“My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It’s in the apartment somewhere.” (Steven Wright)

This week’s theme stems from a very boring reason. But I try to pick themes that relate to my life or what’s happening in the world in some way, and my life is very boring. In fact, the most remarkable thing about it is just how dull it is. So brace yourself reader, and try & stay awake while I tell you that I am a leasehold flat owner.

I’ve always hated this because my managing agents are inept slimebags truly reprehensible human beings, but I spent an evening last week consoling a friend who is a share-of-freeholder and is engaged in a long dispute with her one of her neighbours/fellow freehold sharers, which has now turned vaguely medieval and who she refers to by a most unsavoury nickname.

If you’re still with me, you deserve a little treat. Here’s a trailer for one of my favourite ever films which is rather apt:

So as I spent a long time thinking about flats recently, the theme is novels set in apartment blocks. Firstly, Paradises by Iosi Havilio (2012, trans. Beth Fowler 2013). Apparently this is a sequel to the author’s previous novel Open Door, which I haven’t read, but it didn’t seem to restrict my understanding of Paradises, which I found compelling. Following the death of her partner, an unnamed woman leaves her country home with her small child, Simon, and moves to Buenos Aires. She gets a job at the local zoo:

“Something about the gloomy light, the small of the enclosure, the watchfulness of the snakes in captivity produces a hole in my stomach, an anguish that forces me to increase my pace. I skirt the large tank of water turtles, ignore the lizards walk past the door saying nursery and go outside.”

The janitor, Canetti, takes a shine to her. He used to be a bank treasurer before losing his job through fraud and is filled with bitterness. He shows the woman the el Buti squat, presided over by the obese, immobile, morphine-addicted Tosca.  She moves in:

“And yet despite the filth, the heat, those intestinal noises, and the smell of shit that rises in waves, at some point in the early hours Canetti’s words from the first time he brought me here come to mind: We’re safe here. I even babble them to myself to confirm it. And so I relax and rest a bit, although still without sleeping. On the third day I cover the windows with black bin bags to prolong the night.”

The voice of the young woman is matter-of-fact and she presents her extreme circumstances almost indifferently (Paradises has been compared to L’Etranger). This, combined with the present-tense, captured the numbness of grief and the sense of just getting through each moment. Yet according to the introduction by Alex Clark, the narrator’s passivity and weird equanimity was present in Open Door too, so maybe it’s just her character. Either way, I found her voice distinct and engaging. We follow her through her life as she juggles motherhood, work, relationships with idiodyncratic but wholly believable characters: seemingly spiky Iris who cares for Simon; the unpredictable Eloisa who seems to have no boundaries at all and drags the narrator along with her; the various residents of el Buti.

“each of us has to devise our truth in relation to the other”

The squat is surrounded by paradise trees, whose berries are poisonous and whose bark holds the cure. This duality is repeated throughout the novel: alienation sits alongside connection, love and grief are side by side. Paradises is an unsettling novel but at no point did I feel alienated from the unusual, detached woman telling the story. A remarkable achievement.

Let’s take a Vincent Cassel break (that’s definitely a thing, isn’t it?)

Secondly, A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988) is set at “14 Church End Villas, South Kensington, that rooming house, shabby but clean, that today is a smart and expensive set of flats, gutted and restructured, far beyond the means of medical students, nurses, and the likes of us as we were.”

Narrated by the young widow Mrs Hawkins, she describes her time at the rooming house in the 1950s.  She moves between jobs in publishing with little respect for her employers:

“Sir Alec was thin and grey and his voice matched his looks. It sounded like a wisp of smoke wafting from some burning leaves hidden by a clump of lavender.”

“I had a sense he was offering things abominable to me, like decaffeinated coffee or coitus interruptus

Spark’s satire of publishing and writers is a joy, but A Far Cry From Kensington is also about capturing a moment in time when society is on the cusp of change. Relationships between the sexes are changing, and Mrs Hawkins pushes against societal expectations of women in the mid-20th century. She is resentful of being characterised as a capable widow (she feels this is partly due to her obesity and begins determinedly losing weight).

Meanwhile, there is tension in the house as someone is sending threatening anonymous letters to Wanda, a European seamstress who rooms there. The different residents begin to suspect each other while landlady Milly is certain it’s an outsider:

“Milly was upset at the suggestion that it was someone in the house, to the point of being almost mesmerized by the idea. She also feared further letters. ‘These things happen in threes’ said Milly in her way of uttering bits of folk-wisdom; she was spooning tea into the heated teapot. She always mixed tea with maxims.”

Mrs Hawkins is a great narrator: matter-of-fact, funny, uncompromising.

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do.”

The plot around the victimisation of Wanda is frankly a bit bonkers and easily the weakest point in the novel, but despite a weak plot A Far Cry From Kensington is full of Spark’s wit and razor-sharp observation. Not a word in this short novel is wasted.

To end, a video putting the brutalist architecture of the Thamesmead flats to good use:

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“No man is an island.” (John Donne)

I live on a tiny grey island. This year Spring has been even greyer than usual and it felt like winter had gone on for eleventy million years. Now the weather is overcompensating by being unseasonably warm for a few days (just in time for the London marathon – kudos to those hardy runners), and so I’ve decided to celebrate by looking at two novels set on warm islands. They are two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit, and I’m sure by the time I’ve posted this my home will be back to service-as-usual grey and we’ll all know where we stand.

Firstly, Salt by Earl Lovelace (1996), set in Trinidad where Lovelace was born and still lives. I read The Dragon Can’t Dance years ago and really liked it, but for some reason I hadn’t picked up a Lovelace since. Salt is primarily the story of Alford George, but it is also a story about Trinidad.

“Maybe that madness seized Columbus and the first set of conquerors when they land here and wanted the Carib people to believe that they was gods; but, afterwards. After they settle in the island and decide that, yes, is here we are going to live now, they begin to discover how hard it was to be gods.

The heat, the diseases, the weight of the armour they had to carry in the hot sun, the imperial poses they had to strike, the powdered wigs to wear, the churches to build, the heathen to baptise, the illiterates to educate, the animals to tame, the numerous species of plants to name, history to write, flags to plant, parades to make, the militia to assemble, letters to write home. And all around them, this rousing greenness bursting in the wet season and another quieter shade perspiring in the dry.”

Alford dreams of leaving the island and decides the way to do this is to speak ‘English’. Lovelace shows the legacy of colonialism and how the language of the colonisers is still associated with power and accomplishment.

“His thinking was in another language and he had to translate. He began to speak more and more slowly to make sure that his verbs agreed with his subjects, to cull out words of unsure origin and replace them with ones more familiarly English. Caribbean words like jook, mamaguy and obzocky all had to be substituted. He felt his meanings slipping away as he surrendered his vocabulary.”

However, as time goes on, Alford stays on the island, becomes a teacher, fights for his students rights and becomes embroiled in politics. His identity becomes more bound with contemporary Trinidad, and it’s then that he realises that emancipation has been a false promise:

“manoeuvre them into accepting not freedom but the promise of being set at liberty, with no more attention given to their years if degradation and captivity and abuse than if they had been dogs”

There is a plethora of other characters in Salt and I can barely scratch the surface here. They are drawn vividly and with affection, a cacophony of voices that pick up Lovelace’s themes of identity, home and meaning. They exist within a beautifully evoked Trinidad whereby Lovelace is able to explore his weighty themes without becoming overly didactic.

This post is ridiculously long and I don’t have time to explore Salt properly, but I did just want to mention this beautiful portrait of the elderly Miss May:

“And with the laborious delicacy choreographed by her pains eased herself down unto the step where the sun was brightest and rested there, her eyes shut, her breath inhaled, the metronome of her mind keeping time to the rhythm of her distress, trying to find within the music of her pain a space in which to breathe.”

I think that’s a stunning piece of writing. Lovelace writes with clarity and a unique voice, and he has important things to say:

“The tragedy of our time is to have lost the ability to feel loss, the inability of power to rise to its responsibility for human decency.”

 

 

Secondly, By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (2008, trans. Jethro Soutar 2014) who is from Equatorial Guinea, and whose parents are from Annobon Island. The island in the novel is unnamed but shares a location and a history of Spanish colonialism with Annobon.

“We were on our own out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. People had given up hope of the boat ever coming back – the boat from the place where our fathers were.”

The narrator recounts his experience of childhood on the island. He lives with his silent, remote grandfather.

“I can’t say for sure whether my grandfather was or wasn’t mad. I saw him through a child’s eyes and through such eyes it’s impossible to tell whether an adult man, who lives in your house and who you’ve been told is your grandfather, is mad or not.”

“The house was close to the beach. And not any old beach either but the big village beach. Yet despite being so close to the shore, grandfather had built the house with its back to the sea…everything faced the mountain.”

Women on the island own the land, while the men undertake the fishing. Things are not easy on the island – there is poverty at times, white people arrive and trade sex with women for cigarettes and kerosene – but things deteriorate significantly during the period the narrator is recalling. There is a bush fire, then cholera wipes out a huge proportion of the population, and there is a horribly violent instance of scapegoating.

 “Today, looking back, I see, or understand, that the incident and the cholera were part of the same sickness. And the cure for that sickness was beyond the reach of our adults for it was a sickness that was greater than them, and so it was able to dominate them. And on that island out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, nasty episodes unfortunately had to be explained somehow; something to satisfy people’s need for a cause.”

The island may be out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the faith of the people may be a mix of their traditional beliefs and Catholicism, but I think what the narrator is speaking about is far from remote:

“For I know now that all people are not treated equally when it comes to apportioning blame for bad things that happen in communities. I know that, in this world of ours, how facts are judged depends on who’s doing the judging.”

I’m making this novel sound depressing, and it isn’t. The point of view of a child enables the story to be told but with a degree of distance that enables the reader to keep reading. This is not to suggest that Laurel obfuscates or pulls his punches. The brutal scapegoating is repeatedly returned to and described in detail. It is horrific. The repetitions of the story enable it to effectively capture the sense of reminiscences, and also how defining moments are those we return to time and again, informing our understanding of the past and who we are.

Towards the end we learn how this story is embedded within colonialism, and how what we are reading exists within this history. The narrator learned Spanish at school, a language that existed detached from meaning for him:

“We learned everything by heart, and I think that’s why we did it singing. In fact, although we sometimes saw books with the letters and pictures, I didn’t know that amapola, burro, cochino and dado were Spanish words for poppy, donkey, hog and dice, or that poppy, donkey, hog and dice were things we were supposed to have heard of. I didn’t know what any of them were, so I didn’t know the words were supposed to represent the letters and I didn’t associate the letters with the pictures in the books.”

As a result of this, he is able to tell his story to Spanish-speaking researchers who have come to the island:

“If this story becomes known, it will be because of some white people.”

Laurel writes with unrelenting power in beautiful prose about huge issues: society, colonialism, legacy, blame, belief. His writing is stunning and his anger palpable without overwhelming the narrative. Another great edition from And Other Stories, who are rapidly becoming one of my favourite publishers.

To end, following on from a post a few weeks back that led to Victoria, Lucy and I sharing our love of Dolly Parton, here is the legend herself singing about islands:

“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

Image from here

Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

Image from here

Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.” (Virginia Woolf)

When I was searching for quotes about libraries I really liked this quote by Libba Bray but it was too long to use for a title:

“The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.”

This week’s theme is libraries, because one of the unforeseen benefits of my 2018 book buying ban is that I have rediscovered the joy of the library. You may well be wondering what kind of moron I am not to foresee this, but I really didn’t. The purpose of the book-buying ban is to get through the piles of unread books I own. It’s working, but not quite as well as I hoped because I’ve realised my library has novels. Up until this point I’d mainly used it for non-fiction books. It’s taken the ban for me to realise I can get in the library queue for new releases and get hold of rare books I’ll never be able to afford. Libraries are amazing!

Firstly, I finally reached the top of the queue for Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which was published before my book buying ban last year, but I hadn’t got a copy. McGregor is one of my favourite authors and I didn’t want to wait another year before reading this, so I got on a long waiting list at the library.

Disclaimer: McGregor is never going to get anything but gushing reviews from me. I’ve loved his writing since his first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and as far as I’m concerned he can do no wrong. I understand this novel has divided people and I think its because the premise sets up certain expectations. A 13 year old girl, Becky Shaw, disappears from a village where she and her parents are holidaying for new year. However, this isn’t a thriller. It isn’t about the search for the girl, or what happened to her, or who may have taken her. What it is about is a community, the people in it, how their stories touch on one another. If like me, you’re a fan of McGregor, this won’t greatly surprise you. Although the rural setting is unusual for him, the themes are not. But if you come to it expecting a missing person puzzle to be solved, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

There are many recurring phrases and details in the book. Becky is 13, the village has 13 reservoirs, the story is set over 13 years and divided into 13 chapters. The chapters begin “At midnight when the year turned…” At intervals we are reminded “The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex”. The effect is to show how things move on within the familiar; village lives continue but they also change. Meanwhile, Rebecca/Becky/Bex is held in a stasis, forever 13, the questions around what happened to her left hanging.

I associate McGregor with urban settings, but he writes beautifully of rural life. Old traditions are dying out: only one of the residents bothers collecting nettles for tea or elderflowers for cordial. The butchers – like so many local shops – closes due to lack of demand. Yet the seasons in their distinct beauty are there:

“On Bonfire Night there was a heavy fog, thick with woodsmoke, the fireworks seen briefly like camera flashes overhead. In the beech wood the foxes prepared their dens. The vixens dug down into old earths and reclaimed them, lining them out with grasses and leaves. In the eaves of the church the bats settled plumply into hibernation. By the river the willows shook off the last of their leaves. At night the freight trains came more often a single white leading and the wagons shadowing heavily behind. The widower asked Clive for advice over pruning his fruit trees and Clive was surprised to see the state things were in.”

McGregor does this throughout the novel, going straight from describing the natural world into a detail about the lives of one of the villagers without a paragraph break. In doing so he weaves the lives into the world that surrounds them and shows how one cannot be understood without the other.

I thought Reservoir 13 was absolutely stunning. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf in the use of repeated phrases and the focus small but significant details. In his usual unshowy style, McGregor captures the beauty and fragility of everyday life.

After I finished Reservoir 13 I went straight to the library to see if they had a copy of Reservoir Tapes, the sequel of sorts, and I didn’t even have to put my name in the queue for it. Reservoir Tapes is a series of short stories connected to Reservoir 13, originally broadcast on the radio. You can listen to them here.

Secondly, I found my library had a copy of Rhododendron Pie, Margery Sharp’s first novel from 1930, which is practically impossible to find and which you pay hundreds of pounds for online. There was a copy just sitting there – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked before.

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Image from here

Rhododendron Pie tells the story of Ann Laventie, whose natural leanings towards conservatism mark her out as different from the rest of her family. Her sister Elizabeth begins the birthday tradition of inedible floral birthday pies of the title, while little Ann would prefer an apple pie.

“It had once been said of Mr Laventie that he was a traditionalist in wine and a revolutionary in morals; and indeed, this capacity for making the best of both worlds was an outstanding characteristic of the family. They combined the extremes of old-world elegance and modern freedom, tempering a belief in free verse and free love with an equal feeling for societal decorum.”

As the children grow up, Elizabeth becomes an intellectual forever having essays published in journals while her brother Dick becomes a sculptor. Ann is at a bit of a loss. She is good at admiring what the others do and she is well-liked, but she flounders in working out what she wants and where she fits in. Sharp captures how society is changing for the interwar generation; one of Ann’s friends is perfectly open about the men she lives with on occasion. While there is discussion around this which seems remarkably forward-thinking and would sit well with readers today, Ann does not want a bohemian lifestyle.

“ ‘What I want,’ continued Ann recklessly, ‘is a nice wedding in the village church, with a white frock and orange blossom and lots of flowers and ‘The Voice that Breathed’ and two bridesmaids in cyclamen pink and rose petals afterwards  and a reception in the drawing-room with a string quartet playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. In June. And a honeymoon in the Italian Lakes.

‘Where does Gilbert come in?’

‘He doesn’t. And I want to live in a house, not a flat, even if it’s only a little one in a suburb where there’s no-one amusing, with a back garden to dig in. And have bird pattern chintzes in the drawing-room and cold supper on Sundays because the maid’s out. I shall probably,’ finished Ann defiantly, ‘take a stall at the church bazaar.’”

Ann doesn’t come across as remotely priggish or boring though. She is authentic and truthful, and struggles with her knowing, arch, ironic family

“ ‘One of your family methods. Every now and then you do something deliberately ordinary, but in inverted commas so to speak, just to see what it feels like.”

What Rhododendron Pie is about is working out who you are and what you want from the world, and how tricky this can be when you seem to be at odds with your family and the section of society you live within. Without any didacticism, Sharp captures how this is especially hard for women. New freedoms are opening up, but women are still judged more harshly by society and have their actions further circumscribed by law.

“These were the things they understood, patient hope and quiet brave endurance: these were the woman’s part.”

Rhododendron Pie is remarkably accomplished for a first novel. Sharp would hone her skills further in future novels – particularly characterisation, which is a bit weak here – but her wit is here, her warmth, and her wisdom.

 “‘That’s what you clever people never understand. You talk about life as though it were something rare and surprising that one had to be careful of. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s ordinary. And it’s only when you’ve accepted it as ordinary that you begin to see the wonder of it. That a swallow or a green field should be beautiful is nothing, but that they should be common as dirt is a miracle. I am continually amazed…at the casual beauty of things.’”

To end, a woman whose name helpfully rhymes with her profession, and an annoying man who won’t shut up and let people read in peace: