Finally finishing this book at the weekend was a truly wonderful, joyous thing that can be traced back to a very mundane circumstance several weeks ago: I had to work between Christmas and New Year and while my colleagues were at home enjoying happy family fun times I enjoyed three beautifully lonely lunch hours in the staff room. A solid hour of uninterrupted reading time is pretty unheard of for me right now so the chance to do it three days in a row was a tremendous luxury. Like Christmas all over again in fact. It came at just the right time and stopped me giving up on Katherine just as I was feeling at my most fed up and demoralised about my failure to make progress. Hurray for Christmas miracles.
Katherine is a bit of a departure from my usual reading material. I enjoy historical fiction but usually avoid romance and I had a vague idea that this was a sort of epic love story complete with fair maidens, chivalry and jousting. I quickly realised that I wasn’t quite right about that (although there is jousting, be warned). Even if Katherine didn’t appear at number 95 on the BBC’s Big Read I might have been keen to read it anyway since it features a bevy of my favourite Plantagenets and the Plantagenets are always, always interesting, mainly because of all the (figurative) backstabbing and (literal) murdering they did during their four centuries in charge. The subject of this novel is Katherine Swynford, the daughter of a poor knight who, at the age of fifteen, joined the royal court of Edward III. The novel takes you from Katherine’s childish infatuation with the King’s son John of Gaunt through to their torrid love affair and the decades she spent as his not-very-secret mistress. Katherine wasn’t to know, of course, that in spite of quite publicly being branded a harlot by her contemporaries, she and John would eventually establish a bloodline that can be traced right down through the centuries to the modern royals.
I love the depth of the detail in this novel; that, and the fact that Seton grants the same attention to the minor things – the real names of Katherine’s attendants for example, or the history of Sir Hugh Swynford’s Lincolnshire estates – as she does to the pivotal moments in the romance. It’s like there’s nothing so insignificant that she doesn’t think it worth writing down. I know some people really hate all that useless detail in a novel because it slows down the narrative but, for me at least, it makes the historical setting really believable and kind of immersive. Each time you close the book it’s a supreme effort to re-acclimatise to the real world, you almost have to shake the fourteenth century out of your brain and force yourself to remember where you are. I quite like it, but I’m weird like that. It helps, of course, that the Plantagenets are such good story fodder. Seton handles them well so that there’s just the right amount of domestic and political treachery for it to be entertaining without becoming completely absurd.
I wasn’t massively in love with some of the characterisation and at times I have to say that I found Katherine utterly, utterly exasperating. After spending much of the book demurely complying with the Duke’s every whim it made quite a nice change when she occasionally stopped all that half-hearted moral wrangling and made a decision for herself for once, even if it did jeopardise her own happiness. You wonder whether the Duke would have loved her quite so much if she hadn’t been so content to sit around in a castle for years, quietly hoping for the occasional visit, bearing bonny children and mysteriously never losing her looks or figure. I know that this sort of forced inactivity was a reality for a lot of medieval women but still, I needed something more here to make me really warm to Katherine or to root for her love affair. Reading it at a distance of sixty years it comes across as a little dated and even very slightly cheesy.
Immediately after finishing Katherine I began Vile Bodies and loved it from the start. I’m about half way through now and having a rollicking fun time; isn’t it funny how you can switch so easily from one response to another?
It occurred to me, shortly after I began Things Fall Apart, that this might be the first time that I’ve read a novel set in Africa written by an African. At first I thought that this was sad but probably not a big deal since I am at least trying to reverse the trend now; but after thinking about it some more I realised that in effect this means that my entire literary picture of a whole continent has been filtered through the pens of western writers. I was surprised by how embarrassed I was by this realisation but it reminded me exactly why I wanted to take part in the Around the World in 80 Books challenge. With all this lurking at the back of my mind I begin the African leg of my reading journey in pre-colonial Nigeria.
Things Fall Apart is the story of Okwonko, the proud, forthright son of a man notorious for his laziness and drinking. Determined to shake off his father’s disgrace, Okwonko fights hard to rise to a position of leadership in his Igbo village, until he has a profitable farm, three troublesome wives, many children and an impressive reputation as a warrior. The first part of the book follows Okwonko’s rise, the second his sudden fall from grace, and the third the growing confrontation between his community and British colonisers. It’s this part of the novel that’s most unsettling I think.
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
The blurb on the back of my book (the 1985 African Writers edition if you’re interested) consisted of a quote from The Observer that contained a massive spoiler so I’ll be more tactful and end my synopsis here.
Okwonko isn’t a likeable character. He’s obsessed with proving his own manliness and is dismissive of men who aren’t as strong. He beats his wives, is cruel to his children and advocates war as the only course of action in most situations. It says a lot, then, that he’s so compelling. I was grateful for those brief glimpses of light in his character (when he secretly follows his sick daughter to the cave of the oracle, for example), even though he sees them as moments of weakness in himself. By the end of the novel, as he’s doggedly trying to prevent the destruction of his world by the colonisers, I pitied him. I felt like I understood what the community meant to him and why he couldn’t let go. Achebe couches this clash of cultures in very simple, unemotive language. In fact it’s the starkness of the book that probably makes it all the more powerful.
After finishing Things Fall Apart, I decided to have a break from the challenge so I reached for the shortest book in my TBR pile: Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End. I didn’t know anything about it at the time but the unintended irony of this is that I now find myself reading a book about North Africa written by a Brit. Ho hum.
I’m still hurrying through Go Set A Watchman – just 30 pages to go now! – but in the meantime I thought I’d post a couple of thoughts about this book, by another Lee, which I read last week.
Cider With Rosie has been on my radar for ages, mainly because I know several people who were ‘forced’ to read it at school. I don’t know if it’s still on the curriculum but I can imagine that if I’d read it as a teenager I’d have found it really dry and unexciting. It’s a shame because, reading it as an adult, I was really impressed and wondered why I’d not bothered with it before.
It’s an autobiographical account of Lee’s childhood in the rural Gloucestershire village of Slad. Instead of detailing everything that happened in his life in chronological order Lee groups his memories by theme, so there are chapters devoted to local characters, the changing seasons, his school days and so on. I think this makes it more like a portrait of life in a rural village immediately after the first war, before cars and televisions started to make their mark and the world became a much smaller place. It’s nostalgic and a bit sentimental but beautifully written.
In fairness I can’t say that I loved it immediately. I found the opening chapter jarring and it then ambled along quite slowly for ages with nothing much happening. It took me a while to adjust to the slow pace but it certainly gave me plenty of time to take in Lee’s wonderful descriptions of the countryside and his family. Some of these feel almost effortlessly perfect. I particularly loved the chapter devoted to Lee’s mum, which was really moving. I ended up reading it twice.
“In trying to recapture the presence of my Mother I am pulling at broken strings. The years run back and through the pattern of her confusions. Her flowers and songs, her unshaken fidelities, her attempts at order, her relapses into squalor, her near madness, her crying for light, her almost daily weeping for her dead child daughter, her frisks and gaieties, her fits of screams, her love of man, her hysterical rages, her justice towards each of us children – all these rode my mother and sat on her shoulders like a roosting of ravens and doves.”
The title is a thinly veiled euphemism for an event that occurs late in the book, so I was amused to find the following handwritten inscription inside the front cover of my second hand copy: “Shouldn’t it be ‘Cider With Lil?’ Love Shep, Feb 1983”. I like it when I get a hint of the previous owners of my books; this felt like I’d stumbled across some personal private joke between friends!