Shirley Jackson Reading Week

Shirley-Jackson-Reading-WeekIt’s Shirley Jackson Reading Week – hosted by Simon, Jenny and Ana. I had been planning just to scan the posts as my pile of books I must read (e.g. Anthony Powell) is rather large, but what hey! Why not read a book too? It’s not as if I didn’t have a Shirley Jackson novel ready and waiting on my shelves thanks to Simon who reviewed several of hers for the first issue of Shiny New Books.

I’m not entirely new to Shirley Jackson, having read and loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle – which I read pre-blog in 2008. I have consulted back to my master spreadsheet to see what notes I made about it then…

MerricatA creepy tale of a big house where the two Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat, live with their old uncle. The local villagers treat them with suspicion and hate, after six of the Blackwood family died one night from poisoning. Constance was tried and found innocent. The sisters and Uncle Julian try to live quietly in their mausoleum; Constance tends the garden, Uncle Julian sees to his papers, and the beloved Merricat patrols and protects the estate with ritual and amulets. However, one day cousin Charles arrives – and life will never be the same after that.

This short novel is an excellent exercise in paranoia, the whole ‘did she didn’t she’ question over the poisoning, the villagers’ suspicion (and jealousy, for the Blackwoods are not short of a penny, although they don’t flaunt it at all), and then the catalyst that arrives to upset everything. A very intense read and beautifully crafted tale. (10/10)

I read it in a Penguin Deluxe paperback produced for the USA. Love that cover.

But which did I choose to read this time?

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

sundial-195x300In one sentence The Sundial is a comedy about an upper class family who all hate each other thrust into a, to quote Private Fraser from Dad’s Army “We’re doomed!”, situation with Armageddon coming at the end of August. After the paranoia of WHALITC above, I hadn’t quite expected The Sundial, which preceded it by a few years to be so funny – it was absolutely hilarious!

It starts off with the Halloran family returning from Lionel’s funeral. The huge house they live in having reverted to Lionel’s parents. Even in the first paragraphs, the extent of there being no love lost between the Old Mrs Halloran and the Young Mrs Halloran, her daughter Fancy and the others is clear:

Young Mrs Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”  […]

“I am going to pray for it as long as I live,” said young Mrs Halloran, folding her hands together devoutly.
“Shall I push her?” Fancy asked. “Like she pushed my daddy?”

As for Mrs Halloran herself, when asked by her invalid husband Richard:

“Did you marry me for my father’s money?”

“Well, that, and the house.”

Over the next few pages we are also introduced to Aunt Fanny (Richard’s spinster sister); Essex – the house librarian and Miss Ogilvie – Fancy’s governess, and the scene is set for constant bickering between the lot of them. Now that she is in charge of the house again, Mrs Halloran decides to let Essex and Miss Ogilvie go, and tells them so. However, an event happens (and we’re still in the first chapter), that will change everything…

Fancy and Aunt Fanny are walking in the further reaches of the garden. Fancy runs off and Aunt Fanny is temporarily lost and panics, but eventually finds her way to the huge sundial – in the middle of the front lawn and inscribed with the words “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” – only to be faced with an apparition of her own long-dead father who tells her that the end of the world is coming and that only those in the house will survive. She makes it back inside and faints.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.
“Splendid,” Mrs Halloran said. “I was getting very tired of all of them.”
“The imbalance of the universe is being corrected. Dislocations have been adjusted. Harmony is to be restored, inperfections erased.”

The strangest thing is that Mrs Halloran decides to take Aunt Fanny’s ramblings seriously. She senses the opportunity for a real powerplay with herself as Queen Bee.

At this point, Jackson injects some new characters into the narrative. Mrs Willow and her two daughters, ‘friends’ of Mrs Halloran. Then Gloria, the daughter of a cousin turns up unexpectedly. With all this upheaval Essex and Miss Ogilvie are given a reprieve, (for of course Essex will have to be one of the sires of the new race after the apocalypse).

More new characters appear – amongst them we meet the Misses Devonshire who run a shop in the village; Edna’s True Believers who believe that aliens will be landing at the end of August, and the household acquires another male ‘the captain’, who is obviously not, but plays along with everything. Aunt Fanny sets about provisioning the house, meaning that the library has to be converted to a storeroom – and they burn the books – criminal! They discover that Gloria can see ‘visions’ in an oiled mirror and these confirm what is to happen…

You all know the story of Chicken Licken who believed the sky was going to fall on his head? It’s a much-loved tale that Disney had adapted in 1943 in an animated short made for the purpose of discrediting Nazism, his version having the moral of don’t believe everything you read. Jackson may well have been influenced by that with Aunt Fanny as Chicken Licken and Mrs Halloran the unscrupulous and manipulative fox. But, in the late 1950s the Cold War was really ramping up. In the timeline of the Cold War, in 1957 the US strategic air command was put on 24/7 alert against pre-emptive strike from Soviet ICBMs (not stood down until 1991!), and in November that year a report urged Eisenhower to review defense capabilities and build fallout shelters for US citizens. Aunt Fanny’s bunker mentality is well to the fore here.

Jackson takes all these elements of Gothic melodrama and puts them in a pressure cooker which will eventually explode in a brilliantly conceived ending. The humour, as we’ve seen, is often wickedly dark and the old Mrs Halloran is positively Machiavellian in her plans – I don’t think I’ve ever read such a funny apocalyptic novel.

My only quibble is that during the first third or so, I found it hard to keep up with who was who. Apart from some periods of extended description of the house and garden, the novel is almost all dialogue, and you have to keep your wits about you to know who said what, especially as Jackson is free and easy toggling between the formal names and Christian names of most of the characters or leaving the dialogue unfettered by not noting who said it. This confusion only increased whenever new ones were introduced, but the pace of the drama keeps you going.

Ultimately I preferred WHALITC, but The Sundial is also mighty fine (9.5/10) and, if the world were to end at the end of August, I’ll have had a good time that weekend at Jamie Oliver’s and Alex James’s Big Feastival so can go out on a high!!!

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 176 pages.
The Sundial (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 240 pages.

First person plural…

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

virgin suicidesTwo things prompted me to promote this novel, which had been in my bedside TBR bookcase for ages, to the top of the pile.

Firstly, although not written for teens, I cited it in the post I wrote trying to comprehend the current vogue for suicide-lit in teen novels (see here).

Secondly, after reading reviews of Weightless by Sarah Bannan by Victoria at Shiny and Harriet on her blog. (I desperately want to read this book now!) Weightless is not about teen suicide, although it does appear quite dark – but it is written in that rarest of styles – the “first person plural” – as is The Virgin Suicides

This novel was Eugenides’ 1993 debut – a very daring one at that.  Fancy publishing as your first novel a story about a family of five unconventional teenaged sisters who commit suicide and told from the collective point of view of the group of teenaged boys who had worshipped them wanted to get into their pants!  It hits you right from the start:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how hast we go.’  He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

We’re then told of Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide, slitting her wrists in the bath. Cecilia, at thirteen the youngest of the Lisbon girls, survived this. She gets patched up in hospital:

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

The Lisbons’ five daughters were born a year apart. Somehow I couldn’t help but mentally compare the family to the Bennets in Pride & Prejudice!  The girls are very close-knit, and Lux (14) is definitely a Lydia-type. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, perplexed by his five daughters, so not unlike Mr Bennet in that regard. Mrs Lisbon is the antithesis of the flighty and voluble Mrs Bennet though – she is steely, closed and authoritarian, a strict Catholic – and to be honest we never find out much more about her. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, and seems to be liked well-enough there, but is totally under the thumb at home. But enough of the Austen comparison!

The Lisbon family kept themselves to themselves. The girls weren’t allowed out on their own, and weren’t generally allowed to have guests home either. No wonder the girls are the subject of speculation and a challenge to the local teenaged male population. A while after Cecilia returns home from hospital, Mr Lisbon persuades his wife to let the girls have a chaperoned party at home – the first and only one they’ll have. Their friends and neighbours join the girls in the basement and things are getting going when Cecilia, wearing a cut-down vintage wedding dress, quietly asks to go upstairs – and defenestrates herself, impaling her body on the railings.

This is the beginning of the end really, although it will take a year before the other girls follow suit. The family is never the same, Mrs Lisbon is even more closed in, Mr Lisbon becomes an emotional wreck, their house starts to get shabbier and shabbier. The girls close ranks too whether by choice or confinement. Only Lux has a wild, feral air about her – sneaking out at night to have assignations with countless partners on the roof. Then the anniversary of Cecilia’s death approaches… naturally I can’t tell you more about what happens.

All the while the boys watch and talk about the Lisbon girls. They collect anything to do with the girls, from the news articles after Cecilia’s and later the others’ deaths, to Lux’s discarded album sleeves, to copies of medical reports later smuggled out for them. These items form a catalogue –  ‘The Record of Physical Evidence’ as they try to come to terms with and understand the events of that tragic thirteen months. Everyone has their own theory about why they did it, but will they ever really know?

VirginSuicidesPosterThere is a dreamlike quality to this novel, contrasting sharply with the events within. I remember that feeling came across very well in Sofia Coppola’s feature-film debut – she wrote and directed. Kirsten Dunst (having turned down American Beauty) was troubled teen Lux, with James Woods and Kathleen Turner as Mr and Mrs Lisbon. I must watch it again, I remember it as rather good.

I read Eugenides’ epic second novel Middlesex pre-blog – I remember finding it rather drawn out (in the same way as Donna Tartt to me). The Virgin Suicides is much shorter, coming in at just under 250 pages. If you think that makes for a fast-paced read though, think again. Although it’s not long, the months between the bookending events are explored in much detail. This does make for a slightly flabby middle – as  the boys recount the events in hindsight, collect their evidence and present it to us through their team leader narrator. We never get to know which one of them narrates and we never get to know how long after the events they’re actually telling the story. If you’re looking for answers and resolution, this isn’t a novel to give them to you – in fact it’ll leave you with more questions.

The Virgin Suicides certainly marked the emergence of a great new American writing talent though, and I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, 4th Estate paperback, 260 pages.
The Virgin Suicides [DVD] [2000] dir Sofia Coppola.

My last inbetweeny review from Shiny New Books

There’s still one of my reviews from what we editors have called the ‘Inbetweeny’ issue of Shiny New Books that I haven’t highlighted here on my own blog.

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

picture me gone

Picture Me Gone is a complex and intelligent exploration of parenthood and the effects that events can have upon relationships, seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Mila who goes on a road trip with her father to find his missing best friend.

Being an American who has lived in London for twenty years or so, Meg Rosoff is more able than most to do justice to both sides of the pond.  She has now written seven YA novels, and they’re all different and each rather wonderful in their own way – I’d urge you to give one a try. Picture Me Gone could be a good starting point.

See the full review here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff, 2013, Penguin paperback, 208 pages.

Drip-dry wash’n’wear?

Man-Made Fibre by Francine Stock

francine stock
Many of you may know journalist and TV/radio presenter Francine Stock from her time on Newsnight some years ago, and later on Radio 4’s arts programme Front Row and the Film Programme which she still presents. She has also written a couple of novels and a history of film. Man-Made Fibre is her second novel which was published back in 2002.

Here I have to declare an interest. For over seventeen years I worked for chemical giant Du Pont which is based in Wilmington, Delawre. Du Pont are pioneers in the field of man-made fibres thanks to their employee Wallace Carothers who is credited with discovering nylon back in 1935. I was in the electronic materials division, far removed from the fibres group, but the company’s mid-20th century history is so steeped in all the advances in making synthetic materials that I couldn’t pass by this title.

man-made fibreI wasn’t sure what to expect either, and was pleased to find that despite the cover, this novel is not at all fluffy. In fact it reminds me of nothing so much as the TV series Mad Men.  It’s set during the same years – the early 60s, has the same attention to detail and is a thoughtful exploration of the disintegration of a family. I couldn’t help but see Alan and Patsy as Don and Betty Draper (but English).

The story starts in suburbia. Alan and Patsy have three children and a nice house in a cul-de-sac which Patsy is transforming into her vision of a modern home…

And it was all beginning to come together. Through the serving hatch the eye could catch the golden tones of the living area-cum-dining-room-cum-study, altogether more convivial with the new wallpaper, diagonals again, the Scandinavian influence still effective. Open-plan but divided. Efficient yet decorative. With the duty to entertain that Alan’s job would increasing involve […] there would be fresh chances to express their style. Patsy and Alan – the Hopkinses at home.

Patsy’s vision of being the perfect hostess is thrown into stasis with one phone-call. Alan is a scientist working on developing new fibres for NextGen, a small British company newly absorbed into the Lavenirre group based in Delaware (surely a ringer for Du Pont!). Alan’s potential new product has attracted the attention of the head office and he is summonsed to the USA. But once there, they decide to keep him and Patsy and the family will have to transfer with him.

Over in Delaware, Alan is unaware of the angst and upheaval this is causing to Patsy. He’s thrown himself into the American lifestyle – looked after by his company mentor Ray, a fibres marketing man – who is used to playing hard at the weekends…

Ray applies the same efficiency to work. He wants to look after Alan so that Alan can deliver for the firm – and for himself, of course. This division of the corporation is very exciting – has been for fifteen years or so, thanks to Dr Carothers and nylon. You people did wonderful stuff with Terylene, but with Dacron – well, you have to admit, Alan, we had the edge. And frankly, the ball is in our court now. We’re the only ones who have the muscle to deplot these new polyesters.

So Lavenirre is definitely based on Du Pont! Terylene and Dacron are both tradenames for PET – polyester terephthalate – commonly called polyester. ICI discovered polyester in 1941 and Terylene was their name for it, Dacron Du Pont’s version. No prizes for guessing which persists today – in fact ICI’s polyester business was subsumed into Du Pont’s in 1997.

The company is endlessly helpful in helping Patsy with all the business of moving. Alan’s boss, the slimy Fred Rookin, takes a personal interest – but it is his chauffeur Jon that does the legwork and catches Patsy’s imagination.

Patsy is always so together, slightly aloof and looked up to by her friends. The only people she lets go with slightly are her neighbours, Evie and Donald, an older couple who are honorary aunt and uncle to her children. Evie and Donald, childless, adore the kids, they also enjoy their life knowing that Donald who is older and more infirm won’t necessarily have much left.  Occasionally Evie will  take over the narrative to give an outsider’s view of the Hopkins household.

Change is always difficult – to manage it well, all involved have to embrace it, and Patsy doesn’t – at least not in the way that Alan hopes for.  There are no easy answers in dealing with these family dilemmas and Stock doesn’t try to give any. As in Mad Men, you sense that there are to be no truly happy endings to this thoughtful and well-observed novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Man-made Fibre by Francine Stock, pub 2002. Out of print but s/h copies available.

A nasty piece of work is Oliver…

Apologies for not getting any posts up for a few days – it’s been a bit hectic – what with a first aid training course, back to school and all that entails, plus of course a wonderful quick trip down to London on Wednesday to have tea at the Wolseley Restaurant on Piccadilly with my three co-editors of Shiny New Books.  Can you believe it’s the first time the four of us have been together in the same place.

P1020045 compressed

In case you haven’t seen the proof – here it is (from L>R: Harriet, me, Victoria and Simon).  I’d also recommend the Wolseley as a posh but affordable place to go in the West End – a cream tea is £10.75+service, but you do need to book.  Originally a (Wolseley) car showroom, the restaurant is in the French grand café style, bustling with attentive waiters.

If you still haven’t signed up for the Shiny New Books newsletter, click on the logo to your right and send us your email address to get all the updates. New reviews are coming soon…

But back to my blog now. Despite being so busy, I have been reading quite a lot, and thus have a stack of books waiting to be written about.  Here’s one of them…

 

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

unravelling oliver

 I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.

I’d be willing to wager that almost every review of this novel will contain this quote. You can’t not include it really. It immediately sets the scene and introduces us to the monster of a man that is Oliver Ryan, and his long-suffering wife Alice. We don’t know why he did it, he doesn’t tell us, but it’s clear from the start that he’s a right bastard – and what’s more, he knows it.

Oliver Ryan is the successful author of a series of children’s books, written under the pseudonym Vincent Dax. Alice is an illustrator and they were paired by his publisher to work together and it went from there. They’ve been together for years now, childless, ‘When we got engaged, I made it very clear that children were not on the Agenda.’ Oliver describes Alice as ‘habitually obedient with just an occasional rebellion.’ You sense that she’d not the type of woman he’d usually go for, yet he does seem to care deeply for her in a way. So, why did he hit her then?

The author teases out Oliver’s past by getting those who know him best to tell of their experiences, amongst them are Alice’s former boyfriend Barney, Oliver’s only real teenaged pal (until it all goes wrong) Michael, his neighbour Moya with whom he’s been having an affair out of sheer laziness for ages and most notably perhaps – Véronique who now owns the French chateau where Oliver, Michael and Michael’s sister Laura worked one summer in the vineyards.

Their tales are interspersed with Oliver’s memories, mostly from his school days which sounded very grim. Oliver never knew his mother, and when his father remarried, he was sent away to the boarding school just up the road – so close he could watch his new half-brother growing up through binoculars from a high window.  He languishes there, ignored, not even going home during the holidays, effectively abandoned except for an annual duty visit from his father.  He tries hard to get his father’s attention, but it ain’t gonna happen – for his father has secrets too.

His father is the key that makes Oliver become what he is – a classic case of lack of nurture overcoming nature. Oliver becomes determined to show him that he doesn’t need him. He is handsome, charismatic and clever, but he takes risks and short cuts to further his ends and this will be his undoing.  The way he tramples on his friends and acquaintances and the consequences of his actions are truly shocking, as is his own family history when it is revealed.

When this unsolicited book arrived recently, I wasn’t sure whether I’d read it or not. I’m rather glad that I inspected it further though for it was a gripping read.  Debut author Liz Nugent has delivered a compelling and concise novel, something many first-time published novelists don’t manage. Each of the characters comes alive in their chapters, the only person we don’t hear from is Alice herself which when I thought about it was surprising at the time of reading, but upon reflection unnecessary to drive the narrative.

Nugent is Irish, and the atmosphere she has created in Unravelling Oliver reminds me of another novel of obsession by an Irish author, that I read a few years ago. That was The Illusionist by veteran author Jennifer Johnston (reviewed here, in which a relationship falls apart and the man within revealed have a rather different character.  That I can compare the two shows that Liz Nugent is an author to watch out for. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent. Pub March 6th, 2014 by Penguin Ireland, Trade paperback, 231 pages.
The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston, paperback.

Annabel elsewhere – Jill Dawson & Val McDermid

Today I’m going to share links to two more of my reviews over at Shiny New Books. We’re still sending out the first newsletter to new subscribers, so click on the logo to your right and it’ll take you there. We also have a giveaway and an ‘Ideal Library’ competition running – details in the newsletter and on the SNBks front page.

The Tell Tale Heart - UK hardback coverThe first book I’d like to highlight is Jill Dawson’s wonderful new novel The Tell-Tale Heart – My Shiny New Books review.  Dawson is an author whose novels I always enjoy, (my blog review of her previous novel Lucky Bunny is here).

The Tell-Tale Heart is the story of a university professor and professional reprobate that needs a heart transplant, and his teenaged donor. This book is by an author writing at the height of her powers.  Full of hearty references, humour and sadness, and I loved it.

You can also read the SNBks interview with Jill Dawson here.

northangerThen we have something completely different…

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid is the second novel in a series of modern retellings of the works of Austen – My Shiny New Books review.

You never have paired Austen and McDermid together, but she has done it proud, producing a frothy teenage novel for the Twilight generation that keeps all the essential plot elements in, but works perfectly in the world of dating and texting, txtg.

Please feel free to comment on either of these novels here or on Shiny New Books.

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Source: Publishers – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Tell-tale Heart by Jill Dawson, pub Feb 2014 by Sceptre, Hardback 256pages.
Northanger Abbey (Austen Project 2) by Val McDermid, pub Mar 2014 by The Borough Press, Hardback 352 pages.

Discovering Barbara Comyns…

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

comyns vetsThis is the first novel by Comyns that I’ve read. I chose The Vet’s Daughter as one of two ideal starting points recommended by Simon, (the other was Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead).  I can say that it won’t be the last novel by her that I’ll read – well, I did buy a set of three and thus have Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Sisters by a River already waiting.  I had no idea what to expect really, despite seeing a lot of love for this novel around the blogosphere …

The story is told by Alice, the daughter of a vet (obviously, I know). It is set in Edwardian times, and she lives with her parents in South London. The household is ruled with a rod of iron by her father.  Alice and her mother are not abused but are treated as mere drudges for the most part, and her father has little to do with either of them, taking all his meals in the front room surgery.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time.

One thing it appears that Alice’s father can’t cope with is death. People bring animals to him to be put down – he sells them on to a vivisectionist. When Alice’s mother becomes ill, he can’t cope with that either and avoids them even more, disappearing up to the pub, or out with a lady friend. When Alice’s mother dies, she is soon replaced by Rosa, a bawdy bar-maid who treats Alice badly. Poor Alice is confused and lonely, and has to get away. She is friendly with a locum vet, Henry Peebles, indeed she has the beginnings of a romantic infatuation with him. When he suggests she becomes a companion for his frail mother in Hampshire, she jumps at the chance, but Henry’s mother is mad and abused by the housekeeper. Alice’s confusion gets worse, and she discovers that she can channel this into psychic energy by levitating. I’m not giving this away as the clue is on the front cover of this edition of the book.

And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I’d left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn’t touch it in case it made me fall to the ground. …
I don’t know how long I remained in the air like that; I should imagine about seven minutes. Then I can remember a feeling of great exhaustion stealing over me, and a longing for my bed. I willed myself down to it and it happened quite gently: one moment there was nothing beneath me but air, and then I felt my still warm mattress. I lay there almost fainting with tiredness before I could creep out and collect the blankets. Then a deep and dreamless sleep enveloped me.

Henry will turn out not to be ‘the one’, and Alice ends up back in Lambeth with her father, and increasingly troubled…

Given that this novel was first published in 1959, I somehow expected the levitation to be a dream but it was all quite real with Alice channelling her hurt and anger into a meditative state.  Back in the late 19th century, the Victorians thrilled in the supernatural; Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists believed it could be explained by the earth’s magnetic field.  Fake mediums got big business from their elaborate ruses at séances.  Additionally, there have always been accounts of supernatural levitation through the centuries – sometimes seen as a transcendental state, other times caused by demonic posession – Alice’s being the former.

There is the nightmare quality of Alice’s life too. This is a very dark novel, owing much to the 19th century’s Gothic and sensation novels, a domestic story full of high drama. I did struggle to understand Alice’s father a bit. He is never physically abusive to her, but she is neglected, treated like an animal and never shown any signs of love until it is too late. Mind you, there’s not much evidence in the book that he’s much of a vet either, let alone being a nasty father.  We must remember that Alice is a young girl though, and it is her version of events that we are reading. That’s not to say it is wrong, but there is a certain naivety in parts and ironically given its darkness, moments of humour too.

The VMC edition has a foreword by Jane Gardam, as well as the author’s introduction which were both fascinating.  I shall definitely be reading more novels by Comyns – another great discovery thanks to the blogosphere. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Vet’s Daughter: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Barbara Comyns, VMC paperback.

‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ …

Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies

reasons-she-goes-to-the-woods-9781780743769_0 Deborah Kay Davies is one of those writers who does dark brilliantly.

Her first novel True Things About Me (my review) was disturbing yet unputdownable – about a thrill-seeking young woman who gets into an abusive relationship.  Her second novel, the Baileys longlisted Reasons She Goes to the Woods is also disturbing and unputdownable…

It’s about a child, Pearl, and her family. There’s her little brother The Blob, there’s her mother and her beloved Daddy.  The book’s blurb quotes from the nursery rhyme There was a little girl, (which was actually written by Longfellow, I found out!).

When she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

Except that Pearl is more often horrid than good. She’s an experimenter on other people – when she gets found out, they don’t like it – especially her mother who punishes her. She hides in the woods behind their house. It soon becomes clear that the mother has mental health problems, and Pearl gets blamed, and as she grows up and becomes a teenager, her experiments get nastier, and her mother carries on getting worse. Her poor beloved Daddy is beside himself with worry.

Some might say that the outcome of the novel is predictable given Pearl’s seeming single-mindedness in her actions; the route to get there though is not so obvious and builds up gradually over the course of the book.

The author, tells the story with a great deal of style. Although the book is nominally 250 pages long, only half the pages contain the story. Each pair of pages contains a one or two word heading on the left, and then a single paragraph that fills the page on the right. So the book is only really about 120 pages long.

Each right hand page is a vignette recounting one snapshot of Pearl’s life, moving from primary school through to teenage years. The extract below is the last third of the first of these little stories that make up the whole:

The living room is quiet. In the entire world there is only Pearl and her father. Her mother laid a fire before she went out; taking ages, leaving instructions, dropping things, then slamming the door and coming back. Now Pearl listens to the sounds coming from the grate as the flames lick each other and purr. From the place pressed against her father’s knee she feels a rippling sensation move through her body, as if a delicate, frilled mushroom were expanding, elongating, filling her up. She exhales slowly. She mustn’t disturb him. He would push her off with his beautiful hands if he woke up.

Told in the present tense, there is a dreamy otherworldliness about Pearl’s actions that belies the fact that a lot of what she does is downright nasty. It’s clear that the mother-daughter relationship never happened and that she idolises her father. She also has a controlling relationship with her few friends, and The Blob too of course. After all, Pearl only wants one thing …

Deborah Kay Davies has again probed the dark side of relationships – different ones this time.  I wonder where she’ll go for her next novel?  As I said at the top, this book is disturbing and unputdownable, an uneasy but thought-provoking read.  (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies, pub Feb 2014 by Oneworld, 250pp, Hardback.

Always read the small print!

Terms & Conditionsby Robert Glancy

t&c

Frank has been in a car accident – it turns out it was a bad one, and he’s lost his memory*.  He can’t remember people, but can remember his job**.  He works for the family firm, chaired by his older brother Oscar♦.

As he begins to remember things, he realises that everyone has something to hide♦♦.  The only one who seems happy is his younger brother Malcolm♦♦♦.  What is Frank to do?

If you hate footnotes, you should probably not bother reading further – but you would be missing a treat – for most of the jokes in this black comedy about modern life and finding oneself are in the myriad footnotes at the bottom of nearly every page.  Although they are in small print, most are readable – although at one point, there is small print to the small print and I nearly had to resort to a magnifying glass (surely a deliberate move on the author’s part).

Frank’s piecing of his life back together is hilarious. As he begins to find things out and remember more it is also sad though – for it soon becomes clear that his relationship with his wife had not been a happy one for some time.  She was no longer the rebellious fun girl he had married, instead she was now a skinny and driven HR manager.

My alleged wife, like many of my visitors, seemed very nervous when she came to see me.
Why? Where they worried I wouldn’t recognise them? May they were hopeful they’d be that special person – the key – the one whose mere presence would miraculously unlock me? Or was it that people were nervous because I’d been a complete bastard?
Was Old Frank a real twat?
I discovered early on that no one would tell me what I had really been like. When I asked my wife, she offered only the vaguest sentences; words that could have described a billion other people: ‘You were, are … a nice chap and funny, really driven and…’
It was like that awful ‘Personal Section’ in curriculum vitaes – my CV personality. So I accepted that I was the only one who could really discover who I once was – I knew no one would ever tell me the unvarnished truth.*
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* No one would turn to me and say, You were such a c***-face, Frank. You hated life, detested your friends, and you were often found in parks furiously masturbating.

In trying to sort out the bigger picture, Frank realises that the devil is in the detail, although I’d argue that sometimes it works both ways. We suffer with him with each new discovery and each return of memories, and cross our fingers that he’ll find a way out. When he works out his plan, it’s bold and daring, but is revenge really worth it?

I could cope with the footnotes because they were often so funny, but I did find the chapter titles a little annoying. Each was ‘Terms and Conditions of …’.  As most chapters were just a couple of pages, in big type they took up a lot of space, and could have been abbreviated to T&C rather than unsubtly reminding us to read the small print.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked Frank or not, but I did like his wit. I certainly disliked his wife and Oscar intensely. The whole business with the small print was also a great idea, and was executed well, although it was surprising to read that the author was a historian and not a lawyer! However, all that was enough for me to really enjoy reading it, and I had a good laugh. (8/10)

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* He doesn’t remember his wife, but she’ll do nicely…
** He’s a top contract lawyer, specialising in the small print. The terms & conditions.
♦ He soon works out that Oscar is a shit!
♦♦ Including himself, and especially his wife.
♦♦♦ Who escaped to find himself in the Far East.

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Terms & Conditions by Robert Glancy, pub Feb 13 2014 by Bloomsbury, Hardback 272 pages.

Woman, interrupted …

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater

This painful novel, her seventh published in 1962, is widely regarded as Penelope Mortimer’s most famous. It was filmed with Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and James Mason in the leading roles and, it is the Oscar-nominated Bancroft who graces the cover of the Penguin that I inherited from my Mum.

The Pumpkin Eater is the story of a woman on the verge of a breakdown, marital and emotional. It starts with the a woman, Mrs Armitage (we never hear her forename), visiting a psychiatrist:

‘When I was a child my mother had a wool drawer. It was the bottom drawer in a chest in the dining-room and she kept every scrap of wool she had in it. You know, bits from years ago, jumpers she’d knitted me when I was two. Some of the bits were only a few inches long. Well, this drawer was filled with wool, all colours, and whenever it was a wet afternoon she used to make me tidy her wool drawer. It’s perfectly obvious why I tell you this. There was no point in tidying the drawer. The wool was quite useless. You couldn’t have knitted a tea-cosy out of that wool, I mean without enormous patience. She just made me sort it out for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again. You do see what I mean, don’t you?’
‘You would like to be something useful,’ he said sadly. ‘Like a tea-cosy.

She is in her late thirties, and has an unspecified but fairly large number of children by several fathers of ages from just three up to late teens. She is currently married to Jake who is a £50,000 per annum screen-writer and is as prone to having affairs as she is to having babies. It is when she meets the husband of an actress with whom Jake has apparently had an affair on location that things come to a head.

When they married, Jake was not yet successful. Many thought him mad to take on an already twice-married woman with a whole brood of children, and then adding to it. For Jake the reality of what he has let himself in for results in him having to work extremely hard to support them all, and although he says he loves her, he relieves his stress with little affairs. Having married too young, she has been happiest when pregnant and surrounded by her babies – it’s what she does best.

The book is in turns shocking, funny and moving as their emotional baggage ripples through this dysfunctional family towards its surprising conclusion.

Mortimer Family

The Mortimer Family, Penelope is at the back.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading The Pumpkin Eater, but neither did I dislike it. Mortimer’s writing of the narrator Mrs Armitage, despite her melancholia, has bite and some black humour. I had heard before reading that the novel was very autobiographical – Mortimer had six children by four fathers herself, and her marriage to John Mortimer was tempestuous. It almost felt as if you were prying into her own relationships, so it wasn’t entirely comfortable to read. (7/10)

For another take on this novel, read the review by Alex in Leeds

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Source: Inherited. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, NYRB paperback, 222 pages.