Posts Tagged ‘England’

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This was … not what I expected.

A band of travellers in the England of 1348, travelling and telling tales to each other over the course of their journeys. The reviews and comments on it make an obvious but – to my mind – highly suspect assertion that this somehow a re-imagining of The Canterbury Tales. In fairness, I don’t think the author Karen Maitland makes that assertion. But many reviewers did and it is in no way a re-imagining of Chaucer.

What Maitland offers instead is a disreputable rabble – liars by profession or necessity or self-delusional – thrown together and roaming the cities, villages, forests and marshes of England. There is an aimlessness about the journey – which has no end point save to avoid the plague – which seems to reflect in the meandering structure of the novel. The opening hundred pages or so chronicle the coming together of an apparently random assortment of nine characters; the final hundred pages finally gets its teeth into becoming a psychological thriller; the middle three hundred pages … meanders.

Sure, we get to see a lot of Maitland’s historical research thrown back at us: details of a variety of cons and tricks and unpleasant menial tasks. But I never felt fully drawn into the world. It felt a little too much like Madame Tussaud’s or Warwick Castle for my liking: somehow it was as if those historical details were waxworks and contrived. As if the history was the end in itself rather than serving the needs of the plot.

And the characters were all rather bleak. Our narrator is Camelot,  a peddlar of relics using his lies to sell ‘hope’. His company is swollen initially by Joffrey and Rodrigo, musicians, and then the travelling magician, Zofield; a pregnant woman and her husband, Adela and Osmund; a waif like child Narigorm, whose white hair and pale skin mark her out as strongly as Camelot’s missing eye, and her nurse Patience; and most bizarrely Cygnus, a boy whose arm is in fact a swan’s wing. I mean, what? A swan’s wing? And everyone just accepts that as a fact? Really?

Not many of the characters were actually all that likeable: Zofield in particular was abhorrent decrying Jews, vampires, women, children and homosexuals with equal vehemence and venom. I mean seriously, why did these people put up with him? Joffrey was a whiney little boy who needed a good slap. His story was possibly the most interesting but one of the least developed. Patience was no more than a silent two-dimensional character. In fact, did Maitland give any of her female characters the richness they deserve? The richness we deserve as a reader?

I could go on.

I did quite like Camelot but his easy acceptance of almost everything he encountered did jar. There was something very modern in his sensibilities which jarred with the setting. I fear that, however unpleasant Zofield was, his was a more typical depiction of attitudes in the fourteenth century.

Having said this, it did keep me engaged and interested through the whole novel although some of the chapter transitions were very abrupt and jarring. Part of the reason for this was the narration by David Thorpe, whose voice had a lovely authentic northernness to it which was wonderfully refreshing. But there were perhaps half a dozen moments when a chapter would end on a slow heavy ominous note and Thorpe would leap in with “Chapter X” in a jaunty voice, full of cheer.

There are two moments I want to highlight for you. The birth of Oswin and Adela’s baby was probably the strongest chapter in the novel – the claustrophobia of the incomplete chapel in which it occurs, the dire warnings and portents surrounding it, the sheer physicality of the task.

In contrast, the final chapter – with its heavily signposted revelation – was a terrible ending. I think Maitland was aiming for a cliffhanger of suspense – like the phone ringing at the end of An Inspector Calls, with which it actually bears many similarities – but it just falls completely flat.

So, in conclusion, I have reservations – mainly that it’s overlong and its characterisation- but I did get gripped and I did enjoy the more psychological thriller aspect. I’d probably read another by her. It was, after all, only her second novel.

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Kate Atkinson is one of those authors who I have been aware of but avoided for a while. I put my hands up, it was and has been deeply unfair of me. Like that chap in the village I grew up in who always crossed the road when he saw my mother to avoid talking to her. For no apparent reason. But the truth is, that with Kate Atkinson, I was that man! And I can remember where this irrational aversion came from: as a young and impressionable fellow, I distinctly recall a copy of Behind The Scenes At The Museum languishing on the corner of our bath. It was my mother’s. And it was water-warped, crinkled, coffee stained and genuinely mouldering. Abandoned. I responded to the sight of the rotting book with a visceral repulsion which I appear to have transferred to the whole of Kate Atkinson’s opus.

Perhaps the fact that the copy of Life After Life I have is the pristine white of the picture has helped overcome that reaction. As well as the praise and publicity which the book received. The list of awards it has won and been shortlisted for (and the quality of the novels which beat it) is impressive: it won the 2013 Costa Award, was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize, Waterstone’s Book of the Year and was nominated in a clutch of other Books of The Year lists. All of which praise, I must say, is absolutely justified.

This is a magnificent and wonderful book.

Recapping the premise briefly, because I’m sure most people are fairly well aware of it already, Ursula Beresford Todd – Little Bear – is born in a legendarily snowy night in 1910 and the novel is essentially a Bildungsroman following her life from mewling babe to her death. Or deaths. Because the narrative continually returns to the birth and snow of 1910 every time Ursula dies and she is born again, re-living the same life with minor variations and changes which often have immense repercussions on her future. If I recap a handful of the ways she dies, we bear witness to her being drowned in the sea, falling from windows, succumbing to Spanish ‘flu during the 1918 Armistice celebrations and on numerous occasions during World War II, on both sides of the conflict.

It could very easily have become a tedious and repetitive conceit save for the beauty, quality and wryness of Atkinson’s writing, and the strength of Ursula as a character. She is created and presented by Atkinson with intelligence and wit, with an emotional depth and delicacy and with such a strong historical and social context that she genuinely does breathe from the page. She is one of the most real characters I have encountered for a while!

There are certain fixed points in Ursula’s narrative which recur life after life: she is born at home in Fox Corner, surrounded by siblings – the warm Pamela, the rambunctious Maurice, the idolised Teddy, later the youngest Jimmy; her father Hugh is a delight and one of the very few realistically portrayed and positive male figures in Ursula’s life; her mother Sylvie is initially endearing enough but descends into bitterness and petty cruelties. The irascible but reliable Mrs Glover who cooks for them and the flighty and romantic Bridget who serves as their maid. Aunt Izzie who only truly appears half way through the novel is delightfully wayward, eloping to France with a married man and embracing the freedom of the libertarian after her return. The family and Fox Corner are perhaps an idealised and mildly sentimentalised depiction of Britain during the wars: it is a world which is un apologetically middle class and bucolic: the gardens and copse and stream and fields and farms behind Fox Corner a pastoral idyll which – as someone who grew up in a not dissimilar part of the country – is not quite real. But it is certainly a vision of Britain which is worth saving and protecting through two world wars… and I imagine that that is the point! At least, for me it was the point.

The idyll of Fox Corner, however, is not wholly idyllic: a sexual predator prowls the lanes and fields, a story which a lesser writer would have brought to the fore; the relationship between Hugh and Sylvie sours and we glimpse Sylvie with another man. This does bring me to my biggest criticism of the book: there are very few good men in it. With the exception of Teddy, Jimmy and Hugh, men generally bring sex and violence into the narrative. In addition to the predator, Maurice brings home a friend whose interest in Ursula is carnal and casual and more cruel because of its casualness; typing tutors study Esperanto and expose themselves; the marriage to Derek Oliphant is abusive in the extreme and a very harrowing depiction of domestic violence; her marriage to . Maurice himself is persistently labelled as vile by his sisters.

And of course there is Hitler. Not the best role model for male readers.

Ursula’s time in Germany, in my opinion, was the most forced and least satisfying part of the novel. Perhaps I just missed Fox Corner as much as she did. But the plot device – if you knew about the horrors of World War II, would you kill Hitler? – seemed a little too familiar and clichéd and unnecessary. Atkinson’s depictions of the war, in both England and in Germany, are so horrific and real and convincing that that the question itself seems redundant.

Atkinson’s writing is absolutely on point at every turn. Where it needs to be tender and tragic we get descriptions like this

“Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.”

Yet, where it needs to be sardonic, a wry and amusing counterpoint to the pain in the novel, we get snippets of doctors whose

“patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him”.

or jarring images of Mrs Glover’s tonguepress intruding itself into one of Ursula’s first kisses. Nor is Atkiinson averse to commenting on the growth of a blackmarket economy in kittens in the farms around Fox Corner, nor dispatching said kittens with a single wry sentence

“To Pamela’s surprise, this promise was kept and a kitten duly acquired from the hall farm. A week later it took a fit and died. A full funeral was held.”

All in all, an exemplary book. Simply by reason of its conceit, it cries out for comparison with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Bone Clocks. For me, this comparison is easy: Life After Life is a truly magnificent book and even The Bone Clocks pales in comparison.

This book has been lurking on my to-read list for a while but has been eclipsed by work, work and work and applying for my own job again and other books and has just slid…

Then I lent it to a friend who devoured it in 24 hours and proceeded to try to talk to me about it – damn her! – and I felt like a numpty having not read it yet whilst she gushed about how much she had cried.

So it was somewhat shamefacedly that I picked it back up again.

And realised what an absolute gem I had nearly missed!

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Harold Fry is a retiree living an outwardly calm and quiet life behind net curtains in Kingsbridge in Devon. He and his wife Maureen rarely speak, sleep separately and circle each other like different planets orbiting the same star. They remind me sharply of my own grandparents in their excessively cleaned home. My grandmother used to polish the apples. With polish.

One day, a letter arrives from an ex-colleague of Harold’s, Queenie Hennessy. She is dying of cancer. Harold pens a reply, pops to the nearest postbox, and then decides to deliver it by hand. To her nursing home. In Berwick-upon-Tweed.

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By foot.

Along the way, Harold encounters a variety of people all bearing their own stories and goodness; and Harold recalls, rediscovers and reconciles himself with the tragedy in his own past.

It is a truly beautiful book! The deep humanity within it is hugely touching. As is the quiet dignity of Harold and the aching struggle that he and Maureen have to communicate.

There was a personal interest in the book: having moved from the Midlands to the North East to the South West, I have literally travelled Harold’s road. The places – the towns – he visits however are briefly mentioned: Exeter, Taunton, Bath, Ashby de la Zouch, Darlington are little more than names and sketchy details. There is, however, a deeper love of England and nature beyond any passing urban description.

This book revolves deeply around the love and pain of family: the pain of a child feeling unwanted by his parents; of a father being unable to connect with his son; of a husband and wife estranged within the same home; of how the humdrum routine of life can dull the passions and joys and racing heart of earlier time.

Joyce’s language is full of the quiet dignity of her characters. By way of an example, Harold

wished the man would honour the meaning of words, instead of using them as ammunition.

There is a twist to the novel – which I won’t spoil for you – and a critical event twenty years earlier around which the novel revolves. I am pleased to say that it was a twist that I hadn’t anticipated or expected .. and that rarely happens these days!

Returning to my grandparents, my Grandad did run away from home once. On my Granny’s birthday. He didn’t get terribly far: he was wearing slippers and their drive was gravelled and hurt his feet. So he popped over the grass to the neighbours and knocked on their door. Just imagine how far he could have gone had their drive been tarmacked!