The Lookout

Graham Swift's "Wish You Were Here"

Graham Swift’s “Wish You Were Here”

While appearing to be very different, there are some startling similarities in theme between the last two novels I’ve read: Katherine Webb’s The Half Forgotten Song, for Dorset, and Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, set partly in the Isle of Wight. Both are grounded at the English seaside and yet contradict the usual idyllic stereotypes; both feature aging characters tied to their landscape and haunted by their past; both are hung up on the horrors of war, whether that be WWII, the Iraq War or even war within oneself. What’s more, the main households in the novels are called The Watch (Webb) and The Lookout (Swift)…The theme of looking on at the world outside whilst being cut off from it – of being left alone, in other words, to be terrorised by one’s own mind – could not be more strongly shared. Strange, eh?

The protagonist of Wish You Were Here is the taciturn but quietly emotional (and frankly brilliantly- and heart-wrenchingly-written) Jack Luxton. Jack is the last in a long line of Luxton farmers from Devon, but he cut all ties with the area and moved to the Isle of Wight with his wife Ellie after his parents’ death. His Devon years, at the family home at Jebb Farm, were wracked with hardship and grief though, at times (almost exclusively because of the love and admiration he has for his little brother Tom), filled with immense joy. Having to cope with their mother’s death, an outbreak of the fatal BSE (mad cow disease) in the UK – at which point they were forced to murder their own beloved cattle and plunge themselves into economic hardship – and their father’s deterioration after both events was too much for the young Jack and Tom. On the morning of Tom’s eighteenth birthday, after having confided in Jack, Tom ran away before sunrise to join the army; ran away from the home that has become their prison, filled with bitterness and hatred. Jack, meanwhile, protected Tom’s flight, bottled his own emotions against all odds, and remained.

Cows suffering from BSE disease display an inability to stand up or walk and lower milk production, among other symptoms.

Cows suffering from BSE disease display an inability to stand up or walk and lower milk production, among other symptoms.

Years later, having heard nothing from Tom despite his numerous letters, but no less well-remembered of him, Jack has become the owner of Lookout caravan park on the Isle of Wight. He fled with Ellie, as soon as his father’s death freed him, away from Jebb Farmhouse and all its horrible memories, to “the bottom of the Isle of Wight” (4) where he could no longer see or be reminded of the Devonshire landscape, to “a whole separate land, with only a short sea to cross, but happily cut off from the land of their past” (210). Not only cut off from the past, as it happens, but also from current events in the rest of the world that would otherwise fill him with concern: such as wars that Tom may be involved in. “There was a war going on, that was the story. Though who would know, or want to know, down here at Sands End?” (60).

Another thing the Isle of Wight offers Jack that he never had at Jebb farm (thanks to his father) is the opportunity to be in control, to take agency. He sees his new herd – caravans this time, rather than cattle – as “an encampment, down there […] some expeditionary, ragtag army” (30). He even has souvenir flags of the site to stake his claim (yet again those war themes and motifs). In his new position, he is no longer only “that common enough creature, a landsman, by experience and disposition” but has also become “an islander” (135) – someone with a well-defined, watery-bordered, manageable-sized patch to patrol. On an island, there can be no confusion about where the boundaries lie. Can there?

Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight

Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight

Well, it turns out there can, because Jack simply cannot allow himself to fully let go of his past. Despite trying to convince himself that he is an army general, in possession of his own little piece of England, displaying no vulnerability, there are times when his confusion about his “proper place” (3) and his true identity have him at war with himself: “A war on terror, that was the general story. Jack knew that terror was a thing you felt inside, so what could a war on terror be, in the end, but a war against yourself?” (60).

Jack is haunted, daily, by “the strange, opposite feeling: that he should have been there, back at Jebb, in the thick of it; it was his proper place” (3). His is a farming family of “generations going back and forwards, like the hills” (22) around Jebb, and to leave that place is, in essence, to forsake everything and everyone he loved. He remembers the feeling, with pain and regret, of being so tied to the Devon farmland that “England had meant only what the eye could see from Jebb Farmhouse – or what lay within a ten-mile journey in the Land Rover or pick-up. There’d been a few day-trips to Exeter or Barnstaple. Two stays, once, in another county: Dorset. Even the Isle of Wight, once, would have seemed like going abroad” (56). There is an intimate connection between himself and “a certain kind of bulging hill, a certain kind of hunched, bunched geography […] areas of bare hearth with a familiar ruddy hue” (219). It is a connection that he fears to reawaken because of the grief and guilt he feels for running away. Ironically, he is only filled with admiration for Tom for doing precisely the same thing at age eighteen.

Author Graham Swift

Author Graham Swift

But I haven’t even pointed out the main crux of the novel. As the blurb says, “on an autumn day in 2006”, Jack “receives the news that his brother Tom, not seen for years, has been killed in Iraq.” Hurled into the midst of repatriative and funereal affairs, Jack’s emotional state, married life and whole understanding of self hangs by a thread: memories of the brothers’ past together whirl by him all the stronger, and “the map of England wheel[s] in his head” (217) as the world becomes “all unknown country now” (132), with “the rain beating a tattoo against it” (353).

This novel is utterly mesmerising, dizzyingly suspenseful and, above all, completely heart-wrenching in every respect. It is not often that I am as genuinely moved by a novel as I was by this one. There are a whole cast of characters that I have not even mentioned who simply and yet deeply drawn, being fundamentally relatable even in sometimes such bizarre situations. Above all, however, Jack Luxton is Swift’s absolute star feature of this novel. The non-linear approach Swift uses (he jumps about between past and present and narrative perspective regularly) means the reader clings to Jack’s perception of events to ground their understanding; we are intimately tied up in the way he sees the world, and my goodness it is a unique way. You must read this, you really must. 5/5 stars for a thoroughly moving read.

Next week I’ll be reading my penultimate book for this challenge! It’s Eva Ibbotson’s The Dragonfly Pool. Join me then!

 

SWIFT, Graham. Wish You Were Here. London: Picador, 2012.

Featured Image: Military repatriation.

http://www.barrowuponsoarwarmemorial.co.uk/page6.htm

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/

 

Piering Forwards

Dorothy Koomson's "The Ice Cream Girls"

Dorothy Koomson’s “The Ice Cream Girls”

When ITV dramatized Dorothy Koomson’s novel, The Ice Cream Girls, into a 3-part television series in 2013, I deliberately abstained from watching it in order to read the book first. I am frankly relieved that I have finally found an excuse to pick it up, thanks to this literary challenge. The novel is set mainly in Brighton, in East Sussex and deals with the complex relationship between two women, hardly more than mere strangers to one another, who were nevertheless thrown together in a series of dark events during their adolescence, the consequences of which are still wreaking havoc around them 20 years later.

Serena, brought up comfortably in a middle-class home, the daughter of a lawyer and with a bright future ahead of her, catches the attention of her history teacher Mr Marcus Halnsley at age 14. Serena’s naiveté and insecurity instantly become food for Marcus’ ego; he abuses his position to weave her into his paedophilic web of sex, fear, violence and manipulation. Moreover, he uses Serena’s teenage capacity for self-loathing to turn her into his slave – she is desperate to please him and far too scared and dependent on him to flee. At the same time, Serena truly believes she and Marcus are in love.

Much to her horror, however, Marcus soon takes another innocent under his spine-chilling wing – Poppy – who is Serena’s opposite on the social spectrum, being from a working-class, unwelcoming home, but who is similarly tricked into believing Marcus’ lies. Marcus pits Serena and Poppy against each other – the pair meet occasionally, converse rarely, compete for Marcus’ ‘affection’ always.

Brighton once state-of-the-art West Pier, opened in 1866 but closed and subsequently left to ruin in 1975.

Brighton once state-of-the-art West Pier, opened in 1866 but closed and subsequently left to ruin in 1975.

Then a dreadful accident happens. Before they know it, both girls – now 18 and 19 – are being trialled for Marcus’ murder. Each girl blames the other. But eventually, Poppy is incarcerated for twenty years, while Serena goes free.

Twenty years later, Poppy is freed and returns to Brighton, desperate to punish Serena; Serena, meanwhile, dreads the resurrection of the past and its impacts on the lives of her husband and children. But will the truth ever come out?

Sticks of sweet Brighton rock

Sticks of sweet Brighton rock

I think anyone would agree (despite how poorly I may have summarised it myself) that the plot is a desperately gripping and original one. In particular, the abusive relationship the girls find themselves in is constructed so chillingly as to stay with the reader long after the novel ends. It is, in fact, difficult to describe the tools Koomson uses to build Marcus’ fortress of fear: it is not so much the language of cruelty he uses, or the dreadful things he does, but rather the whole atmosphere of terror that keeps Poppy and Serena glued to him. Indeed, I suspect that this portrait of abusive relationships is incredibly realistic – Koomson has discussed the large number of harrowing real-life stories she listened to whilst researching the book – and is what leads to the fact that outsiders (in the novel’s case, the jury in the murder trial) are unable to understand why the girls did not simply walk away. In contrast, the reader cannot but understand, being wrapped up in their emotions so vividly.

I loved the character of Poppy too, as someone recently released from prison and whose struggle to belong in the modern, unfamiliar world is just as difficult as her struggle to make sense of the past, and of the fact that she has, unjustifiably, had her whole youth stolen from her. “For a very long time,” Poppy narrates, “I thought the sky was that square of patchwork quilt because it was all I could see from most of the prison cells I’ve lived in” (25). But the sky is not square and the world is not of manageable, reasonable size; coming out into the real world Poppy is stunned at the “titanic sky, gigantic world, dazzling daylight, swarming streets […] People think that prisons are overcrowded, but this is overcrowded. This is like being trapped inside a swarm of insects. Everyone so close and big and moving, moving, moving” (25-6). Koomson paints her as dark, bitter and vengeful – all the characteristics you might expect from someone who has been wronged in life – and yet Poppy is also shown to be filled with the same innocence and vulnerability as she exhibited through her teenage years. Overall, Poppy is a marvellously complex and believable character.

Soft serve ice cream, against Brighton Pier

Soft serve ice cream, against Brighton Pier

Serena is less engaging. She has spent the last twenty years attending university, meeting her husband, having children and moving on with her life. Of course, she experiences constant fear of the past coming back to haunt her, and occasionally relives Marcus’ cruelty in uncontrollable flashbacks, but with a new name and Poppy (as well as the truth) locked up far away, she has had a much easier time of managing her recovery. Or, perhaps, she has simply delayed facing up to what happened.

Either way, I was ever so slightly disappointed with Serena as a character and the girls’ relationship. I wanted Serana’s dread of Poppy to be more apparent. I wanted to find, stifled somewhere deep within Serena, the same darkness that Poppy has grown to exhibit on the surface. I wanted their relationship to be more hateful, suspenseful, painful and yet also more closely interdependent – after all, only these two can know what Marcus did to them and what happened all those years ago. Only they have the capacity to deliver the understanding and empathy towards each other that they so desire from other loved ones in their lives. I think Koomson could definitely have further emphasised this tension, tragedy and irony. If she had done, this novel would have been a knock-out for me.

One more thing the novel does do cleverly, however, particularly in relation to its setting in Brighton, is to invert stereotypes. Upon mentioning Brighton, I’m sure a lot of people (including myself) would recall going on happy school trips or family staycations, being thrilled and goose-pimpled by paddling in the English Channel, clambering over pebbles, eating sticks of rock and having delicious soft serve ice cream cones gobbled from one’s hand by greedy seagulls. In other words, Brighton could very well be the epitome of the English seaside holiday town, couldn’t it?

For Poppy and Serena, who had grown up here, their experience of the town could not be more different. Rather than sea, sand and ice cream being associated with sunny frivolity, Marcus ensures their days out together could be recalled with no emotion except fear. Serena and Poppy are nicknamed “The Ice Cream Girls” by the media following the murder, due to a picture printed of their pair “eating ice cream and wearing […] string bikini[s]” (3): what may have been an iconic holiday image is in fact a memory teeming with hurt. As a result of their experiences, Serena has not been able to face ice cream ever since and Poppy will not let herself, even after her release, “head down to the beach, dip [her] toes in the water, feel the pebbles under [her] feet” (26) or enjoy her surroundings. Brighton holds neither a sense of comfort nor one of touristic allure for them.

Jodhi May, who plays Poppy in ITV's television adaptation of Koomson's novel. Having finished the novel, I've finally allowed myself to watch it; May is the best thing about it and captures Poppy perfectly.

Jodhi May, who plays Poppy in ITV’s television adaptation of Koomson’s novel. Having finished the novel, I’ve finally allowed myself to watch it; May is the best thing about it and captures Poppy perfectly.

In this way, Koomson repeatedly problematises the idyllic images of seaside Brighton. All the icons are there – including “Brighton pier […] adored with hundreds upon hundreds of lights” (5) – but their presence is meaningless to the girls, inspiring no sense of pride or belonging. In fact, Poppy all too readily admits “I do not belong in this world any more” (28), while Serena feels out of place in her very self, with the “dark acknowledgement” that she is a black girl “in a predominantly white area” (51-2). Ultimately, and ironically, it is Poppy who seems most likely to recover her sense of normality most quickly, for she eventually admits that in a tourist hub like Brighton she enjoys the fact that she can avoid attention and blend into real life amongst all the different people, for “you have to try really hard to stand out or look out of place” (227).

Overall, this aspect of the book is one of my favourite and one that makes it a perfect read for my challenge: you get a real sense of its Brighton setting and landscape, even though that sense is not quite of the type you might expect. The plot is fantastic, the character of Poppy exceptional – but overall I was left wanting a bit more drama. For me, the novel is 3/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Alecia Stone’s The Talisman of El. Keep a lookout!

 

KOOMSON, Dorothy. The Ice Cream Girls. London: Sphere, 2010.

Featured Image: Brighton Beach with the iconic burnt-out West Pier in the background.

http://www.jurajhrk.co.uk/index.php#mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=16&p=1&a=0&at=0

 

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

 

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

Adrift

“You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard of that we Chinese have 5000 years of the greatest human civilisation ever existed in the world…Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq. And our Chinese invented compass for you English to sail and colonise the Asian and Africa” (289)

“In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner. An alien from another planet” (154)

Prejudice enrages me. Freedom of movement fills me with hope.

 ***

I love the feeling when you read a book and think, however delusionally, ‘Wow, this was written just for me’. That is how I felt when I turned the last page of Xiaolu Guo’s novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, set in Hackney, in the City of London.

Xiaolu Guo’s "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers"

Xiaolu Guo’s “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”

Zhuang Xiao Qiao – or ‘Z’, as the English are encouraged to call her since “my name too long to pronounce” (48) for them – is a twenty-three year old Chinese woman who travels to London for one year from her simple, rural home in China, in order to learn English. She struggles. England is “cold”, the people unfriendly (“nobody smile to me” (43)) and their system of etiquette in social situations a complete minefield. Trudging between her befuddling English classes, her bleak hostel and the late-night cinema showings (just to have something to do) Z is lonely and racked with confusion. It seems as though the Chinese and English cultures are just too different – seemingly incompatible. Even her beloved Chinese-English dictionary has difficulty defining the meaning she desperately needs; among other words, “romance not to be found in my Concise Chinese-English Dictionary” (91).

Guo makes this incompatibility between cultures all the more obvious and effective by setting out the novel in the style of the protagonist’s notebooks, in which she records new vocabulary and pens her diary entries, side by side. Through this original and compelling format, the reader is exposed to Z’s innermost thoughts and frustrations as well as her battle with the English language and with finding a place for herself in her new environment: initially, she feels like “a little alone teacup” or “like cat without master” (90).

Victorian Terrace in Hackney

Victorian Terrace in Hackney

On her journey, Z meets and starts living with an older Englishman and soon realises that the fight for understanding is not limited to nations, but occurs between individuals too. “You a free man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “You possess my whole body. […] My whole body is your colony” (132). What is more, the waters of love – or dependency – are treacherous: there is so much Z does not understand above love, sexuality, men and women; there is so much she is ready to give if she can…but when language between individuals fails, is physical proximity enough?

“After all these fightings, all these miseries, you don’t talk as the way you did before. You just listen; listen to my words; then stop listening and think of your own world. But I can’t stop talking. I talk and talk, more and more. I steal your words. I steal all your beautiful words. I speak your language. You have given up your words, just like you gave up listening.” (293)

The language Guo uses is simple (both because Z doesn’t know much of it and, later, because Z’s style is always innocently direct) but the emotions are complex – and, for me, painful. It is not so much the plot that makes me feel that this book is so personally relatable (although in many ways it is), but rather the fear of loneliness contained within every page and every exchange between characters. A person’s loneliness is something to which my heart almost always responds, wrenchingly.

Xiaolu Guo. In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of this decade.

Xiaolu Guo. In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of this decade.

At the end of the novel, Z sums up England as “the country where I became an adult, where I grew into a woman, the country where I also got injured, the country where I had my most confused days and my greatest passion and my brief happiness and my quiet sadness” (353). It is not only London that Z gets to know, but it is to London that she responds. Unlike the novel’s representations of the English themselves, who see “London is a place sucks”, “the place making everybody aggressive” (167), where “you can’t find love and keep it” (168), Z “loves these old oily cafes around Hackney. Because you can see the smokes and steams coming out from the coffee machine or kitchen all day long. That means life is being blessed” (118).

This is not a happy novel, but it is a phenomenally beautiful one. I love it. 4/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, set in Greater London. Come and have a look-see then.

GUO, Xiaolu. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. London: Vintage, 2008.

Featured Image: Inset page in the front Xiaolu Guo’s novel.

http://allbookedup2014.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/book-5-review-concise-chinese-english.html

Chick-lit Quick-fix

Jo Platt's "Reading Upside Down"

Jo Platt’s “Reading Upside Down”

I’ve just this minute finished Jo Platt’s chick-lit novel Reading Upside Down, set in Hertfordshire, and it fills me with delight to say that, unlike my last post, this e-book I did actually manage to enjoy!

I’ve only read a handful of examples of ‘chick-lit’ in my life, and those were often only because they were on a communal bookshelf at a hotel and I had nothing else to read. Chick-lit is not, therefore, my go-to option in any sense, but every now and then a little bit of light, well-written romantic comedy does just the trick, doesn’t it?

I was pleasantly surprised and indeed impressed with Platt’s novel which was genuinely funny with dialogue written in a refreshingly natural style – so often I find first-time writers try too hard, but not here. The novel is 90% dialogue and 10% description which is exactly the right measure for the pace and mood required for the usual chick-lit quick-fix too, allowing the likeable characters to speak for themselves without necessitating too much readerly interpretation.

Simply put, it tells the story of Rosalind Shaw’s recovery from depression after she is jilted at the altar. Surrounded by friends, family, neighbours and, of course, various romantic interests, Ros gradually gets back on her feet. It’s not, as one might expect, forced or cheesy: instead the tone, combined with the humour, is just right.

The novel did not give much of an impression of its St Albans setting at all, except for it seeming oh so middle class (please note: this is not a book for people who like gritty plotlines). But as Ros moves away from her grief in London and starts anew in Hertfordshire, she discovers “other Ros” – stronger, happier and more independent than before. Sometimes it’s reassuring to have a happy ending! 3/5 stars: a good read.

Next week I’ll be reading You Drive Me Crazy by Carole Matthews. Join me then!

 

PLATT, Jo. Reading Upside Down. Amazon Kindle, 2013.

Featured Image: Mr Edward, the ill-fated guinea pig?

http://www.pets4homes.co.uk/pet-advice/guinea-pigs-for-beginners.html