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black narcissus

During July, the Librarything Virago group have selected to read books by Rumer Godden. I have enjoyed quite a number of her novels in the past but had not yet managed to read one of her best-known works – Black Narcissus. This was Rumer Godden’s third novel for adults, and the first of several which were adapted for film. The film Black Narcissus was released in 1947 in Technicolor, which not all films were in those days. It starred Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons and was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film was a hit and won a coveted Academy Award for its cinematography. I remember seeing the film years ago, although I can’t say I remembered much about the story other than it involved a dramatic tale of nuns on a mountain in India.

The novel opens as Sister Clodagh prepares to leave her religious community in Darjeeling for Mopu in the Himalayan mountains to the north. Here Sister Clodagh will take on the role of Sister Superior to a small group of nuns who will be helping to set up a convent school community in an abandoned palace. The palace was once known as ‘the House of Women’ built for a harem of the General who leased the land from the British rulers. Now the General’s son, another General has given the palace to the Sisters of Mary – believing a school and hospital just what the poor local people need. Before they leave, Mother Dorothea lets Sister Clodagh know that she has some reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for this responsibility. Clodagh is certain she is ready for the challenge, and leads her fellow sisters; Sister Ruth, Sister Briony, Sister Honey and Sister Philippa – confidently towards a new adventure.

The group of sisters begin the long trek up the hills to their new home, a palace wreathed in scandal, set against a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Mopu is home to tea growers, snow-capped mountain peaks and the glorious flora and fauna one associates with India. As always Rumer Godden portrays the landscape and people of India, beautifully and with obvious affection.

“It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn; across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.
Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on a hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.”

The sisters have a lot of work to do to make the old palace ready to use as a school and dispensary, and they set to work as soon as they arrive. An elderly Chinese woman Angu Ayah has had caretaking responsibilities at the palace and she stays on to help the sisters in their duties. One of the first people the sisters meet is local British agent Mr Dean – who they have been told will be on hand to help the sisters should they need it. Mr Dean is an informally dressed whisky drinker who rather shocks the sisters with his relaxed laid-back attitude and teasing humour. Mr Dean exudes a strength the nuns will have need of in the months ahead, and later, as they come to know him better they discover in him an ability to great sympathy and understanding.

The General’s nephew and heir, the young General Dilip Rai comes to the sisters to learn French, and a beautiful young girl Kanchi – who the locals have gossiped about wildly – has been placed with the sisters at the request of her uncle. Kanchi is soon surreptitiously keeping a close eye on the handsome young General – who, himself has an unusual effect on Sister Clodagh. Something in the character of the young General reminds her of her ill-fated romance with a neighbouring boy; Con – back in Ireland before she took holy orders.

“As he walked he kicked the stones away from him and slashed at the bushes; he looked pretty and naughty as a child, though he was nearly a full man; tall and beautifully built, not like a hill man but like a young Rajpit.
He slashed with his cane at the bushes, and she was suddenly back, walking down the Wishing Lane at home with Con; the green damp lane that led from the House gates past Skinners Farm to the lake, and Con was slashing at the hedge to show his temper.”

Mr Dean’s promise that the sisters will fail in their mission look set to come true as the nuns show time and again a lack of understanding for the people they are living among. The people have their own traditions and long held superstitions – and these are soon at odds with the inflexible attitudes of the sisters. Other troubles, passions and little jealousies play a part in causing the community difficulties as one of the sisters starts to show signs of mental illness. The magical landscape seems to beguile each of the sisters – distracting them from their purpose and allowing them, at times, to dream. Throughout the novel there is an air of forbidden passions rising to the surface, which Godden explores with wonderful subtlety.

Despite the drama and tragedy towards the end, the novel is much quieter than the film, which I remember as being quite melodramatic.

I am hoping to squeeze one more Rumer Godden novel into July as I do have two others waiting and Black Narcissus has served as a timely reminder to what a good writer she was.

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strangers on a train

Patricia Highsmith is one of several writers who I’ve read for the first time this year. In her; I have discovered a writer who was a wonderful creator of mood and suspense her characters explored with psychological acuity. Strangers on a Train was her first novel.

Strangers on a Train, is a story I have been broadly familiar with for many years, I vaguely remember having seen the 1951 Hitchcock directed film. I’m sure many people already know the brilliantly simple premise; two strangers swap murders – what could possibly go wrong?

“People, feelings, everything! Double! Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.”

Up and coming architect Guy Haines badly wants a divorce from his difficult, promiscuous wife from whom he has been separated for three years. He wants to start his new life with Anne and as his career begins to take off the last thing he needs is for Miriam to hold him back. On a train journey to Metcalf, Texas to meet with Miriam at her request, Guy meets Charles Bruno – on his way to Sante Fe. Bruno is a hard-drinking young man, the son of a wealthy household, he deeply resents his father – and with several drinks already inside him he engages Guy in conversation. Bruno is not an attractive proposition as travelling companion, and Guy is reluctant to engage with him yet gets drawn into a bizarre conversation despite himself. Bruno has a private dining car and invites Guy to join him, here we begin to see Charles Bruno as a very troubling, psychopathic personality. He tells Guy all about his father and how he hates him, and almost against his will Guy finds himself imparting a lot of information about himself and his estranged wife Miriam.

“For here it was now, as clear as it had ever been. And, worst of all, he was aware of an impulse to tell Bruno everything, the stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget. The idea of telling Bruno began to comfort him. Bruno was not the ordinary stranger on the train by any means. He was cruel and corrupt enough himself to appreciate a story like that of his first love.”

Charles Bruno makes a dreadful, drunken suggestion – they each want rid of someone – so why not help one another out, if he were to kill Miriam there would be nothing to connect him to the crime, it would be a perfect murder. Then, in return a few months later Guy would kill Sam Bruno – Charles’s hated father. Guy is repelled by the suggestion – and fatally doesn’t take it too seriously. Once off the train, he reflects upon the meeting with a shudder, feeling that he has met with evil. Following an unhappy and unsatisfactory meeting with Miriam, Guy travels to Mexico to spend a few precious days with Anne. While he is away, Charles Bruno decides to put his plan into action, and using the small amount of information Guy unwittingly gave him, he tracks Miriam down, and follows her. Bruno’s personality is such that it is the idea of committing the so called perfect crime that appeals to him almost as much as the idea of ridding himself of his father. He strikes.

“People talked about the mystery of birth, of beginning life, but how explainable that was! Out of two live germ cells! What about the mystery of stopping life? Why should life stop because he held a girl’s throat too tightly? What was life anyway – What did Miriam feel after he took his hands away? Where was she? No, he didn’t believe in life after death. She was stopped, and that was just the miracle.”

In Mexico Guy receives a very odd note from Bruno – and soon there follows the most shocking news about his wife. A dreadful idea occurs to him, an idea too terrible to contemplate and Guy immediately holds on to the idea of an unknown maniac stalking the neighbourhood where Miriam lived.

Deep down of course Guy knows the truth about what happened to Miriam, but as the police make it quite clear that they believe Guy to have a perfect motive he isn’t keen to go to them with the preposterous story of a stranger on a train. Guy is running scared, of both the police and of Bruno. Charles Bruno is a manipulative young man, and he begins turning up unannounced, writing letters, gradually increasing the pressure on Guy to fulfil what Bruno considers his part of the bargain. The pressure becomes almost unendurable, and the longer he stays silent of course, the more Guy implicates himself in the crime. Highsmith brilliantly portrays Bruno’s psychological manipulation, how he gradually wears Guy down, turning him into a nervous shadow of himself.

At Guy and Anne’s wedding there is the inevitable uninvited guest – as Charles Bruno ratchets up the pressure. Sending Guy detailed plans of how to carry out the murder of his father, Bruno gets under Guy’s skin – to such a degree that Anne begins noticing that things aren’t right.

Strangers on a train – which I read most of aboard a train, travelling back and forth to Cornwall last weekend – is a brilliantly intelligent page turner. Guy is an ordinary man as the novel begins – ensnared in a terrifying series of events, brought about by the horrifying trap he finds himself caught in.

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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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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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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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Ripley

I read my first ever Patricia Highsmith novel; Deep Water, in February, I realised I had been overlooking a superb writer, and consummate storyteller.

The Talented Mr Ripley, the first of a series of five novels, is probably her best-known novel, made into a film starring Matt Damon and Jude Law in 1999. I saw the film, although it was a long time ago, I realised as I was reading the book that there were some notable differences between the book and the film. This irritated me – everyone knows the book is always better – so why do filmmakers go to the trouble and expense of adapting a book for film, and then change the original story? Argh, it makes me cross!

I feel as if everyone knows the essential outline of the story – so I do hope that I’m not going to give away any major spoilers.

Patricia Highsmith is noted for writing likeable anti-heroes. Tom Ripley must surely be the best of these. A small time con artist, we first encounter him in a New York bar. He realises he is being followed and thinking he is about to be arrested is surprised to be approached by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf instead. Mr Greenleaf has lost sight of his son Dickie who is living in Italy, he wants him home to work in his business. His letters having failed to have the desired result, Mr Greenleaf – recognising in Tom an acquaintance of his son’s – asks Tom to go, all expenses paid to Mongibello in Italy, intercept Dickie and persuade him home to the United States. Seeing a wonderful opportunity, Tom grossly exaggerates his friendship and possible influence with Dickie – and agrees to the trip.

“Mr Greenleaf was such a decent fellow himself, he took it for granted that everybody else in the world was decent, too. Tom had almost forgotten such people existed.”

Tom has been struggling to make a living, lives in a fairly insalubrious apartment, committing pointless acts of fraud, bitter at the lot he has been dealt in life. Tom despises himself – he longs to be someone else, having lost his parents young, there is a hated aunt somewhere in the background who rubbished him as a child, and to whom he writes dutifully from time to time. He looks at families like the Greenleafs and imagines how it might have been had he had the life he deserved. He gets invited to a gracious dinner at the Greanleafs enviable house – and is soon enough on his way to Italy to look up Dickie Greenleaf – living the charmed life that should have been his.

Arriving in Mongibello Tom wastes no time in running into Dickie and his friends on the beach below the house Dickie has taken, Dickie hardly remembers Tom of course, but invites him to lunch. Dickie is in the company of Marge – an aspiring writer, who Tom instantly realises feels more for Dickie than he does for her. Slowly, bit by bit – like the hustler he is, Tom insinuates himself into Dickie’s life. Tom can’t help but notice how alike he and Dickie are physically, apart from a slight difference in hair colour, he watches Dickie – how he moves, how he dresses – how sure of himself he is – how different to how the world sees Tom Ripley.

“He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money. It really didn’t take money, masses of money, it took a certain security.”

ripleystillTom likes to boast how he can imitate people easily, change his appearance, forge signatures. Marge doesn’t like Tom, and he feels just the same about her. She tells Dickie that she thinks Tom is gay – and has designs on him, Dickie laughs it off – but is surprised when he catches Tom trying on his clothes. Tom talks himself out of awkward situations quite easily – and he is soon back in Dickie’s good books, planning trips to other parts of Italy, laughing about the deal Tom made with Dickie’s father. Dickie agrees to joining Tom on a short break to Sanremo where they plan to hire a boat, Tom is delighted that Marge won’t be joining them, but he does fear that Dickie is beginning to tire of him. Tom realises that in order to live the life he wants with Dickie’s money he must take drastic action – kill Dickie, and assume his identity somewhere else.

What follows is an extraordinary cat and mouse game – can Tom really pass himself off as Dickie – avoiding people who knew Dickie – slipping in and out of personas? How long can this double life last?

“This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time. He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes.”

The Talented Mr Ripley is a brilliant examination of a fascinating personality – Highsmith explores Tom Ripley’s psychology through the games he plays, the chances he takes and the split-second decisions he makes. He is an outsider more comfortable as someone else than himself. He is undoubtedly a sociopath, but he is also a thief, a liar, and of course in time, a murderer – and yet Highsmith portrays him in such a way that we are able to sympathise with him – at least some of the time. He never quite emerges as the monster we know he should be.

I really need to read more Patricia Highsmith – he writes such compelling, intelligent thrillers. I will certainly look out for the other Ripley books. But the one I really want to read next is Strangers on a Train.

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a little love a little learning#

Nina Bawden writes families particularly well. She understands the dynamics and difficulties, and here she brings her knowledge of step-families to this revealing portrait, which shows just how fragile happiness can be. A Little Love, A Little Learning was published more than ten years into Nina Bawden’s long publishing career – it is a great example of all she does well.

People have asked me before which Nina Bawden novel they should start with, well this wouldn’t be a bad place to start – although I could also recommend Devil by the Sea, The Birds on the Trees and Circles of Deceit and Ruffian on the Stairs. Certainly these novels of family are all faithful recreations of domestic life and its complexities.

It is the year of the coronation, and Joanna, 18, our narrator Kate 12 and seven-year-old Poll are living happily in Monks Ford – a suburban commuter town on the banks of the Thames – with their mother Ellen and their adored step-father Boyd. The children play in their garden, building a camp under the trees, walk to and from school, part of a friendly suburban community who all think the world of Boyd – the local doctor. Boyd has surrounded his step-daughters with wise, unquestioning love, he and Ellen always answer their questions with honesty – the children have grown up with a strange encyclopaedic medical knowledge, quite matter of fact about all kinds of things their peers have no idea about. Ellen and Boyd are very modern parents allowing the girls to develop understanding about things other 1950s parents are still shielding their daughters from. While Boyd is attentive and loving, Ellen is sterner, finding it much harder to show her feelings.

Kate, is fascinated by Boyd’s patients, so proud of the only father she has ever known, she is resentful of Poll’s teacher and their neighbour Miss Carter whose devotion to Boyd verges on the embarrassing. Joanna has reached the brink of adulthood, about to finish school forever, concerned about getting old she has her sights set on local swain Will. Often full of complaint about her younger sisters, she is allowed to have the bedroom she shared with Kate to herself, Kate is therefore forced to share with Poll. Poll loves to play make believe games, and sometimes Kate plays with her, although the games seem a little old for her now. Kate is very impressionable, imaginative with a wonderful sense of the dramatic, she is also prone to telling the odd lie – and digs herself into all sorts of uncomfortable holes. Like so many other great child narrators, Kate is growing up and struggling to understand everything around her – she simply doesn’t grasp the possible consequences of her lies and interference.

“The year Aunt Hat came to us, my main ambition – apart from rescuing someone from drowning or winning the Victoria Cross – was to go down to Jock’s Icecream Parlour in the main street of Monks Ford and eat as many Knickerbocker Glories as I could pay for.”

Everything starts to change when Aunt Hat comes to stay. Aunt Hat isn’t a relative, she was a good friend of Ellen in the days before Boyd came into her life. It was a different time that the younger girls can only remember dimly if at all, and Aunt Hat was Ellen’s only friend. Aunt Hat is very different to Ellen, working class, gossipy and a little indiscreet she hints at problems in the past, and helps to evoke the memory of the girls’ absent father – who they have been oddly incurious about thus far.

“She sat with her skirts lifted to the flames and looking quite ordinary. I felt a slight disappointment – only slight, because Lady Macbeth would really have been rather difficult to live up to – and then shyness. She was a complete stranger to me. She said, ‘I don’t suppose you remember your funny old Aunt Hat, do you? Well, here she is, turned up like the proverbial bad penny.
For a moment I had the queer feeling that there was someone else in the room. It was a feeling that was distantly familiar, a faint echo in my mind. Then I remembered slices of fresh bread, buttered, and stuck with brightly coloured hundreds and thousands. I could almost taste the grittiness of the sweets on my tongue: it went with grazed knees, consolation, and a strange habit of talking about oneself in the third person.”

Though Kate is almost disappointed in her first sight of Aunt Hat – having imagined her to be some kind of Lady Macbeth character she is quickly won over. Aunt Hat’s background seems wonderfully colourful to the three sisters, her husband imprisoned for beating her and her son. Temporarily homeless, Hat brings her noisy, chaotic world to the polite, ordered world of suburban Monks Ford. Aunt Hat is a fabulous character, though as it turns out it may not be Hat’s indiscretions that turn everything upside down, but the girls themselves.

Boyd’s medical practises are brought into question through local gossip, when he inherits some money from a neighbour and old friend. Miss Fantom has been living in reclusive disharmony with her brother who has never got over having to leave India. The two live in separate parts of the house, and Boyd and the children some of their only visitors. The children have often played in the Fantoms’ garden. Many years earlier, when Miss Fantom was about thirty, she befriended the lonely teenage Boyd – an innocent friendship which was naturally gossiped about. When Miss Fantom dies, Kate’s silly lies look like they could cause trouble for her step-father who has been left a sizeable amount of money by his patient.

This is one of those novel where in a sense not a huge amount happens – and yet it remains very compelling, and perfectly told. I think Bawden is at her best when portraying middle-class families, especially children within those families. Bawden manages to make this both poignant and funny – she strikes the balance just perfectly.

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