There is a silent ripeness to the air

Harvest
by Jim Crace

This is an unusual book, primarily because of its historical setting and premise. While there are plenty of historical novels, there are few that remain so determinedly non-specific about the time and place in which they are set and even fewer where the action revolves around the forced enclosure of common land.

England (which is presumably the setting, though even that isn’t stated outright) had a series of Enclosure Acts from the 12th century to the 19th, but they became especially common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Effectively, this allowed landowners to seize common land – land that their tenants, which often meant whole villages, farmed for their own use – and enclose it, controlling what was farmed there. This might mean charging rent to local people or it might mean switching to a type of farming that employed far fewer people, such as sheep farming.

It doesn’t sound like the most auspicious basis for a book, but actually that part of it really worked for me. It felt very relevant to be reading about social injustice, the rich getting richer while the poor lose what little they have. There is some action too – arson, violence, death – which the landowner turns to his advantage, though the villagers don’t realise it.

Continue reading “There is a silent ripeness to the air”

It was foolish to think some things were beyond happening

The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd

A few years back a publisher sent me a book on spec that I completely fell in love with: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I have been meaning ever since to go back to her famously popular debut novel. As her previous writings were spiritual memoirs, she’s not an obvious candidate for my fandom, but this book also really hit the spot for me.

It’s the story of Lily, a 14-year-old white girl who lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her perpetually angry father. She may or may not have accidentally killed her mother when she was four. Either way, there’s not a lot of affection in her life and what little there is comes from her black housekeeper Rosaleen. When Rosaleen spits tobacco on the shoes of white men who are racially abusing her, she is arrested and Lily’s father refuses to bail her out. Lily fears for Rosaleen’s life in police custody so she busts her out and they run away together.

Continue reading “It was foolish to think some things were beyond happening”

The white sea-mists of early summer turn the hill to fantasy

TheKingsGeneralThe King’s General
by Daphne du Maurier

I picked this book to read while on holiday in Fowey. Du Maurier wrote this historical novel while living at Menabilly, and loosely based it on the house’s occupants during the English Civil War. In her author’s note she calls it a “blend of fact and fiction” – as far as I can tell, the names of people and outcomes of battles are correct, their personalities and feelings about each other are presumably invented.

It’s a slightly uneven novel, weaving a questionable romance into what is otherwise a fascinating mix of characters and events. The narrator is Honor, who structures her story around the Grenviles, a pair of siblings who came into her life when she was a young child. Richard Grenvile is dashing but pretty much a bastard. For the first part of the book he doesn’t even come across as the roguish antihero he later becomes, he’s just nasty and it’s a little hard to see how Honor could, as she does, fall in love with him. Then again, she’s very young and nice girls falling for bad boys is a classic trope for a reason, right?

Richard’s sister Gartred Grenvile is similarly beautiful and treats people like dirt. She is an interesting baddie, always acting out of self-interest rather than any inherent evil. This puts her at times in an uneven truce with Honor, while at others they are clear enemies.

Continue reading “The white sea-mists of early summer turn the hill to fantasy”

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.

Continue reading “I knew the story would change as I told it”

There is no truth except in relation

The Luminaries

The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton

I’m a bit bemused why this won the Booker Prize. It’s not by any means a bad book, but less than a week after finishing it I’m finding it’s not really stayed with me, and nothing about it felt particularly standout. Except perhaps its size. That’s pretty noticeable.

This is a historical mystery novel with a broad cast of characters (and you know there’s a lot of people to keep track of when a book begins with a character list) who inhabit the New Zealand coastal town of Hokitika during the 1860s. The story opens with the arrival of Mr Walter Moody, come to make his fortune on the nearby goldfields. On his first night in town he stumbles on a secret meeting of 12 men who are trying to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious events that occurred two weeks previously: a prostitute attempted suicide (or did she?), a wealthy (and well-liked) man vanished and a drunken hermit was found dead with a fortune hidden in his home. Moody finds that by chance he has some information that may be pertinent to the gathered men, so they all tell their stories in turn. Or rather their snippets of the same story, because it becomes clear that they are each part of a large jigsaw puzzle that must be reassembled.

“Unconfirmed suspicion tends, over time, to become wilful, fallacious, and prey to the vicissitudes of mood – it acquires all the qualities of common superstition – and the men of the Crown Hotel, whose nexus of allegiance is stitched, after all, in the bright thread of time and motion, have, like all men, no immunity to influence.”

That’s part one, which is 360 pages long – partly because every new character is described in great detail, or at least their physical appearance and temperament are. But that length also comes from the same story effectively being told multiple times from different perspectives, with different details added or assumptions made that are later proved wrong. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, if sometimes confusing, and I think I was a little disappointed that the rest of the novel didn’t follow quite the same style.

From part two the story moves more conventionally forward and then eventually backward in time, much like a detective novel, following the characters trying to unravel the mysteries and then going back to reveal what actually happened. It’s no surprise that all of the odd events are linked together, but figuring out how and why is genuinely intriguing and enjoyable enough to keep me reading without feeling burdened by the book’s 832 pages (except for the occasional sore arm from holding all that size and weight – this is definitely a good argument for the e-book).

“[This] only showed, Moody thought, that a man ought never to trust another man’s evaluation of a third man’s disposition. For human temperament was a volatile compound of perception and circumstance.”

So if it wasn’t the book’s size or the plot that left me unsatisfied, what was it? One thing is that I didn’t really get the book’s main narrative device – the plural narrative voice (as in, the story is told by “we”, not that different narrators take turns). I wasn’t sure who these voices were supposed to be, though I did get a sense they were somehow linked to star signs and astrology, which also pop up at the start of each section. It’s a shame because I quite like the idea of a chorus, like in an old play, but it just didn’t quite work for me. Possibly because I was put off by the astrology references. This is a personal prejudice, but I did think that the astrology didn’t strongly relate to the rest of the story and felt out of place. (It does actually come up as a plot point that’s probably meant to be really important, but I felt could easily have been dropped without affecting the rest of the story at all, so that’s not really key at all, is it?)

“When we looked upon Man, we sought to fix him: we mourned his failures and measured his gifts…But there is no truth except in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no longer sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past. We now look outward, through the phantasm of our own convictions.”

I did like the little summary at the start of each chapter, which reminded me a lot of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, including the tongue-in-cheek sense of humour with which they are written. And I liked the variety of people, both in terms of nationalities and personalities. But that very plurality also meant that there was no psychological insight into any people or events. It’s a personal preference, I know, but I like to get under someone’s skin in my reading, rather than be held at arm’s length.

Have you read this? What did you think of it?

Published 2013 by Granta.
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

The reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors

The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende
translated from Spanish by Magda Bogin

I had been meaning to read Isabel Allende for years, so I heartily encouraged this book-club choice. I knew absolutely nothing about it going in but I did know a little about the author and it was interesting how that coloured my reading, especially toward the end of the book.

This is both a family saga and the tale of a country over the span of 70 or so years, beginning at the start of the 20th century. The country is clearly Chile though it’s never named. The characters – beginning with Clara del Valle as the youngest child of a large, wealthy family – and their lives are described by two narrators, one of whose identity becomes clear early on and another whose identity is not revealed until the epilogue. The longest-lived character – and therefore in some ways the largest presence in the book – is Esteban Trueba, whom I found inscrutable. He’s not hugely likeable but he’s also not 100% bad; he has genuine complexity that makes him difficult to write off or ignore.

In fact, that’s true of all the characters, despite the many stories packed in here and the sometimes extreme views depicted, they remain believably human. The family is not a metaphor – they’re well-drawn characters with shades of grey and sometimes confused loyalties – but they do represent types of people in Chile to an extent – rich landowner, activist student, charitable middle class, etc.

“She was one of those people who are born for the greatness of a single love, for exaggerated hatred, for apocalyptic vengeance, and for the most sublime forms of heroism, but she was unable to shape her fate to the dimensions of her amorous vocation, so it was lived out as something flat and gray trapped between her mother’s sick room walls.”

In the beginning I found this book funny, charming and lovely, but then we get some shocking scenes – such as Esteban Trueba mistreating his farm tenants – that remind you that this is a book with a political agenda. Not that it’s rammed home at the cost of good storytelling, by any means, but I did find that the novel moved a little uneasily from family story with politics in the background to an overtly political story with the few remaining family members directly involved in the politics.

“She felt that everything was made of glass, as fragile as a sigh, and that the machine-gun fire and bombs of that unforgettable Tuesday had destroyed most of what she knew, and that all the rest had been smashed to pieces and spattered with blood.”

This book is an often-cited example of magical realism and it certainly starts with lots of magical/fantasy elements but they fade away until they’re only a memory of the surviving characters. Which I suppose forms part of the political message getting darker and more overt as the book goes on. But perhaps the magic is also part of the old way of life, which has been lost irretrievably.

“Childhood came to an end and she entered her youth within the walls of her house in a world of terrifying stories and calm silences. It was a world in which time was not marked by calendars or watches and objects had a life of their own, in which apparitions sat at the table and conversed with human beings, the past and future formed part of a single unit, and the reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors where everything and anything could happen.”

I did feel that the earlier politics was dealt with more subtly, with distance, whereas the later politics felt much more angry and personal. This reflects to some extent the characters who are the two narrators, but it also seemed a lot like Allende’s own anger, which would certainly be understandable. And the end section of the book is certainly gripping – probably the only section that truly is – but it felt like a very different novel, at times hardly even a novel but more an account of Chile in the 1970s.

We all agreed at book group that this novel is very readable, though it’s not one to rush through. And it is perhaps a little overlong – it could easily have been trimmed. But overall it’s enjoyable, and I am interested in reading more Allende.

La casa de los espíritus published 1982 by Plaza & Janés.
This translation published 1985 by Jonathan Cape/Alfred A Knopf.

Source: Waterstones Bristol.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Retinas oxidized in the ether

the jump artistThe Jump Artist
by Austin Ratner

Although I knew that this novel was based on a true story, it was only in the last few pages that I realised I knew a little of its subject, Philippe Halsman, and his famous photographs. Which was perhaps for the best, because it meant that the story was new to me. But I don’t think it would matter if you already knew the story, because the writing is by far good enough to keep you enraptured.

The story begins with Philippe and his father on a walking holiday in the Austrian Alps in 1928. By the end of the day Philippe has been accused of murder and his subsequent trial and retrial reverberate throughout the world’s press. Halsman was a Latvian Jew, an intense, brooding, depressive man in a bewildering world of anti-Semites. Great thinkers of the day, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud spoke up on his behalf and he later became a celebrity photographer, but the murder and the imprisonment could never be struck from Halsman’s memory.

Ratner has done an excellent job of combining extensive research, with extracts from diaries, newspapers and other first-hand sources throughout the text, and yet he has still created a living breathing character in Halsman. He is not even a sympathetic character, at least not at first, though considering the seemingly hopeless situation you can forgive him for the flights of crazy. He self-harms, invents methods of self-punishment including starvation, and disappears into his own dark dark world of death and guilt and shame. Extracts from Halsman’s letters from prison reveal his slightly scary intensity and Ratner captures this in his own prose:

“When he’d seen Winged Victory on the Daru staircase at the Louvre, Papa and Mama and Liouba had had to leave him behind to go see the Persian friezes. He’d soaked up the pleasure of it in his eyes for more than an hour, and when he looked at his face in the mirror at the hotel, his eyes were wrecked with burst vessels.”

Despite this dark central character, and indeed the dark times covered, from 1920s Austria to 1930s Paris and the great exodus of 1940, this book didn’t depress me. In fact, the one time I cried it was at a beautiful moment of humanity. I was so engrossed that I powered straight through in just a couple of sittings, and then wished that I had lingered over it, savoured the often exquisite language:

“They’d been up at 5:30 that very morning and vaulted up the Schönbichlerhorn into its frigid airless winds, had their retinas oxidized in the ether, and their hands seared on the snow and the flint rocks, hot as sunburned metal. They had broken themselves on the mountain and been baptized there above the timber line at the top of the world, where the river of air meets the river of fire.”

In later chapters, I loved the descriptions of Halsman taking photographs and could often picture the finished result from Ratner’s description. From tentative beginnings, Halsman finally finds confidence and artistry in photography and Ratner evokes a believably troubled but brilliant man.

I am not sure why, after this was published to great acclaim in the US in 2009, it took three years to find a UK publisher, but I am really glad that it now has.

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

First published in the USA in 2009 by Bellevue Literary Press.
Winner of the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Published in Great Britain in 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Let our life stories become tragic art

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
by Lisa See

This is the kind of book I went through a phase of reading several years ago – Asian country, female narrator, historical setting (often during a civil war) and generally following the daily life of poor(ish) folk. So I have some comparison. This one stood up well in terms of teaching me new stuff but less well as regards quality of story. Sadly.

Lily is born in 1830 to a modest farming family in the Chinese province of Hunan. As second daughter she has little worth and is just another mouth to feed until the Matchmaker delivers surprising news: if her feet are bound properly, she will have perfect feet, which will secure her both a good marriage (which her family will benefit from) and a laotong – a lifelong best friend (other girls must leave their childhood friends behind when they marry). But secrets, reversals of fortune and an attempted peasant rebellion all threaten both her happiness and her friendship.

The book is narrated by Lily, from her earliest memories aged five or so, and from the age of seven she is largely confined to the “women’s chamber” and discouraged from paying attention to the world of men, so we hear little about the history or politics of the time, but there is still plenty to tell. See did a lot of research into nu shu, the secret women’s writing, and frames her story around it, but she also details the horrors of foot binding, the rituals of daily life and special occasions to the point that I frequently felt I was learning a lesson rather than reading a story. It’s a fascinating lesson, and after years of research I understand why she wanted to use what she could, but it might have been nice to have a little more, I don’t know, insight?

Perhaps I wasn’t helped by my dislike of Lily. She and her laotong Snow Flower are matched at the age of seven, visit one another often and write to each other in-between, so they appear to be extremely close. Yet they almost always stick to formalised language that allows for misunderstandings and misinterpretations that cause them both pain and suffering:

“My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,
An invisible rebellion that no man can see.
Let our life stories become tragic art.
Oh, Mama, oh, sisters, hear me, hear me.”

I can accept that their writing might have remained this rigid but in person too? They are often alone together – after they are married, when they visit they share a bed with each other and banish husbands to another room – so how come they never speak naturally even then? The insinuation of Lily’s narrative is that she insisted on this formality and in that way caused all the ensuing problems. But really?

Maybe I am struggling with suspension of disbelief. I’m not saying it’s a bad book. I was very interested and entertained but I did not feel absorbed.

First published 2006 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Memories that approached, invading my body

The Seamstress
by María Dueñas
translated by Daniel Hahn

This novel (which is titled The Time In Between in some countries) is one of those where a lot happens later in the book and I am torn about how much to reveal. I don’t think the story hinges on these plot points, but I have a general policy to not give away plot details. So I’ll do my best but

I think the key to my impression of this book was hidden away in the author’s note at the end. I can see why it was saved until after all of the story has been revealed, but it made me see everything in a different light and half makes me want to re-read the book with the new knowledge that I have. What Dueñas has done is to take a historical story that she wanted to tell, with huge real events and important real people, but shown through the prism of a fictional minor character.

That character is Sira, born in Madrid to a single mother who works hard as a seamstress. Sira is all set to follow in her mother’s footsteps, or perhaps learn to type and become a lowly civil servant, when a man storms into her life and changes everything.

The story is set in the 1930s and 1940s, through the Spanish Civil War and the beginnings of World War II. In Spain, Morocco and Spain again, Sira’s fortunes rise and rise, but as she mixes with richer folk she learns about the politics of her country and is driven to do what she can to help it at this worst of times. She enjoys more than a little luck, with many a kind stranger giving her a helping hand along her way, but she is a likeable enough character. In fact, she is a very strong woman, single for most of the book and independently making her way.

Sira narrates the story in no-nonsense fashion, with few embellishments and few asides. What she describes is believably what would catch the eye of a dressmaker born to a poorer life than the one she later enjoys. She describes the poise and confidence of the rich, the cut and quality of clothes, the size and elegance of rooms or furnishings. Despite essentially following one career on a successful trajectory, Sira thinks of each new stage in her life as a reinvention, requiring changes to her personality as well as her back story. She makes a point of teaching herself how to act above her station – how to stand, how to speak, how to socialise.

At 600+ pages it’s quite a long book, and there were times in the middle when my attention strayed. It felt to me that the whole point of the book was the final section, in Madrid when Franco’s government is teetering towards full collaboration with the Nazis, and that all of the rest had been build-up. It certainly changes pace there, becoming a thriller with a poised, confident female heroine. But perhaps it wouldn’t have worked so well without the full knowledge of how Sira became that woman.

Another slight negative for me, and of course I don’t know if this is Dueñas or the translation, was that there were many times when what could have been a subtle point was overstated, sometimes clumsily even. But I should also say that in general I thought the translation was excellent, dealing very effectively with characters speaking multiple languages to one another.

This book has stayed with me in the days since finishing it and has definitely made me curious to learn more about the Spanish Civil War. And it’s made me want to go to Morocco, but I kinda already wanted to do that!

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

Published May 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

What’s in a name

Possession
by AS Byatt

This was a re-read that I sadly ended up rushing through because it was for book club and I didn’t give myself enough time. It’s a wonderful book, as literary as they come yet immensely readable.

The story begins with Roland, a postgrad scholar of the eminent (and fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, discovering long-hidden drafts of a love letter from Ash to a mystery woman. This is a potentially huge discovery, Ash having been assumed to be a dull, happily married type.

Thus begins the unravelling of great secrets, but Roland is jealous of his discovery and does not tell his university supervisor or his girlfriend Val. Instead he turns to a complete stranger, fellow academic Maud, because he suspects that the subject of her studies, minor Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, was also the subject of Ash’s letter.

Between letters, diaries, academic texts, poems and good old-fashioned third-person narrative, there are a lot of switches in style and voice in this book, yet it never feels as though that is the case. Similarly, like the poems being studied for clues, this text is packed full of allusions and references, but it doesn’t feel overly clever or difficult.

In some ways this book is very much a product of its time. It was written in the 1980s and Byatt gently satirises the times. Roland is emasculated by Val’s stronger earning power and neither of them ever says what they mean. Maud is surrounded by feminists who seem obsessed with lesbianism and anti-men sentiments. The shadow of AIDS looms large over thoughts of sex. But this is all subtly kept in the background.

At book club we discussed how you can read this book at many different levels. There is the surface level where it’s a romance/mystery/drama and is fun and enjoyable without requiring any background knowledge. There’s the satire on academia, particularly 1980s academia. And there’s the literary novel, referencing mainly Victorian poetry but also older texts such as Shakespeare and Ovid and I’m sure plenty more that I didn’t spot. The character names are carefully chosen for the literary allusions that they have. And at all these levels it works, works very well, without ever seeming to show off.

I’m told that The Children’s Book is another excellent Byatt read, and that just happens to be on my TBR (a kind Christmas present), so I expect to be breaking that out soon.

First published 1990 by Chatto & Windus.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize.