Like a vision seen in a dream and scarce remembered

Castle Dor book coverCastle Dor
by Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier

Well what a contrast to my previous read. After lingering for two weeks over The Evenings, I raced through Castle Dor in 24 hours. Was it a case of the right book at the right time, or is it just a cracking good read? It is Daphne, after all.

Except that it’s only sort-of Daphne. This book was started by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (better known to many by his pen name Q), who Daphne knew a little as her near-neighbour in Fowey, but he was much older than her, so it was his daughter Foy (named for their beloved home town) who became a close friend of Daphne’s. When Q died in 1944 he left behind one final unpublished work of fiction: the first half of a novel retelling the story of Tristan and Iseult, set in 19th-century Cornwall. Some 15 years later, his daughter Foy persuaded Daphne that she was the perfect person to finish the book.

Knowing that in advance, it is certainly possible to spot the signs that different hands start and end the novel. But it is skilfully done, with no obvious seam. (Apparently Q’s manuscript was left mid-chapter, even.) I can tell you that the opening chapters felt more flowery and more scholarly than any Daphne du Maurier book I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them now). And the closing chapters had a touch of the supernatural, even spiritualism, that felt very Daphne and certainly hadn’t been so prominent in the book. But the join between the two felt entirely gradual and invisible.

Continue reading “Like a vision seen in a dream and scarce remembered”

I only wish that I could stir it up, fan the fires

The Evenings: a Winter’s Tale
by Gerard Reve
translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

After the emotional onslaught that was A Little Life, a comedy first published in the 1940s seemed like the perfect next read. But perhaps this was exactly the wrong choice at that moment, because I did not enjoy this.

Set in Amsterdam in the last few weeks of the year (presumably 1947, when it was written) this is the story of Frits van Egters, a young office worker living with his parents, trying to stave off the boredom of the long winter evenings. He is irritable and melancholic, prone to dark, violent thoughts and fantasies.

Frits has plenty of friends to call on the time of, which is perhaps surprising considering how rudely he speaks to them, verging on bullying at times. But he is also something of an entertainer, talking a lot, telling tall tales, passing on gossip and encouraging others to do the same. He drinks, smokes, listens to music, goes to the cinema, but is always dissatisfied.

Continue reading “I only wish that I could stir it up, fan the fires”

The pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive

A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara

This book has consumed my life for a month. It is often sad, upsetting, shocking even, but I still wanted to dive back in as soon as I could whenever life dragged me away from it.

This is a big book, and it takes a while for its main themes to become apparent. Although I knew quite a bit before I started reading, I’m going to avoid spoilers here.

We open with four men in New York, good friends since college, now in their late 20s and trying to put their stamp on the world. Willem is an actor, making most of his money waiting tables at a high-end restaurant. JB is an artist, trying to find his subject. Malcolm is an architect, working long hours, dreaming of the day when he will have his own projects. And Jude is a lawyer at the public prosecutor’s office, not really making enough money to live in Manhattan.

Continue reading “The pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive”

Nothing actually happens. We are not sinister people

seed joanna walshSeed
by Joanna Walsh

I’ve been thinking lately about different forms of storytelling, particularly in computer games, and this new digital book feels like a natural extension. It’s an app, beautifully designed by Charlotte Hicks with botanical illustrations stretching vines and tendrils across the screen between chapters. You can swipe from chapter to chapter and read the story consecutively, or you can close each chapter after reading it and explore the map, opening chapters in the order of your choice.

The story is narrated by a girl in her last summer before going away to university. She lives in a small British hamlet, working at the local cattery. It’s the 1980s, complete with references to the music of Queen and Paul Simon and other luminaries I grew up with. The narrator reflects on her school and home life, on her friends and their homes, on the landscape she lives in.

Continue reading “Nothing actually happens. We are not sinister people”

Harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

I have been meaning to read this for years, and especially so since I added it to two of my reading lists: Classics Club and the Luke Cake Reading List. I finally bought a copy after seeing the Gordon Parks photography project of the same name in Berlin last year (Parks and Ellison worked together on the project for LIFE magazine), which was a really moving experience.

The novel is also moving, but equally brutal and shocking. It opens and closes (aside from the slightly abstract, essayistic prologue and epilogue) with its most shocking scenes. The un-named narrator starts out as a successful scholar whose family can’t afford to send him to college. His one chance is to impress the local rotary club – i.e. powerful rich white men. At the club he finds himself in a group of black young men who are stripped to their underwear and forced to fight each other while blindfolded. Afterward they are made to scrabble on the floor for their pay. It’s upsetting, humiliating, dehumanising, and the outcome is that the narrator is given a scholarship to a black-only college. It seems that his life is set.

Continue reading “Harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness”

Too little access to nectar, not enough for the bees

The History of Bees
by Maja Lunde
translated from Norwegian by Diane Oatley

This is a novel intertwining three stories in three time periods – past, present (ish) and future. The three narrators are linked by bees and their importance to agriculture. But they’re also great individual stories.

We open with the strangest of the three: Tao, in Sichuan in 2098. She hand pollinates flowers – painstaking, delicate, long days at work that give her only an hour each day with her three-year-old son Wei-Wen. Tao lives in an agricultural region that grows fruit, but throughout China hand-pollination is necessary to keep the increasingly slim food chain chugging along. She dearly wants her son to learn all he can so that he stands a chance of being sent away to school rather than to the fields but her husband Kuan wants to enjoy spending time with Wei-Wen, for him to be happy.

“I stretched as far as I could, but couldn’t quite reach the blossom at the very top. I was about to give up, but knew I might be punished, so I tried once more. Our pay was docked if we used up the pollen too quickly. And our pay was docked if we used too little. The work was invisible. When at the end of the day we climbed down from the trees, there was no evidence of our work except for the red chalk Xs on the tree trunks…It wasn’t until autumn came and the trees were laden with fruit that we would know who among us had actually succeeded in their work.”

Continue reading “Too little access to nectar, not enough for the bees”

Jack Parlabane: books 1–3

As of April this year, there are nine books in Chris Brookmyre’s series about Glaswegian investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. I read a lot of Brookmyre back in the early 2000s, so I had read the start of this series before, but then years elapsed and rather than pick up where I left off, I thought I’d start from the beginning again. It’s been a real pleasure.

Quite Ugly One Morning
by Christopher Brookmyre

Parlabane is introduced in style in this action-packed romp. Recently returned to Scotland from LA after a difference of opinion with someone powerful who wants him dead, he is laying low in Edinburgh, until suddenly he’s face to face with police. It turns out there’s a dead body in the flat directly below his, which he discovers when he has locked himself out of his own flat, half undressed. By the time he has persuaded the police that he’s an innocent bystander, his journalistic interest has been piqued and he is pulled into a complex plot involving nefarious businessmen and Tory Party shenanigans. Each of these books has a political angle and in this case Brookmyre’s target is the Tory restructure of the NHS. It sounds like a dull basis for satire, but he efficiently finds the interesting angle and digs the knife right in, mercilessly mocking Tory policy. I can’t say I mind, as a fellow liberal lefty, but I do wonder how right-wing or non-political readers would take this. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun. And I do love the character of Dr Sarah Slaughter.

Continue reading “Jack Parlabane: books 1–3”

Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything

Lies We Tell Ourselves
by Robin Talley

When this book was chosen by my book group I was worried it would be a tough read due to the subject matter. But it turned out, the problem I had was with the narrators’ tone and voice.

That’s not to say the subject matter isn’t tough, but I was reading this at the same time as dipping in and out of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and by comparison, well, it shows that Talley’s book is intended for a young adult audience.

It’s 1959 and some school districts in Virginia are holding out against integration. Sarah is one of 10 black pupils who were specially chosen to attend the white-only Jefferson High School after years of court battles. No-one at Jefferson wants them there and more than that, they don’t understand why the black students would want to come to their school.

“I wipe the tears away and stare at my reflection until my face smooths out and my eyes go empty.

This is how they have to see me. If they know I feel things, they’ll only try to make me feel worse.

Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything.”

Continue reading “Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything”

Give a girl an education

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen

So I’m still not sold on Jane Austen, having read four of her seven novels. I don’t think I will ever be a big fan, but I do increasingly appreciate her smart wit, her irony and sarcasm.

Fanny Price, however, is my least favourite Austen heroine so far. Her fate is predictable, telegraphed from the first few pages, but that’s not so bad if the journey is still enjoyable. However, Fanny is no fun at all. She’s delicate of health, oversensitive, prim, determined to believe that people can’t change, surprisingly impractical and generally a right goody-two-shoes.

Fanny is the oldest girl in a very large, not very well off family. When she is 10 she is adopted by her aunt Maria, who is married to the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram, so Fanny moves from her chaotic but happy home in Southampton to the grandeur of Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire. She is shy, scared of her uncle and badly misses her home and family.

“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”

Continue reading “Give a girl an education”

Like a poisonous vine, a complicated network of lies wound its way

The Empress and the Cake
by Linda Stift
translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

I read this as part of Women in Translation Month. This is one of those strange psychological thrillers where it is never entirely clear how much of what’s happening is real and how much is in the narrator’s head. I like that.

The narrator is walking past a cake shop in Vienna when an old lady asks her to share a Gugelhupf (a yeasted cake common in Austria), because the shop only sells them whole. This turns into an invitation to the home of Frau Hohenembs, where she is quite forcefully encouraged to help eat the cake. At first the narrator’s unwillingness to partake seems like the usual misgivings of a woman watching her figure. Then she goes home and eats her half of the cake then makes herself throw up.

Yes, it’s a story about bulimia. And it doesn’t romanticise or shy away from the details. It turns out that the narrator has been keeping her illness at bay for years, but now that she has been triggered, she spirals downward. Soon, the only other thing in her life is her growing relationship with Frau Hohenembs and her housekeeper Ida. And it’s a weird relationship, with some weird people.

Continue reading “Like a poisonous vine, a complicated network of lies wound its way”