Talking of post colonial fiction

classicsclub3The Classics Club posted a question this month about readers experiences of post-colonial literature.

This is a body of literature of which I was completely ignorant until about 10 years ago. It was never mentioned let alone studied during my literature degree course. But then feminist readings and Marxist literary theories weren’t much in evidence either all those years ago. It wasn’t until I took an Open University literature model ten years ago that the terms post colonial literature and post colonial criticism actually reared their heads.

Until that time it seemed that I had only read one post colonial novel – Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea but over the the years since, and particularly since I started reading novels by writers outside of USA and UK, I’ve read significantly more titles that deal with the issue of problems caused by colonisation and imperialism. Of them, the ones that stand out are Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o which is a remarkable passionate story about the aftermath of independence from colonial rule in Kenya and  The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell in which a British colonial outpost in India comes under attack from natives.

I think I relate more to the literature which looks at the experience of colonised peoples than to the academics whose work examines literature from a point of view of how reflects the attitudes of the colonisers and the colonised. Some of their perspectives of classic works do provide food for thought  but you have to penetrate through layers of dense writing to get to the insights. My worst experience has to be reading an essay on Jane Eyre by Gayatri Spivak who maintained that Bronte’s novel was an example of “an unquestioned ideology of imperialism” and proceeded to make a complex argument that Bertha had to be positioned as the ‘oppressed other’ so that Jane could be positioned as the heroine of feminist individualism. If you ever come across an essay or article by Spivak be warned – she will cause you to think very differently about some books that you thought you understood well but, it will take you many strong cups of coffee or a glasses of wine to understand her convoluted language.


5 reasons to read The Miniaturist

TheMiniaturistIt was hard to miss Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist last year. Readers were so entranced by her tale of strange secrets behind the door of a sixteenth century Amsterdam house, they bought more than 100,000 copies (making it one of the fastest selling books in hard back format).  It was named as book of the year in the National Book Awards, by The Observer and also the Waterstones’ book chain. Burton herself was named as  National Book Awards New Writer of the Year 2014.

If you’ve yet to buy or borrow this book or you have it lingering on the bookshelf, let me see if I can persuade you to delay no longer.

1. It’s a feast for the eyes. Just the act of picking up this book and opening it will remind you that reading is as much a tactile and sensory experience as it is a cerebral one. In hardback format the novel is an object of beauty. The UK cover (shown above) has a glorious representation of an ornate doll’s house of the kind given as a wedding gift to the novel’s principal character, eighteen year old Nella Oortman.  The model of the house and all its contents including Nella’s parakeet in a cage, were constructed by hand by Andersen M Studio, a specialist company in London (you can watch a short video of the project ). The level of detail is astonishing. Adding to the whole experience, cover designer Katie Tooke edged all the pages in the same tone of blue used for the costumed figures. Just look at the picture of Burton at a-book signing to see how gorgeous this looks).

2. It will convince you to visit Amsterdam. Or, if you’ve been previously, to canalmake a return trip. Burton brings the city so vividly to life that you’ll feel you absolutely have to take a boat along the Herengracht Canal where Nella lives. In the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century this was the premiere address in the city, the place where the richest merchants and most influential inhabitants built their mansions with inner gardens and coach houses. Today it’s a World Heritage location though on the day Nella arrives at her new home, it wasn’t looking its best. Nevertheless it still makes an impression on the young girl from the countryside.

Today the wide stretch is brown and workaday. Looming above the sludge-coloured canal, the houses are a phenomenon. Admiring their own symmetry on the water, they are stately and beautiful, jewels set within the city’s pride. Abpvetheir rooftops, Natue is doing her best to keep up and clouds in colours of saffron and apricot echo the spoils of the glorious republic.

3. You’ll yearn for a olie-koeck. These are sweetened dough balls fried in hog’s fat which might not sound too good until you realise that they are in effect a kind of doughnut.

“…the fried crust breaks apart under Nella’s teeth, releasing the perfect blnd of almond, ginger, clove and apple.”

There are many scenes involving cooking in this novel, acting as a device for Nella to probe her housemaid and cook for info about her mysterious new husband. Amsterdam being a Calvinist city at the time means the residents tend to be ultra conservative in public, dressed in plain wool garments and eating a lot of cabbage and onions. But in the privacy of their homes they give into their sweet tooth with sugar coated doughnuts and marzipan.

4. Best to read it before you see it.  If ever a book was made for the screen, this is it. This week the publishers Picador announced that a London based company has taken out an option to create a tv series based on Burton’s novels. They’ll have plenty of material to work with, from some set pieces like a court trial, a feast and a drowning to several scenes in which Nella, intent on discovering the identity of a mysterious miniature maker, gets out into the streets of Amsterdam to discover the source of its wealth.

She climbed … past bolts of Coromandel and Bengal silk, cloves, mace and nutmeg in crates marked Molucca, pepper labelled from Malabar, peels of Ceylonese cinnamon… Past Delft plates, casks of wine…, boxes of vermilion and cochineal, mercury for mirrors and the syphilis, Persian trinkets cast in gold and silver… Here is real life, she thinks, out of breath and giddy. Here is where true adventures come to land.

5. It’s simply a good story. A number of reviewers have commented that they found the book implausible in part and the writing style rather saggy on occasion.  Admittedly Burton could work a bit harder on her similes but she still delivered some finely crafted passages and a story that is so well constructed it keeps you wanting to read on, and on and on. At times it reminded me of Tracy Chevalier’s work. To call this a page turner would be unfair because I always associate that descriptor with fast paced crime fiction and while Burton’s novel does contain a mystery, the underlying themes of contradictory attitudes to women, sexuality and to the outsider are far more interesting than whether Nella finds the answers she seeks.



Sunday Salon: Clearing the reading clutter

sundaysalonKeeping things simple is my theme this year. As I described in one of the first posts of the year, this means I’m holding back from reading challenges. In line with this spirit of simplification I’ve now decided that the time has come to de-clutter my reading life. I’m not as ambitious however as the woman I read about yesterday who had adopted a numerical approach where she gets rid of one item on day 1 of the month, 2 on day 2, 3 on day 3 etc right up to day 30. Small but steady changes is more in line with my thinking.

Step 1: clear out the bookshelves.  My goal is to find space on bookshelves/in cupboards for all the books currently in piles on the floor. I uncovered a pile of business related books that I can’t see me ever getting to read. So off to the charity shop went  Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence PeopleThe Empty Raincoat, by Charles Handy and Jim Collins’ From Good to Great. I’ve read sections of all of them but not from cover to cover. Along with them in the discard pile were numerous text books from my Open University courses on children’s literature, Shakespeare and the Romantic era. I kept a few books on social media topics and also sustainability but made a promise to myself that if I haven’t read them within a year, they’ll also be finding new homes.

Step 2: Prune my email in box A radical pruning was called for here having reached more than 4,000 items in my in box.  A mass delete of messages from before 2013 got it down to a more reasonable number. Then I started unsubscribing from all the companies who insist on sending me emails and newsletters telling me about their latest products and special offers. Wish I could stop all the Amazon ‘deals of the day’ messages and the ‘if you liked this, you would probably be like this’ kind.

Step 3: Part company from social media channels. I barely have time to keep up with this blog let alone Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, LibraryThing and Stumble Upon, and Rifle and You Tube and all the other channels that have proliferated in the last few years. I’m evaluating all of these to decide which I really find of use. Rifle I have parted company with already (I joined  purely out of curiosity when it was launched but haven’t found them offering anything significantly better than Goodreads). Stumble Upon will probably be next. I’m in a quandary with Twitter – I find things there that I don’t see anywhere else but really don’t have the time to post that often. I’m in an even bigger quandary over Goodreads and LibraryThing. Goodreads is the easiest to use but LibraryThing seems to have more interesting discussions.  Does anyone have recommendations on which of these is the better option if I were to chose only one?

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

Glass PalaceThree families. Three countries. More than 100 years. In The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh takes us on a journey across cultures and generations, navigating some significant milestones in history but never losing sight of the people who loved, laughed and cried through political upheaval, invasion and war.

It’s the human dimension that grabs our attention as the book opens.  Rajkumar, a poor orphaned Burmese boy, finds himself in the royal palace on the day in 1885 when British soldiers storm the gates and forcibly evict the royal household. He befriends Dolly, one of the young women in the queen’s entourage and guides her to safety. She stays in his mind and his heart throughout the following years as he slowly builds a business in wood logging. When his position is secure as the head of teak trading empire,  he goes in search of her in her new home with the exiled royals in India . The remainder of the book traces their life together in Burma, India and Malaysia, their ambitions and disappointments and the fluctuating fortunes of their children and grand-children.

Clearly this is a family saga on a grand scale. Its settings range from the rubber plantations of Malaysia, to the Burmese teak forests and the bustling cityscape of Rangoon and Singapore. But it’s also a history of a tumultuous period in history in south east Asia, covering the rise and fall of the British Empire in the region, the second world war and India’s struggle for independence.  One of the themes of the novel looks at the way indigenous populations fight against oppression from an alien nation. In case readers needed reminding that the fight for liberty and freedom is still an issue today as it was in the nineteenth century, the novel ends with the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi on the lawn of her home where she was under house arrest.

Little wonder that Ghosh took five years to research and write The Glass Palace.

I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. (source:

It’s an impressive achievement. For me the earliest part of the novel was the most interesting, largely because of the strength of Ghosh’s characterisation. We see this not just in his principal characters Dolly and Rajkumar but in some of the smaller players, I loved the image of the exiled King Thebaw who with no kingdom to rule, resorts to supervising the movement of boats across the bay below his deteriorating palace in Ratnagiri. Later chapters, where the focus switches to the second, and then third generation, were less engaging. By then I was losing track of who was who as the parallel narratives of various children and grandchildren and friends got more and more tangled in my head. By the time we got to World War 2 and the Japanese invasion it felt as if the human dimension was subsumed in favour of details about the historical events.

I’m still glad I read it the novel however. It is complex at times and a few of the characters seemed too lightly sketched but Ghosh had a such a masterful ability to conjure up a culture in rich and beautiful detail that I forgave him for those lapses.  He’s an author I certainly want to read again, most likely Sea of Poppies, which has come highly recommended by Alex at Thinking in Fragments. It’s set against a background of China’s opium wars in the nineteenth century; could be a perfect read for my next trip to that part of the world.

EndNote: There is a short extract from The Glass Palace available on line at




In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman

InthelightIn The Light of What we Know is a big book. Not simply long, at more than 500 pages, but one that is crammed with ideas and topics. From mathematical theories, and mapping techniques to religion, the war in Afghanistan, relief aid and the banking crisis, Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel ranges far and wide.

Many of the topics are introduced as digressions from the main narrative in which two old friends meet in London after many years apart. One of them, Zafar, is a child born into poverty in Bangladesh, the other has a privileged upbringing as the grandson of Pakistan’s ambassador to the US. Friends from their days at Oxford university where they both studied mathematics, and from a short spell as financial experts in Wall Street. The book opens with a dishevelled man (who later we find is Zafar) turns up unannounced at the West London home of his former friend and proceeds over the course of three months to reveal what happened to him in the intervening years.

Some of the digressions are more interesting than others. One, presented in the form of an extended footnote complete with diagrams, relates a discussion on the ways cartographers misrepresent the actual size of countries.  Another explained how the British national flag was designed to overcome a known problem of illusion with symmetrical lines.  Rahman’s point is that truth is elusive; some things are true though it isn’t possible to prove that this is the case.

By the time I’d reached the half way mark in this book however my enthusiasm for this narrative style waned significantly as they intruded on the trajectory of the narrative. I started skipping paragraphs (never a good sign) and then just lost patience with Rahman’s approach.

So disappointing. This is a book that has attracted plaudits from many esteemed reviewers, culminating in its inclusion in the Folio Prize contenders. I admired Rahman’s ambition and his desire to convey something important but ultimately just didn’t find the reading experience enjoyable.  This was an author who seemed to be having more fun writing the book than I was having actually reading it.  Actually Rahman’s own words express my feeling perfectly:

… it had become clear that he had a story to tell, a disclosure by parts. There were the digressions, the tangents, the close analyses, and broad reflections — all deviations from a central line. I am convinced now that nothing in his account was out of place nothing extraneous, even if at times it seemed incomplete and obtuse. If I am left with the sensation of being manipulated, then it also appears to me there was a method and, behind that, a purpose.

Do authors have shelf lives?

gwyn thomas

past his sell by date? Gwyn Thomas

You know how food packaging includes a ‘Best Before’ date that tells us just how long the item will live in the cupboard before it’s past its best.? If you’re house is anything like mine, we often find tins and packets buried at the back of the cupboard that look perfectly fine even if they are two years out of date. Sometimes I’m tempted to open them just to see if the contents have deteriorated.

Last year I started to think that certain authors appear to have a shelf life too. For some like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, their shelf life runs for several centuries while for others like C P Snow (remember his Strangers and Brothers series?) or even the Booker prize winners, Stanley Middleton and David Storey, it could be a few decades before the book gradually gets pushed to the back of the book store shelves before being relegated to the bin end sale or relegated to the basement at the library. Some of them may get rescued and the

C. P. Snow: yesterday's man?

C. P. Snow: yesterday’s man?

author rediscovered (which seems to have been the case with Elizabeth Taylor) but others seem destined to disappear from our memory.

What promoted this was a book club discussion on a title I’d chosen, The Alone to the Alone, by the Welsh author Gwyn Thomas. It was published in 1947 by an author who went on to become a household name in the UK as a regular chat show participant and broadcaster.  If I tell you that this was the man chosen by the BBC to write and broadcast a eulogy to those killed in one of the UK’s worst mining disasters in 1966, you’ll get a sense of his status.

His written work was widely applauded for its lyrical qualities and acerbic wit. the book club enjoyed The Alone to the Alone yet decided it was very much ‘a book of its time’. In other words, it would have resonated more for readers at the time of its publication in 1947 than it does for today’s readers. Since his other novels are in a similar vein, the group’s assessment probably goes for his body of work as a whole.

Why that should be the case, we were not sure. Thomas wrote about life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. Why would this not resonate today yet Dickens’s novel about the poor social conditions of London in the 1840s (Dombey and Son) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1850s exposure of the appalling conditions of mill workers in northern England continue to get our attention?  Why are the latter considered literary classics and yet you’d be hard pressed to find a copy of Thomas novel in any leading bookshop (not even in the capital of Wales).  We had no answer except to pose another question:  what makes a book a classic?  We had even less of a clear answer to that question and even suspected that it’s a question to which there is no clear cut answer, just theories.


If you’re interested in hearing Gwyn Thomas’s eulogy, its available at the BBC site via this link


If you’ve ever wanted to know how to felt

FeltingA few years ago I found a book containing fabulous patterns for handbags that you knitted and then felted in the washing machine. The knitting part was super easy; you just kept going in circles. It didn’t even matter if you dropped a stitch since the felting process covered up any small holes.

Having mastered the basics I was more than interested in a book which explains the history of felting (apparently it’s a technique thousands of years old) and provides some inspiration for projects beyond handbags. Felting by Elvira López Del Prado Rivas provides details for twenty eight projects including table runners, flowers, slippers, dolls and jewellery, all explained using step by step photographs. A section is included also which is specifically targeted at children though these activities involve purchased felt rather than starting from wool. The author also explains clearly the actual process of turning wool into felt – this can be done via some elbow grease and a bucket of water if you have patience and a lot of time but is much easier using a washing machine. At the end, if you need more inspiration, there is an artist gallery in which international felt artists display some astonishing creations.

Felting was published in 2014 by Schiffer Publishing Ltd. I was provided with a copy via Net Galley. Reading it via an e-reader made it difficult to follow some of the more complex projects so I was interested in buying a copy – but baulked at 30GBP a copy. I know this was an expensive book to produce because it contains more than 500 photographs but it’s still expensive for a craft book.  If you’re bank balance is more flush than mine however, and you are interested in exploring a new hobby, this book would be well worth a look.

Why read the classics?

If you’ve ever encountered raised eyebrows or rolling eyes whenever you mention that you enjoy reading literary classics, help is at hand via New York writer Jamie Leigh. Not only will reading these books improve your vocabulary and your brain power, they’ll help you deepen your understanding of human nature, history and culture.

Her blog article 10 reasons you should read the classics, uses some familiar – but no less valid – arguments in favour of tackling the greats. One point that caught my attention was her argument that reading Dostoevsky and co will improve your social skills.

According to a 2013 study she tracked down, reading the works of these authors – in preference to ‘popular’ fiction and even non-fiction—leads to better social perception and emotional intelligence. Character-driven novels can even strengthen your personal ethics.

Next time some unkind person accuses you of wasting your time by reading all those fusty guys, you can take great delight in pointing out how you’re simply learning to be more empathetic and socially astute. That should shut them up a little don’t you think?

L’Assommoir by Émile Zola


L’Assommoir is a stark, emotional story of one woman’s struggle to find happiness in working-class Paris. The seventh title in Émile Zola’s 20-novel cycle about the Rougon-Macquart families, it ultimately cemented Zola’s position as a leading European author although at the time of its publication in 1877 it was hugely controversial.

French conservatives, sensitive to the political implications of the novel, accused Zola of grossly exaggerating the fetid, crowded, unsanitary conditions inhabited by his characters.  Zola insisted that his depiction was authentic. It was, he said ‘the first novel about the common people that does not lie’, because it was based not only on his own detailed observations of the lives of the working class but on extensive research of medical texts on the effects of alcoholism.

Zola said his purpose in writing the novel was to show how the fate of the individual is governed by hereditary and environmental forces outside his control. No matter how hard they try, they cannot escape the moral flaws passed down through the generations and the dehumanising effects of the slum conditions that were the product of rapid industrialisation.

His main focus in L’Assommoir is Gervaise Macquart, a laundry worker treated brutally by her lover Lantier and then deserted by him, leaving her and her two children destitute. Eventually she finds a new life with the roofer Coupeau, gives birth to a daughter Nana and begins to dream of owning her own laundry. A loan from a neighbour who is secretly in love with her enables to achieve her ambition. Through determination and hard graft, she makes it a success.  Fate of course has something other than happiness in store for her. Copeau lets his attention slip one day and falls from the roof. Though he survives, he is disabled.  No longer able to resume physical work he spends his days drinking rot gut at L’Assommoir bar. Gervaise’s desire for the good things in life lead her to overspend and from there into a cycle of debt, squalor and despair from which there seems no way out.

The power of this novel comes from the way Zola commands our sympathy for this woman, showing the gulf between her modest dreams and the reality of her life.  Towards the end of the book she reflects what had been her ideal:

To be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not be beaten, and die in her own bed.

Instead she ends up sleeping in filth in a courtyard that feels like a cemetery,  starving battered by her husband and alone, her daughter having become a prostitute.

Although we as readers keep hoping against hope that she will gain happiness, there is a sense of inevitability that this will never be the case given Zola’s view of the world.  His main characters have, like the great tragic heroes, a fatal flaw. A tainted inheritance is repeatedly invoked as a factor that loads the dice against he characters  efforts to avoid a  virtually preordained degeneration. Copeau becomes an alcoholic just as his father did, and also like him, suffers a similar accident. Gervaise, abused by her partners just as her mother was, has a physical defect also in the form of a limp.  Weakened by their inherited flaws, these figures are powerless against the forces of the poisonous atmosphere of their slum neighbourhood.

The world of open sewers and overflowing drains, of the stench of unwashed bodies and discharges from slaughterhouses, that is their mileu are guaranteed to crush the human spirit in Zola’s view. In the preface to the novel he declared:

Intoxication and idleness lead to a weakening of family ties, to the filth of promiscuity, toe the progressive neglect of decent feelings and ultimately to degradation and death.

My characters are not bad, they are only ignorant and ruined by the conditions of sweated toil and poverty in which they live.

Pessimistic yes. Grim, assuredly. But it’s in Zola’s ability to force us to confront the reality of life at a particular moment in time as seen through one woman’s experience, that the enduring power of this novel lies.

Daisy Miller and Washington Square

HenryJamesQuite what Daisy Miller and Washington Square are doing together I don’t know and there is no clear indication either from the publishers. Other than the fact they are both popular novellas by James and both feature a female protagonist, I can’t see a very strong connection.

I bought it on the basis of a recommendation from a fellow student on a literature course a few years ago. I had been complaining about one of the set texts — Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady —  whereas she was a huge fan of all his work and was encouraging me to give him another go. She had a point – he was after all one of the major literary figures of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. I really didn’t have the enthusiasm for reading one of his other major works like The Ambassadors but thought I’d ease myself in with some of his shorter stories.

Daisy Miller, published 1878

For a novella less than 70 pages in length, Daisy Miller had an extraordinary impact on the career of Henry James. After decades of moderate success, the story published in Cornhill Magazine brought him immediate commercial success and critical acclimation. It made James the most talked-about American writer in England, establishing his credentials as the foremost commentator on the clash between American and European attitudes.

The premise of the story is fairly straightforward: what happens when Daisy, a highly unconventional young American woman on holiday in Europe, meets the cultured American expatriate Mr Winterbourne. James uses Daisy’s story to explore how Europeans and Americans view each other, and to consider the prejudices common in any culture. The themes played well at a time when Americans were beginning to travel far more extensively after the end of the Civil War.

The Miller family is presented as wealthy but unsophisticated; a family that has the trappings of class but few of its standards of conduct. Winterbourne is constantly trying to evaluate Daisy; at times seeing her as a charming American flirt and falling in love with her animated character and yet increasingly disturbed by her behaviour, leading her to be “a young lady whom a gentleman need to longer be at pains to respect.”

Ultimately the difference in attitudes are shown to be irreconcilable with fatal consequences for Daisy.

Washington Square, published 1881

A clash of perspectives is also evident in Washington Square. Unusually for James, the novella is set in his home nation of the United States, a country that he hadn’t yet completely abandoned in favour of his adopted England, but which he rarely visited.

If Daisy Miller is a girl who wants to live life to the full, the main character of Washington Square, Catherine Sloper, is someone whom life is passing by. The only surviving child of a wealthy and esteemed doctor, Catherine is doubly cursed by her plain looks and lack of personality. She seems destined to become an oddly dressed, old-before-her-time spinster until she meets the handsome, and suave Morris Townshend who seems a very enthusiastic suitor.

Dr Sloper, whose attitude to his daughter borders on disdain, refuses to believe Townshend is anything other than a fortune hunter and systematically sets about destroying the romance. Although he finds his suspicions are vindicated, he underestimates the strength of Catherine’s feelings and the machinations of his sister Mrs Penniman who encourages the pair’s relationship for her own misguided reasons. Will Catherine find the hidden depths of resolve to help her forge her own path or will her sense of duty and obligation lead her to follow her father’s desires?

It’s the psychological aspect of Washington Square that, for me, made this a much stronger story than Daisy Miller. James weaves moral and and social observation while exploring the question of whether Catherine can attain her own identity in a patriarchal society without sacrificing her ability to love.

The interactions between Dr Sloper and his daughter make uncomfortable reading. He doesn’t expect much of her other than she be clever in the ‘womanly ways’ of embroidery, and light conversation. When she seems as if she will reject his direction for her to throw over Townshend, he becomes increasingly cold and tyrannical. In one scene where Catherine goes to his study to try and reconcile their differences and appeal for his understanding, he simply accuses her of being ungrateful and cruel.

This was more than the poor girl could bear; her tears overflowed, and she moved towards her grimly consistent parent with a pitiful cry. Her hands were raised in supplication, but he sternly evaded this appeal. instead of letter her sob out her misery on his shoulder, he simply took her by the arm and directed her course across the threshold, closing the door gently but firmly behind her.

This heartless man, so full of confidence and pride In his ability to judge what is right that he has lost his ability to empathise, reminded me of that other monstrous literary father Dickens’ Mr Paul Dombey.  Fortunately both these monsters are proved wrong.