A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘fiction

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

leave a comment »

Preachers tend to get a bad press in literature. From bumbling buffoons like Jane Austen’s Mr Collins through to Hilary Mantel’s sinister and erratically cruel Cardinal, it’s clear that there is not much love lost between many wordsmiths and the Church.

Much of this is no doubt justified by the countless instances of abuse of trust and power, not to mention downright idiocy, bodied forth in pulpits around the world across the centuries. Nonetheless, it was surprisingly refreshing to find an alternative perspective in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead

Set in 1957, the novel is gathered together out of the final writings, recollections and pensees of the Reverend John Ames, a pastor in the two-horse town of Gilead in America’s Midwest. Aware that death is approaching fast and that he will not live to see his young son grow up, the old man sets about writing an extended letter that he hopes will explain something of his history, life and belief system to his child in years to come.

It sounds like a recipe for a huge helping of mawkish sentimentalism. And yet it absolutely isn’t. Instead, Robinson uses a talent for transfiguring the mundane to create a monument to the beauty of the human spirit and the honest attempt to seek out and remain faithful to truth, whatever it may be.

It’s a novel built on moments. The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Ames to dwell on particular instances, imbuing them with significance because of the way he remembers them. The best of these have a poetic lyricism, backlit by Ames’s certainty about their eternal significance, which offers readers of any religious persuasion and none a compelling insight into the alchemy of faith.

Ames could be a prig, but he isn’t. Suspicious of the shiftless Jack Boughton, who he fears may have designs on his much younger wife, Ames wrestles with his own jealousy and paranoia, deceiving and rebuking himself by turns. He also loves life with a fierce passion that breaks through the measured prose, full of joy, wistfulness and poignancy: ‘Oh, I will miss the world!’ he exclaims in the middle of an anecdote.

This, coupled with Robinson’s excellent eye for awkwardness, and an impeccable interweaving of scripture, gives the narrative a richness and humanity guaranteed to sweep the reader along. I doubt there are many who make it through the final quarter without shedding a tear. 

Picture by Pam’s Pic-‘s

Advertisements

Written by londonchoirgirl

December 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm

Miriam Toews: Irma Voth

with one comment

Of all the book bloggers out there (and there are quite a lot of us), there are few more established and respected than the Dovegreyreader. Prolific yet discerning, this Devon-based woman of letters tears through books at the rate that most of the rest of us Brits go through cups of tea. 

So when I read that Miriam Toews was one of the Dovegreyreader’s favourite writers, it seemed obvious to include Toews’s latest novel on my list of books by women writers  for this year.

Set in the arid plains of Mexico, the novel draws on Toews’ own Mennonite background to provide a portrait of a young woman struggling to build an identity for herself after she is shunned by the closed and traditional community in which she was raised. When a film crew comes to shoot near her home, Irma Voth finds herself caught up with a crowd of people who think and act in ways she has never experienced before and begins a journey that will lead her to question and confront the rules and memories that have held her captive.

I can see why the Dovegreyreader rates Toews. Packed with striking insights and unusual perspectives, Toews’s writing is at once powerful and delicate. On the surface, nothing very much happens for long stretches of this novel, but the narrative is alive and thrilling, feeding off Irma Voth’s sublimated fury and grief and the thousand thoughts and impressions that make the wilderness sing.

Toews is one of the best writers of dramatic irony I have ever read. Time and again, she sets up and plays out misunderstandings that the reader can see through before the character does, wringing a great deal of tension and poignancy from her scenes in the process.

It’s a tough book, but it’s not without humour. Drafted in to translate for the German Mennonite actress, Voth finds herself getting creative with the script, so that the words the character says are often a wry comment on the male-authored script (as well as an expression of Voth’s fears and desires).

The book also yielded the second description I have come across this year of a woman embroidering secret, subversive messages into clothes (the first was in Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer without Men). I’m not sure if anyone has made a study of subversion and sewing in women’s literature, but it seems that this might be a rich seam for inquiry (if you’ll pardon the pun).

There were one or two moments that felt slightly contrived – particularly some of the more philosophical pronouncements from the film director Diego and the revelation of the fate of Voth’s father at the end.  All in all, though, this was an engrossing read that managed to illuminate a little-known way of life without any of the voyeurism usually attached to such works. Highly recommended. 

Picture by crowderb

Written by londonchoirgirl

December 6, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Mary Stewart: Wildfire at Midnight

with 2 comments

Every now and then you are introduced to a writer (thanks stuartblessman) who you can’t believe you’ve managed to get so far through life without discovering. Such a one for me is Mary Stewart, the English popular novelist famed for knitting together the romance and mystery genres (and author of the Merlin trilogy), who was awarded an honorary doctorate by Durham University in 2009 for her lifetime’s work.

Advised to read ‘pretty much anything’ by her, I picked out Wildfire at Midnight on the strength of Amazon’s breathless blurb about ritualistic murders and webs of fear and suspicion (I am not nearly as high-minded as I sometimes like to think).

Stewart did not disappoint. Sweeping me along with her heroine Gianetta, a recent divorcee and former model still in her early twenties, she immersed me in her deliciously nostalgic scene setting, homing in on a lonely hotel on the Isle of Skye where a large cast of characters is struggling to come to terms with the sacrifice of a crofter‘s daughter up on the neighbouring mountain.

What I hadn’t expected was how funny Stewart would be. Easy and conversational, her narrative style is peppered with jokes and gentle swipes at the idiosyncrasies of many of her creations, while losing none of the suspense required to make the story work. Reading her at her best is like reading Agatha Christie with a healthy dollop of Nancy Mitford stirred in.

There are one or two blots on the copybook though: the plot relies on a series of apparent coincidences that bring a lot of people who know each other together in a remote location, straining credulity early on (although some of this is later explained away), and the whole thing turns on Gianetta’s adherence to a rather quaint moral code, which although attributable to her Roman Catholic background is not adequately explained for the modern reader to buy into wholesale.

I could also have lived without a few of the more unfortunate turns of phrase: it will be a while before I manage to get the thought of ‘the excited hands of the butcher coming behind me’ out of my head.

However, much of this is probably down to the fact that Wildfire at Midnight was only Stewart’s second book and it doesn’t take away from how downright enjoyable the experience of reading her is. It would be interesting to see how Stewart’s style and the moral universe of her characters shifted as her career progressed. Doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Photo by Y Ballester

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 28, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Heather Peace: All to Play For

leave a comment »

I first met Tom Chalmers six years ago when I went to interview him about his bold decision to launch his own publishing company at the age of just 25. It was the dawn of the mass-market e-book era, independent bookshops were folding like origami and the only works that mainstream publishers seemed interested in selling were ‘autobiographies’ by celebrities with one-word names. Watching Chalmers launch his plucky little list of Legend Press print titles on to the turbulent waters of the book trade felt like witnessing someone begin an attempt to row round the world in a bath tub: it was daring, intrepid and more than a bit mad.

So it was great to bump into Tom in a pub a couple of weeks ago and hear that, in spite of all the squalls, twisters and hurricanes buffeting the literary market in recent years, Legend Press continues to go from strength to strength. I was also intrigued to hear that, since taking on a female member of the editorial team, the list has incorporated more women’s lit, and was only too pleased to take up Tom’s offer of sampling one of the latest titles.

Judging by Heather Peace’s All to Play For, the company is in very good shape indeed. Ambitious and wide-ranging, this insider’s portrait of the BBC (Peace was a script editor in the corporation for much of the early-mid nineties) charts the careers of a group of misfits and megalomaniacs as they struggle to carve out a career in television in the face of cuts, political pressures and vicious micro-management.

At its very best, it feels as though Peace has snuck you past security at Television Centre and given you carte blanche to wander in and out of production meetings and scheduling sessions, rummaging through people’s desk drawers as you go. This is made even better by the fact that Peace clearly has an axe or two to grind about some aspects of the Beeb in the nineties and combines this with an ability to draw a range of compelling, believable characters to body forth her peeves in glorious Technicolor.

That said, the book could have done with some tighter editing. Rants on David Cameron’s government, the youth of today and the challenges of writing a novel can make you feel as though you’ve been cornered by someone’s verbose uncle at a party when you’re itching to talk to the more interesting people in the room (of which there are many). Unless you’re Nabokov writing Pale Fire, phrases such as ‘I’m rambling’ and ‘sorry if I’m labouring the point’ are usually a cry for the pruning shears.

Overall, though, in the best traditions of BBC scheduling, this is a highly enjoyable spread of light entertainment and cultural commentary with some moments of high drama thrown in. I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it and looking forward to the hour I could spend with it on the tube.  Congratulations to Peace and Legend Press. More please.

Picture by I-b-p-2011

Written by londonchoirgirl

November 1, 2011 at 11:02 am

Carol Birch: Jamrach’s Menagerie

with one comment

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

Written by londonchoirgirl

October 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Jilly Cooper: Prudence

with 4 comments

Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking much the same when a friend thrust a copy of Prudence into my hands with instructions to read it for my blog.  Her attempt to reassure me that this was one of the early novels ‘before she got into threesomes’ and that anyway sex was only ever a tiny part of the Cooper experience only made things worse.

Who was she trying to kid? I’d seen the book jackets with the horse whips and basques and suspenders: Jump and Buck and whatever else they were called. Clearly — clearly — Jilly Cooper was all about sex. You didn’t have to have read her to know that. And if this was Jilly Cooper without the sex, it was definitely going to be very weak and very dull.  Like green tea without the… green.

Not a bit of it. From the gutsy opening scene at a raffish London party — complete with a guest who mistakes it for a fancy dress party and arrives togged up as a goat only to have his udders hurled out of the window — you know you are in for a witty, irreverent ride. As Prudence follows the mysterious Pendle to the Mulholland’s Bohemian family seat and tries to unpick the emotional knots that bind the family and herself, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Forget the tea, this is gin and ginger wine with a whisky chaser to boot.

One of the best things about it is the humour, which comes not only from a number of neatly contrived calamities, but also from Cooper’s sparky prose. There are some excellent gags and oneliners (‘He’s been away all week shooting.’ ‘Grouse?’ ‘No. Butter commercials in Devon’) and some killer descriptions (the mother who’d ‘set like a pink blancmange on the sofa’, the dashingly serious journalist: ‘Each time he opened his mouth, I expected the Panorama signature tune to strike up’), some of which are every bit as good as Gibbons, Coward or Stoppard.

That said, it’s important to take the book on its own terms. High literature, this ain’t — no matter what the Harpers & Queen reviewer quoted as branding Cooper ‘the Jane Austen of our time’ on the jacket may think. Nor does it pretend to be. The plot is unapologetically predictable and the characterisation veers to fit it, much as the characters themselves must when they get behind the wheels of their expensive motors in a gin-sozzled haze.

The comfortable, upper-upper-middle-class horsiness will be too much for some readers to take. But those that can are in for a whole scullery-load of fun. This is a romp; a jolly; a lark. It is the definition of all those feel-good adjectives that have been worn thin on the jackets of a billion airport novels up and down the land. It is exactly the book to curl up with on a winter evening, to take to the beach or to stretch out with on the croquet lawn (whether you have one or not).

Thanks Anna — doubtless I’ll be back for more.

Picture by Walt Stoneburner

Written by londonchoirgirl

October 17, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

with 3 comments

Many of the books I’ve blogged about so far this year have dealt with the difficulty of reconciling people. From Marilyn French’s stark portrait of the gulf that separates men and women, to Trilby Kent’s depiction of the rift between coloniser and colonized, the impenetrability of the barriers that divide us — whether political, historical, physical or financial — are a recurring theme in women’s lit (perhaps in all lit, although it hasn’t struck me so forcibly before).

Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto flirts with being an exception to this rule. Set in an anonymous South American state, this Orange Prize-winning work depicts the creation of an unlikely Utopia after a kidnap attempt finds a gaggle of rebel fighters holed up with 200 wealthy dinner guest hostages at the vice president’s mansion.

As days turn into weeks, the captors and captives’ perspectives soften and their horizons narrow until none can imagine an alternative existence. Set free from the straitjackets of their roles and routines, they are at liberty to structure their world afresh and explore the wells of potential — for music, communication and love — that everyday life too often leaves unplumbed.

Patchett’s skill lies in her ability to inhabit her characters, giving even the most peripheral a rich, inner life. The mystery of prayer, the alchemy of translation, and the curious blend of the physical and the mental that singing requires are all bodied forth, clothed in lavish perceptions.

Yet it’s the little human touches that bring the story home: the longing for a piece of cake you’ve saved to the end of a meal, the memory of a childhood party, the president’s secret penchant for a particular soap opera that means he misses the party — and scuppers the kidnap plans — in the first place.  

In fact, human frailty — or at least humankind’s collective inability to get past the barriers that the characters overcome on a personal level — is ultimately what brings Utopia crashing to earth. While the epilogue may feel a little too neat for some, there can be no question of the power of the novel’s final events.

As the threads of understanding that the narrative stretches across political, religious, national and financial boundaries tremble and snap, you feel deep sadness that the level of harmony reached (in all senses) in the compound cannot be translated into the wider world.

I doubt I’ll read anything as wistful for a long time.

Picture (from Libya) by Nasser Nouri

Written by londonchoirgirl

September 28, 2011 at 7:40 am