Monthly Archives: September 2023

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout 

This is the fourth novel about Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. In her most recent novels, Elizabeth Strout has frequently revisited the characters she has created, filling in their back story or taking them into their future. This novel features Lucy Barton but includes references to Olive Kitteridge. At times she has used multiple short stories to create a different form for a novel, as in Olive Kitteridge and in Anything is Possible. This enables a wider view of the characters, but in Lucy by the Sea she keeps close to Lucy, so close that it is narrated in the first person.

Lucy by the Sea

Elizabeth Strout has great skills as a writer: in Lucy by the Sea she captures Lucy’s bewilderment at the advance of the coronavirus and the precautions people around her are taking. At a time when the incidence of Covid appears to be increasing again it all feels drearily similar. But in this novel, we are cast back to that time when it all seemed so unbelievable, so swift and so doom-laden.

The novel opens with a reprise of the events of Oh William, concerned especially with a trip to Maine that Lucy made with her former husband, William. They returned to their separate lives in New York. At the start of Lucy by the Sea it is the winter of 2019-2020. Lucy has just published a book and in the autumn did a promotional tour in the States.

I was also scheduled to go to Italy and Germany in the beginning of March, but in early December – it was kind of odd – I just decided I was not going to go to those places. I never cancel book tours and the publishers were not happy, but I was not going to go. As March approached someone said, “Good thing you didn’t go to Italy, they’re having that virus.” And that’s when I noticed it. I think it was the first time. I did not really think about it ever coming to New York.
But William did. (6-7)

William tries to persuade Lucy to leave New York. She continues to downplay the dangers of the virus, until people in her social circle begin to fall ill.

It’s odd how the mind does not take in anything until it can. (7)

She continues to resist William’s increasingly determined efforts to get her to move out, until the first deaths take place. Together they travel to a house he has rented for them in Maine, on the shore. At first Lucy thinks they will be there for just a couple of weeks, but the weeks extend into months as the pandemic persists.

Now Lucy must learn everything new: new friendships, new forms of exercise, new household routines, new ways to spend her day, a more distanced perspective on political events, and new worries about the two daughters. While everything has changed, the lives of her two daughters do not stay still either, and she is forced to take a more distant role in their lives than she would choose. She also with William thinks about passing time, about memory and about ageing. 

The narrative follows the first year of the pandemic, with all its mysteries, unexpected turns and reflection. William and Lucy make adaptations, find ways to deal with frustrations, and continue to stay safe in Maine. As her daughters go through difficulties, and her relationship with William changes, she also has to come to terms with the political situation.

On January sixth, as I came in from my afternoon walk to the cove, the television was on and William said, “Lucy, come here now and watch this.” I sat down still wearing my coat and I saw people attacking the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and I watched the news as though it was the first days of the pandemic in New York, I mean that I kept looking at the floor and had the strange sense again that my mind – or body – was trying to move away. All I can remember now is watching a man smashing a window again and again, people pushing up against one another as they got into the building while the policemen tried to hold them back. Many different colors swam before me as I saw people climbing up walls, all moving together. (233)

Later she has some insight into people who feel poorly about themselves, who had fun made of their religion and their guns, and who are looked at with disdain. But then she has clarity.

I sat for a long time on the couch in the dark; there was a half moon that shone over the ocean. And then I thought, No, those were Nazis and racists at the Capitol. And so my understanding – my imagining of the breaking of the windows – stopped there. (239)

After a year of the pandemic Lucy has experienced many challenges and has developed into a much more sympathetic person towards the people she meets and knows. She also sees more clearly the problems in her country.

I felt that this novel had put me back in touch with those early months of the pandemic, with all the fears and uncertainties, the disbelief, and the ineptitudes of our governments, and all the adjustments we made. 

I was unsure about the references to Olive Kitteridge, in a local care home, in this novel. I did not feel I needed an update on her or her love of birds.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, published in 2022 by Viking. 288pp 

Thanks to Anne for the present of this book.

Related Posts

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Bookword, May 2022)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

4 Comments

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

Minty Alley by CLR James 

It was with interest that I noted the recommendations made by Bernardine Evaristo to Penguin for the Black Britain Writing Back series. Twelve books have been republished in this series after being neglected for far too long. The novel featured in this post is from eight decades ago and shows a community in Trinidad. 

Bernardine Evaristo introduces each volume, and she explains the intention of the publishing initiative:

Our ambition is to correct historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation. While many of us continue to lobby for the publishing industry to become more inclusive and representative of our society, this project looks back to the past in order to resurrect texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history. [Penguin website]

I plan to read more from the collection over the next few months.

Minty Alley

The novel is set in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad in the late 1920s. CLR James spent his childhood here. A young man of 20, Mr Haynes, has been brought up in affluence but when his mother dies, he has to move to new accommodation. Haynes is pretty naïve and ignorant of the ways of the world, but he is helped by Ella, the family servant. She finds lodgings for him at 2 Minty Alley. His life has been quiet up to this point. Now, looking out at the courtyard of Minty Alley from his rented room he sees a different world.

In front of his eyes he sees a collection of characters who run a cake business, and whose cosy domestic life soon erupts into drama and intrigue. Haynes has led a sheltered life, so at first, he wants only to observe, but gradually he gets pulled into the drama. Benoit, who keeps the books and lives with Mrs Rouse, Mrs Rouse herself (his landlady), Maisie her ne’er-do-well niece, her loyal servant Philomen and the very naughty nurse erupt into a fine old barny. 

The novel can be viewed like a play, as we look with Haynes from his room onto the drama in the yard. The main characters pass through, have huge arguments, gossip, work and even engage in fisticuffs. Eventually he is drawn in by the other residents, by appeals for help, by the need for people to discuss their problems with him, and by his eventual sexual involvement with Maisie. It’s a huge mess that carries on until the final curtain. I was reminded of being a confidante, hearing a friend’s difficult circumstances with sympathy but then finding them returning again and again, saying, ‘do you know what s/he’s done now?’ 

Benoit has been unfaithful to Mrs Rouse for years, and especially with the nurse. He is goaded into leaving Mrs Rouse and living and then marrying the nurse. But Mrs Rouse is consumed with grief at his departure and connives and contrives to bring Benoit back. The nurse finds him unsatisfactory in turn and throws him out. This triangle is the mainstay of the plot. 

The novel contains themes of class (Haynes is clearly a class above the other characters in the drama) and gradations of colour (especially the nurse who appears white but has clear indications of a mixed parentage). The novel also celebrates the excitement and vividness of Caribbean life. The colonial presence is not explored, but the departure of Trinidadians for America is already changing Port of Prince. Trinidad did not gain its independence until 1962.

With the republication of Mint Alley, Penguin and Bernardine Evaristo have begun to succeed in resurrecting ‘texts that will help reconfigure black British literary history’. I loved it.

CLR James

CLR James

CLR James was born in Trinidad in 1901. 1932 he came to Britain, then moved on to the USA (1938-53) but because his visa had expired moved back to UK. He lived in Hampstead, Willesden and then Brixton where he died in 1989. 

Minty Alley was his only novel. He published other non-fiction works such as The Black Jacobins, which was the history of the Haitian slave revolution, and wrote two plays on the subject. He was also interested in cricket and a revered commentator for the Guardian. He wrote a highly praised book about the sport called Beyond a Boundary (1963).

Minty Alley by CLR James was first published in 1936. In 2021 it was republished in the Black Britain: Writing Back series by Penguin. 260pp

The collection is curated and each volume is introduced by Bernardine Evaristo.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Edmund Dulac ‘s Fairy Book

There is an antiquarian feel to this week’s post. I was moving some books around the other day, most came from what is left of my mother’s library. For some reason I had put aside the larger books. Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book came into my hands. An inscription revealed that it had been a Christmas present to my grandfather, from his two sisters in 1916. There are mysteries concerning this volume.

Edmund Dulac ‘s Fairy Book

The book is about A4 size, with 170 pages, the pages thick like cartridge paper. Inside there are 14 stories, one of which is alarmingly called White Caroline and Black Caroline. There are 15 illustrations listed, but one of the plates is missing: 

The prince, looking out, saw him snatch up the princess . . . and soar rapidly away. [From Bashtchelik (Or Real Steel) a Serbian fairy tale]

And to my shame one of them has a pencil drawing in profile on the reverse, much like the profiles I used to draw aged about 10.

The stories are not the familiar ones. For example, the story called White Caroline and Black Caroline is Flemish.

Come, Come, Caroline,
White, white, child o’ mine!
I hate you, HATE you,
And, at any rate, you
Are no child o’ mine.

Come, Come, Caroline
Black, black, child o’ mine,
I bore you, adore you,
Will give whatever more you
Want, O child o’ mine!

This verse heads up the story, which goes on to describe how the mother, who does not believe that White Caroline is her daughter, tries to dispose of White Caroline, but is thwarted by Black Caroline. They manage to defeat their mother, resist the nymphs and vampires, one of them marries a king, and then they change into white swans.

The other stories are as unfamiliar as the Carolines’. Here are some of the titles:

  • The Buried Moon (English)
  • The Seven Conquerors of the Queen of the Mississippi (Belgian)
  • The Serpent Prince (Italian)
  • Ivan and the Chestnut Horse (Russian)
  • The Queen of the Many-Coloured Bed-Chamber (Irish)
  • The Blue Bird (French)
  • The Friar and the Boy (English)
  • Urashima Taro (Japanese)
  • The Fire Bird (Russian)

It is the illustrations that are this volume’s glory. Dulac managed to capture something of each country’s style of illustration: here, for example are English, Italian and two Russian pictures. 

In her frantic struggles the hood of her cloak fell back from her dazzling golden hair, and immediately the whole place was flooded with light. From The Buried Moon.
When Grannmia saw her strange lover, she alone remained calm and courageous. From The Serpent Prince.
The chestnut horse seemed to linger in the air at the top of its leap while that kiss endured. From Ivan and the Chestnut Horse.

With a scream the Princess rushed forward, and, before her wicked sister could prevent her, she had upset the cauldron with a crash. From The Fire Bird.

Two Mysteries, and one of them is solved

The first puzzle for me was the gift itself. My grandfather was 16 when he received this from his sisters. I wondered why they thought this was an appropriate present for a young man. Fairy stories are usually for the nursery. But a little internet research provided the answer.

Edmund Dulac was a French illustrator who was naturalised as British in 1920. He came to London before the First World War and was working for Hodder and Stoughton producing illustrations for their books. Starting with Arabian Nights in 1907 they published illustrated annuals. Fairy Book was published in 1916, the year it was given to my grandfather. Special dispensation must have been provided to use the high quality of paper during wartime. And the reason for that permission was that this was a patriotic book. Its subtitle is Fairy Tales of the Allied Nations. There were therefore no Austrian or German stories included as all the stories come from allies.

This was a relief book, according to an article I read, although I couldn’t find the phrase used elsewhere. But it explains the gift to a 16-year-old. It was a patriotic present, perhaps other copies were given by the sisters to other relations. And perhaps they gave him other presents too. Was money raised by the sale of Fairy Book? And if so, where did it go? There is nothing in the book to indicate this.

The second mystery emerged from the American website (The Minneapolis College of Art and Design) where I read about Fairy Book. It referred to The Story of the Bird Feng – a Chinese story. Neither story nor illustration are included in the version in my possession. This is a shame as the illustration is very elaborate drawing, its inspiration from Chinese lacquer work, I think.

The wonderful bird, like a fire of many colours came down from heaven, alighted before the Princess, dropping at her feet the portrait. From The Bird Feng.

The details on the website reveal that there was an American edition of Fairy Book. I don’t understand why. Was China considered an American but not a British ally?

Some other notes

Edmund Dulac continued to be a successful illustrator, although the fashion for fairy stories changed after the war. In the Second World War he designed banknotes and stamps for the British government.

Copies of Fairy Book are for sale in many places, ranging from £20 to £90.

Edmund Dulac’s Fairy Book published in 1916 by Hodder & Stoughton.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, illustrations, short stories

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

There is a trend for retelling the ancient stories. Last year in our book group we read Mythos by Stephen Fry. He is a spirited re-teller of those ancient stories. I enjoyed The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker which I reviewed on this blog. It is an account of the final days of the Trojan wars told by Briseis, a young Trojan woman whose city is sacked, and who is Achilles’s prize in battle.

I was interested enough to attend a discussion (on-line) called Myth and Fiction at the British Museum, between Mary Beard and Charlotte Higgins. They discussed retelling myths in modern novels, including from the women’s point of view. The subject of this post is one of the books they mentioned, Stone Blind the retelling of Medusa’s story. I thought I would give it a try – after all, what did I know about Medusa except that she had snakes instead of hair and could turn people to stone by looking at them. 

Stone Blind

Medusa is a Gorgon, who is looked after by her two sisters in a cave on the coast. One day she decides to explore beyond the small area she calls home and she finds a temple dedicated to the goddess Athene. The god of the sea, Poseidon, finds her there and rapes her in the temple. Athene, who is a daughter of Zeus and a warrior goddess, is much offended by the defilement of her temple and decides to get revenge.

She cannot revenge herself on Poseidon, he too is a god. So she tracks down Medusa and rips off her scalp and damages her eyes. After this attack Medusa is in great pain, but as she recovers, she tries to use her eyes again, untying the bandages, gradually realising a terrible truth.

She heard her name being called by Sthenno [her sister]. She opened her mouth to reply. But then, with no warning, the snakes became a hissing writhing mass of fear and anger. She had no idea what frightened them and they gave her no chance to find out. They pulsed around her skull, frantic and desperate. What? she asked them. What do you want? What can I do? The snakes continued their seething fury. Medusa was not afraid of them, and at the same time she knew she must do what they urged. But what was it? She could not understand. She raised her hands to her temples and felt a sudden surge of energy. Yes, that is it, yes.
She still held the bindings in her hands. And just as she knew that the snakes wanted to lie on the sand, she knew this. They wanted her to cover her eyes again. She did not attempt to reason with them. She didn’t try to understand why they wanted her eyes to be closed, or how they were telling her that she must cover them up. (196-7)

The snakes help Medusa to avoid turning her sisters to stone, but a passing scorpion is less fortunate.

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

But things get worse for Medusa. Perseus is one of Zeus’s many sons. He lives with his mother, whom he adores. But one day a narcissistic mortal, king of Seriphos, Polydectes decides to marry his mother. To prevent this Perseus is given the task – to bring the head of a Gorgon to Polydectes within two months. Perseus is not up to the job.

Poor little Perseus, the reluctant hero. Defender of his mother’s honour. Boastful little fool. If he had simply kept his mouth shut while Polydectes was swaggering around trying to intimidate him. All he had to do was behave like any other of the king’s subjects. Say yes sire, no sire, whenever he was spoken to, and the whole thing would have been over by now …
The idea that Perseus is a hero is one I have taken exception to since – I can’t even tell you how long it is. As long as I have known his name. He’s arrogant, and he’s spoiled. (112-3)

Since he is Zeus’s son the king of the gods sends some lesser gods to help him with his task. He is assisted by Athene and Hermes, but he is still pretty useless. As he approaches the Gorgon’s cave he has to be guided through innumerable adventures and puzzles by his two mentors. The two stories of Medusa and of Perseus finally come together, along with some of the other stories of the gods and of the kings and queens of the ancient Greek islands. There is a monster from the sea, a tsunami, people gathered to celebrate a wedding are turned to stone, and other terrible things happen.

So why retell this story? Does it make more sense to modern readers than the older versions, or is the modern idiom more appealing to current readers? The story was told in many, many short sections, through the eyes of several different characters, and follows many gods and mortals as they effect Medusa’s story. 

I put the book down thinking that the male gods, especially Poseidon, and many of the male mortals come across as believing themselves to be entitled, taking offence far too easily, becoming vengeful out of all proportion and are hardly role models to look up to. The same can be said of the selfishness of many of the female goddesses and the women. They are vain, and vengeful too.

It is a story in which a goddess blames a mortal for the offence against her by a god. Don’t blame the men. The blaming of women, even by women, for the sins of men is as old as the Greek myths.

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes, published in 2022 by Picador. 371pp

Related post

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Bookword May 2019)

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews