An Avid Reader’s Ramblings
The Avid Reader is no longer adding new contributions.
However, as long as her pages are still receiving visits , The Rambler will continue to make these available.
I very much enjoyed Catherine O’Flynn’s third novel, Mr. Lynch’s Holiday.
Throughout the book this author’s subtle skill in achieving convincing realisations of period, place and character is evident. Also, O’Flynn’s light yet sure touch regarding the employment of both the symbolic and the ironic is admirable, as is her adept interweaving of past ‘histories’ into the narrative’s ‘present’.
Mr. Lynch’s Holiday is located mainly, though not entirely, in Lomaverde, a Spanish development of villas, constructed prior to the economic downturn of 2008, which is steadily falling into a state of disrepair. This ‘village’ is peopled by a group of increasingly disenchanted expats, including Eamonn Lynch who, with his partner, Laura, has optimistically opted to move to Spain in order to write a novel - a task which, for various reasons, he is unable to complete.
Dermot Lynch, a widower taking his very first foreign holiday arrives in Lomaverde, seemingly ‘out of the blue’, to visit his son. Quickly, Dermot perceives the run-down condition of the place as well as the unsettled state not only of Eamonn but also of many of Lomaverde’s inhabitants, forced by circumstances to cling together for company. Quietly, kindly and without fuss, Dermot attends to the practical and less tangible ‘problems’ which he encounters, somehow exerting a healing influence.
Via Dermot’s memories, O’Flynn gradually reveals the background story of his life as an Irish catholic immigrant driving buses in Birmingham where he lived with his wife and son on a council estate, newly built in the 1970s. Details concerning Dermot’s early years in Ireland, his marriage and Eamonn’s schooldays in Birmingham are seamlessly sewn into the novel’s ’story’ and I found these backstories particularly engaging.
The ‘present’ narrative of this novel occasionally seems to lack pace and in this respect is, perhaps, a little less satisfying than O’Flynn’s previous two books ( What Was Lost and The News Where You Are - see Avid Reader‘s Archive).
Nevertheless, I would suggest that Mr. Lynch’s Holiday is certainly well worth reading.
Having enjoyed Sadie Jones’s first two novels, The Outcast and Small Wars (see Avid Reader’s Previous Ramblings), I was quite keen to read her third book, The Uninvited Guests, which was published in 2012.
Critical reviews had indicated that with this novel Jones had moved away from the nuanced realism of the 1950’s which she had successfully achieved in her earlier fiction and had ventured into a different realm regarding genre - ie. a tale set in 1912 involving a run-down country house, a somewhat angst-ridden family and the supernatural. I was interested to discover how well this transition had been managed.
Unfortunately, though others have found the plot and recreation of period detail of The Uninvited Guests engaging, despite its various merits, I was somewhat unimpressed. I could not decide whether it was, in places, simply over-written (too many similes & too much repetition) or was deliberately intended to be a pastiche piece - if so, then it seems rather less convincing than others of this type. Perhaps, since its cover and blurb refers to the novel as a supernatural and a sinister drama and its rather ‘stagey’ conclusion is immediately followed by ‘CURTAIN’, the author conceived it as an eight-chapter version of an old-fashioned three-act play (?)
Soon after their arrival at the remote Sterne on the evening of Emerald Torrington‘s birthday party, this reader discerned that the ‘guests’ of the title (and one in particular) were not what they seemed and, though some of the ‘action’ thereafter is both moving and disturbing as well as quite humorous, felt that the novel often tilted towards the tedious.
In The Outcast and Small Wars Sadie Jones demonstrated her undoubted literary talent and one hopes that she will soon return to tackle more serious subjects and that The Uninvited Guests was just an ‘experiment’.
At last, I have finished reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life - a complex, cleverly constructed, beautifully written novel which I found intriguing, absorbing, occasionally disturbing and sometimes very amusing.
A lengthy, challenging novel which foregrounds itself as a fiction, Life After Life is ambitious in its structure and, as one might expect of this author, the reader is required to suspend disbelief in order to fully engage with the text.
The notion of ‘déjà vu’ is explored as Atkinson offers several alternative narratives of the life of the novel’s protagonist, Ursula Todd, born (or stillborn?) on 11th February 1910. It would seem that the ‘stories’ of Ursula’s life change according to the choices she makes. However, one is aware that this being a fiction, Ursula’s ‘choices’ are attributed to her by the author.
Life After Life is also a sophisticated, non-linear version of a ‘family saga’ which portrays the lives of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, their five children, servants and neighbours, as well as of Hugh’s ‘difficult’, feisty sister, Izzie.
The time-span of the novel covers several decades - 1910 to 1967 - and Atkinson convincingly depicts not only changes regarding details pertaining to everyday domestic life during this period but also both the major and more subtle shifts which occurred in social structures and class and gender-related attitudes . The impact of significant historical events upon individuals’ lives is also effectively evoked (eg. the persuasive realisation of Blitz-riven London where Ursula is involved in rescue work is equally as moving as that of Sarah Waters in The Night Watch - more so, perhaps).
Atkinson’s ability to portray not only the ‘reality’ of particular historical periods but also a meaningful sense of place is outstanding. In this novel the reader ‘experiences’ semi-rural and urban England and is transported abroad, most notably to Germany before and during World War II.
Also admirable, is this author’s expertise in creating believable ‘people’ - a vast cast of major and minor players appears in this book - and often, because Atkinson’s ‘ear’ for dialogue / conversation is so acute, their words betray their characters.
Life After Life is, I suggest, both compelling and demanding - some of the classical, literary and historical allusions may possibly need cross-referencing in order to fully appreciate their relevance. Though at times a little disconcerting, this novel is, nevertheless, one which I would not like not to have read and one which I intend to revisit.
*There is a guestbook comment on this review.
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.
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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.
(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.)