Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Vol. 2

Jane Austen, Persuasion

I recently posted my thoughts on Volume 1 of Persuasion, which I read for my Jane Austen group’s slow reading of the novel. This post, obviously, is on the second (and last) volume. As before, I’ll be focusing on reflections from this read rather than writing a traditional review. And, again, just in case you need a refresher on the plot or characters, please check Wikipedia.


… and Self-interest

Last meeting, my Jane Austen group discussed Lady Russell’s advice to Anne. Some found it wanting while others felt she was justified in recommending that 19-year-old Anne reject Captain Wentworth’s proposal. In Volume 2, we get to question Lady Russell’s judgement again, when she sees Mr Elliot as a good suitor for Anne.

So, we have a conundrum. She’s Anne’s friend and supporter, but she’s also a member of the aristocracy, which is not presented positively in the book, and her judgement is suspect. What are we to make of her?

At the end of the novel, Lady Russell is treated well. Is this because her advice, poor though it is (in hindsight, particularly), doesn’t stem from self-interest? Here is Austen wrapping up Lady Russell at the end:

There is a quickness of perception in some, a nicety in the discernment of character, a natural penetration, in short, which no experience in others can equal, and Lady Russell had been less gifted in this part of understanding than her young friend. But she was a very good woman, and if her second object was to be sensible and well-judging, her first was to see Anne happy.

If we agree that Lady Russell is redeemed because her focus was Anne’s happiness, not self-interest, where does this leave Mrs Smith? She was prepared not to share with Anne her knowledge of Mr Elliot’s character, her reason being:

After listening to this full description of Mr. Elliot, Anne could not but express some surprise at Mrs. Smith’s having spoken of him so favourably in the beginning of their conversation. “She had seemed to recommend and praise him!” “My dear,” was Mrs. Smith’s reply, “there was nothing else to be done. I considered your marrying him as certain, though he might not yet have made the offer, and I could no more speak the truth of him, than if he had been your husband. My heart bled for you, as I talked of happiness.

But, given her hopes for Anne interceding on her behalf with Mr Elliot, is there not some self-interest in her decision not to influence Anne? Mrs Smith’s situation was dire in a way that Lady Russell’s was not, but … Anyhow, she too is treated well in the novel’s wrapping up.

What this says to me is that while Austen gently satirises groups (such as the aristocracy) or ideas (such as persuasion/influence/advice-giving), she is not black-and-white about it. She understands humanity – and would like us to, too!

… or, being persuadable

Last post I commented on Anne’s wondering whether Captain Wentworth, after Louisa’s accident at Lyme, might have realised “that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character.” Well, in the resolution, we discover that he did!

There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind.

Meanwhile, Anne tells him that, despite the pain it caused, her 19-year-old self was right to listen to Lady Russell:

I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides.

This last sentence reminds me of that “good spirit” narrator in The museum of modern love (my review) who said in the opening paragraph, “It’s a human condition to admire hindsight. I always thought foresight was so much more useful”. If only Anne knew, eh, what the event would decide?

Anne Elliot, Fanny Price and Elinor

Jane Austen fans love to consider her characters, to discuss who is the worst villain or the best hero, or whether character X is like character Y, and so on. So, when my Jane Austen group discussed this volume, one member hesitatingly suggested that Anne Elliot could be seen as a mature Fanny Price (Mansfield Park). Yes, I said, I had the same thought! Not so some other members of the group, but here’s the thing. Both Anne and Fanny resist pressure or encouragement to marry people they don’t love, both have strong moral codes, both nearly lose their “love” to rivals, both are relied upon by their families to provide nurturing and support. There are differences. Anne, with her “higher” social position, has more power and agency than Fanny, the poor cousin, but a couple of could see a distinct similarity.

Another member responded that she saw a likeness to Elinor (Sense and sensibility). There is some argument for that too. Elinor is also a steady, moral character who is relied on by her family, and she too nearly loses her “love” to another. And, like Anne and Fanny, Elinor does not need to learn lessons the way Marianne (Sense and sensibility), Elizabeth (Pride and prejudice), Emma (Emma), and Catherine (Northanger Abbey) do. But she doesn’t have to contend with pressure from others the way Anne and Fanny do, which is why I’d see a closer connection between Anne and Fanny.

The Navy

Anne and Captain Wentworth, Ch 20
Anne and Captain Wentworth in front of her “formidable” family (CE Brock, Public Domain)

I said in my Volume 1 post that I’d talk about the Navy in this post, but I’ve ended up talking about other things. However, it’s worth mentioning that in Persuasion, Jane Austen, who had two Naval brothers, presents the Navy positively, as family-oriented men whose values draw more from having good relationships with their families and their “brother” officers  than from status/position. Here is Anne watching Admiral and Mrs Croft in Bath:

They brought with them their country habit of being almost always together. He was ordered to walk to keep off the gout, and Mrs. Croft seemed to go shares with him in everything, and to walk for her life to do him good. Anne saw them wherever she went. …  Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could, delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

This continues her feelings from late Volume 1 when the visiting party in Lyme had spent time with Captain Wentworth and his naval friends. She saw their hospitality, their lack of “the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display” that typified her circle. “These would have been all my friends,” she thinks, and the idea lowers her spirits. It’s surely no coincidence that in this novel Austen presents some of the worst of the aristocracy with its focus on appearance and position against the best of the Navy with, as Louisa notices, “their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness”.

And then there’s the last line of the novel:

She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.

What does this mean, besides the point that being married into the Navy means you will always have the worry of war? Many have discussed the meaning of “more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance”, with some believing that it is Austen suggesting a new world in which the professional classes, the middle class, represented here by the Navy, is gaining ascendance in English life.

What do you think?

Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Vol. 1

Jane Austen, Persuasion

My Jane Austen group is reading Persuasion – eleven years since we last did it – because 2017 is the 200th anniversary of its publication. Of course I’ve read it several times, so, as you’ll know from my other Austen re-reads, my aim here is to focus on reflections from this read rather than to write a traditional review.

You’ll probably also know that my group often does slow reads of her novels, a volume at a time. Persuasion was published in two volumes, so last month we read Volume One. It finishes at Chapter 12, just after Louisa Musgrove has her fall at Lyme. This post is about this volume.

But first, I want to say something my relationship with Persuasion. I first read it in 1972 when the second TV miniseries was screened in Australia. I was reading it in tandem with the screening, and the night the last episode screened I sat up late to finish the last chapters. I’ll never forget my emotional response to it. I can’t remember whether the miniseries was a good one, but I sure thought the book was. Why?

Persuasion doesn’t have the sparkle of Pride and prejudice, nor the  young spoofy humour of Northanger Abbey, nor even the heroine we love to laugh at in Emma, but it is quiet, emotional and deeply felt. Its heroine Anne, at 27 years old, is Austen’s oldest. She’s caring, intelligent, but put upon by her unappreciative family – and yet we don’t feel she’s a pushover. The novel’s romance, when it comes, feels right and well-earned. No-one ever says that Austen should not have married Anne to her man the way some do about some of her other heroines such as Marianne in Sense and sensibility, and Fanny in Mansfield Park. No, when it comes to Persuasion, Austen fans are generally in agreement: it’s a lovely book in which the hero and heroine belong together. But, it’s about so much more too …

I’m not going to provide a summary, so if you need to refresh yourselves on the plot and characters please check Wikipedia.

A specific setting

I’m not sure why it is, but on this my nth (i.e. too many to count) reading of Persuasion, I suddenly noticed that it was the only book, really, that gives us a very specific date and that is set pretty much exactly contemporaneous with when Austen was writing it. It starts in “this present time, (the summer of 1814)” and ends in the first quarter of 1815. This period pretty much covers the hiatus in the Napoleonic Wars when Napoleon was exiled to Elba – and is why Naval Officers are out and about, on land and available for appearing in Persuasion! Sir Walter’s friend and advisor, Mr Shepherd tells him:

This peace will be turning all our rich Navy Officers ashore. They will all be wanting a home.

It is the appearance of the Navy and Austen’s contrasting the substance of naval officers with the superficiality of the aristocracy that gives Persuasion its particular interest – beyond its lovely story, I mean. It is very much a book about social change. (I should say, here, that Austen was partial to the Navy, having two successful Naval brothers)

Two themes

Anyhow, this idea and that relating to persuasion are developed in Volume 1 through various themes, two of which I’ll discuss here.

Appearance and Social status

That social status is a major concern is heralded on the book’s first page when we are told about Sir Walter’s favourite book: “he was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage”. The narrator tells us soon after that:

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.

However, he has not been sensible with his money, and needs to rent out his home Kellynch-hall, hence my earlier quote. But, Sir Walter doesn’t like the Navy, and his reasons convey two of the novel’s themes – the focus on status and the cult of appearance. His response to the idea of renting his home to a Naval officer is:

Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man …

This is of course ironic, because the naval officer, Admiral Croft, to whom he eventually agrees to rent the place is a thoroughly decent man (who removes Sir Walter’s myriad “looking glasses” when he takes residence). Croft also, Anne “fears”, looks after the Kellynch estate and its people far better than her family did. However, for Sir Walter, the only thing that matters is status.

As the novel progresses, the difference between the Navy and the aristocracy is further developed, but more on that anon.

Anne’s sister Mary is highly aware of her status as a Baronet’s daughter, and the “precedence” due to her. That she stands on this demonstrates her superficiality and lack of decent human feeling. She complains when she goes to her in-laws’ home that her mother-in-law does not always give her precedence. One of her sisters-in-law complains to Anne:

I wish any body could give Mary a hint that it would be a great deal better if she were not so very tenacious; especially, if she would not be always putting herself forward to take place of mamma. Nobody doubts her right to have precedence of mamma, but it would be more becoming in her not to be always insisting on it.

Later, after Louisa’s fall at Lyme, when it is suggested that calm, capable Anne remain behind to care for Louisa, Mary objects:

When the plan was made known to Mary, however, there was an end of all peace in it. She was so wretched, and so vehement, complained so much of injustice in being expected to go away, instead of Anne;—Anne, who was nothing to Louisa, while she was her sister …

Here again is Mary’s misplaced sense of “precedence”. It is also a lovely example of Austen’s plotting, because only a few chapters earlier Mary had refused to stay home from a family party to look after her own injured little boy, preferring Anne do it. Austen had set us up nicely to see the superficiality of Mary’s desire to care for her sister-in-law. The more you read Austen, as I’ve said before, the more you see how fine her plotting is.

Strength of character versus Persuasion (or the influence of others)

Another ongoing issue in the novel concerns strength of character. Captain Wentworth reflects on Anne’s lack thereof in refusing their engagement when she was 19:

He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill; deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity.

A little later, he praises Louisa Musgrove’s strength of mind, but we, the reader, realise her pronouncements are theoretical. She had not been put to the test. She says:

What!—would I be turned back from doing a thing that I had determined to do, and that I knew to be right, by the airs and interference of such a person?—or, of any person I may say. No,—I have no idea of being so easily persuaded. When I have made up my mind, I have made it.

Meanwhile, Louisa shares gossip about Anne, suggesting that Lady Russell, who had discouraged Anne from marrying Captain Wentworth, had also discouraged her from marrying Charles Musgrove (which of course reinforces for Wentworth the idea of Anne’s weakness of character).

… and papa and mamma always think it was her great friend Lady Russell’s doing, that she did not.—They think Charles might not be learned and bookish enough to please Lady Russell, and that therefore, she persuaded Anne to refuse him.

In this case, though, the decision was all the then 22-year-old Anne’s – but Wentworth only hears the gossip.

Henrietta adds to the chorus about Lady Russell’s persuasive power:

I wish Lady Russell lived at Uppercross, and were intimate with Dr. Shirley. I have always heard of Lady Russell, as a woman of the greatest influence with every body! I always look upon her as able to persuade a person to any thing!

You can see Austen building up the plot here, leading us to see Wentworth as unlikely to be interested in Anne again.

Persuasion, Lyme fall, CE Brock
Oh God! her father and mother (CE Brock, 1893?)

Anne, though, sees that firmness of character can go too far, that Louisa’s wilfulness against the advice of others had resulted in her potentially life-threatening fall. She wonders

whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel, that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character.

Will he see it her way? We’ll have to read Volume 2 to find out!

There’s a lot more I could say, but I think I’ve said enough. Next post I plan to take up the Navy issue a bit more …

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (#bookreview)

Ian McEwan, NutshellLike Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton, which I reviewed recently, Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has a narrator who won’t appeal to those who don’t like devices like skeletons in cupboards or babies in wombs. However, repeating what I said in my review of Bird’s book, it all depends on the writer’s skill, and McEwan, like Bird, is a skilful writer. Consequently, when the novel opened with “So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for”, I relegated my disbelief to the pillion and set off for the ride.

As you’ll have guessed from that opening quote (if you didn’t already know), our narrator is a foetus. In my experience, McEwan writes strong, attention-grabbing first chapters, and Nutshell delivers here too. Our foetus-narrator, close to being born, is forced to be party to, or at least cognisant of, a plot concocted by his mother, Trudy, and uncle, Claude, to kill his father. Ring any bells? Yes, he (and it is a “he”) is a Hamlet in the wings. This is a clever modern riff on Hamlet, exploring many of the same issues, such as revenge, action versus inaction, corruption. It’s also a commentary on what we could grandly call the modern condition – on our world which is “too complicated and dangerous for our quarrelsome natures to manage”.

SORT OF SPOILER (so miss this paragraph if you wish)

If you know your Hamlet what I say next won’t be a spoiler, and if you don’t know your Hamlet, the part I’m giving away happens slap-bang in the middle of the book, hence is not, I’d suggest, a spoiler? So, with that fair warning, here goes. Nutshell is a tight, murder-mystery. For the first half of the book, the question is “will they do it?”, while in the second half, it’s “will they get away with it?” We are privy to most of the plotting and planning because our foetus goes, of course, wherever his mother does. However, this is as much an ideas-driven book as a plot-driven one so, I’m going to move onto some of the ideas the novel teases out.

McEwan is clear about what he sees as the “rotten state” (one of the many allusions in the novel to Hamlet) the world is in. There are references to world powers out of control. Europe  is “in existential crisis, fractious and weak”, while China, “too big for friends or counsel” is “cynically probing its neighbours’ shores”. “Muslim-majority countries” are “plagued by religious puritanism” and “foe-of-convenience” America, now “barely the hope of the world” is “guilty of torture”. There’s also the nuclear threat, climate change “driving millions from their homes”, the “urinous tsunami of the burgeoning old”, and our increasing loss of liberty in the service of security. For our foetus, though,

Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. And now in commentaries. Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived.

It’s an attitude I like – and is what makes Nutshell not the bleak book it could be.

How does McEwan get away with all this?

The book, though, is not without its awkwardness. Sometimes the “rants” are a little too much, providing a virtual grab-bag of the world’s ills, from the loss of the Enlightenment’s rationality to the threat of North Korea. And sometimes our foetus-narrator is a little too knowing. Most of the time, McEwan makes clear why his narrator knows what he knows, including the limits to his knowledge, but sometimes our imaginations are stretched just a little too far. This is a very-knowing, very smart, highly articulate foetus, one who is not above giving his mother a kick:

In the middle of a long, quiet night I might give my mother a sharp kick. She’ll wake, become insomniac, reach for the radio. Cruel sport, I know, but we are better informed by the morning.

It is his “one morsel of agency” (and he uses it, giving, perhaps, Hamlet a lesson!) It is through these radio talks that our foetus learns most of what he knows about the world. Overall, McEwan maintained the conceit well, and I enjoyed the foetus-narrator’s view on the world he expects soon to join. Fortunately, my disbelief stayed on the pillion!

Besides this, the book is fun to read. There are allusions galore – not only to Hamlet but to a wide range of literary works. I would have missed many but I enjoyed spotting others, such as Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory”, Julian Barnes’ “sense of an ending” and of course Hamlet’s “rotten state” and “a piece of work”. There is probably a bit of McEwan showing off here – flexing his literary credentials – but spotting allusions gave me little fillips of pleasure! There are also many funny scenes, including several involving descriptions of the lovemaking of the adulterous schemers:

I brace myself against the uterine walls. This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing. My mother goads her lover, whips him on with her fairground shrieks. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality.

The question of course has to be asked: why choose such a narrator? I’m sure there’s more than one answer to this question. I have no idea what McEwan has said so I could be way off here, but early on our narrator describes himself as “an innocent”, “a free spirit”, a “blank slate”, albeit becoming less blank by the day. Is he the perfect naive (but certainly not unreliable) narrator, able to comment, “unburdened by allegiances and obligations” on the murky world, or is McEwan suggesting there’s no such thing as innocence? Or, is his function to answer that question of whether we should bring children into the world. In the end, I think that McEwan’s message – or one of them anyhow – is that the world is worth hanging around for. It is “Beautiful. Loving. Murderous”, like Trudy, and our foetus wants to live it, hoping he will find meaning. An engaging read.

Ian McEwan
London: Vintage, 2016
ISBN: 9781473547131 (ePub)

(A reading group read)

Northanger Abbey musings (2)

A month ago I posted some musings arising from the first part of my current slow read of  Northanger Abbey with my Jane Austen group. In this post I’ll share some reflections on the rest of the novel, Chapters 20 to 31, which is the part that encompasses our “heroine” Catherine’s arrival in and departure from the Abbey.

On the art of fiction

In my previous post, I discussed how Northanger Abbey spoofs or parodies Gothic novels. Northanger Abbey also contains Austen’s famous defence of the novel. These contribute to one of the pleasures of this novel, which is the joy Austen seems to be having in being an author. She intrudes regularly with her own voice, not only commenting on the characters but on fiction itself. It’s the new novelist having fun, flexing her muscles, and making an argument for more “realistic” fiction over the Gothic novel that was popular in her time.

Northerner Abbey illus br Brock

So, for example, here is Catherine, at the Abbey, deciding that the General had been up to no good regarding his late wife:

His cruelty to such a charming woman made him odious to her. She had often read of such characters, characters which Mr. Allen had been used to call unnatural and overdrawn; but here was proof positive of the contrary.

Mr Allen is the sensible neighbour who, with his wife, had taken Catherine to Bath. One of the things Austen does in this novel, and particularly in the second half, is satirise readers of Gothic novels, readers who let their imaginations run away with them. Catherine, our narrator tells us, is too “well-read” to let the General’s “grandeur of air” and “dignified step” dissuade her from her belief about his dastardliness. And so, when at last she is proved wrong (though the General does prove villainous in other ways), Henry admonishes her:

What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?

There is so much to tease out here besides Austen’s satirising the Gothic sensibility … but let’s save them for another re-read, and move on.

Soon after, Catherine considers Henry’s admonition, and thinks:

the whole might be traced to the influence of that sort of reading which she had there indulged. Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for.

So, it is human nature that most interests Austen – not the one-dimensional “angel” and “fiend” characters of the Gothic novelists.

Late in the novel, as our hero and heroine are coming together, Austen writes:

Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

Here, I’d say, there are two main things going on. One is the cheeky novelist teasing us with her “new circumstance in romance” undermining the conventional idea of romantic love between heroes and heroines in novels. The other is the more serious Austen making a rather subversive observation about the realities of love and human relationships, because she was a pragmatist at heart. She believed in love, but she also understood the implications of the marriage market.

If all this sounds a little confused, that’s probably because it is. Austen plays around in this novel with ideas about fiction versus reality, Gothic (European) sensibility versus more ordered (English) values, and reading versus readers. To do so, she slips in and out of different modes of narrative, daring us to keep up with her. No wonder it’s the book that has proven the hardest to adapt to film.

More word teasing from Henry

In my last post, I shared Henry’s little tirade about the word “nice”. I can’t resist sharing another little tirade from later in the novel:

“No, and I am very much surprised. Isabella promised so faithfully to write directly.”

“Promised so faithfully! A faithful promise! That puzzles me. I have heard of a faithful performance. But a faithful promise—the fidelity of promising! It is a power little worth knowing, however, since it can deceive and pain you…

Love it …

And here endeth my reflections on my most recent re-read of Northanger Abbey. What a delight it has been, yet again. It may not have the romance of Pride and prejudice or the complexity of Emma, but it has the lively, fresh mind of an author who wants to engage with her readers about the very thing she is doing, writing a novel. I find that irresistible.

Picture credit: From Chapter 9, illus. by CE Brock (Presumed Public Domain, from solitaryelegance.com)

Northanger Abbey musings (1)

Northerner Abbey illus br Brock

Ch 9, illus. by CE Brock (Presumed Public Domain, solitaryelegance.com)

My Jane Austen group is reading Northanger Abbey – again – because this year is the 200th anniversary of its publication. However, I did write about the novel when we did it in 2015, so what to do? Well, the thing is that every time I read Austen something else pops into my mind to think about – and I’d love to share a couple of them.

Now, my group often does slow reads of the novels, and we are doing Northanger Abbey in two parts: up to Chapter 19, which is just before Catherine leaves Bath; and from Chapter 20 to the end which encompasses her arrival in and departure from Northanger Abbey. My comments in this post relate to the first part.

On heroes and heroines

Northanger Abbey, as you may know, spoofs or parodies Gothic novels, which were popular at the time. One of the clues to the parody is the frequency with which Austen refers to her heroine Catherine’s likeness (or not) to “heroines”. The novel commences:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine…

And Austen goes on the describe why Catherine is not heroine material. She’s a simple country girl living in an ordinary family in which nothing dramatic happens. Her father is a “very respectable man” who is “not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters”. There are no lords or baronets in the vicinity to create hero intrigues … and so it goes.

However, it’s not this Gothic spoof that I want to discuss, but the whole concept of hero/heroine. It occurred to me as I was thinking about the heroine thread during this read that when I was a student writing essays I always referred to the protagonists of novels as the “hero” or “heroine”. I don’t do this so much now, preferring something like “main character”. I’m guessing this is part of our post-modern world.

But, this is not what I want to talk about either! My question to myself was where did this concept of “hero” and “heroine” come from, so I did a little digging. And here’s my disclaimer, because it was just a little digging that I did. I discovered a couple of things. One is that the poet-playwright-critic Dryden was the first to use the word “hero” in this way in 1697. The site on which I found this went on to say that “it is still commonly accepted as a synonym for protagonist, even when the protagonist does nothing particularly heroic”. Yes!

Britannica.com told me that:

The appearance of heroes in literature marks a revolution in thought that occurred when poets and their audiences turned their attention away from immortal gods to mortal men, who suffer pain and death, but in defiance of this live gallantly and fully, and create, through their own efforts, a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants. They are the first human beings in literature …

This must be what Dryden was picking up on – a move from a focus on gods to people and their agency in their own lives. Another site (whose link I didn’t capture) said that:

The Novel was a new genre. Contrary to the epic or the drama, the Novel places the hero at the heart of its reflections. For the first time, we have access to the thoughts and feelings of the hero.

I’d argue that Austen, in presenting Catherine to us as she does, is drawing our attention to a transition from the notion of “hero” (or “heroine”) as someone who “live[s] gallantly and fully, and create[s], through their own efforts, a moment’s glory that survives in the memory of their descendants”, like a Gothic novel hero, to more realistic stories about ordinary human beings that she wrote. This is not to say that ordinary human beings can’t be heroic, but it’s a different sort of heroism, nest-ce pas? This is simplistic, I realise, in terms of analysing the “hero” in literature, but it’s given me something to hang my thinking on to.

On “nice”

In a conversation with hero (!) Henry and his sister Eleanor, Catherine asks Henry “do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

Now, if you went to school when I did, you were probably told not to use the word “nice” because it’s over-used and meaningless. Well, this is what Henry teases Catherine about. He replies (teasingly, cheekily, condescendingly, depending on your attitude to our hero), “The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

At this point sister Eleanor steps in and tells Catherine that

“He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise…”

I loved reading that this injunction we all heard in the mid-late twentieth century was “a thing” back in the very early nineteenth. “Nice” has such a fascinating semantic history that I’m not going to explore here – but I can’t resist telling Henry that he’s wrong because my Shorter Oxford Dictionary says that, back around 1500, it originally meant “silly” or “stupid”. Did Austen know that too, and is having a joke on Henry?

What fun Austen is to read …

What my bookgroup will be reading in the first half of 2017

Woman reading with cushion

Courtesy: Clker.com

You may notice that I sometimes identify a review as being for a book I’ve read with my reading group, but only once before in this blog have I dedicated a post to my reading group’s schedule, so I thought it was time to do it again. It’s particularly appropriate now because last night my group chose our first 6 books for next year.

I recently mentioned in a comment to ANZLitLovers Lisa that my group would be choosing its schedule, and she wished me good luck because she knows reading group selections can be fraught. However, that’s never really been the case in my group (at least I don’t think so. Those who read this blog can correct my rose-coloured glasses if they see it differently!).

This is not to say that there’s not discussion about our selections, or that there aren’t some different reading interests in the group. There is always some lively argy-bargy. But, the group was established on the basis that we wanted to read “good” books – books that challenge us, books that have a reputation for quality, books that have something to encourage discussion. Content is part of it, but sometimes you hear people recommending a book as a “good reading group book” because it’s an “issues book” like, say, a Jodi Picoult. We have nothing against “issues books” – many of us read them – but for our schedule, for the sort of discussion we want, the books we choose need to be more multi-dimensional.

Before you think it, I must clarify that this doesn’t mean that we read only “worthy” award-winning literary fiction. We read all sorts – including non-fiction – and we’ve occasionally had poetry nights. The best way to demonstrate this is to share our next 6 books:

  • Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s Passionate nomad: this book was chosen as the result of one of the members reading my recent post on 19th century travellers. In the end, we chose a biography of an early twentieth century “lady traveller”, Freya Stark. It’s probably our riskiest selection, but the biography is respected we believe.
  • Grahame Greene’s Travels with my aunt: we try to do at least one classic each year – such as, most recently, Dostoevsky’s Crime and punishment and Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart – so when someone suggested Grahame Greene whom we haven’t discussed before, he was in.
  • Madelaine Dickie’s Troppo: this is a debut novel which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for unpublished manuscript in 2014. Of course, it helped that the author is the fiancée of one of our founding members.
  • AS Patric’s Black rock, white city: as this year’s Miles Franklin Award winner, Patric’s book was an obvious choice.
  • Ian McEwan’s Nutshell: there are several McEwan fans in the group, and we haven’t done one of his books since Solar in 2010, so it seemed time!
  • Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful: this is author-artist-mapmaker Mahood’s memoir about her experience of place and landscape in the Tanami Desert area of remote central Australia where she grew up and now spends part of her time each year. This book is particularly interesting to us because of the perspectives she can bring from her very particular history as a white woman working and living in what is now indigenous land.

So, three women writers and three men; four novels and two non-fiction works; three Australian writers and three not. No translated works or indigenous writers in this group, but there’s always the second half of the year to increase the diversity. We did do a translated work, an indigenous writer, and an African writer this year.

If you’re in a reading group, have you decided on your schedule for next year yet? And, if so, what criteria do you use?

My literary week (4), or, not a page read

Would you believe that today is the first time in a week that I have opened my current novel? Terrible! But it’s just been one of those weeks of being driven by other things, so much so that reading time has taken a big hit. There have, however, been a few literary moments which I thought I’d share.

My lovely Gran


Gran, on her 65th wedding anniversary

On Monday I wrote a post based on the introduction to the Golden treasury of Australian verse which I found in my aunt’s house. The book belonged originally to my grandmother, and was given to her in 1914. Gran was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and the important thing to her was to live a good (Christian) life. However, she didn’t proselytise God. Rather, she promoted treating people well. We grandchildren all remember her Bambi and Thumper ornaments. They were there to remind us all of Mrs Rabbit’s advice to Thumper who had criticised baby Bambi’s wobbly walk. Mrs Rabbit said, as I’m sure many of you know, “If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all”. None of us have ever forgotten this, though I suspect we don’t always live up to it!

Anyhow, my point is that written in the back pages of the book, and on sheets of paper tucked inside it, are some sayings or inspirational quotes collected by Gran. One comes from Rudyard Kipling:

If we impinge never so slightly upon the life of a fellow-mortal, the touch of our personality, like the ripple of a stone cast into a pond, widens and widens in unending circles across the aeons, till the far-off Gods themselves cannot say where action ceases.

Another she dated 1/8/24 and noted it as “author unknown”, though using the Internet I’ve tracked it down in a webpage called “Bad Poetry”. The poet is Edgar Guest. The concluding lines read:

I never can hide myself from me,
I see what others may never see,
I know what others may never know,
I never can fool myself — and so,
Whatever happens, I want to be
Self-respecting and conscience free.

It might be sentimental poetry, but I do love my Gran’s heart and aspiration.

There are others, including one from Francis Bacon, but the final one comes from the Koran: “If I had two loaves of bread I would sell one and buy hyacinths for they would feed my soul”.

I’ll be keeping this book, needless to say.

My reading group

My reading group had its July meeting this week, and our book was Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review). It was a very lively meeting in which the realists in our group faced off against the willing suspenders of disbelief, with a couple of fence-sitters in between. Ne’er the twain did meet, I’m afraid, but while positions were maintained throughout, the discussion was, as always, respectful.

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of thingsThe problem was that the realists couldn’t work out why the ten women hadn’t ganged up to overpower their two guards, why they didn’t work out they could dig their way out under the electric fence. The women were twits, one said. They should have fought back. She also felt the rabbit trapping was far more successful than you’d expect and that the book had the longest mushroom season ever! It just wasn’t plausible. The willing suspenders, on the other hand, talked more about the book in terms of metaphor, allegory and parable, though they didn’t all agree on which of these the book represents, if any! We defenders felt that Wood, in the opening scenes, showed the disempowering of the women, explaining why they didn’t fight back.

I won’t go on, but the conclusion was that any book which garnered such an engaged discussion must be a good book!

More on my Jane

You know of course to whom I refer, Jane Austen of course, and this week Mr Gums and I went to see the latest Austen movie, Love and friendship which, strangely, is an adaptation of her juvenilia novella Lady Susan (my review) and not of her juvenilia piece actually titled Love and freindship (sic) (my review). We enjoyed it. Kate Beckinsale, who played Emma in a 1995 movie adaptation of that novel, played that “most accomplished coquette in England” Lady Susan with a light touch. Austen’s juvenilia is known for its broad humour/satire, though Lady Susan, being a transition work between her juvenile and adult period is more restrained than the earlier works. I thought director Walt Stillman balanced the tone nicely, here. His use of humorous title cards to introduce the characters sets the satiric tone but this is off-set by a more straight playing of the script, except perhaps for the comic relief provided by Tom Bennett as the foppish, silly Sir James Martin.

But, there was another Jane Austen event this week, a talk which members of my group attended. The topic was Austen’s continued popularity, and the speaker started with – coincidentally – Kipling, who praised Austen in 1924, saying “Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made”.

The speaker was enthusiastic about Austen, but her focus tended to be more on Austen’s Regency legacy – fashion, food, beauty – whereas my group is more interested in her ideas about, insights into, human nature, insights that we can find even in her early work. I’ll end this post with one of those insights that I love from Lady Susan. It was included in the film. Lady Susan says that “where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting”. Oh dear, this is too true. My Gran would, I’m sure, have had a saying to encourage us not to have such dispositions in the first place … though, she didn’t know Lady Susan!

Meeting Biff Ward

WardMotherAllenUnwinIn her comment on my review of Biff Ward’s beautiful memoir, In my mother’s hands, in which I mentioned that Biff had been present at my reading group, Stefanie (So Many Books) asked if I planned to post specifically about Biff’s presence. While I don’t always do this when authors visit my group – Biff was our sixth author in our 27 years – I did do so for Marion Halligan and Alan Gould. Since our discussion covered a lot of ground that I didn’t include in my review, I figured that this was one of those visits to write up …

The writing process

The most common questions readers ask authors tend to relate to why and how they wrote the book in question. We were no different. And really, I think such questions can be good ice-breakers because “how did you come to write your book” is surely a question most authors can answer without too much angst? For Biff, the answer was quite complex. She said that her father, and others, always assumed that she would write his biography, but she wasn’t interested in biography … and so … WardFatherDaughterGrove

Biff had, she said, been writing for 40 years or more. Her first book was the ground-breaking Father-daughter rape*, published by The Women’s Press in London in 1985. One of our reading group members, a psychotherapist, knows the book and said it is still referred to for its discussion of child sexual abuse. Biff, quite rightly, seemed rather chuffed at this news!

The memoir, though, was written over 15-20 years – in bits and pieces. The first “bit” she wrote was a reminiscence of her mother’s in which she remembered hearing of the assassination of the Romanovs. Uncertain about where Russia was, she asked her father who vaguely said, gesturing, “over there”. For her mother “over there” meant “out of sight beyond the horse paddock”. It’s a lovely anecdote shared between mother and daughter, but it has deeper resonances in terms of her mother’s life, and Biff included it pretty much untouched in the final memoir.

Biff said that she started writing more on the memoir as she transitioned to retirement, but work on it intensified after she attended a writing retreat in Byron Bay in 2009. By the time she presented it to her publisher, Richard Walsh, it was 105,000 words, but it was gradually whittled down to the final 70,000 words. We wondered whether she could publish some good short stories from the bits edited out.

We aren’t, I guess, a very original group because another question we asked is a common one: how did you choose the title? Biff responded that she brainstormed it with her writing group. Her original title had been  Alison, for her parents’ first child who had died at 4 months, but then, through brainstorming, it was decided that the title should refer to her mother. The final challenge was whether to go with At her mother’s hands or In her mother’s hands. We agreed that “In” is better. It feels more inclusive, and less aggressive.

We also talked a little about the sources of her information, but I mentioned some of those in my review. I was intrigued by a reference in the book to how a lover washing her hair brought back childhood memories of her mother washing her hair. It made me wonder what memories don’t come back and the implication of almost serendipitous memory-joggers like this on the final story. I loved Biff’s answer that the “memoir” form is more forgiving than “autobiography”. It is, after all, about memories, so what you do and don’t remember, for whatever reason, is essentially what it’s about.

Writing (and reading) as therapy

If you’ve read the book, or my review, you’ll know that the underlying story concerns mental illness. You won’t be surprised then to hear that the book brought out some painful (but valuable) sharing. It was truly special that we all, including the “stranger” in our midst, felt safe enough to do this – and for that reason, obviously, what was shared in the room will stay there. I can say though that it also brought up the idea of writing as therapy. Biff believes that writing for therapy is valuable – but in journals and diaries, not in published books.

Related to this theme, we asked whether writing the memoir was a painful or traumatic experience but, as Biff mentions in the book, she had undergone extensive psychotherapy so had, she said, worked her emotions through before she came to write the book. We also asked her whether she was angry about her childhood, but she said she was more sad than angry. She said, thinking of her father, that partners can suffer more than children. That’s a generous response I think – but then this is a generous book.

We also talked a little about the way the family had hidden its problems, but we could all relate to the fact that people are generally anxious to say “I’m fine”. People don’t, as Biff discusses in her book, have the words, the language, to express difficult things. Biff did refer, though, to the moment in the book when she and her father had finally been able to talk about “the terribleness” they had experienced. An “odd word” she wrote in the book but it was lovely, she told us, to have been able to be honest about their experiences. Biff’s father had his failings, about which she’s clear in the book, but he was she said “a deeply moral man” and late in his life regretted his less admirable behaviours.

Our reactions

As you will have gathered we all enjoyed the book and deeply appreciated having Biff present for our discussion. We shared our various reactions – profoundly moving, harrowing, kind, a stimulus to remembering our own childhoods, and the like. One member used the word “endearing” for Biff’s portrait of her father, for the way she showed her love for her father while writing “all sides” of him. Biff said she enjoyed finding the words to describe him.

A point that intrigued us was the fact that a country university, the University of New England (UNE), had employed a “communist” academic who had been rejected by the major city universities. Biff told us that UNE had quite a reputation for employing “all the Reds that no-one wanted”! We all loved this.

Near the end of the evening, Biff unveiled the “show-and-tell” she’d brought. It was a beautiful, sensitive portrait of her mother painted when she was in her late 20s. A cropped black-and-white version is in the book (p. 62) but to see the original full version in colour was, well, special. But then again, it was just one more special thing in an evening that was very special.

* Lest you be concerned, this book is not about Biff and her father – there’s no such sexual abuse in the memoir – but about her later research into child sexual abuse after meeting two young abused girls in a women’s refuge.

Fiona McFarlane, The night guest (Review)

McFarlaneNightGuestPenguinThose of you who followed the literary award season in Australia last year will have seen Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel The night guest pop up several times. The more it popped up, the more I wanted to read it – but also the more I thought it would be good to read with my reading group. So, I bought it, and held onto it until this year, as we did, in fact, schedule it for our end of February meeting.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s an easy, quick read, a page-turner in fact. But, it is not a simple read. It’s a read that keeps you guessing right to the end, even though you are pretty sure you know what is going on. It’s about Ruth. She’s in her mid-seventies, and recently widowed. She lives in the family’s old holiday house to which she and her husband had retired a few years previously. And, she’s “reached the stage where her sons worried about her”.

Then, along comes Frida, from the government she says, to be Ruth’s carer, because Ruth, as we’d suspected, has dementia, albeit in early stages. She is, she feels, “still self-governing”. Apparently, both of McFarlane’s grandmothers had dementia which helps explain why McFarlane has been able to present Ruth’s state of mind so convincingly. I say “helps explain” because there’s clearly a perceptive and skilled writer at work here too. It’s one thing to experience family members with dementia, but it’s quite another to be able to present it with such authority and authenticity.

How does McFarlane do this? The most important decision a writer has to make I think – and I’ve certainly heard many say this – is the voice. For this book, McFarlane chose third person subjective, that is, it is told third person but almost completely from Ruth’s perspective. A good decision, because we can feel Ruth’s uncertainty as she slides between confidence and uncertainty, between independence and neediness, between reality and a strange world that doesn’t always make sense. Because it’s from her point of view – and not an omniscient author’s – we are kept on our toes, not always sure, as Ruth is not, of where she is on any of those spectrums at any given time. Sometimes it’s patently obvious, but other times it’s not so clear.

Ruth has a few guests during the course of the book – including Frida (of course) and a man called Richard Porter. But there is another one, a tiger! The tiger appears in the opening sentence of the novel:

Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger’.

She was of course dreaming, except that now she’s awake, she starts to hear noises, “something large … rubbing” against her furniture, and “the panting of a large animal”. These noises are too big to be coming from her cats. The tiger is ongoing “character” in the novel. More on this anon.

The second guest to arrive is the aforementioned Frida. She appears out of the blue one day – “You don’t know me from Adam” she says – to start caring for Frida. The question though is, is she “out of the blue” or is it that Ruth didn’t remember that someone was coming. Questions like this recur throughout the novel, keeping us in a sort of readerly vertigo. One minute we believe we know, and the next we are uncertain again. By the half-way point, though, I suspect most readers are pretty confident of what’s really going on, but even then there are uncertainties about how it will actually play out. All this makes the book an engrossing challenge.

Then there’s the third guest, Richard Porter, who was her first, and unrequited love, when she was a young woman living in Fiji with her missionary parents. Ruth invites him for a visit, hoping that “things could still happen to her”.

It’s hard to know how to write more about the book though because this is one of those stories in which the plot and the meaning are intertwined. However, I can say that it’s broadly about ageing, grief, love and loss. It’s also about trust, honesty and the responsibilities we have for each other.

The tiger

The tiger, as I’ve already indicated, appears on the first page. He’s a complex figure, alluding partly, I’m sure, to Blake’s “The Tyger”. But, and here perhaps I’m drawing a longer bow, he also reminded me of the tiger (aka Richard Parker, which is very close to Richard Porter, but that might be a bridge too far!) in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Both tigers reflect a duality: they are both fearsome (and perhaps representative of evil, though I like to avoid that word), but both can also be seen positively. Blake’s tiger was made by the God who also made the lamb, and so by extension can be seen to encompass both forces. Martel’s tiger needs to be kept at bay, but his very presence also gives Pi the strength and focus he needs to survive.

So, too, in The night guest does the tiger play a complex role. He appears when Ruth is at her most uncertain, most fearful, most disoriented, disappearing when she’s calm. In that sense he represents the negative. But, there’s something grand, and perhaps even reassuring about him. In his first appearance, Ruth thinks:

A tiger! Ruth, thrilled by this possibility, forget to be frightened and had to counsel herself back into fear.

A little later, when she is feeling comfortable, the tiger is “safely herbivorous”. But, he comes back, and Ruth is irritated “because there was no point to him now that she had Frida and Richard; the tiger had prepared the way for them and was no longer needed”. I’m tempted to suggest that Frida and Richard could represent the tiger’s duality, but the book isn’t simplistically conceived, so I don’t want to take that line of thinking too far.

Towards the end, when the tiger is fighting for his existence,

Ruth felt for a moment on the verge of understanding exactly what the tiger was saying when he roared. He wasn’t concerned for his safety, but for his dignity …

I’ll leave the tiger there, but I think you can see how McFarlane uses him in the novel.

There are other images and symbols which run through the book, some of them biblical, like lilies (“she was safe behind her lilies”), which makes sense given Ruth’s missionary upbringing. And, of course, Ruth’s name itself is biblical. None of this is heavy-handed though, or suggests a slavish adherence to symbolism. It just adds to the depth with which we can contemplate this book – at least, I think so.

In the end, this is a book about people – and how we treat each other. Several people, besides those I’ve mentioned here, are involved in Ruth’s life, such as her sons and a young mother who’d found her husband as he was dying. The book asks us to consider how far do we – should we – take our duty of care? How do we decide when we should intervene in another’s life and when we should not. I did enjoy this book.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. I agree that it doesn’t really work as a psychological thriller, which is how some of the blurbs on my edition describe it. But, as I was reading it, I wondered whether that’s what McFarlane intended … or just how it’s been promoted?

awwchallenge2015Fiona McFarlane
The night guest
Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2014 (orig. ed 2013)
ISBN: 9780143571339

Eimear McBride, A girl is a half-formed thing (Review)

Eimear McBride, A girl is a half-formed thingI try very hard when writing reviews to avoid clichés and superlatives, like, say, “achingly beautiful” or “masterful”. But I think I’m going to use one for Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning debut novel A girl is a half-formed thing when I describe it as “searing”. I can’t think of a more apposite word. Yet I fear it too has been over-used to the point of meaninglessness. So, let’s try something else …

Once again I’m coming late to the read, and once again this is partly because it was scheduled by my reading group. All I can say is, wow. I’m not sure I’d go so far as Eleanor Catton’s “read it and be changed” commendation on the front of my edition, but I do agree with her  “virtuosic” and “subversive”. It’s a gut-wrenching read.

The plot itself is simple enough. It’s the story of a family – a pious one-could-say-religiously-fanatical mother, a son who survived a serious brain tumour as a toddler, and the younger daughter. The tumour leaves the son somewhat brain-damaged and, of course, it returns. This tumour, the trauma of it, shapes their behaviour and defines their relationships. The story, which spans around 20 years, is told through the daughter and could, in one sense, be seen as coming-of-age. But. This. Tells. You. Nothing. Because …

This is not your typical first-person voice. Instead, we are in the head of the unnamed “girl”. We are there in her conscious unconsciousness (or, is it her semi-consciousness?) in which we hear what she’s experiencing in language that is – here’s another cliché – raw. By this I mean that the language is stripped of the mediation of a formalising narrator’s intellect. Instead it captures the immediate emotional truth of the girl’s experience as she grapples to make sense of her world. This is a book in which the style conveys the meaning as much as the words do.

How does McBride do this you are probably wondering (unless, of course, you’ve already read the book). Well, mostly by breaking, consistently, the rules of grammar and syntax. We are in the girl’s head, a place where, I believe McBride is saying, we rarely think in coherently formed sentences but in what I would call “impressions”. Take, for example, this description, on the first page, of the brother before his diagnosis:

I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.

To orient you, “she” is Mammy, “he” is the father who disappears two pages later, and “you” are the little boy, the girl’s brother. Most of the novel is addressed to him (that is “you”). One of the challenges of reading this book, and it is a challenge to read, is its pronouns. Once you’ve got a handle on them, and once you realise that they are all from the perspective of the girl, you are half way there.

Anyhow, there is easier syntax than the above when life is relatively calm but, when our “girl” is distressed such as when the truth of her brother’s situation can no longer be avoided, it collapses almost completely:

I walk the street. City. Running through my mouth. Running in my teeth the. My eyes are. All the things. The said the done what there what’s all this? That stuff. I could do. My. I walk the street. Who’s him there having a look at me he. Look at my. Tits. Ssss. Fuck word. No don’t. Fuck that. No. Will. Not that. Not. That. But. If I want to then I can do.

This is not the most extreme example – I don’t want to spoil too much – but it should demonstrate what I mean by the language mirroring/enacting/even being her state of mind.

In addition to the idiosyncratic syntax, McBride draws on wide range of literary techniques to keep us focused on, grounded in the emotions of the here and now. The imagery is visceral, returning again and again to  “muck”, “dirt”, “blood”, and “puke”. She alters her rhythms to match the tone, not only through the syntax as evident in the examples above, but through allusions to and repetitions of prayers and hymns, lines from children’s games, literary works and sayings. She makes up new words (“I trup trup off behind her”), mangles existing words (“swoll” for “swollen”), and twists common expressions (“There’s a foul there’s a wind where’s the air”). McBride was inspired by Joyce she says, but her fresh, fearless, urgent language reminded me too at times of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The novel is clearly set in Ireland and there are odd references to 1980s technology like Game Boys, but overall place and time are unspecified, and none of the characters are named. All this keeps the focus squarely on the emotional core of a family in pain, and the girl in particular. She is abused by her uncle at the age of thirteen and begins a strange love-hate, violent-tender, but sick, relationship with him. Sex becomes for her a weapon, a tool and a punishment. But the book is not about this, that is, it’s not yet another book about abuse. It is about the girl’s inability to handle her emotional pain, and her family’s inability to see her need, it’s about growing up unsupported. She is complicit in her own degradation because for her physical pain is better than the emotional. Like those who self-harm, she seeks out abuse again and again because

… what’s wrong here is me me me. Me the thing but I. Think I know. Is that the reason for what’s happened? Me? The thing. Wrong.

I know this all sounds unremittingly bleak and it largely is, but there are light touches – blackly comic scenes, surprising word plays, and chuckle-inducing descriptions (like her mother’s friends, “they polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue”).

A girl is a half-formed thing is hard to read style-wise and painful to read content-wise. But it is a book that, if you let it, reaches deep into your core and makes you understand the lives of others in a way that only the best literature can. I’m so very glad I read it.

John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante also liked it.

Eimear McBride
A girl is a half-formed thing
London: Faber and Faber, 2014
ISBN: 9780571317165