This my contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2023, aka The Begorrathon, running all month and hosted by Cathy over at 746 Books. Do head over to Cathy’s blog to check out all the wonderful posts so far!
Anne Enright’s The Green Road (2015) has been languishing in the TBR for many years. I’m trying to get to grips with the toppling monster (hahahaha) as I had to acknowledge that any gains made in my book-buying ban of 2018 had been completely undone. So I’m really pleased this year’s Begorrathon finally prompted me to pull it from the shelf.
The Green Road is divided into two parts, Leaving, and Coming Home. The first part considers one of four siblings in turn, from 1980 onwards. Hanna as a small tearful child; Dan gradually emerging from the closet in 1991’s New York; Constance having a cancer scare back home in County Limerick in 1997; Emmet pursuing aid work in Mali in 2002.
Through each of these sections we learn about the individual, but also gain an emerging picture of the family, including their tempestuous self-focussed mother Rosaleen and silent father Pat. This means that when they all return home at the behest of widowed Rosaleen in 2005, we have a good idea of each of them and it’s intriguing to see how Christmas dinner will play out when they are all in the same room. The focus will be on the five rather than extended family:
“The only route to the Madigans Christmas table was through some previously accredited womb. Married. Blessed.”
The adult children approach the event with no small degree of trepidation. Rosaleen is not an easy woman. Demanding without explicitly stating what her demands are, while judging her children quite harshly. She doesn’t approve of Constance’s weight gain:
“Rosaleen believed a woman should be interesting. She should keep her figure, and always listen to the news.”
Or Dan’s values, influenced by his work in the art world:
“For an utterly pretentious boy, he was very set against pretension. Much fuss to make things simple. That was his style.”
Yet she loves them deeply and they must attend, for Rosaleen is threatening to sell the family home:
“Rosaleen was living in the wrong house, with the wrong colours on the walls, and no telling anymore what the right colour might be, even though she had chosen them herself and liked them and lived with them for years. And where could you put yourself if you could not feel at home in your own home? If the world turned into a series of lines and shapes, with nothing in the pattern to remind you what it was for.”
In this interview Enright says: “I don’t do plottedness. I do stories, I do slow recognition.” This is exactly it. There isn’t a lot of plot in The Green Road but it is such a compelling read. The characterisation is complex and wholly believable, with all of the family not behaving entirely well nor entirely badly. The relationships are so delicately drawn, with their mix of love and frustration, familiarity and the unknown, wonderfully evoked.
“Emmet closed his eyes and tilted his face up, and there she was: his mother, closing her eyes and lifting her head, in just the same way, down in the kitchen in Ardeevin. Her shadow moving through him. He had to shake her out of himself like a wet dog.”
I read The Green Road over a few hours and was sorry to come to the end, but it was perfectly paced and a wholly satisfying read. Enright is such a wonderful writer, able to articulate the small moments in life that can have such an impact even when they are barely recognised. She perfectly captures the immensity of the every day.
“She looked to her son, she looked him straight in the eye, and for a moment, Emmet felt himself to be known. Just a glimmer and then it was gone.”
You can read an interview with Enright talking about The Green Roadhere.
To end, an Irish film about family which I’ve enjoyed in the last week is the Oscar-winning An Irish Goodbye. For those of you who can get iPlayer, it’s available and only 23 minutes long (warning: there is a dead hare in the road – not gory – in the first few seconds of this trailer);
This is my contribution to Dewithon 2023, hosted by the lovely Paula over at Book Jotter. Dewithon is an annual celebration of literature by and about writers from Wales – I’ve interpreted the brief pretty broadly this year as I’ve picked a novel by a Dutch writer, but it evokes its North Wales setting beautifully.
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (2010 trans. David Colmer 2012) is a quiet, melancholic novel, that shows without telling. I’d previously read The Twin by this author and found this similar in its themes of isolation and troubled relationships, and a refusal to judge its protagonists.
Emilie rents a cottage in rural Wales, fleeing from her husband in Amsterdam after her affair with a student at the university where she taught is exposed. Her backstory is revealed gradually, without explanations of how or why things happened. We just know how it is she has found herself somewhere unexpected and unplanned.
Bakker maintains a delicate balance between a recognisable portrait of this part of Wales, capturing its beauty without sentimentality; and then also having a slightly surreal, unpredictable element threatening to break through at various times too:
“It was just those geese; they were peculiar. Had she rented the geese too? And one morning a large flock of black sheep suddenly appeared in the field beside the road, every one with a white blaze and a long white-tipped tail. On her land. Who did they belong to?”
“Then she saw the mountain for the first time and realised what a vast landscape existed behind her house and how small an area she had moved in until that moment. […] The next day she bought an Ordnance Survey map at an outdoor shop in Caernarfon. Scale: 1-25,000.”
There is quite an emphasis on Emilie’s body and at first I approached this with some weariness, but it became apparent that this focus was there for a reason. Emilie seems to be very reliant on paracetamol…
Other characters cross her path: a slightly menacing neighbour, a doctor addicted to his cigarettes, a chatty hairdresser, as well as a young man, Bradwen, who turns up with his dog Sam and then never leaves. Emilie and Bradwen both seem to need something which the other provides, without anything being agreed or explicitly stated.
“I don’t think I want to know anything about him at all, she thought. He just has to be here.”
There is also a thread of tension as Emilie’s husband leaves home with a police detective in order to find her. His relationship with his in-laws provides some humour in what is otherwise quite a sombre novel (aside from some pithy observations on the vagaries of Escape to the Country):
“‘If you ask me, you’ve got plenty to hide,’ the mother said. ‘You turned out to be an arsonist, after all.’
The husband sighed.”
There is very little plot in The Detour but I found it a compelling read and whizzed through it in a couple of hours. Bakker trusts his readers not to need everything spelled out for them, and he creates complex, flawed characters that are presented as they are, without asking the reader to like or dislike them. He obviously has a great affection for Wales too, so I’m pleased to have read this for Dewithon 2023.
“That mountain, she thought, I have to keep an eye on Mount Snowdon, then I’ll know where I am.”
You can read an interview with Gerbrand Bakker about The Detour with Wales Arts Review here.
To end, this has absolutely nothing to do with the post, but I’m finally getting properly back to theatre-going after being somewhat intermittent since lockdown lifted. Recently I saw Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which I completely loved. Among a hugely talented cast, I thought Faith Omole particularly shone:
This my second contribution- just in time!- to the wonderful ReadIndies event which has been running all month, hosted by Karen and Lizzy.
Initially I planned for this post to be two novellas published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, in honour of the event’s origins as Fitzcarraldo Fortnight. However, the second novella I read was so unrelentingly brutal and grubby – though expertly written and translated – that ultimately I couldn’t recommend it that much. So instead this post covers the initial Fitzcarraldo novella which I loved, and the independently published novel I read after the second novella in order to recover!
Firstly, The Fallen by Carlos Manuel Álvarez (2018 trans. Frank Wynne 2019) which forms a stop on my Around the Word in 80 Books challenge as it’s set in Cuba. The story follows one family over a short period, each member narrating a chapter at a time.
The mother, Mariana, is experiencing black-outs and fits, attributed to the treatment she had for womb cancer. Her husband Armando is a manager in a state-owned tourist hotel, committed to the communist ideals of the past even as the world moves on around him. His daughter María works with him and helps care for Mariana:
“I didn’t want to contradict her, I simply stood and watched. Just then, she hunched over and the strangest thing happened. Her face drained away, seemed to contract, like when you clench a fist, as though everything was drawing back around her nose. Her eyes fell, her forehead and mouth shrivelled and her cheeks began to wither. Then she burst into tears and collapsed.”
Meanwhile her brother Diego is completing his military service, devoid of any commitment to the cause:
“Armando, indefatigable, continued inoculating me with his positive energy, his moral code, his inexhaustible optimism, injecting me with a radioactive material that, on contact with the real world, simply exploded like acid in a burst battery and was transformed into frustration. I’m eighteen years old but I feel like an old man.”
All the characters are flawed in their different ways but all are recognisably human and sympathetic. I felt most for poor Armando, surrounded by corruption that nobody cared about but him:
“The truth is, they were firing him because he refused to accept others stealing, but since they couldn’t tell him that, they told him they were dismissing him for stealing,”
The contrast between Armando and his children effectively demonstrates the tension between the ideals of the past and the reality of the present. However, this is never done at the expense of characterisation the individual relationships. The tension within a family, vulnerable to disintegration as the health of its matriarch deteriorates, felt very real.
The polyphonic style builds up a picture of a loving family with all it’s frustrations, secrets and things left unsaid. It also demonstrates the differing responses of people to the same situation as we hear the same events given a different meaning by the various characters. This wasn’t at all frustrating as Álvarez managed to sustain an engaging and coherent narrative.
I really loved this novella. I thought the language was beautiful without obscuring the difficulties it was exploring for the family, and the device of using one family to explore wider Cuban society and history didn’t feel at all clunky or contrived.
“The acrid smell that tickled my grandfather’s nostrils still lingers. This is a pueblo fecund with the dry bittersweet dust of horseshit and with the sea a few kilometres away, even if we turn our back on it. The last street in the pueblo, the street that leads to the train station, the street where my grandfather settled, where my father started out in life, where later I started out, is broad but deserted, with much light on the asphalt, with light that trickles down the gutters and lighting the potholes, as though light were contained in a glass and the glass had tipped over. No one comes here.”
Secondly, the delightfully titled Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017) published by Daunt Books. This was a lovely escapist read – just the ticket after the second traumatic novella.
It’s New Year’s Eve in 1984, and the titular heroine is one year older than the century (although no-one knows this as she routinely lies about her age). Having moved to New York City when she started out on her career, she dons her fur coat (yuck) and her flame orange lipstick, to take a circuitous route around the city she loves – just about:
“The city I inhabit now is not the city that I moved to in 1926; It has become a mean-spirited action movie complete with repulsive plot twists and preposterous dialogue.
I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my Sycamore trees, my trusty RH Macy’s.”
Lillian became an advertising copywriter for the famous store, the highest-paid woman in the industry in the 1930s, pioneering her own particular style:
“Nobody was funnier than I was, not for a long time, not for years. Mine was a voice that no one had heard speaking in advertisement before, and I got them to listen. To listen and then, more importantly, to act on what they’d heard.”
Lillian is based on the real person of Margaret Fishback, and the novel was written with the cooperation of Margaret’s family, with Lillian’s quoted copy actually belonging to Margaret.
Certainly Lillian’s memories of her life in New York seem authentic as she navigates a sexist working world unused to professional women. This may sound reminiscent of Mad Men, but I would say it’s not nearly as dark. It’s not totally light either – we learn Lillian had some very difficult times – but Lillian is resilient and peppy, and her voice rings out.
Like Mad Men though, Lillian Boxfish… brilliantly evokes a time and a place. You gain a wonderful sense of New York in the early decades of the twentieth century, with it’s rapid, optimistic growth, ever skywards.
“It was freshly built when Helen and I moved in, completed in 1926. The street noise then was different than now – everything was being constructed, going up, up, up. Progress is loud: riveters riveting, radios blaring.”
We hear about Lillian’s friends, her marriage to the dashing Max (contrary to all her plans) and raising her son Gian. But most of all we hear about Lillian’s relationship with herself, and it is one that has not always been easy:
“But there was no way to know, and no way to go back. I could not revise. I had been who I had been, and so I largely remained.”
Still, Lillian remains undaunted and in her ninth decade she remains interested in people. She encounters a few on her night-time perambulation, seemingly enjoying chatting about the mundane as much as she does the more dramatic encounters. Her career long behind her, she retains her pithy turn of phrase:
“Salt and pepper hair shellacked into an oceanic sweep above his leonine face. Like so many public television people, he was a former radio guide, with a voice made for broadcasting: even his name sounded like an avuncular chuckle.”
I really enjoyed my time with Lillian. Her voice was distinct, unique and entertaining. She described the love of her life – New York City – with clearsighted affection. A formidable woman, and a likable one.
“I am not going to stay off the street. Not when the street is the only thing that still consistently interests me, aside from maybe my son and my cat. The only place that feels vibrant and lively. Where things collide. Where the future comes from.”
To end, Lillian is haunted by a song she keeps hearing on the streets, a rap that she enjoys. Finally, it is identified for her:
This is a contribution to the wonderful ReadIndies event running all month, hosted by Karen and Lizzy.
I’ve also taken the opportunity to visit two more places on my much-neglected Around the Word in 80 Books challenge, which is not so separate as it might first seem. Deciding to read a book written by a person from each place I visit (rather than set there but written by an author from elsewhere), means I’m dependent on English language translations being available. Based on absolutely no evidence except my impression, it seems to me that independent presses are more willing to look far and wide for their lists.
This is certainly the case for Archipelago Books, who publish my first choice of The Storm by Tomás González (2014, trans. Andrea Rosenberg 2018). They are a “not-for-profit press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature.”
The Storm follows a family of hoteliers/fishermen as they set out for their usual catch, despite the impending titular weather. Set in a Columbian costal village, we also hear from the residents and tourists who are there the same night.
Mario and Javier are twins who despise their abusive father but are tied to him through where they live and how they earn their money. The novel opens with them loading their boat at the father’s insistence that they go out, despite the storm.
“To someone looking in from the outside, who couldn’t see the orange glow of hatred in the son’s belly nor the greenish flame of contempt in the father’s, time would seem to keep flowing the way it always had.”
The novella follows the three men out at sea and cuts back at various times to people in the village. The many voices didn’t feel clearly distinguished to me, but that may have been a deliberate choice as they form an effective Greek chorus. This includes the twins’ mother Doña Nora’s hallucinations. She is extremely unwell and the twins are loyal to her, blaming their hated father.
“Look, look at that sunset! he thought then, as if the orange on the horizon were presenting the conclusive argument against his brother’s darkness, his own darkness, and even the cruel and involuntary darkness of the madwoman back onshore.”
The Storm is determinedly unidealistic about family and coastal Caribbean tourist destinations – no pristine powdery white sand here – but it’s not depressing either. There is a humour and resilience, and even some compassionate moments between Doña Nora and the other permanent residents.
González expertly builds the tension in the novella, the family relationships reflecting the increased pressure and movement towards breaking point which occurs with a storm.
“Out at sea, the storm’s display intensified. Nobody really felt like talking, especially not about landscapes, so they didn’t say much, but now and then one of them would turn his head to look at it.”
Secondly, Love Novel by Ivana Sajko (2015 trans. Mima Simić 2022) which like The Storm is about the destructive force of family. They also have in common that both books are lovely paperbacks with French flaps and both have the translators names on the covers – hooray!
Love Novel is published by V&Q Books and it was very kindly sent to me by ReadIndies host Kaggsy, so this seemed the perfect time to read it! V&Q Books is the English-language imprint of Voland & Quist, a German independent publisher.
The title is ironic, as the relationship between the young couple, parents to a small child, (all unnamed) is filled with barely supressed violence and hatred. They are both struggling to stay afloat in the circumstances they find themselves. She was an actor but has stopped working to care for their child; he is an unemployed scholar of Dante, living in his own circle of hell as the (unnamed) country they are in deteriorates further.
The novel begins in media res as we are thrown into a screaming fight between the two:
“reacting like a typical female, typical by his standards, meaning excessive, hysterical and self-destructive, since she’d deliberately pulled her hair out, deliberately curled up in the pose of a crushed alarm clock and forced tears to her eyes as if to take revenge on him with his classic scene of domestic violence.”
Sajko expertly balances the domestic detail alongside more surreal images that never detract from the desperate, oppressive circumstances she is depicting:
“Words comparable to quicksand. Crumbling between their teeth, getting crushed into slimy sand, slipping from their lips like muddy bubbles with no meaningful content. Dripping down their chins. They should both look in the mirror and commit the image to memory. To make them sick of it. But they won’t. They’d rather keep the mud gurgling until they run out of oxygen…”
The writing is also very even-handed between the two protagonists. There is no sense of taking sides as they are both shown as trapped and powerless, flailing against forces beyond them. She is constantly indoors:
“Women walk a mile between walls, lose a whole night over some bullshit, put superhuman effort into it, and then, instead of breaking down, surrendering and finally resting, they stay bolt upright, as if they’d swallowed a broom or simply turned to stone. They even manage to wear clean clothes.”
While he concerns himself with wider economic and political circumstances, without agency:
“All the days he slobbered away on the couch watching live parliamentary sessions and listening to them tell him from the podium that it’s time to tighten his belt, or take out a loan, at the top up kind, for bread, milk and phone bills, because everything that could be looted has been looted and everything that could be sold has been sold, and all the money is now gone until someone lends him some; and so they warned him to be careful with that, too, because other people’s money is easily spent and hard to pay back”
The style Sajko uses, with those long running sentences, works extremely well in depicting an unravelling situation, full of uncontrolled reactions and little reflection. (Paradoxically, I suspect to use this style well requires a lot of control and reflection!)
What I especially liked about Love Novel is that it demonstrates how love doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Sajko takes an ordinary couple in ordinary circumstances, and shows how unlikely enduring love is, if human beings are not allowed to thrive. If the economic and political situation of your country is entirely stacked against you, trying to cling onto your humanity and express love for another can seem an act of resistance, one that not everyone will have the strength for.
“While they still believed that love saves, that love feeds, that love fixes what’s broken, that love offers tacit answers to the most difficult questions and that it is, thank God, free.”
“And it didn’t matter that they tightened their belts down to the size of a noose”
Love Novel is undoubtedly a tough read, but it is not resolutely depressing. There is resilience there, and some hope, however qualified.
Mallika’s annual Book and Author Anniversaries post alerted me to the fact that today is the 150th anniversary of Colette’s birthday, and the perfect prompt for me to get two of her books out of the TBR (in Women’s Press editions which pleases me – how I regret clearing out loads of my The Women’s Press books when I was trying to streamline before a move one time. Never get rid of books kids – better to die under a toppling pile than live with regret 😉 )
Firstly, Duo and it’s short sequel Le Toutounier (1934 & 1939; trans. Margaret Crosland 1974). Duo follows the discovery by Michel and immediate aftermath of his wife Alice’s short-lived affair with a colleague. They are on holiday in the south of France, somewhat isolated and under the watchful eye of Michel’s family retainer Maria. The novel is primarily dialogue between the couple as they try and decide what remains for them.
Colette’s love of the natural world is very much in evidence as she captures their holiday home and Alice’s feelings of suffocation:
“On the poplars the golden bronze of the new leaves still wrongfully occupied the place of the green. A crabapple tree, its white petals lined with bright red, had defeated the somewhat sickly Judas tree and the syringas in their attempt to escape the destructive shade of the shiny aucubas, extended their slender branches and their butter white stars through the broad grasping leaves, which were mottled like snakes.”
Her precise descriptions of people and their mannerisms also suit this tale especially well, expertly capturing the tension and careful watchfulness between two people fearful of their disintegrating relationship.
“He caressed her with a few crude words, which she heard with a quiver of her eyelashes, as though he had shaken a bunch of flowers over her. They both accepted these exchanges, which were caused by chance, travel, a sudden change of season.”
Michel and Alice don’t tear each other apart, but at the same time their relationship seems doomed. However, the precision and containment of the story to a few days in a specific place, doesn’t make for a heavy or oppressive read. Colette’s humour is always present, with some surprising phrases:
“Out of modesty the servant placed a saucepan lid over the milk.”
During Duo, we learn something of Alice’s family, her sisters Colombe, Hermine and Bizoute.
“When I think about my family as much as that, it’s because I’m finding Michel terribly boring.”
In Le Toutounier she visits their stuffy, smoke-filled Paris apartment with the titular “huge, indestructible sofa of English origin, battered down like a forest road in the rainy season.”
It’s a short novel (80 pages) and I can see why it was put in the same volume as Duo as I think it is best read following on from its predecessor, forming a portrait of an interlude in Alice’s life.
Bizoute is away from home, leaving Colombe and Hermine together with their complicated love lives. Neither of them are with available men and the situation escalates. But the focus in Le Toutounier is not on relationships between the sexes but rather between the sisters, and what it means for women in a family to be close to one another. As so often, Colette focuses her sensual descriptions on women, showing appreciation but not sentimentality:
“The fine woollen dressing gown with a pattern of embossed stitching fell over her quivering shoulders, and it’s pink glow rose to her cheeks, where the makeup had lost its delicate morning colour beneath successive layers of powder.”
Secondly, Break of Day (1928, trans. Enid McLeod 1949) which nowadays would probably be called autofiction, occupying a place between biography and outright fiction. ‘Colette’ spends the summer in Provence, contemplating her past and wondering about the future. All her preoccupations are here – the natural world, animals:
“After dinner I mustn’t forget to irrigate the little runnels that surround the melons, and to water by hand the balsams, phlox and dahlias, and the young tangerine trees, which haven’t yet got roots long enough to drink unaided in the depths of the earth, or strength to break into leaf without help, under the steady scorching of the heavens. The young tangerine trees, planted … for whom? I don’t know. Perhaps for me. The cats will spring sideways at the months when by ten the air is blue as a morning glory. The pair of Japanese hens, perching drowsily on the arm of a rustic arm chair, will chirp like birds in a nest. The dogs, already far away from this world, will be thinking of the coming dawn, and I shall have the choice of a book, bed, or the coast road”
Men and women:
“My true friends have always given me that supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved.”
“When a man’s glance is following certain household preparations, especially those for a meal, there is apt to be a look on his face that combines religious attention, boredom and fear.”
“On an autumn morning she was the first and only one to see herself reflected in the first disc of ephemeral ice in the well bucket, before her nail cracked it.”
“She would, alas, have judged us plainly, with that divine cruelty of hers which was innocent of wrath.”
Break of Day is fairly plotless save for a slight drama with two young people, but not quite stream of consciousness either, written in a more structured style. If you enjoy Colette’s writing then this is a little gem, but definitely not one to read when you want to be pulled along by a cracking yarn.
Overall the sense is of Colette (author/character) coming to terms with the last part of her life, with aging and with what remains. It isn’t sad but it has a melancholy quality, although I sensed few regrets and an acceptance of how her life had been lived so far and how it would continue.
“Everything is much as it was in the first years of my life, and little by little I recognised the road back.”
I loved all of these reads. It’s been a while since I picked up Colette and I wondered why I’d left it so long. She’s funny, incisive, precise, sensual, and absolutely in command of her own voice. There’s no-one like her.
To end, a 1970s performance to match my 1970s editions, about the breaking of day:
For my second contribution to Annabel’s Nordic FINDS month I’m looking at the second and third instalments in Ragnar Jónasson’s Hidden Iceland series, The Island and The Mist.
I know I enjoyed the first instalment of this series featuring police detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir, The Darkness, but I can’t remember anything about it. Thankfully you don’t need to have read it (or remember it) to enjoy the sequels.
These are quick, straightforward reads. Sometimes I find the phrasing a bit too straightforward with some clichéd phrases – I don’t know if this is Jónasson’s style or a translation decision – but Hulda is an appealing lead and the emphasis is on the mystery not sensationalist gore, which is very welcome. I’m not a big reader of contemporary crime so I don’t want an overly convoluted plot and I want characters that behave like real people in real (admittedly extreme) circumstances, both which The Island and The Mist deliver.
The Island (2016, trans. Victoria Cribb 2019) starts with a brief, highly unnerving prologue in 1988, before taking us back a year to 1987. Benedikt and his unnamed girlfriend are staying at her family’s holiday home:
“He was going to enjoy their stay, this weekend adventure in the middle of nowhere. The sense of isolation was enhanced by the thought that nobody knew they were there; they had a whole valley to themselves. It really was like a dream.”
This being a crime novel, anything idyllic fills the reader with a sense of deep foreboding and sure enough, the girl is found murdered. Hulda is a CID detective, tenacious and thorough, but she’s up against a traditional, sexist system:
“Her boss, Snorri, was an old school detective, quiet yet firm, with an aversion to modern technology”
He’s kind, but he tells her in no uncertain terms that her colleague Lýdur will be promoted above her, what with him having the obligatory Y chromosome and all. We see Lýdurtake some very dubious decisions in his investigation into the girl’s murder.
Fast forward to 1997: Hulda has experienced a horrific family tragedy, and is living alone in a small, expensive flat in Reykjavik. Four friends – Dagur, Alexandra, Klara and (eek!) Benedikt are having a reunion on a remote island:
It was her first visit to the Westman Islands, the little archipelago of some fifteen volcanic islands and innumerable stacks and skerries that jutted dramatically out of the sea off the south coast of Iceland. […] Now, Heimaey was home to a thriving fishing industry but Alexandra could see the volcanic cone, still brown and ominously bare of vegetation, brooding above the white buildings of the town.
Only three of them will return.
Hulda, now middle-aged and wondering what her career has left to offer her, is dispatched to investigate. Inevitably she has to dig up what happened ten years previously and whether the motive for the latest murder lies in the past. An additional complication is that Lýdur is now her boss with his own reasons for wanting Hulda to reach conclusions as quickly and thoughtlessly as he does. But Hulda is her own woman and we’re never in any doubt she’ll find her way to the truth.
Although I did guess whodunit, there was an additional twist that took me by surprise and was genuinely a bit shocking.
If I rarely read contemporary crime, I never read contemporary thrillers, but this is what The Mist (2017, trans. Victoria Cribb 2020) turned out to be, and I really enjoyed it. I think it helped that it’s a quick read; I probably couldn’t have sustained a long, tense story. The first two thirds of the novel are the deeply tense unfolding of events, and the last third is Hulda piecing together the crime scene in a fairly straightforward way.
It’s set around the same time as the opening events of The Island – Christmas 1987/February 1988 – and so at first I wondered if the UK publishing of these books was out of order, in the same way as Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series, but looking at publication dates it seems he decided to move back and forth in time with Hulda.
Hulda has hit a dead-end with her investigation of a young woman’s disappearance, and so she is sent to investigate a crime scene in a remote farmhouse in the east of the country. We’re then taken back to two months previously: Erla and Einar live in the farmhouse on land that Einar’s family have farmed for generations. Erla loves her husband but has always missed city life in Reykjavik.
“She was overwhelmed by the familiar feeling of emptiness that assailed her whenever something ran out and she knew she had no chance of replacing it. She was stranded here. To describe the feeling as emptiness didn’t really do it justice; it would be true to say she felt almost like a prisoner up here in the wilderness.
All talk of claustrophobia was forbidden on farm, though; it was a feeling they had to ignore, because otherwise it could so easily have become unbearable.
Erla and Einar’s familiar Christmas routine is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger, Leó. How he has reached them and what he is doing stranded in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard at a time when nearly everyone is at home, he can’t really explain. To send him away would be to send him to his death, and so Einar invites him to stay, despite Erla’s deep mistrust of the unknown man.
“It would be a white Christmas, as usual. Stiflingly white. And now this intruder had entered their peaceful home and poisoned the atmosphere. You couldn’t describe it any other way. He’d poisoned it. The wind whined outside – hardly a harbinger of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.”
The strain builds between the three people as they spend the night together in the remote, old-fashioned farmhouse, with electricity and phone lines both down and the snow relentlessly falling. Jónasson expertly maintains the tension, exacerbated by the persistent, inhospitable weather.
“In winter, not a day passed when she didn’t witness something that sent a shiver down her spine. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but the isolation, the silence, the damned darkness, they all combined to amplify every creak of the floorboards and walls, the moaning of the wind, the flicker of light and shadow, to the extent that she sometimes wondered if maybe she should believe in ghosts after all; if maybe that would make life bearable.”
Despite the minor reservations I mentioned earlier I do enjoy Jónasson’s writing. Hulda is believable and although she’s a-detective-with-a-tragic-past-who’s-overinvested-in-their-work she’s not destructive or self-pitying. She’s honest and humane and likable. In The Mist we learn more about what happened to bring her to the circumstances of The Island.
“But then that’s what her job was like at times, a game played out in the grey borderlands between day and night. No victory was ever sweet enough; her work was never really done. She could expect no praise or reward. The riddle had been solved to general indifference.”
But a large part of the appeal for me is that Jónasson is great at evoking the Icelandic landscape. I never feel like the stories could occur anywhere else.
“Ellidaey appeared ahead, looking just like the pictures she’d seen; the single white speck shining amidst the green pasture gradually resolving itself into a house. Behind it the grassy slope reared up like a crest of a wave. As they drew closer, the black cliffs with their splashes of white bird droppings didn’t look as if they offered the visitor anyway up from the sea.”
To end, one of my favourite songs, which conveniently happens to be about mist (and also shares a name with my friend’s childhood hamster) :
This meant that I have finally pulled a book from the TBR that has been languishing there for years: The Visit of the Royal Physician by Swedish author Per Olov Enquist (1999 trans. Tiina Nunnally 2001). A historical novel set in the 18th-century Danish courts, it tells the story of King Christian VII’s mental ill health, his marriage to Caroline Mathilde (sister to George III) and her affair with the titular German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee.
TVOTRP is hugely lauded, winning the August prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This meant I went in with unfairly high expectations and at first I wasn’t sure this novel was for me. I suppose TVOTRP would be classed as a documentary novel, and initially I found this style distancing. However, by the end I was very much involved in this sad tale of people sacrificed to political power struggles where there is no room for humanity.
Even if the historical events are unfamiliar, the reader knows it will end with the execution of Struensee, as this is where the novel begins. We’re then taken back to his arrival at court, a man of the Enlightenment, viewed with some degree of suspicion by those resistant to change.
King Frederik V dies in his forties, and there is a vivid scene of him on his deathbed with his son, being abusive until the end. Christian is sixteen when he becomes King Christian VII and he is already struggling to comprehend reality.
“Christian explained, in a stubborn attempt to make sense of things, that he understood the court to be a theatre, that he had to learn his lines, and that he would be punished if he didn’t know them by heart.”
But was he one person or two?”
Enquist demonstrates so clearly that it would be some sort miracle if Christian managed to stay well in the environment of the court. He is not only abused by his family but by the courtiers; he is physically and mentally tortured.
Caroline Mathilde is 15 when they marry.
“Afterwards everyone agreed that it was unfortunate that she did indeed have talents. If the proper assessment had been made from the outset, namely that she possessed some talents, then the entire catastrophe might have been averted.
But no one could have predicted this.”
These teenagers are not expected to rule Denmark. They are expected to be figureheads and provide heirs, and not get in the way of the power-hungry politicians that surround them. When Struensee arrives in court, he poses a huge threat despite not appearing to want power at all. Firstly, he genuinely cares about Christian:
“It was understood that something had happened. The German doctor with the blonde hair, the quick but wary smile and the kindly eyes, had become somebody. Since he had no title and could not be placed within a precise hierarchy, this caused uneasiness.
Attempts were made to decipher him. He was not easy to decipher. He was friendly, discreet, and refused to make use of his power, or at least what was considered to be power.
People didn’t understand him.”
Secondly, he is a man of the Enlightenment, deeply threatening to Puritan courtiers like the advisor Guldberg, who is slowly growing his influence. Thirdly, he sleeps with the Queen:
“Christian, Caroline Mathilde, Struensee. Those three.
They seem to be observing each other with curiosity and suspicion. The court observed them too. As they observed the court. Everyone seemed to be waiting.”
The tension builds as the reader knows this situation will absolutely not be tolerated. And it seems such a travesty. The King is happy and cared for; the Queen is happy and fulfilled; the person taking decisions on behalf of the ruler is progressive, liberal, and trying to improve the situation of the masses. Why not let it continue?
Struensee is not naïve and he is filled with a sense of foreboding. Meanwhile, Caroline Mathilde seems to believe they can outwit the malevolent forces that are closing in…
“Her analysis surprised him.
He thought that her extremely lucid, extremely brutal view of the mechanisms of power had been born at the English court. No, she told him, I lived in a cloister. Then where had she learned all this? She was not one of those that Brandt, with some scorn, used to call ‘the female schemers’.
Struensee understood that she saw a different kind of pattern to his.”
The style of TVOTRP is really interesting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a documentary style, but with an omniscient narrator so there is space given to the feelings and motivations of all the characters. The sentences are generally choppy, but often also poetic. Enquist balances these opposing approaches expertly. I never quite got past that initial distance I felt and so this stopped me absolutely loving the novel, but I did think it was an excellent and compassionate exploration of the pressures of public life and the dangers for those trying to change entrenched power structures.
Although not a depressing novel, it did seem desperately sad, for all concerned.
“The revolution that Struensee initiated was quickly stopped. It took only a few weeks for everything to revert to the way it was before, or to even earlier times. It was as if his 632 decrees, issued during the two years known as the ‘Struensee era’ were paper swallows, some which landed, while others were still hovering low over the surface of the field and hadn’t yet managed to alight on the Danish landscape.”
To end, I saw A Royal Affair (which tells the same story but isn’t an adaptation of this novel) when it came out in 2012. I don’t remember much of it now but I do remember enjoying it and thinking all three leads were excellent. From this trailer I would say Christian is portrayed less sympathetically than Enquist saw him, but it definitely looks worth a re-watch:
Well, we’ve reached the end of November and contrary to my plans but entirely in keeping with my expectations, I’ve barely managed to blog at all despite all the wonderful reading events that take place. Still, I’m delighted that I am at least managing to join in with AusReading Month 2022 hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. (Even if it is at the eleventh hour and I’m conveniently ignoring the fact it’s already 1 December in Australia right now – I really must do better.)
I chose two novels out of the humungous VMC pile and they both turned out to be entertaining considerations of the roles of women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Melbourne.
In reverse chronological order, Painted Clay by Capel Boake (1917). Set in 1913-14, this coming-of-age story follows Helen Somerset as she tries to forge her own way in a society that places considerable strictures on women.
At the start of the novel, lonely and isolated Helen is only a few years older than the century, as she living in a suburb with her distant father:
“Several women had watched carefully and had made sure their curtains had not been down for months. They always took their curtains down, washed them, and put them up again, every four weeks. The end house did not do this. Therefore there must be something very wrong with the occupants of the end house.”
Determined for change, she makes overtures to the young women who live next door, and finds herself invited in. She is shy and awkward, but the family is warm and welcoming.
“She knew that if she were alone she could have carried on the most brilliant conversation with everybody, but now she seemed to have nothing to say.”
Belle is engaged to sleazy Bert, while her sister Irene moons over the picture of a matinee idol. They are full of life and show Helen another way to live. She joins Irene in working in a shop, suffering under the deliberately unpleasant work given to her by the jealous supervisor. We follow Helen from shop to office work, as she learns to wrestle with the bullying of women and the unwanted attentions of men, struggling to work out what she wants when it seems to be so different from other women her age:
“She fled from the thought of sex; it horrified her – but it came back and back. She tried to close her mind against it, but it came insistent and whispering, distorting her view of life full in despair she went to her books again.”
Helen is not a wet blanket though, or a naïve and priggish beauty which can sometimes make heroines of this era hard to warm to. She’s quite determined to live her own life, away from the life paths everyone seems to expect of her.
“Helen had a soft, but unyielding obstinacy against which all argument beat in vain.”
Things begin to change for her when she is taken into a bohemian artistic set. She falls in lust with Alick Russell, and one thing leads predictably to another … what is less predictable is Helen’s reaction to sleeping with a man outside marriage:
“She wondered why she did not grieve over it, why she was not overcome with sorrow and repentance. She puzzled over it with frowning brows, but could reach no satisfactory conclusion.”
“I can’t see the difference between being married and not. It doesn’t seem to me to matter very much, and yet it does. I wish I were either a very bad woman or a very good one. If I were a bad woman nothing would bother me, and if I were a very good woman I wouldn’t think about it. I would just be married, and that would be the end of it.”
Painted Clay is a carefully non-didactic exploration of women’s roles and choices at this moment in time. Female characters are not judged for choosing unsatisfactory marriages, when the alternative may be worse for them. Older unmarried women are not shown as leading happy lives due to how limited their choices are, yet Helen is consistent in her belief that marriage is not for her.
Although not explicit, female desire is dealt with frankly, as is the fallout from its expression – fallout which lands disproportionately on women rather than men, despite their equal involvement.
What struck me most though, was not the attitude towards female sexuality or marriage, but towards sex work. It is referred to more than once in the novel and Boake is determinedly non-judgemental of those who undertake it. There is this interview Helen undergoes with a recruiting Madam:
“Helen shook her head, ‘No’ she said. ‘I can’t.’ Her tone was final, and the woman recognised it, though she made a last effort to persuade her. ‘Why not?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know why not,’ answered Helen. ‘It’s not my way, that’s all.’”
Then later in the novel she takes a woman from the street for a hot meal:
“Helen looked round with a frown. She found that everyone in the room was staring at them. She looked at them with bitter scorn. She hated them for their smug complacency. She felt neither love, liking, or even pity for the girl she was with, but she preferred her to the smug suburban women with their intolerable air of conscious virtue.”
I expected a much more judgemental attitude for the time, and it was refreshing to have this assumption undermined. (Also on the subject of the streets – the urban setting and changing seasons are wonderfully evoked. Sadly I don’t know Melbourne but I’m sure those who do would find much to enjoy in this evocation of it in the early decades of the last century).
Painted Clay was Capel Boake’s first novel and on the strength of this I would definitely be interested in reading more. It’s not the most sophisticated novel but it’s concise, well-paced and very readable. Boake died in her 40s having published three novels (one further was published posthumously) and some poetry.
Secondly, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1891) which I was encouraged to take off the shelf by Emma’s escapism list. Although depicting a far more conventional life of middle-class mores and marriage than Painted Clay, The Three Miss Kings still manages to cast an askance, humorous view at late Victorian life.
At the beginning of the novel the titular heroines – Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor – find themselves all alone in the world after their father dies.
“It was a curious position altogether. As far as they knew, they had no relations, and they had never had a friend. Not one of them had left their home for a night since Eleanor was born, and not one invited guest had slept there during the whole of that period. They had never been to school, or had any governess but their mother, or any experience of life and the ways of the world save what they gained in their association with her, and from the books that she and their father selected for them.”
Cambridge is at pains to stress the young women’s refinement and ‘breeding’ to an extremely tedious degree. However, later in the novel she stops banging on about this quite so much, which was certainly a relief, and gets on with telling an oft-told tale in a very readable way (excepting a couple of clunky passages with characters voicing long opinions on topical issues such as the role of the church).
The women travel from their rural home to Melbourne to be shocked and then embraced by city life, under the guiding light of their self-appointed guardian Mrs Duff-Scott:
“The only drawback to her enjoyment in them was the consciousness that, though they were nobody else’s, they were not altogether hers. She would have given half her fortune to be able to buy them, as she would buy three bits of precious crockery, for her absolute possession, body and soul—to dress, to manage, to marry as she liked.”
Three comely young ladies, refined of manner and naïve of just about everything – what will possibly happen? Mrs Duff-Scott has an idea, and lines up potential suitors for all of them with alarming ineptitude. I particularly enjoyed her assessment of Mr Westmoreland:
“He was the richest of them all, and the most stupid, and therefore he seemed to be cut out for Patty, who, being so intellectual and so enterprising, would not only make a good use of his money, but would make the best that was to be made of him.”
Cambridge does undermine some of the conventions she is focussing on, or at least mocks them lightly. For example, how to describe her heroines:
“like a tall lily, I feel I ought (and for a moment was tempted) to add, only that I know no girl ever did look like a lily since the world was made, nor ever will, no matter what the processes of evolution may come to.”
She’s also very pragmatic alongside the romance, such as the consideration of marrying for money:
“If these motives seem poor and inadequate, in comparison with the great motive of all (as no doubt they are), we must remember that they are at the bottom of a considerable proportion of the marriages of real life, and not perhaps the least successful ones. It goes against me to admit so much, but one must take things as one finds them.”
She even allows some feminist commentary regarding commanding male heroes:
“’Who would marry a chicken-hearted milksop if she could get a splendid tyrant like that?’ exclaimed Patty, fervently, for the moment forgetting there were such things as woman’s rights in the world.”
So although a romance in many ways, The Three Miss Kings is not unwaveringly romantic. I’ve never read Ada Cambridge before and I really enjoyed this first encounter. She brought a different voice, humour and interesting characterisation to make a familiar story include some surprises.
The story is firmly rooted in 1880 and in Melbourne, with descriptions of the International Exhibition. Melbourne Cup, public gardens, streets and crowds which were very evocative. If I’ve not said much about the plot it’s because I don’t think it’s really needed – you get the idea!
“I don’t think it is that things are going wrong, dear. It is only that we have to manage them, and to steer our way, and to take care of ourselves, and that is so trying and perplexing.”
To end, forward a century for service as usual with a 1980s pop video, from a Melbourne band:
November is full of wonderful reading events and I’ve been through the TBR pulling out possibilities for Novellas in November, German Lit Month, Margaret Atwood Reading Month and AusReading Month. Given my current reading and blogging pace it’s highly unlikely that I’ll manage them all, but I’m starting today with a post for Nonfiction November hosted by Doing Dewey.
In many ways this is the least likely of all the events for me to take part in, as I read practically no nonfiction. However, last year I read the first two in Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and absolutely loved them. The bibliophile’s crack-den that is the charity bookshop across the road from my flat never lets me down, and when saw the third instalment in there recently of course I swooped.
Real Estate (2021) sees Levy still living in the flat she moved to when her marriage ended, but as her children leave for university and beyond, she is trying to work out what makes a home, and whether she wants one.
“I was also searching for a house in which I could live and work and make a world at my own pace, but even in my imagination this home was blurred, undefined, not real, or not realistic, or lacked realism. I yearned for a grand old house (I had now added an oval fireplace to its architecture) and a pomegranate tree in the garden. It had fountains and wells, remarkable circular stairways, mosaic floors, traces of the rituals of all who had left there before me. That is to say the house was lively, it had enjoyed a life. It was a loving house.
[…] The odd thing was that every time I tried to see myself inside this grand old house, I felt sad.”
The themes from The Cost of Living and Things I Don’t Want to Know continue, as Levy considers how to live in a way that supports her work and enables her to authentically create her own space in middle-age, in a society that undervalues ageing and especially ageing women.
In Real Estate Levy is looking at the spaces she creates both internally and externally, and the challenge to have both reflecting and supporting the other.
“An extended family of friends and their children, an expanded family rather than a nuclear family, which in this phase of my life seemed a happier way to live. If I wanted a spare room for every friend, my flat could not support this idea. If I wanted a fireplace in every room, there were no fireplaces in my flat. So what was I going to do with all this wanting?”
She takes a fellowship in Paris for a while, living in an apartment she barely furnishes, knowing it will be transitory and focussing on her work. She visits Berlin and Mumbai and holidays in Greece. The various changes of scene don’t enable Levy to reach any conclusions about where to live, or how to reconcile her desires and needs with the practicalities entailed in bricks and mortar. But that’s not the point of these exploratory, reflective living autobiographies. Perhaps the point is that there is no answer – as we evolve and change, so do our needs, and perhaps so does the best place for us to be.
With this volume as with the previous two, Levy is a witty and challenging writer, so much fun while not shying away from serious issues and a strong feminist sensibility:
“Are women real estate owned by patriarchy?… Who owns the deeds to the land in that transaction?”
I particularly enjoyed this encounter at a literary party which she gatecrashes in London:
“A male writer of some note, but not in my own hierarchy of note, had knocked back a few too many gin cocktails. This liberated his desire to find a female writer in the room to undermine […] The truth was that he viewed every female writer as a sitting tenant on his land.”
Real Estate has been marketed as the final volume of Levy’s living autobiography and I really hope that’s not the case. She’s wonderful company.
To end, my own perennial real estate quandary is: do I leave my little London flat for somewhere cheaper so I can have a garden? I’ve been debating this for years and I will leave in the end, but here’s a warning about the perils of leaving London for a trip to the Home Counties (a bit sweary so do avoid if you’re not keen, but the lyric ‘Could you be my big spoon or are you just a bigot in Wetherspoons?’ meant I really wanted to share 😀 )
Although I read a lot of golden age detective fiction as it is my go-to comfort read, I rarely blog on it. I’m making an exception this week though, as The Crime at Black Dudley, the first Albert Campion mystery by Margery Allingham, was published in 1929. This makes it perfect for the 1929 Club, running all week and hosted by Simon and Kaggsy.
In this first outing, Campion is not the primary detective. This role falls instead to George Abbershaw:
“He was a smallish man, chubby and solemn, with a choir-boy expression and a head of ridiculous bright-red curls which gave him a somewhat fantastic appearance.
His book on pathology, treated with special reference to fatal wounds and the means of ascertaining their probable causes, was a standard work, and in view of his many services to the police in the past his name was well known and his opinion respected at the Yard.
At the moment he was on holiday, and the unusual care which he took over his toilet suggested that he had not come down to Black Dudley solely for the sake of recuperating in the Suffolk air.
Much to his own secret surprise and perplexity, he had fallen in love.
He recognized the symptoms at once and made no attempt at self-deception, but with his usual methodical thoroughness set himself to remove the disturbing emotion by one or other of the only two methods known to mankind – disillusionment or marriage.”
So George heads to a somewhat foreboding enormous country pile, home of Wyatt Petrie, an academic, and his uncle Colonel Coombe (there always seem to be Colonels in GA mysteries don’t there? They seem to have been much more prolific then.) There is to be a party of Bright Young Things descending for the weekend.
An isolated country house, a closed circle of characters not entirely well-known to one another, what could go wrong…? Early on, George is drawn to a wall display:
“Yet it was the actual centre-piece which commanded immediate interest. Mounted on a crimson plaque, at the point where the lance-heads made a narrow circle, was a long, fifteenth-century Italian dagger. The hilt was an exquisite piece of workmanship, beautifully chased and encrusted at the upper end with uncut jewels, but it was not this that first struck the onlooker. The blade of the Black Dudley Dagger was its most remarkable feature. Under a foot long, it was very slender and exquisitely graceful, fashioned from the steel that had in it a curious greenish tinge which lent the whole weapon an unmistakably sinister appearance. It seemed to shine out of the dark background like a living and malignant thing.”
How on earth will the murder take place? What weapon will possibly be used? That’s right, Colonel Coombe is poisoned. Only kidding, of course he’s stabbed with the heavily foreshadowed Black Dudley Dagger.
However, that is not the only dampener on the party. Two men, sinister associates of the deceased, proclaim that no-one is allowed to leave until a missing item is returned to them. They succeed in convincing everyone of their seriousness through direct and effective means. (One of them is German and my heart sank a bit, anticipating caricatured xenophobic villainy, but thankfully although there is some it’s not extensive, and it soon becomes apparent that *small spoiler* he is not the true villain).
What will George do? Can he unmask the murderer? Can he protect his beloved Meggie long enough to propose? Well, among the party is one Albert Campion. George finds him foolish and irritating. Silly George! It’s obvious to the reader that there is More To Albert Than Meets The Eye…
“Everybody looked at Mr Campion. He was leaning up against the balustrade, his fair hair hanging over his eyes, and for the first time it dawned upon Abbershaw that he was fully dressed, and not, as might have been expected, in the dinner-jacket he had worn on the previous evening.
His explanation was characteristic.
‘Most extraordinary,’ he said, in his slightly high-pitched voice. ‘The fellow set on me. Picked me up and started doing exercises with me as if I were a dumb-bell. I thought it was one of you fellows joking at first, but when he began to jump on me it percolated through that I was being massacred. Butchered to make a butler’s beano, in fact.’
He paused and smiled fatuously.”
The main flaw of The Crime at Black Dudley is that mysterious, capable, comic Campion is so clearly the hero that the story feels a bit unbalanced and lacking when he’s not around. He dominates until he suddenly doesn’t – leaving the story before the end. George sees it through for the reader, but it makes for something of an anti-climax.
However, that quibble aside, The Crime at Black Dudley is a very enjoyable golden age mystery. As well as the tropes already mentioned, there are trapdoors, secret passageways and international criminal gangs. It’s a short fun read, and it made me keen to spend more time with perplexing Campion. As the Bright Young Things might say, (but probably never did) even if it’s not entirely the cat’s pyjamas it is still a crashing good lark.
From the silly to the serious, and my usual disclaimer that I know Ernest Hemingway was a fairly terrible human. He treated women badly, he loved blood sports which is abhorrent, I have no doubt that had we ever met, Hemingway and I would have viewed each other with mutual contempt. I also know that I just adore his writing, in a way I can’t fully explain. I do like pared-back style, but there’s something indefinable in his writing that I just find so moving. A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 and it opens:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
If I tell you I was already inexplicably tearful by the time I reached the end of that passage you know you’re not going to get a coherent or balanced review of this book in any way 😀
The novel follows the story of Frederic Henry, an American volunteer paramedic in Italy during the First World War, and his relationship with Catherine Barkley, an English nurse. Initially I found their behaviour rather silly, but then I had to remind myself that they were very young, and living through traumatic circumstances.
“I went out the door and suddenly I felt lonely and empty. I had treated seeing Catherine very lightly, I had gotten somewhat drunk and had nearly forgotten to come but when I could not see her there I was feeling lonely and hollow.”
“‘I’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls, will you?’ She looked at me very happily. ‘I’ll do what you want and say what you want and then I’ll be a great success, won’t I?’”
No Catherine, that’s a truly terrible idea. Familiarise yourself with feminist theory and pull yourself together!
I thought Hemingway’s iceberg style of writing, not spelling everything out and trusting the reader to fill in gaps, worked extremely well throughout. Being so matter-of-fact about war, death and injury drove home its seriousness rather than treating it lightly. It meant that nothing was made easier by a more descriptive or metaphorical style. Here Henry is wounded badly (skip the next quote if you’re at all squeamish!):
“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside behind my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin. I wiped my hand on my shirt and another floating light came very slowly down and I looked at my leg and was very afraid.”
A Farewell to Arms is not relentlessly bleak though. There are touches of humour between Henry and his friends, or in Henry’s observations of his medical care:
“I have noticed that doctors who fail in the practice of medicine have a tendency to seek one another’s company and aid in consultation. A doctor who cannot take out your appendix properly will recommend to you a doctor who will be unable to remove your tonsils with success. These were three such doctors.”
It’s also not bitter. Henry becomes disillusioned with the war but again, the iceberg style works well in presenting the hopelessness and destruction of ideals, without being cynical or maudlin, such as Henry’s conversation with his friend who is a priest:
‘I had hoped for something.’
‘No. Something more.’
‘There isn’t anything more. Except victory. It may be worse.’
‘I hoped for a long time for victory.’
‘Now I don’t know.’
‘It has to be one or the other.’
‘I don’t believe in victory anymore.’
‘I don’t. But I don’t believe in defeat. Though it may be better.’
‘What do you believe in?’
‘In sleep,’ I said. He stood up.
It occurred to me towards the end of the novel, when Henry uses a racial slur, that until that point I hadn’t really considered whether I liked any of characters. At that point I reflected that I didn’t much. Catherine is somewhat underwritten, the first-person narrative reflecting Henry’s youthful egotism in love, and Henry himself wasn’t particularly easy to warm to. But actually this was irrelevant. Hemingway wasn’t asking the reader to like or not like his characters. He was presenting them as they were, as flawed humans caught up in violence and destruction, and pointing out utter futility of it all.
“I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”
To end, the trailer for the 1932 film adaptation starring Gary Cooper: