Monthly Archives: August 2018

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk took me several weeks to read. It was a slow read. But I persevered because it was my choice for August in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. In addition it won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. And August is also celebrated as #womenintranslation month on twitter and several blogs.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk Translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish.

Reading Flights

It is not easy to read a book that does not follow a single line, does not build plot and characters through one scene following another. This novel resists linearity. It is a collection of 116 vignettes, some fictional, some nonfiction, some no more than notes or ‘philosophical riffs’ (Adam Mars-Jones in LRB).

Olga Tokarczuk told the New York Times:

I realized that we don’t travel in such a linear way anymore but rather jump from one point to another and back again. So I got this idea for a ‘constellation’ novel recounting experiences that were separate from each other but could still be connected on different psychological, physical and political levels. (From Olga Tokarczuk’s Book ‘Flights’ is Taking Off, New York Times, August 2018)

Since completing the book a few days ago I have puzzled about how to write this post. I read many reviews, mostly from literary pages. I have come to see that it is an intelligent, rich and rewarding experience, in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian).

The title in Polish is Bieguni, for which Flights is not an exact translation. Rather the Polish title might be closer to wandering or wanderers, or even refer to a sect, possibly mythical. A member makes a memorable appearance in a story set in Moscow, traversing the city endlessly on the metro.

The themes with which Flights is concerned are travel and the human body. The novel has been described as a constellation of stories, and although several reviews indicated a similarity with WG Sebald, this lack of linearity distinguishes them. (They may also be referring to the illustrations included but not explained or referred to in the text, something one also finds in Sebald’s novels.)

I especially enjoyed the passages where the unnamed sort-of narrator muses on experiences, such as what happens to time, and the body’s experience of time.

IRKUTSK – MOSCOW

Flight from Irkutsk to Moscow. It takes off at 8 am and lands in Moscow at the same time – at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, which means that the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself.

So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it. (232)

The stories, like journeys, begin and are left without warning. Some reappear. A woman and child go missing for 72 hours on holiday on a Croatian island. Her husband is eaten up by what they did when they were away from him and he is unable to accept his wife’s explanation. There are rough living Muscovites, including a woman who is escaping from her caring responsibilities for her disabled son; the history of some seventeenth century dissectors; a restless sailor who has drifted to an archipelago and runs the ferry, and who one day takes flight with its passengers; a researcher who returns to Poland to visit her first love and to make him an ultimate gift; a professor who cares for her older husband as he lectures on a Greek island cruise ship … and so on.

Olga Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist and for Flights she invents a psychology of travel, a kind of opposite of traditional psychology, studying people in transit rather than in a fixed context. Studying people on the move, their reactions to different circumstances challenges the idea of ‘any sort of consistent whole’. (83) We are ourselves a constellation. The idea of a fixed identity is flawed. I love the idea of lectures in airports, where people can expand such ideas to travellers caught in the departure lounge.

Not for nothing did Matthew Turner in his review on Quietus suggest the novel is a ‘cabinet of curiosity’. Such a description is a reminder that such a varied novel will be experienced differently by each reader, who will respond to it individually.

Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk was born in Poland, and not able to travel until she was 28 due to restrictions by the Communist regime. She later travelled extensively, and her reflections indicate deep thought about the meaning of travel, especially for the human body.

She has published 8 novels, two collections of short stories and also poetry.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in 2007, and in the English translation by Fitzcarraldo Books in 2018. 417pp. Translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish. Winner Man Booker International Prize 2018

For another review see Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated from the French by ModupéBodé-Thomas

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

Brother in Iceby Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

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Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard

I love the way that Mary Beard refuses to keep quiet, as people try to silence her through twitter trolling and snidey comments about her television appearances. But Mary Beard keeps on writing her best-selling history books. She continues to be a respected academic at Cambridge University. And she has not compromised on her appearance, refusing to colour her hair and to alter how she wears it. And now she steps into the feminist ring too with Women and Power: a manifesto.

The attacks on her are misogynistic. They are attempts to silence a woman. To deny her knowledge, intellectual capacity and expertise and to hide her from those who would celebrate her perceived transgressions.

Last Christmas I gave away several copies of Women and Power. I hoped to receive a copy in turn, but it was not to be. So I have only just acquired and read this short book.

Actually that’s not quite true. As a subscriber to the London Review of Books I read the first essay when it appeared in 2014. The second is still buried in my tbr pile of LRBs.

The Public Voice of Women

The first section is based on a 2014 lecture for London Review of Books. It explores the very deep roots of the record of men silencing women: The Public Voice of Women. She is a classical scholar so she begins with The Odyssey and the moment when Telemachus tells Penelope to shut up and go back to her quarters. She notes that it is a mark of his arrival at manhood. But it is also one of the first pieces of written evidence that show women denied the right to speak in public spaces.

She points out that some things have changed but that today when women are allowed to speak it is often on so-called women’s issues, such as childcare, or women’s reproductive rights or health. She argues that we need to explore how we speak in public, why, on what subjects and whose voice fits. And challenge this where necessary.

Women in Power

The second lecture is called Women in Power (2017). In this Mary Beard considers how frequently women have been denied power, or they are punished for trying to acquire it, and concludes that a more radical approach is required. Tinkering and gradual progress are unlikely to change the structures that exclude women. We need to change the structure. Power needs to be redefined, shared, not seen as a thing but as ‘an attribute or even a verb’.

She questions the idea of power and leadership as elite, coupled with public prestige and individual charisma. This idea is reinforced by the notion of power as a possession. And in all cultures power is associated with men.

On those terms, women as a gender – and not as some individuals – are by definition excluded from it [power]. You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male. You have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. (86-87)

She makes pertinent references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (serialised 1909–1916, first published in book form in 1979). In the country of Herland there are no men and power and leadership are exercised differently. The men who stumble upon this hidden civilization cannot believe that there are not men leaders hidden away somewhere. Time to reread this novel I think.

My experience

I once held a position of potential power. I was a secondary headteacher in inner London from the late 1980s. It was a time of immense change in education and schools, and I was horrified to come up against the misogynist behaviour of some teachers. I tried to lead by collaboration, but time and again there was confrontation and challenge. And when I went on to work on the new qualification for headteachers and at the University in School Improvement, I came up against traditional models of leadership (male) as the answer to school problems (think super-heads, think leadership college). It is hard to battle against strongly entrenched cultural ideas about power and leadership.

So I like the idea of trying to find new ways of sharing power in all spheres and challenging some very old structures and practices. It starts with being heard and moves on to structural change.

Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard, published in 2017 by Profile Books. 116pp

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Sealskin by Su Bristow

I was so pleased to read a book with a good strong plot. Sealskin by Su Bristow moves along at a steady pace and the characters develop through the narrative. I’ve been reading some novels that have little plot and don’t hold my interest from one bedtime reading to the next. This is a strong story, well told, with plenty of authenticity despite the magical legend from which Su Bristow takes her inspiration.

Sealskin– a summary

The story is told from the (3rdperson) point of view of Donald, a young man who lives outside the village with his widowed mother. His father was drowned at sea. He has been bullied as a child and as an adult avoids everyone except his mother. But this is a coastal village, which relies on all adults to bring in the catches, and the men to crew the boats. Donald prefers his own boat, finding crabs close to the shore.

One day he sees a group of seals, selkies, who have slipped out of their skins and are dancing on the strand. Donald is entranced. He finds and hides a skin, so when the selkies flee to the safety of the water, one is left. He catches and rapes her.

She is distressed, of course, so her takes her home and his mother helps him hide her. When he can’t find the seal skin that will enable her to return to the sea they realise she must stay. They hatch an elaborate plot and Donald marries the girl. The village is suspicious, entranced and then hostile in turn to the frail young beauty who does not speak but is intuitive in her responses.

The couple come to love each other as Donald works to atone for the wrong he did. He gains confidence as he supports his wife, becomes a father, stands up for himself and for her and eventually takes over as captain of a boat. His life appears to have turned round but there are still painful challenges ahead of him.

Reading Sealskin

This novel is an adaptation of a selkie legend from northern Scotland, as a page at the end of the book explains. Su Bristow has taken the legend, woven her own characters into its outline, and written movingly about love, atonement, foreignness and loss. It is also a coming-of-age story as Donald gets the support he needs to take his place in the village community. The strongest theme is that of community, how the villagers are interdependent, and are a source of strength and a threat to those who can’t fit in.

The rituals associated with marriage, birth, death and all souls’ night are a strong part of this story. Donald must learn to trust the individuals in the community. And then to extend his hand to those who are not so readily accepted.

The writing

Su Bristow won the 2013 Exeter Novel Prize with Sealskin. Most of the action takes place through dialogue, something of an achievement since the selkie woman does not speak. But the coastal setting is powerfully evoked. Here is Donald out in his small boat on his own one night.

There were seals on the skerry tonight, no more than fifty yards of black water and hidden rocks away, on the little strand that was only clear when the tide was low. They looked as though they were basking in the moonlight, though it was far too chill for that. As he watched, a couple more dragged themselves up from the sea, heavy and awkward, moving slowly up the sand. They were rolling, heads swaying to and fro, buffeting each other as they moved clumsily forward. (3)

And although we know what will happen next, this setting, the place where sea and land meet in an every-changing configuration, this liminal space and the interplay of land and sea are vital elements in this story.

Slowly, by just a few minutes each day, light began to come back to the world. Out at sea, it was the birds that brought change, some moving north as the retreating ice opened up new places, and others arriving from the unimaginable south. But on land, the signs were everywhere – in the new green shoots, the urgency of birdsong and the rush of meltwater down from the hills. There was a restlessness, an itch in the blood. (199)

Although this is a tale of magic, it does what fiction does best – transport us to another world to better show us our own.

Sealskin by Su Bristow, published in 2017 by Orenda Books. 226pp

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Imagination and the writer: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin died in January this year. She was a writer that I admired greatly. I came to her in my 20s through the children’s book A Wizard of Earthsea, and moved on to her adult novels, mostly sci-fi set on planets with a resemblance to Earth or with characters that shared traits with humans.

Lately I have come to enjoy her essays. Here is an example from Introducing Myself in The Wave in the Mind:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. (3)

You can hear her reading this on BBC Radio 4 here.

Recently I have been using Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

You can describe her as a writer (or a man) but she was also an anthropologist, a thinker, a feminist and an encourager of others and many other things.

I enjoy reading about writing and her thoughts on imagination filled me with positivity. What follows is a revised version of a post from July last year. There are more posts about Ursula K. Le Guin on Bookword blog.

Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. The key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

Imagination is not the same as Creativity

Ursula K. Le Guin’s imagination did not leave us on earth. She took us to other planets, other times, other cultures and showed us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, reprinted in Words are my Matter. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula K. Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

The connection to literacy

Ursula K. Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world in her speech. I find this short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to learning to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she said in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

Housemaid by William McGregor Paxton (1910)

At the opening of her talk, Ursula K. Le Guin referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a proposed revision.

The reason literacy is important is that literature isthe operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

See also:

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 20014 by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by The Eight Mountain Press in 1998.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

My review of The Left Hand of Darknessby Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project in 2017 can be found at this link.

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84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Here is a book about the love of books and about generosity and how together they developed into a warm friendship between many people. That is the pleasure of reading 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

We have reached the 1970s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury. This book is not especially important in the history of women or of Anglo-American relations. But it has a great charm and its popularity has endured since its publication in 1971. Helped by a film with good-looking actors.

84 Charing cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters. Mostly it is the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York and Frank Doel, who worked at Marks & Co at the eponymous address in London. Helene Hanff first wrote to request copies of books that were difficult to find in New York at the end of the Second World War. Marks & Co was a second hand and antiquarian bookshop.

October 5, 1949

Gentlemen,

Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialise in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian book-sellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books, and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies.

I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean seondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?

Very truly yours,

Helene Hanff

(Miss) Helene Hanff

The books she wanted were non-fiction: Hazlitt essays, Oxford verse, and so on. Helene Hanff was a writer, of articles, tv scripts and children’s history books. She did not earn a great deal from her writing.

The responses came first from FPD, later Frank Doel, finally Frank. At first Frank Doel was formal and scrupulous in his replies. But as she responded with wit and warmth to the books she received or did not receive, he dropped the reserve.

The turning point in the relationship, turning it from a commercial transaction to a friendship, was when Helene Hanff sent a food parcel containing ham at Christmas 1949 to the staff of Marks & Co. Rationing continued in Britain until1953, so she continued to send food parcels.

Here are some examples:

March 1950

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing. You are just sitting AROUND.

September 1950

he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently.

Dear Frank:

Yes I want it.

April 1951

To All at 84, Charing Cross Road:

Thank you all for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book with pages edged all around in gold.

Gradually other members of staff began to write to Helene Hanff, for they too benefited from the food parcels. Frank Doel’s wife joined in and even their neighbour. Helene Hanff clearly had the gift of creating a community even through the vagaries of the British and American postal services.

And then in January 1969, not quite twenty years after that first letter Helen Hanff received this letter.

Dear Miss,

I have just come across the letter you wrote to Mr Doel on the 30thSeptember last, and it is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday 22ndDecember, the funeral took place last week on Wednesday the 1stJanuary.

… Do you still wish us to try and obtain the Austens for you?

What is special about 84 Charing Cross Road?

The pleasure in this correspondence is the evident love of reading and the love of books.  Another pleasure is to see the beneficial effects of generosity of spirit. And the death of Frank Doel was not the end of it. This book was published two years later. The chief correspondents had never met, but she had always wished to visit London, and now she had friends to meet. When she could finally afford the airfare she visited to celebrate the publication of this book. Following her London visit Helene Hanff wrote The Duchess of Bloomsbury, included in the edition I read.

And then in 1987 there was the film, starring Anthony Hopkins at his warmest as Frank Doel, and Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. It is hard to reread the book without these two occupying my mental image of the writers. But they did an excellent job. And at least it wasn’t made into a rom-com with a happy-ever=after together ending.

Helene Hanff died in 1997. She was 79 years old.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, first published by Andre Deutsch in 1971. I read the paperback edition published by sphere. 230pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson (1962)

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Inspired by the Writings of Virginia Woolf

In the shopping street in Chichester there was bunting and a huge banner, a most populist way to advertise a very refined subject: VIRGINIA WOOLF: AN EXHIBITION INSPIRED BY HER WRITING. I was in Chichester to visit the Pallant House Gallery. I wanted to know what art had been inspired by one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. And to look at it.

The celebratory street presence of Virginia Woolf wasn’t the only thing that surprised me about the exhibition. After my first tour around the gallery I realised that I was experiencing a very strange sensation. This must be what it feels like to be a man, to have the world reflected back to you as you see it through men’s eyes. Most exhibitions, anyway. But here were 80 artists and every one of them was a woman. Everyone. I recognised the world they showed me, the faces, the landscapes, the portraits, the interiors, the conflicts. This was my territory.

This is what the organisers say about the exhibition:

Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings

A major exhibition featuring 80 female artists from 1854 to the present day, centred on the pioneering writings of celebrated author Virginia Woolf. Through a wide range of work by artists including Barbara Hepworth, Vanessa Bell, Gwen John, Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun and Louise Bourgois, the exhibition shows how Woolf’s perspectives on feminism and creativity have remained relevant to a community of creative women across time: visual artists working in photography, painting, sculpture and film who have sought to record the vast scope of female experience and to shape alternative ways for women to be.

You may be wondering how art and words go together, different art forms that use different media. I remind you that it was ballet that revealed so much about three of Virginia Woolf ‘s novels in WoolfWorks.

The ideas expressed by Virginia Woolf in her novels and essays found echoes and development in the art on display in this exhibition. Identity, what moulds it? What is its function? How is it different in public and private spaces? In what ways can and do women relate to landscape and to the ideas of home? What is it, to be a woman?

Some artists were already familiar: Laura Knight, Dora Carrington, Winifred Nicholson and others who often show us women and children in the landscape, an inhabited space where woman can now be as free as men always have been. Not confined by or limited to the home.

The portraits showed women experimenting with different ways of representing themselves to others in self-portraits and portraits. Gwen John’s confident, confronting self-portrait; Dod Proctor turned away from our gaze, and other portraits, especially of and by Vanessa Bell. In pride of place, almost an object of veneration, there was her portrait of Virginia Woolf among her books, writing, in her home. At the entrance to the show there was a working sketch for the pace setting for Virginia Woolf at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

There were more paintings of interiors, still lifes mostly, often with no people present. These often related the interior of the home through a window to the outside, or referred to the residents through their furnishings and belongings, or because it was a woman’s view. I want to find out more about Jane Simone Bussy. Her use of colour was subtle and very engaging.

Quotations reminded us how important a room of one’s own is, especially to women writers. And so there were the designs of household objects, fabrics, china and book covers by her sister and others.

You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men.  … This freedom is only a beginning. With whom are you going to share it and on what terms? [from Professions for Women, an essay by Virginia Woolf published in 1931]

I am still thinking about what I saw, how magnificent Virginia Woolf was and how her influence is deep in me, and happily deep in our culture too. I have reviewed most of her novels on Bookword, by the way.

Congratulations to Laura Smith, who created the show for Tate St Ives, Pallant House Gallery, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings is at Pallant House Galleryuntil 16thSeptember 2018.

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

A prize-winning novel that is an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, set in the present day? Already chosen by my reading group as our August book? There was no reason not to get stuck into this one.

Summary of Home Fire (no spoilers)

The story follows the misfortunes of one Pakistani-origin family living in West London. The children are orphans. Father was rarely there, a fighter for the so-called Muslim causes, who died somewhere between Bagram and Guantanamo. Mother died suddenly leaving Isma to bring up the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz with the help of local families, especially Aunty Naseem. The action takes place about 3 or 4 years ago against this background.

We meet Isma as she is about to board a plane for Boston where she plans to take up her doctoral studies again. The twins have grown up and she can leave them in the care of others. The usual airport irritations of the security checks are much greater for her, both at Heathrow and also when she lands. She is a Muslim and must be closely questioned. Knowing this, she has arrived extra early and rehearsed answers to possible questions with her sister. The family have a secret that must not be divulged. Parvaiz has left the UK to join ISIS. Both sisters miss their brother badly and would like to make contact with him, find out if he is okay.

In Amherst she meets Eamonn another young British citizen from a Pakistani family. His father, Karamat (Lone) Wolf, has just been made Home Secretary. Karamat is a man of high political ambitions, but known to Isma’s family as Shameless. He favours Muslims who adapt to British life, not those who object to how they are treated.

Eamonn goes to London and takes up with Isma’s sister Aneeka. It is not clear whether she has hidden motives for getting involved with him, the reader suspects that she has, but he is quickly smitten.

The action shifts to Parvaiz. We learn of his recruitment, his training and employment in the media branch of ISIS, and how he now wants to return to London. This is, of course, the crux of the action of the novel. The Home Secretary has just announced that those who have left to join the militants will have their British citizenship revoked. And now, his own family is involved with such a young man.

As the plot moves to its conclusion, both families – the Home Secretary’s as well as Isma’s – are put under severe pressure.

My reactions

The idea of using a modern-day Antigone to explore some very ancient and difficult themes works well. Kamila Shamsie does not confine herself to the original story, but makes enough use of it to enrich the telling of this thriller. The theme of conflict between family and civic duty is central. Those who try to legislate for civic over familial duty are culpable. We must also understand the pull of the family, and the questions of identity in our multifaceted world.

The novel questions easy solutions. It will not allow us, or any of the characters, to get away with ideas about British values being the answer, and continually asks what is identity, what matters to one’s sense of self, and the role of family and country in this. These concepts have never been straight forward, and today they are as complex and insoluble as ever.

I have two reservations. First, it is not possible for anyone to be in ignorance of the atrocities committed in the name of ISIS. Nor of the possible consequences of betraying your country by joining them or of betraying them. [I write this as the current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announces the suspension of the policy of demanding that British Citizens do not face capital punishment.] But for the plot to work the reader must have some sympathy for Parvaiz and believe that he is motivated by his wish to find the truth about his father and that he is susceptible to the recruitment process.

Second, fictitious presentation of prominent political figures is very hard to do. This may be because our perceptions of them are built gradually through innumerable press exposures, not presented as thought-through characters in a novel. I think of the Blair character in The Ghost by Richard Harris (2007), and the Prime Minister in The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987). Both characters are problematic because they do not accord with our own picture of these people. The complexity of a political figure’s motivations and actions seem to me to resist authenticity.

I will mention two other things which I thought were well done. Aneeka’s grief is overpowering and leads to the final horrifying scene.

But this was not grief. It did not cleave to her, it flayed her. It did not envelop her, it leaked into her pores and bloated her beyond recognition, She did not hear his footsteps or his laughter, she no longer knew how to hunch down and inhabit his posture, she couldn’t look in the mirror and see his eyes looking back at her.

This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming paws. (193)

The other small detail is the way the press mangle the names of the protagonists. Their identity is fodder to the news mill.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017) Bloomsbury 264pp

Long listed for Man Booker in 2017 and winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

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Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

This short novel is a fearsome portrait of a fearsome old woman. Great Granny Webster lives in Hove, Sussex, in a dark house, spending her time sitting upright in a chair, doing nothing. This has been her way of life for decades. What makes her live in this way?

Great Granny Webster is the 34thin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts and readers’ recommendations on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Summary of Great Granny Webster

This short novel is narrated by the great grand daughter who was 14 years old when she spent three months with the old woman in Hove in order to recuperate after an illness by taking in the sea air. The poor girl has to live with her great-grandmother in a rigid routine, waited on by one maid who is also very old. The description of the routine in the house is chilling, and very strong.

Often I would be in the same room as Great Granny Webster for hours and she would say not a single word to me. She would just sit there bolt upright in one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. One felt that originally it had only ever been intended to stand like a decoration in some imposing baronial hall. (13)

By contrast the narrator’s Aunt Lavinia is a fun-loving socialite of the post-war period. She is also described in detail, and we understand that she is no happier than Great Granny Webster. She is described in this way:

Aunt Lavinia was then thirty-two and she was always described as “jolie laide.” A play-girl in the style of the twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. (29)

The second chapter provides a dramatic contrast to Aunt Lavinia’s grandmother, but we soon see that they are both iron-willed in pursuit of their chosen path.

A third chapter explores Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. To this house Great Granny Webster’s daughter went when she married. She goes mad and her devoted husband is quite unable to keep up the fabric or the conventions of this vast aristocratic house because he is so keen to support her. The footmen and butler wear rubber boots to serve the meals – always pheasants – as a protest against the damp conditions. This is the home of the narrator’s father. He died in the war but he frequently went to visit his grandmother in Hove before his death, and the narrator tries to find out what he liked about his visits. Again, we have a contrast, this time of the chaotic household and the rigid one.

Finally, years later, the narrator is called to the funeral of the old lady. In a scene of bizarre and ludicrous awfulness, the old lady’s ashes are tipped into her grave with only the narrator and her ancient maid as mourners.

The old woman

Behind this fearsome portrait of a sad old woman and those who were influenced by her lies the question – why on earth did she behave as she did? As a child and young woman she was was exposed to and constrained by those Victorian values and expectations of what it meant to be a woman from the upper classes. The rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all these come from that upbringing. No matter that there have been major changes in society, two world wars and the ‘60s; no matter that her daughter is incarcerated for life in a lunatic asylum; that her granddaughter commits suicide; and her son-in-law appeals to her for help; despite all this she holds on to her rigidity and independence.

We are left in no doubt that it was a toxic upbringing, and that it had profoundly terrible effects on subsequent generations. We are to understand that much of this novel was based on Caroline Blackwood’s own experiences.

My reactions

I may have given the impression that this is a tough book to read. But the descriptions are marvellous and some of the details quite hilarious. Perhaps to show affection, but in any case highly inappropriate, the old lady indicates to her great-granddaughter that she will leave her a four-poster bed. One of the ornamental pineapples is a little loose and the old lady is very concerned that when it is moved into storage the removal men may be careless.

“I want you to realise that there are no reliable furniture removal firms any more. Now-a-days they send just anybody. All you get is a couple of rough young men with no breeding at all, no sense of the way one is meant to handle beautiful possessions. I therefore want someone responsible to be there to supervise the movers when they come to take my things from my house.” (25-6)

She is speaking to a schoolgirl.

One of the charms of this book is the construction of the sentences, often long, often beginning with a subordinate clause, and all constructed with considerable rhythm. In the first example above she gives us no less than five adjectives to communicate the sense of that chair: one of the most horribly uncomfortable highbacked wooden Victorian gothic chairs I have ever seen. The quality of her writing adds to the pleasure of reading this book.

Caroline Blackwood

Girl in Bed (1952) by Lucien Freud

This writer was unknown to me before this novel was recommended for the older women in fiction series. Caroline Blackwood was born in 1931 and died in 1996. She lived vividly, married Lucien Freud (painter), Israel Citkowitz (composer) and Robert Lowell (poet). She came from the extremely wealthy Guinness family and lived in London, New York and Ireland. She wrote other books, including biographies of Princess Margaret and Lucien Freud. Her life was blighted by alcoholism. Great Granny Webster is probably her best-known and most admired work.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwoodfirst published in 1977. I used the edition published by New York Review Books Classic. 108pp

Thanks to Jennifer Cairns for suggesting this book for the series.

Picture credit: Girl in Bed (1952) by Lucien Freud, for which Caroline Blackwood was the model. Used under ‘fair use’ for information and education.

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