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/

 

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

Wending Woodward

Katherine Webb's "The Legacy"

Katherine Webb’s “The Legacy”

Katherine Webb’s The Legacy is set in Wiltshire, in and around the large, ancestral family home where twins Beth and Erica Calcott spent their childhood summers with their grandmother, and which they are now in the process of inheriting after her death. But this idyllic country home houses many generations of family secrets. As Beth and Erica begin sifting through their grandmother Meredith’s possessions, they uncover half-forgotten truths from their own childhood as well as tragedy that spans a whole century of bitter Calcott women, stemming from irreversible choices made by their great-grandmother Caroline in her unexpected pre-war life on a cattle ranch in Woodward County, Oklahoma.

It is, as another reviewer so aptly put it, one of those multi-generational family sagas that I am such a sucker for. Webb writes beautifully, hauntingly and effortlessly. It is definitely not, as the front cover unfortunately suggests, chick-lit or a throwaway, easy beach read. It’s a fantastically written, suspenseful, tragic and deeply affecting novel which strikes chords that have continued to reverberate long after I laid the book down. My favourite chapters, and those through which I think the book’s originality really shines, are those told from Caroline’s point of view: her loving marriage to Corim and subsequent upheaval from glamorous 1900s New York to the bare, sweltering, harsh “gaping landscape” (205) of dusty Oklahoma; her struggle to become accustomed to the “unbearable” (205) life away from civilisation and alongside strangers; her transition from happy, bright-eyed city girl to broken and battle-hardened old woman who bestows suffering and resentment on her own daughter, and fails to give or inspire any tenderness in her grand- or great-grandchildren.

Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma, c. 1911

Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma, c. 1911

For a reading challenge themed around characters’ relationships with place and space, this novel is perfect. Its pages are filled with “dizzying” (205) descriptions of the fear, difficulty, loneliness and thorough psychological pain of adapting to unfamiliar and unfriendly environments:

  1. Caroline must transition from New York City to Woodward County where, “when she opened the [ranch] door she felt as though she might fall out, might tumble into the gaping emptiness of the prairie without man-made structures to anchor her” (215); where “she felt the urge to run, to throw herself back indoors before she disintegrated into the mighty sky” (205).
  2. Similarly, twins Beth and Erica must grow accustomed to the darkness, “damp” and “austerity” (7) of the empty Calcott manor which is nevertheless full of memories that force them to feel like they are still unhappy “children” (9) within its walls. This is Wiltshire, not London, and Erica notes: “I am out of practice at living in the countryside; ill-equipped for changes in the terrain, for ground that hasn’t been carefully prepared to best convenience me” (13); “I had forgotten the quiet of the countryside, and it unnerves me” (58).
One of the famous chalk carvings in the Wiltshire hills

One of the famous chalk carvings in the Wiltshire hills

Aside from the house being the Calcott family seat, Webb also describes its setting in the ancient Wiltshire landscape, the “chalk downland, marked here and there by prehistory, marked here and there by tanks and target practice” (13). The house and the lonely hills surrounding it seem equally haunted, and yet separate: the house exists in its own sphere, its gates closed to the outside village and locality. Its particular history and its particular tragedies cut it off entirely from everything and everyone else. As a reader, the house’s world is mesmerising.

Overall, it may not give me much insight on Wiltshire, but this is a book I would recommend to any reader, as one that is part romance, part suspense-thriller, part western and wholly gripping. Don’t be put off by the old-family-home-filled-with-secrets cliché: this novel turns out to have so many more levels than that, and so much originality. Most refreshing and pleasing of all is Webb’s writing style: I can’t wait to read some of the other things she’s written. For now, a whole-hearted 5/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing After Phoenix by Martine McDonagh for Bristol. Get reading and join me later!

 

WEBB, Katherine. The Legacy. London: Orion, 2010.

Featured Image: Main Street in Woodward, Oklahoma c. 1910

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodward,_Oklahoma

 

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

 

 

In the Bleak Mid-Spring

Peter Millar's "Bleak Midwinter"

Peter Millar’s “Bleak Midwinter”

I’ve suddenly fallen drastically behind in my reviews (life, eh?), but over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Peter Millar’s Bleak Midwinter, set in Oxford and telling the story of a resurgence of the bubonic plague.

In 14th century England, this plague (known as the Black Death, the Great Mortality and many other names) killed millions of people – approximately 40% of the entire population. It left towns and villages empty and completely changed the social and economic structure of the country, since with the population so low, the number of labourers reduced, their wages increased and their demands for better working conditions were more powerful. Landowners suffered while peasants benefitted; industries (including farming and cloth) changed; trust in the Church reached an all-time low. It was one of many challenges to the underlying feudal structure of England and Scotland to occur between 14th and 17th centuries.

In Peter Millar’s world, now, in the 21st century, the disease is back with a vengeance. Caught up in the mysteries of how, why, who is responsible for a major cover-up operation and what to do about it, is Daniel (who has moved to Oxford from the U.S. to undertake research for his thesis on medieval English history), and plucky local journalist, Theresa Moon.

I have to say, it was possibly not the most seasonal or joyful title to be polishing off over this sunny bank holiday weekend. Filled with descriptions of gothic architecture, gory deaths and violent blizzards, it didn’t quite gel with my glorious, chocolate-egg-filled days (yes, I’m so far behind in life that I’m even catching up on Easter).

Magdalen College, Oxford University

Magdalen College, Oxford University

Objectively speaking, however, I rate the novel a mediocre 2/5 stars at any time of year. The plot – farfetched and melodramatic in places – was only alright. The writer’s style was okay; he could never be accused of being avant garde. His use of metaphor also became repetitive too – he seemed particularly obsessed with the phrase (already hideously overused in the media) the ‘rape of the countryside’ which, while I appreciate the problems behind it, I find people tend to use lazily and because it sounds intelligent. Suffice it to say, it sounded less intelligent the 103rd time Millar used it in this novel. (Ok, slight exaggeration.)

Its meaning might be blatant already but the ‘rape of the countryside’ is often used to describe the destruction of the natural landscape – pretty, untainted, green and rural – by brutish manmade forces. Think of laws on mandatory badger-culling that ruin habitats, EU farming quotas which mess with the land’s innate fertility, the impacts of high-speed rail and the spread of windfarms, all of which this phrase has been used to criticise. In fact, the phrase could not be less original, since every single Biblical or civil war that ever existed involves some such description of town versus country. I don’t disagree with the meaning behind it, but the phrase itself has become totally boring.

Windfarms: one version of the 'rape of the countryside' in the UK

Windfarms: one version of the ‘rape of the countryside’ in the UK

Aside from my dislike of his wording, Peter Millar uses “the rape of the countryside” (36), to refer to the outward spread of towns and cities over time, which has led to the decline of untouched, rural areas – these are “swallowed up” (93), “digested and redeveloped as little more than traffic congestion points” (93) at an unstoppable rate. As suburbia gains the upper hand, so-called country villages in Oxfordshire become filled with “little streets of identical homes as if bought in a packet” (99-100) – “those things aren’t homes – they’re packaging” (120) Therry Moon snorts on one occasion. And, the novel warns, it seems that this pattern will never end “until the whole south of England [is] one endless suburb” (36). Indeed, the ease with which this novel transitions between London and Oxford already gives rise to the idea of one massive urban conglomeration.

Daniel and Therry make up the usual contrasting duo – one is in favour of the historic countryside (Daniel loves that Oxford allows him to “touch [the past], almost see it and hear it” (8) and cannot fathom how anyone could “ever think London was attractive” (30)) and the other, Therry, is addicted to her “big-city heritage” (36).

Past and present, country and town – this is a novel of that sort, and you probably know it well enough already.

My next post (which will appear shortly since I have a bit of a backlog!) will cover David Lodge’s Thinks…, set in Gloucestershire. It’s blooming good!

 

MILLAR, Peter. Bleak Midwinter. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.

Featured Image: pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Triumph Of Death’ (c. 1562)

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

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

‘Best of British…and ta very much’

David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green"

David Mitchell’s “Black Swan Green”

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, is the story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor’s battle with being 13 years old. Puberty, peer pressure, teenage awkwardness, school bullies, a crippling speech defect and life in a dysfunctional family in an isolated Worcestershire village – called Black Swan Green – make it all the more difficult for him to find a place for himself against the backdrop of the 1980s Thatcher era and the Falklands War.

Judging by my work colleagues’ reactions when I described the plot to them, to most people this book sounds unbearably bleak. To me, even from the outset it sounded fantastic. As a general rule, I’m a sucker for anything written about the fascinating creature that was Margaret Thatcher, as well as a great lapper-upper of coming-of-age/ formative year novels or Bildungsromane (whatever you want to call them).

The controversial Margaret Thatcher

The controversial Margaret Thatcher

This is the first David Mitchell book I’ve read but it certainly will not be the last. I deeply admire his success in writing from the perspective of a child; I find it requires great skill to convey the interpretive innocence and worldly misunderstanding of a young person in a way that does not result in a narrow, oversimplified, frustrating interface with the reader. This skill abounds in Mitchell’s novel: the world is not simplified through Jason’s outlook; rather, the character’s imagination is shown to compensate for what he does not fully comprehend, generating a representation of his issues and his surroundings that is entirely fresh, entirely compelling and entirely distinct from an adult’s perspective. Indeed, the construction of the relationships between Jason’s classmates and family members and even the odd stranger is some of the finest and most subtle work in the novel, complete as it is with biting dialogue and undertones of rivalry, pressure, judgement and, in some unexpected cases, love.

The effect of this narrative mastery produces a 5/5 star novel that is deeply relatable for anyone who has been through adolescence and, invariably, come face-to-face with the accompanying periods of bitching, bullying, discomfort and self-loathing contiguous with this brutal phase of life. (Do any of us know anyone who was never bullied to some degree at school?!) Most unbearable and un-putdownable for me were the scenes between Jason and his detached parents. Overall, Jason’s experiences are made to seem simultaneously dreadful and heart-wrenchingly ordinary. As a reader, you feel Jason’s pain and uncertainty as flashbacks of your own, becoming the victim all over again, whilst at the same time the sense of injustice you feel on his behalf turns you into his protector. This is not just an immersive, formative experience for Jason but for the reader too, whose own life is put into perspective by seeing Jason’s play out.

The destroyer the HMS Sheffield on fire during the Falklands War, 4th May 1982.

The destroyer the HMS Sheffield on fire during the Falklands War, 4th May 1982.

As it happens, Black Swan Green is also a great novel to choose for this Placing Myself challenge, since it has a heck of a lot to say about place and space.

Mitchell seems to suggest that a lot of Jason’s insecurity and nervousness in day-to-day life stems from his inability to form a relationships with the physical environment in which he lives. In fact, the very first sentence of the novel, in which Jason recalls his father’s command, “Do not set foot in my office” (1), exemplifies the continuing theme of Jason being barred from relating to space, even in his own house. Neighbouring farmers are no more helpful in offering him a mode of belonging; they resent Jason’s “townie” (163) presence in the village, for his family lives in “little toy mansions on land [the farmers have] been workin’ for generations” (89). What’s more, Jason’s frequent encounters with Ross Wilcox and the other neighbourhood bullies means that he feels as if “Planet Earth’d shrunk to a bubble five paces wide” (271); no wonder he can find no place of comfort in the village when on every street he is tormented and persecuted by boys from school.

A view over the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

A view over the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Just to make matters worse, the village itself is so lacking in status in England – “it’s the most boring county so no one ever knows where it is” (215) – that he would be unable to feel pride in his upbringing even if he wanted to. Its lack of swans despite its name is a big “joke” (82) that fills him with a sense of inadequacy in the face of outsiders. As a result he is, quite literally, prevented from finding and respecting his own place in the world – without a true home, his identity is unstable, and his self-worth and self-belief suffer as a result.

“God, if I had a car like Ewan’s MG, I’d get out of Black Swan Green faster than a Super Etendard. Far away from Mum and Dad and their three-, four- and five-star arguments. Far from school and Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake and Neal Brose and Mr Carver […] I’d never, ever ever come back to muddy Worcestershire” (135-6).

Amazonia: In Jason's mind, his woods are on this scale.

Amazonia: In Jason’s mind, his woods are on this scale.

The only place Jason seems remotely happy – although still not consistently – is in the woods. Reminiscent of Ann in Pollard, “trees,” he says, “’re always a relief, after people” (10); not only is “the real Jason Taylor” (296) allowed to come out in the woods, away from prying eyes, but he is also able to take pride in the fact that he knows “all the paths in this part” (11), and is continuously interested in exploring more and more, to “track the bridlepath to its mysterious end” (87) for the sheer adventure of it. The respect that is lacking for ridiculously-named Black Swan Green is made up for in his reverence for the woods, where time and nature are “older” and “truer” (296) than anything manmade. Within these woodland walls, he can convince himself that he is no longer shy, but an intrepid explorer, master of his surroundings. Perhaps, then, there is hope he may find a place for himself in the world yet? Alas, at the end of the novel, when he has matured in more ways than one, he realises “this whole wood’s only a few acres […] Two or three footy pitches, tops” (364) – his childhood imagination, which conjured a majestic forest in which to hide himself, crumbles at these words. Growing up and realising the possibility of moving away and moving on with his life is a broadening of his horizons, to be sure, but the wake from innocence comes with a nasty jolt, and the fight to belong may never be over. (I don’t want to gush, but my goodness how Mitchell’s writing does move me.)

David Mitchell, author

David Mitchell, author

If Jason’s life wasn’t unstable enough with such a lack of physical belonging, Mitchell goes one step further to bar his protagonist from forming a confident relationship with language. Not only does Jason struggle, like every child, to express himself in an adult world – “I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right” (149) – but, with a stammer he has to combat in every single sentence, Jason can rarely find words to accurately represent himself to others. Once again, the process of establishing his identity in the world around him is jeopardised, leaving his sense of selfhood floundering in uncertainty. For a 13-year-old, stammering in front of his peers is equivalent to “death” (11) and, unnervingly, his private nickname for the spirit that constricts his own throat is the “Hangman” (31). He lives in mortal fear of this spirit preying on his alphabet, taking one letter after another until the J-words go and “I won’t even be able to say my own name” (31). Truly, the way Mitchell describes Jason’s distress with holding simple conversations is haunting; Jason’s creativity in circumventing problem words fills the reader with consternation as well as intense sorrow that he can be left to struggle alone, so let down by those around him.

Jason, the Hellenic hero, returning with the Golden Fleece

Jason, the Hellenic hero, returning with the Golden Fleece

But, just as the woods provide Jason with some imaginative relief for his feeling of homelessness, so Mitchell offers Jason occasional respite from his war with words. After all, despite his difficulty with verbal expression, Jason’s proves his linguistic creativity by writing advanced poems for the village newsletter…under a pseudonym, of course, or his classmates would skin him alive. The strange and mysterious Madame Crommelynck is, for all he knows, his sole reader, poetic teacher and encourager; she is the only one who knows his true identity and who encourages him to use his “hated” real name, Jason Taylor, which he thinks of as “flavourless as chewed receipts”: “’What is more poetic than ‘Jason’, an Hellenic hero? […] And what is a poet if he is not a tailor of words?’” (193). Mitchell certainly provides Jason with hugely inventive ways of interpreting the world: he revels in discovering “secret colours nobody’s ever named” (85), in expressing the inexpressible – “a sick bus growled past and made the air taste of pencils” (246) – and in searching for true beauty, even if “beautiful [is] the gayest word going” (116) for most adolescent boys. He presses his ear against the earth and draws inspiration from it; his creativity has the potential to give him agency for his own representation in future – if only he can grasp this with both hands before he is silenced altogether.

I could go on for hours (even longer than I have done already, believe it or not) about the cleverest elements of this novel, which are all the more intelligent for being presented through a child’s perspective.

  • Like the way Mitchell describes the British class system in terms of a game of Monopoly, with the fancy cousins – who live in glamorous London, of course – already having “hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane” while Jason and his family are “still swapping Euston Road for Old Kent Road plus £300 and praying to scoop the kitty from Free Parking” (53).
  • Or how Mitchell seems to criticise the arrogant British attitude to war through a competitive game of British Bulldogs in which boys “lost three teeth” (6), were forced to turn “traitor” and which, all in all, shamefully, wasn’t “about taking part or even about winning” but about “humiliating your enemies” (7).
  • Or the way Mitchell highlights English ignorance and carelessness about all other parts of the UK: “Aberystwyth’s a bit of a dive, but Dad says John o’ Groats’s just a few houses where Scotland runs out of Scotland. Isn’t no god better than one who does that to people?” (164). “Accuracy on matters Irish is not the forte of the English” (219-20).
Monopoly board game - or, the British class system 101

Monopoly board game – or, the British class system 101

But I’m not going to go on for hours, because you really should read this incredibly moving, incredibly rewarding novel for yourselves. In fact, I think I’m going to go and start it again, right now…

Next week I’ll be reading Phil Rickman’s The Fabric of Sin. It looks like it might be a strange one, so join me soon to find out more!

MITCHELL, David. Black Swan Green. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.

Featured Image: Black swan on the Severn River.

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