Inforestation

Edward Rutherford's "The Forest"

Edward Rutherford’s “The Forest”

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

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

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

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

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

New Forest Pony

New Forest Pony

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

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

But not very engaging.

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

The beautiful New Forest

The beautiful New Forest

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

 

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

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

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

 

Concentration Cramp

Michael Taylor's "Linden Woods"

Michael Taylor’s “Linden Woods”

This was a bad book.

I don’t usually like calling books ‘bad’; you’ll notice even the description of my 1-star category on this blog is “not my thing” rather than a direct criticism, such as “truly awful”. That’s because I usually believe that every book is valuable to someone, even if that someone is not me. However, even with that diplomatic mission in mind – even being as objective as possible – this book irritated me because of how poorly written it is.

At the time of writing, the only other book in my 1-star category is The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall (although I’ve been having thoughts about moving Money Can’t Buy Me Love down a peg into that section too) – my goodness, those like Nobel Prize-winners in comparison to this. Well, not quite, but if I could rate this book 0/5 stars, I certainly would. As it is, 1/5 stars is the limit.

That’s it then, really, isn’t it? You might as well stop reading this review now as I hope you’re unlikely ever to pick up Linden Woods by Michael Taylor for yourself, unless it’s during one of your particularly masochistic phases. I can’t even be bothered to describe the plot; it’s not worth it. Some might be interested in my justification though (especially the author, who will probably be appalled to find his average rating on Goodreads plummet thanks to my input. Awkward) so, for the few, here goes:

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

The novel is set in Dudley which, during the Second World War (the era Taylor concerns himself with here), was part of Staffordshire, in the Black Country. At the beginning of Chapter 2, we get a painfully boring and unoriginal description of the industrial city, “grey with the spoil of coal-mining”, “criss-crossed by railways” and filled with the sound of “the hissing and huffing of mineral-hauling locomotives and the shouts of men at work” (9). We get the odd lacklustre description of the surrounding countryside too, “abundant [in] fern and dotted with silver birches” (110). But apart from that, the art of descriptive writing seems to elude our author. Oh, except for during the sex scenes, when the adjectives and imagery seem to go a little overboard, selling the novel as cheap and tacky due to its lack of artistic worth in other aspects.

There is no comparison, juxtaposition, symbolism or allusion. I couldn’t engage with any of the characters because they were so poorly painted, indistinguishable from each other due to the fact that none of them were allowed an individual narrative voice, so constrictive was Taylor’s hold on his text. I had absolutely no interest in the plot, which didn’t seem to have any rise or fall – on the one occasion, towards the end, when I thought a bit of drama might arise, my hope was quashed as quickly as it had perked up. Quicker, in fact, since after 200 pages it was quite hard to work up any hope in the first place. I wasn’t convinced by the context; war novels are normally fascinating to me because of the emotion, trauma, violence and tragedy associated with that part of world history, but in Linden Woods there is practically no mention of ‘the horrors’ at all – it might as well have been set last week for the amount of escapism it allowed me. As for the romance…Bland. Truly bland. Is that more acceptable than ‘bad’?

Next week I’m reading The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe. Things can only improve! Join me soon again soon 🙂

TAYLOR, Michael. Linden Woods. Surrey: Severn House Publishers, 2007.

Featured Image: Enville Common, Staffordshire, as mentioned in the novel.

http://photogallery-uk.co.uk/4.html

Stuck

Margaret Drabble's A Peppered Moth

Margaret Drabble’s A Peppered Moth

I have an admission to make: sometimes, however unfortunately, life gets in the way of a good book. This week, I would have found it difficult to get through the simplest of storybooks, let alone one as seemingly intelligent as Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, selected for my South Yorkshire stint. As hard as I’ve tried to concentrate my attentions on it, pre-Christmas events have conspired to prevent me from doing so. Although I have at least read every page, what has gone in one eye has almost completed flown out the other…if you’ll pardon the gruesomeness.

Even so, the fact of its setting is impossible to miss. Much like Kate Atkinson with Behind the Scenes at the Museum (which I found absolutely mind-blowing), Margaret Drabble tells the story of several generations of women through the 20th century, following their difficult and disappointing lives and their unpleasant or unbearable personalities – and yet, in both novels, it is the most dour characters that pique our interest and our sympathy.

Bessie Bawtry is Drabble’s primary antiheroine; she is born on the coal-mining town of Breaseborough, where “repressive” (13) misery lurks around every corner. Zolaesque descriptions of this northern wilderness show it as “brown and grey and navy and nigger and fawn and tan” (55): “This was the coal belt, and coal was its bed and being. Coal seamed the earth, coal darkened the daytime air, coal reddened the night skies.” (5). The very place pollutes, plagues and cripples its inhabitants with hard work and the results of dust inhalation, bringing “respiratory diseases” (7) and other, unnamed strife.

Drabble

Drabble

“The very earth was mined. Beneath the streets, a mile down, toiled the employees of Bednerby Main, in dark tunnels supported by wooden pit props. The ground might give at any moment and let one down into the darkness…They were of another race, an underground race. They were the scum of the earth, the dregs of the earth” 15

Suffice it to say, our impression, from beginning to end, from practically the turn of the 20th century to turn of the 21st, is bleak. We are in the heart of “spoiled industrial England” (162), and no matter how many political “Clean Air Acts” are brought in to deal with the dirt, grime and resultant illnesses, nothing can mitigate “the smell of the past [that] lingers and loiters in cushions and soft furnishings” (132).

Bessie hates it. Since childhood, she has considered herself an outsider to this environment, despite the fact “her ancestors had bred upon this spot for eight thousand years” (5); she is “alien”, “a changeling”, “smells offended her, grit irritated her”, “she was of a finer breed” (5). She tries to get out; as an intelligent girl, she gets a place at Cambridge and flees, vowing never to return. She goes back on this promise to herself far too easily, scurrying home to teach in a local school and marry local Joe Barron as soon as she finds herself unsupported. “So,” the narrator sighs at this point, “we cast ourselves in castes, even when society fails to provide them” (28). Upon marrying and having two children, the family move “to another world. A million light years away, all the way to Surrey. That’s in the south of England, you know” (149). Once again Bessie gets the chance to disentangle herself from her detested roots, to glory in her life in “tame and suburban Surrey” (191), but yet again she fails to do so; she goes back to Breaseborough when she hears of her mother’s illness, despite her fear that she will be “entomb[ed]” (200) there too.

Old Roundwood Colliery from early 1900s, Ossett, West Yorkshire

Old Roundwood Colliery from early 1900s, Ossett, West Yorkshire

The novel continues in such a vein with Bessie slowly learning that “she cannot conquer place” (79) or the ties her ancestors have on her. Her dependence on what she hates about herself dominates her character. It is fascinating that in a time of great change and excitement and political freedom, when everything was opening up and “restlessness was sweeping around the glove like influenza” (50) and “machinery had begun to click and whizz, and in the wake of the industrial revolution came movement, displacement […] global travel” (59) – that in a time such as this, Bessie Bawtry cannot even bear to leave her home: she is “agoraphobic” (172), she “felt safe only in her own nice thirties suburban home, with its pale wood, its cream paint, its nice broad shallow stairs” (172).

As I said, the women in this novel are, at times, unbearable, ruled by selfishness, stern tradition or by suppressed emotions that make them hard and unfeeling. And yet, astonishingly, they are still of interest, still memorable, still mesmerising; the language is quick-witted whilst being symbolic and – for wont of a better word – academic. This is a novel worthy of study, and I wish I’d had more chance to study it. For now (and although my gut tells me to score it higher I haven’t gathered enough evidence to do so), it’ll have to be a fairer 3/5 stars.

Over the next couple of days I’ll be reading (thoroughly, this time!) Late by Louise West. Join me.

DRABBLE, Margaret. The Peppered Moth. London: Penguin, 2001.

Featured Image: A peppered moth.

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