Tag Archives: British fiction

Funny Girl: Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl follows the life of Barbara Parker, a young woman from Blackpool who idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of becoming a comedienne. It’s 1964 when Barbara enters the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant, and even though she gains the title, she knows it’s not what she wants. Society favours looks over talent all too often and Barbara decides she can’t trade on her looks. So off to London where she gets a job at Derry and Toms on the cosmetic counter. Many of the young female employees, would-be actresses, read The Stage. Barbara is “anxious for news of anyone who had found some sort of secret show-business tunnel out of the store.”

Living in a grimy bedsit with a flat mate and working a boring job only leads to more acting dead-ends until she meets agent, Brian Debenham on a night out at Talk of the Town. Brian signs Barbara for her stunning blonde good looks and voluptuous figure, and while many consider these assets, Barbara runs the risk of being type cast. At first Brian doesn’t understand that Barbara really wants to act. He tells her to “smile. Walk up and down. Stick your chest and bottom out.” Brian sees Barbara as cheesecake:

Sweetheart, you only have to stand there and people will throw money at me. Some of which I’ll pass onto you. Honestly, it’s the easiest game in the world.

Barbara’s faith in herself leads her to a casting call for Comedy Playhouse where she meets writers, Bill and Tony, Dennis the junior comedy producer and actor Clive. It’s meeting that marks the turning point of her life.

Success comes to Barbara when she is cast in Barbara (and Jim) as a Northern girl from working class roots who meets and marries a posh London tory. The series smashes norms of the times by cashing in on class, education, and political differences through its two main characters. The novel draws in many cultural icons of the times, Till Death Us Do Part, Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son and that perennial favorite, Radio Times. Hornby recreates the shifting social scene of 60s Britain with the BBC facing ITV as a competitor, and formerly taboo subjects making their way onto the TV screen.

It’s all very well done and it’s a great trip down memory lane. The novel is expository so we don’t get into Barbara’s head as much as follow her life, her career, and her personal choices. It’s a fun light read but will have more appeal to British readers for its cultural references. All I could think of was Barbara Windsor….

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Hornby, Nick, posts

Elizabeth Finch: Julian Barnes

Elizabeth Finch, from Julian Barnes examines the relationship between the narrator, Neil, and his one-time professor. The novel explores the problems of memory and biography and asks how well can we ever know a person–especially a multi-faceted, private person such as Elizabeth Finch.

Elizabeth Finch teaches an adult education course, “Culture and Civilisation.” The students range in age from 20-40, and there’s a great deal of speculation about Elizabeth, a curious woman of contrasts, and her private life. Neil notes that it easy “to stray into fantasy.” As a lecturer/professor, Elizabeth Finch, or EF as Neil later refers to her, is challenging, yet she provides a reading list which is “optional” and notes “I may well not be the best teacher, in the sense of the one most suited to your temperament and cast of mind.” That last sentence, which seems so casually spoken on the first day, turns out to have great significance.

She appeared to have settled on her look some time ago. It could still be called stylish: another decade, and it might be antique or, perhaps vintage. In summer, a box-pleated skirt, usually navy; tweed in winter. Sometimes she adopted a tartan or kiltish look with a big safety pin (no doubt there’s a special Scottish word for it). Obvious money was spent on blouses, in silk or fine cotton, often striped, and in no way translucent. Occasionally a brooch, always small and, as they say, discreet, yet somehow refulgent. She rarely wore earrings (were her lobes even pierced? now there’s a question). On her left little finger, a silver ring which we took to be inherited, rather than bought or given. Her hair was a kind of sandy grey, shapely and of unvarying length. I imagined a regular fortnightly appointment. Well, she believed in artifice, as she told us more than once. And artifice, as she also observed, was not incompatible with truth.

The novel can be sliced into 3 sections: the introduction (and departure) of Elizabeth Finch, the middle section which is Neil’s long-delayed student essay on Julian the Apostate, and the final section which covers the end of Elizabeth’s career and Neil’s conclusions about his former professor.

I loved the first part of the book as Neil charts his relationship with Elizabeth Finch. Sometimes it’s the hard to define relationships that are the most interesting. EF rather uncannily reminded me of a professor who later became a friend for several decades, and so when I read that Neil intended to become EF’s biographer, I was fascinated. Unfortunately, when Neil delivers his student essay as some sort of post-death tribute to Elizabeth Finch, this entire middle section threw me in the Slough of Despond. I probably wouldn’t have minded reading about Julian the Apostate if I’d sought a book on the subject, but as is, the plot seems hijacked…no … abandoned. In the final section, Neil returns to the subject of EF and the novel revives as he discovers that he was not the only student who maintained a relationship with this very private, exacting person. Meanwhile, Neil tries to excavate details of EF’s private life and finally talks to a former student who has an entirely different opinion of the professor. Ultimately, we are left with more questions than answers, and the mystery of a professor who became one of the most significant people in Neil’s life, while another student remembers her as rather ordinary. What does that say about our perceptions, our biases, our memories?

Review copy.

7 Comments

Filed under Barnes Julian, Fiction

Reputation: Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan’s Reputation takes a look at the life of British MP, Emma Webster, a divorced woman in her 40s who makes a number of bad decisions. When the book opens, we know that something very bad has taken place, and then Emma goes back through her recent past to the moment when things started to go wrong in her world. Emma pinpoints the first bad decision, the one “that started everything,” as the magazine photo shoot in which she is swayed by flattery and the presence of a male photographer to assume an aggressive, sexy posture.

Was I subliminally so desperate for male admiration? At forty-four, so conscious of becoming sexually invisible that, despite everything I stood for, I let myself be flattered by and play up to his uncompromisingly male gaze?

This scene sets the stage for all that is about to go wrong in Emma’s life, plus it reveals her Achilles’ heel. Politicians seem to fall on their own petards–most commonly a sex scandal petard. Politicians are not unique in their embroilment in sex scandals, but since there are journos watching, participants who may sell their stories, and enemies lurking in the shadows, there’s a good chance that the secrets of politicians will be exposed. Political sex scandals are highly leakable and who doesn’t like to read about a good, meaty sex scandal?

Since Emma’s divorce, the family home was sold and Emma now lives with two other female MPs. Emma shares custody of her daughter, Flora, with her ex. Meanwhile Emma’s ex, David, seems to be flourishing with his second wife Caroline, who was Flora’s piano teacher, no less.

Caroline, who had encouraged me to stand as a politician, then moved with alacrity to fill my space once I got into office.

A veritable viper in the bosom. David, with his new wife, has had a make-over, he’s fitter, lost weight, and sports a beard while Emma. … well she’s marching on and ploughing herself into her political work. The fact that David’s appearance has improved may partly explain why Emma is flattered into presenting the ‘sexy’ side of herself to the public through the magazine spread. Not, as it turns out, a good decision.

I liked the way we see Emma’s reaction to the new David–it must be a bit of a ego blow to see one’s former spouse dusted off, spruced up and flourishing in another relationship. Emma is not a particularly appealing character–this may possibly be because Emma really has no idea who she is, and while she is passionate about one political cause, Revenge Porn, she is a rather typical politician when it comes to issues that don’t fit her agenda (veteran’s mental health). Now there is no law against stupidity and Emma makes some really stupid decisions. Emma’s stupid decisions work plot-wise as the author laid the groundwork to make those decisions plausible, but still, I found it hard to care one way or another what happened to Emma–the loose cannon on the political payroll. The story unfolds through Emma’s eyes and is punctuated with vicious, reductive social media comments. How pathetic that worlds begin and end with the largely unaccountable actions of social media gladiators.

review copy

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Vaughan Sarah

Permission: Jo Bloom

“I just like the idea of a little sexual adventure. You can understand that, can’t you?”

In Jo Bloom’s novel, Permission, a happily married couple decide to grant each other permission to step out of the confines of monogamy. With clear rules laid out, what could possibly go wrong???

The novel begins explosively with married couple Steve and Fay involved in a fight between friends Mike and Katie In an evening spent between the two married couples, Mike discovers that Katie has been cheating on him; things quickly escalate and Steve and Fay must intervene. The incident leads to a discussion between Fay and Steve regarding monogamy. They’ve been married for over 20 years, finally have a nice home, have 2 kids together, and while sex is good, somehow Fay thinks she is missing out on life. She brings up the idea of giving each other ‘permission’ for extra-marital sex. Steve is reluctant but agrees mainly to keep Fay happy. Big mistake. We all have certain morality boundaries, and those boundaries are sometimes invisible and untested until a situation arises. It’s clear that Steve has no interest in Fay’s suggestion, and it’s an ego blow. Fay meanwhile has her eye on the first extra-marital lover. …

British author Jo Bloom shows how a couple who actually have a decent life together screw it all up when Fay, feeling bored and a bit short-changed by a lack of sexual experience, decides she wants to branch out. Reading Permission is like watching a train wreck. You can see collision ahead and know it won’t be pretty, but your eyes are drawn to it nonetheless.

I don’t think Permission is meant to be funny, but there were sections I found savagely, grubbily funny. Other parts were just sad. There’s Steve gloomily scrolling through Tinder and then actually writing and printing out ‘the rules’ of the arrangement for extra-marital relationships for both he and Fay to sign. Probably not a good analogy here, but imagine writing out rules for animals at the zoo and then letting them out of their cages. That analogy probably says a lot about my opinions of marriage and human nature–two things which are inexorably intertwined. When a monogamous couple decides to step out of the boundaries of marriage or some other exclusive relationship, you can write as many rules as you want. It simply doesn’t matter because whatever rules you dream up, you cannot predict the consequences going forward and the rules are not going to fix things once those boundaries are crossed. Neither Steve nor Fay conceive of the issues they will face post monogamy. So in that sense, this is a cautionary tale.

Review copy

Leave a comment

Filed under Bloom Jo, Fiction, posts

The Heights: Louise Candlish

Louise Candlish’s novel, The Heights, is a story of revenge told through several voices including a mother who lost her son in a senseless car accident. It’s the sort of book that causes readers to question how we would act in the same circumstances.

The story is mostly told by Ellen Saint, but there are also sections that are written by a journalist who is sitting in a writing class also attended by Ellen. Middle-aged Ellen Saint is married for the second time to Justin. They have a daughter together, Freya. Ellen, an interior designer, also has a son, Lucas, by her ex-husband, Vic. When the novel opens, Lucas is dead. He died in a horrible car accident in which his friend, Kieran, drove.

So here’s the backstory: Lucas attends an upscale school, Kieran, the product of a broken home is placed at the school by his foster mother, Prisca. Kieran, with a history of drug problems, learning difficulties, and rough edges riles Ellen immediately. She resents Kieran and his friendship with Lucas. To Ellen, Kieran leads Lucas astray; under Kieran’s influence, Lucas skips school, takes drugs, lies to his parents, and begins failing classes. So in other words, Kieran is every parents’ nightmare. Following Lucas’s death, Ellen is driven by only one thing: revenge.

As far as Ellen knows, when the novel opens, Kieran is dead and she begins with the statement.

It can’t be Kieran Watts, I tell myself. And if anyone can be sure of that it is me.

Because I’m the one who killed him.

Then why is Kieran alive and well in London? Or is Ellen, who has had other mistaken ‘sightings’ of Keiran in the past, wrong once again?

That’s enough of the plot…. It was hard to be in Ellen’s head. She is so full of hate and rage, that her mind is not a pleasant place. On one hand, since she lost her son due, rage is one option, but the majority of the novel dwells in this rage-filled place and it’s tiring. I had issues with Ellen almost immediately. There are indications that she’s a bit ‘off.’ The way she turns to her EX. The way Lucas is never at fault. … Anyway, this is a compulsive read–if only to get to the basic truths of this situation. I wish Ellen had been a bit more sympathetic.

Review copy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Candlish Louise, Fiction

The Hearts and Lives of Men: Fay Weldon (1987)

In The Hearts and Lives of Men, author Fay Weldon examines human folly through the lives of the main characters: Clifford Wexford and Helen Lally. When the novel opens, it’s 1960s London. 35-year-old Clifford Wexford is an ambitious art dealer whose current lover, the sharp-edged, unpleasant Angie, a South African Heiress, is also the daughter of Clifford’s boss. Clifford attends a party with dried-up, bitter Angie, but leaves with luminous Helen Lally, the daughter of the temperamental artist and frame maker, John Lally. This is a story of marriage, adultery, Art and greed, played out through the tumultuous relationship between Clifford and Helen.

At first, all is well between Clifford and Helen, but with Angie’s machinations, sowing discord to both Clifford and Helen, it doesn’t take long for things to go south. Thanks to Angie stirring the pot, Clifford “could see all too clearly that Helen was capable of deceit and folly, and lack of judgment, and worse of all, lack of taste.” And Helen knows that Clifford has strayed with Angie, so the Wexford marriage gets off to a bad start. Clifford and Helen’s child, Nell is born on Christmas Day, 1965, but “a marriage that is rapidly put together can rapidly unravel.” Before Nell is even a year old, Clifford and Helen split, and an ugly custody battle ensues. Nell’s childhood, which could have been idyllic, begins to unravel. Nell is left in the care of a nanny guided by Nell’s paternal grandmother’s questionable child rearing beliefs, while Helen, cruelly, is only allowed slight access. Nell becomes a “tug-of-love” baby as her parents fight for her–Helen from maternal instinct and Clifford for spite.

When Helen remarries, Clifford, in a fit of malice hires a man to kidnap Nell. The kidnapping goes horribly wrong, and this tragic event shapes the lives of Clifford, Helen, and Nell. A large amount of the book follows Nell’s life, wrapped with modern fairy tale elements (Fate, wicked stepmother, black magic) as she falls into misfortune. Clifford and Helen must overcome their own negative characteristics before they come to a happy ending. The story shows that some people are gifted with good looks, and good luck, while others, such as Angie, are unlovable. Angie is a miserably unhappy character, but she makes her own misery:

Reader, to the happy all things come. Happiness can even bring the dead back to life. It is our resentments, our dreariness, our hate and envy, unrecognized by us, which keeps us miserable. Yet these things are in our heads, not out of our hands. We own them; we can throw them out if we choose.

Marriage also comes under scrutiny through Clifford and Helen, of course, but also through artist John Lally and his wife, Evelyn. Poor Evelyn, intimidated by her husband’s temper tantrums and moods, led a miserable (short) life. John Lally’s second wife, Marjorie, however, has an even happy, placid temperament and she simply refuses to absorb her temperamental husband’s nonsense.

“Don’t be absurd, John!” she’d say, when he was unreasonable. “Oh, what a bad temper!” she’d exclaim, apparently unmoved, when he ranted and raved. “John, you can’t be talking about me. You must be talking about yourself!” shed say if he tried to call her names.

He tried in a hundred ways to get the better of her, but couldn’t. If he didn’t speak to her she seemed not to notice, but fetched the neighbours in for coffee and talked to them instead. She made plans to include him but if he didn’t turn up or was late, simply went without him.

Good for Marjorie.

Miserable people spread misery; spite and unkindness bounce back in Weldon’s fate-driven, karmic world. There’s the underlying idea in this playful novel that people can change–obviously psychos are psychos and that doesn’t alter, but apart from that, admitting our mistakes, maturing or even marrying someone more compatible all present opportunities for growth. Interesting to note that the artistic characters seem to be overall happier.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Weldon, Fay

Seven Lean Years: Celia Fremlin (1961)

“Hate is stronger than you know.”

34-year-old Ellen Fortescue isn’t a quitter. She has been engaged for seven long years to Leonard, an accountant who says they can’t marry yet as he has to support his elderly step-mother, Laura. The long engagement has killed any romance, if there was any to begin with. Leonard is the type who loves to deliver patronising lectures, so he always assumes a position of superiority. Perhaps he was subtler 7 years ago, but now Leonard is insufferable. Even Ellen, who has a tendency to doubt herself and feel inadequate, begins to wonder if she wants to marry Leonard. Not that it’s a pressing question.

Ellen knew that every passing year was making it more and more necessary that the wait should have been worth while.

When Seven Lean Years opens, Ellen is the landlady ‘managing’ the various flats in her father’s sprawling home. She left her job a year before and moved in with her father when his health faltered. In order to make ends meet, she began renting out some of the rooms, but this has had spotty success. One of the tenants is Ellen’s cousin Melissa, plus her husband and 2 children There’s also Mrs. Hammond, who on one hand is very tolerant and easy going, but lackadaisical when it comes to her share of the stair cleaning. A married couple, the Butlers are ideal, they are quiet, neat and keep to a strict schedule, but if the schedule (which includes sharing a kitchen is threatened, it’s Ellen’s job to sort it.

They were all of them good tenants; but good, reflected Ellen gloomily, in such dreadfully incompatible ways.

Ellen’s already disordered life becomes more complicated with the return of Leonard’s step-mother Laura. The nursing home in which she lives is closing, and so Leonard takes Laura to his home, temporarily.

The relationships between the characters in the novel are tangled: Ellen’s father, Dick, was married to Laura at one point but left her to marry Ellen’s mother. Laura married a widowed neighbour and inherited Leonard as a stepson. Now Ellen and Leonard are engaged… Yes it’s messy. Laura swore revenge on Dick when he divorced her, and Leonard is convinced that if given half the chance, Laura will keep her promise. Yet Laura seems quite batty, floating in and out of her childhood memories.

Ellen is a problematic character. She’s passive and dumped on by everyone–her father, the tenants, her ridiculous fiancé and even the local builder who supposedly repaired the still-leaky roof. This makes her a difficult character as she is continually acted upon, screwed over and lectured, so much so that I found the book a frustrating read. The psychological aspects of the Ellen/Leonard relationship were interesting, but Ellen is too much of a doormat, at least for this reader. Some people choose to be victims, and this goes a long way to explaining Ellen’s passiveness. Her sudden, final revelations seem hard to believe, given her actions and choices.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Fremlin Celia, posts

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont: Elizabeth Taylor

“I must not wish my life away,” she told herself.

Elizabeth Taylor’s novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an exploration of old age, loneliness and impending death. The focus of the novel is Mrs. Palfrey and her tedious life as one of a handful of elderly residents at a fading hotel. Mrs. Palfrey, facing old age has led an interesting life, but is now widowed and not particularly close to her only child, Elizabeth, who lives in Scotland. Mrs. Palfrey and her husband Arthur were abroad in Burma most of their married life, dealing with “natives.” They retired but now Mrs. Palfrey is alone. While visiting her daughter, she “chanced on an advertisement” in the paper for “reduced winter rates” at the Claremont hotel, so Mrs. Palfrey heads to London. Even though she didn’t have high hopes for the Claremont, the shabby-genteel reality is depressing.

The clientele can be divided into 2 categories: “long-term residents and birds of passage.” This is a fading hotel hanging on, desperately and begrudgingly to its clients. The place would probably fold without the steady income from the residents, but that doesn’t make the staff any nicer. The Claremont is one-step away from a nursing home, and most of the residents, all washed up at the Claremont for various reasons, can just afford the rates, so no one complains about anything. While the Claremont is a depressing place, it’s still a pleasant alternative to the dreaded dead-end nursing home.

Since all the residents are solitary, any visitors, any relatives are valued currency. There’s Mrs. Arbuthnot, whose spiteful condescending remarks are directly tied to her arthritis pain; Mr. Osmond, a fussy widower whose off colour remarks and jokes alarm the staff and the female residents, Mrs. Burton, who smokes and drinks heavily, and whose brother-in-law visits frequently. Finally there’s Mrs. Post, a nervous woman who is Mrs. Arbuthnot’s go-fer. During the course of the novel, a few other characters come and go, and each arrival and departure causes a stir and alters the resident dynamic. At the hotel, the highlight of each day is the menu, with its fortnightly rotating dishes. The time after dinner is spent in the lounge, when “knitting was brought out.”

As a newcomer, Mrs. Palfrey must find her spot on the social totem pole, and quizzed, she tells the others about her nephew, Desmond, who works at the British Museum. Everyone expects him to visit, but Desmond never shows; he even ignores his grandmother’s invitation to visit the Claremont and stay for dinner. Pointed comments from Mrs. Arbuthnot that supposedly express sympathy are really putdowns, and Mrs. Palfrey finds that she regrets ever mentioning her elusive grandson.

To Mrs. Arbuthnot she explains, “My daughter is so far off, in Scotland.”

“And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?” Mrs. Arbuthnot asked, probing.

Mrs. Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it.

“I doubt if I could stand that climate,” she replied. In London, the rain was pouring down: in Scotland, it was coming down more steadily, as snow. They had watched it on the television that evening.

“No, of course not,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said quietly, with her eyes on Mrs. Palfrey once more.

One day, Mrs. Palfrey falls in the street and a young man, a burgeoning writer named Ludo comes to her rescue. Mrs. Palfrey invites Ludo to the Claremont and decides it would be a harmless ruse to pass Ludo off as her errant grandson, Desmond. Having a handsome, intelligent grandson who visits somehow raises Mrs. Palfrey in the eyes of the other residents. A visit from a relative is ‘proof’ that they have not been forgotten, that their lives are not failures, and that they are loved. (Actually, as ‘proof,’ it’s thin–but visits are of paramount importance to the residents.)

This is a novel about isolation, aging and and loneliness. Ludo, a young man, is every bit as isolated and lonely as Mrs. Palfrey, but thanks to his youth, he doesn’t recognise his loneliness yet. While he continues to visit Mrs. Palfrey, ostensibly to gather material for his book (even writing about her “fluffy grey knickers”) he also connects emotionally on some level with Mrs. Palfrey. Ludo’s own mother is selfish and irresponsible. Fat chance that maternal sacrifices will ever be made for Ludo, and Ludo’s ‘girlfriend’ is always on the lookout for a better relationship opportunity. Both of Ludo’s significant relationships, with his mother and with his girlfriend, leave him feeling gutted. Mrs. Palfrey is in the same boat, and age and the passage of time have allowed her to come to terms with the disappointments of family. While the blossoming relationship between Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey is a delight, for different reasons, Ludo’s private life spills over into his relationship with Mrs. Palfrey. How sad it is that relations do not see the elderly as people but rather as labels; how sad that children and grandchildren don’t see their parents and grandparents as individuals but instead see them as liabilities. We could perhaps argue that Ludo would have ignored Mrs. Palfrey is she were his grandmother rather than a woman he meets by pure accident–but no, this is not true, some people are capable of compassion. And some people are not.

Review copy.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was made into a film.

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Taylor, Elizabeth

The Fortnight in September: R.C. Sherriff (1931)

R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September lingered for too long on my TBR list, and now there’s a rerelease of this gentle, classic tale. This wonderful story follows the annual two-week holiday of the Stevens family: 20-year-old Mary, 17-year-old Dick,10-year-old Ernie and their parents. Mr and Mrs Stevens took their honeymoon in Bognor Regis 20 years earlier, and they return here every year for their annual holiday. They even stay at the same guesthouse, Seaview. The first few chapters set the stage for the night before the holiday–it’s a prequel of sorts. It’s packed full of planning rituals which are repeated, faithfully, every year. Mr. Stevens is a creature of habit. Everything must be ‘just so,’ and perhaps this explains why the holiday destination never varies.

They had often talked of a change–of Brighton, Bexhill–even Lowestoft–but Bognor always won in the end.

It’s Mary’s job to deliver the canary to neighbour, Mrs Haykin. It’s a dreaded task as poor Mrs Haykin, who has no social life, is pathetically eager to take care of the canary as:

the Stevenses holiday had become Mrs. Haykin’s holiday: she lived every moment of it from her little house in Corunna Road. Soon she would watch them pass on their way to the station. She would not settle to her morning’s work until she had seen their train go by and satisfied herself that they had had ample time to catch it. She always hoped one of them might wave from the window.

Over the course of twenty years, Seaview hasn’t changed–except that it’s steadily become shabbier.

The Stevenses had not definitely noticed anything amiss in Seaview in the years that followed. Mrs Huggett remained as flustered, as tremblingly anxious to please as ever. Molly seemed on the go all day–and yet—-there was just something different: some little thing each year. few years back the bath plug had broken from its chain: it had never been recaptured, and lay each year in freedom at the bottom of the bath. Year by year the sheets grew more cottony and frail: and Mr Stevens, happenings one night to have a sharp toenail, slit his top sheet down the centre, and enlarged it accidentally with his foot each night as he got into bed.

Not a great deal happens in this tale. We see the Stevens family as a unit with Mr Stevens organizing and marshalling the family like troops. Yet we also see them as individuals; Mary meets a young man and senses that this is the last holiday she will spend with her family. Dick, who started work a year before, is “terribly unhappy,” and is withdrawn. Away from the daily grind, the holiday appears to restore his spirits. There’s the sense that in spite of ritual and annual return trips, that life is changing for this family. There’s a sort of beauty in routine–as if our lives will stretch out to infinity. Published in 1931, there are big changes ahead. The world of Seaview, Dulwich and the life of the Stevenses will change forever.

Review copy

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sherriff R C, Sherriff R. C.

Isa and May: Margaret Forster (2010)

In Margaret Forster’s Isa and May, Isamay, looking at 30, is struggling to focus on her thesis, and no wonder–the vast subject is grandmothers in history. She has landed on a few significant figures, including Elizabeth Fry, George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, and Queen Victoria and has several questions that she chews over: such as how do grandmothers view their roles? She’s looking for “links, consequences, direct connections” between grandmothers and their grandchildren. Isamay’s research, so far, draws no solid conclusion. Some grandmothers are “figures of authority” while others see being a grandmother as a chance to ‘do over’ motherhood. Some just enjoy it. It’s clear that Isamay’s thesis is unmanageable and her unsatisfying meetings with her advisor Claudia, usually don’t go well. Claudia, however, doesn’t dismiss Isamay’s project completely, and tries to add direction:

When someone assumed a new role in life, she said, they tend to copy or to reject the example of whoever has filled that role for them.

But at the heart of Isamay’s thesis is her desire to understand her own grandmothers: Isa and May. They are two very different women.

It will be obvious by now that I am obsessed with Isa and May, my grandmothers, or more precisely, I am obsessed by their significance without being sure what it is.

May is solidly, proudly, working class. She left school at 14 and worked in a factory. She tends to hide her personality in frustrating statements that block any discussion so that it’s impossible to know her beliefs or tell if she has an inner life. Here’s Isamay trying to discover May’s opinions on god.

“God is supposed to be a spiritual power,” I said, “Not actually a person.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“He is supposed to be an almighty spirit who created the universe and sent his son Jesus Christ to save us all.”

“Very kind of him.”

“But the point is, as I said, he is a spiritual presence, or idea…”

“Make your mind up.”

“…whose existence we can’t properly grasp because our minds can’t fully comprehend–“

“Oh, for Gawd’s sake, stop it! You’re making me poorly. Haven’t I gone through enough?”

“All I’m saying is that some very clever people believe in God…”

“Good luck to them.”

“So you don’t, then?”

“Don’t what?”

“Believe in God.”

“Did I say that?”

“No, but…”

“Well then, don’t twist my words.

Isa is the complete opposite. Whereas it’s ok to drop in on May, Isa requires appointments. Isa is always immaculately groomed and lives a much more affluent lifestyle. May calls Isa, “Lady Muck,” while Isa calls May “Mrs. Wright.” “They were mutually suspicious” of each other from the moment they met. It’s no surprise that the two grandmothers don’t like each other and that Isamay is their battleground. Both grandmothers contributed a great deal to Isamay’s life and outlook. When the grandmothers become ill, Isamay steps in, and she’s also hot on the trail of some deep dark secret that Isa keeps deeply buried. Another subplot concerns Ian, Isamay’s boyfriend. On one hand he’s extremely supportive, but on the other, when it comes to the subject of family, he’s downright hostile, so there are secrets there too.

Not the best Forster I’ve read. The sections regarding Isamay’s research were interesting but Isamay’s inability to harness her thesis and batter it into shape impacts the novel. That said, the warring grandmothers are great. While these two women could not be more different, there’s a connection when it comes to walling off their inner lives.

My money’s on May any day.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Forster Margaret