Three novels by women

Here’s my latest round-up of recent reading.

Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day Persephone Books, 2008; 19381

 I’d read some glowing reports of this novel, and admire Persephone’s initiative in publishing works by women that have often been neglected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on with this confection at all. I gave up halfway through. Its tone and content were similar to those frothy romantic comedy films of the 30s starring people like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn – but lacking, I thought, their charm and wit. I didn’t warm to dowdy Miss P, whose transformation from impoverished and timid duckling (she’s an unsuccessful children’s governess) to confident swan (I presume that’s where it was going; she was just beginning to develop as I gave up) just didn’t ring true.

I know it’s not intended to be taken too seriously, but I also struggled to raise interest in Miss P’s unlikely new friend and employer, the supposedly glamorous nightclub singer and socialite Delysia La Fosse, whose name is as implausible as her characterisation. I found her susceptibility to caddish men irritating – and in fact, even allowing for changing social attitudes, the portrayal of sexual relations at the time was strangely disturbing, and not as funny as I think it was meant to be. But I know that most other readers had a much more positive response.

Rosamond Lehmann, The Ballad and the Source VMC, 1982; 19441

This was more to my taste. Sibyl Jardine, one of the central characters, is an elderly woman when the novel opens, but she has had an eventful past. She’s described by Janet Watts in the introduction to this edition as ‘one of the strangest and strongest heroines in English fiction, and her story is not for the squeamish’. It tells of ‘love corrupted into viperous hatred; of friendship betrayed; of treachery begetting treacheries’. What’s not to like? Puts mousy Miss Pettigrew into perspective…

The structure is unusual. Much of the novel is narrated from the viewpoint of precocious 10-year-old Rebecca, who quizzes this enigmatic, imposing Mrs Jardine (a neighbour whom her mother knows about and clearly mistrusts), whom she adores for her flamboyance, erudition and mystique, to find out that back story. (These long sequences were also a feature of her earlier novels.) It involves two generations of spirited women leaving failing marriages for more attractive prospects, then finding that leaving children behind as well as unwanted husbands brought unbearable consequences.

As the years pass and WWI breaks out, the web of relationships around the three generations of linked families becomes ever more tangled. Revelations cause Rebecca to reconsider her initial worshipping attitude to the formidable Mrs Jardine. The author’s handling of this complex plot, and of the differing accounts of the past (told by not entirely impartial or reliable adults to fascinated youngsters eager for intrigue and romance) is admirable. The young women’s eyes are gradually opened to the not-so-glamorous reality of the tainted loves they witness and are told about, and the poisonous fallout of failed relationships that damages the children as much as their parents. This causes the young women to confront and question their own burgeoning sexuality.

It’s a slow-burning novel, but fiercely intense. Mrs Jardine is an enchantress: alluring and deadly, vengeful and heartbroken. She’s an amazing creation.

There’s a link HERE to my posts on other RL novels, all of which deal in some way with sexual relations and the inevitable pain that goes with the bliss (usually more for the women than the feckless men): Invitation to the Waltz; The Weather in the Streets; The Echoing Grove.

Sarah Moss, The Fell Picador, 2022; 20211

 This novella is the first Covid lockdown fiction I’ve read. That soul-numbing solitude and sense of foreboding we all endured as a consequence – when we were told not to leave our houses and forbidden from mixing with anyone outside of them – is a key feature in The Fell.

It’s difficult to summarise the plot without spoilers. Let’s just say that when free-spirited, rather hippy-ish single mother Kate decides she’s had enough of going stir crazy in domestic confinement with her teenage son, and impulsively goes out for an early evening hike on the hills referred to in the title, all does not go well.

I enjoyed it, but not the structure and style. It consists of interlocking internal monologues from the points of view of several characters involved in Kate’s life. Through these various perspectives we slowly build up a composite picture of Kate’s character, and those of the individuals whose lives overlap with hers. But I found the colloquial, demotic prose failed to bring them entirely to life (except the wilful Kate). I’m not quite sure why she had the foresight to pack a rucksack with basic provisions when she set out for the fell on a whim, but didn’t take her phone. The hallucinatory sequences with a talkative corvid were pretty weird, too.

Sarah Moss’s novel Bodies of Light is stronger, I felt; my post about it is HERE.

 

Williams, Mantel, Bulgakov: buffalo, sad cases and chimeras

More recent reading.

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing (Vintage, 2014; 19601) A very different, more brutal and elemental novel from the author of Stoner. Young Will Andrews travels west to Kansas, to the prairie buffalo-hunters’ town (aptly) named in the title, after three years at Harvard, to escape the urbane conformity of eastern civilisation in search of his ‘unalterable self’ in the wilderness. His Ahab-like quest also becomes a sort of Heart of Darkness trip: Miller, a seasoned, gritty hunter-trapper who knows this wild territory better than anyone, takes him and two other troubled men deep into the unmapped country in search of a legendary secret valley in the Colorado Rockies where, ten years earlier, he’d stumbled upon a huge herd of buffalo.

These animals had been hunted almost to extinction everywhere else. The railroad is rumoured to be coming to Butcher’s Crossing, and the old ways of life are doomed. What follows is a harrowing account of hardship and bloodshed. The group of hunters is pushed to the limits of endurance by the land and the elements. Will’s life, he realises, has been changed irrevocably. As in reading Moby-Dick, it’s apparent something allegorical is going on. I’m not quite sure what, but it’s perhaps something to do with our species pretensions, humanity’s obsession with cynical, destructive domination of the eco-system, and the thinness of our veneer of sophistication compared with the wild things we exterminate. We are, after all, poor, bare, forked animals ourselves.

It’s a beautifully written novel, but the hunting scenes are not for the squeamish.

Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate (Penguin, 1995; 19941) The settings in placid, rural Norfolk and violent apartheid-era South Africa and Bechuanaland underpin this moving family drama. Ralph Eldred runs a charitable homeless refuge in London, and his family take social outcasts (‘sad cases’ or ‘good souls’) into their own home. But an oppressive paternal back story and a tragic event when he and his wife when first married were missionaries in Africa haunts him and, indirectly, his growing family back in East Anglia in 1980. Beneath the benign surface of this loving, caring ménage there is hopelessness, betrayal, passion and suffering. The novel is a bit short on events in the English-set sections, but it’s a gripping, sensitively constructed portrait of a damaged family who try to do good, to find fulfilment, perhaps love, but the dark secrets keep obtruding.

I’ve posted on two other Mantel novels here at the Days: Beyond Black and An Experiment in Love, both with modern settings (link HERE) – very different from her now more famous historical trilogy. Her range and artistry are impressive. She’ll be much missed.

Mikhail Bulgakov, A Dog’s Heart (Alma Classics) I’m slowly working my way through this bargain set from Alma books of the Ukrainian doctor and author (1891-1940). This novella was first published in 1925, but was confiscated by the Soviet government and banned for its anti-revolutionary satire (like most of his other writings). A cultured scientist-surgeon coaxes a stray street mutt, Sharik (= Fido) back to his home, an apartment larger than most of his fellow Muscovites’, using tasty sausage as the bait. His motives are not entirely charitable. What follows is a kind of spin on the Frankenstein story. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that he’s experimenting with human-animal chimera surgery. Poor, streetwise Sharik becomes a wisecracking, boorish man-monster. Although he displays some of the traits of a civilised person, his dog nature can’t be suppressed, and he behaves very badly. Local cats and the professor’s maid are particularly vulnerable. When he starts spouting anti-bourgeois clichés it’s easy to see why the regime banned this novella. (This was the turbulent period of the ‘new economic policy’, instigated by Lenin and continued in 1924 by Stalin to try to revive the failing post-revolution economy by relaxing laws forbidding private enterprise, and promoting a kind of diluted state-sanctioned capitalism. Maybe our recent and not lamented disaster of a Prime Minister, Liz Truss, was inspired by this book…)

My brief summary perhaps indicates that it’s not the most subtle of satires – but it still has some bite.

I posted on Bulgakov’s best-known novel, The Master and Margarita, HERE, and The White Guard HERE.

In another of these recent reading roundups I posted briefly on A Young Doctor’s Notebook (link HERE).

The furies of family: Julietta Harvey, Fear of Light.

Julietta Harvey, Fear of Light. Starhaven Press, 2022.

Seven years ago, I posted on Julietta Harvey’s first two novels. Familiar Wars portrays abrasive family dynamics in a Greek society (Dr Harvey was born in Greece) that is fiercely partriarchal – its men display ‘casual misogyny and [a] swaggeringly patronising attitude’ to their wives and daughters. Women were denied agency and autonomy.

In its sequel, One Third of Paradise, the youngest sister, Eleni, is appalled by her father’s erratic, tyrannical behaviour – he’s a King Lear type – but she’s unable to join her ‘vulture’ sisters in tearing him apart.

Julietta Harvey Fear of Light cover In Dr Harvey’s new novel, Fear of Light, the protagonist is Fotini – her name means ‘bright with light’. As a girl of about 17 she commits what her oppressive father and equally brutal brother consider a shaming transgression. A terrible crime ensues.

It’s another unwavering examination of a family drama that would have intrigued Freud. During this dark period of punishment Fotini becomes photophobic – hence the novel’s title: she can’t bear the bright light which her own name ironically signifies (imagery of light and dark pervades the narrative).

This cruel treatment is witnessed and more or less condoned by most of the family’s fellow villagers: ‘a shared blame oppressed them’ when the crime is revealed. Their mountain community is backward, distrustful of everyone (with good reason: land-grabs, greed and treachery are commonplace), ‘forgotten by God’ – and the modern world: its very name is redolent of darkness, the absence of light (and, by extension, enlightenment). Women are condemned to a life of domestic drudgery, hard work and servitude to their male masters.

The heavy symbolism deriving from literature and Greek myth in the two earlier novels is less obvious in Fear of Light, but it’s still apparent. As the novel opens Fotini sits eating a pomegranate by a cracked statue of a woman who appears to be Persephone. In the Greek myth she was abducted by Hades into the underworld when he tricked her into eating a pomegranate; she was doomed to spend a third of each year underground, returning each spring to her former world. It’s a chthonic vegetation myth, accounting for the cycle of the seasons, and the rebirth of life and vegetation after the dark months of winter.

One old woman says the crack in the statue came from the girl’s sorrow when the Civil War came to the village. Another says no, it hides ‘old, very old crimes.’ Fotini herself thought the statue ‘broke from pain and sorrow’. This symbolism aptly and poetically sets the scene for this deeply disturbing and moving novel. Like Eleni in the two previous novels, Fotini has two sisters and a mother who passively submit to the brutish father and brother, and accept their violent, oppressive treatment of her.

Decades later the crime is discovered by outsiders, men who’d come to prepare to bring light (electricity) to this benighted village. What follows is the spinechilling story of the trial of her family, the revelation of its ‘dark secret’, and its repercussions in the local and national community. The scandal of ‘paternal cruelty and old family crimes’ causes other stories of similar heartless humiliation of young women by their menfolk to emerge – not just in backward rural villages, but even in the big cities – it’s not just backward villagers who are guilty: all are implicated, responsible. It’s a family tragedy that symbolises the ‘true dark history of their [the Greek people’s] past: as far back as the Civil War.’

Much of this section of the novel is narrated by another Eleni, who reports for a newspaper on the unfolding, horrifying story as it unfolds. She seems to be the same character as the one in the other two novels, but restored to youth: she too has been to the USA as a student, and is about to set off for research work at Cambridge in England. She remembers seeing Fotini’s mountain range from her family’s summer retreat on the island of Thasos, off the coast at Thessaloniki, which features centrally in the earlier novels. As she learns more about ‘her native land and her compatriots’, she feels an understandable impulse to run away, but also, paradoxically, a ‘comradeship’ with them emerges as they recognise and debate ‘their own bitter stories’, their own ‘ghosts in the dark’. All societies have defects: this is a salutary story for all of us.

The courtroom becomes a locus of collective guilt and shame. The crowd witnessing this shameful exposure of misogyny sees itself reflected. The women had been

…taught from birth to stay covered, hidden, small: and they followed that order with wilfulness.  They were submissive – with obduracy. Obedient and docile, with a slowly burning fire of resentment…Did they believe that in these hallowed rooms of justice light could reveal and tame the furies of their own family?

Eleni had taken for granted ‘a family’s love and care. She now discovers the disabling things not seen or understood, hidden behind walls or locked away…’

Fear of Light is also, then, as one of the city-dwellers remarks about the trial, ‘like a cruel fairytale. And now it’s time for the prince to come back to life and the princess to wake up young and beautiful and wise!’ The villagers appease their consciences by deciding that poor Fotini’s mistreatment changed their fortunes:

She had her youth taken away from her so that the village would see its children, and their children, come back. In her living death – because that was no life – she brought to us new life.

But interpreting the cruelty meted out to Fotini by her family as a variation on the Persephone or Sleeping Beauty stories doesn’t validate this behaviour or these attitudes. This novel is a searing indictment of the misogyny that still pervades most modern societies – and if it’s called out it evokes accusations that its denigrators are the guilty ones, the ‘woke’.

I hope I haven’t made FoL sound depressingly grim or polemical: despite the harshness it depicts, it’s a life-affirming, unflinching account of what families can become if we turn a blind eye to the harsh realities of toxic masculinity. In the end light prevails over darkness.

Recent reading: Mann, Bulgakov, etc.

It’s been a busy month. Two trips to London to visit friends (went to see My Fair Lady at the ENO – terrific) and in Worthing (saw Gershwin’s Crazy For You at the Chichester Festival theatre -also good). I’ve also had a big work project with an improbably close deadline. So this will be a very quick round-up of recent reading.

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse Salt Publishing, 2012. I’d expected a novel about lighthouses, but this isn’t that novel. The timid protagonist does stay in a German pension called Hellhaus, which apparently translates as lighthouse, and his most treasured possession is a silver perfume holder in the shape of one – but that’s it. Otherwise it’s a slightly strange story about loveless marriages, disappointments of other kinds, all told in a flat, affectless style. I wasn’t overwhelmed, but it was ok.

T Mann Felix Krull coverThomas Mann, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. PMC 1973; first published in German in 1954. Translated by Denver Lindley. I’d expected a novel called ‘Confessions’ to show some contrition, but there’s not much of that here. It’s more of a boastful fictional autobiography of Felix’s life to the age of about 21. He’s a bit of a male Becky Sharp: lives on his wit and good looks. It’s an enjoyable romp involving swapping identities, travels to Paris and Lisbon, and some passionate affairs that Casanova would have approved of. There were digressions and purple patches that slowed things down too much, but it was all good fun. I was inspired to read this late Mann by Colm Toibin’s The Magician. I thought I’d posted about that, but just checked: I haven’t, so must do so.

Bulgakov Dr's Notebook coverMikhail Bulgakov, A Young Doctor’s Notebook Alma Classics, 2012. First published 1925-26. Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin. Another from the set I bought recently from Alma to support, in some very small way, the current terrible struggle of Ukraine (Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891). It’s a short collection of short stories about the clearly autobiographical doctor’s experiences, straight out of medical school at the tender age of 24, in his first job in a small hospital in a remote peasant village in Russia. A common theme is his encountering difficult cases that he’s never dealt with before except in the university teaching room. A young girl’s leg is badly mangled in an agricultural accident, and he has to perform his first amputation; a pregnant woman needs a tricky procedure to save her unborn child, and so on. Each time he’s racked with doubts about his ability to succeed without damaging or even killing his patient. He even rushes out on a pretext to quickly consult his medical books before starting his procedures with patients. He doesn’t always get it right, either. Peasant ignorance is also highlighted, not very sympathetically – but the doctor can be forgiven for finding their apparent stupidity vexing. The final tale is a gripping, scary account of another doctor’s morphine addiction – a problem Bulgakov  also struggled with. It’s all a bit like a grim Dr Finlay’s Casebook without the cloying charm. This collection enabled me to spend a long train journey entertainingly.

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019. I stupidly forgot to note the translator’s name, having left the book behind for one of my London friends to read. I’d read positive reviews of this Man Booker International prize winner, but it left me more perplexed than satisfied. It’s an engaging enough story about an eccentric woman in her sixties, living in a secluded forest in Poland near the Czech border, who’s grieving for her lost ‘girls’ – her two dogs, and who becomes involved in the mystery about a series of murders of hunters in the forest. I found the long sections where she muses on astrology, one of her other obsessions (apart from animals), tedious, and never really got into her mind. Some of her philosophical asides are more interesting, but for me the whole thing was just too implausible. Maybe I shouldn’t have read most of this one on another long train journey.

Larkin Jill coverPhilip Larkin, Jill Faber, 1975, first published 1946. Larkin wrote this when he was just 21. I chose it from my friend’s shelves, having finished the books I’d taken to London and Worthing with me (see above), because we’d been to Chichester Cathedral (before the theatre) and seen the Arundel tombs that inspired Larkin’s famous, lovely poem. It’s a painful read. Another timid protagonist, John Kemp, lacking in self-esteem; this one goes up to Oxford in 1940. He’s from a humble working-class (or lower middle-class) background in industrial Lancashire. He finds he has to share rooms with a drunken, oafish cad from a minor public school who patronises and uses him disgracefully (John even lets him copy his essays to pass off as his own, and lends him money he can ill afford to lose, for of course the swine will never pay him back), but the poor lad is too lacking in confidence and experience to stand up for himself; he even admires and tries to emulate this brat. The Jill of the title is an imaginary version of his sister who he invents as a desperate way of ingratiating himself with the boorish roommate. It doesn’t go to plan. It’s a brilliant, salutary antidote to the languid, rose-tinted nostalgia in other Oxford novels like Brideshead.

 

John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space

John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1990.

 Holland House published John Harvey’s most recent novel, Pax, in 2019 (link to my post on it HERE: the artists Rubens and Van Dyck feature prominently, as well as a fictional modern British artist), and decided not much later to publish his backlist of fiction. He should be better known as a novelist, given the quality and range of his output.

There’s an artistic theme also in his excellent 2014 novel The Subject of a Portrait, which deals with the tangled real-life relationships between the Pre-Raphaelite artist Millais, his mentor the art critic John Ruskin, and Ruskin’s young wife Effie. My post on this, with two guest posts, one by the author and the other by the publisher, Michael Flay, are found HERE.

The publishers kindly sent me the three titles I hadn’t posted on previously. First up was his earliest novel, The Plate Shop (1979), set in an ailing English engineering factory. Coup d’Etat (1985) is set in Greece during the brutal military colonels’ junta. You see what I mean about the variety and range of his subject matter.

John Harvey is not a prolific novelist: five novels over a period of four decades. This was probably because of his other career as an eminent academic at Cambridge University, where he specialised in the relationship between visual arts and literature. This interest is reflected in his four non-fiction studies of colour, clothes and illustration (especially in Victorian literature).

Harvey Legend of Captain Space cover At the heart of The Legend of Captain Space is the portrayal of another troubled married couple. Nick is a handsome long-distance lorry driver who dreams of breaking into the world of motor racing. When his wife Sandy gives birth to a baby boy, Davey, she struggles to bond with him. His father nicknames him Captain Space when the boy is a toddler, and delights in being swung in the air.

This portrayal of the struggles of parenthood is the most interesting aspect of Captain Space. The doting maternal figure is a commonplace in the perception and representation of women in much literature and art; Harvey subverts that image wickedly as Sandy is driven literally to run away from her fractious baby at one point. She’s guiltily jealous of the easy familiarity Nick, a not very attentive father, superficially develops with his difficult son. Her child tends to frighten and appal Sandy.

The marriage not surprisingly hits the rocks. Sandy struggles to find a life for herself without the responsibility of being a mother, and begins to realise that she misses Davey after all. Nick meanwhile bounces slobbishly from casual sexual encounters to drunken pub brawls. Will he be able to fulfil his dream of becoming a racing driver, given his undisciplined nature? Will Sandy learn to love her son?

I have to be honest and admit I didn’t really care that much. I didn’t find these characters very appealing. I daresay that exposes me as a limited reader – but I felt the central characters were too caught up in their sordid, selfish obsessions for much empathy to develop for them.

It’s all handled with Harvey’s customary poise and narrative deftness, but I’m afraid this floundering couple failed to sustain my interest consistently.

But there are plenty of positives. Nick isn’t entirely without humane, softer feelings. When he gets a job on a farm, he’s given the job of driving a combine harvester. When he sees blood on the blades, he gets down to check he finds to his horror that he’s inadvertently ‘scythed a rabbit’. When he continues harvesting the crop,

[he] kept watch. When he saw a patch of brown, he stopped and climbed down. He could walk up close to the animal. It crouched flat, its sides quivered, its feet didn’t move. A shining eye watched him come.

‘There, mate, there. Easy as you go.’ He reached out and touched it, its hair was bristly. He stroked it, amazed.

‘It’s OK, captain.’

The style here is characteristic of the rest of the narrative: sparse, unadorned, yet highly evocative and visual (not surprising for an author so sensitive to the visual arts). This passage is typically painterly; it puts me in mind of Dürer’s famous print of a young hare – an impression I suspect John Harvey intended.

I hesitated before posting this, having responded with less enthusiasm than usual to this writer’s work. It doesn’t inhibit me from recommending you try any of his fiction or non-fiction. It’s all alive with humanity and finely observed insights, characters and relationships, the ways in which people portray those lives and connections – to themselves and to others (and sometimes in artistic representations). He’s one of the most gifted and rewarding modern English novelists. I just couldn’t always get on with poor little Davey, Captain Space, and his dysfunctional parents.

Not so magic mountain: Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country

Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country. Vintage, 2022. First published 2021

I went last month to Cyprus with Mrs TD for my brother’s wedding (he lives there: wanted sunshine after years of dreich Aberdeen). I read Sebastian Faulks’s new novel, Snow Country, on the journey there. I’d probably have given up on it after a hundred pages if I’d started it at home.

I read somewhere that this is part of the author’s ongoing project to write fiction that deals with matters concerning the treatment of people with mental health problems. Unfortunately this plays only a peripheral part in what is in fact a historical romance.

The fractured structure doesn’t help with the dragging pace. Part one is set in Vienna in 1914. Anton is not a psychologist, however, but an aspiring journalist. He falls in love with Delphine, a French governess to a wealthy family’s children. When war breaks out she disappears, leaving him bereft and heartbroken.

Then it’s 1927 and a new set of characters abruptly appears. Part three jumps ahead to 1933, to a mountain-top asylum (hence the novel’s title) for (finally) those people with mental health problems. These various storylines and some of the characters come together. But they do so very slowly, and the asylum setting is pretty inconsequential. The inmates/patients appear only in the background; it’s the proprietors and staff Faulks is interested in. The unsubtle echoes of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain serve little purpose, and come to nothing.

We get a lot of the history of the asylum and the people who founded it; too much, in fact. Faulks’s research is intrusively apparent. The central love stories eventually resolve themselves in ways that could have been deeply moving and satisfying, but somehow they just don’t quite come to life as one would have hoped – it all feels too forced. I felt the author was more interested in the setting and its back story than in these rather insipid characters he’s placed there.

I much preferred the only other Faulks novel I’ve posted on: Paris Echo (link HERE).

England has been sweltering in a heatwave – like most of Europe – this past week. Here in Cornwall it’s usually much cooler, and sea breezes have kept the temperature down. As I write this it’s started raining (with thunder) and it’s more like a normal July summer – but central England is forecast to hit over forty degrees. Hotter than Cyprus!

 

 

May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven

May Sinclair (1863-1946), The Tree of Heaven. British Library Women Writers, 2020. First published 1917.

 When I checked my archive I was surprised to find it was four years ago that I first posted on a novel of May Sinclair’s : The Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922; link HERE). It’s not surprising, given the date of publication of The Tree of Heaven (1917), that its central theme is the calamitous loss of young lives in the carnage of WWI.

This is much more than a war novel, however. Much of the first half is given to a detailed, colourful portrayal of the growing lives of the Harrison children in a London suburb. There are three brothers, Michael (a maverick loner), Nicky (wayward, capricious) and young John. Their only sister, Dorothea, is clever and independent, painfully conscious of her mother’s doting preference for her sons. This might partly account for her joining the burgeoning suffragist movement (of which May Sinclair, a proto-feminist, was an active member).

Sinclair shows how these children’s lives develop according to their temperaments and inclinations. One becomes an avant-garde poet, one of an iconoclastic group that sounds very like the Vorticists. Another impulsively marries a bohemian artist, and lives to regret it.

But looming in the background is always the impending war. The image that dominates the first part of the novel is what the narrator calls ‘the vortex’: the whirlpool of social and cultural pressure and conformity against which Michael rebels (so the Vorticist label is strangely appropriate and inappropriate). He refers to it as the ‘herd soul’, and it’s this that impels so many young men to sign up to the military when war breaks out. This impulse of patriotic ardour is repellent to him.

What becomes of them all is predictably sad. There’s some strange mystical stuff involving one character who appears to have visions of her loved ones at the point of their death. The ash tree in the Harrison garden, which gives its name to the novel, also serves a symbolic, mystical purpose, though I’m not quite sure what that is. Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life in Asgard, perhaps.

Once again, as in Harriet Frean, Sinclair is at her best in examining and depicting the lives of spirited, non-conformist people, especially young women, in abrasive contact with a stifling world of convention and (usually male) privilege. But she avoids stereotypes; Dorothea’s feminism is tempered by a distaste for the methods and ideology of the more radical members of its movement. As with so many suffragists, the war caused her to reassess her commitment to the cause, and her own beliefs about fairness and equality.

Frances, the siblings’ mother, eventually wakes up from her trance of maternity and becomes aware of the terrible reality of mortality and mutability.

Patrick Gale, Mother’s Boy

Patrick Gale, Mother’s Boy. Tinder Press, 2022.

Patrick Gale is a Cornwall-based novelist, and much of his fiction has a Cornish setting or theme. Mother’s Boy, his latest novel, is his spirited account of the life of one of Cornwall’s most famous writers: the poet Charles Causley (1917-2003).

Patrick Gale Mother's Boy cover A friend of mine said he thought it misrepresented some aspects of the life; I don’t know enough of the biography to comment on this. In my ignorance I enjoyed this as a well-wrought narrative. I think it’s ok for a novelist to exercise some imagination in selecting from the ‘facts’ of a life and leavening them with ingredients that suit their artistic purpose (within reason, I suppose, so that’s a bit of a cop-out on my part).

I won’t go into the details of Causley’s life as portrayed by Gale, as this might interfere with your own response. I can say that he lived most of his life in the small market town of Launceston, near the border with Devon. His childhood was quite tough, as the household had a small income. He didn’t fit in with school very well, and was bullied at times. In a small community this was problematic.

After a spell during and shortly after WW2 in the Navy, he trained to teach and returned to his home town to teach in the school he’d attended as a child. In his younger days he wrote plays and fiction, but gradually specialised in poetry. His style and themes show the influence of local folklore, ballads and the oral Celtic-English tradition, making his poetry more accessible than many 20C English poets.

The term ‘mother’s boy’ is usually pejorative, but here it’s largely positive. He had a very close relationship with his mother. His homosexuality was risky in the years when it was still illegal, and this may have contributed to his relatively secluded life.

Patrick Gale writes his story with great sympathy; it’s not a hagiography, for we see aspects of Causley’s life that aren’t entirely flattering. His intimate relationships were initially faltering and not always fulfilling as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. He clearly found it difficult to commit to a full-on relationship with anyone other than his mother.

Much of the novel deals with his younger, more formative years. Gale creates atmospheric scenes portraying small-town life, and then the claustrophobic world on board naval vessels – which interestingly he likens to that in prison – in ways that provide not just colourful, event-filled narrative, but also show the building of an artist’s mind.

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat (Holland House Books, 2020; first published 1985)

 John Harvey is a renowned Cambridge academic who’s written some fascinating studies on the nature of and relationship between the visual and literary arts (see my list of links to his non-fiction works at the end of this post). He’s also a prize-winning novelist (my list of posts on his novels is also at the end of this post) – not to be confused with the author by the same name of the popular crime fiction series featuring Charlie Resnick.

J Harvey Coup d'Etat Coup d’Etat is set in Greece during the military dictatorship 1967-74 following the ‘Colonels’ coup’. This group of far-right, ultra-nationalist officers seized power and brutally suppressed all opposition, establishing what was euphemistically called a ‘national government’. To consolidate and enforce the junta’s stranglehold on the country the colonels transformed the judiciary into a corrupt system of kangaroo courts: those who dared to question their regime were summarily imprisoned, tortured, executed or exiled.

The central characters of this gripping, epic novel (it’s 600 pages long, but needs to be in order to depict the scale of events and their effects on the Greek people) enable the author to anatomise the functioning of this dictatorship. On the side of democracy is a brave, idealistic lawyer who tries initially to use his expertise to defend opponents of the junta, and then becomes another of its victims. He suffers terribly while in prison, and his wife undergoes her own ordeal trying to cajole the authorities into even revealing where they’ve imprisoned him, let alone to visit him.

Supporters of the regime are not shown simply as ogres and sadists, though many come close – not just the torturers in prison, but those who command them. More nuanced in this aspect of the narrative are those who strive to further their own political careers by sucking up to those higher up; like many in Nazi Germany, they were complicit with the regime while fully aware of its more brutal tendencies. Some are ideologues who have bought into the colonels’ aspirations to create a new Greek empire – with devious plans to reconquer Turkey by staging another coup in Cyprus, which could then be used as a springboard to invasion of their old enemy. Others are simply amoral in their ambition to use the corrupt system to enhance their status and gain more of the trappings of wealth and power they admire in their superiors.

An early reviewer described Coup d’Etat as Tolstoyan, and I don’t find this an exaggeration. Dr Harvey unflinchingly portrays the viciousness and monomania of the military regime, its ruthlessness in imposing its dictatorship in ways which have become horribly familiar over the last century, and which continue to fill news reports today about the war in Ukraine.

But he also shows enormous sympathy for and insight into the hearts and minds of his characters representing both sides in this terrible period of Greek history. Families caught up in the tumult of the times are shown as being often split in terms of their political allegiances and motivation – as all families are (I’m trying to avoid falling into the usual Tolstoy quotation).

Most impressive among the literary achievements of Coup d’Etat is the central trio of the loving couple of the lawyer Vangelis and his devoted wife Chryssa. Here again the author shows a capacity for showing human frailty and weakness even at times of enormous courage and resilience in their struggle against the cruel regime. The character of their English friend Michael, a journalist, enables John Harvey to provide a convincing outsider’s perspective on the turmoil and suffering caused in the lives of these ordinary, decent people by their military oppressors, but also to introduce a complicating, heartbreaking alternative love story into these already precariously situated lives.

In the foreword to this new edition of the novel, first published in 1985 and now reissued by Holland House as part of a full set of his novels (my thanks to the author and his publishers for providing copies of some of those I hadn’t yet read), Dr Harvey explains his own personal interest in telling this harrowing but uplifting story. In 1968 he married Julietta in her home city of Thessaloniki, and they witnessed many of the events depicted in the novel, and were told more about them by those who had been caught up in events during that dreadful time in the world’s oldest democracy.

This explains the gritty authenticity of the novel, but also the heartfelt, passionate engagement with it by the narrator, the sweep and tone of the narrative, and the richness of the characterisation.

My previous posts on John Harvey’s novels:

The Paint Shop (1979) HERE

The Subject of a Portrait (2014) HERE (three posts, including one by the author)

Pax (2019) HERE

Non-fiction/academic:

The Poetics of Sight (2015) HERE

Clothes (2008) HERE

Men in Black (1995); The Story of Black (2013) HERE

 

Spies and misdemeanours: le Carré, Boyd, Hill, Beirne

Time for a survey of recent reading.

John le Carré Silverview (Viking, 2021) This was passed on to me by Mrs TD: le Carré’s final published novel before his death two years ago. It’s a complicated story involving an ex city trader turned (non-bookish) bookshop owner who gets tangled up with spies, double agents and conspiracies. It’s entertaining as far as this kind of thing goes. The title is the name of the house where a shady former MI5 agent lives, imitating the name of Nietzsche’s house, of all people. I’d always thought the rural county of Suffolk was a peaceful, serene place to live (my parents and sister lived or still live there), but according to this novel it seems pretty much everyone in that part of East Anglia is involved in espionage and skulduggery.

William Boyd Love Is Blind (Penguin, 2019) I read this on the way back from Italy and left it on the plane, so rely on memory for this note. Brodie is a Scots piano tuner with a monster of a tyrannical father (a firebrand vicar-preacher, implausibly). Brodie falls in love with a Russian opera singer who’s also involved with a virtuoso concert pianist and his brutish brother. After hair-raising scrapes in various European cities Brodie finds himself in a remote jungle island assisting a pioneering woman ethnologist. As one does. The plot is even more complex than the le Carré. When Brodie discovers he has TB it gets even more tangled. The characters are a bit flat, but the descriptions of piano tuning are strangely engaging. This competent novel would have benefited from some editorial pruning.

Susan Hill The Comforts of Home (Vintage, 2019) Another handed on by Mrs TD. It’s one of a series, apparently, with the central character called Det. Chief Inspector Simon Serailler. It seems inevitable in this cop-centred genre that he’s a maverick rule-breaker and loner, despite being a serial flirt. The main crime (a murder on a Scottish island) at the heart of the plot is the least interesting part of the novel – it’s the relationships between Serailler, his GP sister and her husband, who’s also his boss, and her sons, that are the most entertaining aspect. There’s also a cold case (another nasty murder) that Serailler is put on to by said boss to ease him back into work after a horrific accident in which he’d lost his arm – an incident presumably from the previous novel in the series. I can’t say I’ll rush to read another one, though it’s all efficiently done, if a bit predictable.

Luke Francis Beirne Foxhunt (Baraka Books, 2022: ARC courtesy of the Canadian publishers). A cold-war thriller rather like early le Carré. In 1949 a Canadian writer called Lowell moves to London to edit a new magazine intended to promote Western literature, values and culture and its artistic freedom compared with the repressive regime of the Soviet Union. When a Canadian colleague is murdered he begins to realise all is not as it seems: the magazine’s backers are as sinister in their way as their enemies. The politically naïve Lowell undergoes a painful education in the amoral games played by these characters who lurk in the shadows. I’m not a huge fan of espionage novels, but this one is skilfully crafted and has an original premise and richly drawn characters. The revelation at one point that the Soviets were experimenting with advanced nuclear weapons is eerily pertinent given recent news about the brutal war/invasion in Ukraine and related developments.

There’s a foxhunt at one point, hence the title, but it’s not one as Trollope would have depicted it.