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