Book Review: The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning

The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning

The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning

Born at the beginning of the 20th century, Olivia Manning was hailed as one of the greatest writers of her generation by some critics during her lifetime, her epic Balkan Trilogy, a fictionalised account of her years in Bucharest, Athens and Cairo putting her firmly in the literary spotlight. But her name has dimmed over the years and, compared to some of her contemporaries like Anthony Burgess and Iris Murdoch, she’s relatively obscure outside of bookish circles.

Manning’s world is certainly a very old fashioned one, and not in a pip-pip-huzzah Nancy Mitford or P.G. Wodehouse way. Her novels are steeped in unease, class and racial unease and violent clashes, like Evelyn Waugh with an extra twist of bitterness.

The Rain Forest is no exception. It’s a restless, nasty novel that begins innocuously enough before descending into a tale of territorial and racial tension that could be set in our own troubled times. The novel crawls with mean-spirited, back-stabbing, shadowy characters, their real motivations deliberately obscured by Manning, the layers of greed and madness hidden by serpent-like charm.

The novel is told through the eyes of a young married couple, Kristy and Hugh Foster, new arrivals on Al-Bustan, an island in the Indian Ocean. Lying just off the coast of Africa, this richly green island framed by pristine beaches should be paradise, but the melting pot of Arabs, Indians, Africans and the British is simmering to boiling point.

Hugh is a former script writer whose work has dried up, and Kristy a successful novel. Their world is glittery star-studded Mayfair clubs and they are at sea amongst the relics of the British Empire when they arrive on Al-Bustan after Hugh takes up a government office job in this steamy British colony to pay off the inland revenue. They are a brittle, cool pair, their marriage so stale that they constantly bristle against each other and wish each back in Britain.

Al-Bustan’s beauty hides turmoil. On the cusp independence, tensions are running high, not least in the dining room of the British-only pension, the Daisy, where Kristy and Hugh find themselves marooned in a sea of class-obsessed last-days-of-Empire types. Despite being outcasts baffled by the world they’ve entered, Kristy and Hugh soon find themselves caught in Al Bustan’s vicious net, desperate to leave, but unable to.

For a large part of the novel the plot drifts as languidly as the ladies-who-lunch on this hot, humid island. But Manning cranks up the plot in the final fifth of the novel as the violence and cruelty that had been bubbling under the surface explodes in ways the preceding calmness of the novel never hinted at.

On the strength of this odd, savage little novel, Olivia Manning’s novels deserve to be given the same recognition as her contemporaries. Like so many of the best authors (notably Burgess) The Rain Forest isn’t a comfortable read; it seethes with resentments and anger that aren’t, unfortunately, as old-fashioned as the cocktails-at-six world Manning sets it in.

by Suzanne Elliott


Book Review: The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women by George Gissing

The Odd Women by George Gissing

Why is it that we continually have to look back a hundred plus years ago to find ballsy female literary heroes, protagonist who go against the grain of what is expected of them, who are willing to push boundaries and stride out of their own? 

Women with a fiery independence, who are unwilling to conform to the times they live in, seem  sparse in modern literature. Admittedly, what we have to push against is less visible than a century ago, but if anything that means our voices – including our fictional ones – need to be louder to help reflect back at us what society keeps missing. I can’t think of many female characters from contemporary books I’ve read recently that with grit. The only one that springs to mind is the heroine of Where’d You Go Bernadette, a character who was more defined by her career than her husband and who is genuinely different and unafraid to rip up the How Women Should Behave rulebook.

Rachel Cooke asks a similar question in this Guardian article where she questions the lack of interesting, intelligent (dare I say feisty?) single women in fiction. In the feature, Cooke singles out George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women as being one of the few works of fiction where spinsters are, if not happier than their married counterparts, certainly no unhappier. And it was a recommendation worth taking. The Odd Women is a brilliant read, uncomfortable at times, bleak for the most part, it’s also fascinating and compelling. Distilled to its essence, The Odd Women is about money, marriage and manners and two self-sufficient women who care more about books than bonnets.

The Odd Women of the title are odd in number; at the tail end of the 19th Century there were half a million more women in the UK than men and as a result there were thousands of ‘spare’ female, destined for a life as a governess or nurse, eking out their pennies in lonely, draughty lodgings. The protagonists, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, are also odd as in different, they refused to accept their lot in a society that reduced single women to sad wretches who pined for a man and life of embroidery.

The women in Gissing’s book are battling against a patriarchal Victorian society, a world so rigid and staid that its oppression, even from the pages of a book, feels as great as the dense London fog that used to suffocate the city (as described in a powerful scene by Gissing). Fighting hard against these narrow expectations and recruiting foot soldiers by the day, Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn run a charity that encourages young women to think beyond marriage and broaden their career horizons by equipping them with skills such as typewriting (which sounds as revolutionary as flower arranging, but at the time armed women with the weapons needed to infiltrate an office, much to the chagrin of many a male office clerk as brilliantly observed in this novel).

Amongst Rhoda and Mary’s acquaintances are the three surviving Madden sisters – Alice, Virginia and Monica – who Rhoda first met years ago in Clevedon when their father and siblings were alive.  Left orphaned while still young, the women have struggled to survive, taking gruelling jobs for little money, the hard toil wearing them down to an extent that shocks Rhoda when she meets them again in London. Monica, the youngest and prettiest is exhausted by thirteen hour days in a drapery and dismayed at the future ahead of her, and is determined to marry and avoid the fate of her two spinster sisters who live miserable half-lives. On one of her Sundays off, Monica meets Mr Widdowson, a dour, but seemingly kind man many years older than her. He has money and a nice house in Herne Hill and is so terribly persistent (some would say stalkery) that after a brief courtship, Monica agrees to marry him. Bad move, Mon.

Not that she really stood a chance. Marriage in Gissing’s world rarely ends well. He had two disastrous marriages himself and he wishes the same fate of most of his characters; marriage literally kills on more than one occasion.

The Odd Women is a wonderful, unpredictable, slightly idiosyncratic book and like nothing I’ve read before. It’s like an amalgamation of Dickens, Gaskell and the Brontes rewritten by George Orwell (who, incidentally, was a big Gissing fan). Gissing is not a pretty writer, there is rarely poetry in his prose, but his very economy is what makes the book so compelling and the plot is so neat that you barely notice there is one until it all begins to fall in place so beautifully.

It may even be called an early feminist novel, although I would dispute that; Gissing may have thought himself a frightful radical – and some of his ideas no doubt brought forth the smelling salts in certain circles – but underneath his boho bravado he’s as conformist as his main male character Everard Barfoot. There’s an uncomfortable moment when Everard is advocating hitting women who have done wrong, a statement Rhoda agrees with to a degree. There also prevails an idea that there are absolute feminine traits that women must battle against, that they must overcome their own femaleness in order to become equal to men – something Rhoda and Mary believe as much as Everard. Their opinion of many of their gender is as low as most men’s at the time and sisters are very much doing it for themselves; Rhoda and Mary couldn’t give a burning bra for working class women – theirs is a middle class gender fight.

Despite the bleakness, there’s something strangely uplifting about The Odd Women which I think is due to Rhoda, who may have her heart broken, but whose self-sufficiency and determination mean you can leave her at the end and know she’s going to be OK, if not exactly skipping off into the sunset. And doing OK in Gissing’s world is pretty much nirvana. 

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change Of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change Of Climate by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

A Change Of Climate spans the vast, flat skies of rural Norfolk and the scorched sun-drench earth of southern Africa. It’s a family saga with bite and brutality told in Mantel’s elegant, expressive style.

Husband and wife Anna and Ralph Eldred are children of stout Norfolk Christians, Edwardian stock who believe that Darwinism is atheism. Desperate to escape their parents’ closed minds and their bland cruelty, Anna and Ralph leave the flat fields of East Anglia shortly after they marry to work in a mission centre in South Africa.

Their arrival coincides with the introduction of the Bantu Education Act, making it illegal for black South Africans to be educated. In the dusty, desperately poor village the Eldreds are placed in, they strive to make a difference and in so doing so find themselves inadvertently breaking the country’s rigid race laws. Their do-gooding earns them a stint in jail before they are exiled north to Bechuanaland where their lives are brutally wretched off course by a darkness that will haunt them for life.

Back in the present (their present, it’s 1980 in this novel) they’re back in Norfolk and have filled a draughty, rambling house with children and ugly, unsuitable furniture. Ralph, head of a the hostel charity his father helped found, stretches the house’s capacity – and the family’s patience – even further every summer with Sad Cases and Good Souls, clients he’s trying to rescue and rehabilitate with limited success.

Their four children are all home for the summer, the two eldest returning like migrating birds to their draughty Red House, but it’s not just the brisk East Anglican winds that are creating a chill in the house as the family starts to crumble.

There is a lightness about Hilary Mantel’s writing that is deceptively as unassuming as the Norfolk countryside. Her style is languid, unshowy; the plot appears even, devoid of turbulent drama. But Mantel quietly disarms us; this, her sixth novel, is a softly spoken book with a tough heart.

There’s a soap opera-ness to the story and in a lesser writer’s hands, the novel could have bristled and screeched with melodrama. But Mantel creates sophisticated fiction from what could have been a frothy aga saga with her vivid prose and her ability to create poetry from the banal. Her descriptions, whether of the windswept Norfolk countryside or the dusty villages of rural Africa, are evocative and remarkably fresh. The events of the novel unravel with a real-life like steadiness, rather than pouncing up on the story with all the subtlety of a bolt of lightning.

Many of the characters are broad sweeps, some like Julian, the family’s eldest son, disappear for chapters, his existence largely a catalyst for events bigger than him. But their absence doesn’t diminish their impact. Mantel convincingly fleshes them out by their experiences and by the impact of the actions of those they love.

Mantel spent several years in Botswana and the Africa of A Change Of Climate is not the romantic, sunset-over-the-plains cliche that we’re used to seeing. The locals aren’t saintly in their poverty, for the most part they are quietly baffled and hostile at the Eldreds and their useless god, books and developed world guilt. Similarly the Sad Cases and Good Souls aren’t simply damaged goods just in need of a hug.

Mantel’s writing is fairly divisive, her style can jar, which I think isn’t just her want of writing in the present tense, but also her dialogue. I love the way her characters speak to each other, but it’s rather stagey and I can see how it would grate. A late night conversation between the two youngest children Robin and Kit is very David Hare. But this archness reminds you that Mantel’s not writing a page turning family saga for the sake of it and that, despite the gripping story unfolding, the plot isn’t the whole story.

by Suzanne Elliott


Book Review: 1599 by James Shapiro

1599 by James Shipiro

1599 by James Shipiro

Shakespeare ‘the man behind the quill’ is notoriously elusive. He left so few clues as to the kind of man he was that he’s frustrated scholars, theatre buffs and the Warwickshire tourist board for years. He’s such an enigma that Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s very identity is the subject of great debate; was this provincial ghost-like fella simply a ruse for the Earl of Oxford Christopher Marlowe or even Elizabeth I?

The majority of scholars dismiss the anti-Stratfordian arguments on the basis that we don’t need letters and eyewitness accounts to understand Shakespeare; his  plays provide us with plenty of clues as to the man at the parchment. Amongst them is James Shapiro whose highly readable 1599 is a study of Will the man through four of his most important plays and the times he lived in.

Fifteen ninety-nine was a very eventful year both for Shakespeare and England and Shapiro weaves both their fates – deftly and convincingly – to create a book that is as much a history of a crucial time in Elizabethan history as a Shakespeare bio.

The final year of the 16th century, was a game-changing one for Shakespeare.  The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company Shakespeare wrote for and performed with for much of his life, built their own theatre, The Globe. Shakespeare had a major financial stake in the new theatre and so his fortunes were, in every sense, tied up with The Globe’s success.

As risky as the venture was, Shakespeare saw the opportunity to move away from writing tried-and-tested money spinning comedies. Shakespeare, no longer shackled by a theatre owner, used his freedom to write plays that would challenge his audience. He ditched the fool, littered his scripts with new words – or old ones used in a new way – introduced soliloquies and feisty female characters.

We’ve become so used to talking about Shakespeare as a playwright whose works transcend time, whose themes and concerns fit as neatly into our world as they did into his own, that it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t writing for us. He was writing for an Elizabethan audience, and to ensure that he had food on the table, these plays had appeal to 16th century punters enough to encourage them to part with their groats.

Shipiro grounds Shakespeare in his time, stripping him  of his future and allowing the man to come out from behind the legend. But despite Shipiro’s attention to detail and convincing arguments that attempt to lure out him out from behind his words, the Stratford man is still very much a bit part in 1599, a wisp of a character conjured up from the trail of breadcrumbs he left in his scripts.

Shakespeare the playwright has a far bigger role, and Shapiro does a convincing job of fleshing out the influences that informed four of Shakespeare’s great plays. During this year, Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It and began work on Hamlet. Not a bad 12 months work. Using the seasons as a marker, Shapiro weaves events, both major (England’s ill-fated war in Ireland) and less obviously seismic (the introduction of the essay to England), as factors that filtered through into these Shakespeare’s works.

Shapiro’s research is impeccable – his bibliographical essay at the end is the size of a novella – and that he then distils this library’s worth of academia into a enjoyable, pacey, often gripping, read is impressive. That he deftly dances around all he doesn’t know with  believable speculation, padding it neatly with the stuff he does know, is even more so. We may never know if Will was a mead or a beer man, but 1599 is a brilliant companion read to some of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

by Suzanne Elliott


Book Review: Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland by Robert Harris

As Marty McFly found out, tampering with history is a dangerous game; tweak one little bit of the past and you risk unravelling the present. But fiddling with the “What Ifs” is a rich subject for storytellers and re-imagining the past, and in doing so re-telling the present, has become a popular branch of sci-fi and is now  almost a genre in its right.

Robert Harris’ 1992 best seller Fatherland is an alternative history novel that imagines a past where the Allies lost World War II and Hitler’s dream of the Third Reich has become a terrifying reality. Starved into surrendering, Britain is now a German outpost along with most of Western Europe. Meanwhile, Poland and her eastern neighbours have been eaten up and consumed by a Nazi-run Germany. Switzerland, and its mountains (of gold), stands alone as a German-free zone.

Harris’ post-WWII world is mostly entirely believable. It’s a terrifying place – suffocating, frightening, devoid of good art, decent books and humour. Although while The Reich is a dark, dangerous world, the Germans haven’t been entirely de-humanised into frog-marching cardboard cut-outs. There are signs of rebellion as the heady 1960s creep in; even The Beatles have a little cameo (although would they have existed in a Nazi-run Britain? And would the 60s have swung quite so exuberantly – if at all – with a bunch of uniformed killjoys in power? Such are the perils of the alternative history novel).

Fatherland is as much about the small within this monolith to fascism, the story of one man’s fight for justice in a world that’s run by criminals. Xavier March is a detective in the Reich’s equivalent of CID. He’s a great detective, but not a good citizen, in fact he’s far too good a detective to let corruption win even if it means risking his own life.

The Empire is gearing up for the celebration of Hitler’s 75th birthday, an event that marks a national holiday and a great deal of marching and chest puffing. Five days before the official day, March is called to investigate dead body in a river just outside Berlin. As March delves deeper into a seemingly straightforward murder case, he learns that this apparently routine investigation has far deeper ramifications, his enquires taking him right to the very top of the government, revealing horrors that could pull the thread that will unravel the whole world.

Like all good cops in risky situations, March finds himself a sidekick, Claire Maguire – a pretty, young American journalist notchaknow – who is plucky and curious and offers much needed comfort in March’s difficult time. Their romance was an irritating, screamingly obvious and cliched addition (and why she had to be 25-years-old to March’s 42 is best left with Harris). But at least Maguire and her American brashness livened up a novel full of men in uniform (the only other women in the novel was a gargoyled receptionist and March’s ex-wife, who we never heard directly from).

The off-colour romance and the lack of female voices aside, Fatherland is a good read. Thrillers are usually so far removed from the kind of book I like as to render them invisible, despite the ubiquity of those embossed covers in grating serif fonts. I like books where nothing happens; I’ll usually take pages of someone buttering a piece of toast over chapters of breathless action. But having your foot in plaster for weeks means a great of (temporary) life changes. The proximity of a novel suddenly becomes the only criteria to read it and Fatherland, loaned to me a few months earlier, lay within an arm’s reach of my bed. Fatherland may not have converted me entirely to a new genre, but I will be more open to a thriller’s captivating arms.

A former journalist, Harris has a reporter’s skill of writing sharp, unfussy prose with enough colour to illuminate the world – in this instance, one we fortunately only ever to imagine. As all good thrillers should be, Fatherland gallops along, but, as all bad thrillers do, it doesn’t outrun itself. The plot doesn’t end up on a tangled web of confusion and dead ends; the conclusion is neat without being contrived.The even pace and realism is helped along by the quiet, considered March whose actions always seem believable even when he’s clearly doing something very stupid, his conviction in his task successfully putting pay to doubts of plausibility.

Fatherland is perfect sickbed, beach or airport read, which sounds like an insult, but isn’t meant to be. It’s pacey and gripping enough to block out the world and its annoyances. Even your fellow passengers, or your fractured foot, won’t quite seem so bad after taking a trip to a world where Germany won the war.

by Suzanne Elliot


Theatre Review: Shutters, Park Theatre

 Shutters, Park Theatre

Shutters, Park Theatre

Shutters at Finsbury Park’s year-and-a-bit-old Park Theatre is a triptych of plays that highlight women’s journey over the last century.

The short plays, directed by Jack Thorpe Baker (two of 30 minutes, the final one of 50 minutes) are loosely linked by themes of family, community and Americanness (as well as their femaleness), but otherwise are stand alone set pieces that, despite some heavy subject matter, tell neat, witty, largely captivating stories.

The first, Cast of Characters by Philip Dawkins, is a deconstructed play seen from the backend, the framework a run-through for a play we never see. It’s dizzingly fast-paced and takes a while to untangle, the all-female cast oscillating between the many roles of both genders while an unseen playwright’s dismembered voice occasionally interrupts their read-through with her asides. Essentially it’s a play about rehearsing a play, but it’s far more fun than that sounds and almost certainly a lot more entertaining than the play that’s been rehearsed that centres on a dysfunctional family very much in the vein of American literature.

The conceit allows for a playfulness that the heavy subject matter of the play being read-through wouldn’t have allowed. There are excellent performances from the all-female cast, in particular from Nicola Blackman who brings a comedic touch to a miserable MS sufferer stuck in a love-less marriage, and Lucia McAnespie as the chirpy 80-year-old Bernice.

The second play, Trifles, downshifts in mood and hurtles back in time to the beginning of last century and a rural community rocked by an apparent murder, suspicion falling on dead man’s wife. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Susan Glaspell, Trifles is often hailed as one of theatre’s first feminist plays. A hundred and two years after it was written, Trifles may have lost much of its shock, horror feminism, but its themes are still all too familiar.

Trifles sees three puffed-up men stumbling about trying to find clues in a suspected murder case, mocking the two women present, one a friend of the suspect and the other the sheriff’s wife, for concentrating on the seemingly trifle – the condemned woman’s needlework, her preserved fruit, THAT jewellery box. Of course, their feminine observations unearth far more than the men’s arrogant jackbooted stomp. The play weaves together as beautifully as a well stitched piece of patchwork and is genuinely thrilling.

The final play, Brooke Allen’s The Deer is, despite the inclusion of a talking deer (a very endearing Joanna Kirkland), the most conventional. A messed up bad boy, his college professor channelling Robin Williams as he tries to get him to dream bigger, his pretty older sister (an excellent Yolanda Kettle), herself stuck in a deadend job in a small town. That things don’t end well is never in doubt, but the ending has a neat little twist that adds a less predictable element.

The six all-female cast members are all highly watchable and engaging in which ever role they’re playing – and their American accents seem pretty faultless to me – while Jack Thorpe Baker’s direction is slick and well-paced, the tempo of the three play format working well in the intimate Park 90 space. The premise – showcasing the female experience over the past century – may sound heavyweight, but Shutters carries it lightly, but no less seriously making for an entertaining, interesting evening.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue

My first introduction to Emma Donoghue was her gem of a novel Room. A moving, mesmorising book, Room is the story of four-year-old Jack who is born in captivity, a product of his mother’s imprisonment and continued rape by an unnamed kidnapper.

Room is heartbreaking and majestic, Donoghue captures the bewildered four-year old’s voice so beautifully that Jack is as vivid a fictional character as you’ll find.

But I discovered that Room was a departure for Donoghue whose usual territory is the world of corsets, cobbles and carriages with a hefty dollop of historical scandal. Slammerkin pre-dates Room by nine years and is set in 18th century London and the then English town of Monmouth. It’s the sorry story of Mary Saunders, a girl born a few steps from the gutter on Charing Cross Road who soon rolls right into after being thrown out of her mother’s house.

Mary’s future never looked bright, but once homeless, it’s positively desolate. But then she meets Doll, a St Giles’ prostitute – straight out of the book of tarts with hearts – who literally picks her up off the street and teaches her survival in the crudest sense. But even she can’t protect Mary from the vagaries of London life and Mary is forced to flee to her mother’s hometown of Monmouth where she is taken in by her mum’s old friend Jane Jones and her husband Thomas. Jane is a dressmaker and Mary, who as a lady of the night in London knew the worth of fine clothes, soon develops a taste for beautiful fabrics and wonderfully crafted threads. Life is quiet in Welsh borders for a while, but Mary longs to be free in a world where lowly born women never were. Her lust for a life of freedom – and a beautiful clothes – ends in tragedy.

Slammerkin should be a rip-roaring read, it’s got all the elements of a gripping historical yarn. Based on a real life Mary Saunders, it’s got violence, lust, slurry strewn streets and dastardly men. But the story got sort of stuck in the mud of Charing Cross Road and while always threatening to take off, never seemed to come to life. My judgement probably isn’t fair – although I’ve now only come to realise  – as I’m not a great historical fiction fan. Novels set in the past written in contemporary times always seem so po-faced, while fiction of the time – Dickens, Austen et al  – are shot through with wit.

Slammerkin is no different. It’s relentlessly gloomy and dispiriting and strangely uneffecting despite the brutality and hardship. This isn’t polite historical fiction, Donaghue doesn’t flinch from the realities of working class life in Britain in pre-Welfare State days. There are some horrific scenes, particularly in Mary’s early days on the mean streets of 1760s London that made me recoil, but left me unmoved. Mary Saunders certainly isn’t unsympathetic, but she’s rather dull. I don’t buy the idea that you have to like characters in novels to enjoy a book, but a fictional companion has got to be good company and Mary frequently bored me, she seemed so lifeless for one who had led such an extraordinary life.

Donaghue is clearly a fine writer with an ear for dialogue and a way of conquering up vivid scenes with little fuss, but it’s her corset-less world that I’ll be sticking with.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Straight White Male by John Niven

Straight White Male by John Niven

Straight White Male by John Niven

Straight White Male is the portrait of the artist as a drunken mess. The novel’s anti-hero is Kennedy Marr, the youngest ever winner of the Booker Prize, a toxic, talented, charming concoction of many of his literary heroes – those straight white males of the title – a Groucho Club-frequenting Frankenstein monster of Fitzgerald, Yeats and Kingsley Amis with the nuts and bolts of James Joyce, Amis junior, Graham Greene et al.

After several years as a penniless writer supported by his first wife Millie, Kennedy’s debut novel Unthinkable catapults him to literary superstardom. Suddenly, still just 27,  he’s the voice of a generation and a hero to TLS readers and undergraduates alike.

But his success and wealth stir up deep-rooted neurosis that no amount of whisky or women can smother. Two divorces, a move to LA and a money spinning career as a screenwriter led him further down a path strewn with discarded Laphroaig bottles, models’ underwear and bloody noses as he tries to run away from death and, in the process, life.

Now with a colossal unpaid tax bill and an equally impervious writer’s block, Kennedy is offered a lifeline when’s he’s awarded the FW Bingham Award worth half a million pounds. The downside to this apparent windfall? He has to leave LA for the Cotswolds and teach creative writing to a bunch of undergrads at Deeping University, the very same institution where his ex-wife Millie teaches. Having gulped from the poisoned chalice of success and wealth, can he settle into academic life in rural England and become a better father, son and brother?

Despite Kennedy’s unrelenting pursuit of pleasure, Straight White Male isn’t an ode to hedonism. There’s no judgement, but we’re not encouraged to admire Kennedy’s wandering eye or mid-Atlantic brawls, although it’s difficult not to sympathise. That you only want him to become a better person for his own sake rather than to fit neatly into society’s moral straightjacket is credit to John Niven for making Kennedy more than a one-note selfish, drunk philanderer. He’s engaging company, a shambolic charmer with a heart as big as his drink problem. He is also, like the novel, funny and clever, two of the most important things in life and literature.

Straight White Male pays obvious debts to the dead white men Kennedy worships as well as their natural living heirs, but I also heard Zadie Smith’s voice in Niven’s pacy dialogue that, like Smith, captures everyday speech with a writer’s flourish. Kennedy’s heightened realism reminded me of many of the characters in Smith’s novels, people we recognise with added padding from those wielding the pen.

Straight White Male is a sharp, intelligent satire that may not quite hit the same literary heights as Kennedy’s (and can we assume, Niven’s?) heroes, but is a richly comic page-turner with brains.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

It is always a little dispiriting not ‘getting’ a book that others hold close to their hearts. Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition is a Goodreads smash, its appeal straddling ages, genre-snobbery and borders. Not only that, but national treasure and the unofficial-cleverest-man-on TV, Stephen Fry, LOVES it. As proof, there’s a great big quote on the cover assuring us Notes from an Exhibition is the best thing since the invention of the printing press (“this novel is complete perfection”). Perfection! Wow, this has got to be good, right. Right?

But Notes from an Exhibition sort of drifted in front of my eyes like a piece of seaweed on a calm Cornish sea. I kept waiting for that magical moment when a book comes to life and you click with it like a soul mate. But this novel and I never made it past that first awkward date.

Canadian-born, Cornwall-dwelling, Rachel Kelly is a once successful artist who has spent her life in the shadow of bipolar. She drops dead in her attic studio one morning where she had – as she did everyday – locked herself in to paint furiously, even though her work had fallen out of fashion in the years leading up to her death. Despite popping her clogs within the first few pages, this is Rachel’s novel. It’s about her legacy, both personally and professionally, as well as a posthumous unearthing of her secret history and identity.

Notes from an Exhibition certainly doesn’t want for a plot, it’s stuffed full of story lines that meander across oceans and time zones, veering from 1970s Cambridge to small town Canada and back again to modern day Penzance, Notes from an Exhibition’s true base. It’s choc-o-block with drama – and characters, oh my god, so many characters – but despite the constant drama, the tension never seemed to build; the big reveal or twist would sneak past me and it was several pages before I realised I’d missed another character’s personal tragedy.

Nothing is too trivial for Gale to try and tease out some suspense. There was a whole mini-drama involving Rachel and Anthony’s third child, Hedley who was convinced for about five pages that his husband was having an affair with a woman. This woman and the entire narrative were then dismissed a few chapters later with an unconvincing sentence.

Beyond the tangle of story lines, Notes from an Exhibition examines, at arms length, the link between talent and depression. Rachel, it’s suggested, is less productive when she’s drugged-up, while during her manic periods she is capable of painting her greatest work. Gale stops short of suggesting that there is a direct correlation, although Rachel seems to believe it. Gale also doesn’t wince from the impact bipolar has on the sufferers’ family. Rachel has few redeeming features – she’s short tempered, mean to her children, rude to her husband, selfish, indifferent and self-absorbed – personality traits that can’t all be blamed on her condition. But her fragile state means her family must dance lightly around her, bending to her moods and whims. Anthony, Rachel’s gentle, patient, honest Quaker husband – and potentially the novel’s most interesting character – gets rather lost in the dysfunctional noise of a family of four children damaged by their power of their mother’s personality.

Despite dealing with a heavy subject matter and including several very dark events, there was something rather twee about the style of Notes from an Exhibition, it’s tone almost jarringly jolly. It’s not that Gale doesn’t take bipolar, or any of the other problems raised – and boy, we’re not short of dysfunctionality here, we’ve got drug use, homelessness, underage sex – seriously. He’s clearly done his research, but perhaps this is part of the problem, this novel doesn’t feel like it comes from the heart, but from the textbook. And while the novel is well constructed – I liked the conceit of framing each chapter with the notes from Rachel’s posthumous exhibition – and a thoughtful one, it was, for me at least, as dramatically gripping as a cream tea and not as enjoyable. But I can’t help feeling that I’m the one missing out…

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Crucible, Old Vic

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic's The Crucible

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic’s The Crucible

Arthur Miller is having a bit of a moment on The Cut. Just as the gut-wrenching A View from the Bridge bows out in bloody fashion at The Young Vic, at the other end of the street, its more stately elder, The Old Vic reprises The Crucible, Miller’s tale of the Salem witch hunt.

The Crucible may just be my favourite Arthur Miller play. It’s a gem of a piece of drama – a cracking story with plenty of boo-hiss villains and honest country folk being merrily trampled by utterly nuts authority figures all told in Miller’s stylish dialogue. It’s dark and sinister, packed full of suffering, hypocrisy, bonnets and archaic speech (‘sit ye down’!).

A drama this good deserves a fantastic reprisal and this Old Vic Yaël Farber-directed production draws out the angst and the madness to deliver a play of brutal intensity.

The Crucible is, of course, Miller’s allegory for the McCarthy communist witch hunt in 1950s America, but even discounting this second layer the plot is a cracker. Nine months before the curtain rises to find Mary Warren rolling around on a bed, in the grips of a fever (which the locals have – easily – confused with being possessed by the devil) farmer John Proctor had an unfortunate rumble in the haybales with the family’s maid, Abigail Williams. While John and Abigail keep watch over the sick girl – not exactly the most romantic of situations – Abigail attempts to rekindle their former fling. Hurt by John’s rebuttal, Abigail, encouraged by her elders talk of the devil, seeks a revenge so deadly that it decimates the whole town of Salem. The rumours she starts legitimise the authorities to murder and these moralistic men are sent into increasing spirals of madness and power lust until the town of Salem lies derelict and smeared with the blood of its innocent population.

Incidentally, Salem in this production lies nearer to Manchester England than Massachusetts (a link to Lancashire’s own witch hunts?), which is probably more accurate considering it’s unlikely that these early settlers had already perfected an American accent in 1692.

John Proctor must be a fantastic role for an actor, he’s up there with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, crippled by a fatal flaw and only realising what he’s about to lose when it’s too late. Filling Proctor’s big clopping boots for this production is Spooks and Hobbit star Richard Armitage who is the big star draw here. Armitage has made a career of playing brooding, angst ridden men that never fall neatly on the side of either good or bad, and as Proctor he is called on to crank up the angst factor far beyond dwarf-range. If I were Yaël Farber I’d have him reign it in a little, especially towards the spine-tingling climax where the emotion gets a little lost in the shouting, but he gives a huge, powerful performance in what must be a taxing role both physically and emotionally.

As big a punch as Armitage gives, this is very much an ensemble piece with many fine performances. Fresh out stage school, Samantha Colley hugely impresses as Abigail Williams, Proctor and Salem’s downfall and one of literature’s great villains. Gosh Abigails’ bad – and so unrepentant! – and Colley plays her with that deflt innocence and malice that the part demands. In a cast of great depth, other standouts include Harry Attwell as Thomas Putnam, Anna Madeley as John’s long suffering wife Elizabeth and Jack Ellis as the ruthless Deputy Governor Danforth who could probably project his crystal clear diction across the river.

A few niggles: the Round (handily crucible shaped) may have many advantages, especially I should imagine if you’re on (in?) it, but the bowl-like shape of it means actors’ words can get a little lost in the stew of dialogue when you’re up in the Lilian Baylis. This was a preview I saw and I wouldn’t be surprise if they tightened the production up at little – at 3 hours 40 minutes you could fit two and a half performances of A View from the Bridge into it – and there were a few flabby scene-setting moments that look pretty but delivered little. That said, this is too good a production for you to notice how long you’ve been sat there (your knees may tell you otherwise).

Farber’s Crucible is pumped full of heart and passion (perhaps, at times, it cup runneth over with emotion) – and Miller’s great story is given a rapturous reprisal that’s almost matched in intensity by the ecstatic applause at the curtain call.

by Suzanne Elliott