Monthly Archives: July 2017

Five great covers for five recommended novels

According to Charles Dickens, ‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ On the whole the best I expect is that a book’s cover does not detract from its contents. But some book covers enhance what lies inside. And a few are works of art on their own. In this post I celebrate some excellent covers together with links to my reviews of the books.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

This short but lyrical novel plays with the idea that Crow, from the poems of Ted Hughes, comes to assist a family through their grief when the mother dies. Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes poignant, and everybody I know who has read it has been moved by it.

The sparseness and simplicity of the cover design exactly matches the book’s contents. The cover was designed in-house by Faber using an illustration by Eleanor Crow.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter, published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Among its many achievements, this classic novel displays Virginia Woolf’s perceptiveness. Here is an example, as Mrs Ramsay concludes the book she reads to her youngest son James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

The cover of the first edition was by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. It was published by the Woolfs’ own Hogarth Press.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) published by the Hogarth Press. Available in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (1964) 237pp

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a traditional fairy tale, but The Sleeping Beauty is the story of an awakening. The central characters are not in the first flush of youth but love manages to awaken them from inner deadness. It is set in a seaside backwater and begins with a dreamy walk along the cliff. This cover was an inspired choice for an early Virago edition. By Winifred Nicholson it is called The Gate to the Isles (Blue Gate) and was painted in 1980. It is on display at the Falmouth Gallery until mid-September.

Many readers find the more recent cover designs for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels insipid in contrast to the original Virago choices such as this one.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1953, now available in the Virago Modern Classics series.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It was the cover that first attracted me to this novel. Its intricate, dense and convoluted patterning of natural objects reflects the storyline. It was designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris. Morris was contemporaneous with the setting of the novel. It’s a mystery and an investigation about beliefs and science all at the same time.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. 418pp

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I reviewed this children’s classic recently accompanied by a photo of the cover of my copy. Many people commented on it, saying they had read it in a much drabber schools editions. This cover captures the rituals of the Seal people north of Roman Britain. It was also inspired by the mysteries and dark dangers of the ancient world. It is by C Walter Hodges.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954 by Oxford University Press and still on their list.

Related post

Thinking about … Book Covers was a blogpost from January 2014, which includes more examples and links to archives etc.

A post from Louise Harnby’s blog The Proofreader’s Parlour: The Design Essentials: creating a stand-out book cover. Advice for authors. It draws on work for Salt Books that frequently have captivating covers.

Over to you

Do you have any covers to nominate as adding something to the book? Or is an exceptionally pleasing cover?

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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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