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.

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.   

 

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.

Llanychaeron

 

“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.

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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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.
  •  

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. 

When writerly technique stares at you with bloodshot eyes …

It’s not often I rant on this blog.  But there are a number of things I feel very strongly about: income inequality for instance,   surveillance,   online giants who put bookshops out of business – oh and punctuation!

I am not talking about ‘correct’ punctuation or the efficacy of semi-colons or full stops or commas or apostrophes.    But there are a few  books around at the moment that see no reason to use any, ever.  Either that or they bombard you with  legions and legions of commas and little else.     Lucy Ellman’s book Ducks, Newburyport is an example.  ( Galley Beggar Press. )

 

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The fact that this book contains 1020 pages broken down into a mere 8 sentences, the fact that according to the Guardian review you eventually stop noticing the fact that, the fact that may or may not be true, the fact that I never got to the point where I could find out whether that was a fact or not, the fact that the book won awards and was shortlisted for the Booker prize, the fact that it still drives me absolutely bonkers.

My patient and much admired reviewer above said:

“There were a few dark moments while working my way through Ducks, Newburyport, where death seemed positively appealing as I was faced with another page of dense type…”

This I can understand.

Our poor brains derive meaning not just from one word to the next – but range back and forth across  paragraphs, pages or chapters, across clauses and sub-clauses because our poor brains need to take a break sometimes, or mine does.   Punctuation, like life,  is an opportunity to breathe. Punctuation is like the rests in a musical notation or rhthym.  Punctuation is the give-me-a-break friend of the sentence, our saviour from massive indigestible and exhausting tons of words piled unceasingly one after the other across 1020 pages.

Yes its true our minds produce things in bits:  ideas, dreams, scraps of proposed speech, memories, anger, to-do lists.  Our thoughts dart from one thing to another.  That was how stream of consciousness started and how Virginia Woolf used it.   But not many people can do what Virginia Woolf did.     And how interesting are the contents of my mind – or anyone else’s – if there are thousands of reams of stuff put down in no particular order?

Aye but here’s the rub.  Because of course in books there is an order so why pretend there is not?   For  all its technical in-your-face-ery Ducks, Newburyport is still a story  about a  woman in Ohio looking back across her life.  And oh boy can this lady look back.

Ducks’ author Lucy Ellman is  the daughter of James Joyce according to my much admired Guardian reviewer,  and therefore I do not get into a discussion about what should or should not constitute stream of consciousness because I really do not know.  I only know what I find manageably readable.  I only know when writerly technique rams itself into your face about an inch away and stays there staring at you with bloodshot eyes going “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah”  for 1000 pages  it’s time to close the book and your eyes in sheer exhaustion.

***

From the same publisher comes Toby Litt’s Patience.  This is certainly not anything like 1000 pages long nor is it comprised of one sentence.  Here – oh joy, one may find such luxuries as full stops and paragraphs  although now I look again not very many commas.  Hardly any in fact. OK. None.

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I worry slightly that this stream of consciousness thing is catching.

Litt’s story concerns itself with a  young boy who suffers from cerebral palsy.  He lives in an orphanage run by nuns. The date is 1979.

There are many things to love about this book.   Not least the poignant way even well meaning human beings treat the disabled.    We have access to the narrator Elliott’s interior rebellion  which his disability renders impossible to action.  But when a new boy Jim comes to the ward, the rebellion is definitely on!

Elliott’s  age is not given.  He measures his life in Christmas Cards from his family at the beginning of the book which itself a bit of tear jerker and then later on he measures his life in days after Jim’s arrival.

Elliott has been unable to engage with any traditional education but has spent a large amount of time listening to the radio and taught himself, particularly about music.    He has very cogent and philosophical thoughts some of which are about the nature of god, guilt and Jesus.

“Creation must be forgiveness or else God is not God but Jehovah Jesus is not Jesus by the Thief and the Holy Spirit is not Holy but Hollow and is not a Spirit but a Sprite full of Spite and full of Holes and thus was I angry that afternoon at the Sisters and especially Sister Britta for making a guiltless boy pray to a guilty God or a God who did not exist making him pray for forgiveness for a sin that never existed except in the guilty head of a Sister.”

If you feel out of breath after reading the above quote, the whole book is like this but at least it feels to be like there is some internal logic to this idea.  Elliot cannot speak so the whole book is one long thought.    But Litt, unlike his stable mate Ellman, writes sentences that we know will end sometime although in opposition to Ducks, Patience takes out most of the commas, it is at least possible to tune in to a natural rhythm in these sentences.

Elliott befriends  Jim, a new boy on the ward.  Jim is not pliable.  He persists in defiance.   Taking up a position by a wooden gate between the ward and the lift, between the ward and the exit and freedom and the normal lived world that is inaccessible to these children.   But  to stand thus is very much Against the Rules.   Jim is not allowed to stand by the wooden gate and he knows this.  But he challenges the authority of the nuns by doing so.

I liked the wooden gate.  It was a brilliant metaphor for the shut away-ness of lives that are seen as other, as less.

 

‘Like a Ghostly Roll of Drums’: Four Inspirational Women Writers Beat the Measure of Life

I’ve been posting about people who have changed or are changing the way we see the world as part of my inspiration for Spring series.  Last week was the turn of the guys . Here are my four  inspirational women writers.

Virginia Woolf

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In Hermione Lee’s 800 page biography of  Virginia Woolf (Chatto & Windus, 1996) there is a photograph of Virginia  wearing her mother’s dress, taken for Vogue in 1926.   The dress appears to be of taffeta silk,  has voluminous puffed sleeves and a lace collar, a fitted waist barely visible in the picture.  It is a lovely photograph, taken at an age when Virginia was in her forties – no longer to be strictly defined as young,  yet she looks it, young, very thin and fragile.

This was the year she wrote ‘To the Lighthouse’.    In the same year there was a general strike and the first ‘talkie’ films would shortly be produced.  In two years time women over 21 would receive the vote.

Perhaps we think of Virginia as fragile in some respects, her illnesses and need to be secreted away from her London life.  But what enormous strength she must have required as a writer and founder of a new way of seeing, as minute examiner of the internal life of her characters (no one reads a Woolf novel for the plot).   Few would argue that Woolf was one the great writers of the 20th century.  Her work created, witnessed and recorded the extraordinary from the ordinary, the epiphanic moment in going to buy the flowers oneself.

Virginia was also a survivor of sexual abuse and incest.  A sufferer from mental illness – for which she became outcast to Richmond from her accustomed London circles, and scion of the famous Bloomsbury group.   She was wife to Leonard and lover to Vita Sackville-West.

I am fascinated as to why she would choose to be photographed in Vogue.  Perhaps it was just an appealing idea;  who doesn’t love to dress up and have a professional quality photo taken?   But perhaps also she was aware of being watched, as a woman, as an artist,  aware of being visible in ways that women were not meant to be visible.

In the novel Orlando, Virginia’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, the hero Orlando starts life as a man but along the way goes into a trance like state and emerges as a woman.  As Lee points out Orlando’s biographer keeps disassembling then re-assembling Orlando’s selves: a reflection of Virginia Woolf’s sense of her own great variety of selves….

“Her life can be seen as a complicated range of performances.’

Maybe.  But I believe Virginia’s life can also be seen as having been lived to its best and fullest range and as inviting us to a different way of seeing.

****

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit in 2010

This leading light of the feminist movement and author of the famed essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which eventually gave rise to the use of the term ‘mansplaining’, is also a climate activist and documentarian of the changes that urgently need to be made before ‘we see the world in full colour’.

I have reviewed her autobiography Recollections of my Non Existence here.

For decades Solnit has been writing about unconscious bias against women in society and picking apart the ‘normality’ of ways in which women have every aspect of their lives dictated to them – not just women but persons of colour and non-straight people.

“One of the rights that the powerful often assume is the power to dictate reality.”

If marginalised and repressed groups are now reclaiming their own realities and ownership of their stories – including herstories – it is because writers like Solnit are helping to highlight the operation of (mainly, white male) power structures and the many ways such people have previously been silenced.

 

****

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Someone who understood those power structures,  and spent her life fighting them especially within the US legal system, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This lady has quite a CV and I will briefly reiterate a few elements of it because if this was my CV I would definitely want someone to briefly reiterate a few elements!

  • Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. RBG was one of nine women at Harvard (class of ‘56) – in a class of approximately 500.   She went on to Columbia Law School and to teach and practise law, becoming Professor at Rutgers School of law in 1963.
  • Only the second woman in history to be appointed to the US Supreme Court as a Judge (the first was Sandra Day O’Connor) Ginsburg is the recipient of numerous awards, was listed as an Icon in Time 100 (2015) and by Fortune as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.
  • Dedicating her life to equality for women, Ginsburg was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

In the preface to her book My Own Words (Simon & Schuster, 2016) she writes:

“[in the 1970’s] …  we were engaged in moving the law in the direction of recognizing women’s equal citizenship stature.”

My Own Words  is a collection of Ginsburg’s articles, reviews, essays and speeches including a moving remembrance speech for a colleague and friend – Justice Scalia – who had died unexpectedly.

“I will miss the challenges and the laughter Justice Scalia provoked., his pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp, the roses be brought me on my birthday, the chance to appear with him once more as supernumeraries at the opera.”

Her book can be a challenging read at times but it is incredibly generous, with constant references to others that have paved the way for women in the legal profession.

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Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland

Born in Dublin in 1944, Boland published her first volume of poetry New Territory in 1967 when she was 22.

That early realisation about the complex relationship between power, politics and poetry came to Boland when as a young mother living in Dublin in the early seventies she came to see that her life experience was not included in the male and bardic traditions of Irish poetry that she had grown up reading.

How then to write, if what you wrote was based on someone else’s history?

Eavan Boland said in an interview in 1989:

 “As an Irish woman poet I have very little precedent.  There were none in the nineteenth century or early part of the twentieth.  You didn’t have thriving sense of the witness of the lived life of women poets and what you did have was a very compelling and at times oppressive relationship between Irish poetry and the national tradition.”

Through ten books of poetry and numerous essays Boland wrote herself into numerous awards and Honorary Doctorates but more importantly, she wrote herself and all women into being in a new lyrical and feminist writing,  and in so doing altered the course of Irish poetry as well as opening up its history to include untold stories.

The late Irish poet Seán Dunne wrote:  “She has widened the landscape to include things that were always a part of it, but were ignored.”

 

“You can see nothing of her but her head

Bent over the page, her hand moving

Moving again, and her hair.

I wrote like that once.

But this is different.

This time, when she looks up, I will be there.

 

From:  Is it Still the Same?

(References and poem in Eavan Boland : A Sourcebook (Carcanet) 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Books of Solitude and Isolation

There is a difference between choosing solitude and being forced into isolation.   From the writer’s point of view at least.  But I think for the reader too.  I have struggled in the last week or so to turn to the books on my TBR pile.  My mind is searching for solace.

Before all the chaos started I had finally got into reading Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy.  But with the greatest respect to her genius, who the hell wants to read about 16th century plagues and beheadings at the moment!

History has left us littered with determined literary isolationists from Thoreau to Yeats, they perhaps were more easily able to arrange their lives to be free of any domestic responsibilities and never once had to go to Lidl or worry about standing six feet apart.

Now in our forced isolation we no longer have the luxury of popping home for Sunday lunch or nipping into town to get a packet of seeds for our nine bean rows.

Here are  five books that find solace in isolation.

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Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton

I first came across this journal of American poet May Sarton about a decade ago and I still return to passages.  She could turn the simplest observation into a wonder.

solitude

“The autumn crocus is marvellous and the lavendar asters, blue flames among the fallen leaves. I picked crocus for the Venetian glass on the mantel in the cozy room, and a few late roses. Then I cooked supper. The puffball was a terrifying mustardy green and tasted rather bitter.”

Sarton said: The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the light of a changing room…

Of Virginia Woolf – inventor of A Room of One’s Own, the work that more than any forged an indelible link between peace and quiet and the writer’s art – Sarton says:

“Fragile she may have been, living on the edge of psychic disturbance, but think what she managed to do nonetheless – not only the novels (every one a breakthrough form) but all those essays and reviews, all the work of the Hogarth Press, the social life…two houses…”

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My second choice is the wonderful Olivia Laing’s meditation on the art of being alone which I reviewed some time back.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing (Canongate)

lonely

“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”

The author writes:

“What does it feel like to be lonely?  It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”

Now here is something interesting.  At the moment no-one is feasting.  No matter where you might go on the planet (in your imagination of course) would it be possible to envisage any feast.   Misfortune is a great leveller in that respect.

Maybe it is harder to feel lonely and isolated indoors when everyone else is in the same boat.

***

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

This story about a young woman trying to transform her life against all the odds is definitely an isolationist’s dream read.

When I originally reviewed this In April 2018 I wrote : ….

“This is a book to curl up with and if you are feeling a tiny bit sorry for yourself it will magic you better. Indeed you cannot help but compare yourself with Eleanor and feel better – unless your backstory is even worse than hers. In which case dear reader you are much to be pitied.”

Many people loved this book and I was one of them with its message that even the loneliest of us can be fixed if we can just find the will to get up and out the door and address our problems, preferably leaving the vodka bottle in the bin where it belongs.

***

For me one of the most perfectly formed literary ‘outsider’ characters is the protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

Beirut is a city which has survived numerous attacks and invasions, sometimes from within, sometimes from without.  As with most wars, to those trying to save their ordinary lives from damage and destruction, it hardly matters who the aggressor is.

Aaliya is an elderly woman living alone in an apartment in Beirut. She has lived there alone since her husband left, fighting off the impredations of various half-brothers, in-laws and her despised mother –  who would like to take the apartment away from her.

Aaliya’s life has been books.  She spent her working life in a bookshop and read her way through most of the stock and then some.   All the learning she has acquired has been by reading.  She has an intellectual life which manifests in translating great works of literature into Arabic, including Anna Karenina, and then carefully storing the results away from prying eyes.

Looking back over her war torn city and her life,  Aaliya often feels small and worthless.  She says:

“In order to live,  I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe.”

From the reader’s perspective this lady is no more or less infinitesimal anybody else.  It does have an upbeat ending though.  The narrator thinks she is friendless and alone but finds in her hour of most need that people pop out of the woodwork.

Alameddine’s book is one of my top ten books on the planet about which I am hoping to post.

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Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens (Corsair)

crawdads

 

“The Marsh was guarded by a torn shoreline, labelled by early explorers as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because riptides, furious winds and shallow shoals wrecked ships like paper hats along what would become the North Carolina Coast.”

From a shack in this environment in the early 1950s, a young mother walks away from her life with a violent husband and from her children.  The youngest child, Kya, is just 7 years old.  For a couple of years she still has the remnants of her family but later Kya’s older brothers and sisters are driven out too.  Eventually the father walks out, leaving Kya alone aged 10 years old, in a shack in the middle of a swamp.

Within the context of the story,  Kya’s survival as the ‘Marsh girl’ as she comes to be known by the locals, is credible although from a modern sensibility it seems unlikely.  Living on the ragged edge of a forgotten and derided community, at a time when there was no social services and certainly no surveillance.   No one noticed much if a child was not in school.

But the scientist author is obviously extremely knowledgeable about the ecology of the marshlands and there are many passages of lyrical description which make up for any slightly suspect plot points of which there are many.  There is a plot twist at the end relating to a murder which I found unlikely in the extreme.

 

 

Knowledge is always a kind of magic – but some libraries hold the deepest secrets

Just about everything I thought I knew about this book was disrupted by the end.    I thought there would be bookish secrets from the past, lost keys, messages on torn paper,  appearances, vanishings, learned tomes in chained libraries.  And to a certain extent these things are present.  Books,  libraries and hidden secrets are hardly new in literature – even the cover design of the book is a romantic blazon of blue and gold with floral motifs.    But these are different secrets and a very different sort of library

 

Binding

Review of The Binding, Bridget Collins. Borough Press.

Part Copperfield with elements of Potter, my first impression was that this was a YA novel with a couple of four lettered words dotted around in order to aim the work at an adult market.   In this I was wrong I suppose.  Yet I often find I don’t understand artificial distinctions that are made between adult reading and young adult.  Yes there have always been children’s books –  but teenagers used to read pretty much the same as their parents – minus the Kama Sutra of course which was kept locked away somewhere.

It is ironic that the central characters in the narrative are themselves young adults.  The things which happen in the book, both good and bad,  happen to young people, while their elders and betters circle around creating havoc and making everything much, much worse.  And yet it is not considered suitable for certain age groups to read about things which happen to their own kind?

Anyway, to the book.  The title The Binding does not refer to the most obvious definition of a book binding – ie the gold tooled leather cover and marbled endpapers – although these certainly play a part in the story,  but ‘binding’ is a metaphor for quite a different field of endeavour.

Collins has a magic realist way of evoking settings and particularly the weather which is almost an extra character.  Here there is  a rustic way of life, tumbledown cottages on the moors, snow on the thatch,  the wind sighs, the cold sears, the sun when it shines casts its rays over dusty floorboards,  tools in the binder’s workshop wait patiently in the racks.

There are polished bannisters and light rooms with tall windows, there is quite a lot of moonlight and a young man who has suffered a mysterious illness is despatched from his family farm where he is happy and where he expects to spend his life,  to serve an apprenticeship in a book binding workshop which he knows nothing about and where he does not wish to be.  The reasons for this become clear as the book unfolds.

There is no definitive historical context for the work much of which is fantasy – yet there are horses and carriages and the postman calls once a week.    The shade of Mr. Dickens peeps out from among the pages of the narrative, particularly in the obsequious and sinister character of de Havilland,  descriptions of Castleford with its grime, its brothels, freezing alleyways and workhouse.

Knowledge is always a kind of magic, says one of the characters. Or is ignorance bliss?  That is the question that lies at the heart of the book.

As well as being a page turner The Binding is an elegant disquisition on memory, the meaning of memory and what constituent part of our mindset is played out by the things that have happened to us in the past.  What would we choose to forget if we were able and what would that forgetting do to us?  It is also a love story.