Sunday, 29 December 2013

Beautiful Books ~ 'The Secret Garden' - illustrated by Lauren Child

Each Christmas I like to pamper myself with a beautiful hardback copy of a classic text, and this year I was especially delighted with this, anniversary edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett's best-loved tale, 'The Secret Garden'.

Now, if you are familiar with my blog, you will remember that I previously posted on this novel, waxing lyrical about Inga Moore's illustrated edition of The Secret Garden, but I know that you will forgive such repetition just this once, when you cast your eye over the beautiful illustrations that accompany this enduring text.  

At once, you will recognise the stylized artwork of Lauren Child, she of 'Charlie and Lola' picture book fame.  And what a wonderful job she has done with Hodgson Burnett's classic tale of the spoilt little girl from India, who, with the help of Dickon and a friendly robin redbreast, comes to discover the value of friendship and family in the cold, unlikely environs of the Yorkshire moors.  

Just look at the very first page of the book- there is a cutaway door, that opens onto the following page, revealing the title of the book.  How clever and even thrilling to discover a secret door of one's very own just inside the book cover.    

There is something ever so satisfying about seeing these modern illustrations alongside this classic Edwardian tale, where little girls wear white petticoats and black laced-up ankle-boots.  They bring a freshness to the book, that my young daughter (and I) find very appealing. 

But, let me be clear, this book is a true luxury item, and in my opinion is not meant for sticky fingers and spilled breakfast cereal, but is more suited to an older, more appreciative reader.  That said - you can always purchase an every day copy of the book, for younger readers, alongside this splendid copy, and reserve the latter for special days.  

So, if you love books like I love books (which I suspect you do!) then treat yourself to this glorious edition of 'The Secret Garden'. 

It was published in 2011, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the original publication, and, as a fan of author Frances Hodgson Burnett, you owe it to her, and the little child inside of you, to purchase a sublime, hardback, cloth-bound copy of this, her most popular novel, while you still can.  

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling ~ by Robert Galbraith

To begin with let me say that this is a really enjoyable novel.  From the first, I was hooked, and delighted in every twist and turn that we have come to expect from the novelist who brought us the Harry Potter series.  Rowling's private investigator, Cormoran Stike - what a great name!- is in the classic murder mystery style; a flawed, troubled, hard-living, hard- drinking ex-army officer, who is down on his luck but afraid of no one.  His love-life is in the toilet, but he still manages to attract the ladies.

At his side is his trusty new secretary Robin, as reliable as Batman's sidekick, a fiesty, quick-witted, normal girl from the north of England who is the prefect match for Strike's unorthodox methods and rock 'n roll family background. Together they make a winning team, especially as their is a possible simmering attraction just hinted at between them. But as we know, Rowling has a history of writing great platonic friendships between the sexes, so we only hope that there will be a sequel, so that we can find out if Robin goes through with her marriage plans to her perfect fiance or not.

But what seems curious to me is that J.K. Rowling chose to reinvent herself with this book, using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and not her first post-Potter publication, 'The Casual Vacancy'. My own theory is that she uses the pen name to create some distance between herself and the story. Indeed, there are some parallels between Rowling and the murder victim at the center of this novel , Lula.

Like Rowling, Lula is world famous, and spends her life in the public glare.  She is followed by unscrupulous paparazzi who make a living out of the suffering of others.  The author certainly has much to say about the behaviour of the British press, and even refers at one point to the practice of phone tapping. Of course, Rowling herself was involved very publically, in the recent Leveson phone-hacking inquiry in Britain, so the impact of such intrusive behaviour was obviously on her mind and such thoughts have found their way into the narrative here.

Here Galbraith (aka Rowling) cleverly chides the British tabloid press and comments on their lack of moral judgement when interfering in the lives of the famous, and sometimes vulnerable members of the public, through the mouthpiece of this male author, while leaving herself out of the argument.  Cleverly done Joanna!  

What this novel does so brilliantly though, is to put celebrity under the microscope; to question if happiness does follow fame, to consider the long line of hangers-on who silently group themselves around celebrities, like hungry sharks waiting to attack; and the endless minor celebrities who would do anything to get one notch higher on the fame ladder.
The divas, dodgey dealers and even the druggies are all mentioned here.

By setting the story in the world of modling,  Rowling cleverly keeps the novel at one remove from herself and the world of film and books, that she knows so much about.
As one of the most famous living writers, she must know a thing or two about the preying press and how such unexpected adoration, can change the way others behave around you
As such, the novel was a fascinating study on what fame is really like and the very act of writing about it at all and in such an honest way, reveals just how unchanged and normal Rowling is, despite her reknown thc world over.

One last thing, there is a considerable amount of swearing in the novel, and I only mention this in case you might consider accessing this text on audiobook: I heartily recommend you use headphones should there be any little people about.  That said, this is a most enjoyable read, full of memorable characters and  plot twists that are bound to please.  A good book club choice.  7/10

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Pleasure Seekers~ by Tishani Doshi

Alive with the sounds, tastes and smells of India, here is book to set your taste buds tingling! While 'The Pleasure Seekers' ostensibly tells the story of a young Indian man, Babo, who falls in love with Sian, a red-headed girl from Wales, it is much more than that.  The opening paragraph recounts a dream- the very first dream- of Prem Kumar Patel, Babo's father, in which he climbs mountains trying to find his wife and four children, feeling as if he was taken 'back to the coils of his mother's womb' and hurled 'to the end of his life'.  Such is the imaginative, metaphorical scope of poet, turned novelist,Tishani Doshi, whose prose style is the most original aspect of the book.  Indeed, as is often the case with modern novels, nothing very unusual or unexpected happens in this story; it traces the life-events of one family over a number of years, charts the highs and lows of life that we are all familiar with.  Yet what is original about his story is the way that Doshi considers these mundane events and shares her thoughts with the reader.  In this way, the book is more than anything a philosophical novel. Perhaps I should be more specific and say that this is a book filled with the author's views about life, people and familial relationships.

As the book is primarily a story of enduring love, despite prohibitive distances, both culturally and geographically; there is much for the author to ponder about the bonds that hold families together and the contradictory human desire to strike out alone in the world.  There is something which drives us all to become separate from the humans who created us, and this is what makes the book an interesting read.

I found  that Doshi was particularly insightful when it came to dissecting the mother-daughter bond, and the often traumatic separation that occurs in families whose parents hail from two, different countries.  The sense of belonging nowhere, yet yearning for a home place, is keenly felt on every page.

While I was captivated by the initial scenario, which is loosely based on Dohi's own parent's relationship, I did find that the second half of the book was somewhat disappointing.  The depiction of the parents as the eternal honeymooners, was particularly unrealistic in my point of view and detracted from the overall veracity of the text.
However, this minor disappointment was more than made up for by the wonderful character of Ba, the wise old grandmother, a semi-witch -like figure, whose blindness was compensated for by her extraordinary sense of smell.  Ba was a women who could foretell a child's future at a glance and could smell that guests were arriving , though they were many miles away.  It seems ridiculous I know, but Doshi manages to bring this almost mystical character into the novel and allows her to live side by side with her other more mundane earthlings.  This is a sign of the poet's deftness as she forces us to suspend our disbelief because Ba represents everything that we like to associate with India: mysticism, wisdom, knowledge, and ancient goodness.  I do not think that I would have enjoyed the novel half so much without her colourful presence in the book.
I cannot end without noting the many mouth-watering references to food in the novel: I had an appetite for Indian cuisine the entire time that I was reading the book.  I get the sense that food and the preparation of it is hugely important to the author, and her characters too.  And while the book begins with the story of the male protagonist, Babo, this is very much a story about women, mothers, daughters and wives; their lives, their choices and their relationships.  For this alone, I think the novel is worth sampling, and if nothing else, it will give you a taste of India that will send you scurrying to the pantry for that bag of rice, and that tin of coriander, to recreate something of the sensual journey that is promised by 'The Pleasure Seekers'.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Longbourn ~ by Jo Baker

There can be no denying, that there is much fantasizing associated with the novels of Jane Austen.  Some people dream of their very own Mr Darcy, while others don the clothes of Regency England and parade down the streets of Bath in an attempt to journey back in time.

Yet, I have always felt that had I been alive in the Georgian period, I would have most likely been one of the servant girls running around after the likes of Miss Jane or Elizabeth Bennet.  At last, we don't have to imagine too hard to know what life was like back then for women of the lower classes.  Jo Baker has done all the imagining for us and told a story that HAD to be told.

'Longbourn', follows the tale of Sarah, the below stairs servant at the home of the Bennet family, as she undertakes her daily chores and discovers much about herself and those around her. Yet, there is more at work in this very clever novel, as Baker takes the basic plot of 'Pride and Prejudice' and retells it from the point of view of those below stairs, and young Sarah in particular.  For example, we see how the house is turned upside down when Mr Bennet announces that Mr Collins is arriving that very day. The servants have been given no prior warning and must pull out all the stops for the man who will one day be their master when he inherits Longbourn.  Such are the delights of this novel, as it teaches us so much about the original story and its characters, from a fresh point of view.

What I really liked about this book was the way that it forces us to look again at the members of the Bennet household.  For example, we see how desperate the situation truly is when Lydia runs away.  The servants have to face the scandal in the local post office, forced to mingle with the villagers when Lydia runs away with Wickham.  They are not allowed the luxury of hiding away at home, but feel the full force of society's censure during the affair.

Yet, the observant reader, can see that Baker actually uses many stylistic aspects of 'Pride and Prejudice' in her novel.  Consider the plot line.  Like Lizzy and Darcy, Sarah and the handsome young footman, James, argue about books and the importance of reading.  It is one of the first things that both couples discuss and discover that they have in common.  Also, both female characters anticipate liking their male counterpart, initially, but are sadly disappointed in him.  In each case, there then develops a strong feeling of prejudice, whereby the heroine actively takes against the hero, simply because he does not show enough interest in her.

Similar too, is the narrative technique Baker uses; allowing us to always know what Sarah is thinking, and then slipping, momentarily, into James's mind - as Austen does with Lizzy and Darcy -  so that we learn how he truly feels about Sarah.  In this way, the reader, unlike the heroine, is aware that the central male character has fallen in love, and is caught up in the dramatic irony of the piece.  Will she ever discover the truth?  Will he ever express his feelings?  How will they ever be together?

The characters are similar too.  Darcy and James share a taciturn deposition, both due to social inexperience.  This fact is something that each is aware of and it causes them some anxiety.  Sarah, too, is quite like Lizzy, being energetic, feisty and prone to judge people by their appearances.  Like Austen's character, Sarah misjudges people and makes her fair share of mistakes along the way.  Like Lizzy too, she is embarrassed by her 'family' of servants when a footman arrives from Netherfield with a letter for one of the Bennets.  She looks around at the sorry lot in the Longbourn kitchen and she suddenly sees them as he must see them, recognising for the first time, how shabby they all are.  As with Lizzy, we witness Sarah re-evaluating herself and her home, and not without some pain.

In Ptolemy Bingley,  the illegitimate son of old Mr Bingley from his sugar plantation, we meet again the idea of inequality of inheritance rights amongst siblings that we found in 'Pride and Prejudice'.  As Wickham was almost a brother of Darcy's, so Ptolemy is half-brother to young Charles Bingley.  He too has no entitlement to inheritance.  As with Wickham, the opportunity to harbour resentment is there, but this time is not allowed to fester.  Instead, the novelist chooses to show that even a freed slave, in Georgian England, has the power to go make a living for himself, unlike the ladies who decorate the drawing rooms that they serve in.  They cannot even earn a living, but must marry one instead.

This novel spans a period longer than 'Pride and Prejudice' itself; from the time before Mr Bennet marries his wife, to after the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy.  And, indeed, while this book mirrors much of Austen's novel, in its dialogue, plot line and style; there is much that is very unlike Austen.

For a start, where Austen just mentions in passing, that a private had been flogged, Baker takes that footnote and builds an entire plot around it.  The brutality and horror of the Napoleonic Wars plays a large part in the second volume of the novel (Like 'Pride and Prejudice' this novel too is made up of volumes!)  As such, this book is like a mixture of the mother text and Bernard Cornwell's  'Sharpe', being every bit as gritty and gory.

Of course, being a novel about the lower, serving, classes, Baker could hardly escape discussing a part of history that effected so many English men and their families.  She does not shirk from her responsibility here:
we see the sense of duty, so similar in the lives of soldiers and servants, and we think of the drudgery that so many people endured.  Sarah is very unhappy with her lot at one point, and it is only when she begins to care for another, and she feels loved in return, that she finds some purpose in her life.

Indeed, that is not the only way that Sarah differs from Lizzy Bennet.  Sarah is in a way a very modern heroine, for she, like Lizzy, says no to a superior member of the de Bourgh family; not Lady Catherine this time, but Mr Darcy himself.  She says no to his entreaties to stay in his employ and opts, instead, to seek out the love of her life; to be proactive and make her own destiny.  You could say that Lizzy does the very same thing in 'Pride and Prejudice', but what Sarah does seems all the more impressive.  She makes her own happiness, risking everything for love; but on this occasion, if she fails, the result will be complete destitution. There would be no soft landing for someone like Sarah.   She does not need a Darcy to rescue her, but, it could be argued, ultimately, it is she who does the rescuing.

As such, this is a story about a girl, trying to make her way in the world.  At a recent public event, P.D. James said that all of Austen's novels are a retelling of Cinderella.  Well, from this idea, Jo Baker certainly does not wander far: the main character is, more than once, depicted among the cinders, and one of the first times we see her, is in the morning as she stokes up the fire to set about washing the family's dirty linen.

Jane Austen tells us, by all means, to marry for love but to take care and fall in love with a man of good fortune - and we can at last, understand the true merit of this statement.  While there is a world of difference between the poverty known by the gentile women of the higher classes -even for the likes of 'Emma's' Miss Bates- and the poverty experienced by those walking the streets or living in the workhouses of Georgian England; it is a fate that no one would wish to succumb to.

'Longbourn' has changed the way we read will Jane Austen from here on in: we can never again look at a beautifully dressed Regency lady without considering the hours of work that made her so.  Forevermore, Jane and Elizabeth will be shadowed by Sarah and the girls from below stairs - though they will be out of sight, hiding behind closed doors, or silently watching from atop a carriage- and whenever muslin is worn, we will think of the invisible women who helped scrub and sew, curl and mend, for their stories are important too.  

Monday, 30 September 2013

The Aftermath ~ by Rhidian Brook

What struck me as interesting about this book, was the setting and the period - Berlin 1946.  We are shown a world where the German people are left trying to make sense of events in the aftermath of the Second World War; facing the reality that they are the losers.  The author manages to capture the sense of injustice and loss that the German people must have felt, through the characters of Freida and Albert, the young teenagers who resent the presence of the allied forces in their country.

The novel begins and ends cleverly with the feral street children, orphans who belong to no-one.  Like the monster children of The Lord of the Flies, they seem capable of atrocities, but are just children after all.  It provokes one to think about the way defeat in war time has endless repercussions for those living in the fallen country.

Of course, the book also deals with other issues, such as the breakdown of a family unit, perhaps inescapable in a war-torn city.  Everyone has suffered great loss, making the characters appreciate happiness when it comes before them, but all too eager to turn their back on the reality that they once knew and that now has no real meaning for them.

It seems that the world is ready to read books that tell the story of what the Germans suffered during and after the Nazi years, with novels like 'Alone in  Berlin' and 'The Book Thief' doing the rounds of the book club circuit.  Still, there is something unsettling about reading such texts, this one more than the other two.  In this novel, there is very little reference to the horrors of the concentration camps, and I think that this is a mistake.  There must be balance in all things, especially when dealing with this time period in Germany.
The prose was nicely written and the plot-line perfectly enjoyable, making this a book that I would recommend, but I would not re-read, the subject matter being a little to light for my liking, especially considering the period in question.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Secret Passion of Jane Austen

Something that I cannot understand is why the Bronte sisters did not like Jane Austen, Emily especially. She felt that Austen lacked passion and her female characters lacked spirit. But a close reading of Austen's novels reveal how many of her female characters are fighting against the norms of the day and are trying to find a balance between living within society and being accepted as a lady in that world, and being true to their own desires and passions. 
Lizzy, in Pride and Prejudice, P&P, is nothing if not passionate when she reels against Lady Catherine de Burgh's admonishments. When she tells her that she has nothing more to say to her and must beg to return to the house, it is tantamount to social suicide. 
In fact it is just what a young Catherine Earnshaw would have done in Wuthering Heights. Similarly Lizzy's refusal of both Mr Collins and Mr Darcy showed that Elizabeth Bennet was equally willful, refusing to bend to her mother's will. 
And then we have the Dashwood girls, Marianne and Eleanor, who resemble something like the two sides of the same coin, one being wildly passionate and carefree, the other being more sensible and cautious in all things. 

Here, with these two characters  Austen openly debates how difficult it was for women of her day to deal with emotions of passion, and yet display the decorum that society insisted upon. And here we have a crucial point. The careless passion displayed by both Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, for example, or indeed by Rochester and to an extent Jane in Jane Eyre, was only possible because they were living in secluded rural communities in the middle of nowhere. Austen's heroine's on the other hand have to contend with life altering passions and emotions in the midst of society, be it in London, or in Lambton. 

Jane Bennet does not run off to the nearest cave to reveal her true feelings to Mr Bingley as Cathy does with Heathcliff No, here's is a much more difficult plight, for she must restrain herself, and disguise her deep feelings, even at times, to her sister Elizabeth. The fact that she cares deeply for Bingley and suffers a great deal when he spurns her cannot be, for a moment doubted. 

A similar situation arises for Marianne Dashwood, who must suffer the consequences of exposing her emotions too freely. She actually comes close to death, her spirits having been brought so low by her uncontrolled passion for the inconstant Willoughby. So it could, in fact, be argued that the heroines in Austen's novels are just as passionate as those in the Bronte novels, suffering equally for their passion. Just because Austen's characters must display decorum, it does not mean that they do not or are not capable of, feeling passion. 
As Austen sees it, you may feel the passion, but must learn to control it. We know this because of Austen's depiction of Marianne Dashwood, who lives to regret her unbridled display of love for Willoughby.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Transatlantic ~ by Colum McCann

'Transatlantic' is a novel that sparks.
Colum McCann tells the story of a group of characters, all linked in some way, though they live in different periods of history.  So, we have a black, runaway slave turned abolitionist preacher;  a passenger on board a famine ship; a daring pilot making the first transatlantic crossing in an airplane; a politician trying to make a difference in the Troubles of Northern Ireland; a mother coping with the loss of her home as the bank repossess her house. Each character has a  riveting story to tell, but what I find most interesting, and indeed inspiring about this book, is the poetic way in which the author shapes their stories.  

Like the Irish landscape itself, the book's structure resembles that of a patchwork quilt; a text made up of small, individually sound sections, each one connected to the others by interwoven threads, their tones and colours impinging on those nearest to them, yet all possessing a matching tone that suggest Ireland.  Indeed, if these stories were to be given a colour, to represent the nationality of the main characters in each, and were then laid out side by side, I suggest that they would create the Irish flag:  green, for the the Catholics, white for the neutral Americans and orange, for the Protestants.  Ireland is the theme of the book, and Ireland is spelled out across every page, in the language, the imagery and even the structure.  

McCann sets out to analyse what it is to be Irish and recreates a sense of that reality, not in a arbitrary way, of statement followed by statement.  As the rule goes, a writer should not tell but show, and here McCann does precisely that:  he shows, through the senses, through imagery, what it is to be Irish.  Instead of preaching about the horrors of the Great Famine, he shows us the young, starving mother, cradling a dead child amid a bundle of rags, begging desperately for food to feed the child, denying that all hope is gone. The child is already dead. One tiny, grey arm, flops out at the passing gentry, as if begging still; ghost-like, way past starvation, an assault on moral decency, reminding us all of the horror that took place.

There is no need to show us hoards of starving people: one tiny, outstretched arm will suffice.  One image is enough to convey to the reader what starvation does to a mother, a country, a nation.  Like a poet, McCann places before us an array of startling images, each one working on so many levels, yet sparse in their way.

The overall effect is to create something that is uniquely Irish and fresh, making this mostly historical text feel very contemporary. I think McCann manages this by submerging the text in echoes and filling it with mirrors. For example; one story relates the death of a boy on a lake by the family home in Northern Ireland, while another describes the tragic demise of a father and his sons on a frozen lake in North America.  While each story happens miles apart, one impacts upon the other, changing it in some way.

We see this mirroring effect again when we read about three long walks that take place in the book; one from Dublin to Cork where a famine ship awaits; another across miles of pitiless ground, during the American Civil War, in search of a soldier son; and lastly a modern journey, sometimes by car, sometimes on foot, from Northern Ireland to the south, looking for a home, or the promise of one.   While these journeys are important in themselves,  taken together, they speak of a people constantly on the move, in search of something better, and prepared to do whatever it takes to survive.

Of course this image of humanity on the move reminds us of displaced people all around the world. especially during times of famine and war.  In this way, McCann cleverly approaches his themes by visually layering imagery.  Indeed, how can one tell the story of Ireland without discussing the often hackneyed topics of famine and war. But by using this original approach, the author requires the reader to make the connections and draw their own conclusions.

For me such mirroring of imagery and meaning is best explained when we consider the pivotal arrival of black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, towards the beginning of the book, arriving in Ireland in 1848, just as the Irish Famine began and the image of a likewise venerated Barack Obama near the book's end.  Both men appear to mark a huge shift in the world's thinking, offering hope against prejudice and hatred. It cannot be simply a mere coincidence that McCann brings these two images together.   Perhaps it was the similarity between the two events which was the imaginative starting point to this extraordinary text.

The book deals with migration and eviction, past and present, one caused by famine, the other by greedy bankers, and all the things that make us Irish - prejudice, war, hunger.  It seems that we are continuous beleaguered by the same tragedies.  Yet, through it all, women are at the coal face, struggling through and surviving. McCann seems to be saying that the survival of the Irish race is dependent on Irish women, making strong parallels between the female supporters of the abolitionist movement in Victorian Ireland and the Women's Alliance in Northern Ireland during the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement, and noting the enduring power that can be found in a cup of tea.
Images spark off other images to create new meanings in this book, as McCann bridges the gap between novelist and poet.  Like Heaney's most recent publication, 'Human Chain', McCann writes of the links that unite us, not only today, but forwards into the future, back the the past and even, sideways, beyond time and space. I urge you to read this book, especially if you are Irish: it may teach you a thing or two about who you are and what it truly means to wear that sprig of shamrock on St. Patrick's Day.  It certainly did me.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

May Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland ~by Sophia Hillan

'May, Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland', by Sopha Hillan, is an extraordinary book about one of the world's favourite authors and her connection with Ireland, generally, and Donegal, specifically.   This book charts the life of Jane Austen and her association with the Knight family, her brother's children.  Of course, these children should have inherited the famous 'Austen' surname, were it not for the fact that Jane's elder brother, Edward, was adopted by wealthy cousins who had no child of their own to inherit their fortune and large estate at Godmersham in Hampshire.   A stipulation of the inheritance agreement required that Edward take the name of Knight for his own, which he duly did.  
This book follows the lives of the Knight children, some of whom were very close to their spinster aunt who lived near their large house at Chawton.  Jane was often called upon to help care for the large number of Knight nieces and nephews, when their mother was expecting a child, for example, but especially when Mrs Knight died suddenly and unexpectedly,  just weeks after having given birth to her last baby.  
Jane's letters to her relatives reveal a great deal to us about her, her letters to her eldest niece Fanny especially.  However, what I found most interesting about this book was the uncanny way that the plot lines of Jane Austen's novels mirrored, so exactly, the future lives of her relatives, particularly those of her nieces, Marianne, Cassandra and Louisa Knight.  Indeed, because their aunt was long dead when some of these events occurred, one might be forgiven for surmising that Austen was some kind of clairvoyant.  But I think not; it is just a case of life imitating art and uncannily so.  
Like Anne Elliot, one niece falls in love and becomes engaged, only to face serious censure from  her family and that of her beloved. The engagement is terminated, then unexpectedly rekindled, eight years later, just as she is preparing to marry another man.  The similarity to her Austen's novel,  'Persuasion',  is unmistakable.  
Then there is the secret elopement, in the style of Lydia Bennet, but this time the marriage does indeed take place in Gretna Green.  The similarities are considerable, and are cleverly detailed by Sophia Hillan.  Again and again, she finds parallels between Austen's novels and the lives of her extended family, much to the delight of her readers.
Hillan also tells the story in chapters, each one beginning with a scene from an Austen novel, which perfectly reflects the theme of the chapter.  In this way, the text is very focused, yet feels not like a work of non-fiction at all, but something akin to a novel itself.  Character after character is shown to have lead a life stranger than fiction, making this book very difficult to put down.  Anyone who I have spoken to about this book has said that they read the book in only a couple of days, and I found that I too read it continuously.  
For me, the sections that dealt with Donegal were particularly interesting, especially since I was visiting in that part of Ireland at the time, which really brought the book to life in my imagination.  As an Irish woman, I was very surprised to learn that three of Austen's nieces came to live and be buried in County Donegal, with a grand-niece being born there in fact, who was fluent in Irish and was very much involved with the local community.  
This text is full of historical references and facts, and must be applauded for its attention to detail.  However, one need not have an knowledge of Irish history to understand the cultural context of the book, as Hillan expertly fills in much of the necessary background information on the period for her readers.  Jane Austen herself famously fell in love with a young Irish man who later left England, to settle in Ireland and became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  Whether or not he left her with a good impression of the Irish, we will never know, but she did once famously warn her niece, who was writing a novel of her own, to beware of writing about life in Ireland,especially when one did not know what style of manners they had there.  Regardless, it is clear that her nieces adapted to their lives in Donegal and brought something of the Austen refinement and sensitivity with them when they came.  
If you like Jane Austen, and are interested in the strange lives of those long gone, I urge you to read this book.  It will have you amazed and bemused at the strangeness and sometimes cruelty of life, and more than anything, it will make you realise how grateful we, as women, should be to live in this century, with the power to determine how and where we live, whom we love and marry, and how we earn our own living.  Times have certainly changed since Jane Austen and her nieces were alive, and I believe all would be glad to learn of how life has changed for many women in today's world, and thankfully much for the better.  

Friday, 28 June 2013

Instructions for a Heatwave ~ by Maggie O'Farrell

Flicking through these pages was like taking a stroll down a familiar path, into the past.  This latest novel, by Maggie O'Farrell, is about a family, called the Riordans - an unusual choice of name, considering that it was the name of a long-running tv drama that ran throughout the 1970s on Irish television, something akin to the BBCs 'Emmerdale Farm'.  Perhaps the author did this intentionally, because theirs is a very Irish family, complete with suffocating mother, sexual repression, religious fervor and fiery tempers.  (Please forgive any unintentional stereotyping, I speak as I find!).  The fact that this particular family actually live in London is quite surprising, considering how Irish they still are.
O'Farrell picks a particularly hot summer, 1976, in which to set her story, adding stress to the predicament that the family finds themselves in.  Mr Riordan, has disappeared and the children, who, for various reasons, are not as close as they once were, must return to the family home and face each other and their past, to work together to find him.
The idea is quite simple, but with the added element of the relentless heat, the old Riordan homestead begins to resemble something of a pressure-cooker, about to explode at any moment. In this way, the text could be easily adapted to the stage, and is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams's 'Cat on a Hot Tim Roof', in places.  She cleverly uses language to re-create the heat on that infamous year, writing long, meandering sentences that force the reader to slow down, as she evokes the stifled atmosphere of summer:
 'But now the grass is a scorched ochre, the bare earth showing through, and the trees offer up limp leaves to the unmoving air, as if in reproach.' 
(O'Farrell, Maggie)
She also uses her prose style to create the character of one of the Riordan daughters, Aoife.  This, the youngest of the three children, cannot read and was always a 'problem' child.  The author is not explicit, maybe intentionally so, but it is clear that Aoife has some sort of intense, sensual relationship with the world. Perhaps she is autistic, perhaps not, but she loves libraries and books, not for their words, but because she likes to touch their covers and look at their visual images.  When she looks at words, they jump out at her and attack her.  O'Farrell brilliantly describes her return to the old home in the highly visual style of Virginia Woolf.
'And yet here she is. Here is the row of trees, roots rupturing the paving slabs. Here are the tiled front paths. Here is the triangular-capped concrete wall that runs along the fronts of five houses. She knows without putting her hand on it the exact rasping, grainy texture of the concrete, how it would feel to try to sit on its unyielding, unfriendly ridge, the way the inevitable slide off it would catch and mark the fabric of your serge school skirt.' 
(O'Farrell, Maggie)
 Here O'Farrell brings us right inside Aoife's head by describing the way she experiences the world, through her senses.  This was the most enjoyable aspects of the novel for me.  I also liked the way she described the inner-life of Michael Francis, the only son in the family.  He continually disguises his true feelings and says and does things that he did not mean to say and do.  In this way, it make him a very likable character, who, just like his father, keeps his true self locked up.  Of course, the reason why these characters repress their true emotions becomes clear as the story is revealed and family secrets begin to reveal themselves.

The 1970s setting of the story really appealed to me, surprisingly so, and the whole ambiance of the novel was strangely familiar.  Because of this, I would recommend this book to my friends, especially any who grew up in the 1970s, and especially who are Irish, or have an Irish mother.  This is a fine summer read - buy it for your sisters and girlfriends and  take a trip down memory lane together.

Painting the Darkness ~ by Robert Goddard

'Painting the Darkness' is a novel about identity and family, set in the late Victorian period.  The premise is simple, and very compelling: a man, James Davenall, who everyone thought was dead, suddenly reappears after eleven years, surprising his family and especially the girl who had once planned to marry him, Constance Trenchard.  Of course her new husband, Willian Trenchard, instantly distrusts the prodigal son, and sets out to prove that he is a fraud.  His family refuse to recognise him, as does his doctor, old school friends, and even his mother.  Only his old nanny believes that he is who he claims to be.

The plot is complicated by the fact that the stranger is very knowledgeable about many facts and secrets that only the true James Davenall could have known, so, just like Constance, the reader begins to believe that James truly was not driven to suicide on the eve of his wedding, as was originally believed.  How can he know so much and NOT be James Davenall?  If he can prove his case, he will inherit a huge fortune and a position of high social rank.  But most important of all, to him and the reader, is whether or not will he convince Constance to leave her husband and young child, and return to him, the only man she ever truly loved.

The appeal of this story is obvious, but most surprising is the beautiful, eloquent language that Goddard uses to tell his tale.  For example:
 'A moment later came the brief yellow flare of a match, a faint sigh of pleasure at the first inhalation, then the sound of his footsteps as he moved away, a mobile shadow in the stationary night, leaving only a drift of smoke and an acrid scent among the moon-blanched leaves.' 
Every line is phrased for its musical affect on the ear, which is why the audiobook version of this novel, read by the masterful Michael Kitchen, is a treat indeed.

 If you enjoyed the 'family mystery' genre of authors such as Kate Morton or Natasha Solomons, then you will love this book.  Every generation of the Davenall family have an horrific secret hidden away, as do most of the minor characters.  The fun is unraveling their mysteries, page by page.
Moreover, the plot of this text is never predictable or run of the mill.  Goddard spins a web of interrelated connections and links, that will require you to pay close attention from the word go.  In this, he always goes for the unexpected option, changing narrative point of view if he must, to take the reader places, and engender feelings, that we never expect to feel.  Do we want the stranger to be the real James Davenall?  Do we want Constance to give up everything to be with him?  Can she live up to her name and be constant to her husband?
Or do we side with the narrator, the hard-done-by husband, William Trenchard?  There are countless other characters, each with their own stash of secrets, providing countless subplots to keep even the most demanding reader guessing til the very last page.  Indeed, this is a book that I wanted to go on forever, the best testament for a book, I believe.  So please, do not be put off by the novel's non-descript title, the one over-sight by Goddard and his publishers, and give this delicious book a try.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Worlds Apart? - A Comparative Study of Jane Austen's 'Emma' and Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'.

History tells us that Emily Bronte was not a fan of Jane Austen, yet the world she created in Wuthering Heights was not so very different from the world of Austen's Emma.

Part of the wonder and attraction of Wuthering Heights is the unmistakable wildness of the landscape. The rhythm of the language and the speed of the narrative seem to echo the non-relenting gusts of the north wind as it rages through the moors. The world Emily Bronte creates is synonymous with the characters who live there, both isolated and insular.
As such, it has many similarities with Hartfield, home of the Woodhouse family, in Jane Austen'sEmma. Although Hartfield is not 'removed from the stir of society', as Wuthering Heights is, it is still some sixteen miles outside London and is quite separate from the 'large populous village' of Highbury, just a lawn and a few shrubs beyond it. The class structure at the time of Austen's novel does not allow the Woodhouses to mix socially with the local people, but forms a rigid barrier between them. This induced isolation compares easily to the geographical distance between Wuthering Heights and the rest of the world. Therefore, on one level, the worlds of Cathy Earnshaw and Emma Woodhouse are quite similar.
Both girls live within small communities, meeting the same people, day in and day out. Emma has a wider choice of acquaintance, but, due to her father's 'habits of gentle selfishness', she rarely encounters people outside 'his own circle'. Cathy, on the other hand, has no such luxury. Her select number of companions dwindle as illness and death steal them from her. It is possible, then, that both girls experience the same sense of isolation and seclusion: one due to geography and the other due to social class.
The insular world's of Wuthering Heights and Hartfiled allows the women little scope to canvass lovers. As a result, the love relationships in both novels tend to be incestuous in nature, with few exceptions. Focusing here on Cathy and Emma, we see how both suffer from 'the boy next door syndrome' and marry the nearest neighbouring bachelor who comes to call. However, our heroines have a particularly close relationship with the men they love. Taking Cathy first, we can see how her relationship with Heathcliff is much more incestuous that her marriage to Edgar. As children they were very close, sharing the same house and crying the same tears at the death of the man who had been a father to them both.
Nelly remembers that they shared a room, and says, 'I ran to the children's room: their door was ajar... The little souls were comforting each other with better thoughts than I could have hit on.' With Hindley away at college, they each clung to the other as the only family they had left in the world. Mr. Earnshaw named Heathcliff after a son who had died and in that way Heathcliff replaced Cathy's dead sibling and became a foster one. It is because of the close, familial relationship between Cathy and Heathclff early on in the novel, that readers are sometimes bemused by the almost incestuous nature of their adult relationship.
Emma's romance with the owner of Donwell Abbey is not so unusual until we consider that he is, in fact, her brother-in-law. Indeed, Emma's sister Isabella had once been 'a favourite of Mr Knightley herself. (having) been first with him for many years past'. But, as we know, Knightley falls for Emma and becomes intimate with the family at Hartfield, visiting in all kinds of weather and taking advantage of an open-invitation just to be close to Emma. His ability to scold and chide her inappropriate behaviour shows us their relationship early on in the text is more like that of big-brother-little sister, than of lovers. Indeed, the eighteen years age difference between them can only have emphasised this point. It is clear that Emma once saw Knightley as a brother, for when she decides to dance with Mr Knightley at the Crown Ball, she says, 'you know we are really not so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper'.
However, it is not really so surprising that both Cathy and Emma pitch their hearts so close to home, considering that Wuthering Heights and Emma were published in the eighteenth century when marriage between close relatives, such as first cousins, was seem as perfectly normal practice. It displays yet another similarity between the two fictional worlds of these novels.
The parallels between Emma and Cathy do not stop there. Consider how both girls are viewed as real beauties, with Cathy described as 'the queen of the countryside, and Emma as having rare beauty in 'face and figure'. Both, in their mid-twenties, are the picture of health and with their enchanting looks no doubt had many admirers. In the novels, we meet some of them. However, the ability of the girls to attract men does not necessarily correspond with their ability to understand men. Indeed, these two heroines show a distinct inability to understand the workings of the male mind.
For example, when Cathy learns of Heathcliff's return, she immediately assumes Edgar will accept him as a friend. She forgets everything that has passed between the two men and crushes their hands together in a forced hand shake. Cathy has no understanding of their feeling at this moment. Edgar hates Heathcliff because he has possession of his wife's heart, while Heatcliff returns the feeling because it is Edgar who possesses his beloved's hand in marriage. The depth of hatred they feel for each other knows no bounds, yet Cathy expects and insists that the rivals become friends.
Emma Woodhouse is just as naive about how men think. She confidently takes it upon herself to find a wife for Mr Elton and delightedly decides upon Harriet as the perfect choice. Mr Knightley tries to warn her against meddling in Elton's affairs, saying that that the clergyman would never marry the illegitimate daughter of nobody knows who. But Emma is decided. She boasts to Knightley, 'I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in'. But Emma could not be more wrong. Elton tells her directly, 'Everybody has their level; but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss'.
Both Cathy and Emma misjudge relationships between the sexes. In Wuthering Heights, Cathy gets completely carried away with sentiment when Heathcliff returns from his time away and it is left to Edgar to warn her to curb her excitement and not to behave in an 'absurd' way in front of the servants. Cathy seems to have no idea of what constitutes proper behaviour between men and women. As a girl, she lavishes Heathcliff with 'girlish caresses', and does not think to alter her behaviour towards him as she gets older.
Emma too has difficulty judging her relationships with men. When Mr Elton pounces on her in the carriage, after the dinner at the Randalls, she can only wonder at his presumption that she feels anything but friendship for him. However, later, after some contemplation, she realises that 'especially of late, (she had) thought his manners to herself unnecessarily gallant ... she had never ... suspected it to mean anything but grateful respect'. Yet, Emma had been warned by Mr John Knightley to regulate her behaviour towards Mr Elton, saying, 'I think your manners to him encouraging'.
How embarrassing it is for Emma to realise that her behaviour had been so ill-construed. While she
was trying to encourage his attentions to Harriet, he was forming an attachment with herself. Conversely, Emma believes that Frank Churchill is in love with her, when he is actually in love with Jane Fairfax She even believes he means to propose to her soon. The trip to Box Hill sees Emma flirting unashamedly with young Churchill. She allows his deceptive displays of flattery, seeing it as a game almost, but when his secret engagement to Jane is revealed, she is mortified, knowing how her behaviour must have hurt Jane, and how her behaviour towards Frank was more intimate than propriety usually allowed. Emma saw love where there was none, and was blind to it when it was offered. Like Cathy, Emma seems to have a distinct ability to misjudge relationships between the sexes and, in turn, be misjudged herself.
Despite their ineptitude at reading people, both girls manage to find a certain degree of happiness in the novels. How Cathy and Emma find love differs greatly and their stories are told in very different ways. Yet, regardless of how Emily Bronte viewed the writings of Jane Austen, there can be no denying that these two contrasting authors had much more in common than one might at first suppose.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Agnes Grey ~ by Anne Brontë

'Shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I...will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.'  Thus proclaims the novel's protagonist, Agnes Grey, in the first paragraph of the novel of the same name.

Author Anne Brontë is often over-looked by modern readers, and I must admit to being such a one, until now.
After spending a weekend reading her first novel, I can easily declare that she is a writer equal to, and deserving of, the admiration often only the preserve of her sisters, Emily and Charlotte.

The story recounts the experiences of Agnes Grey, the novel's narrator, who indeed, 'candidly and honestly' relates her experiences as a governess in the North of England.  And here is where Anne Brontë differs from her sisters, in the veracity of her tale.  Not that Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre lack truth or insight, but rather Agnes Grey reads more like a piece of non-fiction than fiction.

Anne Brontë spent five years working as a governess, a fact easily gleaned from the pages of her book.  She presents the reader with tiny details of the daily activities, fears and responsibilities of one who lived among her employers, but not as one of them.  At the outset, Agnes declares that she wants to be a teacher, to influence the minds of her pupils and direct them in the ways of good behaviour.  But she fails to foresee how she will be perceived in the eyes of the families she will administer to.  Repeatedly, she is regarded as little more than a servant, her own needs and desires playing second fiddle to the whims of her selfish charges.  In this way, the novel contains a sense of injustice that is in common in the books written by her sisters.

It is clear that the events that she relates are based on fact: the arguments at the homes of her employers, their treatment of one another and herself too, all sound so real as to be better placed in the genre of autobiography.  There is one scene, in particular, which tells of a disagreement between husband and wife over the quality of the beef supper.  Mr Bloomfield declares that the meat is too tough.  Mrs Bloomfield retorts that the cook is to blame.  He counters that she cannot be much of a wife if she leaves all such domestic matters to the whim of a mere cook!  Despite all his complaints, he still manages to eat a few mouthfuls.
I like to believe that Brontë was inspired to write this scene by the memories of a real event and I take even greater delight in imagining how the man and woman in question, Anne Brontë's former employers, must have been so scandalised and horrified to read of themselves in the novel by their old, hopeless, governess.  Little did they suspect that the world would soon learn of their selfish pettiness.
The first few chapters do not read like a novel at all, but a diary.  It is not until she leaves the Bloomfields and moves to a situation some miles from her home place, that the book takes on the tones of a novel, in the truest sense.  Agnes's mother seeks out a position for her daughter in the upper classes of society, and so our heroine goes to live with the Murray family.  At Horton Lodge, she mixes with the very wealthy and discovers that here too, people think very little of paid subordinates.  She is chaperon and teacher to Miss Rosalie Murray and her sister Matilda, both of whom have little interest in learning.  While one sister prefers the company of grooms and curses like a trooper, the other delights in teasing local, respectable men, with her tantalising beauty and winning ways.  Agnes's plainness and honestly come into even clearer focus when in their company.
In this elegant society, the narrative style is more in keeping with that of Jane Austen than the Brontë sisters, although the hero of the piece is neither a Darcy, nor a Rochester, nor a Heathcliff indeed!  Anne (and Agnes's) choice of hero is small in stature and not at all handsome:
'In stature he was a little, a very little, above the middle size; the outline of his face would be pronounced too square for beauty, but to me it announced decision of character... but from under those dark brows there gleamed an eye of singular power, brown in colour, not large, and somewhat deep–set, but strikingly brilliant, and full of expression...'
Given the same name as a character from two Austen novels, Mr Weston is a respectable curate, and not at all unlike many of Austen's leading men.  There are no brooding, tormented, high-born men riding out of the mist for Anne Brontë.  Her choice of hero is a good, Christian man, who visits the sick, is charitable to the poor and kind to animals.  A character more unlike the Byronic Heathcliff there could not be.  The feelings that that slowly develop between the unassuming Agnes and Mr Weston is every bit as fragile and tender as the primroses that he gives her when out walking.  But is happiness in store for Agnes?  That I cannot tell you.  But I will recount how much Agnes desires it.  She prays:
 'I have lived nearly three-and-twenty years, and I have suffered much, and tasted little pleasure yet; is it likely my life all through will be so clouded?  Is it not possible that God may hear my prayers, disperse these gloomy shadows, and grant me some beams of heaven’s sunshine yet?  Will He entirely deny to me those blessings which are so freely given to others, who neither ask them nor acknowledge them when received?  May I not still hope and trust? '
 What I find so moving about this piece of prose is how it relates to Anne Brontë in real life.  What a tragedy to know that none of life's little pleasures came true for Anne, nor her sister Emily either.  They did not find love, were not married and did not bear children.  Indeed, they never found independence in a home of their own.  One can see from this passage how desperately Anne desired these simple things.
Her interest in the position of women in Victorian society is clear from the plot line of the novel.  It begins with Agnes's mother, Mrs Grey, who turns her back on a privileged life, for the sake of love.  Agnes relates that her mother, 'would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in the world.'  But the story goes on to relate how the daughters of Mrs Grey were the ones to bear the brunt of such a decision, having little income to live on as they got older.

 Then Brontë considers the plight of the wealthier women in society. Mrs Bloomfield is ignored and disparaged by her husband in turns, for being a bad mother and a woeful housekeeper.  Mrs Murray has little sway over her daughters behaviour, but it is her daughter Rosalee's fate, that Brontë plays particular attention to.  The author notes how Miss Murray's only desire is to be mistress of  Ashby Park, caring little for her husband, Lord Ashby.  Her mercenary feelings on the subject of marriage ultimately come back to haunt her.  She indeed does come to live at the great house, but is imprisoned there by her husband who distrusts her flirtatious temperament and is fearful of scandal.
The irony is that while Agnes is  free to come and go as she pleases, the once beautiful Miss Murray, now the wilting Lady Ashby, is not.  What is Brontë, then, saying about the institution of marriage?   I believe that she means to warn young women about the dangers of giving away their liberty too easily, without first taking stock of the man to who they will be legally and spiritually tethered, all the days of their life.  Indeed, the novel begins with this honest statement about her reasons for writing the book ...
'All true histories contain instruction...I sometimes think it might prove useful to some...'   
Here is the sentiment at the heart of the entire novel:   Brontë is trying to teach, to instruct, and the moral she means to impart is that women do have choices to make, however limited they might be.  Where Austen might say, 'by all means marry for love, but take care that you marry a man of good fortune', Brontë seems to believe that marrying for love is the right thing to do, and that monetary cares will not be so burdensome when shared with those you love.  

Brontë has also much to say about beauty in this text.  She states unequivocally that the doling out of beauty to one person, but not another, is a fact of life, and that there are clear advantages to being so well-favoured.

'If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime...'
And then she makes a moving plea for the case of one not blessed by beauty, using the metaphor of a glow-worm to press her point.  

'As well might the humble glowworm despise that power of giving light without which the roving fly might pass her and repass her a thousand times, and never rest beside her: she might hear her winged darling buzzing over and around her; he vainly seeking her, she longing to be found, but with no power to make her presence known, no voice to call him, no wings to follow his flight;—the fly must seek another mate, the worm must live and die alone.'
This description of a woman passed over because no one noticed how much love she had to give, is all the more poignant because we know that Anne Brontë was just such a woman.  She never got to show the love she had the power to bestow, never got to 'make her presence known'.

This novel is no mere tale of a slighted governess, bitterly revealing the scandals and secrets of past employers.  No.  It is a very thoughtful, thought-provoking book about family, love and the desire to live a full and honest life.  Is not that something we all can relate to?  I urge you to read this wonderful, wonderful book, if for nothing else but to let the words of Anne Brontë not go unnoticed, and to redress the neglect of such a fine writer who has gone uncelebrated for far too long.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

A Blooming Moomin Read ~ The Moomins and The Great Flood by Tove Jansson

I thought it was time that I told you about a beautiful series of books that I have been reading recently with my 8 year old daughter.  Written and illustrated by Swedish author Tove Jansson, the books were first published in 1945 at the end of the Second World War.  It is therefore not difficult to notice the war parallels in the story-lines, especially in the first book, 'The Moomins and The Great Flood', where Moomintroll, the young moomin protagonist, and his mother, Moominmamma, wander through the dark forest, trying to find Moominpapa.  This often unsettling and uncertain plot-line must have been the childhood narrative of so many children's lives in Europe around the time of the war: where was daddy?  Would he be coming home safely and soon.  ' "Tell us something about Moominpapa", asked Moonintroll', as it had been so long since he'd seen his papa, that he couldn't quite remember him.

As adult readers, we can appreciate the poignancy of this line, and recognise what a clever writer Jansson really was.  She uses children's literature to work through all the emotions experienced by a generation of children living in wartime.  It is all in the imagery:  the dark forest, the strange creatures that you cannot quite trust, the strangers watching from the shadows, and the tiny, helpless folk, just trying to keep safe.

But for my young children, it was just a thrilling, adventure story.  They were simply enthralled, if not flabbergasted, to think that a fully-grown, respectable papa could suddenly go missing like that.

The landscape of the book is dark and mysterious, inhabited by large snake-worms, shadowy hattifatteners, and countless other nameless little creatures, all just eerie enough to appeal to a child's imagination, but not enough to completely terrify.
The illustrations are wonderfully detailed, especially in the hardback edition, published by 'Sort Of' Books, making this particular publication a collector's item for book and art lovers alike.

And what ever happened to Moominpapa?  Do Moointroll and Moominmama ever meet him again?  Well, you will just have to read it to find out.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Gone Girl ~ by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl was our book club choice this month, so was a must read.  However, I probably would have made my way to it regardless because of the considerable media hype about the book.  Did I like it?  Would I recommend it?  Both questions are difficult to answer.  As always, I will try to discuss the book without giving the story away, suffice to say, the plot deals with a woman who has gone missing.  Her husband comes under increasing suspicion as the police try to decide whether or not he killed her.
The most interesting thing for me about this book was the double narrative structure of the text.  Nick, the husband and Amy, his wife, both get to tell the story from their separate perspectives.  Each court the reader until, finally, we are not sure who we suspect and who we are rooting for.  As such, the novel cleverly plays with the trust that naturally exists between narrator and reader.  
The plot itself is complicated and very detailed, which challenges the reader to be alert at all times, so do not expect a sleepy saunter through this book.  Flynn leaves nothing to chance and keeps the reader in the dark much of the time, which is quite compelling.  Yet, for me, I found the relationship between the married couple very interesting in itself.  The plot traces the highs and lows of a love affair, and how Amy soon comes to notice the 'dust on the furniture of love', as poet Adrienne Rich once put it.  But even a feminist like Rich never went to such lengths to put a man in his place.  There are moments in this book that are quite terrifying and Flynn certainly knows how to keep a reader guessing.  The setting of the book moves from New York to Missouri, but the true landscape of the book is in the inner world of the characters' minds, as Amy and Nick psyche each other out, and take the idea of a 'mind game' onto another level entirely. 
That said, I did not really care for either Nick or Amy by the end of the book, which is never a good sign with a novel.  So, I would have to answer in the negative regarding the questions asked earlier, and although I do appreciate the skill Flynn possesses as a writer, I endured the book rather than enjoyed it and I would not go so far as to give it a recommendation, despite all the clever plot twists and media hype.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower ~ by Rumer Godden

'I've got a doll's house.... do you want it?'  I couldn't believe my luck when I went to collect a beautiful doll's house that my good friend and neighbour was trying to find a home for.  It just happened that I had a little girl who would love such a perfect home for her collection of dolls and figures.  
I felt that a book was needed to inspire my daughter on the wonders of playing with a doll's house.  Now would be the perfect time for 'Miss Happiness and Miss Flower', I thought,  Rumer Godden's children's book published in 1961; one of the most magical books there is on the subject of dolls and their houses.
The plot: a girl from India comes to a strange land to live with her aunt and cousins. Nona Fell is lonely in this chilly English village, and feels out of place.  
But just then, she is given a set of Japanese dolls, to share with her spoilt cousin Belinda.  The arrival of the dolls transforms her relationship with her environment and her relatives.  The entire family, with the exception of Belinda, join together to help make a Japanese doll's house for the dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.  
That is the story.  It is simple, but what is so charming  is how the dolls speak for themselves in the narrative.  We hear them talk to one another, learn of their anxieties and feelings, although the humans never do.  In this way the book enters into the child's world of play, echoing how children the world over interact with dolls, giving them a secret voice of their own.
Just as enchanting are the descriptions of the Japanese doll's house, as it is planned and slowly comes into being.  The tiny tea cups, the paper sliding doors, the minute cushions and side tables, made me want to grab some four by four and get hammering! 
This was a perfect read for myself and my daughter, but really, this could be a great read for dads and sons too.  One of the real heroes of the book is Tom, the kind cousin who builds the house for Nona.  If ever there was a book to inspire DIY, this is it. 
But luckily, thanks to my dear friend Sarah, my lucky daughter has her own beautiful doll's house, perfect and finished,  just waiting for little figures to fill the rooms with fun and laughter, and her days with happy hours.  

Krapps' Last Tape with John Hurt in The Gate Theatre, Dublin

Photographs: © Matthew Thompson 2013 
The curtain just seemed to evaporate and John Hurt was suddenly there.

I've just returned from a visit to The Gate Theatre in Dublin, having seen John Hurt perform in Beckett's wonderful, short play, 'Krapp's Last Tape'.  A friend once said to me that there are special times when drama on stage is just magical, and this was one of those times.

The play shows  Krapp, an old man, returning to tapes that he has recorded throughout his life, recounting experiences, much in the same way as a diary.  The voice on the reel to reel recording sounds younger and is full of bravado about future plans and the good choices that he has made.  To the older Krapp, now listening to the tapes, the younger Krapp on the recording is foolish and has made many mistakes.
The premise is simple, yet, as always with Beckett, there is much going on beneath the surface and even more questions are asked than answered.
You are left wondering, why would someone spend so much time recording the events of their life instead of going out and living it?  But then, isn't that what we all do every time we write a diary entry, a poem, or even take a picture?  I knew a man once, who made countless audio tapes about his life.  When he died, they were just discarded on a rubbish heap; no one ever got to listen to them.  It still saddens me to think of it.  I didn't rescue them to have a listen, feeling I would have been prying nosily, and also believing, that once I started to listen, I would be compelled never to stop.
Aren't our own memories loud enough, ringing eternally in our own ears?  Do we really need other people's memories drowning out our own?  But then, I think, it is the act of telling one's own story, that has a purpose in itself.  It is a way of re-evaluating and taking stock of one's life.

What is so poignant about this production of Beckett's play, is that John Hurt was cast in the role about a decade ago, and the tapes that he used on stage, seem to be from that other show, as they sound so much younger than the voice of  the actor on the stage in 2013.  In that way, we are witnessing the real and actual ageing of the actor before our eyes, or at least we are very conscious of it.  It makes the drama seem more real somehow.

This is a play full of invisible mirrors; we hear a voice from the past and imagine the events he describes, then we watch the older Krapp's face and we see him reliving the moments described by his younger self.  The effect is magical.  If we are the secret voyeurs, he is also one; a voyeur of his own life, constantly revisiting his younger self, re-living a time gone by.

But why does he do this?  Why is he so caught up with the past?  Is this some kind of self-motivational tool?  Some kind of therapy?  Perhaps it is, but I feel it has a lot more to do with memory and how so much of our memory is lost over time.  Perhaps this is Krapp's attempt to undo the damage, the real damage, caused by ageing: memory loss.

Knowing people who live with dementia, it seems like a sensible thing to do, to capture life on tape for future reference.  Yet, sometimes, such preparation is in vain, as one's sense of self vanishes and self-recognition is not possible.

It interests me how Krapp is so hard on his younger self, but aren't we all?  Don't we all dismiss the style and fashion of our teenage selves as awful and embarrassing, with phrases such as, 'what was I thinking?'  In this way, Krapp is a universal figure, someone we can all relate to.

Ultimately, I believe that this play is particularly suited to being reviewed on a blog, because blogging is the equivalent of what Krapp spends the entire play doing, recording thoughts, for some imagined reader, perhaps as a means of working through one's thoughts, and making sense of the world.  But as the curtain goes down, and Krapp disappears once again in to the darkness, we know that there will be another 'last' tape, as the hours go on and the magic continues.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Forget-Me-Nots ~ a Victorian Book of Love, by Cynthia Hart, Tracy Gill and John Grossman

In the 1990s I was an avid fan of Cynthia Hart's Victorian calendars, so when she published this little book on the history of the Victorian Valentine, I had to have it.
It's full title is 'Forge-Me-Nots ~ a Victorian Book of Love' and it tells the story behind the Valentine tradition.  It documents how the typical young, strait-laced Victorian men and women used the complicated symbolism of flowers and visual metaphors to express their feelings for one another.  Lovers would create their own cards and love tokens for their sweethearts, be they simple paper hearts or elaborate, bejewelled creations of ribbons and pearls.
In the era that invented Christmas card, the humble Valentine was taken to new heights.

Every page of the book is crammed full of flowers and lace, arranged on the page in the découpage tradition; each image and object a contemporary piece that has been lovingly treasured down through generations, for our enjoyment today.

Love poems are interspersed throughout, from contemporary poets like Emily Dickinson and  Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  The factual information too is very interesting.  For example, did you know that as well as Valentine cards, the Victorians kept autograph books, that they would have family and friends sign, in which they might often place pressed flowers, plaited hair and other mementoes to keep their friends memories alive?

In today's world of digital photography and social networking sites, it is easy to forget how in the Victorian period, long separation often made it difficulty to keep a mental memory of a loved one alive.  Collecting signatures in an autograph book was a desperate act against time and distance, a vain attempt to hold someone close, even when they were far away.

'Forget-Me-Nots' is a special book for me, it's name evoking all that is best about Valentine's Day.  It is the one day every year that is given over to the idea of love; be it love of a child, parent, friend or partner.  That alone has to be a good thing.  The simple thought of remembering loved-ones annually on 14th February, really appeals to me.  We remember the symbolic meaning of flowers: the red rose signifies eternal love; the daisy, loyalty; the purple tulip, forever love.  How often do we, as a population, dip, en masse, into metaphor?  I think this alone is worth celebrating.

Valentine's Day does not need to be a glitzy, commercial affair; such a thought would horrify the sensible Victorians.  But I do think it is a tradition worth keeping, and this little Valentine's Day treasury helps keep the magic of February 14th alive.  Even though the book has been sitting on my shelf for some twenty years now, it is a St. Valentine's Day treat that I will return to again and again, and now that I have shared it, I hope you will too.  Happy St. Valentine's Day.