Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

For a while in my late teens Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter vied for my affections as my favourite author. Their worlds, whether magically realistic frozen Siberian plains or a small Lancashire town, were enchanting, engaging and compelling fantastical places. Their words and indomitable female characters had the power to change and influence a young, sheltered mind. Their feminism was not as intimidatingly, or as obviously political, as the literary criticism of Julia Kristeva or Judith Butler, but it had a far greater and more wide-reaching effect on me. If it hadn’t been for Carter’s wonderful  Fevvers, her cockney winged creation in Nights At The Circus, Winterson would have probably won this battle of words by a comma’s breathe.

But then, fatally, I chose Jeanette Winterson as the subject of my undergrad dissertation and my love affair with her came to an abrupt end. It wasn’t anywhere near as poetic as the heart-wrenching ode to lost love in Written on the Body – I cut Winterson’s novels off from my life with little ceremony and left her books to gather dust on my bookshelves.

Many years later I saw her speak at a literary event at the Southbank Centre. She was as funny, clever and original as her books. The spark was re-lit, although it remained more smouldering than ablaze and the first post-university Winterson novel I picked up was to re-read The Passion, her magic realism love story set amongst the carnage of Napoleon’s last years. But while I may have made tentative steps towards a reconciliation, my reading of her was frozen in the 90s. It was time to move on.

The Daylight Gate, my re-introducion to Jeanette Winterson, is a slight novel about the 1612 Lancashire witch trials. Winterson, a Lancashire lass, has long been fascinated by this dark mark on Pendle’s history and this is her fictionalised account of the 13 men and women tried and condemned to death following the August Assizes. Her source material was written by a London-based lawyer, Thomas Potts, who documented the whole sorry business after being despatched to the north by King James I. In Winterson’s novel, Potts is an overfastidious, ambitious jobsworth and possibly the most odious character in the book (and there’s some stiff competition).

In 1612, King James I (VI of Scotland) was still jittery following the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1604, the attempt by Catholics to blow him and his Protestant parliament back to Scotland. He was also obsessed with stamping out witchcraft and even wrote what sounds like a tedious tome called Daemonologie which, over three volumes, condemned witchcraft and gave the thumbs up to hunting witches. So convinced was King Jimmy that the servants of satan were out to  get him, that he believed that witchcraft had conquered up a storm at sea that nearly shipwrecked him on his way back from Denmark with his new wife (an event which inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest).

As a result of his bumpy sea voyage, James was convinced that there were more witches square mile in England than at a Hogwarts reunion. He lumped Catholics and witches into one paranoid dark mess (“popery witchery witchery popery” as Potts mutters more than once) and set out with the help of people like Potts to rid the country of these folk and their cauldrons and crucifixes.

The Daylight Gate contains some classic Winterson touches. She doesn’t shy away from describing the gruesome and macabre – I pulled a few choice faces on the bus at some of the more grim passages. As The Passion featured Napoleon, so The Daylight Gate has a cameo by Shakespeare who comes across like a jolly decent date to the theatre. If only he were on Alice Nutter, a gentlewoman with a fascinating past, is a typical Winterson badass. She rides straddled when she thinks no one is looking, sticks up for the poor and the mentally ill and has magical powers that are rooted in reality.

Winterson does not attempt to defend the unlucky 13, there’s an ambiguity about whether they were witches, although I read it as there being perfectly modern explanations for the dark arts the characters dabble in. Or perhaps these magical moments are a typical Winterson dose of the fantastical.  I have read reviews of The Daylight Gate that found the idea that Winterson depicted these women as witches as betraying both the memories of the women and the plot. How, they reasoned, could we sympathise with them if they were guilty of the crime they were charged with?

But it’s a redundant issue, just as the Coalition have whipped up a storm about dole scroungers and benefit cheats in a bid to drive out the poor (to where, I don’t know – Middlesborough by the sounds of things), in 1612 this was less about witchcraft and more about powerful men versus powerless women; rich versus poor; an out- of-touch ruling party versus people struggling to survive day-by-day.

And surely we all wish for a little bit of magic in our lives? I know I do – and I think I’ve rediscovered it…

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Architects by Stefan Heym

The Architects by Stefan Heym

It’s the time of year when newspaper supplements and glossy magazines are full of holiday reading lists featuring books that suit long lazy days on a lounger better than snatched, cramped Tube journeys. Some of these books are tough tomes that require the time and mind-space your daily commute doesn’t allow. Others are those traditional beach reads, all pink cover and an eager-to-please font, that compliment your switched off state like a sunset piña colada.

What these summer reading features rarely suggest are 1950s East German based tales of betrayal, borderline-incestuous relationships, dubious love-triangles and architectural blueprints.

Reading Stefan Heym’s The Architects during the recent heat wave was like a continuous dunking in a bucket of cold water, although more suffocating than refreshing. It’s not an obvious page-turner, but it was thrilling and intriguing and wonderfully evocative on a time and place in history that’s as unknown to me as Stalin’s years of terror were to his fellow comrades.

Set in East Germany in 1956, just after Khrushchev‘s speech denouncing the Stalinist regime, The Architects reeks of this time. A gloomy atmosphere almost rises up from its (excellent quality as noted by a book club participant) pages, if this book was made into an architectural model, it would be made of steel, concrete, big fur hats and snow-lined pavements.

But despite its repressive atmosphere and general un-summeryness, The Architects contains some key holiday themes: there’s romance. And a mystery. And a charming bad ‘un. Plus, there’s a sort-of happy ending.

The novel opens with a preface telling the last few hours of political prisoner Julian Goltz’s life before changing gear in Chapter One when we’re introduced to Julia and Arnold Sundstrom, the two architects that form the foundation of his novel. How is Goltz’s end related to the noisy, decadent, quite frankly rather dull-sounding, dinner party we suddenly find ourselves in? The plot builds with the arrival of Daniel Wollin who has spent many years in a political prisoner camp in the USSR, branded, like Goltz and millions of others, a traitor by grumpy old Uncle Joe. His arrival drives a wrecking ball through Julia and Arnold’s life and the world that they knew comes tumbling down.

Heym’s story is as gripping as his fictional characters. Born Helmut Flieg in 1913 into a German Jewish family, Heym left Nazi-occupied Germany, first for Czechoslovakia then the States where he lived until 1952 when he returned to what was now the GDR. Despite being a staunch socialist, Heym didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his communist leaders. He wasn’t very keen on the Berlin Wall either and campaigned for it to come down. Only, when it did, he was none too happy about the rush to lap up the joys of capitalism from those stuck without a Primark for all those years.

Like the returning prisoner Daniel, Heym is caught between two worlds, a socialist who disapproved of how the powers that be interpretation it. And he wasn’t afraid to speak out against the authorities. The Architect would have turned officials in the Volkskammer red with rage if it had been published during Heym’s lifetime, but no publisher, even one that was a good friend, would pick it up. The Architects doesn’t make a quite a big a splash fifty years on, but it’s a timely reminder of how power corrupts and human frailty bulldozing ideologies.

There’s some shonky dialogue and some dubious character developments (and a complete lack of understanding of women – you’re a bitch or a damsel in distress), but The Architects is a gripping, tense, important read and one that’ll help you’ll stand out from the crowd round the pool.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I go to sleep

Proper grown up psychological thrillers set in worlds we recognise but hope never to inhabit are all the fictional rage right now. 

These latest page turners deal with the human as well as the pulse-racing. They aren’t hyperactive, gun-toting tales; no one is dashing around trying to uncover a love letter to Mary Magdalene or rifling through a family’s very dirty laundry with the help of an unhinged hacker. Nor do these new breed of thrillers favour plot over grammar, they don’t rely on hackneyed phrases or an over reliance on a thesaurus. The are, to use a hackneyed phrase, un-put-a-down-able, (yuck) without tripping over themselves with adjectives and unravelling plots.

Before I Go To Sleep, published in 2011, is the debut novel from S.J. Watson and one of the first of these wave of thrillers. It’s set to be made into a film starring Nicole Kidman as the lead. It’s a taut, tight, claustrophobic read about what it is to lose your memory and, with it, your life, or at least the one you know – or, rather – don’t know.

Following a traumatic accident forty-seven-year-old Christine wakes up every day believing she’s still 20 and that the man lying next to her is her latest one night stand. But he’s not. He reassures her every morning that he is her husband, Ben. There are photos of the two of them lining the bathroom mirror in an attempt to reconstruct those lost years. He writes notes on a blackboard in the kitchen to prompt her to do things she will have forgotten to do.

Christine’s world is small when we first meet her, shrunk to just her and her husband, but it’s about to grow bigger. She is called ‘out of the blue’ (although he had – or had he? – contacted her before) by a Dr Nash, a neuro-specialist who wants to help – and study – Christine’s strange case. He encourages her to keep a diary, and it’s this diary that forms the novel. The journal enables Christine to piece together the missing years of her life and uncover lies that she’s been erasing with every sleep.

Christine lost in a fug of nothing instinctively trusts no one and the diary at first confuses her, her instinct is all out of wack. And as our only guide, we as the reader, are equally as mistrustful of those around her.

There aren’t so much twists as slight meanders and it’s all the better for it. This doesn’t feel like a novel where the ending was written first and the rest of the plot had to be force down a narrow road of plausibility. The ending is the right one, that ties everything up more or less tightly (there are a few stray threads that I won’t mention for fear of setting off the spoiler alarm).

If you’re looking for a sharp, smart beach read then you could do worse than bung Before I Go To Sleep into your suitcase.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios

the view from the upper circle

The last Pinter play I saw was the star-studded Old Times as it neared the end of its critically-acclaimed run at the theatre named after him earlier this year. It was classic Pinter, all pregnant pauses, non-sequiturs, ambiguous relationships and more unanswered questions than the average episode of The Weakest Link.

In contrast, The Hothouse, the second of Jamie Lloyd’s productions for the Trafalgar Studios following his hugely successful, James McAvoy-starring Macbeth, is turbo-charged Pinter. Eyeliner-runningly funny, sharply satirical, whippet sharp and cleverly bonkers, it’s like A Clockwork Orange meets Noises Offwith a dose of Orwell all brought together under Pinter’s young eye (this is An Early Pinter) and served up with a heavy dose of mega-watt acting. It’s at once an allegory of totalitarianism and a belly-aching farce. And every bit as brilliant as that sounds.

The play is set on Christmas Day…

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Pride & Prejudice, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

David Oakes as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice

 A balmy summer evening, men in breeches, a stage stuffed with bonnets, a punnet of juicy strawberries all accompanied by the sweet sound of honking, distant fireworks, park football games and some very fine prose from a certain Jane Austen. Surely the recipe for the perfect night at the theatre?

And in many ways it was. There’s little that can go wrong with any production of Pride and Prejudice (short of casting Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett) if you stick with the original source material. And Simon Reade’s adaptation for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is as true to Austen’s original as a 2 hour 15 minute stage play can be. The problem is there’s a lot to squeeze into these 135 minutes and at times it was like watching the Reduced Austen Company. The plot gallops along like the fast post who delivers the news of Lydia’s elopement and some of the book’s best lines get swallowed up in the resulting turbulence. Frances McNamee as Caroline Bingley seems to suffer most; some of Austen’s greatest lines come from that caustic mouth, but McNamee is reluctant, or unable, to let these bon mots linger. She also seems a little lost without her equally bitter foil, Mrs Hearst, who like Mr Gardiner, Lady Lucas and Colonel Fiztwilliam is culled for this adaptation.

David Oakes as Mr Darcy is as tall and handsome as “a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can” and embodies the uptight, obnoxious Darcy of our first acquaintance with almost as much authority as a certain Colin Firth (who, incidentally, he sounds remarkably like). But he can’t quite loosen his cravat and change up into romantic gear towards the end, again, I think because he doesn’t have the space to do it. Jennifer Kirby is as  vivacious, charming and as flawed as every Elizabeth Bennett should be.

Austen’s brilliant comic creation, the creepy, sycophantic and rather nasty Mr Collins always threatens to be a scene stealer, and Ed Birch came very close – no wonder he popped up in so many scenes where he shouldn’t have been. Deborah Bruce’s brisk direction never lets the action stop and handles the shifts in place and pace without pausing for breath.

Another casualty of the evening was Elizabeth and Wickham’s relationship, which is barely given any stage time – if you didn’t know the story well you would consider our naughty red coat inconsequential.

And, that is the crux of it, I know P&P too well and this production added little – and why would it? We can’t suddenly have Darcy eloping with Mary and converting Pemberley into flats. The beautiful Regent’s Park Theatre is the perfect setting for a night of frocks and frolics and I’m always going to enjoy an evening with Darcy, even a rather hectic one.

 by Suzanne Elliott