Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Lives Broken By A Fractured Mind

Francesca Kay's Translation of the Bones is exquisitely written & so, so sad. Set in a small Catholic community in Battersea, the story revolves around the events set in motion by the experience of an intensely devout parishioner,Mary-Margaret O'Reilly. Her learning difficulties are acknowledged by her parish priest & fellow parishioners . As in many such cases, while they appreciate her fervour, ultimately they find her a bit of a nuisance. They  take the easy route of ignoring  & dismissing her increasingly odd behaviour. Herein lie the seeds of tragedy.
As the story unfolds we follow the lives of the group, share their cares & worries, & see why Mary-Margaret's drift into a more & more disturbed world is missed. We see how those who could help her  don't see the warning signs & why the person who should be her strongest support  (her mother, Fidelma), is too broken & damaged herself to even recognise the spiral that her daughter is in.
I seem to have managed to make this novel sound like hard going & a depressing read. It isn't at all. Francesca Kay's poetic style & subtle nuance make for a beautiful reading experience. There is no happy ending &, in fact, a truly shocking centre point to the story. One of the things that I liked most about this book is that it carried on after the climactic event to examine the aftermath. How do people carry on after something so awful? How do you work through such a thing & its reverberations? How can you begin to understand the breakdown of a human nature to the point where it can see doing something so wrong as perfectly natural & logical?Another strong point about this book, for me, was how the author moves the work towards  the beginings of  healing, the tiny shoots of tranquility, even, for some, the start of new life & hope.
Lovely writing, to be savoured slowly & thought about deeply.

Dark Notes In A Wartime Jazz World

Well, Mrs W. & I have had our first serious difference of opinion about a book on this year's Orange longlist. Followers of her blog will know that, initially, I couldn't get into this at all:-
However, a good dose of jazz listening did the trick, something clicked, my ear tuned into the jazz slang in which Sid, the narrator talks, & I was off. I ended up really loving this book, unlike Mrs W. who DNF. (I am given to understand that this is Blog-speak for "had enough, threw it aside, donated it to charity/another eager reader, & turned my attention to something else.")
The story follows the lives of a group of young jazz musicians from just before the start of World War II to the German invasion of France. Initially living in Berlin they are forced to flee from Germany only to end up in Paris as the German army invades. Some of the group are Americans & some of them, including the amazingly talented horn player Hiero, are German. Eventually Hiero is arrested by the Nazis & is never heard of again.
Fifty years later, Sid & his friend Chip travel back to Berlin to attend the premiere of a documentary devoted to Hiero. The premiere makes a claim about his fate & that leads Sid & Chip on a journey into Poland & their youthful past.
As they confront the bitter rivalries & jealousies, both in music & love, that sealed Hiero's fate, we learn that events may not have been as they seemed. Or were they?
This novel ticked every box for me &, bearing in mind that I usually heartily dislike stories set during wartime or written in patois or slang; this has to be a tribute to a piece of superb writing. I really cared about the characters & I really wanted to know what happened to them. The book made me laugh, it shocked me (to my shame, I knew nothing about the lives of black Germans in the 1930s and during the war),& it made me forget that it was a "historical" novel. Esi Edugyan has created a group of such wonderful, living characters that you have, in a sense, time tripped into their world & are living their story with them.
A truly fantastic book.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Viewing Elizabeth Taylor

 It's Elizabeth Taylor's Centenary year &, as part of the year long celebration,Simon over at Stuck-in-a-Book is hosting  a discussion of this title.
He's summarised the plot far more ably than I, so I'm confining myself to considering some questions that he's asked contributors to think about.
What did I think of it? I can't say that I liked it because "liked" and an Elizabeth Taylor novel don't sit easily together. I was fascinated in the same way that you can be fascinated when you pick up a rock & see the creatures you have uncovered scuttling about in the light. This is what intrigues me about her writing, on the surface there is nothing much going on but underneath it's a different story. This seaside community of, apparently, staid, ordinary people proves to be a hotbed of intrigue, strangeness &, frankly, downright nastiness.Something that I think is a hallmark of Taylor's writing & why, yes, I would know this book was by her, is her ability to report the most awful actions so calmly. It can often be pages later that the shock kicks in & you think "I don't believe she/he did/said that". Just consider how Tory treats Beth, her supposed best friend, & consider whether your own closest friend would behave in such a way. Another hallmark of Taylor's writing is a strange, almost sinister, amorality; ultimately, Tory never seems to really care about what she's done.
Do I think Taylor succeeds in her aims? A difficult one this because I find it quite hard to catch what her aims are. Is she putting a solid seaside community under the microscope & examining all she finds? If so, she succeeds. Is she exploring choices that lead to ruin or redemption? Perhaps, but, often, the paths aren't followed to the end.  It's another Taylorian ability, as other reviewers have noted, to leave you wanting to know where the characters end up. What happens to them in five or ten years time? Is this deliberate, I suspect so.
Something that I find fascinating is the number of reviewers who find Taylor's novels funny because this is a strand that I definitely miss.Sinister & quietly disturbing, yes, but funny?
 "View of the Harbour" is one of my favourites by this writer. Quiet, pin sharp observation & layers of undercurrents that intrigue you every time you read it. It always leaves you wondering.

If you are wondering  about Elizabeth Taylor enough to want to wonder some more there's a workshop in Reading to explore some of her works:-

Saturday 21 April, 11am-5.30pm
Reading’s Own Elizabeth Taylor
Discover the books, the author and the history
A day of talks, walks and discussion to celebrate the centenary (1912-1975) of a great post-war novelist enjoying renewed popularity.

Here's a link to the booking page. 

 At a very reasonable £10 it looks to be a fascinating day.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Dark Underbelly of Victorian Matrimony

My reading of the Orange Prize 2012 long list continues with Emma Donoghue's "The Sealed Letter", a novel which explores the Codrington divorce case (a cause celebre of its day). Think of some of the more headline grabbing celebrity marriage meltdowns plastered all over the tabloids in the past few years & you will be able to gauge the levels of salacious interest that the case engendered.
 Suffice to say that I absolutely loved this book. Liked it so much I was almost late for work twice so gripped was I. Bearing in mind that there are no surprises (it's a well documented case) it is the most amazing page turner. You see events unfold from the points of view of the main protagonists. You see the breathtaking hypocracy of a society that can't get enough of the juicy details but is perfectly happy to inflict social ruin on the purveyors of the entertainment; & you hope against hope that, somehow, things will work out. It is a time in history when the role of women in society & the institution of marriage are subjects open to debate,  when change and new approaches are beginning to be discussed. Sadly, for the manipulative Helen Codrington & her former best friend Emily Faithfull change has yet to happen & they are at the mercy of a legal system that is cruel, unjust & stacked against them.
Happily, Emma Donoghue has realised the interest her wonderful novel has stirred & she does tell you what happened next.
Do read this, it's great!!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Orange 2012 Number Two In Which I Cure A Financial Headache

The synopsis of "On the Floor" comes from Aifric Campbell's website

"Aifric’s latest novel, is set in the financial markets of London and Hong Kong and tells the story of 28-year-old Geri Molloy who finds herself caught up in a deal that will put her career on the line."

Those of you who follow Mrs W. over at 
will know that I initially abandoned this novel defeated by the financial terminology. However, I read the Orange long list to encounter literature I wouldn't otherwise attempt so, determined to overcome my aversion to all things stock market, I returned to the fray. This time I resolved to just let the financial stuff float over my head &  allow the story to unfold & I am very glad I did. As Geri pursued her career in this (to me) incomprehensible world filled with unpleasant &, frankly, downright creepy, characters; as her relationship crashed, as she drank more & more & became less & less functional I wondered again & again why she was allowing this to happen & why I was continuing to follow what looked like a story with only one ending. However, it is at the point that Geri goes on one bender too many & her whole life implodes that the novel took me to a place where I ended up rooting for her & understanding why she was where she was. I can't say that the book has made me love or comprehend the world of  high finance any more than I didn't already but I ended up cheering Geri all the way. I would recommend this book but be prepared to grit your teeth in places if the stock market isn't your thing.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Off we go with Orange 2012.

Thanks to Mrs W., host of
I was persuaded to try reading the Orange Prize long list last year. I enjoyed myself so much, trying books I would never otherwise have come across, that I took very little persuading to have another go this year.
 Here's the first one I tried, "Gillespie & I" by Jane Harris. My copy came courtesy of a lend from the generous Mrs W.
The synopsis is from Jane Harris's website

"As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, over four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame that she maintains he deserved.
Back in 1888, the young, art-loving Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter, she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes - leading to a notorious criminal trial - the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disintegrate into mystery and deception."

I have to agree with other reviewers who have said that it is almost impossible to review this book without spoiling it; any discussion of the plot line in too much detail would give away the clever twists & surprises. Suffice to say that you will think you have worked out what's going on only to discover that you have been beautifully hoodwinked & that one person's take on events  is not that of others.  The book is a great read, a real page turner, & I enjoyed it immensely.