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‘Despised and Rejected’ by Rose Allatini *****

Rose Allatini’s 1918 novel, Despised and Rejected, is one of Persephone’s new titles for Spring 2018.  Allatini was an highly prolific author, publishing books under several pseudonyms; Despised and Rejected was first released under the name of A.T. Fitzroy.    Rereleased in Persephone’s distinctive dove grey covers a century after its original publication, Despised and Rejected is set during the First World War, and is described as a ‘gay pacifist novel’.  Persephone have highlighted its importance, calling it ‘one of the pioneering gay novels of the twentieth century.’  39693554

Despised and Rejected takes two characters as its focus: ‘a gay conscientious objector and his relationship with a young woman who (as he realises but she does not) is a lesbian.’  Composer Dennis Blackwood is the former of these, and Antoinette de Courcy, a young woman of French descent, the latter.

Of course, to the queasy and old-fashioned men of yesteryear, Despised and Rejected was deemed scandalous, although for its anti-war stance rather than its depictions of homosexuality.  Upon its publication, the novel sold eight hundred copies before it was deemed ‘morally unhealthy and most pernicious’.  The publisher, C.W. Daniel, was put on trial, fined, and ordered to surrender the remaining print run of two hundred copies.

The novel is constructed using a three-part structure; the first of these takes place just before the war, and the second and third during it.  Despised and Rejected opens in the Amberhurst Private Hotel in an undisclosed location; here, the Blackwood family are holidaying, and their son Dennis meets Antoinette.  The two are drawn together almost immediately, although Antoinette’s focus is firmly placed upon a secretive woman also staying at the hotel named Hester.  Like Dennis, Hester realises that Antoinette is sexually attracted to women, but Antoinette herself is naive in this respect.  Antoinette is just twenty-one.  As with Dennis, we are given hints and clues that she is attracted to her own sex, but she is unaware that there is a reason for her gravitation toward them, and the lack of feeling which kissing men inspires within her.

From the beginning, Allatini demonstrates that Dennis’ relationship with his father is fractious: ‘Dennis said nothing and set his lips tightly, as was his way when Mr Blackwood jarred upon his nerves more exquisitely than usual.  He disliked his father, disliked the whole coarse overbearing masculinity of the man.  There was between them an antagonism that was fundamental, and quite apart from the present source of grievance’.  His mother sets out to protect him at all times, but their relationship too is, in ways, problematic.  Dennis, she writes, ‘was always on the defensive, even with his mother.  Perhaps with his mother most of all, because he felt that she was most akin to him, and might at any moment come to touch the fringe of that secret world of his…  a world that must remain secret even from the mother who loved him as perhaps no other woman on earth would ever love him.’  This is the first hint given in the novel about Dennis’ homosexuality, something which is continually aware of within himself, but which he has never articulated to anyone around him.  Allatini shows that Mrs Blackwood realises there is something a little different about Dennis, but cannot quite connect the dots: ‘Perhaps he had nothing to tell.  Perhaps she only imagined that he wasn’t happy.  Artists were sometimes peculiar – she clutched at that – and her boy was an artist: perhaps that accounted for it.  Her reason, working in a peculiarly narrow despisedandrejected_newspaper_for_websitecircle, round and round, round and round, accepted this as the solution, and was at peace.  But her instinct, less narrow, more subtle, blindingly groping, refused to be thus pacified.  There must be – something.  But what?  What…?’

Dennis is revealed in the fragments of letters which he writes to Antoinette; this use of his own voice adds more depth to the novel.  He is frightfully ashamed of his own difference, and of his desires.  Allatini writes, ‘He must be for ever an outcast amongst men, shunned by them, despised and mocked by them.  He was maddened by fear and horror and loathing of himself.’  This element of the novel, which deals with Dennis’ feelings, is achingly human, as are his convictions when it comes to refusing to fight in the First World War.  With regard to this, ‘The thought of war inspired in him none of those feelings with which convention decreed that ever true Briton should be inspired…  The whole thing was damnable, and stupid, and cruel…  pretended that it was a noble thing, a glorious game, a game which every Englishman should be proud to be playing.’

Allatini’s descriptions are both vivid and charming.  Of a small, unnamed village in which Dennis and his friend Crispin stay whilst travelling through Devonshire, she writes: ‘… it has an old-world triangular village green, planted with giant oak trees, and enclosed on two sides by dear little thatched cottages with trim little gardens; and it has an ivy-clad church and the usual combination of Post Office and all-sorts shop, in which you may revel in the complex odour of boots, cheese, liquorice, soap, sawdust, biscuits, Fry’s chocolate and warm humanity.’  In one of his letters, Dennis writes to Antoinette, ‘We’re zig-zagging about the country in the most amazing style.  And I wish I could collected all the things I’ve loved most and bring them back to you.’

Despised and Rejected is a highly immersive novel, and an incredibly moving one at that.   Allatini’s writing is intelligent, stylish, and heartfelt.  She writes with clarity and sensitivity, in a way which which feels marvellously balanced.  She has such a deep understanding of her characters, and the problems which their true selves cause for them.  Allatini presents an incredibly strong, measured, and rousing argument for pacifism, discussing the horrors and futility which war brings, and the way in which they often create more problems when they solve.

Despite being published a century ago, Despised and Rejected feels like a novel of our time; it, above all, demonstrates the need for equality and understanding, as well as peace, both within the world and individually.  It is a book which we can learn an awful lot from.

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‘We That Are Left’ by Juliet Greenwood *****

One of my favourite things about reading historical fiction is that feeling of immersion; that I am right there with the characters in any given and realistically evoked time period.  We That Are Left is one of the most immersive reading experiences which I feel I have had in a long while; I could barely tear myself away from Juliet Greenwood’s beautiful and harrowing story which unfolds at the outbreak of World War One.9781906784997

Greenwood’s novel centres around protagonist Elin Helstone, a young, married woman who lives in her childhood home in Cornwall with her husband, Hugo.  They are relatively well off, and live a comfortable life, but this offers no escape from Hugo’s experiences in the Boer War, which continue to haunt him.  When the outbreak of the First World War is announced, and he has to travel to the Front, Elin learns to cope with running the Hiram estate on her own.  Her cousin Alice and incredibly rich friend Lady Margaret, known as Mouse, also make their own choices, and end up feeling great pride with regard to the sacrifices they consequently make for others.

The realistically constructed women who people We That Are Left demonstrate the unfairness of their position throughout, even before war is announced.  Each is forward thinking, and make tiny rebellions when they are able to.  They realise that there will be a dearth of men during the war, and they need to make an effort on a personal level to keep things ticking over at home; they know that the barriers, for a little while at least, will be torn down, and they can go out to work without being scorned.  Alice, for instance, when reminded that as a woman, she should want little more than marriage and motherhood, measuredly replies: ‘Why should everyone be the same?  Why should every woman who ever lived wish to be a mother?  Especially when the experience is quite likely to kill her…  I have so many things I wish to do with my life.  So many places I want to see.  Oh, I love children and enjoy their company.  But that does not necessarily mean I have a burning desire to have my own.  Not when it would cost me so much.  I would far rather have my independence.’

I will happily read any novel set during the First World War or thereabouts, as I have studied the period in detail over the years, and find it absolutely fascinating.  Throughout her novel, Greenwood highlights the great change which has already come to England and Wales, but focuses upon the world as it was for women; wearing trousers instead of a skirt was frowned upon, even for those doing manual work, and women were prohibited from taking University examinations purely on account of their sex.  Greenwood’s characters make things of themselves during the war; Alice almost immediately goes to work in a nearby hospital with the war wounded, and Mouse decides to go off to France to help the soldiers there.  Greenwood’s characters are brave, and feel realistic both as individuals and as an entire cast.

We That Are Left is incredibly well informed with regard to both the social situation and the war.  Greenwood has such an understanding of the complexities and shifts of feelings and emotions.  The descriptions, particularly those of the natural world, are breathtakingly beautiful.  Entirely captivating and so well written, We That Are Left swept me away, and I cannot wait to read more of Greenwood’s work in future.

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Two Novellas About War: ‘The Sojourn’ and ‘Kaddish for an Unborn Child’

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak **
9781934137345I read Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn for the Slovakian component of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. It is a slim novel, set during the First World War, and following the story of a young man named Jozef, who decides to sign up and fight. I did find Krivak’s prose a little difficult to get into, as many of his sentences were unnecessarily long, and seemed to lose the initial thread on several occasions. The Sojourn is certainly a literary novel in terms of its prose, but at times it felt highly, and unnecessarily, overwritten. It was nowhere near as engaging as I was expecting it to be. There were many flaws with the protagonist too; at only two points in the entire novel did he have any compassion for his fellow man, seeming to view battle as a game, and calling those he murdered his ‘kills’. The Sojourn has clearly been well researched, but its characters are wholly one-dimensional, and there is very little of a character arc to speak of, despite the novel being a formative one. The Sojourn was definitely readable, but the entire human aspect, which I would have expected to be a major factor in the plot, seemed to be missing in action.

 

Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertesz **** 9780099548935
Previous to picking up Imre Kertesz’ Kaddish for an Unborn Child for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, I had read one of his novels, Liquidation, which I bought whilst in Budapest. As with Liquidation, this novella is a meditation on the Holocaust, and also features literary translator B. as its protagonist. In the highly autobiographical Kaddish for an Unborn Child, B. ‘addresses the child he couldn’t bear to bring into the world, [and] takes readers on a mesmerising, lyrical journey through his life, from his childhood to Auschwitz to his failed marriage.’

My high hopes for this novella were met; whilst it was rather difficult to read due to its terribly long and sometimes convoluted sentences, it proved to be one of the most powerful and haunting works on the Holocaust which I have yet read. The dense and complicated prose was sometimes exhausting to read, especially given its subject matter, but the stream-of-consciousness style fitted so well with the points which Kertesz brought to the fore. The core idea here is both beautiful and unsettling, and it is sure to linger in the mind for weeks after the final page has been read. The full concentration which you have to allow this novella is entirely worth the effort.

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One From the Archive: ‘Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers’ by Mari Strachan **

First published in 2012.

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers follows Strachan’s wonderful début novel The Earth Hums in B Flat. The novel takes place two years after the end of the First World War in a relatively small town in the Welsh countryside.

The protagonist of the novel is twenty nine-year-old Rhiannon Davies, known to all as Non. She is the wife of Davey, a man who fought in the war and returned to Non in an almost unrecognisable state: ‘The War has taken her husband as surely as if it had killed him, and returned a stranger to her in his place’. 9781847675316

Non wakes one morning to find Davey crouched beneath the kitchen table, ‘shouldering an imaginary rifle’ and reliving the terrors which he was catapulted into during his time in the trenches. She desperately tries to keep this occurrence from their children – teenagers Wil and Meg from Davey’s first marriage, and seven-year-old Osian, a ‘shadow child’, taken in by the family when his young mother died. Osian shows little emotion and does not communicate with those around him, a fact which Non and Davey try greatly to ignore. Wil is kindly and compassionate, always trying to make those around him as happy as possible, but Meg seems his antithesis in many ways. She is a selfish girl, seen by others as ‘too young, and too cross and too silly’.

The novel has an impressive scope, seemingly aiming to highlight the effects of war upon a multitude of different people. Since the war began, the lives of the Davies family have altered greatly. Davey, once softly spoken and kind is snappy and headstrong on his return, and Non holds many secrets. Her situation is sad at times: ‘… she has no idea how to begin to fight back, how to begin to find the Davey who loved her’, but she is not always a likeable character. She is judgemental of everyone around her and is rather cruel and selfish at times.

A third person present tense perspective has been used throughout Dead Man’s Embers. Although this technique gives Strachan the ability to follow several characters and highlight their thoughts and feelings, Non is the sole focus of the narrative. Other characters are included only when they interact with her, making them flat and unrealistic in consequence. Every last one of the characters seems lacking, not fully developed enough to be believed. A good example of this can be found when one takes Davey’s mother, Catherine Davies, into account. She is referred to by her full name without fail throughout, and is consequently seen as a remote character. This third person perspective is distancing and the reader is unable to know any of the characters because of it.

Strachan evokes a somewhat chilling atmosphere from the outset. She perfectly captures the fear which has so encompassed Davey and the way in which his new persona has affected him and his family. Although the novel starts off in an intriguing manner, the rest of the story falls flat in comparison. Throughout, Strachan does bring in many questions and observations appropriate to the period, including Ireland’s fight for independence, the role of women following the war, and politics. Rather than being expanded upon, however, these elements are merely touched upon and lack any real significance when placed into the story.

Elements of the novel seemed a little far-fetched and do not really work with the story, and the novel’s twists are both unexpected and unrealistic. Some of the included scenes are rather tedious, particularly with regard to the filling in of the census form. The dialogue is not as good as it could be. Some of the exchanges seem a little too modern in their structure and are not reminiscent of the period in which the novel is set. Grammatical mistakes can be found in several places throughout the novel which detracts from the writing style.

Sadly, Dead Man’s Embers does not come alive as The Earth in B Flat does. The writing is not as spellbinding and the story is not as well executed. The prose does not sparkle and seems rather mundane in many instances.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Hilltop on the Marne: An American’s Letters from War-Torn France’ by Mildred Aldrich ****

First published in May 2014.

A Hilltop on the Marne, which was first published in 1916, presents a far-reaching account of Mildred Aldrich’s experiences during the First World War.  Aldrich, a retired American journalist who worked for several papers in the Boston area before moving to France in 1898, had just moved to an idyllic hamlet in France’s Marne Valley before World War One was declared.  In Huiry, a ‘little hamlet less than thirty miles from Paris’, she found herself adjusting to life in wartime, volunteering such services as hosting tea for and providing water to local forces.  Her farmhouse soon became ‘a safe port in a storm for the various troops stationed in the village’. 

Aldrich’s first letter in the volume is dated the 3rd of June 1914, and her correspondence goes through to the end of the war.  We do not know who she writes to, and as none of her letters carry her signature or anything of the sort, A Hilltop on the Marne feels more like a diary in consequence.  She urges her correspondent, who is evidently trying to coerce her into returning ‘home’ to the United States, to allow her to be content.  In her first letter, she states, quite frankly: ‘I did not decide to come away into a little corner in the country, in this land in which I was not born, without looking at the move from all angles.  Be sure that I know what I am doing, and I have found the place where I can do it’.  She goes on to show how headstrong she is in her decision making, writing in August 1914: ‘I have your cable asking me to come “home” as you call it.  Alas, my home is where my books are – they are here.  Thanks all the same’.

Throughout A Hilltop on the Marne, Aldrich writes beautifully; each letter is long and has been penned with such care.  Through her words, one gets the impression that she was an incredibly warm and witty woman, who valued honesty above all else.  Sincerity weaves itself into each sentence which she crafts, and it feels throughout as though her utmost wish is for her reader to understand the things which she does, and the choices which she makes.  We learn of such things as the layout of her home, the way in which she fills her days, the history of the Marne region, and the characters who live in the hamlet of Huiry.  A Hilltop on the Marne is as rich as a novel in some respects, filled with such a wealth of detail as it is.

Aldrich evokes small-town life in France marvellously.   When war begins and she is able to meet some of the soldiers stationed in her area, she begins to reflect upon what battle means for the men in the region, and in France as a whole: ‘It is not the marching into battle of an army that has chosen soldiering.  It is the marching out of all the people – of every temperament – the rich, the poor, the timid and the bold, the sensitive and the hardened, the ignorant and the scholar – all men, because they happen to be males, called on not only to cry, “Vive la France”, but to see to it that she does live if dying for her can keep her alive.  It’s a compelling idea, isn’t it?’  She goes on to write: ‘I have lived among these people, loved them and believed in them, even when their politics annoyed me’.  Aldrich exemplifies the way in which her community carries on regardless, women taking over the ‘male’ tasks like baking bread and seeing to crops.  She tells of preparations for battle, the lack of news which reaches the hamlet, the unreliability of the postal service, refugees being sent into France from Belgium, and how wounded soldiers are treated.  She touches upon the requisition of weapons, evacuations of entire French towns, and the British cutting telegraph wires.  In this way, Aldrich has presented a far-reaching account of life in wartime from a most interesting perspective.

One of the wonderful things about A Hilltop on the Marne is its versatility; it can be dipped in and out of, or read all in one go.  It is an important work of non-fiction, particularly in this, the centenary year of World War One’s beginning.  It is a chronicle of war in a rural hamlet, which is sure to both charm its readers, and make them think.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Absolutist’ by John Boyne **

First published in August 2012.

The Absolutist begins in Norwich in September 1919, a period in which the country is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the First World War. The novel’s opening line is both gripping and intriguing: ‘Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years’. Despite this, however, the novel gets off to rather a slow start and seems to meander along, filling space for the sake of it rather than enticing the reader.

Tristan Sadler, a former soldier, has travelled from London to Norwich to meet Marian Bancroft, the sister of one of his comrades in the trenches. Tristan describes how he and Marian’s brother Will ‘were in the same regiment so we knew each other well. We were friends’. He then goes on to say ‘no matter what anyone says, he was the bravest and kindest man I ever knew and there were plenty of brave men out there, I can promise you that, but not so many kind ones’. His aim in visiting Marian is to return the many letters which she sent to her brother during the war, all of which have been bundled together and rather touchingly tied with a strand of red ribbon.

The second section of the novel goes back to Aldershot in 1916, where the soldiers about to be sent to the front, all of them ‘stinking of sweat and bogus heroism’, are being trained up in the town’s military barracks. The relationship which unfolds between Will and Tristan here is rendered sensitively, and the sadness regarding Will’s execution for refusing to fight is moving in places. He is the ‘absolutist’ of the novel’s title, one who is said to do nothing ‘except sit on his hands and complain that the whole thing’s a sham’.

Whilst no details of Tristan’s war experiences are released at the outset of The Absolutist, it is clear that he has suffered from his time in the trenches. He describes his ‘spasmodic right hand’ and ‘trembling index finger’, and is unwilling to talk about his experiences, even when he is pressed to do so. Memories of his pre-war past are occasionally touched upon but are sometimes not fleshed out convincingly enough. We learn a little about his fractured relationship with his family and his father’s last words uttered in anger before Tristan left for war: ‘it would be best for all of us if the Germans shoot you dead on sight’.

The entirety of the book is told from the first person perspective of twenty-one-year-old Tristan. His narrative voice feels rather simplistic throughout and, in consequence, seems lacking. This is perhaps due to it not being overly poetic in its style, or with regard to the way in which the vocabulary used exudes an air of arrogance. Indeed, for at least the first half of the novel, Tristan is not a likeable character. Something about his general demeanour is difficult to warm to. He seems very sure of himself and spends time making up details about each person he meets, an act which renders him incredibly judgmental. He weaves these fabrications into the narrative, following each instance of them with ‘I decided’. As a consequence, we as readers do not really get to know the rest of the characters, and only see Tristan’s sometimes skewed interpretations of them. Throughout, the complete strangers which Tristan encounters seem to be too familiar with him. They seem to give him their entire life story whilst learning barely anything about his life or character in return. This seems a rather unlikely turn of events, and one which does not lend itself well to the novel.

Boyne has included rather a lot of social commentary about conditions at the time – war work for women, the ‘morality’ regarding homosexuals, teenagers signing up to fight – but none of these subjects has been dealt with in detail and have been merely touched upon in rather a fleeting manner. Some of Boyne’s writing, though, is startling and even incredibly powerful at times: ‘The barracks were filled with ghosts… It was as if we died before we left England’. The author is certainly at his best when describing the horrors of the trenches, and he renders a definite sense of poignancy in stark phrases such as ‘the sooner everyone’s killed, the sooner it’s all over’.

The majority of the character descriptions throughout are written well and with much precision. The woman on the train is ‘a sharp combination of lavender and face cream, her mouth viscous with blood-red lipstick’, a young man who runs a boarding house with his mother in Norwich has a moustache which is ‘teased into a fearful line across his upper lip’, and a former soldier encountered on the train platform has one of his eyes ‘sealed across as if he had recently been in a fight’.

Particularly with regard to the first quarter of the book, much of the dialogue feels a little too modern to fit with the period in question. Marian Bancroft’s discourse, however, is pitch perfect for the majority of the exchanges in which she features, and this is one of the definite strengths of the novel.

To conclude, the final three quarters of The Absolutist seem to be rendered with far more strength and skill than that which can be found in the beginning of the novel. The reader does feel some sympathy for Tristan as his story unfolds, and he becomes a more lifelike character in consequence. The unpredictable intricacies woven deftly into the plot render The Absolutist a sad, poignant and unsettling read, but the final section of the book which is told in retrospect does sadly detract from the overall power of the book.

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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘In Falling Snow’ by Mary-Rose MacColl ***

The third book on this week’s project list is Australian author Mary-Rose MacColl’s In Falling Snow.  Neither Belinda nor I had heard about it before we decided to purchase copies (which we rather awesomely did at around the same time).  When we found out about our literary coincidence, we decided to incorporate it into our readathon.

First published in 2013, the premise of the novel appealed to me immediately.  In 1978, an elderly widow named Iris Crane, who lives in a quiet part of Brisbane, is invited to a World War One reunion in France, and is quickly ‘overcome by memories of the past’.  As a young woman, Iris travelled to France at the start of the First World War, following her younger brother, Tom, who joined up and left home.  Her intention at first is solely to bring him back to the safety of Australia, but she soon finds herself working at a field hospital at an old Abbey in Royaumont.  She is tasked under the capacity of being a personal assistant of sorts to the sometimes formidable Miss Ivers, merely due to her competence in French.

Part of the present-day story which runs alongside Iris’ memories deals with her granddaughter, Grace, a doctor and mother of three.  Interestingly, Iris’ tale makes use of the first person perspective, while Grace’s is told by an omniscient third person narrator.  This technique worked well to break up the plots and different generations of characters, but Grace’s portion of the plot did also feel rather detached in consequence.  I found myself far preferring Iris’ part of the story; whilst Grace’s had some interesting elements within it, it seemed a little lacklustre, and I could not make myself like her as a person.  Some of the decisions which she made did not seem at all rational for an educated woman in her position, and she did not come across as a believable protagonist.  The only character whom I felt endeared to in In Calling Snow was Grace’s young son, Henry; for the most part, he felt like a realistic construct.  He was also the least predictable of MacColl’s creations, and I believe that this helped towards my liking him.

There is real strength in some of MacColl’s prose, but the conversations let it down somewhat for me.  They did not feel quite balanced, and at times were either unnecessary or unrealistic.  Some of the descriptive phrasing was nice enough, but a lot of the prose lacked depth, particularly given the emotion which should have been packed into every page of such a novel.  I was reminded in part of Kate Morton’s work in In Falling Snow, both in terms of the dual storylines and familial saga aspects of the plot, but I do not think that MacColl quite pulled off the story as well as Morton could have done.  I did find a couple of discrepancies within the plot too – with regard to Henry’s age, for example.

I really liked the general premise of In Falling Snow, but it fell a little flat for me.  Some elements were perhaps not executed as well as they could have been.  The denouement was also quite precitable.  Iris’ gradual memory loss was handled sensitively, however, and I admire MacColl for being able to put this element of the plot, and her sympathy for Iris’ situation, across so well.

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