No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, August 17, 2006

#79: The Sculptress -- Minette Walters

I bought this novel from TSP when it first came out in 1993: I'd read an excerpt somewhere and liked the sound of it. Since then it had sat on the shelf waiting to be read. (The author's position near the end of the alphabet may have had something to do with this: the book was always low down at the far right of the bookshelves.) Finally read it: wonder if I'd have been more impressed thirteen years ago.

Olive Martin is nicknamed the Sculptress in prison because of her habit of making little wax models of women. She is tall, fat and ugly. Six years before the story opens, she was jailed for murdering her mother and sister and chopping their bodies up with a blunt axe. It wasn't at all like cutting up chickens. I was tired by two o'clock and I had only managed to take off the heads and the legs and three of the arms.

Roz Leigh is a freelance writer commissioned to write a book about Olive's crime. At first she's terrified of the woman, but gradually grows to be fond of her. Olive isn't entirely sane and stable: but Roz has a horrible secret in her past, too, that's revealed in teasing snippets.

The plot is wonderfully convoluted -- Roz investigates tirelessly, with many false starts, before she uncovers the truth and elicits a confession rather different from the one that Olive gave to the police. There's a fairly large cast and plenty of Means and Motives. Also, sadly, plenty of stereotypes: the Elderly Bigot, the Welfare Mum, the Happy Slapper, the Sophisticated Editor, the Rough-Diamond Ex-Copper.

What irritated me most was the wavering of narrative perspective. The story's told from Roz's point of view (though she's very good at not thinking about uncomfortable, personal things.) But occasionally the illusion of Roz-as-narrator is thrown:

Roz crossed her legs and relaxed into the chair. She was unaware of it but her eyes betrayed her. They brimmed with all the warmth and humour that, a year ago, had been the outward expression of her personality. Bitterness, it seemed, could only corrode so far. (p. 46)

And she's not even with someone who knew her a year ago and could spot that change.

As a murder mystery, it's a good read: as a novel, its style leaves something to be desired. I might try another Minette Walters -- I know she has a good reputation and this was her first novel -- but maybe not yet.

#78: Jack Holborn -- Leon Garfield

This is another of the books that I remember always being on the shelf in our local library when I was growing up: right next to Moonfleet, it was, and it had a dark, rather offputting cover. I liked some of Garfield's other books (especially the retellings of Greek mythology that he wrote with Edward Blishen, for instance The God Beneath the Sea) but Jack Holborn never tempted me. And I probably wouldn't have appreciated it then as much as I do now. Pirates! Swashbuckling! A Heyeresque plot of mistaken identity and last-minute reprieves!

Jack Holborn is a foundling -- named for the London parish in which St Bride's, the church where he was found, stands -- who runs away to sea as soon as he's old enough. He picks the wrong ship: the Charming Molly is taken by pirates before Jack's even crawled out of his hiding place, and he finds himself at the mercy of a cutthroat bunch. Only the Captain is kind to him, and promises that if Jack saves his life thrice, he'll reveal the boy's true parentage. Then the Captain is grievously wounded in a fight ashore ... and a mysterious stranger, another fellow 'on the account', is picked up from the raft on which he's been set adrift by his crewmates. Solomon Temple, it seems, knows the Captain: and the Captain knows him.

Mutiny, shipwreck, pygmy-ridden jungles, a diamond named the White Lady, Arab slave-traders, and the revelation of the Captain's true name: Jack's introduction to Economic Realities, via a bag of jewels and six hundred slaves: a return to England, and an unexpected welcome: Jack taking responsibility for his actions -- he's only fourteen, but by the end of the book it's a mature fourteen -- and thereby dooming a man. And a happy ending for most of those concerned.

Garfield's style is quirky and headlong, lots of ellipses, an irreverent and conversational tone: he's not afraid to gently mock his narrator, and Jack's heroism is often unappreciated (in a way that all resentful teenagers, or anyone who's been a resentful teenager, will relate to all too well). An enjoyable read, and well-paced.

#77: Lighthousekeeping Jeanette Winterson

Every time I read a novel by Jeanette Winterson, I resolve to read more. Yet her prose is rich, and poetic, and addictive, and infectious: so it's probably a good thing that I read plenty of other books as well.

Lighthousekeeping is the narration of Silver ('part precious metal, part pirate') who, orphaned, is taken in (with her dog, DogJim) by Pew, keeper of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Pew tells Silver stories, and tells her about story-telling: there's no such thing as an ending; all stories are worth hearing, but some aren't worth telling; the lighthouse as a metaphor for stories, for narrative, for the oral tradition. A lighthouse is 'a known point in the darkness'.

Every light had a story -- no, every light was a story, and the flashes themselves were the stories going out over the waves, as markers and guides and comforts and warnings. (p.41)

Silver is a likeable protagonist, young and confused and not ashamed to admit to her crimes. She steals a book: she steals a bird. She falls in love (and I'm not sure her lover's gender is ever explicitly stated: the sex scenes are tasteful to the point of vagueness). She learns to tell her own story: "Don't wait. Don't tell the story later."

In the tale of the nineteenth-century clergyman Babel Dark (alias Mr Lux) and his wife 'Mrs Tenebris', she discovers the consequences of not telling the story. That 'light and dark' dichotomy is echoed in references to Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, and to Stevenson himself: there are borrowings aplenty from Stevenson's best-known work, Treasure Island. Tristan and Isolde, doomed lovers, become part of the story: Darwin, with his ideas about evolution and the ape inside man, pays a visit to Pew at the lighthouse. ("There has always been a Pew at Cape Wrath. But not the same one?" That question-mark does so much!)

Winterson's prose really draws me in. I want to quote something from every page -- "tripping over slabs of sunlight the size of towns", "Suppose the unpredictable wave was God?", "In the fossil record of my past there is evidence that the heart has been removed more than once. The patient survived." This is a novel that I couldn't put down, simply because that would mean losing the flow and the rhythm and the dark, maritime, claustrophobic sense of the lighthouse. (It's not a long book: as Winterson has Silver say, "a long story. But a very short book".) Her metaphors are often original, almost always thought-provoking, sometimes achingly familiar as though she's put into words an association I've never dragged far enough into my conscious mind to codify: the 'that's it, that's it exactly' moments.

Every time I read a novel by Jeanette Winterson, I resolve to read more.

#76: The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits -- Emma Donoghue

In the Foreword, Donoghue says, "My sources are the flotsam and jetsam of the last seven hundred years of British and Irish life: surgical case-notes; trial records; a plague ballad; theological pamphlets; a painting of two girls in a garden; an articulated skeleton." Some of the stories are slight, a moment from a life, the punchline of a ballad. Others are carefully-constructed miniatures that illustrate more of the protagonist's life and times than simply the events recounted in the story itself. None of the stories is very long: there are seventeen stories in just over 200 pages.

The earliest of the stories, historically speaking, is 'The Necessity of Burning', set in Cambridge in 1382 during the Peasants' Revolt: the latest is 'Looking for Petronilla', which begins in contemporary Ireland. The stories tend to cluster in the 17th and 18th centuries. I think this is partly because there are so many more sources available, and partly because human experience -- society, psychology, religion, science, urban life -- were (or could be portrayed as) more like our own than in medieval times.

Each of the stories has a female protagonist, though she is not always the narrator. 'Acts of Union' (Ireland, 1798) tells the tale of a spinster from the point of view of a drunken English captain who wakes up with more than he bargained for. 'Dido' (England, 1770s) is a tale about slavery, and the argument that led to Lord Mansfield's opposition to it. 'Account' (Scotland, 1496) is a story in the form of a list:

  • Number of daughters of Lord Drummond: 3 (Margaret, Euphemia, Sibilla)

  • Number of languages in which Lord Drummond's daughters could say 'Yes, Sire': 3.

  • Number of Lord Drummond's daughters invited to and installed in Stirling Castle, two months after the King's visit to the Drummonds in 1496: 1 (Margaret)

There are stories that can be read as lesbian romances: for instance, 'How a Lady Dies' (Bath, 1759) in which a young woman turns up at her female friend's house, crying that she cannot live without her. Stories that illuminate some of the nastier moments in history: witch-burnings, exhibition of freaks, scientific fraud, slavery, clitorodectomy. Stories that describe the many facets of female friendship and sexuality.

Many of the characters in these stories have only the vaguest notion of the world around them, of their location either geographically or temporally: some of the stories gain meaning and context from the explanatory afterword that follows each, though each story can certainly be read alone without context being required.

Sometimes there's a righteous rage simmering under Donoghue's simple prose: sometimes there's a wry humour, as in the first story, 'The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits'. The overall impression is of an author with a magpie mind, who retains and reworks the fascinating footnotes that proliferate in any decent history book.

#75: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian -- Marina Lewycka

How did they live the rest of their lives with that terrible secret locked away in their hearts? How did they grow vegetables, and mend motor-bikes, and send us to school and worry about our exam results? ... But they did. (p.273)

This novel won the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction, and was described by The Economist as "uproariously funny". I don't get the joke.

The plot would certainly make a good sitcom. Nicolai, Kolya, is an engineer by trade, a Ukrainian emigre in his eighties, recently widowed: the narrator, Nadezhda (Nadia) is his younger daughter, in her forties and engaged in permanent Cold War with her older, richer, more glamorous sister Vera. One day Kolya announces that he's getting married, to a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee, Valentina. Valentina is thirty-six, has a son by her previous marriage and will stop at nothing (boil-in-the-bag meals, green satin underwear, physical and mental cruelty) in order to buy into her dream of Western wealth.

Vera and Nadia must join forces to get rid of the unsympathetic Valentina, despite their father's protests. And as they finally come to know one another better, tales of the past -- their family history -- interweave with the sordid tale of the Ukrainian gold-digger and her multiple husbands.

There is some fine writing in this novel (written in English, and not a translation: the author was born in a refugee camp of Ukrainian parents and grew up in England). But there is far too much tragedy for me, at least, to be able to sit back and laugh at the comic moments. Kolya is especially well-drawn: an elderly man, no longer really in control of his health or his life, bullied and confused but still sweet-tempered. He's working on that Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: his world has contracted into a span of one room, but his mind still roams freely across the ploughed fields of the world (p.128). He doesn't tell Nadia the stories: it's mostly Vera who reveals, and conceals, the events that shaped their current lives.

"Mother was engaged to a submarine commander?"
"Didn't you know? He was the love of her life... Sometimes it's better not to know." With a snap, Big Sis closes the door to the past and turns the key. (p.123)

The novel is partly about the fusion of Ukrainian incomers and Middle England, but the dark core of it is the tale of the family's experiences during the Second World War, as captives in a German concentration camp. Nadia, born in 1947, is a child of freedom: Vera, ten years her senior, remembers the camp. See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries? (p. 236) Even at the end of the novel, a key event is unexplained. Nadia, though, has finally grown up, grown to accept her sister, grown to understand. When I was a child I wanted my father to be a hero... Now as an adult I see that they were not heroic. They survived, that's all. (p.311)

Is this novel supposed to be funny because the family are foreign, and -- especially in Kolya's case -- don't necessarily understand English law and custom? Or because Kolya is old and infirm and losing his mind? Or because Valentina is such a caricature? (Even she becomes human, gradually: and, before that, pitiable.)

A thought-provoking read, but not a comfortable or an especially enjoyable one. Perhaps, as the daughter of a recently-deceased emigre engineer who took up with a younger woman after my mother's death, I'm just a little too close to the subject matter to get the right perspective.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

#74: The Plague and the Fire -- James Leasor

What it says on the box, really. This is a straightforward compilation of the events of those two great London disasters. The section on the Plague is rather longer, telling of the rapid rise of the epidemic, the treatments that were proposed and the desperate measures taken to control, or contain, the disease. There are some chilling anecdotes: healthy individuals boarded up in their houses with dying plague-victims; the symptoms of bubonic plague; a plethora of nostrums including philosophical gold, 'of Elizabethan coins if you can, it is of ye best'; the determination of some towns to keep the Plague out at any cost; and even hints of necrophilia (but only hints: this was written in 1961). Apparently, this is the book that first suggested a connection between the nursery rhyme 'Ring o'Roses' and the Plague.

The account of the Fire is rather shorter, and relies more heavily on Pepys' Diary. Leasor gathers a variety of sources and concludes that not enough was done in the early stages:
The night burned far brighter than the day; the fire was many times stronger than it had been only a few hours earlier, yet still nothing drastic was attempted to quench it; and still those not immediately affected did not realise that it could possibly affect them. There have been worse cases of official inertia and private folly, but not many and not much. (p. 213-4)