International Play-Offs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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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

 

One Stop Shop

Sophie Kinsella's "Confessions of a Shopaholic"

Sophie Kinsella’s “Confessions of a Shopaholic”

I have to be honest: I started off absolutely hating Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, set in my home county of Surrey. Don’t get me wrong, the characters are well-developed, the tone is amusing and Kinsella writes engagingly…but my goodness how the sheer trait of shopaholism infuriates me.

Rebecca Bloomwood is a financial journalist with a serious money-spending addiction. The irony is obvious: she advises other people how to invest their cash, whilst being unable to walk past a single shop without popping in to spend a quick £300 on real tat. Money that, incidentally, she doesn’t have. But as her frightening debts stack up and pressure from her lenders mounts, Becky simply buries her head deeper and deeper in the sand. Moreover, her job bores her and she feels the constant threat of being exposed as a fraudulent, time-wasting know-nothing; a woman who really doesn’t have a clue about investments or hedgefunds or insurance or any other financial scheme she writes about.

High Street Kensington tube station - commuter Rebecca's gateway to work...and shopping.

High Street Kensington tube station – commuter Rebecca’s gateway to work…and shopping.

It’s all a bit of a disaster for Becky, and the first half of the novel is almost unbearable to read as we witness the protagonist wreaking havoc in her own life. JUST STOP SPENDING MONEY, I wanted to scream, almost ripping the book apart at the spine in frustration with her lack of self-control. In this regard I did not feel any affinity with Rebecca, being myself generally of a money-saving disposition (except for books and food and wine and travel…) Meaningless retail therapy doesn’t rank highly on my list of priorities in life.

However, as hard as I tried to resist it, by the last third of the novel when she starts to turn her life around and develop her journalistic and relationship talents, my own frustration shifted to sympathy; Rebecca’s most irritating habits became instead comically cringeworthy. Most significantly, I suppose, even days after I finished the book I caught myself thinking over it again, trying to recalculate my initial feelings towards it based on the, frankly, very good ending. To cut a long story short, Kinsella eventually salvaged my esteem: overall, the novel ranks at 3/5 stars.

Kingston-upon-Thames' Bentalls Centre shopping complex

Kingston-upon-Thames’ Bentalls Centre shopping complex

As for its Surrey setting…well, Rebecca and her parents may have lived in and frequented Surrey’s towns occasionally – I was particularly excited by the reference to my closest shopping centre with the words “my mum thinks that if you can’t buy it at Bentalls of Kingston, you don’t need it” (14) – but most of the novel was in fact spent on the streets of London, either in shops (and lots of them) or commuting to the office of Successful Savings magazine.

Was this a cop-out? A let-down? Well, no.

From personal experience I do in fact consider this to be highly representative of the Surrey lifestyle: the county hardly has any identity of its own, but rather clings to/revolves around London. Being prime commuter territory, Surrey and the boroughs of Greater London wrestle with each other for precedence; addresses change at the drop of a hat depending on the latest governmental budget or tourist trend. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I catch myself and my old local school friends telling new acquaintances that we’re ‘from London’ rather than Surbiton or Esher or Guilford. This is most often in an effort to simplify matters – after all, who cares about Surrey? What does anyone actually know about Surrey? It has no significance, except for its proximity to the bright lights of London. No one would travel to Surrey as a tourist – even if they visit Hampton Court Palace, it’s because they think it’s one of the ‘London Sights’ (it’s in East Molesey, people). It’s astounding, really; Surrey is both dependent on London and, in terms of its own (non-existent) unique identity, absolutely crippled by it.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Dorothy Koomson’s The Ice Cream Girls. I intentionally avoided the recent TV adaptation in order to read the book first, so I hope it’s worth it!

 

KINSELLA, Sophie. Confessions of a Shopaholic. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.

Featured Image: Oxford Street, London – one of Rebecca’s favourite shopping haunts.

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-shopping-time-oxford-street-london-sep-view-september-major-road-west-end-uk-europes-image31405646

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

The Show Must Go On

Martine McDonagh's "After Phoenix"

Martine McDonagh’s “After Phoenix”

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

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

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

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

Author Martine McDonagh

Author Martine McDonagh

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

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

So, interesting? Yes.

Original? Relatively.

Engaging? To a mild extent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rootless

Alex Wheatle's "East of Acre Lane"

Alex Wheatle’s “East of Acre Lane”

I chose to read Alex Wheatle’s novel, East of Acre Lane, for the region of Greater London in this literary challenge. It is set in the “concrete jungle” (227) of ghetto Brixton in 1981, where the so-called African-Caribbean community is confined to council estates; where “dangers […] come from any lane, shadow or building” and “vandalism touches everything” (7-8). This is an underworld of violence, gangs, drugs and crime, of “boarded-up housing, the rubbish on the streets, the graffiti that covered the railways brides” (8), and of “filthy syringes that were breeding in dark corners” (13). The black youth within these pages are filled with fear and fury in equal measure, directed against the drug barons that live on their very doorsteps, as well as the white, racist police force that patrol the streets abusing, threatening and blackmailing as they go. From the very outset of the novel, the reader is aware that “somet’ing gonna snap, man” (23).

As you might have guessed, Wheatle’s novel tells of the run-up to the violent Brixton Riot of April 1981, when civilian protests against the racist brutality of the corrupt Metropolitan Police turned into “Bloody Saturday”. Approximately 299 officers and 65 members of the public were injured as bricks and Molotov cocktails were thrown, fires were started and shops were looted.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

Wheatle presents the clash as not only having been fuelled by “talk of ism, schism an’ racism” but also by the apparently even greater issue in England: “de classism in dis country” (220). Frustrations of the young people, who suffer from poor housing, education and high rates of unemployment and crime, are portrayed through the protagonist, Biscuit, and his circle of friends, including Coffin Head, Sceptic, Carol, Floyd and Brenton. These young men are forced to involve themselves in crime in order to provide for their families; they are forced to feel like unwanted foreigners in their own country due to the prejudice and stereotyping of “middle England” (117); they have no pride in their African-Caribbean roots since, in their eyes, it only serves to alienate them from English society. They are, in more ways than one, the rootless generation.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

It was the riot-oriented plot that initially drew me to reading this novel. I have read a fair few novels about real-life riots, protests and their complex political origins; it’s something I find, when done an apt, engaging way, can be particularly powerful. There’s a lot of opportunity for controversy, memorable characterisation, and dramatic state-of-England commentary. When done in the wrong way, of course, that type of thing can be a bit boring. In summary, David Peace’s GB84 gets the mixture very very right. East of Acre Lane, I think, falls a little short.

In essence, the novel was not as dramatic or tense as I wanted it to be, or think it could have been. The build-up to the clash was drawn out, but in a come-on-get-on-with-it rather than suspenseful way. I wanted to share in the characters’ profound sense of injustice and feel the tension rising with every page. However, although I engaged with the protagonist to a certain extent, the plot’s outlook gradually narrowed to predominantly Biscuit’s relationship with his family (a family which rather lacked in characterisation/originality), meaning domestic drama rather took away from political intrigue. What’s more, I think Wheatle had a great opportunity to tie in his characters’ frustrations with the general atmosphere of protest in Britain in the late 70s and 80s – not on every page, perhaps, but a couple of mentions of protests in other parts of the country would have gone down well. It would have been ironic too – black people ostracised by white Britain on racist and classist terms, and yet considering themselves part of working class discontent across the country. But despite a couple of references to the ironically-named council estate areas of “Shakespeare Road” (68) and “Albion Road”, otherwise known as “black-people-don’t-belong street” (147), the outlook of the novel was distinctly limited to “SW9” (19). Yes, that could have been the point. But these things are a matter of taste.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

Due to the limited characterisation, too many ‘he said/she saids’ in dialogue and overall lack of suspense in what should have been a genuinely gripping story, I give this novel a 2/5 star rating.

Next week I’ll be reading the bizarre The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, for Berkshire. Join me then!

 

WHEATLE, Alex. East of Acre Lane. London: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Featured Image: A Brixton council estate

http://www.brixtonblog.com/community-police-meeting-tonight-in-brixton/3995

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

 

 

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