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My second read for read Ireland month was Mary O’Grady by Mary Lavin. It was an incredibly enjoyable reading experience by an author I hadn’t read before. Mary Lavin is remembered now mainly for her short stories – which I am very anxious to read – but she also wrote two novels.

Mary O’Grady is one of those Virago novels that is immediately involving, I knew immediately I would like spending time with Mary and her family. The novel follows Mary O’Grady from when she is a newly married young woman, to when she is an elderly woman, with decades of trials and tribulations behind her.

The novel opens in around 1900, Mary, a young woman from the country has not long married her Tom, who she met on her one visit to Dublin. She married him shortly after and moved to Dublin, carrying with her the memory of her beloved Tullamore – where she hopes one day to take her sons and daughters. Tom works on the trams, and Mary loves to walk down to the tram sheds to take Tom some hot food every dinner time, walking home past an expanse of vacant ground, covered in long grass – that reminds her of home. Tom and Mary adore one another, but it isn’t long before they have little ones to share their little house. Five children are born; Patrick, Ellie, Angie, Larry and Rosie. Mary is a good, sensible mother. Gradually, Mary’s memories of her country childhood fade – as her life revolves more and more around her own family – providing a warm and stable home for her children.

“It was evening time. Mary was going around the kitchen doing odd tasks of trifling importance. The young people were in the parlour, but the door was open, and someone, probably Ellie, had begun to tinkle a few notes on the piano. Tom was sitting in the kitchen, and although he was reading the paper, he looked up from time to time to say something to Mary.”

Lavin portrays this family and their little home so well and with such warmth that I felt I could walk through the rooms of that little house with the familiarity of a well-known place. The family live mainly in the kitchen, the parlour kept for best. As the children grow up – the girls become a little embarrassed by this – wanting their friends to believe the family sit in the parlour of an evening even when there aren’t visitors.

There is a bit of an age difference between the older three children; Patrick, Ellie and Angie – who were all born close together and the younger two – who followed a few years later. So, when Patrick, Ellie and Angie are emerging into young adulthood – Larry and Rosie are still children. The young O’Gradys all have their own personalities, Patrick the one with an eye always looking beyond his home – beyond Ireland – as a boy he was desperate to know what lay over the mountains he could see in the distance.

“‘When he was a little boy, he used to stand all day long under the bridge just looking up at the locomotives passing overhead. I used to think it was only because he was little boy that it was natural for him to be interested in trains and the like. But that wasn’t it at all. It was more than that. Even then, small as he was, the sight of them was torture to him, because they were going away, and he was always left behind, standing under the bridge looking after them, and listening to the sound of them dying away on the rails’

As Mary’s mind strayed back over those days gone past, a silence seemed to come down upon the whole house. The voices in the parlour had momentarily grown low, and were not heard, and except for her own voice, the kitchen was still and silent.”

Ellie knows her own mind, is a little force of nature, Angie is quieter. When Ellie and Angie meet two students Brett and Willy and bring them home, Mary is charmed – and sweeps these two handsome young men into the bosom of her family. It seems clear where these romances are headed – and the couples have Mary’s blessing. Life seems wonderful. This is not destined to last – and Mary and her family must face many trials, the first of which is the premature death of her beloved Tom.

Mary is still in her prime, and has two children still in the school room, and Patrick has begun to talk about going to America. Living nearby is Alice Maguire – who loves to help look after Rosie – and has developed a secret fondness for Patrick. Alice is a frequent visitor to the O’Grady house.

‘She had spared neither toil nor sweat nor sacrifice, and yet life, that had been as sweet as milk and honey, was souring hour by hour.’

Other devastating losses and trials follow – and always Mary puts her shoulder to the wheel and copes admirably. She doesn’t always understand the ways of her children – but she works hard to understand them, to do whatever is right for them – ultimately to protect and support them. The years are hard – and take their toll. At just fourteen Larry leaves for the Seminary – persuaded to the priesthood by his parish priest. Mary’s pride knows no bounds – to have a priest in the family – but she misses him terribly. Mary wants Rosie to go to the university – but Rosie has other ideas – and Mary begins to regret her youngest daughter’s prettiness when she turns the head of a young man Mary does not like.

Ultimately Mary must face that same truth that many parents face – that no matter how she tries to support and protect her children – she can’t live their lives for them, and she can’t prevent them from suffering.

Mary O’Grady is a wonderful novel – full of warmth and sadness – ultimately full of life – and all its dramas. Mary O’Grady was an easy five star read for me – totally engrossing and full of emotion.

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The Librarything Virago group’s ‘reading the 1940s’ event allows those of us taking part, to read widely, taking in many different parts of the world. Martha Gellhorn’s devastating 1944 novel Liana takes us to a fictional French Caribbean island in 1940 – a world away from the European war, and yet not entirely unaffected by it.

Martha Gellhorn was an American journalist, novelist and travel writer, often described as one of the great war correspondents of the twentieth century. Today there is a journalism prize named after her.  In Liana she clearly had something to say about the relationships between men and women – and particularly between whites and blacks. There is a huge power imbalance between a wealthy white man and a poor, young mixed-race woman at this time, and Gellhorn explores this imbalance to perfection. My first time reading Martha Gellhorn, it won’t be my last.

“Liana’s table manners were certainly better than Marc’s, as she was graceful and full of care and he was neither. She had learned this finicking voice to go with the cautious tidy French she now spoke. She wore her elegance like varnish all over her. The servants did not smile when she gave them orders. They did not even smile with their eyes. Liana was haughty out of fear, but after months of use her haughtiness looked genuine.”

1940, France has fallen to the Germans but all that seems a long way from the tiny island of St Boniface where no news seems to interest the inhabitants more than the marriage of wealthy Marc Royer. Having met Liana; a young woman of mixed heritage -he takes her into his home as his mistress. Nobody bats an eyelid – this kind of behaviour is perfectly acceptable, even expected of wealthy white men. Marc has an odd, almost obsessional relationship with another woman, Marie – who once married his brother – but is now a widow. Marie entertains Marc at her home; La Paradis, a couple of evening a week – yet keeps him at arm’s length. To spite Marie, Marc marries Liana – an event which sends shock waves through the island and gives the gossips something to talk about for months. No white man, has ever married a black woman before, and no one can quite believe what Marc has done.

This marriage appears to be completely life-changing for Liana – Marc is wealthy – he has a fine, gracious house with servants, indoor plumbing – better than that a beautiful, warm tiled bathroom. Marc wants Liana to look like the white wives, and orders lots of beautiful clothes for her to wear, encourages her to put up her hair, he decides to call her Julie. For a little while Liana believes she can be like the white wives, her mother assures Liana that Marc can’t possibly despise her if he marries her, that the wife sits at the head of the table it’s the reason she marries Marc.

“Liana looked at the iron cook pot on the smoke-blackened hearth. She was thinking: dances and card parties and all the lights burning in the house at night. Picnics, she thought, and birthday presents and going to church on Sunday wearing fine clothes and a hat and gloves.”

Liana’s mother Lucie and Liana’s younger half siblings still live up the mountain, in a small shack. This is the life Liana escapes from when she agrees to marry Marc, she doesn’t love him, she knows he doesn’t love her. He desires her, he enjoys owning her, Liana can respond to Marc sexually, but she has no real affection for him. She has no better experience to compare her relationship to – but she clearly doesn’t expect fairy tales. When Liana returns to her mother’s house on a visit, she is repulsed by the life she has left behind her, the stench of the latrine, sleeping nestled up against the bodies of her siblings in the room where the cooking smells still hang in the air – and where the heat rises throughout the night. She knows she can’t return to this life.

Liana soon starts to see her marriage for the prison that it is. It doesn’t matter what clothes Liana wears, or how she wears her hair – Liana will never be accepted by either community – she doesn’t belong anywhere on the island where society runs very much along colour lines.

“‘Julie’ he said to his wife in an easy voice, not a voice for quarrel. ‘as you have nothing to do, I find it absurd that you do not arrange better meals. You get plenty of money for housekeeping.’

Her name was not Julie; Julie was the name he chose for her. She despised it knowing that he wanted a wife who would fit that name, neat faced with a small pink mouth and a terrible tiredness in her and around her.”

Marc takes her out for rides in the car, but he never takes her to pay visits, no one ever comes to the house. Marc is out and about doing business, still spending several evenings a week with Marie – while Liana stays in the house – with nothing to do, and no one to talk to.

Pierre Vauclain arrives on St Boniface – traumatised by the occupation of his country. He takes up the position of school teacher. The school only operates in the morning, and so Marc, sensing a man in need of more money, and finally recognising that his young wife has nothing to do – employs him to teach Liana in the afternoons.

Liana finds happiness and freedom in the company of Pierre – reading and discussing literature, swimming and having picnics by the sea. The inevitable happens – and Liana knows finally what it is to love someone. However, Pierre is a man, a white man, and he knows just where his allegiances lie.

There is an inevitability to Liana’s story, Gellhorn’s novel about oppression and inhumanity is still as powerful today as it was in 1944.

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Attia Hosain; writer, journalist and a pioneering woman of letters (so Wikepedia tells us) did not sadly produce many books. Her 1961 novel Sunlight on a Broken Column is a wonderful novel of Muslim life, the review I wrote; one of those mysterious old blog posts that still gets lots of hits years later. I’ll bet it’s on a reading list somewhere in the world. Following the partition of India, Attia Hosain moved to England. Phoenix Fled, a collection of twelve stories came first though another collection of hers; Distant Traveller was published in 2012 – which I have on kindle.

Published in 1953 – a few years after the author came to Britain with her husband, the time period of these stories is around the time of the partition of India in 1947. It therefore fitted the Librarything ‘Reading the 1940s’ event, our rules are gratifyingly loose. There are many kinds of families in these stories – and family is our theme for January. Newlyweds, mothers and daughters-in-law, servants who have been part of a household for a lifetime, mothers and sons all play a part in these stories. In her introduction to my VMC edition Anita Desai says…

“They show her appreciation of the warmth, supportiveness, laughter and emotional richness to be found in the joint family as well as an acknowledgement of how often the joint family could become a prison and a punishment.”
(Anita Desai – Introduction to Pheonix Fled)

Phoenix Fled, the opening title story is a sharp reminder of the violence and fear that came with partition. An elderly woman, who has lived for so long in her village no one can remember when she wasn’t there, is swept up in the terrifying divisions which pitch neighbour against neighbour.

“The soldiers had driven into dust-clouds that billowed thick over the fields, thinning into an emptiness over distances that held a threat.
She did not feel it nor did the children, but the others lived heavily under its weight. The familiar stillness of their surroundings was an accomplice to their solace-seeking minds, as to hers. It could not come to them from out of known distances, to this village, these huts, themselves, the bestiality that was real only to their fear. The village lived uneasily, the breath of its life quickened or caught when some outsider brought chill confirmation.”

Attia Hosain’s writing is very beautiful – I found so many passages to appreciate and read over. There is also quite a lot of sadness – and although I appreciated all these stories – each one is a perfect evocation of time and place – they did affect my mood a little. I was possibly already a little fed up – so don’t let that put you off – these stories are brilliant in their way – and Attia Hosain’s writing is superb.

In, The Street of the Moon – a marriage is arranged between a young servant girl and a middle-aged cook, with an opium habit. Kalloo, who already has an adult son from his first marriage is dismayed. Hasina is a new edition to the household – and is causing problems with her laughter and her cheeky disposition, so Kalloo the cook is told to marry her – Kalloo has been driven to distraction by Hasina’s teasing, the marriage seems doomed before it begins. You can’t help but feel for this girl whose unconventional behaviour means she is palmed off on someone who doesn’t want her around either. Soon after the wedding, Kalloo persuades his work-shy son to come and work with him – the inevitable disaster follows.

One of my favourite stories was Time is Unredeemable – it was also one of the ones I found saddest. Bano; has been living with her in laws for years, waiting patiently for the husband she barely knows to return from England following his studies, he was delayed further by the war. She has almost given up hope that he will ever return, and then one day the cable announcing his return arrives. Bano can think of nothing else, everything she has dreamed of is about to come true. She starts to plan what she will wear and enlists the help of an old family friend in her search for the perfect outfit. There is a terrible inevitability to Bano’s reality – one of those stories I kept hoping would turn out differently to how I knew it was going to. Bano in her red sari and belted coat was the character I kept thinking about after I had finished the book.

“The red net sari with its golden flowers spread stiffly out from below the coat tight-buttoned across her chest and hips, its belt measuring her thickened wait. The powder was too light on her skin, the rouge too pink, and the mouth held tight in shyness smudged red by inexpert hands. She looked up and away, and her eyes were large, soft and timid supplicants.”

In The Loss a much loved family servant who was once the wet nurse for the daughter of the house is robbed of her life savings – money and jewellery she kept in a box under the bed in her tiny room. The daughter of the house is distressed and humbled by the woman’s grief over her loss – and seeks to try and unravel the mystery even getting the local police involved. When the old woman’s son visits, the younger woman’s suspicions are roused.

phoenix fledAn idealistic political worker in Gossamer Thread faces disillusionment – as the wife he looks down upon and married merely to please his mother urges him to help a friend caught up in a political demonstration. The husband is an intellectual – priding himself on his understanding of complex issues, he sees his wife as decoration, he is dismissive of her questions – and yet when the knock comes at the door – he is incapable of stepping up.

In these stories we see characters lives shaped by their fate – kismet. The old traditions come up against the new, modern more westernised world which is threatening to destroy the traditional culture. In these stories Attia Hossain shows a deep, though realistic affection for these old traditions

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Playing the Harlot was my final book in my A Century of Books, it fitted into my 1996 slot by virtue of the fact it was initially rejected for publication in 1963. Playing the Harlot – or, Mostly Coffee – was Patricia Avis’ only novel and ultimately foreshadowed the author’s early death – who never lived to see it published.

Avis is brilliantly witty, so often it feels as if her little asides and observations have come straight from life. Particularly interesting of course is the character Rollo – who apparently is her Larkin.

“Rollo, never employed on enterprises to which he might debit his travelling expenses, had arrived on the six o’clock bus. Since then he had been explaining to Mary in the sitting room the consequences of having been obliged to eat savoury rice for lunch. Pete was still out testing the dip-switch mechanism against the garage doors.”

During the 1950s Patricia Avis was an angry young woman among a large group of literary angry young men, including Philip Larkin, all of whom became quite well known – while Patricia Avis was forgotten. Her novel was a Roman à clef, focussing on that literary circle she was a part of. This, it seems the reason the novel was rejected by publishers who were concerned about the potential slander of literary figures.

It is women however who are at the heart of this novel, Mary Gallen – brought up and educated abroad, and her friends Theo and Abigail. Avis paints some wonderful portraits of these easy living young people.

“Theo grabbed a raincoat off the bannisters and rushed downstairs, missing all the splits in the linoleum, which had been known to trip people up.
Coming back was much more sedate. She had a young man with her, a tall, thin, stooping young man in spectacles. And he was wearing a pink check wool shirt half tucked into a pair of shrunken chocolate-coloured corduroys held up by an old school tie. One half of his face was concealed by a tongue of uncombed hair. The other half, sketchily shaven, looked kind and content.”

Avis highlights that post-war generation, a generation beset by political and social aimlessness. They are intellectuals, cynics, closet homosexuals and adulterers.

We first meet Mary when she is a young student, living in convent halls – and drinking coffee with Rollo – the Larkin figure in this novel. Mary writes to her wealthy parents in Argentina often, asking for money or permission to do things she suspects they won’t approve of. As the novel opens Mary is writing to ask to be allowed to move out of the hated convent halls and into Theo’s flat.
Mary marries Pete, a medical student – and they set up home with an Irish housekeeper and her two adopted children ruling the roost. Yet, it is with Rollo that Mary has an affair. Like the author herself, Mary decides to go to Paris to continue her studies, it is the beginning of the end of her marriage. Here Mary meets Martin, who she later marries.

Playing the Harlot is a very feminist novel in what it has to say about sexual politics and the place these women find themselves in in society. Mary, Theo and Abagail are all intelligent young women, and yet, they largely serve as accessories in the lives of their men. Theo; herself a medical student, marries a student lecturer and is later buried in domesticity. Abagail an art student, marries an ageing European count.

Mary throws herself at life – full of life and optimism, always looking for love and acceptance. Her relationships unsuitable and unfulfilling. Throughout her various relationships – which are sometimes with men who prefer men, she is plagued by a series of miscarriages. The lack of sympathy and support is very noticeable. Mary lies in a nursing home until discharged, and then just gets on with it. The novel is very readable, and Avis’ dialogue is particularly good, the characters all sympathetic and believable – it is certainly a novel of its time (of when it was originally written that is) providing fascinating a portrait of the literary circles in which Avis moved.

Overall I didn’t love this novel, but it is a very interesting novel, well written and quite compelling in its way.

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Dedicated to the memory of Virginia Woolf, Olivia was Dorothy Strachey’s only novel. Published under the pseudonym ‘Olivia’  it is a subtle classic of lesbian literature. It is more of a novella really at just 114 pages in this edition, and I’ll be honest – I picked it mainly for its length as I near the end of my A Century of Books. The Afterword reveals that the French school featured in this novella is loosely based on Marie Souvestre’s Allenswood Academy, attended by both the author and Eleanor Roosevelt, which in itself is rather fascinating. I’m not sure why – but I wasn’t altogether certain that I would enjoy Olivia – perhaps I read a review of it somewhere which put me off – however, I enjoyed it enormously. What a shame it is that Dorothy Strachey only ever published this. Dorothy Strachey’s writing is beautiful, and there is a lot that is very quotable from this slim volume.

“Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? For every feeling, every vicissitude of my passion, there would spring into my mind a quotation from the poets. Shakespeare or Donne or Heine had the exact phrase for it. Comforting, perhaps, but enraging too. Nothing ever seemed spontaneously my own.”

A woman recollects the final year of her education, a year when she discovered life at its fullest, found passion and in a sense, herself.

Olivia is sixteen when she is sent to Les Avons a finishing school near Paris, run by two mademoiselles. This is a school of an entirely different kind. It is a school where there are few rules, where laughter and passionate discussion are actively encouraged. Olivia revels in this atmosphere so unlike anything she has experienced before.

However, the freedom and fun of Les Avons is superficial, beneath the surface are raw emotions, jealousies and destructive allegiances.

“How hard it is to kill hope! Time after time, one thinks one has trodden it down, stamped it to death. Time after time, like a noxious insect, it begins to stir again, it shivers back again into a faint tremulous life. Once more it worms its way into one’s heart, to instil its poison, to gnaw away the solid hard foundations of life and leave in their place the hollow phantom of illusion.”

The school is run by Mademoiselles Julie and Cara, once so close, the two are each acting against the other. Each of the headmistresses have their circle of acolytes – powerful emotions have been unleashed beneath the roofs of this French school. Olivia doesn’t really understand the nuances of everything that is going on at Les Avons, the tension between Julie and Cara, is a puzzle to her but she has no understanding for what their relationship might have been. Olivia; fresh from England is too caught up in a complete infatuation for Mademoiselle Julie.

“Love has always been the chief business of my life, the only thing I have thought—no, felt—supremely worth while, and I don’t pretend that this experience was not succeeded by others. But at that time, I was innocent, with the innocence of ignorance, I didn’t know what was happening to me.”

The girls regularly gather around Mademoiselle Julie for impassioned debate, to present their essays and to hang upon her every word. Olivia waits for the headmistress’s visits to her room, for the slightest look, the touch of her hand.

oliviaWhile Olivia is wrestling with these new and unexpected feelings for her headmistress and making an unexpected friendship with another of Mademoiselle Julie’s favourites, Mademoiselle Cara is plotting one final act of betrayal.

I am surprised that this delicate little novella isn’t better known. I know vintage books brought out a new edition of this one a few years ago, which has hopefully raised its profile a little.

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Radclyffe Hall became famous – perhaps infamous in her day – for her novel The Well of Loneliness a ground-breaking novel in lesbian literature. I loved that novel – although it gets increasingly bleak and is not terribly positive. I was compelled to keep reading and didn’t at all mind Hall’s rather flowery writing style. Before writing that novel Hall was already a published novelist and poet. The obscenity trial that followed the publication of The Well of Loneliness resulted in an order for all copies to be destroyed. A Saturday Life was published three years before that book which was to cause such an unwarranted furore. It is an altogether lighter book, a comic novel about a precocious child, artistic experience and the possibility of reincarnation.

Sidonia Shore is the only daughter of the gently vague Lady Prudence Shore, a woman whose head is generally somewhere in Ancient Egypt. Her husband, himself a great Egyptologist has died, and she is determined to carry on his life’s work and ensure his name is not forgotten. Her daughter Sidonia is only seven years old as the novel opens, when the child’s nurse finds her dancing naked in the drawing room. When challenged, Sidonia bites the nurse and the shocked woman has no choice but to rouse Lady Shore from her Egyptian ruminations. Sidonia’s mother is rather at a loss as how to deal with her eccentric child – and enlists the help of her friend Lady Frances Reide who lives nearby and is a frequent visitor.

Sidonia is clearly a precocious child – and Frances suggests that her mother enrol her in the Rose Valery dance school in Fulham. Here the pupils – under the tutelage of their teacher, endeavour to recapture the soul of Ancient Greece.

“Sidonia’s first appearance at the Rose Valery School was positively melodramatic. To begin with, she looked so extremely unusual, with her pale face and shock of auburn curls. She was little and quiet and immensely self-possessed, not at all put out by the groups of gaping students. The moment Rose Valery set eyes on the child she had, or so she said afterwards, great difficulty in stifling a scream of pleasure.”

Prudence and Frances can only hope that Sidonia is able to express herself artistically at the school, while keeping her clothes on. Sidonia behaves impeccably to begin with – but she finds clothes so restrictive for dance – and soon removes them, dancing naked before her classmates in the cloakroom. Frances has some work to do in persuading Rose Valery to allow Sidonia back after this – she has been receiving letters from uncles after all. For a few years Sidonia is happy dancing at the school – but the strictures of the school and clothing begin to take their toll on her talent, and her dancing changes. Soon Sidonia finds she no longer loves dance – and completely gives it up.

Over the next twenty years, Frances continues to support and counsel Sidonia and her mother. Sidonia changes artistic discipline every few years. With extraordinary enthusiasm she takes up each new interest, perfecting and obsessing over each new talent as it crops up. Sidonia appears to have the most extraordinary talent for everything she takes up. Piano, wax modelling, sculpture and singing are each taken up fully embraced and then discarded. Lady Shore can barely keep up, so lost in her own world is she, that her daughter’s artistic developments are a constant confusion.

a saturday life2When she is in her sculpture phase, Sidonia is working under the tutelage of Einar Jensen alongside a roomful of other students who she never really gets to know. She is determined to be awarded the travelling scholarship, and to go to Italy and continue her studies there. Once Sidonia is set on something it’s sure to happen – and she does win the scholarship and persuades Frances to accompany her to Italy. Frances is a wonderful foil to Sidonia’s wild enthusiasm, wryly sardonic, sensible and practical – she’s not keen to go to Italy – she is far more at home, spending time in the predictable though vague company of her old friend. However, Sidonia gets her own way as usual.

It is in Italy, that Frances first learns about a Saturday Life in an old book she buys. It provides one explanation for Sidonia’s taking up and throwing off of artistic disciplines. A theory requiring a belief in reincarnation.

“People who are living a ‘Saturday life’ are said to have no new experiences, but to spend it entirely in a last rehearsal of experiences previously gained. They are said to exhibit remarkable talent for a number of different things; but since they have many memories to revive, they can never concentrate for long on one. This also applies to their relationships with people, which are generally unsatisfactory.”

In Italy Sidonia is introduced to the Ferraris, a family of singing teachers – old friends of Frances’. Soon, Sidonia has lost all interest in sculpture and taken up singing as if she was born to it. Frances is furious at her wasting the scholarship and its not long before she returns to England – happy to be more and more in the company of her old friend Prudence. When Sidonia returns to London, she meets David, falling hopelessly in love. David is quite a contrast to the rest of the book, and like Frances I had my doubts about him. He is a traditional type with fixed ideas about women.

“‘I think that you ought to have married. Why haven’t you married, my dear?’ He stood surveying her critically, but his eyes were not altogether unsympathetic. She thought: ‘Supposing I tried to explain? And began to laugh softly to herself. ‘Bless you!’ she said, ‘I’ve never wanted to marry.’
‘All women do,’ he told her.
‘Not being a woman, how can you know?’
‘Because I’m a man, I suppose.’

The reader of course understands early on that Frances is a lesbian, Hall gives us plenty of clues. Living alone, wearing rather masculine clothes, quietly devoted to Prudence. She is easily the most interesting character in the book.
The ending is enigmatic – has Sidonia found her last great fulfilment in life – will it be a happy ending?

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In Margaret Laurence’s final novel most of her characters are searching; searchers for home, family or creativity, water or scavenging in town dumps. The Diviners; the final novel in Laurence’s Manawaka sequence (though I still have to read number three and the collection of stories) is though a novel of outsiders.

At about 400 pages, I thought twice about reading this, as I am trying not to pick anything too big as I race toward the end of my A Century of Books. I had wanted to read this so long, I decided it didn’t really matter – I should read what I wanted to. So very glad I did, I loved every bit of this novel, not a fast read, but a thoroughly absorbing one, beautifully written it proved a real treat spending time with this book. An epic novel, which is already considered a classic of Canadian literature. Strangely, the novel has also been banned several times by school boards for blasphemy. I find that absurd.

Manawaka is the fictional prairie town that first appeared in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a fiercely independent writer, her difficult relationships with her Métis lover Jules Tonnerre, and her daughter Pique. As we first meet Morag, she is a forty-seven-year old woman, living near a river. Her eighteen-year-old daughter has gone away for a while and she is worrying about her, watching the river – trying to get her mind back to her work. Here, Morag is alone but has friends close by – neighbours who pop in frequently. Old Royland, the water diviner is one.

“No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie, seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.”

The story moves back and forth between Morag’s present – where she struggles with her work and her relationship with her daughter, and the past as she grows up more and more desperate to escape the town of Manawaka.

Morag Gunn wasn’t born in Manawaka – her parents died when she was just five years old – and she goes to live in Manawaka with an army friend of her father’s and his wife – who agree to take the orphaned child in. Christy Logan and his wife Prin (short for Princess) are an odd choice as guardians for such a young child. Morag has never lived in town before – it all seems very strange – and she has never met Christy and Prin before she is taken there by a neighbour. Christy is the town scavenger – he spends his days at the nuisance grounds (the town tip) he gets rid of the things people don’t want – a keeper of secrets, and a finder of things. His wife Prin is an enormously large woman, who stays mainly in the house.

“‘She’ll be alright Christie,’ the Big Fat Woman says. ‘She gotta get used to us. Leave her be, now’
‘I was only trying, for God’s sake, woman,’ sounding mad.
‘You want to see your room, Morag?’ the woman says.
She nods. They mount the stairs, the woman going very slow because fat. The room is hers, this one? A thin bed, a green dresser, a window with a (oh – ripped, shame on them) lace curtain. A little room. You might be safe in a place like that, if it was really yours. If they meant it.”

Christy and Prin are kind people – and though Morag is often slightly ashamed of them – in the way children are when their adults are so obviously different to other children’s – she becomes used to them. Christy is a good teller of tales – stories that Morag carries with her – she is both fascinated and repelled by his life at the nuisance grounds (I shall forever now, think of a rubbish dump as the nuisance grounds). However, as Morag grows up – she becomes more and more dissatisfied with life in Manawaka, knowing that when the time is right, she will break away.

Morag is made tough by this strange life in the prairie town. It is here in Manawaka though as a teenager that Morag first meets Jules Tonnerre, (nickname Skinner), Jules and his family are outsiders, Métis living on the outskirts of town, they are subject to all the usual prejudices. While Jules is away at the war, Morag a junior reporter on the town newspaper is sent to report on the fire at the Tonnerre home, where Jules’ sister and her children are killed. It is a scene that will haunt them both over the coming years.

the diviners

Morag does leave Manakawa – she goes to college where she meets new friends and lovers, marries the wrong man and longs for a child. One day, she meets up with Jules again, though their relationship is never destined to be conventional, she takes the chance to break away one more time.

Laurence’s characters are wonderfully memorable – her storytelling is rich and poignantly written. My first novel of the month will be one that is hard to beat. I don’t think it matters that I am reading these books slightly out of order, but I am looking forward to reading The Fire Dwellers even more now.

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