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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

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

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

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

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

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

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

Rosemary Sutcliff

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

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

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

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

Why I like the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

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

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

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

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

Film

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

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

Over to you

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

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God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

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

The Story

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

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

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

The novel’s strengths

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

The judges of the International Dublin Literary Award commented:

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

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

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

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

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

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

My trip to Yorkshire

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

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

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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

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

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

The novel The Grass is Singing

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Decades Project

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

Previous posts in the Project

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

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

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1960s

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

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Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Loneliness in old age. It’s the biggest killer. In Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf Addie Moore has an idea about how to deal with her loneliness, especially at night when it hurts most. She approaches an acquaintance, Louis Waters with her unusual proposition and they begin a friendship with unexpected consequences for them both. They are both are over 70, widowed and living in the same area in their small American town, Holt Colorado.

Our Souls at Night is the 27th in my series on Older Women in Fiction. Thank you to my friend Sarah for the suggestion.

The story

Addie proposes to Louis that they could spend time together, at night, in bed, talking and sleeping and perhaps cuddling. Their relationship attracts gossip and assumptions but they continue. Addie’s grandson, Jamie, comes to live with her over the summer while his parents sort out their marriage. For a while this disrupts the new friendship, but Louis and Jamie get on well and especially after they acquire Bonny the dog. The relationship of the two old people unfolds as they talk more, explore their past, their marriages, their children and their regrets. And as they share the care of boy and dog.

Both Addie and Louis must deal with the disapproval of their adult children. After he has collected his son and plans to re-establish his own marriage, Addie’s son Gene continues to react badly to his mother’s friendship. He forbids them to see each other, and will not allow Addie to be with Jamie unless she complies.

Although they no longer share physical closeness, they continue to talk on the phone. What is left is the warmth and pleasure that their relationship has given them.

It’s a story about love and friendship: about love between children, grandchildren, animals in older life. It is also about how people react to the intimacy of others, mostly of older people, although Louis and Addie don’t have sex.

The Old Woman

Both main characters, Louis and Addie, are fully realised in this novel, but for the purposes of the older woman in fiction series I am focusing here on Addie. Here is how Louis sees her when she makes the bold step of proposing sleepovers.

He was watching her. She was a good-looking woman, he had always thought so. She’d had dark hair when she was younger, but it was white now and cut short. She was still shapely, only a little heavy at the waist and hips (4)

Addie refuses to be cowed by the small town gossip. She believes that her arrangement with Louis is their own business and she does not mind if people know about it. On his first night’s visit, Louis tries to be discrete and use her back door.

What are you doing back here? Addie said.

I thought it would be less likely for people to see me.

I don’t care about that. They’ll know. Someone will see. Come by the front door out on the front sidewalk. I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long – all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore. The alley makes it seem we’re doing something wrong or something disgraceful, to be ashamed of. (9)

Weeks later, they reflect upon how they are no longer news for their neighbours. She says to Louis,

Do you want to be news?

No. Hell. I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.

Well, that’s what we’re doing. Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

This is a positive view of old age: ‘not finished with changes and excitement’ and ‘not all dried up in body and spirit’.

Much of the narration of the novel concerns their nocturnal conversations, and how they learn about each other’s lives. Addie is especially good at making sense of what has happened in the past.

Like any woman she has had her difficulties in life, especially the outcomes of the death of her daughter as a child and later of her husband. Her son is a casualty of these events, and is unable to understand her position. When he confronts his mother Gene uses words like ‘ashamed’, ‘approval’, ‘sneaking over’ and ‘meeting in the dark’. And all this being done by ‘people your age.’

The only weakness in the portrayal of Addie is her lack of other friends. A woman of her sense and age is likely to have a developed a network of women she could call upon. She seems only to be friends with one older woman Ruth, who lives nearby.

The writing

This was Kent Haruf’s last novel. He died in 2014. His other novels are on my tbr list, and highly recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who says in her review:

I don’t think there is a false word in Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter 2016, p213)

It is not a long novel, and the story is told in 43 very short chapters, each one begins by locating us in time. Their brief story (from May until the following winter) is tightly plotted. The writing style here is spare, un-dramatic, simple, even in tone. There are no speech marks to interrupt our reading. The language is simple and does not pause to explain. In the extracts quoted above there are few words longer than two syllables. We learn people’s reactions from what they do and what they say.

Ursula Le Guin again:

Writing about the everyday is a tough job. … So the light comes on in the bedroom on Cedar Street in Holt, Colorado. And a happiness is very cautiously, courageously, tenderly achieved. Not however in the way we might expect, but on quite complex terms, involving quite a few of the older citizens of Holt. Perhaps happiness is less predictable than misery, since it partakes of freedom, and it can’t be forever. But it can be real, and in this beautiful novel, we can share it. (Words are my Matter p233/5)

In tis brief novel we learn the value of relationships, of the talk that develops them and of the family and community influences upon them. A gem!

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Picador (2015) 180 pp

The next novel in this series will be The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim in July.

Over to you

Have you read Our Souls at Night? Or other novels by Kent Haruf? How did you react? Did you know that a film has been made of Our Souls at Night, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford but with no date set for release yet? Can you suggest any additions to the older women in fiction series?

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The cover of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is outstanding. I would probably have read it because of the cover alone. But last year The Essex Serpent and its cover took Twitter by storm. And it has been the centre of attention since as it racked up the awards:

  • Waterstones Book of the Year 2016
  • Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award
  • Long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize
  • Long-listed for the Wellcome Book Prize
  • Long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize
  • British Book Awards Fiction Book and overall Book of the Year in May 2017.

And it is now out in paperback.

The Story

The story is set in London and Essex, of course, in 1893, and spans twelve months. We begin as Cora Seabourne is widowed. The marriage has been abusive, so there is relief as well as grief. In his last days he had been attended by the brilliant surgeon, Luke Garrett. Nicknamed The Imp for his unusual appearance, Luke has few social skills, few friends, but total confidence in his medical abilities and falls for Cora.

Cora also has a son of about 7. Francis is also distant, and perhaps has a compulsive obsessive disorder. His main support is Martha, Cora’s companion.

Cora inherits enough money for an independent life, and she decides to follow Mary Anning in pursuit of palaeontology, but in Essex rather than Dorset. This is the era when religious faith was challenged by Darwin’s ideas. In the Essex village of Aldwinter the vicar, William Ransome, is struggling with a population who believe that strange goings-on are God’s punishment for their failings. There is a belief in an Essex Serpent, who lives in Blackwater Estuary, in the liminal space between river and sea. There are reports of strange sightings, unexplained disappearances, sickness and dark shapes in the water …

Cora and William are attracted to each other by their lively interest in the world and explanations of how life is. Their story runs alongside the unravelling of the mysteries of the Serpent.

A gothic style?

Genre is not my strong point, but I have frequently read that The Essex Serpent is gothic and it does have a dark mystery or two and an unseen monster, and many characters, many of whom don’t fit well into Victorian society, odd balls, radicals, misfits, and a beautiful woman wracked with TB.

The mysterious, mythical and malign Essex Serpent is attractive to many of the people in the novel, being in some cases the receptacle of their fears. The characters are suitably complex, not sure what they want or believe, or able to dispense with alternative beliefs that contradict each other.

Not everything works out as one might expect. For example, marriage is not considered by Cora or Martha as the next desirable step in life. Martha has socialist ideas, and sees marriage as a form of prison. Cora is enjoying an unconventional life allowed by independence in widowhood.

And sexual love, while present, is not the main motivation of the various relationships in this novel. Rather, friendship between men, women, adults and children is the most positive force, along with a sense of community.

This novel has a great deal to do with rationalism and superstition. While they are in opposition some of the time, it is also clear that they are not exclusive, and one human can entertain both simultaneously.

What I liked about The Essex Serpent

The cover, designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris.

The rich cast of characters, some rural and some enjoying the privileges of Victorian wealth. It must have been an exciting time for medicine, geology, palaeontology and socialist ideas.

I love it that the women in this novel are not sweet and swoony.

I liked the way that life moved through these people and left them with more understanding.

And I enjoyed the setting: the landscape of coastal Essex, the estuary, the natural life, the sounds and sights that unfold throughout the year. Essex is an underrated county. Here we are in June as Cora takes a walk:

Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges. (230)

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

 

Related posts

Booksnob reviewed The Essex Serpent in July 2016. She had some criticisms of the sub-plotting, but generally thought it was a marvellous read.

Helen Parry reviewing for ShinyNewBooks was similarly enthusiastic.

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Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer

The reality of crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat, putting your life in the hands of the smugglers, evading the barriers that Europe has set up to keep you out, the cost to your spirit as well as your savings, the anxiety of your family as they wait for news – these things are exposed in an important piece of journalism undertaken by a German reporter.

Crossing the Sea by Wolfgang Bauer is a story of anticipation, fear, boredom, trust, doubt, more fear and possible death. The journey is so terrible it can only be undertaken because of the even worse situation from which people are fleeing. This is the truth of the movement of peoples, and especially those who have been displaced by Syria’s on-going civil war.

The journey

Wolfgang Bauer is a reporter with the German periodical Die Zeit, and together with photographer Stanislav Krupar, they arranged to travel with Syrian refugees from Cairo to Europe, to gain entry through Italy. They disguised themselves as Syrians, and travelled with Amar who acted as interpreter for them as well as being the subject of the story they wanted to tell. The account in Die Zeit won the Prix Bayeux-Calvados for War Correspondents for Wolfgang Bauer, the second time he has won that award.

The two men experienced all the delays, scams, being held hostage, extortion, cruelty, days of inactivity and so forth that is the life of the refugee trying to cross the Mediterranean. Writing about the situation in April 2014, Bauer explains the business of smuggling.

In Egypt, people smuggling has a structure not dissimilar to the tourism industry. Sales points with ‘agents’ are spread throughout the country. These agents assure their customers that they work with only the best smugglers, when in reality they have contracts with just a few. The crossing costs around three thousand dollars. Cheaper and more expensive services are available, but ultimately all travel classes end up in the same boat. The agent receives a commission of about three hundred dollars. This is kept by a middleman until the passenger’s safe arrival in Italy. The sales agents – well most of them – care about their reputation. Their livelihood depends on recommendations from people they have successfully helped across the water. (18)

The two journalists and Amar find an agent, and after many days of waiting, they do get on a boat, but almost immediately are pushed overboard by the smugglers onto Nelson Island near the Alexandrian port and are arrested along with the rest of their group. Being foreign nationals they are deported to Europe, ironically making quick and easy passage into that part of the world their group was trying to reach.

Other journeys

The rest of the book follows other members of the group as they continue to try to cross into Europe. Some have family to join in Sweden. Amar, their main contact point, spends days, weeks, months waiting and considering the schemes of various agents and trying a few. Eventually he succeeds by a long and expensive trip that takes him via Tanzania and Zambia into Europe. In the English edition we find that his family have been able to join him legally.

Two brothers, Alaa and Hussan, set out again on the journey by boat, or rather, by more than one boat. The deal-making between smugglers’ organisations and the captains, continues. Even the passengers join in to influence with more money the delays and shortages of supplies they experience as they make their dangerous, slow and erratic crossing. They are rescued as their boat is beginning to collapse and they are worried about why they are not near the Italian coast. They are saved by the Italian Navy, who happen to be in the area because they were fishing survivors and bodies out of the water the previous day, casualties of another voyage gone badly wrong. This account is gripping as it illustrates what can happen day by day to the people on the boats.

Written in a direct style, with the experiences of different people vividly retold, enhanced by Stanislav Krupar’s photographs, our understanding is deepened of how driven these people are. Bauer also includes a passionate indictment of EU policy towards migrants and of inactivity in the war in Syria. ‘Have mercy’ he concludes.

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe via WikiCommons

More and more journeys

More and more people are crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, and European countries are making more and more efforts to keep them out. Because of the illegal nature of the journey accuracy in statistics is hard to gauge. But what we do know is startling enough.

In 2016 362,753 people are known to have made the voyage – which is about 1000 every day, although some days, of course, are less suitable for the journey than others. 55,374 people have made the crossing so far in 2017. Among all refugees to Europe last year (not all by sea) 100,00 were children, and of these 33,000 were unaccompanied. Most of the unaccompanied children were male.

Yesterday, drawing by a 18 years old Syrian boy, currently living in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp, Lesbos Island, Greece. 6th April 2017 Polviak via WikiCommons

Between January and 16th May 2017 an estimated 1364 people have died or gone missing as they made the attempt to cross. One person in every 35 who crosses from Libya to Italy has perished.

5 million people have fled from Syria since the war began in 2011. There are many other countries from which people are fleeing.

I have taken these figures from the data portal of the UNHCR.

I have reviewed several accounts of crossings and movements of peoples in this series of posts. It amazes me that European countries cannot find better solutions to this unstoppable movement of peoples.

Read it

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

Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

A note on the publisher: And Other Stories is a Community Interest Company with a not for profit ethic. They publish literary works supported in part by subscriptions. Find out more at their website here.

My walk and challenge.

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

At the time of my final walk I have 91% of my target, need just £141.67 to reach it without gift aid. With gift aid I have already exceeded it, and have raised £1779.58. Donations are still acceptable.

May walk

Dawlish, Devon

For this walk I returned to the sea, taking the coast path from Dawlish Warren passed Dawlish on the south Devon Coast and back. The sea is a theme in this and other posts in the challenge series. The sea promises much and promotes thoughtfulness, this day of the Manchester bombing that had just taken place. My train journeys to London pass this way. It can also be dangerous. The railway line here was undermined by the sea in the winter storms of 2013/14. And the coast is still being reinforced. At Dawlish Warren there were more hard hats than sun hats. This walk was about 9 km (5.7 miles).

Dawlish Warren

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

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

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

Lost and Found, the first walk in September 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

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

… in June

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The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

This novella, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, begins in the parched landscape of a Middle Eastern country, or perhaps of Afghanistan, in the shadow of mountains. A family is struggling to make a living from the orange grove, against the harshness of the climate. Then the grandparents’ house is bombed from over the mountains, and the way is open for revenge and the gradual destruction of the survivors of the family.

The novella

The Orange Grove was written by a Canadian writer, who is also a theatre director and actor. It was translated from the French by Sheila Fischman and published by Peirene Press in the East and West Series.

Larry Tremblay seems to invite the reader to share his struggle to understand participation in war and violence. The novella concludes in a North American city, where a theatre teacher, Michael, is staging a play about war and violence. Among his student actors is Aziz, a twin, now twenty, who grew up alongside the orange grove. Michael and Aziz struggle to find the ending for the play that will reflect something of the reality of the experience of violence and of Aziz’s experiences in particular, and the reality of its aftermath.

He [Michael] was asking himself the same questions about evil. It was too easy to accuse those who committed war crimes of being assassins or wild beasts. Especially when those who judged them lived far from the circumstances that had provoked the conflicts, whose origins were lost in the vortex of history. What would he have done in a comparable situation? Would he, like millions of other men, have been capable of fighting for an idea, a scrap of earth, a border, or even oil? Would he, too, have been conditioned to kill innocents, women and children? Or would he have had the courage, even if it meant risking his own life, to refuse the order to shoot down defenceless people in a burst of gunfire? (120)

The story of the twins, Aziz and Ahmed, attempts to bring us closer to such circumstances from which families were unable to escape. The father and grandfather of the twins tend the orange grove. One night the grandparents’ house is bombed and they are killed. Soulayed arrives preaching revenge, and demands that one of the twins is prepared by his father for a suicide mission on a base on the other side of the mountain. Ahmed is chosen. But Aziz has a terminal disease and their mother asks Ahmed to allow Aziz to die in his place.

The novella follows what happens after one twin leaves with the suicide belt to cross the mountain and how eventually the other twin goes to North America. He decides to become an actor, hearing so many voices in his head. Through his difficulties in helping Michael conclude his play he retells his experiences of the aftermath and dilemmas he and his family faced, especially when the truth about the target of the mission was revealed.

He addresses the audience at the end of the play.

‘No, you don’t need to have a reason or even to have right on your side to do what you think you must do. Don’t look elsewhere for what is already within you. Who am I to think in your place? My clothes are dirty and torn, and my heart is shattered like a pebble. I cry tears that tear at my face. But as you can hear, my voice is calm. Better still, I have a peaceful voice. I am speaking to you in a voice that is seven years old, nine years old, twenty years old, a thousand years old. Do you hear me?’ (138)

You cannot fail to be moved by this story. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press publisher, said ‘this story made me cry. … This story reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’. We cannot fully understand individual experiences of the horrors of the world. But we can hear. And we can know that all refugees begin by being forced to leave their homeland, through violence, often committed for revenge or to create unrest and more violence. A thousand stories, not all ending well. Not all heard.

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay (2013 in French, 2015 in English) Peirene Press 2017. 138pp

Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman

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The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland by John Lewis-Stempel

I experienced so much pleasure reading The Running Hare that I told my grandsons about it (8 and 5 years old). It made sense to them too. The book is a mixture love, etymology, naturalism, polemic, folklore, birds, arable farming and historic writing, including one of the English poets I love most: John Clare. And hares.

The author, John Lewis-Stempel, is a farmer and a writer. He says in the preface,

Now that I look back, I see that I have written with some anger. …

Where our friend lived was beautiful, but as life-full as a cemetery. Someone had removed the birds from the farmland all around her. For hundred and hundreds of square miles around her.

The Farmer is to blame. The Supermarket too. And let us not forget the Politician, and the Consumer. Let us not omit Me, or You.

Really I just want the birds back. (11)

I would say that this book is delightful and important and angry.

What’s it about?

The book is an account of one year in the life of a field, and what happened when it was farmed in the old-fashioned way. The account takes John Lewis-Stempel down many byways as he explores the origins of words, his recollection of farming in his youth, what 19th Century writers described about the countryside, a visit to John Clare’s village, the corn dollies, local churches and information about birds, flowers, bees and hares.

Piers [Plowman] ploughed in order to ameliorate society’s evil. Why don’t I take a modern, conventionally farmed arable field, plough it and husband it in the old-fashioned, chemical-free way and make it into a traditional wheatfield? Bring back the flowers that have all but disappeared from British ploughlands, such as corncockle, Venus’s looking glass, shepherd’s needle, corn marigold and the cornflower, with its bloom as brilliant as June sky? And the birds and animals that loved such land – grey partridges, quail, harvest mice.

And hares. Could I entice in a hare? (17)

And he does. He finds a field, Flinders, close to his own farm in Herefordshire, and takes out a short tenancy on it. He proceeds to plough and sow and harvest in the old ways, and to watch the variety of birds and animals, butterflies and bees, return. And there are hares.

Some problems

  • The weather.
  • The farm next to the field, quickly nicknamed the Chemical Brothers, who use chemical methods that sometimes spread in the wind.
  • The previous neglect of the field.
  • Equipment failure or inadequacy.
  • Predators: foxes, sparrowhawks and kestrels.

Some pleasures

The physical pleasures of ploughing.

The experience of Flinders from the perspective of a small animal. On the eve of cutting the wheat, in late August, the author lies down.

… so I might know the world in which the hares and the red-legs [partridges] live.

My God: the terror and the beauty.

The robin in the hedge begins a wistful song. …

The docks in the field margin are rusting; chains of bryony, Tic-Tac orange and lime green, are tying up the hedges, there are insistent wasps on the flowers of the ivy, and daddy-long-legs are puppets on invisible strings. The evening swirl of swifts has become thick and black, because the young birds have joined in.

Summer is past its peak. (218)

The pleasures include watching the lives of birds and animals in the field, and the return of the wild flowers as they bloom and shed seeds, even getting stranded without a torch in the woods at night.

And the pleasures also include learning the old techniques, like sowing broadcast.

Outcomes

Albrecht Durer. Hare

He got his wheatfield, without chemical pollution, and the birds returned along with the wild flowers. And there were hares.

And there were even economic gains: savings of £30 a ton on animal feed, for which he used the harvest.

And uncountable gains from saving flora and fauna.

One field, just one field, made a difference.

If we had a thousand fields … (288)

My reactions

Part of the pleasure from reading The Running Hare came from a familiarity with the area. I grew up in what was then called Monmouthshire neighbouring Herefordshire. The world of his childhood was familiar. I realise with horror, how much has disappeared. I only turned away for 40 years. I don’t recall any hares (plenty of dead and dying rabbits), but I have seen them since in the Black Mountains and in Cumbria.

And now I have returned to the countryside, and find special pleasure in the wild flowers, the birds, the landscape. Reading this book I renew my sense that it is precious, and may be in mortal danger.

Or perhaps not. Here’s how John Lewis-Stempel ends the book.

I drove past Flinders recently, so I turned on the Land Rover’s headlights.

There were still hares there. Running. Dancing. (295)

The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland by John Lewis-Stempel (2016). Paperback edition by Black Swan. 314pp

Illustrations by Micaela Alcaino.

I first heard of this book when it was read by Bernard Hill on Radio 4 in October 2016. No longer available on the iplayer, but a recording can be purchased.

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They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

The title of this novel implies something unsaid: They were sisters … but they were so different, … they never knew, … you wouldn’t know it. Dorothy Whipple’s novel takes the first idea, they were so different, but also emphasises the family connections between them, their contrasting marriages and the influence of the sisters on each other’s lives.

The novel is set in the 1930s, as war was approaching. She wrote it during the first years of the war, and it was published in 1943. The publisher was concerned about the length of the book in times of shortage of paper. But her readers enjoyed the setting in the years before the war. Persephone Books has republished many of Dorothy Whipple’s novels and I used their lovely edition for this post. I have reached the 1940s in the Decades Project.

The Story

The sisters come from a large family of three brothers and three sisters. The two older brothers are despatched early on, and the youngest brother only reappears at a funeral. Dorothy Whipple wants to focus on the three sisters: Lucy, Charlotte and Vera.

Lucy is the oldest, who on their mother’s early death takes on the responsibility of bringing up the other two girls, giving up her place at university. In time the three girls get married. Charlotte’s husband is a practical joker turned bully. His youthful larks lead the older brothers to drink, very bad behaviour and their banishment to the colonies. Geoffrey’s behaviour to his wife and three children is abusive. Over time Charlotte takes the line of least resistance, drinks, takes drugs and eventually dies young and broken. They have three children: Margaret, who becomes her father’s favourite, which is a bit yucky. Stephen runs away at 16 and Judith who is her aunt’s favourite and rather ignored by parents, finds an eventual escape.

Vera, the second sister, is a stunning beauty and always has people doing things for her. She chooses a steady, decent man to marry who she thinks she can count on to provide her with the money and tolerance she wants. As their marriage weakens she proceeds to ignore him, and her two children Sarah and Meriel. When Brian has had enough he goes to America and she has to live on much less money, and on her fading looks.

Lucy marries a slightly awkward older man, but he has respect for her and down to earth opinions. She tries to rescue her sisters, but in the end rescues their daughters.

The action takes place over 20+ years, and covers all three sisters and their families. Sometimes there are jumps of a year or more in the narrative. At each crisis Lucy dashes to help, to provide guidance to the children, while the other sister is too immersed in her own life to offer help.

Dorothy Whipple

Although the approaching war barely intrudes upon this novel Lucy represents a version of what was worth fighting for: decency, doing things for others, helping those you love, providing assistance to the needy. She has a Christian faith to support this, although this is not a prominent theme.

The two monsters of the novel together with the many weak characters represent dangers to this simple morality. Geoffrey is hideously cruel, have himself been ignored and abandoned in his childhood. The episode with the dog is heart breaking. His mastery over his family reminds us of the power that men and fathers wielded even into the post-war years. His behaviour can be represented to the world as for the good of the family, although Dorothy Whipple makes it clear that he only thinks of himself.

Dorothy Whipple

The other monster is Vera, who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in her young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Lucy and, through her influence, two of her nieces counter these examples of selfishness. She has no children of her own, but provides guidance for her sisters, who cannot follow it, and for the next generation who can. This is the final paragraph of the novel:

Her sisters had been like two fair ships with no hand on the wheel; one had foundered and gone down, the other was racing before the wind, headed for disaster. Lucy, grieving that she had not been able to help or save them, never thought – she had no idea – that she herself had been the beacon to bring their children to harbour. (445)

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, first published in 1943. I used the Persephone edition from 2015. It has an excellent Afterword by Celia Brayfield. 455pp

A film was made of They Were Sisters in 1945, starring James Mason as Geoffrey, Phyllis Calvert as Lucy, Anne Crawford as Vera and Dulcie Gray as Charlotte.

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

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: 1950s

I have not yet decided what to read from the 1950s in June. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1960s and 1970s.

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The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

Quirky, spirited, screwball, all words used to describe The Portable Veblen, the second novel by Elizabeth McKenzie, an American writer. The book was inventive enough to catch the notice of the judges of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, who placed it on their shortlist. The title is arresting and the novel includes a wicked example of what we used to call the military-industrial complex, a pair of lovers and their dysfunctional families, and a squirrel.

The story

There are three Veblens in this novel: Veblen is a Latin word for squirrel; the philosopher and economist, Thorstein Veblen, who was of Norwegian origin. He invented the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’. The third Veblen is a young woman, who for reasons that quickly become apparent, hides herself from many social challenges. She works as a temp, and for fun she is learning Norwegian and translating the works of her famous namesake.

The story begins in Palo Alto, California, when Paul Vreeland proposes to Veblen. He is a medical researcher, who is developing a drill to help brain-injured servicemen in the field. She is a temp at the hospital.

And what was her response to his proposal?

Her body quickened, like a tree in the wind. Later, she would remember a filament that passed through her, of being glad she had provided him with happiness, but not really sure how she felt herself.

‘Yes?’ the man said.

The squirrel emitted a screech.

‘Is that a yes? Paul asked.

She managed to say it. Yes. Two human forms became as one, as they advanced to the sidewalk, the route to the cottage on Tasso Street.

Behind them, the squirrel made a few sharp sounds, as if to say he had significant doubts. As if to say, and she couldn’t help translating it in this way: There is a terrible alchemy coming. (4)

This extract illustrates three themes of the story. First, Veblen has been trained to smooth the way for others, ensure they are happy; second she is not in touch with her own feelings; and third, the squirrel comments and provides both Veblen and the reader with judgements about events. Like the squirrel, the reader wants to say – don’t do it!

Both lovers come from very difficult families. Their attitudes and responses to others have been formed in childhood. The narrative is driven by the approaching wedding and marriage, and by Paul’s attempt to conduct his trials and the compromises he must make and are made on his behalf by the pharma company who pay for his research. Sinister events land him in hospital when he finds that his ambitions have led to compromises to the ethics of his research. Fortunately the big pharma executive gets her comeuppance in a very satisfactory way.

The writing

The first few chapters delighted me with their lightness of touch and the possibilities of the emerging story. The squirrel’s activities provide an amusing reflection on the couple’s different attitudes to squirrels, the natural world and to their forthcoming marriage.

Veblen talks to squirrels, has done since her troubled childhood. As she becomes more troubled by her approaching wedding she address him more and more frequently and finally takes him on a road trip to visit her father.

The best creation in the novel is Veblen’s hypochondriac mother Melanie. One reviewer (Scarlett Thomas) suggests she is worthy of Dickens, and Melanie is indeed an extravagant character. When Paul is taken to meet her the reader sees why Veblen is unable to push herself forward in conventional ways and seeks to please and appease people she cares for.

Cloris Hutmacher is another rich character, something of a caricature. She exploits the world and everybody in it to her advantage through her family’s company. She entraps Paul and his cranial device and precipitates the climax of the plot.

What I liked

Elizabeth McKenzie is delightfully creative. I enjoyed the squirrel, although as a narrative device he could be irritating.

A western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus) by Aaron Jacobs, November 2005 via WikiCommons

Veblen’s anxieties about losing her independence and adjusting to another person in her life were a theme that was well developed through this novel. This extract gets to the heart of Veblen’s coping strategies. Veblen finds herself uninterested in her wedding and with self-searching to do.

Until this engagement, Veblen thought she knew what she was about. By thirty, she had managed to put away the simmering loneliness of childhood, finding relief in things outside herself, such as in skilfully tending family members who were scattered and needy, and becoming a secret expert on the life of Thorstein Veblen. To ward off uneasy feelings that crept in at unguarded moments, she’d drawn upon a wide range of materials and activities, keeping up with all major periodicals of the day, typing along to Norwegian films, clipping interesting pictures from magazines for some future project, taking brisk bike rides. And then came Paul and the whole enterprise of their future. Escapist feelings at this point showed a serious breakdown in self-discipline. And strangest of all, right at the moment she should be happiest. (219)

It’s about love, and families and written with great verve and quirkiness. The quirkiness reminded me of Where’d you go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple (2012), also shortlisted for the Baileys Prize (in 2013). I enjoyed The Portable Veblen less as it went on, but some bits were very funny indeed.

But why are there three different covers for the novel, this one for the American edition.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie 4th Estate (2016) 422pp

Over to you

The New York Times reviewer thought highly of it, describing it as ‘a novel of festive originality that it would be a shame to miss’.

Have you read it? Any thoughts to add?

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