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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Inforestation

Edward Rutherford's "The Forest"

Edward Rutherford’s “The Forest”

I was a little bit daunted by this week’s book when it arrived in the post. At around 900 pages, Edward Rutherford’s The Forest is a bit of a tome. However, after a few pages I was excited to find that it continued many of the historical and natural themes present in last week’s The Lives She Left Behind, by James Long, despite being set across the way in Hampshire.

As you might have guessed given this information, the eponymous forest is the New Forest, on the south coast of England, a mere hop skip and a jump away from the Isle of Wight across the Solent. Rutherford tasks himself with recounting the forest’s vast history – or, rather, the history of humankind’s special interaction with it. The novel spans the forest’s initial protection as royal hunting grounds by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest of 1066, until the year 2000 when its many more visitors are made up of the tourist-and-television-film-crew variety. He follows strands of the same families over these generations: the forest mutates, evolves and adapts to their usage, just as the families themselves develop varying opinions, loyalties, characteristics, statuses and livelihoods in its shadows.

The first Part of the book, for example, takes place in 1099 by telling the story of the Norman infiltration into southern Britain. Against the backdrop of a royal hunt, young Adela (of Norman origins) not only faces becoming embroiled in an assassination attempt on King Rufus, but also falls in love with courtly, Saxon Edgar, whose family has lived in the New Forest for centuries. In short, Adela and Edgar become the ancestors of several other characters in the later story, as do the mysterious, goblin-like, forest-dwelling Puckle and his wife (who are rumoured to be able to wield dangerous magic) and Godwin Pride, a cheeky peasant farmer who constantly tries to extend the boundaries of his smallholding – inch by careful inch, so as to go unnoticed – in order to defy the Norman forest laws.

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

Jumping to 1204 in the next Part, the reader learns that the ‘new’ Beaulieu monastery has become of prominent importance in the Forest environs. The Pride family still features, this time in the form of Luke Pride. Luke is a trainee monk in the monastery, who accidentally hits another monk and then flees to his sister Mary’s secret protection, believing he has killed the man. Meanwhile, Mary’s other brother, John Pride, gets into a huge disagreement with Mary’s husband, Tom Furzey (watch out for that family name later too) over who has true ownership of a beloved New Forest pony. With all this drama stressing Mary out completely, when another monk Adam shows her sympathy, it ends in them beginning an affair, and therefore procreating another line of characters that feature in various ways in the rest of the novel.

New Forest Pony

New Forest Pony

It would take me a heck of a long time to summarise each of the very detailed Parts of this novel, but suffice it to say that stories of these family lines continue, through thick and thin and highs and lows, through the Spanish Armada of Elizabeth I’s reign, through the chaos of Cromwell’s uprising, through the rise of south-coast smuggling and the Industrial Revolution. The only constant is the forest; it remains “huge, magnificent, mysterious” (2), never far from people’s minds or sight. Essentially, no matter how much the characters move up or down in the world, no matter how popular or unpopular/fashionable or unfashionable Nature is within English society at certain points in history, the characters are always drawn back in the end, instinctively, to their forest allegiance and ancestral origins.

To be honest, I suppose I shouldn’t really ask for more from a novel for this challenge: Rutherford provides not only a developing picture of the politics, geography and society of the “island of Britain” (5) as a whole, but also concerns himself with the particular and peculiar spread of New Forest towns and hamlets – demonstrating how opinions and industries differ from the rest of “the island Kingdom of England” (267) due specifically to the greater proximity to European and English royal courts, as well as the significant part the region played in naval growth (shipbuilding) and farming practices. All very factual and correct.

But not very engaging.

Toing and froing from a cast of varied characters in the manner of a series of short stories is one thing I found particularly unfulfilling. Characters were not very well developed or relatable. I am inclined to believe this is an intentional styling on Rutherford’s part – he tends to pride his historical elements over the fictional – but it is simply not to my taste. The reading experience was less like diving into a brilliantly-planned Middle Earth-esque world, as I sort of hoped, and more like poring over a historical textbook on Common Law with a few made-up scenarios thrown in. Sure, I found the thing vaguely interesting and admirably researched, but I only consider it bearable since I was skimming every pagevery selectively I might add. I think this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it type of thing. Sadly, I’m probably of the latter inclination. 2/5 stars for me, even when I consider the amazing amount of effort that has surely gone into it.

The beautiful New Forest

The beautiful New Forest

Next week I’m sort of glad to be reading the much more light-hearted Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. More your thing? Then read along, I tell you!

 

RUTHERFORD, Edward. The Forest. London: Arrow Books, 2001.

Featured Image: The Spanish Armada and English ships in August 1588, by unknown painter (English School, 16th century)

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

 

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/

 

Line in the Sand

Julie Myerson's "Something Might Happen"

Julie Myerson’s “Something Might Happen”

Something Might Happen, by Julie Myerson, turns a typical “rustic idyll” (126) in seaside Suffolk into the setting of a chilling murder, a mystery without a resolution. Myerson’s story is not crime fiction; it is not interested in neat-and-tidy answers; we never discover who is responsible, or why smiling, relaxed Lennie was the victim. Rather, the novel focusses on her friends and family as they come to terms with their grief and loss. Lennie’s father, Ben; Lennie’s husband Alex; the couple’s best friends, Tess and Mick; the children of both couples; the family liaison officer, Ted Lacey: all are intertwined in this novel of life, death, family and solitude.

The small beach town is known as “a safe place” (9), “one of the happiest and most picturesque […] in all England” (47) according to the guidebooks. It has its own “salt-stained” (4) and sea-bleached identity that comes from being isolated at “a dead end”, with “creek, sea and river on three sides, the road going up to the A12 on the other” (46). Peaceful and lonely in equal measure, it certainly doesn’t have any of the “buildings, people, mess, dirt” (181) that London offers.

Tess knows the town’s spirit inside out and, before Lennie’s death, “used to like it” (3). She adored “that moment when you can’t see what’s what any more and sea and sky are one” (174); she enjoyed feeling “smaller, safer, a speck on the ground” (147), in awe of the beauty of nature around her. Most of all, she cherished the smell of young innocence her children possessed in the town’s environs, protected as they were from “the different contaminated smell of the outside world” (225.) But the dream of tranquillity and security of coastal living are shattered all too soon, and she is awakened instead to the “rough, sea cold that goes right through your clothes and hits your bones” (8), the creepy tales of deaths in the “marshes” (80); the eerie “energy” of the countryside “that sucked you in, that snared you” (327). As events take several turns for the worse, Tess and her family have little hope of finding peace on the town’s shores.

Beach huts in Southwold, Suffolk

Beach huts in Southwold, Suffolk

I have to say, I whizzed through this book. It’s short, it’s an easy read and, honestly, it didn’t require or incite much emotional commitment from its reader. That is not to say the novel is badly written – indeed, there are a few stylistic quirks that I appreciated, such as the lack of quotation marks around speech, which means the narrative blurs into the dialogue. This intrigues the reader into questioning what is being said vs. what is being thought, what is being shared vs. what remains a secret. I thought it was effective, too, the way in which Myerson refused to solve the murder mystery, in order to focus on the living.

I know some people adore books of this undemanding measure; it’s just that I do not find them hugely fulfilling. Plus, and it sounds ridiculous to say it, but the characters of the children really irritated me: they were too prominent, too in-the-way and Tess was far too sentimental about them – even on their naughtiest days – to earn credence or respect from me. To sit through 300-odd pages about how young, sweet and innocent children are was a little sickening, especially for someone who, personally speaking, probably won’t ever be convinced on that score anyway…

Much to my disappointment and shame, this hasn’t been a particularly objective or academic review – but then again, I forget that I’m not an academic any more, am I? Now I’m just a reader entitled to read books that engage and enthuse me. Unfortunately, this has not been one of the best: 2/5 stars.

Next week I’ve got David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green in my sights for Worcestershire. I’ve been dying to read this one for ages so stay tuned for what I hope will be a great review!

MYERSON, Julie. Something Might Happen. London: Vintage, 2004.

Featured Image: Groynes, a common sea defence on the Suffolk Coast.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/37348193@N08/8413542723/

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/