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‘Have the Men Had Enough?’ by Margaret Forster *****

Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus.  At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.

Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-9780099455646in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah.  Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone.  Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s.  And it makes her happy.  It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like.  He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’  Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.

It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care.  Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage.  One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement.  Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses.  Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting.  Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all.  And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’  Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly.  Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.

Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves.  Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma.  This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.

Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration.  Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive.  The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all.  There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.

Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work.  Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months.  I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’

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Waves of Woolf

I have read an awful lot of novels about aspects of Woolf’s life, as well as many biographies.  I have scoured library shelves, and thought that I’d made a real dent in reading reflections upon and criticisms about her work.  It seems that I was misled in this however, as whilst researching before Christmas, I came across an awful lot of wonderful looking tomes which view Woolf’s life in different ways, and from different angles.  Some are critical, and others not so much.  I thought that I would group these together in a single post, as a wishlist of sorts, as well as a resource for those I know also admire Woolf and her work.

 

1. Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee 785085
‘What choices must a biographer make when stitching the pieces of a life into one coherent whole? How do we best create an accurate likeness of a private life from the few articles that linger after death? How do we choose what gets left out? This intriguing and witty collection of essays by an internationally acclaimed biographer looks at how biography deals with myths and legends, what goes missing and what can’t be proved in the story of a life. Virginia Woolf’s Nose presents a variety of case-studies, in which literary biographers are faced with gaps and absences, unprovable stories and ambiguities surrounding their subjects. By looking at stories about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s shriveled, burnt heart found pressed between the pages of a book, Jane Austen’s fainting spell, Samuel Pepys’s lobsters, and the varied versions of Virginia Woolf’s life and death, preeminent biographer Hermione Lee considers how biographers deal with and often utilize these missing body parts, myths, and contested data to “fill in the gaps” of a life story.  In “Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobsters,” an essay dealing with missing parts and biographical legends, Hermione Lee discusses one of the most complicated and emotionally charged examples of the contested use of biographical sources. “Jane Austen Faints” takes five competing versions of the same dramatic moment in the writer’s life to ask how biography deals with the private lives of famous women. “Virginia Woolf’s Nose” looks at the way this legendary author’s life has been translated through successive transformations, from biography to fiction to film, and suggests there can be no such thing as a definitive version of a life. Finally, “How to End It All” analyzes the changing treatment of deathbed scenes in biography to show how biographical conventions have shifted, and asks why the narrators and readers of life-stories feel the need to give special meaning and emphasis to endings.  Virginia Woolf’s Nose sheds new light on the way biographers bring their subjects to life as physical beings, and offers captivating new insights into the drama of “life-writing.”  Virginia Woolf’s Nose is a witty, eloquent, and funny text by a renowned biographer whose sensitivity to the art of telling a story about a human life is unparalleled–and in creating it, Lee articulates and redefines the parameters of her craft.’

 

1160912. Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground by Gillian Beer
‘Eminent feminist critic Gillian Beer’s work on Woolf, George Eliot, and Victorian scientific discourse are well known and admired. As the essays in this collection affirm, Beer has an extraordinary command of British cultural history, a talent for interpretative prose, and a gift for pursuing genuinely rewarding questions. In Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground,Beer’s essays on Woolf are brought together for the first time in a single volume.  Through her close investigative textual readings, she demonstrates how Woolf’s conceptualizations of history and narrative are intimately bound up with her ways of thinking about women, writing, and social and sexual relations. This is demonstrated through precise, detailed configurations, setting Woolf alongside texts both contemporary and distant, scientific and literary, with the effect that Woolf’s writing is illuminated in entirely new and unexpected contexts.  Beer’s introduction pulls together the critical themes of her work, and renders Woolf accessible to the large audience of scholars interested in English Literature as well as women’s writing.’

 

3. Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf, edited by Sybil Oldfield 108651
‘On 28 March, 1941, at the height of Hitler’s victories during the Second World War, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. At the time of her death some voices in the press attacked her for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy and for setting a bad example to the general population. Woolf’s suicide has been the subject of controversy for the media, for literary scholars, and for her biographers ever since.  Just when it may seem that nothing else could be said about Virginia Woolf and the ambiguous details of her suicide, Afterwords provides an entirely fresh perspective. It makes available to a wide readership for the first time letters sent to Leonard Woolf and Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) in the aftermath of the event. This unique volume brings together over two hundred letters from T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, May Sarton, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, E. M. Forster, Radclyffe Hall, and many others, including political figures and religious leaders. In addition, informative annotations reveal the identities of many unexpected condolence-letter writers from among the general public.’

 

173470274. Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House by Caroline Zoob
‘A chronological account takes the reader through the key events in the lives of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and their deaths. This is allied to an account of the garden and its development, and the creation and development of the key areas of the garden. A wonderful selection of full-colour contemporary photographs, archive photographs, illustrated maps and planting plans take the reader through the various garden ‘rooms’, including the Italian Garden, the  Millstone garden, the Orchard, the Vegetable Garden, the Terrace, the Walled Garden, the Fishpond Garden and the Greenhouses and Conservatories. Throughout there are quotations from Virginia and Leonard’s diaries, giving a vivid account of their plans for, views on and activities in the garden.’

 

5. Travels With Virginia Woolf by Jan Morris 3176787
‘Virginia Woolf had a lively sense of place and delighted in `lighting accidentally. . . upon scenes which would have gone on, have always gone on, will go on, unrecorded, save for this chance glimpse. Following Virginia’s footprints from her beloved Sussex and Cornwall to wartime London, Italy and the Riviera to Greek mountains and the wilds of Spain, Jan Morris intersperses swift verbal sketches of a Greek peasant wedding, a fenland sky, an elderly spinster in a hotel dining room in Italy, or Bognor pier in the rain with her own brief, telling comments on both writer and subject’

 

188436. Women and Writing by Virginia Woolf and Michele Barrett
‘Known for her novels, and for the dubious fame of being a doyenne of the ‘Bloomsbury Set’, in her time Virginia Woolf was highly respected as a major essayist and critic with a special interest and commitment to contemporary literature, and women’s writing in particular. This spectacular collection of essays and other writings does justice to those efforts, offering unique appraisals of Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Duchess of Newcastle, Dorothy Richardson, Charlotte Bronte, and Katherine Mansfield, amongst many others. Gathered too, and using previously unpublished (sometimes even unsigned) journal extracts, are what will now become timeless commentaries on ‘Women and Fiction’, ‘Professions for Women’ and ‘The Intellectual Status of Women’. More than half a century after the publication of A Room Of One’s Own, distinguished scholar Michele Barrett cohesively brings together work which, throughout the years, has been scattered throughout many texts and many volumes. . . affording these very valuable writings the collective distinction they deserve at last.’

 

7. The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron 6561286
‘In March 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in England’s River Ouse. Her body was found three weeks later. What seemed like a tragic ending at the time was, in fact, just the beginning of a mystery. . . .  Six decades after Virginia Woolf’s death, landscape designer Jo Bellamy has come to Sissinghurst Castle for two reasons: to study the celebrated White Garden created by Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West and to recover from the terrible wound of her grandfather’s unexplained suicide. In the shadow of one of England’s most famous castles, Jo makes a shocking find: Woolf’s last diary, its first entry dated the day after she allegedly killed herself.  If authenticated, Jo’s discovery could shatter everything historians believe about Woolf’s final hours. But when the Woolf diary is suddenly stolen, Jo’s quest to uncover the truth will lead her on a perilous journey into the tumultuous inner life of a literary icon whose connection to the White Garden ultimately proved devastating.   Rich with historical detail, The White Garden is an enthralling novel of literary suspense that explores the many ways the past haunts the present–and the dark secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the most carefully tended garden.’

 

Which are your favourite books about Woolf?  Have you read any of these?

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The Book Trail: Asian Literature Edition

The first Book Trail of 2018 begins with a book I would very much like to read this year, and takes us through some rather interesting Asian literature picks which are going straight onto my to-read list (if they aren’t there already, of course!).  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to come up with this list.

 

1. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie 4101648
Beginning on August 9, 1945, in Nagasaki, and ending in a prison cell in the US in 2002, as a man is waiting to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, Burnt Shadows is an epic narrative of love and betrayal.  Hiroko Tanaka is twenty-one and in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. As she steps onto her veranda, wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, her world is suddenly and irrevocably altered. In the numbing aftermath of the atomic bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, two years later, Hiroko travels to Delhi. It is there that her life will become intertwined with that of Konrad’s half sister, Elizabeth, her husband, James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu.  With the partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan, Hiroko will find herself displaced once again, in a world where old wars are replaced by new conflicts. But the shadows of history–personal and political–are cast over the interrelated worlds of the Burtons, the Ashrafs, and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York and, in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound these families together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences.

 

117877522. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif
The patients of the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments are looking for a miracle, and Alice Bhatti is looking for a job.  Alice is a candidate for the position of junior nurse, grade 4. It is only a few weeks since her release from Borstal. She has returned to her childhood home in the French Colony, where her father, recently retired from his position as chief janitor, continues as part-time healer, and full-time headache for the local church. It seems she has inherited some of his gift.With guidance from the working nurse’s manual, and some tricks she picked up in prison, Alice brings succour to the thousands of patients littering the hospital’s corridors and concrete courtyard. In the process she attracts the attention of a lovesick patient, Teddy Bunt, apprentice to the nefarious ‘Gentleman Squad’ of the Karachi police. They fall in love; Teddy with sudden violence, Alice with cautious optimism.Their love is unexpected, but the consequences are not.  Alice soon finds that her new life is built on foundations as unstable as those of her home. A Catholic snubbed by other Catholics, who are in turn hated by everyone around them, she is also put at risk by her husband, who does two things that no member of the Gentlemen Squad has ever done – fall in love with a working girl, and allow a potentially dangerous suspect to get away. Can Teddy and Alice ever live in peace? Can two people make a life together without destroying the very thing that united them? It seems unlikely, but then Alice Bhatti is no ordinary nurse…  Filled with wit, colour and pathos, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a glorious story of second chances, thwarted ambitions and love in unlikely places, set in the febrile streets of downtown Karachi. It is the remarkable new novel from the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

 

3. The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer 18781341
A vivid and intricate novel-in-stories, The Scatter Here Is Too Great explores the complicated lives of ordinary people whose fates unexpectedly converge after a deadly bomb blast at the Karachi train station: an old communist poet; his wealthy, middle-aged son; a young man caught in an unpleasant, dead-end job; a girl who spins engaging tales to conceal her heartbreak; and a grief-stricken writer, who struggles to make sense of this devastating tragedy.  Bilal Tanweer reveals the pain, loneliness, and longing of these characters and celebrates the power of the written word to heal lives and communities plagued by violence. Elegantly weaving together different voices into a striking portrait of a city and its people, The Scatter Here Is Too Great is a tale as vibrant and varied in its characters, passions, and idiosyncrasies as the city itself.

 

212709474. The Smoke is Rising by Mahesh Rao
With India’s first rocket launch to the moon, the scenario is changing fast. It is this changing world of Mysore which Mahesh Rao’s novel speaks about. In this story, Mysore is gearing for an international remake with the construction of HeritageLand, Asia’s largest theme park. Citizens and government officials alike prepare themselves for a complete makeover, one that not everybody welcomes. An elderly widow finds herself forced into a secretive new life, and another woman is succumbing to the cancerous power of gossip as she tries to escape her past. Another woman must come to terms with reality as her husband’s troubling behaviour steeps out of hand. In Mysore, where the modern and the eclectic fuse to become something else entirely, everyone must hang on to their own escapes or find themselves swept under the carpet of the sublime change called development.

 

5. Salt and Sawdust by R.K. Narayan 2682894
A delightful new collection of stories and essays, some never published before, by India’s greatest living novelist  ‘Salt and Sawdust’, the title story, is a witty portrayal of a wife who cannot tell the difference between salt and sawdust (when it comes to seasoning food), leaving her husband with no option but to cook himself. The wife meanwhile is writing a novel, which takes up all her time and when it is finished she is, ironically, advised by her publishers to turn her novel into a cookery book!  In addition to short stories this book also has a section called Table Talk, which, according to R.K. Narayan, is a new form of writing, without the compulsion of an argument or conclusion, on any theme and without too definite a form. Writing in this vein then he gives us humorous pieces on, among others, language, personalities, travel, government—even parrots and a hangover.  Narayan’s stories and sketches are, as always, infused with wit, warmth and a wonderful timelessness making this book an essential read for all Narayan enthusiasts.

 

147603126. Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
Sachin Kundalkar started on his first novel at 20 and finished it when he was 22. The novel was Cobalt Blue, the story of a brother and sister who fall in love with the same man, and how a traditional Marathi family is shattered by the ensuing events – a work that both shocked and spoke to Marathi readers.

 

7. The Music Room by Namita Devidayal 6240326
When Namita is ten years old, her mother takes her to Kennedy Bridge, a seamy neighborhood in Bombay, home to hookers and dance girls. There, in a cramped one-room apartment lives Dhondutai, the last living disciple of two of the finest Indian classical singers of the twentieth century: the legendary Alladiya Khan and the great songbird Kesarbai Kerkar. Namita begins to learn singing from Dhondutai, at first reluctantly and then, as the years pass, with growing passion. Dhondutai sees in her a second Kesarbai, but does Namita have the dedication to give herself up completely to the discipline like her teacher? Or will there always be too many late nights and cigarettes? And where do love and marriage fit into all of this?  A bestseller in India, where it was a literary sensation, The Music Room is a deeply moving meditation on how traditions and life lessons are passed along generations, on the sacrifices made by women through the ages, and on a largely unknown, but vital aspect of Indian life and culture that will utterly fascinate American readers.

 

225294018. She Will Build Him a City by Raj Kamal Jha
As night falls in Delhi, a mother spins tales from her past for her sleeping daughter. Now grown up, her child is a puzzle with a million pieces, whom she hopes, through her words and her love, to somehow make whole again.  Meanwhile, a young man rides the last train from Rajiv Chowk Station and dreams of murder.  In another corner of the city, a newborn wrapped in a blood-red towel lies on the steps of an orphanage as his mother walks away.  There are twenty million bodies in this city, but the stories of this woman, man, and child–of a secret love that blossoms in the shadows of grief, of a corrosive guilt that taints the soul, and of a boy who maps his own destiny–weave in and out of the lives of those around them to form a dazzling kaleidoscope of a novel.  Beautiful, beguiling, and audacious, this is the story of a city and its people, of love and horror, of belonging and forgiveness: a powerful and unforgettable tale of modern India.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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2017’s Yearly Challenge: Round Up

I decided to put together four lists this year – one of authors I wanted to read, another of books which had caught my eye, and projects made up of French and Scottish-set books.  I have not done anywhere near as well with my yearly challenges as I had anticipated.  I overstretched myself rather; although I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year, I have neglected these lists over the last few months, and have been reading at whim instead.  I thought that I would just write a relatively concise post about how I did with my challenges in terms of numbers, and which books were particular highlights for me.  You can see my full list, with all of the titles, here.  On a brighter note, I did manage to complete my Reading the World challenge, where I scheduled a review of a piece of translated literature every Saturday.  My full list can be found here.

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George Sand

With regard to the authors, I actually did rather well.  Out of nineteen pinpointed, there were only four which I did not get to (Amelie Nothomb, Lydia Millet, Leena Krohn, and Gunter Grass).  Wonderful discoveries for me from this list were George Sand, John Wyndham, Ira Levin, and Anita Desai.  It was lovely to revisit some favourite authors too – Rebecca West and Agatha Christie, to name but two.

With regard to my book list, I fared worse.  Out of quite an extensive list of titles (thirty-four in all), I only managed to read seventeen.  There were a few books which I was disappointed with (The Shining by Stephen King, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn), but I found some new favourites too.  Amongst those which I rated the most highly are the beautiful, quiet Welsh novel The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (review here), the gorgeous and immersive This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell, the perfectly paced The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, the haunting and strange Fell by Jenn Ashworth, the hilariously funny Where Am I Now? 9780143128229by Mara Wilson (review here), the profound and beautifully poetic The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (review here), and the downright creepy The Dumb House by John Burnside.

My efforts for my French reading project were paltry; I only read nine books out of a list of thirty.  Particular standouts for me were the lovely non-fiction account by Peter Mayle of his move to France, entitled A Year in Provence, Julia Stuart‘s terribly charming The Matchmaker of Perigord, the wonderfully bookish A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and the beautiful Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide.  Of my rereads, I very much enjoyed revisiting Irene Nemirovsky, whose books I adore, as well 9781933372822as Elizabeth McCracken‘s searingly touching An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination.

My Scottish reading project was a little better.  Out of twenty-nine books, I read eight, and gave up on four.  I was particularly charmed by Anne Donovan‘s Buddha Da, my reread of Maggie O’Farrell‘s wonderful The VanishingAct of Esme Lennox, and Jenni Fagan‘s engrossing, and awfully human, The Sunlight Pilgrims.

I have set my sights a little lower for my 2018 reading challenge, choosing only to participate in the Around the World in 80 Books group on Goodreads.  I will be reading books from, or set within, eighty different countries around the world, and could not be more excited about what I will discover.

How did you get on with your 2018 challenges?  Do you always set reading challenges, or do you prefer to read without any restrictions?

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‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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Reading the World: ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

I had read two of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s books before making my foray into Hotel Iris: The Housekeeper and the Professor (review), and Revenge (review). The Times Literary Supplement writes that in this particular novel, ‘Image by perfect image, we are led down into a mysterious and gripping universe, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying’.  The Independent goes on to say: ‘This is a brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected… but also sometimes a longing that is touching and tender’.  Hotel Iris was first published in Japan in 1996, and in its English translation in 2010.

Hotel Iris, the third of Ogawa’s books to be translated into English, centres upon Mari, a seventeen-year-old who works on the front desk in a ‘crumbling, seaside hotel on the coast of Japan’.  One night, a middle-aged man and a prostitute are ‘ejected from his room’.  Mari finds herself infatuated with the man’s voice.  Just so you, dear reader, are warned, what follows is rather harrowing.  After several clandestine meetings, Mari is drawn to his home, where he ‘initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure’.9780099548997

Mari is as perceptive a narrator as Ogawa is a writer; of the prostitute, she observes: ‘Frizzy hair hung at her wrinkled neck, and thick, shiny lipstick had smeared onto her cheeks.  Her mascara had run, and her left breast hung out of her blouse where the buttons had come undone.  Pale pink thighs protruded from a short skirt, marked in places with red scratches.  She had lost one of her cheap plastic high heels’.  When her male companion first appears, the following is described rather lyrically: ‘The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel.  It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger.  Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn’.

The novel is told from Mari’s perspective, and we learn an awful lot about her.  At first, she comes across as a little naive, but she is soon cast under the translator’s spell, and allows him to do whatever he wants to her: ‘Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became – like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl’.  Like the Professor in Ogawa’s aforementioned novel, we are never given the man’s first name; rather, he is identified only by his profession, and known therefore as ‘the translator’.  The passages which include him tend to be rather sinister at times: ‘The translator’s hand was soft.  So soft it seemed my hand would sink completely into his.  This hand had done so many things to me – stroked my hair, made my tea, stripped me, bound me – and with each new act it had been reborn as something different’.  He is a peculiar and rather complex character, who made me feel uncomfortable throughout.  Ogawa has included an interesting contradiction when writing about him; whilst he revels in violent acts with her, his correspondence to Mari expresses a real tenderness.

As in her other books, some of Ogawa’s prose in Hotel Iris is deceptively simple.  The novel feels markedly different from The Housekeeper and the Professor, which has a wonderful, quiet beauty.  There is violence in Hotel Iris, and I found a couple of the scenes incredibly disturbing, something which I was not expecting.  Perhaps it just asserts what a diverse and skilled writer Ogawa is that she can write two very different novels in so confident a manner.  Hotel Iris is, I would say, far closer in its themes and occurrences to Ogawa’s short story collection, Revenge.

Hotel Iris is a continually interesting and unsettling novella, which becomes rather disturbing in places.  I tend to shy away from such novels, and whilst I did enjoy this overall, and have rated it highly, I cannot help but be glad that my usual reading fare is unlike this.  I found the reading process rather exhausting, despite the fact that I easily read it over a single afternoon.  Well plotted and multilayered, with a cleverly rendered ending, Hotel Iris is well worth seeking out, but it’s not something which I would recommend for the faint of heart!

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One From the Archive: ‘Nana’ by Emile Zola ****

The 35th book on my Classics Club list is the rather beguiling Nana by Emile Zola.  Nana, which was first published in 1880, is the ninth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, which I am reading in no particular order.

nanaThe novel begins in 1867 at the Theatre des Varieties in Paris, where eighteen-year-old Nana is the newest star: ‘Nobody knew Nana.  Whence had Nana fallen?  And stories and jokes, whispered from ear to ear, were the round of the crowd.  The name was a caress in itself; it was a pet name, the very familiarity of which suited every lip.  Merely through enunciating it thus, the throng worked itself into a state of gaiety and became highly good natured.  A fever of curiosity urged it forward, that kind of Parisian curiosity which is as violent as an access of positive unreason.  Everbody wanted to see Nana.’

From the very start, Zola sets the scene of the Theatre des Varieties marvellously: ‘A few individuals, it is true, were sitting quietly waiting in the balcony and stalls, but these were lost, as it were, among the ranges of seats whose coverings of cardinal velvet loomed in the subdued light of the dimly burning lustre.  A shadow enveloped the great red splash of the curtain and not a sound came from the stage, the unlit footlights, the scattered desks of the orchestra.  It was only high overhead in the third gallery, round the domed ceiling where nude females and children flew in heavens which had turned green in the gaslight, that calls and laughter were audible over a continuous hubbub of voices…’.

The intrinsic position of Nana within the theatre is also strongly built: ‘Nana, in the meantime, seeing the house laughing, began to laugh herself.  The gaiety of all redoubled itself.  She was an amusing creature, all the same, was that fine girl!  Her laughter made a love of a little dimple appear in her chin.  She stood there waiting, not bored in the least, familiar with her audience, falling into step with them at once, as though she herself were admitting with a wink that she had not two farthings’ worth of talent but that it did not matter at all, that, in fact, she had other good points…  Exceedingly tall, exceedingly strong, for her eighteen years, Nana, in her goddess’s white tunic and with her light hair simply flowing unfastened over her shoulders, came down to the footlights with a quiet certainty of movement and a laugh of greeting for the public and struck up her grand ditty…’.

Just a few deft strokes of the pen is enough for Zola to create scenes which live vividly within the mind’s eye for subsequent pages: ‘The air there was heavy with the somnolence of a party prolonged into the early hours; and a dull light came from the lamps, whose charred wicks glowed red inside their globes. The ladies had reached that vaguely melancholy hour when they felt it necessary to tell each other the story of their lives.’

As a character, Nana is rather a complex construction.  On one hand, she is quite sensual and has a way of successfully wrapping men around her little finger and bending them to her will.  She is also quite naive, however, and in one particularly memorable scene she almost bursts with excitement at the prospect of going out into the city to drink milk.  She is on the borderline between child and adulthood, and that very juxtaposition and all its awkwardness makes her endlessly fascinating.  The entirety of the plot revolves around her; we learn of her loves and heartbreaks, and of her small son Louis, who is living in the countryside, and whom she does not get to see.

Whilst Nana is not quite as compelling as the fabulous The Ladies’ Paradise, it is an incredibly enjoyable novel, which brings to life the Paris of old.  The entirety is so well written, and I am itching to carry on with the rest of Zola’s works already.

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