Category Archives: United Kingdom

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome [review]

 

swallows_amazonsSwallows and Amazons was the first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series of 12 novels written between 1929 and 1934. It introduces the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the Swallows), the camp they create on Wild Cat island and their adventures with the two intrepid Blackett sisters (the Amazons). Ransome, who was a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, was inspired to write the book after a summer spent giving sailing lessons to the children of some friends. His novel relates the outdoor adventures and play of the two sets of children who are spending the summer holidays in the Lake District. Initially ‘enemies’ the Swallows and the Amazons enjoy a few skirmishes until they agree to band together against a common foe – the Blacketts’ uncle James whom they call “Captain Flint” who angers them by thinking them responsible for the theft of his precious trunk. But of course, since this is a book intended for child readers, all must come right in the end. Mistakes are set right, apologies given, the children become firm friends with Captain Flint and all resolve to meet again the following summer.

I never read Swallows and Amazons as a child – in fact I never heard the title mentioned even among any of my friends. But it was a set text on my children’s literature course so in I plunged. I admit that, despite the fact it was voted in a 2003 BBC poll as one of the nation’s favourite reads,  I didn’t warm to this book initially. It contained far too much about the mechanics of sailing in which I have little interest. But once I’d got over that barrier I began to appreciate this tale of a bunch of children who get to go off on adventures without too much interference from adults.

It’s a novel in the long tradition of ‘island stories’ but instead of travelling to far off places and encountering pirates as the kids do in Treasure Island for example, the children here base their adventures on a small island in  one of the Lake District’s lakes (some local experts claim it’s Lake Windermere, others that it’s Coniston Water.) Influenced by their reading of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island the Walker children and the Blackett girls let their imaginations roam free.  Adults are transformed into ‘natives’, the map of the lake is re-drawn with their own names assigned to its inlets and bays,  the fish they catch become ‘sharks’ and the pebbles for which they dive are ‘pearls’. They eat some odd sounding meals – it took me a while to work out that the ingredient they call pemmican is something like SPAM – but they are not so far away from civilisation that they miss out on cakes and other treats from their mother and the nearby farm.

The more I read of their invented world, the more I recalled some of the adventures I had with my large group of cousins during our own school holidays, leaving the house just after breakfast and sometimes not returning until it was time for tea. In between we roamed the hillsides building dens to ward off imaginary invaders sustained with some wild berries we managed to forage. For the children of Swallows and Amazons their adventures provide a form of education. They learn practical skills like how to handle the dinghy or how to cook on a camp fire but they also learn a lesson in life – the importance of not taking things at face value and of valuing other people’s property. It has a clear didactic element but it’s handled fairly lightly (certainly in comparison to Little Women!).

On the whole, though I wouldn’t want to read any more in the series, this was a fun read and I found I could easily skip the details about sailing. I loved the way it sparked memories of my own childhood – I wonder whether kids today still make up their own imaginary worlds or has this become a victim of the easy availability of virtual reality and gaming?

Footnotes

The Book: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was published in 1930. So popular has it proved over the year that multiple TV and film adaptations have been issued, including one by Harbour Pictures and BBC Films in 2016. (it attracted criticism because out of some odd idea of sensitivity, one character’s name was changed from Titty to Tilly).

 

The Author: Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds but spent large parts of his childhood in the Lake District, using that detailed knowledge to inform his novels. Ransome had already written 20 novels but it wasn’t until third of the Swallows and Amazons series was published did he achieve commercial and critical success.  After the success of his first Swallows and Amazons novel he gave up his journalist career and devoted himselfto to writing adventure stories for children.  The  Arthur Ransome Trust set up to honour his work, continues to operate today, providing children with some of the same experiences as the children in his novels.

Why I read this book: Quite simply I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been a set text for my children’s literature course.

10 under rated books

10gemsThis week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.

Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.

Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.

From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.

By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.

And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.

If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.

Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.

I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character.  Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.

The Spinning Heart  by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.

And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker  in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make  a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.

 

That’s my list – now it’s your turn  

What books have you read that you’d consider to be under-rated or hidden gems?

Miss Christie Regrets: Reviving the Golden Age of crime

The revival of interest in crime classics from the Golden Age of (the 1920s and 30s) continues unabated it seems.  The British Library decision to publish hitherto neglected titles from that era was a smart move, coming just as book pundits began to detect a desire by readers to move away from dark modern thrillers. Whether the interest in the Classic Crime series (now 20 titles and growing) was really a reaction to the complexity of modern life and a yearning for the ‘simpler’ life of the past, is debatable. It may be that the interest in the Golden Age will be short lived but for now, it’s definitely on the rise.

misschristieMiss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson harks back to that era but also brings it up to date with a whodunnit trail involving espionage and a threat to national security. It doesn’t slavishly follow the conventions of the Golden Era detective story (no locked room mystery here for example or English country house setting) but it acknowledges its heritage with multiple references to the leading practitioners of the genre like Marjorie Allingham and of course Agatha Christie.

This is the second title in a series set in the Hampstead area of London and the police station serving that suburb. It features some of the same characters of the earlier novel Death in Profile; in particular Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, the psychologist Peter Collins and Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis. It begins with the discovery of a body at an art gallery/museum, with our old friend the blunt instrument soon identified as the murder weapon. There are a few obvious suspects including the caretakers of the building though the security system was so lax anyone could have walked in from the street and done the evil deed.  The police team are already struggling to make much progress when a second murder victim is discovered in the basement of an iconic apartment block which boasted illustrious tenants including Miss Agatha Christie herself. Collinson is convinced the two cases are connected even though they happened some 60 years apart. He’s also convinced Miss Christie somehow holds the key to the mystery. He’s not able to make much progress however until Special Branch begin to reveal some of their secrets. I won’t give the game away much further other than to say the trail uncovers connections that the intelligence service have sat on for decades. 

It’s a plot that’s not fiendishly difficult but has enough complexity to keep me guessing until the final stages. Miss Christie Regrets has a satisfying quota of dead bodies though they happen off stage as it were and are not described in any gory detail and plenty of red herrings. Ultimately it’s a straight forward police procedural murder mystery in which the detectives reach a solution not through sudden ‘light bulb’ moments but by meticulous attention to detail and protocol. Good old fashioned detective work I suppose one could call this.

CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=384681

The Isokon building: Creative commons licence: CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=384681

My enjoyment would have been even greater if there had been less of the police procedural element and more depth to the setting. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Isokon building which was intended as an experiment in communal living and designed in the style of the Bauhaus movement. But given that the series is named Hampstead Murders I would have expected more of a sense we were in this particular part of London. There are some occasional references to pubs or buildings like Burgh House where the first murder victim is found:

Burgh House sits rather smugly in New End Square, as if well aware of the fact that it is both one of the largest and also one of the finest houses in Hampstead. 

These glimpses were tantalising. I’d hope that as this series progresses  and the characters are given more depth that more emphasis is also given to portraying the unique character of Hampstead. I would have welcomed more of that element and less of the daily recaps of the investigation. Police work does involve a higher degree of routine work than TV dramas suggest but I don’t necessarily need to see that mapped out in such detail as in this novel. It made the book feel longer than it needed to be.

Overall however this was a highly readable novel and one I can see having a strong appeal to people who enjoy being challenged by the mystery of death but don’t need all the gruesome details.

Footnotes

The Book: Miss Christie Regrets is published January 2016 by Urbane Publications UK

The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of  three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.

Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review (which I hope this is).

 

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

strongpoisonStrong Poison is the fifth book to feature Dorothy L Sayers’ aristocratic private sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read any of the earlier novels for this book can stand on its own. It’s  a wonderful introduction to Wimsey and his methods which seem to involve a lot of thinking and casual conversations with witnesses and potential perpetrators. He has one ace up his sleeve –  the group of women known as ‘The Cattery’, members of  a fictitious typing bureau who are deployed to infiltrate houses and offices and nose about on his behalf.

These were spinsters with small fixed incomes or o comes at all, widows without family; women deserted by peripatetic husbands and living on a restricted alimony, who previous to their engagement ….had had no resources but bridge and boarding house gossip.

 

It’s a brilliant device because it gives scope for some wonderful characterisations and amusing episodes. In Strong Poison we benefit from  two highly amusing scenes in which one woman takes part in a seance and pretends to be a medium  and another where a man takes lessons from a master thief on how to pick locks.

The plot revolves Harriet Vane who is on trial for the murder by arsenic powder of her former lover. Whimsy attends the trial and is convinced that Harriet Vane is not guilty of murder but can he prove this in time to save her from the gallows? He’s up against it since the police are equally convinced they have the right culprit and even the judge at her trial seems to be against her. Finding the real poisoner isn’t just a case of exerting true justice – Wimsey has another motivation for solving the mystery – he has decided he wants to marry Harriet even though all he knows about her is what was revealed at the trial. She understandably demures at this proposal since she knows even less about him, but Wimsey is not a man to take no for an answer.

The plot is reasonably straight forward – surprisingly I guessed who the culprit was long before the revelation (as I suspect many other readers will). Less evident than the answer to the question whodunnit? was the answer to the question of how the murder was accomplished. That one kept me perplexed right to the end.

The plot is less important than the characters and the setting however. This is novel dating from the 1930s, an era often labelled as the “golden age of crime”  because it also saw the rise of two authors who became synonymous with crime fiction: Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.  It’s an era wonderfully evoked by Sayers who of course was writing about her contemporary world. Equally masterful is her creation of Lord Wimsey. One moment you’re thinking that despite his elegant clothes and foppish language  he is a bit of an idiot and the next thinking how astute a judge of character he is.  A most unusual private eye .

All together an entertaining novel that did the job perfectly when I needed an antidote so some of my darker reading materials. I know where to turn when I’m next in that mood.

Footnotes

The Book: Strong Poison  by Dorothy  L. Sayers was published in 1930. According to Wikipedia the relationship between  Harriet and her lover  was inspired by Sayers’ own fraught relationship with fellow-author John Cournos. Cournos wanted her to ignore social mores and live with him without marriage, but she wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against marriage only to test her devotion, and she broke off with him.

My edition: Published by Hodder and Stoughton’s New English Library. It has an introduction by Elizabeth George which pays tribute to Sayers’ ability to conjure up compelling characters.

Why I read this: it was in a second hand book shop and in excellent condition so of course I had to buy it but then left it lingering on the shelf for a while.  I had just read Little Women and after so much saccharine I needed a complete change of pace .

 

Review backlog – part 2

Continuing the idea from a recent post, here are some short reviews of novels I read a few years ago but failed to finish the reviews. Luckily I had started them and had kept a few notes to help but don’t expect any deep insight on each of these…..

mycousinrachelMy Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier: I had high expectations for this one having seen multiple reviews about how good it was. I picked it up as a companion to a long international flight, thinking it would distract me but I found it decidedly dull. It’s set largely at a large estate in Cornwall owned and run by Ambrose Ashley together with his young cousin Philip . All goes swimmingly until Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he has to leave England for warmer climates, choosing to sojourn instead in Italy. There he meets cousin Rachel, marries her and sends letters back home about how happy he is. Gradually the tone changes and he begins complaining of repeated headaches. A few weeks later Rachel, now a widow, turns up at the estate. Philip is attracted to her despite his doubts that she might have had a hand in Ambrose’s death. The rest of the novel is an unraveling of the mystery about Rachel and Ambrose’s demise and whether Philip wakes up to the reality of the situation in time to avoid a personal catastrophy. I thought the mystery ponderous and the writing lacking in energy. Just about managed to finish it.

sarahs-keySarah’s Key by Isabelle de Rothsay

This was recommended to me by a colleague in North America who is even more of an avid reader than I am. We discovered this connection via a team building exercise where you have to come up with three things that you think no-one else knows about you, then the other people have to guess who that fact relates to. It was a good recommendation for a book I doubt I would have picked up otherwise.

It has a dual time frame.In one we meet ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl born in Paris, who is arrested with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Before they go, she locks her four-year-old brother in a cupboard, thinking the family should be back in a few hours. The second plot follows Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write an article in honour of the 60th anniversary of the roundup. Gradually the two stories coalesce.

This is a narrative that is full of emotional appeal, particularly those set in France. The scenes that take place in the  Vélodrome d’Hiver, where more than 7,000 Jews were enclosed without water or food for days before being moved to concentration camps, were deeply moving, the kind of episode which it is hard to read without feeling bitter and tearful. The modern day story of Julia and her cheating husband had less impact and the ending was far too neatly wrapped up in a big chocolate box bow to work for me. But on the whole I’m glad I read it – the film version wasn’t bad either.

resistanceResistance by Owen Sheers

Owen’s debut novel, Resistance is set in 1944 and imagines what would have happened if the Normandy landings had failed and German troops manage to arrive on British soil. Within a month half of the country is occupied.

In an isolated farm in the Welsh borders Sarah Lewis, finds her farmer husband Tom as disappeared. All the other husbands in the valley have similarly gone. The women are left alone to cope as best they can with the crops and livestock. Later in the novel it transpires they have all become members of the secret British resistance. In the meantime a German patrol arrives on a mystery mission, forming a fragile support for the women when a severe winter hits the valley. Sarah begins a taut relationship with the patrol’s commanding officer. But this puts further pressure on the fragile harmony of the valley and reveals deep undercurrents of feeling.

On the plus side I enjoyed reading about an area of my birth country with which I am familiar but seeing it through fresh eyes. It’s one that is not stack exactly but spare and often overlooked in favour of more lush scenery nearby. Sheers writes in a lyrical mode that really brings alive the landscape and the battle that endures to make a living from this land. Ultimately though this proved nothing more than just an ok novel though – neither good nor bad but not one that would make me recommend it. I think I struggled to engage with the characters and feel them ‘real’. My mum on the other hand loved it and so did her book club so maybe I am in a minority. Its now been turned into a film for which Owen Sheers was the co-screenwriter.

Sheers lives in Wales so I’m keen to support him and will likely read his most recent novel  I Saw A Man  which is set in  London and New York and though also about relationships, has the pace of a thriller.

Treasure Island: a troubling adventure

treasure-islandHalf a century has passed since I first read Treasure Island by R. L Stevenson yet much of it is still fresh in my mind. I remember the menacing figure of Long John Silver and the quick witted child Jim who is initially mesmerised by Silver but proves his nemesis. I remember also some of the dramatic scenes like the one where Jim hides in the apple barrel and overhears the pirates plotting to kill their way to the treasure.

Treasure Island was a landmark in the history of children’s literature, one of the first directed specifically at boy readers. It was seen initially as a great adventure story which portrayed the qualities expected of men who formed the British Empire, governing and controlling  a waste swathe of the world. So Jim, our hero, is imbued with qualities like courage, the ability to take control (at one point he grabs the ship and steers it to safety) and integrity in the sense he knows the difference between right and wrong. It’s a coming of age novel in which Jim learns how to use those skills on the side of the establishment and against those who would destabilise it (in other words the criminal undercurrent).

And yet there are some troubling elements in the novel that undercut that presentation of the novel.

The first is troubling element is Jim’s relationship with Silver.For a large part of the novel Jim seems to admire this former seaman. When he sees him for the first time in the Bristol quayside pub he runs, he is impressed with Silver’s energy and his ability to laugh and joke with the patrons. Knowing of Silver’s past association with Black Dog and his experience with the violent buccaneers who lay siege to his mother’s in, he is surprised to find Silver “a clean and pleasant landlord” who “he would have gone bail for.” Even when he discovers Silver’s true nature he admires the man’s ability to control the pirates, establish himself as leader and the energy with which he embarks on the climb to find the treasure. But Jim is un unreliable narrator – first because he is telling the story as an adult and hence what he recalls. Additionally he often tries to justify actions which at the time feel disloyal to the men on the side of the goodies – particularly the Squire and the Doctor. She he absconds from the stockade where they are trying to fend off the pirates he makes the excuse that he is “only a boy…”

A second element that undercuts the story is the way that the people who are meant to be upstanding figures of authority are shown to be just as bad as the recognisably evil pirates. The pirates are motivated by greed – they squabble and are ready to commit murder to get their hands on the buried treasure. But are the two figures who plan the adventure and fund it, any better? Squire Trelawney  proves to be someone who can’t keep his mouth shut about the voyage and spills the beans before they have even equipped their vessel. The local doctor Dr. Livesey is wise and practical and he does at least show integrity by agreeing to treat the pirates with just as much care as his own wounded men. But both men have just as much a lust for treasure as much as the pirates (even and both end up killing people. The Squire proves to be quite a crack shot, able to ‘pick off’ a distant pirate almost casually.

By the time they leave the island they show no remorse in leaving behind the remaining pirates to die because its less troubling than taking them home to face the hangman. They share out the treasure, in a fair manner according to Jim yet Ben Gunn who was their saviour doesn’t seem to have been treated in a way that recognised how instrumental he was in saving their lives and finding them the treasure. Only the boy Jim seems to recognise the true cost of the voyage as one of “blood and sorrow…. shame and lies and cruelty..” Not quite the behaviour you’d expect from fine upstanding members of the Colonial controlling establishment?

This undercurrent of something not feeling quite comfortable about the book’s messaging is the reason I enjoyed reading it. The adventure story was good – plenty of dramatic moments and nasty villains. But I enjoyed reading between the lines and trying to work out whether Stephenson is endorsing conservatism or undermining it.

What his motives were we will never know but in Silver he gave us a character tat has endured through the ages with constant reinvention. Without Silver we may never have had Captain Hook in Peter Pan or the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Disney Theme Park. Not bad for a novel more than 100 years old..

Footnotes

The Book: Treasure Island by R.L Stevenson was published in 1883. Legend has it that it was inspired by a map Stevenson drew himself and that he drew on the histories of real pirates like Blackbeard.

My edition: Published by Oxford World Classics which has a good glossary (very useful for those nautical terms and a helpful introduction by Peter Hunt one of the leading academics in the field of children’s literature).

Why I read this: its one of the set texts on my children’s literature course.

 

 

 

A View of The Harbour, Elizabeth Taylor #1947club

harbourWhat a lot of unhappy people inhabit the fishing village chosen as the setting of Elizabeth Taylor’s A View from the Harbour. Loneliness and disappointment seep out from almost every house that sits on the sea-front. Even the town of Newby seems in its twilight years with few visitors since the focus moved to the new town around the point. All that’s left is a furniture shop with chipped china, a tobacconist whose windows are full of faded postcards and gifts that no-one wants to buy, a wax works that is clinging to the past, a second hand clothes shop where the frocks hang dejected and unloved and a harbour where rusty wire is full of seaweed and tattered rags.

There’s Robert the doctor who is in love with his wife’s best friend, a beautiful divorcee called Tory who lives next door. She’s half in love with her former husband still and fretting about her young son who’s gone off to boarding school. Then there’s the doctor’s wife Beth who is so wrapped up in writing her novels and carefully crafting funeral scenes that she can’t see the sadness of her own daughter’s life  “No warmth fell from her over her children,” the narrator tells us and indeed through the novel Beth is rather detached, not just from her two daughters but her husband. She spends more time questioning her merits as an author.

It is just fiddling about with words. I’m not a great writer. Whatever I do someone else’s always done it before, and better. In ten years’ time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And even if I were one of the great ones, who cares?

Just down the street sisters Maisie and Ivy are struggling with their personal demon -their mother. Mrs Bracey is the book’s darkest character. She’s a control freak who wants her daughters – and everyone else -dancing attendance on her while she watches what goes on outside the house. She’s a perceptive character though – quick to pick up nuances when Robert and Tory meet outside her window so she can tell from the very fact that they are not smiling, that they are lovers.

A few doors away widow Lily Wilson is petrified to go home to the darkened waxworks museum she runs, locking the bedroom door against her ghostly companions and praying for sleep.

…. she was ever conscious that they stood grouped there, unmoving, eyes glittering as the lighthouse beam winked upon them, their arms crooked unnaturally or ones flexed slightly in everlasting informality, a disintegrating glove draped between the fingers of royalty, the unfamiliar faces of forgotten murderers turned to the door.

Weaving his way through these people who yearn for something different – and better – is a retired seaman. Bertram Hemingway  has his own dreams of being an artist, “a delightful painter of marine and plage subjects. Every day he takes his materials down to the harbour front, in the hope of capturing the essence of the sea that had for been his world for thirty years. In his head he can do it but on paper “the greens became mud, the birds suggested no possibility of movement, stuck motionless above the waves…” To salve his waves of loneliness he tries to ingratiate himself with the locals at the pub and with the neighbours either side, even at one point sitting at the bedside of the dying Mrs Bracey though his reminiscences of childhood Christmases are of no interest or meaning for her.

No momentous events materialise to change the course of their lives – this isn’t a plot driven novel but one of finely observed human behaviour. People in this community watch each other a lot though they don’t necessarily comprehend what they see so they go on blindless to their own nature and to those around them. We see them framed as if in a tableau – indeed the first scene is of Bertrand watching a woman do little more than carry a jug from the pub to the doctor’s house and then back again.

In her introduction to my edition of the novel Sarah Walters comments that she sees Elizabeth Taylor as an important British author “of great subtlety, great compassion and great depth”. I’m not convinced about the depth but subtlety is certainly in evidence in A View of the Harbour. Sometimes her insight into humanity are so discreet that you read a sentence and don’t understand its full import until much later. This is a novel that doesn’t parade itself with dramatic turns of plot or sudden revelations of character – it’s a bit like a really good cup of tea, it needs time to brew.

Footnotes

The Book: A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor. It was her third of 14 novels.

Published: 1947. My version is a 1987 edition published by Virago Press

Length: 313 pages

The Author: Elizabeth Taylor the writer

Why I read this: For the 1947 club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s bookish ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book

 

 

Clearing the review backlog: Three short reviews

Jason at We Need to Talk About Books hit on a great idea with his “books read but not reviewed” posts. Such a great idea that I’ve borrowed it to deal with a backlog of reviews that I never seem to be able to get through. I’ll start with which was the first year of this blog. Luckily I had a few notes scribbled on a document to help me recall the books.

cranfordCranford by Elizabeth Gaskell . This became a much talked about book when it was turned into a highly successful television series in the UK. Broadcast in three series from 2007, it featured some class actors like Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton. The story is set in the early 1840s in the fictional village of Cranford in the county of Cheshire in North West England, and focuses mainly on the town’s single and widowed middle class female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store in propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility.

There is clearly an opportunity to reflect changes in the world around them but that never came across to me in the first few episodes I watched.  It felt too whimsical amd cosy for my tastes. The book, when  I got around to reading it left me with the same impression (just to be clear I read book one of what is  series in effect). I was missing the depth of social understanding that I’d found in Gaskell’s North and South (reviewed here)

womaninblack

Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The play of this book was one of my best theatre experiences of the late 1980s. It’s still doing the rounds so I won’t give any details away thet will spoil the surprise and shock. It’s far superior to the  later film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe by the way. The book upon which both versions were  based was published in 1983. It’s a relatively slim volume written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about The Woman in Black is a 1983 horror novella by Susan Hill, written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about a mysterious spectre that haunts a small English town, heralding the death of children. The suspense is handled well and it kept me engaged theiughout a red eyed flight when I couldn’t sleep. But I wouldn’t give it many marks for quality of writing. Susan Hill seemed to think stuffing the narrative with lots of adjectives  was the best way to conjure up the atmosphere. It didn’t. It just left me feeling irritated.

witchhunter

 

The Witch Hunter by Bernard Knight. This is part of his Crowner John series which revolves around the figure of a coroner based in Exeter, England in the twelfth century. I’ve read or listened to audio versions of about half of them and they are all excellent at conjuring up the spirit of those times. I dont recall the plots usually, preferring the way Bernard Knight in eyes the uncertainties of life in those times, the struggles of a monarch trying to extort his power across the whole country in the face of opposition by the powerful barons and vested interests. Knight shows the coroner as a man of principle, determined to fulfill the responsibilities for this newly established role even if thet means he comes head to head with the county sheriff who happen so be his brother in law. In The Witch Hunter he has to contend with a community that views the death  of a prominent burgess as a signof witchcraft. Personal interests intervene when the coroners beloved mistress Nesta is implicated. I’m surprised this series doesn’t have more visibility because it’s highly readable. I’ve posted about the series in general here.

 

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G Farrell #ManBooker

seigeJ.G Farrell is a writer whose work I was completely oblivious to until I started on my project to read all the past winners of the Booker Prize.

The Siege of Krishnapur is part of a series of novels known as the Empire Trilogy (the two other titles are Troubles and The Singapore Grip), which deal with the political and human consequences of British colonial rule. The Siege of Krishnapur is based on the real experience of British subjects during the Indian rebellion of 1857 (what has become known as “the Indian Mutiny“).

At first the remote British colonial outpost at Krishnapur is  blissfully unaware of what lies ahead so they continue with their rounds of soirees  and discussions about pseudo scientific concepts like phrenology. By the time news comes of an impending attack it’s too late to flee so these representatives of the British Raj stiffen their sinews, batten down the hatches and wait for relief. Surrounded by beautiful furniture and artwork, and confident in the ability of the Empire to prevail,  the idiots have no idea what it really means to be under siege and the level of deprivation they will endure.  For a time they are able to preserve their Victorian stiff upper lips, the women strive to maintain the social hierarchy and the men posture and preen, joshing about the best way to fire at the Indian attackers – someone has the bizarre idea when ammunition runs out for their cannons, they should fill them with cooking implements  and fire those instead.

But as the weeks turn into months with no relief in sight, the old standards crack in the face of flying musket balls and insects, dwindling supplies of food and dirty water, disease and death,  Religious beliefs are questioned, valuable items of furniture have to be burned; old ideals are challenged. The deterioration is vividly portrayed – the latter stages of the novel are permeated with the smell of rotting bodies (human and animal) and the image of emaciated people. The atmosphere is one of impending doom.

Most of the characters are condescending and racists but Farrell gives us the ability to sympathise with them, particularly with the character of the Collector. He’s a man who is initially presented as a pompous eccentric, a believer in progress who is often found daydreaming of the  the Great Exhibition when he is not admiring his Louis XVI table and books.

 

What an advantage that knowledge can be stored in books! The knowledge lies there like hermetically sealed provisions waiting for the day when you may need a meal. Surely what the Collector was doing as he pored over his military manuals, was proving the superiority of the European way of doing things, of European culture itself. This was a culture so flexible that whatever he needed was there in a book at his elbow. An ordinary sort of man, he could, with the help of an oil-lamp, turn himself into a great military engineer, a bishop, an explorer or a General overnight, if the fancy took him.

By the end he has risen above banalities to become a leader capable of bravery and the common sense lacking in those around him. His eyes have been opened to the true significance of his beloved Exhibition and what it really represented:

He, too, [had] suffered from an occasionally enlightening vision which came to him from the dim past and which he must have suppressed at the time . . . The extraordinary array of chains and fetters, manacles and shackles exhibited by Birmingham for export to America’s slave states, for instance . . . Why had he not thought more about such exhibits? Well, he had never pretended that science and industry were good in themselves, of course . . . They still had to be used correctly. All the same he should have thought a great deal more about what lay behind the exhibits.

Farrell of course is poking fun at the colonial concept with its pretensions and supreme confidence in the Empire’s military and moral superiority. Few of these characters emerge with any dignity yet Farrell makes us feel sympathetic towards them. Much of the novel is witty and funny – hard to achieve given the subject matter but he makes it work.

A well-deserved winner of the Booker Prize in 1973 and one of the best winners I’ve read.

Footnotes

The Book: The Siege of Krishnapur is book number 2 in the Empire Trilogy by J.G Farrell

Published: 1973. My version is a 1993 edition published by Phoenix

Length: 314 pages

The Author: J.G Farrell was born in Liverpool of Irish parents. He was a teacher for many years, combining this with his writing. In 1979, he left London to live in southwestern Ireland. A few months later he was drowned after being swept from the rocks by a rogue wave while angling. He is one of the few authors to have scored a double with the Booker. In 2010 Troubles, which is set against the background of the Irish War of Independence ,was named as the first  (to date the only)  winner of the Lost Booker title – this was a title awarded by a public vote when, because of a change in the award rules, books published in 1970 had not been eligible.

Why I read this: It is part of my Booker Prize project. 

Two disappointing crime stories

I’ve always been able to rely on Ruth Rendell in the past when I wanted a good crime yarn on audio; one that wasn’t too complicated that I lost attention on my driving and was rather topical. But its clear that the early novels in the series that feature her ace detective Chief Inspector Wexford and his  work in Kingsmarkham area were as skilful accomplished as the later titles.

Wolf to the Slaughter is the third in the series.  I’m so glad that I read many of the later titles before this one because if this had been my first experience of the series, I wouldn’t have gone back for me.

wolf-to-the-slaughterIt’s about a woman who has vanished. She’s a bit of an odd flighty character living with her avant grade painter brother, both of them forgetful and not much use at domestic activities. Their life revolves around parties. There’s no body and as far as Wexford can discern initially no real crime. But he does have an anonymous letter which is hinting that there is something about this disappearance that warrants his attention. Off he goes with Inspector Burden and a young copper who lets his powers of observation collapse when  he falls in love with a young shop girl. There are the inevitable red herrings before Wexford comes up trumps as we know he always will.

It might sound ok but it was really missing the edginess that I’ve found in her later work. This Wexford is a pale imitation of this older self and it shows. I was happy to get to the end.

undertakerI turned instead to an audio recording from another stalwart of the crime genre –  Margery Allingham – someone whose name I’ve heard for many years but never read. On the basis of More Work for the Undertaker I won’t be disturbing her again and the two books I have in print on my bookshelves can be dispensed to a charity shop. Published in 1948, this features her suave amateur detective Albert Campion who, just before he is about to take up a diplomatic post overseas, agrees to investigate the mysterious goings on at the Palinodes household. These turn into death for two people. Campion takes rooms in the household in order to identify the culprit, working alongside the official police investigation. I hate books with a lot of ‘wacky’ characters. I suppose we were meant to find these delightful in examples of eccentric English figures. I just found them tedious and the story dull. So gave it up as a bad job.

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