Comment, Fiction, Reviews

The Haunting of Hill House (2018) on Netflix

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image via IMDb.com

Regular readers will know that I love the work of Shirley Jackson. In 2015 I read and loved her novel The Haunting of Hill House, so I was very intrigued when I heard that there would be a Netflix series based on it. It’s been adapted into a film before, in 1963 and 1999, so I thought perhaps a series would actually be a good way to get deeper into the story and the characters. I really must watch the films (though I know the 1999 version is supposed to be terrible, but it’s got Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones so I’m sure it’s entertaining).

But as I read a bit more about the new series I quickly realised that rather than an adaptation it was more of a… re-imagining. The showrunner is Mike Flanagan, who has made some really great films like Hush and Oculus, both of which I really enjoyed (especially Hush, it’s really clever and brilliant), so I had quite high expectations, as did my husband who is a big horror fan. Though he hasn’t read The Haunting of Hill House. Anyway. I was still on board, even though Flanagan changed the group of strangers brought to Hill House by a researcher into an actual family, the Crains, who lived in the house. Interesting, but could still work…

But of course as anyone who has seen the show knows, it just becomes its own thing from there really. There are callbacks to the book, and there are several characters based on or named after characters from the book, but really the links are pretty tenuous. I did like that Eleanor was named after the central character of the novel, and both of them have the deepest connection to the house (except perhaps the mother in the series?), and I think that worked ok. There is also Theodora (Theo) who is a bit mysterious in both, and I liked that the series actually made her gay where the novel just implied she was (although that is kind of a can of worms as discussed in this brilliant article). Then there is Luke, who in the novel is part of the family that own the house, though I have to say I don’t remember him being super connected to it, but feel free to correct me. In the series he and Eleanor are twins, and so I think he gets drawn into the house with/through her. I think they also randomly named Eleanor’s therapist in the series Dr Montague, which is the name of the researcher in the novel that brings them all to the house, but that just seemed so weird I’m not going to try and analyse it. One of the sisters is also called Shirley but that is a WHOLE OTHER THING, grouped in with the character of Steven.

One of the big changes that I read a lot about is the fact that the writing side of the story is given to a male character, Steven. The famous opening paragraph of the novel is a masterclass in Jackson’s spare and beautiful prose, and it gets hold of you straight away. In the series, this paragraph is used in a voice-over at the opening of the first episode, read by Steven, and it’s revealed that in the series this is from his book on Hill House, called The Haunting of Hill House, that he wrote about his family’s experience living there. I mean. There are several things here. I’m not sure why they felt the need for his book to have the same title, though I get that his writing about their life is a big plot device used throughout. But the main issue is that he is the writer. Why should Jackson’s brilliant words be given to a man? Especially when there is a character named Shirley? Who is a woman? It just makes no sense to me. It also doesn’t help that Steven is a terrible character who is awful to everyone and should just go away.

There are a lot of good things about the series. The plotting and storytelling is excellent, as is the use of the two timelines and how they are edited together. The actual house and the sets are all excellent and brilliantly used, with just the right amount of creepiness and atmosphere. Mrs and Mrs Dudley, the house’s caretakers, are also well used, apart from the weird story line with their children but that’s another issue… I loved the character of Eleanor and her story really resonated with me. My husband and I were bawling our eyes out by the end of the episode focused on her (episode 5, The Bent-Neck Lady), and the actress who played her, Victoria Pedretti, was wonderful and very well cast. I was also really impressed with episode 6, Two Storms, which brilliantly explored the family’s issues and relationships while also looking incredible with a couple of really long tracking shots that were just amazing.

Regardless of the connections and differences to the novel, The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliantly made but flawed show. It is unrelentingly grim and utterly sad, and watching more than two episodes in a row would be overwhelming. It is a bit overblown. Also I wish they had explored the story of the Hill family a bit more, whose ghosts appear to the Crains in the house and who would clearly be interesting if further investigated. I also had very mixed feelings about most of the Crain family as characters. While they all had good moments (apart from Steven, just blanket awfulness) I think I only actually liked Eleanor and Luke. I think I found them the most interesting, along with the father, Hugh. He has different memories, and actual knowledge, about the house from his children, so their dynamic was very interesting, and I think his character was well constructed and well used.

So, a very mixed bag. My main thought on the show now is that while I appreciate that Jackson’s novel is obviously great source material, I just don’t get why Flanagan didn’t just make a series with an original story about a family and a haunted house. I couldn’t help but thin that maybe he missed something about the novel when I read that he didn’t think a straight adaptation was possible. That doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

It’s been a week or so since my husband and I finished watching the series and I’m glad I left a bit of time to digest it before I wrote this post – right afterwards I had so many thoughts about it that if I had written about it then I would have rambled on even longer than I have here. So I thank you if you have stayed with me this far! I’m experimenting with writing about things other than book reviews, so I’ll see how this post lands and go from there. Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this adaptation.

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The Haunting of Hill House is on Netflix worldwide now. The novel is available from Foyles, Blackwell’s, Wordery, and I’m sure plenty of other retailers.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher (2018)

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(image via goodreads.com)

I loved Susan Fletcher’s last novel, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, so I was very happy to accept a review copy of House of Glass, which was published at the start of November. It’s another historical drama, this time centering on a woman named Clara Waterfield, who is employed to create a greenhouse at a mysterious country estate, Shadowbrook (doesn’t sound creepy at all…). Clara is born with weak bones and lives a very sheltered life until she finds a ‘gentle’ job in the greenhouses at Kew Gardens – and it is from there that she is employed at Shadowbrook.

From the start things are a bit weird, with the house’s owner, Mr Fox, being absent and everyone being a bit cagey about where he is. The housekeeper Mrs Bale is kind but seems fraught with some underlying fear or tension, and evades Clara’s questions; and the two maids at the house are likewise unable or unwilling to give her any more information. She must simply prepare the greenhouse for the plants that are to come, and when they arrive she must plant and look after them. While the house and its owner are a mystery to Clara, she in turn is something of a mystery to everyone she meets – her bones mean that she is short and walks with a cane, and she has unusually light hair, skin, and eyes. She constantly feels looked at wherever she goes, and it takes her a while to settle in. Throughout these introductory sections of the book, Fletcher’s beautiful writing really shines through, as Clara explores the house, grounds, and the local village, observing everything and always wanting to learn more. She also thinks and dreams of her dead mother almost all the time, haunted by her memories.

Soon, Clara starts to hear strange noises in the house, and wonders why there are no pictures on the walls. She learns that there were pictures, but they kept falling down for no apparent reason. So, not only do we have a mysterious house with a mysterious owner, we might also have ghosts. I wouldn’t say that House of Glass is a ghost story or a haunted house story, but it’s certainly Gothic. Clara herself is a great Gothic character with her unusual appearance and sheltered life. She moves about like a little creature, stared at, but still bold. She makes a point of talking to people and asking them about the house the its previous owners, the Pettigrews. Everyone seems to have an opinion about them and they obviously made quite an impact on the village – particularly the daughter, Veronique, who inherited the house and was the last Pettigrew to live there. Clara is fascinated by Veronique and endeavours to find out everything she can about her – while wondering if she is the ghost in the house.

I honestly can’t say too much more without giving things away, as there are several key things that slowly get revealed as the book goes on. An investigator is hired to come and see if there really is a ghost, and from this point Clara digs deeper and does manage to uncover some truths. The story is really well paced, and while things are revealed slowly to the reader, you don’t feel like things are held back, or given too fast. I found Clara to be a really engaging narrator and I loved her bold attitude and determination. As I expected Fletcher’s characterisation (of the whole cast) is excellent, and the world of the novel feels very real, as do the people in it. The novel starts a little slowly, but gets better as it goes on, and I have to say I was not expecting what was revealed towards the end – the truth about Mr Fox, Shadowbrook, and the Pettigrews. It is an ending well worth the time and effort it takes to get there.

*

Published by Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

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Articles, Events, Fiction, Non-Fiction

The Peters Fraser And Dunlop/Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award – Shortlist Reveal!

As I ~may~ have mentioned, I am on the shadow panel for this year’s Young Writer of the Year Award – and today the shortlist has been announced! Here they are:

young writer award shortlist 2018

Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (Particular Books)

Kings of the Yukon is about Adam Weymouth’s journey in a canoe along the length of the Yukon River, as he explores the landscape, people, climate, and animals of Alaska. He made the journey alongside the migrating salmon, and considers their plight along with his own. I have always loved good travel writing, especially when it comes together with memoir, and I’m really looking forward to reading this one.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (John Murray)

Elmet is a novel that explores class, nature, violence, land-ownership, childhood, humanity… a lot of things. The central character is a boy named Daniel whose idyllic existence with ‘Daddy and Cathy’ in their rural home is changed forever. Their land is threatened and Daniel sees a new side to Daddy as he becomes more and more angry and violent. I didn’t know much about this novel before now, but it seems intriguing and I can’t wait to get stuck in.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harvill Secker)

This novel was very popular when it first came out, and I remember seeing a lot of press and blog reviews, so I’m sure it’ll be an enjoyable read. Jonah Hancock, a merchant, becomes famous when one of his crew discovers what appears to be a mermaid. Soon everyone wants to come and marvel at the spectacle, and along the way Jonah meets a courtesan named Angelica Neal… and it all goes from there. It is described as a “spell-binding story of obsession and curiosity” on GoodReads and I’m not surprised that it has been so popular.

The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman (W&N)

I had already had The Reading Cure on my TBR for a while, so I was very pleased to see it on the shortlist, and to be given the opportunity to read it. Laura Freeman suffered from anorexia as a teenager, and this book chronicles how her love of literature kept her going through some of the hardest points of her illness, and inspired her to get better. This is just the sort of memoir I’m sure I will enjoy.

So there they are – four very interesting books. I’m very pleased that two are fiction, and two are non-fiction, as I love reading both, and I think it will be a very interesting conversation when the shadow panel and I have to try and choose our winner. They all look wonderful.

You can follow award news on Twitter via the award’s page and with the hashtags #youngwriteraward and #youngwriterawardshadow.

I’d love to hear what you think of the shortlist – have you read any?

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Fiction, Reviews

A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes (2018)

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(image: goodreads.com)

As some readers may know, I don’t accept review copies very often, as I always have too many unread books already on my shelves – but I made an exception for A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes, as it seemed intriguing. A young woman named Robyn returns to her home town, along with her brother Kit, and tries to resolve things to do with their parents, and some mysteries from their childhood. So far, so intriguing…

I tend to have mixed feelings these days about first person narrators, and Robyn did nothing to allay my concerns. She is an engaging narrator, but also infuriating in her obsessions and self-centredness. On several occasions Kit tells her to let things go, but she just can’t, to a degree that goes beyond what seems reasonable. We deduce that their mother appears to be missing, or perhaps dead, and their stepfather has decided to absent himself from this particular trip down memory lane. Few people in their home town seem pleased to see Robyn and Kit, and there are lots of hints at something bad that happened in the past, some big secret that no one wants to talk about.

The story is well constructed, but I felt that there was a little too much teasing and hinting at the truth, beyond what was needed to keep the reader interested. I think the problem occurs because we only know what Robyn knows, and we are taken down all the paths of her thought process, all the leads she pursues to find the truth, and I found it hard to care just as much she did. Robyn’s narrative takes us on a heartrending emotional journey that was somewhat draining to read. I cared about the story and characters, but in general things were too overblown, too over-emotional, too intense – when really the story is not that intense, not that pressurised. It was just that it felt that way to Robyn, because it was so personal. But to the reader, this was hard to connect with, and I felt overwhelmed by Robyn’s intensity.

As Robyn learns more about her mother, and a strange man she knew when she was younger, and how things might all be connected, information is handed to the reader piece by piece. Many things we find out as Robyn does, and so we go through the emotions with her, and this creates much of the structure of the novel. Sometimes this works, and keeps us interested, drawing us in with more revelations; but at some point in the book I realised that there was something we didn’t know, that Robyn might – that was purposefully being held back from the reader. Once I realised this, and the information was revealed, I felt conflicted – surprised and intrigued by the revelation, but frustrated that something Robyn knew was not in her first person narrative. It was an odd trick to use on the part of the author, and I’m not sure how well it worked, given that we are supposed to be on this journey with Robyn. Why else choose to use a first person narrator, and involve the reader so deeply in her emotions, if to withhold information that the narrator already knew, for a big reveal?

Despite all this I did enjoy reading A Little Bird Told Me, even if at times I had to take a break when Robyn got too overwrought. I think the story would have benefitted from a little more introspection on Robyn’s part, and a little less focus on the drama of the whole thing. I felt like the story would make a better TV series than a book in that sense. So, a bit of a mixed bag, but undeniably entertaining and engaging. If you’re here for the high drama, then A Little Bird Told Me is for you.

*

Published by Agora Books in September 2018. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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Fiction, Reviews

Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

I still have two more Jane Austen novels to read but I have wanted to read Emma for the longest, and wanted to read it the most, if that makes sense. Ever since I learned that one of my favourite films, Clueless, was loosely based on it, Emma has loomed large on my TBR. After reading Lucy Worsley’s wonderful biography of Austen recently I was spurred on to get myself a lovely Penguin English Library edition and crack on. And I am so glad I did.

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Emma is such a well-read and well-reviewed book that I can’t really review it as such – but I can heap on the praise and say that it had everything that I love about Austen’s work. There is humour, drama, irony, sarcasm, free indirect speech (when characters’ voices are incorporated into the narrative voice), layered meanings, romantic intrigue, and wonderfully real characters and emotions. Emma herself felt like a real person, so fully realised and with some elements of character that clearly came from Jane herself.

Austen famously declared that she didn’t expect readers to like Emma, and she does have flaws, but of course these dissipate as she matures and becomes more self-aware throughout the novel, and you can see she is well-intentioned; her major flaw is perhaps naivety, or arrogance, or snobbishness. But as I grew to like her more and more, I forgave her these. In the end she accepts the truth of things and is able to be happy for others, and for herself.

I think Persuasion is still my favourite of Austen’s novels, though I’d like to reread it as I haven’t visited it in years – but I completely adore Emma now as well. I know there are several TV and movie adaptations of it out there, but if anyone could recommend one that would be amazing! It’s always lovely to see Austen’s novels brought to life (except for that movie of Pride and Prejudice, which is best forgotten). Which is your favourite?

I’ve been a bit Austen-mad recently, so I am looking forward to my next few books – though I have yet to choose what to read next. As always I have too much to choose from! The current contenders are Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Thérèse Desqueyroux by  François Mauriac – how to choose??

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Emma was originally published in 1816; I read the 2012 PEL paperback, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Half-year review: best books of 2018 so far!

I’m back! As you may have seen on my Instagram, I was recently on holiday (again) and so everything was a bit quiet… but I’m now back and ready to get back into blogging. I am right at the end of Emma by Jane Austen, so I will be writing about that soon, as well as my visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum. But for now, as it’s July, it’s time to look back at the year in reading so far. Here are my favourite books that I have read since the start of the year (in no particular order) – have you read any of these?

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

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My copy of this had been hanging around on my shelves for a while, and I finally got around to reading it this year – and I loved it. As I expected from Fallada, the writing and story are both incredibly true to life, and make the ordinary into the extraordinary. My review is here.

The Bridesmaid’s Daughter by Nyna Giles (2018)

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This was a random find on GoodReads recommendations, and I couldn’t resist it. The author’s mother was a model in the 50s and 60s, was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly, and ended up living in a homeless shelter. It’s a fascinating story of mothers and daughters, growing up, and being a woman. My review is here.

The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor (2014)

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I came across this book in my professional life in academic publishing, and was so pleased I decided to read it earlier this year. It’s a bit heavy-going and very detailed, but if you have the interest in women in the ancient world, it’s definitely worth it! My review is here.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (2018)

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The striking cover of this book caught my eye on social media, and I bought it soon after. It’s short and easy to read, and is one of the most engaging and moving novels I have ever read. Highly recommended! My review is here.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

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I reviewed this really recently, so I won’t go on too long, but if you love Jane Austen and haven’t read any other biography of her, this is a MUST. My review is here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

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This book got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year, partly because it is genuinely brilliant, despite the author passing away before finishing it; and partly because the subject of the book, the Golden State Killer, was identified and arrested a couple of months after publication. Highly recommended to anyone interested in crime and investigative journalism. My review is here.

I’d love to hear if anyone has read any of these, and your opinions on them! Any related recommendations would also be awesome sauce.

Happy reading!

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Fiction, Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (2017)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I had vaguely heard of this book before I saw it in Waterstones – probably because it was shortlisted for the Booker in 2017. I was in Barnstaple and wandering around the bookshop, having stupidly taken only one book away on holiday with me (perhaps the first time I have ever done that), and have inevitably finished in the first two days. So we drove to the nearest Waterstones. History of Wolves was on one of the front tables, and both the the cover and the title caught my eye. I don’t pay much attention to book prizes, but the front and back of the book was also covered in praise, so I thought I’d give it a go. The premise of a lonely teenage girl, living with her parents on an ex-commune next to a lake in Minnesota appealed to me.

The girl is Linda – we learn her real name is Madeleine or Mattie, though an explanation for why she is sometimes called Linda is never given – and she is lonely and isolated, both at home and at school. You quickly realise she is incredibly independent for her age, and only relies on her parents for her home and food. She seems to do everything by and for herself. I adored this early phase of the book, as author Emily Fridlund is wonderful at setting the scene and conjuring up the Minnesota woods and countryside. There is a deep sense of place, and lovely descriptions throughout. We also get a decent sense of Linda’s character through her narration, though you feel that she is still always holding something back. She always retains an element of mystery.

Likewise there is a degree of mystery about the commune that she grew up in, and her parents involvement in it. We learn that it eventually ended when relationships broke down, but Linda seems to have happy memories of her childhood there – though she doesn’t talk about it much. She also doesn’t provide that much detail or characterisation about her parents, and this adds to the opaqueness of certain areas of her character and experience. At first I found this a little frustrating, but I think it was an intentional choice on the part of the author, to add to the isolated feeling, and Linda’s un-anchored sense of family and belonging.

Perhaps for this reason, she becomes fascinated with the family that build a house across the lake. They seem perfect at first – two parents and a little boy. In such a quiet area it is perhaps inevitable that she eventually meets the mother, Patra, while she is out with Paul, the little boy. For much of the novel that father, Leo, is away and Linda and Patra become friends. Linda takes Paul out for long walks in the woods, the place where she seems to feel most at home, and she teaches him about the plants and animals. She has a fascination with wolves that she tries to pass on to him, unsuccessfully. This all goes along for a while until we start to realise, as does Linda, that there’s something off about the way Patra talks about Leo. He seems to have all the power in the relationship, and this becomes even more clear when he returns and meets Linda. They never really get on, and Linda is oddly protective of Patra and Paul when he is around. He asks her lots of questions about belief and sense of self that she finds odd. As she spends more time with the family and becomes more invested in them, she sees that something is bubbling under the surface, something that isn’t discussed explicitly, but something that makes her uneasy. Eventually Paul seems to become ill, and Linda is concerned, but both Patra and Leo brush her off and say that he’ll be fine once he rests. They both seem on edge, and as if they aren’t telling her something.

In the background behind this main story there is also Linda’s fascination with her teacher Mr Grierson, and with Lily, one of her fellow students. We find out early on that Mr Grierson was eventually fired from the school when they discovered that in his last job he had been accused of paedophilia, and a lot of indecent images were found in his home. Despite this Linda never seems to judge or hate him, and even sends him a letter at one point. She is oddly obsessed with him, and discovers that his status as a registered sex offender means that she can see his movements around the country in the years after he leaves the school. Somewhat connected to him is her obsession with Lily, a student who accuses him of sexual harassment. For this she loses her social status and becomes something of a pariah at school. At first I couldn’t work out why Linda was so fixated on these two people, but I think it is because she feels some vague connection to them as outsiders, as people who are judged and who do not fit in. She tries to help them both in her own way, and perhaps this enables her to feel like she is doing some good, and preventing someone else from feeling as lonely and isolated as she does.

Linda is a fascinating character. As I said we never find out why she gets called Linda, and though it was a bit annoying at first I actually liked that she remains a bit of a mystery to the reader. Likewise her parents are not fully realised characters, and I came to see that this is largely because she isn’t really close to either of them, and actually questions whether they are her real parents because all the children in the commune were raised together. The failed commune is a like a symbol of how trying too hard to create an idyllic family is almost doomed to fail and implode; and Linda and her parents are what is left behind. She is obviously starved for love, affection, and a real connection with someone, and this influences her actions and her views of others. She gets fixated on people and tries to connect with them, but doesn’t really know how. When we see parts of her later adult life, she is still isolated and lonely, even when she is with other people.

History of Wolves is an odd sort of coming-of-age novel, in that Linda is trying to figure things out and make her way in the world, but I’m not sure if she is ever really successful. There isn’t any sort of satisfying conclusion to the book, and that seems to fit with Linda’s independent and uncommitted way of living, her connection only to nature and herself, and her isolation from conventional society and relationships. It’s an odd little book that I think some readers might find unsatisfying or frustrating, but I enjoyed it for the character of Linda, the beautiful and evocative settings, and the wonderful writing. An unconventional but intriguing story, like Linda herself.

*

Published in 2017 by Grove Atlantic. I read the Weidenfeld & Nicolson paperback, pictured above.

 

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Her Hidden Life by V.S. Alexander (2018)

I bought this novel on a whim in the supermarket (something I hardly ever do) because I was just in the mood to buy a book. It happens. Almost all of the novels on sale were sensational crime, romances, or what was once called ‘chick lit’ and this was the only one that appealed to me. The unusual setting and female protagonist of Her Hidden Life convinced me to buy it.

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Magda Ritter is a young Berliner who ends up working as a ‘taster’ for Hitler – tasting all his food before it is served to him to see if it’s poisoned. Fun times. From the start she states that she is not a supporter of Hitler, and she only ends up working for him because the Reichsbund is the only place where she can get a job, as she has no skills beyond basic housekeeping. Despite not being a Party member, Magda’s well-connected Nazi uncle means that she is accepted for a job, though she has no idea what it is. One day she is picked up in car, and taken to the Berghof, one of Hitler’s countryside retreats.

Here she works as a taster in the kitchen with several other women doing the same job. Her life among the Nazi elite is surprisingly humdrum, despite her random yet frequent chance meetings with Eva Braun and her attraction to SS Captain Karl Weber. This is something I noticed throughout the novel – Magda describes everything rather flatly and in a matter of fact way, even when she describes her feelings of love for Karl, and her feelings of hate for Hitler. Her hatred of Hitler only develops once Karl shows her photographs of killing squads and concentration camps; up until that point she expresses little feeling either way and even states that the plight of the Jewish people does not affect her as she doesn’t know anyone who’s Jewish, so she has never thought about. Magda admits she is naive, but that’s an understatement.

Personally I think that while Magda is genuinely horrified by what she learns, most of the impetus for her hatred of Hitler comes from the fact that Karl hates him, and she loves Karl. He is a fictional character inserted into the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, and is alarmingly quick to tell Magda all about it once they get together. Magda then dedicates herself to his cause and develops fantasies of killing Hitler herself, to the point of obsession. From this point on that is all Magda thinks about, in a totally unbelievable way – she doesn’t seem to accept how impossible it would be to murder him without being caught, and she doesn’t depict how he would have always been surrounded by security as well as his most senior ministers and officers. She makes the situation all about her and her love for Karl.

One review I came across on GoodReads made the very good point that everything seems to happen to Magda in the course of the novel, and this sometimes makes it all a bit hard to believe. I have to agree that way too much is crammed into this novel, and its only 384 pages. Not only does Magda meet Hitler on more than one occasion, she also develops a tenuous friendship with Eva Braun, and just happens to meet Claus von Stauffenberg in the woods at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters., which of course would happen in real life! Magda’s experiences are like if you thought of all the key things a person could have gone through in the war, and then made them all happen to one person – working with the Reich elite, meeting Hitler, living in two of his residences, experiencing bombing in Berlin, losing a parent, being sent to a concentration camp (really), being in Berlin again and being raped by Russian soldiers, oh and then ending up in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945. By that point I was incredulous.

I think when I realised that Magda was being sent to a camp did I give up believing in any of it. After the 20th July plot Karl flees and Magda is suspected of being involved. An anonymous Colonel seems to hate her for some reason, and so he accuses her and gets her shipped off to Bromberg-Ost. Luckily Magda only has to endure two days of work before she gets an officer to believe that she worked for Hitler, and he gets her out, and she returns to her work at the Berghof. Lucky girl! If only it was that easy!

This section of the book really got to me. By this point Magda has heard about the camps, but still has very limited knowledge and doesn’t know about the gas chambers. She describes her arrival and processing, and that she is told “All work was to be completed in the name of the Reich, for ‘work makes you free’.” This is of course a heavy handed reference to the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ emblazoned over the gate to Auschwitz and several other camps, and I found it in very poor taste and completely inappropriate and disrespectful; even if Magda is supposed to be ignorant of the use of the slogan. I found lots of small moments like this throughout the book that were just not appropriate. Like the fact that Magda is sent to a camp, but manages to get out by dropping the fact that she works for Hitler. While there she befriends two women, one of whom disappears during her stay, and another who is Jewish. She worries about them as she leaves but doesn’t think about them again. Similarly she abandons her friend and her friend’s family, after they have been raped by Russian soldiers in Berlin, so that she can seek the safety of Hitler’s bunker – she had been invited but up until that point refused to go. Again she briefly worries about the women she has left behind, but then they disappear from her thoughts.

After reading a bit about the author V.S. Alexander, and particularly this blog post about writing the book, I realised that while he made a point of researching the historical material, he clearly has no idea how to write about these subjects. I’m no historian but I felt like even I could write about these things with a little more sensitivity and understanding. Alexander also states that he was inspired by the story of Margot Woelk, a woman who actually was a taster for Hitler, and decided to tell her story finally in her 90s. I read this article about Margot Woelk and realised just how much of her story is used in Her Hidden Life – but also how the point was missed, and the novel is made into some kind of sweeping romance about Magda fulfilling Karl’s dream and then trying to redeem herself by telling her story. In fact, the back cover copy asks the reader to “lose yourself in this sweeping, heroic love story fraught with danger.” Because that was what life was like during World War II.

Perhaps worst of all is Magda’s time spent in Hitler’s bunker at the end of the war. This setting is unique and nuanced, and should be handled carefully, and V.S. Alexander is frankly not qualified to do this. I cringed at the scenes where Magda encounters Magda Goebbels and her children – she even goes into the room after the children are dead. I don’t what the author was thinking. He even portrays Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries who has written about her experiences, and makes it seem like she is dedicated to the Fuhrer. And then misspells her name when he credits her book at the end (a book which in part inspired the incredible film Downfall, which will give you a much more accurate look at life in the bunker).

The point is that many of the events depicted in this novel happened to real people, and so you can’t just write about them as if they are juicy drama. Even though Magda experiences a camp and being raped, the writing never conveys how awful things are. After the failed assassination attempt she is arrested because the Colonel has a vendetta against her – and then when this is reversed she is able to return to her work in the Berghof. But in reality, as the wife of a conspirator she would have either been sent to a camp and kept there, or would have been executed immediately. Instead, in this novel, she just carries on working for Hitler. There is only a fleeting mention of Von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators, even though they would have been imprisoned and executed. My point is that even though Magda sees the camps firsthand, and sees how people are suffering in Berlin, the cold ruthlessness of Hitler and the Nazis is never really conveyed. Their obsessive hatred of Jewish people and all the others they persecuted is never shown. Instead the author uses them as pantomime villains for his dramatic heroine to dance around.

I have had a rant at my husband about this book and I think I could probably rant here even more – but I’m going to stop there for fear of driving away any readers who are still here… I hope I have managed to convey my issues with this book without just rambling.

If you do want to read novels about World War II, there are so many others that do a much better job than Her Hidden Life – novels that respect the tragedy and the people who suffered, who appropriately explore what really happened. This is not one of those novels unfortunately.

*

Published as The Taster by Kensington Publishing in the US; and by Avon, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the UK. I read the Avon paperback, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda (1986)

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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.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)

I bought this book about three years ago in the lovely Persephone bookshop in London, and for some reason have only now got around to reading it. As a rule I love Persephone books and am keen to read more of them. I hadn’t heard anything about Amy Levy, or Reuben Sachs, when I found the book in the shop, but gave it a go based on the blurb and the first page. It is what I would describe as a quite gentle society novel about a young man and his extended family – and as the preface by Julia Neuberger points out, it is also about being Jewish, in London, at the end of the nineteenth century. Levy was Jewish and, has Neuberger explains, had somewhat mixed feelings about this, and was acutely aware of the snobbishness and hierarchy that she observed in the London community.  This is shown throughout the novel in the differing opinions of the Jewish characters, and their approach to life in ‘the Community’.

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While Reuben and the character of Judith Quixano are at the centre of the book, their extended families move around them throughout, organising dinners and parties, and having conversations that seem light-hearted but often underlie more serious issues. Each is given a general standpoint, a perspective from which to comment on their shared life and that of their Community. I have to admit that if I hadn’t read the preface first I’m not sure I would have been aware of the more nuanced social commentary throughout Reuben Sachs, so casually is it thrown into the dialogue. I did, however, appreciate Levy’s gentle sarcasm and irony in this novel, and her wit plays a great role in showing the reader the ridiculousness of some of her lesser characters, such as the Jewish convert Bertie Harrison-Lee. He holds a unique position among the characters of the novel and is seen as something of a curiosity, and a person about whom almost everyone feels the need to make a comment. He becomes a friend of Reuben and in that way ingratiates himself to the five intertwining families who make up the cast.

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And now to the character of Reuben himself: the novel starts with a sweeping introduction, telling us about his success in school and his early life, and the fact that bad health had taken him abroad for some time just before the start of the novel and he has now returned. We also learn that he is a lawyer with political aspirations; but beyond that, even in moments where free indirect speech allows us a glimpse into his mind, I did not feel that I got to know Reuben Sachs. He is a well-drawn character in that we see him from the viewpoints others and one can get a good overall impression, but I did not feel that his personality and character were really explored and developed all that much. Aside from his love for Judith we do not see much of his emotions. I feel like we see more of the emotions of even one of the lesser characters, Judith’s cousin Leo, than we do of Reuben’s.

Judith meanwhile is much more open to the reader. We spend a few scenes alone with her and go through various emotions and feelings, towards several different people and her own position in life. She is a ward of the Leunigers, her cousins, and her unusual social position is well explored – the Quixanos are higher up in the hierarchy of the Community, being Sephardic Jews, but they have fallen on hard times and are forced to send Judith to live with her more ordinary cousins. Personally I found Judith to the most interesting and well-rounded character in the novel, and I liked her a lot. She seems to see the faint ridiculousness of the Leunigers more than anyone else, with their obsessive materialism and dislike of books. We also see Reuben through her eyes quite often, which helps to round out his character – a little.

At only 148 pages Reuben Sachs is quite a quick and unchallenging read, but I very much enjoyed it. It is ultimately a very pleasant book with pleasing social scenes and family drama, as well as an underlying love story, and the politics of the Jewish Community peppered throughout. It is a novel that deserves to be preserved by Persephone Books and to be discovered by a new readership. I think I shall have to go and read more of Amy Levy’s work.

*

Originally published in 1888; I read the 2007 Persephone Books edition (pictured above).

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