Monthly Archives: July 2024

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad 

My reading group chose Enter Ghost back in January. By that time the events in Gaza and the condemnations of Hamas and the Israeli government were familiar to anyone concerned with world events. In April the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced and Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad was one of the six books on the list. 

The blurb on the back indicates it is set in Israel, in Haifa and in the West Bank, and concerns a production of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play is famously full of existential angst, political and family violence, and the dangers in the state of Denmark. It also includes the ghost of the title. All this added up to a novel I was anticipating reading with some pleasure.

Enter Ghost

The pleasure I had anticipated was somewhat delayed. At first, I found it quite hard to get into: there were many characters and their relationship and nicknames were not always clear. Sonia’s backstory was complicated (fractured family, lovers, marriage, career as an actor, miscarriages). It was largely set in the occupied areas of Israel, and involved many Palestinians, with different allegiances depending on where they lived. For a while, it was hard to know which strand of the story to hang on to.

That story begins when Sonia goes to visit her sister in Haifa after an unhappy break-up with her lover in the theatre in London. She plans to spend the summer there, with Hannan who teaches at the University of Tel Aviv, and reconnecting with other relations. Her father was a Palestinian by birth, eventually leaving for Lebanon and then London. 

Sonia meets a friend of Hannan’s, Miriam who is directing an Arabic version of Hamlet. The cast is a very eclectic group of actors, mostly men from various parts of the occupied territories, although none from Gaza. The star, taking the part of Hamlet is a famous pop singer, Wael Hejazi. Miriam’s cast lacks actors for both female roles: Ophelia and Gertrude, and Sonia agrees to stand in for a while. An actor is found to play Ophelia, and Sonia agrees to join the cast as Gertrude. Later Wael decides to leave the cast and a new Hamlet must be found. The shifting of the personnel may be a feature of life in that part of the world. Characters and crew are often absent as a result of the political situation. There is the perennial problem of transport interrupted by numerous checkpoints; one of the cast must attend an interrogation; another is uncovered as a spy; tension is high and in Jerusalem the Al-Aqsa Mosque becomes the focus of tensions for a few days; and the Israeli army appears at their rehearsals and the first performance – a ghostly presence behind the audience.

It was at the point when Sonia and some fellow cast members are held at one of the checkpoints that my interest in the novel took hold. The connections between Hamlet and the events in the Middle East, between acting and real life, become very stark. In an exercise the cast has played a checkpoint scene. Wael had played the Israeli soldier. When their car is stopped, he is the one who is held. Sonia’s reaction increases the danger level by challenging the power of the armed men. The scene in ‘real life’ (the novel’s reality) is more dramatic, more dangerous, more scary. 

There is a great deal more to this novel than the production of Hamlet, although the rehearsals and progress towards performance provide the narrative with its strong thread. Also, poignantly, Sonia and her sister have much to resolve, and there is much to discover about the older generations’ experiences, especially during the Nakba of 1948. 

Sonia has much to decide about her own roots, about her life back in London, including her love life, about her reactions to her experiences in Israel and the occupied territories, about connections between people and their significance, especially in an area and time of heightened political tension. 

Last month, our reading group discussed The Making of the Middle East: a personal history by Jeremy Bowen (2022). It will be interesting to discuss the connections between the detailed history provided by that book and our choice for this month. And I wonder how they have reacted to reading this novel.

Finally, a personal note of my own. I once wrote a short story, also dependent upon Hamlet. It featured a thespian of ambition who had been thwarted by death but returned to play the part of the ghost. I loved the idea of a ghost playing a ghost on the stage, and how others would react. It was called “Alas, Poor Ghost”. I also tried a comedy short story about a ghost in a supermarket. It was an attempt at a far-fetched idea, bit was not a great success. So much for ghosts.

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad, published in 2023 by Vintage. 323pp. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024

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Cairn by Kathleen Jamie

I knew before I saw a copy in Waterstones, Piccadilly, that I would love this book. I had already found Kathleen Jamie ‘s previous books, Sightlines and Surfacing, absorbing, thoughtful, full of engaging observations, mostly in poetic form. Some of the pleasure came from her archaeological excursions.

The cover is beautiful.

The book is lovingly produced with clean paper, pencil illustrations, nice print.

I was in London for the weekend immediately following the election, ready to celebrate and ready for new ideas.

Cairn

A cairn is a pile of stones, usually small stones, usually created by people as they pass: ‘rough old assemblages, decades of stones heaped on stones!’ We see many cairns on Dartmoor, some even raising the height of a tor. 

The title beautifully indicates the nature of the contents of this short volume. It is made up of short pieces, rarely more than two pages, most only one, being descriptions of small moments, observations and reflections on these moments, and many considered through the passing of time. (Just like pebbles). The publisher calls them micro essays, but ‘micro essay’ seems to me to be too modern an idea, or at least too modern a term for these short pieces.

In the prologue she reflects on how, reaching 60, ageing affects how she sees things, thinks about things, about herself, her life.

My younger self wrote her earnest poems, and scampered through her thirtieth year. Sixty was different. Now there are more certainties. I can still look out at the sea alright, by night or day, but now, the shape of my life’s arc is becoming visible, as it were. It is no longer below the horizon. Unless there is a sudden curtailment, I can sense the shape of my life pinned against the longer spans and cycles of the natural world I was born into. I can imagine the world going on without me, which one doesn’t at thirty. Or shouldn’t. (18)

Ageing includes seeing the world differently from how one’s children see it. She talks to active young people who do not know about Greenham Common, for example. The image of the stones, rounded by years, centuries, aeons of time reflects the epigraph from John Berger: ‘Stone propose another sense of time …’

Perhaps that is why the arrangement of stones in Kettrle’s Yard, Cambridge is so moving.

Kettle’s Yard, July 2023

She muses on the uncertain future of the planet, her fears for it, as humans are so careless with it.  

Short pieces, usually of beautiful observations of the natural world, but also of people working together to preserve it (eg demos), looking at how aging changes observations, and how she fears for the future of the planet.

We are everywhere surrounded by those down-curves out of abundance into scarcity, even into extinction. (61)

The fears are for the world, but also for her children and the generations to come. 

Kathleen Jamie gives us some poems too. In 2021 she was appointed Makar, the Scottish national poet. I read her work because she keeps me focused on the wonders of our world. Was it because I had read this volume over the weekend that I noticed what raindrops on the trees when I took the dog into the forest this morning for her walk?

Holden Forest, Devon. July 2024

These poems and short prose pieces, complemented a weekend spent with friends, with art (Now You See Us, Women Artists in Britain 1520 – 1920 at the Tate), and with music (Schubert Quintet performed by the Esmé Quartet at the Wigmore on Sunday morning). Culture, nature, community. The last line of the shape poem Cairn is 

We are more than the sum of our parts. (131)

And as it is with stones, and people, so it is with words.

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other … [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937: On Craftsmanship]

And the last words of the epilogue

A raven glides past, giving you the eye.
Huh, she croaks, you. (136)

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (October 2019)

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie, published in 2024 by Sort of Books. Pencil illustrations by Miek Zwamborn. 139pp

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There were No Windows by Norah Hoult

There were No Windows is a powerful novel. Perhaps everyone who survives into their seventies begins to think of the threat of dementia. It’s a cruel condition that appears to rob the person of themselves bit by bit. There have been some excellent fictional accounts of older women with dementia. For example, I found Emma Healey’s depiction of Maud in Elizabeth is Missing to be respectful and well-imagined. Many novels treat older women as comic characters, forgetful to the point of amusement. As long ago as 1944 Norah Hoult presented readers with Claire Temple in There were No Windows, a woman who barely understood that there was a war on, and that the blackout and rationing had implications for every household. It is a sympathetic depiction of a women in her 70s who is at a loss to manage herself in the world. It is also a difficult and sad read.

Where can you hear the voices of older women? How often do you hear them or read them? I began the series, older women in fiction, on this blog assuming that I would not find many books featuring the lives of older women. I was wrong. Thanks to many readers I have compiled a list that now contains more than 100 titles, with 68 of them linked to reviews on this blog. This is the 68th post in the series.

There were No Windows

Britain is at war and Claire Temple is an older woman, in her 70s, living in a nice house in Kensington, looked after by one general servant who she addresses as ‘cook’. This is Kathleen, a young Irish woman who can stand up for herself. She needs to because Mrs Temple has become very forgetful and not very nice. Also, the war is on and they must both cope with new requirements: blackout, rations, disappearance of items such as cream and so forth. In addition, Claire is very lonely as so many of the people she once knew have died or moved away from London for the duration.

Claire was once a successful writer, of ghost stories, and knew all the literary set. She had been proposed to by Oscar Wilde, and lived with Herbert Temple, (apparently modelled on Ford Maddox Ford) whom she claimed to have married. She lives inside her head and her house as if nothing has changed: she has got older and is energetic and lonely. She realises that she has a bad memory. Gradually she understands that everything, including London, has changed. One afternoon she finds that a store, possibly on Kensington High Street, is closing although the clock says the time is ten-past four. She learns it is the effect of a war-time regulation in London.

‘O London, where have you gone?’ she cried out in her heart. The London she had known, of smart tea-shops, of taxis which appeared when one raised one’s finger, the London of theatres where one sat in a stall, and waved to one’s friends, and went over to talk to them in the interval, the London of book-shops, where one had only to ask for the manager, and say who one was, to be treated with respect. She had imagined that all that went on, though, of course, without her, because she was now shabby and old and, having lost her memory, had lost her friends. But the clock that said ten-past four had opened a crack in her world through which she viewed with horror for a few moments an abomination of desolation that was all about her. If one got on one of those red buses travelling east, she would see, she believed indeed she had seen, sandbags in Kensington Gardens. Kensington Gardens, sentimentalised by dear Barrie into a nursery for Peter Pans, Wendys and Nanas in perpetuity. Or so one had thought. But Kensington Gardens had not, after all, been made secure by Barrie. Was Barrie dead? Very probably, since everyone she had known, or even known of, seemed to be dead. (221)

In part one we read of Claire Temple’s experiences as she struggles with her diminished capacities, mostly through her battles with Kathleen. The reader can see what hell her life has become, how Claire cannot see beyond her own world. In the second section she is visited by three people from her past: a former friend, a former employee and her publisher. She is so lonely she entreats everyone to stay longer. But they find her company very difficult. She repeats her complaints, forgets who they are and makes unreasonable demands upon her visitors. In the third part ‘The Dark Night of the Imagination’, Claire’s imagination overtakes reality and she suspects cook and her paid companion, Miss Jones, of plotting together, to steal stuff and then to murder her. She visits the police to report them. She is treated like a mad old lady, a nuisance. In her own home she becomes more and more fraught. 

One night, when she has left the house in a temper, she sits on a seat and in the blackout, without her torch it appears to her that the houses have no windows. But no one sees what is inside Claire either, except perhaps her doctor, and she cannot see beyond her own sense of entitlement and disappointment in the world. 

Claire finds her paid companion boring and dull and she is provoked into making cruel and mean remarks about her to her face. After a scene of confrontation and violence, she is sedated and retires to bed until she dies. This is one lonely, old, deluded woman, with no one to help her. A friend told me that it may be the saddest novel she had ever read. Hoult modelled Claire on a real literary star she had known: Violet Hunt. She managed to convey the pathetic nature of Claire Temple’s way of dealing with her situation alongside the exasperation that everyone felt having to deal with her.

There were No Windows by Norah Hoult, first published in 1944 and republished by Persephone Books in 2016 with an afterword by Julia Briggs. 341pp

Older Women in Fiction Series: you can find the list of about 100 novels here.

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