Monday, 31 October 2016

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ~ By Anne Brontë

There were a number of stylistic features that I found really interesting in this novel. For a start, the narrator switches half-way through the book.  In this way, it is not unlike sister Charlotte Bronte's book, 'Wuthering Heights'.   The novel is structured around a collection of letters written by Gilbert Markham and others by Helen Graham, the titular character.  It takes a little getting used to, as your ear must re-tune to Helen'a voice and then back to Gilbert's as the novel moves along.  And these are long letter, as each author explains in full the minutiae of their lives.  But more than anything else, this novel details in full how a woman's life in the mid-1800s is controlled by her husband and how society, despite the laws governing divorce, still looked on marriage as the means of giving a man total control over a woman - her income, liberty and social standing.

There were times when I felt like I could not continue with the novel, hard though that is to admit, because I did not enjoy Helen's purity.  She was desperate to make a go of her marriage, to do the right thing.  How could a woman bear such treatment?  Well, it seems that Anne Bronte knew the limit of what a woman could endure and she presents such a character in this novel.  No one, liberal or conservative, could accuse Helen Graham of not doing her duty by her malevolent husband, Arthur Huntingdon, and so Bronte makes her point.  By the novel's end, you cannot doubt the power of this text.  In a world where women do not have the vote, where a woman is measured by the wealth of her husband's estate and by his successes and failures, it is an achievement that this book was written and published at all.  The fact that the book was originally published under a male pseudonym, Acton Bell, is in itself very telling and reveals something of the pressures faced by female authors of the time.

Helen herself uses her creativity as an artist to provide her with an income and I wonder if Anne Bronte herself considered Art as a means of gaining freedom and independence.  This was her second and last novel.  Her first, 'Agnes Grey' is a wonderful novel, and I recommend that you read it if you have not already.  This book contains little of the warm country characters that are so enchanting in 'Agnes Grey'.  Here the locals are far less endearing and are meant to be so.  Still, I missed the charm of those characters this time round, though I think that Bronte had more serious things on her mind.  She demonstrates beyond any doubt, that women need independence from their husbands, and her argument is so convincing that none could think differently.

Helen is a little saintly for our modern tastes perhaps, she is no feisty Elizabeth Bennet, more like Jane Bennet if anything, but it is important that Anne be beyond reproach as a mother and wife, so that the reader, even the most prejudicial, will take her side.  Balanced against the angelic Helen, is the dastardly Arthur Huntington, whose ultimate suffering is too good for him.  And here we are presented with another dark, troubled man in the Bronte cannon, making us wonder all the more who inspired such creations?  If it was indeed Bramwell, the Bronte brother, we can only imagine what horrors those girls endured and witnessed as they grew-up.  Let us hope that they each had very powerful imaginations and experienced no such torment as the women in their novels did.

So, if you enjoyed 'Jane Eyre', 'Wuthering Heights' or 'Agnes Grey', then you will also enjoy 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' (great title), and find yourself thinking again, what a pity it was that these three Yorkshire girls died so young, before they lived full and fruitful lives, and how thankful we are that the time that they did have was spent writing, leaving us these amazing novels in their wake, that teach us so much about the times they lived in, and the many injustices in the world.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ~ J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne - Spoiler Free

-A Spoiler Free Review-

Didn't we already say goodbye to Harry Potter?  Didn't we grieve at the end of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' and mourn the end of the wizarding world?  Well, those were wasted tears.  To all intents and purposes, this is just like all the other Harry Potter books, so you should allow yourself to get excited about this publication.  A new HP book - something we thought would never happen.  The fact that it is written as a play is very interesting, forcing the reading to imagine so much more than with the novel.  Many of the locations are already familiar to Harry Potter readers, so it is easy for us just to recall previous descriptions, such as the headmasters office at Hogwarts and the owlery.  Like so many of the previous books, this one begins on platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station, and a train journey on the Hogwarts's Express.   But some locations are new and it is very refreshing to imagine, without any detail forced on us via an omniscient narrator, a whole new wizarding world.
For so many readers, this will be the very first play they have read, which is exciting and interesting in itself.  I've always found that reading a play is a very intimate thing, as we get to hear directly from characters, and become very attached to them very quickly.  This is the case here as we meet the next generation of Harry Potter characters, which we were presented with at the end of the last book in the series.  As the book blurb says, this book focuses on Albus Potter, Harry and Ginny's son.  This, along with the book's title, 'The Cursed Child' reveal the most powerful of text's themes, the relationship between parents and their children.  Being a successful, famous parent is something that J.K. Rowling herself has some first hand knowledge of, and makes this play all the more interesting.

Rowling always toys with her readers; she will break your heart, shock you and take you into the unknown, expect the same with this book.  She throws more than one curve ball here and you might find yourself railing against plot turns and revelations, but you can trust her to deliver a very Harry Potter tale, which makes me wonder just how much the play's author, Jack Thorne had to do with the creative process that went in to making this 'Special Rehearsal Edition Script' as the book is described.  Rowling's name is in the largest on the cover and I suspect that the book will be filed under 'R' along with the other Harry Potter book in the library.  It must have been a strange, selfless thing to hand over a short story to someone else to develop, for Rowling to take the place of editor almost, while Harry's words and world are shaped and formed by someone else.  And lucky for us, it seems to have worked perfectly.

The thing you wished for for so long, another Harry Potter book, has come to pass - so fear not. Enjoy the hype and embrace this chance to enter Harry's world one more time.  It won't last forever.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Not the End of the World ~by Kate Atkinson

Those of you who follow this blog will know how much I admire the novels of Kate Atkinson.  Well, here is something by the same author, though not quite what you might expect; it is a wonderful collection of short stories that taunt and stretch the very form itself until you can almost debate the very nature of the thing.  For when is a short story collection  not a story story collection: when the stories are so interrelated that they actually form a series of chapters in a novel.  So, if you have always run a mile from short stories, you might want to give this clever, clever book a try.  Atkinson creates a tapestry of colourful characters who lie side by side, linked together with a finely woven narrative thread, binding the stories together and creating new shades and nuances with every additional one.  You might be introduced to a character in the first story, but only discover their complete story when you read the second-last story, say, which really does set the mind ringing.
Reality is what you might expect to find in this text, with its down to earth, 'real' characters, but you with Kate Atkinson, you never get the expected.   This author, again and again, surprises us with outlandish events and twists, just as she lures you into a false sense of security; you forget that nothing is as it seems in this book.  For a start, the title is misleading.  The book begins and ends with Trudie and Charlene, clearly living in a post-apocalyptic London, at the end of the world.  This could be a theme of the book in truth: characters surviving the unthinkable, the unexpected; after all, it's not the end of the world or is it?
Not only do these funny, profound stories develop, like a snowball, ever-growing as it rolls along, but the entire collection is soaked in subtle references to Greek Mythology.  Characters might be begotten of sea-gods, taken prisoner by Zeus for half the year, or be covered in ancient lizard-like scales merely to disintegrate into dust like some kind of human phoenix.  One could spend forever just researching the many layers of meaning in this text and how the Greek parallels relate to these modern stories and their characters.
There is clearly a woven thread which links these stories and takes you from a certain beginning to a certain end, so please don't be put off by the form - whose afraid of a short story anyway? - and give this clever book a chance.  You will be amazed at Atkinson's skill and will come to love all of her ingenious characters.  The only trouble is that you will instantly want to re-read the novel as soon as you complete it, to deconstruct it and retrace that fine woven thread, picking and pulling at it to unravel this masterpiece.
SO, when is a short story collection not a short story collection? When it gets the Kate Atkinson treatment.  For that alone it is worth picking up and for the wonderfully-drawn characters it is worth reading again and again.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Flight of the Maidens ~ by Jane Gardam

When you see the inky* sprawl of towering branches silhouetted against azure skies at dusk, and feel the very air pulling at your senses, you know it is exam time again.  It is almost June and in houses and bedrooms all over the city, teenagers have their heads crammed in books; not for the love of it, but because exam season demands it, and not even the warm, perfumed evening air can tempt them out of doors.  For some, it is the in-between time, between school and college, when the rest of life lies ahead and every waking hour is spent guessing at what the future holds.  Such is the time frame of this charming novel by Jane Gardam, called 'The Flight of the Maidens'.  Here she presents us with three young women, all around 18 years old, who are just about to leave home and go to university, in London and Cambridge.
The novel begins with the three 'maidens' sitting in a graveyard, imagining what their future's hold, on the day that they have received coveted government scholarships for university. They are the exceptional few, the clever elite, whose lives have been touched by grace and brilliance.  They are Hetty Fallowes, Una Vane and Lieselotte Klein. The former are Yorkshire girls, the latter a German Jew who was saved from the concentration camps and fostered by a devoted Quaker family.  The year in 1946, just after the end of World War Two, when the world was suddenly full of possibility again and dreams were countenanced once more.
In the short few months before the rest of their lives begin, each girl faces a challenge, whether it is,
as in Hetty's case, to free herself from her mother's tight grip and her father's flakiness, or, as with Una, to explore physical freedom, the unknown delights of passion and love.  For Lieselotte, to whom the book is dedicated, her search for identity has an altogether more practical bent, she is literally searching for who she really is, her family, her history, her identity papers having been accidentally lost on her journey to England.

Each of these girls is interesting in their own right, but the real delight for me is the world that Gardam creates between the pages of the text.  It is full of eccentric characters, not unlike the sort you might find in a Jane Austen or Agatha Christie novel (English through and through) so that you feel that these people really lived and this world must surely have existed. Just take Mr Fellow's, Hetty's father, who is still suffering the effects of The Somme.  This handsome man gave up a brilliant career in academia to become a gravedigger.  He likes to quote 'Hamlet', Shakespeare's famous play which features the two nameless gravediggers (1 and 2) who give Hamlet Yorik's skull to ponder.  Una too has 'father issues', hers having walked off a cliff, like Gloucester in 'King Lear' (are you sensing a pattern?) when she was a girl.  And as for Leiselotte, well she has neither father nor mother, both having been gassed at Auschwitz.  In her clever way, Gardam is really then dealing with the awful pulling apart that comes when a child leaves home for the first time and morphs into an adult.

It is a curious age to write about and perhaps a difficult one, when one is an older author, like Gardam, but her ability to recall the fears and anxieties on leaving home at that age is uncanny; they are captured brilliantly in this book.  If you liked 'Old Filth', you will like this book. And if, like me, you remember the thrill of breaking free and the ache of anticipation, a time when summer evenings came calling like an unfulfilled promise, then this is a book for you.

*The word 'inky' kindly suggested by Luke Kehoe Roche.
Dedicated to 6MB - who loved to read  Shakespeare and Jane Austen and who are caught in the delicious agony of pre-university limbo, as I write.   

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Lady Susan - by Jane Austen

As lovers of Jane Austen get ready for the release of the film adaptation of  'Lady Susan', I thought that it was time that I return once more to that short and often-times over-looked text.  'Love and Friendship' is the name of one of Austen's earliest stories, and funnily, and confusingly, enough the makers of this new adaptation have decided to call it after the short story, instead of the novella, 'Lady Susan', as it was titled by Austen herself.
That confusion aside, I wanted to write something about this little gem of a text.  If you enjoy reading Austen for her lively wit, brilliant irony and tongue in cheek humour, you must give this book a try: it is a very funny read.

It was written as an epistolary novel, like 'Sense and Sensibility' and 'Pride and Prejudice', but unlike these later works, Austen did not return to 'Lady Susan' and restructure it.  So here, I believe, we get a glimpse, not only into a novelist's young mind, this was her first completed novel after all, but also Austen's true writing style.  It is as if this novella is some kind of first draft, from which she would later carve that inch of ornate ivory, as she once famously describe her writing.
As for the novel itself, it is delicious in that the titular character, Lady Susan is shockingly selfish, manipulative, ruthless and, as Mrs Bennet might say, a woman who is only 'out for what she can get!'
She cares even less for her daughter's happiness than either Mrs Bennet or Lady Bertram, and is far too busy trying to catch her own wealthy husband than to bother with her daughter's needs.  She calls Frederica a 'stupid girl', and we are hardly surprised when the poor fatherless child runs away from school and seeks help from her relations, the Vernons.  However, it is because Lady Susan
is so wicked that she is so entertaining.  She has at least three lovers on the go, one of whom is married.  I found it quite shocking that Austen's central character was a scarlet woman, scandalous and unscrupulous and it makes me wonder if the Brontes ever read this novella.  They might have thought differently about Austen if they had.  Again and again we see how Lady Susan uses her beauty and sexuality to manipulate herself out of a sticky situation.  The plot builds up into a climax of duplicity, with a final crises that is described to us from an eye witness account, making the scene all the funnier.
The confusing thing for me though, is whether I should or should not like Lady Susan.  I find her
most entertaining, but I know that I ought not to. Surely she is a cross between Mary Crawford in 'Mansfield Park' and Caroline Bingley in 'Pride and Prejudice', so every feeling should revolt! But instead, I find myself hoping that Lady Susan will evade discovery and that her daughter keeps to her room!   Am I wrong dear Jane?  It is certainly an unsettling thing in an Austen novel not to know who is the heroine and who is the villain.  Of course, Lady Susan certainly is the villain, but is there such a thing as a goodie-badie in Jane Austen?  Maybe not before, but perhaps there is now.
'Love and Friendship' is released in Irish cinemas on 27 May 2016.  With scenes shot on location in Dublin, it promises to be a real treat for Austen fans.  Miss it if you dare.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Human Croquet ~ by Kate Atkinson

Oh joy, another Kate Atkinson book.  'Human Croquet' very much feels like a Kate Atkinson novel but it also seems very different from her other texts.  Once again she considers the relationships between children and parents, missing mothers and hopeless fathers, endearing protagonists and wide-eyed little boys.  Her genius really is how she captures the events that go on within rooms; simple, beautifully wrought conversations, moments of neglect, revelation, brutality.  Her characters are ordinary, everyday people like you or I.  Atkinson pulls together a cast of interesting, true to life characters, who jar and rub each other up the wrong way - a true family.  They speak our language and think our thoughts, whether in some ancient time or right up to the present day.  This last point is very pertinent to this novel because the main character, Isobel Fairfax, is a time traveller.  As such the novel is the true mother of her more recent and extremely successful novel, 'Life After Life'.  Like Harper Lee's 'Go Catch a Watchman' is the certain originator of  'To Kill a Mockingbird', 'Human Croquet' is the precursor to 'Life After Life', with its toying with time travel, the turning back of clocks. There is even the 'falling snow' moment after one such journey back in time.
So, if you enjoyed reading about Ursula Todd and her journeying through time, then you will certainly enjoy this story about Isobel as she tries to unravel the truth about her broken family and navigate the waters of teenage existence.  A treat lies in store for Atkinson fans - 'Human Croquet' - oh joy!

Monday, 29 February 2016

Yeats in Love ~ Annie West

It is 29 February, a leap year; traditionally the day women deign to propose to their male counterparts.  And I have been thinking of romance and women; I have been reading and enjoying Annie West's book - Yeats in Love.  And I was wondering about Maude Gonne, is she ever would have proposed to Yeats; if she ever even remotely entertained the idea of a future with the famed Irish bard.
It seems that all the world has come to know of Yeats's rejection, his everlasting shame of having loved and not been loved in return.
West has created a curious book about Yeats's relationship, or rather famous obsession, with the great beauty Maude Gonne.  We imagine theirs as the love of Yeats's life, but it seems that the whole affair was one sided, a mere figment of Yeats's imagination, no more real that the fairies of the Celtic Twilight, or his journey to Innisfree.  He did nothing by halves, and it seems that Yeats's adoration of the elusive Maude was all consuming.  Today, we'd call this lover by another name: STALKER!  

This is the slant that West takes in this book.  It presents a humorous collection of prints, punctuated with quotations by and about Yeats; comments, poetic snippets, that shed some light on Yeats's relationship with Mrs MacBride.  
The irony is, that the more West pokes fun at Yeats, the more sympathetic the reader feel towards him; the humour giving way to something altogether more melancholic.  It seems cheap to poke fun at someone else's misery, but aspects of  Yeats's life are undoubtedly comic - his proposal to Iseult MacBride, Gonne's daughter, followed by another inevitable rejection (the apple didn't fall far from the tree!) was silliness itself.
Yet, there is something charming in this portrayal of Yeats as the lover eternal, doggedly determined
to have his amour. These images reveal his foolishness for all to see, but the poet himself.  He dreams and schemes to have his love, while those around him laugh.  And it seems to me, that this book humanises Yeats, more than any biography.  Here is the real Yeats, the lover, the dreamer, the man who wrote of fairies and misty vales. And it seems to me what a fine thing to be; we could all be a bit more like Yeats.  And I think that perhaps Yeats was more a Colonel Brandon than a Mr Collins (to speak in the parlance of a Jane Austen fan), whose steadfast love was something to admire, not belittle.  So perhaps it is Gonne who we should pity; the woman who turned her back on the love of a poet.  Did she regret him?  Did she wish he would call again? Did she wait for a leap year to come
around at last?  

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Fawn's Surprise ~ By Dean Walley and Lois Jackson

For years I have been searching book shops for a copy of the first book that I ever owned.  What happened the original, I can only surmise.  It was a gift from my older sister, who must have been just a teenager herself when she gave it to me.  All I had to go on was that the cover was green and the story was about a little deer who was given a surprise birthday party in a forest.  There were fireflies, a honey comb, a cake made of clover.

Google was no help at all, and for years I searched through online vintage book shops and Ebay stores, but to no avail.  And then, a few weeks ago, I found it.  There it was in a shop three thousand miles away, in America.  It was all there; the green cover, the little fawn, the clover cake covered in fireflies.

I was over-joyed and even more so when the book, much smaller than I remembered arrived in the post.  The images were just as I recalled, the story just as beautiful.  Though I can't be sure, I must have been very young when I first owned it, because I couldn't read yet, which is probably why the pictures made such an impression on me.

See how 1970s it looks?  The key colours seem to be green, brown and yellow, the colours of my childhood.  The illustrations are adorable and Lois Jackson perfectly create the magic of the enchanted forest, where animals talk and sing.
Author Dean Walley writes in the genre best captured by Beatrix Potter, who delighted in investing animals with the gift of speech, and thoughts of their own.
The premise is simple: the animals pretend they have forgotten the fawn's birthday, but surprise him at the end.  His joy is complete when they emerge from the old hollow tree with home made gifts. Wonderful!  I wonder if it was this story that prompted my sister to give me a similar surprise for my 13th birthday, possibly.

Funnily enough, none of my siblings remember this book, though it meant so much to me.  Still, I now get to share it with my children,
giving them a glimpse into the past, into that 1970s world of light brown and cold yellow.  All that is missing is an electric fire in the bedroom, vinyl wallpaper on the walls and the sound of The Bay City Rollers on the radio.  Well, maybe some things are better kept in the past, but this little treasure will be with me and mine now forever.