Category Archives: British authors

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I don’t know what possessed me to request The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a gift one Christmas many years ago since I seldom enjoy tales involving the supernatural. Nor do I often read what has been labelled ‘cross over fiction’  – books that can be read and enjoyed by adults and children alike.

I did enjoy reading it far more than I expected and would have given it a wholehearted endorsement but for one thing….

Gaiman relates his story through the eyes of an unnamed man who has returned to his hometown for a funeral and recalls events that began forty years earlier.

As a child he is a solitary figure with no friends (no-one turns up for his seventh birthday party), a fearful boy who sleeps with his bedroom door open and the hallway light on. His world is transformed the day his parents’ lodger kills himself in the family car, an event which enables a supernatural being to gain access to our world.

That day  is also significant for another reason. It is the boy’s first meeting with a young girl called Lettie Hempstock who lives in a house at the end of a lane with her mother and grandmother. The boy is captivated by them, especially when Lettie tells him that the pond behind her house, an expanse of “dark water spotted with duckweed and lily pads” is  really an ocean. But he isn’t too sure what to make of Old Mrs Hempstock. Could she really make the moon full every night and how could she have been alive long enough to have witnessed the Big Bang?

The trio of women turn out to have special powers that are needed when dangerous, malevolent forces begin to attack the boy and get into his house in the form of a nanny. The narrator is the only one in his family to suspect Ursula Monkton is not what she seems. She worms her way into the home, ingratiating herself with his sister and seducing his father, a situation which leads to a complete breakdown in the relationship between the boy and his father.

In one of the most memorable scenes, the boy’s father who had hitherto been a kindly man, turns violent, dumping the terrified child in a freezing bath and holding him under the water.  Worse is to come when the Hempstocks do battle with the dark forces, threatening them with annihilation if they do not return to their own world. The boy is saved but one of the women is sacrificed in the process.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a coming of age novel that deals with the loss of innocence and the disconnection between childhood and adulthood.  Gaiman reminds us of the vulnerability many children experience during childhood, times when terrors seemed to lurk around every corner and could only be assuaged by the comforting arms of parents and adults. But what if the very people you turn to for succour cannot be relied upon? Gaiman’s narrator comes to realise that adults are not always what they seem: “People kept pulling their faces off to reveal new faces beneath,” he observes at one point.

He reaches another epiphany of understanding when he enters Lettie’s “ocean” and is “reborn” into a life where he knows and understands everything.

I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.

I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.

Despite my normal scepticism I had been fully engaged by this story right up to this point. But then Gaiman destroys it in just a few sentences. As the boy is in the ocean he accepts what seems impossible – that candles can burn in water. Ok so far but what are we then to make of this:

I knew the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time befoer the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind.

Or of this:

I understood it just as I understood Dark Matter, the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find.

It’s one thing to accept that when an imaginative seven year old who loves books, describes his adventures we believe they are extraordinary.  But are we really meant to believe that the boy who thinks in terms of icing on birthday cakes is the same child as the one who fully comprehends  quantum physics and the nature of the universe?

This was however just one quibble and I’ll forgive Gaiman for this indiscretion because the rest of The Ocean at the End of the Lane was beautifully constructed and a joy to read. I’m not surprised it was voted Book of the Year in the 2013 British National Book Awards.

The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning

The Danger TreeOlivia Manning’s best known work, The Balkan Trilogy, juxtaposes world-changing events with the domestic concerns of the newly-married Guy and Harriet Pringle.  She revisits that narrative device  in The Danger Treethe first novel in her Levant Trilogy,  following the fortunes of the Pringles together with a hotch-potch of refugees from a Europe under the control of Hitler’s forces.

In their new home in Cairo they are no more secure than they were in Europe. The German forces are advancing through Egypt, creating tension among the ex-pat community.  Some choose to make their escape before the rumoured planned evacuation of Cairo. Others who cannot leave become increasingly worried. The Egyptians barely tolerate them and the Americans are more concerned with saving themselves than anyone else.

Nevertheless nothing, not even the threat of capture will deter this odd assortment of characters (many of whom are egocentric idlers) from their cocktails and parties or the occasional trip into the desert where they clamber into the burial chambers of the Pyramids. Anything to relieve the monotony and the daily battle with stultifying heat.

Into this melting pot comes a fresh-faced British officer, Simon Boulderstone. He’s clearly an innocent abroad, a young man who is a loner desperate to make friends.  Those he made on the ship bringing in reinforcements seem to have disappeared, leaving Simon feeling adrift on his arrival in Cairo. 

Waiting for a taxi, he breathed in the spicy, flaccid atmosphere of the city and felt the strangeness of things around him. The street lamps were painted blue. Figures in white robes, like night-shirts, flickered through the blue gloom, slippers flapping from heels. The women, bundled in black, were scarcely visible. The district looked seedy and was probably dirty but the barracks, he thought, would be familiar territory. He hoped Major Perry would be there to welcome him. 

It’s through the eyes of this naive young officer that we see the disarray of the Allied war effort. Put in charge of part of a convoy to take vital supplies to the battle lines, he has no real idea how to conduct himself or the men under his command.  Everything that was familiar has already disappeared and as the trucks drive mile after mile through a landscape rendered featureless by sandstorms, his feeling of unreality continues. Even when, after long stretches of inactivity, he is suddenly confronted with the brutal realities of war, he acts as if he is in a trance. Manning skillfully deals with this in a matter of fact style, the very lack of sentimentality only serving to reinforce the grim nature of the experience.

Back in Cairo, Harriet is similarly dislocated. Guy takes himself off to Alexandria ostensibly for his work with some nebulous educational entity called the Organisation. While he’s occupying his time dreaming up lectures and cultural activities, she is left alone, feeling under-used in her own job and neglected by Guy. 

What an obnoxious figure of a man Manning has created in Guy. He’s very much an absent husband who “loves everyone,” not just his wife. He’s never happier than when surrounded by friends and cooking up schemes for a play or some musical event. While Harriet has to endure the discomfort of a room in a pension, and her job in the American embassy where she is left in no doubt about  her outsider status — he’s swanning about in Alexandria. Harriet begs him to leave Alexandria when the situation gets more fraught, but Guy decides that a course he’s running for just two students (who might not turn up anyway) is more important.  Understandably Harriet feels isolated, confused and fearful for her marriage, especially when she begins to suspect his affections lie elsewhere. Guy of course is oblivious to the reasons for her distress.

He found it difficult to accept that his own behaviour could be at fault. And if it were, he did not see how it could be changed. It was as it always had been, rational, so if she were troubled, then some agency beyond them – sickness the summer heat the distance from England – must be affecting her. …. That she was unhappy concerned him yet would could hero about it. he had more than enough to do as it was…..

Harriet has far more patience with this self-centred insensitive man than I would have but whether they go their separate ways we never get to discover because the book ends without a resolution. It’s an unsatisfying end because young Simon’s future is also left uncertain. If it wasn’t for the fact I knew there were two more books to follow I would have got to the end of The Danger Tree feeling very short changed.

I hadn’t planned to read the whole trilogy but I was so taken with Manning’s skill in evoking the atmosphere of Egypt at this time in World War II that I now have to get my hands on the next title in the series.

About the author:

Olivia Manning was an English novelist and short story writer whose life bore a number of similiarities with that of her character Harriet Pringle. Olivia married just weeks before the invasion of Poland triggered the Second World War. Her husband’s job  as a lecturer for the British Council in Bucharest took them to Eastern Europe, but they had to flee, first to Athens, then to Cairo. Given that experience it’s not surprising that she can write so convincingly about the sensation of feeling dislocated and uprooted. 

About the Book

Manning began writing The Danger Tree in 1975. For a time she described it “The Fourth Part of the Balkan Trilogy”. A biography Olivia Manning: A Life, by Neville Braybrooke, indicates she found it a struggle to write apparently because she wasn’t confident of her ability to imagine the world of the soldier in a military campaign. Despite some early criticism that the desert scenes were lacklustre, The Danger Tree was well receive on publication in 1977.

Why I read this book

1977readingclubThis was my one and only contribution to the 1977readingclub #1977club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon at StuckinaBook. I’m also counting it towards my Year of my Life reading project.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmPeople who tend to be squeamish or prefer not to know about the internal workings of the human body, wouldn’t enjoy reading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. It’s also probably best to avoid this book if you have a friend or relative who has been diagnosed with a neurological condition or is about to have surgery.

Marsh is a neurological surgeon with more than 30 years experience. In Do No Harm he offers insight into the joy and despair of a career dedicated to one of the most complex systems in the body. This is a candid account of how it feels to drill into someone’s skull, navigate through a myriad of nerves that control memory, reason, speech and imagination and suck out abnormal growths. If successful he can save someone’s life or extend their projected life span. But often he is millimetres away from catastrophe. One false move and the result could be death or paralysis.

Marsh frankly admits that in his career he has made mistakes. A few years ago, he prepared a lecture called “All My Worst Mistakes.” For months, he lay awake in the mornings, remembering the patients he had failed. “The more I thought about the past,” he recalls , “the more mistakes rose to the surface, like poisonous methane stirred up from a stagnant pond.”

On a visit to a nursing home for people with extensive brain damage he sees the result of some of those mistakes in the motionless forms of patients in their beds “To my dismay I recognised at least five of the names.” One of them is a schoolteacher in his fifties whose life he ‘wrecked’ (Marsh’s word) during a fifteen hour operation to remove a large tumour. In the final stages he tore part of the artery that keeps the brainstem, and thus the rest of the brain alive. The patient remained in a coma for the rest of his life. The experience haunted Marsh for years.

Yet without mistakes, he says, there would be no progress. And without the willingness of doctors to take risks, many of the greatest advances in his field would never have happened.

It’s one of the painful truths about neurosurgery that you only get good at doing the really difficult cases if you get lots of practice but act means making lots of mistakes at first and leaving a trail of injured patients behind you. I suspect that you’ve got to be a bit of a psychopath to carry on…

Henry MarshDoes that mean surgery is always the best course? This is a question discussed regularly in the daily case conferences Marsh holds with the junior doctors and radiographers who form his hospital team. Is it kinder to let someone die gradually than to undertake invasive surgery from which they may never recover or if they do, face life changing side effects? The team reach a clinical, unemotional conclusion but its down to Marsh to face the patient and explain the decision. It’s an encounter that requires a delicate balance of compassion and detachment.

Marsh suffers anxiety before such meetings, trying to resist the temptation to be overly optimistic about the likely outcome of any procedure. Often before surgery he is oppressed by “almost a feeling of doom’ and panic which only dissipates at the last moment when he sits in his operating chair and takes up his scalpel.

… full of surgical self-confidence, I press it precisely through the patients scalp. As the blood rises from the wound the thrill of the chase takes over and I feel in control of what is happening.

Marsh never set out to become a neurosurgeon. After completing his medical degree he caught a glimpse through a porthole of a patient “anaesthetized, her head completely shaven, sitting bolt upright on a special operating table.” The surgeon stood behind her, with a light fixed to his head, patting her bare scalp with dark brown iodine antiseptic. The image stayed in his mind, and struck him as “a scene from a horror film.”

But his second visit to a neurological theatre fascinated him. Unlike all the other operations he had witnessed which involved the handling of ‘warm and slippery body parts’, this was done with an operating microscope through a small opening in the side of the head using only a few microscopic instruments.

The brain continues to fascinate Marsh. He is awed by what he sees through his surgical microscope, which “leans out over the patient’s head like an inquisitive, thoughtful crane ” as the infra-red cameras in his GPS system shows he position of his instruments. The internal cerebral veins are like “the great arches of a cathedral roof” and beyond the Great Vein of Galen can be seen “dark blue and glittering in the light of the microscope.”

In Do No Harm he does a grand job of sharing that wonder with his readers and also the drama of the operating theatre. You don’t need extensive biological or medical knowledge to appreciate the level of difficulty involved in these procedures though a schematic showing what bits of the brain lie where would have been a useful addition to the book.

Every chapter is headed with the name of a type of tumour (who knew there were so many?) in which Marsh talks about some of the cases that involved those conditions. In between he shares his many battles with the bureaucracies and inefficiencies he encounters in the British National Health Service (NHS).

Surgeons kept waiting because of a decree that doctors can’t begin a new operation while another is in the final stages in an adjoining theatre. Or theatre staff forced to kick their heels because their next patient wasn’t allowed to change into their hospital gown while there were members of another gender in the same waiting room. The working hours of junior doctors changed without any consultation with the surgical leads. Computer systems that won’t co-operate when a bed is needed quickly. The causes of Marsh’s frustration range far and wide.

In one episode, which would be farcical in any other sector, he describes having to leave his clinic to repeatedly go up two flights of stairs to get a password so he can discuss an X-Ray result with his patient. “Try Mr Johnston’s,” he’s told. “That usually works. He hates computers. The password is ‘Fuck Off 45’.” It marks the forty-five months since the introduction of a highly-expensive computer system.

Back in his office, Marsh tries every possible combination of upper and lower case letters, adding spaces, taking them out, all without success. He runs up the two flights again. One staff member realises there’s been a miscalculation. The system has been in place two months longer than they recalled. So it turns out the password is now “Fuck Off 47.” All of this while the poor patient waits to hear if Marsh can save his life by operating to remove the cause of his elliptic fits.

His railings stem from a deep concern for his patients and a desire to want to do right by them (he even washes and dries the hair of his female patients before they leave the theatre). He tries not to let his feelings show but his mask slips regularly. Leaving the hospital one evening having told one man that an operation was not possible, he rails against the traffic as if it were the drivers’ fault

“ … that this good and noble man should die and leave his wife a widow and his young children fatherless. I shouted and cried and stupidly hit the steering wheel with my fists. And I felt shame, not at my failure to save his life — his treatment had been as good as it could be — but at my loss of professional detachment and what felt like the vulgarity of my distress compared to his composure and his family’s suffering, to which I could only bear impotent witness.

This is a book that I never expected to enjoy but it proved far more readable than I expected. I’m glad however that I didn’t read it before my friend had her own surgery to remove a brain tumour (from which she thankfully recovered). I appreciated there were risks involved, but never realised just how narrow the margin of error would be. Sometimes ignorance is a blessing.

Footnotes

About the Book: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2014.  It was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, the Wellcome Book Prize and the Guardian First Book Prize. Marsh wrote a follow up in 2017. Admissions  was written as he prepared for his retirement.

About the Author: Henry Marsh worked as consultant neurosurgeon in London for about thirty years. In addition he travelled regularly to the Ukraine, donating his time to treat patients in extremely difficult situations and in the face of political opposition. H retired from full time work in the NHS in 2015 but continued to work in private practice until 2017.

Why I read this book: This was a book club choice. I probably wouldn’t have read the book otherwise. But I am so glad I did.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About ElsieOne of the most memorable episodes in Alan Bennett’s series of dramatic monologues Talking Heads features an elderly lady who has taken a tumble in her home while doing a little illicit dusting. Though she needs help she is afraid this will mean she is carted off to a residential home because she is deemed no longer able to look after herself.

I was reminded of this tale when reading Joanna Cannon’s novel Three Things About Elsie. It’s set in a home for elderly people, one of whom is now lying on the floor of her room, waiting for someone to find her. As Florence Claybourne waits, she thinks back over the previous month and the events triggered by the arrival of a new resident, a man she is convinced is someone she knew decades earlier but whom she believed was dead.

No-one in the home believes her however. Florence presents a bit of a problem for the staff at the Cherry Tree home. She hasn’t really fitted in with their thinking on how elderly people should behave. She doesn’t care for the TV programmes in the communal residents’ lounge and doesn’t enjoy the organised bingo games. Now it seems she is prone to shouting out loud and disturbing the little welcome speech Miss Ambrose, the home’s manager, likes to give new residents. Miss Ambrose’s patience is tested with Florence begins making claims that this new resident is an imposter who sneaks into her room and moves her things about. Miss Ambrose warns her she is ‘on probation’; she has one month in which to prove she isn’t losing her mind otherwise she will find herself in Greenbank home (a much less desirable residence than Cherry Tree).

Just as she has done throughout her life, Florence turns to her childhood friend Elsie for moral support and wisdom. They’ve been through a lot together. Elsie always knows what to do and what to say in any situation. “I can’t imagine I how I would have coped without her all these years,” admits Florence. Now she needs her friend more than ever because she knows her mind is wandering. “It can’t help itself. It very often goes for a walk without me, and before I’ve realised what’s going on, it’s miles away,” she acknowledges.

Is Florence mistaken? Is the new resident really Gabriel Price as he claims to be or is he Ronnie Butler,  a nasty piece of work from Florence’s past (and possibly a murderer). This isn’t the only mystery in the novel. We learn two things about Elsie fairly early on: The first thing is that “she’s my best friend”; the second that “she always knows what to say to make me feel better”. But the third? Florence can’t quite remember that fact. It’s not until we get to the end of the novel that readers discover the missing piece of the jigsaw (though I suspect many, like myself, will have already guessed the answer).

Cannon divides the narration between Florence, Miss Ambrose the administrator and the young handyman “Handy Simon”. Miss Ambrose’s characterisation is a little predictable. She’s a busy manager who frets about budgets, bustles about organising the residents and gently ‘bossing’ them about. Simon is a loner who makes up for her lack of compassion by developing a natural ability to understand what makes old people tick.

It’s Florence who is the real star of this show. She may be 84 years old but she’s not about to be treated like a child. She’s a witty and sharp woman who has the measure of Miss Ambrose. When one of the residents speculates if the administrator has been up to some fraudulent activity, Florence responds: “Miss Ambrose doesn’t look the type, does she? … She buys all her clothes from Marks & Spencer.”

She’s a bit prickly but she is also vulnerable. Though she is fearful this fall will see her sent off to Greenbank, she really wants to be found. She imagines little scenarios of how she will be discovered and how her rescuers will treat her.

One of them [the ambulance team] will sit with me, as we move along the streets under the spin of a blue light. The light will turn across his face as we travel, and he will smile at me from time to time, and his hand will somehow find mine in the darkness.

Cannon cleverly prevents this novel becoming twee and light by interjecting darker tones when dealing with the nursing home.  The residents at Cherry Tree live under a constant threat they will be ousted from the home and despatched to Greenbank, from which it’s but a short step to death. No more seaside outings, entertainers, healthy hearts exercise sessions or bingo. At Greenbank:

…   each room was a small piece of torment. Eyes were glazed with vacancy. Mouths gaped. Limbs rested on angry, twisted sheets, although perhaps worse were the ones who lay silent in perfectly made beds, the ones who had run out of arguing.

It’s a disturbing image. One that is vastly different to all those soft focused, airbrushed pictures seen in marketing literature for such establishments. But as Florence says, there is so much pretence involved with these homes. Cherry Trees home doesn’t even have any cherry trees she points out.

It’s the kind of name you give to these places though. Woodlands, Oak Court, Pine Lodge. They’re often named after trees, for some reason. It’s the same with mental health units. Forests full of forgotten people, waiting to be found again. … It feels like you can call a thing whatever you want to, in an attempt to turn it into something else.

Joanna Cannon’s previous career as an NHS psychiatrist is evidently at work here. She captures so well the forced jollity of residential homes for elderly people where the idea seems to be that because you’re old, your intellectual faculties must be significantly depleted. I’m a long way off Florence’s age but I hope when I get there I’ll have her same spark and feisty spirit. And I hope I’ll also have a friend like Elsie.

 

A Death in the Night by Guy Fraser-Sampson #bookreview

death-in-the-night

A Death in the Night is the fourth book in the Hampstead Murders series which focus on the activities of the detectives based at Hampstead Heath police station in London. They are police procedurals that seek to pay homage to the spirit of the Golden Age of detective writing, particularly the principle that everything the reader needs to know to solve the crime themselves, is contained within the text.

The crime with which the detective team have to wrestle in A Death in the Night is the murder of Professor Fuller, mistress of a prominent barrister, who is found dead in her room at The Athena, an exclusive women’s club in Mayfair. By coincidence Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis, together with psychologist Peter Collins, were all attending a vintage-themed dinner dance in the club at the time the woman is believed to have met her killer. 

There are a multitude of suspects but very few clues. Added to the problem is that initially the initial identification of the body is incorrect. By the time the real identity is confirmed, the hotel room has been cleaned and vital evidence lost. To get at the truth the team, under the direction of their Golden Boy boss, Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, have to meticulously dissect every statement from staff and guests as well as her lothario husband. Was Professor Angela Bowen killed by her lover or by his wife or perhaps by another of his mistresses? For a time the team are not sure if she was even the intended victim. Nor are they clear on how the murderer managed to obtain a spare key to the room unnoticed by all the people milling around the reception area. By the time they find the answers, reputations have been damaged irrevocably.

As with the other novel in the series I’ve read, Miss Christie Regrets (book 2 in the series),  A Death in the Night is strong on procedure and on the setting. The atmosphere of the Mayfair club is captured particularly well. Amid the private equity firms and luxurious hotels frequented by Russian billionaires and “exotic creatures  wearing handmade suits, bright waistcoats and permanent suntans” it is a reminder of Mayfair’s more dignified past.

Tucked into an unassuming corner position in Audley Square, its membership continues to be drawn from exactly the same sort of intelligent, well educated woman as it was back in its earliest days when Dorothy L Sayers used to write her books in its library and take tea and anchovy toast afterwards in one of its famously comfortable armchairs.

Designed to be a comfortable bolt hole for professional women who find themselves in the city,  The Athena offers discretion for those who want a place to discreetly entertain male friends and companionship for those who dislike eating alone at restaurants. 

As much as I admired the nod towards the Golden Age (Peter Collins is a devotee of Dorothy L Sayers and loves to drop her name into conversation) I felt the novel would have benefited from a lighter touch on the procedural aspects. The team meets every day to review progress which means there is a fair amount of repetition of key facts (presumably these reminders were give readers a good chance of spotting the clues). More problematic for me however was an early chapter where the Metropolitan Police Commissioner chairs a meeting to review a report recommending a reorganisation of the force’s detective resources. The intent was presumably to show that Superintendent Collison, the report’s author, is gaining respect among his superiors, but to me it was an overlong and unnecessarily detailed interlude that didn’t strongly connect with the narrative.

Don’t let this comment put you off the novel however. If you enjoy well constructed crime fiction and are happy with a measured pace, then this will certainly be a series to consider.

Footnotes

The Book: A Death in the Night was published in November 2017 by Urbane Publications UK. My review of Miss Christie Regrets is here.

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.

Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards EndUnlike author Susan Hill I don’t live in an old rambling farmhouse with aged beams and cosy nooks from which I can look upon “gently rising hills and graceful trees”. Nor sadly do I have an elmwood staircase that could take me up to a landing with overflowing bookcases. But I do know the sensation of coming face to face with a mountain of unread books.

Climbing the stairs one day in search of a book she knew was there, Hill discovers “at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred” that she had never read. Among them are recommendations from the Richard and Judy book club, Booker prize winners, classics, childhood annuals (charmingly she still gets The Beano every year) and an old alphabet book.  She resolves to spend a year reading only those books already on her shelves, forgoing the purchase of new ones, which, she admits, is a strange decision for someone who is both author and publisher.

I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read.

We get some delightful and often surprising titbits: about the time when as an English student at King’s College London, she  devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf (one can understand why!). Or the unexpected encounter with EM Forster in the London Library. Having bent down to pick up the book an elderly man had dropped on his foot she looks up to find herself looking into the watery eyes of one of the grandest of the grand old men of literature. But here he was “slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable.” and yet “the wonder of the encounter has never faded.”

 

I warmed to her after reading the chapter where she recollects the magic of receiving the gift of books as a child. It was impossible to disagree with her that today, with such easy access to books, we have forgotten how special they were in our past. For Hill growing up in the 1940s they were rare treats.  Every Christmas brought annuals that she read so often she could memorise the stories but the most precious gift she remembers is her first pop up book. Some of these she still has and one of the pleasures of her year of reading from her bookshelves is going through the collection.

Over the year, Hill draws up a list of 40 titles that she thinks she “could manage with alone, for the rest of my life”. It’s absolutely not a ‘best books ever written’ type of list but ones she considers has special meaning for her. The list tells you a lot about her taste and her foibles. Trollope gets two places, as does P G Wodehouse; Dickens is there with Our Mutual Friend, Virginia Woolf with To the Lighthouse and E. M Forster (not Howard’s End surprisingly but A Passage to India).

The list is significant for its omissions. There is little in the way of European authors unless you count Dostoevsky as ‘European’ – no Zola or Camus however. The Americans are represented by Edith Wharton (the House of Mirth) and Henry James (Washington Square). Her rationale for the poetry choices tell you that she is in essence a conservative reader.  “I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new,” she admits. “I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don’t and that’s that. Perhaps I don’t need to. I can recite the whole of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, after all.”

She is without question a woman of firm opinions. Some I found it hard not to agree with, such as her love of the physical feel of a book (she loathes e-readers) and her aversion to the fashion for reading the “very latest book everyone is talking about.” She has little patience with people who pretend to have read certain classics or who boast about the number of books they read each week (“Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?” she asks). Jane Austen she finds boring but considers Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower to be a masterpiece and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s work is long overdue for a re-issue.

The interjections spice up what could easily have become a pleasant but otherwise inconsequential journey through one woman’s reading preferences and habits. Hill has an edge that nicely counterbalances the sometimes whimsical tone and in her final selection of 40 has made certain to stir up debate.

By The Pricking of My Thumbs, Agatha Christie

agatha christie

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.

Footnotes

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.

 

Chocky by John Wyndham [book review] #1968club

Chocky in spaceDid 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.

Footnotes

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.

Why I read this book: I chose this as part of the 1968club reading hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Human FactorThe 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.

Footnotes

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.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor [Book Review]

reservoir 13Of 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.

It seems I am not alone in my enthusiasm for this book. Take a look at reviews by Lisa at ANZlitlovers, Susan at A Life in Books and Paul at MookesandGripes.

Footnotes

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.

 

%d bloggers like this: