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, sexist..an 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.

A Death in the Family

This is one of those books that I bought purely because 'everyone's talking about it', it's a 'literary sensation', blah blah blah. And it is well written, and I suppose it's interesting in the sense that every intelligent person's life is interesting because articulateness enables them to turn ordinary events into great swathes of philosophy. But in all honesty, I found that while it made me feel worthy, and garnered approving looks from fellow bibliophiles on trains, I just couldn't get into it, and even found I was preferring to snuggle directly into my duvet at bedtime than pick up this book. As a result, I gave up at about page 100.

In its favour, I will say that perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood for it, as I have enjoyed similar books in the past, and I have left a bookmark - ok, the receipt - in it at the page at which I gave up, should I decide, at any further prompting and persuasion, to resume reading. My overall response to A Death in the  Family, though, is that my life is too short to spend listening to Karl Ove Knausgaard philosophising about his own. It's no Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that's for sure.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Wake

The adjective most applied in publicity for and reviews of this novel is "timely", which in some ways does it a disservice. It is about the First World War, and so, in this centenary year, is indeed auspicious, but there is a richness to Wake that raises it above the average.

Briefly, it takes place over the 5 days in 1920 when the 'Unknown Warrior' was selected and brought from the battlefields of France to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey. The story follows three women, each touched by the loss of a loved soldier during the war. To say more would be to give too much away.

It is beautifully written, in prose that conjures without inappropriate embellishment: London two years after the war is described as a "post-khaki world".  I found I understood all three characters - they seem to represent three stages of life - without necessarily liking them or even agreeing with their views or behaviour.  The five days are also symbolic: the exhumation of the body as the women confront their issues; the journey of the Unknown Warrior as the women fight their demons and learn new truths; its arrival at Westminster Abbey as those demons are laid to rest. This analogy is not as clunky as my explanation makes it sound, however. The book is a Galaxy chocolate bar, smooth as silk, the storylines winding in and out of each other like funereal ribbons.

I could easily see this as a BBC drama, and if you want to see how it would look, check out the YouTube footage of the procession of the coffin; you can almost see Ada and Ivy laying wreaths at the cenotaph.

Wake is a superb example of its type, an intelligent, interesting, well-written story that rewards the thoughtful reader. Anna Hope could potentially give the likes of Helen Dunmore a run for her money, and I look forward to hearing more from this first timer in the near future.