Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Paying Guests

I love Sarah Waters. Or at least, I love her Victorian novels, Fingersmith remaining one of my all time favourite books: if you haven't read it, why not? Go and do so immediately!  However, I have to admit to giving up on The Night Watch (tedious) and, although I enjoyed The Little Stranger, and thought Waters captured a crisp, haunting atmosphere, it seemed to lack something, some ribbon that would draw it all together as one neat, enclosed package.  But, I loved Fingersmith so much, consider it such a perfect masterpiece, that I am always willing to give a new Waters a go, and bought The Paying Guests without the slightest idea what it was about.  That's trust, no?

The story is set in 1922. Welcome to a middle class suburban London peopled largely by women and the ghosts of the men they lost in the War.  This is the beginning of the Britain we know now, when once well-heeled families, no longer able to afford servants, must do their own housework and shopping, and hang their heads at the shame of it all.  It is an unhappy world, grey, faded, cracking and peeling. Frances and her mother, desperate to hang on to the family house, despite having lost most of the family that once lived in it, take in a lodging couple, the Barbers, who seep into their lives in unexpected ways - although I have to say that if you know anything at all about Sarah Waters, what happens is not that unexpected! And that might be my first criticism: the first two thirds of the book are taken up with nothing more than the 'shocking' revelation that Frances is gay.  Now I accept what Waters is doing here - she takes a glimpse of that twenties Bohemianism, that 'anything goes' attitude of the Bright Young Things, and stuffs into the moral circles of middle class society long before that society is ready even to acknowledge its existence, let alone accept it.  Frances has been forced to give up her girlfriend and now withers, little more than a housekeeper for her mother, who ignores what she knows about her daughter and continues to try and set her up with a 'nice young man'. 

So, that is, as I say, the first two thirds of the book.  The characters are believable, are real, and grow over the expansive time Waters gives them to do so.  Relationships are complicated, and become more so as the book unwinds.  Plot revolves around these people, with little seen of the world beyond the house on Champion Hill at all.  People go out for the day, but we rarely go with them: instead we stay in the house, and begin to feel as hemmed in, as claustrophobic, as Frances herself does.

But this is Sarah Waters, and I kept reading, kept reading, waiting for the twist, waiting for the action to come.

And it does. It comes suddenly, not entirely unexpectedly, but shockingly, nevertheless.  And it is classic Waters.  It is a game changer.  And the book becomes something else.  I couldn't put it down. My mind was running reels.  And I wonder if this is the cleverness, the enjoyment I get from Waters' books, that I am never satisfied that I have the whole, or indeed the real story... I found the end slightly disappointing, a bit wishy-washy - or did I?  Because even when it's all over, I still find myself asking, yes, but did Lilian...?  Could she have..?  Did she...?  

Although I felt the first half of the book could have been shorter, and although the ending did not excite me as much as I would have liked, I still loved this book.  It was easy to read, a real page turner, and thrilling, in places, as only Sarah Waters can be.  It retains touches of the Victorian melodrama that I feel is her true strength, and to which I wish she would one day return, whilst capturing the feel of post-war cynicism: I found the distrust of veterans, begging on street corners, an interesting, and probably accurate, middle class female attitude that sat nicely alongside the more accepted canonising of lost sons and husbands.

I would heartily recommend The Paying Guests, and would go so far as to say it is close to being a return to form of one of Britain's most brilliant writers.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters

This is such a fun book. Black as all hell, but fun nevertheless.

It tells the story of seven sisters with outlandish names (I particularly fell for Pertilly and Manticory) and even more outlandish hair which, in the age of Millais's Ophelia, makes them popular with men of a slightly grubby, fetishistic persuasion, a couple of whom see a business opportunity and proceed to exploit the poor backwoods girls mercilessly.  They are not alone, however: demonic eldest sister, Darcy - who, in a surreal twist late in the book, actually becomes physically diabolical - is a stunning literary villain, and from the very beginning, the reader's heart aches for her comeuppance. But this is just one of the many strands, woven like a lustrous auburn plait into a complex plot, that urges you through Manticory's narrative to the explosive denouement.

The characters themselves are key here, and all fulfil their given roles beautifully.  Each sister is, if anything, slightly two dimensional (and in a few cases, personality is little more than plot device) but this seems to me to be purposeful: seven varied personalities makes for one whole, complex entity, and I do feel that author Michelle Lovric wanted the girls to be nothing alone, but to function purely as part of a greater whole.

The Harristown Sisters will not tax you overly, but equally is more than just froth.  It has something to say (perhaps about the eternal exploitation of women, perhaps about society's worship of the physical and vacuous, perhaps about the complexity of familial and romantic relationships...) but is above all, a beautifully written (I love the slow crows and thin geese), right rollicking adventure through poverty to wealth and back again, from Ireland to Venice and back again.  

If Christmas is starting to take up all your time, and you need a book that will transport you from mundane everyday nonsense without feeling like you are feasting on cotton wool, this is perfect. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

A couple of classics

As I'm sure I've said here before, I frequently roll against the grain and judge books by their covers. I was thus tempted by the delicious designs of the Penguin English Library classics collection, and opted for Waterstones' bargainacious 2 for £10 offer.  (There, a little free advertising for our only remaining high street book chain, which, as my best friend keeps telling me, I cannot complain about losing if I don't shop there.).  This is what enticed me to buy:

I intend to build a lovely big library of these classics. Not only does the design appeal to me, but the books themselves are gorgeous to read - I'm in love with the paper, the typeface, the complete package. This series really enhances the whole reading experience.  And as for the content... Well, it's tried and tested, isn't it?

I'm not sure I've ever read a novel as unputdownable as The Woman in White. I have a sneaky suspicion I should have read it as part of the Victorian Melodrama module of my degree, but clearly didn't, which is also clearly a great shame.  But then, we never enjoy what we are forced to read as much as that which we choose for ourselves, so maybe my lack of diligence at 18 is a blessing now. Either way, I cannot recommend this highly enough if you haven't already read it. It's heart-racingly exciting from about page 40 onwards, with a twist on virtually every page thereafter.  There is a bevy of likeable, detestable, frustrating, brave, and pathetic characters spilling out of every new narrator's tale, and the myriad coincidences that move the story ever onward are actually a breath of fresh air in today's cynical literary world.  And now I know where Sarah Waters gets so much of her inspiration from; I love to see that heritage passing through the generations. Utterly brilliant.

The Mill on the Floss is an entirely different proposition.  The Woman in White might be considered populist fluff in comparison, though the populist fluff of the 1860s hardly warrants linking with that of similar criticism today. George Eliot specialised in 'normal' tales of 'normal' people, though Maggie Tulliver can in no way be considered a 'normal' Victorian woman, despite the fierceness with which she tries.  There is clearly an element of the writer in her, and as such, Eliot's compassion for Maggie shines through every mistake the poor girl makes.  The book is both a riveting story and a serious criticism of aspects of society - and a criticism that still largely holds true.  The fact that the women of the town prefer salacious gossip to a truth that is staring them in the face, and that this gossip ruins a woman's life, sounds to me remarkably similar to stories we hear of people destroyed by comments on social network sites.  Eliot's satirical look at the stress placed by people on material goods as indicators of social standing...again, is this not the very society we live in now?

Despite a rather melodramatic and unconvincing ending, I admit to shedding a tear for the inevitably tragic Maggie, and for finally finding, in Stephen Guest, a character to rival Angel Clare as 'most villainous gentleman in all literature'!  Again, utterly brilliant.

I try, every year, to read at least two or three classics that I have hitherto missed, and after enjoying these two so much - the quality of the writing alone is addictive - I feel I will have no problem increasing my intake.  A brief respite from the old in order to avoid spoiling myself with over-indulgence, and I shall be back for more, hungrily feasting on the Penguin English Library with gusto.

A Death in the Family

This is one of those books that I bought purely because 'everyone's talking about it', it's a 'literary sensation', blah blah blah. And it is well written, and I suppose it's interesting in the sense that every intelligent person's life is interesting because articulateness enables them to turn ordinary events into great swathes of philosophy. But in all honesty, I found that while it made me feel worthy, and garnered approving looks from fellow bibliophiles on trains, I just couldn't get into it, and even found I was preferring to snuggle directly into my duvet at bedtime than pick up this book. As a result, I gave up at about page 100.

In its favour, I will say that perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood for it, as I have enjoyed similar books in the past, and I have left a bookmark - ok, the receipt - in it at the page at which I gave up, should I decide, at any further prompting and persuasion, to resume reading. My overall response to A Death in the  Family, though, is that my life is too short to spend listening to Karl Ove Knausgaard philosophising about his own. It's no Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that's for sure.

Friday, 4 July 2014


The adjective most applied in publicity for and reviews of this novel is "timely", which in some ways does it a disservice. It is about the First World War, and so, in this centenary year, is indeed auspicious, but there is a richness to Wake that raises it above the average.

Briefly, it takes place over the 5 days in 1920 when the 'Unknown Warrior' was selected and brought from the battlefields of France to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey. The story follows three women, each touched by the loss of a loved soldier during the war. To say more would be to give too much away.

It is beautifully written, in prose that conjures without inappropriate embellishment: London two years after the war is described as a "post-khaki world".  I found I understood all three characters - they seem to represent three stages of life - without necessarily liking them or even agreeing with their views or behaviour.  The five days are also symbolic: the exhumation of the body as the women confront their issues; the journey of the Unknown Warrior as the women fight their demons and learn new truths; its arrival at Westminster Abbey as those demons are laid to rest. This analogy is not as clunky as my explanation makes it sound, however. The book is a Galaxy chocolate bar, smooth as silk, the storylines winding in and out of each other like funereal ribbons.

I could easily see this as a BBC drama, and if you want to see how it would look, check out the YouTube footage of the procession of the coffin; you can almost see Ada and Ivy laying wreaths at the cenotaph.

Wake is a superb example of its type, an intelligent, interesting, well-written story that rewards the thoughtful reader. Anna Hope could potentially give the likes of Helen Dunmore a run for her money, and I look forward to hearing more from this first timer in the near future.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Viper Wine

I wanted so much to come up with a brilliant, poetic, intelligent, witty opening line for this review, one that reflects, and is worthy of, the brilliant, poetic, intelligent, witty content of the book itself...but as you can see, I failed dismally. And that is why Hermione Eyre is a novelist, and I am but an English teacher.

Viper Wine tells the story of Lord Kenelm and Lady Venetia Digby, happily married and somewhat oblivious to the rumblings of imminent civil war in 1630s England. Now, the first thing that is of interest here is that these characters were once real people. I find that I really enjoy fictionalised accounts of real people's lives. Fine, you say, but what makes their story novel-worthy? I've never heard of Kenelm and Venetia Digby, you say, so why has Hermione Eyre chosen to fictionalise their lives? The answer is simply that they were each extraordinary: Kenelm (I pronounce it with a silent "l" for my own aesthetic purposes, though this may well be entirely wrong) was a natural philosopher, a scientist in an age when science was looked at askance by common folk, named witchcraft by some and outrightly poo-pooed by others. Venetia, however, a great beauty in her youth, is perhaps of greater interest to a reader cynical of our own age's insidious obsession with appearance, for the lengths to which she will go to retain her youthful radiance is almost instantly recognisable from the pages of current women's magazines. The Viper Wine of the title is exactly that, a concoction imbibed by Venetia and her friends, the active ingredient of which is snake poison. It is no different to a Botox injection, and the result, by all accounts, was virtually the same: a china smooth complexion and a rigid, blank expression.

So much, then, for the content - and I must be honest here and say that as plots go, this is fairly thin. BUT - and this is the entire crux of the matter - the way this book has been dovetailed together, written, illustrated with both images and genuine documents, is a revelation. Eyre's style is at once lyrical, funny, grand and chatty. Viper Wine is both personal and impartial, both gossip mag trash and scholarly account. A favourite line from early on:

"She has filled her paps out with paper and her eyebrows are made from mink hair and egg white, but she looks good on't."

It makes me smile. It also makes me frown - have women really poisoned and tortured themselves in this manner for so many centuries? Does nothing change? Do we not learn?

And then, on top of all this, Eyre has somehow injected into this decidedly Stuart story, our own world. The modern seeps through the cracks in Gayhurst House like snakes through chicken wire. It is subtly done, and with a surgeon's precision; anachronisms abound. When Kenelm returns from an overseas voyage, he gives a talk to high minded individuals who will spread the word of his discoveries; in other words, he holds a press conference: 

"You're not the kind of man who turns back, though, are you?" said Michael Parkinson, ingratiatingly.
"Are you an authoritarian below decks? Do you swing the cat-o'-nine-tails?" said Jonathan Ross, a fool with weak 'Rs'.
"Ask my crew," said Kenelm.
"We did," said Ross. "Some of them liked it a lot." 
"And did you divide your profits amongst your crew?" asked Paxman, wincing with his own impertinence.

Later, Kenelm sings to his son, and the lyrics are Bowie. Words like "nanotechnology" are scattered carefully over the pages, yet never seem out of place embedded in the archaic language of Cromwellian England. It is beautifully done.

As well as the central players and beautiful writing, there is so much else in this book to fall in love with: the comically grotesque figure of Ben Jonson ("He spoke almost entirely in his own verses now... His brain had become the maggoty, abbreviated book of his own quotations"), and the scene in which Inigo Jones puts together a court masque is so craftily layered with image and meaning that it becomes far more than just another chapter in a good book:

"Inigo Jones [was] in the gantry, using a megaphone. 'These shows are nothing else but light and motion,' [...] said Inigo, sitting in his director's chair."

Mary Tree is another delight; her tragicomic story weaves in and out of the main action until the very end, when she finally Miss Marples her way into the primary plot.

Stylistically, this novel is very filmic. Eyre frequently uses the cinematic technique of cutting between Venetia and Kenelm, juxtaposing their actions with short, fast edits. In places, I realised that what I saw in my mind was the BBC's 2005 Casanova. The sense of heightened reality, of dark, tragic glamour, is very Baz Luhrman.

I think that finally, in a nod to those bookworms who, like myself, still shun the e-reader, it is worth mentioning that this is also physically a remarkably pleasing book.  It is, in hardback, a lovely size and shape, comfortable to hold, and I love the typeface.

Despite its anachronistic heart, then, Viper Wine paints, like Van Dyck in the book, a very true picture of Noble (and sometimes noble) Stuart Britain.  It is fun, exciting, pertinent and above all, utterly enjoyable. Taste Hermione Eyre's lyrical alchemy for yourself.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Quiet Dell

I always judge a book by its cover, or at least select a book by its cover, and the photo on  the front of Quiet Dell drew me to it: a large group of sepia men, shirted and hatted, stand in a circle around an earthy hole they are clearly digging. A few haughty women hang back, hands on hips, and there is an air of discomfort, as though what is happening here is distasteful, unpleasant, disquieting.

A quick recce of the blurb placed the scene: bodies are being recovered, the bodies of a woman and her three children murdered by a man posing as a suitor. Although I had never heard of this, the Harry F. Powers case, (why are murder cases always remembered by the murderer's name, not the victims'?) I get the impression it is one of those that lives in the American consciousness, has become almost folklore, and in Quiet Dell, Jayne Anne Phillips brings the story and those it affected to life by fictionalising it.

Her research is awe inspiring; littered throughout the novel are actual newspaper reports and trial transcripts, photographs - the one on the cover is genuine, which perhaps explains its haunting quality - and witness testimony. This really works, and, certainly for the first two thirds of the book, reality and fiction are woven together beautifully. I even remained transfixed when one of the few entirely made-up characters, a female journalist, falls immediately in love with the banker who genuinely funded the investigation. It's utterly implausible, but I was already hooked and went with it, as one does with a book one is enjoying. However, Phillips does start to push me when this same journalist finds and adopts a street urchin while she is covering the trial.  Furthermore, the way she speaks is ludicrous.  Even in the thirties, no-one - except perhaps Celia Johnson - talked like this:

"I'm a reporter, here to write about the trial.  You're not going to steal anymore because you're going to work for me...You will be my assistant and archivist. An archive is a collection of documents...I have a separate room in the hotel where you can sleep, and you can begin work tomorrow, that is, if you're willing to have a bath and a meal. Are you willing? ...I need to hear that you understand and that you accept my terms."

And that's just how she addresses eleven year old thieves!

For all that, I really did enjoy this book. It is bursting at the seams with atmosphere and intriguing characters - I would have loved more about Powers' odd wife and her strange sister, for example, and his father, who is sympathetic yet disturbing. These complex characters are the book's strength, and perhaps Phillips should have stayed with them rather than creating lead roles of her own.

The magnitude of Powers' serial murders will always remain unknown - he was convicted and executed for one death, but may have been responsible for literally hundreds. This book goes some way towards bringing to life the victims behind the police statistics. Much is made of the horror of their final days, bound and starved in cells below his garage, and there is no jot of glamour attached to Powers himself; he is presented as a pathetic and impotent creature.

For me, this is a winter book that I read at the wrong time of the year, and though flawed, is atmospheric and intriguing enough to warrant recommendation, if with reservation.