Monthly Archives: October 2014

Six Stories & an Essay by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy is best known for a novel that everyone should read: Small Island. Published in 2004, it won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Orange ‘Best of the Best’. It was also made into a tv series. More recently, 2010, The Long Song won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.132 6 Stories cover

Six Stories & an Essay is her newly published book, October 2014. It is intimate, and lets us into her motivation and her development as a writer. She enrolled on a City Lit writing class. At the time she was starting out on a painful transition from being scared to call herself a black person to welcoming being called a black British writer. It was a difficult time.

Writing came to my rescue. The course had an emphasis on writing about what you know. So, nervously I began to explore what I knew – my family upbringing and background, my complicated relationship with colour. Thinking about what I knew, and exploring my background with words, began to open it up to me as never before. I soon came to realise that growing up in this country was part of what it meant to be black. All those agonies over skin shade. Those silences about where we had come from. The shame. The denial. In fact I came to see that every black person’s life, no matter what it is, is part of the black experience. Because being black in a majority white country comes with a myriad of complications and contradictions. It was writing that helped me to understand that. (11)

And she goes on to suggest that the black experience is part of a largely unknown, or forgotten or denied aspect of Britain’s life. She concludes the essay with these words

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history. (19)

She has already got this project underway. Small Island is about the period when the peoples of Britain and the Caribbean began to develop shared history here in Britain, the period from the Second World War on. The Long Song is set in the time of slavery in the Caribbean. They offer hard lessons about the intersection of British and Caribbean histories at the same time as reminding us of heartening human qualities.132 SM Island

This collection also explores the histories of peoples in the Caribbean and in Britain in the last 100 years. Uriah’s War was the First World War. It follows two friends from Jamaica who joined British West Indian Regiment and fought in Palestine and Egypt. The dominant version of this war is of the British Tommy fighting in the trenches, a version that ignores the considerable sacrifice of people from all over the Empire, and of women in the war. (I wrote about remembering women poets in a post called Women’s Poetry in the First World War. Lest we forget!)

Other stories refer to other people who are less powerful in our society and we would like to ignore, forget or deny, especially children in poverty (Deborah), newly arrived immigrants (The Empty Pram and That Polite Way That English People Have) and refugees (Loose Change). As a first step communication or a shared language is important, a theme of The Empty Pram and February.

I welcomed the insight into Andrea Levy’s development as a writer. She read the short story called The Diary aloud to the City Lit writing class.

At last I could get my own back, I thought. But what I really enjoyed as I read it out was that people laughed. It was much more satisfying than the revenge. And once I’d made them laugh they seemed more open to what I had to say. I have never forgotten that. (23-5)

132 A Levy2So if what I have said about the stories suggests that they are rather earnest and political, I should point out that Levy has a delightful lightness of touch, a humour that readers of Small Island will recognise. Here is the ending of the story in which the narrator, newly arrived in Britain, has tried to explain that she was bringing the baby back to his mother and is finally understood to be a rescuer not a kidnapper.

My wrist was released and the mother of the baby, who was smiling now, said, ‘Thank you for bringing her back. But you should have told us what happened.’ Then all three women began patting me like a dog – on the shoulder, on the head – as they discussed together whether I would like a nice cup of tea.’ (102)

132 Tinder LogoOne final point about this book. It is published by the independent publisher, Tinder Press (a new imprint), who have produced a lovely hardback book, with beautifully tactile paper, and included photographs to match the stories – it’s an object of pleasure.

 

Six Stories & an Essay by Andrea Levy is published by Tinder Press at £12.99 in October 2014. Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.

 

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Nationalism and Literary Prizes

122 Man Booker 2O14The Man Booker Prize was opened up to all novels written in English for the first time this year. It also opened a can of worms. Journalists began to write as if it were meaningful to refer to national fiction. They warned us that British fiction is not what it used to be. It was suggested that our national honour, or something, is impugned by the American prizewinners. You would have been forgiven for thinking that British fiction is in danger of being taken over, swept aside, overwhelmed. The Yanks are coming!.

Did the Yanks come?

In the event, the new rules for the Man Booker Prize meant that two Americans got to the shortlist of six: Karen Joy Fowler with We are all Completely Beside Ourselves; and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. The announcement of the shortlist allowed journalists to reassure us about the issue they had raised. Warnings of an American wipeout had been exaggerated. The winner was an Australian, Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

131 Flanagan MBP

Sarah Churchwell was on the panel of judges for the Prize. She made this comment in the Guardian Review, following the announcement of the winner this week:

The Booker Prize has already had more than its share of controversy this year: first over changing the rules to allow any author writing in English to enter, a phrase that has been widely interpreted to mean “Americans”. As an American myself, I don’t find the prospect of Americans joining things especially horrifying. I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passports an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.

More MB Prize controversies

  1. whether the judges skim read the 156 submitted novels – Sarah Churchwell says they don’t!
  2. the role of the judges to correct the institutional sexism of the publishing industry and of reviewers – is sexism revealed by longlisting only three out of 13 writers (although 2 of the six shortlisted)?

Other Literary Prizes

The revised rules set off journalists’ concerns about other prizes as well. In March George Saunders won the new Folio Prize. Jane Gardam was the only British writer who made the shortlist.

  • Red Doc by Anne Carson (Canada)
  • Schroder by Amity Gaige (America)
  • Last Friends by Jane Gardam (UK)
  • Benediction by Kent Haruf (America)
  • The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (America)
  • A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Ireland)
  • A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (America)
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders (America)

131 A girl cover105 Baileys Women'sAnd what about the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction? A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, from Ireland, was also shortlisted for this prize, and it won. It’s a very good book. The others came from a reassuringly wide range of female writers:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australia)
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (India-America)
  • The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (Ireland)
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (America)

Crisis, what crisis?

AS Byatt was quoted in the fuss about standards in national literature: she was a judge for the Folio Prize and a previous Man Booker Prize Winner herself (Possession), in short a grande dame of British literature. The sub injected urgency into the headline:

IS BRITISH FICTION IN CRISIS? AS Byatt bemoaned the lack of exciting UK authors being published today.

A little further down this piece we were given more detail. The American books, she told us, were ‘inventive and beautifully written. I don’t have the feeling of that kind of energy any more.’ The implication is that the energy is lacking in UK fiction.

Actually AS Byatt is making a point about publishers, and how in the UK publishers are more interested in making money than promoting literature. Who gets published? Who nominates novels for prizes? It’s the publishers. Publishers take note of prizes so they can be very important in a writer’s career. We should note that independent publishers are doing a great deal to promote high quality fiction in the UK.

We might add that one reason for any domination by US writers over British ones in the merry-go-round of prize winning is quite simply down to one fact: there are many more of them. Britain is a tiny country within the English-writing world.

So in conclusion the winners are …

Why should readers care about the nationality of the writer of prizes? We don’t! I’m with Sarah Churchwell, the nationality of the author is irrelevant. Prizes matter to publishers because they make money, and to writers, because the publicity means that more people will buy and read their novels. Readers like me, like prizes because they tell us who the industry, the small world of publishing believe are the best writers. I want to get knowledge about and access to good quality fiction. Prizes help, but they are not the whole story.

 

Do you have any views on the state of British fiction, or nationality in fiction writing? Or literary prizes?

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Abandoning books

People have rules about this kind of thing: I always finish the book; or I only read books by women; or I can’t be bothered with books that are more than 100 pages; or I only read when there’s an R in the month. One friend says, ‘If I start a book I always finish it.’

Books byAurelia Lange.

Books byAurelia Lange.

Seriously – why finish every book? Why make a rule of it? Why do readers think they need to, unless they think they should carry on? It’s an irrational position, an act of faith.

Finding the hidden treasure

Part of me understands that every book might have some hidden treasure. And I can see that if I stop reading, I’ll never find it. I like to be sure of the treasure in the book from fairly early on. If I don’t see it then the book gets tossed aside. In truth, that means it is left in the pile of books on bedside table, slowly sinking to the bottom, and moved on to the Oxfam books pile when I decide to tidy up. Or returned to the TBR shelf to sit awhile. This is what has happened to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I’m not yet sure whether I have abandoned it or not.

130 TBRSome people I know borrow library books so that it they want to stop reading them they haven’t wasted money buying them. Kindlers can use the first few pages sampler.

Letting it go

Abandoning a book is a pretty serious action, an indictment, a judgement. So I don’t do it lightly. I decide when I don’t believe the book will get any better. Usually it happens when I fail to feel any interest in the characters. It’s rare, but it happens. If the characters are boring, or lacklustre or facing dilemmas that just don’t seem very important, well I can’t see any point in continuing. There are better things to do and better books to read.

130 D&sonI’m not going to identify the books, because I have no reason for drawing attention to them and my evaluation of them may not be yours. Except I will mention Dombey and Sons, by Charles Dickens, which just seemed to go on and on – but I may get back to it one day!

Not letting it go

Some books contain pretty nasty characters, in whose company you are really not very comfortable. I think of the main character in Money by Martin Amis. He is gross. But that is really the point. Or take Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. The book is full of very selfish characters who behave very badly towards each other. And it doesn’t even end happily. Of course, just because the characters are not sympathetic, it doesn’t mean the book is not worth reading.

Going back

Recently I posted about hard-to-read books. Some of those were originally abandoned, but then I managed to get back to them. For example, I found it very hard indeed to read the novella Chasing the King of Hearts, by Hanna Krall. It was one of my five World Book recommendations this year. I am really glad I did return to it. You should read it if you haven’t yet.

Throwing them out

Perhaps it’s the same people who never give up on reading a book who keep every book they ever bought. I wouldn’t have space in my cottage for my cat and my piano if I had done that. The unfinished, the duplicates, the unwanted gifts, the read-but-happy-to-give-away, the unreturned loans, the out of date non-fiction, the painful reminders – all these can go. Other readers can take them in. Perhaps they will make different judgements.

I like this take on the issue from the Guardian Review in May 2014 by Tom Gauld.

My Library by Tom Gauld

My Library by Tom Gauld

What other people do

Goodreads listed the top 5 most abandoned books in July last year (from a straw poll – ie what follows is not to be considered as proper research):

  • Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I notice that these books all had big reputations, so perhaps the abandoners were not their natural readers. And some people perhaps were put off by authors who use two initials in place of a first name.

And the 5 most abandoned classics – same source

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (?really???)
  • Lord of the Rings by JR Tolkein (there you go again!)
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Goodreads suggested that 38.1% of readers will continue reading to the end. The writer Peter Wild when he reported on the Goodreads statistics, wrote that these people think that abandoning a book is a kind of heresy. Others quit after a chapter or (this may be a joke) 100 pages minus the reader’s age.

But whatever our practice it’s good isn’t it that readers don’t say, ‘I was disappointed by a book once. Never read a book again’!

 

Do you abandon books that disappoint you? If you stick with a book, tell us why!

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

129 Sin the St coverOn Sunday evenings the headteacher would read a book aloud to the youngest boarders. We jostled our way into his sitting room after supper and arranged ourselves on the sofa, the window seat, the chairs, the footstools, the rugs, anywhere a twelve-year old of any shape and size could fit. When we were settled Hector Jacks would start to read from The Sword in the Stone. I was reminded of this pleasure – of being read to, of the head’s warm voice, as kindly as Merlin himself – by H is for Hawk.

Wart was an outsider, and at boarding school it was easy to feel like outsiders from our families, sent to live in the strange community of a ‘60s coeducational boarding school. For Wart it came good in the end, after his strange education, transformed into a series of animals, learning from the creatures of a vanished landscape (even in the early ‘60s I knew that the countryside he described had disappeared). Wart withdrew the sword and he was King Arthur. We could all draw out the sword one day.

Arthur Pyle: How Arthur drew forth ye sword from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) via WikiCommons

Arthur Pyle: How Arthur drew forth ye sword from The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903) via WikiCommons

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

One of the themes of H is for Hawk is the troubled relationship between TH White and his goshawk. TH White wrote The Sword in the Stone and one of the animals Wart turns into is a merlin.

129 Hawk coverI could not easily leave off reading this book, it lived with me while I was doing other things – washing up, walking, checking emails. I was caught by the intensity of the writing, the wisdom revealed in the dissection of the author’s relationships with death and with a goshawk and the intermingling of her three themes.

First theme: the training of the goshawk Mabel.

I loved the descriptions of the training, (called ‘manning’ huh?) especially when they were outdoors, the slow progress, mistakes, set backs and successes. The passage about her delight in the play that she and the goshawk unexpectedly share is an example. We get minutely observed descriptions of appearance and behaviour, without it ever becoming soppy or anthropomorphic. Here is an example of her writing, describing an early hunting trip.

The next day out on the hill Mabel learns, I suppose, what she is for. She chases a pheasant. It crashes beneath a tall hedge. She lands on top of the hedge, peering down, her plumage bright against the dark earth of the further slope. I start running. I think I remember where the pheasant has gone. I convince myself it was never there at all. I know it is there. Clay sticks to my heels and slows me down. I’m in a world of freezing mud, and even the air seems to be getting harder to run through. Mabel is waiting for me to flush out the pheasant, if only I knew where it was. Now I am at the hedge, constructing what will happen next scenarios in my head, and at this point they’re narrowing fast, towards point zero, when the pheasant will fly. … I’m crashing through brambles and sticks, dimly aware of the catch and rip of thorns in my flesh. Now I cannot see the hawk because I am searching for the pheasant, so I have to work out what she is doing by putting myself in her mind – and so I become both the hawk in the branches and the human below. The strangeness of this splitting makes me feel I am walking under myself, and sometimes away from myself. (182-3)

She uses the beautiful language of hawking: muting, bating, creances. And she uses it to show us step by step about hawking.

Second theme: Helen Macdonald’s grief at her father’s death.

She is knocked sideways by her father’s sudden death and partly sees the acquisition of the goshawk as a means to heal herself. Instead it takes her deeply inside herself, too deeply. But she emerges on the other side as she comes to see the need for social interaction as well as valuing the introspection that her time with Mabel encourages. The solitariness of the hawk, the immersion in nature and the countryside will not cure her without the community of hawkers and her own family and friends.

Third theme: TH White and Gos

The book also explores the life of another outsider, TH White, who was a homosexual. After a miserable time at boarding school, he tried to become a good teacher at Stowe but left just before the Second World War. Helen Macdonald reveals that his training of Gos was cruel, despite his intentions. It arose from his attitude to education (as a teacher and a miserable school boy) not out of knowledge of the hawk. White believed that you need to face up to things, including the challenge of his goshawk. It is also the message of The Sword in the Stone, a comfort to a homesick child, but ultimately judgement is required about when to stop toughing it out, and do something else.

H is for Hawk has been highly praised in blog and newspaper reviews and is shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction (winner to be announced on 4th November). I would not be surprised if it won for the quality of its descriptive writing. I have only recently begun reading nature writing. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is another good read. Perhaps there is a new type of nature writing.

Links to other reviews:

Vulpes Libris in which the reviewer, Hilary, said ‘it knocked me sideways’

Emily found it ‘a staggeringly good read’, despite the fuss. Read her comments on Emily Books.

Rachel Cooke in the Guardian

Any different views? Any recommendations along the lines of people who liked H is for Hawk also liked … ?

 

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Berlin Stories

‘Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change,’ according to Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine a City. In May this year I made my first visit to Berlin. Everywhere there was building, tramlines outside our apartment, construction on a grand scale on every street. I was rather disappointed that so much of its history seemed to have disappeared.

Brandenburg Gate, May 2014

Brandenburg Gate, May 2014

Checkpoint Charlie was a mock-up in the middle of a shopping street. I think the guards were actors. The Brandenburg Gate was swamped by foreign tourists, all aged about 20 and too young to remember the divided city, the Blockade, the Wall, escape attempts, JFK announcing, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and its breach in 1989 … Berlin is a city of history but its past is being made faster than in any other city I know in Europe. This evolving history is reflected in its restlessness, its rewriting.

What do these books have in common?

What do these books have in common?

Books about Berlin reflect this.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada.

Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Written in a white heat in 28 days immediately after the end of the Second World War, the novel concerns the many ways in which the Nazi (and by extension totalitarian regimes of other kinds) distort life and appeal to base instincts and un-communitarian practices.

The Quangels lose their son early in the war and the father embarks on a small protest of writing postcards with anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler messages. These small acts of rebellion provoke different reactions among the people with whom he comes into contact: his wife, the Gestapo investigator, people who pick up the cards and others in prison. Even when the Quangels have been caught they are able to protest in their own way, although the system tries to hound them to the end. Small acts of kindness, organised resistance, decency of the people caught up by the regime but able to soften its effects from time to time – this is the source of redemption.

It is the conductor, with whom Otto Quangel shares a cell, who speaks to the title. So many acts of resistance but each one undertaken alone. If only they had been led, coordinated, then they might have amounted to something. And the novel addresses the issue of the purpose of struggle where the outcome is doomed. But Otto and his wife and others show that the struggle itself is worth it, to keep one’s integrity: you do what you can in the circumstances you find yourself in. It may not change anything. But the point is to struggle.

Fallada based his novel on a true story, which was well documented, as so much of Nazi Germany was. He died soon after writing it.

121 W in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin: Diary 20th April 1945 to 22 June 1945 by Anonymous

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

A journalist begins her diary at the moment when the Russians advance on Berlin can be heard in the city at the end of the Second World War in Europe. She lives in an apartment block, and increasingly her life is limited to the block and then to the cellar. Her job has gone and safety is absent from the streets (US air raids are also a threat). The residents listen to rumours and the sounds of the advancing Red Army.

Within days the Russians arrive and everyone must decide how to respond to ‘Ivan’. The women are especially vulnerable to rape. The diarist is quickly raped, being fit and about 30. Fat women are also in demand (although there are few of them left). For several days as the Red Army celebrates the apartment dwellers must respond to the drunken and lascivious men. The diarist quickly decides that if she is to be raped repeatedly she should find a protector who will treat her decently. First Anatole, an officer with bear-like qualities and then the injured but cultivated Major become her protectors. Now the air raids have finished she stays with ‘the widow’ and her lodger in a first floor apartment. She records the visits of the many Russians who come through their apartment, most bringing supplies (especially alcohol), some bring interesting conversation.

As the conquerors begin to re-establish order lives, quickly change and then the diarist must do labour for the occupiers, mainly laundry and dismantling German factories ready for transport to the USSR.

Then there is the hope of job on a new publication, and finally her boyfriend returns, not seen since 1939. They try to connect. He is horrified by the complicity of the women in the rapes – as he sees it. He leaves and you get the sense that, as with so much else, they have to leave each other behind and move into the new post-war Germany.

The themes of the book are to do with how people behave in chaos, how order restores itself, especially for the conditioned German population. And how to deal with the fallout of rape for women – collectively and in writing.

In a post in September 2014 I called this a ‘hard to read book’. It was partly based on the comments of my travel companion, Fiona, who was reading it while we were in Berlin. It was hard, but the humour, courage and resourcefulness of the author made it worthwhile. I refer you to Clarissa’s comments on the post about this book and the author.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

Three others to mention:

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

9781907773402frcvr.inddA novella, about Magda the wife of Joseph Goebbels, at various episodes in her life. One concerns Magda’s imagined time in Berlin under Russian rule – the period covered by A Woman in Berlin. The book is a psychological study of how abuse rattles down the generations and through institutions especially the family, the Catholic Church and National Socialism, which is presented as a religion. It’s vivid and raw.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

This collection of six sketches form a roughly continuous narrative. The book is ‘an ironic and compassionate picture of Berlin during the death throes of the Weimar Republic and of the foreign birds of passage who were drawn there temporarily for one reason or another,’ according to the Times obituary (1986) tucked into my copy. Isherwood lived in the city during the early 1930s. Cabaret is based on his memoirs. This was an exciting place, where the art was experimental, pushing boundaries, where excess and excitement lured the experimental and the young.

128 Goodbye cover

Stasiland by Anna Funder

After the fall of the wall and the end of the control of Eastern Germany and East Berlin by the communists, the citizens had to live with their past, and the way in which the Stasi had corrupted everyone, created its own state of secrets: Stasiland. Anna Funder is an Australian who researched and wrote about the lives of people who lived in the Stasi state, before and after the fall of the Wall.

 

What I notice about all these books is that they are all based on fact, even the novels draw on real events. It is as if Berlin’s history is rich enough, does not need to work much on its fiction.

Here’s a link to Ten of the best books set in Berlin chosen by Malcolm Burgess.

What would your Berlin stories be? I’m going to Amsterdam next week. What are the best Amsterdam books?

 

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The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

127 wooden hat coverElisabeth Feathers is the protagonist of Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, one of the trilogy that also includes Old Filth and Last Friends. What are we to make of Elisabeth Feathers in old age? Her life, it is suggested was all of a piece, or made up of several interrelated pieces throughout, the differentiating factors is not age but her relationships with other people. We note that she is known by many different diminutives, different identities for different people: Elisabeth Mackintosh, Elisabeth Feathers, Betty, Lizzie, Lizzie-Izz.

In her perceptive essay, How to end it all, Hermione Lee asks a number of questions writing about death in biography in Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing. One of them is pertinent here:

Do you, in the tone you choose, and also in matters of structure and interpretation, try to give the death meaning and derive from it some sense of a resolution of the life? (p200)

The question is relevant to Elisabeth Feathers who dies as she plants out tulips. We should beware of seeing people’s lives as somehow encapsulated by the manner of their death.

This is the eleventh in the series of older women in fiction on this blog (click on the category older women in fiction to view the others).

Why marry Old Filth?

Elisabeth is a competent and intelligent woman, experienced in life in the Far East, fluent in Cantonese and one of the Bletchley war-time code-breakers. The novel explores her life from the point at which she decides to marry Edward Feathers, aka Old Filth. For those not familiar with this trilogy, filth is an acronym for Failed in London try Hong Kong. Feathers is a lawyer, soon to become a QC and then a judge. We wonder why Elisabeth is planning to marry him, since neither of them seem especially enthusiastic or in love. Indeed, Elisabeth spends the night before her wedding with Terry Veneering, beginning a relationship, which, like her marriage lasts the rest of her life. It turns out that this is one of the many compromises she makes, which bring her a comfortable and stimulating life.

Hong Kong Star Ferry by Greg Willis (2005) via WikiCommons

Hong Kong Star Ferry by Greg Willis (2005) via WikiCommons

And in later life?

And here’s a summing up of her later life. She and Filth decide not to retire in Hong Hong, because it will be handed back to the Chinese very soon, but to a renovated cottage in Dorset.

Just as she had rearranged herself into a copy of her dead mother on her marriage, now she began to work on being the wife of a distinguished old man. She took over the church – the vicar was nowhere – and set up committees. She joined a Book Club and found DVDs of glorious old films of their youth. She took up French again and had her finger- and toe-nails done in Salisbury, her hair quite often in London where she became a member of the University Women’s Club. She knew she still looked sexy. She still had disturbing erotic dreams.

She quite enjoyed the new role, and bought very expensive country clothes, and she wore Veneering’s pearls (Edward’s were in the safe) more and more boldly and with less and less guilt. (p216-7)

I like this description of adjustment, of adaptation to the allotted and chosen roles, with its slightly disturbing undertow.

Is her life ‘messed’?

Perhaps Veneering was right when he suggested that they had messed up their lives. In their late middle-age they meet accidentally in a gallery in The Hague, and they share a joke about the figure of the title: the Man in the Wooden Hat.

And he took her hands and said, ‘When did you last laugh like this, Elisabeth? Never – that’s right isn’t it? We’ve messed our lives. Elisabeth, come away with me. You’re bored out of your head. You know it. I know it. And I’m in hell. It’s our last chance. I’ll leave her. It was always only a matter of time.’

But she got up and walked out and down the circular staircase, the water from the canal flashing across the yellow walls. He leaned over the rail above, watching her, and when she was nearly down she stopped and stood still, not looking up.

‘You’re not wearing the pearls.’

She said, ‘Goodbye Terry. I’ll never leave him. I told you.’

‘But I’m still with you. I’ll never leave you. We’ll never forget each other.

On the last step of the staircase she said, ‘Yes I know.’ (p225-6)

She is not unhappy with her choices, her sacrifices. Both she and Terry are better off with the marriages they chose.

Happiness?

She is unhappy about being childless, however. Her friend Amy, a missionary in Hong Kong, has hundreds of babies, is in love and happy. (All the things Elisabeth is not, perhaps). She wanted children, but there were miscarriages and eventually a hysterectomy. Instead she develops an affection for Veneering’s son, and it is his death that provokes her final actions.

I wanted her to be happy, perhaps because she came from a generation that had to rely upon men for their material wellbeing. It is Jane Gardam’s skill to present a flawed and privileged woman, who has also suffered during her life (not just her own childlessness, but the death of her parents in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp), with a great deal of affection. She was a survivor, one that gave a great deal to the two men in her life, and to her friends, and who may not have achieved her intellectual potential, but nevertheless offers a version of integrity. Integrity is something to aim for throughout life, I guess. And in both senses of the word: honesty and integration.

Here’s a link to another blog review by A Common Reader. He suggests that a long-lasting marriage requires secret compartments, a little like the mysterious Ross’s hat. And he sheds light on the title.

Have you read this trilogy? What do you make of Elisabeth Feathers? Is her later life a good model for older women?

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews