“You can’t die with an unfinished book.” (Terry Pratchett)

This week’s post was prompted by a discussion I had with a friend at the weekend.  We hadn’t seen each other for about six weeks, and last time we met we’d discussed the new BBC cat-and-mouse crime drama we had just begun watching, The Fall. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Gillian Anderson plays a police detective hunting a serial killer in Belfast.  We know who the killer is from the off, the drama came from watching how they closed in on each other.  When we started watching it, we were full of enthusiasm – I love Gillian Anderson as a screen actor, she’s just got one of those incredibly sensitive faces that registers every flicker of emotion.  We thought Model Boy (so called because we only knew him from the smoking hot Calvin Klein ads with Eva Mendes) who I now know is called Jamie Dornan, was doing a great job as a creepy family man/serial killer. This weekend we spent time discussing how fed up we were with the whole thing.  So what happened?  The ending.  Or rather, the ending didn’t happen.  Without giving away too many spoilers, it just…ended.  Then there was a trailer for the next series.  As a viewer I felt they were taking the piss, frankly.  It wasn’t two series, it was one series cut in half.  I’ve seen some claims that it was a cliffhanger ending.  It wasn’t.  I don’t mind a cliffhanger ending, the 1969 version of The Italian Job is one of my favourite rainy-Sunday-afternoon films.  I don’t mind ambiguity – I don’t want to know what Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.  That night I dreamt about the video for The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up  (viewers of a sensitive nature please approach that hyperlink with caution) I’ve no idea why – because it really wasn’t that sort of night, I assure you – except to remind me that I also don’t mind having my assumptions undermined in the final few frames either.  I think the difference between The Fall and the examples I’ve just given is that the others all felt crafted towards their respective endings, whereas The Fall, which must have also been crafted towards its end, didn’t give that impression.  It just stopped.  And yet sometimes, even when the ending isn’t what the author had in mind, reading an unfinished book can still be worth doing (see? We got to books in the end.  My diatribe is over, almost).  So here are two books that were left incomplete due to the authors’ deaths (do you hear that, producers of The Fall?  They died – a valid reason. OK, now my diatribe is over.) I think it’s good to go in knowing that the stories are unfinished, but these novels are beautifully written and although it’s sad that the endings are lost, it doesn’t diminish the work.

Firstly, The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  This is the story of Monroe Stahr, Hollywood producer, told by Cecelia Brady, the daughter of another producer.  The narrative voice isn’t consistent though, and Cecelia often narrates things she couldn’t know.  I felt this worked well, as it highlighted the artifice of storytelling, and was wholly in keeping with a tale of Hollywood.  It’s the topic Fitzgerald was born to write about, and it’s such a shame he didn’t complete it.  He is brilliant at capturing why we acknowledge the artificiality of Hollywood, and yet why it continues to hold our fascination:

“Under the moon the back lot was thirty acres of fairyland – not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French chateaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway at night, but because they looked like the torn picture books of childhood, like fragments of stories dancing in an open fire.”

Hollywood offers audiences a chance to believe in magic, and recapture that feeling often lost in childhood. However, Fitzgerald also exposes the less-than-glamorous reality behind facades, and yet why those façades remain special:

“Stahr stopped beside her chair.  She wore a low gown which displayed the bright eczema of her chest and back.  Before each take, the blemished surface was plastered over with emollient, which was removed immediately after the take.  Her hair was the colour and viscosity of drying blood, but there was a starlight that actually photographed in her eyes.”

The plot concerns Stahr’s affair (the planned title may have been The Love of the Last Tycoon) with a woman who, in movie fashion, he sees across a crowded room, and the machinations of Hollywood tycoons that surround him.  The plot stops short of these being fully played out, and my edition then gives a plot outline based on Fitzgerald’s notes.  The novel is very much a work in progress, but I hope the quotes I’ve used have demonstrated why it’s still worth reading – the beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing shines even before it’s polished.  For all you aspiring writers out there, I’ll  finish this part with some of Cecelia’s cynical observations on the profession:

“Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. It’s like actors, who try so pathetically not to look in mirrors, who lean backward trying – only to see their faces in the reflecting chandeliers.”

“I grew up thinking that writer and secretary were the same, except that a writer usually smelled of cocktails and came more often to meals.”

At almost the opposite end of the spectrum from Hollywood glamour is a tale subtitled “An Every Day Story”, the novel Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. For those of you who don’t like Victorian fiction, or saw the BBC version of Cranford and think Gaskell is all parochial tales of small town personal politics, please stick with me.  W&D is one of my favourite novels and it’s wonderfully written.  Gaskell is not a highly moralising Victorian writer, nor is she blinkered in her view.  She presents the characters and the situations, and then leaves the reader to make up their own mind.  There is no omnipresent narrator (like George Eliot) to instruct you how to react.  Although W&D is a tale of small town life, Gaskell was a writer who concerned herself with big issues – unmarried mothers in Ruth, the destructiveness of industrial life and urban poverty in North and South.

In W&D there is not such an obvious political drive, instead Gaskell uses the small setting to look at society at large, and on the brink of change.  There is much (as the title would suggest) around the role of women, and frequent mentions of the incoming railway, which will revolutionise society.  There is also a strong theme of Darwinism.  The main hero, Roger Hamley, is a highly intelligent, gentle, and serious natural scientist.  Gaskell was related to Darwin through the Wedgwood family and knew him personally.  It’s fascinating to see this revolutionary scientist presented in such an intimate way.  Roger provides the romantic drive of the plot with the heroine Molly Gibson, but there’s much more going on than a straightforward romantic arc.  Molly’s father remarries and his new wife and her daughter come to live with Molly and her father.  His new wife is utterly self-serving and vacuous, but in her daughter, Cynthia, Gaskell takes the pretty coquette of Victorian fiction and gives the character real depth.  As a result, Cynthia and Molly become friends and allies, not enemies.  The Hamleys are a local family with a bloodline that Squire Hamley is snobbishly proud of.  His wife is befriended by Molly, and she becomes involved in the family and the dramas around their two sons, Osborne and Roger, neither of whom are quite what their parents think. The personal relationships are drawn with such insight and sensitivity, to create a novel of human understanding which I found deeply moving.  To be honest, I could go on about this novel forever, so I’m going to reign myself in by quoting just one section at length.  Squire Hamley is sitting by the fire, smoking his pipe.  His wife has died and he is losing his estate piece by piece.  He feels utterly alone and desolate, and then his son Roger arrives in the room.

“The Squire sat and gazed into the embers, still holding his useless pipe-stem. At last he said, in a low voice, as if scarcely aware he had got a listener,—”I used to write to her when she was away in London, and tell her the home news. But no letter will reach her now! Nothing reaches her!”

Roger started up.

“Where’s the tobacco-box, father? Let me fill you another pipe!” and when he had done so, he stooped over his father and stroked his cheek. The Squire shook his head.

“You’ve only just come home, lad. You don’t know me, as I am now-a-days! Ask Robinson—I won’t have you asking Osborne, he ought to keep it to himself—but any of the servants will tell you I’m not like the same man for getting into passions with them. I used to be reckoned a good master, but that’s past now! Osborne was once a little boy, and she was once alive—and I was once a good master—a good master—yes! It’s all past now.”

He took up his pipe, and began to smoke afresh, and Roger, after a silence of some minutes, began a long story about some Cambridge man’s misadventure on the hunting-field, telling it with such humour that the Squire was beguiled into hearty laughing. When they rose to go to bed his father said to Roger,—

“Well, we’ve had a pleasant evening—at least, I have. But perhaps you haven’t; for I’m but poor company now, I know.”

“I don’t know when I’ve passed a happier evening, father,” said Roger. And he spoke truly, though he did not trouble himself to find out the cause of his happiness.”

Someone terribly important thought that this was one of the most perfect scenes in English literature, but I’ve wracked my brains (and google) and I can’t remember who it was.  I think it may have been Henry James.  I hope it gives you a feel for how artfully drawn the characters in Wives and Daughters are, and with what subtlety the relationships are evoked.  The story ends at a point where you can see how everything will play out and you’re just enjoying getting there. Gaskell was extremely close to finishing the novel, and my copy just has a note at the end by the editor of Cornhill Magazine, which was publishing the novel in serial form, to confirm the author’s plans.  W&D is a deserving classic of English literature, even in its unfinished state.

I couldn’t think how to represent “unfinished” in the photo of the books this week, so here they are straight up.  However, in the spirit of this week’s theme I will leave the text of this post unfini….


“She got her looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.” (Groucho Marx)

For the second week running Groucho provides the title of my post – I try not to quote the same person so close together, but it was really hard to find a quote about fathers that had the right air of flippancy that I try to cultivate for this blog. 16 June was Father’s Day in many countries and so both of the books I’ve chosen are around this theme.  However, my search for quotes about fathers showed me it’s a potentially tricky subject for people, so neither of the novels are precisely about fathers, more about the role of fathers and the impact that has.  Also, my own father has always proclaimed that Father’s Day is a commercial scam and instructed his offspring not to engage with it, which means I feel a bit disloyal even mentioning it.  So the theme of this post is Father’s Day, sort of…

Firstly, The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (2011, Vintage).  Enright has a sparse writing style that I love, and I highly rate her 2007 novel The Gathering, which won the Man Booker Prize.  The Forgotten Waltz explores many of the same themes – families, what damage they do, the lies and intricacies that can make up adult lives.  If that sounds really depressing, well, it’s not exactly a heart-warming read, but it’s not downbeat, just very real.  I chose it for Father’s Day because the narrator identifies her lover’s role as a father as the motivating force in their lives from the opening paragraph:

“If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive.  Not that there is anything to forgive of course, but the fact that a child was mixed up in it all made us feel that there was no going back; that it mattered.  The fact that a child was affected meant we had to face ourselves properly, we had to follow through.”

The thing that happens is an extra-marital affair, and the child is Evie, who witnesses the narrator, Gina, kissing her father.  You’ll note Gina believes there was “nothing to forgive”, which is somewhat questionable – when deceit is involved, people get hurt in the fallout.  But I think this one of the strengths of the novel, that there are not easy characters (like the intermittently self-deluding Gina) or situations, no “goodies” or “baddies”.  It’s all shades of grey (by which I mean morally complex, not badly written BDSM tales).

The reality of the situation is also reflected in the structure of the narrative, which although essentially linear, jumps back and forth, as people do when they’re telling you their story.  It accurately reflects the complexities of our lives, the way we restructure our narratives as we try and make sense of things; things that can appear different to us on different days: “This is the real way it happens, isn’t it? I mean in the real world there is no one moment when a relationship changes, no clear cause and effect.” There’s no huge driving plot here, in that sense it is a very simple tale, but Enright’s great skill is to capture small moments and attempt to define their importance:

“When the last small guest was gone and the rubbish bag full of packaging and uneaten lasagne the thought of him – the fact of him – happened in my chest, like a distant disaster.  Something was snapped or broken. And I did not know how bad the damage was.”

The Forgotten Waltz is an acutely insightful novel, that at the same time steps back from offering the answers – honest and thought-provoking.

Secondly, Pop by Kitty Aldridge (2001, Vintage). Pop was Kitty Aldridge’s first novel (she’s an actress who has been friends with fellow thesp-turned-author Esther Freud since their days at drama school, literary fact-fans) and looking on amazon people seem to object to the abundance of imagery in the novel, which I think is understandable in your first attempt.  I like an abundance of imagery so it didn’t bother me at all, and I found the story of Maggie, parentless at thirteen, going to live with her trivia-loving granddad in the Midlands in 1975, a touching and compelling read.   The opening paragraph introduces us to Maggie’s new parental figure:

“She is looking up at a tall man in shambolic clothes.  He is racing-dog thin with a long mischievous face, whiplashed with creases. The railway-station wind lifts his remaining hair.  It is hard to say how old he is; old, seventy perhaps.  But he moves with the quick fluidity of a youth and hangs a lean on one hip like a gunslinger. When he is not squinting he has the openly amazed expression of a child.  His eyes are a shocking shade of blue; they steal almost all the available light.  Maggie follows, up into his eyes like the light.”

The book follows Pop and Maggie as they grow used to each other.  The plot is slight – Pop wants to win the local pub quiz:

“Pop had stayed up half the night with his facts.  He knew every West Indian cricket team for the past five years.  “I’ll wipe the floor with you in a sporting category any day Malcolm Denton!” he hollered as he shaved at dawn.  The statement sprang through the open window and bounced off car roofs into the trees.  The birds stopped singing momentarily, considering the claim.  The three of them trooped in the man-dog-child formation along Tower Road past the Pint Pot and on past Iris’s house.  Iris was Pop’s exquisite, unattainable love and he was going to win her at any cost.  He told himself the gallon of beer and five pounds meant nothing; winning, that was what counted.”

Gradually, the two of them, a cantankerous old man still having nightmares about the war, and a teenage girl who worries her hands are too big & the rest of her too bony, form an unlikely alliance, and a bonded family.  This is what makes Pop a great Father’s Day read:

“Pop wondered about her.  About how it would turn out.  About what he’d said to the woman carrying a file with their names on.  The stuff about family, about blood ties, all that thicker-than-water speech.  The prohibitive wave of his hand to knock the alternatives into a cocked hat.  The rise of blood in his temples as he moved himself to trembling, and the final whispered declaration of love for her, that he didn’t feel then but was saddled with now […] And he felt for her now alright. He laid his chin in the cradle of his free hand and closed his eyes. Buggered it again, you fool.”

Here are the books with a picture of Lenin.  I realise I need to explain this, dear reader.  They are with Lenin because my very own pater is the spitting image of the Bolshevik leader.  So much so that when I showed him (my Dad, I don’t talk to the ghost of Lenin) the image on my phone that flashes up when he calls me, he asked “When was that taken?  I look good.” And I had to break it to him that it was in fact Vladimir Ilych, not himself. Happy Father’s Day, and up the revolution!


“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” (Groucho Marx)

Unlike Groucho Marx, I quite like television.  I say this in the full acknowledgement that at least 99% of it is shocking in its lack of aspiration towards anything other than cheaply-made sensationalist drivel.  And (unsurprisingly) it will never be as rewarding to me as reading is.  But some of the programmes of recent years have just been astonishing.  I’m careful how I use TV, which essentially means I never channel surf to sit mindlessly in front of  America’s Next Top Gypsy Teenage Mom Hoarder Bounty Hunter Bride’s Got Talent or whatever else the channels are filling their many hours with repeats of.  I choose what I’m going to watch, and then my addictive personality traits emerge as I stack up hour upon hour to watch in a big binge.

This is why I’ve only just started on Mad Men Season 6. But aside from my unhealthy habits, there was another reason why I stacked up the episodes.  Fear.  I was so worried it wouldn’t live up to itself.  Surely, I thought, they’re due to screw it up?  They’ll take this piece of TV perfection and turn it into yet another series that lost its way and sends fans apoplectic with grief at the betrayal?  I needn’t have worried.  A few minutes in to the first episode, there was a moment so completely perfect I nearly wept with relief at the beauty of it all. (For those of you who haven’t sold your soul to Rupert Murdoch in the name of timely programming, and therefore haven’t seen season 6 yet, don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler). Here it is, the moment: Don Draper is on the beach in Hawaii reading Dante’s Inferno.  That’s it. Damn, Matthew Weiner is a bona fide genius.  Everything you need to know about a character distilled into one perfect moment.  Don Draper, living the life everyone wants: gorgeous and successful, beautiful loving wife sipping cocktails next to him, relaxing on a beach in luxury, reading about the nine circles of Hell.  I could’ve kissed the screen.  If I wasn’t such an appalling housekeeper & so my TV covered in dust, I would have.

And then this got me thinking about other moments in TV where books are used as a visual clue to as to the reader’s personality.  There’s the time in The Wire where McNulty (police officer) goes to Stringer Bell’s (drug lord’s)apartment, picks up a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and is so wrong-footed by it he wonders aloud “Who the fuck was I chasing?” But often it’s unspoken, and funny: Marcus, the scarily shark-eyed ten- year- old in Spy, reading The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) or Machiavelli’s The Prince; Gromit’s many punning titles of great novels (my favourite: Crime and Punishment by Fido Dogstoyevsky).  It’s a great opportunity to flesh out a character (even a plasticine dog) without using any dialogue, in a matter of seconds.  A wordless conversation between the programme makers and the viewer.  So in celebration of such moments, here are two TV characters and the books I’d like to see them read (and proof, if proof were needed, that Matthew Weiner is not lying awake at night worrying that I’m about to emerge as a rival TV-producer-of-substantial-genius)…

Firstly, in celebration of the series return via Netflix, Gob from Arrested Development, for whom I recommend The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989, my copy 1996, Minerva).  The uninitiated can view some of Gob’s moments here:

Gob is a lunatic, obsessed with stage magic but woefully inept at its execution, a wannabe alpha male who will never lead the pack, despised by his mother and barely tolerated by the rest of his family.  And he travels everywhere by Segway.  I decided on The Joy Luck Club because I feel Gob could benefit from some positive female energy in his life, and this tale of two generations of mothers and daughters will immerse him in oestrogen-fuelled drama.  It will also show him the power of unconditional love of parents for their children, something entirely lacking in his own life.  The club of the title is a group of Chinese immigrant women who are living in San Francisco, and who get together to play mah jong.  At the start of the novel one of the women, Suyuan, has died, and her daughter, Jing-Mei/June has been asked to take her place.  The novel is divided into four sections as the three remaining mothers and each of the four daughters tells their story.  The tales explore the experience of the women back in China, and their daughters’ experiences as the first generation growing up in San Francisco.  The communication difficulties across the generations are contextualised within an Asian-American experience, but are really universal:

“For all these years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out.  And because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me.  She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking her why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid….I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water.” (Ying-Ying St.Clair)

“During our brief tour of the house, she’s already found the flaws.  She says the slant of the floor makes her feel as if she is “running down”.  She thinks the guest room where she will be staying – which is really a former hayloft shaped by a sloped roof – has “two lopsides”.  She sees spiders in high corners and even fleas  jumping up in the air – pah! pah! pah! – like little spatters of hot oil.  My mother knows, underneath all the fancy details that cost so much, this house is still a barn.  She can see all this.  And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts.  But then I look around and everything she said is true.” (Lena St.Clair)

The novel has been accused by some of dealing in racial stereotypes, but I think what limits this is Tan’s ability to create seven strong, original, fully drawn female characters and explore their idiosyncratic relationships.  The voices of the members of The Joy Club Club are memorable and distinctive.

Secondly, Annie from Community, for whom I recommend Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski (1982, my copy 2000, Canongate). The uninitiated can view some of Annie’s moments here:

Oh, Annie, with your relentlessly perky expression and upbeat attitude, your array of tastefully coloured angora jumpers and perfectly organised stationery.  Every now and again the strain shows and the façade crumbles, and Bukowski will teach you that that is where the interesting stuff happens.  Come join us on the darkside, Annie, you know you want to…… Ham on Rye is Bukowski’s most autobiographical novel, and follows his alter-ego Henry Chinaski through an abusive childhood and into an early adulthood where his main source of support and meaning is found in a bottle.   After his first experience with alcohol, drinking his friend’s father’s wine, Henry sits on a bench and reflects:

“I thought, well, now I have found something.  I have found something that is going to help me, for a long time to come.  The park grass looked greener, the park benches looked better and the flowers were trying harder.”

The only other positive experience Henry has in a childhood filled with violence and deprivation is when a teacher praises his creativity and reads aloud an essay he has written:

“Everybody was listening.  My words filled the room, from blackboard to blackboard, they hit the ceiling and bounced off, they covered Mrs Fretag’s shoes and piled up on the floor… I drank in my words like a thirsty man.  I even began to believe some of them[…]So that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools.”

Bukowski is a legend of the beat generation and his reputation for hard-living precedes him.  In some ways this is unfortunate, as it suggests a reputation built on image rather than skill.  But he’s a really beautiful writer who Capote could never accuse of typing, not writing.  For all you fellow bibliophiles out there, here is what happens when Henry discovers the joys of the library:

“It was a joy. Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum.  If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.”

Gorgeous.  Moments like that shine out like beacons amongst the violence and bleakness of Henry’s existence; Ham on Rye is a fantastic reminder of why we read.

Here are Gob and Annie with their books:


“Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” (Sheng Wang, probably)

I didn’t plan for the theme for this week’s post to be feminism, but then my weekend consisted of thinking of little else, so I decided feminism it had to be. So, what happened this weekend?  I watched Caitlin Moran being interviewed by India Knight as part of this year’s Hay sessions, Beyonce’s Chime for Change concert was televised, I read an interview with Joss Whedon talking about Buffy as a role model and why he didn’t want her turned into a doll, there was an article about feminist activism in the digital age. Then I switched on Radio 4 for Book Club and the author was discussing his creation of strong female characters (more of that later).  Once I’d decided on the theme for this post, I wondered if this meant branching out from discussing fiction, as I gazed at my bookshelves trying to decide between Germaine Greer, Susie Orbach, Caitlin Moran, Naomi Wolf, Natasha Walter…  but then I realised I was being incredibly short-sighted.  I wanted this blog to be about fiction and there was no reason to change (but I still wanted to name-check a few authors, please check them out if you haven’t already).  Feminism is about the world we live in, and fiction writing and reading is part of that – for some of us, a huge part… So, fiction it is. I’ve chosen one classic of feminist literature and one less obvious choice.  Also, one by a female author and one by a male, because I don’t think feminism is about the exclusion of men (that’s just made me think of another recommendation, Feminist Ryan Gosling by Danielle Henderson, a great gift for the feminist Gosling fan in your life, of which surely there are many). Let’s smash the patriarchy!

Firstly, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French (1977, my copy Warner Books 1993). Written during the 1970s feminist movement, this was French’s first novel and has become one of feminism’s classic texts.  It’s a huge tome – just shy of 700 pages in my copy, but it has a very readable style and isn’t an arduous “but-I-know-this-is-good-for-me” experience. The central protagonist is Mira, a baby-boomer who grows up to live the domestic idyll, married to a doctor (called Norm, geddit?) and with 2 children who she raises in middle-class suburbia. Her friends are all like her, and discontent and extra-marital affairs abound as they come to terms with the limitations of the lives they’ve wandered into.  After the breakdown of her marriage, Mira attends Harvard and plans to become a teacher.  Here she has her consciousness awakened by Val, a feminist.  It is this character that voices the more extreme views within the book, the most famous probably being “all men are rapists”.  Eek.  Don’t let that put you off though, as the novel generally has a less extreme approach to issues, and as an insight into militant 1970s feminism the character of Val is worth sticking with.  There is a lot of angry polemic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and here there is enough narrative drive to make you feel you’re not being battered over the head with it.  Mira is a character you root for, and she’s not a victim:

“Ever since the divorce, she had grown more and more bitter at that injustice, at the injustice of the way the world treats women, at Norm’s injustice to her.  And all she was doing was getting more bitter, destroying her own life, what was left of it.  There is no justice . there was no way to make up for the past. There was nothing that could make up for the past.  She sat stunned for a while, freed of a burden, feeling her mouth soften, her brow unline. […] There was no justice, there was only life. And life she had.”

In some ways The Women’s Room has dated. Things are different to how they were in 1977.  In other ways it hasn’t dated at all and the things that its angry about are still a source of inequality today; as a novel that looks at how “women’s work” is undervalued, it is entirely current as long as gender pay gaps persist, which they do. The Women’s Room is an approachable way to start to look at feminist issues through narrative.

Secondly, Quarantine by Jim Crace (1997, Penguin).  This may not seem an obvious choice, but it was the novel discussed on Radio 4’s Book Club this week, where Crace identified himself as a feminist:

“I guess it’s a question of being a right-on bloke, that’s lived in through the seventies and eighties […] what I do want to do with the women in my books though, is not have Hollywood type heroines, in which good looks are the gateway to being virtuous and having good luck, and having good fortune, and having long marriages and lots of handsome children. That seems to me to be a very pessimistic view of the world, that only very good-looking women are going to do well in the world. So what I want to do in all of my books, is to present women who are admirable for other reasons. They are strong women, and I like that, and in a way if you’re spending as many hours alone in your house as I do, then you might as well have the company of women that you’ve created who you like.”

So, who are the women of Quarantine?  They are Miri and Marta, living in Judea around 2000 years ago.  Miri is married to Musa, a truly evil man to the point of possibly being the embodiment of Satan.  He is a trader, one who exploits and commodifies all: “He looked each of them in the face as if they were for sale.  He could tell at once what they were worth.”  Miri doesn’t even pretend to like him. Marta enters the desert to fast for fertility:

“Husbands were amusing, too.  At least, they were amusing when they were out of sight.  Their vanities and tempers could be joked about among women friends at the ovens or the well.  Grumbling and laughing at their curdy husbands made the bread rise and the yoghurt set.  But Marta could not find the comedy in Thaniel.  He’d made her and his first wife barren, she was sure, with his dry heart and sparking tongue.  They were like millstones without oil.  But – Marta was an optimist – she still believed everything would be a joy if she could have his child.”

Set 2000 years apart, The Women’s Room and Quarantine both highlight the marriage laws remaining resolutely on the man’s side.  Quarantine however, is resolutely on the women’s side, as they fight to find their way in a society that is not built for them. The women are the strongest characters in the novel, and this may be somewhat surprising when you consider there is another man in the desert too, a young Galilean:

“He was open mouthed.  He looped his tongue from side to side, circling his lips, tasting the atmosphere for smells.  In fact his sense of smell had been so bludgeoned by the heat and by his thirst that he could not detect the sulphur even. He was parched and faint.  His lips were cracked…he was a traveller called Jesus, from the cooler, farming valleys in the north…”

The word quarantine comes from the Italian quarantena, meaning 40 days, and so the title takes on a layered meaning.  The characters are in quarantine from the rest of society for various reasons, including Jesus spending forty days in the desert as part of his spiritual journey. Quarantine is a haunting, beautifully written novel about characters on the outskirts, who are given a space of their own within this story.

Here are the novels, hanging out with Germaine Greer: