Tag Archives: Picador

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)

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Short Stories – More Treats

This week I am spoiling you with recommendations for two more collections of short stories. Over the years on Bookword blog I have recommended many collections. Some of these are listed below, with links to my posts about them. The form is very appealing to me. I often read short stories when I am between novels, or at night when sleep is hard to come by. And sometimes I read them just for pleasure. The two collections featured here are highly recommended.

A Different Sound: stories by mid-century writers edited by Lucy Scholes (2023)

There are eleven stories in this collection, chosen and introduced by Lucy Scholes. They are connected by being the era in which they were written – during the Second World War or just after. And they are all by women. The introduction introduces stories that are different, as the title suggests. 

The church clock struck seven. The chimes had a different sound, coming across water instead of grassy meadows. (From The Thames Spread Out by Elizabeth Taylor (252). 

What is different, perhaps, is that women are finding their voices in a more confident way, expanding their experiences during the war, and being taken seriously in the literary world. Many of the writers were regularly published in the New Yorker, for example.

The collection is very varied, including some creepy stories, such as Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds. I have to admit that I didn’t read it, as I did not want to replay Hitchcock’s horror movie in my head. He transposed the setting from Cornwall to California by the way.

Shocking Weather, Isn’t It? by Inez Holden contrasts attitudes in peace- and war time. Bullied and neglected and in prison for theft before the war, Swithin Silas is considered a hero when his cousin goes to visit him a second time in hospital. Now a wing commander, he is considered a hero, the only patient that’s been awarded the D.F.C. with two bars. Inez Holden has written some interesting fiction: There’s No Story There is a novel set in an ammunitions factory where Inez Holden reveals the irony of her own title. 

For me, the two outstanding stories are by the Elizabeths Taylor and Bowen. The Thames Spread Out, quoted above, is a classic story, set on the banks of the Thames, which has flooded. She describes a swan swimming into the house, up to the foot of the stairs. A ‘kept’ woman finds herself reviewing her situation, trapped not just by the river, but also by the routine of the Friday night appearances of her lover. When the Thames recedes, she copies the swan and leaves.

Summer Night by Elizabeth Bowen is set in neutral Ireland, during the war. It contains many complicated characters, is full of people deluding themselves about their lives: a woman driving through the early night to meet her lover; the lover entertaining neighbours unwillingly; the guests are a brother and sister who have an unusual relationship as she is deaf and he would normally be touring Europe; and the home situation of the driver is uneasy too, her husband, their two children and his aunt. As in so much of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, nothing is straight forward. The other stories are also worth reading.

Thanks to JacquieWine’s Journal for the recommendation.

A Different Sound: stories by mid-century writers edited by Lucy Scholes (2023)published by Pushkin Press. 270pp

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)

I was impressed by the craft that went into Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories, Sweet Home. Her characters are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives in and around present-day Belfast, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.

In this second collection of short stories, Dance Move, we are again in the territory of unrealised dreams and gloom lowering over their attempts. Each story is told with a precision in the writing that reveals much more than it says. If you haven’t yet become familiar with Wendy Erskine, let me tell you, you will be bowled over.

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)published by Picador. 223pp

Related posts on Bookword

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (March 2021)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

More Praise for Short Stories (January 2017)

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (June 2016)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston (November 2020)

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden (March 2021)

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The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf

I admire Kent Haruf’s writing greatly, so when I found a copy of his first novel, The Tie That Binds in a second-hand bookshop in Chichester recently I did not hesitate to buy it. I am not alone in my admiration. I was first introduced to his novels by my co-author Eileen. And I was pleased to find that another hero, Ursula le Guin, also rated him very highly. Not quite as polished as his later novels, and a little drawn out in places, I nevertheless found myself gripped by this story of attrition on a farm in Holt, Colorado.

The Tie That Binds

Edith Goodenough (pronounced Good-no) is eighty years old and in hospital, guarded by a police officer, likely to face a charge of murder if she survives. It is 1977. A newspaper man from Denver finds her neighbour Sanders Roscoe and wants some quick, juicy information to flesh out what the police chief has told him. Sanders send him away, because it is impossible to understand Edith without going back to 1896, the year Edith’s parents moved from Iowa to Holt, Colorado, and the year before her birth.

Hating the flashy, quick story of a newspaper, Sanders Roscoe offers to tell us about Edith as if we were across the table from him, drinking our coffee as we listened.

… if a person just wanted to sit down quiet in that chair across the table from me and, since it’s Sunday afternoon, just drink his coffee while I talked, and then if he didn’t want to rush me too much – well, then, I could tell it. I would tell it so it would be all, and I would tell it so it would be right.
Because listen: (13)

We are told of the long connection between the Goodenough and the Roscoe families, from the time that Roy moved with his wife from Iowa to the farm near Holt, Colorado. It is a sad story of Edith, born to a deeply unhappy mother and a domineering father. She had a brother Lyman. The families were neighbours, but as Mrs Roscoe was of first nation descent they kept apart until Mrs Goodenough needed help in childbirth.

After the death of their mother, Edith and Lyman are exploited by their father to help him run the farm. Roy suffers a horrendous machinery accident in which he loses most of his fingers. He becomes dependent upon Edith and her brother to manage the farm. After the old man cuts off his remaining fingers Lyman runs off to see the world. The Roscoe’s son, father of the narrator, must offer help to protect Edith, with whom he is in love. Edith refused to leave her disabled father to marry him. She is bound to him.

Lyman sends back postcards from his travels around the US and an annual wodge of $20 bills to Edith, but he is away for twenty or so years. Roy Goodnough eventually dies. And when his father dies Sanders takes over helping Edith, despite going through a very wild patch himself. The Roscoes are bound as neighbours to provide help. 

When Lyman eventually returns, he and his sister have six good years together before he gets dementia. When Edith can no longer manage her brother she plans a violent and final escape from the farm.

There is much in this story about neighbourliness, community, hardships of farming, growth of the town. But through it runs the requirements of duty, the tie that binds: duty to parents, family and neighbours. All the sympathetic characters understand this, none more than Edith who believes in this very strongly and sacrifices her own happiness and eventual safety to duty. 

By beginning the story more than seventy  years before the drama that the newspaper reporter wanted to capture, Sanders Roscoe is providing a long and deep context for Edith’s actions.

Kent Haruf

Born in 1943, Kent Haruf was 41 before he published The Tie That Binds, his first novel. He had taken on many different jobs in that time, no doubt providing him with insights into the people of Holt, Colorado which was the setting of all six of his novels. 

Writing in her essay in his praise Ursula Le Guin noted that he lived far from the glamour of New York so that he could avoid all the publicity hooha and ideas about literary success:

… he could go on stubbornly being Kent Haruf, doing his job, keeping his defences up. He could go on writing about how hard it is to go on doing what you see as right when you aren’t sure how to do it, or even whether it’s right – how hard we are on one another and ourselves, how hard most of us work, how much we long for and how little we mostly settle for. [p234 from Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night in Words are my Matter]

The theme she identifies here is appropriate to Edith Goodnough. And also, perhaps, to Sanders Roscoe. It’s hard, this life.

Sanders Roscoe tells his story in a leisurely Sunday afternoon fashion, and in colloquial terms and with engaging detail about the characters. and with real love for Edith. He manages to convey the attrition of Edith’s life, as well as her pleasures and the depth of their friendship. 

The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf, first published in the US in 1984 and by Picador in the UK in 2002. 246pp

Related Posts on Bookword

Eventide by Kent Haruf from May 2021

Plainsong by Kent Haruf from September 2018

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf from June 2017

He also wrote Benediction and Where you once Belonged.

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The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter 

People displaced by war, people in fear of political imprisonment, people fleeing as a result of colonialization, people are on the move. And they always have been. But it is a feature of our world because politicians and others try to contain them. As a result, many borders are dangerous places: fences, walls and the sea. 

And to leave your country is to gain much, freedom, safety, new opportunities perhaps. But there is always loss, serious loss: language, familiar landscape, music and other cultural opportunities, clothes, family members, friends, dreams, hopes, dignity and more. These losses may be passed on through the generations.

It is not possible to know in advance whether the journey’s difficulties and the losses incurred will outweigh the dangers and costs of remaining. That’s why there is always a dilemma: stay or leave. There will be loss either way.

The Art of Losing is a long novel following one family, from Algeria, over three generations. From a traditional life on an olive farm, they are caught up in the. Was for independence, leave for France, where they have citizenship but little respect, and finally the third generation are making their lives in present day Paris. 

The Art of Losing

The title of this novel is taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art, quoted in large part at the end of the novel. With considerable sharpness Elizabeth Bishop claims that the art of losing ‘isn’t hard to master’. 

This is a long novel, in three parts, one for each generation. It begins with Ali, who was decorated for fighting in the French army in the Second World War, and notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino. 

But on his return to Algeria he finds that he must question his loyalty to the French colonial power, and face the dilemma of continued loyalty, and the threats of the growing power and violence of the FLN (National Liberation Front). His main concern is to father a son and then to keep his family safe. He must lose the livelihood the olive farm provided, and much more if he chooses to leave for France.

Ali chooses to become a harki, the derogatory term for an Algerian who supported France during the brutal war for Algerian Independence (1954 – 62). The harki were able to continue to claim French citizenship and expect help when they escaped to mainland France as the war ended. 

The honouring of the harki was permeated by racism by the authorities and the areas where the harki were settled: first terrible refugee camps, later ghetto like cités, slums. Healthcare, education, all services were scant for many years. The focus in this central section is Hamid, Ali’s son, who finds himself defined by his family’s experiences in Algeria. The only way to make a life for himself, Hamid decides, is to escape the cité and leave his family. He visits Paris one summer and stays on with Clarissa, with whom he eventually has four daughters.

Naïma is the focus for the final section. Her uncle is critical of the women of her generation:

They claim they are going there to study. But just look at them: they’re wearing trousers, they’re smoking, drinking, behaving like whores. They’ve forgotten where they come from. (4)

Naïma is Ali’s granddaughter, and she does indeed behave like a modern young woman, but she realises that neither her grandfather, nor her own father have told her much about their history. Her ideas of ‘where she came from’ are confused for she has never been to Algeria. Her own mother is a white French woman and her grandmother only speaks her own dialect. The moment comes when Naïma must discover her own family’s history by visiting Algeria.

The journey is painful and full of discoveries and welcomes. Naïma discovers more about what her family has lost. But this does not lead to a resolution. The novel ends with this sentence:

At the moment when I chose to end this text, she has not arrived anywhere, she is movement, she is travelling. (469)

Alice Zeniter has shown us the dilemmas, turmoil and unresolved issues resulting from colonialism (in France, but also everywhere), which affected (and still effects) so many people in the world and she has given her readers understanding of these as human stories through Ali and his family. Sure, there are policy issues, historical economic, demographic problems to be resolved from movements of peoples, but above all the questions they pose are human, too often problems of human tragedy. No wonder the prestigious (and lucrative) International Dublin Literary Award was given to Alice Zeniter and her translator Frank Wynne this year. It’s a remarkable and superb book.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, first published in French in 2017. The English translation from the French by Frank Wynne was published by Picador in 2021. 472pp. Winner of the International Dublin Literary Award for 2022.

Other recommended winners of the International Dublin Literary Award:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (2021)

Milkman by Anna Burns (2020)

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (2010)

Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (2007)

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Beowulf – 3: Grendel by John Gardner

A year ago I posted my first piece about Beowulf. I referred to versions of the poem that I had on my shelves at that time, two of which were designed for children: versions for present-day readers by Seamus Heaney, Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo.

A few months later I reported on a feminist version of the ancient tale. It is called The Mere Wife and is by Maria Dahvana Headley. She suggests that we can look at Beowulf another way, giving a name to Beowulf’s second opponent, Grendel’s mother, and telling a modern version of the story, avoiding depicting her as a monster.

The traditional story is quickly told. Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel, a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her too. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in the battle to protect his people that is his last. 

Beowulf is a poem that delights in masculine power, and it is a story told by men about men for men. For this third Beowulf post I have read Grendel by John Gardner. As the title suggests, his rendition casts Grendel as the main character. When I first read it in the ‘70s, I was entranced. On re-reading it I find it rather overblown. 

Grendel

The story is narrated by Grendel. The monster is a lonely creature, unable to communicate with others; his mother has no language and the humans he encounters do not see beyond his monstrous body. He retells the story of the Danes, from the landscape of war lords, the accumulation of territory and power by Hrothgar, the celebration of Hrothgar’s achievements by the Shaper, including the building of the great hall.

I could have called this post Beowulf meets Jean-Paul Satre, but this would have invited ridicule and mocking accents of Monty Python; and it would have overloaded the interpretation of the story with existentialism and other philosophical references. See Wikipedia, which tells me that John-Paul Satre was a strong influence on Grendel. Judge for yourself.

What John Gardner does is retell the Danes’ heroic history, and Beowulf’s killing of Grendel in a way which subverts the widely known version reproduced above. The mocking reports by Grendel of his alternative version reminds us that victims have a story to tell that is seldom heard.

Grendel is bemused by the people on whom he feasts and not above random acts of cruelty himself. He is maddened by the hypocrisy, the vainglory and the boastfulness of the great hall and its thanes. As we are entirely within the head of Grendel we are privy to his reasoning and responses to those he meets: his mother (a mewling incoherent hag crazed by mother-love), the dragon (a nihilist of great greed), the Shaper (who sings songs of the Danes’ heroic past), the hero Unferth (a coward who is easily outwitted) and Ork the priest (who is deluded by his contact with Grendel). Of Beowulf he has nothing but contempt, seeing him as insane, but able to defeat him in the end.

The reader sees an outsider trying to make sense of a world that is antagonistic to him and offering a counter-version to the truths of great literature and myth. This alternative view was very refreshing in its time. People were revising all kinds of shibboleths and suggesting that some of the ways that were seen as taken for granted may have been illusions, sleight of hand to maintain power.

‘A surprising novel,’ said the editor Diana Athill in Stet (2000)She was recommending a number of novels she had come across and suggested her reader should seek them out, Grendel among them. 

‘If I hadn’t [sought it out] I would have missed a great pleasure – a really powerful feat of imagination.’ (93)

I agree that the imagination revealed is impressive, but I found it overloaded and in the end I tired of Grendel’s obsession with himself.

John Gardner

The author was born in New York state in 1933 and killed in a motorcycle accident in 1982. He taught Creative Writing and wrote other novels. The Art of Fiction and On Being a Novelist were both published in 1983.

This version of the Beowulf myth generated some spin-offs: a film in 1981, voiced by Peter Ustinov; two versions by rock bands, also in 1981; and an opera with dance more recently.

Grendel by John Gardner, published in 1971. I used the Picador version which I bought for 40p. 120pp. This edition contains the illustrations by Emil Antonucci.

Related posts

Beowulf – 1 (February 2021)

Beowulf – 2, in which he meets a feminist (June 2021)

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The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Eleven years ago, in January 2011, I joined a cruise at Tromsø, Norway, going north and then east to Kirkenes, a few kilometres from the Russian border, far inside the Arctic Circle. It was an amazing trip in many ways, not least because of the dark landscape through which we sailed. This was a time of the year when the sunrise was also the sunset.

Sunrise/sunset Kirkenes Norway January 2011

When I was given The Mercies for Christmas I was intrigued to find that it was set in the same area, on an island, Vardø, which we had sailed passed. The dark story matches the darkness of the landscape. In the early seventeenth century, there were dark deeds afoot, cruel attitudes to people who had little power, and men who would profit from the misfortunes of others.

The Mercies

On the remote island of Vardø there was a small community, living off the sea, far away from King Christian IV in Copenhagen. The king wanted to unite his kingdoms, even the farthest reaches, through the power of the church. 

In 1617, on Christmas Day, a sudden, brief and brutal storm destroyed the fishing fleet that had set out from Vardø, and the men were all lost. They left behind a village of women who had to find ways to live out the rest of the winter and continue their lives thereafter. When they were almost out of food, the women set about fishing and managed to survive until the spring. 

This part of the story is narrated from the point of view of Maren, a young woman who lost her fiancé in the storm, along with her brother and father. We see how the women work together to survive until they begin to divide into the pragmatic group, led by Kirsten, and the church group headed by spiteful Toril.

In pursuit of controlling the people of Finnmark, the king’s Lensmann, a fanatic known for ridding the seas of pirates, summons Commissioner Cornet from Scotland to bring the people of Vardø to order. On the way through Bergen he picks up a wife, Ursa. Her point of view now joins Maren’s. Ursa is naïve and unskilled in the arts required of a wife on Vardø. Maren comes to her aid and the two become friends. Ursa’s husband begins his campaign of bringing the women to order. He is a fanatic Calvinist, and so he sees the independence of the women as a challenge to the church’s authority.

The plot takes on a darker form as first the Commissioner goes after the Sámi peoples who live in the area, including Maren’s sister-in-law. And then he finds witchcraft among the women of Vardø. Two of the women are arrested, imprisoned in the grim Vardøhus and when one, Kirsten, will not confess, she is given a public trial by ducking. If you float it is proven you are a witch, if you don’t you probably drown. You lose, you lose.

As the two young women draw closer and the search for more witches looks as if it more of the women of the island will be arrested, tortured and put to death, the two women are forced to act.

 

Off the coast of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, January 2011

Fanaticism, more than the dangers from the elements, or the harshness of life on the island, threatens the women of Vardø. This novel is based in historic truth. There was a storm, and witchcraft was ‘discovered’ and prosecuted in Finnmark, prompted by King Christian IV. There is a memorial to the women on the island by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois. You can see it in the illustration for the review of The Mercies by Sarah Moss in the Guardian here

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

This is the first adult fiction book by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She earned many awards for her children’s fiction, including for The Cartographer’s Daughter (2014). Born in 1990 and currently living in Oxford, Kiran is also known for her poetry.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, published in 2021 by Picador. 342pp

Thank you, Sarah, for another interesting novel set in the past, featuring women who are determined to live as they decide.

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Summerwater by Sarah Moss

To create her compelling fiction Sarah Moss places her characters out of their usual location, often on holiday. The characters are tested, by each other and by the environment and having wound them up she sits back and lets the drama unfold. This is something of a pattern in her books and it is very effective.

In Summerwater the characters are staying in log cabins in a holiday park in Scotland beside a loch. It is summer and it should be beautiful, but it is raining. It is raining so much that it feels like the end of the world. They have no phone signals and no nearby shops. The rain and the random selection of guests at the holiday park isolate the cabins’ occupants from each other.

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between the blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there is no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is falling; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped. (1)

Short interludes, such as this one, separate the chapters. But pause a moment before getting into the story to notice the quality of the writing, the observation that rain in these circumstances gets everywhere and distorts the landscape (the sky is lying on the loch … no distance between cloud and land) and feels visceral. 

The occupants of the log cabins emerge into the day slowly, for what is there to do? Justine takes an early morning run. As she creeps out of the cabin, leaving husband and children sleeping, we learn about her frustrations, the lack of money, the lack of opportunities for families like hers. Her observations about the other occupants of the holiday cabins are revealed, including the Rumanians who held another loud party the previous night.

We meet a young lad who goes kayaking and ventures out on the loch and whose trip nearly ends in disaster. He does not tell his parents. A young teenage girl climbs out of her bedroom window to find a phone signal or to visit the ex-soldier in his tent. Here she is as she escapes from her parents for a while.

She goes along the side of the gravel track, not that anyone would hear her footsteps over the weather, past the cabin with the sad woman who never goes out and the two kids. They’re still having their tea, and the scene reminds her of her old Playmobil dolls’ house, the stiff-jointed figures you could arrange around a green plastic table, the tiny plastic cutlery Mum was always telling her not to lose. The rain is seeping through her leggings and Alex’s hoody is beginning to cling to her hands at the cuffs. (150)

A couple spend most of the day in bed as they pursue his ambition of simultaneous orgasms. An older man, with his increasingly disabled wife takes her for a drive. He muses upon the happy times they had in the park when the holidaymakers owned their own cabins and came every year, providing consistency and friendship. Those times have long gone, and he must take care of his wife in the face of the limitations of the cabin, the park and the weather.

There are nearly middle-aged women who, like Justine, are finding life hard, and this cheap holiday is no holiday for them. Children are bored. The men are bored. Only the Rumanians appear to be enjoying themselves, although some of the holidaymakers think they might be Bulgarians and other that they might be Russians. What’s more, they appear to have phone connections, for as evening arrives so do visitors with drink and music and another party starts.

Here is a nightmare scenario: rain all day, nothing to do, nothing to see except your neighbours, the only thing to think about is your sad life and then loud music at night prevents sleep. Resentment is building and the partygoers are clearly going to be the object of judgements and aggressions that are building up. The men decide to go and ask the Rumanians, or Bulgarians or Russians, or Shit-chenkos, (according to one family) to turn the sound down. 

Watching from the neighbouring cabin the little girl see what happens when they knock on the Rumanians’ door.

The Shit-chenko woman steps back into the cabin and a man comes out with two bottles dangling from between his fingers and nods and hands one to Dad and one to the other dad, and then all of them go inside. (193)

By now the tension is very high and the novel’s resolution unfurls very fast, rather surprisingly and very badly. The little girl witnesses the events. She sees the tragedy, but also the community that is suddenly created in response. 

Sarah Moss writes so well, so succinctly, with detailed observations and, in this novel, fully inhabiting the range of characters in the cabins. 

Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier. [Melissa Harrison in a review in the Guardian in August 2020]

It is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2020) Picador. 202pp. A paperback version is available.

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) in a post of two short reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland (2012) in a post called Bookword in Iceland

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Eventide by Kent Haruf

Any writer admired by Ursula Le Guin is worthy of our attention. In a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night she noted the quality of his writing:

Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter, 213)

All his work is marked by great sensitivity and respect for his characters and their community, and a beautiful even tone which is reassuring and inspiring and helps you believe that there is good in the world, a great deal of good in the world.

It with great sadness that we learned that Kent Haruf died in 2014, so there will be no more novels set in Holt, the small town in Colorado. No more stories where paths cross, and some characters appear in more than one novel and where each of his small number of novels can stand on its own.

Eventide

Many of the people whose stories we follow in Eventide are not coping very well. Some will buckle under the challenges, others will be able to take advantage of the kindness of others, which is a feature of this novel.

Betty and her lumbering husband Luther fear the removal of their children by the social services. She has already had to give up one child in this way and is trying hard to look after the two children she has with Luther. One of the most poignant scenes is the brief moment when Betty’s first daughter turns up, having run away from foster care. They have not seen each other for sixteen years but the visit is not a success, and within two days Donna has gone again.

We met Raymond and Harold McPheron in Plainsong in a moving story where these two old men, as close as twins, running a ranch outside the town, take in Victoria when her mother throws her out. Now we meet them again as Victoria sets out with her baby to attend college. Soon after, Raymond has to witness and survive the death of his brother and his grief nearly overwhelms him, despite Victoria’s assistance. 

DJ is a young lad who lives with and looks after his grandfather, who is old and frail. They live next door to a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. DJ‘s only friend is her daughter, Dena. They make a den in an abandoned hut. After a bad car accident and an affair, the mother and her daughters move to a town two hours away. DJ is left alone.

The most destructive force in the book is Hoyt Raines, Betty’s uncle, who is a bully and without any social responsibility. He is violent to those weaker than him, women and children and unassertive men. He disrupts the lives of several people in Holt before moving on, no doubt to continue as before. He too is not coping with life.

Many of the inhabitants of Holt provide support, large and small, to others when they need it. The friendly barmaid who helps DJ, Guthrie who works on Raymond’s farm when he is short-handed, even the cashier at the supermarket mildly rejects the criticism by another customer who comments on Betty and Luther’s shopping.

The man behind them shook his head at the checkout woman. Would you look at that. They’re eating better than you and me and they’re on food stamps.
Oh, let them be, the woman said. Are they hurting you?
They’re eating a steak dinner and I’m eating beans. That’s hurting me.
But would you want to be them?
I’m not saying that.
What are you saying?
I’m not saying that. (41)

Women are among the most generous of Kent Haruf’s characters. We met Maggie Jones, a teacher, in Plainsong, and she reappears here to introduce Raymond to Rose. Rose is perhaps the most generous of Holt’s residents. She is a widow who works in the social services. She deals sensitively and persistently with Betty, Luther and their children. She also develops a generous relationship with Raymond.

The stories of these characters cross over and affect each other. Every event has ripples which bring people together or tears them apart. There is great kindness, and much gentleness, and neighbourliness. Food is provided, lonely people included in social events, spaces opened up for listening. All of this creates a pervading sense of the value of community. From small or official acts, to the big life-changing events, someone is there to stand by and assist.

Eventide is beautifully written with calm and careful prose, appropriate vocabulary, and no extra punctuation to interrupt the flow of life. The author appears to step away and allows the stories to unfold before you.

Here are Raymond and Victoria, in the hospital, talking about Harold, after he has died. Raymond makes a comment about his brother.

Harold was pretty set in his ways.
They were good ways though, Victoria said. Weren’t they.
I think they were, Raymond said. He was a awful good brother to me.
He was good to me too, Victoria said. I keep expecting him to come walking in that door any minute now, saying something funny, and wearing that old dirty hat of his, like he always did.
That was him, wasn’t it, Raymond said. My brother always did have his own way of wearing a hat. You could tell Harold from a distance anywhere. You tell him two blocks away. Oh hell. I miss him already.
I do too, she said.
I don’t imagine I’ll ever get over missing him, Raymond said. Some things you don’t get over. I believe this’ll be one of them. (95-6)

I love the way this passage shows the affection between Victoria, Raymond and the dead man. And how the speech is authentic, even slightly quirky, honest. How Raymond and Victoria are consoling each other. And how important Harold’s memory will be to them.

I am so pleased that I still have Benediction to read.

Eventide by Kent Haruf, published in 2005 by Picador. 317pp

Related posts

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (in the older women in fiction series)

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

This collection of short stories was a Christmas present from a sister. ‘I’m surprised you don’t know it,’ she said when I thanked her. ‘I know you like short stories.’ She’s right I do. And I like these ones very much. Wendy Erskine has been widely acclaimed for these stories and has published others. They have a particular poignancy and darkness to them. We are warned that all is unlikely to be happy in these stories, for Sweet Home was the name of the plantation in Beloved by Toni Morrison. 

Sweet Home

The ten short stories are all set in and around Belfast. This is the Belfast of the present day, not of the Troubles. These are stories of ordinary people, leading unremarkable lives, although often full or disappointment, loss and failure. The narration is in a down-to-earth, matter of fact tone that suits each story well.

Take, for example, the title story. It begins with the building of a community centre, but moves into the life of its architect and her husband. They seem to live controlled lives, few excitements. They hardly seem to be a couple. They are childless, but it is revealed that they lost a child at six years. A local couple work for them in the garden and in the house, and it appears that the architect’s husband is trying to appropriate their child. It does not end well.

Take, for another example, the story called Arab States: Mind and Narrative. A middle-aged woman, disappointed in her life, begins to obsess about a man she rejected at college. He is now something of a media pundit on the Middle East and has written a book, which gives its own title to the story. She decides to attend an event on the mainland at which he is due to speak. She mismanages the trip. It does not end well.  

Or, for a truly shocking example, Lady and Dog. This story features a teacher who does not want to change her ways. Olga behaves with passive aggression and this is gratingly revealed at the start of the story. She is delaying her meeting with her headteacher by sharpening pencils. Ms Druggan wants to sort a few things out, especially related to Olga’s use of the computer. This is how their meeting ends.

Another thing, if you haven’t switched on your computer in two weeks, do you not feel you’ve missed a lot of communication?
Olga thinks. Not really, she says.
What do you mean not really?
This is a primary school with eight people working in eight rooms. It’s hardly a conglomerate. If anyone needs to speak to me, they know where to find me. And if I need to speak to someone the reverse holds true.
Olga picks up the handbag that has been resting at her feet.
Is that it? she says. (161)

Olga may be capable of sharpening pencils to avoid a meeting, but she is capable of much more instrumental, self-serving and shocking actions in pursuit of other projects outside the school.

These are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.

While her tone is without fireworks, or drama, she is able to be very tender towards her subjects. We are not being asked to despise them. In the story of the widow who looks out at a family of Somalis who have moved in over the road, it is the dreadful son who is unfeeling and self-centred. He does not notice that she also misses his former partner and their son. The story is not about the strangeness of the newly arrived family. It is about Jean’s attention to them, rather than to her son.

Jean’s son Malcolm had decided to make one of his infrequent visits. He took the seat in front of the television and when he turned it on she heard him let out his usual sigh at the poor choice of channels. Jean was positioned at the end of the sofa because it gave the best view out of the window. 
Malcolm was telling her that he had a new boss. The boss had only been in the job a couple of weeks but Malcolm didn’t like him. Some of the others did, up to them, be he didn’t
Only a couple of weeks, Jean said. Still early days then really, isn’t it?
Early days and already not going well, Malcom said.  (35)

These are the opening four paragraphs of Inakeen. You already know everything about Malcolm and his lack of attention to his mother, her life, what she says and his responsibilities. 

In both these quotations you can see that an outstanding feature of her prose is the dialogue.

This is Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories. I will look out for the next one. Thank you Sal for the introduction.

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published in 2018 by Picador, and now available in paperback. 218pp

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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