Book review – “The Long Petal of the Sea” by Isabel Allende

My last live cultural experience before lockdown was introduced in the UK was on February 11th. I saw Isabel Allende in conversation with Jeanette Winterson at The Dancehouse in Manchester as part of the Manchester Literature Festival. The evenings were still dark and the weather was cold. The excited spectators queued on the stairs, we sat next to strangers and laughed out loud, a microphone was passed around the audience. Nobody was wearing a face mask nor using hand sanitiser and the Coronavirus seemed like a thing that was happening far away and not at all like a real threat. A few weeks later and it would have been cancelled. Isabel Allende probably would not even have embarked on an international promotional tour. Only 6 months ago, and yet it feels like a lifetime.

2020-02-24 14.54.26A Long Petal of the Sea is Isabel Allende’s twentieth novel and, as with many of her works, is based on the true story of a close friend of hers. It concerns refugees from the Spanish Civil War who escape the fascist regime in September 1939 and flee to Chile via France on a ship called the Winnipeg, in an operation  organised by the legendary Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who felt his nation had a duty to support those fleeing the terror in Spain.

Victor Dalmau is one of these refugees, a young medic who escapes the country with his heavily pregnant sister-in-law Roser, a pianist who was engaged to be married to Victor’s brother Guillem. Guillem was a fighter, a passionate revolutionary, and lost his life to the cause. Victor and Roser are forced to leave behind Victor’s elderly mother, Carme Dalmau. She says she is too old for the journey and wishes to die in her country. Victor persuades Roser to marry him, believing it will be safest for them both and give them the best chance of being accepted into Chile.

The couple settle in Chile and Roser gives birth to a son, Marcel, whom Victor cares for as if he were his own child. Although theirs is a marriage of convenience, Victor and Roser grow fond of one another and whilst, initially, they intend to return to Spain one day, it becomes clear, as the years pass, and world war two rages in Europe, that this is unlikely to happen. They therefore set about making a decent life for themselves: they set up a business, a small bar, Victor completes his studies and qualifies as a doctor, eventually becoming one of the leading cardiac surgeons in the country (a fact which will later save his own life). Roser, meanwhile, develops her own career; she was a pianist in Spain (she was rescued by Victor’s parents who spotted her talent and rescued her from a life of poverty) and begins teaching music.

They seem to be thriving, until the military coup in 1973, when General Pinochet led the overthrow of the president Salvador Allende. This, of course, is closely linked to the author’s own story, President Allende having been her father’s cousin. Here, Victor’s past catches up with him; he is known as a former anti-fascist activist and had become a friend of the President, playing chess with him regularly. The couple’s fortunes take a turn for the worse.

I won’t give away any more of the details as it is a cracking story which doesn’t end quite as you’d expect. In the talk I attended, Isabel Allende described this book as a straight love story, and indeed it is, a tale of the kinds of lives on which the world turns. It is what Allende does best, story-telling and this book will keep you gripped. There is no shortage of action or plot and I suspect she has stayed very close to the facts of the original true story. If you are an Allende fan you will love it, as it would be hard not to love anything she has written. It is not The House of the Spirits though, nor does it have the breadth or power of a story such as Portrait in Sepia. I think the canvas here is a bit smaller and I suspect the author has constrained her imagination a little in order to be loyal to the real-life story. That said, it is clearly a book full of love for its characters and their story and it feels very authentic.

Recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – choice for August

This month’s theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge is a love story. I always try to pick a topic for August which is suitable for a holiday read, a bit of escapism, not too taxing. When I came up with the 2020 list of themes I could not have known how 2020 would pan out and that most of us would not in fact be going on holiday at all. Barely going outside our front doors for many weeks. I had no holiday plans at all in fact – my elder daughter was due to be doing the four-week NCS (National Citizenship Service) programme this month, and then getting her GCSE results on the 20th, so there was no space for a holiday. We had a loose plan to take a last-minute week off just before the end of the school holiday but no firm ideas. The NCS programme was cancelled, of course, and travel restrictions abound. However, we are hoping to drive to Zeeland, in the Netherlands, our usual Spring vacation destination, in a couple of days. That is, of course, if the Dutch allow us in! And since I live in Greater Manchester, which is seeing a resurgence in cases of Covid-19, it is entirely possible that we Brits will not be welcome. However, let us remain hopeful. And vigilant.

Back to books…

Call me by your name imgI had been thinking about some of the classic love stories – Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind, The Remains of the Day – but none of these felt much like ‘holiday reading’. But then a bit of online research threw up the perfect suggestion – Call Me By Your Name  by Andre Aciman. First published in 2007, this novel was made into a very successful film in 2018 starring Timothee Chalemet and Armie Hammer. It is set in the 1980s on the Italian Riviera (perfect!) and concerns a romance between Italian-American Elio (Chalemet), spending the long hot summer at his parents’ holiday home, and visiting academic Oliver (Hammer). It is apparently quite steamy (perfect!). I have not yet seen the film, so I am delighted to read the book first.

My choice for July was ‘something from the Americas’ and I picked a contemporary Argentinian crime novelist, Claudia Pineiro – a prolific author, well-known in her own country, and someone I had never heard of. Yay for reading challenges! I selected her novel Betty Boo, first published in 2010. The novel begins with the murder of Pedro Chazarreta at his home on the exclusive Maravillosa Country Club estate. Chazarreta is a wealthy businessman and widower, whose wife was murdered three years earlier, also at their home and in suspicious circumstances which were never fully resolved. The murder of Senor Chazarreta is equally mysterious and whilst suicide is widely suggested (a sign of his guilt in relation to his late wife’s death?), there are inconsistencies which arouse the curiosity of among others, Nurit Iscar. Nurit is a writer whose crime novels made her famous. However, she has written nothing for some years after her last novel received terrible reviews; she decided to write a romantic novel, encouraged by her then lover, newspaper editor Lorenzo Rinaldi, but the change of genre was not a successful career move.

Betty B00 imgAt the start of this novel Nurit is divorced, ghost-writing money-spinner books for celebrities and somewhat directionless. Her affair with Rinaldi is long over, but he contacts her and asks her to write some columns on Chazarreta’s murder. He arranges for her to stay at the home of his newspaper’s proprietor at La Maravillosa so that she can get close to the scene of the crime and the people who live there. It was Rinaldi who called Nurit ‘Betty Boo’, because of her dark eyes and dark curly hair. As Nurit gradually becomes immersed in the crime, her relationship develops with two other journalists at El Tribuno, which her ex-lover edits: Jaime Brena, the disillusioned middle-aged hack, former crime journalist, now reduced to the lifestyle section of the paper, and ‘Crime Boy’ the young upstart, now the lead crime writer on the paper, who, with his limited experience, turns increasingly to Brena for help on the Chazarreta case.

These three disparate individuals thus find themselves thrown together on the case, not entirely through their own choosing. Each brings their own skills to bear to try and solve a case (two cases in fact, both Chazarreta and his wife), that the police seem unable, or unwilling, to. As they get closer to what they believe is the truth, more murders occur, which appear to our intrepid trio, to be connected.

This book felt like it had a slow start to me; some of the scene-setting felt a little laboured. Also, I felt that perhaps the translation was not the best; at times the language was awkward and stilted. One problem I had with it was the lack of punctuation to delineate speech! No speech marks or ‘he/she said’ which at times made it difficult to follow who was speaking. Perhaps this is Pineiro’s style or perhaps it is more obvious in Spanish, but for me it really affected the flow at times.

I liked the characters though and in particular the relationship that develops between Nurit, Brena and Crime Boy. Investigating the murder becomes a cathartic process for each of them, a journey, and at the end of it they have resolved some complicated personal issues they each have. The plot also develops in interesting an unexpected ways which keeps you turning the page.

I’d definitely read more of Pineiro – I think it’s always good to broaden your reading horizons and it can give you a good insight into other societies. I am ashamed at how little I know about Argentina. An interesting book that is not too demanding.

Recommended.

I would love for you to join me on the Reading Challenge this month – look out for my review of Call Me By Your Name in September.

 

Book review – “Unorthodox” by Deborah Feldman

We are living in an age where minorities are beginning to find their voices. Many people who have experienced discrimination are angry. Their talents have been undervalued, their lives and their health have been damaged, their daily lived experience has, for many, been characterised by fear and by acts of hostility. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is rocking the United States to its very foundations and leading to some intense friction between people who have been historically oppressed and who are saying enough is enough, and people who fear what they might lose. Some of these, no doubt, subscribe to the view that the oppressed somehow deserve their lesser status. The movement has taken hold in the UK and throughout Europe too, although it does not appear to be quite as toxic as in the USA. The conversation we all now need to engage in will be a difficult one.

In the last week or two, we have seen a resurgence of another discrimination issue which is much more long-standing, that of anti-semitism; the UK Labour Party is currently considering a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on anti-semitism in its recent past. The full report will not be published for some time yet, but this will be a painful period for a party which has tolerance and plurality at its heart. The rapper Wiley was (eventually) banned from various social media platforms after making posting anti-semitic remarks recently, repeating discredited conspiracy theories. Several celebrities and public figures boycotted Twitter in protest at the failure of the social media giant to take down Wiley immediately.

Unorthodox imgIt therefore seems timely that I recently read the memoir Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. Deborah is in her mid-thirties and lives in Berlin, with her young son. However, she grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a member of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews. She was brought up by her grandparents; her parents separated when she was very young. Her father was a man with sub-normal intelligence, though the precise nature of his disability or illness was never identified. Deborah’s mother was English, the daughter of poor divorced Jewish parents (though not Hasidic), who was unlikely ever to be able to marry well. The marriage was effectively one of convenience for both of them and Deborah was born soon after. The marriage broke down quite quickly, however, and Deborah’s mother was compelled to leave. The community put enough pressure on to ensure she left her child behind.

Unorthodox is the story of Deborah’s childhood and teenage years as a member of this closed community. It provides a fascinating insight into the norms of this ultra-orthodox group. The Hasidis have separate schools and girls are not permitted to have a full education. In fact, boys aren’t either really, they are just educated to a different end. The girls are expected to marry young, very young, and have many children. From this book I learned that Hasidis (and I hope I am representing this accurately), are opposed to the state of Israel, it being a secular state. They also believe that the Holocaust was a punishment (divine punishment?) for Zionism and by the assimilation of non-orthodox Jews with other societies. I realise the differences are probably far more complex than this, so I hope any Jewish readers will forgive any simplification – I am happy to be corrected.

The Satmar sect to which Deborah and her family belong, continue to follow centuries-old customs, which include, for example, arranged marriage, separation of the sexes and the requirement for women to wear wigs. Menstruating women and girls are considered unclean and must endure cleansing rituals before they are permitted to have sex again. Young people are taught nothing about sex, however. When she is married to a shy and inept young man at the age of seventeen, Deborah does not even know what her body parts are supposed to do. The marriage is disastrous, for both of them, and is not consummated for a year. When, finally, Deborah and her husband manage to have sex, she becomes pregnant very quickly and gives birth to a son at the age of nineteen.

To a western European reader, of no particular religious persuasion, the account of life in the community is both jaw-dropping and enlightening. It is genuinely hard to imagine how such a sect can continue to exist, particularly in the melting-pot of New York. This book, however, is not political, rather it is intensely personal. Deborah develops a curiosity from a very young age; she is interested in books by, for example Jane Austen and Roald Dahl, but she is forced to read them in secret. Her reading opens her eyes to other possibilities, however, and she glimpses a vision of a life outside the community. Her good fortune is that in some ways she never felt fully integrated, her parents having separated and her mother having come from outside the community; we are witnessing discrimination within discrimination within discrimination. This is quite telling in itself.

As she grows older, Deborah sees the cracks in the community – the absurdity of some of the customs, the cruelty these can give rise to, how the women conspire in misguided ways against one another to perpetuate their misery, and the hypocrisy in the political power struggles in the community. Deborah finally escapes the sect. You would think that a curious and intelligent girl on the doorstep of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world find it easy to leave, but reading the book gave me an insight into the degree of control the elders hold over the young people, particularly the young women, disempowering them psychologically, financially and intellectually. Perhaps this comes from a place of fear, but that is not the subject of this book – it is one woman’s story of escaping a kind of captivity and finding her own mind.

It is a gripping account which I recommend highly. It has also been adapted and made into a television series by Netflix – something else to go on my ‘must-watch’ list!

Discrimination and its effects are common literary themes – what are your recommendations for books on this topic?

 

Feeling lucky to have such a wealth of great television

A the beginning of lockdown it seemed there was no end to challenges published on social media as most of us stared into an abyss of being confined in our homes for an indeterminate period. Whether it was fitness, craft, cooking, or reading, there was a challenge for everyone. For others, just staying alive and/or sane was enough of a challenge, and for many, of course, endless unfilled days were a luxury they could only dream of; health and care workers, key workers in supermarkets and delivery drivers all found their work was busier than ever. I got sucked in too, thinking that I was suddenly going to have lots of time on my hands to do all sorts of jobs I had not got around to doing for months, as well as reading more (SO much more!), being really creative, sorting out my garden, etc, etc. The reality was somewhat different. I, and many others, had not factored in the emotional toll of this period we called lockdown; it was not like a staycation AT ALL, it was really stressful! I was relatively lucky: some people were worried about dying and others were painfully lonely, some were locked up with abusive partners, others confined in an apartment with young, bored children who needed home-schooling. I only had a working from home husband and three teenagers to contend with. But still, I found it difficult to settle to very much at all.

I have posted on here before about how valuable I found the streaming of National Theatre Live performances, the Hay Festival channel, and the BBC Glastonbury channel was great (if anyone has ever wondered whether the TV license fee is worth it I hope their question has been answered well and truly in the affirmative these last few months). I have also been watching a lot more television than ever before and it has been such a treat. I finally watched the amazingly incredible His Dark Materials in full – Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua was simply the stand-out performance and she’s only 15! Season two is coming soon – the trailer alone is thrilling. I also enjoyed Normal People, the much-acclaimed adaptation of Sally Rooney’s much-acclaimed novel. I loved the book and was so excited to watch the television series. I thought it was very faithful to the book, and the acting performances (again from two very young actors) were outstanding, but it did not move me as much as the book. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or the book was just too good? I have also watched a couple of the new versions of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. They are brilliant! There are twelve to watch altogether and every one of them will be fantastic I am sure as the casting is extremely high calibre.

Despite all this ‘extra time on my hands’ there are a few things I still have not got around to that are on my must-watch list: Noughts and Crosses, the series based on the Malorie Blackman novels, and My Brilliant Friend, the Italian adaptation of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, which is now available on YouTube! I can’t wait to watch it, as it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the last few years. I also haven’t even started on the epic series The Luminaries yet, which has been screening on Sunday evenings on BBC1 for the last few weeks. It has finished now and its slot has been swiftly taken by A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth’s epic novel from 1993, and still one of my all-time favourite books. Since I read Gone Girl in January I’ve also been wanting to watch the film – that’s another one on the list.

So, lockdown has not been the reading/film-watching/sewing/baking/decorating/ exercising bonanza that I thought it would be. Maybe in six months I’ll be asking myself what on earth I did with all that ‘spare’ time. Maybe I’ll just say to myself that I kept my family safe and well, I helped some people, I walked a lot, I kept my head together (ish) and I did enough.

NAMASTE

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(Image by Benjamin Balazs on Pixabay)

What are your reflections on your life in lockdown?

 

 

Book review – “The ABC Murders” by Agatha Christie

This was the title I chose for May in my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was classic crime fiction. I’ve read a few Agatha Christie’s in the last couple of years, having never much delved into this genre for most of my reading life. I loved the escapism of Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express and I wanted to see if I would enjoy just as much a murder mystery set in the more prosaic location of London. I had also seen a little of the television adaptation from 2018 starring John Malkovich (though I think I only caught a couple of episodes) and it seemed altogether more grounded in the grim reality of its criminal subject. I’d love to watch it, actually, now that I’ve read the book, but sadly it’s not available at the moment. The film and television adaptations I have watched of Agatha Christie works have been more like costume dramas with more than a hint of comedy. I think I might prefer that to the darker readings of more recent years (rather like my late grandmother who was a voracious reader and loved nothing more than losing herself for a day in “a good murder”!)

The ABC Murders imgIn The ABC Murders Poirot is involved in a cat and mouse game with a serial killer, someone who warns in advance where and when he will strike, taunting our Belgian hero; the murderer begins with middle-aged shopkeeper Mrs Alice Ascher in Andover, then flirty young waitress Betty Barnard in Bexhill-on-sea, and so on. In this novel Poirot is past his career peak and his approach is challenged as somewhat old-fashioned in the form of Inspector Crome, an ambitious young detective who prefers more modern methods in his investigation. The murderer, however, pits himself squarely against our ageing Belgian hero; it is, unusually for the Poirot novels (it seems to me), a psychological game between perpetrator and hunter.

I also found Christie much more philosophical here than in the other Poirot novels I have read, on the criminal mind and on human nature and society more generally, such as in the following quote from Poirot:

“Speech, so a wise old Frenchman said to me once, is an invention of man’s to prevent him from thinking. It is also an infallible means of discovering that which he wishes to hide.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Like so many before me I have come to love the character of Poirot, though in my mind, I can only ever see him as David Suchet! This was the quintessential book to curl up in a chair with and lose myself for an hour or so. As such, it was the perfect antidote to the continuous grim news about Coronavirus which dominated this Spring for most of us. Every time I read a Christie novel I want to run away and just read more. That might take me years since she was so prolific! I have been exploring the official Agatha Christie website with interest and it has fantastic recommendations on screen adaptations of her work, though I might need another lockdown to get through them!

If you are an Agatha Christie fan, what are your favourite novels and screen adaptations?

July choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge

Another month passes us by and I’m delighted with myself because for the first time in ages I actually managed to finish the book I’d set myself for the Reading Challenge, ON TIME!!! Wonders will never cease! Perhaps as we begin to ease our way out of the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK certain aspects of life are beginning to return to normal. Certainly, the mood in my household is a little more easeful, and I find myself with more mental and emotional space to settle into the things that I enjoy without my concentration being all over the place. What about you?

The secret Live sof Baba Segi's WivesLast month, the theme of the Reading Challenge was ‘Something from Africa’ and I picked the debut novel of contemporary Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. If you were able to read along with me, I hope you enjoyed the book – I loved it! Shoneyin, previously a published poet, released this novel in 2010 and it was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. Described as a feminist author, I thought the book was clever in the way it portrayed the patriarch Baba Segi and his polygamous household where, though he is referred to by his wives as “Lord” and “King”, he is in fact a fool deceived by the much cleverer women around him. The book begins in comedy, but its ending is much more sober and ambivalent.

I loved all the characters in the book, how wonderfully well-observed they all were, how cleverly the author tells us just enough about their backgrounds to give us a clear understanding of what motivates them and drives them to act in the way they do. In part they are caricatures, apart from Bolanle, Baba Segi’s fourth wife, the most well-developed character, whose very existence drives the plot and who exposes, completely unknowingly, a complicated web of deceit. The plot is tremendous and the way it unfolds is both entertaining and enlightening. I read the last 100 pages or so in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down.

Sadly, I cannot find a reference to anything Lola Shoneyin has published since 2010. I would have loved to read another novel by her.

Betty B00 imgJuly’s theme is ‘Something from the Americas’. I always had South America in mind here and it was hard as there is so much to choose from among the great classics by Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name but a few. However, I really want to explore something more contemporary and less of a household name outside South America. I’ve chosen a book by Argentinian crime and mystery novelist Claudia Pineiro – Betty Boo. This was first published in 2011 in the original Spanish and then in English translation in 2016. It’s available in paperback and on Kindle.

 

 

I hope you will be able to join me in reading this. I wonder if it will be anything like an Agatha Christie?!

Are you finding yourself with more or in fact less reading time at the moment?

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June choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge

My usual routines, including my reading habits, are all over the place right now! What about you? I have both my daughters at home from school and my son home from university, plus my husband working from home. Although we are fortunate to have enough space and enough technology to enable everyone to do what they need to do, there are times when we get in each other’s way. I am also a creature of habit and do not always find it easy to adjust my rhythms to fit with other people’s. So, other commitments permitting, I like sit down with a cup of tea to read at around 3pm most afternoons, just before the return home from school. But, now, that is actually the busiest time of the day in our household – everyone seems to be ‘clocking off’ and wanting interaction! First world problems, as they say. We are all well, work is plentiful; we are among the more fortunate.

At times like this, I find it’s the little things that are important, so I try to find some time every day, no matter how small, to do some reading. I have several books on the go at the moment – Ulysses (which I promised myself I’d re-read this year and which I spent a glorious couple of hours simultaneously reading and listening to on Tuesday, 16th June, Bloomsday), Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the LightThe Beekeeper of Aleppo, which I’m listening to on audiobook, for my book club, and which is amazing, and my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for this month – The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. 

The secret Live sof Baba Segi's Wives This book by Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin, was published in 2010 and longlisted for the then Orange Prize for fiction the following year. Shoneyin writes beautifully. I have only just started it but I already love the characterisation and the humour, although a more melancholic note is now beginning to enter. It is described in the publisher’s blurb as at once funny and moving and I can definitely see that. Baba Segi is a traditional Nigerian male, still following the practice of polygamy in modern-day Nigeria. He has seven children by his first three wives, but desires more and when he meets Bolanle, a young graduate from a more enlightened family, who are against the marriage, he thinks his wish has been granted. Not all goes to plan, however.

I am enjoying the exploration of the family dynamics – a polygamous household will be outside the experience of most Western readers – and how the relationships between the four wives are beginning to evolve.

If you would like to join me in my reading challenge this month, hop on over to the Facebook Group– there is still time! It’s a fairly short book and we are only just over halfway through the month; I might even finish on time this month!

How have your reading habits changed in these last few months?

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Book review – “Zennor in Darkness” by Helen Dunmore

This was the April choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. At the start of the year I choose a particular theme for each month and April’s was historical fiction. Helen Dunmore was not much on my radar until I read Birdcage Walk last year, her final novel, published posthumously (Dunmore died in 2017). I thought the book was incredible and I was desperate to read more of her work. Dunmore was also a poet and acclaimed short story writer, but her historical fiction is what she is best known for, I think, and it is outstanding. Zennor in Darkness was in fact her debut novel, published in 1993, and it won the McKitterick Prize, which is awarded to debut novels of authors over 40 (there is hope for me yet!) I was open-minded; I did not expect it to be as polished as Birdcage Walk, in which she has fully matured as a writer and truly mastered her craft, but I did think it would be interesting to observe her burgeoning talent and to be able to see how she evolved as an artist.

Zennor in DarknessI really enjoyed Zennor in Darkness. It is a great story, two stories really, which become intertwined. Clare Coyne is the only daughter of widowed Francis Coyne, and the pair live together in the small town of Zennor in Cornwall. Clare’s mother was born there and the family moved from London when Clare was a baby in order to be near family. Clare’s father’s family had a higher social status, and Clare is clearly ‘different’ from her Cornish cousins, grandparents and aunts, with whom she has spent so much time, but Clare is largely disconnected from her paternal grandparents. Francis Coyne is an ineffectual character, a botanist who earns very little money from his publishing, who spends more time with his books than with his daughter, and who does not seem to understand her on any level. Clare has artistic ability and is a talented artist. She spends her time looking after her father, keeping house, and drawing plants for his latest book project.

Clare is very close to her cousins of her own age, particularly the girls Peggy and Hannah, and her slightly older male cousin, John. The novel is set in 1917, when Britain was in a state of trauma about its involvement in the First World War, the lives lost and the lives destroyed by battle.

Another (temporary) resident of the small Cornish community is the author DH Lawrence, who is renting a house there with his German wife Frieda (this part of the story is based on fact). The couple left London as Lawrence’s anti-war views had aroused great hostility, not helped by the fact of being married to a German. In Cornwall the couple hoped to find peace and quiet, but as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that some of the locals are suspicious of Lawrence, the outsider, the anti-patriot, and rumours spread that Frieda is actually a spy; the audacious red curtains hanging in the window of their rented cottage are thought to be signals to passing German U-boats!

Clare strikes up a friendship with the Lawrences, and is excited by their bohemian lifestyle, such a contrast to her own humdrum life and community. Clare also becomes romantically and sexually involved with her beloved cousin John when he returns home briefly on leave from the trenches. Like Clare, John is a cut above, had ambitions to be a doctor when he was younger, though the war put paid to that. His ability has been recognised, however, and at the end of his leave he is to begin officer training.

The title of the novel has many meanings – the ‘Darkness’ could refer to the dark times of the war and the attendant human suffering, but also to the sometimes narrow-minded attitudes of the local community to the outsider Lawrence, to Clare and Francis even. The setting of the novel is at times idyllic; there is a sense of suspension of time and escape from war (in part why the Lawrences moved there), particularly in the wonderful scenes at the beginning of the girls paddling in the sea and the recollections of the idyllic rural childhood they enjoyed. But as the novel progresses, darkness descends ever more over the events. There is no ‘happy ending’ here (how could there be, set as it is in the First World War?) but there is a kind of peace, a reconciling and a coming of age which is partly positive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it will spur me on to read more of Helen Dunmore.

Recommended.

Book review – “Grown Ups” by Marian Keyes

I posted last week about my ups and down dealing with life during Covid-19. It sparked a lot of comments from friends about others feeling similar emotional swings. It just goes to show that you can’t rely on social media to reflect life accurately; if I look at my Facebook or Instagram feeds it looks as if everyone is having an amazing time and achieving all sorts of interesting challenges! Perhaps everyone else is just ‘faking it till they make it’ as well, putting a brave face on, or, if their profile is also their livelihood, perhaps they are thinking about their business. I am not normally someone who suffers from anxiety or other mental health issues, at least not at the severe end of the spectrum, but it strikes me that more openness and honesty would help those who do.

I mentioned in my last post that one of the books that has really helped me this last few weeks is Grown Ups, the latest novel from Marian Keyes. I have long admired Marian; though I have not read any of her other books, I often hear her on the radio. She is also very active on Twitter and is hilarious. She is able to project her personality very strongly, she is forthcoming about her vulnerabilities and her frailties and she is an engaging and witty speaker. Grown Ups was suggested at my book club for April and I listened to it on audiobook. I absolutely loved it and especially Marian’s wonderfully authentic narration.

The novel is set over the course of six months in the life of one extended family – the Caseys – which comprises the three separate families of brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam and their various wives, girlfriends and children. The novel is set mostly in Ireland and mostly in Dublin, where the main characters all live. It opens on the occasion of Johnny’s 49th birthday, and the three brothers and their families have gathered together,, as they do frequently and regularly. These are usually organised (and paid for) by wealthy Type A personality Jessie, Johnny’s wife, successful business owner of a chain of stores selling high-end and exotic groceries. All of a sudden, Ed’s wife Cara begins to have what can only be described as a mental meltdown during dinner. Although I found this initial scene quite difficult to follow because I did not, of course, know any of the characters, it is quite clear that Cara’s outburst is entirely out of character, deeply embarrassing for many of the attendees, exposing behaviours they believed they had masked pretty successfully, and that it is going to cause deep fissures in what might otherwise appear to be a ‘happy’ family. It’s as if Cara has taken some sort truth drug.

All is in chaos and then Marian takes us back six months and we begin to explore the sequence of events that has led to this breakdown. These include an Easter break in a smart hotel in Killarney, a weekend away to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of the Casey brothers’ awful parents (which goes a long way to explaining the various ‘issues’ their sons have), a hilarious but disastrous murder mystery weekend for Jessie’s 50th birthday and a holiday in Tuscany. Most of these extravagant events are organised and paid for by Jessie, who, as an only child, longs for the happy extended family.

Although it’s the three men who are related, the story seems mainly to revolve around their partners – Johnny’s wife Jessie, who married him a few years after she had lost her beloved first husband Rory, Cara, Ed’s wife, a mild-mannered hotel receptionist, who has an eating disorder, and Nell, the young and lovely set designer, who marries feckless Liam after a whirlwind romance.

At first I found some of the scenes overly long, which made the pace quite laboured in the first quarter or so of the book, but on reflection I think this is necessary to building the personalities of the characters, understanding their motivations, and really getting inside their heads. By the time I got to the last quarter I could not put it down. I became totally lost in the world of the Caseys and found I cared very deeply about what happened to them all. Best of all Marian’s dialogue feels entirely authentic and made me feel nostalgic for get-togethers over the years I have had with my own extended family of Irish in-laws, though none quite so eventful as those depicted here!

This book was a real tonic and I recommend it highly. I will definitely explore more of Marian Keyes’s books.

What books have kept your spirits up during the pandemic lockdown?

Hello again!

It’s been a while since my last post. I’m normally pretty organised when it comes to planning my blog posts, and fairly diligent about posting regularly. School holidays and busy work periods can make things tricky but generally I’m a committed and regular blogger. I imagined that during this period of global lockdown due to Covid-19, I would have much more time to post regularly. That did not quite happen, of course, what with having the whole family at home all the time, and doing much more cooking and cleaning than I do normally (‘help’ sometimes creates more work!). I was getting on okay though, appreciating the facts of our situation: we were all together, we were well, our income was fairly secure, we had a roof over our heads, those basics were in place and so all was good.

After Easter, though, I noticed a real dip in my mood. I cannot really explain it because nothing specific happened. A few things upset or angered me – the ever-increasing death tolls on the nightly news, the increasingly grave news about the economy, the anxiety about how countries with weaker health systems than ours would cope (some of them rather better than the UK it turns out), events I had booked for the coming months were gradually cancelled. I also find myself getting irrationally cross about people who seemed to believe that the measures designed to protect us all didn’t actually apply to them. But, those things didn’t seem to explain the more general malaise I found myself experiencing. I struggled for motivation. Even with at least a million things I could have been doing I felt at a loose end. And when I heard the stories on the television of people who had lost loved ones to the virus, I found the complicated grief I felt about my mother’s death last Autumn, resurfaced in ways I had not expected. Some days I felt relief that she wasn’t here to experience or be worried about getting the disease (she would certainly have died had she got it as she was very unwell), but at the same time I felt, selfishly, like screaming, hey what about the rest of us who lost people recently, NOT due to Covid-19. It was all very complicated.

I even found it difficult to read. I wasn’t able to focus. I bought Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light at the start of the lockdown, thinking that long weeks of no socialising would give me plenty of opportunity to work my way through the hefty tome. Alas not. I have not even picked it up yet.

Thankfully, I can feel my mojo starting to return this last week or so, just as suddenly and as inexplicably as it went away. To what do I credit this change of mood? The following:

  • Grown Ups imgMarian Keyes – Grown Ups to be precise. It was my book club’s choice the last time we met in person and although it was probably not a book I would have picked up it was the most perfect tonic, especially as I listened to it on audio, with Marian’s wonderful narration.
  • Vincent Van Gogh – many years ago my husband bought me a 1000 piece Photomosaic jigsaw puzzle of a Van Gogh self-portrait. If you’ve never seen these, they are very clever, the larger image is made up of hundreds of tiny little photos, fiendishly difficult, but completely addictive. I had never done that jigsaw, but seemed to decide that ‘now’ was the time. Many dinners were burned or delayed as I found it difficult to drag myself away from it. We had to eat round it as it sat at the end of the dining table, a fortnight-long work in progress.  There was one near-disaster when the cat, in a last desperate attempt to get my attention to feed him, leapt up on the dining table and almost sent several hundred carefully colour-organised pieces crashing to the ground. Lucky for him, only a few pieces fell and Ziggy the cat lives to fight another day!

VVG

  • Withdrawal from social media – I’m not a big social media user, but I dabble.I found I really couldn’t take much Facebook though and Twitter was a total no-go – way too much anger and too many chronically-opinionated people.
  • And finally, free arts online – more than anything I am missing the arts (hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious). The audience with Hilary Mantel I had booked for April was cancelled, as was West Side Story at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the Hay Festival, the Thom Yorke gig in Manchester next month as well as various performances my kids were involved with and a couple of work trips to London with exhibitions to be taken in. Thank goodness for the National Theatre’s weekly NT Live recordings, the virtual tours of museums around the world, and Radiohead classic concerts on YouTube.

It hasn’t been all play, of course, I only dabbled with all of the above. I got a bit sick of hearing lifestyle-y type people saying how bored they were and were looking for things to do. I have felt busier than ever, my work has been emotionally quite demanding, and it’s never good hearing from over-achievers in those circumstances.

So, like most people, I am muddling along, looking forward to some normal things and trying to make the best of the situation. And hopefully getting back to an even keel on the blogging front.

I hope you are all doing okay.