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A Book Blog 2022 by Books do Furnish a Room

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The Fell by Sarah Moss

This is a lockdown novel, set during the second UK lockdown in November 2020. It is from the point of view of four voices and is set in an English village on the edge of the Peak District. It is told from the point of view of four different voices. There is Kate, a middle-aged single mother who has been in contact with Covid and is in the middle of two weeks of isolation. Matt is her teenage son who is fed up with school online and spends a lot of time gaming:

“Matt and Kate are, what do they call it, self-isolating, one of those horrible new nonsensical phrases, social distancing, whoever came up with that, there’s not much that’s less social than acting as if everyone’s unclean and dangerous, though the problem of course is that they are, or at least some of them are and there’s no way of knowing. Medical distance they should call it, or why not just safe distance?”

Alice is their next door neighbour, an older woman who has recently finished chemotherapy and is clinically vulnerable and isolating. Rob is a mountain rescue volunteer.

This is pretty brief and Moss says she wrote it pretty quickly. I suspect there will be a plethora of lockdown novels to come, who knows even a canon of lockdown novels! The build-up is slow and understated and Moss makes some use of stream of consciousness. The main premise of the novel is that Kate gets fed up with isolation and goes for a walk on the fells:

 She won’t be long, really she won’t, only a sip of outside, fast up the lane and over the fields, just a little way up the stone path for a quick greeting to the fells.”

She falls and breaks a leg and is stranded on the moors as night falls. There is another voice on the moors, a Raven. We are not in Poe territory here, as one reviewer has pointed out, it’s more the blasted heath of Lear and the Raven makes a good Fool. There is a gothic edge to the second half:

“Maybe she’ll die without ever touching another human, maybe she’s had her last hug, handshake, air-kiss.”

Moss does capture something of the feel of lockdown and isolation, the oddness and isolation and its intensity:

“Dust we are and to dust we shall return, well get on with it then, wouldn’t it be better sometimes just to do the returning than spend your life cowering away, weeks and months ticking by like this, not as if there weren’t epidemics then too, the original inhabitants, but they got on with it, didn’t they, people died and they were sad but they didn’t wall themselves up, they didn’t stop educating the children and forbid music, the living were allowed to live if you can call it that, Victorian mining, not that they lived long but maybe length isn’t how you want to measure it.”

Moss picks apart some of the language of the pandemic and this becomes a reflection on the human condition and indeed on the tension between individual freedom and collective responsibility. There are reflections on the current environmental issues and as Kate says to the Raven:

"One of the things we're learning, we of the end times, is that humanity's ending appears to be slow, lacking in cliffhangers or indeed any satisfactory narrative shape."

This is well written and the wholes does work, it will no doubt be part of the pandemic canon one day. Don’t let that put you off, it’s good.

8 out of 10

Starting Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

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Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

This was Charlotte Bronte’s second novel, written over the period when her three siblings died. This is a historical novel set in 1811-12 during the period of the Napoleonic wars. It was also set during an industrial depression where many workers were being laid off. New machinery was replacing people and this machinery was being destroyed by the Luddites. The locations (country house wise) and some of the events are based on historical events.

An interesting note: up to this point Shirley had been a man’s name and it was Bronte’s use of Shirley for the name of the main character which led to Shirley to primarily a female name. This novel has a third person narrator, unlike Bronte’s other two novels.

Relationships between the sexes is a major focus in Shirley and especially men’s expectations of women:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.  Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations, worshipping the heroine of such a poem – novel – drama, thinking it fine – divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial – false as the rose in my best bonnet there.  If I spoke all I think on this point; if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be?  Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.

Although there is a fair amount of romance in the novel and you can’t really escape it in the last quarter, but as the narrator points out there is more to it:

“If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.”

There is an element of this being a “condition of England” novel and there were others around by Gaskell, Disraeli and Carlyle. There are descriptions of Luddite disturbances, but as Carlyle says of the working class:

“that great dumb toiling class which cannot speak

They don’t really get a voice here either, what they do say is laced with what is perceived to be religious and political extremism. The real solution to the problems here is (like many other Victorian novels) a sort of laissez-faire paternalism where the enlightened middle classes do what’s right by the poor ignorant workers. That’s very important to Bronte here, there is a distinct contrast between the good and bad clergy and between good and bad mill owners.

As a result of all this the novel is many-layered and the characters interesting and sometimes contradictory. There are plots and sub-plots meandering around and the analysis of gender relations is very good

8 out of 10

Starting The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope

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