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365 days of women's lit

Archive for August 2011

Trilby Kent: Smoke Portrait

There are few things more nerve-wracking than reviewing books by people you know. All the way through reading them you find yourself walking a tightrope of anticipation, braced for the false step or loose thread that will send you plummeting into the pit of no return. As I’ve found to my cost, there are no safety nets for friendships where bad reviews are concerned.

So when Trilby Kent, whom I met through last year’s Guardian International Development Journalism Competition, wrote on Facebook that her first novel for adults, Smoke Portrait, had been largely ignored by the UK media, and I posted a comment saying I would read it for my blog, it wasn’t long before the doubts set in. What if it was terrible? What if I hated it? What if my well-intentioned promise was the start of a lifelong rivalry between two ambitious women wordsmiths destined to run up against each another on the shortlists of writing awards for the rest of their careers… (hmmn, possibly wishful thinking on my part here).

Because, after all, don’t books get ignored for a reason? Doesn’t good writing rise to the top of the literary quagmire like oil through water? Aren’t the novels left to moulder away at the bottom of the Amazon rankings  there because of one very simple fact: that they aren’t very good?

The answer, I am pleased to report, having devoured Kent’s engrossing work, is that that is total nonsense. This is a book that deserves to be bought, reviewed and read — and, for me, a timely reminder of the fickle nature of the literary world.

Set in the 1930s and told from the viewpoint of 13-year-old Belgian teenager Marten and aspiring writer Glynis (Glen), who flees London for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where tensions about politics and racial purity provide an uncanny echo for events in other parts of the world, this book offers a striking and fresh perspective on the well-trodden territory of the second world war. Charting the unlikely correspondence between the pair, in which Marten pretends to be a political prisoner after a spelling mistake in addresses puts them into contact, the narrative unfolds the psychology of two bright young people facing a darkening world.

As with many first novels, writing is a prominent theme. Kent uses Glen’s forays into literature as the platform for some telling and witty observations about the art, providing one of the most vivid descriptions of failing to write that I’ve come across. She also delivers a killer putdown for all those who fail to recognise writing as a skill: ‘Sometimes I fancy I might make a rather fine medical officer’ Glen tells a colonial bore who trots out the old ‘they do say we’ve all got a story in us’ line at a party.

The skill of writing is clearly no mystery to Kent. Although the narrative feels a little mannered in the early chapters about Glen, the style complements the subject matter well and the whole thing is swept along by a deftly controlled plot, making this one of those rarest of beasts: a literary page-turner.

The broad scope of the book and the research it must have demanded is well-handled too. And if the level of colloquialism required from Marten’s schoolboy English occasionally stretches credulity — ‘she wants seeing to. Do you know what that means?’ he writes at one point, begging the question, ‘More to the point, Marten, do you?’ — Kent’s portrayal of the startling ways we sublimate emotion more than makes up for this. The scene where Marten wonders what it would be like to eat his tyrannical father, for example, is extraordinary.

All of which leaves me heartily seconding Kent’s frustration that Smoke Portrait has been passed over by the reviewers. And it seems I’m not alone, as the book first got publishers’ attention through being named youwriteon‘s Book of the Year on the strength of site users’ feedback. Time the literary press caught up, methinks.

What other books have been unfairly neglected by the media? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

August 28, 2011 at 7:53 am

Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad

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It was only when I got stuck into chapter two of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad that I realised I’d read some of it before. As the narrative zoomed in on the impotence, guilt and cringe-making memories of ageing music producer Bennie, I had that weird feeling you get when you recognise a celebrity in the street and raise your hand to wave only to remember they’ve got no idea who you are at all. I’d seen this somewhere before, but it wasn’t connecting with me in quite the same way.

The reason, I worked out after a bit of head-scratching, was that the chapter was featured in Granta‘s new writing anthology number 110, the issue entitled Sex. And, while I had enjoyed the portrait of a somewhat seedy yet touchingly bewildered bloke struggling to keep up with the modern world when I first read it, its inclusion in a collection of writing about sex had slanted my reading of it, pushing the focus on to Bennie’s preoccupations with physicality and downplaying some of its other aspects.

Chapter two wasn’t the only section to have gone solo. Surprisingly for a book celebrated for its experimental structure (which, similar to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, sees a series of linked stories weaving characters in and out of one anothers’ lives) a large number of Egan’s chapters appeared in publications such as The New Yorker and Harper’s prior to the book’s launch.

Although the quality of the writing would be more than enough to ensure readers enjoyed the extracts wherever they found them, context is so crucial to the work as a whole that it’s hard not to feel that the isolated chunks must have presented slightly different faces to the world through being separated from their companions in this way — much as people in varied social contexts present modified versions of themselves to the world.

With each chapter told over the shoulder of a different character, the book trades off the gap between our perceptions of the people around us and the reality. Its wide timeframe, sweeping from the seventies through to fifteen years or so in the future, allows Egan to play with some impressive effects, from bathetic flashes forward into characters’ lives (reminiscent of the deflationary techniques of Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) to a compelling vision of the NYC of the future: malaria-ridden, patrolled by helicopters, ruled by consumer babies and with trees that bloom in January. There are some startling insights too, particularly into the way that various people get ‘lost’ as their lives drift off the course predicted for them while their contemporaries power on by.

However, the structure is not without its problems. One of the more annoying is that if, like me, you struggle with remembering names, the opening pages of most chapters are spent in a haze of frustration as you try to place the figure who is set to guide you through the next stages of the story.

But far more serious still is the fundamental conflict between the book’s vision and the structure through which it is presented. Setting out a lonely cast of characters, all so walled up within their own perspectives that they can only be brought to a brief moment of unison by a corrupt marketing ploy, Egan gives an incredibly bleak prognosis for humankind. Yet, this is undercut by her own skill in realising the viewpoints of her characters.

Surely if one person can recognise the conflicting needs and secret loneliness of the world around us there is more hope for humanity than Egan leaves room for. If it’s possible for readers to perceive the good, the bad and the ugly in so many people, then it’s possible for human beings to connect more deeply, meaningfully and frequently than they do in Egan’s book. And if that’s the case, then A Visit from the Goon Squad is a magnificent, elegant and deeply heartening failure. And we should all be very glad.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

August 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm

EM Delafield: The Diary of a Provincial Lady

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If proof were ever needed that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady provides plenty. Looking particularly chintzy in the rose-covered jacket of its excellent new four-volume edition from Virago, this prim-sounding  tome from the 1930s seems to promise a gentle stroll through everything that is genteel, correct and charming…

In other words, dull. In fact, had it not been recommended by a friend who’d already put several other great reads my way, I’d probably have slotted it straight back on to the shelf and moved on. So it was a delight, on settling down on the daybed one Sunday after giving the servants the afternoon off,  to find wit and sharp perceptions where I’d expected find fluffy generalisations and tweeness.

Told through the diary entries of an anonymous Provincial Lady, the novel unfolds the triumphs and frustrations of domestic life in the early twentieth century. It documents the trials of its narrator as she struggles to keep up appearances in the face of mounting debts, squabbles among children and staff and the unreasonable demands of contemporaries.

‘Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”?’ she muses at the end of one entry. ‘Answer came there none.’

Yet this is no catalogue of woes. Bursting from the same stable as Stella Gibbons, Delafield uses comedy to fence from behind the accepted forms and social mores of upper-middle-class society, spearing the hypocrisy, inconsistencies and oddness of the world around her. Each character is revealed in all his or her contrariness, from Our Vicar’s Wife, who is always saying how busy she is and yet always outstays her welcome, to the stormy Mademoiselle, who has a mauvais mot for every occasion. Not to mention the Provincial Lady herself,  with her talent for selective blindness when it comes to domestic economy versus shopping sprees.

Revelling in the ludicrous, Delafield, who originally wrote the book in instalments for Time and Tide — itself a recurring theme in the book — exploits the diary form for comic effect, puncturing expectations with the bathetic reality that follows. So ‘dear old school friend’  Cissy Crabbe turns out to be on a punishingly strict diet that throws the household into chaos, and the bulbs that are puffed so persuasively in their marketing pamphlets moulder in their pots.

The comedy lives in the space between the way things are supposed to be and the awkward reality, much like the novel itself. And this is what makes it such fun to read. Far from being the narrow story of a cossetted woman in a very particular time and place, this is a work that resonates far beyond the boundaries of its setting and subject matter. It is anything but provincial in scope. Cosmopolitan men, women and children everywhere will find it a joy.

Which books have surprised you ? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

August 8, 2011 at 8:27 am

Cynthia Ozick: Foreign Bodies

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There are few things nicer than discovering a great writer with an extensive back catalogue to explore. It’s like meeting an exciting new friend — someone you click with instantly and know will be the source of lots of sparky conversations and raucous fun.

So when I read an interview with Cynthia Ozick in the Guardian books section’s ‘A life in writing’ series, I had high hopes that she might be an addition to my virtual circle. The standfirst quote about writing was enough to reel me in on its own: ‘You have to be a fanatic, you have to be a crank to keep going, but what else would you do with the rest of your life? You gotta do something’.

Here was an author I could get on board with, I thought. So I downloaded Ozick’s latest, Foreign Bodies, and settled down ready to be enthralled.

Sad to report, things didn’t go quite according to plan. For one thing, I found Ozick’s plot threadbare, centring as it does around an ageing literature teacher, Bea, who lives in a New York appartement hemmed in by her ex-husband’s grand piano, until one day she receives a letter from her estranged brother instructing her to go to post-war Paris to winkle his graduate son out of an extended period of drifting. Thereafter, she receives a series of letters and instructions from various members of the family. These she obeys (at least in part), until she is finally thrown into the path of her ex-husband, who turns out to be less successful than his reputation suggests.

Perhaps I suffered from not knowing Henry James’s The Ambassadors, which Ozick claims to have inverted to construct her book, but I’ve always been a believer that works of art should stand on their own without supplementary reading. Extra research can add lots of valuable layers, but truly great books are believable and engrossing to anyone who picks them up.

In this case, I found it hard to buy into Bea’s grudging obedience to her relatives’ demands. ‘Why are you bothering?’ I found myself asking the the Kindle screen as it presented me with page after page of Bea’s complaints about having to rearrange her classes and the fact that her brother Marvin has always been far too used to getting his way.

This wasn’t the only problem. Because of the book’s heavy reliance on letters, there’s a strangely performative feel to a lot of the correspondence. Characters are obliged to rehearse information that would be obvious to both parties for the sake of the reader, giving some of the exchanges an oddly wooden feel. There is also the difficulty of certain hidden information being peeled back from several perspectives, forcing the narrative to retread the same ground several times.

Where secrets are revealed well, however, they’re corkers. Bea’s discovery of the true medium of Marvin’s wife Margaret’s ‘art’, for example, is masterfully managed. So is the moment when Lili reveals the true reasons for the distress that seems bound up with her dismissal.

Such writerly sleights of hand, combined with striking flashes such as the astonishing description of Bea’s waking up to a snowy morning in New York, make me feel that I would like to get to know Ozick better. Perhaps it’s time to do some digging into her biography and weed out her best work. As far as naming her my new literary best friend is concerned though, we’ve got some way to go yet.

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Written by londonchoirgirl

August 2, 2011 at 12:09 pm