‘A Start in Life’ by Anita Brookner

Old fashioned flats in Chelsea. This is actually 34 Tite Street, where Oscar Wilde lived, but these are definitely the sort of flats Anita Bruckner wrote about.

Old fashioned flats in Chelsea. This is actually 34 Tite Street, where Oscar Wilde lived, but these are definitely the sort of flats Anita Bruckner wrote about.

I stopped reading Anita Bruckner’s novels, some years ago, even though I enjoyed them, because, I found, her books were too same-y.

‘Hotel Du Lac’, the first Anita Bruckner I tackled, knocked me back with its depth – and had me reaching for the dictionary every few pages, but the effect did not last.  Even though ‘Hotel Du Lac’ won Anita Bruckner the Booker Prize in 1984, I don’t believe that, in any way, it stood apart from her other books.  There is an Anita Brookner formula: young woman in London, born to Mittel European parents who have emigrated to London before/during/immediately after World War II, and is living, with them, comfortably in one of those very heavy-looking flats in Chelsea (none of her characters lived in a house!), and trying to break away.  Although ‘A Start in Life’ was first published in 1981, the setting is – evidently – much earlier than that – late 1950s to mid-1960s.   Many of Brookner’s protagonists are bookish or into art, which is hardly surprising as Bruckner herself was an acclaimed academic art historian at the Courtauld Institute (working alongside traitor Anthony Blunt, but that’s another story).

So… on to ‘A Start in Life’.  Our heroine, Ruth Weiss, is an academic, an authority on French literature (her specialty is Balzac).  She has a German grandmother (with a few hints at her being Jewish), who lives in Ruth and her parents’ house.  To start with, the grandmother sounds vile, the sort who calls Ruth’s father ‘Georg’, insists on using best china and carrying out all meals as if they were nice tea-parties in pre-war Vienna, but, as the reader realises, after the grandmother dies, she is the only member of the family who makes any attempt to care for Ruth as a child and ‘to bring her up’.  Ruth’s parents are even more vile, her mother, Helen, an actress, vain and self-absorbed, and her father, George, totally wrapped up in Helen.  The parents call each other ‘darling heart’.  After the grandmother dies, they engage a housekeeper, because they couldn’t possibly do household tasks themselves, but Mrs Cutler seems only able to reheat food from tins (how 1960s!) and washes up once a day (if that).

As she gets older, Helen’s acting roles (and the family’s income) diminishes, as George’s bookshop is earning virtually nothing at all.  Helen, saying she is ‘a little tired’, spends more and more time in bed, to the point where her feet can hardly take her weight.  Mrs Cutler’s position in the family looms larger and larger, to the point where George is searching out library books (nothing with a ‘Douglas’ in, please, because her husband was called ‘Dougie’) for his housekeeper.  George doesn’t like it and becomes closer and closer to the Sally Jacobs, the woman who has purchased his book business, and Ruth retreats into herself and Balzac.  Both of them have affairs.

The story is as much about George and Helen, Ruth’s parents, as Ruth herself.  Like many of Brookner’s books, the plotline is thin and many pages are taken up luxuriating in richly developed  characters.   Ruth is a daughter trying to escape her parents.  She tries very hard, as a schoolgirl and a student, retreating into the library.  She rents a room in London and she goes to Paris. I can’t tell you anymore without giving you spoilers (that is, more spoilers than I have already).

Do read ‘A Start in Life’.  Not having read any Brookner for a while, the charm of her style and her usual settings wowed me all over again.   She made me feel very sorry for Ruth.  I was egging her on all the time, to get away from her dreadful, selfish parents.

I award ‘A Start in Life’ four stars  ****.

 

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Katherine Blessan Blog Tour: ‘Lydia’s Song’

'Lydia's Song' Blog Tour Poster

‘Lydia’s Song’ Blog Tour

Lydia’s quiet expat life in Cambodia is dramatically turned upside down by the sudden arrival of Song, a young & vulnerable Vietnamese girl, and the flattering romantic attentions of a handsome, dashing local man. Just as she settles into this new-found happiness, everything is shattered as Song is kidnapped and sold into the child sex trade. Broken, Lydia returns to the UK, confirmed in her doubts about ‘God’, only to find the most unexpected guest on her doorstep one night many years later with the most incredible story to tell of hope lost and innocence restored.

Dear Reader is taking part in the Katherine Blessan Blog Tour.  Although, to my shame, I haven’t read Lydia’s Song, I’ve asked Katherine some questions, and I’m letting her do the talking.

Question 1:  What made you want to write about Cambodia?

I lived and worked in Cambodia, for two and a half years, on two separate occasions. I went to Cambodia initially for six months in 2006 with the organization Cambodia Action to work as a TEFL teacher. The second time I went for two years and worked for an international school called Logos International under the wing of a Christian NGO called Asian Hope.

The place and the people got under my skin, but the main reason I wrote about it was because my story idea was firmly set in Cambodia. Living there certainly helped me to get the sights, scents and physical imprint of the place accurate, as well as understanding something of my own character’s experiences and worldview.

Question 2: How do you deal with the pain and high emotional content of your story without making it unbearable for the reader?

For me it was all about artistic integrity in conveying the truth of the harrowing experience that young girls go through in sex slavery, but at the same time, as a Christian, wanting to avoid my narrative being too graphic. In the scene where Song is raped for the first time I presented this in an almost dreamlike sequence as Song psychologically distances herself from the event, so as to be able to deal with the trauma. These scenes weren’t easy to deal with emotionally but I’ve always been fairly resilient when it comes to handling difficult emotions and would rather confront the truth than hide things under the carpet. Also, the places where the emotional content of the story were high were in some ways easiest to write as they were the places where the narrative drive of the story compelled me forward most.

Question 3: Did the basic idea for the story come to you all at once? Or did you have to make many changes?

It did indeed come all at once! The first time I went to Cambodia in 2006 I was staying with a family in Ratanakiri province and, while there, I was resting on a hammock on their porch. A servant was sweeping underneath me and I remember feeling embarrassed by this. Suddenly the essential idea for the plot for Lydia’s Song hit me, almost like divine inspiration. I started the novel at that time, although it was just the beginning and needed a lot of fleshing out from my own experiences in Cambodia together with the research I had to do in order to make it authentic. I didn’t make any changes to the basic storyline – in fact it was the strength of the idea that kept me going through all the stops and starts of the writing process!

Question 4: How long did it take you to write this book?

It took me eight years from the initial idea till the completion. This was mainly because I was working as a teacher full time, experiencing life in Cambodia, getting married cross-culturally and starting to have a family of my own. The majority of the book was written in the four years after my first child, Joel, was born, during school holidays and snatched hours.

Question 5: Would you write about South East Asia again?

Yes, if a suitable storyline came to mind that needed a South Eastern Asian location, but my family and I don’t have any immediate plans to go back there, as our international focus is currently elsewhere.

Question 6: Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am currently writing another novel, which I’m about a third of the way through. It’s been on hold, however, for a year while I followed the pressing urge to write Lydia’s Song as a screenplay, the first draft of which is now complete! I’m desperately trying to get that finished in time for the London Screenwriters Festival in September.

It’s always interesting hearing about how other authors write, isn’t it?  Reading that writing Lydia’s Song took Katherine eight years, I don’t feel quite so concerned about how long it’s taking me to get my novel finished!

Best of luck, Katherine!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Hedgehog

Attrib Wikimedia Commons.

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is a literary novel, set in an expensive Left Bank apartment block in Paris.  The hedgehog is the despised concierge, Renee Michel, apparently the stereotype of her profession.  She looks dowdy, appears slow of intellect, owns a cat and the sound of her television blares from her flat.  Her tenants are all wealthy, well-educated, snobs and fashionably left-wing.  The story is told by Renee Michel herself and through the journals of Paloma Josse, an eleven year old girl living in one of the apartments (Renee in serif font, Paloma in san serif).  These two are the only two characters with whom the reader gets to know well.

Renee was born into a family of backward country peasants, who hardly spoke to one another and never addressed each other by name.  Renee deliberately gives the impression of still being that peasant, carefully concealing that she is cultured and well-read.  In fact, she is hungry for learning, someone who understands what she reads, but with a different slant, seeing as she is unschooled.  Her only friend is the Portuguese cleaner, Manuela, who, Renee adjudges to be an aristocrat because she insists on having a plate and a tablecloth when eating a walnut.  Renee is however a likable character who rapidly gains the reader’s sympathy.

Paloma Joffe defines herself by the people around her.  Papa, a republican politician, enjoys coffee, many different newspapers and rugby and has conscience qualms about putting his elderly mother in a home.  Maman spends three hours a day watering her houseplants and has been in analysis for ten years, not with a proper medic but, according to Paloma, ‘just a leftie’.  Maman loves to reminisce about the Evenements of 1968.   Paloma reserves her bitterest opprobrium for her elder sister, Colombe, an arrogant teenager who enjoys all the privileges of wealth yet effects to despise them.  She wears grunge clothes, with holes, which, in Renee’s opinion, belittle the aspirations of the less well off.  Colombe knocks on the concierge’s door at seven am, to tell her about an expected courier delivery, and is full of self-righteous indignation when Renee refuses to speak to her until the lodge opens at eight.

For a large part of the book, Paloma, who seems to believe she is too good for the world and her family, comes over as someone as entitled and snobby as everyone else.  She is considering committing suicide in a year’s time and, at the same time, burning down the apartment block where they all live.  It takes a while for the reader to grow to like Paloma and to appreciate her innocence, through her ‘Profound Thoughts’ (all numbered) and her ‘Journal of Movement of All the World’.  Only in the later sections do we realise that Paloma is only eleven and a half and that she is a geeky kid in pink-framed glasses.  Moreover, we don’t get to know her name until very late on.

The only other character who features majorly is the Japanese filmmaker, Kazuko Ozu, the newest man in the block, who appears only half way through the novel.  The antithesis of all the other residents, he is studiously courteous in a very Asian way and appears to be without class consciousness, is very well read and cultured, as well as being rich.  To my mind, he is just too good to be believable.

The author describes very effectively the pretentiousness and sense of entitlement of the wealthy left-wing establishment.   Renee is offended by the I’m-so-left-wing-I’m-speaking-to-the-concierge tone.

The writing style is intense, self-consciously literary, and the action slow-moving, insofar as there is action at all.  For me the lack of plot-line undermines some excellent characterisation.   It is said, repeatedly, that literature is ‘all about character’.  This novel, I’m afraid, disproves this maxim.

Steel yourself for the shocking ending!

I award this book three stars only.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog can be purchased from Gallic (through Belgravia Publishing) he

re.  Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

‘Rooks at Dusk’ by Chick Yuill

Rooks in tree

Creative Commons (attrib Pixabay)

You’re an experienced Christian preacher, appearing on the conference circuit and on radio.  You ‘came to faith’ at the age of seven.  You’ve been  happily married for several decades and you and your wife are very sad that your one son, Ollie, a stand-up comic, has lost his faith. So, what do you do when your faith slips away from you and you cannot carry on churning out glib nuggets about things which once seemed rock solid but have have lost their freshness and meaning.  Moreover, you find yourself attracted to another woman and you have an affair.

You confess some of this to your son, hoping for a more sympathetic response from a member of the younger generation, but Ollie is disgusted and let down.  He calls you a hypocrite because you cannot maintain the standards which you upheld to him, and which he rejected.  You decide there is no alternative but to return home to your wife, and, painful as this will be, confess your unfaithfulness.  But that night she dies in a road accident.

Through his life Ray Young  (the main character) has been fascinated by rooks circling in flight at dusk, the beauty and grace of their movements offset by their raucous call.  This has become an allegory for Ray’s feelings about God, the church and his life.  ‘Rooks at Dusk’ is a Christian book, published by a Christian publisher, so the reader anticipates a certain course.  Without giving away any spoilers, the Christian reader has to suspend his/her expectations as to the story arc.   Richard Dawkins wouldn’t like it either, in case you’re wondering.

‘Rooks at Dusk’ is a work of one hundred per cent fiction, but this novel is written like an autobiographical account.  Large tranches of, quite important, action are glossed over, in dialogue or in a few paragraphs of backstory whilst covering something else, including a pilgrimage to Santiago in Northern Spain.  Indeed the plotline rambles in places, but this lends authenticity.  In my church there is a picture of Jesus bearing a crown of thorns with a caption ‘Meek and mild?  As if!’ and this is the tone of ‘Rooks at Dusk’.  Uncomfortable truths, awkward questions, subjects not usually treated openly in Christian literature, are taken on with courage, excruciating transparency and honesty.

Having read a little about Chick Yuill the man from his website Anvilding and his emotional resignation letter from officership in the Salvation Army, I learn that Chick himself is a preacher like his protagonist.   Chick”s faith in God and his marriage, however, remain firm.  He has preached at Spring Harvest and Radio Two’s Good Morning Sunday.   Included in ‘Rooks at Dusk’ is an insightful comparison between preaching and being a stand-up comic.  Compulsory reading for all clergy and lay preachers, methinks!

I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be reviewing this one yet, as it’s not released yet.  From 21 July (end of next week), you will be able to buy this book from Instant Apostle .  I am reviewing this book in my role as a member of  the Instant Apostle Facebook Reviewing Group.

‘Rooks at Dusk’ is a must for all committed Christians, for agnostics and atheists and everybody in between.  Five whopping stars!

‘The Honeymoon’ by Tina Seskis

 

Jemma’s new husband, of five days, has disappeared, on their honeymoon.

Copyright Commons, Attrib Pixabay. Maldives BeachThey are at a luxury resort on the Maldives.  True, they’ve had a row.  True, things haven’t been going well.  Jemma is sick and paralysed with terror.  Everyone at her resort is watching her. She is sure they all believe that she has murdered him.

Time goes on and still he doesn’t appear.

The novel is carefully crafted, with a well-constructed scenario and a complex, but well-devised plot, with a twist early on, which certainly took me by surprise.   This is definitely chick-lit, but without the excruciating sex and soppy bits.

The author is clearly very familiar with the Maldives (lucky thing!) and the holiday scene over there.  She writes her setting with great confidence.

The chapters alternate between ‘now’ and various periods in the years leading up to Jemma’s marriage.  The chapters set in the past adopt the third person point of view and are generally, but not always, about Jemma. The ‘now’ chapters are related by Jemma in the first person, but she is an unreliable narrator, forgetting and adding events  and scenes in a chaotic way – maybe because she is at breaking point, maybe because this is very convenient for the plot, perhaps a little too convenient.  The plot asks questions, because  the reader cannot understand characters’ motivations – until Jemma, being ‘unreliable’, mentions another happening or conversation.  The latter part of the book was disappointing because it was disjointed;  although there is action, it occurs several months apart and through the eyes of different characters, who hear about events, rather than taking part in them.

The number of characters is kept to a tidy minimum.  They are believable and appear consistently throughout the book, even the murderer, whose identity was a total shock.   However, Jemma is under intolerable stress throughout; we hardly see her relaxed.   Another point is that Jemma’s mother-in-law, Veronica, who is vile, occupies many, many pages, but she and her nastiness don’t have any bearing on the plot.

However, I read on – avidly.   The answers to the many questions posed in this book,  especially the big whammy at the end, were all there, but they could have been written more dramatically, making me feel I was present, rather than reading it in the newspaper.

I regret giving ‘The Honeymoon’ only three stars, seeing as I enjoyed it so much, but I have explained why.

‘The Honeymoon’ can be purchased here.

‘Portrait of a Marriage’ by Nigel Nicolson

Nigel Nicolson paints an endearing portrait of the marriage of his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  His viewpoint is that, despite many – mostly homosexual – affairs on both sides, and, after the first few years following their wedding, no action in the marital bed, the two were devoted, missing each other during their times apart, and valuing their love and union as the pivot in their lives.  All the time I was reading this book, I was wondering how much of a gloss this loyal son was applying, but he quotes from letters over decades and at length.  And the two remained together from 1911 to Vita’s death in 1962, which left Harold devastated, until his own death in 1968.  I’m persuaded that, despite everything – a lot of portrait is accurate.

Vita Sackville-West was born into the aristocratic Sackville family of Knole, Kent. Following her grandfather’s death, her (nuclear) family returned to Knole via a circuitous route.  Her mother was her grandfather’s illegitimate daughter, from a liaison with a Spanish dancer, Pepita, but her father inherited the very grand stately home through being the son of one of her grandfather’s brothers.  There was a court case – of course – and, this being the Sackville-Wests, a very colourful one.  Despite living in many other properties with Harold, including no Sissinghurst, where she built her amazing garden, Vita loved Knole with a passion.  In fact, on her wedding day, she almost didn’t get married because she couldn’t bear to leave Knole.

Vita Sackville-West wrote numerous novels and earns her living as a writer.  Harold also wrote, mostly factual books, fitting in how writing in between his high-profile career as a diplomat, which included being a secretary for the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War.  However what she is known for is her affairs with Violet Keppel and then Virginia Woolf.  The Violet affair is described in painstaking details, partly from Vita’s own diaries.  In the detail, we know and feel the pain and the conflict.  When Portrait of a Marriage was adapted for television, by  Penelope Mortimer, whom Nigel Nicolson describes as ‘somebody’s mother-in-law’, someone who had no time for ‘posh people’.  It is tempting to go for the juicy bit.  After all, sex is supposed to sell, isn’t it?  But this book is far deeper and more thoughtful than just sex.

I’m writing this on a train and Virgin Trains are letting me have only 15 minutes internet, so I’d better finish.  I’m stalling about the way I recommend books, so I’m changing the way I do it.  In future, I’m going to award stars, five being wonderful, one being awful.  For Portrait of a Marriage, I’m awarding FOUR.  It misses out on five because the end of the book, as Vita and Harold go into middle-age, drifts off a bit.   A very good read.

 

 

 

‘Heavenly Date And Other Flirtations’ by Alexander McCall Smith

 It is always a joy to read Alexander McCall Smith.

Nothing to do with the post, but I can’t source any pics on my iPad on this dodgy connection. Alexander McCall Smith IS Scottish, though.

‘Heavenly Date’ is a collection of short stories about people going on dates, ranging from the middle aged couple in Switzerland who spend thousands on casual gifts for each other, to the man picking up a prostitute and the young girl who has a picnic with an angel.  Many, but not all, of the stories are set in Africa, in the last days of empire.  Alexander has a feel for this continent and that particular age, which is unmatched, something which is reflected in his First Ladies Detective Agency stories (although these are set in a later period).  He always writes with such gentleness and at the slowest of slow paces.  ‘This is what I will I’ll do it. Yes, I will do it.’  These words are not an exact quote, of course, but they hit the general tone.

However, on the subject of style, I was irked by the number of times sentences in the same paragraph began with the words ‘There is…’ or ‘There are…’ and also by reps.  Alexander writes amazing stuff, but I also know that he churns it out very fast, two or three books per year.

Some of the stories ramble,  ‘Bulawayo’, for instance, which concerns two very sheltered and innocent twenty somethings in old Rhodesia, who couldn’t bring themselves to consummate their marriage.  The story ends in a way we in the twenty first century would find particularly shocking, except that, the way Alexander wrote it, it didn’t seem shocking at all.  For such an easygoing author, his work is deceptively intense and thoughtful.  The man is a polymath, someone who understands art, poetry, music and philosophy, but he wasn’t philosophising in this collection of stories.

So, great stuff, as usual and definitely worth reading.  McCall Smith books tend to be very expensive these days, so I was thrilled to be able to pick this one up, secondhand, in a village fete.  Have you noticed the sort of books that appear in charity shops, fetes and secondhand bookstalls?  I can tell you that, apart from one or two classics, Heavenly Date was the only one off this particular stall for which I felt motivated to part with even 50p.  All those authors who area held up to us as role models, people we have been are encouraged to emulate,  their books are piled up in these places – Dan Brown, especially.

Must dash.  I’m passing the time in my polling station – again – writing this on my iPad which is now down to 13%.  Also the Internet connection is dodgy.  Seven and a half hours to go, and over a hundred voters (out of less than four hundred) have already voted.  (If you’re reading this some time after posting, you’ll realise that this is being written on General Election Day.). Close watchers of this blog will have observed that this is my second book review of the day!