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365 days of women's lit

Archive for May 2011

Barbara Vine: A Dark-Adapted Eye

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There was a working gallows at Wandsworth Prison until 1992. It was tested every six months

Every so often as a rookie novelist, you come across a book that reads like a masterclass in what you want to do. For me, juddering my way up the London Overground line to work, still dazed from the six o’clock alarm and the hour spent plugging away at my second draft,  A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) is such a one.

Centred around the execution of Vera Hillyard in the years after World War II, the novel examines the ripple effect of infamy, the way that ‘Murder reaches out through a family, stamping transfers of the Mark of Cain on a dozen foreheads’.

At least that’s one description. Another would be that this is a novel about maternity, about the things society expects of mothers and the things women expect of themselves in that role, and the gap between those ideas and the reality. Or you could say this is a novel about secrets, childhood, war, femininity, storytelling, and outsiders.

The reason for such multivalency is that the novel is told largely from the narrator Faith’s memories of her aunts Vera and Eden during the war years. As that period marked Faith’s transition from childhood to adulthood, her perspective and the things she noticed shifted with each stint at her aunts’ house, where she was sent to escape the London bombing raids. Coupled with this shift in perspective is the revelation of a number of secrets, which tilts the significance of events first one way, then another, and finally wrenches the focus away from the murder itself on to the mystery at the book’s heart.

It’s a complicated structure and one which (she says, thinking of the ragbag of events and motivations saved in a file on this computer) could easily get out of control. Vine steers it mistressfully, though, using two main techniques: she uses inquiries from a biographer interested in profiling Vera Hillyard as a spur and then series of guideposts for unfolding the narrative, and she makes sure each of the large cast of characters looms from the page with a startling set of needs, desires and grudges of his or her own. Most striking is Vera Hillyard — by turns the personification of Sartre’s Bad Faith with her obsessive adherence to rigid rules about deportment and manners, and the pathetic victim of a vicious game the rules of which she can only dimly recognise.

Now and then, the complexity of the structure does necessitate a bit of forcing to make the box click shut. The suggestion, for example, that Eden might have been reluctant to falsify a birth certificate because registry offices had lots of intimidating posters up in those days rings oddly when considered alongside the far more shocking things she is supposed to have done. It also seems strange that the biographer would eventually decide not to write his book because he was ‘defeated’ by the central mystery, a mystery so extraordinary  that, as Faith says, it is hardly ever encountered by normal people — just the sort of thing to have a jobbing hack’s ears pricking up, surely, even if it couldn’t be finally resolved?

For my part, though, I couldn’t help but be grateful for these minor flaws. Seen in light of the overall accomplishment, they felt like the tiny symmetrical imperfections that prove the pearl is real. They hinted at the months of attrition the story must have undergone in its author’s head, and gave me conviction that such craftswomanship might be possible after all. Thanks for the recommendation, Sue.

Picture by Jaime Perez.

Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth

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Rubbish pickers in Kolkata, India

Airport bookshops are strange places. Something about the transience of the terminal experience rubs off on the shelves of slasher stories and chick-littery, putting browsers in a holiday humour, and making reckless purchases and bold choices seem somehow less of a stretch. And so it was that on my way to India this spring I found myself at the check out in Gatwick’s South Terminal clutching… a copy of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

Alright, I’ll admit it, my stock of adventurousness was all used up on the contemplation of the trip ahead. I’d never been to India before and despite having visited parts of Africa and South-east Asia, I had a feeling nothing could prepare me for the madness of Kolkata. I was looking for something comforting, familiar and safe: a tried and trusted formula that I could retreat into when one of the world’s most extreme, desperate, colourful and crowded cities got too much for me.

But Edith Wharton had other ideas. Feisty to a fault, this grande dame of early twentieth century American literature grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and thrust me into a world every bit as unforgiving and shocking as the place I was headed.

‘Jane Austen with teeth’ was the first description that sprang to my mind as I began to read my way through the unravelling of Lily Bart, the beautiful and penniless New York socialite, whose flawless facade of serenity is both the secret and the nemesis of her success. But that would be unfair, both to Austen, who has a much sharper set of gnashers than she’s often given credit for, and to Wharton, who sees no point in biting her prey when she might as well tear the subjects of her scrutiny limb from limb.

No-one escapes. Not the bright creatures of high society sniping at one another from behind their opera glasses; not the conservative family members so bound up with ideas of duty and correctness that they fail to distinguish between petulance and desperation; not the charwoman who schemes for her own ends and not  beautiful, spoiled, hopeless Lily herself.

The Penguin Classics blurb-writer describes Lily as ‘the embodiment of woman as a passive creature, as the ultimate “consumer item”‘. Close, but no cigar. For while Lily allows herself to be carried on the currents of other people’s whims and schemes, she has a core sense of self-respect that won’t allow her to go along with the final strokes of deviousness and heartlessness that would assure her future.

It is what redeems her in the eyes of the reader, but also what brings her low. If she were a little more passive — more the superficial, carefree creature she pretends — then she would accept the repugnant offers of marriage, mistresship and mindless monetary gain that come her way and drift along the bright surface of the world she thinks she aspires to, and there would be no story.

What makes Lily’s fall so compelling and her final undoing so very, very sad is the kernel of humanity Wharton conjures at her core, reminding readers that the creature dwindling before their eyes is every bit as complex, conflicted and scared as they are.

In a city where naked children squat in the gutters as limousines glide past, the resonance of Wharton’s words was strong.

Picture by FriskoDude

Barbara Trapido: Sex and Stravinsky

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A poster for the Chippendales' Vegas show (nothing to do with this blog post, but it made you look...)

A would-be novelist on my old creative writing MA course once got very frustrated. We’d been discussing the thorny issue of titles and how difficult it is to make your book stand out from the thousands of volumes tumbling on to bookshop shelves every month. After half an hour or so of pulling apart various possible ways of evoking that elusive blend of atmosphere and intrigue that the book in question needed to get readers interested, he gave up. ‘Why don’t you just call it “Buy me, you c**t”?’ he said.

It’s tempting to think that Barbara Trapido had the same thought process when trying to package up Sex and Stravinsky. There’s so little of either in the book that the title feels like a bit of a fudge, a shrugging resort to the old adage that ‘sex sells’. So much so, that when I mentioned to a friend that I was writing my next post on this book, she couldn’t even remember that she’d read it until we hashed over the plot.

That’s not to say that there isn’t anything memorable in the book itself. Weaving together the lives of two couples who married the wrong people, this insightful and touching novel unpacks the loneliness that exists in the gap between the narratives we find ourselves caught up in and the stories inside our heads.

It works best in the delineation of characters’ backstories and the conflicting pressures that create their personalities. Make-do-and-mend Caroline, the thwarted academic who excels at homemaking on a shoestring, for example, is a marvellous mixture of post-feminist empowerment and little-girl-lostness. 

This mining of experience allows Trapido to spark tension through different characters’ views of the same events (a tricky feat to pull off, as anyone who’s ever had a go at split narratives will testify).

There are some lovely comic touches too: the French exchange who describes himself in his letter of introduction as a ‘tall, merry fellow’, the ball dress ‘ruched like a festoon blind’ because it has been ‘made out of a festoon blind’.

For all that, though, something’s missing. The resolution, when it comes, is too neat and predictable. The whole thing feels ever-so-slightly smug and cynical: the work of an accomplished writer who knows exactly the notes to hit to keep the marketeers happy, as though Trapido is bored by the ease with which she is able to shuffle the characters into a pleasing configuration.

I hear she’s done better in the past, so perhaps I’ll have to give her another shot. Maybe next time I’ll pick out something that trumpets itself a little less cynically.

Incidentally, that would-be novelist decided not to resort shock and awe to sell his first book. When he landed his deal with Canongate, his book came out under the title Fresh. Well done, Mark McNay.

Picture by TheJose

Written by Ann Morgan

May 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Joyce Carol Oates: Black Girl/White Girl

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Rock cakes like the ones my colleague used to make

I once temped in an office with a very thin woman who liked to bake cakes. She would bring them in to work and watch us all tuck in, a strange glint in her eye. One day she asked me to proofread a letter to her soon-to-be ex-husband’s solicitor for her as she wasn’t used to writing much. I was happy to help. I took the letter off for my lunch break and settled down to read it in the staff common room.

And then I got a shock: the thing was mad, rambling, filled with half-formulated accusations and vague threats. I could hardly make any sense of it.

If I’d been a bit older and known her better, I would have told her not to send it, or, better, offered her the chance to talk about the things that were clearly upsetting her. But I was just out of university — still young enough to think that age makes a difference — and none too sure how the adult world really worked. Perhaps this really was the sort of letter people sent to their partners’ solicitors? Maybe my misgivings were just a sign of my immaturity? Besides, it wasn’t my place to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do.

So, rather than say anything, I corrected the typos, made a few mumbling suggestions for toning down some of the more outlandish phrases, and handed the letter back.

I’d forgotten about that letter until I started on Black Girl/White Girl, the 45th novel (counting those written under synonyms) from the extraordinarily prolific American writer Joyce Carol Oates. In it, I found a parable of the dangers of being straitjacketed by such misplaced principles, naivety, guilt and fear.

Looking back on events in 1975 from the vantage point of 1990, the book recalls Genna Meade’s traumatic, abortive first year at a prestigious women’s college on the east coast. The daughter of Mad Max Meade, a radical human rights lawyer-cum-activist, and the descendant of the wealthy Quakers who founded the college, Genna starts the year full of high-minded ideas and anxious to break down the barriers that she fears her famous connections may place between her and the other students. When she discovers she has Minette Swift, a black pentecostal minister’s daughter, for a roommate, she is keen to befriend the awkward girl, particularly when she seems to become the target of racial abuse.

But as the year progresses and her so-called friend’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, Genna’s rational mind and her ideals go to war with one another. Presented with evidence that the persecution her roommate is experiencing may not be all that it seems and that the girl is becoming increasingly mentally unstable, Genna is unable to overcome her consciousness of the historical burden of racial discrimination and what might nowadays be called ‘political correctness’ to challenge Minette and, perhaps, get her the help she needs — with tragic results.

Oates has been criticised for the rapidity with which she churns novels out by readers who feel that the rate she works at sometimes leaves her little scope to develop ideas and connections. Here, however, the breathless, sometimes fragmentary quality of the narrative, which is styled as an unpublished manuscript written by Genna, now Generva, Meade fits the subject matter beautifully. We can imagine Generva stumbling out of bed early in the morning and sitting blearily at her desk, as she tells us towards the end that she has been doing, to get down the recollections and impressions that plague her.

For my part, I couldn’t help wishing Oates had written the book sooner.

About a year after I left that temp job, I heard that the woman who used to make the cakes had killed herself. While it’s useless to hash over might-have-beens and if-onlies — and a kind of arrogance to assume that we have the power to alter another’s actions and choices on such a profound level — I can’t help thinking that if I’d read Black Girl/White Girl before I met her I might have had the courage to try.

Picture by Su-lin

Emma Donoghue: Room

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Part of the Fritzl media circus

This was a book that kept jumping out at me. From a colleague’s desk, in conversations with friends, on posters, on the tube. I’d actually been running away from it for a good couple of months when it finally snared me on my maiden trawl through the Kindle’s bestseller chart.

The reason I’d been running away was my hatred of misery memoirs. I can’t stand them. They are the sweet chilli chicken dippers of the book world: all processed flavours and cheap flesh, with next-to-no substance to them.

So a novel inspired by the ordeal of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman imprisoned for 24 years and repeatedly impregnated by her father, was not calculated to have me champing at the bit. It was probably only a combination of a glass of wine and a nagging doubt of my ability to navigate myself to a book I actually wanted to read on the Kindle (it takes me a while to work these things out – I still file paper tax returns) that clinched it.

And I have to say I’m glad. Because, instead of the lurid, titillating sensationalism-fest I’d been fearing, I found a skillful exploration of childhood and personhood and what it means to live in the world.

Donoghue has played down the Fritzl link in interviews about the book, but she’s on a bit of a hiding to nothing with this. In the plot alone, it’s there for all to see.

Like Elisabeth, Ma and Jack have been kept in a specially constructed, sound-proofed dungeon since before Jack was born. Cut off from reality, they must make a game out of a nightmare, relying on their own resourcefulness, the people ‘in TV’ and the food and ‘Sunday treats’ brought by their captor Old Nick (when he remembers) to stay alive and sane.

So far, so Fritzl (except that, as far as we can tell, Old Nick is no relation), but as Jack, the book’s narrator, turns five, his long-suffering Ma, who was abducted when she was just 19, reaches breaking point. Conscious of her son’s need for more than their 11 by 11 metre cell can offer and the fact that Old Nick is running out of money to provide for them, she devises a strategy to get them out once and for all, a strategy that relies on Jack’s ability to play dead.

Alright, so the escape for Elisabeth was a lot longer coming, and came out of one of her children’s genuine illnesses, but the bare bones are pretty identical. Where the two stories differ, however (and the thing that probably makes Donoghue squeamish about the comparison), is that while Elisabeth’s was told in the glare of the world’s media with every salacious detail and horrifying aspect picked over and commented upon, Jack and Ma’s is told carefully, thoughtfully, from the inside.

Sensational though the subject matter is, Donoghue refuses to sacrifice truth and insight for cheap thrills. In fact, she chooses to sidestep the greatest opportunity for stake-raising altogether, having Jack leap out of Old Nick’s truck only a few streets away from his home, so that it is easy for the police to trace the whereabouts of Room and Ma.

A writer with different priorities would have prolonged this section, getting Jack more thoroughly lost and leaving Ma to the mercy of her duped captor to capitalise on the tension. But Donoghue isn’t interested in this. What she is interested in, as becomes apparent as the second half of the book unfolds, is the rare opportunity that the situation provides to parachute a fully formed human alien into the world and observe it from the outside.

Never having been exposed to the ‘real’ world, Jack is able to look at it afresh and highlight the strangeness of the things we take for granted, from stairs to shopping malls. Occasionally, this takes on a grating, Kids-say-the-funniest-things quality, but for the most part it’s very well handled.

So much so that, before I’d even fully reconciled myself to what I was reading, I was clicking on to the last page.

Picture by weegeebored

Written by Ann Morgan

May 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm