Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Children's Book (1)

I had wanted to read all the 2009 Booker shortlist. Before the winner was announced, I managed only two, The Glass Room and The Little Stranger, both of which I loved. There was a stretch in the middle of the Sarah Waters' where I felt some tighter editing might have moved things along a little more pleasingly, but this minor fault was more than made up for by the novel's chilling last line. She is truly a mistress of storytelling - I still haven't forgiven her for the twist that comes halfway through Fingersmith, a shock so great that when I read it, I had to put the book down and lie silently for an hour before I was able to continue with my life!

The Children's Book was too large, as was Wolf Hall, to carry around, and with some misgiving I determined to leave them both until their paperback counterparts were available. Wolf Hall comes at the beginning of March, but I am delighted to say that I am now happily ensconced in the lightweight version of The Children's Book. And it was worth the wait.

Beginning in 1895, this vast opus, part novel, part social history, bridges for me a fascinating gap. Last summer's guilty pleasure was the watching of Desperate Romantics, and subsequent reading about the pre-Raphaelites and their influence on the Arts and Crafts movement and indeed, the social reform it spawned. In addition to this, I have long held a crush on Rupert Brooke, and find the late Edwardian era and First World War a compellingly interesting time. Class issues and the rights and standing of women were at the forefront of reform, and the budding of the world we now live in began in that bloodied soil. These two eras are joined by The Children's Book; one character is a Rossetti 'Stunner', others are related to major players in Brooke's short and turbulent life. It is immensely satisfying to be able to identify people and places as real, and to know already something of the world immediately preceding that of AS Byatt's creation, and the one that follows.

I would add that this is a book entirely suited to the title of this blog; I find myself curled up and reading by candlelight night after night, frustrated only that I am too exhausted during the week to dedicate more of my time to it. It is an enthralling story, filled with characters with whom I am already, after only 200 pages, very much in love. It is real, and yet part dark fairytale, and ultimately deeply satisfying; true literary porridge.


I am always looking for novels that contain the same spirit as I Capture the Castle. There is something uniquely captivating about that book, as, I suppose, its title suggests. I look frequently for its spiritual successor in the Persephone catalogue, a search which has led me now to Saplings, by Noel Streatfield.

This is one of the few novels Streatfield wrote for adults, and yet still its main voices are those of children. It is for me curiously nostalgic, as I am sure it will be for other devotees of Ballet Shoes et al (my personal favourites were the Gemma books, which I had in a gloriously 60s box set that I am unable to trace); Saplings brims with Streatfield's trademark realism, the acutely drawn observations of human nature, the simple didactic tone that never condescends, and this style, along with certain recognisable characters and situations, takes me straight back to my childhood. And yet this is in no way a book for children. There is sex. There is attempted suicide, caused by haunting loneliness and spiteful relations. There is hopelessness not always assuaged.

And yet there is beauty. The summers are idyllic: green, wild, adventure-filled, dripping with scuffed shoes and muddy ankle socks, grazed knees and torn dresses. Behind it all, of course, lurks the menace of War, the reality of which is brought cruelly home in the form of several tragic deaths. And it is this that forms the backbone of the novel; Streatfield is asking us in Saplings to look carefully at the effect of prolonged tragedy on children, particularly when that same tragedy takes hold of the adults on whom the children rely for security, and who are themselves unable to give what is required. Little worlds collapse, often entirely unnoticed, and the pieces are not put back together. War torn families learn too late that the physical survival of a child is not, within itself, enough.

The story centres simply on a middle class family - mother, father, four children, their nanny and governess - on whom the horror of the Second World War pays several unkind visits. The children are drawn with genuine insight. They are earnest, funny, sweet, heartbreaking...they try hard, but make mistakes, mistakes that in normal circumstances would have been sorted out and forgotten, but which in this abnormal situation are ignored, often with tragic psychological consequences. Laurel in particular, as the eldest daughter, bright but plain, suffers enormously at the hands of throwaway comments made by distracted adults, and our hearts bleed for her.

Streatfield illustrates with precision the decline of the family's happiness and hope. She never overwhelms us, and never preaches, but allows the story simply to unfold through a series of differing perspectives. Her adults are slightly misty, wavering at the edges and never as clear and defined as the child characters; but this in fact is exactly right for a book whose central thread concerns the failing of children by those distant adults.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Little Boy Lost

In an awful hurry just before Christmas, I bought two books from one of my favourite publishers, Persephone, without really looking at them. This wasn't quite as spontaneous as it may sound, as both were on my Persephone wishlist: Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, and Saplings by Noel Streatfield. I discovered when I got them home that they share subject matter; both are about the effect of war, specifically WWII, on children.

In Little Boy Lost, a father returns to France just after the war in order to find his young son, whom he met only once when he was a baby. In spare, careful prose, Laski conjures a France brought almost to its knees by the effect of the fighting; Paris and countryside alike are bombed out ruins, the people wary and fragile. Those who collaborated with the Germans are rejected by their villages, left to hold cold, haughty chins high amidst disparaging looks and turned heads.

Like Elizabeth Taylor, Laski creates for us characters that are not wholly likeable, and in that, are wholly human. One wants to beat one's fists against Hilary's chest as the final chapters speed by and one can see the mistake he will make even as he cannot - or perhaps, as he will not, for surely even this broken man understands what he will lose in exchange for fleeting pleasure? And it is here then, that one realises that the lost little boy of the title is not the child who is physically missing, but the man who searches for him; Hilary has lost sight of his own purpose, his own sense of self, and in this respect is perhaps an everyman for a post-war landscape.

The heart of the novel, however, is the child. Jean, who may or may not be Hilary's son, is drawn with pity at his core. He is small and skinny with huge dark eyes; he wants nothing more out of life than to one day go on a train. His reaction to the meagre gift Hilary brings him - the first present he has ever received - is surely one of the most moving scenes in literature. And yet Jean is so much more than just a small boy placed to tug at our heartstrings; he is a lesson in what becomes of displaced and orphaned children during wars. His is not an overly harsh existence, nor even entirely loveless, but it is stripped of nuance, of the care of the individual; in this post-war Europe, children are spare parts, leftovers; they are not the centre of anyone's universe, as all children should be. And when one sees how placing him in the centre changes both his own and Hilary's life, however briefly, one begins to understand quite how much is lacking in lives made hopeless so early.

This is a beautiful book, simple, human, intelligent and crafted with great talent. Laski is overlooked today, but she remains a writer of importance in both subject matter and skill; the very last line of Little Boy Lost is alone proof of this fact.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Women Who Read Are Dangerous

Is there anything brings greater pleasure to a bibliophile than a longed for Amazon delivery? Arriving home from work this afternoon, I found a box sitting in the porch - I have treated myself to two books I was hoping Father Christmas might bring, but which were clearly too inflammatory for his sleigh: The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters (thus rendering my last post, in which I said my next journey Mitfordwards would be an attempt to trace Wigs on the Green, a blatant lie), and the beautiful Women Who Read Are Dangerous. Neither are books I intend to sit and read from cover to cover, but rather will be dipped into. And of course, my first move when I had ripped the box from around them was to dip.

The Mitford epistles cheer me nearly as much as Wodehouse. The style, the humour, the ludicrous abbreviations and nicknames transport me to another world. More on these as I read.

Women Who Read Are Dangerous was brought to my attention by an article in The Guardian shortly before Christmas. I looked for it, unsuccessfully, in Waterstone's, and decided in the end to order it blind online - after all, how wrong could I go with such a title? I am not disappointed. It's a lovely large hardback, chock full of colour plates; simply, paintings and photographs of women reading. The Virgin Mary, in 1333, hides her devotional book from a visiting angel; in 1952, Marilyn Monroe loses herself in Ulysses. The commentary is intelligent, interesting and captures its reader perfectly:

"She is young and in her own bed. Her parents allow a certain amount of bedtime reading, but all too soon her mother or father will come to turn the light out, tell her that it's time to sleep. The door will be left open when the parent leaves to to ensure the light stays off. The girl will wait until she hears her parents' voices in another room, knows they are occupied with other matters. Then she will make a cave under the blankets, open her book inside the cave.
This girl knows the value of a good flashlight; she leaned that from Nancy Drew. She will read until she falls asleep, and neither her parents nor anyone else will ever be any the wiser."

My own childhood could not be better captured by my own hand. And if you gasped at its accuracy with regard to your own, I urge you to order yourself a copy of this delicious publication.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Last book of the year...

It's not usual that I should be in a position to start a new book on the first of January; however, I finished Hons and Rebels on the thirty first, and opened Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost (about which more later) at the dawn (literally) of the new decade. There is something pleasingly tidy about that.

I'm a huge Nancy Mitford fan - there, it's said - and of course am fascinated by the whole Mitford family. Although I have quite a collection of books by and about them, I had not yet read Hons and Rebels, Decca's account of the girls' upbringing, and decided it was high time I did. It was enjoyable - and of course, deeply moving - but by the author's very nature was throughout more serious in tone than other biographies, and for me, is not as delicious as either Mary S Lovell's The Mitford Girls or Laura Thompson's wonderful Life in a Cold Climate. The latter in particular, though ostensibly about Nancy, captures the whole brood vividly, and realises an aristocratic England of the twenties and thirties that is, for better or for worse, long gone. My personal predilection for the glamour of the first half of the twentieth century is constantly fed by the vast number of books about this family, and indeed, by the books Nancy herself wrote. My next journey Mitfordwards will be Wigs on the Green (which I have half-heartedly been trying to track down for some time), Nancy's parody of her sister Unity's fervant (and indeed, fatal) Nazism. I recently came across original penguin paperbacks of The Water Beetle and Noblesse Oblige, two of her works of non-fiction, which now sit proudly on my shelf under a pair of black and gold art deco shoes. And with that thought, I commit the readings of 2009 to the library of the past and reach for the first of this year's offerings.