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.


Exposure ~ Helen Dunmore

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3In many respects Helen Dunmore’s novel Exposure is a book of contradictions.  Stylistically, it is plot driven, enticing the reader on page by page as the story of Simon and Lily Callington unfolds during what, for them, turns out to be the catastrophic year of 1960.  And yet as readers we are not racing through the book in order to discover what the dénouement is going to be, for the very first thing that Dunmore actually tells us is how the story ends. And, if we have by chance missed the reveal of the prologue, then never mind, we should also be able to predict where the tale is going simply by drawing an analogy, because it will soon become clear to almost every reader that Exposure is in fact a chilling retelling of E Nesbit’s classic, The Railway Children. Simon Callington, (innocent at least of anything to do with espionage) is, like Father in the earlier novel, wrongly accused of being a spy and as a result his wife, Lily, and their three children are forced to move out of their London house and set up home in a small village on the Kent coast where they pretty much live from hand to mouth. Parallels between the two works abound, there is a similar episode to that where Nesbit’s Peter steals the coal and even a mysterious old man who gets off the London train and is instrumental in bringing the story to its climax.

However, while the plot line follows Nesbit’s story, other narrative elements do not.  The change in temporal setting means that instead of taking place in the reasonably bucolic atmosphere of Edwardian England, Simon’s arrest is foregrounded against a climate of post war austerity, suspicion of all foreigners and memories of Burgess and Maclean.  The arrests of the Portland spy ring during the course of the novel serves to heighten further the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia.  More important, perhaps, is the change of narrative point of view, because instead of seeing events through the children’s eyes in this novel we walk hand in hand with the adults and most especially with Simon’s German Jewish wife, Lily.

Lili Brandt is brought to England by her mother in 1938 and mother and daughter set about erasing everything that might mark them as standing out from the community in which they now live, including their first language, German.  When, as an adult Lily seeks work as a language teacher, it is French and Italian that she offers, insisting that she has no knowledge of what is, in fact, her mother tongue.  But, there are some things that Lily can not obliterate, and that includes her knowledge of how to survive when the authorities are set against you.  It is in the detailed descriptions as to how she goes about packing up her comfortable Muswell Hill home and then teaching the children to make do and mend in what is little more than a seaside hovel, that Dunmore’s writing is at its best. In just a few words she recreates what life was like in the early sixties.  In many respects reading those passages was like walking through my own childhood.

There is more going on here, however, than a simple retelling of a children’s story.  Dunmore is also exploring our propensity for looking at the world and seeing only what we want to see.  The novel’s opening words set us up for this.

It isn’t what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know…It turns out that I know everything.  All the facts were in my head and always had been.  I ignored them, because it was easier.

For the greater part of the novel it appears that this is meant to apply to Simon’s ‘refusal’ to recognise that his colleague and friend from university days, Giles, is spying for a foreign power.  And, indeed that is an important concern which Dunmore thoroughly explores.  However, once again the reader is ultimately faced with something of a contradiction because the really important lesson that the characters have to come to understand is that it is not what you allow yourself to know about others that matters, but what you allow yourself to know, to recognise, about yourself.  There are facts about Simon’s past which he has chosen to push so far down into his subconscious that he no longer acknowledges their existence, but it is those very facts which propel his actions and which ultimately lead to his arrest.  Likewise Lily has to realise that she is still Lili, that she does speak and understand German and that she must allow the dam to break and all the stream and fountain of language that is within her to pour out if she and Simon are to be able to rebuild their lives as a family after their initial trauma is over.

I chose Exposure for this month’s book group with some trepidation.  I read it myself as soon as it was published, partly because it was by Helen Dunmore and I expect to enjoy her work, but mainly because having read a review of the novel it became apparent that its subject matter touched me in a very particular way.  Several decades ago something very similar happened to a friend of mine.  A member of her family was accused of spying for the Russians, only in this real life case the accusations were true.  This meant that I saw at first hand what such a revelation did to her family who, at the same time as they were dealing with what felt like a very personal betrayal, were also besieged by the press and denounced by neighbours just as happens to the Callingtons. Selecting the novel for discussion I did wonder if I was too close to its subject matter to be able to be a good judge of its merits as literature.  However, the entire group was in agreement that this is an exceptional piece of writing and one which stays with you long after you have turned the final page.


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.

Marching Forward

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70February was not really a great reading month, I’m afraid. With the exception of a couple of very good crime novels, Claire McGowan’s A Savage Hunger, which I reviewed in the previous post, and Alafair Burke’s The Ex, the review for which will be in the next edition of Shiny New Books, I wasn’t really knocked out by anything else that I read. Mind you, as a month it had a lot to live up to given that my January reading included Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and Eva Dolan’s After You Die and, even though it had an extra day, February is still a short month so I won’t complain too much but just look forward to March and hope for better things.

My book group reading consists of two re-reads balanced by not only a book but an author that is new to me. The Monday Group asked for some crime fiction and as that is a group set up to look at novels shortlisted for book awards I decided to go for Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist which won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2004.  I’m not certain how well this is going to go down, but I enjoy the way in which Paretsky explores the links between crime, politics and big business interests and makes it clear that while you may catch the people at the bottom, or even those in the middle, at the moment bringing down those at the top is still proving more than difficult. If nothing else it will introduce almost everyone in that group to an author they haven’t read before.

The other re-read is Huxley’s Brave New World.  I did this with a different group a couple of years ago and it works really well in discussion not only in respect of its literary merits but also in terms of asking just how prophetic the author’s vision was.  I have to say that I’m not certain myself that Huxley intended it to be prophetic but it’s a good point for debate, nevertheless.  My only qualm about that one is that we have one member in the group who always wants happy books, suitable for (and I quote!) ladies of a certain age. I’m not sure quite what she’s going to make of this.

The author new to me is Adam Foulds and the book that has been chosen is his first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times.  Other than that I’ve had quite a job getting a copy from the library I know nothing about this at all, so if any of you have read it and have any comments before I start on it next week I shall be interested to read them.

As far as other reading goes the month is going to primarily taken up with tackling all those books that I said I was going to read over my long weekend off.  I hadn’t realised just how tired I was and in the end I found myself doing more re-reading simply because I hadn’t the energy to tackle anything new. I did read one of the review copies I had on hand and I began Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, but, for personal reasons, I’ve found it a particularly difficult read and I’m having to take it just in small sections.  I’ll talk more about that when I review it.  That does mean, however, that I still have Slade House and The Noise of Time waiting to be read as well as a couple of crime novels to review for NetGalley.  Given all that I don’t think I should be looking any further ahead right now. I can add to the list if I find I’m running out of material.  At the moment, that seems unlikely.

A Spool of Blue Thread ~ Anne Tyler

51IxhCyQpLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_About a third of the way through Anne Tyler latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, the entire Whitshank family set off to spend a week at the beach.  This isn’t a spur of the moment vacation.  Not only do the Whitshanks spend the same week on the Delaware coast every summer, they spend it in the same house.  And, they are not the only family with fixed habits when it comes to taking a holiday.

“The next-door people are back,” Jeannie called, stepping in from the screen porch.

Next door was almost the only house as unassuming as theirs was, and the people she was referring to had been renting it for at least as long as the Whitshanks had been renting theirs.  Oddly enough, though, the two families never socialized.

They may not socialise, but the Whitshanks do speculate about the nature of the family and watch for changes year by year.

[T]hey continued to come, the mother taking her early morning walks along the beach…the daughters in the company of boyfriends who metamorphosed into husbands, by and by, and then a little boy appearing and later a little girl.

“The grandson has brought a friend this year,” Jeannie reported.  “Oh, that makes me want to cry.”

“Cry! What for?” Hugh asked her.

“It’s the … circularity, I guess.  When we first saw the next-door people the daughters were the ones bringing friends, and now the grandson is, and it starts all over again.”

“You sure have given these folks a lot of thought,” Hugh said.

“Well, they’re us, in a way,” Jeannie said.

And, just as the Whitshanks watch the changes in the next-door family so we, the readers, do the same for them. When the book begins we have as unfocused a notion of the dynamics in Tyler’s Baltimore family as their holiday neighbours do.  Do we

find the Whitshanks attractive?  Intriguing?  [Do we] admire their large numbers and their closeness? Or [have we] noticed a hidden crack somewhere?

Well, if we haven’t noticed the crack, indeed the cracks, by the time we read about the annual holiday then we haven’t been paying enough attention, because what Tyler gives us in this novel is a portrait of an apparently stable, loving family that unwinds as we observe it.  Like a spool of thread which, when first purchased, appears tightly bound and compact, the moment you start to pull at a loose end the whole structure begins to fall apart. What is more, once that has happened, you can never rewind and recover the sense of completeness and perfection that you had before.  Indeed one crack exposes another and then another until there is little left of the image with which you began.

The process begins slowly enough.  We are aware from early on that the elder Whitshank boy, Denny, is a source of family disquiet, but it isn’t until Denny himself, in a reported conversation with Abby, his mother, drops the bombshell that Stem, the youngest Whitshank, is in fact not a Whitshank at all, that the process really begins to gain momentum.  And from then on in we watch as all that we have been led to believe about the stability of the family, all the stories that they have told about the Whitshank past, the stories on which their sense of who they are is built, crumbles before our eyes.  We move back through the generations, discovering at each stage how different the reality of the Whitshank’s family history is from the picture that they present to the world.

And yet, they are still Whitshanks.  Oh, it may be Stem, the abandoned child, who shares their name but not their blood, who takes on that family name in the form of the business, but it the end it is Denny who proves himself to be the direct descendent of those first Baltimore Whitshanks, Junior and Linnie Mae.  In a reflection of the circularity that Jeannie recognised in their beach-side neighbours, the novel concludes with Denny’s return to a woman who clearly loves him but to whom, in an echo of his grandfather’s earlier behaviour, he has been unable to commit, and we are left with the sense that perhaps this time he really will be able to build a relationship that has some lasting stability.  It may not be as strong or as perfect as they would like the world to think, but it will have a utility out which a future can be forged.   Some of that trailing thread is being rewound and while it may not be possible to return it to its original pristine condition it will serve for the day to day purpose of holding a family together.

While the Whitshanks may not be the picture of family perfection that they would like to appear, Tyler’s depiction of them comes pretty close to perfection.  Time and again I found myself drawing parallels between situations in either my own family or those of people to whom I am close enough to have been allowed to see the cracks.  And for me, I think her greatest achievement is the sense of hope that she provides for such families.  Because, despite the flaws, the difficulties, the betrayals, that we witness, in the end we recognise there is still love in this family, there is still mutual support, there is still a sense that while the thread may not be as tightly bound as it could be, they are all part of that same spool.  This may be a novel that charts our growing awareness, as outsiders, of the dysfunctional nature of the Whitshank family, but ultimately it is also a novel that says, in fact, any family at which you look closely is probably going to be pretty dysfunctional one way and another.  But you know what?  In the end they are going to survive because they are bound by that blue thread and as long as it isn’t actually severed it can be wound back in and remain whole.  And, as Jeannie points out, the family we are observing is us, in a way, which means that Tyler is also saying that there is a good chance for the survival of any family, just so long as you’re willing to hold on tight to the end of that spool of blue thread.

Life Class ~ Pat Barker

9780141019475hOne of the things I really appreciate about belonging to a book group is that every now and again a novel will turn up on our schedule that has somehow slipped out of my tbr pile before I’ve managed to get round to reading it.  This was the case with Pat Barker’s Life Class and, as it was the first of a trilogy, that has meant that I have also had to postpone reading Toby’s Room and the more recently published Noonday.  It was because the member who suggested it wanted to read Noonday but, like myself, hadn’t read the earlier novels, that we ended up discussing Life Class at the beginning of the week and we had some very differing reactions to the novel.

I expect that by now everyone else has encountered the work and knows what it is about so very briefly, as a reminder, it is set just before and then, latterly, about a month into, the onset of the First World War.  Initially we meet three art students studying at the Slade under the renown surgeon turned teacher of life drawing, Henry Tonks.  Paul Tarrant, Kit Neville and Elinor Brooke each display very different talents and very different approaches towards their work as artists.  Paul seems to be able to do nothing to please Tonks and is seriously questioning whether he has made the right decision in coming to London.  Kit, on the other hand, has had some success and is prepared to be as commercial as is necessary to make money from his art.  Elinor perhaps has the most difficult time because she has to battle not only to get her work appreciated but also with the prejudice against a woman studying art rather than preparing herself for what is generally seen as her real role in life, namely as someone’s wife.  The difference in the ways in which each of these characters face their situations is expertly drawn and appreciating this set of contrasts prepares the reader for the more substantial contrast to come.

Nothing, however, prepares the young artists for what is about to happen. The move into the clearing stations for the wounded in France is as sudden for the reader as was the onset of war for the peoples of Europe.  Paul in particular is completely unequipped for the Life Class in which he now find himself enrolled as he encounters the reality of what can be done to the human body in the name of war and the suffering that consequently ensues. Now the disarticulated limbs are not simply plaster casts studied for aesthetic purposes, they are the shattered remains of young men who had no idea of what they were heading out to when they enlisted and now no real idea as to what they are fighting for.  The clearing station becomes another studio as artists turned surgeons struggle to understand the ways in which the human body works in order to save the lives of those who have become their unwitting ‘models’.

In general, we were in agreement about the book seen simply in the terms I’ve described.  We all very much enjoyed it, although there was one dissenting voice who thought that the first section was too long.  Where we differed was in respect of the way in which Barker had made use of real people to populate her work of fiction.

In many works of historical fiction mention will be made in passing of individuals who actually existed.  That is the case here both with Tonks and with Ottoline Morrell, who later in the work befriends Elinor.  No one had a problem with that.  Discussion centred, rather, on the question of the extent to which the characters of Paul, Kit and Elinor were based on real artists of the day.  Locally we had an exhibition last year of the works of Richard Nevinson and it didn’t take much to link him with Kit, especially as Nevinson’s given name was Christopher.  One of the most striking works in the La-Patrieshow was of a large barn being used as a hospital before there were any real medical facilities set up in France. this is exactly the situation that Kit and Paul find themselves in when they first go out with the intention of serving as ambulance drivers. Rather more tentative was the identification of Paul as Paul Nash.  What we know of Paul Tarrant’s background doesn’t fit, even though Nash did have considerable wartime experience.  However, Elinor is more easily linked to Dora Carrington, not the least because her connection to Ottoline Morrell would bring her into the Bloomsbury circle, the group of painters and writers with whom Carrington is inevitably associated.  Where we, as a group, differed was in how far we thought we should take what we knew of the real people into consideration when discussing the actions of the characters in the novel.  Is it valid, for example, when asking whether or not Elinor’s conduct in a given situation is believable to justify your response by reference to what you know of Dora Carrington’s actual behaviour?

I’m still not certain where I stand on this.  If you, as the reader, are not in a position to make those identifications and draw those parallels then the character that the writer has offered has still to be able to stand up to scrutiny when you question the nature of their behaviour. And yet real people do behave in ways which if you attributed them to a character in a novel no one would endorse as credible.  In the end we had to agree to differ because the discussion was getting quite heated.  I wonder what you think?

Prologue or Epilogue?

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70Over the weekend I re-read Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows for a discussion with my Monday afternoon book group.  One of the elements that came up as we talked was the author’s use of a prologue, a device which appears to be increasingly common in modern novels.  I come across them most often it seems in crime fiction where they tend to serve as a way of filling the reader in on an occurrence that has happened before the primary event line begins.  This might be the actual crime whose investigation is going to form the main body of the story or possibly an event that occurred many years previously but which acted as a trigger for what is about to take place.  Either way it helps to place the reader in a superior position to that of the investigating officers because initially, at least, we have more information then they do about what is going on.

I have to say that I am ambiguous about these prologues.  What is not to like about feeling superior you might ask, but sometimes I simply don’t want to engage with the information they give me.  This is probably because many of those that you come across in crime fiction are particularly brutal providing, as they do, details of some poor individual’s last moments. However, I don’t think I have the animosity to them on principle that one friend of mine does. She flatly refuses to read them and has been known to go as far as striking repeat offenders of her reading list.  As far as she is concerned they are a sign of lazy writing.  She wants the details they contain woven into the main story rather than having them presented flat out at the beginning.

I have to admit to having a more than passing interest in this topic at the moment as I have the beginnings of an idea for what might become a major project to do with both prologues and epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays. So I was more than usually interested in what Shamsie does in Burnt Shadows because, although the passage is announced as, and appears where you would expect to find, a prologue, the material which it contains actually serves as an epilogue.  As a result you read the book in anticipation of finding out how one of the main characters ends up in the situation you now know is going to be his fate after the book concludes.  I am not someone who reads the last page first so that I know in advance where a story is going, although I have friends who habitually do read that way, so I am even less certain how I feel about this than I am about how I feel about prologues in general.  What I do know is that in this modern prose incarnation they are performing a very different role to that which they fulfil in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and it would be interesting to trace the line of development.

How do you feel about being presented with a prologue at the beginning of a novel?  Do you know of any interesting examples?  And what about a prologue that reveals all?  Does it stop you in your tracks or make you want to read on on the grounds that the journey is more important than the destination?

What I Loved ~ Siri Hustvedt

whatilovedI’ve said it before but it bears repeating, one of the best things about belonging to a book group is that it puts you in the way of books that you might otherwise never have read.  I’ve had Siri Hustvedt’s 2003 novel, What I Loved, on my radar for some time now but the necessary push to pick it up off that never ending mountain only came about because a fellow reader chose it as the focus for this month’s discussion.  If you’re reading this Jen, then thank you, because while this book may be, as some of the group pointed out, flawed in certain ways, in my opinion, it is a flawed masterpiece.

How to even begin to tell you about this novel?  Well, it’s set amongst the artistic and academic communities of New York’s Manhatten and covers roughly the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties.  It focuses on two families, those of Leo, the narrator, an art historian and academic and of Bill, an artist and, ultimately, Leo’s closest friend.  We watch, through Leo’s eyes, as Bill develops from a painter, struggling to make a living, to an internationally recognised installation artist. We also watch the growing dismay that surrounds Bill’s only child, Mark, as it becomes apparent that he has serious mental health problems and finds it almost impossible to empathise with other individuals, however close to them he might appear to be.  Both Leo and Bill make a living from trying to analyse aspects of the world around them and then presenting those analyses in ways that will illuminate their subjects to any who come into contact with their work. The irony is that while they are busy dissecting and reinterpreting external matters neither of them has any real understanding of the situation closer to home: of the damage that Mark has suffered and which in turn he is inflicting on others.

More interesting than the plot line for me, however, were the various ideas that Hustvedt explores as she takes us through the lives of her main characters.  These are so many and varied that it would be impossible to discuss them all.  For example, if you are interested in the art world and the way it is manipulated by a small number of individuals, you will find it examined here.  If your concerns are more to do with the relationship between physical and mental health problems, then that is scrutinised too.  Consequently, I am going to concentrate on just one aspect of the novel, that is, what Hustvedt has to say about our relation to story, partly because it was what interested me the most and partly because I think what Hustvedt is saying in relation to this topic also finds echoes in respect of the other issues she covers.

In the very first paragraph Leo reflects on

the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again

and this notion of what might be seen as a palimpsest of narratives building up over time, each telling either adding weight and meaning to those that have gone before or concealing something of importance from a previous experience, is relevant both to Bill’s work, which focuses on revealing the unexpected hidden in the depths of the ordinary, and in the way in which those around him fail to understand what is happening to Mark.

As I made my way home, I realised that two narratives about Mark had unfolded inside me – one on top of the other. The superficial story went something like this: Like thousands of other teenagers, Mark had hidden parts of his life from his parents. No doubt he had experimented with drugs, slept with girls and maybe, I was beginning to think, a couple of boys…like so many children his age, he had tried on various persona to discover which one suited him. He behaved one way with his peers and another with adults. This version of Mark story was ordinary, one tale like a million others of a normal, bumpy adolescence.

The other story was similar to the one that lay above it, and its content was identical: Mark had been caught lying. He had formed a friendship with an unsavoury person I privately called ‘the ghost,’ and Mark’s body and voice changed depending on whom he was speaking to at the moment.But this second narrative lacked the smoothness of the first.  It had holes in it and those gaps made the story difficult to tell.  It didn’t rely on a larger fiction about teenage life to fill in its ragged openings but left them gaping and unanswered.

I find the idea that we tell stories about the people we know which fit the template of a generic fiction we carry around with us, rather than seeing the actual narrative of their lives both compelling but also very disturbing.  And yet, it is difficult to see how society could function smoothly if we didn’t.  It is only when something goes radically wrong that we realise how superficial our knowledge of another really is.

Eventually, however, Leo changes his view of the way in which Mark relates to story.  From believing that

Mark’s life was an archaeology of fictions, one on top of the other and [he] had only just started to dig

he shifts his position because

[a] story is about making connections in time, and Mark’s stuck in a time warp, a sick repetition that just shuttles him back and forth, back and forth

until finally he is forced into the belief that

he doesn’t understand what language is. It’s like he never figured out symbols – the whole structure of things is missing.  He can speak, but he just uses words to manipulate other people…It’s more than that.  Mark doesn’t have a story…he doesn’t know what it is.

Can you imagine anything worse than not being aware of what your story is, of simply existing moment by moment without being able to make the causal linkage that moulds those moments into a meaningful existence?  As Leo says very early on in the novel

stories [are] like blood running through a body – paths of life

imagine what it must be like to live your life lost in a wood, surrounded by trees and with no path to help you chart your way through.  I caught the tail end of a discussion on the radio the other day in which someone was claiming that he didn’t think narrative was that important and that we all made far too much fuss about the way in which it related to human existence.  I’m sorry but I couldn’t disagree more.  For me, Barbara Hardy was spot on when she wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind.  The fact that when you read about a character who has lost the ability to make any narrative sense of his life you are not only chilled to the core but unable to find any point of contact with him, unable to get any handle on the way that he thinks and what motivates the way in which he behaves, only goes to emphasise how vital that sense of story is.

I could continue to explore the ways in which Siri Hustvedt moved me in this novel, but you must by now be getting the idea.  If you haven’t read What I Loved then I can only suggest that you do so as soon as possible.  You may not get out of it the same things that I did, but I can promise you that you will come away from it thinking deeply about some of ideas that she considers because there is something in this for everyone to engage with.

The Shock of the Fall ~ Nathan Filer

str2_ma_1901_p14a Shock Of The Fall Costa Winner 2013One Saturday in May of last year I had the pleasure of hearing Nathan Filer read from his debut novel at a local Readers Event. The Shock of the Fall, which had been published just two days previously, was already garnering praise from all quarters and it was evident that its author was more than pleased, but nevertheless a bit bemused, at its reception.  It was immediately apparent that this was a book I was going to want to read. After all, how can you not be intrigued when the passage you hear begins:

I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother.  His name’s Simon.  I think you’re going to like him.  I really do.  But in a a couple of pages he’ll be dead.  And he was never the same after that.

Well you wouldn’t be, would you?

Unfortunately, I was so certain that this was a book I was going to want not only read but also discuss that I put it on one of my reading group lists as my next selection and as a result have only just got round to engaging further with both Simon and the narrator of this book, his younger brother, Matthew.

We very soon discover that Matthew is not going to be the most reliable of narrators so perhaps we should take his initial assessment of himself with a pinch of salt.

I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not. So  when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred –I cheated.

However, there is that in his opening statement which should begin to trigger questions in the reader’s mind.  What adult is going to see cheating at hide and seek as a major moral breakdown?  Well, in Matthew’s case, one who has suffered from so many other breakdowns that his perspective is no longer as clear as it might be, because when we first meet him Matthew is receiving treatment for what it gradually becomes apparent is schizophrenia, possibly exacerbated by what happens to Simon, but also clearly a trait that has appeared in his family before.

Gradually, Matthew builds a picture for us of the events that led up to Simon’s death and its aftermath in terms of the breakdown that followed in his family life. What is remarkable about the book, however, is the way in which Filer allows us to experience something of the confusion in Matthew’s mind through the style in which the novel is written.  Although we are never less than certain what is going on we can still experience the changes in his behaviour as he withdraws from the programme (medical and social) intended to help him stabilise.  In part this is because much of the book is written in very short sections and it possible to indicate a change in mood or reaction to a medication (or lack thereof) in the turn of a page.  But it is also due to the way in which Filer has caught some fundamental characteristic about  Matthew’s voice and that characteristic stays with him throughout.

This may well be beginning to sound like a seriously depressing read and when I add that as well as dealing with death, mental illness and family breakdown the novel is also concerned with the wanton destruction of public services for those who suffer from mental ill health I am almost certainly confirming that opinion in your minds. However, that simply isn’t the case.  There is a great deal in the book that is really uplifting and a lot that is just downright funny.  Sometimes, of course, there is a wry edge to that humour.  Filer has a knack of putting his finger on a truth about either the illness or the services that makes you smile at the same time as making you wince. Anyone who has had anything to do with people suffering from schizophrenia will recognise the veracity of Matthew’s claim that this illness has a work ethic only too readily.

Filer is also very good at drawing heart-warming portraits of some of his characters. Who wouldn’t want to know Matthew’s Nanny Noo?

My grandmother (Mum’s mum, the one we call Nanny Noo) reads books by Danielle Steele and Catherine Cookson, and whenever she gets a new one the first thing she does is flip straight to the back to read the last page.

She always does that…

Nanny Noo made nice food.  She is one of those people who tries to feed you the moment you walk trough the door, and doesn’t stop trying to feed you until the moment you leave.  She might even make you a quick ham sandwich for your journey.

It’s a nice way to be.  I think people who are generous with food have a goodness about them.

Whatever lies behind it, whether it is food or her need to know what happens in a story before she reads it, Nanny Noo certainly has a goodness about her.

And there is a lot of goodness about this book as well.  Yes, there is heartbreak and there is anger as you are faced with the senseless way in which the state deals with the needs of those who are challenged by mental ill health.  (One in four of us, remember will have mental health problems at some point.)  But ultimately this is a book about the successes that it is still possible for anyone in a seemingly desperate position to find in their lives.  Those successes may be small in the eyes of some but that is their inability to appreciate what really counts.  For Matthew and his family every step forward is one that isn’t backwards and deserves to be celebrated as such.  If you don’t come away from this novel with your heart gladden I will be very surprised.

The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress ~ Beryl Bainbridge

The-Girl-in-the-Polka-Dot-DrIf my memory is serving me correctly this is only the second Bainbridge novel that I’ve read so I am perhaps not the best of readers to comment on what was her last work and one which, at her death, remained unfinished.  I am even more hesitant because I read The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress only because it was a book group choice and therefore one that I felt obliged to read to the end.  You might be getting the impression that I wasn’t that impressed and therefore asking, quite rightly, why I am posting about it.  Well, there are a number of reasons.

First, I wonder why I don’t warm to Bainbridge?  There is one member of the group who will not hear a word against her and who insisted that this was as great a work as anything she had written.  I’m not too worried that I couldn’t agree with that because none of the rest of the group had managed to make much of this book either.  It’s set in 1968 in America during the period between the assassinations of  Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.  Rose, a damaged young woman of twenty-eight, has made her way from the UK to the States in order to join with the much older Harold in search of a man who has in one way or another radically influenced both their lives.  The relationship between the enigmatic Mr Wheeler and Rose is one that as far as I could see was never really established.  Harold, on the other hand is much clearer about the part that Wheeler has played in his life.  What does seem likely is that their motivations for wanting to locate him are very different.  However, Mr Wheeler really doesn’t seem to want to be located and so the book turns into a road narrative as Rose and Harold trundle across the continent encountering a procession of very different individuals all of whom are also damaged to a greater or lesser extent.  I didn’t warm to any of them,  but then that was the same with the characters in The Bottle Factory Outing which is the only other Bainbridge I’ve read, so perhaps it wasn’t this book in particular, but her style of characterisation altogether.  I don’t know.  Why don’t I warm to Bainbridge?

The other reason I wanted to write about it here is that it isn’t that long since we discussed the whole question of publishing unfinished work and whether or not another writer should try and complete that which has been left incomplete.  At the end of my copy of the book there is this caveat:

Beryl Bainbridge was in the process of finishing The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress when she died on 2 July 2010.  Her long-time friend and editor, Brendan King, prepared the text for publication from her working manuscript, taking into account suggestions Beryl made at the end of her life. No additional material has been included.

Apparently, Bainbridge, who knew she was dying as she wrote this novel, said that she would need another thirty days to complete it ready for publication.  Given that the actual storyline itself appears to be there, whole and entire, and that nothing has been added to that, it would seem to me that what she would have used those days for would have been tightening up the narrative and (hopefully) making clearer some of those areas, especially in relation to motivation, that so perplexed us as a group. However, that is simply speculation on my part and it struck me as I was thinking about this that one way to explore whether or not that would have been the case would be to look at any working papers that exist from novels that she had written in the past.  In other words, to extrapolate from her known working process in order to try and understand what was left to do with this book in those thirty days Bainbridge was denied.

This is where the practice by Universities of snapping up the literary remains of writers might be seen to be of some value.  At least, it might if the writers have kept their working papers and it’s possible to track the process of a book from preliminary ideas and sketches through to the finished product.  What did Bainbridge do in that finishing off process? How did she go about polishing her work?

And yet, even then, would it have been possible to predict exactly what any alterations would have been?  Surely it is precisely those tiny changes that lift a work from the ordinary to the exceptional and which define a writer as an individual?  I think I am back where most of us ended up a fortnight ago;  leave the work as it stands, even if it is then less than whole.

And, I think that this book is less than whole, at least I hope it is, because then I would have a good reason for coming away from it still not able to understand why Bainbridge is so well thought of, and could live in hope that another book of hers might open my eyes and make a convert of me.