad
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 307 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Rochester Knockings - US
Rochester Knockings - UK
Rochester Knockings - Canada
Théorie de la vilaine petite fille - Canada
Rochester Knockings - India
Théorie de la vilaine petite fille - France
  • A Novel of the Fox Sisters
  • French title: Théorie de la vilaine petite fille
  • Translated by Jennifer Grotz

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Our Assessment:

B+ : gracefully written and nicely turned historical novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Devoir . 8/2/2014 Guylaine Massoutre
Elle . 19/2/2014 Patrick Williams

  From the Reviews:
  • "(L)es trompeurs trompés n'en démordent pas de sitôt, et la farce, longue à s'extirper de la croyance par une saine critique, est racontée par le romancier comme un fait divers inépuisable." - Guylaine Massoutre, Le Devoir

  • "Le romancier est un voyant qui, dans sa boule de cristal, ressuscite un monde endormi, avec des phrases qui frappent et des mots qui grincent ..." - Patrick Williams, Elle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Rochester Knockings seems almost written-to-order for Rochester-based Open Letter Books: a work in translation, written by a prolific and acclaimed Tunisian-born author, previously almost unknown in English, whose current French publisher (Zulma) has an Open Letter-like sensibility, with the novel itself based on a(n in)famous longtime Rochester-connected family, the Fox sisters. The only shame of it is that they understandably changed the title in translation, to highlight its US setting; the original French title -- Théorie de la vilaine petite fille -- is in fact more telling (but it's probably axiomatic that fiction with the word 'theory' in the title can't sell in the US ...).
       The story of the Fox sisters is apparently fairly well-known, and they are widely considered as having played a central role in the establishment of Spiritualism and the Spiritualist Movement. Rochester Knockings is an historical novel, in the sense that it recounts their story fairly closely and, in its outlines, very accurately, but Haddad comfortably srays about in his novel, too, and doesn't make the novel too documentary.
       The story begins in Hydesville, in the late 1840s, with the youngest Fox sisters, eleven-year-old Kate (also called Katie), and her fourteen-year-old sister Margaret (Maggie); among there other siblings is the much older (already in her mid-thirties) Leah, who lives in Rochester. The pre-pubescent Kate is also a sleepwalker (and talker) -- something that will afflict her her entire life -- and she is:

so pretty and sometimes quite comical, but a compartment or two was missing somewhere in her brain. Kate certainly had brains to spare; even Leah, their older sister who had gone to live in Rochester, agreed; whatever her sustained distractions and funny airs might be, when she focused her cat's eye into space, it betrayed something more than absent-mindedness, something entirely different, as if part of her was dreaming while wide awake.
       They've newly moved to Hydesville, into a house that seemed to be calling for: "attention with little noises and intimate movements, creaking from top to bottom at night and flickering faint lights in the darkness". Playful, slightly other-worldly Kate makes the best of the situation, and tries to summon the forces behind the random creakery; she slowly draws her sister Maggie into her world where they seem to achieve a tapping means of communication with the dead. 'Mister Splitfoot', Kate calls the being that answers her finger-snaps, knockings that suggest real communication.
       Soon the locals are curious -- and many convinced by the show the girls put on. Enthusiastically, in some cases:
This is a historic moment that we're witnessing, fellow citizens. For the first time in the world, on this night in April 1848, we've entered into direct contact with the dead, which is to say that the doors of the other world have opened for us with the assistance of our Savior. Do any of you realize for a single moment the consequences of such an event ?
       There are, of course consequences galore -- beginning with the girls getting driven out of town my mobs suspicious of these apparently supernatural doings. But Rochester tempts in any case: sister Leah sees the potential of Spiritualism -- and soon there's a 'Fox & Fish - Spiritualist Institute' sign on the door. The girls can put on a good and convincing show, and it's a good business model -- there's lots of communicate-with-dead demand:
The Fox sisters are championing no sectarian fantasy. With modern spiritualism, we are witnessing the collapse of a wall of silence that separated us from our precious lost ones. This is about a moral revolution that is going to change the face of the planet ...
       The Fox sisters have successful careers, but also can't quite handle it. They go their separate ways -- Kate even to England -- and their final chapters -- which includes Maggie's dramatic behind-the-scenes reveal of how they faked it all -- are sad ones.
       Rochester Knockings is the story of the (two main) Fox sisters, but doesn't focus and follow solely them, the narrative shifting to other characters as well, and includes, for example, a visit to the utopian Oneida Community. More case- than character-study, Haddad's novel is one fascinated by the America of these times, a culture receptive to the religious-spiritual, in all its manifestations: the world he describes is that of Melville's The Confidence-Man, a culture and society willing -- almost eager -- to be fooled by any kind of snake oil salesman.
       The Fox-sister story itself is reasonably interesting, even as the (inevitable, in any case ?) conclusion is historically known (though, perhaps not surprisingly, often whitewashed in even contemporary spiritualist -- yes, there are still folks believing in this nonsense ! -- accounts) but what Haddad does particularly nicely is convey a feel for mid- and late-nineteenth century America and its embrace of such beliefs (complete with suspicion, both rational and mob-mentality irrational). Observations such as suggesting that the spiritualist-movement was also empowering in other ways, such as the intriguing idea that the example of the Fox sisters meant: "American women finally held a new way to take their turn speaking without being booed at like those feminists in municipal assemblies" add to the overall story too (even if much of this is only touched on, rather than fully explored). Helpfully, too, Haddad's is a graceful voice -- and gracefully rendered in English by Jennifer Grotz -- that is never snide or condescending to either subject-matter or his characters (an accomplishment, given that he recognizes 'spiritualism' for the nonsense it is).
       Perhaps spread a bit too thin, both over time and with its cast of characters, Rochester Knockings is nevertheless a successful period-piece, all the more appealing for Haddad's willingness (and ability) to stretch the usual bounds of historical fiction. The subject-matter is, ostensibly, 'sensational', but Rochester Knockings is more interesting for the (fine) writing and the treatment of the larger context than the spiritual silliness.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 November 2015

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Rochester Knockings: Reviews: Other books by Hubert Haddad under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-writing author Hubert Haddad was born in Tunisia in 1947.

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