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

Items related to the text:

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Ghost Light ~ by Joseph O'Connor

I've just finished reading 'Ghost Light', by Joseph O'Connor and my mind is still ringing with the sound of it, the music and words of Molly Allgood's voice, but let me not race ahead.  Let me do the thing properly.

In brief, the story bridges two worlds, the past and the present. It is partly set in Edwardian Dublin, in a time before the outbreak of World War One. It tells the tale of a teenage, working class, Catholic, Dublin girl, who was born above a rag and bone shop. She begins work as an actress in the Abbey theater and falls in love with an older, Protestant, Trinity-educated, wealthy playwright, John Millington Synge (He of 'Playboy of the Western World' fame.) They begin courting and become engaged. Despite family disapproval, both are steadfast in their attachment, regardless of the fact that John becomes ill. 
The plot hops from the present - London 1952 - to various moments  and places in the past, Dublin, London,  New York, Galway, Wicklow etc., all places of importance in Molly's story, for this is Molly's story.  
Although it is also a love story between herself and J.M. Synge, it is Molly who narrates the tale, but not in a normal way.  It is as if we ARE Molly, so closely are we immersed  in her character. It is as if we are her conscience, her soul, and she is talking to herself and us simultaneously.  Instead of using 'I', the first person narrative voice, he opts to use the second; 'You'.  It is surprisingly effective :

'You take a sour sip. Medicinal... you wear a dead man's boots. Well, no point if wastefulness.'  
And so it continues for most of the book.

It could be that there is a ghost that goes where Molly goes and sees everything that she sees - and if that is so, then that ghost might be the reader or indeed John Synge.   The 'ghost light' of the title is mentioned in the book as the tradition kept in theaters to leave one light burning at night, so that the ghosts can act on the stage and see each other.  It's a wonderfully evocative title, suggesting that the very book itself is a ghost light, allowing the ghost of Molly Allgood and J.M. Synge to relive on the stage of our imaginations.

The story itself is a great one, a love story at the very heart of it, with such haunting, memorable characters that I think they will be with me forever: nice Mr Duglacz, from the book-shop, whose love letter came too late; Mr Ballantine, the publican who heartbreakingly sneaks a bottle of milk into her carpet bag; Grannie, emerging from a pile of rags on the bed; John Synge, the rain dripping from his hair. Yet is is the character of Molly that is so wonderfully presented to us, that I do not wish to forget. Not unlike Joyce's Molly from Ulysses, this Molly bears her soul to us; her decency and her vulgarity, her innocence and her arrogance. We love her for her playfulness - she would flirt with the Pope himself, but there is an earnestness about her too that is bewitching. 
O'Connor has conjured up a woman, half real, half his own invention, that surely will become one of the great female characters of modern Irish fiction. Yet that is not all he has achieved. He has brought to life a world long gone, a Dublin of the past that seems vaguely like home to me.  That being so, it was a thrill and delight to step back in time between the pages of this book, to hear the vernacular and Dublin-isms that my grandparents might have known. Witness this conversation when J.M Synge comes to Molly's house for tea: 
' Grannie: Do you know what it is they need? The fine Irish people. 
A good kick in a place wouldn't blind them. 
Molly: Grannie, for the love of Jesus... 
Mother: And our Molly's a holy terror for the books, Misther Synge. 
She's that many o' them read, I don't know where to look. 
If she isn't a scholar, she met them on the road... a quare 
one for the books.' 

Note how this section reads like a play. Others are take the form of a letter, one of a headstone transcript. But mostly the book is written in a prose style that is anything but ordinary. Almost every sentence contains some evocative image, some witty insight that builds, layer upon layer, until the story unfolds, in the way a poet might deliver meaning. As an example:
' Your impulse was to hurry away.  You felt doors opening inside you, and you didn't want to go through any of them again'.
So this novel, surprisingly, possesses something of the feel of a poem, where meaning comes between the lines and lingers with you long after the story has been told. 

I recommend this book to everyone who loves a well-crafted, good story. The language alone will happily keep you up late into the night. I had it finished in 2 days because I simply fell in love with it and could not bear to put it down. I give this book my 'Blooming Brilliant' award and envy anyone who has not yet delved into its pages, and the promised delight that awaits you there. 

5 of 5 stars

If you liked this book you will love 'Galore', by Michael Crummey.  It has the perfect blend of poetry and passion in a Newfounland landscape.  Here is my review:

Friday, 15 April 2011

Alone on a Wide Wide Sea ~ by Michael Morpurgo

This is a book for young readers: age 10 - 14 perhaps.  It tells the story of 6 year old Arthur Hobhouse, who is orphaned during the Blitz in London and is sent across the ocean to Australia to find a new home. He experiences lots of difficulties adjusting to his new life: like when he is placed on a work-farm, which in reality is something akin to a concentration camp, from which he tries to escape.   He meets some interesting characters along the way; like Mighty Marty, his one true friend and protector from home; Piggy Bacon the cruel tyrant who, like a character from Dickens, bullies the children to within inches of their lives; Wes Snarky, the badie turned goodie; and Aunty Megs, the female Doctor Doolittle who lives in the Ark and dishes out love wrapped up in words of poetry to nourish the soul.
Many of the most memorable characters are animals, like Big Black Jack, the loyal, old  horse who helps them escape from Cooper's Station; Henry the Wombat, who will steal your socks and hat if he gets half a chance, and  Barnaby the donkey, who doesn't like to talk much.  Arthur lives to tell the tale, and it is this very tale which makes up the first part of the book.
The second part of the novel is narrated by Arthur's 18 year old daughter, Allie, who, armed with lap-top and Skype-phone, decides to retrace her father's steps, as it were, and sail solo across the sea to England in search of possible family there.  That is the basic plot, but this story is about so much more... family,friends, belonging, searching for home, love, faith, hope and the human spirit.
It has to be said that death is a major theme of the book too, but it is very matter of fact - someone dies, we are sad but the next day life goes on.  It is not at all sentimental.   There is no wallowing in grief. That said, hope and the ability of the human spirit to succeed is also central to the text.  The sections where Allie is adrift on the ocean, struggling to stay sane with nothing but an albatross to keep her company is very uplifting.  So the overall mood of the book is one of optimism.  Like Arthur, she too has difficulties to overcome and so the two stories have many parallels, though they are set many years apart. This prompts the reader to consider the relationships between generations and how struggle is a part of human existence, regardless of time.
There is also lovely poetry motif running through the book, which I enjoyed, with many references to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's  poem, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.  It really encourages the reader to research not only this poem but others too, such as 'The Second Coming' by W.B. Yeats.  So, the book works on many levels, with something for adults as well as younger readers.
Similarly, there is historical weight to this incredible story.  Children actually were shipped thousands of miles to unknown countries during the Second World War and this is a great way to teach young people, and adults too, about history, in a personal, moving way.

There is a section at the back of the book about the transported generation and some website addresses for  for those interested in further research.  I think young readers, teachers and parents will like the short, manageable chapters which make this a great book for classroom study, as well as night-time reading.

I would certainly recommend this book, especially to eager young readers who like a good story with a dash of adventure. 


Saturday, 2 April 2011

Mistaken ~ by Neil Jordan

A story about a couple of look-a-likes who get mistaken for one another and step in and out of each others lives... a good idea? The premise has promise, but something in the delivery of the story gets in the way. The prose style is very image-driven; (not surprising for a film-director such as Neil Jordan) reading like a series of blurred images, not unlike an impressionist painting, all building to create an overall sense of the relationship between the two main characters, Kevin Thunder and Gerald Spain. I yearned for some concrete prose to balance the fleeting ideas and half-suggestions, especially in the first half of the book. For the first 100 pages or so, Jordan was merely considering all the possibilities of mistaken identity, just joining the dots as it were, and the plot suffered as a consequence. Thankfully, the second half of the book was more eventful with more interesting twists and turns to keep the reader engaged.  

Also, the various scenarios that arose because of shared facial characteristics were at times downright implausible. People seemed able to mistake them because they shared the same 'musky smell' as well as the same face, even in the most intimate of circumstances. I think women are more discerning than the author gives them credit for!
However, I did like the way Jordan described Dublin and took us across the city, from north to south, in minute detail, which cannot but to remind the readers of Joyce's Ulysses. Indeed, there was something about Kevin's house in Marino Crescent, with it's house full of quirky tenants, such as Tommy the Clock, that reminds me of Joyce's short story, 'The Dead'. I think this novel would have made a cracking short story itself, and should have been whittled down at the editing stage. There were other references to Joyce in the text, such as when Gerard wanted to consummate his relationship with his future wife on a hillside on Bloom's Day, as Joyce had done with his beloved Nora. 
I think any Dubliner living abroad who was comes across this book will enjoy it for that very reason. 
Yeats too gets a mention, as do the swans on the Tolka river, many times. However, it is the literary reference to Bram Stoker which features most in the novel, with vampires in the night, some blood gurgling in the throat and a lot of stalking going on throughout, clearly revisiting imagery featured in his hugely successful movie, 'Interview With A Vampire'.  This adds a darkness to the text which I really liked. (Hence the rather grim, dark book-cover).  The eerie quality it produced was more akin to 'The Portrait of Dorian Grey' than Dracula, more haunting than blood-thirsty, with references to soul-sharing, dopplegangers and demons. 

I also enjoyed the way Jordan describes Kevin's relationship with his mother. There is clearly a deep connection between them , but as the boy gets older, we see them deal with the slow, bitter-sweet separation that must come with adolescence. He treats this whole area with great tenderness and sensitivity, as he later does when Kevin's father is in hospital. Both highlight the authors talent as a writer, in capturing and exploring human relationships. 
Without giving the ending away, I think there are wonderful ideas suggested in the last chapter of the book that perhaps Jordan might have elaborated on, especially regarding the true identity of the narrator. It was my favourite part of the book. 
I would not tell a friend NOT to read the book, as there were parts that I did enjoy... but I would not eagerly recommend it. 

2 of 5 stars