Category Archives: Reviews

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

More tales of people on the move. We learn from Exit West by Mohsin Hamid that despite restrictive policies by governments, dangers of migration, intense loss when leaving home, people move. People move, their lives change and move on. Even in times of great upheaval people pay attention to little things. Think of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

This is the second paragraph of the new novel from Mohsin Hamid, Exit West:

It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class – in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding – but that is the way of things with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does. (1-2)

Stories of migration have both universal and individual significance. The individual lives are made up of ‘pottering about our errands’ even as we are ‘teetering at the edge of the abyss’.

The story

The story of Exit West follows Saeed and Nadia from their first meeting in the evening class, through their escape to Europe, to their eventual separation in the US. It begins like this.

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something. (1)

Saeed meets Nadia in an unnamed city where they begin their careful courtship. We are probably in the Middle East, their religion is probably Islam but we are not given any more details. As they fall in love the political situation begins to turn bad, until eventually insurgents take over the whole city and they live in a time of difficult communication and separation.

In the city there are rumours of escape routes through black doors. These doors also provide a route into the city for some insurgents. Saeed and Nadia escape through a black door and arrive first in Mykonos, then London and finally on the west coast of the US, in Marin county. During each difficult episode the couple have been very loyal and careful of each other, even as their experiences undermine their love. They part and make new lives.

We also read cameos of other escapes through the doors, reminding us that the story of Saeed and Nadia is only one of thousands of stories of people moving about the world.

The writing

Mohsin Hamid’s writing is controlled yet relaxed. The tone is not quite as conversational as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) when a man sits down beside a foreigner and tells his story with increasing tension. In a novel writing class two of the 10 participants chose the opening paragraphs of that novel as most impressive.

In Exit West the style is more mythic. The two extracts I have quoted reveal a narrator who claims a longer perspective than we have. ‘Back then’ he says several times knowing what happened in the years following the story he is telling. In the same way, he explains the behaviour of the characters to us. I especially enjoy the juxtaposition of ‘corporate identity and product branding’ with the impending violence in that first extract.

Measured, usually slow, told in very long sentences (that’s just one sentence that begins ‘It might seem odd …’ in the first extract) the story that emerges is relentless yet not hard to read despite Mohsin Hamid’s refusal to dodge the difficult moments. The death of Saeed’s mother is vivid, horrific, but almost everyday, for example.

My response

Read from one perspective Exit West is a profound criticism of the failure across the world to acknowledge and do anything good about the movements of people, or to deal with ‘the nativists’. There is, however, a strand in the novel that is hopeful, as the nations manage to draw back from genocide and adopt a policy of controlled work camps instead.

On the human level, as in the tiny stories of escape, Exit West shows that humans are generous, loyal, helpful. Ultimately it is a hopeful novel.

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

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have almost achieved my target thanks to readers’ and supporters’ donations. But donations are still acceptable.

April walk

The Walking Group

I dedicated one day on my walking holiday in Italy to the challenge. The route on the Gargano Peninsula, in Puglia, took us through limestone hills, and scrub before following a Mediterranean coastal path to the bay of Fontana delle Rose. This walk was about 13.2 km (8.3 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

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

 

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in May

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Freedom from Torture Challenge, Reading, Reviews

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

These are the famous opening words of the fourth novel in my Decades Project, and we are into the 1930s. It’s the era of the talkies, threats of European war, the country house and its hierarchical servants. We have moved from the cosy village whodunit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, set in an unchanging village society in Devon to a large house in the next county. Cornwall is the setting for this psychological-romantic thriller.

The Story

A young girl, (we never know her name) is plucked from nothing. She narrates the story of her marriage to Maxim de Winter and the brief period when they lived at Manderley. From her dream in the first chapter we know that something bad happened here and that she no longer lives in the beautiful house. And from the second chapter we learn that she is still devoted to her husband, Maxim de Winter, but they live a solitary life in continental hotels. ‘Manderley is no more’.

The narrator met Maxim in Monte Carlo while she was employed as a companion to the most awful Mrs Van Hopper. Her employer is a snob, who sees the narrator as a nothing. Indeed, the narrator looses no opportunity to tell us she is poor, unremarkable to look at with lank hair and a flat chest, and with awkward social manners resulting from shyness. Maxim is 42 but despite the difference in their ages they enjoy each other’s company while Mrs Van Hopper is ill.

Maxim rescues the girl from her employer, marries her and takes back to Manderley. In her new home everything serves to emphasise the young bride’s differences to the previous Mrs de Winter, who died about 9 months earlier in a boating accident.

The most sharply drawn character is Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper. Our heroine is disempowered by Mrs Danvers, the expectations of their social group, and the unfamiliarity of a large country house. In her mind she builds the picture of Maxim’s previous idyllic marriage, and lives in her mousey way under Rebecca’s spell, increasingly believing that Maxim does not love her and is still in love with Rebecca.

When Rebecca’s boat is recovered, her noxious cousin and lover raises the possibility that Maxim murdered her. Maxim tells his new bride what actually happened and that he loathed Rebecca and loves his new bride. Eventually the tensions are allayed when it became clear that Rebecca was gravely ill and engineered her own death.

Reading the story the reader is caught up with the naivety of the young bride, feeling her gaucheness, her uncertainty about her new life, the pernicious influence of Mrs Danvers, and her inability to understand Maxim’s behaviour towards her. It is a kind of Jane Eyre, Cinderella, or imposter syndrome story. The poor wee little girl gets her man and his wealth in the end.

There is an alternative way of looking at this story, and readers who wish to retain the idea that Rebecca is a lovely romantic novel should read no further.

Menabilly House, Fowey, Cornwall, in 1920s – the inspiration for Manderley. via WikiComons

What Daphne du Maurier asks us to believe in Rebecca

The romantic view of Rebecca asks the reader to accept the following more cynical and less romantic reading might lead one to asks how the author gets us to accept the following:

Maxim is a neglectful and unkind older man who picks an innocent young woman to marry. Maxim is a man of the world, and at 42 on a few weeks’ acquaintance marries a gauche girl with very little polish or anything else to recommend her. He gives her very little help in her new responsibilities at Manderley. This is left the agent Frank Crawley.

The hero treats his wife badly. He is bound up with himself and his concerns and gives her no help in unfamiliar social engagements, the running of the house, her relationship with Mrs Danvers or, crucially, the nature of his previous marriage. He allows her to founder and she suffers.

Maxim is a murderer. He murders a woman who has just told him she is pregnant.

The narrator is especially feeble when confronting the house that has been moulded by Rebecca. She does not change the furniture, the food, the flower arrangements, acquiesces to everything Mrs Danvers or Maxim has arranged. Rather prone to imagining how things might be, she never even drams of putting her mark on the house or on Maxim’s life. I found her very feeble, always twisting her handkerchief in her fingers.

When Maxim confesses to murder his second wife hears only that he did not love Rebecca. He is a murderer. He is a wife murderer. But he loves her not Rebecca. She stands by him, excuses his crime, supports him in the efforts to pervert the course of justice.

They run away to Europe despite being exonerated. The house is destroyed by fire, probably by Mrs Danvers at the instigation of Rebecca’s foul cousin, so the De Winters go abroad and hide, desperate for news and the old rituals of Manderley. They are not happy.

Daphne du Maurier’s writing

Rebecca is a classic novel, loved by many. But it invites the reader to collude in the unassertive behaviour of the narrator and in the acceptability of a heinous crime. It is a crime even if Rebecca was a monster. (We never get to see her except through Maxim’s and Mrs Danvers’ accounts.) It is a crime even if it is suicide by enraged husband (a variation of the American suicide by police) Maxim did not know that Rebecca was ill and that she feared a slow and painful death above all else.

Perhaps we are distracted by Mrs Danvers and the other vivid characters. Mrs Van Hopper is a delight, a stupid version of Mrs Catherine de Burgh. Each of the Manderley servants, Maxim’s sister are all believable characters, and sometimes very humorous.

I got a little fed up with the endless speculations of the narrator on the possible explanations or outcomes of every situation. It’s a long novel and many of her fears could have been reduced or avoided I felt.

Hitchcock’s film

Any reading of Rebecca is influenced by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock did not allow his hero to shoot Rebecca, by the way. Her death during a struggle was accidental.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003) See the afterword by Sally Beauman 441pp

The Decade 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 like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

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: 1940s

I am still musing on what to read from the 1940s for May’s choice. I am tempted by They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1950s and 1960s.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We called him Tran. Apart from being tall he had Vietnamese characteristics: thin, dark haired, dark eyed, quiet. He held himself aloof from the other young people in his Year 9 class. He caused no trouble until one day I was summoned as his Head of Year to an incident in which he had turned on another boy. ‘All I did, Miss, was this.’ The other boy mimicked holding an automatic weapon, aiming at me. ‘He just flipped.’

Tran was one of the boat people. We knew very little of his story. He spoke so little. But he told me that his response has been a reflex action to the attack by his class mate when he turned the imaginary weapon on him. PTSD was hardly recognised in the early 1980s. Who knew what horrors he had witnessed? Looking back I do not feel I gave Tran enough support. So Tran, this is for you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen may have had some idea of what Tran had been through. The stories in the collection all concern refugees of Vietnamese origins.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is collection of eight short stories, which have in common the effects on families and individuals of the Vietnamese refugee exodus of the 1980s. Published in 2017, they describe the enduring effects of the experiences of migration, and the specific experiences of the characters. Children might be thought to be more capable of adapting to change and new countries and sometimes are ignorant of their parents’ past. But children thread their way through this collection and some have had experiences that will damage them forever. For some refugees the healing will be slow and we come to see their truth – that the new life in America may not be so great.

The stories are written with great care, sympathy and tenderness, yet they are never sentimental or melodramatic. It’s a little like watching wildlife: look, Nguyen seems to say, look quietly and you will see beauty and endeavour and brutality and you will learn.

The sparseness of the title is indicative of the tone of the stories. They are also intense in their depiction of what the experiences of migration can mean for identity, relationship within families, between generations, within the American-Vietnamese community, and with the people who remained in Vietnam.

The narrator of The Black-eyed Woman is a ghost writer, haunted by the brother who exchanged his life for hers when their boat was threatened by pirates:

These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns. (14-15)

Her dead brother has swum across the Pacific to re-join their family, to keep company with the survivors. His sister was destined to retell stories, her own, her mothers, those of famous people.

Others stories also explore the effects upon a family of their migration, not least in the final story, Fatherland, in which the father of a new family are called by the names of the children who were left behind. The American Phuong takes a new name, Vivien, and when she comes to visit her older sister it is clear that despite the presents, the ease of the Americanised identity, Vivien is as adrift as her sister.

Identity is robbed or altered. In a startling story, I’d Love you to Want Me, an old Vietnamese professor with Alzheimer’s begins to call his wife by the name of a another woman. She is distraught at first, but comes to see that she can provide comfort by adopting the identity of this woman.

We read of the former B-52 pilot, whose views are challenged by the new Vietnam and his own half-Vietnamese daughter.

The flat fields behind the homes were mostly devoid of trees and shade, some of the plots growing rice and the others devoted to crops Carver did not recognize, their color the dull muted green of algae bloom, the countryside nowhere near as lush and verdant as the Thai landscape visible from Carver’s cockpit window as his B-52 ascended over the waters of Thale Sap Spngkhla, destined for the enemy cities of the north of the Plain of Jars. There was a reason he loved flying. Almost everything looed more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God’s eyes, man’s hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere. But seen up close, from this height,, the countryside was so poor that the poverty was neither picturesque nor pastoral: tin-roofed shacks with dirt floor, a man pulling up the leg on his shorts to urinate on a wall, labourers wearing slippers as they pushed wheelbarrows full of bricks. (136-7)

I like the way that the romantic but destructive view of the landscape is compared to the reality of the poverty. We in the west had Carver’s view from his cockpit in our evening news on tv. This is from the story called The Americans.

A Life in Books considers The Refugees in February, alongside another collection of short stories I have also reviewed, Breach.

There is an excellent review of The Refugees by Joyce Carol Oates in New Yorker in February 2017.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Born in Vietnam, living in California his previous novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This novel also featured transition from Vietnam to the US, but in very different circumstances. 25 Great books by Refugees in America in the New York Times in January includes The Sympathizer.

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

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 75% of my target thanks to readers’ and supporters donations. Please help me reach my full target, which is £1800, by making a donation.

March walk

My good friend Marianne arranged March’s walk near her home north of St Albans. Three of us met on a beautiful day at the end of March, and walked Three Burys Walk in the Ver River Valley, from Harpenden, along the Ver River to Roman St Albans and home. This walk raised about £100. It was about 14.5 km (9 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

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

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in April

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

7 Comments

Filed under Books, Freedom from Torture Challenge, Reviews, short stories

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

I was attracted to The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso when I found it in a list of recommended books by women of colour. It was the topic of the feud between two older women that attracted me. Here’s a novel with not one but two older women. Published in paperback in February 2017, it has been long-listed for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This is the 26th post in the series of Older Women in Fiction on this blog. You can find plenty more titles by clicking on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

The Woman Next Door

Hortensia and Marion are neighbours in Katterijn, an enclave of 40 houses in a nice suburb in Cape Town South Africa. Set in the present day, the Apartheid era is behind them, although of course its legacy is still present. These macro tensions are not the focus of this novel. Rather Yewande Omotoso looks at the small scale of individual relationships, antagonisms and antipathy.

Hortensia and Marion have in common their age, both in their 80s, that they have achieved success in their careers, and that they are widows. But they disagree about everything and their mutual animosity is well known to everyone, especially the women who attend the Katterijn Committee.

An accident in which Hortensia breaks her leg and Marion’s house is badly damaged is the novelist’s device that brings changes in the relationship of the two women.

The older women

The title leads you to expect only one old woman, but the subject of the novel is the relationship of the neighbours, and how they have got themselves into their mutual animosity, and what will bring them closer together. Both women have become rather set in their ways, in their approach to life and to opposition.

Marion was formerly a noted architect, indeed she designed the house that Hortensia now occupies, which is one source of tension. At the outset of the novel she commands the committee meeting that is concerned about issues within the community, and it quickly becomes apparent that Marion retains some of the attitudes of the Apartheid era. She is a white woman and knows nothing of the life of her African home help. Issues of land, reclamation and compensation, are still of keen interest to the inhabitants of Katterijn and to Marion’s committee. The Committee allows Marion to bully the other women, as in this beautiful put-down of Sarah who had asked what the Lands Claims Commission did.

‘The Lands Claims Commission, Sarah, is one of those things with a self-explanatory name.’ (11)

Marion’s husband died without leaving her anything to live off and she must consider her options. She comes to see what has shaped her life but that a different future is possible.

Hortensia came to South Africa, via Nigeria, having been born in Barbados. She is a successful fabric designer. She came with her white husband, and at the start of the novel he is terminally ill. There is doubt in Hortensia’s mind about the value and honesty of their long marriage. Hortensia knew that her husband had had an affair that lasted for many years with a white woman, but she discovers that they had a child because Peter’s will requires Hortensia to acknowledge and meet this unknown daughter. This is very hurtful as Hortnesia’s lack of children was a burden to her.

Hortensia’s natural stance is oppositional. Here is an example of how she carried on.

The Constantinople Private Hospital staff didn’t take long to fear Hortensia. She’d arrived at the hospital on a stretcher but, on waking, had immediately managed to insult the paramedic. (85)

She offends the nurses who attended her husband, and later care for her when she breaks her leg. She questions every suggestion by Marion in the Katterijn Committee Meetings. Only the kindly Dr Mama and her own home help Bassey are able to tolerate her argumentative nature.

I wondered whether it wasn’t a bit of a cliché to portray women in their 80s as irascible, contentious, argumentative and difficult. However as the novel progresses we see what they have had to put up with in their long lives, their struggles, the opposition to successful women, their dubious marriages, Marion’s neglectful children and so forth.

The author is sympathetic to the difficulties, the physical incapacity the women encounter in their 80s. Both have been vigorous up to now. This is Hortensi before she broke her leg.

Her walk had been the first thing to go that really hurt. A dash of grey on her head, a slight dip in breasts small enough for dipping not to matter, an extra line on her neck had never bothered her. Her eyes were good, her teeth were hers. But the loss of her walk was the first sign that time was wicked and had fingers to take things. (37)

In the event, it is in the small things, the details of two lives lived in concrete setting that understanding and warmth is created: in the favours done, the help proffered, the companionship enjoyed together.

The author, Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next Door is Yemande Omotoso’s second novel. You can read an interesting interview with Yewande Omotoso in June 2016 in Short Story Day Africa. She says that her novels confront not the macro aspects of hate, but explores it at the individual level, for example as neighbours. And about The Woman Next Door she says that she wanted to consider ‘what it might be like to have the bulk of your life behind you’.

Her first novel, Born Boy, came out in 2012. Both novels have received critical acclaim. She was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved with her family to South Africa in 1992. As well as her writing she has an architectural practice in Johannesburg.

The Cover

The cover of the Vintage edition of the book, with its garland of purple flowers around green binoculars seems to suggest some kind of chicklit, perhaps for older readers (henlit?). I prefer the hardback cover, being more edgy and less pretty feminine.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso Vintage (2016) 288pp

Related Posts

Most recent posts in this series

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

Long-list for Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize

Over to you

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? What do you think its chances are in the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

4 Comments

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

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge bowled me over and I have wanted to read My Name is Lucy Barton since it appeared last year and was so well received. Its publication in paperback was not until March this year and now I have read it.

Lucy Barton is not Olive Kitteridge.

I really enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge, which I reviewed for the older women in fiction series last June. Two things about Olive Kitteridge appealed to me: first the main character was a rather irascible older woman, not easy to like, and the other characters found her hard to get on with. This made her a very unconventional character. Second, the structure of Olive Kitteridge was unusual. It was made up of a series of short stories, and Olive Kitteridge was not the main character in all of them. This allowed Elizabeth Strout to explore Olive Kitteridge from different viewpoints and at different times in her life.

Elizabeth Strout is a skilled writer and so she has not repeated these novelistic features in this book. With Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout has in some ways been more conventional. The main character, Lucy, is more sympathetic to the reader than grouchy Olive, being rather tentative as she recalls the time she was seriously ill in hospital.

The novel is framed by the recollections from her hospital bed. Her mother comes to visit for five days and the women talk. The narrative is structured in a series of short sections, not chapters, having no titles or numbers, each simply beginning on a new page. So it shares some of the episodic nature of her previous book, but the focus is steadily on Lucy Barton. And all of it goes to answer the implied question of the title: who is Lucy Barton?

So who is Lucy Barton?

This novel explores what has made Lucy Barton the person she is, and by implication asks the reader to consider the influences on her own life. There are three main influences:

  • Other people, especially her mother.
  • Her location, Amgash Illinois in her childhood and New York as an adult
  • Her career as a writer.

Lucy is remembering being ill in a New York hospital with complications after appendicitis. She missed her husband and young girls, and she lay looking at the Chrysler Building through her window. Her mother, who she hasn’t seen for perhaps ten years, comes to visit her from Illinois. Her mother has no sophistication, never been on an airplane before, stays sleeping in the chair in the hotel room for 5 days and night and then leaves.

The women talk, and their relationship is revealed by their conversation and by the omissions in what they say. The reader begins to see that Lucy’s uncertain identity and sense of self are built from her relationships, and childhood poverty (cultural as well as financial).

Her mother tells several stories about people they knew in the past. Most of these people have unsuccessful marriages. Some of the mother-daughter talk appears pointless, or breaks off at key moments or seems to be a repetition of a sad childhood game.

I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands. “Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”

She flicked her hand at me, still looking out the window. “Silly girl,” she said and shook her head. “You silly, silly girl.”

I lay back and closed my eyes. I said, “Mom, my eyes are closed.”

“Lucy, you stop it now. “ I heard the mirth in her voice.

“Come on Mom. My eyes are closed.”

There was silence for a while. I was happy. “Mom?” I said.

“When your eyes are closed,” she said.

“You love me when my eyes are closed?”

“When your eyes are closed,” she said. And we stopped the game, but I was so happy – (135)

Other people are less important than the mother who could not tell her she loved her: her silent and hopeless father; Jeremy the artist who suggested she should be ruthless and perhaps already was; the novelist Sarah Payne who gave her advice on her writing; and her husband.

Chrysler Building, New York photo by David Shankbone, August 2008 via WikiCommons.

Lucy left the small town in Illinois for New York City, and loves its variousness, the vivid people she meets and sees. The changing view of the Chrysler Building is a delight to her, reminding her of how far she has come from her roots. She reflects however that the dark experience of her childhood remains present.

But there are times, too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. (14)

On Sarah Payne’s writing course Lucy is struck by this comment:

And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do. (98)

And Lucy has become a successful writer, but still is struggling to understand who she is and what she thinks and what she does.

I love the cover: the window is cut out to show the Chrysler Building. The designer should receive a mention.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Penguin 193pp

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2016.

In April 2017 Elizabeth Strout will publish her latest novel in America: Anything is Possible.

Over to you

Have you read this book? Or others by Elizabeth Strout? What did you think?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

A rant … about how books are described

Few things are as annoying as finding a novel described in this way: ‘a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka’. Really? L’Etranger by Albert Camus is a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka? I don’t think so.

It annoys me because this description, from the Spectator, does no favours to Camus, Hemingway or Kafka, and moreover nor does it help the reader understand anything about L’Etranger. In fact, I find it such a confusing amalgam of writers that my brain rejects the whole idea. Why are books described in this way?

Other examples

Sad reader that I am, I have been collecting some recent examples that grated on me.

Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is a very affirming short book about the importance and power of seeing alternatives to the present situation, and the importance of books in achieving this. It’s an important book. So what can we make of this description, included in the front pages?

Like Simon Schama, Solnit is a cultural historian in the desert-mystic mode, trailing ideas like butterflies. (Harper’s)

My brain baulks at three things in these two lines. Why did the Harper’s reviewer want to couple Simon Schama to Rebecca Solnit? Is the reviewer saying, Look at me! I read cultural history! And what on earth is the desert–mystic mode, and does it tell the potential reader anything about these writers? I don’t know any desert-mystics and I am fairly sure that it is not helpful to describe either of these writers as in this mode. And finally the image of the butterflies is contrary to my experience of them. Butterflies are more likely to flit away than trail after a writer. So even if you miss out the first three words, the reviewer still provides no idea about the value of Hope in the Dark. Please read more about it here, with no reference to Simon Schama, or deserts or butterflies.

Elizabeth Strout, in writing Amy and Isabelle, is twice likened to other writers.

This beautifully nuanced novel steers a course somewhere between the whimsy of Alice Hoffman, and the compassionate insight of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller, and is sure to delight fans of all three. (Publisher’s weekly)

And as if three (female) writers were not comparison enough we also get this from another review:

Alice Munro fans should lap up this atmospheric and tender novel (Image)

Independent People by Halldor Laxman (1934-5) is a big story about the hard rural life in Iceland. A gnomic comment on the rear cover of my copy merely says:

See also Far From the Madding Crowd.

And Thin Air by Michelle Paver (2016) is described in this way:

… like Touching the Void rewritten by Jack London Thin Air is a heart-freezing masterpiece (The Guardian).

Is Amazon to blame?

We could blame Amazon for this way of describing books, because long ago the website introduced the idea that ‘if you like this book you might also like x, y or z.’ And ‘People who viewed book x also bought book y’. This can be annoying, but I admit that at times it can be helpful.

Marketing by publishers?

These comparisons, extracted from reviews, have a use for publishers,. Quoting them is intended to promote less well-known, less-purchased books on the back of more successful authors. Readers must be hooked in to buy with the hope that by association of the two books the potential purchaser will buy this one. It has a secondary function; the comparison with another known author together with the cover signal the book’s genre – chick lit, noir, classic whodunits and historical romances. It helps the reader place the book.

Not so common now?

I have a feeling that the practice of comparisons, or likenings, is less common than it used to be. But I am not sure. Perhaps I pay less attention to blurbs now my tbr pile is so big, influenced more by reviews and recommendations by friends and fellow-bloggers than reading the blurb.

But it irritates me to bits. I don’t want to know what books or authors are brought to mind for a reviewer. I want to know its quality, something of its plot, about that book, not other books.

What do you think?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reviews

Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This is my third post in the Decades Project, and we are into the 1920s. This classic whodunit was published in 1926. The genre was already established. Hercule Poirot had appeared in two previous novels. He solves the mystery of who killed Roger Ackroyd despite protesting that he wanted to retire. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was voted best crime novel ever in 2013 by the Crime Writer’s Association.

We are a decade on from O Pioneers! and oh so far away. This is cosy, unchanging rural England, where people are putting The Great War behind them and where people still know their place.

The story of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

We have many characters with the motivation to kill Roger Ackroyd, and many activities designed to throw the reader off the trail of the killer. There is a little back story: Roger Ackroyd, who is very rich, was about to marry a widow Mrs Ferrars. Mrs Ferrars was being blackmailed because she poisoned her brutish husband. She commits suicide, but has written to Roger Ackroyd to tell him who the blackmailer is.

On the point of revealing the identity of Mrs Ferrars’s blackmailer, Roger Ackroyd is found dead and her letter is missing. There is a nephew who benefits from his death; his sister’s daughter whose smallest bills he was in the habit of scrutinising; a creepy housekeeper with a secret she will hide at all costs; a manservant who creeps about; a housemaid who is not what she seems; a male secretary who may be greedy; a big game hunter, likewise; and a mysterious stranger seen at the house around the time of the murder. Our narrator is the village doctor Dr Sheppard, who has access to all households. What he doesn’t know his sister Caroline is sure to discover and gossip about. These two are able to keep the reader well informed.

Who is to solve the mystery? Poirot has retired to King’s Abbot in Devon, hoping to grow vegetable marrows and stay out of the limelight. His friend, Captain Hastings is in the Argentine so it falls to Dr Sheppard to act as Poirot’s sidekick and to ask the questions we want answered.

No spoilers here. But the ending has the requisite clever twist.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie in 1925

Born in Torquay in 1890, Agatha Christie has probably sold more novels than any other writer – 2bn copies. She lived in interesting times. She met and married her husband in 1914. He went off to the war in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and she signed up as a VAD nurse. After the war she continued her reading and writing, and in the year that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published she disappeared for six days. Her marriage was in difficulties. Divorced in 1928, she got remarried 2 years later to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan. Already familiar with Cairo she frequently accompanied him on his expeditions. Egypt and the Middle East form the background to many of her novels. During the Second World War she worked in a pharmacy in London. She lived until 1976, aged 85.

She had written 66 detective novels and 14 collections of short stories. They have, of course, been adapted for tv and film.

Greenway House in Devon was Agatha Christie’s holiday home, and it was from here that Allen Lane was travelling when he had the idea for Penguin paperbacks. Greenway House is now a National Trust property.

My reflections

It’s a very long time since I read a detective novel, and it was interesting to notice the plotting. Although I enjoyed reading this classic murder-mystery it has not converted me to an enthusiasm for the genre.

As a historical artefact it was interesting. It is set in the 1920s, when vacuum cleaners were a new fangled idea, but the novel celebrates continuity of the village community in rural England. John Major’s vicar’s wives are cycling past warm beer on the village green in the background. It’s not like that now, and I wonder how much was disappearing even then. The decades have brought changes here in rural Devon just as surely as in New York and Nebraska (the locations of the two previous novels in this series).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. First published in 1926. I read the Penguin 1948 edition, a gift from my sister. 250pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Reading passport 315

Previous posts in the Project

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1930s

I plan to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) for April’s choice. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

Being a Nice Book Blogger

Recently some corners of the book blogging world have been in turmoil. It seems that some authors have objected to the critical comments in on-line reviews. They especially minded if they provided the copy for review. Abusive comments were sent. Trolling occurred.

This is not the first time book bloggers have been in trouble. In 2012 the Man Booker Prize head judge Peter Stothard complained that book bloggers are harming literature. I think this argument has about as many legs as those who say that comics prevent children from developing good reading habits, texting damages spelling, Kindle will kill off ‘real’ books and so on. There is space for book bloggers alongside the more traditional literary criticism.

Do bloggers have to be nice?

I think two principles can collide in book reviewing on-line. The blogger should be respectful, not take opportunities to be negatively critical, offensive or rude. But there is also a human obligation to the truth, and let’s face it some books are disappointing, challenging to finish when the writer has not made you interested in the characters; when the book is distractingly littered with typos, spelling and grammar mistakes.

The blogger has no obligation to write an endorsement for an author who has provided a book. They do have an obligation to their readers to declare the source of the book if it was not from their own stock. Some editors appear to think that bloggers owe them something. Here’s a link to Spiritblog who wonders if an angry editor knew what book bloggers can and do do to promote books.

And despite a recent flurry remember that book bloggers are readers, or as the hashtag has it #Bloggersarerealpeople. Margaret Madden wrote a piece for the Irish Times in February 2017 about some nasty goings on in the book club world: Book Bloggers are Real People.

Do authors have to be nice?

Well, authors don’t have to be nice, but they should not be not nice, not troll bloggers who don’t want to review their books or judge their books unfavourably. The blogger and tweeter Terry Tyler posted on Rosie Amber’s blog some advice to writers: Bookblogger bashing: in the end you’re hurting yourself.

On Bookword

Bookshop at the British Museum 2016

As a reader of many, many books I have to select what to review on my blog. Some books I read don’t get reviewed because they don’t fit the profile of the blog: Mark Doty’s memoir Dog Years was a fascinating book that made me cry, about animals and death, but not in the genres that I have lead my readers to expect. Most of the books I review are fiction, but not all.

I don’t always agree to review books I am offered. This may be because they are only available on-line, or because they don’t interest me. Some books I read aren’t included on my blog because they are not special enough. There are too many great books out there to waste readers’ time on mediocrity. (Yes, I’m a book snob.)

I can’t see that anything productive would come from making negative comments, except if I am exposing stereotypes, as in the series on older women in fiction. If a book does not do justice to an older woman, drawing on the sweet, eccentric image I say so. There are only a couple of those.

And reading would be bland if everything I reviewed I said was lovely. And I try to add more detail than a simple recommendation: excellent characterization, nuanced examination of tricky subjects, imaginative plotline, and so on.

 

A place for Blog Reviews?

In answer to the criticisms by Peter Stothard that book bloggers are harming literature, John Self provided a spirited defence in an article called Why book bloggers are critical to literary criticism in September 2012.

I value the editorial processes that ensure standards in literary journals. But bloggers are readers too, and I like nothing more than to be told someone enjoyed reading a book I recommended. Furthermore, as women writers are so badly represented in literary reviews (both as reviewers and as novel writers), bloggers have an opportunity to shift the balance a bit, including many male bloggers.

So I argue that there is a place for professional reviews and for bloggers’ reviews and I will continue to select my reading choices from the reviewers I have come to trust on blogs and from literary publications.

Book-bloggers are readers.

Over to you! Any reactions to these comments?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

19 Comments

Filed under Books, Reviews

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s a fresh and startling, joyous and playful collection of short stories from Helen Oyeyemi. The ideas spill out, teeming onto the page so that the reader is swept along from the opening of a story to its destination, which might appear to be unconnected. And suddenly you meet a character from another story, or an idea that rocks you backwards and you have to slow down your reading. It was a delightful experience to read What is Not Yours is Not Yours.

The Short Stories

‘Bigarrure’ is a word found on p184 of these stories, defined as ‘a medley of sundry colours running together’. I was so unsettled by Helen Oyeyemi’s creativity that I wasn’t sure if the word existed and had to look it up. It does exist. And it does mean variegation or colourful mixture. And it’s a good word to use about this writer’s style: bigarrure.

As a reader you are entering uncertain territory with this collection. You are given very little guidance. Nothing on the cover or the title page announces that this is a book of short stories. There is no contents page. The nine stories (or perhaps there are 10, it’s not clear) announce themselves by their titles. This is just the beginning. The character who appears to be central turns out to be a minor player. Little indication is given of the gender of first person narrators, or indeed their ethnicity, there are few descriptions of people’s appearnaces. Locations shift. Time is unstable. The reader senses misdirection.

She is an accomplished an experienced author, so one has to accept that Helen Oyeyemi means to unsettle and challenge the reader. So you thought this, she seems to be saying, but that was not what I told you. You assumed.

The stories have some connections. Their locations vary, and are not always clear. Sometimes we are in Prague, sometimes in a fictional country, sometimes in a country that could be part of the UK. But characters reappear, often as narrator, sometimes in walk–on parts. And in every story there is a key, usually locked doors, and therefore secrets and things lost.

The genres of the stories vary, even within a story. The first one, books and roses, begins with a foundling and takes on the characteristics of a fairy story, shifts to a surrealism worthy of Leonora Carrington, then to a love story and in parts is made of letters and notes.

The collection includes a truly awful story, drownings, which begins

This happened and it didn’t happen: (125)

The story is about a tyrant who drowns people on a whim. He has drowned many, many of the citizens in the marshes.

… the marshland stretched out further and further, slowly pulling houses and cinemas, greengrocers, restaurants and concert halls down into the water. If you looked down into the swamps (which he never did) it was possible to see people untangling their limbs and hair, courteously handing each other body parts and keys, resuming residence in their homes, working out what crops they might raise and which forms of energy they could harness. (140-1)

Things work out, in a fashion, in drownings.

Yet more unsettling is presence, a strange tale about loss, and especially the loss of what you never had. An experiment is conducted by two psychologists to conjure up the son who never was.

There are puppets, a public tale of apology through social media, and other stories where ideas seem to pour out of Helen Oyeyemi’s pen.

My reactions

I was excited to read this book. It took me to places I was not expecting, shifting my understanding of the stories, doubling back and leaping to new locations or situations. For once I found the blurb quotations were accurate: strange delights, startling, dazzling, fireworks, disorientating, gothic, captivating. Like life really.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi

No review of her work avoids saying that Helen Oyeyemi is young, female and black. Born in 1984 she made a name for herself with prize-winning novels even before she left school. The titles of her novels indicate her love of oppositional ideas:

  • The Icarus Girl (2005)
  • The Opposite House (2007)
  • White is for Witching (2009)
  • Mr Fox (2011)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

A little digging reveals that she is a peripatetic writer, born in Nigeria, brought up in London, studied at Cambridge, had a university residency in America, and is currently living in Prague, perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Related Posts

Lonesome Reader blog reviewed What is Not Yours is not Yours when it was first published in April 2016.

As did Stuart Evers in the Independent in March 2016.

What is Not Yours is not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi published in 2016 and available in paperback from Picador. 262pp

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories