Henry and Clara

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Henry and Clara grew up as step-siblings but had already been engaged to be married on the night Lincoln was shot. The novel uses this event as its centerpiece, but also looks backward and forward. Its forty-seven chapters span most of Henry and Clara’s lives; since months or years usually separate the chapters, Mallon creates the effect of providing historical slices of the couple’s life as the book proceeds. Such a tack enables him both to place each scene in a larger context and to bring out the warmth and details of day-to-day life.

Mallon’s writing is as carefully planned as his plot. The similes and metaphors in particular evoke the accouterments of the novel’s era. Young Clara’s sarcasm, for example, refreshes her father “as a sort of smelling salt.” A squad of investigators returns to Lincoln’s balcony box to measure and draw its dimensions “like a team of decorators hired by some unseen chatelaine.” Nearly every page offers an apt turn of phrase, an historical morsel, an insight into character.

On this last point, the book excels. Mallon shifts his viewpoint so as to probe the thoughts and emotions of Clara, primarily, and other characters. The action organizes itself around the physical and emotional traumas of Henry’s wounds during the Civil War and on the night of the assassination, his growing derangement, and Clara’s attempts to protect the marriage she had to wait for so long. Mallon brings rich humanity from the historical materials, making HENRY AND CLARA an intelligent, highly recommended book.