We who had known the shifting sky as our ceiling

man_i_became_webThe Man I Became
by Peter Verhelst
translated from Dutch by David Colmer

How do you approach a book narrated by a gorilla? Or, at least, a character who started life as a gorilla? Honestly, if I hadn’t received this book as part of my Peirene subscription, based on the synopsis I would not have picked it up. And I would have missed out.

This novella treads a line between science fiction and fairy tale – the dark kind of fairy tale, not light and fluffy Disney fare. The result is an odd allegory of…what, exactly? A few different things, I think, and no doubt many more things than I picked up on.

Our narrator was a gorilla snatched from the jungle, along with most of his family, and taken by boat to “the New World” to be turned into a human. So far, so clearly related to slavery, right down to the overcrowded boat and casual lack of consideration for the gorillas’ lives.

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This elemental silence which could crush you to nothing

magic-toyshopThe Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

This book was not what I had imagined, having read two previous works by Carter, but it was equally wonderful and has cemented her as one of the great authors for me.

The title had suggested to me something a bit fantastical, which aligned with my experience of Carter (I’d previously read Nights at the Circus and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) but – on the surface, at least – this book stays within the realm of reality. And yet from the very first page, there is an air of dark fantasy pervading the background.

The story centres on 15-year-old Melanie. She and her two younger siblings have to move from the middle-class comforts of their country home to live in relative poverty with their Uncle Philip in London. He is a toymaker but in every way defies the expectations of that label – he is tall, broad, strong, dark and frequently violent. He shows no kindness or empathy for the uprooted children.

“His silence had bulk, a height and a weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing.”

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I knew the story would change as I told it

bitter greensBitter Greens
by Kate Forsyth

This book has a lot of elements that appealed to me: a dark retelling of Rapunzel, a fictionalised account of the writer of the version of Rapunzel most of us know – Charlotte-Rose de la Force – and the story of a 16th century courtesan in Venice who was muse to the great artist Titian. Plus that absolutely gorgeous cover art. How could I resist?

Did it live up to expectations? Yes and no. About a quarter of the way through, I was a little bored and even considered stopping reading. But from about halfway until the end, I was gripped and thoroughly enjoying the ride. So what was the difference?

The bulk of the start of the book is about Charlotte-Rose, but the interesting bits of her story are saved for later on – and it does get very interesting. The book’s opening tells us that she has been banished from the Versailles court of her cousin Louis XIV and been sent to live in a convent as punishment for her behaviour. There are lots of details of how austere and rule-filled the convent is, and flashbacks to court to reveal how wide the contrast is.

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A gleam of light in the impenetrable mystery

The Little PrinceThe Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
translated from French by Katherine Woods

This is my first read for Classics Club and it may have been an odd place to start, or maybe a very good place. I’m not sure. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected and yet, thinking about it, I really should have known exactly how it would be.

First of all, it’s a children’s book, which I knew, but so many adults rave about it that I suppose I thought it wouldn’t read quite so very much like one. Also, it was written in the 1940s and has the moralising tone to suit, though it’s an unusual set of morals that it’s selling.

The story is wonderful, by which I mean both that it’s lovely and that it’s full of wonder. A young pilot crashes his plane in the Sahara Desert and there meets and befriends an alien who has travelled to many worlds. The alien, the little prince of the title, tells the pilot about his home world and his travels and the life lessons he has learned.

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The Tinderbox

The Tinderbox

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 23 April 2014
Bristol Old Vic Young Company

Writer Silva Semerciyan has turned Hans Christian Andersen’s brief, frightening tale The Tinderbox (and I remember the image of those big dogs with saucer eyes haunting me from the pages of my book of fairy tales) into an epic, devastating story. The result is a timeless lesson about the lengths parents will go to to save their own child, or the lengths those with power will go to to retain it. The fairytale classic beginning of a prophecy of doom told about a baby princess leads to bloody and hopeless war, ruthless laws and terrible poverty. The show has also, wisely, updated the role of the 17-year-old princess, making her a smart architecture nerd who has been kept hidden from the reality of her parents’ tyrannical rule.

Of course, theatre is about more than just story and the Young Company has done a great job with all aspects of this show. The live musical accompaniment sets the tone – occasionally playful, occasionally loud and scary but mostly thoughtful and brooding. Pianist (and musical director) Hettie Feiler gets it just right (including at one point crouching on the floor and plucking the piano’s strings to spooky effect) but I must also mention the remarkable singing voice of Lorenzo Niyongabo (who plays the king).

Props and staging are kept quite simple. Wooden chairs and wooden sticks form the basis of scenes from battleground to pub to palace to forest. They also add percussion to the soundtrack, which often thunders ominously through the Studio theatre. There was a moment when the cast, dressed as soldiers, pointed sticks at the audience and lunged with a loud grunt and it was genuinely scary.

The actors, for all their youth, are great. In fact for most of the time you can easily forget their youth. I was particularly impressed by Beth Collins as the queen, and by whichever member of the ensemble cast it was who played the heavily pregnant prison guard. Occasionally the mask would slip, when players were on stage but not speaking, and I would remember briefly that these are teenagers who have just devoted their school holiday to final rehearsals. But only briefly.

Most of the cast had a box of matches affixed to their costume so that a recurring motif of striking matches was used for everything from falling in love to adding yet more fear or tension. But it’s not all dark – the show also has a sense of humour, and of course a love story. Because it is still at heart a fairy tale.

Disclaimer: A free ticket was kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for contributing a review to Theatre Bristol Writers.

The mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses

The Snow Child

The Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey

This book was almost ruined for me by Book at Bedtime. The thing is, I love that Book at Bedtime exists, I do, but when a full-length novel is compressed into 10 15-minute segments, then necessarily a lot is cut out. A lot. (For comparison, the unabridged audio book of this is almost 11 hours.) I listened to The Snow Child on Book at Bedtime and thought ‘Huh. I don’t get the hype at all.’ And that was very nearly that.

I had read so many glowing reviews by fellow bloggers I usually share a taste in books with that I kept thinking that maybe I would give it another chance. Maybe. But I didn’t add it to my wishlist. So thank goodness I spotted it in a bookswap and decided to pick it up. From page one I was captivated.

“All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across a cow pond and turned the water to light.”

The story is adapted from the old Russian fairy tale “Snegurochka” and cleverly acknowledges this. Jack and Mabel are in their older middle age when they move to Alaska in the 1920s, looking for a fresh start. They cannot forget the sadness caused by their inability to have children and their marriage is fragile. Will the harshness of farming in Alaska heal them or break them?

“Words lay like granite boulders in her lap and when at last she spoke, each one was heavy and burdensome and all she could manage.”

The book opens at the start of their second Alaskan winter. Mabel is about ready to give up, Jack is seriously considering taking a very dangerous mining job that would take him away for most of the winter. Then the first snow falls and in a bittersweet scene of childlike play, the couple build a snowgirl. In the morning their snowgirl is gone and child-sized footsteps lead away from it. Are they just misreading the tracks in the snow? Did their snowgirl just get knocked down by a fox or other wild creature?

Perhaps, but at about that time they start seeing a small girl near their home, usually accompanied by a red fox, just like in the storybook Mabel remembers loving as a child, and she becomes convinced that they brought the girl to life with their desperate longing. The girl, Faina, slowly becomes a part of their lives. But is she real? Or is she, as Jack and Mabel’s (distant) neighbours George and Esther believe, a figment of their imaginations, a coping mechanism through the long lonely winter?

I like that the book provides realistic as well as magical explanations for everything that happens and never makes one more likely than the other. There is a definite fairytale feeling to the writing and yet it doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the Alaskan environment. Without ever getting repetitive or depressing, Ivey makes the cold and darkness of winter ever-present. But she also displays great love and respect for Alaska that I found enticing.

“A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eye.”

Just as I already knew the storyline before reading the book (which didn’t spoil it at all for me, though I’m still going to hold back from revealing any more of the story in this review) I also already knew, thanks to various reviews I’d read and an interview with Eowyn Ivey on The Readers, that whenever Faina speaks there are no speechmarks, for her or for the person speaking directly to her. But there are speechmarks everywhere else. This is a really clever way of maintaining the mystery, especially in the brief sections where it seems like maybe everything has been neatly explained.

Really, it’s a very simple story. And anyone who has read any of the versions of the old fairy tale (the Arthur Ransome version is included in my copy of the book, which I thought a nice touch) could have a fair stab at how it will turn out. But, for me at least, this book was about the language. Despite being hooked I read it quite slowly because it was the kind of language that slows you down, makes you want to take in each sentence. Exquisite.

Published 2012 by Headline.

Source: A book swap.

See also: reviews by Simon of Savidge Reads and Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

The fun of the fair

Nights at the Circus
by Angela Carter

This is one of those modern classics that keeps popping up in discussions on Radio 4, with nothing but praise directed its way, so I thought it was about time I gave it a go.

It is a beautiful, crazy book. Right from the start, Carter keeps us guessing: is anyone telling the truth? Is this the part fantasy/fairy tale that it seems to be or is it a story about some rather clever, even fantastic, people in “real” life?

The story switches between three narrators, sometimes third person, sometimes first, but always appearing to be one of their perspectives. First there’s Jack Walser, an American investigative journalist who, at the start of the novel, is in London to interview a woman who he thinks must be pulling some kind of trick on the British public. That woman is our second narrator, Sophie Fevvers, a six foot plus blonde with wings – yes, wings – who takes advantage of this strange growth by performing as a trapeze artist. She gladly tells Walser her story, or a version of it, with help from her rather less welcoming foster mother Lizzie, who seems to have tricks up her sleeve, has a way with words that belies her coarse cockney accent and is our third narrator/perspective.

Walser quickly falls for Fevvers, as she prefers to be known, to the extent that he signs himself up to join the circus that she is about to go on tour with; and so begins a cacophony of adventure and misadventure.

The story is set in 1899 so the circus is that old-fashioned kind that combined freak show, performing animals, and heavy superstition and tradition. This sometimes got hard to stomach. I have in my time campaigned for circuses to be animal-free and, frankly, this novel offers strong evidence in that campaign’s favour. However, it’s all part of the surreal menagerie that now includes Fevvers – part woman, part swan. And the chimps are completely brilliant.

Carter toys with her readers throughout, mixing reality with lore and perception so that it is never clear what the characters believe to be true and what actually is true:

“[They] did not live alone. There was a bear, a black one, not yet a year old, still almost a cub. This bear was part pet, part familiar; he was both a real, furry and beloved bear and, at the same time, a transcendental kind of meta-bear, a minor deity and also a partial ancestor because the forest-dwellers extended considerable procreational generosity towards the other species of the woods and there were bears in plenty on the male side of the tribal line.”

For all its rollicking, good humoured, wonderfully written storytelling, it did take me a while to get through this book. Mostly I think that was the language. This isn’t simple, accessible language. This is complex, crafted, allusion-heavy prose, with borrowings from the folklore and mythology of several European countries. I thought it was magnificent, but there was no rushing through it.

I also – and I hate to admit that this made a difference – took a while to warm to any of the main characters. Fevvers and Lizzie deliberately keep themselves at a distance, though they can talk for hours on end (and do so), so you’re always aware that they’re holding something back, even without the big mystery of Fevvers’ wings. And Walser starts out as a pure journalist, not letting his own character or history get anywhere near the story that he is unravelling, so it is a long time before his personality begins to show through.

In all, this is a magical, funny, adventure-filled read encompassing all sorts of colourful outsiders – prostitutes, freaks, clowns, murderers and more besides. The story travels from London to Siberia and evocatively captures each location as well as the daily lives of its huge cast of characters. Carter created something extraordinary here and I will definitely have to read more of her work.

First published 1984.
Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.