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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson’s novels never fail to astound me.  Whilst I have most of her oeuvre yet to read, I have very much enjoyed every book of hers which I have read to date, from the heartbreakingly sad Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the quirky The Passion, to her distinct, unique and imaginative retelling of the story of Atlas and Heracles, Weight.  I wanted, therefore, to read The Daylight Gate ever since I first learnt of its publication, and was thrilled when I received a beautiful copy from my parents for Christmas.

I find the Lancashire Witch Trials absolutely fascinating (that kind of horrid which both repulses and interests me – much like the many books about the Holocaust which I tend to read), and I am so pleased that Winterson decided to turn her talented hands to writing a novel about them.

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson

Her newest offering is so atmospheric.  Winterson unfailing writes so well, and is a master at creating chills using just a simple sentence.  This was present from the outset in The Daylight Gate, and the consequent tension was marvellously built.  The undercurrents which are present in every work of her fiction are so well done here particularly, and she suggests and hints at many elements throughout without explicitly stating facts.  I love the way in which the reader is subsequently able to come up with their own interpretation at times in The Daylight Gate, almost putting their own stamp upon the novel.

The true history of the Trials is set out throughout the volume, and this gives the entirety a real sense of place and time.  Winterson is able to switch seamlessly from one narrative perspective to another, and shifts the focus between her characters accordingly.

The way in which Winterson uses the full names of her characters for the majority of the book works very well.  As each person whom she touches upon is a distinctive being in history, this technique reminds the reader continually that they were real, and it also serves to detach us emotionally from some of the crueller beings who were involved in the Trials.  Only in the more tender, emotional or pivotal situations throughout does Winterson revert to using only the given names of her protagonists.  The psychology of each and every being we meet has been well considered.

The Daylight Gate is a dark novel, far darker than I expected it to be.  The entirety is beautifully written, the prose sparse when it needs to be, and decorated with lovely descriptions.  The novel made me feel a little uneasy at times, but some of the more gruesome instances throughout built up the book’s power to wonderful heights, making it both powerful and vivid.  I admire Winterson greatly for writing about such an important historical event and bringing it back into the contemporary consciousness in such a stunning way.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

Before I begin to speak about The Night Circus, I must say that the book itself (I am lucky enough to have the first edition hardback) is a thing of beauty.  Its pages are edged in black, the endpapers and illustrated pages are extremely pretty, and there is even a lovely red ribbon bookmark attached.  It pleases me when so much thought has been put into the aesthetic elements of the book, and this is one of my favourites in terms of design.

The blurb is incredibly enticing:

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 

“But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

I first read The Night Circus last year, and very much enjoyed it.  I love the way in which the novel begins, and Morgenstern sets the scene beautifully.  The way in which she describes the circus is enchanting, and this element strengthens as the novel goes on.  I adore the descriptions of the enchantments which can be found within each tent; they drip with beauty, and Morgenstern has a way of making everything she writes about incredibly vivid.  The Night Circus is an incredibly absorbing book.  It has been plotted in such a way that as soon as one begins to read, a spell of sorts is cast upon them, which makes them want to do nothing but read on.

‘The Night Circus’ sculpture by Rabarama at deviantART

The use of different narrative techniques throughout is done in a skilful manner.  The main thread of the story is written using the third person perspective, and small sections of it use the second person, addressing the reader directly and making them a part of the story.  So many tales have been wondrously woven together, and many characters who are intrinsically linked within the circus come to light as the novel weaves its magic.  The characterisation is sublime.

I found, on my second reading, that I enjoyed it even more than the first.  It has joined my list of treasures, and is a novel which I will come back to again and again.  The Night Circus is beautiful, enchanting and incredibly clever, and the images which it creates will never leave me.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Happy Tree’ by Rosalind Murray

Rosalind Murray’s The Happy Tree, the 108th book on the Persephone list, was first published in 1926.  This beautiful novel has so many themes delicately threaded through its plot – family, politics, wartime, love, friendship, jealousy and, perhaps most importantly for its protagonist, the notion and hardships of growing up.

The storyline of The Happy Tree alone sounds like a perfect pick for the lovely Persephone list.  Our protagonist is Helen Woodruffe, a grown woman who is looking back on her life and the choices which she has made: ‘And this is all that has happened.  It does not seem very much.  It does not seem worth writing about.  I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and some one I loved dearly was killed in the war… that was all.  And all those things must be true of thousands of people’.  In her childhood, she tells us in the novel’s opening chapter, she divided her time between her grandmother’s London house and her cousins’ home, a country estate named Yearsly: ‘There, sometimes under a special “Happy Tree”, she passes an idyllic childhood with Guy and Hugo Laurier’, hopelessly falling for the latter.  Of her cousins, Helen tells us, ‘they were and are to me all I could wish for anyone to be, and I cannot wish anything at all different about them’.

The opening of The Happy Tree draws one in immediately, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel: ‘Once I would have minded it so much, to live here, looking out at that laburnum tree, and that house opposite, that bow window, and the yellowish stone facings of the windows, and the lilac bush that has grown all crooked, and the pink hawthorn, and the laurels with patterned leaves; but now I do not mind.  Now I do not see these things or think about them at all; only tonight I am seeing them, because somehow I have come awake tonight, for a bit’.  The sense of place within the novel comes together marvellously through Murray’s carefully tuned descriptions.

Helen is the most wonderful narrator, and Murray is very aware of her as a distinct being, and of her persona, thoughts and feelings: ‘And my life up to now comes before me very clearly; the people and the places, and the choices and mistakes, and I seem to see it all in better proportion than before; less clouded and blurred across by the violent emotion of youth’.  She is very candid throughout, and lets us in to her secrets, as it were.  Of her mother’s seeming lack of care – one may even go as far as to say neglect – which allowed her to go and live with Cousin Delia, the mother of Guy and Hugo, after her father’s death, she says: ‘If she had kept me with her I don’t know what would have happened.  I don’t know how I could have grown up at all’.

The well-considered introduction to The Happy Tree has been penned by Charlotte Mitchell.  She writes of the way in which the novel resembles ‘many of her [Murray’s] other writings, fiction and non-fiction, in examining the world she was brought up in and the choices it had offered a woman like herself’.  She goes on to say that: ‘with all the usual caveats about treating fiction as autobiography, it is evident that the novel depicts Rosalind’s own situation pretty closely’.  The Happy Tree is a marvellous novel, filled with fluid characters, beautiful writing, and such consideration for every scene.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Since first encountering the delightful Oskar and Safran Foer’s stunning way of writing, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been a firm favourite of mine.  The protagonist, Oskar Schell, is a nine-year old boy who lives in New York City with his mother.  Oskar’s father was killed during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.     The main thread of the story comes when grieving Oskar unearths a key, and believes that it holds the answer to a mystery which only he can solve.  There are, Oskar works out, 162 million locks in New York, but he has no idea as to which of these his father’s key will open.  He consequently goes on a quest of sorts through his city, piecing things together as he goes. 9780141025186

Picking up clues along the way, he is soon put onto the trail of someone with the surname of Black: ‘That was my great plan.  I would spend my Saturdays and Sundays finding all of the people named Black and learning what they knew about the key in the vase in Dad’s closet.  In a year and a half I would know everything.  Or at least know that I had to come up with a new plan’.

Oskar is one of the most original child characters whom I have come across in fiction, and he is a sheer joy to become acquainted with.  He is a headstrong and creative child; at the beginning of the book, for example, he talks about a host of inventions which he has thought up, clearly placing the reader inside his mind and giving an insight into his thought patterns: ‘What about a teakettle?  What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?…  What about little microphones?  What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls?’

The novel is at once beautiful, heartwarming and achingly sad.  Safran Foer has such a gorgeous and rather original way of writing; he immediately captures vivid scenes through Oskar’s eyes, and makes every single one of his characters both quirky and utterly believable.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a creative novel.  Whilst the majority of the story is told from Oskar’s perspective, there are also letters and photographs which, at first, add to the overall mystery.  The incredibly well-plotted whole has been so thoughtfully crafted and put together, and the reader is able to play the part of detective alongside our adorable, naive narrator, who becomes more worldly-wise as he follows the trail.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction around.

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‘Rooms’ by Lauren Oliver ****

‘Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family – bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna – have arrived for their inheritance.But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself – in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide – with cataclysmic results.’

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I adore books about old houses and secrets, as well as good ghost stories, and Lauren Oliver’s Rooms was therefore quite an obvious choice for me to pick up. I’m so pleased that Oliver has made the transition, if a temporary one, to adult literature; the only other book of hers which I have read to date is Before I Fall, which I enjoyed, despite young adult literature not really being my thing.

I very much liked the structure within Rooms, revolving as it did around a series of different rooms in a grand old American house. Each character was followed in turn, and the way in which only the ‘ghosts’ of the house used first person perspectives gave a really interesting overview, which had quite a lot of depth to it. I would not personally term this a fantasy or paranormal novel; it is really rather human, and makes one think about the strength of history and family. Yes, there are ghosts, but there is an overriding sense of realism to the whole. The prose is both effective and poetic, and everything about it works.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Wheel Spins’ by Ethel Lina White, and ‘Triumph and Disaster’ by Stefan Zweig

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White *****
I adore ‘The Lady Vanishes’; it is easily one of my favourite films. I also love discovering 7210forgotten authors who have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. Imagine my delight then when I found a Kindle copy of Ethel Lina White’s collected works, including The Wheel Spins, the novel which Hitchcock’s film was based upon.

The Wheel Spins is remarkably slick. White moves from one character to the next so fluidly, and her writing is strong. I was immediately pulled in. Whilst Hitchcock’s film adaptation follows White’s plot relatively well, there is so much depth within the novel; the backstories of many of the secondary characters are given. The Wheel Spins has a wonderful mystery at its heart, and is both entertaining and perfectly paced. I highly recommend it for fans of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Edmund Crispin.

 

Triumph and Disaster by Stefan Zweig **** 9781782272748
Triumph and Disaster added something a little different to my October TBR list.  I have read quite a bit of Zweig’s fiction, and very much enjoyed it, but this volume leans more toward non-fiction, presenting as it does a series of five historical figures at pivotal moments in their lives.  Zweig’s content of historical miniatures is varied, even eclectic; here, he discusses Napoleon, Captain Scott, the conquest of Byzantium, Lenin in April 1917, and the Treaty of Versailles.

Zweig’s accounts are beautifully written, and have been splendidly translated.  They are fanciful at times; poetic licence has certainly been used, and accounts are not always factually accurate.  What Zweig does, however, is immediately engage his reader, giving an awareness of rich and fascinating pieces of history.

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‘A Misalliance’ by Anita Brookner ***

I have read rather a lot of Anita Brookner’s novels over the last year or two, and have got to the stage where they are all starting to feel very similar.  A lot of her books focus upon single, or troubled, women, who are trying to find their place in the world, as well as yearning to know themselves.  I had three of her tomes outstanding on my bookshelf, and chose A Misalliance, which was published in 1986, at random.  I read several rather mixed reports of it before I began to read, and the word which stood out most for me was ‘bleak’.

9781400095223Blanche Vernon, our protagonist, was abandoned by her husband of twenty years in favour of a ‘bubbling yuppie in her twenties’.  The childless woman spends her days visiting museums around her home city of London, so as not to feel the loneliness which can hit her when in her flat.  The novel opens in the following way: ‘Blanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay.  In this uneasy month of the year – cold April, long chilly evenings – she considered it a matter of honour to be busy and amused until darkness fell and released her from her obligations’.  Blanche is very much occupied with saving face, and appearing as cheery as she did when she was married to the outside world.  Indeed, from her perspective, her marriage was a very happy one, and she was left shocked when Bertie walked out on her.  ‘It was her husband,’ writes Brookner, in rather a tongue in cheek manner, ‘who had fashioned her into the woman she was now, so independent, so dignified, so able to manage on her own.’

Indeed, A Misalliance does follow extremely similar tropes to a lot of Brookner’s other works; it is an introspective study of a woman who suddenly has to live alone, and adjust accordingly, through no fault of her own.  We learn a lot about Blanche’s thoughts and feelings, and the drawing of her relationship is almost a psychological one when taken together.  Blanche struck me as rather a pathetic character; she is incredibly gullible, and seems not to have the faintest inkling of when she is being used, or taken for granted.  Brookner’s portrayal of her takes any sympathy away, and she appears as a not very likeable protagonist.  The lease of life which she is given is a little unlikely in places, and did not strike me as an overly realistic occurrence in consequence.  Thematically, almost all of the Brookner novels which I have read to date – Falling Slowly, Providence, and Family and Friends to name but three – follow this formula; clearly it is one which worked for the author, but it leaves little to the imagination for her readers.

A Misalliance is certainly readable and intelligent, but it does seem a little as though Brookner has recycled characters, both primary and secondary, from her other books, and squashed them all together here.  The secondary characters are often far more interesting than Blanche herself, and part of me would have liked to learn more about them, or for the focus to shift between Blanche and one another.  This approach would have appeared as relatively refreshing, and I am almost certain that I would have ended up liking the novel a lot more than I did.

Vogue says that the novel ‘has the old-fashioned virtue of being easy to read while remaining bracingly intelligent’, and the Times Literary Supplement that it provides ‘a civilised look at contemporary disorder, and a wonderfully poised and pointed examination of the wrong turning’.  I ended up concluding that A Misalliance is a very middle-of-the-road, and sadly almost nondescript, book.  Yes, it has virtue, but it is one of Brookner’s weaker and less memorable tomes.  If you like Brookner already, then there’s no harm at all in reading this, but if you are new to her work, I would not suggest this as a fruitful starting point to her oeuvre.

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