The Testament of Mary

The shortest novel shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Colm Tóibín’s retelling of the crucifixion story from the perspective of a mother (His mother) has, unsurprisingly, caused some controversy and even been branded as blasphemy. Tóibín has received death threats (which he said that he printed out and saved so future generations would know how some people still behaved in 2013). As well as the obvious challenge to Christianity, the novel also presents a more subtle, perhaps unintended, critique of patriarchy and casts doubt on the value of any narrative.

colm-toibin-the-testament-of-maryOriginally a dramatic monologue (and now a play as well as a novel) The Testament of Mary is a single (female) voice speaking out of turn; Mary tells her story as simply and as honestly as possible but the anger, grief and guilt are inescapable. Her descriptions of her son as a child are moving because we know how the story will end, and her version of the crucifixion itself is made harrowing through mundane details that focus the reader’s attention on the physical suffering rather than the spiritual significance. This is a mother who watched her son grow up and grow away from her, then watched him tortured and left to die slowly. She is told it was necessary to redeem the world and she responds as a mother: “It was not worth it.”

She talks of her protectors (Christ’s disciples) who come to write down her account of events but grow frustrated when she doesn’t say what they want or expect. She explains how they alter details that undermine the bigger story and how they come to believe their own versions. She recalls things very differently but she also admits that she is constantly tempted to replace unpalatable reality with fond memories and comforting dreams:

“it will not be long before that dream, so close to me now and so real, will fill the air and will make its way backwards into time and thus become what happened, or what must have happened, what happened, what I know happened, what I saw.”

The novel questions the reliability of written history (religious or secular) and it also reminds us of how female voices (and therefore female stories and experiences) have been lost, suppressed or simply shouted down over the centuries. As Mary says “They will thrive and prevails and I will die.” Mary knows that telling the truth won’t change anything but she speaks “simply because [she] can”. Her struggle suggests that perhaps all narrators and all narratives are unreliable, particularly when they try to tell the truth.

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Harvest

I’ve been meaning to post about Jim Crace‘s latest novel for a while, but as it’s looking increasingly likely that it will win the Man Booker Prize tonight, today seems like a good time.

harvestIt’s a brief story narrated by Walter Thirsk, a man who is part of (and yet not fully accepted by) a community powerless to stop the march of progress over their land and way of life. Strangely claustrophobic, despite most of the action occurring outside, the writing has an almost poetic quality that drives the narrative through some surprising swerves towards a conclusion that balances the inevitable and the unexpected.

Set in a village (known only as The Village by the inhabitants who have better things to do than invent names for places already identified by their purpose) in the Midlands during the time of enclosure, the novel could be read as allegorical, telling us that we reap (or harvest) what we sow. Crace has admitted that he makes up most of the historical (and scientific) detail in his novels, informing the audience on Sunday evening at the shortlist readings that telling lies is “fun” and that readers who want facts can go to non-fiction books. However, there’s nothing fanciful about his study of human nature under pressure; he explores how hospitality dries up during bad times and how easily the ‘last man in’ (even if that was over a decade ago) can find himself one of ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. The author describes it as a novel about scapegoating and one of the most interesting aspects is how the least powerful newcomers are punished while the truly threatening outsider stands above and apart. The idea of the ‘good man who does nothing’ is also touched on, though here the focus is on how little a good man can do.

Harvest is the only book I’ve read from this year’s shortlist – I’ve just started Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary – so I can’t say if it deserves to win, but I can say I’m pleased that Crace has now cast doubt on his previous announcement that it will be his last novel. He’s a storyteller, valuing narrative over structure or context and harking back to the oral tradition. That approach appeals to me and I’ll be looking out for the next tale…

Gone Girl

I’ve been putting off writing this review because I’m not sure what to say. Probably, this is partly because (other than my recent  dalliance with Sherlock Holmes) I don’t read much crime fiction so I’m not used to having to be so careful not to spoil the book for other readers. Obviously I try not to give away significant plot developments in any review but with crime fiction, those twists are often the essence of the book, meaning it’s hard to explore the other aspects without mentioning them.

gone-girlThis is particularly true with Gillain’s Flynn’s Gone Girl – the entire second half of the book is off-limits for a spoiler-free review – but I’ll do my best. As it’s been on the bestseller lists for a while now, most people probably know that it’s about the mysterious disappearance of Nick Dunne’s wife (Amy) from their home in Carthage, Missouri…except it isn’t. What it’s really about is the complex, disintegrating relationship between Nick and Amy and their less than healthy relationships with their respective families. Narrated alternately by Amy (though her diary entries from the day they met) and Nick (from the day of her disappearance), this is crime fiction in which the crime itself seems initially to be the subplot. It quickly becomes clear that neither account is completely accurate and both Nick and Amy keep secrets from each other and from us, but I wasn’t prepared for the major twist at the beginning of the second part.

(Formerly known as the Orange Prize)
(Formerly known as the Orange Prize)

I enjoyed this book because it is about relationships rather than police procedure or grisly detail (which can be interesting but aren’t enough in their own right to hook me). It incorporates both those elements, particularly in the second half, but by this time I knew enough about the characters to care about their fates. Like Nick on the treasure hunts that Amy creates for each wedding anniversary, I slowly followed the clues that revealed as much about the state of their marriage as about the eventual ‘prize’. (Talking of prizes, I think the novel is original and well-written enough to deserve its place on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction but I’m not surprised that it didn’t make the shortlist.)

The ending seems to have caused something of a stir and has apparently inspired fanfiction writers to produce their own ‘more satisfying’ conclusion. Personally I liked it; given the nature of the characters, any other ending wouldn’t have rung true and being morally uncomfortable doesn’t make it bad. Admittedly it does leave a rather obvious opportunity for a sequel, but I wouldn’t mind reading that too…

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The House of Silk

The similarities are listed here

Confession time: I’ve never read a ‘proper’ Sherlock Holmes novel. I’ve read (and even taught) a few of the short stories but somehow I never got round to the longer adventures. (This is slightly less shameful if one remembers that Conan Doyle only wrote four full-length novels.) I can’t really explain the omission; I enjoyed the stories I did read, even if they are somewhat formulaic, and I much prefer cerebral detective fiction (arguably all influenced by the Holmes’ canon) to the more graphic and gory alternatives. I love the BBC’s Sherlock series (so much so that my last Year 8 class managed to distract me for a whole lesson by discussing how he faked his death) and one of my favourite aspects of House (apart from the fabulous Hugh Laurie and pretty Billy Kennedy Jesse Spencer) was spotting the Holmes references. Jonathan Creek is fabulous too, if you ignore the ridiculous denouement in the latest episode.

Okay, now I’m rambling and using this post as an excuse to search for pictures of attractive men… The point I was trying to make is that I’m not an expert on Sherlock Holmes and any real aficionado should feel free to factually correct / vehemently disagree with or simply be horrified by what I’m about to say about Antony Horowitz’s new(ish) contribution to the saga.

Horowitz is himself a prolific crime writer (best known for Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, as well as his children’s fiction) and he has stated that this novel was written not as a parody, modern adaptation or even an homage, but a genuine Sherlock Holmes novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s quite a claim and it means the book must be judged twice, so…

1. Does it live up to Horowitz’s claim?

English: Sherlock Holmes (r) and Dr. John B. W...
Watson and Holmes by Sidney Paget. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my non-expert opinion, it does. The structure (a formula which has been adopted and adapted by many writers of detective fiction) is faithful to the original. After a brief preface in which Watson explains why this case has never been published before, the story starts in 221b Baker Street, then a mysterious man arrives, tells his story and asks for Holmes’ help. This is followed by a visit to the man’s countryside home where Holme’s discovers clues (and red herrings) that Watson and the reader misinterpret etc etc… The language echoes the style of the originals and (despite the occasional slip) the vocabulary is convincingly Victorian. Horowitz has made it a little more accessible for the uninitiated modern reader but justifies this by setting the composition of the novel circa 1916, so Watson’s language would have evolved. The naming of the two intertwined cases – ‘The Man in the Flat Cap’ and ‘The House of Silk’ – comes just after Watson criticises a previous title, nicely linking this story to the others. Familiar faces pop up throughout the novel including Mrs Hudson and Moriarty (who is not explicitly identified and, in this case, trying to help his nemesis solve a crime even he finds abhorrent) I like that Horowitz chose to develop Lestrade’s character rather than just lampoon him, as it demonstrates the older Watson’s reflective nature. The very end, which I won’t spoil, is also a fitting celebration of the real heart of Conan Doyle’s novels – not the fiendish cleverness of Holmes and his opponents, but the partnership between the protagonists.

2. Is it a good novel in it’s own right?

imagesMy book group friends all enjoyed it, even those who don’t normally read crime fiction. Most of us tried to solve the crime before Holmes and each of us spotted a few clues and missed others. (Interestingly we probably would have figured it out if we’d pooled our thoughts.) This suggests that Horowitz pitched the puzzle well, allowing the reader to feel slightly smarter than Watson but still aeons behind Holmes, as in the originals. The two seemingly separate cases connected convincingly enough and the set-piece in which Holmes explains everything was satisfying (apart from the off-centre fountain, which I presume was just a red herring). Some readers might find the nature of the crimes rather upsetting – let’s just say the the brutal murder of a 13 year-old boy is not the worst bit – but Watson does warn us in the preface that these were crimes too shocking to be recorded at the time. While I would think twice about teaching this novel to a GCSE class, there is nothing explicit or graphic in the text. Overall it’s a good book about a great character. I’m now more likely to try one of Conan Doyle’s longer novels and there is suggestion that Horowitz may be asked to produce a sequel, which I’d certainly read.

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Lighthousekeeping

I picked up this book based on the title – we were having a ‘lighthouse books‘ month in my book group – and because I haven’t read anything by Jeanette Winterson other than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It’s the story of Silver, an orphan girl who is taken in by the ageless blind lighthousekeeper, known only as Pew. It’s also the story of Babel Dark, the long-dead son of the man who built the lighthouse. Robert Louis Stevenson appears briefly as one of the myriad of storytellers in this novel constructed from layers of stories, both literal and metaphorical.

wintersonAs the narrative skips between past and present (as well as first, second and third person) the stories begin to illuminate and resonate with each other. If there is a flaw in the novel, it is that the different strands seem to unravel towards the end rather than tie up as some readers (myself included) may have preferred. However, this is clearly intentional and Winterson leaves us yearning for more fragments to fill the gaps.

I loved the evocative yet ambiguous names (Silver describes herself as “part precious metal, part pirate” yet the word silver carries a host of other connotations too) and the literary references – stories within stories about stories. Most of all I admired the lightness of Winterson’s writing. Aptly, her prose has the poetic quality associated with the oral tradition of storytelling. Of the many symbols in the novel, the sea and fossils are particularly important; both embody the transitory yet permanent nature of writing/storytelling as well as the contradictory desires for freedom and stability in Silver’s “wild” and “tame’ heart.

I suspect it’s a Marmite book but, though I hate that particular yeast-based spread, I would highly recommend it.

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The [Jane] Eyre Affair & Wide Sargasso Sea

I haven’t posted about book group for a while as the last two books we’ve read are connected and I wanted to write about them together. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite classics, though not one that I’ve reread frequently, so reading two books that owe their existence to Charlotte Bronte’s best-known novel was a real treat. (SPOILER ALERT – I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you know what happens in Jane Eyre, whether you’ve read the book or not. If you don’t know you should either read it or watch this adaptation as soon as possible.)

The main excuse reason for the delay in posting my thoughts is the fact that I decided to reread Jane Eyre as well. I’d forgotten how long the novel is, particularly the section recounting Jane’s time away from Rochester, and I’d forgotten how much I disliked all the male characters, even the ‘goodies’ like St. John Rivers, even (sometimes) Rochester himself. Considering how important the novel has become in feminist theory and criticism, perhaps this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. More interestingly, I didn’t care much for the female characters either, including (sometimes) Jane herself. The first time I read the book, I was younger than the protagonist and found both her love for Rochester and her refusal to be his mistress incomprehensible, but I admired her bravery in running away. Reading it as an adult, Rochester’s appeal and the necessity of ensuring a formal commitment are clear, but the melodramatic disappearance with no plan, no money and no hope seems rather silly. That said, I very much enjoyed immersing myself in Jane’s world and worldview. It’s essentially a great love story (quality chick-lit) and given the first person narration, I still find it astounding that anyone ever believed that Currer Bell was a man!

eyreaffairThe Eyre Affair – The first novel in Jasper Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ series is set in an alternate reality where the Crimean War is still going on, time-travel is not only possible, it’s heavily regulated and there are frequent brawls over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The great thing about this world is that people REALLY care about literature and reading… so much so, that there are cracks in the wall between the real and fictional worlds. The heroine, Thursday Next, is a literary detective who follows her own advice – time travel – to move to Swindon and buy a new car. The villain is Acheron Hades, who is impervious to bullets and can disguise himself as a sweet old lady. Ostensibly less evil, but far more detestable is Jack Schitt, who works for the shady Goliath Cooperation. And of course, at the end of Jane Eyre, Jane accompanies St. John Rivers to India as his companion – arguably a stronger feminist ending than the real one – but this changes once Thursday and Hades make Thornfield Hall the site of their showdown…

This is an incredibly clever book but hard to describe – it’s satire, fantasy, sci-fi, romance and a thriller, with a few other genres thrown in for luck. It also makes the reader feel clever because although you could enjoy it without even knowing Jane Eyre, there are so many literary puns and references that most readers will recognise some. (When I suggested the book, I told my book group that Miss Havisham makes an appearance as Thursday’s mentor – this actually happens in the sequel, which is also well worth reading.) My favourite moment is either the Rocky Horror style performance of Richard III or the revelation that nobody wrote Shakespeare’s plays (though Thursday’s dad threw in a few of the best lines).

rhysWide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre is a classic in it’s own right and an ‘important text’ in feminist and postcolonial writing. It tells the story of the Bertha Mason/Rochester before she became the madwoman in the attic, when she was just Antoinette Cosway. How you react to the disparity in the name may well shape how you react to the book as a whole. There was a strong feeling at our book group meeting that this novel could (and perhaps should) stand in it’s own right. The story of Antoinette’s slide into madness (if she is ever really mad) doesn’t need to be grafted onto Jane Eyre. The last section, set in Thornfield Hall during the time-frame of Jane Eyre, is certainly jarring. On the other hand, your name represents your identity, represents your self. In my opinion, the cruellest thing Rochester does is insistently refer to his new wife as Bertha: she laments “I don’t know what I am like now…who am I?” as she searches for the ghost of a woman rumoured to haunt Thornfield.

The book is short, practically a novella, but the shifting narrative perspective means it’s not an easy read. The switches between the two narrators come without warning or marker, leaving the reader feeling lost, alienated and ‘Other’, like the two protagonists. Pleasingly the first and last words belong to Antoinette/Bertha, giving her the voice she never has in Jane Eyre. This is also the voice that Jane (a pale reflection of her predecessor) herself learnt to suppress to get her happy ending…

Two very different books, both great in their own way. If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, read at least one of them. I wonder which Charlotte Bronte would prefer – any thoughts?

Wetlands

WARNING – If you are easily offended (i.e. you found the sexual content of Fifty Shades more upsetting than the quality of the writing), stop reading now!

I’m not sure I should write this – my family read this blog – but it doesn’t seem right to skip commenting on a book I’ve read and enjoyed. Wetlands is a very rude book. It’s not the crudest I’ve ever read (that honour probably goes to Trainspotting) or the kinkiest (The Fermata) or even the most shocking (American Psycho). It’s also not the sexiest – I’d prefer a roll in the hay with Rupert Campbell-Black – but it is the most relentlessly biologically explicit.

The narrator, Helen, chronicles her sexual and family history as she recuperates in hospital following an intimate operation. Some anecdotes are funny, some sad and some thought-provoking as they challenge accepted notions of what is ladylike and/or what is feminine. The author, Charlotte Roche, clearly has a feminist agenda and its a great thing that a book like this can be written, published and even widely translated. (I initially thought it was American novel and would be keen to read a more Anglo-English translation from the original German.)

The subplot involves Helen hoping that her hospital stay will magically reunite her divorced parents and goes to great lengths to prolong it, resulting in arguably the most disturbing scene of the novel. It quickly becomes clear that rather than celebrating the less palatable aspects of female sexuality, Roche actually portrays Helen’s lack of inhibitions as a desperate cry for attention. She is damaged, unreliable and feels compelled to tell these stories (to the reader and to the male nurse caring for her). In some ways this makes both Helen and the novel more interesting, but it does rather undermine the claim that it’s a taboo-busting challenge to conventional notions of femininity. I enjoyed the book but I feel a little cheated. Helen (a female, European, 21st-century Holden Caulfield) provokes sympathy rather than admiration, and I don’t think that’s because I’m a prude…

Dystopia-fest (aka 1984 and Brave New World)

Same but different?

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) are probably the best-known dystopian novels ever written. (Lazily, I’m going to assume you know the stories; if not, the synopses here and here might be helpful.) Having spent many years concocting combinations of tenuously linked texts for comparative essays, I’m amazed I never thought to directly compare them; I suspect I would have got some great responses. As one of my book group friends put it “they’re carrot and stick dystopias”. The people in both novels are manipulated and oppressed, but (on the whole) one group believe themselves to be happy while the others live in fear. One has a World State living in mass-produced harmony while the other has three states perpetually at war. Both societies are built on brainwashing (via hypnopaedia or doublethink), sedation (soma or alcohol) and relentless consumerism. Both ban books.

I didn’t have time to reread 1984 before our meeting (though I intend to soon) but I did manage Brave New World, which I haven’t read since I was about fifteen. As in last month’s book, Fahrenheit 451, the vision of the future is frightening accurate in many ways, though grotesquely exaggerated – the idea of genetically engineered babies grown in bottles and conditioned (physically and psychologically) to accept their place in society is unacceptable but not unbelievable. Family life has been degraded to the point where ‘mother’ is a dirty word, siblings are mass-produced only for practical reasons and monogamy is considered rather perverse. The children are conditioned to accept death, somewhat superfluously in a society where nobody grieves because nobody cares. All this shocked me much more than I remember, perhaps because I’m now a mother myself.

As the novel progresses, we see ‘civilization’ through the eyes of John, the Shakespeare-quoting Savage. He functions as our representative, highlighting what is horrific about this perfect society. However, at times, it is John’s morality that seems ridiculous, his judgements that seem cruel. The alternative view is articulated by Mustapha Mond, an intelligent man who keep forbidden books in his safe and dabbled with science in his youth. He defends the status quo, arguing that it is all necessary to maintain stability, which in turn is necessary for happiness. He is persuasive, as is the fact that rebels are not punished so much as rewarded by being sent to live in a colony of likeminded individuals. If life is “nasty, brutish and short“, is it better to believe yourself happy than know yourself to be miserable? Is culture worth sacrificing for contentment? Is stability worth more than passion, truth or beauty? I suspect the answer depends on where (geographically, economically) you are…

There’s much more that could be said about this book; these are just the concerns that resonated most strongly with me. I also know that  Orwell’s novel raises at least as many questions but it’s several years since I read it. Hopefully I’ll come back to dystopia with an analysis of 1984 and a full comparison. In the meantime, I’m planning to read something a bit more cheerful!

The Lighthouse

Alison Moore’s novel (shortlisted for the Booker Prize but beaten by Hilary Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies, which I won’t be reading) is a brief, carefully crafted story that I suspect will haunt me for longer than it took to read it. Moore is clearly a great storyteller and it’s hard to put this book down as innocuous events build up to an inevitable yet shocking conclusion.

The chapters alternate between two characters, Futh and Esther, whose paths cross only twice for a matter of moments but with devastating consequences for at least one of them. Neither is particularly likeable, which is perhaps why they inspire pity rather than sympathy, but as their flashbacks reveal and explain facets of their characters, both are all too credible. They are products and prisoners of their pasts, seemingly doomed to repeat their mistakes; both do try to take control of their lives and Futh’s futile efforts are particularly poignant as fate (in the form of a missed turning, a flat tyre) thwarts him.

His inability to escape the past is echoed in the more subtle of the novel’s two key metaphors. Like the eponymous Harold in another of this year’s Booker nominations, Futh is on a journey that is both literal and symbolic. Unfortunately this journey is circular; Futh is heading back to where he started. The other symbol is, of course, the lighthouse itself, which occurs in various forms from the hotel Hellhaus (which translates as bright, or light, house) to Futh’s continual misreading of situations, seeing only the welcoming light and never the warning. Attempting to find his talisman, a lighthouse-shaped perfume bottle, finally draws Futh into dangerous waters. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Perfume and scents in general are also important in this novel and they permeate the writing. Futh is a maker of artificial scents and through her sensuous description of various odours, Alison Moore almost does his job for him. The reader catches a whiff of the coffee, the orange (and a few less pleasant smells), adding to the oppressive tension that slowly builds as the novel progresses. (These passages reminded me of Patrick Süskind’s brilliant Perfume, which is one of my favourite books.)

A glance at Moore’s website suggest that her back catalogue favours the gothic and/or uncanny (a genre sometimes considered not to be ‘proper’ literature.). There are elements of this in The Lighthouse too, which may be why it didn’t win the Booker. It is creeping and disturbing, but without the melodrama. As a self-confessed gothic fan – I’ll fight anyone who tries to exclude Mary Shelley from the canon – I think Moore has the balance just about right.

A lukewarm response to Fahrenheit 451

Last night I finished our latest book group selection – only a few days after the meeting, which is an improvement on last month. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury, set in America (presumably, I don’t think it’e ever stated explicitly) in a future when books are banned and burned by the firemen (men who start rather than stop fires). Interestingly the banning of books is not a proactive censorship measure by a despotic government, but a reaction to a society that has stopped reading and regards books as disruptive and divisive. It’s the story of Guy Montag, a fireman who starts reading…

At least, that’s what Bradbury insists in both the afterword and the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition. The book grew out of a novella called ‘The Fireman’ so it ought to be Montag’s story, but in many way I found him to be the least interesting character in it. The tone of his dialogue (and internal monologues) arguably conveys the zeal of a recent convert, but (like his reading of ‘Dover Beach’ to the ladies in the parlour) it often just seems melodramatic. I found the minor characters far more engaging, particularly the way they embody opposing attitudes and choices: Faber and Beatty are both well-read but one loves books while the other is angry with them; Millie hides in her parlour with the artificial ‘family’ while Clarisse explores the world and talks late into the night with her parents and uncle.

Two aspects of the novel dominated our book group discussion. The first was the uncanny accuracy of many of Bradbury’s predictions, from stomach pumps and flat screen TVs to a society that prefers the digest of the digest to an actual book. (My students used to at least read York notes, but more recently many relied on the Wikipedia summary rather than opening a book.) We also talked a lot about the ‘Dover Beach’ moment, wondering why this is always the poem a writer chooses to demonstrate the power of literature to move and improve the uncomprehending heathen (Ian McEwan uses it to pacify a violent criminal in Saturday.) Half-way through the conversation, I looked again at Arnold’s poem and saw that it describes perfectly the society Bradbury envisions in Fahrenheit 451, from the people who have “really neither joy, nor love” in their “land of dreams, so various” and who know so little about coming war in which “ignorant armies clash by night”, destroying them all. That realisation made me like the whole book rather more.

I read the final section after the meeting so I knew roughly what going to happen – pretty much every bad thing you could possibly imagine! I found it a little difficult to accept that so much could go wrong simultaneously, as if Montag’s rebellion had upset the global balance, but Bradbury wove each plot strand through the earlier sections well and made good use the shifting metaphor of fire (from burning and destructive to warm and life-giving) to counteract what could have been a very bleak ending.

The general feeling at book group was that it isn’t the greatest dystopian novel ever written but it is a good book, which raises some interesting and important questions that are at least as relevant now as when it was first published.  We thought that it didn’t quite match up to 1984 or Brave New World, but it’s a long time since any of us have read either of those and few have read both, so we’re making next month ‘the dystopia meeting’ and will attempt a proper, fair comparison after revisiting our old favourites. If I’m not too depressed after that, I’ll let you know the verdict…