4.50 From Paddington (1957) by Agatha Christie

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Only a few weeks after swearing off Miss Marple altogether I’ve been lured back. All it took was the discovery of this book, in all its lurid 1950s glory, in a second-hand shop and I forgot entirely about all my previous grumblings. I was actually on the hunt for a hard-to-find large-print book for my grandad for Christmas; no joy there but I did in the process of the search buy four books for myself including this one…. Ooops.

In spite of my reservations about Nemesis, the last Marple book I read (eurgh), I was really excited by this because it’s one of the Christie books that seems to be generally fairly highly regarded. I’ve seen two TV adaptations – the original Margaret Rutherford and the more recent Geraldine McEwan one – but even though I was pretty sure I could remember the identity of the murderer I couldn’t remember the hows and the whys of it all. In this one Mrs McGilliguddy is travelling home from Paddington station one evening when she witnesses a woman being strangled through the window of an overtaking train. Despite some searching no body is immediately discovered by the police and she has a hard time convincing anyone to believe her story except, of course, her dear old friend Miss Jane Marple.

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Marple barely puts down her knitting for this one. Instead she identifies the sinister Crackenthorpe family as the most likely suspects and persuades her latest minion, Miss Eylesbarrow, to take up the post of housekeeper in their home so she can do some nosing around on Marple’s behalf. The elderly sleuth does at least get up off her bum long enough to go and have a nice cup of tea with them all, bless her, but then there’s not really much for her to do until she swoops in at the end to solve the crime and take all the glory. Nice one Marps. It gives you the odd impression that there’s no real investigating going on here, particularly as Christie doesn’t really seem to have peppered this one with so many of the usual clues and red herrings (or at least not that I noticed). I can imagine that even if I hadn’t already known the identity of the killer I probably would have been fairly nonplussed by the solving of this mystery. It seems to come almost out of the blue so all you can really do is take Marple’s word for it that she’s picked out the true murderer.

Leaving aside the flimsiness of the evidence though I think this might be one of the better Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in a while. The atmosphere is taut almost throughout and there are some quite nice creepy touches along the way like the sarcophagus and old Mr Crackenthorpe’s proposition. It feels like the sort of mystery that Christie might have enjoyed putting together, much more so than Nemesis which now feels fairly lacklustre in comparison. I’m also pretty pleased with the fact that I started reading this on 20th December which is the day on which Mrs McGilliguddy witnesses the murder on the train. I like it when book time and real time coincide like that.

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The Warden (1855) by Anthony Trollope

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My year has been seriously low in Victorian novels so I made a last ditch attempt to address the balance before the end of 2017. I’ve been meaning to read The Warden for ages, at least two years as I distinctly remember picking this up at the Oxfam shop near where I used to work. It has been languishing on the shelf ever since, despite regular appearances on every single TBR list I’ve made since then. I’m the worst.

The Warden is the first of Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles and features Septimus Hawkings, the elderly guardian of a cathedral charity that provides shelter to ten poor old men in their final years.  The charity was established by a bequest in an ancient will and it provides Mr Hawkings with a lovely house in the cathedral grounds and a generous salary to live on in exchange for his guardianship of the ten elderly men. The problems start when a well-meaning young reformer, John Bold, starts investigating the terms of the will and decides that Hawkings, while innocent of any malice, has been receiving too much of the money originally intended to make those impoverished old men comfortable in their old age.

Mr Hawkings is clearly a well-meaning, honourable old soul and you end up feeling quite sorry for him as his name is dragged through the press and his old wards gradually turn against him. He’s caught in a horrible place between his wish to do the right thing morally, even though legally speaking he has done nothing wrong, and the demands of his Archdeacon, who insists that he hold fast and defend the church against its accusers. It doesn’t help of course that his daughter also happens to be in love with John Bold. It’s all very troubling. I expect Trollope may have been having a dig here at some of the well-known social reformers of the time who tried hard to help the poor but actually did more harm than good; there’s even a thinly veiled portrait of Dickens in the character of Mr. Popular Sentiment, the author of a self-righteous and sentimental novel condemning the almshouse system. I’m not sure whether Trollope is suggesting that it’s best to just let things be but I think I’m probably on the side of Mr. Popular Sentiment with this one. It doesn’t seem right to me that so much of the charity money should be syphoned off for the warden, even if he is a good and honest man.

I don’t think I enjoyed this as much as The Eustace Diamonds, which to date is the only other Trollope novel I’ve read. It’s fairly low on drama (although I enjoyed Eleanor’s hysterics) but it was an entertaining enough read and I loved Trollope’s characters. He’s so good at providing detailed insights into how the mind of each one works so you can always understand how they feel and why they behave as they do. None of them are entirely good or evil, they’re all just human and even Dr Grantly, the archdeacon who at first glance might appear to be the villain of the piece, is treated pretty fairly over all. This book was an important one to me as I hoped it would help me decide whether to read the rest in the Barsetshire series. The Warden is a slow and considered start but I have high hopes for the ones that follow.

I expect this will be my last post for now. Merry Christmas every one 🙂

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d Like Santa To Bring

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish

How has a it been a year since I last made one of these lists? Where has the time gone?! I’m sure time is speeding up.

Here are some of the books I’ve got my eye on this year. It’s selected highlights only as the real list of books I’d like to receive is actually enormous. Seriously.

1. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I feel like the only person who hasn’t read this yet.

2. An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve read a couple of Ishiguro’s books and they’ve been brilliant but this one has escaped me so far.

3. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by by Madeleine Thien. Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about this book. I’m intrigued.

4. Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg. I added this to my wishlist after it was nominated for the Booker International earlier this year.

5. Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Despite calling myself a Bronte fan Jane Eyre remains the only novel I’ve read by Charlotte. It’s high time I branched out.

6. We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. I managed to go almost all of my life so far without having heard of this and then suddenly I started seeing it cropping up all over the place. It’s clearly a sign.

7. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. This isn’t out until the new year but maybe Santa could put in a pre-order. They have Amazon in the North Pole, right?

8. A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman. All the reviews I’ve read make this sound weird and intense and completely compelling. I can’t wait.

9. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Given how much I loved White Teeth you’d think I’d have read more Zadie Smith novels by now, wouldn’t you? Yeah, me too.

10. Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada. This has been on my Amazon wishlist for ages, years in fact. Maybe this year?

Crikey. Writing this down makes me feel a little bit greedy!

The Luminaries (2013) by Eleanor Catton

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I finished The Luminaries a week ago and knew immediately that I’d need to give myself a bit of time to mull it over before I could do it justice here on the blog. I’ve given it a great deal of thought since then and now I’m ready – armed with a fried egg sandwich, a cup of tea and some ginger cake (a feast fit for kings) – to try and put my thoughts about this wonderfully complicated, intricately plotted epic novel into words. Whether those words will make sense or not is anybody’s guess but here goes.

“A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past.”

I have a special place in my heart reserved just for massive, door-stopper novels like this one. They give you so much more room to settle into the story, especially when the plot is as complex and meticulously put together as this one. The Luminaries takes place in New Zealand – making it the latest stop on my Around the World tour – in the newly established gold rush town of Hokitika. When Walter Moody arrives fresh off the boat to seek his fortune in January 1866 he discovers a town in turmoil; in the past few days a local hermit has been discovered dead in his shack, a prostitute has been found lying insensible in the street and a popular young gold digger has disappeared without a trace. Shortly after his arrival Walter inadvertently stumbles into a secret meeting called by twelve local men to try to make sense of these strange circumstances. As new information is revealed he’s drawn into a bizarre tale involving hidden gold, the opium trade, blackmail, revenge, long lost family and star crossed lovers.

Oh it’s complicated. So complicated, in fact, that whenever I skipped reading for a day or two I almost always had to go back and skim read several pages again to remind myself of all the tiny but very, very important details I might have forgotten in the meantime. I could never tell whether my natural forgetfulness might one day come back to haunt me. Thankfully it never really did, mainly because as new information is revealed the explanations are revised and the tale retold, often several times over so you’re never really sure how much of any version of the tale you can really believe. It’s the intricacy of the plot, combined with the way each character’s fate is intertwined with all the others, that makes this feel like an authentically Victorian novel; there’s something very Dickensian, or even a bit Wilkie Collins about the way Catton does this. It’s brilliant.

The first 360-odd pages of the novel are set during that first evening in the Crown hotel as the twelve gathered men recount their tales to the newly arrived Moody. From hereon each of the remaining 11 chapters gets shorter and shorter, reflecting the changing phases of the moon until by the end each one is shorter than its descriptive title. To take the astrological theme further Catton associates each of her main characters with a star sign and uses charts to determine their changing fortunes as the novel progresses. It’s a clever experiment in form and although I still don’t know what exactly it added to the novel I liked the idea and on the whole I can appreciate the way in which Catton draws all of this together. However, as I think this over now I keep coming back to those decreasing chapter lengths and I wonder whether, if I’m honest with myself, I might not have found them a little unsatisfying really. The problem, I believe, is just that the briefest shrunken chapters come right at the end of the novel when you’re hungry for more information, not less. It wasn’t really something I thought about until after it was all over though.

This is really the only small complaint I have to make about this novel. I’ve been raving about how much I enjoyed it to everyone who will listen ever since. It’s the cleverest, most engaging novel I’ve read in a really long time.

I can recommend doing a google image search for Hokitika if you’re looking for some striking travel porn to make you truly desperate to visit the west coast of New Zealand. Spectacular.

Top Ten Tuesday: Thankfulness

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week, in honour of our friends across the pond, is all about things we are thankful for.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Most of it isn’t going to make it onto this particular list, which I’m going to just devote to the bookish things in my life that I appreciate. Here you are:

1. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Did I mention that I’m loving this? You could ask me why but I’m not sure I’d be able to tell you.

2. Lunchtimes. I’ve recently made friends with two other like-minded people who also sneak to the same corner of our building for quiet reading at lunch time. We’ve started combining food, reading and general book related chit chat for an hour and it’s very nice indeed.

3. This blog and my blogging friends. Remember the days when I used to keep my opinions about books to myself? Nah, me neither. This is so much better and makes my reading experiences so much richer. Thanks for all for the support and recommendations over the past few years.

4. TV adaptations. I have both Amazing Grace on Netflix and the BBC’s adaptation of Howard’s End (god knows I love a costume drama) all saved up and ready to watch. Now I just need some time in which to watch them.

5. Amazon wishlists. Grrrr. I hate having to write this but having a list of all the books I want to read saved in one place where other people can view them too does make things a bit easier. I am rubbish at remembering what I’d like for Christmas.

6. Annual leave. I have one whole week off work coming up immediately after Christmas and I fully intend to spend every last second of it reading. It can’t come round quick enough.

7. The prospect of writing an end-of-year summary. I truly believe that writing a final sum up of my reading year could be my favourite part of the blogging calendar. I take it very seriously. I have a spreadsheet.

8. Winter ghost stories. Once I’ve done with The Luminaries I might try to squeeze in a couple more of those classic ghost stories. Reading them by firelight feels pretty cosy at this time of year.

9. My local library. It’s brilliant and I don’t say it enough.

10. This list being over. It was surprisingly difficult. Does this make me a bad person?

 

 

 

The Bookseller of Kabul (2002) by Asne Seierstad

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I am currently completely and utterly absorbed in Eleanor Catton’s book The Luminaries, which explains my recent short absence from the blog. I’ve been reading it for the past two weeks or so but am only just nearing the end of part 1 so I still have some way to go. It’s eye-wateringly complicated but luckily I’m so in love with it that I don’t really seem to mind that most of the time.

It’s a very different read to the last one I finished, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist and in September 2001 she entered Afghanistan to cover the ongoing crisis that followed the attacks on New York. In Kabul she met a successful bookseller, known as Sultan Khan in the book, and struck up enough of a friendship that she was able to convince him to allow her to live secretly amongst his family for four months as research for an upcoming book on the war and its impact on ordinary families. This is the result of that stay: a detailed portrait of Khan’s large family (with pseudonyms of course) as they pick out a life in cramped conditions amongst the country’s war ravaged capital. She begins her story with an account of Khan’s marriage to his second wife but goes on to devote a portion of her book to each member of the family in turn.

It’s for the Khan women that Seierstad clearly feels the most fondness and I like the fact that she deliberately tries to shine a spotlight on the experiences of those whom she feels are dominated and repressed by traditional Afghan culture. Khan is clearly a complex man and he and his sons don’t come out of the story quite so well; you get the distinct impression that Seierstad, as a western woman used to more freedom, must occasionally have found their behaviour frustrating. This is all explained in Seierstad’s simple and down to earth style which I really liked, particularly at those times when she provided brief explanations of the background to the war and life under successive Soviet, Taliban and pro-democratic governments. I don’t know a great deal about Afghanistan’s troubled past so I appreciated the uncomplicated writing style here.

Although she lived amongst the Khans for some time Seierstad never actually references herself in her story telling; instead she writes as a sort of omniscient narrator with a privileged insight into the private lives of those she’s observing. I’ve given this some thought now and I think that this is at the heart of my reservations about this book; it’s not obvious whether this is a piece of journalism or fiction and the fact that she never acknowledges her role makes you wonder how many of those secret thoughts and feelings she attributes to the Khan family are real and how many are imposed upon their subjects. Is it true, for example, that Khan’s younger sister hides love letters from her secret boyfriend in her room? And if so, why would Seierstad reveal that information in her book when she’s already gone to great lengths recounting truly horrifying stories of women who have been beaten or even killed by their families for the same behaviour? It makes no sense. And really, when I think about it, I’m not sure I believe that even spending four months fully immersed in a family from another culture would give you this sort of insight into who they are: only the Khans know that.

I think there’s a bit of me that wonders whether this is all a betrayal of the trust of the family who welcomed her into their home. And I also wonder whether I might have more faith in Seierstad if she was more open about how she came to have such an insight into this family, if instead of painting herself out of the picture and treating the Khans like characters in a novel she recounted real conversations and experiences that she shared with them. I can understand that her apparent absence from the storytelling might give the appearance of impartiality but I think more openness might add more credibility to her portrayal of the Khan family. Khan himself, and his relationships with those in family, are probably more nuanced than Seierstad gives them credit for and her tone could be criticised for being occasionally (and I’m sure unintentionally) condescending.

So on the whole it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on this one. I explained all of this to a friend the other day and was told that I’m possibly overthinking things here and that I might be better off just enjoying The Bookseller of Kabul as it is without worrying so much about all the details. She’s right of course; there’s definitely no enjoyment to be had if you question the reliability of every narrator in every book you read. Having said that, I’ve changed my mind about using this book for my next stop on the Around the World in 80 Books tour. I’ll wait until I’ve read Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed (still in the TBR pile) before I cross Afghanistan off the list entirely.

Top Ten Tuesday: Masters of Disguise

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TTT is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week is a Halloween freebie.

In my last two Halloween TTTs I looked firstly at literary villains and then at my favourite Agatha Christie mysteries. This year, in recognition of all those who’ll be dressing up in spooky costumes, I thought I’d list books featuring characters in disguise or, more broadly, characters who are not necessarily who they say they are. It’s difficult to do without revealing some big plot developments so I’ll keep my comments brief. Watch out for potential spoilers though.

1. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean’s efforts to leave his criminal past behind him quickly unravel when revolution is sparked on the streets of Paris. He navigates a precarious path, always wanting to do the right thing but risking losing everything if his true identity is discovered.

2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J K Rowling. There are hundreds of examples in the Harry Potter books of characters who try to pass themselves off as someone else using Polyjuice Potion or some other magical spell. It happens a couple of times in this book alone.

3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Edmond Dantes creates an elaborate fake identity as the mysterious Count in a plot so extravagant, so intricate that for much of the book you have no idea exactly what he’s trying to achieve. But when it happens it’s brilliant.

4. The Princess Bride by William Goldman. ‘Why do you wear a mask and hood?’ ‘I think everybody will in the near future,’ was the man in black’s reply. ‘They’re terribly comfortable.

5. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. There’s so much cross dressing and disguising going on in Shakespeare’s plays its difficult to know where to begin. I love Viola though.

6. Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks. I expect there are also probably hundreds of spy novels that would fit the bill here. Faulks’ story centres around a female agent who passes herself of as a French citizen in order to gather information on Nazi activities.

7. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It has just occurred to me that this is the fourth book set in France on this list. Coincidence? The switching of identities is only a minor plot device in this one but it is definitely the best part (with the exception of any scene featuring Madame Defarge. Obviously.).

8. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. I guess you could have any masked superhero/vigilante really but I chose this one because it feels quite real and very modern. It’s also pretty damn sinister.

9. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. I’m wracking my brains to remember whether the reader is party to the villains’ devious plans or whether the reader discovers the ruse later at the same time as the other characters. If anyone fancies reminding me in the comments that would be appreciated but if not I might just have to reread it (which would be frankly lovely).

10. Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine. I happened to catch the last half hour of the film a few weeks ago and was reminded of how much I enjoyed this book. An estranged father disguises himself as a nanny in order to spend some time with his children; it’s ridiculous and mad but a little bit brilliant.

These were the first ten I thought of but let me know in the comments if you think of any more….

The Enchanted April (1922) by Elizabeth von Arnim

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For the first time in a very long time I am nearly, oh so nearly, up to date with blog posts. All those half written reviews I had languishing on the laptop for weeks on end have now been posted as part of a three week long burst of activity which probably clogged up a few news feeds and inboxes; sorry about that.  Thankfully I might now be able to go back to more regular, less erratic blogging habits.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April is a really lovely book with which to welcome in this new era, especially because it perfectly demonstrates the impact of blogger recommendations on my ever evolving reading habits. I hadn’t really heard of von Arnim until a short while ago and it was only noticing the consistently favourable reviews popping up on the various book blogs I follow that encouraged me to give this one a try. Now that I’ve read it I can wholeheartedly add my voice to all those many others that sing its praises. It does mean that I’m very conscious that all the words I want to use in this post – ‘enchanting’, ‘gentle’, ‘delightful’, ‘magical’ and so on – are going to sound quite tired though. I’ll try to refrain from being too gushing or trite if I can.

 To those who appreciate wistaria and sunshine, small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. X, Box 1000, The Times. 

When the above advertisement appears in The Times, Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot see a chance to escape from their quietly miserable lives in wet, dreary London. To defray the cost they place an advert of their own in the paper and recruit two strangers as holiday companions: formidable Mrs Fisher and the young, cynical Lady Caroline Destler. Each woman arrives at beautiful San Salvatore with her own unhappiness in tow but after the petty squabbles and misunderstandings die down the relationships between them thaw and the castle begins to work its magic.

This is a warm, witty novel and one of my favourite things about it has to be von Arnim’s character observations. She moves carefully from one character to another, giving each one’s complex, changing, conflicting feelings her equal and undivided attention. They’re so beautifully, so minutely drawn that I could see traces of myself in each one (even when I didn’t want to). There’s something quite sincere and personal about the way she approaches her characters so that even when they’re at their most selfish they’re strangely sympathetic. In theory the spoilt Lady Caroline – whose wealth and beauty have become something of a burden – should be truly insufferable but I was absolutely on her side in every possible way. Of course it must be hard to be so attractive to everyone. Of course she needs peace and quiet in which to take stock of herself. Of course she needs a retreat from all those ‘grabbers’ out there. Maybe I too was seduced by her ethereal looks and melodious voice.

It probably goes without saying that I was also a huge fan of the setting. I read somewhere that the castle of San Salvatore is based on a real medieval castle on the Italian Riviera in which von Arnim spent some happy summer months. Her descriptions of the castle gardens are so evocative. You can feel the heat of the sun through the pages and smell the wisteria on the breeze.

Of course, no novel is perfect and I was a little disappointed by the way in which von Arnim wraps everything up towards the end; I’m clearly a bitter, resentful person because I still can’t forgive the menfolk their poor behaviour quite so easily. It troubled me that none of the real issues at the heart of all the loneliness in this novel were really addressed and I finished with an awful niggling feeling that maybe the magic of San Salvatore wouldn’t continue to work after the characters returned home. But I am trying not to think about that one too much. This novel is so damn charming that you can’t let negative feelings like that hang about for too long.

The Story of the Bagman’s Uncle (1837) by Charles Dickens

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Image courtesy of VictorianWeb

The latest instalment in my collection of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories is extracted from The Pickwick Papers. The extraction isn’t quite seamless – it begins and ends rather strangely and there’s no explanation of who the bagman is or what we’re doing here – but it does just about work, I think, as a standalone tale. It makes you wonder, though, why they didn’t just pick one of Dickens’ many actual ghost stories for this compilation rather than go to the laborious task of untangling one from a much larger novel. I have many unanswered questions about this collection. It’s odd.

Anyway, the story goes that after a raucous night with some dear friends the bagman’s uncle is stumbling drunkenly home through the dark streets of Edinburgh when he comes across a yard full of old, discarded mail coaches.

The doors had been torn from their hinges and removed; the linings had been stripped off, only a shred hanging here and there by a rusty nail; the lamps were gone, the poles had long since vanished, the ironwork was rusty, the paint was worn away; the wind whistled through the chinks in the bare woodwork; and the rain, which had collected on the roofs, fell, drop by drop, into the insides with a hollow and melancholy sound. They were the decaying skeletons of departed mails, and in that lonely place, at that time of night, they looked chill and dismal.

He’s rather taken with the sight of them but his efforts to make a closer inspection ultimately lead to his being whisked away on a ghostly journey through the night with two ruffians wielding swords and a beautiful (of course) young lady for company. There’s a duel, a further flight through the night, a kiss and then the uncle awakens to find himself back in the yard nursing his hangover.

Despite my misgivings about the choice of story I did quite like this one. It isn’t remotely spooky but it did give me half an hour of strangely jolly, swashbuckling enjoyment and, like the bagman’s uncle, I too was quite taken with the image of those dilapidated mail coaches glinting in the moonlight. It suffers from the sort of overly sentimental portrayal of women that I often notice in Dickens’ novels but I can sort of forgive it in this case since the object of all that adoration is a ghostly spectre and not supposed to be an actual living, breathing person. It’s interesting to note how much the bagman’s uncle apparently likes to go about embracing and stealing kisses from unsuspecting barmaids though. These were indeed different times.

Since finishing this and The Tale of Mary Ancel I’ve returned to novel reading and have begun Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April which I’m enjoying immensely. I’m hoping to get a few more of these ghost stories in before the end of the year though.

War & Turpentine (2013) by Stefan Hertmans

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We turn tough and get sentimental; we laugh as we cry; our life’s a waking slumber, a slumberous wake; we quarrel with our arms around each other; we lash out at each other while shrugging our shoulders; no part of our bodies or minds remains intact; we breathe as long as live and live merely because we are breathing, as long as it lasts. 

Before the Booker International long-list came out earlier this year I hadn’t heard of Stefan Hertmans but I immediately added some of the finalists, including this novel, to my ever growing to-read list as soon as the news came out. I heard so many positive things about it in the months that followed but resisted getting myself a copy until I went to the library to collect Silkworm a week or two ago and it just happened to be prominently displayed on the neighbouring shelf. Obviously it was destiny.

It took me a little while to get through War & Turpentine; not because it’s a particularly dense book but because it soon became clear that this was one worth taking my time over. It’s a strange novel that seems to straddle a couple of genres but essentially it’s based on the memories of the writer’s grandfather, Urbain Martein, which were written down in three notebooks in the later years of his life. The notebooks were passed to Hertmans on Martein’s death but not read until three decades later. In the first and last parts of the novel Hertmans combs over his grandfather’s life and work pre- and post-war: a poor childhood in Ghent, his father’s career restoring frescoes in churches, his early training in an iron foundry, art school, love, marriage and eventual death. Cutting through Hertman’s story is Urbain’s personal account of his experiences in the Great War, as they were written down in painstaking detail many years later. This is the backbone of the novel and its looming presence colours everything you read before and after.

It’s a little difficult to tell where the line between fiction and memoir really lies here, particularly because Hertmans illustrates his story with images of his grandfather’s sketches, paintings by the great masters he loved and photographs of the places he knew. I think this might be one of the things I liked most about this novel though. It’s almost like Hertmans deliberately allows the edges between art and real life to become a bit blurred because, for his grandfather, they were part of the same story. It occasionally makes for some quite painful reading but in amongst the poverty of Urbain’s childhood and the grim horror of the trenches Hertmans shines a light on moments that have the power to both devastate you and uplift you at the same time. One short scene, which takes place in a  small dockyard church while Urbain is in Liverpool recovering from wounds received at the front, made me quite emotional and I found myself blinking back tears and swearing at myself to keep it together at least until I was in a less public place. Hertman really touchingly shows all the brutal inhumanity of the world (a description of a gelatine factory will make your eyes water) alongside the wondrous and the beautiful: Urbain’s paintings, his mother, his short love affair, the Liverpool church, the beautiful landscape surrounding the battlefields, the sight of animals escaping the warefare… It’s a sad novel really but the contrasts give it a kind of hopefulness.

Hertman’s skill as a poet is evident here in the touchingly lyrical language. It’s so finely crafted it feels almost like a delicate work of art in itself. I really enjoyed this.