Tag Archives: British fiction

The Blessing: Nancy Mitford (1951)

“I  wish I understood Americans,” said Charles-Edouard. “They are very strange. So good, and yet so dull.” 

The delights and hazards of marrying out of one’s culture are explored with style and wit in Nancy Mitford’s light, entertaining novel, The Blessing. The introduction to my copy states that this is the author’s most “personal” novel as it “explains in barely veiled terms” why her love affair with a “womanising Frenchman” lasted for over 30 years. 

When the book opens, it’s WWII and Grace Allingham receives a visitor to her father’s county home. The visitor is Charles-Edouard, a man who met Hughie, Gracie’s fiancé in Cairo. While he could bring tidings, instead Charles-Edouard starts paying attention to Grace. A month later, he proposes, Grace accepts, they marry, and two weeks later, Charles-Edouard returns to Cairo. The war rages on, and it’s 7 years before Charles-Edouard returns to Grace, and by this time, they have a child named Sigismond, the ‘blessing’ in the title.

The blessing

It’s easy to see that there will be problems ahead. Grace’s father wasn’t keen on his daughter “marrying a Frog.” He guesses that Charles-Edouard will not be a faithful husband, and senses that his daughter, who is blissfully happy at the family country estate tending goats, is ill-equipped for life in French society: “she would be a lamb among wolves.”  Trouble immediately begins, although the pliant Grace doesn’t see it, when the day after Charles-Edouard returns from the war, he whisks his wife and son off to France, with no notice whatsoever, to his family’s country estate, Bellandargues in Provençal. She meets his grandmother, the Marquise, his Tante Régine, and his grandmother’s lover, an elderly man who sports a pale green wig. Through this initial introduction, she learns, but fails to absorb, that lovers are openly accepted, not hidden away–at least not in Charles-Eduoard’s circle. Charles-Edouard’s family give Grace the once-over, decide she’s lovely, but that there will be problems ahead ahead–mainly due to extra-marital affairs. 

Charles-Edouard’s family think “the English are very eccentric,” and that “they are half mad, a country of enormous, fair mad atheists.” They can’t understand what “induced” him “to marry an Englishwoman–these English with their terrible jealousy.” For when it comes to infidelity:

It is quite different for a Frenchwoman, she has ways and means of defending herself. First of all she is on her own ground, and then she has all the interest, the satisfaction, of making life impossible for her rival. Instead of sad repining her thoughts are concentrated on plot and counterplot, the laying of traps and springing of mines. Paris divides into two camps, she has to consider most carefully what forces she can put in the field, she must sum up the enemy strength, and prepare her stratagem.

Then Grace is whisked off to Paris–just as she was getting used to the French country estate (belatedly she learns that her husband hates country life), and it’s here, mingling at dinner parties and soirees in Paris, we find Grace mostly out of her depth–especially when she realises there are a string of other women in Charles-Edouard’s life. …

Several nations are skewered here. From child-rearing, marriage, adultery, diet, the fun comes from the clash of cultures. There are a couple of English ladies Charles-Edouard decides are lesbians: “Is it today you go to the English Lesbians?” And then there’s Grace’s old school friend, Caroline; Charles-Edouard doesn’t get the schoolgirl crush thing, and insists on calling her a lesbian too. Caroline is now married to an obnoxious, loud, know-it-all American, Hector Dexter who, unfailing tells everyone around the dinner table exactly what’s wrong with their respective countries. France is, according to Dexter, suffering from “a malaise, a spirit of discontent, of nausea, of defatigation, of successlessness,” while England, “this little island of yours is just like some little old grandfather clock that is running down.” And of course, Dexter also thinks that Americans have superior morals when it comes to marriage and adultery:

We, in the States, are entirely opposed to physical relations between the sexes outside the cadre of married life. Now in the States, it is usual for the male to marry at least four, or three times. He marries straight from college in order to canalize his sexual desires, he marries a second time with more material ends in view–maybe the sister or the daughter of his employer–and much later on, when he has reached the full stature of his maturity, he finds his life’s mate and marries her. Finally  it may be, though it does not always happen, that when he has raised this last family with his life’s mate and when she has ceased to feel an entire concentrated interest in him, but is sublimating her sexual instincts into other channels such as card games and literature, he may satisfy a longing, sometimes more paternal than sexual, for some younger element in his home, by marrying the friend of one of his children, or as has occurred in certain cases known to me personally, one of his grandchildren. 

Grace ultimately is attracted to Charles-Edouard because he isn’t English. With him, she avoided a “dull” safe English marriage. Charles-Edouard may be charming, but he has an escape clause for the marriage if it doesn’t work out, and then at one point, we see a callous side when he plots to ruin a carpet Grace makes as he doesn’t find it aesthetically pleasing. Eventually, it dawns on Grace “that she was, perhaps, more in love than he was.”

But since the title is The Blessing, the story goes beyond the troubled marriage to Sigismond. Charles-Edouard doesn’t like the British Nanny’s influence, and he wants his son to emulate Napoleon rather than Garth, a British cartoon character. Nanny doesn’t understand what a bidet is: “what is that guitar shaped vase for?” and bemoans the French diet:

Course upon course of nasty greasy stuff smelling of garlic.

In time Nanny finds another British nanny in Paris, and “the two nannies clung to each other like drowning men.” Sigismond grasps that the cultural values and expectations of behaviour from each parent are different, so he learns to manipulate the situation between the estranged couple to his advantage.

The ending was a little too Disney for me. Overly optimistic IMO but no doubt the ending reflected the author’s decisions. This book is a light, amusing treat which delights in Grace’s painful awakening as she realises that when she married outside of her culture, she was unaware that French values would be so different. Of course, the elephant in the room is that no … what’s normal in Charles-Edouard’s aristocratic family is not the standard for the rest of France. Grace did not know the man she married. Frenchman or not. 

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Mitford Nancy

Home Thoughts: Tim Parks

“And the people,” he went on, “who crave company are always moving about to get it, or to get a more satisfying version of it, while the people who like to be left alone are always moving about to escape it. It all keeps society in motion and generates a sort of dynamic tension.”

In Home Thoughts from Tim Parks, Julia, a 33-year old Londoner, dumps her job and her married lover for a new life teaching English in Italy. Through a series of letters from various characters, an image of Julia’s life emerges. As she settles into the somewhat miserable, incestuous British ex-pat community, dramas erupt including domestic squabbles, infidelities and backstabbing manoeuvres from various members of the British faculty as they claw to keep their jobs. 

Home thoughts

So a fresh start for Julia who thought her life was stale, but once in Italy, things almost immediately start to go wrong. Her secure job in London has been exchanged for an position that comes with a rapidly approaching expiration date. Her best friend Dinah is exchanged for the militant feminist, highly organized (read exhausting) Flossy who puts herself and Julia on diets with weekly weigh-ins. And then not long after Julia arrives, she becomes involved with Italo-Canadian Sandro–a “smary” sly, opportunistic, Lothario who, although he specializes in poaching married women, is perfectly willing to sleep his way to the top. 

The gym walls were all mirrors so that the chrome of weights and work-out machines seemed to stretch away in all directions. Likewise the bodies of the women doing their exercises. For although the exercise class was open to all, there was a tendency for the men to stay on the weights and leave the aerobic jumping about to the women. Thus, heaving in front of his mirror (mens sana in corpore sano), Sandro could watch not only the attractive flexing of his own muscles, but also the scissoring open and closed of fifteen pairs of legs

Initially, Julia doesn’t realise that “it was herself she had wanted to leave in leaving England.”

She had wanted a metamorphosis. Yet everybody back home had appeared rather to have liked that old caterpillar. […] And so when she had wanted the serial to end, to change her part, they had all protested.

Yet isn’t there a part of Julia that is dismayed when she realises that everyone in England is surviving, possibly even thriving, without her?  Julia writes to her friend, Dinah, brother, and her mother who “seems to be going backwards in time and is now cruising her way through an especially prudish patch of the 1880s.” While Julia ‘let’s go’ of certain aspects of her life in England, easily abandoning her ailing mother, for example, she obsesses on her past with married lover Lenny. She writes long, reproachful letters to Lenny–the man she supposedly left England to avoid. Some of the funniest letters are written by an outraged and disgusted Flossy as she sees women, “slave[s] to traditional conditioning,” continually fall into bed with worthless men. Somehow or another hyper-responsible Flossy always gets the raw end of the deal–from being stuck watching small children while women meets lovers, listening to the plumber lecture her about condoms (used by others) that have plugged up the toilet, to being propositioned by men when their other, more attractive options, run off. 

There’s a host of other characters here–mostly the shallow, self-obsessed British ex-pat community which is composed of men who’ve abandoned England and their first wives (and families) to start afresh in Italy. So with all of our characters, who see the world through the lens of their own problems, the issues they hoped to leave behind in England simply follow them. Alan, Flossy’s brother, who seems to be waiting for some cosmic event to release him from the doldrums, acknowledges he  “lost his way in life,” and writes in his notebook:

My wife: sometimes it’s as though I’d only met her yesterday and were trying to decide whether I really wanted to see her again. 

Minor academics who ostracize themselves abroad, for whatever reason: adventure, travel, a change of pace, to escape something at home, find that it’s not so easy to return, and miserable, depressed Alan is the epitome of this:

What was he doing in Italy in a dead-end job? And what was worse with a time limit attached that would cut him off at precisely the age he became more or less unemployable in the UK? He’d come out here to write (it was the ease of the job that had fooled him) and all they’d done instead was have children.

He had allowed his energies to be dissipated. He had lost his way in life. Friends back home were leaping up the career ladder and he was teaching lousy students where not to put adverbs, getting no useful experience and merely filling wastebins with this trash that no word processor would make saleable. 

The novel isn’t entirely composed of letters. I’d say it’s about 50-50 letters and narrative, and most of the vicious humour is found in the trainwreck of these characters’ lives–in the disasters that occur in between letters and the firm resolves which are followed by awful behaviour. I was waiting for the Italians to toss this lot out of the country. On a final note, we don’t all find the same things funny, and there’s one thing that occurs in the novel that’s in bad taste. But apart from that I liked reading about the messy lives of these Britons who move to Italy only to find that their problems have moved right along with them. 

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Parks Tim

Theft: Luke Brown

What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context. This was London, 2016. My friends and I had lived our adult lives in flats with living rooms made into bedrooms, kitchens into pop-up cocktail bars and gallery spaces; we worked in pubs and shops and school and clung on to our lives as artists and musicians and skateboarders. For too long I’d suspected that I would have been more successful if I’d spent less time talking to my friends, if I’d had been more discerning about who they were, if I had put to another use the ten thousand hours in which I had discussed the meaning of love with the lunatics who wouldn’t leave my sofa.”

That’s the opening quote from Luke Brown’s sly, witty novel Theft, a story set in an unstable Britain pre and post the Brexit vote. The novel explores the murky, quicksilver motivations of 33-year-old Paul, a self-professed “minor alcoholic” and sometime dabbler in illegal substances who is at a bad place in his life: he’s underemployed, his longtime live in girlfriend has departed (just what went on there?) he’s being booted out of his flat, and his mother recently died.  Paul is beginning to see the future, and it’s not bright, plus his marginal existence is being pulled out from under his feet. According to Paul’s upwardly mobile, energetic sister, Amy a “serial dater in the American style that Tinder has made standard,” Paul is “aimless,” and he’s certainly directionless, hanging desperately on to some semblance of a career amidst the impossibly high rents of London. He’s at a crossroads in life:

I suppose I will have to transform myself. Get a sensible job. Marry a sensible woman from the Home Counties. Produce babies. Get a pension, Buy a Motorbike in ten years to let off steam. Take prescription pills for my anxiety. 

Paul works in a bookshop three days a week and writes for a magazine called White Jesus. His “two pages” per issue, a job which provides “little more than beer money,” is composed of one page devoted to books and another page devoted to haircuts, and naturally the latter, which at least affords opportunities to chat up women, is the more lucrative part of the job.

theft

It’s through White Jesus, that Paul lands a “coup” interview with “cult author” Emily Nardini. Paul is intrigued with Emily even before he meets her, and in Paul’s subconscious, she becomes the solution to his many problems. He fantasizes about moving in with her even before they meet, and the interview, handily, takes place at Emily’s well-appointed flat. Too bad the flat belongs to her boyfriend, but it’s just not any boyfriend; Emily lives with Andrew Lancaster, a left-wing professor and author, a divorced man who’s considerably older than Emily. 

Paul has one thing over Andrew: age, so it’s not too surprising then that age becomes the issue that Paul orbits around. When Paul begins hanging out with Andrew’s outspoken daughter, Sophie, a Marxist sex columnist who shoplifts in order to write (supposedly) a piece on White Privilege, Andrew suspects Paul’s motives. Andrew isn’t comfortable with Paul, and their encounters are barbed duels.

I watched Andrew, trying to get the measure of him. He cared about his appearance, that was clear-you’d have to if you had a girlfriend more than 20 years your junior. You wondered how the pontificating old Jeremies of this world could bear the photos that were taken with them and their young women. The contrast was too great to be explained by charm and intelligence, even if you didn’t already know that the men concerned had been punished by the moral universe with exactly the faces they deserved. Did they revel in the contrast or look away from the snapshots? The photos of these older men and younger women together looked like they belonged in plastic evidence bags, documents of the continuing crimes against women. 

This darkly funny, engaging novel explores Paul’s odd, undefined relationship with Emily, Sophie and Andrew. He becomes part of their circle, but it’s not clear what he wants, what he’s up to. While Paul seems to be dating Sophie, he’s clearly got his eye on Emily. As the months roll by, Paul and his sister Amy prepare to sell their mother’s home–an “unsellable terrace in a half-alive Northern town,” and it’s the sale of the house–a literal break with the past–that becomes the turning point in the tale. The novel includes several lively secondary characters who careen from one problem to another. There’s Amy, who is going through a crisis of her own as she “inflicted something exhausting on herself. Deferred immediate comfort for future comfort,” Jonathan, a workmate who moves into Paul’s tiny flat after being booted out by his wife, and Susannah, another victim of the May-September romance: 

“Replaceable,” she sighed. She was fifty-four and her husband had just left her a year ago for a fucking 35-year-old. “Well, of course at that age and childless, if you haven’t found someone you can be attracted to anyone. The bloody fool. He thinks he’s escaping into some youthful vita nuova; he’ll be changing nappies in a year or two, mark my words, and pretending to be happy about it.” 

Paul is an enigma–a man of the brink of middle age who’s panicking about the future without really acknowledging his fears. The sale of his mother’s house, and a fascination with an author who’s out of his league, combine into a toxic, twisted cocktail of appalling behaviour, male competitiveness and stunted ambitions. 

“Andrew’s a terrific lover,” I said. “He first made love in the 1960s and has been practising ever since.”

review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction

Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“People usually find what they seek, if they really search for it.”

For some reason, I had the impression that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, Getting It Right, was the story of a young man losing his virginity–the fodder of those teen movies which so many people seem to find hilarious. Anyway, it was that description that put me off of reading this book, and that’s a shame as this is a wonderfully funny tale–different from other novels I’ve read (and enjoyed) from this author to date. In fact, I think this is my favourite Howard novel so far.

getting it right

Gavin Lamb, is a 31-year-old London hairdresser who lives with his mum and dad. Right away we have an impression of Gavin, right? Even his name gives the reader a hint that Gavin is a gentle soul, and then he’s still living at home. What’s going on with that?

Gavin is a good son, a loyal friend, an excellent hairdresser and takes his job very seriously. Beyond work he has an active intellectual life; he’s a classical music aficionado, loves poetry and literature and also attends the opera.

Now let’s list what’s wrong with Gavin’s life:

He has mentally constructed something  he calls the ‘Ladder of Fear,’ and women are right at the top. He’s painfully shy with women, so there’s no girlfriend, but there are fantasies. Not graphic and mostly dreamlike. 

Gavin works for Mr. Achilles, the toupee-wearing, tight-fisted salon owner who sits reading the racing paper all day long and only breaks concentration on his bets to criticize his employees and deliver lectures.

Gavin’s married sister, Marge, is determined that Gavin should marry, and his sister’s “undoubted favourite” was Muriel. a woman that Gavin isn’t attracted to at all. Still that doesn’t put Muriel off and she pursues Gavin, even showing up at the salon, much to Gavin’s embarrassment, to get her hair done. In her mind, she’s already planted her flag and staked a claim.

Plus there’s Gavin’s weird home life. Gavin’s mother is a neurotic woman full of bizarre theories; she sits making outfits for a teddy bear no one wants, and produces meals which are a “recurring hazard.”  Once when Gavin and his resilient father “mildly” say that a curry was too hot, her reaction was extreme:

She “burst into wracking sobs and a tirade that beginning with their ingratitude had extended to the futility of her whole life. It had taken hours to calm her, and even then she had not been really appeased and they had been treated to tinned food served with sardonic sniffs and nasty remarks made to Providence for nearly a week.” 

One particularly revolting meal involves a chicken mole for which Gavin’s mother substitutes “that nasty unsweetened chocolate” with Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Gavin and his father work in cahoots to bolster domestic tranquility with appeasement:

She was always one jump ahead, Gavin thought, no sooner had they laid one anxiety to rest than she pounced upon another and they lumbered after her shovelling sand into all the ground she cut beneath their feet: she called it ‘Where would be you be without me?’ and he [dad] called it ‘understanding women’. It gave them both a sense of domestic strategy, Gavin thought. 

So these are the things troubling Gavin when the novel begins. Gavin’s one friend, masseur Harry lives with the volatile, vain, violent Winthrop who smashes china and delivers black eyes from flying ashtrays. Harry, thinks that Gavin may also be gay but that he just hasn’t ‘declared’ himself yet. Harry, deciding to be ‘helpful’ invites Gavin to a party, and while Gavin feels as though he’s “being propelled along what could only turn out to be a sexual cul-de-sac” he attends the party to avoid Muriel. It’s a party that changes Gavin’s life. ..

The characters range from eccentric to downright bonkers. Gavin’s policy of appeasement gets him into deep waters when he meets the anorexic, desperate, needy and totally looney Minerva Munday and her bizarre parents. 

At one point in the novel, a character asks Gavin if he’s noticed that “everyone who gets married” is a bit enclosed. There’s Peter, a hairdresser who works with Gavin, and his wife Hazel. They’ve exploded into a frenzy of DIY home improvement and their dreary one-dimensional lives are driven by Peter’s extreme financial planning for a future that looks stunningly miserable. Then there’s Minerva’s parents who are also totally bonkers. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father is a pompous bore. Their marriage, complete with stately home and a creaky old butler, could very well be a long-running stage play as it seems guaranteed that the same lines are rolled out every night. All the marriages/relationships in the novel are bizarre with each partner acting out the roles and the lines they’ve held for years, both dodging and creating domestic explosions as best they can. 

Finally I have to add that some of the most brilliant parts of this wonderful book are Gavin’s scenes with his clients. Some of the clients are sweet, some are nasty, some are sad and some come in and rant their beliefs at Gavin who puts his mind “in neutral.” There’s too much to add here but one of my favourites is Mrs Wagstaffe and her “irritable dachshund Sherry.” She insists on bringing the dog to the hairdresser and there he sits “poised” in his owner’s lap and fends off Gavin.

“Now then, Sherry, good morning, Mrs Wagstaffe,” he said in that order.

“Isn’t he amazing? He never forgets.”

Since Mrs Wagstaffe came in regularity every three weeks to have her iron-grey bob and fringe trimmed, there seems no earthly reason why Sherry should forget, but as a master of petty grievance he would probably remember if she didn’t come in more than once a year. 

“Let him smell you,” invited Mrs Wagstaffe, but Gavin had been had that way.

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I prefer nasty characters, but Getting it Right is an exception. Gavin is a nice person: kind, considerate, responsible–a good employee, a good friend, a good son, and while ‘nice’ people can be boring to read about, Gavin proves to be an exception. Gavin is given to deep introspective musing about people and relationships, and he is deeply sensitive (too much so) when it comes to the problems of others. This leads to Gavin believing he’s responsible for situations and people when he isn’t. I enjoyed being in Gavin’s head–although I winced a bit when he started his intellectual education of a workmate.

Highly, highly recommended. 

own a copy/review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Howard Elizabeth Jane

On the Holloway Road: Andrew Blackman

“The only thing he believed in was chaos, for in chaos he saw the only small chance he had of feeling alive.”

Jack Maertens, would-be writer, sliding into middle age, lives with his patient, supportive mum in north London. Jack is stuck in a rut “trying and failing to finish a long, learned novel packed tight with the obscure literary allusions and authentic multicultural credentials that the publishers loved in those days.” Jack could have stayed spinning on his hamster wheel going nowhere for years or perhaps he would eventually have given up and crept away to find a job. But these things didn’t happen because Jack meet Neil.

Compared to my own sad, shambling existence in the shadows of lie, his was a kaleidoscope. I peeped from behind my mother’s curtains at the world outside and wrote about people like Neil.

Jack meets larger-than-life Neil in a kebab joint; they talk and spend an evening in a hashish tinged pub crawl, but it’s not a one-off. Neil enters Jack’s life and Jack’s “morose brooding […] suddenly gave way to a riotous drunken haze of colour and noise.” Soon Neil leads Jack on a wild road trip, with the two men, significantly, listening to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road while drinking and erratically driving Jack’s old Figaro up to Scotland. Opposites attract, we know that, but there’s a lot more afoot in this relationship. Jack is definitely attracted to Neil for his joie de vivre. Jack, hasn’t done anything much in the last few years of his life, and now he acknowledges that “Neil was doing enough living for the two of us.” Neil, unemployed, unemployable and a graduate from Feltham Young Offenders Institution takes over Jack’s life. Neil leads and Jack, lost in his failed ambitions, is happy to follow along and sample life Neil-style. Plus perhaps at the bottom of this Jack imagines that he can crawl out of the deep avoidance crevice he lives in, experience life once again, and finish that book.  

But then again, perhaps consorting with Neil is just a sub-category of Writer’s Block.

On the Holloway Road

Part-buddy book, part road trip, part examination of the authenticity of rebellion, the desirability of a world totally void of responsibility, and part an examination of the meaning of life, On The Holloway Road, a fairly short book at around 200 pages, follows the trajectory of Jack’s relationship with Neil as Neil enters Jack’s colourless life, takes over and starts igniting, figuratively that is, fireworks. But the fireworks eventually turn to bombs. 

Neil is chaos in motion; he can’t remain in one place for long; he needs action, activity. He’s manic and probably if I were a mental health professional, I’d conjure up an ICD-10 code. 

Jack’s tolerance for Neil ran farther than mine, but then that’s probably because I knew a ‘Neil.’ That’s not to say that I didn’t love reading about Neil, because I did. These kamikaze people are great fun to read about–but not so much fun when they start buggering up your life.  Jack’s patience runs out with Neil yet he’s still in Neil’s tail wind: first as a participant, then a spectator. 

Neil stood up abruptly and went over to a young suited man who was talking particularly aggressively into his phone about meetings and sales targets. He leaned over his shoulder and mimicking a female voice, said, “Come back to bed, big boy. I want you so bad it hurts.”

The poor man covered his phone too late, grabbed his bag and ran away from Neil pouring pleading explanations into the phone as he went. That kept us entertained for a time, but Neil, I now became aware, was like a child who tires quickly of every diversion. In the drunken, loud mobs of life in the pubs of Holloway Road I had never really noticed it, but sitting there in the sober neon glare of the morning, with my brain tired and sluggish, and nothing but the inside of a service station to look at, I felt Neil to be a vortex voraciously sucking life out of those around him and still constantly needing more. 

I absolutely loved this book; it’s funny yet poignant. The road trip is an adventure, and like all adventures it has its disastrous moments. Neil, much to Jack’s disgust, spews forth cheesy pick up lines that work on very young “giggling girls, barely old enough to be out of school,” intoxicated women, and a desperate lonely, abandoned wife. Jack is attracted to Neil for the way in which Neil appears to be fearless, but actually reckless is more applicable, and recklessness is wearing. There’s one moment when Jack longs for his resilient, non judgmental mother:

I felt an urge to turn around and drive back to London. I could be there by late evening, just in time to get my mother to make me a toasted sandwich before bed.

At first Neil’s behaviour seems refreshing and lots of fun until it continues … relentlessly… to the point of madness. It’s fascinating to see how Jack at first sees Neil as a Liberator (thinking Thomas Berger’s Neighbors) someone who has all the answers, but then how that gradually slips until Neil becomes this continual train wreck. What does it say about modern life when Neil–someone totally out of control–can appear as though he knows how to ‘live?’ I suppose that’s how cults start.

And here’s Emma’s review.

7 Comments

Filed under Blackman Andrew

The Playground: Jane Shemilt

Jane Shemlit’s The Playground concerns three married couples, and their children, thrown together over the course of a summer. Stay-at-home mother Eve, who is more than comfortably off thanks to a generous legacy from her parents has 3 children with landscaper hubbie, Eric. They have an idyllic country home with meadows, woods and even donkeys. Eve is the perfect wife and mother, the sort who makes her own bread–she has an inner tranquility which has a medicated quality. Eve has recently become certified as a teacher of dyslexic children and this move was due to Eve wanting to help her own dyslexic child. Poppy

The playground

Now certified, Eve opens up her home to other parents and takes on Isabelle the daughter of ultra-thin interior designer Melissa who is married to creepy control freak Paul. Also onboard for tuition is Blake the son of Zimbabwe immigrant Grace whose slim income supports the family, barely (including Booker prize novelist dad, Martin).

Day one, things go wrong. But not screamingly wrong. At first it’s subtle: Eve’s husband Eric promised to watch their two other children, but now work commitments demand otherwise. Then Grace leaves daughter Charley at Eve’s house when she drops off Blake for his lessons. So here’s Eve, who planned to tutor 3, with three extra kids: 6 total. Now what can go wrong???? Right away, Eve’s home becomes a sort of playground of dangerous and even sick games for the children, and the adults are so busy with their own issues, no-one notices a thing.

All of these marriages come under scrutiny with Martin working his lazy charms on Eve, Grace agonizing over money, living in a slum, harried all the time, and Melissa worrying about aging and staying in shape–after all Paul has a ‘thing‘ for really young women; he snapped up Melissa when she was 15 (pervie alert), so a mixture of characters–all with their own problems and with the women eyeing each other envying each other in various sad and pathetic ways. …

Sorry but if I went to pick up my kid and the adult watching them had no idea where she/he was, it would be sayonara baby. I didn’t like any of the characters which isn’t a deal breaker for me, as nasty people are usually a lot more interesting than nice ones. In this case, I wasn’t interested in these characters much at all. I wanted Grace and Melissa to whack their husbands upside the head. The Playground would probably slot into the domestic suspense genre and as such it is a slow burn. We know almost immediately that something bad has happened, and so the read is a train wreck waiting to happen.  I wanted to stop the train wreck. 

I used to think truth was a simple thing. That there could only be one truth, single and essential–like light, say, or water. Now I know it comes in layers, some more transparent than others. If you look carefully–and we didn’t–you can see through the top layer to the darkness beneath.

As a reader, I love reading about adults behaving badly, but it’s another thing when it comes to children (and animals), so given the subject matter, this book may not be for all readers.

Review copy

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Shemilt Jane

The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff: Margaret Forster (1967)

When Margaret Forster’s book opens, 69-year-old Glaswegian Maudie Tipstaff’s bags are packed and she’s preparing for a year long trip–spending 4 months with each of her three children. Now that Maudie is alone (and what happened to her husband exactly?) it’s possible that she may end up moving in with one of her children permanently as “they had all written and pressed her to come and live with them for good.” Now there are several things fundamentally wrong with this idea. Maudie Tipstaff is an inflexible, domineering, pious misery, and since her children have more or less run off or made themselves scare, Maudie hasn’t seen them in years and has no idea how they live.

the travels of Maudie Tipstaff

Pleasure and happiness are foreign states of mind to Maudie. There’s simply ‘Duty,’ and as she tells her ‘friend’ (“it required depths of loyalty known only to Eastern despots” ) Mrs McAllister, “I’m not going to enjoy myself,” said Maudie sternly. “I’m going because it’s my duty.”

Things immediately go wrong. Maudie insists on travelling by bus rather than by train due to the cost–even though Maudie’s daughter Jean, the daughter she has yet to forgive for getting married 25 years earlier, is paying for the ticket. By the time Maudie arrives in London, she’s in a state. Kind strangers try to help the seemingly weak, upset older woman, but after they feel lashings of her vicious tongue, Maudie is left to fend for herself.

Jean married dentist Edward, and although they’ve been married 25 years, Maudie has only seen her son-in-law twice, and she hasn’t seen her 15-year-old grandson since he was 6 weeks old. For Maudie’s stay, Jean and Edward have converted the attic into a flat complete with basin and cooker, and a sense of obligation drives them to offer Maudie a permanent home. Dallying with the idea that Mauide “might have changed,” and in spite of assuring themselves that they won’t bend to Maudie’s schedule, Edward and Jean find that Maudie’s presence chills and dominates the already fragile household.

Maudie consoles herself that life with daughter Sally will be better as there are 5 grandchildren in the house:  ages 15 months to 7 years old. Maudie has one soft spot: and that is for children. “She couldn’t remember having experienced what one would call pleasure in the bringing up of her children,” there were too many worries and concerns, but now it’s known in the neighbourhood that she “wasn’t right in the head about children.” Her home is the neighbourhood hangout for children, but she tells her neighbours “that she didn’t want anything to do with them [the children] and didn’t know how they got into her kitchen.”

They accepted the food and the judgments as gospel, and took Maudie’s breath away with their simplicity. They plagued her with questions, but they never queried any final pronouncement. They told her anything and everything and caused her endless, heavily concealed mirth

As miserable as Maudie’s visit was to Jean, there are fresh tortures in store at Sally’s. Sally is a fertile woman who drinks, carouses with her ‘cleaner,’ and lives in filth and squalor while the children haphazardly raise themselves. Moving from Jean’s prim, clean affluent middle class London life to the chaos of Sally’s country cottage is a shock, but at least Maudie is needed.

They all crammed into the kitchen and Sally began shouting at them to sit themselves down and be ready to eat. Maudie was pushed on to a rickety bench between Sammy and Richard, the next in age, who plucked immediately at her sleeve to show her how far he could get his index finger up his nostril. Feeling faint, Maudie wrenched the finger out, only to see it plunged into the mound of shepherd’s pie which had suddenly appeared before him. As she opened her mouth to protest, a scalding helping appeared on her own plate, grazing her right ear as it passed from Sally’s hands over her shoulder. To the left and right and all around children were devouring the mixture without forks or knives, shovelling it in with spoons, or like Richard, with their fingers. She felt she might faint. 

Even Maudie’s iron will is eroded by Sally’s wanton fecklessness and then it’s onto son Robert, who is living a Bohemian lifestyle as a painter in a primitive hut on a remote island. Robert is Maudie’s favourite, and he seems to pay her a lot of attention through his lengthy weekly letters. Yet Maudie is baffled when she meets Robert again, and there are even more shocks in store.

Robert’s relationship with Maudie was a very strange one. His letters to her were designed to be famous, but they were not, as anyone with any knowledge of Robert ought to have realized, letters to her at all. They were essays, weekly essays most painstakingly executed, beautifully written,. They were stylistically perfect–and quite unreal. They were, in fact, letters from Robert to Robert. True, they showed a most touching concern for the person they were ostensibly sent to, but on examination this concern consisted mainly of a string of endearments, quite foreign to Robert’s nature, and certainly to Maudie’s. But he enjoyed putting them in. He thought they read well, and he liked to begin and end with something informal. When he read the copy over, as he regularly did, he thought them rather a master touch. They would look well in book form when the collected edition was published. 

Maudie has many admirable characteristics, but when the book begins they are swamped by rigid piety, judgement and inflexibility. By the time the book ends, I had sympathy for Maudie thanks to the behavior of her children (Sally and Robert). But it’s with Robert’s girlfriend, Eleanor, that Maudie is at her worst (rude) and her best, and it’s also through this relationship that we see how parents and children all too often fail to connect as individuals. Perhaps the collective weight of childhood and parenting is too heavy, perhaps it obfuscates individualism.  How can we spend decades as parents and children and not know each other? Whatever the reasons, in The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, an extremely witty, lively book, Margaret Forster argues that parenting–being a parent, being a child, isn’t easy.

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Forster Margaret

According to Mark: Penelope Lively

People, Diana had long ago realised, are what you are up against in life, especially those nearest and dearest to you.”

Biographer Mark Lamming has taken the high road with his career. At Cambridge he considered an academic career, but he wanted to write. He knew he was not a novelist but that he wanted “to live by writing.” So pushing aside the thoughts of a secure career and a pension, and aided by a “small income” from inherited money, he launched into a writing career as a biographer, essayist, and critic.  When Penelope Lively’s novel According to Mark opens Mark, now facing middle age, has established a modest, but respectable career, picking up work here and there. His collection of Somerset Maugham letters and his biography of Wilkie Collins have firmly established his career and now he’s beginning a biography of Gilbert Strong, a mostly forgotten writer who produced “awful” novels, essays and biographies.

According to Mark

Working through the trustees of the Strong estate, Mark travels from London to Strong’s home: Dean Close which now operates as a garden centre and is managed by Strong’s literary executor, granddaughter, Carrie. Due to a somewhat chaotic childhood, Carrie finds solace in gardening, and she doesn’t function well socially or with relationships—the exception to this being her relaxed relationship with her business partner, Bill. 

Carrie is not a reader, and she has little interest in the Strong biography. She has only sketchy memories of her grandfather, and when Mark first meets Carrie, he finds her disconcerting; “there was a provoking passivity about her.” Mark has spent the last 18 months studying every nook and cranny of Strong’s life, and he expects Carrie to show at least some interest.

A clock loudly ticked. Mark picked up his mug and put it down again; the coffee was fairly undrinkable. An occupational hazard; one of Strong’s former mistresses had given him food poisoning with take-away kebabs. He gazed at Carrie’s odd, rather childish face, and looked away. Green eyes, with little brown flecks. “It must have been different here then, with this place in full swing. All those weekend parties. Cary and people. I dare say you sat on his knee.”

“Whose knee?”

“Joyce Cary’s.”

“No,” said Carrie.

“You could have done,” said Mark, with faint irritation. “It’s chronologically quite possible, and he was a friend of your grandfather’s.”

“Well, I didn’t I’m afraid. Would you like some more coffee?”

“No,” said Mark hastily.

“They had servants and all that then,” Carried offered. “Him and Susan. Susan was the person her married after grandmother died.”

Mark sighed. “Yes. Quite.”

Carrie mentions two trunks of letters that are in the attic. Mark was unaware of this extra material and it means that his project will take much longer to complete. So he begins visiting Dean Close ostensibly to catalogue and read the letters but he finds himself drawn to Carrie. Mark’s loyal wife, Diana, who works in an art gallery, sniffs there’s something afoot. …

I enjoyed the book–especially the sections about Mark’s life as a biographer and his quest to find the ‘truth.’ He doesn’t realise that he’s going through a crisis of sorts. He’s spending his life writing about the lives of others–sacrificing to produce these books, and here he is devoting years to a writer who is forgotten–as he himself will be forgotten. Mark’s relationship with his wife, Diana is interesting. They’ve made sacrifices to lead this life they’ve chosen together, and they complement each other. For this reader, the character of Carrie was slightly problematic and unrealistic. So not my favourite Lively but good. 

9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lively, Penelope

Middle England: Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s Middle England moving from 2010 until 2018 is a state-of-the-nation novel. The lives of a handful of characters are set against a troubled Britain as the country moves towards (and through) Brexit. The main character here is Benjamin Trotter who also appeared in The Rotter’s Club and  The Closed Circle.. While this is a trilogy, Middle England can be read as a standalone novel. When  Middle England opens, Benjamin, now in his fifties, is attending his mother’s funeral. Benjamin is ‘retired’ after making a bundle from selling his London property. He’s moved to a converted watermill in Shropshire, where he lives alone trying to finish his novel. 

Middle England

The novel spans 8 years in Britain’s history: a short time considering all that has gone before, but what a momentous 8 years it’s been. Other main characters include Benjamin’s university lecturer niece, Sophie and her plebeian husband, driving instructor, Ian–a couple who find themselves on opposite sides of the Brexit divide. There’s also Benjamin’s sister Lois who now works in York while her neglected husband remains in Birmingham. Another character is one of Benjamin’s best friends, Doug Anderton, a journalist who writes political op-ed pieces. He appears at Benjamin’s home on the night of the funeral and opens the subject of the political landscape in Britain.  He notes that Britain is “at a crossroads, “ that there’s a large chunk of the population who are unhappy and resentful, and that the political future in Britain is “volatile.” Doug who’s left-wing and married to an embarrassingly wealthy woman feels he’s “just a spectator” who lives in a “cocoon” of privilege. 

I’m just a spectator. I live in a house in Chelsea worth millions.  My wife’s family own half of the Home Counties. I don’t know what I’m talking about. And it shows up in my writing. Of course it does.

This theme, of being out of touch with the undercurrents of British society, “the sense of simmering injustice,”  runs though the novel. While Doug grasps that politically, Britain is facing change, just what that change will be seems to catch everyone (the politicians especially) off guard. The political scene is presented as it occurs: against the backdrop of life, so we see a timeline of events: the murder of Jo Cox on the news, the rumble of net migration figures. Benjamin, his sister, his niece and his friends are not comfortable with the shifting ‘face’ of Britain. They are upperclass/uppermiddle class. The working class make a slim showing here, and subjects such as Disability Living Allowance and fit-to-work tests are not given a mention–although the Leave promise to send 350,000,000 pounds weekly to the NHS does appear. 

As a novel, Middle England is flawed. The author’s political bias is evident, and while I don’t know quite how you escape that trapdoor when you tackle a subject such as this in a novel, the pro-leave characters are portrayed as rather ignorant repulsive people; the remainers seem stunned and confused (no doubt realistically) by what’s afoot and characters are rather conveniently slotted into “incidents.” The novel is at its strongest (IMO) when characters face an epiphany: such as when Sophie finds herself defending political correctness, publicly, over her husband’s crushed ambitions. This rather interesting scenario is spoiled when later Sophie becomes entangled in an incident involving a transgender student. Would, anyone, after all that is happened, visit the student in hospital? Sophie’s words have already been horrible misinterpreted and twisted once. So that brings me to another question: is the visit logical or does it say something about Sophie’s need to prove that she wasn’t all the things she was accused of.

Middle England is an ambitious novel which attempts to catch the mood of a country as radical changes take place. The novel doesn’t try to present a cogent discussion about immigration or the Brexit decision. Instead it acts as a mirror for the times, and in that sense written from the perspective of characters who are rather privileged, I think it’s a job well done. I watched Brexit from afar. I thought it would happen and it did; I have relatives who live in Britain, Australia, NZ, and Europe, and the latter who left (mainly) due to dissatisfaction with the UK, now are nervous about their future. By taking major political events in a timeline sort-of-way and placing this timeline in the lives of the characters, the novel goes a long way to explaining the mood of residents and an argument for why the Brexit vote passed. In spite of its flaws, I liked the book, and here’s Lisa’s review.

I find myself thinking a lot about the characters who voted to stay in Brexit, who then feel so uncomfortable in their home country that they leave. So on both sides of the Brexit divide, people don’t like what Britain has become. That’s a lot to think about. Finally, loved the Hobbit references which burrowed into the whole Middle Earth/Middle England idea, and the way the Olympics seemed to tap some deep core of patriotism.  

Review Copy

9 Comments

Filed under Coe Jonathan, Fiction

Splitting: Fay Weldon

“Women tend to be more than one person,” said Angel, “at the best of times, Men get just to be the one.”

Fay Weldon’s novel Splitting is a story of marriage, divorce and lost identity.

Sir Edwin Rice is divorcing Lady Angelica Rice, and what a messy divorce this is. Sir Edwin’s divorce petition includes accusations ranging from “lesbianism to bestiality. Bad cooking to adultery.” Lady Rice fights back and “claimed physical assault; over-frequent and perverted sexual activity which led to her humiliation; drunkenness, drug-taking and financial irresponsibility on the part of her husband; she asserted that her husband’s relationship with his dogs was of a sexual nature.” This divorce is going to be dirty.

splitting

When the book opens, Edwin’s lawyer, Brian Moss is dictating to his new secretary, Jelly White. Jelly White is none other than Lady Angelica Rice. It’s a strategic self placement, and it’s a position that comes in handy when you want to stack the deck in your favour.

While the novel begins with the ugly divorce, it then slips back into the past: when middle-class Angelica first meets Edwin, the youngest son of Lord Cowarth. Edwin marries Angelica and they make their home at the “dilapidated manor house” Rice Court. How fortunate that Angelica has a Savings and Loans balance of 823,000 pounds generated from a single hit “Kinky Virgin.” Angelica dutifully hands this sum over to the Land Agent, and then the marital games begin.

A few years into the marriage, cracks begin to show, and the problems erupt over money. Angelica, now Lady Rice, manages her home well, but Edwin is critical. Fissures in the marriage widen when adulterous relationships evolve between the Rices and their friends Rosamund, Susan, Humphrey, and Lambert. This section of the novel seemed to be deliberately confusing. I couldn’t keep track of the bed hopping, and this is partly because everyone lies and they all accuse each other of various affairs possibly to obfuscate the truth.

The “Splitting” of the title occurs though matrimonial discord.

“How dare he!” says a voice in Angelica’s head. “How dare he!” Another one says “don’t rock the boat,” another says “take him upstairs and fuck him,” and Angelica shakes her head to be rid of them, which works.

These voices, which offer conflicting advice lead to a “perforated, split personality.” Not in the strait-jacket lock-up sense, but in the sense of a woman who’s carried a role for years but then with doubt and rebellion gnawing at her mind, loses any formed sense of self  (loyal wife) and ‘splits’ into other possible selves–an “internal war.”

“Pull yourself together, for God’s sake, “Jelly said to Lady Rice, out of the mirror. But she added more kindly, “It’s been a long, hard day.”

“In future,” said Angelica. “we’ll go home by bus, not Underground. It’s easier on the nerves. And do stop crying, before our eyes get red and puffy. Jesus! What a sight!”

“Let’s do downstairs to the bar,” said Angel, “and make out with some rich businessman. Have a fun night out, some sex-good or bad; I grant you that’s a risk. We’ll score if we can and make ourselves some money.”

“Score?” said Lady Rice.

“Drugs,” said Angel.

Lady Rice uttered a little scream.

Lady Rice found herself looking out her best lingerie and trying it on, while Jelly agitated.

Marriage is a union of two people. The ‘me and the we’ positions are the hardest to negotiate, and in Splitting, Angelica gave up her class, her home, her friends, her identity to marry Edwin. She became Lady Rice–a totally different person, and when the marriage falls apart, the identity crisis in which Angelica fights with various splintered aspects of herself, is alarming, funny and bitterly real.

This isn’t my favourite Weldon novel. The affairs were confusing and difficult to follow, and the novel’s premise: a woman whose personality splits into various warring selves adds to the mayhem. That said, the novel is a strong cautionary tale: women who give up their personalities, friends, family, environment and career to adopt a marital role will have issues with identity.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Weldon, Fay