Posts Tagged ‘homosexuality’

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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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I am a huge Patrick Ness fan!

Let me put that out there at the start of this.

I hugely admired his Chaos Walking Trilogy but was utterly blown away by the visceral emotion and mythic scope of A Monster Calls. There are few books that dig inside you as much as that one.

This book is different again: much closer to the feel of Chaos Walking although without the epic scope and scale – and no less powerful for that.

At one level, the book is a rip-roaring adventure: Seth, our protagonist, dies in the prologue. On page 11. Dies with 469 pages left to fill. Those pages recount what Seth does after his death. Maybe.

Having died in a frigid ocean, in winter, in America he is somewhat surprised to have found himself on the path of his parents’ old house in an abandoned and apparently post-apocalyptic English town in Summer. Alone. Perhaps.

Echoes of I Am Legend, Robinson Crusoe and George Romero’s films – minus the zombies – abound as Seth navigates this empty town, discovers and loots from camping stores and supermarkets. There’s even a discovery of a foot print to make the link to Robinson Crusoe stronger.

Seth discovers – or is discovered by – two other survivors in the town: the defensive and resilient Regine and the delightfully tenderly vulnerable Tomasz. And with them, the book acquires other echoes: a sinister black-clad visored Driver pursues them as if stepping out of a Terminator movie; the world has – or may have – integrated – or been forced to integrate – itself into a digital alternative reality programme in the style of The Matrix.

There are sufficient run-ins with, escapes and rescues from and fights with the Driver that this book could be read purely at that adventure story level.

It does follow the tropes, patterns and cliches of the science fiction / action adventure movie genre.

And behind the adventure that awaits Seth in the world he wakes up in is a beautifully tender and painful tale of growing up. Seth is one of the very few gay characters I can bring to mind in Young Adult fiction. His secret relationship with Gudmund is described in beautifully tender prose. The taking of the photograph, which eventually exposes their relationship, is real and touching and deeply moving. As is the pain of separation between them.

And beneath this coming-of-age narrative is the deeply traumatic tale of Owen, Seth’s younger brother, who was – perhaps – abducted from their home when Seth was eight.

It’s a book of books, of stories, of narratives. Characters’ pasts are revealed in dreams and flashbacks; characters reveal parts of their own stories to each other. The sharing and offering of their own stories rendering them vulnerable and binding the trio together.

Towards the beginning of the book in a flashback, Seth and his friends Gudmund, Monica and H are discussing the cheerleaders and Gudmund considers having sex with one for a bet to which Seth replies

“What,” Seth said, “and then secretly find out that she’s got a heart of gold and actually fall in love with her and then she dumps you when she finds out about the bet but you prove yourself to her by standing outside her house in the rain playing her your special song and on prom night you share a dance that reminds not just the school but the entire wounded world what love really means?”
He stopped because they were all looking at him.
“Damn Seth,” Monica said admiringly. “‘The entire wounded world.’ I’m putting that in my next paper for Edson.”
Seth crossed his arms. “I’m just saying a bet over Gudmund having sex with Chiara Leithauser sounds like some piece of shit teenage movie none of us would watch in a million years.”

And that’s the point. Seth knows how cliched some of the events are. He avoids living in the cliches of these narratives. The existence of convenient cliches cause him to come close to dismissing the reality of the world because it follows narrative tropes. He recognises that last-moment rescues would be expected if he were living through a story. He expects apparently dead antagonists to return for one last assault.

And he questions that. And we question it.

Is the world real? Are his memories and dreams real? Are Regine and Thomasz real? Are they echoes of Viola and Manchee from Chaos Walking? Are Owen, Gudmund, H or Monica real? Is the love between Seth and Gudmund real?

And does it matter?

This is one of the most thoughtful and – dare I use a deeply unfashionable word? – philosophical novels I have read for a long time. And the philosophy within it never becomes pure exposition. It is always embedded in character – and often undermined by either Regine’s pragmatism or Tomasz’ affection. As Regine tells Seth:

“I think I’m the only real thing I’ve got… wherever I am, whatever this world is, I’ve just got to be sure I’m me and that’s what’s real.” She blows out a cloud of smoke. “Know yourself and go in swinging. If it hurts when you hit it, it might be real too.”

In addition to the characters and relationships, the flashbacks and the power of stories, what (else) I love about this book – and I imagine others will be put off for exactly this as well – is that, in the end, on the final page, Seth and we are no clearer to knowing where this world is, how real Seth’s experiences are or what is going on. At all. Ness saw no obligation to explain, tie things up or concretise anything.

The entire book is unsettling. Disrupts our sense of reality. Deliciously tilts our world. And it achieves it through simply written, elegant prose.

Remarkable.

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I do not generally choose war books. In all honesty, had I come across this book with this cover in a shop or library I would probably have skipped over it. I like Susan Hill; I dislike war. I am particularly hesitant about The Great War novels written recently: I’m uncomfortable with the glorification of war which can appear; and equally uncomfortable with the indelicate emphasis on the gore and violence; and no more comfortable with a romanticised vision of the war. And I worry that, with the centenary, we may get a lot more of it.

So, no, to sum up, this is not a book that I would have selected naturally.

Which goes to show how our preconceptions can mislead us: this is a powerfully moving book about friendship and love within war. It is not about war.

We get a snapshot of John Hilliard’s life between his recuperation from one leg injury until he returns to the front line and sustains another leg injury. The first injury is relatively minor and sends Hilliard home to recuperate; the second is significantly more serious and sends him back to England for the rest of the war. During this period, Hilliard is introduced to Lieutenant David Barton, a new and innocent officer in the army, and the friendship, the relationship – and, yes, the love – between these two is the heart of the novel.

Reviews on Goodreads – and, it appears from Hill’s afterword to the novel, many comments since the book’s publication – seem unduly obsessed with these men’s relationship as a homosexual one. It saddens me that some people think that that’s even worth considering! It wouldn’t change the depth of feeling those two men had for one another; it wouldn’t alter the beauty of their relationship; it wouldn’t vary the strength that each man drew from the other. I happily recognise it as a form of love – and the Greeks knew that the emotions we call love encompass a range of varied and different forms. And – seriously – if we accept that theirs is a loving friendship or a loving relationship, all this fuss is about what physical and sexual acts may have occurred between two men who – and here’s the important bit – never existed!

So yes, these men love each other. They meet in unassuming but reasonably peaceful conditions in a rest camp away from the frontline. Truths are told which have been repressed before. Intimacies forged. The coldness of Hilliard’s family is replaced by the warmth of Barton’s.

Love is returned to over and over in the novel: Hilliard’s love for his sister is warmly and tenderly described as a memory and her transformation into a coldly formal wife is as heart breaking in its way as his love for Barton is heart warming.

But ultimately and inevitably the war re-asserts itself: Barton is exposed to increasing levels of death and destruction; his innocence and good nature, which had thawed Hilliard’s weariness, is tested and tarred by the increasing violence he witnesses as they are moved closer to the front line.

The story also explores the power of writing: Hilliard’s inclusion in the correspondence between Barton and his family and their sharing of books at the front helped to forge their intimacy to such an extent that, on his visit to Barton’s home, Hilliard had a beautiful sense of returning home which contrasted beautifully with the sense of exclusion and alienation Hill creates when he stays at his own parents’ house in the opening pages.

This is not, however, an easy book to read. The first few pages recounting Hilliard’s final day of recuperation follow a convoluted chronology as the past (occasionally distant and occasionally recent) intrude upon the present. Whilst this lends a lyrical dimension to the writing which I loved, it doesn’t aid reading – although the sense of Hilliard as being ripped out of time and adrift was absolutely effective.

The other issue which might put some readers off is the extent to which this novel relies on dialogue. The narrative descriptions are effective but relatively sparse (in marked contrast to Hill’s gothic novel The Woman In Black). Dialogue is – as I say to my students – really hard to make authentic and Hill succeeds in the vast majority of the novel but there are the occasional overly philosophical expository moments which aren’t out of keeping with the characters but felt perhaps a tad forced. It’s no surprise that the reason I did pick it up is because it’s on the AS English Language and Literature course in their spoken language unit!

In any event, this is a deeply moving and tragically painful book. As it acquired its name from the Wilfred Owen poem of the same name, here it is!

Strange Meeting
BY WILFRED OWEN

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “Here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”