Eyes on the Prize

Is this one of the emptiest motivational statements ever invented? I mean it must come close right? No-one sits down to write a prize winning work – it’s enough pressure just filling out a page with a few hundred words.  The worry over the next bit of dialogue,  the next chapter,  the next paragraph, this character background, that description.  The whole thing coming together in some sort of cohesive, sensible, whole.  Every word having to be dragged forth from the depths of somewhere. These are the things that concern writers.

Publishers and marketeers however like prizes.    Prizes achieve two things; increased visibility and money – both of which a writer needs.  But to win a prize is also an encouragement so I should get down off my high horse and start trying to answer the main question of today which is who will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020?    

Or if it is not a big question in terms of global pandemics, it is a big question for book bloggers who care about such things. 

So far on the 2020 shortlist I have read:

Bernardine Evaristo Girl, Woman, Other

Natalie Haynes 1000 Ships

Maggie O’Farrell Hamnet (Reviewed Below)

Jennie Offill Weather

Photograph of Frensham Ponds. By Frances Spurrier

I have not managed to read Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light and I have not managed to read Dominicana by Angie Cruz

I have thus read only four out of the six shortlisted titles.  Yet today, 9th September, at 7pm UK time the winner is being announced.   So I have run out of time.  While it is not normal to  choose a winner on the basis of having read four out of six shortlisted books (!)  I am in the fortunate position of being a blogger and not a judge.   

Evaristo’s book concerns itself with the experiences of 12 different women of colour in contemporary UK with bits set in the US.  Natalie Haynes book is of women’s experiences as survivors of war in ancient Greece at the time of the Trojan wars and Hamnet  – in 16th century Stratford on Avon where Maggie O’Farrell lays her tale  (incidentally also a time when theatres are shut because of the plague) is about a woman and two children whom history has forgotten while canonising her playwright husband.    

Photo by Jarod Lovekamp on Pexels.com

These books are all works of vision, the writing is lucid the characterisation articulate, they are all executed with compelling panache.   These authors have created story where there was no story before,  just absence, silence and history’s marginal note.  These authors have produced strong and highly visible stories of women from times and places where women have been most silenced and most invisible.  Only Jenny Offill has dealt with the future.  Without the imperative of historical context,  she alone considers how we are moving into an unknown territory of climate destruction and for a while she was my front runner.    

Then as I read each one of these books I thought that this must be the one that wins. Until I move on to the next and then think, no, this one.  Ultimately perhaps it does not matter.  All these books are here to stay.  Today I vote with my heart rather than my head.  I do not think I shall ever again envisage the life of the bard of Stratford without seeing it as O’Farrell has written it, without seeing him married to the Agnes of this book, or parent to the Hamnet of her devising,  an unknown child whose name was given to one of the world’s most famous plays.  O’Farrell has written a scene for Hamnet and his twin sister Judith which will bare comparison with anything that was penned by their famous father, and this is my choice for winner


Hamnet

The name Shakespeare overwhelms every thought that one might have of writing about him.  I mean unless from a purely biographical point of view and that must be hard enough.  In any book that is ‘about’ him, he must automatically be the most important character must he not?

How do you overcome that?  This is the genius of O’Farrell’s book.  In the whole 372 pages the man himself is referred to as the husband, the son, the father, even the latin tutor, or ‘Latin Boy’ by Bartholomew, his brother in law, but never is the name Shakespeare mentioned.  Not even a ‘Will’.  And although it sounds as though it cannot be made to work, it does work and I was half way through the novel before I even thought about it.   This is what gives the other characters in the book room to breathe and particular his wife Agnes and son Hamnet.

“How can he live without her?  He cannot.  It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain.”

So what new do we learn about the bard? Nothing.  At least nothing except that he did not do it all on his own, that he had support.  That the cost of all that success was not borne solely by him.

“The father comes to the new house twice, sometimes three times a year.  He is home for a month in the second year they live in the house.  There have been food riots in the city he tells them, with apprentices marching on Southwark and pillaging shops.  It is also plague season again in London and the playhouses are shut.”  

Some things just don’t change.

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.


Challenge, Challenge, Challenge! Women in Translation Month August 2020

It’s not over till the fat lady sings as Will Smith said in Independence Day.  But nine titles read and only four weeks left to complete my 20 books of Summer .  I have to be honest it looks like it might be 15 books of summer for the Rune.

What to do if you are already behind on your existing challenges, why take on another one of course.

During August in addition to my other challenges – both literary and non-literary –  I propose taking part in Women in Translation Month.  Thank you to

 Meytal at Biblibio for hosting this project which I found at Annabookbel

So far as well as  20 books of summer I have reading through the shortlist of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

How am I doing so far?   I have read the following since July 1:

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht 

1000 Ships Natalie Haynes

Ash before Oak, Jeremy Cooper

No Time to Spare:  Thinking about What Matters, Essays by Ursula Le Guin

Grove, by Esther Kinsky

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson –  a reread. Not yet reviewed.

***

I will be  adding the following 4 translated works :

King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Original Language French

Surviving the War, Adiva Geffen  (Penguin) original language Hebrew – I have purchased a kindle edition of this one.  I’m about half way throuth  …mmm..!

Surviving the War: based on an incredible true story of hope, love and resistance by [Adiva Geffen]

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadano – not Miyazaki’s film but a children’s book and a departure for me on this blog –  Original language Japanese. It’s not published until August 20.

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Winter in Sokcho Elisa Dusapin (Daunt Books) Original language French

 

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.   

 

Two Narratives of Slavery

How do you escape slavery mentally even if you manage to physically? Do you ever? These are questions more relevant than ever in view of the events of recent weeks and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Colson Whitehead in his book The Underground Railroad (Fleet,2017) touches on this, with a speech by Lander, one of his characters, prefiguring Martin Luther King by a century.

In the first half of the 18th century, ideas of freedom were ever present. But an idea of organized freedom for enslaved peoples was then in its infancy.  The central characters in both books escape the plantations in the South where they are enslaved, by using a system called the underground railroad. But the conception of this system in the two books is different.

Avoiding the terminology ‘black’ and ‘white’, in Coates’ book The Water Dancer slaves are the Tasked and owners are the Quality.

“And what was this Underground? It was said among the Tasked that a secret society of colored men had built their own separate world deep in the Virginia swamps.”

the-new-york-public-library-mOhXYbJmSiI-unsplash

Thanks to The New York Public Library for sharing their work on Unsplash.

To enslave another race is an act of pure violence so therefore it is impossible to separate  cruelty from the slave narrative.  Coates’ book is more soft focus – the bad stuff happens but tends to happen off screen. In Whitehead’s book it’s a bit more in your face.  Coates book contains fantasy elements combined with its slavery narrative, and I wasn’t sure how well the two sat together.

At the commencement of The Water Dancer, the protagonist Hiram Walker is still a child, his mother is sold by her owner (also Hiram’s father) and the boy is left alone, then raised by a strange, solitary woman called Thena.

Hiram’s almost perfect recall ability indicates a mysterious power known as conduction which involves mysterious physical travel based on the power of memory.  This power relies on deep memory – specifically memories related to Hiram’s mother.

Not everything needs to be realist. But it struck me as a little incongruous to involve what is effectively magic and fantasy within a narrative of lives when all too often such things were woefully lacking.  This I found to be interesting – a dichotomy.  Fiction is fiction, yes you can make the whole thing up. But against such an historical background what are the duties and responsibilities of the writer?   It is an enquiry into the ultimate power of memory – perhaps.  If we can come to terms with our memories, that is itself a form of freedom.

Whatever questions The Water Dancer asks, and however lyrical its prose or rounded its characterization, in terms of its plot structure I found it  lacking. And because of this, I also found it difficult to believe in any real sense of risk to the protagonist, Hiram Walker.

The story is this.  Hiram is noticed by his slave owning father for having a photographic memory, he is taken up to the big house Lockless, as a servant and educated by his father. Hiram is ‘tasked’ with looking out for his half brother Maynard – heir to the fading Lockless estate – a duty in which it could be said he signally fails when, Hiram driving on the return from a trip to town – the carriage plunges into the river Goose and Maynard drowns. Hiram survives.

If you were a slave and driving the horse and carriage and took the master’s son with you into the River Goose – even though it wasn’t your fault – there would be some sort of penalty to pay, surely? Yet Hiram seems to escape retribution.  This was only one of the plot turns that I found less than credible.

Nevertheless enslaved  even in relative comfort is still enslaved. Taking the decision to run, Hiram gets himself into all sorts of difficulties and adventures before eventually finding those involved in the underground, the work of resistance and the abolition movement called the underground, a series of sympathisers, abolitionists and safe houses.

***

In Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad, the protagonist Cora is a very different person to Hiram.   Her mother has run off leaving her daughter behind aged 8.   Unlike Hiram, Cora has no-one to take on the role of her absent mother and is left to fend for herself on the plantation – coping both with the overseers and masters as well as the behaviour of other slaves.   She is old enough to carry the memory of her abandonment by her mother – whom she believes to have escaped to safety.

In this story the railroad is conceived as an actual railway, buried black and deep in the earth run by an eclectic and jolly mix of boy/men depositing frightened and starving runaways into abandoned mines, earthworks or ruined cottages.  A brilliant idea.  It is pure gothic. When Cora asks who built it, the reply comes the same people who build everything.

Because she has been abandoned by her mother she has difficulty relating to anyone at all, even her co-slaves.    She is not going to be anyone’s pushover though.  Even aged 8, Cora first shows her mettle when taking a hatchet to the property of another slave who has decided to build a kennel for his dog on her patch.  The dog escapes.  Just.

Cora comes from a long line of such hardship.

“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times… passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”

In both books, we see the impossibility of escape, how well the opposition is organized using informers of all creeds and colours – whereas any organization on the slave side is left to a courageous few prepared to risk everything.

Who do you trust?  In both Virginia and Georgia as well as South Carolina and other places where these novels are set–– the slave system was buttressed not only by the masters and owners but by gangs of ruthless men who had nothing better to do than roam the land hunting down escaped slaves for the bounty money offered for their return. One such man is called Ridgeway – and he has a particular grudge against Cora.  We feel his malign presence throughout her struggle.

Colson Whitehead interleaves some of his chapters with excerpts from real ads taken from a Californian archive for the return of escaped ‘property’ in case any reader is inclined to think,  its just a novel.

If freedom is gained, then what? How are memories of persecution expunged?  This is the part of the story as yet unwritten.

I enjoyed both these books.  But for me Whitehead’s book has the edge in terms of delivering a believable narrative.  I am delighted to discover both these authors and will be looking out for more of their work.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

***

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.

***

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.

 

20 Books of Summer – for a Less than 2020 Summer

It’s been a tough week here down at the old Rune stead with not a lot of reading getting done.  I have parked a snail on top of my TBR pile – a glass one, not a real one.  He’s there to represent the speed at which I am coursing through my  list at the moment.    And can someone please tell me why – apart from the fact that we need the water – does it have to rain all the time so that the stuck at home-ness becomes even more oppressive!

This week I have been playing my harp which I do slowly and far from expertly but the great thing about  the harp as an instrument is that even when you mess up it still sounds ok.

I have also been exercising in my local park which is next the river Thames.    I am watching a family of Canada Geese   – at the moment the geese are keeping me sane.  Thank you geese.  Unlike me, they never seem to miss the tide.  The tiny fluffy goslings became teenagers very quickly.

Geese

We are having to realise our place and how we disturb the balance in the ecosystem now – more than ever.  Having to recognise that we are part of the whole nature thing, not dominant over it.  I firmly believe that the massive increases we have seen in the last decades of mental health issues (the silent pandemic) are directly connected to breakdown of the biosphere and our destruction of the environment.

Anyway,   to the books. This year again I am taking part in the 20 books of Summer challenge

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Hosted by Cathy@746Books – thank you Cathy –  my 20 books of Summer is roughly 10 books at the moment.  I don’t know what the other ten will be yet,  but they will come into focus hopefully.

Those paying close attention will know that I have already read Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (!!) but I do not consider this cheating.  I’m including it because I have read it since 1st June which is when the challenge started and we have until September 1st to read the others. Some of these books I have already committed to over the same period as part of my Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist reading commitment.   Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is such a tough read I am balancing it with some hopeful things including Daisaku Ikeda’s excellent collection of essays Hope is a Decision (Middleway Press, 2017).

I have read Richard Powers The Overstory but would like to read it again.   It is a book which recognises how humans are abusing their place in the universe.  There are no doubt many of those  –  regrettably I can’t get to them all  but happy to take suggestions.  Powers’ book probably does this as well as any.    But its also true to say that the poets got there first.  I think fiction writers have been late to this particular, gloomy party.

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I am waiting for a copy of  Ash before Oak written by Jeremy Cooper and published by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions.  I have another of their books on my list too – Grove by Esther Kinsky (translated by Caroline Schmidt) which I have started reading and which drips atmosphere and yearning from every page of its lyrical prose.

Of Ash before Oak the publisher’s blurb says:

Ash before Oak is a novel in the form of a fictional journal written by a solitary man on a secluded Somerset estate. Ostensibly a nature diary, chronicling the narrator’s interest in the local flora and fauna and the passing of the seasons, Ash before Oak is also the story of a breakdown told slantwise, and of the narrator’s subsequent recovery through his reengagement with the world around him.

I am proud that I have avoided a single purchase during lockdown from certain online giants who shall remain nameless.  However I found a book by Janie Chang called The Library of Legends on Tomorrow is Another Day and downloaded that onto my kindle because it sounded sweet and comforting and it is so far.