1001 books, 20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ford Madox Ford, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Nicole Krauss, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2005.

Sometimes you pull a book from your shelves not really knowing what to expect and before you know it you’ve read 100 pages and are so absorbed in the story you’ve forgotten all sense of time. This is what happened to me when I began Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love earlier this week.

It is one of those wonderful stories that celebrates survival, love and literature, and cleverly weaves in a literary mystery with a moving story about unrequited love and grief.

Told from two divergent view points — a young girl mourning the loss of her father and an elderly Jewish man mourning the loss of his lover and the son he never got to know — it’s a wise and tender book framed around an original and inventive structure.

A literary mystery

At the heart of The History of Love is a mystery around a book, also entitled The History of Love. The manuscript, written by Polish man Leo Gursky about the woman with whom he had fallen in love, was considered lost during the turmoil of the Second World War and horrors of the holocaust. But, unbeknownst to Leon, it was published in South America under another man’s name at a later date.

Now, more than 50 years later, a single and much-loved copy of the book is in New York, where it is being translated by a woman who named her first child after the lead character in its pages. Recently bereaved, the translator’s task is a pleasant distraction from thinking about the early death of her husband, but for her daughter, Alma, it offers a chance to play matchmaker — between her grieving mother and the mysterious benefactor, based in Venice, who is paying for the book to be translated chapter by chapter.

Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Leo, now an elderly man living a solitary existence in a New York apartment block. He spends his days trying not to be invisible — deliberately spilling coffee when he goes out, for instance, and taking a freelance job as a life model for an art class — all the while dreaming of his lost manuscript and wondering if he might have been able to make it as a writer if it hadn’t got lost in the first place.

It’s a rather convoluted, albeit very clever, plot that expertly draws these two narrative threads together, along with a third storyline that explains how the manuscript was plagiarised and published under a rival’s name.

Distinct voices

The book’s strength lies in its distinctive narrative voices. Both the teenage girl Alma and the elderly Jewish Leo, who tell their stories in alternate chapters, are wonderfully realised with recognisably different personalities and ways of thinking. The supportive cast of family and friends are equally well drawn. (Alma’s troubled younger brother Bird is a particular delight.)

Through Alma’s and Leo’s day-to-day struggles we learn so much about human persistence, curiosity and love. It’s heartbreaking in places, particularly when you realise the scale of Leo’s loss (and not just in terms of a manuscript he had poured his heart and soul into), but it’s also full of wise and tender moments, and lightened by self-deprecating humour that often had me chuckling throughout. And the ending, which draws everything so neatly and cleverly together, is a deeply satisfying one.

The History of Love is a wonderful read. It is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Book to Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “sad and achingly beautiful book”, to which I wholly concur.

This is my 7th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand more than 10 years ago and it has lingered on my shelves ever since, surviving dozens of book culls along the way, probably because I knew I would read it due to its listing in Peter Boxall’s ‘1001 Books to Read Before You Die’. You can see all my reviews of books listed in Boxall’s book on my 1001 Books page.

1001 books, 20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Janice Galloway, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, Vintage

‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 236 pages; 1999.

Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a profoundly disturbing story about one woman’s mental breakdown following the death of her lover.

Written in a series of fragments, often sharp, melancholy or bleakly funny, the book reflects the slow inward collapse of Joy Stone’s world as she struggles to make sense of all around her.

This claustrophobic story, which won the American Academy of the Arts E.M. Forster Award in 1994 and the Mind/Allen Lane Book Award in 1990, is a soul-destroying portrait of what happens to someone when their grief cannot be publicly acknowledged.

As the “other woman”, Joy must mourn in private and keep her thoughts — and her tears — to herself, but such a burden eats away at both her psychological and physical health. Food becomes a punishment tool, rather than a source of sustenance or even medicine, and she develops an eating disorder that leaves her painfully thin.

She also begins to numb herself with drink:

Gin tastes sweet and bitter at the same time, stripping down in clean lines, blooming like an acid flower in the pit of my stomach. I top up the glass till it’s seeping. If I get drunk enough, I won’t go to work tomorrow either. This is cheering and helps me through another mouthful.

As Joy spirals into a deeper and deeper depression, the book’s structure becomes more fragmentary, more fractured. There are diary entries, extracts from magazines, recipes and letters all jostling for position in the narrative. It’s almost as if the reader is immersed in Joy’s brain as her thoughts whirl around in a jumble of confessional anecdotes, painful flashbacks and disjointed thoughts about her present and future. The fine line between sanity and insanity gets increasingly more blurred.

I haven’t read a book so immediately immersive nor as bleak for a long time. There are shades of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in it, particularly in its depiction of the pressures and burdens placed on young women trying to find their rightful place in the world, but it does end on a positive note: Joy forgives herself and comes to understand that survival is something you can learn. The trick is simply to keep breathing.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is featured in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it Edinburgh way back in 2007 as a souvenir of my trip (I always like to buy books by local authors) but it has shamefully sat in my TBR ever since then. 

1001 books, Author, Barbara Pym, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Excellent Women’ by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 238 pages; 1981.

First published in 1952, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is, indeed, an excellent novel.

Set in post-war London, it tells the story of Mildred Lathbury, unmarried and in her early 30s, who is an “excellent woman” dependable, reliable and the type of person who puts others before herself. She’s capable and independent, having had to look after herself following the death of her parents, and now her life in a dreary Pimlico flat consists primarily of her voluntary work helping gentlewomen who have fallen on bad times, running jumble sales and going to church.

But Miss Lathbury’s quiet and settled life is thrown into turmoil when new neighbours, the Napiers, move in downstairs.  Helena is an anthropologist; Rockingham is a lieutenant in the Navy. She’s having an affair with a colleague, Everard Bone; he’s a handsome, debonair ladies’ man who has spent 18 months in Italy charming a succession of Wrens.

When the Napiers befriend Miss Lathbury her first reaction is to remain aloof; she doesn’t want the hassle of making small talk with people she bumps into on the stairs. But eventually she thaws toward them, is drawn into their rather busy lives and is thrust into a new social circle outside of her normal Christian one.

This brings with it various complications, but it also adds a frisson of excitement, for when Rockingham pays her attention it’s hard to know what his real intentions are. Then there’s Everard, who’s fallen out with Helena, and may well be casting a roving eye in Miss Lathbury’s direction, while her friend, the vicar, seems to be falling for his new lodger — the glamorous widow Allegra, who doesn’t seem to be as lovely as everyone thinks. Where will it all end?

A gentle comedy

The best way to describe Excellent Women is to say it’s a gentle comedy. It also has a dash of romance, a smidgen of scandal and a little bit of intrigue. This all adds up to a rather poignant and, at times, rather refreshing read, for in this tale of a spinster with no real desire to marry we find a heroine who remains true to herself while having her eyes opened to other ways of living.

Miss Lathbury doesn’t suffer fools — and most of the men in her life are exactly that. As the novel progresses, she increasingly becomes weighed down by the realisation that society expects her to behave in a certain way; that she’s burdened by being single. And yet, as she becomes immersed in the lives of the men in her social circle, she begins to long for something else, some greater meaning, even if she’s not quite sure what form that should take.

You can’t help but wonder whether she hankers for her previous life where “fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel” was the most she had to contend with:

But then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us — the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies: the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (Virago hardcover edition)

London life in the 1940s

As much as I enjoyed this simple story of a woman caught up in other people’s messy lives, I also enjoyed the period setting. This is post-war London where the city is dotted with bomb sites (one half of the church Miss Lathbury worships at is in ruins), rationing is still in place, religion offers a sense of community and purpose to people’s lives (the rivalry between High Church and Roman Catholics provides some of the more comic moments in this novel), everyone’s obsessed with class and pecking orders, and there’s nothing a good cup of tea won’t sort.

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

Excellent Women is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as an “exquisitely crafted work” full of “poignancy and comedy”. I concur.

Thanks to Claire from my book group for choosing this book to read. It was rather delightful and as thought-provoking as it was charming. Recommendations for other Pym novels to try are warmly welcomed in the comment box below!

1001 books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Publisher, Read Along, Setting, Vintage

‘Voss’ by Patrick White

Voss by Patrick White
1994 edition
Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 464 pages; 1994.

First published in 1957, Patrick White’s Voss went on to win the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award that same year. Some 15 years later White received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Australian to ever win the accolade, earning him a formidable presence in the Australian literary canon.

His reputation as a fine but difficult writer often puts people off trying his work (myself included), but every time I read a White novel (I’ve read four now, three of which are reviewed on my Patrick White page) I come away from the experience wondering what I was scared of. Yes, his books are hard work, and yes, the prose sometimes feel convoluted and old-fashioned. But he’s a terrific storyteller and everything about his work — his characters, his descriptions of people and places and atmospheres, his ability to capture people’s emotions and motivations and innermost thoughts — is masterful. You don’t just read a Patrick White novel, you become immersed in it.

The same could be said of Voss, the bulk of which I read in March as part of a Patrick White read along but then put aside (with just 30 pages to go) because work got in the way. I finished those last few pages on the weekend, which explains the long wait for a review I had planned to write two months ago.

An outback romance

Voss by Patrick White
2011 edition
Set in 19th century Australia, Voss charts the journey of a German naturalist, Johann Ulrich Voss, keen to explore inland Australia. It is largely based on the exploits of Ludwig Leichhardt, a legendary Prussian explorer, who disappeared in 1848 while midway through an ambitious expedition to cross the continent from east to west. To this day, no one quite knows what happened to him.

Voss not only tells the story of that fateful expedition, it also tells the (fictional) story of the woman he left behind. Laura Trevelyn is one of those Victorian women destined to be a spinster all her life. She’s plain and intelligent and doesn’t really fit in. No one much likes her, because she’s smart and outspoken at a time when women should be seen but not heard.

The pair meet through Laura’s uncle, who is the patron of the expedition, and while they do not form an immediate attraction, there is something about Voss that intrigues Laura. When he embarks on his adventure with a party of settlers, including a ticket of leave holder, and two aboriginal guides, the pair conduct a romance via correspondence. Later, they communicate via shared “visions” — with Voss in the outback and Laura in Sydney — which gives the novel an other-worldly feel that riffs on the theme of spiritual connection with the land.

Two stories in one

The story is composed of two intertwined narrative threads; one that charts Voss’s journey inland and the pitfalls he must address, including drought, floods, starvation and near mutiny by his party; and another that follows Laura’s life in Sydney, where she “adopts” the orphaned child of a servant and later succumbs to an almost deadly fever that renders her not quite sane.

Both threads are highly detailed, with little evading White’s forensic eye. This makes for dense text, the kind that is so rich and multi-layered it can occasionally feel impenetrable. But it’s worth persevering, for his prose glitters with jewels waiting to be unearthed and the descriptions of the landscape and the expedition’s deeds are gloriously astute and evocative.

Next morning, while the lamps of friendship hovered touchingly in the dew and darkness, and naked voices offered parting advice, the company began to move northward, with the intention of crossing New England. It was a good season, and the land continued remarkably green, or greyish-green, or blue-grey, the blue of smoke or distance. These were sparkling, jingling days, in which sleek horses, blundering cattle, even the sour-heeled mules had no immediate cause for regret. Men shouted to their mates, their voices whipping the blue air, or else were silent, smiling to themselves, dozing in their well-greased saddles under the yellow sun, as they rubbed forward in a body, over open country, or in Indian file, through the bush. At this stage they were still in love with one another. It could not have been otherwise in that radiance of light. The very stirrup-irons were singing of personal hopes.

Of course, when the expedition finds itself in trouble and Voss is no longer seen as an angel but a living, breathing devil, the novel moves into darker, more tormented territory. White is not afraid to plunge his characters into life or death situations and to test their mettle and moral character. This makes for heightened reading, but occasionally the narrative plods along, perhaps mirroring the expedition’s own dull slog towards a destination that seems impossible to reach.

I found myself enjoying Laura’s story more than Voss’s, but even her narrative sometimes got bogged down in extraneous detail.

A powerful novel

There’s a lot to say about this powerful novel. From its richly evocative language to its clever structure, it deals with so many dual themes — good versus evil, intellect versus emotion, spirituality versus reason, Europeans versus indigenous populations, the tamed land versus the outback — that I could never possibly cover them all here.

In Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die it is described as “both a love story and an adventure story, yet it is neither […] but the most striking feature of this novel is its discordance, its unnavigable strangeness”.

While I can’t say I loved Voss, reading it was a fascinating experience. I devoured most of its 400-plus pages on a weekend getaway to the coast, including the 90 minute train ride there and back, because it’s the kind of novel you need to lose yourself in; you need to get to grips with the pacing, the characters and the dense prose style and you can’t do that if, like me, you usually read books in bursts of 30 minutes or so. I’m very glad I took the plunge to read it.

1001 books, Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sudan, Tayeb Salih

‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classic; 169 pages; 2003. Translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies.

How people bridge two diverse cultures, the impact of colonisation on Africa by the British, and the ways in which women are treated in both the East and West, are the main subjects of this Arabic language book, which was first published in 1966 as Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal. Banned in the novelist’s native Sudan for many years, it was translated into English in 1969, named as  “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in 2001 and listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

I read it as part of #DiverseDecember and found myself completely drawn into the story of a Sudanese man,  Mustafa Sa’eed, an intellectual prodigy courted by aristocrats and intellectuals alike, who loses all sense of decorum when he moves to London (after being educated in Cairo)  in the 1920s. After committing a string of appalling crimes and serving a sentence for murder, he returns to the Sudan to lead a quiet, understated life with a wife and two young sons in a remote village by the Nile, in the hope that he can start afresh where no one knows his past history.

But when a young man from the same village returns home after many years living in London and befriends him, Mustafa can’t help but tell him about his exploits in the West. What follows is a no-holds barred confession about a life of sexual decadence, a tale which is, by turns, compelling, shocking — and powerful.

An arrogant man’s tale

The story is narrated by the young unnamed man who befriends Mustafa, but large chunks of it are told in Mustafa’s arrogant and conceited voice. Occasionally we meet other characters — many of whom are distinctive, if slightly two-dimensional — such as Wad Rayyes, the old man with a huge sexual appetite, and Bint Majzoub, an old uninhibited woman who smokes, drinks and swears “like a man”.

The prose style is crisp, clear, concise, but there’s a poetical beauty to it, too. The author is particularly good at scene setting, so you feel very much as if you are there, living in the village on the banks of the Nile:

I wandered off into the narrow winding lanes of the village, my face touched by the cold night breezes that blow in heavy with dew from the north, heavy too with the scent of acacia blossom and animal dung, the scent of earth that has just been irrigated after the thirst of days, and the scent of half-ripe corn cobs and the aroma of lemon trees. The village was as usual silent at that hour of the night except for the puttering of the water pump on the bank, the occasional barking of a dog, and the crowing of a lone cock who presently sensed the arrival of dawn and the answering crow of another.

Compelling read

Season of Migration to the North is one of those rare books that is quick and easy to read but is so ripe with meaning and metaphor that I could never possibly unpick it without reading it several times over. Indeed, I raced through it in a matter of hours, so I am positive much of the subtle nuances about colonisation and the differences between Arab-African and European cultures went over my head. That said, some elements did feel dated: an Arab man wreaking his vengeance on the West by simply sleeping with promiscuous women, for instance, appears relatively tame by today’s standards.

But what did jump out at me was the sexual violence that characterises women’s lives, whether living in the West in the 1920s, or the East in the 1960s, and which runs like a menacing undercurrent through the entire narrative. (Mind you, the line between sexual violence and eroticism does feel blurred in places, and the book, unsurprisingly, has been condemned in the past for being pornographic.)

In fact, the book has a menacing tone throughout, the kind of tone that gets under the skin and leaves the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable, as though you’ve been given a seat at a dining table with the devil. This all-pervasive feeling comes to a head at the climax of the novel, which is rather gruesome and bloody but entirely memorable. This is not a fun read, but an important and powerful one.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Five fast reviews, Heather O'Neill, Heinrich Böll, Patrick deWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist

Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill

Five-fast-reviews-300pix


‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or How violence develops and where it can lead’ by Heinrich Böll

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 140 pages; 2000. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.

Lost-honourFirst published in Germany in 1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is widely regarded as a German classic — indeed it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a dark morality tale about the “unscrupulous sensationalism of the mass media”. I think it could also be described as an examination of a misogynistic society hellbent on keeping women in their place and denying them the right to lead independent lives.

This short but powerful novella charts the downfall of Katharina Blum, a strong, independent woman, who meets a man at a party and takes him home, not realising he’s a wanted criminal. When he goes on the run, she is interrogated by the police who insist she’s an accomplice to his crimes even though she had never met him before. The city newspaper drags her name through the mud, portraying her as a whore and a communist. Her reputation in ruins, Katharina is forced to take drastic action, shooting the reporter who has distorted her story out of all proportion.

Written in a dry, somewhat detached style employing an omnipresent narrator, I can’t say that I was immediately grabbed by the story. But the message is a powerful one — and still rather relevant in today’s climate of social media shaming and bullying.

 

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick DeWitt

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta; 304 pages; 2015. 

Under-major-minor-domoLonglisted for this year’s Giller Prize, I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor for my Shadow Giller Jury obligations and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat surreal, romp hugely reminiscent of the kind of kooky fables that British writer Magnus Mills pens. The sinister elements of the story reminded me a little of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not a horror story per se, more a dark, often very funny, Gothic fairy tale set in an unnamed country in an unspecified era.

The tale begins when one young man, Lucien (or “Lucy”), moves out of the family home to begin a new job — and life — working as a helper for the old “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a distant village. Lots of strange and unexplained things happen to Lucy, who befriends some local thieves and falls in love with a pretty girl, whom he woos using every trick in the book.

There’s no real plot line — the story works on character and a series of kooky set pieces — but it’s a fun, if somewhat unsettling (and occasionally violent) read from the author of The Sisters Brothers.

 

‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 368 pages; 2015.

A-place-called-winterPatrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is epic storytelling at its best. Written with warmth and great sensitivity, it charts the formative years of Harry Crane, a shy, stuttering gentleman of independent means, in Edwardian London, before a sex scandal forces him to abandon his wife and young daughter for a new life on the Canadian prairies.

The book opens with a middle-aged Harry undergoing treatment in an experimental sanatorium, but we do not know how he got there or what condition he is being treated for. The story then flashes back to his earlier life, and these two narrative threads — a current story framed by flashbacks — alternate to provide a rich tapestry of Harry’s life and search for self discovery.

Admittedly, this kind of story isn’t normally my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the writing style reminiscent of Anita Shreve, who is one of my go-to authors. The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Green Carnation Prize and the 2015 Costa Novel Award.

 

‘Terra Nullis: A Journey Through No One’s Land’ by Sven Lindqvist

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta; 248 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Terra-nulliusProving that my reading tastes are wide-ranging, this non-fiction book explores my interest in the issue of racism against Aboriginal Australians. First published in Sweden in 2005, it charts the history of black and white relations in Australia from the first point of contact in the 18th century to the current day.

The author Sven Lindqvist, an accomplished essayist and journalist, seems to have made a name for himself writing about cultural genocide (he has written similar books about black and white relations in Africa), and much of what he covers here makes for uncomfortable reading. Yet sometimes his passion (and fury) gets a little overwrought, and detracts from the important message at the book’s heart.

But on the whole, I found this an eye-opening read. Part entertaining travelogue, part searing polemic, it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read all year.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ by Heather O’Neill

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 369 pages; 2015.

Daydreams-of-angelsI’m familiar with Canadian writer Heather O’Neill having read and reviewed two of her previous novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure for her, because it’s a short story collection. I read it because it was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

The book is subtitled “Tall tales and twisted fairy stories” and that’s a pretty good description for the contents:  there are 21 stories about cherubs, talking bears, cats that dye their own fur and children who fend off marriage proposals, amongst others. Most are set in Montreal, others on the battlefields of World War Two. Some are surreal, others more grounded in reality.

The writing is sharp and witty, filled with wonderful descriptions of places and atmospheres, and the author has a particular “thing” for a clever simile — for instance:

“When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower”

But on the whole I found the voice too similar throughout so that there was nothing to separate one story from another, and now, almost two months on, I find that nothing really stands out in my mind. I rated it pretty low against the other books on the Giller Prize shortlist, though my fellow jurors begged to differ

Africa, Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing

The-grass-is-singing

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 208 pages; 2013.

The Grass is Singing, originally published in 1950, was Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing‘s debut novel. It brims with tension and shimmers with insight into race relations, colonialism, marriage and rural life in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

Murder mystery

This astonishingly confident book opens in unconventional, some might say brash, style, in the form of a newspaper story by a “special correspondent”:

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.

The first (shocking) chapter charts what happens immediately following the discovery of the body — a muddled confusion of white colonial types acting as judge, jury and executioner. But then the narrative takes an interesting twist and what starts off as a murder mystery becomes the story of how the woman came to live in the area several decades earlier.

The woman — Mary — was once bright, young and independent, living a relatively carefree life in the city. But then, with the clock ticking, she succumbed to social convention and got married, despite the fact she had never felt the need to have a partner and was frightened of sex (in today’s parlance we would probably describe her as “asexual”). Her husband, Dick Turner, is a struggling farmer, who whisks her away to the bush, where she is expected to live a life of rural isolation in a shabby “shack”, running the household and managing the black servant who cooks and cleans for the couple.

This is a shock to Mary’s system, a town girl used to leading a busy work and social life, who must now spend a lot of time alone, in the bush, where the heat is unbearable and her living conditions impoverished. She only sees her husband at breakfast and supper (he spends the intervening hours out in the field running the farm) and she struggles to cope with managing the houseboy, whom she abuses and treats with disdain:

She had never come into contact with natives before, as an employer on her own account. Her mother’s servants she had been forbidden to talk to; in the club she had been kind to the waiters; but the ‘native problem’ meant for her other women’s complaints of their servants at tea parties. She was afraid of them, of course. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be. In her childhood she had been forbidden to walk out alone and when she had asked why, she had been told in the furtive, lowered, but matter-of-fact voice she associated with her mother, that they were nasty and might do horrible things to her.

Unfortunately, she can’t seem to control her temper and fires a succession of houseboys, one after the other. This frustrates Dick, who bemoans her lack of consideration and tact, and wonders if something is wrong:

What was the matter with her? With him she seemed at ease, quiet, almost maternal. With the natives she was a virago.

But this works both ways, for Mary wonders what is wrong with Dick, whom she soon realises is hopeless with money and hopeless at farming. When she sticks her nose in to help him at one stage, she reaps success, but later, for some inexplicable reason, she gives up and a deep-seated ennui sets in. This later turns into something akin to a kind of madness, which is heartbreaking — and frightening — to follow in the pages of this short novel.

Race relations

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on in this book (which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — you can see reviews of all the other books I’ve read and reviewed from his helpful guide here). The relationship between Mary and Dick, especially as it begins to unravel over time, is intriguing and sharply observed, but it is the relationship they each have with the natives — Dick considerate, if exploitative; Mary, harsh and belittling — that makes the book such a thought-provoking read about relations between black and white.

And the mystery element of the story makes it a compelling read. Because you know from the outset that Mary meets a violent end, you’re waiting for the moment that might indicate a motivation for her murder: is it something she does or says to the houseboy? Or is it something else entirely? (I chose this book for our book group and we all had different theories — it is certainly not cut and dried.)

Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Lessing’s prose style, which is simple and clean, but often dressed with quietly beautiful phrases. Indeed, I underlined so many passages in my copy, I’m only grateful it was an ebook; a paper edition might not have survived all the pen marks! This is a good example:

It was a wet, sultry morning. The sky was a tumult of discoloured clouds: it looked full of billowing dirty washing. Puddles on the pale soil held a sheen of sky.

 

1001 books, Alma Classics, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Mikhail Bulgakov, Publisher, Russia, Setting

‘The Master & Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

Master-and-margarita

Fiction – paperback; Alma Classics; 432 pages; 2012. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin.

When it comes to Russian literature, I’m woefully under-read. Indeed, I’ve only ever reviewed one great on this blog — Ivan Turgenev’s First Love — and that’s really a short story, not a novel. So when my book group chose Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita — billed as one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature — to read earlier this year I was rather excited by the prospect. But the excitement, I’m sad to say, soon gave way to other, less favourable, emotions…

Two stories in one book

The Master and Margarita is a satirical fantasy composed of two intertwined narrative threads. In the first, the devil, disguised as a shape-shifting stage magician called Woland, visits Soviet Moscow and wreaks havoc on the cultural elite, punishing sinners and throwing people into prison. In the second, the story of Pontius Pilate in the days immediately before and after Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, are described in the form of a book being written by a struggling Moscow writer.

These twin storylines are filled with a cast of strange and extraordinary characters, including “the master”, who is an unnamed writer befriended by Woland, and the master’s adulterous lover, Margarita.

The book is mostly composed of truly absurd scenes — including a black cat that walks on two legs and is capable of talking — prompting me to think, rather flippantly and with tongue planted firmly in my cheek, that Bulgakov wrote it when he was off his face on vodka. And yet, despite my aversion to magic realism, of which there is quite a bit in this hefty 400-plus page novel, I quite enjoyed some of the more fantastical elements, including the section in which Margarita transforms into a witch at Satan’s Ball and has an amazing time getting people to respect her.

But I struggled with the Pontius Pilate “novel”, which seemed to interrupt the flow of the (more interesting and mischievous) devil’s narrative.

A challenging read

I read this book on and off over the course of the month (in between other reads) and found it was best to tackle it in large chunks — at least an hour at a time — instead of the usual 20-minute tube journey. Overall, I found it really hard work, certainly the first half which was “bitty” (and that second chapter, which switches from “modern” Moscow to ancient Jerusalem, really disoriented me), but I found the second half  much more enjoyable and easier to read.

That said, a lot of the biblical stuff went over my head: it’s a very ecclesiastical novel and I wasn’t raised in that tradition. I wonder if I might have identified with it more/made links if I knew the Bible much better?

All in all, it’s a novel full of surprising moments (I will never look at a black cat the same way again) and one that took me right out of my comfort zone into a crazy, inventive world the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

Interestingly, The Master and Margarita was not published during Bulgakov’s lifetime — it was first published in 1966, almost 30 years after his death — because it satirised Soviet life and highlighted the ways in which Christianity was attacked during the communist period, or as 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die points out, it “blasted open ‘official truths’ with the force of a carnival out of control”.  You can read more about the author on his wikipedia page.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Indochina, literary fiction, Marguerite Duras, Publisher, Setting, Vietnam

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras

The_lover

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Perennial; 130 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray.

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

So begins Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which was first published in 1984. I read it back to back with another (supposedly) sensual novel, the (rather horrid) Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, and they couldn’t be further apart — in mood, style or sheer literary power — even though they covered similar (sexual) territory.

The Lover is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life in Indochina (now Vietnam) and, in particular, the romance she had with a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 when she was just 15. It’s largely based on the author’s own life — she was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to French parents who had emigrated there to work in the French colony. But things did not go well: her father quickly returned to France, where he died soon after, and her mother, a school teacher, made a bad property investment in the colony, which  mired them in poverty. Duras also claimed to have been beaten by her mother and her older brother.

In the novel, the narrator, who effortlessly flicks between first and third person, has a strained relationship with her mother, who wants her daughter to do well at school, to get an education and to study mathematics. The daughter does not think she is good at mathematics, but she excels at French and wants to be a writer.

But that’s not the only strain in their relationship. The mother often goes through periods of despair — I suspect an undiagnosed clinical depression — and locks herself away, despondent and unable to properly care for her family. This hardens Hélène, who blames this lack of care for the death of her younger brother, who succumbs to pneumonia, and it also makes her ashamed.

Search for identity

From the outset, it’s clear that Hélène is unsure of her own identity. She often dresses provocatively — a threadbare silk dress that is sleeveless and low-cut, with a leather belt, gold lame high heels and a man’s Fedora hat — because she feels confident in these kinds of clothes. Yet she realises this attire makes the “girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed” and “might make people laugh”.

But it is exactly this outfit that catches the eye of the Chinese financier, who later becomes her lover. Hélène is returning to boarding school in Saigon from a holiday and is crossing the Mekong Delta by ferry. They talk on the boat and then he gives her a lift in his chauffeured limousine. Later that week he picks her up from school to show her where he lives, and from there a sexual relationship ensues. The rumour mill goes into overdrive:

Fifteen and a half. The news spreads fast in Sadec. The clothes she wears are enough to show. The mother has no idea, and none about how to bring up a daughter. Poor child. Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick, it all means something, it’s not innocent, it means something, it’s to attract attention, money. The brothers are layabouts. They say it’s a Chinese, the son of the millionaire, the villa in Mekong with the blue tiles. And even he, instead of thinking himself honoured, doesn’t want her for his son. A family of white layabouts.

Surprisingly, the affair does not terribly worry the mother, who sees it as a means to an end: her daughter’s lover is wealthy, so he may be able to help the impoverished family with money. If that is a form of prostitution, she can live with it.

Hélène now becomes aware of her own power. She knows that her mother needs her to help support the family. And she knows that men look at her and desire her.

For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting Club.

Beautiful melancholia

There are a lot of complicated family dynamics in this novel, but it is the wise and knowing voice of the narrator, the self-confident schoolgirl who wants to forge her own path in life, to take risks and escape parental and societal expectations, that makes it such a powerful read.

The narrative, which often winds back on itself through Duras’s use of flashbacks, is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, while the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge and pulsates with an aching loneliness  — “I grew old at eighteen” —  which is hugely reminiscent of Jean Rhys. It’s moody and evocative without being depressing, the kind of book that you can settle down with on a rainy afternoon and be swept away into another time and place.

I really loved and admired this short novel, but don’t take my word for it: The Lover was awarded the French Goncourt Prize in 1984 and it features in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was also adapted for film in 1992.