A year of reading women

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Archive for April 2011

Lucy Caldwell: The Meeting Point

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A mosque in Manama City, Bahrain

I interviewed Lucy Caldwell when she was 23 and I was 24. She’d just scooped the George Devine Most Promising Playwright Award for Leaves and seen her first novel, Where they were missed, come out to a warm reception, particularly in Northern Ireland — it was later longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. I was hugely jealous .

At the time of the interview, she was about 20,000 words into the first draft of a novel that was going to be set in Bahrain and was so warmly and openly enthusiastic about the whole thing that, for all my envy, it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of this new project and to want her to do well. She told me about a research trip she’d done to the tiny and (at that stage) little-thought-of Middle Eastern state said by some to be the site of Eden: ‘I needed to know about the quality of the light, how the air smelled,’ she said, beaming.

So when I heard at the beginning of the year that a novel by Lucy Caldwell set in – yes, you guessed it – Bahrain was tumbling on to the bookshelves, I knew I had to add it to my list. Nearly six years on from our coffee and chat on the South Bank, I was curious to see how the Eden Project had turned out.

It wasn’t an auspicious start. Coming to the book with Stella Gibbons’ demolition job on all things pastoral fresh in my mind, I found the polite lyricism of the opening depiction of rural Ireland tough to get along with. I was also put off my stroke by a review I’d seen in Tatler, of all places, which had called the book a powerful ‘evocation of ex-pat life’. Having read the novel cover to cover, I am delighted to report that that is absolutely not true – there is not a single G&T, cocktail hour or tennis party in sight (thank God). In fact, the main character, Ruth, remarks as much towards the end. Still, the fear that there might be left me in a state of nervous dread for at least the first 50 pages.

Luckily neither of these things was enough to drown out the quiet power of the story, which deftly leads the reader through the psychological unmaking and remaking of a girl and a woman caught between the clash of west and east, the world and the spirit. Raised as a Christian and married young to an evangelical preacher, Ruth finds her ordered life shaken up when her husband is posted to Bahrain, where, she eventually discovers, his mission to spread the gospel goes far beyond legal limits. At the same time, she encounters Noor, a troubled, half-Arab teenager who has her own reasons for not wanting to attract attention. Thrown together with Noor and her distracting cousin Farid, Ruth finds the boundaries of her world, creed and faith stretched to breaking point and beyond.

It’s a book that wears its six years of research and thought lightly. Shot through with the history of the region and its symbolism and mythology, not to mention the religious texts and teachings of both Islam and Christianity, it is deft and moving where the same material in another’s hands might be earnest and awkward.

From the acknowledgements, I see that Caldwell even spent time studying Christian theology on an Alpha Course at Christ Church Spitalfields, yet such meticulous attention to detail merely illuminates the story rather than bogging it down. There is no grandstanding here, no overweening desire to demonstrate intellect or knowledge. Caldwell doesn’t need us to know how clever she is. She merely wants to tell the story as best she can, delighting in the surprising connections and sudden vertiginous glimpses of significance that the things she has found out can add.

For some, the final stages of the story, in which Ruth oscillates between two courses of action, changing her mind repeatedly, will be a little frustrating. It reminded me of the strangely circular quality of the Mantel and a little of Joan Lingard’s After you’ve gone, which shares a similar ending, although that book is simply not in The Meeting Point‘s league.

Here, the circularity works because of the care Caldwell takes of the characters’ psychological development and the subtlety of each shift in their thinking – shifts to which every description contributes. We may seem to cross the same ground again and again, but it is always slightly different. By the end, I could even see why the opening portrayal of Ireland had to be as it did: conjuring a charming, yet ever so slightly staid vision of the world that matches Ruth’s own mindset. We look at the world, with Caldwell, through her creations’ eyes. And it’s this empathy and imagination, this great carefulness of characters’ thought processes and motivations, that make the book so engrossing.

The ending even made me miss my stop on the bus. After I’d clicked beyond the last page, I walked back along the route exhilarated, moved, and, yes, still jealous.

Picture by Gorski

Written by Ann Morgan

April 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm

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A bull much like the one Flora lets out on Cold Comfort Farm

The foreword looms large in Stella Gibbons’ classic, Cold Comfort Farm. Addressed to the forbidding imaginary figure of Mr Anthony Pookworthy esq ABS, LLR, it sets the tone for the hatchet job that Gibbons is about to do on the pastoral literary tradition. From the off, it’s clear that the over-egging of the rural pudding, found in the works of minor writers such as Mary Webb but also giants such as DH Lawrence and – sorry Tom – Thomas Hardy, is not going to get away lightly.

‘As you know, I have spent some ten years of my creative life in the meaningless and vulgar bustle of newspaper offices,’ she tells My Pookworthy. ‘The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style. You, who are adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase, will realise the magnitude of the task which confronted me when I found, after ten years as a journalist, learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences, that I must learn, if I was to achieve literature and favourable reviews, to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible.’

She then goes on to apologise for presenting him with a book that is ‘meant to be… funny’ and to explain that she has nevertheless tried to write some literary passages on Nature (with a capital ‘nuh’). To mark these out, she has created a star system for the sake of ‘all those thousands of persons not unlike myself, who work in the vulgar and meaningless bustle of offices, shops and homes, and who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle’.

As a jobbing journalist-cum-would-be-novelist, I found this an absolute joy to read. Not least because it gave me that slap round the face that the best books manage from time to time when they remind you that people decades and decades ago had the same wit, insight and concerns as we do, and that we are by no means as original, sophisticated or radical as we might like to think.

It also surprised me. Having no prior knowledge of Cold Comfort Farm beyond a BBC adaptation I saw as a child and the enthusiasm of a former flatmate who once claimed that Flora Poste was the literary character he was most like on a job application form, I was not expecting a lot (no offence to the former flatmate, who is in fact wildly successful at everything he does).

The book would be a sort of cosy, Sunday-night-television experience, I thought. The Lovejoy of the literary world – a bit of a breather after the rigours of Murdoch and the intricacies of Mantel. I wasn’t expecting feistiness, sharp perceptions and shooting from the hip.

But the genius of the novel (and that’s not a word I throw about lightly) is that, for all its sending up of bad writing and satirical attacks on the literati, it maintains a sunniness and downright funniness that makes it a pleasure to read. The story of Flora Poste gradually turning around the fortunes and outlook of her curmudgeonly cousins and discovering her own path in the process is so delightful and so engaging that you can’t help getting swept up in it.

But perhaps the supreme triumph of the work, the only one of Gibbons’ 24 novels still in print, is that it creates its own language and system for representing the natural world. While most satires do marvellously well at ripping down the things they attack without proposing an alternative, Gibbons’ text lovingly establishes its own pastoral aesthetic in place of the hackneyed exposition it replaces. The scene at the end where Charles comes at last to sweep Flora away from the farm she has transformed is spine-tinglingly lovely. It left me stunned, enchanted, jealous, and sure that I’ll be reading the book many times again.

Picture by Oli R

Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince

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Alas poor Yorick...

Only now, writing this up, do I realise the strange coincidence of going from a book about the court of Henry VIII to a book entitled The Black Prince. A quick go with Google (yes, the Black Prince is yet another of those cryptic historical names liable to send me into a clueless spin) tells me that the Black Prince was an Edward, eldest son of Edward III, that he lived between 1330 and 1376, and that he distinguished himself in the Battle of Crecy at the age of just 16. Bully for him. 

Not so bully for him was the fact that he caught some nasty bug in Spain and died before he had a chance to have a go on the throne. Apparently the nickname Black Prince only came in after he died and is a reference to the fact that he wore black armour (at least according to the good folk behind the BBC History website).

All of which, it turns out when you read the book, is totally irrelevant. Because the Black Prince of the title is a reference to Hamlet and nothing to do with good old Edward the wotsit at all.

Doubtless, if I were the sort of person who reads introductions, I would have had this in hand from the start. But for me introductions are things to be avoided at all costs, at the very least until you’ve actually read the book itself. They’re like the chatty PR you have to deal with before you get to interview someone – full of opinions and bias, slanting your judgement so that, unless you’re very careful, you miss the million-dollar point at the heart of it all.

In this case, however, my aversion to introductions did more than put me on the back foot with the Black Prince. It actually made me struggle to find the start of the book altogether. Clicking into the text on my Kindle, I flicked past the dreaded introduction only to find myself presented with an Editor’s Foreword.  This in turn gave on to Bradley Pearson’s Foreword. ‘Who he?’ I thought and flicked boldly on. Here was the title page – The Black Prince: A Celebration of Love. Somewhat un-Murdoch-like, perhaps but hey-ho, the old girl did write some 25 novels. I wasn’t going to begrudge her the odd flight of sentimentalism.

It was the first line that brought me up short:

It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, ‘Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife’.

OK, yes. Full marks for dramatic effectiveness. But wasn’t it rather over-egging the pudding to state the technique in this way? In contrast to the deft, swan-like mechanisms of the other Murdoch novels I’ve read and loved (The Sea, The Sea – brilliant; The Bell – really, you must) this seemed awkward and clunky. There was a hollow ring to it.

Puzzled, I flicked back to the previous pages, fighting the novice Kindle-reader’s fear that one false click could lose me the entire book. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and a reluctant skim through odd passages of the forewords, the truth became clear: the novel starts with the first foreword. The plunge into fantasy begins there.

This blurring of the lines between the real and the imagined is a staple theme for Murdoch and one of my favourite things about her. All of her characters are, to some extent, prisoners of their perceptions. But in The Black Prince, this is taken to extremes as we read the words of Murdoch’s creation, struggling writer Bradley Pearson, recounting his version of an extraordinary series of events that have overturned his dull existence.

Fencing from behind the shield of Pearson’s persona, Murdoch keeps us guessing. We cannot be sure how much of what Bradley Pearson narrates happened as he describes, if at all. The very idea of objective truth itself is taken apart by the postscripts from various characters, which point towards markedly different readings of events.

Equally, as Bradley holds forth on writing, we cannot be sure how much of it comes from him and how much is a release of the secret fears and obsessions of his creator.

For some, this sense of being perpetually at sea and the long rambling pensees on life, love and art will be too much. No-one is likeable, admirable or noble in Murdoch’s world because all are at pains to broadcast their versions of events regardless of the cost to others. People shift ground shamelessly, forming and breaking allegiances and accounts of reality as best suits their ends. 

Personally, as a struggling writer myself with all the neuroses and delusions of grandeur that that implies, I loved it.  

Picture by zizzybaloobah

Written by Ann Morgan

April 17, 2011 at 1:13 pm