Author Archives: BookerTalk

Prepare to be teased by Austen’s Sanditon

Sanditon by Jane Austen

How could Jane Austen be so cruel?

Twelve chapters into writing a new novel, she became so ill she had to put the manuscript aside. She died four weeks later leaving the novel unfinished and her readers yearning for more.

When she died on 13 March 1817, Jane Austen had written 23,500 words. Essentially all she managed was an introduction to the characters and the setting of a seaside village called Sanditon and some threads of possible plot lines.

Reading what became known as Sandition, is tantalising, frustrating and exciting in equal measures. Because this is Jane Austen as we have never experienced her before.

As Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland writes in her introduction to the new Oxford World Classics edition:

Only one paragraph in, we know that Sanditon will be unlike any other novel Austen wrote.

Gone are the villages and the stately homes familiar as settings in her previous six completed novels. Gone too is her previous opening gambit of introducing the heroine and her circumstances before moving onto the action.

Instead we begin with a coach accident in a country lane somewhere in Sussex.

The coach passenger, Mr Parker is injured but he and his wife are given shelter by a local family. As a thank you the Parkers invite the eldest daughter Charlotte Heywood to join them at the seaside resort of Sanditon.

A Seaside First

This setting is another first for Jane Austen. Although previous novels had seen characters talk about the seaside (Emma) or visit it for themselves (Persuasion); Sanditon is the first to be wholly located on the coast.

In another departure from past novels, Mr Parker is not your typical aristocratic landowner. He’s a would-be entrepreneur, an energetic man with ambitious plans to cash in on the trend for “seaside cures”. His vision is to turn the unpretentious former fishing village of Sanditon into a fashionable spa resort that will rival Brighton and Eastbourne.

He’s what Jane Austen calls ‘an enthusiast” – a man obsessed by his idea but whose enthusiasm is not equalled by his common sense. 

He could talk of it for ever.—It had indeed the highest claims;—not only those of birth place, property, and home,—it was his mine, his lottery, his speculation and his hobby horse; his occupation, his hope, and his futurity.

He has, he thinks a soul mate and financial backer in the form of Lady Denham. She’s a canny woman though, not given to spending money unnecessarily. She’s also sharp enough to know when relatives are cosying up to her simply to get a piece of her “many thousands a year to bequeath.”

Sanditon’s Unanswered Questions

By the time Jane Austen writes her final words, the stage is set and the players are in place. Eager beaver Mr Parker, grande dame Lady Denham; Mr Parker’s hypochondriac siblings; Lady Denham’s toadying relatives and the Charlotte Heywood who though young proves to be an astute judge of character.

There’s also an intriguing character of whom we hear but never get to meet. A Miss Lambe described as “a young West Indian of large fortune, in delicate health,” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender.” arrives in Sanditon and is about to take her first sea bathe.

It’s infuriating that we never get to know what happens next. Will Mr Parker’s ambitions come crashing down? Which man will try to get at Miss Lambe’s fortune? Will Lady Denham’s relatives get their comeuppance?

And since this is after all a Jane Austen novel, the burning question is: Who will Charlotte marry?

Certainly not Lady Denham’s idiotic nephew-by-marriage Sir Edward Denham. She’s already dismissed him as a “downright silly,” because of his tastes in reading. Mr Parker’s brother Arthur is similarly unappealing; he just stuffs his face and hugs the fire. So there must be some character yet to make an appearance, who wins her heart.

How this tale pans out has long been a source of speculation. At least seven people have attempted to finish the manuscript, Jane Austen’s niece, Anne Austen Lefroy. But her version was left incomplete.

Picking up Austen’s Baton

There have also been numerous attempts to adapt this for tv/film. The most recent (and the reason why Oxford University Press has issued a new edition) gets its airing in the next few days. You can watch the official trailer here.

It’s a six-episode series written by Andrew Davies (the man responsible for that Colin Firth wet shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice). I’ll be watching though I suspect it will bear little resemblance to Austen’s plans for her novel – Davies has already said that he used up all her material is just half of the first episode. So we can expect his usual inventiveness.

Sanditon by Jane Austen: Fast Facts

The new Oxford World Classics edition is edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of English Literature and Senior Research Fellow, St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her introduction is rich in contextual insight about attitudes to the health benefits of sea-bathing and the rise of economic speculation.

This edition also contains some fascinating information about the editorial decisions reached during preparation for publication. The publishers used a copy of Austen’s manuscript made by her sister Cassandra. It seems, says Sutherland, ‘far from finished”. There are few paragraph divisions and many abbreviations and contractions. Cassandra changed some of the spellings and corrected some obvious errors.

The OUP editors decided to reject Cassandra’s spelling corrections in order to remain more true Austen’s personality as a writer. They also retained her practice of irregular capitalization of common nouns in mid sentence. I’m so glad they did because, though it made the text more challenging to read, I wanted to experience the words as Austen herself wrote them.

If you’re interested in seeing Cassandra’s copy, there are photographic images of the pages here

Reading horizons: Episode 21

Reading Horizons: August 2019

What I’m reading now

Shell by  Kristina Olsson is one of the books on my booksofsummer list which is a virtual ‘holiday’ around the world. 

Shell

Olsson’s novel gives me a reason to visit Australia. I’d planned to be in the country for real earlier this year but had to abandon that part of my trip. I never did get to see Sydney and its most famous building – the Opera House – which features prominently in  Shell. 

The novel is set in 1965; a time of tremendous change in the city. The Opera House is under construction has not met with universal acclaim from politicians and residents. In another unwelcome development, the city’s young men are being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam war. 

Amid the turmoil, a fiercely anti war journalist and a Swedish glassmaker find each other. 

Shell is an ambitious novel that is exquisitely written.

What I just finished reading

In a diversion from my summer reading plans I am enjoying a novel by a Welsh author which is due for publication on September 19, 2019. It’s translated from Welsh by Gwen Davies.

The Jeweller by Carys Lewis reminds me very much of the style of a Virago Classic. It’s the tale of Mari, a market stall holder in a seaside town, who lives alone except for her pet monkey. She surrounds herself with letters discovered while clearing out the houses of the recently dead.

The Jeweller

I’ll have an exclusive extract from this novel to share with you on September 20.

What I’ll read next

I’m hoping I can squeeze in another book from my summer reading list just so that I can say I’ve read 10

Most likely my choice will be A Dry White Season by Andre Brink. This is described on Goodreads as “an unflinching and unforgettable look at racial intolerance, the human condition, and the heavy price of morality.”

I’ve read a number of South African authors but never anything by Brink. This is meant to be his best work of fiction.

I have some library books vying for attention (why do all my reservations arrive at the same time???). The Chain by Adrian McKinty is a crime novel that is getting a lot of attention and praise at the moment. I also have Lammy by Max Porter which is on the Booker Prize longlist and Aftermath by Rhidian Brook, a Welsh author I am embrarrased to say I have yet to read.

Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Read It Now – Tomorrow May Be Too Late

Henry Thoreau on Rainy Day Books

Do You Have Rainy Day Books?

I’m not talking about what you read on days when the heavens open and all you want to do is snuggle up by the fire with a cuppa and a good book.

I’m talking about books that you’re looking forward to reading so much that you reserve them for a future time? A time when you know you’ll want to read something very special.

I have a few books that fit this description. They include:

  • Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) by Emile Zola
  • Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama

This is just a sample of my ‘rainy day books’ from my large collection of unread books. I think there are around 30 in total, some of which have been on my shelves for more than five years.

Some are books by authors whose work I’ve enjoyed hugely in the past (Adichie, Flanagan, Zola). Others like the Ghosh and Cunningham have come highly recommended by other bloggers.

The problem is that the rainy day never actually arrives.

I’m coming to the conclusion that in fact the day will never materialise. That I’ll always find a reason to leave the rainy day book on the shelf and go in search of something else to read.

Which means that instead of reading a book I’m more or less guaranteed to enjoy, I read one that I might enjoy.

How perverse is that???

That quote from Henry Thoreau has given me the impetus to rethink this whole rainy day approach.

What If Rainy Days Never Materialise?

None of us like to contemplate the fact that we have only a finite number of years left on this planet. And thus a finite number of books it’s physically possible to read.

If I keep putting certain books aside to read one day in the future, that day may never come. I could easily go to my grave never having read the very books I most want to read. Meanwhile I could have wasted time on second best novels. A sobering thought.

It’s time to turn my thinking completely on its head.

Instead of squirrelling them away it’s time to bring these books into the daylight. And to read them. Because if not now, when will I ever get around to them? I’d hate to think the answer to that question could be never.

Do you have ‘rainy day books’ ? Or am I alone in being perverse in my reading?

Eye Opening Tale of Stitchers and Ringers

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

If you’ve ever taken up  painting, playing a musical instrument or cross stitch, then you’ll know how utterly absorbing these activities can be. 

In A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier shows how engrossing yourself in an interest can also be a form of salvation.

A Single ThreadIt’s embroidery that comes to the rescue for the protagonist, Violet Speedwell.  It rescues her from a life where her only choices are to stay at home with her over-bearing embittered mother or live hand-to-mouth in a draughty boarding house and drudge each day as a typist. 

Violet is what the newspapers of the 1930s labelled a “surplus woman”: unmarried and likely to remain so because vast numbers of eligible men died during World War 1.  The war was a double tragedy for Violet, both her fiancée and brother having fallen at Passchendale. She is still mourning their loss 16 years later.

Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of home, she moves to Winchester to take up a secretarial job. But still she feels she is living only half a life. 

I felt as if I were in a deep hole that took me so long to climb out of. It was as if I were sleepwalking, awake but unable to say anything or do anything to make my life come to to life again.

It isn’t until she visits the cathedral and discovers the broderers, a group of women creating intricate canvas embroidery for kneelers and cushions, that she finds fulfilment and friendship. 

Under the mentorship of the group’s founder Louisa Pesel, Violet flourishes.  Her nights at the boarding house are no longer an ordeal when she has her stitches to practice. She gains the confidence to negotiate higher wages from her employer and to handle her mother’s demands. Romance beckons in the shape of a bell ringer at the cathedral, though it’s a forbidden love since Arthur Knight is already married.

 

A Celebration of Stitches 

The story is reasonable though ideally I would have preferred more drama and greater variety in pace. The elements did exist. For example, there’s a stalker who accosts Violet in a field and again near the Cathedral one dark night (no prizes for guessing who comes to her rescue!).

There’s also tension within the borderers because of one member who’s very bossy. And we have a lesbian love affair that raises eyebrows in the ultra conservative cloistered world of Winchester.

Unfortunately they all seem to fizzle out too quickly.  

But I’ll forgive Tracy Chevalier because there were two aspects of this novel that were simply wonderful. 

This is a writer who can take an artist or a great work of art and pluck from her research a story of its creation that is rich in detail and historically accurate. A Girl In A Pearl Earring opened up the world of Vermeer and a later novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, delved into the world of tapestry weavers in sixteenth century Brussels.

In A Single Thread she turns her attention to the work of Broderers’ Guild  in Winchester. The members took inspiration from the Cathedral’s medieval tiles; using cross, tent and rice stitches to form intricate patters of medallions, Celtic knots, trees of life and flowers.  The kneelers, cushions and alms bags had a practical purpose – they were used everyday by the congregation and clergy – but they also wanted them to be beautiful, as befitting the grandeur of the Cathedral. 

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier shows how this is a painstaking exercise, demanding precision and attention to detail but get it right and the canvas comes alive. As Violet discovers:

…once you were skilled enough, you could settle into it and empty your mind of all but the work in front of you. Life then boiled down to a row of blue stitches that became a long braid across the canvas, or a sunburst of red that became a flower. 

It’s hardly surprising that Violet finds stitching more satisfying than typing contracts. 

I’ve tried tapestry work myself and would have loved Louisa Pesel as a tutor. I doubt however that my work would be anywhere near the standard of those cathedral stitchers. But I’d have more of a chance at proficiency in embroidery than I would at bell ringing.

 Ringing the Changes

I’m rather like Violet when she has her first introduction to ringing:

She could not make out any pattern in these bells ≠ though each was clearly struck they seemed to clatter over each other in no particular order. Yet they were deliberate, not chaotic. It was like listening to people speaking German and sensing there was a grammar and structure, a rhythm and logic to it, even if you could not understand the meaning. 

Arthur tries to explain:

We start by ringing the five bells down the scale, one after the other. These are called rounds. Then we switch the order of two of the bells, so that each sequence of bells is different from the last. We call them changes. One of the rules of change-ringing is that no sequence is repeated.

It’s all to do with maths apparently and something called factorials. Don’t ask me to explain; I can only just cope with fractions and equations. I suppose the only way to really understand what’s going on is to climb up into a bell tower and watch the ringers in action. I wonder whether Tracy Chevalier did that as part of her research? Since I’m highly unlikely to summon up enough courage to climb so high I shall just learn to appreciate the magnificence of the sound that comes out of that tower.  

There’s no doubt that this is a highly readable book with some interesting characters (I loved the depiction of Violet’s mum) and fascinating historical detail. 

A Single Thread: Fast Facts

  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier will be published by The Borough Press in September 2019. My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a balanced review.
  • Louisa Pesel is a real person. She was the first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England in 1920.
  • Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral,She has a modest gravestone whose inscription records her personal virtues and stoicism, but makes no mention of her writing.

 

 

Fear And Evil Lurk In Idyllic Village [book review]

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Take one idyllic village buried deep in the Québec countryside

Add a bunch of memorable characters who include a duck loving poet and a rather portly host of the village bistro.

Finally, mix in a police chief with a penchant for Marcus Aurelius and an instinctive understanding of human nature. 

This, in essence, is the recipe for the highly successful Armand Gamache series of crime fiction by Louise Penny.

There are 14 novels in the series to date – the 15th comes out in the next few weeks. I’ve read eight and there hasn’t been a dud among them. 

My latest venture into Armand’s world was via The Cruelest Month which is book number three in the series.

It takes its title from the most frequently quoted line in  T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. And it picks up Eliot’s theme of rebirth and new life.

Gamache took the bread to the long pine table, set for dinner, then returned to the living room. He reflected on T.S. Eliot and thought the poet had called April the cruelest month not because it killed flowers and buds on the trees, but because sometimes it didn’t. How difficult it was for those who didn’t bloom when all about was new life and hope.

The spirit of re-birth is alive in the tiny village of Three Pines. It’s Easter. Spring is on its way. And the villagers are celebrating the first signs of new life in the trees and in their gardens. 

But the fun and festivity of the annual Easter Egg hunt is overshadowed by an evil from the past. 

On a hill above the village stands the old Hadley House, the scene of some very nasty events in the previous novel A Fatal Grace. The atmosphere of malevolence has never completely gone away.

When a group of friends hold a seance in the house to rid the place of its past, one of them dies. Of fright? Or was she murdered? That’s the question Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must answer.

As they uncover long-held rivalries and secrets, Armand Gamache has to confront his own worst fears. Someone seems hell bent on damaging his reputation and destroying his career.

Just like the other books in the series, The Cruelest Month has a plot with enough twists and turns to keep you turning the pages. But the plot isn’t the most important aspect of this novel.. It’s the setting of the picturesque Québec village of Three Pines and the character of Armand Gamache that give this book, and indeed the whole series, its edge.

Enticing Magical Village Setting

The Cruelest Month takes us once more to Three Pines; a place so tiny that it doesn’t even figure on a map. Yet it boasts a bistro that becomes a home from home for the detectives (food figures large in every book) and a bookshop presided over by Myrna Landers, a black psychologist. It’s residents include Ruth Zardo, a blunt-spoken award-winning poet with a pet duck and Clara Morrow, a respected painter.

It’s the kind of place in which I could happily take up residence. In fact I cherish the hope that one day one of those cottages will come up for sale….. Until then I have to see it through Gamache’s eyes.

The mountains rose graciously on the far side, folding into each other, their slopes covered with a fuzz of lime green buds. He could smell not just the pine now, but the very earth, and other aromas. The musky rich scent of dried autumn leaves, the wood smoke rising from the chimneys below, and something else. He lifted his head and inhaled again, softly this time. There, below the bolder aromas, sat a subtler scent. The first of the spring flowers.

That setting and its comfortable social structure is of course one of the hallmarks of a traditional murder mystery. But although Louise Penny uses this – and other traditional devices like a careful questioning of suspects and well reasoned deductions – she goes also one step further with a psychologically astute dimension.

Behind every crime Armand Gamache investigates lies a tale of raw emotion and human tragedy. In The Cruelest Month we’re talking of jealousy and how kindness can turn to murderous intent.

Astute Psychological Insight

What I love about this series is how Louise Penny introduces a new psychological concept in each novel. Gamache has a natural ability to see beyond the facts to the emotion that often his suspects are at pains to hide. But in The Cruelest Month, his resident psychologist suggests what he’s dealing with is “the near enemy.”

Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other; is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other ‘s sick, twisted. … Attachment masquerades as Love; Pity as as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.

While I love the settings and the characters of these novels, it’s the psychological dimension and the way they draw upon other influences that I enjoy the most. How often do you come across another crime novel which as seamlessly incorporates psychological theory as it does poetry, Marcus Aurelius and the Bible?

The Cruelest Month: Fast Facts

Louise Penny
  • The Cruelest Month is the third title in the series of novels by Louise Penny featuring her Canadian chief police inspector Armand Gamache.
  • The series began with Still Life in 2006. The latest episode , A Better Man, is due for publication end of August 2019
  • Each of the books in the series is meant to be a stand-alone tale although Louise Penny does recommend they are read in order. Her advice is based the progression of the characters from book to book.
  • Based on my experience with this series I think if you read out of sequence you’ll miss a lot of the drama of what happens to Gamache himself
  • Details of each book be found on Louise Penny’s website
  • If you like what you find there there is another site she calls her ‘virtual bistro’ where she reflects on each book and explains what inspired her thinking and readers can post questions/comments.

Reasons to Justify Your Passion for Reading

The Benefits of Reading

For large numbers of people, reading is a form of entertainment. A chance to escape from their normal lives and be transported to a different time or place. For a short time, they also get an opportunity to inhabit other lives that could be more exciting than their own.

Other people read to improve their knowledge. Obviously students and school pupils fall into this camp. But they are not the only readers who delve into a book so they can feel better informed about a particular subject. Biographies, memoirs, travelogues all bring opportunities for discovery.

Do the benefits of reading go beyond entertainment and knowledge?

The answer from American novelist and activist, James Baldwin is an unequivocal yes.

It was reading that helped him leap over the barriers he experienced when growing up as a black child in a white neighbourhood. And then during his early adult years when he frequently encountered discrimination, being turned away from restaurants, bars and other establishments because he was African American.

In an interview for LIFE Magazine in 1963, he described how, as a child, he read everything he could get his hands on from the public library

… murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. What I had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around me.

Reading, said Baldwin, taught him that the things that tormented him the most were the same things experienced by people in the novels.

You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. 

What Happens When We Read?

Recent decades have seen a wealth of scientific studies designed to address that very question.

Some studies looked at the benefits of reading on stress levels others on mental ability and emotional capacity. What these scientists discovered make a compelling argument about the transformational nature of books.

Reading Enlarges Your Brain

Let’s take the example of a study by two scientists at Pittsburgy-Carnegie Mellon University.

Instead of looking at the effects of reading on the body’s physiological, psychological and emotional mechanisms, they turned their attention to the brain.

Would reading have any effects on the neurological system, they wondered.

Their study of children aged eight to ten discovered that a programme to help children improve their reading skills caused a re-wiring of their brains.

The quality of white matter in the children’s brains — the tissue that carries signals between areas of grey matter where information is processed — improved substantially during the programme..

Although the study was relatively small (just 72 subjects), the researchers believed it could be a break-through in treating developmental disorders, including autism.

Reading Makes You Smarter

If our brains can change as a result of reading, what does that mean for intelligence levels?

It turns out that reading and intelligence have a symbiotic relationship.

“Crystallised intelligence” – the mishmash of knowledge that fills our brains – is improved with reading. As is “fluid intelligence” which is the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns.

Some academics have used these connections to explain a 20 point increase credited in IQ scores among students. It’s the result, they claim of an increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in UK schools.

The lesson? If you want to have a chance of winning Mastermind or to excel in a survival exercise, you’d better get those books out now.

Reading Creates Empathy

But wait a moment. Being able to regurgitate facts and figures or to see connections between random thoughts might seem impressive.

But we’re missing a vital factor. One that makes an even more compelling reason for us to read and read and read.

For there’s third type of intelligence that is even more profoundly impacted by reading it appears. It’s called “emotional intelligence”.

We’re talking here about the ability to accurately read and understand our own and others’ feelings. And how to respond appropriately.

How do we know this?

In a 2013 Harvard study, a group of 1000 volunteers were put through an experiment designed to test other people’s mental states – what scientists call Theory of Mind.

One group was assigned literary fiction such as Corrie by Alice Munro and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. Another read popular fiction such as Space Jockey by Robert Heinlein. A third group got nonfiction such as “How the Potato Changed the World” by Charles Mann. A control group had nothing to read.

Across five experiments, people in the literary fiction group performed better on tasks like predicting how characters would act. They had a stronger ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions – a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

One of the study leaders said the results showed that social empathy was enhanced by reading literary fiction.

If we engage with characters who are nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, then I think we’re more likely to approach people in the real world with an interest and humility necessary for dealing with complex individuals,”

David Kidd, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education

Reading other kinds of fiction – like graphic novels, light romances, chick lit – didn’t have anywhere near the same kind of benefit, the study leaders maintain.

Why the difference? Literary fiction (or what they called ‘writerly fiction’ contains more gaps in detail. The reader therefore has to work harder to find their way through the blanks, drawing more upon their ability to connect and to imagine. So instead of being told what a character is thinking, readers of literary fiction have to interpret it for themselves based on how they are shown of the character’s actions.

Reading Improves Mental Well-Being

The ability to understand other people’s emotions is now being viewed as a key element in the power of reading to affect mental well-being.

In part this is due to the benefit of reading on stress levels, as discovered in a 2009 study at the University of Sussex,

The researchers took a bunch of volunteers and put them through a series of activities designed to increase their heart rate and stress levels. Then they were tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.

The activity that turned out to have the biggest effect, was reading.

Reading a novel for just six minutes lowered the volunteers’ stress levels by 68 percent. Other anti-stress strategies did work, just not to the same extent.

Going for a walk for example led to a 42 percent reduction; drinking a cup of tea or coffee saw a 54 percent improvement. Listening to music fared better, resulting in a 61 percent reduction in stress.

The authors reasoned that it’s the ability to be fully immersed and distracted that makes reading the perfect way to relieve stress.

This finding has had profound implications for the treatment of mental disorders. Doctors are now increasingly prescribing books to patients with depression or emotional disturbance. 

‘Bibliotherapy’ as it’s been termed, isn’t new – it was apparently coined in 1916 by a clergyman named Samuel Crothers. But the National Health Service in the UK is taking a much closer interest into the benefits of literary prescriptions.

Since 2013 they’ve been working with The Reading Agency on a programme called Reading Well which offers a books-on-prescription scheme and a recommended list of mood-enhancing fiction that can be sourced from public libraries. The results so far are impressive.

These are the theories. Is this what happens in real life?

I’ve certainly had times when I’ve turned to books to help take my mind off a stressful situation. But I’ve been struggling to think of situations in which I’ve found empathy by reading a book. Or made a connection between my own situation and what I find in a work of fiction. Maybe the connection has happened but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Or maybe the time has not yet come.

What do you think about all these studies? Do you know of people who who have found comfort in books? Do share your insights if you feel comfortable about doing so.

Powerful Tale Of A Slave’s Survival: The Long Song

Novelists who write about slavery seldom shy away from depicting the immense cruelty and inhumanity of this system.

They pull at the heartstrings with historically accurate scenes of brutality and deprivation and characters forced to experience  injustice and degradation. 

Few authors dare to introduce any element of comedy into their work. 

Few that is except for Andrea Levy in The Long Song

A Different Form of Slavery

This is the story of Miss July, a child conceived as a result of the rape of Kitty, a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation in the early 19th century. She is destined for a hard, and likely short life, toiling in the fields with her mother.

But the plantation owner’s sister, recently arrived from England to live at Amity, spots the child. On a whim she decides this cute child will become her maid. So at the age of eight, July is separated from her mother and moved to the great house.

It’s an improvement on working in the fields. But she’s still a slave and not even allowed to keep her own name. She’s set to work sewing and waiting hand and foot upon this fat and temperamental woman.

The Long Song

The Long Song is set in the turbulent years before the abolition of slavery in Jamaica.

July experiences the violent retribution enacted by white settlers upon their slave populations in the  aftermath of uprisings in 1831. She lives through years when rumours of freedom run through the plantations. But when freedom does happen in 1838, it doesn’t bring an end to hostile relationships between the slaves and their former masters.

Not much scope for levity you’d think.

But surprisingly, without ever trivialising her subject, Andrea Levy manages to inject a fair degree of humour into this narrative. She clearly has a gift for finding the comedy in the most unlikely of situations.

Light Amid The Darkness

July is a mischievous figure, happy in the midst of chaos. One scene has her ruin her mistress’s Christmas lunch by using an old bed sheet instead of an Irish linen table cloth. Another sees her hiding under her master’s bed, desperately trying to control her bladder while he paces the room.

Switching between third-person past and first-person present, Andrea Levy mixes the earthy Jamaican patois of the young girl with the more sophisticated and reflective voice of the older woman.

The Long Song is told in the form of July’s memoirs. Her son Thomas, a wealthy printer, intends to publish the book in an attractively bound edition with sugarcane on the cover.

But he and his octogenarian mother comically don’t see eye to eye on how this book should be written. Thomas remonstrates with his mother when he thinks she is misleading readers or leaving out significant episodes. But to Miss July, its all “fuss-fuss.

July is, as she has always been, a shrewd, independent-minded woman. This is her story and no-one is going to tell her how is should be told, not even her son.

She will not, she tells us, dawdle over descriptions of trees and grass. Nor will she fill her memoir with the “puff and twaddle ” found in books to satisfy “some white lady’s mind”.

… your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink.  Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire

A Reliable Witness?

Can we rely upon her as a narrator? Only in part….

She describes one milestone event – the symbolic funeral that marked the end of slavery on 31 July 1838 – only to later admit she was in the house with her mistress at the time.

July cheekily challenges any reader who disputes her version of events, to do their own research. She, herself, will not be weighed down by any burden of proof. But she warns these readers: if you find yourself in agreement with the views expressed in one publication Conflict and change. A view from the great house of slaves, slavery and the British Empire, “then away with you – for I no longer wish you as my reader.”

July is a fantastic character; vulnerable yet proud. “Me be a mulatto, not a negro,” she insists when trying to get admission into a Friday night dance. She’s more successful at gaining entry into the bed of her mistress’s new husband, Robert Goodwin, a pretty-faced, naïve new overseer. But his belief in abolition is thrown out of the window – and July out of his bed – when the newly freed slaves refuse to obey his commands to work. They’d rather be tending to their own crops than bringing in his harvest.

Andrea Levy shows the reality of plantation life: the extreme physical hardship and the brutality meted out casually to the slaves. Women are raped, slaves are flogged and hanged or locked into a rat infested prison. But she never descends into crude sensationalism or allows the narrative to be weighed down by obvious messages. The novel is all the better for that.

The Long Song: Fast Facts

  • The Long Song was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year.
  • It was the recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction in 2011.
  • Andrea Levy was born in London to Jamaican parents in 1956. Levy began her career as a costume assistant, working part-time in the costume departments of the BBC and the Royal Opera House. She began writing in her mid-30s after her father died.
  • She struggled to gain acceptance initially but achieved critical success with her fourth novel, Small Island , which deals with the immediate outcomes of World War II and migration on the Windrush generation. It was subsequently adapted for television and stage.
  • A three-part adaptation of The Long Song was broadcast by the BBC in December 2016.
  • Andrea Levy died in February 2019. The Long Song was her final novel.
Books of Summer

Writers On Reading: Stephen King

Stephen King

Imagine you’re in a train station or a doctor’s waiting room.

If you prefer, imagine you’re standing in a queue to get your passport renewed, pay your parking fine or buy theatre tickets.

Are you:

  • frantically texting on your phone;
  • glancing at your watch every few seconds;
  • staring into space;
  • glaring at the back of the person in front of you, somehow thinking this will make the queue move quicker or
  • reading a book/magazine/newspaper?

If you picked the last of these options, you are in a minority I suspect.

Take a look around you the next time you’re in one of what Stephen King would call “dead spots in life”. How many of the people around you are reading? Very few I suspect.

For reasons I won’t bore you with right now, I’ve spent many hours in hospital waiting rooms in the past few years. They always run late so I make sure I have a book or an e-reader with me.

I’m often the only one. I’ll see the occasional person with a magazine or a newspaper. But the majority are just sitting, either looking at the blank wall in front of them or reading dog-eared notices about the myriad of problems the body can throw at you.

How can they do this? I find the prospect of being stuck in a place for even 15 minutes without anything to read as highly stressful. No-one wants to be in these places but if you can lose yourself in a book for a while, it makes the wait slightly more manageable. But there these people sit, sometimes for more than an hour, with absolutely nothing to occupy their minds.

I’ve not reached the level of Andy Miller who, during his Year of Reading Dangerously, would find an excuse to go to the post office just so that he could read.

But I do tend to have a book with me almost every time I step out of the house. They help keep me sane.

How about you? Do you always carry a book with you or are you happy sitting in a Zen like state while waiting?

10 Wonderful Books By Women In Translation

It’s August so it must be Women in Translation month.

This year, founder and host of #WITMonth, Meytal at Biblibio, is building a list of the top 100 women in translation.

Although I haven’t read anywhere near as many women writers in translation as I’d like, I still managed to find 10 that I recommend.

The Murder Of Halland by Pia Juul (Danish)
murder-of-halland

An enigmatic novel that demonstrates how Nordic fiction isn’t all about “noir.” Though crime does features, the discovery of a body is simply a trigger for the dead man’s wife to re-evaluate her marriage, her relationship with friends and with her estranged daughter.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Korean)

The Vegetarian

A startling and disturbing novella of a Korean housewife who decides to stop eating meat. Her decision puts her at opposition to her family and her culture and on a path to mental collapse

Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook (Korean)

Shin Kyung-sook

The children of one elderly Korean woman are forced to re-examine their relationship with their mother when she goes missing in a crowded metro station.

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb (Belgian)

Amelie Nothomb

An unusual novel of the difficulties faced by a young girl when she begins to work in a Japanese multinational company and doesn’t understand the rules.

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik (Norwegian)

The Blue Room

Another gem from Peirene. This one looks at the difficult relationship between a mother who likes to be in control and a daughter who wants her freedom.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani (French)

Lullaby

Parents intent on building a successful career. A nanny who seems too perfect to be true. Two children in her care. What could possibly go wrong?

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf (German)

A fascinating portrait of an East German woman from her childhood at the end of World War 2 until her early death in a 1960s Communist state. 

Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi (French)

A mother’s love for her children and her fears of letting them go out into the world are brought vividly to life.

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

Goodbye Tsugumi

Two old friends re-unite one summer. A chance to re-kindle their relationship and remember the idyllic times they spent together. But their lives are set on different courses.

The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa

Quietly understated tale of a wise old man who leads a younger mind to enlightenment. 

What women in translation books would you recommend? I’m particularly interested in authors from Asia or South America.

Enter The Magical World Of Stories with Once Upon A River

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Do you remember the first time you heard those words: “Once upon a time…” ?

They were magical words.

Words that transported you into new worlds of good fairies and naughty imps; of brave warriors, damsels in distress and knights in shining armour. 

As you grew older, fairies and goblin stories lost their appeal. In their place came family stories heard around the dinner table or the camp fire. Stories perhaps of war and adventure, or mysterious events and comic mishaps. 

The characters changed and the stories changed. But what never altered was your love of a good yarn. 

Fireside Stories

The characters in Diane Setterfield’s magnificently atmospheric and mysterious novel, Once Upon a River, are lovers of stories too. When the gravel-diggers and bargemen gather around the fire of an ancient inn at Radcot on the Thames, they love to share stories.

Bridge over the Thames at Radcot

Stories keep them entertained on dark and dreary nights. It matters not that they’ve heard them all before: they’ve found new ways to enliven the tales, with ever more outlandish new versions.

None of them, however, came up with a tale as outlandish as the one that began one one winter solstice night.

The regulars at The Swan are indulging in another telling of their favourite story about the battle of Radcot, when the door to the inn bursts open. In staggers a man, soaked through and with his head bashed in. In his arms is what looks like “a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and sickly painted hair.”

Except it’s not a puppet. It’s a young girl. And everyone in the pub agrees she is dead. Imagine their astonishment when hours later the girl revives.

Miracle and Mystery

For weeks afterwards the regulars of the Swan can talk about nothing other than this miracle.  

Who is the mysterious girl? The girl herself doesn’t provide any answers since she doesn’t speak. Nor can the injured man help solve the puzzle. He can say only that he found her in floating in the river.

Once Upon a River by Diane Settlefield

Theories are proposed. Gnawed over. Found wanting.

In the absence of any natural explanation, the villagers begin to wonder if other forces are responsible. Could this be the work of Quietly, a ghostly ferryman who features in many of their fireside stories? When someone gets into trouble on the river, Quietly appears

… manipulating his pole so masterfully that his punt seemed to glide as if powered by an otherworldly force. He never spoke a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day.

He’s there to get you safely home. But to whose home does this mysterious child actually belong?

Three people claim she is theirs.

A local couple whose marriage faded when their daughter was kidnapped.

A prosperous mixed race farmer who believes she’s the illegitimate
off- spring of his ne’er do well son.

A simple housekeeper who believes her long dead young sister has returned.

Sorrow Amid the Menace

Diane Setterfield takes her time to unravel the answer to this mystery. Just like the river her story “does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination. Instead “it winds its way in time-wasting loops and diversions.” 

That doesn’t mean Once Upon a River is a laborious read however. It’s simply that a leisurely pace works best for a tale that, for all its Gothic elements of mystery and menace, is ultimately about grief.

Sorrow that never fades is experienced acutely by all three families who believe the child is theirs. But is encapsulated best by the father of the kidnapped girl

He saw her not here, in this room and not now in this hour, but in the infinity of memory. She was lost to life, but in his memory she existed, was present, and he looked at her and her eyes met his and she smiled.

Setterfield situates every aspect of the narrative in relation to The Thames.

It’s too simplistic to say that the river is as much of a character as the regulars at The Swan or the families who vie for the child. But The Thames is certainly a powerful presence, reigning god-like over the villagers of Radcot.

The river finds its way into their wells and is “drawn up to launder petticoats and to be boiled for tea” and ‘from teapot and soup dish, it passes into mouths’. The Thames provides them with transport and an occupation. It nourishes the crops needed to sustain their lives. But it also takes life away.

Mastering The Art Of Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A River is a beautifully crafted novel showing the thin border between the real and the unreal worlds. And how sometimes rational explanations do exist for strange and mysterious events.

For me the greatest pleasure lay in how Diane Setterfield uses the novel to celebrate the traditions of storytelling but also remind us that it’s an artifice.

Faced with a dearth of fact about a boy who died at the Radcot battle, the storytellers turn to invention.

At each retelling the drinkers raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell you are allowed to take liberties with it….

Some, like the landlord of The Swan, realise that storytelling is as much about the performance as it is about the narrative.

With a bit of practice he found he could turn his hand to any kind of tale; whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation relief, doubt and any other feeling as well as any actor.

But as we see through the character of the landlord’s son, not everyone can be a storyteller.

He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed squirmed with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.

This is a novel that shows what great storytelling is all about. And why we never tire of hearing a good tale.

Once Upon A River: Fast Facts

  •  Once Upon A River was published in January 2019 by Transworld Publishers, part of the Penguin Random House Group
  • Diane Setterfield was born in Berkshire, England. She embarked on an academic career but gave that up to concentrate on writing full time in the late 1990s
  • My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a fair review
  • Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (published in 2006) was an international bestseller
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