1001 books, Author, Book review, E.M. Forster, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘Howards End’ by E. M. Forster

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 302 pages; 2000.

First published in 1910, E.M. Forster’s Howards End is often cited as a masterpiece of 20th century literary fiction. It is featured in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “truly a masterpiece, the novel has moments of real beauty and optimism”. Even Forster himself claimed it was his best book (he wrote sixth novels, and this was his fourth).

Set during the Edwardian era, it’s very much a tale about the clash between town and country, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This is mirrored in the three very different families which form the core of the story.

Three families

The well-educated and well-off Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, are half-German and live in London, where they can pursue their interests in the arts. Young, confident women — and with strong opinions — they are idealists who want for nothing.

The Wilcoxes, by comparison, are self-made pragmatists with an eye on social-climbing and the acquisition of material possessions to cement their place in the world. They, too, are rich, but they are from new money. They have both a pied-à-terre and a country estate, the eponymous Howards End.

And then there is the lower-class Basts — Leonard, who is an insurance clerk, and Jacky, his older wife, a “fallen” woman whom he has “rescued”. This troubled couple is often short of money and struggle to get by, but Leonard is aspirational and loves nothing more than reading books and going to musical recitals, which is how he comes to meet the Schlegel sisters.

Complex plot

It’s a convoluted plot — heavily reliant, it has to be said, on coincidences to work — which brings all three families together. I’ve not seen the 1992 film, so I’m not sure how faithful it is to the book, but I’m assuming most people will be familiar with the storyline. If you’re not, it goes very much like this:

Helen gets engaged to the younger son of the Wilcoxes, then breaks it off, and in the process Margaret befriends Mrs Wilcox, who leaves Howards End to her when she dies. Except the Wilcox family hide this fact from Margaret. Then — plot twist coming up — Margaret, for reasons I cannot fathom given she’s so independently minded and staunchly her own person, marries Mr Wilcox and moves to a new country estate with him. Meanwhile, the sisters drift apart and Helen does a runner, for reasons that become clear later on (I won’t spoil it here). Later, Margaret discovers that Jacky Bast was once her husband’s mistress, but she decides to stand by her man because that’s what she thinks is the right thing to do.

Yes, it’s all a bit dramatic. And I haven’t even mentioned the scandal near the end, nor the murder!

Compelling read

Fortunately, in Mr Forster’s safe hands, the narrative remains sensible — and compelling.

The characters are all wonderfully alive and interesting and enigmatic and flawed and, for the most part, their actions are authentic and understandable. Likewise, the dialogue, of which there is a lot, is excellent: every conversation, argument and intellectual discussion feels real rather than contrived.

Written at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time of great societal, economic, political and technological change (cars, for instance, were slowly replacing horse and cart), Forster captures England in a state of flux, where the new world is colliding with the old world, where the city is growing rapidly and encroaching on the countryside, where the traditional role of women is being challenged by the suffragette movement.

These big themes give the novel an intellectual weight that might otherwise be missing if Howards End was viewed as nothing more than a romantic drama.

Forster, for instance, looks at what responsibility, if any, the rich have towards the poor (the welfare state was in its infancy at the time of publication), and whether it is acceptable for the impoverished to pursue artistic interests, such as music or literature. He also highlights the hypocrisy in society by comparing the attitudes to sex outside of wedlock for both men (acceptable) and women (improper to the point of being outcast), along with the limitations society places on women and asks if it’s fair to restrict their potential, intellectual or otherwise.

It’s a wonderfully rich, evocative and engaging read. I’m not quite convinced of its masterpiece status — the string of coincidences and the odd death at the end take away from its credibility — but on the whole I much enjoyed this book and have promptly gone out and bought a couple more of Forster’s novels.

This is my 12th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand so long ago that I can’t exactly remember when I purchased it but the price scrawled in lead pencil on the first page tells me I paid £2.50 for it. Note, I have also added this review to my ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’ page.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (with playlist)

Forensic records society by magnus mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 186 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Magnus Mills takes the quintessential British obsession with music and turns it on its head in The Forensic Records Society. It is typical Mills fare: soporific, surreal and filled with deadpan humour.

It is about two friends who start a club called — you guessed it — The Forensic Records Society. It meets every Monday at 9pm in the backroom of the local pub, The Half Moon. The idea is for each member to bring along three 7-inch vinyl singles, which they listen to (“in strict rotation”) on an old portable record player. There is to be no discussion, no commentary, no judgement of other people’s tastes. The idea is to listen to the music forensically.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Not everyone follows the rules. A rival group forms. A splinter group soon follows. And the rivalry between each society becomes more heightened — and more absurd — as this short, quirky story proceeds to its humorous conclusion.

An eccentric tale

I’m a big fan of Magnus Mills’ work and I’ve reviewed all his novels. This one is just as idiosyncratic, eccentric and fable-like as the rest.

I love the way it pokes fun at music obsessives and the sometimes snobby nature of those who collect records. The way that James, the co-founder of the society, wields his rule book brought to mind a funny experience of my own. In the early 2000s I was at a Peter Gabriel concert, in the round, at Wembley Arena. A family of four were sitting in front of me: mum, dad and their two sons, aged around 8 and 10. The boys were forbidden from dancing or singing along to any of the songs. “You must listen to them carefully,” instructed the dad. “There must be no singing!” And boy, did he keep them to this self-imposed rule.

I could just imagine this chap heading up The Forensic Records Society.

The book also pokes fun at that quintessential British establishment — the pub — and highlights how having a few drinks with friends can seem to make time speed up: you never quite know where the hours go.

The story also highlights how blokes bond over music; they don’t even need to talk about it. This is in stark contrast to the all-women rival group that forms — the Confessions Record Society (“bring a record of your choice and confess!”) — which encourages members to explain the emotional connection they have to particular songs.

Classic Mills

Like other Magnus Mills’ novels, there is little in the way of descriptive detail (I think he has a special aversion to adjectives), characters are only distinguishable from each other by their (rather ordinary) names and there’s no back story. The reader is simply plunged into a world that looks and feels familiar to our own, but isn’t quite normal. The fun is trying to figure out what is going on beneath the surface; what point is Mills trying to make about our society?

There’s a little smidgen of mystery in this one, too — what is the unbranded single everyone keeps wanting to borrow; what is Alice, the barmaid’s, secret; and what does the taxman have to do with anything — which adds an extra level of intrigue.

All in all, The Forensic Records Society is classic Mills. If you’ve never read him before, this is just a good a place as any to start.

—————————————————–
The Forensic Records Society Playlist

The book is littered with song titles (the performers are never mentioned, nor the genre), so I thought it would be fun to create a YouTube playlist of 10 tunes that were name checked in the novel. In no particular order, they are:

‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ (Split Enz)

‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (Joy Division)

‘Come As You Are’ (Nirvana)

‘Waterloo Sunset’ (The Kinks)

‘Mr Brightside’ (The Killers)

‘The Day Before You Came’ (Abba)

‘On the Road Again’ (Willie Nelson)

‘Are “Friends” Electric’ (Gary Numan)

‘Substitute’ (The Who)

‘The Universal’ (Blur)

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Tivington Nott’ by Alex Miller

Tivington-Nott

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 180 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It somehow seems appropriate to post this review on the day of the Grand National, a horse race over jumps that has its roots in both hunting and steeplechasing (in which farmers would race their horses from one church steeple to another, jumping over ditches, hedges and whatever else happened to get in the way as they did so). Whatever you think of the National, there’s no doubt that it demonstrates the superb athleticism of the horse. It also demonstrates the special relationship between horse and rider — how the two can work as one to achieve great feats of courage and stamina.

That’s one of the central themes of Alex Miller‘s debut novel, The Tivington Nott, which was first published in 1989, but has just been made available to British readers for the first time thanks to a reprint by the publisher Allen & Unwin UK. It is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

An outsider’s view

The story is set in 1952 on a farm in Somerset, where the unnamed narrator is a teenage labourer from London struggling to fit in. The first part of the novel sets out to describe how he is at odds with everyone around him — he refuses to call his boss master as tradition dictates, gets bullied by local labourers and is viewed with disdain by the farmer’s wife (“Mrs Roly-Poly”) who believes “boys from London cannot be trusted”.

The only person with whom he should feel some affinity is another outsider, Major Fred Alsop, a retired Australian army officer trying too hard to be accepted by the locals who secretly despise him. The Major wears the attire of the landed gentry, talks too loudly and goes about as if he owns the place (“An Australian horseman in fancy dress prancing around on Exmoor. Out of a book, this bloke. A tourist!”). But even our narrator cannot fail to notice that the Major will never fit in —  he is tolerated because he has a rather impressive, and much sought-after, black stallion imported from Australia called Kabara.

It is Kabara that forms the bridging link between the first part of the story and the (far larger) second part, because our narrator ends up riding the stallion in the stag hunt, which is so evocatively described that you feel as if you are right there in the saddle with him.

Based on real people and events

Alex Miller makes no secret that this book is largely autobiographical — he, too, was a farm labourer in West Somerset when he was 15, before he emigrated to Australia alone when he was 17 . His “author’s note” at the front of my edition claims that all the characters are based on real people and that he even used some of their real names.

This probably explains why the novel feels so authentic and “animated”. You get such a sense of the claustrophobic closed social system in which he finds himself that it’s hard not to share his loneliness and alienation. And it’s easy to understand why he so identifies with Kabara, a gutsy stallion who defies the odds to compete with other horses more used to challenging West Country terrain than him, and the “Tivington nott”, a local stag that has no antlers rumoured to live in the area.

What I loved most about the book was the sense of adventure and excitement it conveys as the narrator rides second horse to the stag hunt. Every little moment of the chase is recorded — the uphill battles, the treacherous descents, the death-defying jumps — so that most of the time your heart is in your throat willing him to stay on the horse and keep in sight of the hounds. And all the time Miller is conscious of conveying the mysterious beauty of the natural world.

In front of me the wide silent ride winds deep into the dark green and dun shadows of the ancient woods. I peer down this track, shaded and thick on either side with bracken and underbrush. A bird is calling repeatedly in there; a sharp short urgent sound, again and again. Then it stops and everything is silent and still around me. Those great dogs are in there too, somewhere. They are intently unravelling the labyrinth of animal scents, some of them perhaps staying true to the peculiar signature of the Haddon stag, approaching his secret lair, working the complex line closer to him by the minute.

Threaded into this thrilling narrative are little insights into various characters — the houndsman Grabbe, the whipper-in Matthew Tolland, the red-coated huntsman Perry, the chairman of the Hunt Damages Committee Harry Cheyne and the master of the hunt, Mrs Grant, among others — so that a well rounded picture of this close-knit community, where class and social standing is everything, is evoked.

But this is not just a fast-paced spinetingling read: the conclusion is a deeply moving one as our narrator realises Kabara has found his place, but he still hasn’t quite found his…