Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Wealth of nations…

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In the harbour town of Sulaco, on the coast of the South American country of Costaguana, the silver mine of San Tomé is a source of great wealth to its English owner, Charles Gould, as well as to the local economy and the Costaguanan government. When yet another political upheaval threatens to bring down the dictatorship of President Ribiera, Gould’s first inclination is to provide support to shore up Ribiera’s tottering regime. But other voices in the multinational community of Sulaca have another suggestion – to break up the nation and set up an independent state with the mine at its heart. As reports arrive that the forces of the leader of the latest revolution are about to arrive in the town, Gould orders Nostromo, the incorruptible, indispensable “Capataz de Cargadores” (Overseer of the Dockers) to take the latest batch of silver offshore in a lighter ship so the revolutionaries can’t get their hands on it. But an accident occurs which leads Nostromo to hide the silver on an island in the bay, while he returns to the town only to be given another dangerous mission… to journey over the mountains to summon aid for the beleaguered town.

Set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, this isn’t about the impact of political colonialism as in Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Rather it’s a look at the even more destructive and insidious economic colonisation by capitalist countries of those nations whose resources they exploit while taking no responsibility for the adverse impacts of their actions. The major capital investment in the mine comes from America, giving us an early warning of the way the wealthy and powerful US would abuse their neighbours and distort their political development for their own greedy purpose – a situation that continues to the present day, giving the book an unsettling relevance. However, it’s not the Americans alone whom Conrad shows as exploiters – Britain, through the Englishman Gould, and Spain, through the old aristocracy of the town, are both shown as earlier waves in the continuous rape of the southern continent. All the major characters in the book, and in Sulaca, are foreigners either by birth or heritage, while the indigenous Costaguanans are relegated, quite intentionally, to being nothing but helpless pawns and onlookers, dirt poor amidst the fabulous wealth being extracted from beneath their land.

Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small on a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself. The mounted figures of vaqueros galloped in the distance, and the great herds fed with all their horned heads one way, in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach across the broad potreros. A spreading cotton-wool tree shaded a thatched ranch by the road; the trudging files of burdened Indians taking off their hats, would lift sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade raising the dust of the crumbling camino real made by the hands of their enslaved forefathers. And Mrs. Gould, with each day’s journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience.

Costaguana is apparently geographically based on Colombia, but in terms of its political identity, it could be any one of a number of South or Central American states, or African, or indeed anywhere else that the West has exploited in its rapacious history. I found it completely believable, both physically and culturally, and gradually described with such detailed clarity it’s hard to believe that Sulaca isn’t real.

Nostromo is an intriguing character, although I found he was a little too caricatured to ring wholly true. Italian, he too is an incomer, but for him wealth is not the major motivation. He wants to be respected, for his character, integrity and courage, and to a large degree he is. The leaders of Sulacan society turn to him whenever they have a problem, and trust him absolutely. But they never treat him as one of themselves – his nickname, Nostromo, could be taken to mean “shipmate”, but it also could be a contraction of “nostro uomo”, meaning “our man”, and this is how the upper-classes treat him, as a faithful servant to be used as required. Eventually this treatment will have its effect on Nostromo, threatening that very integrity for which he is valued.

With Gould, Conrad shows how this class of economic colonialists see themselves as always separate from and above the countries in which they choose to make their fortune. Gould is third generation Costaguanan in terms of where his family has physically resided, but sent home to England to be educated, utterly English in his national allegiance, and of course, when it’s time to marry, selecting an English bride. None of this makes him feel he doesn’t have the right to use his economic power to influence the politics of this country to which he has no real loyalty, and he uses that power solely for the benefit of himself and the foreign elite who run the town, with no concern whatsoever for what might benefit or harm the indigenous Costaguanans.

Conrad’s portrayals of Gould and particularly of his wife, Emilia, are more nuanced, I feel, than that of Nostromo, and several of the secondary characters are very well drawn too: the Frenchman Degoud, who drifts into involvement in politics rather unintentionally because of his developing passion for the daughter of one of the leaders of this society; that leader himself, Don José Avallanos, descended from the old Spanish conquistadors and now part of the decaying aristocracy of Costaguana; Giorgio Viola, the old Italian innkeeper who once fought alongside Garibaldi; the various Generals on all sides of the conflict, all only too recognisable to the modern reader as representative of the type who would as easily start a coup as defend against it, for their own political and personal gain.

Joseph Conrad

In terms of the writing style, this seemed to me more straightforward than the other few Conrads I’ve read. It does jump about in time and requires constant concentration and occasional back-tracking, but for once it isn’t told as a narrated story within a story, so thankfully none of those nested quotation marks that turn some of his other books into brain-frazzling puzzles to follow. There are lots of Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text, so the included glossary in my Oxford World’s Classics edition was very welcome – indeed, essential. But his prose is so wonderful and he is so insightful about humanity in its individual and social state that I forgive him totally for being hard to read. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read, and gets my highest recommendation.

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

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A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A pastoral…

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Tom Birkin is still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock as a result of his experiences at Passchendaele. His personal life also in disarray, he gladly accepts a commission that will take him out of London for the summer, to the village of Oxgodsby in Yorkshire, where a recently deceased parishioner has left a bequest to the local church, contingent on the uncovering of a wall painting she believed was concealed beneath centuries of whitewashing. The same parishioner has also requested that a search be made for the burial site of a long dead ancestor, excommunicated and therefore denied burial in the churchyard. Archaeologist Charles Moon, another survivor of the war, will become Birkin’s first friend as they both immerse themselves in the past and present of the village.

A pastoral, this is a beautifully written novella full of descriptions of the countryside at the last point of the horse age, before farming became an industry like any other. Birkin is badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically, but mentally, and he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes and he reconnects with the long-distant past as he slowly reveals the work of the artist who, in medieval times, painted the Last Judgement on the wall of the church.

As he works, he also comes to know some of the villagers. The Ellerbecks take him under their wing, with Mrs Ellerbeck making sure he is well fed and the young daughter of the family, Kathy, keeping him organised and ordering him around, showing herself already a mini version of the backbone of community life she will undoubtedly grow up to be. Mr Ellerbeck preaches at the Wesleyan chapel, and out of a sense of gratitude for their hospitality, Birkin becomes involved in the chapel community although he is a non-believer, perhaps because of the scenes of horror he witnessed in the war.

JL Carr

Rev. J.G. Keach, the minister of the church in which Birkin is working, feels the uncovering of the wall painting is a nuisance – a waste of time and money, tolerated solely to satisfy the requirements of his late parishioner’s will. His wife is young and beautiful, and Birkin gradually comes to fall in love with her, but in a romantic rather than a passionate sense, almost as an obligatory part of a summer idyll.

I enjoyed this, especially the writing and the slow uncovering of the wall painting, and all the seemingly knowledgeable information Carr provides about medieval church art. However, I found it rather slight overall, like a pretty piece of pastoral music, pleasant but not soul-stirring. It is written from Birkin’s perspective, looking back as an old man to a golden summer of his youth, an interlude between the horrors of war and the resumption of his real life; a brief period of suspended time given to him to heal his mind and perhaps his soul. And for the reader, it also provides a pleasurable escape for an hour or two, to a simpler time when the sun always shone and people were intrinsically good. Did that time ever exist? Perhaps it only seems that way when enough years have passed for harsh reality to have been hidden beneath several layers of whitewash.

Book 20 of 20

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Sula by Toni Morrison

Who needs enemies?

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Well, I might as well be up front – if this book has a point, it sailed straight over my head. Two girls grow up, lots of people kill other people and themselves, everyone has sex all the time with anyone who happens to be passing. And in the rare moment when they stop to catch their breath, they think about sex.

I’ll leave it to Morrison scholars to analyse it. I loved Beloved and A Mercy, because I felt I understood what she was trying to say. Song of Solomon and this defeat me. She portrays black life as animalistic, where people eat and rut and rut and eat; and resent, neglect and beat their children; and betray and kill each other for little or no reason. She writes about black culture in a way that, if it were written by a white author, would be rightly trashed as the peak of racism. I’ve tried both times to assume she’s saying that white oppression has made black Americans behave this way, but I’m not convinced – neither that I’m right about her intention nor that it’s a realistic portrayal of black American culture. I hope it isn’t, anyway.

Morrison does make a couple of points about the subjugation of black people, legally free in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when the book is mainly set, but still excluded from all the benefits of freedom, including well-paid jobs and the possibility of a career, leading to a kind of crisis of masculinity in the men. She also makes reference to the black men whom white America called upon to fight their wars for them, and then abandoned on their return to deal with the after-effects without help (though I expect that was true of a lot of white men too, especially after WW1. It certainly was in the UK). These were the strongest parts of the book for me, but they were merely side issues.

Toni Morrison

The writing is as wonderful as her writing always is, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. The characters are entirely vile, especially Sula, who starts out bad and gets progressively worse as she ages. Her friend Nel is more ambiguous but, while I started out quite liking her, it wore off, and I felt they were a pretty good match for each other – a real illustration of the old phrase, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Many things are left unexplained, but it’s entertaining and at points even amusing, with a couple of well-done shock moments. But I felt nothing for any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as real people.

Entertaining, then, and maybe you’ll do better at finding a meaning in it than I did. Or maybe there isn’t one, and the entertainment is the point. In which case, job well done!

Book 19 of 20

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The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

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Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

Book 66 of 90

“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

Book 16 of 20

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The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A tale well told…

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The old fisherman Santiago’s luck has run out. For eighty-four straight days he hasn’t caught a fish, and is surviving only with the help of the young boy, Manolin, who once fished with him but whose parents have now insisted he go out with another luckier boat instead. Manolin feels an intense loyalty to old Santiago, and helps him each day with his gear, catching bait, and even buying him food when Santiago’s funds run out.

On this day it will be different. A fish takes Santiago’s bait – a huge marlin, so big that Santiago can’t pull him in. As the marlin sets out to sea, dragging Santiago’s little skiff behind him, Santiago must decide whether to cut the line or run with the fish. And so it becomes a matter of will, as Santiago battles with nature, with his own failing strength, with growing exhaustion and with his pride as a fisherman.

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

This is a beautifully written and absorbing short tale – mesmerising, almost, as hour after hour passes and still the fish won’t tire. Although written in the third person, once Santiago is alone on the sea with his fish, the reader is taken directly into his thoughts. He is a simple man, and his mind dwells on great successes and failures of his past, a lifetime’s experience all guiding his actions in this moment. He knows he is at the limit of his physical endurance as the line cuts his calloused hands each time the fish changes pace. He recognises that the pride of youth has given way to the humility of age, and wonders when that happened. But he still has enough pride to want to kill this fish, although he loves it for its strength and will and beauty.

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.

I suspect people may have read all sorts of symbolism into this over the years and maybe there is lots and I just missed it. But for me, this is simply a tale well-told, by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. As usual with Hemingway, there’s a degree of pondering on the meaning of masculinity, though less overtly than in the couple of longer novels of his I’ve read. It’s an old theme, man against nature, and Hemingway brings nothing new to it except his wonderful prose. And that alone makes this well worth reading.

Book 13 of 20

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Thirst by Ken Kalfus

The first collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Ken Kalfus has become one of my favourite authors in recent years, and I’m gradually working my way through his earlier works. This collection of short stories was his first publication, so I was prepared for it to perhaps be less polished than his more recent stuff. And, indeed, I found it very variable, with only around half of the stories rating as good or excellent, and some of the rest being really rather poor. It reads to me as if he was maybe still searching for a style, trying things out, some of which worked better than others. His trademark humour, insight and precise prose are already there, but many of the stories are too insubstantial to be satisfying.

I’ve read both of his later collections, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and Coup de Foudre, both of which I loved, and I think the major difference is that the stories in them tend to have a more political edge or be more clearly about that nebulous thing we call the “human condition”, even when he’s being whimsical. So, on the one hand, I found this collection a little disappointing but, on the other hand, it was interesting to see this early stage in his development towards becoming a master of the short story form, as he undoubtedly now is.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed:

Suit – a teenage boy and his father are in a men’s outfitters looking for a suit for the boy. It’s for a particular occasion, although we don’t know what. We only know the father is not pleased about it. They are joined by a third man, and together the three reject every suit the poor assistant shows them – too smart, too casual, too old, too preppy, etc. It is only when the harassed assistant asks what the occasion is that we finally have confirmed what we have gradually come to suspect… This is whimsical and humorous but it’s very well done, and gives a light-hearted commentary on a specific aspect of privilege, about which I can’t be clearer without spoiling the story.

Night and Day You Are the One – a rather strange story about a man who is living two lives, inadvertently shifting between them each time he falls asleep. In each life he has a different home and a relationship with a different woman. Neither of these women knows about his other life, and indeed, it’s not clear if the two lives are real or if the man is suffering from some kind of delusion. In essence, it’s a love story, but done with a lot of originality and with a nicely satisfying ending.

Among the Bulgarians – this was my favourite story. A teenage boy has spent the summer in Bulgaria with his parents. Now he’s home, and in the narcissistic way of teenagers, he assumes the world will have stood still in his absence, his friends waiting impatiently to hear all about his adventures. But he’ll learn that they have had their adventures too – normal teenage ones, dating, and learning to drive and so on – and to them his Bulgarian experiences are only of mild interest. It’s a coming-of-age tale, beautifully done, and with the suggestion that the boy may have been inspired over the course of this summer to take a first small step towards becoming a writer. I wondered, as I often do with Kalfus, if it had an autobiographical element.

So enough in there to make the collection worth reading, but it wouldn’t be where I would suggest any newcomer to Kalfus should begin. I’m glad I’d read his later stuff first, since I may not have been tempted to investigate further if this had been my introduction to his work. But I recommend it for existing fans, since it’s always interesting to see how a favourite author started out.

Book 11 of 20

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Short and sharp…

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The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon is forced to cut short her stay at Langford when the lady of the house, Mrs Manwaring, becomes jealous of Lady Susan’s flirtation with Mr Manwaring. Off she goes to Churchill, the residence of her late husband’s soft-hearted brother, Mr Charles Vernon, and his sensible wife, Catherine. But soon Catherine is worried that Lady Susan might have got her well-manicured claws into Catherine’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, and she’s also concerned about Lady Susan’s young daughter, Frederica, whom Lady Susan is determined to marry off to an unsuitable young man against her will…

Written entirely in letters between the various friends and family members, this novella length story is full of fun. Lady Susan is so wicked one really feels the need to hiss whenever her name is mentioned, and Catherine is a delightful contrast in her general sense and good nature. While the men are all taken in by Lady Susan’s undeniable beauty and charming manners, Catherine rarely wavers in her opinion of her as a manipulative schemer and an uncaring mother. Maternal Catherine is determined that Frederica must be saved from her mother’s manipulations, but the rules of society preclude any open hostility between the two women. The only time Lady Susan drops her bewitching guard is in her letters to her dear friend, Mrs Johnson, a woman unfortunately married to an older, inconveniently respectable husband, a situation Lady Susan deplores…

“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! Just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.”

A comedy of manners in which Austen spares no character from being a target for her sharply observational wit, this is of course much slighter than her major novels, with far less room for in-depth characterisation and a simple plot that moves quickly towards an end that is relatively obvious from an early stage. While the epistolary style adds to the fun, especially in Lady Susan’s letters to her friend when her true personality is revealed, it’s also limiting in that there’s not much room for description or for commentary on the wider society of the time. On the other hand, this makes it deliciously short, so that it can be gulped down and enjoyed in one sitting.

Part of me would have loved to have seen Austen develop these characters more deeply in a full-length novel, but I’m not sure the slight story could have borne the weight. As it stands, it feels like the perfect length for the story it tells. And Lady Susan deserves to take her place alongside some of the other major victims of Austen’s lethally wicked pen – Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Bennet, the Eltons, et al. Pure pleasure!

Book 9 of 20

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The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Expletives deleted…

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When the old Abbess of Crewe dies it seems inevitable her shoes will be filled by Sister Alexandra, the Machiavelli of the convent. But Sister Felicity is becoming an unlikely rival, preaching her message of free love as she stitches her embroidery. Sister Alexandra expects her followers to fix this threat but when their plans lead to a break-in at the convent, the ensuing scandal threatens to destroy her. She has no intention, however, of going down without a fight… or at all, if she can help it…

This is a ham-fisted satire of Watergate, with Sister Alexandra in the Nixon role. While half my brain (all that was required) was watching the too obvious unravelling of the cover-up of the scandal, the other half was wondering why satire often falls so flat. On the whole I’m not a huge fan of satire, so I’m probably not the best person to come with a definitive recipe for success, but I do think there are some essential ingredients.

It should take facts that are so obvious that people tend to forget or overlook them and spin them in a way that forces the audience to face them. Currently Sarah Cooper has this down to perfection with her lip-sync versions of some of Trump’s utterances. Her body language cuts through our jaded shellshock and reminds us of the true idiocy of what’s coming out of his mouth…

Bird and Fortune went a stage further. This super-intelligent satirical duo would go through all the hidden detail in government reports or scandals, and then present them with such humour that even people whose eyes glazed over at the thought of reading a lengthy newspaper article were happy to listen and learn…

Satire must also be cruel, at least a little, if it’s to hit home. The cruellest satire can change the way an audience thinks, not by telling lies, but by exaggerating the truth until it becomes monstrous. Many people who were around in John Major’s time as Prime Minister, if asked what they most remember about him, are quite likely to say that he was boring, grey and liked peas, because that’s how Spitting Image made us see him…

Another essential is that it must be brilliantly performed and highly entertaining. Otherwise it just sounds like a political rant, and we’ve all heard more than enough of them. The wondrous Randy Rainbow’s parodies of songs from musicals contain some of the most intelligently written, insightful and brutal satire of the Trump era in the lyrics, and his performances are so superb they almost make me hope we have Trump for another four years. Almost…

(NB Adults only for this one…)

I hope you enjoyed that little run through some of my favourite satirists, past and present. If you did, then you had more fun than I had reading Spark’s book, I’m afraid. She doesn’t show us any new aspect or perspective on Watergate. Anyone who remembers it will learn nothing new, and anyone who doesn’t is likely to be left head-scratching as to what the point of the book is at all. It’s dully written, full of extracts from the Bible and poems, and frankly I’d rather have been reading a lengthy newspaper article on the real scandal. And it’s not cruel – I fear it is “cosy satire” and what on earth purpose does that serve except to act as a perfect example of an oxymoron?

But its major downfall is that it’s simply not funny. Whatever else satire should or shouldn’t be, it ought to be funny.

A major fail for me, and I’m feeling that, despite having loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, perhaps Stark and I are simply not destined to get along.

Book 7 of 20

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Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Journey’s End…

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It is Wednesday, 2nd October, 1872, and as he does every day, Mr Phileas Fogg is playing whist with his friends in the Reform Club. But this day the conversation turns to how the world is shrinking as more and more places become linked by fast steamships or railroads. Fogg claims that it is now possible to go around the world in eighty days. His companions pooh-pooh this notion, and Fogg offers to prove his point by making the journey. A wager is hastily arranged for the massive sum of £20,000 – half Fogg’s entire fortune. He intends to use the other half to cover any unforeseen expenses on his travels. And within hours he’s off, accompanied only by his French manservant, Passepartout, whom he had hired just that morning. But, unbeknownst to them, they are being followed…

I started my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge back in March 2016, so it has taken me considerably longer to make the trip than Phileas Fogg allowed himself! When I got close to the end I realised this was the only possible book I could choose to bring me back to London where my journey started all those years ago. And a perfect choice it proved to be! Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it also took me to all the places I’ve read about in the books I picked for my challenge. So when we got to Bombay I thought of playing cricket; when Fogg and his companions travelled by elephant I remembered Solomon’s journey; when they reached Omaha I thought of the World Fair. Anyway, I shall do a proper round-up of the challenge soon, but meantime, back to this book!

Fogg is a man of rigid habits and an obsessive concern with punctuality and exactness in all things. The narrator suggests his background is rather unknown, but that he must have travelled in the past to give him his fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of the world. He is unflappable to an extraordinary degree given that his entire fortune is in the balance, but we eventually see that he has hidden depths. Passepartout, in contrast, is volatile and constantly getting into scrapes, but on the other hand he soon develops strong feelings of loyalty to his master and shows true bravery on more than one occasion. Then there is Detective Fix, trailing Fogg whom he suspects of having robbed Baring Brothers bank on the day he left London so suddenly. Fix spends half the time trying to slow them down and the other half trying to speed them up since he can only arrest Fogg on British soil – and the book reminds us that British soil spreads fairly extensively across the world at this period. The fourth character is an Indian woman they pick up along the way, but I won’t say more about her because to tell her story would be a bit too spoilery.

The book starts a little slow, with a lot of concentration on timetables and dates and so on, and Fogg is not initially a very endearing character. He is interested only in achieving his aim of proving that the journey can be done in the time – he has no interest in the places to which they travel other than how quickly he can get out of them again on the next leg of the trip. Europe gets barely a mention, Egypt is a passing blur, and it’s only really when they reach India that they begin to have adventures. But by that time, Passepartout and Fix have developed into entertaining characters, sometimes friendly, sometimes not, and they give the story the life and liveliness that Fogg’s cold mechanical persona lacks. It’s in India too, though, that for the first time we see signs of humanity beneath that British stiffness, and from there on gradually Fogg also becomes someone we care about.

From India to Hong Kong, to Yokohama, across America – sometimes ahead of the clock, sometimes behind. One adventure after another holds them back, each time throwing Passepartout into gloom and desperation but leaving Fogg unruffled and determined. And each adventure is more fun than the one before – storms and Sioux warriors, acrobats and opium dens, trains and steamships, polygamists and Parsees, and oodles of luck both good and bad. Will they make it back in time? Even though I knew the answer, I must admit I found the last fifty pages or so pretty heart-pounding, and joined Passepartout on his emotional roller-coaster ride between despair and euphoria. And the end is brilliantly done, misdirection and twists abounding!

Jules Verne

The new translation by William Butcher in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent – flowing and fun. His rather scholarly introduction left me somewhat befuddled, in truth. As always, I read the book first, and imagine my surprise on being told that it’s full of sexual innuendo and “brazen homosexual overtures” between the three male characters. I missed all of that! Even though he’s now told me it’s there, nope, I don’t see it. Maybe he’s right – in fact, since he’s a Verne expert and I’m not, I’m willing to assume he is right – but then, on the other hand… sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Butcher goes so far as to say “the book is not designed for callow adolescents”. Hmm, I was probably a callow adolescent when I first read it, and I don’t think it corrupted my innocence! I did enjoy Butcher saying that Verne had portrayed the Mormons as an “erotico-religious group” though – I missed that too…

So an excellent adventure story suitable for all ages, or a walk on the wild side of sexual psychology, depending on whether you believe me or Butcher. Either way, highly entertaining – great stuff!

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

Book 5 of 20

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Atlantic View by Matthew Geyer

Connections…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Following his father’s death, Patrick Munchen finds a bundle of letters among his papers, from a girl he knew in Lyme Regis while he was stationed there in advance of the Normandy landings. His curiosity aroused, Patrick sets out to find if the woman is still alive – a journey that will take him from his home in California first to England and then to Ireland, and will lead him to reassess his own life as he discovers more about his father’s.

My usual disclaimer – Matt Geyer has been an online friend of mine for some years now, but as always I’ve tried my best not to let my friendship with him bias my opinion or this review. Fortunately I loved the book, so it wasn’t too difficult!

Geyer writes beautifully and from the heart. There is a distinctively American style to his prose – what I think of as West Coast writing, though I’m no expert. It’s a kind of specific vocabulary that in itself creates a sense, not perhaps so much of place, but of a culture and, dare I say it, a class – educated, liberal, moderate, introspective, male (though that may simply be that my limited reading of American fiction hasn’t covered women writing from the same cultural perspective). While I often find this language style more “foreign” to my British ears than many other American regional variations, I find the attitudes far more in tune with the overarching culture of western Europe and that always makes it easier for me to empathise with the characters.

The book is heavily character-focused, but the plot is strong enough to carry it. On arriving in Lyme Regis, Patrick finds that the letter-writer, Molly Bowditch, no longer lives there but he discovers a few people old enough to remember war-time and the American troops who mingled with the locals while they waited for the order to invade Europe. Later, he follows Molly’s trail to Ireland – to a small island off the Ring of Kerry looking out over the vast Atlantic towards America. As he becomes more involved with piecing together his father’s past, his own present is in flux. His beloved daughter grown and off at college, his career as a journalist in freefall as technology changes the face of the profession, his marriage, once solid, now seems hollow, purposeless. He’s not consciously searching for a new meaning to his life, but perhaps understanding his father will help him to understand himself.

Geyer’s depictions of modern and wartime Lyme Regis are excellent – it’s easy to see the amount of research that has gone into the book, but he uses it lightly to convey an impression that I found believable and authentic in both time periods. Equally so with the troops stationed there, socialising within the community and gradually building connections that both sides knew would be temporary. He shows us these men, knowing that they were about to be thrown into the hell of war, living through this hiatus with a mixture of courage, comradeship and fear. And I found the relationship that grew up between Patrick’s father and Molly just as believable – a kind of reaching for human contact at a time when the future was uncertain and fragile.

Matthew Geyer

When the story moves to Ireland, the setting is just as authentic. Geyer avoids the pitfalls of “Oirishness” – a trap too many American (and other) authors fall into of making Ireland seem quaint and twee and a little fey, populated by characters so eccentric one has to wonder if they’re half-leprechaun. Geyer’s Ireland is the real modern country of his time setting of 2005: revolutionised economically as the Celtic Tiger, advanced technologically and culturally, highly educated. This really shouldn’t be refreshing, but it is – hugely! He catches the distinctive Irish speech patterns and rhythms well but subtly, never over-playing his hand. And his descriptive writing gives a real sense of the lovely ruggedness of the landscape, together with a feel for the harder, poorer past from which Ireland had so recently emerged.

In essence, this is a quiet, reflective book concentrating on one man’s journey, physically across the world, and emotionally from his past towards his future. But we also come to know and care about the people he knows and cares about. There are no villains here, nor heroes – just flawed humans doing their best to understand themselves and each other and make connections as they navigate their lives. Excellent characterisation, three distinct and well-drawn settings, lovely writing and an interesting story – great stuff!

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Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Archie Flemington was brought up at Ardguys in Fife by his grandmother, Christian. She has made him into a Whig, violently opposed to the deposed Stuarts whom she once served but now hates. Under cover of his real talent as a painter, Archie is a government spy. Now Bonnie Prince Charlie is in Scotland once again, leading the Jacobites in rebellion against the Hanoverian king (or usurper, depending which side you were on). Archie inveigles his way into the household of Lord Balnillo, a retired judge who is known to have Jacobite leanings, although he hasn’t come “out” for the rebels. It’s actually Lord Balnillo’s brother, James Logie, who is Archie’s real target, though – a man suspected of actively aiding the rebellion. It’s for Archie to find out what Logie is up to, and to get proof of his treason if he can. But Archie finds in Logie a decent, honourable man, the type of man he would be proud to call friend, and suddenly he is torn between duty and this unexpected liking for his enemy…

This is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but with enough depth to make it rather more than a simple romance. The Jacobite rebellions were such a major event in Scottish history that they have been used over and over by authors, and are often reinterpreted according to the contemporary view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Jacob sits somewhere in the middle – writing in 1911, some 160 years after the events, she isn’t obliged to look nervously over her shoulder at a Hanoverian government still wary of a Stuart comeback, but she also avoids the over-romanticisation of the Jacobites in which many authors have indulged over the years. Although I felt she was rather on the side of the Hanoverians overall, she shows that there was honour, and dishonour, on both sides.

Christian Flemington is a great character, cold and autocratic – a Lady Macbeth using her grandson as a weapon to get revenge for old grievances. She loves Archie but expects total obedience to her will and sees any opposition as personal disloyalty. So when Archie begins to sympathise with Logie, she has no hesitation in giving him a choice – do as she bids or be cut off from her and from his home forever. Archie also loves his grandmother, making his choice doubly hard.

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Archie himself is a likeable character and brings some humour and lightness to what is essentially a dark story of civil war and betrayal. He and Christian together give an idea of the differences between the generations – the old guard still strongly divided over the deposition of the Stuarts; the younger ones, despite this being the time of the last desperate throw of the Stuart dice, perhaps looking more to a future where those divisions can be forgotten and the country united.

The story is well told, with Archie’s dilemma giving it a good deal of moral ambiguity. The writing is excellent, in standard English with only a tiny amount of Scots appearing occasionally in dialogue. Jacob is a little weaker in the action sequences, failing on the whole to create an atmosphere of drama, but this is a small part of the book so it didn’t drag it down overall. The main strength is the characterisation, not only of the lead characters, but of the several secondary characters who play a part in the plot. Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night, with Logie and the marvellous Skirlin’ Wattie, the bagpiping beggar who has his own secret – a character almost Dickensian in his eccentricity, and a wonderful mix of comic and tragic.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

Violet Jacob
(c) Angus Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It reminded me throughout of The Flight of the Heron, a trilogy I loved in my teens. However this one came first, so it’s possible that DK Broster, writing in the 1920s, may have been influenced by this. Each book is basically about the friendship between two men on opposite sides of the rebellion, but this is darker and less romanticised. In truth, I enjoyed The Flight of the Heron more, but I think this one is probably truer in terms of characterisation and culture, and the writing probably has more literary weight, though it’s a long time since I read The Flight of the Heron so I may be doing it an injustice. Both books have what seem to modern eyes like unmistakeable gay subtexts, but truly I think it used to be possible to actually love people of the same gender without sex coming into it. Who knows what the authors intended? And, frankly, who cares? Both are great stories whichever way you choose to read them. I enjoyed Flemington very much and recommend it, but if you only intend to read one book about the Jacobites in your life, then make it the Broster trilogy – OK, that’s three books, but you know what I mean…

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Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Study of a psychopath…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kolley Kibber has come to Brighton on a publicity campaign for his newspaper. He will walk the streets and any lucky reader who spots and challenges him will be given a cash prize. But on this day, Kolley Kibber – real name Charles “Fred” Hale – is scared. He knows that a Brighton gang he has written about is after him, intent on killing him. He feels he’ll be safer if he’s not alone, so tries to pick up one of the female day-trippers down from London to enjoy the beach and the bars and the sunshine. Ida Arnold is a kind-hearted good-time girl, who takes pity on this lonely stranger. But she leaves him for a few minutes to visit the public toilets and when she returns he’s gone. Later she hears that he has died, and doesn’t accept the report that his death was natural. She sets out to investigate. Meantime, Pinkie Brown, leader of the gang, is worried that one of his men may have done something that will give them all away just when it seems they have got off with murder. As his paranoia increases, he becomes caught in his own trap, every action he takes to avert the danger seeming to diminish his options more and more.

I loved Graham Greene with a passion back in my teens and twenties, but on a couple of recent revisits I’ve been a little disappointed. This is one I’d never read before and I’m delighted to say the old magic returned in full force as soon as it began. The first chapter is a masterclass in writing, creating fully-rounded and empathetic characters in Kolley Kibber and Ida Arnold, portraying wonderfully this seedy, poverty-ridden seaside town in the 1930s, and building a terrific atmosphere of tension and suspense. Although Kolley Kibber only appears for this short space of time, his disappearance and death hang over the rest of the book, so that his character becomes as unforgettable as those who are present throughout the whole book.

Ida is also an exceptionally well-drawn character, the beating heart of the book, with her warmth and joy in the act of living giving it the humanity it needs to relieve the otherwise pitch-black noir of the story. Later we will meet Rose, a young girl whose background is of such deprivation, both materially and emotionally, that she is easily persuaded to fancy herself in love with any boy who shows her attention, easy prey for Pinkie who comes to see her as a threat.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and Carol Marsh as Rose in the 1947 film of the book

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Pinkie, the boy gangster who too readily sees murder as the solution to all problems. This has to be one of the best character studies of a psychopath ever written. Greene gradually shows us what has brought Pinkie to this point – his unhappy childhood, the poverty and lack of opportunity for boys like him in the grim Depression-era world, the guilt and punishment inherent in his Catholic religion. Pinkie believes in Hell but can’t quite bring himself to believe in Heaven, at least not for the likes of him. His disgust at the idea of sex raises all sorts of psychological questions – is it because he lived in a house so small that as a child he could hear his parents performing their weekly conjugal rites? Or is he a closeted gay, closeted so deep he’s unaware of it himself? Or is he simply scared to show any kind of vulnerability, to perhaps fail at the crucial moment? Greene raises all sorts of questions about what may have made Pinkie who he is, but wisely leaves open the possibility that it’s simply a matter of nature. And yet, rotten though he is, Greene gives him a terrible humanity of his own – a lost and damaged soul for whom it’s impossible not to feel sympathy, to wonder whether if circumstances had been different he might have been saved, by man or his implacable God.

The suspense in the story comes from two angles. Will Ida succeed in learning the truth and getting some kind of justice for the man she briefly met and scarcely knew? And Rose – what will happen to Rose? All she wants is to be loved – is that too much to ask? But loving a boy who dislikes and fears her and who has already killed more than once – what will happen to Rose? As Pinkie fingers the bottle of vitriol he always carries in his pocket – what will happen to Rose? The tension of worrying about Rose becomes almost too much to bear.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Samuel West, and he does a wonderful job. Every word is clearly enunciated and while he doesn’t “act” the characters, he breathes life into their varied personalities. He lets the words speak for themselves, never letting his performance get in the way of the writing.

Graham Greene

Beautifully written and with a quartet of distinctively unforgettable characters, this has leapt into the lead as my favourite Greene – high praise indeed from a lifetime fan of his work. While it’s one of his “Catholic” novels, the religious aspects avoid the silly mysticism of The End of the Affair, reminding me more of the faith struggles of the priest and Scobie in The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter respectively. And they play only a small part in what is first and foremost a brilliant noir depiction of a psychopath in a superbly evoked time and place. A fabulous book which gets my highest recommendation!

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The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

When all the world was gay…

😦

I normally start a review with a little blurb giving an idea of what the book’s about. Unfortunately, despite having read 53% of this immensely overlong tome, I’m not at all sure if it’s about anything much at all. And I’m not enthusiastic enough to read the other 47% in the hopes of finding out.

It starts off pretty well, with a lengthy section set before World War 1. Young George Sawle has invited a fellow student from Cambridge to visit his family. Cecil Valance is already making a name for himself as a poet and George’s younger sister Daphne is romantically thrilled at the idea of meeting him. It’s quickly clear however that she will have to compete with her brother for Cecil’s attentions. At every opportunity the two of them, Cecil and George, go off to find a place they can be private together for a bit of still-illicit rumpy-pumpy. This doesn’t stop the lovely Cecil from flirting with 16-year-old Daphne and even on one occasion sexually assaulting her. Though maybe that was supposed to be a seduction scene – I can’t be sure. These things are often a matter of perspective. Meantime a friend of the family, Harry, whom everyone thinks is courting Daphne’s widowed mother, is in fact attempting to seduce Daphne’s other brother, Hubert.

It’s beautifully written and very evocative, not only of the period, but of all the books that have already been written about that period. Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between sprang immediately to my mind and other reviews mention Forster, Woolf, DH Lawrence, et al. Is it derivative, then? I’d say certainly, though I gave him the benefit of thinking it’s deliberately so. The idea that all the men were either actively gay or being pursued by gay men seemed a bit unlikely on a purely statistical basis, but I made allowances for fictional licence. At this point I thought it had the potential to be excellent.

Then suddenly it skips forward to 1926. Cecil, our main character, is dead. And yet there’s still 80% of the book to go. Not to worry! George is now married though still gay. Daphne is married too, but wants to have sex with another probably gay man, whom, let’s be honest, George wouldn’t mind having sex with either. But please don’t be thinking Hollinghurst discriminates – Daphne is also hit upon by a gay woman. I was still interested enough at this point since some of the original characters were still central, and this section is largely about how they all felt about Cecil, alive and dead. And the writing is still beautiful.

Then whoops! 40% and suddenly we leap forward again, this time to around 1960, I think. And all of a sudden we have two new central characters, Peter and Paul. They’re both gay, you’ll be amazed to learn. The descendants of the original families are still around but they’re mostly new to the reader too, since many of the original characters are now dead.

I simply lost interest at this point. Long descriptions of Paul’s job at a bank and Peter’s life as a master at a prep school did nothing for me, and frankly, just as much as it’s unrealistic to have no gay characters in fiction, it’s equally silly for the vast majority of the men to be gay. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance, but balance is a tricky thing – it’s so easy to lose, and credibility along with it. But much more importantly than that, there appears to be very little connecting plot holding the various sections together. Yes, Cecil’s house appears each time and yes, some characters continue to be related to him, but more distantly with each passing time jump. I suspect Hollinghurst may be making points about how society’s treatment of gay men changed over the last century, and perhaps also about how the reputations of poets tend to fluctuate as each new generation of critics re-assesses them. Maybe if I was willing to read the other six hours’ worth (according to my Kindle) all would become clear, but, I ask myself, do I care enough to do that? And I answer – nope. Oh, well. Still, it’s beautifully written.

It probably deserves four stars for the quality of the characterisation and lovely prose, but since it bored me into abandonment, one star is all it gets.

This was the winner of the inaugural People’s Choice poll, but since it was my fault for buying the thing back in 2012, I promise I don’t hold it against you, people. At least it’s off my TBR now. 😉

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

John Singer shares his life with his one friend, Spiros Antonapoulos. They are both deaf mutes and, while Singer can lip read, only Antonapolous understands his sign language. With all other people, Singer can only communicate by writing short messages on slips of paper. So when Antonapolous is committed to an asylum, Singer is left profoundly alone. He moves from the small apartment the two men had shared to a boarding house and takes all his meals at a local café, and gradually he attracts to him a small group of broken and lonely people, each of whom finds his silence allows them to talk openly to him in a way they can’t to other people.

Biff Brannon owns the cafe along with his wife, Alice. Lonely in his unsatisfactory marriage and childless, Biff watches the people who frequent the cafe and offers a kind of rough kindness to some of the misfits who happen along. Jake Blount is one such misfit – a drunk with Communist leanings who longs to meet others who share his politics. Mick Kelly is the daughter of the owners of Singer’s boarding house, a young girl whose life is circumscribed by the poverty of her circumstances, but who secretly longs to write music. And lastly of Singer’s little group of disciples is Doctor Benedict Copeland, a black doctor who has devoted his life to leading his people out of ignorance but has failed, even with his own family from whom he is now mostly estranged. Each sees in Singer someone who seems to understand them and gives them the courage to face the obstacles in their lives. But Singer, though he listens, cannot speak and lives for the rare occasions when he can take a break from work and visit his friend Antonapolous, where he frantically pours out all his pent-up thoughts through sign, to a man who seems neither to understand nor care.

Nothing had really changed. The strike that was talked about never came off because they could not get together. All was the same as before. Even on the coldest nights the Sunny Dixie Show was open. The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.

For me, the stories of Biff and Jake didn’t work quite so well, though each had some points of interest. But Dr Copeland’s story is very well done, highlighting the poverty and cruel injustice experienced by black people, and the gulf between his ambition and the reality of what he could achieve within a system rigged against him. His character is also an excellent study of a man who is respected and even loved by the people he serves and leads in his wider community, but who fails utterly in his domestic life, taking his disappointments and frustrations out on his wife and children; a man so consumed with the desire to improve humanity that he fails to understand and connect with the individual needs of the humans around him.

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Mick is a wonderful character and the one who gives a small glimmer of hope amid the general bleakness. McCullers’ description of her sneaking around to listen to music through the open windows of those wealthy enough to own radios and record players shows the real disparity in this society where even the simplest cultural opportunities are available to only a fortunate few. Mick’s efforts to teach herself first to play piano and then to find a way to write down the music she hears inside her are beautifully written. Although the desperate poverty of her family means that her education has to give way to the need to earn money, there is the feeling that maybe she will somehow find a way to lead a more fulfilling life in time.

Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

And Singer himself, for much of the book a silent background against which the stories of the others are played out, gradually becomes more vivid as the true loneliness of his life is shown – a loneliness caused, in his case, by physical rather than emotional barriers. Seemingly stable, holding down a job and surrounded by people who read into the blankness of him whatever they need and lack and then value him for that, he just wants that simple thing they see in him – a willing listener, someone who seems to understand.

He came to be known through all the town. He walked with his shoulders very straight and kept his hands always stuffed down into his pockets. His grey eyes seemed to take in everything around him, and in his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful. He was always glad to stop with anyone who wished his company. For after all he was only walking and going nowhere.

Carson McCullers

While the premise is a stretch, with Singer’s deaf-mutism a rather contrived vehicle to bring this disparate group together, and while some of the stories work better than others, overall this is a profound and moving study of the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of people in a crowd, and of the universal human desire to find connection with another. The writing is beautiful, emotional but never mawkish, with deep understanding of the human heart and sympathy for human fallibility – a book that fully deserves its classic status.

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Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

They do things differently there…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amina is the wife of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, married to him before she was fourteen. Now with her own children approaching adulthood, Amina prides herself on her docility and spends her life trying to be a perfect wife to Ahmad, a bullying husband and tyrannical father. This is the story of Amina and Ahmad and their five children, set to the backdrop of the end of WW1, the rise of nationalism and the dying days of colonial Egypt.

First published in 1956, it’s a historical novel, the first in Mahfouz’ Nobel Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy, describing a way of life that was already changing then and now seems positively archaic in its attitudes regarding the place of women and paternalistic power over children, even for a region that still has a very different cultural approach to these things than the West. It’s written in the third person, but the perspective shifts between the various family members so that we come to understand the inner thoughts and feelings of each. It’s remarkably unjudgemental – I can’t remember another book where I felt such a complete lack of the author’s personal views coming through. Mahfouz tells and shows every aspect of the society the characters operate in – the middle-class of Cairo, educated, prosperous but not rich, strictly traditional; but he leaves all evaluation of the characters to the reader. It took me quite a while to get used to this – I wanted anger against Ahmad and sympathy for his wife and children, but gradually I came to appreciate Mahfouz’ neutrality; it’s as if he’s saying, this is how it was, I merely show it to you with no modern interpretation to obscure it.

This is a family saga, the story concentrating mostly on the development of the characters of the children as they approach adulthood and the all-important question of marriage. Ahmad is old-fashioned even in his own time, and exerts strict control not only over his daughters but his sons too, determined that they will marry as he directs, for the honour and enrichment of the family. Happiness is something Ahmad doesn’t consider – his daughters should be docile enough to be happy with any man he chooses for them, and if his sons don’t like their wives, they can simply follow his example and lead most of their lives pursuing one exotic mistress after another. If the wife objects, then the matter is simply solved by the husband’s unilateral declaration of divorce and returning the obstreperous wife to her unwilling family. In Ahmad’s mind, and his society appears largely to agree with him (even the women), women neither have nor deserve any rights. This is not to say he doesn’t love his wife and daughters – he does, so long as they fulfil their duty of obedience to him.

Amina has two daughters, and has brought them up to see the life she has led as the desired and only possible life for a respectable woman. Marriage is essential – an unmarried woman serves no purpose in life and is merely a financial drain on her relatives. It is the fathers who arrange the marriage, or occasionally a mother if she is a widow and financially independent. Girls are selected primarily for their family connections, but beauty and feminine talents like housework and singing are important too. Aisha is the younger and prettier daughter and doesn’t lack suitors, but Ahmad is determined that his older, rather unattractive-looking daughter, Khadija, should marry first. When one of them is finally chosen, we see the mix of pride and fear of a girl making a good match, but to a husband she has never met. She will be removed from a home where the only men she has been allowed to meet are her father and brothers, and where her father has controlled every aspect of her life, to the home of a husband who will now become effectively her owner. Mahfouz does a wonderful job of showing all this from the female perspective – I never had that feeling of wrongness that sometimes comes through when an author of one gender writes from the perspective of the other. Mahfouz also shows through the daughters’ marriages that things are beginning to change – both girls find a little more freedom in their new homes than their old.

The sons, while still under strict control of their father, go out into the world, first to school and university and then into jobs. The youngest son is still a schoolboy in this first book of the trilogy, so although he plays his part, it’s relatively minor. The oldest son, Yasin, from Ahmad’s first marriage, struggles with the shame he feels is brought on him by his mother’s failure to be submissive enough to keep her husband. He is a chip off the old block – a womaniser with a penchant for exotic mistresses, and no interest in much beyond his own pleasure. The middle boy, Fahmy, gets involved with the Nationalist movement at university, so it’s through him that we catch a glimpse of the political situation. It’s a fairly understated glimpse though – I think Mahfouz probably assumed his readership would know the history of Egypt’s struggle for independence, so he doesn’t go into it in any great detail, using it instead to show its impact on the people we’ve come to know, especially Fahmy.

Naguib Mahfouz

It took me a long time to feel involved with this family and their community but once I did I became completely absorbed in the slow telling of their lives. Usually I’d be more interested in the out-going, more political lives of the sons, but in this case I found myself fascinated by Mahfouz’ depiction of the lives and feelings of the women – the total seclusion and lack of agency, and the way that the mothers themselves trained their daughters to accept, conform and even be contented with this half-life. Generational brainwashing, of course, but then aren’t we all subject to that? Mahfouz left me reflecting uneasily that we too are brainwashed – that we see our Western values as better simply because our mothers and our society teach us to, and most of us individually never question that nor dispute it for fear of being ostracised. I felt it was the power of Mahfouz’ neutrality that in the end made it impossible for me to judge this society as harshly as I was ready to do when I began. A deserved classic, and for once a Nobel Prize-winning novel that I feel merits that accolade. I look forward to reading the other two volumes in the trilogy.

Apologies for the length of the review but, in my defence, it’s a long book!

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The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Aristocratic decay…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1860, and Fabrizio, Prince of Salina in Sicily, is already aware of the forces of modernity that are bringing newly rich men to prominence while the aristocracy struggles to maintain its ascendancy. Now Garibaldi is on the march, about to invade Sicily as part of his drive to unite all of Italy under one king. The old guard view this with anxiety, unsure of how it will affect them. Some of the younger Sicilians, though, are fired with enthusiasm for Garibaldi and his “revolution”. Fabrizio is jaded and cynical – his strong sense of history tells him that many invaders have arrived in Sicily over the centuries, and that after a period of upheaval everything reverts to how it has always been, though perhaps with a change of personae in the ruling class. His main hope is to come through with as little change to his leisured life of luxury as possible.

This was a real mix for me. There were long, long stretches that bored me rigid with their lingering descriptions of the sumptuous lives and possessions of the aristocrats, and the central romance between Fabrizio’s young swashbuckling pro-Garibaldi nephew, Tancredi, and the beautiful if low-born Angelica is signally unromantic despite (or perhaps because of) the endless scenes of them breathlessly teasing each other and barely controlling their mutual lust.

On the other hand, it provides tremendous insight into the Sicilian mindset and the sharp divides in society, with the aristocracy living rather pointless lives of luxurious ease while the rest of the populace exist in abject poverty, not just in material terms but also poverty of education, opportunity and spirit. We see the stranglehold of the Catholic Church, as so often helping to keep the common people down in order to please their generous patrons amongst the rich. And Lampedusa shows the rise of the new type of men, their money coming from trade and industry rather than land, rougher and less cultured, but also less effete, with the drive to perhaps effect real change for the first time in centuries. And yet we see these new men ambitious to marry their children to the children of the old aristocracy, effectively buying their way into the existing ruling class, and we wonder if Fabrizio’s cynicism is right, that gradually the new men will become indistinguishable from the class they are replacing. (Four legs good, two legs better.)

Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale as Tancredi and Angelica in Visconti’s 1963 film

While the bulk of the book covers the two year period before, during and immediately after Garibaldi’s invasion, there are two additional sections: the first set twenty years later in 1883 when we find out how Fabrizio’s life played out after the revolution; and the second set later still, in 1910, when we meet again with some of his children and are shown how the aristocratic class has continued to fade, their once glittering homes now looking tawdry and tarnished, and their lives an anachronism in their own time.

I enjoyed both of these sections considerably more than the much longer main section, where the book committed one of my personal pet hates of staying with characters who remain neutral and uninvolved while all the action is going on elsewhere, off the page. We never meet Garibaldi, we don’t get taken into the revolution. We spend all our time in the splendid drawing rooms of the rich, watching them play the game of courtship, heavily spiced with Fabrizio’s musings on the decline of his class. This is simply a matter of taste, though – as I’ve said many times, I am always more interested in the political than the domestic sphere. Of course, the whole book is political in the sense that it is describing the lethargy and decadence of the old ruling class and its ultimate decay, but I’d rather have spent my time with the enthusiastic supporters or even opponents of the revolution.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

It is, I freely admit, entirely unreasonable for me to grumble that Lampedusa wrote the book he wanted to write rather than the one I’d have liked to read, but so it goes sometimes. There was still plenty in it for me to enjoy it overall, especially since the bits I found most interesting all came at the end, leaving me feeling much more enthusiastic about it than I had been halfway through. Putting my subjective disappointment with its focus to one side, I can quite see why many people have hailed it as a great book and I wouldn’t want my rather lukewarm review to put anyone off reading it. And in the end I’m glad to have read it, and feel I have gained a good deal of insight into a place and time about which I previously knew almost nothing.

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Fever dream… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

One night a group of friends are aboard a boat on the Thames waiting for the tide before they can set sail. As darkness grows around them, one of the men, Marlow, tells the story of the time he worked as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo and of the rogue ivory trader, Kurtz, whom he met there.

I realise I’m white and descended from colonialist stock, so I recognise that my judgement may not be as objective as I would like, but it astonishes me that Conrad has, among some critics, a reputation as a racist. This book is an excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa – horrors perpetrated in this case by Belgium, but Conrad leaves that deliberately vague so I think we can assume he is speaking generally as well as specifically. Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.

Millions of words have been written in analysis of the text by people considerably more qualified (and even more opinionated) than I, so rather than try to argue the case for or against the book on a moral level, I’ll stick to how I feel it works as a novella. And on that score, my feelings are somewhat mixed.

Having now read it twice, I have to say I find it quite hard to read, not because of the horrors but because the writing, although superbly descriptive, often darkly lyrical and with some wonderfully disturbing imagery, is sometimes convoluted and rather unclear. The introduction and excellent notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition suggest that often Conrad was being deliberately vague – as I mentioned earlier about Belgium, for instance – and I’m sure people at the time would have known enough about their world to be able to fill in the blanks. But frankly, I think I’d have struggled without the notes. Marlow also jumps forward from time to time, leaving linking bits of the story unsaid, perhaps realistically in terms of how we think and relate stories verbally, but I found it rather jarring in written form. As a lazy reader, I was irritated that several times I felt I had to go back and read a section again to fully catch the meaning and how we’d got from there to here, so to speak.

….“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
….He was silent for a while.
….“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”

However, the book’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The overall effect is of a hallucination or a nightmare, full of imagery about darkness. Marlow tells us that he is feverish for at least part of the journey and on his return to civilisation, and there is a sense of it all being a fever dream. Everything feels exaggerated, from the descriptions of the impenetrable jungle, to the Africans’ worship of Kurtz as a kind of god, to the attitudes of the white men to Kurtz’ apparent power over them. We are told repeatedly of Kurtz’ eloquence, but are never permitted to hear his views in his own voice. On the very rare occasions that he speaks on the page, his words are unexceptional (apart from on one occasion which I won’t go into because it’s a major spoiler, and becomes the climactic point of the book). Did Conrad choose to do that because he felt perhaps that he couldn’t make him eloquent enough to live up to his reputation? I doubt it, since Conrad can write supremely eloquently. So was it perhaps to leave the reader in doubt as to whether Kurtz was truly eloquent, or whether his listeners exaggerated his eloquence to justify their cult-like admiration for him? I don’t know, but I found it intriguing to consider. (We undoubtedly have leaders today that no-one could seriously describe as eloquent, but who inspire crazed uncritical devotion in their followers.)

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The one thing that doesn’t have a feeling of unreality is the physical cruelty of the white men’s treatment of the African workers in the stations along the river, and interestingly these are the sections that Conrad writes in the most straightforward manner.

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.

The cruelty didn’t surprise me too much (though it horrified me), but what I did find odd was the feeling of almost total incompetence and futility of the white man’s ventures. I don’t know enough about the Belgian attitude to their colonies, but again the introduction tells me that they had a particularly bad reputation at that time even among fellow colonial powers. Unlike in colonial literature by and about the Brits in Africa (and even in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), there is no suggestion of the white man attempting to bring “civilisation” to the “savages”, or religion. I suspect this is deliberate, since Conrad seems to be comparing the two cultures and suggesting that, while they are different, one is not intrinsically superior to the other – they are simply at different stages of development. One of the most intriguing things he does is frequently to compare the white man in Africa to what it must have been like for a “civilised” Roman sent to pacify and exploit savage Britons back in the days of their Empire. Unspoken, this reminds the reader that all empires fall in time, but also that all empires leave a legacy on those they colonised, for good or ill, or both.

Joseph Conrad

I’m glad to have read it, especially for the wonderful descriptive prose and the feverish imagery, and it certainly deserves its status as a major classic of colonial literature – hence the 5-star rating. However, though still a newcomer to Conrad’s work, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of his other stories – Karain, for example, or Lord Jim, probably because I found them easier to read. I wondered why it’s this one that seems always to be connected to his name, and I can only conclude that it’s the vagueness itself, which allows critics and academics to argue endlessly over meanings and moral values, and leaves space for later writers and film-makers to reinterpret it as they choose. This reader, however, would have preferred just a little more plain speaking and a little less need to rely on the notes…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed the other three stories in the volume separately here.

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I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

Downfall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of Ira Ringold, a Jew from Newark who becomes a big star on radio and then is destroyed in the period of the McCarthy witch-hunts. This is the story of a failed marriage; of toxic family relationships; of male adolescence and male role models and masculinity; of morality and its lack; of ageing; of literature; of anti-Semitism; of politics; of fanaticism; of hypocrisy; of betrayal. This is the story of a particular America in a particular time and place; a story that presages the America of today.

I Married a Communist is the second volume of what is known as Roth’s American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral, which I declared to be The Great American Novel, and followed by The Human Stain. They are not a trilogy in the sense that the word tends to be used today – each of these stands complete on its own, connected only in the sense that the three together are Roth’s attempt to make sense of America at the end of the 20th century by looking back over the decades of the mid-century. In each the story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a barely disguised alter-ego of Roth himself.

When Murray Ringold, once Nathan’s English teacher and later friend, and now an old man, attends a summer school at the university where Zuckerman, himself now a man in his 60s, teaches, they spend the evenings together, and over the course of the week Murray tells Zuckerman the story of his younger brother, Ira. Nathan knew Ira too once, when Nathan was young and impressionable and Ira was at his peak as a star and as a man. Ira was a formative influence on the young boy, a second father figure, and for a time he was the most important person in Nathan’s life. But as Nathan grew up he grew away from Ira, so although he knew in broad outline what had happened to him, this is the first time he has heard Ira’s later story in detail. As Murray fills in the gaps of Ira’s earlier and later life, Zuckerman also tells the reader of the man he knew, looking back with the eyes of age and experience and reassessing his youthful judgement of the man.

The story is simple and we are told near the beginning how Ira’s downfall came about. At the height of his stardom he married Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage was disastrous, for which Ira placed the blame squarely on Eve’s grown-up daughter Sylphid and on Eve’s weakness in letting Sylphid domineer over her. Eve may have felt that Ira’s penchant for infidelity had something to do with it, though. When Ira leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir of their marriage in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. Part of what Murray will tell Nathan is how Ira reacted to his downfall and how the rest of his life played out.

But the story is to a large extent a vehicle for Zuckerman/Roth to dissect the various characters and the wider society. The question is not whether Ira was a communist – we know that he was – but why. He too, as Nathan with him, was influenced by an older man that he loved as a friend and mentor. But there’s a feeling that to him being a communist was an ego thing – something that separated him from the common herd, that allowed him to feel superior. Yes, he cared about those in society who were disadvantaged, but he also enjoyed the luxury and celebrity that came with his marriage to Eve even as he ranted against her and her friends. Nathan’s outgrowing of him is beautifully observed – as Nathan matures and goes off to college where he spends time with really educated and intelligent men, Ira diminishes in his eyes. Perhaps Ira’s tragedy is that he never outgrew his own mentor.

It has been claimed that Ira’s marriage to Eve is based on Roth’s own failed marriage to Claire Bloom, and that the book is a vicious response to Bloom’s memoirs in which she painted an unflattering picture of Roth. This may be so, but I don’t think it matters – it works at a literary level and in truth the reader – this reader, anyway – sympathises slightly more with Eve than with Ira, although both are weak and selfish. Through Eve, Roth goes into the question of Jewish self-hate – anti-Semitism practised by Jews themselves. I found this aspect fascinating – it was something I’d never considered before. Roth shows how this is a response to society’s anti-Semitism, where some Jews find it easier to try to hide their identity and join in rather than spend a lifetime battling prejudice. It made me think of African Americans “passing”, which in fact is the subject of The Human Stain.

Philip Roth
(Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Overall, this book doesn’t have quite the power or broad scope of American Pastoral. In some ways it feels more personal, as if it reflects Roth’s own life more intimately. The depiction of Nathan’s journey through adolescence feels lived – some at least of these reflections surely arise from Roth’s experiences as much as his alter-ego’s. Although Ira is the main focus, Zuckerman is very much central too, which isn’t really the case in American Pastoral. The young Nathan is an aspiring writer, allowing Roth to digress into his formative literary experiences, while the older Zuckerman is rather reclusive – an enigma left unsolved. It’s always dangerous to make direct links between fictional characters and their creators, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that the literary aspects of Nathan’s development at least are drawn from Roth’s own, and they are full of interest and insight. I came away from it wishing that Murray Ringold, or Zuckerman, or Roth, had been my English teacher.

And I came away from the book wishing that Roth were here today to make sense for us of what has happened to bring America to its current state. This book goes some way to that, showing already the faultlines that have now become a gaping chasm into which the moderate centre seems to have fallen. A great writer, and an excellent book. It may not be The Great American Novel, but it’s certainly a great American novel.

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Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Sins of the fathers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1775, a group of elderly men gather in the Maypole, an ancient inn owned by John Willett, and tell a stranger about a murder that was committed nearby years before. The owner of the large house in the neighbourhood, Mr Harefield, was killed, apparently during a robbery, and some time later another body was found, identified as his servant, also murdered. The servant’s son, Barnaby Rudge, was later born an idiot, assumed to be so because of the shock his widow had suffered during her pregnancy. Now Barnaby is a happy young man, earning a little money by running messages and spending the rest of his time running wild in the countryside, revelling in the natural world which he loves. But Barnaby is gullible and easily influenced, which will one day lead him into serious trouble.

Skip forward five years to 1780, and trouble is abroad in the streets of London. Lord George Gordon is leading protests against the passing of an act that will remove some of the legal restrictions under which Catholics have suffered since the time of the Reformation. A weak man himself, Gordon is surrounded by unscrupulous men using him for their own ends. Some of his followers are men of true religious beliefs, bigoted certainly, but honourable in their own way. But many, many others are the detritus of the London streets – the drunks and thieves, the violent, the cruel. Others are the desperate – those whose argument with the government is nothing to do with religious questions about which they know little and care less. These are the poor and marginalised, those with no hope. Together these men and women will become that great fear of the establishment – the mob, wild, destructive and terrifying. And among them and affected by them are the characters we met in the Maypole, including young Barnaby Rudge…

Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip

Structurally this one is a bit of a mess. The two halves are each excellent in their own way but the sudden time shift halfway through, complete with a total change of central characters and tone, breaks the flow and loses the emotional involvement that was built up in the first section. Barnaby Rudge is also an unsatisfactory hero in that, being an idiot with no hope of improvement, there’s no romance for him nor does he get to be heroic. However, even a weaker Dickens novel is always enjoyable and this is no exception. My four star rating is a comparison to other Dickens’ novels – in comparison to almost every book out there, this is still head and shoulders above them.

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If I’d been Dickens, I’d have called it Dolly Varden – she pulls the two strands together more than most of the other characters. Daughter of locksmith Gabriel, Dolly is the major love interest of the character who appears to be the hero in the first half, Joe Willett, son of the owner of the Maypole. Young, flirtatious and silly, Dolly plays hard to get at the wrong moment and Joe takes the King’s shilling and goes off to fight those pesky American colonists who were having some kind of little rebellion round about then. Five years on, Dolly is still single, secretly hoping that one day Joe will return. But her beauty has made her a target for other men, including two who will play major roles in the second half of the book. Dickens often showed how vulnerable women were to unscrupulous men, but with Dolly he takes it a stage further. There is one scene in particular where she is the victim of what can only be described as a sexual assault, and later, in the riots, Dickens doesn’t hold back from showing how rape is one aspect of what happens when there’s a breakdown in social order. While it’s all done by hints and suggestion, very mild to our jaded modern eyes, I imagine it must have been pretty shocking to the original readership. Dolly is an intriguing Dickens heroine – unlike many of his drooping damsels, she’s a lot of fun, revelling in her beauty and the effect it has on men while still being kind-hearted and true. He allows her to grow and mature in those five years, which is not always the case with his heroines, and she’s a great mix of vulnerability and strength of character.

Dolly playing hard to get…

The first half is the fairly typical Dickens fare of various eccentric characters and young lovers and a mystery in the past, of the style of Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit, say. The second half is much more reminiscent of the later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. The mob scenes in this are just as horrifying, but the characters aren’t as unforgettably drawn as Sidney Carton or Madame Defarge. More than that, it seems as if Dickens is less sure of where his sympathies lie. The Gordon rioters are fighting to ensure that anti-Catholic laws remain in place, and clearly Dickens thinks this is abhorrent. But that means that he almost comes over as pro-Establishment, since on this occasion the Establishment are the ones wanting to do away with those laws. So while in Two Cities he’s against the mob but understanding of the poverty and inequality that drives them, here he gets a bit muddly – he clearly wants to suggest that it’s all because they’re poor and uneducated but has to also show that they’re religious fanatics, fighting not to better themselves but to keep others down. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dennis the hangman, who is not only a typically Dickensian villain but is also based on the real-life hangman of the time, and gives Dickens an opportunity to show the gruesome barbarity of this form of social control.

The Maypole Inn

As always with Dickens there are far too many aspects to cover in a review without it becoming as long as one of his novels. Overall, this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form. I read the Oxford World’s Classics version – my first experience of a Dickens novel in their edition – and thoroughly enjoyed having the informative introduction and particularly the notes, which I found extremely helpful since this is an episode of history I knew little about. The book is also generously full of the original illustrations. I say it every time but I’m so glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

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

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Braised Pork by An Yu

Magic as metaphor…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred…

This is an oddly compelling novel, beautifully written in a rather understated way. Jia Jia’s dream water world, where the fish-man exists, takes us into magical realist territory – never my favourite place – but again this is somewhat underplayed so that it never begins to feel too much like fantasy. While the “magical” aspects of it are presented as real, they can also be easily read as a metaphor for depression or despair, and the question is whether Jia Jia will become lost in this other world or find her way back to seeing a possible future for herself in this one. The water world is intriguingly ambiguous as a place that is both frightening and yet oddly comforting, where the deeper one goes the less there is, until nothingness becomes the main feature.

I’m not sure I fully got all the nuances of the water world metaphor – my mind is too resolutely rational to easily sink into fantastical symbolism. I wondered whether it arises from Chinese or Tibetan superstition or is wholly a creation of the author, and don’t know the answer to that. But it’s a tribute to how well and subtly it’s done that I was able to go along with it, and even to feel that it added to rather than detracting from the “real” story.

Jia Jia’s marriage was a rather cold one. She had never felt her husband had a passionate love for her – younger than him and beautiful, she was something of a trophy bride and suitable to be a mother for his children. On her side, he, as a settled, wealthy man, represented security, but there are signs also that she felt restricted in the marriage. She is an artist but although her husband was willing for her to continue to paint as a hobby, he did not feel it was appropriate for his wife to try to sell her work. There is a suggestion that he was emotionally controlling and that Jia Jia had reached a point where she was second guessing her own actions with a view to ensuring she met his expectations rather than her own. So his death, shocking as it is, plunges her into a state of uncertainty rather than deep grief – her secure future gone, the children she had anticipated having with him gone too. However, this new loss has taken her back to another, much greater grief – the death of her mother when she was a young girl. As she tries to discover the meaning of the fish-man, she will also learn more about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s life and death.

An Yu

This is a short book, and every word counts. It has an easy flow that makes it very readable – I read it in a couple of sessions and was fully absorbed all the way through. The magical aspects are introduced so gradually that they don’t become fully apparent until around halfway through, and seem to arise very naturally from what we have come to understand of Jia Jia’s state of mind. The rather muted imagery of the water world makes it easier to accept and yet the images linger once the last page is turned. Along the way we get some insight into the position of educated women in contemporary urban China, at a kind of halfway point where they have gained some social freedom but are still often judged within the conventions of more restrictive traditional codes of behaviour. Jia Jia is beautifully complex, with the minor flaws we all have, and her emotional journey is entirely credible. I found myself fully invested in hoping she could find a new path, perhaps even a more fulfilling one.

An excellent début that has left me eager to see how An Yu develops as an author in what I expect to be a glittering future.

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

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