Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan published by Vintage

If I was forced, at pain of being thwacked over the head with a hardback copy of War and Peace, to name my favourite contemporary author, I would say Ian McEwan.

I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager, when I picked up a copy of The Cement Garden, attracted by a tale of messed-up and cooped-up adolescents whose lives were ALMOST as depressing as mine. What I was probably hoping for was a British Flowers In The Attic, what I got was far better; darker and more disturbing, less sensational, more emotional, but stripped of any sugary sentimentality.

As I came to discover, McEwan’s powers lie in crisp, sharp prose, with not a mis-placed word. Like all great authors he can say more in a sentence than lesser writers can in a chapter. He never gets into a tangle of adjectives or sounds like he’s hurling long words at the reader in attempt to upstage you.

From The Cement Garden, I entered the even murkier, more sinister worlds of McEwan’s first two published works, both collections of short stories – First Love, Last Rites and In Between The Sheets. These were strange worlds, where women had relationships with orang-u-tans and fathers and daughters fought for survival in post-apocalyptic nightmare where lone tower blocks survived like cement cockroaches. McEwan’s late ’70s world made J.G. Ballard‘s look like an Ikea ad.

Over time McEwan’s literary landscapes slowly shifted from shadowy suburbia and grubby bedsit land to the professional urban middle class and love across the class divide in upper crust country piles. But while his protagonists moved up the class ladder and his settings became more aesthetically pleasing, there was still a dark heart at their core, pumping poison through Sunday supplement lives.

But my love affair with McEwan’s novels hit a speed bump with his 1998 novel Amsterdam. I laboured over it for weeks and over the years, as the memory of it became fuzzy, I came to hate it even more. I would tell people to read him, but beg them to skip his Booker prize winning novel. Was it reverse snobbery? Perhaps, I was studying for an English degree at the time and, like a typically smug undergrad, loved dismissing huge swathes of critically acclaimed works, much like McEwan’s hero in Sweet Tooth.

As the years passed the book became a blur of expensive red wine, white carpets and two middle aged men jabbing accusatory fingers at each other. Beyond that, I couldn’t remember much, the plot was lost to me completely, and as I continued to read and enjoy McEwan’s books (except Saturday, which I also dislike and which I should also revisit) I wondered what it was I so despised about Amsterdam.

So I went back and read it. And gobbled it up in one weekend. Because, of course, it’s great. Sure, there’s a rambling pile in north London with a wine cellar stuffed with expensive Beaujolais, but it’s a house whose heart’s been ripped out of it, where the composer, Clive Linley lives with his fading past, shuffling between unloved rooms amidst a pile of discarded scores and dirty wine glasses. Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor and Clive’s best friend, reached his professional apex through sheer luck and his ability to slip through life unnoticed. They are not men to envy, and they are certainly not mocking you with their (un)fabulous lives.

The novel opens with a funeral, Clive and Vernon standing in the rain, remembering the coffin’s occupant, their former lover Molly Lane. Molly isn’t the only thing they have in common: Clive and Vernon are also united by a hatred for her most recent lover Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary, a man who Molly’s husband, George, would also like to see destroyed. This rain-soaked meeting sparks a chain of events that set off a deadly cocktail of grief, fear, hatred, passion and jealousy.

In other author’s hands, Amsterdam would have been an hysterical thriller, racing along at speed and hitting the odd plot-hole along the way. But McEwan writes with a precision that hides the true horror until it confronts you with its steely honesty. Seemingly inconsequential, microscopic moments that writers have a tendency to smother in heavy-handed SYMBOLISM, those spots in time that turn the whole story on its head, are told with less fuss than the description of the wine Clive chooses for dinner. These are the moments that drive the story to towards its fatal end, but it’s not until later that we – like the characters – come to understand the consequences.

I’m currently finding my way through Barbara Kingsolver‘s overblown Flight Behaviour and missing McEwan’s sharp prose. When I’ve crawled my way to the end, I’ll need to dig out my copy of Saturday and see if the neurosurgeon and his marble staircase can win me over this time.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins by Jess WalterBreaking down the literary forth wall and introducing real life people, especially those who have existed within living memory, into a fictional landscape can be toe-curling and jarring. No author could ever capture a well-known person exactly how all others imagine them to be and these interlopers can seem less believable than their fictional friends. 

Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (named after a description of a boozed-ravaged Richard Burton not long before he died) spin on the real-life events of the second-attempt at filming Cleopatra when rain, money and rows had moved the production from England to Italy. The film’s stars play parts in Beautiful RuinsElizabeth Taylor‘s role is entirely off-page, but Burton not only has a walk-on part, but is a key plot device. He makes a wobbly cameo that somewhat scars this otherwise cracking yarn, the charismatic Welshman reduced to an embarrassing drunk who’ll tell his story, or at least those bits Walter could find on Wikipedia, to the nearest minion.

Burton’s appearance is one of a few wrong turns that stop Beautiful Ruins being truly great.  It’s an intelligent holiday read with literary aspirations, but it’s too timid to make that leap from beach to Booker. The plot is well crafted and compelling and when it’s in full swing it’s engrossing, but there are moments of self-consciousness, especially during the chapter where the story skips across to London. Walter, who is undoubtedly an excellent and accomplished author who writes with spirit and humour, includes some beautiful descriptions of London’s schizophrenic architecture, but his words never really catch its essence. For all his perfectly placed adjectives, Walter never found its heart. The same can be said for his Richard Burton moment – the actor’s appearance felt like a novel hijack by a Burton-impersonator.

The odd stumbles aside, Beautiful Ruins is a charming book that sweeps across continents and decades, with, love, in its many guises, fuelling its journey. The novel opens in 1962 in a scraggy Italian village on the Lingurian coast that’s frozen in time. Young, blue-eyed Italian hotelier Pasquale Tursi watches as one of the island’s gnarly old fisherman deliver a beautiful, and apparently dying, American actress called Dee Moray onto his island and into his life. Her initial diagnoses turns out to be wrong; she doesn’t have cancer, but the real reason for her exile on this funny little cliff-face of Italy has just as wide-reaching an impact on Dee, and those around her.

Along the way we’re taken to contemporary Hollywood, Idaho, 1970s Seattle, 21st century London and Edinburgh and 1940s war-torn Italy. We’re introduced to a cast of characters that includes coke addicts, porn addicts, war veterans, ruthless Hollywood producers, failed rock stars, Italian fisherman and legendary film stars. Obviously more at home in California and Italy, Walter conjurers up these worlds wonderfully; you can see the red tinged horizon as the sun sets over the Ligurian Sea, feel the sea salt in your hair, taste LA’s pollution in your lungs  and feel Hollywood’s relentless energy.

It’s romantic – borderline sentimental – warm and funny. The characters are varied and well-drawn, especially the ‘bad guy’, producer Michael Deane whose plastic face and ruthlessness have made him rich, but who’s now a failure and an embarrassment in the town that made him big. He’s psychopathic lack of compassion and empathy makes him hugely entertaining, especially next to the rather feeble Dee Moray (a Lidl Marilyn Monroe) and love-sick Pasquale.

Beautiful Ruins may not be the book it could have been, but it’s an engaging, satisfying tale of love and lost, romance and regret.

by Suzanne Elliott 

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 match.com. 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: 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

Book Review: Skios by Michael Frayn

Skios by Michael Frayn

My first introduction to Michael Frayn was his 2002 novel Spies which I picked up in a book exchange in a guesthouse in Cambodia a few years ago.

This Second World War based drama was one of those mesmerising novels that you long to linger over and savour every word, but whose pull is such that you gallop through it only to be left bereft as you reach the final page all too soon. It’s been years since I read it in the suffocating humidity of a pre-monsoon season Cambodia, but I still think about the book and the feeling of reading it almost as often as my mind drifts to those lazy days in South East Asia.

Naturally I sought out other Frayn works. His Booker Prize shortlisted Headlong was a brilliant, snortingly funny countryside farce-thriller; The Scoop-like Towards The End Of The Morning a comedy set in the smoke-tinged, boozy world of a corner office of a Fleet Street newspaper during it’s dying days. And on stage, the majestic Noises Off (I also saw Democracy last year and, lets just say I’m a political philistine who prefers my Frayn funny or moving).

In his latest novel Skios, Frayn is firmly back in farce territory. In fact, this is farce so farcical it makes Noises Off look like, well, Democracy. Silly yet clever, hugely improbable yet completely believable, Skios follows Oliver Fox, a daft fella who arrives on the Greek island of Skios without the woman he is meant to be sharing a villa with (a villa, incidentally that belongs to his on-off again girlfriend’s friends) who he only met for five minutes in a bar while her boyfriend was out having a fag.

Friendless, address-less and lift-less, Oliver spots a woman at Arrivals holding a sign reading ‘Dr Norman Wildfred’ and decides to give this man’s life a whirl. The woman holding the sign is Nikki, the PA to the director of the Fred Toppler Foundation – essentially an academic holiday camp – who is at the airport to collect the organisation’s guest lecturer. The real Dr Norman Wildfred meanwhile is left to navigate Oliver’s chaotic life, which happily for the balding, overweight academic features lots of attractive young ladies. What follows is a catalogue of perfectly pitched and expertly plotted events that will either have you chuckling like a loon or groaning wearily at the whole silly mess.

Like the two taxi driving brothers who play pivotal roles in this comedy of errors, the pacy plot threatens to overturn on a few particularly sharp turns, but Frayn’s great skill is taking the ridiculous to a precipice only for him to steer this juggernaut of absurdity clear of a plot-cliff. Frayn is very much in charge of this story even if it feels that all these incredulous coincidences, unlikely connections and improbable timings are spinning out of his control.

Your enjoyment of Skios very much hinges on you not taking the characters too seriously. They are almost cartoon-like in their stupidity, vanity, arrogance and willingness to accept everything the way they want to see it. They don’t seem to be possessed of instinct or, for the most part, brains. In fact, they’re lumbered with very few characteristics, they are faint human sketches on which to hang a fun, farcical story on. And they wear it well.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

If State of Change were a television programme it would be a prime time BBC Four flagship show, starring a big British name who wanted to prove their acting chops after a successful BBC One cult series. It would have the critics salivating before they’d even seen the preview tapes while, glass of Pinot Noir in hand, the Twitterati would be scratching its head hoping someone will admit to not understanding – or worse – liking – this very well crafted but odd programme – before they have to hint in 140 characters that they would rather be watching EastEnders.

Penelope Gilliatts A State of Change, first published in 1967, is stylish and sleek; it’s also sparse and ephemeral. It feels both dense and lightweight. There is little plot; this is a novel driven by cleverly crafted dialogue, witty bon mots and sharp observations. It reads like a Pinter or a Beckett play – still, yet restless, superficially devoid of meaning, but with each word creaking under the weight of its significance. Gilliatt was once a big literary name: if she were alive today, she would most likely have been among the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s shortlist. She was a hugely versatile writer with a massive brain – according to the lovely introduction to this (badly subbed) Capuchin Classic edition written by the brilliant Ali Smith, Gilliatt was believed to have had a higher IQ than Eistein. She was a journalist and film critic, most notably for The Observer and The New Yorker and she wrote short stories and novels, she even wrote an opera libretto.

She is best remembered best for her Oscar-nominated screenplay for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. Sadly, Sunday Bloody Sunday aside, Gilliatt is now rather forgotten, her books mostly out of print. She’s probably more remembered for once being married to grumpy old playwright John Osborne. Reading A State of Change it’s easy to see why she has fallen out of favour with modern day literary lovers. It feels very much of its time, but not in that rather twee, rose-tinted way that we seem to prefer our 20th century novels to be. There’s no gripping plot, terrible secret or big reveal. It can be bewildering as characters drift in and out of half-remembered conversations. There are time shifts and sudden dramatic changes that unfold behind the scenes that we, the reader, are never party to. As Ali Smith explains in the introduction, one of Gilliatt’s literary quirks was a “mode of unexplaining”, influenced by the ambiguity of director Jean Renoir’s films.

A State of Change revolves around Kakia who leaves her native Poland after the war for drab, war-damaged London where she meets two friends, Don and Harry who she falls in love with, one after the other. The three of them stay close friends over the years, despite the obvious difficulties. There’s no mud-slinging or 4am whisky-fuelled confessions. We’re never told how each character feels; we are made to draw our own conclusions from their actions and interactions. This seeming randomness, this way of writing that not only reflects real life but also celebrates the beauty of writing beyond a structured beginning, middle and end, is out of step in a world where we demand absolute transparency in everything. But Giliatt deserves a better reception from the 21st century.

A State of Change isn’t a warm book, it’s frosty but fascinating, like a glamorous aloof friend ,and it’s a novel worth digging out if you’re a fan of words and graceful writing.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Night Windows by Jonathan Smith

Having read Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February, his captivating tale of love and loss in the Lamorna artistic community, early this year, I was keen to explore more of his novels.

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Night Windows by Jonathan Smith

Not that I need to assemble another Billy bookshelf to accommodate his back catalogue. Noted primarily for his two works of non-fiction, including the much acclaimed Learning Games, his book based on his experiences as a teacher, Smith’s six novels are harder to find than a sensible Michael Gove idea. I even had to break my Amazon boycott to buy Night Windows, Smith’s 2005 novel.

Google may bury Smith somewhere past a footballer, actor, a psychologist and a games programmer, but as an English teacher at top boys’ public school Tonbridge he’s played a part in the careers of the likes of Vikram Seth and Downton Abbeys very own Dan Stevens (who is returning the favour by starring in the big screen adaptation of his former teacher’s brilliant Summer in February later this year).

Night Windows brings two of Smith’s experiences together; teaching and identity theft of which Smith was a victim for several years. He explains on the dust jacket that this inspired him to write this novel about a high-flying head whose world (almost) comes crashing down around his ears after he’s arrested and accused of some rather unsavoury crimes. He then sets out on a mission, with the reader looking over his shoulder, to prove his innocence.

If Jonathan Smith is the Robin Williams of Kent, his hero in Night Windows, Patrick Balfour is a more polished version, fewer motivational Walt Whitman poems, more stirring speeches about Churchill. Balfour is the head of a top public school (a thinly veiled, location-wise anyway, City of London Freeman’s). He’s also a bit of a media personality and all-round charmer (if this is ever made into a film or TV series then Nigel Havers would be a shoe-in for the role).

Night Windows is an engaging and thought-provoking read. Stuffed full of clues, Smith, and his fictional criminal mastermind, lay a trail of literary breadcrumbs, encouraging us to head off in one direction only to discover it’s a dead end, forcing us to back out of our mental cul-de-sac and begin again.

Cleverly Smith never allows us to be 100% certain of Balfour’s innocence and our doubts as to who the real Patrick Balfour is are mirrored by the character himself. Balfour may not be literature’s most sympathetic character, but he is a real literary treat in that he felt human rather than a mirage of adjectives and silted dialogue. His very humanness makes him a divisive character; my flatmate, who read the book before me, described him as “not a very likeable man”, but I thought he was just a man of a certain age at the top of his career equipped with all the confidence (arrogance?) and sense of entitlement that those two things carries. Sure, he’s flawed, but he at least knows he is.

The novel, didn’t, as I feared, disappear through a massive plot hole as it cantered towards the end. The finale is satisfyingly realistic even if the last couple of chapters with all their big reveals and drama felt a little frantic.

Along there the way there were a few obvious absences. How did a man with as many enemies as Balfour have, with a big a media presence, manage to keep the secret of his arrest to himself bar those he chose to tell? If the media discovered and thought news-worthy his affair, surely his arrest would all over the front pages, of the Evening Standard at least.  And I found it odd that everyone Balfour confined in believed he was innocent unquestioningly, even those who had claims to dislike and disbelief him.

But, like human beings and fictional characters, books are always so much more likeable if they’re not completely perfect.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

I’ve never embraced the Brontës in the way I have Jane Austen (and, yes, I agree they shouldn’t always be played off against each other – although surely Charlotte B started it?).

I had three stuttering starts with Jane Eyre before I could move on past St Helen of TB’s death, although once I broke free of Lowood School along with Jane I grew to love it. And Withering, sorry, Wuthering Heights? Two self-indulgent people squabble for years until one of them dies and then it’s all “it’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home” and the whole time I’m thinking “but that man is a bully and a dog killer. I’d stop banging on that window if I were you, love”.

But despite my less than enthusiastic embracing of the Brontë canon, I’m still seduced by the romanticism of the family’s legend. In particular, I’ve long been intrigued by the “forgotten” Brontë sister Anne, the youngest, who is perhaps more critically acclaimed for her poetry than her two novels. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been on my to-read pile for ages; I couldn’t resist the idea of a book about a lady living alone in a crumbling mansion in the middle of nowhere whose presence causes much tongue-wagging amongst her bored neighbours.

Often held up as the first feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells the story of Helen Huntington, a young bride forced to flee her drunk, adulterous, bullying husband for the sake of her son and her sanity. She attempts to do the unthinkable at the time, to leave him and live a new life where she would support herself (in this case, selling her paintings).

At the time it wasn’t just Helen Huntington’s fictional neighbours that were scandalised. Anne Brontë’s tale of one woman’s fight to break free from martial brutality caused such a stir on its publication in 1848 – under the pseudonym Acton Bell – that Anne was compelled to write a prelude to the second edition defending the author’s right to write about subjects of interest to both men and *gasp* women. She also made no secret of the novel being a lesson to young women, writing: “…if I have warned one rash youth from following in their steps, or prevented one thoughtless girl from falling into the very natural error of my heroine, the book has not been written in vain.”

No one had ever confronted the very real issues of abusive marriages in print before. Back in the 19th century women just didn’t leave their husbands and certainly didn’t take any children with them – they remained the property of the men even if they were wine-sloshed tyrants. Women’s lives were simply not their own to do as they wished with, they were playthings for men, their feelings as inconsequential as that of an animal (less so in some cases – Victorian men seem inordinately fond of their horses and dogs).

Women stayed at home embroidering and gossiping until they were married off, where they continued to embroider and gossip although they now had to keep house and have children. If they were lucky, marriage would bring them security, if not happiness, but too often the unequal partnership between men and women would lead to a life of strife and misery as Helen Huntington finds to her cost after falling for the charms of the Bryonic, and at times, Bertie Wooster-ish, Arthur Huntington.

The novel, while not in the same league as her sister Charlotte’s (and okay, then, Emily’s) genius, is a gripping and fascinating tale badly let down by the clumsy narrative device Anne – against the wishes of her publisher – chose to tell the tale. We come to know of Helen’s plight firstly through the laboriously detailed letters that the novel’s ‘hero’ Gilbert Markham writes to his brother-in-law (who I couldn’t help imaging rolling his eyes as another great wad drops through the letterbox). Gilbert’s first person letters bookend the novel, but the chunk of the tale is told through Helen’s journal that she, in a desperate but odd act, throws out of the window to the love-sick Gilbert who then transcribes (yes, really) the whole thing to his long-suffering BIL in another series of letters.

The novel also suffers from Helen being a hard-to-love heroine. She’s feisty and determined – think Jane Eyre crossed with North and South’s Margaret Hale, complete with all the piousness that that pairing invokes – but, unlike these two, she’s chippy and charmless. And Gilbert? What a pompous oaf. I found Mr Hargrave a far more endearing proposition. Anne’s writing, if anything, is more reminiscent of Jane Austen than the starker, bleaker writings of her sisters, although she has none of the Pride and Prejudice writer’s wit or her satirical eye. Anne is more straightforward, she doesn’t hide behind the reality of life for some married women in a Mr-Collins-and-Charlotte kind of way and has no time for literary frills.

Despite the bad plot structure and the unlovable leads, I found the Tenant of Wildfell Hall a fascinating and moving novel. I always find it tempting to look back at the past and believe that women just accepted their lot, that they assumed society was nicely arranged as God wanted it to be. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall opened by eyes to the fact that there were women who wanted – needed – change – and Anne and her Helen – in their own way – went some way to help put that change in motion.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The soap opera life of Henry VIII has been told so many times in film, novels and campy TV series that you could argue we don’t need another historical novel to rake over the ashes of the heroes and victims of this bloody age.

But Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, the second novel dramatising the rise and, although we’re not there yet, the fall, of Henry’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, raises Queen Anne and the other Tudor ghosts from the ground in such exquisite style that it renders so much that’s gone before it ordinary. I guzzled up the 600+ page novel, reading well into the small hours a story I’ve heard told in far less bewitching ways a hundred times before.

The novel begins at Wolf Hall, the soon-to-be royal cohorts the Seymours’ house, with Cromwell flying his falcons, named after his daughters and wife. It’s a disorientating opener as Grace, Lizzie and Anne, as those of us who read Wolf Hall or read Mantel’s handy ‘Cast of Characters’ know, are long dead, making their resurrected names momentarily distracting and ghostly. Surely grounded Cromwell hasn’t started seeing ghosts? But this opaque paragraph aside, it’s not Mantel’s desire to bamboozle you, she’s a writer of great clarity and simplicity once the historical fog clears. There’s been much made of her writing in the present tense and her (over?) use of the third person pronoun, but there’s a beautiful fluidity to her style that can go unnoticed until you’re ensconced in Mantel’s Tudor England. (I once joined a book group and on the first meeting some members were discussing Wolf Hall – a book they’d read a few months before – and one of the book clubbers dismissed it as ‘full of words and literature’. I am no longer a member of that book club).

The use of the present tense raises the novel from the past, giving a pace and urgency to a five hundred year old tale. Thomas Cromwell’s life and the Tudor age is brought vividly to life by the living nature of the present tense and the author’s deliberate use of non-historic language – this is not a pastiche of olden times, you won’t find a ye olde shoppe in Mantel’s 16th century. Mantel’s characters aren’t a strange race from the foreign land of the past, they are people who talk and think like us; they tell jokes (this novel is often very amusing); they’re ironic “Ah, do you see, I am an Englishwoman now! I know how to say the opposite of what I mean”, says the once Spanish Lady Willoughby; they hate paperwork and love sport; they nod off at the dinner table after too much wine. In short, they aren’t monsters hell-bent on sending everyone who disagrees with them to the Tower. Their very real emotions pulse through and off the page – the ending is of course  no surprise, as much as this is a work of fiction Mantel’s not about to let Boleyn walk off into the sunshine with grumpy old Henry and his gammy leg. But despite the restriction of the inevitable ending, Mantel builds the tension to such an extent that my heart from beating furiously as Anne’s fate loomed over the novel.

Bring Up The Bodies, for all the gory connotations of the titles, is remarkably unbloody (“bring up the bodies” refers to prisoners at the Tower of London being brought up for their trial). The four men, Francis Weston, Henry Norris, George Boleyn and Mark Smeaton are not tortured (although Smeaton has an uncomfortable night with a pair of fairy wings in ‘Christmas’); the out-going queen is treated with respect in the chambers she spent the night before her coronation. This was the only part of the novel that didn’t quite ring true for me. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by textbooks and The Tudors, but I was unconvinced by the rather modern leniency and compassion that the men were shown. Perhaps Mantel has become a little too close to her Cromwell to allow him to start ordering potentially innocent men to the rack?

For this isn’t a story of the downfall of Anne Boleyn, this is the re-telling of the much maligned Thomas Cromwell, a man who’s gone down in history as a ambitious, cruel man who would lop anyone’s head off on his way to the top. But Mantel’s Cromwell is a man of even temper, of great intelligence. He’s capable of kindness and is so loyal to his friends that he would, Mantel hints, seek bloody revenge for any wrong-doings to them (the four convicted men who fell with the queen were all players in a parody of Cromwell’s great mentor Wolsey after the cardinal was driven to an early grave. We are not encouraged to think this is a coincidence). He’s benevolent and generous; his contempt for those higher born than him who scoff and mock the blacksmith’s son is only barely concealed – although concealed, even to himself, it is. Mantel’s Cromwell is an honest man amongst a court of ignorant, greedy nobles. This is a man who wants to push through a Poor Law that is obstructed by a room full of titled idiots; who takes in begging jesters and undermines Lords. He’s a class warrior who is merely carrying out his king’s orders for the good of monarch and the nation. I am already lamenting his demise…

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