Book review – “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

I could not have been more delighted at the announcement last week that Shuggie Bain, the debut novel by Douglas Stuart (a Scottish fashion designer who now lives in New York city), had won the Booker Prize. I posted last week about how I had enjoyed the book. I did not exactly predict the winner; I’d only read two of the books on the shortlist and the other one I didn’t really like! I felt more a part of the ceremony this year than ever before. It was incorporated into the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, whereas usually there is a fancy-pants dinner, and Will Gompertz, in his black tie, appears at the end of News at Ten, to tell us, briefly, who has won. The rest of us, the actual real-life readers and book-buyers, are left out of the glittery literati event. Not this time though; sitting at home, like all the nominated authors, I was on tenterhooks too.

It was the same with the Women’s Prize, back in the summer. It was such a treat to attend all the virtual pre-prize interviews, hosted by author Kate Mosse, with the worldwide audience posting their questions and comments on the Zoom rolling chat. We would never have been able to do that before, when such things would all have taken place in London. I hope that is one aspect of life that we keep, going forward. The winner of the Women’s Prize this year was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I had not read at the time it was awarded the prize, but it was on my TBR list. I have subsequently read it and, if you haven’t already heard, it was a joy to read. It is one of the most profoundly moving books I have read in a very long time; Maggie O’Farrell is an author at the top of her game and she is still only 48.

Hamnet is the story of a marriage and a child. The marriage is that between William Shakespeare (though he is never actually named in the novel) and his wife Agnes (we know her better as Anne Hathaway of course, but her birth name was actually Agnes). The novel does not pursue a linear narrative; it begins with the eleven year old boy Hamnet searching frantically for his twin sister Judith, who is dangerously sick with fever. The house belongs to his grandparents, his father’s parents. His father is away working in London and the family has lived with them since his parents married. The grandfather is a glove-maker and both produces and sells his gloves from the home, where there is a window that faces out on to the Stratford street. The grandfather is a violent bully who believes his playwright son is a hapless good-for-nothing.

Hamnet’s mother is older than his father by some seven or eight years, and they married after a brief and passionate courtship which led to Agnes falling pregnant. This was partly the intention; Agnes, whose mother had died when she was a child, is a wildish creature whom her vulgar stepmother treats with suspicion and contempt. For Agnes, the pregnancy is a wish-fulfilment, and the hasty marriage a way out of her father’s home, which is now dominated by his second wife and a new set of offspring.

Agnes gives birth, as she expects, to a girl, Susannah. Agnes has a deep knowledge of plants and herbs and people come to her for healing. She is also said to have powers of premonition. These qualities are said to be inherited from her mother. When she falls pregnant for a second time Agnes is puzzled and distressed as she feels instinctively that something is wrong or that some ill fate awaits the child, but she cannot pinpoint what it is. Her confusion over whether the baby is a boy or girl troubles her. In the end she gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy, and her husband laughs off her confusion.

While the children are growing, the playwright pursues his career and, encouraged, by Agnes, goes to London, ostensibly to sell his father’s gloves, but actually to explore what opportunities there might be for him there. Dazzled by the theatre and by the thespians he meets, he decides that he should stay in order to make enough money to support his family. He does this with his wife’s blessing although she does not realise, at this stage, how far apart the separation will drive them.

SPOILER ALERT…ish (you have probably already have heard what happens):

Back in Stratford, Judith contracts the plague and becomes dangerously ill. Agnes believes her child will die. There is a shocking turn of events, however, when Judith suddenly recovers, but, exhausted by the sleepless worry and the caring for her daughter, Agnes fails to notice the rapid deterioration in her son Hamnet, who suddenly contracts the disease. It is a brilliant and devastating few pages as we regain Judith and lose Hamnet. O’Farrell has said that she could not write this scene until her own son had passed the age of eleven. It seems it was as profound an experience writing it as it is to read.

Hamnet’s father does not make it back in time for his son’s last breath and this sets the tone of the remainder of the book. Hamnet’s death occurs about halfway through and the rest of the novel explores the grief experienced by husband and wife. Each feels their loss in a different way and their inability to find comfort in each other in such a terrible moment almost breaks them, both as a couple and as separate individuals.

The ending of the book is interesting, I won’t explain how it pans out, except to say that the playwright writes a play called Hamlet in which a young man dies, but, for me, the emotional peak is much earlier on with Hamnet’s death. The rest is a fascinating study of grief but not as intense.

A wonderful book, brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed. A worthy winner, despite being up against the very brilliant The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I think it’s more accessible and a little more human than Mantel’s book, which I also loved, by the way.

Very highly recommended.

Audiobook review – “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri

I’m on an audiobook roll; earlier this week I posted about The Last Protector, the fourth in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett series, all of which I have listened on on audio and all of which I have loved. Today I am, by coincidence, reviewing another audiobook, The Beekeeper of Aleppo. I had known about this one for some time and wanted to read it, then it came up as a suggestion from one of my fellow Book Club members. It is read by Art Malik, whose voice is sublime, absolutely perfect for this story, so it was an easy choice to turn to the audiobook.

Although it is a work of fiction the author writes in her afterword about her time spent working with refugees fleeing the war in Syria, and that the book represents an amalgam of various peoples’ experiences. Although it is a tragic and heartbreaking story, even a superficial awareness of what has been happening in Syria for almost ten years now will render it entirely believable. Aleppo was particularly badly affected by the civil war in Syria; over 30,000 people are said to have been killed between 2012-16, when fighting there was at its most intense. A further half a million people were displaced and much of the city was left in ruins.

The story is narrated by Nuri, a beekeeper who lives a peaceful life in Aleppo with his wife Afra, an artist, and their young son Sami. Nuri runs his successful beekeeping business with his partner Mustafa, the more charismatic of the two men.

[Slight spoiler alert in the next paragraph]

Nuri and Afra are devoted to their homeland, but they watch in despair as their city is torn apart and they witness horrific acts in the increasingly vicious civil war. Their turmoil reaches a climax when their young son is killed by a mortar. Mustafa decides to flee Syria, determined to head for the United Kingdom, and encourages Nuri and Afra to do the same. Nuri is persuaded, but Afra cannot find it within her to leave. Deeply traumatised by her son’s death she does not want to, as she sees it, leave him behind. As events spiral out of their control and the gulf between them, caused by their grief, seems impossibly large, Nuri finds that his wife, the artist, has become blind.

Nuri persuades, virtually forces, Afra to leave Syria; presenting her with a stark choice – it is that or death. Afra would rather die, but Nuri has to nurture the last tiny remaining bit of the human survival instinct that he has, for both of them. What follows is an account of the couple’s journey from Syria, across Europe and finally to England. They spend many weeks in Athens, sleeping in a public park with many others in a similar position, dependent on the kindness of strangers, volunteers and NGO workers to bring them food. They face many dangers, their lives are at risk on many occasions and they are cruelly robbed and cheated by criminals and gangsters who seek to profit from the plight of desperate people. As a reader you know this story is not fantastical. It is heartbreaking to see how these cultured, educated gentle people are brutalised, dehumanised and forced into danger and a level of criminality themselves by their situation.

This is not an easy read. It is heart-wrenching throughout and the ending is both dramatic and surprising. I would also say the ending is clever, but that seems a rather inappropriate word to apply to a story such as this. For an insight into what it is like to be a refugee, an outsider, this book is superb.

I recommend this book highly.

The book has won international acclaim, but sadly it does not seem to have changed the world’s attitude to refugees. Perhaps that is too much to ask when almost every country in the world is now battling a global pandemic. But just as we can’t let Covid cause us to forget the many other problems and causes of suffering in our own society (cancer, domestic violence, homelessness are not on hold), neither can we let ourselves forget the unimaginable plight of refugees across the globe. UNHCR estimates that around 1% of the world’s population, about 80 million people, are currently displaced. Of these, 40%, about 32 million, are children.

Audiobook review – “The Last Protector” by Andrew Taylor

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an audiobook enthusiast – having long-eschewed the move to digital formats (ie e-readers – I have one, but I rarely use it), I find the audiobook adds a dimension to the experience of ‘reading’; you get the interpretation of a skilled actor/narrator and the sense of connection, as if someone else is enjoying the experience alongside you. The e-reader, on the other hand, for me, takes away; paper just feels more authentic between my fingers than glass and plastic, and the ‘swipe’ is a distraction that removes me from the narrative. I get that it’s convenient (not to mention space-saving!), but it’s just not really for me. The audiobook doesn’t work every time – of the books I have listened to over the last few years, there are some where the narrator annoyed me. One that comes to mind is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train where the Rachel character just grated every time she spoke.

Andrew Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett books (now four titles) are books that I have enjoyed immensely on audio. I listened to the first book, The Ashes of London, during the summer last year and followed up very quickly with the second book, The Fire Court, both of which I loved. I listened to the third book The King’s Evil, in the early part of this year, and then the fourth and most recent addition, The Last Protector, I downloaded pretty much as soon as it was published in April. It was my companion to my 5-10km running programme during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was perfect escapism and a timely reminder that we are not the only generation to live through ‘plague’.

In this book, James Marwood, now well-known at court as an effective ‘investigator’ and ‘fixer’ is firmly established in his slightly shadowy ‘civil servant plus’ role; the James Bond of his day, perhaps! His fortune is fairly secure and his household is growing in size; a man of compassion he has gathered around him a group of waifs and strays who have become his trusted and loyal servants. As his successes have increased, however, so have his enemies, some of them very powerful, most notably the Duke of Buckingham, a scheming, two-faced and clever courtier, direct threat to the King himself. With each new book, the stakes for Marwood get ever higher. Cat Lovett is the other constant character in the books, long-time associate of Marwood, intimately connected by their past dealings, and between whom a frisson of energy fizzes, a fact which often puts them at loggerheads.

Cat is now married, rather unhappily, to the ageing and sickly architect, Hakesby so her contact with Marwood is limited, but they are thrown together again by a seemingly chance meeting between Cat and a childhood friend, Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth is the daughter of Richard Cromwell, son of the more famous Oliver, who was reluctantly thrust into the position of ‘Protector’ after his father’s death. He fled to France after the restoration of the monarchy and has now returned to England; he misses his homeland, but is also destitute and needs funds. Cromwell himself is not a threat to the King, but he has become a poster-boy for the still-nascent enthusiasm for the time of Cromwell (Hakesby is among such a group and does not conceal his delight at the return of a Cromwell, much to Cat’s dismay, who, given her own family history, must keep a low profile). His financial needs also make him vulnerable to exploitation by those who do indeed seek to disrupt the existing order (ie Buckingham) and capitalise on the widespread dissatisfaction with the royal court.

Richard Cromwell seeks to retrieve a package that his indomitable late mother had hidden in a sewer beneath St James’ Palace where she once resided. We do not know what exactly is in this package, but Cromwell believes it will answer all his problems. He needs, however, to ingratiate himself to Hakesby, the architect who undertook much of the remodelling at the palace in the years since the restoration, in order to get access to the sewer.

As usual, a simple premise sets off a train of events that lead to violence and duplicity, intrigue and death. Marwood becomes embroiled, once again at the request of the King and senior courtiers, and events seem to spiral out of his control. Once again, however, Marwood (and Cat), through ingenuity, resourcefulness and wit, manage to come through.

Everything about this book, and the earlier volumes, delivers. Great plot (logical enough to be credible, and complex enough to entertain whilst being just about understandable), well-rounded believable characters, and, very importantly, a level of historical authenticity that suggests deep and painstaking research.

I recommend this and the rest of the series highly. For best results, read in the right order!

Book review – “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera

This was my choice for September in my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a novel by an Eastern European writer. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is considered a classic in that particular category; it was first published in 1984, in French translation, and not in the original Czech until 1985, but outside the then Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia. This was for political reasons as the novel is set against the background of the so-called ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, when the Soviet Army occupied the country.

The main protagonists are Tomáš, a surgeon, his wife Tereza, and their dog Karenin. Other characters are Sabina, an artist, and Tomáš’s lover (one of them!), and Sabina’s lover Franz. Tomáš is a womaniser, I’d even go so far as to say a sex addict, whom I did not warm to. Despite his genuine love for Tereza, he is serially unfaithful. After he is relieved of his post as a surgeon, after getting into difficulties with the government about a critical letter he wrote that was published in a newspaper, he is employed as a window-cleaner, and seems to spend his work days having sex with his clients. Tereza is aware of his infidelities, but tolerates them, for reasons that are not quite apparent – yes, she loves him, but it seems mainly to be fear and vulnerability that keep her with him. I did not warm to Tereza either; she is a damaged person, body-dysmorphic, which seems to have been caused by her challenging relationship with her mother. Tereza is a talented photographer, but she never manages to exploit her abilities, working instead in a series of dead-end jobs. Tereza is perpetually sad, quite a depressing character.

Sabina and Franz are more marginal characters and I struggled to fully understand their relevance; Sabina, an artist, is Tomáš’s lover when he begins his relationship with Tereza. She represents cheer, lightness and ease when Tomáš is concerned that Tereza is going to tie him down. Sabina is his way of convincing himself that he is still free to pursue his erotic interests. Later, in Geneva, Sabina becomes the mistress of an academic, Franz, who leaves his wife for her, although a permanent domestic life with him was not really what she was seeking so they part and he settles down with one of his students.

This is a clever book and the political backdrop interested me. The philosophy did not, however, and so I found it difficult to get into. I did not enjoy Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World when I read it in the early 1990s, for much the same reason. In Sophie’s World, the story is almost entirely subjugated to the history of philosophy, which I’m afraid rather bored me. That is less the case here in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where there is just about a story to hang onto, but still, for me, it was not enough. I am a lover of literature, a lifelong student of it, but I am also a lover of a good story and this one just did not do it for me.

It has an interesting narrative voice; the author is self-consciously present and takes the reader on philosophical digressions, commenting on his characters’ actions as we go along. Essentially, the author’s position is in opposition to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ – that all events that have ever happened are repeated endlessly. This means everything we do has huge eternal significance. What Kundera is exploring here is the very opposite, that each event occurs once only, making all events and choices essentially without great import, thus ‘light’. He therefore reflects throughout on the extent to which the character’s are experiencing ‘lightness’ in their lives or not.

It’s okay not to like a ‘classic’ isn’t it? Life is pretty hectic at the moment and grounded in much more prosaic matters, namely, finally, the (fingers-crossed) sale of my late mother’s house, the winding-up of her affairs and interment of her ashes. Bogged down with all this earthly detail I was probably not in the best frame of mind to ponder big issues of philosophy! I also found myself reading it in shortish bursts, which is never how I best enjoy a book.

So, all in all, not a great read for me.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this book.

Book Review – “The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel

The big excitement in the literary world recently was, of course, the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist. In past years I have set myself the task of trying to read the whole shortlist before the award is made, but I have never yet managed it. I think I read five out of the six one year, but last year I think I only managed two or three and abandoned the intention somewhere around Christmas-time. The Booker Prize seems like less of a landmark than it once was, though; one of the criticisms is that it is now dominated by US-published books, since it was opened up to writers in English from outside the Commonwealth in 2014. One of the fears was that it would “homogenise” literary fiction, although it is curious that this year’s prize nominees constitute one of the most diverse I can remember with it having a majority of women and a majority of people of colour. I would like to read all of the novels on this year’s shortlist, they all sound fascinating, but if there is one thing the past twelve months have taught me it is that I should not be too goal-orientated. My world feels like it has been on shifting sands and most of my plans have had to be abandoned, with the consequence that I have often felt like I was failing at every turn. At this point in time I am just trying to be kind to myself, recognise that things change and give myself a pat on the back for things done rather than admonishing myself for things still to do. And keen readers will know that that TBR pile NEVER shrinks!

The brilliant finale to the Wolf Hall trilogy

The big shock of the Booker Prize shortlist was that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of her Wolf Hall trilogy, was not even nominated. This followed hard on the heels of not winning the Women’s Prize a week earlier (that award went to Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – my next read!). Hilary Mantel has spoken of these twin ‘failures’ as being something of a relief – there had been so much talk of whether she could ‘do the treble’ (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies having won in 2009 and 2012, respectively), but remember this is literature not football! I don’t think Hilary will be suffering too much of a crisis of confidence! As an artist, I hope her feeling of achievement is from the work itself. And what a work it is!

Talking of goals, I wrote on here back in March, when we all first went into ‘lockdown’ (I really, really hate that word), that one of the things I was planning to do with all my spare time was to both read The Mirror and the Light and re-read Ulysses (so much endless time), but of course I did not. Both books are enormous. It took a concerted effort during August to finish The Mirror and the Light. One of the reasons it took me so long was because it is so brilliantly written I wanted to savour absolutely every word. Also, with such a huge cast of characters, it was not always easy to follow who was conspiring with whom.

We all know the ending – Cromwell falls out of favour with Henry, following a fairly concerted campaign by his enemies at court, and is eventually executed. Knowing this, rather like re-reading a good book, helps you to track how events are unfolding. This is a really outstanding book, a fine achievement, and one which rewards the hard work, the investment the reader has to put into it. It is much longer than the first two parts of the trilogy, and at times, especially at the beginning, I felt it could have been edited down a bit, but, now I’ve finished it, I’m not so sure. There is no doubt that, as a reader, you get your money’s worth – less than £1 per hour of reading is pretty good value! And the craft, the authorship, the writing skill, and the research, not to mention the years of her life Ms Mantel has put into this book, make it, in my view, a true literary landmark. It seems above prizes.

Hilary Mantel has also given us all a lesson in politics and a lesson in history. It was an interesting time to be reading the book. The name Dominic Cummings (most famous breaker of lockdown rules) will be familiar to most people in the UK. Not just in the UK but in other countries too, there is a culture war going on between an establishment ‘elite’ and ‘upstarts’ perceived not to belong. I do think this is an element in some of the hostility that is expressed towards people perceived to be outsiders. I should add quickly that I do not think this is undeserved (I’m thinking Cummings, but also Trump), but there is undoubtedly self-interest in the hostility coming from some quarters and some people seem to be piggy-backing on legitimate criticisms. Waiting for their moment to strike, perhaps.

Cromwell, as painted by Hans
Holbein the Younger

Thomas Cromwell (according to Mantel) was a schemer, self-interested and a manipulator, but he was also (and I should add that my comparison with the contemporary examples of outsiders mentioned above ends right there!) a brilliant tactician and a man of extraordinary talents with an unmatched intellect. His chief ‘crime’ in the eyes of his enemies at court, though, was being low-born, he son of a blacksmith; he dared to ascend to the very highest roles at court, the chief confidante of the king, but he paid the price, ultimately, for that daring. His enemies eventually succeeding in getting rid of him.

I recommend The Mirror and the Light very very highly.

Book review – “Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman

As has become customary, I was somewhat late posting on my Reading Challenge Facebook Group with this month’s title, the theme of which is a novel from Eastern Europe. I have chosen Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This book has been sitting on my bookshelves for many years; it was part of my husband’s collection before we met, so must have been bought at least 25 years ago. I’ve ‘been meaning to read it’ ever since. There may well be books on my own TBR pile that have been around even longer, but I am determined I will get to them all one day! So, this month’s theme provides the perfect opportunity to get into this particular title, a renowned modern classic set against the background of the Prague Spring in 1968. First published in 1984, it was made into a film in 1988, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. Apparently, the author hated the film!

So, if you would like to join me this month, I would love to hear your thoughts at the end of the month – or, at my present rate of reading, a week or so into October!

Last month’s theme was ‘a love story’ and I chose André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. The novel is set primarily during one sultry Italian summer in the 1980s. The younger main character, teenager Elio, spends every summer there with his parents at their home. Each year they invite an American graduate student to stay with them for several weeks, to assist Elio’s father with his academic work, whilst also working on a project of their own. This has become a tedious routine for Elio, who is always aggrieved that, for the period of the visit, he has to vacate his bedroom for a smaller one down the hall, so that the guest can stay in more comfort. That is until Oliver arrives. Seven years older than Elio he is confident, outgoing, charming and brilliant, a favourite with Elio’s parents, the staff who work in the house, and the family’s local friends and neighbours. By contrast, Elio is introverted, at times morose, a typical teenager, you might say.

The book is written from Elio’s point of view, so we know he feels an instant attraction to Oliver. Still young, Elio is in the early stage of exploring his sexuality. Although he has no apparent qualms about homosexuality, he clearly does not feel he can explore this openly in front of his family. He feels sure the attraction is mutual, but is frustrated by Oliver’s reluctance to engage with him. Initially, there is an intense psychological dance between the two, as both young men try to suppress their feelings, even having romantic liaisons with other women. When Elio confronts Oliver about what he sees as his cruelty, Oliver expresses his concern about their age difference and whether it would be unfair to expose him to potential heartache. Oliver is concerned about the power imbalance that the age difference confers.  

The pair finally come together and for the last few weeks of Oliver’s stay they have an intense sexual relationship and experience a deep emotional connection. Like all holiday romances, however, it cannot last. There is no sad ending, however, merely a recognition, that such love affairs burn hot and bright, but never for long.

A fellow reader commented that the time in which this novel is set is a factor. That if it had been, say, 10 or 15 years later, perhaps the romance would have been more acceptable (and perhaps less intense?). For me, the ‘forbidden’ nature of it came more from the age and status difference – Elio is at an early stage of sexual awakening, while Oliver is more experienced and does not want Elio’s early formative sexual experience to be one that he may regret later in life. Perhaps this does reflect the fact that homosexuality was still considered a more niche interest, less socially mainstream and more likely to cause psychological harm if later rejected.

This was a perfect novel for late August; I had planned to enjoy it on my summer holiday, lazing on the patio, but alas my holiday was cut short, so I had to make do with reading it in cool rainy south Manchester! It was good to escape to Italy in this book though.

I liked the story, the tension created felt very real and the ending was good. Apparently, the follow-up, Find Me is not as good. The characters were strong and the sense of place was very powerfully drawn, probably my favourite aspect of the book. It has of course been made into a film, starring Timothy Chalemet and Armie Hammer, which was highly praised and the breakthrough movie for its young star, Chalemet. I am also told the audiobook, read by Hammer, is excellent.

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?

 

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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