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/

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/

 

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

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Tor Me Apart

James Long's "The Lives She Left Behind"

James Long’s “The Lives She Left Behind”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Michael's Church, Pen Selwood

St Michael’s Church, Pen Selwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Featured Image: Glastonbury Tor, Somerset.

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

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

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

As The Twig Is Bent

We’re officially halfway through our challenge with this week’s beautiful novel!!

“There was a wood once. Just itself to begin with. […]

Later, someone found it, defined it […]

Used it. Gridded out, like a town, and its quarters named. Then it was cut into rides, hunted, managed, grazed, chopped about, foraged, felled, filled in again. Now it’s a country park […]

And it’s where the runaways go. […]

And the town’s right there, playing grandmother’s footsteps with the wood” (3)

Laura Beatty's "Pollard"

Laura Beatty’s “Pollard”

Laura Beatty, the author of Pollard, lives in historic Salcey Forest in Northamptonshire, a home that undoubtedly inspired many elements of the mysterious, whispering wood in her first novel.

At age 15, the awkward and unusual Anne decides to run away from her home “that hadn’t been one” (30) and find “a patch, […] her plot” (58) among the trees with which she had always felt an affinity. She sets out with nothing but, as she spends time “learning the place, looking at it […] walking, discovering” (65) she gradually gathers the necessities, constructs her home beneath a pollard ash and wages a war of survival against the “iron” (91) winter along with the wood’s other creatures. Although at times the “loneliness” (78) of her new life gets to her, and her voice grows “cracked and rusted with no use” (86), she is rarely tempted to return to the town, where the only landmarks are the battery farm, abattoir, “new estates” and “industry parks” (8). Instead, she appreciates the beauty and seclusion that other “human beings” (153) fail to notice, in the woodland environment and even at the neighbouring rubbish “tip” (77), to which she is introduced by ex-soldier and survival-guru, Steve: “She liked the dump. It fitted her almost as well as the wood. She liked its geography, the simple straight lines of the trailers and sheds, the blocks of the containers, the order of it. A little world in itself” (82).

But Anne’s struggle to survive comes to the fore as civilisation encroaches on her private existence. Information signs “spring up” (153) on familiar tracks; men “carrying clipboards” (154) arrive with plans for cycle paths, roads, treetop walkways and visitor centres; strangers arrive in their droves in the form of “walkers, riders, joggers, cyclists” and even a park “Ranger” (156); words like “officialdom” (157), land “ownership” (162) and “authorised persons” (259) begin to cloud her head. She can sense the “slow suffocation of the trees” (155) and with this, her private existence is thrown into turmoil.

Salcey Forest's Treetop Walkway (the unflattering angle)

Salcey Forest’s Treetop Walkway (the unflattering angle) – inspiration for what happens in Anne’s wood

So this is a novel that highlights the traditional theme of the urban world threatening the rural. The reader is exposed to careless dog-walkers and harmful litterers and ignorant traipsers and destructive youths and arrogant bureaucrats and heartless construction workers, all of whom incite the reader’s negative judgement of humanity for ruining the natural world. Certainly, Anne loathes this cast of characters, fears them, and eventually falls prey to them.

But, untraditionally, that’s not the whole story. Looking deeper, Beatty’s novel is not about Anne at all, or her rural/urban war, but about The Wood itself. The Immortal Wood.

Beatty gives her trees a voice – which they use far more than Anne, it seems – and the power to “witness” (9) everything that happens under their canopy, like a Greek “Chorus” commenting, singing, dancing as tragedy unfolds. But unlike Anne, The Wood “think[s] nothing of [the] nibblers, strippers, choppers” (132) that are altering its shape and Anne’s life; it cares nothing for the individuals it swallows under its shade, for The Wood’s “concern is with life, not the individual” and “there’s always another time, for someone else, if not for [Anne]” (9). The world of The Wood is endless, for it is “good at retrenching […] for every trunk lost” (132) and “looping back on itself forever”, holding on to “some forgotten sense, […] a particular life” (303). Even Anne – whose head is “so full of [the trees’] rustling” and whose own limbs “hung loose and sinewed” (148) at home under the boughs – cannot comprehend this timeless spirit. She “can’t see the wood for the trees” (18) she is always told as a child. The tragedy in this novel is Anne’s alone; the wood will survive, in spirit if not in size. It is the hubris of humanity that believes it can tame nature when, in fact, we are only contributing towards our own downfall.

Pollard Ash

Pollard Ash

I did not expect this novel, which deals so explicitly with rural-urban convergence, to be so original in its form and its plot. Giving trees narrative authority seems a risky move for a debut novel, but the surrealism pays off. In fact, reading this reminded me a great deal of Booker Prize-winning How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman – in very simple terms, both protagonists are outcast from society and victims of state authority; both narratives are filled with bewilderment, misunderstanding and impotent fury; both narrators implicate the reader in systems of injustice; and both novels sound an ironic call-to-arms that clashes with the inevitable, hopeless knowledge that nothing can change.

In Pollard, I think more could have been made of Anne’s conflicts with the state, especially in the final pages. Similarly, I’m not sure if Anne’s relationship with schoolboy Peter Parker was fully effective in providing the novel’s climax. I also think Anne should have been shown to grow even angrier – more violent or more verbal – to contrast with the sing-song placidity of the “Chorus of Trees”. But really, I’m just being picky. This was a fascinating, unusual read and for that I have huge admiration. 4/5 stars.

So next week I’ll be reading Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen. We’re over the halfway mark by now, and into Suffolk territory!

BEATTY, Laura. Pollard. Reading: Vintage, 2009.

Featured Image: Salcey Forest, Northamptonshire.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mjsullivan/4053668806/

Vital Organs

Benjamin Wood's "The Bellwether Revivals"

Benjamin Wood’s “The Bellwether Revivals”

Most other people who’ve read Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals, set in Cambridge, seem intent on comparing it by degrees to A Secret History and Brideshead Revisited, other novels set in elite academic environments. I’m not going to do that – primarily because *SHOCK, HORROR* I’ve not yet read either of those great works. I know, I know; I haven’t read those, I hadn’t read any science fiction or ghost tales or zombie horrors or graphic novels, or indeed many modern novels at all before this blog. What have I read?! But, hey, at least this review might be a little different to the others out there.

Oscar Lowe, “bright” and “bookish” (according to the blurb), escaped his frustrating and unhappy working-class roots early, before finishing school or realising where his thoughtful mind could take him. Now living in Cambridge and working diligently as a care assistant at Cedarbrook nursing home, the shadows of the university’s famous buildings haunt him on every street, reminding him of the world of privilege and academia that he can never be a part of. That is, until he is drawn into King’s College chapel one evening by the sound of swelling music, and meets the beautiful and intelligent medical student Iris Bellwether, as well as her frighteningly arrogant, mad-control-freak, musical prodigy, genius brother, Eden. (It’s a sign of Wood’s brilliant characterisation that I find summing up his characters in a few words nigh impossible.) So begins Oscar’s tumultuous relationship with the wealthy Bellwether family and his insight into the Cambridge circle, leading to love (for Iris), fury (at Eden), wonder (at the family’s way of life), shame (at his own), hope (for brighter prospects), fear (of losing everything) and pain (of knowing he can never truly belong).

King's College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

King’s College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

While the plot itself is extraordinarily unpredictable and profoundly moving, it is Wood’s characterisation in particular that blows me away. Every single character’s individuality has been created painstakingly. Through implicit and explicit detail, as though their lives are strains of music on the wind, readers grow to sense their loves, hates, talents, weaknesses, motivations, relationships – some of their secrets remain hidden from us throughout. Each character, however fleeting or prominent their presence in the novel, possesses enough depth to be a fascinating psychological study, and yet is so rounded and ‘real’ that they can’t be pinned down. This is truly an amazing debut, worthy of 5/5 stars.

The character of Cambridge itself is a weighty presence in the novel’s pages, and something Wood admits to having a particular relationship with:

“Like [Oscar], I did not attend the university, but I lived in Cambridge for three years […] Walking around the place, it is difficult to ignore the monuments to history that surround you. It is a greatly inspiring environment for someone who values the importance of learning, as I do, but it is also an overwhelming place for someone who is not an invited member of that world – the colleges are mostly walled off and unavailable to non-members, and there’s a feeling that you’ll somehow never be completed connected with it, as much as you peer in from outside.”

Indeed, the reader is distinctly aware of Oscar’s overwhelming feeling of separation from the academic world that is “lurking, pressing” (66) on every pavement. The “old buildings” (53) incite true fear in the character at times, the “formidable gothic […] spindles” and “giant blackened windows” a sight he loathes for the way they make everyone else feel “tiny, irrelevant, godless” (4). Compared to these formidable, institutional facades, Cedarbrook’s pretty, floral exterior is “like the genial smile of an old friend” (207); this juxtaposition is ironic considering the hope and opportunity that should be associated with the former, against the decay and death encroaching on members of the latter. Suffice it to say that admiration and criticism for the Cambridge environment flow in equal measure.

View over Cambridge

View over Cambridge

As well as the physical environment, it is the class implications of life in Cambridge that make it a unique setting in this novel. Prosperity and privilege are shown to go hand-in-hand here: the “tightness and etiquette” (266) of Cambridge traditions having been established by, and tailored to, the expectations of the private-schooled, the wealthy, the lucky-in-life, they suit Iris and her university clan down to the ground. The students live in a “private world” (18) on these “hallowed grounds” (8) and share memories and experiences from “a private source” (39). Oscar, as a result of his background, schooling, housing, work, and myriad other inescapable nuances of class that shouldn’t matter, but do, is an outsider. So different and, initially, unwelcome, is he to the usual circle that he is treated by Iris’ mother “as if he were one of her abstract paintings that she was training her eyes to appreciate” (100). So the unfortunate peculiarities of the British (or is it only English?) class system.

Johann Mattheson's 'perfect' organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

Johann Mattheson’s ‘perfect’ organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

However, through his relationship with Iris (who doesn’t share her mother’s snobbery, her father’s conservative class views or Eden’s sense of entitlement to the same degree) Oscar does begin to find a way in to the world he has previously been walled off from: a world of opportunity, of dreams. All Oscar has known from his childhood are “mouthy teens who […] blocked the smoggy corridors of nightclubs on weekends” (9) and estates where “the houses all looked the same. Square, innocuous brick-piles, clad in cheap grey stucco” (73). Cambridge – the city and the university, inextricable as they are – offers an alternative to this reality of modern, motorway-riddled England, where Oscar can escape with the rest, fantasise about the future, slowly learn to separate himself from his roots and the rest of reality. In doing so, he starts to understand the attraction of large houses and “acreage”, of the “tranquillity” (245) that removal from “civilisation” brings (245). For a time, he plays along with the family life in the manor, as though it’s “some theatre set: a trick house made of paper and paint, with nothing behind it but the brick walls of the stage” (233).

But, for one reason and another, he will never truly belong: his job will call him back to earth with a jolt; disaster will strike and wake him from his fantasy; words will be exchanged that remind him of his roots. No matter how high Cambridge – or dreams of returning to his education – let him float, or how wide his view over the world, he will never be able to have the life he fantasises, or stop feeling “lonely and directionless” (64). His line has been drawn since birth, his class and his choice to leave school early marking his destiny for life. The spirit of Cambridge, like a Greek Fate measuring the thread of Oscar’s life, will not grant him a second chance. Wavering from his destined path now only brings pain, heartache and hopelessness.

Hope, it seems, was only ever a form of madness, a way of temporarily filling a void. Hope, like music with its “swelling harmonies”, is capable of “flood[ing] the yawning space above them” (6) – but only fleetingly, leaving life all the more painful when it departs.

 

Next week I’ll be reading The Queen’s Secret by Victoria Lamb. Can it match up? Join me next week!

 

WOOD, Benjamin. The Bellwether Revivals. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Featured Image: Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

http://www.wallpaperdownloader.com/bing-wallpaper/images/name/TrinityCollege_20100921

The Hills Are Alive

Pressing the play button above will unleash the flowing soprano of Madeleine Grey, singing “Bailero” from Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne.

Jonathan Coe's "The Rain Before It Falls"

Jonathan Coe’s “The Rain Before It Falls”

This is the theme tune to this novel. The music weaves in and out of characters’ lives, sweeping, eerily and yet dream-like, over the Shropshire landscape, tying together past and present, the real and the imagined. It seems to echo through the hills in the same way as the story does. The Rain Before It Falls, by Jonathan Coe, is a novel that delves under the convenient façade of comfortable homes and happy families, to force its characters – particularly its women – to question who they are and how they have come to be.

Gill and her two grown-up daughters, Catharine and Elizabeth, are active, intelligent and accomplished; they live busy lives spread across the south of England, and their family seems a close and contented one. So absorbed are they in their day-to-day affairs that they barely register the world around them; “the warmth of inside” has, for years, distracted them from how “chilly” (1) the air has become. It is only when elderly Aunt Rosamund dies, leaving behind audio tapes narrating the whole family’s history – spilling secrets, reopening old wounds and exposing rumours and truths – that their eyes are opened to the lack of connection and meaning in the modern world; a modern world that is slowly turning the past into half-forgotten memory, imagination, myth. Suddenly, a search for understanding begins; can they reach enlightenment before it is too late, before the tapes finish, the photographs are put away and the present day swallows them once more? Can they find the rain before it falls?

The majority of this novel is narrated by Rosamund as she describes, in detail, twenty family photographs and the generations of stories behind them. We ‘listen’ as Gill and her daughters listen – without knowing what the final result will be and blind to the images in Rosamund’s lap. But, my goodness, the description Coe uses didn’t leave me blind for long – each photo seemed to come alive in its minutest detail, becoming as familiar and recognisable to me as if it were pinned in one of my own albums. The intuition develops in fluid layers: we see where individuals are positioned in the image and what the occasion shows; we glimpse what lurks at the edges of the frame or behind the forced smiles; we realise what the photograph summarily fails to capture. In fact, reading these passages isn’t like reading at all: the writing transcends the pages to become an audible and – in terms of the photos – tangible story.

Evacuees in Shropshire, where Rosamund was sent during WW2.

Evacuees in Shropshire, where Rosamund was sent during WW2.

There is a tense triadic relationship in the novel between photography, memory and imagination. To begin with, the photographs seem to provide the unshakeable historic “facts” (113), reliable in their frozen, unchanging existence in a way that Rosamund’s “phantom memories” (39) can never be. Memories are, after all, one step from “fantasies, imaginings” (39), and Rosamund frequently admits, “I think this is something I am now imagining, not a memory at all” (45-6).

And yet, Rosamund also despairs at “what a deceitful thing a photograph is” (193), for “although it seems to record an occasion with perfect fidelity, it actually gives no indication of what was going through the minds of the people who were there” (130). Even as she relies on the photos to structure her story, she seems to loathe them for their trickery: “everybody smiles for photographs – that’s one of the reasons you should never trust them” (214). The photos cannot live up to her often rich memories, as “there are no colours […]; it is a black-and-white photograph”, failing to capture even the simplest details, like “the letterbox in the front door, which my father painted yellow, I remember” (36).

Ultimately, Coe presents Rosamund’s fight with the realisation that, without photographs, her memories fail; without memories, photographs mean nothing. And when Rosamund is gone, taking her memories with her, there can be “no pictures, no corroboration, no proof” (39) of all the years of love, hate, joy, grief, dreams and struggles expended to give Catherine and Elizabeth the lives they have now. This mesmerising novel is clouded with a sense of Rosamund’s conflicting desperation and exhaustion, a heartrending combination – there is so much going on in this short novel, and Coe’s writing…well, I could want nothing more.

Coe builds dark voids between each of his characters, and Rosamund’s deathbed endeavour to link past with present and reunite distant family members is made all the more tragic and hopeless by the sense that, in death, she is the most disconnected character of all. What is more,  Rosamund’s funeral is “curiously unsocial” (4); Gill’s husband is plagued constantly “with a sense of having obscurely failed her” (2); Gill’s children, despite their apparent closeness, sometimes seem to her like “alien beings” (4)…Even the members of this nuclear unit seems “so distant” and “ill at ease” (9) at times, as though “a sort of wordless distance [had] open[ed] up between them, a sudden bewildered awareness that somehow, without anybody noticing, they had become strangers to one another” (21).

Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills

Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills

This lack of connection seems to have a lot to do with – and even be a symptom of – the modern world that Coe describes as infiltrating the “beloved county of [Rosamund’s] wartime childhood” (9). In her memory, Gill sees Shropshire “in vivid primary colours” but it now seems “washed grey […] a sheet of perfect white, signifying nothing” with the “imperishable noise of far-off traffic” (2) crowding in on its once secluded boundaries. Dank and dirty London is creeping ever-closer, with its “imagined dangers of […] bombs [and] once-routine tube and bus journeys suddenly turned into wagers with life and death” (1). Gill does not consider herself part of provincial Shropshire nor attune to London life.

Rosamund, in contrast, is “rooted in the Shropshire landscape, saturated with the colours and contours of its hills” (102) which “are part of your story” (94), she tells her descendants. She takes comfort in the landscape, for it soothes all ills:

“Places like this are important to me – to all of us – because they exist outside the normal timespan. You can stand on the backbone of the Long Mynd and not know if you are in the 1940s, the 2000s, the tenth or eleventh century…It is all immaterial, all irrelevant. […] You cannot put a price on the sense of freedom and timelessness that is granted to you there, as you stand on the high ridge beneath a flawless sky of April blue and look across at the tame beauties of the English countryside, to the east, and to the west a hint of something stranger – the beginnings of the Welsh mountains” (94-5).

As Gill hears these words and travels, literally and figuratively, back to her roots, she realises how deeply “these fields, these villages, these hedgerows, were still inscribed upon her memory; they were the very bedrock of her consciousness”, and she begins to understand the “precious” importance Rosamund places on finding “a sense of your own history; a sense of where you come from, and of the forces that made you” (32). I will not reveal the extent to which Rosamund and Gill are successful in their quest to join hands through time, but as the past comes alive to the three modern women, they become “half-removed from [their] surroundings”; the present seems “ghostly, unfamiliar” (148) as more important matters than trivial domestics emerge. They realise the urgent need to trace these “shadows of the past” (148) and to try to define these “unexpected patterns” (205) in order to be reconnected to each other, to the world, to their home, to the meaning of life. Listening to Rosamund’s healing words gives Gill the hope, at least, that things might come together, and that the “formlessness of jumbled buildings, trees, skyline” might develop into “gradations of colour”, with once defined, rigid outlines “blurred” (12) peacefully into one.

The London skyline - an example of the jumbled buildings Gill finds it hard to accept.

The London skyline – an example of the jumbled buildings Gill finds it hard to accept.

Reading this novel was a truly cathartic experience. Coe seems to involve his readers in the narrative as though they are characters themselves. I found the relationship between photography and memory fascinating and moving and I loved the rendering of audiotape onto page – both original and believable. I was blown away by Coe’s style and simple, yet intense, descriptive technique. I can’t wait to read another of his; I’ve certainly got plenty on my wish list now that this one has earned 5/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading The Woman Who Went to Bed For A Year. No, it’s not about me; it’s by Sue Townsend. Stay tuned!

COE, Jonathan. The Rain Before It Falls. London: Penguin, 2008.

Featured Image: “Caravan Holiday With Gran”, found by TinTrunk.

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/trevira/sets/234170/

Music from: https://archive.org/details/CanteloubeSongsOfTheAuvergne

Bullseye (Part 2)

Alan Garner, author of "Thursbitch"

Alan Garner, author of “Thursbitch”

I warned you this was coming, Part 2 of my review of Alan Garner’s brilliant novel, Thursbitch. Goodness knows, it’s a novel worth spending time on and it would be a shame to waste all my notes.

From page 1, line 1, the setting of this novel is made apparent and unforgettable. The sense of place could not be more distinctive or important. Readers are blasted with names upon names of towns, landmarks, houses, hills and stones, without any description of the environment, as though “names alone mean everything”1. Their significance is part of the story that we gradually unearth through reading this novel – Garner hands us nothing on a plate – but initially we are disorientated, overwhelmed, lost in the fog settled over the landscape.

In contrast, as Jack Turner makes his way home with his team of packhorses, past “Ormes Smithy, up Blaze Hill and along Billinge Side”, although “he could not see for the whiteness […] he knew the road” (1). Jack orientates himself by the rocks and Tor faces around him, for “there’s not a brow nor a clough nor a slade nor a slack, nor a crop nor a crag, nor a frith nor a rake, nor a moss nor a moor, as we don’t know it, by day and by night, for as far as you can see and further” (34); he feels a connection to every nook and cranny of the land, and no matter how far he travels, he always returns, for “’this here nook of the world, for me, smiles more nor any other’” (31). He is a jagger, a traveller and trader, and the valley’s only connection to the outside world.

Saltersford Hall, the home of the real Turner family

Saltersford Hall, the home of the real Turner family

In fact, all the villagers of Saltersford know of England outside Thursbitch is that it is located “up a-top of down younder, miles-endy-ways” (20) – somewhere highly ambiguous. “’London? […] What’s that?’” his mother Mary asks him when he gets home; neither she, nor his father Richard Turner, brother Edward or wife-to-be Nan Sarah have ever been out of the valley. They haven’t even been to the top of its slopes. But, like it or not, the modern world is encroaching and life in their solitary valley is endangered by the “land man”, a “high-learnt letter gent” (108) with “big ways” (146) who, thanks to permission from the government, wants to fence out “every inch of land; walling right up Tors” (109) in order to create new property rights. To do this, he’s prepared for “raunging […] out” (109) the mystic monoliths, a violation against the forces of Bull and Dionysus and Mother Earth that is unthinkable for Jack: “He can’t, Father. Never. He can’t.” (109)

Thoon, the rocky outcrop associated with Bull and Dionysus

Thoon, the rocky outcrop associated with Bull and Dionysus

Precious though the valley is to the people of Saltersford and their way of life, the energy and spiritual presence within it that is channelled by the great stone monoliths also incites great fear among them. The throne of Bacchic revelry is Thoon, the “worst” (2), most powerful, most dangerous stone in the system, which will “take a life as lief as give” (75). (Thoon was a name of a giant or gigante of Ancient Greek mythology, son of earth mother Gaia, and father to a race of men.) Passing underneath this prominent outcrop, “the lead horse felt it, even though it was up the moor, and she reared, whinnying” (30); Martha Barber, prominent Maenad and worshipper of Dionysus herself, keeps her door strictly “bolted” (4) after dark due to its potential malevolent force; Jack warns Nan Sarah not to “ever go to Thursbitch” (75) on nights when the stones are said to move, and she flat-out refuses to go near the underground stone well at Pearly Meg “for love nor money” (29), scared of snakes or poison, or both. Present-day characters Ian and Sal can feel a powerful and intimidating force as they traverse the valley, too, feeling “’This place has had enough of us’” (27).

Believe it or not, the fear and anxiety that Thursbitch and its stones inspire is not merely artistic fantasy. In a lecture delivered about the process of writing and researching this novel, Garner himself pieces together the Old English words þyrs, ‘demon’, and bæch, ‘valley’, that became recorded as ‘Thursbitch’ in 1384. “This was no Romantic conceit”, he says. “For the people of those hills in the fourteenth century, that valley was frequented by þyrs: a demon [in the shape of] “’something big’”. Those he spoke to of the valley in the 21st century were no less unnerved: “’There isn’t a farmer in all these hills around […] as will open his door after dark […] Not even to cross the yard”.

Thursbitch monolith

Thursbitch monolith and ruins

However, as shaman of the cult of the Bull, Jack knows the ways of the stones and the rites that must be carried out; as long as these stones are respected, revered and “it’s done proper, and we mind us manners” (31), no one will get hurt. In fact, so in tune is he with the spirits of the valley that, on occasion, he seems to be one of them: words “came to him out of Thoon’s very own mouth” (5), “the sound of the brook entered him, and he grew to the stone” (45), “he and the hare and the brook and the valley were one, below Thoon” (46). He was found as a newborn baby on Thoon, it is where his children are born during the novel’s span, and it is where Nan Sarah also finds her place, her shoe fitting perfectly into “a shallow print in the rock” (33). He cares for the stones, witnesses their movements, and makes sure they’re set back in their right places, for “every so often yon moon and stars get out of sorts, and it’s given to folks same as us to fettle ‘em and put ‘em back on their high stones. […] Bull shall never die, choose what [Christian] ranters and land man do” (154).

In order to carry out this duty Jack leads the people of Saltersford in ritualistic worship, the aim being to achieve wholeness with the valley in an explosion of joy and ecstasy, so that “the deathless life became his life, so that he knew nothing of him but all that was within and without was one, and the rock and well were one, and the sky and the waters were one, and death and life were one, and he was one of them all; and there was no ending of them” (111). There are rituals for marriage, rituals dedicated to agricultural deity Crom to bless the harvest, rituals to encourage the passing of the seasons and rituals to appease restless spirits. Preparation for these rituals involves eating the hallucinogenic, high-inducing Fly Agaric mushrooms or, alternatively, drinking the urine of one who has done so, which has the same result. Yes, you read correctly, and Jack has the best “piddlejuice” (4) around, “sweet and fragrant, nectar” (61). Through this practice of “opening een and ears and tongue” (146) through the drug, a wild, Bacchic frenzy erupts, with dancing, singing and even “tearing, baying, gnawing” at a bull’s flesh as a sacrifice to Crom.

Thoon, up close.

Thoon, up close.

If we take a moment to consider all the imagery and allusions associated with this pagan lifestyle, it becomes clear that there may be more to Jack than mere shamanic abilities, for he is said to “tur[n] from servant and priest of Bull into incarnation of Bull” as he “loses his identity in identifying with the deity he serves”3. Similarly, Jack is born and dies “covered in bees” (42) or “all over honey” (8). These creatures are important mythical symbols, the bull being attributed to Dionysus, while bees were though to be manifestations of mother goddess Gaia and born of sacred bulls. They are symbols of awakening, regeneration, immortalisation and renewal; Jack, having been nursed by them at the beginning of his life, has, in other words, been nursed by Mother Earth herself. Other hints and spiritual similarities break through the mist too: like Dionysus, Jack travels the earth, spreading his faith, followed by female revelers and worshippers, overseeing the bloody sacrifice of live animals with teeth and bare hands. What is more, Jack, “knowing only the Bull’s truth, the wisdom of the Bee” (143), is often said to be both “beast and man” (145); his own father recognises that “Bull and Jack are one folk” (145).” When the bull is torn to pieces in the field, Jack too suffers a life-threatening attack that he barely makes it out of alive.

Jenkin Chapel

Jenkin Chapel

Despite the depth of his faith and the power of all these mystical figures around him, it is, astonishingly, tiny, innocent Nan Sarah who causes Jack to question his loyalties. Blinded – crazed, even – by love for her, Jack’s faith is shaken and Christianity is allowed, for a time, to creep into the valley in Bull’s place. The new religion is initially despised and ridiculed by everyone as being “a festerment” (3); sitting indoors to worship is likened to “shutting sky in a box of walls […] same as it was a suit o’ coffin stuff” (3) to those who so embrace the wild moors, and ‘services’ of the time, which preached violent and “everlasting torment” (128) for all, were dismissed as pathetic “muckfoodle talk” (130) and “hill-hooting” (131). Slowly, though, Jack’s new sermons begin to convert the smalltown population, and the Jenkin stone is even “broke” (2) down to allow Jenkin Chapel to be erected in pride of place. However, it is Jack’s father who is responsible for mixing the cement, a man undeviating from his principles; he manages to “mix a gallon of bull’s blood” (140) with the mortar, confident that Jack will see the error of his ways and that Bull shall save them from this new and “sorry land” (140).

In the modern day, connected to the past as through a “rift” (26) in time that causes a profound “geometric anomaly” (27), Ian and Sal are also trying to come to terms with their relationship to the valley and to each other. Sal, scientist and academic, quickly describes the landscape in black and white terms, reducing the geological formations from mystic portals to “textbook […] Chatsworth grit” (11) with nothing more special above them than a touch of “strong stylisation” (15). Meanwhile, Ian tries desperately to make sense of the sporadically-placed stone pillars in the same way, but fails to convince either Sal or himself. Of course, “the [monolithic] system works on observation of [light] rising and setting times at the fixed outcrop when viewed from the variously placed stones”2, but there’s something missing from this purely mathematical view.

Maenads leading Dionysian bull to sacrifice, from a Vatican bas-relief

Maenads leading Dionysian bull to sacrifice, from a Vatican bas-relief

Questions creep into Sal’s mind first, along with a strange spiritual sensation, as though “everything’s moving” (13) in a world of quiet that’s “different” (26). Ian chastises her for “bawling demotic rubbish in my ear” (64) and losing her scientific mind to subjectivity as a result of her “symptoms” (86). Perhaps this is true, or perhaps her neuro-degenerative disease has called into question her loyalty to science; perhaps she is more open now, with her own mortality in mind, to the idea of faith, of spirits, of a “sentient landscape” (87). Slowly, Sal convinces herself of her connection to the landscape, determined not to become “one of those yomping urban oiks” (65) who fail to appreciate the world around them. She encourages Ian, lover of order, justice, walls and “public right[s] of way” (71), a modern-day land-man sans immoral intentions, to put his precious map of the landscape away and “watch the real thing” (14).

Ian tries to resist her sentimentality, their dialogue packed with rebuttals –

“’It’s functional.’
‘It’s wonderful.’
‘I simply don’t have the maths.’
‘Who needs it? Just look.’” (90)

But soon he too begins to be swayed by the woman he loves, just like Jack.

Fly Agaric Mushrooms

Fly Agaric Mushrooms

Eventually, with only a box of pills to aid her instead of magic mushrooms, Sal reaches a point where, like Jack Turner, she “can’t tell which is the valley and which is me” (67); she has a “religious experience” (156) in the valley and is happy to spend eternity within its shelter. It is not heaven she senses around her, but an innate bond with the undulations that moves, with continental drift, at the same rate as her fingernails grow. In this unity of spiritual enlightenment and scientific principle she draws comfort in this “place of understanding” (152) that permeates Ian with peace too.

At the end of the novel, and without giving too much away, it is peace that the characters seek and find, rather than religious ecstasy. All signs of malevolent demons go out the window as human relationships are shown to have the greater power to influence minds, change lives and have strength enough to quake or construct whole systems of belief. Ian chooses Sal’s happiness over his beloved “spiritual or medical ethical” (137) principles; Jack is swayed into and out of Christianity by Nan Sarah before ultimately realising that his only duty should be to “do right” (6) by his love, whatever fate that brings.

“He had an odd-strucken sort of twist to his face, full of grief and good. I swear as I saw a broken man, but one as could mend. And I swear, Father, I never did see a happier man” (148).

It really is a fantastically moving novel. Please read it.

Thursbitch. Photo taken by Andy Turner.

Thursbitch. Photo taken by Andy Turner.

FABER, Michael. “Oh, perispomenon!”. Review published in The Daily Telegraph, 5th October 2003. Accessed online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3603911/Oh-perispomenon.html

GARNER, Alan. “The Valley of the Demon.” Lecture first delivered at Knutford Literary Festival, 4th October 2013. Available online: http://alangarner.atspace.org/votd.html

RENNER, B. “Notes Toward a Survey of Thursbitch by Alan Garner.” Undated. Accessed online on 31/12/2013: http://elimae.com/reviews/garner/thursbitch.html

GARNER, ALAN. THURSBITCH. LONDON: VINTAGE, 2004.

Featured Image: Valley of Thursbitch.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thursbitch_7_.jpg