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/

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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/

 

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

The Root of the Problem

David Dabydeen's "Our Lady of Demerara"

David Dabydeen’s “Our Lady of Demerara”

I couldn’t resist picking David Dabydeen’s Our Lady of Demerara to represent the West Midlands in this literary journey – although I never met him, and wasn’t even aware of him until researching this novel, Dabydeen is a Professor at the Centre of British Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick, my alma mater. Not that I’m biased or anything. And although it was tough-going at times, the novel is a perfect choice for a challenge that wrestles with the issues of place and space.

Lance Yardley, aged 30, is desperate to cut his ties with the working-class council estate he was brought up on: Albion Hill, in rough and seedy Coventry. He seeks escape through his work as a (failed) writer, through his (dysfunctional) marriage to middle-class actress Beth, through trawling the backstreets of the grimy city for prostitutes, and, eventually, by travelling across the world to Guyana on the trail of a dead Coventry priest who was once a missionary there, and in whose memoirs Lance urgently searches for the meaning of life. A strange progression of events, but this is the journey of someone rootless, in turmoil and very possible insane.

Prof. David Dabydeen of Warwick University

Prof. David Dabydeen of Warwick University

It is not only Lance’s relationship with his lot that seems to have cracked; this novel problematises all relationships, including those between family members and spouses; between different classes and races even living in the same neighbourhood (Lance labels his own wife “’a bourgeois empty-headed cunt’” [13]); between England and Guyana, with a colonial legacy that has left the latter in a shambles. Everyone is separated by prejudice and ignorance; Lance is a man torn apart, in a world torn apart. It seems fitting that he journeys to Guyana, where “slavery done two hundred years now but the Negro still feeding on the past. He too lazy to make effort for the present and the future, so he save up the past like a hoard of saltfish, and when he chew his mouth go sour and he spit” (77). Lance is shown to feel the same obsession, hatred and resentment for his own history. These are emotions that abound in this novel.

But let’s get back to the beginning.

Dabydeen presents a hellish view of England, which suffers from “incredible cold […] grime” (53), “ignorance and spite”, where the only spiritual connection is with “the high-street shop” (54). Coventry itself seems post-apocalyptic, with “houses joined to each other in an endless march of bricks […] asphalt, metal” (255), interspersed with “burnt-out shells […] and the crowded graveyards [which] were testimonies to the German bombing” (64-5) of the Second World War. The air is filled with the “hideous rumble of wheels, the hollering of drivers” (256) and the whole place feels like “the ending of the world” (105).

The ruined shell of Coventry Cathedral, bombed in WW2, still stands today.

The ruined shell of Coventry Cathedral, bombed in WW2, still stands today.

In amongst this mess is the drab council estate, Albion Hill. ‘Albion’, the ancient and poetic name for Great Britain, is an ironic title for this district in which there is no sense of national pride or belonging, or affinity with those “posh gits”, “the ones with suits on and secretaries in offices” (40) who run the country whilst maintaining wilful ignorance of the working classes’ existence. The notion of ‘Britishness’ means nothing to the residents; they have abandoned it as it has abandoned them.

Not only does Lance feel disconnected from Britishness, but from the rest of his family and his neighbourhood too. His lack of belonging is a product of his childhood – during which time his mother walked out, his father (now dead) was imprisoned for theft and he was shifted continuously between foster families – as well as his ambition; he wants more from his life than “what every child in Albion hill aspired to – a council flat and the dole, the income boosted by a little burglary, a little trade in stolen goods, a little job on the side cleaning, plastering, decorating” (28). He is ashamed of his class, of “the cultural desert” (15) he lives in, of being “a local born and bred” (14) when others around him can boast such “exoticism” (45). His wife Beth treats her Indian heritage flippantly because her past is “utterly irrelevant to [her] life” (14); Lance is filled with envy, anxious to define roots for himself that mark him out from others, to which he belongs so completely that he can exclude her.

'Insulae Albion et Hibernia' (Islands of Great Britain and Ireland) from the 1654 Blaeu Atlas of Scotland

‘Insulae Albion et Hibernia’ (Islands of Great Britain and Ireland) from the 1654 Blaeu Atlas of Scotland

Suffering with “maimed wing and spirit” (121) without a proper family history on which to prop his existence, Lance goes on the hunt for “a moment of vision” (9), “wholeness and transfiguration”, a means to cleanse “his life of the accretions of Coventry dirt” (110) and give himself “depth” (93). His spiritual search does not get off to an auspicious start, ironically beginning on the streets of Coventry looking for a prostitute called Corinne. Indeed, no matter how far he travels away from it, the reader feels Albion Hill “in his shadow and his conscience” (68), recognising all his efforts as being “thwarted, unfulfilled” (69).

Ultimately, the only way Lance can discover his desired identity is to imagine it, to surround himself with a fictional version of the past and of his roots, to convince himself that he has found his home and his heritage. The life of the priest, Father Jenkins, is the key to the re-conception of Lance’s own life: through blending himself with the priest in his letters home, Lance makes himself believe in his own significance and value in his community. As though playing dress-up, Lance takes on a sudden spirituality that allows him to boast of inner “peace” (260) and present his transformation as a Christian reincarnation. Ironically, his fictional concept of self at the end of the novel, made up as it is of odd parts of other people’s lives and containing very little truth, is more severely jeopardised than ever.

At once, with Lance’s creative power over his story realised, the narrative of Our Lady of Demerara is thrown into chaos for the reader; if it was fragmented and confusing before, here is where it gets really mind-bending.

“My priest’s story was broken and haphazard. Cryptic lines. Gnomic paragraphs. Obscure notes. Doodles. Impossible puns. I would mend the sentences, make them flow, give them purpose and direction. I would design his life and where there were holes and gaps I would conceive of incidents and themes. My landfill would be my imagination but I would draw too on actual people I knew, give them places in the story. [They] lived ordinarily, purposelessly, even stupidly. I would revise their existence on the page, or originate a new existence for them […] If, because of my superior education, I owed them anything, then it was to rewrite them” (93).

  • If Lance is recreating his own life, what else in the novel is subject to his alterations?
  • Are the characters, Dabydeen’s creations, actually presented through Lance’s transformative eyes? Is Beth really so middle-class, is Miriam truly acceptant of her Albion Hill lot, or is that just how the frustrated Lance sees them?
  • Is this a novel with a frame narrative, and does the pervading authorial voice belong to Lance, and not to Dabydeen, as we assumed?

The reader begins to question their assumptions of ‘truth’ behind the narrative when it is revealed to be mediated by Lance, who is so hungry to reinvent everything and everyone around him, who admits to fabricating and “caricaturing” (46) people in his letters and plagiarising sentences from Jenkins’ memoirs, “purged or reinstated in different forms” (51).

Aeneas, the hero, flees Troy with his father on his back and his son at his side: 3 generations striding forth into the future. Unlike the rootless Lance who leaves his family behind.

Aeneas, the hero, flees Troy with his father on his back and his son at his side: 3 generations with hope of a new civilisation. This is unlike the rootless Lance, who leaves his family behind.

The effect is disorientating, alienating and, because of this, hugely successful. Lance is thoroughly unlikeable because of his cruel treatment of others – especially women – and seedy pastimes, and yet we are made to feel as disappointed by the state of the country and humanity as he is. We are guided, bemusedly and against our will, to Guyana on the will of his unhinged character and challenged to follow his incoherent, tortuous and, at times, dull review of his existence to a solution that fails to satisfy us – or the rest of the characters – because of its foolishness. And yet we follow it and this anti-hero, and pity him, because it is a kind of poetry; an agonised, filthy poetry.

I would go as far as to say that Our Lady of Demerara is the modern Aeneid, detailing Lance’s odyssean journey across oceans to develop a mythology on which to base his identity and to find a new home away from Beth, who is the Dido weighing heavily around his neck. But Lance’s quest ends in nothing; there is no promised land. Unlike Aeneas, Lance is not a hero; he is misogynistic, dishonest and corrupt. Nor is he sailing towards Albion, to a place where he can found a new Britain to be proud of; rather, Albion Hill, and Britain as a whole, is the ravaged and ruined land, like Troy, that he is leaving behind. Britain certainly is presented as ruined in this novel, guilty of a greedy colonial past, damaged by decades of war and capitalism, and plagued by a complete lack of unity among its immoral inhabitants. Britain is worthless, this novel seems to say; it has no future except further decay.

Aeneas recounts the ruin of Troy to Dido. Painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815.

Aeneas recounts the ruin of Troy to Dido. Painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815.

Overall, this was a novel that to read was not always pleasant but constantly impressive. Its characters were hard to relate to and barely developed, but that was the point. The narrative was nonlinear and fragmented but that was the design. The plot was slow-moving and unbelievable but it could have worked in no other way. It was epic, artistic, intelligent and truly awesome. I’ve never struggled for so long to decide on a rating for a book: if I was still at university I’m sure I would have rated this a full 5/5 for its sheer scope and literary achievement, but here, back in the real world, I tell myself reading pleasure has to count for something. Phenomenally constructed but hardly loveable for its bleakness, finally, 4 stars go to Our Lady of Demerara.

Next week I’ll be reading The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood, set in Cambridge. We’ve almost reached the halfway mark!

DABYDEEN, David. Our Lady of Demerara. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2009.

Featured Image: Breugel’s “The Burning of Troy” c.1621

http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~peradott/Journey%20of%20Odysseus/n_Troy%20Burns.htm

The Hills Are Alive

Pressing the play button above will unleash the flowing soprano of Madeleine Grey, singing “Bailero” from Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne.

Jonathan Coe's "The Rain Before It Falls"

Jonathan Coe’s “The Rain Before It Falls”

This is the theme tune to this novel. The music weaves in and out of characters’ lives, sweeping, eerily and yet dream-like, over the Shropshire landscape, tying together past and present, the real and the imagined. It seems to echo through the hills in the same way as the story does. The Rain Before It Falls, by Jonathan Coe, is a novel that delves under the convenient façade of comfortable homes and happy families, to force its characters – particularly its women – to question who they are and how they have come to be.

Gill and her two grown-up daughters, Catharine and Elizabeth, are active, intelligent and accomplished; they live busy lives spread across the south of England, and their family seems a close and contented one. So absorbed are they in their day-to-day affairs that they barely register the world around them; “the warmth of inside” has, for years, distracted them from how “chilly” (1) the air has become. It is only when elderly Aunt Rosamund dies, leaving behind audio tapes narrating the whole family’s history – spilling secrets, reopening old wounds and exposing rumours and truths – that their eyes are opened to the lack of connection and meaning in the modern world; a modern world that is slowly turning the past into half-forgotten memory, imagination, myth. Suddenly, a search for understanding begins; can they reach enlightenment before it is too late, before the tapes finish, the photographs are put away and the present day swallows them once more? Can they find the rain before it falls?

The majority of this novel is narrated by Rosamund as she describes, in detail, twenty family photographs and the generations of stories behind them. We ‘listen’ as Gill and her daughters listen – without knowing what the final result will be and blind to the images in Rosamund’s lap. But, my goodness, the description Coe uses didn’t leave me blind for long – each photo seemed to come alive in its minutest detail, becoming as familiar and recognisable to me as if it were pinned in one of my own albums. The intuition develops in fluid layers: we see where individuals are positioned in the image and what the occasion shows; we glimpse what lurks at the edges of the frame or behind the forced smiles; we realise what the photograph summarily fails to capture. In fact, reading these passages isn’t like reading at all: the writing transcends the pages to become an audible and – in terms of the photos – tangible story.

Evacuees in Shropshire, where Rosamund was sent during WW2.

Evacuees in Shropshire, where Rosamund was sent during WW2.

There is a tense triadic relationship in the novel between photography, memory and imagination. To begin with, the photographs seem to provide the unshakeable historic “facts” (113), reliable in their frozen, unchanging existence in a way that Rosamund’s “phantom memories” (39) can never be. Memories are, after all, one step from “fantasies, imaginings” (39), and Rosamund frequently admits, “I think this is something I am now imagining, not a memory at all” (45-6).

And yet, Rosamund also despairs at “what a deceitful thing a photograph is” (193), for “although it seems to record an occasion with perfect fidelity, it actually gives no indication of what was going through the minds of the people who were there” (130). Even as she relies on the photos to structure her story, she seems to loathe them for their trickery: “everybody smiles for photographs – that’s one of the reasons you should never trust them” (214). The photos cannot live up to her often rich memories, as “there are no colours […]; it is a black-and-white photograph”, failing to capture even the simplest details, like “the letterbox in the front door, which my father painted yellow, I remember” (36).

Ultimately, Coe presents Rosamund’s fight with the realisation that, without photographs, her memories fail; without memories, photographs mean nothing. And when Rosamund is gone, taking her memories with her, there can be “no pictures, no corroboration, no proof” (39) of all the years of love, hate, joy, grief, dreams and struggles expended to give Catherine and Elizabeth the lives they have now. This mesmerising novel is clouded with a sense of Rosamund’s conflicting desperation and exhaustion, a heartrending combination – there is so much going on in this short novel, and Coe’s writing…well, I could want nothing more.

Coe builds dark voids between each of his characters, and Rosamund’s deathbed endeavour to link past with present and reunite distant family members is made all the more tragic and hopeless by the sense that, in death, she is the most disconnected character of all. What is more,  Rosamund’s funeral is “curiously unsocial” (4); Gill’s husband is plagued constantly “with a sense of having obscurely failed her” (2); Gill’s children, despite their apparent closeness, sometimes seem to her like “alien beings” (4)…Even the members of this nuclear unit seems “so distant” and “ill at ease” (9) at times, as though “a sort of wordless distance [had] open[ed] up between them, a sudden bewildered awareness that somehow, without anybody noticing, they had become strangers to one another” (21).

Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills

Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills

This lack of connection seems to have a lot to do with – and even be a symptom of – the modern world that Coe describes as infiltrating the “beloved county of [Rosamund’s] wartime childhood” (9). In her memory, Gill sees Shropshire “in vivid primary colours” but it now seems “washed grey […] a sheet of perfect white, signifying nothing” with the “imperishable noise of far-off traffic” (2) crowding in on its once secluded boundaries. Dank and dirty London is creeping ever-closer, with its “imagined dangers of […] bombs [and] once-routine tube and bus journeys suddenly turned into wagers with life and death” (1). Gill does not consider herself part of provincial Shropshire nor attune to London life.

Rosamund, in contrast, is “rooted in the Shropshire landscape, saturated with the colours and contours of its hills” (102) which “are part of your story” (94), she tells her descendants. She takes comfort in the landscape, for it soothes all ills:

“Places like this are important to me – to all of us – because they exist outside the normal timespan. You can stand on the backbone of the Long Mynd and not know if you are in the 1940s, the 2000s, the tenth or eleventh century…It is all immaterial, all irrelevant. […] You cannot put a price on the sense of freedom and timelessness that is granted to you there, as you stand on the high ridge beneath a flawless sky of April blue and look across at the tame beauties of the English countryside, to the east, and to the west a hint of something stranger – the beginnings of the Welsh mountains” (94-5).

As Gill hears these words and travels, literally and figuratively, back to her roots, she realises how deeply “these fields, these villages, these hedgerows, were still inscribed upon her memory; they were the very bedrock of her consciousness”, and she begins to understand the “precious” importance Rosamund places on finding “a sense of your own history; a sense of where you come from, and of the forces that made you” (32). I will not reveal the extent to which Rosamund and Gill are successful in their quest to join hands through time, but as the past comes alive to the three modern women, they become “half-removed from [their] surroundings”; the present seems “ghostly, unfamiliar” (148) as more important matters than trivial domestics emerge. They realise the urgent need to trace these “shadows of the past” (148) and to try to define these “unexpected patterns” (205) in order to be reconnected to each other, to the world, to their home, to the meaning of life. Listening to Rosamund’s healing words gives Gill the hope, at least, that things might come together, and that the “formlessness of jumbled buildings, trees, skyline” might develop into “gradations of colour”, with once defined, rigid outlines “blurred” (12) peacefully into one.

The London skyline - an example of the jumbled buildings Gill finds it hard to accept.

The London skyline – an example of the jumbled buildings Gill finds it hard to accept.

Reading this novel was a truly cathartic experience. Coe seems to involve his readers in the narrative as though they are characters themselves. I found the relationship between photography and memory fascinating and moving and I loved the rendering of audiotape onto page – both original and believable. I was blown away by Coe’s style and simple, yet intense, descriptive technique. I can’t wait to read another of his; I’ve certainly got plenty on my wish list now that this one has earned 5/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading The Woman Who Went to Bed For A Year. No, it’s not about me; it’s by Sue Townsend. Stay tuned!

COE, Jonathan. The Rain Before It Falls. London: Penguin, 2008.

Featured Image: “Caravan Holiday With Gran”, found by TinTrunk.

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/trevira/sets/234170/

Music from: https://archive.org/details/CanteloubeSongsOfTheAuvergne

Concentration Cramp

Michael Taylor's "Linden Woods"

Michael Taylor’s “Linden Woods”

This was a bad book.

I don’t usually like calling books ‘bad’; you’ll notice even the description of my 1-star category on this blog is “not my thing” rather than a direct criticism, such as “truly awful”. That’s because I usually believe that every book is valuable to someone, even if that someone is not me. However, even with that diplomatic mission in mind – even being as objective as possible – this book irritated me because of how poorly written it is.

At the time of writing, the only other book in my 1-star category is The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall (although I’ve been having thoughts about moving Money Can’t Buy Me Love down a peg into that section too) – my goodness, those like Nobel Prize-winners in comparison to this. Well, not quite, but if I could rate this book 0/5 stars, I certainly would. As it is, 1/5 stars is the limit.

That’s it then, really, isn’t it? You might as well stop reading this review now as I hope you’re unlikely ever to pick up Linden Woods by Michael Taylor for yourself, unless it’s during one of your particularly masochistic phases. I can’t even be bothered to describe the plot; it’s not worth it. Some might be interested in my justification though (especially the author, who will probably be appalled to find his average rating on Goodreads plummet thanks to my input. Awkward) so, for the few, here goes:

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

Castle Hill, Dudley, Staffordshire. Copperplate engraving from 1812.

The novel is set in Dudley which, during the Second World War (the era Taylor concerns himself with here), was part of Staffordshire, in the Black Country. At the beginning of Chapter 2, we get a painfully boring and unoriginal description of the industrial city, “grey with the spoil of coal-mining”, “criss-crossed by railways” and filled with the sound of “the hissing and huffing of mineral-hauling locomotives and the shouts of men at work” (9). We get the odd lacklustre description of the surrounding countryside too, “abundant [in] fern and dotted with silver birches” (110). But apart from that, the art of descriptive writing seems to elude our author. Oh, except for during the sex scenes, when the adjectives and imagery seem to go a little overboard, selling the novel as cheap and tacky due to its lack of artistic worth in other aspects.

There is no comparison, juxtaposition, symbolism or allusion. I couldn’t engage with any of the characters because they were so poorly painted, indistinguishable from each other due to the fact that none of them were allowed an individual narrative voice, so constrictive was Taylor’s hold on his text. I had absolutely no interest in the plot, which didn’t seem to have any rise or fall – on the one occasion, towards the end, when I thought a bit of drama might arise, my hope was quashed as quickly as it had perked up. Quicker, in fact, since after 200 pages it was quite hard to work up any hope in the first place. I wasn’t convinced by the context; war novels are normally fascinating to me because of the emotion, trauma, violence and tragedy associated with that part of world history, but in Linden Woods there is practically no mention of ‘the horrors’ at all – it might as well have been set last week for the amount of escapism it allowed me. As for the romance…Bland. Truly bland. Is that more acceptable than ‘bad’?

Next week I’m reading The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe. Things can only improve! Join me soon again soon 🙂

TAYLOR, Michael. Linden Woods. Surrey: Severn House Publishers, 2007.

Featured Image: Enville Common, Staffordshire, as mentioned in the novel.

http://photogallery-uk.co.uk/4.html

Buried Dead

Berlie Doherty's Deep Secret

Berlie Doherty’s Deep Secret

I may have said this already but, after this challenge is over, I’d love to explore fiction for children and young adults in more depth because, for the life of me, I can’t work out how to differentiate some of the books from adult fiction. Some of the classifications seem completely arbitrary – is it the writers who categorise themselves or is that the job of the Carnegie Medal judges or editors or publishers…? I want to get to a point where I can encourage adults to read more of this young literature instead of, dare I say, stigmatising it. I do find it hard to believe that a novel as eerie and moving as Deep Secret, by Berlie Doherty, about the flooding of a tiny, beloved village in Derbyshire to make way for a modern dam and reservoir, and about the mature grief felt by young Madeleine after the loss of her twin sister, should be missed out on by the majority of adults simply because it is labelled as ‘too young’ for them.

According to Doherty’s footnote and website, the novel is based loosely on the construction of the Ladybower reservoir between 1935 and 1945, for which the villages of Ashopton and Derwent were submerged. In 1986, Doherty visited the site during a drought which exposed the ruined houses, farm buildings and church below; it was this spine-tingling trip which convinced her to write this story.

Derwent Hall, Derbyshire, demolished in 1944.

Derwent Hall, Derbyshire, demolished in 1944.

Doherty creates a vision of village life that is difficult to fault: there is hierarchy, to be sure, with Lord Henry and his family, who inhabit the Hall estate, owning all the land that the villagers live and farm upon; but they are benevolent masters and looked upon as deeply “romantic” (8) and respectable. The hardworking farmers and their families are “never going to leave the valley” (8) out of choice, but would each choose to “die before they turn […] into a townie” (108) and, despite their status, the Lord and Lady are no more detached from their earth, for “the scents of the flowers and the murmurings of the river, and how peaceful it all is compared with [their] London home” (86) is all they can talk about. The villagers are not hungry for the outside world and want nothing more than “to be running free […] wild and wonderful” (52) in their valley.

It is by their relationship to the land that the villagers define themselves – a trend we have seen in so many novels on this challenge already – but the politics of land ownership itself is more apparent and more emotional here than in any of the others. In the beginning, the villagers are content with their lush farmland “rented from Lord Henry” (6) for their ambitions are small and do not involve the hungry, capitalistic pursuit for their own property; the modern world still seems far away from this small community. Their idea of ownership is simple and unjealous; they work the land that their families have lived on “for donkey’s years” (12) and therefore consider themselves to have more right to it than the workers from the Water Board, who slowly begin making their way into the valley “like an army taking possession by stealth” (78) to complete surveys and then building work. The families try to keep the peace for a time, their protests limited to “frowning Stranger with their eyes” (36) as wagons trundle past, for they have ultimate faith in Lord Henry to protect them.

Ladybower Reservoir, today

Ladybower Reservoir, today

It is therefore all the more crushing for them to hear Lord Henry himself admit that there is nothing he can do to stop the incomers in their effort to “flood the whole of our valley” (90). In an “Act of Parliament” (92) that is completely incomprehensible to the villagers, whose families have lived contentedly in the traditional, feudal way of life for centuries, the Water Board has “obtained permission from the government” (88) to “purchase this entire estate – the Hall, the farms and cottages that go with it” (92), without so much as an introduction or a handshake. This is business and property ownership in unintelligible terms for the farmers – not only has their powerful Lordship been revealed as impotent in the modern world, but the land itself will no longer be owned by people but by a corporation; it will be “the bloomin’ Water Board’s” (179). How can it be that politicians in London, so far removed from this idyll in Derbyshire, have seen fit to prioritise “a massive container of water” (92) over a whole way of life? This is a dramatic power shift that the villagers are forced to witness. They may not have minded answering to His Lordship, but to suddenly find themselves 150 miles from their new southern masters and treated as completely subaltern is more than they can bear.

Derwent Church tower, uncovered during 1940s drought

Derwent Church tower, uncovered during 1940s drought

Not only are the valley-dwellers forced to come to terms with the fact that power – rather than courtesy – rules the country, but they also see how money rules the world, as when the news arrives that “the Water Board is now selling the Hall to a wealthy American [who] is planning to have it taken down, stone by stone, and to rebuild it elsewhere” (142). Once again, their land is at the mercy of those who have no moral claim to it and, once again, they have to learn how unimportant they are considered in modern society, where “someone with money can just pluck [their way of life] away, just like that, like it was a rosy apple on a tree” (143).

After all, this is a world painted without the concept of good faith, ethics or respectability; the “measuring instruments” (53) the Water Board favour work in units of land area and money, and numbers fly around them “like bubbles in the air, filmy and brilliant, incomprehensible […] in a bubble storm of noughts” (320). Pride is important too, of course, because this valley will be home to “the biggest earth dam in the British Isles”, a “great achievement. A masterpiece […] a symbol of rebirth” (94) and of British arrogance. Behind the propaganda, though, the war may be over but the devastation continues: another “great trench” is forged “like a massive quarry from one end of the valley to the other [and that] reached right into the centre of the earth” (165).

I have to say, it is this aspect of the plot – the fate of the valley and the changing definitions of land ownership – that interests me most and that makes the novel stand out. In contrast, the parts involving characters’ relationships to each other are believable and relatable, but not ground-breaking in their originality. The blind Seth, who becomes Madeleine’s closest friend and confidant, is the most striking persona for me, becoming the valley’s prophet Tiresias. This novel therefore deserves 3/5 stars.

Derwent Church tower, visible above the water line until it was demolished in 1947 to prevent people swimming out to it.

Derwent Church tower, visible above water until demolished in 1947 to prevent people swimming out to it.

However, possibly the saddest thing of all is something I haven’t yet mentioned: how quickly the feudal way of life is forgotten. Within two years everyone, in their brand new homes with electricity and indoor lavatories, is ready to admit that “it just feels as if the lake was always here” (339). Witness the unceremonious death of the past, and the murderers who got away with it, the novel seems to sigh.

Next time I’ll be reading Alan Garner’s Thursbitch for Cheshire. I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty awesome!

 

DOHERTY, Berlie. Deep Secret. London: Andersen Press, 2010.

Featured Image: Derwent Church and graveyard, derwent Village uncovered in 1995.

http://www.sheffieldhistory.co.uk/forums/index.php/topic/9822-derwent-village/

The Story So Far…

Already, I seem to have talked endlessly about the importance of the theme of belonging in the modern English novel; in almost all 9 books I’ve read so far, the writers have depicted characters who struggle to define their place in society – who feel unwanted or ‘different’, who are literally homeless, who are ostracised or discriminated against or who simply fail to fit into their surroundings, perhaps because they are newcomers to a particular place. In most cases, these characters’ lack of belonging leads to an inability to define one’s own identity, and a perpetual state of misery, loneliness and uncertainty as a result.

Maureen Lee's The September Girls

Maureen Lee’s The September Girls

Maureen Lee’s The September Girls takes up this mantle of belonging, but also shows another side to it. Her story focusses on the poverty-stricken Caffrey family, who migrate from Ireland to Liverpool, Merseyside, in the ‘20s, in the pursuit of greater things, only to find that the “grand, rich place” (4) they imagined has a great many problems of its own. Strangers in this new and foreign land, they are unwelcome, inferior and utterly worthless – or so residents of Liverpool would have them believe. Here we go again, I thought, another novel about strangers lost in an unfamiliar place which they eventually, in the final pages, learn to love. I didn’t exactly let out a yawn, but we have seen a large proportion of this Bildungsroman framework on our journey through 2000s England. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lee did not succumb to the usual formula.

Instead of the Caffreys getting down in the dumps about the occasional insults they receive from Liverpudlian locals – “get back to Ireland and take [your] filthy family with [you]” (9) – or pining overmuch for “the sun and the sky, the clouds and the green fields of Ireland” (40), they seem hardly to mind about their change of location. Their sense of belonging is not based, as with other characters we have come across, on their ability to fit in with the world around them, but on their place within the family itself – as long as they have each other, and “a proper house of their own” (3), their universe is complete. Thanks to this strength of identity and the security of the family unit, rarely is there an occasion when they feel lost or insecure about their situation.

In fact, it is the wealthy Marcus and Eleanor Allardyce – who have held a stable and respectable position in the city for generations – whose world comes crumbling down in the course of the novel. When they meet the Caffreys, their life of comfort and luxury is completely opened up; Marcus becomes a “Fish out of Water” (29), is out of place “in his own home” (157) and Eleanor explores “the narrow streets that were virtually on her doorstep, but where [she] had never walked before” (87). The city becomes a foreign environment to this couple more than it ever is to the Caffreys – the classic Bildungsroman formula, in which the protagonists develop over time to fit into society, is unexpectedly turned on its head.

Liverpool Pier Head 1920, where the Caffreys arrived into from Ireland

Liverpool Pier Head 1920, where the Caffreys arrived into from Ireland

In addition, the context of Lee’s novel allows her to present this theme of belonging in a new and particularly interesting way; the bulk of the novel is set during the course of WW2, in which two of the three Caffrey youngsters take part in horrors abroad while the rest of the family struggles to cope with air raids and strict rationing on the Home Front. In a time in which everyone is fearfully aware of their own mortality, surrounded by individuals who have lost limbs, loved ones and homes, and in which streets and whole city landscapes are being blown apart and nothing is recognisable, everyone’s sense of belonging is in jeopardy, not just that of the new Irish family on the corner, who slip into the melee rather than continue to stand out as foreigners. Things that have previously been taken for granted, like having “four pairs of perfectly good legs” (8) in the family, are called into question in wartime. Freud’s concept of the Uncanny instantly springs to mind, in which something – such as a mutilated human body or a bombed-out row of houses – can be familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time, generating a feeling of intense psychological discomfort due to the confusion between attraction and repulsion.

Another great thing about the novel is the war-related satire. I do love a good bit of satire. In particular, Lee completely undermines the concept of patriotism – as many writers did in the war poetry I’m sure we all must have read at school – which is particularly interesting for me in this journey to pin down an as yet mythical sense of English national identity. The character of Peggy exemplifies this in the line “I thought I was being patriotic [by signing up], but now it seems more like downright foolishness” (228). During wartime of course, people are judged repeatedly on their level of patriotism – labelled cowards or heroes depending on their willingness to fight for their country – when, really, the whole thing becomes a lot of nonsense. The romanticised image of England being all green pastures or bright lights can no longer exist in the imagination to motivate troops abroad, for it no longer exists in reality: hardly any of it is “left standing” (416) by the end of the war. In theory, with the city destroyed, the only characters who should be able to survive in spirit are the Caffreys, whose sense of belonging and identity is founded only on their relationships. Read it for yourself to find out what does happen..!

Cook Street, May 1941, the 'Liverpool Blitz'

Cook Street, May 1941, the ‘Liverpool Blitz’

Overall, I found Maureen Lee’s novel a breath of fresh air. Not only is it set in a period I haven’t yet read about on this challenge, but it is also clearly an important period, in the author’s mind, in the development of Liverpool into what the city represents today. The story was varied and interesting and it is an enjoyable read. Perhaps unfortunately for Lee, I have read very many fantastic World War novels, which makes me all the more aware that this is not as mind-blowingly emotional or symbolic or engaging as some. In fact, I found its length had a detrimental effect on its characterisation, which was revealed as quite static and two-dimensional in the case of the Caffrey family members. However, I’m having to exaggerate the issue just to describe what I found to be minor frustrations – I still rate the novel as a good read at 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth, which I’m really looking forward to. Have you read it? Let me know what you think!

LEE, Maureen. The September Girls. London: Orion, 2005.

Featured Image: The devastated Liverpool docks after the May Blitz of 1941.

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