The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

Last month, June, in my Decades Project I reached the 1950s and the first book from Africa: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. This month we have reached the 1960s. Fiction, serious fiction, moved beyond our atmosphere to use the idea of life on other planets. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of Ursula LeGuin’s best known and celebrated novels. In it she takes us into a fictional world where strangers are aliens, technology determines much of life, and no practices, including our deeply embedded gender relations, can be considered as fixed.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I came to read this novel following my pleasure in The Earthsea Trilogy. In these children’s books among the adventures and dragons was the importance of knowing the names of things. Being able to name an object or person or being gives you power over them. Think of the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin from the Brothers Grimm. Indeed the power of naming is akin to the power of writing. To write is to have power over something, to understand it, to manipulate it, to tell alternative version of it.

The Left Hand of Darkness felt like an important book when I first read it, probably in the ‘70s. In particular the idea of a society not dominated by gender difference felt timely. In 1976 Marge Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, which explored the same territory of the gender neutral. It is indeed a challenging idea. The novel goes yet further and considers human relations across many other boundaries, some of which are taken-for-granted assumptions. And in the end it proposes the possibilities of loving relationships between peoples and individuals despite huge differences and difficulties. It is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1969.

The Story of The Left Hand of Darkness

Gently Ai is an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose affiliation of planets all occupied by humans. He has come to the appropriately named planet Winter to test out the possibility of extending the Ekuman arrangement with the agreement of the peoples of this planet. Winter is cut off from other planets by distance, and the humans have developed a different reproductive cycle. They have also not developed flight.

Gently Ai is black, male, about 30 and regarded as a pervert for his sexual characteristics. His cause is taken up by Estraven, the Prime Minister of one of the countries on this planet, but it is not clear whether Ai can trust him. Social practices make it hard for them to play the nuanced game of diplomacy and in a political coup they are both exiled to the neighbouring country. Here with different, but also challenging social practices and more political machinations Ai is imprisoned. Estraven rescues him and they undertake a long winter trek across uninhabited regions of ice, volcanic eruptions, rocky mountains and glaciers. They return to Estraven’s country and Gently Ai’s and the Ekumen’s mission is successful, although Estraven dies in the escape.

The two men develop a friendship as they cross the icy wastes. Their differences are huge: Ai is a man like those from Earth who must not show fear and must not cry. Estraven is skilled in diplomacy and not offending; he also has skills in survival. The two countries have very different ways of going about governance, but these ways fail to protect them from power-hungry people, and political manoeuvring. The different attitudes to the Envoy, to hospitality, trust, criminals, belief in the possibility of things being other (imagination?) are all explored.

Reading SF often feels like overcoming hurdles. I was able to get through the issues of different naming systems, words invented for the planets and for the technological paraphernalia, to get to the heart of the story. And I was moved again on this rereading.

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

The author was the daughter of two eminent anthropologists, and this interest in peoples and how they arrange their lives is evident in all her fiction. She has also written about writing (Steering the Craft), and her book reviews have appeared in the Observer. LeGuin is never one to waste a good idea, she added to the Earthsea Trilogy: Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. The Left Hand of Darkness is the first of the Hainish Cycle.

I am planning to explore her ideas about imagination next month, using the essay called The Operating Instructions. It can be found in her recent collection Words are my Matter (2016).

Cover of First Edition

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin first published in 1969. I used the edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1970s

I have decided to read Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi in August for the decade of the 1970s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1980s and 1990s.

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A rant about … a bad beginning

I wanted to chew my fingers in frustration, to gather up my notebook and pens and leave; or cry out, ‘can we please get on?’ But on it went despite this being the worst beginning ever. Has this happened to you?

Writing Workshop

Classroom photo via Visual Hunt

I’d been invited to attend a free writing workshop. I live in the kind of place where the local education authority offers six-week writing courses at times that suit me. But they are frequently cancelled for lack of participants. The offer of a place on a free workshop was an inducement to sign up for a course in September.

So I took my seat at 10.26 am, eager as mustard, keen as a beaver, with my note pad, a supply of pens, and a readiness to enjoy meeting fellow writers and work at our topic – the structure of novels. Six of us assembled in the classroom. It’s actually the room where we hold our writing group meetings so it has a familiar writerly feel to it. I was in the perfect zone to begin learning.

Forms

10.30 am. Our first task was to fill in the forms for the local authority. We had to check the course code, our name, address, date of birth, email, telephone number, level of formal education achieved and benefit status. If you claimed benefits the form required your NI number. You were also required to tick a box about your housing situation: living with another but main earner, living with dependent children, living with partner, none of the above.

And we were all required to produce some form of ID. People offered library cards, bankcards, a promise to bring something to the office later, a passport. Who carries the course code, their NI number and ID with them to a writing workshop?

That was page 1. It was now 10.40 am. Turn over to page 2. Now we move on to targets: targets for the course, your targets and other targets. The tutor said we should write the course target and then score our current level of proficiency on the scale 1 – 5. She had helpfully written them on the white board.

Your own target? She suggested a few, such as ‘learn terminology of novel structure’, or ‘develop a plan for my own novel’. I write ‘gain confidence’ and leave it at that. You must write something, we are told, or the form will reappear for corrections. Martin will be up in a minute to collect the forms and check them.

It is 10.50 am. One of the participants suggested there will be detention for people who don’t do their forms correctly. Someone else suggested the cupboard is full of previous course participants locked in with their incomplete or inaccurate forms. Open the cupboard door and they’ll all fall out. At this moment Martin appeared and collects our forms. We sobered up immediately.

Admin Burden by Pizarros via Wiki Commons

A round of introductions

Now, said the tutor, (it’s more or less 11.00 am) Martin will check the forms and return them at the coffee break. I’d like you all to introduce yourselves and say why you have come to the workshop today. My enthusiasm had drained away. I didn’t want to be there any more. And it wasn’t over yet.

The end

Martin duly reappeared and a few people had to correct their forms. At the end we all had to go back to our targets, and score them again from 1-5. Finally we were given cards for our anonymous learner evaluations.

Two questions leave me speechless with frustration:

Has this course helped you to feel happier or healthier? Yes No

Inner voice says: see above about happiness and frustration.

If you were unemployed when you started your course, has this helped you get a job, start volunteering or go on another course? Yes No Not applicable.

Inner voice says: in 2 hours? I was sat here for 2 and a half hours so of course I didn’t get a job. More silly forms.

What are they used for anyway?

Photo credit: manoftaste.de via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Steam and my ears

It’s not the tutor’s fault. Funding for adult education requires us to complete these ridiculous forms. My learning requires them to stop doing it. One fifth of the designated time was taken up with the wretched things. By the time the tutor was able to engage us with the material we had come to explore I had lost my enthusiasm and gained much resentment and hostility.

And I gained another number: a learner identity number to go with my NI number, my library card number, my passport number and my level of education code. And there I was thinking I had a name.

I detect a conspiracy to create the most enormous barriers to learning and put adults off formal learning as a contribution to austerity.

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Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Oh this book! I can’t have been very old when I read it, perhaps in my late teens. But however young it made a BIG impression on me. First it was written in French. It was about being very cool on the Mediterranean coast. And it featured some very adult themes about a father with very modern ideas bout his relationships with women and about a young girl just coming into womanhood.

I think I believed that this was how my ideal life would be, divided between sophisticated and cultured Paris and the charms of the summer spent in a villa on the French Mediterranean Sea. Such were the effects of Bonjour Tristesse.

Bonjour Tristesse 

‘A vulgar, sad little book’ said the Spectator, noting that it was written by a precocious 18-year old.

I was, of course very naïve, very impressionable and very self-absorbed when I read it. As I read it again I can see that the father was amoral and his behaviour to his daughter plainly unhealthy. Cecile, who narrates the story, was utterly self-absorbed, which was very affirming. Here is the famous opening:

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me. (9)

In the 60s precocious and self-absorbed was what we did. We believed we were the only generation to have ever been young, and we made a thing of it. That sober observer Philip Larkin said something about it in Annus Mirabilis. He was writing about 1963. The French were ahead of us. Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954.

I excuse this belief in the importance of our generation because we were young and things were changing; we lived through some momentous changes in our social lives, and believed that the future was ours. In the event we had to give way to another generation who believed much the same. And like us they paid no mind to the sensibilities of their parents’ generation.

The Story of Bonjour Tristesse

Cecile has been living for two years with her widowed father Raymond in Paris, leading an exciting life as his companion, despite his many mistresses. They plan two months in a villa near Nice, with Elsa, his latest mistress. Soon after arriving Cecile meets Cyril, a young man also en vacances on the Cote d’Azur, and the two form an attachment.

This blissful idyll is interrupted when Raymond informs Cecile that he has invited Anne Larsen, a friend of his former wife, to join them. Anne arrives and a short battle takes place between her and Elsa, and the younger woman looses. Anne announces that she and Raymond will marry, and she begins to take Cecile in hand, requiring her break off with Cyril and to study for several hours a day in preparation for her examinations. Cecile becomes very jealous of Anne and determined to come between her and Raymond.

Cecile schemes to appeal to her father’s vanity by getting Cyril and Elsa to appear to be a couple. Despite some reservations about her plans the balance gradually tips in favour of Cecile and Anne drives away. Her car goes over the edge of the road at a dangerous bend. Suicide? After Anne’s death Cecile returns to Paris with her father and although they miss Anne, they soon pick up their old lives.

Rereading Bonjour Tristesse

I hardly remember reading to the end of this novel when I first read it. It was the opening sections that really appealed to me. Times have changed. I no longer see Bonjour Tristesse as a celebration of youth, or of the unconventional life of the French intellectual elite. It’s rather a sad family drama in which the mother is absent and her absence brings misery to everyone. But oh, those opening pages, I reread with such nostalgia.

He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring. It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks. (10)

There are disputes about the translation of this novel. I read the classic 1954 translation by Irene Ash. Some say that it is not a good translation, not least because some lines were omitted. The controversy can be explored in Jacquwine’s Journal in September 2016 (and don’t miss the very long discussion in the comments) and in Rachel Cooke piece in the Guardian called The Subtle Art of Translating Foreign Fiction.

There was a film, of course. David Niven took the role of Raymond, Deborah Kerr was Anne and Jean Seberg was Cecile. It was directed in 1956 by Otto Preminger.

Women in Translation

I chose Bonjour Tristesse because I intend to read more Women in Translation – #WIT. I had scheduled the post for 14th July so it is also a celebration of Bastille Day and all things French. Women’s fiction is always good to promote as it gets less space in the printed media than men’s. And translated fiction also gets a poor deal. And I want to promote and enjoy connections with cultures across the world, despite the popular trend appearing to be in the opposite direction.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954) Penguin. 108pp. I read it in the original translation from the French by Irene Ash.

Over to you

Have you read Bonjour Tristesse? What effects did it have on you? Have you any suggestions for further reading of women in translation?

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The author of The Book of Memory is not afraid of contradictions, starting with the title. Memory is both the name of the protagonist and – well you know what memory is – unreliable. Memory refers to it as ‘the treachery of my imperfect recall’ (267). Petina Gappah is also not afraid to be playful in this novel despite its grim location, Death Row in a prison in Zimbabwe, and Memory’s incarceration for the murder of a white man. Memory herself is a white black woman. As I said, contradictions!

The story

Memory is in Chikurubi Prison, Harare, in post-independent Zimbabwe. She has been sentenced to death for the murder of her adoptive father Lloyd, a white man. What we read is her account written for a journalist. The narrative follows the events within the prison as well as Memory’s childhood and the events that brought her to Chikurubi Prison.

She had a troubled childhood, brought up in a township. Her father works at home as a carpenter and does most of the childcare because her mother has serious mental health problems. Before the story begins her older brother has died, she is not sure how. Soon after, Memory’s youngest sister also dies.

Memory has her own problems, for she has been born with albinism and suffers from the torments of her fellow school students, the beliefs of many people that she has been touched by witchcraft, and her physical vulnerability to light and water.

Memory’s mother is unstable and joins church after church, usually to try to cure Memory’s albinism. Eventually a white man, Lloyd, gives her father money and takes Memory away to his home, Summer Madness. She lives with Lloyd for about 8 years, not understanding how such a generous man could do something as dreadful as buy her from her family. But she now can take advantage of living in the white area, of improved skin care and educational opportunities. She takes a lover, a beautiful Zimbabwean artist Zenzo, but when Zenzo finds his way to Lloyd’s bed she sends an anonymous letter to the police. Lloyd is imprisoned for two weeks. On his release things are bad between them so Memory leaves the country to study in Cambridge. After several years she returns and finds that Lloyd has forgiven her. The country is changing, becoming more troubled. In this heightened context, Memory returns home one day to find Lloyd dead. She is arrested and convicted of murder and begins her stay at the prison.

Questions raised by The Book of Memory

The reader is constantly faced with contradictions about identity and meaning in life. Memory is a black woman, and suffers racial discrimination as a result. But she is a white black woman.

Lloyd is a member of the privileged white hierarchy, but he is generous and liberal and does not share the macho posturing of typical Rhodesian white men.

The country of Zimbabwe is new and trying to move into its future, but many of the people are held back by the beliefs in spirits and fate that dominate, especially in the rural areas.

Memory is a highly educated woman, on Death Row. The Book of Memory captures the particular cultural mix and tensions that run through Zimbabwean society today and in the past.

Readers know that memory is imperfect and can cause the wrong meaning can easily be given to events. People who appear cruel may provide comfort; your family may have been more generous than you know; the violent death of a white man may be misinterpreted.

Responding to the writing

I found that the first part of The Book of Memory moved too slowly for me. Only gradually do we find out why Memory is in prison, about her albinism, about her family and its history and how it was that she was sold to Lloyd. While the framing of the novel leads the narrative drive, it also makes for much repetition about the present-day events in prison. From the point when she leaves her family to live with Lloyd the novel develops more pace.

There is a great deal of humour in this novel, despite its grim setting, and its grim subject matter. Much of this comes from the prison setting, especially the nicknames that prisoners and wardens are given. I am reminded of playful naming of people and places in We Need New Names (2013) by another Zimbabwean, NoViolet Bulawayo. The interactions are full of wonderfully inventive malapropisms. I love the idea of rigour motion, of saying reminded instead of remanded, and the expectation of Amnesty International after the election. And each misspoken phrase points to a truth, adding depth as well as humour to the to-and-fro of the women‘s conversations. The guard Patience is a particularly rich source of misspeaks.

Unlike the others, Patience prefers to speak to us in English. She is in training to be a court interpreter. ‘Irregardless of the absence of water,’ she says, ‘you should make sure the hoarse pipes are connected.’ (29)

I overheard Patience and Mathilda talk about a funeral Patience had attended at the weekend. ‘They tussled at the graveside, can you imagine. They fought until he fell in and smashed his head on the coffin, and just like that he was deceased. I have never seen such boomshit. We were all in mayhem.’ (112)

Much of the conversation between the women is conducted in Shona. The words are sprinkled in the text, and usually it is possible to understand the meanings from the context. Some of the words describe culturally specific concepts, such as the ngozi that pursues Memory’s mother as a result of an ancient vendetta between families. This ngozi is responsible for much of Memory’s suffering.

The author: Petina Gappah

The author (born in 1971) grew up in Zimbabwe and later read law in various universities in Zimbabwe and Europe, including Cambridge. The Book of Memory is her second book. An Elegy for Easterly, a collection of short stories, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. In 2016 Faber & Faber published another collection of her stories Rotten Row.

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah, published in 2015 by Faber & Faber. 270pp. Short-listed for Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016.

Related articles

Literary Hub posted an interview with Petina Gappah in February 2016, Petina Gappah On Zimbabwe, Language, And “Afropolitans”.

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Themed Reviews – Written by Elizabeth

What a happy coincidence that so many excellent writers have the first name Elizabeth. Here are four that have provided exceptional delight in my reading. I have reviewed books authored by these Elizabeths many times on this blog including every novel by Elizabeth Taylor.

Below you can find links to novels by Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Strout and Elizabeth von Arnim as well as a few more suggested Elizabeths.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

Born in Dublin, Elizabeth Bowen lived through some of the worst times in Irish history. She remained connected to her Irish roots through Bowen Court, which she inherited but was eventually forced to sell. Although she spent a great deal of time in Bowen Court and wrote about her love of the place, she lived in England for most of her life. During the war she lived in London, in Clarence Terrace, Regent’s Park, the setting for her captivating wartime novel The Heat of the Day. She wrote 10 novels, many collections of short stories and other non-fiction books.

Early on I reviewed one of her first, The Last September, and it is the most read of all my reviews on Bookoword. Recently I reviewed her last novel, Eva Trout. I have reviewed others too: Friends and Relations, The House in Paris and The Hotel.

She was a champion of Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912–1975)

Elizabeth Taylor is well known for being the most under-rated author of her time. She has always had admiring followers, in the past and today. Virago has just re-issued her novels, again. Born in Reading and resident in the area all her life. The setting along the Thames is included in many of her short stories.

I have reviewed all Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction on Bookword: all 12 novels for adults, her children’s novel Mossy Trotter and her complete Short Stories. I also looked at her biography by Nicola Beauman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

You can find all the reviews by clicking on the category Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in the list of categories in the RH column. The review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is one of my most popular reviews.

Elizabeth Strout (b1956)

 

Born in Maine, US Elizabeth Strout has published five novels to date. I have enthusiastically reviewed two of them so far. The first won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009: Olive Kitteridge. It is included in the series of older women in fiction.

The other is My Name is Lucy Barton which was in the long list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

Her new book Anything is Possible is on my tbr list and I will review it soon

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941)

I am happy to recommend two novels by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I have read, and look forward to reading and sharing more of her work.

Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898) is a delightful account of a year in her garden, which she favours over her house. Despite her name the author was from Australia, but moved to live mostly in Europe. Her first husband appears in this novel as the Man of Wrath. Her love of gradens and acute observations of social customs were already evident in her first novel.

The Enchanted April (1922) is something of a fairy tale in which four unhappy women agree to spend a month in a castle on the Italian coast, despite being strangers to each other. The place and its gardens together with the generous spirit of one of the women lead to each of them finding a better future. I plan to write more about this book in August, specifically about Mrs Fisher, who is 65 and therefore a candidate for the older women in fiction series. What is proper and how it restricts women and their happiness and their men’s too, dominate the novel, written in her witty and readable style

Other Elizabeths

Here are some more suggested reads by Elizabeths:

Elizabeth Jenkins (1905–2010) The Tortoise and the Hare (1954) and Harriet (1934) (both published by Persephone Books) I have not reviewed either of these on Bookword.

Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923 –2014) The Cazulet Chronicle, Love All and many others. I have not read her novels myself, waiting for recommendations from other readers.

Elizabeth Smart (1913-1986) By Grand Central Station I Sat down and Wept (1945).

Elizabeth McKenzie (b. 1958) The Portable Veblen (2016) – shortlisted for last year’s Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize.

Over to you

That makes EIGHT Elizabeths who are worth reading. Have I missed any out?

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The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

The orthodox version was that Homo sapiens were superior to Neanderthals, and wiped them out as a result. But this interpretation is now being challenged, not least because modern humans have DNA that can be traced back to Neanderthals. The presence of this DNA can only have happened through sexual encounters, consensual or forced. The view of aggressive encounters between Homo sapiens and other human subspecies must be reviewed. Claire Cameron takes up this issue, imagines the lived experiences of Neanderthal people and suggests a way in which the DNA became mixed.

I declare a connection here: I knew Claire’s husband when he was a PhD student in London. I believe their older child heard him read his thesis aloud as a newborn baby. And later I was fortunate to meet Claire in Toronto.

The story

There are two strands to this novel. In the present day Rose, an archaeologist, is working in some caves in the South of France where she has discovered in the same strata a skeleton of Homo sapiens alongside, even in an embrace with, a Neanderthal skeleton. Rose is developing a new theory about the relations between the last of the Neanderthals and the prehistory of modern humans. Her discovery will help shape her theory. But there is a problem, Rose is pregnant and fiercely protective of the dig. Time is running out.

The other thread of this novel follows Girl, the last Neanderthal of the title. Time is running out for Girl too. Her family are wiped out by circumstances, despite their intimate knowledge of their world and their skills, tools and craft that have helped them survive in the past.

Above all they have had their family relationship to sustain them. This is what Girl thinks of as ‘warm’ and she will miss it later.

It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.

When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle, the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm. (9)

Girl’s family is already small, when her brother Bent is killed in a hunting accident and then she is banished by Big Mother for her sexual relationship with Him, who is at least her half brother. The weakened family, Him, Runt and Big Mother are attacked by a wild animal and the two adults are killed. Girl rescues Runt, and takes over as Big Mother of this much reduced family, keeping the two of them alive during the winter, travelling to the annual meet of the tribes – the Big Fish. Attendance has been reducing over the years and this year they find that they are alone. Runt discovers some signs on a tree and becomes excited and runs off. On her own, Girl gives birth but the baby does not survive. She emerges in spring, very weakened, as likely to be preyed upon as to catch any meat.

There were only two kinds of meat: The meat that gets to eat. And the meat that gets eaten. (38)

She finds Runt again and their reunion is the start of a new life for Girl.

Rose meanwhile gives birth, despite assuming it will hardly put her off her professional stride, and faces the difficulties of being a new mother. She must learn some of the visceral lessons of the Neanderthal’s lives and learn how to depend upon others.

The traditional view of Neanderthals as primitive and violent and of modern humans as sophisticated and able to overcome all physical limitations is challenged by this novel.

Reading this book

I already knew that Claire writes tense and frightening stories. The Last Neanderthal is Claire’s third published novel. Both her previous books are almost unbearable to read. Her second, The Bear, was long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in 2014. The reader follows two small children whose parents have been killed by a bear in the wild areas of Canada. I found it almost impossible to read and thought it was great. You can read my review here.

In The Last Neanderthal, Claire has imagined the world according to Girl: her relationships, how she learns from her family, and especially from Big Mother; how she and her family communicate with limited language and other forms of communication; how she and her family make and use tools and every bit they can of the animals they kill. How she can read her environment, through smell, through feeling the air and through noticing other signs in her area.

One function of literature is to take us to worlds we would not otherwise experience. The reader is immersed in this brilliant and imaginative recreation of the lives of the last Neanderthal peoples.

And especially …

I particularly like the revision of the history of ‘man’ which traditionally suggests that the males of the species fought each other and the superior brains of the modern human succeeded in obliterating the brawn of the more primitive Neanderthal. Here is an alternative, with as much going for it as Elaine Morgan had in The Descent of Woman (1972).

Perhaps the extinction of Neanderthals was not due to aggression, but circumstances that did not favour the small family groups. Perhaps there were friendly relations between the different groups, even intimate relations, partnerships. Perhaps the skills and knowledge of the Neanderthals proved essential to the less hairy hominids. Perhaps we should honour the Big Mothers of our shared past.

The Last Neanderthal is an exhilarating read and an imaginative tour de force.

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron (2017) Little, Brown & Co 277pp

Footnote: when I searched for illustrations for this review apart from the many skulls, the pictures of reconstructed Neanderthal people were overwhelmingly of men.

Drawing credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

From time to time I reread books that have meant a great deal to me. The Eagle of the Ninth was a book I loved in childhood. And I enjoyed rereading it recently for its Romano-British adventure, for the sassy female character and for Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling.

I consumed a great deal of historical fiction after this, and wonder if Rosemary Sutcliff contributed to my decision to read history at University?

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila, who grew up in Italy, has his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), in the second century AD. After establishing himself as a leader he is severely wounded in an attack by the local tribes who have risen against Roman rule. Invalided out of the army he recovers at his uncle’s house in Calleva (Silchester). While there he plans to rescue his father’s reputation and the Eagle from the standard of the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion. Marcus’s father had commanded the cohort when it disappeared after marching north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD.

Marcus saves a British slave, Esca, who is about to be killed at the local gladiatorial games in Calleva. Esca becomes the devoted companion to Marcus, and is freed at the start of their expedition to find the lost Eagle.

The story is a quest. They set out in disguise to follow any clues that will lead them to the truth of what happened to the Ninth and its Eagle. Their quest takes them to the Highlands of Scotland, north of the abandoned Antonine Wall. Of course they find and reclaim it, but the quest turns into a hunt as they attempt to bring it south of Hadrian’s Wall, where Roman rule is still in operation. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) said she wrote books for children of all ages, from 9 to 90. It is true that her fiction does not talk down to readers, is not busy providing information, although she was careful with her research. She wrote many books, some situated in pre-historic times, others in Tudor and Stuart period and is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.

In the Introduction to The Eagle of the Ninth she explains how she brought together the mystery of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in an excavation at Silchester in 1866. No one could explain how it got there.

It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.

I love her imaginative ability to weave adventures from the events of the past in all her novels.

Why I like the book

It’s a good adventure, with plenty of cliffhangers – at the end of almost every chapter. Here are three examples:

But to Marcus everything seemed for the moment to have grown still. For the last comer was carrying something that had been a Roman Eagle. (157)

But Esca’s suddenly widened eyes were fixed on one corner of the cloak, outflung towards him, and he did not answer; and Marcus, following the direction of his gaze, saw the cloth at that corner torn and ragged. (185)

Up over the edge of the spur, three wild horsemen appeared heading for the gateway. (209)

The storytelling is excellent, just what young readers (between 9 and 90) want. We guess that Marcus and Esca will manage to find the Eagle and to escape their hunters, but we enjoy their efforts to achieve these. Both young men are authentic because neither is perfect.

I also liked the representation of the tribes, both near Exeter and the Seal people in the Highlands. The cover of my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth captures the rituals of the Seal people in a dramatic and attractive way, better than your Roman soldier. It is by C Walter Hodges.

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

The novel was published in 1954, and at the time the explanation for the Silchester Eagle given by Rosemary Sutcliff was as good as any other. Archaeology has moved on and today it is not thought to be from a Roman Army standard, but more likely was part of a larger statue and held in the hands of an important person. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism of the Romans. The rebellions are presented as the last struggles of the ancient tribes against the superior might, economic power and civilization of the Romans. I guess, critiques of the British Empire were not yet commonplace in the 1950s. In the same way, although Marcus does the decent thing and frees his slave Esca, there is no suggestion that slavery was the dark and essential underside of the Empire.

Perhaps most of all, The Eagle of the Ninth is dated because the feisty and delightful young woman, Cottia, remains behind to wait for the return of the young men. Today any self-respecting writer would have sent her on the quest alongside Marcus and Esca.

However the novel is of its time and these reservations did not spoil my rereading.

Film

And, there is of course a movie called The Eagle starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I have not seen it so I do not know how faithful it is to the novel, but it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted, because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand, Donald Sutherland seems to me an inspired casting as Uncle Aquila.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954. I reread my own 1970 edition from Oxford University Press, which it is still on their list, not only because it has just been filmed.

Over to you

What novels from childhood do you reread? Have you any thoughts on The Eagle of the Ninth?

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God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

God’s Own Country is a grim story about a young lad who finds himself in opposition to his parents’ generation, the newcomers to the Yorkshire Moors and their class, ramblers, neighbours, and eventually the law. Sam Marsdyke’s story illustrates a highly divided country: generation against generation; urban against rural; class against class; even the experiences of the beautiful Yorkshire countryside brings people into conflict.

The Story

Sam Marsdyke (19) is the only son of a farming couple living on the Moors. He has a bad reputation because he was caught with a girl at school and there was an alleged rape. The story is told in the first person, so we only have Sam’s version for what happened. New people move into the farm next door, not to farm but to live in ‘God’s Own Country’ and they have a daughter, Jo Reeves (15), on whom Sam becomes fixated.

Jo has her own difficulties with her parents, not least that she didn’t want to move away from London, specifically from Muswell Hill. She visits Sam as he works on the farm, and eventually proposes that they run away, and so they do, across the Yorkshire Moors until they reach the sea at Whitby.

Their impetuous escapade becomes a progressive nightmare, as neither the girl not Sam makes any plan or has any sense of reality. Sam in particular becomes less realistic as their flight proceeds, until he believes he has to restrain the girl. She had no plan but to frighten her parents into noticing her anger.

The novel’s strengths

When it was published in 2008 God’s Own Country attracted lots of good attention, especially as it was Ross Raisin’s first published novel. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Betty Trask Award and for International Dublin Literary Award in 2010.

The judges of the International Dublin Literary Award commented:

Marsdyke’s flight across the Yorkshire Moors is a journey from civility into depravation but also a desperate, anarchic rush for freedom, which completely absorbs and overwhelms the reader. Written with an extraordinary verbal ingenuity and a riotous play with dialect, this is a fresh and vivid novel which challenges our view of those who slip through the conventional nets of sanity.

Sam is brilliantly realised, through his own voice: his language, his continuous inner commentary, his anger and his imagination are all brilliantly evoked. Here is the opening, somewhat challenging as I walk a great deal.

Ramblers. Daft sods in pink and green hats. It wasn’t even cold. They moved down the field swing-swaying like a line of drunks, addled with the air and the land, and the smell of manure. (1)

The evocation of the Moors, a landscape in which Sam is entirely familiar, is in his characteristic voice.

I was up early. The sun had just started to show himself when I stepped into the yard, a ball of orange half-hid behind the Moors. That was the best time, when the Moors were coming alive with creatures waking in the heather, and the dark was shifting to reveal a mighty heap of heather spreading fifty miles to the sea. This new family weren’t fussed about that, mind. Their sort were loopy for farmhouses – oh we must move there, the North Yorks Moors is God’s own country – but they couldn’t give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out of the bedroom window. They knew nothing what I knew of it. Spaunton, Rosedale, Egton, thirty moors each bigger than your eye could frame, fastened together by valleys cutting into the earth between, lush with forest, flowers and meadow grass, where there weren’t towns or villages drying it all up. (9)

First person narrative novels require skill to bring off. Sam frequently speaks in the voice of others (as in that quotation), which reveals his attitudes, and that he is often mistaken about people, and about Jo in particular. He manages to tell us the story of their adventure on the Moors, and reveal to us his unreliability both as a narrator, but also as a young adult. And, he manages to retain some of our sympathy, despite the situation in which he puts the young girl.

My trip to Yorkshire

During the recent hot weather I spent a few days in Yorkshire walking with a friend. The photographs are from our walks near Grassington. We enjoyed ourselves greatly, but were frequently frustrated by the lack of signs for the routes and footpaths.

God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin, published in 2008. I read the Penguin edition. 211pp

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6 Things I learned from my Freedom from Torture Challenge

So that’s it! The challenge is over, the last walk walked, the last post posted and you can still donate.

  • I have walked 129km (about 75 miles)
  • I written 9 posts on this blog for the challenge
  • I have raised a total of £1779.58
  • I have learned six things.

All this was in aid of Freedom from Torture a British charity that works to support people who have been tortured. And in particular it was to support Freedom from Torture’s writing group, the Write to Life group.

What I learned from the Challenge

Another purpose of the challenge was to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, people who have been subjected to torture, and of the work of Freedom from Torture to support these refugees.

  1. People care about refugees and their treatment

People walked with me, sponsored the cause, retweeted the links to the posts, liked and shared the facebook announcements, and asked me how it was going. Some people went out of their way to give support, like Paul, who led the Dartmoor Walk in the New Year; and Marianne who organised a walk in Hertfordshire. The donations came from friends, family, colleagues, other supporters, and two writers I know from Canada and America (I think they and currency exchanges are responsible for the 58p.)

Thank you for your support, one and all.

Refugees from Kabul

Refugees from Kabul receiving winter clothes from ISAF Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

  1. People are horrified by torture

I have seen members of the Write to Life group perform two plays Souvenirs and Lost and Found. The souvenirs of torture are physical and mental. Recovery is slow and perhaps incomplete. Writing can help. Exile is like being cut in half. At both performances the audience was moved.

  1. Narrative is a good way to enable insights about the lives of refugees

Many of the posts for the challenge featured fiction. All narratives were rooted in the authenticity of people’s lived experiences. Many posts featured short stories, an appropriate way to retell the varieties of experiences. These nuggets, even those relating to experiences over 30 years ago, such as the Vietnamese experiences, are still powerful.

  1. People migrate

It seems baffling to me that migration has been as fundamental to human history and as pervasive as language, agriculture, and relationships. Yet in our current world, the policies enacted appear to be based on the idea that political boundaries can stop people migrating. The stark truth is that birth is all. In this world where you are born decides whether you will need to risk the crossing of the Mediterranean or not.

And with their policies of exclusion in place, governments do not respond to the reality of migration, the movement of people, to the fact of migration and the causes behind it: war, realpolitik, climate change, exploitation, religious and ethnic hatred, sexual exploitation …

Having exposed the exclusionary and neglectful policies of the EU, Wolfgang Bauer’s final words in Crossing the Sea resonate: Have mercy!

  1. Writing can open people’s eyes

Writing by the Write to Life Group, telling the story of their lives, before, during and after has opened people’s eyes as well as helped the writers.

All the works referred to in the posts, fictional, semi-fictional, journalistic, historic, these draw attention to what needs attention. And provide insights into experiences we would rather ignore.

  1. There is more I could tell you

When I planned the challenge and what I would post on the blog, I intended to explore more non-bookish topics.

I wanted to tell readers about my experiences with a young lad, unaccompanied, whom I befriended through Freedom from Torture.

I wanted to post a short story I wrote called Seeking Asylum.

I wanted to inform readers of the schools I worked in that helped youngsters to understand what had happened in their lives and how to move onwards. We pioneered exemplary practice, sometimes very challenging, to help youngster take up education as quickly as possible, and to help them integrate their own stories.

I wanted to shock readers with a post on the statistics of migration, refugees and torture. 71,000 people have entered Europe from the sea in 2017. An estimated 1778 are missing. (Figures at 2nd June from UNHCR data portal.)

And I still can do all these things, of course.

What I achieved

My target was £1600 and I raised a total of £1779.58: £1458.33 plus Gift Aid £321.25.

My walk target was 10km (about 6.2 miles) per month, 80km, and I achieved 129km. Sometimes I walked alone, often with a friend or brother and sometimes in a group, with about 40 different people. You can see where I walked on the Page about the challenge.

I posted every month, on a refugee-related topic, mostly bookish, and included a brief description of the nominated walk, nine posts in all (two in December).

And finally …

You can still donate, through my Just Giving Page.

Here are the texts I referred to in these posts

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Published in 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin) 116pp

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu. Published by Unbound in 2016. 231pp

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton 228pp

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

Souvenirs, the play written and performed by members of the Write to Life group, is available to buy from Freedom from Torture.

And here are links to the posts and related websites

The Challenge page on this website

Crossing the Sea with Syrians by Wolfgang Bauer, 9th walk along the shore.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 8th walk in Italy.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, walk 7 in Hertfordshire in March

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

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Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/8440318774/”>ResoluteSupportMedia</a> via <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/1bed96″>Visualhunt.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”> CC BY</a>

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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Reading a novel from each decade shows up the sudden changes in literary practices. One such moment occurred when Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing arrived on the literary scene of post-war London. Published in 1950 it was like nothing that had come before. Doris Lessing had recently arrived from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She brought with her Peter, her youngest child, and the manuscript of this novel. Her writing was tough and implicitly political. It was a new kind of novel, new in terms of location, material and treatment. Doris Lessing went on to forge a long career in fiction until she died in November 2014. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen The Grass is Singing for the 1950s in my Decades Project (see below).

The novel The Grass is Singing

The opening chapter poses the question: why did these people behave in the way they did? There was a murder, why wasn’t more pity shown for the victim? Of for her husband, who has gone out of his mind? What did the murder reveal about relations between the natives and the white farmers? This is not a whodunit. Moses, the houseboy confesses when the native police arrive.

In this first chapter we are introduced to the characters, the location (a small farm in Southern Rhodesia), and the attitudes of local white people through the eyes of the newly arrived manager Tony Marston, a young man who is due to take over the management of the farm. Charlie Slatter, who runs the neighbouring farm very profitably and Sergeant Denham appear to be warning him about his reactions to the murder and this alerts the reader to relationships that will be unfamiliar.

From the second chapter the narration becomes more omniscient as Doris Lessing begins to chart the early life, marriage and disintegration of Mary Turner, the victim. Mary had an impoverished and unhappy childhood, but was able to escape to Salisbury (now Harare) where she was happy with a job in an office, accommodation in a hostel and an active social life without intimacy. She was not looking for marriage or children until she overheard her friends suggesting that there is something wrong with her. From this moment she latches onto the idea of marriage and when Dick Turner appears in her life they quickly decide to marry.

She moves out to Dick’s farm where it quickly becomes apparent that she is out of place and that she has mistaken ideas about marriage. And so does Dick. He is a farmer, but has no success. Her role is to manage the house, by managing the houseboy, a native. Brought up with no contact with natives and having absorbed the white population’s distain and fears, Mary is incapable of being decent towards them. Indeed, while supervising the field workers during a bout of Dick’s malaria, she strikes one of the workers when he dared to ask for a break for water. This is Moses who later comes to work in the kitchen.

Doris Lessing leads us towards the eventual breakdown between Mary and Dick, and the disintegration of both Turners.

Reading the novel

Reading this novel for the third time I am struck again by how tough a read it is. Mary’s response to words overheard, to her marriage, to the poverty of the farm, to the heat and the other conditions of life on the veldt, these are described in harsh detail. One can only be disappointed in her inability to see more clearly and to extricate herself from her difficulties. So often she just sits vacantly. The men who turn up at the scene of the murder believe that Mary had ‘let the side down.’

But over all this is the shocking brutality of the racist society in which she lived. What Mary had done was have a relationship with a native. It was a very distorting and unhealthy relationship but

[Tony Marston, the recent arrival] would see the thing clearly and understand that it was ‘white civilization’ fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, ‘white civilization’ which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners’ failure. (26)

And for ‘white civilization’ read justification for colonization, or for exploitation of the African population, or repeated abuses of human rights.

Doris Lessing seems to be telling us that we are all tainted by this idea of ‘white civilization’, even the poorest of the whites, the most incapable of the white population, and certainly the abused black people, they are all damaged by society based on racism.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, first published in 1950 by Michael Joseph ltd. I used the edition from Flamingo (1994) 206pp

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1960s

I have decided to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin in July for the 1960s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1970s and 1980s.

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