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Posts Tagged ‘British fiction’

I haven’t read Maggie O’Farrell before, even though her books have been recommended by various book friends. When I looked at the “best books of the year” lists, Hamnet struck me as one of the least depressing. Which is ironic since it’s about Shakespeare’s only son, who, we are all well aware, died. No spoiler — every review talks about how this book is about grief, and that is one of the few certain facts of Shakespeare’s life, that his son died as a child.

O’Farrell presents Shakespeare as misunderstood and mistreated by his family, a teenager who meets Agnes (also called Anne) Hathaway, similarly misunderstood, harangued by her stepmother, both suspect and sought out because of her talent with herbal remedies and her gift of being able to predict or sense what people are thinking or will do. O’Farrell presents their marriage as a sanctuary for both of them.

But as much as the book is about Agnes and her relationship with her mostly absent husband, it’s also about the loss of Hamnet and his presence in the family’s lives after. The scenes where Hamnet and his twin sister Judith are playing and suddenly she feels “unwell” and Hamnet realizes something is seriously wrong are harrowing. He goes around the family’s apartment, his grandparents’ adjoining house, even around Stratford, trying to get help. He can’t find any grownups.

Despite the fact that we all know it’s going to be Hamnet who dies, O’Farrell makes it suspenseful as the family gather around the twins — Hamnet has come and wrapped himself up with Judith — and one gets better as the other gets worse. Shakespeare’s sister has this thought: “Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.”

Chilling to read as we approach 400,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US and 2 million worldwide. And the twins have the plague — something that is entirely plausible but which O’Farrell points out in her afterword is her own invention. The historical record doesn’t tell us what Hamnet died of. But she noticed that even though the plague closed the playhouses in London numerous times, Shakespeare never wrote about it. What if it was too painful to write about?

The rest of the book moves back and forth between the backstory of how Agnes and Shakespeare met and married, how she sensed his greatness and his need to escape his family, how their family grows and their lives expand. And how Hamnet’s death and their subsequent grief undoes them, each in their own way. This description of Agnes in the months following Hamnet’s death illustrates O’Farrell’s poetic language and vivid imagery:

“Summer is an assault. The long evenings, the warm air wafting through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the town, the shouts of children playing late in the street, the horses flicking flies from their flanks, the hedgerows heavy with flowers and berries. Agnes would like to tear it all down, rip it up, hurl it to the wind.”

Slowly, Agnes begins to live with the grief, returns to healing people, to keeping bees, to growing herbs. The tension that has developed between she and her husband eases a bit. He becomes prosperous, realizes that she may need a change of scenery, buys the largest house in town. Agnes and Judith and her older sister, Susannah, make a new life there. Shakespeare returns from London a few times a year.

But none of them every stop trying to “find” Hamnet . . . Agnes frequently wonders this. Shakespeare admits to looking for him in the audiences who come to see his plays. When the midwife who helped bring the twins into the world tells Judith she sometimes senses Hamnet at night, Judith takes to roaming the streets, trying to sense him. Then, during one of her father’s prolonged absences, her step-grandmother comes by with a playbill: in London, people are talking about a new Shakespeare play, Hamlet.

Agnes hasn’t been to London but is outraged that he could make their grief public and decides she must go see for herself what her husband has done. Her brother travels with her, and she makes her way inside the Globe, up near the stage. While at first disappointed that the play is, to her ears, just speeches, she grows mesmerized:

“When the King addresses him as ‘Hamlet, my son,’ the words carry no surprise for her. Of course this is who he is. Of course. Who else would it be? She has looked for her son everywhere, ceaselessly, these past four years, and here he is. It is him. It is not him. It is him. It is not him. The thought swings like a hammer through her. Her son, her Hamnet or Hamlet, is dead, buried in the churchyard. He died while he was still a child. He is now only white, stripped bones in a grave. Yet this is him, grown into a near-man, as he would be now, had he lived, on the stage, walking with her son’s gait, talking in her son’s voice, speaking words written for him by her son’s father.”

It’s a haunting idea, even though O’Farrell notes that it’s unclear whether Shakespeare’s son was the inspiration for the play. In fact, in an interview for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, O’Farrell and Barbara Bogaev discuss that it’s unclear exactly when some of the plays were written, including Hamlet.

Regardless, this is a lovely book. It brings to fictional life a woman who is often only remembered for being left a “second best bed” and makes her a really interesting, strong woman with a mind equal to Shakespeare’s. It brings a little color to Hamnet’s brief life and brings the rest of the family alive. The only thing that struck me as a little off, after reading World Without End, where the plague ravaged whole villages, was that only two people got sick in the family, and there was no outbreak around town, but that’s not what the book would focus on, anyway.

A lovely, heartfelt read. And despite the grief, it’s not depressing.

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I don’t often blog about sequels, but Ken Follett’s World Without End is not really a sequel. I was telling a coworker today that you can read it without having read The Pillars of the Earth, because while it takes place in fictional Kingsbridge, it starts a couple hundred years later. So while there are a few references to the history of the town and the people who lived there in the time of The Pillars of the Earth, you can easily follow the story without having read the earlier book.

In the 1300s, Kingsbridge now has both a prior and a prioress, and whereas Prior Philip in the first book was a savvy leader who could handle political maneuvering, but was basically basically benevolent, the Priors in the second book are decidedly not (the men anyway — the Prioresses are much more like Philip). They are deeply conservative theologically and socially, they make no attempt to understand the town they control and the lives they impact, and the worst two scheme, plot, spy, blackmail, manipulate, undermine, lie, and even steal. One of the characters sits thinking about this: “Godwyn’s influence was malign, but all the same his power never ceased to grow. Why was that? Perhaps because he was an ambitious man with no conscience — a potent combination.” This week, that really resonates, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile in similar struggles ensue among secular leaders in the guild, where some greedy and selfish folks try to hold back those who would innovate our of concern for their own power and prestige, and petty grudges trump what’s best for the common good. The heroes of the book, a builder named Merthin and a wool merchant turned nun/healer named Caris, struggle against these difficulties in the town and the priory. Caris also fights misogyny and clericism: while her experience tending the sick leads her to discover what works best and how to actually help people get better, the priests are the ones who go to college, studying ancient medical texts. They order bloodletting and goat dung poultices while Caris determines that cleaning wounds with wine, hand washing, separating the seriously ill from other patients, and even, yes, mask wearing, are more effective.

It was strange to read about a sermon denouncing the wearing of cloth masks as heretical (the prior has heard this is a muslim practice) during a plague outbreak given the world’s present circumstances, and a plot twist predicated on one faction of hospital workers refusing to wear masks and the unfortunate outcome (no spoiler, I’m sure — more mask refusers than wearers got plague, which was more or less a death sentence). Follett writes about the temptations of power and greed and how these temptations lead to cruelty and violence., and undermine community and the common good. Maybe because I was expecting it this time, it didn’t bother me quite as much. Or maybe because the horrors of right now — COVID and white supremacists and Trump apologists and the willingness of so many elected leaders to lie and mislead and for so many Americans to believe lies and be misled — are so much more tangibly awful than the fictional violence of the middle ages. Anyway, I skimmed the more violent details.

Follett published this book in 2007, a time when the Anglican communion was in turmoil about LGBTQ clergy, so I appreciated that he makes it clear in World Without End that we’ve always had LQBTQ clergy. It’s an especially nice touch that Follett makes these characters among the more likeable and responsible people in the book. I also enjoyed the parts of the story that describe the various innovations and social changes that impact his characters’ lives. And he makes an interesting narrative choice by opening the book with a group of children witnessing a mysterious event in the forest and then following the paths of those children through adulthood.

Again, I enjoyed this very much, although I ended up staying up too late reading to find out what happened. I’m looking forward to starting A Column of Fire.

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Several years ago I found both The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett on the local library’s book sale shelves. The paperbacks are huge and heavy, and I suspected I’d want to read them back to back, so I’ve been waiting to have time to do that. I read one and have started the other over the past week, as well as a Christmas gift, The Book of Margery Kempe.

My edition of Pillars has a preface by Ken Follett about how he came to write about the building of a medieval cathedral. He grew up in Wales, and writes, “When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called Plymouth Brethren. For us, church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues, and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.” He goes on to describe living in London in his twenties, and buying a book to learn about architecture. This led him to visit the cathedral in Peterborough while he was waiting for a train on a reporting trip; he was so amazed that he says, “Cathedral visiting became a hobby for me.”

Eventually, he read The Cathedral Builders and The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel and learning this background planted the seed of an idea for a novel. He first sketched it out in 1976, but his agent didn’t think there was enough “melodrama.” He became a very successful writer of thrillers, including Edgar award winner The Eye of the Needle. But the cathedral book was still on his mind. He was on to something, because when he eventually wrote The Pillars of the Earth it became one of his best-selling books; he credits readers for this in the preface, explaining that word of mouth was what made it so popular.

I found it hard to put down. I definitely liked the story of Philip, Prior of fictional Kingsbridge (a different place than the real market town in Devon, apparently), the building of the cathedral, the running of the monastery, and the sections of the plot about the village, the wool business, and the community. The political, historical and social contexts are very interesting, as are the details of various building techniques and inventions. Follett hired Gimpel as a consultant when he was finally writing the book, around ten years after he thought of the idea. I didn’t care for the violence and brutality, realistic though it may be for the times (between 1123-1173).

But I think one of the appeals of The Pillars of the Earth is that Prior Philip, as Follett notes, has “a very practical, down-to-earth religious belief, a concern for people’s souls here on earth, not just in heaven.” To me, Philip represents the potential of the church to help people — especially people without much status, power, or money — thrive and live harmoniously, becoming their best selves despite human tendencies towards greed, revenge, and selfishness. That’s the overarching theme of the book, that even in a world full of unknown and unpredictable threats, as well as the more predictable and not always so benevolent dominance of a wealthy ruling class, true faith and the selfless love that grows out of it will see people through.

As heroes go, Philip is unusual: a celibate man of God who tries his best to atone for his wrongs and forgive his enemies. Also appealing are Ellen, who lives self-sufficiently in the forest for much of the book, and Aliena, who deals with numerous setbacks, mainly caused by men, but manages to live mostly as she wishes. None of these “good” characters are perfect; they sometimes do the wrong thing, which makes them more realistic. There are plenty of villains (and as I think about, they rarely do anything good) including other clerics, and reading about the civil and religious maneuvering and strife and the suffering they caused makes one marvel that mankind persisted.

Or that the church persisted, which brings me to Margery Kempe. Her Book, which covers much of her life (around 1373-1440), although it focuses on the period in her adult life when she received what she felt were revelations from God, is considered the first autobiography in English. Technically, she dictated it because she was illiterate, like many people (especially women) of her time, but it is considered her own account. The Computer Scientist thought I would find her interesting. I read her Book (actually, two books, published together) before starting World Without End, which starts in 1327, so overlaps with her lifetime.

I say she felt she was receiving revelations, because the translator (from Middle English) of this edition, Barry Windeatt, makes clear in his introduction and notes that her “assumption of a direct and special link with God” is in his view “a spurious claim, because her main concern, despite the attempts at visionary writing, would seem to be with the view others held of her as a person of particular religious capacity.” He goes on to say, “I don’t think there is any evidence of a continuing psychotic process at work here. The most satisfactory description would be of a hysterical personality organization; her behaviors served as a constant source of attention and, in her own terms, of confirmation from others around her.” He says “continuing” because by her own report, she had at least two breakdowns: one, probably post-partum depression and the other late in life for a period around two weeks long. Keep in mind that Windeatt comes to his scholarly conclusions after studying many other mystics, including some who claimed to have holy crying fits.

If someone acted like Margery today, no doubt people would suggest mental health treatment (or maybe she’d be running for office?). She had what many people in her time felt was a delusional sense that God, primarily in the person of Jesus, was speaking directly in her mind, and one manifestation of this was uncontrollable crying and “roaring” fits, often in churches. Margery even notes that she felt depressed “because of the dread that she had of deceptions and delusions,” but that God assured and comforted her. She also felt she heard directly from Mary and a number of saints. She was certain that she was persecuted for her mystical experiences, and honestly, seemed to relish this persecution because she felt is ensured her reward in heaven. And while there were many people who did harass, arrest, mock or threaten her, and she was often accused of being a fake at best or a Lollard at worst (a follower of John Wycliffe, whose views influenced later reformation figures), there were many others who thought she was telling the truth.

Either way, her book is an interesting view of the times and of an extraordinary life. She lived in and around Lynn in England, and was the child of a successful businessman who also served in many municipal offices. She married, had fourteen children, and had her own brewing business for a while. And during the times when she received her communications from God, she traveled all the way to Jerusalem, and took other pilgrimages in Europe, often setting out without much of a plan or many resources and managing to make her way. She annoyed her fellow travellers (some of whom claim they wouldn’t even take money to keep traveling with her, others of whom make up to her as soon as they see she’ll help them eat or travel better). She befriended a number of monks and priests, who read scripture and theology to her. She seemed to have what Windeatt believes in an excellent memory and an eye for detail. And when her husband was old and seriously injured in a fall, he “turned childish and lacked reason” so she “looked after him for years afterwards.”

Whatever you may think about her religious experiences, she seems to have genuinely believed, devoted herself to prayer, and acted generously towards others, both materially and in sharing what she learned and what she felt God was saying to her. She’s a fascinating character. And she would have known some of the places and possibly some of the people (she met a number of bishops) in Ken Follett’s books.

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I’ve read previous books by Robert Harris, and especially enjoyed Pompeii and Enigma. So when I saw a New York Times review of V2 recently, I was intrigued. And then it was available to check out as an eBook right when I was ready for a quick, page-turning read. I was fascinated to read that Harris wrote this just since COVID, although he got the idea in 2016 when he saw an obituary for Eileen Younghusband and went on to read her memoirs.

V2 is the story of the rocket that Hitler hoped would turn the war around for Germany, and which Harris notes in his acknowledgements killed about 2,700 people in London and 1,700 in Antwerp, as well as 20,000 slave labourers who died building the rocket program. He also notes that it destroyed 20,000 homes and left 580,000 more damaged, causing more longstanding issues in England after the war.

Harris tells the story of the program through the recollections of Rudi Graf, a PhD engineer (who, by the way, the other character call Dr. Graf) who has worked on rocketry since he was a teen. Graf recalls his long standing friendship with the real life rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and describes the rise of the program, funded by Nazi money and built by slaves. He also remembers feeling ill about the forced labor, but being too deeply involved to extricate himself. In the novel, Graf is directing the technical aspects of the V2 launches from Holland that hit London.

Meanwhile, the other main character in V2 is a young WAAF, Kay Caton-Walsh, who survives a V2 attack that injures her lover. Fearing they’ve been found out by his wife and anxious to contribute more actively to thwarting the German V2s, Kay asks to be transferred from her unit, which analyzes aerial photographs, to a new unit in Belgium that will use mathematical calculations to find the V2 launch sites so the air force can bomb them. Harris alternates between Graf’s story and Kay’s as the V2 program heads towards its — and the war’s — inevitable end.

Graf is interesting, and some moments where his struggle with the immorality of his work turns to action. It’s interesting to think about whether people actually have enough agency in a regime like Nazi Germany to defy, openly or surreptitiously. And if some of them are, like Graf, a little ambiguous; he wants to see his engineering dreams realized even as he is sickened by the means and the consequences. Kay isn’t as fully realized, but parts of her story are interesting too.

I especially enjoyed thinking about this novel as I considered a thread on Twitter today about the representative who just declared he’d spend his final month or so in Congress as an independent because he has finally decided the Republican party’s full throttled support of Trumpism is too much. Many people asked “why now?” — where was this guy when children and parents were separated, white supremacy embraced, violence incited, etc? One person posted that he felt it was probably like asking someone why they don’t leave an emotionally abusive partner. It’s understandable that people who are sickened by political immorality, especially in a powerful and violent regime like Hitler’s, feel trapped, threatened, afraid — which explains why Graf kept most of his uneasiness to himself. Although plenty of people escaped.

Anyway, V2 is a quick, entertaining read that may leave you wanting to read some history.

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I’ve enjoyed several of Nick Hornby‘s books over the years. Especially High Fidelity, How to Be Good and Funny Girl. So I knew I would probably enjoy his latest, Just Like You. And I did — I read it in two nights, unfortunately two very late nights because I didn’t start reading until way too late. It’s the story of Joseph, a black twenty two year old who works in a butcher’s, a gym, and a football club as a kids’ coach, and dreams of making electronic music and being a famous DJ. And Lucy, a forty-two year old white English teacher and single mom of two boys. As in many of Hornby’s books, these main characters fall in love and then struggle to figure out what to do, whether to work at being a couple of allow things to end, etc.

The age difference causes them some consternation. For example, Joseph figures out that Lucy and his mother are the same age. Their perspectives on Brexit are different, although Joseph sees both sides. And although Hornby takes pains to make clear that interracial relationships are not an issue in London, Lucy & Joseph experience some friction. For example, when Joseph plays a new song he’s working on and Lucy suggests it needs vocals and says he must know a lot of people who can sing, and he wonders whether she thinks all black people are musical. Or when her neighbor is suspicious of a young black man at her door at night. Or when a girl he took out gives him a bit of a hard time about the rumors that he’s dating a white woman, and when he takes Lucy out to a club with his friends and is afraid it will be awkward because he thinks she dances strangely (Hornby isn’t clear about why, and implies it’s a generational difference). And yet, Hornby’s enduring belief (at least in his books) in people’s underlying kindness prevails, because even when they stumble with each other (or others), Joseph and Lucy end up redeeming themselves.

Now, I have already noted I enjoyed the book. It was entertaining, and I can see it being adapted, as so many of Hornby’s books have been, into a film. There is an entire subplot about Brexit that is interesting (it gets into who is voting which way and what, if anything they know about each other’s perspectives). Hornby as always provides amusing social commentary with plenty of little details that bring the people and places to life. And as he often does, he looks at life through the eyes of people different from each other, with different backgrounds and experiences.

But, I couldn’t help but wonder about Hornby writing from a black man’s perspective — . Then I wondered, how do I feel about him writing from a woman’s perspective? And haven’t writers down the ages written from other genders and cultures than their own? Maybe because this book is well written, entirely fictional, and at its core, an entertaining love story, I feel better about this than I did when I recently reviewed a historical novel written by a white writer about a black man? And because Hornby makes both Lucy and Joseph, and their friends and families, complex people, and not “types,” who have to understand all kinds of differences about each other. Most of them are neither “good” or “bad” but whole humans who figure out what to do or say in the moment, like most of us. And Hornby also makes it clear that Lucy and Joseph share a lot: discomfort with their parents’ views, nervousness about whether their friends will be kind to their new partners, the desire to share each others’ interests, awareness of their own differences and a desire to bridge those, love for each other and for Lucy’s sons, generosity of spirit.

I kept hunting for stereotypes, and while Hornby has some fun with London liberals who think they’re so “good” (as he does in other books), I didn’t really find any. I don’t know his view on Brexit but he’s generous to both sides and makes clear that the “debate” in the public sphere wasn’t terribly helpful to actual publics, which is probably pretty accurate, if American “debates” are anything similar. I read a review that implied Joseph’s interests in football and DJing are “cultural” stereotypes, but I have a white son who at 22 was very into both. There are plenty of 22 year olds who are into some kind of sport and some kind of music, regardless of their “cultural” background. The same reviewer took issue with Hornby using urban slang. I wondered, again, if that isn’t more or less what writers have always done. And whether that is just his screenwriter’s ear for detail at work. I could see this being a good movie.

Anyway, this was a fun, humorous read, but with enough interesting materials to discuss (age differences in relationships, family dynamics, how the Brexit vote was presented to the public) to make it potentially interesting to book clubs that like love stories.

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A friend recommended Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer, the author well known for Rumpole of the Bailey. It’s not available to download from my library but my mother gave me a copy for my birthday. My grandmother used to say that when the news was awful, a mystery was just the thing (and this week, the New York Times affirmed her wisdom by running a piece on Agatha Christie’s books at time when we are certainly up to our ears in bad news). So I pulled Summer’s Lease out of the to read pile and devoured it in a couple of sittings.

Apparently, Mortimer knew the setting of this novel well, having regularly rented houses in an area of Tuscany he facetiously called Chiantishire, because of the presence of so many English tourists and ex-pats. Summer’s Lease is a mystery but it is also quite sharply humorous. The story is about Molly Pargeter, who uses her inheritance from a great aunt to book three weeks in an Italian villa for her family of five, and then unexpectedly ends up hosting her father, Haverford, as well.

Mortimer captures all the little nuances of family life — the power imbalance in Molly’s marriage to Hugh, a divorce lawyer (like Mortimer) who has been having flirtatious lunches with one of his former clients; the triangulation that occurs as children enter adolescence and at once need their mother and want to bring her down a notch; the vulnerability and insecurity behind old Haverford’s raucous and, even in a time when “PC” was not a thing yet, often inappropriate rancountering. For all this human interest, Mortimer also delivers an interesting mystery and does so with great humor, poking fun at both British and Italian society.

As I was telling the friend who recommended it, the ending took me aback, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. But It was a good read, entertaining and a delightful if brief escape from the news. And I’m intrigued by Mortimer, who seems like he was quite a character. I have never seen Rumpole, and may look for some episodes. And Summer’s Lease was also a four part series which aired on Masterpiece in the early 90s, with John Gielgud as Haverford, which sounds wonderful.

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Another month of COVID, another Barbara Pym novel. I’m working my way through as much of her work as is easily accessible in library eBook platforms. Less Than Angels is another book with a spinster protagonist, Catherine Oliphant (did Gail Honeyman know this book when she chose to name her heroine Eleanor Oliphant? I don’t know), now one of my favorites of Pym’s many woman protagonists. And Less Than Angels is set partly in academia (where I work) as it is concerned with a group of anthropology students, from the nineteen year old Deirdre to Tom Mallow, minor gentry turned anthropologist, and Alaric Lydgate, whose years of field notes languish in his attic while he cranks out acerbic reviews of others’ work. Pym being Pym, she still pokes a little fun at the Anglican church but the main target of her gentle humor in this book is the world of seminars, grants, notes and theses.

It’s a remarkably melancholy book. Maybe because Deirdre’s inexperienced and heartfelt emotion are painfully reminiscent of my late teens. Catherine is also a more nuanced character than the sisters in Some Tame Gazelle or even Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings. She writes “women’s” stories and articles for magazines, has no living relatives, and manages to befriend her ex-lover’s new girlfriend. You get the sense there is much more to Catherine than “how to give an ‘inexpensive’ cocktail party,” which she is writing towards the end of the book.

She manages to befriend everyone from Deirdre’s aunt and mother to the young anthropology students Mark and Digby who visit her at both the start and the end of the book, to the eccentric Lydgate.Catherine is such sympathetic character, the kind of person that others lean on in good times and bad, that when she slips into a church and lights a candle for the absent Tom, off to study an African tribe, a priest mistakes her for one of the regular volunteers. She’s forever caring for people, but she’s no pushover; Pym makes it clear that she is taking care of herself as well.

I’ve discussed before that Pym is offering me some respite these days. I am appreciating what an astute observer she is, as in this observation about Dierdre, who is taken aback by Catherine’s frank assessment of Tom’s struggle to finish his thesis, “She was as yet too young and inexperienced to be quite sure that one can love and criticize at the same time.” And even though her characters are of a certain time and place* and social structure, we can still recognize their ambition, feelings, frustrations and limitations. It comforting in a way, even though nothing is really comforting right now.

*I should add that there is a very colonialist attitude towards anthropology in this book; studies are done to benefit British administrators even as the anthropologists may be interested in obscure languages or cultural practices.

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A couple of years ago I spied The Comforters at a coffee and book shop in Maine and remembered how much I liked A Far Cry from KensingtonWhen I was looking for a quick read for the holiday season, I saw it on my shelf and decided to give this book, Muriel Spark‘s debut novel, a read. It was just the thing for this busy time, short and satisfying.

It was interesting to read so recently after The Life You Save May Be Your Own because Spark was a Catholic convert and Catholicism features heavily in The Comforters. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer working on book about the novel form. She’s a recent convert and has decided to put her relationship with Laurence, a BBC football commentator and heir to a canned fig company, on hold until he returns to the faith, although they remain friends.

When the novel opens, Laurence writes to Caroline from his grandmother Louisa’s home to tell her he thinks Louisa is in a gang. Caroline is on a retreat and is driven away by the odious Mrs. Hogg, a former servant for Laurence’s family and a very nosy and unpleasant woman. Mrs. Hogg decides to read the letter, rather than just forwarding it on to Caroline. In the mean time, Laurence and Caroline try to get to the bottom of what Louisa is up to, and Caroline is visited by a ghostly narrator whose typewriter only she can hear.

Caroline, crazily enough, feels sure this means they are all in a novel. She comes to view herself as superfluous to the plot — the mystery surrounding Louisa, Mrs. Hogg, Mrs. Hogg’s estranged husband Mr. Hogarth, and their crippled son, Andrew, as well as a friend of Caroline’s and Laurences, known as the Baron, Laurence’s mother Helena, and his Uncle Ernest, who, in good English novel fashion, happens to be in business with Caroline’s college friend Eleanor, who has been involved romantically with both the Baron and Mr. Hogarth. But in the end it turns out, Caroline is really key to the whole story.

Confused? I was from time to time, but it all became clearer as I took more time to read — it’s not a book you can pick up for a few pages a night before bed, unless you want to spend time backtracking to figure out who is doing what and how they know each other again. However, once I gave it proper attention, The Comforters was hilarious in a dry, and pretty dark way — there is a crime at the center of the story, plus some injuries, a death, and at least one of the characters may or may not be involved in diabolism (I had to look it up, too — devil worship). The supernatural aspect worked for me because it seems like a nod to the creative process — why wouldn’t writers possibly be visited by voices, and aren’t they, even if most of the time they don’t literally hear them out loud?

A delightful read, a little wacky and fun but also a novel that talks addresses women’s roles in society, creativity, religious practices, morality, and relationships. A book club could have fun with this one.

 

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As I wrote earlier this month, my church has started a 19th century British fiction book club. Our first book was Adam BedeIn August we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice. 

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least twice before, and have seen an adaptation. But I still throughly enjoyed re-reading it this weekend. I find Austen’s biting wit entertaining, but more than that, I enjoy knowing she was unafraid to assert her views at a time when women were often meant to be, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s younger sisters Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice, more interested in bonnets and balls than in independent thought. Austen approves of sensibility and goodness and doesn’t shy away from showing how silly it is to live a life of vanity and vacuousness. Eliot does this to some extent as well, for example showing Hetty in Adam Bede to be vain and foolish in believing that the young Captain Donnithorne, heir to the local squire, will marry her.

But Austen does it with humor, and allows the brooding but ultimately honorable Mr. Darcy to quietly come to the aid of the Bennet family when Lydia goes astray, while Eliot makes Hetty an object lesson, has her sentenced to death, and shows the good rector, Mr. Irwine, and the man guilty of causing Hetty’s disgrace, Captain Donnithorne, only able to spare her life, but not to rescue her. Hetty has to serve a sentence, Donnithorne goes away to do his own sort of penance. Both stories make for good reading, but I personally have a soft spot for Austen’s wit. In fact, regular readers of bookconscious will know that I often invoke Austen when praising contemporary books that employ witty social criticism as part of the story.

And she just has such a way with words. Take this line, describing the moments after Mr. Bennet has spoken with his cousin, the bumptious clergyman Mr. Collins, who due to entailment will inherit Longbourn, the Bennet’s home. Austen writes, “Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.” In one sentence, we can see understand how Mr. Bennet feels and how he is behaving, down to his expression.

And she doesn’t spare even her heroines or heroes from her sharp pen. Both Elizabeth and Darcy act with pride or prejudice or both, and it is only as the novel progresses that the two of them, independent of but in relation to each other, realize their errors and learn from them. It’s a credit to Austen’s keen observation of human nature that in her books there are often three types of character — those whose folly or unkindness never improves (mainly because they are unaware of their own faults), those who like Elizabeth and Darcy grow, often in order to be better people to those in they care about, and those who like Elizabeth’s older sister Jane are simply good people, able to maintain their equilibrium and to treat others with dignity even when they are silly or mean.

If you look around, we’re much the same today, and that’s the final reason I think Austen’s work holds up and continues to resonate with readers today. The things she observed were often “a universal truth” and still apply to our world even though so many social norms are different. For example, we still “make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn” — you only have to turn on a reality TV show to see that. If you haven’t re-read Austen lately, I recommend you spend a sunny summer Sunday afternoon with her soon!

 

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Librarians read lots of reviews, so I’d heard about Jon McGregor. But it wasn’t until a friend in my book group recommended Reservoir 13 that I finally got around to reading his work. I order fiction for my library so I knew the book, but I didn’t think I’d want to read it because it was about a missing teen. Only it’s not, as my friend noted when she raved about it. It’s really about the people who live in an English village where a teen goes missing.

McGregor’s prose is meticulous — he doesn’t talk about bugs and birds and plants, but springtails (which I learned, when I looked them up, are technically “hexapods,” not bugs), fieldfares, and teasels. He notes the passing of seasons by things like when it’s lambing time, when the badgers mate, and when fox cubs leave their dens. And also in human terms like when it’s time for the well-dressing, when the allotments are planted or harvested and what grows when in them, and when it’s time for the annual cricket match against a neighboring village or the village pantomime.  All this detailed observation adds to the rich pattern of the writing.

And that writing is melodious, almost musical, with certain refrains repeating again and again through the passing years of the novel. For example, this description of the girl: “Her name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer.” And phrases, like, “At midnight when the year turned . . . .” And “Cathy knocked on Mr. Wilson’s door and asked whether Nelson needed a walk . . . .”

This repetition, along with the turning of the seasons and the years, creates a sense of the ebb and flow of village life. Challenges and joys come and go, but things go on, the people who remain manage, look after each other, keep things running. Characters rise and fall — the focus isn’t on one or two people with minor supporting characters but instead on bits of many villagers’ lives. Some remain throughout the book, some move on, or fade into the background.

If you like a strong narrative, clear answers, or a lot of action, this book won’t be for you, but if you want a meditative, thoughtful read about the basic decency and humanity of people with all their faults and foibles, and the way people survive the few among them who lack that basic decency, this is a beautiful read.

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