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‘A Misalliance’ by Anita Brookner ***

I have read rather a lot of Anita Brookner’s novels over the last year or two, and have got to the stage where they are all starting to feel very similar.  A lot of her books focus upon single, or troubled, women, who are trying to find their place in the world, as well as yearning to know themselves.  I had three of her tomes outstanding on my bookshelf, and chose A Misalliance, which was published in 1986, at random.  I read several rather mixed reports of it before I began to read, and the word which stood out most for me was ‘bleak’.

9781400095223Blanche Vernon, our protagonist, was abandoned by her husband of twenty years in favour of a ‘bubbling yuppie in her twenties’.  The childless woman spends her days visiting museums around her home city of London, so as not to feel the loneliness which can hit her when in her flat.  The novel opens in the following way: ‘Blanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay.  In this uneasy month of the year – cold April, long chilly evenings – she considered it a matter of honour to be busy and amused until darkness fell and released her from her obligations’.  Blanche is very much occupied with saving face, and appearing as cheery as she did when she was married to the outside world.  Indeed, from her perspective, her marriage was a very happy one, and she was left shocked when Bertie walked out on her.  ‘It was her husband,’ writes Brookner, in rather a tongue in cheek manner, ‘who had fashioned her into the woman she was now, so independent, so dignified, so able to manage on her own.’

Indeed, A Misalliance does follow extremely similar tropes to a lot of Brookner’s other works; it is an introspective study of a woman who suddenly has to live alone, and adjust accordingly, through no fault of her own.  We learn a lot about Blanche’s thoughts and feelings, and the drawing of her relationship is almost a psychological one when taken together.  Blanche struck me as rather a pathetic character; she is incredibly gullible, and seems not to have the faintest inkling of when she is being used, or taken for granted.  Brookner’s portrayal of her takes any sympathy away, and she appears as a not very likeable protagonist.  The lease of life which she is given is a little unlikely in places, and did not strike me as an overly realistic occurrence in consequence.  Thematically, almost all of the Brookner novels which I have read to date – Falling Slowly, Providence, and Family and Friends to name but three – follow this formula; clearly it is one which worked for the author, but it leaves little to the imagination for her readers.

A Misalliance is certainly readable and intelligent, but it does seem a little as though Brookner has recycled characters, both primary and secondary, from her other books, and squashed them all together here.  The secondary characters are often far more interesting than Blanche herself, and part of me would have liked to learn more about them, or for the focus to shift between Blanche and one another.  This approach would have appeared as relatively refreshing, and I am almost certain that I would have ended up liking the novel a lot more than I did.

Vogue says that the novel ‘has the old-fashioned virtue of being easy to read while remaining bracingly intelligent’, and the Times Literary Supplement that it provides ‘a civilised look at contemporary disorder, and a wonderfully poised and pointed examination of the wrong turning’.  I ended up concluding that A Misalliance is a very middle-of-the-road, and sadly almost nondescript, book.  Yes, it has virtue, but it is one of Brookner’s weaker and less memorable tomes.  If you like Brookner already, then there’s no harm at all in reading this, but if you are new to her work, I would not suggest this as a fruitful starting point to her oeuvre.

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Two Reviews: ‘Take Courage’ and ‘Falling Slowly’

9781784740214Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis ****
I am, and always have been, a huge fan of Anne Bronte, and when I first heard about Samantha Ellis’ focused biography of her life, I was rather excited. I found Take Courage absorbing, and quite enjoyed the relatively casual writing style which the biography takes. Ellis’ account is far-reaching, and includes a lot of interesting critique about her prose and poetry, as well as thorough studies of each of her siblings, and her parents. The way in which chapters follow different figures, from Branwell and Emily, to the Brontes’ housekeeper, Tabby, is effective.

Take Courage is well written on the whole, although it did feel a little too colloquial at times. I did, however, like the way in which Ellis added her own personal story alongside Anne’s, giving a more personal dimension to the whole. Take Courage is well thought out and enjoyable, and awfully touching, particularly toward the end.

 

Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner *** 9780375704246
There is a slight detachment at play within Anita Brookner’s Falling Slowly. The plot is rather drawn out, and it did not feel as though there were enough occurrences or character developments here to sustain a novel of this length. Very little happened, even in comparison to other, slower books of Brookner’s. The characters never really came to life; I found them unrealistic, particularly toward the end of the book. The relationships drawn between them too are very bizarre, and not at all what I was expecting. Although Falling Slowly follows similar conventions to some of Brookner’s other books, I did not enjoy it anywhere near as much. Whilst it is not badly written, the dialogue feels awfully dated, and it is perhaps therefore more of a 2.5 star read than a 3.

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Anita Brookner and Sarah Duguid’s ‘Look at Me’ ****

I hardly ever link together reviews based upon shared book titles, but I recently read two entitled Look at Me, and thought that they would be interesting to show in this way.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner ****:
9780241977774‘Once a thing is known it can never be unknown.’ By day Frances Hinton works in a medical library, by night she haunts the room of a West London mansion flat. Everything changes, however, when she is adopted by charming Nick and his dazzling wife Alix. They draw her into their tight circle of friends. Suddenly, Frances’ life is full and ripe with new engagements. But too late, Frances realises that she may be only a play thing, to be picked up and discarded once used. And that just one act in defiance of Alix’s wishes could see her lose everything …’

Look at Me is an undoubtedly intelligent novel.  I did not find it as immediately engaging as I did Leaving Home, but there was the same minute level of detail within our protagonist, Frances, and she felt rather realistic in consequence.  There are some elegant turns of phrase here, and an effective unsettling feeling soon creeps in.  Look at Me is an absorbing novella, with such a quiet power.

 

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid **** 9781472229847
‘Lizzy lives with her father, Julian, and her brother, Ig, in North London. Two years ago her mother died, leaving in a trail a family bereft by her absence and a house still filled with her things: for Margaret was lively, beautiful, fun, loving; she kept the family together. So Lizzy thinks. Then, one day, Lizzy finds a letter from a stranger to her father, and discovers he has another child. Lizzy invites her into their world in an act of outraged defiance. Almost immediately, she realises her mistake.  Look at Me is a deft exploration of family, grief, and the delicate balance between moving forward and not quite being able to leave someone behind. It is an acute portrayal of how familial upheaval can cause misunderstanding and madness, damaging those you love most.’

I spotted this in the library catalogue quite by chance when I was searching for Anita Brookner’s novella of the same name.  It wasn’t a book which I’d heard of before, but its storyline sounded so good that I decided to add it to my reserve list.  Tinder Press is also a favourite publishing house of mine, which was a further reason to borrow it.

Look at Me is absorbing, and so cleverly written; its suspense is built beautifully, and a claustrophobia becomes apparent at around the halfway point.  It put me in mind of books by Harriet Lane (also a positive).  It is especially vivid in terms of space and place.  Well written and well paced, Look at Me kept me interested and entertained throughout, and I am very much looking forward to Duguid’s next novel.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Five)

The final part of this week’s Really Underrated Books brings with it a question – which is the book which has caught your attention the most this week?

1. The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger 253668
Tess Slesinger’s 1934 novel, The Unpossessed details the ins and outs and ups and downs of left-wing New York intellectual life and features a cast of litterateurs, layabouts, lotharios, academic activists, and fur-clad patrons of protest and the arts. This cutting comedy about hard times, bad jobs, lousy marriages, little magazines, high principles, and the morning after bears comparison with the best work of Dawn Powell and Mary McCarthy.

 

2. Postmortem: How Medical Examiners Explain Suspicious Deaths by Stefan Timmermans
As elected coroners were replaced by medical examiners with scientific training, the American public became fascinated with their work. From the grisly investigations showcased on highly rated television shows like CSI to the bestselling mysteries that revolve around forensic science, medical examiners have never been so visible—or compelling. They, and they alone, solve the riddle of suspicious death and the existential questions that come with it. Why did someone die? Could it have been prevented? Should someone be held accountable? What are the implications of ruling a death a suicide, a homicide, or an accident? Can medical examiners unmask the perfect crime?  Postmortem goes deep inside the world of medical examiners to uncover the intricate web of social, legal, and moral issues in which they operate. Stefan Timmermans spent years in a medical examiner’s office following cases, interviewing examiners, and watching autopsies. While he relates fascinating cases here, he is also more broadly interested in the cultural authority and responsibilities that come with being a medical examiner. How medical examiners speak to the living on behalf of the dead is Timmermans’s subject, revealed here in the day-to-day lives of the examiners themselves.

 

3. The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside 3057525
Once, on a winter’s night many years ago, after a heavy snow, the devil passed through the Scottish fishing town of Coldhaven, leaving a trail of dark hoofprints across the streets and roofs of the sleeping town.  Michael Gardiner has lived in Coldhaven all his life, but still feels like an outsider, a blow-in. When Moira Birnie decides that her abusive husband is the devil and then kills herself and her two young sons, a terrible chain of events begins. Michael’s infatuation with Moira’s teenage daughter takes him on a journey towards a defined fate, where he is forced to face his present and then, finally, his past…

 

4. Awake in the Dark by Shira Nayman
Bold and deeply affecting, “Awake in the Dark” is a provocative and haunting work of fiction about who we are and how we are formed by history. These luminous stories portray the contemporary lives of the children of Holocaust victims and perpetrators as they struggle with the legacy of their parents — their questions of identity, family, and faith. “Awake in the Dark” is peopled by characters embarking on journeys of self-discovery; they unearth the past and the secrets that shaped them. In “The House on Kronenstrasse,” a woman returns to Germany to find her childhood home; in “The Porcelain Monkey,” the shocking origins of an Orthodox Jewish woman’s faith are revealed; in “The Lamp,” the harrowing experiences of a young woman leave her with the perfect daughter and a strange light; and in “Dark Urgings of the Blood,” a patient is convinced that she shares a disturbing history with her psychiatrist.

 

5124915. Lucky in the Corner by Carol Anshaw
Nora and Fern’s relationship as mother and daughter is a tumble of love and distrust. To Nora, her daughter is an enigma — at the same time wonderful and unfindable. Fern sees her mother as treacherous — for busting up their family to move in with her lover, Jeanne. As their lives become complicated by the arrivals of a skateboarding boyfriend for Fern, a shadowy affair for Nora, a baby in need of a family, and by the failing health of Lucky, their beloved dog, this mother and daughter find their way onto a fresh footing with each other.

 

6. I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al-Shaykh
At the intersection of tradition and modernity, East and West, childhood and adulthood, the characters in this book find their way through the shifting and ambiguous power relationships that change the landscape of the modern Arab world.

 

7. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (one of my personal favourites!) 7516243
A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate, and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from an uncaring and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.  Beside the Sea is a haunting and thought-provoking story about how a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay. It’s a hypnotizing look at an unhinged mind and the cold society that produced it. With language as captivating as the story that unfolds, Véronique Olmi creates an intimate portrait of madness and despair that won’t soon be forgotten

 

8. Focus by Ingrid Ricks
In her powerful memoir, Ingrid Ricks delves into the shock of discovering at age thirty-seven that she was in the advanced stages of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a devastating degenerative eye disease that doctors said would eventually steal her remaining eyesight. Focus takes readers into Ingrid’s world as she faces the crippling fear of not being able to see her two young daughters grow up, of becoming a burden to her husband, of losing the career she loves, and of being robbed of the independence that defines her.  Ultimately, Focus is about Ingrid’s quest to fix her eyes that ends up fixing her life. Through an eight-year journey marked by a trip to South Africa to write about AIDS orphans, a four-day visit with a doctor who focuses on whole-body health, a relationship-changing confrontation with her husband and a life-changing lesson from her daughters, Ingrid learns to embrace the moment and see what counts—something no amount of vision loss can take from her.

 

831719. America’s Boy by Wade Rouse
‘Wade didn’t quite fit in. While schoolmates had crewcuts and wore Wrangler jeans, Wade styled his hair in imitation of Robbie Benson circa Ice Castles and shopped in the Sears husky section. Wade’s father insisted on calling everyone “honey”—even male gas station attendants. His mother punctuated her conversations with “WHAT?!” and constantly answered herself as though she was being cross-examined. He goes to school with a pack of kids called goat ropers who make the boys from Deliverance look like honor students. And he both loved and hated his perfect older brother.  While other families traveled to Florida and Hawaii for vacation, Wade’s family packed their clothes in garbage bags and drove to their log cabin on Sugar Creek in the Missouri Ozarks. And it is here that Wade found refuge from his everyday struggle to fit in—until a sudden, terrible accident on the Fourth of July took his brother’s life and changed everything.  Equally nostalgic, poignant, funny, and compelling, this is a story of what it is to be normal, what it means to fit in, and what it means to be yourself.’

 

10. The Debut by Anita Brookner
Since childhood Ruth Weiss has been escaping from life into books, and from the hothouse attentions of her tyrannical and eccentric parents into the gentler warmth of lovers and friends. Now Dr. Weiss, at forty, a quiet scholar devoted to the study of Balzac, is convinced that her life has been ruined by literature, and that once again she must make a new start in life.

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‘Leaving Home’ by Anita Brookner ****

‘At twenty-six, Emma Roberts comes to the painful realization that if she is ever to become truly independent, she must leave her comfortable London flat and venture into the wider world. This entails not only breaking free from a claustrophobic relationship with her mother, but also shedding her inherited tendency toward melancholy. Once settled in a small Paris hotel, Emma befriends Francoise Desnoyers, a vibrant young woman who offers Emma a glimpse into a turbulent life so different from her own. In this exquisite new novel of self-discovery, Booker Prize-winner Anita Brookner addresses one of the great dramas of our lives: growing up and leaving home.’

9781400095650I purchased Anita Brookner’s Leaving Home with my thesis in mind, without quite knowing if it was literary enough to include.  Prior to this, I had only read Hotel du Lac, which I chose for a book club I was part of several years ago.  Whilst I enjoyed it, I also found it a touch underwhelming.  From the very beginning of Leaving Home, however, I was captivated.  The narrative voice is strong, and it says a lot about interiority whilst following a single female character, Emma, who is trying to make her place in the world.  Emma is rather unusual at times in her outlook; she does not permit herself to fall in love, but cultivates platonic relationships with two men.

In some ways, Leaving Home does feel rather dated; it has antiquated dialogue patterns, in which nobody seems to use any colloquialisms whatsoever.  Despite this, Emma is rather realistic.  She has rather a lot of freedom, and spends her time flitting back and forth from London to Paris.  In the sensitively wrought Leaving Home, which is a coming-of-age novel of sorts, Brookner demonstrates what it is like to be a lonely young woman.

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Reading the World: Europe (Three)

Five final recommendations from the depths of marvellous Europe!

97800071774241. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Bosnia)
People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure. When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book – to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book. As meticulously researched as all of Brooks’ previous work, ‘People of the Book’ is a gripping and moving novel about war, art, love and survival.’

2. Purge by Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)
‘Deep in the overgrown Estonian forest, two women are caught in a deadly snare. Zara is a prostitute, and a murderer. Aliide is a communist sympathizer, the widow of a party member, a blood traitor. And retribution is coming for them both. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion and betrayal set against a backdrop of the oppressive Soviet regime and European war.’

3. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy (Poland) 9780142003077
‘In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed “Hansel” and “Gretel.” They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called “witch” by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children. Combining classic themes of fairy tales and war literature, Louise Murphy s haunting novel of journey and survival, of redemption and memory, powerfully depicts how war is experienced by families and especially by children.’

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (All over Europe)
‘The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads: Opens at Nightfalll Closes at Dawn As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Le Cirque des Reves The Circus of Dreams. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.’

5. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (Switzerland) 9780140147476
‘Into the rarefied atmosphere of the Hotel du Lac timidly walks Edith Hope, romantic novelist and holder of modest dreams. Edith has been exiled from home after embarrassing herself and her friends. She has refused to sacrifice her ideals and remains stubbornly single. But among the pampered women and minor nobility Edith finds Mr Neville, and her chance to escape from a life of humiliating spinsterhood is renewed…’

 

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