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One From the Archive: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson *****

The Haunting of Hill House was my second Halloween read of 2013, and is certainly one of my favourite books of 2013.  I have wanted to read it for years; more so after very much enjoying Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I hoped that this novel would be just as good, and I was overjoyed to find that it was both better and creepier.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson begins the story by telling the story of Dr John Montague, who goes to live in Hill House when he finds out that it is purported to be haunted.  He invites a few select people along to Hill House in rural America to stay there with him, whom he feels are interested enough in hauntings to warrant a place in the experiment of sorts which he is conducting.  One of the characters who accepts the invitation is Eleanor Vance, a spinster of sorts, who becomes the one whom Jackson places the most focus upon.

One of the primary things which I love about Jackson’s fiction is the way in which she makes the houses in which her protagonists live characters in themselves.  I love the way in which Jackson introduces her characters too – for example, ‘Luke Sanderson was a liar’.  I admire how matter-of-fact she can be, but how she also leaves many elements up to the imagination of the reader, and the way in which she weaves in loose ends at times in which they are not expected.  The entirety of The Haunting of Hill House is beautifully written, and the prose works marvellously with regard to her unfolding of the plot.  Some of the passages which Jackson crafts truly made me swoon.  For example, when describing Eleanor’s journey to Hill House, she writes:

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson (Penguin)

She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden.  I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step.  No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road.  I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth.  I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread.  People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin…

The novel, as it gains momentum, is marvellously creepy.  The atmosphere which Jackson builds is powerful and rather oppressive.  Her pace is perfect, and the conversation between characters is fabulous.  Jackson never lingers into the field of mundanity, but is instead original in all that she writes and crafts.  The relationship which she builds between Eleanor and another of those who has accepted the invitation to stay at Hill House, Theodora, is believable and so well structured.  I read this novella almost in one go, as I struggled to tear myself away from it.

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Three Fantastic Novels

Whilst I have not written comprehensive reviews for the following books, I felt that they were all deserving of attention here on the blog.  I read all three at different times, but each has had an impact upon my reading life, and I find their stories incredibly memorable.

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster 9780141199825*****
‘Lucy has her rigid, middle-class life mapped out for her until she visits Florence with her uptight cousin Charlotte, and finds her neatly ordered existence thrown off balance. Her eyes are opened by the unconventional characters she meets at the Pension Bertolini: flamboyant romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish, the Cockney Signora, curious Mr Emerson and, most of all, his passionate son George. Lucy finds herself torn between the intensity of life in Italy and the repressed morals of Edwardian England, personified in her terminally dull fiance Cecil Vyse. Will she ever learn to follow her own heart?’

A Room with a View was one of just two outstanding Forster books which I hadn’t yet read. I had been meaning to read it for years before finally picking it up, and am kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. The entirety is beautifully written, and the characters almost achingly realistic. There are some rather comic episodes and asides, which balanced the more serious elements of the novel nicely. A Room with a View is transportive; Florence is beautifully evoked from the beginning. Whilst I found the ending a touch predictable, it was so deftly handled that it didn’t matter so much. A Room with a View is still a fantastic novel, which I absolutely loved.

 

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte *****
9781784872397‘When Agnes’s father loses the family savings, young Agnes determines to make her own living – as a governess. Working for the Bloomfields, her enthusiasm is soon dampened by isolation and the cruelty of the children in her charge. Agnes hopes for better in her second job, but when the scheming elder daughter Rosalie makes designs on Agnes’s new friend, the kind curate Mr Weston, she feels herself silenced and sidelined. Becoming a governess is one thing, becoming invisible is quite another.’

I was prompted to reread Anne Bronte’s wonderful Agnes Grey after watching the BBC adaptation of the Brontes’ lives, To Walk Invisible. Agnes Grey is beautifully written throughout, and Anne was undoubtedly a very gifted writer. This is a wonderful tome to be reunited with, with its memorable storyline and cast of characters. Bronte’s turns of phrase are just lovely, and Agnes’ first person perspective is so engaging. A refreshing, thoughtful, and intelligent read in many respects, and a fantastic novel to boot.

 

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky ***** 9780099488781
‘In 1941, Irene Nemirovsky sat down to write a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was living through by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. Nemirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the existing two sections of her planned novel sequence, Suite Francaise, would be rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece. Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Francaise falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Francaise is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.’

I reread Suite Francaise, one of my absolute favourite books, whilst in France over Easter. It is even more beautiful than I remember it being. All of Nemirovsky’s novels are sweeping masterpieces, but she perhaps reached the pinnacle here. I can think of very few novels which even touch this one in their brilliance and evocation. Nemirovsky’s descriptions are, of course, sublime, and the novel is – like all of her work – peopled with a complex cast of realistic characters. An incredibly insightful and important work about the Second World War by one of my favourite authors.

 

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Reading the World: ‘Water for Chocolate’ and ‘The Door’ (From the Archive)

9780552995870Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel ****

Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s bestselling debut novel was translated from the Spanish, and I found my copy for just £1 outside Books for Amnesty on a trip to Brighton.  I don’t usually read romance novels of any kind, but I remembered that I had written this book in my very first ‘to-read’ notebook when I first began it at the age of sixteen, and added it to my pile immediately.  I also feel that I need to read more South American fiction, as I have sadly not really got past my dislike of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and feel that it has put me off from exploring the continent’s literature further.  Starting with something which was relatively mainstream in that case felt like a good way in which to ease myself in.

Like Water for Chocolate begins in rather an interesting way, with the unusual birth of one of the main protagonists, Tita.  This is triggered by her hatred of onions: ‘Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves and coriander, steamed milk, garlic and, of course, onion.’  Her story continues from this point onwards, and she grows along with the novel.  I very much enjoyed the inclusion of recipes throughout the novel, and the way in which it has been split into chapters which correspond to different months.  Like Water for Chocolate is incredibly engrossing, and Esquivel weaves her tale wonderfully.  The elements of magical realism were both quirky and bizarre, and worked marvellously with the plot which she fashioned.

The Door by Magda Szabo *** 9780099470281
I believe that this is the first novel translated from Hungarian which I have read.  On the whole, I found The Door intriguing and a little unsettling, but my comments about it are rather mixed.  In this novel, Szabo tells the story of a couple – the wife an author and the husband too unwell almost all the way through the book to work – and how Emerence, a cleaner in the small district in which they live, comes into their lives.

My favourite element of the story was the way in which Emerence had been constructed.  She was an incredibly enigmatic character, particularly at first.  In some ways, however, she seems to be the only three-dimensional inclusion in the entire book.  It feels as though far more thought has gone into her construction than into anything else.  The unnamed narrator felt rather flat, and I was constantly irritated by her self-pity.  I found her ‘I know best’ and ‘woe is me’ attitudes rather grating.  Her husband, also unnamed, was a mere shadow.

The Door is extremely narrative driven.  It often reads like a monologue of sorts, and whilst this technique was rather absorbing during the novel’s beginning, the plot did become rather saturated in consequence.  I found the animal cruelty throughout rather difficult to read.  The translation sadly feels rather disjointed, particularly during the longer sentences.  I feel that The Door would have been far more powerful and enjoyable had it been a novella.

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One From the Archive: ‘Ravenscliffe’ by Jane Sanderson **

First published in October 2012.

Ravenscliffe is the standalone sequel to Jane Sanderson’s debut novel, Netherwood. The novel has been publicised as ‘perfect for readers of Kate Morton and Rachel Hore, as well as fans of period dramas like Downton Abbey.

Ravenscliffe opens in Yorkshire in 1904, in a small town named Netherwood. The story begins with a very well written description of the mining town, with its ‘spiteful, unruly gangs of hawthorn’ and its three major collieries. The main protagonists of the novel, Anna Rabinovich and Eve Williams, are introduced almost immediately. The two women are looking at Ravenscliffe, ‘the only property on the common, a large, detached villa, deeper than it was wide’. Anna, a twenty-two-year-old Russian émigré, has set her sights on living in the property, which ‘held the promise of happiness… there was warmth here’. Eve, rather older than Anna and with three young children, is a widower, still secretively mourning her late husband Arthur who was killed in a mining accident.

The second chapter of the novel then focuses upon Clarissa Hoyland and her husband Teddy, otherwise known as Lord and Lady Netherwood. Clarissa is a ‘beautiful, pouting, manipulative’ woman who tends to have tantrums if she is not given her own way immediately. Lord and Lady Netherwood’s kitchen staff are also featured in the narrative. This technique is reminiscent of Downton Abbey and similar period dramas, as the reader is able to see both sides of the same situation.

Many more characters are included throughout the book, both in the main plot and subplots. At first, the sheer number of people who have been introduced into Ravenscliffe seem overwhelming, and it is consequently difficult to make sense of who is who and what relevance they have to the rest of the story. We meet Eve’s partner, Daniel, her three children and her brother Silas, as well as an Amos Sykes, a Jem Arkwright and an Absalom Blandford in just the first few short chapters.

Many period details have been included by the author, ranging from the exact model of the stove in Ravenscliffe’s kitchen to a game called ‘knur’, and from the growing awareness of mining conditions to the responsibilities of head gardeners in the Edwardian era. Changing times in history have been included, along with important real-life figures – Keir Hardie, the King of England and Sylvia Pankhurst, for example – alongside Sanderson’s fictionalised creations. Relationships between the characters simultaneously move forward and dissipate, new alliances are formed and long-lost siblings are found and rejoiced over. The divide between wealth and relative poverty has been touched upon, as has the rather rigid class system which existed at the time.

Sanderson has used a third person perspective throughout, in a style which feels rather informal. The dialogue of many of the characters – in fact, the majority of them – is written in Yorkshire dialect. This works well to an extent, but it does feel rather overdone at times, particularly when entire conversations which fill pages at a time follow the exact same patterns of speech. Sanderson’s scenic descriptions are rich and often vivid, but sadly not much is made of what the characters themselves are like. Descriptions of them seem to have been overlooked somewhat, and they feel a little flat and rather two-dimensional in consequence. We do learn some details about their personalities as the story unfolds, but there is no real creation of a coherent and consistent work. Due to the lack of character descriptions and the similarities in the dialects which many of the characters speak with, it is difficult at times to distinguish between one character and the next.

Ravenscliffe itself is certainly stronger with regard to its storyline than with the characters which it involves. Many different plots converge to make up the overall story, and in this way, Ravenscliffe is rather deftly crafted.

Ravenscliffe is an interesting story on several accounts, and Sanderson’s use of social history is its definite strength. The story is a little confusing at times, merely due to the sheer numbers of characters involved from one chapter to the next. The novel does not break new ground by any means, but for readers of historical fiction, the book is a pleasant one. It does seem rather difficult for the reader to become caught up in the story, however, and no real compassion is built up on behalf of the characters.

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‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

9781911332251Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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‘The Hearing Trumpet’ by Leonora Carrington ****

‘One of the first things ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby overhears when she is given an ornate hearing trumpet is her family plotting to commit her to an institution. Soon, she finds herself trapped in a sinister retirement home, where the elderly must inhabit buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes, endure twisted religious preaching and eat in a canteen overlooked by the mysterious portrait of a leering Abbess. But when another resident secretly hands Marian a book recounding the life of the Abbess, a joyous and brilliantly surreal adventure begins to unfold. Written in the early 1960s, The Hearing Trumpet remains one of the most original and inspirational of all fantastic novels.’

9780141187990Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is as wonderfully odd and obscure as it sounds. The novel is amusing, sometimes startlingly so; it made me laugh aloud in a few places, which very few books manage to do. (I do have a sense of humour. Promise.) Whilst I wasn’t at all fond of the religious aspects, I found our protagonist Marian quite a character. She and her best friend Carmella are two great eccentrics, really. One never quite knows what they’re going to do next.

I would categorise The Hearing Trumpet as falling somewhere between magical realism and utterly fantastical; there are recognisable elements, but it often reads like what I imagine a strong drugs trip might do to one. There were, rather strangely, echoes of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree for me here; read it, and you’ll understand why. There are also a few harks back to fairytales – ever so strange ones, but fairytales all the same.

The Hearing Trumpet is perhaps the epitome of Surrealist literature, and I have never read anything quite like it; the closest I have come to date is probably the work of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, who is undeservedly neglected. The ending was even stranger than I was expecting, and verged upon the disturbing. My favourite quote from the whole is: ‘People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats’.

As a final thought, it was a wonderful surprise to discover that the introduction to the volume which I borrowed from the library was written by one of my absolute favourite authors, Ali Smith; her work is, as ever, fantastic, both fascinating and funny, and she set the tone of the whole perfectly.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Squire’ by Enid Bagnold ****

Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, first published in 1938, is one of Persephone’s two new additions for Autumn 2013. The novel’s preface has been written by Anne Sebba, and is both informative and well constructed.  The Squire was written over a period of ‘some fifteen years’, and was informed by the births of Bagnold’s four children between 1921 and 1930.  As Sebba states, ‘she [Bagnold] realised that she wanted to write not only about birth but also to explore in detail the intimate and growing relationship between the mother and her family.  This, she believed, had never before been attempted in a novel’.  She goes on to say, ‘most importantly, she wished to describe her own attitudes towards middle age with respect to sex and the family’.

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The squire of the book’s title is the middle aged mother of a family, whose position within it whilst her husband is away on his yearly jaunt to Bombay is as an omnipotent matriarch.  She is ‘both the dispenser of punishment, and the provider of fun’, which draws parallels with Bagnold’s own life.  The squire, Sebba states, has been ‘cast in the same mould’ as her creator.

Bagnold sets the scene marvellously from the first.  The opening line paints an incredibly vivid picture: ‘From the village green where the Manor House stood, well-kept, white-painted, the sea was hidden by the turn of the street.  The house’s front, pierced with windows, blinked as the sun sank…  Sunset and moonrise were going on together.’  The house itself is like a character, and Bagnold treats it with the utmost respect throughout.  She sets the scene further when she writes the following: ‘The house, now masterless for a month, was nearly, too, without a mistress, for she, its temporary squire, was heavy with child, absent in mind’.

In her confinement, the squire spends much time with the four children she already has – Jay, Lucy, Boniface and Henry.  The house is staffed and the children have their own nurse, who ‘felt pride in her heavy squire, her argumentative, provoking squire’.  Bagnold marvellously demonstrates the hierarchy of the house, even showing the disparities between the wealth of servants who are sent about the house on the merest whim.  The characters are described realistically and rather originally.  The squire, for example, ‘who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving’.  Caroline, the squire’s neighbour and friend, is ‘lovely and restless, victim and adventurer’.

Throughout, Bagnold’s writing is beautiful and full of power.  It is even haunting sometimes – for example, within the description she gives of the unborn baby: ‘its arms all but clasped about its neck, its face aslant…  secret eyes, a diver passed in albumen, ancient and epic…  as old as a pharoah in its tomb’.  The novel is a quiet one in terms of the events it describes, and the little action within it is very focused upon the confines of the house.  The strength of it lies in Bagnold’s writing and characters, as well as the way in which she portrays relationships so well, particularly between the young siblings.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, and this is a marvellous book with which to begin reading her oeuvre.  Its complexities are great, and Bagnold is a master in things left unsaid.  Some of the scenes which she captures, particularly those which involve the new baby, are incredibly vivid.  It goes without saying too that the Persephone edition has been beautifully produced, endpapers and all.