Claire Fuller: Swimming Lessons (2017)

Swimming Lessons is English author Claire Fuller’s second novel. After coming across more than one raving review by book bloggers and critics, I decided I had to read it.

Flora and Nan’s mother has disappeared twelve years ago. One day, their father, Gil Coleman, thinks he’s seen her and while trying to get a better look accidentally falls from a seafront. Nan, the older sister, a nurse, calls Flora and begs her to come home and help her look after their dad.

Unlike Gil and Nan, Flora doesn’t believe that her mother has drowned. She thinks that she simply chose to leave and might still return one day.

After the first chapter in which Flora travels to her childhood home, a swimming pavilion, the narrative splits. The parts in the present are told from Flora’s POV, the parts in the past are written in the form of letters Ingrid writes to Gil before she disappears. Ingrid hides the letters in the pages of Gil’s books. Gil Coleman, who is the famous author of a scandalous book, has an interesting hobby. He collects old books. Not because of the books but because of the things he finds in them— the notes and drawings of their readers. In one of these he finds a letter from his missing wife. Ingrid’s letters unfold their complex, difficult, and destructive marriage.

Most readers seem to have liked the marriage story told by Ingrid in the letters. While I found some elements interesting, overall, the parts set in the present, spoke to me much more.  The most interesting element of Ingrid’s story is her feelings for her children. She doesn’t relate to her two daughters. The first one, Nan, was an accident and somehow Ingrid always saw her as an independent being. Flora, the third, is very much Gil’s daughter. I guess that’s why the parts in the present are told from her and not from Nan’s point of view. She adores and idolizes her father. Finding out the truth about her parent’s marriage is more of a surprise and a shock to her than it is to the reader. One of the tragedies of Ingrid’s life is that the child she relates to the most was stillborn. When she’s pregnant with him, she already knows that Gil is unfaithful and she’s very lonely. She projects so much on this child and is sure he will become her companion. When he dies, she feels like she’s lost her only true child and her chance at happiness and companionship. I found this extremely sad and problematic for everyone involved. For Ingrid, because she lost that baby and for her two girls because they mean less to their mother than a child who didn’t even live.

The parts told by Flora were those I could relate to the most. They show how difficult it is to live with a family secret and what a challenge it can be, coming from a dysfunctional family, to have healthy relationships.

One of the main themes of the novel is ambiguous loss. There’s a story one character tells the others, in which a child gets lost and it mirrors Ingrid’s story. The loss is magnified because they never get closure. It’s possible she’s dead but it’s just as possible, she left them. Gil and Nan, both believe she’s dead and have moved on, but Flora, for the longest time, cannot move on as she’s still hoping her mother’s out there somewhere.

Whole books have been written about ambiguous loss. There are other forms of ambiguous loss, not only those, in which the body of the disappeared was never found but also those in which the mind has gone but the body’s still around, like in the case of dementia or Alzheimer patients. I haven’t experienced anything like this but I always thought it must be devastating. It’s an important topic and I loved how subtly it was explored in this novel.

This is one of those books I enjoyed far less while reading it than after finishing it. I’m not always keen on split narratives. I often prefer one narrator/POV and going back and forth between two or more can get on my nerves. But when a book is really good, it can come together as whole, once we finish reading. And that was the case here. The longer I thought about it, the more I liked it. I found the characters, especially quirky Flora, interesting and relatable and I absolutely loved the sense of place. The descriptions of the swimming pavilion and the surrounding landscape of marshes and ponds, is what held the book together. The imagery was so strong that I can still picture the place with great detail. The ending was unexpected and powerful.

If you like stories of dysfunctional families and family secrets, books with a strong sense of place, and fully rounded, complex characters, you might enjoy this subtle, haunting story that lingers in the mind long after the book is finished.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint (2017)

Emma Flint’s debut novel Little Deaths is among the novels on the Baileys Prize Long List 2017. The Baileys list is one of only a few prize lists I’m interested in. Usually I read three to four of the novels on the list. I hadn’t heard of Emma Flint’s book before seeing the list and it immediately caught my attention.

Set in 1965, in New York, it tells the story of Ruth Malone whose two children, Cindy and Frankie, disappear and are found dead a few days later. The book begins with Ruth’s voice. She’s in prison, thinking back. This is the only part written in present tense, from then on the book stays in past tense and is told by Ruth and Peter Wonicke, a journalist.

We know from the beginning that Ruth is found guilty of the murder of her children but we will only find out at the end how that happend and whether she did it. In a way it’s not even that important because this book isn’t as much about whether Ruth is guilty or not as it is about the vilification of women.

Ruth Malone is glamorous. She loves to dress up, uses make-up, is separated from her husband, has affairs and lovers. She dresses provocatively, loves sex, and drinks too much. Not the way the other women in the neighbourhood behave. Definitely not the way the policemen’s wives behave. Everybody seems to have an idea of how a woman and especially a wife and mother has to be and that definitely hasn’t anything to do with the way Ruth conducts herself.

What follows is less an inquiry than a witch hunt. A witch hunt that leads to a trial. People – the neighbours, the police, the press – want Ruth to be found guilty. They want her punished for her life style and would do anything to break her and see her in prison.

I guess it’s easy to understand that this was an upsetting book. Two children are dead but what people really seem to be interested in is seeing their mother behind bars, just because she’s different. It made me think of the last book I reviewed here, Asking For It. While the two books are very different, they have one thing in common – women are punished for their behaviour.

I think it was a good idea to tell large parts of the story from the point of view of a journalist. Like everyone else, Wonicke wants Ruth to be guilty at first because that would make a great story. He writes a few short pieces about her and they all make her look suspicious. Why would a mother whose children have disappeared bother to dress up and put on make up? Why would she buy a new dress after finding out her kids were murdered? And since sex sells, Wonicke emphasises that she’s  very attractive. Ultimately though, Wonicke is a good guy and after a while he realizes that he doesn’t help finding the culprit. On the contrary, he helps clouding people’s judgement and enforces their belief in Ruth’s guilt.

By the time he realises what he’s done, it’s already too late. Not because of his articles but because the police and the neighbours have seen to many things they consider suspicious and because Ruth is withdrawn and haughty. People expect her to be broken, to stay in, but she goes out, drinks, and has sex like before.

Wonicke falls for her and swears he will help her find the perpetrator. Thanks to his sympathetic look, the reader interprets Ruth differently.

He felt like he was seeing her in a different light today. However this played out—whether Devlin made an arrest or not, whether they got a conviction or not—how could this ever end for her? Surely she’d never be the same woman again. She’d never be able to sit in the sun for the sheer pleasure of it, or walk into a store and pick out a dress just because it was pretty. No one would ever be able to look at her and not remember.

Ruth’s story is inspired by a true crime – the Alice Crimmins case. I didn’t know that when I bought the book. I found out when I started reading because Emma Flint mentions in the bio section that she’s always loved true crime. I then skimmed the acknowledgement section where she mentions which case inspired her. I’m not so keen on books inspired by true crimes because I can’t stop wondering how much is really true.

While it’s not a depressing book, it’s extremely upsetting. To think that something like this happened. For some reasons it made me think of the poet Anne Sexton. Ruth stands for all of those women, like Anne Sexton, who didn’t have a lot of choices. Who got married and had kids and felt trapped. It’s never said but Ruth’s behaviour lets us assume that there’s at least a masked depression underneath it all.

I liked this book a lot. I wish I hadn’t read it so quickly because it has many amazing passages. The writing is so strong. It’s definitely more literary than crime. The focus is on the way Ruth is hunted, not so much on whether or not she did it. Highly recommended.

Rose Macaulay: The World My Wilderness (1950)

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What a beautiful and peculiar book. Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness was her second to last novel. The first after a ten-year hiatus brought on by a lot of heartache and sorrow. In 1939 she caused an accident in which her lover was injured; in 1941 her apartment was bombed and she lost almost all of her possessions and then in 1942 her lover died. Before that Rose Macaulay was a successful author of mostly satirical books. The World My Wilderness is quite different; it’s a compassionate book that reflects her own sorrows as well as other elements of her biography, like childhood years spent in Italy.

The book is set in the South of France, London, and Scotland. The main character, 17-year-old Barbary, is sent to London to live with her father and go to art school. The war is over and her mother Helen wants to get rid of her for different reasons. She and her step-brother have gone wild during the war. They joined the maquis (resistance), and may or may not have been involved when Helen’s second husband, Barbary’s stepfather, known as collaborator, was killed by the resistance.

Barbary’s father has remarried as well and Barbary and her new stepmother, a very conventional woman, clash immediately. Barbary is profoundly miserable, misses her mother and France, but finds solace in the company of her stepbrother. Together they explore the ruins around St.Paul’s cathedral and discover that this wasteland bears some resemblance with their beloved maquis. The ruins are like a wilderness, and, like the maquis, populated by petty thieves and delinquents. Barbary, who is a talented painter, draws postcards of the ruins and sells them to tourists.

The main story is about whether or not Barbary will be allowed to see her mother again and return to France. But since this isn’t a plot-driven novel, its strengths lie elsewhere. This is a book full of lush descriptions and fascinating characters. They are all flawed and complex and whenever we think, we know them, they do something that surprises us. One technique that contributes to see the characters in all their complexity is a frequent change of point of view. Often we’re introduced to a character, seeing him/her through her own eyes and then, right afterwards, we see them through the eyes of others. The result is quite arresting. My favourite character was Helen, Barbary’s mother. She’s a free-spirit who loves art, men, freedom, and a good life. Conventions are not for her. In France she lives as she likes, while she was a constant source of scandal and gossip in London.

Here’s Helen’s take on country and family:

“One understands so well,” said Helen, languidly teasing a small green lizard cupped in her hand, “the desire not to work; indeed I share it to the full. As to one’s country, why should one feel any more interest in its welfare than in that of other countries? And as to the family, I have never understood how that fits in with the the other ideals—or, indeed, why it should be an ideal at all. A group of closely related persons living under one roof; it is a convenience, often a necessity, sometimes a pleasure, sometimes the reverse; but who first exalted it as admirable, an almost religious ideal?”

I expected The World My Wilderness to be a lot like Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day but it’s much more like a novel by Colette. Helen herself reminded me a lot of Colette and some of her heroines. She’s such an uninhibited, freethinking, sensual woman. While Helen is a cheerful woman, in love with life and love, she’s also a tragic figure because she was deeply in love with her second husband.

The World My Wilderness is also excellent in the way it describes post-war London with its ruins and struggling population. Everything is still crumbling—the houses and the society. It’s a world in change in which destruction is found right along a wild, mysterious beauty.

Summer slipped on; a few blazing days, when London and its deserts burned beneath a golden sun, and the flowering weeds and green bracken hummed with insects, and the deep underground cells were cool like churches, and the long dry grass wilted, drooped, and turned to hay; then a number of cool wet days, when the wilderness was sodden and wet and smelt of decay, and the paths ran like streams, and the ravines were deep in dripping greenery that grew high and rank, running over the ruins as the jungle runs over Maya temple, hiding them from prying eyes.

I wish I had been able to review this book right after I finished it but that was just before German Literature Month. It would have deserved a more careful review. I still hope you can tell, that I loved it. It’s a marvelous novel.

Literature and War Readalong April 28 2014: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby's Room

With Pat Barker’s novel Toby’s Room, we’re leaving the American Civil War behind and move on to WWI. All the books following Toby’s Room are dedicated to WWI.

Pat Barker is one of my favourite writers and her Regeneration Trilogy one of my favourite books. I read all three volumes (RegenerationThe Eye in the DoorThe Ghost Road) back to back and was genuinely sad when I turned the last page. It wasn’t only a story about WWI, but about shell shock, the development of two young disciplines (anthropology and psychiatry) and some of the famous poets who fought in the trenches. My love for her trilogy prevented me from picking up any of her other books, but now, some six years after I’ve read her masterpiece, I’m in the mood, to find out how I will like another of her novel. The scope of Toby’s Room is much smaller, the topics not as varied, but I still hope I won’t be disappointed. As far as I can judge from the blurb, Toby’s Room is a harrowing tale, touching on themes like disfigurement and facial reconstruction.

The first paragraph

Elinor arrived home at four o’ clock on Friday and went straight to her room. She hung the red dress on the wardrobe door, glancing at it from time to time as she brushed her hair. that neckline seemed to be getting lower by the minute. In the end her nerve failed her. She hunted out her pink dress, the one she used to wear for dancing classes at school, put it on and stood in front of the cheval mirror. She turned her head from side to side, her hands smoothing down the creases that had gathered round the waist. Oh dear. No, no, she couldn’t do it, not this time, not ever again.She wriggled out of it and throw it to the back of the wardrobe. Out of the window would have been more satisfying, but her father and brother-in-law were sitting on the terrace. She pulled the red dress over her head, tugged the neckline up as far as it would go, and went reluctantly downstairs.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker (UK 2013), WWI, Novel, 272 pages

Pat Barker returns to the First World War in Toby’s Room, a dark, compelling novel of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship.

When Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor’s world: how exactly did Toby die – and why? Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby’s room. Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary’s Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby’s Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss. Toby’s Room is Pat Barker’s most powerful novel yet.

*******

The discussion starts on Monday, 28 April 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Michelle Paver: Dark Matter – A Ghost Story (2010)

Dark Matter

It’s been raining for weeks and very cold. It feels a bit like autumn, which could explain why, all of a sudden, I was in the mood to read a ghost story.

Dark Matter starts in London in 1937. Jack’s life isn’t going the way he was hoping it would. When he is offered the opportunity to accompany an expedition to the Arctic he accepts gladly. It sounds like the chance of a lifetime. Together with four other men he is to leave London just before summer. They will overwinter in Spitsbergen, or, to be more precise, on the fictional island of Gruhuken. When they arrive they are amazed how much life there is in the Arctic in summer. So many animals, so much light. By the time they have set up their camp, only three men and a pack of huskies are left.

When the nights get longer and the daylight is about to disappear for a couple of months, Gus, one of the remaining men, has appendicitis and needs surgery. His friend Algie leaves Gruhuken with him. Jack stays behind on his own, he wants to save the expedition. The two men promise to be back in a couple of weeks. Although the idea of eternal darkness frightens Jack, and the fact that he senses a malevolent presence near the camp doesn’t make it any better, he still wants to prove himself and please Gus.

The novel is told in form of a diary. In writing it, Jack tries to make sense and stay sane in the long dark Arctic night. Allusions by the captain and a trapper confirm what he felt early on: there is a dark presence lurking outside. When he discovers Gus’ diary he learns that he and Algie saw something too.

Most ghost stories are deeply rooted in their setting which is one reason why I like them so much. Haunted houses are my favourites but extreme weather conditions and wild landscapes are ideal too. I must say, to set this story during the cold and endless nights of the Arctic winter was a terrific idea. While the haunting as such wasn’t that creepy, to image what it would be like to spend days and days all alone in the darkness was scary. There is an instance in which Jack gets lost in the night and I could feel the dread. He couldn’t just wait until morning, as the morning would be as dark as the night, so he stumbled around blindly, got panicky and almost gave up. I found it equally unsettling to imagine living inside of an illuminated cabin located in the middle of nowhere and to never know whether someone was outside looking in or not.

Michelle Paver has spent a few times in the Arctic, in summer and in winter, which is certainly the reason why the location is rendered so well, everything was captured in such vivid details.

The story has another layer, which is even darker than the setting or the haunting. In a few scenes Paver manages to say more about cruelty than many other authors I’ve read before. There were two scenes in which cruelty against animals was described, both of which I found very unsettling. The history of the ghost was equally sordid. In some ways you could also say that the cruelty and injustice of society was another main topic. Those who are well-off have all the chances in the world, while people like Jack who come from a humble family or very poor people like the trapper, will always be taken advantage of.

It was interesting to read this novel just after having watched The Wall. While The Wall isn’t a ghost story, the dread and menace are very similar. Nature and loneliness are seen as hostile but ultimately what is to be feared the most are other human beings.

Dark Matter is a wonderful book, I really loved it. It is scary in more than just a supernatural way and works on many levels. Anyone who loves a good ghost story, has an interest in the Arctic or a love for dogs would like this book.

I’m still in the mood for ghost stories and would love to read some more. Has anyone a suggestion? Do you have a favourite ghost story?

Julia Strachey: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (1932)

Cheerful Weather

It seems my reading is very influenced by Danielle’s these days as this is the second book in a row I bought after having read an appealing review on her blog.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is an absolutely delightful little book; charming but still witty, filled with dry humour, detailed descriptions and quirky characters.

On the cover it is compared to Katherine Mansfield, E.M. Forster and Stella Gibbons which is apt but isn’t giving Julia Strachey enough credit for her originality.

A very crisp March morning slowly turns into a gloriously bright but chilly day. Dolly is about to get married to the Hon Owen Bingham who is eight years her senior. While she is getting ready in her room upstairs, the guests arrive and gather downstairs. Among the guests is Joseph with whom Dolly has spent a wonderful summer and possibly a love story.

The closer we get to the wedding the more things go topsy-turvy. Mrs Thatcham, Dolly’s mother, who is a very muddle-headed person assigns the same room to different people, the young cousins of Dolly chase and tease each other loudly, Dolly empties a bottle of rum, Joseph starts crying and in the end Dolly and Joseph are caught by Dolly’s soon-to-be husband in something that looks like an embrace.

Reading this book is like watching a dance on a slightly crowded dance floor. While all the dancers know their moves, they get into each other’s way, bump into each other and what we get to see is graceful chaos.

The character portraits are very witty. Dolly and Kitty’s mother, Mrs Thatcham is such an airhead. While there is huge drama going on behind the scenes, she wouldn’t even notice it, if it was brought to her attention. All she seems to care about is that there is cheerful weather for the wedding. Dolly and Joseph’s relationship is a mystery. We really wonder whether she is doing the right thing in marrying Bingham.

The people and their drama unfold within pages full of delicate descriptions which reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s early work. There are descriptions of the way light falls into a room through fern pots and colors it in a greenish hue, of the shades of dresses, the shape of a flower, the pattern on a lampshade. These are delicate and exquisite descriptions which paint a wonderfully rich picture.

Cheerful Weather for a Wedding is a most enjoyable little book which I can recommend to anyone who likes the writing of the early Virginia Woolf or E.M. Forster, infused with a dose of dry wit.

The novella has just been made into a movie starring Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) as Mrs Thatcham. I was very keen on watching it but it has received an incredible amount of bad reviews and an IMDb rating of 5.1.

Has anyone seen the movie?

And has anyone read other books by Julia Strachey?

On Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Why I Love Marianne

sense-and-sensibility

At the beginning of December I was in the mood to read a lot of classics and that’s why I decided to participate in Advent with Austen. I didn’t manage to read or watch anything else that is Austen related apart from Sense and Sensibility  (1811). Today is the last day of the readalong. If you would like to read more enthusiastic takes on the book it might be good to visit Reading, fuelled by Tea.

What about my impression of Sense and Sensibilty? Boy, this was painful. Babushka-like reading. You know, the little doll inside of the little doll, inside of the little doll… Every time I peeled off a layer of pages, the book got magically longer and longer.

I suffered especially all through the first 100 pages. Yes, there were many witty sentences but all in all it was about money, marriages and talk, talk, talk. We could watch a bunch of nasty, fairly rich and scheming characters trying to kill time, marry right, secure their income and avoid at all times introspection and spending time on their own.

But then Marianne fell in love and started to suffer so terribly when Willoughby left for London, that I couldn’t help but being interested.

In many of the comments and posts I read, people state they like Elinor but not Marianne. Why? I think Elinor is a likable character but I love Marianne. She is the only truly honest person in this phony world and that’s why she falls so violently ill. She knows that there is a fine line between politeness and hypocrisy and her body reacts strongly to all the rules and laws of this society.

Some of the scenes in this novel made me cringe. I cannot picture myself in them. At 17, like Marianne, I would have fallen stupidly in love and ill as well. Nowadays, as a saner version of myself, I would just smash a few windows and ruffle whole bagloads of feathers.

Gossip and small-talk, insipid conversations and endless games is the essence of how the society in this book spends its time. People have to be glued to each other constantly. They can’t bear to be on their own. Although they are constantly around each other, they hardly ever connect. The only person who openly disregards this, is Marianne. She is often perceived as impolite, yet all she is, is honest.

I really liked her more and more. Whenever they arrive at a new place, she doesn’t participate in the tedious chit-chat that is soon to follow but walks off, looking for the library.

Elinor, however little concerned in it, joined in their discourse, and Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family, soon procured herself a book.

Pretending and lying gives her headaches and she retires to her rooms. Realizing that she has been betrayed by Willoughby affects her so deeply, there is no more behaving or pretending, on the very contrary, she litterally screams, cries and gets very ill.

Despite her psychosomatic ailments after Willoughby’s departure and his breaking up with her, the most critical illness is still to come.

After she hears what Elinor had to endure without being able to talk about it, she is so shocked about having been so self-centered that she develops some late reaction and falls even more seriously ill.

Reading his I was amazed how audacious this really is and how modern but then comes the final part and Jane Austen spoils it. When Marianne has recovered and speaks about her illness, all she sees in it is an experience that helped her better herself, make her more fit for society. It’s not surprising then, that Jane Austen marries the tamed Marianne to the man she thought so ridiculous at the beginning of the novel.

I really didn’t like the book as a whole but Marianne will from now on be one of my favourite heroines of all time and I would have wished for another ending.

As I wrote earlier, the book is witty. Language has always a prominet place in Jane Austen’s novels. The differences between Marianne and Elinor are never as eloquent as when they speak about things they like. This is one of my favourite quotes and one that made me like Marianne even more:

“Dear, dear Norland, ” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”

“Oh!” cried Marianne, ” with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked to see them driven in the showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven, as much as possible from the sight.”

“It is not every one, ” said Elinor, ” who has your passion for dead leaves.”

This was my fourth Jane Austen novel and it was the only one I didn’t like. So far Pride and Prejudice is still my favourite. But I haven’t read Persuasion yet. I have a feeling I will like it.

How about you, do you like Sense and Sensibility and Jane Austen in general? Do you have a favourite novel?

And what about the movies? I have seen Sense and Sensibility and liked the movie well enough although I thought Emma Thompson was far too old as Elinor. I liked the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice but I liked the film with Keira Knightley even better. Yesterday I discovered that I have a TV version of Mansfield Park on one of my DVD shelves.