Comment, Personal

Back again for 2019!

Hello dear readers! As you may have noticed, I have been very quiet on here recently, but I am glad to say that I am now back for 2019.

My last posts in November 2018 were about the Young Writer of the Year Award, for which I was on the shadow panel. I kept meaning to write a ‘summing up’ post in December about the experience, but somehow that never happened. I have to say I was thrilled that Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth won the award. I loved reading it (my review is here). I was very flattered to be asked to be on the shadow panel, and it was a great experience. In the end I was too ill on the day to attend the actual prize giving, which was a shame as I was very keen to attend (especially since it was at the London Library) but I was very pleased to be able to meet up with the rest of the shadow panel to decide our shadow winner, particularly as it meant meeting some bloggers that I had followed online for some time. It was tough reading all the books on the shortlist in such a short amount of time, but it did bring back memories of tearing through books and making notes from my time at university, which was kind of nice. If you get asked to do the shadow panel in the future, I’d say go for it, as long as you have the time it requires (more than you think!). I was very pleased to be a part of it in 2018.

As usual I received some great books for Christmas and my birthday (which you can see on my Instagram here), including my current read She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor. I’m currently in the section about Isabella of France and am very glad I have finally got around to reading this fascinating book – it’s been on my list for ages! I’m also keen to read Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough and The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams, both of which I received for my birthday. I feel like I’ve read quite a bit of non-fiction recently, and I feel really ready to get back into fiction. I had a dream about Donna Tartt (not that uncommon for me) and it made me desperate to read fiction as perceptive and life-giving as hers. The last book I read like that was I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (my review here). Which reminds me, I obviously missed the window for doing a best of 2018, but that was definitely one of my favourite books of the year.

Life got in the way over the last couple of months, figuratively in that I was super busy in December at work, and super tired and January – and literally, as in December I discovered I’m pregnant, so that took up most of my time! Read: being constantly exhausted and incredibly nauseous. 24/7. Fun times. But now I am getting back into reading and have a handful of reviews planned – so watch this space!

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Articles, Comment

True Love

Today The Guardian published an article entitled “Donna Tartt: Is this the year of The Goldfinch?” Of course I read it. I first read Tartt over ten years ago and something in me still remembers how it made me feel – that discovery of an author who did something different to all the other authors you had ever read, an author who wrote what felt like real life and real people.

She was one of the first adult writers I read on my own (at the age of 15 I was reading Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare at school, and at home I was somewhere between Northern Lights and the Chrestomanci novels by Diana Wynne Jones) and she opened up a whole new world for me. Not just to world of The Secret History, but the world of ‘literature’ that I could completely grasp and understand on my own – though it took two readings for me to really get all of it.

The Little Friend had already come out when I read The Secret History, so I dived right in. As the article I’ve mentioned states, “The Little Friend is a far more convincing, technically accomplished and formally sophisticated novel than The Secret History” and so as a ‘young reader’ it was a bit tricky for me. But I loved it anyway and luxuriated in Tartt’s language and the captivating (and utterly real) characters. Its difficulties are why it is currently on my To Re-Read List, and when I’ve got the time (!) I really cannot wait to get into it again.

Anyway. My reason for writing this article is that even though Tartt won the Pulitzer recently, and The Goldfinch was a huge success, and everyone thinks she’ll win the Booker, and the Bailey’s Prize, she has not become so ‘big’ that she cannot connect with her readers, or that she has become engulfed by the amazingness of her own talent. She is a rare type of writer, in a vein with (for me) Marilynne Robinson and Truman Capote – someone who simultaneously takes us on flights of fancy and also completely, utterly, gets what life is and how people are, even if they don’t know it. I read their work and I think, god, yes, how do you know that? That is so true.

2014-05-30 17.48.21

The ‘holy trinity’

 

I guess this is how people get ‘favourite authors’.

Here is the Guardian article for you.

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Articles, Interviews, Reviews

Donna Tartt Interviewed on CBS

A little more Donna Tartt excitement for you!

She recently recorded her only American TV appearance for This Morning on CBS, and here it is! The interviewer has some great questions but quite an odd way of talking that is a bit off-putting, and fades out the ends of Donna’s answers – but it is still excellent, especially as they go to see The Goldfinch (the actual one!!) in New York, which is wonderful. Enjoy!

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Events

An Evening With Donna Tartt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So wonderful it deserved a fancy border.

So wonderful it deserved a fancy border.

*

The Goldfinch is out now from Little, Brown.

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Articles, Interviews

Clip: Kirsty Wark Interviews Donna Tartt

I was stupid enough to be busy on the night when BBC Four showed a Review Show Special of Kirsty Wark interviewing Donna Tartt – and now it is gone from iPlayer! But I found a section of it that Newsnight put on YouTube – so here it is…

It is an utter joy to hear the ever reclusive Tartt speak about her work, as well as to hear her read from The Goldfinch. Makes me even more excited for seeing her in Oxford in a couple of weeks!

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Fiction, Reviews

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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

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(image: goodreads.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Donna Tartt interviewed about The Goldfinch in The New York Times

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

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

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Fiction, Reviews

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

 

2012 Picador cover - just gorgeous. Image: picador.com

2012 Picador cover – just gorgeous. Image: picador.com

Tigers in Red Weather has created and is still creating rather a lot of, dare I say it, ‘buzz’ and ‘hype’ on GoodReads and the book blogs, with lots of good reviews and 4 or 5 star ratings. It is the debut novel of former journalist Liza Klaussmann, which after having read it I still find amazing. It is that good. Unsurprising that it sold to Picador and Little, Brown for ‘major’ sums.

Helena and Nick are cousins; as the book opens they are living alone together during the Second World War. Helena is about to leave for Hollywood to marry Avery Lewis, and Nick’s husband Hughes is about to return from service in London. Let’s just say neither marriage is ‘perfect’ and as time passes (the novel spans 1944 – 1969) relationships change and personalities… shift. The novel is told from five perspectives – Nick, her daughter Daisy, Helena, Hughes, and Helena’s son Ed. It jumps back and forth through time, revisiting the summer of 1959 in particular. The summer that Daisy and Ed found a dead body behind the tennis courts.

As Nick says near the end of the book, in a family there is no one universal truth. Individual perspective can entirely change how the ‘truth’ of a situation can look. The book begins with Nick’s narrative, and though she is not the central character (there isn’t one) her story is a brilliant example of how a person can change within themselves as their role in life changes over the years. From a young wife to a middle-aged mother, she remains ‘herself’ but as her role changes she acts differently; she must adapt to the expectations of those around her.

In the small holiday community of the island of Martha’s Vineyard (a place well known by author Klaussmann), everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossip is rife. The entire family are forced to adhere to social expectations and how they ‘should’ be; this adds up to a lot of repressed feelings and no one being totally honest with each other. With everyone having their own opinions but not really communicating with each other, none of the family really seem to know each other very well. After Daisy and Ed find the body of a young woman who turns out to be the maid of a local couple, no one quite knows how to deal with the situation or comfort them, and the obvious murder becomes yet another piece of gossip. Nick, Hughes and Helena worry about the children’s reactions to the body, but none of them ask how they feel or try to explain why she might have been there, dead and abandoned. Everything gets swept under the rug.

There are great moments of stillness and subtlety in Tigers in Red Weather. A look, a movement, a word or two, can give away more than intended, or simply hint at some inner turmoil unknown to the outside world. Naivety and the ‘wisdom’ of age are examined as both the parents and children age, and the calm, slow tone threaded through with flashes of emotion and urgency reminded me of Truman Capote or Donna Tartt writing about the Deep South. Klaussmann employs deceptively simple phrases to communicate depths of emotion and family history, much like Tartt and indeed Jane Austen with her literary icebergs.

I highly recommend this book. It is beautifully written, with moments of intense description and poignant characterisation. Klaussmann’s ability to move between characters and decades is truly brilliant. A simply fantastic and extremely admirable debut novel. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

*

Published in paperback on 2nd August 2012 by Picador in the UK and Little, Brown in the US. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

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Articles, Interviews

55 Reading Questions

I saw these questions on Follow The Thread, and liked the way they approached reading, and the fact they were just for bloggers – so I thought I’d give them a go!

1. Favourite childhood book?

When I was very young it was The Worst Witch, and then Lord of the Flies when I was slightly older. That was the book that made me really love literature.

2. What are you reading right now? 

The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams. Just started and already really enjoying it. Lots to discover. I also just received a copy of The Forbidden by F. R. Tallis, so I’m going to start that as well.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? 

None.

4. Bad book habit? 

Buying/requesting too many books in one go and taking ages to read them all.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library? 

Nothing. My local library is very small and doesn’t have much from this century that isn’t Twilight.

6. Do you have an e-reader? 

No. My boyfriend told me that my dad asked him last Christmas whether I would like a Kindle – thank god he said no! I like the idea of them, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to use one.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? 

I try to read two books at once to save time, I think that’s all I can manage. Sometimes though it’s nice to concentrate on one book at a time so you can devote yourself to it and get the most out of it.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

If anything I’m more cautious about which books I read. I consider how I might be able to write about a book, whether the readers of my blog will find it interesting. That said, I won’t read something I don’t want to just because it’s new or popular.

9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far)? 

Definitely The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. It just had so many things that were wrong with it.

10. Favourite book you’ve read this year? 

Probably Henry and June by Anais Nin, or The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

I like to try new things, so maybe every few books I’ll try something different.

 12. What is your reading comfort zone?

Somewhere between Jane Austen and Donna Tartt.

13. Can you read on the bus? 

Not at all, I get car sick if I read on the bus or in the car, though I can usually read on the train.

14. Favourite place to read? 

The sofa or an armchair. I find it uncomfortable to read at a table or in bed, sadly.

15. What is your policy on book lending? 

I’m happy to lend books to people I know will read them, take care of them, and return them promptly. I’m a bit fussy.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books? 

I used to fold over pages and I used to refuse to break spines – now I use book marks and like breaking the spines!

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books? 

No. I used to underline passages, but that got a bit pointless. Now I’ll sometimes pop in a post-it or something to mark out quotes I might use for a review.

18. Not even with text books? 

At uni I would write in textbooks but as I’m no longer a student I don’t use textbooks anymore.

19. What is your favourite language to read in? 

English. I don’t know any other languages.

20. What makes you love a book? 

Engaging, believable characters; genuinely artful writing; a sense of pace and destination; a display of intelligence, emotion and empathy on the part of the author; subtlety; genuine feeling and sincerity.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book? 

I particularly recommend books that have moved me or that I related to in some way. I find books quite emotional so there has to be some kind of connection. I will also recommend something that is just really beautifully written.

22. Favourite genre? 

Sounds like a cop out to say literary fiction, but it really is my favourite. I like a bit of thriller and history too.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)? 

Historical biography.

24. Favourite biography? 

I really loved Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy. It read like a novel and was really detailed, but not so much that you got bored.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book? 

No. I think they’re bullshit.

26. Favourite cookbook? 

I’m not much of a cook. The only one I own is The Big Book of One Pot Meals my mum gave to me.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? 

I have very mixed feelings about the word ‘inspirational’ but I guess it would be Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Her life story is very dramatic, but I really related to her feelings about books and reading.

28. Favorite reading snack? 

I don’t really eat when I’m reading. I love food, so it distracts me! I like a nice cup of tea instead.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. 

It was a while ago now, but The Lovely Bones wasn’t as good as the hype suggested. The whole time I was reading it I was waiting for the good bit to begin. And even though I was given a copy for my birthday, I just could not bring myself to read The Tiger’s Wife. The hype did not convince me.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book? 

It depends – critics in newspapers etc often review things long before I read them, so then I forget what they said; with other bloggers, reviews are so personal that I will often disagree on small points.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? 

I have no problem with it really. I’m not going to be outright rude about something that the author has worked hard on, but I am going to be honest. If a book is sent to me by a publisher it’s a little harder to say you really didn’t like something, but I still try to be honest to my opinion.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose? 

French, German or Russian – the three languages I wish I spoke!

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read? 

Probably Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. He has a reputation as some sort of genius and there is so much respect and reverence for the Faust/Faustus story. His style was very dense and longwinded, but after 50 or so pages it got a lot easier.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin? 

The Kindly Ones by Jonathon Littell. I did a module on Literatures of the Holocaust at uni and read so many fantastic books. My boyfriend read The Kindly Ones after discovering it through the course, and I bought a copy, but I’m scared of it. It’s HUGE and I know it will take me ages to read and be very emotional. I desperately want to read it though.

35. Favourite poet? 

John Keats every time. Though I also love Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? 

None – my local library isn’t very good and I never think to go. Bad, I know.

37. How often have you returned books to the library unread?

Never. I’d have to get them out first.

38. Favourite fictional character? 

Anne Elliot from Persuasion; Elinor from Sense and Sensibility; Richard from The Secret History; and Tintin.

39. Favourite fictional villain? 

‘Villain’ makes me think of Disney films. In that case, Ursula from ‘The Little Mermaid’. From literature, Jack in Lord of the Flies. Absolutely brilliant.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation? 

Something that isn’t depressing or sad. Probably an Austen I haven’t read yet.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading

Two or three weeks. If I get caught up in work or just can’t decide what to read, it can take me a while to choose my next book.

 42. Name a book that you could/would not finish. 

I abandoned Nicholas and Alexandra halfway through because it was dragging terribly, but I would like to finish it one day.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading? 

The dog, the fridge or my phone.

 44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel? 

It’s a TV series, but ‘Game of Thrones‘ has been really excellent.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation? 

The Keira Knightley version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Absolute travesty.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time? 

At least £30.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it? 

I read the blurb, the reviews at the front, the first couple of pages, to try and get a feel for the story.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through? 

Boredom mostly. If it’s dragging and there’s been no development, or if the writing is really bad, I’ll give up – especially if it’s really long. If it’s short I might just read it to the end for the sake of it.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized? 

I used to alphabetise them, but this was too much hassle. Now they go in the bookshelf anywhere they’ll fit!

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? 

I always keep books. I would only give away a book if I hadn’t enjoyed it.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding? 

There are some books that I have absolutely no desire to read, like 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter… I don’t care if everyone thinks they’re great, they don’t appeal to me.

52. Name a book that made you angry

The Cellist of Sarajevo was very disappointing, and it had a ‘Richard & Judy Book Club’ logo on the front – that annoyed me. Mostly it would be anything that was supposed to be great but was a load of rubbish.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did? 

A Game of Thrones. I’ve never read much fantasy and was worried I wouldn’t like it as so many people I knew did like it; but I really enjoyed it! Great characters, great writing, an exciting plot – though there are some very cringy sex scenes.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t? 

Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephen Benatar. I’d heard a lot of good things and the premise appealed to me, but it didn’t quite work.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading? 

Tintin! I grew up reading it and still really love it.

*

All book title links lead to GoodReads or my reviews. All titles widely available.

Thanks to David at Follow the Thread for answering these questions first, and to other bloggers: I would love to read your answers too!


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Fiction, Reviews

True Grit by Charles Portis

Cover of the 2005 edition with introduction by Donna Tartt

Cover of the 2005 edition with introduction by Donna Tartt

When the latest version of True Grit was released in cinemas in 2010 (the first film was released in 1969 and starred John Wayne), I was eager to see it. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and the Coen brothers were a big yes, and my dad recommended the story. I’m not usually a fan of Westerns, but these factors convinced me and I went to see it – and yes, it was good. It actually lived up to the hype. Bridges was brilliant as always, Damon was just right for the part and young Hailee Steinfeld was perfect as the older-than-her-years Mattie. Despite it being a Western I was intrigued by Mattie and admired her determination and courage. The moment when she rides her horse through the river in order not to be left behind by Rooster and Le Boeuf was particularly stirring.

Soon after the film was released I bought myself a copy of the original novel, written by Charles Portis in 1968. The fact that the new edition boasted an introduction by Donna Tartt, one of my favourite authors, only encouraged me. But the book sat on my shelf for a long time, maybe a year. I don’t know why. A lot of my decision process when choosing a book to read is based on feeling and for some reason True Grit did not compel me for some time. Anyway, a couple of months ago I picked it up and read Tartt’s introduction, in which she heralds True Grit as one of her favourite books, one she is able to return to again and again and revel in. Perhaps this, coupled with the excellence of the film, was one of the problems.

Mattie’s narrative voice is one aspect of the story that is always praised, both in the book and the film. It is certainly strong and confident. She is only fourteen, yet has unending pragmatism and determination. She is obviously traumatised and angered by her father’s death, but she does not attend his funeral because she has to sort out his papers; at least, this is the reason she gives. It is not at all strange to her that she should want to set out to catch her father’s killer, despite her age and gender (this is 19th century Old West after all), and is offended when her capabilities are doubted. I particularly like that she wears her father’s hat and coat for the journey to find his killer, and wields his gun. Yet she is still a child. Sometimes her bravery betrays her naivety and lack of experience; but then, perhaps we should all be a little braver and care a little less about what we ‘should’ do. Most people admire Mattie and I do too – but sometimes her naivety and youth create a slightly annoying rather than endearing narrator. Sometimes her narrative just seems like bad writing, and the story just plods along, despite its several dramatic and exciting episodes. Mattie does not make anything seem exciting. I think the point is that she contains her feelings so well that she does not fully express them even to her reader, and we must read the subtext. This works in Austen, but not here. Instead of a calm mask over fraught feelings, Mattie just seems calm, oddly so. She is very matter of fact, and the reason for this is no doubt because she is relating the story to us from her old age. Nevertheless, she makes everything sound ordinary and while dramatic not really that exciting. To be honest, sometimes I got bored.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie in the 2012 film

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie in the 2012 film

Mattie’s narrative is so blank that most of the time I had images from the film in my head – I just could not picture it any other way. I have read novels after seeing the film adaptation before, but this was different. There was so little imagery in Portis’ work that the film took over in my mind. Now, I am not one who needs everything spelled out, heck, part of the reason I love novels is that everything isn’t, but this is really, really blank. There is so little here. In a way it’s good because Portis/Mattie is simply giving you the bare bones of the story and you are then left to make your own judgements and character profiles, but I felt that Mattie needed to do more for her reader. When her horse Blackie dies, her heart is ‘broken’ and ‘There never lived a nobler pony’, but that’s about all the feeling you get. The poor girl is forced to grow up before her time and as a result it seems that she loses the ability to express much emotion beyond a sentence here and there on the state of her heart. The result for the reader is that while we admire her courage and determination, we cannot connect with her on an emotional or, really, a psychological level. We commend her bravery, and are moved by her plight – but that’s it. Essentially, Mattie is two-dimensional. For a girl being written by a man in a Western in 1968, she is pretty damn cool. For a girl in 2012, she is two-dimensional. If anything she acts, today, as a symbol of female courage, determination and downright stubbornness in the face of men who think she is a Silly Little Girl, something I think all women have been made to feel at one point or another.

Mattie enlists Rooster Cogburn to help her track down her father’s killer because she hears he has ‘true grit’ – and of course the point is that in the end she is the one with ‘true grit’. It is a great story, and Mattie is a great creation, but not necessarily a great character – she is not well-rounded enough for that. Her adventure is all there is to her, it seems. With Mattie and with True Grit as a whole, I was left wanting more; needing more, as a reader.

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Originally published in 1968 by Simon & Schuster in the US, and reprinted by Bloomsbury in 2005.

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