Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Kamila Shamsie, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is an astute, highly readable and compelling novel about the ways in which familial and patriotic loyalties can be tested when love and politics collide.

Set in modern-day Britain, it’s the first novel I’ve read that has fleshed out what makes young Muslim men become radicalised and join ISIS. It also asks important questions about nationality, citizenship and whether terrorists can ever be reformed after they have fought abroad to create a (failed) Caliphate.

Structured around three siblings

The story is framed around three siblings of Pakistani heritage — twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and their older sister Isma, who raised them when they became orphaned. Their father, whom they have never known, was a jihadist, famously said to have died en-route to being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

Each sibling’s story is told in a separate section so that we come to understand their individual motivations, dreams and fears.

Two additional characters — Karamat Lone, the UK’s outspoken Home Secretary, who is also of Pakistani heritage and a Muslim, and his spoilt young adult son, Eamonn, who becomes sexually involved with Aneeka — also get their own sections.

Airport interrogation

When the book opens we are thrust into the world of an airport interrogation. Isma, finally free of her duty to raise her younger twin siblings, is heading to the US to commence a PhD programme in sociology. She already knows she’s on a watchlist, thanks to her father’s history, so she has been careful not to pack anything that may be interpreted the wrong way, so no Quoran and no family photographs, but the hostility and the sense of injustice is palpable throughout the questioning.

‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which shows, often in painstaking detail, how British-born Muslims are often regarded — by the media, by authorities, by politicians and by members of the public — as being terrorists or of having terrorist sympathies, and how they must negotiate this world of suspicion, either by lying low or playing along.

Shamsie is very good at highlighting how the public mood, often set by posturing politicians, gives rise to a climate of fear. Lone, the Home Secretary, is the son of immigrants but is, himself, anti-immigrant. On TV he speaks tough about British values and plots to extend his own powers so that he can revoke British citizenship so that it applies to British-born single passport holders only. It is his actions and his words that help fan the paranoia surrounding anyone of the Islamic faith living in Britain.

But the story really hinges on Parvais, the twin brother, who pursues the idea that his father was a hero he’d like to emulate. More by accident than design, he falls in with what we might term “the wrong crowd” and finds himself heading to Syria to join the media arm of ISIS. He tells his twin sister he’s going to Turkey for a holiday so that his “disappearance” doesn’t arouse suspicion. Of course, it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that everyone, including his two sisters, knows what he has done — after he has done it.

Based on a Greek myth

What is perhaps less obvious is the individual reactions to Parvais’ decision. Even Parvais’ own reaction, once the realisation of what he has done sinks in, demonstrates that being young and idealistic is no match for reality and taking responsibility for your actions.

Many reviews of Home Fire make much of the fact that the story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. If you know that myth, the ending probably won’t surprise you, but I’m woefully uneducated in this regard and found the conclusion quite shocking and profound.

This is a smart, thought-provoking and fearless novel. It was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Hidden Symptoms’ by Deirdre Madden

Hidden-symptoms

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 144 pages; 2014.

In recent years, Deirdre Madden has become one of my favourite writers. She has 10 novels to her name, but I’ve only reviewed three of them — One by One in the Darkness (published in 1996), Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008) and Time Present and Time Past (2013) — which means I have many years of reading pleasure ahead of me if I space them out accordingly.

Her debut novel, Hidden Symptoms,  first published in 1986, is a densely constructed story about a trio of characters living in Belfast during The Troubles.

It revolves around university student Theresa, a devout Catholic, whose faith is tested by the murder of her twin brother, whose badly mutilated body was found dumped on a patch of waste ground near the city centre several years earlier, the result of sectarian violence.

Love and violence

But the story is just as much about the faith — and the trust — placed in friendships, for Theresa spends most of her time with Robert, a writer and frustrated intellectual, who aspires to better things and despises his sister’s sheltered suburban life, and Robert’s girlfriend, Kathy, a fellow student, who discovers that the father she thought had died when she was a baby is actually living in London with his new young family.

The background to these family dramas — “people marrying, mating and mixing genes” —  is Belfast in the 1980s, a time of great conflict between paramilitary forces, British state security forces and political activists. Yet despite the violence, Theresa views it as “normal” because, as she explains early on in the novel, “she had watched it [Belfast] sink since her childhood from ‘normality’ to its present state”.

What she cannot come to terms with, however, is knowing that someone in the city killed her brother purely because of his religion (he was not known to be a member of any paramilitary organisation). She is plagued by pain, distress and paranoia:

… she arrived too early for an arranged meeting with Kathy in a city-centre pub. She bought a drink and while she waited she looked around at the other customers, the majority of whom were men, until slowly the thought of the man who had killed her brother crept back into her mind. Those men who were laughing in the corner; that man with reddish hair and big, rough hands who was drinking alone; even the white-coated barman, cutting wedges of lemon for gin-and-tonics: any one of them might have done it. She gazed at each of them in turn and thought in cold fright: “Is he the one? Did he do it? Is he the man who murdered Francis?”

The political and religious divide

Admittedly, Theresa is not a terribly likeable person — she’s (understandably) bitter and angry, and all her conversations tend towards the argumentative, particularly where politics is concerned. Her relationship with Robert, initiated in a cafe when she roundly criticises and condemns a piece about Irish literature that he wrote in a magazine, is fraught from the outset but it soon descends into irreconcilable differences because their views on politics and religion are so polarised.

And yet despite her fierce talk and hard-held opinions, there’s a fragility about Theresa that is hard to ignore. Her grief, at times, is palpable, and it is to Madden’s credit that it never descends into maudlin self-pity or sentimentality.

Hidden Symptoms is a short novel — indeed, it was originally published in Faber’s First Fictions anthology where it was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1987 — but it’s so tightly written it would take an age to unpick all the issues and themes it contains. As a dark exploration of bereavement, faith, love, loyalty and violence, you would be hard pressed to find a book more powerful — or intelligent.

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, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Flannery O'Connor, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Wise Blood’ by Flannery O’Connor

Wise-blood

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 160 pages; 2008.

Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel, Wise Blood, was first published in 1949. It’s a rather odd, slightly disturbing, tale set in America’s evangelical Deep South after the Second World War and is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Return home

The story follows a young man, Hazel Motes, from Eastrod, Tennessee, who returns to the South after four years in the army. We know little of his background other than his grandfather had been a preacher, his younger brother died in infancy and his other brother fell in front of a mowing machine when he was seven years old.

We also know that as a child he had wanted to follow family tradition and become a preacher, but somewhere along the line — most likely in the war — he has turned completely against religion and does not believe that Jesus exists.

When he arrives back home he comes across a “blind” preacher, Asa Hawkes, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath, and is so infuriated by their “message” that he decides to set up his own anti-religion. It is called The Church Without Christ.

“I’m a member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”

He then buys a car (even though he doesn’t have a driving licence) and travels the streets looking for convenient places — usually out the front of a movie house — to preach his message, where he is generally given short shrift. When another man “adopts” his religion but calls it the Holy Church Without Christ things get complicated — and violent.

A comic novel — or a macabre one?

In the Author’s Note to my edition, Flannery O’Connor writes  (in 1962) that Wise Blood is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui. But I have to admit I didn’t see much that was funny and was often disturbed by the undertone of menace throughout and the ways in which the narrative often turned on violent or macabre events.

But there’s a lot to mull over here, because even though the book is just 160 pages long, it’s jam-packed with ideas and issues and moves along at a clipping pace. I often had to re-read entire pages because I had missed a crucial piece of information and I think I could probably read the book for a second time and still not feel I had grasped everything to which the author alludes.

For instance, I’m still not quite sure of the purpose of a secondary character, Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old loner who befriends Haze on his second day in town. Enoch believes he has a purpose but he doesn’t quite know what it is — and even when he steals a museum artefact as a “religious icon” for Haze’s church, he still doesn’t know why he’s behaved in such a manner. Perhaps he’s a metaphor for blind faith, for simply following a religion without knowing why?

The role of the character of Sabbath Hawkes is much more obvious: she’s a temptress who Haze initially wants to seduce. When he later changes his mind, she pursues him with a kind of religious fervour.

For such a short book, there is certainly a lot to think about. And as a reading experience, I was constantly uneasy and unsettled as I turned the pages. Motes might be joyless, cold and uncaring — in fact, I might go so far as to say he’s psychopathic — but somewhere along the line you begin to care about him, especially when he goes to extraordinary lengths to punish himself. That in itself — the ability of a writer to make you feel for a truly unlikable character — is a talent not to be underestimated.

I wouldn’t say Wise Blood is a fun book, but it’s certainly a wonderful Gothic tale that tickles the brain matter and I’m glad I finally found the courage to pluck it from my TBR where it has sat undisturbed for several years.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘A Haunted Heart’ by John MacKenna

Haunted-heart

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 272 pages; 1999.

John MacKenna’s A Haunted Heart is a rather beautiful story about an elderly Irish woman looking back on her life in which she joined the Quakers and fell in love with someone who did not love her back. The entire novel has a lovely Victorian feel to it and is ripe with mystery, forbidden love,  religious fervour, guilt and redemption.

A lifetime of journals

It is 1959. Elizabeth Hallshead is 78 and has spent the past 60 years living in England. She returns to her native Ireland after the death of her cousin, whose house she has inherited. She takes a lifetime of journals with her — 69 volumes — and prepares to write an account of her friend Abigail’s life for Abigail’s daughters.

I first met your mother, Abigail Beale (née Meredith), in the February of 1899. You were three years old, then, Lydia, and you, Myfanwy, were two. But before I tell you of that, I need to step back a short space, to the first time I saw Joshua Jacob, for he was to be the one who brought your mother and me together and the one who caused the separation between you and your mother.

But writing this memorial is not a straightforward or easy task. First, Elizabeth is gravely ill. Though we never find out the precise nature of her medical condition, we know that she is not expected to live very long. She is in the care of the kindly local doctor, who is just a phone call away, but sometimes she is in so much physical pain she cannot continue to work on the manuscript.  (By contrast, when she isn’t in pain, she enjoys exploring the countryside on her bicycle!)

And second, there are aspects to Abigail’s story which are mentally painful to recall. This is accompanied by the feeling that Elizabeth is holding things back, though whether she is trying to spare the feelings of Abigail’s daughter or is unable to confront her own truth, it is difficult to tell.

Two narratives

The novel is structured around these two intertwined narratives — Elizabeth’s present day (told in diary form) in which she writes the memorial, deals with her illness and tries to track down Abigail’s children; and her past (told in manuscript form) in which she joined an offshoot of the Quakers, run by the charismatic if misguided Joshua, and met Abigail, who had sacrificed her marriage and motherhood to become a disciple.

In both narratives, Elizabeth’s voice is engaging and intimate, and while it’s clear she is trying to set the record straight for Abigail’s children, ultimately she is confessing to a forbidden love she has kept secret for more than half a century.

In fact, this seems to be a recurring them in MacKenna’s work; two of his other novels which I have read and reviewed on this site — The Last Fine Summer, published in 1997, and The Space Between Us, published in 2009 — also deal with forbidden love, albeit two completely different types.

A moving story

A Haunted Heart is a strangely beguiling story dealing with big themes — remorse and longing, religious extremism and personal accountability, amongst others  — set in a time when not everyone was free to live the life they wished to live.

It is incredibly moving in places — at times it made me angry, at other times it filled me with despair — but in the tradition of great Irish literature it is always restrained and never sentimental.

Sadly, A Haunted Heart appears to be out of print, but you should be able to source a copy from secondhand booksellers online for just a few pennies. I paid about 2 pence for mine; I would have easily paid £20 (and more) for it and thought it value for money.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Broderick, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick

Pilgrimage

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 130 pages; 2004.

Upon publication in 1961 The Pilgrimage, like so many Irish novels that dealt with sex and the Church at the time, was banned by the Censorship Board. Four years later it was retitled The Chameleons and sold more than 100,000 copies in the US.

It was John Broderick’s first novel. He went on to write 11 more — most of which are out of print — and an autobiography, but he got his start as a journalist and book reviewer. He died in 1989.

A dark book about sex

While the scandalous element of this novel may have lost its potency — so much about Ireland has changed since then and the Church is no longer a dominant force — there’s no doubt that this is a very dark book, and the depiction of sex within it still has the power to shock. I’ve not read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I suspect there’s a particular scene in The Pilgrimage that even EL James would not even think to write.

Set during the 1950s, this is very much a story about the hidden Ireland, about what goes on behind closed doors. It is also a disturbing portrait of what happens to ordinary men and women when the Church tries to control sex and sexuality. And it peels back the facade to show how women and gay men were particularly affected by the hypocrisy at the heart of its religious doctrine.

An upstanding woman with a secret life

The story is largely told through the eyes of Julia Glynn, a fine upstanding Church-going woman, who has a secret life. Married to a rich bedridden man, who can no longer fulfill her sexual needs, she seeks out casual encounters with strange men and rekindles her affair with her husband’s handsome young nephew and personal doctor, Jim Glynn.

But when Julia receives a malicious note from an anonymous correspondent detailing her relationship with Jim, she fears that this secret life may become exposed. Not that it puts her off too much — she later instigates a sordid night-time relationship with the household’s butler, a cold man called Stephen Lydon, who may or may not be her husband’s former lover.

As you can see by this brief description, the relationships in this novel are rather complicated and twisted — all the more so when you begin to realise that Julia’s marriage is merely one of convenience. Nothing is spelt out, but if you read between the lines it is clear that her husband is gay and that even on their honeymoon in France, when they “struck up a friendship with a young German who accompanied them everywhere and waved them a sentimental farewell at the airport”, he was having an affair right under her nose.

Restrained prose

Like the best Irish novels, the prose here is restrained, stripped back, bare. Every word counts. Much of the plot moves forward by dialogue, and it is this dialogue which reveals so much about his well-drawn, believable characters — it’s like every time they open their mouths, they reveal their souls.

And despite the lack of any superfluous words, Broderick manages to convey feelings and whole atmospheres — usually of malice and foreboding — so that they resonate off the page. A recurring theme is the claustrophobia of small town life, where everyone knows everyone’s business — or thinks they do — something that Julia finds particularly difficult to live with.

She was glad she had brought the car: to walk through the narrow, claustrophobic streets of this town with its almost indecent sense of intimacy would, at that moment, have been more than she could bear. She was too accurately attuned to the tempo of the place not to know that the tiniest change of mood, or worried preoccupation, was as accurately registered as an earthquake on a seismograph. These people did not lay bare their petty secrets by any logical system, but by an instinct which was almost entirely physical; and, therefore to Julia most terrifying, since her own reactions were largely of the blood. For that reason, like many others who live in those closed communities, she had developed a natural gift for dissimulation to an uncanny pitch of perfection. The city dweller who passes through a country town, and imagines it sleepy and apathetic is very far from the truth: it is as watchful as a jungle.

Two kinds of pilgrimage

The main plot, which involves Julia’s husband planning a trip to Lourdes in the hope he may be cured, gives the book its title. But it could also be argued that the way Julia uses her “smooth-skinned marble body” is a form of pilgrimage, too.

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace. The ending, which is abrupt and does not feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, has meant more to me with the passing of time.

I haven’t been as excited by an Irish author since I discovered the late, great John McGahern in 2005. This was the first novel I have read by John Broderick; it won’t be the last.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, China, England, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Suzanne Joinson

‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ by Suzanne Joinson

Lady-cyclists-guide-to-Kashgar

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 384 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Suzanne Joinson’s debut novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, is a fascinating account of a trio of English missionaries working in a Muslim-dominated region of China in 1923. It also features a dual narrative, set in present day London, in which a young woman learns she has inherited an apartment full of belongings, including a pet owl, from a stranger.

A narrative composed of diary entries

The missionary side of the story unfolds in a series of diary entries by Evagaline English, who is penning a lady cyclist’s guide to Kashgar, hence the title of the book. Eva, as she is known, is in Kashgar, East Turkestan, with her sister, Lizzie, and their benefactress, Millicent, to help set up a Christian mission on behalf of the Missionary Order of the Steadfast Face.

The book opens in dramatic fashion when the trio, somewhere in the desert, stumble upon a woman giving birth by the roadside. They stop to help, and Millicent delivers the baby using a pair of forceps. The mother dies, presumably from blood loss, and a crowd of onlookers blame Millicent for her death.

‘They say we have taken the girl to give ourselves strength, and that we plan to steal the baby and eat it.’ Lizzie spoke quickly, in that odd, high voice. Her ability with this impenetrable Turki language is much better than mine.
‘She died in childbirth, natural causes, as you can all very well see,’ Millicent shouted uselessly in English, and then repeated it in Turki. Lizzie set about bringing water in our tankards and a blanket.
‘They are demanding that we are shot.’

From thereon in, the three women tread a dangerous path. Not only are they in a Muslim-dominated area of China — where other religions are not tolerated — they now have a baby who does not belong to them in their possession and are being charged with murder and witchcraft.

While under a kind of “house arrest” the baby’s welfare falls largely to Eva. Meanwhile militant-like Millicent is hellbent on converting the locals and dreamy Lizzie spends her days taking photographs. The narrative charts the tensions between the trio and the local community as it rises from resistance to calamity. More interestingly, it also charts the tensions between the three women, each of whom has a secret to keep.

A present-day story set in London

The present-day narrative, which is told in the third person, follows Frieda, a woman who lives alone in a South London apartment. Frieda has a busy job that involves lots of travel; she’s estranged from her mother; and has been involved in a long-term affair with a married man that is unravelling at the seams.

Then two startling things happen to her, which turn her life upside down: she finds a homeless Yemeni man living on her doorstep and befriends him; and then she receives a letter informing her that she has inherited a council flat full of property, including a caged owl, belonging to a woman she doesn’t know. According to council records, the woman is Frieda’s next-of-kin.

As you can tell, these two narratives are poles apart, but part of the mystery and enjoyment of reading A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is trying to determine the link between them — and it’s not as obvious as one might think.

Satisfying storytelling

Joinson writes each thread in a different prose style — the first has an old-fashioned feel and is reminiscent of the period in which it is set, the second is more contemporary in tone and style. And while some readers might find this juxtaposition jarring, I quite enjoyed moving backwards and forwards in time like this, although I much preferred the missionary storyline, probably because Eva’s voice was so engaging. I also enjoyed the judicious use of cliffhangers, which keeps the momentum going.

As I read this book I felt that I was going on a rather intimate journey, because Joinson captures periods and settings so vividly that exotic places, such as Kashgar, come alive on paper. Her attention to detail — especially in terms of historical facts and cultural references — pay off without you ever feeling as if she’s shoehorned in a bunch of research just to get the “flavour” right.

And while the title is somewhat of a misnomer (there’s not much cycling in this book at all), A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is a gorgeous read, tempered by a lovely sense of wry humour, that whisks you away to another world. It’s peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters and covers their journeys — physical, emotional and metaphorical — with care and compassion. It’s a perfect rainy day read.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Fiction, pre-20th Century classic, Project Gutenberg, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Gates Between’ by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

GatesBetween

Fiction – Kindle edition; Project Gutenberg; 220 pages; 1887.

Do you ever wonder what on earth possessed you to buy or borrow a particular book? I have absolutely no memory of even downloading this one — a freebie from manybooks.net — before I left London in mid-November.

So when I started reading it earlier in the week in the hope it might cure my fictional reading slump, I hadn’t a clue what it was about (one of the most annoying things about eBooks is the lack of blurbs), but I liked the sound of the title and the author’s double-barrelled surname.

According to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) was an American author best known for her three Spiritualist novels, The Gates Ajar, Between the Gates and Beyond the Gates.

Alas, I could not find any information about Between the Gates apart from a small description on Encyclopedia.com which described it as “the afterlife adventures of an agnostic doctor”. I rather suspect that if I’d known that at the outset I would not have read this book. But however unappealing a story with Christian overtones might sound to me, I admit that once I’d begun reading the opening chapters I was hooked.

The story is told from the point-of-view of a 45-year-old doctor, Esmerald Thorne, who is the bastion of the small-town medical community in which he resides. His patients love him and he loves his patients. But if you read between the lines you also get to see that he might have a bit of a “god complex”, because he is a man of science who thinks himself slightly superior to the mere mortals he treats.

Of course, with hindsight, and knowing that the book has a strong religious message to impart, it’s clear that Stuart Phelps wants to cut her doctor character down a peg or two.

She gives him a more human side by having him fall desperately in love with Helen, a woman 12 years his junior. (“My accident held me a prisoner for six weeks. But my love put me in chains in six minutes.”) And after a short courtship the pair marry and later become parents to a son. Dr Thorne describes himself as being “chloroformed with joy”.

Then the cracks in their marriage begin to appear. Dr Thorne is an irritable man and he begins to find Helen irritating. He cannot understand why she frets so much about their poorly son. He dismisses the baby’s constant crying as nothing more than teething problems.

SPOILER ALERT

And then one day, after a tiff with his wife, he storms out and is involved in a fatal horse and carriage accident.

I had been dead twelve hours before I found out.

The rest of the book revolves around Dr Thorne coming to terms with his new life in the “afterlife”. He begins to realise that he might have been a good human doing good things in the human world, but his lack of faith has left him slightly diminished in the world of the dead. He doesn’t quite fit in and struggles to comprehend that all his success counts for nothing in this new place.

Good luck, good looks, good nerves, a good income, an enviable reputation for professional skill, personal popularity, and private happiness — these things had struck me as so wholesome that they must be admirable. […] Now it was as if, in the act or fact of dying, I had moved a step or two, and looked over the edge of the bright shield.

Further on Dr Thorne meets a young boy in the afterlife and is devastated to discover that it is, in fact, the son he insisted was healthy. Now he begins to learn about humility — and fatherhood, and what it is like to live a woman’s life in which child-rearing and domesticity is the central focus.

I have to admit that the moral and religious lessons do wear thin very quickly — and that they are so bleeding obvious as to be cringe-worthy. However, I suspect the ideas presented here were new and exciting at the time of publication, and maybe even 21st century Christians and theologians will find much more to appreciate in The Gates Between than this somewhat cynical, atheist reviewer!

But the book is easy to read — provided you can forgive Stuart Phelps’ tendency towards breathless gushing and composing entire paragraphs out of questions — and it provided a decidedly different flavour to my usual reading material. Whether it got me out of my reading slump remains to be seen.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, J.L. Carr, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘A Month in the Country’ by J.L. Carr

A-Month-in-the-Country

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 84 pages; 2000.

There’s something about J.L. Carr’s Booker-nominated A Month in the Country which feels as if it was written long before its 1980 publication date. The story is a rather gentle and subtle one, ripe with religious symbolism, and it is so evocative of a long-lost English summer that whenever you lift your head from the page you expect to see blue skies, sunshine and fields of yellow-bright rape seed blowing in the breeze.

My edition comes with a rather good introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, and a short forward by J.L. Carr himself, who says the idea of the book “was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. […] I wanted its narrator to look back regretfully across forty or fifty years but, recalling a time irrecoverably lost, still feel a tug at the heart”.

I’ve not read Hardy’s novel, so I can’t make a comparison, but I think Carr has definitely succeeded on the tug-at-the-heart element.

The story is a simple one about a young English soldier, Tom Birkin, who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Tom, a Londoner, is not used to rural life. But in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby he finds the peace and quiet an antidote to his military experience, which has left him with a disturbing facial tick.

The marvellous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War […] had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought — a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.

He befriends another former solider — and outsider — at work in the village, Charles Moon, who is looking for a lost medieval grave near the church.

He also develops two key relationships with female residents — 14-year-old precocious schoolgirl Kathy Ellerbeck, and the vicar’s young, beautiful wife, Alice Keach — both of them platonic, although the latter provides a frisson of sexual tension. I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens!

As Tom slowly, methodically sets about gently removing the whitewash from the painting, he comes to know the inner-most workings of the village, its natives and their little secrets. There’s not much more to the story than his gentle adaptation to rural living, the friendships he makes and the recuperative power of time to heal emotional wounds.

A Month in the Country is an understated but heartfelt story. Because it is told from Tom’s point of view, looking back on his younger self, there’s a bittersweet edge to it, tinged as it is with nostalgia and regret. Not bad for a slim book that’s less than 100 pages long.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Randolph Stow, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘To The Islands’ by Randolph Stow

ToTheIslands

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 208 pages; 2002.

Randolph Stow was an Australian writer who achieved great literary success in his early years. When he was just 22 he won the the 1958 Miles Franklin Award for To The Islands and the ALS Gold Medal, for the same book, in 1959. In 1978 he won the Patrick White Award. But ask the average Australian who he is or, better still, ask them to name the title of one of his books and you will probably be greeted with a blank face.

Perhaps it doesn’t help that Stow only wrote a handful of novels and that he emigrated to the UK circa 1970, effectively turning his back on the Australian literary scene. But it seems such a shame that a man who could craft such amazing fiction, including his mesmirising The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (which I read twice last year I loved it so much) could fall into relative obscurity so quickly.

I read To The Islands not long after I heard that Stow had died of liver cancer, here in the UK, in late May. (The news story of his death, published in The Australian, is very touching, but the comments are particularly telling of how dearly he was held in the affection of so many.)

It’s an astonishing read, not least because he was just 22 when he wrote it (and this, I have to point out, was not his first novel, but his third). It’s not only ambitious in scope, but there’s a wisdom to the story that belies his years. That the book is largely told through the eyes of an ageing Anglican missionary confronting his own inner demons seems a remarkable work of imagination and daring for one so young.

Stow’s carefully studied observations about the relationships between white Europeans and Aboriginals are also particularly perceptive. That may not be too surprising given he did spend some time working as a storeman on an Anglican mission in the far north of Western Australia immediately after graduation, but even so, he has captured the fear, violence and misunderstanding between blacks and whites incredibly well, and he has not been afraid to cast a light on some of the darkest, most gruesome events, in Australian history.

The story, as you may have gathered, is set on a remote mission in the Western Australian outback in 1957. Here, the Church of England provides lodging, employment and medical care for aboriginals, a race which has few civil rights  (“Someday we all be citizens, eh, brother?” quips one aboriginal to one of the brothers in an early scene) and is forbidden to drink alcohol. (In the preface to my edition, Stow points out that alcohol did not become a problem until the 1970s.)

An ageing missionary, Stephen Heriot, has ruled the mission for decades. One of the younger missionaries, Helen, describes him as “stone and iron” and “impassive, accustomed through decades to deal with wooings, marriages, disputes”.

But when Rex, a troublesome aboriginal, returns to the mission, Heriot is determined to have him banished. Younger members of the mission are less sure about sending him away (“It begins to look a bit like victimisation,” Way warns him; “He not a bad man, Rex. You don’t give him no chance,” says a fellow aboriginal, Richard.)

But one wild night, in the middle of a storm, Heriot believes he may have killed Rex. Full of remorse, he flees the mission on horseback, taking a rifle and a box of cartridges with him. What follows is a kind of adventure story, in which Heriot, confronted by the enormity of the unexplored wilderness around him, begins to experience a spiritual awakening. Meanwhile, his fellow missionaries try to track him down, convinced that Heriot plans to kill himself…

There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a quintessential Australian story. Stow’s descriptions of the landscape are always beautiful and, for this expat Australian, homesick-inducing. But even if you have never been to Australia, Stow has a way of conjuring the beauty of the surroundings that will make you feel like you have walked the terrain, smelt the eucalyptus, swum in the creeks and billabongs, seen all the amazing wildlife around you.

From the water flagged with lily leaves, lilies flowering among them, birds rose in sudden stages with a clatter of wings. Ibis and white cranes climbed slowly, wild ducks wheeled, and returned, and flew off again. Geese trailed their long cry over the plain, a single black jabiru following.
Before they had gone the children were already in the water, floundering among the lilies, crying to one another of the coolness of it and of its richness in ducks and flowers. The small children danced naked in the shallows with shining skins. The others, in brief pants, some girls in their dresses, dolphined among the lily stems.

It’s interesting, too, to see how prescient Stow’s views are on race relations given he penned the novel more than 50 years ago. I particularly liked this exchange between Heriot and one of his fellow missionaries, Way:

“As they [the aboriginals] lose simplicity they lose direction. So, what are we going to do with them? Who’s going to teach them trades, give them confidence in themselves? Drive them out of this inertia they fall into now their pride’s grown enough to make them want above everything to have some sort of competence. I don’t know the answers.”
“We’re promised a technical school, some day, somewhere within a hundred miles.”
“I wish it well,” said Heriot. “And you. Because you’re coming to the most heartbreaking phase in the history of this problem.”
“We’ll do our best, I hope.”
“I hope,” echoed Heriot, and looked at Way, that capable middle-aged man, reflectively and approved him. “You’ve time, I think, to see enormous changes, perhaps the end of physical misery among them, as the old ones die out in the way we old ones do. But in the end you’ll have something else to face – misery of the mind. And that will be the hardest, Way.”

This is a fascinating novel, one that can easily be read in one sitting, although I think it probably requires at least two read-throughs to fully come to grips with all the ideas presented. Many literary critics have dubbed it a “masterpiece” and I can see why.

As an aside, I read the “very slightly abridged” 1982 edition (which was republished by UQP in 2002) and not the original. Stow says he revised it because it contained “many faults, due partly to immaturity, but more to the fact that my technical competence was not equal to my ambition, which in retrospect makes me realise how horizons narrow in middle age”. (The great Irish writer John McGahern did much the same with his 1974 novel The Leavetaking for similar reasons, so he’s in good company. And, if I’m honest, there’s much about Stow’s work that reminds me of McGahern.)

Stow also claims to have cut out some of the Christian mission-station propaganda involving a “good deal of talk by the white characters about their difficulties and hopes, and even a very tepid love-interest, introduced not for its own sake but to suggest that at least two Europeans would remain committed to the Mission”.

Sadly, To The Islands seems to have fallen out of print, although you might score a very cheap second-hand copy on Amazon Marketplace if you are lucky.

For another take on the same novel, please read Lisa Hill’s review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.