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

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Hard-Baked and Cold-Yoked

Jasper Fforde's "The Big Over Easy"

Jasper Fforde’s “The Big Over Easy”

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

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

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

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

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

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

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

 

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

Featured Image: Illustration of “Hey Diddle Diddle”

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

Heads Together

David Lodge's "Thinks..."

David Lodge’s “Thinks…”

David Lodge’s name jumped out at me from my list of Gloucestershire suggestions as several of his books of literary criticism helped get me through my English Literature degree at the University of Warwick, and I had absolutely no idea that he wrote fiction. Thinks”, part novel and part psychological thesis (in an absolutely non-boring way), is yet more evidence of the intellectuality and alertness of his mind, and he has absolutely no hesitation in immersing himself – artistically speaking – in aspects of technology, sexuality and criminality of the modern world. Not bad for a 79-year-old.

The plot begins with Ralph Messenger, a Cognitive Science professor at the fictional University of Gloucester, who shamelessly records himself with a Dictaphone as he voices every unadulterated thought (and some are definitely perverse) that comes into his mind in the hope of producing a true human ‘stream of consciousness’. Why? “To try and describe the structure of, or rather to produce a specimen, that is to say raw data, on the basis of which one might begin to try to describe the structure of, or from which one might inter the structure of … thought” (1).

He wants to define how thought processes work: something that has always eluded scientific minds. “Imagine,” he explains to everyone who asks, “if everyone had those bubbles over their heads that you get in kid’s comics, with ‘Thinks…’ inside them” (42).

David Lodge

David Lodge

In fact, the closest humans have ever been able to come to documenting what thought processes actually look like, is not through science but through art: fictional, narrative consciousness. That’s where Helen Reed comes in: she is a newly arrived resident writer and English professor at the university. Over the course of the novel, aside from developing the above academic investigation together through their professional relationship, their burgeoning private relationship provides the main fruit of Lodge’s novel.

Cleverly, in a novel focussed on the difficulty of defining thought patterns and of comparing individual perceptions, Lodge alternates his narrative perspective between Ralph’s recordings of his private consciousness, Helen’s diary entries of her own, and an occasional omniscient narrator that dives between the two. Instead of their thought patterns ‘being on the same wavelength’, these different perspectives only emphasise the contrast in the way the same events are understood and detailed by Helen and Ralph. Even though they believe they are expressing themselves openly and honestly, Helen and Ralph – and, indeed, all humans – are shown to be isolated inside their own minds, their understanding of each other limited by differences in perception, by the constraints of language and punctuation (how do you actually write thought? How do you punctuate it?), and by the social embarrassment associated with airing private thoughts. There will always be a chasm, Helen realises, between “my neurotic self and my more rational, observing, recording self” (14). And how can that ever be measured scientifically?

Lodge’s characters, then, suffer from a sort of Locked-In Syndrome unbeknownst to anyone: “locked inside your body, completely helpless, unable to speak or gesture, unable to even nod or shake your head” (87). Isolated.

Gloucestershire Cathedral

Gloucestershire Cathedral

This theme of isolation is certainly iterated in the novel’s setting too: the University of Gloucester seems to be a sort of factory for individuals each moving on their own paths, without convergence. Students are shuttle-bussed around the campus “as in an airport car-park” (11); the university is a production line, a means to an end, and not the destination itself. Thus Helen is filled with a sense of emptiness as she looks around her new home and workplace. She feels entrapped by the “wire perimeter fence” (31) outside of which “there are only dark fields and darker clumps of trees, and scattered farmhouses whose lights gleam like distant ships at sea” (12) – it could not be more remote compared to her life in London. What is more, “all the necessities of life are provided on campus: there’s a small supermarket, a launderette, a bank […] Lots of students never leave campus from one end of a semester to the other” (19), compounding the unpleasant locked-in sensation.

Lodge’s novel is certainly self-conscious, “avant-garde fiction” (2) at its best. It is intelligently written, thought-provoking and can be read in a whole host of different ways – all according to individual perception. It’s nothing like anything I have read before, and nothing like what I expected from this writer who I already believed myself to be somewhat familiar with. Reading the ‘About the Author’ section in my edition, it is awe-inspiring how many prizes for fiction Lodge has won between 1960 and today – the Hawthornden Prize, the Yorkshire Post Fiction Prize, the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, numerous Booker Prize nominations and a CBE for services to literature, among heaps more. I’m also astonished to learn that Thinks… is not considered one of his best novels…?! Well, mind blown. I really cannot wait to read more. This one was 4/5 stars.

Also, for any beloved University of Warwick-goers, Lodge’s campus setting and isolated location rings a LOT of bells – possibly something to do with him having taught at the University of Birmingham for almost 30 years? Maybe I’m just over-eager.

Next time I’ll be reviewing When Ravens Fall by Matilda Wren. Join me then!

 

LODGE, David. Thinks… London: Penguin, 2002.

Featured Image: Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But…, (1964)

http://artsamerica.org/blog/genre/art-museums/pop-art-powerhouse-roy-lichtenstein-at-the-art-institute-of-chicago/

We’re All Mad Here

When I was about 9 years old, one of my school Creative Writing assignments was to compose a strange or spooky story. From the moment this was announced by my Year 5 teacher, Mrs Orlovac, I knew I was in my element, having a knack for writing and a wild imagination that had always made me a firm class favourite. (What can I say? I was an irritating suck-up as a child.) At home that evening, I scribbled down a tense and twisty narrative of ghosts and goblins, elves and fairies, drawing on the weird and wonderful elements of favourite childhood stories.

"Alice in Sunderland", Bryan Talbot

“Alice in Sunderland”, Bryan Talbot

When Mrs Orlovac returned my masterpiece to me, having been marked, I felt a nasty jolt that I hadn’t received another gold star in my best subject. She explained that although the bulk of my story had been the best in the class, the ending had let it down: it is, apparently, a poor story-writing technique and ‘the easy way out’ to end with the main character waking up to find the whole experience has been nothing more than a strange dream. I was stunned. What would happen, I thought with terror, when people realised that The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland – my favourite childhood stories – were no good? Would they be thrown onto the rubbish heap simply because they ended in ‘and it had all been a dream’?

Anecdotes aside, it is my turbulent relationship with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland that piqued my interest Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland – that, and the fact that I have always, always, always wanted to read(?) a graphic novel but have had, previously, no idea where to start. Is it cheating to include what some people see as a ‘glorified comic strip’ in a literary challenge that focuses on ‘novels’? I don’t think so, but I’ll come on to that later.

As the title suggests, this book is set mostly in Sunderland in Tyne and Wear, a county that was formed in 1974 as an amalgamation of districts from bordering counties, such as Northumberland and Durham. In fact, Talbot never allows us to forget the location of his novel, for “we have to know exactly where we are. This is crucial” (9) – at the very beginning he uses several frames of his artwork to create a detailed map of the region, situating Sunderland in the North-East, the North-East in England, England in Europe and, zooming out even further, the Earth in the Universe.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll

Superficially, the story is concerned with reclaiming Lewis Carroll from Oxford – a city and a university which “jealously guards its ownership” (31) of its successful literary don – to his roots in the North-East, and Sunderland in particular, where, Talbot insists, Alice was created. Already, in the premise, the North-South divide is addressed. However, by way of gathering historical and personal evidence to achieve this feat, Talbot goes several steps further.

Digressions abound in this, Talbot’s very own Divine Comedy of Sunderland. Defining the plot is, in fact, difficult, for there is only a steady stream of fictional and factional details of the city’s religious birth, geological make-up, shipbuilding roots, industrial importance, parliamentary support, famous figures, iconic buildings, varied inhabitants, historic residences, natural wonders, literary characters, friends and enemies…Talbot blends absurdity with truth, myth with reality, histories official and unofficial, to create a written document, an epic, of Sunderland through the ages, to make up for its seeming insignificance in modern England, dilapidated ‘culture vacuum’ as it is now considered to be, cut off from political power. It is the history of a city, “of England in microcosm” (25), with a great deal of imagination thrown in.

Union Flag

Union Flag

Ultimately, Talbot channels Carroll’s “anti-establishment rebelliousness” (227) to criticise right-wing politicians’ exclusion of anyone outside the power-bubble, whether that is Mackems from the north of England (Thatcher sacrificed Sunderland’s shipbuilding station during the economic downturn of 1990, effectively snatching the city’s purpose from under its feet), or foreign immigrants (which, with our Celtic, Saxon and Viking roots, everyone in England can claim to be in some shape or form) who are constantly vilified and made to feel worthless. “The language of the press and opportunistic politicians legitimises prejudice” (295), Talbot argues, and “the extreme right appropriate this [union] flag as an emblem for a small-minded tribal concept of a mythological Britain that has never, nor will ever, exist” (298). If “there’s no such thing as a typical Mackem, just as there’s no typical Londoner or New Yorker” (61) then how can anyone possibly define what ‘typical Britishness’ is? I found myself clinging to this theme in the novel as something I too struggle to understand.

Indeed, by using the image of the flag at the end of 319 pages of intense cultural bombardment, Talbot highlights how ridiculous it is to have one symbol to represent all the different myths, legends, beliefs, facts, individuals, groups, literatures, traditions, and so on, that he has portrayed as part of English heritage, let alone those associated with Scotland or Wales that he has not addressed. He takes issue with a society that can ostracise part of its own, and forces us to question what is real and what we’ve been led to believe by said opportunistic politicians. His moral seems to be that we, British people as a unit, should take pride in what we see around us and appreciate the history of our cities and our country without excluding others from it.

Moving away from the content of Bryan Talbot’s work to concentrate more on how he delivers it, his artwork deserves a whole post of its own. As I said, I am far from a seasoned graphic novel-reader but, even to my untrained eyes, his artwork is phenomenal; this is not a book to be read but experienced. He mixes self-portraits with those of famous people and cultural icons; he blends photographs and newspaper cuttings with outline sketches; he plays with the use of old-fashioned illustrations to accompany the words of Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and pictures Henry V as a pierced and tattooed thug through mocking the literal meaning of Shakespeare’s famous Harfleur speech; he combines Stone Age, Medieval, Victorian and modern frames on a single page. We, as the audience, are thrown backwards and forwards through time, spiralled down rabbit holes, blasted with vivid images and half-recognised faces so that we too seem to be part of Alice’s dream-world, only one based in Sunderland rather than Wonderland.

Tenniel's original illustrations, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

One of Tenniel’s original illustrations of “Alice in Wonderland”: The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, 1900

One element of his drawings I found particularly clever is the way many of them are crafted to appear unfinished, or shown to be in progress over several frames, as though Bryan Talbot’s story is unravelling faster than he can illustrate it. Despite the weight of history in this work, it is through techniques such as this – as well as always using language in the present tense, even when describing ancient events – that brings an incredible sense of pace to the separate stories and makes the whole thing feel very relevant to the present.

After all this, if we were still inclined to look down of graphic novels as “somehow sub-literate” (194) because of the fact that they contain pictures, Talbot offers an explicit defence of their craftsmanship, comparing comic strips to the colossal Bayeux Tapestry, woven to tell the step-by-step story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He encourages respect for the form in a very convincing way; after all, his work “makes you think […] an’ ain’t that what Art’s all about?” (292).

This graphic novel therefore deserves its place in this literary challenge in more ways than one; not only is it an incredible reading experience, but it also has a lot to offer on the subject of Englishness and Britishness, advising us how we can all debunk the myths and celebrate the facts (and vice versa), whilst also maintaining a flexible understanding of ‘truth’ which, after all, depends on individuals’ understanding and should never be taken for granted. That being said, sometimes the sheer detail of the history or geology was a little dry. It is perhaps a shallow comment considering the epic proportions of this book as a whole, but that is the only reason why I haven’t rated it higher than 4/5 stars. It’d be great to get your views on whether you agree or disagree!

Next week I’m reading Paul Torday’s The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall which has been recommended to me for County Durham, so pick up a copy and get reading with me!

TALBOT, Bryan. Alice in Sunderland. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007.

FEATURED IMAGE: Bayeux Tapestry, approx. 1077.

http://larsbrownworth.com/blog/2010/08/11/is-the-bayeux-tapestry-reliable/