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?