“All great novels are great fairytales.” (Vladimir Nabokov)

Last week the news included a feature with Jeanette Winterson talking to children about fairytales and ways in which these narratives might be rewritten.

I think Jeanette would approve of my upbringing. I have a clear memory of a bedtime story told to me by my mother when I was aged about four: a girl with the same name as me was offered the opportunity to swop places with a princess. She did so, and didn’t like it because all she did was shake hands with people for the whole day and she had to keep her clothes clean rather than running about with her friends getting as mucky as she liked. This was around the same time as Charles and Diana getting married, and while the world went princess mad, my mother told me “He doesn’t love her, you know.” Safe to say by that tender age I thought being a princess vastly overrated.

Pretty as a princess: bored, bored, booorrrred......

Pretty as a princess: bored, bored, booorrrred……

So in honour of Jeanette and my mother, this week I’m looking at novels that rework a fairytale narrative to some extent.  Firstly, a young girl living in a castle with her sister, brother, father and step-mother. Except her sister is beautiful & they love each other, and the stepmother is batty and awesome and holds the whole family together, in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949).

“I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic – two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud.”

So says Cassandra Mortmain, 17-year-old narrator of her family’s trials and tribulations as they live in a castle in the 1930s with no money, as her writer father isn’t doing any writing. Her stepmother Topaz is an unusual mix of naked-communer-with-nature and grounded housewife:

“She has a very deep voice- that is, she puts one on; it is part of an arty pose, which includes painting and lute playing. But her kindness is perfectly genuine and so is her cooking.”

Two American men arrive to disrupt this picturesque but borderline-starving idyll, and what follows is a coming of age novel, as Rose plans to marry one of them and Cassandra comes to terms with her feelings about her sister, family, life, love and money.

 “Never have I felt so separate from her. And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her very hard.”

And I really don’t think I have the words to convey how I feel about this novel. I could layer superlative upon superlative and not get close. It is a wonder.

I wish I’d read it as a teenager, because then I could have read it another ten times (minimum) by now. I wish I’d met Cassandra Mortmain years ago but at least I have her in my life now. She is witty, insightful, wise and funny.

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cure for depression.”

Her family are flawed and eminently loveable. The story is eccentric but not self-consciously so; it is heart-warming but not sentimental. I absolutely adored it.

“It’s going to be happy ever after, just like in fairy tales.  – And I still wouldn’t like it. oh, I’d love the clothes and the wedding. I am not so sure I should like the facts of life, but I have got over the bitter disappointment I felt when I first heard about them, and one obviously has to try them sooner or later. What I’d really hate would be the settled feeling, with nothing but happiness to look forward to.”

I Capture the Castle was adapted into a film in 2003. It can’t possibly be as good as the book but Bill Nighy means I’ll probably like Father more in the film:

Secondly, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2012), based on various fables of snow children, particularly Arthur Ransome’s Little Daughter of the Snow. In 1920s Alaska (one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit), Jack and Mabel are homesteaders with a huge grief in their marriage: they lost a child and are unable to conceive any more. The drama in the landscape of their new home reflects their grief:

“It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.”

One night, the two of them carve a snow child, and shortly after they are visited by its embodiment:

“There was the child herself, her face a mirror of the one Jack had sculpted in the snow, her eyes like ice itself. It was fantastical and impossible, but Mabel knew it was true – she and Jack had formed her of snow and birch boughs and frosty wild grass.”

 “Jack would have spoken to her, but her eyes – the broken blue of river ice, glacial crevasses, moonlight – held him. She blinked, her blond lashes glittering with frost, and darted away.”

The child, Faina, visits them each year when it snows, and a delicate, fragile bond is formed. Mabel and Jack are respectful of her need for freedom and are careful not to swamp her with the force of their immense love:

 “like a rainbow trout in a stream, the girl sometimes flashed her true self to him. A wild thing glittering in dark water.”

Ivey writes beautifully regarding both landscape and people. She explores grief and love in its various forms with great sensitivity and never offers trite answers. The fabulism brings an unnerving quality to the story, where you are never sure what might happen. The Snow Child is always completely believable in its emotion and characterisation, alongside startling images that disconcert:

“She told no-one of the otter. Garrett would want to trap it; Faina would ask her to draw it. She refused to confine it by any means because, in some strange way, she knew it was her heart. Living, twisting muscle beneath bristly damp fur.”

To end, a fairytale that survived my childhood scepticism, and my adult cynicism too 🙂

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“Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.”(Dorothy Canfield Fisher)

Last week I saw The Dresser with Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith.

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Reece Shearsmith in particular gave a really moving performance. The cast were universally good and it was an interesting exploration of love in various guises amongst a group of people who are no longer young. For this reason,  I thought I’d look at novels exploring love later in life.

Firstly, Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013), which is a simple novel in some ways, the coming-out tale of 74 year-old Barrington Jedidiah Walker, and I loved it. Firstly there is the cover, which absolutely captures how I saw the main character:

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“Still spruced up and sharp-suited with rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely  clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly older) Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on, Barry. Bring it on…”

Then there is the character of Barry himself: intelligent, witty, kind, selfish, self-centred, sexist. A mass of compelling and endearing contradictions. A sexist who uses the word “mentalate” rather than menstruate, yet who supports a lesbian he barely knows through a degree in Woman’s Studies. A flamboyant, confident, outgoing man who cannot come out through fear of judgement; unapologetic of his sexuality yet resistant to certain labels “I ain’t no homosexual, I am a ….Barrysexual!”, despite the love he feels for his partner of 60 years, Morris.

“He is my Morris and he always been my Morris. He’s a good-hearted man, a special man, a sexy man, a history-loving-man, a loyal man, a man who appreciates a good joke, a man of many moods, a drinking man and a man with whom I can be myself, completely.”

Barry has been married to Carmel for the majority of their lives, a woman with whom he has little in common:

“Carmel still don’t get arty-fartiness, and the only culture that interests her is the one she decimates with bleach.”

Yet Evaristo shows Carmel’s side of the story brilliantly, and cruelty of Barry’s lies and deception. The impact on Carmel, though she remains oblivious and thinks him a womaniser, is considerable and destructive. While we root for Barry, we are also aware of his disregard for other’s feelings, including his two daughters, especially the eldest with whom he has a strained relationship. And yet just at the points where I would be close to losing all sympathy for Barry, Evaristo would remind me of all he had to contend with:

“All of my life I’ve watched couples holding hands, kissing in the street, on the bus, in pubs. I’ve watched couples walking arm in arm, ruffling each other’s hair, sitting on each other’s laps, dancing closely…

And never, not once, have I ever felt able even to link arms with the man I love.

Me and Morris exchange sidelong glances, and flicker.

He grabs my hand and squeezes it for a few seconds.

It is our first public display of physical affection in sixty years.”

Mr Loverman is also a story of identity, colonialism, immigration first and second-generation, and prejudice in many forms.

“And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop prepositions with our panties, piss in the pot of correct syntax and spelling, mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?”

Barry is an intelligent, well-educated ( devoted to his various night school classes), well-read and funny guide through these issues, who provides plenty of food for thought whilst suggesting love always wins out, and there’s plenty to go round.  A brilliant character study which engages with huge themes in a compelling but never didactic way, Mr Loverman, like Barry himself, is an absolute gem.

Now would be an opportunity for the song from which the novel takes its title, but I am less forgiving than Barry regarding Mr Shabba Ranks’ homophobia. So instead here is a pop video interested in addressing the issue:

Secondly, Our Souls at Night, the last novel by Kent Haruf (2015). Unlike Barry and Morris, Addie and Louis become lovers later in life, although they have known each other for years. The novel begins with Addie visiting Louis to make a proposition: that he visit her at night so they sleep together. It is not a request for sex, but for companionship, conversation, and comfort. They live in small town and know from the outset that their arrangement will not go unnoticed:

“It’s some kind of decision to be free. Even at our ages.

You’re acting like a teenager.

I never acted like this as a teenager.  I never dared anything. I did what I was supposed to.”

The short novel (179 pages in my edition) follows the tender, tentative relationship that builds between Louis and Addie. Haruf’s writing is sparse and he hammers nothing home.  Instead he presents moments in unadorned prose, leaving the reader to recognise the meaning.

“Addie turned off the light. Where’s your hand?

Right here beside you where it always is.”

The moments layer into a narrative which presents a touching, believable relationship between two strong, independent individuals who also recognise their need for intimate human contact. Haruf is interested in what human beings can give to each other in the simplest, most fundamental terms. This is further explored through their relationship with Addie’s grandson, a boy traumatised by his parents acrimonious split, who is healed through humble activities with Louis (ball games, camping) and adopting a rescue dog.

“The boy was asleep. The dog lifted her head from the pillow, looked up at Louis and lay back again.

In Addie’s bedroom Louis put his hand out the window and caught the rain dripping off the eaves and came to bed and touched his wet hand on Addie’s soft cheek.”

Haruf is a wonderful writer, presenting moments of extraordinary delicacy and complexity distilled to their essence. Beautiful.

To end, a Ruth Gordon gallery (I don’t know why I don’t do this every week). Because her face is amazing, and one of her most famous roles was in Harold and Maude, a controversial older person romance. In real life she was married to the same person for 43 years and he was with her when she died. Also, completely unconnected to theme but just because I think it’s awesome, when she died aged 88 she was planning the next play she was going to write.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” (REM)

Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest suggested this week’s title & theme  – I think we all know why.

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Starting with an obvious choice, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009, tr. Lisa Dillon 2015), published by the wonderful &Other Stories Press – I wrote about another of their Mexican novels here. Herrera looks at the illegal immigrant experience through Makina, seeking out her brother at the behest of her mother, and desperate to return home.

“You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.”

Makina’s journey is both physical and mythical.  As she travels through her homeland she has to ask men with pseudonyms for different types of help to get her across the border. The places she visits have similarly folkloric names: ‘The Place Where The Hills Meet’, ‘The Big Chilango’, ‘The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten’ and across the border ‘The Place Where The Wind Cuts Like A Knife’. By not grounding Signs Preceding the End of the World in recognisable names and places, Herrera expands the simple journey to something much larger. Any tale of illegal immigration is going to have particular political resonances, but Herrera makes his heroine an Odysseus character and her trials a quest. While the tale is not surreal, there is a sense, as in myths and fables, that anything could happen:

“She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.”

Herrera is a writer who invents neologisms (definitely worth reading the interesting Translator’s Note for this novel) and so is fascinated by language. Through Makina’s journey he tracks the way that boundaries of countries, self and language are all permeable, and how this creates a modern, constantly shifting society:

“Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect  and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent  they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.”

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a fascinating, multi-layered novel, at once a story for our times but also engages with enduring, expansive themes. Hugely impressive.

And now I pause for thought to wonder if there are enough pictures of kittens in barrels to get me through a single news bulletin right now:

Secondly, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015) which I was alerted to last year by the many bloggers who loved this debut novel (written when the author was in her 40s – I must remember to tell my friend C who is coming to terms with the fact that she’s missed her window for those ‘30 Under 30’ type lists). I’m not going to buck the trend on this – I found it a compulsive read which I whizzed through to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

Peggy lives with her parents in the kind of north London middle-class bohemia that keeps Mini Boden in business.  Peggy doesn’t wear Mini Boden though, as it’s 1976 and her mother is busy being a concert pianist while her father gets into arguments with his friends in the North London Retreaters group. This collection of (male) survivalists are convinced nuclear war is imminent. A personal crisis forces Peggy’s father to act on his rhetoric, and he takes her to Germany, to live entirely isolated in “Die Hutte”, in the middle of a forest.  We know this fairytale has unravelled horribly from the opening line, told 9 years later by Peggy who is back in Highgate after a long absence:

“This morning, I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.”

The lie Peggy’s father told is astronomical: that the rest of the world has disappeared and they are the only two left living.

“ ‘We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes anymore,’ he said. ‘When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.’

I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.”

What follows is a narrative that moves back and forth between Peggy’s life in Die Hutte and that in 1985 Highgate with her mother and brother she never knew, Oskar. Fuller handles this extremely well, and I didn’t find the chopping back and forth disruptive or gimmicky. While not a thriller, Our Endless Numbered Days is definitely a page-turner, as Peggy’s comments drip-feed us information about what has gone on: there has been a fire, she has no hair, part of her ear is missing, her teeth are rotten, there is a man called Reuben involved in some way… and her father is no longer around.

The writing style is simple, and I found this a quick read, but the ideas are complex. Fuller is interested in the fantasies we tell ourselves and others in order to survive and the dangers inherent in not questioning these (insert heavy-handed political parallel here). She is interested in the price paid by powerless members of society when the powerful seek fulfilment by disregarding the needs of others (insert… well, you get the idea) and she is interested in the psychological fallout from childhood and our parents.  I saw the twists a mile off, and sometimes Peggy’s voice wavered, but this may have been intentional and it really didn’t matter. Peggy’s complex fairytale was both extreme and subtle, quite a feat.

“Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick white ice which had risen like a soufflé out of a bucket hanging on a nail beside the back door. I recognised it, it was the bucket my father and I had used…Oskar laughed and turned the handle twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too with the effort. The tap snapped off. And for the first time since I had come home I cried – for the music, for Reuben, but most of all for the waste of a bucket.”

To end, goodbye to a poet and musician whose work is bringing me some comfort – as always – in these troubled times:

“Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” (John Milton)

Well, Milton’s got my number. My shallowness extends to books themselves –against conventional wisdom, I definitely judge by the cover.  Thank goodness I do, otherwise whole publishing marketing teams would be out of business.  This week I’m hoping other people aren’t as shallow as me as I’m starting a new job and I hope they overlook whatever gibbering first impression I make to see the hard-working-team-playing-but-definitely-not-a jobsworth- and-will-never-steal-your-lunch-from-the-fridge colleague within.

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I was also thinking about first impressions and book covers following an interesting post by Lady Fancifull a few weeks back, about a marketing campaign which played on this exact bias.  Earlier in the year, I was persuaded by another blogger, Cathy at 746 books, to stop being so shallow when I won a book in her giveaway, encouraged by her great review, although its cover meant I would never have picked it up normally. So in this post I’m going to look at the book I was lucky enough to win, and a book whose cover would have attracted me even if I wasn’t already a fan of the author.

Firstly then, Fallen by Lia Mills (2014). Here’s the cover:

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Yuck, right? Curlicues – seriously? I would never have picked this up, thinking it looked like a fluffy romance, which is not my taste at all. But while there is a love affair in Fallen, it is not romanticised. Mills is interested in the fallout from war on both those who served and those who remained behind (often women) and how a generation of young people were irrevocably damaged.

Katie Crilly is living in Dublin in 1915 and trying to find her way in a world where she doesn’t know what she wants, except that she definitely doesn’t want what others expect of her. Then her twin brother Liam announces he’s off to join the war effort.

 “He went into his room and shut the door. The latch clicked like a scold’s tongue, made me wish I’d a more generous heart. The silence on the landing was so deep I heard my own pulse tick.”

Liam dies, and Katie has to cope with profound grief, and the fact that her grief is commonplace:

“We’d heard that, in the Dardanelles, many of the Dublins were put off their boats into water that was too deep for them. Pulled under by the weight of their packs, they drowned, while Turkish bullets and mortar fire tore into their comrades and churned the sea red. The gas unleashed at Ypres, around the time that Liam died, was still claiming lives two months later. Every second person on Sackville Street wore a black armband, or a cuff.”

While all this is happening, the Easter Rising explodes onto the already wrecked population of Dublin. Katie finds herself stranded in the home of friends who are also giving shelter to a wounded soldier, Hubie, who knew Liam. Hubie, his wounds visible and invisible, is furious at the ignorance of those who have remained at home. Katie does not turn her face away from the horrors of war and recognises in Hubie a fellow haunted soul:

 “If you love someone, and that person dies, all that love becomes a burden, a weight accumulating, pooling inside you, with nowhere to go. What do you do with it? … Sometimes it gathered itself into a shape, a shadow, peeled itself off the ground and attached itself to my heel. It followed me and spoke, in Liam’s voice”

Fallen is about an ordinary life caught up in exceptional circumstances. It is about how to find meaning in a world where national events dwarf the individual. Ultimately it is a hopeful book, about how a fractured self can be rebuilt, whole but wholly different.

And it is very much about Dublin: Mills evokes a strong sense of place and Fallen was a perfect choice for Two Cities One Book, in the centenary year of the Easter Rising.

“There was something raw about the morning, as though layers of the city’s skin had rubbed off during the night.”

Secondly, The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (2005, tr. Allison Markin Powell, 2016). I was excited to read this as I’d loved Strange Weather in Tokyo and was disappointed that none of Kawakami’s other work had been translated into English. The Nakano Thrift Shop was translated this year and like Strange Weather, the cover features one of Natsumi Hayashi’s beautiful levitating photographs:

Gorgeous, no? The pictures really capture the vibrancy, unpredictability and humour of Kawakami’s writing.

In The Nakano Thrift Shop, Hitomi takes a job at the eponymous business, uncertain of what she wants from life and hoping that the job will be undemanding:

“With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr Nakano’s shop was literally filled to overflowing…Mr Nakano would raise the shop’s shutter and, with a cigarette between his lips, he’d arrange the goods intended to tempt customers outside the front of the store…Sometimes ash from his cigarette fell on the turtle paperweight’s back, and Mr Nakano roughly brushed it off with a corner of the black apron that he always wore”

The owner has several ex-wives and a mistress. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Mr Nakano has irresistible charm:

“I’d heard the phrase ‘a boyish grin’, but Mr Nakano’s grin was decidedly middle-aged. There was something scruffy about it. And yet, at the same time, it was also a winning smile. I suppose it’s the kind of smile that women, as they age, can’t resist”

Hitomi, Nakano, his artist sister Masayo and the driver Takeo form an unlikely quartet as they are thrown together. And really, very little happens. These four idiosyncratic, wholly believable characters rub along together in their day-to-day lives of triumphs and tragedies, some larger than others, explored through different objects in the shop. Takeo and Hitomi begin a tentative, on-again-off-again relationship that was heart-breaking, real and funny in its tenderness, misunderstanding, affection and frustration:

“I would eat a diet rich in vegetables, seaweed, and legumes, and every day would be sparkling and bright, my life brimming with health and vitality. While imagining this, I was again filled with a general sort of sadness. I definitely wasn’t sad because I was thinking about Takeo. Definitely not.”

This is not the novel to read when you’re in the mood for a heavily plotted, eventful story. Yet Kawakami captures the drama of everyday lives and their meaning. Her writing can also be startling, so while it is concerned with the ordinary it is never banal:

“The skin on Saskiko’s cheeks was glowing with an inner light. Just like the bottom of the gin jug, they reflected a dusky and beautiful radiance.”

The Nakano Thrift Shop is touching and life-affirming, but never sentimental. Fingers crossed for further translations…

To end, some shameless objectification of someone whose outward appearance has been my idea of perfection since 1981: