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.

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It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible

emmaEmma
by Jane Austen

In my late teens I went through a serious period drama phase, fuelled by TV miniseries based on classic books. A particular favourite was the 1996 ITV production of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale. I loved that show and watched it so many times I can still picture every scene now, a good 15+ years after I last saw it. Plus, of course I’ve seen the Gwyneth Paltrow film (meh), the 2009 BBC series starring Romola Garai (okay) and the greatest (or at least the most fun) Austen adaptation of them all, Clueless.

So you’d think I would have read Emma long ago. However, to date my experience of Jane Austen has not gone so well. I quite liked Northanger Abbey but I gave up multiple times on both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, finding the stuffiness outweighed the wit. I can’t say finally reading Emma has won me over; largely I think I only got through it because I already knew it so well.

Emma Woodhouse is young, rich, devoted to her family and determined to be cheerful. Her elderly father doesn’t like to go out and she doesn’t like to leave him home alone, so ever since her governess Miss Taylor left to marry Mr Weston she has been pretty bored. She makes friends with Harriet Smith, a girl of unknown parentage who was raised by the local schoolmistress. Harriet is dull but straightforward and quick to adore Emma. Emma’s friend and adviser Mr Knightley (her sister’s husband’s brother, who lives nearby) thinks she would do better to befriend Jane Fairfax, who is intelligent and accomplished. But Emma has always found Miss Fairfax cold and distant, not to mention being a little jealous of her musical skill.

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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.

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Words, dropping on her like millstones

siegeThe Siege
by Helen Dunmore

After thoroughly enjoying Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter for my old book club, I added a random handful of her other books to my Christmas wishlist and this was the one my Mum picked out. I’m sure they would all have worked out equally well, as I’m starting to think I might be a Dunmore fan.

This is the story of the 1941 siege of Leningrad. Which sounds like a tough, war-heavy subject, and this book is certainly all about how tough it was, but Dunmore also makes it compulsively readable. 23-year-old Anna, her father Mikhail and her 5-year-old brother Kolya are settling into summer life at their dacha, in the countryside just outside Leningrad, when news of the German army’s advance reaches them. Instead of spending the brief northern summer growing their usual store of food for winter, they must instead hurry back to the city and help to build defences before the Germans arrive.

“Even the trees in the parks have become something else. Now they are defensive positions, behind which a man can crouch, watching, alert, his cheek pressed against bark which is carved with lovers’ initials. Each prospect of stone and water yields a second meaning which seems to have been waiting, hidden, since the city was first conceived.”

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Love should bestow sublimity

dark side of loveThe Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.

Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “

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For what is lightness but inconsequence

aurora leighAurora Leigh
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Yes, I read an epic poem, or novel in verse, and it wasn’t just to tick something off my Classics Club list. I really like Browning and had been meaning to read this for years.

Aurora Leigh is born in Italy but when her beloved parents die she is sent to England to be raised by her aunt. At every step she chooses her own way in a manner that to a modern reader might appear progressive and feminist. She is self-taught (aside from a few years when she is taught by her aunt) and chooses her career over a man; she argues for the contributions of women to the arts, and poetry in particular. From the day Aurora declines a marriage proposal because her suitor denigrates her chosen career and her gender, I was in love with her.

“We get no good / By being ungenerous, even to a book, / And calculating profits – so much help / By so much reading. It is rather when / We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth – / ‘Tis then we get the right good from a book.”

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I am my mind. Not my body

The A-Z of You and MeThe A–Z of You and Me
by James Hannah

From the marketing campaign around this debut novel – and the strapline on the cover (“A comedy of errors, a tragedy of small mistakes”) – I was expecting quite a light read, even though the premise should have prepared me for something a bit darker. It’s certainly an easy, often sweet read, but its subject matter is pretty dark. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Ivo is lying in a hospice, trying his best not to dwell on the past, but he’s so young to be dying, still in the middle of all the drama that is life. To distract him from the pain, his nurse gets him to play a game of naming a body part for each letter of the alphabet and coming up with an anecdote for each body part. And so he plays the game, telling the story of his life out of order and one body part at a time.

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Night Safari: Love in the Natural World

Natural History Museum, London
Monday 16 February 2015

Dippy has a tail

Our Valentine’s long weekend in London was largely built around Tim managing to get tickets for the Natural History Museum‘s special Valentine’s tie-in evening event. I almost didn’t care what the event was, I was so excited by the prospect of being in the museum at night, sharing it with only 50 or so people. If you’ve ever seen the ridiculous queues to get into the Natural History Museum, particularly on a weekend or school holiday (which this last week was for most of England) you’ll understand why that was exciting.

But it was also a cool event in itself: three short lectures from NHM scientists about “romance” in the natural world (there was also a “passion” option with three different scientists, which I’m guessing concentrated more on sex but let’s face it, both options were mostly about sex).

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Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial?

seconds-bryan-lee-omalley

Seconds
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

This is a sweet, funny graphic novel from the author and artist behind Scott Pilgrim, very much in the same vein. It blends real life with fantastical elements and has a strong female lead. What’s not to love?

Katie is the head chef at a restaurant called Seconds, but her dream is to own her very own restaurant. She has started to make her dream come true but it isn’t going smoothly. Her ex-boyfriend Max keeps turning up at Seconds, she’s having an affair with the man she’s supposed to be training up to replace her, and the builders at her new restaurant keep calling with bad news. When she causes an accident through negligence Katie knows something has to change…and somehow it does.

“Katie disappeared into the pantry. It was pretty pathetic. She sat there heaving and trying to make herself cry. The saddest thing was that she couldn’t have a moment away from herself. And then, through a crack in the floorboards, she saw—something.”

This has elements of a classic folk or fairy tale, including the idea that being able to put right mistakes won’t necessarily result in everything turning out perfectly. It also has a lovely strand about female friendship, as Katie alleviates her loneliness by getting to know her waitress Hazel. In familiar Bryan Lee O’Malley fashion, there are no clear right answers and Tim and I argued about the ending, before agreeing to accept that it isn’t the ending.

“Katie’s heart wouldn’t stop racing. Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial? Was she losing her grip on reality? Was she even awake?”

The art style is simple and atmospheric, with some beautiful set pieces. For instance, one double page is given over to a top-down view of the Seconds building, like a floor plan occupied by people and furniture. It reminded me of a page from one of the Usborne Puzzle Adventure series, with subtle jokes and hidden clues to the story to come – and I mean that as a compliment; I loved my Usborne Puzzle Adventures and still have several of them in my library!

Katie is an imperfect, relatable lead character. She’s strong and confident when she needs to be, fragile and heartbroken in hidden moments. She makes mistakes and she tries to put them right. She’s a bitch on a bad day and beloved by all on a good day. She doesn’t want to be alone but she doesn’t want to give up her dreams for a boyfriend. And she talks back to the narrator, which I found hilarious.

So now the only question is: will Edgar Wright please make a film of this? It would be really really great.

Published 2014 by Ballantine Books/SelfMadeHero.

Source: Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.

I had no memory any more, only a puzzle of images

A Spell of Winter

A Spell of Winter
by Helen Dunmore

Dunmore is one of those authors I’ve been hearing good things about for years but hadn’t got round to reading, despite her being local and exactly suited to my taste. Which perhaps gives away what I feel about this book!

The story is narrated by Cathy and in a slightly dreamlike nonlinear fashion she tells us how she went from happy child playing endlessly with her brother Rob, to depressed 20-something seemingly living alone in a big old house that’s falling apart. The setting is the early 20th century (in fact, the First World War acts as a big dividing line in the narrative) and a country house estate owned by Cathy’s grandfather. The facts of her life come together slowly, so although we learn early on that her grandfather, parents and brother are no longer around, the when and why take some time to be revealed. And because she, especially at first, jumps around in time, sometimes I missed whopping great clues to something that happened later and it was only with hindsight I realised I should have seen it coming.

“I had no memory any more, only a puzzle of images, each one so bright I had to believe it as it burnt up in my mind.”

The slow reveal is a recurring trope in this novel. But it never gets annoying, even when I realised after finishing the book how many mysteries are actually never resolved. The basic facts, of a small family living largely in isolation from the world and everything falling apart, are recognisable as a classic storyline, and rightly so. But Dunmore does bring something new to it, and I don’t just mean the inappropriate closeness of Cathy and Rob (after all, that’s been done before too).

“My winter excitement quickened each year with the approach of darkness. I wanted the temperature to drop lower and lower until not even a trace of mercury showed against the figures. I wanted us to wake to a kingdom of ice where our breath would turn to icicles as it left our lips and we would walk through tunnels of snow to the outhouses and find birds fallen dead from the air. I willed the snow to lie for ever, and buried my head under the pillow so as not to hear the chuckle and drip of thaw.”

For a start, the writing is beautiful. Dunmore somehow combines really vivid descriptions and gripping story with an ethereal quality, with the first chapter and epilogue feeling particularly trance-like. This, along with the first-person narrative, plants the question of how much of what we are told is real, or how much is solely in Cathy’s imagination. It certainly seems at times that she is not told things – she is after all the younger child of a (relatively) well-off family with guilty secrets at a time when women were far from equal. But this means she snatches at servant gossip or inferences to build her own ideas, not all of which are wholly proved or disproved. For instance, her grandfather is “the man from another place” and she at one point refers to herself as “half English”, but this is never fully explained.

“I ought to have made sure I knew more. He’d had a past, a geography of silence. None of us had ever mapped it.”

I feel I would be doing a disservice to the book if I didn’t say something about the big unavoidable subject at its centre but for readers like me who don’t read blurbs it will count as a spoiler so…don’t read on unless you’ve read the book or don’t mind!

*** SPOILERS BEGIN ***

So – incest. This is a tough subject for a lot of people and I was both disturbed and impressed by Dunmore that she doesn’t just imply it and leave it oblique. She has Cathy describe fully and sensually her teenage sexual awakening and it is completely sympathetic and in many ways inevitable. Cathy and Rob are entirely each other’s world, rarely seeing others their own age. But they are also both completely aware of what they are doing and both the social implications and the moral position of it.

This very much ties in to another major subject in the book – mental health. There are two occasions when characters have breakdowns in their mental health following something traumatic happening, and the story poses the question of whether this is a natural reaction to what has happened, or something that was always lingering inside them, perhaps something hereditary. Cathy wonders if her unhealthy relationship with her brother proves right all those whispers about how she is so like her mother, who ran away.

I did start to worry that Cathy’s situation had got too dark and that there was no good way out for her, but bizarrely the First World War came at just the right time for her. She has complained all along that she is too sturdily built to be a beauty but with all the men gone and a farm to run she discovers how capable she is. I loved this transformation. Though it doesn’t make her happy, it made me like her again as a person, which isn’t necessary for me to like a book but usually makes it a more pleasant read.

*** SPOILERS END ***

I really enjoyed this book. The writing style and the story, with its period setting and sensationalist angle, reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier, which is high praise indeed! I will definitely have to read more by Dunmore. Anyone have any recommendations?

Published in 1995 by Viking.
Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize.

Source: Topping Bookshop, Bath.