Susan Minot: Evening (1998)

Evening

With two novels and one short story collection published to overwhelming critical acclaim, Susan Minot has emerged as one of the most gifted writers in America, praised for her ability to strike at powerful emotional truths in language that is sensual and commanding, mesmerizing in its vitality and intelligence. Now, with Evening, she gives us her most ambitious novel, a work of surpassing beauty. During a summer weekend on the coast of Maine, at the wedding of her best friend, Ann Grant fell in love. She was twenty-five. Forty years later–after three marriages and five children–Ann Lord finds herself in the dim claustrophobia of illness, careening between lucidity and delirium and only vaguely conscious of the friends and family parading by her bedside, when the memory of that weekend returns to her with the clarity and intensity of a fever-dream. 

It’s not easy to capture the beauty of Susan Minot’s gorgeous and ambitious novel Evening. If Virginia Woolf or Proust had written page-turners, that’s what it could look like.

In beautiful prose which explores how memory and consciousness work Evening captures the story of Ann Grant’s life. It is 1994 and Ann is terminally ill; she’s lying in her bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. Scent transports her back in time. The morphine induces hallucinations, which are rendered in brilliant stream of consciousness paragraphs. These chapters and paragraphs, are very short, fragments only; the main story however simply moves back and forth between 1994 and 1954, the summer in which she met Harris Arden.

She smelled the cushion and smelled the balsam and what happened to her then was a kind of wild tumult. The air seemed to fracture into screens which all fell crashing in on one another in a sort of timed ballet with spears of light shooting through and something erupted in her chest with a gush and in her mind’s eye she saw her hands forty years younger and heard the clink of rocks on a beach and the sound of a motorboat and rising behind that came a black night and a band playing in the trees and the smell of water in the pipes of a summer cottage and she raised her hand to keep the cushion there and breathed in and heard an old suitcase snap open.

While Ann is remembering four days in 1954, when she met Harris, her grown-up children, her friends and nurses flutter like moths in the periphery of her bed. Ann is given morphine and more often than not, she’s not lucid but hallucinating. One moment she remembers something that happened in 1954 and the next moment a noise in her bedroom changes everything, makes her imagine something; another moment later, she’s back with her visitors.

Her children hear her talk to an invisible stranger, Harris, but when they ask her about him, Ann denies knowing a person with that name.

The story is divided into several recurring elements. There is the story of the four days in summer 1954, the stream of consciousness elements in which Ann sees her whole life pass, the passages in which we hear her children talk, and very short passages in which Ann seems to be talking to Harris who has come to visit her. His visits take place in her imagination but for her this seems more real than anything else.

Evening questions what is left of a life when it comes to its end. Memories, dreams, illusions, are all the same, when you look back. Ann has been married three times. Some marriages were good, others were bad, but now that she is dying, Harris, the unlived possibility, is the strongest memory she has.

Evening explores the way memory works

First she was Ann Grant, then Phil Katz’s wife then Mrs Ted Stackpole then Ann Lord. Bits of things swam up to her, but what made them come. Why for instance did she remember the terrace at Versailles where she’d visited only once, or a pair of green and checkered gloves,  photograph of city trees in the rain?It only demonstrated to her all she would forget. And if she did not remember these things who would? After she was gone there would be no one who knew the whole of her life. She did not even know the whole of it.

Although the narrative is fragmented and modernist in places, the book has the qualities of a page-turner. At the beginning we only know that Ann Grant met Harris in 1954 and that they both fell in love. It will take the whole book to reveal what has happened and why, after all these years, she still remembers him as if it had been yesterday but never told anybody about him.

Underlying this remembrance of things past, lies a very crucial topic: pain medication in palliative care. It’s briefly mentioned in the book that Ann Lord decided to be medicated although she knew she would probably spend her final weeks, days and hours not being lucid. Some cancer patients prefer lucidity and live their final moments with as much pain as they can possibly endure. Not Ann.

It’s a beautiful book and strangely uplifting. Possibly because it testifies how intense an interior life can be and that nothing is really lost. Everything we’ve ever experienced, imagined or dreamed is still somewhere. In its best moments Evening reminded me of Virgina Woolf’s The Voyage Out, in which we often see people or houses from outside. They are motionless or sleeping, but we catch a glimpse of their inner lives, which are rich and deep and passionate.

Evening has been made into a movie with Claire Danes, Vanessa Redgrave, Glen Close, Toni Colette, Natasha Richardson and Meryl Streep. It doesn’t capture what made the book so wonderful but it’s still a beautiful movie.

Marie de France’s Bisclavret – A Werewolf Story from the 12th Century

lais-of-marie-de-france

I’ve always been fond of The Lais of Marie de France, a collection of folk tales set in a mythical Brittany. For a book this old, they are surprisingly approachable and entertaining. Marie de France’s identity isn’t clear. She is, as indicates her name, most probably from the Île de France and it’s said that she must have spent some time at the English court.

Looking for something to read for  Once Upon a Time I remembered her werewolf story Bisclavret. Bisclavret means werewolf in Breton. In the rest of France he’s called “loup-garou”. The werewolf belief is widespread in Brittany. I myself grew up with it, as my grandmother was from Morlaix, in Brittany.

I didn’t remember the whole of the story and was surprised to find similarities with Selkie stories, in which it’s crucial, that the Selkie, once a woman, should find her skin again, or she will never be able to return to her Selkie form. Bisclavret follows a reversed logic. The clothes of the man equal the skin of the Selkie.

Bisclavret tells the tale of a gentle woman who is upset because her husband is absent regularly. She presses him to tell her where he spends his nights. She suspects he has taken a mistress. The husband does at first not tell her what he is doing during full moon nights, but when he sees her jealousy, he gives in and confesses that he is a werewolf. During full moon nights, he goes to the forest, takes off his clothes and transforms. It’s vital for him to put his clothes back on. Should anything prevent that, he wouldn’t be able to become human again.

Bisclavret is one of many stories among the Lais whose female protagonist is a “femme coupable” – a guilty woman. In this case she is guilty of betrayal. She herself takes a lover, tells him her husband’s secret and, one night, they follow him and steal his clothes. He is now condemned to stay a wolf. Hunted down by the king and his men, he is spared, because he shows a gentle nature. He follows the king to the court and becomes his pet. He is liked by everyone at court because he is so well-behaved, until one day he attacks a man and later a woman.

I’m not going to reveal the end because I’d like to put you in the mood, to pick up either the whole collection or at least this story.

Marie de France is one of the very earliest story tellers. Her art is still fresh and powerful today and well-worth discovering. My edition is bilingual old French/new French. I don’t know whether there is a French version in the English edition, or whether it’s only a translation.

This post is a contribution to Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. The review site can be found here.

Chris Beckett: Dark Eden (2012)

DARK_EDEN

Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden was last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, which usually guarantees that a book is at the more literary end of the Sci-Fi spectrum. For once I can understand why a novel received an award. Dark Eden is nothing if not a tour de force. It’s as original as it is philosophical; in its themes as much as in its execution. Reading it wasn’t only a brainy experience, it was quite visceral as well. Beckett’s world felt so realistic, the everyday life of the people is described in all its strangeness and boring repetition, that I felt sucked in.

As a linguist and cultural anthropologist, I found the civilisation Beckett created extremely fascinating and thought-provoking. What would happen if a part of our high culture, a tiny fragment of our civilisation – two people to be precise – were abandoned on an alien planet, with nothing but their clothes, some paraphernalia and nothing else? This is what happens to Thommy and Angela, the ancestor’s of the people we meet in Dark Eden. The world they encounter is strange and dark. Light and warmth come from the lantern trees. Food abounds at first. The two humans can eat fruit and hunt the strange six-limbed animals of Dark Eden. Angela and Thommy procreate and once the story begins, the population of Dark Eden has risen to 532 people. Food is scarce by now. The perpetual darkness is hard on them. They have not ventured further because their creation myth traps them. After 160 years, or wombtimes as they call it, they are still waiting for a “veekle” from Earth to return and bring them back to their planet of origin. A planet that sounds like paradise to them. A planet where there is “lecky trickity” and daylight coming from a giant star.

Cultural anthropology studies – among other things – the development of civilisations from hunter-gatherers to (nomadic) herders to agriculturalists and more advanced civilisation. In Dark Eden this evolution is reversed at first and then starts to move through the aforementioned stages. The descendants of Angela and Thommy are hunter-gatherers, on the verge of becoming herders. And they have an oral tradition again; writing and schools have been abandoned a long time ago. Many of the words are written phonetically to illustrate that. “Rayed Yo”, “Veekle”, “Secret Ree”, “Wind Oh”. The sentence structure is simple and words like “very” don’t exist but instead of them, the narrators repeat words. “Very sad” becomes “sad sad” or even “sad sad sad”. I thought this was ingenious but – in all honesty – it got a bit on my nerves as well.

As we all know, a story needs conflict and the conflict arises in the form of a “newhair”. John Redlantern is only 20, but he questions the traditions who keep them trapped in this one place, waiting forever for an air ship that never comes. He dares the unspeakable. He challenges the elders and is finally cast out. What the elders didn’t expect – he’s struck a chord with many. Staying in one place means that food is getting scarcer and people are afraid of starving. When he leaves, a group of newhairs joins him.

John’s frustration has a lot to do with survival but is about something else als well. John’s suggestion to leave their dwelling place has something to do with leaving behind the past. Everything they do or think revolves around a distant time and place. They hope to be saved and brought back one day. They re-enact the story of Thommy and Angela again and again and, while waiting to be saved, they don’t really enjoy life or live freely.

What false hope can do to people is only one thought-provoking element, which is part of a profound analysis of meangless rituals and religion.

The structure of the novel is interesting as well. It has two main first person narrators and at least six minor narrators. That breaks up the monotony and gives Beckett the opportunity to show more than one view of the same story. The multiplicity of stories is another important theme in the book:

There are lots of different stories branching away all the time from every single thing that happens. As soon as a moment has gone, different versions of it start to be remembered and told about. And some of them carry on, and some die out, and you can’t know in advance which version will last and which won’t.

Dark Eden  describes a world in which sexuality is lived freely, in which nobody has ever murdered anyone and in which even the crippled and disfigured are treated like everyone else. But it’s not a peaceful society. Hatred and aggression simmer under the surface and can only be contained as long as absolutely nothing in the daily or yearly routine is changed. Once John questions tradition and sets in motion change, violence erupts.

The end is well done and logical. Pretty much what I had expected but that wasn’t disappointing. However, closing the book was a relief. The world Dark Eden describes is a wondrous place, filled with abundant vegetation and a strange and haunting fauna, but it’s bathed in perpetual darkness, and very suffocating.

Dark Eden is a novel that touches on many different topics – religion, family, tradition, overpopulation, hope, creation myths, languages etc. –  it’s philosophical and anthropological in scope and certainly testifies that Sci-Fi can still contribute a fresh and thought-provoking exploration of the human condition and our culture.

Thanks to Broadway Books for the review copy.

Angela Carter Week 8 – 15 June 2014

ACW badge 2-2

I’ve been a fan of Angela Carter’s work since I discovered her as a teenager. She’s one of those rare writers and academics who are good at every genre they try. Novels, short stories, essays, plays, film scripts. And her prose is one of those I admire the most. I don’t know any other writer with such an astonishingly rich vocabulary, that is both exquisite and evocative.

I always wanted to host an Angela Carter Week but I was looking for the right moment and co-host. When I saw that Delia was planning on reading Carter’s fairy tale retellings The Bloody Chamber for Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge, I knew the moment had come. After all, Delia (Postcards from Asia) and I had hosted Dickens in December and it was great fun. Seeing that she was planning on reading Angela Carter was the final nudge I needed. Luckily, Delia was in and she designed two gorgeous badges.

Here are the details:

  • The event runs from June 8 – 15 2014.
  • You can read absolutely anything you like. One short story or essay, a book she has edited, a novel, a radio play. Anything goes. You could equally read books or essays about her.
  • You can choose any of the two badges for your posts or side bar.
  • You can join any time. As early as now, as late as June 15. If you’ve written a post, please leave a comment in the comment section.

Angela Carter was not only versatile but her writing proves how lucid, highly creative and intellectual she was.  And provocative. She didn’t shy away from any topic, – be it sexuality, pornography, violence, torture, schizophrenia  -  or from any trope. She had a very unique esthetic; motives and themes like the circus, cabaret, artificial people, toys and angels are recurring. But she was also interested in cultural change, gender and various movements. Some of her books are exploring the culture and philosophy of the 60s.

Here are a few books you can choose from, (including the blurbs). There are many, many more.

Novels

Heroes and Villains

Heroes and Villains

I’ve read a lot of Angela Carter’s short stories and some of her novels. The novel I liked by far the most was the critically acclaimed Heroes and Villains.

A modern fable, a post-apocalyptic romance, a gothic horror story; Angela Carter’s genre-defying fantasia Heroes and Villains includes an introduction by Robert Coover in Penguin Modern Classics.

Sharp-eyed Marianne lives in a white tower made of steel and concrete with her father and the other Professors. Outside, where the land is thickly wooded and wild beasts roam, live the Barbarians, who raid and pillage in order to survive. Marianne is strictly forbidden to leave her civilized world but, fascinated by these savage outsiders, decides to escape. There, beyond the wire fences, she will discover a decaying paradise, encounter the tattooed Barbarian boy Jewel and go beyond the darkest limits of her imagination. Playful, sensuous, violent and gripping,Heroes and Villains is an ambiguous and deliriously rich blend of post-apocalyptic fiction, gothic fantasy, literary allusion and twisted romance.

Magic Toyshop

The Magic Toyshop

This crazy world whirled around her, men and women dwarfed by toys and puppets, where even the birds are mechanical and the few human figures went masked… She was in the night once again, and the doll was herself.’ Melanie walks in the midnight garden, wearing her mother’s wedding dress; naked she climbs the apple tree in the black of the moon. Omens of disaster, swiftly following, transport Melanie from rural comfort to London, to the Magic Toyshop. To the red-haired, dancing Finn, the gentle Francie, dumb Aunt Margaret and Uncle Phillip. Francie plays curious night music, Finn kisses fifteen-year-old Melanie in the mysterious ruins of the pleasure gardens. Brooding over all is Uncle Philip: Uncle Philip, with blank eyes the colour of wet newspaper, making puppets the size of men, and clockwork roses. He loves his magic puppets, but hates the love of man for woman, boy for girl, brother for sister…

Nights at the Circus

Nights at the Circus

Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake? Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

TheInfernalDesireMachinesOfDoctorHoffman

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Desiderio, an employee of the city under a bizarre reality attack from Doctor Hoffman’s mysterious machines, has fallen in love with Albertina, the Doctor’s daughter. But Albertina, a beautiful woman made of glass, seems only to appear to him in his dreams. Meeting on his adventures a host of cannibals, centaurs and acrobats, Desiderio must battle against unreality and the warping of time and space to be with her, as the Doctor reduces Desiderio’s city to a chaotic state of emergency – one ridden with madness, crime and sexual excess.

A satirical tale of magic and sex, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a dazzling quest for truth, love and identity.

Several Perceptions

Several Perceptions

Centre stage in Angela Carter’s unruly tale of the Flower Power Generation is Joseph – a decadent, disorientated rebel without a cause. A self-styled nihilist whose girlfriend has abandoned him, Joseph has decided to give up existing. But his concerned friends and neighbours have other plans.

In an effort to join in the spirit of protest which motivates his contemporaries, Joseph frees a badger from the local zoo; sends a turd airmail to the President of the United States; falls in love with the mother of his best friend; and, accompanied by the strains of an old man’s violin, celebrates Christmas Eve in a bewildering state of sexual discovery. But has he found the Meaning of Life?

LOVE

Love

Love is Angela Carter’s fifth novel and was first published in 1971. With surgical precision it charts the destructive emotional war between a young woman, her husband and his disruptive brother as they move through a labyrinth of betrayal, alienation and lost connections. This revised edition has lost none of Angela Carter’s haunting power to evoke the ebb of the 1960s, and includes an afterword which describes the progress of the survivors into the anguish of middle age.

Short Stories

BLACK-VENUS

Black Venus

Extraordinary and diverse people inhabit this rich, ripe, occasionally raucous collection of short stories. Some are based on real people – Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s handsome and reluctant muse who never asked to be called the Black Venus, trapped in the terminal ennui of the poet’s passion, snatching at a little lifesaving respectability against all odds…Edgar Allen Poe, with his face of a actor, demonstrating in every thought and deed how right his friends were when they said ‘No man is safe who drinks before breakfast.’

And some of these people are totally imaginary. Such as the seventeenth century whore, transported to Virginia for thieving, who turns into a good woman in spite of herself among the Indians, who have nothing worth stealing. And a girl, suckled by wolves, strange and indifferent as nature, who will not tolerate returning to humanity.

Angela Carter wonderfully mingles history, fiction, invention, literary criticism, high drama and low comedy in a glorious collection of stories as full of contradictions and surprises as life itself.

American Ghosts

American Ghosts and New World Wonders

A collection of short stories which tear through the archives of cinema, of art and of the subconscious. A young Lizzie Borden visits the circus; a pianist makes a Faustian pact in a fly-blown Southern brothel; and a transfigured Mary Magdalene steps out of the canvases of Donatello and de la Tour.

The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber

From familiar fairy tales and legends – Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves – Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.

Books edited by Angela Carter

Book of Fairy Tales

Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales

Once upon a time fairy tales weren’t meant just for children, and neither is Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. This stunning collection contains lyrical tales, bloody tales and hilariously funny and ripely bawdy stories from countries all around the world- from the Arctic to Asia – and no dippy princesses or soppy fairies. Instead, we have pretty maids and old crones; crafty women and bad girls; enchantresses and midwives; rascal aunts and odd sisters.

This fabulous celebration of strong minds, low cunning, black arts and dirty tricks could only have been collected by the unique and much-missed Angela Carter. Illustrated throughout with original woodcuts.

Essays and Criticism

The Sadeian Woman

The Sadeian Woman

‘Sexuality is power’ – so says the Marquis de Sade, philosopher and pornographer extraordinaire. His virtuous Justine keeps to the rules laid down by men, her reward rape and humiliation; his Juliette, Justine’s triumphantly monstrous antithesis, viciously exploits her sexuality. In a world where all tenderness is false, all beds are minefields. But now Sade has met his match. With invention and genius, Angela Carter takes on these outrageous figments of his extreme imagination, and transforms them into symbols of our time – the Hollywood sex goddesses, mothers and daughters, pornography, even the sacred shrines of sex and marriage lie devastatingly exposed before our eyes. Angela Carter delves into the viscera of our distorted sexuality and reveals a dazzling vision of love which admits neither of conqueror nor of conquered.

Expletives

Expletives Deleted

Angela Carter was one of the most important and influential writers of our time: a novelist of extraordinary power and a searching critic and essayist.This selection of her writing, which she made herself, covers more than a decade of her thought and ranges over a diversity of subjects giving a true measure of the wide focus of her interests: the brothers Grimm; William Burroughs; food writing, Elizbaeth David; British writing: American writing; sexuality, from Josephine Baker to the history of the corset; and appreciations of the work of Joyce and Christina Stead.

Radio Plays and Scripts

The Curious Room

 The Curious Room

This one is only available in kindle format.

The Vintage Collected Edition of Angela Carter’s works continues with THE CURIOUS ROOM, which contains her dramatic writings, including several previously unpublished plays and screenplays. THE CURIOUS ROOM includes a radio play about the demented Victorian painter and parricide Richard Dadd; reworkings of Puss in Boots and the Dracula story; a draft for an opera of Virginia Woolf’s ORLANDO, as well as the film scripts of THE MAGIC TOYSHOP and THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. Revealing many of the enthusiasms and concerns which ignited Carter’s fiction. THE CURIOUS ROOM is full of magnificent and startling new material, charged with the range and power of Carter’s imagination and inventiveness.

Essays on Angela Carter

Flesh and Mirror

Flesh and the Mirror 

Go out and get Carter. Get all her fiction, all her fact.’ Ali Smith

 This distinguished volume of essays commemorates the work of Angela Carter. Here her fellow writers, along with an impressive company of critics, disuss the novels, stories and polemics that make her one of the most spellbinding authors of her generation. They trace out the signs of her originality, her daring and her wicked wit, as well as her charm, to produce an indispensable companion to her texts.

 Contributors are: Guido Almansi, Isobel Armstrong, Margaret Atwood, Elaine Jordan, Ros Kaveney, Hermione Lee, Laura Mulvey, Marc O’Day, Sue Roe, Susan Rubin Suleiman, Nicole Ward Jouve, Marina Warner and Kate Webb.

 

A list with more titles and further details can be found on Delia’s blog here.

I hope that you will join Delia and me in celebrating this unique writer.

I’m looking forward to rediscover a favourite writer. I might read her novel Love, a radio play and hopefully some short stories.

Will you join us? Which books or stories will you read?

Angela Carter Week

Cassandra Clare: City of Bones (2007) Mortal Instruments I Book and Movie

City of Bones

A couple of weeks ago I watched the movie City of Bones and liked the imagery and the story so much, I had to pick up the book. The movie got dreadful reviews; it seems I’m the only one who really liked it. The book was said to be much better. It’s tricky to read a book after having watched a film with such stunning visuals. For the first 200 pages I didn’t really see the descriptions of the book but the movie images. After that I got a better feel for the book because it contained some major plot elements which had been left out in the film.

The story might be familiar to you by now. Clary and her best friend Simon live in New York City. One night they go to the Pandemonium Club and Clary witnesses a murder. Funny enough Simon can’t see anything. Neither the murder, nor the people who commit it. When Clary’s mum is abducted a little while later, and Clary is attacked by a demon, it dawns on her that the life she has been living might have been a lie.

Together with her friend Simon, Jace, one of the guys who committed the murder, and his friends, she embarks on a big adventure. Clary like Jace is no real human. She is a shadow hunter. Shadow hunters kill demons, but they co-exist with downworlders like werewolves and vampires. I’m not going to write much more about the plot as it’s one of those that is easily spoilt.

I thought the movie did a good job at tightening the plot. Maybe if I had read the book first, I would have missed the scenes and episodes that were cut but I thought they were not that gripping. Clary’s interior monologue in the book is often silly, like when she wonders why there are only good-looking vampires. I’m going to spare you her reasoning. It’s NOT clever. Interestingly though, the greatest appeal of the book are the dialogue sections. Jace, Clary and Simon and not only witty but very sarcastic, which made me chuckle quite a few times.

Overall I would say, book and movie both have their strengths, but I prefered the movie because I absolutely loved the imagery and the interiors they created – the club, Clary’s house, the church in which the shadowhunters live.  I also liked that they made the plot so much tighter. And I thought the cast was perfect.

What I didn’t like so much in both lies in the nature of this specific type of story. There are numerous ways to tell (urban/dark) fantasy stories. I tend to prefer those in which magic/fantasy are part of the world the characters live in, and their existence are known by everyone, or when the main character is part of the paranormal world. Normal humans who are thrown into a paranormal situation or who discover at the beginning of a book that they aren’t entirely human are just not as appealing to me. I find that these stories stretch believability too much. At the beginning of City of Bones, for example, Clary is a normal teenager and after only one day, she’s immersed in a paranormal world she never knew existed, her mother’s abducted, she’s attacked by demons, werewolves and vampires, but she accepts this without questioning it too much. This premise can work sometimes. Neil Gaiman made it work in Neverwhere, but often it feels unrealistic.

Anyway, it’s an entertaining book and I might even read part two, if only for the dialogue. If there is another movie, I’ll certainly watch it.

This is my first contribution to Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. Don’t miss the review site, which can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong April 28 2014: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby's Room

With Pat Barker’s novel Toby’s Room, we’re leaving the American Civil War behind and move on to WWI. All the books following Toby’s Room are dedicated to WWI.

Pat Barker is one of my favourite writers and her Regeneration Trilogy one of my favourite books. I read all three volumes (RegenerationThe Eye in the DoorThe Ghost Road) back to back and was genuinely sad when I turned the last page. It wasn’t only a story about WWI, but about shell shock, the development of two young disciplines (anthropology and psychiatry) and some of the famous poets who fought in the trenches. My love for her trilogy prevented me from picking up any of her other books, but now, some six years after I’ve read her masterpiece, I’m in the mood, to find out how I will like another of her novel. The scope of Toby’s Room is much smaller, the topics not as varied, but I still hope I won’t be disappointed. As far as I can judge from the blurb, Toby’s Room is a harrowing tale, touching on themes like disfigurement and facial reconstruction.

The first paragraph

Elinor arrived home at four o’ clock on Friday and went straight to her room. She hung the red dress on the wardrobe door, glancing at it from time to time as she brushed her hair. that neckline seemed to be getting lower by the minute. In the end her nerve failed her. She hunted out her pink dress, the one she used to wear for dancing classes at school, put it on and stood in front of the cheval mirror. She turned her head from side to side, her hands smoothing down the creases that had gathered round the waist. Oh dear. No, no, she couldn’t do it, not this time, not ever again.She wriggled out of it and throw it to the back of the wardrobe. Out of the window would have been more satisfying, but her father and brother-in-law were sitting on the terrace. She pulled the red dress over her head, tugged the neckline up as far as it would go, and went reluctantly downstairs.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker (UK 2013), WWI, Novel, 272 pages

Pat Barker returns to the First World War in Toby’s Room, a dark, compelling novel of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship.

When Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor’s world: how exactly did Toby die – and why? Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby’s room. Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary’s Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby’s Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss. Toby’s Room is Pat Barker’s most powerful novel yet.

*******

The discussion starts on Monday, 28 April 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Geraldine Brooks: March (2005) Literature and War Readalong March 2014

March

It seems I have far less stamina than before, when it comes to finishing books I don’t like, even when they are my own readalong choices. While I did finish this novel, I must admit I read large portions of it diagonally, after having suffered through the first 15o pages. I’m not quite sure why I disliked March so much, I only know I did.

March tells the imagined story of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The father of the four girls has joined the Northern troops as a chaplain. The father is the narrator of the book – with the exception of a few chapters towards the end, which are told by his wife. Many of the chapters start with a letter to his wife, then they describe things that happen in the present and move back to the past, showing how March developed a sensibility for the cause or how he became an abolitionist.

As a young man, March toured the South as a peddler and that’s how he came into contact with Grace, a very cultivated and intelligent slave.  Together they wanted to teach a young girl to read and write, an undertaking that had fatal consequences. March falls in love with Grace and when he meets her again, later in the book, now a married man and father, it puts a lot of emotional pressure on him.

For the creation of the character March, Geraldine Brooks used the biography of Louisa May Alcott’s father Bronson Alcott. She introduces real characters like Emerson and Thoreau and the militant abolitionist John Brown. Introducing real characters, giving March the biography of a real person, could have made this book very authentic, but for me that’s what made it artificial and turned it into a pamphlet.

The many scenes leading to March’s awareness of the mistreatment of slaves and the stories that took place during the war, are harrowing and described in great detail, but they didn’t work for me either because of the voice. The biggest problem I had with this book was the voice. The tone was that of a goody-goody and often mawkish and preachy. At no time did I have the feeling of being transported to 19th Century America, but I never forgot that I read a book written by a 21st Century author with all the sensibilities of our time, with our thoughts, feelings and outrage about slavery. I’m sure that people who fought against slavery at the time, were outraged as well, still, it didn’t ring true. What diminished the message in this book was the combination of anti-slavery views and transcendentalist beliefs, which led to a peculiar mix that annoyed me.

Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer for this book, but, frankly, I don’t understand why. The style is heavy and preachy, the tone mawkish. The only passages that worked were the descriptions. Those were great.

 

Other reviews

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March is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. Discussion starts on Monday 28 April, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.