Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier [bookreview] #20 booksofsummer

Jamaica Inn Sometimes it pays to give an author a second —  or even a third — chance. Such has proved to be the case with Daphne du Maurier, an author I first encountered via My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately it proved a deeply unsatisfying experience. I was expecting far more suspense and menace but though the book promised so much in this direction, ultimately for me it failed to deliver.

But I had another of her novels sitting unread on my bookshelves; Jamaica Inn. Surely the woman considered a master of the art of telling suspensful stories with sinister overtones couldn’t disappoint a second time? I’m happy to report that she didn’t. Jamaica Inn is a romp of a novel that proved a perfect companion during a heatwave that robbed my brain of any ability to deal with taxing reading material.

Written in 1935 but set in the early 19th century, Jamaica Inn is a fast-paced drama full of murder, paranoia, violence and sexual threats.  It’s set in a delapidated Cornish coaching inn, on a lonely road between Bodmin and Launceston, a place surrounded by treacherous marshes and high tors. This is an unforgiving landscape, certainly not the pleasant farmland community of ‘shining waters … green hills and sloping valleys’ that was home to our heroine Mary Yellan for 23 years of her life. But on the death of her mother, she cannot continue to manage their farm single-handedly. Without the farm she has no option but to take refuge with her aunt Patience and her husband Joss Merlyn who run a pub called Jamaica Inn.

Bodmin Moor 2

Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Her arrival at the isolated inn is the first stage in her journey from paradise to hell, from ignorance to tortured knowledge and from innocence to sexual awareness. Du Maurier provides a suitably Gothic tone to herald Mary’s arrival at the inn. She travels in a coach that creaks, sways and groans its way across the bleak moors in mist and driving rain. Mary reflects that the people of this part of the country must be “born of strange stock who slept with this earth as  pillow, beneath this black sky. They would have something of the Devil left in them still.”

When she arrives at the inn it’s to discover a place that seems steeped in suffering. It’s “like a live thing’ yet has a “cold, dead atmosphere”. A clock ticks “like a dying man who cannot catch his breath” and on Mary’s first night she is spooked by the battered wooden inn sign that creaks “like an animal in pain. ” Outside Mary hears the wind whistling across the moors as if it’s “a chorus from the dead” which isn’t that far from the truth since there are indeed the corpses of murder victims buried among the bogs.  It doesn’t take long for Mary to learn that the inn’s reputation as a place of secrets is fully justified.

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

As she is drawn inexorably in to the smuggling, theft and murder committed by Joss Merlyn and his associates, Mary learns also what it is to be fearful for her own safety. She’s a brave girl, repeatedly facing up to her thuggish uncle and refusing to be cowed by his brutality but she treads a treacherous path; torn between the desire to expose wrong doing yet wanting to protect her aunt.

Uncle Joss is one of the great villains of fiction. He’s the key figure in a network that lures ships off course and sends them crashing into the rocks so they can steal the cargo. He’s a powerful figure whose considerable physical presence is matched by a cunning nature. When he opens the door to Mary on her arrival she sees:

… a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high with a creased black brow and skin the colour of a gypsy. … He looked as if he had the strenghth of a horse with immense powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big hat in a sense his head was dawred and sunk between his soulders giving that half-stooping impression of a giant gorilla, with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair.

He and Mary play a cat and mouse game from her very first night when he threatens to “break you until you eat out of my hand” if she gossips about anything she hears or sees at the pub. She faces down his threats instantly: “If you hurt my Aunt Patience in any way,  I tell you this —  I’ll find the magistrate and bring him here and have the law on you and then try and break me if you like.” But though Joss has a grudging respect for her courage, she’s still a threat to his empire and one he will not refrain from harming if it suits his purpose.

Amidst the dramatic scenes du Maurier has woven a few interesting themes. One is around love and sexual desire. Mary becomes attracted to Joss’ brother Jem Merlyn though she knows he’s a dangerous man, a horse-thief who bears a physical resemblance to her uncle.  Mary is smitten by his bright eyes and long dark lashes but can she trust him?  How much does he know about the smuggling? Her encounters with Jem set up a conflict where Mary recognises “he stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.”  This is not a girl with a rose-tinted view of the relationships between men and women, but one who knows that if she gives in to her temptation there would be no turning back.

Du Maurier broadens this romantic dilemma into a broader theme about the female situation. Mary is frustrated that as a woman she has fewer weapons in her armoury against her uncle. As a man she could challenge him uncle in open combat, but as a woman she is nothing more than “a petticoat and a shawl.” Later, during a day out with Jem, she becomes as frustrated by differing gendered attitudes towards sexual liaisons:

She wished that women were not the frail things of straw she believed them to be; then she could stay this night with Jem Merlyn and forget herself as he could forget, and both of them part with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder. But she was a woman, and it was impossible. A few kisses had made a fool of her already.

Mary knows that the real risk of a relationship with Jem isn’t a damaged reputation, it is that she would become the kind of abused woman she finds in her Aunt Patience. In her aunt she sees someone whose previous lively personality and intelligence have disappeared because of constant fear of her husband. Living in “perpetual high anxiety” under his reign has turned into into “a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience.”

Mary puts her faith in her own strength of will to combat a fate where she would, like Patience, trail like a ghost in the shadow of her master. But she is operating in a world  where it seems violence against women is normal and all Jem can promise her is a hard life.  The novel’s ending leaves us wondering whether there will in fact be a ‘happy-ending’ for Mary.

Footnotes

About the bookJamaica Inn, inspired by du Maurier’s stay at the real inn in 1930, was published in 1936, the fourth novel she had written. Three years later it was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock,  the first of three of her works he was to transfer to the large screen (the others were her novel Rebecca and short story The Birds). The coaching inn still exists though today is a far more successful commercial venture than it was in the novel. From the pictures on the website it looks rather cosy. I’ve never been there by my husband tells me it’s a ‘bit touristy’…..

About the author: Daphne du Maurier was born in London into an artistic and literary family. Her connections helped her establish her literary career, giving her the ability to publish some early works in Bystander magazine. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. Her most famous novel Rebecca, published in 1938 became one of most successful works.  In 1969 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire but never told any of her family about the honour and never used the title. She died in 1989.

Why I read this book: Jamaica Inn is one of those novels that it’s guaranteed people will have heard of even if they have never read it or seen one of the various film/tv adaptations. I found it in a library sale and thought it was about time I gave it a go. It’s on my reading list for 20booksofsummer2017

Book series on my radar

This week’s Top Ten topic (as hosted by Broke and Bookish) is “Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning To Start But Haven’t.”  This could turn out to be a very short post in that case since I don’t tend to be a reader of series. Or at least I didn’t think I was until I took a look at my reading over the last few years and the list of books I own but have not yet read. It seems I am already part way through a few series. So let’s talk about those first.

Current Series Reading

L'AssommoirThe Rougon-Macquet cycle by Emile Zola: a sequence of 20 novels written by the French author between 1871 and 1893. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), the novels follow the lives of the members of two branches of a fictional family. Zola planned in this sequence to “study in a family the questions of blood and environments.” In other words, he wanted to advocate his theory of naturalism by demonstrating how people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment.  So far I’ve read four of the 20 and each one has been excellent. I have another title on my 20booksofsummerreadinglist which will get me quarter of the way through the collection. That’s fine, I’m in no hurry. If you don’t know Zola’s work and want to get more familiar with it, take a look at the superb readingzola blog  created by Lisa and Dagny.

Dr Thorne by Anthony TrollopeChronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope: a sequence of six novels set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The novels concern the political and social dealings of the clergy and the gentry but don’t imagine that means they are rather dull – the novels are full of power struggles, social class clashes, financial disasters and frustrated affairs of the heart. They also contain some of the most magnificently rendered characters I’ve come across in literature. I’m half way through the series – next up in my Anthony Trollope project is Framley Parsonage which was published in 1861 and features a young vicar whose aspirations to move up in the social circle make him vulnerable to the machinations of a Member of Parliament with a reputation for debt. More info about Trollope can be found at the Trollope Society website

great-reckoning

Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny

We’re now at book twelve in a series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  Louise Penny’s protagonist is a man of great integrity, a man who refuses to shirk from uncomfortable truths or to turn a blind eye when he senses corruption and wrong-doing even at the heart of the police force. But he’s also thoughtful, gentle and warm – not only to his wife and son in law but to the inhabitants of a small community in the province of Quebec called Three Pines that he discovers during the course of one of his investigations. Three Pines is a superb created fictional place; it’s so small it doesn’t even show up on maps, yet it is home to Gabri who runs the bistro, the acerbic poet Ruth, Myrna who owns the bookstore and the artist Clara Morrow. Each book that takes us back to Three Pines means we get a chance to meet up with these old friends.  I’ve read six of the books published so far (a new title is due out this August) but I didn’t read them in sequence. Penny has said each novel is meant to be self-standing but to get the full effect of the character development they are indeed best read in order. So that’s what I’ve now started to do.  You can find more about Louise Penny at her website

Series I may not finish

LamentationsThe Shardlake novels by C. J Sansom. I’ve enjoyed a few of this historical crime series which feature a laywer called Shardlake who takes on the role of the ‘detective’. Sansom is a historian by training which enables him to bring the Tudor period to life with all its political machinations, religious upheaval, sounds and smells (he does smells rather well). There are six in the series starting with Dissolution which was the first I read. I’ve read four now – the last one being number 5 in the series; Lamentation (reviewed here) – and though I’ve enjoyed them, the level of enthusiasm has begin to wane. If I wasn’t so close to finishing I probably would give up now, but it seems as Macbeth said

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4)

Future Series to Read

Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope: Once I finish the Chronicels of Barsestshire I’m planning to move onto the Palliser novels. This is a series of six novels written between 1864 and 1879 which feature a wealthy aristocrat and politician Plantagenet Palliser, and his wife, Lady Glencora (although they don’t play major roles in every title). The plots involve British and Irish politics in varying degrees, specifically in and around Parliament. There is a bit of a cross-over of characters with those in the Barchester Chronicles – Plantagent Palliser has a small role in The Small House at Allington for example and he has an unwise flirtation with the daughter of Dr Grantly and granddaughter of the Reverend Mr Harding, characters who appear in The Warden and Barchester Towers. The Victorian Web considers the Palliser novels to be superior to the Barchester Chronicles

strangers and brothers

Strangers and Brothers by C. P Snow: This series of 11 novels, published between 1940 and 1970, is one that has been on my radar screen for about 30 years. So keen was I to read them that I made my husband trek from bookshop to bookshop in Hay on Wye just so I could get all of them in the same Penguin livery.  All the novels are narrated by a character called Lewis Eliot whose life we follow from humble beginnings in an English provincial town, through to a reasonably successful career as a London lawyer. In future years he becomes a Cambridge don, and sees wartime service in Whitehall as a senior civil servant. They deal with – among other things – questions of political and personal integrity, and the mechanics of exercising power. This series may not be familiar to you but you’ll possibly have heard the expression Corridors of Power – this is the title of book number nine but was referred to in an earlier title in the series. The term went on to become a household phrase referring to the centres of government and power. Its still in use today though the name of its originator has faded from the public’s mind. What constituted ‘required reading’ in earlier decades is barely heard about now. I’m just hoping that when I do start reading the series, that trek around Hay will prove to have been worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang [book review]

The-Vegetarian-Han-Kang-2I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago as an experiment in healthy eating. Like Yeong-hye, the central character in The Vegetarian, I came in for many challenges from certain members of my family who couldn’t understand why I wanted to forsake what, for them, was a standard element of any meal. Fortunately I had a more cohesive answer than the one Yeong-hye gives her husband: “I had a dream.” she tells him when he discovers her sat on the floor of their kitchen in Seoul, surrounded by packets of meat she has thrown out of the freezer.

We learn, though her husband doesn’t, that her dream is grotesque, bloody and aggressive. And so is the reaction to her decision. Her husband frets about how this will look to his boss who invites them for dinner (the resulting occasion is a painful event). father, so incensed that she will not eat the delicacies prepared for a family lunch, tries to force a piece of sweet-and-sour pork into her mouth. In protest Yeong-hye stabs herself.

And yet who would have imagined this of a woman whose nature until then had been so docile and insignificant; the very reason her husband chose her for his bride was that she was “completely unremarkable in every way”. And yet here she is refusing to wear a bra, defying Korean cultural expectations by putting her own needs above those of family and husband,  and to eat only plants even though she is clearly starving herself. Only her brother in law, an unsuccessful video artist, finds her attractive. Unfortunately he’s not interested in her as such, only in Yeong-hye as a body, a canvas upon which he can paint giant flowers and plants. She becomes the object of his sexually-charged obsession that transforms her body into a “huge, abstracted plant.”

The Vegetarian is told in three acts which have distinctive differences in language from measured prose to almost hallucinatory description and to fragmented internal monologues where we get to learn what is going on in Yeong-hye’s mind.

Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening–what am I going to gouge

The first act, narrated by her husband interposed by Yeong-hye’s dreams, deals with her decision and her family’s reaction;  the second is narrated by her brother-in-law and the third by her sister In-hye; the only member of the family who seems genuinely to care for Yeon-hye. She maintains contact when all others abandon the woman, unable to deal with her increasingly bizarre actions. But In-hye’s patience is tested severely when she visits her sister to learn she believes she is a tree, taking sustenance only from the soil, violently refusing attempts to force feed her when placed in a mental institution.

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

This is a portrait of disintegration. Yeong-hye’s rebellion causes her mental faculties to collapse and lead to the destruction of two families. It’s also a quite unflinching portrait about the clash between personal desire and conformity to expectations of behaviour in a society that denies such desires. Repeatedly we’re shown the clash between desire and denial in a way that asks disturbing questions about the nature of personal choice and ownership of one’s body in Korean society.

For a short novel, this is a startling piece of work. It’s disturbing in its portrayal of mental collapse, provocative in its portrayal of rebellion against conformity and unstinting with its descriptions of bleeding, vomiting, and manic behaviour. This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.

Footnotes

About the book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith was published in 2015. It was considered ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea on first publication but has since been translated into more than 20 languages. The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. Han Kang has gone on record that the inspiration for the book, initially published as three novellas, was a line by a modernist poet Yi Sang: ‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ which obsessed her while she was at university. Further insights on the book are in an interview for the White Review. 

About the author: Han Kang comes from a literary family in Korea, her father is a novelist and her brother a writer. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University, South Korea.  She is the winner of several awards including the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Since 2013 she has been teaching creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. 2016 saw the publication in translation of Human Acts which begins with the massacre of students in South Korea in 1980.  If you don’t know her work, you can get a taste with the short story Fruit of My Woman on the Granta website 

Why I read this book: I bought The Vegetarian as a way of  making up for my large deficiency of knowledge of writers from Asia. It’s the first book I’ve read from my 20booksof summerproject for 2017.

10 literary fathers to love or dislike

It will be Father’s Day in the UK this Sunday, in honour of which the Top Ten Tuesday prompt this week is all about fathers in literature.  Some literary dads we love to love; others we love to hate and give thanks that we are not their offspring.

One of the good guys: Atticus Finch as played by Gregory Peck

1.Let’s get the obvious one of out of the way first. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird is a dad most of us would love to have. Dignified, courageous, loyal, kind and loving, he imparts lessons in life to his children through both his words and his deeds.

2. Jean-Joachim Goriot in Old Goriot by Balzac is a successful member of France’s burgeoning bourgeoisie and yet the only thing that gives him any pleasure is the happiness of his daughters. Unfortunately for him, they see this as a green light to fleece him blind, bringing him to bankruptcy. If you’re a money-grabbing scrounger of a child then you’d probably be delighted to have a father who is willing, even on his deathbed, to sell his remaining possessions so you can go to a ball. The rest of us will wince.

3. My next father; Michael Henchard from Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge; is a complex character. As a young man with too much of a liking for drink, he auctions off his wife and baby daughter while under the influence. He hides his guilty secret for years so he can rise in the world. When they reappear he tries to do right by them but his jealousy and pride lead him to bully his daughter. At times Henchard is a man  who, even if we don’t like him, can at least feel sorry for when he loses his position in the town and is ridiculed by his neighbours but then he goes and spoils it all by  his treatment of his daughter.

4. All book lovers will appreciate the father figure in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón in which the young boy Daniel is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his widowed bookseller father.

I was hard pressed to find other positive role models or dads for whom we can show sympathy. Maybe its more fun for authors to create characters we dislike?

5. In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens created a father who abuses the love his children have for him. William Dorrit’s entire family go down with him when he is declared a bankrupt and sent to Marshalsea prison. He pretends not to know that his daughters are forced to find menial work just to put food on the table. Instead of appreciating the love his youngest daughter Amy shows for him, he repays her with criticism. A thoroughly self-centered man whom it’s difficult to love or to whom we feel any sympathy.

6. But Mr Dorrit could still be considered preferable as a father to Heathcliff.  The brooding protagonist of Emily Brontë’s Gothic novel Wuthering Heights fathers a sickly child called Linton whom he despises. Heathcliff harshly uses him as a means to exact revenge on the Lintons over the death of his beloved Cathy, to the extent of forcing him into a marriage.

A dangerous role model: Harrison Ford as Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast

7. Speaking of fathers who manipulate their children to serve their own ambitions, takes me to The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Allie Fox is a man who gets it into his head that America has gone to the dogs.  To protect his family he uproots them and moves to a South American jungle where he plans to build a utopian society closer to his own ideals. But in his effort to achieve his dream he lies to his children, bullies them and puts their lives in danger.

8. At least Allie shows an emotional connection with his children which is more than can be said for Mr Ryder senior in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. This is a man who enjoys rare books more than he does his son’s company. Having barely registered the fact that his son Charles has even been off at Oxford University for many months he can’t wait to see him gone again, eagerly encouraging him to Go off to visit his new chums at Brideshead or  Venice. Anywhere is preferable to having him at home.

9. Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son is another cold fish. He is desperate for a son who will join him in his trading company. When his unfortunate wife gives birth first to a daughter, his dismay is so great that he barely acknowledges the girl’s presence. She grows up without any sign of affection let alone love from her father and every overture she makes towards him is repelled. But still she loves him.

10. The father/son relationship is central to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe where it is used as a theme around the expectations and cultural definitions of masculinity and success. Although Unoka is a kind man with a number of positive traits he is also shown as a failure because he lives in debt and does not provide well for his family.  The personality of his son Okonkwo is shaped as a response to his father, as he determines to be everything his father wasn’t.

The examples below are from novels I’ve read. If you have other favourites do share them in in the comments field.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel #bookreviews

station 11-1Last month I put out an appeal here and via Twitter for recommendations of books that would help me break through my aversion to science fiction. One book was mentioned over and over again: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.  I’m not going to promise that this book has made be a sci-fi convert but if this is a taste of what’s available then I can certainly see me reading more in that line in the future.

Usually when I hear a novel is set in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic world, my reaction is akin to that of encountering the most fetid smell possible. But Mandel’s imagined world, while disintegrated, degraded and thoroughly unpleasant, is recognisable enough for me to feel it could still be real. The characters’ names for one thing are largely realistic — admittedly one of them is called Jeevan which is not a name I’ve ever heard of before, but you can’t get much more down to earth than Arthur and Clark. The locations are also real with most of the action taking place in Toronto, Chicago and the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan.  And then the opening scene takes me to a very familiar experience, that of being in the theatre watching a performance of King Lear. The combination of those realities made it possible for me to accept the disruptive elements of Station Eleven more readily.

Mantel begins with a personal tragedy. Part way through a performance of King Lear, the renowned Hollywood actor Arthur Leander collapses. Despite the efforts of Jeevan, a trainee paramedic, and a cardiologist, both of whom who were in the audience, he dies. Tragedy on a considerably vaster scale follows quickly via a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. The world, as they have come to know it, exists no more.

No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. …  No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pick up.

As bleak as this sounds, Mantel can’t resist a touch of humour for the results of the lack of power is a world sans the Internet and social media:

… no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

The narrative hops forward from Day 1 to Year 20 of the virus. The survivors have formed small settlements in abandoned towns and empty shopping malls and factories, forever fearful of armed bandits who roam the land.

Civilisation in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbours, lied and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm. These places didn’t go out of their way to welcome outsiders.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel for me was the way Mandel deals with individual responses to the calamity. Some hunker down in isolated properties living off whatever they can hunt; others take to religion and follow prophet-like figures bent on absolute power. Some never give up hope that out there, somewhere, something of normality survives. In Traverse City an inventor rigs up an electrical system to a stationary bicycle that when pedaled furiously could power a laptop and help him find the Internet. Over in Chicago pilots use their last fuel supplies for reconnaissance trips outside the city where they might find food and supplies. They never return. One of the more unusual responses comes in the form of The Travelling Symphony:  a group of 20 or so musicians and actors in horse-drawn wagons who move between settlements staging concerts and theatrical performances wherever they stop. Why? The answer lies in the message painted on the side of their lead wagon:  “Because Survival is Insufficient.”

For many of these people the past is recalled only in fragments. Kirsten, an actress with the symphony, was eight at the time of the outbreak. Her mother’s face has grown vague over the years but she remembers clearly the actor Arthur Leander because she was there, on stage with him, the night he died. She’s made a habit of collecting information about him that she finds in deserted houses during her travels. Photos with actresses outside restaurants, gossip column pieces about his repeated failed marriages and reviews of his films; all are kept safe in her zip-lock bag. Also in the bag are two  issues of a comic-book series featuring a character called Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station after escaping an alien takeover of Earth.

A very different response to the past is shown by a survivor holed up in the airport. Clark Thompson, friend of Arthur Leander,  begins collecting some of the items abandoned because in the new world order, they are useless. He discovers there is no end to the number of objects that had no practical purpose but people want to preserve nevertheless : credit cards; Nintendo consoles; drivers’ licences; passports; cellphones; laptops; car engines and a gleaming chrome motor cycle; even a pair of red stiletto heels. All become the basis for the Museum of Civilization, a museum of artefacts to teach people born into the new world, about the old world.

But what of the future? It would have been easy for Mandel to end the novel with a sense that the apocalypse is nearing its end. Too easy and far too neat a resolution. Instead she leaves us with a feeling that a major collapse might have crippled the world, but has not ruined it as long as there are people alive who retain hope:

If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain? Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side?

The combination of beautiful style of writing  and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.

About the Book:

Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel. Published in 2014 it was long listed for the National Book Award.

About the author:

Emily St John Mandel was born in Canada. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband.

Why I read this book:

It was recommended by several book bloggers who have far more knowledge of science fiction than I possess. This was the first of their recommended authors that I could find in the local library.

Snapshot June 2017

 

June snapshotThe calendar has moved forward once again and its time to take a quick snapshot of what I was reading/ planning to read on the first of the month. One June 1, 2017 I was:

Reading

the vegetarian-1The book on my bedside table on June 1 was one of  the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I’m approaching the end of this novella and can safely say it’s one of the oddest books I’ve read in many years. I knew, even before opening it, that it would be an extraordinary piece of work about a woman whose decision to stop eating meat causes an irreconcilable rift in three families. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so dark and provocative.

It was a good way to start the month particularly since I’d ended May with two astonishing books: My Ántonia by Willa Cather (reviewed here) and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mantel (my first experience of science fiction in many decades).

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. With the help of some culling (mainly children’s fiction and some non-fiction books) I’m now down to 280. There are new books still coming into the house but they’re in extremely modest numbers compared to past years (2016 was the year things went completely out of control). My most recent aquisition was on the final day of May when I won a copy of Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen (the first in the Six Tudor Queens series by Alison Weir) when she gave a talk about Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife). I was chuffed to be identified as the person in the audience who asked the best question!

Thinking of reading next…

 

Do I go for the latest Helen Dunmore novel Birdcage Walk which The Observer newspaper described as her finest work. Reading this will be a poignant experience given news of her death yesterday. My other option, chosen because the opening seems fitting for the current bout of stormy winds and rain in the UK, is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. As always I won’t make the final decision until my hand reaches out to the bookcase…

Shopgirl to doctor’s wife in six steps

shopgirlThis month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Shopgirl –  a novella written by  the comedian Steve Martin (who then turned it into a film).  Since I’ve never heard of it, nor read it, nor have any interest in doing so, I’ve had to rely on an internet search to tell me its meant to be a love story.

Well of course the obvious link would be to the novella based on the film love storyof that name, yes i’m talking about Love Story. The one written by Eric Segal that includes the immensely sugary line “love is never having to say you’re sorry’ and whose film version has Ali McGraw looking stunning even when she is dying (how insensitive of the producers to all the cancer patients who end up ravaged by disease). But yes, I confess I did read the book and watched the film. And yes I did cry. But I’m sure you’ll forgive my youthful folly…

dombey and sonSo lets hop quickly to another death-bed scene which comes trailing clouds of sentimentality. For this I have to turn to the master of sentimentality himself, Mr Charles Dickens. Death crops up a lot in his novels – not surprising given the mortality rates experienced in the 19th century – and he seems often to wallow in those scenes. One that comes to mind for me is the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son.  His demise doesn’t come as any great shock – Dickens drops enough hints for us to know he is never going to fulfil his father’s dream of a son to inherit the Dombey trading empire. Paul’s deathbed scene comes with the kind of lush prose beloved of Dickens.

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

Dombey and Son is about commerce and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation on society. But the real force of the novel comes from the way he depicts the coming of the railways and how it transforms a nation.  “There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.”

Dickens was a rail enthusiast but he also recognised its destructive power. An early chapter gives an unforgettable description of how railway construction is a kind of “earthquake” that destroys the old community of Camden Town in London. He turns it into a force that bursts with energy and ultimately into a monster that brings death to one of the characters.

One memorable scene has a train that seems out of control and it shriek, roars and la bete humainerattles through the English countryside. It reminds me of Emile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) which has a tremendously vivid and exciting scene involving a runaway train. Railways are central to the plot of this novel – the main character Jacques Lantier (the human beast of the title) is an engine driver who has a passionate affair with his cousin Flore. And as in Dombey and Son the train proves to be a means of death. You’ll just have to read the book if you want to know who dies. If you’ve not read it yet, I urge you to do so soon because this is a wonderfully taut psychological tale about madness and obsession and whether murderers are the result of nature:

As if one killed by calculation! A person kills only from an impulse that springs from his blood and sinews, from the vestiges of ancient struggles, from the need to live and the joy of being strong.

therese raquin-1And therein I find the clue to my next link. I first read Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola long before I was introduced to his Rougon-Macquart series. It was riveting from the initial introduction to Thérèse herself as a young woman, unhappily married to her first cousin, Camille, a sickly and egocentric man. When the opportunity arises,  Thérèse enters into a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of Camille’s friends. But their clandestine meetings are not enough for the lovers – Camille must be despatched toute suite. And then their troubles really begin for the pair are haunted by their actions:

He knew that, from now on, every day would be alike, that they would all bring the same sufferings. And he saw the weeks, the months, the years that awaited him, gloomy and implacable, coming one after the other, falling on him and suffocating him bit by bit. When the future is without hope, the present takes on a vile, bitter taste.

I don’t know how Zola’s first readers could bear the suspense as they waited for the next installment of this story to appear in the journal L’Artiste. I know I could not put the novel down until I’d devoured every word.

Thérèse Raquin is of course a novel about retribution and guilt which gives me an easy crime-and-punishmenttransition to the fifth book in my chain: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  The whole premise of this novel is that it explores the question of whether there are circumstances under which it’s acceptable to commit a crime ? Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in St Petersburg, certainly thinks so. He believes he is one of the “extrordinary people” which means not only is he permitted to murder two women, but can do so  without fear of consequence. The novel introduces us  to the theory of ‘Superman’ propounded by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche  but don’t let that put you off – you can easily read this as a psychological cat and mouse tale. My review is here.

madame bovaryAnd now we come to the sixth and final book in this chain. I could take an easy option and go for a link based on place via The Man in St Petersburg by Ken Follett, one of his early (and best) novels. But I rather think I’ll stick with the classics and head back to France to a protagonist whose actions, like those of Raskolnikov, have caught up with her. Poor Emma Bovary. All she only wanted in life was to be surrounded by beautiful things and live an exciting life.

“At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”

But poor Emma is married to a very dull provincial doctor. In search of excitement she begins borrowing money  to satisfy her fancy for luxury goods and indulging in a few illicit affairs. When everything collapses about her she sees no way out other than suicide. Hers will be a beautiful death she imagines as she lies on her bed having swallowed arsenic. But Gustav Flaubert shows how, as with so much of her life, Emma suffers from dillusions.

I know we are meant to be critical of Emma, particularly for the way she abandons her daughter, but I also feel very sorry for her. Instead of marrying a doctor she might have had more fun in her life if she’d become a shop assistant. I can imagine her in her element behind the counter of some department store discussing the niceties of leather and lace gloves with society ladies.  But then it would have been a very different book and more akin to the version with which this chain started.

 

My Ántonia by Willa Cather #bookreviews

My-AntoniaIt’s taken me long enough but the experience of reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia was well worth the wait. This is a glorious tale that celebrates the wild flat landscape of Nebraska and the people who settled there, wresting a living from its great plains in the decades between 1880 and 1910.

It’s a land that seems endless when seen for the first time through the eyes of 10 year-old orphan Jim Burden. “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska,” he marvels as he rumbles by train towards a new life with his grandparents. Over time he gets to experience and to fall in love with this land of “windy springs and blazing summers”, and the beauty created even in the most bitter of winters. Waking one day to snow he finds for example: “The sky was brilliantly blue and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding.”

This is the land which promises a new future for immigrant families, among them the Shimerdas family from Bohemia (current day Czech Republic).  They are woefully ill-equipped for a life as farmers and have been conned into buying a homestead offering little comfort; most of it has yet to be cultivated and the family have to live in what Jim’s grandmother sees as not much better than a badger hole. One of their daughters, Ántonia, becomes Jim’s closest companion.

My Ántonia is Jim’s recollection of that friendship. It endures when each of them leave the prairie and move to the town of Black Hawk where Jim will attend school and  Ántonia take up a job as a cook and housekeeper. Their paths diverge when Jim goes off to university, becomes a lawyer, gets married and settles in New York. Twenty years pass before they meet again when Jim finally returns to Nebraska and hears what has become of his childhood friend.

Although this is a memoir which celebrates a way and a time of life, Cather doesn’t hold back from showing how hard things were for the settlers whose lives were at the mercy of the weather. But she also shows their resilience and determination, particularly among the younger generation. Despite the dire predictions in Black Hawk that Ántonia and her two closest girl friends, Tina and Lena, will all come to a bad end once they start frequenting the dance halls, Lena becomes a successful dressmaker with her own business, and Tina amasses a fortune in property. It’s only Ántonia whose life is blighted. On his return Jim prepares himself to find his friend a broken and aged woman, a shadow of her former self. Instead he comes to appreciate that her value lies not in material wealth or status but in the fullness of her life and her nurturing, generous presence.

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.  She still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.

Despite the title, My Ántonia is not solely about Ántonia. Jim also tells the stories of the men hired to work on his grandparent’s farm; other immigrant farmers like the Russian brothers, Pavel and Peter; some of the other farm girls and the inhabitants of Black Hawk. The landscape becomes another kind of character; it’s the thread that holds together a novel that is essentially a collage of episodes.

At times Cather makes the landscape and weather act like a chorus – in one deathbed scene for example winds “impatiently” shake the doors and windows of the house and howling coyotes echo the dying man’s moans. At other times she shows an extraordinary psychological bond that her characters form with the landscape. Jim in particular feels a close affinity with nature:

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

 

And he shares this with Antonia. At the end of a day of adventures they sit quietly to appreciate the sunset:

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

What I loved about Willa Cather’s writing was that it felt unobtrusive, She segues almost effortlessly from episodes in her characters’ lives into descriptions of the natural world using a style that is deceptively plain. It’s not until you stop and re-read some of the passages that you fully appreciate their complexity and originality — this is not writing that shouts ‘look at me, look how clever I’m being’ and yet it experiments with narrative form throughout, with shifts in focus, interruptions in continuity and numerous inset stories.

my-antonia-1I realise I risk making My Ántonia sound like some rose-tinted confection. It is of course a nostalgia-fest; how could it not be when it begins with two passengers on a train recalling a girl they both admired who “More than any other person we remembered … seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” It is indeed one of the warmest of books I’ve read in many years but there is plenty of sorrow amidst the joy Cather describes to make it far from certain that she is simply mythologising a way of life.

The uncertainty about how to interpret this novel was another reason I enjoyed reading My Ántonia. The title suggests this is a novel about one girl, Antonia, but in fact she is absent for much of the novel so is it really Jim’s story not Antonia’s? If it’s her story but told by someone who was a witness to her life, then how reliable is the account? That use of the possessive in the title suggests that Jim sees Antonia as his own property, a woman whose image is his to define. Although we do get to hear other people’s reports of her they are all filtered through Jim.

One theory suggests Jim’s role is not to tell a story, more to convey an emotion and a sense of the “precious, the incommunicable past”. The past is certainly on Jim’s mind as he finishes his narrative but I interpreted the ending as an indication Jim has come to terms not just with the past but with his and has found peace with himself. As he says “I had the sense of coming home to myself and having found what a little circle a man’s experience is.”

The fact there is no single or clear-cut interpretation possible with My Ántonia made it a rich experience. It’s also made me hungry for more of Willa Cather.

 

 

 

Footnotes

About the book: My Ántonia was written in 1917 and published the following year. My edition is by Oxford World Classics. In the introduction to this edition, Janet Sharistanian descibes ho the book received almost unanimous praise immediately on publication. Cather herself, twenty years later, confided to a friend she felt the book “was the best thing I’ve done … I feel I’ve made a contribution to American letters with that book.”

About the author: Willa Cather was born in 1873, in rural Virginia. At the age of nine, she moved with her family to Nebraska, where she spent the remainder of her childhood. After university to began a career in journalism and then as a high school teacher. In the early 1900s she began to publish her first short stories which led to editorship of a magazine in New York. Her first novel Alexander’s Bridge, was published in 1912 but it was not until the following year with  O Pioneers!, that she caught the attention of the public.  It’s tempting to equate Willa Cather with Jim Burden given the similarities in their histories — both moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were ten years old; both went to the University of Nebraska and both settled in New York City.  But the reality is that Cather was doing what many authors do, drawing on her personal knowledge to create a fiction.

Why I read this book: I had never heard of Willa Cather before I began this blog and started listening to podcasts. And then I heard and saw the name over and over again – Thomas at hogglestock.com is a particular fan and is currently reading all her books in date order of publication (see here for his update). Intrigued I bought a copy of My Ántonia Ali  but then it sat on my bookshelves until I saw via posts by HeavenAli and Karen at Kaggsysbookramblings that the Virago Book Group on LibraryThing had chosen Cather as their author for the month of May. It was the nudge I needed to take the book off the shelf..

 

 

Summer reading 2017 #20booksofsummer

Twenty Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books is about to begin so I can’t procrastinate much longer about the books I’m putting on my list to read.  This is about the third version I’ve created.  I’ve gone for a mix of classics from my Classics Club project, some Booker prize winners (only nine more to read in this project), some translated fiction and a few by authors from Wales.  All of these are on my ‘owned but not read’ shelves.

I know I’ll never manage to read 20 books between June 1 and September 3 (that’s 7 books a month) so I’m going for the 15 books of summer option. But since past experience tells me the minute a book goes on a list its appeal for me diminishes, I’ve listed 20 books anyway in the hope that this, plus the mixture of genres/styles I’ve chosen will give me plenty of choices to suit all moods.

Here’s my  20 Books for summer 2017 list – click on the titles to read the description on Goodreads:

1. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

room of ones own-1

One that featured on my post about books that have been on my ‘to read’ list for many years. Following several comments from bloggers about how good this is, I’m persuaded it’s time to just get on and read this.

2. We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson

always lived in the castle-1

I’d not heard of Shirley Jackson until I started listening to some book podcasts and kept hearing about this but since it’s considered  Jackson’s masterpiece it feels like the right place to begin exploring her work.

3. Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

good-behaviour -1

I bought this in a library sale (unfortunately my edition has a less attractive cover than this one but I couldn’t find that image).  It’s the first novel Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. I’m hoping Good Behaviour comes up trumps because so many other readers seem to love her work.

4. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (Read June 2017)

jamaica inn-1

Inspired by the real life Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor at which du Maurier stayed in 1930, this is a tale about a  group of murderous wreckers who run ships aground, kill the sailors and steal the cargo. I was disappointed by the last du Maurier I read (My Cousin Rachel) so am hoping this proves more enjoyable.

5. The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson

finkler question-1

This won the Booker Prize in 2010, becoming the first comic novel to win the prize since Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils in 1986. Opinions are greatly divided on this book amongst the blogging community.

6. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

the conservationist-1-1

Another Booker winner that remains on my list to read. I started reading it last year but found it rather dull at the time.  I see that the Guardian reviewer described it as “a portrait of a dangerous man lent dangerous power by apartheid is great writing, but not brilliant reading.”  Based on what I’ve read so far I’m not convinced that it really does constitute ‘great writing’ but I know I’ll at least be able to finish it (unlike the appalling The Famished Road by Ben Okri which remains the only Booker prize  that I absolutely could not finish.)

7. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

Sacred hunger-1

Joint winner of the Booker prize along with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient in 1992, this is likely to be a grim read because of its subject.  It is set on an eighteenth century slave ship called The Liverpool Merchant which is bound for Africa to pick up its human cargo. Much of the book apparently deals with the issue of greed.

8. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

kelly gang

Peter Carey is one of the few people to win the Booker prize more than once. His other award winner — Oscar and Lucinda — is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year. The True History of the Kelly Gang, a fictionalised biography of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly,  won the prize in 2001, and also the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the same year. Since it’s written in a distinctive vernacular style, with little punctuation or grammar, it could be tough going.

9. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (read June 2017)

the vegetarian-1

Han Kang’s novel features a rather ordinary South Korean housewife who decides to throw away all the meat from the freezer and announces that henceforth she is going to be a vegetarian. Her action is completely counter to South Korean culture so the book examines the reaction of her family, husband and friends.  This will be only the second Korean author I’ve read and if it’s as good as my first experience – with Please Look after Mom by Shin Kyung-sook – I know I’m in for a treat.

10. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Read June 2017)

A tale for the time being-1

Ruth Ozeki’s novel got my attention when it was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker prize but I never got around to reading this story which has two narrators. One is a sixteen-year-old Japanese American girl in Tokyo who keeps a diary, the other is a Japanese American writer living on an island off British Columbia who finds the diary washed up on shore some time after the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan. 

11. Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis

twilight in djakarta-1

I put this on my list of books to read this Spring but it fell by the wayside so I’ve resurrected it for summer. The novel was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest. It depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

12. The Kill/La Curée by Emile Zola

the kill-1

My plan to read all the books in the Rougon-Marquet cycle stalled last year but I’m looking to The Kill to give it a kickstart. The Kill is book number 2 in the series is set against the background of the massive redevelopment of Paris and the birth of the modern city.

13. Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran

good women of china-1

Xinran is a former radio journalist from China who, over a period of 10 years in the 1990s, collected stories of women who endured child child abuse, rape, gang rape, abduction and the forced parting of parents and children. The 15 stories in this collection lift the lid on Chinese society at a time when prohibitions against discussion of feelings and sexuality were relaxing.

14. Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre

three days and a life-1

I wanted something in my list that fell into the genre of thriller, for those days when I just crave a fast paced narrative. Three Days and a Life which will be published in July, fitted that description perfectly. It begins in a small provincial town of Beauval, France with the accidental killing of a young boy. More than a decade later the killer returns to the town and discovers there was a witness to his crime,  a person who has the power to destroy his life. [note I corrected this synopsis based on the comment by Words and Peace that I had the gender of the victim incorrect).

15. Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

goodbye tsugumi

I’ve enjoyed my explorations of Japanese fiction so far but have never read Banana Yoshimoto. I know little about this book other than it’s about relationships between two cousins in a small Japanese seaside town.

16. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

elegy for easterly-1

This is on my list to assuage my feelings of guilt that it was on last year’s 20 books of summer list but I only got half way through the collection of short stories.

17. What I Know I Cannot Say/ All That Lies Beneath by Dai Smith

what I know-1

One of the books by Welsh authors that I bought at the end of 2016, this is actually a combination of a novella and a linked section of short stories that reveal life in the South Wales Valleys during the twentieth century.

18. Ghostbird  by Carol Lovekin

Ghostbird

From another author living in Wales, Carol Lovekin’s novel was the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April 2016.

19. Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones (read June 2017)

angleseyblue-1

The first in a crime fiction series featuring a Welsh Detective Inspector based on the island of Anglesy in north wales. The colour in the title has nothing to do with the colour of the sea around the island but a powerful new drug which is being ruthlessly introduced to the island community. There is trouble in this paradise with drugs, disaffected youth and brutal murders.

20. The Hogs Back Mystery  by Freeman Wills Crofts

Hogs Back Mystery-1

There are times when my brain cries out for a good yarn about crime. The Hog’s Back Mystery is on my list in case that need arises over the summer. A crime story from the past this has been given new life via the British Library Classic Crine series. It’s the fourteenth title written by Freeman Wills Crofts and begins with the disappearance of a semi-retired doctor from the North Downs in Surrey. He apparently simply walked out of the house in his slippers.

 

So that’s my 20 books of summer list. Whether I’ve made the ‘right’ choices is debatable – I have a feeling that I’ll come across a book on my shelves over the course of the next few months and wish I’d put it on my list.

If you want to join the fun, Cathy will put up a post on June 1 to mark the official start of the challenge and will tweet regularly using the hashtag  #20booksofsummer.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett #bookreview

Bel CantoAnn Patchett’s Bel Canto makes a grand claim for the power of music not only to sustain the spirit in the bleakest of times but even to transform a life.

In an unnamed South American country,  the world-renowned soprano Roxane Coss sings at a birthday party in honour of a visiting Japanese industrial magnate. She’s the bait in a plan by the hosts to persuade Mr Katsumi Hosokawa, one of her biggest fans, to rescue their failing economy by building an electronics factory in their country. Unfortunately the plans go awry because on the night of the party in the vice presidential mansion, a band of guerrillas swarm in through the air ducts. Their quarry is the president but he’s nowhere to be found having decided he much preferred to stay home watching his favourite  TV soap opera rather than entertain a room of distinguished and powerful diplomats and leaders from around the world.

Taking advantage of a bad situation the invaders decide to take all the party goers hostage and use them as bargaining tools to secure the release of their comrades held in prison. They’re pretty ineffective negotiators and not much better at controlling the hostages. It soon becomes clear that it’s the soprano who is calling the shots. During the month-long standoff with neither government nor guerrillas giving ground, her singing keeps the atmosphere calm. Soon the guerrillas are running around to satisfy her whims just to keep her singing — one minute they are finding dental floss and herbal throat lozenges for her, the next it’s musical scores she needs.

Unexpected talents and depths of character emerge during the stand-off. The vice president for example assumes the dual roles of housekeeper and gracious host:

He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge … Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.

Near the end of the stand-off he has a moment of epiphany in the garden, appreciating for the first time the sensation of grass beneath his feet and the scent of flowers. And he resolves there and then to be a better man, a better father and a better husband.

Change comes to the rebels too. Enchanted by the grandeur of their surroundings they begin wandering through the house sniffing hand lotion and snaffling pistachio nuts. They become so hooked on a TV drama (the same one that delights the president) much to the disgust of their commander,  they begin missing drills or fitting them in around the program schedules.

Amid the tension, love is kindled. For Mr Hosokawa, proximity to his idol is a dream come true. He has already seen her 18 times in performances around the world, often inventing business trips that will place him in the audience. Hearing her in the close, intimate setting of the besieged mansion, admiration burgeons into love. Captivity also brings romantic fulfilment for his loyal translator Gen Watanabe, in the form of a guerrilla fighter appropriately named Carmen for whom her time in the house is the happiest point in her life.

Roxane and Mr Hosokawa, Gen and Carmen are the novel’s principals but they are surrounded by a strong cast including a Frenchman, Simon Thibault, who weeps into the stole his beloved wife leaves behind when all the women except Roxane are allowed to leave. There’s a Red Cross representative who interrupts his holiday to act as a hostage negotiator though in his suit and tie he looks more like “an earnest representative of an American religion” and a chain-smoking Russian, who makes an unexpectedly delicate declaration of love, regaling Roxane with mournful and meandering childhood stories.

What unites the 50 or so people thrust together in the mansion, is music.

Mr Hosokawa’s eleventh birthday was a life-changing experience. It was the first time he heard opera,  a moment imprinted on his eyelids that marked the beginning of his love affair with music, a love that surpassed all other interests and responsibilities.

The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love. Not his wife, his daughters or his work. He never thought that he had somehow transferred what should have filled his daily life into opera. Instead he knew that without opera, this part of himself would have vanished forever.

In the vice presidential music a young priest undergoes a similar experience when he hears opera sung live for the first time.

It was different in ways he could never have imagined, as if the voice were something that could be seen. Certainly it could be felt … It trembled inside the folds of his cassock, brushed against the skin of his cheeks. Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness.

For her part Roxane comes to appreciate the true power of the music that has been her life’s work, causing her to sing ”as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.” Patchett’s idea of the power of music does strain too far however when Roxane takes an interest in one of the rebels she discovers is a musical prodigy, able to repeat perfectly the notes and lines that she sings. As if her readers don’t really understand that this talent could be his escape route from poverty, Patchett makes the General her mouthpiece:

It makes you wonder, All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected  we knew how.

Such a cod piece of philosophy strikes a really duff note in an otherwise absorbing and finely tuned novel about the the various ways in which human connections can be forged, even in the most unlikely of circumstances and situations.

Footnotes

About the book: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett was first published in UK by Fourth Estate in 2001. My paperback copy dates from 2002. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002. The novel is loosely inspired by an event in December 1996 when members of a guerrilla group entered the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, seized nearly 600 hostages and demanded the release of a number of political prisoners. The resulting siege lasted four months.

About the author: Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Bel Canto is her fourth novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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