Saturday, 8 July 2017

Post 59: Read this One, a new talent that needs to be shared

This is Nathan Filer's first novel.  It is compellingly brilliant.  Easy to read, it is also very well-constructed.  The characters are all well-imagined and convincing, even the peripheral ones such as Steve, the community worker who winks and Claire-or-maybe-Anna, a character so peripheral that Matthew can't quite recall her name.

You will know that I have occasionally pondered why we read.  Perhaps, when faced with the lethargy of some of my A-Level students, I should ask why many people don't read....but that is for another blog.  For now, I have a crystal-clear answer to my first question.  We read, because, every so often, we discover an absolute gem. We read something that makes us laugh out loud or weep alongside the characters.  We find ourselves living the book even when we should be marking essays, even as we chat about what we're having for dinner (thanks must go to hubby for cooking this evening, recognising my need to get my response to this book in blog form as soon as I have closed the final pages!); in other words, we read a book that makes life seem like a distraction from the real event!

That is why reading is addictive.  When Child 1 says that she can't understand why I am prepared to invest so many hours of my life into so many books (I know, I have failed), it is because she hasn't found that experience of totally escaping from the real world for a while and being drawn into another.  It is because you need to be patient with the books that are good or good enough, (or let's face it, sometimes not our cup of tea at all...) because you know that sometimes one will come along which has the absolute capacity to change your life, to alter your outlook or challenge your preconceptions. Fiction builds imagination, but more than that, it builds our capacity for human empathy.  It can teach us about humanity in all manner of circumstances.  Through fiction I have come to know about  historical and political fact that I didn't even know I was interested in!   Human beings need to tell stories.  Stories make sense of a sometimes bewildering world.  And sometimes stories leave you feeling raw and exposed as you are drawn so completely into the experience and feelings of another.

So it was with NATHAN FILER's Shock of the Fall.  I have had this book on my shelf since 2016, but for some reason have not picked it up to read. It needs to be picked up by all of you.  It demands to be read.

Image result for shock of the fallThe premise of the novel is set out in the blurb, "I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother.  His name's Simon.  I think you're going to like him.  I really do.   But in a couple of pages he'll be dead.  And he was never the same after that."
This hook is undoubtedly emotional, and the novel remains utterly human throughout.  The story is told through the first person narration of Matthew Homes. He is an unreliable narrator with some of his account told in fragments that do not reach full completion until later in the plot.  Some of the story is told in retrospect and other parts are in the present.  We are not necessarily told which is which, but the writing makes it easy to navigate. The compulsion created by the hook is retained by the gradual unfolding of a story.  It is not a thriller, but there are questions that need to be answered and there is just the right amount of tension and suspense to keep you turning those pages.

As the blurb suggests, the key event that causes this story is the death of Matthew's brother Simon. Matthew was only 6 at the time, and so it is understandable that his memories of the death of his brother maybe blurred.  He writes from the point of view of a 19 year old, attempting to comprehend the effect of this tragedy on his family.

I love the title of this book. It has connotations of sin and guilt when considered against the biblical fall into sin; it also suggests aftershock following trauma and has implications of shock-waves that resound long after the initial disturbance has taken place.  All of these have a place in the interpretation of this novel.

However, the book is not bleak.  At times you will laugh.  At times you will be moved to tears.  But this book is hopeful.  It gives insight into grief, into love and into mental health.  It ends well, though in some ways it doesn't end at all.  Anyone who has ever lost someone, especially out of the natural order, will know that grief is always there; it just becomes a bit easier to hold with time.

Matthew's family are beautifully crafted.  We get to know his Mum, Dad and Nanny-Noo intimately, despite their relatively little page space. And I think this is the genius of Nathan Filer.  He gets people.  He knows what we need to know about them to make them real.  Mum's little yellow pills, Dad's special handshake and Nanny Noo's desire to feed everyone make them into familiar characters from our own lives.  An inconsequential event on a family holiday that leads to Dad calling Matthew "mon ami" forevermore will ring true with so many other family traditions that begin out of seemingly nothing.  And it is these seemingly nothing things that make up a happy, thriving family.

This book celebrates family whilst examining one that has been torn apart,  It celebrates life in the midst of death and it celebrates triumph over adversity without ever becoming trite.  The latter triumph is even one that is celebrated with caution, recognising that further adversity will inevitably follow and that life is never ever plain sailing.

This book won Costa Book of the Year in 2013,along with The National Book Award for Popular Fiction, The Betty Trask Prize and The Writer's Guild Award for Best First Novel.  It certainly gets my award for being the best book I have read this year.

So, keep reading...and if you haven't found your book of the year, start with this one.  Who knows, even Child 1 might be inspired......

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Post 58: A World of Dystopia

How many of you are watching or have seen the new dramatisation of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood?  I love this book, not least because it gifted me my favourite word, “palimpsest,” now taught to all my students as a matter of course.  It is a rich, beautiful word and is surprisingly useful!

Its dystopian genre is sinister in its credibility and perhaps rings even more true in the world in which
we now live than in the time it was written.  However it is the characterisation of Offred the protagonist that moved me the most.  She repeats a single phrase throughout the novel, “This is just a story I am telling,” or sometimes embellishing it, “I have to believe this is just a story I’m telling.”  I believe human beings have a deep, visceral need for narratives. We seek stories to both escape and make sense of reality.  In this case, Offred yearns to believe that what she is experiencing is not truth.  If it is just a story then it will end, and none of the terrible things will be true.

The other phrase that has become a mantra for my teaching, and I would even argue for life per se is “context is everything.”  In linguistics we have a word for this; pragmatics.  Pragmatics make up the part of meaning and interpretation that can only be derived from the context in which the language is used.  Thus, reading our world with understanding and emotional intelligence is entirely dependent on comprehension of context.

So for these reasons, the book has snaked its way into my consciousness.  It is a well-written, graphic and disturbing tale where empathy for Offred is demanded.  The first person narrative is commanding and her situation is revealed gradually.  Just one warning…when you get to the Historical Notes section at the back of the novel, keep reading.  This isn’t a bibliography or research acknowledgements, it is a fundamental part of the novel.  Stick with it.

My lengthy discussion of everything Handmaid’s Tale was prompted in part by my watching the TV dramatisation, but also owes a debt to the fact that I have recently completed The Power by Naomi Alderman.  Indeed, the two books could be read in tandem, though that might be an overdose of dystopia!

The Power has recently won the Baileys Women's Prize for fiction 2017. Alderman cites Atwood as both an inspiration and a practical support to her whilst writing the novel, and it is clear why the seasoned Canadian author would be the mentor of choice for this book.

It is written in contemporary times with more than a nod to worldwide politics.  Its focus, like Handmaid’s Tale, is on women.  Early in the novel it is clear that women are discovering an ability to unlock power, literally, through their fingertips.  A physical electricity, this power can be used to tease and tantalise others or it can be used for a defensive or destructive force.  The imagery makes comparison with historical patriarchal dominance impossible to miss.  The women soon realise that they can overpower men, and in some disturbing scenes, they force their power on unwilling or unwitting subjects.  Its parallel to rape is unmistakable.

And yet the novel isn’t entirely dark. Women use their new discovery to escape abusive situations and to gain control over their lives.  As more women worldwide, (and the scope of this novel is astonishing as political fears fuel strategic responses from the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa) learn to utilise their power, they unite.  Such unity brings fear, and an influential faction of men seeks to regain their dominance through force and aggression.  To resist the electric currents used by the women in battle, they wear protective suits and wield weapons.

But this is not a trite feminist novel where women seize power and the men are reduced.  Granted, it seems that Naomi Alderman wanted to show how centuries of subjugation and abuse have diminished women, and it is evident that she relishes her story-telling of emancipation. There is, at the heart of the novel, a recognition that power corrupts. 

The narrative method is stories told through the experiences of several women and one man.  Each chapter is dedicated to one of the key characters, and their stories, contexts and motivations are gradually revealed as the novel progresses.  The two central female characters, Allie (also known as the Mother Eve) and Roxy come to polarise the struggle to use power wisely.  Cited as an historical novel, the book has pace from the start. The opening section is entitled, Ten Years to Go and so expectation that a crisis will shape the novel is created from the outset. 

Allie’s background is one of ritual sexual abuse.  As a child she suffered much and discovery of her power enabled first escape and then realisation that she could influence others.  A born leader, she recognises how to manipulate power to gather a following.  After an initial escape to a house of nuns, she harnesses the power to create miracles that create a following.  She is revered by women everywhere as her power is seen to be a catalyst for change.  Hence, the name-change to Mother Eve as she leads girls to unite and fight for lasting shifts in gender politics.

Roxy is vastly different.  A child of a notorious gang member, she knows the underworld and has tasted death.  Indeed, in her opening chapter she witnesses the arranged killing of her own mother. She finds her way to Mother Eve’s base and the two become friends.  Allie sees immediately that Roxy has exceptional power.  She can control her electrical impulses with mastery (forgive the masculine description!) and Mother Eve recognises that if they worked together then they could achieve lasting change.

Such change will not go uncontested. The novel explores the morality of power, the responsibility of the individual, the globalisation and polarisation of gender politics and through it all, the base human need for relationship above all else.

The novel was not a comfortable read.  It is, as its prize-winning status suggests, well-written.  It is much more global than the popular teen dystopias like Hunger Games  and Divergent, but it is not as credible as The Handmaid’s Tale.  Atwood’s supremacy is created in the credibility of her plot.  Based around falling fertility rates, all the action in the latter novel is chillingly plausible.  The Power, though telling truths about control and subjugation through its storyline, remains reliant on a gimmick that never fully creates total suspension of disbelief. 

I would definitely recommend Atwood as the more intelligent read, Alderman the more quirky.  And if you are watching Handmaid on TV, I strongly advocate reading the book too.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Post 57: Castles and Lighthouses

It's been a month since I was here last.  I have been reading, but the blogging seems to have suffered under the dual delights of revision classes for my year 13 A Level class and a series of busy weekends.  I have packed off child 1 for a month-long tour of Europe; she is fulfilling a long-held dream in the vacuum between finishing uni and becoming a real adult!  Meanwhile child 2 is home for the summer.  I have challenged him to read a book a week and he is encouraging me to keep up my blog!

My reading has been eclectic over the last few weeks.  I have completed Castle Dor by Daphne du Maurier, The Light Between Oceans by MLStedman, Surprised by Grief by Janine Fair and today I have finished Naomi Alderman's The Power.  

 I can dust off Castle D'Or and Surprised by Grief  quite quickly.  The former I dug out in a charity shop in Stratford-Upon-Avon and it interested me as it was a title begun by the literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, "the legendary 'Q,'" (whom I have to admit, that I had never heard of ) but left
unfinished at his death.  His daughter then asked du Maurier if she would consider completing the project.  Knowing du Maurier to be an excellent teller of tales, this one, with Tristan and Iseult at its heart, appealed.  I also wanted to see if I could tell where Quiller-Couch had stopped and du Maurier had picked up. There is tacit acknowledgement of this point of deviation from one author to another,when "It is a curious coincidence that no poet, or shall we call him investigator, has ever lived to conclude this particular story.  His work has always been finished by another." It is also moot that that was the point when the reading became more enjoyable. Despite this, the novel never quite matches up to other works by du Maurier; it is evident that she is hemmed in by what had been drafted already and neither the story nor the characterisation is compelling. Unless you are interested in the dual authorship, then you can give this a miss with clear conscience.

Surprised by Grief  is an autobiography of a vicar's wife who found herself suddenly widowed with two young children.  The book is an account of her sadness and desolation, but also her hope. The book covers the first three years following Richard's death.  I was most struck by how the emotions she expresses can be seen in others following trauma, family breakdown or other significant loss.  It speaks of accepting help and love at the beginning, but then feeling trapped by the perceived need to be seen to be coping. This need led her to turn away from offers of love and help and she, in turn felt isolated and rejected.  Such complex contradictions were part of the insight gained in this book.  It is told from a Christian perspective and she also draws on her dependence on God and the process of becoming stronger in her identity in Christ and in her identity as an individual as opposed to someone's wife.  This was an honest and insightful read, though the writing is not as finely tuned as a professional writer's might have been.

Hubby has just come over to the decking where I am typing this and he has reminded me that he is not a fan of my multiple book blog entries! Do leave feedback for me on this; if lots of you share his opinion, then I will stick to single title reviews where possible.

In the meantime, I will plough on with The Light Between Oceans,with a shout-out to cousin Lin who recommended this one for me. (And yes, the Elizabeth is Missing title on your shelves is indeed mine; I checked!) I was wary of this recommendation as my much-loved cousin purports A Prayer for Owen Meany to be her favourite book! Still, she challenged me to read this one without weeping, and I accepted.

The book is a compelling story, one I completed in two days.  The premise is that of a young veteran
who seeks a new life after the horrors of WW2. He finds balm in a solitary post as lighthouse-keeper off the remote and tiny community of Partageuse.  The writing is immediately evocative as Stedman describes the island of Janus, the ocean and the lights so sensuously.  Indeed, the lighthouse is almost a character in its own right.  Happy in his solitude, Tom is almost taken by surprise when,during shore leave, a younger woman makes known her affection for him.

What follows is a tender love story.  Tom is finely drawn and readers respond well to both his gentleness and his reason.  He embodies strength, both physical and emotional, and is a pillar of love for his new wife as he engages her with the rhythm of island life.

The book revolves around Izzy’s need for a baby.  Suffering two miscarriages, she becomes increasingly sad and thus when a boat is washed up with a dead man and a small baby on board, she puts Tom into a complex dilemma. His love for her overrides his sense of right and wrong and he allows himself to be persuaded to falsify the lighthouse records and keep the baby on the island. 

This becomes the central plot.  Even as he writes a false account of the day in his log book, you realise that such a deception cannot have longevity.  Tension is created between the couple at the same time as they unite in love around little Lucy.

The story develops around this point of tension. Izzy is so blinded by her love of the child and the intense need to mother that she becomes twisted in her logic and defiant in the face of moral reasoning.  But events find them out and the child is at the centre of a desperately sad situation as the community of Partageuse seeks to mete out justice.

The Light Between The Oceans is an easy read and well-crafted.  The plot is compelling, even if it isn’t always convincing.  I found it hard to marry Tom’s strength of character with his decision to keep the baby on the island. His love for Izzy is tangible and it is this that persuades him to listen to her arguments for nurturing the baby on the island.  I remained unconvinced, even though Stedman conveys his disquiet empathetically  throughout the playing out of the deception.

The book does however capture what it is like to love someone deeply. Despite my lack of suspension of disbelief in places, Tom is a finely drawn character who has lodged himself in my heart as one of my favourites.

And despite my best efforts to write about four titles, I am going to stop here.  Naomi Alderman, as winner of the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction with the book, The Power, deserves a full blog entry.

Keep an eye out for it; I’ll post it soon…before I get too engrossed in my next read! And in case you're wondering, I didn't cry at any point during my reading of The Light Between The Oceans!

Friday, 19 May 2017

Post 56: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

As promised in my last missive, I have been afforded more reading time this week.  Hubby did appear for an unexpected 24-hour pass after the cancellation of a meeting, but despite this interruption to my reading schedule (!) I have finished both The Miniaturist and The Jewel Garden. He's home tomorrow afternoon, so I may even be able to squeeze in another title before his key turns in the door!

Before I dive into The Miniaturist, I must say, that even as an English teacher, the spelling of Miniature is ridiculous!  If English spelling gives you amusement and/or despair, I must recommend the poem  I Take it You Already Know.

And so to the novel. The Miniaturist received a great deal of acclaim when it was published in 2014. It is one of those books that I have had on my shelves for a long time but never got around to picking up.  It was even downloaded on my Kindle, but something held me back. It was probably because I had heard a review on the radio that emphasised a mystical element to it, and I'm not really a fan of magical realism or portents...

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. (Have you ever noticed that low expectations sometimes garner the most satisfying experiences?  Shhh, don't tell school...that is not a growth mindset!)

Set in Amsterdam in the 17th century, the book gave a historically accurate glimpse of life as a merchant in a busy port.  Trade was largely controlled by Guilds and the Burgomasters and thus corruption was rife.  At a time when few black people were in Northern Europe, Johannes Brandt's domestic servant, Otto was looked upon with fear and derision in equal measure.  Hasty to point out that he was employed and not a slave, Otto forms an integral part of family life.  Loved by the house maid, Cornelia, she, along with Johannes and his sister Marin, is fiercely protective of him.

Into this tight household comes Petronella.  Married off to Johannes by her Mother as a good, wealthy match, 18 year old Nella finds herself as far removed from her rural upbringing as she could have imagined.  She is considered as a blessing and a miracle by Johannes and Marin, and yet, at the same time, she is both ignored and humiliated by them both.  She befriends Cornelia but even in this relationship there are secrets.  Nella feels alone and marginalised, despite her best efforts to be a wife.
Johannes sees this and seeks to make amends by buying her an extraordinary dolls house; a replica of their own home.

Given with good intent, Nella is insulted to have been presented with what she perceives to be little more than a toy.  She also has a blank cheque with which to furnish the house.  Marin insists that she does so and it is here that the story takes the turn towards the portentous.

The miniature furniture and dolls are exact replicas of those in the house.  The craftmanship is beyond compare, and Nella finds herself drawn to the figures.  Other commissions arrive at the house unannounced.  Their arrival is unpredictable, but it soon becomes apparent that the miniaturist seems to know everything about their lives, even things Nella did not know about herself.  Thus the packages become emblematic of the future and the novel creates intrigue by building on whether the talismans govern events or whether they are effigies that result from hands that can see into a future already mapped.

Nella becomes obsessed by the miniaturist, a woman she has never met, and this plot strand continues to the end.  But this is not the whole story.  The lives of Nella, Marin, Johannes and their household reveal much about trade and morality in Amsterdam at the time.  The church and the judiciary all play a part in making the novel exciting.

And it is exciting.  It is a gripping read.  Made up of short chapters, Jessie Burton ends each one with the desire to know more.  This structure makes for compulsive reading and it is a book that is easily consumed. For those of you who enjoy a detailed historical novel, this is not one of those.  It is a light read, a popular read. It is definitely a recommendation from me and I am certainly interested in reading her second title, The Muse.

And before I go, I must just give you a life update.  Child 1 has just heard that she has got her job of choice which will begin after university.  Very proud of her.  Indeed.  But... this also means that she will not be moving back into her own room and that the bank of Mum and Dad can look forward to closing pretty soon!

 Mmmm....perhaps I should start rearranging the furniture to give me more space for my library!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Post 55:Celebrations and Vigilantes

Dear Readers, I thank you!  In borrowing a little from Charlotte Bronte, I wanted to express my amazement and gratitude that my blog has now had over 10,000 hits. This counts as fame in my book, and yet I can still walk the streets without being beleaguered for an autograph! I have been reliably informed that my musings have influenced reading lists and present purchases.  This is incredible, and I get really very excited when I discover a new reader. The little map on my statistics page also suggests that I have readers in every continent except Antartica: if that is to be believed then the penguins are seriously missing out!

Now the nature of this business means that I don't know who most of you are, but I do know that I love being part of this bookish community.  As always, may I encourage you to comment and suggest other titles for me to read...though I confess my to-read shelf is committing the cardinal sin of having books led sideways to accommodate all my recent purchases....

However, I do find myself home alone for a whole week.  Hubby is hobnobbing in various hotels and family stop-off points before heading into a long weekend jolly with friends from Church, Child 1 is revising for finals in Sheffield and Child 2 is enjoying a term without exams in Oxford, (he's done them already...don't worry, the bastion of learning has not given up on examining their students!) The upshot of all this abandonment is bound to be an increase in reading time.  My aim is to complete The Miniaturist which I am currently enjoying and then I might treat myself to the new Maggie O'Farrell. I've had it for a couple of weeks and it is still in its postal packaging.  Delayed gratification!

To kick-start my week, I'm going to fill you in on my latest completed read, which was Shelley Harris's Vigilante. Some of you may remember that Shelley was the tutor at a creative writing day I went on at Faber and Faber last year.  More surprising was that she knew me!  In her teaching days, we had crossed paths twice, and I was the (only ever-so-slightly) older, wiser one!! Her debut novel Jubilee is reviewed here. Vigilante is totally different.  The audience is the same; I would hazard at predominantly female and generally favouring a light read.  I hesitate to say chick-lit because that seems to me to be a derisive term...and I tend to agree with Marion Kaye that no equivalent term would ever be tagged onto popular fiction written by a man.....

But this is a book that is easy to read.  I purposely chose it after the dense and evocative Gardens of the Evening Mist  as I wanted a quicker, light-touch book.  This certainly achieved that aim.  The protagonist, Jenny Pepper is a middle-aged wife, mother and charity bookshop manager.  The book opens with the provocative statement, "Before I was a superhero...I'd have been tidying up." And there you have the plot in a nutshell.  She is an ordinary woman, feeling her age, feeling hemmed-in by her life, and significantly, being defined by what she is to everyone else.

In many ways it is a familiar story of middle age.  The kids are growing up, the career has dwindled as family life has superceded ambition and we wonder how we got here, and more importantly, how are we going to get out! This is not about me by the way! Nor is it about Shelley Harris she assures us in the author interview at the back of the book, but she does say that she relates to the feeling of dreams squandered and having to find the resources to cope when life stares back at you with no interest in who you are anymore.  I read an article in the Times Sunday Supplement whilst clearing out the newspapers collected by an elderly friend of mine, and there was a humorous column on the joys of middle this she declared that past a certain point, you realise that you become invisible, indistinguishable, unremarkable.

But middle age is not that depressing! Shelley Harris acknowledges this in her plot.  Jenny Pepper, whilst walking to a fancy dress evening dressed as a superhero, complete with high heels, cape and a mask, serendipitously comes across an actual crime taking place.  Staying in character, she swoops on the scene and protects the victim.  Comedic, yes. Plausible? Almost.  It is certainly within the realms of suspension of disbelief.  But she becomes entranced by the possibilities afforded to her by the anonymity of the costume.  It releases her from being just Jenny and empowers her to be somebody different, somebody who effects things around her.

And so the story unfolds.  From a street mugging, the small town of Bassetbury becomes a hotspot
for increasingly sinister crime.  Undeterred by potential danger, Jenny goes out at night in full costume, patrolling the streets and becoming embroiled in an unbelievable number of skirmishes. This was the point where I did begin to lose faith in my ability to hold onto the storyline and stay with the character.  I couldn't find a place to suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that she would have continued to go out, knowingly putting herself in danger and believing herself to be more useful than the police.

But I was impressed with the shift to a pseudo detective genre as the novel progressed.  I wanted to find out if my hunch on whodunnit was right, and whether I had correctly identified the red herring. It was satisfying to come to the end and feel smug about my own detective skills, but at this point I must reassure you that not once did I leave the house dressed as wonderwoman!

I loved being taught by Shelley.  She is fun and talented and her classes are both inspiring and down-to-earth. This is a good light read, but it is not my favourite genre.  It is quirky, and I laughed out loud at the Conversation with Shelley Harris section when she quotes, "Certainly, when I walked down the streets of High Wycombe dressed as a superhero, I found that I was horribly nervous right up to the point that I put on the mask. Once I was wearing it, I felt in control..."

Anyone who is prepared to research their central character with such passion deserves a wide readership!  So...going on a plane, sitting on a beach, or just feeling a bit uninspired by daily life, then escape to a life of vigilante crime-solving with Jenny Pepper.  She is no Emmilene Pankhurst, but she does her bit for standing up for the girls!

Friday, 5 May 2017

Post 54: Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Since my last post, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time walking!  I'm fervently hoping that my faithful boots, bought some seven years ago, will be able to withstand the beating and propel me over the finish line of our marathon in July. Some walks have been more adventurous than others, with this one, in and around Hambleden, finding us in the tiniest of public right of way gaps imaginable!  The Hambleden walk also saw us get lost  twice and extend what was meant to be a 10 mile walk to almost 16! The second woodland wandering off-track found us slap-bang in the middle of a Tough Mudder circuit.  Hubby was not amused as we found ourselves skirting obstacles only to re-emerge in yet another cordoned-off area.  Thank heaven for GPS which finally decided to work long enough for us to find an alternative way out of the woods and to the sanctity of tea and flapjack!

Now time for a reading confession.  I read much of Gardens of the Evening Mist by Tan Twan Eng on my Kindle, but I also listened to it on the associated audio file.  I put it out to my readers as to whether or not this is allowed to count in my reading tally for 2017.  I was roundly accused of cheating by my colleague when I admitted that I had listened to the latter half of the novel whilst out on a solitary walk along the Thames Path. So, does this count?  Please give your views!

I love a good audio book.  Many an hour was whiled away on long car journeys with the children as we listened first to a cassette with story recordings by many family members, progressing through to Dick King-Smith, Enid Blyton and J K Rowling.  Hubby does a lot of commuting and therefore much of his reading is actually listening.  But the advent of Kindle and audio synching has opened a whole new world.  I am still delighted when the audio knows how far I have read and the Kindle knows how far I have far as I'm concerned, this is magic!

For this book, the audio really helped.  It is a slow read, lyrical and quite soothing, but I found that, against all exercise of my will-power, it often put me to sleep.  The audio therefore, was an immersive experience.  It enabled me to focus all my attention on the story and gain a lot more reading hours in one go.

The book is beautiful.  It is a story told through the creation of a Japanese garden in Malaysia.  The designer is dead at the outset of the novel and so the story is woven in retrospect, building the lives of Aritomo and Yun Ling through their past experiences.  Aritomo had been gardener to the Emperor but had retreated to Malaysia. Yun Ling and her sister had been victims of the Japanese following their invasion of Malaya in 1941.  This little-known war preceded the attack on Pearl Harbour by just a few hours, and I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing of its history at all.

This is one of the beauties of the novel form.  It opens fictional worlds, but gives us a wider perspective on real history.  Aritomo is a construct, as is Yun Ling and her sister Yun Hong, but the facts of the invasion, the concentration camps and Operation Golden Lily are all historically accurate, giving us a window on the world we have inherited.

The story is deeply complex and opens with Yun Ling (known as Judge Teoh) retiring from the bench to warm accolades from her colleagues.  Her legal career began after she escaped the concentration camp, prompted to take a role in the war crimes trials to find out where she had been held prisoner and where her sister had met her death.  The whole story is a homage to her sister.  Yun Ling goes to the Cameron Highlands to meet Aritomo and ask him to design a Japanese Garden as a memorial to her.  The relationships are complex.  Her sister had never lost her love of the Japanese style of garden beauty; paths that lead to a particular view, hidden from sight until one reaches the optimum point, a balance of nature and control and punctuated by buried stones that speak simplicity and grace. Years of cruel imprisonment and routine rape had not robbed her of her sense of beauty. Quite simply, the dream of a garden kept her alive.

And so her sister, Yun Ling, spends most of her life dedicated to providing her with a legacy.  But it involves close contact with the enemy.  Aritomo is a beautifully conceived character. Tan Twan Eng introduces him as an archer, focused and controlled, "He drew back the bowstring...until he reached a point where he seemed to be floating just above the floorboards...Time had stopped: there was no beginning, there was no end." And this eternal force resounds throughout the story.  Aritomo never apologises for his country's treatment of Malaya and the prisoners who were taken.  He quietly wins Yun Ling's trust as he proves an exacting mentor in the art of Japanese garden design. He seems wise, intense and ephemeral. And it is the latter quality that provides the mystery at the centre of the novel. Is he who he appears to be?  He leaves so much more unsaid than stated and his death is as unconventional and controlled as his life.

The story is majestic in its setting of the Majuba tea estate in the Cameron Highlands.  The tea

plantation is owned by a South African. Magnus Pretorius who had know his own suffering in camps in Boer at the hands of the English, The setting itself is not peaceful. though it is almost disturbingly beautiful. Following WW2 it suffered repeated guerilla attacks that maimed, murdered and threatened inhabitants.  This is the backdrop for Yun Ling's apprenticeship with Aritomo. So it is against an atmosphere charged with political unrest, and a past scarred by terror and loss that the relationship between Aritomo and Yun Ling is built, Her return to Yugiri some decades afterwards gives us the vehicle for the complex story to unfold.

It is a story in which to immerse yourself.  Its complexity is beautifully told, but its pace is slow and deliberate, the author holding a mirror to the Japanese art of garden design. This was a satisfying book that opened a new page of history for me, and created characters that have not yet left my consciousness.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Post 53: Persuasion...a rumination on Jane Austen and the modern woman!

The unseasonable sunshine of the past weekend has seen me in my sunglasses on the decking with a
china teapot, Teapigs tea and a Jane Austen novel.  Bliss.  There is nothing quite like a pot of tea properly brewed and whilst, like most of you, I dunk a bag and run most of the time, a patient brew is the best.  Jane Austen novels have the same feel to them. These are not to be rushed, but to be savoured and enjoyed time and time again.

I was prompted back to Jane after seeing a competition to rewrite the ending of one of her novels in 500 words. This is easier said than done. The word limit means that you can't significantly alter the story, but more than that, Jane Austen, unlike many modern authors, actually completes her novels. All ends are tied and all the characters are rewarded or chastened as befits their conduct.

So it was that I revisited Persuasion. This was my first experience of Austen, taught for A-Level circa 1987! I had brilliant A-Level teachers.  They lifted my love of reading to an appreciation of literature.  I literally swapped Shirley Conran and Mills and Boon for E.M.Forster and Jane Austen. For that, I have a lifelong debt of gratitude to Messrs Williams and Naylor of Cirencester Sixth Form. It saddens me that the restrictions on curriculum and the unmitigated pressure to achieve exam success has lessened the opportunity for teachers to pass on the love of a subject.  My first term at A-Level consisted of Messrs Naylor and Williams teaching their favourite texts by way of an introduction to the course.  Such diversions are likely to deemed unjustifiable today and the students themselves would see little point if it wasn't on the syllabus.

I still love an Austen novel.  The array of characters, the liberal hope of independent thought amongst small-minded convention and the sheer pleasure of slowing down to the pace of nineteenth century gentility is a pastime all should indulge in every once in a while. It makes me want to address hubby as Mr Martin and spend my days walking and leaving the odd visiting card here and there!  Despite Jane Austen's own independent spirit, earning her own living and remaining single, her heroines are singularly in pursuit of happiness and some material security.  These desirabilities are inevitably to be found in the attentions of a good man.

Where the method may have changed in modern life, I think we still pursue contentment and security. But we are, thankfully, not so hemmed in by the very nature of our sex.  We no longer "live at home, quiet,confined.." whilst the men "are forced on exertion [with] always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or another."

What would Anne Elliot have done with the freedom of 21st century life?  I think she would have left her hapless father and superficial sister (who would have been an instagram sensation with lots of followers but no friends) and gone to university.  She would have gone despite the lack of funds from said father, and she would have paid her own way by playing barista in her spare hours.  I like to think though, that she would still have found her Captain Wentworth.  But she wouldn't have been open to the cautionary prohibition exacted on her by Lady Russell. She would have met him at 19, finished her studies and worked for a year or two.  She would have defied her family's disapproval and together they would have forged their way in the world, not even being too bothered that they were proving the others wrong.  But, because she is tenderhearted and kind, she would be a nurse or a doctor, a social worker or a family lawyer. She would care for others, love her man and retain a sense of self-respect and self-esteem that wasn't dependent on his approbation.

No more do we sigh at home and hope for opportunity.  No more do we faint away at the sight of an accident on the Cobb or lie-in for weeks on end because of a minor concussion. But at the heart of an Austen novel is always the potential for modernity.  Mrs Croft is the example in Persuasion; liberated enough to defy convention, remain childless and travel the world with her husband.  But she too, was defined by his role. The idea of total independence was perhaps a tad too radical for Jane.

As for an alternative ending, I'm not sure.  Jane Austen herself wrote two versions of the denouement which are readily available, (and a great example of good editing and redrafting for the modern writer), but the romantic in me can't conceive of Anne Elliott  forever without Fredrick Wentworth.

I may be a modern woman, but I am still a sucker for a conventional happy ending!