The Watch

In the past couple of weeks I’ve read novels from Dorset and the Isle of Wight (review to follow), counties which often epitomise the idea of the English seaside holiday, where there are “rock pools rather than hot sun, seaweed rather than find white sand” (Webb, 53). Of course, these novels would not have been hugely interesting if they had not challenged this stereotype – and challenge it they did. “Holidaymakers – there were always some” (Webb 46), one character notes, but there are also those who are always unable to leave.

Katherine Webb's "The Half-Forgotten Song"

Katherine Webb’s “The Half-Forgotten Song”

First of all, I read Katherine Webb’s Dorset-based tale, The Half-Forgotten Song. You may remember that I very much enjoyed The Legacy by the same author earlier in the year, and I was not disappointed by my second foray into her work. Much like The Legacy, in fact, this story is made up of two narratives: one situated in the past (memories of the now elderly Dimity Hatcher from several childhood summers) and one in the present, with writer and art-collector Zach revisiting the village of Blacknowle in Dorset, meeting Dimity and uncovering her history for the very first time. Both narratives revolve around one man: the artist, Charles Aubrey.

Zach’s life has gone a little to pot recently: his relationship has broken down; his young daughter Elise has been moved abroad by his ex; his small but precious art gallery in London is dwindling into obscurity; and although he has already drained his publisher’s advance, he just cannot find the time, motivation or material to complete his book on the subject closest to his heart: the life and work of famed 20th century artist Charles Aubrey. That is, until his publisher warns him that a competing writer is close on his heels with a book on the same lines, and Zach realises he had better get a move on.

Zach is desperate to find a new slant on the oft-told story of Aubrey’s life to feature in his book. Who are the mysterious, unknown faces in his paintings? Is any one of his apparent succession of mistresses still alive to tell her tale? Why did Aubrey choose to return with his family, year-after-year in the 1930s, to the same tiny, beachy village of Blacknowle? Possessed by these unanswered questions, Zach shuts his gallery and journeys westward to Dorset, to see if anyone still remembers the artist, and can provide any answers.

Kimmeridge Bay, close to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set.

Kimmeridge Bay, close to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set.

To his profound astonishment, it isn’t long until he stumbles accidentally across the real-life, wrinkled Dimity Hatcher – the beautiful ‘Mitzy’ that features in many of Aubrey’s paintings from the period, as well as his so-called mistress. Now, hidden away from the world in her cottage, presumed dead by all other Aubrey-philes, timid Dimity is haunted by her own demons. Zach works painstakingly and tenderly to gain her trust and extract her secrets – but will the truth end up helping or hindering him? Will Zach’s city-born belief that “it’s kind of restful, being surrounded by landscape, rather than people” (160) stand up in the face of Dimity’s pain?

It is through Dimity, most of all, that we get a view of the county’s landscape and outlook. Whether as an old lady or as a poor, fourteen-year-old gypsy scavenger in 1937, Mitzy is absolutely tethered to her locality:

“There were roots indeed, holding her tightly. As tightly as the scrubby pine trees that grew along the coast road, leaning their trunks and all their branches away from the sea and its battering winds. Roots she had no hope of breaking, any more than those trees had, however much they strained. Roots she had never thought of trying to break, until Charles Aubrey and his family had arrived, and given her an idea of what the world was like beyond Blacknowle, beyond Dorset. Her desire to see it was growing by the day; throbbing like a bad tooth and just as hard to ignore” (193).

It is Aubrey who awakens her to the idea of what exoticism might lie outside of Blacknowle. Morocco, where the family also holidays, is as far away as Mitzy can possibly imagine – and she can imagine no further away than “Cornwall, or even Scotland” (113). Each year, as the family comes and goes from the village, Dimity becomes more and more conscious that she “had remained the same, static” (229). But while she sees them with respect and through awed eyes, they envisage her as the embodiment of Dorset simplicity, ignorance and mythical “old magic” (194). In her naivety, she is flattered by Aubrey’s wish to use her as his muse, failing to realise that he will never adore the subject of his paintings as much as she adores him.

Eventually, as the story unravels, Mitzy comes to realise that while Aubrey appreciates her precisely because of her place in the ancient and natural landscape, it is the landscape that also traps her, inhibits her and, in her old age, terrifies her:

“The wind was so strong […]. The gale tore around the corners of the cottage, humming down the chimney, crashing in the trees outside. But louder than any of that was the sea, beating against the stony shore, breaking over the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. A bass roar that she seemed to feel in her chest, thumping up through her bones from the ground beneath her feet […] The smell of the sea was so dear, so familiar. It was the smell of everything she knew; the smell of her home, and her prison; the smell of her own self” (1-2).

Author, Katherine Webb

Author, Katherine Webb

This is a novel about beautiful, terrorising landscapes that are adored by some and loathed by others. It is also a novel that encourages my good opinion of Webb for the way it is written and its suspenseful tone, although the profound, relatable characters present in The Legacy were unfortunately not as present here – I suppose largely because they were either distinctly unlikeable (Dimity) or downright average (Zach). Webb does balances the plotlines between past and present effectively, so that both engage the reader and build tension. In some places, however, I thought the pace could have moved things along quicker – it did occasionally drag. In terms of personal preference, I did not enjoy the subject of the story quite as much as I did The Legacy. Indeed, at certain points I did feel slight irritation that some memories seemed quite contrived or unrealistic – I did find myself thinking such things as ‘she wouldn’t really remember that – it’s only in there to tie up a loose end of the mystery’. So some of the narrative ‘weaving’ could have been more natural. But overall a good (half-forgettable!) book, so 3/5 stars.

As mentioned, I’ll shortly be reviewing the Isle of Wight novel Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. Stay tuned!

 

WEBB, Katherine. A Half Forgotten Song. London: Orion, 2012.

Featured Image: Ghostly Tyneham, a deserted village in Dorset, near to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set. It was taken over by the war office in 1943 for military training and never returned to the locals.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/37801007@N07/4875435993/

 

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Piering Forwards

Dorothy Koomson's "The Ice Cream Girls"

Dorothy Koomson’s “The Ice Cream Girls”

When ITV dramatized Dorothy Koomson’s novel, The Ice Cream Girls, into a 3-part television series in 2013, I deliberately abstained from watching it in order to read the book first. I am frankly relieved that I have finally found an excuse to pick it up, thanks to this literary challenge. The novel is set mainly in Brighton, in East Sussex and deals with the complex relationship between two women, hardly more than mere strangers to one another, who were nevertheless thrown together in a series of dark events during their adolescence, the consequences of which are still wreaking havoc around them 20 years later.

Serena, brought up comfortably in a middle-class home, the daughter of a lawyer and with a bright future ahead of her, catches the attention of her history teacher Mr Marcus Halnsley at age 14. Serena’s naiveté and insecurity instantly become food for Marcus’ ego; he abuses his position to weave her into his paedophilic web of sex, fear, violence and manipulation. Moreover, he uses Serena’s teenage capacity for self-loathing to turn her into his slave – she is desperate to please him and far too scared and dependent on him to flee. At the same time, Serena truly believes she and Marcus are in love.

Much to her horror, however, Marcus soon takes another innocent under his spine-chilling wing – Poppy – who is Serena’s opposite on the social spectrum, being from a working-class, unwelcoming home, but who is similarly tricked into believing Marcus’ lies. Marcus pits Serena and Poppy against each other – the pair meet occasionally, converse rarely, compete for Marcus’ ‘affection’ always.

Brighton once state-of-the-art West Pier, opened in 1866 but closed and subsequently left to ruin in 1975.

Brighton once state-of-the-art West Pier, opened in 1866 but closed and subsequently left to ruin in 1975.

Then a dreadful accident happens. Before they know it, both girls – now 18 and 19 – are being trialled for Marcus’ murder. Each girl blames the other. But eventually, Poppy is incarcerated for twenty years, while Serena goes free.

Twenty years later, Poppy is freed and returns to Brighton, desperate to punish Serena; Serena, meanwhile, dreads the resurrection of the past and its impacts on the lives of her husband and children. But will the truth ever come out?

Sticks of sweet Brighton rock

Sticks of sweet Brighton rock

I think anyone would agree (despite how poorly I may have summarised it myself) that the plot is a desperately gripping and original one. In particular, the abusive relationship the girls find themselves in is constructed so chillingly as to stay with the reader long after the novel ends. It is, in fact, difficult to describe the tools Koomson uses to build Marcus’ fortress of fear: it is not so much the language of cruelty he uses, or the dreadful things he does, but rather the whole atmosphere of terror that keeps Poppy and Serena glued to him. Indeed, I suspect that this portrait of abusive relationships is incredibly realistic – Koomson has discussed the large number of harrowing real-life stories she listened to whilst researching the book – and is what leads to the fact that outsiders (in the novel’s case, the jury in the murder trial) are unable to understand why the girls did not simply walk away. In contrast, the reader cannot but understand, being wrapped up in their emotions so vividly.

I loved the character of Poppy too, as someone recently released from prison and whose struggle to belong in the modern, unfamiliar world is just as difficult as her struggle to make sense of the past, and of the fact that she has, unjustifiably, had her whole youth stolen from her. “For a very long time,” Poppy narrates, “I thought the sky was that square of patchwork quilt because it was all I could see from most of the prison cells I’ve lived in” (25). But the sky is not square and the world is not of manageable, reasonable size; coming out into the real world Poppy is stunned at the “titanic sky, gigantic world, dazzling daylight, swarming streets […] People think that prisons are overcrowded, but this is overcrowded. This is like being trapped inside a swarm of insects. Everyone so close and big and moving, moving, moving” (25-6). Koomson paints her as dark, bitter and vengeful – all the characteristics you might expect from someone who has been wronged in life – and yet Poppy is also shown to be filled with the same innocence and vulnerability as she exhibited through her teenage years. Overall, Poppy is a marvellously complex and believable character.

Soft serve ice cream, against Brighton Pier

Soft serve ice cream, against Brighton Pier

Serena is less engaging. She has spent the last twenty years attending university, meeting her husband, having children and moving on with her life. Of course, she experiences constant fear of the past coming back to haunt her, and occasionally relives Marcus’ cruelty in uncontrollable flashbacks, but with a new name and Poppy (as well as the truth) locked up far away, she has had a much easier time of managing her recovery. Or, perhaps, she has simply delayed facing up to what happened.

Either way, I was ever so slightly disappointed with Serena as a character and the girls’ relationship. I wanted Serana’s dread of Poppy to be more apparent. I wanted to find, stifled somewhere deep within Serena, the same darkness that Poppy has grown to exhibit on the surface. I wanted their relationship to be more hateful, suspenseful, painful and yet also more closely interdependent – after all, only these two can know what Marcus did to them and what happened all those years ago. Only they have the capacity to deliver the understanding and empathy towards each other that they so desire from other loved ones in their lives. I think Koomson could definitely have further emphasised this tension, tragedy and irony. If she had done, this novel would have been a knock-out for me.

One more thing the novel does do cleverly, however, particularly in relation to its setting in Brighton, is to invert stereotypes. Upon mentioning Brighton, I’m sure a lot of people (including myself) would recall going on happy school trips or family staycations, being thrilled and goose-pimpled by paddling in the English Channel, clambering over pebbles, eating sticks of rock and having delicious soft serve ice cream cones gobbled from one’s hand by greedy seagulls. In other words, Brighton could very well be the epitome of the English seaside holiday town, couldn’t it?

For Poppy and Serena, who had grown up here, their experience of the town could not be more different. Rather than sea, sand and ice cream being associated with sunny frivolity, Marcus ensures their days out together could be recalled with no emotion except fear. Serena and Poppy are nicknamed “The Ice Cream Girls” by the media following the murder, due to a picture printed of their pair “eating ice cream and wearing […] string bikini[s]” (3): what may have been an iconic holiday image is in fact a memory teeming with hurt. As a result of their experiences, Serena has not been able to face ice cream ever since and Poppy will not let herself, even after her release, “head down to the beach, dip [her] toes in the water, feel the pebbles under [her] feet” (26) or enjoy her surroundings. Brighton holds neither a sense of comfort nor one of touristic allure for them.

Jodhi May, who plays Poppy in ITV's television adaptation of Koomson's novel. Having finished the novel, I've finally allowed myself to watch it; May is the best thing about it and captures Poppy perfectly.

Jodhi May, who plays Poppy in ITV’s television adaptation of Koomson’s novel. Having finished the novel, I’ve finally allowed myself to watch it; May is the best thing about it and captures Poppy perfectly.

In this way, Koomson repeatedly problematises the idyllic images of seaside Brighton. All the icons are there – including “Brighton pier […] adored with hundreds upon hundreds of lights” (5) – but their presence is meaningless to the girls, inspiring no sense of pride or belonging. In fact, Poppy all too readily admits “I do not belong in this world any more” (28), while Serena feels out of place in her very self, with the “dark acknowledgement” that she is a black girl “in a predominantly white area” (51-2). Ultimately, and ironically, it is Poppy who seems most likely to recover her sense of normality most quickly, for she eventually admits that in a tourist hub like Brighton she enjoys the fact that she can avoid attention and blend into real life amongst all the different people, for “you have to try really hard to stand out or look out of place” (227).

Overall, this aspect of the book is one of my favourite and one that makes it a perfect read for my challenge: you get a real sense of its Brighton setting and landscape, even though that sense is not quite of the type you might expect. The plot is fantastic, the character of Poppy exceptional – but overall I was left wanting a bit more drama. For me, the novel is 3/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Alecia Stone’s The Talisman of El. Keep a lookout!

 

KOOMSON, Dorothy. The Ice Cream Girls. London: Sphere, 2010.

Featured Image: Brighton Beach with the iconic burnt-out West Pier in the background.

http://www.jurajhrk.co.uk/index.php#mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=16&p=1&a=0&at=0

 

One Stop Shop

Sophie Kinsella's "Confessions of a Shopaholic"

Sophie Kinsella’s “Confessions of a Shopaholic”

I have to be honest: I started off absolutely hating Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, set in my home county of Surrey. Don’t get me wrong, the characters are well-developed, the tone is amusing and Kinsella writes engagingly…but my goodness how the sheer trait of shopaholism infuriates me.

Rebecca Bloomwood is a financial journalist with a serious money-spending addiction. The irony is obvious: she advises other people how to invest their cash, whilst being unable to walk past a single shop without popping in to spend a quick £300 on real tat. Money that, incidentally, she doesn’t have. But as her frightening debts stack up and pressure from her lenders mounts, Becky simply buries her head deeper and deeper in the sand. Moreover, her job bores her and she feels the constant threat of being exposed as a fraudulent, time-wasting know-nothing; a woman who really doesn’t have a clue about investments or hedgefunds or insurance or any other financial scheme she writes about.

High Street Kensington tube station - commuter Rebecca's gateway to work...and shopping.

High Street Kensington tube station – commuter Rebecca’s gateway to work…and shopping.

It’s all a bit of a disaster for Becky, and the first half of the novel is almost unbearable to read as we witness the protagonist wreaking havoc in her own life. JUST STOP SPENDING MONEY, I wanted to scream, almost ripping the book apart at the spine in frustration with her lack of self-control. In this regard I did not feel any affinity with Rebecca, being myself generally of a money-saving disposition (except for books and food and wine and travel…) Meaningless retail therapy doesn’t rank highly on my list of priorities in life.

However, as hard as I tried to resist it, by the last third of the novel when she starts to turn her life around and develop her journalistic and relationship talents, my own frustration shifted to sympathy; Rebecca’s most irritating habits became instead comically cringeworthy. Most significantly, I suppose, even days after I finished the book I caught myself thinking over it again, trying to recalculate my initial feelings towards it based on the, frankly, very good ending. To cut a long story short, Kinsella eventually salvaged my esteem: overall, the novel ranks at 3/5 stars.

Kingston-upon-Thames' Bentalls Centre shopping complex

Kingston-upon-Thames’ Bentalls Centre shopping complex

As for its Surrey setting…well, Rebecca and her parents may have lived in and frequented Surrey’s towns occasionally – I was particularly excited by the reference to my closest shopping centre with the words “my mum thinks that if you can’t buy it at Bentalls of Kingston, you don’t need it” (14) – but most of the novel was in fact spent on the streets of London, either in shops (and lots of them) or commuting to the office of Successful Savings magazine.

Was this a cop-out? A let-down? Well, no.

From personal experience I do in fact consider this to be highly representative of the Surrey lifestyle: the county hardly has any identity of its own, but rather clings to/revolves around London. Being prime commuter territory, Surrey and the boroughs of Greater London wrestle with each other for precedence; addresses change at the drop of a hat depending on the latest governmental budget or tourist trend. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I catch myself and my old local school friends telling new acquaintances that we’re ‘from London’ rather than Surbiton or Esher or Guilford. This is most often in an effort to simplify matters – after all, who cares about Surrey? What does anyone actually know about Surrey? It has no significance, except for its proximity to the bright lights of London. No one would travel to Surrey as a tourist – even if they visit Hampton Court Palace, it’s because they think it’s one of the ‘London Sights’ (it’s in East Molesey, people). It’s astounding, really; Surrey is both dependent on London and, in terms of its own (non-existent) unique identity, absolutely crippled by it.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Dorothy Koomson’s The Ice Cream Girls. I intentionally avoided the recent TV adaptation in order to read the book first, so I hope it’s worth it!

 

KINSELLA, Sophie. Confessions of a Shopaholic. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.

Featured Image: Oxford Street, London – one of Rebecca’s favourite shopping haunts.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-shopping-time-oxford-street-london-sep-view-september-major-road-west-end-uk-europes-image31405646

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

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.

http://iqbalaalam.wordpress.com/tag/milton-keynes/

 

Chick-lit Quick-fix

Jo Platt's "Reading Upside Down"

Jo Platt’s “Reading Upside Down”

I’ve just this minute finished Jo Platt’s chick-lit novel Reading Upside Down, set in Hertfordshire, and it fills me with delight to say that, unlike my last post, this e-book I did actually manage to enjoy!

I’ve only read a handful of examples of ‘chick-lit’ in my life, and those were often only because they were on a communal bookshelf at a hotel and I had nothing else to read. Chick-lit is not, therefore, my go-to option in any sense, but every now and then a little bit of light, well-written romantic comedy does just the trick, doesn’t it?

I was pleasantly surprised and indeed impressed with Platt’s novel which was genuinely funny with dialogue written in a refreshingly natural style – so often I find first-time writers try too hard, but not here. The novel is 90% dialogue and 10% description which is exactly the right measure for the pace and mood required for the usual chick-lit quick-fix too, allowing the likeable characters to speak for themselves without necessitating too much readerly interpretation.

Simply put, it tells the story of Rosalind Shaw’s recovery from depression after she is jilted at the altar. Surrounded by friends, family, neighbours and, of course, various romantic interests, Ros gradually gets back on her feet. It’s not, as one might expect, forced or cheesy: instead the tone, combined with the humour, is just right.

The novel did not give much of an impression of its St Albans setting at all, except for it seeming oh so middle class (please note: this is not a book for people who like gritty plotlines). But as Ros moves away from her grief in London and starts anew in Hertfordshire, she discovers “other Ros” – stronger, happier and more independent than before. Sometimes it’s reassuring to have a happy ending! 3/5 stars: a good read.

Next week I’ll be reading You Drive Me Crazy by Carole Matthews. Join me then!

 

PLATT, Jo. Reading Upside Down. Amazon Kindle, 2013.

Featured Image: Mr Edward, the ill-fated guinea pig?

http://www.pets4homes.co.uk/pet-advice/guinea-pigs-for-beginners.html

 

 

Wham!

Phil Rickman's "The Fabric of Sin"

Phil Rickman’s “The Fabric of Sin”

The premise of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman certainly sounds original:

The confident single-mum to strong-minded teenager Jane leads a religious life (in contrast to her daughter’s determinedly pagan beliefs) as a vicar of her own parish in Herefordshire, and is also the country’s first female appointed Deliverance Minister (a sort of church-condoned exorcist of bad spirits, if you can believe it). Alongside this spiritualism she takes to amateur sleuthing (why not?), investigating in The Fabric of Sin, the ninth novel in the series, the ancient Master House in Garway, on the England-Wales border, which is thought to have Templar connections and an evil energy living within its walls. As violence, mysterious events and the uncovering of scandalous historic records ensue, the Church – nay, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself – becomes involved in the case, as does Prince Charles and the rest of the Royal Family. After all, “you must never trust the buggers. Never. Any of them. Not at this level” (57). (Honestly, the plot does get that wild.)

As you might guess, I spent most of the time I was reading this novel completely taken aback by its scale of bizarreness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything at all the matter with plotlines that are weird or ambitious…but the complete absence of conventionality in this novel’s characters, plot and structure was utterly throwing. In fact, I’m still reeling from the oddity: the bombardment of real religious imagery versus the tale of murderous cover-ups; the good-guy-bad-guy ambivalence towards the Church and the Royals; the sheer number of people across the country who seemed to have a stake and make an appearance in the melee; the tension and confusion between English and Welsh identities in their past and present manifestations…There’s so much going on in this novel politically, and so many characters who appear and disappear within a single page, and so many unfinished sentences and unanswered questions that, despite this novel being 539 pages long, blink and you’ll miss the point of it. The word that comes to mind to describe the reading experience of this novel is ‘WHAM!’

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

As a result, Rickman’s novel is certainly impressive and unpredictable, but also fairly stressful to read. It was more about politics than mystery-solving, so didn’t really turn out to be all that gripping. Oftentimes I was at a loss as to what was actually going on or who was involved. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in Church/Monarchy politics and that’s one the reasons I usually steer clear of Templar-centric novels: the legends behind them are so far-fetched to my simple mind that they irritate me. I didn’t really take to Rickman’s characters either – designed to be unconventional, their novelty soon wore off leaving an empty space – and so don’t feel the need to read any other novels in the series. This novel was also written in what I recognise as being a sort of lazy, careless style: non-dialogue sentences starting with “Like, when did that happen?” and non-dialogue explanations leading with the phrase, “Couple of years ago” (17), missing the indefinite article ‘a’ from the beginning. I know some people will think that’s incredibly pedantic, and point out the style is probably not lazy at all, but carefully crafted. Nevertheless, it’s a style that I personally don’t take to when there’s no obvious literary purpose.

On the other hand, I liked the powerful descriptions of the sentient landscape along the England-Wales border, and I think the novel offered significant observations on the formation of identity in England, Wales, Herefordshire and, quite separately, Garway.

“Three landmark hills were laid out along the horizon. Like ancient and venerated body parts, Merrily thought, the bones of the border. Holy relics on display in the sunset glow […] The volcanic-looking Sugar Loaf and the ruined profile of the Skirrid which legend said had cracked open when Jesus Christ died on the cross. Still somehow sacred, these hills. No towns crowded them, nobody messed with them […] The third hill had been stabbed under its summit, some kind of radio mast sticking out like a spear from the spine of a fallen warrior, a torn and bloody pennant of cloud flurrying horizontally from its shaft.” (9)

This, the England-Wales border, is the “forgotten bit of old England” (13), a landscape that “has two personalities […] Long, light views on the English side, and then deep green and full of drama as it swoops down to the Monnow Valley and Wales” (33). In this part of the country, (unlike the sometimes over-politicised Scottish-English border), lines get lost. Blurred. Is this Wales? Is this England? Who belongs where?

“Still England. It had to be; there, below the road, was the River Monnow, which was the border, failing to be crossed by a smashed and collapsing footbridge, fenced off, with a sign that said: Danger. But if this wasn’t Wales, neither was it truly Herefordshire, not with names like Bagwllydiart on the signposts.” (63-4)

The border seems harder to mark the closer you get; people struggle to cope with being “neither one place nor the other” (42); and “if someone lives just a few yards over the border in what might seem to be a very English part of Wales they become determinedly Welsh Welsh” (271) to compensate for their uncertainty of identity. This uncertainty has brought on, throughout history, a strange feeling of instability and violence which plagues the landscape, its villages and its inhabitants.

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway is the main site of strangeness and disturbance. The village has become “like another country” (9), Merrily feels, “a remote and separate realm” (113). Even uneducated Gomer can identify that “Garway is its own contex. There’s Hereford and there’s Wales…and there’s Garway. And Garway’s its own contex” (362). Judging by this novel, the convergence of England and Wales, and the subsequent emotional and political significance, seems to be a key characteristic of Herefordshire identity, much as the northern English counties obsess about the proximity of Scotland.

Rickman also offers a criticism of modern English identity as a whole, focussing, as many other modern English writers seem to have done on this journey of discovery, on “rural warming” (18) (think ‘global warming’) – the rapid intrusion of city on countryside; on landmark events such as “Foot and Mouth in 2001” (53) or “nine-eleven and seven-seven” (199); on the level of “self-indulgent second-bloody-homers” (264) that are increasing the demand for rural property development; on “the [terrifying] amount of surveillance in this country” (82); on the “rampant overpopulation” (88) and on “shining-arsed buggers with clipboards” (186) who roam the country as troublesome representatives of bureaucracy, red-tape, and officialdom. These themes are becoming increasingly familiar as we progress through this challenge: is this all modern Englishness amounts to?

So overall, an interesting read; I was intrigued by the setting if not by the politics and, for that reason, will award the novel 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Colin Grant’s Bageye At The Wheel for Bedfordshire. Until then!

RICKMAN, Phil. The Fabric of Sin. London: Quercus, 2007.

Featured Image: Green Man carving, Garway Church.

http://www.britainexpress.com/uk-picture-of-the-day-image.htm?photo=2030

Space-probing

Sue Townsend's "The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year"

Sue Townsend’s “The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year”

All the reviews I’ve read and almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this book have said the same thing: it’s not as good as the Adrian Mole books. Still, since I’ve never read any of the Adrian Mole books, or even have the faintest inkling of what they’re about, I was pleasantly surprised by Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, the book I chose for Leicestershire.

Admittedly, it doesn’t say a whole lot about life in Leicester/the Midlands/England specifically, but as Eva builds herself a nest in her bed after her twins leave for university – not making any plans to emerge again – there’s a lot going on about forming a sense of belonging.

So why exactly does Eva crawl into bed in 2012 and refuse to get out again? Well, there’s a large amount of speculation from the other characters – her husband, Brian, her children Brian Junior and Brianna (yes, really), her mother Ruby and her mother-in-law Yvonne, her new handyman-crush Alex, her window-cleaner, the neighbours and, soon enough, the media and the hysterical followers outside her window…all have an opinion. Perhaps it’s depression caused by “empty-nest syndrome” (4) or by being taken for granted her whole life or by the knowledge of her husband’s lacklustre affair; perhaps she’s been “engulf[ed]” (248) by madness that makes her believe the floorboards are “made of jelly” (379); perhaps she’s an angel, a  saint, a prophet making a stand against “how horrid the world [is], what with wars and famine and little babies dying and stuff” (325). Maybe, suggests a psychologist, Eva is “in the grip of agoraphobia, probably as a result of childhood trauma” (351). However, Eva flatly denies there is any problem whatsoever – she simply doesn’t feel like getting out of bed. Even the reader is not privy to any inside information from Townsend as to what the reason behind her major plot choice is.

Space-themed chocolates produced by Mars Inc.

Space-themed chocolates produced by Mars Inc.

As the novel goes on, Eva’s relatives become increasingly irritated by her behaviour: she relies on them to get her food, rearrange and slowly dispose of her bedroom furniture, board up the windows and doors, repaint the walls a dazzling white, answer the bell to fans and crowd-controlling police officers, and, if only they would agree to it, to dispose of her urine and excrement without her even having to use the ensuite. Blame and anger are fired at her from all corners, understandably, but with crafty characterisation Townsend steers the reader to believe that these judgements are nothing but harsh and hypocritical; everyone else would willingly disengage from the world if they could, too. In fact, some already do. Brian is so feeble that he is “slightly apprehensive” (6) around his own mother; emasculated in almost every situation, he cowers in his sheds at the bottom of the garden rather than facing Eva. Brianna, self-loathing, awkward and shut-off from the world, lives her life with “her face […] mostly hidden behind a long straggly black fringe which she pushed out of her eyes only when she actually wanted to see something” (11). Autistic Brian Junior voluntarily lives “in a very small world call the internet, where cynicism is the norm and cruelty has taken the place of humour” (270); the twins do not hide the fact that they want only “to be together in their own box-world” (20). Ironically, despite their criticism, almost every other character in the novel ends up “wish[ing] it was me in that bed” (35) and at some points Eva’s bedroom becomes seriously crowded with them all “sat cross-legged on the floor” (222) trying to join with her in shutting out the world.

Property programme duo, Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer

Property programme duo, Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer

Just as all the characters are shown to be preoccupied with building themselves a nest to hide away in, so, Townsend seems to suggest, is the whole of real, English society: why else would “property programmes” have such popularity or “Kirsty and Phil” be classed as modern “heroes” (10)? In fact, this novel presents the process of constructing a place in which one can feel at home – with some combination of four walls, comfortable furniture, personally-chosen décor and private memories – as the obsession of modern England. Not because of the opportunity for investment or return, or dependent on bank borrowing and lending rates – not, in other words, with financial or economic motives – but simply because putting an individual stamp on one’s surroundings is like laying claim to a fixed, stable identity and a solid right to exist. Arguably, this is something that Eva hasn’t had before. She’s never been her own woman, only a wife to Brian and a mother to her children. It is only when left alone that she begins the struggle, like a “baby”, “start[ing] again” (420), to develop a sense of self and a sense of belonging. No more arguing with Brian now as to whether they should live “in a minimalist modular system, far away from street lighting” or “an old pile in which people had died, with bedbugs, fleas, rats and mice” (22); she makes her own decisions.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10 Downing Street

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10 Downing Street

Although Townsend doesn’t provide any definitive answer as to why Eva chooses to separate herself from society for a year, it seems to me that she simply struggles to find anything to get excited about any more in a world where her husband is so middle-aged and “he had started to make a noise as he got up from a chair” (40); where there is “incessant English cloud” (102) blocking out the sun every day; where politics has become so mundane that no one is even inspired to elect a prime minister, so that confusion arises in the coalition government as to who is actually in charge: “’Is it Cameron…? Or is it Cameron and Clegg?’” (117). Even further afield, outside England, there is nothing she is drawn to, for “there was nothing on the earth left to find – not when remote South American primitives were smoking Marlboro Lights” (58) and the whole profundity of space is reduced to chocolate-bar-terms in the mass-production of Galaxy, Mars and Milky Way confectionery. Human insignificance weighs on Eva, and she is frustrated that the best the English can hope for is to “tick along nicely” (73) in obscurity. So, out of boredom, she takes to her bed to cause “chaos” (190). It doesn’t seem like one thing could possibly lead to the other – but, oh my, it does.

Strangely, I liked this novel more for its critique of society than its comedy; or, rather, I found its thorough examination of ‘belonging’ all the more striking because of its farcical undertones and fluff-less dialogue. True, the novel is not laugh-out-loud hilarious (as some fans had expected), but I don’t think it loses impact as a result, since this way tragic elements of Eva’s life are also allowed to pervade in ironic fashion. What’s more, I think it is rare to find, in a supposedly comic novel, characters to whom it is so easy to warm, despite their often ridiculous names or habits. Overall, the plot is original and interesting, surprisingly engaging considering the protagonist does not get out of bed for the whole of the narrative, and its tone is fresh. Sue Townsend has a distinctive style that I feel confident I could identify again – suffice it to say, Adrian Mole is now on my list. 3/5 stars for this one, I think.

Next week I’ll be reading my first crime thriller of the challenge, The Chemistry of Death, by Simon Beckett. Join me, if you dare…mwahahaha.

TOWNSEND, Sue. The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. London: Penguin, 2012.

Featured Image: Solar System, field of Brian, the astronomer.

http://uncannyflats.com/thank-you-finally-an-explanation-for-why-the-solar-system-is-flat/

Poison

Nicola Monaghan's "The Killing Jar"

Nicola Monaghan’s “The Killing Jar”

The Killing Jar, by Nicola Monaghan, is set in Nottinghamshire. Or rather, it is set in a “shitty brown” (60) estate seemingly in the middle of nowhere, abandoned by the police and any other sign of officialdom so that crime is rife and drug addiction a plague. This county, in the East Midlands, the novel seems to say, is neither north nor south. It is in limbo, in the crease of England. Abandoned. Forgotten. The estate itself is a depressing hovel, closed off from the rest of the world; a jar, Monaghan suggests, in which inhabitants, like insects, fester uselessly until the end.

Kerrie-Ann is a child growing up on this estate, sharing a house with a mother addicted to heroin and a series of wheeler-dealer boyfriends who slowly drag her into their seedy world. By the age of 10, Kerrie-Ann is already running drug-related errands for her so-called guardians, and that’s just the start of it; as we follow her through her teenage years, we meet sickness, death, violence, heartbreak, and a heck of a lot more drug abuse. The novel is miserable, there’s no getting away from it, but it’s also mesmerising.

Most of the time the characters “[don’t] move from the estate” (134-5); everything outside its boundaries that is “foreign” (2) is despised, and yet there is also huge hatred for the neighbourhood’s own “tossers” (25). In fact, anger is the ruling emotion in these parts, and even on the odd occasion that the characters venture off the estate, the dark clouds of their home lives follow them, inescapably. That is not to say that the characters do not try, in vain, to escape, through the abuse of drugs. Kerrie-Ann herself uses them to “remember there was other places away from my house on the close” (10) and to convince herself she “Had wings. Could fly” (39) to them. Whether or not she ultimately succeeds in this endeavour is up to the reader to decide.

One of the biggest measures of ‘place’ in the novel is accent, the differences between which Kerrie-Ann is fascinated by. She recognises the sound of those from northern “mining country”, with intonation “broader than my mam or me” (12), and the “posh voice and fancy manners” (80) that signify an individual’s London roots. In fact, the people on the estate spend a lot of time “making fun of [t]his accent” (112), “add[ing] h’s all over, dropped from other places, and put[ting] on that voice […] trying to sound posh” (34). Kerrie-Ann doesn’t like London, or its “wankers who thought too much of themselves” (144), or who are “too spoiled from being well off” (81). In her experience, southerners only undertake the journey to the estate out of self-interested charity, “some kind of community service” to “shove on [a] job application” (76), or to carry out academic experiments on its inhabitants, as though dissecting scientific specimen in a laboratory.

An entomologist's killing jar for insects

An entomologist’s killing jar for insects

I’m trying not to give too much of the game away, but Kerrie-Ann is young – no more than a teenager – when massive problems and colossal decisions come her way. The devastation of her childhood years is one of the most noticeable themes in the novel: as a young girl, she plays with “horse-riding Barbie” (38), but only as payment for her drug-running; she watches “the man dressed as a bear explaining to the pink hippo and the orange grin how to share a cake” (36) on television whilst various dirty visitors shoot up in a corner; she plays princesses and fairies “in the middle of Whitwell Park wearing clothes close to falling off […] with holes in them” (226); she combines trips to the children’s playground with her own first forays into drugs.  Even as a teenager Monaghan gives constant reminders of her lost childhood; at the beach, she longs to “build a sandcastle, […] a big one with a moat” because she feels “still a kid really” (103). And, like a kid, she is still scared of “ghosts” (141) and “werewolves. Bogeymen” (146) – only now the monsters take the form of drug addicts and wild-eyed vandals. Wrapped in this nightmare, Kerrie-Ann is shown to be constantly swapping between a feeling of adulthood and childhood, a conflict that is exploited by everyone around her, who “called me Kerrie-Ann if they wanted to lecture me […] But if they wanted me to do summat for them it were ‘Kez’ or ‘Kezza’ or even ‘Kerrie-Anna’ in this teasy way” (200).

Red Admiral Butterfly, an important motif in the novel

Red Admiral Butterfly, an important motif in the novel

I think it would be impossible to truly enjoy reading this book. It’s tough-going, miserable and made me utterly uncomfortable. Because of its unrelenting bleakness, it’s not the sort of thing I’d usually choose to read, but I think that attitude simply backs up Monaghan’s suggestion that places like this Nottinghamshire estate, riddled with drugs and seemingly so far beyond help, are so often overlooked and ignored, inconvenient as they are to the  middle-classes to ‘sort out’. It’s an extremely intelligent and well-written novel, and its tone reminds me greatly of another East Midlands text, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe, which I loved. Perhaps I’ll get round to comparing the two some time. But for now, an admirable, albeit painful novel is The Killing Jar, to me worthy of a good 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Linden Woods by Michael Taylor, which I have high hopes for. Read along with me or join me next week to see what I thought!

MONAGHAN, Nicola. The Killing Jar. London: Vintage, 2007.

Featured Image: The Morpho Pelaides butterly, an important character in the novel.

http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morpho_peleides

Buried Dead

Berlie Doherty's Deep Secret

Berlie Doherty’s Deep Secret

I may have said this already but, after this challenge is over, I’d love to explore fiction for children and young adults in more depth because, for the life of me, I can’t work out how to differentiate some of the books from adult fiction. Some of the classifications seem completely arbitrary – is it the writers who categorise themselves or is that the job of the Carnegie Medal judges or editors or publishers…? I want to get to a point where I can encourage adults to read more of this young literature instead of, dare I say, stigmatising it. I do find it hard to believe that a novel as eerie and moving as Deep Secret, by Berlie Doherty, about the flooding of a tiny, beloved village in Derbyshire to make way for a modern dam and reservoir, and about the mature grief felt by young Madeleine after the loss of her twin sister, should be missed out on by the majority of adults simply because it is labelled as ‘too young’ for them.

According to Doherty’s footnote and website, the novel is based loosely on the construction of the Ladybower reservoir between 1935 and 1945, for which the villages of Ashopton and Derwent were submerged. In 1986, Doherty visited the site during a drought which exposed the ruined houses, farm buildings and church below; it was this spine-tingling trip which convinced her to write this story.

Derwent Hall, Derbyshire, demolished in 1944.

Derwent Hall, Derbyshire, demolished in 1944.

Doherty creates a vision of village life that is difficult to fault: there is hierarchy, to be sure, with Lord Henry and his family, who inhabit the Hall estate, owning all the land that the villagers live and farm upon; but they are benevolent masters and looked upon as deeply “romantic” (8) and respectable. The hardworking farmers and their families are “never going to leave the valley” (8) out of choice, but would each choose to “die before they turn […] into a townie” (108) and, despite their status, the Lord and Lady are no more detached from their earth, for “the scents of the flowers and the murmurings of the river, and how peaceful it all is compared with [their] London home” (86) is all they can talk about. The villagers are not hungry for the outside world and want nothing more than “to be running free […] wild and wonderful” (52) in their valley.

It is by their relationship to the land that the villagers define themselves – a trend we have seen in so many novels on this challenge already – but the politics of land ownership itself is more apparent and more emotional here than in any of the others. In the beginning, the villagers are content with their lush farmland “rented from Lord Henry” (6) for their ambitions are small and do not involve the hungry, capitalistic pursuit for their own property; the modern world still seems far away from this small community. Their idea of ownership is simple and unjealous; they work the land that their families have lived on “for donkey’s years” (12) and therefore consider themselves to have more right to it than the workers from the Water Board, who slowly begin making their way into the valley “like an army taking possession by stealth” (78) to complete surveys and then building work. The families try to keep the peace for a time, their protests limited to “frowning Stranger with their eyes” (36) as wagons trundle past, for they have ultimate faith in Lord Henry to protect them.

Ladybower Reservoir, today

Ladybower Reservoir, today

It is therefore all the more crushing for them to hear Lord Henry himself admit that there is nothing he can do to stop the incomers in their effort to “flood the whole of our valley” (90). In an “Act of Parliament” (92) that is completely incomprehensible to the villagers, whose families have lived contentedly in the traditional, feudal way of life for centuries, the Water Board has “obtained permission from the government” (88) to “purchase this entire estate – the Hall, the farms and cottages that go with it” (92), without so much as an introduction or a handshake. This is business and property ownership in unintelligible terms for the farmers – not only has their powerful Lordship been revealed as impotent in the modern world, but the land itself will no longer be owned by people but by a corporation; it will be “the bloomin’ Water Board’s” (179). How can it be that politicians in London, so far removed from this idyll in Derbyshire, have seen fit to prioritise “a massive container of water” (92) over a whole way of life? This is a dramatic power shift that the villagers are forced to witness. They may not have minded answering to His Lordship, but to suddenly find themselves 150 miles from their new southern masters and treated as completely subaltern is more than they can bear.

Derwent Church tower, uncovered during 1940s drought

Derwent Church tower, uncovered during 1940s drought

Not only are the valley-dwellers forced to come to terms with the fact that power – rather than courtesy – rules the country, but they also see how money rules the world, as when the news arrives that “the Water Board is now selling the Hall to a wealthy American [who] is planning to have it taken down, stone by stone, and to rebuild it elsewhere” (142). Once again, their land is at the mercy of those who have no moral claim to it and, once again, they have to learn how unimportant they are considered in modern society, where “someone with money can just pluck [their way of life] away, just like that, like it was a rosy apple on a tree” (143).

After all, this is a world painted without the concept of good faith, ethics or respectability; the “measuring instruments” (53) the Water Board favour work in units of land area and money, and numbers fly around them “like bubbles in the air, filmy and brilliant, incomprehensible […] in a bubble storm of noughts” (320). Pride is important too, of course, because this valley will be home to “the biggest earth dam in the British Isles”, a “great achievement. A masterpiece […] a symbol of rebirth” (94) and of British arrogance. Behind the propaganda, though, the war may be over but the devastation continues: another “great trench” is forged “like a massive quarry from one end of the valley to the other [and that] reached right into the centre of the earth” (165).

I have to say, it is this aspect of the plot – the fate of the valley and the changing definitions of land ownership – that interests me most and that makes the novel stand out. In contrast, the parts involving characters’ relationships to each other are believable and relatable, but not ground-breaking in their originality. The blind Seth, who becomes Madeleine’s closest friend and confidant, is the most striking persona for me, becoming the valley’s prophet Tiresias. This novel therefore deserves 3/5 stars.

Derwent Church tower, visible above the water line until it was demolished in 1947 to prevent people swimming out to it.

Derwent Church tower, visible above water until demolished in 1947 to prevent people swimming out to it.

However, possibly the saddest thing of all is something I haven’t yet mentioned: how quickly the feudal way of life is forgotten. Within two years everyone, in their brand new homes with electricity and indoor lavatories, is ready to admit that “it just feels as if the lake was always here” (339). Witness the unceremonious death of the past, and the murderers who got away with it, the novel seems to sigh.

Next time I’ll be reading Alan Garner’s Thursbitch for Cheshire. I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty awesome!

 

DOHERTY, Berlie. Deep Secret. London: Andersen Press, 2010.

Featured Image: Derwent Church and graveyard, derwent Village uncovered in 1995.

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