The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

Adultery in the time of cholera…

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

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

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

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

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

W Somerset Maugham

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

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

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

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

She ain’t no Becky Sharp…

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

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

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

~ Oxford English Dictionary

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

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

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

Edith Wharton

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

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

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Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Dickens

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

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Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The underrated heroine…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finished!

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

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

Jane Austen

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

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

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Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

Family history…

🙂 🙂 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman, the temptress…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Djali the goat was my favourite character)

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

Victor Hugo

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

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

Alyson’s Review – see comments below

Christine’s Review – see comments below

Jane’s Review

Kelly’s Review

Margaret’s Review

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Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Lindsay

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill

Sympathy has its limits…

🤬

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

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

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

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

Patrick MacGill

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Purgatory…

😦

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

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

Amazon UK Link

* * * * *

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

Katrina’s Review

Rose’s Review

Laila’s Review

Madame Bibi Lophile’s Review

Kelly’s review

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

A tale I have for you…
~ William Fowler

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Greig

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

Mocking the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

JG Farrell

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

Graham Greene

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

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

Amazon UK Link

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Maternal urges…

🤬

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

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

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

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

Book 12 of 12

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

Amazon UK Link

Classics Club Spin #28: The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw

Dulce et decorum est…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As 1937 draws to a close, we are introduced to three young men, very different in terms of social background and beliefs, whom we will follow through to the end of the war in Europe in 1945. Christian is German, drawn to the Nazis because they have restored a sense of pride to Germany following the defeat of WW1. He passively accepts the anti-Semitism at the heart of the regime as something that simply is. Noel is an American Jew, who is left alone when his father, his only relative in the US, dies. He has heard something of what is happening to the Jews in Europe and is concerned, but he is also falling in love with Hope and that takes up most of his emotions. Michael is a theatre producer, wealthy and surrounded by shallow, artsy types who don’t appear on the surface to care much about anything. But Michael is already a little guilty that he hasn’t, as some of his friends have, gone to Spain to fight the fascists. Oh, he’s raised money for the fight, but as the Nazi threat grows he feels he should do more.

There is so much in this book, both in terms of incident and depth, that it’s impossible to do it justice in a short review, so I’m going to concentrate on the things that most stood out to me, and strongly recommend you read it for yourself.

First off, the writing is superb, and Shaw uses beautiful control in the timing so that the thoughtful passages, of which there are many, don’t get in the way of the action, and vice versa. The book starts slowly, taking time to ensure we know these three men as they are before war has become a reality for them, so that we see throughout how their experiences gradually change them. He manages to be very even-handed, which surprised me in a book first published in 1948, so soon after the war ended. I don’t mean even handed between the Nazis and the Allies – there is no doubt in the book about the evil of the Nazi regime. But Christian is shown sympathetically at first as a patriotic German rather than a Nazi zealot, as of course most Germans were. And the Americans are shown warts and all, with a good deal of criticism for the army and the way the war was run.

Book 81 of 90

Christian is in the war from the beginning in 1939, whereas the Americans only came in after Pearl Harbor and even then it was a long time before they set foot in Europe, so for Noah and Michael most of their war is spent in relative safety, and by the time they are facing action in France it is against a force that is already beaten but not yet ready to admit it. So although they all face danger Christian is the one who experiences most and we see him gradually coarsened by what he witnesses, still patriotic, but losing his moral integrity as he comes to behave in ways he could never have imagined when he started out so full of pride. It’s wonderfully done – this destruction of a fundamentally decent man, poisoned by the evil of the regime he serves. By the end, Christian is monstrous but, because Shaw made us care about him in the beginning, it’s hard to hate him even while abhorring what he does.

‘I see several soldiers among the congregation and I know they have a right to ask, What is love for a soldier? How does a soldier obey the word of Christ? How does a soldier love his enemy? I say it is this way – to kill sparingly and with a sense of sin and tragedy, sin that is yours equally with the sin of the man who falls at your hand. For was it not your indifference, your weakness of spirit, your greed, your deafness earlier in the day which armed him and drove him into the field to slay you? He struggled, he wept, he cried out to you, and you said, “I hear nothing. The voice does not carry across the water.” Then, in his despair, he picked up the rifle, and, then, finally, you said, “His voice is clear. Now let us kill him.”’

Michael and Noah, on the other hand, grow from their experiences and although they become hardened to an extent, they are on the winning side, and Shaw shows how different that is. As the German forces fall apart and Christian faces the shame and despair of going home defeated, the Americans develop the camaraderie of men fighting for good against evil, confident of victory and a glorious homecoming, if only they can survive. But Shaw shows that there were atrocities on the Allied side too, not to the same degree, of course, but it gives the message that the potential is there just as much in America or Britain or France for evil to thrive as in Germany, if the circumstances arise. And he also shows that civilians suffer as much or more than soldiers, especially with the new horror of air warfare, and its bastard offspring – collateral damage and “friendly fire”.

There are many horrors, as is to be expected – deaths, injuries, atrocities, betrayals, despair – but portrayed with authenticity and without gratuitousness, and there is humour and friendship along the way which prevents the tone from becoming too unrelievedly bleak. There is a wonderful scene in London of a theatre company relentlessly continuing with their opening night performance of Hamlet as the air raid sirens wail and bombs explode outside.

Irwin Shaw

However, the thing I will remember most from the book is Shaw’s depiction of anti-Semitism, horrible enough when it’s coming from the Nazis, but so much worse when it’s perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to be on the right side. Noah is victimised wherever he goes – in civvy street, by the men in his company, by hotel owners who won’t allow him and his wife to have a room on the rare occasions he gets a weekend pass. Shaw was an American Jew himself, and sadly this makes it all feel even more authentic. The Holocaust may have been exclusive to the Nazis, but again Shaw gets home the message that anti-Semitism is pretty much universal. I spent much of my time tear-drenched while reading this book, but there is one scene which I doubt I’ll ever forget when, on the Allies liberating a concentration camp – not one of the big ones, just a little local one – a Rabbi asks to hold a service for the Jewish dead, and other prisoners object. Even there, even after all they’ve been through together, they still hate the Jews.

A truly wonderful book, harrowing, thought-provoking, emotional and beautifully written, this one gets my highest recommendation. Thank you, Classics Club Gods, for making me read it!

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Snow Country (Austrian Trilogy 2) by Sebastian Faulks

Hearts and minds…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastian Faulks

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

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

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Nada by Carmen Laforet

After the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Civil War is over but Spain is still suffering its after-effects when Andrea comes to Barcelona from her provincial home to study literature at the University. She is enthralled at the idea of Barcelona, having only childish memories of earlier visits to her then wealthy relatives. Now she is an orphan, existing on a tiny stipend granted to her by the state to enable her to study. When she arrives at her grandmother’s house in the middle of the night, she discovers the family is no longer wealthy – quite the reverse. The house is old, run-down, dirty and over-stuffed with furniture and trinkets, relics of when the family owned the whole house, before they had to divide it into two and sell the other half. The family are as Gothic as the house. Grandmother is very old and frail, and her mind is beginning to fail. Aunt Angustias is sternly religious, determined to maintain the standards of the past, and insists that Andrea must obey her in all things. Grandmother’s two sons, Juan and Ramon, seem to be in a perpetual fight which often results in fairly extreme violence, not towards each other so much, but because Juan takes out his anger and frustration on his wife, Gloria, whom the family consider socially beneath them. There is a general air of insanity in the family – only Gloria, the outsider, seems to have her feet firmly on the ground. Over the next year or so, Andrea will gradually learn the secrets of each of the family, and come to understand what has brought them to their present state of decay and mutual antagonism.

Written under the constraints of the still new Franco dictatorship, Laforet avoids overt discussion of the politics of the Civil War or of the current regime, but she shows clearly the deprivation and poverty many Spaniards are facing at this time. However, she also shows that this isn’t universal by any means – plenty of people are managing to get along just fine. She hints that perhaps Ramon and Juan picked the wrong side, although Juan had tried to remedy that by switching sides when it became clear who was going to win. She doesn’t, as far as I could tell anyway, pass her own judgement on who was right and wrong, but it’s intriguing that she takes such a negative view of a family that was rich and pampered before the war, and is considerably less cynical about the people who are doing quite well under Franco. Whether any more can be read into this than that she was keen to get the book past the censors, I am unable to judge.

Book 8

The book is considered a classic of existential literature, and part of the Spanish tremendismo style, which apparently was characterized by a tendency to emphasise violence and grotesquery. I only found this out when googling after reading, and I rather wished I’d known in advance, since certainly the grotesquery and violence in the book makes more sense when placed in the context of a literary school. In terms of existentialism, there is undoubtedly existential angst for many of the characters, but Andrea herself seems to be curiously untouched – she feels like an observer more than a participant most of the time, and despite her youth often seems more adult than the adults around her. There is also a sense of the absurd which somehow makes the violence seem almost cartoonish, so that it’s not nearly as grim in tone as the content suggests it should be. In fact there’s quite a strong vein of black humour running through it for much of the time.

I’m not sure that I really fully got the book – my lack of familiarity with the conventions of both existentialism and tremendismo means that I suspect I missed a lot of nuance that would be clearer to people steeped in those schools, and Laforet’s necessary circumspection around the politics of the day made it difficult for me to place her on the political spectrum, which meant that I couldn’t quite tell how biased were her depictions of the various parts of the society she shows us.

Carmen Laforet

None of that prevented me from appreciating it though. I enjoyed the grotesque family and their fights and rivalries, and while I thought that Laforet didn’t give much of a picture of the day-to-day life of Barcelona, she instead invoked an atmosphere of almost hallucinatory, slightly nightmarish unreality which I felt was very effective in symbolising a city coming to terms with the after-effects of a war where the citizens had fought and killed each other in the streets only a few years earlier. There is no sense of a return to the status quo before the war – instead Andrea seems to epitomise a new generation looking with interest at the past, but with no desire to relive it. The book was written in 1945, still too soon for anyone to know how post-war Spain would develop, and that feeling of uncertainty seems to be captured in Andrea’s lack of vision about her own future.

There is an underlying plot of sorts, relating to the brothers and their past, and it is also a kind of coming of age story for Andrea. But both of those things are secondary to the overall feel of the book – a kind of nebulous quality that somehow in the end gives a clearer picture of the social dislocation caused by civil war than a more direct depiction might have done. I read it quite some time ago now, and it has lingered in my mind, growing in stature the more I think about it, so that although I can’t say I wholeheartedly loved it while reading, I have gradually come to appreciate it more and to recognise why it’s considered a classic.

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The Last Trial (Kindle County 11) by Scott Turow

A wonderful finale…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is old now and beginning to fail both physically and mentally, but when Kiril Pafko finds himself in trouble, Sandy agrees to defend him. Sandy’s daughter and legal partner, Marta, has decided to retire and Sandy recognises that he won’t be able to continue without her, so this will be his last case. Marta agrees to stay on till the case is over, and Sandy’s granddaughter, Pinky, is also helping out, both with the casework and as a kind of personal assistant to her ageing grandfather. As the case slowly unfolds, Sandy finds himself reflecting on his long career in the law. Having been diagnosed with cancer, Sandy is also facing his own mortality and finds himself thinking back to the people who have been important in his life – his family and friends. Kiril is one of those friends, a brilliant Nobel prizewinner, who has developed a drug that combats cancer with spectacular results. Too spectacular – Kiril is on trial for suppressing negative studies into the side-effects of the drug, and for the murder of patients who, the prosecution claims, had their lives shortened by taking it. Kiril is also accused of having made a fortune by selling shares in the drug just before the negative studies became public. Although for Sandy the main aim is to have Kiril legally acquitted, Kiril is just as concerned about the damage to his reputation in the scientific community, and Sandy finds that their differing objectives mean that his client oftens impedes his attempts to argue the case on legal grounds.

Sandy Stern first appeared in Presumed Innocent in 1987 and I, along with millions of others, have followed his career ever since. Turow has used him over the series to present a thoughtful and realistic picture of how the law works in the US, slowly and not always achieving true justice, but an essential part of the democratic system of ensuring the rights of the individual. Stern’s cases are usually set among the rich and powerful, and Turow clearly shows that justice depends as much on the quality of lawyer a defendant can afford as on the rights and wrongs of the case. The books are always billed as legal thrillers which I think does them an injustice. To me, these long ago crossed the line into literary fiction – they are far more about the human condition in all its frailties and strengths than about exciting courtroom drama, and the writing is of the highest quality. Calling them thrillers I’m sure attracts readers who are disappointed by the slow pace while putting off readers who would appreciate the deep concentration on character, the mechanics of the law and the society that depends on its judgements.

Turow rarely shows the legal system operating corruptly. In most cases, the judges want to do justice fairly according to the law, and the lawyers want to do the best for their clients, whether prosecuting or defending. Stern is a moral man who cares deeply about acting with integrity, even when it would be easier professionally or personally to cut a corner or two. That doesn’t mean he won’t defend someone who he believes has indeed broken the law; like Atticus Finch, Stern believes that justice only works when every accused person has the right to a defence, guilty or innocent. He also knows that even good people occasionally do wrong, if the motivation is strong enough. Sandy doesn’t see himself as either a moral or legal judge – he is a cog in the legal system, his belief in which has perhaps been the greatest passion in his long life.

Raul Julia as a younger Sandy Stern in Presumed Innocent (1990)

I read this one months ago, when I was in the middle of my pandemic-inspired reviewing slump. It was round about the time that the rich nations were deciding on the safety of the Covid vaccines, and the news was full of stories about our various regulatory bodies and when they would get their act together to approve these and other promised life-saving treatments. There were also stories about Big Pharma’s share prices rocketing up and down with every rumour as to the success or otherwise of their version of a vaccine. At the same time as the book was giving me a detailed picture of the stages any new drug has to go through before it can be approved, the real world was confirming an issue raised in the book – that when rumour gets out of a life-saving treatment for a deadly disease the pressure to approve it becomes immense, almost unstoppable. And Turow shows that when companies stand to make or lose billions depending on whether their drug is approved, the temptation to hide negative reports or manipulate the statistics can be overwhelming. He also raises the question of risk – if a thousand people have their lives extended and improved by a drug, how much weight should be given to the hundred who may be killed by it earlier than they would have died anyway? And if the disease in question is terminal, does that change the balance? If a lawsuit means that the drug is withdrawn and the thousand who would have lived die as a result, is that justice? Questions that all seemed very relevant as reports began to come in about Covid vaccines causing blood clots in a tiny number of people, and entire nations stopping their vaccination programmes as a result.

Scott Turow

Although this could certainly be read as a stand-alone novel, it gains from the emotional attachment long-term readers will have developed for Sandy over the years. We are seeing him now in his old age and for those of us who have grown to know him over the years, it’s a nostalgic and occasionally moving experience. He is failing physically, taking the very drug that the case is about to treat his own cancer. Although his mind is still as brilliant as ever, he is slower now, not as able to handle sudden developments on the spur of the moment, and increasingly reliant on his daughter’s support in the courtroom. He too is in nostalgic mood as the end of his career approaches, thinking back and assessing how his devotion to the law may have led him sometimes to fall down on the job of being a husband and father.

A wonderful finale to what has been a superb series. This may be the last we see of Sandy Stern but I sincerely hope that Turow will continue to give us his thoughtful and beautifully written novels for many years yet.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle Pan Macmillan via NetGalley.

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Review-Along! Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

A Novel Without a Hero, but…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(Spoiler-filled from beginning to end – you have been warned!)

As two young girls leave school together for the last time, their prospects couldn’t be more different. Sweet little Amelia – Emmy – pretty but brainless, is the pampered daughter of a wealthy man and has her future mapped out for her, including marriage to the son of her father’s friend, the handsome and dashing George Osborne. Becky Sharp – ah, Becky! Left like an unwanted parcel at the school years before by her feckless, drunken father, she has no fortune and no family, and she will have to make her own future in a world where matrimony is a woman’s only route to success – at least, respectable success. Fortunately Becky is fairly flexible about her definition of respectability…

This massive satire on every aspect of the English gentility in the years during and after the Napoleonic Wars is one of those very rare beasts – a satire that is actually funny. While Thackeray is brutal to all of the poor puppets in his play, his clear affection for them keeps the tone light even during the darkest parts of the story. There are really only two of the main characters to whom I felt he didn’t give much in the way of redemptive qualities – Emmy’s lover and later husband, George Osborne, and George’s father, who plays the role of villain. All the rest are variously flawed, weak, fickle, vain, but they are too recognisably people we might know (or be!) to be wholly unsympathetic. Thackeray, in his role as omniscient narrator, isn’t afraid to remind his readers frequently that they share the flaws of his characters and that theirs is the society he is mocking.

By the time Thackeray was publishing this in serial form in 1847-8, the Victorian reader had been treated to a variety of Dickens’ heroines, mostly drooping, pretty, tiny, passive, saccharin nonentities and therefore worthy of the love of the novel’s hero. I wonder if Victorian girls felt as nauseated by Dora Copperfield as any modern reader is almost bound to be? If so, what fun to meet Becky Sharp only a year or so later! All those girls who couldn’t be sweet all the time – who didn’t want to be sweet all the time – must have loved Becky from the moment she threw Dr Johnson’s Dictionary out of the coach as she drove away from school! As Emmy dripped and sighed over her worthless lover, and forgave him and forgave him, and wept, and wept, and wept, were the Victorian girls as relieved as I to turn to Becky, to see her demand her own share of the pleasures and vanities of life? Did they feel, as I did, that it was worth the inevitable crash and burn to have had a few years of excitement and fun? Did they laugh heartlessly, as I did and as Thackeray did, at poor Emmy’s years of pathetic fidelity to her long-dead and unlamentable husband? I bet they did!

Sir Pitt the Elder proposes

Of course, Becky is not a good person. But that’s her charm! She is a terrible mother who doesn’t see why having a child should turn a woman into a stay-at-home domestic goddess, giving up her own life to bring up a child who will doubtless turn into a brat like all the men around him, and end up being horridly condescending to his doting mamma (like Emmy’s revolting sprog Georgy). All the unmaternal Victorian girls must have been secretly cheering her on as she left her husband to the drudgery of child-rearing while she went off to parties, bedecked in silks and diamonds she couldn’t afford but managed to acquire anyway. OK, she stole poor Miss Briggs’ small fortune, but does anyone really think that Briggs would have had more fun in a tiny, bare room in a boarding house all alone, eating gruel and darning her stockings, than hobnobbing with the risqué but dazzling guests in Becky’s drawing room? And whether Becky killed her faithful swain Jos deliberately or simply accidentally by allowing him to over-indulge, be honest – wouldn’t his life have been empty and dull indeed if she had not fanned the flames of his passion? Were not his proudest moments when she allowed him to strut along the street as the favoured beau of the most scandalous woman in town?

1855 daguerreotype of William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst

Meantime Amelia lives the life of the perfect Victorian heroine, doting on her child, acting as nurse to her elderly and rather selfish parents, steadfastly faithful to the memory of the man whose fidelity to her lasted no longer than about two weeks after the wedding. The only good thing that happens to Emmy is George’s death, but could she see it? No, she weeps and wails and wails and weeps, until even Dickens might have been tempted to tell her to put a sock in it. I’m sure every Victorian girl who had been told repeatedly that she should be more womanly – i.e., weep more and swoon occasionally – must have loved Thackeray’s delicious torturing of poor Emmy’s over-active tear-ducts. Becky may have been a devil and Emmy an angel, but there’s no doubt which one Thackeray liked best. Who among us didn’t cheer when Dobbin, faithful old Dobbin, finally told Emmy she was a worthless, brain-dead, whimpering doll not fit to be his wife? (I paraphrase, but only slightly.) And was I the only one who was a bit disappointed when he came running back to her after all? The last we see of Emmy is her sighing over the fact that Dobbin loves their daughter more than her – no doubt she had a good weep over it when they got home…

Guess which one is Emmy?

There’s far too much in this book to write a real review in any kind of reasonable length for a blog post, so as you can see I haven’t tried. Instead I’ve been inspired by Thackeray’s choice of subtitle. He may rightly have called it “A Novel Without a Hero” – poor Dobbin is too pathetic, poor Rawdon is too weak, poor Jos is too silly, poor Sir Pitt the Younger is too righteous, poor Sir Pitt the Elder is too vulgar and Lord Steyne is too evil (but not poor). But I contend it is “A Novel With a Heroine” – not snivelling Emmy with her perpetually damp handkerchiefs, but our Becky Sharp, leading the way for women everywhere to behave as badly as men and have just as much fun as they do! Go, Becky!

(PS I enjoyed Georgina Sutton’s narration very much, although because of my own slowness at listening to audiobooks I swapped over to a Kindle version in the second half.)

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

* * * * *

Several of us have been reading Vanity Fair as a Review-Along, and I’ll put links to the other posts here as they appear. Please also come back and check the comments below, where our non-blogging buddies Christine and Alyson will be sharing their opinions. I do hope everyone had as much fun reading this one as I had. Thanks to Rose for suggesting it!

Rose’s Review

Madame Bibilophile’s Review

Jane’s Review

Loulou’s review

Sandra’s review

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

A nation of immigrants…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

Book 79 of 90

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

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

Willa Cather

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

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

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Worthy, but soapy and strangely unmoving…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

Biafran Flag

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

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

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

Book 7 of 12

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

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

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