One From the Archive: ‘Peony in Love’ by Lisa See ***

I have wanted to read more of See’s work since finishing her gorgeous Snow Flower and The Secret Fan. I was expecting something along the same lines if I’m honest, with constantly beautiful writing, characters I felt sympathy for, and a wonderfully crafted sense of times past in the fascinating country of China. 9780812975222

When beginning Peony in Love however, I found that it did not pull me in as much as the aforementioned novel, and I even began to get a little discontented with it as I reached the second part. The writing was relatively nice – an insipid word, but sadly I can pay no higher compliment – but something about the narrative voice made it feel a lot more modern on the whole than it should have. It was supposed to be the account of a young girl living in 16th century China, and on occasion it read like an overexcited and thoroughly modern teenager had penned it. I did not like Peony, our narrator and protagonist, at all. She was incredibly self-important, and whilst she acted as though she was so grown up, she was in reality very naive. Peony had the kind of youthful arrogance which really puts me off in novels (though I do adore Holden Caulfield – go figure). I suppose we can put See’s portrayal of Peony partly down to the teenage condition, but she very much overdid this element of the plot in my eyes.

The period of history which See addresses in Peony in Love is fascinating, but I do not feel that it is explored as well as it could have been. As in Snow Flower, the foot-binding scenes made me feel rather sick. With regard to the history presented, I felt that some of the characters clashed a little with their social backdrop. We are told why several of the protagonists act in the ways in which they do after a while, but I still struggle to believe that someone in 16th century China would be so unfailingly rude to her husband as Peony’s mother is.

Overall, I found Peony in Love to be rather an odd tale, and a thoroughly unexpected one. On the face of it, it is a love story, but elements of it are rather creepy. The cultural history which See portrays is fascinating but horrendously brutal, and I only wish See had made more of it within the novel.

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One From the Archive: ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt *****

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the debut novel of Carol Rifka Brunt. Its story focuses upon fourteen-year-old June Elbus, whose uncle, Finn, is the ‘only person who has ever truly understood her’. The novel takes place in the New York suburbs and opens at the end of 1986.

9781447202141The opening sentence of this beautifully crafted novel captures the attention immediately: ‘My sister Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying’. Finn has AIDS at a time in which no cures were available, and in which the horrors of the disease were just beginning to come to light. June tells us: ‘We’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta, and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it’. His decline is tough on the entire Elbus family: ‘All those Sundays, my mother hardly looked at Finn. It was obvious that she was being broken up into pieces about her only brother dying’.

June’s narrative voice is engaging, and we are plunged straight into her story from the outset. We feel her fears and grief, along with the small triumphs she overcomes along the way. Throughout, her childish naivety adds a lovely touch to the novel. During the portrait painting session, June tells us, ‘I felt like grabbing the paintbrush right out of his hand so I could color him in, paint him back to his old self’. This innocence of June’s, particularly when it focuses upon Finn’s illness, is touching. Whilst she understands that her uncle is ill, she does not know about the intricacies of the disease as nobody is willing to discuss them with her. She asks such things of her elder sister as whether she could ‘catch’ AIDS if Finn kissed her hair or her forehead. Such naivety is truly heartbreaking at times.

As a protagonist, June is an interesting choice. Many original personality traits can be found within her, and rather than being the make-up and fashion loving stereotype of a teenage girl, her hobbies and interests feel rather unique – for example, the way in which she likes to pretend she lives within the Medieval period, and her dreams of being a falconer when she finishes school. She and her sister are complete opposites, and June is somewhat lonely in consequence: ‘Greta got prettier and I got… weirder’, she tells us. June is a vivid and wholly realistic character in consequence. The novel is told in retrospect, and June is around one year older than she was when Finn’s death occurred. This present day narrative is woven with memories from June’s past.

The secret which June clutches close to her chest is the way in which she felt about her uncle. At his funeral, she confesses to us, almost as though we are her only confidant in life: ‘I kept quiet, knowing that the sadness I was feeling was the wrong kind of sadness for a niece… Nobody knew my heart even a little bit. Nobody had any idea how many minutes of each day I spent thinking about Finn, and, thankfully, nobody had any idea exactly what kind of thoughts they were’. The grief she feels is tender, and the way in which she expresses it is touchingly honest: ‘Finn kept sneaking inside my head. I wished he’d been buried instead of cremated, because then I could take off my gloves and press my palms to the ground and know that he was there somehow’.

At the funeral, she and her sister are instructed not to let a certain man into the service. When June asks Greta about the man’s identity, her sister delights in telling her: ‘He’s the guy who killed uncle Finn’. A couple of weeks after this incident, June receives a package in the mail – a beautiful porcelain teapot which used to belong to her uncle. It arrives with a note from Toby, Finn’s partner whom the girls knew nothing about, which says: ‘I know you saw me at the funeral. I was the man nobody wanted to see… I think you are perhaps the only person who misses Finn as much as I do, and I think just one meeting might be beneficial to us both’. A clandestine friendship, taut at first and touching throughout, ensues. Both realise that the concrete foundations of their love for Finn and their grief at his passing are stronger than anything, and that they can help one another through it in consequence.

Brunt writes beautifully, and she has portrayed the hideous realities of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the most heartfelt of ways, by examining not only the space left behind when a death is caused by the disease, but the memories too. Although Finn is not alive during the novel’s telling, we still learn a lot about him and can see why June adores him so. This multi-layered novel is about so many things – love, remembrance, trust, understanding and family dynamics – and is incredibly sad and moving throughout.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story of the most touching kind. The character development throughout is incredibly well crafted, and the novel itself is magnificent, particularly when one takes into account that it is a debut. Had it come from an already established author, it would be something akin to a masterpiece. Brunt has written a book which is incredibly difficult to put down, and has crafted a story which is sure to stay with its readers for a long time to come.

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One From the Archive: ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon ****

As far as classic novels go, Lady Audley’s Secret is a facile and rather stunning read.  I was surprised at the ease into which I slipped into the story; Braddon’s writing is beautiful, and casts a spell of sorts around the reader from the very beginning.

Lady Audley’s Secret is set during the 1850s, and centres around the novel’s named protagonist, who has rather a shadowy past: ‘The truth was that Lady Audley had, in becoming the wife of Sir Michael, made one of those apparently advantageous matches which are apt to draw upon a woman the envy and hatred of her sex.  She had come into the neighbourhood as a governess in the family of a surgeon in the village near Audley Court.  No one knew anything of her…  She came from London; and the only reference she gave was to a lady at a school at Brompton, where she had once been a teacher’.

Braddon’s initial descriptions of the house and its surroundings are stunning: ‘It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thorough-fare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business imagesthere at all.  At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand – and which jumped straight from one hour to the next – and was therefore always in extremes.  Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.  A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county.  To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss.  To the left there was a broad gravelled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by goodly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter’.

At the risk of quoting the entire book, I feel that it is worth sharing Braddon’s initial, charming description of the Audley Court abode: ‘A glorious old place.  A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water.  A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenue…’.

Lady Audley’s Secret is both an atmospheric and compelling work, which felt rather modern at times.  At first, I was reminded a little of Ian McEwan’s marvellous Atonement, in terms of the style of the whole and the way in which Audley Court sprang to life before my very eyes.  Braddon seamlessly introduces her characters, and I very much like the structure of the whole; subsequent chapters follow different protagonists.  In this manner, those who own the house, as well as those who work there have been taken into account, and a well-rounded picture of the whole establishment is soon created.  The largely omniscient narrator takes the reader into his or her confidence through the use of small and infrequent asides, and this narrative voice works incredibly well with the unfolding whole.

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One From the Archive: ‘Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf’ by Norah Vincent ****

Norah Vincent’s Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf is, in simplified terms, a fictionalised biography of one of the twentieth century’s most enduring authors.  Adeline, named as she was after her mother Julia’s deceased sister, was Woolf’s given name.  It was never used within her family, ‘as Julia did not like to use the name full of painful association’.

The structure of Adeline is fitting; Vincent has chosen to split the story into separate ‘Acts’, all of which correspond to Woolf’s own publications; one is entitled ‘Night and Day’, for example, and another ‘The Voyage Out’.   The novel begins on June the 13th 1925, and ends with Woolf’s suicide on the 28th of March 1941.  Throughout, Woolf’s thoughts – all of which have been influenced by her diaries and letters – have been woven into various plotlines from her novels.  Vincent is marvellous at demonstrating in this manner how inspiration strikes.

In Adeline, Woolf comes to life immediately, and the novel’s opening scene is particularly vivid: ‘She is lying full down in the bath, with the tepid water hooding her head and lapping just below the vaulted arches of her nostrils…  She can hear her heart galloping distantly, as it so often does when she is ill, thrumming weakly but so quickly, a soft insistence sucking at the drums of her ears’.  Vincent goes on to describe the way in which, ‘as if startled by the sound of her own voice, she sits upright with a great sloshing urgency, her buttocks squeaking on the porcelain, her knees bucking, legs tensing straight and splashing’.

Vincent is so in control of Woolf’s dual personality; one gets the impression that she comprehends it, and its implications, perfectly: ‘There is the stall of recognition.  She knows this feeling, this progression of decline, she knows it very well, the consciousness curling under the despair, helpless as a page in the fire, succumbing to the grey, darkening possession’.

In Adeline, Woolf and her genius have essentially been placed upon a pedestal, from where they are examined.  Vincent has included some well developed conversations, and has built the plot around Woolf’s relationships with others, from her siblings and husband Leonard, to her affair with Vita Sackville-West.  Famous characters from the Bloomsbury Group have been considered too, from biographer Lytton Strachey to poet T.S. Eliot.

Adeline has been meticulously researched, and its prose is both beautiful and intelligent.  The turns of phrase are deftly created: ‘The world seemed to be speeding up and slowing down, going liquid and solid at the same time, and me with it’.  The literary techniques which Vincent has used – Woolf talking to her child self, for example – work so well, as does the way in which the story follows both Virginia and Leonard.  The Bloomsbury Group, intrinsic as it was in the lives of the Woolfs, has been considered too: ‘Their life, their bond, their work and their circle of closely kept friends are about one thing: maintenance of the necessary illusion’.  So many ideas can be found within the story, and one really gets a feel for Woolf’s world.

The only thing which let the novel down for me are the Americanisms which sometimes creep into the text.  The use of the word ‘gotten’ is rather jarring, and its historical inaccuracy with relation to England during the 1920s and 1930s pulls the novel from its otherwise excellent historical grounding.

Adeline is a must-read for any fans of Woolf, or those with interest in the wider circle of the Bloomsbury Group, providing as it does a stunning and interesting portrayal of an author whose life and legacy still fascinate to this day.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ by Fiona Stafford ****

Whilst it is a genre which I perhaps do not read much, I love nature writing, and Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees felt to me like the perfect read.  Here, the Oxford University lecturer presents ‘a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings’.  I had never read a book which was purely about trees before I came to this one, aside from, I suppose, Sarah Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest.

9780300207330The book’s introduction is far-reaching, and Stafford’s passion for the natural world certainly shines through.  Each chapter focuses on one particular species of tree, from the yew and oak to the cherry and apple.  The historically rich pasts of the trees, and how they have been treated by humans throughout the ages, was striking.  I love her descriptions too; on describing the formation of the gardens at Cumbria’s Leven Hall in the 1690s, for instance, she writes that the topiary has ‘gradually grown into a looking-glass world of fantastic forms: giant top hats and helter-skelters, startled mushrooms and stacking rings, birds and beehives, pyramids and chess pieces, an evergreen tea party of cups, cones, dark doughnuts and irregular jellies’.

The breadth of Stafford’s research is breathtaking; she covers everything from the Renaissance to Sylvia Plath.  All of the photographs and illustrations which accompany each chapter were a lovely touch, and made for quite a delightful read.  The Long, Long Life of Trees is not a book which I absolutely adored and will find invaluable for the rest of my life, as I am sure others will, but I feel as though I have learnt a lot, and would definitely recommend it to green-fingered friends.

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Reading the World: ‘Art in Nature and Other Stories’ by Tove Jansson (One From the Archive)

The entirety of Art in Nature and Other Stories has been translated from its original Finnish by Thomas Teal, who won the Rochester Best Translated Book Award in 2011. This prize sets him in wonderful stead to translate one of Finland’s finest authors and to introduce more of her stories to a wider readership.

9780956308696Art in Nature and Other Stories comprises eleven short stories, all of which are mesmerising from the outset. The title story, ‘Art in Nature’, tells of a ‘very old’ caretaker who has been put in charge of looking after a large art exhibition when it closes each night. He works alone through ‘the long, lonely evenings’, finding solace in the peace around him. One night he comes across a man and woman who have made their way into the exhibition past closing time. Rather than throw them out as protocol dictates, an impassioned and rather surprising discussion about art ensues.

The stories themselves are all rather varied, but there are many which feature protagonists who are artists or are involved with art in some way – a sculptor, a cartoonist, an actress and a writer of children’s books, amongst others. A story entitled ‘The Doll’s House’ follows an upholsterer with a love of classic novels ‘which enchanted him with their heavy patience’, who constructs an elaborate wooden house, assembling it bit by bit: it ‘would be allowed to grow however it wished, organically, room by room’. The characters in every story are beautifully portrayed. All are well-developed and feel like real, fully fleshed out people, and not a single one feels as though their construction has been rushed. Many touches of autobiography can be found throughout.

Jansson’s prose is absolutely and often startlingly beautiful. She describes everyday scenes with such deftness and skill that it feels as though we are viewing the scenes afresh. The reader is essentially given a new perspective through Jansson’s words, in which the wonders of the world are evident. In ‘Art in Nature’, she describes how the sculptures in the exhibition ‘grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing’. The ideas woven throughout the majority of the stories are just lovely. A group of young people in ‘White Lady’ are described as being ‘like a flock of birds… that settle for a moment, for as long as it suits them’.

Ali Smith, one of my favourite all-time authors (as Jansson is too), states ‘that there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by [Tove] Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure’ – a sentiment which could not be more true. To build up such rich, detailed stories within just a few pages as Jansson does here is masterful, and Teal’s translation of her work is faultless.  Art in Nature and Other Stories is a pure delight from beginning to end. It is an absolute joy to read and certainly reaffirms Jansson’s position as a wonderful storyteller and a master of her craft.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Beneath My Feet’ by Frank Turner ***

First published in March 2015

I’m not going to lie. When the postman delivered a review copy of Frank Turner’s The Road Beneath My Feet to me two weeks before its publication date, I was rather excited (to the point of almost squealing). I have been a fan of Turner’s music for a good few years now, and have seen him live close to a dozen times. I was also at the sellout Wembley gig which he charts as the pinnacle of his career to date. I have always thought that Turner – and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame – would write excellent books. Yes – it is fair to say that my excitement over this book was tangible.

9781472222039The Road Beneath My Feet presents, says its blurb, ‘a searingly honest and brilliantly written account of Frank Turner’s journey from the pub circuit to selling out Wembley Arena’. The premise of the book poses instant appeal for all Turner fans (of which there are many): ‘Told through his tour reminiscences this is the blisteringly honest story of Frank’s career from drug-fuelled house parties and the grimy club scene to filling out arenas, fans roaring every word back at him. But more than that, it is an intimate account of what it’s like to spend your life constantly on the road, sleeping on floors, invariably jet lagged, all for the love of playing live music’.

After Frank Turner’s last gig as frontman with his hardcore band Million Dead in 2005, he returned to his Hampshire hometown, ‘jaded and hungover’, with no plans for the future. All he knew is that he wanted to continue to play music. Rather aptly, the book begins with this juncture in his career: ‘It was the defining experience of my late adolescence, my early twenties – it was my formative musical experience. But we were also just another jobbing underground hardcore band that made some small ripples and fell apart’.

In his Introduction/Disclaimer, Turner muses about his reasoning for publishing his biography, something which he largely attributes to his admiration of Black Flag’s Henry Rollins: ‘You hold in your hands a book, a book that I wrote, all by myself… One reason I was not expecting this book to exist is that I’m not generally much keen on autobiography as a genre. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this – Ben Franklin for example, or Churchill’s – but I feel like you either need to have won a war or be knocking on death’s door to justify the exercise… It was also suggested that the book need not be an autobiography in the strict sense, starting with birth and ending in the nursing home; it could be a specific set of recollections about a certain period of time’. Each of Turner’s recollections is split into a particular numbered show, of which he has kept a record since he started performing. This record has actually been included at the end of the book, which is a lovely touch.

In some ways, Turner comes across as rather a humbled man: ‘I’m aware, painfully so, that I’m incredibly fortunate to do what I do for a living; I’m also not under the impression that it’s death-shakingly significant, in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully I don’t come off as overly self-pitying or self-important’.

As with his lyrics, Turner’s prose writing is intelligent, and one gets the impression that a lot of thought has been put into many of his sentences: ‘Like most youthful, Arcadian ideals, the bald facts of the denouement are mundane rather than monumental’. In places, the book is rather amusing and filled with Turner’s dry humour: ‘There’s a bleak, failed romanticism to the idea Valentine’s Day alone in Ipswich’, for example. He also recounts amusing episodes; in Russia, for instance, after a few too many drinks, the following happens: ‘On hearing that I had been left alone by my compadre, I jumped to my feet, rushed into the club, leaped up on to the bar and shouted “Communist bastards! I’ll fight you all!” while rather pathetically waving a plastic cup’. The characters whom he meets along the way have been vividly evoked; Karlis, for example, ‘a formidable, hulking Latvian’ whose ‘favourite king was Charles I and [who] liked trampolining very much, but, alarmingly, was minded to shoot gypsies with his “double-barrelled shooting gun”.’

In The Road Beneath My Feet, one can see quite clearly how Turner’s style, both musically and as a performer, has evolved over time: ‘I felt like I was pretty much done with (post-) hardcore as a style… After years of self-conscious musical awkwardness and trying to be dark and angular all the time, hearing simple chords and simple words was immensely refreshing and I felt like the music told me deeper truths… I’m always more interested in music when it breaks out of the mould and becomes a dialogue, an interaction, rather than just a lecture from “artist” to “punter”‘. The positives as well as the negatives have been considered throughout, from habitual drug use and sleeping on uncomfortable sofas, to barely scraping together enough money to eat each night. Turner relates his experiences to the songs which they influenced: ‘It’s reasonably fair to say that Sleep is For the Week is, in some senses, an album about doing too much cocaine’.

There is a slightly repetitive air to the whole, but that is to be expected due to the nature of the book. The format which has been used works well, and in consequence, The Road Beneath My Feet is eminently readable. There is a ‘woe-is-me’ air which pervades at times, but again, one can easily believe that this goes with the territory. Sadly, parts of the book do feel like something of a plugging exercise in places, but overall, it is a well written and well-developed account of how to make it the hard way in the music industry, and it is sure to captivate and satisfy his fans.

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