A fragility to the space between them

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
by Sue Townsend

There may be a certain symmetry in me reading this book in one day, a day when I was off work sick in bed. I certainly found myself sympathising with main character Eva more than I might have another day.

The day that Eva’s twins leave home for university she takes to her bed and declares that she will not be leaving it again for a year. She asks her husband to use another bedroom from now on. So begins Townsend’s latest comical exploration of modern life. Compared with her other books, this is slightly less about Britain and slightly more about people and coping. But it’s as ever an insightful study of society and humanity.

“Alexander said, ‘I would hate to be you, man. Your heart must look like them ugly pickled walnuts they sell at Christmas. Naasty tings!’
‘I’m one of the most compassionate men I know,’ said Brian…’And if you think that by affecting a West Indian patois I will be intimidated by you, you’re wrong. I’ve got a pal called Azizi – he’s African, but he’s a good chap.’
Alexander queried, ‘But he’s a good chap?'”

Eva is surprisingly sympathetic considering how incredibly self-indulgent her actions are. Even as she is demanding that her sick, elderly mother and mother-in-law take their turns bringing her food and drink, she is so astutely examining herself, asking “the big questions” and paying attention to the rest of the world (ironically, as she has now separated herself from it) that she is difficult to dislike.

Townsend combines the comic and the serious to great effect:

“Ruby said, ‘Look, I’m not getting into another argument about God. All I know is that he looks after me…’
Eva said gently, ‘But he didn’t save you from losing your purse, tickets and passport when you were at East Midlands Airport last year, did he?’
Ruby said, ‘He can’t be everywhere, and he’s bound to be busy at peak holiday time…Do you know, Eva, sometimes I can’t wait to get to heaven. I’m tired of living down here since everything went complicated.'”

Yes, there’s a lot of he said, she said, but there are also phrases that are beautifully formed:

“There was a fragility to the space between them, as though their breath had frozen and could easily shatter if the wrong word were said.”

Sadly, I must admit that Eva is the only character who isn’t a little bit of a caricature. When her astrophysicist husband is introduced he seems quiet and loving and I was hopeful that this would also be an acute examination of marriage/love but it is not. He turns out to be a bit of a joke figure and there is little love between them. Similarly the hyper-intelligent twin children are slightly cliched. But there are a lot of characters in this book who all have a role to play in Eva’s search for answers so perhaps it’s best that they are not all as complex and real as she is.

In some ways this books reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – both books take an ordinary person who becomes a temporary celebrity for an odd reason, who becomes the unlikely focus of admirers and newspaper stories and Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and is disconcerted by this. I suppose it’s a comment on modern life and celebrity and society, but I found it a little hard to believe that people would really get caught up by the story of a woman who decided to take to her bed (though there is a little more to it than that).

Of course, what this book does have in spades is humour. I laughed out loud time and again. It was a real tonic for a bad day and an interesting, perhaps not complete change but certainly slight deviation in focus for Townsend.

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

Published 2012 by Penguin.

That’s prostrate, with two Rs

Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years
by Sue Townsend

Oh, Sue Townsend, you never let me down. I’ve been struggling to read much lately but as soon as I opened this book I was tearing through the pages, laughing out loud and loving reconnecting with the characters that are so familiar they are like extended family.

I pretty much grew up with Adrian Mole. I somehow got hold of the first two books when I was about 10 (I think they’d been given to my older sister, not to me) and I read and re-read those volumes many a time through my teens. I think I have bought and read all of the subsequent volumes, and though grown-up Adrian is far more annoying than the teenage boy was, I still love being back in that world.

Adey, as Pandora still calls him, is approaching 40, is living next-door to his parents in a converted pigsty, is worried that his wife Daisy is gaining weight and losing interest in him, and is having trouble with his prostate (which everyone keeps calling his prostrate, much to his irritation). Still, he enjoys his job at a local independent bookshop and his five-year-old daughter Gracie is a treasure, albeit one with an overactive imagination. And surprisingly, the glamorous and successful Pandora (MP and junior minister) still shows enough interest in him to make his wife jealous.

This wouldn’t be an Adrian Mole book if he wasn’t teetering on the brink of total failure and there are moments when you wonder if he doesn’t bring it on himself (he’s so earnest) but he is ultimately a very sympathetic character surrounded by everyday-type chaos. What I’ve always thought Townsend does particularly well is to make Adrian a terrible writer when he’s trying to write (which he’s still convinced is his forte despite only ever having published a cookbook that his mother had to ghost-write when he couldn’t get past the introduction) but a brilliant diarist. His daily life, boring to his own eyes and those of his friends and family, becomes wonderfully funny through a combination of keen observation and fantastic characterisation.

In this book, for possibly the first time, my favourite character was Adrian’s mother Pauline. She freely admits to a long litany of faults but is devoted to her family and amazingly capable (she is often the only one who can persuade Gracie to wear her school uniform and not one of her many fancy dress costumes…and she does it without tears or tantrums). She is also writing an autobiography full of shocking lies that she has provisionally titled A Girl Called Shit and is threatening to take Adrian’s sister Rosie on The Jeremy Kyle Show to reveal who her real father is.

As ever, the diaries are set in the recent past (2007–2008) and provide an often-satirical look at life in Britain. There are the precursors to and early rumblings of recession, the resignation of Tony Blair, the summer floods and the smoking ban.

The next instalment of the Mole diaries is due out later this year and I greatly look forward to it.

Published 2009 by Michael Joseph.

A bit of festive cheer

Comfort and Joy
by India Knight

Some people might classify this as chicklit, not my usual genre, but as Dervla would say this time of year, this is no ordinary chicklit; this is chicklit that absolutely completely struck a chord with me. Plus, it’s Christmassy.

Clara is 40 and is scrambling around Oxford Street on 23 December to complete the perfect Christmas she has planned for her 16 guests, including her three children, husband and ex-husband. The book follows her through the ensuing mayhem of family, friends and Christmas.

Knight mercilessly mocks the middle-class boreishness. I mean, these people are London middle class, which is a whole separate sub-class of its own. They obsess over the provenance of their food (in fact, food in general) and PTA meetings and how to give their children everything without spoiling them. Clara herself is painfully aware that these are not issues most of the world has the luxury of worrying about and besides, she finds it boring. What happened to those youthful days of discussing politics?

There are some painfully real moments and Clara can be a little vicious in her own mind, but she loves the people around her and this shines through. Her sisters are particularly wonderful characters and their shared history and language are joyous to be part of.

I laughed out loud many a time but I also appreciated the main “lesson” that Clara learns – that your true family is the one that’s there for you, the people who “taught me to swim, and everything that that’s shorthand for” as she puts it. Broken marriages and jumbled extended families may be nothing new but I suspect there’s still a lot of people out there trying to negotiate the tricky waters of which parents, step-parents, half-brothers and ex-step-granddads they keep in touch with. It’s always nice to know that someone else is struggling with the same issue.

Knight has got right into the Christmas tradition by writing about Christmas past, present and future. I loved that touch, though the future Christmas was rather less bleak than Dickens’. If you’re not one for making a fuss about Christmas, this may not be the book for you. But I loved it. I stayed up far too late into the night to finish it and then felt a little sad that it was over so soon.

Merry Christmas and happy holiday reading!

Published 2010 by Penguin.

Sketches from the edge

After the Quake
by Haruki Murakami
translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin

Murakami’s style is well suited to the short story, being sparse and slightly distant. These stories are character studies, making the most of his ability to briefly sketch a vividly real human being.

This collection might be termed fragments rather than stories because only one feels like a complete story (Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, which was adapted into a stage play shortly after the English publication) but they are all compelling. The stories are linked by an earthquake that none of the characters experienced directly but all are affected by it. The disaster tugs at their darkest thoughts and memories.

Murakami manages to take very ordinary everyday lives and experiences (again excepting Super-Frog Saves Tokyo) and make them strange, mysterious, beautiful in their darkness. He writes as though an over-arching mystery awaits a resolution that will pull all the threads together, but the clues are never followed through to the end. Because there is no ending, characters are left pondering their dark thoughts or just getting on with life, not very far from where we met them.

For me the one blip was Super-Frog Saves Tokyo. It seemed too randomly weird. Murakami is generally pretty good at incorporating surreal elements into his work without them standing out and usually they have a clear purpose. This story – man comes home to find a giant frog telling him that together they must fight the evil worm to stop an earthquake from destroying Tokyo – was not badly written and could be seen as a nightmare or a psychotic episode or as a metaphor or just plain old surrealism, but for me it just doesn’t work. It jarred.

However, overall this was another great book from Murakami and I continue to rate him highly.

Published in the UK 2003 by Vintage
ISBN: 978-0-0994-4856-3