An Avid Reader’s Ramblings
*The Avid Reader would be delighted to receive your responses to her 'ramblings'.
* To receive occasional email alerts when new content is added click here.
I thoroughly enjoyed Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave and apologise to regular visitors to this site for not having put up my comment sooner.
Here, in her recently published sixth novel, with the consummate, understated literary expertise which one has come to expect of her and which never fails to delight, O’Farrell has created an enthralling fictional representation of ‘family’ in the mid-1970s.
Set over just a few days during the intense heatwave of 1976, the basic plot-line is straightforward - the ‘quest’ of an Irish-born, catholic mother, Gretta, and her three adult children, Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife, to locate the father, Robert Riordan, who has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.
The narrative framework supporting and surrounding this seemingly simple plot is, however, intriguingly constructed. The strategic employment of characters’ thought processes and memories combined with a deceptively subtle use of past and present tenses operate to convey both their current circumstances and previous ‘histories’ - the long suppressed secrets, former mis-perceptions as well as more immediate anxieties of each family member are gradually revealed. This author’s skill in carefully modulated revelation is admirable, as are her acute observational ‘eye’ and ‘ear’ for the nuances of domestic interaction and conversation. Consequently, O’Farrell achieves a full and wholly persuasive realisation of individual characters and of the Riordan family as a whole.
A sense of period is convincingly represented - prevailing social attitudes and political allusions, relating not only to the 1970s but also to previous decades referred to in the novel, are effectively incorporated into the narrative. Also, a sense of place regarding different locations ( London, Gloucestershire, New York and Ireland) is sensitively evoked as are the obvious and intangible effects of the oppressively hot weather.
The first section of the novel, ‘THURSDAY 15 July 1976’, perfectly creates the background for what will follow. Here, separate chapters, with headings relating to characters’ present locations deal with the main players in the ’drama’. In Highbury Gretta eats breakfast and, while Robert collects his morning newspaper, muses about how hard she had tried “to keep Ireland alive in her London-born children”. In the second chapter Michael Francis, a teacher, returns on the last day of term to Stoke Newington and the house and family he loves but which, since his wife’s ‘immersion’ in her O.U. degree course, seems no longer to be the home it once was. In Gloucestershire Monica, on her second marriage, attempts to cope both with unfamiliar rural life and visits from two ‘difficult’ stepdaughters. In New York Aoife works hard to hold on to a job she enjoys and a man she loves, while finding it increasingly awkward to conceal her secret, lifelong ‘problem’.
I am reluctant to go into further details regarding the ‘story’ of Instructions for a Heatwave as I feel that it is a book which readers should experience and unravel for themselves. I would simply suggest that it is most certainly a compelling novel, containing much humour and much pathos - sometimes combining the two together - and that it seems to me to reach the level of quality which O’Farrell achieved in her superb fourth novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.
*There are guestbook comments on this review.
Click here to read these.
I found Anne Enright’s The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, thoroughly engaging but The Forgotten Waltz, her most recent novel, left me just a little disappointed.
Although, as one would expect from this fine Irish author, it is sensitively written and is interwoven with evocative and poignant descriptive passages, wry, dry humour and acute observations of human behaviour, as I read on, the novel gradually grew less compelling than it initially promised.
Set mainly, though not entirely, in and around Dublin during the first decade of the present century, The Forgotten Waltz provides a retrospective account of an adulterous affair. In the short Preface, Gina, the narrator, informs us clearly of the novel’s major concern - her obsessive and complicated relationship with Sean, an older married man whose daughter, Evie, is the source of much anxiety. What follows, in chapters bearing the titles of oldish, popular songs which will be familiar to many (e.g. ‘Secret Love’, ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’, ‘Paper Roses’), involves not only Gina’s tracing and detailed dissection of the course of the affair but also descriptions of her working environment, her own marriage and her past and present family circumstances. Also, there are reflections upon the effects of the rise and decline of the Irish economy during the 2000s.
After a while I became somewhat wearied by the narrative of the affair. Much more engaging, I thought, were the passages which concerned Gina’s accounts and interrogations of her relationships with her elegant mother, her deceased ‘roguish’ father, her once-beautiful sister and the ‘difficult’ Evie. In such sections I feel that Enright best demonstrates her remarkably nuanced literary expertise and that, consequently, these make The Forgotten Waltz worth reading.
* Unusually, I cannot quite fathom the author’s choice of title - apart from its possible link with the music/dance chapter headings, I see no meaningful connection. Perhaps someone will enlighten me (?)
** Have just begun reading Maggie O’Farrell’s newly published novel, Instructions for a Heatwave - more on this anon.
Though interesting, clever and engaging in several respects, I found Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Sweet Tooth, a little less satisfying than I had anticipated.
Ostensibly the first-person retrospective narrative of Serena Frome (‘‘rhymes with plume’’), attractive daughter of an Anglican bishop, Cambridge Maths student & graduate and low-level MI5 recruit, this novel is set in 1970s Britain - a period of industrial strife, strikes, energy crises, troubles in N. Ireland and the Cold War.‘Sweet Tooth’ is the code name of a covert MI5 operation to offer funding from a non-existent International Foundation to ‘encourage’ young writers, thought to have anti-communist tendencies, to use their work to subtly oppose Communist propaganda.
Sweet Tooth is not simply a ‘spy story’, however, it is a multi-layered piece of fiction.
As well as dealing with covert Secret Service activities, the novel is about clandestine and romantic relationships, about readers and the art of reading (Serena is an avid, if undiscriminating reader) and about writers and the art of writing (Tom Haley, Serena’s ‘Sweet Tooth’ target, is a serious budding author - a ‘version’ of a young McEwan).
To go into the complexities of the plot here would be to spoil the reader’s pleasure but I would suggest that unravelling them will prove worthwhile. Also, McEwan’s fine realisation of aspects relating to such things as the clothes, food, language, atmosphere and attitudes of the period is worth noting.
My quibble with Sweet Tooth lies neither with its character-constructions nor with its plot but rather with the less than authentic ‘voice’ of its narrator. Since I know how convincingly McEwan can write women, as I read on I was surprised to find myself increasingly unconvinced by Serena’s account of herself and this alerted me to the possibility that all might not be as it seemed. The denouement when it came, therefore, was not entirely unexpected.
Ian McEwan is one of our best contemporary writers who has produced several excellent novels (Atonement is, I think, his finest). With Sweet Tooth, however, I feel that McEwan may have attempted a textual ‘manoeuvre’ too far - perhaps in seeking to adopt the role of authorial ‘double agent’ he has slightly overestimated his own powers of persuasion. On the other hand, does he intend that a ‘discerning reader’ would not be persuaded in the first place? How would one know?
I have read and enjoyed almost all of Helen Dunmore’s novels, especially The Siege and its sequel The Betrayal (*see archive) both of which were impressively researched, evocative depictions of life as experienced by a family, their friends and enemies during the siege of Leningrad and under the Stalinist regime in Russia. Dunmore is, I suggest, one of our finest living novelists.
Unfortunately, contrary to my expectations and against the grain of many literary reviewers who give it warm praise, I found myself just a little disappointed by Dunmore’s most recent book.
Set during the middle of the twentieth century, The Greatcoat is a novella, an intriguing tale in the supernatural/psychological vein which strives, perhaps, to echo and emulate the ‘feel’ and suspense of James’s The Turn of the Screw.
Following a short prologue set in W. War II and concerning the crew of a Lancaster bomber preparing to fly to Berlin on the 27th of its 30 allocated operations, Chapter One makes a forward time-shift to 1952 where we find a newly married couple attempting to settle into a dingy, cold, rented flat in an unfamiliar town in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Isabel is young, well-educated, sensitive and inexperienced regarding the household management and domestic skills expected of women during that period. Her husband, a doctor, is devoted to Isabel but while he works long hours to establish himself in the practice he has joined, she spends much time alone, oppressed by both the dull flat and the dour, menacing landlady who lives above. Taking a long walk beyond the town, she discovers a dilapidated airfield. Later, at night in the flat, seeking something to add extra warmth to the bed she finds, stowed in a high cupboard, an old R.A.F. greatcoat which she uses as a blanket. The following night, Isabel wakes to hear a tapping at the window and, looking out, sees an R.A.F. officer. … more plot-detail here would be unfair to the new reader.
As always, Dunmore’s fluent prose compels one to read on and her talent to fully realise the nuanced ‘feel’ of both period and place is admirable. The selection of particular details, pertaining not only to characters and material objects but also to those class and gender-related assumptions and behavioural codes which prevailed in 1950s Britain,, is excellent.
Interesting and engaging as The Greatcoat is, upon finishing it, I was unsure whether, in this novella, Helen Dunmore had wholly mastered the genre.
Having relished Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, I was keen to read Bring Up the Bodies, the first of two sequels in a trilogy which charts the power gained (and eventually lost) by Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary and chief adviser to Henry VIII. My high expectations were fully satisfied and, on the whole, I think I found Bring Up the Bodies even more engaging than its predecessor.
My response is partly due, perhaps, to familiarity with the narrative mode adopted by Mantel in this fictionalised interpretation of historical facts - as in Wolf Hall, the novel is narrated mainly in the present tense and events are focalised via Cromwell’s perspective and consciousness. Also, Bring Up the Bodies has a tight time-scale covering a period of less than a year - autumn 1535 to summer 1536 - so that although there are often many references to previous episodes and figures from Cromwell’s private and public past, the novel’s ‘action’ is sharply focused on what occurs during just a few months.
Of major significance are the politics, intrigue and rumours associated with Henry’s increasing preoccupation with plain Jane Seymour and his gradual dissatisfaction with and withdrawal of affection from his second wife, Anne Boleyn who, like Catherine of Aragon, has given him a daughter but failed to produce a male heir.
Central to the ‘plot’ of the novel are the hints, allegations and accusations concerning Anne’s ‘bad’ behaviour with various men at court (including her brother George, Lord Rochford).The ensuing power struggles between the Boleyn, Howard and Seymour families and the legal processes leading up to the execution of Anne and her ‘lovers’ are chillingly convincing.
The subtle way in which an account of Cromwell’s scheming and initial moves to bring about the dissolution of the monasteries is woven into the fabric of the novel is also worth noting.
Mantel’s skills in fictionalising history, re-creating the sights, sounds, smells and stenches of the period and vividly realising not only Thomas Cromwell but also the many other major and minor players in her drama are admirable and will, hopefully, be deployed once more in its ‘third act’ - The Mirror and the Light, her final novel in the trilogy.
A Perfectly Good Man, Patrick Gale’s most recent novel which I found thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking, is set predominantly (though not entirely) in Cornwall and, as always, this author’s skill in conveying a sense of landscape and location is impressive. Similarly commendable is Gale’s ability to gradually peel away the layers of ‘appearance’ thereby exposing the ‘real’ social dynamics which function to shape and ‘drive’ interaction and attitudes in a particular community.
Barnaby Johnson, a seemingly ‘perfectly good man’, is an Anglican priest. Married to the comfortable, practically competent Dot and with two children, Carrie and ‘Jim’, Fr. Barnaby is caring, kind and imbued with integrity but, nevertheless, harbours a secret which he never fully reveals to his wife.
The exploration and unravelling of Barnaby’s personality - what drives him to be as he is, to act as he does - is at the heart of this novel. In the process of ‘explaining’ his central character, Gale interweaves the past and present ‘stories’ not only of Barnaby’s family but also of many other characters involved in his life.
The structure of this novel is both clever and somewhat complex. The narrative unfolds in a non-linear, non-chronological fashion whereby characters are developed and events are revealed in relation to various points in time - each chapter is headed by the name and the age of a character. Into later chapters Gale successfully introduces a few figures who appeared in his previous novel, the much acclaimed Notes from an Exhibition.
To go into details of characters and plot here would be to spoil the pleasure of unravelling the text, though I should mention, perhaps, that there are certain elements which some readers could find difficult - elements which, unfortunately, at some point impinge upon the lives of many.
A Perfectly Good Man is, I would suggest, an interesting novel - an accomplished and near perfectly executed piece of fiction.
I have just finished This is Paradise by Will Eaves.
Set mainly in suburban Bath but with brief forays to France, Wales, Cornwall, Dorset and London, this novel charts the progress of the ‘ordinary’ Allden family (parents Emily and Don, and their four children) and their interaction with relatives, neighbours, friends and associates over several decades from the early 1970s onwards. The author’s structural technique involves the depiction of particular situations, episodes and events at various periods in the lives of family members, shifting the narrative forward but leaving lapses of time between sections and chapters.
Eaves writes with skill and sensitivity, displaying a keen eye for detail, a sharp ear for the nuances of conversation, an apt turn of phrase and, at times, a wry sense of humour. Characters are well-realised and the tensions and tribulations associated with family relationships and sibling rivalries, both overt and suppressed, are effectively exposed while affections and empathies are subtly portrayed.
I enjoyed much of this novel and didn’t mind feeling that I must ‘pay attention’ closely in order to ‘keep up’ with and appreciate it fully. The later sections dealing with Emily’s decline into dementia and her eventual death in a care home called Sunnybrook were, however, so poignantly and accurately conveyed that reading became almost unbearable.
Although This is Paradise is interesting, engaging and admirable in many respects, I would suggest that for some, perhaps, reading it may prove to be neither a wholly ‘easy’ nor an entirely comfortable experience.
* Am about to embark upon A Perfectly Good Man, Patrick Gale's most recently published novel and hope that it will prove to be as engaging as his earlier novels, Friendly Fire and Notes from an Exhibition and his short story collection, Gentleman's Relish, each of which I greatly enjoyed.
* Have ordered Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel's first sequel to Wolf Hall.
Have recently finished The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, a slim volume which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I found this novel/novella interesting, intriguing, skilfully constructed and written with the precision one associates with this author. Surprisingly, however, I felt that the book was not entirely satisfying.
The narrator, Tony Webster, a man in his sixties, retired, divorced (though on reasonably good terms with his ex-wife, Margaret, and with his married daughter, Susan) recalls and reassesses his past life and present circumstances, dwelling upon and returning to particular relationships and incidents which occurred during his adolescence, his university days and his life thereafter. Of special significance is Webster’s account of schooldays and his friendship with Adrian Finn, a newcomer to his Central London school. The ‘story’ of his relationship with a former girlfriend, Veronica Ford, is also important. Both Adrian and Veronica figure large in Webster’s introspective narrative which periodically reappraises specific events - the suicide of a Sixth-former at his school, a single weekend visit to Veronica’s family home in Chislehurst and a nightime vigil to witness the Severn Boar at Minsterworth.
A small legacy and the bequest of a ‘document’, unaccountably left to Webster by Sarah Ford, Veronica’s mother, four decades after their only encounter, prompts him to contact and eventually meet up with Veronica. The outcome of this ‘reunion’ is uncomfortable for Webster and leads to a further mystery, the solution of which makes some sense of what has gone before but is somehow inadequate.
The book’s title is ‘appropriated’ from Frank Kermode’s literary-theoretical work, The Sense of an Ending (1967), and I wonder to what extent Barnes is playfully testing the reader’s notions of certain aspects of literary theory during the course of his novel. For instance, although Tony Webster seems openly to acknowledge the slippery unreliability of memory, one is drawn to question whether he is himself an ‘unreliable narrator’, or only partially ‘unreliable’, or, perhaps, is reliable but over-introspective and excessively self-obsessed. Also, the circuitous nature of the narrative is, to me, at times reminiscent of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier (1915), a tale told by Dowell, a classic example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ and I am not alone in asking whether Barnes’s use of Ford as Veronica’s surname might not also be something of a literary ‘tease’.
There is much in The Sense of an Ending which is entertaining and engaging (Webster's 'version' of his schoooldays is particularly effective - Barnes creates an impression not unlike that achieved by Alan Bennett in The History Boys) but, upon finishing the book, I felt a sense of something incomplete and inconclusive. It may be, however, that Barnes wrote this novel with a comment by George Eliot in mind. In a letter to her editor John Blackwood in 1857 she remarked:
Conclusions are the weak points of most authors but some of the fault lies in the very nature of a conclusion, which is at best a negation.
Having enjoyed the recent B.B.C. television two-part dramatisation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, I was prompted to revisit this novel which I first read in 1994, a year after its much acclaimed original publication. My re-reading has certainly proved both engaging and worthwhile.
I had forgotten the precision, the power and the poetry of Faulks’s prose and time had dimmed my memory of his erotic evocation of sexual passion and the chilling impact of his re-creation not only of the nightmare of trench warfare but also of his subtle exposition of the extent to which the realities of the Great War, as experienced by those fighting in Flanders and Normandy, remained opaque to many at home in Britain.
The nuances and enigmatic ‘strangeness’ of the novel’s central character, Stephen Wraysford, his affair with the attractive, unhappily married Isabelle Azaire, his responses to the processes, problems and politics associated with French textile manufacturing during 1910 and his later experiences of disease, destruction and death in the trenches between 1916 and 1918 are all effectively and affectingly conveyed.
Detailed portraits of Wraysford’s comrades, officers and men - Captain Weir, Jack Firebrace and many others - are vividly drawn, being physically, psychologically and emotionally well-realised.
A third element of the novel, involving an account of Elizabeth Benson’s efforts to learn more of the grandfather whom she never knew, is set between 1978 and1979. These shorter sections of Birdsong (Parts 3, 5 & 7) were omitted from the television adaptation and while I would not quibble with the ’cutting and splicing’ of Wraysford’s pre-war and wartime experiences - a film technique which worked successfully, I regretted the omission of the 1978/9 narrative. Not only did its absence necessitate a conclusion which, though powerful and faithful to the penultimate section of the novel, departed from its actual ‘uplifting’ ending but in excluding Elizabeth’s visits to the confused veteran Brennan, ’imprisoned’ in a Star and Garter Home in Southend for sixty years, an opportunity to foreground the plight of maimed and traumatised survivors of war was lost.
For a full appreciation of Birdsong, the text is undoubtedly best.
Sorry - apologies to those who regularly check out my ‘literary ramblings’ - it has been some time since I added any fresh comments to this page. Rather than laziness, this ‘neglect’ is because apart from Pulse, the most recent collection of short stories by Julian Barnes which , on the whole, I found to be both engaging and poignant, I have been somewhat disappointed in the fiction I have recently encountered.
Having eagerly anticipated Edward St Aubyn’s At Last, I felt that though, as one would expect of this author, it was stylishly written, witty and cleverly constructed, the novel somehow failed to thoroughly engage, at times seeming to verge on the ‘dreary’. At Last, which would appear to be the final ‘episode’ in the author’s tales of the dysfunctional and rather alarming Melrose family, has been much praised by others, however, and so perhaps its funereal aspects and ‘dark’ humour simply didn’t match my mood at the time of reading.
Unfortunately, other novels I’ve looked at recently were so disappointing that I prefer not to mention them here.
Have not yet got round to The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize- winning novel, but intend to read it shortly. The stories in his Pulse are varied and variable. There are three historical pieces which were interesting but far more engaging were other contemporary stories such as ‘East Wind’, ‘Marriage Lines’, ‘Gardener’s World’ and ‘Pulse’. These, I thought, were not only sensitively written but also achieved a level of ‘connection’ with real and present problems and preoccupations which many encounter day by day. I was somewhat less moved by the four sections, ’At Phil and Joanna’s’. Written in dialogue, these pieces ‘recording’ ongoing dinner-party conversations between a group of comfortably-off, late middle-aged friends reminded me of (and deliberately parodied, perhaps) those Bremner, Bird and Fortune sketches of the metropolitan middle-class milieu ‘at table’ but somehow lacked their satirical sparkle and ‘edginess’. Nevertheless, Pulse is a worthwhile read.
Early last year, purely by chance, I came across two novels by an author of whom I had not previously heard and thought both books rather interesting.
Although neither novel is without a few flaws, I found both The Outcast (2008) and Small Wars (2009) by Sadie Jones most engaging.
Each of these novels is set in the 1950’s and convincingly evokes that post-W. War II period.
The Outcast concerns the past and present problems of a troubled young man, Lewis Aldridge, recently released from prison. This novel gradually reveals the repressions, restrictions and hypocrisy which simultaneously shaped and also often lay concealed beneath the ostensibly ‘respectable’ behaviour of well-off upper/middle-class families during the 1950s.
Small Wars deals not only with the personally problematic husband/wife/ family/professional relationships of an army family posted in Cyprus at the time of the troubles there in the ‘50s but also, and most significantly in relation to current ‘action’ in Afghanistan, with the traumatic experiences of an officer striving to deal with the brutal ( and sometimes brutalising) effects of violent actions towards, and by, the indigenous ‘enemy’.
Both are novels which have been, perhaps, somewhat overlooked by major critics.
Am looking forward to reading Hilary Mantel’s sequels to Wolf Hall. The first, Bring up the Bodies, concerning the demise of Anne Boleyn, will be published in May but I am not sure when The Mirror and the Light, Mantel’s second sequel which will follow Thomas Cromwell’s career up to his execution in 1540, will appear in print.
The ‘Rambler’ himself has only recently got around to reading Wolf Hall (which I reviewed some time ago * see archive) and so I may persuade him to add a comment to this page in the near future.
* Click here for the Rambler's comment!
(These pages are contributed by Glenis Hesk, a resident of Cold Ashby, who was, for several years, a part time tutor for Leicester University at their centre in Northampton where she taught courses on the novel.
Glenis designed author-based and thematic courses involving not only classic works by nineteenth, early and mid-twentieth century novelists but also fiction by contemporary writers, including Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Kuzuo Ishiguro, Susan Hill and Kate Atkinson.
She remains an ‘avid reader’ and many friends and former students often ask her to recommend and comment upon new and recently published novels - this has prompted your editor to persuade her to contribute her ‘ramblings’ to this site.)