Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Wired Love - A romance of dots and dashes ~ by Ella Cheever Thayer

'Wired Love- A Romance of Dots and Dashes', by Ella Cheever Thayer  (1849-1925),  is an enchanting book about a love affair between two telegraphers in America, code names 'N' and 'C'.  The couple fall victim to the dangers that internet chat-room users are faced with today: they begin to fall for the stranger on the other end of the line without knowing what they look like, who they are, or anything much about them.  For the first few chapters, 'N', known as Nattie, has no idea if the grapher on the end of the line is a man or a woman.  She leads a double life - her 'online' life and her humdrum normal life.  She has her real, 'visible' friends, and this increasingly special  'invisible' friend.  More and more the 'invisible' variety takes precedence.  How many of us can relate to that?  The amazing thing is that the story was written in 1879.  

It is clear that Cheever Thayer is a huge Dickens fan; her characters are cartoon-like in their depiction and comic too.  Like the Pocket family in 'Great Expectations', who are continuously described as tumbling and falling, so too is the love-sick Quimby, as he tumbles and falls, over logs, cushions, fire buckets etc. He is something akin to Stan Laurel and you cannot help but warm to him and respect his good taste as he is so enamoured with our witty heroine.  The novelist actually refers to two Dickens novels during the story as a nod of respect the great English writer who had died just nine years before this book was written.

The humour in this novel is touching and farcical at times, in the way of P.G. Woodhouse, and I found this to be one of the most charming aspects of the book.  Charming is the perfect word for it as you fall in love with the characters and delight in the myriad of misunderstanding that makes this novel so highly cinematic.

Indeed, it would make a wonderful play and an even better movie.  As such it would have been a perfect role for a young Jimmy Stewart and reminds me greatly of 'The Shop Around the Corner', which was recently re-made and updated as 'You Got Mail', starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  If you like either of those films, then you will love this book.  It is full of witty, sparkling dialogue, plenty of puns and word play, especially when they chat on 'the wire', and could easily be adapted into a modern tale about find love on the World Wide Web.

It is so interesting to note the freedom that these Victorian Americans, and women especially, were allowed.  It seems a million miles away from the sheltered, chaperoned existence of the Brontes and George Elliot.  It is no surprise to learn then, that Cheever Thayer was a suffragette and wrote plays on the subject.  Here is a section from the book that I found very interesting, given the early date of its origin, and how pertinent the words are even in today's world:

'... She had growled at herself all the way because she was not smart enough to get on in the world, even so far as to be to stay at home in such weather.  For storms of nature, like storms of life, are hardest to a woman, trammelled as she is in the one by long skirts, that will drag you in the mud, and clothes that every gust of wind catches, and in the other by prejudices and impediments of every kind, that the world, in consideration, doubtless, for her so-called "weakness", throws in her way'.

Such words of frustration echo Bronte's novel written some thirty years previously, but would not have been out of place if there were said by Jane Eyre herself!  So while the book has a light, romantic tone, there is substance there all the same and you do not need to dig very deep to find it.

But what is most memorable about this book is the voice of the author; this vibrant, clever, witty woman, who had worked in a telegraph office herself, and had spoken in morse code on the wires, and, perhaps, had experienced some of the funny situations that she describes so deftly in the book.

A regular reader will finish this short book in a day, and what a pleasant, romance-filled day of smiles that will be!

#PurelyForPleasure - Free on Kindle /Gutenberg.org ebooks.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Paris Wife ~ Paula McLain

Rage, rage and more rage... for Hemingway, his wife and me. 
'The Paris Wife', by Paula McLain, is like a slow growing hurricane: its passion builds and builds until you find yourself being carried away by its characters and finally deposited a long distance from where you originally started, feeling battered and bruised.
It is a story of the courtship and marriage of Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway, the acclaimed novelist and self-proclaimed hero of modern American literature.  It follows the life cycle of a love affair, from the heady first days, to the post-mortems and as such should come with a health warning.  Let the broken-hearted everywhere beware!  We are taken down the road of break-up and recrimination and while Mrs Hemingway, the narrator, may not feel anything close to hatred for her ex-husband, the reader certainly does.  Like her, I fell in love with Hemingway in those early chapters and even ordered myself some copies of his novels to enjoy, but by the book's end, I found myself cursing the man.  Like I said - this book is all about rage, the good sort and the bad.  


The book also made me long for Paris, its cafes and art galleries, its classic architecture and damp rain.  It made me yearn, too, for a writer's life and giving myself totally to a work of art, at the expense of health, wealth and everything else.  But who can live like that?  Ernest Hemingway certainly could and did.   The candle burned at both ends for this writer, giving a dazzling light that attracted its own set of fireflies and moths.  Yet, people cannot live like that for long, burning up everything and everyone in their path; old lovers and friends, family and patrons.  


It is no mystery why 'The Paris Wife'  by Paula McLain is so popular with book clubs the world over for it leaves the reader with more questions than answers.  One of the main questions is, should someone be excused bad manners and cruelty just because they are an artist?   If so, then is meanness and infidelity only allowable if the artist is an extremely talented artist, or is every artist, be they Noble Prize winning or derivative and full of hot air, allowed such moral poetic-licence?  It makes me wonder about the true legacy of a person - which should be most celebrated, that you were a good writer, or that you were a good person?  After reading this book, I have to admit that Ernest Hemingway, despite being a gifted author, was a selfish, self-obsessed, childish man, whose ego knew no bounds, and who clearly had a problem with women.   By the end of it, I wanted to reach into the pages, grab him by the neck and strangle the man, but that is one pleasure, thus far, denied to an eager reader.  (You see... more rage!)


 The way Mclain tells it, Hemingway was almost a victim of a preconceived ambush - that Pauline Pfeiffer effectively waylaid the author and he was helpless to stop it happening.   It reminds me of some of the other first wives of successful artists: Cynthia Lennon, especially, comes to mind, a young wife and mother, abandoned very publicly by her husband and then by his entire entourage.  And what about Ann Hathaway, William Shakespeare's wife, who, like Hadley was also some years senior to her husband, and was abandoned by him in Stratford while he searched for fame and fortune in the playhouses of London.  Even the great romantic, Charles Dickens was not immune, leaving his once beloved wife, Catherine Hogarth, after she bore him ten children, for an 18 year old actress, Ellen Ternan.  


Why is it that so many of our greatest artists seem to outgrow the women they loved before they were famous?  Don't we see the same scenario playing itself out repeatedly in the lives of Hollywood celebrities?  In some of these cases there is not much artistic talent to speak of, but considerable fame and attention.  And so I conclude that it is the ego of the artist, and not their level of brilliance, that makes marital success, or mere monogamy, so elusive.
Even James Joyce, the writer who seemed to understand so intimately the working of a woman's mind, managed to be unfaithful to his mistress and muse, Nora Barnacle.  Their marriage 25 years later seemed to make no difference to their relationship and affairs with other women continued.

But this is not saying much of McLain's book itself.  It is a great piece of historical fiction, written as Hadley Richardson's memoir.  She makes an endearing narrator, although we occasionally see life from Hemingway's perspective and hear private conversations that Hadley would not have been privy to.   McLain brings their story to life as she imagines the conversations and situations that the couple found themselves in.  It seems that the essence of the Hemingways' relationship has entered into the very fibre of this text: their passionate, hunger for life; exhausting, exhilarating and extra-ordinary.  The text is light and the dialogue full of witty, American slang that was so popular in the 1920s.  Hemingway comes across as larger than life, his smile once described as spreading from his face and reaching every part of his body.  


The interesting thing is that Hadley writes her memoir in the same style as her husband; with pure, unadorned language.  Similarly, their world, like Hemingway's prose, is simple and clear, no frills, no unnecessary clutter.  Their home in Paris is scantily furnished and bare. They eat simply, sausage and potatoes being a favourite dish, and even their clothes resemble those of plain, working folk: baggy trousers and cotton shirts.  As their surroundings become more sophisticated, and they mix with the rich and beautiful, so too do their lives.  Finally, everything becomes so complicated, it is unbearable and, as Yeats said, 'The centre cannot hold'.

It is clear that McLain is a published poet as the novel is full of visual symbolism. When Hadley is at her lowest, feeling trapped and confined, beside her is a canary bird, caught in its cage.  There are other references to caged birds in the novel too.  If Hadley is represented by a caged bird, then Ernest is best symbolised by the charging bull that he loved so well; a huge physical presence, passionate, raging, wild.  At one point in the novel, the entire male entourage begin to adopt bull-like personae, squaring up to one another and challenging their friends to fight over a particularly beautiful girl.  The entire scenario would be laughable were it not for the pain it causes the women in the group. Yet, one of my favourite symbols in the text is the moment when Hadley finally realises that her marriage is over, and she watches the walls of their son's sandcastle crumbling into the sea.  This tiny cinematic detail captures the tragedy of divorce so beautifully, when a home is wrecked irreparably and all security for the family unit is lost.

The structure of the book has the symmetry of a poem too, with images from the beginning of the novel echoing through to the end.  Consider when Hadley and Ernest first kiss, he calls her a coward and bids her to jump off the top of a sand dune and when she does, he takes her in his arms and kisses her passionately.  On the day when she finally snaps, having had enough of his infidelity, he calls her a coward, telling her to dive into the water below.  This time she does not dive in.  There are so many clever, symmetrical echoes in this book, with mirrored stories of fathers lost and women abandoned, that you cannot help but smile.

This is a book to take your time over and enjoy, although your desire to discover how it all ends with have you devouring the pages in the all-or-nothing fashion of the Hemingways.  But be prepared to be shaken by this text, by the questions and the doubts it will leave you with, on the nature of love, fidelity and matrimony, and the eternal differences between the male and female of the species.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' ~So simple, it's child's play.

Have you ever felt that there is something missing from your life?  Well, I have found what that 'something' is:  The Jane Austen, 'Pride and Prejudice' Baby Board Book!  This is and is not what you are thinking.  No, it is not a book about child-rearing Jane Austen style, although I suspect some Janeite somewhere in the world is working on that project as I type.  But yes, it is a book for babies.
How is that possible?  How can a mere child appreciate the pertinent prose, witty witticisms and clever character creation that we associate with Jane Austen?
  Well the awfully talented artist and author duo, Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver, have come up with the solution to that very problem....
by making a beautiful book that babies will enjoy, on a very simple level.  And what do little folk like doing... apart from chewing?  Counting!  

Yes - this is a Jane Austen, 'Pride and Prejudice', baby counting book ... I kid you not.  'One English village.... two handsome gentlemen... three big houses...' you get the picture?
Indeed, the pictures are the most appealing thing about this little jewel of a book.  The illustrations are simply adorable, which brings me to my main point.  This is not actually a Jane Austen baby book... but a Jane Austen mummy book.
This book is so deliciously charming, it will make you feel complete, whole and happy with your lot in life.  Failing that, it will give you something nice to look at when you have finished dashing about and finally sit down with your child for some one on one time.
 It will also put a smile on your face as you teach your child how to count:   'Yes, five sisters, one who is very silly, another who is very pretty and one... just like your mummy; who is very, very clever.'  An added bonus is that this is one book purchase that you don't need to feel guilty about - it is educational after all.  

My final word:
Only very clever mummies will buy this book but only very silly mummies will actually let their children play with it... especially for those kiddies who prefer chewing to counting.


#Onefortheshelf.


Sunday, 10 June 2012

Corrag ~by Susan Fletcher

I have just finished reading 'Corrag' by Susan Fletcher and I can honestly say that I have never read a book like it.  Previously published under the title of 'Witch Light', it is a story about a young woman who has witnessed a massacre in the Scottish highlands and to silence her, the authorities have accused her of being a witch.  She tells her life-story to a visiting Irish political activist, Charles Leslie, who is secretly gathering evidence against newly crowned King William of Orange, the person behind the massacres.   At first he is reviled by the tiny witch creature, but slowly he begins to see the young girl beneath the tangled hair and torn garments for what she really is: an honest, frail orphan, who has been victimised all her life for daring to be different.
On one level this book tells the story of just one woman, but on another, it brilliantly describes the fate of hundreds of thousands of outspoken, clever women through the ages.  Corrag comes from generations of 'witches', that is women who led hunted lives and who were executed for being different, having a knowledge of homoeopathy or a child out of wedlock .  The term 'witch' is flung at her as a threat whenever someone takes against her on the flimsiest of pretexts.  The ignorance of people was appalling and I only wonder that even more women were not branded by such a title, given the random nature of it.  The book clearly sets out to illustrate the horrors experienced by so many women in the past and to tell their story.  Indeed Corrag herself calls on Charles Leslie, and indeed to the reader too, to remember the dead and their stories, as a way of keeping their memories alive.  Susan Fletcher certainly has achieved that goal in this novel.  

She uses a number of interesting narrative devices to seduce the reader.  For example, clever use of first person narrative ensures that we develop an intimate relationship with the main characters. The story is told in a collection of monologues: Corrag's dialogue consists of a one-sided conversation with Charles Leslie, and his dialogue consists of a collection of letters that he writes home to his beloved wife Jane.  It is a very simple yet ingenious way of learning what two different characters are feeling without slipping into third person narrative.  Most of the time we are listening to Corrag tell her tale, with letters from Charles adding some variety and filling in the gaps.  Interestingly, at the end of the book, this technique is reversed momentarily and it is Charles Leslie who speaks in a one-sided conversation and it is Corrag who writes a letter.  The impact of this surprise is to add drama to the text and to suggest an element of freedom for the characters.

Yet, while we are inside Corrag's head, our hearts pound wildly, as she fights-off drunken redcoats or sits in her cell awaiting execution.  We are with her when she struggles to live by the oath she gave to her mother, never to love a man.  She feels guilt when she begins to love the old mare who saves her life countless times and is the only true friend she has ever known.  But it is when she sees the face of Alistair Macdonald that her fate is sealed and her passionate, secret love for him cannot be quelled.  We are there, listening to every word that she speaks to Charles Leslie, the man who lost a daughter back in Ireland and begins to see in this tiny girl, resemblances of his wife and lost child.  In a way, Charles becomes a surrogate father to Corrag, but to give specific examples as to why that is, would spoil the ending.


There is great poetry in this novel, as the author uses the senses to describe every new place, character and object.  Fletcher describes a wild, untamed Scottish landscape, where prose and poetry merge and co-exist.  The reader is bombarded with a myriad of sensual description, in a way that reminds me of the great Romantic poets.  Every sense is seduced, as the scenes come to life on the page.  The synaesthetic imagery propels us back to 1692 and screams so loudly that we too feel the need to lift our skirts and flee.  As one might expect, in a tale about a girl living out of doors, there is mud, heather and moss, but there is also moonlight, mists and waterfalls.  Corrag dwells in a world without kings and religion, because she has learned that she is not like everyone else and she does not fit in to that traditional world.  Her world is the natural world, where she is ruled by her basic instincts of kindness, honesty and truth.  As such, she has a wisdom that endears her to some, but cause others to fear her.


The classical elements, earth, water, fire and air, are all central to the novel.  Corrag is so in tune with her surroundings that she is never happier than when growing her herbs in the brown earth, or standing naked amid silvery mists of water and air.  She was born in wintertime and so is a child of the snow.  So many of the important events in the story occur while snow is falling, which is in stark contrast to the burned houses during the Glencoe massacre and, of course, the execution fire that awaits Corrag.  Fletcher carefully balances all the classical elements in the text to emphasis the only 'witchcraft' or laws that Corrag adheres to, which are the laws of nature.  Corrag belongs to the physical earth and knows its ways.  With a mother who was cruelly taken from her too soon, she relies on the predictability of Mother Earth, its seasons and cycles, for emotional sustenance and protection.

But apart from the clever language, poetry and narrative voice, this book is an excellent read.  I urge you to read it and try it for yourself.  It is a book like no other, and believe me, Corrag is one character worth knowing.  But you must let her come close and whisper in your ear, her strange yet beautiful tale, of water, earth, fire and air.  Then, when next you say 'witch', you will think of the home in the highlands, between the gap in the rocks, where the girl with the moths in her hair bathes in moonlight and yearns for snow.

Five out of Five

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Islandman ~ Tomas O Crohan

Having recently finished reading 'The Island', by Victoria Hislop, about life on a Cretan island, I picked up a copy of 'The Islandman', by Tomas O Crohan.  This is a first hand account of O Crohan's life growing up on The Great Blasket island, off the south-western coast of Ireland.  We in Ireland are probably best familiar with the island because Peig Sayers lived there and the book she wrote about her life on the Blaskets was compulsory reading for every Irish teenager for many years.  As such, it was conservatively the most hated Irish textbook of all time.

Despite this blatant prejudice, I thought I would give Tomas's book a try.  Written in his native Gaelic tongue but translated into English, he begins by describing his first memory, that of being breast fed by his mother... apparently he was about 3 or 4 at the time.   Yes, the women were a hardy bunch on the islands.

Born in 1856, this autobiography spans a whole lifetime, up until 1926, when the final chapter was written.  O Crohan himself died in 1937.  The book is full to the brim with adventure, sadness and countless interesting characters.  More than anything though, it captures on paper a world that is long gone, where people fought against the elements and faced hardship on a daily basis.  Death was a regular occurrence, but people on the Blaskets just had to get on with life and focus on securing the next meal.  Out of his ten children, O Crohan lost eight in very sad circumstances and his wife too passed away quite young, leaving behind a tiny baby.

The women seem to die very early and lead hard, thankless lives, with their days spent cleaning, cooking and slaving after countless children and absent husbands.  If bread was to be had, it was the woman's job to bake it.  Marriages were based upon the ability of a woman to work hard, cook and care for animals.  Lack of space in the family home was another reason to have your eldest daughter married-off and moved-out into an in-laws house.  Love, as we know it today, was not even in the running. O Crohan too found a wife in this way, although he liked her first because of her singing voice.  From his descriptions, there were always people trying to make a match for him where ever he went.  He never describes what she looked like or anything about her as a individual.  Instead, he only tells us how her death meant he had more work to do around the place and was left short-handed.  The author is not very clear on such personal details, but instead tells the tale in broad brush-strokes, giving the reader a sense of life on the island in macro scale.

One of the most memorable stories he recalls was the day the bailiffs came to the island to claim taxes.  The men moved all their animals to a distant part of the island, while the women were left holding the fort, as it were.  As the bailiffs approached, each carrying a gun, the women began showering them with large rocks.  Children scampered about the fields collecting stones for their mothers.  After three attempts and with one man left unconscious owing to his wounds, the bailiffs sailed away and did not return.  Such were the women of The Blaskets.

As you can imagine, each day was a struggle on the island, but the people there also knew great freedom and joy.  Couples were 'matched' together in marriage and at times there was plenty to eat and drink.  There was much celebration and drinking whenever a pig was sold, and drinks of commiseration too when one was not.  Many a good man was lost to the pleasure that alcohol could bring and O Crohan explains this at the end of the book by saying that they drank so much because of 'the need to have a merry night instead of the misery that we knew only too well before'.

The story also tells of the heartbreak of separation and emigration, as countless young people left the island in search of a better life in America.  What I did not know was that so many returned after a few years only to leave again a few years later.  From such examples we can see the conflict that raged in the lives of the islanders: wanting a better life for themselves, but being so instinctively drawn back to their island home.  I cannot imagine how these people coped with life astride two very different worlds: forsaking the traditions of the Great Blasket for the modernity of Manhattan.

So, if you fancy taking a step back in time, to see how Irish men and women survived on this tiny outpost, called the Great Blasket Island, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of the 19th century, then 'The Islandman' is the book for you.  You certainly will never forget it, and let us hope we will never forget the men and women of The Blasket Islands, for we certainly never will look on their like again.

The Island ~ Victoria Hislop

This is a story that follows the lives of four generations of women in the same family and their connection with the Greek leper colony that was situated on the Cretan island of Spinalonga up until 1957.  Having just finished the novel I feel I'm an expert on the disease that for so long filled the world with dread and revulsion.  It is simply caused by a bacteria, but, in its turn, caused much devastation to communities and resulted in cruel social fragmentation.  This is one of the main themes of the novel, how leprosy destroyed a family.

Hislop clearly researched her novel well and this was my favourite aspect of the novel.  Somehow, I felt that the characters' lives were just a means to an end and the real star of the novel was the island itself.  Eleni, the first mother in the story, was my favourite character, the school teacher who probably contracted the disease from a pupil.  She and the young boy are sent off to the island together, silently boarding the boat in their shame, hugging each other as they bid farewell to family and friends.
Their incarceration on the island is well documented in the novel and makes for interesting reading.  It is surprising to learn that during World War Two, conditions at the leper colony were better than those enjoyed by the rest of the population.  It seems that even the Nazis were afraid of leprosy!  They had a cinema there, a school, a hospital and a well organised political system, where leaders were democratically elected and fought hard for the legal entitlements of their fellow citizens.  Making any improvement in living conditions or medical care was an uphill battle, but some of the residents of Spinalonga had friends in high places and this ensured that their voices was heard.  The disease had scant regard for social class and many different types of people, from fisherman to wealthy lawyers, found themselves taking the lonely trip out to the island of lepers.  The many layers of historical detail proved to be the most interesting aspect of the novel in my opinion.

Although the plot was quite slow-moving in parts, Eleni's character maintained my interest throughout the first section of the book.  I was desperate for her to survive the disease and heartbroken to leave her story behind and move on to the next generation.  I found the lives of her daughters, Anna and Maria, a little less compelling.  Anna especially was a one-dimensional character with little depth at all.  She was a wayward child, a spoilt, wicked girl who caused mayhem yet supplied a great deal of the drama in the novel.  She of course comes to a bad end, but even that is over-dramatic and actually detracts from the fine premise of the story.  I think Hislop's original idea - to write a story about the island of Spinalonga- is interesting enough, without the addition of Anna!  In fairness though, the loveable characters of Fotini, Maria and Gorgis Patrakis are beautifully depicted and seem alive on the page.  Hislop is clearly at home writing about Greece and its passionate people, culture and way of life.
So, this is an easy, and at times heartbreaking, read; enjoyable if you have an interest in Greek history, or history in general and evocative for those who ever wondered what it was like to be branded 'unclean' and cast out from the world.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Painted Veil ~ William Somerset Maugham


This is a book to get lost in, not just in the usual way of books, but in a way that is haunting and will have you musing for days and days, long after you have turned the final page.  For nothing is simple when it comes to this novel.  The plot moves from climax to climax as you might expect from a novel that was originally serialised .  But it is the depiction of characters that is most perplexing.  We cannot quite figure out if we like the main characters but are compelled to take this figurative and literal journey with them into the heart of China. Who is the real hero, the true villain?  Some of the time I side with the main female character and at others I feel nothing but chagrin for her.  In this regard, Maugham is a first rate author, he keeps you analysing and reassessing every word and act.

The novel begins in China, 1925, between the wars, when British civil servants and citizens were becoming more and more unwelcome in the Far East.  Shallow, spoilt Kitty Garstin has married Dr Walter Fane, a bacteriologist living in China just so that she can walk down the aisle before her younger sister.  This British couple have little in common.  She does not love her quiet, reserved husband, and barely knows him at all.  His passion for her is superficial, loving her like a doll in an Ibsen play.  The scene is set for an extra-marital affair which duly takes place.

On its discovery, Walter, a great bridge player, makes an unexpected move and volunteers his medical services in the cholera-ridden Mei-tan-fu district.  His wife is given an ultimatum: she must accompany him on this suicidal expedition, or face disgrace and divorce.

And so we come to one of the main themes of this novel: freedom.  In a wild attempt to free herself form her overbearing, condescending mother, Kitty runs thoughtlessly into a loveless marriage.  Then, to free herself from the boredom of married life, she throws herself into a passionate affair with a selfish, serial womaniser.  Next, trapped by the shameful discovery of her adultery, she is forced to face certain death and journey into the centre of the cholera epidemic at Mei-tan-fu.  Her desire for freedom is so intense, her desperation is almost palpable.

In a speech that would not be out of place in 'Jane Eyre', Kitty Fane cries out for her entitlement to freedom, in all its guises:
'Freedom! Not only freedom from a bond that irked, and a companionship which depressed her; freedom, not only from the death which had threatened, but freedom the love that had degraded her; freedom from all spiritual ties, the freedom of a disembodied spirit; and with freedom, courage and a valiant unconcern for whatever was to come'.

As such, this in some ways reads as a modern text, having much to interest students of feminist criticism and a lot to recommend it to women of every generation.  The book ends with a declaration that mother's must teach their daughters not to make the same mistakes as the previous generation and in their turn, they must embrace true, spiritual freedom and not become the playthings of men, selling their freedom in return for material comfort.

Yet, in a very disturbing way, this is also a novel of its time.  In one chapter Kitty describes the appearance Chinese orphans in such a demeaning way that every feeling revolts.  Similarly, a mentally ill child is referred to as 'it' and 'the creature', which only serves to demonstrate the ignorance of the character and society in general in 1925.   One of the nuns points out to Kitty the beauty of all living things and soon Kitty's attitude changes. It is unclear whether Maugham is trying to illustrate the shallowness of his main character through her prejudicial comments, or if he is  actually revealing his own.  Either way, it makes for very uncomfortable reading.

Opposing notions, such as the beautiful and the grotesque, are ever present in this text.  Indeed this is a book about the antithetical nature of human relationships, the fine line between love and hate, passion and anger.  Such basic human emotions are twinned in the hearts of men and women and it doesn't take much to exchange one for the other- or so it is in the world of William Somerset Maugham's imagination.

 'I despise myself' Walter tells his wife.  Dr Fane hates himself for loving Kitty so much and for choosing the wrong wife.  He has come to Mei-tan-fu to kill himself, if she dies it is a bonus.  His passion for her is all consuming and that is his flaw.  Like a character from a Shakespearian tragedy, he loved Kitty to distraction and finally to insanity.  He forces her to face her guilt and to look upon death at very close quarters.  He is essentially mad in love and his madness makes him act in a cruel and calculating way that is so opposed to his usual character.  The possessive passion of Walter Fane has grown so corrupt that he takes his adulterous wife deep into a cholera epidemic, in the hope that one or both of them will die.  He would rather that than watch her leave him.

He little foresees how the trip to Mei-tan-fu will soften his own anger, will allow Kitty to soften too and develop a selfless understanding of other people.   She slowly comes to the realisation that she is a frivolous fool, while Walter is a kind, generous, brilliant doctor who saves hundreds of people and defeats the disease. Once he discovers that she is pregnant, however, he has a change of heart and wants her to leave.  He has a great capacity for love and in Mei-tan-fu it pours out on the wretched poor and sick.  In this way, the passion for his wife is redirected and channelled into something more positive.

In Mei-tan-fu, Kitty comes to see the change in Walter and recognises his greatness.  She misses his affection when it is gone and his tenderness.  'What was it in the human heart that made you despise a man because he loves you?' she asks.  Walter had 'an exquisite kindliness', she admits.  On some level I think she has come to love Walter, but cannot face the reality, feeling, perhaps, that she does that she is not worthy of love - never having known it as a child.  When she learns that Walter loved babies she cannot fail to recognise what a good husband and father he could have been.  Yet, she cannot forget that he took her to Cholera ridden Mei-tan-fu.  She sad truth is she fears him.

The subtle sense of fear and hostility that underlies this novel reminds me of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', or James's 'Portrait of a Lady'.  Here too the central characters  have to come face to face with their own weakness and her own failings.  Kitty Fane is faced with the suffering and death of countless strangers and is so touched by the experience that it is like the 'dark night of the soul' for her.  She is forced to accept her faults and to realise that she sold herself for so little, not fully knowing the cost she would have to pay.  Hers is a nature that is weak and governed by rudimentary, animalistic passions.  She believes she is capable of self-control, but ultimately learns that she takes pleasure in being the plaything of men.

Like Conrad's novel, this text traces a journey into hell on earth.  There Kitty knows what true terror is. Yet, ironically, both Walter and Kitty find redemption in Mei-tan-fu.  She learns to be selfless, he leans to use his passion for good.  How strange it is that it is in this hellish place that she is touched by a godlike calm and beauty, owing to her contact with the saintlike nuns at the infirmary convent.  These women are the foil for her loveless mother.  Here she finds positive female role models who teach her the merits of selflessness and grace.  They adore Walter more than she ever could and the teach her to appreciate the goodness in the man she has married.  They emphasise the spiritual in the world, and help eradicate the physical obsession that embodied her affair with Charlie Townsend.

This is a  a dark, twisted tale about a couple bent on suicide because they hate each other.  Yet it also about great passion and desire.  The wonder is that Kitty does not see the beauty in her husband, why she does not succumb to the brilliance of his great mind, that so enchants the nuns in the convent, the local Chinese guards and the forgotten little orphans.  But as I said earlier, this is a book to keep you wondering, be it about the book's title, taken from a poem by Shelley, or Walter's famous reference to Oliver Goldsmith's poem, 'The dog it was who died'.  I thoroughly recommend 'The Painted Veil' for those of you who wish to be transported into another time and place, where good and evil walk side by side and sometimes call themselves by other names.