I’ve only participated in WWW Wednesday once before, and that was ages ago, so I felt like giving it another try. The idea is to post three things:
What you most recently finished reading
What you are currently reading
What you will read next
Hence ‘WWW’! So here goes:
What I recently finished reading: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I read this last month after having meant to read it for years, and I’m glad I finally did. I was spurred on by the upcoming TV adaptation, and also by the fact that this mad dystopia seems oddly relevant these days, especially in the States… my review is here.
What I am currently reading: Labyrinths: Emma Jung, her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
I am almost at the end of this book and have loved it so far. I knew nothing about Emma Jung before I read it, and she has turned out to be an engaging and fascinating character. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the field and period. You can see the book on GoodReads here.
What I’m going to read next: The Good People by Hannah Kent
I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, and so when I heard she had a new book coming out I just knew I had to read it. This one has a similarly beautiful cover, and I think it will be just as fascinating and wonderful as its predecessor. You can read more about it on GoodReads here.
So there you have it! What are you WWW Wednesday books?
There are always books that one means to read, that ‘should’ be read – and for me one of them was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was published before I was even born, so it has always been popular, always been revered in my experience. This book was always on my list, always something I thought I should read, something that I might find interesting. The new TV series based on the book, coming out later this year, finally pushed me to buy a copy and actually read it.
I was surprised how short it is (my copy is about 300 pages). When I’d read about it before it had always seemed like this grand story that needed time and patience; and in some ways this was true. For a book of its length, there is an awful lot of ‘content’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is an awful lot left unsaid, or only implied. Our narrator, Offred, shares her story but is also careful and guarded, only telling what she chooses. We never learn her real name, for example. The ending is also somewhat ambiguous.
Margaret Atwood apparently classes this novel as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ and I think that’s correct. It is a dystopian novel above anything else, an alternative history of America. But like science fiction it is very detailed and ‘high concept’ with a lot of context needed to really understand what’s going on. Offred gives this to us in pieces so that at first we are lost and following her blindly, but as the book goes on we get more of the wider picture and start to form our own opinions. This was also my experience with the other Atwood novel I’ve read, Alias Grace. That novel has a multitude of perspectives and truths, and while The Handmaid’s Tale is not quite so psychological, it is multi-faceted and filled with the possibility of deceit and betrayal – amongst the characters, but also for the reader.
Atwood likes to challenge her readers, and this novel was certainly challenging to me. It was an infuriating mix of fascinating story, intriguing narrative technique, and utter misery and oppression, for both the characters and the reader. I can’t say I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and it took me a while to read because sometimes I just didn’t want to hear about the nightmarish world that Offred inhabits. During my breaks between reading I wondered whether the book seemed like a feminist novel to me, and in some ways it does – it is about women fighting back. But it also isn’t. Women have been complicit in creating the Republic of Gilead. You wonder what the Wives, Aunts, Econowives, and Marthas really think about the way they live – they have a better deal than the Handmaids, but they are still trapped, and any power or agency they have has been given to them by the men.
I also wondered whether the book is trying to make a statement about religion, or rather when you reduce religion to its fundamentalist principles and then use those for your own gain – on a personal or national level. The Republic of Gilead is ruled by religion, but none of the characters we encounter seem very concerned with it in any form except one of authority. Do any of them really believe in God? Offred mentions ‘true believers’ but they seem few and far between.
One thing that frustrated me was the lack of detail about the rules, and how things became this way – but I suppose that is the point. Offred only tells us what she wants to, and she is clearly traumatised by the whole situation and what she has gone through before – thankfully we do learn about her past throughout the novel. I think this is also just me as a reader – some people are happy with ambiguity in a novel, and others are not. For me, it felt like there was so much more that could have been explored, and while I appreciate that Atwood chose to be ambiguous in order to leave open possibilities, and to encourage the reader to speculate, I didn’t really like this side of The Handmaid’s Tale. At the end I felt unsatisfied, and wished there was more discussion, more investigation. Everything was just so vague and uncertain. I know a lot of people love this book, but it just didn’t do it for me. Atwood is a masterful writer, especially in her carefully planned plots and her manipulative narrators, but for me The Handmaid’s Tale was too frustrating, too impenetrable, too miserable, and too unpleasant for me to enjoy. Still, it’s an inspired concept and I am curious to see what the new TV adaptation will be like – although I know for certain that it won’t be any fun.
Originally published in 1985 by McClelland & Stewart. Reprinted many times, most recently by Vintage. I read the Vintage Future Classics 2005 edition (pictured above).
I’ve read three of Shirley Jackson’s novels, so it only felt right to try some of her short stories; and after all, The Lottery is heralded as one of the most brilliant (and controversial) in the genre.
At first, some of these stories reminded me Truman Capote’s with their edge of uncertainty and fear underlying the safe environment of the home – I particularly thought of his story Miriam, with its creeping unease. But as this collection goes on the stories become more and more unsettling, until the story of the title is reached at the very end and the reader is left bewildered and amazed.
I already knew that Jackson was a wonderful novelist, but now I know that she is also a master of the short story. Her ability to create not only tension and uncertainty but also vivid characters and settings with so few words really is impressive. She also makes liberal use of ambiguous endings to leave the reader wondering if they really understood what they just read, or if she misled them the whole time. It’s like the bewilderment at the end of her novel Hangsaman repeated over and over.
Like most of her work that I’ve read so far, these stories of Jackson’s are often concerned with the fragility of the positions, statuses, and environments that women have created for themselves in society. Housewives are under threat from forces trying to disrupt their marriage or their neighbourhood; an executive is threatened by the presence of a new receptionist and the confusion over her relationship with her boss; and several female characters are pushed to the edge of their sanity. There is much to fear in the apparently safe worlds of home and work. Even the husbands and boyfriends can pose some sort of underlying threat.
Most interesting to me was Jackson’s repeated use of the name James Harris for male characters; this name first appears in the story The Daemon Lover. This is also the name of a Scottish ballad – that is also known as ‘James Harris’. Jackson’s story features a young woman waiting for her fiancé on their wedding day, who happens to be called James Harris. This name appears again and again various forms (sometimes ‘Mr Harris’ or simply ‘Jim’) and the reader wonders if he is a symbol for the harm that men can do to women through their attitudes and treatment. Jackson’s James Harris is the man your mother warned you about, the stranger who stares at you, the boyfriend you’re not quite sure about. It is a potent symbol of the threat to women’s rights and happiness in society and the home.
This collection was first published in the late 1940s, and we must remember that this was a time when women were expected to return to their subservient pre-war roles, and the men were returning to the work force. Jackson’s women yearn for more than their small domestic lives – or they guard them fiercely. There is a sense that the world one has created could so easily be destroyed by one person or one decision, and women are particularly vulnerable to this. These underlying issues make these stories even more brilliant than they are on the surface, and made me realise how sharp and intelligent Jackson’s writing is, and how wonderful it is to read.
I’m now on a mission to read everything she has ever written!
Originally published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1949. I read the 2009 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).
Many years ago I worked as a bookseller for Borders and I have to admit that the true crime section was not one that I thought of as full of ‘literature’. All the books had sensational covers with big red letters and bad photographs. They were small fat books that didn’t get many visitors, and while I thought some of the topics looked sort of interesting, their terrible covers and titles put me off. So I turned my nose up at true crime. It seemed almost as bad as the trend for Misery Memoirs a few years ago – books that implied you were entertained by the suffering of others and that you fell for the sensationalised titles and covers. They were the book equivalent of the trashiest tabloid newspaper.
But as time has passed I’ve realised that I have an interest not in suffering or sensationalism, but in crime. I like crime novels, detective TV shows, mysteries and thrillers. And surely the best stories are always the ones that are true? These days it seems to me that love true crime is as popular as ever, but there are more socially acceptable ways of receiving it – podcasts are the prime example. People went mad for Serial, and now In the Dark is making a splash, as well as Criminal. There’s also the success of the Netflix series Making a Murderer, which I thought was brilliant. I’m pleased to hear there will be a second series.
I enjoyed Making a Murderer so much because it delved right into not only what may or may not have happened in terms of the murder itself, but also the events following it – the search for Teresa Halbach, the police investigation, and the ways in which Steven Avery was identified as a suspect. The investigative and legal processes are fascinating to me, and I was glued to the scenes featuring Avery’s lawyers as they worked on their case, and especially when they were arguing in court.
I think my interest in this area is linked to my interest in psychology and unusual people. People who are in some way different from others, people who are strange or unusual, are inherently interesting to me. I like weird stories and unexplained mysteries – the ‘other’ side of life. People who commit serious crimes are on that other side.
Which leads me to serial killers. They are some of the most extreme and troubled of people, and some of the most interesting. There are a handful of topics that regularly lead me down Wiki-holes, and serial killers is one of them. When J. P. March had a bunch of them over for dinner in the Halloween episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, I knew their stories already.
Listening to the podcasts mentioned above, and my Reading Lists project, lead me to consider The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. This was a book I’d been aware of for quite a while, but worrying that it was too trashy stopped me from getting hold of a copy. But my new attitude to reading what I really want made me click ‘order’ on Wordery.com.
Like the trashiest true crime books, it is small and fat and has a very questionable cover design; but The Stranger Beside Me proved to be an engaging and fascinating book. It is as much about Ann Rule and her experience as it is about her subject, Ted Bundy, and it was a rich and immersive reading experience. Rule was a journalist before she wrote books, and this was her first one, so the style is quite journalistic, which I think worked well. She is methodical in detailing what happened, or what might have happened, and manages to mix the ‘cold hard facts’ of Bundy’s crimes with the emotional aftermath.
Ann Rule was in a unique position when it came to Ted Bundy – she knew him in real life purely by chance, and she was assigned to write about his crimes before anyone knew that he was the one committing them. Some of the most interesting sections in the book are when Rule tries to reconcile the man she knew in the early seventies – young, polite, caring, intelligent – with the man who committed these crimes. He was someone entirely different. In this vein the later updates to the book are fascinating as Rule looks back on the period with hindsight. She states that she was wrong to think Bundy was insane, and that at the time she had a limited understanding of what that meant. The passing of the years has allowed her to learn more about people like him, and for her view of him to expand and develop. She comes to understand that he was not insane, but was a true psychopath.
I wouldn’t recommend reading The Stranger Beside Me if you are home alone and it’s dark outside, particularly if you are female. Bundy kidnapped many women in broad daylight, but the most frightening tales of him are those in which he crept into houses late at night and murdered girls in their beds – such as his ‘visit’ to the Chi Omega sorority house in Florida in 1978. These episodes, along with the kidnapping and killing of twelve-year-old Kimberley Leach, really show the most frightening sides of his personality.
Ann Rule writes a certain type of true crime book. Her heyday was the eighties and nineties, so the covers of her books look quite dated, and they do have slightly melodramatic titles – they do not have the reserved and ‘sophisticated’ look of titles such as The Monster of Florence or Columbine. She does not spare details, and she readily includes the emotional side of the story. The fact is she was not an investigative journalist, and they are the people that usually present true crime stories to us these days. Her style is a little dated, but she is a brilliant storyteller and an engaging writer. I am considering reading one or two of her others books (she wrote a lot of them), and I’m glad to have discovered a new genre of writing that I find interesting. True crime isn’t for everyone, but I will definitely be reading more of it.
The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980 by Norton; I read the 2008 edition from Pocket Books (pictured above).
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.
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.
As some readers may know, I was a big fan of Emma Chapman’s first novel How To Be A Good Wife. It was a taught thriller with wonderful characters and plotting, and though dark in subject matter it was a joy to read.
Chapman’s literary skills are similarly showcased in her new novel The Last Photograph. It is the story of Rook Henderson, a photographer whose life was changed by his time in Vietnam during the war there. The book alternates between Rook’s life in the 1960s, and the present day, and though this kind of time-hopping can sometimes be jarring, Chapman carefully links the section together so that they flow nicely and nothing gets muddled.
There are two time frames, and there are also the two sides of Rook’s life – his work in Vietnam, and his life at home with his wife June. The novel covers his entire relationship with June and the impact that his working away from home has on their marriage. I thought this was sensitively handled and as a whole the portrait of their marriage is both sympathetic and rather stark. Chapman excels at presenting the subtleties of a relationship to the reader through dialogue as well as things left unsaid.
Personally I enjoyed the scenes in Vietnam the most. While I have seen movies and read books that discuss this place at this time, it was refreshing to see it through the eyes of a photographer, and a British one at that. The military aspect is not the focus – instead we look at the ordinary people, both the Vietnamese and the civilians like Rook who are visiting. He quickly bonds with two American journalists, Henry and Tom, and they play pivotal roles in his experience of Vietnam, both personally and professionally. The sections set in Vietnam are vivid and exciting, with Rook slowly realising how serious the situation really is. He captures amazing photographs and you can see why he likes being there, in the middle of the action.
The scenes set back home in England are of a different feel. When they are young Rook and June’s life is full of hope and excitement, but as Rook travels more and more their relationship begins to strain and there is less and less happiness in their lives. To be honest at times this got a little grim. They find it hard to communicate, Rook in particular – he bottles up his feelings and cannot find happiness in the ordinariness of life with June. His refusal to fully engage with that life, instead always yearning for adventure, made him quite a frustrating character. He is obviously unhappy with his lot and feels unfulfilled, but his only solution for this is to run away.
Rook’s passion for photography is his redeeming feature. The passages exploring this are lovely, as Rook finally feels in control, able to capture time in an image. He sees suffering and death in Vietnam but he knows that if he does not take a photograph then there will be no evidence and no one will know what happened. He revels in the details captured on film, in the impact of his work. The importance of photographs in reportage is analysed and celebrated in The Last Photograph, and is almost worth reading for this fact alone.
It isn’t the most cheery of books, but it is beautifully written and full of human understanding. The characters throughout are flawed and imperfect, and this coupled with Chapman’s precise prose makes them come alive. A successful second novel if ever there was one.
I was kindly invited to take part in the blog tour for the new edition of this book, first published in 2004, and am very glad I accepted. The new edition was published on 7th April to tie in with the new film adaptation, which is released on 15th April.
Despite the Falling Snow takes place in 1990s Boston and 1950s Russia, moving deftly between the two timelines. In both we have Alexander, who worked for the government in Russia, but who moved to the US at the end of the 50s. He escaped communism but was forced to leave his beloved wife Katya behind, and she passed away. She was also a spy for the Americans, and Alexander blames himself for her death.
In 1990s Boston he is a successful businessman, on the brink of selling his business. He meets the mother of his potential buyer, Estelle, and they quickly develop a friendship; he also becomes close to his niece Lauren, the daughter of Katya’s brother Yuri (who was able to escape to the US), and things start to change.
Estelle is fascinated by his life story and is desperate to know more, and Lauren desperately wants to know what really happened to her aunt. Alexander thinks he has buried his feelings and his past, but these two women force him to reexamine this and try to confront the truth.
Suffice to say I really enjoyed Despite the Falling Snow. It is a bit of a slow starter, but gets better and better the further you read on. The pacing is my only real criticism – I wished we could have spent more time with Katya and Alexander in Russia when things start to get really desperate, and the crux of the story takes place. But this in no way ruins the book, and the outcome of the story in both timelines is excellently done, nuanced and sensitive.
I also loved the ways in which the story demonstrates the effects of the past on the present – both for those who were there (like Alexander) and for those to whom it is important (like Lauren). The relationship between Alexander and Lauren is depicted with emotional intelligence and sensitivity. He is ageing and somewhat closed off, and she helps him to soften and open up, and they bond over this process.
I found Estelle very interesting – in some ways she is the archetypal put-upon housewife with a distant husband and daughter; but Sarif gives her real depth and personality, and the difficulties of her life are dealt with very sensitively. I raged silently with her when her husband is being, frankly, a terrible person, and wished that she would find what she was looking for. Her friendship with Alexander is very sweet and you can see how important it is to both of them, in different ways.
While there is great sadness and injustice in this book, they are not overblown, despite being keenly felt. It would have been very easy for Despite the Falling Snow to be almost melodramatic, but Shamim Sarif handles her story and characters with grace and sensitivity, and a deep respect for the past. A wonderful book.
Originally published by Headline in 2004; I read the 2016 edition published by John Blake/Metro (pictured above), which was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
My apologies for the mixture of photos in this post – I have lent out some of the books featured so wasn’t able to take a nice photo of them and had to find images of the covers online. Not ideal, but there you go…
Somehow 2015 is over, and I have naturally been thinking about all the books I’ve read this year, and which was the best, and the worst, and which ones were in between. According to GoodReads I red 34 books in 2015 (one off my target of 35!), which is less than I usually read – I blame the new, busier job I started half way through the year!
I read a couple of super dupers early in the year, namely Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Two very different books, but I loved them both. Bonjour Tristesse is sort of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about love and relationships and jealousy, and it is beautifully crafted. Tracks could also be seen as a coming-of-age tale, though it is about the author finding herself in the desert, which is a bit different to a posh holiday by the sea. It is fascinating, engaging, emotional, and just brilliant. It also proves why dogs are better than people.
One of my very favourite books this year was The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. It was a random book I heard about on Twitter, but it was just wonderful to read. It is the story of the life of Olive Oatman, who was captured by Native Americans in the 1800s and lived with them for a few years before being ‘returned’ to ‘her people’. There are many other stories like Olive’s but this is a good place to start with this genre.
The next amazing book I read was The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. I was umming and ahhing about this one, but then Carolyn’s amazing post convinced me I must read it. And it was wonderful! Even thinking about it now fills me with hope and wonder. It celebrates everything about Homer and demonstrates why The Odyssey and The Iliad are so integral to the development of Western literature, and why we should all appreciate them more.
Since then I’ve mostly liked the books I’ve read (with one notable exception), so I’m just going to pick out a few…
I adored Forgotten Fatherland by Ben McIntyre. It popped up in my GoodReads recommendations, and it is one of the weirdest and most brilliant books I have ever read. It tells the story of Elisabeth Nietszche (sister of the philosopher) and the Aryan colony she set up in Paraguay with her husband. They were essentially early versions of Nazis, and in later life, when she returned to Germany, Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and his party. He even came to her funeral. It has to be read to be believed.
I also very much enjoyed the three Shirley Jackson books I have read this year: Hangsaman, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are all weird and strange and brilliant, and I loved all of them a lot. I am now on a mission to read everything Shirley Jackson ever wrote, and she has set a lot of wheels in motion in my head with my own writing. If I could be a modern-day version of her as a writer, I’d be happy. More Shirley in 2016!
I must recommend the two books about mental health that I read this year: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. The former is quite dark and a bit bleak, though with a hopeful ending, and was really fascinating. I preferred reading Girl, Interrupted as it was less matter-of-fact and more about a very personal experience. These two books work in different ways, but both are illuminating, moving, and very well-written.
And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here.
So there you have it! The best books I have read this year. I am looking forward to many more fantastic reads in 2016.
On the publisher’s website, Sagan, Paris 1954 is described as am “intimate narrative” and I think that is the best way to describe it. “Intimate” because it is a deeply personal book for the author, Anne Berest, and it explores her relationship with Francoise Sagan as a reader; and “narrative” because it tells a story. It is the story of the months in 1954 that transformed Francoise Quoirez into Francoise Sagan – from teenager to literary sensation.
The story itself is rather simple, in that Francoise writes a book, gets a friend to type up some copies, delivers them to publishers, one of them chooses to publish the book, etc, etc… it’s not a remarkable story. But Anne Berest makes it seem remarkable by creating vignettes from Francoise’s life and imagining how her world was changing. She talks of the ripple effect of that first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, and the ways in which it changed Francoise’s life; but she also talks a lot about her own story, and her own experiences while writing this book, to the point that some parts of it almost feel like a confessional diary for the author. She parallels Francoise’s story with her own, and pictures herself in the world of 1954 Paris. It’s an unusual combination that both succeeds and does not.
Berest muses on life and love rather a lot, and sometimes you are learning more about her than about Francoise Sagan, which was your purpose in the first place. I do honestly feel like that, having finished the book. I have not been enlightened as to how Francoise Sagan transformed her life, and what it was like to be her in 1954. Though Berest is very knowledgeable about Francoise Sagan and her life and career, I think she assumes the reader is too, and so not much concrete information is acutally related. It is more like a dreamy narrative of ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’, with a speculative story running through it. This book started as a requested from Francoise Sagan’s son, Denis Westhoff, that Anne Berest write a book about his mother. The book was supposed to celebrate her rather than be any sort of biography, and it does do that – Berest aims to demonstrate Sagan’s lasting effect and the ways in which she can still inspire us, along with the importance and impact of her work. This is certainly achieved, and in this way the book is wonderful. Berest’s writing is also lovely to read. But for me the book was too much about lots of in-between things, and not about anything solid. Perhaps that was the point, but it was a little effervescent and insubstantial for me. That said, I still very much enjoyed it, and I think any fan of Francoise Sagan would – just don’t expect anything groundbreaking.
Originally published in France by Editions Stock in 2014; I read the English translation by Heather Lloyd, published by Gallic Books in 2015.
I had been wanting to read this for a while and finally got round to it last week… and it was just so brilliant. So weird. So good. Suffice to say, I gave it five stars on GoodReads.
Even before reading I loved the premise, what I knew of it, and as with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s masterful opening paragraph drew me right in:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
It’s a pretty bold first paragraph. In many ways it sums up our narrator Mary Katherine, AKA Merricat, and gives you a palpable sense of dread mixed with curiosity.
I found Merricat to be a very sympathetic narrator. I have heard her referred to as an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. As you read more it quickly becomes clear that Merricat has some kind of psychological disorder, and just isn’t like everyone else. So she sees the world differently to the other characters, even her sister Constance; but that doesn’t necessarily make her an unreliable narrator. She describes events pretty much literally; the only ‘unreliable’ thing is when she says her cat is talking to her, and in the context that just sounds quite sweet. The cat, Jonas, is like another person to Merricat, and is obviously very loyal and attached to her. I liked their moments of closeness.
Now, the dead family. That’s quite important. At the time of events in the book it has been only six years since the family died, but without knowing that you’d think it was a lot longer. Merricat and Constance are very comfortable in their routine and rarely speak of their deceased relatives; when they do, it is usually because their senile (possibly brain-damaged) old uncle Julian has dedicated his life to remembering and documenting the lives of the family, and especially the day they died. He speaks almost exclusively about that day, and the family. Constance nods along and answers his questions, but Merricat stays out of it. They have a peaceful if slightly odd little life, despite being hated by the people in the village, who scorn Merricat when she goes into town to go food shopping.
The sisters are ostracised from the village, and treated as social pariahs. This is partly because their family, the Blackwoods, have always ‘kept to themselves’ and disliked mixing with the rest of the village; but it is mostly because Constance was accused of murdering the family and was even tried, but eventually acquitted. Now, she does not leave the house except to tend to her kitchen garden. Merricat only leaves to do the shopping, and clearly hates it. While only Constance could be described as actually agoraphobic, none of the family like leaving the house and land. I have read that Shirley Jackson was in ill health and possibly agoraphobic when she wrote the novel, and the sense of safety and isolation within the home is very vivid. The house protects the vulnerable sisters from the outside world, but it also imprisons them. When their cousin Charles comes to visit and disrupts their routines, you can see how desperately they need to maintain their life and order. When he interferes, everything goes wrong.
It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I won’t go into any more of the plot. What I will say is that it is very much worth buying the new PMC edition as it has a fantastic afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, in which she analyses both story and characters. It made me think about the book in a lot more detail. She suggests that Merricat might have a form of paranoid schizophrenia, and also connects her and Constance’s behaviour to traditional stories of witches. Merricat certainly has a connection to nature, and she believes that by burying things in the land around the house, as well as nailing objects to trees, she can protect herself and her sister (plus there’s the cat). Having been immersed in the story it is almost jarring to hear Merricat given a clinical diagnosis – when you’re with her in the book, you can see that she is not ‘normal’, and that her behaviour can be destructive or malicious, but as I said she is essentially a sympathetic character, and you are on her side. It is really quite upsetting to read about the villagers’ hatred for the sisters, and the cruel way they are treated by Charles. They are so fragile that you just want them to be safe, and left alone. Joyce Carol Oates also points out that Merricat just could not survive in the outside world, and this is probably true. She needs the safety of their little world more than Constance, and she does whatever she can to protect it. In some ways Constance’s life is controlled by Merricat, who is much more willful and determined.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic tale, but it is also a story about mental illness and the ways in which we cope with it – and the ways in which it is stigmatised and not understood by others. I felt desperately sad for Merricat and Constance and what they suffer. But they are able to find a lot of happiness in each other, and often talk about how happy they are. They have an almost symbiotic relationship, and rely on each other a lot, least of all emotionally and psychologically.
There is a lot more I could talk about here, but for now I’ll leave it at that. I would really recommend the Joyce Carol Oates afterword for some excellent discussion and analysis. I would also love to hear others’ views on the book – did you find Merricat a sympathetic and likeable character? What about Constance?
I have been wondering about what would happen after the end of the book. The sisters are still very young, so they have a potentially long life to live out together. What will become of them? Frankly I’m still thinking about them, and hoping they are safe and happy. Even the weird deserve that.
First published in the US in 1962. I read the 2015 Penguin Modern Classics edition.