Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera (#BookReview)

After a run of tough reads in 2021, my reading group wanted something gentler, so I suggested that for our “classic” we do a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, whose works I’ve loved for their pointed wit, delightful humour, and astute commentary on marriage and the relationship between men and women. As is my wont, I nominated one from my TBR shelves, Vera. To my delight, they agreed.

Then, before reading it, I decided to remind myself of von Arnim’s life, so I read Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (my review). Imagine my horror when, two-thirds through, Carey wrote that Vera was her “darkest” novel, “a haunting portrait of psychological tyranny”. What? Too late by then, but I did hope my reading group would, one, forgive me, and, two, not be turned off von Arnim. As it turned out, all those who attended the meeting liked the book and pronounced it “not too dark”. Was I pleased!

Nonetheless, Vera is a dark novel, one that reminded me of a book written four decades later by Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (my review). Both novels are about narcissism and coercive control, about older men who marry and tyrannise vulnerable and inexperienced much younger women.

Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen”

When Vera was published, readers and reviewers were, says Carey, confused. How did “playful, witty Elizabeth von Arnim, author of light social comedies” become “a gothic writer of macabre tragedy”? Von Arnim was distressed but cousin Katherine Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, is reported to have said to her, on the appearance of a negative review in The Times Literary Supplement, “Of course my dear, when the critics are faced with Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen, they don’t know what to say.”

This is an apposite comment for a few reasons – besides its intention to reassure. Firstly, von Arnim pointedly has Lucy, our young wife, read Wuthering Heights even though husband Everard calls it “morbid”. It’s an effective allusion, given the darkness of Brontë’s novel and its focus on obsessive love. However, Murry’s comment also conveys something about the experience of reading this novel, because, while it is dark and distressing, it still bears von Arnim’s Austen-like light touch, and that, I think, is what my reading group appreciated.

By now, if you haven’t read it yourself, you may be wondering why this novel is called Vera when the two protagonists I’ve named are Lucy and Everard? So, let me do a quick plot summary.

The novel begins with 22-year-old Lucy Entwhistle leaning on the front gate of the house in Cornwall that she and her father had taken for the late summer. Her father has just died suddenly and Lucy is in shock. Into view comes another – apparently – grieving person, the mid-forties Everard Wemyss, whose wife Vera had died a week or so ago. Things, though, are not quite as they seem. A shadow hangs over Vera’s death, with a suggestion that it may not have been accidental but a suicide. Lucy, unfortunately, is naive and vulnerable, and despite the best efforts of her wise Aunt Dot, she is swept into marriage, with socially unacceptable haste. After the honeymoon, Everard takes her to his county mansion, “The Willows”, where Vera had died. He makes no attempt to change anything – expecting Lucy to sleep in the same bed Vera did, to occupy Vera’s sitting room, to have breakfast overlooking the flagstones onto which Vera had fallen (or jumped). Kind, head-over-heels-in-love Lucy does her best to justify Everard’s increasingly controlling behaviour but it dawns all too quickly that he expects nothing less than utter servitude . 

And so, Lucy, whose usual state had been one “of affection and confidence”, learns that the “scenes” that she hated could not be avoided “for no care, no caution would for ever be able to watch what she said, or did, or look, or equally important, what she didn’t say, or didn’t do, or didn’t look”. It leaves her “afraid with the most dismal foreboding, that someday after one of them, or in the middle of one of them, her nerve would give out and she would collapse. Collapse deplorably; into just something that howled and whimpered.”

Lucy starts to think kindly of this Vera she’d never met.

“It’s wonderful, wonderful … what love will do” (The doctor)

It’s grim, certainly, but this is Elizabeth von Arnim, so there’s humour – black comedy – here too. There are some truly funny scenes, particularly involving the poor servants for whom Everard has not one ounce of humanity. These servants only stay at “The Willows” because he is in town all week. They can manage his cruelly imperious ways from Friday night to Monday morning, because the wages were higher than any they’d heard of. (They probably had to be!)

So, here is a scene in which Everard confronts the parlourmaid about a missing button on a piano leg cover:

“What do you see?” he asked.
The parlourmaid was reluctant to say. What she saw was piano legs, but she felt that wasn’t the right answer.
“What do you not see?” Wemyss asked, louder.
This was much more difficult, because there were so many things she didn’t see; her parents, for example.
“Are you deaf, woman?” he enquired.
She knew the answer to that, and said it quickly.
“No sir,” she said.

And so it continues, but you get the gist. The scene is indicative of Wemyss’ extreme bullying behaviour, but you can’t help laughing while feeling for the poor parlourmaid.

This black humour is one of the things that kept me reading. Another was von Arnim’s writing. She has wonderful turns of phrase, such as this of Lucy reining in some disturbing thoughts: “Lucy made a violent lunge after her thoughts, and strangled them”.

Von Arnim is also an excellent satirist and ironist. Just look at the doctor’s statement above. He’s surprised and unsure about the marriage to Lucy but, well, look what love can do! Already, however, we are aware that his initial uncertainty is more than valid. One of the points Carey makes in her book is von Arnim’s disappointment in love and marriage. In her experience – including the marriage to Francis Russell which inspired this novel – men change as soon as they are married or, as the heady days of love wane. Vera is at the extreme, but not unbelievable, end of this disappointment.

Finally, there’s Jane Austen. Elizabeth von Arnim – and I’m not the first to say this – owes much to Austen. From my first Von Arnim, Austen’s wit and astute observation of human nature shone through. She nails the way humans think and behave with, sometimes, excruciating accuracy. But von Arnim’s style in Vera is not Austen’s. We don’t have Austen’s omniscient third person voice. Vera is told third person, but von Arnim uses that technique more common to modernists, the interior monologue, with the narrative perspective shifting between the main characters – Lucy, Everard and Lucy’s wonderful Aunt Dot. In fact, a few of the last chapters are with Aunt Dot as she comes head-to-head with Everard and learns just how right she had been to be concerned – but, well, look “what love will do”.

There’s more to discuss in this book. There’s Wemyss’ deeply creepy infantalisation of his 22-year-old wife, calling her “a good little girl” and “my very own baby”. There’s also his insistence that everything can be simplified to one right answer. Initially, the overwhelmed, grieving Lucy finds this comforting but, having grown up in an atmosphere of intellectual enquiry, she starts to not only think that such an attitude might “cut one off from growth” and “shut one in an isolation”, but to doubt “whether it was true that there was only one way looking at a thing” or “that his way was invariably the right way”.

Too soon after her death, Elizabeth von Arnim was relegated to the realms of light romantic comedy, but that denies their value, even when you look at her lighter works. However, when you add Vera to her oeuvre, you have a writer whose work must be seen as relevant now as it ever was.

Elizabeth von Arnim
Vera
London: Virago, 1983 (orig. pub. 1921)
319pp.
ISBN: 9781844082810

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (#BookReview)

Book cover

Not unusually, I’m late to this book that was all the talk in 2020 – and, I may not have read it at all if it hadn’t been for my reading group. I’m talking, as you will have guessed from the post title, of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.

As most of you will know, Hamnet’s plot draws from the life of Shakespeare (never named in the novel) and Anne Hathaway, and the death of their son Hamnet at the age of 11. There was an older sister, Susanna, and Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith. O’Farrell explains her interest in her Author’s Note:

Lastly, it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died: his burial is listed but not the cause of his death. The Black Death or ‘pestilence’, as it would have been known in the late sixteenth century, is not mentioned once by Shakespeare, in any of his plays or poetry. I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.

Because this book has been well-covered already online, I’m going to take a slightly different tack with this post, and focus on a couple of questions.

“She herself might tell a different story”

With all books, but particularly with historical fiction, one of my questions is, why did the author choose to write their story. O’Farrell partly answers it in her Author’s note. However, there is also, surely, a feminist reading, because, although the novel is titled Hamnet, it is primarily about his mother Agnes (as Anne is named in Shakespeare’s will). Early in the novel, O’Farrell writes “This is the story, the myth of Agnes’s childhood. She herself might tell a different story”.

The thing is, we don’t know a lot about Agnes Hathaway which makes her ripe for historical fiction. What we do know is that women’s stories were – and too often still are – rarely told, but that that doesn’t mean their lives were unimportant. It means that importance hasn’t been placed on them. Whoever Agnes really was, O’Farrell has created a wonderful, eccentric character, who is perceptive, warm, independently-minded, a little flawed but engaged in the life of her family and community. She is fun to read about.

Besides telling a story about her, though, O’Farrell also presents, through her, a story about grief, and this, for me, was one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Agnes’ thoughts about burying her son, her astonishment that people can complain about their children, her utter discombobulation were so real:

Agnes is not the person she used to be. She is utterly changed. She can recall being someone who felt sure of life and what it would hold for her …

This person is now lost to her for ever. She is someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognise it. She is unmoored, at a loss. … Small things undo her. Nothing is certain any more.

So real …

Hamlet?

Warning: Spoiler of sorts

Given the novel is titled for Hamnet, rather than for its main protagonist, Agnes, it’s worth considering why, and this leads us to the play Hamlet. The novel ends with Agnes attending a performance of her husband’s play, which confirms the significance of this play to the novel. The epigraph to the novel’s second part is a quote from Hamlet (V:ii): “Thou livest;/ . . . draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story”. But, Hamlet could scarcely be seen to be Hamnet’s story, though I did have a little laugh at the point in the novel where Hamnet chooses to die:

They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.

Eleven-year-old Hamnet seems, here, to be far more decisive than his namesake who is known for his prevarication. This, however, is not what we are expected to take away from the novel I’m sure!

So, what else? Well, there’s the grief theme, which Hamlet can be seen to “resolve” in the novel. Agnes, devastated after her son’s death, can’t understand her husband returning to work – and writing comedies:

His company are having a great success with a new comedy. They took it to the Palace and the word was that the Queen was much diverted by it.

There is a silence. Judith looks from her mother, to her sister, to the letter. 

A comedy? her mother asks.

She is even more devastated though to learn that her husband has gone on to write a play using their son’s name – Hamnet and Hamlet being interchangeable – so she goes to London to confront him. What happens is something else. Initially, she feels eviscerated:

How could he thieve this name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? 

But then, as she sees the ghost father and living son, she starts to see something else:

He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.

My reading group discussed the question of the play a little, though we didn’t come to any particular conclusion, which I rather like. However, we did talk about how Shakespeare wrote his darkest, strongest plays, including the four great tragedies, after Hamnet’s death, which suggests that his son’s death had a big impact on him. A member also raised the play’s existential nature, seeing it exploring the fragility of life – “to be or not to be” – and how you go on in the face of bleakness.

Now, I could go on and talk about the style (language, use of present tense, symbolism), the decision not to name Shakespeare, and the dual storyline structure, as I normally would, but I’m sure they’ve been discussed elsewhere, so I’m leaving it this time. There were aspects of the novel that I question, but the truth is that I fell for Agnes and her story.

So, I’m going to leave you with two quotes, one from the husband, one from the wife.

It is so tenuous, so fragile, the life of the playhouses. He often thinks that, more than anything, it is like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat. 

Gardens don’t stand still: they are always in flux. 

These relate to their spheres of activity, but they also say something about life, don’t you think?

Maggie O’Farrell
Hamnet
London: Tinder Press, 2020
310pp.
eISBN: 9781472223814

Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, woman, other (#BookReview)

If ever there was a “zeitgeist” book, Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winning novel, Girl, woman, other is it. It might be an English-set novel about black British women, “the embodiment of Otherness”, but its concerns, ranging from ingrained inequality, racism and sexism to newer issues such as globalisation, are contemporary – and relevant far beyond its setting.

Take, for example, sexual violence. One young woman, after being raped, is not sure exactly what happened:

    wondering if he’d done anything wrong or was it her fault
    she should have stayed and talked to him about it
    he might have said he hadn’t heard her saying no

(Chapter 2: LaTisha)

This could have been set in Australia, given discussions happening here right now. It is truly troubling how many young women apparently feel uncertain about what they’ve experienced, and turn it back on themselves. But now, having leapt in to make my “zeitgeist” point, I’ll start again, properly!

Girl, woman, other is an astonishing book, as most of my reading group agreed. It’s fresh and exuberant, but oh so biting too. As much poetry as prose, it has minimal punctuation and yet it just flows. It’s a risky book – what great art isn’t? – because, in addition to its idiosyncratic style, it comprises multiple points-of-view that move back-and-forth in time. There are four main chapters, each divided into three parts with each part in the voice of a different character. This makes 12 voices in all! The voices within each chapter are closely related in some way – mothers, daughters, friends – but the links between the four chapters are more subtle. This demands much of the reader.

Fortunately, the voices are captivating. Spanning over a century, they range from the ultra-confident 19-year-old Yazz, daughter of a lesbian mother, to 93-year-old Hattie, a strong-minded farmer and great-grandmother. All are women, and all have some genetic links with African or Caribbean cultures, some from a few generations back, others being themselves migrants. Through them, Evaristo interrogates a diversity of experiences and responses to colour, in particular, in contemporary England. Hattie’s mother, for example, had an Abyssinian father, and she herself had married an African-American GI. However, with the colour fading amongst her descendants, the family is less than happy when it is reintroduced by Julie who “saw not the darkness of his skin but the lightness of his spirit”. Hattie reflects

    none of them identifies as black and she suspects they pass as white, which would sadden Slim if he was still around 
    she doesn’t mind, whatever works for them and if they can get away with it, good luck to them, why wear the burden of colour to hold you back?
    the only thing she objects to is when they objected to Chimango when he arrived on the scene, a fellow nurse at the hospital where Julie worked, from Malawi
    Hattie was sickened by their behaviour, they should’ve been more enlightened 
    but the family was becoming whiter with every generation 
    and they didn’t want any backsliding

(Chapter 4: Hattie)

You can see how well the language flows, and how accessible it is. It’s experimental but unforced. You can also see the author’s approach to her subject matter, which is to show, through her characters, different behaviours, values and attitudes. With 12 characters telling of their interactions with even more people, the breadth of humanity Evaristo encompasses is breathtaking – and it is all done without judgement. Some characters might, and do, judge each other, but Evaristo doesn’t. She lets them speak for themselves, which requires us to read attentively.

So, when Dominique’s female lover increasingly restricts her life, we see abusive control long before she does. And, when 93-year-old Hattie’s mother, Grace, experiences postpartum depression in the early 20th century, it is not named. Who talked about that then? But we recognise it immediately.

Issues come and go in this novel, whether they are up-to-the-minute topics, such as Brexit or transgender rights, or ongoing issues in women’s lives such as violence or ageing. Underpinning it all, however, is race and inequality. Being “othered” is common to Evaristo’s characters, and they all deal with it differently, but we see very clearly its debilitating, devastating impact.

    oh to be one of the privileged of this world who take it for granted that it’s their right to surf the globe unhindered, unsuspected, respected

(Chapter 2: Carole)

By now you might be thinking a few things – that the novel is heavy-going, perhaps, or that it’s chaotic. But nothing doing. For all its seriousness – and there are definitely grim moments – the novel has a light touch, frequently bitingly satiric, sometimes simply funny, always human. Nineteen-year-old Yazz, for example, is a hoot with her teenage know-it-all confidence. Many recognise their failings, as they grow older, such as Amma appreciating her father too late or Carole realising her supportive teacher had feelings. Transgender Morgan, the epitome of the modern activist, speaks many truths:

    Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English
    which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being

Chapter 4: Megan/Morgan

And, although the novel may sound chaotic, it does have an overarching structure. It starts hours before Amma’s play – the one she hopes will finally make her name – is to premiere at the National Theatre, and it ends with the After Party and an Epilogue, which, combined, bring most of the characters together. The ending, in fact, is clever. The After Party is political, drawing together the threads and reminding us that there’s a long way to go before black people in white societies are not defined by their colour. The Epilogue, on the other hand, is personal, showing us that there’s always human connection and that that, really, is the stuff of life – if only we could all see it.

Girl, woman, other is such a read. Uncompromising in its politics, but also warm and cheeky, it offers heart and intelligence in equal measure.

Bernadine Evaristo
Girl, woman, other
Hamish Hamilton, 2019
453pp.
ISBN: 9780241985007 (ebook)

W. Somerset Maugham, The four Dutchmen (#Review)

W. Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories Volume 4Finally, an excuse to mention W. Somerset Maugham here – and the excuse is, as Aussie literary fiction followers will probably know, that Mirandi Riwoe’s Stella shortlisted novella, The fish girl, is a response to (was inspired by) Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”. I don’t usually feel I need to read the original work in these situations but given the original here was a short story and given it gets Maugham into this blog, I decided to read it.

Before I get to the story, I must explain that one of the reasons I’d like Maugham here is because I was astonished some years ago to discover just how many of his novels, short stories and plays had been adapted to film. Wikipedia says that he was “one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations”. So, having seen several of the films and read a few of his books, I’ve wanted him here – albeit Maugham described himself as “in the very first row of the second-raters”!

“The four Dutchmen” has not, as far as I know, been adapted to film, but it makes interesting reading. In his introduction to the volume of collected stories which includes this one, Maugham says that “most of these stories are on the tragic side. But the reader must not suppose that the incidents I have narrated were of common occurrence.” He then describes how the majority of the people in the Asian regions from which the stories come are decent hardworking people, but

they are not the sort of people I can write stories about. I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way as to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies.

The four Dutchmen – a captain, chief officer, chief engineer, and supercargo on a Dutch tramp – are such people. The four fattest men our narrator ever knew,

They were the greatest friends, all four of them; they were like schoolboys together, playing absurd little pranks with one another.

And in such a way, the first person narrator (ostensibly the author) sets them up as jolly, cheery men for whom having a good time was more important, say, than winning money from each other at bridge. After all,

‘All friends and a good ship. Good grub and good beer. Vot can a sensible man vant more?’

But,

… the captain was very susceptible to the charms of the native girls and his thick English became almost unintelligible from emotion when he described to me the effect they had on him. One of these days he would buy himself a house on the hills in Java and marry a pretty little Javanese. They were so small and so gentle and they made no noise, and he would dress her in silk sarongs and give her gold chains to wear round her neck and gold bangles to put on her arms.

The last two sentences here comprise the epigraph Riwoe uses to open The fish girl – but more on that next week.

What happens is that the captain brings a Malay girl on board, against the wishes of his friends, and tragedy ensues – as our narrator pieces together from later newspaper reports and the hotel manager. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty, envy (probably) and revenge. But it’s also about colonial attitudes to local inhabitants, and about men seeing women as objects or toys to be played with and discarded at will.

The interesting thing is Maugham’s attitude. What is it? This is not a didactic story. The first person narrator makes no specific commentary on the rights and wrongs of the four men’s behaviour, but seems to act rather as observer and reporter. However, I think we can glean some opinion. He initially finds them fun to be with, but there are hints that he sees them lacking in substance. At one point he says “to me not the least comic part of them was their serious side” and a little later he comments ironically, after the chief had made an egregious statement, that he “had a philosophic soul”. His, the narrator’s, concluding comment seems off-hand – as if it’s just another story about characters he’s met. And maybe that’s all it is to him, but I’d say there’s ironic intent behind the reference to the “comic and celebrated friendship”.

It’s somewhat more difficult to pin down his attitude to the young woman who is first referred to as “pretty little Javanese”, then “a little thing” and “Malay girl”, before finally being characterised as “brazen hussy”, “bad rubbish”, and “trollop”. She has no voice at all in “the story” – but these descriptions of her are reported rather than his own, so again I’d say he is asking us to consider the attitudes and values he portrays. Anyhow, next week I’ll review Riwoe’s post-colonial response to the story.

Meanwhile, I’d love to know what you think of Maugham (if you’ve read him)?

W. Somerset Maugham
“The four Dutchmen” (1928)
in Collected short stories, Vol. 4
(Selected by Maugham himself)
London: Vintage Books. (Orig. pub. 1951)
ISBN: 9781409076421 (ePub)

Hanif Kureishi, The buddha of suburbia (Review)

Hanif Kureishi, The buddha of suburbiaThe first thing to say about Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 Whitbread award-winning novel The buddha of suburbia is that it’s pretty funny. It’s a comic satire – over-the-top at times, confronting at others. It has its dark moments, but it’s also brash, irreverent and ultimately warm-hearted towards its tangled band of not always admirable but mostly very human characters. I’ve come late to this book, and only read it now because my reading group decided to align one of our books with ABC RN’s bookclub, which this year is featuring novels from the subcontinent. Kureishi’s book was one of the few we hadn’t read, so it got the guernsey.

It’s a coming-of-age novel about Karim, who is seventeen years old at the start and the son of a Pakistani/Muslim father from Bombay and an English mother. He lives in the suburbs south of London, a place populated, in his eyes, by “the miserable undead”. He wants to live “intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs”. The dreams of a young man which, of course, run counter to everything his parents would wish for – except that his parents aren’t watching. His father leaves his mother early in the novel to pursue his own mid-life crisis enlightenment as a “buddha” dispensing wisdom to other suburbanites, while his mother sinks into her misery and her bed. And so the scene is set …

This is a rather raunchy, bawdy read in which characters push the sexual envelope with little concern for consequences. They engage in all sorts of sex for all sorts of reasons that represent a broad spectrum of human experience and behaviour, some loving, some brutal, some exploratory, some exploitative. The novel is set in early to mid 1970s England, before AIDS, at the dawn of punk, and just before Thatcher’s England (1979 to 1990). This could date it, but I don’t think it does, because its concerns remain relevant today: racism, multiculturalism, the stereotyping of “other”, materialism versus the search for meaning, the role of the arts in our lives, and of course, given the title, the urban-suburban divide.

So, what happens? Both a lot, and not much, in that this is a character and ideas-driven novel rather than a plot-driven one. Told first person by Karim, the novel has two parts – “In the suburbs” followed by “In the city”. In the first part Karim talks of his life in the suburbs, of his friends and family, and describes the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father moves in with the lively go-get-’em Eva. It’s a life characterised by racism:

The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it.

Aspirations are low, and education is not seen as being useful:

This was the English passion, not for self-improvement or culture or wit, but for DIY, Do It Yourself, for bigger and better houses with more mod cons, the painstaking accumulation of comfort and, with it, status – the concrete display of earned cash.

The city, on the other hand, is a place where you can remake yourself. It seemed, to Karim, like “a house with five thousand rooms, all different”, far from the stultifying dullness of the ‘burbs. But the dichotomy is not as simple as it sounds. Having moved to the city, like his father and Eva, Karim continues to return to the suburbs to see friends and family. He experiences warmth and support there, while the city, where “the piss-heads, bums, derelicts and dealers shouted and looked for fights” can intimidate him.

Nonetheless, once in the city, Karim does start to remake himself – as an actor. But, as elsewhere in the novel, there’s a sting in the tail. The first role Karim is offered is Mowgli in The jungle book. He does well, and his white family and friends praise him, but his honest, feisty childhood friend Jamila sees it differently:

‘And it was disgusting, the accent and the shit you had smeared over you. You were just pandering to prejudices …’.

Karim, who has, earlier and somewhat defensively, described himself as “beige”, moves on to another theatre group where he is chosen because he is “black”:

‘We need someone from your own background,’ he said. ‘Someone black.’
‘Yeah?’ I didn’t know anyone black, though I’d been at school with a Nigerian.

I think you’ve got the drift now. The humour is sharp, with stereotypes being subverted, twisted or just plain skewered. The book is full of witty asides, clever but insightful quips, and some downright absurd situations. There’s tenderness too. I loved the “heart-ambulance”, in the form of a sister and brother-in-law arriving to take Karim’s mother home with them when her heart is broken.

There’s a fascinating subplot involving Jamila and the marriage arranged for her by her father, Anwar. She accedes, but when her husband, the physically disabled hapless but kind-hearted Changez arrives, she lays down the rules for their so-called marriage, and then sets about reinventing herself – in the suburbs – as a strong, independent, liberated woman.

I said at the beginning that this is a coming-of-age novel, but it’s more than that. It’s about transformation and shape-shifting for people of all ages. The only character among the central group, who is unable to accept the challenge of change, is Jamila’s father Anwar, and his ending is not a positive one. By contrast, his friend, Karim’s father, seeks enlightenment. He wants to be something more than a Civil Service clerk who will never be promoted above an Englishman. So, he sets himself up as a “buddha”, a “visionary” who will provide wisdom from the east. I loved the multiple satire here – the joke of suburbanites seeking wisdom from a so-called eastern mystic, and the subversive idea of a Pakistani Muslim setting himself up as that mystic, a buddha.

The novel is about other things too, such as the arts and culture, and the possibility they offer for salvation. While Karim develops a career as an actor, working out how he can or should use his “culture” to further his goals, his friend Charlie reinvents himself as punk star, Charlie Hero. Like Karim, though for different reasons, he discovers it’s not all as straightforward as he thought.

It’s also about love – romantic love, sexual love, parental love, and the love between friends. All the characters seek it, though not all find it. And underpinning all this is the “immigrant condition”, and the idea that, perhaps, “the immigrant is the Everyman of the twentieth century”.

But, in the end, what it’s really about is the desire for a meaningful life and, without giving away details, I think it’s fair to say that most of Kureishi’s characters achieve this, albeit somewhat messily. That said, I can’t help thinking that Karim’s conclusion that “I thought of what a mess everything had been, but that it wouldn’t always be that way” has an ironic edge.

Hanif Kureishi
The buddha of suburbia
London: Faber and Faber, 1990
ISBN: 9780571249398 (epub edition, 2008)

Aminatta Forna, The hired man (Review)

Aminatta Forna, The hired manEarly in Aminatta Forna’s The hired man, the narrator Duro is told by his old, ex-best friend Krešimir, “People have moved on, Duro. Maybe you should too”. At this point we are not sure exactly what they have moved on from but we guess it might have something to do with war – and as the story progresses we discover we are right.

The hired man is Forna’s third novel, but my first to read. All of them, together with her memoir The devil that danced on water, deal with the prelude and aftermath of war. In The hired man it’s the Croatian War of Independence which occurred in the early 1990s. Forna, though, never names the war, and while there is some description of war-time action, she doesn’t provide any real historic details about who, what or where.

The novel is set in the fictional town of Gost, and commences in 2007 with Duro, our first person narrator, telling us that “at the time of writing I am forty-six years old”. Later we realise he is writing for a future reader, after he dies. He writes

… I have to tell this story and I must tell it to somebody, so it may as well be you, come to sort through my belongings.

The trapdoor is opened …

So, what is the story he has to tell – and why is he suddenly compelled to tell it now? Well, towards the end of the novel he says this:

Laura arrived in Gost and opened a trapdoor. Beneath the trapdoor was an infinite tunnel and that tunnel led to the past.

You don’t know who Laura is, though, do you, so it’s time I introduced the plot. The novel spans Duro’s life from his childhood to his mid-forties. He tells of his family, and his boyhood friends, particularly the aforementioned Krešimir and his younger sister Anka, with whom Duro fell in love. He tells how his relationship with Krešimir crumbled as Krešimir’s true, cruel, nature became apparent, and why he left Gost for a few years, returning just before the war started. And he tells us about the “chaos” that ensued during the war, “when men turned to hunting each other”. I don’t want to give too much away here, but let’s just say that by the time the war starts his relationship with Anka had moved, necessarily, from that of lover to good friend.

We jump then sixteen years to 2007 – when Duro is living alone and friendless – though the novel is not told in this linear way. It’s told more organically as the changes resulting from the opening of the “trapdoor” stimulate memories and bring the past back to Duro. This trapdoor is opened because Krešimir sells the “blue” house, the home he’d shared with Anka and their parents, to Laura and her husband who plan to renovate it, sell it, and move on. Duro, we discover, is a handyman, and he becomes Laura’s “hired man” for this renovation, and in the process becomes the family’s friend.

There is an underlying theme here of the British moving into Europe, oblivious of history and inherent dangers:

The way the English saw it, the past was always better. But in this country our love of the past is a great deal less, unless it is a very distant past indeed, the kind nobody alive can remember, a past transformed into a song or a poem. We tolerate the present, but what we love is the future, which is about as far away from the past as it is possible to be.

These English do not understand, for example, that the “fields that used to be ploughed … are now full of wild flowers because nobody dares to walk in them in case they put their foot on a mine and are blown to pieces.”

“I imagine myself with the body of a bird, a raven. Outstretched wings and neck, rigid beak and shining eye, I swoop over the ravine and hover over the town.”

So, here is Duro, standing “guard over the past” like a predatory bird. And here is Laura, reminding him of Anka who, though we don’t know why, is no longer in Gost. And here is “the chill of unfinished business”. The stage is set … but here I’ll leave the plot.

What is beautiful about this novel is that, despite its depiction of brutality and betrayal, and despite a sense of menace, it is restrained – and it’s restrained because Forna’s focus is not violence and revenge, though there are elements of these in the novel. Her interest is how people live with each other after war, and particularly after Civil War when traitors, collaborators, opportunists and victims, depending  on your point of view of course, must all live together. The novel made me think of Olivera Simić’s Surviving peace which I reviewed last year. It’s a memoir, and Simić does not still live in her Serbian home, but she makes very clear that surviving a war, particularly ethnically-driven civil war, is just the beginning.

What is also beautiful about this novel is Forna’s writing – her use of imagery, symbolism, irony and parallels to convey her meaning. Birds and colours have multiple connotations, some positive, natural, others menacing. The “ravine” on the edge of town bears witness to beauty and horror. Hunting suggests violence and predation, but is also a source of sustenance and defence. The title, itself, “the hired man”, has both benign and malignant meaning …

As does the idea of masculinity, “with its undercurrent of aggression”. For Duro, it encompasses loyalty, protectiveness, and reliability alongside strength and control, while for men like Krešimir and Fabjan, the town bully, it means power and competitiveness, and is attended by a sense of menace.

Nothing, in other words, is simple in Forna’s world, and the language conveys this subtly but emphatically.

‘Well this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. You don’t notice it any more, but you don’t know how lucky you are.’

Laura, new to the town, is oblivious to the irony of her utterance, and so are we as the novel starts – but, we soon learn differently. It is not a pretty town but by the end some rapprochement, uneasy though it still may be, has been achieved. This is a moving but realistic book about just how difficult it is to survive peace.

Aminatta Forna
The hired man
London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013
ISBN (Kindle ed): 9781408818770

MJ Hyland, Carry me down

MJ Hyland, Carry me down bookcover

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

If you like writers who unsettle, then MJ Hyland is a writer for you. Carry me down is my second Hyland. I read, loved and reviewed a later book of hers, This is how, nearly a year ago, and said then that I’d like to read more. I finally have, and am not disappointed.

Carry me down is a pre-coming-of-age story. John Egan is an 11-year-old boy living in Ireland with his parents. He’s an only child and is keen to be special, different. He is clearly pre-adolescent – he’s naive, for example, about some of his 15-year-old cousin’s behaviours. He’s an unreliable narrator: the world he sees and describes is rather skewed but the unsettling thing is that we, the readers, know it is skewed but we are not quite sure in which way. What is going on in this family is the question in our minds from beginning to end.

Like This is how, the novel has a vaguely unsettling beginning. The first paragraph sets up what looks like a cosy family scene. The three are sitting, companionably it seems, around the table on a Sunday evening. The third and fourth paragraphs read:

From time to time we stop reading to talk. It is a good mood, as though we are one person reading one book – not three people apart and alone.

These kinds of days are the perfect ones.

That “alone” is a little jarring, though not dramatically so. But then comes this on page 2:

“John,” she [his mother] says, “please come with me. “She is taking me out to the hallway, away from my father. She is taking me out of his sight, as though I am rubbish.

“Rubbish”? Now, that’s a strong word. What she tells him in the hallway is to stop staring at her:

“You were staring at me, John. You shouldn’t stare like that.”

“Why can’t I look at you?”

“Because you’re eleven now. You’re not a baby anymore.”

There seems to be something slightly strange going on here, or is there? Is this just a pre-adolescent bumping up against the adult world he is about to join, or is something far more complicated going on? As the book progresses, John’s relationship with his mother verges on “too close”. He seems a little too emotionally and physically needy, and she seems unsure of how to manage it. Is his need normal, is the question we ask. Meanwhile, his relationship with his father seems more typically adolescent. He wants his father’s approval and love, but he wants to be independent too. And, he wants to be special. He is an avid reader of the Guinness Book of Records, and decides early in the novel that he has a gift for lie detection for which he’d like to be included in the Guinness. He reads up on lie detection, and starts his own Gol of Seil (Log of Lies).

The situation is complicated by a number of facts which come out in the first chapters of the novel. John is unusually tall for his age and is under medical care for this. He regularly scratches a spot on his head until it bleeds. And he is bullied at school, because he is clearly a little different. His father is out of a job and studying for exams to be admitted to Trinity College. The book his father is reading at the start of the novel is Phrenology and the Criminal Cranium. Is this a hint to us – or a red herring? His mother works with a puppet show. This is interesting, too, as the idea of puppets subtly undercuts the desire for control and independence that John, like any pre-adolescent, is starting to strive for. The family lives with the paternal grandmother, with whom John’s father has a prickly relationship, mainly around money. And, underlying all this is John’s growing obsession with truth and lies.  This obsession is the framing motif in the book. John catches adults lying and takes them to task for it, all the while telling lies himself. He does not, by the end, come to a real understanding of how lying functions, of the difference between white lies and more serious ones. For this reason I don’t see it as a true coming-of-age story.

And now I come to my problem. How do I write about this book without giving it away? There are events – powerful, troubling ones – that occur in the book and that can be “read” in different ways. I’d rather like to analyse or explore the possible meanings, but that would require giving away some significant plot points. I don’t want to do that because this is a book that you need to discover for yourself, sentence by sentence.

What I’ll say though is that this is one of those books that has an open ending. (Indeed, giving nothing away, the last word of the book is “open”). How we read it depends on our own world view, on the weight we give to the various events in the novel, on how we read the specific words and images used by Hyland to describe the events and characters, and our personal understanding of adolescent and family psychology. The way I see it, the book’s ending hints at a number of possibilities but we do not know, at the point in their lives that we leave these characters, which of these possibilities will eventuate. And that, as they say, is life!

MJ Hyland
Carry me down
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007 (orig. 2006)
313pp.
ISBN: 9781921145780

M.J. Hyland, This is how

Bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

If you want to read a book that is quick (and seemingly simple) to read and yet satisfyingly complex, then MJ Hyland’s This is how is for you. I’ve been wanting to read Hyland for a while and, having now done so, this won’t be the last.

So where to start? The novel is a first person story told by a young, somewhat disengaged 23-year-old man, Patrick Oxtoby. It is set in the late 1960s, perhaps early 1970s, but the setting and period barely matter really, as this is very much a book about character (and, humanity in general).

Now, my problem is what to say about the plot without spoiling the first third of the novel, so I think I’ll say nothing except what the back cover tells us. It says that “it is a novel about crime; though not a crime novel” and that “it has an almost stately pace and yet it’s thrilling”. These, together with my opening comment that it is simple but complex, should convey what a rather paradoxical read this is. The novel opens with the following:

I put my bags down on the doorstep and knock three times. I don’t bang hard like a copper, but it’s not as though I’m ashamed to be knocking either.

Who is this? Why does he describe his knocking in such terms? Well, we soon learn that Patrick, newly jilted by his fiancée, has come to this little seaside town to start a new job as a mechanic. He’s intelligent – though dropped out of university – and comes with good recommendations as a mechanic from his previous employer. But he is a very singular person, one who is not totally comfortable in his own skin. This is apparent from the beginning: here is more from the first page:

‘I thought you’d be here hours ago.’
It’s after ten and I was due at six. My mouth’s gone dry, but I smile, friendly as I can.
‘I missed the connection,’ I say.
I’ve not meant the lie, but she’s forced me.

Hmm, now I really was wondering who this is and, given the suggestion that the novel is about a crime, I wondered whether he is the criminal and whether he had already committed a crime? I also started to wonder as I continued to read the first few pages whether he was an unreliable narrator. But no, he is essentially reliable; he is, in fact, very much himself – but himself is a complex (aren’t we all) human being who carries quite a bit of baggage. I’m not quite sure how Hyland does it but throughout the novel she manages to unsettle her readers and keep us that way: at times we empathise with Patrick and feel sympathy for him and then suddenly he distresses if not horrifies us – and we wonder anew, Who is this man?

MJ Hyland

MJ Hyland, London, 2008 (Courtesy: MJ Hyland via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In my opening para I said it was a quick and seemingly simple read. This is because the style is simple and direct. Patrick tells his story in present tense, with just the occasional flashback. Sentences are mostly short and simple, and the paragraphs tend to be short too. There is quite a lot of dialogue and not a lot of description. And what description there is tends to be short, sharp and vivid (“This blow is like a dose of poison in my veins, a hot sharp shot through my legs and arms, through my bowels and bladder”). Patrick is introspective at times but he doesn’t wallow in it. All this gives us a picture of a pretty simple character, which he is – and isn’t at the same time. There is, we are aware, quite a gap between what he says and thinks (most of the time) which could make him seem coldly manipulative. Yet, he’s not that. It’s more that he’s a somewhat damaged soul trying to survive in a world that doesn’t seem to go the way he would like – and it is this that leads to his trouble.

He likes to be in control (“I wanted her to go, and now she’s gone it’s like rejection, feels like it was her idea and not mine”) but he doesn’t try to bend others to his will. He has an uncomfortable relationship with the truth (“She put her hand on her heart and gives me a big smile and I’m reminded of when I told the girl in the theatre foyer that I was nervous and how the truth got a good reaction out of her as well”) but it’s more to do with self-protection than with any specific desire to deceive others. He has a complicated relationship with his family and they with him, but most of what we know is from his perspective so it is difficult to know the “truth” (if  a simple “truth” there can be in families). As he says:

I’m not sure if the truth will make any sense. The truth is, I thought I was rejecting my mother when I left home … But it turns out she was the one doing the rejecting and it’s just the same with my father.

The “real” truth, though, is probably somewhere in between.

Does he* grow throughout the novel and is there a resolution? To some extent he does get to know himself better but the resolution seems to be more that he learns to live with his situation (“life’s shrinking to a size that suits me more”) rather than grow as a person. But maybe that’s what maturity/development is really about?

Whatever the case, this is one of those truly original creations – a character who, as the back blurb says, “is fully himself and yet stands for all of us”. I haven’t been so intrigued by and engrossed in a character for a long time. The plot is slim but I barely noticed. I’ll definitely be reading more Hyland.

MJ Hyland
This is how
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2009
376pp.
ISBN: 9781921656484

Review copy supplied by Text Publishing.

* An aside. I couldn’t help wondering at times whether Patrick, with his social awkwardness and slightly obsessive behaviour, might be autistic to some level, but this never comes out and I am uncomfortable ascribing a pathology to a character when the author hasn’t done so.