Miracles Leave No Trace: A Review of ‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

“Miracles leave no trace.  He had decided, hearing his father preach on the subject, that they happened once as a sort of commentary on the blandness and inadequacy of the reality they break in on, and then vanish, leaving a world behind that refutes the very idea that such a thing could have happened.”

Jack is the protagonist of the fourth book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series – if series it can be called.   I question the word because I am not sure if it is one the author would have considered or wanted.  All these books can be read individually,  although they are connected by family stories and by underlying philosophical questions. 

The first book Gilead is an epistolary novel narrated in the unique voice of Presbyterian Minister Reverend John Ames and set in a fictional Iowan town.  The text of Gilead is framed as a letter from Ames to his young son, a child born to him late in life.    Wise and kind, Ames’ letters are his legacy to the child – a legacy of grace in all senses of the word, of familial love and sometimes quiet humour.    

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

“For a dying man I feel pretty good and that is a blessing.  Of course, your mother knows about it.  She said if I feel good maybe the Doctor is wrong.  But at my age there is a limit to how wrong he can be.”

Gilead was followed by the second book Lila – the story of how Reverend Ames meets and marries a younger woman.  Lila  has lived a hard, itinerant life and has arrived in Gilead purely by chance, accepting a lift from a stranger from St. Louis.     At the time she meets Ames, Lila has set up home in an abandoned shack.

The term vagrant carries a perjorative meaning because society has imbued it with such.   It shows everywhere in our treatment of homeless people,  of Romany folk,  of anyone who isn’t apparently towing the line.  This is a state of being that is examined in Robinson’s new novel as Jack too is a character who is often homeless and jobless, although as I read I felt the author was asking less what it means to be an outsider, so much as compassionately recognising the outsider in all of us.

In an interview posted on Goodreads in 2017 Marilynne Robinson says of Lila: “there is a way in which her destitution has made her purely soul… .” 

 

Now Jack has his own story.      If you asked him, Jack would no doubt tell you that he is the black sheep of the Boughton family, the itinerant one, the tormented one. Being the son of one preacher and named for another is as good way as any to develop problems with your own identity, your own faith.

“I don’t know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment without giving anyone any grounds for hope, ” says Reverend Ames of Jack … “the lost sheep, the lost coin.”

When we first meet Jack, it is the early 1950s.  He is a bit of a drinker, a bit of a down and out,  of no fixed abode, jobless mostly, he’s even done a spell in prison.  He is a man on the brink of despair who carries round the address of his own tombstone in his pocket.   He calls himself the Prince of Darkness.

“- a bum, a grifter. A draft dodger was what he was.  Even that was a lie, no matter who had dampened his brown with it. Also his manners and the words he used and the immutable habits of his mind.  Sweet Jesus, there was no bottom to it, nothing he could say about himself finally.  He was acquainted with despair.”

But there is a way in which Jack too is purely soul.  He quotes Milton and Whitman with ease,  is a haunter of libraries and bookshops.     Many characters in the book may judge him for all the things that have gone wrong in his life, but the reader does not. Jack punishes himself in ways even the most vengeful god probably wouldn’t manage – and he is kind to stray cats.

Now a man in his forties, Jack  is drifting aimlessly around St. Louis when he meets Della the daughter of an important black family and herself the child of a preacher. The two fall in love.  Given the time and the place this is illegal.  For any suspicion of cohabitation,  they risk not only condemnation from both sides of the divide, but prison. 

This fraught but somehow beautiful relationship kicks off in the unlikely setting of a cemetery at midnight with a discussion about predestination. He believes in it being of Presbyterian stock.  She doesn’t being Methodist.

Well she said, this is all very interesting.  But don’t quote Scripture ironically.  It makes me very uneasy when you do that.”

“I am the Prince of Darkness.”

“No you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.”

It is not in the nature of truly bad people to think themselves truly bad.  Methinks Jack protests too much about his dubious nature. Far from being duplicitous or evil, he suffers it seemed to me through being overly honest.  He loves Della but he cannot be with Della, it is unthinkable what would happen to him. It is more unthinkable what would happen to her, a teacher and daughter of a respected family.   

And it doesn’t matter how many ministers Jack goes to for advice, he will never find one of any creed or colour to bless this particular union.  Those whom God hath joined…let no man put asunder.  But it’s hard to be married to someone when it is not legal for you to sit together on a bus. 

“The cosmic disorder. The disorder of things. There were no books with these titles, so far as he could discover, and he had looked.” 

Jack and Della’s story is a romantic story and can be read simply as a tale of love against the odds.  But it is inevitably a complex story concerning as it does motives and choices which once made, cannot be unmade, dashed familial hopes, the burdening of the next generation.  What is the emotional and societal cost of personal transformation?  What, as Jack asks, is the difference between faith and presumption.

Prohibitions against interracial marriage may be a thing of the past. But history has a way of coming round again in some form or another and there are and have been – and will continue to be – many other times and other situations in which people are not free to be with whoever they choose, or to love whoever they love.  Because there is culture, there is prescription there is prejudice, there is law which has arisen out of culture, prescription and prejudice. 

Many critics will claim for this or that book that it contains an examination of what it means to be human – but perhaps Robinson comes closer than most in a genuine philosophical search for an answer.

***

My thanks to Farrar, Straus & Giroux and NetGalley for this review copy.

20 Books of What on Earth Happened to Summer

Well it happened as we knew it would.  We worried and dreaded our way through Spring in a mute silence broken only by newly enfranchised birds and emergency sirens.   We looked forward to a potentially sickness free Summer, hoped for warmth and  a chance to escape from the same view of the same four walls.  

In June, the Greek Government asked citizens from the UK to kindly not visit this year which was apparently a signal for the Prime Minister’s father to leap onto a plane and go anyway,  while the rest of us dreamed of bougainvillea on sunny white walls, with accompanying lizards, and wept silently.

This summer became the time that taking a train required the same courage – and roughly the same amount of kit – as climbing Mt. Everest, neither activity being advisable or even possible.   Those who didn’t have to go to offices were grateful, while those who did worried.

Normal isn’t normal and nearly all escape routes are closed down by quarantine restrictions. July and August hurtled by with unprecedented temperatures (in the UK), forest fires, floods, hurricanes.   It seems like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are having a bit of a laugh.

And here we are September 1st.   

Mmm. Well on the book front I have made 16 out of 20 books of summer which given the rest of the above isn’t bad and five out of four books for Women in Translation month which has also ended. I can only manage six images as the new block editor makes me want to scream.

But now Summer is fleeing with its remaining unread titles and we are approaching the short and leaf strewn days of Autumn. A season of new books to read. Next up my review of Marilynne Robinson’s Jack the fourth book in her Iowan based series which began with Gilead and Lila about the Ames/Boughton families.

Enough with the Gloom Already – Two Delightful Books to Lift the Spirits

 I felt completely lost when I’d finished this book.  I wanted it to be twice, three times as long.    I wanted it to never end. I wanted to go and meet the real Edward and I particularly wanted to eat some of his delicious cooking. This is not fiction but the true story of (as described on the cover) an unexpected friendship.

What a character Edward is.   A nonagenarian who cooks like an angel – and such food, apple galettes, martinis (the real ones made with gin and served in a chilled glass ) apricot souffles, poached flounder.  

When the author first starts to visit Edward -a nonegenarian – she thinks she is doing a favour for his daughter who is a friend of hers. It is in fact her own life which will change.

Vincent’s story is a revelation. In an age of individualism and me-ism, there are still people choosing to live differently. Edward is one of them.

At the start of the book, he has just lost his wife Paula, aged 95. It is a remarkable thing to witness the strength of their love for each other, even though it is necessarily told at second hand.

In some ways Edward is part of another age, but he is the best part of another age,  the part that still has time for courtesy and consideration.    The part that believes our lives have meaning – not because of the position we hold in this or that corporation – but because of how we have regarded those we’ve befriended and those we have loved.

“The secret said Edward is to treat guests as family and family as guests. “

This book is a testament to a friendship that changed two lives and the world is a better place for it.

Dinner with Edward, Isabel Vincent. Pushkin Press. 2016

15/20 Books of Summer

***

Had it not been for WIT month I wouldn’t have known that there was an English translation available of  Eiko Kadono’s book Kiki’s Delivery Service. For fans of Studio Ghibli or just for those who believe a big of magic helps the world go round, this delightful story about a young witch trying to make her way in the world is warm hearted reading for anyone dreading the onslaught of cold autumn winds and rain which if you live in the northern hemisphere you may currently be facing.

I haven’t reviewed any children’s literature before. This I must do more of.

Kiki is a witch and coming of age for a witch happens quite young.  Batmitzvah style, coming of age is 13 for Kiki.  But rather than just have a party, she is expected to leave home and make her own way in a strange town which she must find for herself, where her skills as a witch can do some good for the community.

Kiki’s broom is not strictly hers but her mother’s old one. She has a talking cat – as all good witches must – and together they fly off to find somewhere new, strange and challenging.

They land in a town called Koriko and scarcely has the broom touched down in this new and strange town by the sea than Kiki is asked to deliver a baby’s lost pacifier to an unpacified baby, which she does, and thus she achieves her first challenge and thus is born  Kiki’s Delivery Service.

This book, which inspired the great film maker Miyazaki, is illustrated in black and white by Joe Todd-Stanton. Kiki ‘s Delivery Service is a complete delight from beginning to end. 

Kiki’s Delivery Service. Eiko Kadano, (Penguin Random House 2020)

5/4 Women in Translation Month

16/20 Books of Summer

King Kong Theory – If Only it Was All Just History

If it had not been for Women in Translation month I might never have got to these books, so it’s been a valuable lesson for me. I’m still waiting for my copy of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Meanwhile, here are two more books from Indie presses: a translation from the French of Virginie Despentes’ book, King Kong Theory and a translation from the Spanish by Selva Almada’s The Wind that Lays Waste.

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated by Frank Wynne.

This book is a guided tour around the cultural realities which underlie society’s attitude to rape, prostitution, pornography and violence to women.  These are subjects on which Despentes is more than qualified to write, having worked as a prostitute, made porn films and been raped herself.  She is also a highly articulate writer whose book Vernon Subutex 1 was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018.

While men use the services of prostitutes with impunity, Despentes writes,  the girls who undertake the work are castigated and criminalised.  Even if they voluntary do this work for good money, the girls will still be subject a wall of do-goodery telling them to turn back while yet they may, to undertake something more valuable and worthwhile (like working in a supermarket for the minimum wage). 

Motherhood is still touted as ‘the quintessential female experience’.  Why?  This seems archaic if not ridiculous given climate change and global economic collapse.   You may not have a job, or a job that pays very well, even if you do have those things there is no guarantee that you will keep it – especially not if you are a woman with a child to care for – but hey have a baby! Preferably two or three.  Never mind that in 2020,  30% of all children in the UK are living below the poverty line.

“It’s not about pitting the miserable gains of women against the miserable gains of men. It’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.”

Quite.  But what whole thing?  According to the author,  what women have internalised over the centuries is less about our own inferiority – although that is of course a given – but that our burgeoning independence is dangerous in and of itself.  Women are the threat.

Since we women managed to unshackle ourselves from the kitchen sink (although most of us haven’t, we just do everything) we are always off somewhere frightening men, making them behave in ways they never would have done if we had simply stepped out of the way a bit quicker, been less provocative, shut up a bit more, dressed more modestly, been prettier, uglier, more silent, fatter, thinner. 

Feminism takes many guises.  Some campaign for more girls of school age to take science and maths courses, some to close the gender pay gap, some like to analyse the glass ceiling.  But  the fact that girls are less like to join science courses, less likely to earn a decent wage or even the same as a man in the same job, less likely to break that glass ceiling,  are symptoms of a deeper malaise around attitudes to women that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but somehow haven’t. 

This book was originally published in 2006. The fight it seems goes on. Written in a ferocious style and with an abundance of sexual swear words, this is not a book for the squeamish.  It would be wonderful if we could read King Kong Theory as a history book and say, what a struggle that all was but it’s over now. 

Sadly it isn’t and we can’t.

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Selva Almada, The Wind that Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews, Charco Press.

Originally published in Spanish, the story concerns an itinerant preacher, Reverend Pearson and his daughter Leni as they travel to visit a friend of her father’s, Pastor Zack, in Northern Argentina. We learn that this is the only life Leni knows, travelling and staying in run down hotels ‘near the old bus terminal – overlooking the red light district’ with her evangelist father. The only memory she has of her mother is one of the mother being left on a road somewhere with a suitcase and the Reverend driving away with young Leni in the back watching.

“The boss comes and speaks to you with strong dependable words, making promises for the future. He speaks like a father. After hearing him you say to each other: How well he spoke; his words are simple and true; he speaks to us as if we were his children… But I say to you, beware of strong words, beautiful words…”

This extract is from one of Reverend Pearson’s sermons, ironically those who are persuaded by him might equally beware in his strong words… beautiful words.

Leni is now 16 years old. On this particular journey, their car breaks down and so begins a powerful story of belief, guilt, sacrifice and manipulation worthy of the best work of Carson McCullers and Alice Munro. You think you are reading a book in which nothing happens except a car breaks down on a boiling hot day, but then you realise the car’s engine is the the least of what needs fixing among the lives of the characters.

4 out of 4 WIT month

14/20 Books of Summer

Winter in Sokcho

The town was entombed in frost ….

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Winter in Sokcho is a debut and already prizewinning novel from Elisa Shua Dusapin with a strong sense of atmosphere and place.   At 154 pages it’s a quick to read and an engaging story set in the seaside resort of Sokcho on the border of South and North Korea.   

A young woman works in the reception of a sparsely attended guesthouse her mother sells fish in the market:

“My mother lived at the port, above the loading bays, in one of the apartments reserved for fishmongers. Noisy, Cheap. My childhood home.”

Despite her inauspicious surroundings the narrator likes where she lives. 

 

She has a boyfriend called Jun-oh who is off to Seoul to enroll on a modelling course (as in him becoming a model rather than making models out of clay). 

Theirs is a modern relationship:

“He stood up, checked himself out in the mirror , said he didn’t think they’d expect him to have surgery, but if they did, he was prepared to have his nose, chin and eyes done.  He turned to face me.  Clinics were offering deals, by the way, I should look into it, he’d bring me some brochures for facial surgery.”

The girl’s mother seems to want her to have facial surgery too.  If there is a quicker way than this to have an identity crisis I’m not sure what it is and the poor kid already has some kind of eating disorder.   Interestingly another young lady – one of the few guests staying at the drab guesthouse – has her face all bandaged up, presumably as a result of having accepted one of the deals offered by the clinic. 

Virginie Despentes says in her feminist text King Kong Theory (reviewed next):

“No society has ever demanded such complete submission to aesthetic diktats, so many modifications  that purport to feminise the body.” 

Whose ideals are we trying to live up to here? And why? This is one of the points that Dusapin makes but she does not push an agenda.  Things in Sokcho simply are what they are. Take it or leave it.  

A Frenchman – a comic book artist called Yan Kerrand – turns up at the guest house.  We are not sure whether he will take it or leave it.   He and the girl develop a semi- friendship and she accompanies him on a trip to the borderland between South and North. 

This is a Korea of plastic waste and urban sprawl alongside the fishmarkets. 

 

There is a lot of food, mostly fish, scowling, often unappetising sounding or even poisonous.  The Frenchman declines the food,  surviving off Dunkin’ Donuts during his stay.   She is keen for him to set a story locally perhaps secretly she wants to be in the story. 

I enjoyed this book, the way the landscape and Kerrand’s pen and ink drawings of it form a backdrop to the interior lives of the characters.  The way he struggles to form a character – a line drawing – and how it slips frustratingly away in the composition. 

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.  Translated into English by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

Published by Daunt Books Originals 2020

2 out of 4 Women in Translation Month

12/20  Books of Summer

Question: does anyone else find the wordpress blocks editor slow, cumbersome, non-intuitive, inflexible, clunky and boring? Or maybe its just me.


How to Build a Life When No-one Has Left You the Manual

“Not only could you see into the Dutch house, you could see straight through it.  The house was shortened in the middle, and the deep foyer led directly into what we called the observatory, which had a wall of windows facing the backyard.  From the driveway you could let your eye go up the front steps, across the terrace, through the front doors, across the long marble floor of the foyer, through the observatory, and catch sight of the lilacs waving obliviously in the garden behind the house.”

In Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House this description of the house as see-through,  its  insubstiantiality,  is an interesting idea and I’m not sure if the metaphor is deliberate.     Do we lose our sense of self over a house?  If that is true the converse must also be true, that we can gain one.    We can love a house, or we can dislike it.  See it as status symbol, or be bored by it.  Be obsessed or haunted by it or completely indifferent.  We can also feel that the place where we live is so far removed from anything that we think of as being ‘us’ that it becomes impossible to live there.   But a house – whether glass or otherwise –  cannot be anything other than a reflection of those who live within its walls.   

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This book was longlisted for the 2020 prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for fiction) but for some reason failed to make the shortlist.   The last time Patchett won was with Bel Canto in 2002.  There are  fine books on the shortlist, yet the omission of this one does seem to me extraordinary.

It is hard to pin down this jewel of a book into any category – it is a family drama among many family dramas.  It is  a Cinderella narrative without a Prince.   It is clever; the dialogue pitch perfect and it shines with humanity.

The narrator, Danny and his Sister Maeve start off the novel as children of a wealthy father living in an exceptional house – the house of the title.  But Danny and Maeve’s lives are about to be changed beyond recognition by the departure of their mother from the family home, and the arrival of a woman called Andrea.  So far so nothing much unusual in literary terms.  But it is not so much what happens in The Dutch House as the way that it happens.   We follow in real time the unfolding of Danny and Maeve’s ‘new normal’ and while their lives may not be pure joy, reading this book surely is.

The finest character is Danny’s sister, Maeve, a few years older than him it is she who takes on the task of rebuilding what has been broken, it is her portrait – painted when she was 10 years old – that hangs above the fireplace in the drawing room of The Dutch House,  and which graces the front cover of Bloomsbury’s paperback edition.  We could all do with a Maeve in our lives.

The FT reviewer called Ann Patchett  ‘a chronicler of the burdens of emotional inventory’. 

The emotional inventory in this book is huge, but what causes it?  The house?  The people who loved it excessively and the people who didn’t?  A past that can somehow never be caught up with?  A past than can never be reclaimed?    All those things. 

Mostly The Dutch House is a story about coping with abandonment and rejection.   While the house itself is a constant presence in the story, the book is less about the house and more about how to build a life when no-one has left you a manual.   

 

Don’t Look for Lemon Trees or Cafe Society in this Wintry Version of Italy

A Review of Grove, by Esther Kinsky.  Trans, Caroline Schmidt.  (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Nothing happens in this book – at least nothing that will not happen to every single one of us at some time in our lives.  Esther Kinsky’s writing underlines the temporary  and porous nature of the divide between those who have passed and those of us who, for the moment, remain.

Grove is about the search for consolation in bereavement by journeying both physically through landscape and re-visiting the landscape of memory.  The book is set in Italy – but this is not the Italy that many of us will know from 2 week vacations, with pasta and singing waiters,  nor is it necessarily a dark place.  Rather the language of the book makes it seem as though the landscape is waiting to emerge from some sort of limbo.

There are  gothic elements that surprise.  Do not look for lemon trees or olive groves.

Kinsky subverts our usual expections of Italian sunshine  in the cold and fog which predominate here.   There are wide terrains, often empty.    Commercial premises  are closed or abandoned.  Shops are shuttered.

Death is ever present whether in the stonework of the necropolis of Spina, the house by the cemetery, in visited mausolea,  or in the narrator’s own memories of bereavement – and all these things combine into a narrative of acute loss.   This is the language of psychogeography – where the external landscape reflects the narrator’s internal mindset.  The colours are all grey, white and blue, the colour of winter light.

‘This small plain in the winter light, too, was punctuated by tumuli.  The field of burial chambers … which the living prepared for the dead…’

 

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Photo by Oscar Nord on Unsplash

A woman who is unnamed – rents a house in winter in a hillside village called Olevano, South East of Rome.   There is no dialogue, there are very few characters other than the narrator herself.  We do meet a few ethereal others, they blow across the pages like autumn leaves:   a woman passed in a visit to the local cemetery, a man selling citrus fruit from a cart,  a cheesemonger in a shop who keeps laminated photos of goats in a binder to prove to his customers that his cheese is local, a few sullen teenagers on mopeds in the square.   Then there are the cats.

“There were cat days and dog days in Olevano.  The windless waiting days were for the cats.  They crept around every corner… as if born of the same quarry stone most of the old houses were built from.”

 

 

In wandering and looking, recording and layering new impressions  over the old ones partly recalled, there is for the narrator a coming to terms, a movement towards the hope.  Threaded through it all are memories of a man who we simply know as ‘M’.

“I knew exactly how we would have walked between these graves together.  How we would have entered the chambers, the stony beds, how we would have looked at the things depicted with a near tender accuracy…”

The book is divided more or less into two halves.  In the first half are the journeys, the observations, the descriptions of the narrator’s trips around the area of Olevano and the rented house.

“The leaden heart grew entwined with all I had seen that took root in me.  With the sight of the olive groves in fog, the sheep on the hillside, the holm oak hill, the horses that from time to time grazed silently behind the cemetery, with the view past the plain and its small shimmering fields on cold mornings frosted bluish.”

Ruminations on long past family trips to the area dominate the second half of the book  – the father wanders off for hours leaving  child and mother alone  in a strange guest house where ‘every piece of furniture and every step creaked’.  It is interesting that a great deal of the second half of the book is given over to descriptions of the father, yet he  is not the one being mourned but  ‘M’.  We learn nothing about M except that his death has inspired this grief and this journey and that he took photographs:

 “… these sepulchre images were a plea not to be forgotten, an anxious call of the visible, which arose with the invention of photography and wanted to be more powerful than any name.”

This is not a book for those who want plot and action, but for those who admire the intense poetry and lyricism of description and who find comfort in this excellent evocation of a coming to terms with the past.

I will definitely be ordering more books of these  collectible books from this indie press although maybe I wouldn’t want a whole row of these dark blue spines on my shelves – please change up the covers guys –  but the paper used is of excellent and sturdy quality designed to last, as it will need to. Like poetry this book requires more than one reading.

Grove is the fourth of my 20 Books of Summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the lovely silence has gone: A Review of ‘Ash before Oak’ by Jeremy Cooper

Lockdown was a situation that could not continue nor should it.  It has caused far too much suffering.  But there were a couple of benefits – a slowing down and some peace – if not peace of mind then peace and quiet.   Birdsong too.  The birds are back fighting a losing battle with horrendous building works and the smell of traffic fumes on the air.

On another level, this happens internally.  Our brains start running horror movies in our heads.   In the vicissitues and general exhaustingness of life, we  lose our peace of mind, our lovely silence.

Increasingly and perhaps because of this I have been attracted to works on and about   the natural world.  This week I have read Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper published by indie press Fitzcarraldo Editions.  This is the second book I have purchased from them  the other being Grove by Esther Kinsky which I am also reading.  All Fitzcarraldo’s books are given a uniform dark blue cover.   I’m not a great fan of the look.    I can understand the commercial imperatives but maybe  give an artist or graphic designer some work folks as they have commercial imperatives too!

This book is way better than its  bland cover suggests, combining as it does two subjects very close to my heart – the natural world and mental health.    It’s hard to get much more topical than that at the moment.

Author Jeremy Cooper has an original author bio.  He has a track record of expertise on art postcards, having appeared in the first 24 episode sof the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.  He is also a novelist and writer of non-fiction works.

Ash before Oak is definitely not about postcards.   It is fiction written in the form of a series of journal entries which chart the narrator’s stay at a house Somerset where he is renting a house on an estate called Cothelstone.  Initially the book appears to be a record of a man’s attempts to tame this house, garden and its surrounding woodland,  as the narrator learns to tell sorrel from not-sorrel and to plant Field Scabious and Ox Eye daisy in his new wildflower meadow, much of which he does ably assisted by local carpenter Beth.

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“Three cats live here now, in the old part of the cottage… “

But slowly into the lovely descriptions of flora and fauna, the ‘still warm sun of a cloudless October morning’  it becomes clear that all is not well in this rural idyll.   This is a man who has lived in the city and had other lives and other careers.  For someone in that situation to move to the country and choose a different life is not at all unusual.  Yet there has to be a ‘why’.  Ever since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall there has had to be a why.  Why is he here? It is a question that the narrator asks himself too.

A story that begins as an endearing battle with a mouse that moves into the house and refuses to move out suddenly becomes worrying, as do the references amidst the descriptions to feelings of being trapped and anxious.   Trapped?  When surrounded by all this natural wonder?  Something can’t be right.  And surely enough, something isn’t.  The fragility of the narrator’s mental state becomes apparent.

And while connections between nature and recovery from mental illness are not earth shatteringly new, they do not need to be.  It is the writing which counts and Ash before Oak is beautifully written.   The advantage of the journalistic entry style of writing is the author can get carried away with memories of hearing Alfred Brendel play or an anecdote about the composer Messiaen playing the piano in a prisoner of war camp, it’s fine to pop it in.   There are many references to both art and music throughout the book and these build a picture of a former life lived in London,  but one that has been abandoned.

Not many books have felt to me to be relevant or indeed as easy to read during this time of the world’s desperate uncertainty and difficulty – at least that has been my personal experience.  But Ash Before Oak felt completely right.  It is a complex book cleverly written which reveals it’s secrets slowly, or perhaps some of them not at all.

A Paean to Women Everywhere, The Uncounted and Unconsidered Survivors of War

No-one knows who Homer was and it is most unlikely that the epic poems called The Iliad and The Odyssey are the result of a single author.   There is one line of thought that these epic poems were written by a single author and another that they are the result of many contributions and that “Homer” is in fact a tradition rather than the name of an individual.

Does it matter? Well yes it does matter – in fact I believe it matters a lot. Perhaps not the authorship but the ideology, the assumptions.   Because we are our stories.  We are what we believe.  If Homeric is a tradition, then Natalie Haynes has just added a new voice which doesn’t exactly blow great holes in the original.  Rather it fills an existing void.

Haynes book 1000 Ships is a feminist retelling of the epic poems of Homer, of the Trojan Wars.  No longer voiceless or invisible,  the story is told through the women, the daughters, brides, wives, sisters – by Haynes’ pen given shape and substance, flesh and blood, personalities, anger, suffering and courage of their own.

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The Greeks and Trojans fought for over a decade – principally according to the myth so that Helen of Troy – the world’s most beautiful woman and wife of Menelaus of Sparta, can be retrieved from Paris himself the son of King Priam of Troy,  who has stolen her away.

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Despite the book’s title 1000 Ships, these stories are not about Helen of Troy.  In fact, she has a minor part.   Although the lines from which the title comes are famous ( I assumed they were Shakespeare. No.  They are from The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus written by the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe and published in 1604).

Was this the face that launch’d 1000 ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

It is amply worth noticing that Haynes in giving her book its title has removed references to Helen, leaving only the ships.     If men go to war, she is saying, it is not just because of a woman however beautiful she may be.  And don’t let yourself off the hook for all the killing and bloodshed by blaming her.

This conversation between Hecabe (mother of Paris) and Helen is key.

“The Trojan whore, is that what they’re calling you now? Hecabe asked.

“I would think so” Helen replied.  They’ve never been a very imaginative group of people my husband’s soldiers.

The Greeks finally win the Trojan wars as most schoolchildren know – or used to –   by trickery.  They appear to sail away with their fleet but leave behind a giant wooden horse apparently as an offering.  The wooden horse conceals Greek soldiers inside.

I found myself willing the Trojans not to take the wooden horse inside the city gates.  I mean why would you even do that?  But of course they do, and that is pretty much that. End of.  It is at this point that Haynes starts her story.

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At the opening of the book Troy is in flames.  We watch the destruction of the city through the eyes of Creusa who is searching through the dense smoke and dark night for her husband and son.  She will never find either.   Soon after the sacking of the city.   The surviving women of Troy – of whatever status – are lined up and parcelled out amongst their Greek conquerors to rape and enslaved futures.   This is the bit that the bards don’t sing about.

 

A Thousand Ships

“If he truly wants to understand the nature of the epic story I am letting him compose, he needs to accept the casualties of war are not just the ones who die.” So speaks Calliope (the poet’s muse).

But it is Penelope who is the star of this show.  At least for me.  Poor patient Penelope who sits at Ithaca and waits and waits for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan wars.  Meanwhile ten years pass!   On the way back he gets very busy having to outwit the cyclops and the nymph Calypso who wants Odysseus for herself.  Then there is as well a witch called Circe.  Penelope hears of all this through bardic tales, there being no email.  We in our turn only hear about this from Penelope’s increasingly ironic and irritated letters as she is exasperated by what sounds like the most ridiculous series of excuses ever invented by an adulterer.

“Because really, how many cannibalistic giants can one Greek plausibly meet as he sails the open seas.  Even I, expert in your ability to create trouble, think one set is probably sufficient for your story.”

I cannot say I loved this book unreservedly – there is a great cast of characters and I sometimes felt detached from them.  But I did love its sometime irony and wit.  Its humanity.   The writing is  clever, insightful and based on a mountain of classical knowledge.   Like all the best ideas, it is obvious once someone else has thought of it.  1000 Ships is not only a feat of imagination which creates living personalities out of mere mythic stereotypes, but it is a paean to women everywhere who have been the uncounted survivors of war.

Penelope writes:

“The bards all sing of the bravery of heroes and the greatness of your deeds: it is one of the few elements of your story on which they all agree.  But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind.”

Well now someone has.  And it is a song which is much overdue.

 

Lockdown Summer? With no books!

Well the weather is sunny here in  London but all else seems much awry. Are we facing a whole summer in lockdown? With closed bookshops?   I very much hope not. 

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Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

The good news is that I have discovered that my local bookshop is still doing deliveries – it took me weeks to have the commonsense to check their website to find out.  I am so over buying things from certain online giants who shall remain nameless that I’m only reading real books from now on!

Here is a look at some of my planned summer reads. These books are from the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 #ReadingWomenChallenge which includes both suggested reads and books from the 2020 prize shortlist. It’s an exciting list.

From the 2020 prize shortlist, I will not be reading the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy The Mirror and the Light because I haven’t yet read the second book.

Some of their suggested books I have already read:

  • Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin which I read some years ago and is shattering and iconic and I don’t think I could add anything to the reams that have already been written about it.
  • Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna which I adored and preferred to her more recent books Flight Behaviour and Unsheltered, the latter reviewed here.
  • I have already reviewed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo here.
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So here are my TBR’s from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2020.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ((Fourth Estate) 2006

This book is so famous I can’t believe I haven’t got to it yet. I am now rectifying that mistake. The story is set in Nigeria in the 1960s against the backdrop of approaching civil war. I am only a couple of chapters in but I already love the compelling character of the house boy, Ugwu, Odenigbo the man he calls Master, and the elegant soon to be arriving Olanna. There is a palpable atmosphere about the early chapters and I look forward to learning much about Africa through the story.

 

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Wiedenfield & Nicholson) 2011

The sound of this storyline is intriguing. There is an intergenerational mystery which is always a winner with me. When a tiger escapes from the local zoo – what happened to the boy who refused to be terrified of the escaped tiger? His grandaughter would very much like to know. Her investigations will, apparently,  lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book …

This is also partly a war time story set during the conflict in the Balkans.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December. Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees…”

Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships (Mantle) 2019

Natalie Haynes gives voice to all the women – not just the famous Helen – whose lives were affected by the fall of Troy. No longer are women the minor characters in the stories of men.

The blurb reads:

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greems and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash….

If and when I can get copies, I will add other shortlisted titles including:

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farell 

Weather by Jenny Offill

 Dominicana by Angie Cruz.

and hope to announce my own winner before the Judges decide in the Autumn.