It’s the end of March and time to be thinking about the reading challenge for April. The theme this month is travel writing and I’ve picked Colin Thubron, who is said to be one of the finest living travel authors. It’s not a genre I am very familiar with, although I love and have read quite a few of Dervla Murphy’s books (her book On a Shoestring to Coorg featured on my reading challenge two years ago). So, I thought it would be good to aim high and go for one of the best!
The title I have chosen is To A Mountain in Tibet, partly, I’m afraid, because it is one of the slimmer volumes; I’m struggling to keep up with all my planned reading at the moment…where did March go? Ah yes, I know, I spent a lot of time with my mouth open glued to the news and political analysis programmes (the less said about that the better!). Reading the blurb and the reviews of this book, I also feel it encapsulates what I am looking for in a travel book, which is not only the author on a physical journey, but also on some kind of process of learning. In To A Mountain in Tibet Thubron is undertaking a pilgrimage well known to Hindus and Buddhists, but is also a story of him coming to terms with loss and bereavement.
It seems appropriate to be reading this book in April, when Easter falls, and when many people will be undertaking journeys of their own. I will be on a family holiday later in the month and this book will be in my suitcase.
I will be posting my review of the March reading challenge book next week, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, so look out for that. This was a re-read for me; I last read it nearly thirty years ago and it has been one of my all-time favourites – find out if I loved it as much second time around!
Sight is the debut novel from British author Jessie Greengrass and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was won recently by Kamila Shamsie. This was the first novel I have read from this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist, and the one which appealed most strongly to my fellow book club members and I. We love the Women’s Prize and always try to get through a couple on the shortlist. We are all mothers, spend way too much time talking about our kids and so the blurb, about one woman’s journey to parenthood, spoke directly to us.
It is a very curious book. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s a novel as we become so deeply embedded in the internal world of the unnamed first person narrator that it feels as if it is an autobiography.
We know very little of the narrator, except that she is a young woman of indeterminate age, though probably in her early thirties. Her partner is Johannes, whom she meets shortly after the death of her mother. The book begins with her account of her mother’s decline and death and the time she spent caring for her. It is clearly a traumatic time for her and she struggles with all the challenges it represents – emotional, physical and administrative. It is an account of what it is like to be a daughter and an only child and to lose your only parent, your only link with your birth, with your early life and with that part of your life of which you have no memory.
She seems to drift into the relationship with Johannes at a time when she is emotionally vulnerable. He seems to offer her stability and comfort. The issue of having a child is clearly something that looms large in their relationship and eventually she agrees, but she remains unsure about the wisdom of this step.
This is not a story. It is an internal monologue, an account of one woman’s ambivalence about having a child. In fact she seems very ambivalent about all her close relationships – with her mother, with Johannes and with the only other significant character in the book, her late grandmother, a psychotherapist who lived alone and practised in a large house in Hampstead, and with whom she spent a few weeks each summer as a child. I suppose this ambivalence is present because we are getting the narrator’s unfettered, unmediated thoughts, but I found it confusing to marry this with any notion of love. For me, love was missing from the book. I understand well that for many women, it is not easy to bond with the foetus they carry, even the baby they give birth to. I can also accept relationships with a parent can be fraught and complex, even where there is familial love on both sides. Our narrator is deeply moved by the suffering of her mother in the final stages of her life; the actions she takes, the things she tells us about, sleeping beside her in the hospice, reading to her, suggest deep love, but she does not seem to me to express it. And when she writes about her grief and her loss, it is more a loss of a role, or a relation, rather than a person. There is something very cold about her feelings, which are captured in the following quote:
“Then I was faced with the problem of what to do with all my mother’s things. I felt that I was expected, somehow, to keep them, to make myself curator, but the thought of storing this detritus of an ended lifetime, of dragging it behind me like a deadened limb, turning myself into little more than a conduit for memory, was horrifying; and so in the end I gave away what I could to anyone who wanted it and hired a skip for the weekend to deal with the rest.”
What I found most difficult was that there seemed to be little real love in her relationship with Johannes. This was the man she chose to be the father of her child and although she finds great comfort in their easy companionship, their shared interests and the great care he shows for her, there is also at times a kind of contempt.
Perhaps my reading of it is too simplistic or too literal – perhaps if my internal thoughts were this closely mapped they would also reveal ambivalences in my feelings for the people I love most in the world. Our thoughts are closed to everyone but ourselves, and even to ourselves sometimes.
This is not a linear narrative – it jumps back and forth from her childhood, to the present, the antenatal appointments, to her mother’s death. In that sense it bears similarities to a ‘stream of consciousness’ style. Woven through it are accounts of three scientific figures – Rontgen and his discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic relationship with his daughter Anna, and John Hunter and the development of early surgery in the 18th century.
What I liked about this book was the remarkable writing, the intensity of the observation, particularly of her relationship with her own young daughter:
“When my daughter throws her arms with thoughtless grace around my neck, I respond with an agonising gratitude that I must hide from her in case, feeling the heft of it, she might become encumbered and not do that she was born for, which is to go away from me.”
There is profound insight in this book, not necessarily to the human condition – there was much here that I could not empathise with – but I mean in terms of the self-awareness. The deep introspection has given her a powerful knowledge of her own nature, of the events that have shaped her existence and of the impact of her relationships upon her.
This is a long review for a book in which very little happens! It was not an easy read and it sometimes frustrated me. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a first novel and offers a fresh approach to much-explored themes, even if at times it feels rather dislocated.
Recommended if you prefer psychology to plot.
If you have read Sight, what did you make of it, and how does it compare to the other novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist?
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Once again this year, I have set myself the goal of reading the Man Booker shortlist. The shortlist of six was announced on 13 September and the winner will be named on 17 October. The title and description of this book did not appeal immediately and it would probably not have been the book I started with, but the others took a few days to arrive and this was the one that was available in the library, so by default it became my starting point.
George Saunders is a well-established American writer, winner of the Folio Prize in 2014 (for Tenth of December, a collection of short stories) and on the back of my copy of this book are some impressive quotes from literary heavyweights: “A writer of arresting brilliance and originality” Tobias Wolff, “A morally passionate, serious writer…He will be read long after these times have passed.” Zadie Smith. High praise indeed. But this book? I just don’t get it.
The premise of the book is the untimely death of Willie Lincoln, eleven year old son of US President Abraham Lincoln in February 1862, whilst the American Civil War is raging. The Bardo is, according to Tibetan tradition, a kind of interim state that the dead enter prior to their admission to the final place where they will spend the afterlife. The Bardo, as imagined in this book, is a riotous place where the spirits, from different ages and social strata, mingle and squabble. Specifically, here, they argue over Willie’s soul and are fascinated by the vigil that Abraham Lincoln undertakes beside his son’s coffin. The cemetery (or perhaps more accurately the Bardo) is populated by a cast of characters who could easily have stepped out of a Victorian travelling circus; a mixture of grotesques and rogues, troubled souls and tragic misfits. Some are more fully realised than others; Hans Vollman. Roger Bevins iii and the Reverend Everly Thomas are our primary narrators, whose background stories are revealed in some detail, but many others make only brief appearances and are more like caricatures.
The structure of the book is very unusual, like nothing I’ve ever read before. There is no coherent narrative, as such, the story is told from the multiple perspectives. These not only include the restless spirits, but for the events that precede Willie’s death, or outside the cemetery, they are told in short paragraphs by third party observers, reporters and historians. What was most interesting to me, was how different some of these accounts were, despite the writers all seeming to have been present at the event described.
This book has left me feeling like I’m missing something. I know that it has been highly praised, but I’m afraid I just am not seeing anything particularly innovative here. To me it’s all just a muddle, with no story, where nothing really happens. There is one central theme, which seems to be that the dead do not rest easily until the living let them go, allow them to realise their ‘deadness’, but I’m not sure that single point is worthy of a whole book. And I didn’t really find the cast of spirits very entertaining or enlightening. I’ve read many books which have challenged form, which have taken some re-reading to fully appreciate. But for me, this book offers nothing that I want to delve back into. If it wins the ManBooker, I may need to go back to Literature School!
I dislike being critical. Did you find something of value in this book? What is it I’m missing?!
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No-one could forget the terrible events of June 16th 2016, the week before the UK referendum on exiting the EU, when Jo Cox, the British MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire, was brutally murdered whilst in her constituency. It was shocking on so many levels. Firstly, that, in the midst of a profound expression of our democracy (which I believe we should never take for granted), campaigning during a referendum, one of our most conscientious and hard-working elected members should be killed for doing her job and what she believed in. Secondly, and most upsetting to me and, I’m sure, to many others, that a mother of two young children, a wife, a sister, a daughter, should lose her life and all those close to her should lose the most important person in theirs. It was truly awful.
In the days that followed, campaigning in the referendum was suspended as the news reverberated around the world. Support was shown and condolences sent by dozens of world leaders, not least President Obama. Jo’s death had a huge impact. So many had felt the insult to our democracy. In those subsequent days and weeks, we also learned much about this young woman and her life, and the loss felt even greater.
Jo’s husband, Brendan, became famous overnight, a role he would never have wanted. The grieving widower, the father of two shocked and grieving young children (then aged just five and three), the spokesperson for his late wife and all the good and powerful things she stood for. He was frequently on our television screens, looking dazed and gaunt, in Parliament, just days after Jo’s death, hearing MPs’ tributes, at a memorial event in Trafalgar, attended by thousands. It is a wonder how he got through those days.
It is thirteen months since Jo’s death and Brendan has been busy. He has set up the Jo Cox Foundation which seeks to promote fairness and tolerance in the world through practical actions. He has also published this book, which is part biography of Jo, partly an account of loss and, I suspect, part catharsis. It is rare that I have sat down and read a book in a couple of sittings over a weekend, but this book lends itself to that kind of immersion.
First and foremost the book, for me, provides an intimate glimpse into the architecture of grief. We will all experience grief in our lives, but most of us will never have to lose someone in the circumstances that Brendan lost Jo, that their children lost their mother. The pain is profound. We see Brendan go through all the stages we are familiar with – shock, denial, etc, though he clearly fights very hard against anger, and seems to have won. He describes in detail the unique way that nature enables children to process it. In the midst of his own grief Brendan’s primary concern was to support his children through their even greater loss to ensure that it was handled in the best possible way. Brendan talks about taking advice from experts in child psychology on how he should talk to them about their mother. The overwhelming consensus is that children should be allowed the space to grieve as they need, in their own unique way, and that it is important that we do not impose adult preconceptions and expectations about their level of sadness. For a young child, losing a mother is a profound and life-changing event that will affect the rest of their lives and it is so important to handle it right.
The sadness in this book is at times unbearable, but Brendan also writes with joy too. He provides an account of Jo’s life, her humble family background and childhood, her life as a student at Cambridge and her early achievements in a career that was destined to be stellar. Brendan, in providing this account, is honouring his late wife and the enormous achievements she made in her short life. There is a definite sense that the best was yet to come.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Jo Cox, maiden speech to Parliament, 2015
Finally, the book is a love letter, a tribute from a bereaved husband to the woman he clearly loved so deeply. His love drips from every page. Some of the detail he gives is surprisingly intimate almost too much for me as a reader. The kind of small details of a relationship that couples normally only share with one another. But then you remember that Brendan no longer can, and his sharing with us feels all the more poignant.
The book is structured so that parallels are drawn between events in the months following Jo’s death and important stages in Jo’s life. For example, the account of Jo and Brendan’s time working in America and joining the Obama presidential campaign is given alongside an account of Brendan’s visit to the White House with his children, at the invitation of President Obama.
It is an incredible book and all proceeds from sales will go to the Jo Cox Foundation. It is hard to say I ‘enjoyed’ it but it felt like a very important read. It has certainly caused me to reflect, and the lesson that comes from it, for me, is along the lines of that old truism (with apologies for misquoting) that it’s not the years in your life that really count, but the life in your years. And Jo certainly packed a lifetime’s worth in her 42 years.
An emotional read, but highly recommended.
If you have read this book, I’d love to know how it affected you.
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I’ve recently started running an after-school book club at my youngest daughter’s primary school; I am a passionate advocate of enhancing children’s access to and enjoyment of books, perhaps because reading gave me so much as a child and in a sense has shaped everything I have done in my life. It can bring particular benefits to less well-off, less confident and less academic kids, and children’s authors in recent years have embraced this wholeheartedly. There are some truly fantastic titles out there for children at the moment – I wrote about some of them in a couple of blogs I published before Christmas.
Time Travelling with a Hamster was the first choice of the book club, and what a joy it is. At the heart of the plot is a tragic event – a boy who loses his father at the age of eight – but the author handles this so deftly, acknowledging the huge emotional impact it will no doubt have had on such a young child, but also deploying humour and intelligence to help child readers deal with such a challenging topic. I think it shows a great respect on the part of the author for the maturity and strength of his young readership.
When we meet him, Al is 12. His mother has remarried and the family now lives with Steve, with whom Al has almost nothing in common, and his teenage daughter Carly, who is openly hostile. The other main character is Grandpa Byron, Al’s grandfather on his father’s side, with whom he has a warm and loving relationship. Grandpa Byron is a wonderful, larger-than-life, eccentric character, a perfect foil to his rather serious and conservative grandson.
For his 12th birthday Al is given a hamster (whom he calls Alan Shearer, to please Steve, who is a football fan and always trying to involve Al in his hobby). He is also given a letter from his father, written before he died. In the letter, Al’s father makes a huge request: he wants him to travel back in time, using a time machine he had invented before he died, to when Al’s father was a boy. Pye (Al’s father) had a go-kart accident, also when he was 12, which left a fragment of metal lodged in his brain. It is this fragment of metal that will later cause a brain haemorrhage that will kill Pye at the age of 40. Therefore, if Al can just prevent the go-kart accident happening, he will effectively be saving his own father’s life. Naturally, it doesn’t quite go to plan, and this is why the hamster is important. I don’t want to tell you anymore because it’s a cracking story that had me on the edge of my seat (and staying up far too late with the light on!).
There are some big themes in here: loss of a parent, step-families, mixed-race families, bullying, social awkwardness, as well as time-travel, of course, and some of the science around it! But the author handles these so skilfully that I don’t think it is too much for slightly older primary school-age children. The kids in my book club are 10 and 11 and are loving it. Although it’s quite a long book, it’s a fairly quick read because the pace is pretty fast. Events spiral very quickly. There are one or two chapters dealing with ‘the sad stuff’, but these are short and well-contained, and the pace of the action means the reader won’t dwell on them too long. Rest assured, the ending is a satisfying one for readers of all ages!
I heartily recommend this book for children 10-13. It’s also a good one for adults if you’re following my 2017 reading challenge! (January’s challenge is to read a book with a child)