There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind

The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith

Way back in the mists of time – 2005, maybe? – I read The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith for an old book club. I enjoyed it but wasn’t bowled over, so for a long time felt no urgency to try Highsmith again. This is despite one of my favourite films – Strangers on a Train – being based on a Highsmith book, not to mention regular mentions of her work by book bloggers whose taste I often share.

Finally, when the film Carol came out in 2015, based on this novel, the sudden rush of reviews of The Price of Salt persuaded me to give it a go. And I am so glad that I did. I loved this unreservedly and am eagerly adding more Highsmith novels to my wishlist now.

The story is told from the perspective of Therese, a young woman who, when the novel opens, is working in a New York City department store as a temporary Christmas job, though her ambition is to be a set designer. She sees Richard most days – an art student who she thinks of as her best friend and who thinks of her as his future wife. But that disparity doesn’t matter until the day Carol comes into the store. In their brief interaction, Therese is so bowled over that she immediately finds a way to get in touch with Carol, to instigate another meeting.

Continue reading “There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind”

The torment was strange, it was all in her mind

brooklynBrooklyn
by Colm Tóibín

This is a lovely book, though I do have reservations. Eilis lives with her older sister Rose and their mother in 1950s Enniscorthy, an Irish town in which job opportunities are scarce. Their brothers have already moved to England to work. Rose has a steady job but Eilis, despite having a bookkeeping qualification, doesn’t, so when a priest offers to arrange a job and accommodation for her in Brooklyn it seems like there’s no choice but to agree.

Eilis is enigmatic – she lets life happen to her, lets others make decisions for her, but she doesn’t lack ambition or opinions of her own. At times she seems ineffectual or indecisive, at others strong and brave. I suppose she is young enough (20 or so?) that she’s still learning who she is and what she believes, even what she really feels. She’s had to grow up very suddenly, thrust from a protective home in a small town to a boarding house in one the world’s largest cities, and the decisions she is faced with are very different now. The social stigmas and etiquette are different, and yet in some ways the same – there’s snobbery and elitism everywhere, but Brooklyn has the addition of racial tensions.

Tóibín manages to explore a lot in not that many pages here – separation from family and ties to our childhood home, love and romance, migration and loneliness, the changing social position of women and job opportunities available to them – but it doesn’t in any way feel like an “issues” book. It’s a snapshot of a time and place that felt very real to me, but most of all I was swept up in Eilis’s story. One word of warning, though: do not read the blurb on the back cover – it reveals something from the last 20 pages of the book. Poor form, Penguin!

“It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do.”

First published 2009 by Viking.

Source: Secondhand, not sure which bookshop.

I am too diffused

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook
by Doris Lessing

This book is more of an intellectual exercise than a novel, which has its rewards and makes it good fodder for discussion, but doesn’t make it the most enjoyable book I’ve read lately. Not that I hated it by any means, I’m glad I’ve read it, but I’m not convinced of Lessing’s skill as a writer so much as her intellect.

Having said there’s plenty to discuss, I’m not sure some of the more interesting things I got from it can go into this review as they reveal too much about the end of the book, but I’ll try to say what I can without spoilers and without sounding like a study guide (which, incidentally, there are plenty of for this book, because it’s that kind of book).

This is the story of two women, Anna and Molly, in 1950s London. (There are some flashbacks to earlier in their lives, particularly Anna’s, but the bulk of the story is in the 50s.) Molly is an actress, with a steady stream of small parts, or sometimes big parts in small shows. She has a grown son, Tommy, who lives with her and a fraught relationship with her ex-husband Richard. Anna is a writer who wrote one very successful book early in her life and has been living off the proceeds since. She is also a single mother, though the story of the child’s father is only gradually revealed. Both women have been communists, which proved a major influence on their lives.

“Looking back at those week-ends they seem like beads on a string, two big glittering ones to start with, then a succession of small, unimportant ones, then another brilliant one to end. But that is just the lazy memory.”

Essentially, the book is split into sections: there’s the “wraparound novel”, a seemingly straightforward narrative about Anna and Molly, titled Free Women. Then there are four notebooks kept by Anna, in which she writes about different aspects of her life, splitting herself and the way she observes the world. Anna writes multiple times that she can’t help fictionalising her own life, indeed it is never wholly clear whether Free Women is written by her, and therefore yet another fictionalised account, or if it is the supposedly objective “truthful” account.

“I was going to say disaster. That word is ridiculous. Because what is so painful about that time is that nothing was disastrous. It was all wrong, ugly, unhappy and coloured with cynicism, but nothing was tragic, there were no moments that could change anything or anybody.”

Anna’s previously published novel that she is living off was loosely based on her own experience in colonial Africa during the Second World War, and she writes several accounts of her time there in the notebooks, but they don’t entirely match up – sometimes she changes names, sometimes she refers to the version of the story told in her novel. When you add to this that Anna shares an awful lot in common with Doris Lessing, it all starts getting rather meta. Lessing’s own explanation of the book is that it’s a novel plus the notes an author makes surrounding it, which either demonstrates how much is discarded from the full “fictional” idea, or demonstrates how differently the same “true” story can be told, even by the same person.

“I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused.”

Which all sounds more complicated than it is to read. The writing style is pretty straightforward, though I found my interest wavered with the subject matter. The overriding theme of the notebooks is to analyse over and over, which I tended to find an interruption to the story rather than an enhancement, but arguably it was the whole point. Though Lessing claims in her introduction that the novel isn’t “about” anything except a person falling apart, it certainly has a lot to say about communism, feminism, friendship, writing, love, sex, relationships, parenthood, psychoanalysis and truth. I suppose you could try to read it as a straightforward narrative without trying to piece together the different versions of the same story, but for me that was part of the fun. I like that when I got to the end there were several ways to interpret it, both in terms of what “happened” and in what the “real” structure is.

“It’s a question of form. People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like the messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand formlessness.”

However, I only fully engaged with relatively short sections (bearing in mind this is 550 pages of small print), when the story got under flow, in-between lists, newspaper cuttings, diary-style brief notes and the like. I didn’t warm to Anna, which is in some ways surprising as a writer struggling with anxiety and depression, contemplating motherhood and politics, full of concern about the world, should be right up my street! But I mostly found her cold and unemotional, even listless, making odd decisions about life, which I suppose might arguably be a better depiction of depression than many I’ve read.

Maybe it was just far too long. I certainly highlighted dozens of passages that I admired, either for the language or for the idea. I really liked learning more about communism in Britain in the 1950s, and about war-time in a British colony in Africa, but despite her Nobel Prize in Literature I don’t think I’ll be rushing back to Lessing.

First published 1962 by Michael Joseph.

Source: Paper copy bought from Toppings in Bath, e-book from Amazon. (I have both as I was going on holiday just before the book club and I only take my Kindle on holidays.)