Fiction, Reviews

Midnight in St. Petersburg by Vanora Bennett

At university I signed up for a course called Demonic Literature, and started doing some of the reading in the summer holidays. When term began, we were told the course had been cancelled – cue mass anger from English Lit students (i.e. ineffectual grumbling). I had already read and annotated over half of Dostoyevsky’s Demons for the course and loved it – but I was so annoyed and disappointed at the course being cancelled, and had so much new reading to do that I gave up on Demons and read other stuff. Boo. But my interest in the history of Russia remained, and I have kept an eye out for a book to pique that interest.

Enter Midnight in St. Petersburg.

2013 trade paperback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

2013 trade paperback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

This is a totally different book to Demons, don’t get me wrong. This is not crazy complicated and intense 19th century Russian literature, and there are no demonic metaphors, but it does share the themes of revolution and public disillusionment with both the ruling classes and government. While the ordinary people hate the government and the Emperor, there are also tensions within the communities of revolutionaries, with different groups insisting on their ideas being right and craving power for themselves.

But let’s go back to the beginning. Inna, a Jewish orphan, “has fled the pogroms of the south to take refuge with distant relatives” in St. Petersburg, travelling on a stolen passport (quote from the blurb). She meets a peasant priest on the train, and he guides her to her new address, promising to help her if she ever needs papers. She reaches her new home and the door is opened by the cousin she has never met, Yasha, who has no idea who she is or why she is on his doorstep. He lives with the Leman family, violin makers and kind people that accept Inna and employ her in their workshop, training her to craft violins.

Anxious about being found with false papers, Inna goes to visit the priest she met on the train, Father Grigory. At his house she meets a group of his devout followers, as well as a few curious observers – who include Prince Felix Youssoupoff (also spelt as Yusupov) and his English friend Horace Wallick, an artist at Faberge. Horace takes a shine to Inna and soon comes to visit her at the Lemans’, and they become friends. Meanwhile an attraction has been brewing between Inna and the young revolutionary Yasha; and Horace’s feelings for Inna grow every time he sees her. As the First World War approaches and Inna’s position becomes increasingly precarious, she must choose between Yasha and Horace.

Midnight in St. Petersburg is a very rich, intelligent text with great depth. The sheer length of the book – which I thought was a little excessive – is filled mostly with the political side of the story, as St. Petersburg becomes increasingly dangerous for Inna, Yasha, and Horace. Specific details of the political unrest are not really examined beyond the fact that the people have little money and are fed up with the government and the Tsar. Yasha disappears into the night to meet with fellow revolutionaries, and he gets himself into trouble when he takes too many risks; Inna tries to find solace in Father Grigory but quickly loses faith as his reputation changes and the country comes to know him as Rasputin; and as Russia unravels a classic love triangle develops.

So you sort of get a blend of revolutionary/political thriller and classic love story tropes with this novel. Bennett’s writing flows and engages, and is beautiful without detracting from the action. At times I found the pace a little slow, and as mentioned I think the novel as a whole was longer than it really needed to be, and I think the conclusion was a bit drawn out. The political undercurrent creates  a feeling of tension throughout the book, and as in Demons causes both the reader and the characters to question not only who they can really trust but also what it means to be free. Late in the novel Yasha talks with Inna about the futile nature of revolution – once one leader is out, another always comes in and the people are “slaves” again. But there are no grand political allusions here – this is more a simple story of disillusioned people trying to find a place for themselves in the world.

Author Vanora Bennett lived in Russia for some years, and on her return to England discovered that her great-grandmother’s brother had worked for Faberge and lived in St. Petersburg in the early 20th century, leaving as war broke out to return to the safety of home. This man was Horace Wallick, and he was the inspiration for Midnight in St. Petersburg. Bennett states in her Afterword that she loved her new connection to Russia and the city she loved, and wanted to explore her great-great-uncle’s life and consider what his time in Russia could have been like. Of course the novel is entirely fictional, but its grounding in reality (of both Horace and the political upheavals) gives it extra depth.

As the novel progresses the story still moves around the unstable nature of St. Petersburg and the need for safety, but the drive within the narrative comes from Inna’s complicated feelings for both Yasha and Horace. Her search for happiness is the real story here, with quests for safety and love being part of a larger whole. I also rather enjoyed the side notes about the individual members of the Leman family, particularly Mrs Leman, and how their story (/stories) play (s) out alongside Inna’s. While she is ‘exotic’ they are ‘everyday’, just trying to get on with their lives and run their business; they think about home and family, while she thinks about great love and her own emotional life.

I really enjoyed Midnight in St. Petersburg, but I didn’t quite love it. I found it overly long and the ending not quite in tune with the rest of the story; but I loved the characters and the sense of place, as well as the interplay of sociopolitical struggle and the intense emotions of the love triangle. Bennett has written previous historical novels as well as non-fiction books, which I might explore when I’ve worked through my current (huge) TBR. Anyone who loves historical fiction would definitely enjoy Midnight in St. Petersburg.

*

Published in April 2013 by Century, an imprint of Random House UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Vanora has written a great blog post here about her long lost relative, Horace Wallick.

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Fiction, Guest Posts, Reviews

Best of 2012: Rook, Swimming Home, Hawthorn & Child, and Object Lessons – Guest Post by Alan Bowden

This guest post has been written by blogger and philosophy PhD student Alan Bowden. Alan’s blog Words of Mercury is an intelligent and well-written book blog with a variety of texts as well as Alan’s own fiction and poetry. Here he talks about his favourite books of 2012 (he couldn’t choose just one!), Rook by Jane Rusbridge, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story.

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2012 has been a significant year for me as I’m of the firm belief that it’s the first time I really started reading fiction. (I also got married). I’ve read hundreds of novels, but only once I began writing reviews for my blog did I realise what they can really do. As a result, many of the books I’ve read this year have a lasting personal significance beyond their purely literary achievements. The books that follow are as much a reflection of my new engagement with contemporary fiction as they are an attempt to pick some personal highlights of what has been, by all accounts, a very good year. A quick note on criteria: with one obvious exception all my choices were – to the best of my knowledge – published for the first time in 2012. Reprints, translations, new editions, and so on, were excluded.

Some further criteria: The late Peter Goldie turned more than once in his writings on the philosophy of art to a quotation from his favourite author Joseph Conrad. He felt that it captured the essence and value of the project of creating and consuming art. The artist, Conrad wrote, ‘speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts; to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspiration, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.’  More than anything, the books which will stay with me from this year have looked to speak in this way.

Jane Rusbridge’s wonderful Rook (Bloomsbury Circus) successfully seeks to occupy the slippery but persistent ground between the land and the sea, the past and the present, bereavement and consolation, in language that flows with the rhythms of the tides that inundate the Sussex village of Bosham and the insistence of the young rook rescued and nurtured by Nora, a former concert cellist forced to return to the home of her widowed mother by the crisis which haunts the novel. The interpenetration of the language of the mind and landscape in moments which shift toward the visionary before returning, quite literally, to earth, emphasises Rusbridge’s concerns, not only with the role of place in forming our mental economy, but also with the idea that the only way that we can reach out and touch the past is by staying where we are and living in the same buried spaces.

2012 paperback cover. Image: bloomsbury.com

2012 paperback cover. Image: bloomsbury.com

A concern with the complexities of surface and depth underpins Booker shortlisted Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories/Faber). Gathered around a pool in the South of France are two quite different couples, childless shop-owners Laura and Mitchell, and war correspondent Isabel and poet Joe who are accompanied by their teenage daughter Nina. The pool’s surface is disturbed by the arrival of Kitty, a painfully thin young woman obsessed by Joe’s poetry. Her uneasy transition between surface and depth is mirrored and undermined by Levy’s refusal to allow clear distinctions between private thought and public behaviour. Levy clouds motivations and relationships as the transparent pool water becomes cloudy through mismanagement and inattention. With a Cubist fondness for allusion, her faceted prose creates a fluid space of shifting desires, dreams, and repressed violence.

2011 paperback cover. Image: andotherstories.org

2011 paperback cover. Image: andotherstories.org

From fractured minds to broken narratives of urban lives, the much tweeted and quite stunning Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta) sticks a policeman’s boot into the novel and emerges bloody and triumphant between the splints of its covers. A set of eight stories set in North London and loosely held together by the detectives of its title, this book challenges any and all coherence you felt your identity and experience might have. It’s a novel of violence and sickness of language; of fear, memory, suspicion, lust, and confusion. And it’s marvellous. ‘I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.’ But is there?

2012 paperback cover. Image: grantabooks.com

2012 paperback cover. Image: grantabooks.com

The mind’s resilience beneath the weight of solitude and the meaning of human endeavour are at the heart of James Smythe’s unforgiving novel The Explorer (Harper Voyager) in which journalist Cormac Easton finds himself the lone survivor on a mission to deep space. Then it gets weird. Smythe’s writing is controlled to within an inch of its life and Cormac’s direct first-person voice, which begins as a journalist’s selfish mythologisation of endurance, becomes as tender as a bruise as its pretention is stripped away by shock after psychological shock. What is it to explore with no hope of remembrance? How does one understand oneself when stripped of the gaze of others? The bizarre reflexivity Cormac achieves is testament to Smythe’s narrative and poetic imagination and ambition in his consideration of exploration, time, and identity.

2013 hardback cover. Image: harpercollins.co.uk

2013 hardback cover. Image: harpercollins.co.uk

Finally, Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story (William Heinemann) contains a superb collection of stories. Each has been selected and introduced by another excellent writer, some of whom appear as both a selector and a selectee. Thus Jeffrey Eugenides introduces Denis Johnson’s remarkable ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ which, he argues, ‘delivers a narrative where the personal brushes up against the eternal, all from a single incident, or accident, on a rainy night.’ Lydia Davis selects and dissects Jane Bowles’ ‘Emmy Moore’s Journal’, revealing its hidden and confused despair, whilst her own ‘Ten Stories from Flaubert’ appears as Ali Smith’s choice. I must confess that I haven’t finished this book yet: I refuse to rush it. Each story must be read and then returned to once the introduction has been taken in. As a guide and inspiration for the budding short story writer Object Lessons cannot fail.

2012 hardback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

2012 hardback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

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Rook was published in August 2012 by Bloomsbury Circus, an imprint of Bloomsbury UK. Swimming Home was published in October 2011 by And Other Stories/Faber. Hawthorn & Child was published in July 2012 by Granta Books. The Explorer will be published in January 2013 by Harper Voyager, an imprint of Harper Collins. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story was published in October 2012 by William Heinemann, an imprint of the Random House Group.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Firstly, this book needed/needs more publicity. What’s going on Random House? It was published in August and I came across it by chance – and it’s Jeanette Winterson! Jeanette bloody Winterson! AND it’s published in association with Hammer, who are super famous for their classic horror films (and a few more modern things too). You’d think more of a fuss would have been made. Fair enough it’s not standard Winterson fare (although she does manage to squeeze in some lesbianism) but still – more publicity needed!

2012 hardback edition

The Daylight Gate is part of Hammer’s work with Arrow Publishing, part of Random House, to help the classic horror brand reach a new audience through literature and already-famous writers. The end-page in The Daylight Gate states that “Hammer is back, and its new incarnation is the home of cool, stylish and provocative stories which aim to push audiences out of their comfort zones.” Aside from use of the word ‘cool’, this sounds promising. While I’m a total wimp when it comes to proper nasty horror, I like thrillers and a bit of suspense and creepiness in both movies and books, so this ‘new incarnation’ of Hammer is something I can get on board with. Besides, I’d personally much rather read a horror novel than watch a horror movie; but that’s just me.

Now, I don’t know the details of how Winterson came to join in with this Hammer revival and actually write The Daylight Gate. Perhaps she’s always liked horror, but she certainly seems to have an interest in her subject matter – the Lancashire witch trials of 1612. They are the ‘best-documented’ witch trials in our history and are surrounded by rumour and legend. Pendle Hill in Lancashire was a notorious spot for witches, with its standing stones still in place today.

Pendle Hill in Lancashire

Winterson takes real life figures and creates her own story with them, postulating what might have really happened before and during the trials. In her introduction she states that her versions of these people, particularly Alice Nutter, are not the figures of history but her imaginings of them. She does use real events such as the meeting at Malkin Tower on Good Friday of the Device family and their friends. This meeting is the catalyst for the trials and the story goes from there, as the alleged witches plot to somehow win, and the wealthy Alice Nutter tries to avoid the situation but ultimately cannot avoid getting involved. Initially this is because Malkin Tower is on her land and she is knowingly letting the Devices use it – but then she herself is accused of witchcraft.

Stephanie Merritt’s review for The Observer stated that the more terrifying aspects of The Daylight Gate are the scenes taken from real life – or at least those that are more plausible – than the demonic witchiness. Merritt writes that

the social realism sits uneasily alongside the supernatural elements: a severed head that speaks, or the appearances of the mysterious Dark Gentleman … The story is at its least convincing in these moments, as if the truth of why women were accused of witchcraft – because they did not conform to convention – can’t be reconciled with the demands of the horror genre. The description of a prisoner being skinned alive has a far more chilling effect here than the appearance of an animated corpse, because it is true.

I agree. However that’s not to say that the supernatural parts of the story are not good or believable in the context of the story. It is just that they are somehow less affecting to the reader – while the image of a talking severed head and the grisly description of someone else’s severed tongue being sown into it is certainly upsetting, it is so extreme that the reality of it does not hit home in the same way as the image of lawmen taking advantage of their status to humiliate, beat, and rape a woman they have decided is a witch.

My only real problem with The Daylight Gate was the writing. It is well-established that Winterson is an excellent storyteller and I’ve always liked her style of writing before; but at certain moments in this novel the writing failed. There are moments of typical Winterson brilliance, and the overall structure of the story is excellent; but there are too many moments when Winterson seems to be relying on the fact that she is a good writer and not really trying to make the book as good as it can be.

That said I really did enjoy The Daylight Gate and wished it were longer – I blasted through it in two days! I would definitely be interested to see what else the partnership between Hammer and Arrow produces, and whether Winterson decides to return to horror.

*

Published in the UK in August 2012 by Hammer and Arrow Publishing, part of the Random House Group.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

ADDENDUM 30/06/2014: Please note that I was young and impressionable when I wrote this review. Now, older and wiser, my opinion of Caitlin Moran has changed somewhat. Since Moranthology was published and I have read more of her work as well as more of the things she has said in the press, I have come to the conclusion that she is not as ‘cool’ as I once thought she was. While undoubtedly witty and a good writer, her work has stagnated greatly and her work has become increasingly self-centred. Since publishing How To Be A Woman she has become a bit of a one trick pony, as her 2014 book How To Build A Girl has demonstrated. I would never read her books now and I don’t have much time for her. She is good as a columnist, but I think she has been given too much free reign to try and convince everyone to see the world as she does. Sorry Caitlin. One less member of your fan club.

 

2012 hardback edition

You’ll know who Caitlin Moran is (if you don’t, where have you been?!). You might also know that I think she’s pretty damn cool. When I actually remember to buy the paper I always love reading her column and she is basically the main reason why I resent The Times online paywall. Other than that, I’m not that fussed. I’ll read the Guardian online instead.

Anyway, Moran has been voted best columnist, best interviewer, best generally everything that she does in recent years. In 2011 she published her first book, How To Be A Woman, which was ridiculously successful over here and is currently rising to the same level of popularity in the big old United States. I read it soon after it came out, out of a love for Moran but also a curiosity about what she’s be like to read for more than a page in a magazine. Turns out she was pretty damn good. I read the book quite quickly and had to go back and reread some bits to fully absorb them – something I really recommend. Moran talks quite fast.

2011 paperback edition

Now here comes Moranthology, a collection (anthology – geddit?) of her columns for The Times. I would say from… to… but annoyingly there are no specific dates in this book apart from the year being mentioned now and again. That’s one thing I would have liked, Ebury/Caitlin. Otherwise this is a joyful and sometimes emotional journey through the last few years of Moran’s columns. She covers TV, politics, music, family life, childhood, marriage, fame, movies, feminism; and she calls David Cameron a ‘C-3PO made of ham’ and Boris Johnson a ‘posh albino fanny-hound’. All with a good sense of humour, a positive outlook, and witty quips. Very good.

After reading all these columns together, it seems to me that Moran has reached a point in her life that many would like to reach, regardless of age. She has a steady home life and career, and seems happy; but she is also able to look back on her life without dissolving into an emotional wreck, or being bitter about things. The same when considering today’s world. There are some pretty crappy things in life, but she approaches them all with a healthy, positive attitude. She also seems quite proactive, in that she doesn’t just have a moan, she offers a well thought out opinion, and where possible a solution too (although when discussing the Occupy movement she embraces the fact that the act of protest does not by default attempt to offer answers to a problem – it simply demands them).

Caitlin Moran is unendingly modest. Despite her many awards for her work, she is quick to point out the number of times she has screwed up or embarrassed herself in front of someone important. She is also very sweet and gracious when interviewing people she admires, but still bold enough to ask what she really wants to know. I’m not a Rolling Stones fan, but I still really enjoyed her interview with Keith Richards, and found it interesting. That’s how good she is.

I could spend a long time telling you about all the great bits in this book. Instead, I suggest you read it for yourself. If you have liked any of Moran’s writing before, you will love Moranthology. It’s like spending a weekend with her. Also, if you haven’t read How To Be A Woman, read it now, even if you’re a man.

*

Moranthology was published in the UK on 13th September 2012 by Ebury Publishing, part of the Random House Group.

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Fiction, Reviews

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

Before you say anything – Girls in White Dresses is not chick-lit. I wouldn’t have read it if it was. It just sort of looks and sort of sounds like it; but when you think about it, it only looks like it because the cover has pink writing and a girl in a white dress holding flowers, and polka dots. It doesn’t have a pink background, or a cheesy tagline, or a handwriting font that is all sparkly and aspirational. And it only sounds like it because ‘girls in white dresses’ sounds all wedding-y, but when you think about it, it’s a reference to The Sound of Music; it only references weddings a bit. It’s more metaphorical.

2012 paperback edition

The quote from Vanity Fair on the back of the book states that the central characters (yes, all female) have ‘the pluck and gimlet eye of Carrie Bradshaw’s younger, smarter sisters.’ Now. Be careful here. I watched Sex and the City on TV, and have all of it on DVD, and love it. Like, LOVE it. I saw the first film in the cinema and actually hated it. HATED. I have seen bits of the second film on TV, and it looks like complete rubbish. The films are NOTHING like the TV series, which was intelligent, witty, clever, funny, and modern. The movies are like crap adaptations of the TV series. Anyway, when you see ‘Carrie Bradshaw’ on the back of this book, do not think of the SATC films. Remember the sheer brilliance of the TV series, the sarcasm and witty quips, the frankness about dating and sex. The way Darren Star meant it to be.

A classic moment. Extra points if you remember what they’re looking at.

There has been a fair bit of hype about Girls in White Dresses, and so I bagged myself a copy from the lovely folks at Vintage. After having read the dark noir thriller The Empty Glass, I was well up for reading something a little lighter and happier – something that would make me smile rather than frown. And I found it. Author Jennifer Close takes three friends as her central characters (Isabella, Lauren, and Mary) but includes episodes from the lives of some of their friends, in which the three main girls pop up and offer a withering opinion. I really liked this structure. In a way somewhat reminiscent of early SATC (as well as the book, Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell, which I would recommend), chapters start with a random girl, and then it turns out she knows one of the three main girls – but this is done so casually, so under-the-radar that Close’s sneakiness makes you smile.

At times the shortness of the episodes means that the structure gets a bit ‘this happened, and then this happened, and then this, and this’, but mostly the humour and frankness win you over, and this doesn’t matter too much. Time flies by quite quickly, and sometimes Close jumps back to an episode in ‘college’ (oh, just say ‘university’), but not so much that you get muddled – it’s all background for the present. What’s good about the episodic style is that it feels like Close is only showing you the really important bits from these girls’ stories – there is no waffle or pages and pages of descriptions. The writing is neat, sparse and to the point, but still with plenty of humour and literary ‘flair’, if I can use that word.

Jennifer Close

The style is also quite chatty, and though there are dramatic scenes they happen quite quickly, like everything else, and so you don’t have a lot of time to wallow in them or analyse them. That said, they are not made to seem trivial – Close just does not dwell on anything. Time and the narrative move forward at quite a swift pace.

The only real problem I have with this book is the ending. It happens not unexpectedly but rather swiftly – too swiftly for me. Even at the end there is no philosophising, no wondering why these three girls took longer to settle down than all their friends. It’s a little too neat. I also have a couple of feminist gripes with the ending – but that would ruin it for you.

*

Published in the UK on 9th August 2012 by Vintage, an imprint of Random House. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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