Book Review: Summer in February by Jonathan Smith

*SPOILER ALERT*

What is it about the beginning of the 20th century that fascinates us so much right now? From Downton Abbey’s first two series, to Parade’s End and the recent television production of Birdsong, those late Edwardian years seem to be the era of choice for TV writers. Do those last years of a fragile world, shattered by the First World War, resonate with our own uncertain times? Maybe in the face of so much unknown, we’re fascinated by those years of contentment giving way to such horrors? Or perhaps it’s simply the rather fabulous frocks and clipped accents?

Jonathan Smith’s 1910s based Summer in February pre-dates our current Edwardian-obsession and has now been adapted into a film, set to be released early next year, starring Dan ‘cousin Matthew’ Stevens and Dominic Cooper. It might share a timeframe with other recent cultural highlights, but Summer in February isn’t simply a tale of posh people in big houses bracing themselves for the end of the world as they know it; it’s a tale of the extraordinary, ordinary people that made up the Lamorna artist community, led by artist and horse lover Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings.

The book opens with Munnings making his famous final speech as Chairman of the Royal Academy. He gives a damning, if rather incoherent, diatribe on modern art, before stumbling on a word that transports him back thirty years when, as a young artist he moved to Lamorna in Cornwall and became part of the larger group of Newlyn School of artists. The son of a Suffolk farmer, Munnings rather belly-flops into this quiet community, demanding everyone looks up from their easels and pay attention to him – which they duly do.

His attention, meanwhile, is drawn to the beautiful Florence ‘Blote’ Carter-Wood whose resemblance to Botticelli’s Venus mesmerises him and it’s not long before she soon goes from his model and muse to his wife. But the partnership that works so well on canvas doesn’t translate into real life and the marriage is a catastrophic disaster from day one.

And the reason? While AJ may demand our attention, at the heart of this novel (he even gets his own first-person chapter) is Major Gilbert Evans, local landowner Colonel Paynter’s (although he’s not one) land agent. A gentle foil to Alfred, he’s a quietly magnetic figure – and we’re not the only ones drawn to him, he’s already stolen Blote’s heart before she agreed to marry Alfred, himself equally dependent on his new friend.

Gilbert – or ‘Ev’ as he’s known to AJ – is the opposite of the bullish, boisterous Munnings – quiet, gentle, sensitive and selfless – he too falls head-over-heels in love with Florence. He is heartbroken at being passed over for Munnings and attempts to retreat from the newly engaged couple only to be drawn back into their lives when it becomes apparent to Blote, and Alfred, that they can’t survive – quite literally in Florence’s case – without him in their lives.

Rather than keeping her at arms length, Gilbert, ever the gentleman, takes Blote under his (outwardly) brotherly-like arm at Alfred’s request. For a while this love-triangle remains chaste with an uneasy, unspoken truce between Blote and Gilbert, until Gilbert, at breaking point, makes the decision to flee his agonising situation and accepts a job offer in Nigeria. His decision is the catalyst Florence needs, and in their few precious remaining weeks, the pair embark on a passionate love affair.

In addition to the three lovebirds, there’s a lively host of other characters including artist (Dame) Laura Knight and her quiet, but all-seeing, husband, Harold. The wild Cornish coast and the quirks, obsessions and passions of the community are beautifully, understatedly drawn by Jonathan Smith. He’s not an elaborate writer, his prose is economical and precise, but with a beauty and richness that belies his simple style. He evokes the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the prickling sweat on a unnaturally hot February day and Gilbert’s heavy heart so wonderfully that you can almost taste the salty sea water (or maybe that was my tears at Gilbert’s predicament).

The one character that remains as two-dimensional (I believe intentionally so) as a painting is Florence. What we know of her, we know through the eyes of the two men in her life. At first she seems like another privileged idle woman, but through her early sittings with Alfred and later meetings with Gilbert, we get glimpses of the woman behind the paintings, but she still largely remains an enigma, a beautiful figure on horseback sat passively in the dappled shade. We hear nothing of her thoughts or feelings. We never learn why she chose Alfred over Gilbert only to then regret her decision so suddenly and with such gruesome results.

I don’t think Florence’s ephemeral nature is a failing on Smith’s part to draw her, I think he’s making a point that she was an almost powerless woman in a time when female voices were silenced, even upper class ones. And Blote isn’t just a pawn in a man’s world, she’s also trapped and controlled by her mind that will ultimately destroy her.

Summer in February is one of those books that you want to buy all your friends copies of. It’s beautiful, haunting, powerful and, at times, very funny, book about fascinating people in a fascinating time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Summer in February is reissued on 23 May 2013, £8.99 from Waterstones.

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The Magic Flute, English National Opera, The Coliseum

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Well, I’ve finally popped by operatic cherry and, to my surprise, it wasn’t at all painful – unless you count the seats in the gods at the Coliseum that is.

Opera has always intimidated me; the vocal acrobatics in a foreign tongue, the formidable divas in huge velvet frocks, the gymnastic feats of opera singers that, to those in the know are breathtaking, but to plebs like me sometimes a little bit “nails-on-blackboard”. But I was ready to emerge myself in the warbling world of opera with the English National Opera’s The Magic Flute. 

The Magic Flute, an opera so barmy it makes the average ballet look like a documentary, seemed like a good place to start with its simple story and unintimidating score, while the ENO the perfect company for an opera virgin. It would also seem that the company’s 14th revival of Nicholas Hytner’s once barrier-breaking (in opera terms) production was an even better first opera, littered as it is with innuendo, slapstick and light-comedy. Plus it was in English and there were talky-bits, so I was never going to be foundering storywise.I had many preconceptions about the opera, and nearly all of them (last night at least) were well and truly busted.

Despite knowing the daft pantomime-meets-fairytale story of Mozart’s opera, I was still expecting much po-faceness, but this production performed all the silliness with a knowing wink, often accentuating it with colloquialisms and knowing-asides. Duncan Rock as an Australian Papageno was particularly pantomime, all “strewths” and “sheilas”, all brilliantly pitched, both vocally and character-wise. The whole performance was peppered with some proper chucklesome moments and some delightful stage settings – people dressed as bears, Pagageno and Pagagena hovering above the stage in a birdsnest, the moonlight giving way to a majestic sunrise.

Despite the unexpected, and at first, welcomed, talky-bits (I’ve since learnt that The Magic Flute is a “spiegel”, a part-speaking opera – they’ll even let me into the Royal Opera House with that kind of knowledge) I began to find them a distraction. The performers are, of course, wonderful singers, but, for many of them, their acting wouldn’t get them past the audition door for an extras role in Casualty so I found it rather jarring as they rather clunkily switched from fabulous arias to stilted dialogue.

But the singing really was lovely, rather more lovely than this philistine expected. Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night was particularly wonderful. She was no screecher, despite reaching Shard-like heights her tone was beautiful, with a real clarity, purity and warmth to it. She also got to wear the best frock (the one thing I expected from an opera, and got, was fabulous gowns), just pipping her resplendent maids to the prize.
On the strength of this production I would definitely dig out my opera glasses again – maybe I’m even ready for an all-Italian, bombastic affair?

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Lace by Shirley Conran

In the wake of the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey, erotic fiction is now filling tables at the front of Waterstone stores as publishers jump on the randy bandwagan releasing, and re-releasing, anything with a whiff of sexy times.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades and I have no intention of doing so – bad writing turns me off as much as a misogynistic egotist and, from what I hear, Fifty Shades is a very badly written book about a misogynistic egotist, which sounds as erotic as a plate of cold rice pudding. Is it OK to have an opinion about something I haven’t read? I’m not sure it is, but I’m baffled as to why this particular book has caused such a stir. Have these people not heard of the internet? There’s sexier stuff on the average literary forum. And this is hardly the first time a book has walked the line between novel and porn-light. What about the queen of the bonkbuster and her randy stable hands, Jilly Cooper? Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Valley of the Dolls?  The terrifyingly bonkers, incest-stuffed Flowers In The Attic? And that’s just the very tip of the mainstream stuff – even more hardcore eroticia doesn’t require you sneaking into a Soho bookshop and coming out with a brown paper bag these days. And very few of these erotic novels if any, concern a female virgin acquiescing to her partner’s every whim in and out of the bedroom.

One of the recently re-released “bonkbusters” (although I think author Shirley Conran would take umbrage at that description)  is an eighties’ classic Lace, the Amanda Palmer to Fifty Shades‘ Girls Aloud. Conran, the ex-wife of Terence and mother of Jasper, was the original superwoman, the antithesis of the recent twee, cupcake vision of womanhood. She famously declared that “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom” and “I make no secret of the fact that I would rather lie on a sofa than sweep beneath it.” I would love to have her at my fantasy dinner party, although I would be careful not to serve stuffed mushrooms.

Conran started writing Lace as a sex instruction manuel for schoolgirls, but, bored of writing a dry textbook, she instead poured her indomitable spirit, vigour for life and thirst for equality into this book that went on to sell more than 3 million copies.

Lace, first released in 1982, is so much more than reworked fan-fic, it’s a sexy, glamorous book with feminist roots, where women rule in the boardroom as well as in the bedroom. Sure, there’s a lot of sex in it, but at the heart of Lace is the friendship of four incredibly successful self-made women. Their friendships and their careers are the most important things in their lives, even their children take a back seat  – I can’t remember which characters have children or which don’t. These women aren’t defined as mothers or wives, they don’t need a man to complete them, although they do all love male company (especially ones that are good with their hands). They are their own women, their qualities sharpened by each other.

The four women first meet at a Swiss finishing school in the 1940s. There’s sweet, seemingly-naive Kate; chaotic, confident Pagan; poised, polished Maxine and bolshy, driven Judy. The novel spans four decades and follows the women as they marry, divorce, start families, lose parents and husbands, fail, succeed and fail again. Along the way these women do have sex, and, at times, it’s rather raunchy (although the novel’s famous goldfish scene doesn’t involve, unhappily for them, any of the big four). But crucially Conran doesn’t pull the satin sheets over our eyes. In Lace, the sex isn’t always good, in fact, at times, it’s horrific and violent. When these women have good sex it’s with men who are good to them, who they love and are loved by. The cruel, bullying chauvinists are all terrible in bed (with the exception of the creepy but dexterous of finger, Prince Abdallah) and their performance, or lack of, is never the fault of the woman’s. Sex, Conran is telling us, is about teamwork and not about women rolling onto their backs and putting up with bad men and bad sex.

The story may cross forty years, but the book is unmistakably ’80s, even in the tone of the austere post-war years. It’s big, brash, loud, and status obsessed.  All the women are loaded (they work hard for it) and live in flash apartments or chateaux with wardrobes stuffed with elegant designer gear. They drink champagne like tea and hop on transatlantic flights like I take the bus. There’s not a lot of time for subtlety or poetry, Conran’s writing is concise and filmic and dialogue-led. The story fizzes along like a glass of Maxine’s chateau champagne, but although the plot is slight, driven on by the beautiful, mother-less Lili’s search for her mother, (“which one of you bitches is my mother?”), it’s a terrifically fun and feisy read.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

ImageArjie, the ‘funny boy’ of the book’s title, is, at the beginning of the novel, a seven-year-old boy, the youngest of three children in a Sri Lankan Tamil family.

It’s the late 1970s and Arjie’s life is blissfully uncomplicated, the highlight of every month a ‘spend-the-day’ at his grandparents’ house.  Arjie longs for these days of relative freedom when he gets to indulge his love of dress-up, shunning the boys’ boisterous cricket match to lead the girls through a game of bride-bride with him at the centre, resplendent in a sari.

But cracks soon start appearing in these glorious spend-the-days, and, as the years move on, these cracks grow wider, and more dangerous, spreading beyond the domestic setting. First Arjie’s everyday is shattered by society’s rigid and repressive codes who forbid him to indulge his love of dressing-up and, later, by a series of catastrophic events that tear Sri Lanka and, with it, Arjie’s life, apart.

Alongside these horrors, Arjie grapples with his growing awareness of the realities of life and his own sexuality.The book is told as a chronicle narrative, but is broken down into half a dozen chapters that make it read like a series of short stories, in fact it’s subtitled ‘A Novel In Six Chapters’. At the beginning we’re introduced to Radha Aunty, Arjie’s father’s younger sister who is away studying in the States, but returns to Sri Lanka to arrange her marriage. Arjie, obsessed with the idea of a real life bride, soon becomes Radha’s shadow as she takes him under her wings and uses him as a confidant in her secret flirtation with a Sinhalese man a liaison that first opens Arjie’s eyes to racial conflict. Later Arjie is party to his mother’s affair with an old flame while her husband, Arjie’s father, is away in Europe, an episode that ends brutally and first awakens Arjie – and his mother – to the true horrors around them. We follow Arjie as he starts a new, brutal school where he meets Shehen Soyza who helps Arjie understand who he is and change his life forever. The shifting political landscape and tensions run through the novel building along with the monsoon clouds until they eventually erupt along with the pounding rains.

Funny Boy is an engaging, insightful and poignant story of a boy whose simple, playful life is torn apart by violence and a more gentle dawning of the realities of life. It’s a compelling and enlightening read, although I don’t think Selvadurai ever really caught Arjie’s voice quite right. He was a little knowing, a bit quick to piece together overheard adult conversations (there was a frustrating reliance on accidental eavesdropping as the only way to link stories). The final epilogue is especially jarring as Arjie’s voice is suddenly mature and all knowing. No doubt this sudden maturity is meant to reflect the experiences he’s been through, but it left me thinking the novel had been hijacked by another character.

But these are small niggles for what is otherwise a compelling, insightful and enthralling coming-of-age tale that uses a domestic setting to tell a bigger picture of a country unravelling turmoil and a young boy’s own sexual awakening in the midst of prejudice and fear of being different.

by Suzanne Elliott