A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction

Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto

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There can be few ancient Greek tragedies more disturbing than Euripides’ The Bacchae. Building to the cataclysmic scene in which the possessed women of Thebes tear their kinsman Pentheus limb from limb, it packs a serious punch and continues to be lauded by critics who hail it variously as a comment on the dangers of fundamentalism, a parable of excess, and a portrait of the dark desires that seethe within us all.

This sinister ambiguity is something that US writer Maile Chapman harnesses in her excellent first novel, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto. It is set in a sanatorium in the eerie fringe world of northern Finland and follows a group of women caught somewhere between health and madness as they encounter, battle, and ultimately enact urges and feelings that the world does not allow them to express.

Events move slowly, yet, like the water shifting beneath the thick ice that forms as the sunless winter sets in, emotions stir beneath them, giving a dizzying significance to the catalogue of petty grudges and trivial incidents that the book records. This is heightened by the butterfly narrative, which flits from mind to mind, picking up the pitiful memories of Nurse Sunny here, the sexual trauma of her patient Julia there, and the thousand paranoid impulses, peeves and preoccupations that clutter the consciousnesses of the people who inhabit this halfway house between oblivion and the world.

At first, this can be frustrating as you struggle to catch on to concrete details about the characters that form, merge and mutate before your eyes. But Chapman knows what she’s doing: out of the mist of sensations and impressions a weird, collective consciousness forms that is at once everyone and no-one portrayed and that drives the plot through to its ghastly conclusion.

Reading the work, you become uncomfortably aware that yours is the mind in which its events are playing out. When the depths of the winter pass and the narrative draws to a close, you put the book down with awe, unease and, yes, a faint twinge of guilt.

Picture by Numinosity

Written by Ann Morgan

November 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Rivka Galchen: Atmospheric Disturbances

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One of the great things about writing a blog like this is that you get recommendations of things to read. At first they come from friends, but pretty soon people you’ve never met all over the world are chiming in and bringing things to your attention that you would never have found on your own.

So when Andra Watkins joined the debate about magic realism that blew up in the comments to my post on The Tiger’s Wife, and suggested that I give a book about a man who ‘becomes convinced his wife is a doppelgänger and sets off for Argentina to find the “real” one’, I was intrigued.

As it turned out, reading this book in response to a suggestion from someone I didn’t know  over the internet was very fitting. Narrated by, in his own words, ‘a fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalisations and no relevant past medical, social or family history,’ the novel charts the unravelling of reality as Leo gets sucked into the delusions of one of his patients. Increasingly convinced that the woman living with him is a simulacrum of his wife and that he is being recruited by the Royal Academy of Meteorology to help wage a war that involves controlling weather systems in parallel worlds, the New Yorker travels to South America, picking up coded messages, emails and signs from the mysterious professor Tzvi Gal-Chen (haven’t we seen that name somewhere before?).

Books like this live or die on the strength of the narrator’s voice and this novel thrives. Obsessive, quirky and clinical, Leo is constantly surprising. At times, particularly when constructing justifications for some of his more outlandish decisions, he recalls Nabokov’s  Humbert Humbert or John Nash in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, enabling the reader to inhabit the rogue selectiveness of the paranoid psychotic and the cruel, strange way that mental illness weaves itself through the personality so that it’s impossible to tell where the condition stops and the person begins.

There are some arresting insights into the more general business of living too. From the nonsense phrases that play at the back of the brain and the paranoid connections made between things by internet search results, to the way that a stain disintegrates into power when you pick at it with your thumb, Galchen is a past master at picking out the little details we are each usually alone with as we move through the world, whether sane or not.

Yet she is not about to let us get comfortable with the notion that what we are reading is purely the addled account of someone experiencing a mental breakdown. Throwing in just enough external coincidences to make Leo’s reading of events conceivable, she teases us with the possibility that his is in fact a reality where there are weather wars, doppelgänger wives and parallel worlds.

The conundrum of what is really going on in the book (and what ‘really’ really means) is something we can never be 100 per cent certain we have solved. Whether we try to explain the strange happenings as elements of magical realism, products of psychosis, or a conscious attempt to mislead, or whether we buy into them wholesale, there is no solid ground on which to base our interpretation. Without an independent, or at least second, perspective from which to calibrate our reading (as Tzvi Gal-Chen discusses in one of his papers on radar technology and the doppler effect), we are dependent on our own partial soundings to try and pinpoint truth.

Leo ponders the dilemma himself:

If a story seems too random, or perhaps too brilliant, for a ‘madman’ to have conceived of it himself, then consider that the ‘author’ might be reality and the ‘madman’ just reader. After all, only reality can escape the limits of our imagination.

But it doesn’t stop there. Qualified psychiatrist Galchen (the author, not the meteorologist) has left the door open for us to wander outside the bounds of the novel and question her storytelling too: her father, in ‘real’ life, is none other than Tzvi Gal-Chen, a professor of meteorology. And the family photograph of the Gal-Chens that Leo keeps on his fridge door is her own.

We buy into her story, suspend our disbelief and allow the narrative to sweep us along.  But what is really behind the words? What hybrid of experience, truth and fantasy constitutes her art?

Maybe the only distinction between madness and sanity is the extent to which you are able to make others believe your story could be true.

Picture by kristiewells

Written by Ann Morgan

September 8, 2011 at 7:28 am

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

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife

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I really wanted to like this book. When I heard that its 25-year-old author had scooped the Orange Prize, I found my inevitable flash of envy quickly extinguished by a tsunami of admiration for a brave decision on the part of the jury and hope that here at last was an indication that the great and the good of the literary world might be budging up to make room for some new talent. Please be good, please be good, I willed the coiling circle as I watched  it spiral the text down out of the ether on to my Kindle. Please let me enjoy it!

I got part of my wish: The Tiger’s Wife was good. It was very well done. But did I enjoy it? Did I, hell.

The reason for this boils down to two words: ‘magical realism’ (or ‘fabulism’, if you prefer). Call it what you will, I can’t stand the stuff. In fact, it’s been the thorn in the side of my reading career ever since I fumbled Nights at the Circus down off the bookshop shelf aged 12 or thereabouts. Give me any book that trades off blending elements of the enchanted with the ‘real’ world and it’s as though some sort of reverse magic is in play as far as I’m concerned, transforming books that are hailed as masterpieces into dull exercises in creating something out of very little before my very eyes.

At the touch of my bewitched fingers, the greatest works in the fabulist canon wither into tedium. Midnight’s Children? Abracadabra: four hundred and fifty pages about a man with a blocked nose.  One hundred years of solitude? Loved the image of the galleon encrusted with orchids, but — Kaboom! — as far as the rest went, about six months of solitude would have covered it for me (the same doesn’t go for Marquez’s extraordinary autobiography, Living to tell the tale, by the way, which I will love until I die).

What makes it worse is that it’s not even as though I can have the satisfaction of thinking that the writing is bad. I can see that it isn’t. I can recognise Marquez’s masterful lyricism, Carter’s eye for the fantastic and Winterson’s way with the grotesque. In the case of The Tiger’s Wife, which (just in case you thought this post might give you some idea of what the book is actually about) follows a young female doctor as she pieces together the strange myths surrounding her grandfather’s life and death in some unspecified Slavic country, I can admire the neat plotting and the way the threads cross and complement each other. I can even — and here’s the real curveball — salute the way Obreht strikes up suspense and tension, reeling the reader on, without feeling the slightest desire to turn the page.

I know there are plenty of people who would disagree with me though. And I’m game to be converted, so if you know of some magical realist gems that might break the spell (preferably stories by girls if you want me to look at them before 2012), I’d be delighted to hear about them.

As far as The Tiger’s Wife goes, though, if you like magical realism, go knock yourself out with it. If you don’t, I doubt Obreht will change your mind.

Picture by WGyuri

Written by Ann Morgan

July 6, 2011 at 9:23 am

Marilyn French: The Women’s Room

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When I was at university, a supervisor picked me up on one of my essay writing habits. ‘Why do you always call the reader “he”?’ he asked. I replied that it was shorthand, that I couldn’t be bothered with adding the cumbersome ‘or she’ every third sentence, that the Elizabethans used to use ‘he’ as a neuter form (I was a cocky so-and-so) and that, as a woman, I was aware I could get away with it.

He looked at me kindly but sternly. ‘I think you need to think more carefully about the battles that have been fought about this issue,’ he said.

Marilyn French wouldn’t have needed such a reminder. Writing in the seventies, a few years after the crest of the second wave of feminism broke on western shores, she made the struggles of women for equal recognition and a voice in debate the lifeblood of her work.

Told from the perspective of Mira, a bright but deeply conventional woman who gradually learns to test and then finally reject the status quo she has been brought up with in small-town America, The Women’s Room blows apart accepted structures and forces readers to question whether what is is what has to be. It brings in the lives of numerous female characters, each of whom eventually runs up and smashes against the limitations of the world in which she is obliged to exist.

The book is so massive in scope (despite its domestic subject matter) that it’s tempting to think of it as a sort of female Odyssey, in which the heroine encounters a string of challenges in an effort to reach harmony and a true home. French would no doubt reject such a definition, however, as her narrative is nothing if not a struggle to find a way of articulating the mental fetters that bind women by breaking free of traditional masculine structures, Homeric epics and all.

Val, French’s most memorable and tragic character, puts it most succinctly:

‘We’re rebels against all establishments because we’re rebels against male supremacy, male surface bonding, male power, male structures. We want a completely different world, one so different that it’s hard to articulate, impossible to conceive of a structure for it’

And that’s the dilemma that makes the book so compelling: when all that’s biased and tainted is stripped away, precious little remains on which to build a new vision. Val has a stab at it, positing a sort of Utopian community not dissimilar to the Italian commune Germaine Greer sketches out in The Female Eunuch, but even she has to admit the vision is unconvincingly vague.

Witnessing the sad dissolution of the women’s lives, you can’t help but feel how difficult it is to envisage true equality in a system that is fundamentally constructed by and for men. We are all (men and women alike) so trapped in the world-view we’ve been fed and clothed in since we were born that imagining that there might be an alternative is challenge enough for most of us, let alone trying to thrash out what that alternative might look like.

Society, the book leaves you feeling,  would be entirely different if it had been constructed by women — not necessarily better, but very different. In such a world, instead of swallowing my arrogance and adding ‘or she’ into my assignments, I might not have been writing essays at all.

Picture by Galdo Trouchsky. With thanks to Georgina for recommending The Women’s Room.

Written by Ann Morgan

June 25, 2011 at 9:06 am

Rosamond Lehmann: The Weather in the Streets

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One of my favourite things about reading books from eras past is those rare flashes of insight that remind me that I’m really no different from people who’ve gone before. ‘Stop thinking you’re so sophisticated,’ the best writers say, ‘Stop thinking that you invented sex, irony, hair removal [or whatever it might be]: you’re much more similar to these folk than you can even begin to imagine.’

That doesn’t happen in Rosamond Lehmann‘s The Weather in the Streets. There is not one single, isolated insight. Instead, the whole book is soaked in universal female experience; so much so that you forget you’re reading and feel rather as though you have been granted privileged access to the interior monologue of the woman sitting across from you on the bus as she thinks through the things that happened to her last year.

Told from the perspective of Olivia, an early thirty-something who has separated from her husband and rents a room in a wealthy single friend’s London pad, this 1936 classic unfolds the germination, blossoming and consequences of her affair with a married childhood friend. It charts her progress from emotionally fettered, overgrown adolescent to seasoned woman, throwing up startling glimpses of the mental cages that the people around her live in along the way.

Lehmann is a fearless writer. Not only does she lay bare the terrors and neuroses that riddle us all and wade freely in the waters of the forbidden — homosexuality, drug use and back-street abortions being just a few of the topics she takes on — she also takes the rules of writing and snaps them in two.

Her promiscuous use of both the first and third person voice would make a creative writing tutor weep. Indeed, it would make nonsense of most writer’s work, but Lehmann’s style is so distinctive, and her touch so deft, that it merely serves to heighten our sense of being in Olivia’s world by showing us the ambivalent way she sees herself — sometimes ‘me’, sometimes ‘she’. At its most magnificent, Lehmann’s writing has the fluidity of an impressionist painting, yet with all the details picked out in astonishing clarity.

She’s really funny, too. Best of all are the flashes of steel that puncture the pomposity and smugness of minor characters. A case in point is Olivia’s private response to a prudish acquaintance’s plans to embroider a set of eight chair covers for her dining room chairs.

‘I think it will be gay’  she said meekly, holding up the square with her dear little old-fashioned head on one side.

Nothing you did or conceived of could ever be gay; and do your children know yet they hate you?

That’s not to say the book’s perfect. The wrapping up, involving a host of secondary Bohemian friends who engineer a possible next step for Olivia, feels thin after the heady emotion of the preceding chapters. Although it does contain some nice touches and wicked vignettes — the scene where the drunk Adrian tries to chat up the beautiful teenage boy who features as the back end of the bull in the amateur play is great.

Taken as a whole, though, this book is extremely impressive, elegant, engaging and a lot of fun. Much like the lady who recommended it (thanks Jo).

Picture by jaybergesen.

Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

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A traditional woman

Women hate each other. At least you’d be forgiven for thinking that on the basis of most of the books I’ve read so far this year. Whether it’s Trapido’s bullied teenager Cat, Oates’ tormented misfit Minette, or the brilliant, yet ultimately ostracised Lily Bart, women’s cruelty to one another is a recurring theme in women’s lit.

Interestingly, with the slight exception of Lucy Caldwell’s Noor who passes the treatment she suffers on to the unfortunate Hong Chang Jones with interest, the story is nearly always told from the victim’s point of view.  Whether that’s because literary bods tend to be the bookish, solitary types prone to this sort of treatment, whether it’s because this makes for a powerful plot device, or whether the mechanisms of society are such that all women feel a degree of victimisation at some stage in their lives is not clear. But there’s no doubt that the passages dealing with the peculiar brand of subtle, mental destruction that women mete out to their peers are often among the most vivid and heartfelt in the books.

Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is no exception. Finding herself at a loose end when her husband of 30 years asks for a ‘pause’ from their marriage so that he can pursue his passion for a much younger colleague, middle-aged poet Faith divides her time between visiting her elderly mother and her cronies in their sheltered home, getting to know a vulnerable neighbour, and teaching a summer class for teenage girls in a quiet US town. Having been victimised herself at school, she is quick to spot a souring dynamic between her most precocious pupil and the rest of the group. When an incident makes what has been going on clear, Faith takes it upon herself to counter the girls’ vitriol and turn their negativity into strength.

It’s a surprising, if not entirely successful, book. From the Amazon blurb, you might easily assume this novel sits towards the trashy end of the commercial scale. If I’m honest, it was the lure of the plot about the unfaithful husband and the dilemma he presented that drew me in. I even felt slightly guilty as I downloaded it, thinking of the hundreds of fascinating, classic and worthy books on my list of recommendations and must-reads.

The reality was quite the opposite. As far as I know, there is no literary prize for the number of academic references in a single book, but if such an award existed Hustvedt would be a hot favourite. From Winnicott and Chomsky to Nietzsche and Kant, the whole galaxy of intellectual stars is brought to bear as Faith works her way through a maze of thoughts about gender, identity, love and truth. Pensees range from meditations on the female orgasm in the animal kingdom to the portrayal of the sexes in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

And that’s the problem: thought-provoking though it is, the book reads like a series of essays strung together with a loosely conceived plot. Strange devices, such as the bizarre Mr Nobody, are introduced and tail off unresolved and the central dilemma of the husband — surely the hook that will snare many a reader — is never adequately confronted. As the final pages approached, I found myself wondering when the story would begin.

There are also some irritating textual effects: any piece of writing that ends ‘Fade to black’, for example, except possibly a book about film, clearly takes itself far too seriously.

Still, you have to give Hustvedt credit for the intellectual rigour with which she presents her preoccupations and her attempt to do more than simply reflect the cruelty that troubles her. In a market where it’s tempting to drop the complexities and play to the gallery, this is a writer who bangs her own drum.

Fade to black.

Picture by Robert Wade

Written by Ann Morgan

June 9, 2011 at 9:36 am

Kiran Desai: The Inheritance of Loss

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A policeman at the gorkha statue in Kalimpong

VS Naipaul’s recent assertion that no women authors are equal to him unleashed an avalanche of comments from readers and writers around the world. Among the arguments advanced in the Nobel Prize-winner’s defence was the suggestion that women wordsmiths tend to focus on narrow, domestic topics and leave the empire building to the boys. Women, bless ’em, the implication was, can’t get their pretty little heads round politics and have no need to try when there are big, strong writers like Naipaul around to do the thinking for them.

If evidence were needed against such a ridiculous argument, then Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss surely provides plenty. Set in the 1980s, in the remote community of Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas, the book follows the fortunes of three characters who spend their days alone together in a crumbling villa in the jungle, each locked in his or her own neuroses, obsessions, memories and fears.

While the curmudgeonly judge broods over his chessboard, plagued with recollections of the wife he once cruelly drove away, his orphaned granddaughter beguiles the long hours with dreams of her earnest, impoverished tutor from the slum down the hill. Meanwhile, their cook pines for letters from his emigrated son, who, unbeknownst to him, is tasting the bitter side of the immigrant experience in NYC.

So wrapped up is each of them in his or her own concerns, that they are oblivious to the currents of anger and bitter hatred swirling about the region until the crusade for a separate state of ‘Gorkhaland’ literally invades their home. Yet, as the insurgency gathers pace and atrocity is heaped upon atrocity, they each struggle to break out of their isolation and forge the bonds of affection and understanding that will ultimately save them and, perhaps, their homeland.

Having been lucky enough to spend a few days in Kalimpong recently, I can vouch  for the fidelity of Desai’s evocation of what is a fragile, enchanting and truly moving place. From the tawdriness of the town bazaar, to the steaming momos (dumplings) at Gompu’s shack, and the mountain mist ‘charging down like a dragon, dissolving, undoing, making ridiculous the drawing of borders’, Desai captures the character of the Darjeeling hills and bodies it forth in all its exuberance, madness, wistfulness and colour. She deserves her Booker Prize for this alone.

Yet her portrayal of the complex politics of the region, which has been parcelled up and handed between kings, empresses and governments for centuries, and the violent separatist passions that simmer and flare among rival groups there, is equally strong. With a little probing, the wilderness that at first seems so idyllic and peaceful reveals itself as a warren of grudges and suspicions, in which tensions mount and occasionally explode. 

Desai captures this mixture of sleepiness and sudden, violent action perfectly. In fact, if anything, it informs the book a little too much, being subsumed into the plot so that it too moves sleepily, punctuated here and there by frenetic events, and finally fades into the mist. While some readers may find this frustrating, no-one can dispute Desai’s skill in getting under the skin of the society she portrays and tracing the threads that connect individual lives to the making and breaking of nations. Naipaul himself could do no more.

Photo by Steve Lennon.

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