Thursday, 29 October 2015

Sweetland ~ by Michael Crummey

It is almost Halloween, and if you are looking for a book about ghosts, this is one for you.  But you won't found any horror here, just humanity laid bare, like the rocks along the lonely Newfoundland coastline; love and loss, life and death, the bountiful and the barren, side by side.

This is a book of two parts; the first describes in microscopic detail life on Sweetland Island: the topography, the characters, the weather and the whinnying refrigerator.  Alive, alive, this book is a breathing living thing. It is because the first half is so real, and we have come to know the intricacies of the lives lived there, that the second half of the book is so powerful.  It is as if we step from the real world, into some misty unreality, though that description is not quite right.  The world is half real, half out of memory, but seeming all the more vibrant and vital as a result.  

When your life is touched by those who are suffering from mental illness, every experience is coloured by it.  The last time  read King Lear, it was about a proud old man, but this time, since my mother diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it has become clear to me that the play is about a man suffering from Alzheimer's.  It was the same with this novel. Surely this is a book about a man, Moses Sweetland,  losing his reason; a man slowly slipping into madness, succumbing to the memory loss (or gain, depending on your point of view) associated with old age.  In a way, this book is not very unlike 'The Buried Giant' by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I reviewed during the summer, which deals with memory and the power of forgetting: they certainly make fine companion books.
In terms of plt, this is a story about a island closing down.  The residents are being paid by the government to leave, the only codicil is that all must go.  Sweetland does not want to leave, and so his neighbours and friends pressure him to take the government package.  You must read it yourself to earn what happens.

One adorable character that we meet is Jessie, the young, Autistic boy who speaks regularly to his deceased great-uncle Hollis, though he is not the only ghost that haunts the island.  As in his earlier (fantastic) novel, 'Galore', Crummey presents us with the semi-comforting idea that ghosts walk beside us in life.  Once again, I was reminded of my mother, speaking of recent conversations she'd had with long deceased relatives.  Yet when Crummey writes it, it isn't unsettling or strange.  It feels natural, possible, plausible.
And this is probably why it is so difficult to finish this book and to leave the world that Crummey has created behind: there is a plain comfort in the frill-free, simple world he describes.  I find that I had to begin to re-read it instantly on turning the final page because the loss of the world, with interwoven lives, and colourful characters, was pretty unbearable.  Perhaps this is Crummey's greatest achievement: he makes us mourn the passing of a world that is all but disappeared except between the pages of a history book, or in the memories of the very old.  As such, Crummey is an archivist, a collector of memories, a Lady Gregory of our times!
But  the entire premise is debatable, questionable even: Is Moses Sweetland just a man with a vivid imagination, someone who has been alone too long, or is he actually losing his grip on reality? 
There is something heroic, and noble about the man, a John Wayne of sorts in his ruggedness.  He is the one they rely on to fix thing, sort things out.  Yet he has made mistakes and has regrets, and these are the thing that haunt him in the second half of the book.

We are fearful that he won't leave the island, the threats are growing evermore serious, but we are more terrified that he will leave.  How can the man leave when his very name  is intertwined with the land under his feet.  He is the island, the island is him.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons that we come to care so much about this character; because we have come to are so much about the place, each colouring the other until they become synonymous with the book's title.
Michael Crummey should be given some sort of national award: he is done so much for tourism.  This book had me Googling flights to Newfoundland and pricing holiday homes in St John's, though I don't know if I would ever find much of  Sweetland's world in modern day Newfoundland.  It seemed too alien for Sweetland himself, though it would still be worth looking for.   

Halloween or no, this book must be read and reread, for one reading will not be enough.  It will leave you heartbroken at the loss of it; the brutal landscape of the Mackerel Cliffs, the dogged tenacity of Moses Sweetland, and its people, ghostlike, yet all the more real for that. 

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Go Set A Watchman ~ By Harper Lee

All along, I thought that it was a bad idea to publish this book - as a first draft of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.  Did Harper Lee really want the world raking over her first attempt at telling Scout's story? I was especially suspicious that the novel only came to the world's attention after the death of Lee's sister last year, at 103 years of age. Alice Lee, an Alabama lawyer who was 'a confidante, housemate and gatekeeper for her sister Harper Lee', (Washington Post) had kept the manuscript amongst her possessions and it was only found by her lawyer, when she died. Should that lawyer have handed over the manuscript to the publishing world? Why hadn't the book been destroyed, if it was never meant to be published? Is it not like a diary, private yes, but begging to be read simply because it is written down?

The scenario reminded me very much of two hundred years ago and another set of sisters; Jane and Cassandra Austen. The elder sister, Cassandra decided to destroy many of Austen's letters, and perhaps manuscripts, too - who knows. No doubt, Cassandra did it to protect the integrity and reputation of her sister. She made that decision, and acted, perhaps on Jane's instruction, to set her sister's words alight. Did Alice Lee do wrong by not doing the same?

As an English teacher, I have read and taught 'To Kill a Mockingbird' many times and every time, I am still stunned by the skill of the writer and the wisdom of the text.  In hindsight, it was naive and foolish of me to be think that Mockingbird was born into the world, in so perfect a fashion.  What 'Go Set a Watchman' is, in fact, is a first draft of the novel that we love so dearly, and it must only be thought of in this way.  In this version, she decides to include how Scout deals with menstruation, her first dance, kissing a boy, learning about the facts of life; unimaginable in Mockingbird.  She also omits the trial and Boo Radley too, and gives Dr Finch a much more prominent role. The biggest shock, of course, is the revelation that Atticus was as one time, in the Klu Klux Klan.  Now, as Atticus explains it, it was only so that he could discover for himself, the identity of the other Klan members, but it is a shock nonetheless.

This novel is much grittier than its sleeker offspring; the racist filth that spouts from a speaker at a local meeting is meant to disturb and perhaps gives a truer account of what life was really like in Alabama in the 1950s.  In this book, World War Two has just ended, and Moville is littered with returned, injured soldiers, again, something new.  This brings a whole other flavour to the novel.

As the narrator in Watchman is omniscient, the book is much more adult in style and so can afford to be more adult in its content.  I can see why this style appealed to Lee in the first place, the subject matter being the stuff of adult life.  Let me just mention the title, which is a line quoted from a preacher in the novel and repeated by the narrator near the book's end.  To 'Go set a watchman', means to place a watchman, or a look-out, on your soul.  She is talking about how we all need to listen to our consciences, if we are to know the difference between right and wrong.   The irony is that it is Atticus, and perhaps the children too, who literally become  the watchmen for Tom Robinson in Mockingbird.   In hindsight, you can see how one book begot the other.
And that is , ultimately, why I think that this book is worth reading.  You can see how the character of Scout is formed - the feisty, opinionated Jean-Louise is not so very different to her literary daughter and even our understanding of Atticus, is deepened by reading this first novel.
So, I would say to you, that, in this case, I am glad that Alice Lee did not play God, as Cassandra Austen did, and destroy her sister's manuscript.  She left it to fate to decide its future and now it is up to you and I to decide to read it or not.  I have made my decision and am happy with it.   Have you? 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Case Histories ~ Kate Atkinson

I am not sure if I am now officially in love with Kate Atkinson, or Jackson Brodie (or both!), but I simply can't get enough of her novels.  'Case Histories', I am delighted to learn, is the first in a series of novels which revolve around the ex-soldier, ex-police inspector, private-eye, Jackson Brodie.  While Jackson is Yorkshire through and through, a tough guy, certainly; he still manages to weep on numerous occasions in the novel, and in a way is every bit as fragile as the many of the victimised women and girls that populate its pages.
His marriage is in ruins, his eight year old daughter is already rebelling against him, his secretary is openly antagonistic towards him and even his dentist seems out to torture him.  But all of this chaos merely makes Brodie even more attractive as a central character: we feel sympathy for the man whose life is falling apart, while he spends his life trying to put other people's lives back together again.  There is a poetry in this.  He can't seem to help himself.
As the title says, this novel deals with a series of cases that Jackson tries to solve, including one involving the murder of his own sister, Niamh.  And I suppose, this is why we instinctively trust Jackson; we know that he will prove to be a great detective because he understands suffering; he lost a sister of his own and is haunted by that memory.
Of course, like Darcy, Rochester, and other great romantic heroes who have gone before him, Brodie is a tormented, brooding, loner, who has difficulty communicating his feelings with the women in his life - he would much rather buy them a bag of chips, wrap them in a warm blanket or find their lost kitten, to show he cares; or, with men, speak with his fists (especially to David Lastingham, his fiancé) or just say nothing at all.  He is an all round do-gooder (but not in a 'men in tights' kind of way), who'd give you his last tenner for a cab ride home, just to make sure you got there safely, while he takes the bus, in the rain.  For Jackson Brodie, you say it with a cup of tea rather than flowers.

Of course, the intertwining plots are captivating, just what we have come to expect from Atkinson. There are mysteries, twists and complications, that endlessly delight the reader. It is all here; a beautifully written novel whose narrative brings us inside the heads of a myriad of unforgettable characters, each with a unique, individual voice: there are no stereotypes. each character is as real as the next.

But for me, the appeal is anchored around the compelling character of Jackson Brodie, whose strength is in his vulnerability.  We are presented with a collection of mothers, brothers, husbands and sisters who have 'lost-girls' in their lives.  And while Jackson, and Theo, whose daughter was murdered by a yellow-jumpered mystery killer, agonize over the vulnerability of women, it is actually this fear and anxiety which cripples Jackson; this is what makes him so vulnerable.  It is his love for his daughter, his sister, old widows and homeless orphans, that is his Achilles' heel.  No need for Kryptonite here, a damsel in distress will bring Jackson to his knees every time.  

There is some comfort for (female?) readers in that: would Jackson come to our rescue if we needed him?   He surely would, if he could climb out of the pages of the book and if he wasn't actually a mere fabrication, devised by Kate Atkinson to delight readers (and herself).  But let's suspend our disbelief, because, as I say, I am quite in a mind to be in love with Jackson Brodie (at least for the duration of this latest book affair) and to declare that Kate Atkinson is an author to love.  You feel as safe in Atkinson's hands as we imagine we would feel in Jackson's.  Now there's an image for you!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves ~ by Karen Joy Fowler

I didn't really take to Rosemary Cooke, the book's  narrator at the beginning of Karen Joy Fowler's novel, 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' .  Much like Jane Austen's character Emma, I didn't find that there was much to like.  She is a precocious, apathetic college kid, devoid of endearing angst and apparently loveless. She cares so little about anything really; disliking her parents, distrusting her friends, if she has any friends, and has little interest in anything much.  Rosemary, is passionless.  She misreads people, doesn't know how to relate to them and seems very jealous of those around her, especially her sister Fern, hates her father and has mixed feelings towards her older brother, Lowell.

But of course, over time, we unravel Rosemary's story and we begin to understand her psychology. Why is she so uneasy in her own skin?  Why is she so insecure in her position as daughter in the family, and why do her sister and brother leave?  The cleverness in this book in is the telling - there is a great surprise, quite near the beginning, which hooks the reader and will not let you go until the book's end.  

Now, I do not spoil books, but it is near impossible to review this book without giving away too much.  However, as I came to this book without knowing anything about it, that is how I think that you should come to the novel too.  Don't Google it beforehand or read the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads.  Instead, let the events unfold, as I am sure the author intended them to.  
Some very basic facts-
At the core, this is a book about families and the choices that they make.  It considers the fragility of relationships and presents us with a portrait of the Cooke Clan, living in America in the 1980s, '90s etc. up to about 2012.  Told in the first person, this novel will get under your skin and by the end, you will feel that you are part of the Cooke Clan yourself.  The narrative starts in the middle and radiates backwards and forwards, much like the branches and roots of any family tree.  Rosemary will explain the reason for this herself. 
Fowler considers the nature - nurture debate that people the world over all find so fascinating, and with the siblings of Fern, Rosemary and Lowell, we have three prime examples to study. The three share so many similar traits, but are very different.   Fowler also considers the impact that science has on the world in general and the moral implications that are involved with that, so be prepared for some big questions, as the author, through the experiences of the family,  forces you to consider some difficult truths about the world we live in.  

So, I managed to discuss the novel, without a spoiler in sight.  What a relief.
Once you can get over the first chapter, and the annoying Rosemary, you will enjoy this book, and maybe even come to like the passionless, joyless girl; I suspect, like me, you will. 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

A God In Ruins ~ by Kate Atkinson

I don't know about you, but I couldn't wait for this book to be published.  Kate Atkinson is fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary writers.  Her stories dip into different genres, but at the heart of them all, lie wonderfully drawn characters who we come to really care about.  Having read Atkinson's previous novel, 'Life After Life', the forerunner of  this book, it was with some trepidation that I began 'A God in Ruins'.  The main reason for this was that things didn't always work out well for Teddy, whom I adored, in the last book and I was fearful of more of the same this time round. I didn't think that I could bear that.  However, despite the worrisome title,  'A God in Ruins', is far less bleak for Teddy.  He gets through the war and fulfils his dream of marrying Nancy, the girl next door.  His life 'afterwards' is quite normal.  

Viola, his daughter and only child, is a disappointment; she seems to have been born angry.  It is unclear why such a loved and wanted child could be so unhappy, but perhaps this is one of the questions that Atkinson addresses in the novel.  Were the whole 'love and peace' generation, who came of age in the swinging sixties, all reacting to the violence and hatred of the years before their births?  Did they imbibe all of that angst?  Did they bear the psychological marks of trauma because of what their parents had done during WWII?  Was this some kind of trans-generational bad karma?  Either way, it seems to take a generations for all the anger to work its way out of the blood line, and it isn't until Teddy's grandchildren come along, that he begins to feel the familial love that he always hoped for and indeed expected.

Bertie and Sunny, are both sensible enough to appreciate Teddy for what he is, a kind, decent human being, who cares about nature and loves his fellow man.  Viola, the choleric daughter, can see nothing but her own pain, and is happy to destroy the lives of everyone around her if it means she has even a moment of happiness, which she never does.
Once again, Atkinson covers a wide period in history, the British during The Second World War, presenting us with amazing facts and figures about the time; giving us a history lesson in fact, not that we ever really notice. Her narrative is focused firmly on the lives of the small group of characters whom we come to know intimately.  Some are taken directly from the previous novel, such as Ursula and Sylvia Todd, for example, but it is not necessary to have read the companion book to appreciate this one, though of course, reading 'Life After Life' beforehand is highly recommended.  (See my earlier post.)

I cannot speak much about the ending of this novel - as with most of Atkinson's novels, her endings are full of unexpected twists and surprises, but I will say that with this novel, Atkinson has surpassed herself.  I found myself in a daze, one minute laughing, the next crying, as I stumbled over the last half a dozen pages or so.  What a roller coaster ride this novel has been. 

While reading the book, I was reminded, very often of the television show, 'Only Fools and Horses', in particular a character called Uncle Albert, who would often chime out the phrase, 'I fought a war for you , you know!' to which canned laughter was the regular response, along with rolling eyes and mocking jibes  from Del Boy and Rodney.  What this book does, is zoom in on the uncle Alberts of England, and consider that generation, who are now passing out of existence.  I never liked how those TV comedians treated Uncle Albert, nor the similar late 1970s punk ethos that sang/spoke a similar mantra.  I always have believed that the soldiers of WWII (and WWI for that matter) suffered enough on the battlefield.  The generation who lived through the Second World War really did strike out against fascism and saved the future for millions of us.  

What Atkinson cleverly does here is tell the story of the countless millions of people who were never born, because their WOULD-BE fathers and mothers died in the war.  So, if Teddy had died, as he had died in one of Ursula's lives in 'Life After Life', then Sunny, Bertie and even the file Viola would never have been born.  Their whole stories would never have been.  But Atkinson, DOES write Teddy's story.  She breaths life into him, from childhood to old age and what a wonderfully warm, vital man he is.  

I adored this character, his tenderness, his love of larks and bluebells, his bravery and sense of doing right.   Some of the time you feel, is this what he fought the war for?  Is this all he gets in life, a thankless, bitter child; a cold, sometimes distant, wife?  But life is unfair: ordinary life is messy and cruel, and old age is the cruellest of all.  And anyway, surely it is better to have survived the war, even if the 'afterwards', that Teddy and Nancy so often spoke of,  turned out to be less than ideal?  Surely it is better to suffer 'the slings and arrows' of this mortal life, than have it ripped away from you in the burning cockpit of a Halifax over the English Channel?  

The description of the treatment or mistreatment, of the old is very moving.  The slow, relentless undermining of power and the rise of the next generation is heartbreaking to read, and we feel it more keenly because we are reminded of Teddy's brave, fearless youth through the use of repeated flashbacks to Teddy's war.  This narrative technique keeps the youthful version of Teddy always in our mind's eye and it is even more poignant to see the old and the young Teddy side by side, chapter by chapter, in this way.  

Atkinson's narrative technique is also worth mentioning.  She is a weaver - and the tapestry that she creates is rich and bold, vibrant and intricate.  The picture created is at once familiar, a patchwork of familial relationships, tugging and pulling all the time, yet each one vital to the overall story.  Teddy, Nancy, Ursula, Bertie, Viola and Sunny, all coexist together, each has a story that needs to be told.  There would be no Teddy were it not for Ursula, no Viola if there were no Teddy and so on.  This patchwork the Atkinson creates resembles the very fabric of England; its people and their sacrifice during the war.  In this way, the impact of the war stretches through the generations, over time, touching us even now, and must never be forgotten.

I couldn't wait for this book to be published and now that I've spent the last week living within its pages, I feel like going back and reading it all over again.  I strongly advise you to do the same.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Buried Giant ~ by Kazuo Ishiguro

'The Buried Giant' is one of those novels whose greatness can be measured by the degree to which it changes its readers.  It should, in fact, come with a warning - This novel will change the way you perceive the world - beware!
Yet, do not be afraid, this book just knocks you sideways and slightly changes your perspective on things, a little shift, perhaps, though mind-bending for all that.
At first, this book seems like a simple story, in the genre of fairytale:  there is an old lady, Beatrice, referred to as 'Princess', by her husband, the wise and tender Axel.  They are on a quest to find their son and meet, on the way, a brave knight, Sir Gawain and his trustworthy steed, Horace, whose mission it is to kill the she-dragon, Querig.  
There are ogres, pixies and beautiful damsels in distress, it is true; but if you expect that to be all there is to this novel, expect to be mistaken.  
This is a book like no other.  It has a secret, because all of the characters have secrets.  They live in a world where memory does not exist.  The sleeping dragon's breath is bewitched and while it drifts over the land, those living there lose all memory, of the distant past, and more recent occurrences.  So it is that Beatrice and Axel cannot remember their son all that well, and never call him by his name.  They know they have a son, but cannot remember how they came to be separated.  At first, the reader believes that old age has stolen away their memories.  Their neighbours think it is so, and they are no longer allowed to keep candles in their dwelling place, for fear of settling the village alight.  But then we begin to realise that even the young, like Master Edwin, apprentice knight, is also plagued by poor recollection. It seems like the worst cruelty of all, to be separated from your own memories.  As such, one cannot help but see how the entire story might some sort of metaphor for dementia and Alzheimer's.  But Axel and Beatrice wonder if it is not for the best that they do not remember the past, as they are happy together now.  What if something bad drove their son away, some argument, some horror?  Surely it is better to remain in the dark about such things?  
Ishiguro cleverly forces us to consider what life is like for someone suffering with chronic memory loss.  Would it be so bad to live moment to moment, to have to regrets, no resentments, no anger and to feel no guilt or recriminations?  Beatrice and Axel have one another.  Isn't that enough?  The idea is so unexpected, that it sets the reader on edge.  We begin to fear for the old couple as they go in search of the past.  What will they learn, and will they be able to cope with what they uncover?

And then, to add further layers of meaning, there is also the question of what will happen on a societal level, if the citizens emerge from the fog of memory loss; what then?  If they begin to recall atrocities that have already been carried out, will they rise up and take revenge?  Wouldn't it be best, after all, to let sleeping dogs (or dragons in this case) lie?  Who needs to remember all the bloodshed, killings, false deeds of the past?  Surely it only serves to prolong hatred and war.  Of course, Ishiguro is forcing us to consider today's societies, especially at a time in history where nationalism is on the rise; in Russia, Iran, Egypt etc., and there are numerous anniversaries of past wars on the horizon; Waterloo, Gallipoli and V.E. Day.  Are these things better forgotten.  The Jewsish people would tell us that we must 'never forget' the atrocities of Auschwitz or Belsen, and I agree.  Yet, this book questions the wisdom of such memory, just as it does the usefulness of personal recollection. Is it possible to move forward when historical memory keeps us rooted to a particular spot?  It is certainly food for thought.  
And so we come to consider the book's title; 'The Buried Giant'.  More than anything, this novel looks at buried memories and experiences, so the title is most apt.  Yet at the same time it cleverly conjures up the context of the text.  Perhaps it is a euphemism for a euphemism; the elephant in the room: the things we cannot speak of.  Ishiguro seems to be asking the question, 'what are the buried giants in our world, in our relationships?'  What is it that we are suppressing in society?  Race and gender inequality? Religious persecution and abuses within the church? The guilt about historical injustices, ethnic cleansing and the treatment of indigenous people? And what about the things we suppress in our relationships with our parents, siblings and lovers? Do we really want to go there or should we keep it buried? I suppose, our lives contain a combination of the revealed and the concealed and this is what the novelist is asking us to consider.  
In his last book, 'Never Let Me Go',  Ishiguro creates with a version of our world where people are bred for organ donation. There the title suggest the plea; 'do not forget me, remember me'; whereas here, Ishiguro is considering the things that should be forgotten and buried.  As with his last novel, Ishiguro also creates a whole world that is at once familiar and strange.  The people live in Britain, believe in Christ.  There are priests and monks, but the tale also contains ogres, hags, pixies and creatures that firmly belong in the world of myth and fiction.  The language too that the characters speak, is not at all modern, though not unfamiliar to our ears.  The writer has taken great pains to make this book 'sound' archaic, from a time before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain.  There is a simplicity to the syntax that we soon become accustomed to; a music that echoes somewhere deep in our consciousness.
It took Ishiguro ten years to write this novel, but it was surely worth the wait. Like Joyce's great masterpiece, 'Ulysses', that was also many years in the making, this is a book that you will want to read and read again; but be warned, it will demand all of your attention.  It will make you think differently, about modern politics, war, memory and truth.  You will find yourself pausing in the middle of a page, to consider the definition of collective knowledge; or ponder the value of history books. 
Be warned,. 'The Buried Giant', WILL change your view of the world, and so much more.

Read, read, read this novel. #Amustreadforbooklovers

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Glorious Madness ~ By Turtle Bunbury

When I first wrote down the year, '2014', I felt a shiver run down my spine; the centenary of the start of WWI.  I knew that I would spend the next four years remembering the suffering and sacrifice of a whole generation of people, across the globe, during The Great War.  I dipped into book after book, both fact and fiction, trying to get a true sense of what life was like one hundred years ago for those who lived through those terrible times. When I opened up  Turtle Bunbury's book, 'The Glorious Madness', I immediately knew that I had found the book that I had been searching for.  

And this is, indeed,  a very special book, that looks at the experience of Irish men and women during World War One.  I have to declare an interest in the subject, having spent hours researching the soldiers who died from the school where I work.  There is something wonderful about opening a book and seeing the face of a soldier that you have been ceaselessly tracing, there on the page before you.  So it was when I opened this book, and it happened again and again.  To know that someone else was commemorating these men, was a glorious thing indeed!  

This beautifully produced book is crammed full of interesting stories, about extraordinary, yet ordinary, Irish people who took part in The Great War.
But of course, we have come to expect this from Bunbury, who not only is a great historian and researcher himself, but a talented teller of good yarns.  He manages to look into a period in history and pick out the really interesting and moving stories and to tell them in such a pared-down way, that we cannot help but be enthralled and captivated. 

For example, a story that is very near to my heart, is the story of  Colonel Alexander, who invented a special 'Spear-Point pump', that enabled the soldiers in the desert to drill for water.  This unassuming, but very clever man, was a pupil of the school where I teach and his brother Charlie's name is engraved on the WWI War Memorial there.  Because of his engineering skills, he changed the outcome of the war, and saved countless lives.

And the book is filled with such stories of the great and the good, poets and painters, soldiers and nurses, who each have a tale worth telling.   Yet, for me, this book really comes into its own in the section dealing with the fiasco that was Gallipoli.  

Around about now, exactly one hundred years ago, Irish soldiers of the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and the Irish Munster Fusiliers were dying on mass, as they attempted to take the Turkish stronghold.  Yet, the worst was to come. In August, 1915, the Pals Battalions, consisting of sportsmen, rugby champions, athletes, surgeons and solicitors, many of whom were students at Trinity College Dublin before they trained there in the Officers' Training Corps, met their end on the banks of Suvla Bay.  Bunbury tells their story, but not in a gruesome way that can often times prevent people from reading about this part of the war.  Instead, the author focuses on the individuals who took part in it; the officers, the solicitors, and the shoe-shop boys; every echelon of Irish is represented here, the tragedy headless of wealth or status. 

If you have an interest in people, in history, especially Irish history and The Great War, then this is the book for you.     It's sumptuous presentation makes it an ideal gift and a semi-reference book, that you and all the family will return to again and again.  

Already it is 2015, and my thoughts are firmly fixed on Turkey, and the events that happened there one hundred years ago.  This book has changed how I think of Gallipoli .It is more to me now than a place with strange-sounding names, unpronounceable and dusty in the mouth.  Now I can recall the faces of men and can hear the accents of Waterford and Ringsend in the sound of Seddelbahr and the spelling of Kiretch Tepe.  Now that is some special kind of book.  

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry ~ Gabrielle Zevin

If this book were a tin of varnish, it would be Ronseal Varnish: it does exactly what it says on the tin. 'Delightful. I read it in one sitting', writes Eowyn Ivey, author of 'The Snow Child' on the book's distinctive front cover.  And indeed, I did read it all in one go.  The New York Times Book review writes on the back cover that the author's touch is 'marvellously light'. This is also true.

On the inside cover, the blurb tells how this book is about 'how unexpected love can rescue you'.  All this is very interesting and, for the most part, undeniable.
However, nowhere on the cover, or on the book blurb, does it mention one, certain fact: that this book is a retelling of George Eliot's 'Silas Marner'.

Now, I must own that I really like Eliot's story, and when A.J. has his first 'blackout', I did think to myself, 'Oh, that is like Silas Marner.'  But when a prized, rare book goes missing and the island community rallies round, alarm bells began to ring.  Yet, it wasn't until  A.J. returned home to his book store to find a beautiful little girl where his treasure had once been, did I come to accept that there was no escaping it- the plot had Eliot stamped all over it.

Don't get me wrong, I liked this book.  As an avid reader and book collector, this novel has much to attract a person like me.  It refers constantly to what makes a good book, listing which books you ought to read and even the character-creations are book-mad. They are either publishers, editors, authors and even the local policeman is a crime-novel geek - not that unexpected really.  The setting epitomises the perfect booksellers hideaway; an island where book clubs are regular occurrences and everyone decides who to marry depending on which books they read (or do not read, as is also the case.)
There are even nods to famous novels in the naming of the characters: the ballet teacher is Madame Olenska, named after a character from 'Age of Innocence' perhaps, while the publishing company that Amy works for is a nod to Austen's 'Knightley'.  Maybe I stretch the idea a bit far, but such is this book; a dripping tap of literary references.
If you love books, and your favourite place to hang out is an overcrowded, over-stocked, bookshop, then you will love to step inside the world of this novel and meet some like-minded characters.  But, perhaps, like me, you might feel a little cheated that you were not forewarned about the borrowed plot of this book.  But, you needn't worry about that; now you know!
If this book were a tin of varnish, you might be disappointed.  It says Ronseal on the front, but you know it's an old brand, just with a different label stuck over the faded one.  It's a little cheeky, selling one thing as something else, and not even giving credit to Eliot, and the more I think of it, the more annoyed I become.
So, while I really wanted a nice, new book to read, I got varnish.... and that, my friends, is a sticky kind of metaphor that no one should ever have to deal with.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Wake ~ by Anna Hope

'Wake', by Anna Hope was a story I did not want to read.  World War One... three women ... the tomb of the Unknown Soldier? ... Surely this book would leave me an emotional wreck?  But my curiosity got the better of me and I began to read.  

It's 1920, London, in the aftermath of the Great War.  There is heartbreak everywhere: again and again, people's lives prove more difficult to heal than missing limbs and damaged bodies.  How do you move on when so much has been left behind?  The story of three main female characters, each struggling to come to terms with the loss of someone: son, lover, brother, is compelling reading . Ada, Evelyn and Hettie have yet to achieve a complete recovery, have yet to face, head-on, the sadness that has interrupted their lives. For them, a moment of catharsis comes with the commemorations on Armistice day, 1920, when the body of the Unknown Solider is finally laid to rest, bringing London to a standstill amid crowds of onlookers.  

Author Anna Hope takes many recognisable images from the war; the statue of the Virgin and the baby Jesus dangling from the bombed Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières; groups of faceless soldiers gathered on a nameless river bank; crowds gathering to welcome the return of the Unknown Soldier, and pumps life into them. She inflates the historical until it balloons before us and forces us to reconsider it. So, there's a nurse, delaying her return to England to escape a marriage that she doesn't want; a farmer, happy to lose an eye if it means returning to his beloved fields, two soldiers, clinging to one another in the darkness.  There is death yes, but more often than not, this novel tells the story of those who did not die; focusing instead on the survivors left behind. 

But survival, in Hope's novel, it's a tricky thing; streaked with disappointment and tasting of bitterness. These pages are filled too with countless soldiers' sad stories: Irish, French, Scottish and British, all present to recount a memory from the war they experienced in France; men who came home, feeling their luck, like a weight about their necks.  They are but mere glimpses of human experience, yet Hope manages to thread them all together to form an historic tapestry, a panoramic warscape, where the dust has blown away, and only their voices remain.

We witness a mother,  going through a box of mementos, her young son's short life reduced to a few, paltry keepsakes.  Hope describes her feelings and thinks her thoughts with such honesty, that we believe every word.  Surely this is just what it felt like for millions of women, each one searching for hidden messages, hidden meaning inside a torn brown envelope that they hoped would never be delivered to their door.     

Anna Hope steps inside the lives of those who lived at this time in history, walks in their shoes and gives voice to their passion and torment.  We witness Ada's mental anguish, as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her son. Time has moved on for the world,  but not for the relatives and loved ones of the soldiers who've died.  Some find escape in the company of strangers and the darkness of dance-halls; others in the visions of sightseers and clairvoyants, but there is only so much running a person can do: demons must be faced in the end.  

This of course touches on the title of the novel, which has many meanings, all of which apply perfectly to the story.  Of course it refers to waking the dead, something that was denied to the families of the many soldiers who did not return home and whose bodies were so destroyed that they were never found; and the act of being awake, alert and alive to the world around you.  But it also relates to the reawakening of those who were left in a sort of limbo, with the coming and going of war; those who felt, that in some strange way, the letting go of pain was in some way an act of disloyalty. As readers, we will these characters to move on, to heel.  

So do not fear this book.  It won't torment you or be unbearably sad, because this is a book about life.  The characters are wonderfully real, from their individualistic way of speaking, to their complicated relationships.  They have more in common with you and I than you might expect. The author breathes life into these long dead people; allowing us to step into their shoes, feel how they felt, and challenging us to imagine what life was like, one hundred years ago, when innocence was lost and madness prevailed.  Now that was a frightening thing indeed. 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Lovesong of Queenie Hennessy ~by Rachel Joyce

'The Lovesong of Queenie Hennessy', by Rachel Joyce, is the companion book to 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', by the same author.  If, like me, you lovingly followed Harold's every step on his journey from one end of the UK to the other, then this is a book for you.

We catch-up with Queenie in a hospice for the dying, as she waits for Harold to arrive.  The novel is told in her own voice, and is largely consists of her last letter to Harold Fry - her lovesong. In it, she looks back over her time with Harold and re-tells their story, from her point of view, from their very first meeting, in the cafeteria - not the stationery cupboard as he mistakenly recalled.

Joyce takes the opportunity to develop the character of Harold's wife, Maureen, and their son David, while introducing a whole band of new characters who reside or work at the hospice, with Queenie.  It is in this, that Joyce really shines.  As we saw in the previous book, Joyce is masterful in her creation of believable, enchanting characters who converse together about what really matters in life.  This ability most probably comes from Joyce's experience as a writer of radio plays.  Most of the time, when reading her novels, we feel as if we are eaves dropping on a conversation between people in a room next door.

There are many parallels between Harold and Queenie - their odd choice of shoes, for one thing. While he decides to traverse a country in a pair of senseless yachting shoes, Queenie longs for her beautiful red dancing shoes, her most treasured possession.  They seem to share a dog too, one who likes to carry stones in his mouth, although, in Queenie's case, the dog is probably a figment of her imagination.

The fact that Queenie is not Harold's wife, is a little unsettling - surely it is Maureen who Harold truly loves, or did I mis-read the first book? Aren't we hoping that Harold and Maureen can find each other again and live out happy lives together?  One of the greatest things that I remember about the Harold Fry book is that both Maureen and Harold look back over their lives and regret wasting time being mad at one another; they should have loved more and hated less.  This new book adds a third wheel to their story and upsets the resolution at the end of the first novel.  By bringing Queenie back into the picture, Joyce is eroded that hard-won resolution, for a while at least.  But that said, it is lovely to spend some time with Harold Fry again, and I am sure that the author too enjoyed dusting him off and bringing him back into the line light once more.

What is delightful about this book, is that while reading Queenie's story, one is actually returning to the previous book, Harold's book.  By revisiting the plot, Joyce begins to add layers of meaning to the stories.  Each informs the other, creating a richness rarely obtained in this genre.  The novel almost insists that the reader returns to the Harold Fry novel, so as to understand this novel all the better, and visa versa, which would encourage the reader to enter into an endless cycle of re-readings  that may never end!

As the cover suggests, this book is the perfect match for 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', and as such, you can't really have one without the other.  And as I said in the earlier review of that first book, reading it, was like meeting a new friend, one that will always have a hold of your heart.  And likewise, I feel that this introduction to Queenie Hennessy is a revelation; she is every bit as real as Harold, in her quiet, everyday way and just as unforgettable.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Patriotic Poems ~ by Robert Maynack Leonard

I came across the little book of poetry while holidaying this summer in Liverpool.  It was deep in the back of an old secondhand bookshop, wedged in between Dickens and Austen and at first glance, I thought it was a prayer book.
Covered in green faux-leather and edged in gold, it has all the solemnity that is so becoming in a poetry anthology that has patriotism and war as its theme, compiled as it was in 1914, the year the Great War commenced.  The book itself is pocket-size, small enough to fit comfortably into one's hand, and indeed it is indented along one edge, perhaps by many years of being gripped, tightly, or so I imagine, and the cover bears a little scar where a thumb might have pressed down too tightly, too often. It is itself a battle-worn, hardly surprising, having survived two World Wars and being one hundred years old this year.
The book begins with a poem by the Poet Laureate at the time, Robert Bridges, and ends with one by Robert Browning.  In between are offerings by Shakespeare, Tennyson and all the great British writers that you can name and others that you may not be so familiar with. Bridge's poem is dated August 1914 and is a blatant call to arms, rather than a pensive reconsidering of war that modern readers are used to from the now famous WWI poets, like Owen, Graves and Sassoon.
'Thou careless, awake!
Thou peacemaker, fight!
Stand, England, for honour, 
And God guard the Right!'
And so it goes.  Other poems refer to the Napoleonic Wars, to Coruna and Trafalgar, and even others reference the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth I and even the battle of Agincourt. To read these poems one might think that England has always been at war.

In the 'Prefatory Note', the author refers to a war poem as 'a song that serves a nation's heart', itself a patriotic deed.  He claims that this book of poetry will be as a garland at the feet of  unknown, forgotten soldiers, 'now or soon to be forgotten', and says that it will be the task of future anthologists to separate the 'the wheat from the chaff of topical verse'.  You will find no Rupert Brooke here, though his poem, 'The Soldier' would sit very well, in tone and timbre, with those that fill the pages of this publication, such as 'England, My England', The Path of Duty', and 'We Band of Brothers'.

One cannot help but wonder about such a book; if it was carried into battle by some soldier buoyed, for how little a time, by its words of patriotism and self-sacrifice; or if it was cherished by mother or wife, who clung to its grandiose words for hope and solace.

Either way, I think it must have been bought and read in the spirit of hope, the equivalent to a prayer, a wish that everything would turn out well.

When I first came across the little book of poetry, I thought that it was a prayer book. I think that I was right.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave ~ by John Boyne

The best thing about this book, 'Stay Where You are and Then Leave, by John Boyne, is the delightful, endearing Alfie Summerfield, the novel's central character.  His name has a definite warmth to it, but it is not for that that we come to care for him.   Perhaps it is this five year old's love of hard-boiled sweets, or his desire to accompany his father to work everyday on his milk round, or even that he falls asleep on the stairs listening in to his parents discussing the outbreak of the war.  For all of these reasons and more, he wraps his tiny fingers around our hearts at the beginning of the book, and never lets them go.
The story compares Alfie's world, just as war is declared, with the world four year's later, as the war comes to an end.  It is heartbreaking to see how people and places have changed: nothing is untouched.  Boyne cleverly illustrates how war can destroy whole communities, even when the battles are fought hundreds of miles away.

Alfie is resourceful too, secretly helping his mother to make ends meet, by shining shoes at King's Cross Station.  Alfie and his mother have an intimate, caring relationship, yet they still keep secrets from one another - all because of the war.  His relationship with Georgie, his dad, is also very close, which is why we come to hate the war almost as much as Alfie.  When the war takes Georgie away from us, Alfie and the family at Damley Road, we are all left bereft and constantly fearful that he will not return.

Boyne uses this little boy to recreate the war experience of so many families who lived through the Great War.  Our anxieties are Alfie's.  He cares little about who wins the war, the battles, the generals. the rights and wrongs of it all.  What he cares about, is getting his dad back in one piece, and by the end of the book, we feel just the same.

The book deals with conscientious objectors, shell-shock victims, internment camps on the Isle of Mann, and  ladies who pass out white feathers for cowardice.  As such, it deals with many aspects of the war and allows younger readers, and older ones too, to enter into the lives of those who lived one hundred years ago.  Boyne has timed the  publication of this book to coincide with the one hundred year anniversary of the commencement of WWI, and I think it is as good a time as any to introduce young readers to the experience of those who lived through the war that they said would end all wars.
A good read for eleven to thirteen year olds who have a taste for history.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Man in the Wooden Hat ~ By Jane Gardam

This short novel, of just 233 pages, is the sequel to the wonderful novel, 'Old Filth', a book which is so much better that its title suggests.  The story follows the life of Edward Feathers, retired judge, and his wife Betty.  This novel, re-tells their life stories, but this time from Betty's perspective.  I say that, but in reality, in touches on Filth's story too.  Thoughts and feelings expressed in the first book are often at odds with those in this novel, and it adds a lovely realism to the text.  The events are filled-out and facts augmented.

Don't we all recall different versions of our lives, that those closest to us might not even recognize?  Memories cannot be relied on as truth, and so it is in this novel.  How we remember things and how memory is essentially unreliable, is at the core of this novel.

What is so endearing about this book, is that nearly every scene carried a lovely poignancy because it relates to something else that has happened, in previous chapters or in the previous book.  For example, the first time that Betty meets Veneering's son, Harry, he is under a table, eating.  She loves this little boy from the first.  
But when one remembers back to 'Old Filth', we recall how Edward used to eat under the table too when he was first sent away from his home in Malaya.  As the reader of these novels, only we can see the truth, can see how the characters know only part of the story, and this knowledge is delicious.   It makes gods of us and makes the characters all the more dear to us.  Betty cannot possibly know, as we do, this interesting fact about her husband, and here Gardam makes her point: people are so complex, that they are often unknowable. 

What I like about the book?- Simple - I love the character of Old Filth. (Filth stands for the mocking phrase - Failed in London Try Hong Kong - which is a joke, as Filth is always immaculate and has an outstanding career. ) From the very first, when we meet the little motherless boy, cast our of his home in Malaya, with a father so caught in his own grief on the death, in childbirth, of his young wife, we are hooked.  In the second novel we watch wait to see if  Betty will love him as he deserves and know, before she does, that she loves him.  We despair when their wires get crossed, when one does not realise how the other loves them.  

The plot itself is not a roller coaster ride; it just reflects the lives lived by so-called Raj orphans, the basic events in life that we can all relate to.  In fact, we are told the ending close to the beginning.  In this story, we find ourselves going round in circles, uncovering more and more about the characters, regardless of plot.  This story belongs to the characters, the plot is immaterial.  

Still, this book is deeply satisfying and provokes readers to reconsider what we actually know about ourselves and those we love.  It even makes us question love itself; can we ever truly love another person, appreciate them or, know them. This is a very unsettling and quite a radical concept, hidden away in what appears to be a very traditional novel.   

The book considers marriage, motherhood, rejection, infidelity, betrayal, self-deception, the end of empire and the invisibility of the elderly; quite an achievement for such a short novel.  
As for the title of the book - again a strange choice -  I have spent some time thinking about what it means and I have come to the conclusion that it refers to guilt.  Of course, it specifically alludes to Ross, Filth's friend, who wears such a hat.  It also could refer to the sculpture made from bog oak that Veneering let drop in the museum; he had a wooden hat.  Because of its connection with both of these men, it strikes me that the wooden hat symbolizes guilt.  

Whenever Betty does something she oughtn't to, without Edward's knowledge, Ross appears.  Sometimes, it is not clear if Betty had conjured him from her imagination, or has dreamed him up.  This adds to the mystical quality of Ross and makes him seem all the more dangerous to Betty.  He haunts her, just as guilt does, knowing, as he does, all her little secrets.  He appears out of nowhere and prevents her from leaving Edward - the same can be said of guilt.

Like 'Old Filth', this book, which is much better than its name suggests, is one of my favourites - I am sure that I will read and re-read it, for such good books are meant to be treasured and valued.  Next - to read the third and final novel from he series: 'Last Friends'.  Published in 2013, it has a lot to live up to - but I think Gardam, now in her eighties, is up to it.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Out of the Dark ~ by Ken Kinsella

Earlier this year I attended the launch of Ken Kinsella's book, Out of the Dark 1914-1918 : South Dubliners Who Fell in the Great War, a 430 page tome, that took over 13 years to research and write.  When I held the heavy book in my hand, I first was reminded of James Joyce and that reported quote of his regarding Ulyses...'if it look me seven years to write it, it had better take you seven years to read it'  etc..etc.

But Kinsella's book is altogether different.  The author has taken great pains to make this a text that even those with a limited interest in history can digest quite easily.  Simply put, Kinsella has researched all the men from South Dublin who died in World War One, and collected the information together in this book.  But this is much more than just an ordinary reference book, Out of the Dark  is a detailed patchwork of interrelated stories, based on a place-centered pattern. This clever structure enables us to see how whole communities were effected by the war.

Each chapter begins with a geographical description of the place where the soldiers grew up - its contours, its rivers, its landscape - adding a sense of realism and rootedness that seems to highlight, all the more, that these were Irish soldiers, Dublin men, who went away to war.  Merging history and geography together in this way, cleverly reminds us who these soldiers were, and fixes them to a place that still exists.  They are not just lost in memory, assigned to some ancient battle long forgotten.  No, they belonged to Kilternan, Dundrum, Rathmines, Carrickmines and Foxrock etc. places that Dubliners are so familiar with in our day to day lives, and as such, cannot so easily be forgotten.  I, for one, will never see these places in quite the same way again.

Donald Lockart Fletcher from Shankill,
who died tragically during training.
In Kinsella's book, we see the impact of the war mapped out, its shadow spreading across the South Dublin landscape in a very visual, geographic way, that has never been done before in this genre.  There is more than just a black and white regurgitation of statistics here; the information lifts off the pages, as the contours of a 3-D map, vibrant with the details of each locality and its individual people.   It covers a wide sweep of the South Dublin landscape, then zooms in to closely uncover the tragic stories of those who died in The Great War.  The move from macro to micro analysis, is compelling and quite cinematic in style, something that would translate easily to the small screen I am certain.

Yet, it does even more than that: it moves laterally through families, shining a light on the lives of those who were left behind, the long forgotten fiancee, mother, father, brother, whose lives were also inevitably touched by the huge losses in the 1914-1918 war.
Kinsella deftly makes connections between families too, noting uncanny twists of fate and coincidences that wouldn't be out of place in a work of fiction.  Consider the story of local boys, Joseph Plunkett and his close childhood friend, Kenneth  O'Morchoe, which features in the chapter on Kilternan.  In the 1916 Rising, they came to face eachother in Kilmanham jail, the former facing execution, the latter in charge of the firing squad.  There are varying versions of how the story played out, but Kinsella's research finally uncovers the truth of things - but you will have to read the book to find out what happened next.

Members of the Findlater family
who lost two sons in WWI
Each chapter shows how families were decimated by the war, like the two brothers of the Findlater family.  It forces us too to consider the wider context: how groups of local women must have grieved together for their sons and how young women would have condoled together over the lost of their young men, as dreams of future lives together disappeared over night.  A promise of future happiness came to nothing for one Sybil Chambers, who exchanged her beloved William Halpin for the sum of 550 guineas, the amount left to her in his will, signed while in France the year the war ended.  Perhaps she had sensed, as he clearly had, that he might not arrive home to her safely.  And Kinsella does not end there; he follows the next generation forward too at times.  We learn that William's brother, George survived the war, but his only son went on to be killed in WWII.  In this book, the plot lines go sideways and downwards as well as forwards and back.

The book is dotted with poetry too, giving a philosphical edge to the information and something for us to quietly ponder. The greats are all here, Owen, Ledwidge etc., but there are other, unknown poets also, friends of fallen soldiers, who, like, L.A.G. Strong, could only voice their deep felt emotion through poetic verse.

Ken Kinsella's book is for anyone who has an interest in families, history, genealogy, The Great War, geography and poetry - in short, it is for everyone.  It would make a great Christmas present, especially in this centenary year of the war's commencement.  I am very excited about this book, and not just because it contains information about some of the soldiers that I am researching for my War Stories project, but because it is a mammoth piece of social history and research.  It tells a story that needed to be told, and in return, needs to be read.  I know of at least two people who will be getting this book in their (rather large) Christmas stocking this year.  Do you?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Life After Life ~by Kate Atkinson

Simply put - I loved this book.  Life After Life - by Kate Atkinson, is a book you will not be able to put down.  It is a definite choice for your 'must read' list this summer.  Its fascinating structure, is like nothing I have ever read before and kept me enthralled throughout.
The story is based on an age old question: what would we do differently if we could live our lives over again? As such, the novel  is quite philosophical at times, prompting its readers to consider the big ideas: life, death and fate.
I mean, if you could go back and live your life over, what one thing would you change?  Avoid ever meeting your ex?  Stand up to that bully in school?  Somehow prevent Princess Diana from visiting Paris in August 1997... or maybe from marrying Prince Charles in 1981?  But surely if you could go back in time and change history, you would make it momentous: foil the September 11 plot, murder Hitler?  These are the thoughts that must have pulled at Kate Atkinson's mind as she danced her way through this novel, and it certainly feels like this was a pleasurable book to write.  The characters can live forever - dying, then being reborn, over and over : they can survive anything.  There is something very satisfying, as a reader, to know that the people in the story will make it through; that no matter how bad things get, they will be okay.  . This very plot device enables Atkinson to deal with some very disturbing issues, such as rape, domestic abuse and murder, in a palatable way.  And in turn, she makes us, as readers, face the idea in our own lives: no matter how bad it gets, where there is life...

The protagonist, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910, in rural England, as the snow begins to fall, but lack of medical assistance and a complication at birth, means that she dies immediately.  In an instant, she is reborn, as the snow falls and the story begins again, made possible because one detail was changed: this time her mother had a small pair of scissors at hand to cut the cord.  And so the story progresses, moving swiftly through the Great War period, and up to and beyond World War Two, with Ursula dying many times, and being reborn over and over.  And so we come to realise that the title, 'Life After Life', actually refers to a series of lives, following one after the next and not a reference to the afterlife that one usually associates with dying.

One thing that I noticed in the book, was that, perhaps, it was not only Ursula who could go back in time and change history.  It seems that her mother too, made notes on how to do things differently 'next time round' - like when Ursula died the first time - 'remember to keep a small pair of scissors nearby', she tells herself.

 I thought it interesting too that the only thing that Ursula wanted of her mother's, years later, was the carriage clock, which her mother, in turn, had taken from her mother's home.  This special clock, with its associations time and perhaps time-travel,  passing from mother to daughter, is a very interesting concept and added a layer of detail to the story that was delightful.

Indeed, there is much food for thought in this novel, but more than anything, it is a hugely enjoyable read, with characters that live and breath, and will haunt you long after the final page has been turned and the book returned to the shelf.  Simply put - read 'Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, or spend the rest of the year wishing that you had.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring up the Bodies' ~ by Hilary Mantel

A 'Must-Read'.

I never like to lump two novels together into the same blog-pot, as it were, especially not two such exceptional books, but so seamless was the transition between these texts, that they feel like one in my imagination, and so I will break the rule just this once.

Of course, Wolf Hall came first.

From the opening scene, I was hooked.  Thomas Cromwell, a young English man, is being beaten badly by his father.  He is lying on the hard cobblestones, in agony, unable to lift his head to avoid his father's stamping heel.

How will he make his escape?  How can he survive when all the odds seem so stacked against him?  We are at once inside his head, experiencing what he experiences, feeling every hurt and ache as he feels it.  The novel is written in the continuous, present tense, making the narrative seem instantaneous, current, and so very real that one forgets that the book is set in the 16th century.  And that is my favourite thing about these book - and I have to lay my cards on the table from the start, dear reader - I loved these books - my most absolute favourite thing about the books is how fresh they feel.  They might as well have been set in 2014 in some ways, feeling every bit as real and perhaps even moreso, compared to many modern novels.

In part, it is because the book is told in the present tense, but also because the central character, Thomas Cromwell tells, the story, as if he is writing a verbal record of his life. But it is not as formalized as a traditional diary, because an omniscient narrator is also present; but the reader hops willy-nilly, in and out of Cromwell's consciousness throughout.

I must explain early on that the Cromwell at the centre of this novel is not Oliver Cromwell, the most hated of men (on this side of the Irish Sea at any rate).  No, this is the story of King Henry VIII's influential adviser, Thomas Cromwell, and how he came to hold such a position of power, beginning, as he did, as the son of a blacksmith.   It is almost completely impossible not to google Thomas Cromwell while reading this novel. Hilary Mantel has created such a vibrant, detailed account of sixteenth century England, that it is difficult to separate what has been imagined and what has not.  I continually found myself wondering, 'Did Cromwell actually say that?  Did he really think that?'

Clearly, Mantel has meticulously researched the period and the lives of those who populate these epic, historical tales.  We learn about the ins and outs of Medieval life, the working of Henry's court; the clothes and styles worn by people of fashion, (or not as the case may be). But we also see, first hand, the corruption of those in power (some things never change), petty sibling rivalries, bitter family squabbles etc.

Like I said, there is something of the moment about these novels. Mantel has managed to described the world of Medieval England with an immediacy that is beguiling.  She acts as an archaeologist who has resurrected these ancient characters and draped them anew, and presented them to modern readers, pumped fresh blood into their veins, fleshed them out with new passions, new feelings, new life.

In this way, Mantel reminds me of William Shakespeare.  It is the very humanity of Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, that allows these ancient creations to live and breath still in our imaginations, more than four hundred years since they first graced the Elizabethan stage.  It is just so with Thomas Cromwell.  Mantel has managed to do just that, filling the gaps in our knowledge about these historical figures, with her own imaginings.  She speculates on how they might have felt on getting married; when their first child was born; how they spent Easter, and even the family's involvement in the Christmas nativity celebrations.

Who cannot relate to such familiar, family events?  It is because these characters' lives are draped with the familiar, cloaked with the ordinary, that the world they inhabit feels so wonderfully real.

One of my favourite moments in the book is when we are presented with the delightful imagine of Cromwell's young daughter Grace, dressed for the nativity play performance.  Her home-made angel costume, replete with long, peacock feathers, is lovingly made by her proud father.  This touching scene could be taken from any of our childhoods. Mantel chooses these universal memories to move us, prompt us, to imagine this 16th century world and, like the Thomas Cromwell of her novel, she manages it all effortlessly.

And so we are all left waiting for the third, and final, installment of this trilogy.  History dictates how this story will end, so we know, at least on one level, what awaits the blacksmith's son.  Yet, we can rest assured that the story will never have been told in such a way before and that Mantel will take us on a journey like no other, but it will be familiar in a strangely ordinary, human way.  We only hope that we will not have to wait too long.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands ~ by Natasha Solomons

Already a big fan of Natasha Solomons, I couldn't wait to read her latest novel - hoping against hope that it would be just as good as 'Mr Rosenblum's List', or 'The Novel in the Viola'.  Was I disappointed?

Well, 'The Gallery of Vanished Husbands' is a novel that follows the life of 30 year old Juliet Montague; mother of two, Leonard and Freida, and the wife of 'vanished husband', George.  The latter left home on her birthday, and hasn't been seen in seven years.

She is just tolerated by the tight-nit, conservative Jewish community in a small village in England, where she lives, because she is an 'aguna': a woman whose husband has abandoned her.  She has to live as a living widow, because she is neither divorced, nor single.  To make matters worse, her husband was a known gambler and thief; local gossip claims that she 'could  not keep a man', and even her mother begins to feel guilty that they brought shame to the family by allowing her to marry a stranger, and not one of the usual local, 'nice boys'.

But Juliet feels no such guilt, and actually enjoys doing things her own way.  As such, she is a very likable character.  And when she fritters away her savings for the family fridge on a portrait of herself by a handsome, young artist, and complete stranger, we cheer her on, despite what the neighbours might think.
So begins a new life for Juliet, and Charlie, the young artist, and she embark on a business career together, setting up 'Wednesdays', an art gallery, where Juliet is the curator.  Of course, other artists come on board, and Juliet becomes a success in her own right. Yet, there is the problem of the missing husband, a love interest and two adolescent children to factor into things, but you get the picture. (Ahem!)

But what about the book in general?  Is it a good read?

Well, to start with, I thought that the structure of this book was very clever; it reads like a gallery catalog; each  chapter beginning with a painting, listed as it would be in an art exhibition.  The ensuing chapter then deals with that painting and how it came about.  The down-side of this formalized technique is that each painting must be contrived to fit into the story and, at times, I thought that the story and life of the characters became a little stifled as a result.  I wanted to stay with Max and Juliet in the cottage in the woods, but things move on quite quickly in this book - there is always another painting to be introduced and explained - and so, alas, we had to leave them behind too soon.


All the male characters abandon Juliet at some point in the book: George, Leonard, Max and even Charlie.
The only exception is Mr Green, Juliet's adoring father. In this way, this is a book about fathers too: the good father, Mr Green - who is always happy to see Juliet and has a special smile just for her, and George, the bad father - who loves gambling more than his children, and cannot seem to give himself wholly to fatherhood.

Indeed, the title refers to a newspaper column in an American newspaper, looking for men who have all abandoned their wives back in Europe' The Gallery of Vanished Husbands'.  Once again, as in her other books, 'The Novel in the Viola' and 'Mr Rosenblum's List', Solomons uses traumatic periods in human history, in this case the end of World War Two, to add drama to the plot.  It is the war that brings Bulgarian refugee George to England in the first place; a stranger who makes the older women anxious and the younger ones swoon.

|But there is another gallery in the book, not just the one of book's title, and that is the gallery of Juliet's portraits.  

One might be excused for wondering about Juliet's slightly self-absorbed, quasi-narcissisticobsession with her painted self.  What must it have been like for her children to grow-up surrounded by an ever-multiplying collection of their mother's image, gazing at them from every available wall space in their average-sized home? Perhaps this accounts for Freida's, at times, strained relationship with her mother.  Indeed, the narrator explains it best at the the beginning of the book when she says, 'Juliet Montague wanted to be seen'.

And, it is true, identity, is another key theme in this novel.  

Juliet is constantly dealing with the expectations placed on her by the conservative Jewish community that she belongs to; her parents; her children; her friends, and even herself.  But more than anything she has to deal with the fact that she is a wife, yet not a wife; not a divorcee nor a widow.  The reason why Juliet is so upset with her husband for stealing the portrait of her, is because he has stolen her identity, her sense of self, her position in society.  In addition, he has made her an aguna - a living widow - someone who is not free to marry another, but not a socially acceptable married woman either.  She is a persona non grata, so George has, in fact, stolen her identity, making him truly the thief everyone knew him to be. As in real life, we must deal with how our identity changes as we grow older, and in a way, this is what Solomons cleverly comes to terms with in this, her third novel.

My one wish for this novel is that it came with a collection of paintings or illustrations.  (Ok - I realise that this is quite an outlandish ask and nigh on impossible - but it could happen!!?) It seems a little hard that in a novel filled with many references to portraits of Juliet, there would not even be one for us one to look at. But I suppose, that is what the imagination is for.

Read this book - buy it for your friends - you won't be disappointed!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Daughters of Mars ~ by Thomas Keneally

As we approach the centenary of the start of the First World War, it seems that television, radio and newspapers are full of stories about people who lived one hundred years ago - and rightly so.  Book shops are no different. So when my eye caught this beautiful book cover in a shop recently, and I read the blurb, I knew that I would have to read it.
It tells the story of two nurses, sisters in fact, Sally and Naomi Durance, from a small town in Australia, who leave home to do their bit for the war effort in Europe.  (The title, with its reference to Mars, the god of war, is very apt and is referred to numerous times in the book.)  They are not very close; theirs is a complicated relationship.  One had fled the ties of filial duty early on, leaving the younger sister to stay behind with the responsibility of a sick mother to age her before her time. Both saw the war as a means of escape; the similarities between them are there from the very start of the book.
Keneally cleverly uses the sisters to tell the story of the Australian men and women volunteers, as they move from one theatre of war to another.  They begin with Gallipoli, and are placed on a hospital ship, and are met with the ceaseless tide of injured and dying from the Dardenelles.
Of course, they are not alone, and we are presented with a collection of nurses, from varying backgrounds, along with officers and members of the Royal Army Medical Corps, to give us a more complete view of the war.  The reader is left with an anxious feeling that not everyone can survive the fighting; surely some must perish? In that way we are can never rest easy, just as Sally and Naomi cannot.

From Turkey and the hospital island of Lemnos, the girls are sent to various hospitals and clearing stations in France and Belgium. Keneally's detailed research allows us to step inside an army medical tent, to witness, at close quarters, wound irrigation and amputation; death by poison gas and hemorrhage.  It is, after all, a story about military nurses at a time of war; at times the stench of freshly-spilt blood is almost over-whelming.
Yet, there is something about Keneally's narrative style here that keeps us at a distance from the main characters.  Perhaps it has something to do with there being two central protagonists, but I always seemed to be at one remove from Sally and Naomi; as if the story were being told second hand.
Much of the time, we were told what the characters did, not silently shown for ourselves, to observe and imagine.  Keneally also decided not to use punctuation, specifically apostrophes, when people were talking, which made some sections of dialogue difficult to follow. It was more annoying than anything.
Yet, I felt that it worked well in one section of the story, when the girls are in a dangerous situation, and have to talk to themselves, silently, to get through.  Here, I thought, it was interesting not knowing if they were indeed talking to themselves, of if anyone could hear them.  In the author's notes, we are told that he used this technique to mirror that lack of punctuation in wartime letters and diaries - but I think that makes little sense - as his book was not a diary or letter, and there were times when the missing punctuation was quite distracting.
While I am at it, I might as well comment on another thing that I found annoying, and that was his clear anti-Irish comments in the book.  He invents an  Irish regiment, made up of foul-mouthed, brutal thugs, and declares at the end of the book, that he invented their part in the story.  In fact, it seemed to me, that every time the Irish were mentioned, he either referred to hard-gambling, hard-drinking or ignorant behaviour. He makes up for it, slightly, by creating an Irish nurse, Honora Slattery, who is one of Sally's pals, so he just about gets away with it.
What he doesn't get away with is the ending, which I will not give away here, not because it is sad or predictable, but because it breaks the rules of storytelling. It is most unusual, although Dickens played a similar trick with one of his novels. When you read the book - you will know what I mean.
I was fascinated by the sheer detail in the book and how much I learned about life in the Casualty Clearing Stations, on baord a hospital ship etc.  Keneally deals with the conscientious objectors, the mercy killings, the shell-shock, the cowardice, the bravery, the gas, the injuries, the destroyed relationships and the overall illogical logic of army life.  But because of the narrative style, I never came to love the central characters as I wanted to.  Knowing the fate of such men and women in real life - it was probably for the best.
I remember reading Schindler's Ark, Keneally's most famous novel, as a teenager, and being unable to put the book down until it was read. While he is dealing with another important story from history, that must be told, I do not think that he engages the readers with the same sort of intensity as he did with his earlier novel.
However, this is still a book worth reading.  It tells a story that must be told and indeed should be read.  As nurse Freud wisely comments at one point, 'Their heads are empty of history.  Sometimes... people need a history enema'.  Enough said.