Sunday, 23 October 2011

E-Book - Wendy Robertson; Paulie's Web

I’m pledged to read one E-published book a month and this time it’s Wendy Robertson’s novel ‘Paulie’s Web’.  Wendy is a much-published author with more than 25 titles on the bookshelves.  Paulie’s Web is the novel her publishers didn’t want because they thought it too ‘difficult’ for her readership because it’s about women in prison and the challenges they face when released.  It came from several years spent working as a writer in prisons, an experience Wendy describes as ‘challenging and life-changing.’  

‘It has taken me ten years to digest the extremities of my experience in prison,’ Wendy says, ‘and write my novel as true fiction in a way that pays tribute to the many  women I met while working there. If, by the by, it goes some way to cracking the absurd stereotypes of women in prison it will be an extra delight.  While there are dark passages here I make no apologies for the ultimately optimistic tone of this story which is a true reflection of the humour, stoicism and kindness that I was witness to in my prison experience.’

The novel tells the story of 5 women locked in the same white van to be taken off to the remand centre.  One of them, Paulie, has been wrongly convicted and when she’s released, 6 years later, she’s determined to track down the other women and find out what’s happened to them. 

Paulie is a great character.  Wendy says that ‘If you are interested in the experiences of people on the margins of our comfortable lives, you will like Paulie! She is great – clever, resourceful and capable of surviving the hardest challenges that life throws up at her.’  In the prison, Paulie has become a writer and the women’s stories are interspersed with extracts from Paulie’s notebook. 

This is an honest novel - neither a misery memoir - which so many prison books are - or a romanticised version of unimaginably hard lives.  It offers a picture of a sector of society most of us know nothing of - except what we read in the papers.  I grew to love some of the characters - particularly Queenie, the elderly schizophrenic given to wandering and having visions, locked up in prison (like so many people with mental health issues) because there’s nowhere else to go.

There’s an underlying message in the book - Paulie finds redemption through the prison education system - through literature.  Wendy intended the novel to confront the issues of  ‘justice and injustice in ordinary people’s lives’, but it does more than that.

Wendy is an expert story-teller and wordsmith and Paulie’s Web is a delight to read, even though the subject matter is dark.  Hanging and flogging members of the House of Commons should be made to read it.

Wendy has an excellent blog on

If you're interested in E-books and authors doing it for themselves, check out

Monday, 17 October 2011

Now All Roads Lead to France: Matthew Hollis

I'm always happy when I see a biography of a poet written by a poet.   Matthew Hollis is one of the 'poetry whizz-kids' in Britain - someone who has won all the prizes going and has now ventured into biography with this study of Edward Thomas.

It's one of the new breed of biography - that tackles one aspect or one period of a life rather than ploughing through the whole thing.  This one is very cleverly done.  Edward Thomas's whole life is reflected and discussed in consideration of the most important five years of his life - the years just before his death, when he began to write poetry rather than prose.

Central to the story is Thomas's meeting with Robert Frost who had sold up all his possessions and come to England in a gamble to launch his own career as a poet, feeling overlooked in America.  For 5 years the two men talked, corresponded, shared their work and encouraged each other.  There are echoes of their conversations in each other's poetry - compare Thomas's 'The Signpost' with Frost's 'The Road Not Taken'.  The book is very good on their relationship.  But I don't always agree with Matthew Hollis's analysis of the poems.

In the background is the (one can't help but feel) tragic relationship between Edward Thomas and his wife Helen.  The youthful marriage he came to regret so much that he sometimes treated his wife with considerable emotional cruelty, and which seems to have precipitated  long episodes of depression.   Thomas had love affairs with 3 other women (one a very young girl) which may or may not have been platonic, but all deeply troubling to his wife.  One feels pity on both sides.

There is always a narrative hook at the end of a life abruptly terminated.  The question mark -  what would he have written/done/said if he had lived beyond the war?  We can't know.   The question mark hovers in the concluding lines of his own poems and is one reason we are so drawn to them - the other reason is the poignancy of the foreshadowing - the poet's own haunting uncertainty - matched with our own reading of the poems with the knowledge of how the story really ended.

Edward Thomas's poetry is better, much better, than I remembered from reading it years ago.  Let's pass over the much quoted Adlestrop, and his poem 'To Helen' (the meaning of which changes once you know the background).    Thomas's collected poems are available to download in a number of formats, free, at the Gutenburg Project.   Read Bright Clouds, The Long Small Room, Liberty, It Rains, In Memoriam,  Lights Out (written after he went to France, believing he would die), There's Nothing Like the Sun, and the poem that he wrote last to finish the collection 'Words'.  Then read the biography.

Lights Out (excerpt)

I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.

Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.

There is not any book,
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.

The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And myself.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Under Storm's Wing: Edward Thomas

A Memoir of a life with Edward Thomas
Helen and Myfanwy Thomas

I’ve been reading this as an introduction and another perspective to Now All Roads Lead to France - Matthew Hollis’s account of the last 5 years of Edward Thomas’s life, when he began to write poetry seriously and enlisted in the war that was to kill him with such casual cruelty.

Helen Thomas’s memoir is a personal and passionate account of her relationship with the poet - how they met as teenagers, and became lovers in spite of their parents’ disapproval.  Her frank accounts of their youthful, innocent love making in the open air are quite beautiful, marking her out as a writer of talent in her own right.

They married (secretly) while Edward was still at Oxford, because she was pregnant and, although she was happy to live in a free relationship, Edward wanted to protect her reputation.  It was hard for the two young people.  Edward Thomas found it difficult to get enough free-lance writing work as an essayist, reviewer and hack biographer.  He suffered from depression and often had to go away and live by himself, leaving Helen to cope with the children alone.

 He fell in love with other women, or they fell in love with him - Eleanor Farjeon was one - and, although Helen skims over this - it must have been hard for her to cope with.  Behind her careful sentences there lurks the suspicion that there were times when ET wished that he was free and single and not burdened with the task of supporting a wife and three children. But Helen’s account asserts that they loved each other profoundly and this held them together, like trees strongly rooted in the ground, whatever storms were blowing in the branches. 

Helen writes of ET’s friendship with Robert Frost, who encouraged him to write poetry seriously - though it was never commercially published while he was alive.  The good thing about this edition (bought second hand)  is that some of the letters between ET and Robert Frost are included in a separate section.

The poem ‘To Helen’ was, apparently, written for her and given to her the night Edward Thomas left for France.  He died, not in action, but quietly smoking his pipe outside the observation post, when a shell whistled past him so closely, the blast stopped his heart.

Now to read Matthew Hollis’s biography which, I suspect, since both Helen and her children are long dead, may tell a slightly different story.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Divisadero: Michael Ondaatje

I love Michael Ondaatje's writing - lose myself in the prose like a horse rolling in the grass -  lost also in admiration of the close accumulation of detail that builds a fictional fabric you can almost put out your hand to touch.   Every object has a history - every character a genetic code.

Divisadero is Spanish for divided/division - and the novel concerns a loose collection of individuals, only two of whom are genetically connected:   a father who is a widowed farmer, Anna - his motherless daughter,  Claire - an orphaned baby brought from the hospital to be reared with her,  and Cooper - the son of murdered neighbours taken in by Anna's father, who works on their farm, both like and not like a brother.   They operate just like a family, but when Anna is 16 there's a wreck  - the group falls apart and their lives spin off in other directions.   The father is left to manage the farm alone as they become Coop the gambler, Claire the legal detective, Anna the writer, and the second part of the book follows the threads of their now separate lives.

Anna is in France, researching the life of the French author Segura, his wives and lovers, the strange gypsy 'family' he adopts - a web of relationships and broken families whose stories are compelling.  Segura's story forms the third part of the novel which makes parallels with the first.   Families, Ondaatje seems to be saying, are made, not born, and genetic connections are perhaps less important than we think.  In the end we're all alone in pursuit of our own lives.  We're all orphans.

I haven't quite worked it all out yet - the structural pattern the author's drawn - which is obviously deliberate, but isn't completely clear to me.   This is one to read again when there's less going on in my life.  Somewhere in all the interruptions - putting it down to pack boxes and drive on/off car ferries or revise Italian grammar - I feel I've missed some important point in the novel that would have made it all clear.  Dove Grey Reader identifies the Eureka moment as being on page 142, but there are no page numbers on Kindle .......   and maybe I did get the point, maybe I'm just looking for more significance or structural coherence than there is - Ondaatje is a writer who, after all, likes to play with form and genre.

The New York Times Reviewer  (Erica Wagner) called it 'a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’ sake, a novel ....... three tales loosely braided together like slack rope'.  Erica is also seduced by the poetry - 'He is a poet as much as (or even more than) he is a novelist, and the crosscurrents of his writing flow and ripple against each other as poems might.'    And, after all, what do you expect from a novel called 'Division'?

At the moment I'm happy to have read it for the characters and their stories and the prose that is almost poetry.   And it's on my re-read list for the next bout of flu, or anything else that keeps me in bed long enough to need it!