A vibration, very far off, chafing the air

The Greatcoat
by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore, who sadly died on 5 June, spent the last years of her life in Bristol. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of her books and I wanted to honour her by reading one I had heard praised many times. It doesn’t hurt that this book was part of the launch of Hammer Books – a horror imprint from Arrow Books and the great film studio Hammer.

The story is set at the end of 1952. Winter is closing in on the small Yorkshire town where Isabel has moved with her new husband, Philip. He’s a doctor, working at the local surgery. She’s educated and would like to work, but Philip is keen for her to learn how keep house and prepare herself for motherhood. This leaves her sat at home struggling to learn to cook with still-rationed food, or out meeting other housewives who make it clear her education marks her as different. She’s lonely.

“She put her hands on the cold sill, ready to draw her head back inside, but a sound arrested her: a vibration, very far off, chafing the air. She listened for a long time but the sound wouldn’t come any closer and wouldn’t define itself. As it faded it pulled at her teasingly, like a memory that she couldn’t touch, until the town was silent.”

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A piece of a human being but yes, a human being

Sophie’s Choice
by William Styron

I spent most of December re-reading Sophie’s Choice. I wanted to understand what it was about it I fell in love with 10 years ago. I still think it’s a great book, but it has dropped a little in my estimation.

Partly that’s its length. I used to happily read much longer books than I do now. It’s not that I have anything against long books per se, but I have less patience for rambling. I’ve always had a fondness for brevity. This book is not brief. But it is an amazing story.

This is the story of Sophie, an attractive young Polish woman who has survived the Holocaust – has survived Auschwitz – and come to live in Brooklyn, where she works as a doctor’s receptionist and is in a relationship with Nathan, a volatile but charming man who rents a room across the corridor from her. Sophie’s back story is told intermittently between the tale of the second half of 1947.

The title of this book is so familiar, a phrase well known for its hint of torment, but now that so much time has passed since both the book’s publication and the film based on it, many people now will, like me when I first read it, not know exactly what the choice of the title refers to. The novel is structured around gradually revealing Sophie’s secret, but there are plenty of smaller reveals along the way.

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He would name, classify and diagnose every nuance of the human soul

the_memory_of_love_by_aminatta_fornaThe Memory of Love
by Aminatta Forna

I can’t remember how this book made its way onto my TBR, but I picked it up thanks to the Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo, which for me includes the square “Set in Africa”. If not for that I might have avoided this for a long time, expecting a dark, disturbing read. It’s not quite what I expected.

The book has dark, disturbing moments for sure. It is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, post civil war, pre Ebola, so approximately when it was written (this book was published in 2010 so presumably written in about 2008). The civil war is a scar for the native characters, creating a distance that can never be breached by the primary non-native character, a white British doctor.

Adrian Lockheart is a psychologist on secondment to Sierra Leone. It is his second assignment to Africa, and he spends much of the novel dwelling on his reasons for being there. He has a wife and daughter back home in England, but his marriage is failing and over the years he has lost the feeling that he is actually helping his patients.

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All I see is oppression and hate and suffering

alone-in-berlinAlone in Berlin
by Hans Fallada
translated from German by Michael Hofmann

Our next holiday will be in Berlin so a colleague recommended I read this novel to get to know the city a little. It’s fiction, but it’s also pretty close to being a first-hand account of life for ordinary Berliners in the city under Nazi rule. Hans Fallada was a successful author before the Nazis came to power and during their rule he tried to tread the fine line between avoiding trouble and collusion with politics and people he didn’t agree with. Those experiences, plus a real-life case of anti-Nazi propaganda, form the basis of this book.

The story opens in 1940. Postwoman Eva Kluge is bringing a telegram to older couple Otto and Anna Quangel with news of the death of their son, fighting at the front. Their upstairs neighbour, Frau Rosenthal, lives in fear of the Nazi thugs on the 1st floor, the Persicke family, since her husband was arrested. But perhaps she should be more afraid of Emil Borkhausen in the basement, who figures he can get away with robbing an old Jewish woman, and might even be rewarded for it by the Party.

“But even though her eyes are now very close to his, she keeps them shut tight, she won’t look at him. Her face is a sickly yellow, her usual healthy colour is gone. The flesh over the bones seems to have melted away – it’s like looking at a skull. Only her cheeks and mouth continue to tremble, as her whole body trembles, caught up in some mysterious inner quake.”

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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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Pink Mist

Bristol Old Vic
19 February 2016

One of my Christmas presents from Tim was tickets to the play Pink Mist at Bristol Old Vic, which I knew nothing about except that it’s all in verse and was first performed last year. So it’s modern and experimental but in other ways classical, harking back even as far as ancient Greek theatre. Because this is the story of three young men – boys, really, the main character Arthur corrects himself – who go to war.

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Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.

 

pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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Holiday in France: the reporters memorial

A friend suggested I blog about this after it was almost all I talked about when summarising our holiday! It certainly made a big impression on me.

A Robert Capa Memorial des Reporters

It started with a small memorial outside a museum in Bayeux to Robert Capa, a photographer whose work Tim and I are familiar with and admire, so we were interested to see something about him but also curious what claim Bayeux had to him. We continued along the path in grounds opposite the Commonwealth war cemetery and next we came to two marble slabs that said they were the entrance to a memorial to “journalists killed all over the world since 1944”, a joint project between Bayeux and Reporters Without Borders. Which seemed like a very good idea, and I walked on expecting just a peaceful garden of some kind. I hadn’t read the text properly (I think I’d tried to understand the French rather than looking at the English) so I wasn’t prepared for what came next.

Too many names

A long, tree-sheltered footpath flanked on both sides by marble slabs listing the name of every journalist killed under the year of their death (the photo above shows only a small section). It’s simple and powerful and heartbreaking, because there are so many names, and the numbers seem to be increasing. So much so that a second path has been started.

I’m not sure why this moved me more than the thousands of graves of soldiers just over the road (which was also pretty disquieting), but somehow it did. I could argue that soldiers sign up for the possibility of death, but of course in World War Two most of them didn’t get a choice. In fact, reporters have more choice about whether or not to go to a war zone, but then not all of these deaths were in a war zone. For those who want more than a list of names, there is an online archive.

Untitled

I suppose I can relate to the reporters, to their decision to tell the truth about the world. Not that I in any way consider myself worthy to stand alongside the men and women who risk their lives to make corruption, injustice and other important news known to the world, but I admire them in a way I just can’t admire a soldier. I can be (and indeed am) sad about the massive loss of life during war, but it’s not the same thing.

I don’t understand war, how anyone could take a fight to the level of massive loss of human life, and it is only through writing, both journalism and fiction, that I can at least try to comprehend. For anyone interested in what it’s like to be a reporter on war zones and other dangerous regions, I highly recommend the work of Joe Sacco, who is honest about the draw and the thrill, as well as the need to tell the stories of the real people affected.

(Back to more cheerful things, and maybe another book review, soon I promise!)

Unsung women kept the wheels of the war machine turning

fighting-on-the-home-front

Fighting on the Home Front: the Legacy of Women in World War One
by Kate Adie

This is a book that needed to be written, and Kate Adie seems like a good choice for it – a journalist whose own career blazed a trail for women to follow, but who is nevertheless rarely if ever controversial, not radically feminist and famously matter of fact. And arguably that’s exactly the book you get: competently written, comprehensive and factual. But is it the book I was hoping for?

This is the story of British women in World War One, from encouraging men to enlist, to stepping up to fill men’s jobs left vacant, to political campaigns for the vote and equal pay, to supporting the armed forces on the battlefields. It was a time of radical change throughout the world, but for women in Britain especially so. Adie takes a different war-time role per chapter and looks at it overall (including pre-war history where relevant) as well as showcasing specific examples of women in that field. She acknowledges that most of these are upper or middle class women, because even war did not erode class boundaries and generally the women creating new charities and organisations, from knitting drives to army hospitals, were those who had money and social clout. However, she does also include excerpts from interviews with many women from lower down the social ladder who can testify as to the reality of work in munitions factories, felling trees, delivering post, driving trams and dozens of other roles previously male-only.

It’s certainly an interesting read, with plenty of fascinating snippets and some surprising facts. There was real resistance maintained to women filling certain roles right up to the end of the war (they could clean, build, engineer and signal trains but never drive them, for instance) but also to the way women dressed when they took on these jobs – skirts 10 inches above the ground, or even trousers! Adie has clear admiration for all these women, from the ambulance drivers who went to war zones without official permission because they knew they were needed, to the maids who joined the Women’s Land Army and worked long hard days in mud for little money because they knew there was a food shortage. She depicts the good and the bad – explosions in munitions factories and the beginnings of women’s football; women working longer hours for less pay than the men they replaced and their winning the (restricted) right to vote in early 1918.

“However vital the [munitions] work was, it wasn’t glamorous – it was hard, undertaken in unpleasant conditions, boring and relentless…The press were not inclined to print stories about the downside of this vast industry. Physical stress, unhealthy conditions and increasing arguments about wages from those who could see they were doing the same as men was not the image that was projected: these were fit, patriotic workers.”

Suffrage features heavily because most suffragettes and suffragists (previous to reading this book I had no idea there was a difference) abandoned, or appeared to abandon, their political campaigns in favour of helping the war effort. In some cases this was itself a political act – by exercising their skills of organisation, marketing and fundraising in a field no-one could disapprove of, they proved their capability, not to mention that many of the organisations created by suffragettes were formed wholly of women doing “men’s work”, or filling traditional women’s roles but in dangerous territory so that the armed forces didn’t need to “waste” able men feeding, cleaning uniforms for and providing first aid to their troops.

There were many victories won, small and large, by British women between 1914 and 1918, but many were only temporary. The post-war section of the book is fairly short, but in general women were kicked out of their new jobs, often at the worst possible time for them to lose their income, as men’s deaths and injuries resulting from war left many women as the principal wage earners for their household. I would have liked a few case studies here, for Adie to have followed up with some of the women interviewed earlier to see how their lives progressed.

“The time and energy spent in travelling, acquiring supplies, sorting, packing and transporting them abroad are hardly recorded. It represents the most enormous amount of daily effort by an unsung and huge amount of women…Garnering no medals and mostly ignored by the official historians, it was small beer compared to the horrifying statistics of the military campaign; but every last little bandage and bar of soap kept the wheels of the war machine turning.”

In fact, this would be my overriding criticism – the narrative descends into generalisation a little too often. I wanted more facts – how many women did this job before, during and after the war? – and more first-hand accounts. I also didn’t like all the subjects Adie chose to concentrate on. There’s a whole chapter about women’s struggle to be allowed to read in church, which actually formed an amusing anecdote in the speech Adie gave about this book in Bath last year, but didn’t really have the substance for a whole chapter, and as a result it was an especially woolly chapter. I suppose as a feminist and occasional radical myself, I wanted more of those trailblazing women – Flora Sandes who joined the Serbian army as a soldier, Louisa Garrett Anderson who qualified as a doctor and ran hospitals near the front line so that she could get to injured men early enough to operate. And I also would have liked some personal accounts of men’s reactions, rather than just what was published in the papers.

Adie throws in her own family history during the war, which is fine, but there is also a very obvious slant to her home town of Sunderland. At one point I wondered if she’d bothered to do research anywhere else! She also throws in her own experience as a war reporter, which is sometimes perfectly appropriate and sometimes jarring.

I think “uneven” would be my one-word summary, but even so this is a very readable, enlightening book about many many amazing women.

Published 2013 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: I bought this at a Toppings author event in Bath.