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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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‘A Wreath of Roses’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

I originally purchased Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses in order to participate in a group read, but was unable to wait, and started it almost as soon as I received a copy.  I adore Elizabeth Taylor; she is one of my favourite authors, and without Virago’s republication of her novels and short stories, it may well have taken me far longer to discover her.  A Wreath of Roses is number 392 on the Virago Modern Classics list, and was first published in 1949.

Of her writing, fellow Virago-published author Rosamond Lehmann said it is 9781844087129‘sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.’  The Daily Telegraph calls her a ‘fearsome writer, ruthless in her examination of solitude, and a sparkling chronicler of ordinary lives.’  Kingsley Amis regarded her as ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century.

The Virago edition which I read included a warm introduction written by Helen Dunmore.  She writes that A Wreath of Roses has been ‘called Elizabeth Taylor’s darkest novel, dealing as it does with murder, loneliness, terror and suicide.’  She goes on to make a comparison between Taylor and Virginia Woolf.  She writes: ‘Like Woolf, Taylor is fearless in her handling of tragedy and mental suffering’.

The protagonist of A Wreath of Roses is a young woman named Camilla Hill.  Each year, she spends the summer in the countryside with two women who are very dear to her.  ‘But this year,’ notes the novel’s blurb, ‘their private absorptions – Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby – seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous holidays.  Feeling lonely, and that life and love are passing her by, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton, handsome, assured – and a dangerous liar.’  The novel is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and takes place in a small village named Abingford somewhere in England, within ‘the blazing heart of an English summer.’  This village, writes Dunmore, is ‘hypnotically beautiful, but never idyllic.’  She deems this an ‘unflinching novel, which probes deep into the self-deceptions that grow up in order to soften life, and end up by choking it like so many weeds.’

A Wreath of Roses begins at the train station of this small English village, where Camilla spots a man on the platform.  Taylor’s description of their staunch British behaviour is demonstrated thus:  ‘Once the train which had left them on the platform had drawn out,’ writes Taylor, ‘the man and woman trod separately up and down, read time-tables in turn, were conscious of one another in the way that strangers are, when thrown together without a reason for conversation.  A word or two would have put them at ease, but there were no words to say.  The heat of the afternoon was beyond comment and could not draw them together as hailstones might have done.’

It is not long afterwards that Camilla sees a ‘shabby man’ throw himself from the train bridge, and Taylor comments upon how this event drastically impacts upon Camilla: ‘This happening broke the afternoon in two.  The feeling of eternity had vanished.  What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganised, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.’

Taylor’s novels are beautiful, and full of depth.  She is an author who is so perceptive of the tiny things which make up a life.  A Wreath of Roses is no different in this respect.  Dunmore believes that ‘she writes with a sensuous richness of language that draws the reader down the most shadowy paths.’  She goes on to further describe Taylor’s writing style, pointing out that she ‘has a way of seeming to be one kind of writer, and then revealing herself to be quite another, or, perhaps, to be a writer who is capable of inhabiting many selves at the same time.’  Dunmore beautifully comments upon the essence of her art, when she writes that ‘Taylor makes the living moment present, touchable, disturbing, enchanting.’  The imagery which she creates is rich, and often quite lovely.  For instance, Taylor writes of an English summer night in the following way: ‘Trees and the hedgerows were as dark as blackberries against the starry sky; a little owl took off from a telegraph-post, floating down noiselessly across a field of stubble.’

Taylor seems to effortlessly capture real, human feelings, and the way in which relationships can shift and change so quickly.  She is perhaps most understanding of protagonist Camilla’s altered position, both in life and in Abingford: she ‘felt as if the day had been a dream, that she would come out of it soon, lifting fold after fold of muffling web; for this could not be real – meeting Liz again after eleven months and finding herself so alienated from her that she would show off to her about a man.’  Throughout, the reader is given hints about Richard’s sinister edge, but these are hidden from Camilla.  In this way, we are forced to watch the somewhat dark consequences of the relationship which she embarks upon with him.  Through these characters, Taylor explores in great deal how the expectations which we have of someone, and the effects which they have upon us, can be so terribly damaging.  The tenseness within the novel builds, and is masterfully put in place until it feels almost claustrophobic.

I could hardly bear to put A Wreath of Roses down.  Taylor has a style all of her own, and whilst this novel is in some ways quite different to the rest of her oeuvre, it is characteristically hers.  I was surprised by the twists which this story takes, and the ending completely surprised me.  A Wreath of Roses is a masterful novel, which shows an author at the peak of her power.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey *****

The Snow Child begins in November 1920 beside Alaska’s Wolverine River.  The novel, which is based upon a Russian fairytale, opens with the character of Mabel who has moved to the ‘wilderness silence’ of Alaska with her husband Jack.  The couple are previous residents of Pennsylvania.

9780755380534The tragic circumstances of their pasts are outlined from the start.  Mabel suffered a miscarriage ten years earlier, which has weighed on her mind and body ever since.  The couple are childless and have inadvertently moved to a secluded place which is void of children.  Their life together is consequently set against the backdrop of an all-invading winter darkness.

Ivey has woven a sombre darkness throughout the novel, which fits perfectly with both the setting and the characters.  As they realise just how isolated they are from the rest of the world, the loneliness of Jack and Mabel grows from the start and their relationship takes on a fractious hue.  The couple make their living with difficulty.  Jack is a farmer and Mabel sells homemade pies in the nearby town of Alpine, which is ‘nothing more than a few dusty, false-fronted buildings perched between the train tracks and the Wolverine River’.

Those around them try their best to help the couple, advising them on farming and how to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.  One couple in particular, George and Esther Benson, seem to take Jack and Mabel under their wing.  They slowly begin to let others into the isolation which they have themselves created.  In essence, Jack and Mabel’s new life helps them to connect with others in their community, as well as those they believed they had lost.  Relationships grow, build and shift as the story moves forwards.

When the first snow of winter sets in, Jack and Mabel make the snow child of the novel’s title, an act which serves to bring them closer together.  It gives them a shared understanding and makes the balance of their relationship improve dramatically.  The morning after the snow child is made, Jack sees a figure dashing through the trees.  Both the relationship which the couple build with the snow child, and Ivey’s portrayal of it, are wonderful.

The Snow Child uses a third person narrative perspective throughout.  The chapters follow both characters equally and the thoughts of each character are shown within the narrative.  The inclusion of several letters between Mabel and her sister Ada was a lovely touch.  The interactions between Jack and Mabel are so touching.  The  characters have been formed with such sensitivity on Ivey’s behalf that their pain comes to life on the page.

Ivey’s writing style is beautiful.  It is clear that each word throughout the novel has been chosen with the utmost care.  The result is a wonderful flowing narrative which lends itself well to the story.  She sets the scene superbly with such vivid and well-written descriptions.

True to the form of traditional fairytales, The Snow Child is sinister and heartbreakingly sad in places.  The story is a beautiful one, filled with equal measures of hope and sadness.  It is a novel filled with small triumphs and kindnesses, a perfect wintry tale.  It is difficult to believe that The Snow Child is a debut novel.  It is incredibly accomplished, polished and skilled, and feels as though it was written by a master storyteller.

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Best Books of 2018

I somehow completely forgot to make a wrap-up post for my reading in 2017, but was determined to include one on the blog this year.  Wrap-up posts are a lovely way of seeing what I have achieved during my reading year, as well as pointing out some wonderful tomes which I would highly recommend to fellow readers.

I have decided to split this up into monthly lists.  For some of the months during 2018, I have read far less wonderful books than others, as always seems to be the case.  I am including only five-star reads here, and am thus showcasing only my absolute favourites.  I have also written the original date of publication and genre beside each title, in order to see if there has been any overlap in my reading this year.

January:
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (1958; Gothic, historical fiction) 9781444711073
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (2016; psychological novel, translation)

February:
The Roly-Poly Pudding by Beatrix Potter (1908; children’s; reread)
The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1963; mystery, literary fiction, translation; review here)
We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood (2014; historical fiction)

9781921520280March:
Women and Power by Mary Beard (2017; non-fiction, Classics)
Beauty/Beauty by Rebecca Perry (2015; poetry)
The Spare Room by Helen Garner (2008; literary fiction)

April:
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (2013; short stories; review here)
Selected Poems 1923-1958 by e.e. cummings (1962; poetry; reread)
Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple (1927; literary fiction; review here)
Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (1971; poetry; reread)
Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (2008; mystery, literary fiction, translation; review here)
The Colour by Rose Tremain (2003; historical fiction; review here)

May: 9781408842102
– Salvage the Bones 
by Jesmyn Ward (2011; fiction)
– Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore (1994; historical fiction; reread; review here)
– Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (1918; fiction; review here)
– The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton (2009; fiction; review here)
Anne Frank: The Biography 
by Melissa Muller (1998; non-fiction, biography; review here)

June:
– 
Virginia Woolf: The Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat (2015; non-fiction/biography)

9781908745132July:
– Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair (1923; short stories; review here)
– The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013; fiction; review here)
– Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector (collection published in 2018; short stories; translation; review here)
– The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson (1945; children’s fiction; translation; reread)
– The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985; fiction; review here)
– The Vigilante by John Steinbeck (collection published in 2018; short stories; review here)
– The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson (collection published in 2018; short stories; review here)

August: 9780393324914
– The Lost Garden 
by Helen Humphreys (2002; historical fiction; review here)
– Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe (collection published in 2018; essays; review here)
– The Red Tenda of Bologna by John Berger (collection published in 2018; essays/autobiography; review here)
– The Gigolo by Francoise Sagan (collection published in 2018; short stories; translation; review here)

September:
– The Haunted Boy 
by Carson McCullers (collection published in 2018; short stories; review to come)
– A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf (1921; short story; reread)
– A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor (1949; fiction; review to come)

9781405934138October:
People in the Room 
by Nora Lange (1966; fiction; translation; review to come)
– Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry (2017; fiction, retellings; review to come)
– Poems of the Great War, 1914-1918 (1998; poetry)
– Nothing But the Night by John Williams (1948; fiction)
– The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018; non-fiction)

November:
– Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991; historical fiction; review to come)
– Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018; fiction)
– The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo (2018; adaptation)

December:
– The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (2006; fiction; review to come) 1758967
– The majority of Carol Ann Duffy‘s Christmas poetry books
– Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (1939; children’s poetry; reread)
– Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards (1928; fiction; review to come)

 

As ever, my favourites have largely been fiction choices, which fall into various sub-genres.  I have read a lot of wonderful non-fiction this year, but not much of it has made it into my top books list, unfortunately.  Have you read any of these books?  Which have been your top picks of your 2018 reading?

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