Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

The missing heir…

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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…

Amazon UK Link

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

After the conflict…

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1940. The Spanish Civil War is over and Franco’s regime is in charge. What will later be known as the Second World War is underway – France has fallen, Britain has retreated from Dunkirk and is grimly facing daily aerial bombardment, and Franco is rumoured to be about to bring Spain into the war on the side of Germany and Hitler. Against this backdrop, four English people will play out their own drama in a Madrid still wrecked and reeling, its people starving and afraid.

Harry Brett has been invalided out of the army after Dunkirk, suffering from damaged hearing and shell shock. He has recovered well enough, though, to take on a job proposed to him by the Secret Service – to go out to Spain and try to win the confidence of Sandy Forsyth, once his old school friend and now involved in shady dealings in Madrid. When he gets there and makes contact with Sandy, he discovers Sandy is now living with another old acquaintance – Barbara Clare, once the lover of another school friend, Bernie Piper, who was declared missing, presumed dead, after the battle of Jarama. We follow these three as Harry tries to find out what Sandy is up to, and Barbara continues to hope against the odds that Bernie is not dead and to use whatever little influence and money she has to find him.

I read this book years ago when it came out (2006) and didn’t really connect with it. I wondered at the time if it was because I didn’t know enough about the Spanish Civil War – what the various factions were and what they were fighting for, and who was allied to whom, and so on. So when I started my Spanish Civil War challenge, I decided to make this the last book of the challenge, to see if all my new-found knowledge would make a difference to my reaction. And it did! I still didn’t wholeheartedly love it, largely because it’s very long and I didn’t feel the central stories were strong enough to carry it. However, I enjoyed it considerably more this time, both because I better understood the various tensions among the characters and because it was interesting to see Sansom’s take on the history.

Book 13

Sansom joins the long list of British and American authors who take the Republican side when writing about the conflict. In this version of history, Republicans are good people, and it was only the nasty Communists, whom real Republicans despise as much as they despise Fascists, who committed all the atrocities on the left, while real Republicans were decent souls defending a democratically elected government against a fascist insurgency. This means that the opposite must also be true – that everyone on the Nationalist side must be an evil Fascist or, perhaps worse, a monarchist. I guess this distortion or, at the least, over-simplification has been repeated so often now that many people accept it as truth, especially when it ties in with their existing political leanings, as it clearly does with Sansom.

The personal stories of the characters are done well, and Sansom uses them to show different aspects of the conflict and its aftermath. The three men, Harry, Sandy and Bernie, all attended an elite public school called Rookwood, and in the early part of the book there are many flashbacks to their time there, showing us how they developed into the men they became. Harry was always the neutral one, friend to both of the others and with no strong views on politics or anything else. Sandy was the bad boy, expelled from previous schools, and soon to be expelled from Rookwood too. Already arrogant, already cruel, naturally he would side with the Fascists in later life. Bernie was a scholarship boy from a humble background, and he already resented the inequalities in society, declaring himself a socialist, so it is no surprise when he later heads off to Spain to fight in the International Brigades. In political terms the characterisations are a little simplistic, but they work well in human terms, although I found Harry’s neutrality made him rather bland to be given the role of main character. The role of public schools in shaping the leaders of the future is portrayed well, though again clearly through the lens of Sansom’s left-wing bias.

Barbara is the outsider, brought into this group as the lover of first Bernie and later Sandy. She is, frankly, an unlikely heroine to have inspired so much passion – Sansom repeatedly tells us that she lacks beauty, mainly because she wears glasses and frumpy clothes, and I couldn’t see much that was outstanding in her personality to overcome these dreadful flaws. We know Sandy is a bad man because he hates her wearing glasses, while Bernie is good and pure because he loves her even with her glasses on. Am I sounding sarcastic? Good, I intend to. However, her role in the Red Cross first as a nurse and later in helping to reunite refugee children with their families gives insight into another aspect of civil war, and makes her the most likeable of the main characters, despite her glasses.

The twin stories – Harry’s spying on Sandy and Barbara’s search for Bernie – come together eventually in a thriller-ish ending, but a rather muted one, which perhaps suits the post-war tone better than a more heroic event would have done. Sansom resists the temptation to make everything happy ever after, which adds credibility, but leaves a rather depressing after-taste.

Overall then, well written as any book by Sansom is, grounded in accurate history but seen through a left-wing lens, and more of a slow thoughtful look at the period than a fast-paced political or action thriller. My own reading experience suggests it works better if the reader is reasonably well versed in this period of history beforehand, in which case it’s well worth reading.

Amazon UK Link

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Slavery, Mills and Boon style…

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It is 1627 when a horde of Barbary pirates raid the Westman Islands off the coast of Iceland and carry off 400 people to be sold into slavery in Algiers. Among them is Ásta, a married woman pregnant with her fourth child. Two of her children are with her while the third was left behind in Iceland. She, her children and her husband, Ólafur, will all have different experiences that will change them for ever…

That is, they will once we’ve gone through sixty pages of labour aboard a slave ship in which we are gifted descriptions of every contraction, finally followed by the usual bloody and traumatic birthing beloved of fiction writers, but not beloved by yours truly who finds that when you’ve read about one harrowing childbirth you’ve pretty much read about them all.

On arrival in Algiers, Ásta and her now three children are sold into slavery, with Ásta and the two youngest bought by a rich Muslim called Cilleby, and Ásta becomes one of the women in his harem. Meantime Ólafur, a Christian pastor, is sent back to Iceland to negotiate ransom for the captives from the King. The King is not keen to pay out, though, so the slaves’ captivity stretches out to many years. Some are luckier than others. While Ásta and some of the younger women are kept in harems in a luxury they have never known before, older women and men become forced labour, many of them underfed and cruelly treated. As time goes on, more and more of them die, while others, usually the children and younger ones, reconcile themselves to their new country, forsake their Christianity for the Muslim faith, and are freed to become citizens and make new lives for themselves.

Although I didn’t love this book while I was reading it, I didn’t hate it either, at least not till quite late on. The historical aspects are interesting and, I assume, accurate, and Magnusson writes well, although unfortunately in the tedious present tense. The religious element of the slaves having to decide whether to remain Christian or adapt to Islam is handled reasonably well. Those who hold onto their Christian faith also hold onto the hope that one day they will be ransomed and return home. In the meantime, though, they will continue as slaves. Those who feel less of a pull to Iceland are more willing to convert if it means that they can become free citizens of a country filled with warmth and luxuries they had never before encountered. But if they convert, they will never be welcome back in Christian Iceland, even if the ransom ever finally shows up. Magnusson doesn’t take a side which is politically correct of her, but leaves the story rather flat. If no one is right or wrong, then where’s the emotion? The book is also incredibly slow – those endless contractions in the beginning just the start of a story told with far too much repetition and not enough pace.

But what eventually led me to actively dislike the book is Ásta’s story. It turns into a nice cosy love story where the male love interest just happens to be a slave owner and the female is his slave. But fear not! He’s terribly civil, and instead of forcing his unwanted sexual attentions on her (but are they unwanted?) he listens while she fends him off by telling him the Icelandic sagas she learned as a child. It reads like a cross between a Mills and Boon romance and a remake of The King and I, with elements of One Thousand and One Nights thrown in for good measure.

Sally Magnusson

Books where women are seduced by cruel, masterful types are fine by me if they were written a hundred years ago, but not so much if they’re written now unless they have considerably more psychological depth than this has. Do I believe that female slaves had willing sex with their masters to keep themselves and their children safe and maybe gain a bit of luxury? Yes, I do. Do I believe it’s possible for a slave-owner and a slave to genuinely fall in love despite power imbalances and cultural and religious differences? Yes, I do. However, do I believe female slaves slept with their slave-owners because they were overwhelmed with love and desire to the extent that even their children mattered less than a bit of exotic rumpy-pumpy? Er, no. Well, maybe, but if so don’t look for my sympathy – it’s gone AWOL. Do I believe that slave-owning men who want a bit of rumpy-pumpy with a slave would be willing to listen to Icelandic sagas night after night for years instead? Now my credulity has eloped with my sympathy…

So in the end my general lack of enthusiasm turned to active distaste. A pity – the premise is interesting and Magnusson seems to know her history. But the hackneyed romanticisation of the master/slave story used to tie it together left me feeling rather nauseated. In the end the lack of a decent plot led me to think that she would have been better to write the story of this episode as a non-fiction.

Book 11 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for November – a choice I was pleased about since I expected to enjoy it much more than I did in the end, so all blame is mine!

Amazon UK Link

The Gate of the Sun by Derek Lambert

Surviving Franco…

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As Spain erupts into Civil War, people well beyond its borders align themselves with one side or the other, and soon some of those people will make their way to Spain to join the fighting. Two of these men are Tom Canfield and Adam Fleming, who will find their fates linked and the courses of their lives altered forever by the time the guns are silenced. But the fight belongs to the Spaniards themselves, and inspired by the example of the great Republican and communist leader, la Pasionaria, many women join the men at the barricades. One such is Ana Gomez, whose exploits will earn her fame or notoriety, depending on which side is judging her, and the soubriquet of the Black Widow. The book follows these three characters and their families through the war years and beyond, as Spain survives through the Franco years, remaking itself as a modern nation and slowly coming to terms with its past.

This is a long book which covers the years from the early stages of the war, 1937, by which time the International Brigades were active, to 1975, the year of Franco’s death. Lambert has chosen his characters to give an idea of the different factions and what they believed they were fighting for. The political situation, especially on the Republican side, was so full of factions that it would have been unreasonable to try to represent each one, but he’s done an excellent job of using the three to provide him, as it were, with an entrée into each side from which he can then show how the disunity of the Republicans greatly weakened their ability to prevail over the much more united and disciplined forces of the Nationalists, especially once Franco took full control. After the war, the same characters show us how people changed, or didn’t, some victorious, some defeated but accepting their defeat, some fighting on for years as guerrillas or agitators or separatists. And they show us how life slowly changed and improved, even under Franco, as Spain began to resume its place in international organisations and developed a modern economy.

Tom is an American, son of a once rich man who lost everything in the Crash, and loves to fly. So he leaves his life of nouveau-poverty and joins the International Brigade, fighting, he claims, not for communism but against fascism. Adam is English, also from a rather privileged background, and he is horrified about the atrocities being carried out against the Church which, along with a general spirit of contrariness, leads him to go out to fight for Franco. He claims he is fighting not for fascism, but against communism. Lambert shows the mix of idealism and youthful spirit of adventure of the young men who went to fight in a foreign war, and while he is kind to his characters, he is quite clear about the muddiness of some of their reasoning, and in later years he shows us how easily they moved on, these foreigners, adapting themselves to the new regime and adopting pretty much the same middle-class values they would doubtless both have had even if they’d stayed at home. It’s very believable, and he shows how the much bigger conflict of WW2 affected their thinking, making both question what they were fighting for. In time, like the rest of the world, they will come to wonder if there was ever much to choose between communism and fascism, in Spain as elsewhere, when both ideologies lead to war and atrocities.

Book 12

I was pleased that Lambert chose to include a character who fought for Franco and did so without demonising him. The horrors of WW2 have made us all like to think that we’d all have been anti-fascist in the ‘30s, but of course that wasn’t the case at all. While the Republican cause had all the best publicists in the UK and the US, the Fascists had plenty of supporters, not least in government circles. Lambert also shows that Franco, while designated as a fascist and guilty of his share of the atrocities carried out in Spain in this period, wasn’t in the same league as Hitler or even Mussolini, and indeed became increasingly popular as his regime went on, the economy improved and society became somewhat more liberal. Lambert’s depiction of the history throughout felt completely accurate to me, tying in with everything I’ve been reading in history books about the war and Franco’s long reign.

I struggled a little more with Ana’s character, and that of her daughter who is a child at the start but a middle-aged woman by the end. I couldn’t decide if this was because their attitudes were more foreign to me, or to Lambert, but I felt they were somehow portrayed with less depth and complexity. They seemed to exist to show the distinctively Spanish viewpoint, and there Lambert’s even-handedness fell away considerably. Republicans good, Nationalists bad, with none of the excuses that he allowed for his international men. Ana is a Republican but not a communist, and a ferocious warrior driven to fight by the poverty and brutality she sees all around her. I don’t want to get too deeply into spoilers, but she has a personal loss in the war that leaves her embittered and vengeful, so that, unlike the men, she finds it impossible to move on. It’s an interesting portrayal and takes us into the ongoing violent struggle that continued as first guerrilla war and later terrorism and political assassination long after the country was outwardly at peace. I found the history convincing, while not believing in her as a character to quite the same extent as I did the men.

Derek Lambert

There are sections that feel too much like a history lesson, and in general I feel Lambert perhaps tried to include too much. His desire to paint a panoramic picture of Spain’s development over forty years sometimes took him too far from the personal stories which turn history into novels. But for the most part I found the book absorbing, very well written and deeply insightful about the war-time conditions, its aftermath and the impact on some of the people caught up in events. And I grew to care about all of the characters, even the ones I didn’t much like. I wondered how it would have worked for me if I’d read it knowing nothing about the history, and for the most part I think he explained everything clearly enough, with the possible exception of not getting into what caused the war in the first place and what all the different factions’ objectives were – perhaps he assumed his readers would already have that knowledge, or perhaps he was more interested in the era of Franco’s Spain than in what brought it about.

Overall, then, an ambitious novel that covers a complicated and emotive period of history and manages to humanise it through a group of well-drawn, complex characters. If you want to know more about this period of Spain’s history but can’t face a history book, then this would be a great alternative. I’m struggling with rating it – probably four for enjoyment as a novel, but definitely five for its breadth and depth, historical accuracy and the insight it provides into Franco’s era.

Amazon UK Link

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

The mystery of the missing plot…

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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

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason


😐 😐

Piano tuner Edgar Blake specializes in Erard pianos, a French make. One day in 1886, he receives a strange request from the War Office – to go to Mae Lwin, a small colonial outpost in Burma, to tune the Erard of the mysterious Doctor Anthony Carroll who is trying to negotiate peace between warring factions in the country. But who is Dr Carroll? There are so many conflicting stories about him, not least the one of him demanding that the War Office provide him first with a valuable grand piano and then with a specialist to tune it…

Perhaps if I hadn’t read Heart of Darkness I would have thought this story was interesting and original. However, I have, so I didn’t. The major differences are that Heart of Darkness is indeed original, is wonderfully written, and isn’t padded out with a zillion words of extraneous description and potted history of the country presented in the form of army reports. The other major difference is that Kurtz (the mystery man in Heart of Darkness) is indeed mysterious and enigmatic, and is a metaphor for the darkness of colonialism and how it corrupts the coloniser as much as the colonised; whereas Carroll isn’t. Lastly, Heart of Darkness ends believably and memorably; this one doesn’t.

I admit I skimmed the last 30%, so bored was I by that stage by the endless descriptions – it was like being forced to look at the three hundred photos someone has brought back from a holiday, all of them of trees. (This actually happened to me on one occasion – three hundred is not an exaggeration – and I thought I might actually die of boredom, or be forced to commit murder to make it stop. This book made me feel the same way.) It reads as if Mason spent a great holiday in Burma and wanted to share every impression of the country, regardless of relevance, and tacked on a lot of historical facts that he’d gleaned, perhaps from a guide book, perhaps from wikipedia, to try to turn it into a novel. And then there are the details about how to tune a piano.

Yep. That’s about all I have to say about this one.

Amazon 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

Heartstone (Matthew Shardlake 5) by CJ Sansom

Who guards the guardians?

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When Queen Catherine Parr’s old servant comes to her with a legal problem, the Queen naturally turns to her old friend, Matthew Shardlake. The servant’s son had been tutor to two children until their parents died in one of the waves of sweating sickness that swept the country. The children, Hugh and Emma, had been given into the guardianship of an old family friend, Master Hobbey. Unfortunately smallpox ravaged the Hobbey family shortly after, killing Emma and leaving Hugh badly scarred. Some years later the tutor had visited Hugh, and had become outraged by something he saw as a monstrous wrong. He had placed a complaint with the Court of Wards, but before he could explain his concerns, he was found hanged. The verdict was suicide, but his mother finds that hard to believe. The Queen wishes Matthew to take up the case, with a view to finding out what it was that had so horrified the tutor, and to ensuring the well-being of Hugh. This will involve Matthew in making a trip to Master Hobbey’s home, Hoyland Priory, not far from Portsmouth, where the English army and fleet are massing to defend the country from an expected invasion by France.

Meantime, the story of Ellen Fettiplace continues from the previous novel. She is a woman Matthew met when he was dealing with a case that involved him visiting Bedlam, the lunatic asylum, where Ellen has been incarcerated for nineteen years. She has come to depend on Matthew, and he fears she has fallen in love with him. There is a mystery as to why she is in Bedlam and, since she came from a village in the same area as Hoyland Priory, Matthew decides to investigate while he’s there.

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The Shardlake books are so monumental in size and complexity that frankly it’s very hard to summarise what they’re about. The plots are always interesting and there are always several strands going on simultaneously, and at the same time Sansom fills in the historical background, gives a good deal of social history, and doesn’t forget to keep us up to date with the lives of all the regular characters. Here, we see the outcome of Henry VIII’s hubris in warring with France. Men are being conscripted into the army, huge warships are being built, vast expenditure on military preparations is causing high taxes on the wealthy and a devaluation in the coinage which is further impoverishing the poor; and in general England is suffering for Henry’s ego.

In Portsmouth, Henry’s favourite ship, the Mary Rose, has been refitted in preparation for the coming battle, and she plays her part in the plot too. Sansom manages to impart a ton of historical information interestingly, so we learn all about the ship and what it would have been like to serve aboard her, and we see how she fares when the battle commences. Shardlake and Barak travel south with a company of archers heading for Portsmouth, so we also learn about this aspect of warfare. And of course, Matthew as usual finds his cases leading back to the skulduggery of Henry’s court, so that we get an insight into the high politics of the day too. On top of all this, there’s lots of info about how wardship and guardianship worked, about the enclosure of common land, and about the legal system of the day. As I’ve said before, I’ve learned far more about the Tudor period from Sansom than from all the mighty history books I’ve ploughed through in my lifetime, with the added bonus that Sansom makes it interesting and enjoyable!

The Mary Rose
by Geoff Hunt, PPRSMA

Meantime, on the personal level, Jack is irritated to have to go away from London at this time, since Tamasin is heavily pregnant. Although Jack is still officially Matthew’s assistant, the two men are now close friends, almost family; and Jack, always loyal, is also able to be honest when he feels Matthew is making bad decisions. Guy is staying with Matthew after his shop was attacked, and Shardlake has a new steward who is not working out very well, and is giving Matthew yet another problem to solve.

Steven Crossley

Steven Crossley is again the narrator for this one, and his performance is really wonderful. It’s great having the same narrator for the whole series, since the recurring characters have the same voices each time, and I would find it very hard now to imagine the three major characters, Matthew, Jack and Guy, with different voices. But there’s always a cast of thousands (approximately) in a Shardlake novel, and Crossley does an amazing job of making each character distinct and individual, and immediately recognisable, which makes the listening experience so much easier and more enjoyable. He even does the women well, which is not always the case with male narrators. If the rumour is true that there’s a new Shardlake novel in the publishing pipeline, then I sincerely hope someone has already booked Crossley for the audio version!

You could certainly read this as a standalone in terms of plot, but to develop the emotional connection with the regulars it’s definitely better to read the series in order. And since each one is a masterpiece, that would certainly be no hardship – many, many hours of reading or listening pleasure!

Audible UK Link

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Lost in a labyrinth…

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Barcelona, 1945. Young Daniel Sempere is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, struggling to scrape a living in a city not yet recovered from the ravages of civil war. Daniel’s mother died when he was very young, and on the day that he suddenly discovers he can no longer remember her face, his father, as a kind of distraction, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a mysterious place full of labyrinthine corridors where rare and banned books are piled randomly on shelves. There, Daniel is told he should select a book and it will then be his responsibility to ensure that his chosen book survives. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a forgotten author called Julián Carax. That night he reads the book…

Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters just yet.

And that almost precisely describes my reaction to this book, with the one proviso that it took me considerably longer than one night to read! It crept up on me gradually and for a while I wasn’t sure whether I was going to love it, but right from the beginning I found the writing compelling and intensely more-ish. And then the story began to darken and deepen, and I found myself lost, wandering the gloomy streets of Barcelona, past the decaying old houses deserted by those who had lost their wealth in the war, past the walls still pock-marked by bullets, searching with Daniel for the truth about what had happened to Julián Carax…

Book 10

It transpires that there is a man – no one knows who he is – who is bent on destroying all remaining copies of Carax’s books – no one knows why. When Daniel is threatened by this man, he decides he must find out what happened to Carax, who fled Barcelona for Paris and subsequently disappeared. It is said that he returned during the confusion of the war and, like so many others, met a violent death on the streets of Barcelona. But was this random chance? Or was Carax’s death deliberate, and if so, what was the motive? As Daniel searches, he finds that his own life seems to have many parallels to Julián’s – will Julián’s tragedy become his too?

There’s a whole bunch of great characters – Daniel himself, whom we see grow from boy to man over the course of the story; his best friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, a beggar whom Daniel and his father befriend, giving him a job in the bookshop, and who provides a good deal of humour along the way; the evil Fumero, now a police inspector, a man who used the war as an excuse to practice his sadism, and is still corrupt and still feared by the people of the city. There’s the mysterious man who wants to burn all Carax’s books – a man so strange and frightening that Daniel is not sure if he is human or devil. And then there’s the story within the story – Julián’s story – where we meet his friends and family, all of whom play a role in the mystery of his life. Two parallel love stories run through the book – Julián’s long-ago, passionate, forbidden love for Penélope, which is at the heart of the mystery; and Daniel’s new, equally passionate, forbidden love for Beatriz. In both cases, the girls’ families see the men as beneath their class, unsuitable for their daughters. (The female characters are not nearly as well drawn as the men, but I’m not in the mood to criticise!)

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The whole tone is Gothic, full of crumbling buildings, labyrinths, exalted love and melodramatic tragedy. And it’s wonderfully done. This is not a sunny fiesta city – this Barcelona is a place where it rains endlessly, where people are poor and afraid, where the scars of war show on the buildings, and on the bodies and in the souls of the inhabitants. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, where so many small and large tragedies have happened, and where now people must put old enmities away and find some way to live together again. Fear and death stalk the streets, with the authorities and some individuals still taking revenge against those they see as enemies. And the people who should be symbols of safety – the police – are the most vengeful and vicious of all, led by Fumero, a man who uses torture and death to further his own aims.

But in reality the war aftermath is all an aside – an interesting setting to set up the Gothic tone. First and foremost, this is simply a great story, wonderfully told. And as it slowly, very slowly, unfolds, it becomes mesmeric – every word seems perfectly designed to lead us to the next. By the halfway point I was completely absorbed in the labyrinthine plot – lost, at that stage, but with total confidence that I was in the hands of a master who would lead me eventually to the centre where the truth would be revealed. And when it was, I found it completely satisfying – both stories brought to wonderfully believable, emotive conclusions.

I avoided this book for years because it received so much hype, but for once this is one that fully deserves all the praise lavished on it. If you are one of the two remaining people in the world who haven’t read it, then I highly recommend you do! Marvellous!

Amazon UK Link

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

Evil has come…

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It’s 1643, and England is in the midst of Civil War. Thomas Treadwater has been injured and is temporarily unfit for fighting, so when he receives a worrying letter from his sister he makes for home. Esther has written that their father has fallen under the influence of a girl he had taken in as a maid – Chrissa Moore. Hard for Thomas to believe since his father is a staunch Puritan with impeccable morals – not at all the type to fall into the clutches of a seductress. But Esther hints that Chrissa may have bewitched him. On arriving home, Thomas finds all the sheep on the farm dead or dying, his father struck down by apoplexy, and Chrissa in jail on the basis of Esther’s accusation of witchcraft. But is Esther telling the truth? As Thomas learns more he begins to suspect that evil has come to his father’s house… something more evil even than witchcraft…

The first half of this novel makes it seem as if it’s going to be a fairly standard story about a woman accused of witchcraft at a time of religious and social turmoil. Very well written and clearly excellently researched, there is enough mystery around Esther’s motivations for her accusations to make it interesting and compelling even in this crowded field.

But then, wow! Suddenly, about halfway through, Andrews takes it into a whole different direction – full-on supernatural horror, but soundly based on the superstitions, religious beliefs and mythology of the time. The suddenness with which this happens is jarring, or perhaps shocking would be a better word, although we have known from occasional chapters set sixty years in the future, 1703, that the events of 1643 have cast long, dark shadows, and that the story may not be over even yet. The change takes the book to an entirely different level, one where Andrews touches on some of the deep religious questions torturing England as the Reformation continues to rive the country – questions such as free will, faith, God’s plan and man’s submission to it, predestination, and the end times as foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Note to self: MUST read the Book of Revelation – it has inspired so much great literary and horror writing!)

Antichrist on Leviathan
from Liber Floridus, 1120, via wikipedia

I don’t want to go into the plot in any more detail since it’s one that works better the less you know going in. I was super-impressed by how well Andrews captured what felt like an authentic 17th century mindset, in all of her characters, but especially in Thomas. As for many others, the horrors unleashed by the Reformation in terms of persecution and war has led Thomas to question his own faith. He is a pre-Enlightenment man though he doesn’t know it, and his scepticism will play a role in how he acts. He turns for help in his troubles to his old mentor, John Milton (yes, that one), and through him we learn a little about the philosophical questions of the day. The whole thing is a fascinating imagining of what might come to pass if those parts of the Bible that sceptics call superstition and even believers think of as allegory turned out to be the literal truth. How would we respond? Is faith strong enough to enable us to submit to God’s will, or would we, with the best of intentions perhaps, try to thwart His plan?

The writing is great, as is the characterisation. Thomas, as our narrator, is the one we get to know best and it’s his confusion and moral dilemma that involves us most. But both Esther and Chrissa are wonderful creations too – Chrissa at first seeming the more complex of the two, but Esther soon revealing herself as something more than the simple innocent worried for her father that she first appears. Milton’s appearance might have seemed a bit too quirky if handled less well, but he’s not in it enough to overwhelm the story, and mostly acts as a vehicle to discuss the theological and philosophical issues of the day.

All of that might make the book sound heavy and ponderous – not at all! Andrews manages to get all this depth into what is fundamentally a thrilling horror story of the old-fashioned kind – free of graphic gore and based on the age-old debate of good versus evil, and man’s moral frailty. I wondered how much classic horror Andrews has read – some of the passages in the latter sections as the book builds to its climax put me in mind very much of the horror greats, especially the writing of William Hope Hodgson. It may be, though, that the similarity comes not from Andrews being influenced directly by these writers but by them all having been influenced by the same mythological and Biblical sources.

Rosie Andrews

I think this is a wonderful book – thrilling, thought-provoking, brilliantly achieved. I loved that Andrews put herself and her readers so firmly in the mind-set of the time and never let 21st century beliefs or attitudes distort the picture. I thought her horror writing was fantastic, creating some truly marvellous imagery. And despite my own strictly rational outlook, she immersed me in the beliefs of the time so well that I found the story credible within the world in which its set, and the ending entirely satisfactory. The thing I found hardest to believe, in fact, is that this is a debut novel, and I can’t wait to see what Andrews gives us in the future. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

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

Woman, the temptress…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Djali the goat was my favourite character)

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

Victor Hugo

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

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

Alyson’s Review – see comments below

Christine’s Review – see comments below

Jane’s Review

Kelly’s Review

Margaret’s Review

Amazon UK Link

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Lindsay

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

Automata and missing children…

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Paris, 1750. Madeleine is desperate to escape from the brothel that her mother runs, so when one of the brothel’s clients, a policeman, offers her money to take a position as a maid in the house of Doctor Reinhart in order to spy on him, she accepts. Doctor Reinhart is an automaton maker, already famed for his life-like creations of birds and animals which he animates using clockwork. Madeleine is not told the reason the police are interested in the doctor; she is merely instructed to report on any suspicious activities. When she arrives at the doctor’s house she meets Véronique, the doctor’s young daughter, just returned from her education in a convent and now keen to follow her father’s footsteps and become an automaton maker too. Soon Madeleine becomes convinced that the doctor is indeed involved in a secret project, but despite her best efforts and the pressure being applied on her, she can’t find out exactly what. Meantime Paris is in an uproar over the disappearances of several children. At first the missing children came from amongst the many homeless waifs living on the streets, but now the children of tradesmen are disappearing too and rumours are flying as to who is taking the children and why…

I don’t want to say much more about the plot than that, because the interest of the book comes from the slow revelations that finally allow Madeleine and the reader to know what is going on. To be honest, I worked out parts of the mystery fairly early on, but it didn’t matter because the story is much more about the characters and how they are impacted by the events in the book. The historical setting of Paris in the reign of Louis XV is wonderfully portrayed – I’m no expert on the period so can’t speak to its authenticity, but I found it totally convincing. Mazzola takes us into the poorest and darkest corners of the city and to the dazzling court of the king, and shows us the huge inequities that only a few decades later would lead to bloody revolution.

The story is told from the perspective of three different women, though all in third party. Madeleine is the main character, and she’s very well drawn. We learn about her terrible but sadly not unusual experiences as a child forced into prostitution, though it’s made even harder by the fact that it’s her mother who did the forcing. But Madeleine is strong, determined not just to make a better life for herself but also for her young nephew Émile, who is a sickly child and an orphan, his mother, Madeleine’s sister, having died not long before the book begins. Madeleine is also unusual in that she has some basic education given to her by her father before he died. It is Madeleine’s ability to read and write that makes her useful to the police as a spy.

Véronique is the second perspective. Since part of the mystery revolves around her, we don’t get to know her quite as well as Madeleine until late on in the book. However, she too has had a difficult childhood and is now looking to forge a life and career for herself in a society that restricts opportunities for women of her class to little more than marriage or the convent.

The third perspective is a woman that we initially know as Jeanne but soon discover is in fact Madame de Pompadour. Through her we learn about the life of being the officially recognised mistress of the King, considerably more luxurious than Madeleine’s life in a brothel, but perhaps no more secure. Jeanne’s position is entirely dependent on Louis’ favour, and she knows that there are many who would happily see her fall from grace or take her place. Through her, too, we get to see the power struggles at court, with everyone jostling for the king’s patronage, and all completely uninterested in the poverty and growing anger of the Parisian poor on their doorstep.

Mazzola touches on many issues – women’s lowly status and lack of agency, slavery, prostitution, poverty, and so on. But in every case she shows us these things through the characters’ lives and actions – she doesn’t preach and she doesn’t get polemical. Hallelujah! Her characters are firmly rooted in their own time, and haven’t miraculously acquired twenty-first century attitudes and sensibilities.

Anna Mazzola

The story itself is wonderfully creepy, with Mazzola making great use of the settings and the doctor’s automata to create an atmosphere of mild Gothic horror. Apparently it’s inspired by a real scandal of children going missing in Paris at this time and some of the rumours that flew around, although Mazzola has created her own story from this base. There are hints at the supernatural, at the old story of science being allowed to run beyond control, at the lengths that obsessions will take people to and the lines that they will cross in pursuit of knowledge. And the resolution of the story is both dark and satisfying.

An excellent book – great setting, well-drawn interesting characters, and a story that intrigues and chills and takes us to the edge of the supernatural, but ultimately stays on the right side of credible. Loved it – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

A tale I have for you…
~ William Fowler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Greig

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

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

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

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The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

And then you go and spoil it all…

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Emmett Watson has just been released from the juvenile work farm where he has spent eighteen months after accidentally killing another boy in a fight. While he was inside, Emmett’s father died and the bank has foreclosed on the mortgage on their Nebraskan farm, so now Emmett is left with only his car and $3,000 dollars his father has hidden for him away from the bank’s clutches, and his younger brother Billy to care for. Emmett was never keen on farming anyway, so he intends to take Billy to Texas and start a new life there. But Billy wants to go to California since he has found some postcards from their mother, suggesting that’s where she headed when she abandoned them long ago. And then two boys from the work farm show up, Duchess and Woolly, having hidden in the boot of the car that brought Emmett home. They have a different plan of where they want to go, and they want to persuade Emmett to come along. So the four boys set off on a journey, following the Lincoln Highway first east to New York, and then planning to drive from there west, all the way to the other coast…

I love Amor Towles’ writing. He has moments of beauty, moments of humour, occasional shafts of intriguing insight into history or literature or human nature, and he creates lovely characters. His characters rarely ring fully true, but they have that quality of the heroes and heroines of olden times, when we seemed able to accept people as wholly good in a way that feels rather out of place now in contemporary fiction. He gets away with this partly because of the quality of the writing, partly because he sets his novels in the past, and partly because he creates a kind of fairy tale atmosphere, where this reader at least can happily put her disbelief to one side for a while and simply enjoy the story.

Here, the three boys from the work farm are all good-hearted, kind and generous – the problems that led them there all arising as a result of useless, though not intentionally cruel, parenting. They all put each other above themselves, never behave inappropriately in front of eight-year-old Billy, and rarely do anything much that rises above the level of endearing naughtiness. The exception is Duchess, who is occasionally startlingly violent, but always for excellent, generous reasons. It’s all very Walton-esque – one can well imagine John-boy being just such a lad had he ever ended up in a work farm. Or perhaps like Alcott’s Little Men, where a little love is enough to wipe away the mostly deeply embedded trauma. Not believable, but reassuring to readers turning quiveringly away from real life in search of a bit of respite.

It’s a long and slow book – one to savour rather than to race through. Not much happens for most of it, just a series of minor incidents, most of them with a humorous edge though with an occasional moment of something a shade darker. The viewpoint jumps from boy to boy, sometimes first person, sometimes third, sometimes present tense, sometimes past, and along the way we gradually get to know each boy well, and learn about the history of their lives and what has brought them to this point. It took me a while to slow down to the book’s pace but once I had, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them all, even precociously annoying little Billy. I found I was looking forward to picking the book up each night to take me to a gentler, kinder world for a while…

***Despite my best efforts, what follows is mildly spoilerish, though of mood rather than incident, so if you intend to read the book soon, stop now! Suffice it to say, I disliked the way he ended it.***

Amor Towles

And then, as he has done before, Towles spoils it all with a completely jarring ending. Obviously I can’t go into detail, but I’ll just say that after all that goose-down soft relaxation, he metaphorically hit me over the head with a brick, and left me nursing my wounds. I still can’t get the bad taste out of my mouth – and bad taste pretty much describes those final few chapters. I don’t know what he was thinking. Was he playing games with the reader? Did it amuse him to calm us and soothe us and rock us gently and then set off a metaphorical bomb under us just when we least expected it? It certainly didn’t amuse me! Either write a sentimental piece of nostalgia for a non-existent time, Mr Towles, or write a hard-hitting novel – don’t swap genres in the last 5% of a book!

So, difficult to rate. I adored 95% of it and hated 5%, and that 5% ruined all that had come before. I’m going to give it four stars but that’s pretty arbitrary – I reckon I could justify any rating between one and five based on my conflicted and aggrieved feelings. Would I recommend it? Not sure – I’d like you to get as much enjoyment as I did out of the bulk of it, but I’d hate for you to end up feeling as I did when I turned the last pages…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley.

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The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

Mocking the Raj…

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

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

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

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

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

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

JG Farrell

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

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

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

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Snow Country (Austrian Trilogy 2) by Sebastian Faulks

Hearts and minds…

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As a younger son, Anton Heidick is expected to stay at home in his small town in Styria and take over his father’s sausage-making business. Anton wants to go to Vienna to study though, and his parents don’t stop him although they refuse to support him financially. So he works his way through by tutoring the young son of a wealthy family, and there he meets Delphine, who is paid to teach French to the daughter of the house. This will be the beginning of a love affair that will have a major part in shaping Anton’s future. On leaving university, Anton decides he wants to be a journalist, and gradually builds a small reputation as a foreign correspondent, sent off to witness major events around the world. But it’s now 1914, and the clouds of war are gathering across Europe…

We meet Lena in the late 1920s, and learn of her difficult childhood as the child of an illiterate and often drunken woman, who earns a living partly through prostitution and partly by working as a cleaner at the Schloss Seeblick, a kind of mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia. Lena too makes her way to Vienna, where she becomes involved with Rudolph, a young left-wing activist. But things don’t work out as she expected, and when her mother dies she returns to Carinthia, and is offered her mother’s old job at the sanatorium. It is to here that, a few years later, Anton too will come, firstly to write an article about the sanatorium, and then to seek help for his own mental health problems, a leftover from his experiences during the war years.

The underlying plot in this is rather slight, based around Anton’s love for Delphine and Lena’s search to find a place for herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much sympathy or opportunity. But the story is in some ways simply a vehicle to allow Faulks to show us various aspects of Austrian society and to create a general picture of the period from just before the First World War to within sight of the Second.

Anton and Lena are the main characters, but three others play significant roles and give us different perspectives: Delphine, a Frenchwoman who will find herself living in an enemy country when the war starts; Rudolph, the young socialist that Lena is involved with in Vienna, who allows us glimpses of the complex political situation in this part of Europe; and Martha, the daughter of the founder of the Schloss Seeblick, who now acts as both administrator and therapist, and who gives some insight into the development of psychoanalysis in Austria in the wake of Freud’s theories. Unusually for contemporary fiction, all of the characters are likeable, and all are fundamentally decent people trying to do their best, despite their normal human weaknesses and flaws. I found that deeply refreshing, and was happy to find myself totally involved in each of their stories.

Anton’s career as a journalist also takes us to other places, giving little vignettes within the main story, designed to show the state of the world at this uneasy time. He visits Panama to witness the completion of the canal, and muses on the roles of France and America, the rise of the new powers in the world and the decay of the old. He casually mentions the workforce, treated little better than slaves, but as a man of his time, he accepts this without much question. Later he attends the trial in Paris of Mme Cailloux (a real person), wife of a prominent politician, who stands accused of shooting the editor of Le Figaro. This gives Faulks room to give an excellent picture of France just before the war, with half the population wanting peace and the other half clamouring for war to wipe out the stain of past defeats and show that France is a major power yet.

I would have happily had a whole book of Anton travelling from place to place, showing us the world through major news events. The sudden change to Lena’s life makes sense and works well in the end, but on the whole I didn’t find her life as interesting at Anton’s. However it’s through her relationship with Rudolph that we see the rise of extremism at both ends of the political spectrum initially, before fascism won out. Rudolph’s story also lets us see the growing resentment between the politically sophisticated and relatively wealthy Viennese urbanites and the people of rural Austria, poorer, less well educated and with fewer opportunities.

Sebastian Faulks

I feel I’ve made this book sound horribly heavyweight and a bit polemical, so let me correct that. Faulks writes with a light hand, and all these background events are never allowed to stop the flow of the human story of our characters’ lives. There are some tragic incidents which are treated with welcome restraint, some occasional humour to lift the tone, and affairs of the heart – not hearts and flowers romances, but grown-up, complex relationships with a feeling of truth about them. Of course I have some criticisms – perhaps a little lack of depth, too much discussion of Freud for my taste, a rather too neat ending – but none of these seriously affected my overall enjoyment. I was completely absorbed throughout and sorry to leave the characters behind when the last page turned. Apparently the book is the second in a loose Austrian trilogy, although each also stands on its own, and I’m looking forward to going back to read the first, Human Traces, and seeing where Faulks takes us in the third. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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My Ántonia by Willa Cather

A nation of immigrants…

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One day in the late 19th century, two children arrive separately in Nebraska on the same train. Jim Burden is a ten-year-old boy, recently orphaned and coming to the prairie land to live with his grandparents. Ántonia Shimerda is a couple of years older, immigrating to America from Bohemia with her family. Although from different backgrounds and traditions, the children become friends, learning about the land and wildlife of their new home together as they explore it with some of the other children in the farming neighbourhood. Over the years their friendship will gradually fade as Jim goes off to university and later to live in New York, but he always remembers Ántonia, and now in middle-age has set out to write down his memories of her.

When reviewing a much-studied classic it’s next to impossible to find anything new to say, so this is simply a summary of the things that most stood out to me while reading rather than an attempt at a full analysis. To start, I’ll explain why for me it only rates as four stars – simply put, it has no plot, which regular readers of my reviews will know is one of the things most likely to make me grumpy about a book. Instead it is a description of the short-lived era of pioneering, a wonderful depiction of the land and people’s relationship with it before it was fully tamed, a foundational story of the creation of America or perhaps of the myth of America, and a coming-of-age tale of Jim, primarily, but also of Ántonia and of the frontier itself.

I felt it was an odd and intriguing choice for Cather to tell Ántonia’s story at a remove through the eyes of a male narrator, especially since I found Jim’s voice almost inexorably feminine, particularly when he reaches the age of developing sexual interest in girls. I was interested to read in the introduction by Janet Sharistanian in my Oxford World’s Classics edition that Cather’s deepest relationships throughout her life were with women, although Sharistanian is careful to clarify that there is no evidence as to whether those relationships were sexual. However, she quotes another academic critic whose views rather neatly summed up my own feeling about Jim as narrator and Cather as author: “Judith Fetterley posits that ‘Though nominally male, Jim behaves in ways that mark him as female’; that his ‘sexual self-presentation’ as well as his actions reveal his ‘gender ambiguity’; and that ‘My Ántonia is the work of a lesbian writer, who could not ‘tell her own story in her own voice’”. Sharistanian doesn’t agree with this wholeheartedly, but I do. I also felt it perhaps explains another aspect I found mysterious – that we are first introduced to Jim in an introduction written by another person, using ‘I’ and presumably Cather herself, who apparently shares these childhood recollections of Ántonia and yet never appears in Jim’s narrative. I felt that Cather had handed over not just some of the autobiographical facts of her own story to ‘Jim’ but also her internal feelings, and that he really has to be considered her alter-ego.

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The other aspect I found most interesting was that this is the earliest example I’ve read of what is now a standard part of American literature, and increasingly the literature of other Western nations – the ‘immigrant experience’ novel. This, however, is written not by the immigrant herself, but from the perspective of an established ‘American’ – that is, a person of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant stock (although the Burdens are certainly not WASPs). Ántonia is from Eastern Europe, Catholic and, like most waves of immigrants to the US (and elsewhere), looked down on and treated as lesser by those already established until they in turn become accepted and absorbed into the story of the nation. I wondered if Cather chose to tell the story from Jim’s point of view purely because that was her own perspective on Ántonia, or if again she felt that America was not ready to hear from the voices of recent immigrants. In our time, it would be rather frowned upon to tell the story of an immigrant in this way – we are much more into ‘own voices’ and reluctant to imagine ourselves into the lives and minds of ‘others’. I thought Cather did it excellently, never once demeaning nor falsely romanticising Ántonia or the other immigrant girls we meet, and showing them as having become both physically and metaphorically the mothers of the young nation.

She also has a wonderful sense of balance in the way she shows the immigrant girls as living in a male-dominated society but refusing the role of victim or underdog, instead exercising a lot of autonomy in the way their lives unfold. The overall impression I came away with is that she believed that waves of immigration, especially the women, strengthened the American bloodstock (to put it rather crudely).

Willa Cather

The writing is excellent, especially in the descriptions of the various settings. The vastness of the landscape, the strength and courage of the pioneers, the rapid development of towns and social order are all portrayed brilliantly, leaving a lasting impression on the reader’s mind – for this reader, more lasting than the lives of our major protagonists, I must admit, who largely felt as if they existed to tie together a rather disparate set of episodes illustrating facets of the frontier life. Ántonia herself disappears completely for large parts of the book and her story is often told at a distance, by some third party telling Jim the latest gossip about her. Again, Sharistanian suggests a long-running debate between people who think the book is fundamentally Ántonia’s story, or Jim’s. I fall into the latter category – for me, this is very definitely Jim’s story, and therefore largely Cather’s own. But mostly it feels like a part of America’s story, or of its myth-making of itself as a ‘nation of immigrants’ – that is not to denigrate the myth or to suggest it is untrue, simply to say that all nations form myths from their own history which reflect and influence how they feel about themselves and how they act as a society. And I feel this foundational myth-creation aspect may be why the book has earned its place in the hearts of so many Americans, and as a well-deserved American classic.

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

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Worthy, but soapy and strangely unmoving…

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When inter-ethnic warfare in Nigeria leads to the Igbo breaking away to form their own short-lived nation of Biafra, the five main characters in the book find themselves caught up in the slaughter and mass starvation that results. Olanna and Kainene are twins, the privileged daughters of a wealthy businessman, who have both returned to Nigeria after being educated in English universities. Olanna is in love with Odenigbo, an academic with strong nationalist and revolutionary leanings. Kainene falls for Richard, a white man who is failing to write the book he came to Nigeria to research, and whose main purpose is to personify white guilt. Then there’s Ugwu, servant to Odenigbo and Olanna – his purpose appears to be to show how devoted the servant class is to the privileged who sit around pontificating while their servants do all the work of cooking, cleaning and bringing up their children for them, while having to beg for an occasional day off to visit their families.

This one took me nearly two months to read, largely because I found it almost completely flat in tone despite the human tragedy it describes. I learned a good deal about the background to the Biafran War, which happened when I was far too young to understand it but still registered with me and all my generation because of the horrific pictures of starving children that were shown on the news night after night for many months. I also learned a lot about the life of the privileged class in Nigeria – those with a conflicted relationship with their colonial past, adopting British education, the English language and the Christian religion while despising the colonisers who brought these things to their country. Adichie manages to be relatively even-handed – whenever she has one of her characters blame the British for all their woes, she tends to have another at least hint at the point that not all the atrocities Africans carry out against each other can be blamed on colonisation, since inter-ethnic hatreds and massacres long predated colonisation.

Biafran Flag

In this case it is the Igbo who are presented as the persecuted – the same ethnic group as Chinua Achebe writes about in Things Fall Apart, a book which I feel has clearly influenced Achebe’s style. The attempt at a degree of even-handedness struck me in both, as did the method of telling the political story through the personal lives of a small group of characters. In both, that style left me rather disappointed since I am always more interested in the larger political picture than in the domestic arena, but that’s simply a subjective preference. I felt I learned far more about how the Biafrans lived – the food they ate, the way they cooked, the superstitions of the uneducated “bush people”, the marriage customs, etc. – than I did about why there was such historical animosity between the northern Nigerians and the Igbo, which personally would have interested me more. On an intellectual level, however, I feel it’s admirable that Adichie chose not to devote her book to filling in the ignorance of Westerners, but instead assumed her readership would have enough background knowledge – like Achebe’s, this is a tale told by an African primarily for Africans, and as such I preferred it hugely to Americanah, which I felt was another in the long string of books written by African and Asian ex-pats mainly to pander to the white-guilt virtue-signalling of the Western English-speaking world.

Although I found all of the descriptions of life before and during the war interesting, the main problem of the book for me was that I didn’t care much about any of the characters. Just as I find annoying British books that concentrate on the woes of the privileged class, and especially on the hardships of writers, so I found it here too. Adichie is clearly writing about the class she inhabits – academics, politically-minded, wealthy enough to have servants – and I found her largely uncritical of her own class, and rather unintentionally demeaning towards the less privileged – the servants and the people without access to a British University education, many without even the right to basic schooling.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is far more interested in romantic relationships than I am, and the bed-hopping of her main characters occasionally gave me the feeling I had drifted into an episode of Dallas or Dynasty by mistake. I was also a little taken aback, given Adichie’s reputation as a feminist icon, that it appeared that the men’s infidelities seemed to be more easily forgiven than the women’s, even by the women. (I don’t think she’s wrong in this – it just surprised me that she somehow didn’t seem to highlight it as an issue.) But what surprised me even more, and left a distinctly unpleasant taste, was when she appeared to be trying to excuse and forgive a character who participated in a gang-rape of a young girl during the war. I think she was perhaps suggesting that war coarsens us all and makes us behave out of character, and I’m sure that’s true. But it doesn’t make it forgivable, and this feminist says that women have to stop helping men to justify or excuse rape in war. There is no justification, and I was sorry that that particular character was clearly supposed to have at least as much of my sympathy as the girl he raped.

So overall, a mixed reaction from me. I’m glad to have read it, I feel I learned a considerable amount about the culture of the privileged class of the Igbo and the short-lived Biafran nation, but I can’t in truth say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it.

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(Sorry for disappearing. I had a little health issue – nothing serious, but it left me kinda wabbit*. I hope to be back in action properly soonish.

*Wabbit: Scottish word meaning listless, lethargic, tired, and overcome with a desire to lie in bed eating chocolate. Though that last part may be just me.)

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To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

The Pastor investigates…

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To Cook a BearWhen the Pastor goes walking round the woods and hills around his village in Pajala in the north of Sweden, seeking new botanical specimens, he is always accompanied by the young Sami boy, Jussi. Jussi had run away from his Lapland home and come south, and the Pastor had come across him living wild and near to starving. The Pastor took him in to his own family, and now Jussi is his faithful assistant. The Pastor, we gradually discover, is the founder and leader of the Lutheran Pietist Revival movement, Lars Levi Laestadius – a real person, who as well as his religious work made a name for himself in the scientific field through his work on botany. When a local maid goes missing and is later found dead, the villagers believe it was the work of a killer bear and they set out to hunt the creature down. The Pastor’s scientific knowledge and keen powers of observation lead him to think that the girl died at the hands of a human, but he can’t persuade the local law officer, Sheriff Brahe, to believe him. And then another girl is attacked…

This is one of these books that, despite having a murder mystery at its heart, falls very definitely into the category of literary fiction. As the Pastor and Jussi go about their investigation, the author slowly builds a detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century life here in this remote northern area where Sweden and Lapland meet, not far from the Finnish border. Life is hard, superstition is rife, and drunkenness is a curse on the population. The Pastor, himself of Sami origin, wants to stamp out the drunkenness and bring education to the poor so that they can lift themselves out of their physical and spiritual poverty. This is at the root of his Revival, and while it brings him the loyalty of many of the poorer people, it also makes him many enemies among the rich and powerful, or those who love alcohol more than God. Niemi assumes some knowledge of Laestadius and his movement, which may be the case for Swedes, but I had never heard of him. However, the story stands strongly on its own and a quick visit to my friend wikipedia filled in the background details after I’d finished reading.

Lars Levi Laestadius

Niemi shows how the Sami were treated not just as second-class citizens but as inferior beings, studied by anthropologists in the way botanists study plants. Laestadius’ movement was beginning to teach Sami and other children from these remote regions to read and write, and Niemi shows us this through the Pastor teaching Jussi, who is our narrator for most of the book. Jussi talks about the wonder of letters and how the written word seems to have given him a concept of self – the Pastor recording him in the parish register being the first time he felt that he existed beyond the moment, into a past and a future. He slowly learns to read, having to tackle not just his own native Sami language, but Swedish and even a little Latin so that he can assist with recording the Pastor’s botanical work. His wonder and musings on the importance of writing are beautifully done, and he is clearly a metaphor for what Niemi sees as Laestadius’ major contribution to the advancement of his own people, Niemi himself having been born in Pajala about a century after the time the book is set.

The letters by themselves were silent. But your lips could blow life into them. Turn them into objects, animals, names of people. And equally curious was the fact they continued speaking even when you had closed your mouth. When you looked at the letters, they were converted into words inside your head. No, not words – bodies. My eyes look at “Maria”, at the five letters, the five consecutive shapes, but in my heart and mind I see my beloved. Her cheeks, her shining eyes, her hands holding mine.

We also see the day to day life of the villagers; their work on their farms, their customs around marriage, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, their saunas. The harsh winters are endured here, so close to the Arctic, and the short summers enjoyed despite the hard work of preparing for the next winter. Life is physical and often cruel, and there is no sentimentality about the wild creatures that present a threat or a food source. Some of the most brutal scenes are tough to read, but they ring true.

The plot itself is slow-moving in the extreme, but again that seems to arise naturally out of the way of life. Distances are far when they must be walked in cold, wet weather, and there is no detective force to call in when a crime is committed – just the local Sheriff and his constable, neither of whom has any training, or indeed, desire, to deal with anything more complicated than a drunken brawl. Forensic science doesn’t exist, although Niemi allows the Pastor’s general scientific knowledge to play a part, and finds ways to bring in some of the new sciences happening in the wider world, such as daguerrotypes.

Mikael Niemi
Mikael Niemi

The writing is excellent as is the characterisation, of Jussi and the Pastor especially, but also of a host of secondary characters, such as the Sheriff, the Pastor’s wife, and the girl Jussi loves from afar. The translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner is flawless, with enough Swedish, Finnish and Sami phrases to keep the importance of language in this place before the reader, but always used in such a way that the meaning is either given or is clear from the context. Although more of a depiction of a way of life, the mystery ticks along steadily, giving the book a sense of direction, and the resolution is completely appropriate to the story – if you read it you’ll see what I mean. And I hope that you do read it – a truly absorbing novel, and highly recommended.

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

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