Book review – “Violeta” by Isabel Allende

I have a particular fondness for Isabel Allende. She is an icon of world literature, of global feminism, of how to embrace ageing and of the joy, beauty and depth of south American culture. In a week when the world said its goodbyes to one female icon (Queen Elizabeth II, regardless of what you think about monarchy, it was quite a moment) and were shocked to learn of the sudden death of another, this time from the world of literature (the terribly sad news of Hilary Mantel’s untimely passing), it seems appropriate to praise Allende and value her for all that she has given us. 

The last arts event I attended before most of the world went into lockdown on the brink of the Coronavirus pandemic, was a talk in Manchester between Allende and Jeanette Winterson on the publication of her last but one novel The Long Petal of the Sea. I enjoyed that book though I felt it was not among her best. Allende’s latest novel, Violeta, published earlier this year and written, one assumes, during the pandemic feels like that to me too. 

The central character, Violeta, is an elderly woman (almost 100 years old we will learn) writing a letter, memoir, for another character Camilo. We don’t know the connection between Violeta and Camilo until about halfway through the book and I’m not going to give any spoilers here, though we do know that she loves him “more than anyone else in this world”. The story begins with Violeta’s birth in 1920 at the time of the Spanish ‘flu outbreak in Chile. Her father committed suicide, after a series of failed business ventures brought him and his family to a situation of near penury, and it was Violeta who found his body.

Her childhood was spent mostly in a rural setting on a smallholding where she was educated in the school of life. The family was forced to flee there after they lost everything in the Depression. She grew up with her brother in the care of a poor family who showered her with love and protection. She married a man who was the son of affluent European hoteliers, but the marriage was largely sexless and doomed. When Violeta met the dashing Julian Bravo, a pilot, and a passionate lothario, she was immediately swept off her feet and left her husband. This brought disgrace upon her head, particularly as Julian refused to marry her, even when she bore him a son and a daughter. 

Julian lived life on the edge, having lots of money one minute and none the next, so although their relationship was initially a fulfilling one, it lacked stability. As a young woman it was clear that Violeta had business acumen so she set up a company with her brother in the construction industry and was very successful, able to support herself and her family without being dependent on her wayward lover. 

That is as much as I will say about the plot. The book is basically the story of a life so to tell you any more would be to give you a full synopsis! The life story it tells is an interesting one and Violeta certainly has an interesting life. She is also telling the story from the perspective of a person of a great age, so she is able to reflect on her mistakes as well as celebrate her life’s achievements. It is a pretty linear first-person narrative and that, for me, is where it disappoints. I have come to expect more of such a great writer and the book for me never really delivers. Throughout I was just wanting more. There is no doubt that Allende is a great storyteller and the interweaving of history into the narrative, the politics of south America in the twentieth century, the dictatorships, the terrors, the corruption and the sheltering of Nazis fleeing Europe, is fascinating and deftly done, but I just felt she was capable of more. Some parts of it are clumsy (for example the love scenes which made me squirm a little!) and some parts of it feel autobiographical (for example, Violeta’s views on feminism), almost as if Allende herself is writing a letter to her readers.  

I hope there is more to come from this wonderful author, and fans of Allende (and I count myself as one) will of course treasure every word she writes, but I do rather feel this book lacks some of her usual creative energy.  Perhaps that is a result of its having been written during a lockdown. My fellow book club members enjoyed it, and found its uncomplicated approach quite refreshing, especially as we read it over the summer. It also does have a rather neat symmetry, which you will see if you read it. 

Recommended if you like a good story that does not ask too much of a reader. 

Literary sightseeing: James Joyce’s Dublin

I have been visiting Dublin for many years now as my husband is Irish and most of his family is still there. I have always wanted to visit on ‘Bloom’s Day’ (June 16th) – the date on which the whole of the events in Joyce’s seminal work Ulysses is set. However, since this falls in the middle of school term time, this has not so far been possible for me. Maybe next year! On this particular day (in fact, the whole of the week from what I gather), Joyce enthusiasts dress up in the fashions of the time and replicate Harold Bloom’s odyssey through his home town on that day.

I have visited a few of the many sites that occur in the book, however, and on our visit this summer I added a couple more to the list. Perhaps if I don’t get to ‘Bloom’s Day’ soon I’ll do my own little one day tour! Here is a broad itinerary if you happen to be in Dublin’s fair city not on 16th June.

Stop 1 – Sandycove and the Martello Tower

The opening scenes of Ulysses (Telemachus episode) take place in the Martello Tower (built by the British as a defence against Napoleon, who never invaded) at Sandycove. Joyce stayed here briefly when it belonged to his friend Oliver St John Gogarty. In the book, Buck Mulligan lives here and he and his two companions take breakfast following a swim in the ‘Forty Foot’, a bathing pool in the sea below the tower, which is still there.

Today, the tower houses the James Joyce museum, which has been run almost entirely by volunteers for many years, with only very limited funding. Entry is free and you can see a number of artefacts inside, as well as get a good sense of Joyce’s life and career.

Sandycove can be reached on the DART train from Dublin city centre.

Stop 2 – Sandymount Strand

Leopold Bloom takes walk here at sunset. It is a beautiful spot with fantastic views across Dublin Bay, with the iconic chimneys at Ringsend, the mouth of the Liffey. At low tide, you can walk the vast sands where work is being done here to preserve rare grasses. When the tide is in, you can walk along the promenade, along with many other Dubliners.

Sandymound Strand is a few stops north of Sandycove on the DART train.

Stop 3 – Dublin City Centre

Within the city you can walk along many of the same streets that Leopold Bloom (or Stephen Dedalus) took. I would begin at O’Connell Street (and perhaps drop in at the General Post Office while you’re there. Although not directly Joyce related, there is a fantastic museum that tells the story of the independence movement and in particular the 1916 Easter Rising, which centred on the GPO.)

From O’Connell Street you can walk south, cross the Liffey, to Trinity College (you can book tours of the famous library and view the Book of Kells), and then on to Grafton Street, Kildare Street and Merrion Square. All these locations appear in the Wandering Rocks episode.

From Merrion Square it’s a short walk then to Sweny’s Pharmacy, which I mentioned when I wrote a blog post about my visit to Dublin a few weeks ago. The shop remained a pharmacy until 2008, and the owners had changed very little of the interior from how it would have been in Joyce’s time, recognising its future tourism potential. Bloom called into Sweny’s to pick up a tonic for his wife and bought some lemon soap, a bar of which you can still purchase there today. It is run by volunteer Joyce enthusiasts, where they will chat happily to you about the author, the shop’s history, and hold weekly meetings where they read from his work.

You can get the DART from Sandymount to Connolly station, from which it is a short walk to O’Connell street. The above walking route is about 3km.

Stop 4 – Glasnevin cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery appears in the Hades episode of Ulysses when Bloom travels there with his friends for the funeral of Paddy Dignam. It is a fascinating place with many famous Irish figures buried here including Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera, Maud Gonne, Brendan Behan and Christy Brown. Pre-booked tours are available.

The cemetery is a few kilometres out of the city centre, but there are several bus routes that pass it. Dublin buses have an excellent app where you can work out which service to get from wherever you are.

On your way there you will likely pass O’Connell Street again and can call in at the small but very interesting James Joyce cultural centre on North Great George’s Street. It is housed in one of the typical Georgian townhouses that Dublin is famous for. Another interesting stopover is the Hugh Lane Gallery. Hugh Lane was a contemporary of Joyce who established a superb art collection. He was killed in the RMS Lusitania which sank off Cork in 1915.

It is possible to visit many more Ulysses ‘sites’ than I have listed here. I can recommend the book The Ulysses Guide: Tours through Joyce’s Dublin by Robert Nicholson, which provides several detailed itineraries complete with the relevant extracts from the book.

Dublin is a fantastic city to visit with so much to see in a relatively compact area. Though Joyce spent much of his adult life outside Ireland, Dublin is at the heart of so much of his work.

Book review: “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett

I’d heard a bit about this book before I read it, but I have to say that I had not paid too much attention to it. I’d recently tried to watch the film Passing (made in 2021 and starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson), one that had been on my must-watch list for some time, and I fell asleep less than halfway through! It was slow and I found it hard to get into, but perhaps I should give it another chance. The Vanishing Half deals with a similar topic so I was not in a rush to pick it up. It came up as an audiobook suggestion, however, so I decided to give it a go over the summer. 

The story begins with twin sisters Stella and Desiree Vignes, growing up in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana in the 1950s. Segregation remains in place in the Deep South of America, of course, but the black citizens of Mallard are unusual in that they are particularly light-skinned, a consequence of the town’s history and in particular its founder. Prejudice and discrimination are nonetheless deeply embedded. Both girls are bright and ambitious, but their widowed mother withdraws them from school prematurely in order that they can work with her at the house of wealthy local landowners and help to support the family. 

Stella and Desiree are frustrated by the manual toil and the unwelcome sexual advances of their employer and decide to run away. The twins have starkly different personalities; Stella is the quieter one, the more academic, Desiree is more outgoing, more vocal in her desire to escape the oppressed atmosphere of Mallard and is the prime mover in the escape plan. 

The two young women find themselves in New Orleans working in a laundry, with little money. After her sister is fired, Desiree encourages Stella to apply for a clerical job. Stella does not expect to be successful, but, with her very light skin, she is mistaken for a white woman which means that her skin colour is less important than her skills and she gets a job working for Blake Sanders. Finding that her status as a “white woman” affords her privileges which she has never before experienced, Stella maintains her secret and soon finds there is no way back. Furthermore, Blake falls in love with Stella and eventually asks her to marry him. Stella decides to leave her sister and her old life behind.

The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

From Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half

Meanwhile, Desiree, newly bereft, gets on with her own life. She marries a black man and moves to New York, where they have a daughter, Jude (whose skin is very dark like her father’s, not light, like her mother’s). But her husband becomes violent and so she decides to leave him. Desiree has nothing and has completely lost touch with her sister and so returns home to her mother’s house in Mallard with her daughter. Desiree never intends to stay, but somehow she does. She gets a job in the local cafe, where she quickly becomes indispensable, begins a relationship with a childhood admirer, Early Jones, who works as a shadowy investigator, and settles into small town life.

Meanwhile Stella has also had a daughter (blonde and white), Kennedy, and leads a privileged life in California. Her world is somewhat rocked when a black family moves into her affluent neighbourhood. They are treated with suspicion and contempt by local residents and Stella finds herself torn. Despite herself, Stella develops a close friendship with the woman, which triggers a series of events and changes in Stella, a burgeoning of desires which will eventually lead her back to Mallard.

Unlike what little I saw of the film Passing, The Vanishing Half has a complex plot which is deftly handled by Brit Bennett. It spans a large time span, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and moves back and forth in time and between the parallel lives of the two sisters. It becomes even more complex when the two women’s daughters begin to play a larger part in the story, leading their own lives away from their mothers. The book also explores many different types of relationship, between Stella and Desiree and their husbands, Desiree’s with Early, fathers and daughters, the women’s relationship with their mother Adele, and the two, very different, cousins, Kennedy and Jude. There are many ‘halves’ in the book; Stella and Desiree, as twins, are of course, two halves of a single birth event, but there is also the dichotomy in Stella’s life in particular. There is also the issue of two sides to every story and in this novel each person’s personal narrative is multi-layered. 

I was gripped by this book and on audio it was brilliantly read by Shayna Small. I might have wished for a neater ending, but in fiction, as in life, things don’t always work out quite how you want them to!

Nonetheless I recommend this book highly.

Bye bye summer, hello Booker shortlist!

It has been a long, hot and eventful summer, but the year has ticked round, as it inevitably does, and we find ourselves once again at the start of meteorological autumn – my favourite time of the year.

Like many people, we found ourselves travelling more this year than we have done for what has felt like a long time, primarily because we COULD. Two, summers of severe restrictions curtailed lots of people’s plans and it has certainly felt to me as if there was a high degree of pent-up wanderlust. We had a family holiday in France this year, a few days in sweltering Paris, followed by a longer spell in the south-western Gironde area, not far from the location of some of the terrible forest fires to hit parts of continental Europe, although we were lucky not to have been directly affected. It was heaven and I ate far too much patisserie, partly thanks to our holiday home being located next door to what we were told was the best boulangerie in town – it would have been rude not to partake!

We also spent time with family in Ireland, as well as a couple of shorter trips in the UK. Interspersed with that was the stress/excitement of not one but TWO results days. It has been the most difficult year for 16-18 year olds in this country, with the damage done to so many by Covid and online learning, all the talk of bringing down the perceived grade inflation of the last couple of years, fewer university places on offer, not to mention the uncertain economic environment. I am relieved to say that both my daughters did fantastically well, getting results they thoroughly deserved, and I will be despatching my middle child off to university in a few short weeks.

With only my youngest child left at school (and with her going into sixth form that’s only two years left!), September for me now is less about ‘back to school’ – that is a hard habit to break after 16 years! – and more about renewal and re-focus. I have had my break (three weeks without posting a single blog!) and now I am ready to start again.

What does September mean for you?

One event that has been on my radar for some time, but which was somewhat overshadowed this year by the appointment of yet another new Prime Minister in the UK (our fourth in six years!), was the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist last night. It went largely unnoticed here because the mainstream media was completely absorbed by the shenanigans in Downing Street. As ever it is an interesting list, and I am familiar with only two of the authors.

As usual, I will be attempting to read my way through the shortlist before the winner is announced on 17th October, a little under six weeks’ time. Last year was the first time I actually managed to get through all six, and I am fairly optimistic of being able to do so again this year as quite a few of them are pretty short! That does not necessarily mean one can speed-read of course as short books are often more intense, I think. A couple of them are very long!

I aim to publish reviews regularly in the coming weeks and to make my prediction on the day itself. I’m very excited! Having only just returned from Dublin I think I will be starting with Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a novel set in a small Irish town in the 1980s, a period when society there was dominated by the Church.

I would love to hear what you’ve been up to over the summer and what your plans are for the autumn.

Happy reading!

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