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(named for their beloved home town) who became a close friend of Daphne’s. When Q died in 1944 he left behind one final unpublished work of fiction: the first half of a novel retelling the story of Tristan and Iseult, set in 19th-century Cornwall.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.

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Even the moonlight could not give it beauty

the-birds-and-other-storiesThe Birds and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an excellent collection of short stories. The tales are all weird, spooky, dark with flashes of humour.

The title story is the one that Hitchcock adapted into the film of the same name, but there is little resemblance between book and film. Both are excellent but I was surprised by quite how different they are. Du Maurier’s story centres on farm labourer Nat who lives on the Cornwall coast with his wife and two children. There’s no glamorous California or pet shop but there is the added peril of children being in danger. The birds on the attack are truly terrifying.

However, my favourite story was “The apple tree”, in which a widow becomes convinced that a sick old tree is taunting him with the spirit of his dead wife. It sounds ridiculous but is in fact a brilliant story that includes many of the same themes as Rebecca.

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Cornwall reads in brief

Yes, I’ve been on holiday again. This time a long weekend in Cornwall. It wasn’t what most people might consider beach weather, but that just provided an excuse to stay indoors reading while looking out at the sea and listening to the waves crash. (It’s a comforting noise, which possibly doesn’t make any sense.)

It was a lovely holiday with old friends in a place we have visited many times, so it’s like a home from home. I didn’t actually have my nose in a book the whole time – there were beach/clifftop walks, games to play, crosswords to complete, a whole lot of tasty food to eat and even (in my case very briefly because brrr) swimming in the sea.

porthcothan-beach

But I did get a lot of reading done too.

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Defeated by its own decay, it was dying

lady-and-the-unicornThe Lady and the Unicorn
by Rumer Godden

I had never heard of Rumer Godden until I flicked through the Virago Modern Classics catalogue and saw that they are reissuing her books, but she was apparently hugely successful in her lifetime. Between the 1930s and 1990s she wrote an astonishing 70 books, including most famously Black Narcissus, which was made into that wonderful film with Deborah Kerr that I have always loved but never knew was based on a novel.

Godden had an interesting life. Born to an English family in India, she moved back and forth between India and the UK throughout her life, and her first-hand knowledge of both countries is clear in The Lady and the Unicorn.

The story centres around a crumbling, decaying mansion in Calcutta, split into apartments occupied by several Eurasian families. Belonging to neither the British colonial society nor the native Indian society, they cling to pride in their “Europeanness”, but it’s a lonely position to be in.

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An underwater stillness, no wind or rain

All the Birds, SingingAll the Birds, Singing
by Evie Wyld

If someone had told me that I would rave enthusiastically over a book about sheep farming, frankly I would have laughed at such a ridiculous statement. Now perhaps it’s because the sheep farming is arguably incidental, and not really what this novel’s about, but there is quite a lot of it and yet I really loved this book.

How to describe this book? Jake (who, confusingly, is female) is living on an unnamed British island farming sheep. She avoids people as much as she can and seems to have run away from something in her past back in Australia. Interspersed between us learning more (although far from everything) about her past, we follow her present, where something or someone is killing her sheep but she is reluctant to ask for help dealing with it.

“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that.”

Clearly there is something dark in her past, which aligns well with the literal wet and dark atmosphere of the present, but the way it is gradually revealed is clever and the facts themselves were surprising, not what I expected, even with on reflection plenty of hints given. But the gaps that are left leave you still guessing, still piecing the full story together at the end, which I almost feel should have been frustrating, but actually worked for me.

Jake herself is an interesting character, brittle and stand-offish, but to an extent it’s left open whether that’s innate to who she is or the result of her past. She’s also a very strong person – though her age isn’t given in the present section, I got the impression she was still in her twenties, yet she’s running a small sheep farm single-handed.

But for all the hard work and difficult subject matter, there’s also humour. Black humour, to be sure, but it’s enough to lift the mood at just the right moments and make the story wholly human. For all Jake’s distance from other people, there are still some touching emotional scenes as well. Plus (and this went down particularly well at book club) there are two dogs that are very much major characters themselves, not just pets in the background, which is pretty awesome.

There’s also a gothic element to the book, with a few scenes that could be interpreted as in some way supernatural, but then again could just be Jake’s altered state of mind. Certainly the wild, wet and windy island, and Jake’s remote farmhouse surrounded by muddy fields, are a perfect gothic setting, and somehow the stark realism of some scenes, such as her rescuing a sheep that’s stuck in mud, only add to that atmosphere.

“An underwater stillness, no wind or rain, not even a small owl, just a thick blanket of silence. I shut my eyes, and felt the mattress creak as Dog loped up on it, and weaved himself between my feet. The room settled and I counted heartbeats. There was a quiet crackle then silence again.”

I really did love this book and will definitely be adding Wyld’s first book, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, to my shelves soon.

Published 2013 by Jonathan Cape.

Source: Waterstones.

See also: Simon Savidge’s podcast You Wrote the Book includes a great interview with Evie Wyld about this book

She thought she’d left her past behind

In Her Shadow
by Louise Douglas

I was sent this book on spec by the publisher, I’m guessing partly because it’s set in Bristol, or at least half of it is. But I must admit that I wasn’t entirely won over.

The premise sounded a bit woolly and to be honest, it was. Highly strung museum worker Hannah Brown has never get over the death of her best friend Ellen when they were 18, especially because she feels that she had betrayed her friend in some mysterious way. What appears to be a sighting of Ellen sparks off a long-drawn-out breakdown, or almost-breakdown, told in alternating chapters to the story of her childhood friendship with Ellen.

The characters are interesting and varied. As well as mousey matter-of-fact Hannah and exuberant arty Ellen there’s Ellen’s brooding, troubled father and Hannah’s sort-of-foster-brother Jago who is a gentle salt-of-the-earth type.

And there is quite a lot going on. In her youth Hannah nurtured an obsessive fixation on Ellen’s father, turning a blind eye to his failures as a father to her best friend. She also got pretty jealous over both Jago and Ellen. In the current day Hannah has a fixation on her co-worker John who is married, though not happily. And she’s having a meltdown.

Which all sounds like it could have been gripping. But somehow…it wasn’t. It was easy enough to read but there were no stand-out passages. The Bristol setting if anything annoyed me because it was slightly clunky, name-checking streets and locations constantly, rather than using more subtle descriptions that Bristolians would recognise anyway.

The Cornish setting was better, combining the romantic wild landscape and the mystery of a big rich house (Ellen’s) and the starker reality of working-class Britain in what I think was the 1970s and 1980s. Douglas showed some love for this setting, subtly dropping in local detail the way I would have liked her to in the Bristol sections.

The climactic reveal of the betrayal was actually better than I had expected, and made me dislike Hannah where up to then I had been on her side. I know the moment itself could be written off as a youthful mistake but she has spent years (16 or 17, I think) doing nothing to right the wrong.

There was some gothic, melodramatic potential for this novel but for me it didn’t deliver.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Undercurrents

RebeccaRebecca
by Daphne du Maurier

This was, appropriately, the final book in the Discovering Daphne readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. I have been looking forward for months to re-reading it, and was a little sad at how quickly I flew through its pages when this week finally came.

One of the reasons I highly rate this book (and no doubt many others would agree) is the great pleasure of re-reading it. This was my third reading (I think) and I loved looking out for the hints of what is to come, as well as spotting the red herrings that had misled me previous times. Knowing the story allowed me to linger over the detailed gothic descriptions when I was in the mood and skim over them when I wasn’t. Despite knowing the outcome, I was still excited by the build-up of tension and on tenterhooks in all the right places. I’m convinced – du Maurier was officially a wonderful writer.

Briefly, this is the story of the second Mrs Maxim de Winter. Or rather, she is the one who tells the story, but for a lot of the time it isn’t about her at all, it’s about Rebecca. Rebecca was Maxim’s first wife and died tragically young, just a year before he met and swiftly married his second wife.

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Immersed in darkness

The Angel’s Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
translated by Lucia Graves

This is a dark, brooding, action-packed thrill of a gothic mystery. All of the essential ingredients are in place. There’s the unreliable narrator, the setting that’s at once beautiful and dangerous and absolutely a character itself, a host of potential good guy/bad guy switchovers and more than one beautiful woman who life has not treated kindly.

The main character, David Martín, is, appropriately enough, a writer of cheap crime fiction, a writer who has made a name for himself but feels that he can produce something better, worthier of his talent. He describes his home city of Barcelona the way he knows best – as a romantic place filled with dark, crime-filled back streets and a suffocating atmosphere that holds him there against his better judgement. His judgement is of course highly questionable – more so as the story progresses. It can be hard at times to understand the decisions he makes but to truly enjoy this story you have to give in to the almost cheesy gothic craziness of it all.

It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story but, essentially, Martín has always scraped a living, being helped out by kind benefactors more often than his pride would like, so when he is offered a fortune by a stranger (the angel of the title) to write a book it is too good an offer to turn down. Unfortunately the commission and the stranger are both strange forces that Martín underestimates the power of.

This is a very enjoyable, fast-paced read but it does have some down sides. There is some extreme violence that I found off-putting and the lead female character is very weak and feeble. However, there are other stronger females in here and the violence certainly has its place in this type of story. Because the mystery is that of an over-arching evil it is easily maintained even as secrets are revealed, though not all secrets do get revealed in the end. Ambiguity is something I tend to enjoy, particularly when, as here, it is quite subtle to begin with. The broody gothic atmosphere is very effective; many’s the time I had chills run down my spine while reading a scene.

The story is set mainly in the 1930s, adding a certain something to the ambience. Though it is only occasionally mentioned, the political turmoil is somehow part of the darkness of the story. It certainly helps with the feeling that this a film noir on paper.

And that might just be the reason why I didn’t like this quite as much as I had hoped to (having rated Zafón’s previous book, The Shadow of the Wind, extremely highly) – there were too many scenes that felt like they’d been written with film in mind, rather than fiction. Don’t get me wrong – Zafón is not spare in his descriptions. On the contrary, his language is beautiful, evocative, atospheric. But some scenes felt false, with writing akin to stage directions. It’s a feeling I last got when reading Dan Brown, much as I hate to compare these otherwise very different authors.

Published 2009 by Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2644-7

UPDATE: For another viewpoint, check out this review on And the Plot Thickens.