A ‘Hardy’ Christmas for our Book Group

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

jude Our book group more often than not picks a classic to read over Christmas. This year we picked possibly the least Christmassy and most draining novel in a long time for our festive read – Jude the Obscure is not a book for the faint-hearted. So, when we met and discussed it a few days ago, it was great to find that everyone had enjoyed at least some aspects of it, and we had a great discussion.

Published as a novel in 1895 after prior serialisation, Jude caused a furore over it’s subjects of class and sex.  Its reception caused Hardy to give up writing novels, turning to poetry instead.

It tells the story of Jude Fawley, a young country lad with intellectual aspirations to somehow study at the university of Christminster (Oxford).  He buries his nose in his books after work as much as he can, but still one day manages to get trapped into marriage with Arabella, a former barmaid who hopes for betterment too. Jude’s aunt had warned him, ‘The Fawleys were not made for wedlock: it never seemed to sit well upon us.’

Arabella abandons him as soon as she realises that his books are his first love. This allows Jude to move to Christminster where he becomes a stone mason, and meets and falls for Sue Bridehead, his cousin.  Sue is studying at a training college to become a teacher, under the patronage of Mr Phillotson, her ageing suitor.  Meanwhile Jude’s ambitions are thwarted when he is rejected by academia. Sue is outraged by this:

‘It is an ignorant place, except as to the towns-people, artizans, drunkards, and paupers,’ she said, hurt still at his differing from her. ‘They see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’

Jude and Sue are madly in love, but Sue insists that it is kept platonic. They set up house together, but live as brother and sister. After a lapse on Jude’s part Sue decides to marry Phillotson after all, but detests him physically so much that she jumps out of the window rather than submit to him in the marital bed!  Phillotson, realises that she’ll never be his and releases her despite it costing him his own career advancement, and Sue goes back to Jude – both of them still being married.

I won’t summarise the story further, save to say that both Phillotson, and Arabella put in further appearances, and tragedy will visit Jude and Sue with grave consequences.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the only other Hardy novel I have read, back in the early days of this blog (review here). I loved Tess, so I was looking forward to Jude. I must admit I struggled with it at first, finding that it took ages to get going. I was mostly reading it before going to bed, and regularly fell asleep after a handful of pages. When I started reading it in the morning, and then Sue jumped out of the window, I was finally hooked. By the time the tragedy happened I was so immersed, I immediately jumped to conclusions and had to read the page three times – before turning over and finding out that a) I’d been wrong, and b) that the reality in the book of what happened was even more sad.  I read the last 150 pages in one go, and ended up drained by it.

At book group, Sue Bridehead initially got the lion’s share of the discussion.  We tried to decide whether she was a tease, frigid, or just flighty?  Regardless of the modernity of her thoughts on marriage, she kept Jude on tenterhooks with her commitment-phobia.  In contrast, although Arabella was also an arch manipulator, she was more straight-forward – there’s a lovely passage about Arabella later in the book, as she’s described by a family friend …

 ‘Well,’ said Tinker Taylor, re-lighting his pipe at the gas-jet. ‘Take her all together, limb by limb, she’s not such a bad-looking piece – particular by candlelight. To be sure, halfpence that have been in circulation can’t be expected to look like new ones from the Mint. But for a woman that’s been knocking about the four hemispheres for some time, she’s passable enough. A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps: but I like a woman that a puff o’ wind won’t blow down.’

We also felt for Phillotson, who did make a mistake in grooming and marrying Sue originally, but redeemed himself when he realised she detested him. He let her go, against the advice of his friends, and paid the price for his equally modern gesture.

On the issue of the class divide – ’twas ever thus, the majority of places at Oxford are still taken by pupils from independent schools. Jude was fated to remain ‘obscure’, an outsider.

We all marvelled at the mechanics of getting around in the late Victorian era.  In the first sections, Jude in particular did an awful lot of walking, journeys on foot of several miles were the norm.  Later everyone goes everywhere by train – fully embracing the improved transport arising from the industrial revolution.  Likewise the postal system was super efficient with post really taking just a day, (unlike today’s!).

Finally, local colour added to the reading for the novel is set in and around Oxford, Reading and Wantage, (but not Abingdon where we’re centred sadly); some of the landmarks mentioned are identifiable today.  Hardy’s descriptions of the countryside are always lyrical – often contrasting with the actions of the country folk who live in it.

Jude was originally serialised in twelve parts. The novel is split into six parts, each anchored geographically in one of the towns or at Christminster. My one quibble is that in each of the six parts, Jude moves, restarts his career, etc etc – this aspect was a little repetitive, but that’s small beer compared with the major themes.  All in all, Jude the Obscure was a great choice for discussion, and has renewed my enthusiasm for Hardy. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – paperbacks available from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics

Which side of the fence are you on?

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Everyone who encounters this book will have a point of view about it.

The author is a global phenomenon through the Harry Potter series: she’s worked her way up to being a multimillionaire from being a single mum, and does a lot for charity. Now she’s taken a risk, and moved on from Harry and his chums, to publish her first adult novel – for a different publisher too, (shame about the cover).

Opinion is polarised – on one hand, the knives are out, and on the other there are those who think she’s done a brave thing and are raving positively about the book.  So where does my own opinion sit?

I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I’m going to sit firmly on the fence.  You see, I really enjoyed parts of it, but I do recognise that it is far from perfect.

Before I go into detail, a little scene-setting… Pagford is a sleepy little West Country town that is thrown into turmoil when Barry Fairbrother, leader of one faction on the Parish Council drops dead at the Golf Club.  His demise causes a ‘Casual Vacancy’ on the Council, and its leader, Howard Mollison, sees his opportunity to take control and get rid of the Fields, the local council estate that stands in Pagford parish, but ought to belong to Yarvil, the neighbouring large town.

You see, Barry was a local boy done good – born and bred on the wrong side of town in the Fields, he devoted his life to helping local people, especially the Weedons, and particularly Krystal and her junkie single mother who is incapable of looking after her little brother (by a different father of course). He got Krystal into the posh Pagford school, where she stands out like a sore thumb being a chav, but becomes a key member of the girls rowing squad.

The town is full of dysfunctional families, each fitting an archetype that will be familiar to anyone who watches any soap opera, (or listens in the case of The Archers – I’m listening to the weekly omnibus as I write this). Apart from the Weedons, there are the Mollisons – the local bigwigs, shop owners at the centre of things in town; the Walls – Colin is deputy head at school, Tessa is school Councillor, their son Fats can’t wait to be shot of his father; the Jawindas – a professional Sikh family – Parminder is a GP, Vikram is a heart surgeon, and they live in the old vicarage, and their ugly duckling daughter Sukhvinder who has very low self esteem. There’s also the Prices, whose son Arf will set a rolling stone in motion that threatens to overwhelm the town; and finally, the Bawdens, moved from London – a social worker mother and her confident daughter – are the main families from a large cast of lesser characters.

Barry Fairbrother was dead. Snuffed out. Cut down. No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley (Mollison) the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her.
She had hated Barry Fairbrother. Shirley and her husband, usually as one in all their friendships and enmities, had been a little out of step in this. Howard  had sometimes  confessed himself entertained by the bearded little man who opposed him so relentlessly across the scratched tables of Pagford Church Hall; but Shirley made no distinction between the political and the personal. Barry had opposed Howard in the central quest of his life, and this made Barry Fairbrother her bitter enemy.

So we have the set up for a soap opera of class war between the richer and poorer of the Parish, and oneupmanship between the families jockeying for position in the town.  I liked the premise of the plot, and was hoping for a comedy with a biting edge.

You know the story is ultimately going to be a train wreck, but it took so long to build up a full head of steam.  It was around page three hundred before things really started happening, which left two hundred for the main events.  The novel is so character-driven, that the plot tended to get squeezed out.

We could have lost a third of the novel and got a funny and fast paced story, rather than a bloated character study in which everything is over-described and listy – viz the sentence in the quote above: ‘No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her’.  Much has been made of Rowling’s robust modern language, but you don’t really notice it until the ‘c’ word appears – and you take a short sharp intake of breath, and carry on.

Almost all of the characters are unsympathetic too, the events bringing out the nasty side in virtually all of them, (mostly Slytherins then?).  All the little England stereotypes you can think of, except a male gay couple now I come to think of it, are present.

The other things that are all present (if the book hadn’t been 500 pages, I’d have said shoe-horned), are all the issues – obesity, self-harm, OCD, single mothers, rehab, spots, social workers, sex and drugs … there’s little room left for rock’n’roll.

If you think of it as a debut novel, there is often a tendency for authors to put all their initial good ideas into one book, and that’s what I feel Rowling has done here.  It was too long, too descriptive, and too full of everything. It attempted to be light-hearted, but wasn’t funny enough which meant I didn’t care about the characters, it tried too hard to be everything to everyone.

All the above sounds as if I didn’t enjoy the book, but that’s not true. It was an interesting read, seeing a writer in transition. Here’s to the next one. (6/10)

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I bought this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. Pub 27th Sept by Little, Brown. Hardback, 512 pages.

I gave in to the hype …

The Casual Vacancyby J K Rowling

So I’ve given in to the hype and got me a cheap copy of JK’s new adult book, and it will be my weekend reading…

I see the knives are already out on Amazon with 50% of the 50+ reader reviews so far being negative.

I’m really hoping that it’ll be better than that.  It’s 500 pages though.  Fingers crossed. Report back next week.

“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”

A Quiet Lifeby Beryl Bainbridge

Alan sits in a café waiting for his sister Madge, whom he hasn’t seen for fifteen years – there to discuss their late mother’s effects. Both are now in their forties, and they’re still as different as chalk and cheese.

Rewind twenty-five years. It’s the 1950s; petrol is still rationed, the spectre of the war still looms large for there are German POWs stationed nearby.

We meet a family – at war – with itself.  Our guide is Alan, aged seventeen, the quiet and responsible one who worries about everything, but especially Madge.  Madge, two years younger, manages to get away with everything.  She’s Alan’s complete opposite; an extrovert who loves life, and an expert manipulator of her parents.

Alan suffers silently, and lusts quietly after Janet in the church choir.  Madge, meanwhile, has been spotted cavorting in the dunes with a German POW, and Alan doesn’t know what to do.  One suspects he is jealous of Madge’s emotional development – she’s fast becoming a young woman, whereas although older, he is still to get past first base, so to speak.

The parents:  When Mother married Father, he was well off, they had a house with a maid.  She had been to a Belgian finishing school.  The war saw to all that – no they are all crammed into a small house, not much more than a two-up, two-down, with all the remaining furniture. There’s no space to move, especially as the front room is kept for visitors only.  Father, meanwhile, spends a lot of time with his sister, Alan’s Auntie Nora, when he’s not out on business – we never find out what he actually does, but the black market is hinted at. They’re not happy at all, they barely speak these days, both caught up in their own misery; the scene is set for a claustrophobic drama.

Madge’s behaviour is causing problems, and beginning to get noticed:

‘You’re running wild,’ he muttered. ‘It’s not normal.’ He regretted instantly his choice of words. He thought she would launch into some drivel about normality being relative. For once she kept silent. Encouraged, he said: ‘Don’t you see what friction you cause in the house? They’re worried sick over you.’
‘It’s not me, Alan,’ she said. ‘It’d be all the same if I stayed in. It’s money … and that solicitor.’
He didn’t seem to grasp that it was the trouble she caused him personally that was his main concern. He was long past  marshalling the reasons for his parents’ behaviour – it would be like emptying a cupful of ants into a butterfly net for safe-keeping. All he wanted was for Madge to stay home at night, so he needn’t return to find his father jumping up and down, demented, at the kerb.

Having read her debut,  Harriet Said, this novel is recognisable as a development of that earlier one, but without the wicked plan of the two schoolgirls – Madge’s only aim is to find love. Bearing in mind the horror of Harriet Said, and coming the year after Sweet William, which was an out and out comedy, A Quiet Life seems very pedestrian in its targets – a kitchen sink drama of class war and depression. Beryl’s depiction of the war-torn landscape is also depressing:

In the pockets of darkness lay the bomb-sites, rubble overgrown with tall and multiplying weeds; the wind blew constantly from the river, scattering the dust and the seeds across the demolished city.

Everything seems grey, and for me, although Bainbridge’s writing is as sharp as ever, this novel fell flat.  There are no big twists or revelations, although each character has much to hide.  They’re all hanging on, and we’re spectators watching, waiting for them to fall.  In my bibliography post, before having read the book, I used a quote from the lyric to the Pink Floyd song Brain Damage“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” and that is so apt!

The other thing I missed in this novel was some of Bainbridge’s wicked humour for the touches were few and far between. More would have mitigated the unrelenting gloom, but also may have diluted the tension. One of the funniest moments was actually on the first page where Madge writes to Alan “suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve ‘Rest in Peace’ on the tombstone.”

In summary, not my favourite Bainbridge, and not a good one to start with, but definitely worth reading for completists. (7/10)

I shall leave you with Pink Floyd – live from 1994 …

A gem of a historical romance out of Africa.

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

You know how sometimes you’re just in the mood for a sprawling romance, a continent-crossing historical epic, that sort of book.  That was me last week, and The Fever Tree is such a book.

The novel opens in 1880. Frances Irvine is left destitute upon the sudden death of her father. He had been a self-made man, and he and Frances lived in comfort in London; however one last bad investment lost his fortune.  Frances is left with a choice: either to go as a nurse/governess to her cousins in Manchester, or to emigrate to the Cape to marry Edwin Matthews, a young doctor that had lodged with them some time ago. Frances doesn’t really know Edwin, but what choice does she have?

The next chapters tell of her journey to Africa as a second class passenger, travelling with a group of young women emigrating to become  nurses. It is on board ship that she meets William Westbrook – charming and so handsome… He notices her too, and soon she is itching to be released from her vows – enough said!

William is a rogue though, and arriving in the Cape, she discovers that he’s not what she’d hoped for.  She also finds that Edwin has not set up a practice there, but instead is working for William’s boss at a station in the Karoo – some way even from mining town Kimberley. She marries Edwin, but being a doctor’s wife up-country is not what she expected either.  Edwin meanwhile, is concerned about cases of smallpox, and the mine owners will do anything to discredit him.

Their relationship faltering, Frances goes to Kimberley – where she will experience the grabbing world of the diamond mines and see for herself the exploitation of the native workers … and see William again. Rashly, she makes some further poor decisions which will have disastrous consequences.

This was a novel of great contrasts.  Between the first and second class passengers on the ship; the hard-working settler farmers and the nouveaux riches in the African cities; and particularly the greedy mine owners and their casual mistreatment of the native Africans they employed in horrific conditions. The contrasts in the landscape too, the anything goes pioneer town feel of Kimberley, compared with the “austere beauty of the Karoo” which inspired the author to write the novel.

It was hard to dislike Frances, however silly she was.  She threw her heart into most things except, initially, Edwin. When things went wrong, I was rooting for her all the way.  Edwin, as a doctor and scientist, is married on two fronts – he’s precise, restrained and strongly principled, and finds it hard to let go, but he’s a good man, (unlike William).  I admired Edwin, and grew to really like him too for his inner strength.

Impeccably well-researched, this novel was full of detail and made the differences between the lives of the haves and have-nots very clear, as it did too the effects of smallpox, the epidemic and its attempted cover-up, (a true event, I gather).  This attention was never at the expense of the central romance which swept me away and kept me reading, captivated, to the end.

As I read The Fever Tree, I was reminded of another epic romance that I read back in January – Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (review here). O&L too featured a voyage with passengers in first and second classes, episodes in the outback, and a central faltering relationship.  Although I loved O&L, its slow-burn and sheer bulk did require concentration and time to read and appreciate. The Fever Tree encompassed a similar scope in a simpler style that is crying out to be made into a film or TV series, and less pages.  A brilliant debut novel – I loved it too. (9/10).

For another take – read Fleur Fisher’s review here.

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Fever Treeby Jennifer McVeigh. Pub 29 March 2012 by Penguin Viking, Trade Paperback, 343 pages.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.

Class wars in the suburbs – just ‘champion’ …

The Champion by Tim Binding

Tim Binding is one of those authors of whom I’ve been aware for a while, and I’ve even got a couple of his books in my TBR piles, but never read any of them.  The publicity blurb for his latest published earlier this year, said ‘The Champion pulsates with black humour and wit, and will find appeal amongst fans of Jonathan Coe.‘ Well, I am one of those, so I hoped for a great read – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Champion is a tale of class war, greed and ambition, and what happens when small town life gets disturbed.

The main characters are two men, and a girl.  Charles Pemberton is the product of a posh middle class family. His father is a local bigwig, they have a big house, and Charles went to the top school. His parents always hoped he’d marry someone like Sophie Marchand, but Charles is rather quiet and a bit introverted, and Sophie is a bit of a live wire.  Still they can hope. One day a new pupil arrives.

We knew he’d make it, and when he did, we drank to our own success as much as his. He’d done it all in our names, and though we understood he would be leaving, as leave he must, we bathed in the certain knowledge that he’d be carrying something of ourselves with him, just as there would be a trace of himself left behind. Like the scene of any crime.

Clark Rossiter is known as ‘Large’, his family aren’t old money, he’s a working class boy with big ambition and a huge personality.  He builds a crew around him, and Charlie is roped in on the outside. Naturally Sophie gravitates to Large, and Charles is left watching. School ends. Large goes off to work in the City. Charles starts to study law, but realises it’s not for him, and he becomes a chartered accountant, much to his father’s disgust, and settles down for a quiet single life.

Some time later, Large returns.  He’s made his money in the City. He has plans to revolutionise the Care Home industry, and he’s going to start it in the town of his alma mater, and Charles is to be his accountant.  Large, or Clark as he now wishes to be known, has everyone eating from the palm of his hand, his magnetic personality charms them all, but underneath he’s ruthless, and greedy, and wants to get one-up on the middle classes, including all his former friends.  Charles, initially gets sucked in by all his bravado, but he realises that sooner or later, Large will fall – and he is not going to be treated like a faithful dog any more.

I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help liking the larger than life Clark either. He was such an elemental force of life in this novel and breathed life into the town. I couldn’t help but picture him as Philip Seymour Hoffman in full charm mode by the way.  However, as Sophie was to find, a little of such a personality goes a long way, and he was rather overpowering on full-time exposure. Charles, meanwhile is so repressed, that even while I could feel a lot of sympathy for his mother, who had many trials to overcome in this story, that didn’t transfer to her son.  He was set up as the boring, introverted accountant, whose veneer finally cracks and he gets his own back.  The roles of hero and villain got flipped between Clark and Charles and you wondered who would come out on top in the end.

Large rather reminded me of Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in which a young man arrives in a slightly posh bit of South London, stirs things up rather devilishly bringing this staid bit of town to life, and then disappears.  A similar black comedy, but Binding’s style is more expansive than Spark’s sparseness.  The Champion is not without sad moments and tragedy which widen the dramatic depth. The entire story is recounted by Charles, who looks back wistfully on this period of his life – one senses that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but is rather relieved that it’s over.

If you like contemporary English black comedies, this could be a novel for you. I really enjoyed it and want to read more Tim Binding. (9/10)

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I got my copy through the Amazon Vine programme.  To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Champion by Tim Binding
The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark