“Liverpool has always made me brave, choice-wise. It was never a city that criticised anyone for taking a chance.” (David Morrissey)

This week I’m spending a few days in the beautiful city of Liverpool, a place whose frankly bonkers mix of ridiculously over the top neo-classicist buildings at every turn, alongside strictly utilitarian constructions harking back to their industrial past, fair warms the cockles of my heart. So for this post I thought I’d look at a couple of writers who are proud Scousers.

Firstly, the writer who immediately sprung to mind when I thought of Liverpool, the wonderful Beryl Bainbridge.  The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) is one of the five of Dame Beryl’s novels nominated for the Booker, which she never won because the patriarchy who dominated critics and committees consistently underestimated her writing and subject matter, why is a mystery.

I love Beryl’s face so much I couldn’t limit myself to one picture 🙂

The titular outing is undertaken by a group of workers from a wine-bottling factory. Freda has organised it because she has designs on the heir to the business, Vittorio. Brenda, her flatmate and frenemy, does not want to go, and never wanted to work there in the first place.

“Patiently Freda explained that it wasn’t a bottle factory, it was a wine factory – that they would be working alongside simple peasants who had culture and tradition behind them. Brenda hinted she didn’t like foreigners – she found them difficult to get on with. Freda said it proved how puny a person she was, in mind and body.

‘You’re bigoted,’ she cried. ‘And you don’t eat enough.’

To which Brenda did not reply.”

Freda and Brenda are very different. Freda is a one-woman hurricane, sweeping aside anything in her path. Brenda is being molested by one of the managers and doesn’t know how to stop it:

“As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no, unless she didn’t mean it. If she was offered another piece of cake and she wanted it she was obliged to refuse out of politeness. And if she didn’t want it, she had to say yes, even if it choked her.”

Needless to say, all of this will come to a head during the day of the works outing…

If you like Beryl Bainbridge, you’ll like this, as in many ways it is typical of her. A short novel, the story told in simple language which belies its deeply disturbing subject matter. And that subject matter is human beings.  Bainbridge turns her unsentimental eye on relationships between people and finds them unpredictable and unsettling. At every turn, horror is narrowly avoided.

“Brenda wanted to say that she looked like a long-distance lorry driver in the sheepskin coat, that she was a big fat cow, that she had wobbled like a jelly on the back of the funeral horse. She wanted to hurt her, watch her smooth round face crumple. But when it came to it, all she could murmur was, ‘Sometimes you’re very difficult to live with.’”

Until it isn’t. When the horror strikes, it feels both inevitable and deeply shocking. Bainbridge is breathtakingly brilliant, I’d forgotten how much so. She sees everything as slightly warped and off-kilter, and for the duration of her short, punchy novels, you are right there with her. She’s never a comfortable read, but she’s always a compelling one.

A little curiosity for you. Before she turned to writing Beryl was an actor.  Here she is in soap opera/national institution Coronation Street:

Secondly, a poet who writes for both kids and adults, and as such his witty verse has followed me throughout my life (including to my Dad’s wedding where I read Vow). Roger McGough, alongside Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, is one of of the Liverpool poets. He also performed as part of Scaffold, with John Gorman and brother-of-Paul, Mike McCartney. Impressive sideburn alert:

I’ve chosen a quick poem, by no means his best, but I saw Mike McCartney read this live once when I was about 12 or so; it was probably the first of McGough’s adult poetry I heard, and its stuck with me ever since.  Also, a play I saw at the Everyman while I was here – a theatre McGough helped make part of the Liverpool scene  – included a song & dance about the death of Maggie Thatcher, so his leftist politics are at the forefront of my mind.

Conservative Government Unemployment Figures by Roger McGough

Conservative Government?

Unemployment?

Figures.

A tweetable poem written years before the advent of twitter. With a UK general election looming, I’ll leave you to decide if it’s still relevant or not…

To end, the man himself, replete with lyrical Scouse accent, reading his poem with the irresistible title of Mafia Cats:

“That’s why I have a lot of love and good energy in me – that universal energy is a Ghanaian thing.” (Stormzy)

6 March this year was the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s independence from British rule.

Celebrations are going on throughout the year and those of you who follow Darkowaa’s excellent blog African Book Addict! will have seen her 3-part series GH at 60 | Our Writers & Their Books which looked at 75 Ghanaian writers and certainly caused my TBR to reach even more astronomical heights. As an attempt to reduce the mountain by at least 2, this week I’m looking at 2 novels by writers of Ghanaian heritage. It’s also one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Happy Anniversary Ghana!

Firstly, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011) which was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize (as it then was) and the Booker, and won the Giller Prize. Narrated by jazz musician Sid Griffiths, it tells the story of jazz prodigy Hieronymous Falk, a 19 year old ‘Mischling’ (half white European, half black African) and the band he plays in, trying to carry on working in Europe under threat from the Nazis during the Second World War. The narrative shifts between 1939-40 in the build up to when Hiero is arrested and sent to a concentration camp; and 1992, where Sid and his frenemy Chip attend a documentary about Hiero and then undertake a journey to Poland.

“See, Half Blood Blues, 3 min 33 secs, is almost all I got out of that time. I ain’t sore about it. Ain’t no glory made from being dependable. But it started Chip’s career a second time. Jolted the man awake again. And, well, it made Hiero one of them most famous jazz trumpeters of his generation.”

The documentary and journey force Sid to look back on probably the most complex, confusing time of his life. He was a young man, there was sexual jealousy and musical rivalry, and there is survivors’ guilt. Sid could pass for white and had fake papers, but at what price?

“So we passed, sure. But there was passing, and there was passing. Sometimes it seemed like we’d passed right out of own skins.”

Edugyan captures the terror of living under Nazi occupation while the band await papers to get them out of France:

“I was crying soundlessly. I dragged my damn face against my sleeve, feeling ashamed. I ain’t never thought fear had a taste. It does. In that small darkness it was a thing filling my nostrils, thick as sand in my throat, and I near choked on it.”

She also writes evocatively about the music of the band, something which is essentially impossible to capture in words:

“Wasn’t like nothing I ever heard before. The kid came in at a strange angle, made the notes glitter like crystal.”

Half Blood Blues offers a well-researched, evocative portrayal of a time that has been well-documented but from a perspective that has been underrepresented: black experience in World War II. Hiero remains an enigma throughout the tale and so we don’t hear of black experience in the concentration camps but rather as artists declared enemies of the state. The novel never falters under the weight of its research however, and it is psychologically astute:

“I guess mercy is a muscle like any other. You got to exercise it, or it just cramp right up.”

Sid does not behave well at times and his selfish actions have tragic ramifications. However, Edugyan is merciful to her characters and ultimately Half Blood Blues is about redemption, forgiveness and acceptance of ourselves and others. I found the end really moving which meant I got a little teary on the tube – but there’s usually someone having a cry on the Underground so it drew very little attention 😉

Secondly, Homegoing, the debut novel by Yaa Gyasi (2016). Recently I’ve found that contemporary novels garnering hype and rapturous reviews are leaving me distinctly underwhelmed so I approached Homegoing with some trepidation. But I will add to the hype surrounding this novel by suggesting I think it deserved #ALLTHEPLAUDITS. It was hugely ambitious, and I thought Gyasi totally pulled it off, which is just astonishing considering it’s her first novel.

It begins in the eighteenth century with separated sisters in the Gold Coast (part of modern day Ghana):

“in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia is taken to a fort, The Castle, to become the mistress of a British commander (ie slave trader):

“her whole life Baaba had beat her and made her feel small, and she had fought back with her beauty, a silent weapon, but a powerful one, which had led her to the feet of a chief.”

Her sister Esi meanwhile, is trapped in the dungeons of The Castle, to be exported as part of the slave trade.

“[He] had grown accustomed to the smell of shit, but fear was one smell that would stand out forever. It curled his nose and brought tears to his eyes, but he had learned long ago how to keep himself from crying.”

They don’t know about one another, and subsequent chapters alternate between the stories of their descendants, some in Ghana, some in the United States. Each generation is tracked through, and Gyasi demonstrates that just because slavery ends, the subjugation and marginalisation of people of colour does not.

“The British had no intention of leaving Africa, even once the slave trade ended. They owned the Castle, and, though they had yet to speak it aloud, they intended to own the land as well.”

Gyasi’s ambition is huge: Homecoming tracks over 200 years of history to demonstrate how the legacy of slavery survives to this day.  That she does this through a compelling story with people you care about despite only being with them for a chapter marks her out as a formidable storyteller.

 “the need to call this thing ‘good’ and this thing ‘bad’, this thing ‘white’ and this thing ‘black’ was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

At times I found Homecoming an almost unbearable read. The injustice, the violence, the depravity of what human beings can do to one another, turning a blind eye in the acquisition of money, made it an incredibly tough read in places. Gyasi does not dwell on violence, but nor does she shy away from the realities of what she is depicting.

 “The older Jo got, the more he understood…that sometimes staying free required unimaginable sacrifice.”

Gyasi is a huge talent, and a writer with something important to say. I’m really excited to see what she does next.

Happy 60th Birthday Ghana!

“The difficulty of writing a second novel is directly proportional to how successful the first novel was, it seems.” (Khaled Hosseini)

A few weeks ago I went to the Royal Society of Literature’s panel at the British Library as part of their move to find the Nation’s Favourite Second Novel (as they pointed out on the night, this had caused no end of confusion as lots of people thought they were seeking out the Nation’s Second Favourite novel).  You can read all about the unsurprising but deserving winner here.

I’d thought growing up in London, with a mother who instructed me in no uncertain terms when I was about six that I was never to approach famous people even if they were Adam Ant, meant I was celebrity immune. But apparently this is because I’m crossing paths with the wrong type of celebrity. Put me in a room where Evie Wyld is on the panel and Eimear McBride is in the audience and the result is mass evacuation because I have spontaneously combusted with excitement.

Anyhoo….this rambling preamble is to say I’ve chosen second novels as the theme for this post, one from the RSL list and one off-piste.

Firstly, Thirst by Kerry Hudson (2015) which I was looking forward to because I’d really enjoyed Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. It tells the story of Alena and Dave as they fall in love over the course of a hot summer in London.

“he’d forgotten the sickness, right down to the soles of your feet, of wanting. To want and maybe allow yourself to have it and maybe be wanted back. He’d forgotten how terrifying wanting and having could be.”

It’s a sweet story, and about two people who aren’t often represented in literature: someone on low wage living above a kebab shop and an illegal immigrant. It’s a simple tale in many ways, charting the course of a romantic relationship. But there are potential complexities from the past of both Dave and Alena. Neither has behaved particularly well, and their secrets threaten the happiness they find with each other. Alena especially is in genuine danger:

“Dave only ran in the mornings but she was running all the time. She sustained herself on a diet of him, his kisses, his voice, his nearness. She sustained herself on promises, and silent deals and thoughts of three days time.”

Thirst is not as strong as Tony Hogan, which had verve and raw tenderness that this doesn’t quite match.  However, it’s a touching story and Hudson’s talent lifts the story above its rather simple premise. She excels at capturing beauty in places where it’s seldom recognised. She has a compassionate but unsentimental understanding of people and of both the damage and healing that can occur through love.

“As if she knew, lurking in the dark parts that had stayed, unbidden, inside her, that as soon as autumn did come, bringing the reek of dead leaves and fires and a cold that whispered across your skin like a lie, her old bad luck would be back too.”

Secondly, from the RSL second novels list, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926). This thinly-disguised biography describes the lives of American ex-pats living in Paris in the 1920s, who then travel to Pamplona to see the running of the bulls and enjoy the fiesta.

“We ate dinner at Madame Lecomte’s restaurant on the far side of the island. It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Someone had put it in the American Women’s Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans so we had to wait forty five minutes for a table.”

It is narrated by Jake, a veteran whose war wound has rendered him impotent. He is in love with aristocratic Brett Ashley who ricochets from man to man.

“The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as if nothing could have any consequences.”

There is also much evidence of Hemingway’s love of bullfighting, which thankfully is not dwelt upon; there was only one passage that this blood-sport adverse reader had to skip.  Jake loves the bullfight so much he is accepted by the aficionados as one of their own:

 “Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it. When they saw that I had aficion, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of spiritual examination”

At first I thought this might be the end of my love affair with Hemingway. His simple prose style which offers such distilled beauty in his later writing seemed too basic here. But then I realised this was absolutely a stroke of genius. The novel is about the lost generation, the title taken from Ecclesiastes, referring to the insignificance and transience of humans:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The simple, almost detached, documentary style of the novel effectively captures the numb rootlessness of a generation who have endured great trauma and are now surviving without knowing exactly what their purpose is. This isn’t depressing – there is humour, such as the wise aphorism I’ll certainly bear in mind: “Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs.” But there is bleakness to it, not least the anti-Semitism voiced by some characters, foreshadowing the devastation of the Holocaust.

Fiesta is a brilliantly observed, deceptively simple portrait of a particular group at a particular time, but with something to say beyond its immediate context, about the struggle of the individual to find meaning in the world.

“There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.”

To end, totally unrelated to the post: over Easter I was given a delicious haul of cheese and now I’ve eaten so much I’m worried I’ve become half-human, half-dairy product:

 

“An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles.” (The Thing (From Another World), 1951)

This is my contribution to the 1951 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book – do join in!

Firstly, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor. I loved Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont so once I saw Taylor had a novel published in 1951 this was an easy choice for me. Like Mrs Palfrey, it is a finely observed portrait of a life lived quietly, with its sadness not shied away from but without being depressing.

One summer after World War I, as she is on the brink of adulthood, Harriet falls in love with Vesey. I’ve no idea why as he seems proof that it’s possible for jellyfish to take on human form and he is wholly self-centred, but fall for him she does. It’s testament to Taylor’s writing that the male love-object being determinedly unheroic does not detract from the story at all. People fall for all sorts of unsuitable types and this is one example. Also, Taylor is a nicer person than me and does not judge him as harshly:

“The streak of cruelty which Lilian had perceived in him was real enough, but used defensively. He would not have wished to be cruel to Harriet, who had not threatened him. Indeed it had begun to seem to him that only she was set against the great weight of disapproval he felt upon him. His mother treated him, at best, with an amused kindliness. Among her friends she drew attention to him as if he were a beloved marmoset on a chain, somehow enhancing her own originality, decorating her.”

Their love affair is marked by very little happening. It is a series of minor misunderstandings, things unsaid, feelings unexpressed. This is absolutely Taylor’s strength: she is brilliant at depicting small devastations.

“All through the long winter and the spring, she would not have him near her; yet now, standing so close beside him, the moment which should have been so precious was worse than useless: it shrank, and stopped and curdled. These blue flowers she carried in her hand she would surely hate for the rest of her life.”

The novel then jumps forward fifteen years. Harriet is married to Charles, they have an adolescent daughter who is in love with her teacher, and Harriet has learnt to be a good wife:

“When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping-house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. No one had entertained more methodically or better bolstered up social interplay. She had been indefatigable in writing letters of condolence, telegrams of congratulation; remembered birthdays and anniversaries; remembered bread-and-butter letters and telephone messages after parties…”

When Vesey reappears, so do Harriet’s long-buried feelings. They embark on an affair, but again, it’s strangely uneventful. Given that Harriet’s mother was a suffragette and is best friends with Vesey’s aunt, the next generation of their families lack volition.

A Game of Hide and Seek is a wonderful novel filled with Taylor’s unblinking observations, humour and compassion. The supporting characters of Harriet’s husband, daughter, work colleagues and dreadful mother-in-law are all brilliantly drawn. There is ambiguity around some fairly major points in the novel, not least the ending. This is not a novel to read if you want answers and ends tied up neatly.  But if you want to have your heart broken just a little bit by a portrait of lives lived in quiet desperation, this is for you.

“Against him, against his calm and decision, she felt confused and incoherent; and, looking back on her married life, it seemed a frayed, tangled thing made by two strangers.”

Secondly, The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. This is a collection of short stories, of which the titular story makes up half,  which I’ll focus on.  This was my first foray into both McCullers and Southern Gothic and I found it compelling. The Ballad of the Sad Café tells the story of Miss Amelia, a lynchpin in her local community despite being wholly unsympathetic to those around her. She runs the store and brews the alcohol and practices effective folk remedies.

“…when a man has drunk Miss Amelia’s liquor. He may suffer, or he may be spent with joy – but the experience has shown the truth; he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.”

A hunchback arrives in town professing to be a distant relation of Miss Amelia and she adores him.  He is manipulative and untrustworthy, but things tick along.  He persuades her to turn the store into the café and she gives him all he desires, and probably a few things he doesn’t, such as her kidney stones set in a watch chain.

“For the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

Things change when Miss Amelia’s estranged husband is released from jail. He adored Miss Amelia and has taken her rejection of him badly. He arrives back in town and tensions begin to build.

“Any number of wicked things could be listed against him, but quite apart from these crimes there was about him a secret meanness that clung to him almost like a smell. Another thing – he never sweated, not even in August, and that surely is a sign worth pondering over.”

McCullers increases the tension throughout this short tale expertly, and her cast of characters are idiosyncratic but never caricatures.  Similarly, the gothic elements are not overwrought and fit well within the heady, tense atmosphere.  A short portrait of a small town tragedy.

The cultural significance of The Ballad of the Sad Café has been recognised through that most prestigious of accolades: a Sesame Street parody. If I was McCullers I’d be overjoyed 😀

“Ireland is a great country to die or be married in.” (Elizabeth Bowen)

Firstly, in breaking news (in the sense that it’s not news and of zero interest or urgency) I’ve finally joined the cool kids over at twitter so please validate my fragile sense of self and join me @madame_bibi. More importantly, I’ve tried to follow as many of my bloggy friends as possible but if I’ve missed you please let me know & I will rectify the situation forthwith 🙂

On with the post! This is my second contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff. I’m hoping to just get this posted in time, as I was sick for a week and while this meant I could finally watch the entire series of Taboo that I had stacked up, I was incapable of reading the printed word  (my capacity for dribbling over Tom Hardy remained unaffected).  If I’m too late, I hereby proclaim that there are at least 32 days in March 😉

So, its Elizabeth Bowen all round as I look at two of her novels, simply because I was lucky enough to find these lovely hardbacks in my favourite charity bookshop a wee while ago:

Firstly, The Death of the Heart (1938), which I pounced on as soon as I saw it, remembering Jacqui’s wonderful review.  Portia, a sixteen year old orphan, moves to London following a transitory life in hotels with her parents, to live with her half-brother and his wife who she barely knows. Wiki quotes Bowen as describing the novel thusly:

“a novel which reflects the time , the pre-war time with its high tension, its increasing anxieties, and this great stress on individualism. People were so conscious of themselves, and of each other, and of their personal relationships because they thought that everything of that time might soon end.”

Certainly the individuals in the novel are self-conscious, but they’re not really aware of one another. Poor Portia finds herself part of a society of selfish individuals who don’t know what they want and so end up tormenting each other while they try and work it out. Portia’s step-mother Anna is unhappy, as is her brother, but neither are sure it is the marriage to one another that is making them miserable. A rejected lover of Anna’s, Eddie, seduces Portia to alleviate his boredom, not realising that to do so to a naïve and loving 16 year old is cruel and damaging. There is an all-round lack of intimacy:

“But something that should have been going on had not gone on: something had not happened. They had sat round a painted, not a burning, fire, at which you tried in vain to warm your hands.”

Portia is temporarily packed off to the seaside to stay with a family that the London set look down as being a bit common, but they are at least lively:

“Mrs Heccomb took off her hat for tea and Portia saw that her hair, like part of an artichoke, seemed to have an upgrowing tendency…This, for some reason, added to Mrs Heccomb’s expression of surprise.”

However, while the Heccombs see Eddie for the cad and bounder he is, they are neither able to convey this adequately to Portia, nor is she willing to listen.  What emerges as Portia tries to find her place in the world and warm relationships within it, is how deeply inadequate human beings can be at communicating with one another. Bowen is interested in the fantasies that are constructed in lieu of real understanding and how these can be sustaining but ultimately empty.

“Not for nothing do we invest so much of ourselves in other people’s lives – or even in momentary pictures of people we do not know. It cuts both ways: the happy group inside the lighted window, the figure in the long grass in the orchard seen from the train stay and support us in our dark hours.”

The novel lacks any sentimentality and is a sharply observed portrait of interwar society.  What stops it from being depressing is Bowen’s glorious prose, her dry sense of humour (I don’t think we are supposed to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves) and the sense that love – imperfect and in many different guises – is there to be found, sometimes in the oddest of places.

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Apparently hair like an artichoke was an actual thing, although I think Bowen had something more flamboyant in mind…

Secondly, A World of Love (1955), which I thought absolutely stunning. Bowen has matured between these two novels and is telling less, showing more, to once again explore the complexities of human relationships with great subtlety. Lilia owns Montefort, a country house in County Cork, and her dead cousin Guy’s fiancé Antonia, lives there with her husband Fred, an illegitimate member of the family, who runs the estate so they live rent-free.

“Of this arrangement it had not yet been decided whether it worked or did not work, still less if it equitable or, if not so, at whose expense.”

Over the course of a few claustrophobically hot days in summer, Antonia and Fred’s daughter, Jane, finds love letters written by Guy to an unnamed woman which is assumed to be Antonia. This will act as a catalyst to bring the unspoken tensions between the adults into sharp relief:

“Almost no experience, other than Guy and their own dissonance, could they be said to have had in common; and yet it was what they had had in common which riveted them. For worse or better, they were in each other’s hands. Such a relationship is lifelong.”

Meanwhile, Jane is on the edge of burgeoning adulthood:

 “Not a straw stirred, or was there to stir, in the kennel; and above her something other than clouds was missing from the uninhabited sky.  Nothing was to be known. One was on the verge, however, possibly, of more.”

I really adored this novel. Again, it was sharply observed, psychologically astute, and with a wonderful undercurrent of dry humour. Bowen minutely dissects human relationships and exposes all their contradictions and conflict, but also how compromise and understanding can be reached. A World of Love felt tighter than The Death of the Heart, the containment of a few days in pretty much one place effectively conveying the claustrophobia that exists for the characters in their various ways, even as they roam a huge estate. Yet Bowen is almost baroque at times, her descriptions rich and layered and filled with meaning:

“No part of the night was not breathless breathing, no part of the quickened stillness not running feet. A call or calling, now nearby, now from behind the skyline, was unlocatable as a corncrakes in the uncut grass. Arising this was, on the part of the two who like hundreds, seemed to be teeming over the land, carrying all before them. The night, ridden by pure excitement, was seized by hope. .. All they had ever touched still now physically held its charge – everything that had been stepped on, scaled up, crept under, brushed against or leaped from now gave out, touched by so much as air, a tingling continuous sweet shock, which the air suffered as though it were half laughing, as was Antonia.”

I realise I may have lost some of you there. But if you don’t mind that sort of prose at times, especially when it’s surrounded by an astute unblinking eye for human foibles and a compassion for our frailties, please do given Bowen a try!

So that’s the end of a very hurriedly written post, please excuse all typos and general incoherence! Now to end with an Irish musician and a blatant grovel to my mother (as he is one of her favourites and I failed on Mother’s Day last weekend):

“Women are most fascinating between the ages of 35 and 40 … Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely.” (Christian Dior)

On Saturday I had a BIG birthday.

Why thank you, Mr DiCaprio. Yes, ‘twas the big 4-0 for me so this week I’m looking at one book written in 1977 and one book set in 1977. What they’ve taught me about the year of my birth is that much as nostalgia-fest programmes will try and convince me I was born into a glittery glam-rock utopia:

In fact I was born into a post-colonial nightmare of racism and corruption. 1977 was rubbish.

1977: a year so bad even Christoph Waltz looked like this

Firstly, the novel written in 1977, Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a damning indictment of the legacy of colonialism and political corruption. Set in Kenya not long after independence from the British in 1964, it is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. It tells the story of Munira, a teacher; his friend Abdulla, a shopkeeper; Wanja, a barmaid and object of Munira’s affection; and Karega, a young man who wants to know about Munira’s history of school strikes and acts as the voice of communist ideals in the novel. All have moved to the remote village of Ilmorog to try and come to terms with the fallout from the Mau Mau war and build a life for themselves in the new republic.  The title image recurs throughout the story. At its earliest point it is voiced by a child in Munira’s class:

“ ‘Look. A flower with petals of blood.’

It was a solitary red beanflower in a field dominated by white, blue and violet flowers. No matter how you looked at it, it gave you the impression of a flow of blood. Munira bent over it and with a trembling hand plucked it. It had probably been the light playing upon it, for now it was just a red flower.

‘There is no colour called blood. What you mean is that it is red.’ “

What emerges throughout the novel is that of course, there are literally petals of blood. Kenyans have fought and died on their land and their blood is in the earth. Stories of Munira’s school strikes show how indoctrination under empire was a mix of politics, religion and outright racism:

“We saluted the British flag every morning and every evening to the martial sound from the bugles and drums of our school band. Then we would all march in orderly military lines to the chapel to raise choral voices to the Maker: Wash me Redeemer, and I shall be whiter than snow. We would then pray for the continuation of the Empire that had defeated the satanic evil which had erupted in Europe to try the children of God.”

Following severe drought, the residents of Ilmorog travel to Nairobi to speak with their MP. They encounter indifference at best and outright hypocrisy and corruption at worst from businessmen, their MP, a reverend, which allows wa Thiong’o to explore what and who a new society is built on.

“And suddenly it was not her that he was looking at, seeing, but countless other faces in many other places all over the republic. You eat or you are eaten. You fatten on another, or you are fattened upon.”

If this sounds unremittingly bleak, the residents do also encounter a principled lawyer who helps them. If it sounds polemical and more of a treatise than a novel, it isn’t. wa Thiong’o is furious at the injustice and corruption he portrays, but the power of Petals of Blood is that it is never at the expense of believable characters. Munira, Abdulla, Wanja and Karega bring home the human cost of political decision-making and large-scale corruption.

“She had carried dreams in a broken vessel.”

Petals of Blood is an incredible novel. Angry and urgent, ultimately optimistic and with a belief that human beings can make better lives for themselves and for one another, but with a clear-sighted view of the damage we can wreak.

“It was really very beautiful. But at the end of the evening Karega felt very sad. It was like beholding a relic of beauty that had suddenly surfaced, or like listening to a solitary beautiful tune straying, for a time, from a dying world.”

Looking for the name of the translator of this novel, I was surprised to discover that wa Thiong’o wrote in the language of his country’s colonisers. Apparently Petals of Blood was the last time he did so, and he has since written in Gikuyu and Swahili.  He has led a fascinating life, including time as a prisoner of conscience, which you can get a taste of on Wiki.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Secondly, Jubilee by Shelley Harris (2011), set on the day of a street party to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and also in 2007, where a 30 year reunion of the people captured in a famous photo of that day is planned. The photo featured Satish, the son of Ugandan refugees fleeing Idi Amin, sat amidst his white neighbours:

“Here he was after all, an Asian boy happy in his white-majority Buckinghamshire village, and posing only a minimal threat to house prices.”

For reasons of his own, Satish has no desire to recreate that day. In 2007 he is married to a woman he loves, has two children and a successful career as a paediatric cardiologist. He also has an escalating addiction to diazepam.  We know something awful happened to him on the day of the Jubilee, and by moving back and forth in time, Harris is able to show how the celebration built to crisis, and the fallout thirty years later. This is handled deftly, and didn’t get tiresome. Similarly, the period details are in abundance but not too heavily rammed home, possibly because the author is drawing on her lived experience as the daughter of 1970s immigrants to Britain, fleeing apartheid in South Africa.

“mushy peas; scampi; egg-and-bacon sandwiches; chips and mash and roasties – every iteration of the glorious potato; faggots; fry-ups; fish and chips; jelly and rice pudding; apple pie and Artic roll….He wondered what might happen if these were the only things he ate. Would it build up Britishness in him, all this English food? Would it drain his colour, sharpen his soccer skills, send him rushing into church?”

Satish encounters both casual ignorance and outright racist prejudice from his neighbours, and this is not shied away from but also not dwelt on, as young Satish does not dwell on these things. As adult readers, we know where the hatred can lead and its enduring effect on Satish, which lends the novel an underlying sense of menace.

 “What were they exactly? Indian? Ugandan? He had never been clear. But this was neither their country nor their culture, and no matter how many Union Jacks they raised, they would always be waving someone else’s flag.”

Depressingly, these attitudes do  not make the novel a period piece. There is a still need anti-racism marches, with Stand Up to Racism taking place this Saturday, on UN Anti-Racism Day.

Jubilee builds carefully towards its denouement, and shows the long-term damage that blind prejudice can inflict. It also shows how an act of hatred does not define either the perpetrator or the victim, and the power of forgiveness and reconciliation towards the events of our lives and the choices we make. I don’t know what it was about Jubilee that stopped me totally loving it, but it is a good read and effective evocation of a moment in time.

They look this happy because they’re yet to taste the Coronation chicken

To end, the cheesy earworm that was number one the week I was born. I’ve always thought my enduring love of sax solos came from Careless Whisper, but maybe this made an impact at a very impressionable age. All together now: ya-da-da-da-da….

“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” (Seamus Heaney)

This is a contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff – do join in!

I’ve decided to make debut novels featuring a crime the theme of the post (the first choice isn’t quite a crime novel, hence that rather cumbersome explanation). It was with regret that I decided the following quote – so thematically apt – was too long to pick as a title:

“There are three states of legality in Irish law. There is all this stuff here under “That’s grand”; then it moves into “Ah, now, don’t push it”; and finally to “Right! You’re taking the piss.” And that’s where the police sweep in.” (Dara O’Briain)

Firstly, The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney’s debut novel which won the Bailey’s Prize in 2016 (the 2017 longlist was announced yesterday). Set in Cork, it tells the story of Robbie O’Donvan’s death – an almost homeless drug addict who theoretically could disappear with few people noticing – and the fractures that radiate out across the city from this one act.

McInerney is interested in the members of society who are simultaneously vilified and ignored. So the people affected by Robbie’s death include a teenage drug dealer, his alcoholic father, their paedophile neighbour, Robbie’s prostitute girlfriend. If this sounds depressing, it really isn’t due to McInerney’s comic voice and eye for beauty where there should be none.

“The rain cleared off in the evening, Tony walked down to the off-licence and stood outside it like a child with tuppence to his name outside the toy shop. If he pressed his nose to the glass, he may well have been able to smell it. The heady warmth of the thought seeped through his hell and into his bones and lifted his onto his toes and rose off him like holy water off the devil’s shoulders.”

She doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situation, but presents it in a complex way, so Tony’s alcoholism is seen through his own eyes as self-medication for the pressures he is under, and we also shown the catastrophic impact this has on his son, Ryan. All the people in the novel are self-aware enough to know the damage they are doing to themselves and others but they are powerless to stop it:

“How could you be two people in five years? How could you undergo such a metamorphosis – whore to saint – and paint the slattern back over the scar tissue only a few short years later?”

McInerney manages to covey insight without ever sitting in judgement on her characters. This moment stood out for me as the tragedy of people who are in so much pain, yet unable to articulate to themselves or others:

“And for the beat before he wordlessly left her she grasped something of what he was trying to say, And that it might have been nice to have someone like him, someone who got it, someone who might have stood by her and bawled her out of it when she stepped out of line.”

The city of Cork is an additional, pervasive character in the novel, surrounding, influencing and directing all the other characters:

“Jimmy had watched the city long enough to know that it would right itself, sooner or later, and that the silence following Robbie O’Donovan’s death was just a long, caught breath”

“The city runs on macro, but what’s that, except the breathing, beating, swallowing, sweating agonies and ecstasies of a hundred thousand little lives?”

I haven’t mentioned much plot-wise regarding The Glorious Heresies, because to me this was the least interesting part of the novel (but still excellent).  How Robbie O’Donovan’s death is dealt with in practical terms is the bare bones of what McInerney is writing about. As a series of characters studies of people and their city, The Glorious Heresies is warm, affectionate, brutal, bleak and incisive.

Secondly, In the Woods by Tana French (2007), the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, focussing on detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the murder of 12 year old Katy Devlin. I’m not a great one for crime novels but I was persuaded by Lady Fancifull to give French a try. I’m glad I did, but first I had to make it through an appallingly overwritten prologue; I have no idea what French’s editors were thinking, letting her start with a passage which includes a description of a forest thus:

“It’s silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises”

Having waded through such pretentious nonsense, I was rewarded with an accomplished debut crime novel. Rob Ryan is asked to investigate the murder of a child in his home town just outside Dublin, his superiors unaware that when he was twelve, he was found in the same woods as the victim, bloodied and amnesiac, with his two best friends lost forever. If this sounds a bit clichéd, French has fun with it:

“And I suppose, if I’m being honest, it appealed to both my ego and to my sense of the picturesque, the idea of carrying this strange charged secret through the case unsuspected. I suppose it felt, at the time, like the kind of thing that enigmatic Central Casting maverick would have done.”

Maverick coppery 101

As Rob and his partner Cassie investigate Katy’s murder, they discover family secrets and political conspiracies, but did these lead to the death of a twelve year old girl, excited to be going to ballet school?

“All these private, parallel dimensions, underlying such an innocuous little estate; all these self-contained worlds layered onto the same space. I thought of the dark strata of archaeology underfoot; of the fox outside my window, calling out to a city that barely overlapped with mine.”

In the Woods was a good read and filled with believable characters, which bodes well for the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad novels as French focusses on a different person each time. Some quibbles: it was too long and (I feel like I say this all the time) could have done with a heavier-handed edit. The voice of Rob Ryan sometimes felt distinctly feminine but at least he wasn’t an alpha-male detective type. This aside, French’s talent is evident and I’m sure she’s gone from strength to strength in her subsequent novels.

To end, the cop with the least convincing Irish accent of all time, but the performance still won an Oscar, because it’s Lord High Commander Sir Sean Connery 😀