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Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

Much of my reading lately has been about strong women; Night Waking is a novel about Anna Bennett, Dr. Bennett as she introduces herself to the police officer who insists on calling her Mrs. Cassingham (her husband Giles’ surname) when they interview her about the infant skeleton she and her son Raphael accidentally dug up as they planted an apple tree. Anna is an Oxford Fellow, working on a history of childhood in the 18th century. She’s with her family, Giles and Raphael and Timothy, who is still a toddler (the boys go by Raph and Moth, so hereafter I’ll call them that), on an island off the coast of Scotland, where Giles’ family has had a home for generations. Giles studies puffins, and to augment their academic earnings, they’ve made a vacation cottage out of an old building on the island and are about to host the first guests.

I first read Sarah Moss last winter when I chose Names for the Sea for one of my book bingo squares (a book set in a place I’d like to visit – although after I read Moss’s memoir of a year in Iceland, I wasn’t so sure). Her nonfiction writing is witty and smart, and so is Night Waking. Anna is fed up with caring for small children and managing the house (or not really, as she is frequently out of kitchen essentials, inconvenient when you live on an island with no shops) and mourning the loss of her intellectual life. This passage sums it up: “When we got to the beach, after passing half the morning in negotiation about putting on shoes, Moth walked into the sea and then had a tantrum because it was wet, and Raph stood with his back to the waves talking about potential uses of hydroelectricity on oil rigs. I sat on a rough rock, my arms wrapped around Moth as he drummed his heels on my shins and tried to bite my arms, and remembered the staircase in the Bodleian Library . . . . I decided that if I made Moth walk the whole five hundred metres back to the house he might take less than forty-five minutes to go to sleep after lunch and, if I didn’t rush him at all, stopped to inspect every pebble and touch each flowering grass, it might almost be time to start putting together an early lunch when we arrived.” Sound familiar, mothers of young moms out there?

Anna and Giles quarrel a bit, in a half hearted way, over the children and the work to be done and the work they’re not getting done, and Anna looks into the history of the island to try to determine why an infant might be buried there. There’s a side story about the family who come to stay — Zoe, an anorexic teen, her cardiologist workaholic father and housewife mother whose controlling attitude has driven her daughter to illness and despair. I didn’t like that storyline (I’m tired of the old trope of the mother causing anorexia), but it did move some of the story about Anna and Giles along. And Moss humanizes the harping mother, just a bit.

What I loved about the story is the way Moss wove Anna’s historical research into childhood and parenting and the lives of women and children on the island into the novel. The mystery of the infant skeleton is interesting, too. Of course I also appreciated the honest look at parenting — Anna is a bit extreme, but most parents of small children go through her familiar swings from boredom and exhaustion to almost overwhelming love and tenderness for their offspring. All in all it was a good read, one that made me chuckle at times, and that transported me to a faraway place and other people’s lives while also recognizing bits of my own, which is always enjoyable.

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For some reason I’ve always been a sucker for letters. I love sending and receiving them, and I love reading them — not only family letters, but also collections of letters from historical figures and fictional letters in epistolary novels like Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. It’s a love story about a poet, Elspeth, who lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and receives a fan letter from an Illinois college student, David, in 1912. They begin a faithful correspondence and through their letters, fall in love. When David volunteers for ambulance service (before America formally enters WWI), they finally meet.

Naturally it’s a star-crossed love — Elspeth is married, for one thing, and she has never left Skye because she’s terrified of being in a boat. Other plot twists I won’t reveal conspire to separate the lovers. The book alternates between their letters and those of Elspeth’s daughter Margaret and her fiancee Paul, a pilot in WWII. Margaret discovers her mother’s wartime romance when a bomb reveals the letters, hidden away in their Edinburgh home for years. Elspeth’s reaction to the bombing is to go to London. In the face of this unexpected behavior, Margaret decides to learn about her mother’s life before she was born.

As Margaret reconnects with Elspeth’s family in Skye and discovers a side of her mother she has never known, Elspeth writes letter after letter trying to track down what happened to David. By the end of the book the mystery is solved, once again entirely through letters.

This was a quick read, and I enjoyed it well enough, but the ending was a bit tidy for my liking. I think I would have enjoyed the physical look of the letters on the page more than I did the e-book, which I downloaded from my library. But if you like epistolary or historical novels and/or Scotland, you will probably find Letters from Skye appealing.

 

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Over Thanksgiving weekend I read an advance copy of Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (due out in the U.S. in February). It was a squirm-inducing read; Hudson’s own upbringing “in a succession of council estates, B&B’s, and trailer parks” informs her debut, which portrays the bleak, depressing life of a single mother and her daughters Janie Ryan (who narrates the book from birth) and Tiny as they bounce in and out of housing projects in Scotland and England. Tony Hogan of the title beats the girls’ mother. Drugs and alcohol abound.

The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it. I kept thinking how random it is that I grew up in such a different world, when I know there were kids in my town whose lives were not a lot different than the Janie’s.

So why did I keep reading a book that made me feel miserable? Believe it or not, this is a love story. Because despite the soul crushing poverty and attendant overwhelming pain, Janie and her family love each other. Hudson has written a novel that simultaneously repulses and taps the depths of human pathos. But by the end of the story readers sense that Janie is going to be ok, despite the absent father, the wreck of a mother, the system that sees her as nothing but trash with no future but to repeat the pattern. What might save her? At the risk of over-simplifying, unconditional love. (And, I am extremely pleased to report, regular visits to the library from a young age.)

Hudson’s talent lies in her ability to write a story no one wants to hear but readers can’t seem to put down. The book was a sensation in Britain, garnering critical praise and prize nominationsGibson’s Book Club this week got into a discussion about what deserves to be called a great book. One thing we agreed on was that good writing doesn’t stay on the page — it enters our hearts and minds and lingers.

That’s what’s been happening to me as I continue to think of Janie. A fictional walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how painful, can influence the way we see each other in the real world. Janie was with me when I read an article this week about fast food workers’ hopes for living wages. And her world also brought to mind the families caught in the cycle of poverty in the incredibly moving documentary on hunger in America the Computer Scientist and I saw a few months ago, A Place at the Table. 

 I’m fortunate that with the final page of this book I put away the misery Janie lived with and stepped back into my own very comfortable shoes. I read to the end for her, and for everyone like her. Not because I can save them, but because I believe reading — and understanding in even the tiniest way what other’s lives are like — can save us all.

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