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A pleasure Pontalba!

You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town by Zoe Wicomb

 

From the Virago new writers series; this is a series of connected short stories which are semi-autobiographical. It is an examination of the experiences of the Coloured community in South Africa during the apartheid era from the 1960s. The connecting factor is Frieda Shenton growing up in the 1960s in the Coloured community, leaving in the early 1970s and returning in the late 1980s. There are some very good short stories here and Wicomb captures the tensions of being inbetween. Her parents have aspirations and feel that learning English and being more like the English is a way out, especially for their daughter. Wicomb describes well the difficulties of mastering an alien culture and pronunciation ("Fowl, howl, scowl, and not bowl,"). The community is perceived as being caught between the Black majority and the White minority; there is a sense as Homi Bhabha puts it, of a “borderline existence”. Another concept used by Bhaba comes into play as well, “ambivalence”, in that there are opposing perceptions pulling on Frieda. It is very much an inbetweeness which Wicomb does well to capture in stories of everyday life.

In one of the most powerful stories “You can’t get lost in Cape Town” Wicomb examines an illicit relationship Frieda has with a working class white man. Interracial relationships are banned and her family would disown her. When pregnancy ensues she has a choice between an abortion and a happy marriage in England. But Frieda does not want to be “duped by a dream”. The stories examine Frieda’s identity; influenced by colour and gender. She is trying to exist in the fractures of a society which has no space for Black or Coloured women. It is also important to remember Wicomb’s phrase “so called coloured”. Wicomb focuses on ethnicity. The family traditions, reverence of a Scottish white ancestor, religion, language are all battlegrounds for Frieda as she tries to establish her own identity. This is about female discourse and Wicomb has later argued, “If white patriarchal culture is about unequal power relations, how can we fail to infer that empowering black men will advocate the mimicking of white patriarchy”, and she has followed this collection with a number of novels which continue the themes she starts here.

Lest I get carried away with analysis; there is humour and poignancy here and the last two stories concerning Frieda’s return and her relationship with her mother are very powerful. The reader does feel that Frieda’s mother’s comments about Frieda’s writing and her “terrible stories” comes from real experience, so heart-wrenching is the encounter. Wicomb has the ability to capture the feel of the environment she writes about and she captures the geography she writes about very well. I have sketched over the stories as they are better read fresh. They are also well worth reading.

8 out of 10

Starting The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adichie

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Mother to Mother by Sindiwe Magona

 

This novel focuses on an event in South Africa in August 1993. An American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl, was killed by a group of black youth in Guguletu. She was in the country to help prepare for democratic elections. Her death took place close to Siniwe Magona’s house and one of the boys responsible for the killing was the son of her neighbour. Magona has also adapted this into a play.

The novel is a letter from the mother of the boy mentioned above to the mother of the girl who was murdered. It is a passionate and heartfelt description of life under apartheid and its trials and horrors; not an apology for murder but a laying out of a map of how things got to where they did. The mother, Mandisa, tells of her own life and the history of her son Mxolisi and touches on the history of the colonisation, including the Xhosa cattle-killing of 1856-7 (also significant in Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness). There is a great strength and descriptive power, and no glossing over the situation:

"For that is what he had become at the time when he killed your daughter. My son was only an agent, executing the long-simmering dark desires of his race. Burned hatred for the oppressor possessed his being. It saw through his eyes; walked with his feet and wielded the knife that tore mercilessly into her flesh. The resentment of three hundred years plugged his ears; deaf to her pitiful entreaties"

And there is a sense of generational conflict;

"These tyrants our children have become, power crazed, at the drop of a hat, they make these often absurd demands on us, their parents."

Magona charts the tensions between generations and differing opinions about the struggle against oppression and puts it this way:

“In writing Mother to Mother I needed to explain the problems that confronted this boy and our history as a people. It is not just the boy, it is the society. It goes much farther back; it is the stories with which we grow up. It is the hatred that we are taught when we are children. It is the suspicion with which we regarded white people. It is all these things and the irresponsibility of learned grown people who teach children slogans like “One settler, one bullet!” that they themselves know they will never translate to reality - but the children, being children perhaps do. Some psychologists believe that when someone cracks in a family, the schism is not necessarily the problem, This is the manifestation of what is not right in the family, and the child who has a breakdown may just happen to be the most sensitive, not necessarily the most troubled. People like these four boys who killed Amy Biehl may have been the most sensitive and susceptible among us, not necessarily the most cruel or the most evil.”

At its heart though, this is a biography of a people and their struggle told though Mandisa and her son Mxolisi and very powerful it is.

 

9 out of 10

Starting Beloved by Toni Morrison

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South Riding by Winifred Holtby

 

This is Winifred Holtby’s last novel and she wrote knowing of her own imminent death. It is both vast and narrow in its scope at the same time. Its length and the varied and large array of characters reminded me of Victorian novelists like Eliot and Dickens. There are over 160 characters in the character list. It is set in Yorkshire in a fictional South Riding. The geographical area is the one Holtby grew up in and is in actuality the East Riding of Yorkshire, the area just north of the Humber centred on the city of Hull (Kingsport in the book); an area I know well. Holtby captures the area well, the people and its geography.

Holtby was a committed pacifist, socialist and feminist, a close friend of Vera Brittain. She has thrown everything into this novel; as you would if you knew your time was limited. The novel looks at change; old and new ways of doing things and the tensions attendant with that. It is partly based on Holtby’s mothers experience as an alderman and on her experience of local government (her mother opposed her writing the novel). The main protagonist of the novel is Sarah Burton, newly appointed headmistress of a girl’s school, moving back to the area of her birth; she is 40, single, a socialist and committed to the education of women. Robert Carne is a gentleman-farmer, struggling to make ends meet because his wife is in an asylum (an expensive one) and trying to bring up his daughter alone. He is conservative, reactionary, enamoured of the old ways of farming, a keen hunter and essentially patriarchal. There are a large number of significant characters and the main characters don’t appear in large portions of the novel. All of the characters are well drawn; they all have significant faults and failings. The alert amongst you will have noticed something about the two main characters; a touch of the Jane Eyre’s perhaps. I’m sure this isn’t a coincidence and among the many strands in the novel is a reworking of the Jane Eyre/Rochester relationship.

The complexities and frustrations of English local government are writ large;

“Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions”

This enables Holtby to deal with the issues she felt were important; education, public health and the eradication of treatable diseases, ignorance, poverty and unemployment. It also allows Holtby to explore the irritations and corruptions inherent in the system and she does so with a good deal of relish. The secondary characters are also well drawn and not there to make up numbers. Holtby illustrates one of her primary beliefs “We are all member of one another” and writes it large here.

Holtby provides no neatly tied ends and happy endings and her characters sometimes have a difficult time of it, but there is still running through a sense of the need for the struggle to improve the lot of people especially through socialism and feminism; it isn’t a depressing book.

Holtby deals with difficult subjects. The history of Robert Carne’s wife and her internment in an asylum is very much the way the middle classes dealt with mental ill health. Holtby makes even her less savoury characters human with likeable qualities, but she leaves the reader to judge; the other characters not knowing all the picture make their own mistakes. In this context with Carne there is one piece of information, a marital rape, which the reader knows (eventually), but no one else does. It’s a telling piece of writing and makes the reader thoroughly uncomfortable; one knows a secret and nothing can be done with it. Holtby is perceptive in her understanding of male sexuality.

This is a tour de force and a great novel.

9 out of 10

 

Starting Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

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Bringing the Empire Home by Zine Magubane

 

This is an academic and thoroughly researched tome which looks at images of blackness (and whiteness) in the nineteenth century; initially in South Africa and Britain and then in the US. Magubane looks at groups that are marginalised in both societies; her analysis is primarily Marxian, but seen also through the prism of gender. She looks at the nature of the discussions about the colonised world have not been taken into account by economic historians and neither has their effect. Magubane argues that that western modernity is very much based on constructions of racial identity and imperialism.

Magubane states that;

“The premise that guides this book is that figurative language, whatever form it takes and although it is frequently and unthinkingly and imprecisely, matters – particularly when we are speaking about race and blackness.… Figurative language matters precisely because of what it can tell us about the intentions of the individuals who deploy it.”

Magubane also examines “the transformation of commodification into sexuality” arguing that racial and sexual embodiment was central to the construction of capitalist ideology.

There are several rains of thought and arguments which I found particularly interesting. In nineteenth century Britain there were increasingly punitive laws concerning vagrancy and much was written about it. Henry Mayhew when he wrote his report on the London poor he drew a distinction between “Those that will work, those that cannot work and those that will not work”. For his time Mayhew was relatively liberal, but he went on to say this;

“Of the thousand millions of human beings that are said to constitute the population of the entire globe, there are – socially, morally and physically considered – but two distinct and broadly marked races, viz., the wanderers and the settlers – the vagabond and the citizen – the nomadic and the civilised tribes.”

Mayhew specifically uses the examples of the Khoikhoi and San and draws direct comparison with the vagrants and vagabonds he describes at home and Magubane shows how blackness was used and constructed in the minds of the general public in Britain.

Another interesting analysis evolves around the spread of minstrelsy from the US and into South Africa and beyond and the different ways it was conceptualised by both the black and white communities. Magubane also looks at how whiteness was perceived by the black community as well. There are focuses on gender, some very interesting analyses of suffragism, the Boer War and the way pro war and anti-war suffragists constructed their arguments. It’s not an easy read, but is worth the effort.

8 and a half out of 10

 

Starting My Friend says it's bullet proof by Penelope Mortimer

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Dorothy Edwards by Claire Flay

 

This is a biography in the “Writers of Wales” series and also an analysis of Edwards’ work; the novel Winter Sonata and the short story collection “Rhapsody”. Edwards was born in 1903 and her father was a socialist and Independent Labour Party activist; a political tradition she followed. She read Greek and Philosophy at Cardiff University. In my opinion she is a much neglected writer; Christopher Meredith in his introduction to Rhapsody says:

"Fashion for re-readings according to various theories have helped critics to rediscover her from time to time, but I believe that Dorothy Edwards is a great deal more than an interesting literary case. She's an important, utterly original modernist. Whichever way you read her, she's the extraordinarily accomplished author of powerful and suggestive fictions”.

Flay’s analysis draws on the letters Edwards sent to her fiend Beryl Jones. The analysis is basically chronological following Edwards’ own development, recognising the importance of her socialist upbringing. Flay looks at her interactions with the Bloomsbury Group, via her friendship with David Garnett. Garnett calls her his “Welsh Cinderella” (patronising doesn’t even begin to cover it).

Edwards nearly always uses male narrators, generally English and middle class. Flay shows how this is a very deliberate way of looking at relations between the sexes and deconstructing power relationships. Flay also reminds readers that Wales can be seen in a postcolonial context; it is easy for the English to forget that! Edwards’ writing does examine identity and essence; the paradox between her upbringing and the literary world she found in London. National and class divisions affected her and impacted on her work and increased her feeling of inner estrangement.

Edwards killed herself in early 1934 by throwing herself under a train; leaving a note;

“I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship, and even love, without gratitude and given nothing in return."

Edwards in her correspondence intimates that she finds relating to other people challenging and certainly she found the London literary world and Bloomsbury in particular, very difficult. Flay points out how excluded Edwards felt. A failed love affair and the breakdown of her friendship with Garnett led to her return to Wales. Flay also suggests depression as a factor from her reading of Edwards’ correspondence.

This is an interesting study, but I think it is important to read Edwards before reading this, and I would encourage everyone to read Edwards as she is far too little known.

8 and a half out of 10

 

Starting The Virago book of Women and the Great War

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The Thing around your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

An excellent set of short stories which concentrate mostly on the lives and experiences of Nigerian women; ranging over issues such as tragedy, political and religious violence, new relationships (especially marriage), loneliness, sadness, displacement and the many problems of post colonialism. There is plenty of social and political comment, but it is wrapped up in human stories. The stories move between Nigeria and the US; the homeland and what is seen to be the Promised Land, but seldom is. Two of the stories are in the second person, which is quite unusual. The plain style of the writing better illustrates the subtlety of motivation. There are insights which are sharp and to the point. In the title story, the narrator meets a young white man:

“He told you he had been to Ghana and Uganda and Tanzania, loved the poetry of Okot p’Bitek and the novels of Amos Tutuola and had read a lot about sub-Saharan African countries, their histories, and their complexities. You wanted to feel disdain, to show it as you brought his order, because white people who liked Africa too much and those who liked Africa too little were the same—condescending.”

Adichie focuses primarily on the Igbo/Biafran experience; unsurprising as this is her background. In each of the endings is a suggestion of a new beginning. The characters create empathy in the reader because they speak of our own hopes and fears as well. Adichie seems to have a passion for human progress and freedom and it is infectious. I’m not going to analyze the stories; just recommend you read them. I think the last one is the best, but would have benefitted from full length treatment. There are echoes of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but with Adichie’s feminist twist.

9 out of 10

 

Starting Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo

 

A clever satire on race and slavery. Evaristo, who is of Nigerian and British descent, generally writes poetry, but this is a novel about the slave trade. It is the slave trade in reverse; in Evaristo’s language the whytes are the slaves and the blaks are the masters and slave-owners. A number of reviewers have complained about time lines, geography and historical accuracy. My advice would be suspend that sort of judgement. This is a satire. It’s not fantasy, but nor has the historical timeline been smoothly switched, Evaristo does play with technological development and settings. Don’t try and work the geography either; just go along with the poetry of the language and the clever and sometimes funny (yes funny) switches.

The story revolves around Doris, an English slave captured at the age of ten; we pick up her tale about twenty years later and the timeline loves backwards and forwards. At the start she is an educated slave with some privileges in a wealthy household in Londolo, the capital of Great Ambossa. She makes an escape again, is recaptured, severely beaten and sent to do manual work in a sugar cane plantation.

Evaristo works hard to switch all the terms and culture. Whytes are called “wiggers” as a term of abuse. Doris hates the tropical heat and misses the cold, mists and rain of her homeland. She also misses the food, disliking Ambossan food and missing cabbage. Evaristo also switches some patois, usually to good effect. There are also plenty of references to be picked up;

“Naturally, having a whyte skin was all the evidence the sheriffs needed to accost a young man and strip-search him”.

There is a minstrel show where performers “whtye up”, they “whyte up and do Morris Dancing (yes really!); film adverts for “To Sir with Hate” and “Guess who’s not coming to dinner”. Some very neat satire focusses on brain size;

“Over millennia, the capacious skull of the Negroid has been able to accommodate the growth of a very large brain within its structure. This has enabled a highly sophisticated intelligence to evolve.”

And of the Europanes (whytes)

“The narrowness of the skull denotes a brain that is a bit, as we laymen would say, squashed up”.

There are a lot of what ifs and Evaristo weaves in the Maroons, some free working class whytes, slave rebellions, the horrific conditions on slave ships, the sexual exploitation, the selling of slaves and splitting children from families, beatings, poor living conditions: everything would expect. The reversing of geography can be quite inventive;

Slavers had just arrived or were getting ready to set sail for the various coasts of Europa: the Coal Coast, the Cabbage Coast, the Tin Coast, the Corn Coast, the Olive Coast, the Tulip Coast, the Wheat Coast, the Grape Coast, the Influenza Coast and the Cape of Bad Luck.”

Evaristo by writing in this way critically engages with the slave narrative and shows its limiting and limited nature. She is disrupting history in order to show the ways the Atlantic slave trade is relevant in a contemporary context. There are also, inevitably because of the title, comparisons that can be made with Alex Haley’s Roots. There are also references to Conrad and Heart of Darkness which are very telling. It was worth ploughing through Conrad for this phrase;

 “What can I say, Dear Reader, but the horror, the horror…”

And it’s very clever placement within the text.

The novel is brilliantly counterfactual; the first person narration in the first and third parts adds to the effect. It is fascinating and asks questions that still need to be posed. Evaristo does not quite get all the nuances right, but that is quibbling; it’s a novel that is well worth reading.

9 out of 10

Starting The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

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Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

 

Waugh’s second novel is a rather bleak comic satire on the “Bright Young Things” of the 1920s. It is a witty series of anecdotes, often rather disjointed. The title is from the funeral service and the style mimics Eliot and modernism. The pace is breathless and there is a line in a Disney song which runs “busy going nowhere”. Indeed there is an inscription from Carroll at the beginning “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place”.

The plot is fairly thin. It revolves around Adam Fenwick-Symes and his chaotic attempts to marry Nina Blount; or to be more precise, to get enough money to marry Nina. Most of the book follows a series of parties and happenings in the tradition of the real life Waugh is satirising. There are lots of ridiculously named people (the prime minister is Mr Outrage). Adam is a writer/journalist and writes (makes up) a gossip column following the suicide of the previous occupant of the role. There is a distinct change of tone in the second half of the book and this coincides with Waugh’s first wife leaving him; the comic bleakness becomes more marked and the ending is almost apocalyptic.

Now, it must be said that Waugh can write and some of this is funny. He has been called the best prose writer of the twentieth century; that I don’t accept, not at all. He is inventive; remember the end of A Handful of Dust where the hero of the book is forced to read Dickens aloud for the rest of his life in a jungle prison. Now that is funny and inventive! The characters are shallow, transitory and throw-away and there is an obsession with the English upper classes. There is a brief section of entirely unnecessary racism; again not unusual for Waugh. What strikes me most about Waugh is his complete rejection of modern society with a nostalgia for time past, a world long lost. His conversion to Catholicism seems to me to be a part of this.

I seem to be surrounded by reviews and reviewers who think Waugh is wonderful and I’m just not getting it. If you want to read about the English upper classes in a satirical and comic way in a world populated by ridiculous and shallow characters then read Wodehouse; he’s better. The “Bright Young Things” did not really need to be satirised; they managed to satirise themselves, consciously or not.

Ok, this is amusing in places and the satire is sharp, but does not really better the real lives of the people being satirised and unfortunately Waugh’s contempt for the “lower orders” is also obvious. However there are some critics who are on my side here. Orwell wrote;

Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.”

Orwell’s further comments about not being able to be Catholic and grown up chime with Cyril Connolly idea of

"Theory of Permanent Adolescence," whereby Englishmen of a certain caste are doomed to re-enact their school days.

So I’m not alone in finding Waugh unconvincing.

5 out of 10

 

Starting Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

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Arms and the Girl by Stevie Davies

 

The only other review I have read about this novel sums the novel up thus;

“The impact this novel makes is largely due, in my opinion, to the juxtaposition of some of the best prose by any living writer, describing a story of horrific abuse and victimisation”.

Spot on.

I am a great admirer of Stevie Davies in whatever area she writes in; whether it be her more comic novels, her work on the Bronte’s or Milton and deeply serious novels like this one.

This is a novel about abuse; emotional, physical and sexual. It centres on the Cahill family. Hugh is in the army and the family live on an army base in Scotland. Hugh and his wife Mary have seven children and are Catholic. Prue and January are the two main protagonists; Hugh is the abuser. He is unpredictable and violent, especially when drunk and his wife and children bear the brunt of his rages and maudlin self-pity. Prue is bookish and keeps her head down, hiding in cupboards and quiet corners to try to avoid being noticed. January is the opposite; she is the outcast and scapegoat and becomes the focus of Hugh’s rage. As Frances Hill in the Times review says:

“He sees in her the unloved, unlovable child he hates in himself. His character is masterly in its sporadic charm, self-pity, weakness, loneliness and evil.

Hugh is also propped up by the structures of the Catholic Church and the self-deception of confession.

Juxtaposed to the Cahill family are the Gordons who live in the nearby Manse. Rev Gordon is a Calvinist Church of Scotland Rector, His wife Isla is perceptive and compassionate and their daughter Isabel (13) befriends Prue. Both Prue and to a lesser extent January find solace and support there. Isabel is a contrast to Prue and January; her security allows her to question and she is critical of the British abroad as represented by the army and is able to tell her God-fearing father she no longer believes in God.

It is well written and the reader is drawn in to Prue’s world and feels the dread and horror she feels about what is going on behind this. Davies found this difficult to write and said:

“During the seven months’ composition of this book, I lived in unnerving proximity to and even fear of implication in the evil of which I told.”

January is a remarkable character; she is relentlessly cynical and hates and destroys; but she is strong independent and very determined. She has been abused since she was three, but she is more than a victim, although she often alone carries the weight of her father’s abusive behaviour. Davies does in a Catholic setting make links with the figure of Christ. It is powerful stuff and difficult to read. The last chapter shows how the threads of abuse spread through generations. No one really survives and everyone is damaged. Davies does not spare the reader and her outstanding prose drives the reader on.

As always I am amazed that this novel is not better known and that Davies is not ranked among the likes of other English contemporary novelists such as Amis, Barnes, Mitchell, McEwan et al. I rank her above rather than among them.

I will end with a quote where Prue is talking to Isabel’s aunt:

“Isla sighs, she knots a new thread and draws the needle carefully through the cloth. “Had you noticed” she says, more to herself then Prue, “that there is a flaw at the centre of things?”

“A floor at the centre of things” thinks Prue. A floor at the centre of things. She will want to turn that over in her mind. Beneath these unstable, shifting surfaces, a floor …yes, she can see it now, the floor at the centre of things, floating like a raft that holds steady in a weltering sea”.

9 and a half out of 10

Starting Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

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My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof by Penelope Mortimer

 

This is one of Mortimer’s less known novels and is out of print. Inevitably I have the virago edition. At one level the plot is straightforward. Muriel Rowbridge is a journalist/writer who works for a woman’s magazine. She has cancer which results in a mastectomy. The novels covers two weeks when Muriel is sent on a trip to Canada by her magazine with a group (all male) of journalists. There is a busy itinerary and lots to do. Muriel comes to terms with her life in a notebook, which she writes stream of consciousness style. Muriel is a bit of a cynic, but she is also coming to terms with the loss of a breast and how this affects her image of herself. She has just broken up with a married lover and becomes involved in different ways with three men. There is an exploration of sexual identity and a reaction to the male bravado of the other journalists. Mortimer experiments with seeing and being seen and with the nature of perception in relation to women.

Muriel finds a new way of perceiving herself and the man who helps her to do this is one who has also been touched by tragedy. Muriel fins that no connection is straightforward, but eventually she has a sense of herself;

“She had found, after all this time of searching, an image: myself as I am. I prefer myself as I am. The implications came crowding in on her with the impact of light, air and sound after a long imprisonment. Boldness and freedom were both available. She could do anything she wanted to do”

The last chapter has a couple of interesting twists and turns that keeps the reader guessing until the last paragraph.

The whole is an interesting novel and Muriel is a compelling character.

8 and a half out of 10

 

Starting Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

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I have a liking for the obscure Anna!

 

Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

 

My first venture into anything by Kawabata; this novella centres on the tea ceremony. Kikuji has lost his father and mother; he is a young man and there is the question of his father’s two mistresses and the possibility of whether he ought to marry. There is a great deal of consideration, in an oblique way, of the importance of inheritance and the continuation of tradition. The novel is set in the 1950s in a time of great change in Japan. The prose is precise and describes well the sense of decay and degeneration, especially in relation to Kikuji’s garden and tea house. Subtlety and intricacy are two of the words that the reviews seem to throw up regularly. It is a novel about ideas and people rather than a linear plot; actually it could also be said that it is a novel about Kikuji’s love life!

Loneliness and disorientation are themes, but it is impossible to avoid contempt Kikuji has for older women in particular; neither Mrs Ota nor Chikako ae portrayed positively. There is an extended description of a birthmark in the shape of a mole that Chikako has on her breast; this is early in the book and is designed to ensure the reader has it in mind whenever Chikako is present. I get a sense of women being demeaned and worshipped; the descriptions of the two younger women are in sharp contrast to the older women. Take note of what Kikuji thinks of himself when he has had a sexual encounter with Mrs Ota, "the conqueror whose feet were being washed by the slave." Quite.

Whilst I can appreciate the intricacies of the tea ceremony, the discussions about pottery and the wonderful prose, even the analysis of a changing society. I also like the lack of ending, Kawabata didn’t like writing endings. All these are strong themes, but just as strong are the motifs relating to the women, especially Chikako and her birthmark, which seems to be a symbol of malevolence and Chikako’s character seems to be linked to it. But the issue is much more visceral;

“Not that. No, the trouble would be having the child look at the birthmark while it was nursing. I hadn’t seen quite so far myself, but a person who actually has a birthmark thinks of these things. From the day it was born it would drink there; and from the day it began to see, it would see that ugly mark on its mother’s breast. Its first impression of the world, its first impression of its mother, would be that ugly birthmark, and there the impression would be, through the child’s whole life.”

And

“It was not just the fear of having a brother or sister born away from home, a stranger to him. It was rather fear of that brother or sister in particular. Kikuji was obsessed with the idea that a child who sucked at that breast, with its birthmark and its hair, must be a monster.”

There is a link here that I almost missed; the pottery of the tea ceremony must be flawless and beautiful; lesser pieces and those that are flawed degrade the ceremony. Kawabata’s descriptions of the younger women’s flawless necks reminded me of some of his descriptions of the tea ceremony pottery. Too much objectification for me I’m afraid.

5 out of 10

Starting My Left Foot by Christy Brown

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The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

 

This is the second in a trilogy, the first being “A Golden Age” and continues the story of the Haque family and is again set in Bangladesh. It can be read as a stand-alone, but it does help to have read the first one. This part of the trilogy focusses on Rehanna’s two children, Maya and Sohail. It switches from just after the war and independence to ten years later. It charts the very different directions the siblings take as a result of their experiences during the war. Maya becomes a doctor and helps women traumatised during the war, performing abortions for many who were raped; she then spends time in a village as a medic, having left her home. She returns at the death of her brother’s wife and the switching backwards and forwards gradually fills the gaps. Sohail has become religious; Islam is now his focus and he is a charismatic teacher and preacher. He has followers and sometimes travels to spread the message. Their very different takes on life creates tension between the two and their mother Rehana is oftencaught between the two. Sohail has a son, Zaid, who also plays a significant role.

The story is told from Maya’s perspective. She is essentially a non-believer. There are no purely good characters and some difficult topics are covered including child abuse, torture and cancer. Anam is not afraid to chart her way through chaos and crisis. I think this is a more complex work than the first in the trilogy. During the civil war there was a goal and those with differing opinions could work together. Now the war is over there are different directions that can be taken, upholding the old maxim that war is easier than peace. Maya has learnt a good deal about her country’s patriarchal mind-set in her work as a village doctor and so she finds her brother’s solace in religion very difficult. Anam manages to be fair to both siblings and resists the temptation to go for easy answers and solutions; although her heart clearly lies with Maya.

The whole is well written and I will certainly look out for the third in the series.

8 out of 10

 

Starting So long a Letter by Mariama Ba

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The Good Muslim sounds good... I've never read anything set in Bangladesh before, I might have to check this out.

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Just thought I'd tell you, I started A Golden Age today- love all the culture :)

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Hope you enjoy it Anna

My Left Foot by Christy Brown

 

This is Christy Brown’s account of his early life, published in 1954 when he was twenty-two. Brown was the tenth of twenty-two children (thirteen of whom survived). Brown was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy and his parents were told that they ought to put him into an institution and forget about him because he would be a “mental defective”. It was the determination of his mother, not giving up on him, that proved decisive.

The story is well –known through the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, but the book is well worth reading and Brown writes honestly and with some humour. The story is obviously one of struggle and persistence and there are also some good descriptions of family life in Dublin in the 1930s and 1940s. There is also a growing sense of sadness and frustration as Brown gradually realises how different he is from others and how important it is considered to be “normal”. There is a passage where Brown describes a growing friendship with a girl when he is in his very early teens. There is a moment when he realises the look she gives him is not attraction or even friendship, but pity. It’s very powerful writing. Brown describes his disability as a glass wall between himself and others. Brown eventually says “If I could never be like other people, then at least I would be like myself and make the best of it.”

Brown also charts his growth as a writer. Initially his access to books was very limited and he read only Dickens. Reading was an awakening for him, however being limited to Dickens, his first attempts at writing were in a Dickensian vein. Combine the flourish and floridity of Dickens with a lad from Dublin trying to write about his life and you get the picture. Brown is brave enough to add a few extracts of these early attempts and honest enough to admit how bad they are!

Brown is likeable and engaging and he tells his story well. Good as the film is, I think it’s a shame it has overshadowed the book; which has merit in its own right.

I am currently making an effort to find and read literature from the disabled community and is certainly a good place to start.

9 out of 10

Starting Journal of a Somerset Rector by John Skinner

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

 

How to review a book like this, and it is a great book; I’m not sure I have the superlatives it deserves. Morrison based the novel on the story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who killed her child as she was being recaptured, to save the child a lifetime of slavery. The setting is around the time of the civil war. The plot and the storyline are well known.

The writing is great and there is a strong sense of place;

“And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it. Its grave-yards and low-lying rivers. Or just a house—solitary under a chinaberry tree; maybe a mule tethered and the light hitting its hide just so. Anything could stir him and he tried hard not to love it.”

But it is a horror story (and I don’t mean the ghost), horror in the true sense of the word, slavery. It has been argued that Morrison is confronting and highlighting things not recorded or told by histories narrated by white historians. It isn’t comfortable and it is difficult to read; as it should be. I think this is also where some of the negative reviews come from; because the novel is not polemical and the characters have and enduring humanity with nuance. There are reviews saying this is the worst book ever, expressing hatred and loathing for the novel. Hatred and loathing; worst book ever! There are so many bad, bad books out there. This isn’t a bad book, I can understand difficult, I can understand not really liking magic realism or the use of the ghost motif. I don’t get the hatred. I wonder if it is being forced to look at something in the past, that is still in the present and that we are unwilling to face. It seems that slavery has now to be a topic studied in history; making it too real and present creates strong reactions. We still minimize and gloss over in the west the horrors we perpetrated on other parts of the globe. The European powers and the US killed far more than the Nazis did in the slave trade and we still have a problem calling it genocide.

Morrison makes it all human and personal and brings it home.

9 out of 10

 

Starting The Richer, The Poorer by Dorothy West

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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What a powerful and engaging review.  This is a book that has been in the back of my mind for years, but I've never really felt a need to put it on any TBR list..  I do now!

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Honestly I had never heard of Beloved (sorry if that makes me a cretin!) but it's gone on the wishlist now!

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I hope you both enjoy it!

 

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

 

This is my first Elizabeth Taylor and quite an oddity it is. Written and set just after the Second World War; it references more classic novels than you can shake a stick at. These comparisons are not subtle and there is a gothic edge to it. The setting is a decaying mansion and like Brideshead Revisited there is an analysis of the decline of the English upper classes. But the main references are to Austen and the Brontes.

The main character is a newly orphaned governess called Cassandra Dashwood; references to Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. During the book the film version of Pride and Prejudice is showing at the local cinema. Cassandra goes to work for a widower with a daughter. His name is Marion Vanburgh and he is quiet and bookish. We are now in Jane Eyre territory! His late wife Violet was a powerful personality and her portrait is prominent and the staff still talk about her; shades of Rebecca (published in the previous decade). There is also plenty of Bronte type atmosphere at times; particularly with cousin Tom who is an alcoholic and is having an affair with the local pub landlord’s wife. His sister Margaret is pregnant and there is some question whether her husband (entirely absent from the novel) is the father. Tom and Margaret’s mother Tinty is also present and there is also the housekeeper Mrs Adams. Cassandra is there to be governess to Sophy. The final member of the household is Nanny, who is rather elderly and bitter and misses Violet. Taylor seems to throw them all together in what initially seems a fairly formulaic way and the reader does wonder where it’s all going.

Of course the novel does revolve around the relationship between Cassandra and Marion, but they are rather insipid characters and the real spark is provided by the rest of the cast. There is a very shocking event towards the end of the novel which changes everything and is totally unexpected; more Hardy than Austen here.

So what is it all about? One perceptive reviewer has pointed out that Taylor is looking at issues like love and romance and marriage which may appear quite simple are actually in post war times quite complex:

“His head felt as if someone were doing knitting in it. Nothing was simple. He believed that he loved Cassandra tenderly; but marriage is not simple. It brought with it, Nanny had reminded him, so many complications which were beyond his energies. Tinty stood before him, and Tom, Nanny with her talk of refrigerators and change, the thought of beginning a new life in that fast-crumbling house, of leaving a smouldering and rank corner of earth to sons, perhaps, and then engaging servants, spending money, laying down wine, planting and clearing. In the library last night, no one, nothing, had stood between him and Cassandra. Now so much interposed. She was a child merely, to be led into so dark, so lonely, a wilderness as his heart. For her, so much unravelling of people, so much sorting out of possessions would have to be done. He might draw her to him and ease the passion which lay under her silence, lead her into the circle of ice which encompassed him: but the obstacles were still outside, where the world was, and even within him, there was Violet.”

There is a strong sense of the landscape in the novel and in that way it was a little like Woolf’s Between the Acts, which was written a few years earlier.

It might also be argued that Taylor is marking the end of the country house tradition in English literature, it is no longer needed or necessary. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy maintains Pemberley in magnificence and is benevolent. Contrast here with what Cousin Margaret says to Marion about his estate;

“I always hated and despised the old Squires and their Lady Bountifuls with their meddling and condescension and their giving back in charity a mere hundredth of what they had pillaged. But you are worse. You keep the hundredth part, take no responsibility, show no interest, give nothing to the land even, but let the soil go sour and the grass rank. The people who once lived in this house would not have seen the land lying useless, or one of the villagers starve, or go without coal at Christmas, and if a girl was in trouble by a man, they’d damn well make him marry her.”

It is worth recalling that Taylor was at this time a member of the Communist Party and her views are clear enough. The character of Marion Vanburgh does nothing of any use and has appalling parenting skills; he is rather absurd and disconnected and it is almost as though Taylor is saying that it’s all over for this way of life.

It’s an easy read and it is fun trying to spot how many references to other novels you can spot. There are though some quite sharp and insightful comments, a shocking twist and some well-developed minor characters.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The World is Full of Laughter by Dolly Sen

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Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

 

The main character is a newly orphaned governess called Cassandra Dashwood; references to Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.

 

Two other Austen references jump to mind: (1) the Dashwoods are the central family in Sense and Sensibility (including, of course, Elinor and Marianne); (2) Cassandra was the name of Jane's much loved elder sister.

 

I 'discovered' Elizabeth Taylor at the start of this year, and have enjoyed what I've read so far, so must look this one up!  Thanks for the interesting review.

Edited by willoyd

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Willoyd; I have a few others by Taylor on my and will soon be reading more.

 

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall

 

This is Marshall’s first novel and is semi-autobiographical; set in New York (Brooklyn) and within the Barbadian community, struggling to survive and makes its way. The brownstones of the title are the houses which members of the community aspire to owning. It is a coming of age novel and revolves around Selina Boyce and her mother Silla; two wonderfully created characters who are the most memorable parts of the novel.

Silla has very clear aims for her daughters and for her own life; owning a brownstone being a priority. For her daughters it is be part of the church (based around the Barbadian community), get good grades at school, get a good career (preferably a doctor), marry a good man from the community and buy a brownstone; very much in that order, and most of all don’t get pregnant and mess around with inappropriate men. Selina’s rebellion against this is the centre of the novel.

Selina and her mother clash, in many ways because they are too alike;

“Everybody used to call me Deighton’s Selina but they were wrong. Because you see I’m truly your child. Remember how you used to talk about how you left home and came here alone as a girl of eighteen and was your own woman? I used to love hearing that. And that’s what I want. I want it!

Silla’s pained eyes searched her adamant face, and after a long time a wistfulness softened her mouth. It was as if she somehow glimpsed in Selina the girl she had always been.”

Selina’s father Deighton tries in vain to hold a job, but moves from one thing to another and sticks at nothing. He is a great disappointment to Silla. He is charming but insubstantial. He wants to return to Barbados, but Silla has her heart set on staying and buying a brownstone. She gets her wish, but at a price.

The novel directly looks at black immigration from the Caribbean to the US; the setting is the Depression and the Second World War. Race is a gradually dawning issue for Selina, as her boyfriend Clive says;

“Who knows what they see looking at us? The whole damn thing is so twisted now, so deep seated; the color black is such a hell of a powerful symbol, who can tell…some of them probably still see in each of us the black moor tupping their white ewe, or some legendary beast coming out at night and the fens to maraud and rape. Caliban. Hester’s Black Man in the woods. The evil. Evil. Sin….Maybe our dark faces remind them of the all that is dark and unknown and terrifying within themselves and, as Jimmy Baldwin says, they’re seeking absolution through poor us, either in their beneficence or in their cruelty….But I’m afraid we have to disappoint them by confronting them always with the full and awesome weight of our humanity, until they begin to see us and not some unreal image they’ve super-imposed”

This is a really good novel with strong female characters (another in my virago collection). I will leave the last word to Marshall, writing about the way in which women figure prominently in her writing:

“I’m concerned about letting them speak their piece, letting them be central figures, actors, activists in fiction rather than just backdrop or background figures. I want them to be central characters. Women in fiction seldom are. Traditionally in most fiction men are the wheelers and dealers. They are the ones in whom power is invested. I wanted to turn that around. I wanted women to be the centers of power. My feminism takes its expression through my work. Women are central for me. They can as easily embody the power principles as a man.”

8 and a half out of 10

 

Starting Go tell it on the mountain by James Baldwin

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So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba

 

A brief, well-crafted novella in the form of a letter between two middle-aged friends. The writer is Ramatoulaye; her husband, has died suddenly and she is has to remain in seclusion for four months and ten days as per her religious strictures (Islamic). The recipient is her friend Aissatou. Both women have had husband problems. Aissoutou’s husband had taken a second, much younger wife. She had divorced him as a result and had left to make a new life in America. Ramatoulaye’s husband had five years previously also taken a second and much younger wife and moved in with her. She recounts and comments on the history of herself and her friend, setting out the role of women in Senegal pre and post-independence. It is beautifully written and is a testament to friendship.

Ba is also analysing polygamy and the way men use religious tradition to gratify and justify their desires. The two women manage the problem differently, but both respect the others choices. Ba sets out the situation of the married women very clearly;

“This is the moment dreaded by every Senegalese woman, the moment when she sacrifices her possessions as gifts to her family-in-law; and worse still, beyond her possessions she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her, his grandfather, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his uncle, his aunt, his male and female cousins, his friends. Her behaviour is conditioned: no sister-in-law will touch the head of any wife who has been stingy, unfaithful or inhospitable.”

She clearly explained the effects of betrayal on Ramatoulaye and her children and explores the difficulties women can have.  The end of the letter focusses more on the next generation and the way Ramatoulaye manages the tensions of a new generation with different expectations. Ba also focuses on how the traditional cycle can change and be broken, but in a way that reflects her own culture rather than importing western solutions.

Ba also points to the importance of education to women; note this passage which speaks of Aissatou’s progress;

“The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea. Though, History, Science, Life, Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted: examination sat and passed took you also to France. The School of Interpreters, from which you graduated, led to your appointment into the Senegalese Embassy in the United States. You make a very good living. You are developing in peace, as your letters tell me, your back resolutely turned on those seeking light enjoyment and easy relationships.”

There is an interesting juxtaposition here. The letter progresses from colonial to post-colonial times and Ba notes how for women to progress they to access education and there is a similar movement from oppression and towards freedom.

The novella could easily be read in one sitting, it is full of human warmth and wisdom and well worth taking time to read.

9 out of 10

 

Starting Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne

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The World is full of Laughter by Dolly Sen

This is a remarkable memoir from the even more remarkable Dolly Sen, from the inside of what passes for a mental health system in the UK. This is how she starts:

“I’m self-hate surrounded by mirrors.

Not the many glass ones I have shattered, ensuring I have no good luck for the next thousand lifetimes. No, the mirror of the eyes that constantly watch me. Mirrors with names, smiles, souls and lies.

You’ve got your Daddy’s eyes and your Daddy’s lies. Cut them out!” The voices tell me over and over again.

Can memories turn into psychosis? These are memories that touch me with the insistence of a branding iron. Writing this memoir, I have to make sure it doesn’t turn into a suicide note,”

Sen has an Indian father and a Scottish mother, adding the extra disadvantage of race to gender when it comes to navigating the mental health system. She tells her story frankly, with a lot of pain, some humour and irony.

Sen’s story contains abuse and violence, primarily by an alcoholic father and outlines her experiences with the mental health system from about the age of 14. She is also very frank about the inadequacies of the care she has received; most, but not all of it being pretty grim.

Sen has a great turn of phrase;

“sometimes sanity touches my head like a razorblade pillow.”

Speaking of her attempts to manage her illness;

“I don’t doubt that I will be ill again; I’m just no longer going to wee gasoline on the psychotic fire.”

Sen uses the energy she has as a result of her illness in an intense creativity; she writes poetry and novels, blogs, does photography, art, writes about mental illness, is active in performance and has a number of digital outlets. This was written in 2002 and much has happened since then and Sen has written and done much since then; including another stay in hospital. She writes well and I shouldn’t be surprised that she is so little known; she writes from a place that most publishing houses avoid.

Dolly Sen doesn’t have easy answers or neat endings, but she lives with her condition and writes about it eloquently and with great fire and passion. I have learnt more about mental illness from Dolly Sen than from any textbook.

 

9 out of 10

Starting The Ha-Ha by Jennifer Dawson

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Starting Journal of a Somerset Rector by John Skinner

I have this on my 'to read' pile.   I'd had it on my wish list for ages as I live near Camerton and when doing my family tree I discovered that my great-great Grandfather was born there (we had no idea we had ancestors in Somerset as I and my father were both born in Kent and his father was born in Lancashire (now Cumbria) so it came as rather a surprise.  Anyway, I had no luck in tracking it down (apart from expensive copies) but when my father-in-law died (he was a priest) I found that he had a copy - so I have it now!

 

I went off at a tangent there, didn't I?!  :D  What I was going to say was that I hope you enjoy it.  :)

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