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The finest of all nineteenth century novels
Middlemarch is one of those books you can read or listen to many times over the decades and still find something you have missed. Its 86 chapters present a nineteenth century community in the middle of England, not just its inter-connecting characters from the titled and well to do to household servants, but the very sinews of the place which bind them all together. (Interconnection interested nineteenth century scientists and the theme is explored by Eliot through striking imagery of entanglement and webs as well as narrative).
The community is also a physical place with its river, church and homes from the grand house with its library to humbler homesteads which children, chickens and dogs in the kitchen gardens. Above all we are drawn inside what George Eliot called ‘the passions of the mind’: theology, books, ideas on agriculture and academic research, political reform, advances in science and medicine, expansion of the railways, the unwritten laws governing social behaviour… the list goes on.
There’s nothing exceptional about the cast of human beings (they’re so much more than mere characters), and the complex themes around marriage are just as poignant and real now as then. Dr Lydgate aspired to make advances in medicine, but was ensnared by the fatally pretty Rosamond; Dorothea yearned to be useful to the dried up old academic and spent her honeymoon in floods of tears. The many marriages, disastrous, happy or unexceptional, are played out sharp insight making them as relevant today as then.
Middlemarch for me is the finest nineteenth novel, immensely rich and rewarding and Juliet Stevenson’s narration provides a further brilliant dimension. Her range of apparently effortless character creation is astonishingly impressive and brings out all the complexities and nuances of thoughts and feelings.
'It deepens like a coastal shelf'
I loved this finely judged slim memoir. Avoiding the memoirist’s pitfall of self-indulgent prolixity, Rose Tremain’s language (as in her 13 novels and many short stories) is spare and delicately chosen. The life extends from early childhood to the end of her formal education.
Tremain’s heart was set on Oxford, a longing described by her mother (referred to throughout significantly merely as ‘Jane’) as ‘an inappropriate dream’. She did not want ‘a bluestocking for a daughter’, nor did she want her around. Rosie (as she was known) was sent to a finishing school in Switzerland where she learned ski-ing and secretarial skills.
Rosie’s background was privileged – servants (her nanny was Rosie’s sole source of love), idle leisure and property. Post-war boarding school was bitterly cold, food was scarce and Rosie started marking off the days on her ‘term worm’ (her grid of the days as a worm) from the first day of each term. But after some time her beloved teacher Robbie (who taught in a fur coat against the cold) opened up poetry for her and assuaged her homesickness.
But what makes the memoir so moving as well as a fascinating vignette of a vanished era (Tremain was born in 1943) are the tragic dynamics of the family’s three generations. Larkin’s ‘Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf’ could have been written for Rosie’s family. Inside their beautiful Linkenholt Manor (a rural sanctuary for Rosie and her sister Jo) Rosie’s grandparents lived crucified by the grief of losing both their sons, a loss so grievous that Rosie’s mother, unloved Jane, knew she was no compensation. She was sent off to boarding school at six (two years younger than all the other children). She grew up to become an abandoned wife and an unloving cruelly neglectful mother to Rosie and Jo.
But Tremain’s touch is light: analysis and insight without judgement beautifully read – a feat in itself as few writers read their own work well.
What ever happened to Lana?
Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing was a great success - her focus there was the mental states of old people. Whistle in the Dark focuses on the mental state of 15 year-old Lana, Her parents Jen and Hugh have always done their best for her and tried to help her conquer her depression and urge to self harm. Jen takes her on a bonding painting trip and it's then that Lana goes missing for 4 days. The newspapers home in on the story and when Lana is found covered with strange injuries and claiming to have no memory of what happened, all kinds of fantastical and painful stories are printed about what might have happened - from sex to Satanic cult activity. The truth is revealed at the end.
The story is told by Jen and the pain, frustration and powerlessness she suffers in trying to help her daughter drives her close to distraction. The conversations where Jen tries to help and Lana blocks her and returns to her Messaging are brilliant in their excruciatingly painful reality, as is the disintegration of Jen as the very best she can do is never right. Anyone who lives with a teenager as troubled as Lana will recognise every line. But there's humour too and tremendous vitality, humanity - and hope. The story is fleshed out with flashbacks and it ends on an up.
The narration captured the different voices of Lana and Jen making them absolutely real. The whole comes from tremendous observation and understanding.
0 of 2 people found this review helpful
Domestic territorial conflict
14 hours is a long download – 10 short stories book-ended with 2 longish novellas, all on the theme of possession and rights, whether over property or another human being.
Lionel Shriver is undeniably razor-sharp and strident in her robust opinions on topics of the moment such as immigration, religion, property owning and the shortcomings of the millennial smart-phone generation, but the trouble with creating fiction as a vehicle to expound on these opinions and observations is that the characters Shriver creates (and there are a great many of them) are almost without exception unpleasant, unkind, unappealing, unsympathetic, uncompromising people.
There are plenty of sharp observations on marital and family relationships and the madness of aspects of today’s society, but 14 hours is a very long time to spend in these characters’ unrelieved company and Shriver’s entirely appropriate but unpleasant, grating, harsh, hard voice doesn’t make the experience any more enjoyable. Some of the stories are set in the UK and hearing the attempt of strongly American Shriver to speak like her idea of rough English speakers is one of the worst audio performances I’ve ever heard in my long audio-listening life!
The best, set in Africa,is KIlifi Creek, even though the arrogant, ignorant, selfish millennial protagonist is thoroughly unlikeable: a well-structured and memorable short story.
0 of 1 people found this review helpful
Much more than a medieval whodunnit
The Western Wind is certainly unusual with its central event being in 1491 when in the Somerset village of Oakham the body of Thomas Newman, a good, important and generous man, is found – separate from his shirt – in the river, the river for which the villagers are pleading for a bridge to end their isolation from the other better off villages around. Not everyone, including the rural dean, is in agreement with the bridge.
So who drowned Thomas Newman? The whole story is told by the contemplative parish priest John Reve who in his confession box is privy to many people’s secrets – as well as those in his own heart. Harvey creates the fifteenth century ways, mind-sets, beliefs, suspicions and a wealth of everyday tasks with great skill, as well as the powerful rhythms of the seasons, earth and winds. The central mystery unfolds as a succession of villagers claim their guilt in the confession box and as Reve sifts through them, a network of grievances, losses and quarrels underpinning those confessions are revealed.
The narration is appropriate. Nyasha Hatendi's voice is quiet, soft and gentle but I did find it trying after a while through no fault of his. I think I would have preferred to read this book than listen to it, because there’s plenty of beautiful language which needs to be savoured by slower reading or re-reading, and John Reve’s unvaried voice and tone would not have become so tiresome.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
Who's teasing who?
What an intriguing tease this is! For a start The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau isn’t Graeme Macrae Burnet’s follow-up to His Bloody Project (reviewed by me last year), but his first novel which never received much acclaim outside Scotland. It should have.
It’s a Simenon-esque murder mystery focused on the psychology rather than the act set in Saint-Louis, an undistinguished little town on the Rhine where loner Manfred Baumann has his lunch each day in the Restaurant de la Cloche whilst idly lusting after the amply proportioned waitress Adèle Bedeau. When Adèle disappears, the local detective suspects Manfred of murder, even though there’s as yet no body.
There are good reasons for his suspicions, but not the ones you might expect. The past lives of both Manfred and the detective are chillingly fleshed out, but just when you think it’s all about to be solved, there’s another clever twist.
And finally the real-life author comes in and says the whole story is his translation of a 1980s French cult novel by the teasingly anagramatic Raymond Brunet, and we get Brunet’s life which is uncannily like Baumann’s…
Puzzling, tantalising, intriguing, highly original, intelligent, it’s a top-rate listen, and the whole is enhanced by the narration.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
Can you believe in mermaids?
It is easy to immerse yourself in this late eighteenth century world of up-market whores, pimps and aristocratic cads because the vocabulary and the mass of period detail of daily life – city streets, carriages, dress fabrics, hats, jewels, wigs, food, interiors, servants and so on - are so vibrant and visual. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock would make a brilliant television serialisation.
So authentic is the detail that you are lifted happily into the realm of fantasy (the mermaid; Mr Hancock in his shell grotto) and into the imagined intimate workings of the brothel and of the various very well described sexual encounters enjoyed (or not enjoyed) there.
The main narrative follows the fortunes of Angelica Neal, the high spirited, vain and opinionated ‘envoy of Venus’ who is irresistible to men including the worthy merchant Mr Hancock who makes a fortune through his ‘mermaid’ . This very long saga is many things: a highly coloured fun eighteenth century romp as well as some kind of allegory or cautionary tale.
Don’t think too deeply about it, just swim with it like the mermaid and enjoy Juliet Stevenson’s brilliant narration.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I have reservations about Tara Westover’s best seller.
Of course her story of overcoming a hideous childhood in Idaho in her Mormon family and escaping through education to some kind of ‘normality’ (certainly academic success) is to be admired and many readers have felt inspired by her courage.
The details of her childhood with her delusional, bi-polar father and colluding mother are utterly dreadful in their savagery. How can any family have survived the catalogue of what should have been fatal ‘accidents’? The brother’s leg is ripped to the bone in some mad-scheme lethal machine the father had made for his scrap yard (ignoring his severely injured son he immediately insists that teenage Tara should take over at the machine). Her mother suffers severe brain trauma in a road crash in which no other vehicle was involved and suffers years of excruciating pain and permanent impairment. Father manages to blow himself up in an explosion, ‘dies’ several times burnt to a pulp but survives to live many more monstrous years (albeit without lips). Tara’s brother regularly nearly kills her by shoving her head down the toilet and cracking her head against the wall (punishment for being a ‘whore’ also meted out to her sister she learns years later). In adulthood her brothers attack their subdued Mormon wives and one brother slices his dog to shreds with a knife. On another occasion Tara finds her brother beside his crashed motorbike with his brain leaking onto the road … That’s just a few instances and because of Father’s Mormon faith all these horrific near-fatalities are dealt with at home treated with Mother’s herbs and oils through which God heals.
For me, I found it so dreadful I don’t quite know what to think.
I’m disturbed by ‘Educated’ on many levels.
The 1937 Road to Wigan Pier resonates sharply and shockingly with conditions in Britain now with the North South divide and the suffering caused to ordinary people by stringent cuts in public spending.
We may no longer have working men living in vermin infested lodgings, such as Orwell stayed in whilst investigating conditions in the north of England, with not even a bed for each man, tripe and vinegar doled out from a collier’s unwashed blackened hands and a full chamber pot under the breakfast table. The fearful conditions which the colliers suffered underground, their lungs ruined by coal dust; their skin permanently discoloured; bent double for purgatorial hour after purgatorial hour with the imminent danger of roof fall are now mercifully in the past. The parallels are clear however. The chronic housing shortage (sound familiar?) resulted in families crammed into spaces dripping with damp with one outside lavatory serving 30 or more families, many of them in wretched health.
In the second part Orwell changes gear into a polemic vision of his socialist utopia. He describes social attitudes, the gulf between the social classes and how he was brought up to view the lower classes – if at all – as inferior and ugly. The language and the detail have changed, but again it’s all strikingly relevant to now. How have we progressed and not progressed since 1937? This is one of those books which are essential reading and Jeremy Northam’s narration is an excellent way of absorbing it.
Rose and Tyler have found love in their sixties...
Rose has been on her own for seven years since her husband left her for another woman. When at the age of 63 she meets the tender, super-loving Tyler, she feels entirely loved for the first time. Tyler adores Rose, to him she’s the most wonderful woman ever. He buys her an amethyst engagement ring and extravagant bouquets of flowers, wants them to buy a cottage in the country, raise hens and live happily ever after. So what’s the problem?
The ‘children’ – all grown up with lives and relationships of their own - are up in arms. “Oh Mum, we’re worried for you, you must see a solicitor, Oh Mum, sell the house? OUR house?? What about the money?” And so it goes on. Trollope is brilliant at emotional nuance and relationships. I find her characters’ endless meals at home, restaurants and coffee bars with their details of wildly expensive ingredients flown in from across the world available only in West London, and the litany of bottles of wine and cocktails served out at any hour which can be afforded only by the wealthy, tedious and irritating. But Rose’s position, excited and truly adored for the only time in her life and so wanting her children just to wish her happiness, is deftly created and subtly developed.
I can’t comment on how the situation unfolds without spoiling the story but enough to say that Trollope’s ability to create the ramifications of family problems caused by a mother who has always dedicated herself to her children’s well-being seizing the chance of happiness, for once just for herself, is masterly.
The voice of Samantha Bond the narrator is a bit too cosy for me, but she’s excellent at making the dialogue – of which there’s a great deal – totally realistic and absorbing.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful