The River Flows

Eva Ibbotson's "The Dragonfly Pool"

Eva Ibbotson’s “The Dragonfly Pool”

When I was young – around the 8 or 9 mark – my absolute favourite book for a long time, and over very many readings, was Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. I remember this vividly, as I remember clinging to the book’s pages and several of its characters vividly, but the actual detail of the story I have long since forgotten. Or so I thought.

Looking up plot summaries of it recently, I am astonished to find how much of the story strikes chords in the depths of my memory: English orphan Maia is sent away to long-lost and unpleasant relatives in the Amazon region of Brazil, where she meets and adventures with several other children – both Amazonian and European – before they join together to carry out their escape from their discontented lives. I am secretly pleased to recognise even at that age my passion for books about far-flung journeys and other cultures. And perhaps the plot had a subconscious effect on me too, before I reminded myself of the content of the story: I’ve just married my very own Brazilian, after all, having fallen in love with both him and his country!

Anyway, when I was researching books for this challenge last year, and saw that another of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books, The Dragonfly Pool, met my conditions for the county of Devon, I absolutely couldn’t resist. There are a great many similarities between the plotlines and characters.

Eva Ibbotson's "Journey to the River Sea", one of my childhood favourites and winner of the Smarties Prize in 2001

Eva Ibbotson’s “Journey to the River Sea”, one of my childhood favourites and winner of the Smarties Prize in 2001

The Dragonfly Pool begins in London, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Precocious, young Tally Hamilton lives happily in the city with her loving father, a respected doctor, and her aunts. However, when Mr Hamilton is offered a scholarship, by a grateful patient, for his daughter to attend a fine boarding school in Devon, his concern for her safety in the impending war overrules his desire to keep Tally near him. Although initially resistant to the idea of leaving behind all she knows and loves, Tally is sent off by train to the relaxed, fun-loving, if “strange and slightly mad” (62)
Delderton Hall. And she grows to absolutely adore it, falling in love with its unique natural surroundings, so different to what she had been used to in the city:

“There was no lovelier place in England: a West Country valley with a wide river flowing between rounded hills towards the sea. Sheltered from the north winds, everything grew at Delderton: primroses and violets in the meadows; campions and bluebells in the woods and, later in the year, foxgloves and willowherb. A pair of otters lived in the river, kingfishers skimmed the water and russet Devon cows, the same colour as the soil, grazed the fields and wandered like cows in Paradise. But it was children, not cows or kingfishers, that Delderton mainly grew.” (35)

Although the novel unfortunately does not provide much description of Devon, the county is set up as a safe and romantic backdrop where freedom reigns and children flourish. Against its green countryside, “it was easy to forget […] that Britain and France and so many of the free people of the world were in danger. Here in Devon we were unlikely to be bombed […] but we must be ready to do everything to help the war effort if the worst happened” (54). Domestic staff are being called up, radio broadcasts talk gravely about the political situation, and picture-houses show newsreels featuring Hitler’s fearsome visage and harsh foreign commands.

The Devonshire countryside that Tally falls in love with

One view of the Devonshire countryside that Tally falls in love with

But Ibbotson does not tell a Blyton-esque story of a boarding school’s efforts to withstand the war; she instead catalogues the children’s adventures around the grounds and on an overseas school trip to a folk-dancing competition held in the central-European Kingdom of Bergania (a Kingdom also beset by but so far proudly resisting Hitler’s threats). Soon, this develops into a mission to rescue the orphaned and mortally endangered Prince of Bergania, a modest and lonely boy called Karil. It is all slightly bizarre, but lives up to themes I recognise and appreciate of Ibbotson: themes of foreign journeys, children’s decision-making and agency, and of the hills and valleys of Devon (and Bergania, for that matter) being just as part of the children’s lives as their friendships.

A still of Hitler from a Nazi newsreel, like those seen by Tally in the novel.

A still of Hitler from a Nazi newsreel, like those seen by Tally in the novel.

I enjoyed the book, but I think that even had I read it at age 9, it would not have captured my imagination quite as much as Journey to the River Sea did. In truth, I was disappointed that the plot and setting were not more original – I wonder what percentage of children’s books are based around their antics during boarding school life…80%? 90? – and even with a couple of mentions of the impending war, the folk-dancing set-up in Bergania seems too trivial and far-fetched to give credit to Tally’s determination to attend and to rescue Karil.

I simply did not connect to the characters or to the landscapes that Ibbotson creates here. Part of the problem is that Tally, for one, is entirely confident and level-headed; she is not a sympathetic character, or one in need of her friends’ or a reader’s support in overcoming the obstacles set out in front of her. What is more, the obstacles – whether German officers or cruel, stuffy Englishmen or the challenges of war itself – hardly seem to faze the children in their exploits. Everything seems a bit too easy to overcome. I really think Ibbotson is missing a trick here; unlike in Journey to the River Sea, there are no vulnerabilities in the characters or challenging moments in the plot that young readers can catch hold of, be gripped by or dwell on; there is no chance to will the protagonists onward in their struggle because, before you know it, they’ve succeeded in another aspect of it. Overall, as a child or as an adult, I rate it 2/5 stars.

Author Eva Ibbotson

Author Eva Ibbotson

This novel certainly has not put me off Ibbotson, however. I look forward to reading some of her other work – aimed variously at children, young adults and adults – whilst knowing that it is for Journey to the River Sea that she received most critical acclaim, winning the Smarties Prize in 2001 and being highly commended for the Guardian, Carnegie and Whitbread Awards. I am truly sad to learn that Ibbotson died in 2010, and feel that I should have known this at the time: it is like losing a childhood heroin.

Next time I’ll be reviewing my very last book ever for this literary challenge around England! It’s Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! By Alan M. Kent, a Cornish writer. Stay tuned for that, as well as my subsequent summary of my favourite books and lessons from the whole year of reading.

 

IBBOTSON, Eva. The Dragonfly Pool. Oxford: Macmillan, 2009.

Featured Image: Liechtenstein countryside – some readers believe it to be the inspiration for Ibbotson’s Kingdom of Bergania.

http://blog.011now.com/category/travel/page/4/

The 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/

 

Teenage Boredom Personified

Alecia Stone's "The Talisman of El"

Alecia Stone’s “The Talisman of El”

You know what? Some books on this literary challenge have really made me question my own belief system. Before I started this year, I was utterly convinced that I enjoyed reading fantasy fiction, whether it be YA or adult (I really don’t care which). Mind, I haven’t ever read a whole lot of it – my experience has mainly been limited to J. K. Rowling, Anthony Horowitz and J. R. R. Tolkien (all gods in their own right) – but from what little knowledge I had garnered previously, I thought the genre was a definite goer. But my goodness, since starting this challenge I have realised that the three authors listed above are simply exceptions: for the large part, I really cannot stand fantasy fiction, whether it be Jannicke Howard’s zombie apocalypse, Peter Hamilton’s science fiction, or Alecia Stone’s The Talisman of El, set in the small town of Capeton in West Sussex, which is what I read this week.

I can only assume that it’s my loss that I don’t ‘get’ this novel: it has been ranked fairly highly by a fair number of people (admittedly, seemingly as the result of some sort of book giveaway and thanks to reviews from the author herself) on Goodreads. Well, I warn you now, if I have any influence at all, the average rating is surely going to plummet.

Charlie Blake is 14 years old and has been in care for a long, long time, since the untimely death of his parents. What details do we have of Charlie’s background, his memories of his parents or any emotions attached to his childhood development? None at all, except that Charlie somehow managed to pre-empt his father’s death in a dream. Clumsy and convenient foreshadowing? Methinks so. Anyway, suddenly, out of the blue, Jacob someone-or-other has agreed to foster Charlie and things appear to be looking up: this is a man that is caring and emotional, especially when it comes to comforting Charlie after his continuing nightmares…oh, wait, no, he’s actually a murderous villain who blackmails Charlie into burgling people’s houses for him. Why? No idea. But anyway, stereotypical bad guy checkpoint reached.

West Sussex, on the south coast of England

West Sussex, on the south coast of England

Next thing on the fantasy fiction checklist: Charlie needs a sidekick if he is to successfully fight evil on the side of good. This is Alex, his teenage crush from his new school with whom he has awkward and stilted conversation for the whole of the novel. I don’t think it’s meant to be stilted and awkward, but rather witty and flirtatious…the less said about this novelistic failure the better.

Gradually, through this friendship, plus the arrival of some others (a homeless boy called Richmond – completely inconsequential to the story but apparently necessary to provide irritating and down-with-the-kids banter – and Derkein, who introduces Charlie & co. to the confusing, fantastical, parallel world of Arcadia) it is revealed that Charlie can predict the future, talk to animals, has a natural aptitude for all languages and is, in fact, not of this world at all. Dur.

There are several types of fantastical creature introduced to the reader on the youths’ quest for understanding – a quest which takes them to the centre of the Earth. No, really. It’s not even hot there or anything.

There are also several mythologies introduced – including Christian mythology (hint: a Jesus-the-Messiah type hero-complex and a Garden-of-Eden type knowledge-is-evil tedium) – which are very, very weird. Nothing really makes enough sense or is interesting enough to be recounted here. To be honest, it is a load of irritating rubbish. 1 star, and let’s be done.

Author Alecia Stone with her novel

Author Alecia Stone with her novel

In terms of any apparent West-Sussexness associated with the book, Charlie finds that the adults around him are all too pleased to be in the countryside away from “all that city noise” (15), whereas his peers can’t stand that “there’s nothing to do here but surf the net. It’s dead boring” (24). I suppose I could say something symbolic about the parallel universes experienced by children/adults – i.e. how each generation experiences the same locality in different ways – but the novel doesn’t really inspire that much interest within me. Stone simply emphasises the countryside around Capeton, where it was “seventy percent woodland and thirty percent civilisation” (61) and where the houses “looked like something out of a fairytale” (125). Fairly non-descript, as you can see.

Next week I’ll be reading The Half-Forgotten Song by Katherine Webb. I loved her The Legacy, so I hope good things are in store once again. Join me then 🙂

 

STONE, Alecia. The Talisman of El. London: Centrinian, 2012

Featured Image: Tree tunnel, Halnaker, West Sussex

http://travel-fashion-sports.tumblr.com/

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

 

Hard-Baked and Cold-Yoked

Jasper Fforde's "The Big Over Easy"

Jasper Fforde’s “The Big Over Easy”

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

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

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

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

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

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

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

 

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

Featured Image: Illustration of “Hey Diddle Diddle”

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

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

Wham!

Phil Rickman's "The Fabric of Sin"

Phil Rickman’s “The Fabric of Sin”

The premise of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman certainly sounds original:

The confident single-mum to strong-minded teenager Jane leads a religious life (in contrast to her daughter’s determinedly pagan beliefs) as a vicar of her own parish in Herefordshire, and is also the country’s first female appointed Deliverance Minister (a sort of church-condoned exorcist of bad spirits, if you can believe it). Alongside this spiritualism she takes to amateur sleuthing (why not?), investigating in The Fabric of Sin, the ninth novel in the series, the ancient Master House in Garway, on the England-Wales border, which is thought to have Templar connections and an evil energy living within its walls. As violence, mysterious events and the uncovering of scandalous historic records ensue, the Church – nay, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself – becomes involved in the case, as does Prince Charles and the rest of the Royal Family. After all, “you must never trust the buggers. Never. Any of them. Not at this level” (57). (Honestly, the plot does get that wild.)

As you might guess, I spent most of the time I was reading this novel completely taken aback by its scale of bizarreness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything at all the matter with plotlines that are weird or ambitious…but the complete absence of conventionality in this novel’s characters, plot and structure was utterly throwing. In fact, I’m still reeling from the oddity: the bombardment of real religious imagery versus the tale of murderous cover-ups; the good-guy-bad-guy ambivalence towards the Church and the Royals; the sheer number of people across the country who seemed to have a stake and make an appearance in the melee; the tension and confusion between English and Welsh identities in their past and present manifestations…There’s so much going on in this novel politically, and so many characters who appear and disappear within a single page, and so many unfinished sentences and unanswered questions that, despite this novel being 539 pages long, blink and you’ll miss the point of it. The word that comes to mind to describe the reading experience of this novel is ‘WHAM!’

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

As a result, Rickman’s novel is certainly impressive and unpredictable, but also fairly stressful to read. It was more about politics than mystery-solving, so didn’t really turn out to be all that gripping. Oftentimes I was at a loss as to what was actually going on or who was involved. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in Church/Monarchy politics and that’s one the reasons I usually steer clear of Templar-centric novels: the legends behind them are so far-fetched to my simple mind that they irritate me. I didn’t really take to Rickman’s characters either – designed to be unconventional, their novelty soon wore off leaving an empty space – and so don’t feel the need to read any other novels in the series. This novel was also written in what I recognise as being a sort of lazy, careless style: non-dialogue sentences starting with “Like, when did that happen?” and non-dialogue explanations leading with the phrase, “Couple of years ago” (17), missing the indefinite article ‘a’ from the beginning. I know some people will think that’s incredibly pedantic, and point out the style is probably not lazy at all, but carefully crafted. Nevertheless, it’s a style that I personally don’t take to when there’s no obvious literary purpose.

On the other hand, I liked the powerful descriptions of the sentient landscape along the England-Wales border, and I think the novel offered significant observations on the formation of identity in England, Wales, Herefordshire and, quite separately, Garway.

“Three landmark hills were laid out along the horizon. Like ancient and venerated body parts, Merrily thought, the bones of the border. Holy relics on display in the sunset glow […] The volcanic-looking Sugar Loaf and the ruined profile of the Skirrid which legend said had cracked open when Jesus Christ died on the cross. Still somehow sacred, these hills. No towns crowded them, nobody messed with them […] The third hill had been stabbed under its summit, some kind of radio mast sticking out like a spear from the spine of a fallen warrior, a torn and bloody pennant of cloud flurrying horizontally from its shaft.” (9)

This, the England-Wales border, is the “forgotten bit of old England” (13), a landscape that “has two personalities […] Long, light views on the English side, and then deep green and full of drama as it swoops down to the Monnow Valley and Wales” (33). In this part of the country, (unlike the sometimes over-politicised Scottish-English border), lines get lost. Blurred. Is this Wales? Is this England? Who belongs where?

“Still England. It had to be; there, below the road, was the River Monnow, which was the border, failing to be crossed by a smashed and collapsing footbridge, fenced off, with a sign that said: Danger. But if this wasn’t Wales, neither was it truly Herefordshire, not with names like Bagwllydiart on the signposts.” (63-4)

The border seems harder to mark the closer you get; people struggle to cope with being “neither one place nor the other” (42); and “if someone lives just a few yards over the border in what might seem to be a very English part of Wales they become determinedly Welsh Welsh” (271) to compensate for their uncertainty of identity. This uncertainty has brought on, throughout history, a strange feeling of instability and violence which plagues the landscape, its villages and its inhabitants.

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway is the main site of strangeness and disturbance. The village has become “like another country” (9), Merrily feels, “a remote and separate realm” (113). Even uneducated Gomer can identify that “Garway is its own contex. There’s Hereford and there’s Wales…and there’s Garway. And Garway’s its own contex” (362). Judging by this novel, the convergence of England and Wales, and the subsequent emotional and political significance, seems to be a key characteristic of Herefordshire identity, much as the northern English counties obsess about the proximity of Scotland.

Rickman also offers a criticism of modern English identity as a whole, focussing, as many other modern English writers seem to have done on this journey of discovery, on “rural warming” (18) (think ‘global warming’) – the rapid intrusion of city on countryside; on landmark events such as “Foot and Mouth in 2001” (53) or “nine-eleven and seven-seven” (199); on the level of “self-indulgent second-bloody-homers” (264) that are increasing the demand for rural property development; on “the [terrifying] amount of surveillance in this country” (82); on the “rampant overpopulation” (88) and on “shining-arsed buggers with clipboards” (186) who roam the country as troublesome representatives of bureaucracy, red-tape, and officialdom. These themes are becoming increasingly familiar as we progress through this challenge: is this all modern Englishness amounts to?

So overall, an interesting read; I was intrigued by the setting if not by the politics and, for that reason, will award the novel 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Colin Grant’s Bageye At The Wheel for Bedfordshire. Until then!

RICKMAN, Phil. The Fabric of Sin. London: Quercus, 2007.

Featured Image: Green Man carving, Garway Church.

http://www.britainexpress.com/uk-picture-of-the-day-image.htm?photo=2030

Line in the Sand

Julie Myerson's "Something Might Happen"

Julie Myerson’s “Something Might Happen”

Something Might Happen, by Julie Myerson, turns a typical “rustic idyll” (126) in seaside Suffolk into the setting of a chilling murder, a mystery without a resolution. Myerson’s story is not crime fiction; it is not interested in neat-and-tidy answers; we never discover who is responsible, or why smiling, relaxed Lennie was the victim. Rather, the novel focusses on her friends and family as they come to terms with their grief and loss. Lennie’s father, Ben; Lennie’s husband Alex; the couple’s best friends, Tess and Mick; the children of both couples; the family liaison officer, Ted Lacey: all are intertwined in this novel of life, death, family and solitude.

The small beach town is known as “a safe place” (9), “one of the happiest and most picturesque […] in all England” (47) according to the guidebooks. It has its own “salt-stained” (4) and sea-bleached identity that comes from being isolated at “a dead end”, with “creek, sea and river on three sides, the road going up to the A12 on the other” (46). Peaceful and lonely in equal measure, it certainly doesn’t have any of the “buildings, people, mess, dirt” (181) that London offers.

Tess knows the town’s spirit inside out and, before Lennie’s death, “used to like it” (3). She adored “that moment when you can’t see what’s what any more and sea and sky are one” (174); she enjoyed feeling “smaller, safer, a speck on the ground” (147), in awe of the beauty of nature around her. Most of all, she cherished the smell of young innocence her children possessed in the town’s environs, protected as they were from “the different contaminated smell of the outside world” (225.) But the dream of tranquillity and security of coastal living are shattered all too soon, and she is awakened instead to the “rough, sea cold that goes right through your clothes and hits your bones” (8), the creepy tales of deaths in the “marshes” (80); the eerie “energy” of the countryside “that sucked you in, that snared you” (327). As events take several turns for the worse, Tess and her family have little hope of finding peace on the town’s shores.

Beach huts in Southwold, Suffolk

Beach huts in Southwold, Suffolk

I have to say, I whizzed through this book. It’s short, it’s an easy read and, honestly, it didn’t require or incite much emotional commitment from its reader. That is not to say the novel is badly written – indeed, there are a few stylistic quirks that I appreciated, such as the lack of quotation marks around speech, which means the narrative blurs into the dialogue. This intrigues the reader into questioning what is being said vs. what is being thought, what is being shared vs. what remains a secret. I thought it was effective, too, the way in which Myerson refused to solve the murder mystery, in order to focus on the living.

I know some people adore books of this undemanding measure; it’s just that I do not find them hugely fulfilling. Plus, and it sounds ridiculous to say it, but the characters of the children really irritated me: they were too prominent, too in-the-way and Tess was far too sentimental about them – even on their naughtiest days – to earn credence or respect from me. To sit through 300-odd pages about how young, sweet and innocent children are was a little sickening, especially for someone who, personally speaking, probably won’t ever be convinced on that score anyway…

Much to my disappointment and shame, this hasn’t been a particularly objective or academic review – but then again, I forget that I’m not an academic any more, am I? Now I’m just a reader entitled to read books that engage and enthuse me. Unfortunately, this has not been one of the best: 2/5 stars.

Next week I’ve got David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green in my sights for Worcestershire. I’ve been dying to read this one for ages so stay tuned for what I hope will be a great review!

MYERSON, Julie. Something Might Happen. London: Vintage, 2004.

Featured Image: Groynes, a common sea defence on the Suffolk Coast.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/37348193@N08/8413542723/

Taken to Court

Victoria Lamb's "The Queen's Secret"

Victoria Lamb’s “The Queen’s Secret”

I suppose I should say first off, with my apologies, that historical fiction is not my favourite genre. The problem I find is that it’s just so unreliable, so hard to get right. Even the best-known examples can leave me feeling irritated and dissatisfied.

There can be too much history and not enough fiction, the product being as unfulfilling and detached as a textbook; or, even worse, there can be too much fiction which stretches and distorts the history until the story just seems absurd. Unfortunately, Victoria Lamb’s The Queen’s Secret suffers, in my opinion, from the latter.

It is set in the court of Elizabeth I during the summer of 1575, when she and her entourage visit Robert Dudley’s home, Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. Robert Dudley, believed to have been Elizabeth’s favourite, and perhaps even her secret lover, puts on a lavish spectacle designed to win the Queen’s heart and his monarchical seat. As you might expect, however, several things get in the way.

Firstly, Elizabeth’s determination to ignore her desires, remain unmarried, and retain sole power over the throne. She depends upon her status as a ‘virgin queen’ (however mythical or untrue) to make herself –and England – an icon of strength and independence across Europe. Secondly, Robert’s illicit affair with Lettice, Elizabeth’s cousin, lookalike and lady’s maid. She cannot offer him the status he wants, but at least she is easier to bed than the monarch. And thirdly, the threats against Elizabeth’s life; there’s one at Kenilworth, and it’s about to play itself out.

My favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait (1588)

My favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait (1588)

Already, Lamb is on murky historical ground – her novel is not so much based on fact as gossip, as she admits in her Author’s Note, her own ‘dreams’. She alters facts to suit her own ends. But it gets worse when she designs, as her narrator, Lucy Morgan, a rare black servant to Her Majesty, whose crime-fighting, queen-saving sidekick is William Shakespeare as a child.

I mean…what? Talk about name-dropping.

In terms of the theme of place and space that I’m looking for in all these novels, I found relatively few quotes that were of interest. There was the usual city vs. country juxtaposition, with the countryside painted as “clean” (112) but “dull” (278) compared with the city, and with woods that are mysterious and “dangerous” (112). A similar ambivalence is shown in the attitude to Elizabeth’s court: life is both exceedingly grand and wholly “corrupted by […] dazzle” (186). As for nature, it is seen as a hassle – the sun causing skin to become “freckled” (120) in a way that subverts Elizabethan standards of beauty – and simultaneously essential for use as monarchical propaganda; Elizabeth’s PR chiefs “use [nature] to her advantage where possible; so here it would be said that her arrival drove out darkness and brought light back to Warwickshire” (43) simply because the clouds happen to clear as her carriage approaches Kenilworth’s walls.

In my opinion, it would have been better not to have bothered with the pretence of historical fiction at all – why didn’t Lamb just create her own fictional monarch and fictional court and fictional castle? Why not have made the whole thing a work of fantasy? It might have been a good story if it had been allowed to stand on its own two feet. As it is, it doesn’t work for me I’m afraid. 1 star.

Next week I’ll be reading Pollard, by Laura Beatty for Northamptonshire, which will, believe it or not, see us halfway through this Placing Myself challenge…

LAMB, Victoria. The Queen’s Secret. London: Corgi, 2012.

Featured Image: Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire.

http://edwud.com/ed-okeeffe-photography/2012/03/01/kenilworth-castle-from-the-west