Monthly Archives: June 2023

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This novel was chosen by my book group to read in June, proposed because it kept appearing in lists of books that everyone should read. Some of us had read it before, but we were all happy for it to be on our list. I was one of the readers in the group who had read it before, probably in the late 1970s (that’s the date of the edition I own). I may have read it before, but I had completely misremembered the second half. I do remember that it made an impact on me the first time, and it certainly did again as I prepared to discuss it with the group.

The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood narrates the novel, which is based on Sylvia Plath’s own experiences. It begins in New York in 1953.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. (1)

These opening sentences set the tone. Esther doesn’t know what she is doing, and she is thinking about death. She also has a sharp turn of phrase: goggle-eyed headlines; fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway; burned alive all along your nerves.

These themes continue throughout the 258 pages and twenty chapters of this novel: Esther’s lostness; her interest in death and her facility with words.

Esther has a scholarship at her rural college and has won a prize of a month’s internship on a New York fashion magazine with eleven other girls. She is disappointed with the experience, finding more fun in escaping from the group and with Doreen to escape into an ill-advised adventure. On her return home she is devastated to find that she was not accepted onto a writing course she had been counting on, and her life continues to go downhill, as she contemplates and then attempts suicide. Her treatment includes receiving ECT and finding a good psychotherapist which allows her to finally emerge into the world.

The novel was published first in the UK, under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in 1963. Shortly after its publication Sylvia Plath committed suicide. She was 31 years old. The novel was later published under her own name, finally in America in 1971. She also published several collections of poetry.

It’s difficult to read this novel without thinking about her ultimate death, and without wondering what happened in her life that she found living so hard. 

Here are some thoughts from our book group discussions.

In the 1950s it was hard to be born female and not to conform to the stereotype of womanhood being promoted (including by women’s magazines) at that time. Esther has a boyfriend, Buddy Willard but it is clear from his first mention that she has little intention of marrying him, despite his prospects as a doctor.

[Because] I did look down on Buddy Willard, and although everybody thought I would marry him when he came out of the TB place, I knew I would never marry him if he were the last man on earth. (54) 

Her impetus towards independence, like her friend Doreen, would have been a struggle even for a bright young girl in the ‘50s.

Another aspect of The Bell Jar is that novels about suicide and the desire to end one’s life were not common in the 1960. At our group we had previously discussed All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews from 2014, another novel based on real experience. It tells the story of a Canadian woman trying to prevent her sister from taking her own life. Reading The Bell Jar today is all the more poignant for knowing that Sylvia Plath did take her own life. The novel does not explain her determination, only chronicle it.

Which leads me to mention another feature of The Bell Jar. It is a novel full of emotion, anxiety and concern, frustration and fury, fear and humour. But the language used is stripped of emotion. All that feeling is expressed through her way of writing. Here’s an example from a moment towards the end of her time in New York.

I also had a dim idea that if I walked the streets of New York by myself all night something of the city’s mystery and magnificence would rub off on to me at last.
But I gave it up.
It was becoming more and more difficult for me to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed and folded and stowed. (109)

Later, in a glorious scene the clothes are all thrown out of the window! 

Another feature of her writing style is her imagery, frequently amusing. Humour is present for a good deal of this novel, often in the description of other people. All 12 of the young women who had won the prize to be in New York come down with food poisoning. Esther had been afraid it was caused by her greedy consumption of caviar, but it turned out to be the crab meat. The description of the girls throwing up is both amusing and rather disgusting. 

This extract, where she meets the psychologist Dr Gordon, makes me smile.

I curled in the cavernous leather chair and faced Doctor Gordon across an acre of highly polished desk.
Doctor Gordon waited. He tapped his pencil – tap, tap, tap – across the neat green frilled pf his blotter.
His eyelashes were so long and think they looked artificial. Black plasti8c reeds fringing two green, glacial pools.
Doctor Gordon’s features were so perfect he was almost pretty.
I hated him the minute I walked in through the door. (135)

Eventually the bell jar lifts. The bell jar is her description of the way in which her depression and suicidal wishes are experienced. It’s a compelling and somewhat grim experience to read this novel. It is hard not to regret the loss of such talent when a writer dies so young, with such promise. However it’s a demanding novel that deserves to be read by all serious readers.

You can read my thoughts on All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – from Bookword in 2015. Click on the link.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, first published in 1963 by Faber & Faber. I used the paperback edition, first published in 1966. 258pp

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Trees in Fiction

I have recently returned from a week’s holiday in Orkney. The landscape is beautiful, but there are few trees in it. Trees are amazing: some have been alive for more than 4000 years (the Great Basin Bristlecone); the tallest trees grow to 380 ft (the Sequoia or Redwood). California is the home of both these species.

I have been thinking about trees and how they are used in literature. For example, do you know this poem, published in 1914?

Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast,

A tree that looks at God all day,
A lifts her leafy arms to pray,

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair:

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

An oak tree by the Bovey River in Dartmoor National Park

Kilmer, who enlisted in the US Army in the First World War and was killed in action in 1918, draws attention to the significance of trees: as shelter, as evidence of god’s creativity (he was a Catholic), as a living thing, as an enduring thing, and of course as a thing of beauty. Trees in fiction draw on some of the same features, and bring to mind ideas of 

  • Steadfastness
  • Longevity
  • Shelter
  • Provider of food
  • Slow growth
  • Power
  • Former times
  • vulnerability
  • loveliness.

Here are six novels that explore some of these ideas.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

The tree in this long novel describing the coming-of-age of an impoverished young woman of immigrant families, stands for slow growth over the passage of time, and for steadfastness in the face of a hostile environment. The tree and Francie are both persistent and the novel honours this quality.

It’s a long novel, something of a classic and very popular with American troops in the Second World War. You can find my review here.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021)

In this novel the fig tree takes an active part in narrating the story. The island of the title is Cyprus, divided and with a history of recent violence. The fig tree grew on the dividing line, inside a tavern, but has been brought to London by Kostas who devotes his time to keeping it alive, even in North London’s inhospitable winters. 

A fig tree is a source of food, and its leaves, traditionally, a source of clothing. In this novel it represents the fragile lives of the island’s inhabitants and diaspora. Loss, death, migration, separation, these are all themes in this novel. Not all readers are convinced by the talking tree, by the way. Here is the link to my review.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, published in 2021 by Penguin. 356pp

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985)

Another tree with supernatural powers is found in this late novel by Barbara Comyns. The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. It retells the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable, and the story is told with a feminist slant.

The tree in this novel grows in the garden of the home that Bella has shared with the Forbes, eventually marrying the widowed husband and becoming a step-mother. But happiness is a very fragile thing and Bella nearly loses hers. The link to my review can be found here.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp

The Trees by Percival Everett (2021)

You need a very strong stomach for this novel for the trees are the southern kind that Nina Simone and Billy Holliday refer to as bearing ‘strange fruit’. Lynching. There is some very dark, macabre humour in this novel, but fury also drives through this imagined story of revenge for the death of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and all the thousands of lynchings in the southern states. 

The features of an ordinary plot juxtaposed with the carnage that grows through the story echoes the way in which White history has failed to explore the history of Black murder and simply got on with writing about the White American dream. We are left with a sweet love story and Armageddon. My review can be found here.

The Trees by Percival Everett was published in 2021 by Influx Press 334pp. The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022.

And some others

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012)

Poetic and sparse, this short novel is set in a beautiful orchard of pomegranate trees, in north Pakistan. The Taliban are active, punishing those who disobey their rules, or just punishing people. The narrator has suffered in prison, and must learn to live, love and write again. The story is quiet, with sensory perceptions heightened. The orchard pays a part in his recovery. Review can be found here.

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) published by Faber and Faber. 139pp

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

The horrific Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014-16 should have warned us about pandemics. The lessons learned by those involved should have been taken on board by the world as we faced the Coronavirus. In this novel, participants in the deadly epidemic relate their roles, including the baobab tree who has the last word.

‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’

The tree, a meeting point in many villages, welcomes back the humans when the outbreak is over and is optimistic about the future in which ‘the destiny of Man will become one with ours’. 

Baobab tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023

… and the winner is 

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

The 6 shortlisted books were:

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Pod by Laline Paull

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

28 years of the Women’s Prize

Here are forty-three (that’s 43) brilliant books, all written by women, from the longlist for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

The 16 longlisted books in 2023 were:

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova

Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Pod by Laline Paull

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize

Ruth Ozeki: The Book of Form & Emptiness (2022)

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi (2021)

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari Jones: An American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

Rereading novels by Elizabeth Taylor is my indulgence. This one I read and reviewed on Bookword blog nearly ten years ago. I must admit that I have enjoyed it less than her other novels. The characters seem rather pathetic, which is hinted at by the title, two people forever missing each other. But as an exercise in following characters for nearly twenty years it demonstrates Elizabeth Taylor’s versatility as a writer. Both In a Summer Season and A Wreath of Roses take place over a span of weeks. This novel begins in the early thirties and ends in the fifties, after the Second World War.

A Game of Hide and Seek

Harriet and Vesey spend time together during childhood. Caroline is Vesey’s aunt, and he goes to stay with her every summer. Caroline is also the best friend of Harriet’s mother, and they live near each other. Harriet has taken on some light secretarial and childcare responsibilities for Caroline so she cycles there every day. Harriet’s mother, Lilian, was imprisoned as a Suffragette and met Caroline as they faced their sentences together. Theirs is a glorious past, but Harriet is almost indifferent to her mother’s achievements. She does not see herself as brave as the previous generation.

Vesey is in a perpetual state of not knowing what he should be doing or what his future will be. His father has abandoned his mother, and she is happy for him to be out of the way of her London business during the summer. Vesey is always a little sickly, not a sportsman, nor an intellectual. The two young people are uncertain and shy in each other’s company. 

The two of them go for walks together, rather uncertainly. And they play hide and seek with Caroline’s two children. One day they go to a deserted house, and they have a rather hurried embrace in the empty bedroom before the younger children disturb them. At the end of the summer, Vesey goes up to Oxford and Harriet’s dreary social round continues. Vesey does not keep in touch.

Harriet takes a job in a shop selling gowns. Some of the best scenes in the novel come from this part of her life, as the more experienced women try to educate her in the ways of the world. 

Harriet’s virginity they marvelled over a great deal. It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly asking after it, as if it were a sick relative. It must not be bestowed lightly, they advised. It must not be bestowed at all, Miss Brimpton said. It was a possession, not a state; was positive, not negative. (61)

Harriet meets and is courted by Charles, ‘an elderly man of about thirty-five’. He is a solicitor. He is very sensible and well-regarded, and partly because his mother is a former actress, and very actressy, he is not very dramatic. Eventually Charles and Harriet marry, and they have a daughter, Besty. 

The relationship between Harriet and Vesey is sustained on and off over the decades. He joins the army during the war. After the war he becomes an actor in a touring company and comes to perform at a theatre near Harriet in Buckinghamshire. The relationship between Charles and Harriet is strained, and Vesey and Harriet continue to fail to commit to each other. Betsy develops her own crush on Vesey and eventually is convinced that he is her father. Harriet and Vesey meet in London, or he visits her house in the afternoon. 

As always, Elizabeth Taylor is brilliant at revealing the small emotional ripples between people, the shift in mood in a room, the moment when someone fears they will give themselves away. In this scene, for example, it is the evening after Harriet has spent an afternoon with Vesey in the park and she is thinking about it as she sews. Charles is reading Persuasion.

As he read, he passed his hand over his hair, with the impatient quick gesture Harriet knew. His hair was greying but, as with many fair people, without much altering his appearance. At irregular intervals, he turned pages; once or twice he glanced at the fire, but never at his wife. Harriet sat still, and wary. Her needle plucked at the cloth. However hard she tried to concentrate on her task, the blue park with its blurred vistas rose before her, its magic engulfed her as if it were the park she was in love with. When Charles turned a page, her eyelids lowered, her mouth tightened. She wondered if he were reading the chapter on women’s constancy; for the book became a reproach all by itself. (155-6)

There is a splendid cast of secondary characters: Caroline and her husband, Hugo; their children; Charles and his friends Tiny and Kitty; a very clumsy Dutch maid; the local woman who comes and ‘does’; the other women in the dress shop; Betsy’s teacher and her school friend. The children are especially well observed, but every character is believable and reflects everyday life, and draws attention to the strained relationship between Vesey and Harriet. The ending is somewhat ambiguous.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1951. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1986, with an Introduction by Elizabeth Jane Howard. 260pp

The first review of A Game of Hide and Seek on this blog was posted in August 2013. You can find it here. I have reviewed all her fiction on Bookword blog, and I am currently rereading the novels.

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