Monday, 24 August 2009

An Equal Stillness

This is another first novel - Francesca Kay was the winner of the Orange Prize for new writers in 2009. At first glance the structure could be a bit of a cliche. An Equal Stillness opens with the funeral of a famous artist, attended by family members. Someone suggests that the narrator should write her biography and, after initially demurring, the anonymous narrator is persuaded to do so. 'Write the life, they urged me, even at her graveside; no one but you should do it. Who better? You with your command of words, and besides, you were the closest.' Apart from the first and last pages, the life story of Jennet Mallow is told in third person, impersonal mode as if it were a real biography. This device enables the novelist to take an overview of the life, compressing long periods of time into short sections of narrative and it also allows for authorial reflection. The identity of the author/narrator isn't disclosed until the end.

I read the book in one sitting - which says a lot for its readability - and was engrossed by the story of Jennet Mallow, a gifted painter, born at the end of the first world war, who has to struggle for recognition despite unhelpful parents, an early accidental pregnancy, an alcoholic husband and a daughter damaged at birth. Jennet Mallow discovers that, in order to succeed as an artist, you have to be selfish and that runs counter to everything that is drummed into women from birth and then reinforced by cultural stereotypes. Women are the carers, the enablers, the ones who make sacrifices. But, somehow, like many other painters and writers, Jennet manages to juggle home and artistic career, though there are casualties among her children and her lovers.

The biography is somehow less critical than it could be - difficult questions are avoided. This is a romantic viewpoint and - again - the impersonal biographical device allows it. I kept wishing for something more profound which could only have come from writing the novel from Jennet Mallow's own perspective. There is some beautiful prose in this book - sections of pure poetry. It is all very beautiful, balanced, elegant, crafted perfectly to arrive at the final lines - 'Life and death. For that one moment, time suspended, the length of a single held breath, like the spaces between brush strokes, like the sea and land in balance at slack water, in an equal stillness, life and death.' Shame on me to crave a few waves, an altogether stormier sea. This is definitely an author to watch out for.

Night Train to Lisbon

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
There are lots of different reasons why a book fails to delight. Four principal ones are:
a) It's the wrong book for the reader
b) The reader fails to understand something fundamental to the book
c) The writer fails to communicate something fundamental
d) The reader's expectations aren't in tune with what the writer is delivering.
I haven't decided which category this novel should be in yet.

I bought the novel because Waterstones had a 'three for two' offer and, having gone in to buy two novels in a hurry, this seemed an intriguing third. I had enjoyed Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind (which has a similar plot thread) and Sansom's Winter in Madrid, so I suppose I was on an Iberian trail. I love mysteries and I love books about books, so it seemed ideal, but, when I finally got round to opening Night Train to Lisbon, I found the central plot strand tenuous and too like other books I've read recently - Shadow of the Wind obviously, but also Homecoming by Bernard Schlink (author of The Reader) which has the same central theme - a lost book that leads the main character to some strange discoveries about his family origins. Homecoming is much tighter and more absorbing (and more profound) than this. Then there's The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - a gothic novel with a strong narrative drive, that retells the story of Vlad the Impaler from a new perspective. Finally there's The New Life by Orhan Pamuk, which I found very difficult to read and eventually abandoned. But they all celebrate the book as a magic artefact that will whisk the reader away on an enchanted (and sometimes perilous) journey.

In fact Night Train to Lisbon's whole plot could be summed up by the first line of the Orhan Pamuk - "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed." Jolted out of his routine by a Portuguese woman who appears to be about to commit suicide, Gregorius - a scholar of ancient languages - abandons his students, and goes into a bookshop to buy a book in Portuguese. He finds a privately published volume by Amadeu de Prado, which engrosses him so utterly he takes a train to Lisbon where he begins to track down the writer and the characters in the memoir.

Pascal Mercier is a professor of philosophy and there are long sections, purporting to be written by de Prado, which discuss the nature of fear, the reliability of memory, our relationships and the very meaning of existence. I enjoyed reading it, though I got rather bored with the philosophical sections after a while and disappointed when the search didn't really arrive anywhere. It all seemed rather pointless - true the classics professor learned things about himself as he unravelled the story of Amadeu de Prado, but that alone was not rewarding enough for a reader who has ploughed through more than three hundred pages in a state of hopefulness. I was left without satisfactory information about some of the key individuals in de Prado's story - the hero/narrator fails to engage properly with the other characters, remaining an observer and recorder, and what seem to be crucial plot strands are never tied up and remain dangling and there are too many coincidences. At the end the reader is left at the door of the clinic where Gregorius is about to undergo some tests, without a single hint as to whether the results are going to alter the fabric of his life in any way. Nothing was resolved and there was 'no closure' as they would say across the Pond.

But, even though I found the ending flawed, the book interested me and it is certainly a serious 'novel of ideas' as the jacket promises - and there is some good writing, a rare enough treat these days. I don't feel guilty about giving away the plot or the ending, because neither are vital to a reading of this novel - it's all about process and the accumulation of knowledge, about the choices we make when deciding how to live our lives. It's not about fate or circumstance, the novelist seems to be saying - it's down to us.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Poetry Challenge

I've taken up the poetry challenge - I have to read a collection of poetry by a different poet every month for twelve months and review it on my blog. I already read loads of poetry anyway, but I want to take part publicly because anything that encourages people to read more poetry is a good thing. You're not allowed to include anthologies - each collection has to be by an individual poet - and there has to be variety as well as cultural diversity. You have to include male and female, national and international, public post award holders (poets laureate etc) as well as lesser known names. The idea is to move out of your 'comfort zone'. So I'm starting with Sharon Olds' Selected Poems, because that's the book that's on my bedside table at the moment, and I'm looking forward to finding new poets I wouldn't otherwise have read. This is going to be fun!

For full details read 18th August entry on
Image: Joel Harrison, ‘grace 2’ (2005) Auckland University, NZ

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The author Kim Edwards was, according to the website, 'born on May 4, 1958, in Killeen, Texas. When she was only two months old, her parents moved the family back to upstate New York, where Edwards grew up. Although she was interested in writing since she was a little girl, it was in her college years that the wheels were set in motion for her writing career. After transferring from Auburn Community College (now Cayuga Community College) to Colgate University in 1979, she signed up for a fiction workshop. Here, Edwards wrote her first story, ‘‘Cords,’’ which eventually became ‘‘The Way It Felt to Be Falling.’’...' She teaches creative writing, and has published a volume of short stories, but The Memory Keeper's Daughter is her first novel.

The story was given to her - a 'found' plot - by the pastor of her local church and she felt it was so extraordinary that she had to write about it. Kim Edwards talks about it in an interview you can read here.

I was attracted by the title when I saw it in a bookshop in New Zealand and put it on my wish list last year. This month, I was given it as a birthday present by my daughter and it kept me company in bed with the dreaded SF Virus. I'm an omnivore where books are concerned and like to alternate meaty books with a bit of light froth and cover the whole spectrum from non-fiction through lit fiction, crime and romance with the odd bit of sc-fi and horror. Where does this book fit? If you like Jodi Picoult, you'll like this. If you enjoyed Message in a Bottle, or The Notebook, you'll like this. The author's development of the central plot theme - a betrayal that rots a marriage at the root from the very beginning - is well executed. She describes an act done to protect someone, which in the end damages both the protector and the protected.

There's no mystery - we're told at the beginning that when twins are born, one of them has downs syndrome and the father - a doctor - decides that the baby should be taken away to be brought up by someone else. He tells his wife that the baby has died. The trouble is, the author didn't make me believe it, even though this is a 'true' story. I didn't know enough about the doctor's 'back story' at the beginning, to find his act credible. He just didn't seem capable of such ruthless cruelty. But from then on the motivations are perfectly worked out. The book is very well written and the journey the parents make towards their lost daughter is beautifully told. The 'Memory Keeper'? It's a camera and photography is central to the plot. And, yes, it does have a happy ending.

Friday, 14 August 2009

How to Paint a Dead Man

The links between Literature and Landscape have always fascinated me. Living in such a beautiful part of the world, known internationally for it's authors - Wordsworth, Arthur Ransome, John Ruskin, Hugh Walpole, Norman Nicholson, to name only a few - I'm always interested to see how my compatriots transmute their backdrop into words on a printed page. Melvyn Bragg mines his Cumbrian heritage regularly and almost obsessively, Margaret Forster subtly and more in memoir than fiction. The two youngest writers - poet Jacob Polley and novelist Sarah Hall are both happy to admit that their writing has grown naturally out of the landscape they were brought up in.

I'm currently reading Sarah Hall's latest novel. It's difficult for one writer to criticise another - we know, better than anyone else, just how difficult it is to DO. But I have to be honest about how her work makes me feel. She is - I think - one of the uk's most gifted young novelists and I'm always curious to read her next book. She has very original ideas, brilliant titles and she's an expert at plot construction. But so far her work has failed to move me in some fundamental way. When I read Haweswater I often wondered whether she was trying too hard to be 'literary'? There is a great deal of detail in her books - so much that I often wish she wrote more sparingly - but I've also been aware of a detachment, a distance, a lack of passion, or perhaps just the failure to communicate that passion to me (or my failure to detect it?).

How to Paint a Dead Man is much, much better than its predecessors. The temptation to overwrite is still there - I wanted more space for the reader - but there is real passion in her portrayal of the bereaved Susan and more profound insights into the complexities that arise from being human; how bad we are at the relationships we need - how we elevate reason over instinct, and value the activities of the brain over those of the flesh.

Sarah Hall uses her plotting skills to interweave four stories with only the most tenuous of links. A dying painter in Italy, a blind flower girl, Susan's father Peter - who paints the wild northern landscape he lives in - and Susan, a brilliant young photographer who has just lost her twin brother and her own sense of identity. I was attracted by the fact that the book's settings reflect aspects of my own life - the time divided between Cumbria and Italy - and, since I live with a visual artist, the daily argument between creativity and bodily realities. This book goes deeper and takes more risks than her previous books and I suspect that it will be a turning point in her career. It has kept me reading, despite having a head full of the swine flu virus. That has to be a good recommendation and I wish her luck in the Man Booker lottery. More please!

Thursday, 6 August 2009


Just finished Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock. This is very different from her previous short story collections because it's rooted in her family history and the memories of her own childhood and more recent past. In the introduction Alice Munro underlines the way we shape the narratives of our lives into stories when we're reminiscing, editing and embellishing them, obedient to the templates of story-telling we absorb as children. She writes about the process of researching her family's origins and writing about her ancestors; 'I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.' She traces her family history from the bleak austerities of eighteenth century Scotland to twenty first century Canada in a series of thoughtful explorations of the conflicts between landscape and character, individual and circumstance. But in the end what she writes is not fact but fable - 'These are stories' she insists, adding, 'You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does.'

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast: the Restored Version
I didn't realise that the version published in the 60s after Hemingway committed suicide had been significantly edited by his publisher and his fourth wife. Now Hemingway's grandson has found the original manuscript and published it as it stands. That doesn't mean it's how Hemingway would have published it, but at least it's how it was written.

There's a steamy, glowering photograph of Hemingway on the cover and it looks satisfyingly retro. It's a memoir of the author's early years in Paris in the nineteen twenties with his first wife. He talks about his relationship with James Joyce, Ezra Pound, (who kept a supply of opium for a friend), F. Scott Fitzgerald (usually drunk), Ford Madox Ford (who had halitosis), the terrifying Gertrude Stein, and the proprietor of the Shakespeare bookshop, Sylvia Beach. There's even a glimpse of Aleister Crowley striding past in the street, and Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda gets a minor role - mad and bad at Juan les Pins. In between these encounters we are treated to Hemingway's thoughts on underwear, sex, boxing, racing, french food and french toilets, and the way a writer converts experience into copy - input and output.

Even more interesting than the vignettes is the way Hemingway writes about the process of writing - or rather, becoming a writer. One of the sections that his wife originally deleted is a musing on the pitfalls of writing in the 1st person. This is fascinating because big chunks of the memoir were deliberately written by H in the second person 'you' and that was altered by his wife, who converted the whole manuscript back to the first person. He spent quite a lot of time writing in caf├Ęs, partly to get out of the small flat he shared with his wife and baby, and partly because he found the atmosphere conducive to writing. They were 'transitional places' and he found it easier in one place, to write about another. He watched people and listened to their conversations . He had particular working rules 'I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.' He would then go and do something completely different; 'I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything.'

There's always a perspective in memoir. This is an old man writing about a young man's life with the disadvantage of knowing how it all turned out in the end. The Hemingway who wrote this was a wounded animal, though he was scarcely into his sixties. His painful references to the failure of his memory (after Electric Shock Treatment) and loss of confidence in his own ability to continue writing, were excised in the original version by his wife and publisher - here they are given as they were written. The result is a more chaotic account of his years in Paris, more confessional than you'd expect from Hemingway, but also - perhaps - just a little closer to how that period of his life was actually lived.