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‘Winter Sonata’ by Dorothy Edwards *****

Dorothy Edwards’ only novel, Winter Sonata, is the 205th book on the Virago Modern Classics list, and I was happy to be able to get my hands on one of the lovely green-spined copies.  First published in 1928, it tells of Arnold Nettle, a ‘shy young telegraph clerk, [who] arrives in a secluded English village as summer ends.’  Upon his arrival, he glimpses a beautiful woman named Olivia, and her ‘appearance seems to herald a new hope for his life.’  Spanning a single winter, ‘with the slow approach of spring we see Mr Nettle’s fragile hopes, just as gently, fade away.’

1758967Winter Sonata weaves in a major theme which was important to Edwards – ‘the loneliness of the human condition – with a subtle look at its consequences.’  David Garnett, one of Edwards’ contemporaries, calls the novel ‘a precise and perfect work of art’.  It was also acclaimed by the likes of Leonard Woolf and Raymond Mortimer, both highly influential in their day.  In her introduction to Winter Sonata, Elaine Morgan compares Edwards’ work to Chekhov’s, stating that ‘the events take place in a social backwater, the central characters have no specific tasks to occupy them, and they are thrown back on one another’s company.  There is a sense that they are waiting for something to happen, even if it is only the return of spring.’

Winter Sonata opens with an introduction to Arnold: ‘He had a long thin neck and looked rather delicate, and he was in fact ill and had come to work here so as to escape winter in the town.  He had arrived only the night before.  It had been cold and rainy and depressing, but now on the first day here it was beautiful, as if to welcome him.’  He is painfully shy, preferring to listen to a conversation than to participate directly in it.  I found him such an endearing protagonist, his quirks and peculiarities: ‘Sometimes, of course, he sat simply looking into the fire, and it seems that he was a little nervous even in his own society, because often he would begin to blush and smile shyly to himself.’

Sisters Olivia and Eleanor Neran live in one of the village’s grander houses with their ‘terse and literal-minded aunt and their cousin George’.  When the novel begins, Olivia ‘came down the hill in a white woollen dress.  As she came down between the bare grey trees and along the hard grey road it was difficult to tell whether the white figure was more like summer going sadly away from the earth or like winter stealing quietly upon it.’  At this moment, Arnold ‘turned his long thin neck to look at her, and when she had gone out of sight he sat down at his table again and blushed a little to himself.’  Edwards has such an awareness of Arnold, and the reticent way in which he inhabits the world.

Along with Eleanor and Olivia, we meet a cast of characters who live around Arnold in the village.  They feel highly realistic, and each has their own memorable mannerisms.  Of Pauline, the young woman who lives in the house Arnold rooms in, Edwards writes: ‘When she had cleared the ashes she began almost without knowing it to read the serial story in the newspaper with which she was supposed to be laying the new fire, and gradually she became more awake.  When her mother came in to lay Mr Nettle’s breakfast she was still reading.  She suddenly felt the paper snatched out of her hand and knocked against her head.  She looked up a little dazed and astonished, and then sulkily shrugged her shoulders.’

There is an unusual quality, both to the characters and prose, throughout Winter Sonata, and its tone is suffused with melancholy.  It is a short novel, but one which I could hardly bear to finish.  On the novel’s blurb, Edwards’ prose is called ‘atmospheric and delicate’.  I could not find wording more perfect to apply to this beautiful novel.  Edwards’ descriptions, particularly of the natural world, are glorious.  She writes, for example, ‘everywhere the trees were nearly bare, but a few golden leaves still clung to the black branches.  The black curving lines and the gold leaves looked as if they were painted on the pale grey sky.’  Edwards also deftly captures the passing of time: ‘Everything stood immovable; nothing could break the hard winter stillness.  The clock on the church tower struck off the hours, but the night seemed to stand still.  Then suddenly there were scraps of the red in the lighter sky, the sun came up behind grey clouds, and it was morning already.’

As an aside, Edwards herself sounds like a wonderful woman; she was brought up to be an ardent socialist, and was educated at the boys’ school her father taught at.  Some remember her as a ‘schoolgirl at left-wing rallies in Cardiff, thrillingly declaiming poems from William Morris.’ She tragically committed suicide at the age of 31.  Morgan writes much more about Edwards and her life’s experiences in her introduction, which I found both insightful and heartbreakingly sad.  Following her beloved father’s death, Edwards ‘was left to adjust to a world in which class distinctions and sexual divisions were as rigid as ever; and in adolescence it is rather late to learn to be a woman as womanhood was then understood.’  It is a great shame that Edwards only published one other book, a collection of short stories, for which she was acclaimed as ‘one of the three great writers of the year’.  Edwards had so much worth as a writer, and I will certainly be visiting this gloriously enchanting and perfectly pitched novel again.

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‘The Shutter of Snow’ by Emily Holmes Coleman *****

I have wanted to read Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow for years, but had never got around to doing so, as copies proved difficult to find, and rather expensive. Only the selection of the novel for my online book club pushed me to source a (thankfully free) copy from OpenLibrary, and I began it way ahead of time. 4616545

This novella, the only work published by American author Emily Holmes Coleman, is semi-autobiographical.  It focuses on a period of her life in which she was institutionalised due to contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her son in 1924, and suffering a nervous breakdown as a result.  Our protagonist, Marthe Gail, has postpartum psychosis, and is forced to spend her time away from her baby son in a mental hospital in New York.  Here, she tries, with varying levels of success, to persuade others that she is well.

Marthe’s condition, and its manifestation, is startling.  She believes herself to be a sort of amalgamation of God and Jesus Christ.  From the outset, The Shutter of Snow is unsettling, and quickly establishes a sense of the place in which Marthe is trapped: ‘The voice on the other side of her wall was shouting for someone.  It never stopped all night.  It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind.  The rest of the voices were not so distinct.  It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.’ There is a sense, for Marthe, of being completely alone and adrift, whilst also being surrounded by many other people.

The imagery which Holmes Coleman creates often has a shock value to it: ‘She had been a foetus and had knitted herself together in the bed’, and ‘Clean cheeks and a little river in her teeth.  Pine needles dripping in the Caucasus’, stood out particularly to me.  I also found the following nightmarish scene incredibly chilling: ‘How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it?  They didnt [sic] know.  She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross.  There had been the burial.  She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face.  She was carried quietly out and put in the casket.  Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her.  Down and the dirt fell in above.  Down and the worms began to tremble in and out.  Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten.  It must all be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.’

As well as the horror which permeates it, there are moments of strange beauty in Holmes Coleman’s descriptions; for example, when she writes: ‘The only thing to do is to put hammers in the porridge and when there are enough hammers we shall break down the windows and all of us shall dance in the snow.’  The use of recurring motifs within the novella was highly effective – for instance, Marthe’s dancing, and the unusual imagery of orange peel in the snow.

The Shutter of Snow presents a striking character study of a woman in the depths of mania.  Holmes Coleman’s prose is effective; she uses a stream-of-consciousness-esque style, with the subconscious and unconscious embedded within its omniscient perspective.  I’m not sure that I would categorise this as a stream-of-consciousness work, per se, but it certainly can be recognised as a Modernist work.  There is a real urgency to her writing.  I can see why her style, with its omission of speech marks and no clear delineation between what is real and imagined, might be off-putting to many readers, but as a huge fan of Modernist writing, I found it immediately immersive.  The mixture of reality and psychiatric episodes are chilling, and blend into one another seamlessly.

Given that The Shutter of Snow was published in 1930, it feels startlingly modern.  I agree entirely with the two reviews I read prior to beginning the novella.  Fay Weldon remarked that is an ‘extraordinary and visionary book, written out of those edges where madness and poetry meet’, and The Nation commented that ‘The Shutter of Snow is a profoundly moving book, supplying as it does a glimpse of what a temporary derangement and its consequences mean to the sufferer.’  I found the entirety of this book to be poignant and affecting, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.  I expected that it might be difficult to read, and whilst there are some shocking incidents at work in the novella, the constantly shifting prose works perfectly to demonstrate the fog in Marthe’s brain.

There are relatively few novellas that say so much as Holmes Coleman does so fluidly and fluently in The Shutter of Snow.  She speaks volumes about the human condition, and the frailty and fragility which go hand in hand with it.  The Shutter of Snow is a literary whirlwind, a completely absorbing and often quite frightening story.  An obvious comparison to give is its similarities to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which deals with similar themes in that the narrator is forced to undertake a rest cure following childbirth.  There are flashes here of a similar beguiling style as Djuna Barnes’, and some of Virginia Woolf’s more complicated scenes – in Orlando, for example.  In some ways, however, The Shutter of Snow is quite unlike anything which I have ever read, and it is all the stronger for this unusual quality.  There is so much within it which is all its own, and it is a real shame that Holmes Coleman never again put her pen to paper following the publication of this staggeringly powerful and phenomenal novella.

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‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge *****

In 2014, Reni Eddo-Lodge published a blog post, in which she discussed her ‘frustration with the way that discussion of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who weren’t affected by it.’  This post spiralled into her much-lauded work of non-fiction, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.  Here, she explores a wide range of issues surrounding race, which rage from ‘eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance.’  Published in 2017, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race also won the Jhalak Prize, a yearly book award for writers of colour.

9781408870587In her book, Eddo-Lodge ‘offers a timely and essential new framework for how to see, acknowledge and counter racism. It is a searing, illuminating, absolutely necessary exploration of what it is to be a person of colour in Britain today.’ Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has been split into seven different sections, entitled with such headings as ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, ‘The Feminism Question’, and ‘There’s No Justice, Just Us’.  In the place of an afterword, there is a short piece called ‘Aftermath’.

In her original blog post, which she discusses in the preface, Eddo-Lodge wrote: ‘I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race.  Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms.  I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience.’  She went on to say: ‘I can no longer have this conversation because we’re often coming at it from completely different places.  I can’t have a conversation with them about the details of a problem if they don’t even recognise that the problem exists.’

When she reviewed the comments which her post had accumulated, Eddo-Lodge reflects: ‘There seemed to be a misunderstanding of who this piece of writing was for.  It was never written with the intention of prompting guilt in white people, or to provoke any kind of epiphany.  I didn’t know at the time that I had inadvertently written a break-up letter to whiteness.’  She decided to convert her post into the form of a book ‘paradoxically – to continue the conversation…  This book is the product of five years of agitation, frustration, exhausting explanations, and paragraph-long Facebook comments.  It’s about not just the explicit side, but the slippery side of racism – the bits that are hard to define, and the bits that make you doubt yourself.’  Eddo-Lodge further justifies her need to write the book, saying ‘I am only acutely aware of race because I’ve been rigorously marked out as different by the world I know for as long as I can remember.’

Eddo-Lodge begins the first section of her book by discussing the point at which she began to think about black British history.  A University module about the transatlantic slave trade caused her to muse deeply upon notions of racism and power: ‘Thinking about power made me realise that racism was about so much more than personal prejudice.  It was about being in the position to negatively affect other people’s life chances.’  At this point, her outlook started to change substantially.  The chapter outlines slavery and its impacts within the British Isles, and the often atrocious ways in which soldiers from the colonial empire were treated.  Eddo-Lodge then goes on, with meticulous research, to examine specific examples of recorded racism within Britain; in Cardiff in 1919, following the end of the First World War, for instance, ‘… in violent protest at the audacity of interracial relationships, another angry crowd of white people set upon a lone white woman, who was known to have married an African man.  They stripped her naked.’  Such unprovoked and shocking scenes weave their way through Eddo-Lodge’s work, and through history; she mentions, for instance, that recorded hate crimes have soared in recent years: ‘In the same year that I decided to no longer talk to white people about race, the British Social Attitudes survey saw a significant increase in the number of people who were happy to admit to their own racism.’

Throughout, Eddo-Lodge interviews various people, who provide contributions to, or launching pads for, the wider conversation.  She asks pressing, sometimes heartbreaking questions about her own place in Britain, and why some wish to take the security which she has as a British citizen from her: ‘What history had I inherited that left me an alien in my place of birth?’.  She is an incredibly intelligent author, giving measured responses to an awful lot of issues.  One part of the book which I found particularly interesting was when Eddo-Lodge writes about how the language which we use can serve to either silence or empower, and the wealth of different perspectives which can be applied to particular situations.

I found Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race difficult to read at times.  This was not because of Eddo-Lodge’s prose style, which I found informative, illuminating, and well-balanced, but due to the book’s content.  The discrimination in society, and the structural racism which she outlines in Britain, both made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and so aware. Eddo-Lodge uses her platform to discuss a wealth of issues – Black History Month, riots, the British eugenics movement which was popular at the outset of the twentieth century, the (often negative) language used to describe different racial groups, white nationalism, and the lack of black representation in British politics, amongst others.

There is a sense of hope here; Eddo-Lodge offers suggestions for ways in which we can change the system: ‘In order to dismantle the unjust, racist structures, we must see race.  We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by negative stereotypes about their race, and to who power and privilege is bestowed upon – earned or not – because of their race, their class, and their gender.  Seeing race is essential to changing the system.’

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is both public and deeply personal in its concerns and experiences.  Whilst Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is specifically about Britain, there is so much to take away which has the ability to have a global impact.  I found the book thought-provoking and eye-opening in equal measure, and believe that it should be read by everyone.  It feels particularly poignant to pick up now, given the current political climate in the United Kingdom, in which so many people are still persecuted due to the colour of their skin, or their sexuality.

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‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud *****

After adoring Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and very much enjoying her latest novel, The Burning Girl, which I read in Florida last year, I was keen to pick up another of her books.  I chose a gorgeous Picador Classics edition of The Emperor’s Children, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  The novel is set in New York in 2001, when ‘the whole world shifts’.  In it, Messud explores ‘how utterly we are defined by the times in which we live.’

The Independent on Sunday calls Messud’s 2006 novel ‘a masterpiece’, and The Times deems it ‘thrillingly real, alive and utterly convincing… [an] intensely pleasurable reminder of the possibilities of the English language’.  The New York Times concurs, writing that ‘Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without – showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.’  It is, promises its blurb, a novel which ‘brings us face to face with the enduring gap between who we are and who we long to be.’

9781447289418The Emperor’s Children focuses on four characters, three of whom – Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke – became firm friends whilst studying at Brown University during the 1990s.  They are ‘young, bright New Yorkers living at America’s beating heart in the early years of the twenty-first century’, and are joined.  The fourth character is Marina’s socially awkward cousin, Frederick Tubb, who is known as Bootie.  He is ‘fresh from the provinces and keen to make his mark’ on the world.  His arrival causes the three other protagonists to ‘confront their desires and leaves them dangerously exposed.’  Also examined in part are the parents of Danielle, Marina, and Bootie.

Danielle is working as a television producer, Julius makes his living by taking temporary secretarial job, and moneyed Marina has been procrastinating by halfheartedly working on a book for several years.  In his introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee describes Marina as the ‘aimless daughter of the Thwaites, casting about for something to do and using her ongoing project of writing a book about Americans dress their children… as a kind of displacement activity’.  He calls Julius a ‘gay, sharp, bitchy, and… self-invented man’.  Danielle is perhaps, in this way, the only one of the three friends who is making a success of her life, but her story is fraught with problems too.  Bootie has been used as ‘one of the oldest tropes in storytelling’, as ‘a stranger who turns everyone’s life upside down’.

Messud’s character descriptions are wonderful.  When introducing Bootie’s mother, for instance, she writes: ‘she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau.  Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous.  Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor.  In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.’

Messud is so involved with her characters and their quirks of personality throughout, that one comes to know them intimately.  Throughout the novel, she places very in depth portrayals and explorations of self.  Of Marina, she writes: ‘She sometimes felt as though she were a changeling, as hough someone completely new had taken on the identity of Marina Thwaite  – or rather, as if someone who was seen from the outside to be completely new had done so, while beneath the surface she remained unchanged.’  When discussing Julius, Messud notes: ‘He was aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short steps.’  Her characters are not entirely likeable, and some are almost odious in their privilege and behaviour. In consequence, I found all of Messud’s protagonists, and indeed the secondary figures who orbit around them, wholly believable.

A masterful quality in the novel is the way in which Messud focuses upon the nuances and tiny shifts in relationships, which still have the power to alter them irrevocably.  The Emperor’s Children is not overly plot heavy; whilst things happen, particularly toward the final third of the novel, Messud is more interested in the reactions which her characters have to sudden, or brooding, changes in their situations.

There is, as anyone familiar with Messud’s writing might expect, an awful lot about morality and politics woven into The Emperor’s Children.  Of this, Mukherjee writes: ‘Messud’s novel is political in the most inclusive, most intelligent understanding of that notion – it looks at the private sphere, at how individuals live in the world, how they conduct their lives, what their moral codes are, to give an indication of the bigger, wider world and the matrix of history in which these private lives are necessarily situated, the private and the public at once shaping and being shaped by each other.’  He goes on to say: ‘The questions it poses are enormous and profound.  What is a person’s true, authentic self?  Does a life need to be lived in continuous connection with that?  What if the truest idea we have of our true selves is a false one, or one held in bad faith?  Are our notions of authenticity confected, too?’  Whilst Mukherjee’s introduction is insightful, and certainly complements the novel, I would recommend that one reads it after finishing the novel, as it is rather revealing, and contains a lot of detailed commentary upon Messud’s characters and plot points.

Before beginning The Emperor’s Children, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of it smattered on its Goodreads page.  I am so pleased that I ignored these and read it regardless, as I ended up absolutely loving it, and found something to admire on every page.  Messud’s writing provides a breath of fresh air, and gives one the ability to see characters and events, such as 9/11, from different angles.  She is a unique author in many ways, but her prose style at times reminded me of Donna Tartt and Zoe Heller, merely due to the weight which it holds within its words.  I can see why some might think that Messud’s prose is overwritten, but I found it both rich and sumptuous, as well as entirely absorbing.  There is so much which can be unpicked within its pages, and I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

The Emperor’s Children is a phenomenal, searching novel, filled with profound meditations on life.  Everything within it has been wonderfully handled, and it provokes thought at every turn.  She also writes with poignant and moving language of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which profoundly affect every character.  As with her other books, I was absolutely blown away with this novel.  Messud is an interesting, original writer, and I very much look forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the near future.

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‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker *****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Books to Read Aloud

I have been thinking about reading aloud of late, particularly as last year, I shared the odd poem from Allie Esiri’s A Poem for Every Night of the Year with my boyfriend.  Prior to this, I had done very little reading aloud since leaving my taught University classes, and realised that it is something I really miss.  With that in mind, I thought it would be a nice idea to curate a list of some of the books which I have most enjoyed reading aloud in the past.  Given the nature of this list, they are almost all children’s books, as I did most of my reading aloud in groups whilst in junior school.  Regardless, picking one up and reading it aloud is sure to charm any child, or to make you feel very nostalgic indeed.

 

10333461. Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo
‘When Michael is washed up on an island in the Pacific after falling from his parent’s yacht, the Peggy Sue, he struggles to survive on his own. But he soon realises there is someone close by, someone who is watching over him and helping him to stay alive. Following a close-run battle between life and death after being stung by a poisonous jelly fish, the mysterious someone–Kensuke–allows Michael into his world and they become friends, teaching and learning from each other, until the day of separation becomes inevitable.  Morpurgo here spins a yarn which gently captures the adventurous elements one would expect from a desert-island tale, but the real strength lies in the poignant and subtle observations of friendship, trust and, ultimately, humanity.’

 

2. Matilda by Roald Dahl 109019
‘Matilda is a little girl who is far too good to be true. At age five-and-a-half she’s knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Even more remarkably, her classmates love her even though she’s a super-nerd and the teacher’s pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda’s world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there’s the large, busty nightmare of a school principal, Miss (“The”) Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing champion who flings children at will and is approximately as sympathetic as a bulldozer. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.  She warms up with some practical jokes aimed at her hapless parents, but the true test comes when she rallies in defense of her teacher, the sweet Miss Honey, against the diabolical Trunchbull. There is never any doubt that Matilda will carry the day. Even so, this wonderful story is far from predictable. Roald Dahl, while keeping the plot moving imaginatively, also has an unerring ear for emotional truth. The reader cares about Matilda because in addition to all her other gifts, she has real feelings.’

 

161011153. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
‘One starry night, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell lead the three Darling children over the rooftops of London and away to Neverland – the island where lost boys play, mermaids splash and fairies make mischief. But a villainous-looking gang of pirates lurk in the docks, led by the terrifying Captain James Hook. Magic and excitement are in the air, but if Captain Hook has his way, before long, someone will be walking the plank and swimming with the crocodiles…’

 

4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett 231815
‘When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.  The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?’

 

10451495. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe, the secret country known only to Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy…the place where the adventure begins. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first, no one believes her when she tells of her adventures in the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund and then Peter and Susan discover the Magic and meet Aslan, the Great Lion, for themselves. In the blink of an eye, their lives are changed forever.’

 

6. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss 113946
‘Dr. Seuss’s small-hearted Grinch ranks right up there with Scrooge when it comes to the crankiest, scowling holiday grumps of all time. For 53 years, the Grinch has lived in a cave on the side of a mountain, looming above the Whos in Whoville. The noisy holiday preparations and infernal singing of the happy little citizens below annoy him to no end. The Grinch decides this frivolous merriment must stop. His “wonderful, awful” idea is to don a Santa outfit, strap heavy antlers on his poor, quivering dog Max, construct a makeshift sleigh, head down to Whoville, and strip the chafingly cheerful Whos of their Yuletide glee once and for all.  Looking quite out of place and very disturbing in his makeshift Santa get-up, the Grinch slithers down chimneys with empty bags and stealing the Whos’ presents, their food, even the logs from their humble Who-fires. He takes the ramshackle sleigh to Mt. Crumpit to dump it and waits to hear the sobs of the Whos when they wake up and discover the trappings of Christmas have disappeared. Imagine the Whos’ dismay when they discover the evil-doings of Grinch in his anti-Santa guise. But what is that sound? It’s not sobbing, but singing! Children simultaneously adore and fear this triumphant, twisted Seussian testimonial to the undaunted cheerfulness of the Whos, the transcendent nature of joy, and of course, the growth potential of a heart that’s two sizes too small.  This holiday classic is perfect for reading aloud to your favorite little Who’s.’

 

4753397. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
‘Madeline is one of the best-loved characters in children’s literature. Set in picturesque Paris, this tale of a brave little girl’s trip to the hospital was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1940 and has as much appeal today as it did then. The combination of a spirited heroine, timelessly appealing art, cheerful humor, and rhythmic text makes Madeline a perennial favorite with children of all ages.’

 

8. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter 19321
‘In this original edition, Peter and his sisters are told to go gather blackberries and not to go into MacGregor’s garden because Peter’s father was made into a pie by MacGregor after being found in the garden. Peter, who is wearing a new coat, promptly disobeys his mother, stuffs himself with vegetables, gets spotted by MacGregor, loses his coat and barely makes it out of the garden alive. When Peter gets home, he is given chamomile tea for dinner. Peter’s sisters, who listened to their mother and stayed out of the forbidden garden have a regular dinner.’

 

63199. The BFG by Roald Dahl
‘Captured by a giant! The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It’s lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater, the Bonecruncher, or any of the other giants-rather than the BFG-she would have soon become breakfast.  When Sophie hears that they are flush-bunking off in England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!’

 

10. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf 14942
Mrs. Dalloway chronicles a June day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway –a day that is taken up with running minor errands in preparation for a party and that is punctuated, toward the end, by the suicide of a young man she has never met. In giving an apparently ordinary day such immense resonance and significance–infusing it with the elemental conflict between death and life–Virginia Woolf triumphantly discovers her distinctive style as a novelist. Originally published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway is Woolf’s first complete rendering of what she described as the “luminous envelope” of consciousness: a dazzling display of the mind’s inside as it plays over the brilliant surface and darker depths of reality.’

 

Which is your favourite book or poem to read aloud?

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‘Mythos’ by Stephen Fry *****

Anyone who knows me is aware of my fondness for Stephen Fry; even as a child, I loved to watch him on television, and was lucky enough to see him speak live around a decade ago after winning tickets to the iTunes Festival.  I have read all of his previous books, and have been wanting to read his take on Greek mythology, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, for an awfully long time.  I received the book for Christmas 2017.  It seems shameful that it took me around nine months to get to it, but I wanted to save it for when I had finished my thesis, and was therefore able to devote a lot of time to it.  I am pleased to report that I loved the book just as much as I had anticipated, and it felt like a real treat.

9780718188726In his introduction, Fry notes: ‘No one loves and quarrels, desires and deceives as boldly and brilliantly as Greek gods and goddesses.  They are like us, only more so – their actions and adventures scrawled across the heavens above.’  He goes on to explain his love of mythology, which he discovered when he was very young.  In his foreword, Fry justifies his choice of Greek mythology as a focus here: ‘Much as I went on to enjoy myths and legends from other cultures and peoples, there was something about these Greek stories that lit me up inside.  The energy, humour, passion, particularity and believable detail of their world held me enthralled from the very first.’  The sense of history, and of beginnings, also contributes to this decision; he writes that the stories ‘were captured and preserved by the very first poets and has come down to us in an unbroken line from almost the beginning of writing to the present day…  The Greeks were the first people to make coherent narratives, a literature even, of their gods, monsters and heroes.’

Mythos is aimed at everyone, and the way in which Fry has approached the stories makes his a highly accessible tome.  He writes: ‘There is absolutely nothing academic or intellectual about Greek mythology; it is addictive, entertaining, approachable and astonishingly human.’  Fry acknowledges those who are already familiar with Greek mythology in his introduction, and ‘especially welcomes’ people who are new to the stories.  ‘You don’t need to know anything to read this book,’ he tells us, ‘it starts with an empty universe.’

In this manner, Fry begins Mythos by setting out the very start of Greek mythology.  He writes, with his usual knowledge, warmth, and sparkling humour: ‘Mythos begins at the beginning, but it does not end at the end.  Had I included heroes like Oedipus, Perseus, Theseus, Jason and Heracles and the details of the Trojan War this book would have been too heavy even for a Titan to pick up.’  (Heroes is, of course, the focus, and the title, of his second volume of Greek mythology, which was recently published.)

As Mythos progresses, Fry revises a wealth of the original stories, and provides a commentary upon them.  His prose style is controlled, but always fulfilling.  Fry certainly puts his own spin on things, particularly when it comes to the stylistically modernised conversations which he imagines between certain characters.  When Gaia and Tartarus are discussing Gaia’s son Kronos, Tartarus, for instance, says: ‘I wish you’d tell him to leave me alone.  He does nothing all day but hang around looking at me with his eyes drooping and his mouth open.  I think he’s got some kind of man-crush on me.  He copies my hairstyle and leans limply against trees and boulders looking miserable, melancholy and misunderstood.  As if he’s waiting for someone to paint him or something.  When he’s not gazing at me he’s staring down into that lava vent over there.  In fact there he is now, look.  Try and talk some sense into him.’

Each section in Mythos has been split up into smaller parts, and this approach makes it even more accessible for the general reader.  Throughout, Fry relates the Greek myths to other cultural points, both in order to give more contextual focus, and to chart the links between Greek mythology and popular culture.  In this manner, he shows just how important and pervading mythology is.  He says, for instance: ‘Had Kronos the examples to go by, he would perhaps have identified with Hamlet at his most introspective, or Jaques at his most self-indulgently morbid.  Konstantin from The Seagull with a suggestion of Morrissey.  Yet there was something of a Macbeth in him too and more than a little Hannibal Lecter – as we shall see.’

I found Mythos utterly compelling, and it retains a feeling of freshness throughout.  Fry’s approach has made the stories both scholarly and highly accessible, and the balance between the two has been handled with skill.  It feels as though every reader will get something out of Mythos, and I would highly recommend it, both to those who are new to Greek mythology, and to those who are familiar with various interpretations, by the likes of Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves.  I loved the commentary which Fry gives throughout, and found that it allowed me to view myths which I was already familiar with in a different way.

I shall end this review with a paragraph that Fry humbly notes in his afterword: ‘I cannot repeat too often that it has never been my aim to interpret or explain the myths, only to tell them.  I have, of course, had to play about with timelines in order to attempt a coherent narrative…  If anyone tells me that I have got the stories “wrong” I believe I am justified in replying that they are, after all, fictions.  In tinkering with the details I am doing what people have always done with myths.  In that sense I feel that I am doing my bit to keep them alive.’

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