Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘The Man Within’ by Graham Greene

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 219 pages; 2011.

First published in 1929, The Man Within was Graham Greene’s first novel.

It’s a relatively simple tale of a young smuggler who dobs in his colleagues and then faces the consequences of his betrayal.

Split into three parts, it follows Francis Andrews who goes on the run after he denounces his fellow smugglers — who are running sprits from France — after a fight breaks out and a man is shot dead.

He seeks refuge in a  Sussex cottage owned by a young woman called Elizabeth (with whom he falls in love), but later returns to Lewes, by the coast, where he stands witness in the trial against his fellow smugglers.

When they are acquitted of murder, he returns to Elizabeth’s cottage to warn her that her own life is now in danger, because he had named her as an alibi.

The ending, which has an unforeseen twist, ties up a lot of loose ends but leaves enough room for the reader to make up their own mind about what comes next.

Human relationships

Central to the story is Andrews’ relationship with Carylon, the leader of the smuggling ring, who has become a father figure to him, but their relationship is fraught and one-sided and Andrews is scared of him.

There’s a definite focus on father-son relationships and what it is to be a good man. Andrews’ own father, who died at sea, was well-liked by others, but feared at home:

His father to his crew was a hero, a king, a man of dash, initiative. Andrews knew the truth–that he was a bully who killed his wife and ruined his son.

The result is that Andrews can’t stand up for himself, considers himself a coward, and now realises that his betrayal, one of the bravest things he has ever done, now puts him at risk, especially from Carylon, who has previously killed other men and won’t be afraid to do the same to him.

But by the same token, Andrews doesn’t take any responsibility for himself — here’s an early exchange with Elizabeth, after he barges into her cottage unannounced:

‘I never meant any harm to you,’ Andrews muttered, and then added with a convulsive pleading : ‘It was only fear that made me come. You other people never seem to understand fear. You expect everyone to be brave like yourself. It’s not a man’s fault whether he’s brave or cowardly. It’s all in the way he’s born. My father and mother made me. I didn’t make myself.’

The way in which he falls for Elizabeth, one of the only women he’s ever had any interactions with without paying for it, seems spontaneous and presumptive. His early conversations with her are littered with cruel sentiment.

Looking down at her dark hair, pale face and calm eyes seemed to infuriate him. ‘You women,’ he said, ‘you are all the same. You are always on your guard against us. Always imagine that we are out to get you. You don’t know what a man wants.’

But when he returns to see her for the second time, he’s convinced himself he’s in love with her and feels at home with her:

‘We get tired of our own kind,’ he said, ‘the coarseness, hairiness–you don’t understand. Sometimes I’ve paid street women simply to talk to them, but they are like the rest of you. They don’t understand that I don’t want their bodies.’ ‘You’ve taught us what to think,’ she interrupted with a faint bitterness breaking the peace of her mind. He took no notice of what she said.
‘I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘a reason why I came back. You can laugh at me. I was homesick for here.’

He also sees Elizabeth as someone who can offer him stability — and sanity.

‘You are so sane,’ he said sadly. ‘You women are all so sane. A dream is often all there is to a man. I think that you are lovely, good and full of pity, but that is only a dream. You know all about yourself, how you are greedy for this and that, afraid of insects, full of disgusting physical needs. You’ll never find a man who will love you for anything but a bare, unfilled-in outline of yourself. A man will even forget his own details when he can, until he appears an epic hero, and it needs his woman to see that he’s a fool. Only a woman can love a real person.’
‘You may be right,’ she said, ‘though I don’t understand most of it. I once knew a man, though, who so forgot his own details as you call them, that he believed himself a coward and nothing else.’

Basic plot

The plot is basic, and relies too much on coincidence to work, and the execution is patchy. Greene, who wrote the book when he was 22, describes it as “embarrassingly romantic” and the style derivative, claiming the only quality it possesses is its youth. And there’s some truth in that.

But it’s good at building tension and the prose is eloquent (in places). There are some beautiful mood-evoking descriptions of place, such as this:

Along a white road a scarlet cart crawled like a ladybird along the rim of a leaf. The Surrey hills peered through a silver veil, as though they were an old man’s face, austere, curious and indestructibly chaste. A cock a mile away crowed with frosty clarity and a lamb bewildered and invisible cried aloud.

But on the whole, The Man Within is a fairly mediocre story although it brims with that same energy, fierceness and psychological insight that underpin the large body of work that follows. Reading it provides a glimpse into Greene’s early interests in topics that recur in his later work: the differences between men and women, religion and spirituality, good and evil.

If you haven’t read him before, this probably isn’t the place to start.

I read this book for The 1929 Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, which runs between 24-30 October 2022.

Andrew O'Hagan, Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Mayflies’ by Andrew O’Hagan

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 277 pages; 2020.

Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish writer and literary critic with several award-winning novels and non-fiction books to his name.

Mayflies, his sixth novel, won the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose in 2020, with the judges describing it as “exuberant and heartbreaking”.

They weren’t wrong. This is a rare novel that starts out full of bonhomie and youthful energy and a cheerfulness that resonates off the page. By the end, the reader is left feeling bereft in the knowledge that life, for some, can be full of challenges despite our very best efforts to make something of ourselves. But there is also an aching awareness of the importance of love and friendship in all stages of our lives.

A book of two halves

Mayflies is a coming-of-age story framed around a group of working-class Ayrshire lads growing up in Thatcher’s Britain and is divided into two equal parts. The first is set in the summer of 1986; the second, some 30 years later, in the autumn of 2017.

It’s narrated by Jimmy, a bookish 18-year-old who has “divorced” his parents, and largely hangs out with his larger-than-life friend, Tully, whose family have pretty much adopted him as one of their own.

It’s this friendship between the quiet, thoughtful schoolboy Jimmy and the mischevious and fun-to-be-around lathe-turner Tully that forms the heart of the novel.

Together with a group of friends — Limbo, Tibbs, Dr Clogs and Hogg — they head to Manchester for a weekend of music and mayhem, a weekend that turns out to be one of the most formative experiences of their lives, filled with banter, booze, adrenalin and a sense of freedom.

The Manchester scene

For those of us of a certain, a-hem, age (O’Hagan is just a year older than me), Manchester was the musical Mecca of the world in the mid-to-late 1980s and beyond, and O’Hagan beautifully captures the awe and excitement of seeing those quintessential bands of the time, as punk merged into New Wave, and offered up the likes of Joy Divison, New Order and The Smiths.

We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu*. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things.

The novel is shot through with references to the record stores (Picadilly Records), music venues (G-Mex), nightclubs (Hacienda) and record labels (Factory) of the time, which lends a ring of authenticity — and nostalgia.

I was a record-shop obsessive in my day, so this quote particularly resonated:

We were all obsessed with record shops. The major churches of the British Isles, with their stained glass, rood screens, and flying buttresses, were as nothing next to some grubby black box under Central Station, or some rabbit hutch in Manchester, which sold imports, fanzines, and gobbets of gig information.

But I also enjoyed the name-checking of bands and films and books and political events — the UK miner’s strike et al — and I laughed out loud at the scene in which Jimmy and Tully spot the members of The Smiths coming down the stairs of the hotel they were drinking in and going out into the street.

I thought I was seeing stuff — nobody else in the foyer seemed to notice. I elbowed Tully and he turned to see Morrissey and Marr. A lurch in the stomach. The singer was wearing a red shirt and he hit the air like a chip-pan on fire. Right behind him was Johnny Marr, light and young as his melodies and smoking a fag. The word ‘vermillion’ came to mind, and so did his lyrics, all the band’s images, and that’s how it works when you’re a fan who thinks Keats might save the world. In an instant, without a word being exchanged, Tully and I were through the doors and onto the pavement, just in time to see the famous Mancunians stepping into a Rolls-Royce.

Change in gear

When the book reaches the halfway point, there is a definite change in gear. Gone is the exuberance and energy of the first half, instead, there is a sombre, more serious tone to the writing reflected in the age of the characters who are now middle-aged men living quietly middle-class lives, far removed from the working-class roots of their fathers.

Jimmy is a successful writer living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre; Tully has gone back to school to transform himself into an English teacher and he is now Head of English at a school in Glasgow. He has a long-term partner, Anna, and is relatively happy and settled.

A phone call brings them back together again and what follows tests both men’s friendship, Jimmy’s relationship with Anna, and their worldviews.

This part might sound depressing, but it’s shot through with humour — Tully never loses his zest for life and his penchant for banter — and there’s a wedding that brings together many of the lads from the Manchester trip who haven’t seen each other for decades, as well as a holiday to Sicily that is depicted with charm and vividness.

Throughout, O’Hagan treads a fine line, showing the contrast between middle age and youth, without sliding into sentimentality. Yes, it’s occasionally wistful and there’s an undercurrent of pathos, but the story, as a whole, is evocative and poignant.

It explores many issues including the positive long-term impact a teacher can have on a student’s future; the importance of defending working-class rights but not their prejudices; the far-reaching consequences of Thatcherite politics on an entire generation and the ways in which the more recent Brexit referendum will do something similar. But I especially loved its depiction of music, male friendship and mortality.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life, Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal, and Annabel’s review at Annabookbel.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle: Male friendship, family and music form the central themes of this frank and funny novel about a man grappling with his own mortality in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

* This is how I felt about London when I first arrived in the summer of 1998! 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘England, Your England: Notes on a Nation’ by George Orwell

Non-fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 188 pages; 2021.

George Orwell’s England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a collection of five essays brought together in one volume published by Pushkin Press last year.

The subjects covered are incredibly varied but all share a common theme: English life and culture in all its peculiarities.

The essays were penned between 1931 and 1946 and showcase Orwell’s gift for observation and his masterful ability to convey the political machinations that underpin society. And everything is written in his distinctive pared-back prose style that makes it an effortless read.

Essays one and two

The first essay, Decline of the English Murder, is an almost satirical look at the tabloid press’s obsession with true crime reportage, and reading it now, more than 75 years later, not much seems to have changed.

[…] one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader’s point of view, the ‘perfect’ murder. The murderer would be a little man of the professional class —  a dentist or a solicitor, say — living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.

In Shooting an Elephant, he reveals his personal experience in the early 1920s when, as a policeman in Burma — then a province of British India — he was required to shoot a rampaging elephant.

He made the decision to play the hero as a way of proving himself to the locals, who had taken against him, even though he did not want to shoot the animal because he was squeamish and regarded it as murder. He has an alarming sense of self-awareness:

Here I was, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece, but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

Essay three

Perhaps the most interesting essay, or at least the one that is most shocking (to this reader anyway), is Down the Mine, a look at what it was like to be a coal miner deep underground in the 1930s.

Orwell’s first-person piece, which first appeared in his book The Road to Wigan Pier (published 1937), details the hardships and sheer grunt work the men do in dangerous, claustrophobic conditions in tunnels so small they cannot even stand up to wield their picks and shovels.

He marvels at the speed at which they do their work — shifting coal at around two tons an hour — and is amazed by the idea they often have to walk, or crawl, more than a mile underground to reach the coal face.

When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on the flying trapeze or to win the Grand National.

Essay four

The grim theme continues in The Spike, which is about life inside a workhouse. In this 1931 essay (which you can read in full online at The Orwell Foundation website), Orwell details an overnight stay when he was deliberately living as a vagrant as part of his studies for his first book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Acting as a passive observer, he paints pen portraits of the men that eat and sleep there and contrasts life inside the institution — dank, depressing, grim — with life outside, on the road, where “the chestnut branches were covered with blossom, and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost motionless in a clear sky”.

He explains how the men are given a bath, a medical inspection, a bed to sleep in for the night and an enormous meal, but are then thrown back out onto the street and left to fend for themselves once again. In between, they are locked up inside, denied their tobacco and forced to talk to one another to pass the time.

It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel. Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.

The masterpiece essay

The book culminates with Orwell’s three-part essay on English socialism, The Lion and the Unicorn, which was first published in 1941 and outlines his opinions on the Second World War and the role that Britain was playing in it at the time.

His analysis of the British character, the class system and Empire seems remarkably on point more than 80 years later, particularly in light of Brexit and the political shenanigans currently happening in the UK.

I underlined so many pertinent sentences and paragraphs and, indeed, entire pages, that I couldn’t possibly summarise or review this essay in any meaningful or articulate way. Instead, let me share some of my favourite quotes:

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.

Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as the law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.

It follows that British democracy is less of a fraud than it sometimes appears. A foreign observer sees only the huge inequality of wealth, the unfair electoral system, the governing-class control over the press, the radio and education, and concludes that democracy is simply a polite name for dictatorship. But this ignores the considerable agreement that does unfortunately exist between the leaders and the led.

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled by largely the old and silly.

I could go on… but I won’t.

England Your England: Notes on a Nation is a gem of a collection: forthright, thought-provoking and an astute observation of English life from another generation but one that still resonates today.

This is my 8th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from the independent book store Crow Books here in Perth last Christmas using some money I was given by Mr Reading Matters to treat myself to “books and beer”! I love the look and feel of this Pushkin Press edition. There’s a second one in the set, “Inside the Whale: On Writers and Writing”, that I now need to hunt out.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Natasha Brown

‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 104 pages; 2021.

Natasha Brown’s novella Assembly could be described as the tale of a woman preparing to attend a lavish garden party at her boyfriend’s family home in the English countryside, but it is so much more than this. On a much deeper level, it is also a scathing examination of institutional racism and the colonialist structure of British society.

Portrait of British life

It’s written in a series of eloquent vignettes from the perspective of a successful Black British woman who has climbed the career ladder in banking and done well for herself, but at every stage of her life, from school to job to buying her own home, she has had to keep her head below the parapet to avoid the naysayers who might suggest she doesn’t deserve it because of the colour of her skin.

As she prepares for the visit to her white boyfriend’s family home, she thinks about all the events in her life which have led her to this point. She feels complicit in aspiring for a life of “middle-class comfort” without challenging the institutions — the universities, banks and government — which have limited her choices because she lacked the prerequisite connections or money to venture into anything other than the financial industry.

Banks — I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? […] The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities: I felt I couldn’t waste mine.

But this doesn’t sit well with her. She believes she’s become someone who knows her place in society and understands the limits to her ascent. She does not want the younger generation to have to deal with this too.

And she’s conscious that her boyfriend’s parents tolerate her because they are “good, socially liberated” people, but she knows that it’s all an illusion, that they think it’s just a phase their son is going through and it’s not the kind of relationship that would ever develop into anything serious. If it did, it would threaten “a purity of lineage” — though not in “any crass racial sense” but in the family’s “shared cultural mores and sensibilities” — and it would “wreck the family name”.

But this is a microcosm of what she’s experienced her whole life, trying to fit in and be accepted but knowing that if you scratch the surface it’s next to impossible:

Born here, parents born here, always lived here — still never from here.

And interwoven through all these negative thoughts is an unwanted medical diagnosis that she is refusing to deal with perhaps because she’s suffered enough and more suffering does not faze her.

Compelling read

Assembly is a challenging and at times confronting read, and it is relentless in its dissection of racism, but it’s written with such eloquence (and fury) that it’s compelling and hypnotic.

It doesn’t paint a particularly nice portrait of modern British life. It is littered with examples of micro-aggression and sexism in the workplace, the lack of social mobility opportunities, the “hostile environment” adopted by the government and the ways in which the ruling classes are geared towards preserving a certain way of life.

And the ending, uncertain and undefined, is a pitch-perfect reflection of a country on the precipice of choosing which direction to go: backward or forward?

Brona liked this one too (review here) and so did Annabel (review here)

This is my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it from Collins Booksellers in Cottesloe last year. It’s the kind of book that would benefit from a second reading, there is just so much in it, so I’m glad I purchased this one rather that borrow from the library.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Swift, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘Mothering Sunday: A Romance’ by Graham Swift

Fiction – hardcover; Simon & Schuster; 132 pages; 2018.

The novella Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, pivots around one central moment: a final sexual encounter between two people from different social classes before one of them goes off to marry someone else.

Set on 30 March 1924—Mothering Sunday—the story goes beyond this date to explore what happens to each of the young lovers in the aftermath of their affair.

It’s written in the third person but told largely from the perspective of Jane Fairchild, a 22-year-old housemaid, who is romantically involved with Paul Sheringham, a handsome young man up the road who is engaged to be married to Emma Hobday, a young woman in the same social class as him.

Paul is 23, the only surviving son of an upper-class family in rural Berkshire (his brothers were killed in the Great War), and his whole life has been mapped out for him. His background — and his prospects — could not be any more different than Jane’s. Yet the pair have been secret lovers for years.

She didn’t know how he had acquired his sureness. Later, in her memory, she would marvel at it and be almost frightened by his possession of it then. It was the due of his kind? He was born to it. It came with having no other particular thing to do? Except be sure.

Despite Jane’s lack of formal education, she is a keen reader and has access to her kindly employer’s own personal library. On the day in question, she plans to read her borrowed copy of Joseph Conrad’s Youth in the spring sunshine. She’s an orphan, so has no mother to visit, but then Paul summons her for a morning rendezvous and the whole course of her life changes…

An auspicious date

Written in exquisite language, languid and sensual, the narrative continually loops back on itself so there is never any mistaking the importance of the date, repeated like a mantra, to Jane, who looks back on this particular Mothering Sunday with awe and delight and shock and grief. What enfolds on that single day has repercussions for her entire life, a life in which she becomes a successful writer and uses her affair with Paul as both inspiration and succour during her long career.

Swift is a careful stylist, shaping the story so that it seamlessly flits backwards and forwards in time, revealing Jane’s innermost feelings and desires, showing what her life was like before meeting Paul and what it becomes, years and decades later, when their romance ends.

And in highlighting the differences between British social classes, it’s easy to see how this match between a maid and a young lawyer would never be acceptable to the masses despite their clear feelings for one another. Jane, in particular, has been conditioned to behave according to her social standing and she is wary of challenging Paul, of demanding anything of him even though she’s well within her rights to do so.

It was not her place, after all, with her ghostly maid’s clothes back on again, to speak, suggest or do more than wait. Years of training had conditioned her. They are creatures of mood and whim. They might be nice to you one moment, but then— And if they snapped or barked, you must jump. Or rather take it in your stride, carry on, not seethe. Yes sir, yes madam. And always—it was half the trick—be ready for it.

As it turns out, such training holds Jane in good stead when she needs it most.

This is a beautifully told tale that is both compelling and heartbreaking. It’s richly evocative of the era and lingers in the mind long after the final page. I loved its exploration of truth and memory and of lives unlived.

For other takes on Mothering Sunday, please see Brona’s review and Lisa’s review.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan: Set on a single night, this novella explores the consummation of a marriage between two deeply inexperienced people.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, John Wyndham, Penguin, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘The Kraken Wakes’ by John Wyndham

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2008.

When I was a teenager I read all of John Wyndham’s science fiction novels, including Day of the Triffids (which was a set text at school), The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids (my favourite and one that held up especially well when I re-read it in 2009). I know I read The Kraken Wakes^ but I have absolutely no recollection of the story, so re-reading it more than 30 years later was akin to reading it for the first time.

First published in 1953, it’s a rather “traditional” story of aliens arriving on earth and posing a threat. But it’s a bit more complex than that because the aliens can only survive underwater at very great depths and under extreme pressure. No one has any clear idea what they look like — or what they are capable of.

One school of thought suggests these creatures could happily co-exist with humankind because they are colonising parts of the planet that are inhospitable, but there are others who fear the aliens are making changes under the sea that could have harmful impacts, putting all humankind at risk.

Seen through a journalist’s eyes

The story, which is divided into three parts (or phases), is told through the eyes of Mike Watson, a journalist from the English Broadcasting Commission (EBC), and his wife, Phyllis, who is also a reporter.

The couple is honeymooning on a cruise ship when they first witness the start of the alien invasion — although, at the time, no one realises this is what it is. Just a handful of people spot fireballs landing in the sea, but as more and more of these events are reported across the world, it becomes clear these “brilliantly red lights” aren’t just randomly falling into the water; there’s some kind of plan in action that suggests there is an intelligence at work.

The British are particularly worried by the potential threat this might pose and so an investigation is arranged. A bathysphere — a spherical deep-sea submersible — is sent down to the bottom of the ocean (near a known entry point) with two scientists on board. Unfortunately, the mission does not go well; the two men are killed by the aliens and war, in all but name, is declared.

But thanks to the Cold War, which is in full swing, governments on either side of the political divide are unwilling to co-operate and are blaming each other for the situation.

Sinking ships

Later, when the aliens begin sinking ships, international shipping grinds to a halt and the world economy takes a nosedive, but no one really knows how to tackle the situation beyond attack. (The Brits, for instance, drop a nuclear device underwater as if that’s going to calm the situation down.)

To make matters worse, the aliens, now known to be aquatic invertebrates a bit like a jellyfish, begin venturing onto land, arriving in “sea-tanks” to capture humans. There are terrifying scenes across the world as the aliens make their surprise attacks.

The first sea-tanks must have sent coelenterate bubbles wobbling into the air before the men realised what was happening, for presently all was cries, screams, and confusion. The sea-tanks pressed slowly forward through the fog, crunching and scraping into the narrow streets, while, behind them, still more climbed out of the water. On the waterfront there was panic. People running from one tank were as likely to run into another. Without any warning, a whip-like cilium would slash out of the fog, find its victim, and begin to contract. A little later there would be a heavy splash as it rolled with its load over the quayside, back into the water.

Eventually, the aliens begin melting the polar ice caps so that sea levels rise. Civilisation breaks down as cities flood and political and social systems collapse.

Poor old Mike and Phyllis, stalwarts that they are, continue to report on events, before their life in London is so untenable they relocate to Cornwall (via boat through a flooded interior), where they hold up in their holiday cottage that oh-so, fortunately, is built on high ground. It is here that they discover that up to one-fifth of the world’s population has died, but things are looking better: not only have the waters started to recede, but the Japanese have also created a weapon that can kill the invaders…

Call for international cooperation?

Reading this novel, I kept wondering what Wyndham might have been trying to say about the issues of the day at the time he wrote it. In the early 1950s, the aforementioned Cold War was in full swing, so perhaps he was making a statement about the need for cooperation to end it?

There’s a lot of political infighting in this novel, a lot of inaction and poor decisions based on protectionism, patriotism and “the will of the people”, and little strategic what’s-best-for-the-world-as-a-whole kind of thinking.

I underlined many paragraphs that resonated in the sense that the author could have been describing events pertaining to all kinds of current global issues, such as climate change and the covid-19 pandemic. Here’s how Phyllis, for instance, reacts to the British Government’s inaction in helping provide its citizens with weapons to defend themselves:

“[…] I get sick of putting up with all the shams and the humbug, and pretending that the lies aren’t lies, and the propaganda isn’t propaganda, and the dirt isn’t dirt. […] Don’t you sometimes wish that you had been born into the Age of Reason, instead of the Age of the Ostensible Reason? I think that they are going to let thousands of people be killed by these horrible things rather than risk giving the powerful enough weapons to defend themselves. And they’ll have rows of arguments why it is best so. What do a few thouands or a few millions of people matter? Women will just go on making the loss good.”

Lots of detail

Admittedly, I think the reason that The Kraken Wakes didn’t stick in my memory is that it’s a bit bogged down in detail. There’s a lot of back story, of providing enough scientific information to support the theories being presented, but this means it does, occasionally, drag.

I have seen reviews criticising the melodrama, but without this, the story would be exceedingly dull. You need a bit of human tension and panic and fear to make the reader want to keep turning the pages.

That said, the dialogue between Mike and Phyllis is excellent — I like that Phyllis is an independent woman, although she’s often reliant on her “feminine wiles” to get information out of contacts, which is disappointing — and the pair really do carry the story along: they become the world’s eyes and ears, and the processes they use, under strict deadlines and difficult circumstances, to report events are fascinating.

Was it worth re-reading? I’m not so sure. If you’ve not read John Wyndham before, it might not be the place to start. Go for Day of the Triffids or the Chrysalids instead.

 

^ In the US, the book was published under the title Out of the Deeps.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, BIPOC 2021, Book review, England, Fiction, general, Larissa Behrendt, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 300 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Larissa Behrendt’s After Story is a charming novel about a mother and daughter embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

Unsurprisingly, the story has a bookish flavour, but it is much more than a simple travel tale, for it has unexpected depths relating to mother-daughter relationships, storytelling (both oral and written), community, colonialism, what it is to be an Aboriginal Australian, the value of education, the ability to navigate the world on your own terms, and the long shadow of grief and sexual abuse.

The tale is structured in a clever way. There’s the before and after sections of the trip, and then the trip itself, divided into days, and told from two different points of view, the mother’s (Della) and her adult daughter’s (Jasmine, formerly known as Jazzmine).

A painful past

In the prologue, we learn that when Jasmine was just a toddler, her seven-year-old sister Brittany went missing, stolen from her bed overnight. Her body was later found and a man has since been imprisoned for her murder. (The case is reminiscent of the shocking real-life murders of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville, NSW, in the early1990s, which is explored in the excellent true-crime book Bowraville by Dan Box.)

Twenty-five years on, the pain is still writ large, particularly on Della who was blamed for Brittany’s death, an accusation that has had a long-lasting impact. Her grief, eased by alcohol, has recently been compounded by the death of Brittany’s father, Jimmy, six months earlier, and that of Aunty Elaine, the matriarch of the family whose wise voice and counsel resonate throughout this novel even though we never actually meet her as a character.

The 10-day trip is a chance for Jasmine to escape the stress of her day job as a criminal lawyer in the city. When her travel partner pulls out, she invites her mother along instead, hoping it will bring them closer together but knowing it will probably test her patience to an impossible degree. She turns out to be right on both counts.

Twin narratives

The novel is told in two distinct voices in alternate chapters so we get to compare and contrast how each person experiences the world.

Della’s voice is naive and unsophisticated but honest and genuine. She occasionally says the wrong thing at the wrong time,  but she is kind and considerate. Initially, she doesn’t want to go on the trip but once she arrives in London and begins to have her eyes opened up to new ideas, new experiences and new ways of being, she relishes the travel experience. Her opening up to the world and the way she shares her heart-felt perspectives is a joy to behold.

By comparison, Jasmine’s voice is clearly more educated and articulate. The first in her family to go to university, she’s created a new life for herself in Sydney. She rarely goes back home and, as a consequence, has a strained relationship with her older sister, Leigh Anne, who sees her as having abandoned her familial responsibilities. During the trip, her mother’s occasionally drunken behaviour embarrasses her, but she slowly comes to understand how Della’s life has been shaped by her grief and the experiences she had to endure as a young girl.

But while they are in London, they learn about a shocking news story — the abduction of a four-year-old girl from Hampstead Heath — which is a stark reminder of their own loss and triggers another secret trauma that Della has lived with her entire life.

Grand tour

The literary tour, which takes in London, Bath, Oxford and Leeds (among other places), is recounted in often exacting detail, sometimes to the point of sounding a bit like a series of Wikipedia entries.

Jasmine is well-read in the classics so her narrative is filled with facts about various writers, their trials and tribulations, and the stories they are best known for and she is the one who tells us about the places visited — which include Shakespear’s birthplace, Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester, Jane Austen’s House Museum in Sussex and Keat’s House in London — and the walking tours embarked on.

Della, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a Brontë from a Dickens, but she is eager to learn and her questions suggest an inquiring mind. She begins to jot things down in her notebook so she won’t forget them.

This, in turn, makes her realise that so much of indigenous culture, which stretches back 60,000 years, has been lost or forgotten because there are limitations on oral storytelling and because Western Civilisation, which is seen as the pinnacle of art and culture, has overshadowed it. (As an aside, remember the global outpouring of grief when the medieval cathedral, Notre-Dame, in Paris caught on fire in 2019, yet last year when mining company Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years the world was pretty silent on the matter.) This prompts her to begin writing down the stories she recalls Aunty Elaine telling her, as a way to keep them from fading away.

Gentle humour

But while After Story deals with some big themes and painful issues, there’s plenty of light relief, not least in the behaviour of various individuals in the tour group. (Anyone who has travelled with a bunch of strangers will recognise the kinds of personalities represented here — the know-it-alls, the mansplainers, the ones that are late for everything all the time and so on.)

Della herself utters a great one-liner at the British Museum — a place that still houses Aboriginal remains taken from the early days of white settlement:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

All this combines to give the story a depth you might not expect at first glance. When you begin to unpick this easy-to-read tale (honestly, it slips down like hot chocolate, I drank it up in a weekend), you begin to realise there is a LOT going on. Book groups would have a fun time with this one!

The book also comes with a helpful list of tourist sites mentioned in the text and a recommended reading list of classic novels that Jasmine mentions in her narrative.

For other thoughts on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Brona’s at This Reading Life.

This is my 21st book for #AWW2021 and my 9th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Persephone, Publisher, R.C. Sherriff, Setting

‘The Fortnight in September’ by RC Sherriff

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 336 pages; 2017.

If you are looking for a lovely, gentle story from a more innocent time, then please put R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September on your reading list.

This novel, first published in 1931, perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside. Not very much happens in the story, but it’s written in such a mannered, yet insightful, way, that it hardly seems to matter.

A long train journey

There’s a long build-up, introducing us to each member of the Stevens family — Mr Stevens, an office worker (we never really find out exactly what it is he does), his devoted wife Mrs Stevens, and their three children, Mary, 20, Dick 17, and Ernie, 10 — as they make their preparations for their time away, ensuring the milk order is cancelled, that their pet budgerigar has been given to the next-door neighbour to look after, that the gas has been turned off and everything is locked up.

Their journey to Bognor Regis, on the West Sussex coast, is described in exacting detail, including the walk to the train station from their terraced house at 22 Corunna Road in Dulwich, and then the long journey by train, via Clapham Junction, and then onwards to “Seaview”, the apartments they have taken every year since their honeymoon more than 20 years earlier.

Finally, he turned, and said rather lamely—“Well, here we are.” They had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start. With a touch of panic you wonder whether the holiday, after all, is only a dull anti-climax to the journey.

At Bognor Regis, they have their meals prepared for them by the elderly landlady, Mrs. Huggett, and their days are spent at the beach, playing cricket and swimming. They pass their evenings taking strolls along the promenade or visiting the amusement parlours on the pier. Occasionally, they listen to musical performances at the bandstand. Mr Stevens also sneaks off the local pub for a quiet pint, free from the constraints of his family.

It is all very quaint, predictable and safe, but the holiday is tinged with melancholia, for Mr and Mrs Stevens realise this may be the last holiday they enjoy together as a family because Mary and Dick are adults now — they have jobs and lives of their own — and Mrs Huggett’s establishment has become rundown and dated. (It’s only near the end of their holiday that the Stevens’ learn that they have been the only people to stay during the season — everyone else has cancelled and gone elsewhere; not for the first time, Mr Stevens wonders if his loyalty has been misplaced.)

Universal truths about travel

Even though this story is 90 years old and recounts a time when travel comprised what we would now call “staycations”, it is packed with universal truths: the plotting and planning that accompanies every journey, for example; the budgeting required; the nervousness about missing scheduled services (in this case trains, but in today’s modern world who hasn’t fretted about missing a plane or getting your boarding gate mixed up?); the mild panic when you realise you are more than half-way through your holiday; and the sadness you feel when it’s time to pack your suitcase to go home.

I particularly enjoyed Mrs Stevens’ thoughts about Clapham Junction, where they have to change trains, because I used to visit that station daily on my commute (for about two years) from Kensington Olympia and it is absolutely the worst train station in the world with its 17 platforms, crowds of people and confusing walkways (above ground and underground):

Hell, to Mrs. Stevens would be a white hot Clapham Junction with devils in peaked caps.

Gentle humour

The story is written in a gentle-mannered tone but there’s a vein of mild humour running throughout. For instance, the holiday apartments are called “Seaview,” because “from the lavatory window you could see the top of a lamp post on the seafront”, and to cure Ernie’s travel sickness…

Mrs. Stevens had tried starving the child: she had tried strong peppermints—to no avail. Ultimately she learnt of a good plan from her neighbour Mrs. Jack, whose little Ada was just the same. Mrs. Jack always carried on railway journeys, in her purse, two or three small paper bags. They could be quickly opened—easily applied and conveniently dropped out of the window. So adept had Mrs. Jack become that she boasted sometimes of getting the whole incident over before her surprised fellow passengers knew what had happened.

In another scene, Mr Stevens sits on a soft upholstered chair that practically swallows him whole:

Mr. Stevens, lacking his wife’s foresight, sat right back in his: he sank down and down until he felt his feet jerk off the ground as the edge of the chair straightened out his knees. Ernie watched his father’s struggles with mingled curiosity and dismay: he had a vague feeling that he ought to run and look for a life belt, but Mr. Stevens soon recovered himself, and was just in time to rise as Mrs. Montgomery came in.

There’s some great one-liners too. The sand is crowded with people “as tightly packed on their strip of beach as the blight upon Mr. Stevens’ beans”; a driver is described as looking like “the kind of man who drove ghostly coaches over precipices on dark, stormy nights”, and the pier, which is “black and gaunt” resembles “the skeleton of a gigantic monster with its front legs planted in the sea”.

The Fortnight in September is a real balm for the soul. It’s about an ordinary family momentarily escaping the confines of their mundane lives, but it’s also a fascinating historical look at the minutiae of domestic travel in a different era. I loved it.

UPDATE 14 September: Karen at BookerTalk informs me that this book has recently been BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. It has been serialized into 10 episodes, which are available to listen to for the next 3 weeks.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penelope Fitzgerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 156 pages; 2006.

A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond
life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

A book about a bookshop seems hard to resist, right?

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop — first published in 1978 — has languished in my TBR for years, but I was only encouraged to read it after I watched the film adaptation last week (it’s streaming on SBS on Demand for anyone in Australia who fancies checking it out). Unfortunately, the film was a bit on the dull side (despite great performances from Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy), so I wanted to find out whether the book was better.

And it was.

While the film is faithful to the novel in terms of dialogue, characters and plot, it somehow fails to capture the subtle humour and the little digs at busybodies and those who wish to keep a good woman down, as it were.

And it also neglects to even mention the supernatural element of the storyline in which the lead character, Florence Green, is pestered by a poltergeist (or “rapper” as the locals call it)^^. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that might distract from the main storyline, which is a bittersweet tale about a widow who opens a bookshop against the wishes of the community “elite” who would rather an arts centre was established in the town.

A comedy of manners

Set in East Anglia, in 1959, the book is essentially a comedy of manners. It’s about petty-minded villagers who rail against Florence’s plan to open a bookshop in the small town of Hardborough on the coast — although it’s never made entirely clear why they think it is so objectionable.

Florence is kind-hearted but she’s also determined to do her own thing. (And maybe that’s why the locals are so against a bookshop being set up — women, after all, should be home makers and looking after children, but Florence is widowed and child free and she has a dream she wants to fulfil.)

She buys the Old House — “built five hundred years ago out of earth, straw, sticks and oak beams” — which has been vacant for years and is rumoured to be haunted by a poltergeist.

The noise upstairs stopped for a moment and then broke out again, this time downstairs and apparently just outside the window, which shook violently. It seemed to be on the point of bursting inwards. Their teacups shook and spun in the saucers. There was a wild rattling as though handful after handful of gravel or shingle was being thrown by an idiot against the glass.

Florence isn’t put off by this. She ignores the noise and the unexpected occurrences and gets on with the business of opening her shop, which also includes a lending library. She hires a local school girl, the forthright 10-year-old Christine, who helps out after class even though she doesn’t like books and isn’t particularly studious. Her working class parents, it seems, need the money.

The relationship between the older woman and her young charge is one of the sweeter elements of the book. Florence tolerates Christine’s rudeness and her sharp manner and tries to help her study for her 11-plus exam which will determine whether she goes to a grammar school or a technical school.

Other relationships develop over the course of the book. A strange older man by the name of Mr Brundish becomes a loyal customer and helps Florence decide whether she should stock the controversial Lolita to sell to the inhabitants of Hardborough. “They won’t understand it,” he tells her, “but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” She orders 250 copies.

By contrast, the charming (read slightly sleazy) Milo North, who commutes to London where he works at the BBC, is often on her case. When they meet at a grand party for the first time he asks her whether she is “well advised to undertake the running of a business” and claims that he will never visit her shop. He’s on the side of Mrs Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough”, who wants the Old House to be used as an arts centre for chamber music, lectures and art displays even though the building had been on the market for six months and no one but Florence had expressed an interest in buying it.

A successful business

Despite the local animosity and the challenges that confront Florence, including from her own solicitor and the opening of a rival store in a nearby town, the business is a relative success, and the story, while not exactly light-hearted, has a vein of gentle comedy running throughout it.

‘I don’t know why I bought these,’ Florence reflected after one of these visits. ‘Why did I take them? No one used force. No one advised me.’ She was looking at 200 Chinese book-markers, handpainted on silk. The stork for longevity, the plum-blossom for happiness. Her weakness for beauty had betrayed her. It was inconceivable that anyone else in Hardborough should want them. But Christine was consoling: the visitors would buy them – come the summer, they didn’t know what to spend their money on.

Sadly, there are greater unseen forces at work which put Florence’s livelihood at risk and the novel, for all it’s comic moments, nuanced observations and evocative descriptions of the Suffolk landscape, ends on a terribly sad note.

I enjoyed its commentary on class and ambition, courage and optimism, and think it’s probably the kind of story that benefits from a close second reading. The introduction to my edition, by novelist David Nicholls, is worth reading (but only after you have finished the book), as is the preface by Hermione Lee, who has written a biography about the author.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. The winner that year was Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.

^^ Update 20 August: Apparently the supernatural element wasn’t ignored, I just did not notice it when I watched the film.

This is my 17th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback so long ago that I can’t remember the date, but I also have it on Kindle, which is how I read it for the purposes of this review.

20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Maggie O'Farrell, Publisher, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 372 pages; 2020.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, is one of those books you will have seen everywhere if you haven’t already read it yourself. It won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted — amongst many other awards and accolades — for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

As the title may suggest, it’s a fictionalised story about William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (a name that in the 16th century was regularly switched out with Hamlet), who died unexpectedly, aged 11, plunging his father (and family) into grief. (Though history has not recorded the cause of death, it’s widely believed to be the Bubonic Plague, which is what causes him to die in this novel.)

Initially, I found Hamnet completely gripping — the opening chapter is a very fine piece of writing, indeed, alive with rich descriptions, brilliant characterisations and a heart-thumping sense of urgency — but by the mid-way point my interest began to wane, and I really struggled to finish it.

No doubt you have probably read loads of positive reviews online, so let me briefly outline what I liked and didn’t like about this book.

Here’s what I liked about the story

The dual storylines: The novel is divided into two separate storylines, one of which recounts what happens when Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, falls ill from the Plague, and the second of which goes back in time to chart the romance between a young William “John” Shakespeare and the mysterious woman, Agnes, who would later become his wife. These two narrative threads are told in alternate chapters, which helps build suspense because just when you get to an exciting point in one storyline, it switches to another.

The characters: These are all richly drawn, from Shakespeare’s cruel, drunken father, to Agnes’ cruel, pessimistic stepmother Joan — and everyone in between. Perhaps the best-drawn character is Agnes herself. Much of the story is told through her eyes, so we get a real feel for her innermost thoughts, her undying love for her husband and the ways in which she’s viewed as an outsider by society at the time, purely because she’s an unconventional woman, very much in touch with nature, folklore and her own emotions.

The vivid descriptions: Despite some writerly quirks that annoyed me (see below), the prose is lavish and opulent, a style that lends itself well to historical fiction when scene-setting and period detail is so important. Sometimes O’Farrell can arrest your attention with a single beautiful line — “The hedgerows are constellations, studded with fire-red hips” — or an entire paragraph:

Balanced on the tops of the houses was a sky scattered with jewels, pierced with silver holes. He had whispered into her ear names and stories, his finger outstretched, pulling shapes and people and animals and families out of the stars.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the story

The present tense: I understand that present tense creates urgency and it’s quite unusual to be employed in historical fiction, but I found it very wearing to read more than 300 pages of it! The opening chapter, when Hamnet is desperate to get help for his ill sister, is riveting because of the present tense, but do we really need to read a whole novel as if the action is happening right now? It’s exhausting.

The rule of three: O’Farrell uses a prose pattern that once seen cannot be unseen. She has a penchant to compose sentences that employ three adjectives or three clauses to help prove a point and, I suspect, to make her writing feel more “rich” and “abundant”. But when every page is dotted with sentences structured in this way it becomes kind of annoying. Here is a couple of examples:

The smell, the sight, the colour took her back to a bed soaked red and a room of carnage, of violence, of appalling crimson.

And:

The hawking, honey-producing, ale-trading priest will marry them early the next day, in a ceremony arranged quickly, furtively, secretively.

Plot implausibility:  This is a tough one to write about because I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know, but basically, O’Farrell employs a readerly “trick” that is implausible. After devoting 70-plus pages to the prospect of young Judith dying from the plague, she survives, but at the very last minute, Hamnet dies instead. There’s also an entire chapter about how the flea, responsible for Judith’s illness, travels from Venice to London that just felt like it had been lifted from a fairytale and felt out of keeping with the rest of the novel.

My conclusion

I guess the best way I can sum up my feelings for Hamnet is ambivalence. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I admired the concept of it but had issues with some of the delivery.

I felt a bit like this when I read O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, so am beginning to wonder whether she just isn’t the writer for me. Either that or I am reading her books at the “wrong” time or I am reading the “wrong” books by her.

I haven’t given up though — I’m now eying off her memoir, which has been sitting in my TBR for a few months and which would qualify as another #20booksofsummer read.

This is my 1st book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received this book as a Christmas gift from my friend Armen in London.