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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

2015/11: A Company of Swans -- Eva Ibbotson

Had she always been wanton? Edward asked himself as he leaned his aching head against the trunk of a tree, uncaring of the ants, the termites, the poisonous spiders it might harbour. Was it just this damnable climate or had it gone on all the time? Had she crept out at night in Cambridge to come out of cakes in Trinity ... out of seashells in Sidney Sussex ... out of cornucopias in St Cat’s? A gigantic moth flew into a lantern; it was new to science, but he let it pass[...] He had meant to marry this girl whose ankles had been gaped at by three dozen gentlemen at dinner ... He had meant to commit his life to her in Great St Mary’s and approach her reverently in a honeymoon hotel in Bognor Regis ... He had meant to introduce her to the Mater! [loc.3053]
Reread: it's a long time since I enjoyed the gentle pleasures of an Eva Ibbotson romance, and I had forgotten how hilariously funny (and precisely observed) Ibbotson's novels can be.

A Company of Swans is set just before the First World War. Though it begins in Cambridge (which I'd forgotten), most of the action takes place in Manaus, a city deep in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest.

Harriet Morton's mother is dead, and her father -- the Professor -- does not approve of education for women. Oppressed by her father and her miserly aunt (who 'kept in her bedroom a box labelled ‘String too short to tie’'), Harriet's one solace is her ballet class. (She has a fiance, Edward, but he is .. dismal.) When she's offered the opportunity of a role with the corps de ballet in Manaus, her father forbids her to go: but Harriet's iron will prevails, and she runs away.

The corps de ballet is made up of a number of fascinating characters: the gorgeous and chaste Marie-Claude, who is saving up to marry; Simonova, the fading but indomitable prima ballerina who sees in Harriet something unique; fiery Olga Narukov, with a kick like a mule. But there is life outside the ballet, too. Before Harriet left England, she promised a small boy that she would find his uncle Rom, a rubber-planter in Manaus. Rom turns out to be fabulously wealthy and darkly handsome, his playboy demeanour concealing strong principles and a tragic past. He finds himself strangely intrigued by plain, serious, innocent Harriet -- who in turn falls deeply, devastatingly, joyously in love.

Reversals, coincidences, betrayals and mistaken identities abound: happiness is achieved, mostly: old wounds are healed. A delightful novel.

Somewhat surprised to find these novels now marketed for teenagers: when I first read them, they were aimed at adult readers. That said, there's nothing especially explicit, though Harriet does display an enthusiasm for being ruined that some parents might find disturbing.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

2015/10: Meadowland -- Tom Holt

Home’s such a bloody delicate thing, one slight change or one thing missing and it’s screwed up for ever; and a man’s better off blind or missing a hand or a leg than being away from his home. Greeks I’ve talked to since I’ve been here, they think we Icelanders are soft because the most a court of law can do to you back home is make you an outlaw, so you’ve got to leave your house and move away to another part of the country, or overseas. Soft; I don’t think so. I think it’s the cruellest thing you can do. I mean, everybody dies sooner or later, but having to live in the wrong place, in a place that’s not meant for you to be in - that’s cruel. And I never even did anything wrong. [loc.5957]

It's 1037, and John Stethatus, an elderly Byzantine civil servant, finds himself stranded in the mountains with a great deal of gold and a trio of Varangian guards: Kari, Eyvind and young Harald. Kari and Eyvind are veterans, and they regale the company with their stories of the Viking colonisation of Vinland. ("It’s not Wineland, it’s Meadowland.’ Easy mistake to make, of course, specially for an Easterner, with an accent. See, in our language, it’s almost the same word: vinland. Only, if it means ‘wine’ it’s pronounced vin, but if it’s ‘meadow’ it’s more like veen." [loc.3494])

Readers of K. J. Parker will recognise some tropes here: grumbling veterans, the minutiae of everyday life (hey, now I know how to clean a chainmail shirt), strong but shrewish women, unreliable -- or possibly just misguided / thick-skinned -- narrators, the general air of neglect and brokenness around failing settlements, the odd hint that something vaguely weird, or fated, is going on ...

Holt's version of the two surviving Vinland sagas (Eiríks saga rauða and Grænlendinga saga) is a tale beset by ill chance, poor judgement and internecine conflict. Both Kari and Eyvind -- who tell the same story, more or less, but from very different points of view -- sailed on all the voyages recounted in the sagas: Kari may have been the first person to set foot in Vinland. They describe the meeting with the skraelings and Freydis Ericksdottir's reaction to same; the feuds back in Iceland, the navigational errors, the tension between Christianity and 'the old ways': and their story convinces Stethatus that Vinland is 'a place that takes your strengths and turns them into weaknesses'. Armed with this insight, he dispenses some good advice to young Harald ...

I like Holt's writing a lot, though I dislike his treatment of female characters: still, with Freydis he does have a point, and he doesn't have much to say about the rather more likeable Gudrid (see my review of Margaret Elphinstone's The Sea Road, a novel which covers similar territory from a very different perspective). Holt's depiction of the easy discomfort of Eyvind and Kari's codependency produces some of the novel's most entertaining moments: and his knack for crafting apt similes ('asking a tricky question’s just like splitting timber. You tap the nose of your wedge into a little thin shake in the wood') is impressive. That said, Meadowland is really just a novelisation of the sagas, wrapped in a comic frame. I think I prefer Holt's historical work when it's prefixed pseudo-.