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this real night

As many of you will know, August is All Virago/All August over on the Librarything Virago group. I can’t manage to commit to just reading Virago all of August but I love the excuse to read some of my Virago volumes.

This Real Night is the second book in Rebecca West’s Aubrey family trilogy; A Saga of the Century (there are editions which publish all three books together). The trilogy begins with The Fountain Overflows . I read that wonderful book back at the end of February while I was on holiday with friends in Iceland, I hadn’t meant to leave it quite so long before catching up with these characters again. This Real Night and Cousin Rosamond were published in the 1980s following Rebecca West’s death, from the manuscripts that she left behind. The third book I know is unfinished – and while part of me does still want to read it – I can’t get excited about an unfinished novel.

This Real Night starts a few years after the events of The Fountain Overflows, we find ourselves in the 1900s, in those days before the First World War so changed the world for a generation of young people. Cornelia, Mary and our narrator Rose are now grown up, they discover a freedom to being grown up, happy to throw of the bonds of childhood.

“A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness. When one is quite little one labours under just such physical and mental disabilities as might be inflicted by some dreadful accident or disease; but while the maimed and paralysed are pitied because they cannot walk and have to be carried about and cannot explain their needs or think clearly, nobody is sorry for babies, though they are always crying aloud their frustration and hurt pride.”

In the wake of Piers Aubrey’s disappearance, the family fortunes have improved. Clare has a good grip on the purse strings for the first time ever, and the family enjoy the friendship and support of Mr Morpurgo, their father’s friend. The sisters’ beloved younger brother Richard Quin is still at school, he too growing up fast – and considering Oxford in the not too distant future. Cornelia, following the devastation of having to accept that she doesn’t possess the fine musical ability of her mother and two sisters, has become an art dealer’s assistant. Mary and Rose are at music college, desperately trying for artistic perfection.

“Great music is in a sense serene; it is certain of the values it asserts. But it is also in terror, because those values are threatened, and it is not certain whether they will triumph in this world, and of course music is a missionary effort to colonise earth for imperialistic heaven.”

Cordelia marries early – and everyone seems to think it for the best. Cordelia is the odd one out in the family, she is rather spikey and can be difficult, though it is sad that she always seems to fall foul of her mother and sisters. Cousin Rosamond decides to train as a nurse, striding out towards independence she remains close to the Aubreys and is especially adored by everyone’s favourite Richard Quin. Rose and Mary begins to notice a little change in Cordelia after her marriage – although their relationship remains strained.

“Our enemy had gone away, had not just left our house, but had vanished. Someone whom, it often seemed, we did not love enough.”

One of the things the Aubrey siblings still enjoy more than anything is their visits to Aunt Lily, who they first knew as children, when her sister was convicted of the murder of her husband. Lily’s daughter was a school friend of Mary and Rose, and although she now lives with her dead father’s family (who prevent her from seeing Aunt Lily) the Aubrey’s retain their old affection for the unfortunate woman. Lily works in The Dog and Duck a small inn on the Thames, taken in by her old friends Aunt Milly and Uncle Len. It is a rough, colourful environment – quite at odds with their more genteel, artistic upbringing, but Mary and Rose particularly love their visits. Here they are exposed to all kinds of new experiences. I love this collection of characters, who Rebecca West portrays realistically but with affection, resisting I felt, the trap of caricature that some writers of a certain class have been known to fall into.

As the world descends into war, change comes to the Aubrey household, there is probably an inevitability to the ending – and Rebecca West’s depiction is delicately poignant.

If I am honest, I think, that The Fountain Overflows is a rather better novel, although I enjoyed this enormously – a chance to meet again familiar old friends. This Real Night probably could be read as a standalone novel but if you did, you would miss an enormous treat.

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thebattleof the villa f

My final read for July, was by Librarything author of the month Rumer Godden; The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, which transported me to Italy while I myself travelled to Paris.

One of the things I have come to appreciate in Rumer Godden’s novels for adults, is the way she writes children and young people. She always seems to fully understand their view of the world, the way they feel the hurts and disappointments that force them to grow up.

In The Battle of the Villa Fiorita we meet Hugh (14) and Caddie (almost 12) – they have an elder sister who they speak about from time to time, but who we never actually meet. As the novel opens, Hugh and Caddie have just arrived in Italy, following a long, arduous journey mainly by train from London. They have run away.

“She and Hugh were both gilded in sun; the things they held, the grips, coats, and net, had edges of light as had Hugh’s bare head, Caddie’s panama. Light bathed their tired dusty faces, their clothes which were crumpled and dishevelled as only clothes that have been slept in all night can be; it lay on their hands and legs, their dusty shoes, a light more warm and gold than anything they had known, but, ‘It’s Italian,’ said Caddie as if suspicious of it.”

They are on a mission to win back their mother – return her to their father and the family home. Their mother Frances (usually called Fanny) Clavering has recently been divorced by their father, following an affair with a film director, who she met whilst he was filming near to the family home. Now, Fanny has left England with her lover Rob Quillet. They are staying at the Villa Fiorita near Lake Garda, planning to get married in the near future.

The viewpoint is not always that of the children, Fanny is a woman whose life had seemed perfectly happy, married to dull, frequently absent Darrell Clavering. While she hadn’t been able to claim that she was miserable, meeting Rob, awakened something in her, showing her what her life had actually been, and what it could be instead. The narrative takes us back to when Fanny first met famous director Rob Quillet, their attraction to one another – and the tentative beginning of their affair. Fanny was torn, recognising the danger signals she tried to back away, pulled back by her feelings, which were so strong and so unexpected. Despite this, she attempts to carry on with her life, forget about Rob, concentrate on running Stebbings with seamless efficiency, socialising with other local country wives and keeping her mother-in-law Lady Candida happy. However, in time, Fanny begins to realise she can’t exist without Rob, and two of her friends are suspicious after one of them spots her in London with him.

Hugh and Caddie have had their world turned upside down, while they had been away at school the grownups silently got on with managing the scandalous situation. By the time they knew anything, it was practically all over. Stebbings; the loved country home, that is so familiar, has been closed up, a modern flat in London is where they will live with their father and the housekeeper/nanny Gwyneth. The pony, Topaz, which Caddie won in a competition, and is almost her sole reason for living, is stabled in the country, and Caddie doesn’t know when or if she will be able to see him. All they want is for everything to go back to normal, stunned by a kind of grief, they have been unable to see Fanny as being anyone other than their mother – they are only just seeing that she is also a woman in love.

“At the top of the walk Fanny and Rob stopped, dazzled by the sun after the shade. Because of the brilliant light, and because his eyes were so tired, Hugh could not see them clearly; the whole garden and the lake had become a blur, but, standing in the flood of evening light, framed against the green leaves and the spirals of mauve flowers, they looked illuminated, glorified. ‘A couple,’ Hugh thought before he could stifle the thought, not his mother and Rob Quillet but a man and woman close together.”

We can’t help but sympathise with the children, it is bad enough when parents’ divorce, but Hugh and Caddie have been abandoned by their adored mother, everything they took for granted has altered and they don’t quite recognise this new world they are being asked to live in.

villaThere is a selfishness to childhood which we only really recognise when we look back on it. I admit, that while I sympathised with the children, I got very annoyed by their blind selfishness too. Hugh and Caddie want their mother back, and they go all out to get her. Fanny is happier than she has ever been in her life, on some level the children recognise this – but easily discount it. Fanny is already beset with terrible guilt for what she did to her former husband, and especially her children, and having them appear at the villa – just as she and Rob are about to go out to dinner – shakes her resolve. Rob is apparently made of sterner stuff – and starts to arrange for the children to be returned immediately. However, things don’t go quite according to plan, as Hugh is struck down with food poisoning and Rob, allowing Caddie to get under his skin – she reminds him so much of her mother – can’t bring himself to send her off alone. It is arranged that the children will stay for a fortnight – when their father will have returned from a work trip. Once it has been agreed that the children will stay, Rob sends for his own daughter Pia – an impossibly stylish ten-year-old brought up by her grandmother. Pia is immediately dismissive of sad, scruffy Caddie, who can’t help admiring Pia despite her unfriendliness. Hugh, meanwhile who has been stomping around the villa in confused fury for days finds himself rather drawn to the little girl.

With three unhappy children in the villa, banding together, the battle lines are drawn, but will the children realise that their actions have consequences before things go too far?

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is an absorbing novel, I loved the children and their fiendish plotting, and while I felt for them, I also felt for the adults, whose future happiness or unhappiness lies in the hands of their children. I was left with mixed feelings about how Godden ended her novel, and found myself thinking about it for several days after I had finished.

rumer godden

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afternoon of a good woman

Nina Bawden’s 1976 novel Afternoon of a Good Woman, is a slight, serious novel about a woman’s self-examination and guilt.

As the novel opens we learn that Penelope has decided to leave her husband.

“Today, Tuesday, the day that Penelope has chosen to leave her husband, is the first really warm day of spring. Her decision, last-minute but well researched, happens, through some chance (or perhaps characteristic) ineptitude, to coincide with her sitting, at ten o’clock in the morning, in judgement on her peers.”

Penelope is a magistrate, proud to be the good woman of the title – she is a good mother and a good wife of twenty years. Her husband; Eddie, writes successful tv dramas, and once wrote a novel which has been an enormous success, but now he has become lazy in his routine, and Penelope feels she must nag him into work. Eddie’s fist wife is in a psychiatric hospital – where she has been for years, and where Eddie still visits. His guilt, that he drove her there with his novel which she saw as a terrible betrayal – and about which Eddie was forced to think differently when he looked at it through her eyes.

Today Penelope will become more aware than usual of the fragile line between good and bad. The cases which will come before her on the day she leaves a note on Eddie’s typewriter keys – will be sad, pathetic and unglamorous – but will give her plenty to think about. The case of a middle-aged man charged with indecent exposure – forces Penelope to wonder how her own sex life might sound the details were blandly and emotionlessly read out. Then there is the more convoluted case of theft brought against Abel Binders, which the judge instructs the jury to dismiss – but the jury have other ideas and want to hear the defence after all – much to the irritation of the bench.

“Apart from one woman who has fallen asleep, plump chin on fur collar, the jury listen attentively to the Judge’s instruction like good children in class. When he has finished some of them frown as if the intrusion of what seems a subjective moral assessment into this court of law is somehow improper. How are they to know what has gone on in Abel Binder’s mind? Or perhaps they are simply confused. One elderly man is cupping a blue knuckly hand at the back of his ear, although he has not appeared deaf before. It is confusing, of course that innocence should emerge in the course of prosecution evidence. Incongruous anyway.”

Throughout the day, as the business of the court rumbles on – Penelope reflects on her past, the things for which she still feels guilt and sadness. She remembers her step-mother Eve – who she had loved so jealously when her father brought her home, that she had resented Eve’s own children. The young Penelope had not really understood Eve’s fragility and vulnerabilities – had enjoyed caring for her when her father was working away, caring for Eve the best she can before and after school. Not realising she should be getting help for Eve, Penelope unwittingly leaves her in harm’s way. When Eve ends up hospitalised Penelope goes to live with Auntie and Uncle – a house in which she feels awkward and constrained, and where Eve’s illness is never mentioned. She remembers the lies she told in that house.

“When she first became ill, I enjoyed looking after her. If I came home from school to find her still in her nightdress, sitting limply before the empty grate, or weeping into a stack of dirty dishes in the kitchen, I lit the fire, washed the dishes, made supper for us both. If there was nothing to eat in the house, I took Eve’s purse and ran to the corner shop, later on; when it seemed that Eve was feeling too tired to go out at all, I took charge of the ration-books and began to shop regularly, on the way to and from school. I felt strong and competent, looking after my poor little stepmother, and though I hoped she would be better soon, for her own sake, I was glad to have been given this chance to show what I could do for her.”

Penelope examines her difficult sometimes heady relationships with her step-siblings, which included meddling in the abusive marriage her step-sister entered into – and which led indirectly to a sudden tragedy. Looking back at her adolescence and young womanhood, she explores her first all-consuming love – which has never gone away, comparing it with how she has felt about Eddie.

As the court day ends. Penelope will leave, carry out her plans, she telephones Desdemona, Eddie’s friend and editor, a sign perhaps of Penelope’s guilt, though she is certain she is doing the right thing for both of them.

As ever, Nina Bawden brings her unique understanding of complicated families and the relationships inside them to this novel. It is an intelligent novel about people who feel very real. Penelope is a flawed heroine; many readers won’t like her – though I find such characters so much more interesting.

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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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