1

Snapshots: March 2019

Featuring footage from Cambridge, London (mainly Shoreditch), and Glasgow.

Music: ‘Everything Goes Dark’ by The Hoosiers

Advertisements
2

‘House of Glass’ by Susan Fletcher ***

Susan Fletcher is an author whose work I have always very much enjoyed.  My first encounter with one of her novels was in the glorious Harper Perennial edition of Eve Green, quite some time ago.  I have since read almost all of her other work, and when I saw that she had a new novel – House of  Glass – coming out in 2018, I borrowed it from the library just as soon as I could. 9780349007649

Many of the reviews of House of Glass mention its ‘darkly gothic’ tone, as well as the way in which it is such things as surprising, moving, and mesmerising.  Tracy Chevalier notes that whilst the novel ‘may start as a ghost story’, it ‘turns into something much more profound: a lyrical examination of how women carve lives out of a male-dominated society, even with a war looming that will change everyone.’

House of Glass opens in June 1914, in which protagonist Clara Waterfield is ‘summoned’ to a large house in rural Gloucestershire, in order to fill a glasshouse with ‘exotic plants from Kew Gardens’ at the owner’s request.  The house is named, perhaps appropriately given the Gothic atmosphere, Shadowbrook.  When Clara arrives, the owner, Mr Fox, is absent, and she is soon informed that he rarely spends any time in the house.  Around this time, she begins to hear rumours, and to her, ‘something feels wrong with this quiet, wisteria-covered house.’  The blurb concludes by stating that over the summer, Clara ‘finds herself drawn deeper into the dark interior rooms – and into the secrets that violently haunt Shadowbrook.’

The novel opens with quite a vivid description of Clara’s disability, osteogenesis imperfecta.  It begins: ‘My structure is not quite right.  By this, I mean my bones – the part on which the rest of me is stretched, stitched into place…  My skeleton is frail.  I creak with any transference of weight.  In my childhood, I fractured so frequently – with small gestures, with the simple act of looking up – that doctors winced and shook their heads.  She is imperfect, they said.’  In consequence, her mother is ordered to keep Clara inside, sheltering her from the dangerous outside world – at least until she has stopped growing.  Clara thus spends the majority of her childhood reading, largely in the library of the house, which her parents converted from their old dining room for her benefit.  I felt that Fletcher’s depiction of Clara’s ailments was well-balanced, and did not feel dramatised in any way.  I also liked the way in which Fletcher used Clara’s own voice to describe herself.  The contrast between Clara’s past and present – in which she is able to leave the house and regain some independence – is well balanced. 

Clara was drawn to Kew Gardens quite by chance following the death of her mother, something which she was entirely unprepared for, despite the illness which ensued.  She is grieving and desperate, and walking is the only thing which helps to take some of the pain away.  She learns, in her own way, to navigate her own city, learning to board omnibuses which take her to distant parts of London.  On one such journey, she decides to alight at Kew: ‘And on a February morning, I stepped down from the bus in a place called Kew.  This was a name I knew.  For here, there were famous gardens, with rhododendron walks and glasshouses and pergolas.  I’d read of them in books.’  Spending around a decade indoors, with only glimpses of the outdoor world from windows, she is mesmerised by the wealth of plants she is able to wander amongst at Kew, now that she is older and her bones have ‘strengthened and settled themselves’.  Fletcher’s descriptions of the gardens are quite lovely; on a cold, ‘grey, desolate’ day, Clara finds an ‘extraordinary domed building of glass’ before her.  She enters, and ‘left February behind.  England, too, was gone.  For the Palm House at Kew contained canopies and ferns and damp wooden benches; palm leaves brushed my hair as I passed…  Now I wanted to be nowhere else.  I was done with crowds and London’s streets.  Here was a new beginning.’  This discovery, the comradely relationship which she strikes up with the keeper of the glasshouse, a man named Forbes, and the subsequent offer to travel to a new place in order to ‘establish a room of colour and scent and spectacle’, allows Clara to affirm her place in the world.  In this way, and given the alterations which Clara’s character undergoes, House of Glass can certainly be called a coming of age novel.

When she finds herself in Shadowbrook, after a long journey by train, Clara is met with ‘a house of pale stone.  Clematis grew on its walls.  Its courtyard was bordered with dark, leafy shrubs in which I could hear movement – nesting birds, or the scurrying of mice.  Two storeys to it, no more.  A small right-angled wing.’  At her point of arrival, Fletcher begins to introduce elements of oddness, or of ghostly occurrences.  The man who picks Clara up from the station, for instance, tells her not to worry about any noises which she might hear in the night, as old houses were prone to movement.  As she roams the grounds, and spends time within the house itself, she begins to notice something unsettling: ‘I had a curious sense of being watched; throughout the garden, I felt it.  It was as though I had entered a part of it – the orchard, the lime bower – at the very moment that someone else had risen and left; I felt that any metal chair might retain that person’s heat.  It was an unsettling notion.  I chastised myself for it – it was foolishness – yet I also looked down the lines of hedges.  On the croquet lawn, I turned in a slow, complete circle to see it all.’

Later, and unable to discover a rational solution, she muses over what the feeling of being watched, and screams and scratches in the night, could be the effects of.  After discussing the goings on with the members of staff at Shadowbrook, she says: ‘Ghost.  The word had not been said but we’d heard it even so.  It had hung above the kitchen table; it had circled us…  A thin, inconsequential, fictitious word.  It had no place in diagrams.’

In her other novels, two of Fletcher’s real strengths are her ability to create both atmosphere and realistic characters.  My experience with her newest book was much the same.  I very much admired the way in which she had not made Clara into a martyr, following the emotional and physical pain which she had to struggle with daily.  Rather, Clara was realistic; she had tempers, and spoke her mind quite wonderfully, particularly in those situations where she was challenged by other characters.  She felt entirely three-dimensional, holding within herself a myriad of worries and hopes, and a believable backstory.  Clara felt like a progressive, modern woman; she does not go to church, or believe in God, and does not allow her voice to be silenced by anyone.  She is opinionated and stubborn, and not at all a likeable character, but I found her quite fascinating.

Fletcher’s prose is rich and sensuous from the outset of House of Glass.  Of Clara’s confinement, she writes: ‘Ours became a house of cushioning.  Of velvet and goose down, embroidered pillows, Persian rugs and silk.  There was, too, a globe.  A rocking horse that I could touch but not ride.  And they’d bring home what they thought I might miss from the blustery world: fir cones and pigeon feathers, the scent of horses on my mother’s red gloves which I’d inhale, eyes closed.  Tales of how the river had looked at twilight.  How the carol singers sang, despite the rain.’  The descriptions of the library share gorgeously vivid imagery: ‘There was a chaise long which was, at first, the colour of moss.  But in time – as I read more, studied more maps – this deep, velvety green became the shade of hummingbirds’ wings or Othello’s envy or the gems which hid in equatorial soil.  The green of a tiny jungle frog.’

Whilst not my favourite of Fletcher’s novels – an accolade which must go to Oystercatchers and Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – I did enjoy many elements of House of Glass.  Whilst there is far less commentary on the outbreak of the First World War than I was expecting, I found that the period was very well evoked, and the novel itself was both immersive and atmospheric.  

At no point, however, was I entirely captivated by the story, and despite the real strengths in character building, I felt as though the denouement of the novel was a little disappointing, and something of an anticlimax, and the ending was drawn out.  The story does come together, but I did not find the twists to be overly clever or original.  I also found the pace a little awkward in places, and the tension which Fletcher had striven to create was not as heightened, and therefore not as successful, as it could have been.  Whilst there are many things which I admired in House of Glass, I have to say that it is probably my least favourite of Fletcher’s books to date.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker *****

I have been meaning to read Pat Barker’s Regeneration – the ‘classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men’ – for such a long time, but only got around to it very recently.  Probably her most famous novel, Regeneration has been considered a modern classic since its publication in 1991, and is the first book in a trilogy of the same name.  The book has been highly praised.  Margaret Forster calls it ‘a novel of tremendous power’, the Sunday Times ‘brilliant, intense, subtle’, and, fittingly, Time Out heralds it ‘a fine anthem for doomed youth’. 

9780141030937Set in 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in southeast Edinburgh, Regeneration takes as its focus three very well-known figures – Dr W.H.H. Rivers, who pioneered shellshock treatment for soldiers, and two war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  Robert Graves also makes odd appearances throughout.  Barker has also created, alongside these figures, the character of Billy Prior, unable to speak and only able to communicate on paper, who feels just as realistic.  Rivers’ job is to make the men in his care healthy enough that they can be returned to the Front.  ‘Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds,’ the blurb continues, ‘the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors’ which await them.

Regeneration opens at the point at which Sassoon has expressed his objections to the war in writing, in a piece which he calls ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’.  In consequence, he is sent directly to Rivers, who receives the news of his arrival as follows: ‘Can you imagine what our dear Director of Medical Services is going to say, when he finds out we’re sheltering “Conchies” as well as cowards, shirkers, scrimshankers and degenerates?  We’ll just have to hope there’s no publicity.’

Justine Picardie writes that ‘what gives the novel its authenticity is Pat Barker’s impressive ability to capture her characters’ voices and moods.’  Indeed, Barker has a wonderful understanding of each of her characters, whether historical figures, or invented ones.  Her interpretation of them made them feel highly realistic, and at points in conversations – particularly those between Owen and Sassoon – I had to remind myself that I was not reading a piece of non-fiction.

There is such humanity to Barker’s examination, and I very much enjoyed the little glimpses of surprise in the behaviour of her characters, which often seem to be at odds with their public personas.  When Sassoon first arrives at Craiglockhart, for instance, Barker writes that he ‘lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps.’ The descriptions which Barker gives of her characters do not just remark on the superficial; rather, they tend to have a lot of depth to them, and often err on the chilling.  She describes Sassoon in the following way: ‘Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly onto Sassoon’s face.  Pale skin, purple shadows under the eyes.  Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder.  No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell.  His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady…  So far he hadn’t looked at Rivers.  He sat with his head slightly averted, a posture that could easily have been taken for arrogance, though Rivers was more inclined to suspect shyness.’

Other reviewers have commented upon the language used in the novel, believing it to be too simplistic.  However, this was not the impression which I received.  There are a lot of poetic descriptions, and the dialogue particularly is filled with nuances and undercurrents.  The more stark, matter-of-fact language which has been used at odd times serves to highlight the horror of wartime.  Given the nature of the book, I felt as though the balance which Barker struck between these descriptions and the examination of her characters was perfect.  The moments of dark humour, which can be found from time to time, also worked very well.

Regeneration is very well situated historically, and scenes are vividly set in just a few sentences.  One of Barker’s particular strengths here are the comparisons which she makes between wartime and civilian life, particularly with regard to way in which she shows how quite ordinary things can be triggers for what soldiers had experienced in the trenches.  When a character named Burns is travelling on a bus, to give one example, she writes: ‘A branch rattled along the windows with a sound like machine-gun fire, and he had to bite his lips to stop himself crying out.’  She also demonstrates an impressive emotional range in her explorations of isolation and freedom, wellbeing and mentality, nightmare states and hallucinatory moments, and the profound effects which each of these things can cause.

There is, of course, much in the novel about medical experimentation, and how best to treat such troubled men.  Thoughts of, and explorations around, masculinity, have been cleverly woven in.  Barker makes it clear from the outset that the methods which Rivers has adopted in his radical treatment plan go quite against the moral, ‘manly’ values instilled in him, of demonstrating only strength and valour.  He, and too his patients, were not expected to show any signs of weakness.  Of this, Barker observes: ‘… he was already experimenting on himself.  In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of kindnesses for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing.’  She goes on to write: ‘The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial.  Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.’

I had a feeling that I might regret leaving it so long to pick up Regeneration, and I am.  It is a stunning novel, compelling from the outset, and filled with moments of harrowing beauty, and poignant reflections on conflict and its worth.  I already have the second book in the trilogy, The Eye in the Door, on my to-read pile, and am very much looking forward to continuing with it sooner rather than later.  I imagine that it will be just as moving as Regeneration proved to be, this wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, in which Barker is constantly aware of the significance of every tiny thing.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Shortest History of Germany’ by James Hawes *

Whilst in Munich with my boyfriend in February of last year, I mentioned that I’d love to learn more about German history. I have a sound grasp of it from the Weimar Republic up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and have studied the period between 1914 and 1945 intensively, but I knew very little about earlier eras. James Hawes’ The Shortest History of Germany therefore sounded as though it would be perfect to fill in those gaps.

9781910400739It rings alarm bells for me when history books do not include a bibliography or list of sources, and this omits both entirely. There are no footnotes to denote where a quote has been taken from, and sometimes things are quoted – in italics! – in the main body of text which do not include even the reference of the author’s name. Had I noticed this before purchasing The Shortest History of Germany, it would have gone straight back onto the shelf.

The placing of text, maps, and diagrams here is so awkward, and makes for an unpleasant reading experience. Every pictorial source has been placed into the main body of text, sometimes randomly and without commentary, and therefore some of the text has been rendered into a column. I really did not enjoy the format, and think it would been easier to read, and more accessible, had all of the non-textual sources been grouped together on glossy paper, something most other history books include as a matter of course. This is not my only qualm in this respect, because many of these sources were poor in quality, and therefore the text was blurred. Most of them added very little to the book.

The way in which the quotes were not embedded in the main body of text, but appeared randomly in greyscale boxes – again, with barely a source to denote where they had been found – was annoying and unnecessary. I did not enjoy Hawes’ writing style at all, and did not appreciate the constant references which he tried to draw between particular elements of German history and the present day. This made it feel even fluffier than a history book with no appendix or bibliography already feels.

Whilst The Shortest History of Germany has a relatively linear structure, the way in which it has been partitioned into sections is odd. Hawes’ commentary felt as though it was all over the place due to the way in which what he includes here has both been set out and handled. I did read it all the way through, but only because it is such a short book; on reflection, I wish I hadn’t bothered. The book, as one might expect, is incredibly brief, and not at all comprehensive. Far more attention was focused upon the twentieth-century than anything else, and whilst I can understand this to a point, it made the whole feel highly uneven. It also became far more biased as time went on, and his tone felt patronising at points.

I’d like to say that I learnt a lot from this book, but as there is no concrete evidence to show what Hawes had read – if anything! – before compiling it, I found myself mistrustful. If it had been submitted as even an undergraduate thesis, I doubt it would have received a very good mark, with the unnecessary omission of the bibliography, and its quite clumsy writing at times. It feels almost as though Hawes has chosen to include so many charts, graphs, maps, and newspaper clippings – many of which are barely legible – in order to detract from his often skewed perspectives and cursory mentions of really rather important things.

There are many short books which I have read that effectively give the history of a particular topic in succinct and immersive ways, and which also include a comprehensive list of sources for further reading. The omission of such an important thing here was a mistake. In consequence, I will never read anything of Hawes’ again, as I am unsure whether I can trust what he includes.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Speculative Japan 4: “Pearls for Mia” and Other Tales’ ****

There’s nothing better and more satisfying than finding a way to combine one’s passions. This is exactly what the Speculative Japan series does for me, as it successfully combines my love for fantasy and my fascination with Japan and its unique literature. 37550505

It’s been almost 3 years since I first read and reviewed the second volume in the series, which also happened to be my introduction to the fascinating world of Japanese fiction of the fantastic. In a similar fashion to the previous volumes, this fourth instalment includes 15 short stories, all by different authors and containing fantasy or sci-fi themes.

I really enjoyed reading this volume, as I think it was quite diverse in its content. There were some really long stories (“Dancing Babylon” by Makino Osamu) and some very short ones (“Nightfall” by Suzuki Miekichi or “Communion” by Takahashi Takako); there were stories by women as well as by men (and I’m always enthralled when I encounter fantasy stories by Japanese women); and, of course, there was the right balance between fantasy/fantastic and sci-fi stories, something which I think is an improvement compared to the previous volume where sci-fi seemed to prevail.

As with every collection, it is rather difficult for all of the stories to appeal to the reader to the same degree, and even though there were a couple of stories that were not really akin to my usual reading style, I did enjoy most of the stories contained in this volume. Two of my favourite stories were “The Fish in Chryse” by Azuma Hiroki and “The Sparrow Valley” by Hanmura Ryo.

But what I really love about the Speculative Japan series is the fact that I can encounter authors I haven’t read or even heard of before, and that expands my reading horizons immensely. The Japanese literary fantastic is a genre I’m very passionate and enthusiastic about, but since I’m still relatively new to it and I don’t have immediate access to all the untranslated works all the way here in Greece, it’s always very difficult for me to come across new and exciting authors. Speculative Japan does the job for me in this case, and so far, it has never failed me. I also love how the titles of the stories and the names of the authors are also given in Japanese, for those of us who want to research the originals, too.

If I had to mention something I find lacking in this volume, that would be more information on the translators of each piece. Especially when I read a story by an author I haven’t read before, I really enjoy reading about the author him/herself, as well as about their translators, as I tend to find their bios fascinating. That is just me, though, but it’s a little something I would like to see included in translated story collections more often.

Lastly, I would like to mention that the publishing house of Speculative Japan 4 is organising a short story translation contest (I believe) every year, and the winner’s translation is included in the upcoming Speculative Japan volume(s). I think that’s an amazing initiative, as well as a great incentive for new and aspiring translators of Japanese to English to become recognised. One day I might enter as well! 😉

While I’m eagerly anticipating the next volume of Speculative Japan to be released, I will go hunt down the ones I’m missing.

A copy of the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.