The Break-Up of Britain

I started this task with the mission of finding an English identity. Not out of love of England or dislike of any other part of the UK or the British Isles, but out of interest, in order to see what might be left if the concept of ‘Britain’ had officially broken up on Thursday 18th September when the results of the Scottish referendum on independence were announced.

Referendum-calendar_tcm4-814401On that day last month, we learnt that the UK has not officially been decapitated by Scotland becoming an independent nation. Nevertheless, the social, political and cultural rupture between England and Scotland in particular is arguably at its most tangible of the recent age. Many feel it is only a matter of time before the subject is raised again, and again, with continued fervour. The disjuncture felt by so many of our population means that the questions I began asking myself before this challenge still stand: what does it mean to be a part of the UK and of the British nationality, now that an even firmer line has been carved between England and Scotland?

However disconcerted voters ultimately were by the unknown financial and institutional impacts of leaving the UK, it certainly seems true that the majority of Scottish people choose to identify themselves – in spirit and in name at least – as Scottish, rather than British. And, in doing so, they separate themselves from the homogenised concept of ‘Britishness’, leaving ‘Britishness’ to England, Wales and Northern Ireland to define. So how can it be defined?

better-together_0

Britishness, as it stands, is problematic. In fact, I can’t really think what it means to be British. There are stereotypes galore, of course, but an ability to wait patiently in queues or the appreciation of a cup of tea and a scone in the afternoon aren’t really true or convincing enough factors to found a whole national identity on. To work out what Britishness really is, the question should be:

What is it, being from England, in my character, way of life or world view that I share with people from Northern Ireland and Wales?

But, in order to work that out, surely I must first understand what it is, for that matter, that I even share with the rest of the population of England?

Hence this year-long challenge. If I, a devout bookworm, could read one book (if only I had time for more!) from every county in England, perhaps I would start to discover some innate characteristic of the English spirit that, however unpredictably, ties us all together. So what did I discover?

The Key Shared Themes

  1. Dislike or suspicion of neighbours, and a whole lot of tension…

David Almond's "The Fire Eaters"

One of the most recognisable traits across the English novels was the tendency of authors to portray their characters’ rejection of anything that is different to themselves or not perceived as ‘the Norm’; in other words, their characters’ hatred of ‘the Other’. Whether this ‘otherness’ is perceived as a result of differing religions, hometowns, education, values, income or any of a number of personal factors, if there is a difference in background, it is made to stand out.

UntitledIn most cases, characters in the novels I read this year were shown to feel most threatened and defensive against the examples of ‘Otherness’ which were closest to their own home, i.e. those characterised by their very neighbours. It has seemed to be the people next door, or on the same street, or in the same small community, whose differences are most apparent and the cause of most tension and unhappiness in main characters’ lives. Consider the huge number of references to “incomers” or “outsiders” we come across in almost all the counties’ novels, from where I started with David Almond’s The Fire-Eaters to where I ended up with Alan M. Kent’s Proper Job! Charlie Curnow. Both of these novels, for example, involve the arrival of new families or individuals from other parts of the country, bringing with them a very distinct set of behaviours and inciting a marked set of prejudices from the community they attempt (and, more often than not, fail) to infiltrate.

517rrfxbcllIt’s not just a matter of neighbourly rivalry, of course. Just as there is a lot of tension shown around the boundaries of people’s properties, so there is tension around town and county borders. For example, the majority of the books I read from Northern English counties – from Northumberland to Yorkshire and even below – featured unpopular, unpleasant or outcast Scottish characters from just over the border. I return to David Almond’s novel as an example, in which the eponymous ‘Fire-Eater’ is McNulty, a wild and tattooed Scottish street-performer who both delights and frightens young Bobby with his frantic energy – nay madness – but is utterly repulsive to Bobby’s mother. By representing Scotland through this strange, outcast character, Almond is able to reflect the region’s (subconscious?) suspicion and distrust felt towards England’s northern neighbours. This is also true of other areas where there are town and county borders: in Phil Rickman’s representation of the oddness of the Welsh in his Herefordshire-set novel, The Fabric of Sin, for example; and in the divide between ‘Central London’ and ‘Everywhere Else’ that can be felt in Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers. The ‘outsiders’ – even those who, geographically-speaking, aren’t really that far away at all – are demonised in the eyes of our novels’ protagonists, and are a source of great discomfort.

ad0246a6-ac0d-488b-9648-810136911b1eimg100I say once more, one key theme across these novels was how much English characters seem to distrust those closest to them, including their next-door neighbours. Through these narrative examples of unwelcoming communities, it seems as though England is a country of mini-nations, each one self-sufficient and resentful of incomers or anything alternative to their defined norms.

 

  1. The importance of owning property & having one’s own space

If I was ever in any doubt about the age-old saying, reading these novels has certainly confirmed that an Englishman’s home really does seem to be his castle. For our protagonists (as well as for many more minor characters), defining what belongs to oneself – and protecting it from those ghastly ‘outsiders’ – is of paramount concern.

c4142826-40eb-4e88-aaad-a1f42dd6c033img100For example, over this year, we’ve read novels where the physical purchase and upkeep of property is the main feature, as a matter of self-definition and pride, such as The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall by Paul Torday, and Money Can’t Buy Me Love by Julie Reilly. Without large houses to identify themselves by, these characters soon feel lost, their senses of selfhood undermined. We’ve also read novels where characters refuse or abhor the leaving of the homes they have made for themselves, due to fear and hatred of everything outside, such as The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend. There are those characters who try to deny that anything exists outside their safe, four-walled universe, such as the father in My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, by Annabel Pitcher, who creates a shrine for his dead daughter inside his family home and cocoons himself in the unhealthy belief that she is still alive. Even those characters who choose to rebel against the normative desire for property ownership do, at the very least, seek to mark out and define their own living areas, implementing private habits and traditions to make spaces their own – such as the nomadic gypsies who refuse to be pinned down to one location in Katherine Webb’s The Legacy but who are protective of their common-land field whilst they remain; or taciturn Anne who resolutely removes herself from society in Laura Beatty’s Pollard in order to build her own woodland habitat.

9780099516941There are a multitude of reasons why owning property or marking out places as one’s own is so important to the characters in these English novels but, whichever way you look at it, it seems to come down to a need to define oneself in a particular way – as having a particular social or financial status, perhaps, or in order to create one’s own reality without being inhibited by others, or simply to prove to oneself and everyone else that you are part of (or not part of, as the case may be) a certain family or community. These ideas are not limited to a particular area of England: the importance of property ownership or of defining one’s own space is a common theme all over.

15931361Ultimately, this appears to suggest a desperate urge felt by English people to construct and establish a stable sense of belonging and a very physical home that they are in charge of and that no one can take away. If the American Dream is centred on the pursuit of upward social mobility and equal opportunities for everyone, then the English Dream is focussed on setting out our home; being in control of where and how we belong. Which leads me conveniently to the next theme…

  1. The desperate urge to belong

bellNever have I come across so many characters all at once, from independent novels, who display such a complex about needing to belong somewhere. The majority of characters we’ve read about are presented as paranoid, miserable, socially awkward, unstable, self-loathing, nervous, pained and tormented individuals who are clearly ill at ease with their habitats or circumstances, who simply do not feel at home anywhere, and are not made to feel welcome by anyone around them either (perhaps because they display some aspect of ‘otherness’…see #1).

8351912Honestly, these English authors seem to have joined forces to show that there is a ginormous physical and emotional impact on people when they are not allowed to feel at home even in their own house. For me, the most memorable contrast between characters feeling in and out of place in their surroundings is in Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals. Here, the arrogant but fascinating Eden, who is offensively and suffocatingly intelligent, considers himself thoroughly entitled to his prestigious position in the Cambridge University academic scene. Meanwhile, fellow Cambridge student Oscar, from a working class background and instinctively sceptical of the Cambridge hype, still finds himself, almost unwillingly, part of a daily fight to prove to himself and to his colleagues that he has the right to be there, or else face crippling insecurity.

after-phoenix-sleeveBut there are a whole host of other examples of characters struggling to process the changing world and their place within it. In some cases this comes in the guise of characters trying to fathom how to redefine their existence in a Zombie-infested world, as in Jannicke Howard’s Only One Way. Alternatively, Martine McDonagh’s characters have to face a new reality with the struggle to adapt to the death of family member Phoenix in After Phoenix; not only does their previous happy existence fall out from under them, leaving them emotionally unstable, but also in physical terms their family home no longer feels like one – Dad even goes to live in the garden shed. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t find much comfort there either.

There is a clear difference in the way authors use language and imagery and manipulate characterisation to contrast individuals who ‘belong’ with those who have lost all sense of self. For the English, it seems, establishing a sense of belonging is the biggest step towards happiness.

  1. I could go on for hours, but I suppose it might be better for everyone if I bullet point some other key trends in the novels that I spotted:
  • the prevalence of the retail industry – there were countless trips to the high street, buying sprees and shop name-drops to count
  • the collective horror at the memory of 9/11 and the fear of other terrorist atrocities – this came up time and again all over the country where novels were first published after 2001
  • colin-grant-bageye-at-the-wheel-paperbackthe frequent use of children’s narrative perspectives, such as in Black Swan Green by David Mitchell or Bageye At The Wheel by Colin Grant. Authors seem to use their innocent outlooks as a means to emphasise the failings of adults and the brokenness of society.

 

coverJudging purely from my interpretation of these narrative works, England is represented as a country that abhors anything or anyone that is remotely different from the expected norm, whether in terms of appearance, behaviour, class, social background, education, age or ethnicity. In fact, England’s population is often presented as so single-mindedly focussed on protecting their own individual identities, homes, properties, and small places on Earth that there is very little established sense of community, even where similarities exist. Rather, England seems to be a nation of individuals intent on building as many walls between themselves and the rest of the country as possible, both as a means to improve their status and better their own existences through property ownership and development, as well as to ward off the dangerous incomers and outsiders that are so threatening and suspicious to them.

I found examples of this behaviour, to varying degrees, in every single one of the novels I read for this challenge. No wonder I struggle to define a sense of English national identity when authors themselves are critical of any aspect of unity within the country’s bounds. Perhaps this shows I’m not the only one in doubt.

What does it mean to be English? I’m still not too sure, but I think it has something to do with fighting your own corner, for good or for bad. It’s certainly not the most hopeful or sociable way to be – feeling constantly cornered, threatened, defensive against others. Whose fault is it that individuals feel this way? In some cases it’s shown to be the government that makes life unbearable and endangers people’s freedom or social mobility. In other cases it has simply become society’s habit after years of suspicion towards incomers and outsiders. It is not always clear. However, I suppose we have also witnessed some of the redeeming features of this behaviour too: the motivation to take agency and define oneself on one’s own terms; the safety and love felt on the rare occasions when there are true senses of and family community. Individuals in the novels sometimes found peace together in the unlikeliest of places.

Despite not finding a clear answer as to what Englishness might be, I am still incredibly pleased with the way the Placing Myself challenge has gone. I do at least now have an idea of what might be the true privateness of the English, and if that is a common trend across the country, then perhaps we can call that a national characteristic and take some satisfaction there.

English Cerem Counties ed

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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/

 

One Stop Shop

Sophie Kinsella's "Confessions of a Shopaholic"

Sophie Kinsella’s “Confessions of a Shopaholic”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kingston-upon-Thames' Bentalls Centre shopping complex

Kingston-upon-Thames’ Bentalls Centre shopping complex

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Inforestation

Edward Rutherford's "The Forest"

Edward Rutherford’s “The Forest”

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

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

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

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

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

New Forest Pony

New Forest Pony

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

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

But not very engaging.

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

The beautiful New Forest

The beautiful New Forest

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

 

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

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

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

 

Tor Me Apart

James Long's "The Lives She Left Behind"

James Long’s “The Lives She Left Behind”

I did a little bit of cheating this week. Well, I don’t know if it really was cheating, but I do at least have to make an admission.

As a matter of pride, personal principle and/or obsession, I have certainly endeavoured to treat all the dear English counties equally throughout this challenge and remain steadfast to my own rules, namely to read:

  1. one book per county
  2. written by an English or England-based author
  3. and first published during or after the year 2000.

The fact that I’ve actually read two novels for this week’s county may then pose a slight ethical problem on the face of it, but don’t worry: I have my reasons and, you will be immensely relieved to know, there will only be one review. And no bias or favouritism. Phew.

The problem I faced with Somerset was that the book I really wanted to read…really, really wanted to read…and which was recommended to me by a fellow English Literature graduate from the University of Warwick specifically for this Place-and-Space-oriented challenge (and therefore, I trusted, bound to be rewarding) was Ferney, by James Long, first published in 1998. Doh. However, well aware of the trauma and chaos this would wreak in my simple mind, my dear university colleague also offered me a timely olive branch: Ferney has a sequel, published in 2000, called The Lives She Left Behind.

"Ferney", the prequel to "The Lives She Left Behind", by James Long

“Ferney”, the prequel to “The Lives She Left Behind”, by James Long

You see, me being the way I am, I am absolutely incapable of reading any book if it is not the first in a series. I physically recoil from diving in at number 2/3/4, no matter if the stories would make complete sense as stand-alones or if all the preceding novels were poorly received of no interest to me. If I wanted to read the 10th Inspector Morse mystery or the 20th Poirot novel, or the 50th account of the Fifty Shades of Grey (oh the horror) I’d have to start from number 1. The same goes for film and TV series and even some music albums. I realise it’s an unhealthy and pointless compulsion, but my physical and mental aversion to not being privy to the entire context of something is all-consuming, which is why I was left trembling and practically rocking in a corner of the classroom when, during my degree, I was asked to watch Series 6 of 24 as part of an American cultural studies module. I had to watch 144 hours of the damn thing (all the way from series 1 episode 1) in just over a week. Boring and expensive, let me tell you.

So it was with these James Long novels. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, I found myself working my frantic way through Ferney so that I could focus my attention, in good conscience, on The Lives She Left Behind for the rest of the week. I’m glad I did this, it turns out, because the latter definitely continues the story of the first and, I feel, wouldn’t have made much sense on its own. So, to set the scene…

St Michael's Church, Pen Selwood

St Michael’s Church, Pen Selwood

In Ferney, the reader meets Mike and his nervous, haunted-by-the-past wife, Gabriella, nicknamed Gally. Filled with love, tenderness and concern for her, Mike still does not fully understand the mystery behind Gally’s nightmares or why she develops a sudden, desperate attraction to the Somerset village of Penselwood which they happen to pass through in the car one day, while venturing away from their home in London.

In this tiny, historic village, Gally is drawn to the abandoned, run-down Bagstone Cottage; at her urgent and startling insistence, Mike agrees to buy it and move in, hoping she has finally found something to bring her out of her depression. Over the course of the novel and the cottage’s gradual refurbishment, Gally’s nightmares subside – even stop altogether – and she finally seems to be at peace in the landscape around her. However, soon there is revealed something distinctly troubling and, to Mike, dangerous, about an eighty-year-old man who persists in loitering around Bagstone Cottage and Penselwood’s many lanes, and who seems to have a familiar relationship with Gally. This old man’s name is Ferney.

A plan of King Cenwalch of Wessex's fort in Penselwood, believed to be the site of the Battle of Peonnum (between Saxons and Britons) around AD 660

A plan of King Cenwalch of Wessex‘s fort in Penselwood, believed to be the site of the Battle of Peonnum (between Saxons and Britons) around AD 660

Ferney opens Gally’s eyes to a past she never knew she was part of, spanning millennia. With his encouragement and, eventually, of her own accord, Gally starts to remember that she has always lived at Bagstone Cottage and in Penselwood; that she has always known Ferney; that she has lived many, many lifetimes by his side, both of them in different bodies, at different ages and from varying backgrounds, but always drawn home to each other’s arms.

The remaining banks and ditches of King Cenwalch's Saxon castle in Penselwood.

The remaining banks and ditches of King Cenwalch’s Saxon fort in Penselwood.

Mike is left, disbelieving and heartbroken, on the sidelines, but the reader is carried along on a timeless love story that incorporates swathes of history and vast stretches of the Somerset landscape. It is a love story of people and of the land. It is supernatural (which I normally hate; God knows I hated The Time-Traveller’s Wife) and yet somehow its connection to the landscape – its paganism – transforms it from what might be nonsense into an epic. That is not to say it is a difficult read; it is most certainly not. It’s an ideal combination of Hardy’s glorious Wessex novels and a more usual romantic summer read.

King Alfred's Tower (1772) near Penselwood, believed to be built on the site of the ancient Egbert's Stone. This stone was the ancient mustering place for Alfred the Great's troops in AD 878 when they were preparing to fight the Vikings.

King Alfred’s Tower (1772) near Penselwood, believed to be built on the site of the ancient Egbert’s Stone. This stone was the mustering place for Alfred the Great’s troops in AD 878 when they were preparing to fight the Danes/Vikings.

If I was reviewing and rating Ferney, I’d give it 4/5 stars for Long’s originality, characterisation, depth of historical and geological research and overall writing style that so ably combines past and present, fate of people with fate of land. But of course, I’m not reviewing Ferney because it doesn’t fulfill by my challenge’s criteria. For this challenge, I’m concerned with rule-abiding, year-2000-published The Lives She Left Behind. For that, I put Ferney entirely out of my mind.

It is, however, difficult to summarise the plot of the sequel, set a few years later, without giving away what happens at the end of Ferney. I don’t want to do that as I think, of the two, Ferney is the one most worthy of reading. Let me just say, then, that the time-span, love-story premise continues in much the same vein, with the same general characters, in Long’s second and final novel in the series.

It is just as much about being physically and emotionally connected to the Somerset landscape:

“as the blade touched the earth, he snatched his hand away as something travelled up through it, through his fingers and up his arm […] He reached out again that there it was, flowing through him, a flood of light and peace and knowledge and something startling that felt like love” (73)

It is just as much about spanning time, unearthing history and rooting through “the ploughed-up soil of the past” (330):

“His tour continued back and forth through the carnage of plagues, rebellion, the brutality of purges pagan, Catholic and Protestant as he circled the village, soaking up the sight of it now with eyes which mixed with older times, blending in its history” (136)

It is just as much about discovering one’s “deep familiarity” (216) with people and places:

“it was not like learning, not quite like remembering – more a matter of unforgetting, knowing how to see what was already there, bringing back a confidence in how to be” (136)

It is also just as pagan and just as much a love story, and written in the same capable style.

The remains of one of three the Norman motte and bailey castles near Penselwood, dated after the Norman Conquest of 1066.  This one is known as Ballands Castle and shows the village was of strategic importance to William the Conqueror.

The remains of one of three the Norman motte and bailey castles near Penselwood, dated after the Norman Conquest of 1066. This one is known as Ballands Castle and shows the village was of strategic importance to William the Conqueror.

The thing that instinctively makes me rate The Lives She Left Behind lower than its teammate despite all that good stuff, is that the novelty of Long’s concept has somewhat worn off. In its pages, the beauty and drama do not shine as brilliantly or unexpectedly as in Ferney, precisely because they are not as brilliant or unexpected. The characters that are new to readers are not as engaging as those in the first novel, and nor do we learn anything revolutionary about the characters we recognise, as everything of importance has already been told. In fact, due to this repetition, it sometimes seems as though (like so many Hollywood endeavours) Long’s second novel is simply a not-so-good rehash of the first, with a few tweaks and a younger cast. If I had read The Lives She Left Behind without reading the other (for the sake of ethicality, I am judging this novel in a vacuum) I wouldn’t have been blown away by it: hence the rating of 3/5 stars.

Penselwood, located near the boundaries of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire.

Penselwood, located near the boundaries of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire.

In terms of what light the novel shines on Somerset itself, its sweeping hills and dales are painted beautifully and mystically. So much so that I’m desperate to revisit the area and just walk, walk, walk all over it, taking it in. As I said, Long writes with hints of paganism and, as a result, frustration with the encroachment of human authority on the fertile landscape is a key theme in every page of both novels, but is emphasised more noticeably in Lives where, interestingly, there is far greater human presence on the hills. Human intervention on nature shows through from the early years, when church bells started to measure and dictate time across the fields, to the present day when the horror of the Ordnance Survey means that “a concrete lump” (256) has been added to a favourite hilltop as a navigational marker. The aim seems to be “to measure the whole country, to pin everything down to the nearest inch […] Everything’s mapped. People are mapped” (256). Even the careful archaeologists who aim to do as little damage to the landscape as possible end up making a mess. Overall, in Lives, the landscape is presented as harshly colonised; we notice the effects of modernisation so much more, even though only a few years in Long’s setting have passed since Ferney. Imagine then, Long seems to say, how much damage humans will do in decades or centuries.

Another key theme throughout Long’s version of history, particularly prevalent in Lives, is a somewhat political one: the contention between the ‘official’ or documented past (Kings and Queens, significant battles and famous painters) and the reality experienced by ordinary people who were/are separated from authority:

“We let the wrong people tell our story for us, don’t we? The newspapers, the TV news, history books are all the same. We let the big egos tell us about the wars and the business deals – all the testosterone stuff. We let the drama enthusiasts tell us about the disasters and the tragedies and the accidents and we end up thinking that’s what the past is, that’s what the present is, that’s what our country is, but it’s not […] Mostly, it’s a lot of ordinary friendly, generous people over a very long time, doing the best they can in a quiet sort of way […] We shouldn’t let the people take charge who want to be in charge. They’re the last ones we should trust” (337)

Whether or not we can absolutely trust Long’s novels to accurately represent ordinary working-class lives throughout history is almost unimportant; this is a love story after all, about people and about landscape, and about neither of those having changed very much – if you take the time to block out modern distractions and to look carefully – since the dawn of time.

Author James Long, according to his bio a former BBC correspondent and writer of historical fiction, thrillers and non-fiction.

Author James Long, according to his bio a former BBC correspondent and writer of historical fiction, thrillers and non-fiction.

Next week I’ll be reading The Forest by Edward Rutherford. It looks like another landscape epic!

 

LONG, James. The Lives She Left Behind. London: Quercus, 2012.

Featured Image: Glastonbury Tor, Somerset.

http://forums.canadiancontent.net/history/121018-10-extraordinary-sacred-sites-around.html

Crumbling

Dover, as described by Helen Oyeyemi in her Kent-based novel White is for Witching, is a place with its identity in crisis. And it’s not only the city that is struggling to define itself.

“She heard and smelt the water at the bottom of the cliffs, but it felt like a long time before she’d walked long enough to glimpse the sea crashing and breaking against the shore, foam eating into stone. England and France had been part of the same landmass, her father had told her, until prised apart by floods and erosion. She was not sure what time it was; when she looked at the sun she could understand that it had changed position but she did not dare to say how much. There were cruise ships coming in, vast white curved blocks like severed feet shuffling across the water. She waved half-hearted welcome. She felt the wind lift her hair above her head. In daylight the water was so blue that the colour seemed like a lie and she leant over, hoping for a moment of shift that would allow her to understand what was beneath the sea” (88)

Helen Oyeyemi's "White Is For Witching"

Helen Oyeyemi’s “White Is For Witching”

Situated precariously on the bottom edge of England, with land that literally crumbles into the sea, Dover’s identity appears to be in a state of vulnerability. It is “a fucking mess”, one character says; the maritime gateway to southern England has too many foreign refugees (mainly Kosovans, we hear) getting into fights amongst themselves as well as “pissing off the locals” (203). These “incomers” have changed the way Britishness is thought of in Dover; they have even, some would argue, “twisted” the concept of Britishness into something that seems “bad” (116). For Dover’s inhabitants, particularly teenage twins Miranda and Eliot, it is becoming more and more difficult to anchor themselves in its shifting waters.

Aside from these political / geographical troubles, Miranda and Eliot Silver, and their father Luc Dufresne are also trying to cope with the loss of Lily, the twins’ mother.

For Miranda this is particularly difficult, as the generations of Silver women share an affinity and a connection that is “older” than all of them. Even in death, great-grandmother Anna is tied “to her daughter Jennifer, to Jennifer’s stubborn daughter Lily, to Lily’s even more stubborn daughter Miranda” (118). In the ghost-filled family home in Dover, which Luc is frantically trying to fill with life and prosperity by turning it into a successful B&B, Miranda can nevertheless hear and feel the presence of the other long-lost women: “her GrandAnna laugh[s] at something Lily said” (196) in an upstairs room while haunting music, which only Miranda can hear, plays in the halls. Without the support of her mother, Miranda sees “the world in pieces” (38), and it seems as though her own body is about to crumble too, or to “concertina, bones knocking against each other” (233).

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

A land unstable: erosion of the white cliffs of Dover

As it is, the reader bears witness to Miranda’s breakdown which drains her both physically and mentally before her family’s eyes. Her mind quakes from grief and depression that borders on insanity; not only does she hear voices and see strange things in mirrors and believe she can walk through walls into hidden rooms of the house, but she also forgets who she is: “she would need to know how old she was and she didn’t know” (131). At the same time, she suffers from pica, a disorder which means she hungers, not for food, but for plastic, dirt and, strangely enough, Dover’s very own chalk. The lack of real nutrition she ingests makes her body wither and shrink until she becomes so thin that she is practically two-dimensional, despite her father’s huge and varied efforts to get her to eat. All in all, through the deterioration of her mental and physical state, she slowly becomes “the girl who hardly even exists” (185).

But as well as the story of Miranda’s breakdown and the relationships she develops (the book is not all miserable), this novel tells the story of a house. The creepy family house in which Miranda, apparently, disappears into other dimensions and communicates with the spirits of her female ancestors. Is Miranda simply insane, or does the house really have a life of its own?

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

Spooky: Dover Castle looms over the city

The answer to that question is for the reader to decide, but the house is certainly given a voice in this novel. ‘29 Barton Road’ narrates whole passages of this book, telling how “I was nothing like that flat of [the family’s] in London” (74) and how Miranda “wandered up and down my staircases, in and out of my rooms” (117). The house even admits to leading its inhabitants astray and trapping them in another world within its walls: “I unlocked a door in her bedroom that she had not seen before […] When she was safely down the new passageway, I closed the door behind her” (84). The house is frightening, haunting, threatening. It is not only Miranda who notices strange goings on either; on one occasion the family’s housekeepers quit abruptly and flee their accommodation, leaving a note that says:

This house is bigger than you know! There are extra floors with lots of people on them. They are looking people. They look at you, and they never move. We do not like them. We do not like this house, and we are glad to be going away.” (57)

There are ghostly, witchy and magical elements to this novel that add to the narrative confusion, ambiguity and brilliance. In reality, it’s quite frightening. If you’re reading this review and are thinking that the set-up (i.e. generations of women linked through the centuries, a big old family home) sounds a lot like that of Katherine Webb’s The Legacy, I suppose you would not be a million miles away. However, in writing style, Webb and Oyeyemi are fathoms apart. For all the beauty of Webb’s traditional narrative structure, Oyeyemi writes non-linear prose which darts across the page between narrators and between margins; at times it seems like you are reading poetry. Where I deemed Webb’s novel original, I would say Oyeyemi’s is utterly unique. Sometimes it is hard work, but that is part of the reward. Overall the novel is chilling and deeply mesmerising, no matter how much or how little you go in for the other-worldly: 5/5 stars.

Author Helen Oyeyemi

Author Helen Oyeyemi

As a brief note to finish off, this short novel does what I think is an incredible job of mapping conflicting ideas of modern Britishness and Englishness, especially in its portrait of Dover, as I’ve already touched on, and in the representation of its supposedly ‘typical English family’ (hardly so, as it turns out). Even within Miranda’s family, the reader bears witness to the shift in ideas over time: her great-grandfather was the artist of patriotic World War Two cartoons, “all on the theme of plucky Brits defeating the enemy by maintaining the home front – a stout housewife planting her potatoes and taking a moment to smack one that looked just like Hitler on the head with her trowel, that sort of thing” (69). Moving down the generations, Miranda’s great-grandmother is appalled that her granddaughter Lily “didn’t know what Britannia meant” and that she said “patriotism was embarrassing and dangerous” (115). Britishness, as I said before, is in crises here. In summary, this novel has been a great one to read for this challenge.

Next week I’ll be reviewing James Long’s The Lives She Left Behind for Somerset. I’d better get cracking!

 

OYEYEMI, Helen. White Is For Witching. Oxford: Picador, 2009.

Featured Image: Characteristic White Cliffs of Dover

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2114912/White-Cliffs-Dover-Thousands-tons-chalk-crash-sea-large-section-collapses.html

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

 

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

As The Twig Is Bent

We’re officially halfway through our challenge with this week’s beautiful novel!!

“There was a wood once. Just itself to begin with. […]

Later, someone found it, defined it […]

Used it. Gridded out, like a town, and its quarters named. Then it was cut into rides, hunted, managed, grazed, chopped about, foraged, felled, filled in again. Now it’s a country park […]

And it’s where the runaways go. […]

And the town’s right there, playing grandmother’s footsteps with the wood” (3)

Laura Beatty's "Pollard"

Laura Beatty’s “Pollard”

Laura Beatty, the author of Pollard, lives in historic Salcey Forest in Northamptonshire, a home that undoubtedly inspired many elements of the mysterious, whispering wood in her first novel.

At age 15, the awkward and unusual Anne decides to run away from her home “that hadn’t been one” (30) and find “a patch, […] her plot” (58) among the trees with which she had always felt an affinity. She sets out with nothing but, as she spends time “learning the place, looking at it […] walking, discovering” (65) she gradually gathers the necessities, constructs her home beneath a pollard ash and wages a war of survival against the “iron” (91) winter along with the wood’s other creatures. Although at times the “loneliness” (78) of her new life gets to her, and her voice grows “cracked and rusted with no use” (86), she is rarely tempted to return to the town, where the only landmarks are the battery farm, abattoir, “new estates” and “industry parks” (8). Instead, she appreciates the beauty and seclusion that other “human beings” (153) fail to notice, in the woodland environment and even at the neighbouring rubbish “tip” (77), to which she is introduced by ex-soldier and survival-guru, Steve: “She liked the dump. It fitted her almost as well as the wood. She liked its geography, the simple straight lines of the trailers and sheds, the blocks of the containers, the order of it. A little world in itself” (82).

But Anne’s struggle to survive comes to the fore as civilisation encroaches on her private existence. Information signs “spring up” (153) on familiar tracks; men “carrying clipboards” (154) arrive with plans for cycle paths, roads, treetop walkways and visitor centres; strangers arrive in their droves in the form of “walkers, riders, joggers, cyclists” and even a park “Ranger” (156); words like “officialdom” (157), land “ownership” (162) and “authorised persons” (259) begin to cloud her head. She can sense the “slow suffocation of the trees” (155) and with this, her private existence is thrown into turmoil.

Salcey Forest's Treetop Walkway (the unflattering angle)

Salcey Forest’s Treetop Walkway (the unflattering angle) – inspiration for what happens in Anne’s wood

So this is a novel that highlights the traditional theme of the urban world threatening the rural. The reader is exposed to careless dog-walkers and harmful litterers and ignorant traipsers and destructive youths and arrogant bureaucrats and heartless construction workers, all of whom incite the reader’s negative judgement of humanity for ruining the natural world. Certainly, Anne loathes this cast of characters, fears them, and eventually falls prey to them.

But, untraditionally, that’s not the whole story. Looking deeper, Beatty’s novel is not about Anne at all, or her rural/urban war, but about The Wood itself. The Immortal Wood.

Beatty gives her trees a voice – which they use far more than Anne, it seems – and the power to “witness” (9) everything that happens under their canopy, like a Greek “Chorus” commenting, singing, dancing as tragedy unfolds. But unlike Anne, The Wood “think[s] nothing of [the] nibblers, strippers, choppers” (132) that are altering its shape and Anne’s life; it cares nothing for the individuals it swallows under its shade, for The Wood’s “concern is with life, not the individual” and “there’s always another time, for someone else, if not for [Anne]” (9). The world of The Wood is endless, for it is “good at retrenching […] for every trunk lost” (132) and “looping back on itself forever”, holding on to “some forgotten sense, […] a particular life” (303). Even Anne – whose head is “so full of [the trees’] rustling” and whose own limbs “hung loose and sinewed” (148) at home under the boughs – cannot comprehend this timeless spirit. She “can’t see the wood for the trees” (18) she is always told as a child. The tragedy in this novel is Anne’s alone; the wood will survive, in spirit if not in size. It is the hubris of humanity that believes it can tame nature when, in fact, we are only contributing towards our own downfall.

Pollard Ash

Pollard Ash

I did not expect this novel, which deals so explicitly with rural-urban convergence, to be so original in its form and its plot. Giving trees narrative authority seems a risky move for a debut novel, but the surrealism pays off. In fact, reading this reminded me a great deal of Booker Prize-winning How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman – in very simple terms, both protagonists are outcast from society and victims of state authority; both narratives are filled with bewilderment, misunderstanding and impotent fury; both narrators implicate the reader in systems of injustice; and both novels sound an ironic call-to-arms that clashes with the inevitable, hopeless knowledge that nothing can change.

In Pollard, I think more could have been made of Anne’s conflicts with the state, especially in the final pages. Similarly, I’m not sure if Anne’s relationship with schoolboy Peter Parker was fully effective in providing the novel’s climax. I also think Anne should have been shown to grow even angrier – more violent or more verbal – to contrast with the sing-song placidity of the “Chorus of Trees”. But really, I’m just being picky. This was a fascinating, unusual read and for that I have huge admiration. 4/5 stars.

So next week I’ll be reading Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen. We’re over the halfway mark by now, and into Suffolk territory!

BEATTY, Laura. Pollard. Reading: Vintage, 2009.

Featured Image: Salcey Forest, Northamptonshire.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mjsullivan/4053668806/

Space-probing

Sue Townsend's "The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year"

Sue Townsend’s “The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year”

All the reviews I’ve read and almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this book have said the same thing: it’s not as good as the Adrian Mole books. Still, since I’ve never read any of the Adrian Mole books, or even have the faintest inkling of what they’re about, I was pleasantly surprised by Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, the book I chose for Leicestershire.

Admittedly, it doesn’t say a whole lot about life in Leicester/the Midlands/England specifically, but as Eva builds herself a nest in her bed after her twins leave for university – not making any plans to emerge again – there’s a lot going on about forming a sense of belonging.

So why exactly does Eva crawl into bed in 2012 and refuse to get out again? Well, there’s a large amount of speculation from the other characters – her husband, Brian, her children Brian Junior and Brianna (yes, really), her mother Ruby and her mother-in-law Yvonne, her new handyman-crush Alex, her window-cleaner, the neighbours and, soon enough, the media and the hysterical followers outside her window…all have an opinion. Perhaps it’s depression caused by “empty-nest syndrome” (4) or by being taken for granted her whole life or by the knowledge of her husband’s lacklustre affair; perhaps she’s been “engulf[ed]” (248) by madness that makes her believe the floorboards are “made of jelly” (379); perhaps she’s an angel, a  saint, a prophet making a stand against “how horrid the world [is], what with wars and famine and little babies dying and stuff” (325). Maybe, suggests a psychologist, Eva is “in the grip of agoraphobia, probably as a result of childhood trauma” (351). However, Eva flatly denies there is any problem whatsoever – she simply doesn’t feel like getting out of bed. Even the reader is not privy to any inside information from Townsend as to what the reason behind her major plot choice is.

Space-themed chocolates produced by Mars Inc.

Space-themed chocolates produced by Mars Inc.

As the novel goes on, Eva’s relatives become increasingly irritated by her behaviour: she relies on them to get her food, rearrange and slowly dispose of her bedroom furniture, board up the windows and doors, repaint the walls a dazzling white, answer the bell to fans and crowd-controlling police officers, and, if only they would agree to it, to dispose of her urine and excrement without her even having to use the ensuite. Blame and anger are fired at her from all corners, understandably, but with crafty characterisation Townsend steers the reader to believe that these judgements are nothing but harsh and hypocritical; everyone else would willingly disengage from the world if they could, too. In fact, some already do. Brian is so feeble that he is “slightly apprehensive” (6) around his own mother; emasculated in almost every situation, he cowers in his sheds at the bottom of the garden rather than facing Eva. Brianna, self-loathing, awkward and shut-off from the world, lives her life with “her face […] mostly hidden behind a long straggly black fringe which she pushed out of her eyes only when she actually wanted to see something” (11). Autistic Brian Junior voluntarily lives “in a very small world call the internet, where cynicism is the norm and cruelty has taken the place of humour” (270); the twins do not hide the fact that they want only “to be together in their own box-world” (20). Ironically, despite their criticism, almost every other character in the novel ends up “wish[ing] it was me in that bed” (35) and at some points Eva’s bedroom becomes seriously crowded with them all “sat cross-legged on the floor” (222) trying to join with her in shutting out the world.

Property programme duo, Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer

Property programme duo, Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer

Just as all the characters are shown to be preoccupied with building themselves a nest to hide away in, so, Townsend seems to suggest, is the whole of real, English society: why else would “property programmes” have such popularity or “Kirsty and Phil” be classed as modern “heroes” (10)? In fact, this novel presents the process of constructing a place in which one can feel at home – with some combination of four walls, comfortable furniture, personally-chosen décor and private memories – as the obsession of modern England. Not because of the opportunity for investment or return, or dependent on bank borrowing and lending rates – not, in other words, with financial or economic motives – but simply because putting an individual stamp on one’s surroundings is like laying claim to a fixed, stable identity and a solid right to exist. Arguably, this is something that Eva hasn’t had before. She’s never been her own woman, only a wife to Brian and a mother to her children. It is only when left alone that she begins the struggle, like a “baby”, “start[ing] again” (420), to develop a sense of self and a sense of belonging. No more arguing with Brian now as to whether they should live “in a minimalist modular system, far away from street lighting” or “an old pile in which people had died, with bedbugs, fleas, rats and mice” (22); she makes her own decisions.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10 Downing Street

David Cameron and Nick Clegg outside No. 10 Downing Street

Although Townsend doesn’t provide any definitive answer as to why Eva chooses to separate herself from society for a year, it seems to me that she simply struggles to find anything to get excited about any more in a world where her husband is so middle-aged and “he had started to make a noise as he got up from a chair” (40); where there is “incessant English cloud” (102) blocking out the sun every day; where politics has become so mundane that no one is even inspired to elect a prime minister, so that confusion arises in the coalition government as to who is actually in charge: “’Is it Cameron…? Or is it Cameron and Clegg?’” (117). Even further afield, outside England, there is nothing she is drawn to, for “there was nothing on the earth left to find – not when remote South American primitives were smoking Marlboro Lights” (58) and the whole profundity of space is reduced to chocolate-bar-terms in the mass-production of Galaxy, Mars and Milky Way confectionery. Human insignificance weighs on Eva, and she is frustrated that the best the English can hope for is to “tick along nicely” (73) in obscurity. So, out of boredom, she takes to her bed to cause “chaos” (190). It doesn’t seem like one thing could possibly lead to the other – but, oh my, it does.

Strangely, I liked this novel more for its critique of society than its comedy; or, rather, I found its thorough examination of ‘belonging’ all the more striking because of its farcical undertones and fluff-less dialogue. True, the novel is not laugh-out-loud hilarious (as some fans had expected), but I don’t think it loses impact as a result, since this way tragic elements of Eva’s life are also allowed to pervade in ironic fashion. What’s more, I think it is rare to find, in a supposedly comic novel, characters to whom it is so easy to warm, despite their often ridiculous names or habits. Overall, the plot is original and interesting, surprisingly engaging considering the protagonist does not get out of bed for the whole of the narrative, and its tone is fresh. Sue Townsend has a distinctive style that I feel confident I could identify again – suffice it to say, Adrian Mole is now on my list. 3/5 stars for this one, I think.

Next week I’ll be reading my first crime thriller of the challenge, The Chemistry of Death, by Simon Beckett. Join me, if you dare…mwahahaha.

TOWNSEND, Sue. The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. London: Penguin, 2012.

Featured Image: Solar System, field of Brian, the astronomer.

http://uncannyflats.com/thank-you-finally-an-explanation-for-why-the-solar-system-is-flat/