Tor Me Apart

James Long's "The Lives She Left Behind"

James Long’s “The Lives She Left Behind”

I did a little bit of cheating this week. Well, I don’t know if it really was cheating, but I do at least have to make an admission.

As a matter of pride, personal principle and/or obsession, I have certainly endeavoured to treat all the dear English counties equally throughout this challenge and remain steadfast to my own rules, namely to read:

  1. one book per county
  2. written by an English or England-based author
  3. and first published during or after the year 2000.

The fact that I’ve actually read two novels for this week’s county may then pose a slight ethical problem on the face of it, but don’t worry: I have my reasons and, you will be immensely relieved to know, there will only be one review. And no bias or favouritism. Phew.

The problem I faced with Somerset was that the book I really wanted to read…really, really wanted to read…and which was recommended to me by a fellow English Literature graduate from the University of Warwick specifically for this Place-and-Space-oriented challenge (and therefore, I trusted, bound to be rewarding) was Ferney, by James Long, first published in 1998. Doh. However, well aware of the trauma and chaos this would wreak in my simple mind, my dear university colleague also offered me a timely olive branch: Ferney has a sequel, published in 2000, called The Lives She Left Behind.

"Ferney", the prequel to "The Lives She Left Behind", by James Long

“Ferney”, the prequel to “The Lives She Left Behind”, by James Long

You see, me being the way I am, I am absolutely incapable of reading any book if it is not the first in a series. I physically recoil from diving in at number 2/3/4, no matter if the stories would make complete sense as stand-alones or if all the preceding novels were poorly received of no interest to me. If I wanted to read the 10th Inspector Morse mystery or the 20th Poirot novel, or the 50th account of the Fifty Shades of Grey (oh the horror) I’d have to start from number 1. The same goes for film and TV series and even some music albums. I realise it’s an unhealthy and pointless compulsion, but my physical and mental aversion to not being privy to the entire context of something is all-consuming, which is why I was left trembling and practically rocking in a corner of the classroom when, during my degree, I was asked to watch Series 6 of 24 as part of an American cultural studies module. I had to watch 144 hours of the damn thing (all the way from series 1 episode 1) in just over a week. Boring and expensive, let me tell you.

So it was with these James Long novels. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, I found myself working my frantic way through Ferney so that I could focus my attention, in good conscience, on The Lives She Left Behind for the rest of the week. I’m glad I did this, it turns out, because the latter definitely continues the story of the first and, I feel, wouldn’t have made much sense on its own. So, to set the scene…

St Michael's Church, Pen Selwood

St Michael’s Church, Pen Selwood

In Ferney, the reader meets Mike and his nervous, haunted-by-the-past wife, Gabriella, nicknamed Gally. Filled with love, tenderness and concern for her, Mike still does not fully understand the mystery behind Gally’s nightmares or why she develops a sudden, desperate attraction to the Somerset village of Penselwood which they happen to pass through in the car one day, while venturing away from their home in London.

In this tiny, historic village, Gally is drawn to the abandoned, run-down Bagstone Cottage; at her urgent and startling insistence, Mike agrees to buy it and move in, hoping she has finally found something to bring her out of her depression. Over the course of the novel and the cottage’s gradual refurbishment, Gally’s nightmares subside – even stop altogether – and she finally seems to be at peace in the landscape around her. However, soon there is revealed something distinctly troubling and, to Mike, dangerous, about an eighty-year-old man who persists in loitering around Bagstone Cottage and Penselwood’s many lanes, and who seems to have a familiar relationship with Gally. This old man’s name is Ferney.

A plan of King Cenwalch of Wessex's fort in Penselwood, believed to be the site of the Battle of Peonnum (between Saxons and Britons) around AD 660

A plan of King Cenwalch of Wessex‘s fort in Penselwood, believed to be the site of the Battle of Peonnum (between Saxons and Britons) around AD 660

Ferney opens Gally’s eyes to a past she never knew she was part of, spanning millennia. With his encouragement and, eventually, of her own accord, Gally starts to remember that she has always lived at Bagstone Cottage and in Penselwood; that she has always known Ferney; that she has lived many, many lifetimes by his side, both of them in different bodies, at different ages and from varying backgrounds, but always drawn home to each other’s arms.

The remaining banks and ditches of King Cenwalch's Saxon castle in Penselwood.

The remaining banks and ditches of King Cenwalch’s Saxon fort in Penselwood.

Mike is left, disbelieving and heartbroken, on the sidelines, but the reader is carried along on a timeless love story that incorporates swathes of history and vast stretches of the Somerset landscape. It is a love story of people and of the land. It is supernatural (which I normally hate; God knows I hated The Time-Traveller’s Wife) and yet somehow its connection to the landscape – its paganism – transforms it from what might be nonsense into an epic. That is not to say it is a difficult read; it is most certainly not. It’s an ideal combination of Hardy’s glorious Wessex novels and a more usual romantic summer read.

King Alfred's Tower (1772) near Penselwood, believed to be built on the site of the ancient Egbert's Stone. This stone was the ancient mustering place for Alfred the Great's troops in AD 878 when they were preparing to fight the Vikings.

King Alfred’s Tower (1772) near Penselwood, believed to be built on the site of the ancient Egbert’s Stone. This stone was the mustering place for Alfred the Great’s troops in AD 878 when they were preparing to fight the Danes/Vikings.

If I was reviewing and rating Ferney, I’d give it 4/5 stars for Long’s originality, characterisation, depth of historical and geological research and overall writing style that so ably combines past and present, fate of people with fate of land. But of course, I’m not reviewing Ferney because it doesn’t fulfill by my challenge’s criteria. For this challenge, I’m concerned with rule-abiding, year-2000-published The Lives She Left Behind. For that, I put Ferney entirely out of my mind.

It is, however, difficult to summarise the plot of the sequel, set a few years later, without giving away what happens at the end of Ferney. I don’t want to do that as I think, of the two, Ferney is the one most worthy of reading. Let me just say, then, that the time-span, love-story premise continues in much the same vein, with the same general characters, in Long’s second and final novel in the series.

It is just as much about being physically and emotionally connected to the Somerset landscape:

“as the blade touched the earth, he snatched his hand away as something travelled up through it, through his fingers and up his arm […] He reached out again that there it was, flowing through him, a flood of light and peace and knowledge and something startling that felt like love” (73)

It is just as much about spanning time, unearthing history and rooting through “the ploughed-up soil of the past” (330):

“His tour continued back and forth through the carnage of plagues, rebellion, the brutality of purges pagan, Catholic and Protestant as he circled the village, soaking up the sight of it now with eyes which mixed with older times, blending in its history” (136)

It is just as much about discovering one’s “deep familiarity” (216) with people and places:

“it was not like learning, not quite like remembering – more a matter of unforgetting, knowing how to see what was already there, bringing back a confidence in how to be” (136)

It is also just as pagan and just as much a love story, and written in the same capable style.

The remains of one of three the Norman motte and bailey castles near Penselwood, dated after the Norman Conquest of 1066.  This one is known as Ballands Castle and shows the village was of strategic importance to William the Conqueror.

The remains of one of three the Norman motte and bailey castles near Penselwood, dated after the Norman Conquest of 1066. This one is known as Ballands Castle and shows the village was of strategic importance to William the Conqueror.

The thing that instinctively makes me rate The Lives She Left Behind lower than its teammate despite all that good stuff, is that the novelty of Long’s concept has somewhat worn off. In its pages, the beauty and drama do not shine as brilliantly or unexpectedly as in Ferney, precisely because they are not as brilliant or unexpected. The characters that are new to readers are not as engaging as those in the first novel, and nor do we learn anything revolutionary about the characters we recognise, as everything of importance has already been told. In fact, due to this repetition, it sometimes seems as though (like so many Hollywood endeavours) Long’s second novel is simply a not-so-good rehash of the first, with a few tweaks and a younger cast. If I had read The Lives She Left Behind without reading the other (for the sake of ethicality, I am judging this novel in a vacuum) I wouldn’t have been blown away by it: hence the rating of 3/5 stars.

Penselwood, located near the boundaries of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire.

Penselwood, located near the boundaries of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire.

In terms of what light the novel shines on Somerset itself, its sweeping hills and dales are painted beautifully and mystically. So much so that I’m desperate to revisit the area and just walk, walk, walk all over it, taking it in. As I said, Long writes with hints of paganism and, as a result, frustration with the encroachment of human authority on the fertile landscape is a key theme in every page of both novels, but is emphasised more noticeably in Lives where, interestingly, there is far greater human presence on the hills. Human intervention on nature shows through from the early years, when church bells started to measure and dictate time across the fields, to the present day when the horror of the Ordnance Survey means that “a concrete lump” (256) has been added to a favourite hilltop as a navigational marker. The aim seems to be “to measure the whole country, to pin everything down to the nearest inch […] Everything’s mapped. People are mapped” (256). Even the careful archaeologists who aim to do as little damage to the landscape as possible end up making a mess. Overall, in Lives, the landscape is presented as harshly colonised; we notice the effects of modernisation so much more, even though only a few years in Long’s setting have passed since Ferney. Imagine then, Long seems to say, how much damage humans will do in decades or centuries.

Another key theme throughout Long’s version of history, particularly prevalent in Lives, is a somewhat political one: the contention between the ‘official’ or documented past (Kings and Queens, significant battles and famous painters) and the reality experienced by ordinary people who were/are separated from authority:

“We let the wrong people tell our story for us, don’t we? The newspapers, the TV news, history books are all the same. We let the big egos tell us about the wars and the business deals – all the testosterone stuff. We let the drama enthusiasts tell us about the disasters and the tragedies and the accidents and we end up thinking that’s what the past is, that’s what the present is, that’s what our country is, but it’s not […] Mostly, it’s a lot of ordinary friendly, generous people over a very long time, doing the best they can in a quiet sort of way […] We shouldn’t let the people take charge who want to be in charge. They’re the last ones we should trust” (337)

Whether or not we can absolutely trust Long’s novels to accurately represent ordinary working-class lives throughout history is almost unimportant; this is a love story after all, about people and about landscape, and about neither of those having changed very much – if you take the time to block out modern distractions and to look carefully – since the dawn of time.

Author James Long, according to his bio a former BBC correspondent and writer of historical fiction, thrillers and non-fiction.

Author James Long, according to his bio a former BBC correspondent and writer of historical fiction, thrillers and non-fiction.

Next week I’ll be reading The Forest by Edward Rutherford. It looks like another landscape epic!

 

LONG, James. The Lives She Left Behind. London: Quercus, 2012.

Featured Image: Glastonbury Tor, Somerset.

http://forums.canadiancontent.net/history/121018-10-extraordinary-sacred-sites-around.html

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Crumbling

Dover, as described by Helen Oyeyemi in her Kent-based novel White is for Witching, is a place with its identity in crisis. And it’s not only the city that is struggling to define itself.

“She heard and smelt the water at the bottom of the cliffs, but it felt like a long time before she’d walked long enough to glimpse the sea crashing and breaking against the shore, foam eating into stone. England and France had been part of the same landmass, her father had told her, until prised apart by floods and erosion. She was not sure what time it was; when she looked at the sun she could understand that it had changed position but she did not dare to say how much. There were cruise ships coming in, vast white curved blocks like severed feet shuffling across the water. She waved half-hearted welcome. She felt the wind lift her hair above her head. In daylight the water was so blue that the colour seemed like a lie and she leant over, hoping for a moment of shift that would allow her to understand what was beneath the sea” (88)

Helen Oyeyemi's "White Is For Witching"

Helen Oyeyemi’s “White Is For Witching”

Situated precariously on the bottom edge of England, with land that literally crumbles into the sea, Dover’s identity appears to be in a state of vulnerability. It is “a fucking mess”, one character says; the maritime gateway to southern England has too many foreign refugees (mainly Kosovans, we hear) getting into fights amongst themselves as well as “pissing off the locals” (203). These “incomers” have changed the way Britishness is thought of in Dover; they have even, some would argue, “twisted” the concept of Britishness into something that seems “bad” (116). For Dover’s inhabitants, particularly teenage twins Miranda and Eliot, it is becoming more and more difficult to anchor themselves in its shifting waters.

Aside from these political / geographical troubles, Miranda and Eliot Silver, and their father Luc Dufresne are also trying to cope with the loss of Lily, the twins’ mother.

For Miranda this is particularly difficult, as the generations of Silver women share an affinity and a connection that is “older” than all of them. Even in death, great-grandmother Anna is tied “to her daughter Jennifer, to Jennifer’s stubborn daughter Lily, to Lily’s even more stubborn daughter Miranda” (118). In the ghost-filled family home in Dover, which Luc is frantically trying to fill with life and prosperity by turning it into a successful B&B, Miranda can nevertheless hear and feel the presence of the other long-lost women: “her GrandAnna laugh[s] at something Lily said” (196) in an upstairs room while haunting music, which only Miranda can hear, plays in the halls. Without the support of her mother, Miranda sees “the world in pieces” (38), and it seems as though her own body is about to crumble too, or to “concertina, bones knocking against each other” (233).

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

As it is, the reader bears witness to Miranda’s breakdown which drains her both physically and mentally before her family’s eyes. Her mind quakes from grief and depression that borders on insanity; not only does she hear voices and see strange things in mirrors and believe she can walk through walls into hidden rooms of the house, but she also forgets who she is: “she would need to know how old she was and she didn’t know” (131). At the same time, she suffers from pica, a disorder which means she hungers, not for food, but for plastic, dirt and, strangely enough, Dover’s very own chalk. The lack of real nutrition she ingests makes her body wither and shrink until she becomes so thin that she is practically two-dimensional, despite her father’s huge and varied efforts to get her to eat. All in all, through the deterioration of her mental and physical state, she slowly becomes “the girl who hardly even exists” (185).

But as well as the story of Miranda’s breakdown and the relationships she develops (the book is not all miserable), this novel tells the story of a house. The creepy family house in which Miranda, apparently, disappears into other dimensions and communicates with the spirits of her female ancestors. Is Miranda simply insane, or does the house really have a life of its own?

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

The answer to that question is for the reader to decide, but the house is certainly given a voice in this novel. ‘29 Barton Road’ narrates whole passages of this book, telling how “I was nothing like that flat of [the family’s] in London” (74) and how Miranda “wandered up and down my staircases, in and out of my rooms” (117). The house even admits to leading its inhabitants astray and trapping them in another world within its walls: “I unlocked a door in her bedroom that she had not seen before […] When she was safely down the new passageway, I closed the door behind her” (84). The house is frightening, haunting, threatening. It is not only Miranda who notices strange goings on either; on one occasion the family’s housekeepers quit abruptly and flee their accommodation, leaving a note that says:

This house is bigger than you know! There are extra floors with lots of people on them. They are looking people. They look at you, and they never move. We do not like them. We do not like this house, and we are glad to be going away.” (57)

There are ghostly, witchy and magical elements to this novel that add to the narrative confusion, ambiguity and brilliance. In reality, it’s quite frightening. If you’re reading this review and are thinking that the set-up (i.e. generations of women linked through the centuries, a big old family home) sounds a lot like that of Katherine Webb’s The Legacy, I suppose you would not be a million miles away. However, in writing style, Webb and Oyeyemi are fathoms apart. For all the beauty of Webb’s traditional narrative structure, Oyeyemi writes non-linear prose which darts across the page between narrators and between margins; at times it seems like you are reading poetry. Where I deemed Webb’s novel original, I would say Oyeyemi’s is utterly unique. Sometimes it is hard work, but that is part of the reward. Overall the novel is chilling and deeply mesmerising, no matter how much or how little you go in for the other-worldly: 5/5 stars.

Author Helen Oyeyemi

Author Helen Oyeyemi

As a brief note to finish off, this short novel does what I think is an incredible job of mapping conflicting ideas of modern Britishness and Englishness, especially in its portrait of Dover, as I’ve already touched on, and in the representation of its supposedly ‘typical English family’ (hardly so, as it turns out). Even within Miranda’s family, the reader bears witness to the shift in ideas over time: her great-grandfather was the artist of patriotic World War Two cartoons, “all on the theme of plucky Brits defeating the enemy by maintaining the home front – a stout housewife planting her potatoes and taking a moment to smack one that looked just like Hitler on the head with her trowel, that sort of thing” (69). Moving down the generations, Miranda’s great-grandmother is appalled that her granddaughter Lily “didn’t know what Britannia meant” and that she said “patriotism was embarrassing and dangerous” (115). Britishness, as I said before, is in crises here. In summary, this novel has been a great one to read for this challenge.

Next week I’ll be reviewing James Long’s The Lives She Left Behind for Somerset. I’d better get cracking!

 

OYEYEMI, Helen. White Is For Witching. Oxford: Picador, 2009.

Featured Image: Characteristic White Cliffs of Dover

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2114912/White-Cliffs-Dover-Thousands-tons-chalk-crash-sea-large-section-collapses.html

The Show Must Go On

Martine McDonagh's "After Phoenix"

Martine McDonagh’s “After Phoenix”

Martine McDonagh’s After Phoenix, set in Bristol, was a weird one. It’s rated quite highly on Goodreads but, overall, I wasn’t phenomenally won over by it.

In the first chapter we meet Phoenix, a normal teenage boy, son of normal middle-class parents Katherine and JJ and brother of normal anxiety-riddled teenager Penny. He is home for the Christmas holidays from Oxford University and the family is hosting a New Year’s party for friends and family. Phoenix wanders from room to room narrating his scorn for his family as well as his desire to lose his virginity with any girl he can lay his hands on. Like I say, normal.

Twenty pages later, Phoenix is dead – squashed flat in an accident on his new motorbike. And that’s that.

For the remainder of the novella, Penny, JJ and Katherine must come to terms with their loss and rebuild their lives which now, just like the narrative, lack a centre. JJ retires to the garden shed almost full time; Katherine, who blames JJ for their son’s death, has a mental breakdown and checks herself into an institution; Penny battles with her exasperation at her parents’ dysfunctionality while concentrating on growing up, falling in and out of friendships and searching for new experiences wherever she can, even going on holiday without her parents noticing.

Author Martine McDonagh

Author Martine McDonagh

With Katherine in the institution, JJ in the garden shed and penny taking responsibility for the upkeep and tidiness of the house, this is a novel that concerns itself with nesting. Each of them must separately redefine the space around them now that it feels so much emptier, gradually learning to “conform to the behaviour of the majority” (119) and get back to the ‘normal’ they once exemplified.

Their behaviour is interesting to witness and the novel seems to comment on the British respect for normality, conformity and mundanity. The expectation seems to be that Britons must strive for reason and moderation in all things, even reactions to the sudden death of a loved one.

So, interesting? Yes.

Original? Relatively.

Engaging? To a mild extent.

But does it inspire passion within me to rave and rant about it? No.

McDonagh writes simply and bluntly about very real-seeming family grief. There’s nothing substantially wrong with it, it’s just not my cup of tea. 2/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching. It’s turning a little bit ghostly…

MCDONAGH, Martine. After Phoenix. Brighton: Ten to Ten Publishing, 2013.

Featured Image: The real Barrow Hospital in Bristol, where Katherine instituted herself. Now, dilapidated.

http://www.scipiophotography.com/2013/03/hdr-files-from-barrow-hospital-bristol.html

Wending Woodward

Katherine Webb's "The Legacy"

Katherine Webb’s “The Legacy”

Katherine Webb’s The Legacy is set in Wiltshire, in and around the large, ancestral family home where twins Beth and Erica Calcott spent their childhood summers with their grandmother, and which they are now in the process of inheriting after her death. But this idyllic country home houses many generations of family secrets. As Beth and Erica begin sifting through their grandmother Meredith’s possessions, they uncover half-forgotten truths from their own childhood as well as tragedy that spans a whole century of bitter Calcott women, stemming from irreversible choices made by their great-grandmother Caroline in her unexpected pre-war life on a cattle ranch in Woodward County, Oklahoma.

It is, as another reviewer so aptly put it, one of those multi-generational family sagas that I am such a sucker for. Webb writes beautifully, hauntingly and effortlessly. It is definitely not, as the front cover unfortunately suggests, chick-lit or a throwaway, easy beach read. It’s a fantastically written, suspenseful, tragic and deeply affecting novel which strikes chords that have continued to reverberate long after I laid the book down. My favourite chapters, and those through which I think the book’s originality really shines, are those told from Caroline’s point of view: her loving marriage to Corim and subsequent upheaval from glamorous 1900s New York to the bare, sweltering, harsh “gaping landscape” (205) of dusty Oklahoma; her struggle to become accustomed to the “unbearable” (205) life away from civilisation and alongside strangers; her transition from happy, bright-eyed city girl to broken and battle-hardened old woman who bestows suffering and resentment on her own daughter, and fails to give or inspire any tenderness in her grand- or great-grandchildren.

Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma, c. 1911

Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma, c. 1911

For a reading challenge themed around characters’ relationships with place and space, this novel is perfect. Its pages are filled with “dizzying” (205) descriptions of the fear, difficulty, loneliness and thorough psychological pain of adapting to unfamiliar and unfriendly environments:

  1. Caroline must transition from New York City to Woodward County where, “when she opened the [ranch] door she felt as though she might fall out, might tumble into the gaping emptiness of the prairie without man-made structures to anchor her” (215); where “she felt the urge to run, to throw herself back indoors before she disintegrated into the mighty sky” (205).
  2. Similarly, twins Beth and Erica must grow accustomed to the darkness, “damp” and “austerity” (7) of the empty Calcott manor which is nevertheless full of memories that force them to feel like they are still unhappy “children” (9) within its walls. This is Wiltshire, not London, and Erica notes: “I am out of practice at living in the countryside; ill-equipped for changes in the terrain, for ground that hasn’t been carefully prepared to best convenience me” (13); “I had forgotten the quiet of the countryside, and it unnerves me” (58).
One of the famous chalk carvings in the Wiltshire hills

One of the famous chalk carvings in the Wiltshire hills

Aside from the house being the Calcott family seat, Webb also describes its setting in the ancient Wiltshire landscape, the “chalk downland, marked here and there by prehistory, marked here and there by tanks and target practice” (13). The house and the lonely hills surrounding it seem equally haunted, and yet separate: the house exists in its own sphere, its gates closed to the outside village and locality. Its particular history and its particular tragedies cut it off entirely from everything and everyone else. As a reader, the house’s world is mesmerising.

Overall, it may not give me much insight on Wiltshire, but this is a book I would recommend to any reader, as one that is part romance, part suspense-thriller, part western and wholly gripping. Don’t be put off by the old-family-home-filled-with-secrets cliché: this novel turns out to have so many more levels than that, and so much originality. Most refreshing and pleasing of all is Webb’s writing style: I can’t wait to read some of the other things she’s written. For now, a whole-hearted 5/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing After Phoenix by Martine McDonagh for Bristol. Get reading and join me later!

 

WEBB, Katherine. The Legacy. London: Orion, 2010.

Featured Image: Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma c. 1910

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodward,_Oklahoma

 

Hard-Baked and Cold-Yoked

Jasper Fforde's "The Big Over Easy"

Jasper Fforde’s “The Big Over Easy”

The subject of this, my book review for Berkshire, is Jasper Fforde‘s bizarre novel The Big Over Easy, set in Reading. It is the first in Fforde’s series of ‘Nursery Crime’ novels, featuring Reading Constabulary’s NCD (Nursery Crime Division), headed by DI Jack Spratt. Jack is responsible for solving all crimes relating to nursery rhyme characters: he was the arresting officer for “the violently dangerous psychopath, the Gingerbreadman” (12); he took the three little pigs to court over the messy murder of Mr Wolf and, now he investigates the mysterious death of Humpty Dumpty, who seems to have had a great fall from off his favourite wall…or was he pushed?

Like I said, bizarre. It is both straight-faced detective fiction, filled with all the expected twists, turns and rivalries, and comedic romp down “Grimm’s Road” (59), meeting a whole host of well-known childhood characters. You could read and re-read this novel countless times and continue to find more nursery rhyme references, some blatant and some brilliantly subtle.

Fforde’s novel is a marvellous work of imagination and extremely original but, it seems to me, a bit of a gimmick. I definitely developed allusion-fatigue by the time I was 25% of the way through, and the plot was unfortunately not strong enough to resurrect my interest at the end. I am not inspired to read the rest in the series: aren’t they all the same?! It’s another 2/5 starrer, I’m afraid.

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

Sadly (in respect of this challenge I mean) there is not much of a portrait of Berkshire in the novel either, aside from the fact that the indistinct city of Reading becomes the centre of this strange nursery rhyme world and of modern policing, which is more interested in making headlines and generating positive public opinion than the search for truth and justice.

It is interesting to think, however, that this could be considered a particularly British novel. Or, at least, an English-speaking-world novel. After all, there can’t be many other places that understand the references to Jack the giant-killer / magic-bean finder / beanstalk-climber, can there?

Next week I’ll be reading the slightly more mainstream (in a good way I hope) The Legacy, by Katherine Webb. It’s for Wiltshire, so join me then!

 

FFORDE, Jasper. The Big Over Easy. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005.

Featured Image: Illustration of “Hey Diddle Diddle”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nursery_rhyme

Rootless

Alex Wheatle's "East of Acre Lane"

Alex Wheatle’s “East of Acre Lane”

I chose to read Alex Wheatle’s novel, East of Acre Lane, for the region of Greater London in this literary challenge. It is set in the “concrete jungle” (227) of ghetto Brixton in 1981, where the so-called African-Caribbean community is confined to council estates; where “dangers […] come from any lane, shadow or building” and “vandalism touches everything” (7-8). This is an underworld of violence, gangs, drugs and crime, of “boarded-up housing, the rubbish on the streets, the graffiti that covered the railways brides” (8), and of “filthy syringes that were breeding in dark corners” (13). The black youth within these pages are filled with fear and fury in equal measure, directed against the drug barons that live on their very doorsteps, as well as the white, racist police force that patrol the streets abusing, threatening and blackmailing as they go. From the very outset of the novel, the reader is aware that “somet’ing gonna snap, man” (23).

As you might have guessed, Wheatle’s novel tells of the run-up to the violent Brixton Riot of April 1981, when civilian protests against the racist brutality of the corrupt Metropolitan Police turned into “Bloody Saturday”. Approximately 299 officers and 65 members of the public were injured as bricks and Molotov cocktails were thrown, fires were started and shops were looted.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

Wheatle presents the clash as not only having been fuelled by “talk of ism, schism an’ racism” but also by the apparently even greater issue in England: “de classism in dis country” (220). Frustrations of the young people, who suffer from poor housing, education and high rates of unemployment and crime, are portrayed through the protagonist, Biscuit, and his circle of friends, including Coffin Head, Sceptic, Carol, Floyd and Brenton. These young men are forced to involve themselves in crime in order to provide for their families; they are forced to feel like unwanted foreigners in their own country due to the prejudice and stereotyping of “middle England” (117); they have no pride in their African-Caribbean roots since, in their eyes, it only serves to alienate them from English society. They are, in more ways than one, the rootless generation.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

It was the riot-oriented plot that initially drew me to reading this novel. I have read a fair few novels about real-life riots, protests and their complex political origins; it’s something I find, when done an apt, engaging way, can be particularly powerful. There’s a lot of opportunity for controversy, memorable characterisation, and dramatic state-of-England commentary. When done in the wrong way, of course, that type of thing can be a bit boring. In summary, David Peace’s GB84 gets the mixture very very right. East of Acre Lane, I think, falls a little short.

In essence, the novel was not as dramatic or tense as I wanted it to be, or think it could have been. The build-up to the clash was drawn out, but in a come-on-get-on-with-it rather than suspenseful way. I wanted to share in the characters’ profound sense of injustice and feel the tension rising with every page. However, although I engaged with the protagonist to a certain extent, the plot’s outlook gradually narrowed to predominantly Biscuit’s relationship with his family (a family which rather lacked in characterisation/originality), meaning domestic drama rather took away from political intrigue. What’s more, I think Wheatle had a great opportunity to tie in his characters’ frustrations with the general atmosphere of protest in Britain in the late 70s and 80s – not on every page, perhaps, but a couple of mentions of protests in other parts of the country would have gone down well. It would have been ironic too – black people ostracised by white Britain on racist and classist terms, and yet considering themselves part of working class discontent across the country. But despite a couple of references to the ironically-named council estate areas of “Shakespeare Road” (68) and “Albion Road”, otherwise known as “black-people-don’t-belong street” (147), the outlook of the novel was distinctly limited to “SW9” (19). Yes, that could have been the point. But these things are a matter of taste.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

Due to the limited characterisation, too many ‘he said/she saids’ in dialogue and overall lack of suspense in what should have been a genuinely gripping story, I give this novel a 2/5 star rating.

Next week I’ll be reading the bizarre The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, for Berkshire. Join me then!

 

WHEATLE, Alex. East of Acre Lane. London: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Featured Image: A Brixton council estate

http://www.brixtonblog.com/community-police-meeting-tonight-in-brixton/3995

Adrift

“You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard of that we Chinese have 5000 years of the greatest human civilisation ever existed in the world…Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq. And our Chinese invented compass for you English to sail and colonise the Asian and Africa” (289)

“In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner. An alien from another planet” (154)

Prejudice enrages me. Freedom of movement fills me with hope.

 ***

I love the feeling when you read a book and think, however delusionally, ‘Wow, this was written just for me’. That is how I felt when I turned the last page of Xiaolu Guo’s novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, set in Hackney, in the City of London.

Xiaolu Guo’s "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers"

Xiaolu Guo’s “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”

Zhuang Xiao Qiao – or ‘Z’, as the English are encouraged to call her since “my name too long to pronounce” (48) for them – is a twenty-three year old Chinese woman who travels to London for one year from her simple, rural home in China, in order to learn English. She struggles. England is “cold”, the people unfriendly (“nobody smile to me” (43)) and their system of etiquette in social situations a complete minefield. Trudging between her befuddling English classes, her bleak hostel and the late-night cinema showings (just to have something to do) Z is lonely and racked with confusion. It seems as though the Chinese and English cultures are just too different – seemingly incompatible. Even her beloved Chinese-English dictionary has difficulty defining the meaning she desperately needs; among other words, “romance not to be found in my Concise Chinese-English Dictionary” (91).

Guo makes this incompatibility between cultures all the more obvious and effective by setting out the novel in the style of the protagonist’s notebooks, in which she records new vocabulary and pens her diary entries, side by side. Through this original and compelling format, the reader is exposed to Z’s innermost thoughts and frustrations as well as her battle with the English language and with finding a place for herself in her new environment: initially, she feels like “a little alone teacup” or “like cat without master” (90).

Victorian Terrace in Hackney

Victorian Terrace in Hackney

On her journey, Z meets and starts living with an older Englishman and soon realises that the fight for understanding is not limited to nations, but occurs between individuals too. “You a free man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “You possess my whole body. […] My whole body is your colony” (132). What is more, the waters of love – or dependency – are treacherous: there is so much Z does not understand above love, sexuality, men and women; there is so much she is ready to give if she can…but when language between individuals fails, is physical proximity enough?

“After all these fightings, all these miseries, you don’t talk as the way you did before. You just listen; listen to my words; then stop listening and think of your own world. But I can’t stop talking. I talk and talk, more and more. I steal your words. I steal all your beautiful words. I speak your language. You have given up your words, just like you gave up listening.” (293)

The language Guo uses is simple (both because Z doesn’t know much of it and, later, because Z’s style is always innocently direct) but the emotions are complex – and, for me, painful. It is not so much the plot that makes me feel that this book is so personally relatable (although in many ways it is), but rather the fear of loneliness contained within every page and every exchange between characters. A person’s loneliness is something to which my heart almost always responds, wrenchingly.

Xiaolu Guo. In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of this decade.

Xiaolu Guo. In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of this decade.

At the end of the novel, Z sums up England as “the country where I became an adult, where I grew into a woman, the country where I also got injured, the country where I had my most confused days and my greatest passion and my brief happiness and my quiet sadness” (353). It is not only London that Z gets to know, but it is to London that she responds. Unlike the novel’s representations of the English themselves, who see “London is a place sucks”, “the place making everybody aggressive” (167), where “you can’t find love and keep it” (168), Z “loves these old oily cafes around Hackney. Because you can see the smokes and steams coming out from the coffee machine or kitchen all day long. That means life is being blessed” (118).

This is not a happy novel, but it is a phenomenally beautiful one. I love it. 4/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, set in Greater London. Come and have a look-see then.

GUO, Xiaolu. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. London: Vintage, 2008.

Featured Image: Inset page in the front Xiaolu Guo’s novel.

http://allbookedup2014.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/book-5-review-concise-chinese-english.html

Sex and the City

Carole Matthew’s You Drive Me Crazy is romantic comedy with a bit of a difference.

“I live in Milton Keynes, the fastest-growing city in the UK. It’s a vibrant place that resembles a large slab of America set down amidst the green and gentle countryside of Buckinghamshire. I’m a bit of an anomaly here in that I arrived before it was a new city, when it was just a twinkle in a planner’s eye and there was no grid system, no shopping mall and no housing estates, only fields and mud and cows.” (8)

Carole Matthews' "You Drive Me Crazy"

Carole Matthews’ “You Drive Me Crazy”

Since Anna first moved to the brand new Buckinghamshire city, she has watched her neighbourhood, her home and her life crumble around her. Now, her no-good husband Bruno has disappeared once again, leaving Anna struggling to find work and put her life back together, and relying on benefits to feed her two young children. Anna’s one lifeline is her best friend, Sophie, who is locked in an unhappy marriage of her own and duty-bound to stay because of her children. But amidst all this suffering, there remain the best-loved ingredients of any example of chick-lit: ditsy misunderstandings, slapstick accidents, awkward encounters, pleasant and chivalrous surprises and, for the most part, happy endings.

These are the same “broad-minded, sex-starved” (201) girls that you might find in glamorous Sex and the City apartments, only this is the real world. Here amidst the bright lights of Milton Keynes, women sometimes have to settle for less than their wildest dreams.

This is definitely chick-lit, and yet I’m forced to admit that Matthews deals will a whole lot more. In fact, at times it strays into being a state-of-England novel.

There is certainly very little of Sex and the City's glamour in Matthews' novel...

There is certainly very little of Sex and the City’s glamour in Matthews’ novel…

Matthews comments ironically on institutional prejudice:

“as we all know from the daily press, we single-parent families are the scourge of the nation, along with asylum seekers, beggars, drug addicts and the drivers of Vauxhall Corsas” (11).

Matthews comments on the lack of respect for marriage:

“Marriage seemed to be an institution that no one respected any more – particularly not in Britain. This morning, the solicitor had [said] gaily […] that the UK enjoyed the highest divorce rate in Europe and that the figures had now ominously slipped to the ratio of one in two marriages ending in failure.” (34)

Matthews even comments on the obsessive work ethic in the UK that sacrifices all the pleasure of life:

“The British worked, on average, the longest hours in Europe, if you could believe what you read in the newspapers” (71).

Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire

Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire

Stifled and stranded in Milton Keynes, with an array of issues that she has to face on a daily basis, Anna fears for and obsesses over her children’s futures. (“Isn’t there some survey that says that by the year 2023 everyone in the world will [grow up to] be Elvis impersonators?” (44)). It isn’t until she meets someone new, and gets out of the ghastly man-made city, back into the surrounding “sleepy market town[s]” (39) and seaside retreats, that she learns to relax and enjoy life once again.

I thought I was going to abhor this book (I’ve read too much of this genre recently), but I didn’t. I found it well-written and humorous, with characters and events that were relatable, and I particularly enjoyed its commentary on modern Britain, set in the heartland – or perhaps I should say the central switchboard – of sterile Milton Keynes. There were one or two too many twists at the end, dragging it out slightly, but overall I rate this novel 3/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. I can tell you now, it’s a life-changer.

 

MATTHEWS, Carole. You Drive Me Crazy. London: Sphere, 2013.

Featured Image: Grid system in Milton Keynes.

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