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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.

margaret kennedy

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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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stoneangel

The librarything Virago group have chosen to read Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence during June, giving me the excuse I needed to try a writer of whom I had heard rather good things.

The Stone Angel is the first books in Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka novels – though my understanding is that place is the only real link, and that each novel stands alone. I also have A Jest of God the second Manawaka novel sitting on my tbr – and I am now really looking forward to it. Oh I do love discovering a new author.

In this beautifully written 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.

“Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young.”

Living with her son Marvin and his wife Doris, Hagar is sick, irascible and worried she is about to be shipped off to a care home. Hargar’s voice is wonderfully strong, she has lived a long life, there is a sense that her life has not been happy. She is sharp tongued, a difficult woman, devoid of warmth – she doesn’t give her son or daughter-in-law any credit.

“I can’t change what’s happened to me in my life, or make what’s not occurred take place. But I can’t say I like it, or accept it, or believe it’s for the best. I don’t and never shall, not even if I’m damned for it.”

Born in the small rural community of Manawaka, during another century, Hagar was the daughter of a successful Scottish store-owner. The apple they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree – and her father Jason Currie was a difficult man, an unforgiving, harsh disciplinarian. There are two brothers, and Aunt Doll – the widow hired to help look after Jason’s motherless children. The surrounding community – like communities everywhere I suppose had its snobberies and pretensions, one of Hagar’s school fellows despised because of the sins of her mother. Hagar marries a man her father least wants her too – Bram Shipley is older, a widower with grown up daughters. Hagar’s father is furious, incapable of forgiving, he never sees Hagar again, never meeting her sons Marvin and John.

Initially Hagar had felt very attracted to Bram, yet she barely knew him, and very soon that attraction gives way to a very unhappy marriage. Hagar is embarrassed by her husband; his country ways shame her.

“And yet – here’s the joker in the pack – we’d each married for those qualities we later found we couldn’t bear, he for my manners and speech, I for his flaunting of them.”

Bram was a bit of a half-hearted farmer – and money is tight. Hagar was reduced to selling eggs to other households – which she found fairly humiliating. Eventually, Hagar leaves Bram, taking her younger more favoured son John with her.

There are so many things the reader can take from this novel – but the thing that was most affecting for me was the fear and isolation that great age brings with it. Hagar has not been a particularly warm person, she’s failed to recognise the gratitude she owes her eldest son, whom she never appreciated or understood. After having made a reckless bid for freedom, which sees Hagar sleeping in an abandoned building and swapping confidences with another wanderer, Hagar finds herself in hospital. Here she battles her loss of independence, frailty and the nightly noises of the hospital around her.

“The room at night is deep and dark, like a coal-scuttle, and I’m lying like a lump at the bottom of it. I’ve been wakened by the girl’s voice, and now I can’t get back to sleep again. How I hate the sound of a person crying. She moans, snuffles wetly, moans again. She won’t stop. She’ll go on all night like this, more than likely. It’s insufferable.”

Hagar Shipley isn’t a particularly likeable character – but Margaret Laurence portrays her in such a way that she is – in a way – a kind of everywoman. Flawed, grumpy and frightened, she has behaved badly (and I think she knows that deep down) but her anxiety comes from a real place – who of us doesn’t fear a loss of independence, having others make decisions for us? Margaret Laurence allows Hagar to be sympathetic – when actually she is frequently rather monstrous – but I liked her – and I bet other readers do too.

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mrs eckdorf at oneills

When William Trevor died in 2016 I was reminded that I really hadn’t read enough of his novels. On a trip to Waterstone’s a few months ago I noticed a range of William Trevor novels from penguin – I liked the simple black and white images on the covers – but it was the title Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel that really spoke to me. Novels set in hotels are great. The truth is I should have liked this novel more than I did (I didn’t hate it or anything – I just didn’t love it and felt I should have). Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel was short-listed for the 1970 Booker prize – and despite feeling distinctly underwhelmed I have to admit that something of the mood of the novel has really stayed with me. There is a lot to admire in this beautifully written novel – so perhaps I was simply in the wrong frame of mind.

We first meet the annoyingly intrusive Mrs Eckdorf on board a plane on her way to Dublin from Germany, as she recounts her life story to the man in the seat next to her. A twice married, middle-aged 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.

“In the pillared hall of the hotel, with its balding maroon carpet that extended up the stairs, eight chairs echoed a grandeur that once had been. They were tall, like thrones, their gilt so faded and worn that it looked in places like old yellow paint, their once-elegant velvet stained with droppings from glasses of alcohol. Behind the row of chairs prone on the carpet lay a man into whose rump O’Shea’s boot was now driven with force. His eyes watched as the shrimpish form of his enemy Morrissey moved swiftly, without speech, across the hall and out of the hotel. O’Shea continued on his way to the kitchen, his greyhound loping behind him. Agnes Quinn and her companion came down the stairs. Early morning in this house wasn’t ever much different.”

O’Neill’s hotel has certainly seen better days, owned by 91-year-old Mrs Sinnott, a collector of orphans, a deaf-mute woman who prefers to communicate with the aid of a notebook. Everyone speaks to Mrs Sinnott through her notebooks, the notebooks piled up on a table near the chair she sits in by the window. Every conversation is recorded, all that the people in her life can’t or won’t say out loud is written down. Now the hotel is home to a collection of misfits and degenerates – ‘run’ after a fashion by Mrs Sinnott’s drunken, gambling son Eugene – a dreamer, allowing the hotel to slip further into ruin and disgrace.

Mrs Eckdorf turns up, she has already begun to tell herself the story of this hotel. O’Neill’s is not used to receiving ordinary customers, so Mrs Eckdorf turning up and asking for her luggage to be collected from another hotel so she can stay – causes some mild surprise. There is O’Shea, the porter followed everywhere by his greyhound, trying his best to hold it altogether, Morrissey a pimp who hires rooms at the hotel for his girls and Agnes Quinn one of the prostitutes who once longed to be a nun.

In other parts of the city we meet Enid Gregan; Mrs Sinnott’s downtrodden unloved daughter and Philomena; Eugene’s former wife and their son Timothy John. Mrs Eckdorff tracks down these people too – not content with the inhabitant of merely the hotel – she senses a story – and she is keen to find it. Enid’s husband has managed to leach every bit of potential joy from Enid’s life. An insurance man, trying his best never to have to pay a claim he is currently most interested in the growing of his tomatoes, seeing great potential in them.

“He had bought a small plot of ground a few miles from where they lived and he had just erected on it two glass-houses in which he proposed to cultivate tomatoes for profit. He had come back one evening and asked her if she’d ever noticed tomatoes in the shops. ‘A full chip when you go by in the morning,’ he’d said, ‘and an empty one when you come home at night.’ The plot of land had been paid for out of capital left to her by her father, as had the shed he had built in the garden and the concreting in the yard. Earlier in her marriage to Mr Gregan she had once or twice protested at his way of appropriating her money, but he had pointed out that it was essential to invest money in a sensible manner rather than to purchase clothes with it, or household luxuries that would wear out quickly. He had a way of speaking about such matters over a period of several weeks, making his point after tea every evening when they sat down by the fire.”

Timothy John works for Mr Gregan, it is interesting work but he is hasn’t quite Mr Gregan’s ability of quickly dispensing with insurance claims with a few well-chosen barbs. currently Timothy John’s biggest concerns involve a bad molar – and the necessary resulting trip to the dentist, and talking once more to Daisy Tulip.

“She was beautiful, he had thought, and ever since he had been thinking the same. The work he did, the people he saw, his uncle’s reproaches and his mother’s little face made little sense now when he thought about her. There was a passion in him that made even his fear of speaking to her again seem strangely slight. Her name is Daisy Tulip, he had written. He laughed to think of it, a name like that, a made-up name that suited her.”

Back at O’Neill’s as preparations for Mrs Sinnott’s 92nd birthday get underway, we begin to see Mrs Eckdorf’s own unravelling. What is it that turned a once plush hotel into a house of ill-repute? Ivy Eckdorf is determined to get at the story – she worms her way into the lives of these sadly bemused people. In unravelling the secrets of O’Neill’s, Mrs Eckdorf shows us her own vulnerabilities.

William Trevor’s writing is beautiful, Trevor’s characters are explored so well – the communities depicted are faithfully drawn and yet I didn’t always feel a connection between them.

william trevor

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family and friends

I am a little behind with reviews but as I have just started reading a biggish book, that might be as well I like to have something left to write about here. Still although it’s only been about eight days it seems ages since I read this Brookner novel.

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.

“At the wedding they will dance, husbands with wives, fathers with daughters. Under watchful gazes the young people will flirt, amazed that no one is stopping them. The music will become slower, sweeter, as the evening wears on. The children will be flushed, glassy-eyed with tiredness, their beauty extraordinary, as if it were painted. On the gilt chairs the elders will sit and talk. Reflecting on the following day, Sofka will judge the event a success.”

The family live in Bryanston Square, London, Frederick at only twenty-one is at the helm of the family business started by Sofka’s late husband. Alfred is just sixteen, but expected upon leaving school to enter into the business, learn it all from Frederick and the faithful Lautner who has been there since the beginning and without whom the firm wouldn’t be as successful. Mireille and Babette (Mimi and Betty) are the pretty daughters, whose job it is to flirt while the boys go out and conquer. However, Frederick already has itchy feet – eager to escape the confines of the business and leave it in the hands of his little brother. Frederick meets Eva, of whom Sofka is immediately suspicious – rightly so as it turns out, for it isn’t long before Evie (as she prefers to be called) has spirited Frederick away to Italy to help run a family hotel. Alfred, much to his frustration is left to run the business, any hope of freedom slipping daily away. His adult life (still only sixteen) starts as it will continue, living with his mother and sisters, spending his days at the family business, which he discusses with Lautner each Sunday evening in Sofka’s drawing room where she serves her famous marzipan cake.

“If anyone had ever bothered to tell her, Betty would know that she bears a marked resemblance to Colette, that redoubtable French writer of whom Betty has never heard… At fifteen she is already the accomplished flirt that her mother has always thought she wanted her to be. Plump and petite like Sofka, with the same small hands and feet, Betty has a guttersnipe charm.”

The two sisters are quite different, Betty, reckless and wild, she longs to run away to join the Folies-Bergères. Mimi, the elder of the two is milder, dreamy and beautiful. Once a week Betty accompanies her sister to her piano lesson with Mr Cariani, here they meet Mr Cariani’s son Frank, a darkly handsome, lithe dance instructor. Betty does run away – to Paris where she intends to get a job dancing, having arranged to meet up with Frank Cariani. Sofka is furious and sends Mimi and Alfred to Paris after her. Alfred’s seventeenth birthday passes while he sits miserable and forgotten in a city he doesn’t want to be in. Believing she has everything in hand Mimi sends an unhappy Alfred home on an earlier train, while she meets up with Betty, finding her in a pavement café just as Frank arrives. Mimi who was always the sister Frank preferred, expects to win him back. She sits all night by the window in her hotel room waiting, and Frank never arrives to win her, the devastation she feels seems to set the course for the rest of her life.

Betty never does return home, swapping Frank for Max, and Paris for California. With Frederick and Evie in Italy, Mimi and Alfred remain with Sofka. There are letters and phone calls from Frederick and Betty – but the life of Sofka’s house continues without them. As always in life, the years pass by with almost unbelievable speed – and as they do Alfred’s disappointment and resentment grows. In his hands, the business goes from strength to strength, and in time he buys a country house; Wren House – where the family go at weekends. Times have changed since that first photograph was taken and family relations have fractured. A war has come and gone, barely mentioned by Brookner, although Sofka understood the dangerous times when a woman she knew vaguely once, appears at the door selling lace. It’s a delicately revealing passage – the reader understands that Sofka and her old acquaintance are Jewish.

“Of the past, by common consent, they do not speak. It is too dangerous, too painful. Collapses might take place, youthful hopes might be remembered, wave after wave of reminiscence might be activated, and the woman gives Sofka to understand that nothing now must be cherished; only a dry appraisal of the possible is to be allowed. At last, and fearfully, Sofka enquires, ‘Your children?’ For the first time the woman relaxes, and smiles. ‘Safe,’ she says. ‘Here.’”

As ever, Brookner’s characters drive the novel, the plot is simple enough, but – again as ever – her sense of place is superb, I always enjoy her descriptions. An introspective little novel, with little dialogue, it is a quietly evocative portrait of a family.

AnitaBrookner2

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With thanks to Persephone books for the review copy

This will almost certainly be on my books of the year list – a book I couldn’t stop reading but didn’t want to finish. It’s hard to convey in a review just how lovely this book is, you may just need to read it. There is something about Gwethalyn Graham’s story-telling, the way in which she creates relationships, the emotional and upsetting nature of the divisions that she portrays which makes this novel so compelling.

I hadn’t heard of Gwethalyn Graham before Persephone re-issued this novel, a Canadian writer who published one other earlier novel before this. Earth and High Heaven was an enormous success remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-eight weeks. First published in 1944 – those first readers could not have known whether the happy ending that is implicit in the novel’s opening sentence would be replicated for the allies.

Gwethalyn Graham explores the divisions and deeply entrenched prejudices which existed in Canadian society, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser who meet and fall in love. Set in Montreal during World War Two – Graham shows us how society was divided into three distinct groups.

“Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.”

When they meet, Erica is twenty-eight, a journalist on the society pages of the Montreal Post, Marc is a few years older, waiting for his call up overseas, he is a lawyer, originally from a small town in Ontario. Erica’s father is the President of an import company started by his great grandfather, the Drakes holding a prominent position in the English Canadian society which has so little to do with the French Canadian and Jewish communities who live side by side. Marc’s father had emigrated to Canada from Austria with his wife and Marc’s older brother, he owns a planning mill in Manchester Ontario, while Marc’s brother is a doctor to remote mining communities.

At a cocktail party held in the Drake home, Marc Reiser is brought somewhat unwillingly along by René de Sevigny, a French-Canadian friend, and brother to Erica’s brother’s wife. Marc and Erica meet and are instantly drawn to each other – it’s that love at first sight kind of thing that Disney so love to portray. Erica has led a life of unthinking privilege, so when presented with the everyday prejudices that Marc encounters as a Jewish man in Canadian society, the scales fall from her eyes, and she is horrified. When she tries to introduce Marc to her father; Charles (who spends most of the party hiding in his study) she is appalled when Charles walks straight past him without so much as giving Marc eye contact. How could she have got it so wrong?

Erica is an innocent in the ways of the society in which she lives, she herself is incapable of disliking someone simply because they happen to be Jewish – and so discovering this attitude exists within the very walls of her home she is devastated. However, due to her upbringing, Erica soon recognises that she too is guilty of inherent racism, although in loving Marc and recognising how her attitudes have been shaped by her upbringing she is already more enlightened.

Erica is one of three siblings, her father is known to be rather difficult and set in his ways, but Erica and he have always enjoyed a special understanding. Erica is acknowledged by everyone to be Charles’s favourite – she brings the best out in him. So, when she is brought face to face with her father’s prejudice it is a bitter and devastating blow. Charles had raged and stomped when his son married a French-Canadian woman, but now he is very fond of her, and Charles has become his daughter-in-law’s favourite member of the family. Erica tells herself that he will come around, if only he would meet Marc – and see what he is really like. Charles can be cruel – taking every opportunity he can to tell anti-Semitic stories – calling Marc a ‘cheap Jewish lawyer.’

‘I don’t want my daughter to go through life neither flesh, fowl, nor good red herring, living in a kind of no man’s land where half the people you know will never accept him, and half the people he knows will never accept you. I don’t want a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives. I don’t want a son-in-law whom I’ll have to apologize for, and explain, and have to hear insulted indirectly unless I can remember to warn people off first.’

Erica’s younger sister Miriam comes home from England, although only twenty-four she has a failed marriage behind her, and two other men vying for her attentions. Miriam takes Erica’s side, she meets Marc and likes him immediately. Miriam understands the problems with their parents in a way that Erica seems unable to. She loves her sister, the one sibling never to cause their parents a moments concern, but now sees there may be no way back for them all. Erica continues to see Marc against her parent’s wishes, Marc tries to make Erica aware of the difficulties they will face, tries to get her to see that marriage between them is impossible. Erica is worn down by the pressure and stress, the barrage of Charles’s vitriol against the man she loves. She loses weight, is visibly changed, but hangs on grimly nevertheless, her belief in Marc, and the possibility of a future together is unwavering.

This is a surprisingly emotional read, and I defy anyone not to rush through it – desperate to see if the happy ending implied in that first sentence comes true. Erica is the driving force of the novel, a wonderfully sympathetic character through whose eyes we see the divisions within a society.

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I feel as if this is a book everyone has read – that in itself makes me nervous – reviewing a book that is so loved, so iconic and so well-known. I feel as if I don’t need to write a long re-hash of the plot – though in the unlikely event that there is someone who hasn’t read this book I will attempt to give a spoiler free taste of it.

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale somewhere between 1987 and the early 1990s. My Virago edition dates from 1987, and I feel like I have always had this book in my possession – and hard though it might be to believe, I didn’t have an absurd tbr back then, so it stands to reason I would have read it around the time I bought it. I had wanted to re-read it for a while, so when my very small book group chose to read it, I was delighted. Certain books stay with us– on some level at least, no matter how many books come after. When I read The Handmaid’s Tale all those years ago I was quite young, and the story horrified and haunted me – I loved the novel and was devastated by it at the same time. Dystopian fiction worried me, I was at an impressionable age during those latter years of Thatcher’s Britain. A few years earlier when I was still at school I had had a similar reaction to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (I left school in 1984 aged sixteen, I had read the book in the early 80s and convinced myself it would all come true). This time I flew through the novel in two days, breathless with admiration, it really is the most astonishingly brilliant, and deeply affecting novel – and still feels frighteningly relevant.

Margaret Atwood takes us to a terrifying, near future, the former United States, now called Gilead, a war is being fought, disease and pollution has had a drastic effect on fertility. The entire government have been assassinated and replaced by a new social order, a totalitarian theocracy intent on ensuring the continuation of the population. Atwood’s depiction of this society – with its rules and punishments is absolutely breath-taking, it reads as a warning. A strongly feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale explores the subjugation of women in an unforgettable way.

“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”

Offred is our narrator a thirty-three-year-old woman, forced to live as a handmaiden in the home of a high-ranking commander and his wife – her task; – taken from a literal interpretation of the Old Testament – is to breed for them. Offred (literally of-Fred, the commander’s first name is Fred) having found to be fertile, having had a child in the time before – was forcibly taken to the Red Centre, where she was prepared and instructed in the ways of her new life, that of a handmaid. Here she meets Moira – a friend from the time before.

“The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil”

In flashback, we get a glimpse of the time before – Offred as she is now called -knows her former name to be forbidden. She had a partner – Luke, a daughter, friends, had enjoyed a college education a job, a good life. Flight across the border to Canada was attempted and violently stopped. There is the sense of life continuing perhaps fairly normally in the outside world.

the handmaid's taleThe society of Gilead is a strictly hierarchical one, all women are categorised – having a set role they must live by. The Aunts control the handmaids, the Marthas work as household servants, wives naturally enough are the women who enjoy the greatest social standing, while Econowives are married to lower ranking men, and do not enjoy the prestige of the wives, jezebels are those women forced to work as prostitutes while unwomen are those who are sterile, widows, gay or have been politically resistant to the new order. All handmaids are placed in a commander’s home for two years, if they fail (always their fault) they will be moved to another household – their name changing with each placement. Infertility is high, but the handmaids must conceive – and bring a healthy child into the world, these are rare enough events, but each handmaid is desperate to be successful. Too many failures will mean banishment to the colonies – toxic waste, near starvation and certain death. Sex is conducted within ‘the ceremony’ an act of hideous humiliation for both handmaid and wife (shudder!).

Women’s lives in this society are strictly controlled – they are no longer permitted to own property, have money, read, vote, make any decisions for themselves. The time before is rarely referred to, and in this new society women are pitted against each other. Econowives and Marthas dislike the handmaids seeing them as sluts – and the handmaids have little chance of forming friendships – as the Eyes are everywhere and the punishments for straying outside the rules frightening indeed.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot – so many people seem to be reading this classic novel at the moment. Then of course there is the new TV series – in which Margaret Atwood makes a cameo appearance, and is one of the producers. I made a remark on Twitter about Offred’s before name being revealed in the first episode – and Margaret Atwood herself replied – oops – apparently this was implied in the book and I missed it (oops) and this name was chosen by readers. I hadn’t known that obviously. So, who feels silly now? I do. Anyway, my book group friends and I are going to have so much to talk about – I can’t wait.

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