Novella a Day in May 2019 #17

Crimson – Niviaq Korneliussen (2014, trans. Anna Halager, 2018) 175 pages

I think Crimson might be the first ever literature I’ve read by a Greenlandic author, and as such its  another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Unfortunately, I think I might be a bit too old for this novella. My twenties were a lot of fun and a lot of stress; I have colleagues in their twenties and I enjoy their company but I’ve absolutely no desire to recapture or relive that time. So Crimson’s tales of five Greenlandic twentysomethings getting drunk, sleeping around, falling in and out of love and desperately trying to work out who they are held my attention, but didn’t really engage me beyond that.

Each section focuses on a different character. Fia is repulsed by her boyfriend’s penis and dumps him, but it is only when she sees Sara that she admits she is attracted to women.

“ ‘It’s over’ were my final words.

Then, just like that, I was free.

But the word ‘free’ didn’t bring with it ‘relief’.”

Instead Fia finds herself in the bewildering situation of living temporarily with her brother’s best friend, and trying to manage her feelings for Sara, who has a partner.

Inuk is Fia’s brother. He feels stifled by his home and flees to Denmark after his affair with a famous married man is exposed:

“Greenland is not my home. I feel sorry for Greenlanders. I’m ashamed of being a Greenlander. But I’m a Greenlander. I can’t laugh with Danes.

[…]

I’m terribly homesick but I don’t know what sort of home I’m longing for.”

Arnaq is Inuk’s best friend and Fia’s flatmate. She’s relentlessly social and struggling:

“My chapped lips are the colour of red wine, My hair is still partying. My makeup is smeared all over my face and I have huge bags under my eyes. My body is trying so hard to stay alive that I can’t concentrate on my polluted mind. I drink what’s left of the Coke, lie down on my bed and take out my mobile to check the time.”

Ivik is Sara’s partner and struggling with gender identity. Their story includes graphics of phone screens, showing how the drama of young lives is often played out by technology. But this prosaic language exists alongside the poetic as Ivik works out what they need:

“The sun brightens my eyes, which have only seen the world in black for a long, long time. I can smell the previously frozen earth melting. The warm breeze sounds like a song.”

Finally Sara, partner of Ivik and lust-object of Fia, tells her tale and brings the stories together. Sections of her narrative end with meaningless hashtags which was really annoying, e.g. #dontgotogether or #1#2. If the hashtags had been witty or expanding the perpsective this could have worked better.

Sara, who until this point has been somewhat idealised through the eyes of others, is shown to have her own problems, with feelings of dirtiness and unworthiness. Her sister has just had a baby and Sara notices the obsession with gender that this involves. It’s also a very modern birth announcement via Facebook, where Sara stalks Fia:

“She finally changed her profile picture. I’m unable to see all her photos because we’re not friends on Facebook, so I gaze at her new profile picture for quite a while. I catch myself smiling. I hover over ‘Add friend’ for a long time. No, if she was really interested, she would have sent a friend request. I log off. Go to Google. Google knows everything.”

I only write about books I recommend and it’s undoubtedly great to hear a young Greenlandic voice. Korneliussen was only 24 when she wrote this and she translated it herself into Danish. The writing sometimes seemed to me naïve and bit clunky, but as I said, I’m probably not the target audience for this novella. I’m grateful to Virago for giving English-speaking readers this opportunity to hear her, even if the subject matter bored me slightly. I’d definitely still be interested to see what Korneliussen writes in future.

To end, the title comes from the Joan Jett classic which means a lot to Fia and Sara:

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“A fo ben, bid bont”/“If you want to be a leader, be a bridge” (Welsh proverb)

If only traditional Welsh wisdom would reach current leaders, who seem determined to build walls both literal and metaphorical rather than bridges at the moment… *sigh*

Politics aside, let’s get back to books, lovely books. This is my contribution to Dewithon 19, the Welsh readathon for March 2019, hosted by Paula at Book Jotter – do join in!

(Image from Book Jotter)

Firstly, Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards (1928), who was born in Glamorgan in 1903. This was her only novel after she tragically died by suicide when she was 31, six years after its publication.

Arnold Nettle is a shy man and in frail health. He moves to a village where his family own the Post Office, to work there and recuperate.

“Every evening at six o’clock Arnold Nettle used to come home from the post-office and walk slowly along to his lodgings. The sun was setting and it would disappear behind the black feathery branches of the trees, leaving streaks of red in the grey sky. He went in and had his tea, and then he usually sat reading by the fire or practising a bit on his cello. Sometimes, of course, he sat simply looking into the fire, and it seemed he was a little nervous even in his own society, because often he would blush and smile shyly to himself. At ten o’clock he would put his book and his cello back in their places and fasten the window and go to bed.”

So, a simple life conveyed in a simple style. I wasn’t sure about this style at first, whether it was deliberate to convey Arnold’s thought processes and deliberately quiet life, or whether it was the inexperience of the writer. It worked well for Arnold, and it did change slightly when the story focussed on other characters. Arnold is asked by a local family to play his cello for them; Olivia and Eleanor live with their aunt, Mrs Curle, and her son George. Arnold is very much taken with Olivia.

“Olivia smiled at him too and made him sit down, He still kept the gloves firmly in his hands, but he sat down smiling at them all and asked in a comparatively loud voice, ‘Where is your cat?’ and since this was the first quite independent remark he had ever made in that house, it almost gave the rather absurd impression that he had this evening come there especially to see the cat.”

The story follows these young people and also Mr Premiss, a self-focussed cad who is friends with George, and Pauline, Arnold’s landlady’s daughter. Very little happens so this is not the novel for you if you like a strong plot, but I thought it worked effectively in capturing people and a place at a moment in time, over the course of one winter.

Ultimately though I decided the naïve style was due to Dorothy Edwards’ inexperience as a writer. There are far too many occasions on which Olivia’s eyes are described as sad, her sister’s as blue. This description is not always out of place:

“Olivia looked about her with her large, rather childlike but sad eyes. Her happy mood had gone in some way; she did not feel so full of energy. There is something, too, rather unpleasant about winter; it is cold and frozen and nothing seems to move, and yet there is no sense of rest anywhere.”

Yet far too frequent. But what really stopped me loving this novel was a feeling of detachment from the characters. For me as a reader, I don’t need to like the characters but I do need to feel involved with them in some way. Again, this may have been a stylistic choice – Olivia seems depressed, Arnold is alienated, and so creating this feeling in the reader helps capture the feelings of the characters:

“At supper he was very careful to listen to the conversation and not to get lost in his own thoughts. But even then he listened, and even took part in it, almost as though he were dreaming it all. They sat around the table like stars, and when they spoke their voices seemed to come to him from far away”

I only write about books I would recommend, and I would recommend Winter Sonata, but with some reservations. I found it an interesting novel with some beautiful writing but also a bit unsatisfying. I’ve definitely not done it justice here and in capturing a quiet desperation within ordinary lives it is restrained and accomplished. What I am sure of is that Dorothy Edwards was a talented writer and may have just been finding her feet with this. I’d certainly like to read Rhapsody, her collection of short stories. Had she lived and carried on writing, I think she could have been really successful.

Secondly, Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi (2004) who was born in Cardiff and based the main character of this novel, Winnie, on Nora Brindle, a woman who lived on the streets of Cardiff.

“There was a panicky sort of wind about, swirling everything up from the gutter and blowing dirt in your face. Eyes full of grit; with my case and the bin liner…I was wearing my silver coat with the plastic bag in the inside pocket, and the shoes I’d got from the Salvation Army the week before. I had my case with me. I always took my case.”

Winnie is homeless but shelters in an abandoned shop that she has some previous connection to, along with some young homeless boys. They move on and she is on her own when a young woman breaks in a steals her case. Her pursuit of her things leads Winnie to remember the past, and Azzopardi moves seamlessly back and forth across time.

Winnie has been considered odd since she was a child. Her mother seems to suffer from depression, although in the first half of the twentieth century it isn’t called that. All young Winnie knows is that her frail mother is wasting away in bed, and like Winnie, she communes with the dead.

“I avoided cracks in the pavement, I crossed my fingers and touched wood, and at night, I prayed. Despite everything, the ghosts took their fill. Each day a little more of my mother was stolen. In no time at all, her eyes went hard as jet; her hair, brittle as spun sugar.”

We follow Winnie through her life: evacuation during the war, bullying at school, falling in love. She lives with her grandfather after her mother dies and her father tries to keep Winnie’s memories of her alive:

 “A handkerchief, a ribbon, a heart-shaped locket sprinkled with rust; these are objects, artefacts, proof of life. I balance his memories, all the same, storing them on top of mine, carefully leaning one against the other like a stack of playing cards. I am building a tower without bells. Later I will bring it all down, in an earthquake of my own.”

What we witness is that time and again Winnie is used by people. Azzopardi shows with a deft touch how society will judge Winnie – homeless, unloved, likely mentally ill – harshly, although she has never been vindictive or deliberately tried to hurt anyone. Meanwhile those who use her – usually male, employed, solvent – get away with it.

Remember Me isn’t remotely sentimental and Winnie never asks for pity. She is an unreliable narrator, but then everyone would be an unreliable narrator of their own life – how can it possibly be seen with any objectivity?

“Who cares about an old woman and a few bits of tat? No one, that’s who, no one on the world.”

Winnie’s life is hard, and unfair, and yet her resilience and a message of hope endures to the very end.

Following Winnie’s lead, here is a memory of my own: when I was a student in the 90s, there was the Cool Cymru music explosion, with the chart success of bands like Manic Street Preachers, Super Furry Animals, and The Stereophonics amongst many others. When Catatonia appeared on Top of the Pops to perform Mulder and Scully in 1998, I think it was the first time I’d heard an English-language pop song sung in a Welsh accent (I’m not counting Bonnie Tyler because I think she didn’t mean for her accent to slip through), much to the pleasure of my Welsh housemate at the time. Here is their lead singer Cerys Matthews performing a traditional Welsh folk song:

“Men are my hobby—if I ever got married, I’d have to give it up.” (Mae West)

My last post was about a romantically-involved couple for Valentine’s Day; this week I thought I’d look at a single person status much distrusted throughout literature: that of the spinster. Both my spinsters are inhabitants of beautiful Bristol, which I’d like to claim was down to well thought-through post-planning on my part, but was actually a total coincidence.

My first choice is the wonderful Miss Mole, titular heroine of the 1930 novel by EH Young. Hannah is in her late thirties, alone and shabby and the envy of no-one, yet she is a robust character who finds ways to survive and even enjoy life.

“She judged herself by the shadow she chose to project for her own pleasure and it was her business in life – and one in which she usually failed – to make other people accept her creation. Yes, she failed, she failed! They would not look at the beautiful, the valuable Hannah Mole: they saw the substance and disapproved of it and she did not blame them: it was what she would have done herself and in the one case where she had concentrated on the fine shadow presented to her, she had been mistaken.”

She is not delusional, rather she refuses to see herself as others see her -and why should she?

“This capacity for waiting and believing that the good things were surely approaching had served Hannah very well through a life which most people would have found dull and disappointing. She refused to see it so: it would have been treachery to herself. Her life was almost her only possession and she was as tender with it as a mother”

There is a strong streak of mischief in Hannah Mole too, and she enjoys teasing her well-to-do cousin Lilla, who finds her a job as a housekeeper to the reverend Robert Corder and his daughters Ethel and Ruth. This is not a remotely romantic set-up though. Corder is good at his job but he is also vain and self-centred, and enjoys his position in society because it means few people challenge him. Hannah sees him unblinkingly, and he does not like her.

“it would have horrified him to learn that he could not judge a clever or plain woman fairly. A clever one challenged him to combat in which he might not be the victor and a plain one roused in him a primitive antagonism. In failing to please him, a woman virtually denied her sex and became offensive to those instincts which he did his best to ignore.”

Hannah decides to improve things for his unhappy daughters, and feels a bond with his dead wife as she sets out to do so. She will manage things successfully, but in her own inimitable way:

“Hannah was not scrupulous about truth. She was not convinced of its positive value as human beings knew it, she considered it a limiting and an embarrassing convention.”

Hannah is realistic, but also hopeful and not remotely self-pitying. We also learn early on that she is brave, rescuing a suicidal man by smashing a window. She and a fellow tenant in her boarding house, Mr Blenkinsop, conspire to improve things for the man’s family, despite appearing to communicate at cross-purposes a great deal of the time. As she makes things work out for those around her, I really wanted things to work out for Hannah too, despite a shadow from her past looming – I think I viewed her with more compassion than she allowed herself:

“The desires, the energy, the gaiety were there, but they were ruled by an ironic conception of herself”

I really enjoyed spending time with Miss Mole. It’s a gentle novel, but it also doesn’t hide away from the realities of life for single women who are no longer young and without much money in the first half of the twentieth century, and how a judgemental society limits their choices.

Secondly, a spinster who would probably have done better without much money, Rachel Waring in Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar (1982).  Rachel is in her late 40s with a boring job and a flatshare in London. Then her Great Aunt Alicia dies and leaves her a house in Bristol, and everything changes.

“And the hitherto dull, diffident, middle-aged woman who said to the taxi driver ‘Paddington please,’ felt in some respects more like a girl of seventeen setting out for exotic climes”

Rachel moves into the house and is determined to make the best of this fresh start:

“I had often discovered the secret of happiness: courage on one occasion, acceptance on another, gratitude on a third. But this time there was rightness to it – certainty, simplicity – which in the past mightn’t have seemed quite so all-embracing. Gaiety, I told myself. Vivacity. Positive thinking. I could have cheered.”

Gradually however, this vivacity spills over into something more. She becomes obsessed with the slave trade reformer Horatio Gavin who lived in her house centuries ago. She sees a portrait in a shop she believes to be him:

“I saw the portrait in the window.

I laughed out loud. I laughed right there, standing on the pavement, a spontaneous burst of laughter that was partly the effect of my ecstatic recognition of him and partly an aid to his more sober recognition of me

Wish Her Safe At Home details Rachel’s descent into serious mental illness. It is brilliantly done. Rachel begins as eccentric and gradually becomes truly unhinged. The description of seeing the portrait is a perfect example. Most of us at some point have lost our filter in public: suddenly laughing at something remembered, or saying something out loud which we didn’t mean to. There are often experiences that we believe to be serendipitous for one reason or another. But Rachel suddenly takes this experience a step further in believing the portrait recognises her.

A novel from the first-person perspective of someone who is losing their mind is a tough read. I found it really got under my skin, more than any novel I’ve read in a long time. The first-person perspective also works brilliantly in positioning the reader in a place not exactly like Rachel’s, but certainly confused and paranoid on her behalf. There is a young couple, Roger and Celia who seem to like Rachel – why? Are they after her house? Do they feel sorry for her? Are they playing her from the start? Are they completely oblivious? Rachel’s unreliable narration means we cannot be sure.

“I don’t know when the following dialogue took place. Somehow it seems cut adrift from time, like a rowboat quietly loosened from its moorings, while its occupant, entranced, oblivious to each hill or field or willow tree upon her way lies whitely gleaming in her rose embroidered silk, trailing a graceful hand and sweetly carolling beneath a canopy of green”

That passage is meant to be overblown: Rachel is such a desperate character. Her delusions are romantic and an attempt to grasp a life so far half-lived, before it is too late. There’s nothing vindictive or cruel in her, and she is so incredibly vulnerable.

“Sometimes I felt utterly convinced I had been singled out for glory.

But not always. Far more often I felt I simply didn’t stand a chance”

I’ve not remotely done justice to the power, skill and subtlety of Wish Her Safe At Home. All I can say is: read it.

To end, the trailer for the film that apparently inspired Wish Her Safe at Home. The Ghost and Mrs Muir has had a special place in my heart since childhood. In all the times I’ve seen it, it’s never occurred to me that Mrs Muir is mentally ill. Wish Her Safe at Home has made me question everything…

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” (H. G. Wells)

Happy Valentine’s Day! Whether you are single or romantically attached, I wish you all a day filled with the greatest love of all:

Last year on Valentine’s Day I looked at novels by a famous couple: Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and I thought I’d do it again this year. I’ve picked Rebecca West and HG Wells, who must have been a formidably intellectual couple; I for one would have been terrified to go to theirs for dinner. They had an affair for ten years (one of many for Wells, done with his wife’s knowledge) and a son together; they were friends until Wells died.

Firstly, The Thinking Reed (1936) by Rebecca West. Set in 1928, Isabelle is two years younger than the century and widowed after her beloved husband Roy dies in a plane crash. She is an American in France:

“Her competent, steely mind never rested. She had not troubled with abstract thought since she left the Sorbonne, but she liked to bring everything that happened to her under the clarifying power of the intellect.”

At the start of the novel she is having an affair with Andre de Verviers “He was an idiot, but his body did not know it”, a shallow man who likes his women to be goddesses to worship, not real in any way. Isabelle knows she must be rid of him:

“the generic woman in her who loved the generic man in him should have endless opportunities to betray the individual woman in her who loathed the individual man in him”

I thought that was a really unflinching summary of the end of their love affair, and West continues with this clearsighted view throughout the novel. Isabelle ends up marrying Marc Sallafranque, in a strange situation which arises from her trying to save face in front of the man she wants to be with, the cold Laurence Vernon. Thankfully these convoluted machinations soon stop, as she realises she does actually love Marc.

“ ‘He looks the funniest thing in the world, but inside he has a lot of the goodness and sweetness of Roy.’ She paused, because she had suddenly felt a click in her brain, as if these words which she had spoken for a false purpose had coincided with the truth.”

What follows is a simply plotted novel which tracks Isabelle and Marc’s marriage from Isabelle’s point of view, over the next few years. That’s not to say it is pedestrian, because West is a sophisticated writer of considerable intellect, and so what she creates is a careful character study of a woman and her relationship, with plenty of opportunity for wider social commentary:

“every inch of a woman’s life as she lived it struck her as astonishing, either because nothing like what she was experiencing had ever been recorded, or because it had been recorded only falsely and superficially, with lacuna where real poignancy lay.”

I love that about the lacuna. There’s centuries of women’s history lost in those places.

For me The Thinking Reed could have been shorter, but then I think that about anything over 200 pages 😊 In fact, I wonder if the fact that it dragged a bit in places was part of West’s art. It was a portrait of a marriage, and Isabelle was bored at times in it, so at times the narrative became a bit pedestrian too. If so, it was an audacious choice for a writer.

There was also plenty of humour in The Thinking Reed, more than I’ve noticed in the other novels by West that I’ve read. This ranged from the witty:

 “ ‘I am not yet twenty-eight, and this man will be my third husband and fourth lover.’ She was aware however, that in making this objection she was insincerely subscribing to the fiction that sexual relations, while obviously offering certain satisfactions, are so inherently disagreeable that persons of fine taste, especially women, are obliged to treat them with the remote precaution which they apply to garlic […] but Isabelle knew quite well that she did not find sexual relations disagreeable.”

To the downright bitchy, especially where fine society is concerned:

“she had in all her life never stopped talking long enough to give anyone time to approach her with any proposition regarding sexual irregularity”

All in all I enjoyed The Thinking Reed. Sadly I don’t think the skewering of the idle rich has dated at all and the two main characters were believable individuals who had a clearly loving but tricky relationship. The ending was surprising and touching, without being sentimental.

Secondly, Ann Veronica by HG Wells (1909) and one of the few male authors published as a Virago Modern Classic. Wells’ titular heroine is 21, beautiful, and feeling utterly stifled at the start of the twentieth century.

“She wanted to live. She was vehemently impatient—she did not clearly know for what—to do, to be, to experience. And experience was slow in coming. All the world about her seemed to be—how can one put it?—in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer. The blinds were all drawn, the sunlight kept out, one could not tell what colours these gray swathings hid. She wanted to know.”

She is the youngest in her family, and lives at home with her aunt and overbearing father. Wells is careful to make her father a monster though; rather he shows that Mr Stanley is as he is because so far the world has never challenged him to be otherwise. But this is a time of first-wave feminism, and he badly needs to catch up:

“He was a man who in all things classified without nuance, and for him there were in the matter of age just two feminine classes and no more—girls and women. The distinction lay chiefly in the right to pat their heads.”

Ann Veronica is friends with the liberal minded Widgett family and they open her mind to ideas of socialism and votes for women. Ann Veronica also wants to study biology at Imperial College, of which her father disapproves.

Early in the novel, she runs away from her suburban home with the help of the Widgetts, and finds lodgings in London. It is her naivety which enables her to do this. She has no idea the real risk she is taking, what is required in practical terms, or how she will be judged as a single woman alone in the city.

Although she learns quickly, she also takes a loan from a man who believes he has bought a right to her body, a fact which Ann Veronica remains oblivious to for an extraordinarily long time. Somehow, she survives in London and carries on her studies, at which point she falls in love with her married instructor, Mr Capes.

Ann Veronica was written at a very specific time. Suffragism was on the rise, World War I was yet to happen. Wells supported the idea of the New Woman, conveying through his young romantic heroine how constricted women are at this moment in time, and the forces for change that are being exerted. As Ann Veronica’s friend Hetty Widgett observes:

“The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. They don’t now. Heaven knows why! They don’t marry most of us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened, and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. Hanging about! And they start thinking and asking questions, and begin to be neither one thing nor the other. We’re partly human beings and partly females in suspense.”

Wells makes Ann Veronica intelligent, but she is not swept along by any one idea. This is a clever approach, because if Ann Veronica became an ardent Fabian, or suffragist, or bohemian, the story would become weighed down by polemic. Instead Wells is able to introduce all these approaches without the novel becoming tediously didactic.

“It did begin to fall into place together. She became more and more alive, not so much to a system of ideas as to a big diffused impulse toward change, to a great discontent with and criticism of life as it is lived, to a clamorous confusion of ideas for reconstruction—reconstruction of the methods of business, of economic development, of the rules of property, of the status of children, of the clothing and feeding and teaching of everyone” 

What Ann Veronica is swept along by – and the reason I think the novel was so scandalous on publication – is sexual desire.

“And as she sat on her bed that night, musing and half-undressed, she began to run one hand down her arm and scrutinize the soft flow of muscle under her skin. She thought of the marvellous beauty of skin, and all the delightfulness of living texture. On the back of her arm she found the faintest down of hair in the world. “Etherialised monkey,” she said. She held out her arm straight before her, and turned her hand this way and that.

‘Why should one pretend?’ she whispered. ‘Why should one pretend?’

‘Think of all the beauty in the world that is covered up and overlaid.’”

Ann Veronica grows up a lot in the course of the novel and begins to understand how her own wants will have to be negotiated within societal constraints. She also learns when she will need to conform and when she will need to go her own way, even when the price is a high one.

“A woman wants a proper alliance with a man, a man who is better stuff than herself. She wants that and needs it more than anything else in the world. It may not be just, it may not be fair, but things are so. It isn’t law, nor custom, nor masculine violence settled that. It is just how things happen to be. She wants to be free—she wants to be legally and economically free, so as not to be subject to the wrong man; but only God, who made the world, can alter things to prevent her being slave to the right one.”

Although the character of Ann Veronica is somewhat idealised, I still really enjoyed the novel. The story flows along and is immensely readable. I’ve actually never read Wells before and on the strength of this I’m encouraged to try his more famous novels, despite not being much of a sci-fi reader.

“Am I becoming reasonable or am I being tamed?

I’m simply discovering that life is many-sided and complex and puzzling. I thought one had only to take it by the throat.

It hasn’t GOT a throat!”

To end, my favourite Prince Charming… well, it *is* Valentine’s Day after all 😊

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” (Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus)

I don’t normally do book haul posts but I thought I would just this once, to celebrate the end of my 2018 book-buying ban, which much to my amazement I stuck to for the entire year – not one book did I buy. (Actually, that’s not strictly true, I bought 6 books during the year, but all for other people, and not in a cheating I’ll-read-this-first-then-give-it-away-and-claim-it-was-a-present-all-along way, honest!)

But before I sound too smug (and I do feel pretty smug tbh, I have terrible willpower and never manage to stick to any resolution), it wasn’t a total success. The aim of the ban was for me to read the unread books I own, as my flat was starting to look like this:

There’s definitely a vast improvement, but the discovery of the library fiction section and a terrible reading slump in the latter part of the year meant I didn’t get through as many books as I hoped. So while the ban is over I’m planning to still try and exercise some restraint and get that TBR pile down further.

Anyhoo, on 1 January I ordered some books online which are winging their way to me, and then yesterday, for the first time in over a year, I set foot in the lovely bibliophile’s crack den charity book shop which is almost directly opposite my flat. This is what I came away with:

Yes, 10 books is me exercising restraint. You can see where the need for the ban came from, can’t you? And to be honest, I’m slightly regretting not buying the five or so (OK, it was more like 15) books I additionally considered but returned to the shelves because I am a whole new woman.

The first thing that caught my eye was this little collection of mini-plays by Michael Frayn, out on display because it was in a gimmicky sleeve and who’s going to fall for that and decide they immediately need this book? *cough*

I enjoy reading plays and Michael Frayn is a safe pair of hands, so I think this will be fun.

One of the many joys of charity bookshops is hunting down those green Viragos, and I found a lovely pair of GB Sterns in great condition. I’ve never read any GB Stern but I remembered her name from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Part of my new-found restraint would generally include not buying more than one book by an author I’ve not read, but that lasted all of 5 minutes. They were green Viragos! In lovely condition! My willpower can only take so much…

These are the first two in the Rakonitz chronicles and the blurb on the back is really tempting, so I’m looking forward to these.

I bought one more green Virago:

I’m not a massive fan of Shaw but the blurb on the back says ‘Shaw’s view was that the false idealisation of women by men enslaved both sexes’ and he’s dismantling this in a comic way, so maybe this will be where I learn to like him.

Sticking with the theme of buying books because I trust the publishers, I picked up these by NYRB and Peirene:

The Delius is apparently a single 117-page long sentence, which frankly sounds horrific, but I trust Peirene and the translator is Jamie Bulloch who does great work so I’m still hopeful. And I do love a novella, which leads me to these:

The Auschwitz Violin, to my cynical mind, looked like an awful lot of other books with similar titles/themes which publishers love, but its novella length means I’ll give it a go, and it does look promising. The Vesaas I’ve never heard of but the reviews quoted on the back cover are rapturous and I enjoy Scandinavian literature so I’m looking forward to this.

Finally, I was pleased to come across Jill by Philip Larkin because Ali’s review last month reminded me that I wanted to read some of Larkin’s prose. Infuriatingly, that mark on the cover was caused by me trying to peel a label off, which I did carefully but it still damaged the cover:

When I’m in charge of the world, stickers will be banned from book covers, that’s a promise. Then I’ll try and sort out world peace and stuff, it’s all about priorities 😀

And there was no way I was going to let Black Narcissus pass me by, having enjoyed two Rumer Godden novels so much last month, and being a big fan of the film.

So, that’s my first book haul of the year! Looking back on the 2018 ban I would say I’ve learnt these things:

  • At the ripe old age of 41 I can still surprise myself
  • I might actually have some willpower after all
  • Its satisfying to see the TBR diminishing
  • I’m never going to not have piles of books
  • Which means I need to move somewhere with really cheap property prices to house them all
  • I still can’t be trusted in a charity bookshop

How about you, dear reader? Any bookish resolutions for 2019? Have you read any of my haul? Where would recommend I start?

Here’s to a wonderful year ahead with many great reads for all of us 😊 Apropos of absolutely nothing, but just because I’ve been listening to her a lot since 2019 started, here is Kate Bush doing a reggae cover of an Elton John song whilst playing a ukulele*. Because she can, because she’s awesome:

*Thank you Fiction Fan (see comments below)

“People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” (Rebecca West)

A definite theme of the blog this year has been me being late for reading events. This will probably be my final post of 2018 so it’s apt to end on yet another belated entry, this time for Rebecca West Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, which was 21 December.

I’d hoped to do a post on two books, but the second half of this year has also seen me sluggish in both reading and blogging, so it’s just the one novel, The Fountain Overflows (1956), the first in the trilogy about the Aubrey family.

The story starts in 1900 and is narrated by Rose, one of four children of Piers and Clare. Piers is a gambling addict, and so although he and his wife are from genteel backgrounds, they survive on the brink of absolute destitution. The children grow up moving from place to place.

“We were experts in disillusion, we had learned to be cynical about fresh starts even before we ourselves made our first start”

Despite this, the children are not timid or anxious, but rather self-reliant and independent. Their mother is devoted to their father, as they all are, and the children clear-sightedly see their struggles.

“But I did not trust her. I loved her. Still I could see that she had been tripped by the snare of being grown up, she lay bound and struggling and helpless […] we children could always deceive her. Had it not been so we could not have provided for her happiness half as well as we did.”

West achieves a delicate balance in the portrayal of the Aubrey adults. It would be very easy to create to caricatures of a selfish, wastrel father and downtrodden female victim:

“ ‘Oh I am getting old and ugly, but it is not that. I cannot compete with debt and disgrace, which is what he really loves.’ “

Yet Clare never seemed especially weak to me. Her focus is music, and this takes priority over everything else. Rose and her sister Mary are gifted and practice incessantly, their brother Richard Quin is also talented but more interested in juggling and sports; their poor sister Cordelia has no talent and refuses to acknowledge it, egged on by a music teacher who is in love with her and so blind to her faults.

The Aubrey household is an intellectual one, with priorities very different to those around them in the south London suburb where they live.

“’You are allowed to read the newspapers now. I hope you will not attach too much importance to them. They give you a picture of a common-place world that does not exist. You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.’”

West can be a colourful writer and there are elements of that here, with supernatural events and poltergeists related as matter-of-factly as trips to the House of Commons and music concerts. There isn’t a strong over-arching plot but enough to pull the reader along. The story has sadness in it, as any family with an addict in it will know, but it is not depressing because Rose’s voice is strong, unapologetic and funny in it’s unblinking assessment of those who surround her:

 “Her colouring recalled a doll left out in the rain, she had the dislocated profile of a camel”

However, as a reader I found it very hard to indulge Piers as much as his wife and children did. To me he was utterly selfish and self-focussed even without his gambling, without the slightest scruple as to the risk he placed his family in.

“I had a glorious father, I had no father at all.”

The Aubrey’s practical cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance frequently live them as they are also subject to a husband who refuses to provide, although in a very different way to Piers. There is plenty here about what led to first-wave feminism in the UK without being didactic. The men are fairly appalling but not judged harshly (except by me). Rather, West’s focus is the constraints which prevent women being able to sort things for themselves. There’s also a recurring focus on women’s clothes and how the start of the twentieth century saw female oppression made explicit through the fashions:

 “ ‘Any tragic scene in those days necessarily appeared grotesque, because of the clothes worn by the women […] Today she would have the right to look like that, plain and distraught and like a hen, but she was compelled by the mode of the day to make herself as absurd as a clown by wearing a hat the size of a tea-tray, which dipped and jerked and swayed as often as she did, which was perpetually.”

Hence the Virago cover:

All in all I greatly enjoyed meeting the idiosyncratic, independent-minded Aubrey family. The characters were wholly believable, the evocation of a lost time done without nostalgia, and West had plenty to say about wider Edwardian society. I’ll look forward to spending more time with the Aubreys through the two sequels.

“We had very often been sharply warned against sentimentality, and though we might have been able to define it only vaguely as the way one should not play Bach, we recognised it.”

And so it just remains for me to wish you all the festivities of your choosing and leave you with a non-Christmassy song (because you may well be sick of them by now) from a great Christmas film which I watched yesterday, Scrooged:

“I loved Mr. Darcy far more than any of my own husbands.” (Rumer Godden)

Today is Rumer Godden Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I’m so grateful that this prompted me to read the two by Godden I had in the TBR, as she’s quickly become a new favourite.  Godden is such an accomplished writer; her books are so readable and her use of language is stunning.

Image from here

Firstly, Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953), which I started reading with some trepidation. I expected a novel about a 1950s English woman living in India to be filled with white entitlement and comic/exoticised portraits of the locals. Thankfully, Godden is far too sophisticated an author to do anything so crass, and the comic portrait is resolutely reserved for the clueless but well-meaning white foreigner, Sophie.

“To the Pundit, Sophie was precisely like any other European or American, only more friendly; the friendliness alarmed him. ‘These people are poor and simple…’ he began, but Sophie interrupted him.

‘We shall be poor and simple too,’ she said with shining eyes.

‘But madam, the peasants are rapacious…’

To that Sophie would not listen. Like many people there were some words about which she was sentimental; one of these was ‘peasant’. ‘Peasants are simple and honest and kindly and quiet,’ she said. ‘They don’t want what they don’t possess. They have the wisdom to stay simple. They don’t want to change.’”

This idealistic young woman crashes into Kashmir with her two children, estranged from her husband and determined to establish a life for herself. Yet the portrait of Sophie is a subtle one: she is oblivious to the needs of her children and to the cultural differences between her and her neighbours, but somehow not arrogant, just hopelessly naïve.

“Teresa could not count how many times they had moved, but each time the small ballast of hopes and plans they had collected was thrown overboard and everyone they had known was left behind.

Moo did not care. Like a little seed that is blown and can grow anywhere, on a rocky ledge, in a crack of earth, he lived a contained contented small life of his own no matter where he went. To Moo it did not matter but Teresa had roots, they were tender, soft and trailing…”

Poor Teresa. She is sensible and understands so much more than her adult parent. She also cares for Moo, who is probably on the autistic spectrum and in his own world.

In describing how Sophie and her children live in Kashmir, Godden adopts an interesting approach by having the story interjected with later reflections from Sophie and her family. So the narrative will be interrupted with comments like “‘But you were not qualified to teach Urdu,’ said Toby afterwards.” It’s not a technique I’ve seen before and it doesn’t jar as much as I would expect. The effect is to temper Sophie’s idealism and blind actions. It works to offset what sceptical readers (ie me) might be thinking: ‘but that’s just ridiculous, she’ll never make that work…’ etc. It keeps the story grounded even when the main protagonist ricochets from one ill-conceived action to the next.

Godden wrote Kingfishers Catch Fire based on her own experiences of India and her love of the land is obvious:

“There were no ceilings, only cross beams stuffed with dried furze as in most Kashmiri peasant houses. There was no glass in the windows, only hanging window shutters, no water system of course, no lighting, but it was a rarely beautiful little house. In summer it was hung with vines and honeysuckle and white-scented roses, and all around it were flowering trees….Above it all the mountain reared its head while below, lay the lake and its reflections and, far, the horizon of snow peaks.”

The plot is a deceptive one. I was enjoying what I thought was comic novel about the escapades of a fairly clueless woman; then suddenly things took a very dark turn and I found myself racing towards the end, desperate to know what happened and for things to work out well.

I loved the ending. This pithy comment on stealthy imperialism summed it up for me:

“The missionaries worked for the people but did not respect them. For all their love and zeal the wanted to bend them, bend them out of their own truth”

The message I took from Kingfishers Catch Fire was one of resolutely sticking to your own truth, whilst acknowledging and respecting other people’s. I just loved it.

Behold my slightly battered, kitschy-covered editions:

Secondly, China Court (1961). This is another story of a dilapidated house and the woman who loves it, but otherwise very different to Kingfishers Catch Fire. The titular pile is the Victorian home of five generations of the Quin family set in the Cornish moors and built on the proceeds of china clay works.

“When one of the…rose bowls or vases is rung it gives off a sound, clear, like a chime, the ring of true porcelain, so China Court gives off the ring of a house, a true home.”

The story begins with the death of Mrs Quin, the matriarch who has resolutely stayed in China Court against all her family’s wishes (except her granddaughter) and looks at what happens after her death as her family besiege the house for the reading of the will.

The story moves back and forth across the generations. There is no indication when this will happen; scenes cut between the various family members, all in present tense. Again, this stylistic experiment doesn’t jar nearly as much as I would expect. Instead it captures a sense of the house holding all the members of the family at any one time, the echoes of their steps and their voices all layered upon one another.

“Homes must know a certain loneliness because all humans are lonely, shut away from one another, even in the act of talking, of loving. Adza cannot follow Eustace in his business deals and preoccupations as she cannot follow Mcleod the Second or Anne or Jared – no one can follow Eliza. Mr King Lee, kissing Damaris, has no inkling of the desolation he has brought her, just as Groundsel only half guesses Minna’s; Jared hides himself from Lady Patrick, and John Henry and Ripsie, in their long years together are always separated by Borowis

[…]

Loneliness can be good. Mrs Quin learns that in the long companionship of the years after Tracy goes, when she and Cecily are alone in the house; companionship of rooms and stairs, of windows and colours; in the gentle ticking away of the hours, the swinging pendulum of the grandfather clock. ‘I was happy,’ Mrs Quin could have said. Contented loneliness is rich because it takes the imprint of each thing it sees and hears and tastes”

This for me was the central theme of China Court: the value of everyday domesticity. The characters who recognise it are fulfilled and live rich lives that outwardly appear narrow but in reality connect with something fundamental that enables a wider kinship with others.

The portraits of the individuals run seamlessly and as the novel progresses they weave together for a complex depiction of family, and how histories are cyclical, building on what has gone before.

Mrs Quin is an avid gardener, and as in Kingfishers…there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world, but also of food and the various meals the family have taken together over the years.

“Now Cecily brought in saffron cake, buttered scones hot in a silver dish, brown bread and butter thin as wafers, quince jelly and strawberry jam from China Court quinces and strawberries; she had made shortbread, fruitcake and because Tracy likes them as a child, thin rolled ginger-snaps filled with cream.”

Gradually the family histories build towards a brilliant denouement in the present day of the novel. It’s dramatic but believable and once again I found myself racing towards the end. And the end is where I encountered my first reservation about Godden’s writing. To discuss it I’ll have to include a SPOILER so skip to the end of this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Here it is: an act of domestic violence takes place, an act which is quickly forgiven and leads to sex. I think it’s a dramatic device to shock a couple who aren’t communicating well (a recurring theme in the novel) towards honesty and resolution, but reading this almost 60 years after it was written, times have changed and it was just horrible. I know from films of the time that slaps and spankings were freely given, but I’d be very surprised if this worked for modern readers.

This one incident aside, China Court is a wonderful portrait of a house and a family, beautifully evoked and fully realised with fondness but without sentimentality.

“ ‘We were truly kin,’ says Mrs Quin, and it is true that Tracy is like her grandmother in many ways; for instance, both, from the moment they first see it, are enslaved by China Court.”

To end, regular readers will know there are no depths to which I won’t sink in order to shoehorn in an 80s pop video. So please pardon the pun that has enabled my childhood hair icons to be this week’s choice: