Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.
The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*
I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.
Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?
*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)
So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:
if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.
A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.
Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.
Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.
There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
- The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
- Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)
The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.
Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.
I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.
Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)
This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.
Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)
I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)
Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.
A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)
Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)
Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.
Soho by Richard Scott (2018)
When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.
Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.
Any recent poetry reads you can recommend to me?
“What a joy it is to dance and sing!”
Through a Granta giveaway on Twitter I won two tickets to see Wise Children at London’s Old Vic theatre on October 18th. Clare of A Little Blog of Books joined me for an excellent evening at the theatre, and we both followed it up by reading the novel – Angela Carter’s final book, published in 1991. (Clare’s write-up of the book and play is here.) It has one of the best openers I’ve come across recently:
Twins Nora and Dora Chance turn 75 today; their father, Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, who has never publicly acknowledged them because they were born out of wedlock to a servant girl who died in childbirth, turns 100. At the last minute an invitation to his birthday party arrives, and between this point and the party Dora fills us in on the sisters’ knotty family history. Their father is also a twin (though fraternal); his brother Peregrine was more of a father to them than Melchior, with “Grandma” Chance, the owner of the boarding house where they were born, the closest thing they had to a mother growing up. By the time they’re teenagers, the girls are on stage at music halls. After a jaunt to Hollywood to appear in Melchior’s filming of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they’re back in time for wartime deprivation and tragedy in South London, and decades of shabby nostalgia follow.
It’s a big, bawdy story that has, amazingly, been compressed into just 230 pages. There are five sets of twins in total, with multiple cases of doubling, incest and mistaken identity that would make Shakespeare proud. The novel is composed of five long chapters, like the acts in a play, with a Dramatis Personae on the last two pages (though it might have proven more helpful at the start), and the sisters even live at 49 Bard Road. Dora’s voice is slang-filled and gossipy, and she dutifully presents the sisters’ past as the tragicomedy that it was.
Indeed, Wise Children seems perfect for the stage, and Emma Rice’s production recreates everything that’s best about the book, including Dora’s delightful narration. At the start, resplendent in kimonos and turbans, she and Nora greet us from their Brixton home – represented by a kitschy caravan, which with minor redecoration between scenes serves for all the play’s interiors. The 75-year-olds remain on stage for virtually the entire performance, watching along with the audience from the wings and adding in fragments of commentary, often drawn directly from the text, as scenes from their past unfold (including plenty of simulated sex – I wouldn’t recommend taking along any under-15s).
Androgynous extras cycle into various roles as the action proceeds, with the twins represented first by puppets, then by three sets of actors of various races and genders – the teenage/young adult Nora is played by a Black man, while 75-year-old Dora is a man perhaps of South Asian extraction. This adds extra irony to the humor of one of Nora’s lines: “It’s every woman’s tragedy that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator.” Grandma Chance, with her beehive, cat-eye glasses and nude bodysuit, steals the show, with seaside comedian Gorgeous George coming a close second as the most entertaining character.
The play has cut out most of the 1980s layer of characters and made the story line stronger in doing so. The only other scene I wish could have been included is a farcical multiple wedding ceremony in Hollywood. The glitzy costumes, recurring butterflies, and John Waters-esque tacky-chic of the set all felt true to the atmosphere of the book, and the songs mentioned in the text (such as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”) are supplemented by a couple of numbers that evoke the 1980s setting: “Electric Avenue” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
This was my fifth book by Carter, and now a joint favorite with The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories – but I liked the play that little bit better. If you get a chance to see it in London or on tour further afield, don’t pass it up. It’s a pure joy.
My rating: Book; Play
Iris Murdoch’s eleventh novel starts with a bang: civil servant Joseph Radeechy has shot himself at the office, leaving Octavian Gray and Richard Biranne to deal with the fallout. The incident delays Octavian’s departure for idyllic Dorset, where he and his wife Kate live in community with various hangers-on: Mary Clothier and her son Pierce; Biranne’s ex, Paula, and their twins; and the Grays’ daughter, Barbara, whenever she’s home from her Swiss boarding school. I loved the initial introduction to a household so full of joyful bustle, the witty dialogue of children and servants, and a memorable dog and cat. It’s a hot summer and there are games and jaunts down to the rocky beach and an abandoned graveyard.
Gradually the focus shifts to would-be judge John Ducane, the legal advisor to Octavian’s department. Like the narrator of A Severed Head, he’s just breaking off an affair with a younger woman. He’s decided he’s in love with Kate, with whom he shares an occasional kiss. Octavian knows all about this and finds it amusing – I thought of him and Kate as the Oberon and Titania of their enchanted pastoral world, presiding in lordly yet playful ways over the other mortals’ romantic entanglements. (“Midsummer madness,” John remarks at one point.) Again as in A Severed Head, it seems everyone’s infatuated with everyone else, in different ways and at different times. A distinction is often drawn between loving and being in love – the two do not always coexist.
Ducane helps the department look into Radeechy’s death in hopes of avoiding a public enquiry. It seems the man was involved in some bizarre stuff – witchcraft with prostitutes? – and was being blackmailed for it. However, the city and country divide is stark, and so the investigation never overpowers the more low-key interpersonal intrigues down in Dorset. There are lots of important though secondary characters in this ensemble cast – so many that I struggled to pay attention to all of them (Uncle Theo?). Of these I’ll just give a special mention to Holocaust survivor Willy Kost. Thankfully, there’s a much more positive vision of Judaism here than in A Severed Head or The Italian Girl.
Liz has written a wonderful summary of the novel and its themes, set in the context of the Murdoch novels that have come before. I especially noted and liked the duplicated moments, such as two scenes of women jealously observing other mistresses; the instances of dramatic irony; and the sequences composed mostly of dialogue (e.g., Chapter 40). There’s a gripping scene where three characters are stuck in a sea cave due to a rising tide, and the book ends on what seems to be a sighting of a flying saucer. You also have to love the late lion-and-lamb moment of Montrose the cat and Mingo the dog curling up in a basket together.
I kept looking back to the title and asking myself who is really ‘good’ here and what the real value of being ‘nice’ is. Murdoch pardons Radeechy’s peculiar behavior as “minor evil” at most, while Willy’s experience in Dachau is surely the clearest example of human evil at work.
“Ducane’s so nice – ” / “He’s so good – ”
“The point is that nothing matters except loving what is good. Not to look at evil but to look at good.”
Meanwhile, there are brief mentions of goodness as a state of mind or a matter of personality:
“in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible”
“I think being good is just a matter of temperament in the end. Yes, we shall all be so happy and good too. Oh, how utterly marvellous it is to be me!”
That last quote is a glimpse into Kate’s thoughts: so unrealistically optimistic you have to wonder whether Murdoch is making fun of her. And yet Kate is one of the most stable and contented characters.
This falls about in the middle of the pack for me in terms of how much I’ve enjoyed Murdoch’s novels. There’s a lot going on, perhaps too much, and the reader’s sympathy is spread thin across so many characters. Still, it’s summery, light-hearted fare that manages to also hint at deeper ethical questions.
Here’s my ranking of the eight I’ve read so far:
Favorite: The Bell
The Sea, The Sea
A Severed Head
The Nice and the Good
The Black Prince
The Italian Girl
Least favorite: An Accidental Rose
I’m Murdoch-ed out for the time being, but I’ll keep an eye on Liz’s ongoing Iris Murdoch readalong project to see if there are other novels I’ll try to find secondhand in the future (at least The Unicorn, I think). Join in for one or more!
Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?
Tomorrow, the 20th, the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. This must be my worst showing for many years: I’ve read just two of the longlisted books, and both were such disappointments I had to wonder why they’d been nominated at all. I have six of the others on request from the public library; of them I’m most keen to read The Overstory and Sabrina, the first graphic novel to have been recognized (the others are by Gunaratne, Johnson, Kushner and Ryan, but I’ll likely cancel my holds if they don’t make the shortlist). I’d read Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse if I ever managed to get hold of a copy, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in the other four nominees (Bauer, Burns, Edugyan, Ondaatje*).
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
(Excerpted from my upcoming review for New Books magazine’s Booker Prize roundup.)
The first word of The Water Cure may be “Once,” but what follows is no fairy tale. Here’s the rest of that sentence: “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” The tense seems all wrong; surely it should be “had” and “died”? From the very first line, then, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel has the reader wrong-footed, and there are many more moments of confusion to come. The other thing to notice in the opening sentence is the use of the first person plural. That “we” refers to three sisters: Grace, Lia and Sky. After the death of their father, King, it’s just them and their mother in a grand house on a remote island.
There are frequent flashbacks to times when damaged women used to come here for therapy that sounds more like torture. The sisters still engage in similar sadomasochistic practices: sitting in a hot sauna until they faint, putting their hands and feet in buckets of ice, and playing the “drowning game” in the pool by putting on a dress laced with lead weights. Despite their isolation, the sisters are still affected by the world at large. At the end of Part I, three shipwrecked men wash up on shore and request sanctuary. The men represent new temptations and a threat to the sisters’ comfort zone.
This is a strange and disorienting book. The atmosphere – lonely and lowering – is the best thing about it. Its setup is somewhat reminiscent of two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest. With the exception of a few lines like “we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity,” the prose draws attention to itself in a bad way: it’s consciously literary and overwritten. In terms of the plot, it is difficult to understand, at the most basic level, what is going on and why. Speculative novels with themes of women’s repression are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the interested reader will find a better example than this one.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down.
Normal People is very similar to Tender – which for some will be high praise indeed, though I never managed to finish Belinda McKeon’s novel – in that both realistically address the intimacy between a young woman and a young man during their university days and draw class and town-and-country distinctions (the latter of which might not mean much to those who are unfamiliar with Ireland).
The central characters here are two loners: Marianne Sheridan, who lives in a white mansion with her distant mother and sadistic older brother Alan, and Connell Waldron, whose single mother cleans Marianne’s house. Connell doesn’t know who his father is; Marianne’s father died when she was 13, but good riddance – he hit her and her mother. Marianne and Connell start hooking up during high school in Carricklea, but Connell keeps their relationship a secret because Marianne is perceived as strange and unpopular. At Trinity College Dublin they struggle to fit in and keep falling into bed with each other even though they’re technically seeing other people.
The novel, which takes place between 2011 and 2015, keeps going back and forth in time by weeks or months, jumping forward and then filling in the intervening time with flashbacks. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. The answer is: not really; that’s mostly what the book is composed of.
I can see what Rooney is trying to do here (she makes it plain in the next-to-last paragraph): to show how one temporary, almost accidental relationship can change the partners for the better, giving Connell the impetus to pursue writing and Marianne the confidence to believe she is loveable, just like ‘normal people’. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.
I was interested to learn that Rooney was writing this at the same time as Conversations, and initially intended it to be short stories. It’s possible I would have appreciated it more in that form.
My thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
*I’ve only ever read the memoir Running in the Family plus a poetry collection by Ondaatje. I have a copy of The English Patient on the shelf and have felt guilty for years about not reading it, especially after it won the “Golden Booker” this past summer (see Annabel’s report on the ceremony). I had grand plans of reading all the Booker winners on my shelf – also including Carey and Keneally – in advance of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but didn’t even make it through the books I started by the two South African winners; my aborted mini-reviews are part of the Shiny New Books coverage here. (There are also excerpts from my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies, The Sellout and Lincoln in the Bardo here.)
Last year I’d read enough from the Booker longlist to make predictions and a wish list, but this year I have no clue. I’ll just have a look at the shortlist tomorrow and see if any of the remaining contenders appeal.
What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? Do you have any predictions for the shortlist?
I’d been aware for perhaps a few years that malapropisms are named after a character who’s prone to verbal gaffes. Last night I met Mrs. Malaprop herself at a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) at nearby Watermill Theatre. This was our second trip to the Watermill, after The Picture of Dorian Gray last September. It’s a small and intimate venue and the production was somewhat in the round, so we were in a row to the left-hand side of the stage. It felt like we were right inside the action, though occasionally one actor would block another such that we couldn’t see the looks passing between them.
It was a small cast of eight actors, four of whom did double duty as servants. We meet two young couples—Lydia Languish and Captain Jack Absolute, with whom she’s fallen in love while he’s in disguise as penniless “Ensign Beverley” – they plan to elope; and Julia Melville and Faulkland, who saved her from drowning and has been her betrothed for years—along with two guardian figures, Sir Anthony Absolute and Mrs. Malaprop, and two hapless suitors played for laughs, country bumpkin Bob Acres and over-the-top-Irish Sir Lucius O’Trigger. The characters’ paths cross in amusing ways while they are all in Bath.
One of the key words in the play is “caprice” – a term you don’t encounter so often these days. (The adjectival form, capricious, is common enough, but I can’t remember the last time I saw the noun.) Several of the characters could be described as capricious, but especially Faulkland, who torments Julia with his doubts about the constancy of her love, and Lydia, who rather loses interest in Captain Jack once she realizes that their guardians approve of their match and she won’t have to undertake a romantic elopement instead.
What with the disguises, misunderstandings, and general farcical atmosphere, The Rivals is reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy, though the language is easier to follow. Here in Beth Flintoff’s adaptation, much of the humor comes through in accents and exaggerated facial expressions, though Sir Anthony’s growled insults to his son and Bob Acres’ attempts to pass himself off as a gentleman are also highlights. The whole cast (see this full list) was terrific, including several actors familiar from British television and bit parts in films.
And, of course, there’s Mrs. Malaprop and her wondrous malapropisms. Sheridan would have taken her name from malapropos, a synonym for “inappropriate” first recorded in 1630, and an adaptation of the French term mal à propos (“poorly placed”). The first recorded use of “malaprop” for the wrong use of words was by Lord Byron in 1814. Some of the malapropisms in the play fell flat because both the spoken and intended words are too obscure nowadays. I think the director probably left out certain ones, and added at least one anachronistically modern one: “calamari” for calamity. But there were still some excellent ones. Here are a few of my favorites (see also this complete list):
“promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.”
“He is the very pine-apple of politeness!”
“she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”
[I even spotted a malapropism (can I use that term for written rather than spoken words?) on my cornflakes box this morning:
Do you spot it too?]
Great acting, costumes and hairstyles; laughs aplenty; and a rhyming prologue and epilogue that made reference to the modern day (“I’m not going to hex it with jokes about … anything unpleasant!” and “eat less baked beans and drink more champagne”): Altogether a splendid evening out at the theatre.
[Note: A shortened, edited version of this review appeared in the June 15th, 2018 issue of the Church Times.]
Proctor McCullough isn’t a churchgoer. He’s not even particularly religious. Yet somehow he senses that God is calling him to build a chapel, with a little house beside it, on a cliff in the southwest of England. It’s a source of bewilderment for his partner, Holly, and their London friends. Is Mac mentally ill, or having a particularly acute midlife crisis? He’s handed off from a minister to a therapist to a neurologist, but no one knows what to make of him. This forty-four-year-old father of two, an otherwise entirely rational-seeming advisor to the government on disaster situations, won’t be deterred from his mission.
It’s important to get a sense of the way this character speaks:
I want a structure that will move people to contemplate something other than all the obvious stuff … to be confronted with a sense of something and only be able to define it as Other.
God is the transcendent Other for whom creation, what we know as life, is a gratuitous act of love, a dispossession of a portion of His infinite creativity given over to our thriving. It is a gift from His infinite excess. That we can know Him at all is because of the possibility of this excess within us, which we experience as love, art, great feats of the mind. Our bounty is Him.
Down at the project site, Mac acquires four young workers/disciples: Rebecca, Nathaniel, Terry and Rich. Rebecca is a sarcastic, voluptuous teenager who will be off to Cambridge in a few months. She perhaps represents vanity, temptation and judgment, while the other three are more difficult to slot into symbolic roles. Terry is a dreadlocked lager lout who takes care of a mother with early dementia; contrary to appearances, he’s also a thinker, and takes to carrying around a Bible along with a collection of other theological works. Nat and Rich are more sketch-like figures, just ciphers really, which became problematic for me later on.
With Mac we shuttle between the building site and his home in London for weeks at a time. The idea of incorporating Pascal’s mystical hexagon into the church design captivates him, and the costs – initially set at £100,000 – balloon. Meanwhile, his relationship with Holly is strained almost to the breaking point as they each turn to alternative confidants, and there’s a renegotiation process as they decide whether their actions have torn them apart for good.
Like Sarah Moss, Neil Griffiths realistically blends serious concepts with everyday domestic tasks: sure, there may be a God-ordained chapel to build, but Mac also has to do the shopping and get his six-year-old twins fed and in bed at a decent hour. If Mac is meant to be a Messiah figure here, he’s a deeply flawed one; he can even be insufferable, especially when delivering his monologues on religion. If you’re like me, you’ll occasionally get incensed with him – particularly when, at the midpoint, he concocts a Clintonian justification for his behavior.
All the same, the themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas. Mac’s violent encounters with God and with the nature of evil are compelling, and although some of the events of the last third push the boundaries of credibility, it’s worth sticking with it to see where Griffiths takes the plot. There’s no getting past the fact that this is a dense theological treatise, but overlaid on it is a very human story of incidental families and how love sustains us through the unbearable.
If I had to point to the novel’s forebears, I’d mention Hamlet, A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden, Michael Arditti’s Easter, and even Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. If you’ve read any Dostoevsky (I haven’t, yet) or Iris Murdoch, you’ll likely spot philosophical echoes. The title itself is from Wallace Stevens. It’s all unabashedly highbrow, and a greater than average familiarity with the Christian tradition is probably key. For the wary, I’d suggest not trying too hard to read metaphorical significance into character names or chapter and section titles – I’m sure those meanings are in there, but better to let the story carry you along rather than waste time trying to work it all out.
While reading this novel I was bitterly regretting the demise of Third Way magazine; it would have been a perfect place for me to engage with Griffiths’ envelope-pushing theology. I was also wishing I was still involved with Greenbelt Festival’s literature programming, as this would make a perfect Big Read. (Though however would we get people to read 600 pages?! In my experience of book clubs, it’s hard enough to get them to read 200.)
I’m grateful to Dodo Ink (“an independent UK publisher publishing daring and difficult fiction”) for stepping into the breach and taking a chance on a book that will divide Christians and the nonreligious alike, and to publicist Nicci Praça for the surprise copy that turned up on my doorstep. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
As a God Might Be was published in the UK by Dodo Ink on October 26th. This is Neil Griffiths’ third novel, after Betrayal in Naples (2004) and Saving Caravaggio (2006). He says that this most recent book took him seven years to write.
The dark horse in this year’s Man Booker Prize race is Elmet, a brilliant, twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. I’d love to see this win the Booker, or make the shortlist at the very least. You’d hardly believe it’s a debut novel, or that it’s by a 29-year-old PhD candidate in medieval history. The epigraph from Ted Hughes defines “Elmet” as an ancient Celtic kingdom encompassing what is now West Yorkshire. The word still appears in a few Yorkshire place names today. Metaphorically, Hughes notes, the region was a “‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.” That’s an apt setting for Mozley’s central characters: a family living on the edge of poverty and respectability – off-grid and not quite legal.
Daniel and Cathy Oliver – 14 and 15, respectively – live with their father, John Smythe, in a simple house he built with his own hands in a copse. They mostly eat whatever they can hunt. Daddy is a renowned pugilist not above beating people up when they owe his friends money. Feisty Cathy is bullied by boys at school; when teachers don’t believe her, she has no choice but to hit back. There’s a strong us-against-the-world ethos to the novel, but underneath that defensiveness there’s a sense of unease: Daniel, the narrator, isn’t a fighter like his father and sister. He’s a sensitive soul who’s happiest cooking and playing with his dogs.
Like the reader, Daniel watches in grim fascination as Mr. Price, a powerful local landlord, starts issuing threats. Price warns Daddy that his family is trespassing. If they don’t leave he’ll make life difficult for them. A group of tenants, many of them just out of prison and barely getting by, bands together to take revenge on Price, planning to withhold rent and farm labor until conditions improve. No longer will they accept £20 payments for 10-hour work days. At first it seems their fight for rights might be successful, but Price and his goons retrench. Things come to a head when Price promises to sign their plot of land over to Daniel – if Daddy agrees to call off the strike and fight one last climactic match in the woods.
The final 70 pages of Elmet blew me away: a crescendo of fateful violence that reaches Shakespearean proportions. This knocks all those Hogarth remakes (which generally, with the exception of Hag-Seed, adhere too slavishly to the plots and so fail to channel the spirit) into a cocked hat. Though oddly similar to two other novels on the Booker longlist that unearth disturbing doings in a superficially pastoral England – Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and Autumn by Ali Smith – Elmet achieves the better balance between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism. Mozley’s countryside is no idyll but a fallen edgeland:
And if the hare was made of myths then so too was the land at which she scratched. Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked when the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives.
The characters usually speak in Yorkshire dialect, but where many authors would render the definite article as “t’,” Mozley simply elides it. For instance, here’s John shaking his head over the injustice of land ownership:
It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.
The author is not entirely consistent with the transcription of dialect, though, and sometimes her use of spoken language is off: too ornate to be believable in certain characters’ mouths, like Cathy or a man who comes to the door to deliver bad news late on. These are such minor lapses of authorial control that I barely think them worth mentioning, but take it as proof that Mozley will only get better in the years to come. This is a gorgeous, timeless tale of the determination to overcome helplessness by facing down those who might harm the body but cannot destroy the spirit.
Elmet was published in the UK by JM Originals on August 10th. With thanks to Yassine Belkacemi and Katherine Burdon at John Murray Press for the free review copy.
I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.
The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.
Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.
There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:
Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.
[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.
He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.
Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.
- Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
- In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s
Ironically, Tuesday’s post on all the books I’ve abandoned so far in 2017 was my most popular in ages; it received nearly twice as many views as most of my recent posts. I think readers must find it reassuring that they’re ‘allowed’ to give up on a book rather than struggle through to the end of something they’re really not enjoying. However, I unwittingly stirred up some controversy when I shared the post on a Facebook group for book bloggers and authors and got a few replies along the lines of “I would never write about a book I didn’t like or didn’t finish. It’s not fair to the author.” Hmmm.
Anyway, today I have five pretty much unreserved recommendations instead. An original take on the American Civil War, a retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy, a highly unusual travel book, a creative blending of poems and recipes, and a wonderful book about sisters and betrayal from a Canadian author new to me. I hope you’ll find something here to enjoy.
Days Without End
By Sebastian Barry
An entirely believable look at the life of the American soldier in the 1850s and 1860s, this novel succeeds due to its folksy dialect and a perfect balance between adventuresome spirit and repulsion at wartime carnage. While it shares some elements with Westerns and Civil War fiction, it’s unique in several ways. Though thrilling and episodic, it’s deeply thoughtful as well. Thomas writes semi-literate English but delivers profound, beautiful statements all the same. Lovely metaphors and memorable turns of phrase abound. Finally, this book is the most matter-of-fact consideration of same-sex relationships I’ve ever encountered in historical fiction. Heart-breaking, life-affirming, laugh-out-loud: these may be clichés, but here’s one novel that is all these things and more. Truly unforgettable. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on the Native American practice of cross-dressing, known as winkte or berdache.)
New Boy: Othello Retold
By Tracy Chevalier
(My second favorite in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, after Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed.) Chevalier is known for historical fiction, but here she gives Othello a near-contemporary situation and a backdrop much closer to home: her native Washington, D.C. Spring 1974: it’s Ghanaian diplomat’s son Osei Kokote’s first day at a new school. Fortunately, he’s taken under the wing of one of the most popular sixth grade girls, Dee, and they’re soon inseparable. The novel takes place all in one day, divided into discrete sections by recess periods and a lunch break. Jump rope rhymes, jungle gyms, kickball games, arts and crafts, and a typical cafeteria meal of Salisbury steak and tater tots: it’s impressive how Chevalier takes ordinary elements and transforms them into symbols of a complex hierarchy and shifting loyalties. The language of possession and desire felt overly dramatic to me when applied to eleven-year-olds. However, it’s a remarkable exploration of the psyche of a boy isolated by his race. (Full review forthcoming at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)
My rating: (maybe more like 3.75)
Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel
By Thomas H. Cook
Cook is a crime writer. In this out-of-the-ordinary travel memoir he blends personal experience and history to tell of the ‘dark places’ he’s drawn to visiting. In 28 chapters that jump around in chronological order, he chronicles journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. Some are well known – Lourdes, Auschwitz, Verdun and Ground Zero – while others, like a Hawaiian leper colony and the hideaway of a fifteenth-century serial killer, require more background. A section on Okinawa and Hiroshima is among the book’s highlights: excellent descriptions of the mass suicide rooms where the Japanese retreated as the Americans approached and the atomic bomb drop itself bring history to life. But the most memorable chapter of all is one in which suffering touches Cook in a personal way. A meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst. (See my full review at Nudge.)
Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry
By Nicole Gulotta
This arose from Gulotta’s blog of the same title. It’s a luscious mix of food-themed poems – none of which I’d ever encountered before, even if certain of the poets were familiar to me (like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Wendell Berry) – commentary, personal anecdote and recipes that manage to hit the sweet spot in a Venn diagram between trendy, frugal, simple and indulgent. I could see myself making and eating any of these recipes, but my eye was particularly drawn to baked sweet potatoes with maple yogurt, vanilla-pear crumble, butternut squash macaroni and cheese, olive oil pumpkin bread, and cornmeal waffles. It might seem like this is a book that would only have niche appeal, but I don’t think that’s the case. Whether you like to cook or just like to eat, whether you love poetry or struggle to understand it, I’d recommend this for pleasant occasional reading. It only misses out on five stars because some of the observations are fairly obvious; these poems mostly speak for themselves.
A Student of Weather
By Elizabeth Hay
Set between the 1930s and 1970s, Hay’s debut (shortlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize in 2000) focuses on a pair of sisters, Norma Joyce and Lucinda Hardy, and the frostbitten young weather researcher who stumbles upon their Saskatchewan farmhouse one January evening in 1938. “Two sisters fell down the same well, and the well was Maurice Dove.” Seventeen-year-old Lucinda became the capable family housekeeper after their mother’s death. Norma Joyce is a precocious, sneaky eight-year-old. On each of Maurice’s visits, and in the years to come, they quietly jostle for his attention. Despite the upheaval of war and a move to Ontario, some things never change. Hay lends her story allusive depth by referencing biblical pairs of opposites: Jacob and Esau, Mary and Martha, and the Prodigal Son and his jealous older brother. My favorite parts were when the sisters were together in Canada; once Norma Joyce moves to New York, the book starts drifting a bit. However, there are such astute observations about what goes on in family and romantic relationships, and many perfect sentences. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this slowly over the course of a month, and I’d gladly read anything else from Hay.