This biography, originally published six years after the composer’s death, was written by Vaughan Williams’s second wife, Ursula, whom he met in 1938 when his first wife, Adeline, was badly crippled with arthritis. I had, perhaps naively, thought that there might be some revelation of the great composer’s conflict between devotion to Adeline and his passionate feelings for Ursula. No, apart from Ursula’s mention that one day about two years after Adeline’s death, VW asked her to marry him, there is no reference to feelings – it is all very British and very 1950s.
But I did learn how incredibly hard he worked, firstly assiduously collecting British folksongs in the early 1900s. He loved to go on long walks with his very dear friend, composer Gustav Holst. It wasn’t until after World War I that his writing became prolific: symphonies, operas and many different forms of choral and orchestral works. He was 46 by the end of the war, so the bulk of his work was written when he was over the age of 50.
Vaughan Williams also spent a great deal of his time conducting choirs and orchestras all over England and seemed to be much in demand at country music festivals. Although a big heavy man he played tennis. He was often invited to give lectures — all over England and also in the US.
Vaughan Williams has written extensively about the interpretation and performance of J.S. Bach. He believed that a choir needed to passionately and deeply understand what they were singing about so, for the many English choirs he conducted, the script should be in English. He found the sound of a harpsichord ‘tinny’ and preferred to back it with an organ or piano during recitatives. This was probably before the resurgence of interest in performance on orginal instruments and so he argued that violins and oboes, for example, sounded very different in the 20th century from what they were like in Bach’s time.
This momentum persisted right into his mid-eighties. Ursula describes his death beautifully – as though he just went to sleep: It was all very ordinary, usual and like many other nights had been and we did not guess that before dawn death, not sleep, would claim him.
One of the most superb pieces of music is Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending — for complete contrast listen to his Sinfonia Antartica. I recently heard his Mass in G Minor and realise that there is still a great deal of his music for me to discover.
I always have a book, usually fiction, on the go. More often than not, it has been written in the last ten years. But, particularly at this time of Coronavirus pandemic, I sometimes feel as though the 21st century world is ‘too much with me’ and it’s refreshing to immerse myself in the fiction of another time. I was delighted to realise that I hadn’t ever read Jane Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion.
For me, the plot was not particularly important and, although this is the only time when Austen’s protagonist, at the ‘elderly’ age of twenty-eight, is ‘mature’, the story was not all that different from other Jane Austen books I have read. I disagree that it is a ‘Cinderella’ story — as described by Penguin Classics: Anne, the point-of-view character/ protagonist is past her first ‘bloom’, but although her father has been unwisely frivolous with his money, she is hardly down and out. She has turned down the proposal of Captain Wentworth on the advice of her family because he is not of sufficiently high social status. When, after eight years absence, he returns from the Napoleonic Wars, wealthier, and therefore, in the eyes of her family, more desirable, it is thought that Anne is probably no longer of interest to him. But we learn, at the end of the novel, that their feelings have been smouldering throughout that long separation.
What intrigued me was the way that Austen uses place only as a back-drop to her writing — there isn’t much description at all. The hard rocks and solid wall of Lyme Regis do indeed provide a fitting setting for poor Louisa’s accident (allowing the opportunity for her to fall in love with Captain Benwick, who reads poetry to her during her convalescence), and the society of Bath seems to clatter on, appropriately supporting confabulations, gossip and liaisons. But the heart of this novel, for me, was the conversation — particularly, the internal dialogue of Anne. Austen also uses a device known as free indirect discourse, where a character’s voice (Anne’s) is mediated by the voice of the author.
For example, early in the book, Anne’s internal dialogue when, for the first time since their engagement was broken, she must see Captain Wentworth, who has returned from fighting in the Napoleonic Wars (Mary is her sister):
“It’s over! it’s over!” she repeated to herself again and again, in nervous gratitude. “The worst is over!”
‘Mary talked, but she could not attend. She had seen him. They had met. They had been once more in the same room.
‘Soon, however, she began to reason with herself, and try to be feeling less. Eight years, almost eight years had passed. since all had been given up. How absurd to be resuming the agitiation which such an interval had banished into distance and indistinctness!’
And near the end of the novel, Anne and Captain Wentworth secretly exchange words and looks, indicating that their feelings for each other are, if anything, stronger than ever. Charles Musgrove politely escorts Anne home, although he has an appointment at a gun shop, when, out of the blue, Captain Wentworth comes into view. By happy coincidence he is able to continue to escort Anne home, enabling Musgrove to go to his appointment. When Anne arrives home:
‘At last Anne was home again, and happier than any one in that house could have conceived. All the surprise and suspense, and every other painful part of the morning dissipated by this conversation, she re-entered the house so happy as to be obliged to find an alloy in some momentary apprehensions of its being impossible to last. An interval of meditation, serious and grateful, was the best corrective of everything dangerous in such high-wrought felicity; and she went to her room, and grew steadfast and fearless in the thankfulness of her enjoyment.’
Other marriages in the book seem to be concerned with property — as indeed many marriages in that time must have been. But in the final chapter Austen outlines what are surely her own views of marriage: ‘When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverence to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be the truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition?’
I am sure that there has been much discussion about the title, Persuasion. It is insinuated in conversations throughout the book, or it may be that the maturity gained through the long break in their relationship has strengthened the couple with a kind of universal persuasion — this is no frivolous liaison.
I have just discovered Sally Rooney. She’s a very gifted writer still in her twenties, whose work has won numerous awards including longlisting in the Booker Prize. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was published in 2017. She writes quickly and lucidly — she wrote 100,000 words of Conversations with Friends in three months.
There are two things that I especially like about Rooney’s writing: she writes about what she knows, the world of young people at school and university (Trinity College, Dublin) in the 2010s and she writes very strong and therefore memorable characters. As Claire Armitstead has said in The Guardian, what Rooney produces is no ‘callow university novel… her characters are inhabitants of the networked society: they communicate by instant messaging, texts and email, but what it means to them is singular’.
Frances, the protagonist in Conversations with Friends is a student at Dublin University and an aspiring writer. She has a close friendship with Bobbi, indeed, in the past they have been sexual partners. But when the story opens they are good friends who perform spoken word together and are hence a part of the Dublin literary scene — and that’s how Frances becomes involved with older married man (in his mid to late thirties), Nick. Frances is still in her twenties, and so many of these experiences are new to her. They are described candidly and vividly.
How many love stories have I read? Rooney’s Normal People is fresh and profound. It could be about love across a social divide — Marianne is from an unhappy upper middle class family and Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for the family — he and Marianne go to the same school. But it is far more than that. It is a love based on understanding and friendship that weathers other sexual partners and so much more. When, at the end of the story, Connell wins a scholarship to the US (they have both been scholarship students at Trinity), Marianne says, “You should go… I’ll always be here. You know that”.
The characters for both of these novels seem to have grown from a short story written by Rooney: Mr Salary. It is published in a Faber chapbook. The story explores a kind of underpinning love — and it is between Sukie, a young student in her early twenties and Nathan, sixteen years older than her, who as an in-law member of the family provides her with accommodation. They kiss passionately on one occasion but other gestures are tender and caring. Sukie says, “My love for him felt so total and so annihilating that it was often impossible for me to see him clearly at all” [page 20].
Although Rooney’s stories may jump around from a character’s recollections to straight narrative, these aspects entwine in a very readable and natural way. And sometimes a choice of word jumps out as particularly apt, such as at the beginning of Mr Salary when Nathan meets Sukie at the airport, Sukie recounts: “My suitcase was ugly and I was trying to carry it with a degree of irony” [page 1].
Rooney’s latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, is due out in September this year. I am looking forward to it.
On the front cover of Joyous Lies by Margaret Ann Spence we are told, ‘If plants can protect their young, why can’t humans do the same?’ Then, in an extract before the prologue, Maelle remembers the time she was told of her mother’s ‘accident’, which, as she guessed, turned out to be her mother’s death: ‘Maelle saw the lie in her aunt’s eyes’. Intriguing – children can sense the truth. That kind of saccharine coating is not a protection. And so the scene is set, plunging the reader into a drama with twists and turns of family relationships that provide the essence of this beautifully written book.
The Prologue is written from Maelle’s mother’s point of view and we are with her just before the fatal ‘accident’ at night in a laboratory – questions about her motive for going there and the detail of what happened will lurk, distracting Maelle from her PhD research on plants’ communication.
Most of the book is set in a commune established by Maelle’s grandparents when Neil, her grandfather, was a Vietnam War draft resister. Maelle was about ten years’ old when her mother died. She went to live on the commune with her grandparents and the various others, mainly of their generation, who had kept it together since the 1970s. There we can smell the nourishing meals of freshly-picked vegetables, the bread from the oven, and we can feel the softness of the angora, spun and knitted by Maelle’s grandmother. But there are also knowing looks exchanged, secrets, half-truths.
Most of the story is from the point of view of Maelle as a young adult with a scientific career before her – sometimes we see through the eyes of her grandmother, Johanna, who finds her partner of fifty years, Neil, a ‘grizzled man’ who ‘kept tangling in her mind with his golden youth’. In spite of the communards’ values, much of the time Neil seems to treat Johanna with disdain.
Early in the book Maelle meets Zachary, a young psychiatrist, and there is an instant attraction. When, after a short time, Maelle takes him to the commune to meet her family, Zachary acts strangely and some extraordinary links emerge that shed new light on the mystery of Maelle’s mother’s death and further divert Maelle from her studies, threatening to undo a great deal more than her relationship with Zachary.
In tandem with the mystery prompted by Zachary’s reactions when he visits the commune is another equally compelling plot line. Neil agrees to chic thirty-something Pamela Highbury making a documentary about the commune. This poses a huge threat to Johanna, who wrongly assumes that Pamela is having an affair with Neil. And given that Pamela claims to be interested in ‘documenting human failings’, the project threatens to unravel the essential fabric of the commune. The stiletto-heeled film-maker will disapprove of the ‘feudal power’ under which the women have been engaged in traditional roles such as pottery and dairy, and the men in more strenuous activities.
But the question underpinning Pamela’s investigation is fascinating to the reader (as well as to Pamela’s potential audience): what became of the Hippies? Feeding into this question are matters of coping in old age; working on a commune doesn’t provide retirement benefits. Johanna and Neil aren’t legally married. Does Johanna have rights as his partner? To what extent has the commune genuinely adhered to a non-capitalist way of life?
When, near the end of the book, everyone comes together to view Pamela’s documentary, I was fleetingly reminded of the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when everything comes together in resolution. To the communards’ (and the reader’s) relief, some ‘lies’ are mercifully concealed.
Joyous Lies is superbly crafted: deftly paced and captivating. What is more engaging than a child wanting to find out how and why her mother died? And now that those people of 1970s ‘Flower Power’ are facing old age, it is intriguing to ask, what is life like for them now? Do they still live by those ‘hippy’ ideals? There are strong characters too – I was particularly drawn to Johanna and to Maelle as she pieces together what actually happened to her mother.
Margaret Ann Spence grew up in Melbourne, Australia, but has spent most of her life in the United States where she worked as an award-winning journalist. After some years she moved to Arizona, joined a writers’ group and decided to take up writing fiction. On her website https://www.margaretannspence.com/about.html Margaret says, ‘I write about women and their families, and the secrets that lie beneath’. Margaret’s first novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, was published by The Wild Rose Press Inc in 2017. It won the Romantic Elements Category in the First Coast Romance Writers 2015 Beacon Contest, it was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award and in the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards. Joyous Lies is Margaret’s second novel. Do get hold of a copy of this suspenseful book. Details of how to obtain it are below.
Margaret Ann Spence, Joyous Lies, The Wild Rose Press, Inc. First Edition, 2021 Trade Paperback ISBN 978-1-5092-3472-1 Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-3473-8 Published in the United States of America.
I read the following 39 books during 2020. By ‘read’ I mean for recreational reading. Some of them have already been discussed on these pages, but I’ll outline ten further ‘favourites’ here.
Books read during 2020
Adam Roberts: H.G. Wells A Literary Life
Pat Barker: Life Class
Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come
Helen Garner: Yellow Notebook
Sophie Cunningham: City of Trees
Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré: A Genius in the family: an intimate memoir of Jacqueline du Pré
Laura Thompson: The Six: the lives of the Mitford Sisters
Sulari Gentill: A Testament of Character
Bart van Es: The Cut Out Girl
Cate Haste: Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler
John Boyne: A Ladder to the Sky
E.M. Forster: A Room with a View
Ed Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg: Hitler Victorious
Woody Allen: Apropos of Nothing
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist
Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words
Curtis Sittenfeld: Rodham
Anne Tyler: Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
Nicholson Baker: Substitute
Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves
Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast
Mary L. Trump: Too Much and Never Enough
Julia Gillard & Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Women and Leadership
Polly Samson: A Theatre for Dreamers
Tara June Winch: The Yield
Anne Tyler: Redhead by the Side of the Road
Avni Doshi: Burnt Sugar
Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain
Kiley Reid: Such a Fun Age
Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body
Jane Harper: The Survivors
Stuart Kells: The Convent
Brandon Taylor: Real Life
Diane Cook: The New Wilderness
Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet
Kerry Greenwood: Death in Daylesford
Ian McEwan: The Innocent
Craig Campbell & Debra Hayes: Jean Blackburn
Pat Barker: Life Class
Pat Barker writes so well about war. This is the first of the ‘Life Class’ trilogy, which also includes Toby’s Room and Noonday. A lot of books have been set in the First World War – but I haven’t tired of it yet. It was such an utterly brutal catastrophe that has shaped our modern world – and we are still learning of the reality – so much was hidden for so long in the ‘glory’ of war and celebration of victory. In Life Class we find ourselves in the world of English art students – the Slade school of Art. Artists who studied under Henry Tonks – who was also a surgeon. Many young people wanted to be in the war – to join up as soon as possible and go to the front. One young woman artist wanted to try to forget it was going on – she didn’t see the importance of painting it. Most of the novel is from the viewpoint of Paul who is unable to enlist because of his health, but works in Belgium as a nurse, then ambulance driver. Will his love for Elinor Brooke survive? – they have such different feelings about the war.
Sophie Cunningham City of Trees
Sophie Cunningham’s book, City of Trees, is a collection of essays; memoir, fact –– trees are characters – they tell stories, they evoke emotions. With her we travel across the world, always with trees as a focus but she is always drawn back to Australia. Now, in the 21st century, we are into the ‘withering’. By 2050 we will have lost a large proportion of trees across the globe. Old trees will die, and often there won’t be enough moisture for new ones to survive. But Sophie’s focus is particularly on loving what is here now.
Bart van Es The Cut Out Girl
Bart van Es was interviewed at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival. Had I not heard the interview, I might have passed over this book as another Diary of Anne Frank – a Jewish child kept in hiding during WWII in the Netherlands. Quite apart from the difference that Lien, the ‘cut out girl’, is still alive – now 86, there is a connection with Bart van Es’ family. He knew that his grandparents had sheltered a girl during the war, but there was some kind of mystery and it wasn’t talked about. When, after an uncle died in 2014, van Es expressed an interest in tracking down Lien, he was warned that she might not want to talk to members of the family.
But this was not the case. They struck up a friendship which, van Es says, changed his life.
The book is well constructed, flowing from van Es’ present interviewing and researching – his meals with Lien, their walking around Amsterdam (van Es lives in England), to her accounts of her life from the time when, at the age of eight, her mother said ‘You are going to stay somewhere else for a while’ – and she never saw her mother or father again. A couple of months later, the parents were murdered at Auschwitz.
Lien starts off staying with the van Es family – she seems to quite like it there. But inevitably she must be moved around and much of her time is with a strict protestant family who treat her as a servant and, when she is still only ten or eleven, one member regularly rapes her. Although it seems as though Lien is quite naïve about the war that is going on around her, there is a point where she seems to realise that she will never see her parents again. She lets the two rings they gave her slip through floorboards.
But of course this childhood deprived of real family – and real love – has a devastating effect, which becomes apparent in Lien the adult who can’t cope with a conventional orthodox Jewish marriage although she has children and is comfortably off. She seeks counselling, but years later the fact that she doesn’t have a past, or can’t talk about her past and that she doesn’t really belong in any family leaves her devastated. ‘I ought not to be here’, she says. ‘Ma’ van Es can’t fully comprehend this – she took in children, gave them a good, loving home – she naively can’t appreciate that there was something she could not give the ‘cut out’ Lien. And this inability to understand was the basis of the rift with the family.
Eighty-six year old Lien now seems to lead a full and fulfilling life and at the time of the book being written she had just become involved with a new relationship with a man she had known at primary school. But this book helps to show how the trauma experienced by children such as Lien can never be fully repaired.
E.M. Forster: A Room with a View
What great fortune to find a ‘classic’ book that I hadn’t yet read. I had seen the movie of this novel, made in the 1980s. It is a very good Merchant Ivory film, but it still doesn’t completely capture the essence that has made this one of the greatest novels in the English language. In some ways some of the characters are almost Dickensian – Mr Bebe, the clergyman, for example. The reader fears that Lucy Honeychurch is too tightly entrapped in the Edwardian society in which she lives. We first see her visiting Florence with her stuffy cousin, Charlotte as chaperone – having to behave according to the required code. And yet, the Arno gurgles freely outside Lucy’s window and a tram rushes past, Lucy wants to ride on that tram – both suggest a freedom that she has not yet acquired.
A few days later, when Charlotte has temporarily abandoned her, Lucy experiences something wonderful, yet disturbing. The carriage boy misunderstands her English and escorts her away from the picnic party, picking her a bunch of violets, ‘the world was beautiful and direct’. On a little open terrace, covered with violets – the image reminded me a bit of the birth of Venus – ‘violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue eddying round the tree stems… But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.’ And she is kissed by George – a man untrammelled by pretension – a man who genuinely loves her. Lucy doesn’t know how to cope with this and at first sees his ‘indiscretion’ as an insult. But many months later, after enduring an engagement to the ostentatious Cecil, who despises her own rural upbringing, who is stiff and judgmental, Lucy and George elope and we leave them back in Florence in a warm, golden world of love.
Woody Allen: Apropos of Nothing
What a pleasure to read this autobiography where the voice of Woody Allen comes over just as we know him – putting himself down, making fun of himself – except the accusations by Mia Farrow that he ‘interfered with’ his seven-year-old daughter Dylan, which he convincingly denies. Soon-Yi, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, has been Allen’s wife for 25 years – she was not under age, but a college student, when they started to have an affair. He convinced me of his innocence – but of course, he would. There is more name-dropping and detailed description of making some movies than I needed – but I did realise that there are still a lot of his movies I haven’t seen. It is an account of his life, as he sees it. It would have been tempting, I expect, to make this book a protestation of his innocence in the sex scandal – but it is far more than that.
Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words
This is a book of historical fiction written by a social researcher – it is her debut novel. Esme Nicholls absorbs words from a very young age, sitting under a table in the Scriptorium where her father works for Sir James Murray, compiling the OUP New English dictionary with a team of lexicographers. Esme’s mother died when she was a baby – her father is loving and tries to fulfil both parental roles.
As Esme grows up she is given work – errands, and ultimately allowed to make her own contributions. We see how the words selected are those of middle class 19th century gentlemen – she starts to collect words from the lower class women at the covered market. Esme is close to Lizzie – a maid who has looked after her since her earliest days – she sees Lizzie’s perspective on life, where suffragettes are ‘just a lot of rich ladies wanting even more than they already have’.
Esme has a daughter out of wedlock – this is all discreetly handled by her intelligent and perceptive godmother. The girl is adopted by a friend of the godmother and is taken to South Australia where she ultimately continues Esme’s fascination with language.
Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves
I was sorry to finish this book – it is so beautifully written and brilliantly imagined. What if Kate Grenville had found a stash of old letters and notes hidden in the ceiling of Elizabeth Farm – the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur? John Macarthur, as all good Australian primary school children have been taught, was the ‘father’ of the Australian wool industry. Grenville argues – very reasonably – that it was Elizabeth who built up the sheep farming – a skill she had learned from her grandfather.
Macarthur was away from Parramatta for a lot of the time and when he was around he was far more interested in getting promoted than in farming sheep. Kate Grenville did have access to letters written by Elizabeth Macarthur. But in those days, and particularly with a husband like John Macarthur, she would have written them knowing that they would be scrutinised by others, particularly her husband. Elizabeth Macarthur was undoubtedly intelligent, undoubtedly unhappy in her marriage to Macarthur, but like many women of that time she was resigned to it and made the most of it.
Knowing these things, Grenville imagines that she found a box of papers and that she transcribed and edited them. No – the book is fiction. But it is utterly convincing and although it is inevitably a view of that time through 21st century eyes, it may well come close to a truer picture of the life of the early 19th century sheep farmer than the social mores of that time would allow.
Tara June Winch: The Yield
This book won the Miles Franklin award – deservedly. You can’t get much more Australian. Tara June Winch is a First Australian woman and this novel is concerned with the reclaiming of Native Title for a property where Indigenous people have lived for centuries – it is being taken over by a tin mine. But this is far more than an account of a battle between European settlers and the First People.
The book is an intertwining of the story of August, an Indigenous woman in her late twenties who returns home for the burial of her grandfather and encounters the tin mine takeover, the story of an early 20th century missionary, involved with the grandfather’s education – who believed he was doing good. And, most importantly, a dictionary of significant words of the Wiradjuri language of the Gondiwindi people that was compiled by August’s late grandfather that shows the language to be a living language and hence a justification for the Native Title claim. The dictionary underlines the significance of language and the meaning of particular words – for example, ‘yield’ in English refers to taking things from the land, in Wiradjuri, ‘yield’ is things you give to the land.
Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet four years after the death of his eleven year-old son. This novel is a re-imagining of the son’s death. Stratford and Shakespeare are rarely mentioned, the focus being, particularly Shakespeare’s wife, Anne – here called Agnes. O’Farrell deftly takes us into the Shakespearean world without the disruption that might be caused by using contemporary language. Life in the sixteenth century village of Stratford (barely named) is convincing – we can smell it and feel it. The twins play games as twins probably do today, swapping clothes and confusing people about which one is Hamnet and which one his sister. But the book is mainly about the grief of losing a child – its impact on the father, the sisters and particularly the mother.
Ian McEwan: The Innocent
This is an early Ian McEwan novel, first published in 1990, but although he’s a favourite author of mine, I hadn’t read it. Leonard Marnham, a British technician, 25 years old in 1955, is sent to Berlin to work on a C.I.A.-M.I.6 surveillance project against the Soviet Union. He is naïve. Hasn’t been overseas before and still lives with his parents. The effects of WWII are still very evident in Berlin – the wall has yet to be constructed but the different sectors dominate life. British and American agents are building a tunnel under the eastern sector of Berlin, in order to tap into Soviet communications systems, and Leonard is engaged in this top secret work. This helps him to grow up quickly – as does his experience with Maria, whom he meets on one of his first nights in Berlin when he is invited out drinking with fellow workers. This leads to his first sexual experience.
After a few weeks of happiness, Leonard discovers that he likes the idea of dominating Maria (he sees himself reliving England’s victory over Germany in the war) and the lovers have a brief separation. Maria has been married before and the drunken, jealous former husband, Otto, hovers at the edge of their relationship. On the night of Leonard and Maria’s engagement party, Otto lets himself into Maria’s flat with his key and hides in the wardrobe of her bedroom. He threatens Maria – almost strangles her. Leonard is not a fighter, but he tackles Otto. In the end, Otto is mortally injured. What to do with the body? The couple end up cutting up the body, wrapping up the pieces and putting them in two suitcases, which Leonard is supposed to take to a locker in a railway station (but the cases don’t quite fit). The detailed description of mutilating the body took up several paragraphs. It reminded me of McEwan’s writing in The Cement Garden. I must confess I had to skip over bits – rather like a gory movie when you look away from the screen. There is the drama of whether Leonard will be discovered – asked to open the suitcases, perhaps. They are cases attached to the surveillance project and, when Leonard is seen by his superior lugging them out to the street, he must accept a lift with them to the project site. They manage to get through security without being opened, although the reader is on tenterhooks that this will happen. Leonard is desperate. The body will start to smell soon. He will be discovered. He decides to divulge the existence of the tunnel project to the Russians. If they attack the project, a dead, mutilated body in suitcases will be of minor interest. In fact, unknown to Leonard, there is another traitor and the Russians invade, but not because of Leonard’s betrayal. Having taken part in the gruesome disposal of Otto, Leonard in particular feels cool towards Maria. He leaves promptly for London and although there is talk of Maria joining him, this never happens. There is hope, at the very end of the book, that in their fifties Leonard and Maria may get together, both now being widowed and having grown-up children.
This book was a gripping read. A well-crafted plot. And the pace, except for dwelling perhaps a little too long on the hacked up dead body, was good.
Back in September I said of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain: ‘This is a debut novel and it’s made it onto the Booker long list — and of the three books from that list that I’ve read so far, it is by far the best.’ Well — last night, London time, Douglas Stuart was announced as the winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. https://thebookerprizes.com/fiction/2020
This post persists in giving my name, Jennifer Bryce, as the author. I am not. These reviews were written by Tony Thomas. I’ll ultimately learn how to delete my name as author! Tony Thomas has read all of the Booker long and short lists for 2020. He has awarded the books stars — out of five. An excellent book would receive five stars. Here are his brief reviews.
Sophie Ward Love and Other Thought Experiments(Corsair hc 2020 1st) (finished 11/8/20)
Yes it’s another (unacknowledged) sf novel by an author from outside the field. (This is the sentence I started with, reviewing The Wall last year, and it applies equally to this book).
Sophie Ward is a professional actress, 55, who has been in quite a few films and whom I must have seen in many British TV shows (eg Heartbeat, Inspector Lynley, Lewis, Hustle) but don’t remember. This is her first novel. She has two sons from her previous marriage to vet Paul Hobson (1988-96) after which she came out as a lesbian. In 2005 she and Rena Brennan had a civil partnership ceremony, and they married in 2014 when it became legal. She now describes her sons (b 1989 and 1993) as the sons of this marriage. She has an Open University degree in Literature and Philosophy.
Knowing all this, it’s not much of a surprise that each chapter starts with a philosophical conundrum, eg Pascal’s wager, brain-in-a-box, Chalmers’ zombies, Descartes’ demon etc, and then this is explored, more-or-less, in the chapter which follows. And also no surprise that the story begins with a lesbian relationship in the present day, in which the characters of Rachel and Eliza are well drawn in a conventional literary way. The chapters initially seem loosely connected – chapter two jumps to Rachel’s conception (we discover a good way through), chapter three deals with Rachel’s elderly mother and her husband in later life in Brazil, chapter four returns to the lesbian couple from the point of view of an ant which Rachel ‘imagines’ has entered her eye. The ‘ant’ eats the tumour which has started in Rachel’s head, which allows her to deliver the baby she is pregnant with, Arthur. The foetus has been artificially implanted using the egg of her wife Eliza and the sperm of a good gay friend, Hal. Not too long after this, Rachel dies. It’s about at this time that we realize that this is really an sf novel in literary guise: the ‘ant’ turns out to be (or to become, it’s unclear) a god-like super computer, which relates, in extremely broad metaphorical terms, the future of humanity, a humanity over which it exercises god-like powers, including the ability to enter or create parallel universes (those ones, you know, just a little bit different from ours). So in the final chapter, the adult Arthur has become an astronaut returning from a solo flight to the Mars moon,Deimos, (his ‘reality’ is the one I’ve described so far, but twenty or thirty years on) but on splashdown he’s greeted by his mother Rachel, still alive in this continuum, who soon realizes that there’s something different about this Arthur – he’s just extremely puzzled and confused, but he’s able to fool, for a while at least, his monitoring body-implanted personal computer (Zeus!), which of course is communicating everything to a future somewhat more sinister NASA. And does he become Zeus at the end? So it’s intimated, as he sits with his mother, contemplating all this, and is Zeus just another name for that ant, the super-computer, who is really Arthur as well? Ho hum. Well, all this canvasses a whole lot of rather hoary sf ideas, all lumped-together, though nicely enough done , but of course there is no attempt to explain why/how all this might happen in anything like science-fictional terms – it’s really all just a metaphor for the author to explore what I take to be her real interest, as the blurb says, ‘love lost and found across the universe’.
It kept me reading, though rather slowly. Now if only the Booker panel would put in a real sf novel by, say, Kim Stanley Robinson or Adam Roberts, better written than this, they might realise that there is an imaginative world out there they know almost nothing about.
Avni Doshi Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton pb 2020 pb 1st)(finished Aug 2020) Short list
Good on upper middle class Indian home life, especially family relationships. Not so good on India, how anybody makes money, sex, good prose, characterisation, art, and quite a bit else.
(a generous) ***1/2
Douglas Stuart Shuggie Bain (Picador hc 2020 1st) (finished 27/8/20) Short list
Terrific on alcoholism leading to the gutter and death. Glasgow according to this is an absolutely awful place to be – but this can’t be all of the story. The thankyous at the end suggest this is almost entirely autobiographical, the alcoholic mother, the gay boy, the brother and sister who escape, the awful lives of just about everybody. But where are the slightly better parts to life which the author has obviously experienced at school, in literature, art etc etc How depressing to have 400 pages of awfulness without let up.
Anne Tyler Redhead by the Side of the Road (Knopf 2020 hc 1st) (finished 28/8/20)
Set in Baltimore, about families and lonely single men, this seems to be another by-the-numbers novel from this author, with its manipulation of plot too close to the surface. Well written (enough), and with interesting detail (some). The protagonist, Micah Mortimer is over-organized in an autism spectrum way, but above all extremely un-self-knowledgeable, or even questioning. So as we and the author discover his many, many missteps, which become increasingly unlikely, we can sit back and wonder whether Micah will ever begin to know better – which leads to the surprise (!) ending when he does reclaim his girlfriend in a slightly soppy scene, but which, however, is maybe the only truly felt moment in the whole book. A central chapter, focussing on a family get-together, lays bare the weaknesses in this book. The attempted witty byplay between brothers, sisters and partners is reminiscent of a less than top class sitcom of twenty years ago – all that’s missing is the canned laughter – and is a good reason not to ever watch this pap as its re-churned on TV repeats on commercial lesser channels ad infinitum. Or to read books like this. Hard to understand why this made the longlist – I can’t believe this is Anne Tyler at her best. One virtue is the book’s brevity and that it’s very quick reading.
Kiley Reid Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury hc 2020) (finished 1/9/20)
Starts off as chick lit with conversations between two groups of women- boring as hell, hard to follow, with products mentioned in every other sentence. It takes nearly 100 pages before the plot begins to become evident: it’s really about the subtlest forms of black-white racism, the sort where the whites apparently have the right attitudes, but where the master-servant ideology and how blacks need to be ‘looked after’ is so culturally ingrained it is impossible for the money privileged to act in ways which are not racist, though they deny it even to themselves. This part of the book is very well done, though the situations used to develop the conflict seem so contrived as to be almost nonsensical on reflection. The portraits of the two main whites, Alix and Kelley, both extremely flawed, are well done, but the character of the black protagonist, Emira, lacks by comparison, partly because she is given so little to do of her own volition, being moved by others, including friends, much of the time. Nevertheless, the book came to life in the second half and made me want to keep reading.
C Pam Zhang How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Virago hc 2020 1st) (finished 8/9/20)
Extremely poetically written story of the Old West. Unfortunately the plot doesn’t live up to the prose. Although there are unusual main characters (almost the only characters as such), early Chinese and Chinese descendants involved in gold prospecting, and despite the insertion of much untranslated Chinese, the rest of the world remains largely a blank, and the plot descends into cliché at the end, with gambling debts, villains and the heroine giving herself up to prostitution to save her brother, who remains an unmotivated, un-understood character who flits in and out of the story and whom we never find out enough about.
Maaza Mengiste The Shadow King (Norton hc 2019 hc 1st) (finished 15/9/20) Short list
A great, unusual subject, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 from the point of view of the Abyssinians (mainly) with plenty of research. But much of this wasted, as every time we come to a big event, the author chooses to go into mytho-poetic mode, and the details of what happened are mostly not there. Instead we get a huge amount of repetition of feelings, families, national myths, but hardly ever get inside any of the characters, or find out what actually happened with a few concrete details. Occasionally she gives us a scene where this isn’t so much the case, but we often have to get through the mythological overlay to work out what is really happening. The motives of the slave girl heroine, who apparently becomes a symbolic hero of the revolution (that is, after the war, when the Italians have been defeated) are very hard to fathom – but no more than the treatment she is shown to receive from her captors. Would have been better at half the length, and with some of the detail which should have been there. In part, this might be laziness on the part of the author, who might not have bothered to find out what the guns and weapons actually did, or how they were used, or what those herbs were which the women go searching the countryside for, or… One could go on listing omissions for a long time.
Very hard to finish. The subject, and the feminist theme might have been enough for it to make the shortlist. If so, shame!
Brandon Taylor Real Life (Daunt Books pb 2020) (finished 22/9/20) Short list
Fairly well written, with a very narrow focus, a group of friends (actually mostly work colleagues as well) working as Graduate researchers in biological science. All set over a weekend. The narrator (and author) is black with a southern background but now living in a northern midWest state (like the author). The friends meet, party, have gay sex, and engage in fairly boring conversations. The viewpoint character, Wallace, finds himself accepted among his white friends, but not completely (there is one Asian woman, also an outsider, barely makes an appearance). The focus is on friendship, what it is, how much it can be across the racial divide, how much it overlaps into sex. This is OK as far as it goes, but not much of the outside world is visible outside this small coterie, despite a bit of detail about the biological research, but only in the context of lab work detail, not what it means (if anything) beyond this work. The gay sex is prominent, but (rather routinely and barely motivated) this turns into violence and virtual rape, although the self-effacing Wallace remains someone acted on much more than an actor. In the end, it all feels rather self-indulgent: most of the characters are more names than individuals, and we’ve learnt almost nothing about what drives anyone, except a search for a (pretty undefined) happier life.
Diane Cook The New Wilderness (Oneworld hc 2020 1st UK)(finished 11/10/20) Short list
Sf, though not admitted. A survival novel in the titular New Wilderness, an area set aside (for reasons never made clear) from the City. The City (representing all cities we may think) is a place of pollution, poverty, disease, crime etc – all the ills we can see around us now, writ large. The protagonists – mother Bea, stepfather Glen, sick six year old child Agnes (the main viewpoint character) – volunteer for an experiment in the Wilderness (Glen’s project to save the life of Agnes) which requires them to live on the Wilderness land without any of civilization’s help, except the clothes and a few items they start out with, which of course soon deteriorate. They are accompanied by a small number of other volunteers, about 20 in all. Armed Rangers will ensure that they really live as nomads, living only on food they collect or hunt, without weapons or clothes except those they make themselves, and will direct them to keep moving, rather than set up any permanent camp, and report in at long intervals to Posts where their experiences will be collected via questionnaires. This is the basic setup, and where the whole thing breaks down, probably thanks to the author’s insufficient research. She claims to have researched early primitive Indian cultures but this seems to be book research rather than attempting to live like the people she describes.
Some problems: No-one ever seems to go very hungry in this nomadic world because hunters and collectors are remarkably proficient at hunting and gathering. A few hunters leave in the morning and invariably bring back a deer or a jack rabbit or three, with bows and stone-headed arrows the only weapons. And it only takes one trial at using a bow never touched before before a newcomer (proficient with a sling shot) can split an arrow in the target in half. And there’s always plenty of food – frogs, mushrooms –to be gathered as they trek along, no matter what the season. Stupid geese just sit there on the pond just waiting for the single sling shot to the neck. When they’ve been walking all day and haven’t hunted, deer jerky can be relied on, thanks to the portable smokers they also carry with them, along with a 40 pound iron cooking pot they stumbled upon. Imagine the amount of stuff which this small group, half children, are carrying with them, besides their sleeping gear, a bag of books, and bags of microwaste garbage which the Rangers insist they carry on to the next post rather than leaving it behind. After a few weeks they would be carrying nothing but garbage I think. Not to mention the fire which they also must carry with them (never discussed in the book) – all they need to do is stop and very soon the cooking fire is roaring – never any shortage of fuel, even when it’s been raining for days (though luckily for the author, this doesn’t appear to happen either). I could go on. The life she describes is a fantasy, and the backdrop is just that, a backdrop to the real story she’s interested in, the growing to adulthood of Agnes and her relations with the other members of her group, especially her mother Bea, a leader, and her stepfather Glen, an intellectual, and Carl, who becomes leader. These are drawn out at great length and with some sensitivity, although the group dynamics are often fuzzy and unclearly motivated. Some opportunities are well taken – Agnes’s first menstruation, but others are left undescribed, her first sexual encounter.
In the end, it’s clear that the whole thing is a parable, rather than attempt to describe any kind of actual future – a warning to us about the very real dangers of ignoring the environment. The City has become unlivable, the Private Lands (of Billionaires?) are maybe a fantasy, the Rangers are Bogey Men with guns who eventually cart off our attempted primitives back to the City, preserving the Wilderness – for what? Nothing is explained, but in a parable, really nothing has to be, does it? The idea wasn’t at all bad, but the execution has holes all over it.
Real Life and The New Wilderness may be the last two shortlisted books I read before the winner of the Booker is announced on 19th November. The only book on the shortlist that I haven’t read is The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste. Overall, I’ve found the books rather disappointing — possibly a result of my own short-comings, as I tread cautiously, for example, when I, a middleclass caucasian, try to immerse myself in the world of an Afro American gay man.
Brandon Taylor’s Real Life is a debut novel, so he must be congratulated on making it to the shortlist in this prestigious competition. The whole story takes place over one weekend in a university town in the US Midwest. It is a slab of life — a slab of a particular kind of life, where Wallace, a gay Afro American postgraduate biochemist, tries to exist in a world of insecurity and loneliness on the fringes of the life of his fellow white, confident, middleclass colleagues. I found him exasperatingly apathetic — he seems to have given up trying to fight for his own self respect. A colleague (white and female) makes a mistake in an experiment. She blames Wallace and the supervisor seems to accept this without question although Wallace is clearly talented at this kind of work and indeed was not responsible for the error. Wallace feels he must work, while his social group relax on the shores of a lake in the balmy summer. He is invited to a dinner party and blunders with inappropriate remarks about a couple who are there. I wasn’t sure what to make of his sexual relationship with a colleague who claims to be straight. And when Wallace mentions that his father died recently, there seems to be no attempt from his white colleagues to try to understand what this actually means for him. There was no drama, not really even peaks and troughs, and I think that’s what I missed, but the book gave me some idea of how a brilliant scholar might well give up in such a patronising, stiflingly confident white middleclass society.
The other short-listed book I’ve just finished reading is Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness. It is also a debut novel.
Set in the alarmingly close future, when our world has been ravaged by climate change and overpopulation, a group of eighteen urban refugees joins a kind of experiment to study how humans interact with the natural world. They are to live in a protected Wilderness State. Bea, her partner and daughter Agnes are a part of this group. They have joined largely because Agnes is being poisoned by the polluted air of the city — a place where doctors no longer specialise in paediatrics — there is no point. The world, in this novel, seems to be made up of overpopulated metropolis and protected wilderness.
The most interesting feature of this book, for me, was to study the relationship between Agnes and her mother — a relatiosnhip underpinned by Bea’s love and concern, but also dominated by Agnes’s feelings of betrayal, particularly when her mother vanishes back to the city on hearing that her own mother has died.
And this, for me, was one of the problems — one of the reasons why this wasn’t a great book. These people were a part of an experiment. Guards were observing how they were coping with survival — whether they were cleaning up their garbage. Yet it was possible to go back to touch base with that other life. After several years of malnutrition, illness, discomfort, wouldn’t more people have tried to do this?
Agnes has spent most of her life in the New Wilderness — she seems to thrive there and, by the time she has reached her teens, has become a natural leader.
I felt that Cook could have spent more time exploring the social dynamics of a group of people left in such a situation. I realise that when we first meet the group they have been in the Wilderness for three years. But there is no discussion about how difficult it has been to learn to hunt animals with bows and arrows — there isn’t description about going hungry because the arrow missed its target. These people are not allowed to have matches. Was it not difficult to learn how to make fire? These things made the whole exercise seem a bit implausible. Agnes is by far the most interesting character — and I would have liked more examination of the social dynamics in a group thrust into an experiment of this kind.
I’ve noticed that my science fiction friends are keen on making lists: the twenty best films of the year, or my ten favourite operas. I don’t see much point in a list unless you discuss why you’ve selected particular items. English author Chris Priest was inspired by a BBC program, ‘100 novels that shaped our world’:
and, on his blog, compiled a list of 100 books that have shaped his life: https://christopher-priest.co.uk/a-hundred-books Of these he says, ‘The uniqueness lies only in the totality, the existence of one title thought of as special in the context of all the others of similar specialness, memorable in a life full of fairly disorganized and impulsive reading… I do not claim world-shaping impact on me from these titles, nor are all of them novels, but they form part of the silent context from which one views the world and reacts to it.’
I decided to have a go. What are the books that have shaped my life? I was daunted by the thought of 100 books and in the end I came up with only 75 titles. Past 75, I was starting to list books I’d enjoyed, whereas for each of the 75 books I’ve listed I believe I can describe some way I was affected or changed. Not surprisingly, a lot of books from childhood fall into this category — some are very simple, opening up an awareness, eg of history.
Chris and I had eleven books in common. Listed in alphabetical order by author, they are:
The Dam Busters Paul Brickhill
The Outsider Albert Camus
Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll
Dubliners James Joyce
Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers Beatrix Potter [all of Beatrix Potter for me]
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat Oliver Sacks
Collected Sonnets William Shakespeare [particular sonnets in my case]
Hamlet William Shakespeare
On the Beach Nevil Shute
The Time Machine H G Wells
I was intriuged that Chris chose The Tale of Samuel Whiskers as his special Beatrix Potter book. It’s the story where, up above the ceiling, rats make a kitten into a roly-poly pudding. I loved all of the Beatrix Potter books and especially remember that the Flopsy Bunnies became ‘soporific’ when they nestled amongst the cabbages — it became a word in my three-year-old vocabulary.
Here are my books, in alphabetical order by author:
A God in Ruins Kate Atkinson
Emma Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
The Noise of Time Julian Barnes
The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes
No Friend but the Mountains Behrouz Boochani
Testament of Youth [of Friendship and of Experience] Vera Brittain
Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
Peter and Co [and all of the Billabong books] Mary Grant Bruce
The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett
In Cold Blood Truman Capote
Through the Looking Glass Lewis Carroll
The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir
Descartes’ Error Antonio Damasio
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
The Wasteland T.S. Eliot
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Narrow Road to the Deep North Richard Flanagan
The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan
The Secret Garden was first book I read completely by myself: I can still hear the wind ‘wuthering’ on the moors.
All That I Am Anna Funder
My Experiments with Truth M Gandhi
Frames of Mind Howard Gardner
Monkey Grip Helen Garner
The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame
The Female Eunuch Germaine Greer
Daddy We Hardly Knew You Germaine Greer
Grimm’s Fairy Tales The Brothers Grimm
The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
The Princess Casamassima Henry James
The Golden Bowl Henry James
The Turn of the Screw Henry James
The Wings of the Dove Henry James
My Brother Jack George Johnston
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce
The Good People Hannah Kent
The Rainbow D.H. Lawrence
Women in Love D.H. Lawrence
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Saturday Ian McEwan
Nutshell Ian McEwan
Collected Stories Katherine Mansfield
The Complete Short Stories Somerset Maugham
The House at Pooh Corner and Winnie the Pooh A.A.Milne
Stravinsky’s Lunch Drusilla Modjeska
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
Animal Farm George Orwell
A Valley Grows Up Edward Osmond
Old Peter’s Russian Tales Arthur Ransome
I expect that many readers won’t have come across A Valley Grows Up by Edward Osmond. It was given to me when I was about eight years old. It describes the changes in a fictitious valley, both geological and social, from ancient times to the 20th century. Beautifully illustrated, this book made me think about what particular places were like, say, 100 years ago and how they had changed over time.
Pooh, Piglet and Christopher Robin playing ‘pooh sticks’, a game I still enjoy playing.
The Black Prince Adam Roberts
Awakenings Oliver Sacks
On the Move Oliver Sacks
The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
Complete Memoirs of George Sherston Siegfried Sassoon
Macbeth William Shakespeare
Gitanjali Rabindranath Tagore
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
The Diaries of Beatrice Webb
The House of Mirth Edith Wharton
Voss Patrick White
The Wooden Horse Eric Williams
To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf
I come to the end of my list of 75, only to find that by technical error one of the most influential books of my childhood has ‘dropped off’. It is a book of poems about the kings and queens of England, given to me when I was seven. The poems are factually accurate: Henry VIII was ‘Bluff king Hal was full of beans/ he married half a dozen queens….’ At that impressionable age I remembered a lot of the poems off pat and even today, when I want to remember when a particular king or queen ruled, I mentally refer to those poems. The book also gave me a time reference — what year was Guy Fawkes? When were the wars of the roses? So, I really had 76 books.
Tony Thomas, however, came up with 141! This may be because he has a personal library of about 30,000 books. Tony says:
100+ authors and books that changed my life
(Books: one (or two or three) books, or series, for each author – often representing many others by that author.
Changed my life: a scene, a character, a feeling, an approach, a style, a world, stays with me still.)
J D Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye
Under the Net
Pride and Prejudice
In the Night Kitchen
Days Without End
Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books
L Sprague de Camp (& Fletcher Pratt)
The Incomplete Enchanter
Camp Concentration + The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of
The Booker prize for fiction goes back to 1969. The prestigious prize is awarded to the best original novel written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom. The longlist and shortlist for 2020 have aready been announced. The winner will be announced on 19th November.
Tony Thomas aims to read the entire longlist before that prize-winning date. I’m hoping for another review from him — he has already posted a review of Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments. I am working my way through these books too. So far my ‘favourite’ continues to be Shuggie Bain, already reviewed on this blog.
I started off reading Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road, which was longlisted but didn’t make the shortlist — I’m not surprised. I have now read three or four of Anne Tyler’s books and this is not the best. The main character, Micah, is (one assumes) on the autism spectrum. He reminded me a bit of the main character in The Accidental Tourist – Tyler seems to be interested in slightly eccentric men. Okay – so Micah lives by routine – we get sick of being told every detail of how he makes coffee – which he does quite often. Irritatingly every time someone takes a jacket on or off, they ‘shrug’ themselves into it or out of it. Good once, but only once. For me there was no drama. There isn’t even much depth to the exploration of Micah’s character. At the end, my feeling was: ho hum.
Another book that was longlisted, but not shortlisted is Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. I took a while to get into it – possibly because I’m not a part of the ‘fun age’, which is Afro American 20 to 30 somethings who throw back cocktails and champagne and speak in a language that is almost foreign for me. Themes addressed in this novel are important: Can we connect across barriers of race, gender, wealth and privilege? The story hinges on an incident where Emira, a baby sitter for the privileged, white, Chamberlain household is called unexpectedly to take care of the 2 year-old daughter she cares for. Emira is at a party, but because the Chamberlains pay her generously, she leaves the party, turns up in her party gear and, as Mrs Chamberlain suggests, takes the little girl to the local supermarket – supposedly a safe place to hang out late at night. In her party gear, Emira certainly doesn’t look like a baby sitter. She is accused by a security guard of kidnapping the 2 year-old Briar, with whom she has a very close relationship. (I love the name Briar for this precocious little white girl!) The incident is filmed by Kelley (who is white), and much later in the story, by Mrs Chamberlain’s devious means, the footage is released on a TV news program. The Chamberlains are the kind of family that prides itself on inviting African American people to dinner. And Kelley seems to have a way of wanting to befriend African American people – all of his girlfriends since high school (and he is now well into his 30s) have been African American. By almost too much of a coincidence, in high school, he briefly dated Mrs Chamberlain – indeed it was to Kelley that she lost her virginity – so the relationship had special significance for her.
A review in The Guardian points out that: ‘One of the novel’s deep ironies is that the white people in Emira’s life are more fixated on race than she is’. The final chapter is set some years after Emira has left the Chamberlain babysitting job (which was upgraded to a nanny in the hope of keeping Emira). She is working in a ‘proper’ job as a quite well paid administrative assistant. At a local market one day she happens to see Kelley with his black girlfriend (Emira never contacted him after the film of the supermarket incident was released for TV although she did learn later that this was the work of Mrs Chamberlain, not Kelley) and she also sees (but avoids contact with) Mrs Chamberlain and now 5 year-old Briar. She wonders what she learned from her time at the Chamberlain household.
Books on the shortlist that I have read so far (as well as Shuggie Bain) include Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar. It’s her debut novel. It was not a compelling read for me. Most interesting was the setting in India – what it’s like for middle class business people. A woman whose mother in her 50s has dementia could be a fascinating topic, but with this book we had the woman’s life story, how she’s never got on well with her mother – she seems to be lacking in compassion, anyway. At times she can’t stand her new born baby. The book ends pretty much where it started. Maybe the woman will explore new fields, but maybe she’ll just return to her middle class home and have more children. The mother is not much changed from how we saw her at the beginning of the story.
More interesting, although challenging, for me, was Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body (an enticing title). I found it very difficult to get into this book. I thought it was because of my lack of knowledge of Zimbabwean culture (in spite of brief visits I’ve made to Botswana and Uganda, connected to work and when in Botswana I paid a visit to Victoria falls and looked across the foaming mass of water to Zimbabwe).
But maybe my difficulty was not having read the first two novels of the trilogy that this book completes. I also found Dangarembga’s use of the second person, while suitably distancing, a bit difficult to deal with.
Tambu, the protagonist, is a middle aged Zimbabwean woman, unmarried, with no children. Had I read the other two parts of the trilogy I would have seen her grow up during the time of the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, go to high school and university.
We first meet Tambu when she has just abandoned a prestigious job as a copywriter because she was angry that white colleagues took the credit for her achievements. She’s running through her savings, living in a hostel in Harare, getting around on crowded Kombi buses.
It looks as though this is going to be a downward spiral into poverty. She feels as though she is going to fall down a precipice. All the while she is attempting to disguise her increasingly desperate poverty and conserve the soles of her Lady Di pumps. For reasons that include her grim financial prospects and her age, she moves to a widow’s boarding house and eventually finds work as a biology teacher. A moment of optimism, but it seems inevitably to go wrong. Tambu eventually loses her job when she badly beats a meek, mild-mannered student named Elizabeth. Tambu suffers a nervous breakdown that lands her in a hospital.
It seemed to me a kind of irony when Tambu meets her former (white) boss, Tracey and is invited to join an eco-tourism business offering the so-called real ghetto and village experience. It works well for a while and she is comfortably off. But, when promoted Tambu suggests a tour to her own village. On the day of the first tour, there is a celebration performance planned. When one of the European men takes a picture of her, Tambu’s mother, the head hostess amongst the women, becomes frenzied and agitated. She strips off her top, and the tour is a disaster. Tambu resigns. The novel ends with Tambu taking a job at Christine, her aunt’s, newest business venture: a security company. This is described as an optimistic move – going back to family. But then, going to her mother’s village was a disaster. For me, the book was about the terrible loneliness of a woman who has defied her family’s African traditions only to find Western ones no less limiting.
I’m still reading some of the shortlisted entries — so there may be another post on the Booker before the winner is announced on 19th November.