Category Archives: British authors
Agatha Christie can always be relied upon to keep me reading long after I should have switched off the bedside light. Even when she’s not at her best (which she sadly isn’t in By the Pricking of My Thumbs), her novels contain so many complexities, clues and red herrings that I’m compelled to read on and on and on just to find out who did what and how. I long ago gave up trying to piece together the clues myself however, preferring to leave the hard graft to the sleuths, whether that is the flamboyant professional Hercule Poirot or the quietly razor-sharp amateur, Miss Jane Marple.
It was years before I realised via a BBC series that Christie had created two other sleuths; Tommy Beresford and his wife Tuppence. By the Pricking of My Thumbs is the fourth novel to feature this pair though the first I’ve read. Unlike her other sleuths, Christie advanced the ages of this page with each novel according to real time, so in By the Pricking of My Thumbs we find them as grandparents rather than the bright young adventurers introduced in the first book published in the 1920s. Advancing age has not however dimmed their interest in adventures or their ability to smell when something isn’t quite right.
Their suspicions are aroused after a visit to Tommy’s Aunt Ada at Sunny Ridge Nursing Home. Tuppence is perturbed by another resident, a Mrs. Lancaster, who, in the midst of a conversation suddenly asks: “Was it your poor child?”and goes on to talk about “something behind the fireplace”. Three weeks later Aunt Ada dies and leaves Tommy a painting given to her by Mrs.Lancaster. Tuppence wants to return the painting to its rightful owner but learns Mrs Lancaster has been removed from Sunny Ridge and all attempts to contact have come to nothing. Tuppence is sure the house featured in the painting is one she has seen before. If she can only find that house she might be able to find Mrs Lancaster, she reasons. With Tommy off at a conference, she has time on her hands to go in search of the house, and the missing woman. It’s a quest that leads her to a village where multiple children were murdered some 20 years earlier and a house considered haunted by some locals.
The solution is a complex one, involving a doctored painting, diamond smugglers, secret rooms and a woman who Tuppence thinks could pass for a friendly witch. One of the first critics of the novel, Robert Barnard, wasn’t impressed with the way the novel progressed, commenting that it started well but declined rapidly into “a welter of half-realised plots.” I didn’t notice any half-finished plots myself though I did feel the ending was rather rushed. The middle section moved along at a satisfying pace however. This features Tuppence primarily, following her as she uses logic and determination to pinpoint the house in the painting and interview a few of its neighbours before going missing.
I’m glad I encountered Tommy and Tuppence in their advancing years rather than as the “bright young things” of the 1920s as they were portrayed in Partners in Crime and The Secret Adversary. Their age gives them a more reflective edge which Christie plays up in the early chapters when they discuss whether to visit Aunt Ada.
It is regrettably true that in these days there is in nearly every family, the problem of what might be called an “Aunt Ada.” … Arrangements have to be made. Suitable establishments for looking after the elderly have to be inspected and full questions asked about them. … The days are past when [they] lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants.
Not that the Beresfords have any illusions about all elderly people being sweet natured and docile. Tuppence takes the stance that some in their eighties are perfect devils and she will feel sorry only for those elderly people who are genuinely nice. When the book begins neither she nor Tommy actually think of themselves as old or realise that other people automatically considered them deadly dull solely on account of their age. But by the time the book reaches its climax, Tuppence, threatened by a killer, comes face to face with her own reality: that she is old and her body is not that of the young girl who put her life in danger while operating on the fringes of the intelligence service.
Miss Marple will always remain my favourite Agatha Christie sleuth but I’d be happy to meet up again with the Beresfords in the next, and final novel Postern of Fate when apparently they are in their seventies and have retired to a rambling old house in a quiet English village.
About this book: By the Pricking of My Thumbs was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1968. The title of the book comes from one of the witches’ speeches in Act 4, of Macbeth.
Why I read this book: I found this in a list of books published in 1968 when I was searching for something to read as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. I needed a change of pace after reading Vernon God Little.
Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a child? Apparently I did for a few months when I was about four years old. My friend sat next to me at meals, came out with us in the family car on trips to relatives and the seaside and shared playtimes with my toys. What she never did was ask me difficult questions about physics or tell me my dad’s car was ugly and inefficient. Nor did she help me create astonishing paintings or give me the instant ability to swim. But then my imaginary friend never came from a distant planet unlike Chocky, an invisible presence that disrupts the Gove family in John Wyndham’s novel.
David and Mary Gore are not unduly concerned initially when their 12-year-old son Matthew, begins having conversations with himself. They think it’s just a phase and will blow itself out eventually — after all that’s what happened with his younger sister Polly who once had an imaginary friend named Piff.
But soon they come to realise, Matthew’s new friendship is anything but ordinary. Instead of enjoying his conversations with his invisible pal, they seem to make him visibly distressed. Then his teachers report he is asking questions in class that are way beyond his knowledge level. And then Matthew becomes fixated on topics like the number of days in a week, the physics of vehicles and numbering systems.
He eventually comes clean to his dad; someone called Chocky is living inside his head and keeps asking him questions. Why, Chocky demands to know, are there twenty-four hours in a day? Why are there two sexes? Why can’t Matthew solve his math homework using a logical system like binary code? In the opinion of a psychologist brought in to examine Matthew, Chocky is not a figment of the boy’s imagination but another consciousness who has found a way to communicate with Matthew. It’s a concept David accepts more than his wife Mary can, particularly when she discovers some strange paintings of string-like figures hidden in Matthew’s bedroom. Things take a turn for the worse when the boy saves his sister from drowning during a family day out, a tremendous feat given that he hadn’t been able to manage even as much as a paddle earlier that day. The explanation Matthews gives for his prowess is so mysterious it brings him to the attention of the media and the government. Then he disappears for a week.
Chocky reveals to Matthew’s dad that she/he is as an alien consciousness sent on a mission to locate planets that can be colonised or nurtured to a higher level of intelligence and humanity. But in helping Matthew to be a hero she broke a rule of her mission never to intervene or seek to change what happens on another planet. By doing so, she has alerted the government of Earth to her planet’s existence, presenting a potential threat to its future stability. So she must depart. Her planet’s work on earth will continue, but will be conducted more covertly in future.
A hint here, a hint there, an idea for one man, a moment of inspiration for another, more and more little pieces, innocuous in themselves until one day they will suddenly come together . The puzzle will be solved —the secret out, and unsuppressible.
Wyndham’s novels were famously dismissed by Brian Aldiss, as “cosy catastrophes”. Jaw-dropping catastrophic events are in fact noticeably absent from Chocky; the world does not come to an end nor do whole cities collapse as a result of this visitation from another planet. But it is doing Wyndham a disservice to label as ‘cosy’ a novel that is stuffed to the brim with ideas, from child-rearing and learning to artistic inspiration and the difficulties of communication.
Wyndham suggests that, should there be another form of life on another planet, our ability to connect with them will necessarily be limited. Chocky cannot fully transfer all her knowledge and thus nudge the planet to a more enlighted existence because Matthew’s vocabulary and his experience is limited. It is, as Chocky explains to Matthew’s father, like:
… trying to teach a steam-engineer with no knowledge of electricity, how to build a radio transmitter — without names for any of the parts or words for their functions. Difficult, but with time, patience and intelligence, not impossible.
What was the knowledge that Chocky wants to share? She calls it cosmic power — a infinite source of energy that once developed can help earth reduce its dependency on non sustainable fuel sources. Long before the concept of global warming became mainstream, in Chocky Wyndham is dealing with the issue of man’s impact on the environment and its danger if allowed to continue unabated.
[Your fuels] are your capital. When they are spent you will be back where you were before you found them. This is not progress, it is profligacy. … It is true you have an elementary form of atomic power which you will no doubt improve. But that is almost your only investment for your future. Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite. There can only be one end to that.
The ending, which contains an impassioned plea for better human stewardship of the earth, is one of the surprises of this book. Another is that it turns on its head the idea that an alien encounter will necessarily be threatening and scary. The month Matthew spends in Chocky’s presence is a strange experience, but ultimately it has a positive and hopeful experience because it introduces Matthew to new ways of thinking and seeing that enable him to mature and gain confidence.
On one level therefore Chocky is a charming tale about friendship and the rites of passage through childhood but look more closely and it’s evident that this is a book which asks some profound questions about our future.
About this Book: Chocky was first published as a novella in the March 1963 issue of the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and later developed into a novel published in 1968. It was the last novel by John Wyndham published one year before his death.
About the author: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (clearly his parents couldn’t make up their minds about a name for their son) was the son of a barrister. After trying a number of careers, including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, he started writing short stories in 1925. After serving in the Civil Service and the Army during the war, he went back to writing. Adopting the name John Wyndham, he started writing a form of science fiction that he called ‘logical fantasy’. His best known works include The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), the latter filmed twice as Village of the Damned.
The Human Factor is a novel about a very ordinary, almost nondescript, man who makes his living in the shady world of espionage. It’s not your typical spy novel however. Clandestine meetings, secret messages and code names are not much in evidence; nor is the plot of the usual fiendishly complex kind and there’s a distinct absence of high octave action scenes. What we get instead is a more thoughtful novel about loyalty and betrayal.
In his 1980 autobiography Ways of Escape, Graham Greene said his intent was to show to people who were more used to reading about the antics of James Bond, that there was an unromantic side to the world of intelligence .
I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions, the background much like that of any other profession — whether the bank clerk or the business director — an undangerous routine, and within each character the more important private life.
And so he makes his central character a 62-year-old man who shuffles each day between his detached house in the market town of Berkhamstead and his small office in London. Maurice Castle is an officer in the Eastern and Southern Africa section of MI6 which might sound exciting but actually comes across as rather dull. It essentially involves reading and responding to the daily ‘bag’ of reports sent by various British overseas outposts. Castle is a man who likes his routine: a few inconsequential pleasantries with his assistant Davis; lunch at the same pub at the same time each day, a heavyweight novel to read on his commute home; a glass or two of J&B whisky each evening.
Castle’s suburban life is not however as pedestrian as it seems. His wife Sarah is a black South African woman he met during his tour of duty in that country. Their son is not his though they keep up a pretence to the contrary. Castle drinks because he has a secret life as a double agent who passes on information to the Russians. It was the price he paid in return for help from a Marxist to get Sarah smuggled out of South Africa when their relationship fell foul of the South Afrian authorities. By the way, I’m not spoiling the novel by revealing this since it’s heavily signalled within the first few chapters.
Castle’s hopes of a quiet and uneventful life in the few remaining years before retirement are disrupted when suspicions begin of a leak in MI6. The head of security makes discreet inquiries; the signs point at Davis who is quickly despatched with the aid of mouldy nuts (they cause liver failure apparently). Castle of course knows the ‘evidence’ against Davis is spurious. The finger of suspicion is certain to turn in his own direction eventually but he may have time for one final act of betrayal; telling his Russian handlers about Project Remus, an alliance with America and Germany to deal with black unrest in South Africa. If he burns that bridge, there is no course open to him but to escape from England. But where will that leave Sarah and Sam?
Questions of loyalty, morality and conscience form the heart of The Human Factor. Castle became a traitor not as a result of deeply held political convictions but out of a sense of gratitude to a former colleague, the communist who smuggled Sarah out of South Africa. Now he is forced to re-examine his motives and his loyalties. The death of Davis makes him suspicious about the morality of the institution for which he works. Project Remus makes him question whether the security service is more of a danger than the people it is supposedly fighting.
Greene is a master when it comes to portraying people confronting a moral dilemma but the character of Castle is not one of his finest. He comes across as a naive figure who thinks if his Russian controllers manage to get him out of England, that the British authorities will let his wife join him in Moscow. And yet he tells Sarah “As long as we are alive we’ll come together again. Somehow. Somewhere.” Hm, sounds like wishful thinking to me…
Castle is a sad figure but too distant a figure to fully engage our sympathy. Although we can appreciate his anxiety that the life he has enjoyed with his family is about to end, there wasn’t the depth of psychological analysis I’ve enjoyed in Greene’s earlier novels like Heart of the Matter and End of the Affair. There was one habit of Castle that did make me warm towards him a little: he reads the classics and is a frequent visitor to a delightful sounding bookshop in Soho where, during the course of the novel, he buys novels by Samuel Richardson, Anthony Trollope and Tolstoy.
It was an unusual respectable bookshop for this area of Soho, quite unlike the bookshop which faced it across the street and bore the simple sign ‘Books’ in scarlet letters. The window below the scarlet sign displayed girlie magazines which nobody was ever seen to buy — they were like a signal in an easy code long broken; they indicated the nature of private wares and interests inside. But the shop of Halliday & Son confronted the scarlet ‘Books’ with a window full of Penguins and Everyman and second-hand copies of World’s Classics.
Sadly as the novel progresses, I learned that he is not actually reading these books; just using them for codes to arrange information drops and meetings with his handler.
More interesting than Castle as a character is Colonel Daintry, an MI6 security officer faced with the task of tracking down the source of the leak. Greene shows us a painfully lonely man who is so out of touch with normal life that he’s never heard of Maltesers and doesn’t realise they wouldn’t be the appropriate gift to take for a weekend country house party. Daintry is separated from his wife, is barely in contact with his daughter, few interests outside of work and no social life. When his daughter announces her forthcoming marriage, Daintry is so devoid of friends that he resorts to inviting Castle to accompany him. Daintry is fundamentally an honest man who despite all his years in the service, still doesn’t understand how to play the system. One exchange with his senior officer, the new commander of the service, reveals the extent of his isolation:
I wish I were a chess player. Do you play chess, Daintry?’
‘No, bridge is my game.’
‘The Russians don’t play bridge, or so I understand.’
‘Is that important?’
‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it. We have to keep flexible, but it’s important, naturally, to play the same game.’
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Daintry said, ‘I don’t understand what you are talking about.’
Davis’ death horrifies him. He knows the man was killed because it would avoid further embarrasment for a service already discomforted by Philby and co. He knows too that there was but flimsy and circumstantial evidence the man was a traitor. The incident brings him to resign his post despite knowing it means “he would exchange one loneliness for another.” In some ways Daintry reminded me of the butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day, a man who has learned to button up his emotions for so long that he cannot admit them even to himself.
The British intelligence service isn’t shown in a very good light in this novel. They’re frankly rather inept at discovering the traitor in their midst. With only two suspects they pick the wrong man because he drinks more than he should, takes reports out of the office to read over lunch and supposedly has a clandestine meeting at the zoo (it’s with his secretary rather than a handler). The service commander takes a very relaxed view of the affair, leaving the details to his underlings so he can continue to enjoy the quiet of his country estate. It stretches our credulity but then Greene wrote this novel with the benefit of his own years of service within MI6 so there is clearly a basis of truth.
The Human Factor isn’t one of Greene’s finest works but it’s well worth reading nevertheless.
About the book: The Human Factor is one of Graham Greene’s later novels, first published in 1978 when the author was 74 years old.
Why I read this book: I’ve read most of the novels considered to be his best output (the so-called Catholic novels like Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and, my favourite The Heart of the Matter). I like Greene’s writing style so thought I’d make my way through his lesser known work. The Human Factor is one of the books on my Classics Club list.
Of all the books long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the one I most wanted to read. Having done so I’m at a loss to understand why the Booker judges failed to select this for the shortlist. Not for the first time it seems the judges’ idea of what makes an outstanding novel is a mile apart from my own thinking.
Reservoir 13 is quite simply an extraordinary novel. It gives an innovative twist to the device of a missing girl; has a meticulously plotted structure and a mesmeric poetic style of writing.
The springboard is the disappearance of 13 year old Rebecca Shaw from the holiday cottage in England’s Peak District where she is spending New Year’s Eve with her parents. Initially it seems the novel is treading a familiar path; one which traces the ensuing search, the grief of the girl’s family and the shock of the community before the revelation of what happened to Rebecca. So we get police helicopters buzzing overhead, villagers turning out to sweep the frozen moors and divers trawling through the reservoirs. It’s all in vain. Rebecca Shaw is nowhere to be found. Not that day or in the following weeks, months and even years. McGregor keeps alive the possibility that she may be found however; tantalising us with the discovery of a navy-blue body-warmer identical to the one Rebecca wore the night she disappeared; several mentions of disused lead mines and characters who have secrets they would prefer lay undiscovered.
McGregor’s stroke of ingenuity is to make us think this is all adding up to be a murder mystery/crime kind of novel, while all the time writing an entirely different of book. What Reservoir 13 is about is essentially the ebb and flow of life in a rural community showing how, despite a human tragedy, life does go on. Cows are milked, crops planted and harvested, tea rooms opened, kilns fired. Babies are born; children grow up and experiment with drugs and sex; people fall in and out of love; some fall sick; others die. Some villagers leave, others return. In the immediate aftermath of Rebecca’s disappearance, the villagers scale back on some of their time-honoured traditions and festivities as a mark of respect for her family. But as the years pass and still she is not found, they make a return appearance on the calendar: the charity dance in spring, well dressing in mid summer; the cricket match against the neigbouring village; harvest festival; the winter pantomime and fireworks at New Year
McGregor follows the daily lives of a large set of villagers, watching them deal with small and not-so-small sorrows and disappointments over the course of 13 years. Child pornography; depression; marital discord; examination failures and successes; all human life is recorded in this novel. There’s Irene who puts on a brave face even when her special needs son becomes violent; Jackson the farmer, who rules his sons’ lives from his sick bed and Jones the school caretaker whose protective attitude towards his boilerhouse is suspicious. None of these villagers dominate the novel; there is in fact no central character. Often all we get is a fleeting glimpse of their lives, a single sentence or a short conversation alone signalling their attitudes, their vulnerabilities and how their lives are changing. It’s a style that calls for careful reading — blink and you can easily miss some essential detail.
The cycle of human life is echoed in the rhythms of the natural world — the flowering of trees and wild plants, mating and hibernation of wildlife and weather conditions marking the changing of the seasons.
The swallows returned in numbers, and could be seen flying in and out of the open doors at the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s, and the outbuildings up at the Hunter’s land. … There was rain and the river was high and the hawthorn by the lower meadows came out foaming white. The cow parsley was thick along the footpaths and the shade deepened under the trees.
Through meticulous layering of details and repetition Reservoir 13 marks the turning of the years. Every chapter, each of which takes us one year on, begins in the same way: a sentence noting the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Yet with a few small changes McGregor shows how life is changing for this community.
Chapter 2, which marks the first anniversary of Rebecca’s disappearance begins
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.
By year 4, the villagers are in more of a celebration mood:
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the television in the pub and dancing in the street outside.
Almost a decade later however, after New Year’s Eve is marked by arson attacks at a caravan and the allotments, the villagers are more cautious about their celebrations:
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but no one in the village even lifted their heads to look.
McGregor’s prose is rhythmic and measured, seeming simple on the surface yet with such precision and detail that you feel immersed in the life of this community and drawn towards its inhabitants. It’s the kind of writing that can easily sweep you along. I forced myself to slow down, reading just one chapter a night so I could savour it more fully.
Even while absorbed in their own lives, the village can never completely forget what happened on that one night so many years ago. Periodically McGregor reminds us of the girl’s disappearance, even in the final chapter some 13 years after her disappearance we are told:
The missing girl had not yet been forgotten. The girl’s name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for everywhere. … It was no good.
This is in short a wonderful novel. The best I have read this year.
About the book: Reservoir 13 was published in 2017 by 4th Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. My version is in hardback and was borrowed from my local library.
About the author: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits the Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham, England.
It’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.
The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth. It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.
He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult. In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.
It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.
When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:
Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.
Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:
I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.
Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.
A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.
The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.
Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.
Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.
About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).
About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.
The Hog’s Back Mystery is a gem of a book for readers who enjoy crime fiction, prefer it to come sans details of bloody corpses, tortured victims or nasty things lurking in the woodshed but don’t want it to veer too much towards “cosy”.
It’s one of the titles republished in the British Library Classic Crime series and comes from what’s been labelled as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (a term coined by the writer John Strachey in 1939 to describe crime novels written between the world wars). These authors followed certain conventions, chief of which was that readers shouldn’t be cheated by sudden revelations or surprises. No-one to whom the reader hadn’t already been introduced should be revealed as the murderer for example.
In The Hog’s Back Mystery author Freeman Wills Crofts this plays scrupulously fair with his readers. Every detail the armchair sleuth could possibly need to make their own deduction is provided. His detective in charge of the investigation, Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard, helpfully recaps and reviews his findings every few days. To play even more fair with his readers, when the crime is finally solved he provides the page numbers for every clue in the trail, a detailed timetable of events and a little sketch map. It still took me three quarters of the book to get an inkling of the identity of the perpetrator but I never got close to working out how the crime was committed.
I say crime but in fact this book has four. It begins with the disappearance of a semi-retired doctor from his home in the vicinity of The Hog’s Back, a ridge on the North Downs in Surrey. Doctor Earle left the house in slippers and minus hat one evening. Had he been abducted or murdered? Or was his disappearance planned? The mystery deepens when a nurse who he had met secretly in London also disappears. One theory holds that they had run off together but then a house guest of the doctor and his wife also vanishes.
Solving this puzzle requires all of French’s skills in getting people’s confidence so they open up to him and disclose seemingly small and inconsequential details about their movements at the time of the disappearances. They build a picture of an era and a way of life that most of us wouldn’t recognise today. The buses run so punctually that an alibi can be built around them and telegrams popped into a rural postbox will reach its city destination promptly. The families and individuals in this novel dress for dinner; eat a substantial lunch as well as dinner except for Sunday’s when it’s their cook’s day off so they take a cold collation and the men smoke a lot. French has a healthy appetite himself and is concerned that the quality of his work will fall away if he is hungry. Fortunately in this investigation he gets to do a lot of cycling between different houses, borrowing a lowly constable’s bike to do so. Could you imagine Inspector Morse’s reaction if told to forgo his beloved Jag for a two-wheeler?
There are a plethora of suspects, a multitude of dead ends to navigate and some complex alibis for him to evaluate before he can wrap everything up and help bring the guilty to justice. In the introduction to the British Library edition, the crime fiction expert Martin Edwards, indicates that Freeman Wills Crofts wrote an essay in which he described his method for constructing his plots. Apparently he first prepared a synopsis of the “facts” and the chronology of events then sketch maps of key locations and character biographies. Finally he developed a summary of how and when the facts are revealed to his investigator. I have to believe such meticulous attention to detail is linked with his training as a civil engineer, an occupation which requires precision and logic. It meant that by the time I got to the end of The Hog’s Back Mystery I didn’t have that feeling I so often experience with crime novels, that I’d been cheated and led up a garden path.
About this book: The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts was first published in 1933. It was his fourteenth novel and the fifth to feature Inspector French.
About the author: Freeman Wills Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. At seventeen he began studying civil engineering and developed a passion for railway engineering. He began writing to amuse himself while recovering from an illness, initially combining his new career with his work as chief engineer for an Irish railway company. Such was the success and esteem of his novels that he gave up the railway work.
Why I read this book: I learned of this book via Ali at HeavenAli (her review is here) and she kindly donated her copy to me. I added it to my #20booksofsummer reading list for 2017. It was ideal reading for my period of enforced leisure after my broken humerus adventure.
Two hundred years after her death, the world has not yet had enough of Jane Austen. The Bank of England marked the bicentenary by unveiling a new version of the British £10 note complete with Jane’s portrait and a quote from her novel Pride and Prejudice. Winchester Cathedral where she was buried opened a new permanent exhibition about Jane Austen and her life while the town of Basingstoke, near her birthplace of Steventon unveiled what’s believed to be the first statue of Austen. All this in addition to a host of commemorative events in Bath, the city that features in more than one of her novels, and Hampshire where she lived for much of her life.
What is it about her novels that holds such attraction for readers? Is it the fact, as the Wall St Journal asserted, that they deal with universal themes of “love, money, power and status.”? Or that so many of the plots revolve around the desire for personal happiness; something to which we can all relate? Is it the fact her characters are often people we can recognise from our own communities: the pushy mother (Mrs Bennett); the shy and self-effacing young girl (Fanny Price); the wrong-un (George Wickham) or the romantic idealist (Marianne Dashwood)? Or is a question of how she tells her stories with their subtle undercurrent of wit and satire that punctures the pretensions of anyone who gets above themselves?
It’s surely all those components. Austen’s work has so many dimensions that there’s sure to be something that resonates with our individual interests, whether that’s romance, or the social conventions of Georgian England; or the difficulties of being an unmarried woman in a world which offered few prospects of earning your own income.
One of the critiques often levelled at Austen is that her work is circumscribed in its social and emotional range; that her uneventful, retiring life within the domestic circle of her family meant she was secluded from the larger world of political and social affairs. Consequently her novels are concerned only with the domestic affairs of two or three families in a tranquil English neighbourhood. It’s true her plots largely deal with the affairs of the heart rather than the ideological conflicts that characterised English culture during the years that followed the French Revolution. But I don’t think she ignores these issues —running through her work for example are questions about the individual and society: what should their relationship be and what are the consequences for the individual, for others, and for society when the individual ignores or even deliberately transgress society’s rules?
She also considers the relationship of the imagination/fancy versus reason/judgment; a pertinent issue given the cult of sensibility which had arisen during the late 1700s in reaction to the emphasis on reason and intellect that had predominated during the earlier part of the century. So we have Austen debating in Sense and Sensibility the consequences of Marianne’s yielding to imagination, rather than listening to the dictates of reason that characterises her sister Elinor.
And then of course we have Austen’s concern with income, property and marriage (look carefully at her text and you’ll find repeated references to someone’s wealth). This isn’t in the novels because she had nothing else to write about but because Austen recognised this as one of the big social issues of her time.
In a social world where the only moment accorded importance in a woman’s life was marriage, the choice of a partner was a serious business. Upon the rightness of that choice depended their entire future well-being. Their ability to actively seek a partner was however severely limited to the number of social acquaintances that came within their social circle. Mrs Bennett boasts that she dines with “five-and-twenty families” but that’s not sufficient to get marriage partners for five daughters so when Lizzie rejects what would be considered a very desirable offer from Mr Collins, her mother’s concern and warning is understandable:
if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all — and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead — I shall not be able to keep you.
Understandable therefore that Lizzie’s friend Charlotte takes the more pragmatic approach and positions herself to accept the same offer from Mr Collins though he is a few years her junior. Being neither young, pretty, or rich Charlotte cannot afford to view love as the most vital component of a marriage. She knows she has to marry someone to avoid a life of dependancy on her family but her choices of husband are limited. She is too wealthy, educated, and upper-class to marry a working man—that would represent a social demotion for her family—but not rich or good-looking to attract a truly wealthy one. She can’t marry up or down—she can only marry sideways. Mr Collins, for all he is the “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” Lizzie despises does offer respectability and a secure future. As Austen puts it:
Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.
Austen’s primary theme of marriage is thus far from trivial. She understands the reality of her age that marriage is women’s best route to financial security and social respect.
Sweet Aunt Jane writing gentle romances from her rose-clad cottage? Conservative Jane who mocked subjective feelings in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility? Master stylist Jane who invented the technique of free indirect discourse to gently mock her characters and undermine the persona they want to present to the world? Many different Jane Austens have been celebrated since 1817. Just like that scene in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road where Helen Hanff recalls “I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for”, we go looking for the Austen we want to experience and enjoy.
If you want further proof of how Austen continues to interest and intrigue take a look at a series of essays published by Signature (a Penguin Random House site) in a free downloadable guide: Signature’s Essential Guide to Jane Austen. The guide features 12 essays on topics from the level of sexiness in her novels to book-to-film adaptations, from the challenges of editing Austen fictionso that it resonates with modern audiences and how Alexander McCall Smith came to write a new version of Emma.
Not yet had enough of Austen? Then the Austen in August event at Roof Beam Reader might be your answer. Visit the intro page to find out more and access reviews and guest posts.
The year is 1815. Like thousands of other young men looking to start a new life, Edmund Talbot boards a ship destined for a British colony. With the help of his godfather patron he is to join the staff of the Governor’s office in Australia. To amuse his godfather he begins to write a journal. In it he records his impressions of the ship which is a creaking and ancient former warship, not affording the naive young man anything like the standard of accommodation he was expecting (his ‘cabin’ is more akin to a hutch).
But this doesn’t curb the enthusiasm of this young dandy. He may be a novice in maritime life but Edmund is an enthusiastic student who wants to learn the ways of the men onboard.
“I have laid my Marine Dictionary by my pillow; for I am determined to speak the tarry language as perfectly as any of these rolling fellows”
With wit and energy he describes daily life aboard ship, the disdain he feels for the bad manners of his fellow passengers (who are generally beneath him in the social hierarchy) and the mounting tensions between officers, crew and passengers. His observations are mixed with salacious gossip and details of his own sexual encounters.
His curiosity is awakened by one passenger in particular, the Reverend James Colley, who, for reasons we don’t discover until he end of the novel, is despised by the captain. Edmund initially tries to support the parson but is ultimately repelled by Colley’s over-eager attempts at friendship. Colley also falls foul of the sailors who, in the seclusion of the fo’castle, exact their revenge, delivering the parson into a “hell of degradation” involving a crossing-the-line ceremony. The shame Colley feels at his treatment is so deep he never recovers.
And it’s at this point that the light and frothy tone of the novel suddenly changes and it becomes a much more disturbing narrative. Golding, it’s clear, has led his readers up and down the garden path in the first half of the book. Talbot’s journal paints the parson as an absurd man with a hacked-about haircut and ill-fitting wig at whom we are invited to laugh. It’s hard not to when Colley is seen dead drunk, naked, “his mind only lightly linked to his understanding”, crying out “joy, joy, joy” and attempting to bless his fellow passengers.
But after his shaming, we get to read Colley’s own journal and slowly this young parson is transformed into a sympathetic, sweet-natured man. His wild haircut is explained by the fact that his sister tried to cut it one last time before he boarded ship and they parted, but was crying so much that she could hardly see what she was doing. All the laughs we’ve had at Colley’s expense now seem hollow as we learn about the many other cruelties that Edmund failed to notice or failed to understand.
By the end of the novel, we like Edmund, feel complicit in Colley’s downfall. It was his own aggressive behaviour towards Colley which made others on board feel it was ok to bully this man. The truth of his death however never comes to light because the captain’s inquiry is a whitewash and Edmund is so compromised he’s left with no option but to hide the facts from Colley’s sister. The boy who ends the novel is a far wiser, more mature creature than the one we encounter at the beginning.
With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.
There were many enjoyable features of this novel. Firstly Golding’s use of the two journals disrupted the trajectory of the novel and turned what could otherwise have been a pleasant, if unremarkable, tale about a young snob, into a fascinating narrative. Everything about this book feels authentic, from the language and the events described to the choice of typeface with cracked edge letters and slightly rough paper in my edition. And then we get the themes of shame and class consciousness which undercut the comedy of Edmund’s naivety. Golding shows that even within the confines of a ship that “streams with sea water, rain and other fouler liquids’, the British class structure prevails. For all the humour of the first half of the book, Rites of Passage is a quite disquieting novel.
The Novel: Rites of Passage is the first title in the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy —Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989. They are all set on a British former man-of-war ship that is transporting migrants to Australia in the early 19th century. Rites of Passage won the Booker Prize in 1980 against fierce competition from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers.
The Author: William Golding is best known as the author of the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Why I read this book: It won the Booker Prize so naturally I had to read this as part of my project. I did so during a short break in the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire unaware that I was staying just a few hundred yards from the school where Golding taught between 1939 and 1961. I made the connection when walking past the school and noticed this plaque.
I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).
The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.
One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular mainstream books on philosophy. Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.” Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.
In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.
A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family. In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”
According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew. Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.
That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.
Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.
About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C .
About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.
Sometimes it pays to give an author a second — or even a third — chance. Such has proved to be the case with Daphne du Maurier, an author I first encountered via My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately it proved a deeply unsatisfying experience. I was expecting far more suspense and menace but though the book promised so much in this direction, ultimately for me it failed to deliver.
But I had another of her novels sitting unread on my bookshelves; Jamaica Inn. Surely the woman considered a master of the art of telling suspensful stories with sinister overtones couldn’t disappoint a second time? I’m happy to report that she didn’t. Jamaica Inn is a romp of a novel that proved a perfect companion during a heatwave that robbed my brain of any ability to deal with taxing reading material.
Written in 1935 but set in the early 19th century, Jamaica Inn is a fast-paced drama full of murder, paranoia, violence and sexual threats. It’s set in a delapidated Cornish coaching inn, on a lonely road between Bodmin and Launceston, a place surrounded by treacherous marshes and high tors. This is an unforgiving landscape, certainly not the pleasant farmland community of ‘shining waters … green hills and sloping valleys’ that was home to our heroine Mary Yellan for 23 years of her life. But on the death of her mother, she cannot continue to manage their farm single-handedly. Without the farm she has no option but to take refuge with her aunt Patience and her husband Joss Merlyn who run a pub called Jamaica Inn.
Her arrival at the isolated inn is the first stage in her journey from paradise to hell, from ignorance to tortured knowledge and from innocence to sexual awareness. Du Maurier provides a suitably Gothic tone to herald Mary’s arrival at the inn. She travels in a coach that creaks, sways and groans its way across the bleak moors in mist and driving rain. Mary reflects that the people of this part of the country must be “born of strange stock who slept with this earth as pillow, beneath this black sky. They would have something of the Devil left in them still.”
When she arrives at the inn it’s to discover a place that seems steeped in suffering. It’s “like a live thing’ yet has a “cold, dead atmosphere”. A clock ticks “like a dying man who cannot catch his breath” and on Mary’s first night she is spooked by the battered wooden inn sign that creaks “like an animal in pain. ” Outside Mary hears the wind whistling across the moors as if it’s “a chorus from the dead” which isn’t that far from the truth since there are indeed the corpses of murder victims buried among the bogs. It doesn’t take long for Mary to learn that the inn’s reputation as a place of secrets is fully justified.
As she is drawn inexorably in to the smuggling, theft and murder committed by Joss Merlyn and his associates, Mary learns also what it is to be fearful for her own safety. She’s a brave girl, repeatedly facing up to her thuggish uncle and refusing to be cowed by his brutality but she treads a treacherous path; torn between the desire to expose wrong doing yet wanting to protect her aunt.
Uncle Joss is one of the great villains of fiction. He’s the key figure in a network that lures ships off course and sends them crashing into the rocks so they can steal the cargo. He’s a powerful figure whose considerable physical presence is matched by a cunning nature. When he opens the door to Mary on her arrival she sees:
… a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high with a creased black brow and skin the colour of a gypsy. … He looked as if he had the strength of a horse with immense powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big that in a sense his head was sunk between his shoulders giving that half-stooping impression of a giant gorilla, with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair.
He and Mary play a cat and mouse game from her very first night when he threatens to “break you until you eat out of my hand” if she gossips about anything she hears or sees at the pub. She faces down his threats instantly: “If you hurt my Aunt Patience in any way, I tell you this — I’ll find the magistrate and bring him here and have the law on you and then try and break me if you like.” But though Joss has a grudging respect for her courage, she’s still a threat to his empire and one he will not refrain from harming if it suits his purpose.
Amidst the dramatic scenes du Maurier has woven a few interesting themes. One is around love and sexual desire. Mary becomes attracted to Joss’ brother Jem Merlyn though she knows he’s a dangerous man, a horse-thief who bears a physical resemblance to her uncle. Mary is smitten by his bright eyes and long dark lashes but can she trust him? How much does he know about the smuggling? Her encounters with Jem set up a conflict where Mary recognises “he stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.” This is not a girl with a rose-tinted view of the relationships between men and women, but one who knows that if she gives in to her temptation there would be no turning back.
Du Maurier broadens this romantic dilemma into a broader theme about the female situation. Mary is frustrated that as a woman she has fewer weapons in her armoury against her uncle. As a man she could challenge him uncle in open combat, but as a woman she is nothing more than “a petticoat and a shawl.” Later, during a day out with Jem, she becomes as frustrated by differing gendered attitudes towards sexual liaisons:
She wished that women were not the frail things of straw she believed them to be; then she could stay this night with Jem Merlyn and forget herself as he could forget, and both of them part with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder. But she was a woman, and it was impossible. A few kisses had made a fool of her already.
Mary knows that the real risk of a relationship with Jem isn’t a damaged reputation, it is that she would become the kind of abused woman she finds in her Aunt Patience. In her aunt she sees someone whose previous lively personality and intelligence have disappeared because of constant fear of her husband. Living in “perpetual high anxiety” under his reign has turned into into “a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience.”
Mary puts her faith in her own strength of will to combat a fate where she would, like Patience, trail like a ghost in the shadow of her master. But she is operating in a world where it seems violence against women is normal and all Jem can promise her is a hard life. The novel’s ending leaves us wondering whether there will in fact be a ‘happy-ending’ for Mary.
About the book: Jamaica Inn, inspired by du Maurier’s stay at the real inn in 1930, was published in 1936, the fourth novel she had written. Three years later it was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock, the first of three of her works he was to transfer to the large screen (the others were her novel Rebecca and short story The Birds). The coaching inn still exists though today is a far more successful commercial venture than it was in the novel. From the pictures on the website it looks rather cosy. I’ve never been there by my husband tells me it’s a ‘bit touristy’…..
About the author: Daphne du Maurier was born in London into an artistic and literary family. Her connections helped her establish her literary career, giving her the ability to publish some early works in Bystander magazine. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. Her most famous novel Rebecca, published in 1938 became one of most successful works. In 1969 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire but never told any of her family about the honour and never used the title. She died in 1989.
Why I read this book: Jamaica Inn is one of those novels that it’s guaranteed people will have heard of even if they have never read it or seen one of the various film/tv adaptations. I found it in a library sale and thought it was about time I gave it a go. It’s on my reading list for 20booksofsummer2017