Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim

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‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Jump’ by Doug Johnstone

The_Jump
Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone has become my go-to author for fast-paced psychological thrillers. I’ve read Smokeheads (2011)Hit & Run (2012) and Gone Again (2013) — all reviewed here — and he even did his Triple Choice Tuesday for me back in 2011. Somehow I missed out on last year’s The Dead Beat — probably because it came out while I was in the throes of part-time study — but this year I made sure not to miss his latest novel, The Jump, which was published in the UK by Faber & Faber last week.

A suicide bridge

The story plays out in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge, a suspension bridge that spans the Firth of Forth in Scotland. It was from this structure that Ellie’s 15-year-old son jumped and killed himself. Now, still grieving for the loss of her only child, she spots another teenager about to take the plunge. She talks him off the ledge — literally — and takes him home to make sure he’s alright.

But what Ellie doesn’t realise is that things aren’t quite what they seem. Seventeen-year-old Sam seems reluctant to get in touch with his own family, so Ellie hides him away in her son’s old bedroom, not sure whether to tell her husband, Ben, that he’s there. Later, she moves him to their boat on the marina, where it’s unlikely he’ll be found or disturbed.

But then things begin to unravel when she spots bloodstains on Sam’s t-shirt. She begins to wonder if Sam is being straight with her. Is there more to his story than meets the eye? Her secret, often risky, investigations lead to one shocking revelation after another and before long the story is racing along at Formula One pace, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. It is, quite frankly a superb — if slightly far-fetched — ride.

An intriguing lead character

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, aside from the astute plotting and the way in which the narrative is punctuated by one surprise after another, is the character of Ellie. She’s no cardboard cut-out. This is a complex woman, beset by grief, and motivated by the knowledge that she has a second chance to save someone, even if that someone is a complete stranger. She’s strong-willed, with nerves of steel, and I loved her determination and resourcefulness.

Equally, Ben, her husband, is a fascinating character: he’s buried himself deep into suicide conspiracies to help cope with the loss of his son, so everything he says and does is tempered by a mild form of lunacy.

Together, they make a formidable pair, and even though their actions are sometimes slightly dubious — and often criminal — you can’t help but think that such questionable behaviour could be explained by such terrible grief.

A sensitive and mature novel 

While The Jump is ultimately a sensational novel that brims with suspense and danger,  it explores the issue of suicide with great sensitivity. Clearly, Johnstone has done his research — it feels authentic and believable and the mother’s emotions seem spot-on. Even the stresses and stains within the marriage, the different ways that Ben and Ellie have dealt with their grief, elevates the story above the usual run-of-the-mill thriller.

I also like the way that South Queensferry and the waters of the firth have been depicted with faithful and exacting detail, making these places characters in their own right and adding a distinctly Scottish flavour to the book.

I’d argue that this is Johnstone’s most mature work yet — he’s shied away from a big bombastic ending, and left things a little open-ended, which I liked, and he’s reined in some of the over-the-top shenanigans of past efforts. I just want to know when the film rights are going to be sold, because this would make a terrific movie — I can already see Kelly MacDonald and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles!

Author, Book review, Doreen Finn, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘My Buried Life’ by Doreen Finn

My-Buried-Life

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 254 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish writer Doreen Finn’s My Buried Life is a remarkably accomplished, confident and polished debut novel set in Dublin after the economic crash.

A return to Dublin

It tells the story of a New York-based poet and academic in her late 30s who returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother. But Eva Perry, who narrates the story, doesn’t expect to stay long: she simply wants to tidy up her mother’s affairs and head back to her life in Manhattan as quickly as possible.

Yet things are not straightforward, for Eva is nursing deeply felt hurts — she’s recently broken off an affair with a married man, whom she loved — and now all the painful memories of her childhood come rushing back: the complicated relationship she had with her estranged mother, the unexplained death of her father when she was just four years old and then the depression and suicide of her older brother when she was 16.

And then there’s the ongoing problem she has with alcohol:

I want to stop drinking again. I can’t keep on doing what I’ve been doing since I got back to Dublin. I can’t live a healthy or productive life if my principal objective each day is to count the minutes until I allow myself a drink. It’s starting to show on my face, in my body. […] I don’t want to be that woman, alone with her books and empty bottles. I actually don’t know what I do want, but I don’t want that.

Melancholy, hope and humour

This probably makes My Buried Life sound quite maudlin — I mean, come on, in the first few chapters there’s already been a funeral, a suicide, a confession about alcoholism and a broken love affair  — but Eva is such a fascinating character, and her voice is so heartfelt, honest and often self-deprecating, that the story doesn’t feel as if it is wallowing in the gloom of it all. Instead, the narrative is infused with a well-balanced sense of melancholia but there’s also a slow burning anger at its core, which gives the story a sharp little edge. And the secrets, which are slowly revealed one by one as the story unfolds, make it a particularly compelling read.

It’s very much a book about “home” — where is it if you are an immigrant, what makes it and how it shapes us — and the displacement felt when returning to the place where you grew up after a long time away. I especially loved Eva’s withering commentary about how Dublin had changed —  for the worse — while she’d been gone:

Political discussion on the radio […] washes over me like sea foam, numbing in its repetition. The lies, the accusations, the nonsense about the imploded property market, as though property were the only thing wrong with this country. As though politicians and cute hoors hadn’t been ripping Ireland off in every guise imaginable since the dawn of independence, and now, when they’re still at it, people are somehow required to be surprised, shocked that any of this could have happened. I want to point the finger of blame at them all, the bankers, the politicos, all who allowed this to happen, with their mock shock, their disbelief that this could be happening to Ireland. Poster child for neo-liberal politics. Celtic Tiger indeed.

But this is also a book about second chances (I suspect the Irish economy may well be a metaphor for Eva’s own life) and it’s filled with many tender moments as Eva finds herself becoming intimate with a new circle of friends and lovers. In its exploration of family, loyalty and the secrets that bind us to one another, My Buried Life shows one woman’s struggle to accept her past in order to move into the future. It’s written in lush, almost musical prose, and while it may be Doreen Finn’s first book, I’m pretty sure it won’t be her last…

Alix Ohlin, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting, USA

‘Inside’ by Alix Ohlin

Inside_UK_edition

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 353 pages; 2012.

I’m going to put my hand up from the off and admit that as much as I enjoyed Alix Ohlin’s Inside I’m curious as to why it made the shortlist for this year’s Giller Prize. Yes, it’s an entertaining read. Yes, it’s peopled by well developed characters. And yes, it has an unusual narrative structure. But it’s not doing anything particularly special to warrant a literary prize and the message — that life can be lonely and difficult and perplexing — is a well worn, almost clichéd one.

I will also admit that if it were not for my participation in the Shadow Giller I may well have abandoned this book after the first chapter.

Interconnected stories

Inside is about four characters — Grace, Mitch, Tug and Annie — whose stories are told in interleaved and interconnected narrative threads. Grace, a therapist, is the lynch pin of the novel, because she is divorced from Mitch (who is also a therapist), and Tug is the man she accidentally saves from suicide (I’ll return to this in a bit), while Annie is one of her troubled teenage patients, who ends up running away to begin life as an actor, first on the stage in New York, then later in a television series filmed in Los Angeles.

Having given this briefest outline, your cliché alert — if it’s anything like mine — may well be into the amber zone. It probably won’t help if I tell you there’s a couple of deaths, a couple of abortions, at least two failed marriages, a lesbian love affair, self-harm and a threatened legal action. But one of the strengths of the novel is Ohlin’s storytelling ability. She gives all her characters strong (and convincing) back stories and then propels them into life’s ups and downs and twists and turns, so that you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen to them next.

And she’s not bogged down by flowery or showy prose. Indeed, I found this novel slipped down like hot chocolate, although I could never quite shake the feeling that I was reading nothing more than a tame soap opera.

Suicide man

When the book opens, it is 1996 and Grace is out cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, Montreal, when she falls over a man, who is “flung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow”. Initially, she thinks he may have had a heart attack or a stroke, but then she sees a rope around his neck and realises he has attempted suicide — and survived.

Cue an emergency trip to hospital, where the man — John Tugwell, better known as Tug —  is treated for cuts, bruises and a sprained ankle. Medical staff assume Grace is Tug’s wife, and Tug doesn’t disabuse them of the notion. Indeed, he actually tells them the suicide attempt was just a joke to see “what she’d say”.

Tugwell jerked a thumb in Grace’s direction. His voice was painfully rasped and he swallowed visibly after he spoke, but then he modulated it to a tone of playful wryness. ‘We were skiing together and I told her I was going to kill myself and went off in a different direction. I said I had the rope with me and was going to do it immediately. It took her nine minutes to decide to come after me. Nine minutes! Can you believe that? I timed her.’

Grace goes along with this ruse, takes Tug home and over the course of the novel — and her better judgement — develops a romantic relationship with him.

Montreal, New York and the Arctic Circle

The book then shoots forward to New York, 2002, where we meet troubled, isolated and hard-as-rock Annie, who, as a teenager used to cut herself. Now, a fledgling actor, she uses her good looks and sexuality to get what she wants. But lest we think she’s entirely shallow, she takes in a homeless young woman and lets her decamp on the sofa for what turns out to be about six months.

By chapter three, we are in Iqualuit (in the Arctic circle) and it is 2006. Here we meet nice guy Mitch, on the run from a relationship — with the “sexy and brilliantly smart” lawyer Martine and her autistic son, Mathieu — that isn’t working out as he would like.

He did this once before, when he separated from Grace, whom he decided he no longer loved, even though he loved “her values, her personality, her dreams”. In the remote community of Nunavut, he hopes to do something useful with his life by counselling troubled aboriginals.

Two novels in one?

As the novel progresses Mitch’s storyline intersects with Grace’s, when they meet up 10 years after their divorce and establish a tentative friendship. This is a brilliant device at allowing us to see the strengths and weaknesses of each character, to see how their shared history has come back to haunt them and how their failed marriage shaped their outlook and personality. It is somewhat ironic that both are therapists used to counselling others but unable to properly work through their own problems.

Annie’s story, however, almost reads like a separate novel entirely — and despite her tenuous connection to Grace I often wondered what she was doing in the book. That said, she’s a brilliant character and I enjoyed following her exploits from New York to Los Angeles and back again.

Probably the most frustrating character is Tug, because he’s so unknowable. I suspect that’s deliberate on Ohlin’s part, because it is his inability to express himself or to share emotions that draws Grace in — she’s determined to “crack” him. Of course, once she does, the result isn’t pretty — he’s been to Rwanda, hasn’t he, and what he saw has so traumatised him he can no longer function in the real world without closing down his emotional, caring side.

Presumably the book is called Inside because it is about what goes on inside each of these character’s heads, but it would have been more apt to call it Loneliness, or even Good Samaritan. Either way, if you like therapist novels, you may well enjoy this. And if you don’t mind contrived stories about humans floundering about, looking for something or someone to make them happy, add this one to your list.

Author, Book review, David Vann, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Legend of a Suicide’ by David Vann

LegendofaSuicide

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide is a deceptive book. I started it, thinking it was a novel, and was mid-way through it before I clocked that it was no such thing. This is actually a series of stories, albeit about the same character, Roy Venn, dealing with the suicide of his father, Jim.

The first, Ichthyology, is told through the eyes of a young Roy, who is obsessed with his aquarium and sneaks out of the house in his pajamas whenever he hears his parent’s fighting. We learn that his father, a dentist, is a troubled man beset by marital woes. The ending, when it comes, via a .44 Magnum handgun on the deck of a fishing boat, feels like a relief.

The next story, Rhoda, is a black comedy about Jim’s second wife, “who had dark, dark hair, pale skin, and a dropped eyelid that, on closer view, made her terribly beautiful”. At only 13 pages long, it’s enough for the reader to glean that Jim’s unable to relate to women very well: within days of their marriage the pair are rowing and Jim’s telling Roy, “She wasn’t like this before. This isn’t the woman I married.” We also discover Jim’s penchant for guns.

A Legend of Good Men is set after Jim’s death and focuses on Jim’s first wife (Roy’s mother) and the succession of men that she dates. Or, as Roy so aptly puts it:

The men she dated were a lot like the circuses that passed through our town. They’d move in quickly and unpack everything they owned, as if they had come to stay. They’d tempt us with brightly colored objects — flowers, balloons, remote controlled race cars — perform tricks with their beards and hands, call us funny names like snip, my little squash plant, ding-dong, and apple pie, and yell their stories at us day and night. Then they’d vanish, and we’d find no sign left, no mention  even, as if we’d simply imagined them.

By now, we’ve built up a pretty good picture of Jim, his first wife, his second wife and his son, and how his death has altered their lives forever. And then David Vann pulls a brilliant literary trick out of the magic hat and presents us with a two-part novella, Sukkwan Island, that is some of the finest story-telling you’re ever likely to come across in modern fiction. I loved this section of the book, which is told in the third-person (as opposed to the first-person in the preceding stories), and read it with a mixture of awe, fascination and fear.

Again, this story looks at Jim’s suicide from another angle: what if a bereaved son could extract his revenge on his dad before such a cowardly act is even carried out? I won’t spoil the plot, but if you think Stephen King meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road you’ll get a fair idea of the horror and bleakness of what unfolds. Mind you, it’s quite hilarious in places, if you don’t mind laughing at gruesome things. Basically, Jim decides to spend a year living on a remote Alaskan island, taking his now 15-year-old son with him. He is woefully ill-equipped, both physically and mentally, for the task and when winter sets in things begin going a little awry, with devastating consequences…

The fifth and final story, Ketchikan, is told through Roy’s eyes as an adult revisiting the town his father once lived in, hoping to confront the mistress that destroyed his parent’s first marriage. But instead of putting ghosts to rest, Roy realises that perhaps there were very real reasons for what happened and that he’s failed to properly grasp them, let alone understand them. It feels like an emotional low-point, and the reader’s left wondering how much of the father’s patterns of behaviour will be carried on by the son.

Interestingly, David Vann has dedicated this book to his own father, James Edward Vann, who killed himself when David was a child. In his acknowledgments David thanks his family “because it was an uncomfortable topic I was writing about — my father’s suicide — and there’s exposure in these stories.” He adds: “They’re fictional but based on a lot that’s true.”

1001 books, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Sylvia Plath

‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

BellJar

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2009. Free copy for our Book Group courtesy of the publisher.

I first read Sylvia Plath’s one and only novel, The Bell Jar, as a young 20-something, when I was hugely unsure of my place in the world. Indeed, I’d graduated but my career prospects were thwarted by a massive recession (it was 1991) and I was making ends meet by working part-time in a book shop. Reading The Bell Jar was a rewarding experience, because the main character, Esther Greenwood, was also coming to terms with her place in the world — or not coming to terms with it, as it turned out. As I read about Esther sliding further and further into depression, I realised my life wasn’t so bad after all. But I did find The Bell Jar very dark and bleak.

Reading the book for the second time round, almost 18 years later, I was struck by how little of it I remembered. And it also seemed far less depressing. Indeed, there were many moments when I laughed out loud. Here’s a case in point: Esther and a colleague catch a yellow cab back to their hotel after a party, and this is what ensues:

The cab driver took the corners with such momentum that we were thrown together first on one side of the back seat and then on the other. Each time one of us felt sick, she would lean over quietly as if she had dropped something and was picking it up off the floor, and the other one would hum a little and pretend to be looking out the window.

But I digress… For those of you who are unaware of the storyline, it goes something like this: It is 1953. Esther Greenwood is a first-rate student from rural America who wins a college scholarship along with the opportunity to spend a month in New York city as an intern on a fashion magazine. But during her time in Manhattan with 11 other young female interns, Esther slowly realises that she can no longer define herself by her academic accomplishments. The world, as she knows it, is coming to an end and she doesn’t quite know how to handle it. Or, as she describes it, she “felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks”.

When she returns home, she discovers that her application to join a writing course over the summer has been rejected, and depression sets in.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story [that she had read].
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

The phrase that comes to mind here is “paralysed by choice”. Indeed, as the summer drags on, Esther becomes more dejected, lost and depressed, not helped by the absence of her medical student boyfriend who has been sent to a sanatorium to recover from tuberculosis. Not that she thinks much of him anyway…

Before long, Esther is seeing a psychiatrist and admitted to an asylum. A string of failed, one might say half-hearted, suicide attempts follow, as does a course of electro-shock treatment. It all feels very bleak and depressing…although the ending is relatively upbeat.

I’ll admit that I loved the first third of the book, set in New York, much more than the sections covering her psychiatric experiences. Perhaps it’s the beautiful writing and the pitch-perfect descriptions of Manhattan where “the city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking” or maybe I just identified with Esther’s cynicism, her refusal to get caught-up in the shallowness of the fashion industry, the endless parties, the free gifts. She wants something more meaningful even if she hasn’t quite figured out what that might comprise…

The latter two-thirds of the book comes across a bit like one long whinge-fest. There was part of me that wanted to grab Esther by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Sure, her aspirations aren’t being taken seriously, but why not prove what you can achieve before giving up because you don’t see the point of it all? But then, it’s hard to fully comprehend what it must have been like to be a woman in the 1950s, when society simply expected you to get married, stay at home and raise a family. How would an intellectual, creative woman, deal with making such compromises?

The Bell Jar was Plath’s only novel, because she killed herself a few weeks after it was published in 1963. Obviously, one can’t help wondering how much autobiographical detail fills its pages. Sadly, we will never know.