“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:

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“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.

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.

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.

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:

“Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.” (Marguerite Duras)

It’s Mother’s Day today here in the UK and in Ireland, Nigeria, Jersey, Guernsey & the Isle of Man. The shops have never been so awash with pastel bouquets; trying to find a non-twee arrangement for a woman who would think I had lost my mind if I presented her with such has proved an epic quest.

Sometimes I worry my mother and I have a weird relationship (we definitely do). The run up to today has also been a cause of tension, as its my birthday, and we both think the other person should be the focus of the celebration* (I mean, 41 years old, who cares?) There’s nothing like reading about dysfunctional relationships to make you feel comparatively better about your own, so here are 2 short novels that expertly portray difficult, strange but loving mother/daughter relationships.

Firstly, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016). Sofia and her mother Rose are in the south of Spain, desperately hoping (at least, Sofia is) that the unconventional approach of Dr Gomez will cure Rose of her various and variable health problems. The two of them have a claustrophobically co-dependent relationship, and while Sofia admits “I want a bigger life.” she is unable to tear herself away from her mother, physically and emotionally:

“I dared not move to a less painful position because I knew that she was scared and that I had to pretend not to be. She had no God to plead to for mercy or luck. It would be true to say she depended instead on human kindness and painkillers.”

Dr Gomez’s approach is psychological as well as physical, and he orders Sofia to spend time away from her mother. As the sun beats down, Sofia has time to think. Back in London, she works in a coffee shop and sleeps in what basically amounts to a cupboard on the premises. She has given up her PhD in social anthropology, but still thinks like a social anthropologist, such as when considering a woman she is interested in:

“Who is Ingrid Bauer? What are her beliefs and sacred ceremonies? Does she have economic autonomy? What are her rituals with menstrual blood? How does she react to the winter season? What is her attitude to beggars? Does she believe she has a soul? If she does, is it embodied by anything else? A bird or a tiger? Does she have an app for Uber on her smartphone? Her lips are so soft.”

We are entirely inside Sofia’s head and it is a suffocating, fascinating place to be. She is a mixture of insight and naivety, self-knowledge and self-delusion, but she starts to peel back a few layers of her life.

 “Anything covered is always interesting. There is never nothing beneath something that is covered.”

The relationship between Sofia and Rose is as suffocating as the heat that surrounds them, but Levy builds this up in small, telling details.

 “Sometimes, I find myself limping. It’s as if my body remembers the way I walk with my mother. Memory is not always reliable. It is not the whole truth. Even I know that.”

This idea of subjective truth permeates the novel. If Rose is a hypochondriac, or if she is deliberately manipulating or daughter, or if she is truly unwell, the result is the same. The truth of Rose, of Sofia, of their individual identities and relationship together will shift and change constantly. There is understanding but they don’t necessarily know one another, or themselves.

 “I have more of an ear for the language of symptoms and side effects, because that is my mother’s language. Perhaps it is my mother tongue.”

Levy is not interested in making Sofia or Rose likeable, yet both are sympathetic. They are both floundering, and this is described in beautiful precise prose.

“She had catalogued over a billion words but she could not find words for how her own wishes for herself had been dispersed in the winds and storms of a world not arranged to her advantage.”

Hot Milk has stayed with me long after I finished it. It is not a novel that ties things up neatly, because Levy would never be so trite, but that does not mean it is not satisfying. It’s a brilliant, disturbing story that creates an oppressive atmosphere and believable characters. A fully realised story in a small space: my favourite kind of writing.

Secondly, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016). I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, which won Strout the Pulitzer Prize, but I definitely will now because the writing in Lucy Barton was perfection. Like Hot Milk, it’s a short tale (thanks to terrible London traffic I read the whole thing on an arduous journey to work one morning) but fully realised.

Lucy is looking back on when she was hospitalised with appendicitis. In a time before mobile phones and other digital communication (sometime in the 1980s) she feels isolated and so her husband asks her mother to visit her. Her mother has never been on a plane but she is a determined character and gets herself from the fields of Illinois to the concrete jungle of New York, to ask her daughter questions like:

“‘Wizzle, how can you live with no sky?’”

They haven’t seen each other in many years yet Lucy is happy to see her. The estrangement has emerged rather than been absolutely decided upon, but estrangement it most certainly is. Lucy’s childhood was not a happy one  and we gradually learn this through her recollections – most certainly not through any open discussion with her mother.

“There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store to talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.”

Lucy’s family was also incredibly poor, and yet it is this that has made her a college graduate and a writer, escaping her home town, something her brother and sister have not managed.

“There are elements that determine paths taken, and we can seldom find them or point to them accurately, but I have sometimes thought how I would stay late at school, where it was warm, just to be warm.”

Her mother regales her with anecdotes about families in their home town, but they never address the issues in their own family. It is never fully articulated exactly what went on, but it seems Lucy’s father had PTSD following the war, and was given to violent fits of temper.

“I took Vicky away in the fields until it was dark and we became more afraid of the dark than our own home, I still am not sure it’s a true memory, except I do know it, I think. I mean: It is true. Ask anyone who knew us.”

Not explicitly explaining what happened is a master stroke by Strout. The idea of unreliable memory is a recurring one and she effectively captures how family history is a mix of shared differing memories, understanding, bafflement, conflict and love. We rarely sit down and objectively explain our families and who we are to ourselves at length; it’s too close to see and insights come in flashes rather than long interior monologues. Lucy understands as best she can, and she accepts what she can.

“ ‘Lucy comes from nothing.’ I took no offense, and really, I take none now. But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.”

Strout is a wonderful writer. She is interested in people and in presenting them in their unfinished state – there is a feeling her characters can surprise you, as we surprise each other and ourselves, because no-one is wholly consistent or coherent all of the time. She writes simply but beautifully.

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

To end, my mother combines her mothering of me with that of my brother, who was a big Mr T fan when we were wee. But that’s really no justification for what follows:

*pub lunch

“STELLA! STELLA!” (Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire)

I’m not a big follower of book prizes although I like the Bailey’s Prize and usually try & read the Booker winner. However, the annual Stella Prize, which started in 2013 and awards outstanding Australian women’s writing, has lists which always look fascinating and wide-ranging. Currently the 2018 long list has been announced and the shortlist will be revealed on International Women’s Day, 8 March. I hadn’t read any of the winners and obviously this enormous oversight needed correcting. Also, Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s wonderful reviews of the last two winners convinced me I needed to rectify this sooner rather than later.

The 2017 winner was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. You can read Kate’s review here. It is an extraordinary novel, centred around the real-life event of The Artist is Present by Marina Abramovic, a 2010 performance art installation at MoMA in New York, which you can read about here.

Arky Levin is a film score composer, estranged from his wife and devoted to the city:

“When he moved to New York… and found the stars in their gaping darkness were nowhere to be seen, eclipsed by SoHo apartments and Midtown high-rises, Chinatown neons and flashy Fifth Avenue commercial buildings…he felt he had won. That humanity had won. New York was brighter than the universe bearing down on them. For this alone he had decided that he could live here forever and entirely expected to.”

Arky attends the installation for each of the 75 days it is in situ, and during this time he witnesses the profound effect the installation has on people. Marina sits one side of a table, and the public volunteers sit opposite her one at a time, gazing into her eyes. They can stay for as little or as long as they want, but they must make eye contact.

“Here in New York, where time was everyone’s currency, and to gaze deeply into the face of another was possibly a sign of madness, people were flocking to sit with Marina Abramovic. She wasn’t so much stealing hearts, he thought, as awakening them. The light that came into their eyes. Their intelligence, their sadness, all of it tumbled out as people sat.”

Such a simple but incredibly powerful idea, and the installation was a smash hit. Similarly, Rose uses a simple writing style to explore massive themes: love in many guises, loss, art, the desperate need for meaning in life and how we locate it. Arky learns about other and himself simply by sitting and watching the installation.

“Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity, you must be fearless.”

The Museum of Modern Love, as the title suggests, is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It is not a romance between two people. Instead it is a love story about people and all they can give to one another, as lovers, friends, relatives, artist and spectator. It is life-affirming without being sentimental. Rose acknowledges there is pain for people, but suggests that we have to get out there anyway, engage in acts of love in a myriad of ways, find connection and transcend.

“She was watching Marina Abramovic in her white dress on this final day of her enduring love. For hadn’t it been that for Abramovic? An act of love that said, This is all I have been, this is what I have become in travelling the places of my soul and my nation, my family and my ancestral blood. This is what I have learned. It is all about connection. If we do it with the merest amount of intention and candour and fearlessness, this is the biggest love we can feel. It’s more than love but we don’t have a bigger word.”

And here she is, on the last day, in the white dress:

In 2016 the winner was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. You can read Kate’s review here. I wish I’d read The Museum of Modern Love after this, as it would have been a good aid to recovery. The Natural Way of Things is brutal, shocking, urgent and without doubt one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. It has absolutely stayed with me.

A group of young women are kidnapped and held hostage in a large, bleak piece of land in the outback, surrounded by an electric fence. There is no escape, and gradually they realise no-one is coming for them.

“Nobody knows. They have been here almost a week. Nobody has come, nothing has happened but waiting and labour and dog kennels and DIGNITY & RESPECT and beatings and fear and a piece of concrete guttering, and now perhaps infection is coming too.”

Gradually it emerges that all the women have a sex scandal in their past. These are never fully explained but enough information is given for the reader to realise that in each case, the power lay with the men involved, and in each case, the women are the vilified parties. Possibly they have been taken by a moral fanatic, who we never see. Their heads are shaved, their clothes taken and replaced with basic garments, including Handmaid’s Tale style bonnets, which come to represent both a coping mechanism and gradual institutionalisation for some of the captives:

“they depend on them for the snug containment of their heads, covering their ears, the obscured vision. Verla can understand it, though only from a distance. She used to hold them in contempt for keeping the bonnets; not anymore. But still, for her herself, that limp, stinking thing felt more like a prison than this whole place.”

As food supplies dwindle and illness threatens, the women fight for survival in their various ways. Their jailers are pathetic and inept, but also men and they hold the power.

“He frowns down and Verla knows he is thinking ugh at the two filthy girls, that he is freshly fearful of the lice eggs in their matted hair, of Verla stretched white with illness, of Yolanda and her rusted weaponry. He fears their thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power.”

The Natural Way of Things is about how society figures men and women, where power lies, how that is wielded and how predator and prey lies barely concealed in human relationships. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and absolutely terrifying.

To end, what else?

“Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously. Let’s live, you and I, as none have ever lived before.” (Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1918)

Happy Valentine’s Day! And for those who are single (such as myself), console yourself that we don’t have to go to an overpriced, overcrowded restaurant to have our meal interrupted by tired-looking pushers of sad hothouse roses in buckets whilst couples around us try and hide their mutual disdain for one another as their relationships teeter on the brink of collapse under the pressure of meeting the impossible standards of commercially appropriated romantic love 😉

As I said, Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

*fans self*

For Valentine’s Day I thought I’d look at two novels concerned with romantic love. A brief foray through my TBR and I struggled to find anything that showed it in a positive light, which says much about my reading tastes. I quickly abandoned that idea and instead I’ve picked 2 novels written by a famous couple, Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West. They met when Violet was ten and Vita was twelve; four years later Violet confessed her love, but life events separated them. They both went on to marry men but continued their relationship, although they did eventually split up. They stayed in touch and remained warm towards each other. Violet is ‘Sasha’ in Orlando, Woolf’s love letter to Vita.

Firstly, Hunt the Slipper by Violet Trefusis (1937).

Nigel lives with his sensible horticulturist sister Molly in their lovely home in Bath. He likes the finer things in life and prides himself on his good taste. Trying to get out of a visit to meet Caroline, the new wife of a neighbour, he gives Molly the following reason regarding Caroline’s family:

“You can’t imagine what they’ve done to their Elizabethan home. I once lunched there years ago; it looked as if Christabel Pankhurst and d’Annunzio had set up house together. Tea-cups and tracts battled for supremacy with peacocks feathers and leopard skins. It was so alarming that I fled.”

However, he goes, and the meeting is not a success. Caroline is miserable in her marriage to Anthony, a man who:

“never tired of dressing her up in the family jewels, of draping her in old-fashioned stuffs. She was his favourite recreation, his most valued asset. He did not particularly care about women, except as part of a decorative scheme.”

She is offhand to Nigel, who is used to women falling for his middle-aged charms, and he is distinctly unimpressed.  However, when they meet in Paris, Caroline has changed. She is in love with someone nearer her own age, Melo. Her taste in men is pretty questionable:

“Melo was a martyr to snobbishness, as a nursemaid is martyr to corns. Apart from physical attraction, Caroline led to the Royal Enclosure, stalking in Scotland, Noel Coward first-nights. In short, to the negligently luxurious life of the British aristocracy.”

Needless to say, this cad breaks her heart, and she turns to Nigel for solace. At this point he falls in love with her, but Caroline remains indifferent.

“He did not suspect that by one of Love’s infallible ricochets she was behaving to him as Melo had behaved to her. Her cruelty was Melo’s legacy, her indifference to him was out of revenge for Melo’s indifference to her. Love passed from one to the other, furtive, unseizable, like the slipper in ‘Hunt the Slipper.’”

There follows a period whereby they both travel, narrowly missing each other in various European destinations, Nigel writing effusive, desperate letters and Caroline sending intermittent, controlled replies. However, slowly, Caroline’s feeling change.

“You’re a terrible hoarder, aren’t you? Is possessiveness quite the same thing as jealousy, I wonder? Funny I should have fallen prey to two ‘collectors’. A[nthony] respects his possessions, whereas you love and tyrannize yours.”

Hunt the Slipper is a slim novel (180 pages) and the short length works well – Caroline and Nigel are both quite selfish. I didn’t wholly dislike them, but nor did I have a great deal of sympathy for them beyond that of realising we’re all flawed human beings and we all need love. Also the hunting of the slipper – love being always just out of reach – could have got tedious but as it is the plotting remains tight. Hunt the Slipper is a witty, sparky novel which gently mocks British insularity, snobbery in all forms, and self-delusion. Trefusis doesn’t judge her characters harshly and so neither do we. She dramatizes in the most ordinary way the conflicts of a cosy routine life against one of passion and unpredictability and doesn’t offer any trite answers as to which will bring most happiness.

Secondly, Family History by Vita Sackville-West (1932).

Beautiful widow Evelyn Jarrold lives an undemanding life, financially well-off with her own flat in London and her son heir to her late husband’s industrial family fortune.

“Evelyn Jarrold was not a woman who questioned the established order of the civilised world. She was not stupid, but, in such matters, simply acquiescent.”

However, she meets Miles Vane-Merrick – also rich, part of the landowning classes, but (shock!) left-leaning – and he turns everything upside down.

“The total absence of ideas amongst the younger Jarrolds, their perpetual heavy banter which passed for wit, the limitations of their interests, their intolerance, their narrow-mindedness, all appeared insufferable to her now in contrast with Miles’ alertness and gaiety.”

He is fifteen years younger than she, and Sackville-West uses their passionate affair to highlight the enormous changes happening in interwar Britain. Evelyn is only 39 but compared to 25 year old Miles she is from a different era. Her friends dress for dinner, the women don’t work, the men snooze through Lords debates before supporting the Tories. Miles and his friends are concerned with new world order, welfare of workers, the women earn money and they talk late into the night.

“Would she ever turn round on the whole of her acquaintance, and in a moment of harshness send them all packing? She knew that the necessary harshness lurked somewhere within her; in fact, she was rather frightened of it.”

The difficulty is, then what would she do? Evelyn is jealous and possessive, but this may not just be temperament, it may be because she has little else to occupy her mind. Miles carries on at his work (politics, running his estate, writing his book) and loves her around this. She does nothing but wait for him to find time for her.

“Love and the woman were insufficient for an active mind, Love and the man, however, were all-too-sufficient for a starved heart and unoccupied mind, Miles learnt it, to his cost; Evelyn never learnt it, to hers.”

Sackville-West does not shy away from the weakness in her characters. Evelyn can be controlling, vain, and overly concerned regarding middle-class mores. While Miles may protest “Instinct makes me reactionary, reason makes me progressive.”, the fact that he’s also given to statements such as “I like women to be idle and decorative.” means he’s not that progressive. He’s self-centred and doesn’t ever seem to take an action that doesn’t suit him entirely. Despite the fact that people constantly refer to him as brilliant and the great hope for the country, I found him weak. One of Evelyn’s relatives is pithily described by Sackville-West thus:

 “She had not preserved her virginity for forty-five years without revealing the fact in every phrase and gesture. A practising Christian, she was packed with a virtuous complaisance and not one ounce of charity.”

However, by the time Miles announces that the best thing that could happen to this woman was for her to be raped, he’d lost me entirely.  Misogynistic pig.

So it says something for Sackville-West’s writing that the fact that I really couldn’t stand one of the characters did not put me off the novel at all. Family History is an intriguing way to explore and make personal the upheavals of the first part of the twentieth-century in Britain. Apparently it didn’t do well on release and was considered one of her lesser works, but I found it thought-provoking and entertaining. The ending genuinely moved me. But most of all, Sackville-West’s wit is an absolute delight. For this reason, I’ll finish with a few choice bon mots:

[On the British upper classes] “The standard of looks was amazing; they had the distinction and beauty of thoroughbred animals. The young men were as elegant as greyhounds, the young women coloured as a herbaceous border. What did it matter […]that those sleek heads contained no more brains than a greyhound’s?”

“Who ever went to Eton to be educated?”

“The icy wind, whipping, biting, brought a certain exhilaration. Discomforts that one need not necessarily endure, always do induce a certain exhilaration. Hence the perennial charm of picnics.”

To end, just to prove I’m not really an embittered cynic, here’s a sweet duet between a pioneering new wave icon and a banjo-playing frog:

“Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.” (Millicent Fawcett)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act in Britain receiving Royal Assent, which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time (it would be another 10 years before women got equal voting rights). There are lots of events going on this year to commemorate the centenary, but it’s also worth noting that the suffragettes argued for equal pay for equal work, and yet 100 years later (last week) Carrie Gracie has been giving evidence to MPs over pay discrimination at the BBC. This is just one example. The fight for equal rights worldwide is ongoing.

For this post I’ve picked one novel written by a suffragette and a short story from the twentieth-first century portraying suffragettes.

Firstly, No Surrender by Constance Maud (1911), who was a member of the Women Writers Suffrage League. I read a crusty copy from the library which had that pleasing old book smell, but Persephone have published it as one of their beautiful editions too, and if you’re on a book-buying ban like me, they also offer it as a free e-book.

Maud looks at suffrage primarily through the story of young cotton mill worker Jenny Clegg. Jenny Clegg’s father has all the power in their home while her mother does all the work:

“Her voice took on its usual apologetic tone with her lord and master. For Mrs Clegg was imbued with a spirit of such humility that she apologised not only for rising early and late taking rest, while fulfilling her manifold obligations towards her mate, such as bearing and raising his ten children, cooking, washing, mending, cleaning for the family, but even for her very existence up to the age of fifty-five in this strenuous service without pay.”

Mr Clegg squanders the money earned by the women in his family such as Jenny. He is selfish but supported by law and society in his behaviour:

“Mr Clegg regarded his daughter sternly, but without wrath. He answered her in measured tones, strong in his sense of his impregnable position, backed as he felt himself to be, not only by the law of the land, the tradition of generations, his own physical force and intrinsic superiority of sex, but by the innermost conviction and consent of all right-thinking womankind.”

Jenny’s political awareness is given direction when she encounters Mary O’Neil, a moneyed society girl who rebels against her class’ expectations of her and supports the suffragettes. There is humour in her mother’s friend Lady Walker’s attitudes towards her own gender:

“ ‘Can you suppose for one moment that a man like Horace Boulder, or even Penhaven, would have been attracted, had Helen or Cicely shown a tendency to independent interests and original thought?’ “

There were plenty of women against the suffragettes, and Lady Walker’s dismissal of them as “ ‘hysterical, unsexed creatures, with a mania against men.’” was not unusual. The character provides some much needed levity, but is never presented as ridiculous, as this internalised misogyny had a major impact on the lives of women at the time, helping maintain the limitations of their rights and freedoms.

Maud covers the main events of the movement up until that time, and uses various scenarios to get across the arguments of women’s suffrage: speeches from carriages, dinner party conversations, arguments between lovers. This is both the strength and weakness of the novel. No Surrender is an issue-lead novel, despite Maud placing a romance between Jenny and Joe Hopton, Labour party candidate, as the driving plot. As such, it sometimes falters under the weight of its intentions. Much as I dislike Dickens, he is an absolute master at dramatising his social commentary. Maud is not so gifted and sometimes No Surrender is overly didactic, with poorly realised characters and a sentimental tone. But I must stress that this is not all it is. It is also able to dramatise how:

“Courage, self-abnegation, forethought, invention, and a keen sense of humour marked the tactics of the militant movement.”

bringing a unique, personal perspective to balance the reportage (and lack thereof) regarding the movement. While at times I found the characterisation of the working classes a bit ‘gor blimey guv’nor’ (or perhaps I should say ‘ee by gum’ as its northern stereotypes) it’s still commendable that Maud roots the story in the working classes, and shifts the focus from the middle class suffragettes.

 “’there’s a good many ladies who’d be doin’ far more good in the world if they thought more about their womanhood and less about their ladyhood’”

So all in all, a flawed novel but a fascinating one, written contemporaneous to the movement by someone who was directly involved.

Secondly, A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing, the final and longest story in the short story collection The Apple by Michel Faber (2006), in which he revisits the characters and setting of his hugely successful novel The Crimson Petal and the White. I’m going to ignore the links to TCPATW to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read it (it’s great – you should definitely read it!)

The story is narrated by an elderly man in a nursing home in the 1990s, recalling his life when he was very young, with his artist father, bohemian mother, and Aunt Primrose (who dresses in men’s clothes and shares a bed with his mother, but the menage a tois arrangement is never explicitly stated).

“You know, because I was a child in what’s now called the Edwardian era, and because I was born the day Queen Victoria died, I always think of the Edwardians as children. Children who lost their mother, but were too young to realise she was gone, and therefore played on as before, only gradually noticing, out of the corners of their eyes, the flickering shadows outside their sunny nursery. Shadows of commotion, of unrest. Sounds of argument, of protest, of Mother’s things being tossed into boxes, of fixtures being forcibly unscrewed, of the whole house being dismantled.”

Amongst this change, there is a conflict between old and new which is obvious to the small child on a daily basis:

“Bureaucrats, tradesmen, doctors, postmen, parsons, waiters, porters, the whole pack of them; they ignored my mother and Aunt Primrose, and directed their remarks to my father.”

But he is a preoccupied artist and it is the women who drive the lives of the household, with energy, fun, and strong political convictions:

“She an Aunt Primrose worked as a kind of music hall duo, Mama getting by on charm and disarming honesty, while Aunt Primrose supplied the sardonic touch. My father was – if you’ll excuse what’s definitely not meant as a pun – the straight man.”

The story culminates on Women’s Sunday, the Hyde Park rally of 21 June 1908 which was the first major meeting organised by the WSPU. A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing covers a great many themes in its 60-plus pages: being part of stories we can’t fully comprehend, the flawed nature of memory, how history is made, the need to attach a narrative to our lives looking back. Faber is a brilliant storyteller, able to cover all this within a driving plot, authentic voice and lightness of touch. He’s said he won’t write any more since publishing Undying in 2016 following the death of his wife, and I sincerely hope he changes his mind. All the stories in The Apple were highly readable, they worked individually, as a whole, and as a sort-of sequel to TCPATW. He’s a great writer.

To end, a silly portrait of a suffragette but not one I can dismiss because it was probably the first time I learnt what a suffragette was: