Book Review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published by Sceptre

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, published by Sceptre

David Mitchell’s latest Booker Prize longlisted nominated novel has been dubbed a metaphysical thriller, a genre-bending tale that spans oceans and eras, a book that makes Cloud Atlas look like a kitchen sink drama.

The Bone Clocks is like several different novels by several different authors of several different genres all rolled into one big fat tale that is simultaneously one woman’s ordinary story of guilt and family, a tale of a feud between other worlds and an apocalyptic future in our own.

For the bulk of it, I loved The Bone Clocks. The tale starts in Gravesend, Kent in 1984 where 17-year-old Holly Skyes is slamming her front door after a row with her mother, storming off to boyfriend Vincent Costelloe’s (who makes a later, brilliantly cast cameo). So far, so normal. But Holly has been hearing voices all her life and was visited by the mysterious and beautiful Immaculée Constantin until she was taken to a certain Dr Marinus who silenced the chatter and banish the interloper.

While on the run Holly is party to a deadly fight between people from two other universes (the memory of which is wiped by the ‘goodies’) who we later come to know as Horologists and Anchorites (led by Miss Constantin), the background oddness that bubbles under the surface in the first four chapters, revealing itself in the novel’s fifth section.

Holly’s flight from the family home is cut short after she’s tracked down by Ed Brubeck, a boy in her class (who pops up a couple of chapters later where he’s a war reporter, dodging bombs and angry American soldiers in the Middle East), who tells Holly her little brother Jacko has gone missing, a mystery that the novel spins around.

In true Mitchell style, there are six sections, all narrated, or focused on, different individuals whose lives are intertwined with each others. There’s Holly, and later Ed, and between we hear from Hugo Lamb, a pompous, possibly psychopathic Cambridge student (uncannily like the title character in Sebastian FaulksEngleby that I haven’t long finished) and a great section narrated by the Martin Amis-like author Crispin Hershey, who is all hard intellectual edges and a softish heart.

With each chapter there’s a shift in tone and pace before we settle down to the latest installment in this globe trotting tale that has Holly and Jacko’s mysterious disappearance at its core.

But the fifth section is more than just a change of gear, it’s like getting into a Ford Fiesta and finding yourself on the moon as we land in another story where Mitchell Does Fantasy. We are introduced to the metaphysical element early on – the fight that Holly witnesses – and there’s an dollop – some large, some small – in each intervening chapter. But in this section the fantasy button goes OFF as those Horologists and Anchorites who have been buzzing about in the background take centre stage for a showdown that will destroy one side for good. It’s completely daft, deliberately so I assume, I mean “The Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass?” It probably should be fun, but I felt as if you’re wading through a muddled outtake from the Harry Potter cast having a spat.

We’re back in grim reality in the final section as Mitchell Does Cormac McCarthy. Holly is now in Ireland, it’s 2043 and the world is scorched and depleted, the idea of 24/7 electricity has become mythical. Holly lives on a windswept peninsula, with her granddaughter and adopted grandson struggling against the increasingly medieval conditions. Mitchell’s vision of a near future without fuel, electricity or democracy is as unpleasantly realistic as the preceding chapter was fantastical – and far more fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Us by David Nicholls

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

Us by David Nicholls published by Hodder & Stoughton

I’ve always stayed clear of David Nicholls’ novels out of sheer prejudice, not letting actual plot facts get in the way of his reputation for bouncy, implausible romantic storylines. I dismissed One Day as schmaltzy and unrealistic without even reading a synopsis. And having seen the film of Starter for Ten, I believed my quota for warmly funny, quirky stories about happiness against the odds had been fulfilled.

But Us sounded harder nosed, it had after all been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and we all know that novels don’t get a whiff of a Big Prize without a dose of misery to elevate it to Proper Literature status.

Us is very far from Thomas Hardy-bleak, but it’s a novel that combines humour with life’s harder moments, a half smile with teary eyes. Us is Douglas Petersen’s story of his relationship with Connie that at the beginning of the novel is on very shaky ground after she announces her intention to leave him after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage. Can a pre-planned family Grand Tour of Europe persuade Connie not to throw in the martial towel? It’s unlikely, but Douglas isn’t about to let the woman he adores slip from his life. So off we pop to the continent as we follow the Petersens on their often chaotic, but hugely entertaining journey across Europe’s great cities.

Douglas is a proper – not a trendy – geek, a biochemist with a real zeal for fly-fires. Connie is – of course, we are in Nicholls’ land –  the complete opposite, a free-wheeling artist who is late for flights and leaves the dishes until the morning. I came to realise quite quickly that Nicholls has no interest in challenging stereotypes. All the characters behave true to form from the anally-retentive scientist to the boho-artist, while Connie and Douglas’s teenage son, Albie, is moody, messy and often malicious (to his father anyway). This adherence to stereotype isn’t as annoying or as formulaic as it sounds because the story that Nicholls conjures up around this cast of cliches is heartwarming, engaging and occasionally embarrassing-yourself-on-the-bus funny.

Petersen doesn’t get it all his own way. Nicholls has given his one-personal narration enough rope to hang himself at times (see the ‘the glitter wars’ chapter ).  Like all the best storytellers Nicholls allows Douglas to develop without telling the reader what he’s like and as such, you’re never quite sure whose side you are on. Connie can be smug and self-obsessed. Her dismissal of science as boring and her frustration at Douglas’ struggle with culture (he does try) smack of an art school try-hard and for all her bohemian ways she seems rather priggish and unopen to ideas outside of her arty box. But, god, Douglas must  be a hard man to live with, despite his good intentions, his moodiness and self-righteousness emanate from the pages. In short, these are all too human characters and you feel their trials keenly.

Like Douglas Petersen, Nicholls isn’t a showy writer, but his style is far from pedestrian. It’s a brilliantly structured novel that flips between the present and the past, giving the reader enough clues to the outcome of both in the oscillating chapters to keep us eager for more details and givs the narrative a crucial structural reality.

I loved Us, it could be frustrating, it could be a little bit cutesy and slightly too ‘nice’ (the ending feels right in the context of the novel, but the outside world wouldn’t be so kind ) but it’s an ultimately joyful, funny exploration of a successfully, unsuccessful family.

Us by David Nicholls is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Book Review: The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I was introduced to Patrick Hamilton’s books by Julie Burchill who included Hamilton’s Hangover Square in a 10 Books That Should Be Classics list describing it as “as the most beautiful book ever written”. And Burchill got it spot on this time; Hangover Square really was beautiful in a gutter-looking-at-the-stars sort of way with its atmosphere of dark smoky pubs and damp bedrooms.

Like Graham Greene in his more domestic novels and George Orwell’s non-political works, Hamilton’s world is one of grimy backstreet pubs, boarding houses, gas metres and stewed tea. And despite the mundanity, it’s a thrilling world to inhabit, but one that too few people do, as, despite some heavy weight literary names (Doris Lessing wrote the forward to my copy) hailing him as an underrated 20th century novelist, Hamilton remains largely forgotten by the greater 21st century reading world.

World War II has accidentally been looming large in my literary life at the moment, having recently read Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel The Man In The High Castle by and Robert Harris‘ not-very-thrilling thriller Enigma. But while these books deal with space-travelling Nazis and Bletchley spies, The Slaves of Solitude focuses of the dull minutia of war.  The World War II in The Slaves of Solitude is not a war of bombs and bravery, of dancing all night with American soldiers (there is an American soldier, but he’s more drunk than dazzling). This is the forgotten war of dark staircases, cold bedrooms, powdered eggs and chill winds where evil isn’t the Nazis but the bullying bore at your table. Hamilton brings the war to life as a snarky thief, a ‘petty pilferer’ who takes everyday comforts away from you with a nasty smirk.

It’s 1943 and thirty-nine-year-old Enid Roach has fled the Blitz in London for the safe dullness of Thames Lockdon, a fictional town in South-East England thought to be based on Henley-on-Thames . She’s resident at the misleadingly named Rosamund Tea Rooms, now a repressive and stifling boarding house where Enid endures meal times with an elderly bullying bore, Mr Thwaites, brilliantly realised by Hamilton in some of the books funniest passages (although through the giggles your sympathies are with poor Enid). Enid’s life is given a little spark when she meets the whisky loving American, Lieutenant Pike, who pours gin and lemon down her throat in the local pub and half-proposes marriage to her on a park bench. Enid is underwhelmed by his attentions, but is perplexed when a friend – a German woman no less – Vicki Kugelmann starts inching towards him, seemingly attempting some kind of romantic standoff. And, after moving into the Rosamund Tea Rooms, Vicki becomes even more Single White Female, Enid is forced into an unpleasantness that’s more personally violent to her than her London days in the Blitz.

Enid was a joy to spend time with thanks to Hamilton’s deft hand at turning the mundane into an engrossing and witty read. Hamilton’s ear for dialogue and knack of colouring the bland with a brightness that transcends the small lives of his characters earned him fans in his lifetime and it’s surely time for a Stoner-style resurrection for his back catalogue.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is the tale of Mae Holland, a girl from the ‘burbs, burdened with college debt and a sick father, who blags a job at the world’s biggest internet company, The Circle, and begins to play her part in controlling the world and its data. In essence, The Circle is about the internet coming to eat us; Dave Eggers’ stern warning to the world of the fate that awaits us if we don’t get off Facebook.

The Circle is a terrifying amalgamation of Facebook, Google, Twitter and your bank details. It’s a Circle of Hell in cosy jumpers. It sounds like the Worst Place on Earth to work, like an Innocent smoothie bottle come to life with the face of Steve Jobs and ping pong tables under each arm. It’s Google run by Kim Jong-un, a scary mix of touchy-feeliness and totalitarianism.

Plot wise The Circle goes round and round. Not a lot happens; Mae gets increasingly embroiled in the inner workings of company, she’s given more computer screens, chums up with the Three Wise Men (the company’s CEOs), shacks up with some dubious sorts and falls out with her parents and her ex.

Eggers’ heavy satire and narrative rely on Mae being a complete moron. Fortunately, she’s happy to oblige, her young brain frizzled by a lifetime of status updates, pictures of her dinner and emoticons. Her parents’ health care and her desire to never go back to the grey-tinged dullness of her first office job in her hometown offer us an idea as to why she’s so crazy about this sinister company and why, beyond the odd raised eyebrow at the beginning, she never asks questions. But I wasn’t convinced as to how easily she was sucked in; where was her early 20-something cynicism? Why did she love her really tedious work so much? Why did she not think the people she was working with were humourous idiots?

The Circle tells a story that is uncomfortably close to our own world. I felt my anxiety levels rise as the computer monitors mounted on Mae’s desk and the relentless stream of zings, smiles, frowns, customer queries and questionnaires began. It is in places a very funny book. Sending frowns to military organisations in Africa in an attempt to shame them into stopping their atrocities made me chortle (sorry, LOL) and the rather unfortunate incident with her parents, the bedroom and a camera added a toe-curling, humourous touch.

The Circle is a fun read with an all too realistic vision, but its satire is little too heavy-handed. Orwell’s 1984’s dystopian nightmare was so futuristic that his vision of a totalitarian state gave us enough space for his message to strike a cord. Orwell would not have needed an over-extended, clunky metaphor about a transparent, rare shark kept in a Circle fish tank that eats everything in its way to help us understand that the internet had become an evil Pacman.

One of the scariest things about this novel is that a man (Mae’s father) with MS is denied the health care he needs as he’s unable to pay for it. Already a reality in the States, when the Coalition have done dismantling the NHS, it’s also our nightmare future. And this, even more than the monolithic internet is what I’ll have sleepless nights about.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

It’s easy to believe we get to read, to hear and to see the very best, that only the skimmed off brilliance is left as the cultural entails sink into oblivion. But you only have to look back at history and then around you at the piles of candy-floss coloured novels stacked on supermarket shelves to know that talent doesn’t always win out. Luck and circumstances have as much an impact on so many cultural success stories as talent – too often the book, the song, the painting just don’t chime with the zeitgeist.

Stoner by John Williams was published in 1965 to a reaction that hasn’t, as far as I know, been recorded. A tutor in literature and the craft of writing at the University of Denver, Stoner was Williams’ third novel (he also had a book of poetry published in 1949). Stoner may or may not have won the hearts of the critics in his own time, but it certainly didn’t capture the imagination  of his contemporaries or storm the New York Times book chart and the novel slipped into the great book perjury in the sky only to be resurrected by Ian McEwan who name checked it in a Radio 4 show earlier this year, describing it as a “beautiful novel… a marvellous discovery for everyone who loves literature”. As one of the literary world’s few superstars, McEwan’s rapturous praise got his fans and the larger publishing world very excited, and the book was republished by Vintage weeks later to ride this belated enthusiasm.

The book is about the life of a man named William Stoner, the son of a farmer who discovers Shakespeare during supplementary studies in literature taught by the enigmatic Archer Sloane while reading agriculture at the University of Columbia. Stoner’s slow understanding of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold…”) changes his life forever, as he is finally brought to life by literature, admittedly in his own unassuming way.

Stoner’s new found thirst for literature leads him from student to teacher at the same university, where he attempts to pass on his own love and enthusiasm for the subject to non-plussed adolescents. When he doesn’t have his nose in a book, he gets married to the wrong woman, has a daughter, an affair and a career-damaging fallout with another university lecturer. And, that’s pretty much it.

Although, it’s so much more than that. This man’s quiet life is taken to new heights by the beauty of Williams’ writing and his understanding of the human condition. He’s able to fill the pages with waves of emotion and so much heart while saying very little. There’s a terrible sadness that runs through Stoner, the novel and Stoner the man, that is truly heartbreaking in its ordinariness. It’s easy to see why McEwan is a fan, there’s the same sparseness and economy of words that evoke a world more fully than many who try much harder; a coldness and detachment that creates so much heat and emotion. 

If there’s a fault with Stoner, it lies with the depiction of his wife Edith, a battle axe of the kind we’ve seen so many times before – running round the house with a metaphorical rolling pin, ruining her poor husband’s life. I was uneasy with her, and didn’t know whether I was meant to read her as a pinafored-tyrant, or, as I choose to view her, as a victim of her era, her sex and her class. She is as much a pawn in this game of life as Stoner is, more so in fact – as a man he holds enough power to stamp on Edith’s dreams, to whisk her off into matrimonial hell just as she was due to embark on a tour of Europe with her aunt. To me, Edith was clearly suffering from depression that grew worse after the birth of their daughter, the unfortunate Grace who didn’t stand a chance between her mentally ill mother and her mute, emotionally detached father. They are none of them winners. 

Stoner is a flawed man, an unexciting man, but one whose story is as thrilling as James Bond’s thanks to Williams’ perfect prose. McEwan was absolutely right to describe it as a “marvellous discovery” for people who love reading; if books make up the fabric of who you are, it’s such a treat to see that same experience recreated in novels. To be reading about the joys of reading is like some kind of meta-warm word bath. 

 by Suzanne Elliott

Me, on the sofa, with an Agatha Christie

agatha_christie1

Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime

I have a propensity to be a bit fussy (some might say snobby) about books. But for all my tuttings at bad writing and groaning at sloppy, cliched plots, Agatha Christie – who is many things but Charles Dickens she ain’t – remains my most-read author. I’ve devoured her novels since I was on the fringes of adolescence having outgrown (and out-read my local library’s supply of) Sweet Valley High and I continue to turn to her now, especially when I’m in need of a literary comfort blanket.

For despite dealing in the murky world of murder, there’s something wonderfully comforting about Agatha Christie’s novels. She was a soothing companion when I was bedridden with chicken pox/measles/mumps in childhood and, more recently, got me through a couple of weeks of concussion when my bruised brain could deal with little else.

She remains the perfect reading palette cleanser, the ideal antidote to a tired mind. When I’m all-read out I turn to the easy prose and perfectly-plotted writings of Ms Christie to jolt me back into my habit.I can’t remember my first Christie, but I was hooked from the beginning and it didn’t take me long to exhaust the local library’s stock of her novels too. Not that I have ever been averse to reading Christie novels once or even twice – I can rarely remember “whodunnit”, which I’m not sure says more about Christie or me. Miss Marple, not your average teen idol, was always my favourite Christie hero, but I lapped up most of her other Marple-free novels except, perversely, Herclue Poiret (the fussy Belgium detective who featured in almost half of her novels) who I deemed ‘boring’ for reasons my adult self can’t remember. David Suchet – and the impeccable art deco staging of the TV dramas – has since converted me.

I’m not a natural fan of crime writing. I am, even within the relatively safe pages of a novel, a sensitive soul. A detailed description of a sagged cuticle is enough to have be squirming. I snivel at the slightest injustice and physically flinch at any violence. Christie’s books are littered with victims of poisoning, fatal blows on the head from fireplace ornaments and grisly stabbings, but the sang-froid of her writing and stiff-upper lip-ness of her characters create a reassuring barrier between the reader and the emotive reality of these horrible crime. It also helps that there are very few likable people in a Christie novel. I’m rarely sad to see any of them bopped on the head or poisoned by a fruit cake.I have dabbled in the bloody waters of other crime writers. I flirted with Ruth Rendell and her Inspector Wexford for a bit; endured an Ian Rankin because I felt like I should and I have hazy recollections of picking up a P.D. James, but I never felt that compelling pull into the story with them as I did with Agatha Christie. I am, I confess, yet to try M.C Beaton’s Agatha Raison books which I can’t decide I’ll love or find unbearably twee.

When forced to dissect my love for Christie (or rather her books, she doesn’t seem like much of a giggle) I find that there are as many reasons not to like her novels. The prose is efficient but unlovely; the characters, neigh, the ambiance of the books is cold and brisk. We’re dealing with murder, but not emotions – there are few, if any, histrionics in Christie’s novels. In one of her novels, I can’t remember which, the mother of a murdered boy says, and I paraphrase, “Well, he was a very naughty little boy, so I suppose he had it coming”. The plot often offers more than it delivers. The build up is so brilliant and compelling that when the murderer is revealed it often manages to be both mundane and overly complicated. She is twee and old-fashioned (which, at its worse, translate as racist and sexist – I’m frequently taken aback by how much Christie appears to dislike women).

But I don’t read Christie for exquisite prose or her take of feminism. Nor am I have much interested in the murder sides of things. I read her books for her swift, brilliant plotting, the cosy yet toxic world of a time (thankfully in my opinion) long gone and her tangled web of deceit and lies that allows me to play detective from the top deck of the bus or my bed. I love the puzzle of the crime even if I rarely guess right – for a while I thought I’d hit on the perfect formula, assuming that it was the least likely character who was the chief suspect, but more often than not Christie was one step ahead of me.

There continues to be a huge appetite for Agatha Christie books and their small screen adaptations. Waterstones and Hatchards have whole bookcases devoted to her novels including new editions with fancy retro covers. There’s a new (and final) series of Poiret with David Suchet reprising his career-defining role as the moustach-ioed Belgium detective that’s set to air later this year (or possibly the beginning of next). And ITV3 would have to sell a lot more ads for cruises if it wasn’t for the back-catalogue of television adaptations. While over in Dartmouth it’s estimated that 100,000 visitors walk through the doors of Christie’s former home Greenway every year since it opened in 2009 (I was amongst the thousands in 2010). So it looks like the Queen of Crime will continue to rule for quite some time.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

ImageNot for the first time, I found myself unconsciously reading two books with very similar themes, characters and bombshell endings back-to-back.

The last time it happened, when I read The Sea by John Banville and Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying in tandem, both plots followed middle-aged men looking back on their lives, trying to come to terms with the past. And the hooks of both Sense of an Ending and The Go-Between, the book I read immediately after? Yes, two late middle-aged men looking back at their lives and…

Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel is a slip of a book that deals with big ideas. It was one of those novels that the clichéd, and clumsy, ‘unputadownable’ was first uttered for. I devoured it in a day only to be left… I don’t really know how I felt as I closed it for the final time. There is little sense of the ending, or, if you think about it too much as I did, sense in the ending. Was I disappointed? Surprised? Confused? I didn’t, don’t, know.

But it was certainly a gripping read, beautiful realised by Barnes, a writer I’ve always found too cold and studied for my liking. The story is told through the eyes of the now late-middle aged Tony who’s being forced to dig out pockets of memory from the furthest reaches of his mind after he becomes the unlikely recipient of a legacy from his ex-girlfriend, Veronica’s, mum that includes the diary of a school friend who committed suicide that Veronica is refusing to hand over. Tony becomes obsessed with retrieving what is legally his, and his hunt unearths some dark and dangerous secrets and long forgotten memories.

The Sense of an Ending flits in-between now and the 1960s when we’re introduced to Tony and his group of pseudo-intellectual schoolboys, amongst them the super-serious Adrian Finn.

Tony is that well used literary device, the unreliable narrator. We naturally see the events unfolding through his eyes, both literally and metaphorically. But Barnes gives us enough outside insights – the odd knowing comment from Tony’s ex wife; a letter he sent to Veronica and her then boyfriend – Tony’s former good friend Adrian – to learn more than Tony allows us.

The story bounces along, told in Tony’s jarringly upbeat voice, but there’s a sinister undertone that runs through what is an ultimately a rather depressing and sad tale. I found Tony unnerving in his emotional detached, he seemed so distant from his actions and unaware of the damage could do to others with his emotional flippancy and, despite his slight character, he was all too real.

The ending continues to haunt me weeks after finishing it. There are so many unanswered questions. I’m not even really sure what I think happened, happened. As enthralling and thrilling as this book was, I was left slightly frustrated; it’s nagged at me almost as much as Tony’s desire for that diary.

Book Review: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

The Day of the Locusts

Nathanael West (1903-1940) – original name Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein – was an American writer who died in a car crash at thirty-seven. He published four novels, wrote several screenplays and two short stories.

Why have I never heard of The Day of the Locust before? It’s a cult classic! It’s referenced in a Manics song! There’s a character called Homer Simpson in it who Matt Groening may or may not have named a certain yellow cartoon character after.

Written in 1939, The Day of the Locust reads like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as narrated by the bastard child of Holden Caulfield and Nick Carraway as it follows a bunch of off-the-wall characters in a Hollywood on the brink of self-destruction. At the centre of this storm of lunacy is the level-headed and naive set-designer Tod Hackett whose infatuation with the beautiful, vacuous aspiring actor Faye Greener draws him into a world littered with monosyllabic cowboys, angry dwarves and flirtatious Mexicans.

The narrative is rather disjointed; most of the novel is seen through the eyes of Tod, but West occasionally strays and skips from protagonist to protagonist using only a pronoun. There was more than one sentence that I had to re-read before I could make sense of who or what he was referring to. West also frequently plunges the reader into a baffling scenario – a moving pile of clothes; a sudden desert in the middle of the city; an 18th century battle outside Tod’s window – with no immediate explanation, presumably to convey the alien and alienating world of Hollywood. The distant, unsympathetic tone of the novel – and Tod’s detached, analytical voice – highlights the coldness and heartlessness of an artificial Hollywood and its inhabitants. West was good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while the world he writes about in The Day of the Locust is far removed from Fitzgerald’s East Coast crowd, there’s that same feeling of a naive narrator becoming involved in a world he doesn’t belong in or understand until it’s too late.The result is surreal, funny, moving and horrifying. A cockfight towards the end of the novel was one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read (and, no, I haven’t read American Psycho). The image of the dying bird was brutal, but there’s no judgment cast by the author or the characters. Poor old wet Homer is the only one to show any emotion, and even then it’s not much more than a flinch.

Like Hollywood itself, this isn’t a novel with much soul, but it’s a hugely entertaining satire on a world that we still very much recognise.
by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Seventeen eighties Paris dealt with, it was time to move to back to stuffy old Victorian England, a land full of moral hypocrites and ridiculous notions of ‘virtue’ and ‘proprietary’. Against this background of moral tutting and church high-handedness, ‘Ruth’ the story of an orphaned young seamstress who seeks refuge in the arms of a dastardly upper class cad only to have him – or rather his snobby mother – turn her out, unaware that she’s carrying his child, is an astonishingly brave book.You can see Mrs Gaskell tightrope-walking the moral line, pleading with the reader to love and sympathise with Ruth, a sad victim of circumstance. Even the briskest defenders of the times moral code, would surely have wilted at the sadness in Ruth’s beautiful eyes, just as the characters who condemn this ‘fallen’ woman can’t stay angry for long – although by the time they get down from their highhorse, it’s a bit late.

As ever with Mrs G, the big man in the sky plays a starring role. I always struggle with these religious passages – the character’s ardent faith that seems to defend or even encourage the worst behaviour in people is so alien and – especially in relation to the ‘Christians’ behaviour towards Ruth – barbaric. Elizabeth Gaskell’s approach to religion was far more humane, and Mr and Miss Benson, the kind brother and sister who take in a pregnant and destitute Ruth, represent a religion that puts people above scripture.

Mrs Gaskell leaves little room for the 19th century reader to disapprove – of course to the modern reader the only thing to disapprove of is the terrible behaviour of the dastardly Mr Bellingham and his mother, and the blustering moralising of Mr Bradshaw, but at the time, a woman who’d had a baby out of wedlock was the very worst kind of ‘sinner’. A few stiff upper lips would no doubt have wobbled as Ruth’s goodness and gentleness help her rise from her sinful state only for her very purity of heart to prove her downfall.

A fascinating story that brings home the harsh reatlies of life in finger-wagging Victorian England and a sharp reminder that the ‘olden days’ weren’t all bonnets, the regiment and handsome men with large fortunes.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Pure by Andrew Miller

I’m deep in period drama mode at the moment, but before I skipped from Dickens to Gaskell I needed a break from the Classics but still craved a protragonist in a bonnet or breeches.

Set in pre-revolutionary Paris but written by a 21st century hand, Pure proved the perfect historical palette cleanser. The Costa Prize winning novel tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer sent to Paris from rural Normandy to oversee the removal of bones from the crumbling graveyard and church of Les Innocents as Paris attempts to clear away its dead – and with it its past.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Miller’s modern and minalmalist prose, his 18th century Paris is as vivid as Dicken’s London. Miller doesn’t try and take us back in time with language of the past, but instead brings it to life with unfussy yet sharp observations – you can almost smell the rotting remains and taste of the death-laced food served to Barratte in his lodgings at the Monnards. The book races along – in fact, if I had to pick a fault I’d say there was almost too much drama, including some pretty violent and disturbing scenes. But it was Barratte’s internal struggles that play out nicely against the background of the graveyard works and the rumblings of revolution that kept me gripped to the end.

Suzanne Elliott