Chocky by John Wyndham

Imaginary friend?

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When David Gore sees his 12-year-old son Matthew having an argument all by himself, he assumes the family is being visited by another “imaginary friend”. His daughter had had a very annoying invisible friend when she was younger, who insisted on having her own seat at table and demanded glasses of water in the middle of the night and so on, so the thought is not a welcome one. Matthew is a little too old for an imaginary friend anyway, David thinks, and hopes the phase will soon pass. But Matthew begins to ask odd questions, like where exactly in the universe is Earth, and why are there two sexes, and why do some forms of life have less capacity to learn than others? And he seems to be developing odd skills – like suddenly being able to draw, even though his pictures are distinctly odd, or understanding binary maths. As David gently questions him, he discovers that Matthew’s friend is called Chocky, and it appears Chocky isn’t so imaginary after all…

For an alien invasion novel, this is remarkably quiet and thoughtful. Chocky may be an alien intelligence and her species may even be considering Earth’s potential as a future colony, but there is no overt threat to humanity. She has contacted Matthew to learn more about life on Earth and also to teach – to try to develop his young mind with skills that will one day enable him to make some of the scientific advances that her species already made long ago.

David is concerned for Matthew, but intrigued too. His wife, Mary, however, sets up an instant mental barrier, refusing to believe that Chocky is anything more than a figment of Matthew’s imagination. She insists on him being seen by a psychiatrist, and David goes along with this. He too would be happier to believe there was an easy explanation, but is already half-convinced that Chocky is both real and benign. As Chocky’s influence over Matthew grows, the wider world begins to get hints that there’s something odd going on – at first, just teachers asking why he seems to be developing so quickly in some areas and learning things they’re not teaching him, but gradually Matthew becomes something of an unwilling celebrity, hounded by newspapers looking for a story, and eventually coming to the attention of people with even less pure motives.

As is the case with most good science fiction, the premise is used as a means to look at our own society from a different angle. Chocky is intrigued by the idea of family – binary sex is not a concept she is familiar with. In fact, she is only a she because David decides it would be easier to assign her a gender than for Matthew to be confused all the time about which pronouns to use when discussing her. (Nothing is new under the sun, and the wokerati would love this aspect! They could get all outraged at David pigeon-holing her as a single gender for the sake of grammatical ease!) The human reaction to Chocky is another theme – is it easier to dismiss what we don’t understand as a symptom of a mental disorder than to consider that there may be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our current philosophy, to misquote the Bard? Then there’s the question of blood – Matthew is adopted, and for Mary’s family that makes him somehow less than their own self-produced children. As David puts it, “Some babies confer a little more equality than other babies.” Even Mary, though she loves Matthew as much as she loves her natural daughter, wonders if his strangeness is a sign of a kind of taint in his biological inheritance. And there’s also an ongoing theme of communication and how we learn. Often Matthew becomes deeply frustrated to the point of anger because he can’t understand the concepts Chocky is putting into his head, and at the same time she is frustrated by his limited vocabulary and knowledge of how things work, either mechanically or in terms of society, making it hard for him to give her the information she is seeking. Chocky’s species is perfectly willing to share their advanced knowledge, but unless there is a common level of understanding of science, it’s an impossible task. Try explaining nuclear power to a five-year-old. (Or, indeed, to me!)

John Wyndham

There is a plot of sorts, but it’s a very minor part of the book, there merely to pull the story along to a conclusion. Mostly it’s a slow meander through the questions raised by Chocky’s visit, and a rather downbeat assessment of humanity’s readiness to accept new ideas that are outwith our experience. As always with Wyndham, it’s well written and thought-provoking, and will linger in the mind well beyond the few hours it takes to read.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Damien Lynch, who does a very good job, bringing every character to life and managing the children’s voices well – not something every narrator can pull off. His unhurried approach suits the tone of the book and allows the listener time to absorb the themes.

Audible UK Link

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

A question of identity…

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In 1903, during a torrential and deadly flood in monsoon season, an Englishman and an Indian woman both seek shelter in a cave beside a raging river. With death hovering, they find themselves carried away by the moment. When the Englishman comes to his senses and realises he has done something no honourable, upright Englishman of the Empire should do with a native woman, he flings himself into the river and drowns. The woman, Amrita, is rescued and continues on her journey to her arranged marriage, keeping secret that she is pregnant with the Englishman’s child. She dies in childbirth but the child, Pran, lives, growing up as the pampered and spoiled son of a rich man. Everyone admires his beautiful pale skin, almost as white as the whites. But one person knows the secret of his origin – Amrita’s maid – and when Pran, now a teenager, attempts to ravish her daughter, the maid tells Pran’s “father” the truth about him. A few days later the father dies of the influenza which is sweeping the world, and the family eject Pran from the home he expected to inherit, leaving him destitute and alone. This is the story of Pran’s life, and through him a satirical look at the impact of colonialism and the position of the “blackie-whites” – the mixed race Anglo Indians, caught between two cultures, not fully accepted by either.

The book is written in a series of separate sections, which is how Pran lives his life. The pampered rich kid becomes a desperate beggar, who is taken in by a brothel-keeper and forced into male prostitution. From there he is sold to a rich Indian as a Hijra – a transgender eunuch, more or less – which is not an identity he chooses for himself. Fortunately for him, this phase of his life is over before the eunuch bit is carried out. I’m not going to go through all the phases since that’s the story really, so too much detail would be spoilery. But in essence, he eventually ditches his Indian identity and embraces his Englishness, becoming Robert, then Jonathan along the way. He is intelligent, resourceful and chameleon-like, able to seem as if he’s fitting in by a process of learning and mimicking the manners of those around him wherever he happens to be.

Book 3 of 14

I found some of the sections more successful than others, which I feel is probably down to my subjective preferences rather than any unevenness in the book. It is satire, and my track record with satire is distinctly wobbly. Sometimes while I could see the humour in situations Pran found himself in, the darkness of them made me unable to feel amused. Pran starts out distinctly unlikeable and while I grew to have a lot of sympathy with the way he was treated by both cultures, I never fully got over that initial dislike.

However, in every section it’s a wonderful portrayal of a different part of society, be it among the sex-workers of India, the missionaries of the Raj or the students of Oxford. In the lighter sections, I could fully enjoy the humour and appreciate the insight into each culture. For me, the Indian sections were the more interesting, although also the darker, because the book goes well beyond the familiar territory of most British colonial fiction into the worlds of the immensely rich and the devastatingly poor of the “real” India of the time, living alongside but not part of the world of the Raj. Kunzru mocks the Raj pretty mercilessly, though subtly, but he also mocks the rich and powerful Indians, so it doesn’t ever feel like a polemical anti-British rant. As a result, it is a much more effective critique of the impact of colonialism on individuals, both colonised and colonisers, than most of the unsubtle post-colonial diatribes we’ve been subjected to in recent years. The divide here, as it always is in life, is between the rich and powerful, whether British or Indian, and the people they exploit.

Hari Kunzru

But the main subject he is examining is identity and belonging, and how intertwined and inseparable those two things are. Pran/Robert/Jonathan is a shapeshifter, a permanent outsider who is skilful enough to appear as an insider in any setting. But who is he? If there comes a point when his wardrobe-full of identities falls away and leaves him naked – who is he then? And Kunzru makes this question wider – can the identity of a culture survive intact when subjected to old-style colonialism or the newer colonialism of enforced capitalism, or will it break and be lost? He doesn’t give us answers – he simply makes us ponder the questions.

Another excellent, entertaining and thought-provoking book from Kunzru, one of the most intelligent authors of our time.

Amazon UK Link

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Bread and circuses…

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In the industrial town of Coketown in the north of England, we meet the Gradgrinds. Mr Gradgrind is a school board Superintendent, a Utilitarian, a lover of facts and an enemy to fancy. Mrs Gradgrind is a woman dull to the point of near-imbecility and, out of laziness and disinterest as much as anything else, supports her husband’s child-rearing methods. Gradgrind’s primary guinea pigs for his Utilitarian experiment are his five children, especially the two eldest, Louisa and Tom. The school that Gradgrind superintends forcefeeds facts into the heads of children, and stifles any individuality or creativity. Into this learning factory comes Sissy Jupe, the child of a circus performer who has begged to be allowed to attend school so that she can be educated. But when Louisa and Tom are caught one day daring to peep into the forbidden circus, Gradgrind blames Sissy’s influence, at the suggestion of his great friend Mr Bounderby, and throws Sissy out of school.

Mr. Gradgrind Catches Louisa and Tom at the Circus
by Charles S. Reinhart

Mr Bounderby is a self-made man who has dragged himself up from beginnings so inauspicious that it’s amazing he survived at all, much less going on to become a rich and powerful business magnate. We know this because Bounderby tells the story to everyone he meets. If he could rise from being abandoned by an uncaring mother, then so could anyone else if only they had his determination – such is his philosophy, justifying his cruel hard-heartedness to his employees and to anyone who has fallen on hard times. Bounderby, well on in middle-age, casts his lecherous eye on young Louisa before she has even left school, and as soon as she can be considered an adult, asks Gradgrind for her hand. Poor Louisa is one of those cold females Dickens excels in – damaged by her upbringing to the point where all passion, all emotion even, is buried so deep inside even she thinks it is dead. So she agrees to marry Bounderby.

Book 17 of 80

These are the main characters whose story we follow through one of Dickens’ shorter and more overtly polemical novels. He has two main themes – the hardships of workers contrasted with the harsh, unfeeling selfishness of the new industrial magnates; and the need for children to be allowed to explore their imagination and have some fun, alongside fact-based learning. Written at roughly the same time as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a book he encouraged her to write and which was serialised in his periodical Household Words, both examine the new industrial world of the North and both are arguing for better conditions for workers, but that’s where the comparison ends. Gaskell’s characterisation is more realistic, perhaps, and her story is much bleaker – her characters are chiefly notable for dying (constantly) of poverty or industrial disease, whereas Dickens’ characters go through all his usual things – broken hearts, tragic misunderstandings, amazing coincidences, false accusations and redemption. Gaskell wins the prize for realism, but Dickens wins the more coveted prize for being entertaining!

Louisa’s frozen heart in peril, observed by Mrs Sparsit
by Charles S. Reinhart

There is some humour in the schooling of the children, as they repeat back meaningless definitions of nouns they have learned by rote with no depth of understanding. But it’s dark humour – Dickens’ low opinion of education shows up in many of his books, from the deliberate sadism of Wackford Squeers, to here, where Mr Gradgrind has the best of intentions, but no understanding at all of childishness and the need for children to grow spiritually and imaginatively even as they absorb facts. (I wonder what he would think of our schools now, on the rare occasion that they’re open, with children encouraged to tick boxes on multiple choice questionnaires to get “right answers”, rather than learning to comprehend, think for themselves and write in grammatical English – exam fodder. Gradgrind would fit in well in many parts of our education system today, I suspect. And the upsurge in demand for child mental health services makes it clear that many of our children are being as damaged by their education as poor Louisa. But I digress!)

Sissy and Louisa being nauseatingly sweet
by Charles S Reinhart

The story of the conditions for workers is darker. Here our humble hero is Stephen Blackpool, an employee in one of Bounderby’s mills. Through his wife, we see the damage that alcohol can do, to all sectors of society, of course, but always more harshly to the poor. Stephen is caught between two forces over which he has no control – the employers and the new unions, beginning their long, unfinished battle for power. While Dickens is very sympathetic to the plight of the workers, whom he shows as decent and honest, he has little time for the union leaders, showing them as self-seeking demagogues, stirring up the men to justify their own existence, and with little true concern for the workers whom they exploit as much as do the employers. While there is little doubt (in most quarters!) that (some) unions have been a force for good overall, helping workers to win better pay and conditions over the century and a half since Dickens was writing, I’m sure we can all think of examples of the kind of demagogic union leader Dickens portrays here – Arthur Scargill immediately springs to my mind, and there are one or two operating today who also fit the bill (names redacted to prevent outraged comments from their supporters 😉 ). So while I felt the portrayal was unfairly one-sided, it still bore a lot of credibility. And in Stephen we see an early example of how the unions persuade friend to turn against friend, if any man dares to refuse to follow the herd. Again Scargill’s campaign against the “scabs” was forefront in my mind as I watched poor Stephen driven from his job, his home and his community for the crime of refusing to go on strike.

Stephen Blackpool and his drunkard wife
by Charles S. Reinhart

So as always with Dickens, plenty to think about and plenty that is still sadly relevant today. And of course his writing is always a joy to read. However, this book feels rather under-developed in comparison to his greatest novels. There are moments of humour, but none of the exuberance and wit that usually provide a welcome contrast to his more polemical elements. There’s a distinct shortage of the memorable characters he normally does so well – Bounderby is a great character, as is his awful housekeeper, Mrs Sparsit. But neither Louisa nor Sissy won my heart much though I sympathised with both, and the evil people (even Bounderby) aren’t as beautifully caricatured as, say, a Uriah Heep or a Fagin. The story is more straightforward, without much of the mystery and suspense that his best books contain. Overall, I enjoyed it – of course I did: it’s Dickens! – but I don’t think it comes close to his best. Well worth reading but perhaps not one I would recommend as a first introduction for newcomers to his work.

Amazon UK Link

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

Give me strength…


A woman enters a convent. Then there are over 500 pages of what her life is like there. I abandoned it at 15 %. Here’s my grumpy comment on Goodreads made at the point where I, figuratively speaking, threw my Kindle at the wall…

Yes, I knew it was about nuns so I really shouldn’t have been surprised by the endless details of what every bell is called, the way last rites are done, the titles and job descriptions of every single one of the many thousands of people in the community. (I may have exaggerated the number, but when ten different people are named in one paragraph, they become a blur – as one character mentions, they all seem like identical penguins.) If anyone wants to know what it’s like to be a woman who chooses to lock herself away with a hundred other women, and then they all spend their time bitching about each other, this is the book to read.

Abandoned at 15%.

This paragraph was where I realised I was yearning to be reading something, anything, else…

Dame Ursula was not kneeling in the Abbess’s room; as mistress of novices her first duty was to the novitiate; Dame Ursula was called Ursa, the Great Bear, or Teddy according to her moods, ‘though we’re not supposed to nickname,” Hilary warned Cecily. With the councillors knelt French Dame Colette Aubadon, mistress of church work : Dame Camilla, the learned old head librarian: Dame Edith of the printing room: Dame Mildred, gardener, while Dame Joan Howard, the infirmarian, stood on the other side of the bed from Mother Prioress.

Ok, eight names, not ten as I claimed in my rant, but still.

Book 15 of 80

And this is the paragraph that finished me off…

The nuns, as they gathered, had knelt, some sobbing, some white and quiet, round the room and down the corridor as Dom Gervase administered Extreme Unction, touching eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet with holy oil in the sign of the cross, sealing the five senses away from the world: ‘By this holy anointing and of his most tender mercy, may the Lord forgive you whatever sins you have committed through your sight’ or ‘hearing’ or ‘sense of smell’ or ‘speech’ or ‘touch’. Dom Gervase’s voice had faltered as he began but it had grown firm and clear as he prayed. Then the nuns had heard the words…

There’s more, much more, of this but I couldn’t bear it. My atheism may make me more critical than a Catholic might be of this, but I honestly think it’s terrible writing – the ultimate in ‘tell’ and a total info dump, as interestingly written as a description of the last rites in wikipedia.

Book 3 of 12

Oh dear, I’m afraid this was not only one from my Classics Club list but was also the People’s Choice for March – the second one-star abandonment in a row! Sorry, People! Thankfully April’s choice is a Graham Greene so I’m 99% certain to at least make it to the end! 😉

Amazon UK Link

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Those and such as those…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The tale of how a civilised Southern girl went to the savage wilds of the North and survived. When Margaret Hale’s father has a crisis of conscience which causes him to give up his nice little rectory in lovely green sunshiny Helstone and move the family to the dark satanic Milton in Darkshire, Margaret will learn about the evils of capitalism, the deserving poor, the undeserving rich, and how a good man shows his love by riding roughshod over the law for his beloved’s sake.

I read this months ago – far too long ago to write a proper review of it now – and despite my sarcasm I actually think it has its good points, in a dreary woe-is-me kind of way. Gaskell gives a credibly bleak depiction of the industrial cities that were the economic lifeblood of the nation, but that fed on human sacrifices. She shows the appalling conditions of the workers and their families, leading them to a life of unrelieved misery and ill-health, followed by early death. She avoids poeticising or romanticising the clouds of pollution that poisoned the water and the air, or the fluff from the cloth factories that got into the lungs of the workers and killed them, though she does somewhat romanticise the lives and deaths of the poor.

But oh, it’s a wearisome journey! There is some slight humour in the very early part when we are with the happy, healthy, civilised Southerners, but as soon as they travel North, impenetrable gloom descends and never lifts again. Death follows death follows death. I fear I eventually started betting with myself how long it would be till the next death just to give myself an incentive to go on listening. Even the love affair – because of course there’s a love affair – is a dull, unsatisfying thing.

Book 14 of 80

Here are some brief snippets from my contemporaneous notes which will give some idea of my mood while reading…

“Cowardly Hale leaves it to Margaret to tell his wife [that he is leaving the church and moving them north]. What a pathetic specimen of a man – I do hope we’re supposed to despise him.”

“Naturally snobby Margaret finds him common and he finds her proud, so clearly they’re the love interest!”

“Half whiny, half polemical lectures – no humour. Bring back Dickens!”

“Truly miserable. Mrs —-, probably cancer – will she outlive B—– – lung disease? Or will Mr —- have a stroke and beat them both to it?”

“I actually laughed when B—— died – I knew she would tell us again how wonderful God was, and she did!”

(Following an episode when Margaret and her privileged associates conspire to subvert the law to save themselves from facing the consequences of their entitled selfishness…) “Those and such as those, eh?”

“She makes Steinbeck look like a stand-up comedian.”

Haha, as you can see, the iron was entering my soul! Why, you may be asking, am I giving it three stars, then? Well, the story was pretty awful – I disliked nearly all of the characters, especially the upper classes who were a bunch of miserable, entitled whiners for the most part, including Margaret, while “the poor” were either angelic or driven to vice and sin because of the evils of capitalism. The death per chapter thing got old fast. But despite that, her insight into the early days of industrial relations is very good – the evils of capitalism may be miserable to read about but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. She shows the beginnings of the union movement with workers banding together to find strength in numbers. She shows how even in the mad drive for profit and production, some few employers were open to the idea of negotiation with a view to improving conditions for their workers. And we see the precariousness of the lives of the industrial rich, too, who could lose a fortune as easily as they made it, and who didn’t have the family connections of the landed gentry to support them through financial woes.

Elizabeth Gaskell

The book was first published in serial form in Dickens’ Household Words, and apparently he became frustrated by the excessive length to which Gaskell spun her tale. As sales plummeted after the first few episodes, Dickens demanded, but didn’t get, conciseness, and apparently (according to wikipedia) described the story as “wearisome to the last degree”. Well, I’ve read wearisomer, but then Dickens never had the experience of reading East of Eden – happy man! In truth, I think his judgement is too harsh – there’s much to admire in the book, but it’s one to read for the description of the social conditions rather than for an interesting plot or sympathetic characters. As often happens when an author is so heavily polemical, I wondered if she wouldn’t have been better to write a factual book. But then lots of people think this is wonderful, so what do Dickens and I know? 😉

Audible UK Link

Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga

Spirits in the sky…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is the time of WW2 and Rwanda is under Belgian colonial control. The young men have been sent to mine metals for weapons; children are forced to pick the flowers that will make medicines for the soldiers in Europe. In the village where the story is set, the villagers have been forced to change their crops from ones they grew to feed themselves to cash crops, such as coffee. Their masters have taken their cattle by force or, if they are lucky, have bought them for a pittance. So when drought comes, the famine is extreme. The Christian padri, tools of colonial power, tell them the drought is a punishment because they still hold to their pagan beliefs. Pray to Yezu and Maria, they say. Doesn’t work. Five old men from the village decide to seek the intervention of Kibogo, who once long ago was snatched up to heaven from the top of the mountain and sent back rain. They visit a hermit woman, Mukamwezi, who is the virgin bride who awaits Kibogo’s promised return, in her hut high on the mountain.

“And I, Mukamwezi, tell you this: it’s from Runani that we must call to the rain, and you elders know why. Do you think I’m unaware what you’ll be doing that day? It’s the day when the padri plans to go parading his statue throughout the hillside and all the people of the hillside will follow him and will lose the last of their strength. As for me, I tell you, come with me, all five of you, and only you five, I don’t want any others, and we’ll see who, between Kibogo and Maria, commands the rain; but make sure all of you are there, woe unto all of you if one of you is missing at sunrise, and we’ll climb to the top of the mountain and Kibogo will tell me to summon the clouds, the thunder, the rain, and we shall call the clouds and thunder, and the rain will fall on our hillside and on all of Rwanda.”

Mukamwezi leads them in a pagan rite, but Kibogo doesn’t bring rain. Eventually rain comes. The padri give the credit to Maria. But in the evenings the elders of the village still tell the tales of Kibogo…

This novella may be short but is packed full of ideas. It is written in the third person, but entirely from the perspective of the villagers, and in a kind of language that sounds like a transcription of oral story-telling. There are many Rwandan words sprinkled throughout, mostly readily understandable from the context, and they serve as a constant reminder of the perspective. Not outwardly polemical, it has much to say about colonialism in the mid-20th century, and of how the Church operated on behalf of the colonisers as a tool of social control and subjugation. It is not, however, grim or bleak. There is a lot of open humour, and also a thread of resilience as, despite the constant preaching, Kibogo refuses to be driven from the land. The colonisers may have taken the crops, the cattle, the labour of the villagers, but try as they might they cannot take away the legends that are repeated by the old late at night when the day’s work is done.

The story is told in four parts and covers a period, I’d guess, of around forty or fifty years though no dates are given. There are long gaps of years between each part, and by the end two generations of villagers have grown old since the war-time famine. In that time, the padri have done everything they can to replace the villagers’ mythos with Christianity, for surely their written Bible is a greater authority than any oral story passed down unreliably from the memories of the old could be. They have chopped down sacred trees and in their place planted statues of Maria. They have taken the brightest of the boys and trained them as clerks or even padri to continue the work they have started.

But still in the evenings the old stories are told, ever evolving, ever changing, slowly blending in aspects of the new religion.

And now the old colonialism is dying, and the new white men come, this time not to preach but, they say, to learn – to record the old legends before they are forgotten, to write them in a book, as Yezu’s story was once written in a book. But the villagers have learned that the white men have certain expectations of “pagan” legends – cannibalism is always good, human sacrifice even better. And the white men offer money – a pittance, to be sure, but still. And so the old men tell them the stories they want to hear…

It took me a little while to get attuned to the style and the sprinkling of unfamiliar words, but once I had I felt the language sang from the page. (Oddly, it reminded me of the style Rider Haggard used in Nada the Lily, which made me realise what a wonderful job he had done of capturing that oral style, as Mukasonga does here.) The translation is generally excellent, managing to keep the feeling of “foreignness” which sometimes gets lost along the way, although there are occasional Americanisms which jarred my British ear – gotten, oldsters, etc.

Scholastique Mukasonga

Colonial-style Christianity doesn’t come out of it well. The white men are cruel, and the Church legitimises their cruelty. There are deliberate parallels between the story of Yezu and the legend of Kibogo – the ascension to heaven, the promised return – so that the gradual blending of the two in the stories of the villagers has logic. Subtly, Mukasonga seems to be comparing the hard power of the written word – fixed, immutable – with the softer power of oral story-telling – evolving, incorporating new ideas and changing values, and perhaps with a greater ability therefore to stay relevant. I loved how she showed the outward obedience to the new forced religion failing to silence the old stories, and the old sacred places retaining their power however desecrated they may have been. It seemed to me, though I may be extrapolating too much, that the white men and their colonial power were being mocked – you came, you saw, you conquered, but now you’re gone, and look! We’re still here – fundamentally unchanged.

….“In our tales, Kibogo too can shake the sky and set off the thunder: isn’t the tale of Kibogo equal to the tale of Yezu?”
….And in the deepest secret of night, the storytellers spin and spin again the tale of Kibogo.

A fascinating book – an enjoyable story in itself, which also has much to say about the power and resilience of story as a means of creating and maintaining a kind of cultural strength. I look forward to reading more from Mukasonga.

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

Amazon UK Link

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Crossing lines…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In a small town just outside Belfast at the height of the Troubles, Cushla teaches primary school children by day and helps out in her brother’s pub by night. As a Catholic family amid a Protestant majority, Cushla’s family have learned to keep a neutral profile, tolerating the soldiers who come into the bar blustering and bullying in their youthful arrogance. But when Cushla meets Michael Agnew, she finds herself crossing social and cultural lines, and that can be dangerous in a society divided by fear and hate…

Kennedy does a great job of evoking her setting, showing the dividing lines, the “occupying” or “peace-keeping” army depending on perspective, the poverty and the fear. The love affair between Cushla and Michael is also completely credible – this young woman who falls for an older, married man. Her writing is excellent – descriptive without being “creative” or overly flowery, and she avoids the mawkishness that often comes with stories set in such tragic times. Her characters manage to live their lives almost normally for the most part, even finding some fun along the way. But she also shows how easy it is for people, especially boys and young men, to get caught up in extremism, and how their acts ripple out to destroy their families and wider communities. And Cushla’s transgression, minor though it would be considered in a time of peace and in a modern society, hits against the excessive moral outrage of a society that uses religion as its excuse for its violence.

Lots to love, therefore, in this one, and I quite see why so many people have indeed loved it. For my taste, however, the love affair got far more attention than it should have, and the politics were relegated too far into the background. While very credibly done, to me the love affair was banal and uninteresting. Young woman falls for much older married man and, surprise, surprise, discovers she’s not his first adulterous relationship. I didn’t find Michael particularly charismatic – Kennedy has her characters mention that he’s gorgeous several times, possibly in an attempt to justify why this attractive and independent-minded young woman should turn herself into his sex toy, but I didn’t feel that would have been enough to dazzle the Cushla we get to know. Sure, Michael talks to her about books and art occasionally, but mostly they meet, have hurried and often sordid sex, and then part. Of course it happens in real life, which is why I say it’s credible. But is it interesting? Not to me, sadly.

Louise Kennedy

The politics are ever present, and do play a part in the story eventually. But for the most part, we don’t really get involved. I wondered why Kennedy set it outside Belfast where the Troubles were a little more distanced, rather than in the city itself. And I felt that it would have been a more interesting plot if either Cushla or Michael had been more actively partisan. Michael is slightly connected to the political world, in that he’s a barrister defending young men accused of involvement in the violence, but this aspect is referred to rather than shown. We don’t see him in action or meet his clients or their victims. Cushla and her family are more interested in staying out of trouble than winning, and I suspect that is probably always true of most people caught up in civil conflicts. So again I couldn’t fault the credibility, but it left the story feeling monotone – until close to the end nothing much happens apart from the affair, and even the events at the end seemed rather muted in terms of the tragedies that we know happened daily in Northern Ireland at that time. Kennedy has a habit of skipping things as they happen, and then telling them in retrospect; for example, she will start a chapter by making reference to something that has happened since the last chapter that the reader wasn’t present for. I found that prevented the emotional involvement that I was longing to feel. It may be voyeuristic, but reading about an event as if it is happening now is always more involving than being told about it as something that is already over.

Far too much criticism for a book that I enjoyed overall. I think the reason I’m being so hard on it is that I felt it was so close to being wonderful, and yet just missed. Had the love affair been more passionate, the drama more dramatic or the tragedy more tragic, then the story would have matched the excellence of the setting and characterisation. As it is, it left me admiring but largely unmoved.

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The End of the Tether and Other Stories by Joseph Conrad

Behind the façade…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection from Oxford World’s Classics consists of four stories that have appeared in other collections but have never before been brought together. In the introduction, Philip Davis, Emeritus Professor of Literature and Psychology at the University of Liverpool, suggests that each of the stories is about “radical insecurity” – human beings confronted with situations that destroy the foundations on which they have built their sense of themselves, leaving them in a kind of terrifying moral void. Davis suggests that this reflects Conrad’s own fears and insecurities, growing out of his personal experiences and the conflicts within his own nature.

Since there are only four stories, rather than burbling on generally about things you too can read in the far better written and interesting introduction, here’s a brief look at each story individually:

The End of the Tether – Set around the mid-1880s, this tells the tale of Captain Whalley, once famous for finding new routes in the early days of trading in the Malay Straits region of the empire, which left him a wealthy man. Now he is old, his wife dead, and his only daughter, whom he loves, is married to a feckless man and living far away from him in Australia. He has always helped her financially, but now he has lost all his money in a banking crash. So he takes a job as Captain of the Sofala. It is owned by its engineer, Massy, who won money in the Manila lottery and decided to buy his own ship. However the law says he must have a licensed captain in charge of the ship, which he resents bitterly, and he has treated previous captains so badly that now no one wants to work for him. Whalley, however, invests his last few hundred pounds in the ship, on condition that if he leaves he will get his money back, and this prevents Massy from dismissing him and forces him to treat Whalley with at least an outward show of respect. But Whalley has a secret, one which will bring him to the end of his tether…

Wonderfully written, this is a deep character study of a good man driven to behave in a way that his former self would have found unthinkable, and the consequences of that to his sense of himself. The three other main characters are also well-drawn and their motivations are messily flawed and intensely human. Novella length, I found it a little overlong and slow to come to the point, although Conrad’s writing is of such quality that time spent in his company rarely feels wasted. The ending, however, is full of power and emotion, and it’s a tale that has lingered in the few weeks since I read it.

Amy Foster – A man is cast ashore on a land foreign to him, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. This is a bleak and tragic tale, showing the alien feeling of those displaced from their home, trying to make a life in a society with a different language and culture, and being the object of constant mistrust. While this unintentional immigrant is more effectively cut off from home than anyone could be with today’s technology, it still feels very relevant in these days of refugees seeking acceptance in societies that don’t welcome them. As Davis points out, Conrad himself was an immigrant – effectively a refugee – and while he made a success of it, Davis suggests that feeling of alienation never left him completely. It’s quite short (for Conrad!) and, while I can’t say I enjoyed it exactly, I found it was more profound about the “immigrant experience” than many a full-length novel I’ve forced my way through.

Joseph Conrad

The Return – This is a superficially simple story of a man whose wife of five years leaves him a letter to say she’s gone off with another man. Before he has time to begin processing this, she returns, having changed her mind. The story is told in third person but entirely from the perspective of the husband, Alvan Hervey. It shows the bourgeois placidity of a marriage arranged without real love, mainly to assuage the man’s sexual needs and to provide both with a secure social environment from which to pursue their conventional lives. The shock of the letter followed by his wife’s return force Hervey to find a way to react to a situation that has overturned everything he thought he knew about his wife, but also about himself. The story is powerful, insightful, cruel in its dissection of both of these empty people, and wonderfully written.

The Duel – Set during Napoleon’s wars, the story begins when one officer takes offence over an action of a fellow officer and challenges him to a duel. The incident is trivial, and the challenger, Feraud, is clearly in the wrong. But it is a point of honour that a challenge between officers of equal rank cannot be refused, and so D’Hubert agrees to fight. The outcome is bloody but not fatal, and in Feraud’s eyes doesn’t settle the matter. Over the next 16 years, he will challenge D’Hubert again and again, whenever the ongoing wars allow, and D’Hubert can never see a way to refuse without losing his reputation. It begins to define his life, and Feraud’s. No one knows what the initial offence was except for the two men and the reader, and they gradually become a legend throughout the army, where it is assumed that the secret must be a terrible one indeed to have brought about this life-long feud. This is much lighter than the other three stories and in fact there’s a lot of humour in it – and that’s not something I ever expected to say about Conrad, based on my limited reading of him so far! Again, he gets great depth in the characterisation, particularly of D’Hubert as a man caught in a web from which he can find no escape with honour.

The Duel and The Return were my favourites while reading, though I must say The End of the Tether is the one that has lingered most in my mind and which I feel would most repay a second read. The introduction is interesting and I find with Conrad that good notes are essential! Overall I loved this collection, and thought the selection did indeed achieve the editor’s aim – although very different, the stories work together very well as examinations of people forced by circumstance to confront themselves when the façade behind which they have hidden crumbles.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Girl meets boys…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is not a review – it is my personal reaction to the characters in the book and is spoiler-filled from start to end. So if you haven’t read the book and intend to some day, please don’t read this.

The sorry tale of an idiot girl who keeps choosing the wrong man until finally there’s only one left, so she takes him. Given that every other man she’d picked had ended up dead or worse, one can only assume the final man is as stupid as Bathsheba, so they’ll probably live happily ever after.

I have to start by saying that I was forced to read this book in school and analyse it to death and, as I’ve remarked before about other classics, this always had a tendency to make me hate books I would otherwise probably have loved. This time round I didn’t hate it – in fact, despite the following, I enjoyed most of it quite a lot – but I still disliked all the characters and wasn’t too keen on Hardy himself!

Why I disliked Bathsheba…

To be fair, dislike is a bit strong. I didn’t believe in Bathsheba the farmer. One day she’s a humble nobody, next day she’s running a farm which, we only find out towards the end, the landlord could easily have given to an established (male) farmer but chose to give to a teenage girl with next to no experience. Fictional licence is fine, but make it realistic, please. All the people who work for her accept her, which seems unlikely in the extreme, and she turns out to be a wonderful farmer, despite not knowing what to do when the sheep get sick, and not reminding her employees to make the wheat ricks safe from the weather and so on. But she looks good when she goes to market and drives a good bargain, apparently, among all the middle-aged male farmers who apparently accept her too.

And then there’s her taste in men! I must admit I found this aspect much more believable than her farming prowess. Her youth makes sense for this part of the story, although her indecisiveness, especially about Boldwood, seems at odds with the strong, independent character she is otherwise drawn as. Why do the men love her? Well, apparently because she’s beautiful. All three of them “love” her before they’ve exchanged more than half a dozen words.

And lastly but most importantly, there’s her reaction to Fanny’s child. On seeing the tiny body in its mother’s dead arms, does Bathsheba show some womanly sympathy? No, she feels sorry for herself. She’s so narcissistic she could almost be twenty-first century!

The one feat alone—that of dying—by which a mean condition could be resolved into a grand one, Fanny had achieved. And to that had destiny subjoined this rencounter to-night, which had, in Bathsheba’s wild imagining, turned her companion’s failure to success, her humiliation to triumph, her lucklessness to ascendancy; it had thrown over herself a garish light of mockery, and set upon all things about her an ironical smile.

Why I disliked Sergeant Troy…

Well, this one is easy, since we’re supposed to dislike him! I actually think he’s the best-drawn and most believable character in the book. His motivation for loving Bathsheba is straightforward – she’s relatively rich, and that’s an attractive trait in a woman as far as Troy is concerned. Hardy does a great job showing his emotional shallowness – his excessive but short-lived grief for Fanny, his coldness and cruelty to the women who fall for his animal charm, his laziness and drunkenness.

Why I disliked Boldwood…

I couldn’t decide what exactly Hardy wanted us to think about Boldwood. There’s a suggestion that we should feel sorry for him – that he was tricked into loving Bathsheba by her foolish sending of the fatal Valentine card. But I thought he was a stalker and a creep, a man who would use any form of emotional blackmail to force a reluctant girl half his age into a marriage it was obvious she didn’t want. Again his “love” for Bathsheba has nothing to do with her character or personality – she is bold and independent, but he wants her to be pliable and submissive. It is her beauty he loves – he is a middle-aged lecher salivating over a young girl. I kept thinking there should be a #MeToo hashtag at the end of every paragraph he sleazed through.

Book 12 of 80
Classics Club Spin #32

Why I disliked the yokels…

I get very tired of books that have a chorus of yokels behaving humorously for the amusement of us sophisticated educated types. Funnily enough, Hardy often has yokels in his books and this is the first time they’ve annoyed me. I suspect he got better at showing them as real human beings as he aged and gained experience, but here they really are shown like a lower form of life – stupid, easily swayed, drunken at every opportunity. Compare and contrast with the yokels in Silas Marner, who are actual people rather than sideshow entertainment.

Why I disliked Fanny…

OK, I didn’t dislike Fanny – she broke my heart and the chapters in which she dies and is laid in her coffin with her infant are the best writing in the book and made me cry. But did Hardy really have to make her so stupid she turned up at the wrong church on her wedding day? Who would do that? Has any bride in the history of the world not visited the church before the wedding to at least ensure she knows how long the journey will take her? Would Hardy have made any man be quite that profoundly stupid? (Maybe a yokel…)

Why I disliked Gabriel…

Controversial, I know! But hear me out! Firstly, again he fell in “love” without actually getting to know Bathsheba and then decided to hang around her like a whipped puppy regardless of how often she married other men. Do I admire that? No! Why didn’t he simply get over her and move on? But OK, unrequited love I can forgive. What I can’t forgive is what he did to Fanny’s infant. In order to avoid selfish little Bathsheba being hurt, he erased the words “and child” from Fanny’s coffin. That little baby, who had no life, not even a name, erased even from that tiny recognition of its existence. No, I can’t forgive that – it makes me angry every time I think of it. And that puts Gabriel on a par with Boldwood the creep and Troy the cad in my book.

Why I disliked Hardy…

I love Hardy! And despite everything I loved his writing in this book and found it intensely readable and mostly enjoyable. But it was written early in his life and that shows in his attitudes. In later years he’s hailed as a feminist, but here he slips into sexism bordering on misogyny again and again. It’s not just that Bathsheba is pathetic despite being supposed to be strong and independent. It’s the actual language he uses. A few examples – there are many more:

Strange to say of a woman in full bloom and figure, she always allowed her interlocutors to finish their statements before rejoining with hers.

Loving is misery for women always. I shall never forgive God for making me a woman…

Bathsheba, though she had too much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage. Perhaps in no minor point does woman astonish her helpmate more than in the strange power she possesses of believing cajoleries that she knows to be false – except indeed in that of being utterly sceptical on strictures that she knows to be true.

She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made.

Your mother must have been so proud, Mr Hardy, to think that she had fulfilled a woman’s primary function of producing a great man. 😉

So, overall, not my favourite Hardy but still very much worth reading!

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Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

And only man is vile…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In a small Appalachian town where natural beauty and the ugliness of the meths business clash, Sheriff Les Clary is preparing for retirement. He has bought himself some land and is having a cabin built on it, where he can leave the ugliness behind and spend his days painting the beauty. But before he leaves, he’ll have to deal with one last case. On the surface it’s not a particularly serious case – a matter of deliberate pollution of a river – but the motivations behind it will take him deep into the darkness that scars this community, and rake up some of the traumatic moments of his life, both professional and personal.

Les’ friend, Becky Shytle, is also a survivor of trauma (as, quite frankly, is everyone in the book). In Becky’s case, she was caught up in a school shooting as a young child, in which her beloved teacher died – an outcome for which she blames herself. After the shooting, she was mute for months, and eventually her parents sent her to stay with her grandparents in the Appalachians. Here she learned the healing power of nature and found her voice again, though that early trauma and a later one still haunt her.

The book alternates between Les and Becky as narrators, chapter about, more or less. Becky’s sections are written as if in her journal, where she writes in poetic language and often includes poems. We all have a different tolerance level for poetic style in prose – mine is low, and Becky’s chapters increasingly irritated me as the book went on. What starts out as wonderfully descriptive writing morphs eventually into a kind of contrived “creative” writing, where Becky/Rash invent new words because apparently the English language simply isn’t large enough as it stands. However, I’m quite sure that people who love poetic writing will love this.

Les’ chapters, on the other hand, are written in the sort of world-weary style of noir and I loved this, and enjoyed the thoughtful portrayal of his character as a good man driven down by the things he has witnessed in his job. He has his own morality, which is not always the morality demanded of a law officer. For example, he takes bribes to look the other way, so long as he feels the crime he is ignoring is one which the law treats too harshly. He is a mix of righteousness and weakness, whose absorption in his own emotional state makes him cold, blind, perhaps, to those of other people. His wife’s depression, for example, seems to have been an unwelcome annoyance to him, his sympathy going all to himself rather than to her. However, he is aware of mistakes he has made along the way, and beats himself up emotionally over them. I felt Rash wanted me to sympathise with him, but I found myself less forgiving than Rash seemed to be aiming for.

It’s a relatively short book at under 300 pages, but it’s a very slow burn. It takes nearly half the book before any kind of plot emerges, and even then it’s rather low-key. Most of the time is taken up with studies of the two main characters and rather shallower ones of a handful of secondary characters. In sum, they paint a picture of this rather dreadful society where drugs are distorting and destroying the social structures and blurring moral lines. Not everyone in town is a dealer or an addict, but all are affected in some way – by crime, by the addiction of a family member, by poverty. The contrast between that and the loveliness that nature abundantly provides is rather disorienting, and ultimately depressing: “Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile.” The whole tone is bleak and although there is a resolution of sorts at the end for the characters, one feels that this society in a larger sense may be beyond hope of redemption.

Ron Rash

I have mixed feelings about it, overall. I loved Rash’s writing when he was sticking to the plainer, bleaker style of Les’ voice, but the over-poeticism (as I saw it) of Becky’s chapters remained a running irritant throughout. I fear I found the depiction of this drug-saturated society both totally credible and totally depressing. And I found the sheer number of traumas that our various characters had lived through and carried as emotional baggage all felt too much – beyond likelihood, and therefore reminding me that Rash was manipulating the characters like the man behind the curtain, making his dolls dance to a dismal tune of his own composing. Yes, I know that’s what all authors do, but the success of a puppet show comes in making the audience forget the existence of the puppeteer.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley. (In 2016! Oops!)

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Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

The missing heir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One dark night a traveller in the south-west of Scotland loses his way, and begs a night’s lodging at Ellangowan, the house of Mr Godfrey Bertram. Mrs Bertram is in labour and soon gives birth to a son, their first child. The traveller, Guy Mannering, has revealed he has studied astrology and agrees to cast the child’s fortune. But when he discovers that the stars foretell three distinct periods of danger, each potentially fatal to the child, he insists that the fortune should be read only when the child is five years old. But young Harry Bertram will meet the first period of danger before his fifth birthday is over, when a conflict takes place between smugglers and the local excise-men, during which Harry disappears. The shock sends Mrs Bertram, again pregnant, into labour, and she gives birth to a daughter, Lucy, but dies in childbirth.

Fast forward 17 years, to probably the mid-1780s. All has gone wrong at Ellangowan, and Mr Bertram is being forced to sell up. Guy Mannering, now a middle-aged widower with a daughter of his own, Julia, has returned from India where he has spent his career as an army officer. Harry is still missing. And then Mr Bertram dies, leaving Lucy almost destitute. Mannering decides to ask her to make her home in his house, to be a companion to Julia. Ellangowan is sold, but with the proviso that if the heir returns, the property shall revert to him…

This was Scott’s second book, and I must say I found it considerably better than its more famous and more lauded predecessor, Waverley. Partly this is a matter of taste – I’m rather tired of the Scottish obsession with the Jacobite era, when Waverley is set. But I also thought the characterisation in Guy Mannering is much truer and more realistic, and, perhaps because it’s not set around such a pivotal event, I felt Scott explained the background more clearly, rather than assuming the reader would be aware of it. Both gypsies and smugglers play important roles in the story, and Scott incorporates a lot of information about both groups and how they were perceived in Scotland at this time, all of which is interesting from both a historical and a literary viewpoint.

Book 11 of 80

I was less keen on the structure. The gap of seventeen years after the first section of the book is somewhat dislocating. Suddenly half the characters whom we have become invested in are dead, while the other half are much older, having lived a full life in the interim. Personalities have changed, sometimes with reason, due to events that have happened in the interim, and sometimes simply due to age. My other issue might arise from my pedantic nature, but when a book is called Guy Mannering I expect Guy Mannering to be the central character. But after casting the child’s fortune, he disappears for the entire first section of the book, and when he reappears after the gap, so does a young man we are introduced to as Vanbeest Brown, who is the hero for the rest of the book. Mannering’s role is secondary at best, and arguably not even that.

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

However, there are some great characters in the book, some of whom were household names in Scotland in my youth, though I’m not sure they still are. Vanbeest Brown (have you guessed who he is yet?) is an enjoyable young hero who is constantly falling into scrapes, but is also always helping his friends out of them. There’s Meg Merrilies, the gypsy woman, who also appeared at Harry’s birth and plays a vital role throughout the story. Dirk Hattaraick is the boo-hiss baddie (or at least one of them!), a Dutch smuggler plying his trade around the shores of Britain and Northern Europe. Dominie Sampson is Lucy’s childhood tutor and is a sort of tragicomic figure, although personally I found him too caricatured. Farmer and dog-breeder Dandie Dinmont is the major rural character, loyal and true, and so popular was he that there’s a real breed of dog called Dandie Dinmont terriors in his honour. In Edinburgh, we are amidst the lawyers, and here advocate Paulus Pleydell is central, as the man who will sort out the legal entanglements the various characters fall into, including the inheritance issues, and take on a kind of avuncular role towards the young people. And the two girls, Julia and Lucy, are so much better drawn than the female characters in Waverley. Lucy might be a little too much like the future self-sacrificing heroines beloved by the Victorians, but Julia is mischievous and gay, her romantic excesses tempered by her sense of humour.

After a good start, I found the book got very slow for a while as Scott set up all the characters and their various settings and situations. But the second half speeds up considerably and is full of intrigue and action with lots of danger, spiced with just the right amount of romance. There’s some Scots dialect, but not enough to be problematic, and in general the writing is excellent. The two main settings, the rural south-west and the city of Edinburgh, are very well depicted and provide an interesting contrast. Scott weaves his large cast of characters in and out of his dance with great skill, and ensures we like all the good ones and hate all the bad ones, which is just as it should be! He should have called it Harry Bertram though…

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Best days of our lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kathy H, at the age of thirty-one, is coming to the end of her career as a carer and looks back at her life, especially her time at Hailsham, the school where she lived throughout her childhood, and the friends she made there. Even as children they all knew Hailsham was a special place and that they too were special, marked out to be carers first, and then donors. But it is only in the last few years that Kathy has come to question that path, and to wonder, along with her best friends Ruth and Tommy, if anyone is ever allowed to deviate from it…

Coming to this book so late it feels almost pointless to avoid spoilers, since I expect almost everyone already knows what the book is about. But I’ll try anyway! It’s probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past – the late 20th century, that is. The core subject is one that has been done many times before and since in science fiction, but is no less powerful for that. The first thing that made it feel different for me is that the narrator, though she sometimes questions things, is ultimately accepting of the life that is mapped out for her. This is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way.

Secondly, until very near the end we only meet the students of Hailsham and other schools of the same kind, and later when they’re grown up, the carers and donors they become. The other side of society, where the “normal” people live – the ones we’d be in this world – is left almost completely blank, which I found made the book unsettling and rather ambiguous. What happened to this society? A past war is mentioned, but just once in passing. But the roads that Kathy drives along as she moves between the donors under her care are usually empty and the world seems as if it has been somehow depopulated. Are they, the normal people, rich? Poor? Do they have residual health problems from whatever event led to the depopulation? Do they struggle with the morality of what is being done in these isolated schools? Or do they perhaps not know? Or not care?

I felt it was easy to work out pretty early on what was going on with regards to the carers and donors, and I think that’s deliberate. The central mystery is more to do with why Hailsham is seen as special even among the students of the other schools. At Hailsham a great emphasis is placed on art and creativity, and a mysterious Madame visits occasionally and takes away the best of the students’ artworks. The rumour among the children is that Madame runs a Gallery where this art is shown to the public, but when they reach adulthood this explanation seems less satisfactory, and Kathy’s friends have another theory, which they will eventually set out to prove or disprove.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kathy is a wonderful narrative voice and I grew to care about her very much. Her changing relationships over the years with her two closest friends, Ruth and Tommy, are beautifully portrayed, and while Kathy doesn’t spend much time emoting, nevertheless the book is deeply emotional. She looks back at the three of them in childhood with an adult eye, and can therefore evaluate their interactions more objectively in retrospect. She knows their weaknesses and her own, and sometimes their friendship is strained almost to breaking point, but those early experiences hold them in a kind of web of their own making, a web that may feel like a trap sometimes but is fundamentally spun from love. In Hailsham, no families visit, there are no vacations or interaction with the outside world, so the children there are all each other have. They are not treated cruelly; they are simply trained and conditioned to accept the role for which society has destined them.

I don’t think I can say much more about the story without getting into spoiler territory. It’s a quietly devastating book that shows how easily mankind can create “others” and then treat those others as lesser. And more than that, it also shows how those others can be taught to think of themselves that way too, and to accept the injustices they are shown as normal, even right. It’s a continuation of the science fiction tradition of “mad science”, only here we spend our time not with the mad scientists but with the results of their experiments. It is the bastard child of Frankenstein and Dr Moreau, but here the monsters look just like us, and act like us, and think like us. So the question is, why then are they not us?

Book 10 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for October, and a wonderful choice for which I thank you, People! Keep up the good work!

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Trust by Hernan Diaz

Money makes the world go around…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of a power couple in New York, in the years leading up to and following the Great Crash of 1929. He is Benjamin Rask, a financier and descendant of a long line of men who made their money through trade, first in goods and later on the money markets. Rask is fascinated by how the markets work, and has a natural intuition allied to his mathematical brain that enables him to know exactly when to buy or sell. His wealth grows until he is one of the most powerful movers in the economy. He is friendless by choice, anti-social and without hobbies. His work is his life. But in mid-life he begins to consider the matter of an heir to carry on the family line.

She is Helen Brevoort, sole daughter of a couple with an aristocratic heritage but no money. Her father tutors her idiosyncratically – she is brilliant at maths and is introduced to all the faddish philosophies of the day. She too is anti-social, but her mother has made it clear that her duty is to marry money…

Or is that really what the book is about?

This is a hard one to review because of the need not to reveal too much, so I shall keep it vague and short! The book is written in four sections, the first telling the story of Benjamin and Helen as a kind of joint biography, and that section stands on its own as a short novel in the vein of books by Edith Wharton or Henry James, examining the social structure and wealth aristocracy of early 20th century America. The other sections re-examine the same story from three different perspectives, each adding to and altering the reader’s understanding, so that in the end we are clearer about the ‘true’ lives of this couple, but also about the writing of the biography. It reminded me not a little of Citizen Kane – the same larger-than-life characters, the same sense of growing isolation as wealth and power become ends rather than means, the same arrogance and hubris.

It’s brilliantly done. In each section, Diaz creates a different narrative voice and style, and each is as believable as the others. Changes in perception are done subtly, so that for the most part ‘facts’ remain the same – it is the interpretation that alters. The examination extends beyond the lives of the Rasks, to look at the motivations and influences of the various narrators, so that there are stories within stories, gradually widening out to take us into different layers of society and see the tensions caused by the huge disparity between rich and poor. There is politics here, but not polemics – Diaz examines capitalism critically rather than with outright condemnation, and at the other end of the scale he looks at how communism and anarchism grew as a response to extreme inequality, without overtly suggesting that these philosophies are more likely to produce a better society.

Hernan Diaz

But strip the politics out, and also the history of the market gamblers who caused the Crash, and what is left is an intensely human story about character. Who are Helen and Benjamin really? What factors made them into the people they became? How can we ever be sure we know the truth about anyone, even when their fame means that every detail of their lives seems to be played out on the front pages of the newspapers? And in here too is a look at the status of women and how they are perceived, with competing pictures of Helen very much dependant on the stance of the people telling her story.

I found it fascinating and absorbing, well worthy of its longlisting for the Booker nomination, and I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been shortlisted. I hope I’ve said enough to whet your appetite, without spoiling the experience of reading it for yourself. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Picador via NetGalley.

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Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

The mystery of the missing plot…

😐 😐

Having been left a rambling, dilapidated old house on Cloud Street and being badly in need of money, Sam Pickles divides the house and rents the other half to the Lamb family. So the two families live side by side and…

And what? They simply live side by side. And Winton drifts through the dividing walls, dipping into the lives of one family and then into the lives of the other family. There is no plot, no story arc, no real character development. In fact, at least half of the characters have no character at all to develop – they are simply names. I’m afraid I found it empty, as if the blank paper underneath had seeped up through the words printed on it.

Clearly I’m missing something. The book is an Australian classic, admired by hordes of people. Maybe you have to be Australian to “get” it? I know I sometimes feel a book is too Scottish to easily recommend to non-Scots. Maybe recognition of the places or the slang gives enough pleasure to make up for the lack of a story? I admit there were whole passages where I wasn’t sure what was happening because some of the words conveyed no meaning to me, and weren’t in the Kindle dictionary. I could have googled each time, but I learned how tedious that was with another book full of dialect and slang, and swore I’d never do it again. So my laziness as a reader is definitely a part of the reason this didn’t work for me.

Oddly the first couple of chapters, where we’re introduced first to the Pickles and then to the Lambs, are wonderful – a lot conveyed in very few words, and I actually felt the characters were more clearly evoked then than later – they seemed to fade or recede as the book went on. Also, each family had the beginnings of an interesting story – Sam Pickles being injured in an accident at work that left him a ‘crip’ with a ‘crook’ hand; Fish Lamb nearly drowning in a different accident and his return to life being seen by his family as some kind of miracle. But then it all collapses into the mundane details of daily life.

Tim Winton

Reviews rave about the descriptions of the Australian landscape. That must come later (I’m abandoning it at 21%) because we haven’t moved out of the house since the moment the families moved in. All the conversations take place round one or another of the tables of the families, where they talk, without quotation marks obviously because that would be too easy, about nothing. We hear about Sam’s new job because he tells us about it – we don’t get to go with him. Same applies to Lester Lamb and his band practice – we’re left at home as he leaves the house to go out for a bit of fun. I began to feel as if I were imprisoned in the house, desperate just to go for a simple walk round the neighbourhood or a bus-ride into town.

So I’ve given up. I’m reluctant to one-star it as I usually do with abandoned books because I suspect it’s mostly a case of mismatch between reader and book, and I did enjoy those first couple of chapters. But it took me three weeks to read as far as I did, and it was inducing a major reading slump since increasingly I couldn’t face picking it up. Sorry to everyone who loves it, and my apologies to Australia!

Book 9 of 12

This was The People’s Choice winner for September, so apologies to You, the People, too! Onwards and upwards – hopefully I’ll get on better with October’s choice…

Amazon UK Link

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón

The Idiot President’s son…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nelson has spent his young life expecting to leave his South American home and emigrate to the US in the footsteps of his elder brother, on a chain migration visa. But, just as it finally seems this dream is about to become reality, Nelson’s father dies and he knows he can’t simply leave his mother alone. He has always wanted to be an actor/playwright, and is coming to the end of his studies at the Conservatory. He auditions for a role in a touring revival of a play, The Idiot President, which once gained notoriety for Diciembre, the company who originally performed it in towns and villages during the recent civil war. Henry Nuñez, who wrote the play, and Patalarga were original members of the three-man cast, and will again play the eponymous Idiot President and his servant, while Nelson is chosen to play Alejo, the President’s son. As they tour the provinces of the country, the three men will gradually learn about each other’s pasts and develop an intricate and intimate kind of friendship. But we know from our unnamed narrator that tragedy of some kind looms…

….“How are things out there?” the old police chief asked. “What’s happening over in the provinces?”
….The provinces – this was another thing Nelson had come to understand. No matter where you went, no matter how far you traveled into the far-flung countryside, the provinces were always further out. It was impossible to arrive there. Not here – never here – always just down the road.

This is going to be rather a frustrating review, for two reasons. The first is that the slow revelation of the story and the mysteries within it are what lead the reader to want to keep turning the pages, and so it would be entirely unfair to reveal any more of the plot than I already have. The South American country is probably Peru, although it’s never named. Alarcón himself is Peruvian by birth, although he has lived in America since early childhood. However, he seems to maintain strong links to his Peruvian heritage, and the style of the book feels to me far closer to the Latin American tradition than to mainstream US American fiction. The main action of the book, the revival tour, takes place in 2001 and the civil war seems to have ended a dozen or so years earlier, so Nelson lived through it, but as a very young child. Henry and Patalarga, however, were men at the time, and the political aspects of their play marked them as dissidents. So although the book doesn’t take us deeply into the reasons behind the war, its after-effects hover over the present day, so that we see the nation and its people damaged and scarred and still in the process of anxious healing.

They were mostly inured to the austere beauty of the landscape by then; it was right in front of them, so commonplace and overwhelming they could no longer see it. In Nelson’s journals his descriptions of the highland terrain are hampered by his own maddening ignorance, that of a lifelong city dweller who has no idea what he’s looking at: mountains are described with simplistic variations of “large”, “medium”, or “small”, as if he were ordering a soda from a fast food restaurant.

The second reason for the difficulty in reviewing is that I’d love to be able to tell you what the book is about, but frankly I’m not at all sure that I know! Other than the effects of civil war, the strongest theme seems to be of identity, and Alarcón plays with this brilliantly in different ways throughout the book. From Nelson’s longing to be American, through the obvious metaphor of plays and acting, to questions of family, friendship and love, Alarcón seems to be looking at the formation of identity at the personal level. It’s partly a coming-of-age novel, and we see how Nelson is influenced by experience and by the people he becomes close to in his formative years. But we also see the more political side of identity – how in changing political circumstances people are identified by their convictions or their allegiances. Yesterday’s dissident is today’s patriot, and vice versa. Fame is illusory and dependent on circumstance. The best, albeit unsatisfactory, way I can think to sum it up is that we see the formation of individual identity mirroring society’s fracturing and reformation as a result of war.

….They ran through it again and again one afternoon, and even set up mirrors so Henry could see Nelson’s reaction. Three, four, five times, he kicked poor Patalarga, all the while locking eyes with Nelson.
….“Remember, I’m not kicking him, I’m kicking you!” Henry shouted.
….On the sixth run-through, he missed Patalarga’s hands, and nearly took off the servant’s head. Patalarga threw himself out of harm’s way just in time. Everyone stopped. The theatre was silent. Patalarga was splayed out on the stage, breathing hard.
….“Okay,” he said, “that’s enough.”
….Henry had gone pale. He apologised and helped Patalarga to his feet, almost falling down himself in the process. “I didn’t mean to, I…”
….“It’s all right,” Patalarga said.
….But Nelson couldn’t help thinking: if he’s kicking Alejo the whole time, why isn’t he apologising to me?
….For a moment the three of them stood, observing their reflections in the mirror, not quite sure what had just happened. Henry looked as if he might be sick; Patalarga, like a man who’d been kicked in the chest five times; Nelson, like a heartbroken child.
….“Are you all right?” Henry said toward the mirror.
….It was unclear whom he was asking.

Daniel Alarcón

However, although I found it thought-provoking, I must immediately dispel the idea that is a grim or difficult read. It is written lightly, beautifully indeed, and has humour and warmth all through. There is a love story at the heart of it, and not one you’d expect at all. And it is full of mystery – who is the narrator? Why is he telling Nelson’s story? What is the looming tragedy that is foreshadowed again and again as the narrator takes us close to the truth and then veers away again? It’s wonderfully done, and makes what could have been a heavy read into a page-turner, and when the ending came I found it surprising and satisfying, and it left me with my thoughts even more provoked. Is the message perhaps that our stories are an integral part of our identities, and that to tell another’s story is a form of theft? I don’t know. I don’t know. But I loved it, every single word. I do hope this frustrating review might have tempted you to read it. And if you already have, please tell me what you think it was about!

Amazon UK Link

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The emperor is dead, long live the emperor…

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Thomas Fowler is a veteran journalist who’s been stationed for some years in Vietnam, reporting on the rising violence as France tries to cling on to its colony and America’s involvement is growing. The story begins when Fowler is told of the death of Alden Pyle, a young American attaché who had arrived in Saigon a few months earlier. Fowler then tells us the history of his relationship with Pyle – acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, certainly rivalry. For Pyle had stolen Fowler’s young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, promising marriage and entry to the glamorous American world of skyscrapers and fashion that Phuong had read about in magazines. And along the way Greene shows us old colonialism giving way to the new American mission to use its wealth and military might to westernize and democratize the world, whether the world likes it or not.

When I read the blurb, I wondered why the book had been considered “controversial”, and now having read it, I assume it’s because of the anti-Americanism that runs through it. To be honest, for a Brit of my generation and political leanings, that isn’t exactly controversial – it’s quite a mainstream position, and one that exists just as much, or perhaps even more, today as back in the early 1950s when this book is set. Anti-Americanism is the wrong term, really; it’s more anti-US foreign policy – a belief that the US blunders into situations around the world that it doesn’t understand, values non-American life cheaply in pursuit of its aim to create an American hegemony, and then retreats, its own nose bloodied, leaving the people in a worse state than they were in before the Americans arrived. (And sadly America’s allies, especially the UK, tend to allow the US to drag them into their military catastrophes.) Greene wrote this book before the Vietnam war, but he clearly saw the writing on the wall and uses Pyle as a metaphor for the sometimes well-meaning but always fundamentally ruthless and self-interested policies the US has pursued since it decided to declare itself the “leader of the free world” after the Second World War.

Book 19 of 20

However, old-style European colonialism fares no better. Greene shows it in its death throes, desperately trying to retain control of the colonies it still possesses, but gradually being forced into retreat, leaving the field open for the new superpowers to move in. The particular European empire in the book is the French, but Greene is clearly including all the old European empires in his critique. Fowler’s weary cynicism and fatalism about the future is as much a metaphor for tired and war-ravaged old Europe as Pyle is for brash young America. In their actions there’s not much to choose between them, but Europe, Greene seems to be suggesting, is finally learning the futility of trying to maintain its control over other peoples just at the point where the US has decided it will rule the world and impose its values and culture across the globe at the point of a gun. The question hangs unspoken in the Saigon air – how many lives are a price worth paying for the ideology of “freedom”? Pyle makes it clear that there’s no upper limit, so long, of course, as they’re not American lives.

Fortunately there’s an excellent human story to stop all this heavyweight political stuff from becoming too much. We learn of Pyle’s death in the first pages, and then go back to his arrival in Saigon as a seeming innocent. But he has more depth than first appears and Fowler is reluctantly drawn into a kind of intimacy with him because of Phuong, the young woman whom both men care about, though in different ways. Vietnam is in the midst of conflict with various factions fighting for power, sometimes with the overt or covert support of the various colonialist powers. Terrorist acts are a daily occurrence, and Greene shows the constant anxiety, the fear and the grief of living in a society in turmoil. And he shows the uncaring cruelty of those vying for power towards the people they use as pawns in their games.

Graham Greene

Most of all I feel it’s a wonderful character study of Fowler – a man whose cynicism is founded on age and experience, whose career as a journalist reporting from the trouble spots of the world has allowed him to see humanity at its worst and has left him wary of those who believe they have the right or the power to impose their culture and control on others. Pyle and Phuong are shown to us only through Fowler’s eyes, but he is an honest observer, able to see the strengths and weaknesses in both of them and, indeed, in himself. And eventually we learn what led to Pyle’s death.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Simon Cadell. While his narration is good overall, it has some weaknesses, not least that he sometimes seems to forget that Pyle is American. It’s also an older recording and the sound quality is not great – the volume dips and rises, and sometimes it’s a bit fuzzy. This is one case where I would recommend reading rather than listening, unless you can find a better narration. The book itself, though, is wonderful – undoubtedly one of Greene’s best and therefore highly recommended!

Audible UK Link

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!

Book 12 of 20

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?

Book 10 of 20

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…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

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.

Book 9 of 20

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!

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