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‘Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education’ by Sybille Bedford ***

Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education is the first book by Sybille Bedford which I have picked up.  It straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction, presenting as it does an exaggerated version of Bedford’s own childhood and young adulthood.  Jigsaw was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1989.

9780907871798Bedford was born in Germany, and educated in Italy, England, and France.  Jigsaw subsequently takes place in each of these countries.  The novel-cum-memoir has been split into five sections, which largely follow the author’s geographical journey.  It begins with a series of her earliest memories.  Whilst in the Danish seaside town of Skagen as a toddler, the narrator recollects: ‘What I wanted was to get into the water.  But between the sand and the water there lay a thick band of small fish, dead, wet, glistening fish.  The whole of me shrivelled with disgust.  Nanny, who wore boots and stockings, picked me up and lifted me over the fish.  I was in the water – coolness, lightness, dissolving, bliss: this is the sea, I am the sea, here is where I belong.  For ever.’

We move from Denmark to a southern corner of Germany, where the three-year-old narrator is living with her parents in 1914.  The uncertainty of war forces the family to stay with relatives in Berlin the following year, in a ‘large, dark house, over-upholstered and over-heated; the inhabitants never stopped eating.  Some were exceedingly kind, some were critical of our presence.’  The context, both historical and social, has been woven in well, and it proved to be the element which I was most interested in within Jigsaw; the inflation of German currency, convoluted train journeys during wartime, moving around a lot due to money troubles, and being sent away to school particularly fascinated me.  I also enjoyed reading about the differences which the narrator discusses between places which she had lived in.  I took in, with interest, the allusions Bedford made of not feeling as though she had a homeland, as she moved around so much as a child.  However, the emphasis upon this element was spoken about far too briefly for my personal taste.

The narrator is open about her relationships with her parents.  She realises that her father loved her in retrospect, ‘but – this is the unhappy part – he could not show his affection, only his anxieties, his fretting, his prohibitions…  And I with some curious callousness, with the arrogance of a lively, ignorant, if intelligent child, felt impatience with him and contempt.  He also created fear; perhaps because he was not reachable by any give and take of talk, perhaps because of the aura of solitariness about him.  Today we might call it alienation.’  Her interactions with her mother too are far from what she would have liked: ‘I was interested – and influenced – by my mother’s general opinions, but dreaded being alone with her.  She could be ironical and often impatient; she did not suffer little fools gladly.  That I was her own made not a scrap of difference…  Compassionate in her principles, she was high-handed even harsh in her daily dealings.  Between her and my father there had come much open ill feeling…  So in my early years (our rapport came later) I was afraid of my mother, more afraid of her, and in a different way, than I was of my father.’  Her parents go on to divorce when she is quite young, and she has to deal with the consequences.

There is a warmth, even a chattiness, to the narrative voice in Jigsaw.  Whilst compelling in its way, it never became something that I did not want to put down.  Not knowing what was true and what was fabricated, or exaggerated, was something that niggled at me.  Some of the scenes in Jigsaw seemed far too strange to be real, but there was no way of being sure.  Another thing which I really did not enjoy about the book was the continuous name-dropping which Bedford embarks upon rather early on.  I do not feel as though these people, most of whom were mentioned only as asides and not part of the current scenes or plot, added a great deal to proceedings.  This, like other parts of the book, felt rather superficial.

Jigsaw is not a badly written piece, but I cannot say that I enjoyed Bedford’s prose.  The phrasing and descriptions which she employed were largely fine, but there was no vividness or vivacity to the things which she described.  There was less description in Jigsaw than I was expecting, as it is far more focused upon people than place; the latter often quickly becomes a dull background, and is barely discussed.  Some elements were sped through; others were talked about at length, and therefore felt repetitive.

With a slightly different approach taken by the author, or a clear delineation between what is real or imagined, I feel as though I could have really admired this book.  As it was, I found it a little off and jarring; I would have personally preferred to read a straight biography, and not some strange, unknown mixture of biography and novel.  Jigsaw simply failed to stand out for me.  On the face of it, it sounded like a fascinating concept, but its execution left something to be desired for me as a reader.

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‘Alfred and Guinevere’ by James Schuyler ***

I had not heard of James Schuyler’s debut novel, Alfred and Guinevere, which was out of print for almost fifty years, before I spotted rather a lovely NYRB edition in the Modern Classics section of my local library.  I was immediately entranced by its rather charming blurb, and the strength of the reviews which adorn its back cover.  Kenneth Koch calls the novel ‘witty, truthful, simple, lively, and musical’.  Schuyler, best known for his poetry, is heralded as a ‘remarkable novelist’.

In his introduction to the volume, John Ashbery writes: ‘The reader discovers that beneath the book’s apparently guileless surface lies a sophisticated awareness of the complicated ways in which words work to define the boundaries between fantasy and reality, innocence and knowledge.’  Ashbery believes that Schuyler ‘writes about the past with tenderness and humor’, the result of which is ‘a timelessly idyllic comedy of manners, where English models are inflected by 1930s small-town life in America, as seen through the gauze filters of the movies and children’s literature.’

250405-_uy475_ss475_Alfred and Guinevere are a pair of young siblings, who are sent to spent the summer with their grandmother, Mrs Miller, in the country, after their father travels on a business trip to Europe and their mother is preoccupied with subletting their New York apartment before joining him.  Of the plot of Alfred and Guinevere, Ashbery states that it is ‘insistently ambiguous, lacking in resolution’, with the “grownups” ‘barely characters, barely anything but names.’

There are elements of violence throughout Alfred and Guinevere; Alfred is beaten by his father quite often, and the siblings discover the corpse of a murdered ‘colored’ man in the park.  Regardless, the novel is often filled with childish, but rather lovely conversations, in which the siblings endeavour to make sense of the world in which they live, and their parents’ abandonment of them.  Schuyler pinpoints children’s voices marvellously; in fact, it is the real strength of the book.  When in hospital after having his appendix removed, for instance, Alfred tells another patient: ‘”I have one sister named Guinevere who can draw and do back bends.”‘

The novel is told entirely through ‘snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere’s diary’.  The novel proper begins with a series of fanciful stories told by the children, of what they believe their adult lives will be like.  Guinevere fancies herself as ‘one of the leading woman big spenders of her day’, and Alfred see himself becoming a ‘great hunter’ and polar explorer.  Guinevere tends to be quite precocious, but Alfred is endearing from the start.  The relationship depicted between the siblings is surprisingly complex at times; Guinevere says: ‘”It’s so difficult, learning how to behave.  We got along like cats and dogs until he almost died having his appendix out.  It makes him more grown up sometimes.”‘  In a later passage, she writes: ‘Last night Alfred put an egg in my bed.  I almost broke it getting in.  I know he did not think of it all by himself and I will fix both of them.  So far I have been very smart and not said anything.  He kept looking at me at breakfast.  I just smiled and asked him how he felt and if he got a good night’s sleep and so on.  He is getting scared.’

Whilst Alfred and Guinevere is rather a fragmented book, the reader does end up learning a lot about both children, and how they feel about one another.  Alfred provides bursts of amusement, and the differences between the children allow Schuyler to present rather a fascinating character study.  There is some semblance of plot, but those who prefer action-packed novels would probably feel a little disappointed by Schuyler’s debut.  I enjoyed the approach overall, and would have liked a little more substance to pull me in further at times; the novel was not quite as good as I was expecting after reading Ashbery’s introduction, but it is a memorable and well written tome nonetheless.

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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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American Literature Month: ‘Bastard Out of Carolina’ by Dorothy Allison ****

I purchased Dorothy Allison’s debut novel on the recommendation of Mercy, who runs one of my favourite BookTube channels.  I adore books set within the Southern states of America, and was so surprised that I hadn’t come across Bastard Out of Carolina before.  An author like Allison, who has been likened to both Flannery O’Connor and my beloved Harper Lee, is certainly deserving of a lot of space on my bookshelf.

 Bastard Out of Carolina has such a wonderful premise, one which automatically sent me rushing to AbeBooks to order a copy: ‘[South] Carolina in the 1950s, and Bone – christened Ruth Anna Boatwright – lives a happy life, in and out of her aunt’s houses, playing with her cousins on the porch, sipping ice tea, loving her little sister Reece and her beautiful young mother. But Glen Waddell has been watching them all, wanting her mother too, and when he promises a new life for the family, her mother gratefully accepts. Soon Bone finds herself in a different, terrible world, living in fear, and an exile from everything she knows.’

The Boatwrights are essentially a ‘white trash’ family, living in a relatively small town in Greenville County, South Carolina during the 1950s.  The whole is told from Bone’s perspective, and her opening passage is so intriguing: ‘I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.  I was named for and by my oldest aunt.  Aunt Ruth.  My Mama didn’t have much to say about it, since strictly speaking she wasn’t there’.  Unsure of her father’s identity, Bone is ‘certified a bastard by the state of South Carolina’, something which profoundly affects her throughout her formative years.

Allison has rendered her debut both gritty and dark.  The whole of Bastard Out of Carolina is gripping, and contains so many memorable scenes and characters.  Bone’s first person perspective works perfectly with the unfolding story, and one is immediately given a feel for her world.  I was reminded throughout of Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys and Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries; there is the same feel of absorption here, and a wonderfully memorable narrator.

Published in 1992, Bastard Out of Carolina is a modern classic in all respects; it is a powerful, poignant, memorable and important coming-of-age novel.  It is taut and so well crafted, and in every respect, it is an admirable work.  I for one cannot wait to get stuck into Allison’s other books.

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‘Marcel’ by Erwin Mortier ****

Marcel is acclaimed Dutch author Erwin Mortier’s debut work.  First published in Holland in 2001, and the recipient of several literary prizes, the coming-of-age novella has now been translated into English for the first time by Ina Rilke.

The narrator of Marcel is a ten-year-old boy who appears as a spectral, almost two-dimensional figure throughout, despite his place within the story.  He is always on the periphery, always watching those around him.  The Marcel of the novel’s title is his grandmother’s youngest brother; the young narrator takes it upon himself to discover what happened to him, his death deemed, as it was, ‘mysterious’.

Many of the scenes within the novella feature, either wholly or in part, the narrator’s grandmother; he refers to her throughout as ‘the grandmother’, as though she is nothing to do with him.  This further reinforces the notion that he is a detached observer.  He is referred to, quite a way through the book, as ‘a dreamer’, and as such he has a fresh and rather peculiar manner of viewing the world: ‘her toes lay like a row of bosoms in a black leather corset’, he tells us.  His first person perspective is both odd and rather beguiling; of a trip to a grey churchyard at the beginning of the story, for example, he says: ‘I was taken there once a year by the grandmother…  It was less than five turnings between the garden gate and the place where her dead lay sleeping’.  It feels as though nothing phases him, and he is simultaneously troubled by and comfortable within his often bleak surroundings.

From the very beginning, I was struck by the way in which Mortier sets scenes.  The personification which he weaves in works fabulously: ‘Behind the hedge of a spire of roof tiles slumped between two gables’, ‘the fluorescent green face [of the alarm clock] glowed spectrally in the dark’, a coffee service ‘shivers’ and heels ‘beat a nervous tattoo’ on the floor.  It is fair to say, however, that the writing which Mortier presents is not consistent throughout.  A lot of the conversations which go on seem a little bland, but the more descriptive sentences are clearly at odd with this: ‘When boredom crept over me the floor would reveal its secret geography, complete with all the tiny ridges and ravines where the soapy water collected into miniature lakes’.

Mortier is very perceptive of his characters; of a schoolteacher who is rather adored by the narrator, he writes: ‘She was a giant honey bird, large and feathered, a hummingbird-turned-woman.  As she tasted the cake a high-pitched sound rose up from the underhang of her chin’.  Whilst it could be called a little flat at first glance, the scenes and characters within Marcel do become more vivid as it progresses, and the dark family secrets which simmer to the surface are worth picking the novella up for alone.

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One From the Archive: ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt *****

First published in March 2013.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the debut novel of Carol Rifka Brunt. Its story focuses upon fourteen-year-old June Elbus, whose uncle, Finn, is the ‘only person who has ever truly understood her’. The novel takes place in the New York suburbs and opens at the end of 1986.

The opening sentence of this beautifully crafted novel captures the attention immediately: ‘My sister Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying’. Finn has AIDS at a time in which no cures were available, and in which the horrors of the disease were just beginning to come to light. June tells us: ‘We’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta, and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it’. His decline is tough on the entire Elbus family: ‘All those Sundays, my mother hardly looked at Finn. It was obvious that she was being broken up into pieces about her only brother dying’.

June’s narrative voice is engaging, and we are plunged straight into her story from the outset. We feel her fears and grief, along with the small triumphs she overcomes along the way. Throughout, her childish naivety adds a lovely touch to the novel. During the portrait painting session, June tells us, ‘I felt like grabbing the paintbrush right out of his hand so I could color him in, paint him back to his old self’. This innocence of June’s, particularly when it focuses upon Finn’s illness, is touching. Whilst she understands that her uncle is ill, she does not know about the intricacies of the disease as nobody is willing to discuss them with her. She asks such things of her elder sister as whether she could ‘catch’ AIDS if Finn kissed her hair or her forehead. Such naivety is truly heartbreaking at times.

As a protagonist, June is an interesting choice. Many original personality traits can be found within her, and rather than being the make-up and fashion loving stereotype of a teenage girl, her hobbies and interests feel rather unique – for example, the way in which she likes to pretend she lives within the Medieval period, and her dreams of being a falconer when she finishes school. She and her sister are complete opposites, and June is somewhat lonely in consequence: ‘Greta got prettier and I got… weirder’, she tells us. June is a vivid and wholly realistic character in consequence. The novel is told in retrospect, and June is around one year older than she was when Finn’s death occurred. This present day narrative is woven with memories from June’s past.

The secret which June clutches close to her chest is the way in which she felt about her uncle. At his funeral, she confesses to us, almost as though we are her only confidant in life: ‘I kept quiet, knowing that the sadness I was feeling was the wrong kind of sadness for a niece… Nobody knew my heart even a little bit. Nobody had any idea how many minutes of each day I spent thinking about Finn, and, thankfully, nobody had any idea exactly what kind of thoughts they were’. The grief she feels is tender, and the way in which she expresses it is touchingly honest: ‘Finn kept sneaking inside my head. I wished he’d been buried instead of cremated, because then I could take off my gloves and press my palms to the ground and know that he was there somehow’.

At the funeral, she and her sister are instructed not to let a certain man into the service. When June asks Greta about the man’s identity, her sister delights in telling her: ‘He’s the guy who killed uncle Finn’. A couple of weeks after this incident, June receives a package in the mail – a beautiful porcelain teapot which used to belong to her uncle. It arrives with a note from Toby, Finn’s partner whom the girls knew nothing about, which says: ‘I know you saw me at the funeral. I was the man nobody wanted to see… I think you are perhaps the only person who misses Finn as much as I do, and I think just one meeting might be beneficial to us both’. A clandestine friendship, taut at first and touching throughout, ensues. Both realise that the concrete foundations of their love for Finn and their grief at his passing are stronger than anything, and that they can help one another through it in consequence.

Brunt writes beautifully, and she has portrayed the hideous realities of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the most heartfelt of ways, by examining not only the space left behind when a death is caused by the disease, but the memories too. Although Finn is not alive during the novel’s telling, we still learn a lot about him and can see why June adores him so. This multi-layered novel is about so many things – love, remembrance, trust, understanding and family dynamics – and is incredibly sad and moving throughout.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story of the most touching kind. The character development throughout is incredibly well crafted, and the novel itself is magnificent, particularly when one takes into account that it is a debut. Had it come from an already established author, it would be something akin to a masterpiece. Brunt has written a book which is incredibly difficult to put down, and has crafted a story which is sure to stay with its readers for a long time to come.

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