A year of reading women

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Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Carol Birch: Jamrach’s Menagerie

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This year’s Booker Prize brought out the best and the worst of the UK literati. The best was the long-awaited triumph of Julian Barnes, thrice the bridesmaid but never before the bride, for The Sense of an Ending (which I haven’t read yet, owing to my women-only diet, but should be a worthy winner if his previous efforts are anything to go by).The worst was a maelstrom of barracking and back-biting about the shortlisting and  judging process, centring around the issue of readability versus quality.

The pity of it was that the debate shifted the focus away from the shortlisted novels, many of which were controversial and intriguing works in their own rights — none more so than Carol Birch‘s 11th novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie. Set in the 19th century, the book weaves together two historical happenings — an escaped Bengal tiger’s brush with an eight-year-old boy in Victorian London and the shooting of a teenager sailor by his childhood friend after drawing straws — into a rich and wide-ranging adventure.

Told through the eyes of young Jaffy Brown, who takes to sea in search of a real-life dragon wanted for a wealthy client’s collection, the story has an episodic, almost picaresque feel to it. However, unlike many picaresque novels, in which writers often struggle to stitch substance into sensational tales of derring do, the novel brims with meaning and insight. Birch achieves this through her attention to detail and the fresh vision she brings to each scene. Thanks to her skill, even the ragged finger nails of  a street urchin take on a compelling quality, while the chaotic shop and menagerie of the kindly Jamrach are heady, enchanting creations.

But the crowning achievement comes when calamity strikes and Jaffy and is shipwrecked. Cast adrift in lifeboats for a good 100 pages or so, the motley band is pushed to the limits of existence and forced to taste the dregs of mortality (and each other).

A huddle of characters bobbing around on the ocean with nothing to do except butcher and eat those who die every now and again sounds like a commissioning editor’s nightmare, but in Birch’s  hands it is subtle, compelling and disturbingly visceral. I’ve never eaten human flesh (shock admission, I know), but after reading this book I feel as though I can still taste it.

Should Birch have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize? Was this one of the six best books published this year? I don’t know. Perhaps the plot is a little simplistic and linear. Maybe the later part of the book could have done with an edit or two more. To be honest, I don’t really care.

Whether it deserved the accolade or not, this is an exceptionally good book that whips along at a cracking pace, engrossing the reader in a world sturdy enough to bear the weight of some deep insights into what it means to be a member of humanity. Quality and readability combined. Who’d have thunk it?

Picture by Monceau

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Written by Ann Morgan

October 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

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.

Picture by madaboutasia

Written by Ann Morgan

August 28, 2011 at 7:53 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 Ann Morgan

August 2, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

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So here we have it: the beast. The big one. The book so huge, it spawned a year-long project. But was it worth it, I hear you cry? Well, yes. But not for the reasons you might expect.

When I picked up the book, I was expecting a great, grand narrative unfolding the life and times of one of England’s most memorable, irrational and charismatic kings. I was a bit daunted, truth be told, remembering the hefty history tomes in my school library. (I gave up history at the age of 14 and still to this day can be plunged into a maelstrom of ignorance and guesswork by such names as ‘William of Orange’, ‘Pitt the Younger’  and ‘Edward the Confessor’). 

In fact, just about the only period of history I know anything about is the Tudor period. Most of my knowledge of this is gleaned from a project I embarked on at the age of 12 trying to work out if Anne Boleyn really had ruled for 1,000 days, not realising that I could find out the answer from pretty much any textbook.

Nevertheless, even with my expert grasp of all things Tudor, I found the prospect of wading through Hilary Mantel’s 650-page doorstop a little off-putting. It felt like getting an invitation to a back-to-back screening of David Starkey’s programmes: fascinating and terribly good for you, but more than a little bit like hard work.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. For, although the book makes no bones about taking on History (with a capital ‘huh’), the positioning of the camera on the shoulder of urchin-turned-trusted-adviser Thomas Cromwell keeps it firmly rooted in the personal, private and everyday details that bring characters alive.

Tics are recorded. Nicknames flit from mouth to mouth. And the million little mannerisms and oddities that make up a person are lovingly scrutinised and set forth. Seeing Anne Boleyn through her archness of manner, her casual cruelty to her sister and the snivelling little serving wench who frequents her chambers, and Henry through his flashes of fear, kindness, and the ornate ring he fumbles off his finger to send to his wife on news of the birth of his son, brings home the humanity and fragility of the people involved.

We might be used to thinking of them as finished characters on history’s stage, but for the notaries of the House of Tudor life must have been as muddling and shambling, as taken up with petty annoyances and frustrations, as it is for anybody. The effect of watching them at close quarters is like shuffling along a great tapestry with a magnifying glass, marvelling at the deftly woven threads.

Another surprising thing was the circular feel of the narrative. Although the story is ostensibly chronological, seeing it through Cromwell’s eyes gives the novel a strangely circular feel, as we move with him around the city’s seats of power, in ever tighter spirals. It is like watching a spider working its way round and round a web, adding layer after layer of meaning to the structure.

That’s not to say that the book is perfect. In one or two of my less charitable moments, reading with my head craned under someone’s armpit on a rush-hour tube, I wished that the editor could have been more ruthless, particularly as the interminable business of settling Henry’s divorce and marriage to Anne drags on. The book would not have suffered for having one fewer simmering discussion, or missing a significant glance or two. Hang the historical accuracy. 

But, taken against the achievement as a whole, this feels like a minor point. Overall, the book surprises with its intimacy and subtlety. If the grand, male narrative occasionally sinks beneath the sea of details. It emerges all the brighter for it.

Picture: History in an Hour