Who would have thought that moving house, specifically unpacking cardboard boxes, could consume so much time? It is time I would rather have spent on writing, including writing for the blog. Today I am posting two short reviews. They are not connected, except in being books I have read recently, although both treat quite dark themes with a strong leavening of humour. The first can be linked to my theme of novels with strong older women characters. The older male characters are strongly drawn as well.
Muriel Spark Memento Mori
This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre, but is quite redeemed by its comedy. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s, the story concerns a connected group of older people.
Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, (owner of the Colston works) is concerned for her, until he receives his own calls and then his concern is all for himself. His wife Charmian, a novelist, quite accepts the reminder when she receives it. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).
In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.
Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now an inhabitant of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.
‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (p179)
Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Everyone is at the mercy of the physical expressions of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going. ‘The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen …’ (p185)
This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do.
Lively, merry, harsh. Look on death or it will visit you. Or go away for a holiday.
David Lodge (no relation) reviewed Memento Mori recently in the Guardian. He said, ‘it is a wonderfully funny and exhilarating read’.
Sarah Moss Night Waking
The second novel was published in 2011 and recommended to me by my friend Marianne. As the title suggests the tensions in it come from the lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.
Those who care for young children will know of their deadening demand for repetition. In this novel it is The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson’s wonderful tale of a clever mouse’s adventures. Sarah Moss manages to convey the tedium of repetition without spoiling the original.
Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads Anna to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman in Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.
By the end of the novel Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. She has helped a family who have come as trial guests to the holiday home on the island and decided that her older son needs a little help with his rather bizarre fixation on death and catastrophe.
The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. Nicely observed and with an interesting setting and good bit of historical research wound in.
The Guardian Review of this book can be found here.
Both were very good reads.
The next post will be the Readalong: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen.
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