Sunday, 30 September 2012

Some Do Not (Parade's End Bk 1) ~ by Ford Madox Ford

If the measure of a book is how easily it transports you to another place, then Ford Madox Ford's novel, 'Some Do Not', is certainly a masterpiece.  I pulled back the curtains this morning and was surprised to see that I wasn't living in England in 1914.  I am not sure what I expected to see, army trucks lined up, gas-lit street lights, horse-drawn cabs perhaps, but my heart sank with the reality of rainy, suburban Dublin.

It is impossible to wait until the end of this four-novel series to write a review of 'Parade's End', in its entirety, and so I will do a diary blog post as I finish each individual book, beginning with the first.

 I understand now why Madox Ford is described as a Modernist writer, his place well-secured in the company of Woolf, Joyce and Conrad.  The narrative hops from one character's mind to another, but in such a deliciously revealing way, that the reader cares little for chronology.  What does a time-line have to do with the true meaning of a story anyhow?

By using this fragmented narrative style, we can see a scene from various people's point of view, until, ultimately, we get a sense of the truth of the matter, the truth of the story.  Like the glimpses of Tietjens' reflection, broken into many tiny pieces as the light shines from the multi-panelled window frame, the narrative of 'Some Do Not', is broken into many pieces.  Ultimately, we process the details and rebuild the story, into one, clear line, one clear truth.  Think of it like a diamond, with many sides, casting many reflections, but all the more beautiful for that.

In the character of Christopher Tietjens, we are given the embodiment of honesty, goodness and duty.  It seems all the more unexpected then, that he turns out to be the most romantic figure, that I have encountered in years.  By keeping his distance from Valentine Wannop, his academic equal and soul mate, he demonstrates the depth of his love.  It is the innocence and purity of their mutual feelings that is so moving and touching.  So much of the book takes place in the minds of the characters, in the silence of deep thought, that a verbal declaration of love is devastatingly profound.  It is the pure hearted Valentine who speaks first:

 'From the first moment I set eyes on you...' He interrupts, embolden by her honesty saying, ' And I ... from the first moment... I'll tell you ... if I looked out of a door ... it was all like sand ... But to the left a little bubbling up of water.  That could be trusted.  To keep on forever.'

 It is so typical that Christopher to declares his love through metaphor and simile and no one but Valentine can understand.  This is further proof that they are destined to be together.  How fitting that, in a Modernist text, where the whole reasoning behind the writing was to 'illumine the world within', that the secrets's of a heart should be communicated through imagery and visual means.  For Christopher, Valentine is the oasis in the desert, the only source of life, fertility and renewal in his desiccated world. The poetry of his language is the perfect mode of expression: not trite, but truthful.  The effect on the reader is all the more poignant as the words are uttered by a man in uniform, about to leave for the France, his beloved's talisman against harm tucked safely in his breast-pocket.
Of course this whole scene is so effective coming as it does after a sequence of fast-paced meanderings through Valentine's mind, as she races across London on foot, erroneously convinced that Christopher is the father of Mrs Macmaster's child, and that the rumours about him are true.  Her thoughts flood the page, as she hops from idea to idea.  The language is ceaseless, the ellipses reflecting her thought processes, as Madox Ford brings to light her inner life and the reader recognises in her how we too can think ourselves into a state.
By the time she meets Christopher face to face, she is only fit for crying, and we understand fully why this is so.  By now, Valentine has become a fully-rounded, living thing, no longer a mere fabrication on a page.

The book presents us with two specimens of womankind: Valentine, the virginal suffragette of high moral character, and Sylvia, the unfaithful wife, who disloyally, sends food parcels to her German friends despite, and because of, the war.  Life, for Sylvia, is one long party and so, perhaps, she represents the good life, the old life, of decadence, that ended with the horror of the trenches.  If she has her face turned to the past, Valentine's is facing the future.  She sees that change is coming,  and indeed hurries it along, with her demonstrations and embrace of the women's movement.  It is uncanny that Christopher, who prefers the world of the eighteen century to the England of 1914, should find himself falling hopelessly in love with a thoroughly modern girl.  Perhaps there is something deep in his unconscious mind that knows survival means embracing the future, and with it, hope.  He says earlier in the book:
'If you wanted something killed you'd go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it; emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you'd go to Valentine...'.  It is clear that at the end of 'Some Do Not', Tietjens, despite being hurled back into the horror of the war, is opting for life.

The  'Some Do Not' of the title is referred to at least four times, once by an administrator in the War Office, who offers Tietjens a comfortable position at home.  He utters this phrase when Christopher declines: others may take the easy way out, but some do not.  Another time, it is spoken by the fly-driver, who conveys Valentine home after her horse is hurt in the fog near home.  He says: ' "But I wouldn't leave my little wooden 'ut, nor miss my breakfast, for no beast... Some do and some... do not".' Because the man has a taste for food in the morning, Valentine and Christopher's glorious time together on the hill is cut short.  How little decisions can make such a difference in the lives of others.
Then, being faced with the prospect of saying goodbye to Christopher, a tramp sees Valentine crossing the London streets, with tears streaming down her face and says to himself,  ' "Some do!" ...  then added: "Some do not!" '.  It seems that people from every level of society, have some comment to make about Valentine and Christopher.
Yet, the most informative reference to the title comes at the very end of the book, when fate once again prevents the couple from consummating their relationship.  Valentine offers herself to him saying she will be ready for anything that he might ask of her, but Tietjens says, 'But obviously... Not under this roof...' And he had added: 'We're the sort that... do not!' Suddenly they are a 'we', a self-declared couple, united in their mutual, moral understanding and feeling for one another.  The change is complete.  Overall, the title seems to suggest, the importance of the decisions that we make in life and while some are beyond our control, others, the really crucial ones, are not.

And now, I have torn myself away from the book too long and will begin 'No More Parades'.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Irish Catholic Imagination of Elly Griffiths

So I went on a book binge - an Elly Griffiths book binge -starting with 'The Crossing Places', and then, 'The Janus Stone', followed by 'The House at Sea's End' (again) and 'A Room Full of Bones'.

The books' main character is Ruth Galloway, a cat-loving, archaeologist-turned-crime-investigator, whose love affair with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson is strangely compelling.  Yet, this blog post does not deal with Ruth's love life, or any one book in particular, but rather an idea that has been building in my mind ever since finishing the last book some weeks ago: how the texts are loaded with Catholic imagery and motifs.
The first book, 'The Crossing Places', almost begins with Ruth declaring that she prefers the Catholic version of heaven, with incense and candles.  From here on in, Catholic imagery floods the books.  Consider how so many of the cases involve young children, especially babies, mirroring the Madonna and Child imagery so central to Catholic iconography.   There are children, long dead, who are executed during ancient rituals, others who are abducted from home, and sadly another who is murdered, its skull hidden in a doorway.
In contrast to these dead children, are the living children of Nelson and Ruth.  Ruth will do anything to protect her daughter but she struggles with being a working mum, and the guilt that she suffers when she is away from her is a central theme.  This, however is nothing to the guilt felt by Nelson, who suffers doubly having betrayed his wife and all his daughters.  He is in a double-bind, and endures Catholic guilt whichever way he turns.  His troubles are magnified as divorce is not an option for Catholics.

Nelson's mother is an Irish Catholic, and he himself visits Father Hennessey in one book to receive confession for his 'sins'. 'Once a Catholic..' Grffith's writes.   It is Nelson who insists that Kate is baptised.  He struggles with his physical attraction to Ruth and struggles to repress it.  As a Catholic, he knows too well: if it feels this good, it must be wrong.

Nelson is not alone either; Sergeant Judy Johnson is Catholic too.  In fact, many of the characters are Catholic and Irish, much more than you would expect in a book set in Norfolk.  Ruth's best friends, Shona and Cathbad are Irish, as are Irish Ted, Max's parents, Sister Immaculata and Father Hennessey, meaning that there is a high percentage of Catholic characters in the series.
These characters seem at home with mysticism and strange happenings.  The ghost of Eric returns in book four, despite having died earlier in the series.  We witness Cathbad, a practising Druid complete with purple cloak, who seems to be blessed with second sight, entering the Dreamtime, participating in rituals and pagan ceremonies.  It is he who officiates over a baptism of baby Kate.  At one point even Nelson is hospitalised after being on the receiving end of an ancient curse.

I feel that the tendency of Griffith to fill her books with Irish characters, is because she wants to fill it with Catholic mysticism and superstition inspired by the ancient world of archaeology, which is at the core of the Ruth Galloway books.
   A new book, 'A Dying Fall', the fifth in the Ruth Galloway series, is due out in 2013.  Let's hope the 'dying' of the title refers to no one we know.   But I think we can be sure that there will be flavour of Irish Catholicism about it, I would be disappointed otherwise.

At Sea ~ Laurie Graham

Is this the new Agatha Christie without the body in the library?  No, it certainly is not. Yet, this book will keep you guessing and longing for high tea in the afternoon.
'At Sea', by Laurie Graham, is a novel about appearances, set on-board a cruise ship where people can easily adopt a new identity and live out their fantasies for a few weeks at least, before returning to normality on shore.
The story is narrated by the long-nosed, long-suffering Lady Enid Finch, who plays the neglected wife of Professor Bernard Finch, the ship's history lecturer (glorified guide) whose snobbery and egotism make him easily the most detested man on-board.  He is completely absorbed with his own image and status, sulking over his below-par accommodation and his having been denied a seat at the captain's dinner table.  In fact, he is so obsessed with appearing superior to all the other passengers, that it soon becomes clear that he is not who he claims to be.  When he is confronted by a fellow passenger and  boyhood friend, Enid soon realises that the man she married is not who he claimed to be, but is in fact Mr Willy Fink, a barely educated American from dubious parentage.  And what an appropriate name for the camelion-like Bernard, Fink sounding so much like fake.

But Bernard (or Willy) is not the only character who is not as they seem.  Lady Enid, we are told is actually not entitled to her title either, owing to second marriage and new heir.  To learn such untruths about our beloved narrator is quite unsettling and in keeping with the ever-shifting terrain of a stormy sea.  As the plot unfolds, more twists are revealed until we finally realise that nothing in this book is what it appears to be.  Interesting, it is only the loud Americans, so hated by Bernard for their being so 'American' in the first place, that are unchanging and steadfast.  They are what they appear to be.  Perhaps Graham is commenting on British society and how, like the effervescent Mrs Bucket, so much energy is spent in keeping up appearances, that life becomes nothing but boring show.  

Yet the theme of appearances goes still deeper in this text, infiltrating the very tone of the book.  For the first chapter or two I thought the book was set in the early part of the twentieth century and I kept expecting Miss Marple or Poirot to pop out from behind a cabin door.  How shocking then to hear a character refer to their mobile phone, or a reference to the year 2002!  Graham clearly sets out to make the book 'appear' to be set in pre-war Europe, but again is playing with our preconceptions, just like Bernard and Enid do.  In this way, the book harps back to an era long gone, when sea travel was a necessity, not a choice, which, in a way, all sea cruises do.

The book further reminds me of Agatha Christie because it contains a mystery, revolving around not the 'appearance', but the dis-appearance of an important character.  I cannot elaborate further for fear of spoiling the book, but the fact remains that the author has created a book which operates on may different levels.  Perhaps it is because of this interlacing of plot and style that I did not become very attached to any of the ship's passengers.  The all seemed a little shallow by the end and even Enid showed herself to be as unknowable as the rest.  Of course it is wonderfully enjoyable to see her abandon her grey wolly cardy for an electric blue dress, but she left me a little cold somehow.
Still, this is a very witty, enjoyable book that will keep you entertained to the end and rushing to read a little Agatha Christie and boil kettles, for some unknown reason.