Non-Fiction, Reviews

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I first read Shirley Jackson a few years ago, and saw this biography advertised shortly after – and immediately wanted to read it. Even before I’d read Jackson’s work I was intrigued by her and her life, and of course a biography is the perfect way to explore that. If you’ve ever read any of her work you’ll know what I mean; when she was alive journalists used to say she was a witch (something she didn’t deny).

Having so far read three of Jackson’s novels (currently reading a fourth) and several short stories, I can confidently say that her fiction is filled with the dichotomy between the norms of everyday life, and the unknown horrors that lurk beneath it. Many of her short stories are about women who are in some way lost, or whose worlds are slowly unravelling. And in her novels, the central female characters share these traits, explored on a deeper level. It has been said before that Jackson’s life and personal experiences influenced much of her work, and Ruth Franklin explores this in A Rather Haunted Life. As she takes us along the story of Jackson’s life, she constantly makes links to her work, both fiction and non-fiction, and demonstrates how much of herself Jackson put in to some of her stories. There is no one character that is completely based on her, but parts of her self and experience are dotted throughout her various characters in one way or another.

Shirley Jackson was born in California, and began her life in a well-to-do suburb. When she was sixteen the family moved to New York state, where Shirley would later attend Syracuse University. This was where she met her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who would become a hugely influential figure in her life and work. Eventually they moved to North Bennington in Vermont, where Hyman taught at the famous Bennington College. Franklin takes us through the early years of Jackson’s life with a perfect blend of detail and overview, and highlights those all-important episodes that would later appear in novels and short stories. Jackson’s tricky relationship with her mother Geraldine is excellently established, and then highlighted very effectively throughout the book. Their relationship was always a source of tension for Jackson, as her mother was very critical and often withholding, but Franklin does not sensationalise this or demonise either one of them – she simply lays out the facts, often with quotations from letters, and shows us the impact and influence of the mother on the daughter, both personally and professionally.

The third chapter, “Intentions Charged with Power” introduces us to Stanley Edgar Hyman, with a bit of background on his childhood and adolescence, up to his meeting Jackson at Syracuse. Normally I would roll my eyes at a big tangent into the life of a man, when I’m reading a biography of a woman, but this chapter is not only necessary for illustration Hyman’s character, but it is also just really entertaining and interesting. You see that he and Jackson both had ‘big personalities’, and knowing more about him gives you much more insight into their relationship and marriage, for better or worse – which in turn also gives you insight into much of Jackson’s work. They were both deeply flawed but I liked them both very much, and wished I could hear their conversations and see them in their everyday lives.

Franklin depicts them as having an intense and sometimes volatile relationship, with strong emotions on both sides. They obviously loved each other a great deal, and at the same time were capable of hurting each other deeply. Hyman became Jackson’s life long critic, reading her work first and offering searingly honest feedback. He pushed her to write as much as possible, and more than once we hear how he considered time she spent doing other things as a waste, because writing stories in order to earn money and be successful was the most important thing she did – in his opinion.

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Jackson with her children in 1956 (image: sevendaysvt.com)

More than anything I enjoyed being immersed in Jackson’s world as I read A Rather Haunted Life. To me she is utterly fascinating both as a writer and as a woman. I adore her insightful and uncanny depictions of women battling with the ultimate dichotomy in their lives, as she did – the desire to be a good wife and mother, and still achieve things outside of this and be independent. It was a classic dilemma of Jackson’s era in the mid-twentieth century, but I think it is still relevant today, if in a slightly different form – perhaps more as the juxtaposition of our psychological inner life with our day to day existence of work and home, relationships, and everything in between. Shirley Jackson was perpetually torn between looking after her house and four children, and fulfilling her career as a writer (as well as being her own person with her own identity). Both were hindered by episodes of ill health, and her husband’s wonderful combination of not helping around the house but also berating her for not spending more time writing. There was also the fact that Jackson’s mother was never satisfied with her daughter, and seemed disappointed in every achievement that didn’t fit her narrow vision of what a woman should be.

What a woman should be. I think this is a question Jackson grappled with throughout her life and work, and something that I, and I’m sure many other women, still grapple with today. But luckily we have the work of Shirley Jackson to help us, and this wonderful biography to inspire us. I adored this book and its exploration of Jackson’s writing, as well as her personal experiences, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in her work. If anything it shows us that life is rarely easy, but it’s always worth the effort.

*

Published in 2016 by Liveright, part of W.W. Norton. I read the 2017 paperback (pictured above).

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography by Jean Rhys (1979)

IMG_2701I first read Jean Rhys at university when her novel Good Morning, Midnight was on the reading list for a course about the 20th century novel. Since then she has been on my radar and I have kept most of her books on my long term TBR. I read Wide Sargasso Sea a few years ago, but apart from that I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read more of her work.

I am on a bit of a non-fiction kick at the moment, and the purchase of Smile Please was part of that. It was an obvious choice, as it was by an author I already knew I liked, who I knew had had an interesting life, plus it’s quite short and you can buy a beautiful Penguin Modern Classics edition with a picture of Jean Rhys on the front with a dog – which I did.

I would very much recommend reading the foreword to this book, written by the editor and author Diana Athill. Athill was Rhys’ editor for Wide Sargasso Sea, and also worked with her on Smile Please. Given that the book is unfinished, it certainly needs to be put in context, and Athill does this perfectly, drawing a vivid picture not only of Rhys and what it was like to work with her, but of the writing of this book specifically.

Only one section of the book could be considered finished, and that is the first, also titled “Smile Please”, about Rhys’ life in Dominica. As some readers may know, Rhys was born in Dominica and lived there until she was 16, at which time she came to England with an aunt. Rhys describes her early life episodically and with little dialogue because, as Athill describes in her foreword, she only wanted to write what she could remember accurately. This adds to the vividness of the narrative and takes us straight into the young Jean Rhys’ world. She tells us about certain events, such as having her picture taken (the origin of the title, as the photographer instructs her to smile), and when she jealously smashes a doll owned by her sister, that she wishes was hers. She also covers more general things such as her various aunts, her relationships with her parents, and what they always did on Sundays. In general Rhys paints quite a happy childhood, punctured only by feelings of social awkwardness and inadequacy, and the pain of not knowing how to act in certain situations. Like all childhoods there are moments of joy, and of pain.

The two further sections in the book are considered unfinished, although the first of these still reads very well. Athill has named it “It began to grow cold”, as Rhys never gave it a title, and it describes the first few years of her life in England, carrying straight on from the end of the previous section, where she begins her journey across the Atlantic.

Rhys had a dream of England as some sort of perfect place, and while it is not awful when she finally gets there, it is not as she imagines. This section is written much like the first, episodically, though there are fewer details and Rhys admits that she does not remember quite so much, and so clearly, as her childhood. She works as a chorus girl and tours the country with the troupe, lives in a so many different flats that you lose count, and eventually begins to drop in mentions of men and love affairs. She does not go into much detail about anyone except Jean Lenglet, who became her first husband. We begin to see the influence of her own life on her work, and indeed it is during this period that she first starts to write. Despite having a job and ‘love affairs’, and later a more serious relationship with Lenglet, Rhys still seems rootless, wandering, never having quite enough of anything and always at the mercy of landladies. She becomes disillusioned with England, and with London.

By the end of the section she and Lenglet are married, and have begun to travel in Europe with his job. Living in different cities seems to give Rhys a bit more spirit, and the section ends with the first real interest in her writing, and a mention of Ford Madox Ford, who became her mentor. We can see that her life will never be perfect, but she will be able to write, at least.

The last section is “From a Diary: at the Ropemakers’ Arms”, which is literally diary entries, and isn’t really finished work. Rhys begins the section with a note saying that these pages were written in the 1940s when she was separated from her third husband, Max Hamer, and living above a pub (The Ropemakers’ Arms) in Maidstone. It is rough and a bit random, a stream of consciousness that covers her own self-doubt, the family that own and run the pub, her rooms, her feelings about England and London, and her own existence. It is the most ‘unfinished’ part of the book, but oddly it works as a conclusion because it shows us a snapshot of her life after the events of the two earlier sections.

In Smile Please we see three distinct stages of Rhys’ life and the disparity between them, but also the similarities. In Dominica and in England, she is always somehow lost, not quite fitting in, not quite satisfied. Like the protagonist in Good Morning, Midnight, she uses several different names throughout her life, including her real name and her pen name, and this seems to exemplify her feelings of alienation and rootlessness, of being Other and never quite belonging.

In a way I liked that the unfinished nature of the book means that she does not consciously try to sum up her life and say ‘there you go’. Being unfinished, and written episodically, makes the autobiography feel more like real memories, like the way a real person would talk about their life. A life cannot be summed up so easily in words, but this book can be: an unpolished gem, essential reading for any fan of Jean Rhys.

*

Originally published by André Deutsch in 1979. I read the 2016 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Live Fast, Die Hot by Jenny Mollen (2016)

It’s a funny thing, how I came to read this book. I don’t have a ‘public’ account, so you may not all know this, but I love Instagram – it is my FAVE. I follow people I know, bloggers, and a handful of celebrities (ok, quite a lot). One of these is the actor Busy Philipps, who I have always liked, but after following her on Instagram for over a year, I love her. I watch her Stories every day. Anyway, through her account I have also followed a few other people – like Jenny Mollen. I hadn’t actually heard of Jenny Mollen before seeing her on Instagram, but I am very glad I decided to follow her. Like Philipps she is frank and funny about life, and the trials and tribulations of family life and motherhood – and trying to retain your own sense of self amongst everything. I know that Busy Philipps is currently writing a book (which I am desperate to read!), and this lead me to discover that Jenny Mollen has published two books, the second of which is this one – Live Fast, Die Hot.

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It’s kind of a ridiculous title, but after having read the book, I can see that it works. Jenny Mollen wants to have a crazy, brilliant life, and to be beautiful and sexy forever – that seems to be the gist of it. The crux of this book is the advent of marriage and motherhood in her life, two things that she didn’t feel grown-up enough for, but that she goes for with full force, something I really admire. I quite like that throughout the book Mollen retains her childlike-ness, her feeling that she is not mature enough for her own life, that she is still a child herself. It’s endearing and relatable, and reassuring to those of us who are just entering the marriage/grown-up/possible parenthood phase of life. Really none of us feel like we know what we are doing.

I have read a couple of slightly mean reviews of this book that label Mollen and/or the book as ‘desperate’ and that this is off-putting. I disagree with this completely. She is only ‘desperate’ in the way that we all are – desperate for happiness and love, for a good life, for fulfilment and pleasure. The thing I really like about Jenny Mollen, after reading this book, is that she completely acknowledges the fact that she is neurotic and just wants approval and to feel worthy. This is felt most keenly when she discusses wanting to be loved and ‘approved of’ by her infant son, that she wants to be an amazing mother and wants him to realise that she is an amazing mother. You could read this as selfish, but I read it as a deep desire to be a better person, to be the best mother she can, to do the best for her son – to make him happy and make sure he has a good life. And to make sure that she has a good life too.

Mollen also writes a lot about her mother and her family, and readily acknowledges and discusses the neuroses and scars of her childhood and adolescence, and how these affect her life now. The thing I loved most about this aspect of the book was her unfailing sense of humour and her willingness to just keep going and embrace life. That might sound corny, but there you go.

My main point is just that I really enjoyed this memoir. It is an amazing mix of crazy stories (like the infamous Morocco trip to see the ladies that make the rugs, which is still on her Instagram if you scroll back far enough), family drama, and adjusting to marriage and motherhood. I loved that Mollen and her husband (who just happens to be Jason Biggs) seem like such a perfect pair, both as narcissistic and neurotic as each other, and both with a sense of the absurdity of life, and that you always just have to find the humour in the situation. I mean, just the fact that on Jenny’s Twitter and Instagram bios, she describes herself as “Jason Bigg’s guest” tells you something about their attitude and sense of humour. Their life seems totally nuts and totally brilliant. Incidentally Jason is almost as great as Jenny on Instagram.

We’re on a first-name basis now.

Anyway, Life Fast, Die Hot was an engaging and entertaining read, and a much-needed break from the more ‘serious’ books that I always seem to read. Definitely recommended if you want some fun. Also, I recommend looking at Jenny’s website as it has links to all her stuff, including some of her excellent articles for various publications. The one about miscarriage for Cosmopolitan became the first chapter of Live Fast, Die Hot, and is definitely worth a read for its frankness and heart. Just like all of Jenny Mollen’s writing.

*

Published in 2016 and 2017 (paperback) by Doubleday and Anchor. I read the 2017 paperback edition, pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I saw this book at a conference last year, and it sat on my reading list for months until I received it for my birthday in January. I was a bit apprehensive about reading it as I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a light read, and the paperback is 429 pages (not counting the appendix, notes, and bibliography). But once I had a copy myself, I knew I had to just go for it, which is often the best option for long or intimidating books (for me at least).

I have been keen to read more classics stuff outside of work (where I work on classics books), but wanted to avoid feeling like I was working, which is why I chose a non-academic book like this one. It is written by a professor, and published by a university, but it is not a textbook. In the introduction the author describes it as a sort of encyclopaedia, which sort of makes sense, though it reads like a biography or history. The encyclopaedic aspect comes through in the sheer volume of information and the huge amount and range of sources that are cited, from myth, history, and archaeology.

The latter is crucial to Mayor’s argument that there really were women who were like the mythical Amazons – equal to men in combat and status, riding horses, fighting and going out to battle, etc. Mayor carefully defines the difference between the Amazons of Greek myth, that we see in their art and literature, and real women across the ancient world who lived Amazon-like lives. The real women that Mayor discusses were from the lands north and east of Greece, covering what is now south-east Europe, parts of Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and over into Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. It is a huge area – hence the huge book.

Mayor assumes that her reader has a good base of knowledge about ancient Greek society and gender roles, and uses this as a starting point to compare the women of these various regions with women in Greece, as well as the Amazon women in Greek myths. Mayor points out that there are some classicists who theorise that the Amazons were purely something from Greek myth and not based on any real people – and she disputes this. There is plenty of historical and archaeological evidence for ‘warrior women’ in multiple tribes, peoples, and places throughout the regions mentioned, and Mayor catalogues many of this in detail. This cataloguing can get a bit overwhelming, but it’s worth the effort for the incredible stories of these warrior women and the lives they lead.

As someone who only studied classics up to A-Level, it was fascinating to learn about more of the ancient world outside of Greece and Rome. I loved hearing about these women who lived like men, rode into battle, and yet still formed families, had children, and lived full lives. Greece starts to look like the anomaly instead of the norm, with its women confined to the house for all their lives, never having any freedom or choice.

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(image: pinterest.com)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the consideration of how ancient Greek people, both men and women, would relate to the warrior women of the east – whether mythical or actual. The common mythical trope was that the Greek hero and the Amazon would be more or less equal in combat, their fighting charged with potential sexual tension, but ultimately the hero would overpower and kill the Amazon. The most famous (and earliest) piece of Greek art to feature an Amazon is Exekias’ vase showing Achilles and Penthesilea at the moment that they lock eyes and fall in love, exactly as his spear enters her chest and he kills her (see right). Penthesilea was a mythical Amazon queen who led her band of female warriors to Troy to help defend the city against the invading Greeks. They managed to kill plenty of soldiers until Achilles and his band of men attacked, and the women were all killed. The story was immortalised by Exekias, and the Greeks loved this interplay of sex and death on the battlefield, in the Greeks’ most famous victory over their eastern neighbours.

The Greeks seemed to have a weird fixation on Amazons as ‘wild’ women who must be overpowered by heroes; they held a certain fascination as both ‘manly’ and strangely alluring. Mayor details several Greek myths in which the sexual tension between the Greek hero and the Amazon is a very important factor, included in all versions. This fascination with Amazons meant they were included in huge amounts of ancient Greek art and literature.

Mayor argues that the Amazons of myth were based on real women encountered by ancient Greek travellers and historians, most famously Herodotus (I have just bought myself a copy of Tom Holland’s translation of his Histories). Having read her book, I completely agree with this. So many tribes throughout Scythia, the lands around the Black Sea, and over towards China, contained women who lived almost exactly like men – or who at least knew how to ride, shoot arrows, and fight to some degree – that it is impossible to refute the notion that mythical and legendary Amazons were based on real women.

The Amazons is a wonderful blend of mythical stories, histories, art, literature, and archaeology all being discussed and analysed, giving a broad overview of the lives of women outside Greece in the ancient world. While it is a dense and sometimes heavy-going book, it is also fascinating, engaging, and ultimately very rewarding. It is one of the most authoritative books I have read on the ancient world, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the lives of women in antiquity.

*

Published by Princeton University Press in 2014 (hardback) and 2016 (paperback). I read the paperback edition, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

The Ice Child by Camilla Lackberg

I have to admit this book was an impulse purchase. In Waitrose. But I just really felt like some slightly generic crime, and The Ice Child fulfilled that wish. It is part of a series of books about Detective Patrik Hedström and his wife Erica, who is a writer, who both just happen to get caught up in wonderfully complex cases in their small Scandanavian town. In this case, a naked teenage girl suddenly appears in the road just outside of town, and is hit by a car. The car drives off, and the girl is found by Marta, out horse riding. The girl is badly wounded, and her eyes have been removed, as well as her tongue (Lackberg doesn’t spare her readers from the gruesome side of things). It turns out the girl is Victoria, a local teenager who attends the riding school owned by Marta and her husband Jonas – and who has been missing for several months.

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Patrik is part of the team investigating Victoria’s disappearance and that of several other girls in the area. His wife Erica becomes involved when an old case she is writing a book about suddenly seems to be connected to the missing girls. Add to the mix Jonas’ strange and unhappy parents, and you have a cast of characters filled with mystery and suspicion. The Ice Child is a story of life in a small town that has gone horribly wrong; of family secrets that have evolved into something much worse that any of the characters could imagine. I didn’t quite predict the ending – Lackberg manages to make it very twisty – but by the last third of the book I could see who was involved with the missing girls. It’s a fairly formulaic story with a few red herrings and a good dose of odd behaviour from several of the characters that could look suspicious. The best mystery for me was the old case the Erica is writing about – I couldn’t quite fit it together with the present day story until right at the end, which made it more entertaining, and it kept me reading!

The Ice Child isn’t the most challenging of crime novels, and I think the gruesome treatment of Victoria and the other missing girls was a bit unnecessary – the darkness of it jars with the small town setting, but not in a way that works. The gruesomeness was a bit over the top and ended up feeling a bit sensational, as the family secrets that are exposed are enough to entertain the reader and explain some of the mysteries. There were some great moments though, particularly in the examination of the roles of women as wives and mothers, and how these roles can take very different forms. The impossibility of knowing who someone really is also looms large over the events of the novel and we start to wonder if any of the characters can really be trusted. It’s a very twisty, turning story that unfolds slowly at first, and the dramatically as Patrik and Erica uncover more and more layers of truth.

I don’t read a huge amount of crime fiction so I am still working out what works for me, and I’m afraid I don’t think Camilla Lackberg is it. While I enjoyed The Ice Child it was a bit too formulaic for me, and the language was a little clunky – though of course that could be down to the translation. Either way my next crime novel will have to be something a little different and more challenging!

*

Published in the UK in 2016 by Harper.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, or Blackwell’s.

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Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

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Reviews

A little update!

Hello dear readers! My apologies for my absence. Life has been a wee bit crazy in the last month or so, but we have finally moved into our new house and things are evening out… I actually have the time to sit down and write a blog post! Yay! I’m sitting at the dining table in our new house, and I could not be happier about it.

Anyway. I have read a few books since my last post, and I have lots of reviews to write! Here are some of the books I have read recently that you can expect to read about here soon:

  • Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
  • The Ice Child by Camilla Lackberg
  • In the Labyrinth of Drakes and Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

I am also going to do a belated Best of 2016 post very soon, so watch out for that too! I’m currently reading Josephine Wilkinson’s book on Katherine Howard and loving it, so I’ll write about that when I have finished it. I also received a few books for Christmas, and expect to get a couple for my birthday, so I’ll post about that those as well. So lots to come! Your patience will be rewarded!

In the meantime, happy reading and happy new year!

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Fiction, Reviews

Blog tour: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

I don’t often agree to review brand new books anymore, or take part in blog tours – but The Dark Circle intrigued me. I had heard lots of good things about Linda Grant but never actually read her books, and the premise of this novel appealed to me. In 1949, twins Lenny and Miriam are both diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium in Kent to recover. From the press release: “Trapped in this sterile, closed environment, with a host of extraordinary characters, they find a cure that is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.” This makes it sound a little like they are in prison, and you can see why they might feel that way. From their arrival they see that the sanatorium is cut off from the rest of the world and has its own pace of life.

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2016 proof from Virago

Lenny and Miriam are very young, only nineteen, and they are used to living in the bustling city. Miriam is confined to bedrest on the veranda with fellow patient Valerie, but Lenny is able to move about and even walk to the local village. En route he runs into an army captain who is also a patient at the sanatorium; the captain states that he and all the other military patients are ‘dead men’, just waiting to get better after all the action and excitement – as well as danger – that they saw in service. At the sanatorium they face another kind of danger in the form of extreme boredom coupled with the possibility of death. From the start there is a slightly morbid air to the whole place, and both Lenny and Miriam wonder if they will ever leave alive.

I wondered if the ‘dead men’ and their fellow patients represented the generation struggling to go back to normal life after the War, either because they were soldiers or their lives were so shaken up by it. Throughout the book there is a lot of discussion of the ways in which the country and its people are changing in the aftermath of the War. Class divides are beginning to blur, seen here through the fact that the sanatorium can admit poorer people via the brand new NHS where previously it was an enclave of rich people. Lenny and Miriam are some of these new patients and are exposed to new types of people during their time in the sanatorium.

Their overseer Dr Limb implements a trial of the new cure, a drug called streptomycin, and he faces the choice of who should receive the treatment – knowing that in the clinical trials some patients were cured, but others had severe allergic reactions to the new medication. Their lives are in his hands in a way they have never been before. Gradually the patients hear about this new drug, and the fact that only some people seem to be receiving it. As Lenny improves, Miriam gets worse, and he becomes desperate for her to receive the new cure.

I won’t say anymore there so as not to spoil the plot, but the ‘rebellion’ soon takes place. Not long after that the timeline moves ahead and we see the twins, and Valerie, in the future with their new lives. This section towards the end is a little less potent than the sections in the sanatorium, but we see the long term effects of the treatment there, both physical and psychological. All the patients feel that their survival of the sanatorium is something that holds them together – they have an “aura of darkness about them, [as if] their past suffering had penetrated their skin.” It is a dark circle surrounding them for the rest of their lives.

Honestly I felt that this imagery was a little melodramatic, given that other people had just experienced the horrors of the Second World War, but this manifestation of a shared experience works quite well. All the former patients have something that ties them together, this defining moment in their lives, for better or worse. I suppose the point is that we all have our own ‘dark circles’ that remind us of past suffering, and our experiences always affect our later lives. There is also something to be said for the bonds created by these experiences.

I am glad I read The Dark Circle, though it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be – but I did enjoy it. It explores some fascinating issues and ideas, and has some excellent vivid characters, as well as a dry sense of humour. I don’t think I was as moved by it as I was perhaps supposed to be, but it was nonetheless a satisfying and enjoyable reading experience.

*

Published by Virago in November 2016. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: A Reading Experience

More than one of my fellow reviewers on GoodReads wrote that reading this book is more than that – you ‘live it’ as well. It is an experience I will never forget. If This is a Woman took me ten days to read, which for me is a long time – but then it is 727 pages (I read the 2016 Abacus paperback). It’s long, but it needs to be long because of the sheer amount of information and individual stories that it tells; Sarah Helm is diligent and respectful, taking time to list names and tell people’s stories. I admire her for taking on the task of writing about Ravensbrück in such a way. She tells the life story of the camp, from its construction and opening in 1939 to its abandonment in 1945 – and its life beyond as a grave and a memorial. It was one of the longest-operating concentration camps in the network, and was significant for two reasons: it was only 56 miles north of Berlin; and it was built specifically to hold women. It was the only camp designated as such.

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2016 Abacus paperback edition

Sarah Helm posits that it was almost a special project for Heinrich Himmler. He ordered it to be created, and he sent very specific orders to his staff there. He visited quite regularly in the early days of the War because the camp was so close to Berlin, and he had organised for his mistress Hedwig Potthast to live nearby. The same doctor, Dr Karl Gebhardt,  who delivered their first child also ordered experiments to be carried out on Ravensbrück inmates.

The experiments are some of the worst things that happened inside the camp. A group of Polish women, and some French, were subjected to unnecessary surgeries on their legs during which bone and muscle was either cut or removed, and bacteria was introduced in the form of foreign objects. Some of them also had their legs injected with poisonous substances such as gangrene gas and petrol. The official reason for these experiments, ordered by Himmler, was to simulate battlefield wounds in order to work out how best to treat them. There was a debate around the drug sulfonamide and whether this could treat such wounds. Hitler’s personal doctor advised that it be given to Reinhard Heydrich after a bomb went off in his car, but Dr Gebhardt advised against it; and Heydrich died. Gebhardt was then ordered to experiment with the drug at Ravensbrück to ‘analyse’ its effectiveness.

The women who suffered through these experiments came to be known as the ‘rabbits’ of the camp, because they had been experimented on like animals. Reading Helm’s book, they were to me some of the bravest women of all in Ravensbrück. Once the experiments were over they lived in constant fear of being executed, as they were living proof of what the doctors has done and what Himmler had ordered. Some of them died whilst still in the camp hospital and some died later; but a large group survived and made a point of telling their stories. There is a brilliant article on them here that I would recommend reading – but I must warn there are also some unpleasant pictures.

The rabbits were telling their stories even while they were still in the camp. For a time they were able to send and receive care packages via the Red Cross and in these they hid letters to and from their families. The information in these letters made its way to a clandestine radio station in England that broadcast to the Polish underground; and the information was passed on from there is the Red Cross and various other parties (this is explored in detail in Part Three of Helm’s book). During the War the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reluctant to do anything about reports they received of such atrocities, but the fact that the rabbits got the information out of the camp was instrumental in bringing their stories to light after the War. You can read more about the role of the ICRC during the War here.

It is easy to get caught up in the individual stories included in If This is a Woman, and there are so many; but Sarah Helm does an excellent job in making sure each gets their space and time, and I can only imagine how carefully she must have had to plan out the structure of the book to make sure everything was included and covered fairly. She conducted a wealth of original research, interviewing the women and visiting both the camp and the homes of those who were there. For years huge amounts of evidence and testimony were held behind the Iron Curtain, so it is only recently that a lot of these stories have come to light in the wider world, such as those of the ‘rabbits’.

If This is a Woman is an exhaustive account of Ravensbrück and the lives of those who were there – either as prisoners or guards. The last section of the book is dedicated to ‘what happened next’ and covers the fates of some of the most notorious SS staff at the camp, such as the commandant Fritz Suhren and the guard Dorothea Binz. The legal process is fascinating, but really the most interesting thing is the way the SS staff behaved once they left the camp, and during the trials. Helm states that when Binz was being led to the gallows she reportedly said “I hope you won’t think that we were all evil people.” You can read more about the female guards here.

The stories of how women were able to leave the camp, as well as where they went afterwards and what happened to them, are just as incredible as their time it. It is not just the events of the War that must be documented and commemorated, but what happened afterwards as well – these events changed the places and the people forever.

To do justice to this book I would have to write an article thousands of words long; so I hope this one will do for now. It is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I hope that others will take on the task of reading If This is a Woman and will learn of these women and what happened to them, and what they went on to do. The book is a seminal work of World War Two literature and I would recommend it to anyone interested in that period. At last these stories can be told, and they should not be ignored or marginalised. At times the reading experience is hard-going, and often intense and incredibly sad, but the overall feeling is that of defiance and determination, and hope for the future. If This is a Woman made me proud to be a woman.

*

Published in 2015 and 2016 by Little, Brown and its imprint Abacus.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton has been included on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016, and so understandably it’s quite popular at the moment generating a bit of hype. Almost every review I have read (both in newspapers/magazines and online) has been favourable, mentioning the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth of the story. My fiance’s mother gave me her copy to read, and I had high hopes.

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It is a novel without much of a plot. Our narrator Lucy is looking back at her life and recounts the time she spent in hospital in the mid 1980s. Her mother, who she had not seen for years, came to visit her and stayed for five days. They talked mostly about people they used to know, gossiping and laughing. That is the frame for the story, and the starting point for Lucy to recount various other scenes in her life that are relevant and or in some way related to this time or this visit from her mother.

Ostensibly it is a novel about a mother/daughter relationship and the nature of family. The Barton family were desperately poor when Lucy was growing up and clearly didn’t have an easy time; there are also allusions to some kind of abuse, possibly sexual, though no details are given. Whatever happened it seems like Lucy is living in a post-trauma phase in her life – her narration is very childlike and simple, and she fights to explain everything she says. Her voice is distinctive but in my opinion not very well executed as the childlike side of her is frustrating rather than endearing. She struggles to understand people and has very little emotion in her voice. I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (which would explain either her being traumatised or possibly on the autism spectrum) or just the deep self-consciousness of the writing. It seems to be a ‘thing’ these days to write in a quite blank way that is supposed to convey deep emotion in a method similar to poetry, and while this sometimes works it certainly doesn’t in this case. This ‘blankness’ also meant that to me the characters seemed underdeveloped. Given that Lucy is our narrator she is the most fully-formed, but I would say she is only 75% developed. All the other characters, including her mother, are almost like templates – they do not seem to have full personalities. As with the tone of Lucy’s narration I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (perhaps demonstrating that Lucy finds it hard to understand other people) or just a flaw in the writing.

Many reviews I’ve read praised the deep emotion of the book – but to me this novel is almost emotionless. Lucy’s voice is very flat and unmoving, and I found her hard to connect or empathise with. Given most people’s very different reaction, I wonder if I am missing something that the author is doing intentionally, or if this book just wasn’t for me. I’d be interested to hear from other readers who didn’t completely love it.

Lastly I want to consider Lucy’s relationship with her mother. Before the hospital visit they haven’t seen each other in about a decade, and the reason for this seems to be a mixture of Lucy’s desire to move away from her family to start her own life, and her parents’ dislike of her husband. Lucy also seems to have some level of resentment or anger towards her mother for her difficult childhood, though we do not know exactly what happened there. The mother is very distant and emotionally unavailable – Lucy says she has come to expect that her mother can never say ‘I love you’. They speak a couple of times about Lucy’s childhood and the rest of the family, but always briefly and evasively; most of their conversations are about people they remember from the past and where they ended up. Most of these stories are of divorce and heartbreak, but Lucy and her mother enjoy recounting them. This seems to bridge a gap between them, but it also means that most of their conversations are largely meaningless. The mother leaves the hospital quite abruptly and after that Lucy states they do not see each other again for a long time. I think I could see what Elizabeth Strout was trying to do with this relationship, to show them trying to connect with each other, but her method of doing this made it very hard for me to connect with the characters. There was not enough depth to their joint story, and it felt like there could have been so much more to it.

My Name is Lucy Barton is an odd little novel. I think a lot of people will warm to it, but it just didn’t work for me.

*

Published by Viking (an imprint of Penguin) in 2016.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

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