Author Archives: BookerTalk
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: August 2019
What I’m reading now
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.
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.
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?
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
- 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.
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 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.
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.
- 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?
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
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
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.