Thursday, 2 April 2015

H is for Hawk

H is also for Hype, and if there's one thing that precedes this book, that's it.  Is there any way it could live up to said hype?  Well...actually, yes.  It really is beautiful.  I'm not sure what more I can add to the plethora of glowing reviews this account of a falconer grieving for her recently lost father whilst training a young goshawk has already garnered, but perhaps, by some slender chance, it has escaped your eagle (see what I did there?) eye, and you need a wee introduction.

Firstly, may I applaud Vintage for their outstanding cover design? And in a footnote, add how delighted I am that they have retained the same design for the paperback as the hardback.  It is as clean, crisp and un-girly as the prose within.*

Secondly, the narrative itself: Helen Macdonald's father dies, and her grief becomes so caught up in the training of Mabel, her goshawk, that she can no longer distinguish the emotions that relate to one, from those that relate to the other.  And all of those emotions are fierce.  Macdonald's hunger for almost total reclusivity, for escape into an unknown wildness, mirrors that of Mabel as she learns to hunt.  And it is this theme that binds the story together, as Macdonald hides herself inside the bird, soaring with her away from the real life that she will one day need to come back down to earth and face again.

H is for Hawk deals in death, and as such, needs writing weighty enough, earthy enough, poetic enough to realise its harrowing theme.  And this is where the hype truly lives up to itself, for Macdonald's words are pumped straight from her heart onto the page.  She writes in blood and magic.  Here is her description of Mabel when she first sees her:

"...the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury...My heart jumps sideways.  She is a conjuring trick.  A reptile.  A fallen angel.  A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary.  Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water."

And when she gets her home:

"Her eyes are luminous, silver in the gloom.  Her beak is open.  She breathes hot hawk breath on my face.  It smells of pepper and musk and burned stone....It feels like I'm holding a flaming torch.  I can feel the heat of her fear on my face."

Macdonald is Merlin with words.  Her struggles are alive in the pages of this book, her veins bared.  Mabel is a very real personality; she too lives inside the paper and typeface, and indeed, she is strong enough to rise from it above the ghost of Macdonald's father.

All wound up in this narrative, however, is a second tale, that of T.H.White, best known for his Arthurian novel The Once and Future King, and the Disney spin-off The Sword in the Stone.  Known to falconers also, though, as the author of The Goshawk.  And there is a part of me that wishes Macdonald had left that story alone, for it haunts me long after finishing the book.  She traces and psychoanalyses White's own painful attempt to train a goshawk in the 1930s, as he too retired from society and lived a wild and solitary existence.  Unlike Macdonald, he did not find redemption in training the hawk, and never did come to terms with his own perceived failings.  But  he laid down in minute detail his daily regimes with the hawk, and they make for heartbreaking reading.  When he tries to tame his hawk by forcing it into public situations, Macdonald writes that "just as the despairing soul will finally comprehend its helplessness in the face of continuing horror and bear it because there is no alternative, so with Gos.  He had no alternative.  There was no softness in his taming.  He had to learn to bear things through being frightened all the time."  White failed with his hawk, where Macdonald succeeds with hers, and her book is testimony to that, and other, victories. 

The process of writing this account must have been cathartic for Macdonald, and I can only think it will do the same for many others reading it.  But it is more than a treatise on training a hawk - though, my word, I learned a lot about that too! - or on the stages of grief.  It is simply the story of being human, and of how we as humans fit into a world that is, despite our best efforts to tame it, still very wild at the edges.  It is the story of all of us, and I feel richer for having partaken.

* My recurring publisher's meeting nightmare: "It's about a lady falconer?  Brilliant!  Is it like a gender-reversal Lady Chatterley's Lover - is she a gamekeeper?  Where does the romance bit start?  I can see the cover already - a pastel green background to represent the countryside, and then a stylised cartoon of the falconer - jeans, blouse, high heeled boots - with the bird on one arm and a load of shopping bags on the other..."

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Philosopher's Pupil

I love Iris Murdoch's novels so much that I'm not sure there are words to express it, but I'll give it a feeble attempt: it's an addiction, I think, an addiction to writing so precise, so clever, and to plots and characters so sublime, that I almost start hyperventilating at the thought of it. Every so often, I will sit bolt upright and declare that I must read another Murdoch right now and that no other author will do.

I do not allow myself to gorge on Murdoch. I am pacing myself, leaving time between each book I read so that I can fully digest it; to read them one after another might taint them, I might attach a character to the wrong book, they might bleed into each other... No, better to separate and to always know there are more to come.

The Philosopher's Pupil is set in a spa town, enabling Murdoch to indulge her preoccupation with water and drowning metaphors. Inhabitants congregate around the Roman baths and hot mineral springs, and their desires, prejudices, doubts and fears hang over them like the steam over the outdoor pool.  Wading through both this figurative and actual fug are various members of the McCaffrey family, an extended mob whose myriad inadequacies are held up by Murdoch to intense moral scrutiny. One of the McCaffreys, George, is obsessed with his old philosophy teacher, a walrus of a man who has returned to his hometown for a short period. It is around this relationship that Murdoch is able to present the philosophical arguments and ponderances for which she is so famous.

This particular book is up there with the best of the Murdochs I have read so far.  I absolutely loved it. I'm not sure that it has supplanted The Sea, The Sea as my favourite, but is probably running joint second with The Black Prince.

It has everything a Murdoch connoisseur could want: a middle aged male lead whose over compensation for self-doubt leads him down murderous paths; older men obsessing over younger women and lost passions; pathetic middle aged women who lack the strength to break free of their overbearing husbands; failed academics; hints of the supernatural; and humour, plenty of humour. 

It has flaws - does the mysterious narrator, 'N', really add anything to the book? His cryptic ending seems suspended somehow, balanced precariously over the novel rather than being part of it. I also question whether I'm convinced by Tom and Hattie's relationship - but Murdoch's younger characters are rarely as rounded as her older ones. And honestly, despite these minor quibbles, The Philosopher's Pupil is a tour de force, a page turner extraordinaire, a thought-provoking insight into the lives of a disparate group. Does our pleasure as readers come from the fact that we recognise elements of ourselves in these people, or does it come from our delight at realising we are not so damaged as they are?

If you are already a Murdoch fan, The Philosopher's Pupil will enchant you as all her best books do. And if you are new to her oeuvre, this is as good a place to start as any.

Now I must ween myself off her for a while, and give some other poor hapless author a chance to impress. But I might just pop into Waterstones and start thinking about which Murdoch I will read next...just so I'm ready when the time is right, you understand. I can stop any time I like...

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Someone at a Distance

Although a long time Persephone addict, I have never yet read their self-professed favourite author, Dorothy Whipple.  Maybe it's her name, but I just haven't been able to get the image of a blue rinse out of my head, and have therefore pressed Ms Whipple snobbishly into the background.  That, I suppose, is exactly what publishers have done with her for the past several decades, hence Persephone's championing of her, and so it is with some delayed guilt that I finally picked up Someone at a Distance.

It must first be said that, while there is a thread that runs through the majority of Persephone's output, by no means are all their books the same.  Some of my personal favourites are those that tread a fraught path - William, An Englishman and Little Boy Lost, for example - though I have also loved some of the frothier numbers such as Patience. Whipple walks a line somewhere between the two, I think.

Someone at a Distance is a harrowing tale, the story of a perfectly ordinary middle class housewife whose husband is lured away from her by a dispicable French hussy. And when I say dispicable, I mean it: Louise Lanier has nothing to endear one to her, nothing.  She is vain, self-centred, rude, lazy, classist, awful human being. That isn't to say she is two dimensional, however. She is frighteningly - worryingly, perhaps - real.  It is in this complexity that she becomes more than just a warning, which she might otherwise have been, and instead engages us fully and generates enormous (enjoyable) ire. How dare this horrendous being ruin Ellen's delightful life? Ellen, who keeps a lovely home and whose sole harmless interest is gardening. Ellen, who is devoted to her husband and children, and who delights rather overly in her simple social life, which comprises of little more than a morning chat with the postman, the grocer, the fishmonger. Ellen, who...quite frankly, is rather dull, certainly not as exciting as Louise. Are we then, to find ourselves sympathising with pathetic husband Avery? Are we, like him, excited by what we know is bad, unable to see the beauty in the norm?

I don't think it was Whipple's intention that we should find the sections of the book that focus on Louise - particularly those when she is back in France - the more interesting, but I really did look forward to them. Of course, I had no sympathy at all for either her or Avery, whose weakness and cowardice in breaking up his family comes absolutely down to the fact that he doesn't have the guts to face his daughter after she finds him in a rather compromising position with Louise.  He drives away from the house immediately, and literally never sees his daughter, or speaks to her, again.  One feels extraordinarily for Ellen after this, as she struggles not only to support her children emotionally and financially, while holding herself together, but tries to, I suppose, muster enough personality to move on with her life. At forty odd, unqualified, unskilled, inexperienced, she is incapable of finding a career, and yet somehow, as her own kindness is repaid by those she has been good to in the past, she manages to find independence of a sort.

Whipple's style is simple, engaging, real.  She is, like most Persephone authors, easy to read.  There is humour in here, though it is somewhat rueful in nature. Above all, for me, the interest in this book comes from the reminder that women's position in society, even two generations ago, was so far from our own today. Books written by women at a time when women were still, not repressed as such, but sidelined, hold enormous interest for me, and this is just one of the many reasons I think Persephone is such an important publisher.

Someone at a Distance is not my favourite Persephone, but I enjoyed it a great deal, and will certainly head for another Whipple soon. It has more bite, and is much less blue-rinsey, than I had expected...

Cutting for Stone

This is an outrageously good book, purchased on a whim while passing through Waterstones to get from one street to another. Maybe I was particularly susceptible to the colour yellow that day, as there is little else about the cover to distinguish it, and I can't fathom any other reason it might have caught my eye. However, catch my eye it did, and I am so glad of that.

Abraham Verghese sets his tale in Ethiopia, and the story begins in the 1950s, when a young nurse dies giving birth to twin boys. (Let me just say, though, that this brief synopsis is a real over-simplification of even that small aspect of the story, but this is not the place to reveal too much.  For that, you must read the book, and I do urge you to do so). The story is then the tale of these twins, their childhood and teenage years growing up in a turbulent, dangerous country, and of the people, their extended family, with whom they share this time.  Later, the tale moves to America, but it is the time in Ethiopa that has stayed with me, that has educated me, and that I loved most of all.  Verghese weaves actual events - a political coup, for example - with his fictional world so that a picture of Ethiopia during the middle decades of the twentieth century is brought to sometimes terrifying life before you. There is real skill here, and it is one that has taught me so much.

The characters - Ghosh and Hema in particular - are so real, so beautifully constructed, that I find it almost impossible to believe that they are fictional. I do not want to believe that they are 'merely' invented. Adis Ababa is brought into startling relief to the extent that I almost feel I could find my way round the city having no guide but my memory of this book. This is a story you will invest in, one that you will care so deeply about that finishing the book is like losing a limb (or at least, a digit).

There is a lot of medical detail in here - it is set largely in a Mission Hospital, after all - and though I am by nature a squeamish individual, I found this more interesting than nauseating: I was genuinely fascinated by the gynaecological work that Shiva undertakes.

Cutting For Stone is a wonderful piece of literary fiction. You feel good for having read it, and the experience of reading is enriching.  It is an intelligent, divinely written epic that will drag you halfway round the world with its characters, and that will sit in your heart for a long, long time after you have put it down.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Paying Guests

I love Sarah Waters. Or at least, I love her Victorian novels, Fingersmith remaining one of my all time favourite books: if you haven't read it, why not? Go and do so immediately!  However, I have to admit to giving up on The Night Watch (tedious) and, although I enjoyed The Little Stranger, and thought Waters captured a crisp, haunting atmosphere, it seemed to lack something, some ribbon that would draw it all together as one neat, enclosed package.  But, I loved Fingersmith so much, consider it such a perfect masterpiece, that I am always willing to give a new Waters a go, and bought The Paying Guests without the slightest idea what it was about.  That's trust, no?

The story is set in 1922. Welcome to a middle class suburban London peopled largely by women and the ghosts of the men they lost in the War.  This is the beginning of the Britain we know now, when once well-heeled families, no longer able to afford servants, must do their own housework and shopping, and hang their heads at the shame of it all.  It is an unhappy world, grey, faded, cracking and peeling. Frances and her mother, desperate to hang on to the family house, despite having lost most of the family that once lived in it, take in a lodging couple, the Barbers, who seep into their lives in unexpected ways - although I have to say that if you know anything at all about Sarah Waters, what happens is not that unexpected! And that might be my first criticism: the first two thirds of the book are taken up with nothing more than the 'shocking' revelation that Frances is gay.  Now I accept what Waters is doing here - she takes a glimpse of that twenties Bohemianism, that 'anything goes' attitude of the Bright Young Things, and stuffs into the moral circles of middle class society long before that society is ready even to acknowledge its existence, let alone accept it.  Frances has been forced to give up her girlfriend and now withers, little more than a housekeeper for her mother, who ignores what she knows about her daughter and continues to try and set her up with a 'nice young man'. 

So, that is, as I say, the first two thirds of the book.  The characters are believable, are real, and grow over the expansive time Waters gives them to do so.  Relationships are complicated, and become more so as the book unwinds.  Plot revolves around these people, with little seen of the world beyond the house on Champion Hill at all.  People go out for the day, but we rarely go with them: instead we stay in the house, and begin to feel as hemmed in, as claustrophobic, as Frances herself does.

But this is Sarah Waters, and I kept reading, kept reading, waiting for the twist, waiting for the action to come.

And it does. It comes suddenly, not entirely unexpectedly, but shockingly, nevertheless.  And it is classic Waters.  It is a game changer.  And the book becomes something else.  I couldn't put it down. My mind was running reels.  And I wonder if this is the cleverness, the enjoyment I get from Waters' books, that I am never satisfied that I have the whole, or indeed the real story... I found the end slightly disappointing, a bit wishy-washy - or did I?  Because even when it's all over, I still find myself asking, yes, but did Lilian...?  Could she have..?  Did she...?  

Although I felt the first half of the book could have been shorter, and although the ending did not excite me as much as I would have liked, I still loved this book.  It was easy to read, a real page turner, and thrilling, in places, as only Sarah Waters can be.  It retains touches of the Victorian melodrama that I feel is her true strength, and to which I wish she would one day return, whilst capturing the feel of post-war cynicism: I found the distrust of veterans, begging on street corners, an interesting, and probably accurate, middle class female attitude that sat nicely alongside the more accepted canonising of lost sons and husbands.

I would heartily recommend The Paying Guests, and would go so far as to say it is close to being a return to form of one of Britain's most brilliant writers.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters

This is such a fun book. Black as all hell, but fun nevertheless.

It tells the story of seven sisters with outlandish names (I particularly fell for Pertilly and Manticory) and even more outlandish hair which, in the age of Millais's Ophelia, makes them popular with men of a slightly grubby, fetishistic persuasion, a couple of whom see a business opportunity and proceed to exploit the poor backwoods girls mercilessly.  They are not alone, however: demonic eldest sister, Darcy - who, in a surreal twist late in the book, actually becomes physically diabolical - is a stunning literary villain, and from the very beginning, the reader's heart aches for her comeuppance. But this is just one of the many strands, woven like a lustrous auburn plait into a complex plot, that urges you through Manticory's narrative to the explosive denouement.

The characters themselves are key here, and all fulfil their given roles beautifully.  Each sister is, if anything, slightly two dimensional (and in a few cases, personality is little more than plot device) but this seems to me to be purposeful: seven varied personalities makes for one whole, complex entity, and I do feel that author Michelle Lovric wanted the girls to be nothing alone, but to function purely as part of a greater whole.

The Harristown Sisters will not tax you overly, but equally is more than just froth.  It has something to say (perhaps about the eternal exploitation of women, perhaps about society's worship of the physical and vacuous, perhaps about the complexity of familial and romantic relationships...) but is above all, a beautifully written (I love the slow crows and thin geese), right rollicking adventure through poverty to wealth and back again, from Ireland to Venice and back again.  

If Christmas is starting to take up all your time, and you need a book that will transport you from mundane everyday nonsense without feeling like you are feasting on cotton wool, this is perfect. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A couple of classics

As I'm sure I've said here before, I frequently roll against the grain and judge books by their covers. I was thus tempted by the delicious designs of the Penguin English Library classics collection, and opted for Waterstones' bargainacious 2 for £10 offer.  (There, a little free advertising for our only remaining high street book chain, which, as my best friend keeps telling me, I cannot complain about losing if I don't shop there.).  This is what enticed me to buy:

I intend to build a lovely big library of these classics. Not only does the design appeal to me, but the books themselves are gorgeous to read - I'm in love with the paper, the typeface, the complete package. This series really enhances the whole reading experience.  And as for the content... Well, it's tried and tested, isn't it?

I'm not sure I've ever read a novel as unputdownable as The Woman in White. I have a sneaky suspicion I should have read it as part of the Victorian Melodrama module of my degree, but clearly didn't, which is also clearly a great shame.  But then, we never enjoy what we are forced to read as much as that which we choose for ourselves, so maybe my lack of diligence at 18 is a blessing now. Either way, I cannot recommend this highly enough if you haven't already read it. It's heart-racingly exciting from about page 40 onwards, with a twist on virtually every page thereafter.  There is a bevy of likeable, detestable, frustrating, brave, and pathetic characters spilling out of every new narrator's tale, and the myriad coincidences that move the story ever onward are actually a breath of fresh air in today's cynical literary world.  And now I know where Sarah Waters gets so much of her inspiration from; I love to see that heritage passing through the generations. Utterly brilliant.

The Mill on the Floss is an entirely different proposition.  The Woman in White might be considered populist fluff in comparison, though the populist fluff of the 1860s hardly warrants linking with that of similar criticism today. George Eliot specialised in 'normal' tales of 'normal' people, though Maggie Tulliver can in no way be considered a 'normal' Victorian woman, despite the fierceness with which she tries.  There is clearly an element of the writer in her, and as such, Eliot's compassion for Maggie shines through every mistake the poor girl makes.  The book is both a riveting story and a serious criticism of aspects of society - and a criticism that still largely holds true.  The fact that the women of the town prefer salacious gossip to a truth that is staring them in the face, and that this gossip ruins a woman's life, sounds to me remarkably similar to stories we hear of people destroyed by comments on social network sites.  Eliot's satirical look at the stress placed by people on material goods as indicators of social standing...again, is this not the very society we live in now?

Despite a rather melodramatic and unconvincing ending, I admit to shedding a tear for the inevitably tragic Maggie, and for finally finding, in Stephen Guest, a character to rival Angel Clare as 'most villainous gentleman in all literature'!  Again, utterly brilliant.

I try, every year, to read at least two or three classics that I have hitherto missed, and after enjoying these two so much - the quality of the writing alone is addictive - I feel I will have no problem increasing my intake.  A brief respite from the old in order to avoid spoiling myself with over-indulgence, and I shall be back for more, hungrily feasting on the Penguin English Library with gusto.