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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.

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.

 

The Comforters by Muriel Spark #bookreview

The ComfortersThe Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.

It contains two broad plot lines.

Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose,  a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.

Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes:  On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. 

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”

Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.

Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery.  Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.

With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.

I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.

I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.

That was also my reaction.

I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.

 

There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles.  Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.

The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.

Footnotes

About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.

Why I read this book:  Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.

Other opinions: Other reviewers have enjoyed this far more than I did. Take a look at reviews by HeavenAli  (who is hosting a#ReadingMuriel2018 project) and piningforthewest. 

 

 

 

 

 

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac #bookreviews

VertigoI’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead). 

The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.

More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version.  From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable.  Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”

The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?

Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing.  “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,”  he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.

He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.

His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.

Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris.  On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.

He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile.  Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.

Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel.  The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.

Footnotes

D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.

In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.

 

 

Reading Bingo 2017

 

I’ve come across Reading Bingo several times over the years since I started this blog but never joined in because it seemed the idea was to commit to reading books that fitted the squares. I know from experience I am hopeless at reading to order. But this year I’ve seen a few bloggers  Marina at Finding Time to Write , Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks   and Susan at ALifeinBooks fill in the squares in retrospect first. Since I am too stuffed with Christmas pudding to move too far from the sofa it seemed a fun way to look back on the year and see how well I could match my books read with the 2017 bingo card. I’ve done way better than I expected with just two blank squares…

Book bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages –  weighing in with more than 600 pages is the Booker-award winning Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

A Forgotten Classic  – Gerard Reve’s The Evenings has been called a masterpiece of Dutch literature (I’m not convinced about that). Published in Amsterdam in 1946 it took 60 years before an English language version became available. 

A Book That Became a Movie –   You may not have heard of the book Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac  but I’m confident you’ve heard, and may have watched the version by Alfred Hitchcock.

A Book Published This Year – Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch brilliantly captures the atmosphere of Hull in UK at the time when the poet Phillip Larkin was head of its university library. 

Reservoir 13A Book with a Number in the Title – one of the best two novels I have read all year is Jon McGregor’s superbly constructed Reservoir 13, A contender for the Booker Prize in 2017, it sadly lost out in the final round. 

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty –   I don’t know Alys Conran’s exact age (it would have been impertinent to ask her when I met her at the Wales Book Awards) but I’m confident she is younger than I am so that’s enough for me to justify including her hear with her multi award-winning debut novel  Pigeon.

A Book with Non-Human Characters –  Limited options here since I dislike books of this kind. The nearest I can get is Strangers by Taichi Yamada which features ghosts. 

A Funny Book –   HagSeed by Margaret Atwood is a touching and imaginative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are some genuinely funny scenes set in a prison where the inmates become the cast members and have to decide what swear words will be acceptable.

A Book By A Female Author:  The most extraordinary novel I read all year was  The Vegetarian by the South Korean author Han Kang. It’s a short novel but deals with some big issues such as the clash between personal desire and society’s expectations.

A Book with a Mystery –   an easy one this since the word mystery appears in the title.  The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts, comes from the Golden Age of Crime and is part of the British Library Classic Crime series. A meticulously plotted murder mystery that will test your powers of memory and logic.

A Book with a One-word title –  Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi won multiple awards and a six figure advance from a publisher (good going for a debut author). I enjoyed many elements but overall felt it could have been an even better novel.

A Book of Short Stories – Failed on this one. I have several collections of short stories but seldom get around to reading them. I did start one collection but only read three stories. 

Free square –   My Antonia by Willa Cather, a classic of a farming community set in Nebraska. It was so beautifully written I’m keen to read more by Cather. 

A Book Set on a Different Continent – Even though I haven’t read as many novels in translation as I would have liked this year, I did read a few set in Australasia. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was one I highly enjoyed. 

A Non-fiction Book – The Good Women of China by Xinran relates the real life stories of women who live within the constraints of a society that doesn’t value women. All the stories were featured on her radio programme.

The First Book by a Favourite Author – Fail again. Although there were a number of authors I read this year whose work I have enjoyed in the past (John Banville, Anthony Trollope, Margaret Atwood for example) none of the books were their first published works.  

A Book You Heard About Online – I can’t believe it took me so long to discover We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson but it was only through other bloggers that this came to my attention. 

A Bestselling Book –   Published in 1930, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, may well pre-date best seller lists so I can’t tell you how many copies of this have been purchased. But it’s never been out of print and has spawned many tv and screen adaptations including one in 2016 so on the basis of its enduring popularity I’m classing it as a best-seller.

A Book Based on a True Story – Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised account of the life of Joseph Parry, one of the most famous composers to hail from Wales. Born into the extreme poverty of the iron and coal-mining town of Merthyr Tydfil he moved to Philadelphia with his parents at a young age. On his return to Wales he became the first person from Wales to gain a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University. 

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile – as a literature student I dipped into A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf regularly but never read the whole essay. I corrected that ommission this year. You could say I left it a bit late after 37 years but at least I got to it …

A Book your Friend Loves –  I read By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. My sister, who is a Christie fan, loved it more than I did. 

A Book that Scares You – Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel isn’t a scary book in station eleventhe sense it is populated by aliens or things that hide in the woodshed. But it did send shivers down my spine with its premise that the world is hit by flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks it claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. What made me nervous was that the survivors find a lot of the objects and technologies they had felt essential to their lives (like mobile phones) prove useless in this new world. I started to worry that I don’t have any of the skills that would help me survive.  

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old –  What a joy it was to read Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. Yes it was sensational and a romp of a story but du Maurier also managed to underpin this with a more thoughtful theme about the female situation. 

snow sisters

The Second Book in a Series –  Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a prequel to his best seller Shadow of the Wind but was actually his second to be published. It’s more patchy in quality than Shadow of the Wind but is still a fast moving adventure story that can be enjoyed just for its setting in Barcelona.

A Book with a Blue Cover –   Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin. The story is complex (multiple narrators and timelines) but is handled well and is strong on atmosphere. The cover is gorgeous. 

 

If you haven’t come across Reading Bingo before, do give it a go. You might be as surprised as I was. And do take a look at the other bloggers who have participated so far this year:

Marina at Finding Time to Write

Emma at Book Around the Corner

Cleo at CleopatraLovesBooks 

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.

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