Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

The Master of Ballantrae, James in baptism, took from his father the love of serious reading; some of his tact perhaps as well, but that which was only policy in the father became black dissimulation in the son. The face of his behaviour was merely popular and wild: he sat late at wine, later at the cards; had the name in the country of “an unco man for the lasses;” and was ever in the front of broils. But for all he was the first to go in, yet it was observed he was invariably the best to come off; and his partners in mischief were usually alone to pay the piper. This luck or dexterity got him several ill-wishers, but with the rest of the country, enhanced his reputation; so that great things were looked for in his future, when he should have gained more gravity. […] I think it notable that he had always vaunted himself quite implacable, and was taken at his word; so that he had the addition among his neighbours of “an ill man to cross.” Here was altogether a young nobleman (not yet twenty-four in the year ’45) who had made a figure in the country beyond his time of life.

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She told him it had been six years ago that she had stayed a day with the Rasputins while on a pilgrimage to Kiev. It was the busy season, and Rasputin was mostly out in the fields, but he would often run home to check on things, each time trying to get her to kiss him. She resisted, insisting that it was not right, but he told her that “among us spiritual pilgrims seeking to save ourselves there is a type of spiritual kissing, like the way the Apostle Paul kissed St. Thekla.” Karneeva repeated how while climbing up out of the chapel beneath the stables, he had grabbed her and kissed her cheek. It was then Rasputin told her of the appearance of the Holy Spirit. Later that day, Glukhovtsev brought Karneeva and Rasputin together for what the Russians called an ochnaia stavka, a sort of face-to-face confrontation, to try to get to the bottom of her claims. Seated directly across from Rasputin, Karneeva repeated everything she had told Glukhovtsev. To each of her statements Rasputin said little more than “That was all long ago, I don’t recall a thing,” or “I don’t remember a thing from that far back,” or simply “I don’t remember that.”

* * * * * * * * *

I had visited the place several times when the professor was alive, and I was also a student of zoology, especially anthropods, so I should have been quite used to the sight; nevertheless it still gave me the shivers and I was rooted for a moment to the spot. Inside hundreds of bottles lining the walls, eight-legged monsters were running around and spinning their webs. Big Oni-gumo and Joro spiders, yellow with blue stripes; Harvestmen with legs ten times longer than their bodies; Cellar spiders with yellow spots on their backs. The grotesque Kimura spider and trapdoor spiders, Ji-gumo, Ha-gumo, Hirata-gumo, Kogane-gumo; all these different kinds of spider had not been fed for about a month and, having lost most of their flesh, were looking around with shiny, hungry eyes for food. Some jars had not been properly sealed and the escaped spiders had spun their webs on the ceiling and in the corners of the room. Countless numbers of the ghastly creatures were crawling around on the walls and ceiling.

From The Spider by Koga Saburo

* * * * * * * * *

I sauntered through the camp towards my hut. On my left, scattered amongst nim and palm trees and big clumps of hibiscus hedge, were the most important buildings in the camp complex – the garage and workshops, Mallabar’s bungalow, the canteen, the kitchen and storage sheds, and beyond them the now abandoned dormitory of the census workers. Beyond that, over to the right, I could just see, through a screen of plumbago hedge, the round thatched roofs of the cooks’ and small boys’ quarters.

I continued past the huge hagania tree that dominated the centre of the camp and which had given it its name: grosso arvore. The Grosso Arvore Research Centre.

On the other side of the track, opposite the canteen, was Hauser’s laboratory and behind that was the tin cabin he shared with Toshiro. Thirty yards along from the lab was the Vails’ bungalow, not as big as chez Mallabar but prettier, freighted with jasmine and bougainvillea. And then, finally, at the camp’s northern extremity, was my hut. In fact “hut” was a misnomer: I lived in a cross between a tent and a tin shack, a curious dwelling with canvas sides and a corrugated iron roof. I suppose it was fitting that it should go to me, on the principle that the newest arrival should occupy the least permanent building, but I was not displeased with it and was indifferent to what it might say about my status.

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora webster‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. The book is set in Tóibín’s own birth town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford just at the turn of the decade to the 1970s. This means it’s positioned between two of Tóibín’s earlier works: Brooklyn, about a young Irish girl sent abroad from the same town as an economic migrant in the 1950s, and The Blackwater Lightship, about three generations of women forced together by grief and trying to overcome old resentments. Although these books are entirely separate from this one in terms of story and characters, Tóibín makes reference to them both early on, and it would not be unreasonable, I feel, to see the three as a loose trilogy, building together to show us the changes in this small old-fashioned society over the decades, especially as they affected women. Brooklyn was set at a time when girls were still expected to conform to traditions upheld by their families and church in terms of their lives and marriages, while in The Blackwater Lightship, Helen has broken almost completely from this society and its traditions, though we see how they can still exert an emotional hold over her. Here, through Nora Webster, we see the midway point – the cusp of feminism if you like, arriving late in this small backwater, when women were beginning to see the possibilities of a life not pre-defined for them by parents or husbands.

Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains
Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains

Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Nora is in her forties with two daughters almost grown and living away at school and college, and two younger sons, both deeply affected by the death of their father and by Nora’s withdrawal into grief. We see that the marriage was a traditional one, with Maurice as the breadwinner and the one who made the big decisions, while Nora fulfilled the role of housewife and mother and had no expectations of a wider life. Left to cope on her own after Maurice’s death, at first she is determined to maintain a continuity with the past and to hold her grief inside herself, hoping that a sense of normality will shield her sons from the worst feelings of loss. But as time passes, and as she is thrust back into the world through the economic need to work, Nora begins to feel the influence of the changes that are taking place in society.

Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried.

My reaction to Tóibín’s writing of these women of the generation of Nora, and Eilis from Brooklyn, is a very personal one, mainly because his characters remind me so much of my own mother. The cultures of Ireland and the West of Scotland are so intertwined that I find the society he portrays wholly recognisable; and these strong post-war women who bore their sorrows within themselves, often in silence, are written with such integrity and understanding. As Nora gradually emerges from her first grief and begins, in a small way, to embrace life again, Tóibín subtly shows the guilt she feels, as if her enjoyment is a betrayal of her husband. And when, at this time of change, she finds she is drawn to things that Maurice would never have understood, such as developing a love for classical music and a desire to learn to sing, we see her struggle to accept her own right to make decisions about her life – a right she may never have considered had Maurice lived. Even making a decision to buy something for herself is so carefully weighed against the guilt that she may be being selfish, that her own wants shouldn’t matter.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Though the story is very focussed on Nora, through her Tóibín shows the impact of the wider events of the time. Maurice was the political one in the family, but now, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland worsening every day, Nora finds herself forming her own opinions and no longer being willing to nod quietly in acceptance of the views of the men in her family. Through her daughters, Tóibín shows how much freer the next generation of women felt, and how much more involved they would be in the world outside the home, both in careers and politics. For me the three books – from Eilis in Brooklyn, through Nora and her daughters, and on to Helen in The Blackwater Lightship – give a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. This one gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK. Er…and Scribner. (What can I say? I requested it from both to be on the safe side and they both approved it. Oops!)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

Mothers and daughters…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the blackwater lightshipHelen has had a strained relationship with her mother Lily and grandmother Dora for years. But now Helen’s brother Declan is dying of AIDS, and the three women are forced to come together for his sake. At Declan’s request, they all go together to spend some time at Dora’s home, resurrecting unhappy memories of the time Helen and Declan lived there as children, while Lily was in Dublin looking after their dying father.

Tóibín’s writing throughout is spare and beautifully controlled, always giving the impression of simplicity and integrity. He paints a very convincing picture of the small village of Blackwater, old-fashioned and conservative, also slowly dying as erosion from the sea gradually destroys the houses built on the coast. There’s no real plot; this is a study of the three generations of women, forced together physically by a shared grief but emotionally separate. And there’s a secondary strand as Declan’s illness allows Tóibín to look at attitudes towards homosexuality in Ireland in the ‘90s, through the reactions of the three generations of his family to his two friends who have come to stay with him. The book is told in the third person from Helen’s viewpoint and what we get to know about the other characters comes through that filter, and through the many conversations that take place as the long days and wakeful nights pass. As old resentments come to the surface, Tóibín takes no sides and apportions no blame, nor does he offer any easy resolutions.

“Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.”

I’ve been reading Tóibín backwards in time, my first introduction to him having been the gut-wrenching and amazingly powerful The Testament of Mary (which I’m delighted to see on the Booker longlist). In this book, I can clearly see the potential that he fulfilled in the later one, but I found this book curiously cold. Although we learn a little about Declan’s friends, Declan himself remains underdeveloped – he’s really little more than a catalyst to bring the women together. The contrast of the emotional openness and competence of Declan’s friends with the frosty reserve and inadequacy of the women was, I felt, over-stated and a little too simplistic to be truly convincing.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

The characterisation of the women is much deeper and their conversations and interactions ring entirely true. However, as we slowly learn what is at the root of the tensions amongst them, the reasons don’t seem to sufficiently explain Helen’s bitterness, and as a result she comes over as a rather selfish and unforgiving person, still focussed on her own childhood resentments and having learned very little from her own experiences of love and motherhood. And this, I think, is the reason that the book didn’t have quite the same emotional impact in the end as either Testament of Mary or to a lesser degree Brooklyn.

Overall, though, the themes of grief and family, the sense of place and time and the intimacy of the characterisation are all hallmarks of Tóibín’s work which, combined with the quality of the writing, make this an insightful and compelling read; and, despite my reservations around the emotional depth of the book, one that I would highly recommend.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link