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‘Everything Under’ by Daisy Johnson ****

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel, Everything Under, was shortlisted for 2018’s Man Booker Prize.  Of all of the novels on the shortlist, this was the one which appealed to me most, and her short story collection, Fen, has been on my radar for a long time.  There has been, quite rightly, a lot of buzz around the novel, and some of the reviews really caught my eye.  Most interestingly, The Guardian writes of Johnson’s prose style as ‘a mix of Graham Swift and Angela Carter’.
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Everything Under is a modernised retelling of the Classical myth Oedipus Rex.  Protagonist Gretel Whiting works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries.  Whilst the prose and Gretel’s thoughts are deeply involved in language and the power of words, much of the story proper revolves around her relationship with her mother, Sarah.  Whilst they were close when Gretel was small, they are now estranged.  Having no knowledge whatsoever of where her mother is, she regularly phones around the local hospitals and morgues to try and locate her.  However, things are turned on their head when she receives information from a hospital which ‘interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago.’

When she is introduced into the novel in the present day, Sarah is suffering decline, and a loss of memory.  Johnson relays, in quite stark prose, the effects of this upon both herself and Gretel.  She writes: ‘You shout for me in the middle of the night and when I come running you ask what I’m doing there.  You are not Gretel, you say.  My daughter Gretel was wild and beautiful.  You are not her.’  Despite this sad edge to her condition, there are still moments of lucidity and companionship between mother and daughter, and remembrances of a secret language which they made up when Gretel was small: ‘Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them.  It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot.  We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother.  We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does.  We have a whole language all our own.’

Gretel and Sarah are both rendered as complex characters, and as the novel continues, their perplexing relationship unfolds.  Johnson deftly writes almost an expose of mother and daughter, exploring whether any former love can be recovered between them in the present day.  Gretel is a very private person, choosing to live almost in secrecy: ‘I was an hour and a half from Oxford, where I worked, on the bus.  No one but the postman knew I was here.  I was protective of my solitude.’  She is insightful about her reasoning for searching for her mother, who abandoned her when she was thirteen: ‘I’d always understood that the past did not die just because we wanted it to…  The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.  That was why I looked for you all those years, Sarah.  Not for answers, condolences; not to ply you with guilt or set you up for a fall.  But because – a long time ago – you were my mother and you left.’ As a character study, the novel is a satisfying one.

The plot of Everything Under meanders between Gretel’s present and episodes in her past, with particular focus upon the period in which her mother took in a young runaway named Margot, disguised as a boy named Marcus, and subsequently left her. Of all the characters here, I found Margot by far the most interesting; there was something quite unusual about her, and the way in which she interacted with the world around her.   The narrative is not a linear one, and episodes from Gretel’s past are often a little muddled in the order in which they occurred.  There is an element of magical realism here, in that something which Gretel and Sarah name ‘The Bonak’ lurks in the water of their canal, stealing things away.

I found the opening paragraph of the novel utterly beguiling.  Johnson writes: ‘The places we are born come back.  They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia…  We become strangers to the places we are born.  They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them…  If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin.  Just so we could find our way back.  Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.’  From the start of Everything Under, there is a dark volatility to the prose.  For instance, ‘You are too old to beat anything out of.  The memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.’

The novel’s prose never sugarcoats anything; rather, the murky aspects of Gretel’s past and present, as well as descriptions of the landscape, come to the fore: ‘She crawled as far as she could into the bush.  There was a slime of leaves, beer cans cut open, a white-filmed balloon that skidded under her bad leg’, for instance.  I did enjoy Johnson’s writing style, but given what I had heard of Fen, I must admit that I was expecting her language to be more poetic, and the sense of place to be rather more present at the story’s outset.  It does strengthen dramatically as the novel goes on, however, and I enjoyed the way in which Oxfordshire and the waterways almost became characters in their own right.  I did feel the structure of the novel was effective, with relatively short chapters collected under titles like ‘The River’ and ‘The Cottage’, which are repeated throughout.

My personal preference was for those passages which related to the rooting of the landscape, and in which I was learning about the Whiting family dynamics, rather than those in which Gretel was discussing herself.  Some paragraphs were particularly trenchant, such as this one: ‘What went missing in the night: themed from the edges of the riverbanks, the rabbits in their cavernous burrows, the moorhens that slept on the low branches, stray dogs wandering where they shouldn’t, the rows of fish from the fishermen’s camp, silver hooks, the neighbourhood cats and everything they had – in their turn – hunted and eaten: mice, blind fumbling moles, broken-winged birds.’

Exploring themes of self and identity, as well as the ways in which we interact with others, there is a lot to admire in Everything Under.  The use of the present tense, and the continual addressing to ‘you’, the protagonist’s mother, gives a sense of urgency to the whole.  There are certainly some interesting and thought-provoking turns of phrase and ideas sprinkled through the novel, and overall, it feels as though Johnson is a shrewd and perceptive author, really getting to the core of her characters. Everything Under is far more involved with character than plot, and the building of these characters has been handled well.  In places, however, the plot feels a little thin on the ground, and the parallels between Everything Under and Oedipus Rex were far too obvious.  There seemed, at points, to be only a single, frayed thread holding everything together.

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‘Masks’ by Enchi Fumiko ****

The first book for my Japanese Literature Challenge 12, which I read back in January, is Masks by Enchi Fumiko, one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century. Originally written in 1958 and translated to English in 1983 by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Masks is a hauntingly fascinating novel which masterfully combines an intricate plot with Japanese cultural elements.25304404

The book is separated into three parts, each one named after a different theatre Noh mask. As it is explained in the novel itself, each Noh mask portrays a specific emotion and symbolises something different, so the naming of each chapter after the specific mask was everything but arbitrary, too.

The story begins by introducing us to Ibuki, a literature professor, and Mikame, a doctor, who stumble upon one another in a coffee shop in Kyoto. As they catch up, they talk about Yasuko, a recently widowed woman in which both men seem to be interested. Yasuko lives with her mother-in-law, Mieko, who used to be a famous poet and who also appears to control Yasuko’s life in a more complicated way than the two men initially imagine.

Although I want to go into much more detail regarding the plot of this novel, I’m afraid anything more will definitely lead to spoilers. The way the lives of those four characters get tangled up is truly marvelous and the plot thickens more and more as the story progresses, yet without the reader really realising so until the last couple of pages.

Apart from occasional mentions to the Noh theatre, the story is imbued with references to The Tale of Genji, one of the most famous pieces of classic Japanese literature, as the story of the Lady Rokujo (one of the characters in this epic) is not only mentioned by the characters, but certain allusions to the incidents that take place in Masks can also be drawn. Enchi’s influence by the grand epic is apparent if one considers the fact that she had translated it into modern Japanese – a rather daunting and time-consuming task given The Tale‘s length.

Enchi’s writing and the beliefs she has instilled in her characters might be considered conservative or outdated for the modern reader, but I have to admit I found this novel rather refreshing to read – perhaps because I had only read novels by Japanese men written during that period or perhaps Enchi’s writing actually resonated with me more deeply than I initially thought it would.

Masks is a tale of deception, revenge and punishment. It is a tale that will whisk the readers away, thoroughly transporting them to its era (even if they aren’t really familiar with all the cultural references), tangling them up into an invisible thread that will start desolving only after they have reached the very last page.

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One From the Archive: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott ****

I first encountered Little Women when I was seven or eight; I distinctly remember opening it on a cold December day and bemoaning the fact that I had to stop reading it when our family friends came round for lunch, simply because I could not tear myself away.  Whilst I so enjoyed my first encounter with the March sisters, for some reason I had not picked up the novel since.  I decided to add it to my Classics Club list merely because I felt that a re-read was long overdue.

9780147514011I am sure that Little Women has been a part of the childhoods of many, but I will recap the main details of the story for those who have perhaps not come across it before, or are yet to read the novel.  The four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – all in their formative years, begin their tale by lamenting over having to forfeit their usual Christmas presents due to it being ‘a hard winter for everyone’.  Their mother tells them that she thinks ‘we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army’.  The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which adds a relatively dark and ever-present edge to the whole.   Their father – a hero of sorts – is fighting in the conflict, and it is his reference to his daughters as ‘little women’ that gives the novel its title.

I found myself automatically endeared to bookish Jo and young Amy, whose initial slips in vocabulary were rather adorable.  Jo is headstrong and very determined about those things which matter to her: ‘I’m not [a young lady]!  And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…  I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster!  It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!  I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy!’  The dynamic between the sisters is so well crafted; there are squabbles and rivalries from time to time, but an overriding sense of love – even adoration for one another – cushions the whole.

Alcott sets the scene immediately; in just the first few pages, we find out that the Marches are relatively poor, and the detailed jobs which the girls have had to take on to aid their mother in the running of the household and the monetary needs of the family.  Her descriptions are lovely: ‘A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine’.  She is very perceptive of her characters, the girls particularly; whilst they are part of the same unit, each separate protagonist is so distinctive due to the varied character traits which prevail in their personas.  Meg is sensible, Jo concerned about maintaining a tough outer image, Beth kindly and sensitive, and Amy aware of what she believes is her own importance in the world.  Their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee, too, is well crafted, and the initial description which Alcott gives of her is darling: ‘a tall, motherly lady with a “can I help you” look about her which was truly delightful.  She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world’.

I really like the way in which Little Women begins around Christmastime; parts of it made for a wonderful and cosy festive read.  The novel is incredibly well written, and the dialogue throughout has been well constructed.  The conversations which the characters have – particularly those which take place between the sisters – are believable, and all daily mundanity has been left out for the mostpart.

Little Women is an absolute delight to read – it is endearing, sweet, amusing and engaging, and the storyline holds interest throughout.  A lot can be learnt from this novel; the girls may not have all that much by way of possessions or money, but they always make the best of their lot, and know how to appreciate everything about them.  Through her characters especially, Alcott is rather wise at times.  I personally preferred the girls far more when they were younger; they were still interesting constructs as adults, but they were nowhere near as endearing, and for that reason alone, the novel receives a four star rating from me.

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One From the Archive: ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon ****

As far as classic novels go, Lady Audley’s Secret is a facile and rather stunning read.  I was surprised at the ease into which I slipped into the story; Braddon’s writing is beautiful, and casts a spell of sorts around the reader from the very beginning.

Lady Audley’s Secret is set during the 1850s, and centres around the novel’s named protagonist, who has rather a shadowy past: ‘The truth was that Lady Audley had, in becoming the wife of Sir Michael, made one of those apparently advantageous matches which are apt to draw upon a woman the envy and hatred of her sex.  She had come into the neighbourhood as a governess in the family of a surgeon in the village near Audley Court.  No one knew anything of her…  She came from London; and the only reference she gave was to a lady at a school at Brompton, where she had once been a teacher’.

Braddon’s initial descriptions of the house and its surroundings are stunning: ‘It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thorough-fare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business imagesthere at all.  At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand – and which jumped straight from one hour to the next – and was therefore always in extremes.  Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.  A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county.  To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss.  To the left there was a broad gravelled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by goodly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter’.

At the risk of quoting the entire book, I feel that it is worth sharing Braddon’s initial, charming description of the Audley Court abode: ‘A glorious old place.  A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water.  A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenue…’.

Lady Audley’s Secret is both an atmospheric and compelling work, which felt rather modern at times.  At first, I was reminded a little of Ian McEwan’s marvellous Atonement, in terms of the style of the whole and the way in which Audley Court sprang to life before my very eyes.  Braddon seamlessly introduces her characters, and I very much like the structure of the whole; subsequent chapters follow different protagonists.  In this manner, those who own the house, as well as those who work there have been taken into account, and a well-rounded picture of the whole establishment is soon created.  The largely omniscient narrator takes the reader into his or her confidence through the use of small and infrequent asides, and this narrative voice works incredibly well with the unfolding whole.

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‘The Blind Owl’ by Sadegh Hedayat ***

I, perhaps shamefully, had never heard of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl before spotting it in the Modern Classics section of the library.  Whilst originally banned in the author’s native Iran, it soon became a bestseller, and he is now heralded as one of the fathers of modern Iranian literature.  First published in 1937, and in English twenty years later, a 75th anniversary edition was published in 2011.  Hedayat’s masterpiece has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe, which may give you a feel for the kind of story which is going to unfold.

The Blind Owl, in less than 130 pages, feels masterful in the way in which it takes the reader into the ‘nightmarish exploration of the psyche of a madman’ after the loss of a mysterious lover.  It sounded stra9789186131449nge but intriguing, and I have read very little literature which discusses and examines madness from a male perspective.

This madness, or rather the process of spiralling into it, is captured wonderfully by the haunting and immediate voice of Hedayat’s narrator: ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.  If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one denouncing with insatiable appetite each word I write.  It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt.  Who knows?  We may perhaps come to know each other better.  Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.’

The sense of the ‘Other’ which Hedayat is aware of from the very beginning of The Blind Owl is emphasised through repetitions of certain phrases and paragraphs, which form a kind of backbone within the novella.  There is little plot here really, but it is the way in which Hedayat handles his protagonist, and the changes which he goes through so suddenly, which is the real strength.  The reader is swept along, entirely adrift in the narrator’s mind; it feels as though we have no control, and are entering a world of manic thoughts along with him.  The urgency and confusion of the prose adds to this effect, and it soon begins to feel rather claustrophobic.

Dark and rather gruesome, The Blind Owl gives a real insight into an extremely troubled mind.  Whilst it does not demonstrate, or even really touch upon, its Iranian setting, which was a shame, the translation by Naveed Noori makes it feel fresh and contemporary.  Occasionally, The Blind Owl feels quite jarring to read, but perseverance makes it worth it.  The Blind Owl is a haunting novella, with a powerful voice, and rather a terrifying message buried beneath it.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple

First published in 2015.

After a few not very good and rather disappointing reads, I really felt in the mood for a Persephone.  I adore the books which they publish, and for me, they are one of the most important publishing houses which exists today.  Dorothy Whipple is an author who seems to be one of the most adored on the Persephone list, and I was eager to begin another of her novels.  Someone at a Distance was first published in 1953.

Someone at a Distance is introduced by Nina Bawden, an author whose work I very much enjoy.  She writes of how much she admires Whipple’s work, and says this about the novel: ‘[it] is, on the face of it, a fairly ordinary tale of a deceived wife and a foolish husband in rural suburbia not far from London and, perhaps because the author was nearing sixty when she wrote it, there is a slight pre-war flavour about the domestic expectations of the characters’.   Bawden goes on to say that ‘Whipple is a storyteller in the straightforward tradition of J.B. Priestley and Arnold Bennett rather than Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen’.

I was beguiled from the novel’s very beginning.  The opening chapter sets the tone of the whole wonderfully: ‘Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs. North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company.  She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times‘.  A young Frenchwoman, Louise Lanier, determined to spend the summer in England, is its author.  Of her newest venture, Mrs North says the following: ‘”At my age, I don’t expect fun…  But I hope it will be interesting.  I’m too old to go in search of change, so I’ll try to bring change into the house.  It’s too quiet as it is.”‘

As with a lot of the books on the Persephone list, Someone at a Distance is a familial novel.  Avery North, son of the formidable matriarch, is a publisher.  Ellen, his wife, is focused upon, and she is one of the most realistic constructs whom I have come across in fiction in such a long time: ‘Guiltily, pleasurably, she avoided the parties Bennett and North gave for authors, agents and the like…  everybody talked vociferously, and though here and there people moved aside, smiling, to let her pass, nobody interrupted conversation for her.  Slight, fair, with no idea at all of trying to make an impression, she didn’t look important and nobody wondered who she was’.

Whipple exemplifies the changing times within society marvellously: ‘Maids had disappeared from the domestic scene long ago…  Ellen now did as her neighbours did and employed day, or, more properly, half-day, women’.  We learn both about the North family, and headstrong Louise Lanier, as she finds her feet.  Whipple’s description of her is vivid from the very first: ‘Her lips were made up, even for breakfast, in a magenta colour, which nevertheless matched the varnish on the nails of her narrow hands…  What was remarkable about her, the offspring of two large, baggy parents, was her clear-cut, almost exquisite finish…  Yes, she could look after herself.  She was far from ordinary’.

‘Straightforward’ Whipple’s prose may be, but one is drawn in immediately.  Some of the turns of phrase which she crafts are beautiful: ‘Wisteria toppled over a high garden wall in dusty mauve cascades’.  This is, quite honestly, a stunning novel, and one of the best books which I have read in a long while.  As an author, Whipple has an incredible amount to offer; her books provide a marvellously restful solace in our hectic world.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Thalia’ by Frances Faviell

First published in 2016.

Like many bloggers and readers, I was immensely excited when I heard about Dean Street Press teaming up with Furrowed Middlebrow to release some little-known books written by women, and lost to the annals of time.  I was so looking forward to trying Frances Faviell’s work particularly, as I have heard a little about her over the last few years, and her storylines very much appeal to me.

The first of her novels which I decided to try was Thalia.  The novel is narrated by a young woman, eighteen-year-old Rachel, who is sent away from her aunt’s London home in something akin to disgrace.  She takes up a post in Dinard in Brittany, as a kind of companion to a young and decidedly awkward teen named Thalia.  There is a lot of family scandal within its pages, and characters as startlingly original as prickly Cynthia, Thalia and young brother Claude’s mother.  The storyline takes twists and turns here and there, and one can never quite guess where it will end up; one of the true delights of the novel, I felt. 9781911413837

One of the other strengths within the novel – and there are many – is the sense of place which Faviell details.  France springs to life immediately, and the minutiae which she displays, both in terms of the general region of Brittany, and within the home, are vivid.  One feels present in Rachel and Thalia’s colliding worlds through Faviell’s stunning use of colour and scent.  Rachel herself is startlingly three-dimensional; I would go as far as to say that she is one of the most realistic narrators whom I have ever come across.

Faviell’s writing is taut and beautiful; she is an extremely perceptive author.  I was completely entranced by Thalia, and was loath to put it down.  Thalia is brilliant; a cracking read, which definitely put me in mind of Daphne du Maurier in terms of its character development, and the use of settings as characters in themselves.  Faviell’s Brittany comes to life in just the same way as du Maurier’s evocation of Cornwall; it is clear that she adores the place, and has her own experiences there have informed this novel.

In a loose way, one can see Thalia as a coming-of-age novel, but it is so much more.  The social history evokes a period both gone and still present; there is simply so much here to love and admire.  Thalia is breathtaking and captivating, and I am now going to happily read my way through all of the Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press titles.  I imagine that, based upon the strength of Thalia, each one is going to be an absolute gem.

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