Category Archives: Women Writers Challenge

The Wallcreeper – Nell Zink

Nell Zink’s writing is a bit left field, her storytelling quirky.  Reading this book was a bit like seeing something in my peripheral vision and not quite being able to make out what it was.  If you like oddness in fiction, then maybe you’ll like this.  As I read it, I wasn’t convinced I was enjoying it much, only after, once I’d put it down and moved on to something else did I realise I appreciate it exactly because it’s not straightforward.

Administrator Tiff and scientist/twitcher/dubstep DJ Stephen have known each other all of 3 weeks when they decide to get married.  They are selfish characters and their self absorption doesn’t change just because they are now a couple.  The only momentary period of unity coincides with the pair nursing the titular Wallcreeper back to health having struck it while out driving, causing them to crash and putting Tiff in hospital for a couple of days.  

This book is Tiff’s account of their chaotic romp through Europe moving from Eco cause to Green scheme in an effort to find personal meaning and yet it’s all done at such a superficial level you can’t help but think of them as slightly pathetic environmental activists.  Tiff makes no apology for her half-hearted efforts to do something meaningful with her life. She admits wanting to avoid paid work for as long as she can get away with and is happy sponging off Stephen.  They both have numerous affairs and make no attempts to hide them from each other, it’s all very disrespectful.  They lurch from venture to venture with no real plan, spiralling further out of control as though being together compounds their ability and need to self destruct. 

I couldn’t work out whether Tiff was a lazy, wet blanket of a woman or whether, a bit like Chris in I Love Dick, she was an ardent feminist by just getting on with what she pleased, because she could.  The Wallcreeper is less intellectually challenging than I Love Dick, yet I was constantly reminded of Dick as I read it; the two books are very similar in tone, capturing female insecurity and determination in a comparable first person voice.  This book is strongest though when Tiff and Stephen debate their existence. These are often witty, dry observations and well crafted sentences or paragraphs giving us a glimpse of Zink’s clear ability with words.  My gripe is that these are few and far between and over too soon.  I didn’t love this book, I didn’t dislike it either.  I think the problem is that I’m not entirely convinced I knew what was going on.  On the whole I’m fine with having questions when I finish a book,  I’m just not that comfortable with feeling like I’ve missed the point but I defend Zink’s right to craft a narrative that leaves me wondering what the hell it was all about.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Shall we talk about love?  I think we should. First, I’ve not shown my blog a lot of love this year and it deserves a bit of attention (don’t we all?!).  Second, I’ve heard enough vitriol, heated words, outright hatred, disproportionate and nasty outrage this year to last me a life time, so, as the year draws to a close I want to reflect on a book I read in August that had a profound affect on me and made me think about the nature of love and friendship on a level I’d not pondered before.  I’ve regularly thought about this book since then; it’s been a perfect foil to all the grimness of 2016.

There are few books capable of initiating spontaneous chest-heave sobbing and huge fat tears from me, but Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent did.  Without warning, it just started, 2/3rds of the way through my first reading. It was five minutes of that really uncontrollable type of crying; when it was over I felt lighter and a huge sense of relief.  The weird thing is, this is not a sad book.  In fact, the opposite.   My reaction was unexpected and has allowed me to cement ideas about things that are important to me.

Told over 12 months, The Essex Serpent is a story set at the very end of the Victorian era. It tells of recently widowed Cora Seaborne, who is seeking change and adventure.  She moves with her son, Francis and companion, Martha, to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter, bordered by the estuary marshes.  Here she meets the Reverand William Ransome, a man desperate to dissuade his parishioners from their superstitions about the local legend of a huge serpent supposed to haunt the local waterways and blamed for disappearances and strange goings on.  The parishioners’ superstitions have been whipped to almost hysterical proportions and Will Ransome is determined to use reason to explain away the sightings of this horrific creature and calm his flock, restore order and peace to this sleepy corner.

The search for the serpent is the frame on which Sarah Perry deftly hangs the rest of the plot in her novel of ideas and deep themes.  The characters go about their eventful year and through their interlocking relationships she introduces and discusses concepts relating to religion and science, politics and society all wrapped in a story delicately balanced on the love and friendships between a beautifully described cast of characters, believable in their actions and motivations because they are not so different from us.  It is not overly sentimental, yet emotionally evocative.

William and Cora are a pair who, on paper, shouldn’t be well suited.  They have a few things in common and there is a lot they differ on.  They debate and argue, they disagree and make up, they sulk and relent, she teases him and he scolds her.  Yet undeniable to them both is the fact that the connection and admiration is instant and heartfelt, intellectual at first and developing into physical attraction.  To Will, this connection is a mystery and he fights it.  He is married to his childhood sweetheart.  He never contemplated he could possibly have room for anyone else in his heart but his Stella.  A lot of thinking and walking brings him to the realisation that he can and he does.  He loves Cora and he bravely, beautifully, lyrically declares it to her because he knows she loves him too.  Honesty is the best option.  As I’m not an award-winning writer, I cannot do justice to the way Perry (who is an award-winning writer) reveals this burgeoning relationship to us.  I make it sound like sentimental mush, it’s not.  It’s exactly as I imagine something like this happening; with a lot of angst, a whole heap of confusion and anxiety.  When Cora runs back to London and avoids Will by not responding to his letters she has these bewildered thoughts:

Will’s letters are prized, read often, unanswered.  How can she respond?  She buys a postcard…and writes I WISH YOU WERE HERE, but what good did it ever do to speak one’s mind?  In his absence – the world grows dull and blunted; there’s no longer anything in it to delight or surprise.  Then she’s struck by her own folly – to feel so dreary because she can’t speak to some Essex parson with whom she has nothing in common! – it’s absurb; her pride revolts against it.  In the end, it comes more or less down to this; she does not write, because she wants to.

As a reader, this behaviour makes no sense – they love each other, why don’t they just sort it out? – because Perry’s version is closer to real life, that’s why…human frailties, vulnerabilities and insecurities stop us from pursuing the very thing we want the most, driving us to upset and offend albeit perhaps not deliberately.  Will is disquieted at Cora’s silence – it confuses him.

Will and Cora’s intellectual and passionate love is not the only form of friendship Perry explores in The Essex Serpent.  We get familial love, platonic love, unrequited love and childhood friendship.  Cora’s friend Luke, a surgeon working at the cutting edge of medicine, is horrified to witness her blossoming friendship with Will.  He takes comfort in his work, but when Cora rejects him and disaster strikes at work, he feels there is nothing left to live for – though there is friendship.  Will’s daughter never forgets her missing friend from school – the elation they feel at finding each other again made me glow inside.  Cora’s companion, Martha, is a striking and astounding character; obsessed with improving housing for the poor, she campaigns like her life depends on it, she befriends a man in need and they agree to live as man and wife but free of the shackles the ceremony bestows.  She is politically aware and has marxist leanings – she is a kick-ass awesome, no-nonsense, emancipated, bright woman who knows her own mind and won’t be dictated to.

This book is about grand ideas and the themes of love and friendship, but it is ultimately a book about acceptance.  Acceptance of reason over superstition, rational thought over doctrine and vice versa, medical intervention over waiting for fate to take its course.  Acceptance of your station in life or not.  Acceptance of change.  Acceptance of intellect over beauty, accepting when your heart overrules your head.

So, why the tears?  Ok, well.  The truth is, Sarah Perry made me think about the sort of friend I am.  I was found to be scoring mostly Cs in the “Are you a good friend?” multiple-choice Graziaesque self-inflicted questionnaire i.e. could do better. For me, showing someone you care about them is more about little things than grand gestures; remembering a conversation from months back and referring to it, messaging them just so they know you are thinking of them, listening when they are being needy without offering advice, being honest when needed and reliable when necessary; I realised, I probably wasn’t doing very well at any of this.  Time to improve.  I’ve got some amazing friends.  As my life gets busier, I have seen less of some people whose company I really enjoy. Some are more dependable than others, some I’ve wondered whether they are truly committed to me as a friend and sometimes it can be easier not to make the effort.  Since that day in August, I’ve made more of an effort to be the friend I want to be.  Then, yesterday, I read a blog post about being positive and a line stood out:

Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.

And having spent months thinking and worrying about what I could possibly write that could describe how I feel about The Essex Serpent, it finally all fell into place.

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 2


Reimagining Shakespeare: Jeanette Winterson

The second event I attended at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival couldn’t have been more different from the intimate chat with Pat Barker.  The session with Jeanette Winterson to showcase her take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, was more of a performance than a talk. She appeared in the vast assembly room at Cheltenham town hall, and the place was packed to the rafters.


She stepped onto the stage to Cher’s If I could turn back time, it didn’t really feel like Winterson’s style if I’m honest, but I went with it.  She started by saying a few words to explain some basics about the The Winter’s Tale. Written late in Shakespeare’s career and life, he had become tired of the violence towards women in his plays. The Winter’s Tale ends with 3 women, very much alive, left standing on the stage.  Shakespeare also dared to feature magic in this play, which had been outlawed by the new King, punishable by death.  Clearly, a new direction for the bard.  Before starting a lengthy reading from The Gap of Time she showed us a glimpse of what drove her to re-imagine Shakespeare and this play in particular.  “We go to things we love for reasons which are embarrassingly obvious. The Winter’s Tale has a foundling at its heart – I am also an orphan”

Winterson read a significant piece from her book, accompanied at times by music, sound effects and film clips.  It was very poetic and lyrical, but I think this has much to do with the lilt of her voice and bold delivery.  There were two memorable quotes from the reading (these may not be entirely accurate – I was writing as fast as I could!).

You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow

What is memory anyway? Memory is a painful dispute with the past.

I have to say, I think she read a bit too much, I wondered if we were going to get to hear her talk at all.  But then we did and I remembered how much and why I admire her.

Members of the audience fired questions at her and she delivered flawless, full and witty answers without hesitation.  She was eloquent, forthright and confident in her ability and in her delivery.

Asked about how a writer goes about reimagining Shakespeare she said “the thing easily updates itself” as though it were a breeze.  She said later in his career, Shakespeare became interested in the notion of forgiveness and second chances.  She told us about Freud’s thoughts on time where he suggests that everyone should go back to fix things gone wrong in their past.  She quoted Mandela; “You can’t forgive and forget, you can only do one.” Winterson explained that Shakespeare explored these ideas in The Winter’s Tale and she has become fascinated with them as she’s got older.

Asked whether she remembered the first story she every wrote, she admitted to not being archivally minded.  She throws a lot away or chucks it on the fire.  She said her background was oral; words start in the mouth before hitting the page.  She stands up to write, speaks it aloud and then types it up on a typewriter.

She told us about a fascination she’s had with a story she read years ago.  It featured a dream poet Gerard Lebruine had about a vast and majestic angel who fell to earth landing in a tiny Parisian courtyard.  As the angel fell, he folded in his wings.  He was trapped. If he opened his wings to escape, he would destroy the buildings around him, if he remained, he would die.  This imagery presents an age-old dichotomy; if to be free means destroying everything around you, what can you do? Winterson told us she has been obsessed with this image for some time and had to write about it to get it out of her psyche.  She finally managed to get it into this book.

She first read The Winter’s Tale when she was 16 and trying to find answers about herself.  But reading is not static, it is chemical and dynamic, so when she read the play again as an adult it spoke to her differently.  She realised that Shakespeare was a pirate as well as pioneer.  “He went about nicking stuff and bolting it together to create new shapes…Shakespeare is much more fluid and volatile than we all remember.” This gave her the confidence to adapt the play because… “we’re all just trying to tell a story for now.  Creativity is always new; we need newness…if literature is about anything it is about finding a way forward.”

I’ve been fascinated by Winterston since I saw her interviewed on TV.  This latest encounter has only made me admire her more.  We added The Gap of Time to our bookclub TBR list.

Next up – Kate Atkinson

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 1

Jackson Brodie and Me

Unfortunately I don’t have the time to write my thoughts on the four brilliant Kate Atkinson books featuring her private investigator, Jackson Brodie, so I thought I’d write about him instead trying to keep to my “10 sentences or less” rule!  His back story and antics are the central feature of all four books, so at the end of this rambling brain dump you should have a better idea of how his character complements the plot of each volume and helps bring the stories off the page.

Jackson Brodie; former soldier and police officer, private investigator of marital and other every day misdemeanors is an enigma to himself and this is what makes him so attractive to a reader like me.  He is a character full of contradictions.  He is tender, yet grumpy; he has a keen sense of social justice, yet makes some dubious decisions; he is able to sniff out the bad eggs, yet often doesn’t see personal trouble coming.  He can be irritatingly dim in that respect.  Jackson goes about his investigation of the sometimes gruesome, sometimes odd crimes with an unwilling intensity that only someone brilliant at what they do can.    For all these contradictions and especially the mastery with which he begrudgingly plies his trade, he is utterly adorable.  I want to mother him and sleep with him at the same time – an odd situation mirroring the paradox of the character.

Although I am writing this primarily about Atkinson’s main character, I wouldn’t want you to think these are books without substance, self-indulgently developing Brodie into the swoontastic anti-hero he is, because that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The world Jackson inhabits is real and vivid on the page, the cases intricately developed and, unlike other crime fiction, the stories are often wrapped up through chance connection or coincidence  – sound cliché? It isn’t.  So my advice is, go seek out these books as an alternative to run-of-the-mill crime fiction and I dare you not to fall in love with Jackson Brodie.

I’m writing this ahead of attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival where I will be seeing Kate Atkinson talk about her newest book A God in Ruins

p.s. I broke the 10 sentence rule with this one – but only just!

Other Kate Atkinson stuff

Clay – Melissa Harrison


We are the clay that grew tall.

When I was younger, my Dad taught me how to read an OS map.  Not just what the symbols in the legend mean, but how to read the landscape and compare it to the features on the map so you can easily find your way.  We would stand on top of a hill, holding the map, looking at geography like valleys, rivers, villages, roads, fields and woods, then look at the map to see how these features are represented.  He must have taught me well, as recently while out walking with some friends and paying little attention to where we were (because we were chatting) we realised we were slightly lost.  I took the map and had a look around.  It wasn’t long before I saw where we were by finding the field sloping away in front of us, the copse behind us and the fork in the path ahead.  I think he started me off with my obsession of “checking the map”.  I don’t own a SatNav, I like ticking off the towns and villages as we travel, I like to know where we are in relation to somewhere else (Mr FH will be sniggering at this as he thinks I am bad with directions, but that it different to being able to read a map).  It is knowledge that had become part of me, it is some of the “old way” passed on.  When my son’s school is closed for council elections soon, Dad is taking us both out for more map reading skills and therefore handing down the knowledge to another generation.

Melissa Harrison’s book, Clay, is not about maps, but in a similar way to my map story, it is about knowledge concerning our natural world passed down through generations.  It is about noticing what surrounds us and being aware of natural habitats and the seasons that dictate the lives of plants and animals.  Her story of TC, a boy from an inner city estate and largely ignored by his mother, Jozef a lonely immigrant worker, Sophia an elderly woman protective of the triangle of park outside her flat and Daisy her precocious granddaughter, is beautifully woven with the changing seasons in the park and on the common.  She integrates the changes in the seasons, the movement of animals through the urban landscape with changes in the characters’ lives as some struggle to survive, others struggle to understand or be accepted.

I’ve lived in a city and can imagine the pathetic strip of grass and trees complete with graffitied benches and overflowing bins used mainly as a thoroughfare from one road to another, desire paths weaving across the turf.  I’ve lived in a place where you recognise the faces of those regularly coming and going, not knowing who they are, but assuming things about their lives based on what you see and who you see them with.  Jozef and Sophia both notice TC wandering the park and common on his own, often late at night.  Daisy notices him playing and wants to join in.  Jozef notices Sophia shuffling along the high street, she notices him sitting alone on the benches.  Their lives are linked by their proximity but they all have their own struggles.

The main thrust of the story is inter-generational friendship and how it can help ease the loneliness the sometimes comes from living in a city.  Jozef knows a lot about the land, he lost his farm in Poland but cannot forget what he knows.  He befriends TC who finds solace in the park and common after his father leaves.  It is a very sweet friendship based on knowledge.  TC wants to learn, Jozef has knowledge to offer.  This boosts his confidence having felt useless ever since arriving in the UK.  Naturally, such a relationship is suspicious to some.  Similarly, Sophia has knowledge she is willing to share with her granddaughter, but it is not as willingly accepted or wanted.  TC, Jozef and Sophia combat their loneliness by focussing on the changes in the landscape, how the trees change with the seasons, how the birds’ activities are dependant on the time of year and how the animals resident in the park strive to complete their circle of life.

It is the beautifully described passages on nature that make this book a pleasure and easy to read.  I wasn’t sure where the story was leading, but it didn’t really matter, I enjoyed walking through the seasons with the characters.  I have to admit to not being completely convinced that TC would have gone almost completely unnoticed by his mother, social services and his school for the best part of a year.   I was surprised that TCs father showed up out of nowhere and bemused at Daisy and her mother’s change of heart about Sophia.  I felt Jozef and TCs story was more believable and engaging on the whole.  But these are small quibbles because Melissa’s writing is lyrical and absorbing, she has told this story from a unique perspective and done a good job.  Her love of nature and landscape comes through in her writing without being too preachy.  It has made me think about my green space.  Despite being always on the lookout for my garden birds I am being more observant of the changes in my garden and how the inhabitants use it.  I’ve even downloaded a birdsong app to my phone!

I am hoping to meet Melissa Harrison this evening at a World Book Night event at Guildford Library.  I look forward to chatting to her about Clay and seeing what exciting things she brings along for her show and tell.

PS I think I was even more engaged with this story as the names Sophia and Daisy feature in my close family.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

imgres-3Last night I watched the second half of Out of Sight, having not been able to stay up to watch it the other night.  It is a great film and testament to Elmore Leonard’s ability to write cinematic stories.  It was all down hill for Jennifer Lopez after this film, she has never done anything since to match it, whereas George Clooney has gone from strength to strength.  The soundtrack also does it for me.  The original score by David Holmes is beautiful.  There is a scene where Foley and Karen meet in a hotel bar and talk about fate and what might have happened had they met under different circumstances.  Foley says:

It’s like seeing someone for the first time… like you could be passing on the street, and you look at each other and for a few seconds… there’s this kind of a recognition… like you both know something. The next moment, the person’s gone, and it’s too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it, because it was there, and you let it go, and you think to yourself, “What if I had stopped? If I had said something?”

I’m really interested in that notion of fate, I love a story where one decision, one action can affect the course of your life.  Ian McEwan does this sort of thing really well; what if Robbie had destroyed the letter to Cecilia in Atonement?  And then there is the age-old philosophical question; what if you could live your life over and over until you got it right and maybe undo your mistakes?

Kate Atkinson explores this question in Life After Life (at last, you’re all thinking, she’s got to the point!!).  Ursula Todd dies moments after being born on a snowy night in 1910.  She immediately tries her life again with a small change in circumstances and manages to survive a little longer.  The early chapters are short as Ursula negotiates her way through several failed attempts to stay alive.  Each death results in a small change, sometimes she learns and tweaks things she has influence over to stay alive for a little longer, sometimes circumstances around her are different that lead to her survival.  As she grows older the chapters are longer, she shows caution, but is sometimes also willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of changing things next time around.  It takes her some time to get past certain obstacles and find a route to adulthood but as she says “practice makes perfect.”  She negotiates her lives through different husbands and different countries, learning and changing small elements.

As a little girl she has fearful moments and worries about things in her day-to-day life, she has a funny feeling that she remembers things before they have happened.  Her mother sends her to a psychiatrist who talks to her about reincarnation but I was never really sure Ursula knew what was happening to her on a conscious level or whether her subconscious was acting as a guide to alter small things to get a different result.

That would have been quite a different life, perhaps a better one.  Of course, there was no way of knowing these things.

There is a moment where she feels exhausted, as though she were 100 years old, and she may well have lived for 100 years at that point.  As the book progresses it seems as though her conscious self understands more of what her subconscious is telling her and she begins to plan how things will end up and how she can change things for next time.  She comes to accept her fate.

Whatever happens to you, embrace it, the good and the bad equally.  Death is just one more thing to be embraced.

I’ve enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s writing for many years.  I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet back to back.  More recently I’ve been amused by the exploits of Jackson Brodie.  There is a charm and underlying wit to her writing which is repeated in Life After Life.  But what makes this book as exciting to read as her early work is the sensitive way she’s dealt with this grand theme of fate.  Although Atkinson works in the classic “what would you do if you could go back in time” act, which might be a turn off for some, she tackles this theme with everyday, sometimes unremarkable events, that could occur in all of our lives.  Using ideas all readers can relate to, renders the scenario more believable than had Ursula tried to change the course of history every time she was reborn.

Atkinson is also daring with the structure.  It is a brave writer who rewrites whole scenes with only small changes knowing that the writing and story is good enough to keep the reader’s attention.  I love these rewritten scenes, watching out for the alternative actions, some of which are so subtle and nuanced it requires attention.  It is the sort of book that leaves you thinking about life and the decisions you make.  I spent days wondering which of my own decisions, if different, might have changed the course of my history.  It was a joy to read and has been lovely to discuss with other readers and bloggers, it’s felt like being part of an important publishing event.  Life After Life has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.  The shortlist is announced on Tuesday and I’m positive she will be on it.

Thanks to Alex in Leeds for sending me her review copy as part of her Literary Blog Hop

Foreign Bodies – Cynthia Ozick

Foreign Bodies tells the story of 48 year old Bea Nightingale (changed from Nachtigal because she doesn’t think the working class young men she teaches will be able to pronounce it) and various members of her family almost estranged from her.  Bea’s brother Marvin asks her to help find his missing son believed to be in Paris while she is there on a holiday.  She fails to unearth him and so starts a tale of family interactions which are often ugly, characterised by deception, hidden agendas and unspoken dreams.  Not only are members of the family at odds with each other, their expectations often opposed, but the settings of 1950s Paris and the USA also bring into focus the post-war differences of these nations.  Paris is where refugees from all over Europe have come to congregate after the war, trying to figure out their futures.  Educated people, previously in positions of respectability, reduced to menial work and poverty. Paris is where Marvin’s son and eventually his daughter seek refuge from his stifling hold on them and their futures.  Bea herself finds refuge in Paris, although she dislikes it, it takes her away from the disappointments of her life; a broken marriage, years of stagnation as a teacher in the same school, no real friends or lovers to speak of.  Ozick gives the impression of a post-war shroud hanging over Paris making it stale and shabby. Bea gets very uptight with its foreignness.

“Here in Paris, what was it to be mad about Proust….or bookishly familiar with history and kings and revolutionaries and philosophers?  It counted for nothing when you were puzzling over how to get from the IXth to the VIIth on an unexceptional Tuesday in the middle of your unexceptional life, and when you were feeling dismissed by the conscientious weekday faces streaming past, faces that had mundane tasks and were set on exactly what they were and how they were to be done.  She could not understand this city, it was an enigma, or else it was Paris that comprehended whatever passed through its arteries, and it was she, the interloper, who was the enigma”

In contrast, the USA is full of possibility.  Her brother has done well in business and has a large property with a pool.  Her ex-husband is doing well as a composer of music for Hollywood movies, an industry on the up.  He too lives in a large property in L.A.  The sheen is only surface deep with these two, it hides personal failures and the embarrassments of a wife supposedly gone mad, a (supposed) drop-out son, failed marriages and potential not realised.

The narrative switches between family members telling their part of the story.  Ozick’s skill is in providing each character with a distinctive voice and part to play in what is a pretty uncomplicated story.  None of the characters are particularly likeable, they all have failings.  Sometimes it is difficult to like a book where the characters don’t endear themselves, but then again, this is a story of human and family interactions, which can often be unsavoury.  Familial expectation and responsibility is an underlying theme in Foreign Bodies and it did make me think about how suffocating that can be sometimes.

I can imagine Foreign Bodies not being to everyone’s taste.  It is emotionally descriptive but the writing is superb and incredibly measured.  A couple of people I know who also read it said they felt she used 10 words where she could have used 1.  I don’t agree.  You don’t spend four years writing a book only for 90% of it to be superfluous.  I think every word has been agonised over to ensure maximum emphasis.  There is a passage not far from the end, in chapter 45 and too long for me to transcribe, where Bea attempts to exorcise herself of the hold her ex-husband has on her.  This passage is beautiful, you really feel her anguish.

Foreign Bodies is a book about exile.  Characters are exiled from their families, their homelands, their emotions and their wished-for futures.  It takes some effort to read it, but the superlative writing is reward enough.

Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

I am lucky to belong to a bookclub made up of bright, intelligent, well-informed friends.  We often have what I think are erudite conversations about the books we read.   We all have our differing opinions and points of view and none of us is shy of saying what we think.  I am grateful after every meeting for learning things about our books that I may never have noticed on my own.  After catching up with each other and talking about holidays, birthdays, children, jobs and generally putting our worlds to right, we recently had the most fabulous discussion about the Orange Prize shortlisted Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.  It’s not surprising really, as it is a remarkable book with a unique subject by a writer showing real promise with her second book.

The tale switches between Paris and Berlin during the early years of World War 2 and Berlin and Poland in 1992.  The story is one of friendship, betrayal, guilt and memory all relating to a group of young jazz musicians coping with the rise of fascism in 1930’s Berlin.  As Hitler’s power took hold, jazz was banned and it invariably moved underground.

“…Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines..”

The story focuses particularly on 3 of the musicians, Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones and Hieronymous Falk (Hiero).  These three are particularly peculiar in late 30’s Berlin, as they are black; Sid and Chip are American, Hiero is German.

“..He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rheinlander.  Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil.  But he German-born, sure.  And if his face wasn’t of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good..”

After a run-in with the authorities, Sid, Hiero and Chip escape to Paris, where, after many weeks of waiting and trying to keep the music alive, the Nazis occupy France and something very dreadful occurs to split the trio.   In 1992, Sid, who is the narrator, tries to make sense of the whole episode and how it has affected his life and those around him.

I’ve really tried hard with the above description not to give away too much of the plot.  It is difficult not to write more, but what would be the point of ruining it for you!

We discussed the plot in detail and were all agreed that it made for interesting reading, certainly providing a different perspective on the war years. We talked about how it wasn’t generally known that black Germans were persecuted, but this wasn’t such a surprise for me.  I started reading the book while in Berlin, and persuaded Mr Fictionhabit to check out some of the landmarks and streets mentioned in the book, luckily all very close to our hotel.  But while we were there we also went to Gedaenkstaette Deutscher Widerstand (Memorial to German Resistance).  This, by the way, is an excellent museum.  Free and with a brilliant English audiotour.  What I found interesting was the extent of German resistance to the Third Reich, but I have to admit my dismay at learning about those sections of society abused by the Nazis but largely forgotten by history.  There were so many persecuted minority groups working against the regime – if they had pooled their resources they may have been able to achieve something.   These groups included, communists, homosexuals, Romany gypsys, Christians, members of the labour movement and youth groups.  There was even a mention for Herr & Frau Hampel who were the inspiration for Alone in Berlin.  Generally speaking, however, the main premise of the book isn’t well known and therefore makes interesting reading.  Edugyan, must have done significant research for this book and it has paid off, as it feels so real.

As you will have noticed from the extracts above, the book is written in Jazz vernacular.  Some of my bookclub friends were a bit worried about this ahead of reading the book, but we all agreed, it wasn’t too difficult to get to grips with.  We also recently read On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  While discussing that book we talked about the tempo of the narrative echoing freestyle jazz (yes, really, we did!).  We had a very similar discussion about Half Blood Blues.  The book has periods of high energy and periods of lull and becomes a bit dense where nothing much happens.  One of my very clever bookclub friends pointed out that maybe the vernacular and the changes in tempo were deliberate, to mirror the mood of jazz music, which speeds up, then mellows, builds to a crescendo, lulls, has staccato and fluid moments side by side.  This comment inspired another friend to mention that there were at least 3 heart-breaking moments in the book (honestly, tear-inducing), and the narrative seems to build to these points, mirroring different movements in a piece of music.  Once this was all mentioned, I could see and understand it.  Oh, to be so clever!

We also discussed how unlikable the main character was, how reprehensible and unforgivable some of his behaviour was.  I was one of those who felt very little sympathy with this character during his younger years.  But I was made to re-think when someone pointed out that his behaviour was very characteristic of most young men.  Desperate to find their place in the group, yearning for influence, showing off in front of women and people in powerful positions, not supporting each other for fear of losing face or position in the group, constantly competing against each other and never discussing their hopes and fears.  This revelation went some way to explain the behaviour although not to excuse it.  We were by now completely staggered by Edugyan’s skill at writing so proficiently about male relationships.

Half Blood Blues is by no means a fully polished book.  There are details which we were all dissatisfied with, these included issues of historical and geographical accuracy and a weaker ending than we’d anticipated. We were however all impressed and agreed that Edugyan shows real promise as a writer.

One of our members rebelled against Half Blood Blues and instead read the Orange Prize winner, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  She spoke about it with such affection and admiration that a few of us have been persuaded to give it a go over the summer.  It is possible that we may soon lose this member of our bookgroup as she makes a life changing move to the Isle of Skye (although bookclub by Skype has been talked of!) and it will be sad to see her go.  I console myself with the knowledge that I bonded with her and my other bookclubbers initially over books but over the 8 years we have been meeting to discuss books, we have become more than just bookclub buddies.  I am proud to call these astute, knowledgeable and articulate women, my friends.

The London Train – Tessa Hadley

A while back I mused on not reading many modern books written by women and challenged myself to read at least 6 books this year by female writers.  This is the first book that falls into that category.  I received it for my birthday as recommended by the lovely booksellers at Waterstones near my husband’s office.

I’ve never read any of Tessa Hadley’s books before and I’m sure this won’t be the last.  In fact, I bought another of her books not long ago.  Her style of writing is a pleasure and easy to read.  The structure of this book is quite interesting.  It is two separate stories, given their own volumes, which are seemingly unrelated.  Then half way through the second story the reader is made aware of a connection between the main characters of each volume and we come to see how their lives are intertwined and experiences similar.  Both characters are only children, have recently lost their mothers, are heading into early middle age and struggling to come to terms with loss, loneliness, dissatisfaction with their lives and disappointments that can’t be rectified.  It is a book of emotions and characters, not plot.  Not much of earth shattering consequence happens, but undoubtedly the sentiments experienced by the characters will not be unfamiliar to some readers and if they are unfamiliar, Tessa Hadley describes their effects so beautifully you begin to understand how it must feel to stand at a crossroads in your life.

Paul’s story is first.  He is looking for his eldest daughter from his first marriage, who has seemingly gone missing after a row with her mother.  The process of searching for her gives him the opportunity of escaping his life for a while and he goes missing in his own way.  Paul is a deeply unpleasant character, I didn’t warm to him or feel sympathy for him, but I was interested in how he resolved the issues he faced.

Cora’s story is second and definitely more absorbing.  She has separated from her husband and moved into her parent’s old house.  She is trying to decide what the rest of her life will look like and reflects on a chance meeting with Paul and how their lives were linked for a time.  She is wrenched from her reverie when her husband disappears and she resolves to find him.

Neither Paul nor Cora particularly endear themselves to the reader, they both have flaws, but equally they don’t do anything so awful as to make it unbelievable.  As Pope said “To err is human” but sometimes we don’t like to be reminded of the choices people make in their lives that hurt others or show a disregard for their responsibilities, they are unpalatable, distasteful to us, antisocial and make us feel uncomfortable.  In The London Train Tessa Hadley’s understated writing makes us witness some of these issues with no emotional stone left unturned and it makes for uncomfortable reading sometimes.  In a way, that is its beauty; the characters are not particularly nice, the things they do make us squirm, but it is written so well that you can almost complete Pope’s quote and become divine enough to forgive them.  Whether any of the minor characters could do, is another matter.