The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Women, know your place…

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George Melbury has been blessed with only one child, his daughter Grace, so he decides to spend his hard-earned money on educating her. A happy child, growing up among the woods that surround the tiny hamlet of Little Hintock and provide the people there with their living, Grace forms an early attachment to her childhood friend, Giles Winterborne, and it’s her father’s wish that she will one day marry him. But when Grace returns to Little Hintock after years spent at boarding school, she has become such a cultured lady that Mr Melbury no longer thinks Giles is good enough for her, and Grace tends to agree so doesn’t put up much of a fight. Instead, she is wooed and won by the new local doctor, impoverished scion of a once wealthy local family. Happy ending? Good grief, no! This is Hardy, so poor Grace’s troubles are just beginning…

First off, let me start by saying I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Hardy writes like a dream, and the woodland setting gives him the opportunity for some wonderful descriptive prose. Over the course of the book, the reader gets a clear picture of the society of the woodlanders, the trades they follow and how they make their living, their limited but enjoyed social life, the gradations of class even within the working population, the gender roles – a Hardy speciality – and the social and cultural gulf between the working people and the gentry.

But, Mr Hardy, what is the message of the book? We know you’re a feminist, and that’s as clear here as it is in Tess. So why do I come away from this one feeling you are issuing a warning to fathers not to educate their daughters above their station? Why does it seem as if you are saying that true goodness is the preserve of the poor and humble – that education corrupts? Why does Grace’s education change her from a loving child into a cold-hearted little snob? Why does she change from being a hearty, healthy daughter of the woods into a delicate little flower, who sews not and neither does she spin for fear of spoiling her pretty little hands? Even with the one rich character, whom I was willing to boo as being a parasite on society, what do we learn but that she too is a woman on the make, educated and married above her station? You as good as state that Grace would have been a happier, better woman if she’d never been taught to think and had married within the sphere to which she was born. This hardly reads like a paean to social mobility, especially not for daughters!

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I actually thought this might have been an early one, from before Hardy fully developed his feminism but it isn’t. It falls between The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I felt were clearer on Hardy’s views on the status of women. It’s not that he doesn’t sympathise with Grace’s position as a women educated out of her class, nor even that I feel the portrayal is inaccurate for the time. It’s simply that, whether he intended it or not, the underlying message seems to be, not that society should get a grip and accept that women should have the right to both an education and a happy life, but that it would probably be better for the poor little dears to stew in ignorance so they will make a happy child-bearer and home-cleaner for a worthy working man. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but even the ending left me wondering if he was really suggesting that men should be allowed to behave badly, but that women should find it in their sweet, feminine little hearts to forgive? Pah, I tell you, and forsooth!!

Thomas Hardy

Maybe I expect too much from him – he is undoubtedly far advanced in his portrayal of women in comparison to many of his contemporary male writers, especially in his recognition of women as sexual and, in Grace’s case, intellectual beings. But perhaps Grace isn’t quite tragic enough, or perhaps I missed out on nuance because I was listening rather than reading – a skill I don’t think I’ve yet fully mastered. Or perhaps it’s simply that I never grew fond of little Miss Snooty-and-Delicate who can’t order a meal for herself in a pub despite/because of her education, while I loved her rival in love, Marty, Miss Ignorant-but-Self-Sufficient, whose attitude to life is give me the tools and the opportunity and I can make a living for myself as well as any man. Why do the men all prefer Grace? Do men really want wives who need to be pampered and petted rather than ones who will share their burdens as equals? Pah!

Anyway, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this one – nothing I like better than having a one-sided argument with a great author who can’t answer back… 😉

I listened to the narration by Samuel West – again excellent. West father and son seem to be becoming my go-to narrators for a lot of the great English classics.

Audible UK Link

The Warden (Barchester Chronicles 1) by Anthony Trollope

Blessed are the meek…

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Septimus Harding is the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a charitable institution founded by a long-ago legacy to provide alms and accommodation to twelve old men of Barchester. Over the years the value of the legacy has grown so that now, as well as providing for the twelve pensioners, it also pays a generous stipend of £800 a year to the Warden and provides him with a large, comfortable house. Mr Harding is a conscientious man, neither ambitious nor particularly intelligent, who does his duty as pastor to the old men, and loves them. His elder daughter, Susan, is happily married to Archdeacon Grantly, and his younger child, Eleanor, hasn’t yet admitted to her love for a newcomer to town, the young doctor John Bold, but everyone knows that their eventual union is only a matter of time. So Mr Harding is a contented man. But John Bold is young and idealistic, and he sees the huge disparity between the alms paid to the twelve pensioners and the stipend paid to the Warden, and he feels the Church is misappropriating money that was intended to be spent on the poor of the town. Despite his as yet undeclared love for Eleanor, he begins a public campaign against what he sees as the Church’s abuse…

While I enjoyed all of the Barchester books to varying degrees, this first one has always been my favourite. A short book, it is perfectly formed, and what makes it so special is that Trollope shows all the characters as fundamentally decent people even while he allows them all to have wildly differing opinions on the subject of Church patronage. It is an idealised picture of a world that probably never existed, but that is what makes it such a comfortable and comforting read. It describes a world where even Church abuses are carried out with the best of intentions and where the worst accusations that can be aimed at the officers of the Church are of thoughtlessness and a certain lack of zeal. To Archdeacon Grantly, representing the views of the Church hierarchy, so long as the twelve bedesmen are being well looked after, and they are, then of course the remaining money should go to provide a comfortable living for the Warden, for the Church has a responsibility to provide good livings for all its officers (especially if they happen to be personal friends of the Bishop, who happens to be Archdeacon Grantly’s father).

Donald Pleasence and Nigel Hawthorne as Mr Harding and Archdeacon Grantly in the BBC’s wonderful 1982 production of The Barchester Chronicles

John Bold’s position is given fair treatment too. Mr Harding has never given much thought to Hiram’s original intentions when he made his bequest because Mr Harding is not a thinker, deferring always to the Archdeacon and the Bishop as a good Churchman should. However, when Bold, whom he admires and likes, points out the disparity between what the Church receives from the legacy and what it pays out in charity to the old men, Mr Harding cannot fail to see that his point is valid. But if the Archdeacon thinks it’s justified, then surely it is? As the Archdeacon gears up to fight the accusations of abuse, John Bold turns to the campaigning press to make his case directly to the public. And this public trial by media is the book’s other great theme, as we see poor Mr Harding caught up in a storm not of his own making, publicly reviled and humiliated, and portrayed as a monster of greed, lining his own pockets at the expense of the poor.

Although he shows both sides of the argument fairly, Trollope’s sympathies are all with Mr Harding. He seems to be accepting that the Church does appropriate money to itself and its officers that could be spent on alleviating poverty. But, it feels as if he is saying, is the Church not such a great and beautiful institution that it is worth the money that it takes? Are not the buildings lovely and worth the cost of their upkeep, from the little parish churches to the great cathedrals like Barchester? Are not the services, with their comforting rituals and soaring choirs, designed to bring man closer to God? Do not the Church’s officers, drawn largely from the younger sons of the gentry, need to be provided with comfortable accommodation and a generous income? The poor, after all, are used to being poor, so should they not be grateful for the little charitable portion the Church allows them? In Trollope’s world, Bold is shown as having the misguided zealousness of youth, well intended certainly, but not quite understanding yet how the world works. While admitting the point at the heart of Bold’s argument, Trollope seems to be regretful that reforming zealots can’t simply leave a system that works so well alone. What’s to be gained by impoverishing churchmen simply to give a little more to poor people who already have enough for their simpler needs?

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Despite my own atheism and my disgust at the various abuses that have been perpetrated in the name of religion over the centuries, I find each time I read the book that I too am on the side of poor Mr Harding, at least while I’m reading. My cynical brain knows that the picture Trollope is presenting of the Church is idealised, but my heart loves those ancient cathedrals and the choirs and the traditions, and the cloistered peace of mellow cathedral towns. In real life I would side with Bold, but in this fictional world I too believe that he is merely making the pensioners unhappy and greedy by telling them they deserve more. He is destroying the contentment of his love’s father, reducing her income, and simultaneously destroying the grateful acceptance of the bedesmen. To what end? In this world of Barchester even the poor are healthy, well-fed and rosy-cheeked, so why rock the boat?

If only that had ever been true. Trollope’s world is a fantasy, but it is a comforting fantasy, and one in which many of the respectable people of his time firmly believed. There is almost no point of connection between Trollope’s happy vision of the poor and that of his reforming contemporaries, like Dickens. This book was published in the same year as Little Dorrit, with its searing depiction of the debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Compare and contrast.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Timothy West who did a marvellous job. He has narrated many of Trollope’s works and I’m very much looking forward to listening to more.

Audible UK Link

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

An interesting character study…

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Mrs Scott is elderly now, living alone in her small cottage since her only son emigrated to Canada. One day a rider comes to visit her – Patrick Sellar, the factor of the local landowner, the Countess of Sutherland. He tells Mrs Scott she must leave her home and go to live by the sea where the crofters will have to learn to live by a new trade, fishing. The crofters’ land is wanted for sheep – a more profitable venture for the landlords. As Mrs Scott seeks help from her neighbours and the church, we learn about her past and see her gradually come to understand herself better than she had. And eventually we see how she faces up to an uncertain future…

The story is set in Sutherland in the early 1800s at the height of the Highland Clearances, which is one of those landmark events by which Scotland defines itself, and which still provides food for the sense of grievance that feeds the socialist aspirations of a large majority of the population and the nationalist aspirations of a large minority. Patrick Sellar is a real historical figure, though Mrs Scott is fictional. Unfortunately Crichton Smith’s grasp on historical facts is somewhat tenuous – not unusual in a nation where history is distorted too readily into a propaganda tool and where historical accuracy is rarely allowed to get in the way of the grievance mythology.

However, Crichton Smith’s glaring timeline errors irritated me so much that I found it distracting. For instance, he calls the landlord “the Duke” throughout. In fact, the Duke in question wasn’t a duke at that time – he was the Marquess of Stafford. The land belonged to his wife in her own right as the sole heir to the Sutherland Earldom, and her title at this time was the Countess of Sutherland. This, that the Countess of Sutherland was the most prominent of the landlords involved in the Clearances, is, I would have said, one of the best known facts about the whole era, so it both surprised and annoyed me that Crichton Smith consistently got the titles wrong.

Then there’s the question of Mrs Scott’s age. We are told that her husband left her and their very young son, joined the army, and died a few months later in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, so presumably sometime between 1808-14. Patrick Sellar’s career as factor ended in ignominy in 1817 after he was tried for some of his cruel actions while evicting the tenants. So how exactly did a woman young enough to have her first child after 1800 become an old woman before 1817? Crichton Smith claimed his purpose was not to write a historical novel – fair enough, but even if the Clearances are only background to Mrs Scott’s story, a little bit of historical credibility would have been good.

Book 9 of 80
Classics Club Spin #30

However, indeed the Clearances are not Crichton Smith’s main target. The story is mostly about another recurring theme of Scottish literature – the stranglehold of the reformed Church on the people and its abuses, and here he does a much better job. Mrs Scott naturally turns to her church in her trouble, but finds that church and landlords are in a symbiotic relationship, each upholding the other, and neither showing much concern for the poor and powerless. Circumstances lead her to take help from a local man, Donald Macleod, who is seen as a troublemaker by those in authority, as an atheist and as a man who stands up for what he sees as his rights. (Donald Macleod was apparently also a real person but not one familiar to me.) And as she spends time with him and his family, Mrs Scott comes to re-assess her own church-driven moral rigidity and stern humourlessness, and to realise that this may be what caused first her husband and then her son to leave her.

It is written in simple language, in third person but from Mrs Scott’s perspective. Her age and the circumstances in which she finds herself gain her sympathy from the beginning, but initially the reader too sees her as her son must have done, as a woman so determined to judge others by her strict moral code that she makes the lives of those around her miserable. As we learn her story, though, our sympathy grows – her life has been hard and perhaps her natural liveliness and humour were driven out by her early experiences. Abandoned by her feckless husband, she has devoted her life to her son, but her emotional repression means that she shows this devotion through nagging and criticism rather than through gestures of love and affection. And when he too abandons her, all she has left is her church – a church that preaches hell and damnation more than love and salvation, that rules through authoritarian fear. It is her final abandonment by the church that is the catalyst for her to re-assess her life. So there is a sense of hope in the end, not that life will be easier nor that eviction can be avoided, but that Mrs Scott may free herself of the shackles of misery in which the church has bound her, and learn a more open way of thinking even at her late age.

Iain Crichton Smith

After a very shaky start caused by the historical howlers, I eventually became absorbed in Mrs Scott’s story. It’s a short book and isn’t saying anything particularly new or profound – it is covering ground that has been well travelled in Scottish fiction, one might say trampled into a mire. But Crichton Smith keeps the story intentionally intimate by showing the effects of large events on one individual, and that makes it an emotional read, especially in the second half. I’m not convinced it really has the weight or quality to be considered a true classic, but it works well as a character study and an interesting, if slight, commentary on the way the church in Scotland has been used as a tool to keep the underlings under.

Amazon UK Link

Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham

A masterclass in character…

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This is a collection of short stories, many of them with a colonial setting in the South Seas, though a few are set in Britain. It’s billed as having eleven stories, but four of them are extremely short fragments of description or little anecdotes – well written and quite enjoyable, but more like linking passages than stories, and I decided not to rate them. The remaining seven are quite substantial in length, with a couple reaching novella length, and I found every one of them good, and several excellent. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated excellently by Steven Crossley who created perfectly appropriate voices for each of the myriad of characters who cross the pages.

In each case, while the settings and stories are interesting, the real strength is in the depth and variety of the characterisation. Maugham makes each character completely believable, however extreme or banal their actions may be, and in almost every case, with one notable exception, he makes the reader sympathise with even those whose attitudes and actions at first seem obnoxious. He penetrates below the outer shell, showing with a few deft and sometimes shocking revelations the complexity of each individual, and how they are the product of the attitudes of their society to class, gender, colonialism and religion. His narrators often learn this lesson along with his readers, so that they share the sometimes sudden insight that changes our view of a character we thought we understood.

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Of the seven stories to which I gave a rating, one earned 3 stars, two 4 stars, and four 5 stars, and a couple of the 5-stars rate among the best short stories I’ve ever read. I found myself completely absorbed, listening for long periods with no loss of concentration (which regular visitors will know is unusual for me with audiobooks). Here’s a brief flavour of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mackintosh – Mackintosh is sent to an island in the South Seas to be assistant to the Governor, Walker. Walker is a bullying, boastful old man who rules the island like an absolute monarch. In Mackintosh’s eyes, he behaves as a tyrant towards the natives, ready to humiliate them or worse if they refuse to obey his commands. But he treats Mackintosh as an underling too, rather than as any kind of equal, and though Mackintosh thinks his growing outrage and hatred for Walker is because of how he treats the natives, the reader wonders how much it is really to do with Walker’s treatment of himself. As the story progresses, I found my perceptions of both men changing, and the ending is shocking while still arising naturally and almost inevitably out of what has gone before. Brilliant characterisation and great storytelling – probably my favourite story in the collection.

Rain – A little group of people travelling to various destinations are held up when an outbreak of measles causes them to be quarantined in Pago Pago, and they lodge with a trader. Told in the third person, we see the other characters from the perspective of Dr McPhail. He and his wife are forced into a kind of intimacy with another couple – Davidson, a fanatical missionary who believes it is his mission to save souls, even when they’d much rather not be saved, and his wife, who believes as fanatically in her husband as he believes in God. The other person staying in the lodgings is a young woman called Sadie Thompson, who they soon realise is a whore. Davidson decides to save her soul. Another substantial story in length, and with a lot to say about religious fanaticism and colonialism, but also about the patriarchy in action. Davidson is the one character in the collection who I felt was given no redeeming features. I found the ending a little obvious, but still effective – another great story.

Jane – the story of two women as seen through the eyes of the male narrator. Both are widows – Mrs. Tower, an apparently happy society woman; and Jane, her sister-in-law, whom Mrs Tower sees as her “cross” – a rather annoying bore she tolerates only because of their family connection. But then Jane does something remarkable and quite out of character – she marries a man many years her junior, changes her look and becomes a society sensation. Again this story is mostly character studies of the two women, but this time with lots of humour and a touch of unexpected pathos. A sympathetic portrayal of both women, and very well done.

The Colonel’s Lady – Colonel George Peregrine is a typical bluff ex-soldier, in a seemingly contented but childless and passionless marriage to Evie. One day he learns his wife has had a book of poems published, and although poetry really isn’t his thing he skims a couple and tells her the book is “jolly good”. However, to his astonishment the book becomes a bestseller and soon everyone seems to be talking about it, and he feels his friends and acquaintances are giving him sly or sympathetic glances. Eventually he decides he’d better read it properly, and learns he doesn’t know Evie nearly as well as he thought! Another one with a lot of humour, and a great character study of George. But it also has quite a lot to say about the relative and changing positions of men and women in this society.

W Somerset Maugham

The cumulative effect of a lot of these stories left me with the feeling that Maugham was something of a feminist, so I was astonished on googling to find that he has been accused of misogyny! My extremely limited reading so far has turned up no evidence of this – quite the reverse, in fact, with all the women shown sympathetically and due attention given to the unequal expectations of them within a patriarchal system. So I suppose I’ll just have to read the rest of his books to find out what he did to earn this reputation. Given the quality of the little I’ve read so far, that will certainly be no hardship!

Audible UK Link

Silas Marner by George Eliot

The importance of community…

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Unjustly accused of theft, Silas Marner, his faith in God and man shattered, flees his home and church and sets himself up in a new place where he knows no one and no one knows him. Raveloe is a small rural village with a strong sense of community among the working class, who, as tradition demands, show deference to the local Squire and his feckless sons. Here Silas lives alone, plying his trade as a linen weaver and accumulating a store of gold which he carefully hides and takes out each night to lovingly count. And so his life may have continued, but that one night his hoard of gold is stolen. He is still reeling and depressed from this disaster when, a short time later, a little girl walks through his door. Silas discovers the body of the child’s mother nearby in the snow, and decides to adopt the girl, whom he calls Hephzibah, or Eppie for short.

Being one of the small minority who didn’t love Middlemarch, I began this one with a lot of hesitation – a book I felt should read rather than one I wanted to. So the pleasure of discovering that I loved it was all the greater for being unexpected. This one has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour!

It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as Eliot pontificates for a while about “the poor”, in that supercilious way that suggests they are one homogenous mass, easy to categorise, define and condescend to. “The poor”, apparently, are rather stupid, highly superstitious, easily led, and would fall somewhere not far above beasts of the field in a zoological league table. Whenever one of these 19th century writers talks about “the poor”, I feel I get a better understanding of why people invented guillotines. Happily, however, once she has staked her claim to social and intellectual superiority, she moves on quite quickly, and her depiction of individual members of “the poor” is much more nuanced and insightful than this opening monologue had led me to fear.

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I also feared that Eppie might be one of these saccharin, perfect angels that infest Victorian fiction, usually shortly before they die tragically. Happily not! Eppie is wilful, naughty and refreshingly normal, and won past even my pretty strong anti-child defences. Silas’ reaction to her arrival is very well portrayed, as he sees her as a kind of redeeming gift from the God whom he felt had deserted him. Since she’s a very young child on her arrival, Silas, a man with no experience of children, has to reach out for help, forcing him to become part of the village life he had until then shunned. Perhaps he never quite regains his lost trust in man or God to the same level of naivety of his youth, but he learns to love again, and to appreciate neighbourliness and kindness and the value of community.

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The other side of the story is darker, and gives it a weight that prevents Silas’ story from being too sweet. The reader knows the identity of the dead woman, although the villagers do not, and we know why she was there that night, in a snow storm. “The poor” may get Eliot’s condescension, but she is stern on the fecklessness of those who live off the labour of others – the Squire class. Squire Cass himself is a man of pride and temper, and his sons have grown up with weak characters and a sense of entitlement that leads them into vice, each of a different kind. Eliot allows the possibility of redemption, but she intends to make her characters work for it.

George Eliot

I particularly enjoyed the occasional intervals where we eavesdrop on the men of the village, gathered of an evening in the local tavern to swap stories and exchange gossip. There’s a lot of humour in these passages, but they also give a great depiction of the social hierarchy of village life, based not so much on wealth as on age and experience, with a sense of earned wisdom being passed down through the generations. Eliot also shows how the women of the village try to ensure that motherless Eppie is given the guidance on womanly matters that Silas can’t provide.

Having been rather rude about Andrew Sachs’ narration of The Power and the Glory recently, I was delighted to find him excellent in this one. Without the distraction of “foreign” accents to contend with, he gives a full range of very good characterisations, each well suited to the social class of the character in question.

In the end, the various strands all come together satisfyingly, managing to be sweet without a surfeit of sugar. An excellent listening experience, and I’m now keen to explore more of Eliot’s work.

Audible UK Link

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The role of the narrator…

When narrating a book, a narrator has to decide how to interpret the various accents of different characters in the dialogue. This is crucial to allowing the reader to get lost in the book, and to being able to believe the placing of the characters in the social structure being portrayed in the book. The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico, and nearly all of the characters are Mexican. Therefore presumably they all speak Spanish or Mexican dialects. However, obviously, the book is written in English. So there are two choices open to the narrator: he can either give all of the Mexican characters appropriate Mexican accents, or he can give them all comparable English accents. (Of course, if the narrator and/or publisher were American, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, etc., then it would make sense to give a range of the accents of those countries, but in this instance it’s an English author, and an English narrator.)

As an example, in the English-translation Maigret audiobooks, Gareth Armstrong chooses to give all of the characters appropriate English accents. If they are upper class he gives them a posh English accent. If they are working class he gives them a rougher London accent. If they don’t come from Paris he gives them a suitable regional English accent. This works very well. The only time he gives anyone a “foreign” accent is if the character is not French, and therefore would sound foreign to the French characters.

It would be equally logical, even if I feel it would be a little annoying, had he chosen to give all of the characters French accents. In order to do this effectively, he would obviously have to be able to give a range of French accents – educated, rural, working class, etc. – and I’m not sure many English speakers know enough about the range of French accents to catch the nuance of that. I certainly don’t.

Andrew Sachs as Manuel in Fawlty Towers

But it seems to me that the one choice a narrator can’t make, in these circumstances where every character is native to the setting of the book but the book is either written in or translated into English, is to give some of the characters English accents and some of the characters foreign accents. Where is the logic in that? And unfortunately that’s what Andrew Sachs has done in his narration of The Power and the Glory. Some of the characters, mostly the educated and/or powerful ones, sound English although they are Mexican, and then there’s a range of what I can only describe as caricatures of Mexican accents, mostly for the poor and downtrodden characters. I found it completely annoying and distracting and, dare I say, a touch condescending? But the point where I really began to wonder if I could take any more was when a mestizo character appears, and Sachs gives him an accent that at first I thought sounded very like Manuel from Fawlty Towers (not surprisingly since that is the “Spanish” accent that Andrew Sachs is most famous for), but then I realised that what it actually reminded me of was Calimero! This particular character whines quite often – “You’re going to leave me here to die, señor”, etc., – and I kept expecting him to finish every sentence with “It’s an injustice, it is, yeah!”

(If you don’t know Calimero, this is him – the most annoying cartoon character ever created, and as good an argument for eating chicken as I can think of.)

The result of this was that at no point did I connect with the book. If you’re a regular visitor you will know that Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists and, while I don’t think The Power and the Glory is his best book, I certainly think it’s a good one. But although I struggled past the mestizo and Calimero incident and listened to the end, I found the narration too distracting to allow me to enjoy the book. In all fairness I should say that many people have found this an excellent narration, though some other reviewers have made comments similar to (though less brutally rude than) my own.

Book 4 of 20

I wouldn’t normally review a narration rather than the book itself, but this is one of my #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer, so I had to say something about it 😉 One day I’ll re-read a paper copy, and review the book properly.

Audible UK Link

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

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Despite her charm and beauty and although she has had many admirers, Kitty Garstin at the age of twenty-five finds herself still unmarried and close to ending up on the shelf. The situation becomes more urgent when her younger sister makes an excellent match, and Kitty is horrified at the idea of her sister marrying first. So she accepts a proposal from a man she doesn’t love – Walter Fane, a bacteriologist who is about to take up a position in Hong Kong, (called Tching-yen in the book). Once out in the colony, Kitty falls for the easy charm of Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, and they begin an affair. Kitty thinks this is true love, but for Charlie it’s merely one episode of many – his true love is his wife, despite his infidelity to her. So when Walter finds out about the affair he gives Kitty a choice – divorce him and marry Charlie, or accompany him to an area of China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. It’s then that Kitty discovers Charlie has no intention of leaving his wife, and seems quite comfortable with the idea of Kitty going into China…

Although written in the third person, the book is told from Kitty’s perspective throughout, and so we only get to know as much about the other characters as she knows. This leaves Walter as rather vague, since Kitty never really understands him, not even why he should be in love with someone that he clearly sees, justifiably, as his intellectual inferior. When Walter makes his demand that she accompany him into the cholera zone, she believes that he is hoping that she will die there. And she may be right.

I found Kitty rather annoying at first, empty-headed and shallow. She never really develops a great deal of depth in her personality, but Maugham certainly creates depth in his characterization of her. In some ways it’s a coming of age story, as Kitty’s experiences first show her how empty of any meaning her life has been, and then give her the opportunity to grow. It’s also a study of the position of this class of women in that era, when a good marriage was still the ultimate sign of success and when divorce was still so scandalous that it would thrust a woman out of respectable society. Kitty has been trained and educated only to be ornamental and charming, so one can hardly blame her for her shallowness. Her role as a wife is to support her husband and to have children. Perhaps if Kitty had had a child she may not have indulged in an affair, but being the wife of a man obsessed by his work and having servants to do all the tedious work around the home leaves Kitty, and all colonial women to an extent, with very little to fill their empty days.

Book 6 of 80

First published in 1925, the book is of its age when it comes to colonial attitudes. Some of the language that Maugham uses in describing the Chinese characters and culture certainly seems offensive to modern eyes, more so, I felt, than in some other colonial writing from the same era. However, it does give an idea of how foreign and unsettling everything seems to Kitty, and as the story unfolds she shows at least a little desire to understand more about the people she finds herself living amongst. But mostly China is relegated to a beautiful and exotic background against which a very English story plays out.

There’s also a religious aspect to the book that rather puzzled me. Kitty has no belief in a God, but once in the cholera zone she begins to help out at the local convent which is caring for both cholera patients and orphans, and in her conversations with the nuns there’s a suggestion that she comes to feel that her lack of faith is part of the emptiness inside her. Yet there’s no suggestion of her converting to a life of religion. I couldn’t quite make out what Maugham was trying to say about religion – he seemed to admire the dedication and faith of the nuns without accepting the truth of their beliefs. I googled him afterwards and actually think that maybe this is a reflection of his own ambivalence – he seems to have been an atheist or agnostic of the kind who struggles with and perhaps regrets his lack of faith.

W Somerset Maugham

I loved the book for the quality of the writing and the characterization, and particularly appreciated the way he developed Kitty gradually and realistically over the course of the story. But I had two minor quibbles that just stopped it from being a five-star read for me. The first is entirely subjective and isn’t a criticism of the book – I had seen and thoroughly enjoyed the film before I read it and that unfortunately meant that I knew how the story was going to play out, which took away any suspense and reduced my emotional response. My second criticism is more objective – I hated the way it ended, the last few pages being filled with a kind of pretentious, breathless hyper-emotionalism that didn’t seem to match the rest of the book, nor tie in with Kitty’s character as we had come to know her. Again, it had the same kind of jumbled religious undertones that I felt had been confusing throughout, so perhaps Maugham was trying to resolve Kitty’s feelings about faith in some way in the end. But if so, I’m afraid it didn’t work for me.

Despite that, overall I found it interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable, and very well written, and it has certainly left me keen to read more of his work. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.

Book 6 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for June. An excellent choice, People – well done!

Amazon UK Link

Shorts & Abandonments June 2022…

A Bunch of Minis…

I’m still running far behind with reviews, so here’s another batch of minis to help me catch up – two abandonments and two I loved…

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda

Unpleasant twaddle…

😦

We meet our narrator on the day his father who is not his father dies by having concrete poured ritually down his gullet, as you do. Our narrator, who is either a madman in an asylum or should be, then recounts at what seems like great length but is only a novella the customs in his insanely imagined village, which he presents as if it were real and where all is cruelty and fever-dream horror.

I gave up at 45%. This book is either so profound it’s far beyond my meagre intellectual powers to grasp, or it’s a load of nonsense. It might be an allegory (of something), or it might just be an author dumping bits of her unfortunate imagination all over the unsuspecting reader. Some thoughts are better left unexpressed.

In short, not recommended unless you want to read about horrible people being horrible to other people and to animals and insects, in a story that isn’t a story about a village that doesn’t exist.

(This was supposed to be for my Spanish Civil War Challenge but I refuse to add it to my list.)

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A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

Hanged by the neck…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Vera Hillyard was hanged for murder. Many years later her niece, Faith, is approached by a journalist who is planning to write a book about Vera’s crime and punishment, and wants Faith to tell him what she remembers of the events, and of the people who were involved. Faith takes the reader back to when she was a young girl and sent to live with Vera and her sister to escape the bombing of London. From that point, she gradually leads us through her own coming of age, and we see how her perceptions of her aunts change as she matures. Slowly the looming tragedy unfolds, and now, as an adult looking back, Faith realises the meaning of things her younger self had not understood, so that she comes to comprehend why Vera did what she did…

I loved this, but it got caught up in my backlog with the result that I’ve left it too long to be able to write a full review – bookish details don’t remain in my memory for long, I fear! However it kept me fully absorbed throughout, aided by the narration of the wonderful Harriet Walter. It was my first Barbara Vine and I’ll certainly go on to read more of her books, and highly recommend this one if you are one of the three people left in the world who haven’t already read it!

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A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Badly written twaddle…

😦

I look at the many thousands of glowing reviews for this and can only assume there are two versions of the book, and unfortunately I got the bad one. The writing would shame a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl – short, simplistic sentences one after the other, all tell, tell, tell with no show. The characterisation is terrible – she gives us little potted biographies of each in turn, rather than allowing them to reveal themselves. On the rare occasions her characters are allowed to act or speak they do so with complete banality, or behave in ways that nothing we know about them makes credible. The historical “facts”, which again are dumped on the reader rather than woven into the story, sound as if they are quoted straight from a middle-grade history book – a bad one, that thinks the Republicans were actually a properly constituted democratic government, and the Nationalists were evil rebels staging a coup. No nuance, no suggestion that the situation may have been considerably more complex and less clear-cut than that. It’s more like propaganda than historical fiction.

I chose the book because I was interested in learning more about the Chilean part of the story – the Allende regime, and so on. But given my contempt for her biased, unnuanced picture of the Spanish Civil War, how could I trust her to give anything approaching a balanced picture of a period of history which touches her even more closely? And how could I put up with more of her truly abysmal writing style? My first experience of Allende, and my last – abandoned at 20%.

(Another failure for my SCW Challenge – it is not going well!)

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Three-Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

All very dramatic, darlings!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright gives a dinner party, one of the guests dies suddenly after drinking a cocktail. Hercule Poirot is there that evening, and of course suspects foul play. But no poison is found in the glass and it appears that no one could have had a reason to murder the dead man. Then a few months later another death occurs in very similar circumstances, at another dinner party where many of the same people are guests. Poirot sets out to investigate, and so does Sir Charles and his young friend Egg.

This isn’t one of Christie’s very best plots, though it has plenty of points of interest and a very original motive for the first murder. However I find it one of her most enjoyable books because I’m very fond of young Egg as a character, and I like the way Christie portrays the May-to-December romance developing between her and the considerably older Sir Charles. Mr Satterthwaite is also involved – a character who turns up occasionally in the Poirot novels and also in the Harley Quinn stories. I prefer him in Poirot where his rather dry lawyerly approach to investigations makes him an excellent sidekick for Poirot, though I still miss Hastings who isn’t in this one. To a large extent Poirot takes a back seat, and allows Sir Charles and Egg to do most of the detecting, but of course it’s Poirot’s little grey cells that work it all out in the end!

Great fun and, as always, enhanced by Hugh Fraser’s wonderful narration.

* * * * *

Half fab, half flop – pretty much the story of my life! 😉

Have a Great Weekend!

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

She ain’t no Becky Sharp…

😐 😐

Undine Spragg has been spoiled by her pathetic parents to the point of becoming barely functional as a human being. Greedy, shallow, brain-dead, common as muck, amazingly men fall for her because she has red hair. Because, let’s face it, the men are all shallow and brain-dead too, though far too classy to be greedy or common. No, the men are quite contented to amble pointlessly through life, living off the wealth of their relatives. Undine always wants something she can’t have – baubles, mainly, and bangles and beads. And admiration. And when she can’t have it she throws a tantrum because she has the mental capacity of a not very bright two-year-old. Surprisingly this behaviour appears to work, and people give her whatever she wants simply to shut her up, much in the way a stressed mother might shove a dummy in the mouth of a screaming child. And yet men love her…

This dismal, tedious tome is touted as a brilliant satire of American high society at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Brilliant” is a subjective term, so I’ll confine myself to subjectively disagreeing, wholeheartedly. “Satire”, however, has a specific meaning…

Satire: A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.

~ Oxford English Dictionary

The problem with the book is that there is no humour in it, no irony, not much exaggeration that I could see, and the very occasional attempt at ridicule doesn’t come off because they’re all such tedious people – not even worthy of ridicule. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) is a brilliantly drawn central figure in a satire, because she is witty, intelligent, manipulative and determined, and because she starts with nothing, making the reader have more sympathy for her than for the immoral, feckless snobs she makes her victims. Undine, on the other hand is dull, stupid and talentless, and comes from a background where her every whim has been met. Why would anyone sympathise with her?

Becky’s victims are indeed exaggerated, often to the point of caricature. Who can forget the awfulness of miserly, lascivious Sir Pitt the elder, or the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Sir Pitt the younger, or the gullible vanity of poor Jos Sedley? Simpering, snivelling Amelia is the Victorian heroine taken to extremes, and Thackeray’s demolition of the reader’s initial sympathy for her is masterly. And so on.

Undine’s victims are typical, unexaggerated society wastrels, living on inherited wealth and contributing nothing of either good or ill to the society they infest. They are dull in themselves, and therefore dull for the reader to spend time with. Can one ridicule someone with no outstanding characteristics? I guess it’s possible, but there are few signs of it happening here. Ridicule should surely make you laugh at the object, or perhaps if you’re a nicer person than I, wince in sympathy. It shouldn’t make you curl your lip disparagingly while trying to stifle a yawn…

Edith Wharton

I seriously considered abandoning the book halfway through on the grounds that I have sworn an oath that, whatever I die of, it won’t be boredom. But I decided to struggle on in the hope that perhaps there would be a whole marvellous cast of caricatured eccentrics waiting on the later pages, and maybe Undine would become deliciously wicked rather than depressingly selfish, and all the humour might have been saved for the later chapters. But sadly not, despite her following Becky Sharp’s career closely. Remarkably closely, actually, up to the very latter stages, which is why I have chosen to compare the books. I think the major difference is Becky enjoyed her life, so we enjoyed it with her, and despite her treatment of them she brought some fun and excitement into the lives of her victims – Undine is miserable pretty much all the time, empty and miserable, and she brings nothing but emptiness and misery into anyone’s life, including this reader’s. She sure ain’t no Becky Sharp, though it felt clear to me from the plagiarising mirroring of the plot that Wharton intended her to be.

Book 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May – sorry, People! Never mind – it’s the first loser this year, and next month’s looks great… 😀

Amazon UK Link

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Paul Dombey is a wealthy, proud and cold man, with only one desire – to have a son to bear his name and to carry on the business he has built. His downtrodden wife has already given him a daughter, Florence, but what use is a daughter? What good is she in business? However, finally the son arrives – young Paul, who within a few hours will be motherless as Mrs Dombey dies, almost unremarked by anyone except the broken-hearted Florence. This is the tale of young Paul’s life…

Well, at least so the title would suggest. And for the first third of the book we do indeed follow Paul, as he grows into a weakly child and is sent off to school in Brighton where it is hoped the sea air will restore his health. *spoiler alert* Alas! ‘Tis not to be. Our little hero dies and we are left with a huge gaping hole, possibly in our hearts (I certainly sobbed buckets!), and most definitely in the book!

Dickens quickly regroups and from then on Florence is our central character and she does her best, poor little lamb. But Dickens’ heroines are only allowed a little latitude for heroism. They must be sweet, pure, loving and put-upon, and they must rely on male friends and acquaintances, mostly, for help in their many woes. So Dickens promptly introduces a new hero – young Walter Gay, nephew of Solomon Gills who owns a shop dealing in ship’s instruments. Walter promptly falls in love with Florence (they are both still children at this stage) and sets out to be her chief support and defender. For alas, although she is now Dombey’s only child, this merely makes him resent her even more. So we, the readers, mop up our tears over Paul and get ready to take Walter to our hearts instead. And what does Dickens do then? Promptly sends Walter to Barbados on a sailing ship so that he disappears for years, and for most of the rest of the book! I love Dickens, but I must admit he annoys me sometimes!

Book 5 of 80

You’ll have gathered that I don’t think this is the best plotted of Dickens’ books. I had some other quibbles too – unlikely friendships, inconceivable romantic attachments, less humour than usual, especially in the first section. However, as always, there’s lots to love too. Florence, despite the restrictions placed on her, shows herself to be strong, resilient and intelligent. She is pathetic in her longing for her revolting father’s love, but that’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to be pathetic about. I’ll try to avoid more spoilers, but she does take control of her own future to a greater degree than most of Dickens’ heroines, and Dickens gives her a lovely dog, Diogenes, which allows her to have some love and cheerfulness in her lonely life.

In fact, there are a lot of rather good women in this one – good as characters, I mean, rather than morally good. I think they’re more interesting than the men for once. There’s Polly Toodles, young Paul’s wet nurse who is loved by both the children and has plenty of room in her generous heart for a couple of extra children despite her own large brood. Through her and her husband, we see the building of the railways in progress and Dickens is always excellent on the subject of industrialisation and the changes it brings to places and ways of life.

Then there’s Mrs Louisa Chick, Dombey’s sister, and her friend, Miss Lucretia Tox who is a beautifully tragic picture of faded gentility – a romantic heart with no one who wants the love she would so like to give. Although she’s a secondary character, I found her story quietly heart-breaking. Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, is a bit of a comedy character, but again she is strong and resourceful, and loyal to her mistress, as indeed Florence is loyal to her. They provide an interesting picture of two women from very different classes and levels of education who nevertheless find themselves in solidarity against an unfair world. Mrs Pipchin, Paul’s landlady in Brighton, is not cruel to the children exactly, but she is cold and grasping – it’s all about the money with her.

A major character later in the book is Edith Granger, whom Dombey condescendingly decides to marry. She reminded me very much of Estella in Great Expectations, in that she had been brought up to fulfil a purpose not of her own choosing; in her case, to marry a rich man. Mostly her inward struggle is portrayed very well. However, some of her actions seemed not just illogical but frankly unbelievable, so that I found my sympathy for her waning over the course of the book. And possibly the strongest female character is Alice, whom, since she appears only quite late on and is central to the book’s climax, I can’t say much about at all without spoilers, except that she is righteously full of rage and out for revenge, and Dickens does vengeful women brilliantly!

Oh, there are some men in it too, but I’ve run out of space! Maybe I’ll talk about them the next time I read the book… 😉

Charles Dickens

Overall, I didn’t think this one worked as well as his very best in terms of plotting and structure, and I felt the absence of a hero for most of the book left it feeling a bit unfocused. But as always I loved the writing, and the huge cast of characters provide us with everything from comedy to cold-hearted cruelty, with a healthy dash of sentimental romance along the way. The oppressed position of women is a central theme – from Florence’s dismissal from her father’s love for the sin of being born female, through Edith being as good as sold into marriage, to Alice’s story and the reasons for her fury against one man in particular but also against the society that looks the other way or blames the woman when women are mistreated by men. I’d almost suggest Dickens was being a bit of a feminist here! Not one of my top favourites, but a very good one nevertheless, and as always, highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Fanny Price, daughter of a woman who married beneath her and a feckless drunken father, is one of many siblings, all living in relative poverty in Portsmouth. When Mrs Price appeals to her sisters for assistance, they hatch the plan of taking Fanny into their own care, thus relieving Mrs Price of the need to provide for her. Fanny is promptly transplanted from all she has ever known to the, to her, huge house of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to be brought up alongside their daughters, although always as the poor relation. Here Fanny will grow up, treated kindly to a degree, but expected always to defer to her cousins and to be grateful to her uncle and aunts. Sir Thomas also has two sons, already almost grown up when Fanny joins the family, and the younger of these, Edmund, will become her protector and friend. And Fanny’s lonely little heart will respond to his true kindness…

(What follows is mildly spoilery, but I think we all know how every Austen novel ends…)

Fanny is a shy and self-effacing soul, and her modesty, lack of ready wit and frequent moralising mean that she’s often treated as the least of Austen’s heroines. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, though, and for the novel as a whole, which may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey but in some ways gives a broader view of the society within which Austin lived and wrote.

There’s no doubt that Fanny’s quietness and strong moral values do make her harder to warm to as quickly as a Lizzie Bennet or even an Anne Elliot. But she’s deceptively strong-willed and even defiant of the passive role demanded of all women to some degree, but especially of the poor relation, dependent on charity. As a contrast to Anne Elliot, famously persuaded by her relatives to refuse the man she loved, Fanny is clear in her own mind that love is the only foundation for a marriage, and refuses to be forced into a match her relatives think is not just suitable, but wildly above what she could have reasonably hoped for.

Of course, she takes it for granted, being a sensible little thing, that one should only fall in love with a respectable and wealthy young man – she has the example of her mother’s downfall to remind her of the perils of marrying an unsuitable man. And she’s also protected from the dangers of falling for the first man to admire her because she has already given her heart to Edmund. Nonetheless, she has to be admired for standing firm and demanding her right to make her own decisions.

It’s not only on the marital question that she shows that firmness of character, or stubbornness, if one wants to be less kind about it. All through her story she refuses to compromise her own moral judgements by acceding to the wishes of the more assertive characters by whom she’s surrounded, on small issues as well as large. It’s understandable that the people around her find her annoying sometimes, and I’m sure I would too if she were a friend or relative of mine, but as a character it makes her considerably more interesting than some of the more pathetic women in 19th century literature.

Book 90 of 90
Finished!

Intriguingly she doesn’t just live by a pre-determined set of morals handed to her by her society – she thinks deeply about right and wrong, and comes to her own conclusions. Commentary on the book suggests Austen was using this to show the rise of Evangelical Christianity at the time – it’s not something I know much about, but I find it a convincing argument. To me, the more important aspect is that, while she outwardly defers to Edmund’s more educated and experienced outlook on questions of religion and morality, in fact it is she who influences and strengthens his views. He comes to recognise her moral strength in time, but Fanny is far too clever to ever let him suspect that she is deliberately setting out to mould him into her ideal of manhood. Perhaps Fanny doesn’t even realise herself that that’s what she’s doing, but there’s no doubt in my mind who will make all the important decisions for them both throughout their lives, once she finishes training him!

The outside world plays a role in the book too, though mostly off stage. Sir Thomas’ long absence in his plantation means that much has been written regarding whether the book can be interpreted as supporting or opposing slavery. In my opinion it does neither – it merely recognises that at that time many families in Britain owed their wealth to slavery, a simple truth. What we do see though is the role of men as landowners and householders, the suitable career options for the non-aristocratic wealthy, and the changing views on the Church as a sinecure for younger sons. We are also reminded of the restricted circumstances of this class of women, though interestingly all of the younger women in the book rebel against these in one way or another. Most of these rebellions end in social disaster for the women involved, but the book gives little sense of moral disapproval of their attempts to break free. Austen seems to disapprove of the silly ways they go about it rather than of the idea of rebellion itself. She uses Fanny to show how quiet, determined rebellion can be more successful than flamboyant gestures, and she largely reserves her disapproval for the men.

Jane Austen

As always, there’s far too much in any of these major classics to discuss in a reasonable length blog post, so I’ll finish with one last thing that I particularly enjoy about this book – that Austen takes us out of wealthy society to visit Fanny’s parents’ home in Portsmouth, showing us this naval town during the Napoleonic era, and allowing Fanny to recognise the comforts that wealth provides. Again I’d love to claim that Austen was making some point other than that money is a Good Thing, but I fear she isn’t. She does make it clear that wealth doesn’t guarantee health or happiness, but she doesn’t mawkishly pretend that poverty, even the relative poverty of Fanny’s family, is in any way romantic or better.

One of my favourite Austens (but then I say that about them all), and one that is often overlooked or underrated. She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!

Amazon UK Link

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

Family history…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Thady Quirk has lived on the estate of the Rackrent family all his life, and here sets out to tell the story of the four Rackrents who have owned the estate over that period. The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Kathryn J Kirkpatrick, is nearly a third as long as the entire novella, and tells us that “Castle Rackrent has gathered a dazzling array of firsts – the first regional novel, the first socio-historical novel, the first Irish novel, the first Big House novel, the first saga novel.” Whew! But the question is, is it good? And for me the answer is it’s rather underwhelming, not helped in truth by all these accolades and high-flown claims which set expectations too high.

In fact, it is a rather slight novella, taking a humorous look at the Anglo-Irish Protestants who were given land in Ireland in order to subdue the Catholic natives, but then mismanaged it through incompetence or lack of interest. The Rackrent heirs show all the fecklessness of their class, and all the different weaknesses that lead them to gradually lose their fortune and control of their estates. Spendthrifts, gamblers, drunkards – the Rackrents have one thing in common; they do nothing to improve the estate, but expect it to provide enough income to pay for their vices. We see the evils of absentee landlordism and, of course, of rack-renting – demanding extortionate rents from tenants on threat of eviction. And we see the slow downfall of the family, helped along by the manipulations of Thady’s wily son, who rises to be the estate manager and in time to help the Rackrent dynasty come to its end.

Book 4 of 80

It’s written in a form of dialect but clearly aimed at an English readership as much as Irish, so not at all difficult to read. Edgeworth has included what she calls a glossary to explain some terms and traditions which may be unfamiliar to English readers. These take the form of explanatory notes, and are interesting and quite fun, containing some anecdotes to illustrate points she raises in the novella itself.

A mildly entertaining read, then, but I feel its fame is probably mostly for all those “firsts” and for the academic analysis of what the story has to say about the period. As you can probably tell from this lacklustre review, it didn’t inspire me to lavish either praise or scorn – a couple of weeks after reading it, it has faded almost completely away.

This was the book chosen for me by the Classics Club Spin #29.

Amazon UK Link

Review-Along! Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Woman, the temptress…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As she dances for the crowds in the streets of Paris, the gypsy girl known as La Esmeralda incites passion in the breasts of two men, both forbidden to love in the common way: Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame, bound by vows of celibacy; and Quasimodo, the hideous creature who lives in the cathedral, condemned by his deformities to be an object of fear or pity, but never love. Esmeralda herself has formed a passion for another man, one unworthy of her love, but who will rouse the jealous fury of Frollo, setting off a chain of events that will ripple out well beyond these four central characters into the very history of Paris…

I must admit that there were points in the first half of the book where I had a deep desire to hit Hugo over the head with a brick, in the hopes that it might inspire him to stop waffling about 15th century architecture and get on with telling the story. However, it is often these digressions that linger longest, and provide us with that glimpse into the thinking of past generations which makes reading classics such a pleasure. Even as I waited impatiently to get back to Esmeralda and her lovers, I enjoyed Hugo’s detailed descriptions of how Paris developed as a city, and how it evolved between 1482, when the book is set, and 1829-31, when it was written. I found his ideas about architecture being the way societies once recorded their histories and philosophies fascinating and, despite my lowly status as a lady reader, I was intrigued and at least partially convinced by his argument that the invention of the printing press, as a new and easier way to spread ideas, would remove this important function of architecture for later generations…

Our lady readers will forgive us if we stop for a moment to look for what thought might lie hidden behind the archdeacon’s enigmatic words: “This will kill that, the book will kill the building.”

Book 3 of 80

Hugo’s love for Paris is clear, though clear-eyed too. He rants about modern architects destroying the glories of the past (thank goodness he didn’t live to see the Louvre Pyramid or the Centre Pompidou, or the disastrous fire in Notre-Dame itself), and waxes sublimely on the city as a living entity with its people as its soul.

Usually the murmur that comes from Paris in the daytime is the city speaking; at night it is the city breathing; here it is the city singing. Lend an ear then to this chorus from all the steeples, spread over the whole the murmur of half a million people, the everlasting plaint of the river, the infinite breathing of the wind, the deep and distant quartet of the four forests ranged over the hills on the horizon like immense organ cases, damp down as if in a half-tone everything too raucous and shrill in the central peal, and then say whether you know anything in the world more rich, joyful, golden, dazzling than this tumult of bells and chimes; this furnace of music; these ten thousand brazen voices singing at once in stone flutes three hundred feet high; this city transformed into an orchestra; this symphony of tempestuous sound.

This seems a good point to lavish praise on the wonderful translation by Alban Krailsheimer, who also wrote the informative and interesting introduction and notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition. He brings the prose to life, avoiding any of the clunkiness that sometimes makes translated literature such a chore, and gives full play to the humour and tragedy of the story, and to Hugo’s passion in his digressions. (He also reverts to the original French title, Notre-Dame de Paris – apparently The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an English invention.)

In the second half, Hugo finally buckles down to the task of telling the story, not a moment too soon for this reader. And what a story! Although Krailsheimer informs us that Hugo’s initial remit was to follow Sir Walter Scott’s lead into the art of historical fiction, the book reminds me more of the style that Dickens would later adopt, of making his city and his society as much a feature of the book as his characters and their individual histories. Like Dickens he is also crying out for social change, specifically on the injustices of poverty and of the use of torture and capital punishment as methods of social control, keeping the powerful in power through fear. Writing while the reverberations of the French Revolution had yet to settle and when, therefore, the future form of government in France was still unclear, his open criticism of the monarchy and the ruling classes seems courageous. While the book is set several centuries before the Revolution, it is clearly his intent to show the vast social inequalities that led to it. Does the book have a hero? I’m not sure that it does at the individual level, but I felt that Hugo’s sympathies lay with his mob – not the Revolutionary mob of the 18th century, but their historical ancestors: the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. He doesn’t sanitise them – they are shown as debauched and depraved, but within their own microcosm of society they act according to their own moral code, and provide mutual protection from the corrupt and brutal ruling class.

(Djali the goat was my favourite character)

Two things surprised me most. Firstly, there’s a lot of unexpected humour amid the serious stuff, with Pierre Gringoire (apparently a real person, though I’d never heard of him) as the main comic turn who provides moments of levity to lighten the generally dark tone. I loved the whole story of Gringoire and the goat! Secondly, the way in which Hugo portrays Frollo’s battle with lust and sexual matters generally is so much more open and explicit than I’m used to in English literature of roughly the same era. Lust is seen as the driving force for all the passion in the book – Quasimodo perhaps is the exception to this, his feelings for Esmeralda perhaps more truly love, although even he is no stranger to the stirrings of sexual desire. I found it interesting that Esmeralda too was shown as a passionate being with her own physical desires – how different to the insipid sexless heroines of so much English literature. And I felt Hugo handled all this superbly – the characters and their motivations all felt true to me (and made me wonder whether Dickens’ caricaturing was a way to get round the literary repressions enforced on English authors of the time. Darcy staring at Lizzie across drawing rooms and ballrooms is about as close to lust as I can think of in classic English Victorian literature, though perhaps the success of the sensation novels suggests that the English appetite for lust was secretly just as strong as the French).

Victor Hugo

As always with these major classics, there’s far too much to discuss in a reasonable length blog post. In summary, then, after the long first half and the architectural longueurs in which he nearly lost me, Hugo won me over totally with the thrilling story and left me reeling at the end! And in the couple of weeks since I finished reading, I’ve found myself mulling over many of the issues he raised in his digressions, so that my appreciation of the whole book has continued to grow. It’s one I’d like to re-read, since knowing the outcome would lessen my impatience to get on with the story and allow me to savour all the rest in a more leisurely fashion. Heading for a paltry four stars at the halfway mark, by the wonderful end it had gained a well-deserved and brightly glowing five! (I’m even tempted now to read Les Misérables…)

I do hope my fellow Review-Alongers found as much in it to enjoy as I did. I look forward to reading their thoughts and will add links to their reviews below as I come across them. Please also check back to find out what our non-blogging friends thought, who will hopefully leave their comments on it below.

Alyson’s Review – see comments below

Christine’s Review – see comments below

Jane’s Review

Kelly’s Review

Margaret’s Review

Amazon UK Link

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of girls from the exclusive Appleyard College boarding school are taken to nearby Hanging Rock for a picnic. When the time comes to start back, it is discovered that three of the girls and one mistress are missing and, despite much searching then and later, no clues are found as to what has happened to them…

I was until recently under a misconception about the book in that I thought it was written much earlier than it was, probably sometime in the 1920s or so. In fact it was published in 1967, and that much later date shows through in the mild air of mockery Lindsay displays about the attitudes of the late Victorians, and in her hints that the root of the mysterious disappearance may lie in the burgeoning sexuality of these girls on the cusp of womanhood – as we know, Victorian ladies didn’t have sexuality at any age, much less as schoolgirls! This meant that I was at first surprised by the tone, which was considerably lighter and with more humour at the beginning than I expected, though it gradually darkens into something quite troubling and chilling.

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Ambiguity has to be handled well if it is to avoid being simply frustrating, and it’s the excellent way Lindsay balances the information she does and doesn’t give us that makes it work so well. There are all kinds of little mysteries surrounding the larger one, blank spaces that the reader can fill in for herself, clues and hints that might mean one thing, but could just as easily mean nothing. Legend has it that Lindsay wrote a final chapter revealing all (in a woo-woo kind of way – it’s summarised on wikipedia if you’re interested) but that her publisher suggested she cut it. If this is true, what a debt the book owes to the publisher – no explanation would leave the book lingering in the mind the way it does by ending as the published version does. Apparently, there’s a lot of doubt that the missing chapter really existed though (the suggestion being that the one printed sometime in the 1980s, after Lindsay’s death, was a hoax), and I think I prefer to believe that and give the full credit for the ambiguity to Lindsay.

The disappearance is, of course, pivotal, but it’s by no means the whole story. As time passes and no trace of the girls and their teacher is found, we see a ripple effect running through the lives of the people affected. Mrs Appleyard’s school, so successful, so exclusive, is now the centre of scandal and we see how this affects Mrs Appleyard herself and the other members of staff. The English boy, or young man, who saw the girls last as they made their way up the Rock, is haunted by the beautiful face of one of them, Miranda, and by what seems like a sense of guilt that he didn’t stop them; though at the time there was no reason to do so and, anyway, English Victorian propriety would not have allowed him to address young ladies to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced. Then there are the pupils, each missing their classmates to varying degrees and confused and frightened through not knowing what has happened to them. And the police, having to face accusations of incompetence for failing to find them. All of these ripples grow larger as time passes, so that as the incident itself begins to fade into the past, the effects of it grow and, with them, an impending sense of dread.

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There are lots of other interesting side aspects that make it more complex than it at first sight appears. Lindsay shows the born Australian’s affectionately contemptuous attitude to new arrivals from England, with their strict social protocols, rigid dress code and class divisions, while the new arrivals are having to learn a new way of life, complete with scorching heat, snakes, killer insects and the vast empty landscape where place is divided from place by distances unimaginable to the inhabitants of crowded little England. Indigenous Australians aren’t visible in the story but their culture is, or at least the idea that this land is ancient and imbued with legends and a strange spirituality not understood by the incomers, and therefore threatening. The Rock itself, with its strange monoliths and hidden caves, seems to exert a power that may be physical or a psychological effect, or possibly otherworldly.

Joan Lindsay

There’s also the time of writing. The ‘60s were such a time of social change – are there hints of homosexual undertones in some of the relationships? There probably wouldn’t have been in a novel from 1900, and there almost inevitably would be in a novel from 2022, but a novel from 1967? Beautifully ambiguous again, intentional or not. Hard to read it with modern eyes and not see things that may not exist, which seems quite appropriate to the overall tone!

The writing is excellent, both in the characterisation and human interactions, and in the many passages descriptive of the natural world which Lindsay uses to add to the feeling of strangeness that the newcomers feel. It’s surprising and disappointing that she wrote so few novels and that this seems to be the only one to have remained in the public consciousness. But if you’re only going to be remembered for one novel, then this is a wonderful one to be remembered for.

This was the People’s Choice winner for April. Well done, People – great choice! 😀

Amazon UK Link

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill

Sympathy has its limits…

🤬

Dermod Flynn lives for the first few years of his life with his family in Donegal. His parents make it clear that his main, perhaps sole, purpose in life is to go off to work to send home money to keep his parents and younger siblings from sinking further into poverty than they already are. So at a young age he is packed off “beyond the mountains” to the hiring market, where farmers hire workers on a seasonal basis. After a series of jobs, treated well in some, appallingly in others, Dermod joins a gang of workers bound for Scotland for the potato-picking season, and this begins his life as an itinerant worker, a “navvy”, in Scotland in the early days of the twentieth century.

Dermod is MacGill’s fictional representation of himself. In his foreword, he claims that most of the people he meets and most of the incidents in the book are true although he has used some licence to create a kind of plot to hold the thing together. Mostly the book is remembered (if at all) as a record of a way of life now gone, though some (oddly) praise it for its (non-existent) literary merits. Since I am already fairly well aware of the appalling conditions of itinerant Irish workers at this period and of the poverty and ill-treatment they suffered, the lack of aforesaid literary merit meant that it wasn’t worth enduring the intense dislike I developed for Dermod/MacGill for anything I might learn. I therefore abandoned it halfway through, merely flicking to the end to discover if the mawkish love story MacGill used as his plot had a happy or tragic ending. I won’t spoil it for you, in case you ever feel inspired to read the book.

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Had Dermod been truly fictional, I might have been able to tolerate him as a character. It was the knowledge that he is in fact MacGill by another name that caused me to find the book intolerable. Despite being at the bottom of the social heap, Dermod has a wonderful ability to look down on others, clearly because by disparaging them he thinks it somehow makes him look superior. I might even have found this psychology interesting or pitiable had it not been for his clear dislike of humanity as a whole, and the female half of humanity in particular. The language he uses to describe women is repellent – perhaps normal for men of that class and era, but it seemed to me indicative of a real hatred for women, especially those who had lost the physical attractiveness of youth. Here he is describing Gourock Ellen and her friend Annie – whores in their younger days but now too old for that job, they eke out a pitiful living crawling across muddy fields on their knees picking up potatoes. And yet Gourock Ellen is kind to beggars, washes Dermod’s clothes for him and generally shows a generous soul despite having nothing herself. Here’s what lovely Dermod says of her and Annie:

Nearly everyone in the squad looked upon the two women with contempt and disgust, and I must confess that I shared in the general feeling. In my sight they were loathsome and unclean. They were repulsive in appearance, loose in language, and seemingly devoid of any moral restraint or female decency. It was hard to believe that they were young children once, and that there was still unlimited goodness in their natures.

Patrick MacGill

This from a man also with nothing, also filthy from working in the fields, also viewed with contempt and disgust by those who think themselves superior to the poor. Funnily enough, he can find justifications quite easily for his own weaknesses. He gets drunk and gambles his money away because society makes him do it, not because he is “devoid of any moral restraint” and his routine unprovoked violence is apparently not an indication of any lack of “male decency”. Here he is on a night when he has been prowling round a large house, peering through a window at a dinner party in progress:

At the further end of the table a big fat woman in evening dress sat facing me, and she looked irrepressibly merry. Her low-cut frock exposed a great spread of bulging flesh stretching across from shoulder to shoulder. It was a most disgusting sight, and should have been hidden.

He throws a stone through the window, showering broken glass over those inside, and the householder lets the dog loose:

Before I reached the gate a fairly-sized black animal was at my heels, squealing as I had heard dogs in Ireland squeal when pursuing a rabbit. I turned round suddenly, fearing to get bitten in the legs, and the animal, unable to restrain his mad rush, careered past. He tried to turn round, but my boot shot out and the blow took him on the head. This was an action that he did not relish, and he hurried back to the house, whimpering all the way.

It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.

Amazon UK Link

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Purgatory…

😦

Fourteen-year-old Johnny Grimes has been brainwashed into mental agony by his religious fanatic of a father, his religious fanatic of a mother, and all the other religious fanatics they chum around with. So much so that when, on the morning of his birthday, he does what teenage boys do, he believes that God will damn him to hell for eternity and spends the day wondering whether he should seek salvation, or go out and have fun instead. His mad dad Gabriel is not exactly an inspiring role-model – self-declared saint he may be, but that doesn’t stop him beating his wife and children, bullying everyone around him and preaching hellfire endlessly. And if Johnny thinks a bit of onanistic seed-spilling has earned him a place in Hell, wait till he works out he’s gay…

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I abandoned this one at the halfway point on the grounds that it had bored my atheist brain into a coma. If I wanted to be preached at I’d go to church, but not one full of religious maniacs at the extreme end of the spectrum, who screw up their children deliberately – most parents only do that by accident. On the rare occasion that Baldwin lets his characters reveal themselves to the reader it’s quite interesting – Aunt Florence’s story in particular is well told – and the basic premise of a child dealing with being brought up in a family of religious fanatics with a bullying, violent man at its head has a lot of potential, especially since we know it’s autobiographical; and the writing is good in parts. But unfortunately Baldwin seems to have decided to cunningly hide the interesting sections within page after page where he simply quotes the Bible or prayers or sermons ad nauseam – the kind of sermons that make my old pal John Knox look caring and cuddly. When he decided to give screeds of Gabriel’s first Revivalist sermon word for word, complete with hallelujah responses from the crowd, I decided enough was enough. In Gabriel’s world view I, as an unbeliever, will doubtless be damned to everlasting torment in the fires of Hell when I die, but I see no reason to condemn myself to purgatory in advance.

Amazon UK Link

* * * * *

This was the choice for our Review-Along and I look forward to reading everyone else’s opinions. I sincerely hope (and expect) that you all enjoyed it more than I – not a high bar! 😉 I’ll add links to everyone’s reviews as I spot them, and I hope you’ll all look out for our non-blogging friends’ responses to the book in the comments section below.

Katrina’s Review

Rose’s Review

Laila’s Review

Madame Bibi Lophile’s Review

Kelly’s review

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

A tale I have for you…
~ William Fowler

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The time is the 1570s. Mary Queen of Scots has fallen from power and fled to France, and the boy King, Jamie Saxt, is in Stirling Castle – for his protection or as prisoner is a matter of interpretation – while Scotland is being governed by Regent Morton. John Knox is dead but his Reformation is thriving. The power struggle between Reformists and Roman Catholics is ongoing, with control of the young King at the heart of it. Two previous Regents have died, probably murdered, and both factions have taken turns at burning “martyrs”. Our narrator is Will Fowler, little more than a boy when the story begins, off to study at St Andrews, even then one of the ancient centres of learning – and politics, and plots, and skulduggery. And when Will and his new friend Tom Nicolson accidentally become embroiled in an incident in a pub, they find they have unwittingly foiled a plot and, in so doing, have aligned themselves with the Reformists, making enemies of the powerful Catholic family, the Hamiltons, and becoming friends with the adventurous and dangerous young Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the “Bold Buccleuch”, and his kin. These friendships and enmities will shape young Will’s future, as will his love for Tom’s lovely and wilful sister, Rose Nicolson…

Do you ever get that lovely feeling that an author has written a book specially for you? That’s how I feel about this one. It has everything I want in a Scottish novel: an interesting period of history that has nothing to do with Jacobites, nor Mary Queen of Scots, nor Glasgow gangs, nor dreary twentieth century alcoholics; a wonderful use of old Scots vocabulary, but avoiding too much hard to read dialect; exciting adventures, happening to likeable and entertaining characters; real insight into how people lived, thought and acted in the time; knowledgable and affectionate insight, too, into the Scottish literary tradition; a touch of romance, but avoiding all soppiness; and some beautifully presented and well-timed humour, often at the expense of the religious divides that continue to plague Scotland into the present. I’ve loved Andrew Greig’s writing over several books, but often haven’t particularly enjoyed the subjects he’s chosen, so it’s a real delight for me to finally have the joy of that great writing in a story that seems custom-made to suit my preferences!

William Fowler of Embra (Edinburgh) was a real person – a makar (poet), writer, translator and courtier, who got involved in the various political shenanigans going on in Scotland at this muddled and perilous time. Here, Greig gives us just the early years of Fowler’s life, (and I sincerely hope he’s working hard on a follow-up, since the latter part of his career sounds just as interesting).

James VI of Scotland and I of England as a boy
“Jamie Saxt”

In theory I know about this period, having studied it somewhat superficially long ago, and as far as I can tell it’s historically accurate – it’s certainly entirely convincing, and delightfully free of anachronistic attitudes forced onto the historical characters. Almost every character in it is a real person – I think only the Nicolsons and occasional peripheral characters are an outright creation of the author, though I stand to be corrected if I’m wrong on that. Given that I struggled from time to time to place people in their correct factions, I did wonder whether this would be a difficult one for people with no knowledge of the history, but I found as I read on that gradually it all became clear, so I feel it would work even for newcomers to the period and is a painless and enjoyable way to learn a little about this interesting time. I felt that a character list showing titles and religious and political affiliations would have been helpful, especially in the early stages – I was reading a NetGalley copy, so don’t know whether that is perhaps included in the published version. There is a guide to archaic Scots vocabulary, in my copy at the end of the book, although happily (being an archaic Scot) I didn’t find much need to refer to it. Greig is great at putting possibly unfamiliar words into context so that their meaning is obvious.

Greig is himself a poet, and his love of being part of the long and ancient tradition of Scottish poetry shows through often in his work. Here he gives a lovely picture of the young Will’s development as a poet, at first derivative of the poets he himself revered before gradually finding his own style. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much of Fowler’s poetry online, but I felt Greig gave a great flavour, not just of him but of some of the earlier poets he shows Fowler as admiring. (It (almost) made me want to revisit some of those early incomprehensible Scottish poets forced on me long ago in school!)

Andrew Greig

Goodness, 800 words* and I’ve barely mentioned Rose! Rose is a great character too, an intelligent and opinionated young woman restricted by both gender and class. Educated beyond her social level by her brother Tom, she struggles to conform to society’s expectations and, as happened frequently in those days to women who couldn’t conform, falls foul of the church. Will’s passion for her is beautifully done – a boyish infatuation that slowly matures into true friendship and love. Although Rose’s story gives a structure to the book, the real star is Will and the meat of it, for me at least, lies in the political machinations of the Reformation. Oh dear, I haven’t talked enough about the King, either, or Walter Scott and the border reiving, or the Earl of Bothwell, or Will’s adventures in Paris! There’s nothing else for it – you’ll just have to read it for yourself! My highest recommendation for this wonderful book!

*I seem to have confused everyone with this. I’m commenting on the excessive length of my review, not the book. The paperback is 464 pages and every word a delight.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link

The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

Mocking the Raj…

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Although life in the small fictional town of Krishnapur is currently peaceful for the British colonial community, the Collector fears trouble – he has been coming across small piles of chapattis left in odd places, and he’s sure he’s heard that this happened somewhere else, just before a native uprising against the representatives of the Raj. His fears are soon to be realised, and the British will be driven to take refuge in the Residency where they will have to withstand constant attacks, disease and starvation as they wait for the Army to come to their rescue…

Gosh, I don’t remember feeling quite so conflicted about a book for a while! On the one hand, it is written as a sort of farcical comedy which is totally at odds with the serious subject matter, especially as the siege progresses and the suffering and death of the British contingent grows. On the other hand, there’s no doubt it is quite funny in places. On the one hand, it is clearly mocking the whole concept of colonialism and the British attempts to force their culture onto another society. On the other hand, the natives are still shown as kind of comedy characters – none are fully characterised, they are mostly simply one agglomerated mass, and, unlike the Brits, they get no opportunity to redeem themselves through heroism before the end. On the one hand, Farrell mocks the position of colonial women – seen as useless but pretty ornamentation at best, or, should they fail to remain within the restrictive rules of the British society, disgraceful embarrassments at worst. On the other hand, for the most part this is exactly how Farrell treats them too, suggesting his egalitarianism wasn’t much more than skin deep.

The first section before the siege goes on way too long and there were times when I wasn’t sure whether to stick with it. At this stage, though, at least the humour feels in keeping with the rather light-hearted depiction of the fairly pointless existence of most of the Brits. However, it becomes much more interesting once the siege finally gets underway. There’s no doubt that Farrell has researched the period well and, while Krishnapur and his characters are fictional, much of the action is based on the real Siege of Lucknow of 1857. The humour persists too long into the bleaker aspects of the story, but gradually style and content begin to match more and I began to find that at last I was beginning to care about some of the characters as people rather than seeing them solely as caricatures of colonial “types”.

As well as colonialism, Farrell plays with contrasting themes of faith and science, civilisation and materialism, and honour and reputation. It all feels quite light and superficial because of the overall humorous tone, but I found that after I had finished reading it was these questions that lingered in my mind, more than the specifics of what had happened to the characters.

As cholera strikes the besieged community, the two doctors argue bitterly over how it is spread – by miasma, as was then mostly accepted, or through contaminated water, as some were beginning to think. As the people are trying to decide which medical advice to follow, the clergyman is insisting that their troubles are all a judgement from God on their sins, and exhorting them to trust in prayer.

When the Brits retreat to the Residency they bring all their precious but useless valuables with them – exquisite china, beautiful paintings, even large items of furniture which they had paid a fortune to have shipped out from England. But as hunger and danger strike, some of them begin to see the futility of possessions and would cheerfully give up their priceless antiques for a square meal and an unbroken night of safety. Some however cling onto their goods as if they are the markers of what makes them superior to the marauding natives out there.

JG Farrell

But when the situation becomes one of life and death, some of the old moral and societal standards fall away, and people begin to behave in ways that would have been unthinkable in the safe days, the respectable and the disreputable finding that they may have to rely on each other after all. And, in the end many of the characters show true heroism, even the most unlikely of the men facing the fighting with all the courage and initiative they can muster, and some of the ornamental women turning their hands to the sordid, dirty and dangerous job of nursing the sick and wounded.

Although I had mixed feelings about a lot of it, I found that as it darkened my appreciation grew, and by the end I was glad I had stuck with it – the destination made what had felt like a long and sometimes tedious journey worthwhile. Perhaps it’s of its time – Farrell was clearly modern enough to be critical of colonialism, but perhaps not yet modern enough to prevent himself from falling into some of the attitudes he was mocking. Or perhaps he was so modern that he was mocking the attitudes of the people who were mocking the attitudes of the colonialists! I’ll quickly pull myself out before I get even more lost down that rabbit hole, give it four stars and add the other two books in his Empire trilogy, Troubles and The Singapore Grip, to my wishlist, which I suppose can be taken as some kind of a recommendation!

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This was The People’s Choice winner for January and started the year off well, so good choice, People!

Amazon UK Link

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

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As the Orient express makes its way from Ostend To Istanbul, the passengers on this long journey find themselves thrust into a kind of intimacy where secrets are revealed and character flaws are laid bare. Myers is a Jew in the currant business, going to Istanbul to supervise the purchase of a rival company. Coral Musker is a dancer, going out to join a dance group to replace a girl who has fallen ill. Mabel Warren, a journalist and a drunk, who is in the station at Ostend to see off the beautiful woman she loves, spots a man whom she recognises and jumps aboard as the train is about to leave. The man is travelling as Richard John, a teacher from a school in England, but Mabel knows he’s really Dr Czinner, who fled from Yugoslavia five years ago after giving evidence in the trial of a General in the ruling regime accused of rape. Czinner was then a prominent figure in the opposition to the dictatorship and Mabel realises that if he is now returning to Belgrade, there may be a story here that could get her a coveted byline on the front pages of her paper.

The book is set in the 1930s, and gives a real sense of the political unease throughout Europe in this between wars period. Through Czinner’s story, we see the rising clash of extreme right and left ideologies that scarred the twentieth century and, while Greene gives a sympathetic portrayal of Czinner as a man and an idealist, he indicates little belief that leftist regimes would be any better than the fascist dictatorships springing up across the continent. Poverty and inequality, Greene seems to suggest, make people open to any leader who convincingly promises to make life better, and those at bare subsistence level don’t much care what ideology that leader may be professing. Czinner wants to love his fellow man, and perhaps more importantly wants to be loved by him, but man is a fickle beast who will tend to follow the leader he fears most.

Greene’s treatment of Myers, the Jew, is undoubtedly problematic to modern eyes and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, if the reader can look past the surface, Greene is actually giving a remarkably sympathetic portrayal for that time. While accepting the perceived negative characteristics of Jews as actuality, Greene is seeking to show how, in Western Europe at least, they have developed in response to the discrimination and prejudice Jews have had to deal with on a daily basis. Jews, he suggests, who have run from pogroms before and fear that they will be driven out again from their new, uncertain places of refuge can hardly be blamed for their love of gold, as a form of portable security – a deposit against the need to buy acceptance in the now or future refuge elsewhere. We see Myers in a constant conflict of emotions. He is proud of his wealth and importance as the owner of a successful and growing business, but at the same time there is the constant anxiety of what we now call micro-aggressions and the growing fear, soon to be tragically justified, that those aggressions might at any time turn to violence. The race memory of centuries of persecution never sinks below the surface, and so he ingratiates himself to people he inwardly despises, and despises himself for doing so. Although I found some of this difficult reading, I felt that Greene was appealing for understanding and tolerance rather than intentionally contributing to the stereotyping that has done so much harm.

Mabel is also problematic as a character, in very similar ways. Greene is frank and open about her lesbianism in a way that was rare in literature as early as this. But he is a male author, writing in a time when lesbianism was still not openly discussed, and I felt again his portrayal relied too heavily on stereotypes, as if he was writing about something he didn’t properly understand. Like Myers, Mabel has more than her share of negative characteristics – she drinks, she hates men, she manipulates young women, she uses people without caring about the impact she may have on their lives, she wallows in self-pity. She is desperate for love, but Greene, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that lesbian love is doomed to be sordid and impermanent. Again, though, it seemed to me that he was seeking to elicit sympathy for her from a readership who largely would have no knowledge of the world of lesbian love and would mostly be heavily prejudiced against it. Mabel, he seems to be saying, is a horrible person, but how could she not be when her whole life has been one rejection after another, when the world treats her as a living perversion?

Graham Greene

Coral, happily, is considerably easier to like and to pity – a young woman alone in the world and tired of the insecurity of poverty. She may seem weak and some might judge her immoral but she has her reasons, and in the end she’s the one who shows herself to have the warmest heart.

The story itself is excellent, taking the characters into unfamiliar and frightening situations that will reveal them to themselves as much as to us. As with most Greene, it’s not exactly uplifting – in fact, in some ways it’s downright depressing – and there are no real heroes. But there is warmth and sympathy here, all under the already looming shadow of the horrors soon to be unleashed across Europe. I considered deducting a star for the stereotyping problems, but having allowed the book to settle in my mind for a few weeks, I really feel that it deserves to be cut some slack for the time of writing and for what I feel were Greene’s good intentions; and the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the humanity of it put it up there amongst Greene’s best for me.

Amazon UK Link

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Maternal urges…

🤬

A psychopathic teenager walks into his school and kills seven of his fellow students. His mother responds by making it all about her. She then decides to bore her absent husband to death (assuming he isn’t already dead – I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps he’d killed himself and she was communing with his memory) by writing him endless letters, moaning on for 2000 pages (judged by feeling, rather than counting) about how she never really liked kids anyway, especially not her own. I don’t know if her husband, dead or alive, continued to read all the letters but if I’d been him I’d have moved and not left a forwarding address. Happily I had the easier option of abandoning the book at the 35% mark and deleting it in a marked manner from my Kindle.

I have no idea if one is supposed to sympathise with Eva, the mother, but I didn’t. I didn’t sympathise with Kevin either. Or with Franklin, the dad. In the nurture v nature debate, I tend to think that sometimes it’s nurture and sometimes it’s nature, and the worst cases are usually where it’s both. In the what’s gone wrong with American society that makes young men behave like Kevin debate, it seems blindingly obvious that the answer is that young men can get hold of automatic assault weapons and, therefore, that school shootings would be easily preventable by the simple measure of banning guns. (Yes, I know that for some reason Shriver made him use a bow and arrow, and I can only assume this is because she too knows the answer to the real-life problem is blindingly obvious, so wanted to try to avoid people making that point. Too bad.) In the should we/shouldn’t we have a child debate, I have no sympathy whatsoever for any adult, educated woman living in a society where contraception is readily available, who knows she doesn’t like children but decides to have one anyway. Eva is supposedly an intelligent, educated feminist living in late 20th century America – so what’s her problem? Why would she decide to have a baby when what she really wanted was frequent flyer miles? I didn’t believe in her – she failed at the first hurdle, which was to convince me of her motivation.

So, having made this stupid decision, does she decide to make the best of it? Of course not. She whines and whines in the modern, narcissistic, me-me-me way, about how awful her privileged little middle-class life (complete with nannies for the unspeakable child) is and how her son is some kind of alien parasite, feeding on her, body and soul. Pah! I wondered why, when fictional Kevin had the fictional weapon in his hand, he didn’t decide to do the world a favour and rid us of fictional Eva before she became an avid letter-writer. Had I been the author, Eva would have been the first and only victim, and I would then have had the jury acquit Kevin on the grounds of justifiable homicide. It would have been a shorter book but, I feel, a more satisfying one.

Oh, yes, before I finish, don’t let me forget to mention that it’s wildly verbose, torturously overlong and unforgivably, soul-crushingly dull.

Book 12 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for December and I truly expected to love it, so you are not in any way responsible for my allergic reaction, People! Thank you for getting this one off my TBR. 😉

Amazon UK Link