Sunday, 22 May 2011

An Englishwoman in France: Wendy Robertson

I recently had a fantastic lunch at the Bowes Museum (a treasure trove hidden away in the Pennines) with my friends Wendy Robertson and Avril Joy.  It’s always such a pleasure to be able to talk about writing with fellow scribblers. We did almost more talking than eating!  And as we left, Wendy generously gave me a copy of her new novel ‘An Englishwoman in France’, excerpts of which I’d read, and been intrigued by, on Wendy’s blog.

There are many people who claim to have second sight (my grandmother did) and it is still being debated scientifically with claim and counter claim.   Though being generally on the side of science, I feel that there are things the human mind can do which science still isn’t able to quantify.  Telepathy, kinesis, being able to see/feel imprints of past events, so why not glimpses of the future?  Will science at some point demonstrate that the existence of parallel universes (which Quantum Physics claims to exist) enables us to ‘bend’ time and see round the corners?   A couple of times in my own life I’ve felt compelled to contact some member of the family because I’ve been convinced they were in trouble, only to find that the instinct (if that’s what it was) had been correct.  And twice, inexplicably, I’ve ‘known’ that something was about to happen.   How do we, as rational, practical human beings explain these things?

I was always fascinated, when I was a young child, by a story -  which my grandmother told as fact - about two women who were respectable teachers, who went to visit Versailles and stepped inadvertently through some kind of door in time directly into the court of Louis XVth.   Did they really do that?  Or was it what Wendy calls simply the ‘shimmer’ of history - being acutely aware of the layers of time and human movement through it that being in ancient places allows us to feel.

Starr, the heroine of Wendy’s latest novel, is just such a girl, with the gift of second sight, and of being able to see through the veil and move backwards and forwards in time.  When her daughter is killed she knows that they ought to be able to make contact, but there is simply a silence she can’t understand.  On a visit to France to try to repair a foundering relationship, she stays at the Maison d’Estella in the ancient town of Agde   It’s a house and a town that Wendy herself is very familiar with and the historical context is beautifully evoked. 

In the novel Starr finds herself becoming part of someone else’s story, which she eventually realises is also her own. Wendy said that ‘structurally, this novel has been perhaps the most subtle task I have given myself.  The challenge was to make the two stories merge then part and make it seem simple and natural rather than supernatural.’  The time shifts are very well-handled and I found it quite credible.   This is another good read by an accomplished story-teller.  It's currently available only in hardback, but I'm sure the paperback won't be far behind.   Wendy must now have published around 24 novels - not sure of the exact number, but it's awe-inspiring at a time when getting a novel published seems as impossible as one of Houdini's great escapes!
Wendy also presents a  radio programme on writing, called The Writing Game, broadcast on Bishop FM, but also available as podcasts.  There's a good link on her site (I tried putting one in here, but it didn't work very well!)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Snowdrops: A.D. Miller

This was my first Kindle book and, because I bought it after seeing a review on a Book-blog, it seems to epitomise everything about the New Age of publishing. We publicise on the internet, we buy in the cyber-sphere and we read on the electronic page.

Initially I downloaded the book onto my computer via the free’Kindle for PC’ application that Amazon offer - it was perfectly readable on my net-book, but when I bought Neil a Kindle for his birthday present the novel became something different. For one thing I could read it outside in the sun; secondly I could read it without glasses because you can select a comfortable text size; and thirdly, it’s easier to hold than a book if, like me, you have Writer’s-Wrist syndrome.  (I'm not being paid to advertise Kindles, just in case anyone is wondering!)

I had a lot of worries about the electronic read, but it was very enjoyable - page turning in an instant and automatic book-marking (am I going to miss those random train tickets, envelopes, post-cards etc that fall out of the books on my shelf as mnemonic surprises?)

The title - Snowdrops - comes from Russian slang for the bodies that reveal themselves when the snow begins to melt after the long winter.  The novel itself is well constructed, with a strong narrative voice - a thirty something male lawyer called Nick, in Moscow at the height of the post-Glasnost feeding frenzy that created the new class of oligarchs. Nick is engaged in facilitating finance for an oil project headed by an ex KGB entrepreneur, and learning to cultivate the required level of moral blindness, when he meets two beautiful Russian girls, Masha and Katya, in the Metro. He is instantly attracted to Masha, the older of the two. Lonely, although he can’t admit it, he is easy prey for what he thinks are two innocent girls using him only for some great nights out and uncomplicated sex.

But neither are what they seem, and his habit of not asking questions means that he is soon morally compromised, plunging deeper and deeper into what he eventually realises is a dangerous game involving the murder of an innocent citizen.

The book is written in the first person, as a confession to the woman he is about to marry. It contains some of the most evocative descriptions of Moscow I’ve ever read, and conveys the heady, morally confused atmosphere of post Glasnost Russia with complete credibility.

The hero sins (as most of us do) by omission, and the message is that weakness can do more harm than positive action because it can facilitate evil. Not that any of the characters can be said to be evil - they are fully rounded individuals all looking after their own interests at the expense of everyone else in direct contrast to the old Soviet ideal.

Andrew Miller was a foreign correspondent for the Economist in Moscow for several years, so he knows the world he’s writing about. I will definitely be watching out for more books from this author.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Maggie O'Farrell: The Hand that First Held Mine

I bought Maggie O’Farrell’s novel when it came out in paperback in February and have been saving it up to read while in Italy. I’m always a bit suspicious of books that win lots of prizes, particularly the Costa book awards, which sometimes seem to be a bit of a compromise choice. But not this book - ‘The Hand that First Held Mine’ deserves every prize going. This is an enthralling book - the characters are well-rounded and interesting (even the minor ones), the plot never takes a predictable route, and the ending is as satisfactory as you could ever wish (though I would have liked to inflict some kind of unpleasant punishment on Felix!).
Above all the story-telling is superb, right from the very first paragraph:-

‘Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.’

What is about to happen is that Lexie, the young girl at the centre of the story, is going to bump into Innes Kent, an art collector and magazine owner, leave her suffocating family and go to London to seek her fortune in the 50s and 60s. Feisty and talented, she defies all the conventions of the time, lives openly with the man she loves, becomes a journalist and gives birth to a child as a single parent.

In the parallel plot, set  more than 30 years later, Elina is a young Finnish woman, an artist, who has just given birth to her first child. The birth was traumatic and Elina almost died. As she struggles to recover from the trauma, she realises that her partner, Ted, has been seriously disturbed by the birth and seems to be having some kind of breakdown, associated with flash-backs and dreams he can’t explain. Ted’s parents can’t answer any of his questions and in the end it is Elina who finds the truth.

This book is definitely one of my ‘best books’ of the year and one I want to read again.