Bellman and Black ~ Diane Setterfield

At a time when everyone else in the blogging world seems to be reading Diane Setterfield’s latest novel, Once Upon A River, I found myself picking up her previous offering, Bellman and Black, it being this month’s choice for one of my Book Groups. I didn’t particularly enjoy Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, even though it was such a commercial success, and the fact that it was promoted on the cover as a ghost story didn’t do anything to attract me to this second volume – I haven’t read ghost stories since I was fourteen.  But that’s the whole point of a Book Group, isn’t it?  Or at least it is of the two to which I belong.  We read books we would otherwise never have picked up because we trust the instincts of the other group members.  I find it very hard to believe, but this particular group is now in its seventeenth year and during that time I have discovered several authors whose books I would never normally have picked up but who now feature regularly on my reading lists.  So, remembering that the person who had chosen this also introduced me to David Mitchell and Kamila Shamsie, I dived in.

When William Bellman is ten, cheered on by his cousin Charles and friends Fred and Luke, he takes up his catapult, pulls off a remarkable shot and kills a rook.  This is the novel’s opening scene and the reader is encouraged to believe that this incident will colour everything that happens to William from that day on.  Although a grandson of the local Mill owner, it is not William who is in line to take up the business but his cousin, Charles. However, Charles has no interest in the business, indeed no interest in living in England.  His love of painting takes him off to Italy and it is William who joins Paul, his uncle, in the family concern and whose fresh eye and keen brain soon transforms the Mill and all the associated trades.  When his grandfather dies and Paul takes over there is nothing left to stand in the way of William one day succeeding his uncle and not only running, but substantially expanding and innovating the Mill himself. Happily married and with four small children everything seems to be going William’s way until an unnamed epidemic (we speculated either typhoid or diphtheria) hits the village and his wife and three youngest children die while Dora, his eldest, is left both disabled and disfigured.

At each of the funerals he is called upon to attend William is drawn to a shadowy figure in black, someone he feels he should know but just can’t quite pin down in his memory. Memory is something that William avoids, even though Dora tries to recall the family life that they had once known.  William is all to do with thought and as the book reminds us,

[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.

In giving himself over entirely to thought and neglecting to remember his family and all those who were important to him, William cuts himself off from the people who love him and who might have saved him as he becomes more and more obsessed with meeting what he sees as an obligation to the black-coated, shadowy figure from the graveyard.  And yet, ironically, it is memory which is at the root of his next great business success as he goes on to found the magnificent London emporium, Bellman & Black, where everything you need to commemorate your recently departed loved one can be found under one roof.  It was the description of the building and the fitting out of this store (one bound to bring almost unlimited success at the height of Victorian mourning traditions) that I enjoyed  most.  Bought up in trade and with a love of ordering and organising, I was fascinated by the minutiae of how William builds this new business from quite literally the ground upwards.  But, although his name is over the door and on all the carriages and letterheads, the mysterious Black is never seen and gradually his absence begins to build in importance in William’s mind and brings about the novel’s conclusion.

We had a really good discussion about this book, mainly because although we had all found it eminently readable, we none of us thought that it quite held together. Our main complaint was that Setterfield had started too many ideas and not really developed any of them sufficiently. Too often we felt we were having to search for an explanation as to how a particular incident fitted into the overall scheme of things and as a result the ideas, if not the narrative itself, seemed disjointed and not fully developed.  Our estimation of the character of William, however, differed. While some found his obsession with his work disturbing and difficult to understand, others felt it chimed with the experience of trying to build a career in a challenging climate. Ulitimately, of course, William fails because to be obsessed with death in life is to deny living, until all that is left is death itself, those things which make living worthwhile having never been enjoyed.  The book begins and ends with William’s death.  Whether or not he can be said to have lived in the interim is for the individual reader to decide.

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Hagseed ~ Margaret Atwood

I have made it very clear over the past few years that I don’t approve of the Hogarth Press’s retelling of Shakespeare. For me the playwright’s works stand (or sometimes fall) on their own merits and I don’t see the point of attempting a rewrite.  I’m aware that this is perhaps not always a defensible position, given that nine times out of ten what Shakespeare himself was doing was rewriting the works of other people, but nevertheless  it’s my position and I’m sticking with it.  I wasn’t, therefore, best pleased when my Book Group selected Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Hagseed, for February’s meeting. The more so because Atwood isn’t exactly one of my favourite writers either.  Well, we must all be prepared to hold up our hands from time to time and admit that we were wrong and this is my time to do exactly that, because I have to say that I loved it.

Atwood’s starting point is the Shakespeare festival in the Canadian town of Makeshiweg, I suspect a thinly disguised Stratford Ontario, where the director Felix Phillips is planning his production of The Tempest, a production he will never get to stage because he is just about to be forced out of office by Tony and Sal, two self-seeking associates who have taken advantage of the fact that Felix has concentrated solely on his creative work and given no thought to the other aspects of running a theatre company such as where is the money going to come from.  In this, Felix is just like the character he is preparing to play, Prospero, who is forced out of his dukedom because he has devoted himself to the Liberal Arts and neglected the duties of a ruler. At one point a character remarked that Felix makes crime easy and it is certainly true that he contributes as much to his own downfall as do those who depose him.

Deserted by his erstwhile friends, Felix takes himself off to a tumbledown countryside shack, presumably the cave of the island, where for eight years he thinks of little but survival, his daughter Miranda, now dead but still with him in his imagination and the possibility of revenge.  However, salvation of a sort comes when he is approached about running a Literacy Through Literature programme in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute.  Here he introduces the medium category prisoners to the works of Shakespeare, exploring those plays that he thinks will speak to their lives, their situations, in ways that enable them to identify with the characters involved. They start with Julius Caesar and we know that they have also explored Macbeth and Richard III. And then Felix’s moment comes.  Tony and Sal, now influential politicians, are to pay the Institute a visit and thus present Felix with the opportunity to exact his revenge.  Like Prospero, his enemies will be present on his turf and he will be in a position to manipulate them and bring about their downfall.  But how to persuade his ‘actors’ to perform The Tempest?  After all, there are fairies!

Something we were all agreed on was that Felix is a brilliant teacher.  The first thing he does when embarking on a new production is to ban the use of any swear words that aren’t in the play itself.  The prisoners can give free rein to any oaths that Shakespeare included but are ‘fined’ for modern equivalents. Can you think of any better way to get a group of mainly poorly educated men to do a close reading of a text?  He also encourages them to reimagine the characters and their situations for their own times and gives them  relative freedom to re-write areas of the play in their own words. Some of the raps they come up with for Caliban are superb.  I absolutely loved the way in which these men brought the text to life in their own terms.  It also means that if you come to the novel not knowing the story of The Tempest it really doesn’t matter because you will pick it up along with them.

Whether or not Felix is successful in his bid to revenge himself on Tony and Sal you must find out for yourselves. I was more interested in how successful Atwood was in reimagining the play for the twenty-first century and as far as I’m concerned she manages this on two levels. Firstly, I think her recreation of the actual story itself is, if not wholly believable, certainly as believable as the original and thoroughly entertaining. Felix manipulates his actors every bit as effectively as does Prospero and his enemies are made to rue the day they turfed him out of his ruling position. However, I also think she picks up on the theory that in writing The Tempest, Shakespeare was saying farewell to the theatre himself.  Although that isn’t going to happen immediately, I get the feeling that by the end of the novel Felix is realising that his time working on the stage is limited and that he will have to hand over the reins to people such as 8Handz Anne-Marie and Freddie, who follow him from the Institute back to Makeshiweg.  Is it a coincidence that the place where he creates his joint productions with his company of felons is called Fletcher, given that the only plays that Shakespeare would offer the King’s Men after The Tempest were written in collaboration with his successor as company playwright, John Fletcher?

(An aside: did he jump or was he pushed?  The times in the theatre world of the 1610s they were a changing. Tragicomedy was all the rage, a genre in which Fletcher excelled, but which was not really Shakespeare’s forte.  Were takings falling?  Was it suggested to Shakespeare that a structured retirement plan might be a good idea?  I simply ask the question.)

Anyway, you will have gathered that I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone. However, I did go off and have a look at the reviews and found something that I thought was very interesting indeed. While the press reviews that I found were all positive, in fact ‘positively’ glowing, there were a number of very scathing reviews from what I will call more academic sources. These criticisms centred around the fact that the reviewers expected Atwood to offer a more positive view of First Nation characters and those who would normally be seen as the underdogs in society.  They really objected to the way that she presented the prisoners. I found this very worrying. It was as if they felt that having brought Atwood onto the syllabus precisely because many of her novels do indeed address such subjects, they now had the right to dictate that she should only write to their expectations.  An academic’s role is to offer insights into a writer’s work, not to own it, not to control it.  My other book group numbers among its members several such academics. I think I might just put this on next year’s schedule and see what sort of a discussion ensues. Nothing like having a good stir now and then.

Transcription ~ Kate Atkinson

There was to be a royal wedding. Even now, as she lay on this London pavement with these kinds strangers around her, as sacrificial virgin was being prepared somewhere of the road, to satisfy the need for pump and circumstance. Union Jack straight everywhere. There was no mistaking that she was home. At last.

‘This England,’ she murmured.

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription, like her previous two books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, shifts deftly through a series of different time frames.  In this instance, quite literally bookending the story in 1981 and internally moving between 1940 and 1950.  Like its predecessors, it is also primarily concerned with the Second World War and raises questions about earlier women who might possibly have been seen as sacrificial victims in the name of patriotic duty.

In the world of 1940, eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, is recruited by MI5 to work under the auspices of a number of men as a transcriber.  It is her job to make a copy of the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, supporters of Hitler, hiding in plain site and making plans to welcome the Third Reich should its troops manage to cross the Channel.  As Juliet becomes further integrated into the Service, she is also sent to infiltrate The Right Club, a group formed initially to rid the Conservative Party of perceived Jewish control but later boasting that its main objective was to oppose and expose the activities of organised Jewry more generally.  The names of the members of the club are inscribed in the Red Book and it is Juliet’s task to get access to a copy of this.

As an author’s note makes clear, not only did both such groups exist, but the former were tricked into revealing their intentions in just such a manner as Atkinson depicts; the transcripts of their conversations are still in existence.  However, as anyone who has worked extensively with transcription knows, it isn’t always easy to be entirely (or even moderately) accurate. It’s difficult enough when your recording is being made in the same room as the conversation takes place and with the agreement of the speakers.  When you are working from hidden equipment, trying to listen in to people who won’t obligingly target their comments in the direction of the microphone, errors and omissions will abound. In such a situation it is understandable that misunderstandings as well as mis-hearings will occur and questions will be raised as to just who can be trusted.  Are the fifth columnists and the Right Club the only non-patriots hiding in plain sight?

Moving forward to 1950, Atkinson takes us into another bastion of the British Establishment, the BBC.  I loved these sections of the novel, mainly because Juliet now works for Schools Broadcasting and I am of a generation who was brought up with regular radio programmes providing a welcome break from the typical Maths before playtime, English after, routine that was such a part of a 1950s primary education. Armstrong’s apparent fear now is that she will never be able to escape the legacy of the war years.  The secret service will keep popping back into her life with their requests for just one last job and people she thought she had left behind forever develop an annoying habit of turning up and threatening her peace of mind, both mentally and physically.  Hitler may no longer be a danger, but there are other forces at work trying to undermine the British way of life and Juliet is well aware of the role she is expected to play in relation to them.

I have been relatively late coming to this novel, given that I would normally read a new Kate Atkinson as soon as it hit the bookshelves, so I am aware that it hasn’t received the general acclaim normally afforded to her work.  I have to say that I found the book eminently readable, gulping it down in just two sittings, but I can perhaps understand why there has been less praise than normal.  While the author appears to be intending to deal with the same sort of ideas as in her previous two novels, ideas to do with the deepening perspectives offered by time and the shifting viewpoints a greater understanding of events can bring about, I don’t think she makes this as clear in Transcription.  Neither do I think she gets the tone quite right.  There were times when I felt that I was more in the world of Jackson Brodie than in that of Ursula Todd. However, none of that stopped me enjoying it immensely.

As a footnote for anyone who hasn’t seen the announcement:  there is a new Jackson Brodie to look forward to.  The fifth in the series, Big Sky,  is due for publication next June.

 

 

 

Meeting the Second

Tonight is the second meeting of our new book group and it will be interesting to see if the enthusiasm has carried over and we get as good an attendance this month as we did last.  I’m also looking forward to seeing whether people will be a little less conservative in the choice of books they bring for discussion.  The whole idea is that you talk about what you have read since our last meeting, but I was aware last time that some members of the group had selected on the basis of what they were prepared to admit to having read rather than what their real preferences might have been.  With that in mind, I am going to take along two very different books in the hope that it will encourage wider tastes to emerge as the group grows in confidence.

One of these is the first in a new crime series, The Puppet Show, by M W Craven, a writer who has previously published as Mike Craven.  This is one of the best police procedurals I have read this year and I am already looking forward to Black Summer due out next June.  His chief character, who goes by the wonderful name of Washington Poe, is called back from suspension from the National Crime Agency to help in the investigation of a series of particularly nasty killings in the Lake District, an area of the country he knows well.  Prominent people are being burnt alive in prehistoric stone circles, but other than their standing in the community nothing else appears to link them.  With no evidence left after the immolations and without any obvious connection between the victims, it is difficult for the police to get a lead on who the murderer might be or to predict where he or she might strike next.

Poe has many of the features readers have come to expect in the protagonists of crime fiction.  He has little regard for authority, the rules or those who stick too closely to them when he feels a short cut might catch the villain of the piece sooner, so I suppose you could say he is a bit of a cliché.  But, you know, clichés are clichés because they work and I liked Poe’s style.  I also loved Tilly Bradshaw, the young statistical genius, who has never been out of the office before but who, finding herself carted off to the Lake District to crunch the numbers and try to predict the killer’s next move, comes good in a big way.  Tilly does literal like nobody else and given my Aspergers I really appreciated that. Reassuring her after a particularly nasty occurrence in a bar, Poe praises her reaction and advises her to look on the whole incident as a glass half-full kind of thing.

Bradshaw removed her glasses and polished them with a special cloth she kept in her bag.  When they were back on, she tucked some hair behind her ear and said, ‘The glass isn’t half full, Poe. And neither is it half empty.’

‘What is it then?’

She grinned. ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.’

Oh yes, Tilly Bradshaw is my sort of person.

The other novel, I’m taking along is very different; it’s Pat Barker’s Costa nominated The Silence of the Girls.  What with moving house and bouncing in and out of hospital over the last few months, I’m late coming to this, but managed to give it my full attention over the weekend and I have to say that I am in two minds about it.  I’m sure anyone reading this will be aware of the premise behind the book.  It is a retelling of the same time period as is covered by The Iliad, but in this instance narrating the story of the last two years of the Trojan Wars from the point of view of the women involved, with Briseis, the nominal source of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, as their mouthpiece.  It highlights the way in which women were treated as spoils of war and passed out to their conquerors like any other captured asset.  And, although I’ve used the past tense there, as I read it always in the back of my mind were those instances where school girls in various parts of the African continent have been kidnapped and taken captive by militant forces opposed to the education of women.  What happened in Troy should not be seen as history.

The point that Barker appears to be trying to make is that that is precisely what the Trojan War always has been – his story and that this is her attempt to set that straight.  My trouble with the novel was that despite her foregrounding of the horrors that Briseis and her fellow captives face what moved me most was still the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and the horror of the killing of Hector.  I simply didn’t engage to the same degree with any of the women.  Is this a fault in me?  Is it because if Barker had written in the same sort of detail about the evil handed out to those women the book would have been unbearable?  I don’t know.  I just know that for me, while the book allowed the women to have a voice it still wasn’t the voice that came through loudest.  As soon as this is available in paperback it will be up for discussion in one of my other book groups, probably both, and I am looking forward to having a reason to give time to read it again and to the opportunity to discuss it with others who have read it in detail.

 

The Only Story ~ Julian Barnes

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI think I came at this, the latest novel from one of my favourite authors, Julian Barnes, from the wrong direction. No one who knows me will be the slightest bit surprised to hear that I latched on to the word ‘story’ in the title and assumed that the key element here would be a tying of the concept of story to the way in which we live our lives.  And, to a certain extent that is a concern addressed by the narrative that Barnes relates.  However, when Barnes talks of the ‘only’ story what he is specifically referring to is a love story.

Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real… Everyone does. It’s the only story.

The love story that Barnes goes on to relate is that of Paul and Susan, a couple who meet during one 1960s summer when nineteen year old Paul, home from university, decides to kill some time at the local tennis club.  He is paired with Susan for a mixed doubles tournament and the friendship that develops between them quite quickly blossoms into a much more serious relationship. However, to Paul’s nineteen Susan is forty-six and married with two adult daughters. The much older Paul, who narrates this story, recognises that to the reader this might seem problematic, even an error of judgment (the tennis club committee, which blackballs them both, clearly has even stronger feelings about the matter) but asks for a more sensitive understanding of the situation.

Perhaps you understood a little too quickly; I can hardly blame you. We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre-existing category. We see what is general or common about it; where as the participants see – feel – only what is individual and particular to them. We say: how predictable; they say: what a surprise!

Well, however we may categorise Paul and Susan’s relationship, it not only continues, it absolutely thrives, even under the grumpy and sometimes violent auspices of Susan’s sexually estranged husband and eventually, Paul having completed his university course, they move into their own property as he begins his training to become a solicitor. But, while Paul is content with the situation, Susan begins to show signs of strain.  Her health, both physical and mental, starts to crumble and Paul is forced to question how wise, how stable, their relationship is. He is even forced to question its very foundation – the love which he believes to be the basis of everything else.

The older Paul who narrates the story would, I am sure, maintain that his love never falters, but it certainly changes and one aspect in particular that changes is the way in which he positions himself in relation to his actions as he retells his ‘only story’. At one point he asks

do all these retelling bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away.

In narrative terms he certainly distances himself further from the story of his and Susan’s relationship the further he moves from that initial attraction.  Thus, the story is split into three sections.  The first tells of those early years and the narrative choices reflect Paul’s observation that

first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense:

the narrative voice and tense of that initial section echo that.  The older Paul, however, is astute enough to recognise that it takes us time to realise that there are other persons, and other tenses and as the relationship begins to alter so, in the telling of the second and third sections, he distances himself further and further away from the both the action and from Susan, moving through a well controlled second tense in the middle of the text and then into third person, past tense in the final part until, as an elderly man, he can reflect on their time together from the distance of a limited third person narrator, who is well aware that in his recall of their relationship he may also be an unreliable narrator.

There has been much discussion in the press as to the merits of this novel, in particular in comparison to his award winning The Sense of an Ending. I thought that that was a magnificent work and while I find much in this new book to admire, it didn’t affect me in the same way as the earlier novel.  In part this may be because I didn’t agree with his basic premise.  If we do each only have one story to tell (and this is a proposition that Elizabeth Strout also puts forward in My Name is Lucy Barton) then I don’t think it is always a love story.  My primary story would be about me as a teacher because teaching pretty much defines who I always have been and who I still am.  Teaching is as natural an activity to me as breathing is to most other people.  The Only Story feels to me like a very personal response on the part of the author, possibly growing out of his own experience. Nevertheless, it is an extremely well crafted novel with many of those beautifully turned phrases and astutely authentic observations which are the hallmark of Barnes’ style as, for example, when he speaks of an English silence – one in which all the unspoken words of perfectly understood by both parties. So, while for me, this may not be quite his best work, it is still Barnes writing at the top of his game and I very strongly recommend it.

With thanks to Random House and NetGalley for making this available for review.

Back-Cataloguing: Ghostwritten ~ David Mitchell

100345897916916239_K9VLdzu9_fHaving decided to make a real effort this year to read the back catalogues of some of my favourite writers I jumped in at what might be thought of as the deep end (that’s certainly the way I found myself thinking of it) and picked up David Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten.  The first Mitchell novel I read was The Bone Clocks and I then went back one when The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet turned up on a book group list.  I also read the novella Slade House as soon as it was published.  What struck me about all of those books, each of which I really enjoyed, was the way in which the intertwining which is characteristic of each individual novel was extended between the texts themselves.  Characters, and more importantly, ideas, slip and slide between one volume and the next.  Consequently, I’ve had it in mind for some time to go back to the beginning and try and trace the intricacies of Mitchell’s thinking throughout the entire sequence.

Well, this would have been an excellent idea if I hadn’t then decided to read Ghostwritten at a time when I was very definitely suffering from post viral fatigue.  It is not a book to read when the little grey cells are refusing to fire at even fifty percent of normal capacity (and that is assuming that normal capacity is anything to boast about in the first place).  So, what follows is more a collection of thoughts sparked by the reading than any attempt at a cogent review, which would require me to bring those thoughts together and link them into a coherent whole.

The first thing that I was aware of was that I would have read this book very differently if I hadn’t already encountered Mitchell’s later works.  In fact, if this had been the first of his novels that I’d read, the only thing that would have kept me reading would have been my research interest in the way in which writers organise their narrative material.  The book is structured as a sequence of episodes (not short stories – they are definitely episodes from longer narratives) and at first the evidence of any link between those episodes is very tentative.  Indeed between the first two for a long time the only link I could pinpoint was the use of the term ‘quasar’.  However, because this wasn’t my first encounter with Mitchell’s style I was primed to be looking out for links, even if they only appeared at the level of the word.  And also primed to be aware that something as structurally emphatic as the first of those links would be of great importance as the novel developed.   ‘Quasar’ clues us into the world of science and latterly, more precisely, the world of quantum physics, which moves us onto what I think is Mitchell’s chief concern, embodied in the title.

So, the second thing which struck me was the various possible meanings of the title. We ignore a title at our peril.  We used to give the students a text, a list of instructions, with the title removed and ask them what they thought they were being asked to do. If they ever did get the right answer it was more as a result of a wild guess than through any clues they picked up from the text itself.  Without the title they were floundering.  So what does Ghostwritten mean?  Well, the first clue, (for me, at least) came in the episode where the narrator is a free floating consciousness that moves from body to body and directs the behaviour of those individuals that it inhabits.  Our lives are controlled by a force outside ourselves?  They are written by a ghost?  That would certainly link back to the first episode where ‘Quasar’ has given over his life to the machinations of a cult leader.  Then we have an episode set in London in which the main character, Marco, is ghostwriting the memories of the ageing Alfred.  Surprisingly, I hadn’t so much as given the practice of an author ghost writing for someone else a thought.  However, I think Mitchell’s real concern makes itself felt when we reach the section of the novel that deals with quantum physicist, Mo.  Against all she has been promised, Mo has seen her research put to military use and knows that the hundreds of people who have already died as a result are but the tip of the iceberg.  She tries to resign from her job only to be told that she can’t, that she, her current research and anything that she might develop in the future belong to the American Government.  Her life, the way she tells her own story, is being written by someone else.  She no longer has control of it. She embodies what Alfred has already made clear to Marco, that

we all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.

Intending always to make her way back to the small Irish village that is home, she goes on the run for long enough to allow her to develop the ultimate ghost writer, the zookeeper, a piece of technology that can take its own decisions and override the commands of its political overlords. It’s a nice thought.

Another question which seems to concern Mitchell is the difficulty of pinning down realities. This crops up in the discussions around quantum physics:

Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty. You can know the position of an electron but you cannot know where it’s going, or where it is by the time you register the reading. Or you can know its direction, but you cannot know its position.

and again when exploring the nature of chance and fate.

Does chance or fate control our lives?… If you’re in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside … it’s fate all the way.

Talk about cerebral overload.

But, for me the really interesting discussion is the one to do with story and memory. Let’s take memory first.  The notion that memories are actually only stories that we tell ourselves, embellishing what really happened as we go, is nothing new.  In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Karen Joy Fowler explores what she calls screen memories: the memories we superimpose over the reality of our experiences. Here Mitchell suggests that the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting and that memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present.  I’m sure if we’re honest we can all remember occasions when we have polished up a memory to make a better story in the telling and once we do that there is always the possibility that we will begin to believe the tale that we have created and replace the original events in our own minds with the enhanced version.  But that would suggest that the teller is in control of the story. Mitchell doesn’t seem to agree with that.

The human world is made up of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.

I have to admit that I don’t completely follow that. Story is essential to who we are.  I absolutely believe that. Barbara Hardy once wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind and for me it is one of the things which distinguishes us from other creatures. But this seems to suggest that story writes us. I need to think more about that when the little grey cells are functioning on a higher level.  Or perhaps I need to read the next book.

So, as I said, not a review, just a set of responses to what is clearly a very complex book.  Will I go on and read Number9dream?  Definitely, but not immediately and possibly not before I have read Ghostwritten a second time.  There are some seriously interesting ideas being explored here and I’d like to get a better grasp of them before moving on.

The Pursuit of Love ~ Nancy Mitford

IMG_0167When looking for a novel contemporary with its 1949 publication for my Years of My Life  project one possibility was Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Although I was assured that I didn’t need to have read The Pursuit of Love to understand the later work, there was a copy in the library last time I was there so I decided to bring it home and give it a try.

I have to admit that what I tend to think of as large country house sagas have never appealed to me.  The whole Downton Abbey phenomenon passed me by completely. Consequently, given that the only Mitford I have ever so much as seen lived at Chatsworth, I’ve pretty much passed on them as well.  My mother was brought up in a tied cottage on a large Yorkshire estate where her father was the farrier.  Her mother had been a housemaid at Castle Howard. Our sort doesn’t mixed with their sort.  Having read The Pursuit of Love I’m still of very much the same mind.

It isn’t, let me say straightaway, that I can’t appreciate it as a well written novel. Frances, the narrator, draws us into the world of her Uncle Matthew, Aunt Sadie and seven cousins in their Cotswold house, Alconleigh, very successfully.  Even those members of the family whom we meet only fleetingly have a sturdy reality to them which gives them a life of their own.  The description of their cold, draughty old home rings horrendously true.  Even had father been willing to spend more on fuel it would almost certainly have been impossible to heat such a monstrosity. In fact, it is probably Mitford’s success in portraying the move from girlhood to adult status of her leading characters, Frances, Louisa and above all Linda, which was the novel’s undoing in my eyes.  Their perpetual preoccupation with finding love, particularly that of Linda, who is the novel’s main character, in a country where families were starving for lack of work, families who would have given anything for the money which paid for despised party dresses, simply irritated me.  I wanted to give them all a good slap and tell them to count their very substantial blesssings.

I know, I want the novel to be something other than it is and that is unfair.  And I did find some things to admire.  I certainly had more time for Uncle Matthew than I had for Linda’s inlaws, the Kroesigs, whose attitude towards the working class is despicable to say the least. Driven only by the desire to make more money they label any man who is poor a rotter, bad at his job, idle, feckless, immoral.  Come the onset of war they are prepared to be off as fast as their money can take them.  Uncle Matthew doesn’t understand this at all.

Uncle Matthew had no doubt a large income, but it was derived from, tied up in, and a good percentage of it went back into, his land. His land was to him something sacred, and, sacred above that, was England. Should evil befall his country he would stay and share it, or die, never would the notion have entered his head that he might save himself, and leave old England in any sort of lurch. He, his family, and his estates were part of her and she was part of him for ever and ever.

And that is what he does, blugeoning the estate workers into a formidable Home Guard which would probably have given Captain Mannering a run for his money.

I also found myself, much against my better judgement, becoming very fond of Davey,  the girls’ step uncle.  Oh, he would have driven me insane with his constant mithering about his health and diet, but when the chips are down (sorry about the pun) it is Davey who comes to the rescue time after time.  In the sort of appraisal Mitford’s characters might have used themselves, he is ‘a good egg’.

But, overall this was not a book for me.  When I hit passages such as

Marjorie was an intensely dreary girl, a few years older than Tony, who had failed so far to marry, and seem to have no biological reason for existing.

or

I have seen too many children brought up without Nannies to think this at all desirable. In Oxford, the wives of progressive dons did it often as a matter of principle; they would gradually become morons themselves, while the children look like slum children and behaved like barbarians.

my hackles rose and rose again.  I understand that Mitford is writing about what she knows and that when the novel was published in 1945 there would have been a larger audience who would also have appreciated her sentiments. But not me.  Shall I go on and read Love in a Cold Climate?  No, I don’t think so.  It would almost certainly annoy me every bit as much as this did to no good purpose whatsoever.

The Dark Circle ~ Linda Grant

Linda Grant’s most recent novel is set primarily in the early 1950s. Twins, Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, are set to conquer the world.  The only cloud on their horizon is Lenny’s impending spell of National Service, but that is a minor problem because Uncle Manny knows someone who can fix it.  What Uncle Manny can’t fix, however, is the result of the chest x-ray that Lenny has as part of his medical.  He has tuberculosis: a disease which hovered over the lives of everyone in that period, regardless of age, class or ethnicity.  Lenny and Miriam, who for all of their eighteen years have shared not only a room but also a bed, are packed off to the Gwendo, a sanatorium deep in what is, to them, an alien environment – the countryside.

The Gwendo started life as a private enterprise, but the introduction of the National Health Service has changed all that, much to the distress of the most of the staff working there, who have never come across anything quite like these East End Jewish teenagers.

Mrs Carver, Matron you must call her, did not have to check her files to know that they were coming under the National Health scheme and wouldn’t pay a penny out of their own pockets, they could hang around as long as they liked and it wouldn’t cost them a farthing. And they would stay, she felt sure of that. They would burrow into the system like parasites and milk it for everything they could get. Clean sheets, wholesome food, all the leisure time in the world. It was a skiver’s paradise, a sanatorium which had been built for a better class of persons, and there was nothing at all that she could do to protect the admirable Lady Anne from the sight of cheap loud vulgar people.

For many of the inmates, however, Lenny and Miriam provide a much need diversion, because the presiding ethos, as laid down by Doctor Limb and the formidable Mrs Carver, dictates that in order to be a patient one has to learn to be patient – a word that isn’t in the twins vocabulary. Whatever Matron may think, they have no intention of staying in the Gwendo a moment longer than they can help and while they are there they are going to make their presence felt.

But if the lives of the long term residents, including a group of service men who have become infected during the war, a set known as the Mothers’ Union and most pitifully the cruelly treated and isolated children, are changed by the Twins’ presence, Lenny and Miriam are transformed too.  Two fellow inmates are primarily responsible for this: first there is Valerie Lewis, a middle class Oxbridge graduate with whom Miriam shares treatment. Forced to spend days and weeks doing nothing but lie in bed on an outside balcony, regardless of weather, the two women forge an unlikely, but ultimately mutually beneficial, friendship.  Miriam teaches Valerie about make-up, while Valerie introduces her and through her, Lenny, to the world of literature.

And then into their lives comes Arthur Persky a name to shatter glass.  Arthur is an American sailor turfed off his ship when he is discovered to be ill and sent to the Gwendo until such time as he is deemed fit enough to return to the States.  He blows through the Sanatorium like a hurricane, bringing with him the latest rock and roll music and an approach to sexual morality which takes the inmates by storm.  Miriam is completely won over and can see only a future spent in Stateside luxury.

But without effective treatment there will be no future for any of them and the much hailed streptomycin is in pitifully short supply.

‘Because we fought a war and we’re broke, that’s why, and now we’re practically bankrupt. We have to buy it from America. We haven’t got the exchange currencies. I’ve heard that penicillin and streptomycin are kept in the military wards under armed guard while the kiddies are dying off like flies of infections.’

Six precious doses are made available and the question of distribution eventually leads to the Gwendo’s downfall.

I first read The Dark Circle when it was short listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize earlier this year and enjoyed it so much that I recommended it to one of my book groups.  Apart from anything else we are all of an age to have some memories of this period and a number of us had relatives who had succumbed to TB before antibiotics were available.  In fact reception was mixed.  About half the group had been as impressed as I was, others not so and one member positively disliked it. None, however, had read it in quite the way I had.  I read this novel as very much an allegory reflecting the changes that came about in Britain in the 50s, with the Gwendo as a microcosmic world indicative of the societal shake up that followed the war years and the 1944 Labour Government’s reforms. When Persky blows in halfway through the twins’ treatment for me this is symbolic of the way in which the strength of American influence began to predominate in the middle part of that decade.  This then makes sense of the latter part of the novel which reflects from present day affluence on a time when genuinely we were all in it together only then to add, for a while we were, at any rate. Grant clearly does not feel that we are all in together any longer:

For always in the heat, the shimmer of the sun on the surface of the pool, the cicadas in the trees, the smell of suntan oil, the rustling of the maid in the dimness of the kitchen preparing lunch, as if seen from the corner of the eye, a deserted half-ruined building in Kent, a remnant of an old disease, now undergoing a revival. Stealthy, lying low, waiting for a point of weakness in the human race, then lodging in the lungs of humanity to make its sluggish progress through the body, the magnificent shape of our temporary wholeness, until we die and other species take us on.

Home Fire ~ Kamila Shamsie

IMG_0093One of the best things about what I will call my Wednesday Book Group as opposed to that which meets on a Monday, is that we each take it in turns to choose a book.  This means that every now and again I meet an author whose works I’d not previously encountered; a couple of years ago this was the case with Kamila Shamsie.  We read Burnt Shadows, which I thought was a remarkable book and so I went on to read her then current novel, the equally impressive, A God in Every Stone.  Consequently, when Home Fire was announced as one of this year’s Booker Long List even before it was published, I was looking forward to another absorbing, emotive and challenging read. To some extent those hopes have been met, but in others I’m afraid I have been left disappointed.

The novel is divided into five sections, each of which is told from the perspective of one of the main characters: PhD student Isma, just off to America; her younger sister, Aneeka, in her first year of a law degree; Eamonn, the son of a powerful British Muslim politician; Parvaiz, Aneeka’s twin brother and finally Karamat Lone, Eamonn’s father and newly appointed Home Secretary.  I think it is this structure which is at the heart of at least one of the problems I have with the book.  Focusing on just one character at a time allows Shamsie to operate a slow reveal of vital information, however, starting with Isma, who has been responsible for her siblings upbringing, but who is least tightly wound into the dilemma in which the main players ultimately find themselves, set me off on a false trail. I became invested in Isma and assumed she would have a more central role, whereas in fact, after that initial section she becomes peripheral to the conflict that is at the heart of the story and it became apparent that her chapters are there primarily to provide background information about Karamat Lone and his political stance in respect of her father, Adil Pasha, who has died on his way to Guantanamo Bay.  The main plot doesn’t begin to appear until the second section, told from the perspective of the intense and beautiful Aneeka, who enthrals Eamonn on sight and then sets out to use her power over him for the good of Parvaiz who, we now discover, is working with Jihadist forces in the Middle East.  From this point on the novel takes off and becomes an exploration of two motivating forces, asking not only what we will do for love and what we will do for power, but also what happens when those compelling imperatives come into conflict.

As it develops it becomes clear that Home Fire is a retelling of the Antigone story.  Aneeka’s love for her brother drives her to a point beyond rationality and Eamonn is caught between his feelings for her and his place as his father’s son.  And this, I think is the source of my second concern with the novel.  In the tradition from which Antigone comes characters are very often types, moulded to fit the role they are required to play in the overall thrust of the story.  And that is how I feel about both Eamonn and, most particularly, Karamat Lone.  I believe in Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz completely.   They are  convincing as individuals and when Shamsie is writing about them I persuaded of their reality.  Eamonn and Karamat Lone, on the other hand, simply don’t come off the paper.  They are stereotypes created to fit the purpose of the story and I don’t believe in either of them.  While I might find this acceptable in Greek Traedgy, here it gives the novel something of the stamp of a polemic and consequently undermines my acceptance of what Shamsie is trying to say.

There is some fine writing in the book, particularly in the section given over to Parvaiz, which for me is the most convincing.  But in the end, Shamsie’s failure to persuade me of the reality of two main characters means that as far as I am concerned this is the least successful of the three novels I have read.

 

 

Re-Reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

IMG_0245I know that for many people the question of re-reading is a thorny one. Some people swear by it, others at it. I had better come clean at the outset and say that I am an unrepentant re-reader, although Muriel Sparks’ 1961 novel would not be my normal re-reading fare, which tends more towards a small number of books that have something of the quality of comfort food and come out when I am ill, tired or at odds with the world or (more likely) myself.  However, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the first of three books set in Edinburgh that I need to reacquaint myself with for discussion next week and so I have been back to 1930s Scotland and found myself thinking about the book from a completely different standpoint than when I first read it, probably thirty or more years ago.

Coming to a book anew like this reminds me of the saying that you can never cross the same river twice and convinces me that, at least with a novel of this quality, reading a book for the second time is never simply a re-reading but rather a re-understanding. I am not the same person I was the first time round and for that reason this is not the same book either. I seem to remember being horrified by the manner in which Jean Brodie, to my way of thinking, abused not simply her role as teacher but also the girls she chose to turn into the Brodie Set. I would have been teaching ten and eleven year olds myself at the time and so inevitably that would have been the material uppermost in my mind.  Her behaviour still appals me and, although I can’t say I think much of Miss Mackay’s style of headship, I can sympathise with her desperate search for a reason to dismiss her junior member of staff. However, what I found myself focusing in on during this read was the influence on Miss Brodie, conscious or otherwise, of religion.

This change of focus may have come about because I am at present working on the way in which the tussle between the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths influenced the art of the late sixteenth and early seventeen centuries.  The power of the church over every aspect of daily life both fascinates and appals me.  Another of the other books I’m reading, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, also has as one of its settings 1930s Edinburgh and in both books the Calvinistic influence on society and its mores is almost palpable.  But, what interests me most is the unconscious impact religion, whether in the shape of Calvinism or the Roman Catholic Church, has on Jean Brodie.  She may reject the harsh tenets of the particular form of Protestant teaching prevalent in the Scottish capital but she certainly prescribes to its belief in Providence, the belief that some are chosen and others are not.  However, in this instance it isn’t God who does the choosing but Miss Brodie herself.

She thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end.

Yet, at the same time, despite despising the Church of Rome, she echoes what is, at least in popular conception, the philosophy of the Jesuits. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life, she says. Whether or not Ignatius Loyola actually said Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man is disputed, but a reader encountering Brodie’s claim is almost certainly going to make the connection.

So, what is it about these religions which appeals to Miss Brodie even if she doesn’t acknowledge their attraction?  In both cases it would seem to be power, the power to control others not just for the short period of time that they are are in her sphere of influence but throughout their lives. Now I have to give some thought as to just why she felt the need to dominate and dictate the lives of the six girls who make up the Brodie set.

Any suggestions?