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Dystopian crime mash up The Last fails to deliver

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Dystopian fiction meets crime thriller in Hanna Jameson’s much-praised debut novel The Last

This is not a harmonious marriage however. The Last is novel in which the two genres seem to be in conflict with each other instead of blending into a new and exciting narrative style.  

The Last by Hanna Jameson

The premise is an interesting one. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the Western world. The guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities.

Twenty people remain in the hotel, cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive.  As days roll into weeks and the sun never shines or rust coloured clouds produce rain, the survivors become ever mor fearful for their future.

Some cannot deal with the uncertainty and immediately make plans to get to the nearest airport, ferry port or border. Others decide that suicide will bring a blessed relief. 

In the midst of the upheaval, the body of a young girl is found in a water tank. No-one recognises her or even recalls seeing her in the hotel. But it’s clear that she was murdered and the murderer may still be in the hotel. 

As the days progress, one guest, the American historian Jon Keller,  decides to make it his mission to search for the truth about the girl. He begins keeping a daily journal of events,  interviews with all the remaining guests and searches of the 1,000 rooms.

It’s through Jon’s eyes that we follow the reactions of his fellow guests, all of whom, have, until now been strangers. 

The Last contains plenty of dramatic incidents. The survivors discover bandits in the woods outside the hotel; an expedition to find food in the nearest city results in death and one guest suffers a drugs overdose.  

An Overcooked Narrative

But it felt like  Hanna Jameson was trying too hard, throwing just about everything possible into the mix. Strange footsteps in the night. A hotel with a history of unexplained deaths. Guests who disappear never to be seen again. Rivalries between the survivors. Uncertainty on who can be trusted and who is a danger.

If this is all familiar ground so too is Hannah Jameson’s depiction of how a group of people would react in the fact of catastrophe. They argue a lot; challenge the right of anyone to lay down rules; resort to violence; worry about radiation poisoning; suffer guilt about family members etc etc.

But it’s hard to get attached to any of them because they are ‘types’ rather than characters; people who seem to have been chosen because they can prove useful to the narrative.

We have a doctor, a chef and a security expert . One guest is a student who turns out to be an ace with a gun. There’s also a guy whose job involves working with traumatised children – very handy for trying to tease info out of the two children in the hotel.

I never felt invested in any of these characters and in fact kept forgetting who they were. Their tendency to speak in platitudes and cliches didn’t help make them any more real.

… what we think of as right and wrong doesn’t exist anymore. Everything that happened before, it has no meaning now.

Murder Mystery Fizzles Out

Throwing a murder into the mixture didn’t really help. It’s honestly a mystery why it was even included because it’s not particularly central to the story. No-one in the hotel other than Jon seems particularly bothered about finding the murderer; they’re more concerned with just surviving. And even Jon seems to forget about his quest periodically.

I could be entirely wrong but my suspicion is that the murder element was slotted into the plot part way through the writing; a kind of force fit rather than an integral part of the story.

The Last is a promising concept. It’s been compared to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Stephen King’s The Shining but the comparison doesn’t work. There’s little of Christie’s sense of mystery and even less of King’s menacing atmosphere.

Though it’s a fun read in many ways and does keep you reading the pages, ultimately the book doesn’t live up to its original promise.

Haunted by A Gentle Survivor [Review]

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

It would be hard to find a book on my shelves with a less exciting title than A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. The synopsis didn’t sound promising either. Which is why this novella remained on those shelves unread for two years.

But all assumptions this would be a dull book were swept aside after only five pages. Although nothing of any great magnitude happens throughout the 160 pages, this tale of a quiet, unassuming man who lives a simple life in an alpine valley, captivated and bewitched me.

A Whole Life

A Whole Life is exactly what it says on the cover: the tale of the entire life of one man.

That man is Andreas Egger. His life is unremarkable. He never achieves greatness. He can’t boast of sporting prowess or exceptional intelligence. Nor can he point to awards or inventions. He’s just a dependable man, a hard worker who simply wants to get on with life as quietly as possible.

He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling.

Andreas arrives in an Austrian mountain village as a four year old boy. He dies more than 70 years later, only once having left the valley when called up towards the end of the 2nd World War.

Life does not prove kind to this man.

Andreas has no clear memory of his mother, never mentions any father. The relative who gives him a home beats him so extensively, he’s left with a permanent link. But somehow Andreas, slow of speech and awkward in his movements, survives.

He grows strong, stronger than any other man in his village. He finds love only to lose it after a pitifully short time; escapes death in avalanches and storms while working as a cable car mechanic and endures hell as a Russian prisoner of war.

When he returns to his valley he makes his home in a sparsely furnished one room shed embedded into the hillside. To earn a living he reinvents himself as a guide for tourists on walking holidays.

Sometimes it was a little lonely up there, but he didn’t regard his loneliness as a deficiency. He had no one but he all he needed and that was enough.

Despite all the hardships, Andreas never descends into self pity or recriminations. Never rages against his ill-fortune. He’s not without hopes and desires but doesn’t fret about what might have been.

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. 

Andreas simply accepts his lot and endures whatever life throws at him. One day at a time.

Amazed By Life

The Whole Life gives us a tender portrait of an unassuming man endowed with more capacity for forbearance than most individuals. Seethaler’s narrative voice is equally calm and measured throughout, drawing us ever deeper into Andreas’ inner thoughts as we follow every twist and turn of this man’s life.

The other villagers view him as an odd figure, “an old man who lived in a dugout, talked to himself, and crouched in a freezing cold mountain stream to wash every morning.”

But though his needs are simple, Andreas is not a simple man in the sense of lacking in intelligence. He delights in the beauty of the landscape around him. He marvels at the changes in the world around him; the arrival of electricity in the valley, man’s landing on the Moon. He accepts them all in the spirit of “silent amazement” and wonder, with which he views his own life:

He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.”

This is an evocative, tender novella, lacking in sentimentality yet deeply moving in its portrayal of a quiet soul.

Fast Facts: A Whole Life

Robert Seethaler was born in Vienna but grew up in Germany.  

A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, was his fifth novel but the first to be translated into English. It was published in 2015 and went on to be shortlisted for 2017 Booker International Prize and the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award

I read this as part of my booksofsummer reading list.

Touching tale of dignity and vulnerability [book review]

Dignity by Alys Conran

In her second novel, Dignity, Alys Conran delivers a touching tale of three women separated by generations, history and culture. Yet they are united in their spirited assertion of their right to independence and their search for the meaning of ‘home’.

Through the first person narratives of these women, Dignity takes us from a modern English seaside resort that has seen better days to pre-war India under British control. As the narrative progresses it asks questions about the nature of home and the impact of colonialism on the individual.

Dignity2

Pride and Dignity in Old Age

First we encounter Magda who lives alone in a seaside town that is well past its best. Confined to a wheelchair in a sprawling, disintegrating Victorian house, her only visitors are care workers. Magda resents their presence as she fiercely tries to maintain her dignity in the face of declining health and advancing years.

Every care worker despatched to help her feed and wash, experiences the brunt of her bad temper and sharp tongue. Shusheela, a part time student and daughter of Bengali immigrants, is the only care assistant who finds a way to penetrate Magda’s stubborn exterior. She recognises that Magda uses rudeness as a shield and that “underneath it all, she’s desperately sad.”

Shusheela has problems of her own. Still grieving after her mother’s death, she is trying to support her widowed father and her ex-army boyfriend, Ewan, who is is suffering from PTSD. And then she discovers she is pregnant.

The discovery becomes the catalyst for an unlikely – and sometimes fraught – relationship between these two women. Magda’s practical, no nonsense attitude proves to be exactly the support Susheela needs. She recognises that this girl is not like the legion of other care workers – this one has dignity.

The girl’s Bengali heritage unlocks Magda’s memories of her childhood in colonial India and the terrible secrets surrounding her mother Evelyn.

It’s Evelyn’s story that most captured my interest. She arrives in India as the young wife of an engineer ( a man she barely knows), apprehensive about how to create a new home up to the standard of that left behind in Britain.

Upholding The Raj Tradition

Even before her ship docks she is marked out as different from the other British wives. She has brought no romantic novels with her nor does she share their love of gossip. Dignity shows how adjusting to her new life and the expectations of a Raj wife, prove challenging. She dislikes the way servants are treated and the parochial attitudes of the other wives.

She tries desperately to maintain her independence, to forge her own way of dealing with India. But gradually Evelyn changes; worn down by the expectations of respectability and the pressure to conform. The schoolteacher who arrives in India as warmhearted and independent in spirit becomes as cold as her husband and cannot even relate to her daughter.

… I become toughened like old meat into a kind of sergeant major, and, when I look at myself in the glass, I become, day by day, more like the hard-faced Englishwomen who have surrounded me since I arrived, my brow creased by resentment…

Dignity is a touching story that shows the damage of the colonial experience. You feel for Evelyn in her confusion on first arriving in India and in the criticism she faces because of her relationships with the servants.

It’s evident that this is a story that cannot end happily for her.

But Evelyn is not the only victim. For Magda having been raised surrounded by servants and privileges  is suddenly despatched back to England. A country that is not Home, but a foreign land. One in which she will be alone.

Dignity is a novel I enjoyed right from the first pages. The characters could easily have been stereotypes but Alys Conran has made each woman distinctly human and grounded in reality.

As the story wends it way through the lives of these three women it raises questions about the effect of the Colonial experience and also the meaning of “Home”.

Views of Home

Evelyn thinks about “Home” all the time she is India. It’s what all the wives do, eagerly scrutinising the outfits of any new arrival so they can copy the latest fashion. But Evelyn that all their memories are idealised the longer they are out of England. Home for her is

sitting in my mother’s kitchen, shelling peas, with light flowing in through her net curtains and the sound of children playing outside…

But she knows this is an England that cannot exist. That home is fading just as much as she is, that “the very guts of me are being worked on by this India ….and I am slowly less and less of what I was.”

Her daughter’s view of home is significantly less idealised. Though there is a doormat at her house which bears the word “Home’ this is a building which she views more like a fortress. A house that “has to hold out against the changing world outside.”

This is a touching, thoughtful novel, showing characters who are vulnerable and uncertain how to deal with the issues that life has thrown at them.

I had enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. But I had wondered whether she would be as effective when she broke out of her Welsh milieu. The answer is an unequivocal yes.

Dignity by Alys Conran: Fast Facts

Dignity was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, in April 2019. My copy was provided free by the publishers in return for an honest review.

Alys Conran was born in North Wales. She is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. In 2017 she won the Book of the Year prize in the Literature Wales Awards for her debut novel Pigeon.

3 Booker Prize Winners Worth Re-Reading

There were a number of Booker Prize winning novels I read before I began this blog and my project to work my way through all the winners. As I’m approaching the end of that project I thought I’d write some short reviews of those pre-blog books.

I seldom re-read contemporary fiction (I don’t know why, but the classics seem to lend them selves far more to re-reading. ) But these are three that I would definitely consider reading a second time.

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending: Booker Prize winner 2011

This 2011 Booker Prize winner was my first experience of Julian Barnes .

It’s a slim novel, beautifully paced and very readable yet it gets you thinking about some of the issues well after you reachthe last page.

The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a retired man of around 60 years old. He reflects on his life and in particular his relationship with Adrian Finn, a boy he met at school. Adrian was the most intellectually advanced and gifted boy in his coterie.

But a rather odd girl called Veronica comes between them. Tony takes her defection to Adrian badly, heaping curses upon the pair. And then he learns Adrian has killed himself.

Years later Adrian’s diary is bequeathed to Tony. He believes it will unlock the mystery of why Adrian died. But first he will have to do battle with Veronica.

This is very much a reflective novel about a man who is trying to make sense of his life. His frustrations and anger come to the fore but so too does regret and his feeling of being on the fringe of life. “You just don’t get it. You never will.” is the barb Veronica most frequently throws at him. Tony does have a selective memory however and even by the end you feel that he is still a puzzle to himself.

The Sense of an Ending is a compact novel which meditates on the complexity of the human struggle to deal with regret and loss.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Blind Assassin: Booker Prize Winner 2000

Until I read this 2000 Booker Prize winner, my only experience with Margaret Atwood was through The Handmaids’ Tale. Although there is a sci fi aspect to The Blind Assassin, it couldn’t have been more different.

It has a complicated structure with three plot strands and multiple time frames.

The over-arching device is that this book is the memoir of Iris Chase, from her beginning as the daughter of a prosperous family, through a loveless marriage and into solitary and brooding old age. As she nears the end of her life she is determined to set down her version of the stories and scandals that have long swirled around her and her family.

Her younger sister Laura killed herself in 1945, 10 days after the end of the war. Iris published her sister’s novel The Blind Assassin posthumously. a decision which propelled Laura to fame but Iris to a life of isolation.

Interposed with Iris’s reminiscences are passages from that novel,  about an upper-class married woman and her lover, a hack writer and a political radical, who spins a science fiction tale (also entitled The Blind Assassin) during their clandestine meetings. 

Confused?? It’s not surprising.

Reading this novel is a giddy experience. We get Iris’ narrative, Laura’s novel, extracts from the pulp science-fiction stories the hero of Laura’s book tells his lover and newspaper reports on events.

In the hands of a less able novelist, this mix of narrative forms would be a mess. But Atwood handles it with authority and aplomb. It’s quite an extraordinary novel.

 

Amsterdam : A Novel by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam : Booker Prize winner 1998

Ian McEwan won the 1998 Booker Prize with his story of a euthanasia pact between a composer and a newspaper editor that ultimately destroys their long-term friendship.

It’s rather a dark novel from the beginning which takes place at a funeral where the two men agree that if one of them is left helpless by a medical condition, the other will ease his exit from this world.

The rest of the novel sees each man take decisions with far-reaching consequences. The editor publishes private photographs revealing a political scandal. The composer leaves the scene of a rape because he can’t waste time when he has a symphony to finish.

This is a novel which reads like a psychological thriller at times; particularly in the final chapters in Amsterdam where the friends meet for a show-down. But it’s the way the novel deals with moral ambiguities that I enjoyed the most.

I read Amsterdam in 2000 and it’s one of my favourite novels by Ian McEwan. It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I think warrants a second read.

Complex World of Party Animal Holly Golightly [Review]

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Today she’d be classed as a ‘celeb “ or a socialite. The kind of girl whose party-loving, free-wheeling lifestyle fills newspapers and magazines with gossip and sparkle.

Holly Golightly was not the original “IT” girl but she is the character forever synonymous with a dazzling, sophisticated, glamorous way of life. It’s an image cemented into the public consciousness by Audrey Hepburn in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn’s Holly is chic, carefree and charismatic. 

Holly Golightly

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly

However, Truman Capote’s novella provides us with a far more complex figure. His Holly Golightly is rather a lonely figure, a girl whose carefree persona is a front, and one she protects fiercely. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is set in New York, mainly around a brownstone building in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The un-named narrator, an aspiring writer, gets his first glimpse of Holly when she arrives home late at night, and tries to rouse another tenant because – once again – she’s lost her apartment key.

… she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness…  A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman.

Holly, he learns, has no job. She lives by socialising with wealthy men who take her to clubs and restaurants and give her money and expensive presents. She hopes to marry one of them.

Is Holly Golightly a prostitute?

This was a question Capote tried to address in a 1968 interview with Playboy. Holly Golightly, he said, was a modern day version of a Geisha girl.

Holly Golightly was not precisely a callgirl. She had no job, but accompanied expense-account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obligated to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewelry or a check … if she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night. So these girls are the authentic American geishas, and they’re much more prevalent now than in 1943 or 1944, which was Holly’s era.

Holly, with her curious lifestyle and outspoken views, fascinates the narrator. Over the course of a year, they become close friends. 

Who is the real Holly Lightly?

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

The narrator only gets a glimpse of her past through the fragments she occasionally reveals. She talks about her childhood as “an almost voluptuous account of swimming and summer, Christmas trees, pretty cousins and parties: in short, happy in a way that she was not”.

We never know if Holly is making this up or if she’s describing her actual childhood, but the narrator doesn’t think it squares up with the girl he has come to know.

But when he asks any direct questions, she clams up again.

She has, it turns out,  one obvious reason to be secretive.

Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae. And she’s not a single girl but a child bride who ran away to New York to escape her hillbilly husband and her step-children.

Capote’s narrative presents us with a subtler reason, one that gives us more more reason to sympathise with this girl. 

Orphaned as a young child, she’d been sent with her brother to live with relatives who treated them badly.

Well, you never saw a more pitiful something. Ribs sticking out everywhere, legs so puny they can’t hardly stand, teeth wobbling so bad they can’t chew mush. … She had good cause to run off from that house.

Secrecy as a form of protection

Too damaged to have a deep emotional connection with anyone but her brother, she has fabricated a new identity as a form of protection. If she can isolate herself emotionally from other people, then she can always be in control.

She won’t even allow herself to become attached to the cat she found by the river one day. ” We don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent and, so am I”, she says at one point. And later on, when she is about to leave the country; she defends her decision to let the cat loose.

We just met by the river one day: that’s all. Independents, both of us. We never made each other any promises. We never – ” she said, and her voiced collapsed … 

Holly tries to convince herself that she’s happy being alone. But is she?   I’d like to imagine her enjoying her new life in Argentina but reading between the lines, I suspect not. 

Though I’ve enjoyed the film version, I prefer the novella’s more complex portrayal of Holly Golightly. Capote gives us plenty of reasons not to like this girl. She steal’s another girl’s fiancée, shows little concern for who she inconveniences as long as she gets what she wants and acts as a messenger for an imprisoned gangster.  

But Capote has also made Holly Golightly a sympathetic character; one that embraces the good things in life as a way of hiding from its darker side. By the end, we wish her well.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Fast Facts

  •  Breakfast at Tiffany’s was bought by Harper’s Bazaar. A change of editor resulted in requests to change some of the language which was considered too ‘tart’ and unsuitable. Capote was incensed and sold his work instead to Esquire magazine who published it in 1958.
  • Holly was originally named Connie Gustafson. Truman Capote later changed her name to Holiday Golightly and then Holly. He apparently based the character of on several different women, all friends or close acquaintances.
  • The novella was loosely adapted into the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s directed by Blake Edwards. The movie was transposed to 1960 rather than the 1940s, and had the narrator and Holly fall in love.
  • I read this as part of my #15booksofsummer reading project and my Classics Club project.

Why Nancy Mitford’s “genius” novel left me underwhelmed

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is supposed to be the novel that best displays her reputed “genius” for sharp and provocative wit.

Naturally, I was expecting to encounter writing that fizzed, crackled and sparkled as Mitford pricked the bubble of complacency surrounding rich, aristocratic families.

What I got instead was a slightly funny book parading the absurdities of a bunch of people who are supremely confident in many things, but particularly their superiority above all other mortals.

I felt cheated. Much like you do when you pull the Christmas cracker but end up with nothing more than a feeble pop and an empty roll of coloured cardboard. Not even a tiny packet of playing cards or a giant paper clip to make the effort worthwhile. 

An Unsuitable Match

Love In a Cold Climate brings us the tale of Polly Hampton, more properly known as Lady Leopoldina. She’s the only child of an immensely rich and very aristocratic  Earl of Montdore and his wife, Sonia.

Polly shines amid the debutants who have flocked to London for the ‘season’; the annual series of glittering balls and big social occasions whose real purpose is to find a marriage partner.  Much to her mother’s frustration, however, Polly shows little interest in the London season and the men she meets consider her cold and aloof.

The cause of Polly’s indifference is revealed to her shocked family: she’s been in love with  her uncle, “Boy” Dougdale since she was fourteen. She’s hell bent on marriage to a man considered by all and sundry to be eminently unsuitable as a husband; he’s a serial womaniser and known for his lecherous behaviour towards young girls.

Polly is determined to have her own way. Her punishment is banishment and disinheritance.

Mitford’s characters 

You won’t find a lot of humour in the plot.  The wit resides instead in Mitford’s characterisation, in particular the figures of Lady Montdore and Uncle Matthew.

Matthew is great fun as a character. because he’s so over the top.  He plays the role of a conventional English Lord very well, with his love of hunting, fishing, shooting and his firm belief in the importance of lineage. He has little tolerance for silly, ignorant women and even less for the business of bringing girls out into society (expensive nonsense in his eyes).

The most fascinating character is however Lady Montdore.

A portrait of egotism

She’s a woman who is so easy to dislike with her  “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness.”  The forcefulness of her personality  generally ensures that she gets her own way, whatever the situation though she can also exploit the social status conferred by her husband’s title and wealth.

So wrapped up in her desires to be the hostess with the mostest and to secure a brilliant marriage for her daughter, Lady Montdore has no idea how condescending she can appear. Marriages of acquaintances and relatives are dismissed as inferior and inappropriate unless they involve solid assets like “acres, coal mines, real estate, jewels, silver, pictures..”  All of the things in fact that her husband has in vast quantitites.

She’s not afraid to use her influence to prevent such a social calamity. Upon discovering  that her daughter’s friend Fanny has made a  “quite ridiculous” engagement to a professor, she offers to call the editor of the Times on the girl’s behalf, to retract the announcement.

Masterclass in how to patronise

One of the funniest scenes in the novel is when Her Ladyship makes an unplanned afternoon visit to  the – now married – Fanny.  It’s a master class in how to be patronising.

I suppose your husband is a clever man , at least so Montdore tells me. Of course it’s a thousand pities he is so dreadfully poor –  I hate to see you  living in this horrid little hovel, so unsuitable.

And with that she wrinkles her nose at the weak tea and broken digestive biscuits served without the nicety of a plate or napkin.

But worse is to follow when Lady Montdore puts on her “we’re hard done by” act:

It’s all very well for funny little people like you to read the books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter. A great deal is expected of us, I think and I hope it’s not in vain. It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring but occasionally we have our reward  – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance when we came back from India and the dear villages pulled our motor car up the drive, Really touching!

If only all of the novel could have been as delicious as this episode.

The saga of this odd romance and its consequences are related by Fanny Wincham, a distant cousin of Polly and a frequent visitor to the family’s home.

And therein lay my biggest issue with this novel: Fanny is a very dull girl. Fanny is the sensible one, the friend who longs for a stable life (understandable perhaps when you’re mother is known as ‘The Bolter’ because she left so many men in the dust)

I suppose Fanny had to be rather ordinary, in order to make a sharp contrast with the larger than life characters of her Uncle Matthew and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore. But I would have appreciated a narrator with a little more to her than this ‘nice’ but tepid individual. Perhaps then her observations would have helped the book live up to its much vaunted status as the work of a genius.


Footnotes

About the author

Nancy Mitford was one of six daughters of a British aristocratic family (the very class she features in her novels). The siblings achieved fame/notoriety in 1930s, three of them because of their political affiliations. A journalist for The Times, Ben Macintyre, labelled them “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.

Why I read this book

I added Love in a Cold Climate to my Classics Club list having seen it described as a “masterpiece’ of witticism. I also included her earlier novel The Pursuit of Love but now I’m wondering if that will be just as disappointing.

Want to know more

  • Read more about the Mitford family in this BBC article.
  • Vanity Fair has a published an interesting feature  exploring why the six Mitford sisters continue to fascinate people.
  • Ali who blogs at HeavenAli is more of a fan of the Mitford writers, than I seem to be. Check out her reviews here. 

In review: Ten winners of the Booker Prize

top-ten-tuesday-new

The first book I ever reviewed was so dreadful that I have obliterated its title from my memory.

It was by Maeve Binchey and though I know she is extremely popular among some readers, I vowed never to read anything by her again. Ever. I only got to the end because it formed part of a book review column that was being introduced on the newspaper where I was a rather junior reporter.

Maybe it was that experience that destroyed my interest in reviewing. It wasn’t until I started this blog that I began in earnest. I’m re-interpreting the brief for  this week’s Top 10 topic.

Instead of listing the first 10 reviews to appear on this blog (which would be dull) I’m opting for the first 10 reviews of Booker Prize winners. It is after all my project to read all the prize winners that prompted me to begin the blog in 2012.

Here’s my list. All links take you to my review

  1. The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens. The very first review to appear on this blog, was this 1970 winner. It’s embarrassing to look back at this review – I clearly had a lot to learn…
  2. Something to Answer For by P H Newby. This review appeared in April 2012. My attempt was slightly – but only slightly – better than the first effort.
  3. Saville by David Storey. This appeared in the same month as the Newby review. Not a book I cared for at all as my review indicates all too clearly.
  4. Staying On by Paul Scott. This is a follow up to his superb series called The Raj Quartet. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, I’m also happier with the quality of the review.
  5. White Tiger by Arvind Adiga  I remember enjoying this novel which won the 2008 Booker Prize but I see from my review that I wasn’t that keen on the ending.
  6. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. A wonderful book and one of my favourite Booker winners.
  7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Definitely not one of my favourite Booker winners. Though I admired the technical virtuosity and the brilliance of the imagination, I struggled to finish the book – and also, I seem to remember, struggled to write a review.
  8. Possession by A S Byatt. These reviews do seem to be getting more coherent (at last)
  9. The Sea by John Banville  My review from 2013 may not have done full justice to this book but at least it’s no longer embarrassing to read after all these years.
  10. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. And so we reach July 2013 and a novel that was a re-read.

It’s been interesting to look back at these blog posts and to see the progress I made in just over a year of writing reviews. When I decided to begin blogging I had no concerns about my ability to write: I had after all trained as a journalist and had worked for years in a communications role. But it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that writing reviews of books is an art that requires a completely different skill set.

There is still a long, long way to go before I reach the point where I find it easier to write these reviews and am more satisfied with the result. I wonder if I ever will reach that day or whether I’m too too much of a perfectionist to ever be satisfied….


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. .

Hooked by moody tale of family secrets [book review]

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

 

16 trees of the sommeOne of the things I love about reading is how it opens up new areas of knowledge.

It could introduce  you to places you know nothing about or enlighten you about a period in history.

In the case of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, my enlightenment concerned wood.

Not just any old wood. Two very special kinds of wood called flame birch and flame walnut.

I’ve never seen furniture manufactured from either of these woods but when polished,  the natural patterns that are revealed seem spectacularly beautiful.

It looked like a painting whose meaning is individual to each beholder. From a reddish-orange depth, blue and black lines spiralled outwards wildly, like a blazing fire. The pattern changed depending on where the light struck it. It glinted and new shadows became visible … In the centre of the wood there was a dark, craggy concentration, a maelstrom the colour of dried blood with thin strands swirling around it.

Wood is central to this novel about skeletons in the family closet. It not only plays a key role in the plot, it portrays mood and atmosphere and reveals much about the characters and their attitudes.

The story concerns Edvard Hirifjell, a man in his 20s who was orphaned when his parents died in France in mysterious circumstances. He was with them at the time but when missing for four days, eventually being discovered in the office of a local doctor. The child was taken in by his taciturn grandfather Bestefar to live on the family farm in a remote mountain valley, tending sheep and becoming an expert in potato crops.

When Bestefar dies, Edvard discovers that there is a beautiful, highly ornate coffin already waiting at the undertakers. It’s been designed and made by his grandfather’s estranged brother Einar, a fabulously skilled cabinetmaker.  Further discoveries follow in the form of letters which hint at a family connection to a concentration camp, an assumed identity and a missing inheritance.

As the young man begins to piece together his past, he travels first to the Shetland Islands and then to the battlefields of the Somme.

This novel works on so many levels.

It’s cleverly plotted with plenty of surprises building the momentum towards the concluding revelations.

It has an empathetic central character whose quest to know the truth about his family, is also a process of self-discovery.

The historical context is so well integrated it never feels as if we’re being educated about the battles of the Somme or the centuries-old connection between Norway and the Shetlands.

And then there is the  keen observation of the natural landscape and the forces of nature. Storms batter the Shetland Islands, whipping the sea into a seething, frothing mass that looks as if it will  “swallow the whole island.” In its wake lie swathes of land where peat has been ripped up and tossed into the water and the beach is scrubbed clean.

Not what you want to encounter on your summer holidays. Much better to head for the lushness of Norway:

….  fruit trees, the pea pods that dangled like half moons when we got close to them, so plentiful that we could fill up on them without taking a step. The dark-blue fruit of the plum trees, the sagging raspberry bushes just waiting for us to quickly fill two small plates and fetch some caster sugar and cream.

This is a melancholy novel at times.  Edvard barely remembers his parents except as fleeting images.

For me my mother was a scent, she was a warmth. A leg I clung to. A breath of something blue; a dress I remember her wearing. She fired me into the world with a bowstring, I told myself, and when I shaped my memories of her, I did not know if they were true, I simply created her as I thought a son should remember his mother.

His desire to uncover the truth about his parents is more than a desire to put substance and shape to those memories. He’s always felt a sense of alienation, of not quite belonging. His journey into the past is a way of slaying his fears and setting him on a new path to the future.

I’d never heard of Lars Mytting or this book until I spotted it while browsing in a bookshop. So I had no idea he was already a best selling author based on a non fiction book called Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. The Sixteen Tres of the Somme is his first novel to be published in English. Go out and buy it – you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin #bookreview

my brilliant careerEvery time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image.  That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes.  Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.

Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn.

Hers is a passionate nature, a force that will not be suppressed or controlled and in whom ambition is ablaze. Sybylla believes she is destined for “a brilliant career”, one that will offer more than a life rearing cattle and sheep. Nor does she envisage a life shackled in marriage. Marriage to her is a degradation, a result of social laws arranged so that it’s “a woman’s only sphere” in which she would have to suppress her inherent nature. . Not that any man would want someone “so very plain” and “as ugly” as her, she reasons. But she reckons without the wealthy young landowner Harry Beecham. He does want her for his wife.

Sybylla however is a wilful girl, “utterly different” to other girls her age and instead of viewing  him as a highly attractive partner, she leads him a merry dance.  Even as the novel comes to an end Miles Franklin keeps us guessing whether Sybylla will succumb to or hold out for her dreams of a life as a writer.

The tension between vocation and marriage as potential exit routes out of the stagnation of a rural life, forms the dramatic heart of My Brilliant Career. Sybylla’s intellectual and artistic talents are stifled in the environment of Possum where her father ekes out a living and his wife grows bitter and complaining.  Sent to live temporarily with her grandmother, Sybylla delights in the more refined atmosphere. It brings her “three things for which [she] had been starving”: good taste, music, and, above all, books.

But the idyll doesn’t last.

Drought exacerbates the problems created by her father’s excessive drinking habits and his poor business decisions. To pay off the family debt, Sybylla is despatched to work as governess and housekeeper for a family to whom her father owes money.  Among this illiterate farmer’s family, denied intellectual and creative stimulus and aghast at the filth of their home, she suffers a breakdown.

There are many enjoyable elements in this book but chief among them is Sybylla herself. She’s a sharp-witted, sharp-eyed narrator who doesn’t hold back from highlighting the weaknesses and faults of those around her. She views her mother scornfully because she has  “no ambitions or aspirations not capable of being turned into cash value.” Her father comes in for equally harsh treatment for his drunkenness and disregard for his family’s welfare.

But she’s also an irritating girl, too absorbed and self-pitying to recognise other people’s emotions. The kind of girl who, when you hear her lash out at poor Harry Beecham, you think she deserves some of the knocks that come her way.

I also loved Franklin’s descriptions of the Australian landscape. It’s a very honest portrayal, showing both its beauty and its unforgiving harshness when the rains fail, the land shrivels and livelihoods are endangered. Sybylla alternately loves the “mighty bush” and loathed.

My Brilliant Career isn’t without its faults. Sybylla has a tendency to get on her soap box , resulting in prose that sounds more like pamphleteering than how a young girl would actually express herself. But given this was Miles Franklin’s debut novel and it was written when she was 21 years old, primarily to entertain her friends, I think I can forgive her the occasional over-inflated, melodramatic passage.

 

About this book

My Brilliant Career was published in 1901 under the pen-name of  Miles Franklin (real name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin).  In her introduction she said the book was “all about myself…. I make no apologies for being egotistical. In this particular I attempt an improvement on other autobiographies.” She describes it as not a novel, but simply a yarn about a life of “long toil-laden days with its agonising monotony, narrowness, and absolute uncongeniality.”

It was hugely successful, but Franklin was upset that contemporary readers believed it to be closely based on her own life and that of families in her locality. She ordered it to be withdrawn from publication until after her death.  It was revived in the 1960s, and underwent a critical evaluation, particularly in the light of the feminist critique. Today it is viewed as a key text within the Australian literary canon.

For an assessment of the key themes of the novel, take a look at the critical essay by  Susan K. Martin at Reading Australia.

 

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.

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