Another busy month, so here’s a brief look at what I’ve read.
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now Penguin Classics, 1994. First serialised 1874-75; first book form 1875
I can’t do justice to AT’s longest novel in a brief note, but let’s give a go. The last few years of politics here in the UK, let alone in the USA and beyond, have been pretty unedifying; post-truth, fake news, sleaze. But AT had it all taped in the high Victorian age. Dodgy businessmen speculating and spinning non-existent railways in order to profit on the share flotation – not even having to pretend to build anything. Antics in Parliament. He nails it all brilliantly. The usual Trollopian love interest storylines weave in and out of all these shenanigans: as always, they tend to involve young people looking to marry money and avoid having to actually work. There’s one of the most caddish of his villains, the odious Sir Felix – a morally incontinent philanderer, drone, nightmare son and scary marriage prospect. The political and commercial part is the most satisfying, but AT is a master at manipulating a complex, multi-character plot.
PS Shortly after I finished this novel, the news broke of the appointment, at the recommendation of ex-PM Johnson, of a new chair of the BBC – R. Sharp (apt name). No coincidence that he’d been involved in securing a loan for Johnson. No scandal or sleaze, they insisted. A satirical piece in the Guardian by John Crace has this: [Sharp had been challenged about how corrupt this all looked] ‘Sharp shook his head furiously. The whole point of the establishment was that it covered things up. Look, he said. This is The Way We Live Now. [He and BJ deserved what they got: all on merit.] Society – his society – would demand no less.’
Ariane Lessard, School for Girls QC Fiction, 2022. Translated from the French by Frances Pope. This short novella can be enjoyed in one sustained read. It’s divided into four sections, one for each season, and each short sub-section is named after (and narrated from the pov of) one of the girls at a Canadian convent boarding school that’s nothing like the Chalet School novels.
We hear in free indirect form the experiences of about a dozen of these girls. They’ve developed factions, but the alliances shift, often causing deep cuts (sometimes literally). Adolescence kicks in and their sexuality stirs. Prose is often unpunctuated, febrile and associative, poetic – rather like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, but spikier. The novella put me in mind of the film Picnic at Hanging Rock: the same sense of impending disaster, the hallucinatory, hormonally charged atmosphere. The nuns are as unhinged as their pupils. The wild forest beyond the school walls is always looming, encroaching – bears, moose. It’s a heady, intoxicating mix.
Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These Faber, 2022; 20211. Another short novella, but intense and powerfully moving. It’s so widely praised I don’t need to say much about it. Bill, an Irish fuel supply man in a small town near Waterford, Ireland, does business with a convent that supposedly cares for illegitimate girls. He’s perturbed to come across a young girl who seems to have been cruelly punished. What should he do? These are tough times (it’s the lean 1980s): local employers are laying workers off, there’s desperate poverty everywhere. Should he speak up, intervene, report abuse? An illegitimate child himself, he feels compelled not to turn a blind eye.
Stories about the sinister Magdalene laundries, the hypocrisy of the nuns who ran them (and the communities in which they flourished, largely unchallenged), are well known, but Claire Keegan manages to tell her shocking story in a way that makes it disturbingly new. Despite the grim theme, it’s a profoundly humane novella that reminds us that even when society seems irredeemably corrupt (shades of Trollope again), some people refuse to look the other way, whatever the cost.
Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait Tinder Press, 2022. Another shocking story about abusive treatment of very young women. In this case she’s the famous ‘last duchess’ of Browning’s poem. O’Farrell’s imagining of this murky story of a 17C tyrannical aristocrat’s abusive, potentially murderous behaviour towards a new young wife who’s too spirited for his liking is lively and entertaining, but I found it over-long. The structure, with its multiple flashbacks and jumps forward in time, is fussy and breaks the narrative flow. But as historical fiction goes, it’s not bad.
Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven Picador, 2014. This would make an exciting action movie. As a novel it didn’t quite work for me. Surprising, because its story is timely and quite well handled: a post-pandemic dystopian world where order has broken down and life for the feral survivors is dangerous and precarious. But as with The Marriage Portrait, the fractured structure and leaps back and forth in time fatigued me. It should have been compelling, but for me it lacked originality and many of the characters were flat. Unlike Claire Keegan, this Canadian novelist doesn’t succeed in making a well-worn theme come to life.