This is my second year participating in R.I.P. – Readers Imbibing Peril, now in its 14th year. I assembled a lovely pile of magical or spooky reads to last me through October and noticed they were almost all by women, so I decided to make it an all-female challenge (yes, even with a Dahl title – see below) this year. I’m in the middle of another book and have a few more awaiting me, but with just two weeks left in the month I don’t know if I’ll manage to follow up this post with a Part II. At any rate, these first four were solid selections: classic ghost stories, children’s fantasy, a horror novella about an evil child, and an Arctic chiller.
Fear: Tales of Terror and Suspense (selected by Roald Dahl) (2017)
“Spookiness is, after all, the real purpose of the ghost story. It should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts.”
I was sent this selection of Dahl-curated ghost stories as part of a book bundle in advance of a blog tour for Roald Dahl Day last year. For now I’ve read just the five stories by women, and will polish off the rest next year.
This collection originated from a television series on ghost stories that Dahl proposed for the American market in 1958 (the pilot was poorly received and it never got made). For his research he read nearly 750 ghost stories and whittled them down to the top 24. Women authors dominated early on in the selection process, but by the end the genders came out nearly even, with 13 men and 11 women. It’s disappointing, then, that only five of the 14 stories included here are by women – one of whom gets two entries, so there’s just four female authors recognized. And this even though Dahl claims that, when it comes to ghost stories, “it is the women who have written some of the very best ones.”
Any road, these are the five stories I read, all of which I found suitably creepy, though the Wharton is overlong. Each one pivots on a moment when the narrator realizes that a character they have been interacting with is actually dead. Even if you’ve seen the twist coming, there’s still a little clench of the heart when you have it confirmed by a third party.
“Harry” and “Christmas Meeting” by Rosemary Timperley: A little girl who survived a murder attempt is reclaimed by her late brother; a woman meets a century-dead author one lonely holiday – I liked that in this one each character penetrates the other’s time period.
“The Corner Shop” by Cynthia Asquith: An inviting antique shop is run by two young women during the day, but by a somber old man in the evenings. He likes to give his customers a good deal to atone for his miserly actions of the past.
“The Telephone” by Mary Treadgold: A man continues communicating with his dead ex-wife via the phone line.
“Afterward” by Edith Wharton: An American couple settles in a home in Dorset, and the husband disappears, after a dodgy business deal, in the company of a mysterious stranger.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
This was my second attempt with the late Le Guin, who would be turning 90 on the 21st; I didn’t get far at all with a buddy read of The Left Hand of Darkness last year. I enjoyed this a fair bit more, perhaps because it’s meant for children – I reckon I would have liked it most when I was ages nine to 11 and obsessed with various series of fantasy novels featuring dragons.
Long before Harry Potter was a glimmer, this was the archetypal story of a boy wizard learning magic at school. Ged meets many cryptic mentors and realizes that naming a thing gives you power over it. In his rivalry with the other boys, he accidentally releases a shadow beast and has to try to gain back control of it. It’s slightly difficult to keep on top of all the names and places (Le Guin created a whole archipelago, which you can see in the opening map) and I found my interest waning after the halfway point, but I did love the scene of Ged fighting with a dragon.
A favorite passage: “But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on the act. … A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world.”
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (1988)
Shelve this alongside We Need to Talk about Kevin as a book to make you rethink having kids. Harriet and David Lovatt buy a large Victorian house within commuting distance of London and dream of filling it with children – six, eight; however many. Their first four children are all they’d hoped for, if not spaced out as much as they intended. The Lovatts enjoy hosting the extended family at Easter and Christmas and during the summer holidays. Although there are good-natured jokes about the couple’s fertility, everyone enjoys the cozy, bustling atmosphere. “The Lovatts were a happy family. It was what they had chosen and what they deserved.”
[MILD SPOILERS ENSUE]
Everything changes with pregnancy #5, which is different right from the off. This “savage thing inside her” is kicking Harriet black and blue from the inside and grown to full term by eight months. When Ben is born Harriet thinks, “He’s like a troll, or a goblin.” Like a succubus, he sucks her dry, biting her nipples black and blue; he screams and thrashes non-stop; he’s freakishly strong and insatiably hungry. He strangles house pets and eats a raw chicken with his bare hands. Although he learns basic language and social skills from watching his older siblings and mimicking his idols from a motorcycle gang, something in him is not human. Yet Harriet cannot bear to leave Ben to rot in an institution.
At first I wondered if this was a picture of an extremely autistic child, but Lessing makes the supernatural element clear. “We are being punished,” Harriet says to David. “For presuming … we could be happy.” I think I was waiting for a few more horrific moments and a climactic ending, whereas Lessing almost normalizes Ben, making him part of a gang of half-feral youths who rampage around late-1980s Britain (and she took up his story in a sequel, Ben in the World). But I raced through this in just a few days and enjoyed the way dread overlays the fable-like simplicity of the family’s early life.
Dark Matter: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (2010)
I read Paver’s Thin Air as part of last year’s R.I.P. challenge and it was very similar: a 1930s setting, an all-male adventure, an extreme climate (in that case: the Himalayas). Most of Dark Matter is presented as a journal written by Jack Miller, a lower-class lad who wanted to become a physicist but had to make a living as a clerk instead. He feels he doesn’t truly belong among the wealthier chaps on this Arctic expedition, but decides this is his big chance and he’s not going to give it up.
Even as the others drop out due to bereavement and illness, he stays the course, continuing to gather meteorological data and radio it back to England from this bleak settlement in the far north of Norway. For weeks his only company is a pack of sled dogs, and his grasp on reality becomes shaky as he begins to be visited by the ghost of a trapper who was tortured to death nearby – “the one who walks again.” Paver’s historical thrillers are extremely readable. I tore through this, yet never really found it scary.
Note: This book is the subject of the Bookshop Band song “Steady On” (video here).
And, alas, three DNFs:
The Wych Elm by Tana French – French writes really fluid prose and inhabits the mind of a young man with admirable imagination. I read the first 100 pages and skimmed another 50 and STILL hadn’t gotten to the main event the blurb heralds: finding a skull in the wych elm in the garden at Ivy House. I kept thinking, “Can we get on with it? Let’s cut to the chase!” I have had French’s work highly recommended so may well try her again.
The Hoarder by Jess Kidd – Things in Jars was terrific; I thought Kidd’s back catalogue couldn’t fail to draw me in. This was entertaining enough that I made it to page 152, if far too similar to Jars (vice versa, really, as this came first; ghosts/saints only the main character sees; a transgender landlady/housekeeper); I then found that picking it back up didn’t appeal at all. Maud Drennan is a carer to a grumpy giant of a man named Cathal Flood whose home is chock-a-block with stuff. What happened to his wife? And to Maud’s sister? Who cares!
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell – Purcell is now on her third Gothic novel in three years. I had a stab at her first and it was distinctly okay. I read the first 24 pages and skimmed to p. 87. Reminiscent of The Shadow Hour, The Familiars, etc.
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
“Launched in 2009, the Wellcome Book Prize, worth £30,000, celebrates the best new books that engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.” I was delighted to be asked to participate in the official Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour. For this stop on the tour I’m highlighting a shortlisted title from 2010, a very strong year. The winning book, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, along with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, turned me on to health-themed reading and remains one of my most memorable reads of the past decade.
Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks
Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in Italy for over 30 years. He teaches translation at the university in Milan, and is also a novelist and a frequent newspaper columnist on literary topics. Starting in his forties, Parks was plagued by urinary problems and abdominal pain. Each night he had to get up five or six times to urinate, and when he didn’t have fiery pangs shooting through his pelvic area he had a dull ache. Doctors assessed his prostate and bladder in tests that seemed more like torture sessions, but ultimately found nothing wrong. While he was relieved that his worst fears of cancer were allayed, he was left with a dilemma: constant, unexplained discomfort and no medical strategy for treating it.
When conventional medicine failed him, Parks asked himself probing questions: Had he in some way brought this pain on himself through his restless, uptight and pessimistic ways? Had he ever made peace with his minister father’s evangelical Christianity after leaving it for a life based on reason? Was his obsession with transmuting experience into words keeping him from living authentically? During a translation conference in Delhi, he consulted an ayurvedic doctor on a whim and heard words that haunted him: “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.”
The good news is: some things helped. One was the book A Headache in the Pelvis, which teaches a paradoxical relaxation technique that Parks used for up to an hour a day, lying on a yoga mat in his study. Another was exercise, especially running and kayaking – a way of challenging himself and seeking thrills in a controlled manner. He also started shiatsu therapy. And finally, Vipassana meditation retreats helped him shift his focus off the mind’s experience of pain and onto bodily wholeness. Vipassana is all about “seeing things as they really are,” so the retreats were for him a “showdown with this tangled self” and a chance to face the inevitability of death. Considering he couldn’t take notes at the time, I was impressed by the level of detail with which Parks describes his breakthroughs during meditation.
Though I was uneasy reading about a middle-aged man’s plumbing issues and didn’t always follow the author on his digressions into literary history (Coleridge et al.), I found this to be an absorbing and surprising quest narrative. If not with the particulars, I could sympathize with the broader strokes of Parks’s self-interrogation. He wonders whether sitting at a desk, tense and with poor posture, and wandering around with eyes on the ground and mind on knots of words for years contributed to his medical crisis. Borrowing the title phrase from T.S. Eliot, he’s charted an unlikely journey towards mindfulness in a thorough, bracingly honest, and diverting book that won’t put off those suspicious of New Age woo-woo.
With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
Wellcome Book Prize 2010
Winner: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Shortlist: Angel of Death by Gareth Williams; Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson; So Much for That by Lionel Shriver; Medic by John Nicols and Tony Rennell; Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks
Judges: Comedy writer and television presenter Clive Anderson (chair); novelist and academic Maggie Gee; academic and writer Michael Neve; television presenter and author Alice Roberts; academic and writer A.C. Grayling
The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist will be announced in February. I’m already looking forward to it, of course, and I’m planning to run a shadow panel once again.
Elif Shafak, award-winning author, is the chair of this year’s judges and is joined on the panel by Kevin Fong, consultant anaesthetist at University College London Hospitals; Viv Groskop, writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian; Jon Day, writer, critic, and academic; and Rick Edwards, broadcaster and author.
See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon as part of the Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour.
This past weekend marked my second trip to Whitby in North Yorkshire, more than 10 years after my first. It was, appropriately, on the occasion of a 10-year anniversary – namely, of the existence of Emmanuel Café Church, an informal group based at the University of Leeds chaplaincy center that I was involved in during my master’s year in 2005–6. I was there for the very first year and it was a welcome source of friendship during a tough year of loneliness and homesickness, so it’s gratifying that it’s still going nearly 11 years later (but also scary that it’s all quite that long ago). The reunion was held at Sneaton Castle, a lovely venue with a resident order of Anglican nuns that’s about a half-hour walk from central Whitby.
The more I think about it, Leeds was a fine place to do a Victorian Literature degree – it’s not too far from Haworth, the home of the Brontës, or Whitby, a setting used in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Two of my classmates and I made our own pilgrimages to both sites in 2006. The Whitby Abbey ruins rising above the churchyard of St. Mary’s certainly create a suitably creepy atmosphere. No wonder Whitby is enduringly popular with Goths and at Halloween.
Another resident of Victorian Whitby, unknown to me until I saw a plaque designating her cottage on the walk from Sneaton into town, was Mary Linskill (1840–91), who wrote short stories and novels including Between the Heather and the Northern Sea (1884), The Haven under the Hill (1886) and In Exchange for a Soul (1887). I checked Project Gutenberg and couldn’t find a trace of her work, but the University of Reading holds a copy of her Tales of the North Riding in their off-site store. Perhaps I’ll have a gander!
There are other connections to be made with Whitby, too. For one thing, it has a long maritime history: it was home to William Scoresby (“Whaler, Arctic Voyager and Inventor of the Crow’s Nest,” as the plaque outside his house reads), and Captain James Cook grew up 30 miles away and served an apprenticeship in the town. There’s a statue of Cook plus a big whalebone arch on the hill the other side of the harbor from the church and abbey. It felt particularly fitting that I’ve been reading A.N. Wilson’s forthcoming novel Resolution, about the naturalists who sailed on Captain Cook’s second major expedition in the 1770s.
(My other apt reading for the sunny August weekend was Vanessa Lafaye’s Summertime.)
On our Sunday afternoon browse of Whitby’s town center we couldn’t resist a stop into a bargain bookshop, where my husband bought a cheap copy of David Lebovitz’s all-desserts cookbook; I picked up a classy magnetic bookmark and a novel I’d never heard of for a grand total of £1.09. I know nothing about Dirk Wittenborn’s Pharmakon, but this 10 pence paperback comes with high praise from Lionel Shriver, Bret Easton Ellis and the Guardian, so I’ll give it a try and let you know how it works out in terms of literary value for money!
Have you explored any literary destinations recently? What have you been reading on summer weekends?
My own paper books! Really! Not exclusively; I still find Kindle books easiest to read during lunches and on the cross trainer. Still, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made towards my summer resolution of reading my own books. In August I’ll have to get to grips with some of those doorstoppers I’ve been meaning to pick up. Below I give brief write-ups of what I’ve gotten through lately and recall how these books came into my collection to start with.
June by Gerbrand Bakker: It seemed to make sense to read this during the month of June. I loved Bakker’s The Twin, but struggled to connect with this one. The first chapter and the last three (starting with “June”) are the best – I felt that the core 1969 material about the Queen’s visit and the family’s tragedy would make for a great short story or novella, but the bulk of the novel is languid contemporary moping about the ongoing effects on the Kaans. It took me forever to figure out who all the characters were and keep them straight (brothers Jan and Johan, for instance), and the way the perspective drifts from one to another doesn’t help with that. Matriarch Anna, with her habit of going up and lying in the hayloft when life gets to be too much for her, was my favorite character.
[Bought in a local charity shop for 20 pence.]
Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler: This is like a photographic companion to Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. Journeying around Britain, Tyler illustrates different geographical features, many of them known by archaic or folksy names. Some are just record shots, while others are true works of art. I especially liked the more whimsical terms: “Monkey’s birthday” for simultaneous rain and sunshine, and “Witches’ knickers” for plastic scraps waving from a tree or fence.
[I won a copy in a Guardian giveaway.]
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: The author was vacationing with her family at a national park on the southeast coast of her native Sri Lanka in December 2004 when the Boxing Day tsunami hit, killing her parents, husband, and two sons. Job-like, Deraniyagala gives shape to her grief and lovingly remembers a family life now gone forever as she tours her childhood home in Colombo and her London house. It’s not until over six years later that she feels “I can rest … with the impossible truth of my loss, which I have to compress often and misshape, just so I can bear it—so I can cook or teach or floss my teeth.” This is a wonderful tribute to everyone she lost. Her husband and sons, especially, come through clearly as individuals you feel that you know. Although it’s not a focus of the memoir, Sri Lanka’s natural beauty and food culture struck me – this would be an appealing place to visit.
[Borrowed from a friend in America.]
Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer: This is a book about D.H. Lawrence in the same way that Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is a film of The Orchid Thief. In other words, it’s not particularly about Lawrence at all; it’s just as much, if not more, about Geoff Dyer – his laziness, his procrastination, his curmudgeonly attitude, his futile search for the perfect places to read Lawrence’s works and write about Lawrence, his failure to feel the proper reverence at Lawrence sites, and so on. While I can certainly sympathize with Dyer’s wry comments about his work habits (“I hate doing anything in life that requires an effort”; “better reading than writing”; “all things in which I am interested … [are] a source of stress and anxiety”), I liked best the parts of the book where he actually writes about Lawrence. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)
[Bought – I think in the Hay Cinema Bookshop – for £2.99.]
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg: I was surprised how much I loved this. On the face of it it’s a fairly conventional dysfunctional family novel à la Jonathan Franzen, set among a Jewish family in Chicago. The main drama is provided by the mother, Edie, who seems to be slowly eating herself to death: she gorges herself on snacks and fast food several times a day even though she’s facing a third major surgery for diabetes. Her husband, Richard, ditched her in her time of need, leaving their adult children to pick up the slack. Every character is fully rounded (pun intended?) and the family interactions feel perfectly true to life. This isn’t really an ‘issues’ book, yet it deals with obesity in a much more subtle and compassionate way than Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)
[In last year’s Christmas stocking, from the Waynesboro, Pennsylvania Dollar Tree.]
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields: Not one of my favorites from Shields, but still enjoyable and reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Her chapters alternate between the perspectives of radio disc jockey Tom Avery and folklorist Fay McLeod, two Winnipeg lonely hearts who each have their share of broken relationships behind them. It’s clear they’re going to meet and fall in love, but Shields is careful to interrogate myths of love at first sight and happily ever after. I especially liked the surprising interconnectedness of everyone in Winnipeg, the subplot about Fay’s parents’ marriage, and the habit of recording minor characters’ monologues. My major points of criticism would be that Tom sometimes feels like a caricature and I wasn’t entirely sure what the mermaid material was meant to achieve. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)
[In poor condition, so free from the Oxfam bookshop where I volunteered in Romsey in 2007–8.]
Not That Kind of Girl: A Memoir by Carlene Bauer: Lena Dunham forever rendered this memoir obscure by stealing the title. I read it because I adored Bauer’s debut novel, Frances and Bernard. This could accurately be described as a spiritual memoir, and I think will probably appeal most to readers who grew up in a restrictive religious setting. A bookish, introspective adolescent, Bauer was troubled by how her church and Christian school denied the validity of secular art, including the indie rock she loved and the literature she lost herself in. All the same, Christian notions of purity and purpose stuck with her throughout her college days in Baltimore and then when she was trying to make it in publishing in New York City. This book resonated with my experience in many ways. What Bauer does best is to capture a fleeting mindset and its evolution into a broader way of thinking. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)
[Bought cheap on Amazon USA to qualify for super saver shipping.]
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann: “Whenever things were frightening, it was a good idea to measure them.” This is a delightful historical picaresque about two late-eighteenth-century German scientists: Alexander von Humboldt, who valiantly explored South America and the Russian steppes, and Carl Friedrich Gauss, a misanthropic mathematician whose true genius wasn’t fully realized in his surveying and astronomical work. Both difficult in their own way, the men represent different models for how to do science: an adventurous one who goes on journeys of discovery, and one who stays at home looking at what’s right under his nose. I especially loved Gauss’s hot-air balloon ride and Humboldt’s attempt to summit a mountain. The lack of speech marks somehow adds to the dry wit.
[Purchased via a donation to the Book-Cycle of Exeter.]
What have you been reading recently?
I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at choosing books that are sure to suit me, but sometimes it’s still a matter of ditching the duds when it becomes clear they’re not working. Here’s the small (digital) pile of abandoned novels I’ve amassed over the last couple of months. I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of them and thought they were worth persisting with.
Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly
Perfectly serviceable historical fiction, but with no spark. I felt like I was just being given a lot of information about the two major time periods (1894 and 1929). Alas, scenes set at a séance, a circus, and an insane asylum are not nearly as exciting as they promise to be. And, as is often the case with these famous wives books – a genre I generally love but can also find oddly disappointing from time to time – the protagonist tries but fails to explain why she finds her husband so fascinating. “His eyes danced. There was a madness to his passion, but he was not insane. There was something real and familiar about him. … Harry was promising her a life of possibility, of magic, and it was unlike anything she had ever imagined for herself.” [Read the first 40%.]
Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman
Another case of expectations too high and payoff too little. Fictionalized biographies can be among my favorite historical fiction, but the key is that they have to do something that a biography doesn’t do. They have to shape a story that goes beyond the chronology of what happened to whom and when. This novel about contraception activist Margaret Sanger failed to tell me anything I didn’t already know from The Birth of the Pill, a more engaging book all round. If anything this left me more confused about why Sanger consented to marriage and motherhood. These cringe-worthy lines try to explain it: “His [Bill’s] sex upended the world. His love filled the hole my childhood had carved out of me. Maybe that was the reason I married him.” [Read the first 26%.]
Vexation Lullaby by Justin Tussing
This started off very promising, with Pete Silver, a doctor in Rochester, New York, being summoned by ageing rock star Jimmy Cross for a consult. Jimmy knows Pete’s mother from way back and wants to know if he’ll accompany him on the airplane during this comeback tour as his personal physician. However, after that there was a lot of downtime filling in Pete’s backstory and introducing a first-person voice that didn’t feel relevant. This is Arthur Pennyman, a fan who’s seen every Jimmy Cross show and writes them up on his website. I didn’t care for Arthur’s sections and thought they pulled attention away from Pete’s story. That’s a shame, as the plot reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. [Read the first nearly 100 pages.]
Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
Entirely decent historical fiction with a flavor of Ron Rash or Virginia Reeves (Work Like Any Other), but it felt so slow and aimless. Irenie Lambey is married to a harsh fundamentalist preacher named Brodis. She longs for their son to get a good education and hopes that the appearance of a USDA agent may be the chance, but Brodis cares about the boy’s soul rather than his mind. On night-time walks, Irenie stores up artifacts and memories in a cave – desperately trying to have a life larger than what her husband controls. It could well just be my lack of patience, but the believable dialect and solid characters weren’t quite enough to keep me reading. [Read the first 16%.]
And now for the one I should have stopped reading at about the 25% point. I have an expanded version of this review on Goodreads; click on the title to read more.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 by Lionel Shriver
Shriver does a good line in biting social commentary. Here she aims at Atwood-style near-future speculative fiction and takes as her topic the world economy. I had big problems with this one. Worst is the sheer information overload: tons of economic detail crammed into frequent, wearisome conversations. Instead of making America’s total financial collapse a vague backdrop for her novel, she takes readers through it event by agonizing event. This means the first third or more of the novel feels like prologue, setting the scene. When she finally gets around to the crux of the matter – the entire extended Mandible family descending on Florence’s small New York City house – it feels like too little plot, too late. Everything Shriver imagines for the near future, except perhaps the annoying slang (e.g. “boomerpoop”), is more or less believable. But boy is it tedious in the telling.
Today marks a big anniversary: the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. I’ve noticed a whole cluster of books being published or reissued in time for her 200th birthday, many of which I’ve reviewed with enjoyment; some of which I’ve sampled and left unfinished. I hope you’ll find at least one book on this list that will take your fancy. There could be no better time for going back to Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories and her quiet but full life story.
Short Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier
A mixed bag. Although there are some very good stand-alone stories (from Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall, Emma Donoghue and Elizabeth McCracken, as you might expect), ultimately the theme is not strong enough to tie them all together and some seem like pieces the authors had lying around and couldn’t figure out what else to do with. Think about it this way: what story isn’t about romance and the decision to marry?
A few of the tales do put an interesting slant on this age-old storyline by positing a lesbian relationship for the protagonist or offering the possibility of same-sex marriage. Then there are the stories that engage directly with the plot and characters of Jane Eyre, giving Grace Poole’s (Helen Dunmore) or Mr. Rochester’s (Salley Vickers) side of things, putting Jane and Rochester in couples therapy (Francine Prose), or making Jane and Helen Burns part of a post-WWII Orphan Exchange (Audrey Niffenegger). My feeling with these spinoff stories was, I’m afraid, what’s the point? Plus there were a number of others that just felt tedious.
My least favorites were probably by Lionel Shriver (incredibly boring!), Kirsty Gunn (unrealistic, and she gives the name Mr. Rochester to a dog!) and Susan Hill (the title story, but she’s made it about Wallis Simpson – and has the audacity to admit, as if proudly, that she’s never read Jane Eyre!). On the other hand, one particular standout is by Elif Shafak. A Turkish Muslim falls in love with a visiting Dutch student but is so unfamiliar with romantic cues that she doesn’t realize he isn’t equally taken with her.
In Patricia Park’s story, my favorite of all, a Korean girl from Buenos Aires moves to New York City to study English. Park turns Jane Eyre on its head by having Teresa give up on the chance of romance to gain stability by marrying Juan, the St. John Rivers character. I loved getting a glimpse into a world I was entirely ignorant of – who knew there was major Korean settlement in Argentina? This also redoubled my wish to read Park’s novel, Re Jane. She’s working on a second novel set in Buenos Aires, so perhaps it will expand on this story.
The Bookbag reviews
Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing
Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte’s passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn’t seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair.
Sanctuary by Robert Edric
Branwell Brontë narrates his final year of life, when alcoholism, mental illness and a sense of disgrace hounded him to despair. I felt I never came to understand Branwell’s inner life, beneath the decadence and all the feeling sorry for himself. This gives a sideways look at Charlotte, Emily and Anne, though the sisters are little more than critical voices here; none of them has a distinctive personality.
Mutable Passions: Charlotte Brontë: A Disquieting Affair by Philip Dent
Dent focuses on a short period in Charlotte Brontë’s life: with all her siblings dead and Villette near completion, a surprise romance with her father’s curate lends a brief taste of happiness. Given her repeated, vociferous denial of feelings for Mr. Nicholls, I had trouble believing that, just 20 pages later, his marriage proposal would provoke rapturous happiness. To put this into perspective, I felt Dent should have referenced the three other marriage proposals Brontë is known to have received. Overwritten and suited to readers of romance novels than to Brontë enthusiasts, this might work well as a play. Dent is better at writing individual scenes and dialogue than at providing context.
I had bad luck with these two novels, which both sounded incredibly promising but I eventually abandoned (along with Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, featured in last month’s Six Books I Abandoned Recently post):
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Jane Steele is not quite Jane Eyre, though her life seems to mirror that of Brontë’s heroine in most particulars. How she differs is in her violent response to would-be sexual abusers. She’s a feminist vigilante wreaking vengeance on her enemies, whether her repulsive cousin or the vindictive master of “Lowan Bridge” (= Cowan Bridge, Brontë’s real-life school + Lowood, Jane Eyre’s). I stopped reading because I didn’t honestly think Faye was doing enough to set her book apart. “Reader, I murdered him” – nice spin-off line, but there wasn’t enough original material here to hold my attention. (Read the first 22%.)
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
There was every reason for me to love this novel – awkward American narrator, Oxford setting, Brontë connections aplenty, snarky literary criticism – but I got bored with it. Perhaps it was the first-person narration: being stuck in sarcastic Samantha Whipple’s head means none of the other characters feel real; they’re just paper dolls, with Orville a poor excuse for a Mr. Rochester substitute. I did laugh out loud a few times at Samantha’s unorthodox responses to classic literature (“Agnes Grey is, without question, the most boring book ever written”), but I gave up when I finally accepted that I had no interest in how the central mystery/treasure hunt played out. (Read the first 56%.)
An Excellent Biography
If I could recommend just one book from the recent flurry of Brontëana, it would be Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman, which I reviewed for For Books’ Sake back in November.
One of the things Harman’s wonderful biography does best is to trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in their fiction. A chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre (1847) is a highlight. Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not TB, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme morning sickness. This will help you appreciate afresh the work of a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.” Interesting piece of trivia for you: this and the Janzing novel (above) open with the same scene from Charlotte’s time in Belgium.
Have you read any of these, or other recent Brontë-themed books? What were your thoughts?
Like the Roberto Benigni film Life Is Beautiful, Virginia Baily’s second novel* shows how the Holocaust affected Italy’s Jews. It’s not a Holocaust novel, though; it’s a before-and-after story that’s more about adoption, coming of age when you don’t know who you are, and adapting to motherhood. It’s about choices, inevitabilities, regrets and a love that endures.
October 1943: Chiara Ravello is walking near Rome’s Jewish ghetto when she spots a large group of people being herded into trucks. A Jewish woman catches her eye and directs her seven-year-old son to go with Chiara. Pretending the boy is her nephew, Chiara saves him from certain death. The war years have been a hard time for the Ravello family: Chiara’s father and her fiancé both died about five years ago, and her mother perished in a bombing a few months ago. Now she and her epileptic sister Cecilia are preparing to flee the occupation by taking refuge in their grandmother’s home in the hills above Rome. Chiara never expected to be a mother after Carlo’s death, but now she has the chance to raise Daniele Levi as her own.
That’s where many novels would have ended it: with a hopeful conclusion after a time of hardship; with a new beginning spooling out in the future. Instead, this is where Baily starts her bittersweet tale. It’s no happily ever after for Chiara and Daniele; indeed, over the years that Daniele is a silent, sullen boy, then a rebellious teenager, and finally a drug addict, Chiara will frequently question the impulsive choice she made that morning in 1943. She seems doomed, in Daniele’s eyes at least, to be “the wicked stepmother, half-provider, half-tyrant.” This gives the novel something of the flavor of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, another rare instance of fictional ambivalence about motherhood.
There’s an extra layer to the novel, however. In 1973, Chiara learns that Daniele has a daughter he never knew: Maria, now 16, lives with her mother in Wales. Angry and unsure of her new identity, Maria has boycotted her school leaving exams and asks to live with Chiara for the summer instead. Baily describes these two very different characters equally well, and does a great job of capturing the feel of Rome and its surroundings, especially through Maria’s viewpoint. She also moves deftly between the events of 1943–44 and those of 1973 in alternating chapters, giving subtle clues as to the time period through her interesting choice of tense: right up to the last chapter, she uses the present tense to describe past action, and the past tense for current action.
Through the flashbacks, we learn surprising truths about how Chiara abandoned a family member and gained a best friend. She made dubious choices during the war, but also showed great bravery and generosity. Baily gives just enough away, and so gradually that the novel’s nearly 400 pages pass quickly. In touching on World War II and the Holocaust only peripherally, the novel avoids well-worn, clichéd narratives and does something new.
The writing does not draw attention to itself; there are no long-winded descriptions or ornate sentences. Baily relies more on food (as in “[Maria’s] insides were lubricated with olive oil”) and period fashion to add detail and local color. Still, where there is metaphorical language it usually refers to animals and seems both appropriate and evocative. I also love the warm, earthy tones of the book’s cover, which reminds me of my time spent in Tuscany last year. However, I’m not sure the novel’s title works; it doesn’t say enough about the book.
Still, I admire how Baily takes what seems like a familiar Holocaust rescue story and turns it on its head. A late passage in which Chiara watches over Daniele as he sleeps off a hangover hints at the emotional ambiguities she conveys here:
Funny how sometimes she used to think that because he had this horseshoe birthmark, a talisman of good fortune imprinted in his skin, he carried his luck with him. How she persisted in thinking it was luck that had saved him when the rest of his family had perished, and not, as he seems to want to demonstrate to her, its opposite.
‘I don’t blame you, Ma,’ he has told her more than once.
‘So why are you so intent on throwing your life away?’ she has asked him, but he doesn’t seem to have an answer.
I would particularly recommend this novel to fans of Maggie O’Farrell and Anthony Doerr. Read this alongside Julia Blackburn’s Thin Paths or another choice from my Italian summer reading list – it’s the next best thing to being there.
*At first I presumed this was a debut, but it turns out she wrote one novel previously, under the name Ginny Baily, Africa Junction (2011).
Many thanks to Virago for my free copy, received through a newsletter giveaway.