International Play-Offs

Well, I can hardly believe it, but this is the very last book of this Placing Myself literary journey around England and, funnily enough, I really have come full circle in many ways. From the first moment I let it be known that I would be challenging myself to read one book from every ceremonial county of England, it has been from the Cornish that I received the most interest, feedback and, occasionally, criticism. Cornwall, many stipulate, is not a county of England, but a Duchy, with an unique historical and cultural identity, rights to political and social autonomy from Westminster, and, overall, a thriving Cornish nationalist movement.

Alan M. Kent's "Proper Job! Charlie Curnow"

Alan M. Kent’s “Proper Job! Charlie Curnow”

So because of all this interest, I’ve been dying to reach Cornwall on this fictional journey since… well, since I was all the way up in Northumberland! The author I have chosen – Alan M. Kent – was nominated by several of my Cornish commenters as someone who identifies himself as Cornish, rather than English or British, and I am so glad I followed the suggestion, for Proper Job! Charlie Curnow has been an outstanding 5/5 star read. Here’s why.

The novel is set on a dirty and dangerous estate called Trelawny, “a shite-hole right at the arse-end of Britain” (12), where live Charlie Curnow and almost all of his friends. From the outset, Cornwall is shown to be a far cry from the stereotypical “fuckers’ holiday destination” that is “always sunny, had kids playin’ in rockpools an’ makin’ sandcastles [and] every cunt walked around smilin’ an’ happy t’live in social deprivation” (122). Instead Kent’s Cornwall, and Charlie’s estate in particular, is filled with “the usual proliferation of dog shit, burnt tarmac, rubbish and broken fences” (11), and most people, young and old, are “on the dole” since all the work in Cornwall was “shite”, seasonal and unpredictable, “either selling fuckin’ ice creams t’cunts down Portreath, or else bagging groceries for second-home owners in Sainsburys” (9). In summary, Charlie and his peers sometimes “hated Cornwall”, colonised as it is by outsiders and tourists (otherwise known as “emmets” (37) from “up the line” (27)). Moreover, these tourists, just like the media and (apparently) the Westminster government, are entirely ignorant of Cornwall’s real battles against drugs and poverty, and the seeming impossibility of establishing “social cohesion” (9).

Filled with frustration at their poor state of affairs, and sick of being on the dole with no hope of a brighter future in sight, Charlie and his friends Yak, Neil and Bev decide to take their fate in their own hands and form a band. Not just a wimpy, lacklustre, cover-songs-only, teenage-years-style band, either; rather, through the combination of good musical talent and hard writing/gigging/practising, they are determined to develop a rock band that will “make the fuckin’ scene” in Cornwall, and “take the world hold by the bollocks” (20) to prove that the county can produce much more than just “clotted fuckin’ cream” (19) and so-called “Cornish butter” (27).

Cornish author of this novel, Alan. M. Kent - an expert on all things relating to Cornish literary and historical culture, apparently.

Cornish author of this novel, Alan. M. Kent – an expert on all things relating to Cornish literary and historical culture, apparently.

As much as Charlie and his friends might profess to ‘hating’ Cornwall, therefore, they are also incredibly proud and nationalistic about their home, aiming to prove that both it and they themselves are worthy of having a definitive place “on the map” (56). Charlie, in particular, is aware (even through all the Trelawny grime and misery) of the truth behind the stereotypical observations of “Cornwall’s ancient and romantic landscape” (7) and the “noble tradition[s]” (37) that are part and parcel of Cornwall historical, Celtic identity; he notices the beauty of the “frost in the air and the moon […] over Carn Brea (18). He knows that “Cornwall used t’be fuckin’ called West Barbary n’people from up the line reckoned we was fuckin’ savages”, and so wants the band to develop a modern identity that is just as “intense…it’s gotta’ reflect where we’re from” (65-6).

There is still a great difference between Charlie’s nationalistic feelings and those of the “fuckin’ middle-class beardie-weirdies” who “sat ‘round an’ lamented lost olde worlde Cornwall” and had “fuck-all else t’do but argue over spellings o’place-names” (128). He has no real interest in their version of Cornwall’s identity, or even of learning the Cornish language which “sounded unnatural as fuck” (133) to him. But, as the band garners more and more interest and success, Charlie is proud to feel like Cornwall is becoming “the centre o’the world” again, “not just some forgotten piece o’it” (226). Heck, “if the bus driver t’Trelawny knew” of Charlie’s band, then that’s all he needs to know that “he’s made it. He knew it had been a proper bleddy job” (246).

Cornwall (aka Kernow - Charlie's surname!) "must have political recognition as a nation", some argue

Cornwall (aka Kernow – Charlie’s surname!) “must have political recognition as a nation”, some argue

Kent is an absolute master of describing Cornwall’s various, conflicting and yet co-existing identities, which appear through perspectives ranging from the supremely nationalistic (as the “’Free Cornwall’ graffiti” [33] around the estate attests to) to the blissfully ignorant of any political undercurrents in the youth- and surfer-paradise. Crucially, there is no single version of Cornwall that its inhabitants and all-important seasonal visitors can agree on. Just as, I suppose, throughout this challenge there have been multiple embodiments of Englishness too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now, Kent makes important political points about the subjugation, simplification and homogenisation of Cornish culture. By centring his novel around modern youth, he is also able to showcase the crisis the generation faces in growing up in a county that cannot define itself as it wishes to. Charlie’s efforts to establish himself among his peers and his compatriots reflects Cornwall’s own need, as Kent seems to see it, to redefine itself on its own terms. After all, it is the county’s outsiders (whether that be tourists, national media or Westminster) who insist on perceiving Cornwall in a single, sunny light and who ignore any pressing news that may jeopardise this idyllic vision. Neil and Yak put it plainly when they say:

“I mean it’s hard fur people in Cornwall to be proud o’who they are, ‘cause no fucker on tv has a Cornish accent. You’n be fuckin’ Irish, or Scottish, or Scouse or fuckin’ Geordie – an’ everyone thinks you’m cool, but if y’speak like we, no fucker wants t’knaw ‘ee […] Up the line they think we all have straw ‘angin’ out o’our mouths an’ spend the days makin’ clotted fuckin’ cream” (19).

Stereotypical Cornwall - beachy holiday destination. This is a far cry from the poverty-stricken perception Charlie has of his home.

Stereotypical Cornwall – beachy holiday destination. This is a far cry from the poverty-stricken perception Charlie has of his home.

I’m so glad I have managed to end this challenge on a high, with a book that I enjoyed. Now all that’s left is for me to summarise the year’s reading. With the Scottish referendum well on the way, I’d better get going! See you soon.

 

KENT, Alan M. Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! London: Devon, 2005.

Featured Image: Cornish Nationalists protest to be seen as a people distinct from the English and from the UK. This year, Cornish was finally recognised as an official ‘national minority’ (like Scots, Welsh and Irish) but, for many, this doesn’t go far enough.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cornish-people-formally-declared-a-national-minority-along-with-scots-welsh-and-irish-9278725.html

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The River Flows

Eva Ibbotson's "The Dragonfly Pool"

Eva Ibbotson’s “The Dragonfly Pool”

When I was young – around the 8 or 9 mark – my absolute favourite book for a long time, and over very many readings, was Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. I remember this vividly, as I remember clinging to the book’s pages and several of its characters vividly, but the actual detail of the story I have long since forgotten. Or so I thought.

Looking up plot summaries of it recently, I am astonished to find how much of the story strikes chords in the depths of my memory: English orphan Maia is sent away to long-lost and unpleasant relatives in the Amazon region of Brazil, where she meets and adventures with several other children – both Amazonian and European – before they join together to carry out their escape from their discontented lives. I am secretly pleased to recognise even at that age my passion for books about far-flung journeys and other cultures. And perhaps the plot had a subconscious effect on me too, before I reminded myself of the content of the story: I’ve just married my very own Brazilian, after all, having fallen in love with both him and his country!

Anyway, when I was researching books for this challenge last year, and saw that another of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books, The Dragonfly Pool, met my conditions for the county of Devon, I absolutely couldn’t resist. There are a great many similarities between the plotlines and characters.

Eva Ibbotson's "Journey to the River Sea", one of my childhood favourites and winner of the Smarties Prize in 2001

Eva Ibbotson’s “Journey to the River Sea”, one of my childhood favourites and winner of the Smarties Prize in 2001

The Dragonfly Pool begins in London, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Precocious, young Tally Hamilton lives happily in the city with her loving father, a respected doctor, and her aunts. However, when Mr Hamilton is offered a scholarship, by a grateful patient, for his daughter to attend a fine boarding school in Devon, his concern for her safety in the impending war overrules his desire to keep Tally near him. Although initially resistant to the idea of leaving behind all she knows and loves, Tally is sent off by train to the relaxed, fun-loving, if “strange and slightly mad” (62)
Delderton Hall. And she grows to absolutely adore it, falling in love with its unique natural surroundings, so different to what she had been used to in the city:

“There was no lovelier place in England: a West Country valley with a wide river flowing between rounded hills towards the sea. Sheltered from the north winds, everything grew at Delderton: primroses and violets in the meadows; campions and bluebells in the woods and, later in the year, foxgloves and willowherb. A pair of otters lived in the river, kingfishers skimmed the water and russet Devon cows, the same colour as the soil, grazed the fields and wandered like cows in Paradise. But it was children, not cows or kingfishers, that Delderton mainly grew.” (35)

Although the novel unfortunately does not provide much description of Devon, the county is set up as a safe and romantic backdrop where freedom reigns and children flourish. Against its green countryside, “it was easy to forget […] that Britain and France and so many of the free people of the world were in danger. Here in Devon we were unlikely to be bombed […] but we must be ready to do everything to help the war effort if the worst happened” (54). Domestic staff are being called up, radio broadcasts talk gravely about the political situation, and picture-houses show newsreels featuring Hitler’s fearsome visage and harsh foreign commands.

The Devonshire countryside that Tally falls in love with

One view of the Devonshire countryside that Tally falls in love with

But Ibbotson does not tell a Blyton-esque story of a boarding school’s efforts to withstand the war; she instead catalogues the children’s adventures around the grounds and on an overseas school trip to a folk-dancing competition held in the central-European Kingdom of Bergania (a Kingdom also beset by but so far proudly resisting Hitler’s threats). Soon, this develops into a mission to rescue the orphaned and mortally endangered Prince of Bergania, a modest and lonely boy called Karil. It is all slightly bizarre, but lives up to themes I recognise and appreciate of Ibbotson: themes of foreign journeys, children’s decision-making and agency, and of the hills and valleys of Devon (and Bergania, for that matter) being just as part of the children’s lives as their friendships.

A still of Hitler from a Nazi newsreel, like those seen by Tally in the novel.

A still of Hitler from a Nazi newsreel, like those seen by Tally in the novel.

I enjoyed the book, but I think that even had I read it at age 9, it would not have captured my imagination quite as much as Journey to the River Sea did. In truth, I was disappointed that the plot and setting were not more original – I wonder what percentage of children’s books are based around their antics during boarding school life…80%? 90? – and even with a couple of mentions of the impending war, the folk-dancing set-up in Bergania seems too trivial and far-fetched to give credit to Tally’s determination to attend and to rescue Karil.

I simply did not connect to the characters or to the landscapes that Ibbotson creates here. Part of the problem is that Tally, for one, is entirely confident and level-headed; she is not a sympathetic character, or one in need of her friends’ or a reader’s support in overcoming the obstacles set out in front of her. What is more, the obstacles – whether German officers or cruel, stuffy Englishmen or the challenges of war itself – hardly seem to faze the children in their exploits. Everything seems a bit too easy to overcome. I really think Ibbotson is missing a trick here; unlike in Journey to the River Sea, there are no vulnerabilities in the characters or challenging moments in the plot that young readers can catch hold of, be gripped by or dwell on; there is no chance to will the protagonists onward in their struggle because, before you know it, they’ve succeeded in another aspect of it. Overall, as a child or as an adult, I rate it 2/5 stars.

Author Eva Ibbotson

Author Eva Ibbotson

This novel certainly has not put me off Ibbotson, however. I look forward to reading some of her other work – aimed variously at children, young adults and adults – whilst knowing that it is for Journey to the River Sea that she received most critical acclaim, winning the Smarties Prize in 2001 and being highly commended for the Guardian, Carnegie and Whitbread Awards. I am truly sad to learn that Ibbotson died in 2010, and feel that I should have known this at the time: it is like losing a childhood heroin.

Next time I’ll be reviewing my very last book ever for this literary challenge around England! It’s Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! By Alan M. Kent, a Cornish writer. Stay tuned for that, as well as my subsequent summary of my favourite books and lessons from the whole year of reading.

 

IBBOTSON, Eva. The Dragonfly Pool. Oxford: Macmillan, 2009.

Featured Image: Liechtenstein countryside – some readers believe it to be the inspiration for Ibbotson’s Kingdom of Bergania.

http://blog.011now.com/category/travel/page/4/

Teenage Boredom Personified

Alecia Stone's "The Talisman of El"

Alecia Stone’s “The Talisman of El”

You know what? Some books on this literary challenge have really made me question my own belief system. Before I started this year, I was utterly convinced that I enjoyed reading fantasy fiction, whether it be YA or adult (I really don’t care which). Mind, I haven’t ever read a whole lot of it – my experience has mainly been limited to J. K. Rowling, Anthony Horowitz and J. R. R. Tolkien (all gods in their own right) – but from what little knowledge I had garnered previously, I thought the genre was a definite goer. But my goodness, since starting this challenge I have realised that the three authors listed above are simply exceptions: for the large part, I really cannot stand fantasy fiction, whether it be Jannicke Howard’s zombie apocalypse, Peter Hamilton’s science fiction, or Alecia Stone’s The Talisman of El, set in the small town of Capeton in West Sussex, which is what I read this week.

I can only assume that it’s my loss that I don’t ‘get’ this novel: it has been ranked fairly highly by a fair number of people (admittedly, seemingly as the result of some sort of book giveaway and thanks to reviews from the author herself) on Goodreads. Well, I warn you now, if I have any influence at all, the average rating is surely going to plummet.

Charlie Blake is 14 years old and has been in care for a long, long time, since the untimely death of his parents. What details do we have of Charlie’s background, his memories of his parents or any emotions attached to his childhood development? None at all, except that Charlie somehow managed to pre-empt his father’s death in a dream. Clumsy and convenient foreshadowing? Methinks so. Anyway, suddenly, out of the blue, Jacob someone-or-other has agreed to foster Charlie and things appear to be looking up: this is a man that is caring and emotional, especially when it comes to comforting Charlie after his continuing nightmares…oh, wait, no, he’s actually a murderous villain who blackmails Charlie into burgling people’s houses for him. Why? No idea. But anyway, stereotypical bad guy checkpoint reached.

West Sussex, on the south coast of England

West Sussex, on the south coast of England

Next thing on the fantasy fiction checklist: Charlie needs a sidekick if he is to successfully fight evil on the side of good. This is Alex, his teenage crush from his new school with whom he has awkward and stilted conversation for the whole of the novel. I don’t think it’s meant to be stilted and awkward, but rather witty and flirtatious…the less said about this novelistic failure the better.

Gradually, through this friendship, plus the arrival of some others (a homeless boy called Richmond – completely inconsequential to the story but apparently necessary to provide irritating and down-with-the-kids banter – and Derkein, who introduces Charlie & co. to the confusing, fantastical, parallel world of Arcadia) it is revealed that Charlie can predict the future, talk to animals, has a natural aptitude for all languages and is, in fact, not of this world at all. Dur.

There are several types of fantastical creature introduced to the reader on the youths’ quest for understanding – a quest which takes them to the centre of the Earth. No, really. It’s not even hot there or anything.

There are also several mythologies introduced – including Christian mythology (hint: a Jesus-the-Messiah type hero-complex and a Garden-of-Eden type knowledge-is-evil tedium) – which are very, very weird. Nothing really makes enough sense or is interesting enough to be recounted here. To be honest, it is a load of irritating rubbish. 1 star, and let’s be done.

Author Alecia Stone with her novel

Author Alecia Stone with her novel

In terms of any apparent West-Sussexness associated with the book, Charlie finds that the adults around him are all too pleased to be in the countryside away from “all that city noise” (15), whereas his peers can’t stand that “there’s nothing to do here but surf the net. It’s dead boring” (24). I suppose I could say something symbolic about the parallel universes experienced by children/adults – i.e. how each generation experiences the same locality in different ways – but the novel doesn’t really inspire that much interest within me. Stone simply emphasises the countryside around Capeton, where it was “seventy percent woodland and thirty percent civilisation” (61) and where the houses “looked like something out of a fairytale” (125). Fairly non-descript, as you can see.

Next week I’ll be reading The Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb. I loved her The Legacy, so I hope good things are in store once again. Join me then 🙂

 

STONE, Alecia. The Talisman of El. London: Centrinian, 2012

Featured Image: Tree tunnel, Halnaker, West Sussex

http://travel-fashion-sports.tumblr.com/

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

Crumbling

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

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

Helen Oyeyemi's "White Is For Witching"

Helen Oyeyemi’s “White Is For Witching”

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

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

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

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

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

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

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

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

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

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

Author Helen Oyeyemi

Author Helen Oyeyemi

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

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

 

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

Featured Image: Characteristic White Cliffs of Dover

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

The Show Must Go On

Martine McDonagh's "After Phoenix"

Martine McDonagh’s “After Phoenix”

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

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

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

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

Author Martine McDonagh

Author Martine McDonagh

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

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

So, interesting? Yes.

Original? Relatively.

Engaging? To a mild extent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wending Woodward

Katherine Webb's "The Legacy"

Katherine Webb’s “The Legacy”

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

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

Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma, c. 1911

Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma, c. 1911

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

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

One of the famous chalk carvings in the Wiltshire hills

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

‘Best of British…and ta very much’

David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green"

David Mitchell’s “Black Swan Green”

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, is the story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor’s battle with being 13 years old. Puberty, peer pressure, teenage awkwardness, school bullies, a crippling speech defect and life in a dysfunctional family in an isolated Worcestershire village – called Black Swan Green – make it all the more difficult for him to find a place for himself against the backdrop of the 1980s Thatcher era and the Falklands War.

Judging by my work colleagues’ reactions when I described the plot to them, to most people this book sounds unbearably bleak. To me, even from the outset it sounded fantastic. As a general rule, I’m a sucker for anything written about the fascinating creature that was Margaret Thatcher, as well as a great lapper-upper of coming-of-age/ formative year novels or Bildungsromane (whatever you want to call them).

The controversial Margaret Thatcher

The controversial Margaret Thatcher

This is the first David Mitchell book I’ve read but it certainly will not be the last. I deeply admire his success in writing from the perspective of a child; I find it requires great skill to convey the interpretive innocence and worldly misunderstanding of a young person in a way that does not result in a narrow, oversimplified, frustrating interface with the reader. This skill abounds in Mitchell’s novel: the world is not simplified through Jason’s outlook; rather, the character’s imagination is shown to compensate for what he does not fully comprehend, generating a representation of his issues and his surroundings that is entirely fresh, entirely compelling and entirely distinct from an adult’s perspective. Indeed, the construction of the relationships between Jason’s classmates and family members and even the odd stranger is some of the finest and most subtle work in the novel, complete as it is with biting dialogue and undertones of rivalry, pressure, judgement and, in some unexpected cases, love.

The effect of this narrative mastery produces a 5/5 star novel that is deeply relatable for anyone who has been through adolescence and, invariably, come face-to-face with the accompanying periods of bitching, bullying, discomfort and self-loathing contiguous with this brutal phase of life. (Do any of us know anyone who was never bullied to some degree at school?!) Most unbearable and un-putdownable for me were the scenes between Jason and his detached parents. Overall, Jason’s experiences are made to seem simultaneously dreadful and heart-wrenchingly ordinary. As a reader, you feel Jason’s pain and uncertainty as flashbacks of your own, becoming the victim all over again, whilst at the same time the sense of injustice you feel on his behalf turns you into his protector. This is not just an immersive, formative experience for Jason but for the reader too, whose own life is put into perspective by seeing Jason’s play out.

The destroyer the HMS Sheffield on fire during the Falklands War, 4th May 1982.

The destroyer the HMS Sheffield on fire during the Falklands War, 4th May 1982.

As it happens, Black Swan Green is also a great novel to choose for this Placing Myself challenge, since it has a heck of a lot to say about place and space.

Mitchell seems to suggest that a lot of Jason’s insecurity and nervousness in day-to-day life stems from his inability to form a relationships with the physical environment in which he lives. In fact, the very first sentence of the novel, in which Jason recalls his father’s command, “Do not set foot in my office” (1), exemplifies the continuing theme of Jason being barred from relating to space, even in his own house. Neighbouring farmers are no more helpful in offering him a mode of belonging; they resent Jason’s “townie” (163) presence in the village, for his family lives in “little toy mansions on land [the farmers have] been workin’ for generations” (89). What’s more, Jason’s frequent encounters with Ross Wilcox and the other neighbourhood bullies means that he feels as if “Planet Earth’d shrunk to a bubble five paces wide” (271); no wonder he can find no place of comfort in the village when on every street he is tormented and persecuted by boys from school.

A view over the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

A view over the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Just to make matters worse, the village itself is so lacking in status in England – “it’s the most boring county so no one ever knows where it is” (215) – that he would be unable to feel pride in his upbringing even if he wanted to. Its lack of swans despite its name is a big “joke” (82) that fills him with a sense of inadequacy in the face of outsiders. As a result he is, quite literally, prevented from finding and respecting his own place in the world – without a true home, his identity is unstable, and his self-worth and self-belief suffer as a result.

“God, if I had a car like Ewan’s MG, I’d get out of Black Swan Green faster than a Super Etendard. Far away from Mum and Dad and their three-, four- and five-star arguments. Far from school and Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake and Neal Brose and Mr Carver […] I’d never, ever ever come back to muddy Worcestershire” (135-6).

Amazonia: In Jason's mind, his woods are on this scale.

Amazonia: In Jason’s mind, his woods are on this scale.

The only place Jason seems remotely happy – although still not consistently – is in the woods. Reminiscent of Ann in Pollard, “trees,” he says, “’re always a relief, after people” (10); not only is “the real Jason Taylor” (296) allowed to come out in the woods, away from prying eyes, but he is also able to take pride in the fact that he knows “all the paths in this part” (11), and is continuously interested in exploring more and more, to “track the bridlepath to its mysterious end” (87) for the sheer adventure of it. The respect that is lacking for ridiculously-named Black Swan Green is made up for in his reverence for the woods, where time and nature are “older” and “truer” (296) than anything manmade. Within these woodland walls, he can convince himself that he is no longer shy, but an intrepid explorer, master of his surroundings. Perhaps, then, there is hope he may find a place for himself in the world yet? Alas, at the end of the novel, when he has matured in more ways than one, he realises “this whole wood’s only a few acres […] Two or three footy pitches, tops” (364) – his childhood imagination, which conjured a majestic forest in which to hide himself, crumbles at these words. Growing up and realising the possibility of moving away and moving on with his life is a broadening of his horizons, to be sure, but the wake from innocence comes with a nasty jolt, and the fight to belong may never be over. (I don’t want to gush, but my goodness how Mitchell’s writing does move me.)

David Mitchell, author

David Mitchell, author

If Jason’s life wasn’t unstable enough with such a lack of physical belonging, Mitchell goes one step further to bar his protagonist from forming a confident relationship with language. Not only does Jason struggle, like every child, to express himself in an adult world – “I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right” (149) – but, with a stammer he has to combat in every single sentence, Jason can rarely find words to accurately represent himself to others. Once again, the process of establishing his identity in the world around him is jeopardised, leaving his sense of selfhood floundering in uncertainty. For a 13-year-old, stammering in front of his peers is equivalent to “death” (11) and, unnervingly, his private nickname for the spirit that constricts his own throat is the “Hangman” (31). He lives in mortal fear of this spirit preying on his alphabet, taking one letter after another until the J-words go and “I won’t even be able to say my own name” (31). Truly, the way Mitchell describes Jason’s distress with holding simple conversations is haunting; Jason’s creativity in circumventing problem words fills the reader with consternation as well as intense sorrow that he can be left to struggle alone, so let down by those around him.

Jason, the Hellenic hero, returning with the Golden Fleece

Jason, the Hellenic hero, returning with the Golden Fleece

But, just as the woods provide Jason with some imaginative relief for his feeling of homelessness, so Mitchell offers Jason occasional respite from his war with words. After all, despite his difficulty with verbal expression, Jason’s proves his linguistic creativity by writing advanced poems for the village newsletter…under a pseudonym, of course, or his classmates would skin him alive. The strange and mysterious Madame Crommelynck is, for all he knows, his sole reader, poetic teacher and encourager; she is the only one who knows his true identity and who encourages him to use his “hated” real name, Jason Taylor, which he thinks of as “flavourless as chewed receipts”: “’What is more poetic than ‘Jason’, an Hellenic hero? […] And what is a poet if he is not a tailor of words?’” (193). Mitchell certainly provides Jason with hugely inventive ways of interpreting the world: he revels in discovering “secret colours nobody’s ever named” (85), in expressing the inexpressible – “a sick bus growled past and made the air taste of pencils” (246) – and in searching for true beauty, even if “beautiful [is] the gayest word going” (116) for most adolescent boys. He presses his ear against the earth and draws inspiration from it; his creativity has the potential to give him agency for his own representation in future – if only he can grasp this with both hands before he is silenced altogether.

I could go on for hours (even longer than I have done already, believe it or not) about the cleverest elements of this novel, which are all the more intelligent for being presented through a child’s perspective.

  • Like the way Mitchell describes the British class system in terms of a game of Monopoly, with the fancy cousins – who live in glamorous London, of course – already having “hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane” while Jason and his family are “still swapping Euston Road for Old Kent Road plus £300 and praying to scoop the kitty from Free Parking” (53).
  • Or how Mitchell seems to criticise the arrogant British attitude to war through a competitive game of British Bulldogs in which boys “lost three teeth” (6), were forced to turn “traitor” and which, all in all, shamefully, wasn’t “about taking part or even about winning” but about “humiliating your enemies” (7).
  • Or the way Mitchell highlights English ignorance and carelessness about all other parts of the UK: “Aberystwyth’s a bit of a dive, but Dad says John o’ Groats’s just a few houses where Scotland runs out of Scotland. Isn’t no god better than one who does that to people?” (164). “Accuracy on matters Irish is not the forte of the English” (219-20).
Monopoly board game - or, the British class system 101

Monopoly board game – or, the British class system 101

But I’m not going to go on for hours, because you really should read this incredibly moving, incredibly rewarding novel for yourselves. In fact, I think I’m going to go and start it again, right now…

Next week I’ll be reading Phil Rickman’s The Fabric of Sin. It looks like it might be a strange one, so join me soon to find out more!

MITCHELL, David. Black Swan Green. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.

Featured Image: Black swan on the Severn River.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/macreative/5058985523/lightbox/

The Story So Far…

Already, I seem to have talked endlessly about the importance of the theme of belonging in the modern English novel; in almost all 9 books I’ve read so far, the writers have depicted characters who struggle to define their place in society – who feel unwanted or ‘different’, who are literally homeless, who are ostracised or discriminated against or who simply fail to fit into their surroundings, perhaps because they are newcomers to a particular place. In most cases, these characters’ lack of belonging leads to an inability to define one’s own identity, and a perpetual state of misery, loneliness and uncertainty as a result.

Maureen Lee's The September Girls

Maureen Lee’s The September Girls

Maureen Lee’s The September Girls takes up this mantle of belonging, but also shows another side to it. Her story focusses on the poverty-stricken Caffrey family, who migrate from Ireland to Liverpool, Merseyside, in the ‘20s, in the pursuit of greater things, only to find that the “grand, rich place” (4) they imagined has a great many problems of its own. Strangers in this new and foreign land, they are unwelcome, inferior and utterly worthless – or so residents of Liverpool would have them believe. Here we go again, I thought, another novel about strangers lost in an unfamiliar place which they eventually, in the final pages, learn to love. I didn’t exactly let out a yawn, but we have seen a large proportion of this Bildungsroman framework on our journey through 2000s England. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lee did not succumb to the usual formula.

Instead of the Caffreys getting down in the dumps about the occasional insults they receive from Liverpudlian locals – “get back to Ireland and take [your] filthy family with [you]” (9) – or pining overmuch for “the sun and the sky, the clouds and the green fields of Ireland” (40), they seem hardly to mind about their change of location. Their sense of belonging is not based, as with other characters we have come across, on their ability to fit in with the world around them, but on their place within the family itself – as long as they have each other, and “a proper house of their own” (3), their universe is complete. Thanks to this strength of identity and the security of the family unit, rarely is there an occasion when they feel lost or insecure about their situation.

In fact, it is the wealthy Marcus and Eleanor Allardyce – who have held a stable and respectable position in the city for generations – whose world comes crumbling down in the course of the novel. When they meet the Caffreys, their life of comfort and luxury is completely opened up; Marcus becomes a “Fish out of Water” (29), is out of place “in his own home” (157) and Eleanor explores “the narrow streets that were virtually on her doorstep, but where [she] had never walked before” (87). The city becomes a foreign environment to this couple more than it ever is to the Caffreys – the classic Bildungsroman formula, in which the protagonists develop over time to fit into society, is unexpectedly turned on its head.

Liverpool Pier Head 1920, where the Caffreys arrived into from Ireland

Liverpool Pier Head 1920, where the Caffreys arrived into from Ireland

In addition, the context of Lee’s novel allows her to present this theme of belonging in a new and particularly interesting way; the bulk of the novel is set during the course of WW2, in which two of the three Caffrey youngsters take part in horrors abroad while the rest of the family struggles to cope with air raids and strict rationing on the Home Front. In a time in which everyone is fearfully aware of their own mortality, surrounded by individuals who have lost limbs, loved ones and homes, and in which streets and whole city landscapes are being blown apart and nothing is recognisable, everyone’s sense of belonging is in jeopardy, not just that of the new Irish family on the corner, who slip into the melee rather than continue to stand out as foreigners. Things that have previously been taken for granted, like having “four pairs of perfectly good legs” (8) in the family, are called into question in wartime. Freud’s concept of the Uncanny instantly springs to mind, in which something – such as a mutilated human body or a bombed-out row of houses – can be familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time, generating a feeling of intense psychological discomfort due to the confusion between attraction and repulsion.

Another great thing about the novel is the war-related satire. I do love a good bit of satire. In particular, Lee completely undermines the concept of patriotism – as many writers did in the war poetry I’m sure we all must have read at school – which is particularly interesting for me in this journey to pin down an as yet mythical sense of English national identity. The character of Peggy exemplifies this in the line “I thought I was being patriotic [by signing up], but now it seems more like downright foolishness” (228). During wartime of course, people are judged repeatedly on their level of patriotism – labelled cowards or heroes depending on their willingness to fight for their country – when, really, the whole thing becomes a lot of nonsense. The romanticised image of England being all green pastures or bright lights can no longer exist in the imagination to motivate troops abroad, for it no longer exists in reality: hardly any of it is “left standing” (416) by the end of the war. In theory, with the city destroyed, the only characters who should be able to survive in spirit are the Caffreys, whose sense of belonging and identity is founded only on their relationships. Read it for yourself to find out what does happen..!

Cook Street, May 1941, the 'Liverpool Blitz'

Cook Street, May 1941, the ‘Liverpool Blitz’

Overall, I found Maureen Lee’s novel a breath of fresh air. Not only is it set in a period I haven’t yet read about on this challenge, but it is also clearly an important period, in the author’s mind, in the development of Liverpool into what the city represents today. The story was varied and interesting and it is an enjoyable read. Perhaps unfortunately for Lee, I have read very many fantastic World War novels, which makes me all the more aware that this is not as mind-blowingly emotional or symbolic or engaging as some. In fact, I found its length had a detrimental effect on its characterisation, which was revealed as quite static and two-dimensional in the case of the Caffrey family members. However, I’m having to exaggerate the issue just to describe what I found to be minor frustrations – I still rate the novel as a good read at 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, which I’m really looking forward to. Have you read it? Let me know what you think!

LEE, Maureen. The September Girls. London: Orion, 2005.

Featured Image: The devastated Liverpool docks after the May Blitz of 1941.

http://ww2today.com/3rd-may-1941-liverpools-may-blitz