Non-Fiction, Reviews

Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

This is the first of Mary Beard’s books that I have read, but I have been meaning to read something of hers for a while – so I had quite high expectations for this. I expected Confronting the Classics to be a journey through the Classical world with Mary Beard, an education in how that world relates to ours; and in way that is what you get, but I have to say I was disappointed to discover, upon actually starting the book, that Confronting the Classics is actually a collection of book reviews that Beard has written for the LRB, NYRB, and the TLS. It opens with a lecture she gave New York in 2011 entitled ‘Do Classics Have a Future?’, which she says is more or less her manifesto. It’s a great speech and still works when written down. As for the rest of the book, the fact that each chapter is about a totally different subject means that the whole thing feels a bit fragmented, and although the chapters are grouped into sections, supposedly tying them together with themes, this doesn’t quite work. As a reader you feel pushed and pulled between topics, and frankly some of them are more interesting than others (to me at least – you might feel differently about it). The fact that the chapters are also book reviews means that you learn about the writer more than you probably want to, and the chapters just aren’t long enough and don’t cover enough ground on each subject. Each one feels a bit brief.

(image: profilebooks.com)

(image: profilebooks.com)

But there are some positives. Mary Beard is a very accessible writer despite ostensibly writing as an academic, and it is a pleasure to learn new things through her writing. Despite their faults the chapters are very engaging, and this really highlighted the fact that you wish each one was longer. For instance I really enjoyed the chapter on Nero and the Colosseum – and if Mary Beard wrote a whole book about the history of Rome’s buildings, I would probably read it. One chapter is not enough. That said, the structure of the book has been well thought out, and each chapter is cohesive and self-contained. I learned some brilliant new things, not least about the Colosseum, and the book has really made me want revisit Rome, and visit a lot of other ancient sites for the first time.

If you love Classics, you will find something to love in this book. My only advise would be: don’t expect to be able to read it straight through like any other book. It is one to dip in and out of a bit, I think. I started another book before I finished it, something I wouldn’t normally do, but it actually worked because I needed a little break. The pace of the book isn’t quite right, and it is fragmented, but don’t let that put you off. Confronting the Classics is genuinely fascinating and well written, and I will definitely read more of Mary Beard’s books in the future.

*

Published by Profile Books in 2013 and 2014. I bought my copy at the London Review Bookshop during the Booktube/Blogger Meetup, which I wrote about here.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Identity is a theme, or issue, that I think becomes part of all autobiography or memoir; to write about oneself it to write about who you are and why. This is certainly the case with the wonderful Tracks by Robyn Davidson. She not only writes about her own experience – it is a singular, personal experience that she undertook largely on her own. There is therefore plenty of time to muse on her own sense of who she is, was, and might perhaps be. That said, she is not an especially introverted writer – the exploration of her own identity comes through the ways in which she relates to and thinks about other people, the landscape around her, and the journey she is on.

2013 Bloomsbury UK paperback (image: goodreads.com)

2013 Bloomsbury UK paperback (image: goodreads.com)


Perhaps some context. Tracks is Davidson’s account of her journey, alone, across the Western Australian desert, which she completed in the late 1970s. She knows that camels will be the most suitable animals to travel with, and to carry her things, and so the first few chapters cover the two years she spends in the town of Alice Springs trying to learn as much as she can about camels, and to get hold of some that she can take with her on her trip. This section is hugely eventful and entertaining in itself, but it is also fascinating because Davidson dedicates plenty of time and space in Tracks to examining the lives of the local Aborigine people, and the ways in which they are maligned and marginalised. She also examines the deeply sexist nature of many, if not all, men she encounters during this time. She is an intelligent and deft writer, and has a great gift for social perception and analysis. She continues to muse on the plight of the Aborigines as she continues her journey, some of it through a huge reservation, and she is hugely engaging and passionate, and I could have read her thoughts and theories, as well as the cold hard facts she presents, for hours. Before reading Tracks I did not know much about the social history of Australia, and modern society’s attitude to it, and Davidson is a great source for this. She writes not as an academic or a journalist, but just as a real, normal woman, encountering these things, and speaking about that state of her native country. It is greatly fascinating.

Also fascinating is the day to day life experienced on her trek. Her relationships with the camels are emotional, difficult, rewarding, draining, and many other things besides. As an animal lover it is difficult for her to be tough with them, but her time in Alice Springs taught her that sometimes that is the only thing that works. She learns how they operate, and in turn how she must behave in order to keep them under control. She is forced to become their master, their controller, to be strict and mean when necessary, and to take care of them when they are hurt (which seems to happen very easily). Her relationship with the camels has already challenged Davidson’s view of herself – she is forced to toughen up in order to live with these animals, and to force herself through all the hardships in order tor reap the rewards.

It is fascinating to read such eloquent descriptions of the spectrum of emotions she goes through on the trip, through the ups and downs – Davidson’s writing is so vivid, so personal, so completely there that you are captured and feel the emotions too, as much as you can as a reader. The fact is, as with all memoir, that we cannot ever really know what happened, how it felt, the details of life, the real experience – we can only know what is related to us. But Davidson excels in making it seem as if, when she wants us, we are there with her. She was ambivalent about having others document her trip at the time – she reluctantly allowed a photographer from National Geographic, Rick, join her for sections of the trip. His photos are reproduced in the Bloomsbury paperback edition that I have, and they really are beautiful. But Davidson resented that he was part of the outside world intruding on her experience, and that the publicity meant people she met along the way would hound her with questions and cameras. So, for me, it seems that reading her book, written by her alone, is the best way to learn about her trip. It is what she wants to tell us.

There is so much more that I could say about this wonderful book. I feel like I learned a lot about what it is to challenge yourself, and be brave, and to be alone, and to be part of the world. It is a book about Robyn Davidson at that time in her life as much as it is about her journey. Her psychological and emotional journeys are as important as the physical. I was drawn to Tracks after having loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and while the two books do have things in common, reading them brings two very different experiences with two different women – but I hugely admire both of them.

I’d say that Tracks is the more rewarding of the two. I particularly loved Davidson’s relationship with her dog Diggity (I am a mad dog person), and the exploration of the society and history that she travels through, as well as the fascinating and beautiful landscape. I just loved it, and I would recommend it to anyone.

*

First published in 1980 by Jonathan Cape, and by several publishers since. The movie adaptation of Tracks was released in 2013.

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Fiction, Reviews

Re-Reading: How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

This article contains spoilers about key plot points that you will not want to find out if you have not read this book. Or you might want to, but I thought I’d let you know.

Recently I wrote about re-reading – why we do or do not choose to re-read certain books, and what we can get out of revisiting the people and stories that first made us keep on reading. I’ve barely re-read anything in my life, so I decided to make a ‘To Re-Read List’ and reacquaint myself with past loves.

First up is How to Be a Good Wife. It was published in January 2013, and I read it in October 2012, so a little while ago now. Long enough that although I remember the plot and why I liked it, I’ve forgotten the intricacies and the story and the depth of the writing. Because this does happen, I find – no matter how much we love a book and might remember certain scenes that ‘got’ us, we inevitably forget a lot of it too. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as it is the absolutely perfect reason for choosing to re-read a book, aside from having loved it. I look forward to revisiting things I’ve forgotten, but that I know I loved.

Picador 2013 hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

Picador 2013 hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

How to Be a Good Wife is narrated by Marta, a forty-something housewife living with her husband Hector in a small and isolated, but unnamed, Scandinavian town. She is bored and lonely now that her beloved son Kylan has flown the nest, and she lives each day under the tyranny of her watch. Marta is obsessed with what time it is and when she should do things, and this jumped out at me even more the second time around. Given that I know the ‘twist’ in the story and the ‘truth’ that is later unveiled, this obsession and all her other tics were even more foreboding and unsettling than they were the first time I read the book.

When you read something like this for the first time, part of the joy comes from discovering the twist, and I imagine this could ruin a second visit. But luckily there is still enough in this story for that not to be the case. I remember sitting there, after reading it for the first time, going over and over the ins and outs of what Hector did and the story as a whole. It is a little complicated, a little mysterious, and a whole lot unsettling. It is the kind of thing that sticks in your mind, and even though I’ve read the book before it did not fail to unnerve me once again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The simple fact of reading How to Be a Good Wife was just as enjoyable and engaging as it was the first time. I noticed things that had perhaps become a little lost the first time. Not plot details, but the subtlety of Chapman’s writing and the very intense atmosphere of the book. I had forgotten just how claustrophobic the story is and how unnerving Marta’s life seems to be. Hector is very serious, controlling, and Marta is terrified of doing something wrong.

Marta constantly quotes maxims from a book given to her as a wedding present by Hector’s mother (who is also a very controlling, overbearing presence) – a twentieth century guide called ‘How to Be a Good Wife’ that instructs wives to be seen and not heard, to give their husband authority on every matter and even that his topics of conversation are ‘more important’. I’m not actually sure whether this was a real book, but a quick google produces some very similar material (aside from the joke-y gift ones) such as this and this. The ideas are pure Stepford and the woman is reduced to nothing more than a ‘wife’, a sort of service person for her husband. She is expected to be perfect, subservient, and to value her husband above herself – in fact these guides and this way of thinking designates that the wife’e value only exists in relation to how well she fulfills her ‘role’. Depressing, right? But re-reading also made me think about Chapman’s implications in including this book of Marta’s – it is one of the ways that Hector controls her, but I think it also dictates how he genuinely thinks a wife should be. He definitely doesn’t have a ‘normal’ modern view of a marriage as an equal partnership.

The atmosphere in Marta and Hector’s house constantly feels as if they have just had an argument – but they never argue. Every move and every word is filled with tension and they never seem to relax. It feels strange to read that the sleeping Hector hugs Marta to him. She in turn doesn’t seem to get any pleasure from this; she cannot sleep and creeps out of the room. Though How to Be a Good Wife is only short, I found it easier to read it in short bursts, as sometimes the atmosphere was just so cloying and tense that I needed a little break – I needed to remember that I was not Marta. For Marta is a victim of emotional cruelty, and this is something that I think we have all encountered but very few of us have to live with day in and day out.

Picador 2014 paperback cover. Image: goodreads.com

Picador 2014 paperback cover. Image: goodreads.com

I found reading this book for the second time a much more emotional experience than previously. Knowing the facts and knowing how it turns out meant that I did not feel the hopefulness, for Marta, that I did the first time. I thought a lot about her experiences in ‘the room’ and how she must feel as her memory starts to come back. I thought a lot about Hector as a man, as a person. We only see him from Marta’s point of view, but once we know what he did, how he made Marta belong to him, we see him differently. I thought about the cases we hear about on the news of women kept inside houses for years and years (such as the Ariel Castro case, or Natascha Kampusch) and molded to be part of someone else’s identity. It is horrifying, morbid, desperately sad and very destructive. How to Be a Good Wife is fictional, but it rings eerily true, and this makes it even more compelling, but also more disturbing. It is enjoyable in one sense, in that it is beautifully crafted, but it is also not enjoyable given its nature. But it is a ‘good book’, one that deserves reading and examination. I’m glad I re-read it, and was able to re-examine it. I know that Chapman’s next novel is about an entirely different subject, but I look forward to it greatly.

*

Published in January 2013 by Picador (UK). You can read my original review here.

Buy online from The Great British Bookshop.

 

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Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Best of 2013

2013 has been another fantastic year for books, with some super duper award winners and releases. I’ve read a relatively low number of books this year (about 35 I reckon), and I haven’t loved them all, but there have been a few real gems (click on the links for my original reviews).

 

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Particular Books cover. Image: penguin.com.au

Particular Books cover. Image: penguin.com.au

I was sent Brain on Fire by Karen Browning, the Publicity Manager at Penguin Press, and I could not have been more pleased with a book that came to me entirely by chance. Susannah Cahalan is a journalist and a wonderful writer, and her story is fascinating. I learned from as well as enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone. Insightful, intelligent and just brilliant.

 

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

yisbn9780755395170-detail

2013 cover. Image: headline.co.uk

Yonahlossee is a really excellent coming-of-age tale set in a summer camp in 1930s America. Thea Atwell has made a mysterious mistake and is sent to the camp to learn some discipline and put some healthy distance between herself and her family, She is a wonderfully brave, passionate teenager who is determined to act as she pleases, but always tries to do the right thing. This is also a must for anyone with a love of horses – they are almost as important as their human counterparts.

 

Travels with Myself and Another: Five Journeys From Hell by Martha Gellhorn

Eland cover, 2002. Image: betterworldbooks.com

Eland cover, 2002. Image: betterworldbooks.com

I picked up this book after being attracted to its cover in Stanfords on Long Acre. Bought on a whim, it is certainly one of my favourite books I have read this year. Gellhorn was a journalist willing to throw herself into any situation, or journey, to research an article. This book covers her adventures in China during World War Two with her then-husband Ernest Hemingway, as well as her trips around the Caribbean (also during the War) and her ‘holiday’ on safari in Africa with the most useless guide one could imagine – she did all the driving. I loved Martha Gellhorn by the end of this book for her courage, humour and intelligence – and you will too.

 

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Atlantic Books 2012 paperback cover

Atlantic Books 2012 paperback cover

Wild was a very ‘buzzy’ book that is now being made into a Hollywood film starring Reese Witherspoon, and I could not recommend it more. Reading Martha Gellhorn got me interested in travel writing, and I loved the idea of Wild – Cheryl Strayed’s solo trek up the west coast of America in search of peace and possibly a new life. Part memoir, part travelogue, it is a charming and insightful read in which Strayed explores not only mountains but her own history, particularly her relationship with her mother. I was enthralled and engaged, and cannot wait to see the film adaptation.

 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Picador 2013 UK hardback cover

Picador 2013 UK hardback cover

Burial Rites has rightly been lauded all over the place as one of the best books of 2013, and I have to agree. It is a first novel that seems to have been written by a seasoned novelist rather than a graduate, and seethes with tension and longing. Agnes Magnusdottir was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, in  1830. The novel follows her throughout her imprisonment from a rudimentary cell to a rural farm where she is put to work for a year before her inevitable death. Her story begins to mingle with those of the family she stays with, and we learn through flashbacks how she came to kill a man. Immensely clever and perfectly plotted, Burial Rites is both moving and intriguing, questioning morality and tradition. Hannah Kent is a beautiful writer.

 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My proof copy - 2013 Little Brown cover

My proof copy – 2013 Little Brown cover

I wrote a lot about The Goldfinch when it came out, so I won’t prattle on here for long. What I will say is that Donna Tartt is my favourite writer and I could not have been more excited to read her new novel. Ten years is a long time to wait! Her writing and characterisation are both as beautiful and brilliant as in her previous two novels, and I fell in love with everything she created. A coming-of-age story mingled with a crime novel and a tale of redemption (with a bit of questionable morality thrown in for good measure), The Goldfinch is a real pleasure.

 

So those are my books of 2013… what are yours?

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Events

An Evening With Donna Tartt

Let me just say this now: Donna Tartt is my favourite writer. Hands down. I read The Secret History and then The Little Friend about ten years ago, and something latched on inside of me and has never let go.

I was amazed and excited to hear that she would be publishing a new novel this year. I tore through The Goldfinch (you can read my thoughts on it here) and before I had even got a copy I ran to Blackwell’s to buy a ticket for the event I attended tonight, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The Divinity School at The Bodleian Library. A beautiful and perfect venue.

The Divinity School at The Bodleian Library. A beautiful and perfect venue.

I have seen and met authors before whom I respected and whose books I love; but for me this was different. I was overwhelmed even at being in the same room as Donna Tartt. I gasped when I saw how tiny she is in real life – and how neat and modest, her black bob perfect as always and her slim frame wrapped in a dark suit. And yet she is bright, with wide eyes and a beautiful voice. She talked with passion and intelligence about how she writes constantly, always carrying a notebook with her and jotting down descriptions, ideas, scenes – some of which will never be part of a finished book but are, for her, like scales are to a musician or sketches are to a painter.

She talked a lot about art. Fabritius’ painting ‘The Goldfinch’ is her new novel’s namesake but also a force behind the story that drives it along but also pushes and pulls it around; it is also a painting that Tartt loves and that she writes about with great beauty and understanding. She spoke of going to a private viewing of the painting and those with it it the gallery in Amsterdam with her Dutch publisher and the majesty of the artworks and the deep affect they had on her – to see them in person. Donna Tartt is a writer but she understands what it is to be an artist in all senses of the word. She understands the impetus to create, and also the deep joy that art can bring to those who experience it.

The Goldfinch by Fabritius. Image: commons.wikimedia.orf

The Goldfinch by Fabritius. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

She also loves antiques (very important in The Goldfinch and an element I loved – Hobie’s shop is almost magical) and sleeps in the same carved bed that her grandmother was born in. It is a bed that came from France in a ship (to America), and as a child she was amazed by this. She had never been in a ship to France and neither had anyone else she knew; but the bed had, and it contained something of the ship and the ocean within it. This is why Donna Tartt is so wonderful – she sees the beauty in the world and translates it into beautiful writing for her readers to enjoy.

After the event there was a signing. I queued, nervous, clutching my huge hardback copy of The Goldfinch. What would I say? What would she say? As she wrote my name and her own, I told Donna Tartt that The Secret History was my favourite book and I thanked her for her work; she looked so pleased, and she shook my hand.

So wonderful it deserved a fancy border.

So wonderful it deserved a fancy border.

*

The Goldfinch is out now from Little, Brown.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Where do I begin? The Goldfinch. The Goldfinch. It still hasn’t entirely sunk in that Donna Tartt has written another novel; that it is out this year; that it is called The Goldfinch. And yet I have read a proof copy of it, all 771 pages, kindly sent to me by someone at Little, Brown.

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(image: goodreads.com)

I read her two previous novels quite close together when I was about 14 or 15, and loved them both, The Secret History in particular. It is the only book I have read more than once and I still remember scenes from it as if I saw them as a film, or as if I was there – Francis’ country house in particular. Bunny coming downstairs in pyjamas with ruffled hair for a drink; someone playing the piano; Camilla cutting her foot on a stone in the lake; and Richard looking at her ‘dusty boy feet’ in the kitchen, overwhelmed by her beauty.

There were ten years between the publication of The Secret History and that of The Little Friend in 2002, and now we have waited eleven years for The Goldfinch. And, to ask that ridiculous question, was it worth the wait?

If you love Tartt’s novels, then there is no doubt, of course it was worth it. Just to have more of her words is reason enough to wait eleven years. Obviously I had read the snippets of information about the plot of The Goldfinch, but it did not really prepare me for the reality of it.

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, miraculously survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is bewildered by his new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the criminal underworld.

That, taken from the back of my proof copy, does not even touch the surface. There is infinitely more. Each phrase there, each thing that happens to Theo, is so much more complicated and has so much more depth than it appears to. The simplest things have such resonance.

A lot of The Goldfinch is about the question of what is the right thing to do – what is best, what should we do, what would our mothers do? Are they always right? What about our fathers?

Theo’s mother is a ‘presence’ throughout this novel, and it occurred to me that no other parent has played such a crucial role in Tartt’s other novels. In The Secret History, Richard’s parents feature only in the early stages of the book as he applies to college. His father wants him to take over the family business, and his mother is a housewife. In my memory they are like zombie cartoons, stock characters that Richard uses to demonstrate to the reader how empty and meaningless his life in Plano was before he came to Vermont. In The Little Friend, our central characters Harriet and Hely seem to operate almost entirely independently of their parents, despite being about ten years old. Harriet’s mother is sickly and wafts in the background; the only time she or any other parent has any influence is when Harriet is sent away to camp. It’s been ten years since I read either novel, so forgive me if I am wrong, but Theo’s mother seems like the first of Tartt’s fictional parents to be entirely good, entirely wanted and loved by the child. Though perhaps this is because Theo loses her when he is so young, and he is so lost without her.

Theo is indeed lost. He gets lost again and again and again in this story. And the reader gets lost with him. He is an entirely immersive narrator, and even when parts of his story are bleak and I didn’t necessarily enjoy reading about them (particularly the middle section during his teens), I still wanted to be there with him. You want Theo to survive, even when he makes mistakes and acts like a complete arsehole. Which he does, on several occasions. You will him to make the right decision. But of course, Tartt is asking us throughout the novel, what is the right decision? And how do you know it’s right?

The Goldfinch is only Tartt’s third novel (though it has been more than 20 years since the first), but having read all of them I can see how she has matured as a novelist. While The Secret History and The Little Friend both had philosophical elements, The Goldfinch is an exploration of not only the protagonist’s story but also of the possibility of fate and limits of morality. That said, I did not find it too overreaching or preachy; and its narrative does not get lost in philosophising about life separate from the thrust of the plot. It is literally longer in length but also feels deeper and wider than the two earlier novels, like it contains more – it is not just Theo’s story in relation to the painting, but it is the whole of his world and his life; and the lives of so many around him. This one small painting of a goldfinch is the centre of Theo’s world but also the entire book, the entire story.

As I began to read I was terrified that I would not like the latest novel by my favourite writer; but I was happily enveloped in Tartt’s style again, her world that she creates for her readers, and for her characters to inhabit. They could all plausibly exist within the same world, and it felt good to be back. I had really missed reading Donna Tartt’s work and I felt relieved to be reading her again. The Goldfinch is entirely new, entirely different and modern; but it still feels like Donna Tartt, it is still intelligent and beautiful, complex and real.

It may be another ten+ years that we have to wait for another Tartt novel – but it will be worth it; and we have this to sustain us in the meantime.

*

Published by Little, Brown in the UK and US on 22nd October 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Donna Tartt interviewed about The Goldfinch in The New York Times

Also from The New York Times, Tartt’s reading habits

Tartt is doing a few events around the UK – rare and almost sold out!

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Fiction, Reviews

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I think it is far to say that in the time since it has been published, less than a month, Burial Rites has become a bit of a ‘sensation’. It is everywhere, and everyone seems to be talking about it. I don’t usually rush to read books that have a lot of hype around them, but I was genuinely attracted to the story this book tells, and I had to buy myself a copy.

The UK cover is also beautiful. The pages are edged in black too, which not only fits with the colour scheme of the cover but adds a sense of the gothic, of something dark and cold; it hints at the sad story within.

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2013 Picador hardback edition (image: goodreads.com)

When Hannah Kent was a student in her native Australia, she went on an exchange trip to Iceland. She was seventeen, alone in a foreign land entirely different from her own, and felt like an outsider. She came across the story of Agnes Magnusdottir – the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Agnes was an outsider too, and Kent felt some small connection with her. On her return to Australia, the story of Agnes stayed with Kent, and she ended up choosing her story for her PhD thesis – the manuscript that would become Burial Rites. After taking a research trip to Iceland, where she poured over records and archives, Kent wrote her own version of Agnes’ story.

In her early thirties Agnes was convicted, along with a young man named Fridrik Sigurdsson, of the murders of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. The murders were committed in 1828 and the pair were executed in 1830. At the time Iceland was under the rule of the Danish Crown, and prisoners were usually sent to Denmark to serve time, or to be executed. A lack of money meant that Agnes and Fridrik were kept in Iceland – first in rudimentary prisons, and then placed on separate farms to work and repent. Agnes was placed on a farm called Kornsa, as the owner, Jon Jonsson, was a District Commissioner. Burial Rites begins as Agnes is moved from her temporary prison and taken to Kornsa.

The family there are informed that they must house her, and given no choice in the matter. They are scandalised and fearful for their safety; but Margret, the mother, takes some pity on Agnes and asks for her shackles to be removed. She also helps her to wash, and gives her clean clothes. The prisoner is set to work on the farm, and she is given a young priest to help her pray and repent for her crimes as she prepares to ‘meet her destiny’. Over the course of the novel we hear more and more about Agnes’ life, abandoned by her mother and shuffled between farms as a servant; and we learn about how she came to know Natan Ketilsson, to live with him – and to kill him.

The narration alternates between third person, and first person in Agnes’ voice. It is a very real voice, if that makes sense – I imagine Kent would have had to empathise as much as possible and really try to put herself in Agnes’ shoes. The despair, longing, sadness, resignation and fear the Agnes feels during her time at Kornsa are all relayed to the reader through Kent, and you really feel that Agnes is speaking to you from 1829. I know that sounds corny, but the voice is just so believable, so down to earth and relatable that the real Agnes seems to connect with Kent’s fictional version of her.

Hannah Kent. Image: courier-journal.com

Hannah Kent. Image: courier-journal.com

While we empathise and sympathise with Agnes and her terrible fate, we also see every flaw in her character, and believe that she may have been capable of murder. Yet, I still doubted at times whether she was guilty; and even if she was, I did not want her to die. Iceland and the UK no longer have the death penalty, and this book, I think, explains why that is so important. Even is someone has committed something as terrible and unforgivable as murder, killing them does not make things right; and they are still a person. They don’t deserve to die – no one does. And when you have read this book, and heard Agnes’ story, you will wish that she did not have to die for what she did – and not in the way that she did.

I finished Burial Rites just before bed a couple of nights ago, and it kept me awake. I felt an immense sadness for Agnes. The final pages are particularly heart wrenching and I wished I could take away Agnes’ fear. Hannah Kent is a truly beautiful writer, who has engaged deeply with a strange and mysterious woman from more than a hundred years ago, and brought her to life again in the 21st century. But it was not only sadness for Agnes that kept me awake. It was an overwhelming sense of emotional connection with many of the characters in this novel, Margret in particular. I will be thinking about this novel, and the people within it, for a long time.

*

Published by Picador in the UK, and by Little, Brown in the US, in September 2013.

Hannah Kent writes for the Guardian about how she came to write Burial Rites

A photo essay from Iceland by Hannah Kent featuring locations from the book

Hannah Kent’s website

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Fiction, Reviews

Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe

IMG_7764

2014 Gallic Books edition

Gallic Books kindly offered to send me a review copy of Monsieur Le Commandant – the cover got me straight away. A beautiful graphic font, not too busy, and a French stamp mingled with a Nazi eagle in the corner – something that becomes more and more poignant and chilling as you make your way through the novel.

Paul-Jean Husson is a French academic and hero of World War I, where he lost an arm and was awarded for his bravery in fighting against the Germans. One day in 1942, during the German Occupation of France, he decides to write a letter to the senior SS officer, le commandant, in his hometown of Ardigny. This book is that letter. In it, he tells a potted version of his life story and emphasises his undying commitment to the glory and success of France as a nation, and of its people. He believes in patriotism and strength, in conquering your enemies and taking pride in your domination of weakness.

The style of writing reminded me greatly of both Thomas Mann and Hans Fallada – though I cannot know if that is entirely the author or partly the translator. Either way it was measured and calm, whilst still being sufficiently dramatic and with plenty of emotional depth and character. This fictional story set in real historical events feels utterly true, and the characters entirely believable as real people. There were probably many like them.

Husson is a dedicated follower of Marechal Petain, the Premier of France and later Prime Minister of Vichy France during the war, who recommends an armistice between France and Germany  that is viewed by Britain as highly dangerous and would undermine Britain’s position on the continent. Husson is a highly respected writer and member of local government who has friends in high places; as the novel goes on he becomes more and more involved in the politics of France at war, and as France is bombed, attacked, and occupied, he comes to the opinion that the French people should work with the invading Germans to create a greater, stronger Europe. Like his idol Petain he supports an armistice between the two countries, and he does not believe that Britain and the rest of the Allies have France’s best interests at heart.

Paul-Jean’s son Olivier marries a young German, Ilse, who soon comes to live in France. They have two children over the course of the novel, and for a while Olivier is sent away to fight. Ilse and their first child Hermione often come to stay with Paul-Jean and his wife Marguerite, Olivier’s mother, and his sister Jeanne. Everything is idyllic, despite the war, as the family enjoy their villa and each other’s company; but Paul-Jean finds himself thinking about his daughter-in-law increasingly often and cannot blame her if she makes an error or does something wrong. He is captivated by her, and wishes that Olivier would stay away longer and she would come visit more often. He expresses his feelings of confusion and guilt to the commandant, unsure of what to do, and hints at ‘what happened next’, creating a sense of dread and fear in the reader. We know from the blurb that this letter is a confession and that he makes ‘a decision that will devastate several lives, including his own.’

This sense of foreboding coupled with Paul-Jean’s deeply felt anti-Semitism and support for Nazi Germany creates a great sense of unease. To deflect suspicion from his family he writes anti-Semitic articles for the press that he copies into his letter to the commandant; they are truly disturbing. From our future perspective, we can also see that his ideals are utterly misguided and doomed to failure, as is his support of the Fuhrer and the invading Germans, and this adds a great feeling of not only sadness but also despair that these things happened and people felt this way. From a British point of view his opinions, and view of the War, are disturbing and unsettling, as well as hard to understand.

Paul-Jean becomes increasingly conflicted about his feelings for Ilse and his feelings for his country and the Germans. His semi-incestuous love for her is intense and illicit, and becomes heightened  and more overtly sexual as he spends more time with her when his wife is ill; it is always present in his mind. But which is more important to him – the object of his affection and lust, or the future of France?

There are a few major plot points that I simply cannot give away because they would utterly spoil this book. There are surprises, building fears that come to fruition, and devastating moments when true feelings are revealed. Monsieur Le Commandant is at once fascinating, beguiling, engaging and, as a quote from L’Express on the cover states, terrifying. The intricate complexities of the socio-politics of World War II are carefully examined from a perspective mostly unfamiliar to us Brits, and practically the entire battlefield of human emotions is explored. I was left saddened, shocked and enthralled by this novel, and very highly recommend it.

*

Originally published in France by NiL Editions in July 2012. Published on 16th September 2013 by Gallic Books in the UK. My copy was kindly provided by Gallic Books for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

Review: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson (Man Booker Prize 2013 Longlist)

Image: charlottemendelson.com

Image: charlottemendelson.com

Almost English came to me by chance, and I was instantly taken with its cover (they are so, so important, aren’t they?).

It is not only striking but carefully designed, and modern too. ‘Modern’ – what I mean by that really is that it does not look like a lot of other book covers knocking about at the moment. So many of them seem to look the same, so it’s nice to see something different. It’s also understated – I for one hate covers where too much is going on and you don’t know where to look.

Our central character Marina is a schoolgirl, and I feel that in some ways this would be a great book for schoolgirls to read (of Marina’s age that is, i.e. 16/17) as it paints a vivid and realistic portrait of how utterly awful it is to be a 16 or 17 year old girl and how difficult it is to navigate between family, school, and boys.

Marina’s mother Laura is also rather central and gets her own sections of the book. She is, for lack of a better phrase, weak willed, and is also rather unhappy. Marina’s father left years and years ago, and the mother and daughter duo live with his mother and her two sisters – elderly Hungarians. The three of them are a wonderful trio, bringing both comedy and drama to the story and illustrating the vital importance not only of family ties but also family history and legacy. I loved all of them, and Mendelson’s knack for phonetically writing their accents is brilliant. Her own grandparents were Hungarian and you can actually feel the affection for them in this book.

Marina is unhappy living with this mish mash of family and begs to be sent to Combe Abbey, a traditional English boarding school, convinced that this will solve all her problems and make her feel less ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’. Of course it does not go to plan, and the results of Marina’s efforts to fit in and find happiness are simultaneously hilarious, excruciating, and rather sad.

Mendelson’s story and her characters are vivid and almost touchable. You are immersed in their world and when you close the book it lingers around you. Almost English entertained and moved me, and made me miss hugs from my also foreign grandma.

Visit Charlotte Mendelson’s website to hear her discussing Almost English on Foyles radio with Fiction Uncovered, and in a little video made with her publishers. Luckily she seems to be absolutely lovely.

*

Published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 15th August 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Almost English is on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Read more here.

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Articles, Events

The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2013 Is Announced!

Image: southbankcentre.co.uk

Image: southbankcentre.co.uk

Literary prizes are always fun: plenty of speculation and eager guesses, plus loads of reviews and recommendations to savour. There are also the bloggers who try to read whole longlists and shortlists, whom I really admire because I could never take on that amount of reading with a deadline! And the nominated books are always so diverse, and I am very reluctant these days to read a book I know isn’t my sort of thing.

The longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize came out today, and as is only right social media subsequently exploded with congratulations, reading challenges and excitement. Personally I am rooting for Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson. I read the book a few months ago when the lovely Sophie from Mantle at Pan Mac sent it to me. All the other books on the list look equally worthy, however, so I cannot imagine how the judges are to go about choosing a shortlist, and then a winner.

Almost English is the only one I have read and while I won’t be committing to reading the whole list I like the idea of choosing a couple to read so that I feel a bit more informed about the whole thing. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton appeals, as does The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, and Unexploded by Alison MacLeod (you can find out more about all these titles, and the rest of the list, here). No promises, but I’ll see how many I can read before the shortlist is announced in September.

Have you read any of the longlist? What do you think of the choices this year? Comment below!

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