Author Archives: BookerTalk

The Latecomers by Anita Brookner [book review]

the latecomersNothing much happens in Anita Brookner’s eighth novel The Latecomers. But then Brookner is almost always an author who is concerned with more how people feel than what they do.

This time her focus is on two men, Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich, both Jewish refugees on the Kindertransports from Germany who meet at an unpleasant boarding school in England. Despite very different personalities they develop a friendship that will last some 50 years.  and bond with each other in a wretched boarding school. have very different personalities.

Fibich is a man of simple tastes, whose digestive system is fragile. Consequently dinners with Hartmann’s Aunt Marie and her famed dish of braised tongue à l’orientale are a torture for him. He’s a brooding figure who cannot leave the past behind him. So haunted is he by the loss of his parents in his childhood, tht he seeks the help of a psychoanalyst. In middle age he takes a spontaneous decision to return to Berlin, to the railway station where he last saw them. If he was hoping for peace and reconciliation he is sadly disappointed.

Where Fibich is timid, Hartmann is confident and bold. He lives for the present not the past which for him is another country. He has “consigned to the dust, or to the repository that can only be approached in dreams,” all troublesome memories, and is now “deliberately euphoric.” A man of the senses who loves luxury, he is captured perfectly in the opening sentence of the book :

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.

From schooldays, this unlikely pair progress to become business partners in a greeting’s card company. So close is their bond that when they marry they end up living in the same apartment building.

Naturally Hartmann is the first to get married, to a woman who on the surface seems the perfect match for his appreciation of the finer things in life. Yvette loves to be the centre of attention. She knows how to make a comfortable home but is too self-centered to form a strong relationship with her daughter. Fibich does make it to the altar eventually but the match isn’t one of deep emotion or passion. He meets Christine when she visits Aunt Marie and the two find solace together when the older woman falls ill and dies.

Ironically the children of these two marriages seem to have been mixed up at birth.  It’s a shock to Fibich and his shy, plain wife Christine that their only son Toto turns out to be a force of nature, a dazzling creature so alien to their own reserved natures. They watch him and wonder why couldn’t they have had a child as docile as Yvette and Harmann’s daughter Marianne.   It’s the girl’s very docility however that irritates Yvette. Give her Toto any day in place of this child who always looks frumpy and has to be cojouled to get any social life.

The contrasts between these four make The Latecomers a delightful book. At times it’s humerous but never at the expense of either pair. Instead Brookner gives us a detailed and very warm portrait of friendship, marriage and parenthood.  There are no shocks in this book, no sudden revelations or disasters. Reading Brookner is often like putting on a favourite pair of shoes. You know they will never let you down.

 

 

Six Degrees from Atonement

six-chains-logo

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain.  The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.

This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.

It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.

I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.

Emma

For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen.  Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.

barchester towers

In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.

Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.

cannery row

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party.  Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.

The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.

Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.   I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.

all the light

It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II.  Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.

Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.

The Gourmet

Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.

But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.

The Sea, The Sea

Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.

All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.

Right well it’s just cup  a soup then…..

 

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor [Book Review]

bleeding heart square

Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square has the feel of a Dickens or a Wilkie Collins’ novel. We’re on familiar ground with its plot of a dark and convoluted murder mystery and its setting of a grubby corner of London. The cast of larger than life characters equally wouldn’t feel out of place in Woman in White or Our Mutual Friend.

Taylor may hark to the past but he gives his murder mystery a modern twist by overlaying  a twentieth-century political dimension.

The year is 1934. The British fascism movement is in its infancy but making its presence felt. Anyone who voices dissent to their views gets beaten up  by the blackshirted followers of their leader, Oswald Mosely.

Violence on the streets is paralleled by bullying, oppressive behaviour in the home.

Lydia Langstone, a young, privileged society wife, decides she will no longer endure the abusive behaviour of her feeble-minded husband who looks “… like a sinister Boy Scout, his emotional and intellectual development doomed to remain for ever somewhere between 13 and 14 years old”.

Marcus Langstone is trying to wheedle his way into Oswald Mosely’s inner circle. Convinced that Mosely will soon become the country’s leader, he sees himself as his right hand man with a key role in government.  No-one will get in his way, especially not his aristocratic wife whom he despises. But Lydia is more than his match. She walks out of her comfortable marital home in Mayfair. leaving behind most of her clothes and jewels, and seeks refuge in the decaying cul-de-sac of Bleeding Heart Square. It was once  the site of a medieval palace, but now reeks of cabbage and drains.

Her father is no help; he’s a drunkard and a sponger who steers rather too close to the edge of legality. But Lydia has no-where else to go. She just has to learn to cook and clean, to economise and find some way of earning a living.   In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she finds a kindred spirit.

Unwittingly Lydia has stepped into a mystery that begins to take hold of her. Why is a plain-clothes policeman keeping a close eye on the square? What happened to Miss Penhow, the middle-aged, wealthy spinster who owns the house? She supposedly vanished to America four years earlier after signing over all her property to  one Joseph Serridge. Someone has now started to send packages of maggot-infested meat to Serridge.  Is there a connection to the legend that the Devil once danced in Bleeding Heart Square and left a murdered woman behind him?

The answers come and the pieces of the puzzle slowly fall into place as we follow Miss Penhow’s story, told as extracts from an old notebook. In parallel we track Lydia’s own attempts to find the truth, despite the risk this presents to her own safety.

It’s a complex plot handled well with plenty of red herrings to keep up the suspense.  My one criticism of Bleeding Heart Square is that it does take a while to reach the resolution. But that gives us even more time to enjoy the rich period atmosphere as the novel moves from corner house cafe, to solicitors’ offices, quiet villages and the crypt of a nearby church.  Taylor skilfully handles the novel’s biggest set piece: a meeting organised by the British Union Fascists that descends into a violent anti-Semitic riot.

At its heart (sorry for the pun) Bleeding Heart Square is a delightful old-fashioned yarn of murder committed for the sake of money. In many ways this is a throw back to the Golden Age of crime and mystery fiction. But Taylor gives the familiar device a fresh edge by surrounding it with political and social themes.

Chief of course is the birth of Fascism but Taylor’s novel also examines the position of women in 1930s Britain.  Women had fought the right to vote sixteen years earlier but true independence was still a long way into the future.  Women like Miss Penhow were prey to the unscrupulous while many others found themselves in exactly the same predicament as Lydia:  trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage. As Taylor shows, her options are limited. She has no skills to use to make her financially independent and no experience of domestic chores. Though divorce was possible, it was a step undertaken with grave risks to the woman’s reputation. Thus almost everyone  in Bleeding Heart Square urges her to return to the abusive Marcus.

The Britain of Bleeding Heart Square is however a Britain on the cusp of events that will radically change the nature of the country. While there are points in the novel where the consequences of the First World War are mentioned the omens of a greater conflict to come loom even larger.

Footnotes

About the Author: Andrew Taylor was born in East Anglia, England and studied at  Cambridge before getting an MA in library sciences from University College London. His first novel, Caroline Miniscule was published in 1982 and is a modern-day treasure hunt featuring a history student. He is probably best known for his 2003 novel The American Boy which won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award.

Classics club spin falls on Mitford

The anticipation is over and the result of the latest Classic Club Spin is in. The roulette wheel fell on number 9. Which means that from the list I put together earlier this week I will be reading………

pursuit of lovepursuit of love 2pursuit of love 3

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Published in 1945 it is the first in a trilogy which satirises  an upper-class English family in the interwar period. Mitford of course knew this world intimately since she came from aristocratic stock herself. She put that to great effect in her portrayal of the unconventional, exuberant Radletts of Alconleigh.

Mitford’s wickedly humorous narrative traces the family  through misguided marriages and dramatic love affairs. Although a comedy, the story has a darker aspect because the shadow of World War II begins to close in on the Radletts and a world that will rapidly vanish.

This is a book that I have been intending to read for years. Now I just have to find my copy. I know the cover looks nothing like the ones shown above. Isn’t that middle one awful?

 

 

 

Reviving the Classic Club project – Spin #18

classicsclub3The Classic Club is entering a new era with a changing of the guard (in other words we have a new set of moderators). They’re fired up with bags of enthusiasm and some of that has clearly rubbed off on me because it’s prompted me to revisit my Classics Club list.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Classics Club the idea is that we list 50 classics that we’d like to read over the course of 5 years. The definition of ‘classic’ is very fluid so there’s no compunction to be reading Tristram Shandy if it doesn’t appeal.

I put my list together in August 2012 and made good progress for the first few years. But I’ve neglected it for the last twelve months. I read only two from the list last year and so far it’s just been one – The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola  So naturally I didn’t make the “deadline’ of completing 50 by the end August 2017. I still have 14 titles to go. But really it doesn’t matter. It’s a self imposed deadline and I can’t imagine any of the club moderators are going to throw me out as punishment.

To coincide with the ‘relaunch’ of the club, we get to play in the Classics lub spin where the idea is to choose 20 titles from our Classics Club, number then in sequence starting with 1. On August 1, 2018  the wheel will turn and reveal the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List, by 31 August 2018.

The moderators would like us to put the list together in four categories:

  • 5 books you are dreading/hesitant to read
  • 5 books you can’t WAIT to read
  • 5 books you are neutral about
  • 5 books which are free choice

I don’t really understand the point of creating a reading list that includes books I am dreading to read. So I don’t have any in that category. Nor do I have any that I can’t wait to read – if I truly couldn’t wait then I would have read them long ago. So I’m going to have to go with just a free choice list. Since I don’t have 20 titles remaining, I’ve had to add in a few to the original list just in case a number between 15-20 comes up on Wednesday.

My list is as follows: it’s a mixture of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ve included two Welsh authors and an Australian to bring a little diversity

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  2. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  3. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  4. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861 
  5. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  6. Lord Jim   Joseph Conrad 1899
  7. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  8. All Passion Spent  Vita Sackville West 1932
  9. The Pursuit Of Love  — Nancy Mitford 1945
  10. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955
  11. My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin  1901
  12. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  13. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  14. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  15. Troy Chimneys  — Margaret Kennedy 1952
  16. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  17. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  18. Return of the Solider  — Rebecca West 1917
  19. A Kiss Before Dying  — Ira Levin 1953
  20. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934

If I had to choose a few that I would most like to read it would be Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton whom I read many years ago but don’t feel I appreciated her enough at the time. I would be quite happy with some of the Virago classics too such as the Mary Webb or the Maura Laverty.

All will be revealed on August 1.

WWWednesday 25 July 2018

It’s Wednesday and so time for WWWednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  This week’s post comes to you from a balcony overlooking the River Dart in Devon where we are enjoying the delightful scenery and clotted cream teas (well I enjoy them though my arteries tell another story)

 

What are you currently reading?The Line of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst

LineOfBeautyThis was the book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and is one of the few books remaining for me to read in my Booker Prize project. Almost a year ago I asked you all which of the winners still outstanding you would would recommend. The Line of Beauty came in as joint first with The True History of the Kelly Gang. Some of you described Hollinghurst’s book as very readable.

I have to say that so far I am finding it rather dull. It’s meant to be about class, politics and sexuality in 1980s Britain but so far there is a noticeable absence of the political dimension. Class does make an appearance but overwhelmingly the first 100 pages or so have been about sex. Our protagonist Nick Fadden is a middle class Oxford graduand who is lodging with an MP and his family. Nick feels very much the outsider in their midst but the book’s main tension revolves around his homosexual desires and his relationships with two men. My reaction to the book isn’t connected to prudish sensitivities on my part but just that so far this is all the book is about and its highly repetitive. Can someone please assure me that the next 400 pages will be rather more interesting?

What did you recently finish reading? The Latecomers by Anita Brookner

the latecomersFew authors can get into the skin of the “outsider” as well as Brookner.  The Latecomers features two delightfully conceived men of this ilk: Thomas Hartmann and his friend Thomas Fibich. The men are both Jewish and sent to London as refugees in the war. They go into business together and, once married, have apartments in the same building.  We follow them from their youth, into marriage with women who seem to reflect their idiosyncratic traits and the puzzling world of fatherhood. It may not be Brookner’s strongest novel but still highly engaging.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

Shall I continue on my Booker trail with How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman? It may be however that by the time I’m finished with Hollinghurst one of the Booker 2018 longlisted titles will have come through from the library.  I’m not planning to read all the longlist since some of them hold no appeal for me but I would like to read two or three if possible before the shortlist is announced.

Man Booker Prize shortlist 2018: reaction

There was a time not so many years ago that the announcement of the long list for the Man Booker Prize would have me heading straight to the library.

How things change. I’m still interested in the prize but not to the same extent.  It’s not the fact that the rules changed to allow American authors but that it meant there were fewer authors from other countries on the list. It became less international.

This year I forgot that today would see the long list for the 2018 prize released. It was only that I happened to be in a bookshop and overheard a customer asking the shop owner for his reactions to the list, that my memory was jogged.

There are a few positives about this year’s list:

  • Four debut novels
  • Good mixture of genres with the first ever graphic novel to be long listed. Plus a crime novel. This latter isn’t the first time we’ve had a crime novel on the list but it doesn’t happen often. I have to believe that it reflects the influence of Val McDermid who is a judge this year.
  • Continued presence of independent presses. These publishers deserve the help that inclusion on prize lists can bring because they so often take a punt where the larger companies play safe.
  • Two authors from Wales are included. We’ve had a Welsh author before who actually won the prize (Bernice Rubens in 1970 with The Elected Member) but never two on the same list. Ok the purists among you might say there is only one since unlike Sophie Mackintosh, Belinda Bauer was not born in Wales (in fact the Booker website describes her as English) but she worked in Wales and lives there.  Cause for further celebration is that Bauer who is long listed for Snap, lives in my neighbourhood and I see her in our local library. Now that should surely count for a few votes?

Despite that reflection of diversity I’m sad to see that the international flavour of the prize has diminished even further.  In a nutshell we have a list made up of:

• Two Canadian authors

• Six authors from the UK

• Two writers from Ireland

• Three writers representing the USA

So yet another year when there is not a single author from Oceania on the list. Strange that Peter Carey, a previous winner, didn’t make it this year.

No author from the Indian sub continent. Last year at least we had one Indian and two UK/Pakistan writers on the list.

But once again no author from any African country.

This is such a disappointing trend. One of the things I loved about the Booker lists in the past was the international flavour because it introduced me to new authors from parts of the world whose literature was generally an unknown quantity to me. The Man Booker International Prize doesn’t entirely fill the gap because that is only for fiction translated into English, so many Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans are not eligible.

Do I have any predictions for this year’s ultimate winner? Short answer is no, I haven’t a clue because I’ve not read any of these books. I do have Bauer’s novel on hold at the library because I’ve enjoyed her previous novels but there is a long waiting list. As good as it’s likely to be, I don’t see it winning purely because the Booker judges would be afraid of being labelled “popularist” if they dared to choose a crime novel. I’d be happy for Donal Ryan to win because I thoroughly enjoyed The Spinning Heart and Michael Ondaatje’s previous winner The English Patient is one of my top 3 Booker favourites across all the years. Is it likely they would choose him for their 50th anniversary. If they did it would be a remarkable feat since he was only recently announced as the winner of the Golden Booker prize. Stranger things have happened with the Booker prize however.

The Man Booker Longlist 2018

Belinda Bauer (UK) : Snap (Bantam Press): a thriller by an author from Wales

Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a ‘creepy’ novel set against the background of The Troubles in Ireland

Nick Drnaso (USA)Sabrina (Granta Books): the first graphic novel  to reach the
Booker longlist

Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues

Guy Gunaratne (UK): In Our Mad And Furious City (Tinder Press): a debut                            novel

Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel from a  Welsh author

Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape):  a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo

Sophie Mackintosh (UK): The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton): debut dystopian novel from a young Welsh author

Michael Ondaatje (Canada): Warlight (Jonathan Cape): the only previous                          winner  of the prize to be selected this year

Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning                  novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo.

Robin Robertson (UK):  The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse

Sally Rooney (Ireland): Normal People (Faber & Faber): the second novel from the winner of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award

Donal Ryan (Ireland)From A Low And Quiet Sea (Doubleday Ireland):  Ryan is a previous nominee having been longlisted in 2013 for The Spinning Heart

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa [book review]

German GirlBerlin in 1939 is a city of fear. Wealth, status and intelligence count for nothing in the face of hostility and antipathy towards people of the Jewish faith. For many families the only option is to flee the country. But who will take them? Other countries are not falling over themselves to provide a refuge.

For the Rosenthal family, salvation beckons when they gain coveted visas enabling them to enter Cuba, from where they will head to the United States.  Leaving their classy apartment and precious heirlooms behind to be snaffled by the Nazi regime, they board the SS St. Louis, a luxurious transatlantic liner, and head for asylum. But before they can dock, the Cuban government changes its mind, leaving the 900 passengers in limbo.

After a tense period 12 -year-old Hannah Rosenthal and her mother are allowed entry but her professor father is barred because he has a different type of visa. The ship’s captain has little choice but to return to Europe with almost a full complement of passengers. Professor Rosenthal and Hannah’s best friend Leo sail away from Cuba, fearing imprisonment or death.

Reading this as a piece of fiction is an emotionally-engaging experience. But it’s made more so by the knowledge that The German Girl is based on a little-known episode that, until the early part of this century, was not even publicly acknowledged. The author Armando Lucas Correa, who is editor-in-chief of People en Español, has clearly based his debut novel on extensive research. The back of the book comes with an extensive historical note about the whole episode and what happened to the passengers after they left Cuba. But what touched me was to find a page bearing the signatures of all the passengers on the ship and numerous photographs showing them on board the ship.

Correa has chosen to tell his story through the eyes of two teenage girls. Hannah Rosenthal is a thoughtful but determined girl, fiercely loyal to her friend Leo and devoted to her father. Her relationship with her mother is more distant. Hannah constantly comments on how her mother acts as if she is on a stage, choosing her outfits carefully and deliberately waiting to be the last to board the ship so that all eyes will be upon her. She begins her story in dramatic fashion:   “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.”

It’s a reflection of her desperation and unhappiness at having to love her home in Berlin even though she is frightened by the red and black flags draped along every street. Leo is her salvation, a street-wise kid who always seems to know what is going on and who extracts Hannah’s promise that she will never forget him.

Alternating with Hannah’s story is that of Anna Rosen, a 12-year-old girl in present-day New York. Anna’s father died in the attack on the World Trade Centre before Anna was born. Her mother has retreated into herself and the girl is left to suffer alone. One day she receives a package from great-aunt Hannah in Cuba who had acted as a surrogate mother to Anna’s late father. The package contains photographs taken on board a ship. In search of anything that will help her connect with her father, Anna and her mother travel to  Cuba to meet Hannah and hear her story. What she reveals is that even in Cuba they were never allowed to forget they were ‘outsiders’.

The dual time narrative unfortunately didn’t work for me. I can see why Correa chose that approach, drawing parallels between the loss that both girls experience and the way they have to grow up quickly to look after their mothers. But Anna’s narrative had little of the drama and pathos that I found with Hannah’s story and the connections were often forced. In fact I don’t think the book would have suffered at all if Anna had been eliminated.

The German Girl was at times a frustrating experience because of that dual-narrator issue but it did get me thinking about the way, even today, refugees are treated.

Six degrees from San Francisco

Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book.

tales of the cityThis month our master Kate wants us to begin with Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, the first of his books in a saga based in San Francisco. This isn’t a book I’ve read though I did start to read the first in the series once. I know its hugely popular but it wasn’t to my taste.

Beauty and Chaos

So I’m switching to a different city for my first book.Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life is a collection of articles in which journalist and university professor Michael Pronko reflects on the character of this city.  He considers the idiosyncracies of its inhabitants and their predilection for maps, drink vending machines, noodles and posh shopping bags. It’s a fascinating exploration of facets of a city that tourists would be unlikely to see or understand.

Norwegianwood

From there it’s an easy leap to a different representation of Toyko, this time seen through the eyes of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami.  Norwegian Wood takes us into the world of the city’s nightclubs, bars and even a porn cinema, a world that provides a wonderful contrast to the books other setting of a sanitorium in Kyoto surrounded by snow-clad hills. It was my first – and to date only – experience of Murakami’s work and as far as I can tell isn’t typical but I was so glad a colleague recommended it to me.

Greenwood tree

But enough of the Japanese landscape, let’s move to somewhere closer to home which also boasts some fine specimens of trees though I’m not entirely sure what kind of tree Thomas Hardy had in mind with his novel Under the Greenwood Tree. An English oak I suspect. This novel is a celebration of the pastoral life in the Victorian era but although Hardy shows this in terms of continuity and harmony there are points at which the plot involves a confrontation between the old and new orders. The Mellstock choir, for example, which provides one of the two plot lines, are threatened by the vicar’s attempt to replace them with a new mechanical church organ.

middlemarch

The clash of new and old also figures in the novel that is probably the finest example of mid nineteenth century realist fiction: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is novel that teems with ideas, about relationships, ambition, social mobility, integrity to name just a few. But Eliot also showed a new spirit of the age with political reformers going head to head against the established gentry, how ambitious young doctors with their antipathy to blood-letting were seen as upstarts and how the new railway age was feared by rural workers. You won’t find a finer novel…..

HarvestI wonder what Hardy and Eliot would have made of my next book? Harvest by Jim Crace is also about disruption to the rhythm of the countryside. Crace isn’t sentimental about rural life but he show that the pursuit of  “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” is dangerous. The threat in his novel comes in the form of enclosure of common land where, for generations, villagers have tended to their flocks. But their lord and master decides they’ll be more profitable if he turns them over to crops – throwing the villagers out and leaving them without a source of income. This is a novel which verges on poetry at times when it speaks about the connection of man and his environment. I don’t understand why the Booker judges overlooked this for the prize in 2013.

madeleine thein

They also (equally unbelievably) overlooked my final book in this chain. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes us to China in the build up to the protest and subsequent massacre at Tianenman Square, Bejing in 1989. This is the background against which she sets her tale of three highly talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the Communist-led government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order. This is a novel that is breathtaking in its scope. If you enjoyed Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, then I highly recommend Thien’s novel.

And with that we’ve returned to a city landscape though one that couldn’t be more different than San Francisco. We’ve also had a little sojourn in English woods and fields. Where would your chain have taken you?

 

Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe [book review]

Missing fayOne of the best novels I read in 2017 was Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. The jumping off point for that book was the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl on New Year’s Eve while on holiday in England’s Peak District.

In similar vein Adam Thorpe’s novel Missing Fay begins with the disappearance of a teenage schoolgirl and examines the way in which her life touches some of the people in her neighbourhood.

Neither novel has a central protagonist. Nor do they end with any resolution about what happened to the girl. This is not crime fiction but an exploration of the ways in which her disappearance affects the community in which she lives.

McGregor’s novel contains a myriad of characters. Thorpe gives us six: a shop manager, a bookshop owner, an eco-warrier dad, a retired steel worker, a Romanian healthcare assistant and a burned out television executive who has joined a silent monastic order as a postulant.

Most of these characters see Fay fleetingly, as a face on a “Have you seen this girl?” poster. Howard, the steelworker, catches a glimpse of her as she runs with her dog through a local park. Cosmina, the Romanian finds a discarded coat in the woodland although only in retrospect does she wonder if this belonged to Fay.  Chris the postulant dreams of her as a flaming angel flying through the air to land in the monastery’s lake.

Only Sheena, who manages a pricey children’s clothing boutique for yummy-mummy customers, spends any quality time with the girl. When Fay arrives on her threshold one morning, Sheena anticipates she’ll be as useless as all the other work experience students that have crossed her path.  Fay comes from a dysfunctional family and lives in the city’s less desirable housing estate. Her mum spends the day in bed nursing her deep depression while Fay’s pot-smoking step dad busks around town when he’s not involved in some shady affairs. Sheena discovers that despite the pressure the girl is under, Fay is intelligent, charming and funny.

The six stories initially seem to have little to link them (beyond the obvious reference to Fay’s disappearance) but Thorpe has cleverly planted connections throughout the novel and drops lots of hints. Fudge and the monastery crop up at several points. Chris, the would-be monk, makes it for the gift shop. Sheena eats it. Eco-Warrior David takes his family to the monastery. Does the blue car that a few people mention seeing around, have any connection to Fay’s disappearance? Who is the creepy looking guy she sees lurking in the bushes – is it Howard who has taken himself to the park in between a pub crawl with his mates?  The significance of these apparently random references only becomes apparent once you’ve read a few stories.

The fact we don’t instantly pick up on some clues adds a further layer to the meaning of the book’s title. We ‘miss’ these signs just as much as the six people in the story let Fay slip out of their consciousness. Missing Fay isn’t about a physical disappearance but how through our lives we fail to connect with each other. Opportunities are missed, signs are misread aplenty in this novel.

That’s not the only message Thorpe conveys through his novel. Attitudes towards immigrants feature largely. But we also get the futility of attempts to ‘save’ the planet. David and his wife vouchsafe consumerism and are determined to raise their children in a way that makes minimal impact on the environment. But when he looks upon a wind farm he reluctantly admits that it is “a hopeless gesture, really, against the infinite kilowattage of nature herself”.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t excited to read this book when my book club selected it for this month purely because I thought it would be too similar to Reservoir 13. But it was a lot more enjoyable than expected. McGregor’s work stands out because its so beautifully crafted and the imagery is wonderful. But Thorpe’s novel certainly deserves attention.

Here’s my review of Reservoir 13

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