In January 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to have a free bibliotherapy session at the School of Life in London with Ella Berthoud, one of the authors of The Novel Cure. I wrote about the experience in this post. I quickly got hold of all but a couple of my prescribed reads, but have been slower about actually reading them. Though I’ve read five now, I’ve only written up four, two of which I only managed to finish this week. (These 250-word reviews are in order of my reading.)
Heligoland by Shena Mackay (2002)
(CURE: moving house)
Heligoland is a Scottish island best known from the shipping forecast, but here it’s an almost mythical home. Rowena Snow was orphaned by her Indian/Scottish parents, and a second time by her aunt. Since then she’s drifted between caring and cleaning jobs. The Nautilus represents a fresh chance at life. This shell-shaped artists’ commune in South London houses just three survivors: Celeste Zylberstein, who designed the place; poet Francis Campion; and antiques dealer Gus Crabb. Rowena will be the housekeeper/cook, but she struggles with self-esteem: does she deserve to live in a haven for upper-class creative types?
The omniscient perspective moves between the Nautilus residents but also on to lots of other minor hangers-on, whose stories are hard to keep track of. Mackay’s writing reminded me somewhat of Tessa Hadley’s and is lovely in places – especially when describing a buffet or a moment of light-filled epiphany in a garden. There’s not much to be said beyond what’s in the blurb: Mackay is attempting to give a picture of a drifter who finds an unconventional home; in the barest sense she does succeed, but I never felt a connection with any of the characters. In this ensemble cast there is no one to love and thus no one to root for. While I didn’t love this book, it did inspire me to pick up others by Mackay: since then I’ve read The Orchard on Fire, which I liked a lot more, and the first half of Dunedin.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (2002)
(CURE: worry over ageing parents)
Retired professor Nariman Vakeel, 79, has Parkinson’s disease and within the first few chapters has also fallen and broken his ankle. His grown stepchildren, Coomy and Jal, reluctant to care for him anyway, decide they can’t cope with the daily reality of bedpans, sponge baths and spoon feeding in their large Chateau Felicity apartment. He’ll simply have to recuperate at Pleasant Villa with his daughter Roxana and her husband and sons, even though their two-bedroom apartment is barely large enough for the family of four. You have to wince at the irony of the names for these two Bombay housing blocks, and at the bitter contrast between selfishness and duty.
Perhaps inevitably, Nariman starts to fade into the background. An increasingly speechless invalid, he only comes alive through his past: italicized sections, presented as his night-time ravings, tell of his love for Lucy, whom his parents refused to let him marry, and the untimely end of his arranged marriage. I enjoyed time spent in a vibrantly realized Indian city and appreciated a chance to learn about a lesser-known community: Nariman and family are Parsis (or Zoroastrians). There’s also a faint echo here of King Lear, with one faithful daughter set against two wicked children.
As to ageing parents, this is a pretty relentlessly bleak picture, but there are sparks of light: joy in life’s little celebrations, and unexpected kindnesses. Mistry’s epic has plenty of tender moments that bring it down to an intimate scale. I’m keen to read his other novels.
Maggie & Me by Damian Barr (2013)
(A supplementary prescription because I love memoirs and didn’t experience Thatcher’s Britain.)
Like a cross between Angela’s Ashes and Toast, this recreates a fairly horrific upbringing from the child’s perspective. Barr was an intelligent, creative young man who early on knew that he was gay and, not just for that reason, often felt that there was no place for him: neither in working-class Scotland, where his father was a steelworker and his brain-damaged mother flitted from one violent boyfriend to another; nor in Maggie Thatcher’s 1980s Britain at large, in which money was the reward for achievement and the individual was responsible for his own moral standing and worldly advancement. “I don’t need to stand out any more,” he recalls, being “six foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots, bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoats. Plus I get free school dinners and I’m gay.”
There are a lot of vivid scenes in this memoir, some of them distressing ones of abuse, and the present tense, dialect, and childish grammar and slang give it authenticity. However, I never quite bought in to the Thatcher connection as an overarching structure. Three pages at the start, five at the end, and a Thatcher quote as an epigraph for each chapter somehow weren’t enough to convince me that the framing device was necessary or apt. Still, I enjoyed this well enough as memoirs go, and I would certainly recommend it if you loved Nigel Slater’s memoir mentioned above. I also have Barr’s recent debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, on my Kindle.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
(A supplementary prescription for uncertainty about having children.)
I enjoyed this immensely, from the first line on: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Upton is back in her hometown, pregnant by her older, married archaeology professor after a summer of PhD fieldwork in Alaska. “I had come home to be a child again. I was sick, heartbroken, worn down.” She gives herself a few weeks back home to dig through her family history to find her father – whom Vi has never identified – and decide whether she’s ready to be a mother herself.
We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. Groff gives voice to everyone from a Mohican chief to a slave girl who catches her master’s eye. Willie and Vi are backed up by a wonderful set of secondary characters, past and present. Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. (If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably for the baseball museum; it’s not far from where my mother is from in upstate New York.) Templeton is “a slantwise version” of Cooperstown, Groff admits in an opening Author’s Note, and she owes something of a debt to its most famous citizen, James Fenimore Cooper. What a charming way to celebrate where you come from, with all its magic and mundanity. This terrific debut novel cemented my love of Groff’s work.
I also have Ella to thank for the inspiration to reread a childhood favorite, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, last year; the experiment formed the subject of my first piece for Literary Hub. I also worked my way through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, another of my prescriptions, over a number of months in 2018, but failed to keep up with the regular writing exercises so didn’t get the maximum benefit.
My husband and I made a start on reading a few books aloud to each other, including Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman, but that fell by the wayside after a handful of weeks.
(Incidentally, I had forgotten that Cutting for Stone turns up in The Novel Cure on a list of the 10 best books to combat xenophobia.)
Still to read: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (CURE: horror of ageing)
And one I still have to get hold of but haven’t been able to find cheap secondhand because it’s a Persephone classic: The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (a supplementary prescription because I love Victorian pastiches).
It truly felt like spring was on the way. Temperatures were in the mid-fifties (I’ve never really gotten to grips with Centigrade) and the daffodils in our back garden were trying their best to join the snowdrops decorating the churchyard in town. I started reading this pair of books to look to the seasons ahead instead of dreading that winter might return in earnest:
Some lovely things have happened in the past week.
- I’ve delighted from afar as my sister, a widow for just over two years, precipitously falls in love with a pastor she met through a dating website.
- I had my second yoga class and, after the one other participant had to leave early, got what was essentially a private lesson. Many of the poses feel right at the edge of what my flexibility and balance will allow, which is surely a sign that the exercise is doing me good.
- (This one’s not so much lovely as annoying yet amusing.) The cat, already a connoisseur of cereal milk, discovered the illicit pleasure of melted butter in a dish we unthinkingly left on the counter, and now will not rest in his search for it. This is bad news as he’s already quite the butterball. He’s also ramped up his efforts to access all of the house’s secret spaces, including the airing cupboard, the under-stairs cupboard, and the crawlspace under the bath. [Stay tuned for tomorrow’s mini-reviews of yet more cat books, including one about some very mischievous Siamese cats.]
- On Friday I got an e-mail out of the blue asking me to review a book for the Times Literary Supplement. It was October 2015 when I first wrote for them, but that ended poorly: they ran out space in the magazine for my review and paid me a “kill fee” instead, but it made me doubt myself – was that code for them not thinking my writing was good enough to publish? So hearing back from them five months after I’d last gotten in touch asking for work was a great surprise. And I get to read History of Wolves, which I’ve heard marvelous things about.
- We went to a brilliant gig by folk artists Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin in a hole-in-the-wall venue 10 minutes from our house. It was doubtless the first time I’d seen beatboxing and a classical Indian sitar/guitar used in folk music, and Henry’s harmonica skills were literally unbelievable. You had to have been there. I was impressed anew at how folk, arising as it does from liberal working-class traditions, is unafraid to tackle social issues. They had songs about his cotton mill-working grandfather, the war in Syria, immigration, and a detention center in the Midlands. My favorite, though, was “Landlocked,” about a real woman from the eighteenth century who went to sea with her naval husband but ended up right back where she started: selling fish at Exmouth harbor. I loved Martin’s deep, rich voice and the complex interplay of guitar, banjo, pedal steel and fiddle in many of their songs.
- With one of our leftover jars of homemade mincemeat we made a decadent mincemeat cheesecake from this Nigel Slater recipe. What with the shortbread crust and crumbs and the orange zest in the topping, it was very much like having mince pies – but also cheesecake. Yum.
- This morning we attended a service led by a former archbishop. We knew that George Carey was a parishioner at the Berkshire church we’ve been frequenting since December, but hadn’t seen him at the pulpit yet. He’s one of various retired and lay clergy who have been filling in while the church seeks to appoint a new vicar. Carey gave a damn fine sermon (I guess he’s had plenty of practice) on the enormous topic of why bad things happen to good people, refuting the prosperity gospel and telling the tragically fascinating story behind the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”
And, of course, I’ve been reading some brilliant books. This week’s ongoing reading has included three terrific novels: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh.