Non-Fiction, Reviews

Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler (2017)

37460503

Like the last book I read, I found Once We Were Sisters through my GoodReads recommendations. I had never heard of Sheila Kohler but soon discovered that she is well-established writer of fiction, and this is her first memoir. It centres around her relationship with her older sister Maxine, and the devastation of Maxine’s sudden death at the age of 39. Having an older sister of my own, I knew I would be able to relate to their relationship in some way, and the premise intrigued me. More intriguing still is the fact that Maxine died when her husband veered their car off the road; she died, but he lived. Sheila wonders how this could have happened, and in the prologue poses her questions immediately following her sister’s death:

How could we have failed to protect her from him? What was wrong with our family? Was it our mother? Our father? Was it our nature, the way we were made, our genes, what we had inherited? Or, more terrible still, is there no answer to such a question? Was it just chance, fate, our stars, our destiny? It was not as if we did not see this coming. What held us back from taking action, from hiring a bodyguard for her? Was it the misogyny inherent in the colonial and racist society in the South Africa of the time? Was it the Anglican Church school where she and I prayed  daily that we might forgive even the most egregious sin? Was it the way women were considered in South Africa and in the world at large?

I am still looking for the answers.

This is quite a setup, and I was instantly drawn in.

The book skips about in time, with some chapters covering Sheila and Maxine’s childhood in South Africa, and the rest telling various stories from across their lives. There is very little mention of the years, and only the occasional mention of their ages, and so at times I was a little muddled about which period we were visiting in which chapter; it doesn’t help that both sisters travelled a lot, and lived abroad at various points. Towards the end of the book, when Maxine’s death is discussed in more detail, the timeline becomes more linear and we see how Sheila dealt with her grief and managed to continue on with her life.

There are some wonderful sections musing on the nature of sisterhood, of mothers and fathers, of marriage; both sisters have ultimately troubled marriages, and Sheila wonders why they both chose men that “have almost destroyed who we are.” I particularly enjoyed the memories of their mother with her two sisters, sitting together talking and knitting, weaving stories; likewise Sheila and Maxine playing games and wandering around the grounds of their huge childhood home in South Africa; and their times together in France and Italy, really getting to talk and escape their daily lives.

They are both weighed down by children, and as we learn, Maxine’s husband becomes violent towards both her and their children, and her life becomes increasingly difficult. As the above quote implies, while there is sympathy and comfort for Maxine from Sheila and their family, none of them step in to protect her from her husband, Carl, or offer her anything more than temporary respite. More than once, when Maxine does not want to return home from a trip, Sheila reminds her that she must get back to her children. Leaving Carl is never suggested as an option for Maxine, as it might be today, even when she reveals that he was caught trying to molest a child. Although Maxine has six healthy children, being a mother and wife is the end of her in more ways than one.

Sheila’s troubled marriage is blighted by infidelity rather than violence, and becomes perhaps even more difficult when her husband does not want to end their marriage, despite his affairs, and they continue on together in disharmony. His reasons for this are not explained beyond his declaration of continuing love for Sheila, but one suspects that the weight of tradition and obligation are a factor – likewise for Sheila, as she does not express a desire to leave him at this point. Instead she seethes with rage and betrayal, becoming obsessed with the idea of his lover, and even going to his mother for support. Of course it turns out that his mother is also speaking to him, and playing them off against each other.

A lot of this book is about mothers, and being a woman in a particular time and place, and the expectations society can place on women. Sheila and Maxine, as well as their mother and mothers-in-law, all seem to be trapped by their lives in some way, while the men live more or less as they choose. None of them seem especially happy except when they are purposefully escaping on holiday, or into drinking. Even as children there is a certain gloom over the two sisters – which may or may not be due to Sheila’s knowledge of their fate, woven into the writing.

I enjoyed Once We Were Sisters, but for me the book lacked coherence as a whole. The moves through time seemed a bit random, rather than a carefully constructed timeline, and the sparse writing, though lovely, made the whole thing feel a little out of reach, a little unreal and dreamy. Though I suppose this is how memories sometimes feel, especially if they are wrapped in sadness and grief. The book ends on a vague note, after Sheila has explored her anger and grief, her desire for revenge against her brother-in-law, dissipated over time. She reflects on her sister’s life, and her life as it is now, but does not really draw any conclusions. Instead we are left with the pain of her memories of her sister as a perfect child, and she comes to accept “that she, so lively and lovely, could be dead.”

*

Published by Penguin and Canongate in 2017. I read the Canongate paperback, pictured above (image via goodreads.com).

Advertisements
Standard
Fiction, Reviews

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1932)

3386355

(image: goodreads.com)

As some regular readers may know, I absolutely love Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, and re-read it in 2017 (post here). For some reason this remained the only book of his I had read for some time. I bought a copy of Little Man, What Now? a while ago, I actually can’t remember when, but it sat on my shelf unread. I don’t know why. Luckily, I recently decided to actually look at my unread books instead of buying new ones – and I landed on this novel. I have a lovely Melville House paperback and I was pleased with myself for finally choosing to read it.

One of the things I love about Fallada’s writing is his uncanny realism. Even though I read his work in translation and the language can sometimes sound a little stilted, Fallada just seems to have a knack for making everything in his work seem utterly true to life and utterly real. He makes of a point of making his characters believable, of making their lives ring true. Little Man, What Now? was published in 1932, at the height (or perhaps the depths) of a recession, precipitated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. As Philip Brady discusses in the Afterword to the Melville House edition I read, unemployment was at a record high in Germany, and Fallada, like many others, felt the strain of the recession on himself and his family. Like his main character, the ‘little man’ Johannes Pinneberg, Fallada had a wife and young son. The novel is a sort of statement of protest, an examination of the daily hardships of living with just enough money to get by, but never really enough, and knowing that what little you do have could be so easily lost. The fact that the novel was so hugely successful on publication shows just how much it struck a chord with people – it showed them their own lives, their own suffering, and exposed the deep injustices of life ‘just above the bread line’, as Brady puts it in the Afterword.

At the opening of the novel Pinneberg and Lammchen (a pet name meaning something like ‘little lamb’) find themselves expecting a child, unexpectedly, and quickly get married. They must find their own place to live, and from there we follow their ups and downs as a married couple. They have several different flats, and eventually move to Berlin, where Pinneberg gets a job as a salesman in a department store. As with his previous job as a clerk at a grain company, at the department store we see the competitiveness and pettiness of the employees and management, the desperation for success – or at least to keep the job – and the bureaucracy with which the white collar workers must contend. Pinneberg and Lammchen must count every pfennig and every mark, and make his salary stretch as far as they can. Their discussions about their minimal finances, and Lammchen’s very precise shopping list, should not be interesting, but Fallada fills them with such a sense of urgency, of desire and desperation, that as a reader you are completely engaged and entertained, and you care so, so much about these two characters. I think that is Fallada’s gift – to make the most ordinary, ‘little’, people seem like the most important people in the world, to make the reader care about the minutiae of their lives. The fact that Lammchen is pregnant makes their situation all the more desperate, and your emotions are increasingly ravaged as she nears the birth. Pinneberg’s anxiety, fear, and joy are all rolled together in a wonderfully vivid sequence in which he waits to hear of the birth of his child – he is not allowed to go with Lammchen into the ward and must ring the hospital for an update. It is yet another area of his life where he has almost no control over anything, and he switches between excitement, fear, and intrusive thoughts of what might happen if something goes wrong and he never sees Lammchen again. The fragility of their lives is palpable.

It’s funny – the plot of Little Man, What Now? is in some ways riveting, with the couple’s ups and downs; but it is also completely mundane and ordinary. And yet when you are reading the novel, you are never bored, you never wish for ‘something’ to happen. You are right there in the moment with Pinneberg and Lammchen, observing their hardships and struggles, and their little moments of happiness. Fallada goes between straight narration and a kind of free indirect speech, and then into moments where the narration speaks to the characters, in such a way that you are completely wrapped up in the story and feel like you know exactly what the characters are going through. It is simply masterful.

I can’t say I know a huge amount about Germany in 1932 beyond the basics, but I feel like Little Man, What Now? has given me a sort of snapshot. There are creeping shadows of what is to come throughout the novel, as Pinneberg encounters Nazis and casual anti-Semitism, and I couldn’t help but wonder what becomes of him and Lammchen, and their son, when the war comes. In theory they could remain in Berlin, or at least in Germany, as they are not Jewish or a member of any other group that the Nazis persecuted. But they would have even less money, even fewer prospects. The novel ends on a small hopeful note, but overall the picture is far from rosy. I can’t help thinking about the time after the end of the novel. The Epilogue is entitled ‘Life Goes On’, and it certainly does, but one would hope things improve for Pinneberg, Lammchen, and the little Shrimp – their affectionate nickname for their son.

I personally don’t know anyone else who has read and loved Fallada, and I worry that he might be an acquired taste, but I will certainly be reading more of his work – in fact I have a copy of his monster novel Wolf Among Wolves on my shelf. All 905 pages of it.

*

First published by Rowohlt in Germany in 1932. I read the 2009 US Melville House edition, pictured above.

 

Standard
Fiction, Reviews

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda (1986)

36987627

image: goodreads.com

I adored Rodoreda’s novel A Broken Mirror (my review here) and so when I saw that Penguin had brought out a new edition of her novel Death in Spring, I had to get myself a copy. And what a beautiful cover!

Ostensibly the novel tells the coming-of-age story of a teenage boy in a small Spanish village, but, of course, it is so much more than that. Our unnamed narrator takes us on a weaving and sometimes surreal journey through this period in his life. We learn that his village is remote, somewhat cut off from the rest of the world, and full of its own strange, unique traditions. Many of these are ritualistic and cruel, such as blindfolding pregnant women so that they don’t fall in love with other men, and pouring cement into people’s mouths as they die, so that their souls do not escape. There is also the oddity of ‘Senyor’, a man who lives above the village on a mountain, looking out over the people. He is a remote figure both literally and figuratively, and seems like some sort of de facto leader, though in name only. Like many characters in the village, he seems to wield some sort of power, but it is not clear where this power comes from.

Power seems to be a key theme in this novel. The husbands have power over their pregnant wives, blindfolding them and making them totally dependent and isolated. The blacksmith seems to have some sort of power and authority over the whole village, and often leads the people in their group actions. I thought that the traditions in the village seem to have the most power over the people, these unwritten rules that everyone has to obey. At one point our narrator and his stepmother rebel and prevent the people from following the tradition of house-painting each year by destroying the source of the paint, and the brushes. This is a deeply symbolic action and you can feel their delight in undermining the rigidity of the routine, in their own small way. It doesn’t matter that more paint and brushes are made, and the houses are painted. They made their small act of defiance.

Somehow, the village is built with a river flowing underneath it. The novel opens with the narrator swimming in the river, and it remains as a powerful symbol throughout. Each year a man is selected to swim under the village, to check its integrity, and many are wounded or killed in this endeavour, and become ‘the faceless men’ who seem to roam around in one big group, terrifying the people. It is as if the village and its people are killing or wounding these men in order to prove their strength and preserve themselves. The possibility of the village sinking into the river also adds a permanent sense of fragility and volatility, that the people seem to feel. While the village is held together by its traditions, it feels as if the slightest imbalance could destroy everything.

In Colm Tóibín’s introduction to the new Penguin edition, he highlights the fact that Death in Spring has sometimes been seen as a metaphor for life under the Franco dictatorship in Spain in the mid twentieth century. Even without knowing much about this particular history, the parallels with a dictatorship are clear in the way the village operates, and the authority of the rules and their enforcers like the blacksmith. I also considered Senyor in this context as a remote leader, almost nameless, but still a symbol of power. And our narrator is clearly an agitator, questioning the meaning of things and pushing against the restrictions. There is quite a lot of philosophising on the part of the narrator, but also from other characters he engages with, such as the blacksmith’s son, and the mysterious prisoner, kept in a cage as an example to others. These characters question the validity of the rules of the village and the rules of life, morals, traditions, and why they should act as others do. At times it becomes a bit too sweeping, but you can see what Rodoreda is trying to do – to get her readers to realise the value of questioning the norm, and the danger of just going along with things.

After having read A Broken Mirror, which is a family saga, I have to say that Death in Spring was not quite what I was expecting. It is intense and surreal, and at times hard to follow. A lot of it has a dreamlike quality that makes it seem like a fairy tale – but not a happy one. There are shades of magical realism in the way that the villagers engage with birth and death, and their connections to nature and the landscape. At several points I wondered whether events the narrator described were literal or figurative, or just imagined.

Death in Spring is not the easiest novel to get along with, depending on what you are used to, but I loved the language and imagery, and the explorations of what it means to have a family and a home, to belong somewhere or to someone. It is a short but very rich novel that I think could divide opinion from readers. I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised, and I will certainly be seeking out more of Rodoreda’s work.

*

Originally published in 1986. I read the 2018 Penguin/Viking edition, pictured above.

 

Standard
Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction

On Being Stuck

I am in a sort reading quandry, and it’s why I haven’t posted in a while. If you’ve looked at my GoodReads recently (though honestly why would you) you’ll see that I am ‘currently reading’ two books – something I never do. I started Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter back at the start of October, and I am still wading through it, even though it isn’t very long. I bought it with several other gems from ladies of the 20th century, including Jean Rhys and Joan Didion, and dived right into it for fear that if I left it for a while I would just never read it. It’s one of those books – not essential or urgent, but one that I do want to read.

41TJwORJmFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

image: amazon.co.uk

It’s not a long book but it’s very dense – small type, hardly any page breaks, and no chapters. It’s divided into a couple of massive sections, and it’s easy to get lost in them. It also doesn’t really help that the ever industrious Simone, as I have discovered her to be, does not leave out a single detail of her formative years – which in theory could be a good thing, but it means that she gets too bogged down in these details and the reader feels dragged down with her. A lot of time is spent on her brooding teenage years, with their tempestuous relationships and her musings on what she should do with her life, and what sort of person she should become. Perhaps it is not surprising, given that de Beauvoir is such a celebrated and successful philosopher, that so much of her memoir of her youth could be described as ‘navel gazing’. It is entirely self-centred to the point that it is hard to picture her every day life and how she interacts with the people around her. Instead it is like reliving those tortuous teenage years, except this time in Paris in the early 20th century. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Memoirs and I am very close to giving up altogether – though I hope I will soon feel empowered to go back to it.

I started reading Loving by Henry Green in an attempt to give myself a break from Simone, hopefully to return to her more refreshed. I first read Loving at university, for a course on the concept of time in the 20th century, and I loved it straight away (no pun intended). It was first published in 1945 but is considered a modernist work, in that it is almost entirely character-driven and is a bit experimental with language and storytelling. Most of the plot moves forward through the characters’ dialogue and there’s very little exposition, which I quite like. In that sense it feels very natural, and more like real life, where all our information comes from the communication of other people, whether verbal on non-verbal. I shall probably write a proper review of it when I have finished reading it – which hopefully won’t be in several months’ time…

That’s it for now. I will endeavour to devote more time to reading, and to blogging, both of which have been a bit neglected recently. I adore this time of year, with Christmas and a lot of birthdays, but it’s also just really fucking stressful and tiring, so at the moment I feel a bit like the picture of Simone de Beauvoir on the cover of the Penguin edition I have of her memoirs (pictured above). Hopefully I will find enough time to relax and get some serious reading done!

What do you like to do when you are stuck in a reading rut?

Standard
Fiction, Reviews

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (1945)

25764371

image: goodreads.com

This is one of those books that I had heard of vaguely and meant to read for ages – but for some reason didn’t. Luckily my reading lists project is getting me to read more of these sorts of books. And so I finally ordered a copy of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept from Wordery. I read it in two sittings, partly because it’s under 200 pages, and partly because it is so intense that I couldn’t tear myself away. It is technically a prose-poem novel, kind of like The Waves, but shorter and more immediate (to me at least). It is a fictionalised telling of Elizabeth Smart’s infatuation and affair with the poet George Barker, and its devastating effect on her. The story goes that Smart fell in love with Barker just by reading his poetry, and she began to correspond with him. Eventually in 1940 she convinced him to come to the US with this wife (he had been teaching in Japan), and it was then that they began their affair. It lasted for decades and they ended up having four children together. The first of these was conceived not long after they met, and part of the book deals with Smart’s complicated feelings about being pregnant by the man she loves, but not being with him. She visits her mother and feels desperately alone. People know she is unmarried and she feels the heat of their judgemental comments and little looks.

The fact that this is a prose-poem means that the language is very ‘poetic’ but also melodramatic and very emotional. Smart feels her love for Barker with full intensity, and so the pain she experiences when they are separated is just as intense and overpowering. While pregnant, she reminds herself that the child is a permanent link to the man she cannot be with:

But O my burning baby anchors love within me, and I am consumed wherever I go, like a Saint Catherine’s wheel of torture, perpetual as the earth, and far less likely to go out.

There are so many lines in this book that I could quote here to demonstrate not only the beauty of Smart’s writing but the universal truths about love that she understands so well. She writes that “Love is strong as death.” and that she is “possessed by love and [has] no options.” Her imagery, for me, is unsurpassed. She writes a lot about the Odyssey and its characters, compares herself to Penelope waiting at home for her long-lost love. She feels her love and despair with the intensity of a Greek hero and she sees the universality in those tragic stories. She pines like Dido for Aeneas, weeping as she looks out to sea. The sea appears frequently in her imagery and similes – she often feels overwhelmed by love as if she were drowning.

But she is also overwhelmed by despair. She despairs at the intensity of her love, at the doomed nature of it, and the suffering caused to Barker’s wife. While Smart acknowledges her own suffering, she knows that Barker’s wife deserves more sympathy:

But the gentle flowers, able to die unceremoniously, remind me of her grief whose tears drown all ghosts, and though I swing in torture from the windiest hill, more angels weep for her whose devastated love runs into all the oceans of the world.

It is heartbreaking.

So I wouldn’t recommend this book if you want a light read. But By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a beautiful and intelligent book that reminds us of the beauty in the world, and the intense emotions that run under marriages and affairs. Yann Martel’s introduction also sums up the experience of reading the book, and the way it makes you think about life:

… therein lies the greatness of Elizabeth Smart. She takes what is yours and mine, what is everyday and everywhere, what exists in every suburb and in every flat, and makes it mythical. You’re not just Doris and Dave who live in Essex. You’re also Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Dante and Beatrice, Elizabeth and George – only you don’t know it, or you’ve forgotten it momentarily, or you just missed the boat (but perhaps it’s not too late to catch the next one).

I love that. It reminds us that we can all be just as worthy and special as the great heroes of love, and we can all experience those things. We can get caught up in the mundanity of everyday life, and we forget the beauty and love in our lives.

But this book also reminds us that love is never easy or simple, and often someone will get hurt, one way or another. We cannot help who, how, or when we love, and we cannot stop ourselves from loving. Smart’s book celebrates love, but also despairs at our powerless before it. We can control everything in our lives, but we cannot control love.

In a way I want to recommend this book to everyone, but I know that the overwrought and emotional style of the writing might grate on some people; you just have to give in to it in order to enjoy the book. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is not a book for those that like action and a quick pace, but for me it was a page-turner in its own way. It is a book for those that love language and escapism, who love to be overwhelmed and consumed by what they are reading. It is simultaneously not for everyone, and also a small masterpiece.

*

Originally published in 1945 by Editions Poetry London (Nicholson & Watson), and reprinted many times. I read the 4th Estate 2015 edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

Standard
Fiction, Reviews

A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda (1962)

9781907970887-672x1024

(image: dauntbookspublishing.co.uk)

I came upon this book entirely by chance in Waterstone’s – it was the cover that made me pick it up, and I am so, so glad I did. A Broken Mirror is described on the inside cover as “A haunting classic of modern Catalan literature from one of Spain’s most prestigious writers”, but honestly I had never heard of Mercé Rodoreda before I picked up this book, for whatever reason. But I am so happy I have discovered her work, because, put simply, this book is sublime.

A Broken Mirror is a family saga, stretching over three generations of the Valldaura family in Barcelona. We begin with Teresa, the matriarch, during her first marriage. She is beautiful and in some ways this is what carries her, what keeps her going through so much of her life. Men seem to fall in love with her all the time. After her first husband dies (he is quite a bit older than her) she marries Salvador Valldaura, and the saga of the family begins. They have a daughter, Sofia, who in turn marries Eladi Farriols – they have two boys, Ramon and Jaume; there is also Maria, who happens to be Eladi’s daughter from an affair with a dancer. This complicated family live in a villa, thrown together with several generations of servants, and watched over by Armanda, the one maid who never leaves them. Her life is intertwined with theirs, as well as with that of the house.

The book is divided into three parts, with several chapters in each. The chapters are each told from the third person perspective of one of the characters, whether a family member or one of the many people in their orbit. In the introduction to the book the translator Josep Miquel Sobrer writes that,

“… each chapter is anchored in some character’s point of view, often a character who is incidental to the development of the action. The technique, which Carme Arnau has related to cinematic narratives and to the free indirect style of writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Virginia Woolf, gives the novel its intensity.”

I remember learning about free indirect speech in Jane Austen at school, and I think this assessment is correct. Throughout A Broken Mirror you are given time to understand each of the characters’ mentality, and their own experience of the shared narrative. For a book with so many characters, free indirect is the perfect way to visit all of them without feeling overwhelmed by all the information. Through this technique, Rodoreda also perfectly illustrates the way in which we live both in the past and the present, as the characters constantly relate what is happening to what has happened before, how things used to be, the things they remember. Things change all the time, but they also stay the same.

Josep Miquel Sobrer writes in his introduction that A Broken Mirror is pessimistic, and in some ways it is – time ravages everything, people never love as they should, and in the end everything comes to nothing… but I think it does celebrate the joys of family life, the pleasures of love, and the thoughtlessness of childhood. It celebrates moments in time. At several points there is a stark contrast between the dramatic, troubled family, and the joyous abandon of the maids stripping off in the summer and chasing each other with the garden hose. Armanda watches them all and sees the beauty and fragility of life and happiness.

I think that is the crux of this book, and the reason it is so beguiling. A Broken Mirror reminds us that life is always messy, and complicated, but that it is still worth living. There is a scene, late in the book, where Armanda drops a mirror and sees in all the broken pieces all the pieces of her long life with the Valldaura family – all the people, all the heartache and grief, the joy and happiness as well as the sadness. Life is made up of so many pieces, good and bad, and sometimes it is impossible to fit them all together. Some of the best passages come when characters are looking back on their lives and remembering their lost loves, their stolen moments, and their youth. They realise that it was pointless to think that life would be a certain way, because it always happens just as it will. Even if the pieces do not fit together, they are each worth something.

A Broken Mirror is one of the most beautiful books I think I have ever read. The language is beautiful, even in translation, and each character is fully realised, no matter who they are. There is sheer poetry and romance in this novel, and it is full of the most wonderful imagery. Each scene feels three-dimensional, and you can almost feel the Spanish summer heat and hear the laurel bush rustling in the wind. I was totally immersed in the story of the Valldauras and was sorry to come to the end of the novel, and I will certainly seek out more of Rodoreda’s work. Especially if Daunt do more of these beautiful editions!

*

Originally published in 1962. I read the 2017 Daunt Books edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

Standard
Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

WWW Wednesday, 1st March 2017

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

img_9374

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

img_9446

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

img_9358

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?

Standard
Fiction, Reviews

In Which I Finally Read The Handmaid’s Tale

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.

img_9374

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).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Standard
Fiction, Reviews

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)

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.

img_8941

2009 PMC edition

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).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

 

Standard
Comment, Non-Fiction

In Praise Of: True Crime

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.

img_8887

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).

Puchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Standard