Thursday, 28 July 2016

THE CRIMSON ROOMS by Katharine McMahon, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Set in 1924, The Crimson Rooms is very much concerned with the aftermath of the First World War, with the distinction of featuring a young female lawyer – one of the first of her kind – as its viewpoint character. Evelyn Gifford, at thirty, shares the view of many women of her generation that she is unlikely to marry, and looks to her work for a sense of purpose and the chance to bring about change. She is assistant at the law firm of Breen and Balcombe, where the eponymous Breen is known by reputation as a champion of the poor, and – unlike many of his peers – willing to take on a capable, newly-qualified young woman. Evelyn’s work involves her in two court cases which form the background to the novel.

Since the death in the trenches of Evelyn’s younger brother James, the household in Maida Vale has been exclusively female: Evelyn and her fussy mother, a grandmother and great-aunt. Within the opening pages there are new arrivals: Meredith, a former nurse, and the young boy she introduces as James’ son, of whom Evelyn – but not her mother – has been quite unaware. Although the family’s finances are already stretched, the newcomers must be accommodated; the charmingly capricious Meredith proves to be demanding and unproductive, leaving the boy to be looked after while she attends art classes with new friends from the Slade. To Evelyn, the boy brings touching reminders of her lost brother, and must be cherished. She also sees Meredith as a source of information about James’ last days, as the family has had only sketchy details; but when Meredith eventually does confide in Evelyn, a new shock must be absorbed.  
Katharine McMahon's writing gives readers the confidence that we won't be let down. Her portrayals of domestic life (tepid celery soup, lavender and mothballs, limited clothing), class and attitudes are convincing without ever being overdone, and Evelyn is believably a product of her time: intelligent, observant, ambitious but wary, slowly learning to make her way against male intransigence and prejudice. As McMahon points out in an afterword, Evelyn was ‘on the horns of a terrible dilemma – her aspiration to be a lawyer must be at the cost of her clients, who in court would be disadvantaged by the sex of their advocate’. The patronising remarks Evelyn receives from judges and magistrates (addressing the bench, she is asked whether the court "is so lowly that it can be used as the playground in which ladies may conduct a flirtation with the law") would be outrageous today, yet she must weather them and prove herself through doggedness and by trusting her insights. Even so, others in her group of women lawyers challenge her for focusing on the saving of individuals, rather than more riskily making them test cases to bring about policy change.  
Evelyn’s two cases are of equal interest. In one, she learns that children placed in care institutions are routinely shipped out to Canada, where (in the guise of ‘home children’) some are treated in effect as slave workers. She is determined that Leah Marchant, convicted of abducting her own baby, should be reunited with her two young daughters before this fate befalls them. Seeds are well-planted for this case to be linked to the other: that of an ex-soldier accused of murdering his flirtatious young wife. Evelyn’s instinct tells her that he cannot be guilty, and it’s she who finds and interprets two crucial pieces of evidence; but McMahon subverts the conventions of murder mystery and courtroom drama with a poignant twist which feels exactly right for the character and situation. Evelyn’s emotions are also engaged by Nicholas Thorne, a young barrister with whom she finds herself falling in love – until she has reason to suspect his motives. 
The Crimson Rooms is thoroughly engaging (though the echo of Wilfred Owen’s poem The Kind Ghosts strikes a rare false note, in a letter from James to Evelyn). McMahon seems completely at home in this period – attitudes, even Evelyn’s own at one point, towards rape and shell-shock are very much in keeping – and has created a strong but fallible character with whom readers can readily identify. While the plot becomes increasingly gripping towards the end, the novel never loses sight of its main theme – the pity of war, and the profound effects of loss on survivors and relatives.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

COMING HOME by SUE GEE....reviewed by Adèle Geras

(This post first appeared on the History Girls blog.) 

 "Sunlit India was always there, always behind their  lives." This sentence sums up  the story of Will and Flo Sutherland and their children, Bea and Freddie. 

Sue Gee's very autobiographical novel tells the story of a version of her own family. The paperback edition has an essay at the end about how she came to write it. After her father died,  she was listening to tape recordings  he had made, and the writing of the novel was something she felt she could now do. She says: "By 2009, I had reached the age of memoir.....the past was precious and important."

The reason I'm writing about Coming Home on the History Girls blog is because as well as being a novel about Gee's own life, it's also the other side of what happened when India became independent in 1947. We have read Midnight's Children and other novels about the end of the Raj, but even the wonderful Raj Quartet and Staying On by Paul Scott are still set in the sub-continent. Gee's book is firmly located in England. 

Flo and Will  fell madly in love  and married quickly. Then, torn away from the idyllic scenes of their courtship, they set sail for a small, grey island far away from the place which would  come to represent for them a kind of Paradise Lost. 

Children are born, the family goes through very hard times, and when I spoke to Sue Gee on the phone to ask her some additional questions, I told her I found it very sad. She agreed it was sad at times, but that wasn't of course the whole story.

There are two particular strands of the narrative which will test the tear ducts of the most hardened reader. First, we weep for Flo, who all her life has wanted to write. The book starts with her composing a last letter home to her parents before she leaves India. It is the only scene set there. She writes letters, diaries and also a novel about her younger self, wanting to convey the magic of what she feels was her own very romantic whirlwind romance. The disappointments attendant on this venture are heartbreaking. At one point, Flo has a breakdown. I don't want to spoil readers' enjoyment by giving too much away, but there are some things in this book which are  hard to read about.

Gee does something very clever in this novel. She tells the story of a  family coolly and dispassionately. It is the very opposite of hysterical and overheated writing, but all the more effective for that. The simplicity and directness and 'this happened and then that happened'  structure allow the writer to go from one character's story  to another, giving each of them his or her proper weight and distinctive set of preoccupations. She is brilliant at showing the impact of small domestic tragedies, or misunderstandings that occur when things are misheard, or not properly talked about: what Will would doubtless call 'getting the wrong end of the stick.'  

Perhaps the saddest part of the book relates to Freddie. He is sent away to boarding-school at what seems to us a ridiculously young age. Bea would have loved it there, but Freddie is miserable and Sue Gee's account is a worthy addition to the ranks of accounts of school misery. More than that, though, it shows how what we are now examining and prosecuting as child abuse was allowed to flourish. In part it arose from the horror that people had in those days of 'making a fuss' or being embarrassed. It sheds fascinating light on the subject.

Another thing that makes this novel exceptional is the way Gee creates for those who haven't lived through it, the very texture and taste and look of an entire historical epoch: from post-war austerity (and the winter of 1947!) to the 60s, by which time things were beginning to resemble the world we know today. She does it through detail: the songs sung at Sunday school, the clothes, the landscape, and the careful (though never overdone) descriptions of things like houses, streets, gardens, farms, cars, clothes and everything else that makes our lives what they are.  The Sutherlands also have a décor which I recognise from  many houses of ex-Colonials that I've been in: statues of elephants, a panther-skin on the floor and sundry other Indian knick knacks. There is a  poem by Will which appeared in the newspaper in India called  'Indian Refugees from Burma.' It's reproduced at the back of this edition and it's rather good, too.

Best of all, Gee captures exactly the turns of phrase of the people she's writing about. You can hear the conversations, catch the tone of voice on every page. The class distinctions are here and the slang and the chit chat bring to life a time that's long gone. Many of this blog's readers are young but anyone born in the 1940s will feel as though they've gone back to their own childhoods.

Lastly, I must mention the 'other side of the coin' aspect I spoke of before. Most of the  English men and women who came home from the Colonies after Independence were not evil monsters. They were often good, honest, well-intentioned people and, moreover, people who, through their work, and through living in India,  had come to love the country deeply and who carried that love in their hearts and their lives to the end of their days. Speaking as a Colonial child  myself, I understand this completely. Sue Gee's father returned to England in 1947. My own father was a Colonial till he died in 1972. Many men and women did their very best for a country they regarded as the best place they'd ever been in and Will and Flo Sutherland were two of those people.  This is what Sue Gee conveys so well: that here is a life, here are children and problems and everyday things, but once upon a time, there was an enchanted place of eye-searing colour and heat and beauty and that distant place has never been forgotten.

 I hope that many readers of this blog will read Coming Home. Gee could have written a memoir and chose not to.  This is because a memoir has a duty to be factually true. In a novel, Gee has been able to get inside four different heads and imagine much. That's what makes the difference. That's what makes it, I think, truer than a memoir would be.  I did ask Sue what her mother thought when she saw her own daughter being published where she had failed and the answer was: she was delighted. Well, of course she was. The novel shows, more than any other single thing, Flo's profound love for her children.  The Sutherlands are a fine family  and it's a marvellous book.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

RIDDLEY WALKER by Russell Hoban, reviewed by Adele Geras

"I opened Riddley Walker and almost closed it straight away. But I persisted because I was a Hoban fan ... "

(This post first appeared on The History Girls blog)

Bloomsbury are to be congratulated on keeping in print one of Hoban's most interesting books: Riddley Walker. This edition, from 2012, has a good introduction by Will Self and glancing through the many enthusiastic reviews on Amazon, I can see that it's mainly the science fiction fans and fantasy buffs who love it. I read it, as I say, long ago and in 1986, I saw a production of it at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre with David Threlfall as Riddley which was completely brilliant. It seemed then to be the kind of book which could never be adapted, but I suspect that nowadays, people are more likely to have seen Riddley Walker as a play.

On a visit to Canterbury Cathedral I saw this painting of St Eustace (whose legend is a very strange tale indeed) and that reminded me of Hoban's amazing novel.

Here is a detail of the painting above. I thought at once of Riddley Walker because the novel is deeply connected with the story of St Eustace.

Here is a page from the book, taken at random. When I saw this weird hybrid language, my heart sank. I'd known Hoban as the author of such novels as Turtle Diary and Kleinzeit. The latter was odd but marvellous and though it was surreal, I managed to read it with no difficulty and loved it. It was written in English, which was a great plus as far as I was concerned.

I must admit straight away that I am not a fantasy or science fiction fan. I do not like books about what happens after nuclear apocalypses. In general, I don't like books I have to decipher. I opened Riddley Walker and almost closed it straight away. But I persisted because I was a Hoban fan and I felt that there must be something there. Plus, of course, it was being reviewed and fêted all over the place, back in the day and when I was young, I liked being up to speed with what was new. I'm much less of a follower of fashion now that I'm older. So I deciphered the first page. Then I deciphered the second and on and on I went, drawn into Riddley's strange language, and his even stranger world. After a few pages, I was reading Riddley's tale with ease.

How to describe this book? How to persuade new readers to try it? It's a bit like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy in that it's post-Apocalyptic. It's set in a world which is very different from ours but in which certain things from our world (Punch and Judy shows, most importantly) have acquired a significance we never gave them. It's set in what is recognisably Kent (there's even a map in the front of the novel) and the Cathedral and St Eustace and his legend are of great importance. It's a book that's very hard to describe and it's not one that everyone will like, but it's full of humour and some of the sayings like "TRUBBA NOT" (don't worry) have become part of my personal vocabulary. I also like PRY MINCER for Prime Minister. It's a book which a certain kind of teenager would adore, and did adore when it first appeared. I've written this post in order to draw some attention to it so that hopefully a whole new audience can share Riddley's adventures. And if anyone else out there is a fan, I'd be very happy to read your opinion of this dazzling novel in the comments.

Monday, 25 July 2016

FINGERS IN THE SPARKLE JAR by Chris Packham: review by Linda Newbery

This memoir, something of a departure for naturalist and Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, has many literary resonances. As an account of a young boy finding purpose and passion through his love for wildlife, it recalls A Kestrel for a Knave and My Family and Other Animals; the love and loss of a wild creature echoes Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, which gave Packham a love of otters. The journey through depression, and emergence from it, is reminiscent of Richard Mabey's Nature Cure and Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, while the experience of mental illness and acceptance of therapy echoes Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive. It's a brave and important book, at a time when it's recognised that mental health issues, particularly for men, must not be hidden or 'toughed out'. Packham has of course published numerous books and articles on wildlife, but nothing as personally revealing as this.
The structure, a series of episodes, is an unusual one. In early chapters, Packham refers to himself as 'the boy' or 'Christopher', seen by a range of characters including an ice-cream van driver, a cinema usherette and, most touchingly, a hermit-like war veteran.  Other sections are narrated in first-person - either as himself, or in short italicised sections, from the viewpoint of a therapist treating the adult Packham after he had twice come close to committing suicide. In these latter sections we learn that he came to regard himself as an outsider - clever, obsessive, but unable to relate to others. Although the term Aspergers isn't used, it is hinted at in his assessment of himself.
Chris Packham clearly loves words, so much that they seem for him to fill a "sparkle jar" as enticing as the delights of the natural world. He sprinkles them with a liberal hand, piling up adjectives in almost every sentence. At first I was exasperated by the over-writing, but gradually, as my eyes adjusted to the surface dazzle, it became part of the book's charm. The breathless rush conveys complete absorption in the behaviour of bird, mammal or invertebrate and the settings in which they are observed. Often the choice of phrase is strikingly apt, as when mosquito larvae   "ziggle down in droves" or an old man peers into the "squinty dim"; glimpsing a sparrowhawk, there’s “a fleeting sense that some pulse of life had singed the air”. More than once, the rhythms and emphasis reminded me of Under Milk Wood, or of Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist. And this description of a falcon in flight surely pays homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Windhover:
"Unfalling, the bird stands chopping air, fluttering and then rolling down smooth, slipping and then sliding away to ring a curve across the storm until it pitches at the apex and begins to dance with the wind, its plumes constantly shaken, folding and flicking to steer it still and ... balance broken it tumbles and steadies with a twist of grey - cloud-licked and clean, now measuring the weight of the sky again ..."
The sparkle jar of the title is used as a metaphor for the beauty of the natural world and its frailty in the hands of careless others. A jar filled with minnows, sparking and glinting with rainbow colours, is grabbed by older boys and smashed. “A little bang of luminous blue, a pulse of silver and a flopping thwack marked the end of my pocket universe.”
The book's episodic structure, moving back and forth in time,  is held together by several sections called The Bird. Here Packham relates his taking of a kestrel chick from a nest, rearing and training it. “I squashed the blob of meat on my thumb and went down on one trembling knee to ask the biggest question of my life. He was a jewel, radiant in the rich dawn light, his head bobbing. He was the centre point about which I danced, his tail fanning. He was all my absolute everything, his freedom terrifying.” His identification with the kestrel is so complete that in some passages he becomes the bird, sharing the exhilaration of its flight. The  illness and eventual death of this beautiful bird left the fourteen-year-old Packham utterly bereft. Years later, he tells his therapist, “I think too many things broke in that moment, things that couldn’t ever be mended.”
Bullied at school and accepting his outsider role, Packham later found in punk rock an outlet for suppressed anger. The joys and trials of childhood and adolescence are sharply recalled, rich in details that evoke 1970s suburban domestic life: Kia-Ora and jamboree bags, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Brooke Bond picture cards, Airfix models and the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs, the Clash and the Sex Pistols and new stacked-heel shoes from Tru-Form.

I suspect that Chris Packham, having so obviously relished the exhilaration of the "sparkle jar" of words, will want to continue writing in this lushly descriptive vein. 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier, reviewed by Linda Newbery

I've recently enjoyed Tracy Chevalier's latest novel, AT THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD, set in nineteenth-century Ohio and California, and now can't think why I hadn't read this one sooner, as its subject - Mary Anning and her fossil discoveries in the early 19th century - is so obviously appealing.

Chevalier's hallmark is to make historical settings and people seem fresh and immediate; she never lets research overload the story or weigh it down with archaic diction. We're soon immersed in the daily and domestic lives of the two first-person narrators. Within pages, we're at Lyme Regis and Charmouth, out on the beach, aware of the incoming tide and the dangers of landslips, eyes peeled for belemnites and the ammonites believed at that time to be coiled snakes.  

Both alternating viewpoints are based on historic figures: Elizabeth Philpot, newcomer to Lyme Regis, unmarried in a household of women, finding a keen interest in fossil-hunting; and Mary Anning herself, only ten when the novel begins, uneducated and self-taught, whose regular finds of 'curios' on the beach help her family eke out a living, especially after the death of her father. In fact it's Mary's brother Joe who makes the first astonishing find: a fossilised creature believed at first to be a crocodile but later named ichthyosaurus. Despite the difference in class and an age gap of twenty years, a close association and friendship builds between these two women - Elizabeth at first learning from Mary, later warning her of the risks of a love affair with a man who will never marry her, and more than once taking decisive action to ensure that Mary is given credit for her remarkable discoveries. A serious quarrel between them causes a lasting rift, yet this relationship is the most important in the novel, and through it Chevalier shows us the difficulties for women engaged in science in the early nineteenth-century - how easily their achievements can be purloined by men, and their contributions dismissed as insignificant. The alternating narratives show us the passionate, impulsive yet practical Mary, who believes that she owes her special gift to her survival of a lightning strike as a baby, counterbalanced by the more worldly and rational Elizabeth, who tries to help the Annings through the ups and downs of financial hardship and whose links with London take her into male-dominated institutions such as the Geological Society.

Chevalier's ability to present historical events as if they're unfolding in front of us gives startling impact to the characters' bafflement at the 'monster' fossils Mary finds, seen through the lens of nineteenth-century religious belief. If they are God's creatures, why are none like them alive today? The concept of extinction barely exists - were these animals, then, among those on Noah's Ark, Mary asks at one point? A clergyman, faced with Mary's reasonable question that since God made the land before the animals, how could fossils be embedded in rocks, replies that God must have placed the fossils there to test our faith. The novel places us at the dawn of understanding the true age of the Earth, then believed - according to Bishop Ussher's calculations - to have been a mere 6,000 years old. (Indeed, Bishop Ussher concluded that Heaven and Earth were created on the night preceding the 23rd October 4004 BC: 'I had always wondered at his precision,' Elizabeth reflects.) Mary Anning's discoveries of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs were significant in shaping evolutionary theory - leading to ideas which revolutionised our view of the human population just as surely as the discovery that the sun, rather than the Earth, is the centre of our universe.

Such big ideas could have overwhelmed the novel in hands less skilled than Chevalier's. We're left with the picture shown on the rather beautiful cover: a headstrong, unconventional girl and her older, more cautious friend, a windswept beach, a search that may prove fruitless or may unlock more of Earth's secrets.

Both Mary and Elizabeth are given recurring motifs. Mary's is the lightning, which she believes courses through her body at moments of revelation, love and - on one occasion - sexual ecstasy. Elizabeth's is her habit of defining people according to which feature they 'lead by'. Mary Anning leads with her eyes; her sister Margaret leads with her hands. Meeting the attractive but possibly manipulative Captain Birch, Elizabeth comments: 'I have never trusted a man who leads with his hair. Only a vain, overconfident man does that.'

I don't know who Tracy Chevalier had in mind when she wrote that phrase. But I know who I'm thinking of now.