The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Simon & Schuster 2013 paperback. Image: simonandschuster.co.uk
Simon & Schuster 2013 paperback. Image: simonandschuster.co.uk

When The Age of Miracles came out last year it was a very ‘buzzy’ book that got a lot of good reviews, both in media and the blogosphere. It was also very popular and much talked-about because it was Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, and was written in the mornings before she went to work as a book editor. It is indeed very well-formed for a debut novel, and Thompson Walker’s experience in the publishing industry is evident in the subtlety and confidence of the writing. It took me a while to pick it up, but I was excited to read The Age of Miracles. I was attracted to the concept that young Julia, our narrator, experiences the changes and drama of growing up alongside the phenomenon of the world beginning to turn more slowly. The laws of physics are defied, and the Earth’s rotation begins to slow. The days and nights get longer and longer, and no one knows why.

This is an unusual idea, and I appreciate the creativity involved in Thompson Walker coming up with it, and the research she would have had to do to speculate how ‘the slowing’ would affect the physical world. Julia is eleven, dealing with her schoolmates becoming teenagers, fancying a boy, and her parents struggling to maintain the balance of their marriage. She is naive in many ways, but sensible and calm too. In fact, for me, she was a little too calm, to the point where she seemed to have barely any reaction to the dramatic and sometimes tragic events that happen around her.

My 2013 Simon & Schuster paperback copy boasts a quote on the cover from The Sunday Times, comparing The Age of Miracles to The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, and in some ways I can see why. Some years ago I read about half of The Lovely Bones before I gave up on it in frustration, as I could not connect with Susie and her depressing but often unemotional story. Similarly, Julia’s dreamlike depiction of her changing world is blank and dull. She contains her emotions, perhaps because she cannot accept or process what is happening, but instead she seems empty and I wondered where her personality was. For me she was very hard to relate to; her emotions show sometimes, but she does nothing. Everything just seems to pass her by. Because of this the ending of the book was quite unsatisfying – I finished it and thought ‘is that it?’ Julia is disconnected from her world, and manages to make this incredible story seem completely depressing and ordinary.

The Age of Miracles could have been so much more than it is. For me, if it had a different narrator it would have been so much better. There is also the question of ‘what happened next?’ So much is changed by the slowing, people’s lives are turned upside down; but in the end the world just trudges on. Those who remain on ‘clock time’ are the majority, and those who decide to live on ‘real time’, adapting to the changing days and nights, are considered outsiders. They are targeted, driven out of their homes. Colonies form in the desert. But this is all just a matter of fact. It just happens, and that’s it. Sigh.

Initially there is a sense of impending doom, the worry that everyone is going to die and the world is going to end; but nothing happens. It all fizzles out. Like the book as whole. What a shame.

*

Published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster.

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Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Atlantic Books 2012 paperback cover
Atlantic Books 2012 paperback cover

Wild was published last year and I read quite a lot about it at the time. I like a good memoir, and since reading Martha Gellhorn for the first time last year I’ve wanted to read more travel memoirs and travelogues, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed seemed like a book for me. However, I always have too many books to read, and didn’t get around to picking it up until a couple of weeks ago.

This week just gone I started my new job in Oxford, temporarily commuting from Hertfordshire. This journey takes about 2.5 hours each way, so I’ve got lots of time to read – and this week I read the entirety of Wild, all 311 pages of it.

I was transfixed. I read the prologue on the Sunday night before starting the new job, and it got me straight away

The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in Northern California. Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those tress, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced off a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve. I let out a stunned gasp, though I’d been in the wilderness thirty-eight days and by then I’d come to know that anything could happen and that everything would. bUt that doesn’t mean I wasn’t shocked when it did.

My boot was gone. Actually gone.

She throws the other boot over the edge too.

What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing.

This moment is somewhat pivotal in Strayed’s hike, when she is separated from the boots with which she began her mammoth journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches between the Mexican and the Canadian borders, going through California, Oregon and Washington. Four years earlier her mother had abruptly died from cancer, and since then her family had drifted apart, her marriage had ended, and she recently had managed to extricate herself from a self-destructive, drug-fuelled relationship. She picked up a book about the Pacific Crest Trail by chance while queueing to pay for a spade, and was so enchanted by it that she decided to hike the trail, despite no experience of hiking or backpacking. She also decided to do it alone.

Straight away I was astounded by her bravery and determination, even in the face of a muddle of a life and a lack of direction. Cheryl Strayed made a direction for herself, and it was north from the town of Mojave in southern California. From there she hiked up along the PCT, being ripped apart along the way by her backpack (which she aptly named ‘Monster’) and her boots. She had no idea how much she could carry, and when her bag was packed she could not lift it; and yet she carried it all the way up to the Oregon/Washington border. Again, the astounding determination.

Cheryl in front of Crater Lake. Image: facebook.com
Cheryl in front of Crater Lake. Image: facebook.com

Wild is ‘a journey from lost to found‘, as the cover tell us, and in many ways it is. Strayed made her journey along the PCT for several reasons: she was ‘very loose … in the world‘, still grieving for her mother and her marriage, and unsure of what she wanted or needed. Thus as she walks, she ponders her life, her family, her mother, her marriage. She makes decisions, and comes to realisations, walks and tries to find herself. But don’t get me wrong – there is no cheese or over-sentimentality here. Strayed is an intelligent and perceptive writer, honest and straightforward. She does not get carried away with emotional sentimentality or any sort of ‘woe is me’ attitude. She is tough on herself.

I’ve read reviews of Wild that condemn it as self-indulgent and self-pitying. Strayed was at a point in her life when everything was a bit of a mess, and so she starts a journey to sort herself out, and twenty years later she wrote about it. Is this self-indulgent? Surely memoir as a concept is always in some way self-indulgent? To read a memoir you’ve just got to accept that it is a whole book of someone talking about themselves and their experiences. But the good thing about memoir, which I love, is that as long as their story is an interesting one, you empathise, are entertained, hopefully learn something, and hear about a life that you have never experienced. A lot of people are really dull, but a lot of people are really interesting and intelligent. Cheryl Strayed is the latter.

I also loved the travel element and the descriptions of the amazing landscapes and natural wonders (Crater Lake in particular sounds unbelievable), and maybe it’s a bit hippy-ish of me, but I loved the connection between Cheryl and her surroundings. Her journey is emotional and psychological, but also intensely and often painfully physical. Her feet are ravaged, her backpack chafes and scars her skin, she loses weight and gains muscle, and her view of herself as an attractive woman shifts as she is unable to get dolled up or wear ‘sexy’ clothes, and interacts with men as ‘one of the boys’ rather than a potential sexual partner. She gets in touch with nature, and the animals of the PCT, and finds both loneliness and solitude, as well as a feeling of belonging.

I liked Cheryl immensely as a person, and I loved her writing too. You can tell she is a real writer in Wild, as she documents her physical and psychological journey, her meetings with fellow hikers and those based along the trail, the beauty of the landscape, and the fear she feels and refuses to feel along the way.

I was sad when I got to the end of this book; I wanted to spend more time with Cheryl Strayed and ask what she did once she stood up from that bench by the Bridge of the Gods at the northern border of Oregon. She got married, moved to Portland, had two children, and developed a career as a writer; but was there a feeling of anti-climax once she was done with the PCT? Or a sense of a new beginning? This was what I wanted at the end, as well as photos from Cheryl’s journey – these would really have enhanced the book. Luckily there are some online, particularly on Strayed’s Facebook page.

If you think memoir is too self-indulgent, then read something else. If you love travel books, memoirs, intelligent writing and a likeable narrator, read Wild.

*

Originally published in the USA in March 2012 by Knopf. Reprinted by Vintage and Atlantic Books in 2012.

Cheryl Strayed will be speaking on ‘Lessons on Fear and Healing‘ at The School of Life in London, on 14th October 2013.

Kipling and Trix by Mary Hamer

The premise for this novel is simple – that the story of Rudyard Kipling’s sister Trix is fascinating. Who even knew he had a sister, the blurb exclaims. Author Mary Hamer wrote a blog post for me about why she chose to write about Trix (read it here) and I loved the idea of exploring the story of this woman ‘behind the scenes’ in the life of one of England’s most famous writers.

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(image via goodreads.com)

Kipling and Trix covers pretty much the entire lives of the siblings, from their early years in India, to the years they spent living in Southsea after their parents decided they needed to be sent Home; and all their adventures after that. The years in Southsea – when they were both still children – prove extremely formative as Rudyard cannot forgive his parents, his mother in particular, for sending him and Trix away to live with a strictly religious woman, Mrs Holloway, who is often harsh and mean. Trix on the other hand refers to Mrs Holloway as ‘Auntie’ and even asks to be sent back there for a Christmas holiday, while Rudyard goes to see their Aunt Georgie and her children. Every now and then there is some suggestion that Mrs Holloway was unspeakably cruel to them and one suspects something rather dark and unsettling, but no truth of this is ever revealed. The disturbance seems to come from Rudyard’s feelings of abandonment and his bewilderment that Trix would willingly spend more time with Mrs Holloway. The fact that her cruelty is played up means that there is a sort of anti climax when nothing is ‘revealed’ – for most of the book you feel as if there is some great secret about what ‘really happened’ in Southsea. It is true the Mrs Holloway was unfair, mean, and sometimes neglectful towards Rudyard (this is backed up by his accounts of his time with her), and more favourable towards Trix as she hoped that Trix would marry her son.

Time advance quickly in this novel. It is divided into several very long chapters that each cover at least five years at a time. Within each chapter skips ahead are denoted only by a page break and a brief mention in the text – more than once I got lost and was unclear about how many years had passed. In the last third of the book everyone is suddenly much older and I felt like I had missed something.

I felt that Hamer tried to cover too much time in her novel – so much happens that sometimes things feel a little rushed, and the style gets a little list-like, and as I say you get a bit lost with what happened when. Rudyard and his wife Carrie moved an awful lot, spending years in America with her family, several winters in South Africa, and living in several different homes in England. The pace of the book means that it feels like they are a bit all over the place. Similarly Trix is back and forth between India and England, as well as Scotland, with her husband Colonel Fleming. They marry more because they should than that they love each other, and their relationship deteriorates rather quickly.

This is mostly caused by Trix’s ‘problems’. She was a devotee of automatic writing and spiritualism, two practices that were hugely popular but hugely suspicious in Victorian England. Trix feels that she receives messages from spirits and her hand is compelled to write them down. Each communication is preceded by a headache and she often becomes hysterical; a couple of friends encourage her, but her husband and her family see it as a kind of lunacy – as it would have been called then – and she is subsequently ‘treated’ for this behaviour for the rest of her life.

From the point at which the decision is made to call a doctor, Trix does not appear in the novel for nearly forty pages, and after that most of her appearances are quite short and followed by her family’s exasperation as caring for her. In Hamer’s depiction she is clearly unstable but she is also treated like a child, or an idiot who cannot think rationally, and her absence from the page only enhances this. The treatment of Trix stirs up anger at the injustice of the attitude and treatment of people with any kind of mental health issue (or what was perceived as a mental health issue) during this period. At one point the Board of Lunacy are mentioned. Though Trix is allowed to write ‘normally’ and becomes quite successful, she is constantly supervised and never allowed to live a normal life. She has no freedom.

The novel ends with Rudyard’s death and Trix taking a trip to the zoo to show people from the Kipling Society around. She is happy with the animals, and this is apparently some sort of redemption for her, despite being nearly seventy and still not allowed to go anywhere on her own. I felt that Trix was ‘kept’ for her entire life and at no point in the novel does she seem truly happy or content, and she is never really allowed to be herself. She is considered a problem that must be dealt with.

I enjoyed Hamer’s style, despite several issues with commas (though that is down to proofing issues), and felt fully absorbed in the day to day lives of the Kiplings. Kipling and Trix is not a plot driven novel and there is real beauty in the depiction of everyday occurrences and the ongoing struggles of life. Rudyard’s wife Carrie is a mostly sympathetic character, though Rudyard’s mother and Trix both find her cold and always trying to steal ‘Ruddy’ away. Some strange issues there about possession in relationships.

Though they are apart for most of the novel, Kipling and Trix really does explore the sometimes close and often fraught relationship between the siblings. They have a bond in their childhood experiences and memories, but find it increasingly hard to remain close as adults. Trix sees her brother as one of ‘Them’, those who have put her away and treated her as unwell, and she resents him for this; while he worries at her condition and tries to write to her and see her, but is constantly rejected and hurt. If anything this novel teaches us that no relationship is easy, and that Trix’s story is sad and frustrating as well as fascinating.

*

Published by Aurora Metro in 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Visit Mary Hamer’s website here.

When I Fell From The Sky: The True Story of One Woman’s Miraculous Survival by Juliane Koepcke

2012 Nicolas Brealey paperback cover. Image: nicholasbrealey.com
2012 Nicolas Brealey paperback cover. Image: nicholasbrealey.com

Juliane Koepcke was born in 1954, in Lima, Peru, to German parents. Her father was a biologist and her mother was an ornithologist; they had moved to Peru to study the wildlife, and young Juliane was brought up between the city of Lima and their home in the jungle, Panguana. Panguana is a remote spot in the Amazon rainforest and the family had to travel for several days by foot, bus, boat and plane to reach Lima in order to buy supplies. Juliane was homeschooled by her parents as a child, but attended a German high school in Lima when she was a teenager. By that point in was the early 1970s and it was possible to fly between Lima and Pucallpa, on the edge of the jungle, in small aircraft. These little planes were always a risk, and the LANSA airline in particular was known to have sub-par aeroplanes. But on Christmas Eve 1971, Juliane and her mother were desperate to get home to Panguana to be with her father for Christmas, and they took a LANSA flight.

Over the jungle, in the middle of nowhere, the plane hit a storm and spun out of control. It went down in the rainforest, torn to pieces. Juliane fell two miles from the sky to the jungle floor, still strapped to her seat; she was the only survivor of the crash.

When I Fell From The Sky is her account of what happened and how she survived eleven days lost in the jungle as a seventeen year old, using her knowledge of the jungle and its animals to help her. She also talks about her family’s life in the jungle, her parents’ work, the aftermath of her accident and how her life has been affected by it.

Koepcke’s description of the lead up to the crash and her experience of the actual crash are vivid and poignant, with her obvious emotion about her memories showing through her writing. The book was originally written in German and at times the translation is a little clunky, but as I say the emotion and drama of Koepcke’s experiences shine through. She’s clearly a good writer and remembers every moment of that fateful day and the eleven days in the jungle that followed.

Juliane Koepcke revisiting the jungle in 1998. Image: iquitostimes.com
Juliane Koepcke revisiting the jungle in 1998 for Werner Herzog’s documentary. Image: iquitostimes.com

The section in which the young Juliane is alone in the jungle is truly amazing. She was very lucky to have already spent time in the jungle, albeit in a series of huts with her parents, and her parents’ knowledge effectively saves her life. Juliane remembers the call of  bird that her mother taught her stays near water and also near people – so she follows its call down river in the hope of finding someone to help her. Her parents’ experience also taught her which fruits were poisonous and what was safe to eat.

Juliane’s knowledge of the jungle certainly helped her to survive, but so did her bravery and determination to get back to civilisation. Her memories of her time after the crash are obviously still vivid, and she remembers being in shock and not quite taking in what was happening at the time. At one point she finds a three-seat bench from the plane, half stuck into the ground, with the passengers still strapped into it. There are two men and one woman, and she approaches carefully to see if the woman in her mother – it isn’t, but then she remembers that her mother was sitting next to her and that when she was falling, she was the only one strapped to her three-seat bench. Her mother was somewhere else in the jungle. Moments like this demonstrate to the reader that although Juliane was in shock at the time, with her emotions not fully registering, she was still brave and confronted her situation head on.

When I Fell From The Sky has some really beautiful and sad moments, as young Juliane comes to term with what has happened to her. On the eleventh day in the jungle she comes across the boat and camp of some fishermen, who find her and eventually take her to a doctor’s house at the jungle mission station. She recovers there and is visited by her father; it is also there that she hears that her mother’s body has been found. Her father has to go and identify her, and it is only after this that Juliane really accepts that her mother has died. After all that time, this final acceptance is deeply emotional and overwhelming for both Juliane and the reader.

Koepcke is an accomplished writer and carefully chronicles how the world press reacted to her incredible story, and how people still write letters to her and articles about her (like this one!) to this day. In 1998 she returned to the site of the crash with filmmaker Werner Herzog, who was due to board the same plane as her in 1971 to shoot in the jungle with his team, but was bumped from the flight. He followed her story and eventually got in touch about making a film about her experience, which came out in 2000.

Despite a few moments of clunky translation and a few digressions from the main story thread, I really enjoyed reading When I Fell From The Sky. As I said Koepcke is a very perceptive and measured writer, and her memories are vivid and immersive. I bought this book after coming across it by chance in Waterstones, and I am really glad I read it!

*

Originally published as Als ich vom Himmel fiel by Piper Malik in Munich in 2011, and by Nicholas Brealey Publishing in the UK in 2012 as When I Fell From The Sky.

Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub

What attracts people to fame? Narcissism? Feelings of inadequacy? A need to be loved?

For Laura Lamont, it’s all these things; but it wasn’t always.

Laura Lamont the movie star begins life as Elsa Emerson, a young girl growing up in Door County, Wisconsin, in the 1920s and 30s. Her parents run a theatre in a converted barn on their land, and for the summer months actors and stage crew stay with the family in various cabins and outbuildings, putting on plays every night. Elsa dreams of being on the stage, of being part of the excitement and the spectacle.

Picador hardback cover. Image: bookoxygen.com
Picador hardback cover. Image: bookoxygen.com

She is the youngest of three sisters – there is stoic, mysterious Josephine, and dramatic, beautiful Hildy. Everyone loves Hildy, and everyone says she should be the one on stage, but she shows little interest. Elsa cannot imagine not wanting to be on stage, with everyone cheering for her. One summer when Elsa is nine, Hildy gets involved with one of the actors, Cliff. The results of that affair will change Elsa’s life forever.

In her late teens Elsa marries a visiting actor, Gordon Pitts, and they move to Hollywood together – young love and young dreams. At a party for a film in which Gordon has a bit part (though he acts like the star), a heavily pregnant Elsa is ‘spotted’ by Irving Green, one of the studio heads. He renames her Laura Lamont and tells her to come and see him after the baby is born and she’s lost thirty pounds, and he’ll make her a star. Again, her life is changed forever.

This point is also where the novel changes forever.

The opening section in Wisconsin is very charming and vivid, with excellent characterisations of Elsa, her family, and the actors. There is also a great sense of place and environment, and the influence the life in the theatre has on young Elsa – it is only natural that she should dream of being a part of the plays, of performing and gaining recognition for her talents. Her relationship with her ‘perfect’ older sister Hildy is also brilliantly drawn, with Elsa idolising the teenager and wondering how she could ever be unhappy. What happens to Hildy has a such an effect on Elsa that it stays with her for the rest of her life. She is sill young and naive, but altogether likeable and seems to have great potential for development as a character. You want her to succeed.

In Hollywood, nothing is as Elsa expected. She did not expect to get pregnant so early on, or be singled out at a party by a studio head. She is overwhelmed and doesn’t seem to have time (or the impulse) to make any major decisions for herself. She is swept along by life, and still unsure of herself. Motherhood and marriage do not give her a sense of identity, and so she looks for this in her acting career.

Alas, she does not find it. Elsa/Laura is desperate for the attention, affection and admiration that Hildy always had and that she felt she did not. She constantly tells herself that it should be Hildy in Hollywood becoming a star and has constant feelings of inadequacy, as of the world wanted Hildy and they got stuck with her instead. Most of this stems from her idolisation of Hildy, but also their mother’s lack of maternal instincts and her outright disapproval of the life her youngest daughter has chosen.

Throughout Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures, I found Laura to be a very passive character. Everything happens to her, and she is not very proactive on her own. When she is acting in a film, she is told exactly what to say and do and how to be, but in her own life she is completely lost. She and Gordon divorce soon after her rebirth as Laura, and she is charged with looking after their two young daughters – but her housekeeper and nanny Harriet does most of that. So Laura reads her scripts, meets with important people, and acts in her films. In no way does she take control over her own life.

From Laura’s early days as a movie star, there is a parallel between her and another actress at her studio, Ginger. Ginger and Laura start out together, but Ginger’s career is entirely different to Laura’s. She acts in movies but later moves into television, and always plays comedic roles. She is incredibly successful and even moves her way up in the studio, influencing the movies that are made. She succeeds ahead of Laura because she takes charge of her life and makes decisions for herself; she is also very ambitious, something that Laura never seems to be. She wants to act, but her life as a movie star is one that was handed to her, and she never seems to dream of stardom. She simply becomes depressed that she hasn’t achieved it, while making no considerable effort to do so.

Later in her life she resorts to reflecting on what she sees as failures in her life, but that she has made no effort to achieve. For instance she constantly regrets not taking her children to Wisconsin more often, but never makes any plans and or does anything to make this happen. She just seems to like moaning.

Emma Straub. Image: picador.com
Emma Straub. Image: picador.com

As her career dwindles and the children need her less, Laura begins incessantly writing letters to her mother, who never responds. Over the years, Laura’s parents came once to Hollywood to go with her to the Oscars, and she visits Wisconsin with her family once too. On both occasions, her mother is sour and cold, disapproving of Laura and the life she has chosen. After the visit to Wisconsin, Laura’s mother writes her a particularly cruel letter in which she requests less and less contact, as they have so little in common. It devastates Laura, but she continues to write; again her need for attention and love dictates her actions. You feel sorry for her as her mother is very unkind, but at the same time you wish that Laura would do something for herself and stop seeking attention and validation from someone who will never provide it.

I loved the opening section of Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures, about Elsa’s childhood in Wisconsin; but once she gets to Hollywood, things go downhill not only for Laura but also for the reader. While Emma Straub’s writing is consistently fluid, considered and elegant, her storytelling meanders and gets muddled in Laura’s emotions and thoughts of self-pity. Laura spends too much time thinking about the past and what could have been, and doesn’t seem to learn much. This is why I found the ending unsatisfying – while Laura fulfils a childhood ambition, she doesn’t really resolve any of her issues or move on from Hollywood as I thought she might. She idealises her childhood and after her career starts to wane she wastes years and years wallowing in self-pity and moping around the house drugged up on barbiturates. I wanted to shake her and shock her into doing something for herself instead of waiting for someone to save her; which in the end is what happens – and so she learns nothing at all.

There are a lot of good things about this novel, and I liked so many aspects of it (the writing, the supporting characters, and life in Wisconsin), but its negatives are too great for it to become brilliant.

*

Published by Picador in the UK and Riverhead Books in the US, in 2012. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

Best of 2012 Mini Series

It is ALREADY November, and we are already reading a lot of 2013 proofs (very exciting!) – so it’s time to look back on 2012. I already have a list of about eight titles that I really loved this year, and will write a short post about each one. I would also love other bloggers, as well as authors, to blog about their favourite books of 2012 (those that were published in 2012) for These Little Words. Variety all the way. Just comment below or click on ‘About’ to get in touch!

Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek

My apologies that I haven’t posted in a while – I’ve had a really horrendous cold that had me totally spaced out and without energy. And I’m still recovering from it! It hasn’t been very nice. ANYWAY.

Since becoming an official fan of Peirene Press, I’ve had a greater interest in translated literature, and so I was rather eager to try out the new novel from Stork Press, Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek. Stork Press ‘[Give] Voice to New Writers from Central and Eastern Europe’, an area I know little about except from my reading about the war. It’s a bit different now.

Stork Press 2012 edition (image: goodreads.com)
Stork Press 2012 edition (image: goodreads.com)

Illegal Liaisons is a book Stork Press are very excited about, and their enthusiasm was infectious. I read the book in a couple of days and was left with plenty to think about once it was over. The press release describes it like this:

A passionate novel of unstoppable physical obsession amongst a group of Brussels eurocrats, Illegal Liaisons offers a fascinating insight into the first Polish generation that is truly ‘free’ [after Communism], but struggles to understand where the boundaries of freedom lie.

Sounds pretty good, huh? Stork Press’s Twitter feed has been testament to how much they enjoyed the novel, and not just because of the intense sex scenes. Ah yes, the sex scenes. In a way these could easily be used to sell Illegal Liaisons, and frankly they are part of its appeal (come on, who are we kidding?). But there is more to this novel than sex. It has a brain, and an agenda, and even a load of gender theory thrown in for good measure. In an interview for Stork Press’s blog which I urge you to read, author Grazyna Plebanek states that she used the story of a married man having a heated affair as a medium to explore gender roles and stereotypes, as well as identities and definitions. The result is an intense and fascinating novel that questions the norm of family life as well the necessity of monogamy and the morality of sex. Reading the interview with her really helped to put a new perspective on the novel and open it up to the reader.

While the sex (and the fantasies about sex) are graphic and very erotic, they are also very psychological. Jonathan is cheating on his wife Megi with Andrea, the partner of one of Megi’s bosses and a regular in their wider social circle. Andrea is a classic ‘other woman’. She is very attractive, and teases Jonathan with her elusiveness, always meeting him on her terms. She also flirts with every man she meets, all of whom are drawn to her and regularly form enraptured circles around her at parties. Jonathan knows she could have anyone she wants. He wonders why she has chosen him. He wonders why he chose her. He wonders when and why his relationship with Megi moved from ‘lover’ to ‘friend’.

Plebanek’s writing is unembarrassed about sex and emotions, and is charged with a deep sadness as well as eroticism. She understands that no relationship is simple, whether it be between friends, lovers, spouses, parents, children – they are all complicated in their own ways. I read about these relationships with wide eyes, trying to take it all in and understand it. After I finished the novel I sat there for a moment and tried to digest what I had just read.

Grazyna Plebanek (image: bekap.be)
Grazyna Plebanek (image: bekap.be)

Ultimately, as Plebanek states, the novel tries to show that sexuality is a part of human nature that cannot be ignored, and it is a part of everyday life – the sex scenes are not intended to shock or titillate, they are necessary to these relationships. Plebanek’s choice to write about sex from a male perspective is also very interesting. She states that she:

was curious about the man’s point of view when it comes to passion. It’s traditionally a ‘female thing’, in life, in art. We have Anna Karenina, who helplessly falls in love, but Karenin stays cool. Nowadays men are closer mentally to her than to him, I think.

The aim was to explore modern masculinity in relation to sexuality, and the changing roles of men and women. Megi is the one with the high-powered job that moves the family from Poland to Brussels, while Jonathan is the stay-at-home dad. His traditionally female role leaves him unsatisfied, and Andrea is part of his way of feeling satisfied in his life. But Megi’s role is unsatisfying as well – sporadic sections printed in italics show the reader Megi’s point of view, one that I wish could have been expanded even more. There seems to be a wealth to her character that is left untapped.

While I loved this novel, I ultimately found it quite sad. It is thoughtful, unashamed, brave, and ultimately beautiful.

*

Published on 15th October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

On 18th October I will be attending an event hosted by Stork Press at Belgravia Books, at which Grazyna Plebanek will be in conversation with author and critic Maggie Gee. The event is free, and more information can be found here.

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

March 2012 paperback cover. Image: penguin.co.uk
March 2012 paperback cover. Image: penguin.co.uk

I acquired my slightly enormous paperback early copy of this book from the Penguin Bloggers Night (I will stop going on about that eventually) and it was one I was particularly eager to read. Having enjoyed Jennifer McVeigh’s reading and having chatted with her at the event, I had high expectations for The Fever Tree. Mostly this was because it was set in a world I know nothing about but that appealed to me (in a novel) – 19th century South Africa, a country afflicted with smallpox and plagued by the greed and corruption surrounding the diamond mines. McVeigh carried out extensive research into the lives of those involved in the mining and apparently the initial idea for the book came from her discovery in the British Library of the diary of a young doctor in South Africa. This intense research undoubtedly pays off, making the book as a whole vivid and engaging; but more of that in a moment.

The story follows Frances Irvine, a young woman left orphaned and penniless when her father dies. He was a successful businessman, but his bad investments in new railroads mean that Frances is left with nothing. She has suffered all her life from her dead mother’s family discriminating against her Irishness (if you’re Irish, be prepared to be insulted by these charming characters). After her father’s death, and several unexpected events, she is left with two choices – become a governess to her cousins and share a small, dingy house with them and her aunt in the industrial north (a memory of the foul outdoor toilet is enough to turn her against this) or marriage to distant cousin Edwin Matthews, who is a doctor and lives in South Africa. He used to visit when they were children and she has never liked him; but her stern, cruel aunt with her rampant children and tiny, dirty house is a far worse fate.

The voyage to South Africa is both romantic and tense. Her emigration (deemed to be the fate of poor, lowly, possibly criminal, people) garners even more disdaining looks, but she makes friends with her roommates and spends her days lusting after the handsome and intriguing William Westbrook. This is the romantic part. The tense part comprises the prejudice of the first class passengers, with whom she is made to dine at William’s well-intended insistence, and her fears about her arrival in South Africa. She fears she will be lonely, that her relationship with Edwin will not develop well, and that they will have no money. She crosses her fingers, almost get swept overboard, shares a few illicit moments, vomits quite  a few times, and waits to arrive in her new home.

While the section on the voyage to South Africa is excellent, the book gets even better after Frances arrives in her frankly terrifying new home. Better for the reader, that is – for Frances, things just seem to go from bad to worse. She waits in Cape Town for William, but is forced to leave for her to-be-marital home after he delays their meeting. She is already disheartened by this when she arrives at the small cottage, situated in the middle of what is almost a desert. The veldt is wide, flat, dry and humid. Sandstorms happen sporadically, it never rains, and nothing grows; and yet, their cottage is located on what is technically a farm. Really. It is impossible to see how it produces anything. Edwin arrives and they are married, quietly and without much celebration.  From here Frances’ experience of life in South Africa becomes increasingly dramatic and based around her physical and psychological – and quite fundamental – reactions to the sufferings that befall her. McVeigh’s writing is vivid and sensual, with descriptions of landscape and physical experience being particularly potent. Frances is in some ways naive and blindly optimistic, but McVeigh’s skills as a writer stop her from becoming annoying. Instead we sympathise with her desperation and disappointment, and suffer with her as her situation changes, worsens, improves, worsens again and eventually concludes (no, I’m not going to tell you how).

The Fever Tree has already been described as cinematic, and this is certainly true. Personally I think it would make a brilliant romantic drama, with the actress in Frances’ role being key to its success. The intense focus on her personal experience would mean that any shortcomings in the actress’ performance would have a greatly detrimental effect on the film as a whole. Likewise the depiction of the veldt and later the misery of life in Kimberley would be key – McVeigh describes these so vividly that they are almost characters in themselves. A lot of this story is about the feeling one gets from a situation or place, something that cannot be spoken or spelled out but garnered in a more subtle way from ongoing descriptions or visuals. The end of the story has echoes of Jane Eyre in terms of structure and final resolution, and the story as a whole is apparently of a similar type to Love in a Time of Cholera (I haven’t read the latter, but have been informed of this fact by one who has) – dramatic, romantic, but not sensationalist or too melodramatic. There are elements of melodrama in the landscapes and Frances’ ill health, but like her naive behaviour they are saved by McVeigh’s brilliant writing. Still the melodrama might put some people off but it won’t if you at all like 19th century literature as the tone here is quite similar. In fact, this could easily be a Victorian novel, with its brave heroine, mysterious suitors and sweeping landscapes. No doubt fans of Victorian literature will enjoy it, but anyone else may as well. Not bad at all for a debut novel.

*

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, in March 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

 

Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit (Guest Post)

This is a guest post by Hannah Gillow Kloster.

 

pub_walks_underhill_countryThe Penguin Book Bloggers night was, as host Joe Pickering suggested, a whirlwind literary festival: 12 authors, 12 novels, three minutes each. One of the readings that most captured my attention was Nat Segnit reading from his novel Pub Walks in Underhill Country. Hilariously describing a small marital spat in which the wife, Sunita, thinks she is being captured and murdered by her husband Graham, protagonist, rambler, writer, the scene hit straight home. Perhaps it was because I had recently finished reading Dan Rhodes’ oh-so-good, oh-so-funny This Is Life. Perhaps it was the free wine and free books (equally intoxicating, I often find). Whatever the reason, I found myself laughing out loud more than was strictly socially acceptable (luckily Joe Pickering was laughing just as much, which added not only acceptance but in a way elevated me to one of the in-crowd at the event… at least in my intoxicated mind).

Sticking to the PUI (Promise Under the Influence) I made Mr Segnit during the event, I started reading as soon as I got on the tube. And as expected, Pub Walks in Underhill Country was funny. Segnit had described the book as ‘a series of rambling guides hijacked on the very first page by its narrator’ – this, I found, was very apt. The book is a series of guides to pub walks of varying length, in Britain and beyond, written by narrator Graham Underhill, a naive, fleece-loving government official with a tendency to drink. As soon becomes clear, the main thing in his life (apart from the rambles, of course) is his wife Sunita. It also soon becomes clear that she needed more than the usual amount of coaxing to be content to be Mrs Underhill.

Graham Underhill is a very eloquent and self-deprecating narrator (in fact, his narration style reminds me of my networking style, worryingly). He is also very funny. The section on pages 62 – 63 and a half (extracts in the last paragraph of this) is an excellent example of Graham’s unwitting hilariousness, and unselfconsciousness. In fact, he is one of the most unselfconscious narrators I think I have ever come across. At the start of the novel this is an extremely effective comic tool, handled as skillfully as Graham handles his walking stick (complete with gaffa taped voice recorder). The ‘rambling guides’ are hijacked, one by one, by the drama of the small rural town in which Graham and Sunita had made their home, and by the diverse characters and tangled relationships in it, and everything is narrated through a highly biased and insistently naive view point and interspersed with directions for ale-thirsty lovers of good footwear and multi-purpose technical trousers.

There is no doubt that Nat Segnit is a funny writer. There is also no doubt about the originality of this book. However, I do have some objections. Graham’s insistent, patient, well-meaning, slightly exasperating, highly knowledgeable voice becomes slightly grating after a while. And though it is usually quite enjoyable to be able to understand more of the protagonist’s world than he does himself, in the case of Mr Underhill it simply becomes as frustrating to the reader as it must be to his friends and enemies. One simply wants to shake him, or somehow give him a reality check. Which is ironic seeing as he is an entirely fictional character. Maybe I am the one needing a reality check (I am writing this, online, on a plane, in the air between my two home countries. Getting ready for a full existentialist meltdown now).

I did enjoy this book. But perhaps it could have benefited from being shorter, perhaps with fewer episodes, and perhaps more variety as well. There are only so many times the formula directions-Sunita episode-naivety-useless knowledge-pity-finely brewed ale with undertones of [insert any noun]-self congratulation is funny and/or interesting. Though going through some very unexpected plot twists towards the end, Pub Walks in Underhill Country felt slightly heavier than it should have been. Whether the unexpected pathos detracted or added to the overall impression, I think will depend on what each reader expects/wants. But feel certain that this book is funny. Very funny.

*

Published by Penguin in February 2012, and is available here.