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Posts Tagged ‘Jeanette Winterson’

christmas-days

Well I must say that if you like a Christmassy read, then Christmas Days has got be one of the most Christmassy books around at the moment.

Twelve stories and twelve feasts for twelve days, it simply oozes Christmas spirit. The volume opens with ‘Christmas Tide’ an introductory essay by the author, ruminating on what Christmas is and where it, and all those traditions we take for granted come from.

The twelve stories which follow are a wonderful mixture, incorporating magic, love, ghosts and Christmas gatherings. There is snow, mistletoe, and mysterious spirits, a Christmas tree in a New York apartment, a haunted house a small silver frog and a SnowMama. There really is something for everyone in this collection. A recurring theme, perhaps unsurprisingly is that of abandonment, of unhappy children, a tiny child is found locked into a department store – another child returns to a cold dark house, her mother at work, unprepared for Christmas, then in a Dickensian style story of children in an orphanage we encounter sadness and cruelty, before the season of Christmas works its inevitable magic to set things right. Twelve stories are too many to talk about individually so I will attempt to give a little flavour of the whole book by focusing a little on some of my favourites. More of that later.

In-between each short story is a Christmas recipe, and along with the instructions of how to create the dish, we get the story behind the recipe. There is Mrs Winterson’s mince Pies, Kamila Shamsie’s turkey biryani, Ruth Rendell’s red cabbage as well several of Jeanette Winterson’s own favourites. In these recipes, and the stories behind them Jeanette Winterson’s personality shines through – where else this Christmas will you be told:

“… yes all unpasteurised. I could write a long essay here about bacteria, but it’s Christmas and bacteria aren’t that festive. So look up the pros and cons of pasteurisation once we’re past Twelfth Night, and see if I aint right.”

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There is plenty to raise a smile here, as well as recipes you might actually want to try out. If you like cooking that is – I’m afraid I hate it. The recipes contain some great reminiscences, the story of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas at Shakespeare and Company, the Christmases she spent in the company of her friend Ruth Rendell and we learn about Jeanette Winterson’s own traditions. If, like me you have read Oranges are not the Only Fruit and Why be Happy When You Could be Normal, you might be surprised at how much Jeanette Winterson loves Christmas, she even has happy memories of Christmas as a child, as it was, she tells us, the one time when Mrs Winterson was happy. There is a feeling of letting go of the past with this collection, I feel that Winterson is reflecting, and laying to rest perhaps, aspects of her upbringing, that she wrote about in those two previous books.

Incidentally if you love all this stuff as I did – you must listen to this episode of Radio 4’s Women’s Hour with Jeanette Winterson, Kamila Shamsie and Mary Portas – it’s a joy – I listened the other morning. I don’t know how long it is available for but you can find it here. For now anyway.

Also, because I read the book straight through, rather than just pick bits out over a longer period, I found the recipe sections a wonderful palette cleanser between stories.

The child at the centre of The SnowMama builds a snow-woman with her friend, they call her the SnowMama. When Jerry returns home, the house is in darkness, her mother still at work. Jerry’s mother is still grieving for Jerry’s father, and is unprepared for Christmas. Thankfully the SnowMama is on hand to help – for Jerry discovers the secret of the snow people, who come to life.

“They came to the city park.
All day long the children had built SnowMen and now the children had gone home and the SnowMen were still there.
They looked eerie in their brilliant white coats lit up by the brilliant white moon.
Then Jerry saw that some of the SnowMen were moving slowly towards the lake – where two of them were fishing.”

While some stories contain magic, which is not easily explained, the Christmas miracle at the centre of the story Christmas in New York is more easily explained. The narrator of the story is not really into Christmas, he lives in an apartment looked after by a doorman who he has only ever seen from the back – he must surely be dead. One of his friends Lucille is determined to bring Christmas into his life.

There are three great ghostly tales, which are always go down so well at this time of year, Dark Christmas, A Ghost Story and The Second Best Bed, will all deliver a delicious little shiver down the spine. A Dark Christmas takes place in a large old house with a little wooden nativity scene in the attic. The narrator is waiting for her friends to join her, only with the weather closing in, she is left alone in the house, as strange things begin to happen. In The Second Best Bed, a woman spending Christmas with her friend and her husband, is terrified by the appearance of a strange figure in her bed, while outside she hears a voice crying ‘help me’. While A Ghost Story is set in the ski resort of Mürren in Switzerland.

“I had gone to bed and was deep asleep when I heard it clearly. Above me. Footsteps. Pacing. Down the room. Hesitate. Turn. Return.
I lay in bed, eyes staring blindly at the blind ceiling. Why do we open our eyes when we can’t see anything? And what was there to see? I don’t believe in ghosts.”

The glow-heart, is a wonderfully poignant story of a man still mourning the death of his partner two years earlier. Marty needs to let David go, taking the memory of him into the rest of his life. Marty is struggling to do this – so it is David who must help him.

So, there we have it – the most Christmassy book of 2016? Well yes probably – and if you don’t feel just a little bit Christmassy after reading this book then there really is no hope for you.

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Finally let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a joyful Christmas/holiday season, wherever you are and however you spend it.
Merry Christmas. 

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the daylight gate

“This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country”

The Daylight Gate is published by Hammer, who I believe commission novels from a variety of writers. That really should be enough to alert the reader to what comes next. I read The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore also published by Hammer – although that is just a bit of an atmospheric, ghostly tale, nothing too disturbing about it. There is a little more of the horror/occult about this short novel – and Winterson is uncompromising in her depiction of the period and their dark goings on.

This novel is based around the story of Alice Nutter and the Pendle witch trials of 1612. Jeanette Winterson makes it very clear in her introduction that her story of Alice is not the Alice Nutter of history – nor is her story supposed to be an accurate retelling of the historical events. Anyone expecting anything else will possibly be disappointed.

“The North is the dark place.
It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the dead. The North of England is untamed. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.
The Forest at Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter – alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt.”

In Lancaster gate two notorious witches await their trail and almost certain death, in conditions of miserable filth and near starvation. Meanwhile the wealthy, beautiful and seemingly ageless Alice Nutter rides to their defence. Alice’s defence of these women raise suspicions in many local people, and in the men who could destroy her – Magistrate, Roger Newell and Thomas Potts; Recording clerk for the Prosecution and the Crown. The crown in question of course that of James I – obsessed with ridding his kingdom of popery and witchery – and the gunpowder plot of recent memory. This is an England drenched in fear, suspicion and plot, the old religion existed within living memory – but to practise it now is dangerous.

“And if thou callest him, like unto an angel of the north wearing a dark costume, he will hear thee and come to thee. Yet meet him where he may be met – at the Daylight Gate.”

A mysterious gathering of thirteen people is later interrupted by a Newell and Potts who immediately assume that they have walked into a witches’ Sabbat. A child of one of these women, half-starved and brutalised watches everything keenly. A child sold by her mother to Tom Peeper, a cruel brutal man who preys on the vulnerable women and girls of the community with impunity. This group of rough, destitute people scratch out some kind of existence at Malkin Tower on Pendle Hill situated on land owned by Alice. Where does her wealth come from? Just one of the questions whispered about Mistress Nutter. The dark arts are practised by many local women, who take pride in their abilities, spells are cast, voices heard where there should be none, poppets stuck with pins to induce illness.

One of the Gunpowder Plotters – a Jesuit priest and old friend of Alice Nutter’s Christopher Southworth is on the run, having fled to France; there are rumours of his presence in England. As Christopher makes his way from France back to Lancashire and a place where he believes he will be safe long enough for him to secure his sister’s freedom from prison.

With tensions in the area heightening, Alice is compelled to remember the instructions and teaching of her old friend Dr John Dee. Recalling her heady relationship with Elizabeth Southern; who claimed to have sold her soul to the Dark Gentleman. At Hoghton Tower Alice meets William Shakespeare for a performance of The Tempest – and asks him if he believed in “magick.”

“Shakespeare shook his head and sunk his chin into his ruff, making him look more owl-like than ever. “I have written about other worlds often enough. I have said what I can say. There are many kinds of reality. This is but one kind.”

The Daylight Gate was chosen by my very small book group as our April read – we meet to discuss it on Wednesday. I admit I hadn’t noticed it was published by Hammer – and so wasn’t expecting things to take quite the turn that they do. One of my problems (emphasis on my) – is that I struggle to take my mind to things I don’t/can’t believe in – or find ludicrously improbable. Of course it is possible to find explanations for almost everything in this novel – superstition, hysteria, suggestion, fear even hallucination. My only problem with this book – again emphasis on my – is that I was forever trying to find these realistic explanations for things that perhaps aren’t meant to be explained away. I still think all of that has more to do with the way my mind works – than with any fault in Winterson’s writing – which is superb.

Still there is a lot to admire in this novel from Jeanette Winterson, although it is certainly very dark, brutally so at times, it is also extraordinarily well crafted and brilliantly imagined. Winterson’s writing is extremely good, poetically spare prose with a deceptive simplicity. In fact her prose packs quite a punch – so much so, at times the reader wants to look away. Winterson tells of period of history when life was terribly hard – communities ruled by fear, superstition and brutality. Women and children fared particularly badly – and Winterson portrays quite unflinchingly the vile spite and sexual violence that is their daily lot. Accusations of witchcraft are bandied about on a daily basis – each accusation meeting a counter accusation. The atmosphere of wretched fear, rising out of ignorance, superstition and fear is brilliantly done, and is partly what makes The Daylight Gate so compulsive.

So while I admired much in this novel, and was completely gripped by it – it does make for compelling reading – I still can’t quite decide if I enjoyed it.

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