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Ajest of god

My final read of June was my second Margaret Laurence novel of the month – A Jest of God, which is the second novel in her famous Manawaka sequence of novels. The novel takes place during a couple of months of one summer, exploring loneliness, desire and disappointment.

“I may become, in time, slightly more eccentric all the time. I may begin to wear outlandish hats, feathered and sequinned and rosetted, and dangling necklaces made from coy and tiny seashells which I’ve gathered myself along the beach and painted coral-pink with nail polish. And all the kids will laugh, and I’ll laugh, too, in time. I will be light and straight as any feather. The wind will bear me, and I will drift and settle, and drift and settle. Anything may happen, where I’m going.”

Rachel Cameron is a shy, thirty-four-year-old school teacher, leading a life of stifling conventionality in the small Canadian town she grew up in. Years before she had made a brief escape to attend college, but returned to live with and care for her mother following her father’s death. They live in the flat above the funeral directors that her father had once owned. Mrs Cameron (like Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel) is a wonderfully drawn character, a coyly manipulative terror she is overbearing and demanding. Rachel’s older sister Stacey escaped – married now, living in the city with four children, she very rarely visits.

Each year, Rachel silently directs her love toward one of the pupils in her class of seven-year olds (as the novel opens it is young James) although she goes to very great lengths to make sure no one guesses. Rachel is in part surprised to find herself teaching in the school where she was once a child – there is a definite feeling that she has not had the opportunity to move her life forward, stuck still in the landscape of her childhood.

“I remember myself skipping rope to that song when I was about the age of the little girls out there now. Twenty-seven years ago, which seems impossible, and myself seven, but the same brown brick building, only a new wing added and the place smartened up. It would certainly have surprised me then to know I’d end up here…”

Rachel’s one friend in the town, is Calla; a kind hearted fellow teacher who dresses oddly, calls Rachel child, and is a member of the Tabernacle church where worshippers have recently begun speaking in tongues. Calla exacts a promise from Rachel to attend a future meeting with her, and Rachel is torn between the knowledge of how excruciating she will find it – and not wanting to hurt Calla’s feelings. The evening, when it finally happens is even worse than Rachel had anticipated, affecting her powerfully and emotionally in a way she finds acutely embarrassing.

Rachel has a powerful inner life – she is sharp, intelligent and an astute observer of those around her, the children, the school principle, Calla and her mother.

“Nothing is clear now. Something must be the matter with my way of viewing things. I have no middle view. Either I fix on a detail and see it as though it were magnified – a leaf with all its veins perceived, the fine hairs on a man’s hands – or else the world recedes and becomes blurred, artificial, indefinite, an abstract painting of a world. The darkening sky is hugely blue, gashed with rose, blood, flame from the volcano or wound or flower of the lowering sun. The wavering green, the sea of grass, piercingly bright. Black tree trunks, contorted, arching over the river.”

There are moments when she isn’t as kind as he would like to be, dimly aware of being unkind toward Calla’s friendliness, she then feels guilty for her sharpness. However, Rachel is also vulnerable, caught still in the life of her childhood, ministering to her mother and living a life of quiet, conventionality. Deep down, Rachel harbours more than a little resentment for the life she is leading, making sandwiches and serving coffee at her mother’s bridge parties, accompanying her mother to church – where she would in fact rather not go at all. Inside, Rachel isn’t quite the quiet, dutiful small town spinster school teacher that she appears.

As Rachel says goodbye to her class of children for the summer holidays, another former child of the town returns. Nick Kazlik; the son of the town’s Ukrainian milkman, returns for the summer. Nick is a high school teacher in the city, to where he will soon return. The two embark upon a passionate relationship. Nick’s attitude to their relationship is much more casual than Rachel’s. Rachel is more like a gauche young school girl than a woman in her thirties – unpractised in the ways of love and sex. Nick visits the scenes of his childhood and adolescence with Rachel, haunted a little by the memory of his twin brother who died several years earlier. As Rachel grows in sexual confidence, she becomes more reliant on Nick, worrying when he doesn’t ring for several days, even imaging a future for the two of them.

A Jest of God is beautifully written, a sympathetic, tender novel which sees Rachel come to a new understanding about herself, and her standing with her difficult mother. A thoroughly beautiful novel, Margaret Laurence is someone I shall be reading much more of.

I have The Diviners tbr – which I believe is the fourth or fifth novel in the Manawaka sequence – though I assume it doesn’t matter in which order they are read.

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June saw me returning to work after four weeks off sick during May, this is certainly reflected in the amount of reading I have done, I have been so tired! Anyway, I completed eight books, and although I have started another, my tiredness the last two days has meant I haven’t been able to get very far with it. I am indulging in a very lazy weekend – hoping to get quite a bit of reading done.

I rarely post anything personal – in fact I am a little nervous of doing so – but I just wanted to mention that this week I was finally diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I don’t want to make a big thing about it – other people are living with far worse things – but it is changing some of the things I do. The diagnosis wasn’t unexpected – I knew that was the most likely explanation for my symptoms and at least now I have begun treatment. Like with many conditions I suppose I can expect good days and bad, and so this may be reflected in the amount I post here and the regularity of those posts. I try to post twice a week or more – and intend to stick to that as much as I can, but if I go a little quieter – or my reviews seem shorter – it might just be because I have had a bad week. The majority of my energy must naturally go into my job.

Ok, back to books. I started June in the company of Anita Brookner – and I enjoyed it enormously. I have often said how I couldn’t read several Brookner novels in a row, but I really shouldn’t leave it so long next time. Family and Friends opens with a wedding photograph, a group of family and friends in the 1920s, Sophia Dorn – always called by the diminutive Sofka – her eldest son; Frederick, the pride and joy, her daughters; Mimi and Betty all in white, while Alfred the youngest and favourite sat crossed legged at the front with assorted other children. This wedding photo and the ones which follow later in the novel form a frame for telling the stories of these family members and their hangers on. The final photograph coming on the last page – it is the last one in the album we are told by the unnamed narrator.

Photography featured in my second read of June, and was the only one which slightly underwhelmed me – and I’m still not sure why. Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neills Hotel by William Trevor was short listed for the Booker prize in 1970, and tells the story of the inhabitants of the eponymous hotel, which are gradually revealed by the interfering Ivy Eckdorf, a photographer. Ivy Eckdorf is a producer of large coffee table books – in which she has explored the desperate lives of communities in a variety of locations around the world. She had heard about O’Neill’s Hotel in Dublin from a barman – he had described the inhabitants, the hotel’s faded glories, and it had fired her imagination.

The Virago group on Librarything chose Canadian author Margaret Laurence for June, and The Stone Angel was one of two Laurence books I read in June (and I have bought a third). Oh, what joy to discover a new author. The Stone Angel is a simply wonderful novel, Margaret Laurence explores the life of one woman, Hagar Shipley, moving back and forth through different periods of her life. As the novel opens we get a snapshot of Hagar’s childhood, as aged ninety Hagar begins to reflect on her past.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – has certainly divided opinion since it was published. I’m not going to pretend it is an easy read, I can understand people getting lost in the middle – but even those complicated political bits fascinated me. I loved it – and the characters have stayed with me since I finished it. It starts with Anjum – born Aftab – part of Old Delhi’s Hijra community – a community which has existed since long before the more accepted term of transgender came into use. Born with both male and female genitalia, Anjum leaves her family and finds a home of sorts with the Hijra community. She longs for motherhood, her desire driving everything she does. Later Anjum takes up residence in a graveyard, where surrounded by the dead she builds a makeshift shelter – which over time becomes the Jannat Guest house – home to other waifs and strays. Anjum is a fabulous character.

I was a bit late posting for Margaret Kennedy day but I really enjoyed The Forgotten Smile. The Forgotten Smile is a later Margaret Kennedy novel – one offering the reader a wonderful escape to another world. The majority of the novel takes place on Keritha, a tiny Greek Island, largely forgotten by the rest of the world. A place of Pagan mysticism and legend, where the cruise ships don’t stop and aren’t really welcome. It’s a place out of step with the modern world and is perfect for an escape.

The Devastating Boys by Elizabeth Taylor is possibly her best collection of short stories, each of the eleven stories is quite perfect. On of things that Elizabeth Taylor can do in her short stories is to have her characters step fully formed from the pages, and the reader is immediately involved in their lives. These stories take place both at home and abroad, and concern a variety of types. We have remembrances of childhood holidays and the infatuations they bring. Loneliness and humour sit side by side throughout this delicious collection.

I do love an Agatha Christie – whether it is a re-read or one I haven’t read before (there are some), I always enjoy settling in with one. The Clocks is one I couldn’t remember if I had read or not, firmly rooted in the 1960s Poirot who only makes a couple of brief appearances is really getting on a bit.

My last book of June was my second Margaret Laurence novel, A Jest of God – a review next week – but it was another big hit with me.

I have now started read A Lady and her Husband by Amber Reeves a lovely Persephone book, I have read about 100 pages so far and I love it.

I don’t have many plans for July – other than Save me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald which was chosen by my very small book group, I am looking forward to that. The Librarything Virago group has chosen Rumer Godden for July – a fantastic choice and I have a couple waiting to read – so shall almost certainly join in with that.

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What are your reading plans for July – read anything in June I need to know about? Let me know.

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I always come back to Agatha Christie – it’s a world I understand, everything makes sense because it all gets tidied up so neatly. I saw this novel mentioned somewhere else recently, and I realised I couldn’t remember if I had ever read it. I own a nice first edition, with tatty dustjacket but once the fragile wrapper had been removed I was happy to read it carefully.

First published in 1963, it does feature an ageing Poirot, although he rightly gets to do the best bit (the reveal) – Poirot features much less than in earlier mysteries. Although to be fair – he is getting on a bit by 1963 – so that seems fair enough.

“To every problem, there is a most simple solution.”

It seems like a perfectly ordinary day at The Cavendish secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in Crowdean; Edna has broken the heel off her shoe, and Sheila Webb is a little late back from lunch. Upon her return Sheila is called into Miss Martindale’s office – a request has been telephoned in, for Sheila to go to Wilbraham Crescent, number 19 and if there is no one in to let herself in and wait. Slightly puzzled at the request – for she can’t remember having worked for this client before – Sheila follows the instructions exactly. Sheila finds herself in the sitting room of number 19 Wilbraham Crescent, she is not alone, behind the sofa is the body of a man. Moments later, Miss Pebmarsh arrives home, a blind, braille teacher – who later claims to have never called The Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau. Aside from the presence of a dead body, the other notable addition to the room are four clocks – set to thirteen minutes past four.

As any self-respecting secretary would, Sheila rushes screaming from the house – straight into the arms of one Colin Lamb, a marine biologist come intelligence officer. We later learn that Colin is an old friend of Poirot’s (there is a suggestion that his father was one of the police Inspectors to benefit from the Belgian’s brilliance.) Colin was following a lead in one of his own cases, looking for a spy in hiding – when he happens upon an altogether different puzzle.

The police are soon on the scene, Detective Inspector Hardcastle in charge of what looks like a fiendishly difficult case. Hardcastle is a friend of Colin’s too – and quite happy to have him tag along as he interviews the neighbours – and attempts to identify the dead man. There are naturally, many questions. Did anyone see or hear anything? How did the body get into the house? What do the clocks mean? Why was Sheila asked for by name?

Colin quickly starts to feel very protective towards Sheila – who he feels Hardcastle is looking at suspiciously. The two are drawn to one another – and Hardcastle isn’t sure that he approves.

“I looked at her. Sheila was my girl–the girl I wanted–and wanted for keeps. But it wasn’t any use having illusions about her. Sheila was a liar and probably always would be a liar. It was her way of fighting for survival–the quick easy glib denial. It was a child’s weapon–and she’d probably never got out of using it. If I wanted Sheila, I must accept her as she was–be at hand to prop up the weak places. We’ve all got our weak places. Mine were different from Sheila’s, but they were there.”

Colin decides to pay a visit to his old friend Hercule Poirot. He remembers how Poirot once claimed that he could solve a crime, merely by sitting in his chair and giving the matter serious thought. Colin gives the details of the case to the old detective, hoping at the very least to relieve some of boredom he knows Poirot often feels. Poirot is happy to give the case his consideration, although he hasn’t been entirely idle – he has been making a detailed study of famous works of crime fiction. Having Poirot’s take on The Levenworth Case, The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Sherlock Holmes is great fun for those who like their vintage crime.

Another bookish joy I wanted to share with you is this description of a tiny cluttered bookshop.

“Inside, it was clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down. The distance between bookshelves was so narrow that you could only get along with great difficulty. There were piles of books perched on every shelf or table. On a stool in a corner, hemmed in by books, was an old man in a pork pie hat with a large flat face like a stuffed fish. He had the air of one who has given up an unequal struggle.”

Back in Crowdean and the inquest of the dead man is opened and adjourned, within hours of the inquest however, there is another violent death – leading to more questions. Inevitably, Hardcastle’s case and Colin’s hunt for a spy look like they may be connected, and eventually someone comes forward to identify the dead man.

I really don’t want to say any more about this story – which I think is really well plotted mystery, firmly rooted in the 1960s. The solution is clever, and one can sense Poirot’s old eyes twinkling as he reveals all – a minor point: the ending is perhaps a tiny bit rushed – overall though, of course I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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thedevaststingboys

I’m sure most of you know by now just how much I love Elizabeth Taylor – but I still haven’t read quite everything she wrote. I have been saving the last two volumes of short stories for quite a while – now there is only one left. The short story form, seems to have suited Elizabeth Taylor perfectly, and The Devastating Boys first published in 1972 I have seen described as her best. It is pretty much sheer perfection.

There are eleven stories in this collection – and they are all quite brilliant, though I am not going to write about each story separately – but attempt to give a flavour of the whole collection. On of things that Elizabeth Taylor can do in her short stories is to have her characters step fully formed from the pages, and the reader is immediately involved in their lives. These stories take place both at home and abroad, and concern a variety of types. We have remembrances of childhood holidays and the infatuations they bring. Loneliness and humour sit side by side throughout this delicious collection. In two of the stories there is certainly an acknowledgement of the changing face of Britain, as Elizabeth Taylor introduces us to some more diverse characters than we perhaps usually associate with her, in the title story and in Tall Boy. This later story tells the rather poignant story of Jasper; a young man, an immigrant not long arrived in England. I don’t want to say too much about that one as it could spoil it – but it is certainly one of my favourites in the collection.

“He imagined home having the same time as England. He would have felt quite lost to his loved ones if when he woke in the night, he could not be sure that they were lying in darkness too and, when his own London morning came, their also came, the sun streamed through the cracks of their hut in shanty-town, and the little girls began to chirp and skip about.” (Tall Boy)

The title story, the first one in the book, is an absolute delight, some of the language is a little old fashioned, though never offensive, it brings together two vastly different worlds. Laura and Harold are a fairly typical Taylor married couple, upper middle class, they live in a nice house within easy reach of a railway link to London, their daughters have grown up and left home. Harold came up with the idea of having disadvantaged London children to stay for a holiday. Having read of the scheme, Harold had volunteered himself and Laura (though it will be Laura who will have to entertain them) insisting that the children they take should be black. So, when summer comes, it is a nervous Laura who waits at the station for these two young London boys, Septimus Smith and Benny Reece.

“They stood on the platform, looking about them, holding their little cardboard cases.
‘My name is Laura,’ she said. She stooped and clasped them to her, and kissed their cheeks. Sep’s in particular, was extraordinarily soft, like the petal of a poppy. His big eyes stared up at her, without expression. He wore a dark long-trousered suit. So that he was all over sombre and unchildlike. Benny had a mock-suede coat with a nylon-fur collar and a trilby hat with a feather. They did not speak. Not only was she, Laura, strange to them, but they were strange to one another. There had only been a short train-journey in which to sum up their chances of becoming friends.” (The Devastating Boys)

Two weeks stretches out before them all, what will Laura do with these silent, large eyed small boys. Elizabeth Taylor writes these characters with such affection and without any of the patronising condescension that other writers of her class have been known to adopt when writing of the working classes. The Devastating Boys is a story I could read over and over – by the end – when the children must return to London – there is a definite feeling that Septimus and Benny will always be a part of Harold and Laura’s life.

In stories like Sisters – Elizabeth Taylor achieves quite a lot in just a few pages. Here we have Mrs Mason, a widow, she prides herself on her respectability. We quickly learn all we need to know, Mrs Mason is childless, attends coffee mornings in aid of worthy charities, plays bridge regularly, takes tea in a nearby tea-rooms. She is a respected figure in her English county town, and she shudders at the thought that her respectability could be threatened when a journalist appears asking questions about the sister that no one in the town knows anything about.

An annoyingly precocious child spends her summer holidays making daily visits to various houses in the story In and Out the Houses. At each house, she drops snippets of information about the other households she has visited that day. Small jealousies and pretensions are revealed, as Kitty Miller happily skips from house to house leaving tiny seeds of chaos in her wake.

Several stories take place abroad; the differences in a newly married couple becoming painfully apparent in Hôtel Du Commerce, the ending almost inevitable is nevertheless brilliant. Blowsy pub landlady Phyl; contemplates a fling while on holiday in a sunbathed Mediterranean resort, in the story Flesh. Even here, we meet a recognisable type of person, and as ever Taylor recreates them perfectly.

“For the sake of a tan, she was wasting her holiday – just to be a five minutes’ wonder in the bar on her return, the deepest brown any of them had that year.” (Flesh).

The one story which feels a bit like the odd one out (not to say it isn’t brilliant because it is) is The Fly Paper, which I have read before in another collection. It is a real spine chiller – reminding me a little of those Tales of the Unexpected that I used to watch with partial dread, occasionally, when I was in my teens. Sylvia is an eleven year old, travelling on a bus to her music lesson, it is a journey she makes regularly, but what happens to Sylvia on this particular Wednesday – really is the stuff of nightmares – and yet Taylor writes it with such exquisite subtlety.

The Devastating Boys is a truly superb collection, and one which demonstrates Elizabeth Taylor’s skill at revealing the truths within communities. Dangerous Calm is the final collection of Elizabeth Taylor stories I have to read, I want to have it to look forward to for a little while yet.

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theforgottensmile

Well I am sorry – I really had intended to get this review written and posted a little nearer to Margaret Kennedy day – but it appears to have been one of those weeks.

The Forgotten Smile is a later Margaret Kennedy novel – one offering the reader a wonderful escape to another world. The majority of the novel takes place on Keritha, a tiny Greek Island, largely forgotten by the rest of the world. A place of Pagan mysticism and legend, where the cruise ships don’t stop and aren’t really welcome. It’s a place out of step with the modern world and is perfect for an escape.

The title of the novel is explained thus:

“I believe that is why our ancestors, who never supposed themselves destined for felicity, have left so many memorials, in this part of the world, to human happiness and to the spectacle of men rejoicing. In the earliest sculpture they are smiling. It is this forgotten smile, sometimes called ‘mysterious’, which I have sometimes seen on Keritha. We have preserved it because, in the eyes of the world, for many centuries, there has been nothing of note to be sought on our island.”

The novel opens with an unexpected meeting between pompous Ancient Greek scholar Dr. Percival Challoner – and Selwyn Potter – one of his former students – on the Greek island of Thasos. Selwyn (by far my favourite character) is a man who is only dimly aware of his own inability to fit in, his waist line is too thick, his hair is too curly. At first, to Selwyn’s confusion, Dr Challoner doesn’t seem to remember his former student – this is a man who is pretty disparaging of everything. However, the two are destined to be thrown together, and Dr Challoner forced to remember Selwyn Potter, as he finds he needs his help. Dr Challoner has no interest in any field of study other than his own, to the extent that he can’t even speak modern Greek – just the ancient. Wanting to travel to the mysterious Keritha, where he has a legacy waiting for him in the form of a house which belonged to an uncle and aunt (whom he resented simply for their being younger than he – Dr Challoner dislikes such unconventional oddities) – he enlists Selwyn’s help as translator. The pair find themselves on a small boat for the trip to Keritha – which they share with crates of Coca-Cola and a goat.

“The boat was small. The cargo included several crates of Coca-Cola and a tempestuous Billy goat. At the sight and smell of this creature Dr Challoner would have cancelled the trip had he been able to retrieve his suitcase which were stowed away under the crates. Nobody listened to his protests. He was pushed aboard amidst a terrific altercation carrying on between the crew and some people on the quay. In the course of it they put out to sea but the volleys of invective between ship and shore went on as long as any shout would carry on across the water.
‘What was all that about?’ he asked as silence fell.
‘Just the time of day,’ said Selwyn. ‘Who’s dead, and who’s married. Also some important citizen has bought a refrigerator. You needn’t keep your feet tucked up like that. The goat won’t bite.’”

When they arrive on Keritha, Selwyn Potter is amazed to meet someone else he knows. Kate Benson, whose daughter Selwyn had known slightly years earlier – Selwyn is remembered for breaking a small table when he visited the Benson house. Kate, it transpires has been staying on Keritha for the last two years. From here the narrative jumps back a couple of years to reveal how it was that Kate Benson, wife and mother, ended up in such an unlikely place.

Kate a woman of around sixty, fed up with being under-appreciated and ignored by her adult children and her husband, Kate decides to take an Aegean cruise. She selects a cruise that doesn’t take the usual route, making stops in less well-known places, that are a little off the usual tourist track. The ship makes a stop at Keritha, where Kate runs into childhood friends; brother and sister Edith and Alfred Challoner (who in the present have died within months of each other). The Challoners; Kate learns, came home to the island of their birth years earlier. The Challoners had not had a happy time in England, never quite fitting in, they returned to a place where they felt they belonged, here Alfred is revered by the locals and called ‘Lord Freddie.’ With her childhood friends Kate finds a home a world away from the one she left – with all the family arguments that have recently so unsettled her.

Back in the present and with Edith and Alfred recently dead, Kate has stayed on in the house – at least temporarily with the mysterious Eugenia. She comes forward to meet Dr Challoner – the new Lord of the house – and is mildly irritated to meet Selwyn again. Kate is not the first person to overlook the poor, bumbling Selwyn, never wondering what it is that has brought a once brilliant scholar to life as a school-master.

“The more we love people the more we have to change when they die. If the dead could come back, those who loved them most would seem to them the most changed.”

In retrospect, we hear Selwyn’s story – as well as Kate’s – as the story of these people slip back and forth from past to present. Gradually the island works its magic on this group, casting each of them in a new light in the eyes of the others. Keritha shows those who need showing, that the world hasn’t quite finished with them yet – that perhaps there is a place for them back in the world.

The Forgotten Smile was such a lovely read for Margaret Kennedy day – perhaps one year I will actually post a review on the correct day.

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It is Margaret Kennedy day today – hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock

I quickly bought myself a copy of The Forgotten Smile – which is one of the titles re-issued by Vintage. It kept me wonderful company on Friday evening and on Saturday as I burnt myself in the garden. I finished it on Sunday afternoon – but I haven’t got around to starting my review yet – so it will pop up a few days late. Still I thoroughly enjoyed The Forgotten smile – the fifth Margaret Kennedy novel I have read and one of her later novels. In some ways, it is a slightly lighter novel than a couple of the others I have read, but it was a delight, a lovely escape from the here and now too as I was transported to a tiny Greek Island suffused with mystical legends.   IMG_20170617_120342_727

Margaret Kennedy was born in 1861, and became a very prolific writer – she adapted her second novel The Constant Nymph for the theatre, which was also made into a film. What I have only just discovered is that there is a sequel to The Constant Nymph, The Fool of the Family  – has anyone read it? There are some copies on ebay for around £13 – but unfortunately it isn’t one of the novels re-issued by Vintage – perhaps in time (*crosses fingers*).

So in honour of Margaret Kennedy day and because my review isn’t ready yet, here are some links to my previous Margaret Kennedy reviews. The books are each quite different – which I see as a really good thing – and each of these posts have been quite popular ones on my blog. The Constant Nymph is probably my favourite, although The Feast runs a close second.

So, in the order which I read and reviewed them:

The Constant Nymph
The Ladies of Lyndon
Troy Chimneys
The Feast

I am looking forward to seeing what other people have read for Margaret Kennedy day – and I am so glad I joined in and reminded myself what an excellent writer she is. As a reader, it is always exciting to know that there are lots more books by a particular writer to enjoy.

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ministryutmosthappiness

After a twenty year wait Booker prize winning author Arundhati Roy is back with her long anticipated new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. One of my birthday gifts last month was a ticket to see Arundhati Roy in conversation at Birmingham Town Hall, this beautiful limited signed edition was part of the ticket price. It was a fascinating evening, which really only gave us the merest idea of the novel as so much of the questioning and Roy’s answers were political. While some of it went a little over my head, I was fascinated by the complex politics that Roy discussed, and realised that my knowledge of modern Indian politics is very poor.

“Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labours and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the centre holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view.”

Among the reviews of this novel I have already seen, there is some criticism. Perhaps that is inevitable with such a long-awaited novel. Written in the most gorgeous prose The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is a novel of big ideas, and a large cast of characters, it has the complex political divisions which exist in India, at its core. It is both difficult to review, and endlessly quotable. (I don’t apologise for including so many quotes – they speak of this novel, far better than I can). Perhaps some readers got a little lost in those politics, I don’t know, but for me The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a remarkable novel – and I loved it. Roy tells the stories of Anjum, Tilo and Musa, an abandoned baby an intelligence officer and others against a background of seething, politics. The novel spans many years, moving between Delhi and Kashmir, changing viewpoint, moving back and forth across the decades. It is I suppose, the politics, the stories of huge injustice and harrowing conflict that Roy most wanted to portray in a novel she took around a decade to write, but it is the stories of her wonderful cast of characters that make the reader keep coming back for more.

“She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches. She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb. She gathered they weren’t altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited from the story.”

It starts with Anjum – born Aftab – part of Old Delhi’s Hijra community – a community which has existed since long before the more accepted term of transgender came into use. Born with both male and female genitalia, Anjum leaves her family and finds a home of sorts with the Hijra community. She longs for motherhood, her desire driving everything she does. Later Anjum takes up residence in a graveyard, where surrounded by the dead she builds a makeshift shelter – which over time becomes the Jannat Guest house – home to other waifs and strays.

At Jantar Mantar gather many groups, intent upon political protest of varying kinds. The grievances of each group are explained and I assume it is this kind of detail that some readers got a little bogged down by. Anjum and several of her friends join the throng. Dr Azad Bhartiya is another of the many people on the pavement during those protests – a hunger striker he’s always there – and he sees everything. TV cameras have arrived to report on the protests, taking up much of the valuable space allowed to the protesters. In the midst of all this chaos a newborn baby is left on the pavement under the stars. kashmir

“Down below, on the pavement, on the edge of Jantar Mantar, the old observatory where our baby made her appearance, it was fairly busy even at that time of the morning. Communists, seditionists, secessionists, revolutionaries, dreamers, idlers, crackheads, crackpots, all manner of freelancers, and wise men who couldn’t afford gifts for newborns, milled around. Over the last ten days they had been sidelined and driven off what had once been their territory – the only place in the city where they were allowed to gather by the newest show in town.”

The baby is claimed by Tilo – spirited away – with the help of Anjum and others. Tilo was an architecture student once, from a Christian community in Kerala, she is – at the moment she rescues that child – a woman separated from her husband, enduring a difficult, painful relationship with her dying mother, still connected to the Kashmiri conflict through her great love for Musa, who she first met as a student. The narrative takes us to different periods in Tilo and Musa’s relationship, theirs is a love story which survives conflict, marriage to other people and years of separation.

“The silence between them swelled and subsided like the bellows of an accordion playing a tune that only they could hear. He knew that she knew that he knew that she knew. That’s how it was between them.”

This is a novel about people who search for a place of safety. It’s a novel of great beauty, and brutal conflict. It is brilliantly complex, breath-taking in its scope and ultimately a very human novel, there are tears and laughter, love and hate. There are images that will stay with me for a long time, particularly those of the Jannat Guest House, and the people who live there, and a father, deep in a valley in Kashmir writing a letter to the memory of his little daughter – who had always insisted on being called Miss Jabeen.

Arundhatiroy

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