Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys

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And if the razor grass cut my legs I would think ‘It’s better than people.’ Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin – once I saw a snake. All better than people. Better. Better, better than people.

Thanks to my lovely friends and family (and a carefully curated Amazon wishlist) I received a ton of new books for my birthday in June. They’re currently stacked up under the coffee table and will likely remain there for ages and ages while I slowly work my way through them. It’s not often I have nice things to say about Amazon (who need to pay their damn taxes and treat their staff a bit better) but I do kind of love the wishlist feature. It makes birthdays for lazy people like me so much easier.

Wide Sargosso Sea was the first to graduate out of the unread pile. I’d been curious about it for quite a while; it came highly recommended by a friend and I knew enough about it to suspect that we’d probably get along quite well. This novel is Rhys’s attempt to give Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Mason, Jane Eyre’s original madwoman in the attic, a voice and a life before Bronte’s classic story. The first part of the novel is told from the viewpoint of Antoinette and gives an unsettling account of her lonely childhood in Jamaica in the 1830s, shortly after the abolition of slavery. After a traumatic start for Antoinette the novel jumps ahead several years to the days immediately after her marriage to Mr Rochester (who’s never actually named in the novel). His narrative is one of resentment at having been coerced into a marriage with a Creole girl he doesn’t care for and later suspicion when he finds cause to doubt her. For the last few short chapters the novel again leaps forward in time, this time to a point where it overlaps with Jane Eyre; a wild, forgotten Antoinette is now captive in the attic of Thornfield while Rochester lives his life below, trying to forget that she ever existed.

As a Jane Eyre lover I found this last chapter most fascinating of all but in truth I was pretty taken with the whole of Wide Sargasso Sea. It had occurred to me before now that for a character so vital to Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is given very little page time by Bronte. In effect she isn’t much more than a dramatic plot twist. When I first read the book as a teenager I pushed aside the niggling feeling at the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, Rochester hadn’t treated his first wife (or Jane) very fairly; I argued that the book was a product of its time and that really Rochester, who never claims to be an honourable or a good man, was probably doing her a kindness by not having her locked up in some appalling asylum somewhere. I expect these are the kinds of things that many readers consider and while I’m not usually a fan of prequels I love the fact that Rhys must have wondered about some of the same things.

Rhys’s Rochester is aloof and occasionally cruel, much as he is in Jane Eyre, but she doesn’t really depict him as a liar or suggest that he behaves any differently to other men of his class and time would have done in his situation. Antoinette, on the other hand, is traumatised, desperate, childlike and distant; although she narrates much of the novel she still feels strangely shadowy towards the end. Rhys plays up her sense of isolation throughout the novel by suggesting that she doesn’t belong anywhere; as the daughter of a former slave owner she’s reviled by the island’s black inhabitants but as a Creole she’s not considered civilised by the white Europeans, including by Rochester.  She’s stuck in some lonely, untouchable place between the two so by the end of the novel you’re not really sure who the real victim is here. Were the seeds of Antoinette’s madness sewn in her childhood or was she driven to insanity by her husband’s cruelty? Were Rochester’s suspicions about his wife well founded or did he willingly accept an explanation that offered him an easy way out? I was still pondering some of these questions a week after I’d finished the novel.

Wide Sargasso Sea provided a welcome chance to tick off another destination on my Around the World in 80 Books tour. For Antoinette Rhys evokes the West Indian islands of her childhood as an almost indecently lush, green garden but for Rochester it’s an overwhelming contrast to Thornfield:

“Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.”

It’s claustrophobic and disorientating, much like this novel. And I mean that in a good way.

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The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus

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There have been as many plagues as wars in history ; yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise… 

I picked this up in a charity shop after reading a great online article (that I now can’t find) about the life of Albert Camus and how his experiences in the French resistance helped shape this particular novel. It struck a chord with me at the time, partly because the resistance story was incredible but also because, and I’m aware this might sound a bit grim, I’m kind of fascinated by the history of the plague. It’s obviously not the death and the suffering that do it for me; rather, as an ex-history student, I find it quite interesting to consider how plague epidemics changed the world around them. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction books on the subject but never any fictionalised accounts until the article on Camus encouraged me to give this one a try. And I’m very pleased I did.

The genius of Camus here is that this isn’t really a book about plague. Well, actually it is, but rather than dwelling on all the gory details just for the sake of it he uses his tale of a fictional plague epidemic in his home town of Oran in Algeria to draw subtle comparisons with the experiences of those living under Fascist rule. For the citizens of Oran it begins quietly enough, with the death of a few rats, but it’s not long before the city is overwhelmed and the populace is in a state of panic. The unnamed narrator’s account of the epidemic describes Oran’s year in enforced quarantine in minute detail; he describes the mounting death count, the daily struggle to survive, the fear of being forgotten by the outside world, the dwindling power of hope and the eventual abandonment of all those things that used to give life meaning.

Much of the novel is focused on Dr Rieux and the men who join him in trying to prevent the further spread of the disease. Their stories are told partly through diaries, letters and sermons, so they’re a welcome contrast to the hard, cold precision of the report style used elsewhere. In focusing on the efforts of these men in particular, and in switching the format every now and again, Camus ensures that occasional moments of friendship and kindness shine through every now and again. In fact, Camus often stresses how it is love alone that brings Oran’s inhabitants through these darkest days and keeps them fighting.

The Plague is a powerful novel and a genuinely moving one at that. The writing is simple but commanding; at times I felt so immersed in this novel it was like living in the quarantine zone myself. I shared in Rieux’s despair. I found it completely absorbing and quite disconcerting at times.

 

Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie

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Knees and nose, nose and knees.

Apparently I first attempted to read this book at the height of my BBC Big Read glory days, sometime c. 2006. I really have no memory of it but know it must have happened because ten pages in I found the address of a house I shared with some friends that year scribbled on a post it note, along with the monthly rent, number of bedrooms and phone number of the letting agent. Clearly I didn’t finish the book then, although I can’t remember why I gave up on it, but having had it languishing on my shelf ever since, judging me, it seemed about time to pick it up again and have another go.

Midnight’s Children is actually a monumentally difficult book to write about and, at times, not an easy one to read either. Rushdie weaves together layers of fact, myth, rumour and prophecy so that you often can’t really tell what you’re reading. It’s beautifully done but it does make writing a succinct plot description quite tricky, partly because, if I’m brutally honest, I’m still not quite sure what exactly happens in this book. I can tell you that Saleem Sinai, our narrator, is the original midnight’s child, born on the stroke of the hour at the very moment India leaves its colonial past behind and emerges as a newly independent state. Saleem’s life story is knitted together with that of India so it becomes part family saga, part historical epic and part magical fantasy. Rushdie presents the reader with real events like presidential coups, the war with Pakistan and Bangladesh’s violent struggle for independence but he also throws in a snake-man, children born with remarkable powers, a spinster aunt who infuses dishes with her own bitterness and a small boy with the most powerful nose in all of history.

As a narrator Saleem is absolutely infuriating at times. He drops massive hints, strays off topic, abandons stories unfinished and occasionally just invents stuff. He admits to a certain amount of fabrication, acknowledging that sometimes his dates don’t add up and that, to outsiders, some of his bigger claims must sound of preposterous. It’s his faults that make him such a compelling narrator and his sense of his own centrality to the history of a nation, his belief that his actions dictate the future of India, make his story a consuming one even if you can’t ever work out how much of it has been invented, misremembered or embellished. Through him you get a strange sense of how overwhelming the past can be.

I confess to finding Midnight’s Children heavy going at times. While it’s sparklingly, beautifully written – I mean seriously, I’m in awe – it’s the kind of book that will tie you in knots if you’re not careful. I found that my own poor knowledge of Indian history let me down on many occasions and I had frequent cause to look up things I didn’t understand (some of my recent google searches: ‘Dacca’, ‘Sanjay Ghandi, ‘shikara’ ). I don’t mind doing that – I tend to do it with lots of books because I don’t like not knowing – but I seemed to be doing it more often than usual here. However, even if I’d had some expertise I think I’d have still found plenty to confuse me. Thankfully I managed to just about hold it all together so that I was never so baffled that I lost myself completely or was tempted to give up. As long as I paid vigorous attention, and had Dr Google to hand, I was never confused beyond endurance. Now that it’s over and my poor brain can relax a little I’m convinced that Midnight’s Children was worth the effort. I didn’t always enjoy it at the time but I can now only wonder at Rushdie’s attention to detail, his skill at layering story upon story and his ability to bring characters, countries and a whole nation’s history to life. It’s quite a feat really.

I had planned to read Dr Zhivago next but I’ve somehow managed to lose the copy I bought at the start of the year. How annoying… Now that I think about it, it’s probably for the best because I think I deserve, and would appreciate, something slightly easier for my next read.

The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jannson

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During the first weeks of the new year I went on a bit of a book buying bender and I’m now feeling quite spent and ashamed of myself. Thankfully the situation is finally under control; I am firmly back on the wagon and have not bought any new books in a month, despite having been sorely tempted on several occasions. Go me.

The Summer Book was bought at Waterstones during one of the above sprees. It came down to an agonising toss-up between this and Elizabeth von Armin’s Enchanted April but in the end this was £1 cheaper so… It’s been a welcome addition to my reading year and I kind of love it, which is weird because not a great deal happens at all. This is a semi-fictionalised story set on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago where Grandmother and six year old Sophia spend their summers. Sophia’s widowed father is also there but he’s almost peripheral; while he works at his desk Sophia and her grandmother potter about the island, exploring, watching the long tailed ducks and quietly enjoying each other’s company.

A write up in The Guardian, written when this book was reissued a few years ago, describes The Summer Book as ‘a butterfly released into a room full of elephants’ and ‘a masterpiece of microcosm, a perfection of the small, quiet read’. I can’t really say it better than that. For me the joy of The Summer Book lies in the simplicity of its central relationship. This gruff old woman, with her aching limbs and her tendency to dwell too much on the past, obviously loves the company of her curious, wilful grandchild, although neither of them would ever admit as much. They’re very similar at heart but Jannson never sentimentalises their relationship, overstates how much they learn from each other or exaggerates Sophia’s childishness. Her humour and lightness of touch are absolutely perfect and make this a really easy, gentle and enjoyable read.

It was quiet again. Sophia stood waiting on the shore where the grass lay stretched on the ground like a light-coloured pelt. And now a new darkness came sweeping over the water – the great storm itself! She ran towards it and was embraced by the wind. She was cold and fiery at the same time and she shouted loudly, “It’s the wind! It’s the wind!” God had sent her a storm of her own. 

There’s not a thing I can say in criticism of this book which makes this an unusually brief review. Actually that’s not quite true – I can tell you that as a result of this book I ‘wasted’ a good hour on Google images admiring pictures of islands in the Gulf of Finland when I should have been logging onto online banking. The Gulf has now leapfrogged its way up my list of ideal future travel destinations and I am sincerely regretting my lack of funds with which to finance such a visit.

His Bloody Project (2016) by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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I’ve probably mentioned a hundred times before that I’m a sucker for an unusual narrative style and particularly for stories told in letter or diary format. This book caught my eye last year, before it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, because of its subtitle: “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.” Hang on a second there, sunshine. Documents? Just my cup of tea. After that I fully intended to pick this up at the next opportunity but, as so often happens, promptly forgot about it as soon as something else came along. That’s just typical really. I spotted it again during some impromptu bookshop browsing a few weekends ago and then managed to read the whole thing before the weekend was over. That should tell you how daft I was to delay reading it for so long.

“One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone…”

In the preface to his novel Burnet describes this as a true story uncovered while he was researching his own family history in a Scottish archive. I don’t believe that’s actually true but it’s a clever layer to the fiction and adds a certain gravity to the tale he goes on to tell. The story he’s uncovered is that of seventeen year old Roddy Macrae who, we’re told, was charged with a horrific triple murder in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869. In this novel Burnet brings together all the original evidence relating to the trial that followed: the witness statements, post mortems, expert opinions, court transcripts and, most remarkably, Roddy’s own lengthy account of the events leading up to the crime. Roddy’s defence claims that he was suffering from a sort of temporary insanity at the time of the murders but would an insane man know he was insane? And if so, can you really trust anything he tells you?

This isn’t a straight forward crime/detective genre novel. Instead, as Burnet applies layer upon layer of information he leaves the reader to decide how far the evidence can be trusted and whether Roddy was really in his right mind at the time of the murders. I think the ‘documents’ format works really well in this respect as it means the reader can see the same man, and the same crime, from several different angles, each one with its own agendas and prejudices. Burnet’s restraint in handling all these different layers is evident here and it never feels disjointed or jarring. With hindsight I’m not sure that Roddy’s own account of the crime feels quite as historically authentic as some of the other reports but in some ways this works in the novel’s favour. It certainly creates a really atmospheric picture of this tiny, isolated community with its ancient customs, language, feuds and tensions.

It took me a while to realise that Burnet was deliberately leaving the ‘facts’ of the case open to interpretation by providing conflicting opinions and omitting certain details from Roddy’s memoir. One key piece of information mentioned briefly in a post-mortem report had me scratching my head for ages as it didn’t tally with Roddy’s own account, which I wanted to be truthful. It was at his point that I realised that there was clearly more to this tale than initially meets the eye and I spent much of my time from hereon waiting for a twist, a big reveal, that would suddenly make everything fall into place. However, I think by refusing to hold your hand or provide all the answers Burnet makes this a much more gripping, though unnerving, read. It’s the kind of book that will either leave you disappointed by the lack of answers or raking over the details in your head for days following. My response was much more like the latter.

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante

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I surprised myself with how much I was looking forward to jumping back into Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. My Brilliant Friend, which I read back in April, is still one of my favourite books of the whole year and I’ve been desperately impatient to get my grubby little hands on the follow up. It took a while – mainly because of that whole changing jobs/libraries thing – but it finally appeared on the reserve shelf, with its little white label marked with my name, last week and I was over the moon about it. I did a silent dance right there and then in the library. I finished the book in a week (not bad at my current reading pace) and I’m already thirsty for book three so I’ll be back there later this week to add my name to another reservation list.

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done. 

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.

 

The Story of a New Name begins almost precisely where My Brilliant Friend left off: with Lila’s marriage and Elena’s growing acceptance that her best friend is finally escaping the poverty and the violence of the neighbourhood they’ve known since childhood. I’ll let you guess whether that actually happens. In this novel Lila has chance to adjust to her new life as Signora Caracci while Elena reluctantly continues her studies, pining for Nino and quietly envying her old friend’s glamorous new existence. This is a surprisingly long (and tumultuous) novel; a lot happens and all I can really say, without giving too much away, is that the friendship between the two becomes increasingly complicated and troubled.

The weird thing about this novel is that my feelings towards Lila evolved almost in time with Elena’s, which almost proves how utterly convincing Ferrante’s writing is. You can completely understand the fascination Lila holds for those around her and why they all seem to love her and hate her in equal measure. She’s at her most ferocious here; she lashes out at others to compensate for her own humiliation and sometimes she seems to do it with real relish. On the other hand you also get a real sense of how terribly afraid she is. You never doubt that she’d happily claw your eyes out to get what she wants, to prove everyone wrong and to salvage some sense of herself from her unhappy existence. Now that I think it over fully I wonder whether she might be one of the realest characters I’ve ever come across. Elena never manages to be quite so compelling but I think that’s probably the whole point. In her reluctance to dwell too much on the details of her own life away from the neighbourhood we get a very clear message that without Lila there’s not much worth dwelling on. Their relationship is frequently exasperating but it’s also engrossing and, at times, horribly distressing to witness. You wish that they weren’t quite so quick to push each other away when times get tough.

Ferrante’s writing, as I’ve now come to expect, is like nothing I’ve really read before. It’s brutal, intense, fierce even, and somehow quite urgent. It really emphasises the volatility of the relationships and the stark realities of life in this violent but rapidly changing neighbourhood. I find it emotionally exhausting at times but in a strangely positive sort of way, almost like I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know what will happen next. There aren’t many authors who have that ability to provide such a brilliantly nuanced insight into a relationship or who leave you quite so emotionally drained afterwards.

Bring on book 3 🙂

The Truce (1960) by Mario Benedetti

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A weird thing happened with this book. For the first two thirds at least I was fairly ambivalent about it: I liked the diary format, the intimate tone, the protagonist’s careful, measured approach to his affair with a colleague… but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. At times I think I felt a bit frustrated with the self-indulgent soul searching of the main character; he was selfish, I thought, and his concern for the delicate feelings of his new lover seemed to be a front, a way of protecting himself from pain and embarrassment. A selfish, unlikeable protagonist shouldn’t usually bother me but I found it especially hard to get on board when he kept saying things like this:

I’ve never trusted women with numbers… During their menstrual period and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if they are normally a little silly they become complete imbeciles.

And this on his gay son:

I would have preferred that he turn out to be a thief, a morphine addict, an imbecile. I would like to feel pity for him but I can’t.

And later:

When a person is rotten there is no education that will cure him or any amount of attention that will straighten him out.

I know it’s absolutely unfair to judge 1950’s anywhere by the moral standards of Britain in 2016. I get that. And usually I do a pretty good job of ignoring this sort of thing when it crops up, which it inevitably does when you regularly read books that were written fifty years ago. But still, this time, for some reason I can’t explain, I found it really jarring. Maybe it’s just me being a bit sensitive.

Anyway, as I said, my feelings for this novel at first were pretty lacklustre and I didn’t feel that this was going to be a particularly memorable read. That’s until Benedetti reached through the pages and punched me in the face with a plot turn that I probably should have seen coming. When I reread the blurb afterwards I realised, Oh yeah, of course that was always going to happen, it had to happen. It was at this point that I finally understood why he’d put us through all that moral wrangling, all that painful reminiscing and pondering on the future. It made sense. I knew now just how much Martin had staked on this relationship and why its sudden conclusion was so absolutely devastating. He’d been given a glimpse at a new happiness, a chance to feel really alive for the first time. But it had all been a dirty trick.

So, it’s a weird review this one. Can I say I liked it? I think so, but I’m not sure. Despite my initial reservations I closed the book feeling quite moved by it and wishing there was a happier ending for Martin Santomme. I was rooting for him in the end.

A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot

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I might have finished this a bit sooner if it hadn’t been for the Olympics. I’m definitely not complaining – after the dramas of the last few months it’s nice to turn on the TV to something that’s worth getting excited about, isn’t it? But it does mean I’ve been squeezing reading time around sports events. Much of this book was read in between gymnastics and cycling heats!

It’s not the ideal way to read anything, especially A Very Long Engagement which, I found, demands quite a bit of attention if you’re to follow it thoroughly. The novel opens in early January 1917 with five wounded soldiers sentenced to a barbaric punishment for cowardice in the line of duty. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, fiancée of one of those men, discovers that her lover may not have been killed in the fighting that day as she’d been led to believe and so she begins a quest to uncover precisely what happened to those men and why it was covered up.

I’m not able to write today, so a fellow Landis is writing this for me. Your face is all lit up, I can see you. I’m happy, I’m coming home.

As I said, it isn’t the kind of book you can only pay half attention to, in part because Japrisot frequently refers back to small details hidden in earlier parts of the novel, details that didn’t seem worth noticing at the time. Mathilde hounds witnesses and compiles hundreds of statements so over the course of the novel you essentially end up reading varying accounts of the same story from different points of view, again and again and again. Many of these stories are garbled, third hand and half forgotten. Some witnesses are helpful; others are evasive. You might think that it’d make for a repetitive, slow narrative but really I quite enjoyed this meticulous combing over of the details. Mathilde is a much more conscientious investigator than me: I forgot every detail within a page or two but you can bet your ass she was lodging them in her brain for safe keeping.

It’s with Mathilde, in fact, that I think Japrisot really excels here. I love her pig-headedness, her refusal to be pitied, and her shrewd ability to sum up others. Without her at the helm I think this novel could easily get bogged down in all that detail but with her it becomes an intensely compelling journey. Japrisot gets her tone of voice just right so that she’s sarcastic without being alienating, single-minded without becoming utterly exasperating. He also subjects the reader to all of her whims; sometimes you feel like she’s sharing her journey with you but at others she keeps the reader at arm’s length. By the end of this novel I cared about Mathilde enough to not mind the fact that the solution to the mystery rests on a rather unlikely coincidence; I was just glad she’d found some answers.

Given the subject matter I was relieved that A Very Long Engagement never strays into mawkish territory and again I think that’s something to do with Japrisot’s portrayal of the clear headed Mathilde. I also think credit lies with the writing; it’s intimate in its depiction of France before, during and after the war but without ever becoming overly sentimental about the effects of that war. It’s an emotional journey both for Mathilde and for the reader but there are moments of real beauty and humour among the horrors. It’s absolutely worthwhile.

Seeking books from Latvia….

Riga

Image from Wikipedia

Just a quick call out for book suggestions…

We’re off to Riga for a short break later this year and I’m desperately trying to find books set in Latvia or written by Latvian authors (and readily available in English translation) to read before we go. Fiction would be ideal but all I’ve really found so far are war memoirs.

Any alternative recommendations would be very gratefully received. Thanks!

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher (1996) by Ahn Do-hyun

Last week I went to a library for the first time in three months. I’ve been meaning to join a new one ever since I changed jobs but it’s taken a while, partly, I think, because I’m still in denial about leaving my lovely old library behind (I know I just need to get over it and move on with my life). This new library is fairly close to my new office. It’s slightly smaller, definitely a bit shabbier, but it seems to be well stocked and the books are much more varied than at the old place. Now that I’ve got a card – and now I know I can definitely get there and back on my lunchbreak – I’m going to try to get back into the habit of going regularly. Maybe once every couple of weeks while the weather’s nice.

I came away with five books on Monday, this being one of them. I was actually looking for an Elena Ferrante book – the mythical Holy Grail of library books of course – but inevitably it was out and the waiting list was huge so I ended up browsing elsewhere. The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher caught my eye. It’s short, has a pretty cover, an intriguing name, and it’s by an author I’ve never heard of. It brings us to the next stop on my Around the World in 80 Books tour: South Korea.

Salmon

This is the story of Silver Salmon, so called because of his sparkling scales, who asks difficult questions that make him unpopular with the rest of the fish in his shoal. He wonders why it’s so important to make the perilous journey up river each year, why they must avoid the humans who lurk along the banks with their nets and whether this is all there is to the life of a salmon. It feels a little like a gentle bedtime story, told very simply and openly like a children’s book. Some of the language is quite beautiful but I have to say that I got a little distracted by the fact that the narration often seemed to change tenses in the middle of a sentence. I couldn’t decide whether this was deliberate, and if so what purpose it served, or if it was just one of those weird quirks of the translation.

On the whole I was really a little underwhelmed by this book but that just seems to be my standard response to any book that I think I’m supposed to engage with on a philosophical level. I very rarely come away from books like this feeling like I’ve learnt an important life lesson and in this case I think I’d have preferred a simple story about some fish. Maybe the profundity about seeing through the eyes of the heart or whatever was just laid on too thickly… or maybe I’m just a cynical, cold hearted person with no soul. I won’t say that I disliked it, because it’s actually quite nicely written, but I will say that it was just not my cup of tea.

I got four other books out at the same time as this so I’m hopeful that I might enjoy one of those a little more. In the meantime I’m slowly working my way up the waiting list for that Elena Ferrante book…. !