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‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood ****

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was mine and Katie’s March book club choice.  We were both eager to read it, and whilst I have seen some largely positive, but ultimately rather mixed reviews floating around, I am delighted to say that I was immediately pulled in, and could barely put the novel down.

Let us begin with some of the more positive criticism.  The Economist believes that ‘Charlotte Wood’s writing is direct and spare, yet capable of bursting with unexpected beauty’.  The Sydney Morning Herald deems it ‘an extraordinary novel: inspired, powerful, at once coherent and dreamlike’.  Author Liane Moriarty writes that it gives ‘an unforgettable reading experience’.  It is also the winner of 2016’s Indie Books of the Year prize.

The Natural Way of Things is an incredibly dark novel.  In it, ten young women awake from sedation, knowing not where they are, nor what they are doing there.  They are in the middle of the Australian bush, in a camp; they are stripped of their humanity, with heads shaved, and their own clothes taken away upon admission.  The girls find, after quite some time, that they have been taken to this camp as punishment for being embroiled in sexual scandals; from sleeping with several members of a football team, to having an explicit affair with a man in the public eye.  The girls are all markedly different, but their shameful secrets are what brand them the same.

9781760291877From the first, we feel protagonist Yolanda’s disorientation; we are privy to it: ‘So there were kookaburras here.  This was the first thing Yolanda knew in the dark morning. …  She got out of bed and felt gritty boards beneath her feet.  There was the coarse unfamiliar fabric of a nightdress on her skin.  Who had put this on her?’  Wood allows us to see her dilemma: ‘She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that’.  Yolanda also, rather touchingly, takes an inventory of herself during her first morning in captivity: ‘Yolanda Kovocs, nineteen years eight months.  Good body (she was just being honest, why would she boast, when it had got her into such trouble?). …  One mother, one brother, living.  One father, unknown, dead or alive.  One boyfriend, Robbie, who no longer believed her…  One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake.  And then one giant fucking unholy mess.’

There is a nightmarish quality to the novel, and the reader cannot help but put themselves into Yolanda’s shoes.  Her only company in the compound comes from fellow inmate Verla.  The present of both girls is interspersed with memories from their pasts; in this simple yet effective manner, we learn a great deal about them.  Yolanda particularly uses her memories as a coping mechanism against the uncertainty she feels.

The core plot of the novel reminded me, perhaps inevitably, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but in a way, I feel that it goes further.  Like Atwood, Wood ‘depicts a world where a woman’s sexuality has become a weapon turned against her’, but there is something darker at play here.  The Natural Way of Things is incredibly tense, and is so horribly vivid in the scenes which it depicts.  Gripping and disturbing, this is a must-read novel, which raises powerful questions.

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‘Midsummer Night in the Workhouse’ by Diana Athill ***

Diana Athill’s Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was a book club book which Katie and I both agreed had to be part of our revised 2016 reading list.  The short stories collected here were originally written between 1958 and 1962, and were published by Persephone in 2011; we were both understandably rather excited to read it.

9781903155820Many of the stories collected here depict couples, or those destined to become romantically involved, and sex is a strong – and occasionally surprising – theme.  Athill places more emphasis upon the physicality rather than the psychology of the act, and whilst the latter is mentioned from time to time, it feels as though animal urges interested her far more than the thought patterns which they stem from.

The title story here did intrigue.  In ‘Midsummer Night at the Workhouse’, Cecilia Mathers has been sent to the artists’ retreat of Hetherston Hall by her publisher, who ‘thought her pretty and was worried that she could afford to eat only baked beans’.  Being packed off does not have the best of effects upon Cecilia; with five other writers in residence, she feels isolated and unable to perform her craft: ‘For some months she had believed that she did not feel like beginning a second novel, or even a story, because she was so poor and harassed.  Given peace and lamb chops for lunch… but now that she was given peace and not just lamb chops but roast chicken and asparagus, and summer pudding with cream, she could still find nothing to write’.  Athill goes on to describe Cecilia’s issues with writing: ‘Shut in her room, she would look at her typewriter with loathing and would sometimes even cry’.

Cecilia’s situation has been well – and touchingly – wrought.  Hers is a believable dilemma for a writer to face, and one cannot help but wonder if Athill has placed autobiographical touches into the portrait of her creation: ‘It was not for want of trying.  She had now been there for five weeks and in that time she had painfully contrived a synopsis of a novel – a structure of cardboard and glue which would clearly fall to pieces if touched.  She had also rewritten a story once scrapped and had seen why she had scrapped it’.

‘An Unavoidable Delay’, in which an Englishwoman named Rose takes a holiday by herself to Yugoslavia in order to reevaluate her marriage, has merit; there is perhaps more psychology to her character portrait and situation in life when compared to other stories here.  Athill shrewdly displays the way in which: ‘There had been a great quarrel before she started on this holiday alone and she had hoped that now Neville would say that she had gone too far and mean it.  At the beginning she used to think: Oh, why won’t he make up his mind to throw me out?’

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is not my first brush with Athill’s work.  I picked up her memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, in an Oxfam bookshop last year, swayed as I was by the positive reviews on its cover.  Whilst it did contain some interesting ideas, and elegant phrasing, I felt as though it lacked depth in places.  I hate to say, too, that there seemed to me to be a sweeping air of pretension over the whole.  This is exactly the same opinion which I have come away with after sampling her short stories; they are interesting, sometimes shrewd, and often very well written, but they just did not strike me as memorable – or realistic, in some places – slices of life, or character portraits which will sit with me for a long time to come.

There is a strong emphasis upon art here; many of the protagonists, and some of the secondary characters, practice such things as painting or writing as their professions.  This serves to provide a thematic link from one tale to the next, and nicely demonstrates the importance which Athill placed upon the arts.

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A wonderfully mischievous Diana Athill (from http://www.hungertv.com)

Despite very much enjoying the preface to the Persephone edition, in which Athill speaks of her career as editor at a London publishing house, the majority of the stories here just did not grab me as I imagined they would.  I had no real sense that Athill’s works were mini masterpieces in the same way as I have almost immediately had with other Persephone short stories – Diana Gardner and Dorothy Whipple’s collections, for instance.  I found that many of the tales in Midsummer Night at the Workhouse ended rather abruptly, or were lacking in terms of plot.  Similar relationship details and scenes were repeated from one story to the next at times, and there was no real variation to the whole in consequence.  The tales were formulaic; barely a single one jumped out and grabbed me, or surprised me in any way, and I found this a real shame.  I had expected to be wowed by Athill’s writing, praised highly as it is, but have come away feeling more than a little disappointed.

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‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot ****

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was my choice for the June edition of the Chai and Sheep Book Club.  I first found out about it after seeing a wonderful review, complete with sublime photographs of Orkney, on dovegreyreader’s blog.  Olivia Laing, whose own work I am incidentally desperate to get to, calls it ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’.

The Outrun is a memoir of Amy Liptrot’s struggles with alcohol when she moves, first to Edinburgh as a student, and then to London: ‘At eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave…  I wanted comfort, glamour and to be at the centre of things’.  In The Outrun, Liptrot writes that essentially, relocating back to her home island rescues her.  She ‘is drawn back to the Outrun on the sheep farm where she grew up.  Approaching the land that was once home, memories of her childhood merge with the recent events that have set her on this journey’.  She groups herself together with others she grew up with: ‘It’s a push and pull factor to many young people from the islands.  We ended up back here again and again, washed back, like the inevitable tide’.
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Geographically, Orkney is the collective name for a group of seventy islands, many of them uninhabited, to the north of Scotland.  The whole area is ‘sea-scarred and wind-battered’.  As one would expect, The Outrun is filled with fascinating details regarding the history of the islands; these have been wonderfully interspersed with Liptrot’s own memories.  She details how paramount the weather is on such an exposed island group: ‘Sometimes the light picks out in fine detail the hills of Hoy, another island to the south beyond the headland, and on other days they disappear completely in the haar’.  The Outrun itself is wonderfully evoked: ‘The Outrun is tucked away behind a low hill and beside the coast, and in the right spot you can’t see any houses or be seen from the road.  Dad told me that when he was high, in a manic phase, he had slept out here.’

The prologue details Liptrot’s birth, and her father’s simultaneous relapse: ‘As I arrive into this island world, my father is taken outside of it.  My birth, three weeks early, has brought on a manic episode’.  As well as speaking about her present, Liptrot is, understandably, focused upon the past: ‘The rumblings of mental illness under my life were amplified by the presence of my mother’s extreme religion and by the landscape I was born into, the continual, perceptible crashing of the sea at the edges’.  This memoir is an incredibly honest one; I felt as though Liptrot had a no-holds-barred approach to her past.  She writes with such clarity, which really shows the hopelessness of her previous situation: ‘The alcohol I’d been pouring into myself for years was like the repeated action of the waves on the cliffs and it was beginning to cause physical damage.  Something was crumbling deep within my nervous system and shook my body in powerful pulses to the extent that I was frozen and drooling, until they eased off enough for me to pour another drink or rejoin the party’.

The disparities between city and island life have been so well evoked: ‘Another Sunday muffled and hungover in bed, makeup oily in my eyes, doors slamming somewhere, while up north the waves still curled dark and endless, and the aurora lit up the sky’.  Liptrot weaves this in with the panic mode which her drinking sends her into.  Alcohol becomes a constant in her life rather quickly, and she begins to suffer from memory lapses and mood swings.  She wakes with mysterious bruises all over her body; she is the victim of a crime.  In London, she describes some rather scary episodes: ‘I was dumbfounded and unable to make decisions about where to go, whom to see or what opinion to hold, filling the void with alcohol and anxiety’.  The London period is a gritty one for Liptrot, fraught with drugs, dependency and danger.

Aesthetically, this book is stunning, from its beautiful cover to its lovely illustrated maps.  A glossary has been included too, which is incredibly beneficial for non-Orcadian speakers such as myself; it details spellbinding words and terms, such as ‘clapshot’ (mixed neeps and tatties), ‘haar’ (sea fog), and ‘grimlins’ (a midsummer night’s sky).  Liptrot’s story has been so wonderfully – and often harrowingly – evoked that it will linger with the reader long after the final page has been read.  The Outrun is a very honest and very well written memoir, which has made me want to travel to Orkney as soon as I possibly can – perhaps an inevitable consequence of reading it.

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‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang ****

Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club.  I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.

The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.  It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’.  It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.

Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so.  Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’.  The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country.  I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.  9781846275968

The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood.  Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice.  The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters.  It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective.  This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind.  So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’.  It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench…  The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins.  Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’.  This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.

The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered.  It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’.  Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body.  Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat.  Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.

Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against.  ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things.  Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies.  Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.

The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within.  For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’.  Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.

Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation.  The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings.  The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places.  Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too.  Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.

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‘Letters from Iceland’ by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice ****

I am off to Iceland in a couple of days, and could not be more excited if I tried.  It’s one of those places I’ve wanted to visit since I was tiny, and I am so grateful that I am now able to travel there with my boyfriend.  I have – perhaps unsurprisingly – always been interested in books set in Iceland, fictional or not, and have been attempting to get hold of a copy of Letters from Iceland for an awfully long time.  I love travel books, and the fact that this is described as ‘highly amusing and unorthodox’ piqued my interest further.  With the help of lovely Faber reissuing the book, and a Christmas voucher, I have finally been able to add it to my collection. 41pxwwejz8l-_sx316_bo1204203200_

Letters from Iceland is so rich that I felt it warranted a full-length review.  Whilst I was already familiar with, and enjoy, Auden’s poetry, the MacNeice which I had read was sparse to say the least, and I had barely touched upon the prose output of either man.  Letters from Iceland is comprised of Auden and MacNeice’s letters home from their 1936 trip to the country, which were rendered into both verse and prose.

The new Faber edition includes Auden’s 1965 foreword, which I found fascinating in terms of how much Iceland had changed in just three decades.  Clearly, Auden has a real passion for the place: ‘But the three months in Iceland upon which it [the book] is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content’.

Their trip to Iceland was taken at a fascinating time in history; the men set off during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War occurred whilst they were there.  The reasons for both being there, and what they wished to discover, varied, but the way in which MacNeice describes it is rather humorous: ‘You and I / Know very well the immediate reason why / I am in Iceland.  Three months ago or so / Wystan said that he was planning to go / To Iceland to write a book and would I come too; / And I said yes, having nothing better to do’.

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Louis MacNeice

The imagery which both men present is gorgeous and rich.  I loved the sense of rural history which was captured: ‘The town [Reykjavik] peters out into flat rusty-brown lava-fields, scattered shacks surrounded by wire-fencing, stockfish drying on washing-lines and a few white hens’.  They are very aware of their sense of space, and their current position within the world.  In MacNeice’s letter to Graham and Anne Shepard, for instance, is the following: ‘… but please remember us / So high up here in this vertiginous / Crow’s nest of the earth.  Perhaps you’ll let us know / If anything happens in the world below?’

Much emphasis, unsurprisingly, has been placed upon the output of Iceland’s citizens in the fields of art and literature.  The information which has been given about Icelandic authors, and the country’s reading population, is absolutely fascinating, as is that of creative life in the country: ‘The best-known authors and painters receive support from the state, without any obligations to output’.

Handy travel tips have been included for their late-1930s audience, ranging from appropriate clothing – ‘a cape is useless’ – and alternative boat routes to take for ‘those who like the sea’, to the believed necessity for a guide: ‘There are very few places in Iceland where it is pleasant to walk, and for long expeditions guides are absolutely necessary if you don’t want to lose your horses or get drowned in a river’.  Reflections upon the Icelandic diet amuse too: dried fish, for instance, ‘varies in toughness.  The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one feet’, and the beer ‘is weak and nasty, and the lemonade unspeakable’.  ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, which is comprised of many different quotes from authors and visitors to Iceland, and regards different aspects of life in the country, is also rather funny in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

The poetic contributions are often most amusing. In Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, for instance, is written: ‘… though it’s true / That I have, at the age of twenty-nine / Just read Don Juan and found it fine. / I read it on the boat to Reykjavik / Except when eating or asleep or sick.’  I have discovered, through Letters from Iceland, that I am very much a fan of MacNeice’s poetry, from such perfectly-formed stanzas as follows: ‘The songs of jazz have told us of a moon country / And we like to dream of a heat which is never sultry, / Melons to eat, champagne to drink, and a lazy / Music hour by hour depetalling the daisy’.

WH Auden in London in 1938

W. H. Auden

Auden can be rather sarcastic, and some of his comments occasionally border upon the scathing.  In response to a question addressed to him by author friend Christopher Isherwood, he writes: ‘If you have no particular intellectual interests or ambitions and are content with the company of your family and friends, then life on Iceland must be very pleasant…  I think that, in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me.  The truth is, we are both only really happy living amongst lunatics’.

With regard to further travels, Auden informs us that he ‘didn’t go to Finland after all.  I felt another country would only be muddling.  Finland has not the slightest connection with Iceland, and a travel book about unconnected places becomes simply a record of a journey, which is boring.  I dare say it’s all right if you’re a neo-Elizabethan young man who has a hairbreadth escape or meets a very eccentric clergyman every five minutes, but I’m not’.

Letters from Iceland is a very entertaining book, which is wonderfully varied, both in terms of its seriousness and frivolity, and its differing prose styles.  The techniques used – poems, stories, proverbs, folk tales, and anecdotes to name a few – makes the book a perfect choice to read in one go.  Letters from Iceland is highly recommended, and is a wonderful book to start any trip to the country with.

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Classics Club #16: ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy ****

The Mayor of Casterbridge, as well as being on my Classics Club list, is the second choice which the lovely Katie and I decided upon for our Chai and Sheep book club.  I adore Hardy’s writing, and very much enjoyed Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but had rather a few complaints about Far From the Madding Crowd (which, incidentally, was our first book club pick).

When I began The Mayor of Casterbridge therefore, I was dearly hoping that there were no Bathsheba-esque characters within it.  From the first page, I found it a lot easier to read than the aforementioned, perhaps merely because the story here interested me more.

To borrow the official blurb, the plot is thus: “In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper.”

I loved the beginning of the novel, and found the twists which it took throughout rather clever; there were certainly very few of them which I predicted.  It did get a little stale towards the middle, in my opinion, when it became a touch more involved in the less exciting elements of country life – the price of wheat, for example.  Yes, such details have importance of a kind, and I can definitely see why Hardy chose to include them to further sculpt the historical and geographical landscapes amongst which his characters stood.  Thankfully, such aspects are not overdone here, as I have found them to be in his other books (*cough* Far From the Madding Crowd *cough*).  The sense of place here too does not feel as rigid, and thus allows the reader to make up his or her mind a little more – an element which I certainly welcomed.  His use of colours and textures is quite often sublime.

It almost goes without saying that The Mayor of Casterbridge is incredibly well written and sculpted.  I love Hardy’s character descriptions particularly; some of them here are almost quirky: ‘with a nose resembling a copper knob, a damp voice, and eyes like button-holes’.  It feels as though he really did his female characters justice for the most part here; they were not as submissive as some of his other creations (yes, I am measuring everyone against dear old Bathsheba), and had some thoughts and opinions which had – shock horror! – not been moulded by their male counterparts from time to time.

The structure of The Mayor of Casterbridge is both thoughtful and a success; a particularly great element is the way in which he follows different characters from one chapter to the next without losing any threads of the story, or any of the immediacy of the piece.

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