The Go-Between by LP Hartley

The past is a foreign country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the summer of 1900, young Leo Colston is invited by his school friend, Marcus Maudsley, to spend a few weeks with Marcus’ family at Brandham Hall. Many years later, in 1952, Leo comes across his diary of this year, and as he reads it, he gradually begins to remember the events of that summer, memories that his mind has suppressed throughout all the intervening time. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever.

To my mind’s eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with effort that I see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don’t know how I know them, and things that I remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream.

Leo is twelve when the story begins, with the complete ignorance of all matters relating to sex which was commonplace for children in those days. His interior world, beautifully brought to life, is one where adults are mysterious beings who don’t seem to act in accordance with the unbreakable codes of the public schoolboy. The adults at Brandham, so far above middle-class Leo in social standing, so confident in their superiority, seem to him god-like, and he compares them to the images of the zodiac which are printed in his diary. So when Marian, the daughter of the house, chooses Leo to be her postman, carrying secret messages to a neighbouring farmer, Ted Burgess, he feels honoured. He is old enough to be enthralled by Marian’s beauty and capricious behaviour, but young enough not to recognise his feelings as sexual. She is a goddess, he her willing worshipper and slave. To serve her, to gain her recognition, is all he desires – and to avoid her wrath.

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His feelings about Ted are more complicated. Even Leo’s lowly class is higher than that of a mere farmer and so Leo can feel socially superior, condescending even, but Ted has an overpowering physical masculinity that elevates him too to god status in the fatherless Leo’s eyes.

Believing himself to be unseen by other bathers, he gave himself up to being alone with his body. He wriggled his toes, breathed hard through his nose, twisted his brown moustache where some drops of water still clung, and looked himself critically all over. The scrutiny seemed to satisfy him, as well as it might. I, whose only acquaintance was with bodies and minds developing, was suddenly confronted by maturity in its most undeniable form; and I wondered, what must it feel like to be him, master of those limbs which have passed beyond the need of gym and playing field, and exist for their own beauty and strength? What can they do, I thought, to be conscious of themselves?

To play Mercury to these superior beings is at first a delight to Leo but, as the summer wears on, gradually he becomes uncomfortable, vaguely realising that somehow – he’s not sure how – Marian and Ted are transgressing sacrosanct codes of behaviour which he is becoming aware of without fully understanding. In this society where adults and children inhabit separate worlds, there is no one whom he can consult, and so he must try to find his own way through the moral maze in which he finds himself, and must somehow save his gods and goddesses from the path of self-destruction he begins to believe they’re on.

The writing is beautiful with every word perfectly placed, and emotional truth pours from every page. There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged. The role of women as pawns in the marriage game is shown clearly through Marian, brought up to do her duty by making a socially advantageous match regardless of personal inclination. The ambiguity around Marian is brilliantly portrayed – she is victim of her class and gender, but she can also be cold and cruel, a harsh goddess who brooks no dissent. Is it possible to break the heart of someone so utterly selfish? Or does she exist simply to break the hearts of her adoring subjects? As a person, I’m ambivalent about her; as a character, she is a wonderful, unforgettable creation.

Still, whose fault was it? ‘Nothing is ever a lady’s fault,’ Lord Trimingham had said, thereby ruling Marian out, and I was glad, for now I had no wish to inculpate her. He had not said, ‘Nothing is ever a lord’s fault,’ but no one could hold him to blame: he had done nothing that he shouldn’t: I was clear about that. Nor had he said, ‘Nothing is ever a farmer’s fault,’ and lacking the benefit of this saving clause the fault, if fault there were, must lie with Ted. Ted had enticed Marian into his parlour, his kitchen, and bewitched her. He had cast a spell on her. That spell I would now break – as much for his sake as for hers.

LP Hartley

Behind the story of these characters is the darker story of a century that started in war and became a long horror of loss. Hugh, the man whom Marian is expected to marry, has been badly scarred in the Boer War but still believes that it is the duty of every patriotic Englishman to fight for his country. He is the 9th Viscount Trimingham, a title that thrills young Leo, elevating Hugh too to his triumvirate of deities. For Leo, the idea of the new century excites him – a blank page on which he expects glories and wonders to be written. In this summer of 1900 the rare event of a long heatwave descends on England, seeming to Leo to signify the beginning of this new golden age, and he becomes obsessed by the daily temperatures, longing for new records to be broken. The unrelenting heat gives a kind of mystical air to the summer, as of a long pause when normal rules don’t apply. But when the dazzling summer darkens to tragedy, Leo loses not just his innocence but his optimism. The end of the summer heralds the end of hope for the century, and this small personal tragedy seems to presage the much greater tragedies that were soon to follow on an unprecedented scale.

A wonderful book which I’m glad to say affected me just as much on this re-reading as when I first read it decades ago. If you’ve never read it, give your soul a treat and do so now…

* * * * *

Because we all had this on our Classics Club spin a couple of months ago and it didn’t come up, Rose and Sandra and I all decided we’d read it anyway (we’re such rebels!) and review it on the same day – Wednesday! Unfortunately the internet gods had different plans and blew up my system again on Tuesday. Now with a new router and a promise or threat that if it goes down again they will have to do “extensive work”, whatever that means, so fingers crossed. Apologies to anyone who was concerned at my sudden disappearance, and especially to Sandra and Rose! As the poet Burns would say, the best laid plans of mice and bloggers gang aft agley…

Anyway, links below to their reviews, which I haven’t yet read but can’t wait to! I’m hoping my non-blogging blog buddy Alyson may have read it with us too, and will add her views on it in the comments below… and anyone else, of course! I should warn you, if anyone says they hated it I fully intend to splat them with a giant custard pie… 😀

Rose’s review             Sandra’s review

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The New Road by Neil Munro

Highland adventure…

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Æneas Macmaster is the son of a man who turned out for the Jacobites in 1715 and was killed. Now in 1733, Æneas is tutor to the nephew of the powerful Campbell of Argyll and to Margaret, the daughter of Alexander Duncanson, who is now laird of Æneas’ father’s estate of Drimdorran. When Æneas covers up for an escapade of Margaret’s he is dismissed by the furious Drimdorran, and his uncle, a merchant, sends him north on General Wade’s New Road to forge trade links with the Highland clans. Ninian Campbell, the agent of Campbell of Argyll, is also heading north, so the two men decide to travel together. Gradually they will discover that there is a mystery surrounding the circumstances of the death of Æneas’ father, and they will have many adventures as they set about finding the truth…

This was an odd one for me, in that I started out really struggling with it and gradually grew to love it. I found the first section quite confusing, despite having a reasonable familiarity with this period of Scottish history. The language, especially the dialogue, has a healthy sprinkling of archaic Scots plus occasional Gaelic words. It takes a while for the story to emerge – at first there’s a lot of Ninian and Æneas rambling around the countryside, seemingly aimlessly. There’s also the issue of all the characters having several different names – for instance, Campbell of Argyll is also called Inveraray, Duncanson is interchangeably known by the name of his estate, Drimdorran, and Ninian is a Macgregor of the clan Campbell, and so on. But once my “ear” got tuned into the language and I worked out who all the characters were and how they were connected, it became a much easier and therefore more enjoyable read. In fact, I admired and loved the language more and more as it went on – it’s wonderfully done with beautiful rhythm, and feels completely authentic to both time and place.

Not life, nor living dangers in these glooms compelled him to stand still a moment, half-inclined to turn, but something very old and rediscovered in himself; forgotten dreads of boyhood in wild winter wastes of midnight, and his people breaking from some thicket under moon to see before them spread unfriendly straths and hear the wind in perished heather. The mist it was they cherished – not the moon who made their progress visible; too often had she brought calamity to old Clan Alpine trailing through the snow, a broken and a hunted band, with children whimpering.

First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general. The whole Jacobite thing has tended to be co-opted by all of Scotland now as a heroic part of our long struggle against England, but this was never the case. In fact, most lowland Scots and even some of the Highland clans were on the other side, against the deposed Stuarts. The Campbells have become the legendary villains as the clan that took the lead against the Jacobites, and later in playing a major role in “pacifying” the Highlands on behalf of the government. But Munro shows the other side, with the Campbells as the bringers of civilisation and the Jacobite Highland chiefs as little more than lawless bandits. The New Road, built by the military under General Wade, was one of the main tools of pacification, allowing faster military response to possible future rebellions, but also opening the Highlands up to the more peaceful world of trade and commerce that had become the norm in the rest of the country. So a hated symbol of oppression if you were pro-Jacobite, or a welcome modernisation if you weren’t.

John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and Greenwich
by William Aikman

….He drew Grey Colin with a flourish from the scabbard, and the clotted blood of him that he had struck was on it: with a Gaelic utterance he laid it lightly on the young man’s head. The flesh of Æneas grewed; he retched at such an accolade.
….“What, man! are ye sick?” asked Ninian.
….“Yes!” said he, “I’m sick!” and broke into a furious condemnation of this wretched country.
….“What in Heaven’s name did ye expect?” asked Ninian. “Dancing?”
….“Everything’s destroyed for me!” cried out the lad. “The stories have been lies, and we have aye been beasts, and cloak it up in poetry.”
….“We are what God has made us!” said his friend. “And we must make the best of it.”

In fact, Æneas and Ninian spend very little time on the New Road, choosing to travel across country instead on their journey to Inverness. This allows Munro to give some great descriptions of the landscapes and of the way of life of the inhabitants at this moment just before great social change arrived. Once away from the relatively law-abiding environs of Campbell country the two men have a series of increasingly dangerous and exciting adventures, and these are great fun. It’s all a bit reminiscent of Kidnapped, I suspect intentionally, but while Stevenson’s clansmen are dirt-poor and scrabbling for existence, Munro’s are wild and lawless – I have no idea which is the more accurate depiction but I enjoyed Munro’s considerably more. There’s a lot of humour in it as well as drama and thrills and, while Æneas is the romantic lead, Ninian emerges as the real hero – crafty and practical, with a deep knowledge of the land and its people and politics. His investigation technique is entertaining as he uses a kind of sly, cunning guile to divine the truth behind local legends and tales.

….They were among a concourse of the hills, whose scarps were glistening in a sun that gave the air at noon a blandness, though some snow was on the bens. The river linked through crags and roared at linns; all rusty-red and gold the breckans burned about them; still came like incense from the gale-sprig perfume. They sat, those two young people, by the fire, demure and blate at first, to find themselves alone. From where they sat they could perceive down to the south the wrecks of Comyn fortresses; the Road still red and new was like a raw wound on the heather, ugly to the gaze, although it took them home. Apart from it, and higher on the slope, a drove-track ran, bright green, with here and there on it bleached stones worn by the feet of by-past generations. They saw them both – the Old Road and the New – twine far down through the valley into Badenoch, and melt into the vapours of the noon. And something in the prospect brought the tears to Janet’s eyes.
….“For why should I be sad?” she asked him suddenly, “to see that old track of the people and the herd, and this new highway boasting—boasting——?”

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I’m not going to pretend this one’s for everyone. A basic understanding of the historical setting (at least as much as I’ve given above) is essential, I think, and, although the main body of the text is standard English overlaid with Scots rhythms and is wonderfully done, I found some of the language quite demanding despite being an archaic Scot myself. But if it takes your fancy, then I highly recommend it. It’s a great combination of being half-nostalgic for the loss of those wild days but also clear-sighted about the culture of greed and lawlessness that lay beneath the later romanticisation of the Highland clan chiefs. And after a slow and rather tricky start, it becomes a fast-paced and exciting adventure story, complete with deadly peril and a touch of romance. Truly deserving of its reputation as a great Scottish classic!

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

On the wrong side of history…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Okonkwo is determined not to be like his drunken, feckless father. Through hard work, he gains an honoured place in his Ibo village as a yam grower with three wives and several children. As we follow what happens to him, we will learn about the ways and traditions of his people, and of how the coming of the white man changed them irrevocably.

If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man say yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.

The thing is that Achebe’s depiction of those ways and traditions are so appalling that I found myself completely on the side of the colonisers, not a place I either expected or wanted to be! The perpetual beatings of wives and children paled into insignificance when compared to the frequent killings for no reason at the behest of the many seemingly cruel and unjust gods worshipped and feared by the people. Centuries of farming tradition and yet they hadn’t worked out any methods of crop irrigation or protection, leaving them entirely at the mercy of the elements and of those pesky gods. The customs of deciding that some people should be treated as outcasts for no discernible cause and, even worse, of throwing twins out at birth to be left to die in the open made me feel that anything had to have been better than this. Come the colonisers, and with them education, healthcare, and a religion that taught of a loving god, gave a place to the outcasts and saved the lives of the abandoned twins – sounds good to me! And that makes me feel bad, because of course I really ought to be up in arms about the iniquities of the colonisers, oughtn’t I?

I really struggled for at least half of this quite short book. It’s quite repetitive and although it’s certainly revealing and, I assume, honest about the life and traditions of the village, there’s very little in the way of story. I must say Achebe surprised me, though. I knew nothing about him except that he called Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” for his portrayal of colonisation, and I assumed therefore that he would show the Africans in a positive light. I admire him, therefore, for not taking that easy route and instead giving a very harsh and unromanticised portrayal of life before the colonisers arrived. I suspect his real argument with Conrad was probably that Conrad often leaves the “natives” at the periphery of the picture, as if they are merely props on a stage set for the star actors in his dramas, the white men, and I certainly would agree with that assessment though I wouldn’t agree that that makes him racist. Achebe reverses this, putting the Africans as the central stars, with the colonisers having merely walk-on roles, and this has apparently influenced generations of African writers ever since the book was first published in 1958, making them realise the possibility of telling their own stories.

Chinua Achebe

The story picks up in the second half, once the colonisers arrive. We see the mix of missionary and soldier, one trying to change the Africans through the influence of Christianity, the other controlling them at the point of the gun. We see any form of violent resistance met with a wholly disproportionate response, and the newly installed justice system being used as a thin veneer to camouflage total dominance. We see misunderstandings caused by a failure of each to attempt to understand the other’s culture, and those misunderstandings often escalating to murder or massacre. Again, Achebe doesn’t make this entirely one-sided. While obviously the military might of the colonisers is by far the greater, he shows that many of the Africans are attracted to the things they offer, whether that be a better life or simply the pleasure that comes from being on the side of the more powerful, especially to those who have been treated as outcasts by their own society.

Through Okonkwo and the older villagers, we see their despair at the destruction of the old ways, and from a male perspective I could certainly sympathise with that. But from a female perspective, I couldn’t help but feel that the women would have had less to regret – on the basis of Achebe’s depiction, they lacked all political power and had little influence even in the domestic sphere, not to mention the accepted tradition that husbands ought to beat their wives regularly. (Not, of course, that that tradition was exclusive to Africans…)

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, either for the very bleak portrayal of the life of the Africans, nor for any particular literary merit. It is well written but not exceptionally so and the structure makes it feel rather unbalanced, with what story there is all happening towards the end. What makes it stand out is the rare centrality of the Nigerian people in their own story, and the, to me, unexpected even-handedness with which Achebe treats both Africans and colonisers. For those reasons, and because it’s considered an African classic by the “father of African literature”, I’m glad to have read it.

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The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Roll up! Roll up!

😀 😀 😀 😀

One day, just as the Omaha World Fair of 1898 draws to a close, two elderly sisters are sitting quietly in their Nebraska farmhouse when an extraordinary event occurs – a hot-air balloon crashes onto their roof. In it is Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist and magician. He has survived but with a badly broken leg which means that he has to stay in the farmhouse while he recovers – an intrusion the old ladies find a welcome break from their dull routine. They ask him for his story and he is at first reluctant to tell them, instead telling us, the readers. We hear about his early life as an orphan, why he became a ventriloquist, his fascination with the World Fair, his puppet Oscar. And most of all, we learn about his great love for Cecily, an actress also working in the Fair. Finally, we will learn why he was in the hot-air balloon on the day of the crash…

By all rights I should have hated this one. Mostly it’s a romance, with much sighing over Cecily’s many perfections, and it has generous hints of the kind of trendy liberal “woke”-ness that normally makes me run a mile. But the writing is gorgeous and all the stuff about the World Fair is wonderful. I kept expecting to reach a point where the love aspect got too much for me, especially when in the later stages it takes on a kind of ghostly, mystical element, but it kept my attention to the end, and I was well content to gloss over the relative weakness of the plot and its too tidy resolution.

(This is why I love doing challenges. I only read this because of the Omaha setting which is a compulsory stop on my Around the World Challenge. I would never have chosen it based on the blurb or even the mixed reviews.)

I didn’t yet know that this was the actress not listed in the program, that this was that Sessaly, the “violet-eyed trollop” of Opium and Vanities. Her eyes were not violet, after all – they were amber. They were the color of candied ginger or a slice of cinnamon cake. Faded paper, polished leather, a brandied apricot. Orange-peel tea. I considered them, imagining the letters I would write to her. Pipe tobacco, perhaps. A honey lozenge, an autumn leaf. I would look through books of poetry, not to thieve but to avoid. Dear Sessaly, I thought later that night, not actually with pen to paper but lying on my back, writing the words in the air with my finger, let me say nothing to you that’s already been said.

(This is the real event that Schaffert has used as his “World Fair”.)

As well as Cecily and Ferret, there’s a cast of characters who would be eccentric in most lifestyles but who are well and believably drawn as the street entertainers, small-time actors and grifters who haunt the periphery of the Fair. August is Ferret’s best friend – a gay half-caste Indian (using the terminology of the time) who is madly in love with Ferret but knows his love will never be returned. (Yeah. But oddly it works, more or less.) Billy Wakefield is a rich man with a tragic past which somehow fails to make him sympathetic – he’s by no means a stock baddie, but he’s a man who is used to getting his own way regardless of who may get hurt in the process. Cecily works in a company of actors who are performing in the House of Horrors – Cecily herself playing Marie Antoinette being beheaded many times a day for the gruesome delight of the paying customers. And the Nebraskan sisters have their own peculiarities, such as their intention to build a kind of temple on their ground with Ferret as an unlikely prophet.

The characterisation is more whimsical than profound, and Cecily herself is an enigma, to me at least. I found her irritating and not a particularly loveable person, but everyone seems to love her anyway. The story, which looks as if it’s going to be a straightforward romance at first, takes off in an unexpected direction halfway through. I don’t want to include spoilers so I won’t say more on that, except that every time I thought I’d got a handle on where the story was going Schaffert would surprise me – not with shocks and twists, but with an almost fairy-tale like quality of unreality, or illusion.

I can see your absence everywhere, in everything. I could look at a rose, but instead of seeing the rose, I would see you not holding it. I look at the moonlight, and there you are, not in it.

Timothy Schaffert

For me, the Fair itself was the star of the show. Schaffert shows all the surface glamour, and all the hidden tawdriness beneath: the Grand Court where the rich play, the midway for the common herd. He shows the unofficial street entertainers, the whores, the drunks, the sellers of obscene photographs, the many ways to fleece the gullible. But there’s a feeling that the open grifting and true friendships on midway are somehow more honest than the insincerity among the respectable rich, where friendships are superficial and people live for scandal and gossip. Schaffert’s plot runs the full length of the Fair, so that we see it from its dazzling opening with all the buildings white and shining in the sun, to its close, when the veneer is already peeling off, glamour gone, showing the cheap shabbiness beneath and the last fair people left stealing anything they can before they leave.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to read this – an odd one, but a surprise winner.

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The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

End of Empire…

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It’s 1942 and tensions are running high in India. Britain, with its usual high-handedness, has decided that Indian troops will join the war effort without consulting the Indian leaders. Gandhi is demanding that the British quit India, even though that will probably mean that the Japanese move in. When the British arrest the leaders of the Independence movement, for a few short days the peace of Mayapore is broken as rioters take to the streets. And in that time one British woman will see her idealistic dreams destroyed while another will be brutally raped. Eighteen years later, an unnamed researcher will come to Mayapore to try to discover the truth of what happened in those days.

Scott starts by telling us:

This is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened. There are the action, the people, and the place; all of which are interrelated but in their totality incommunicable in isolation from the moral continuum of human affairs.

But in fact it’s the story of two rapes – the rape perpetrated on Daphne Manners, a white girl who made the fatal mistake of falling in love with an Indian man, and the rape perpetrated by the British Empire on the culture, society and people of India. Written at the height of the breast-beating anti-Colonial guilt experienced in Britain following the gradual letting go of their empire, Scott shows no mercy in his dissection of the evils committed, not so much by individual Brits, though there’s some of that, but by the imposition of one dominant culture over another.

The book is told in a series of sections, each concentrating on one character, and gradually building to create an in-depth picture of fictional Mayapore, which functions as a manageable microcosm for India as a whole. It takes a long time to get to Daphne’s story, deliberately, as Scott circles round, showing life in Mayapore from many different angles and over a period of years both before and after the event, creating a feeling of eventual inevitability about her rape as a thing that rises out of that ‘moral continuum of human affairs’, and feeds back into it.

Scott uses many different styles to tell his story. Some parts are first person “spoken” accounts told to the researcher, some are third person narratives, some take the form of letters between characters, or official reports, and some come from Daphne’s journal. In the third person sections, where it’s written, presumably, in the author’s own style, the language is frequently complex, rather spare and understated at the moments of greatest emotion, but often with lush beauty in the descriptive passages, creating a wonderful sense of this town and the surrounding country. In the other sections, Scott creates individual voices for each of the narrators, suited to the form they’re using, and he sustains these superbly so that one gets a real feel for the personalities behind even the driest and most factual reports.

Some of the sections are intensely human stories, like that of Edwina Crane, a woman who has devoted her empty and lonely life to the Church of England mission schools that teach the Indian children how to be good little English-speaking Christians. Her admiration for Gandhi has finally been destroyed by his recent actions and she has found that the Indian women she had looked to for a meagre form of social life are no longer so keen to be patronised by white women. Or the story of Hari Kumar, an Indian boy brought up in England and suddenly transported back to the country of his birth, where he is an outsider to both cultures – unable to speak the Indian languages and lacking knowledge of their way of life, but as a ‘native’ he is not allowed to be a part of the British community either, despite his impeccable English manners and education.

Other sections are told to the researcher and although their purpose is to shed light on Daphne’s story, the characters reveal as much about themselves along the way: Lady Lili Chatterjee, high caste and with a British title via her deceased husband, she is respected by the British but still subjected to constant, often unthinking, discrimination; or Mr Srinivasan, a lawyer who was involved in the Independence movement, and who shows us the Indian perspective on the political questions. The reports from the military and civil authorities are formal in style, but are accompanied by letters to the researcher, where the characters are able to look back on and reassess events with the perspective of time passed.

And in the last section we learn Daphne’s own story in her own words – not just the story of her rape, but of her life, of the choices she made and of her reasons for making them.

Paul Scott

Scott creates a vivid and believable picture of the society, culture and politics that led to this moment in time, but he never forgets to put people at the heart of it. While some sections are focused very much on the political situation and, as a result, might be rather dry for readers who are less interested in that aspect, these are broken up by the often intensely intimate stories of the characters, many of whom become unforgettable. Since I’m fascinated by the British Empire, and India especially, I found the political stuff just as engrossing as the personal. Superbly written, intelligent at the political level and deeply moving at the personal – a wonderful novel.

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Book 20 of 20

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Birth pangs…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, her young slave, Florens, sets out to find and bring back the man the mistress thinks will be able to cure her. As Florens makes her difficult and dangerous journey through the still wild Virginia of 1690, where humans and beasts present different though equal threats, we will learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we will get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will.

I’m having a bit of a rollercoaster ride with Toni Morrison. Having been stunned by the power of Beloved, I was then a little disappointed by the heavy-handed symbolism of Song of Solomon, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one. Having now read it, I suspect it may have layers of depth that would require further readings to fully catch, but even on this one reading I found it a wonderfully insightful and nuanced picture of the early settlers in the New World, and a beautifully told story of the human spirit battling against hardship.

Jacob Vaark has inherited a piece of land and sets out to farm it, sending back to England for a woman willing to become his wife. Rebekka tells her story of sailing across the ocean to marry a man she has never met. She is lucky – he is kind and they grow to love one another. We see the overcrowded filth and poverty of the London she has left behind and her growing delight at the space, pure air, clean water of her new home. Jacob is kind in other ways, gradually collecting waifs and strays to work on the farm. Florens came to them as a child, traded as payment of a debt owed to Jacob. Lina, a Native American, survived the smallpox brought by the settlers which wiped out almost all of her village. Rootless, she too finds a home in the Vaark household. And Sorrow, turned out by her employers for the sin of being impure, is taken in by Jacob. But Jacob’s kindness is enabled by his investments in slave plantations in Barbados – the nature of America’s foundation is in the background but never forgotten.

….Just then the little girl stepped from behind the mother. On he feet was a pair of way-too-big woman’s shoes. Perhaps it was that feeling of license, a newly recovered recklessness along with the sight of those little legs rising like two bramble stocks from the bashed and broken shoes, that made him laugh. A loud, chest-heaving laugh at the comedy, the hopeless irritation, of the visit. His laughter had not subsided when the woman cradling the small boy on her hip came forward. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency.
….“Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter.”

One of the things I appreciated about this is that Morrison doesn’t limit it to the story of African slaves. She shows that, while race is clearly already a dividing line, there are other factors – wealth and poverty, gender, competing religions – that define the hierarchies within this still-forming society. We hear about the indentured servants, often white, who are bought and sold much like the Africans; the women who are, if they are lucky, traded as wives; the Native Americans, their population already being ravaged by new illnesses even before they are driven from their lands. She also shows with a good deal of subtlety how kindness is easier in good times; that friendship between people wielding unequal power is fragile, perhaps too fragile to survive when times get tough. She shows how easy it is for good people to convince themselves that they have rights of ownership and control over the lives of others, and easier still to slide unthinkingly into abuse of power. In fact, in microcosm, she shows that the problems of today’s America arise from the circumstances of its conception and birth.

Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

But these characters are not merely symbols of their race or place in society. In what is a very short book, each has time to develop into a fully rounded human being, complete with vulnerabilities and flaws, not always likeable but fully empathetic. Some tell us their own stories; others we are told about in third person. Florens has a dialect and uses a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, making her sections the hardest to read but also the deepest – she is the heart of the story. We learn about the men – Jacob himself and the two indentured servants who work on the farm – but the book is centred on the women, as individuals and on their relationships with each other. Motherhood is a major theme, and a difficult one at a time when infant death was a common occurrence. There are stories of the sacrifices mothers make for their children, the jealousies of those women who are childless for others who have healthy babies, the prejudices against mothers who bear children out of wedlock, even when this is as a result of rape, and the fulfilment that some women only find through motherhood.

Book 5 of 25

This doesn’t have the emotional impact of Beloved, but it’s a beautifully rendered picture of womankind in all her complexities, and of inequality, be that of race or wealth or gender or power, and how it distorts the human spirit. But Morrison offers the possibility for redemption. The stories of these women are hard, often bleak, and Morrison doesn’t provide facile, happy endings; but there is a sense that the love mothers have for their children gives hope for a better future. One day, perhaps.

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Book 16 of 20

The Observations by Jane Harris

Victorian sensation from the maid’s perspective…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Bessy Buckley may be young in years but her hard and sordid upbringing means she’s old in experience. Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, she finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But the job has some strange requirements, such as that Bessy must keep a journal of her actions and thoughts every day, and show it to Arabella on demand. Soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…

In some ways, this is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it feel fresh is the perspective of Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. She’s learned to take care of herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much care and has retained the capacity to love, despite love having been in short supply in her brief life to date.

However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy (like the author) is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Contrary to popular belief I wasn’t around in 1863 when the book is set, but a lot of the dialect words and speech mannerisms are familiar from my youth, and the pawky, irreverent, occasionally bawdy sense of humour is just about perfect. I’ve seen non-Scots say they found it a bit tricky at first to get used to the language, but for me it was as natural as listening to people who were elderly when I was a child. It’s not overdone – it’s more the rhythms and style that make it work rather than excessive use of specifically Scots vocabulary.

Jane Harris

The story itself unfolds slowly and perhaps stays a bit low-key to really compete with true sensation novels. But I liked this more realistic approach and found the whole thing stayed very well within the range of credibility. It takes us to some dark places, not least in Bessy’s childhood, but Bessy isn’t the type to wallow – she prefers to shut her mind off to the bad memories as much as she can, and her resilience and strength make her an extremely likeable protagonist to spend time with. She’s not always wise in her actions but her intentions are usually good, and she’s hard on herself when she gets things wrong. There are some nicely spooky moments and plenty of drama to keep things ticking along, but the main joy is in the language and characterisation. While we get to know Bessy intimately, Arabella is more enigmatic – perhaps the reader understands her a little better than Bessy does. Again Harris is very skilled at playing into the reader’s expectations of this type of novel while leaving Bessy struggling to understand the psychological forces at play – the intellectual and physical repression of women, the Victorian tropes of hysteria and insanity, the Gothic horror of candlelit gloom and Freudian dream sequences, the hints of unacknowledged lesbian desire, etc.

I might have criticised it, as some have, for being a little too long and drawn-out for its content, but I enjoyed Bessy’s voice so much that I never found it dragging and would happily have stayed in her company for as long as she liked. Loved it, and will be seeking out more of Harris’ work – highly recommended!

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Book 11 of 20

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

Light entertainment…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that Solomon, an elephant who has been living in Lisbon for the last two years after being brought from the Portuguese colonies in India, would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna.

This is one of these books that is full of delightful prose and a pleasure to read, but ultimately is so light that its effect dissipates almost instantly. Saramago uses Solomon’s journey to digress on all kinds of things, all in a tone of gentle mockery. The power of kings, the superstition of the common people, the religious changes that were taking place at the time, the untold stories beneath the bare facts in the historical records, the writer’s right to create rather than to simply record – all these are raised but in such a way as to leave them feeling like airy wisps of passing thought, not to be taken too seriously.

We hereby recognise that the somewhat disdainful, ironic tone that has slipped into these pages whenever we have had cause to speak of austria and its people was not only aggressive, but patently unfair. Not that this was our intention, but you know how it is with writing, one word often brings along another in its train simply because they sound good together, even if this means sacrificing respect for levity and ethics for aesthetics, if such solemn concepts are not out of place in a discourse such as this, and often to no one’s advantage either. It is in this and other ways, almost without our realising it, that we make so many enemies in life.

So, not taking it too seriously then, it has to be seen as a whimsical fable and, as such, it works reasonably well. There are amusing episodes, like when Solomon is trained to perform a “miracle” at the behest of the local churchmen. There are mildly moving scenes, such as when Solomon says farewell to the soldiers who have accompanied him on the Portuguese leg of his journey. There are pointed (and sometimes rather snide) moments of social commentary: for example, when Archduke Maximilian promptly changes Solomon’s name to Suleiman as more appropriate to his new home.

But the story is too flimsy to bear even the light weight of Saramago’s musings, however entertainingly presented. Perhaps the fact that nothing much happens is part of the point, but for this reader it made for a rather wasted journey. I also found tedious, as I always do, the author’s attempt to jazz the thing up by the use of stylistic quirks – in this case, endless paragraphs, lack of capital letters for names and no quotation marks. However, he does it well, so for people who like that kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing they’ll like.

Knowing as one does the preeminent virtues of bodily cleanliness, it was no surprise to find that in the place where one elephant had been there now stood another. The dirt that had covered him before, and through which one could barely see his skin, had vanished beneath the combined actions of water and broom, and solomon revealed himself now in all his splendour. A somewhat relative splendour, it must be said. The skin of an asian elephant like solomon is thick, a greyish coffee colour and sprinkled with freckles and hairs, a permanent disappointment to the elephant, despite the advice he was always giving himself about accepting his fate and being contented with what he had and giving thanks to vishnu. He surrendered himself to being washed as if he were expecting a miracle, a baptism, but the result was there for all to see, hairs and freckles.

Overall then, I was amused but only fleetingly engaged either emotionally or intellectually. I understand this was one of Saramago’s last books and certainly the quality of the prose would tempt me to read some of his earlier works, in the hope that they may have more depth and fewer stylistic quirks.

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Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

Regency chicken soup…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lord Spenborough dies in middle-age, he leaves a youngish daughter and an even younger second wife. Lady Serena, the daughter, is desperate not to have to live with her aunt, and Fanny, the young widow, is equally reluctant to return to the home of her parents. So they decide to live together, with Fanny as an unlikely chaperone for her headstrong step-daughter. Lord Spenborough has left an unwelcome surprise for Serena in his will, though. He has named as her guardian Ivo Barrasford, Marquis of Rotherham – his old friend and Serena’s former fiancé, the man she jilted just before their wedding. Under the terms of the will Ivo must give his consent if Serena decides to marry…

Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have long been my literary equivalent of chicken soup, something to turn to when comfort reading is in order. It’s been a long time since I last read this one, and I had unfortunately forgotten that it’s not one of my favourites, though still entertaining. Both Serena and Ivo are bad-tempered, volatile and domineering characters whose behaviour towards the people around them often crosses the line towards outright bullying. It’s a kind of take on The Taming of the Shrew – not one of my favourite plays, either – although in this case, happily, each is both tamer and shrew.

Book 43 of 90

Fortunately there are lots of secondary characters who are much more fun to be around. Fanny was fond of her much older husband, but it’s quite clear she was pressured into marrying him by her parents’ ambition for wealth and a title, while he married her primarily in the hope of getting a son and heir. This hope was unrealised, so that now the entailed property has gone to Serena’s cousin, and the two ladies are living in the Dower House. Bored, partly by the reduction in their circumstances and partly by the tight restrictions on entertaining while in mourning, they soon decide to take themselves off to the delights of Bath, ostensibly so that Fanny can take the waters for her health. There they meet Hector, an old flame of Serena’s, and soon the spark is rekindled. Hector’s lovely – handsome, kind, generous and in every respect so much nicer than Ivo – and he quickly becomes the alternative hero of the book.

There’s also Mrs Floore, the grandmother of an acquaintance of the ladies. Mrs Floore’s wealth came from trade and two deceased husbands, and she makes no pretence of being a fine lady. Her daughter, however, married into the minor aristocracy and has ambitions to shove her own daughter, Emily, further up the aristocratic tree.

Georgette Heyer

All the young people, in the usual way, will first fall in love with entirely unsuitable partners, then have to find some way of escaping from this tangle to finish at last with their true loves. There’s nothing very original about the plot, and it’s fairly obvious from early on who should and will end up with whom, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a lot of fun. Heyer always writes well, and the tone is light and full of humour. She concentrates entirely on the rich and privileged so there’s no depressing realism to lower the spirit. And in the tradition of romances, it all ends when everyone becomes engaged to the right partner, so only those of us who have a tendency to over-analyse everything have to worry about the probable unfortunate offspring of some of the more fiery matches!

Being written back in the mid-’50s, it certainly doesn’t count as a feminist tract – the men are the masters and/or protectors of the women, so if that would annoy you, you should avoid at all costs. Personally, I suspect all the women turn into feminists after the weddings and the husbands are probably all hen-pecked into submission by the end of the first year. Except Hector, because he’s lovely… 😉

Frothy, light-hearted fun – perfect for keeping the blues at bay!

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Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Medieval demons and Edwardian doom…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Maud Stearne is a lonely child, growing up in an old house in the midst of the Suffolk fens in the early 20th century. Her strict and domineering father doesn’t have much love or time for any of his children, especially his daughter, and her mother is almost permanently pregnant, though most of those pregnancies don’t come to term. Edmund Stearne, her father, is searching for a book rumoured to have been written by a medieval mystic, the Book of Alice Pyett. But during the renovation of the local church, Edmund finds a medieval painting of the Last Judgement – the Wenhaston Doom – whitewashed over during the Reformation; and he becomes obsessed with the demons portrayed on it.

The book starts in the ‘60s, when an elderly Maud is being pestered by a journalist to tell the story of the murder her father committed when she was young. One day he ran out of the house carrying a sharpened ice-pick and killed the first person he saw, and then went mad. No-one except Maud has ever known why he did it, and she has never spoken about it. Edmund spent many years in an asylum, painting demons, and has now died. Maud has lived an isolated existence in her childhood home since the tragedy and still doesn’t want to talk about it. But when for financial reasons she finally decides to open up, she chooses another recipient for the story – a young academic called Robin Hunter who has been researching Edmund’s paintings. The story Maud tells is one of Gothic horror, with at its heart the question – was Edmund driven mad by supernatural evil or are the evil things that happened a result of his existing madness?

I didn’t find this book nearly as scary as Paver’s earlier ventures into the supernatural – Dark Matter, the best modern horror story I’ve read, and Thin Air. However, it still has plenty to recommend it. It’s a slow burn in the beginning as we learn about Maud’s restricted life and her vague misunderstandings about what she calls her mother’s “groanings” – the miscarriages and stillbirths that happen all too often. But once Maud becomes a little older – her midteens – her father begins to involve her in his work, not out of affection but to save himself the annoyance of having a secretary in the house. As she types up his research notes, she also begins to understand what kind of man he is – cold, bullying, selfish, misogynistic. And increasingly obsessed by the feeling that he is in danger from the forces of evil.

The story is told as a third person narrative for the most part, but includes many extracts from Edmund’s journal and some from the Book of Alice Pyett. Gradually we learn how his researches are feeding Edmund’s obsession and, along with Maud, we become aware that there is a mystery in Edmund’s past.

The characterisation of both Maud and her father is excellent. Neither is likeable, though one’s sympathies are all for Maud. As she becomes aware that her mother’s frequent pregnancies are a result of her father’s refusal to practice any form of self-restraint, her desire to win his affection changes into a form of hatred. Isolated and unloved, she must work her own way through the difficult years of adolescence, and the position of women is such that she has no hope of escaping her father’s control. She is strong, but is she strong enough to face the atmosphere of dread that is slowly descending over the household?

Michelle Paver

Strip the horror element out completely, and it’s still a deeply disturbing picture of life under a tyrannical father at a time when children had no independent rights, and even adult women were entirely under the control of their husbands. Alice Pyett’s story is based on the famous medieval Book of Margery Kempe (which I haven’t read) and is of another woman whose life was blighted by excessive childbirth. Whatever demons are after Edmund – supernatural or self-inflicted – I felt he deserved all he got. But like most tyrants, even as he suffered, he made sure those around him suffered too.

After the relatively slow start, I found myself totally absorbed in the second half. It’s very well written and full of interesting stuff about medieval beliefs and superstitions along with lots of Suffolk folklore. I didn’t buy into the supernatural aspect, but it didn’t matter – the ambiguity means that it works just as well, perhaps even better, as a fully human story of madness and cruelty. People can be far more frightening than demons…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Head of Zeus.

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The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Catherine Glover, generally known as the Fair Maid of her hometown of Perth, is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay*, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. On St Valentine’s Day, these men will both try to win Catherine, one honourably, one dishonourably, setting in motion a chain of events that will involve the citizens of Perth in the high politics and treacheries of the nobility, and the wild feuds of the Highland clans which inhabit the land to the north of the Fair City.

I first read this book as a young teenager back in the Dark Ages and remembered nothing about it except that I loved it. Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Scott, with varying levels of appreciation. Most recently, I read and was rather disappointed by what is probably his most famous work, Waverley, and wondered if I had simply fallen out of love with Scott’s style over the years. Not so! This book, in my opinion, is vastly superior to Waverley, having all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. It’s a top rank historical novel that deserves to be more widely read, and is undoubtedly the book I would recommend to people coming to Scott for the first time. It’s written almost entirely in standard English (none of the annoying Latin, French and Gaelic which pepper Waverley) so is easily accessible to the modern reader. And it’s as powerful in its way as A Tale of Two Cities, with a deep understanding of the history and politics of the time but also, more importantly, of the workings of the human heart and mind.

Catherine seeks advice from her spiritual adviser

The period is the tail end of the 14th century, when Scotland was in name one nation under one monarch, but where the Highlands clans operated as separate fiefdoms and were a constant threat to the peace of the nation from the north. At the southern border, Scotland and England were in a perpetual state of enmity – sometimes warring, sometimes skirmishing, but never truly at peace. It’s a period about which I know very little, but didn’t need to – Scott gives all the information that the reader needs to understand the plot without bogging the book down in unnecessary historical detail. He actually shortens the timeline, compressing various events that happened at different times to bring them together into his story, but he manages to do this without seriously distorting the underlying significance of them. In Scott’s story, events that in real time took place over a decade or so happen in a period of weeks, starting on St Valentine’s Day and ending on Palm Sunday.

“True — true,” said the monarch, reseating himself; “more violence — more battle. Oh, Scotland! Scotland! if the best blood of thy bravest children could enrich thy barren soil, what land on earth would excel thee in fertility! When is it that a white hair is seen on the beard of a Scottishman, unless he be some wretch like thy sovereign, protected from murder by impotence, to witness the scenes of slaughter to which he cannot put a period? Let them come in, delay them not. They are in haste to kill, and, grudge each other each fresh breath of their Creator’s blessed air. The demon of strife and slaughter hath possessed the whole land!”

Scott tells the story in the third person, taking the reader in turn to the various participants, so that sometimes we are in the presence of the weak King Robert and his nobles, all scheming and jostling for power; sometimes we are with Rothsay and his disreputable followers, taking their pleasure at the expense of the decent burghers of Perth; and mostly we’re with those burghers – Henry, Catherine, her father Simon Glover and various other townspeople, as they try to live honest Christian lives in a time when security was scarce and men had to be willing to fight for their own safety and to protect the women they loved. Later, we spend time with the Highland clans, seeing how they lived (perhaps – Scott has a reputation for creating the modern image of the clans from his imagination, but it rings true enough for this reader).

The monk and the glee maiden

There are lots of great characters in the novel. Henry is a famed fighter, trying to tame his warring nature for the sake of peace-loving Catherine. Through her, we get a glimpse at the state of the Church, with the first hints of the Reformation to come and with the fear of being accused of heresy ever present. Simon is a good and decent man, and a loving father. Conachar, the young Highland boy who is his apprentice, allows us to see the attitudes of the townspeople to their wild Highland neighbours. The Royals are excellent – poor Robert III, who means well but is ineffective as either King or father, his scheming and disloyal brother Albany and the feuding Earls of March and Douglas, each given extraordinary power due to the weakness of the King. Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.

“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it.”

But it’s the plot that makes the novel. It moves along at a good pace, never losing track of the various strands – Henry and Catherine, the Royal power plays, Rothsay and his scurrilous followers. And it all leads up to one of the most harrowingly dramatic climaxes I’ve read, as the Highland feud is brought to a bloody and horrific halt. I don’t want to say too much about the Highland strand since it develops late in the book and so takes us into spoiler territory, but it’s a brilliant depiction of a blood feud, of the savagery of hand-to-hand battle, of sacrifice and the loyalty of kinship, of the honour given to the physically brave and the shame heaped on the coward. It moved me to tears for more than one reason. And even more horrifyingly, this part of it is based on actual events.

Book 42 of 90

A great book, and a true classic. If you only ever read one Scott novel, make it this one. It gets my highest recommendation!

*Some modern publications show this as Rothesay, the modern spelling of the town from which the title derives. However, my copy gives the old spelling throughout, so I’ve stuck with that, despite my spell-checker’s frantic attempts to change it!

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Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Part saint, part sinner…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Dunstan and his brother are sent off by their father to be educated by the monks in the abbey at Glastonbury. There, Dunstan will become fascinated by the processes involved in construction and smithing, and will decide early on that one day he will replace the current abbey with a great building for the glory of God and, much more importantly, for the glory of Dunstan. To achieve this aim he must become a monk and must cultivate the rich and powerful who will be able to fund his dream. This is the story of Dunstan’s long life, of the seven Kings he served and of the gradual coalescence of all the small kingdoms into one coherent England, ruled by a single monarch.

I’ve seen so much praise for Conn Iggulden over the years, but generally he writes “sword and sandals” stories about early wars, and the periods and subjects rarely appeal to me. So I was delighted to get the opportunity to try his work in this story, which is much more to my taste. You can now sign me up as a fan – he’s a great storyteller, and this is a great story!

I didn’t know much about the real Dunstan and deliberately avoided finding anything out before reading, so that I could accept Iggulden’s version at face value. His historical notes at the end of the book remind us that our knowledge of this early period – the 10th century, AD – is patchy, with many gaps that may never be filled. The main facts of Dunstan’s life are well documented, and Iggulden sticks to them. But that leaves him plenty of room to use his imagination to fill in all the bits that aren’t known and to create a characterisation that could be true, and is certainly believable.

The story is given in Dunstan’s own voice, writing his reminiscences towards the end of his life. This makes it a perfect format for an audiobook, and the narrator, Geoffrey Beevers, does a wonderful job of bringing the man and his story to life.

Dunstan playing his harp as the devil pays a visit…
but Iggulden reveals the “truth” behind the legend

Iggulden’s Dunstan is hardly saintly, especially in his youth and early adulthood. He’s deliciously wicked and does some pretty terrible things during his life, but somehow he keeps the reader on his side. I think it’s because he doesn’t really attempt to explain too much or to justify his actions – he occasionally feels guilt and a twinge of remorse, but he never wallows or gets mawkish about it. Instead he shows us the inherent instability and violence in a society almost perpetually at war, either between internal rival factions or against the Viking raiders who were a constant threat, and the use and abuse of power that was commonplace among those who could wield it. All of this makes Dunstan’s own actions seem far less out of the ordinary than they would be in a less lawless environment.

The stream of Kings all with annoyingly similar names provide the drama that keeps the story moving along at a good pace. Some are Dunstan’s friends, some mistrust him, some are outright enemies. As he ages, some of the later ones, whose fathers and grandfathers Dunstan had known, look on him as a mentor, and in some cases, at a time when primogeniture wasn’t quite as established as it later became, Dunstan is influential in ensuring their accession to the crown. Again, Iggulden appears to stick to the known facts but provides fictional stories to fill the spaces in-between, making each of these monarchs fully rounded humans rather than just names and dates in a history book, and keeping the whole thing firmly rooted in the attitudes of the day.

Conn Iggulden

As a monk and later Abbot of Glastonbury, and finally rising to be Archbishop of Canterbury – the top religious job in England – the early church plays a role in the story too, and again I found Iggulden’s portrayal entirely convincing. This was centuries before the Reformation, of course, but the corruptions in the Roman church already existed, and both real-life and fictional Dunstan were involved in rooting out the worst of these and transforming the Church in England to follow the Benedictine rule. Iggulden’s Dunstan, though, is hardly a devout, pious man, although his relationship with God and his religion deepens as he ages. He recognises his sins, but believes that God will weigh them in the balance with his great works – the buildings he constructed, his role as Royal Treasurer, his influence over the kings and, through them, the realm, and his transformation of the Church.

This is a lengthy book with a huge cast of characters, but Iggulden makes them all individual so that the reader doesn’t feel swamped by them. I felt fully immersed in Dunstan’s world, even though it took me weeks to listen to the whole thing, and I feel I’ve learned a lot about a period of history that was previously a blank to me. I do hope Iggulden writes more on subjects like this, although I’m now tempted to try his sword and sandals books after all…

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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Symbolic, but of what? 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Macon Dead III has grown up in Michigan, the son of a harsh, property-owning landlord and the local black doctor’s daughter. In the course of the book, he will travel to the South, to Virginia, where he will learn more about the history of his family, his metaphorical roots, and to some degree, find his own identity and the meaning of his life.

Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.

The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never, in my view, with the poetry and power of some of the prose in Beloved. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.

Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.

The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.

Toni Morrison

I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be a little outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it (which is why you’ll never see an Irvine Welsh book on my blog). I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as universally debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?

And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel?? (This is not a rhetorical question – if you know or have a theory, I’m interested…)

Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the resonating, brutalising impact of slavery and racism; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.

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The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

The Comeback Kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1979, and Anton Winter has returned to his parents’ home in New york after a spell with the Peace Corps in Gabon which came to an abrupt end when Anton nearly died of malaria. As he recovers, he draws closer to his father, Buddy, who is also recovering, from a nervous breakdown which caused him to have an on-air meltdown, bringing his hugely successful career as a talk-show host to a halt. Now Buddy wants to revive his career and he wants Anton beside him, working behind the scenes just as he used to do. Anton is beginning to wonder, though, if this how he wants to spend his life, as a kind of adjunct of his father’s. This is the story of both men’s journeys towards resuming their interrupted lives. And it’s also the story of Anton’s friendship with a neighbour of theirs in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York – John Lennon – another man on the point of making a comeback…

I had two distinct disadvantages while reading this novel. Firstly, I was never a serious Beatles or John Lennon fan, so many of the references flew over my head, and I was never in a position to say whether the depiction of John’s personality was authentic. Secondly, the book is filled with references to American culture of the era. Some of these are globally famous – movies, major actors, Presidents and major political events – but some are more specific to the US, such as TV shows, chat-show hosts, New York clubs and so on. Neither of these seriously impaired my ability to understand the story nor my enjoyment, but I feel I’d have got more of that pleasurable frisson of recognition that comes from being drawn back to a specific point in time if I’d been more steeped in the prevailing culture.

It’s very well written and the characterisation of both Anton and Buddy is excellent. Buddy is one of those sparkling, gifted people who dominate their company wherever they go – the type of person people want as a guest to entertain them. Anton loves his father dearly, but is beginning to feel that he wants something more than to be his father’s beloved son and chief assistant. Following his breakdown, though, Buddy is vulnerable and Anton feels a rather onerous duty, as well as a good-natured desire, to help his father back onto his pedestal. Anton’s growing friendship with John Lennon provides him with an escape from the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of living and working with his family, and at the same time gives him an insight into the kind of excitement of being friends with the famous which he has seen from the other side, with people wanting to be seen to be with Buddy. It’s an interesting examination of the impact of fame on those around the famous.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono outside the Dakota

The New York Anton has always known is the glittering, glamorous bit where everyone, it seems, is a celebrity of some kind, and where everyone knows everyone else. But of course there’s another New York, and even Anton, with his cushioned life, is becoming aware of the growing poverty and drugs problems that are leading to an atmosphere of violence and danger. It’s also a time of comebacks – apart from Buddy and John Lennon, Teddy Kennedy is running for the Presidential nomination, trying to recover from the scandal of Chappaquiddick, while Muhammad Ali is about to make his final comeback in a bout against Larry Holmes. Anton, watching these events, is wondering if comebacks are ever really possible, or even if they’re desirable. Is holding onto past glories a way of losing out on future possibilities? Again, even this non-American reader knows that New York too hit rock bottom and had to make a spectacular comeback of its own.

Tom Barbash

The other strand that runs lightly through the book is the question of why people become obsessed with celebrities. Lennon fans stand outside the Dakota in all weathers, hoping for a glimpse of their hero. For some, this is just a way of showing healthy appreciation, but Barbash shows the more fanatical side of it, such as the girl who is convinced that John is going to leave Yoko and marry her instead. We don’t meet the man who killed Lennon, but knowing that he’s out there adds a chilling edge to the fan worship that Anton has always accepted as part of celebrity life.

There’s a little too much referencing and name-dropping for my taste. While some of the anecdotes about various celebrities are amusing and/or interesting, I felt that fewer of them would have led to a tighter book overall. However, that’s a small criticism of a book that I found both entertaining and thought-provoking.

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

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

The mystery of the missing finger…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…

This isn’t my usual type of book at all, so I’m struggling a bit as to how to categorise it. While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to it, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. It’s not exactly fantasy, nor would I describe it as that horrible oxymoron, magical realism. It’s more like straight historical fiction where the reader is asked to accept the beliefs and what we would call superstitions of the prevailing culture as being real.

Normally, my too delicately attuned credibility meter would have been beeping hysterically and pointing to overload, but it’s done so well that I had no problem with buying into the folklore aspects. Partly, this is because the quality of the writing carries it; partly, because Choo explains clearly the cultural basis for the more fanciful elements as she goes along; and partly, because there’s a great story in here that works, to a large degree, with or without the mystical element. The folklore stuff adds an element of mild horror that gives an air of eerieness and fatalism to the overall story.

It’s told from two perspectives – Ji Lin as a first-person narrative and Ren’s story told to us in the third person. In the beginning the finger is the only apparent link, but gradually the two storylines will cross and merge. Ren is only eleven and is a total believer in the superstitions involved in the story, so that for him returning the finger to Dr McPherson’s grave is a matter of more than life or death. Ji Lin is older, educated and more modern in her outlook (perhaps a little anachronistically so at times, in fact), but even she is so steeped in her culture that she’s open to the prevailing beliefs.

I liked them both very much as characters and thought Choo used their different ages and backgrounds very effectively to show this colonial society from more than one angle. I also really enjoyed seeing a colonial society from the perspective of the “colonised”, as it were – so much British literature reflects the perspective of the colonisers, and shows the indigenous culture as foreign and strange. Here, the Chinese Malay culture is the normal one, with the colonial Brits as the oddities who dismiss as ignorant superstition whatever they don’t understand. Happily, Choo handles the colonial aspect without over-emphasising it. There’s a current tendency to portray all colonies as seething hotbeds of resentment with the indigenous people just waiting for an opportunity to overthrow their cruel imperial masters, but I felt Choo’s portrayal of two communities living separately but in one space, rubbing along reasonably well together but not fully understanding each other, was considerably more credible.

Both strands of the story, the real and the mystical, are quite dark, but the overall tone is lightened by Ji Lin’s voice. She might rail against the secondary place of women in her society and her lack of opportunities, but she’s also strong and independent, and determined to make her own decisions about her life. She adds some humour to the story and also some romance, though in line with the rest of the book her romance has darker shades to it too.

Yangsze Choo

I feel I’ve been especially vague and obscure about the plot of the book, even by my usual standards. But that’s because I enjoyed seeing the story develop for myself with no preconceptions, so I’m trying not to take that pleasure away from anyone else by telling too much. I enjoyed every word of this – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness, and I’ll be looking out for more from this talented author. Highly recommended.

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

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

Adolescent obsession…

😐 😐

Brodie Moncur works for an Edinburgh piano manufacturer, Channon, at the turn of the 19th century. He started out as a piano tuner but now helps out with the general running of the saleroom, so when the new Paris branch is struggling the owner asks him to go over and see what he can do. Brodie has long been at odds with his father, a bullying hellfire preacher, and has no real ties in Scotland, so happily agrees. Once there, he falls in love with Lika Blum, the girlfriend of an Irish pianist. Then he stays in love with her for the rest of the book, has sex with her quite a lot, and fantasises about having sex with her most of the rest of the time. He has sex with her in Paris, the South of France, Scotland and St Petersburg. And maybe other places – I forget.

Oh dear! I remember jokingly making a note to myself in a previous review that I must stop reading books written by major male authors once they reach the age of 60, since hormonally they appear to revert to a kind of adolescent obsession with sex. William Boyd is 66 now, and let’s face it, he was reasonably obsessed even in his prime. It’s not that the sex is graphic, nor even particularly erotic. It’s just that it’s not nearly as interesting as a subject to this reader as it appears to be to the writer. Sex as a literary side-dish, fine, but it makes for an unsatisfying main course.

There’s so much potential in the story too, but very little of it is realised. None of the locations come to life, and the bits I’d have liked to know more about – his relationship with his father and family, for example, or what life was like in St Petersburg around the time of the Revolution – seem to be introduced and then sidelined and forgotten about. Brodie’s passion for Lika doesn’t burn up the pages, probably because she hasn’t got much personality – his desire for her is purely physical, although he calls it love. The stuff about the piano tuning is actually the best bit of the book, although even here one can tell Boyd has researched it to the nth degree and is determined to name every part.

William Boyd

There is a plot of sorts, around musical plagiarism and the rivalry of Brodie and the Irish pianist for the body love of the fair Lika. But when I tell you that, as it reached its climax, the three words I wrote in my notes are “ludicrous”, “laughable” and “dire”, you’ll be able to tell I wasn’t wholly impressed by it.

I am a long-time fan of William Boyd and when he’s on form he’s one of the all-time best storytellers out there. Unfortunately, sometimes his form seems to desert him, and for me this is one of those times. If you’re new to Boyd, don’t be put off him by this review. Read Brazzaville Beach instead – there’s sex in it too, but there’s also a good story…

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

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Obsession and ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin Ambrose and expects one day to be heir to his estate in Cornwall. For Ambrose, although by no means elderly, is a settled bachelor, and both he and Philip enjoy their entirely masculine household and way of life. But while Ambrose is making one of his regular trips to Italy for his health, Philip is stunned to receive a letter from him, saying that Ambrose has fallen in love and married the woman that Philip will come to think of as “my cousin Rachel”. Ambrose’s happiness is to be short-lived though. Soon he will die without ever returning home, of a brain tumour according to the official version, but Ambrose has given Philip a different story in his increasingly worrying letters home. Philip is ready to blame Rachel morally, at least, and perhaps legally for his death. And then Rachel visits Philip in Cornwall and he finds himself falling in love. But is Rachel the fascinating and charming woman he sees, or the cold, manipulative money-grabber, and perhaps worse, of Ambrose’s letters…?

I listened to this as an audiobook, competently but not thrillingly narrated by Jonathan Pryce, and I suspect that may have affected my view of it. The story starts and ends brilliantly, but the mid-section, where Philip falls in love with Rachel, seems to go on for ever with nothing actually happening. I tired utterly of Philip’s first person descriptions of Rachel’s perfections and had to fight an urgent desire to tell him to grow up and get a life. If it weren’t for the fact that it was du Maurier and I felt I should have loved it, I would undoubtedly have given up. I certainly wish I’d read the book instead in this instance – I suspect it would still have bored me if I’d been reading but it’s easier to skim the dull repetitive stuff in the written form.

Where du Maurier does excel is in the ambiguity of the characterisation. The basic question of whether Rachel is good or bad is further muddied by us seeing her only through Philip’s eyes and Ambrose’s letters, and it’s not clear how much either of them can be relied on. Certainly neither is objective about Rachel – they see her through the eyes of lust and love. Also, their long years of living without women in their lives mean that neither of them make good judges, especially Philip, who has grown up without mother, sisters or even a nurse or governess. To him, women are as unfamiliar as Martians. There’s also the fact that Ambrose’s illness seems to have been inherited from his father, so may it have been inherited also by Philip? Ambrose’s father had periods where he was delusional and even violent – has this been passed down? There’s undoubtedly an edge of irrationality in some of Philip’s actions, despite us seeing them through his own eyes.

Rachel is the centre of the book, of course, and du Maurier does a brilliant job of having the reader sway in her favour and against her again and again. She has had an unconventional upbringing by a mother who seems to have been morally lax, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally steps outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable. The time in which the book is set isn’t specified, but it feels to me like early Victorian in terms of clothes, travelling, lifestyle and attitudes. Is she really a hustler out for what she can get? Or is she a victim of Ambrose’s failure to make adequate provision for her? Is she a woman who uses sexual temptation to manipulate men? Or is she a free-thinker – a woman unwilling to limit herself by the unequal moral codes enforced on her by a patriarchal society, which gives women no rights and no financial liberty? Is she villain or victim?

Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how du Maurier would end it – no, of course I’m not going to tell you! But when it came, I felt the ending was perfect. Any other possible ending I could think of wouldn’t have had the same impact – it wouldn’t have left the story and the characters lingering in my mind as they have done.

So if it wasn’t for that tedious over-stretched mid-section, I’d have loved this. The audiobook comes with an introduction from Roger Michell who directed the recent film of the book (which I haven’t seen), and he comments that Philip and Ambrose were not alone in their obsession with Rachel – that du Maurier too had fallen in love with her. This strikes me as very perceptive – it reads as if du Maurier couldn’t stop talking about her, like a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation. Fun for the teenager, not so much for the adults who have to listen to her ecstasies! She redeemed herself in the end though, so overall I’m glad to have read it and would recommend it (and also recommend you brush up on your skim-reading skills before beginning… 😉 )

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Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.

The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.

The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.

CJ Sansom

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.

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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Orange sorbet…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Frances Jellicoe is happy when she is offered a job to survey the gardens of a decayed country house, Lyntons, for the new absentee American owner. Frances’ mother has recently died after years of ill-health, and for the first time in her adulthood Frances is free to make her own life. Leaving London and the flat she and her mother shared gives her a sense of liberty. When she arrives at Lyntons, she finds she won’t be alone. Peter has also been hired, to survey the architectural state of the house, and is there with his beautiful but mercurial wife, Cara. To Frances’ surprise, they befriend her and soon she finds herself caught up in their volatile relationship. As time passes, secrets from the past will be revealed that will impact on the events of that summer, the summer of 1969…

The first half of this book crawls along at a snail’s pace and I nearly abandoned it at the halfway mark. Looking at other reviews suggested, however, that it picks up in the second half, so I stuck with it, and indeed, it did hold my attention more as it went on. But, here I am, a few days later, struggling to think of anything to say about it. It’s one of those books that I neither loved nor hated, that filled a few hours in a reasonably entertaining way (in the second half), and that now, some three days after finishing, I can barely remember anything about.

It’s well written, especially the descriptions of the dilapidated old house, once home to a wealthy family and later requisitioned by the army to accommodate soldiers during WW2. The blurb tells us that Frances spies on Peter and Cara through a Judas hole in her bathroom, though in reality this forms only a tiny, insignificant part of the story. Mostly, she observes them directly, as they rather surprisingly choose to include her in all their activities. There’s also a totally unsuccessful attempt to introduce some ghostliness into the proceedings – this goes nowhere and adds nothing.

The three characters failed to convince me at all, though it’s enjoyable enough to read about them. Peter, a sensible, hard-headed type, seems entirely unsuited to the fanciful, fey Cara, and neither of them seem as if they would be interested in a dull middle-aged woman like Frances. Of course, Frances is an unreliable narrator (is there any other kind these days?) so who knows how much of what she tells us really happens? Not me, for one. There’s also what feels like some attempt to introduce a quasi-religious aspect to the story, which fell flat on its face as far as I was concerned.

Claire Fuller

Was I surprised by the big reveal? Not really. Did I care? Not really.

You know, I started out intending to rate this as four stars because, despite my unrelenting negativity about it, I did find it mostly entertaining once I got past that interminable first half. But I’ve realised while drafting the review that I can’t think of much positive to say about it, except that the writing was good enough to carry me through a rather pointless, unrealistic and ultimately forgettable plot. So a sorbet – enjoyable but not satisfying. Would I recommend it? Not really.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Fig Tree.

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Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1) by Robert Harris

When in Rome…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young lawyer Cicero is already developing a reputation as a skilful lawyer and compelling orator, when one day a Sicilian by the name of Sthenius comes asking for his aid. The unscrupulous governor of Sicily, Verres, has used his position of power to openly steal from Sthenius and now Verres is using the law to further victimise him. Cicero realises that a victory against Verres would propel him into the public eye – a greatly to-be-desired outcome for a man with ambitions to win the most important office in Rome one day, that of the consulship. But while it might gain him the love of the people, it’s bound to antagonise the aristocrats…

We are told the story by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, who has invented his own system of shorthand and, as a result, has made himself essential to the great man. Robert Harris is the master of fictionalising real events in historical settings and does his usual excellent job here. Tiro really existed and did write a book about Cicero, long ago lost. Harris’ version of Tiro is a wonderful creation – he allows us to see Cicero from the viewpoint of someone loyal to him but not to the point of obsession, sometimes critical, sometimes mildly mocking. Tiro’s position as a favoured slave means that he has a good understanding of all the various players and the political games they are playing, but has no vested interest or opportunity for personal gain from them. This makes him a more objective observer than any of the other participants. From Tiro’s perspective, what’s good for Cicero is good for those dependant on him. Fortunately for Tiro, Cicero is also a good master who mostly is quite considerate, although from time to time he seems to forget that poor Tiro needs to sleep occasionally.

In his afterword, Harris says about the story that “the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened; and nothing, I hope (a hostage to fortune, this), demonstrably did not happen”. This is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. Like most famous people from history, Cicero’s life is mostly fairly routine disturbed by the occasional major event. The major events here are brought to life brilliantly – the investigation of Verres’ alleged crimes and his trial at the beginning of the book and the battle for the consulship at the end. The long period in the middle when Cicero is making his name, forming alliances and making political enemies also feels realistic and credible, but unfortunately isn’t nearly so interesting. Also, the picture that develops of Cicero is possibly too real – in the end, he’s just a man jostling for personal power and wealth, and as such I couldn’t get too excited about whether he won or not. I had hoped for a hero and had to settle for a politician… and gosh, I feel I’ve had my fill of them recently!

Robert Harris

The only reason I haven’t given this the full five stars is that ancient Rome and all their shenanigans isn’t a period of history I ever find wildly interesting, and even though Harris makes it more fun than most writers, my usual problem remains of zillions of characters all with remarkably similar names all vying for election to short term positions of power. My lack of knowledge was both a benefit and a drawback. I’ve seen reviews from people who know Roman history and society who have criticised some of the factual stuff, but I didn’t spot any of that and was able to just enjoy it as a story. On the other hand, there are so many people involved, both centrally and peripherally, that I’m sure it would have helped to have at least some pre-knowledge of who they all were and what they were famous for. Harris does a great job of keeping the Roman newbie informed, but I still found myself constantly trying to remember what he’d previously told us about various characters as they re-appeared a few chapters later.

So overall not my favourite Harris, but primarily because it’s not my favourite period of history. Still an excellent read, though, that held my interest enough to make me want to continue on and read the other two books in the trilogy. And fortunately my lack of knowledge of Cicero and Rome means I have no idea what awaits me…

Book 2 of 25

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