Thursday, 29 December 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand ~ Helen Simonson

It is perhaps fitting that I settle down to write this review with a cup of hot tea at my side, as tea-drinking, and all that we associate with that pleasure, (conversations started, friendships made, secrets shared etc.) is what I like about this book.  Indeed, reconsidering the cover of this novel, the artwork is perfectly apt.  A pair of tea cups feature greatly in the story, triggering old  memories and inspiring new. There is so much symmetry and possibility with a pair of tea cups: one just seems so forlorn in comparison.
And this is just how we see Major Pettigrew for the first time; solitary, overlooked and quite derelict in his dusty cottage.
Set in the sleepy English village of Edgecombe St Mary, the very name has inescapable echoes of the famed village of St Mary Meade, the setting of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple,and here too the world is never changing and steeped in the traditions and social hierarchy of middle England.

Still, this is a refreshing love story where the characters are of the more mature variety, on their second chance of happiness and who clearly know what they want from life: appreciating how good life can be when there is love and how lonely life can be without it.  They are no procrastinators. That is left to the younger generation, who give up on love for the sake of monetary gain, social standing and mere convenience. One flaw, I would say, is that the main characters seem much older than they really are, considering that the major is of the same generation as John Lennon and Mick Jagger.  It seems odd that he should be so affronted by the decadence of modern living.
That said, this novel reads like a ready-made script, just crying out for cinematic adaptation.  Indeed one can even predict it's Sunday night slot on BBC One.  I'm sure there would be a role for Maggie Smith in there somewhere, with, perhaps, John Cleese playing the love sick Major? The characters and events of this story would not be out of place in any BBC period drama: featuring impossible love; the avarice of younger generations; overbearing relations; stolen inheritance; runaway bridegrooms and dangerous old women with threatening knitting needles! In fact it seems quite incongruous when someone pulls out a mobile phone to check their messages,propelling us back to the twenty-first century with a stinging slap.

Author Helen Simonson presents us with a selection box of characters that we would expect in any text set in an English village from 'Last of the Summer Wine' and 'The Vicar of Dibley', to 'Middlemarch' and 'Emma'.  If you delight in such a story, 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand' will not disappoint.  It's brimming with delicious descriptions of the English countryside, cottage gardens and coastal views.  And if there is one season that's best suited to the charm of this novel I would suggest that it is the Christmas holiday period.  One particular section wonderfully evokes Christmas in England complete with old lamps burning in cottage windows.   So I suggest this book be read deep inside a cushioned sofa, amid mountains of mince pies and between glorious sips of delicious, hot tea, for 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand' is a fine book to escape into, as comforting as your favourite Sunday afternoon Miss Marple re-run, and just as familiar.  My one warning is that this is not a book to be rushed:time should be taken to really appreciate and enjoy this fine, flavoursome brew.

P.S. If you liked this novel, then I highly recommend Natasha Solomons' 'Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English' - reviewed here:

Monday, 31 October 2011

Galore ~ by Michael Crummey

If it were possible for a book to have a taste, then 'Galore', by Michael Crummey, would taste of salt water.  Every page is dripping with it: steeped as it is in the noise,and vitality of the sea. And what could be more fitting in a story about an isolated community on the island of Newfoundland some two hundread years or more ago.  It is difficult to tell when exatly the story is set, as the action occurs out of time and place, as we know it.  There is a blurring of reality and fantasy: a place where ghosts dwell amongst the living, where fishermen fall for mermaids, and where full-grown men are re-born from the guts of a whale.  As such, Crummey has based his book on a wonderful series of "what if's".  What if such a thing were possible?  What if Jona was actually swollowed by a whale, as the bible tells us.  And what would the reaction be if, one day, Jona were thrown up on a beech, in a place and time where superstitions were powerful motivators in society.  For the story of Jona - known here as Judah- is at the heart of this novel and immediately we are enthralled with the desire to finally learn of the fate of the character who for so long lived in our childhood imagination.  Like some sort of Boo Radley from the distant past, we yearn to know Judah's story and to learn what secrets lie behind those pale blue eyes. Indeed, the very first line of the book tells us the fate of Judah.  'He ended his time on the shore...'  To speak of endings at the very beginning of this tale is not enough for the reader and spurs us on to learn more.  Indeed, as time goes on, it becomes less and less acceptable that the narrator was telling us the truth in that first line.  In the world of Newfoundland superstition, even the rules of narrative fiction cannot be taken as gospel.  
Yet, there are other biblical echoes throughout this novel.  We see Mary Tryphena and Absolom Sellers sitting in Kerrivan's tree together  They are cousins, forbidden to fall in love. He takes an apple and passes it to Mary to take a bite and their fates are sealed. Similarities with the story of Adam and Eve are unmistakeable here.  Indeed, we find our very own Cain and Abel chracters, in the sons of Absolom Sellers, and something of Noah's tale in the slow building of the huge boat, that will ultimatley save the community from certain extinction. 
But it would be a mistake to limit the achievement of this novel to that of a modern re-telling of Old Testament stories.  This novel is so much more than that.  It's characters are revealled to us like a soul of a sinner is exposed in the confessional.  We learn about them from the inside out: given only the slightest hint about external appearances, but shown detailed accounts of the innermost desires and passions.  Like Joyce and Woolf, Crummey takes a light and shows us the inner-workings of his characters's minds.  We feel we know each character intimately, by the colours found within; the hue of their souls.  It is owing to such characterisation that we feel so bereft at the passing of each generation.  It is heart-wrenching to say goodbye to the knowlegde and wisdom of each character; their stories, their pain, their secrets.  Indeed, this feeling is best expressed by Devine's Widow, a natural-born witch if ever there was one, who says, 'She felt like she was being erased from the world, one generation at a time, like sediment sieved out of water through a cloth.'  It is no surprise to learn that Crummey is a fine poet  as well as an author of fine books. Yet the story belies such thoughts and actually reveals the cyclical pattern of lives and how one generation merges into another, with family traits being passed down through the family line.  There are patterns to be found and comparisons to be drawn.
The tell-tale sign of the poet is also apparent in the purity of the text.  Crummey writes of a world laid bare, without embellishment, with scant respect for the rules of language, reflected in the lack of punctuation in his writing.  Apostrophies highlighting dialogue are seen as unnecessary trimmings that are at odds with this tale of bare essentials, of life lived among the elements.  As such, Crummey's prose style is akin to the beauty of drift wood: rugged, stark and at times crude, but so steeped in narrative history, that it cannot help but be valued and higly prized.  This is a must read novel, for anyone who ever imagined 'what if', or  who simply ever imagined.  With 'Galore' you will be left with the taste of the salt -water in your mouth and gritty sand between your teeth, a pleasure truly not to be missed.
5 of 5 stars

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Help ~ by Kathryn Stockett

From the very first page, I knew I loved this book.  Little Mae Mobley, the child her mother didn't love, wandered up, wrapped her tiny fingers around my heart and wasn't letting go.  It is fitting that this book begins and ends with this little girl, knowing, as we do, that this novel was written by a white woman, Kathryn Stockett, who was, herself, raised and loved by a black house maid, called Demetrie.

It seems to me that Kathryn Stockett and Mae Mobley have much in common, and I like to think that they are one in the same, because that would mean that the good work begun by Aibileen, one of the narrators and heroines of the book, was not for nothing.  Here was one little white girl who was going to learn that' coloured people and white people were just the same'.  For this is a book full of heroines; wonderful, brave, strong women, whom I will never forget.   But this book is as close as I will ever get to meeting them in person, although reading, and living, their stories comes in as a good second best.

There are three narrators in this novel:  Aiblieen, Minny and Skeeter.  The former two are black house maids, the latter is a white writer, who convinces them to tell their stories in a book; a very dangerous undertaking in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962.  Stockett uses the personalised vernacular of each character in turn, each with a slightly different accent and idiosyncratic phraseology, to create a realism that is startlingly effective and compelling.  I have to admit that Aibileen is my favourite character. That woman just oozed   goodness with a capital G.  It is for her sake that I found myself praying while reading the book, hoping that she would survive the tale, that she would escape the malicious revenge of  Hilly Holbrook; the nasty, racist, society queen/bully.

And the prayers don't stop there.  The tension is palpable on every page: we can never know what danger lurks around the corner for these women; what the racist population is capable of.  Balanced between the intimate relationships that exists between servant and family, are the twisted, un-written laws of behaviour that dictate how blacks and whites should co-exist.  The hypocrisy and double standards are obvious to our 21st Century eyes.  However, Stockett cleverly and artfully, uses music, fashion, current affairs, and a lot of hairspray, to take us back to that 1960s mindset, until, we too, see the insurmountable mountain that is social integration, rise up before our very eyes, casting its long, impossible shadow.  Every crunching footstep on the drive sends a shiver down our spines; every unexpected knock on the door leaves us in a cold sweat: their fear is our fear and Stockett could not have come up with a better way to enlighten us about the reality of life for thousands of black Americans living in the southern states at that time.

I love that this is a book about the power of the written word and reading.  With books come words, and with words come voices.  By writing their stories down, the characters are given power, given a voice; just as 'The Help' itself gives voice to the untold stories of so many black women who gave their lives to raising and loving generations of white children.  Indeed, this story need not be confined to the southern states of America and black house maids: it could be easily be transferred to India, England, Singapore or anywhere where an inequitable system exists of maids and masters.

Twice, Harper Lee's classic, anti-segregation novel, 'To Kill a Mockingbird', is mentioned in this text, and I believe that there is a little of it's main character, Scout Finch, in the person of Skeeter Phelan; the tom-boy who loved reading more than playing with her dolls, and who, despite the racism that surrounded her, could at last declare that 'folks is just folks'.  'The Help', echoes Harper Lee's book but tells the story from their maid, point of view and it makes for fascinating reading.  It is about human relationships, false impressions and the boundaries that we all place between ourselves and others.  I think these two books make wonderful, complimentary, reading.

Finally, the title, 'The Help' is loaded with extra meaning:  we see three women help each other, support one-another, to make meaningful, positive changes in their lives.  Each gives a gift of some sort to the other, each becomes a better person because of their friendship.  They help each other in ways that they cannot imagine or quantify - and isn't that what we all long for in a relationship?   Yet, this book does not just teach us about friendship: it says so much about parenting and motherhood too.  I will never forget the image of Aibileen taking her little charge by the hand and pressing her thumbs down in Mae Mobley's palms telling her, 'You are beautiful.  You are smart.  You are important'.  If that isn't the job of every parent, I don't know what is.  This is a hugely important book: I urge you to read it, and afterward to see if you can ever look on a uniform, a colour or a little child, in the same way again.
5 of 5 stars  Blooming Brilliant!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Water for Elephants ~ by Sara Gruen

'Water for Elephants', by Sara Gruen was just what I needed on a busy weekend in September.  Once started, I couldn't leave it down for long; it demanded that I give it the attention it deserved.  On a macro level this is a story about a young couple in love;  a small clown; a drunken angel; an elephant; a monkey and a circus.  There is  no denying the allure of the big top.  Gruen tantalises the senses with her descriptions of circus life in 1920's America.  Her language is so evocative, that the pages wreak of peanuts and candyfloss.  You loose yourself amidst the blurring of colours and the cacophonous din of the wild menagerie.  The equally colourful characters, we are told at the back of the book, were often times based upon real people who lived the life of travelling circus entertainers.  Their hitherto forgotten stories were happened upon by Gruen during her research.  It is almost unthinkable that so much of this novel is non-fiction, yet who could ever consider that Rosie the elephant was a figment of someone's imagination; she is so vibrant and alive on the page. 
But what this book actually left me with has nothing to do with jugglers and circus performers and is not half as exotic as we might wish.  It made me consider how older people are treated by society.  The book begins and ends with Jacob Jankowski, an elderly man, (of 90 or 93 years old; he can't remember which), who has been left in an old folks' home by his children to simply fade away.  His treatment at the hands of busy, bossy, carers left me livid.  To see this once vibrant, vital, man being treated so, was tragic.  He is shown to be yet another victim of our disposable culture: along with throw away razors and milk-cartons, throw-away parents.  It was not as if Jacob was suffering some horrendous illness; he was just an old widower, still with his full faculties, but suffering from terminal old age.  In this, I find that Gruen's novel is somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Sparks's The Notebook; it provokes the reader into reconsidering our understanding of the experiences of the older members of society.  She makes us ponder what the future might hold in store for us, and it does not look good!  
I haven't seen the movie of this book, so I cannot comment on it, but I do know that it is well worth reading, if only for the way it will make us pause and take notice of the senior people in our lives, for who knows what wonderful stories lie hidden beneath the surface, just waiting to be told.  

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Alone in Berlin ~ Hans Fallada

It took me a little longer than usual to finish this book, because I longed to escape from it. Yet 'Alone in Berlin' had an invibible hold on me. I was trapped by it; the story was so gripping, I didn't dare to leave it hanging there haunting me; I had to end it. I owed it to the characters, to those who were suspended in time on page 241. And now that it is finished? Well, let's just say that I understand more about what it is to be human after visiting its pages, having journeyed into that place in history peopled by mad-men and tortured angels.

The book tells the true story of Otto Quangel and his wife Anna, (not the original names of the people involved) who decide to hit out at the Nazi regime in wartime Germany, by writing postcards decrying the actions of the Fuhrer. They leave them at various locations in Berlin, for the public to find. It's a dangerous action to take, punishable by death, in a world where everyone is a spy; your child, your neighbour, your boss.

So much for the plot. I cannot tell you any more about that or the book would be ruined for you. I will tell you that since reading this book, I have a deeper understanding of what took place in Germany during the Second World War. It's as if a veil has been lifted. I always wondered what the Germans were doing, letting so many people suffer in such brutality in the concentration camps; how Hitler and his henchmen were allowed to run riot for so long without decent people putting a stop to it. Now I know.

The brilliance of this book - and I do class it as a masterpiece - is that it captures the essence of fear. Written in 1946, just a year after the war ended, it is soaked in the atmosphere of that time: the terror, the distrust and the claustrophobic atmosphere of life under Hitler. I never realised how the every day German people lived under the constant threat of concentration camps and how brutally they themselves were treated by their own police force and the Gestapo. The author, Hans Fallada, tragically died before his book was published, but letters tell us that he knew he had written a good book. He at varying times during the war he was imprisoned for his anti-nationalistic writing but was also pressurised to write material in support of the Nazi Party. As a consequence, he spent much of the war locked up in a psychiatric hospital. It seems Fallada knew only too well the price of having a conscience in Nazi Germany.

Yet, at the heart of this book, there is a great love story. Against all odds, we see two people, Otto and Anna Quangel, risk everything for a cause they believe in, and in doing so, become deeper in love than they have ever been. They cling to each other, trust in each other. It's inspiring, moving.

But the plot involves various other characters too, many of whom would be at home in the dark corners of a Dickens novel. There is Enno Klunge who would sell his mother for a piece of bread; Borkhausen, the blackmailer, who preys on the newly-bereaved in case they should rant against the Fuhrer in their anger; Obergruppenfuhrer Prall who is so drunk on French wine that his wild and vicious attacks leave even the SS fearing for their lives; and Baldur Persickle, Nazism personified, whose malevolence knows no bounds.

Balanced against these despicable characters are the likes of Eva Klunge, the post-lady, who quietly delivers the death telegrams around the streets of Berlin and takes a stand against The Party; Trudel Baumann, who dreams of a private, safe existence for her husband and unborn child; and Judge Fromm, who, like a magical wizard from Tolkien, appears out of nowhere to achieve the impossible. I do not know if any or all of these characters have their basis in real life, but I do know that I will never forget any of then, so masterfully have they been created.

Fallada is indeed a master. Consider the cleverness of the book's title - especially the use of the word 'Alone'. It and all its connotations mean so much in relation to the story as a whole. Each character at some point comes to realise that they are all alone in the world. Some are driven by self-preservation, knowing that each person is ultimately alone and must ensure their own survival. Similarly, a number of characters are faced with physical isolation; and the author considers the consequences of solitary confinement and how it effects people. Characters are also forced to face their conscience, realising, or not, that they alone are accountable for their actions.

The idea of being 'alone' in the novel is also important in that, at times, it seems that the Quangels are alone in their defiance of Nazism - acting alone in Berlin- and while it appears that none of the German people really made any resistance to the Nazis, not like the organised resistance of the French for example, this book demonstrates that there was some defiance, but that it happened on a small, individual scale, as people acted alone.

This book is not one to read on a summer's trip to the beach, but is is still well worth reading. If you are interested in the history of this period, or simply would like to read about the triumph of the human soul, then this wonderful, wonderful book is for you.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Star of the Sea ~ Joseph O'Connor

I took this book on holiday to the wilds of County Donegal and it is fair to say that I lived every word. It filled my waking hours, my sleeping dreams and everything in between. Around every bend I saw the fleeting shadows of its characters; every ruin was the abandoned home of Mary Duane or Pius Mulvey; and every mouthful of potato tasted like a blessed gift. The historical backdrop of this novel is the Irish Famine, the immensity of this event being such that it colours the entire text: the plot, the characters, the atmosphere. The story is concerned with a group of travellers who make the journey from Ireland to New York in 1847 on a ship called the 'Star of the Sea'. As such, the reader can pretty much guess what to expect with this novel... or can they?

Somehow, Joseph O'Connor manages to tell the tale in a fresh new way, while avoiding all the usual pitfalls that dog every Irish novel set in this period. He cleverly leads the reader through the story by hopping backwards and sliding forwards, so that your mind is preoccupied with trying to piece it all together. With this slight-of-hand trick, the reader does not have time to overly dwell on the unfolding tragedy. Likewise, the story itself has many twists and turns, with unexpected revelations at regular intervals, which keeps the reader enthralled.

I find myself really struggling to identify who is the narrator of the text, which I am sure is a deliberate ploy by the author. The lack of any one definite voice in the text creates an unsettling, shifting feel to the book, which corresponds to the transient lifestyle of the characters and the surging and swelling movement of the ocean. The book begins and ends with the twin narrative musings of American journalist G. Grantley Dixon. His words wrap around the main novel like an extra dust-jacket, commenting on the three main characters of the text: Mary Duane, David Merridith and Pius Mulvey. While we get to experience first hand the thoughts and feelings of the latter two characters, we never get to see the world from Mary's point of view. Indeed, she only drifts in and out of the text whenever her path crosses that of another character. It is as if we only catch glimpses of her through a mirror, but she is so fascinating that we yearn to learn more of her story, to fill in the gaps of her life. What becomes of Mary Duane is one of the most compelling questions that drives our desire to read on.

While the wealthy Lord, Merridith, and the shambling labourer, Mulvey, are both fine specimens in their different ways, it is the character of Mary Duane that has been so beautifully crafted. In fact, Mary Duane might easily be seen as a symbol, not only for every Irish woman who had to struggle for survival, but for Ireland itself. Long ago, when it was forbidden by the English to write or sing about Irish nationalism, bards and poets composed symbolic lines about a dark haired beauty, a woman, badly treated by those around her. Songs like My Dark Rosaleen,(Roisin Dubh in Gaelic) although appearing to be about a neglected and put upon woman, were actually discussing Ireland's struggle for freedom. So can be seen the character of Mary Duane; abandoned, abused and betrayed. Indeed, O'Connor dedicates almost two chapters of the book to the art of writing an Irish traditional folk song. Such a strange thing to do in the middle of a novel I thought, which made me wonder, until I noticed that all of the the six or so possible story lines, that appear in traditional songs, which O'Connor refers to in the novel, apply to Mary. She IS the embodiment of Irish song: she is a literary version of My Dark Rosaleen, and so she is a symbol of Ireland itself.

As I read through the pages of this book, something about its atmosphere reminded me of Wuthering Heights and low, there on the very next page was a reference to that very book! There are a number of plot similarities, which I cannot reveal here, which add a delicious extra layer to the Star of the Sea, reminding us that the world was not such a barren, god-forsaken place entirely during the Famine; that great writers, and great literary works were still coming into being. Part of the story is narrated through the diary of Captain Lockwood. Any Bronte fan will easily note that Lockwood is also the name of the initial narrator of Wuthering Heights, a sign of O'Connor's appreciation for that novel I presume. Indeed, my other favourite Victorian writer, Charles Dickens, makes a guest appearance in the book as well, a double delight. I would go as far as to hazzard a guess that the character of Pius Mulvey is somewhat based on Dickens's creation, Abel Magwitch, from Great Expectations, as both are, at one time, residents of Newgate prison, walk with a limp, and have criminal leanings.

However, if the text deals with the hell that was the Irish Famine, it also shows glimpses of heaven. We see young Mary Duane walk through her garden of Eden with David Merridith , in a long summer of love. It is a beautifully captured scene and funnily enough the one which resonates most loudly with me on having finished the book. The biblical imagery is also captured in the story of Pius and Nicholas Mulvey, with dire echoes of Cain and Abel. Yet this is a book not so much about religious difference as about class difference. For the poor, there is little mercy, yet, O'Connor manages to show the positions of landowners and tenants in an unbiased way; how people, rich and poor, made good and bad choices, something quite original and brave in a book about what is sometimes referred to as the Irish Holocaust.
Now that I am returned from the cottage in Donegal, I turn on the television to hear news of a new famine in Somalia, the worst in sixty years. In every face I see Mary Duane, her mother, her brothers, and know instantly the suffering and self-sacrifice that is going on off-camera. It is unfathomable that such horror remains in the world and I wonder have we learned nothing at all. And suddenly 'Star of the Sea' doesn't seem so much of an historical novel after all.

(Photos above taken on holiday in County Donegal, Ireland)

Monday, 25 July 2011

I was reminded of W.B. Yeats's poem, 'The Stolen Child', when I stopped to take this photo last week in Donegal.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Surfacing ~by Margaret Atwood

I was awake until dawn finishing this book, fighting off sleep until the end. And then I knew it - this would be a book pretty near impossible to review without giving it all away. I'd known almost nothing about the story until I was waist deep in it, only that it was about a girl revisiting her Canadian-island, childhood home with some friends, her father having disappeared. But don't worry, that's all I'll share with you on that score. I'll pick at the story just around the edges, giving nothing of the plot away.

Thematically, the story deals with life and death and how people can become disconnected with all that they knew in their childhood; their parents, siblings, and neighbours, as they move into adulthood. The characters seem broken, adrift, some clinging on for survival by a mere thread, or so it seems. Relationships are fragile, crumbling below the surface.

Trust and the lack of it is at the core of this book and Atwood forces the reader to consider who is a threat, who can be trusted. This is a first person narrative, so we only have the protagonists word for what is happening. Can she be believed? Is she a reliable narrator? As such the text is a psychological journey and we are taking it with a nameless narrator, whom we long to understand.

The title 'Surfacing' is perfectly chosen, having so many connotations, one of which relates to the protagonists spiritual reawakening as she dives into the world of memory and re-emerges, altered. But It is not as you might imagine; there is nothing predictable about this book; not the characters; not the language; not the plot. That is what I found so thrilling about the text. Just as you think you have figured out what has happened to the character, another wave of information lifts the plot and deposits you someplace different, your knowledge of the characters and story deeper and wider as a result.
I must mention Atwood's use of language in the novel. It is so evocative, yet quiet pithy. Like the landscape of the island, it is stark and bare at times, but Atwood's one-line observations can say more than can a whole page of text:'A divorce is like an amputation, you survive but there's less of you', or 'the echoes deflect from all sides, surrounding us, here everything echoes'. You could lose yourself in language like that.

As for the plot of the novel - I simply could not put this novel down. It is full of suspense, drama and mystery; where is her father? Why did she leave this place and never return? What is the damage that needs repairing?

It is not my place to tell you these things. Go read this short, brilliant book and search for your own answers.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The End of the Affair ~ by Graham Greene

All day long I have been suffering in this dead heat and I am sure this headache I have is owing to it, or perhaps it is the intensity of this book I have been reading, Graham Greene's, 'The End of the Affair'. It seems that the incessant voice of the narrator, Maurice Bendrix, impassioned and bitter, is inescapable and relentless. His words of envenomed hatred have even been haunting my sleep. It is only to be expected, I suppose, because this is a novel about a haunted man.

As the title suggests, there has been an affair; it is at an end, yet it is not. Bendrix loved Sarah Miles, wife of civil servant Henry Miles, passionately, beyond reason. Even before it was over he tortured himself, and Sarah, continually about how it would all end, how she would one day destroy him. And even now that the worst has happened and she is gone, he still clings to the hatred he feels for her, haunted. It is this, most of all, that reminds me so much of Bronte's Heathcliff, for he and Bendrix have much in common. They hate with a passion, with such vehemence that only their obsessive love for their respective soul-mates, Cathy and Sarah, can equal it. Each of them curses and blames God for the cards that they've been dealt. It is all or nothing with these beautifully damaged men, their possessiveness a moment away from insanity.

As with Heathcliff, we long for Bendrix to find peace, to find love, to find forgiveness, but as he says himself on the very first page, 'this is a record of hate far more than of love'. Even when he is in the throes of love, jealousy and hate are never far away. Ultimately, there is no one who can help Bendrix and we slowly begin to realise, as he does himself, that it is only God who can offer any relief. Religion plays a central role in this text, just as it did in Greene's 'The Heart of the Matter'. The characters are torn between happiness in this life and eternal damnation, in the next. Physical pleasure combined with spiritual salvation seems an impossibility in a Graham Greene novel from this period. I suppose it makes for gripping drama, as to give up one soul for someone else is the ultimate sacrifice for love. Again, as with Heathcliff, Bendrix is in a battle with God for Sarah's soul and does whatever he can to keep sole possession of it.

Yet can such a man be like-able? I don't think that is the point of Greene's novel. Sometime, during the London Blitz of the Second World War, two strangers met, recognised something in the other that altered them irrevocably, then parted. It's a simple story. Yet Greene is writing purely about obsession; how one dwells in a sort of half-life of loathing and despair when the object of your desire belongs to another. And so, this can be read as an anti-marriage text, which sees matrimony as a mere trap for those unlucky enough to have made bad decisions. Yet, can a man be so beastly cruel to the person he professes to love? One can ask who has been the kindest to Sarah, the man who does her no harm, yet leaves her physically cold, or the man whose love is passionate, yet devastating and all consuming? But what has love got to do with kindess? According to Bendrix, love and hate are the two side of the one coin, merging into one another as day into night. The honesty of Greene's depiction of what being in love truly feels like, is what separates this book from others.

Henry, Sarah's husband, is described as dusty and semi-archaic and is meant not to appeal to the reader. He is not the reason why Sarah cannot leave her marriage. Bendrix's real rival is much more powerful and dwells in Sarah's soul. All-knowing and ever-present, God is the real third in Sarah and Bendrix's relationship, and from the very start, the reader can probably guess where the story will end.

This book has taken me on a journey, through the twisted maze of Bendrix's tortured, suffering mind. I have felt every beat of his thwarted desire, every throb of rejection, until I thought my head would tear apart. But the forecast is for heavy rain, a welcome blessing for my aching head, for at last I have the promise of relief and can sit and ponder the affair, now that I have come to its end, and I can say that it is a book worth reading, a journey worth taking.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Elizabeth and her German Garden ~ by Elizabeth von Arnim

What a delightful short novel, 'Elizabeth and her German Garden' is, especially when read on a warm summer's day. It is made up of a collection of diary entries from April to May, in the late nineteenth century in Germany, before the two world wars made living in Germany so difficult for an English woman. The Elizabeth of the title, has escaped to her husband's country home and has fallen in love with it's dilapidated garden. She promptly decides to make the country hideaway her year-long home and gardening becomes her passion. Regardless of the weather or the season, she can be found out of doors, harassing the various gardeners (they keep leaving for some reason)and urging them to plant and prune as she would like. There are pages and pages of floral descriptions, which would truly delight any keen gardener. However, as she is a novice, she makes numerous errors.

Interesting as this is, and Elizabeth does like to wax lyrical at length about her plants, the really interesting thing to note is how the lives of women in this period are described in the text. It is unthinkable that Elizabeth herself should ever take up a spade, or plant seeds, although she yearns to do so. Instead, she must have her gardener do it, as gardening is not regarded as a decent occupation for a lady of note. Elizabeth, of course, belongs to the upper classes and although she has more freedom than ordinary, working women, she is not allowed to tend her own garden. The right to truly express herself in the language of plants and flowers is denied her. Elizabeth herself notes that some of the Russian immigrant labourers on the estate are women. They are allowed to tend to crops. Indeed some of them are known to have given birth in the middle of a shift, only to return to work within the hour. This shocking glimpse into life of women just over one hundred years ago makes this an especially interesting read.

The views on women, as expressed by Elizabeth's German husband, known only as 'The Man of Wrath', are enough to make any modern reader squirm in disbelief. Women are, he says, '"like children...What you say... is all so young and fresh, what you think and what you believe, and not of the least consequence to any one."' [sic].
Of course Elizabeth pays no attention to him and manages to convince him to move the entire family to the country, which he does not want to do, and spends all her time in her garden, which he equally despises. One therefore might ask who has the real power in the household, and whose words have 'the least consequence' at the end of the day!

There is a small collection of characters in the book consisting of Elizabeth, her husband and her friend Irais. An acquaintance comes to join them for Christmas, called Minora, who befriends the nanny, Miss Jones. There are also a number of unhappy gardeners and lastly the nameless 'babies'. These are Elizabeth's children, who are known only by the months of their birth:'April baby' and 'June baby' etc. The various babies are very amusing and express themselves with great honesty and frankness, causing much hilarity as small children are wont to do. One conversation which comes to mind is all about where angels buy their 'dwesses'. There is much humour in the book, courtesy of Elizabeth's antics and her tongue-in-cheek comments. The gentle irony of some of her remarks made me laugh out loud in places. Also, there are some funny situations, like when the three ladies go for a winter picnic by the Baltic, where they manage to eat more glove-fur than sandwiches for their lunch.

If this book were written today it would take the form of a blog, being diary-like in form, and having a private yet public audience in mind. It is interesting to note that Elizabeth von Arnim did not put her name to the text when it was originally published, her anonymity giving her some semblance of artistic freedom so often denied at the time to women. I doubt very much that her husband would have been pleased with what she wrote about him, although her own friends must have delighted in it. I don't think their marriage was a lengthy one (mercifully). How far we have come in a hundred years.

Consisting of just over 200 pages, of large, sparce text, 'Elizabeth and her German Garden' barely constitutes a novel. As such, it is the perfect read for a sunny summer's day, as your ice-cream begins to slowly melt, in your very own garden paradise.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Heart of the Matter ~by Graham Greene

I have just finished this book and I am still reeling. I loved the main character, Major Henry Scobie from the start, mainly because of his honesty and integrity. So to see him slowly fall from grace was heart-breaking. It seems to me that this book is all about falling; falling in love, falling from grace and falling into despair. It's a gentle, enticing fall, which is so subtly done, that you hardly notice it until you hear a soft bump as you hit rock bottom, and think, how did I get here?

But let's go back to the start and retrace that fall. The story is set in a West African country during war-time. Scobie is an English policeman who has recently been passed-over for promotion. His needy wife cannot face this disgrace and so moves to South Africa leaving him alone. Their only child, a daughter, is dead and when a young woman, Helen Rolt, is taken, barely alive, from a tragedy at sea, Scobie's fate is sealed. He feels compelled to help her, but suddenly finds himself having an adulterous affair. This is the sourse of the novel's dramatic tension: how can one love two women, while retaining one's Catholic beliefs?
Scobie is in essence a very good person. He tries to do the right thing. Time and time again he foils the attempts of others to corrupt him, and we admire him for this. However, it is his relationship with diamond smuggler Yusef, that worries the reader. Can this man be trusted? We fear for Scobie's integrity whenever they meet.

Yusef acts as a symbol for evil - almost a version of Satin, who believes that Scobie is the one who can save him. Yusef tells him that he is a better person when Scobie is near. He is forever clutching at him, begging him to be his friend, to stay longer, to come again. He cannot bear to be left alone with his corruption and needs Scobie's presence to ease his conscience. He cries to think that Scobie might no longer be his friend. It as if he is sort of vampire, sucking the goodness from Scobie, and leaving corruption in it's place. Circumstances lead Scobie to make a deal with Yusef/Satan and such a debt cannot rest lightly on one's soul. The great irony is that here we have a good man seeking help from a bad one, all in an attempt to do some good. But it is a bargain made with the devil and ultimately it is a human soul which hangs in the balance.

Green's use of symbolism adds extra weight and meaning to the text, giving the book a haunting quality that is the tell-tale sign of good literature. And this book is full of symbolism: Scobie's broken Rosary is the most obvious symbol, signifying his adultery and how he has broken faith with God. Then we have the murder of the innocent servant Ali, who Christ-like was betrayed by his friend. But most central to the text is the symbolism of the book's title: 'the HEART of the Matter'. The human heart has many associated connotations, all of which are referred to here: the love Scobie feels for his mistress Helen and his wife Louise; the physical heart, supposedly diseased and the source of Scobie's angina; and the heart as symbol of the human soul. Indeed at the heart of the book is the plight of the human soul: the constant internal struggle with our conscience to do what is right.

As such, the book is about the fallibility of the human soul. It seems that none of us are beyond temptation. First we see the temptation of the flesh; what began as a wish to protect a fellow human ends with adultery, a mortal sin. Then it is as if Scobie stumbles into a declining, inescapable, vortex of sin, each worse than the one that went before: lies, corruption, murder. Every step leads Scobie further and further away from redemption and we realise that there is only one possible conclusion to the story.

Greene's characterisation is flawless. The characters interact in such a way as it almost feels like a dance, now coming together, now moving apart. In Scobie and Yusef we have two wonderful creations, each morphing into the other at various moments. There is the solitary Wilson, who snoops, sneaks and stalks around the periphery, like a mid-night shadow. Then we have the twin sirens, Helen and Louise, who each begin to mirror the other, in action and word, giving us the uncomfortable feeling that none of us is really as unique or original as we might like to believe.

'The Heart of the Matter', is a great book and would make a really terrific book club read. It is a cautionary tale of what happens when you make a deal with the devil, and love too well. So sit back and enjoy Graham Greene at his best, safe in the knowledge that you would never make such mistakes or fall so hard?

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Open ~ by Andre Agassi

There is something very fitting in reading 'Open' Andre Agassi's autobiography, during the Wimbledon tennis season, it somehow brings the whole text into sharper focus. I have to admit that I am not a huge tennis fan, but this book still interested me. The introductory chapters, especially, dealing with Andre's early training, were fascinating. His brutally honest depiction of his equally brutal father was startling and very brave. He tells all and shows much anger towards the man who, while Andre was still in the crib, made a mobile from tennis balls and taped a table-tennis bat to his son's wrist. He was a man obsessed.

Much of the book deals with the constant struggle, physical and psychological, that Andre had to cope with all his sporting life. His love-hate relationship with tennis is made much of in the book, especially at the beginning. This clever use of antithesis surely came courtesy of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, J.R. Moehringer, who helped Agassi put the book together. With his assistance, the text is an enjoyable read - for the most part. However, I thought it was overly long and, as you might expect, went into detailed descriptions of many, many tennis matches - who scored what point, who missed a serve etc.- until I could feel the exhaustion of the players myself. Having read the book I feel quite jaded and relieved that Agassi retired when he did because I could not have faced one more match!

As with any good autobiography, the reader comes to expect some juicy revelations and of these there are plenty in the book. I think Brooke Shields comes across least favourably, but I have to say I sided with her much of the time. Living with a man who would not (could not) speak for days on end after losing a match must have been difficult, especially when his idea of having a good time was vegging at home on the sofa, or eating a burger! He was unspeakably unfair in his treatment of her, proposing when he actually wanted to break-up with her, although being so wrapped up in himself, he probably did not even notice this. Don't get me wrong, Agassi narcissism is completely understandable, being trained to do one thing - be the best tennis player in the world. How could you not be self-obsessed, as your body, your mind, is your meal ticket. Yet there was so little of the real world present in this text. World events, if they take place outside the limits of a tennis court, never make it into the book. As such, it is a very closed, limited, depiction of life, which captures perfectly the stifled, suffocating life as a tennis pro.

This is in complete contrast with the book's title 'Open', which has so many connotations for a tennis player. More than anything, it refers to the openness with which Agassi tries to tell his story. However, although the book is filled to the brim with details of various matches, there is very little of consequence about his relationship with his mother, ex-girlfriends, his wives and his children. They are only mentioned in relation to his tennis, and as such the book reads like a series of diary entries,going from match to match in chronological order, with people, like his father and friends, suddenly disappearing from the story. It seems clear that the openness of the title only refers to HIS own story and does not relate to the people around him, whose privacy he protectively maintains. There is an exception of course; his opponents. They are fair game for his venomous tongue. They are a collection of cheats, poor-losers, begrudgers and robots. He certainly holds nothing back when he is describing them, with his greatest disdain being reserved for Jimmy Connors.

Above all, the book shows how lonely the life of a tennis player can be and how lonely Andre Agassi was for such a long time. He carefully surrounded himself with a series of father-figures, people he needed, to help him cope with the various aspects of his life, his trainer Gil being the real hero of the book. I think everyone should have a Gil in their lives, to frighten away bullies, sit with you in operating-theaters and stand guard outside your apartment in a scary city. This is ultimately a story of endurance; an inside look into the ups and downs of life in tennis, a must for anyone who is a fan of the game, and enjoyable even for those who just like a good story. Worth a read? Yes. Just grab yourself some Robinson's Barely Water, a bowl of strawberries and cream, and you will have yourself a front row seat in Andre Agassi's private players'box for a match you won't forget.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Book Thief ~ by Markus Zusak

There are so many reasons why I just LOVE this book:  the characters... the characters … the characters... I just can’t seem to get them out of my mind.  Right now I can’t even bring myself to find a home for this book on my shelf.  I just can’t bear to say goodbye, not yet.

But there is another reason why I love ‘The Book Thief’: so much of the book is about books, writing them, stealing them, reading them - it’s not surprising considering that Hitler’s power began with words and a book - Mein Kampf - translated as My Struggle.  Hitler’s own book becomes part of Liesel’s story when it is painted over and re-used as blank paper for others to write on.  In this wonderfully symbolic way, Hitler’s ideas are erased,  obliterated and replaced by a story of love and hope. What a wonderful piece of literary justice!  

The book is all about the power of words, to warp and twist, as with Hitler, or to save and heal, as with Liesel.   Liesel uses the words of the ’Word Shaker’, a short story within the text, to empower Max.  The words ‘climbed onto him’, and so he grew in stature, remembering his own story, the courage moving from her to him.  She reminds him of what he has written, words that he wrote to make her feel better.  She sends  them back to him.  The result is powerful and liberating.  

Hitler’s so-called ‘struggle’ is counterbalanced by the real, daily struggle of ordinary people in Germany during World War Two, a major theme of the book. So many characters are living on the edge, living day by day until the next meal, usually consisting of mama’s unpalatable, watery, pea soup.  For the entire book the central characters are starving.  Rudy is constantly talking about food and finally it is this ceaseless hunger that leads the children into thievery.  They raid an orchard and then make themselves ill from over-eating, but they daren’t take their loot home, for fear of a beating.  Like a scene from ‘Huckleberry Finn’, or ‘Oliver Twist’,  Zusak explores the universality of childhood; the adventure, the skulduggery and the fun, yet choosing war-time Germany for the setting.

It’s refreshing to see this brutal war from the German perspective.  We learn that there is much diversity of wealth, from the Mayor on the hill, to the lowest, starving Jew, bending to pick up a crust of bread on the street.  We see varying degrees of anti-sematism too: the children are made join the Hitler Youth organisation on turning 10, and must attend even if they do not wish to do so.  All adult men, even those secretly hiding a Jew in the basement, must join the Nazi Party.  Mr Steiner does not hate the Jews, but he is not unhappy when their businesses are destroyed, for as a tailor, it means more work for him.  We learn that not all Germans were Nazis, that such sweeping statements reveal nothing of the many subtleties that made up German society in WWII, which was as diverse as any we have today.  There are heroes and villains as always, but how novel to have some German heroes to consider for a change.  
The characters are beautifully drawn, so memorable: a boy who paints his face black and runs like Jesse Owens; a neighbour who spits on the door every time she passes; a mayor’s wife who silently sits in a library missing her son; Alex Steiner, alone in his tailor's shop, missing his whole family; neighbours crowded together in the basement, listening to a little girl reading a story.  Like the best loved creations of Charles Dickens, each of Zusak’s characters have a visual symbol that we associate with only them.  Consider Max, hair like feathers or twigs; Mama, a wardrobe; Papa, a silver eyed accordion; Rudy, with hair the colour of lemons; Ilsa, her fluffy hair and bath robe; and Alex Steiner, a wooden man, with hair like splinters.  Their descriptions are so very visual that these characters are etched into our memories. I cannot think of Rudy without a lump forming in my throat, or Hans, wonderful, darling papa, without the distant sound of an accordion playing or the scent of tobacco rising somewhere in my mind. Even tough, booming Rosa crept under my skin and as for Liesel, I think I will always carry a piece of her with me, most noticeably present whenever I visit a library.

And finally, if you read the book blurb and learn, with horror, that Death is the narrator, please fear not.  He is warm, considerate and simply charming.  He seems to love the characters as much as we do.  He, too, is a book-lover, an idea which really made me smile. How could we fail to like a fellow book-lover?  He has re-read Liesel’s story thousands of times.  In fact, he is a rescuer of books!  We see him peeking over people’s shoulders, picking up parts of their stories and returning to them over the years, just to find out how their stories end.  He cannot resist a good tale and gently leads us through the plot, holding our hand at the sad bits and delighting in the joy of human laughter.

This book is brimming with optimism and life, not bad for a book narrated by Death!  The unspeakable horrors of WWII are touched upon lightly, but in the main this book deals with life in a small German town, when times were hard and strange.   It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in years.  Indeed, Zusak has given me a treasure and as such I will place it at eye-level in my book case, so I can catch glimpses of it as I pass, hearing the soft sigh of an accordion and knowing that it is close at hand whenever I feel the need to visit to Liesel or Rudy, and part-take in a little book thievery.    

5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Mister Pip ~ by Lloyd Jones

What is so odd about a book about a book?... I find it a little irksome; like having one author piggy-backing on another so as to appear all the more impressive.   A thief of language, plot and character perhaps?  A quick reference, a nod in the author's direction is usually allowable but there is so much of 'Mister Pip', by Lloyd Jones that depends on one's knowledge or interest in 'Great Expectations', by Charles Dickens that it provokes comment. 

 Yet, this is the story of Mathilda a 15 year old girl, living in Papua New Guinea with her mother Dolores in 1993, in the middle of a civil war. They live on an island on the outskirts of a jungle, so they are at once in and out of the modern world. Airplanes fly overhead,yet they sleep on mats made of leaves and live off whatever the jungle and the ocean provides. The jungle is crucial to the story. It is the source of great fear in the text; the fear of the unknown. Horrific atrocities take place there. It is the door from which the boogie-man can at any time appear, where people are taken, never to be seen again. 

In a way, parts of this book reminded me of 'Lord of the Flies', where we see mob rule erode all vestiges of human kindness and civility. Yet the book also tells the story of Pop Eye, also known as Mr Watts, who is the only white man on the island and who takes on the role of teacher when war breaks out. He uses only one book, 'Great Expectations', by Charles Dickens, to entertain and instruct his pupils. We can see clear parallels between his life and Mathilda's, and that led by Pip, the hero of Dickens's novel. 

However, 'Great Expectations' is the cause of much trouble, violence and even death on the island, something which brings into focus one of the main themes of Jones's text: how a book can influence a reader, how reality and fiction can sometimes get confused and how a book can change your life. As such, this is a very interesting text for those of us who love reading and get carried away by novels.  Yet,as 'Great Expectations' is one of my favourite books, it was difficult to read about how one book can have such a devastating effect on a community. I did not enjoy having it tainted by such ugliness.

I also did not like the ending of the book. The author added on a couple of unnecessary chapters, as if desperate to keep the story going and unable to bring it to a close. We see how the narrator came to research and write the book, which does not add anything to the text, in fact it contradicts earlier assertions.
Parts of this book are quite poetic. The adults from the village visit the classroom and give the children some words of wisdom. These sections are beautifully written and have wonderful originality:

'You need to know about hell. Don't ask your father. His geography is limited. Hell is less important to him than London or Paris. All you do is shit and take photos in those places. Heaven and hell are the cities of the soul! That's where you grow!' (Extract from 'Mister Pip'.)

Jones has created some very memorable characters too and they come to life across the pages of this short novel. However, overall, this text seemed a little too contrived for my liking. It as if the author was desperate to blend 'Great Expectation' with another story, as someone might do for a school essay: "'Great Expectations' and 'Lord of the Flies' have many things in common, discuss!"

So, would I recommend this book to a friend?  Yes, I think I would, even though  it portrays such a bleak view of the world: the weak, humble and mannerly can only perish in the face of brute, animal force. It does not bode well for humankind. Yet, I suppose it could be read as a story of survival and I do think this would make a great book for a book club.  Everyone would have opinions on it.  A good friend of mine, who recommended the book to me, thought it was one of  the best book she had read recently.  It certainly makes for a great discussion - in fact we have one about it and it was very interesting.  'Mister Pip'  is by no means  a heart warming tale - which 'Great Expectation' is.  Their plot-lines might parallel one another, but the writing style certainly does not.  Still, you might like to give 'Mister Pip' a try.   After all, not everyone can be Charles Dickens.

3 of 5 stars


Friday, 29 April 2011

The Enchanted April ~ by Elizabeth von Arnim

Chocolate - there is something about this book that reminds me of chocolate.  Yes, I loved this book and when better to read it than during the month of April. I never wanted it to end.

The characters are so warm and real, the whole premise so dream-like. Set in the 1920s when two strangers meet in a woman's club on a rainy afternoon and decide to rent a medieval castle in Italy.  There they bring together a collection of characters (for two more ladies must join them to reduce costs, and some servants etc.) each with their own set of worries and anxieties.
Lotty is uncertain in here dreary London life - fearful of speaking her mind to her husband, ignored by their social set.  On arrival in Italy she finds certainty, confidence, and inspires those around her.  Rose, is a very respectable woman whose charity work with 'the poor' keeps her busy and helps her forget her broken-down relationship with her husband.  The effect that San Salvatore has on her is equally momentous.  She begins to allow herself to feel again, to remember what it is to love and be loved.  Rose begins to bloom!  In London Lotty tells her that they have been so very good for so very long - you can see it on their tired faces - that it is no wonder they are exhausted and need a holiday.
Then there are the other ladies who come to stay.  They too are similarly transformed.  Mrs Fisher, who in England is surrounded by photos of famous dead authors, comes to appreciate those who are still living, and comes to life herself. (Her beloved 'stick' is suddenly made redundant).  Finally, Lady Caroline Dester, the spoilt, cold but beautiful socialite, once under the Italian sun, learns to appreciate friendship, say thank you and to think of others.
But these miraculous changes are a slow-blooming, rather than a sudden one and, like the dawning of Spring, act as a renewal or rebirth.  Happiness is contagious with this novel and even the reader begins glow in a reflected joy.
Philosophically, this novel is about finding happiness within.  Once the characters decide to be happy, to follow Lotty's vision, they become happy.  Yet, I believe that Von Arnim was asking the reader to consider if we really need to travel to Italy (or anywhere) to learn to be happy?  I think that this what the novel is all about and explains why it is such a feel good read.  Happiness is within - we ultimately make ourselves happy.  Lotty's husband is possibly still a 'cold fish' of a man by the end of the text, but the difference is that she does not SEE him as such.

The Italian landscape is described in glorious detail; the flowers are almost characters in themselves, mirroring the dazzling flowering and blooming of the women. We see each woman surround herself with the part of the landscape that most reflects her character:  the old battle-axe, Mrs Fisher, keeps to the castle battlements, like some sleeping beauty in her tower, half dead, waiting for a kiss to re-awaken her.  The dreaming Lotty takes to the hills to fill her mind with lofty ideas.  Rose, barren and bereft after the death of her child and the loss of her estranged husband, sits among the hard, grey stones, longing for someone to hold.  And then there is Lady Caroline, the beautiful, blooming girl, who sits with her feet in the lilies, a flower amongst the flowers.  They each become part of the Italian landscape itself.

Von Arnim's writing style is very much in the Jane Austen vein.  It may appear that very little is happening, but an observant reader will see that there is much going on between the lines.  There are many subtleties and subtexts that are so much a part of how woman communicate.  It is simply delicious to observe.  And although I think this is a great book for women, I feel that men should enjoy it too.

'The Enchanted April' is pure escapism to be sure, yet there is something quite interesting about this book, especially what is says about relationships, happiness and love.  I know I will return to it again and again. This is a great read, a real jewel of a book, and the perfect present for all your book-loving, chocolate-eating girl friends, who long to escape on a rainy afternoon.

5 of 5 stars


Monday, 25 April 2011

Sister ~ by Rosamund Lupton

A friend recently popped 'Sister', by Rosamund Lupton, into an envelope and sent it my way. It's from the crime/thriller genre, not my usual choice for bedtime reading, but it came with a good recommendation from a good friend and that is hard to resist. 

Firstly, let me assure you that I will not reveal anything in this review that will spoil the book for you. It contains a great many surprises and twists, which I love in a novel, so I will confine myself to discussing the style and theme used by Lupton in this, her first novel. 

It is, simply put, a story about a 20 something, London girl, called Beatrice, living in New York, who gets a phone call to tell her that her younger sister, Tess, is missing. She leaves her job, apartment and fiancé to go and find her sister. During the course of the book, sensible Beatrice, not unlike Elinor in Jane Austen's classic 'sisters' novel,'Sense and Sensibility', becomes more and more like her missing sister Tess - who is very like Austen's Marianne, being impulsive and carefree. They begin to merge into the one character. The narrator herself refers to it as the 'mirror idea'. Beatrice moves into her sister's apartment, wears her clothes, takes over her sisters old job and old friends and begins to look more and more like her. This clever swapping of identities is central to the story, though not in any way that the reader might expect - but you will have to read the book yourself to find out more! 

On returning to London, Beatrice finally has to come to terms with the death of her younger brother, Leo who, many years before, died from childhood Cystic Fibrosis. Although Beatrice and Tess have remained close, their parents' relationship did not survive Leo's death and so the survival of family relationships is at the center of the text. The book also deals with genetics, specifically the ethical issues surrounding gene therapy and gene replacement.  It considers the impact of big business on medical research and as such it reminded me of the film, 'A Constant Gardiner', whose central character 'Tessa' is similarly named. The story is also reminiscent of that movie in that the structure is not in chronological order and is told in a series of flashbacks, with time itself becoming an interesting theme - how it can grow and shorten depending on our perception at different moments of fear and stress. 

Although the cover, of my edition at least, is black and white with a smattering of Red, the colour that I would mostly associate with the book is actually yellow. It is not just the yellow and black of the police tape demarcating a crime scene; it is much less sinister than that. It begins and just about ends with the scent of lemons, and references to yellow daffodils punctuate the story: Amias puts daffodil bulbs outside Tessa's flat and later in the story we watch them bloom; Mrs Crush Secretary presents them to a oblivious Mr Wright as a sign of her undying love; and Tess tells her sister Beatrice that it is the Vitamin A in Daffodils that make them yellow, so it is the yellow in daffodils that stops children from going blind. 
But daffodils are not the only floral reference in the text. We find flowers on display on the steps outside Tess's flat; placed outside the public toilets; the roses planted in Tess's garden and beside Leo's grave. When Beatrice first meets Simon is he is carrying a big bunch of flowers and both Tess and her mother find great comfort in gardening when they are grieving for Leo. I think that the reason for the many references to flowers is that the writer is, firstly, trying to introduce some colour into the text, which in a snow-covered London, is quite bleak and, secondly, that yellow is traditionally associated with madness, which is a key theme in the novel. 
The text is equally dotted with many literary references: Austen, Donne, Coleridge, Christie, Shakespeare, Auden, Lewis, Barrie (Peter Pan), Hawthorne, to name but a few. Lupton's main character Beatrice, like the author herself, has studied English Literature at Cambridge, and it shows. It can seem sometimes a little contrived to suddenly seg-way into an explanation of the Music of the Spheres, as described by the Seventeenth Century poets, but isn't that how the mind works in reality? Doesn't King Lear come to mind whenever we are contemplating what it must be like to live with mental illness? Well that is how the narrator's mind works in this novel. I suspect Lupton uses the technique to add weight to her text and give depth to her main character. 

This is not a predictable novel. It's a page-turner that will keep you up later that you planned. Here is my favourite line from the book - I thought you might like it too... 
'... your mind can play all sorts of tricks... There's no monster in the wardrobe. But you and I know he's real'.    Devilish good! 

I'd recommend this book to my friends, as a good, escapist-read, and am thankful to one such friend who recommended it to me. 

3 of 5 stars

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