Exhibition review – “Traces of Displacement” at The Whitworth, Manchester

As a writer (still aspiring!), I well understand the importance of ensuring my life is filled with rich cultural experiences. Obviously, as a book blogger, I probably read more than a lot of people I know, but I’m open to culture in its widest sense and will just as happily write about watching a piece of musical theatre as I am about watching a television drama. (Note to self: I’ve watched some great TV recently, must share on here.) I realised recently that I haven’t been to an exhibition in ages so I was delighted to find a very appealing offering at The Whitworth in Manchester, one of my favourite art galleries.

The Whitworth was founded in 1889, largely from a bequest in the will of Sir Joseph Whitworth, one of Greater Manchester’s greatest sons. He was born in Stockport and was a brilliant engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, leaving much of his fortune to good causes and for the founding of engineering scholarships.

The peaceful gardens at the back of The Whitworth’s prize-winning modern extension

The museum created in his name opened in 1908. Its red-brick Jacobean style of architecture is characteristic of many other buildings in the city. It closed for two years in 2013 when a massive modern extension was added, and reopened in 2015. The extension (left) was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize for architecture that year. It is quite simply a stunning building and worth visiting for this reason alone. It consistently appears in Manchester’s top ten most-visited attractions, and yet, whenever I have been there, it never feels full or overly busy. It is part of the University of Manchester and its collections include paintings, textiles, wallpapers and sculptures.

I have visited so many fantastic exhibitions here. The last one I saw, a few months ago, was a retrospective of the work of Althea McNish, one of the first Caribbean textile designers to achieve international recognition – an extraordinary feat for a woman of colour rising to prominence in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s. Seeing examples of her work, it is clear how far-reaching her influence was.

Traces of Displacement is the latest major exhibition at The Whitworth. The gallery has mined its own vast collection to bring together work which explores the immigrant experience, particularly those forced to leave the places they called home and seek sanctuary and safety in another place.

The stories are powerful: a series of watercolours, painted sparsely by Cecily Brown, shows people on small boats wearing lifejackets; particularly topical. Established artist Cornelia Parker is known for her art exploring human rights and her installation Jerusalem (Occupied Territory) reminds us of a longer-standing geopolitical crisis in that part of the world. A series of photographs showing cells at Colnbrook detention centre where asylum seekers await decisions or deportation, expose the further trauma of imprisonment that people who are fleeing often endure. Interestingly, these photos shows spaces and belongings only, not people or faces – crisps and snacks on a bedside table, laundry hanging over rails, and photos cut from magazines – reminding us of the small day to day things that we all have in common regardless of the colour of our skin or the clothes we wear. A powerful video installation tells the story of Iraqis fleeing their devastated country and certain persecution, and how they are forced to lie to obtain sanctuary.

A second strand of the exhibition explores themes of flight more widely. Long-forgotten exoduses, such as that which followed the Armenian genocide in 1915-16 and the occupation of Belgium in the first world war, remind us that refugees are not a modern phenomenon. Human flight from tragedy is not new. Nor is the instinct for self-preservation, to protect one’s family and to live free from persecution.

The exhibition does not seek to make political points, but it does seek to challenge the tendency to strip those seeking refuge of their status as humans with equal right to occupy this planet of ours and to express themselves, their cultural, religious or sexual identity. The tendency to dehumanise people seeking refugee status is a political choice and has become somewhat normalised in the toxic language used in current debate. For me, this exhibition seeks to redress that balance.

I recommend Traces of Displacement to anyone who can get to it before it finishes next January. The Whitworth is well worth a visit any time. Its first-floor glass-walled restaurant overlooking the park is excellent and the beautiful shop carries high quality products. It is truly a space for contemplation and inspiration that will nourish your soul.

Audiobook review – “Cleopatra and Frankenstein” by Coco Mellors

I’ve had my eye on this book for a while. It has been highly praised in the United States, winning lots of plaudits for its debut novelist Coco Mellors, and in the UK it was a Sunday Times bestseller. The blurb was tantalising; set in New York city it tells the story of a whirlwind romance and its consequences, and comparisons with Sally Rooney have been drawn. My book club liked the sound of it too. We mostly do audiobooks these days as we are busy ladies of a certain age with families and work, etc, and I downloaded it excitedly.

It is essentially a novel of character studies. Cleo is a twenty-something artist struggling to make ends meet in New York where she has a low-calibre job while making her art in her spare time. Cleo is troubled and drifting. She is British but feels no connection with her home country where she has no friends and very little family. Her mother died by suicide when she was in her final year at university. Her parents separated when she was young and her father remarried a ghastly woman and has a new family.

Cleo’s US visa is about to expire and she has no idea what she is going to do next when she meets Frank at a party. Frank is twenty years her senior and owns a successful advertising agency. The opening chapters focus heavily on their initial meeting and the intense chemistry between them, and the inevitability of their getting together. The opening is clever and satisfying to read while also telling us a lot about these two people. It sets the scene really well. Despite the age difference Cleo and Frank seem well-suited. It is tempting to say that Cleo is looking for a ‘father-figure’, but I don’t think that would be correct; she is looking for stability though. Her life experience also makes her older than her years. Frank also had a troubled upbringing, his mother was an alcoholic, and he says he has never met anyone like Cleo before. He is perhaps a little younger than his years. Needless to say, their relationship blossoms. The impending expiry of Cleo’s work visa creates a literary turning point in the plot of the novel. Frank asks Cleo to marry him in a kind of ‘what have they got to lose’ way and they have a quickie ceremony at City Hall, witnessed by an emotional hot dog seller.

So far so good, but for me, the book goes somewhat downhill from here. It is clear that the rest of the novel is going to be about their marriage – will they repent of having married in haste? 

Spoiler alert!

The next few chapters focus a lot on Cleo and Frank’s circle, rather than the couple themselves, and I felt I rather lost the two main characters here. Coco Mellors goes into detailed character portraits of their friends Santiago, Anders and Vincent, and Frank’s younger half-sister Zoe, and we meet Cleo’s father and his wife Miriam, who were cringingly two-dimensional for me. There were times when I wanted to give up on this book because I was so deeply irritated with the secondary characters. I found them lazy stereotypes and I could not fathom why we needed to know so much about them. My only conclusion is that they were there to tell us a bit about “life in New York city”, which I found a bit patronising. It all seemed like something out of Wall Street! Or they were there for padding, to take the focus off Cleo and Frank for a few months, the period during which they were relatively content with one another, until the author could legitimately turn to problems arising in their marriage after the first flush or romance. 

About half way through a further character is introduced. Eleanor is a forty year-old copywriter who goes to work in Frank’s agency. It is clear she is much more ‘ordinary’ than the ‘extraordinary’ Cleo (looks-wise) but there is something about her that attracts Frank’s attention. They share an easy companionability that contrasts with the more intense relationship he has with Cleo. Not unexpectedly, Frank and Cleo’s marriage begins spectacularly to disintegrate, as do the other characters in the book, in a kind of parallel decline. To be fair, the book gets better again from here, although I found the ending disappointingly predictable.

I’m really not sure about this book. It is well-written and I liked the characters of Cleo and Frank, and Eleanor. I disliked most of the others though and found the novel a bit unbalanced in that respect. It’s not a bad read, though it could be quite triggering for some, covering themes of suicide, addiction, and childhood trauma. 

My main complaint is that it seems to favour sensationalism over authenticity and other books I have read recently cover similar themes better (for example, any of Sally Rooney’s books and Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason). I came across an LA Times review which said that Cleopatra and Frankenstein read as though it had been written to be adapted for a Netflix series, and I think I probably agree.

Reading challenge book review – “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque

The April book in my ‘Trying not to be too challenging’ Reading Challenge for this year was All Quiet on the Western Front, the best-known novel by Erich Maria Remarque which draws on his experience as a German soldier in the First World War. First published in 1929, only ten years after the end of that war, it has become one of the most iconic novels about war, all the more poignant because it is written from the perspective of an ‘enemy’ fighter. The book was banned in Germany, where the National Socialists were capitalising on the villification of their country in defeat and felt the book made Germany appear weak. 

My copy is a well-thumbed 1977 reprint that came from my husband’s collection when we got together. I did try reading once before years ago, but as a mother of young children at the time it was just too much for me to bear. I suppose the horrors of yet another senseless and destructive war in Europe appearing in the daily news bulletins, plus the release of a film adaptation that did very well at the Oscars recently, meant the book caught my eye as I was browsing the TBR shelves this time. 

The central character and narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front is Paul Baumer, a young soldier at the Front, serving with other young men who, only weeks earlier, were his friends at the school they attended in a quiet German town. They were persuaded to sign up by their fervently patriotic schoolmaster Kantorek, who told them of glory to be had in serving their nation; their illusions are quickly shattered once they are posted to the Front. Parts of this book are very difficult to read. The vivid accounts of hideous deaths, of gruesome injuries, and of the trauma of enduring such terror, fear and physical pain are stomach-churning, but one is compelled to read almost from a sense of guilt that young men had to, often still have to, endure the horror while the rest of us sit at home in comfort or mourning. One cannot help but think of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers at this point.

Besides the accounts of trench warfare, what is equally shocking is how little progress either side seems to make in exchange for their losses. You have to ask how any of it could be called a victory. The pace of the book is also extraordinary: the periods of fierce and brutal conflict are short episodes of violent action amidst a wider tedium. Most of the soldiers’ time (those that survive the battles) seems to be spent doing very little, just trying to survive. Or in Paul’s case, thinking. The rations are poor and the food is often rank, the conditions are appalling – the descriptions of the ongoing battle to keep rats at bay at night is particularly awful – and no detail is spared in describing toilet habits, for example. 

When Paul returns home for a period of leave, the contrast between his life on the Front and that of civillians is stark. Distressingly, Paul feels that he can no longer relate to his family, that he must spare them the reality of war, but that in doing so he is a co-conspirator in concealing the truth. He cannot wait to get back to the Front, to be with those who can understand him, who share his experience. 

Paul survives almost the whole war, dying only weeks before its end, on a relatively calm day when the single line report from the military authorities read simply “In westen nichts neues” (translated as “All quiet on the Western Front”) from which the book takes its title. In reality, Paul could never have returned to his old life and his family, not after what he had seen and experienced. 

We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.

Paul, in All Quiet on the Western Front, Chapter 5

There have been two translations of the book into English; my edition will be the original by Arthur Wesley Wheen. The second was by Brian Murdoch in 1993. It is interesting that my edition does not include any credit to the translator. Nowadays, translation is considered almost an art in itself, bringing the out the intention and talent of the author to those unable to read books in their original language. 

I recommend this book highly. It is practically essential reading, though it is not an easy one. 

The next book for this challenge from my TBR shelf is The Bloody Chamber by the late great feminist author Angela Carter. I think I got this as part of a set of three books by her (along with Nights at the Circus and Black Venus) back in the day when I used to subscribe to a postal book club (remember those?) It’s another of those books I’ve been ‘meaning to read’ for years – at last an excuse!

Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist

The shortlist for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced following much anticipation last week. The winner will be announced on 14 June, but it is one of those literary prizes where you suspect all of the finalists feel like winners due to the sense of warmth and inclusivity around it. This prize has really taken off in recent years thanks to some brilliant marketing activity. The team made fantastic hay out of the Covid lockdowns, running Zoom chats with shortlisted authors (and many hundreds of fans) where you really felt like you were part of the contest. All facilitated by the inimitable Kate Mosse, of course, the dynamic founder of the Prize. Unlike the Booker prize the Women’s Prize also has a sense of humility about it; it doesn’t confine itself to purely literary novels. This is a contest that celebrates the joy of reading in its widest sense, with podcasts, blogs and email newsletters that really keep you engaged.

This year’s shortlist of six books includes three debut novels and three from established authors.

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks

This book has been getting a lot of attention. It is the author’s debut novel, though her short stories and non-fiction work have garnered praise. Set in 1970s London it tells the story of Yamaye, a young black woman and her relationship with the music she identifies with as part of her cultural inheritance, dub reggae. She meets and falls in love with Moose, but when their love affair ends, it triggers a search for identity and a personal transformation.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Another author better known for her short stories, Irish writer Louise Kennedy’s novel is set in Belfast during the period known as ‘the Troubles’, a poignant moment to remember those terrible days as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It tells the story of primary school teacher Cushla navigating love and politics in the most challenging of circumstances. For most of us it is hard to imagine what it must be like to try and live an ordinary life surrounded by violence and threat but if the reviews are anything to go by, Louise Kennedy has pulled it off here.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver’s 1998 best-selling novel The Poisonwood Bible remains one of the best books I have ever read – it had such a powerful impact on me. This literary giant needs no introduction and has both won and been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize before. Demon Copperhead is said to be her modern take on Dickens’s David Copperfield where a young man, born into poverty in Virginia tries to make his way in the world in a modern America beset by social problems and prejudice.

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris

Another debit novel, this one also set in against the backdrop of conflict, this time Sarajevo in 1992. As we watch the terrible events in Ukraine unfold day after day it is easy to forget that only thirty years another devastating war took place on the European continent and destroyed a country. This novel tells the story of Zora, an artist and teacher who must decide whether to flee their home or try to stay and defend their city against siege.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Another author who needs no introduction, having won this prize a mere three years ago with her incredible novel Hamnet. This is her follow-up and is another work of historical fiction, this time set in Renaissance Italy. Sixteen year old Lucrezia has been married off to a powerful Duke, Alfonso, whom she believes plans to kill her. Powerless and alone she must try and save her own life. Based on a real person, it looks like Maggie O’Farrell has produced yet another literary gem.

Pod by Laline Paull

This looks to be the most unconventional book on the shortlist, where the central character is a dolphin. Afflicted by a form of deafness which isolates her within her family group, Ea survives a tragedy that kills other members of her family. Young and alone, she must navigate the treacherous oceans and multiple dangers. Exploring themes of family and belonging Pod also remninds us of the fragility of our natural environment and the impact humanity has had on other species.

Quite a shortlist! I would love to think that I might be able to get through them all before the winner is announced – six weeks and counting! I hardly know where to start.

Book review – “The Temporary Gentleman” by Sebastian Barry

A book currently on my TBR (soon!) list is the latest novel by Sebastian Barry, one of my favourite authors. Since reading Days Without End a few years ago, I have loved every one of his books that I have picked up and I am sure his latest will be equally special. I have particularly enjoyed the family saga approach he has taken to many of his novels. Listening to him speak at a recent online event (what a wonderful man, I adore him – he would be my fantasy dinner party guest), he talked about mining the resources of his own family and other families he was familiar with to find the powerful stories of ordinary people. For many Irish people, particularly those living in the first half of the last century, there are indeed powerful stories, and Barry gives a voice to the trauma and suffering that many experienced for multiple complex reasons.

In The Temporary Gentleman, Barry tells the story of Jack, the third of the McNulty brothers (we heard the story of one in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, and, more obliquely, Tom in The Secret Scripture). Jack is perhaps the son his mother was most proud of, for seemingly having made something of himself: leaving Sligo to go to university in Dublin, getting a profession as an engineer, and marrying the beautiful Mai Kirwan, daughter of the local doctor and therefore of a higher social standing than he might reasonably have hoped to achieve. 

When his father-in-law retires and Jack and Mai take up residence in the handsome family home, their seemingly perfect lifestyle (and marriage) begins to crumble. The root of the problem is Jack’s uncontrolled drinking and gambling habits which soon lead them into debt and shame. Worse, his neglect of Mai impacts on her mental health and she too enters a spiral of emotional decline.

The novel is told from Jack’s point of view. He is narrating his story while working as an engineer in Ghana. Here he is ‘the temporary gentleman’, with a servant, a status he feels he does not deserve. He looks back on his life, reflecting on events and in particular the impact of his choices and his behaviour on Mai. The pain and regret he experiences is palpable and Barry manages to explore this with compassion and a sense of shared trauma.

This is yet another powerful novel from Sebastian Barry. He explores similar themes to the other McNulty family novels, but with each individual’s story he gives it a new twist and a fresh perspective. I would love to go back and read the stories of the other two brothers again because each sibling is referred to as well as their partners. 

Highly recommended.

Reading challenge book review – “The Italian Girl” by Iris Murdoch

I chose this for my 2023 reading challenge that is not a challenge (I am not setting myself targets, just picking a neglected title off one of my book shelves). This is another book I appear to have bought in 1990, the year that I graduated from university. A fairly short little book that has been hanging around for 33 years! I am ashamed to say that I don’t think I have read anything at all by Iris Murdoch. I am sure she is one of those authors you think you know, or whose work you think you are familiar with until you try and remember which books of theirs you have read. 

Murdoch is considered one of the finest writers of the post-war generation. She was born in Ireland in 1919 to protestant British-Irish parents but moved to London when she was a baby. She attended both Oxford and Cambridge universities and was a philosopher as well as a writer of fiction and poetry. Her first novel, Under the Net, was published in 1953, and her nineteenth, The Sea, the Sea, won the Booker Prize in 1978. She died in 1999, two years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband of more than forty years, John Bayley, cared for her and wrote a book about their life together, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, which was made into a film in 2001 starring Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench. 

I’m afraid I cannot say that I much enjoyed The Italian Girl; reading a little more about Murdoch’s philosophy and about her writing in the style of novelists who explore their characters’ inner worlds and show them on a journey of transformation and redemption, I can ‘appreciate’ the work, much as a student of English literature might, but it was not an especially engaging experience. Perhaps I should have read it back in 1990 when I was fresh out of university! Perhaps I bought it because it was recommended to me by a lecturer, or something.

So what is wrong with The Italian Girl for the 21st century reader? Well, the most difficult thing was the sense of datedness. The writing style is  not actually showing its age too badly, so it is easy to forget that it is of a similar vintage to The Bell Jar, which I reviewed on here a couple of weeks ago. When one considers the events of the novel, it also feels remarkably modern: various extra-marital affairs, homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, and a rather bohemian setting. Perhaps that is why the staid conservatism seen particularly in the central character Edmund jars so much.

There is little in the way of a plot. Middle-aged Edmund returns to his mother Lydia’s home after her death, having been somewhat estranged from his family for some years. There he finds his brother Otto much declined – overweight, drinking heavily and having an affair with the young sister of his apprentice worker. Otto and his wife Isabel, who lived in the house with Lydia, live separate lives. Isabel keeps largely to her room. The Italian girl of the title is the maid, Maggie, the last in a long line of Italian housemaids that Lydia employed to care for her sons when they were little. Initially, Edmund gets them all  mixed up; Maggie barely has a distinct personality of her own. Edmund intends to escape what he sees as the suffocating atmosphere of the house as soon as he possibly can, once his mother’s funeral is over, but he gets sucked into the family’s drama – Flora (Isabel and  Otto’s daughter) announcing her pregnancy to him, and her intention to have an abortion, an idea that appalls him, then catching Otto and Elsa (the apprentice’s sister) in flagrante

It becomes clear that Edmund cannot escape, that he will need to go through some kind of transformation of his own, to leave behind his po-faced denial of his family’s reality, and, finally, to acknowledge that ‘the Italian girl’ is a real person, whose existence and influence cannot be denied.

I only had to make myself a little bit familiar with Murdoch’s philosophy to understand this book in a different way, but had I not done so, I think I might have thought the book somewhat tedious, the characters two-dimensional and the plot unremarkable. I fear I have become desensitised to subtle novels exploring the human condition. It is more akin to Virginia  Woolf than it is to, say, the story-telling of Isabel Allende.

I tend to feel that short books should be read slowly, and I certainly did that with The Italian Girl. I’m glad, because I have been able to absorb it and to reflect on it more than if I had read it in one speed-reading sitting. I have almost enjoyed it more in retrospect than I did whilst reading it.

I would like to read more of Iris Murdoch’s work, including her non-fiction and her poetry, but perhaps with an awareness that it could almost be classed as historical fiction now. I picked up a copy of The Severed Head recently in my wonderful local secondhand bookshop, Abacus Books in Altrincham, so perhaps I’ll give Iris Murdoch another go soon.

The next book in my reading challenge really is historical fiction – All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Certainly no lack of action in this one.

Audiobook review – “The Dog of the North” by Elizabeth McKenzie

My book club chose this book for our March read after examining the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. We love this particular competition and always try and tackle one or two books on the shortlist – we are getting ahead of ourselves this year! I am ashamed to say that I have still not read last year’s winner, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (we chose others from the shortlist), but that will have to wait for another time.

Books from literary competitions are not always considered particularly accessible, but this novel feels like a real ‘reader’s book’, something the Women’s Prize does particularly well. It is  darkly comic, wonderfully written and with a quirky storyline that will lift you without being patronising, and which does not opt for the easy or predictable plot solutions. 

Penny Rush is a thirty-something who has reached a difficult stage in her life. She has just separated from her husband Sherman, who seems to have experienced a premature mid-life crisis and taken up with another woman. Penny quits her job as a dental nurse, vowing to have a fresh start, and has just a few hundred dollars to her name when a series of family crises beset her. Penny is a lonely soul at this stage. Her beloved mother and stepfather disappeared some years earlier while touring in the Australian outback. Their disappearance has never been explained and their deaths remain unconfirmed. Penny’s sister Margaret now lives in Australia with her football player husband and two children. When Penny’s grandparents suddenly need help to deal with their own problems, only Penny is available to help.

Penny’s eccentric grandmother, former medical doctor (though who retains her license to practice), known as Pincer, gets into trouble with the police when human remains are found in her home. Penny teams up with Pincer’s accountant and friend Burt in an effort to help her. They conspire to clean up Pincer’s chaotic, and dangerously dirty home while she is out and it is the staff of the cleaning company Penny engages who find the bones. Burt is himself an eccentric, though it turns out, also a very sick one. He drives a highly customised and very ancient van which he calls ‘the dog of the north’. When Burt is admitted to hospital, he lends Penny ‘the dog’ which she needs to deal with the many issues that are piling up at her door.

Penny’s grandfather, Arlo, Pincer’s ex-husband, lives with his ghastly second wife Doris, but their marriage is bitter and tumultuous. As Arlo is ageing and his need for support is growing, Doris tells Penny in no uncertain terms that she wants her to get him out of the house and into a retirement facility. With Arlo’s agreement she does this. Penny and Arlo share a deep grief about the disappearance of Penny’s parents. Once out of Doris’s clutches, Arlo decides that he wants to make one final effort to discover what happened to his daughter and son-in-law, and he persuades her to accompany him to Australia. Penny becomes very sick on the trip, having contracted a dangerous infection when Pincer, angered by what she saw as Penny and Burt’s interference, stabbed her with a brooch.

The above is just a snapshot of the events of the book but I hope it gives a flavour of the journey that the novel takes you on. There are also many offshoots to the main storyline: when Burt is sick, his brother Dale visits him from Santa Barbara. Dale represents the calm and stable presence in the chaos of the situation in which Penny finds herself. She is drawn to him, despite his not being as colourful as many of the people she is used to and their relationship evolves slowly over the course of the novel. In the background there is also Gaspard, Penny’s biological father whom she was forced to remain in contact with throughout her childhood, but a man she now tries to avoid.

The novel is about a life that is constantly being buffeted between chaos and order. Penny wants order and calm (what her lost parents represent) but she somehow finds herself being pulled back into disorder, precariousness and unpredictability. Will she ever be able to assert herself and find the peace that she craves?

I loved this book. The characters are all brilliantly realised and the events, though extreme, are entirely believable. When you start the novel you enter a world where weird things, bad luck and chance encounters just happen. It is well-written and the pace is good. I listened to this on audio and the reading by Katherine Littrell was excellent.

Highly recommended.

Book review – “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

I honestly don’t know why I have never read The Bell Jar. I read quite a bit of Sylvia Plath’s poetry when I was a teenager having been exposed to some of her work at school. I have also read quite a bit of Ted Hughes’s work over the years too, so I’m slightly puzzled as to why it has never occurred to me to pick up Plath’s only, but still iconic novel. My university-age daughter read it a while ago and gave me a copy for Christmas.

The Bell Jar was published under a pseudonym in January 1963, just a few weeks before Plath took her own life at the age of thirty. She had already separated from Hughes by this time (following an extra-marital affair that he had) and her two children were very young. Plath had had a history of depression, however, and had made several attempts at suicide.

The Bell Jar is considered largely autobiographical. Its central character and narrator is Esther Greenwood whom we first meet in New York City, on an internship at a magazine. Esther is both fragile and an intellectual and although she is studying under a scholarship awarded in the name of a woman poet, she receives several academic and professional disappointments.

Set in the 1950s, it is clear that little is expected in the way of career success for Esther. Indeed, she is encouraged to consider such ideas as stuff and nonsense and to simply submit to the inevitable – marriage, having children and being a housewife. She is in a relationship with a boy from home, Buddy Willard, a paragon of mediocrity, who is studying to become a doctor. When Buddy falls ill with tuberculosis and spends months in a sanatorium, Esther visits him and begins to realise that a future with Buddy is her idea of hell. Furthermore, when he confesses to her that he has had a sexual liaison, but expects her to be ‘pure’ when they marry, it sets off an internal rage at the different ways men and women are treated. She feels oppressed and imprisoned.

This is a catalyst for Esther’s further deterioration until finally she attempts suicide. Much of the second half of the book is an account of the brutal psychiatric treatment she undergoes, including electroconvulsive therapy (which Plath herself endured) and being detained in a mental health facility.

The Bell Jar is a painfully intimate book. Plath draws you into her character’s state of mind and all the other characters are seen entirely through her eyes. The writing is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Reading her prose descriptions it is clear that she is first and foremost a poet (although she is said to have been working on a second novel at the time of her death).

Cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one by one…..The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.

Esther Greenwood’s account of her overdose in Chapter 13

Plath herself described writing The Bell Jar as taking a collection of episodes from her life and throwing them down on paper. Plath’s mother sought to ban publication of book and it was not available in America until 1971. Plath remains a feminist icon because of her loathing of the status afforded to women of her generation and the opportunities denied women like her. It is also widely believed that Plath was forced to set her own creative ambitions aside in favour of her husband’s.

Despite their being separated at the time of her death, Hughes arranged for Plath to be buried in the churchyard of Thomas a Beckett church in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, an area of personal significance to Hughes.

Audiobook review – “Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson

Byron and Benny are siblings who have grown apart in recent years. Brought together again, in an uncomfortable and fragile truce following the death of their mother, they are forced to confront family secrets that will shatter their worlds, but which will have the effect of healing their rift and enabling them to build their own challenging lives back again.

Eleanor Bennett knew she was dying of cancer at the age of 70. She was a widow, having lost her husband Bert, the love of her life, a few years earlier. She was close to her son, Byron, but her daughter Benny, a talented but troubled young woman, had drifted out of her life, leaving their California home and moving to New York after dropping out of college. Eleanor remained faithful to both her children, however, and her final act was an attempt to reunite her children after her death. Eleanor bakes a ‘black cake’, a kind of rich fruit cake, a recipe she was famous for and which she inherited from her ‘island’ (Jamaican) culture. Her intention is that her children should share the cake ‘when the time is right’. 

With the help of her lawyer friend, Charles Match, Eleanor also makes a lengthy recording which she instructs should be played to them both in person. In the recording she gives a full account of her life before the children were born. Eleanor was born ‘on the island’ as Coventina ‘Covey’ Lyncook. Her father, Johnny Lyncook, was an immigrant from China and was never fully accepted. Her mother left them when Covey was a girl, unable any longer to cope with her husband’s drinking and gambling. Covey was a talented swimmer and had ambitions to go to college, perhaps also to England, desperate to escape what she sees as a bleak future at home. Her decision is sealed when, in settlement of a gambling debt, Covey’s father agrees that at 17 she should marry local gangster, the much older ‘Little Man’ Henry. He dies suddenly at their wedding reception (foul play is to blame, but the guilty party is not clear) and Covey takes the opportunity to flee. 

After swimming to a place of safety she manages to escape the island altogether and get passage to England where she trains as a nurse. She hopes to meet up with the love of her life, Gibbs, who left for England some months earlier, but gives up hope after a few years. The turning point in Covey’s life comes when she is involved in a train crash while travelling with her friend Ellie (Eleanor). Covey is dragged unconscious from the wreckage, along with Ellie’s handbag, but her friend dies. At the hospital it is assumed from the identification in the bag that Covey is Eleanor, and so Covey reinvents herself, feeling freed at last from her fugitive status. 

Eleanor’s life takes many twists and turns after this. Byron and Benny listen to their mother’s story in bursts and with each new revelation about their mother’s life, her past, and as each secret is revealed they are forced to confront all that they thought they knew about her. Both siblings re-evaluate their own lives and purpose, with a new understanding about what drove their parents’ values and the truths behind the decisions they made for their family.

For a debut novel this book is an extraordinary achievement and is a New York Times bestseller. It is a great story and while there were one or two events that slightly stretched credulity, it held together well. The main characters are all well-developed and I liked the way the author used Eleanor’s life story to enable her children to make the changes they needed to make in their lives. It is a story about their ‘growing up’ as much as anything, and sometimes this can only happen after a parent is gone. The Black Cake of the title is a powerful metaphor for the importance of food to cultural identity, how it binds us together both at the level of family and of society. It is also clear that in this book food means love. If I have any reservation about the book it is that I think it could have been better if it was shorter. I listened to the audiobook, which was thirteen hours in length. I felt there was a point about three quarters of the way through where it could have ended very powerfully, and it would not have mattered to me that some of the minor questions were left unresolved – that is often what happens at the end of a parent’s life; you don’t get all the answers. But the last quarter of the book sought to tie up every loose end in ways that did not feel necessary to me and which felt a bit contrived at times. 

Overall, though, a great read and I recommend it.

Book review – “Mary and Her Seven Devils” by Peter Morris

As a bookblogger I am frequently approached by self-published authors to promote their work. I feel I should review more than I actually do – as an aspiring author myself, I know only too well how it is almost impossible to hook an agent and then to actually succeed in getting published via the mainstream route. Self-publishing and e-books have taken off in recent years, making the dream of publication a reality for so many authors. Readership depends largely on word of mouth, however, or the size of their budget, so it is by no means an easy route. 

I was attracted by the sound of Peter Morris’s Mary and Her Seven Devils. This is Peter’s sixth novel (two written in collaboration with another author). The blurb reads as follows:

Mary, a bright, very pretty and yet serious girl, by dint of her courage, common-sense and honesty, manages to navigate the delusions and the warped thinking of many of her contemporaries, to emerge as a good-natured and right-minded young woman who knows her own mind and who can tell good from bad.

Tested by right and wrong relationships and the colourful though dubious vicissitudes of the film world, but strengthened by her shrewd university flat-mate and her loving if naive parents, our pilgrim wends her way along paths where there is no moral consensus, to end up happily as a straight-thinking yet quietly sparkling heroine.

The story is a good one and the concept of the central character, Mary Fleet, on a journey in search of her true self, works well. Mary encounters a number of challenging events, ranging from the unwelcome sexual advances of a film producer from whom she secures work, being stalked by a corrupt social worker, and falling in love with a young man who is emotionally fragile. The plot is best read as a kind of quest, almost in the classical sense (and there are classical, theological and philosophical references here) – some of the events stretch credulity, but read as part of Mary’s odyssey, disbelief can be set to one side. 

I liked Mary, and her college friend Sophie. Both characters were well-developed and their motivations rang true. Some of the secondary characters were less well-developed, but, again, read more as ‘caricatures’ (devils?) they can just about work. The author has a disclaimer at the start of the book, that the depictions of social workers are in no way a comment on social services in Tyneside or anywhere else. It does seem as if the author has a bit of ‘beef’ with the social services sector though, as they are all pretty grotesque!

If I have any criticism of the book, it is one that applies generally, in  my view, to work that is self-published, and that is the want of a good editor. The book is set in 2016-19, but it felt much more like the 1980s to me, even down to the descriptions of clothing. As a mother of young people in this age group, I have a strong personal knowledge, and the students in this book felt more like me (university 1987-90) than my kids! I think a strong editorial input might have picked this up. There are only occasional references to the dates, however, so I was able to imagine it was the ‘80s!

I wish Peter Morris every success and hope this book finds its audience. It is available from Brown Dog Books. https://www.browndogbooks.uk/products/mary-and-her-seven-devils-peter-morris

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