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

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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.

A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda (1962)

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(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 writes 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 full 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.

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh (2017)

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Viking UK edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Jennifer McVeigh’s first novel The Fever Tree (my review is here) so I was eager to read her new novel Leopard at the Door. It has a similar setup, in that it’s central character is a young British woman thrown into turmoil on foreign soil. This time its Rachel, a British woman returning to Kenya, the country of her birth, after years away. Her mother died just after the two of them came back to England, and she was sent to live with relatives while her father stayed in Kenya. Now she returns and finds a new woman in the house with her father, and everything has changed.

Leopard at the Door is set in the early 1950s, and Kenya is experiencing the beginnings of the Mau Mau Uprising (you can read more about this here). For Rachel and her family, this means that their entire way of life in Kenya is threatened, and their relations with the local people are strained. There are local villagers that Rachel supports, and remembers from her childhood – women who knew her mother, and who she has good relationships with. These people are immediately put under suspicion of being allied with the rebellious Mau Mau, and are eventually forced to move from their village. Rachel is devastated, but her father and Sara, the new woman in his life, are adamant that these changes must be made to protect the family and the farm. There is also Michael, the local man who tutored Rachel as a child and who now helps out on the farm. Rachel has a deep affection for him, rooted mostly in her childhood memories and her desire for how things used to be. She uses his workspace in the barn to escape the tension of being in the house with her father and Sara, and looks to him to show her a way out of her situation. But Michael is torn between the struggles of his people, and the white people he has known for so long. The layers of conflict are myriad.

The novel charts Rachel’s conflict between her nostalgia and lasting grief for her mother, and the changes she finds when she returns to Kenya. Rachel feels more distant than ever from her father, and this is expertly exacerbated by Sara’s blatant racism and her aversion to any kind of positive relationship with the Kenyan people. Rachel’s father is a farmer and has lived in Kenya for a long time, and he tries to mediate between Sara and Rachel, and to keep the peace in a country he loves. McVeigh excels at using the domestic drama in this story to explore the wider issues in Kenya in this period, and showcases each point of view fairly.

Sara’s acerbic comments about ‘natives’ and ‘civilisation’ grate against our modern understanding of race and equality, and are in stark contrast to Rachel’s sympathetic view of the country and the Kenyan people. She has a nostalgic and almost idealistic desire for everyone to live in harmony, and her personal feelings direct her actions. At times this seems like the right thing to do, but at others it just seems dangerous. McVeigh perfectly conveys the conflicts and emotions of her eighteen-year-old protagonist and how this plays against the political and familial turmoil in the novel. The fact that the Mau Mau Uprising really happened means that it must be handled sensitively, and I think McVeigh strikes the right tone – she manages to convey the fear and anger on both sides, as well as the motivations and emotions behind their actions.

The cover of this novel makes it look more romantic than anything else, and there is a romance in there, but it’s more than that. Leopard at the Door is Rachel’s story, with its tragedies and triumphs, and is a wonderful exploration of the struggle of reconciling life with how it used to be, and how it is now. Nostalgia is at once glorious, and dangerous. This novel expertly pitches familial drama against political and colonial issues, along with the difficulties of growing up and finding what you believe in. It’s an enjoyable and engaging read, and McVeigh’s writing is as beautiful as always. I loved Leopard at the Door, and look forward to her next novel!

*

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK, in July 2017. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Viking UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This novel was one of four that I accepted for review from Viking, and it was the one I was least sure about. I liked the initial premise, the question of whether doing a bad thing makes you a bad person, and I am always intrigued by debut novels. Not knowing much more than that, I dived in.

All the Good Things is a short book that packs a lot of punch. Our narrator Bethany is only twenty-one but she has had a very eventful and challenging life, and is in prison at the start of the book. The frame of the novel is a task set by Bethany’s counsellor to list all the good things in her life (hence the title!) and each chapter is what she writes about each of these. They range from ‘Smelling a baby’s head right into your heart’ to ‘The promise of a blank page’ and many more in between. Early on we learn that Bethany had a child, and that she loves running, and that she grew up in the foster care system. Her father is absent and her mother suffers from increasingly bad mental health, and so she is put into foster care. The Penguin website states that author Clare Fisher is interested in ‘social exclusion and the particular ways in which it affects vulnerable women and girls’, and this is essentially the topic of the novel. Bethany is let down by so many people, and finds herself easily lead astray. Deprived of parental love, she grabs onto any relationship she can, even if it’s clearly not right. She becomes pregnant, and it’s sort of all down hill from there.

Bethany is very young, and the language and style is appropriate to this. Like any reader, I appreciate an immersive and believable narrative voice (like Jack in Room), but for me reading Bethany’s narrative was like reading a more grown up version of a Jacqueline Wilson novel. You can see that this is a vulnerable young person, and they are in less than ideal circumstances, and you can almost see everything that’s going to happen to them. It’s incredibly sad, and in some ways it felt like a warning or a social message – hence my comparison to Jacqueline Wilson (especially her novel Bad Girls). It’s educational for someone with no experience of the world in the novel, but it lacks a certain finesse and I felt like All the Good Things was meant to be read by someone younger than me (and I’m only 29). Now, I loved Jacqueline Wilson as a child, so I’m not trying to tear down this novel, but for me it was a little too realist, a little too bleak, and I felt like it was trying to teach me something when really I just wanted to try and enjoy the writing and the story. The things that it is trying to teach are very important, but the tough subject matter and style meant that I couldn’t just enjoy it.

I must praise Clare Fisher for her realism, her refusal to shy away from unpleasantness, and her dedication to the narrative voice. There are some really heartbreaking scenes where you just want someone to help Bethany, or for her to help herself, and these are brilliantly written. I think the ending is supposed to be hopeful, but I found that after a whole book filled with disappointment, sadness, and pain it was hard to get on board with the small glint of hope at the end. Once I reached that point I felt horribly sad for Bethany and her misfortune, and I was glad to have reached the end.

All the Good Things is a very accomplished debut novel, but ultimately I think it just wasn’t for me. But, I think a lot of readers will really enjoy it, and I must recommend it for the quality of the writing and the convincing realism.

*

Published in June 2017 by Viking, an imprint for Penguin UK. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

WWW Wednesday, 19th April 2017

I’m sure you have now heard about WWW Wednesday (even I know about it), but to recap, this is what it entails – you must post about three books:

  • What you most recently finished reading
  • What you are currently reading
  • What you will read next

Here are mine!

What I recently finished reading: Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

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This was the second biography of Catherine Howard that I have read this year, and it really was excellent. I am currently planning a blog about this and the other biography (by Josephine Wilkinson).

What I am currently reading: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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This was sent to me by Penguin for review, and I’d wanted to read it for a while. It’s an interesting take on a well-known story and historical figure (Matthew Hopkins) and so far it is very engaging. Review to come!

What I will read next: Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Another review copy from Penguin, which also looks intriguing. I love a bit of narrative non-fiction and this looks like the sort of unusual memoir that I will enjoy.

What are your WWW books?

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done is one of those books that gets an awful lot of hype and press, and often this puts me off for some reason – but in this case it is entirely deserved and I couldn’t be happier to see promos and reviews all over social media. I read a proof copy back in November and loved it instantly. The premise alone drew me in: it is the story of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders of her father and stepmother. I love historical fiction, and I love true crime, so this  was a perfect blend of both. Lizzie Borden is a fascinating character from history that just gets under your skin. She was famously acquitted of the murders, but there remains suspicion that she was guilty, and the mysteriousness of her character is something that Schmidt uses excellently.

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Tinder Press 2017 edition (image via goodreads.com)

The book is narrated by four people: Lizzie herself, the maid Bridget, Lizzie’s sister Emma, and a man named Benjamin who gets caught up in their story. All of them are unreliable, something that becomes more and more clear the more you read. The women are all wrapped up in the strangeness of the household and the family, tortured by the strained emotions and simmering tensions. Lizzie is clearly not an easy person to live with, but she is not the only one guilty of making things difficult. The Borden family are filled with sadness and a longing for the past, for better days. Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, keeps all the windows and doors locked for fear of criminals, and this literal confinement only exacerbates the feeling of being trapped in their lives that all the characters seem to feel.

The women of the house are trapped in their feminine roles and their corsets, never to be free like men and do as they please. And Andrew, the only one with any real power, keeps them that way. The relationships between the women – Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and the stepmother Abby – are quietly brilliant and acutely observed. They have no obvious reason to dislike each other, but the oppressive atmosphere in the house brings out the worst in them, even if they do not intend it. Like any family they have a few small disputes, but for the Bordens these become life-changing.

Benjamin is one of the only entirely fictional characters in the book. He turns up in their town of Fall River looking for work, and by chance meets their uncle John. Now I’ve decided not to tell exactly how Benjamin gets wrapped up with the Bordens – but suffice to say he gets quite close to them and, crucially, provides an outside view to the events of the story.

I thought both Benjamin and Bridget were excellent choices as narrators. They are both outside of the family, but still close to it, and they give us a slightly different perspective. Bridget observes the quarrels between Lizzie and her parents, and the effects of Lizzie’s moods and is the unique position of being part of the household but not part of the family, so she observes everything without always knowing what it means. The Bordens are a family full of unexpressed emotions, unfulfilled desires, and stifled arguments. Lizzie is the only one that seems to let anything out, and for this she if often treated like a child by her parents, but particularly by her father. Andrew Borden is very stuck in his ways, and is emotionally closed off and quite cold and hard towards his family, even his wife Abby. He does not deal with Lizzie’s outbursts and tantrums very well, and I think he makes her feel even more trapped and stifled than she already does.

Living in the 1800s meant that Lizzie could not have an independent life, and is stuck living in the family home. You can see why she is frustrated with her life, but she is also, frankly, quite childish and selfish, and doesn’t always see that life is sometimes hard for the rest of her family as well. She has a push-pull relationship with her sister Emma, and I think though they love each other there is also a lot of resentment and negative feelings.

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Lizzie Borden in about 1890 (image via wikipedia.com)

Schmidt excels at this sort of family psychology, and as a result the entire cast of characters feel entirely real. This is also due to the first person narratives, and the fact that all the events of the book take place over only two days. This means that everything is examined, often from multiple angles, and small events often take on more meaning. The short time frame allows Schmidt to really get inside her character’s heads and examine exactly what happened and when. I felt that the two days covered in the novel are the culmination of a lifetime of family secrets and strong emotions, of dysfunctional relationships, and unfulfilled desires. All the problems and issues within the Borden family are exemplified in those two days, and as we know the results are extreme.

As the book progresses you realise that Schmidt has a clear opinion about whether or not Lizzie is guilty, but this doesn’t ruin anything and I don’t think she is trying to influence the reader. It is still up to you to decided whether you think she really killed Andrew and Abby. She remains a mystery to this day.

Sarah Schmidt writes a wonderful blog where she often discusses her experiences of writing See What I Have Done, and tells the story of why she chose to write about Lizzie Borden. I would really recommend reading this as it helps to explain some of the reasons why Lizzie remains in the public consciousness and why she is still so fascinating.

*

Published in May 2017 by Tinder Press in the UK. I read a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Like many readers I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites (2013), so I had high expectations for The Good People. Like its predecessor it is set in the first half of the 19th century, this time in 1820s Ireland. Also like Burial Rites, it features unhappy women as its central characters.

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The blurb dedicates a paragraph each to the three central women of The Good People – Nóra, recently widowed and looking after her disabled grandson Micheál; Mary, her maid, who cares for Micheál; and Nance, the local ‘handy woman’ who has ‘the knowledge’ and serves as a healer for the village. Initially the focus is on Nóra as she grieves for her husband and struggles to take care of Micheál. We learn that his mother, Nóra’s daughter Johanna, passed away and his father brought him to Nóra because he could not care for him himself. Micheál is about four years old and before he was brought to her, Nóra had only seen him once before, at the age of two, and he was healthy. He could speak and walk – two things that he cannot do when he is brought to her.

Micheál, though four, is more like a baby and can do nothing for himself. His condition is inexplicable to his family, and theories abound as to why he is now so unwell, when once he was healthy. When the villagers come to Nóra’s house for her husband’s wake, she asks her neighbour Peg to look after her grandson – she is ashamed of him and does not want to face the stares and questions of her visitors, or their theories about him.

Initially Nóra worries that Johanna and her husband may have mistreated or neglected Micheál as he is so thin, but over time she doubts this. Slowly both Nóra and the others in the village begin to think that the child may be a changeling – not really a child at all but a fairy left in his place, while the real Micheál has been taken away by the ‘Good People’, the fairies. This was a common belief in many cultures at the time (the Wiki page is quite good) and was how people explained disability or conditions that we now understand thanks to modern science and medicine.

Nóra soon employs Mary to help her look after Micheál. She becomes more and more convinced that her grandson is a changeling and leaves Mary to care for him. The village is a place filled with old stories and beliefs, and its people are ruled by superstition and fear, as well as gossip. There is a dichotomy between their Christianity and their belief in fairies, curses, and the healing powers of herbs and old remedies. This is nicely demonstrated by the cynicism of their priest, Father Healy. He does not believe in the Good People and condemns them as pagan nonsense.

He similarly condemns Nance and her belief that she has been given knowledge by the Good People and is able to cure illnesses and ailments. There are several fascinating and challenging conversations between them as he urges her to give up her practices, and she calmly defends herself. Nance’s whole life has been filled with magic and fairies, with her mother being ‘taken’ by them, and her aunt Maggie teaching her how to use their knowledge and cures. In a series of flashbacks to Nance’s youth it becomes clear that her mother was mentally ill in some way, and Nance’s grief was eased by her new knowledge of the Good People and their ways.

As Nóra becomes more desperate she turns to Nance for help with Micheál, and this is where the story really gets interesting. It is heartbreaking to read about the boy’s suffering, and the stress of caring for him, but it gets worse as Nóra’s belief that he is not really her grandson deepens. She starts to call him ‘it’ and becomes angry when he cries. As Nóra becomes more and more hardened to the boy, Mary becomes more worried about him, and warns Nóra that even if she believes he is a changeling she should not be so cold and cruel towards him. Mary’s fear of God means that she is able to protect the boy from the worst of his grandmother’s feelings towards him.

I won’t spoil the book by writing about what happens when Micheál is taken to Nance, and what happens at the end. It is a story that is sometimes difficult to read, as we can see that Micheál is suffering – but we also see how hard it is care for him without modern conveniences and technology. Mary has the best intentions but is still worn down by sleep deprivation and the constant attention her young charge requires. The world these characters inhabit is hard and cruel, and unforgiving. Towards the end of the book you really begin to realise just how isolated they are in their rural community and how ignorant they are of the developments of science and technology. They are illiterate and exist in their own small world.

Hannah Kent sensitively portrays a certain time and a certain place in The Good People. None of the characters are portrayed as evil or bad because they believe that Micheál may be a changeling – rather they are ignorant of any other explanation for his condition and desperately want a way to make things better. They are torn between folklore and Christianity and inhabit a world that seems completely alien to us now. Some parts of the novel are heart-wrenchingly sad, and you wish you could reach in and make the characters see that what they believe simply isn’t true.

The Good People is as intense and moving as Burial Rites, and also presents a lot of moral and ethical questions, many of which are indirectly but carefully examined. As expected Hannah Kent’s writing is as lovely as ever, and the novel is immersive and engaging. I would only warn readers against the deep sadness in this book – but otherwise it is highly recommended.

*

Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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

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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

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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

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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?

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.

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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.

 

Beware the Hype: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Available from Wordery and Foyles.