Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘VMC’

A couple of weeks ago two books came through my letter box from Virago that I hadn’t been expecting and what a lovely surprise they were. Two works by Dorothy West; a book of essays and short stories and this novel. Dorothy West is probably best known for her first novel The Living is Easy first published in 1948, (a book I have had for some years) – this novel; The Wedding wasn’t published until almost fifty years later. Dorothy West was a friend of Zora Neale Hurston, part of the Harlem resistance of the 1930s, though she apparently didn’t see herself as a political writer. As Diana Evans explains in her excellent introduction to this new edition, West was never involved in the civil rights movement and yet her work is “infused with the insidious and warped permeations of race into everyday lives.”

Dorothy West wrote about the community that she came from – not the stories of the African-American working class, being published by other black writers – hers; the privileged world of Boston’s black middle class.

In August 1953 the Coles family gather for the wedding of their youngest and loveliest daughter; Shelby. The Oval on Martha’s Vineyard is a proud community made up of Boston’s black middle classes. Although the story in the present takes place over one weekend – it also tells the story of five generations of a family, dipping back into the past exploring the lives of the earlier generations, showing how they came to be where they are as the novel opens.

We have the stories of Preacher – who set out to find the land that would be his home – and his son Isaac, who leaves home as a boy to further his education setting out on a path that will trickle down to the next generation. The story of Josephine who is so afraid of being an old maid she marries the cook’s son and breaks her mother’s heart. The stories of all these people and more are a part of the Coles family.

This is a novel of colourism, and the psychological impact of slavery, and how colour and society’s reactions to it, can become confused with people’s view of themselves.

“Because if you don’t know someone all that well, you react to their surface qualities, the superficial stereotypes they throw off like sparks… But once you fight through the sparks and get to the person, you find just that, a person, a big jumble of likes, dislikes, fears, and desires.”

Shelby Coles like most of the Coles family is very light skinned – fair haired and blue eyed – and has chosen to marry a white jazz musician. Her great grandmother is delighted – Gram; now in her nineties, was a white southern belle, her father had been a slave owner. When her daughter married a black man – it had broken her heart. Now she sees Shelby’s marriage as a chance to free her from what she sees as the burden of living within a ‘coloured family’.

“Like most children, Shelby spent her days and hours trying on the most transparent parts of other personalities, gradually growing aware of their insufficiencies. Then slowly, at a snail’s pace, and with a snail’s patience, she would thread her frailties and fears, her courage and strength, her hopes and doubts, into the warp and woof that would cloak her naked innocence in a soul of her own.”

Gram’s grandson, Shelby’s father married a light-skinned woman as he knew he was required to do – but their marriage has never been happy – and for years Clark has had a mistress, just waiting for the right time to go away with her. Shelby’s sister Liz married a darker skinned man, her baby daughter has been rejected by Gram because of her browner skin.  

“The Clark Coleses came closest to being as real as their counterparts. They had money, enough not only to spend but to save. They were college-bred, of good background. They lived graciously. Two respectful maids had served them for years, living proof that they were used to servants. If Clark and Corinne had not slept with each other for years, even their daughters could not have demanded more discretion in their outward behaviour.”

One of the most memorable stories, relates what happened one summer when Shelby was little – she wandered off and got lost. A search was taken up – but it was many hours before the child was found, because everyone thought they knew what kind of child they were searching for and Shelby didn’t look like that. Shelby later asks Gram ‘am I coloured?”

As Shelby prepares to marry – some people question why it is that of all the men that have paid attention to Shelby she has chosen to marry this white man. Everyone seems to think it’s all about colour. Close to the Coles house in the Oval lives Lute McNeil a black man with three young light skinned daughters – each the result of a disastrous marriage with different white women. The poor little girls having witnessed rather too much emotional turmoil, think white mummies cry, and Lute has got an eye on another new mummy; Shelby Coles.

Ultimately this is a shattering novel of great subtlety, cinematic in scope and richly descriptive.

(This was my fourteenth book in my #20booksofsummer – swapped for The Reading Party – which I still intend to read, eventually.)

Read Full Post »

For those used to the world of Molly Keane with Full House we are back in familiar territory. Molly Keane has become an old favourite of mine, there can’t be that many of her books left for me to read.

An Irish mansion; Silverue stands between the hills and the sea. Home to the Bird family it is presided over by Olivia Bird a beautiful, selfish woman in her late forties, proud of her youthful looks. The house dances to Olivia’s tune, her husband Julian is usually to be found in his study – his adoration of his wife is a somewhat quiet affair.

Their youngest child is Markie – a delightful, irrepressible seven year old who runs happily around the grounds followed closely by his governess Miss Parker. Miss Parker is a rather pathetic figure, though Markie loves her – plagued by embarrassing facial hair – she is thought of as being rather furry by the family she works for. There is, naturally enough a disaster with her latest mail order depilatory. When not running around after Markie, poor Miss Parker is harried to pieces by Olivia – who thinks nothing of asking her to plant a thousand crocus bulbs.

The Birds’ middle child is Sheena, a rather lovely nineteen year old, teetering on the brink of either great love or great heartbreak. She has been spending more and more time with Rupert, the son of another local landed family, whose older sisters take it upon themselves to interfere in their brother’s love life.

As the novel opens family friend Eliza arrives, thirty-five with divorce and bereavement in her past – she has loved Julian from a far for years. She arrives on an important day, the day the Birds eldest son John arrives home – the reasons for his previous absence are glossed over – but it is clear that he has suffered a breakdown and been away recovering. John is Olivia’s darling, and Eliza has some concerns as to whether Olivia is up to the delicately balanced situation.

“In the rod-room, coldly and devastatingly the same as he had always known it, John shut the door and waited for a moment almost without thought. I don’t mind. You’re not lonely because you’re alone, he protested. I’m all right if I keep quiet. All right. I’m quite all right. It’s only for a second I feel a bit wretched. Was it this room being so inevitably the same that made him feel terrible for a moment, so divided from all he had a right to ask of life? The same shelf of dog’s medicines. The same row over row of rod-rests, and the rods one knew so familiarly lying on them one above another. The fuchsias half-darkening the windows, and the Boody with yet another litter of healthy and illegitimate puppies in the box in the corner. All these things were rather drearily the same as they had always been. That was it. That was why they hurt him so much.”

Julian’s diplomatic way of removing John from his mother’s over whelming presence is to arrange an evening of fly fishing for after dinner. At dinner John’s black humour about his illness rather takes everyone aback. He welcomes the fishing though, despite knowing it to be too early in the season. John meets Nick, a local man who lives simply, his little cottage on the extreme point of the peninsula where one door looks out on the sea and the other door out on the hills.

“And John was more than ever like John, with a curious unlikeness to himself which all this clamour could not shelter. He had come back to them, and they must not think he wanted any nonsense about nervous breakdowns and the like. It made things much worse for him. And if he defended himself from worse so wildly, the present must hold some terror of soul for him past imagination. Eliza wondered where he found the refuge.”

While Olivia is organising her garden fête – which everyone has to suffer for – Eliza recognising that John is still not completely at home finds that she can help him with the love she is unable to give to Julian. Eliza is also worried for Sheena – who in her desperate love for Rupert is so terribly miserable. Can a secret that Eliza has been keeping for Olivia help Sheena?

Full House is another excellent Molly Keane novel, beautifully written with gorgeous descriptive passages, it’s a novel that recognises the sometimes precarious emotions within families.

Read Full Post »

The kind of book review that I sometimes find the hardest to write is the review of a book that I loved as much as I did this one. This was a book I wanted to carry around with me hugging it to my chest – like a child with a new favourite toy. I wanted to read and read and never have it end. Daphne Du Maurier is that kind of writer – she grabs your attention in those first few sentences and doesn’t let go. I remember that feeling well from when I read Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel – reading Daphne Du Maurier can be drug like which is appropriate when it comes to The House on the Strand.

Probably one of the reasons I hadn’t read this before is because I knew it concerned time-travel and that rather put me off. Ha, it’s a funny old thing this reading malarkey – no time-travel novels ever before – then two in one month. Anyway, I really shouldn’t have been put off – this is time travel Du Maurier style. In this novel Du Maurier blends the past and present beautifully – we become aware of how landscape may change over centuries – yet the basic shape of the land on which we live is essentially unchanged. Houses, whole communities may come and go but the curve of a hill, the sweep of a bay is much the same. We walk in the footsteps of others – those who came before us and who we will never know. I always adored history – and once upon a time I read a lot more historical fiction than I do now. In this novel Daphne Du Maurier celebrates the Cornwall of her present and our collective past – the sense of place is strong, her love of this land palpable.

“The world of today asleep, and my world not awakened, or not as yet, until the drug possessed me.”

Dick Young has been loaned an old house in Cornwall for the summer. Kilmarth belongs to Dick’s friend Professor Magnus Lane. The Professor let’s Dick into a secret – he has been experimenting with a new drug, a drug that will take the user a world away from any problems they may have. Magnus offers Dick the chance to be his guinea-pig – the drug is stored in three bottles in Magnus’s basement laboratory at Kilmarth – Magnus gives Dick his instructions over the phone – and Dick takes his first dose. The drug will take Dick back to the fourteenth century – to the world of Roger Kylmerth steward to Sir Henry Champernoune.

“The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me the shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope. Nearer to me, too each object had the same hard quality, the very grass turning to single blades, springing from a younger, harsher soil than the soil I knew.”

It’s a world of danger, disease and intrigue, where young monk connives with the lady of the house to bring an end to one thought to be dying. Where allegiances change and adultery can lead to death. With Roger as his unknowing guide – Dick witnesses whispered intrigues, adultery and murder. He is unable to interact with this world – he is an invisible witness – should Dick attempt to touch anyone from the fourteenth century he is brought crashing back to the present, suffering violent nausea, vertigo and confusion.

While Dick’s conscious mind is in the past – his body remains in his own time – so as Dick follows Roger across the Cornish landscape of the past – he could unwittingly be walking under a car in his own time. Dick is aware of the dangers – and is yet to discover whether Magnus’s drug will have any lasting effect upon his mind or body – but it is too late – Dick has been captivated by the past. After just one visit – Dick is longing to return – and keen to ring up Magnus and share his experiences with the only person in the world he can.

In the present time – Dick is waiting for the arrival of his American wife Vita, and her two sons from a previous marriage. He loves Vita and has a good relationship with his step-sons who simply adore him – but Dick is immediately set on preventing Vita arriving too early – he wants a few days to himself to continue his adventures.

It’s not long before he takes another dose of Magnus’s drug. Sometimes the aftereffects are almost non-existent, at other times violent and distressing, Dick has no wish for Vita to see him like that. However, Vita is not easily put off – and arrives two days earlier than expected. The two boys are never happier than when out and about – especially when enjoying boat trips organised by their step-father. Vita is not so easily placated – and senses almost immediately that something is wrong – she is inclined to blame Magnus – who she has never really liked. Vita is anxious to persuade Dick to move permanently to the States, to accept the job she has arranged through friends. Weary after years in a job in London he has tired of, Dick is not ready to make any big decisions.

“I realized at that moment, more strongly than hitherto, how fantastic, even macabre, was my presence amongst them, unseen, unborn, a freak in time, witness to events that had happened centuries past, unremembered, unrecorded; and I wondered how it was that standing here on the steps, watching yet invisible, I could so feel myself involved, troubled, by these loves and deaths.”

Dick gets drawn further and further into the world of fourteenth century Cornwall – taking more and more trips – captivated to the point of obsession by the beautiful, fragile Isolde. As the trips into the past continue and increase, Dick becomes less present in the modern world – everything he is doing is hidden from Vita – and Dick is withdrawing more and more from family life.

The House on the Strand is wonderfully compelling, Du Maurier’s fourteenth century world is a real and credible place – the inhabitants of which become every bit as fascinating to the reader as they are to Dick Young.

Read Full Post »

I have come to love Barbara Comyns so much, and this novel took a little finding, why all of her books aren’t in print is inexplicable to me. There are a couple of her books I shall probably never find. I wish someone would re-issue them all.

Comyns breezy matter of fact style is very much in evidence here. Those who have read her before will recognise the tone immediately. Comyns’ novels all reveal sad childhoods, odd, often horrible domestic arrangements uncaring parents, the absurd and the macabre. Yet Comyns style is unique in writing about them, she’s wry, quirky, shielding us in a way from the true darkness at the root of all her stories.

A Touch of Mistletoe is a coming of age novel which follows the changing fortunes of two sisters from their teenage years to middle age. For me there were echoes of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, Mr Fox and Sisters by the River, in the story of Vicky and Blanche.

They grow up in a household similar to those other Comyns households. As the novel opens Blanche and Vicky are discussing their grandfather’s funeral. It is their grandfather’s house they are living in, with their handsome brother Edward and their mother – who enlists their help in scrubbing the floors and drinks – they grew up hearing their mother was often ‘poorly’.

“Our mother rather lost interest in us after the thirst got hold of her and, although our grandfather was vaguely fond of us, he certainly wasn’t interested. Edward was sent to a second or perhaps third-rate school recommended by the vicar and Blanche and I had to make do with ever-changing governesses who seemed to know they were doomed as soon as they arrived and hardly bothered to unpack their boxes. The last one was a Miss Baggot, who was old and finding it difficult to get work; although she was frequently in tears, she stayed for nearly a year. Mother finally hit her with a parasol and she left after that.”

The family lawyer Mr Hobbs is reluctant to let Vicky have the small amount of money she has inherited from her grandfather. The sisters have plans, they are ready for life to start – more than ready to leave home, Vicky is eighteen and Blanche sixteen.

Vicky endures a brief period in Amsterdam working for a woman who breeds dogs. It’s a grim experience, and she leaves broke and with a sceptic hand. In London, Blanche joins a mannequin academy – and when Vicky joins her in the capital the two set up home together, taking a room in a run down street. It is in portraying such settings that Comyns excels, the smells of cabbage soup, poverty the sound of their neighbours through the walls. Vicky enrols in a cheap art school taking instruction in life drawing with a roomful of other students. Charcoal dusted fingers, nude models and drawing paper filled with disappointment. Vicky is very at home in this bohemian world.

Life has begun for them both – a life that will take them in different directions. Blanche is horrified by poverty in a way that Vicky isn’t. The sisters are often hungry, they both get boils, Vicky has spent all her money and has to leave the art school. When Blanche gets the chance to work as a companion to an old lady, she jumps at it – even though it means leaving her sister and moving away. Vicky meanwhile gets a job at a commercial studio.

The novel follows the sisters through several marriages, bereavement motherhood, war and middle age. Vicky is drawn to vulnerable, damaged men. Her first husband Eugene is a wonderfully drawn character – an artist, whose attitude to certain cheap goods on show in shop windows is quite funny – but reveals his erratic moods.

“Often he went out of his way to torture himself by looking at things that would upset him – furniture shops and windows filled with plaster little girls lifting up their skirts and gnomes and monks or demons twisted up in agony. These things were frightful but one could always look the other way. Gene would return home quivering with the horrors he had seen as if it had been cruelty to children or animals. I could tell by the way he walked upstairs if things were wrong. Sometimes I thought I must be insensitive that I did not worry enough about ugliness, unemployment and all the things that upset Gene, but life would have been frightful if we both suffered so much.”

Blanche marries a cold, starchy man with money – desperate to escape the poverty she so fears. The sisters’ lives diverge and come back together again over the years. Life isn’t easy for either of the sisters, for a variety of reasons. By the time we leave them, they are firmly middle aged – and the world is a different place to the one we started off in.  

I loved this – you can probably tell. What a wonderfully unique and endlessly readable Barbara Comyns is – if you come across a copy of this one – snap it up.

Read Full Post »

As the LT Virago group continue ‘reading the 1940s’ our March theme is women – which saw me reading Liana by Martha Gellhorn earlier this month. My second book for this month’s theme was The Persimmon Tree and other stories, a book taking me to Australia. In these stories Marjorie Barnard explores the experience of women, the bonds between them and the relationships they have with men. This VMC edition includes three additional stories originally not included when the collection was first published in 1943.

Marjorie Barnard established a writing partnership with Flora Eldershaw with whom she produced both novels and works of criticism. They published under the name M Barnard Eldershaw for almost twenty years. Marjorie Barnard’s only successful solo work was The Persimmon Tree and other stories.  

Other themes in these beautifully observed stories include rivalry between women, illicit love, new relationships and those gone sour. Women who must face up to loneliness or a changing world, women who manipulate their men to their ways, and others who turn a blind eye to the ways of their men. A couple grieve their youngest child at Christmas, a man hears about his wife’s lottery win with surprise but no idea of what she might really have in mind for her winnings. A woman goes to buy a hat at her children’s insistence another tries to get over a love affair.

“‘I am like a young girl in love,’ she reproached herself. ‘I have no right to this.’ She told herself bitterly ‘I am old enough to know better.’ She was swept with nostalgia for youth when at least love was not ridiculous, when one had a right to grief, even to a broken heart. She told herself, driving in the statements like nails; ‘I am nearly forty, I am a widow, everything is over.”

(The Woman who Did the Right Thing)

Despite being a fairly slim book – less than 200 pages – there are twenty stories here, some really very short – too many to discuss in detail here. I can attempt to give only a flavour by picking out a few that stand out.

The Arrow of Mistletoe is the story that opens the collection. Lisca Munro is married to a very successful business man. Her love is blind, and Lisca seems totally unaware of her husband’s ways of doing business. He has arranged a huge, expensive dinner party – that Lisca is dimly aware they can’t afford – in order to ensnare another man of business for one of his schemes.

The title story The Persimmon Tree is a short subtle story – in which a woman recovering from an illness, takes a new flat. She watches the flats opposite, the street outside and the shadow of the tree on her wall. In this way the woman comes face to face with her own loneliness – and it is quite exquisitely rendered.

“Persimmons belong to autumn and this was spring. I went to the window to look again. Yes, they were there, they were real. I had not imagined them, autumn fruit warming to a ripe transparency in the spring sunshine. They must have come, expensively packed in sawdust, from California or have lain all winter in storage. Fruit out of season.”

(The Persimmon Tree)

In The Bride Elect a delicate young city woman is adapting to life on a sheep farm as she prepares to marry her Jim. Myra loves the landscape she sees all around her, but she is unused to the life of the farm – and Myra knows that her fiancé’s sister doesn’t think she is a suitable wife. Myra is confident of Jim’s adoration – but when his attention is momentarily turned in another direction, she needs to turn him back to her. It is a brilliant story of sly feminine manipulation.

The setting of Beauty is Strength is a beauty salon, where Ida Berrington comes to have the waves put back into her hair. Here, under the observation of the young women who see all their clients as they truly are, Mrs Berrington reflects on her life and her marriage in particular. Plans forming in her mind.

“The shreds of evidence were working like splinters in her brain. There was the letter addressed to Ced lying on the table with the other mail when she came in yesterday afternoon. She recognised Viola’s handwriting at once, large eager, rather unformed. It didn’t surprise her much, for Viola was in constant need of expression. She was for ever telephoning her friends about some new enthusiasm, writing little notes, copying sentiments that pleased her, out of the novels that she read into arty leather note books. But this wasn’t a little note. It was bulky; even in Viola’s sprawling script, a long letter. She had weighed it speculatively and put it by with an open mind. She wasn’t, she often told people – particularly Ced – a jealous wife, nor would she be but for the possessive streak as strong in her as instinct in an animal.”

(Beauty is Strength)

In The New Dress a young woman is enchanted by the new dress she has bought for what she sees as an important day out with her boyfriend – a day which will culminate in tea with his aunt. The dress has taken weeks of sacrifice to buy – and too much importance is put on to it. The day is blighted by the dress – which must be kept clean, not spoiled – so of course, it is the day itself that is ruined.

Only one story is set outside Australia – Fighting in Vienna. Kathie lives alone with her canary – and worried about getting seed for her dear little feathered friend she ventures out, persuaded that it will be safe as there hasn’t been any firing since the day before. However, as she crosses the square on the way to the shop firing does break out and Kathie is caught up in it. Lying in hospital Kathie reflects on another war and a young man she loved. The canary is left waiting in vain for her return, quite different to other stories in this collection, it’s a beautiful, deeply poignant story.

Marjorie Barnard’s stories depict many aspects of women’s lives, and by extension the lives of their men. They are gorgeous, beautifully written, very definitely my kind of stories. Written precisely and sparely – they frequently portray a world where appearances are too often the most important thing.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »