Sunday Round-Up

DSC_0382Well, not much to report on the eye front, other than that they are still troublesome.  So, for the moment I’m going to try and write one round up post a week just to make sure that I don’t lose touch with you all and give my reading time one day a week over to catching up with your sites.  I really don’t want to have to drop out of the blogging world altogether.

Inevitably, what I read is going to have to be prioritised rather differently now.  I don’t want to have to leave any of the three reading groups to which I belong either, and so those novels are going to have to come first each month.  I just hope that not too many books that I’ve read before will turn up on the lists because re-reading is going to be a real waste of time.  In fact, two of the three for November are re-reads.  At least the first, Graham Greene’s A Burnt-out Case, which is for discussion tomorrow, is a book I read as an undergraduate, so a good long time ago.  I wish I could remember more of my earlier reactions to it.  I do remember being amazed (although pleased) that a Catholic college would set their students a book like this, which has a lot of disparaging things to say about a certain sort of religious observance.  Coming to it a second time I’m not sure that it is as good a book as I remembered, but interestingly its themes do seem to be reasonably adaptable to any ideology and the author’s horror at the way in which the world re-writes an individual’s story to suit its own needs is as relevant to day as when the book was written.

The book I was in the middle of when I suddenly had to start to count the number of pages I could manage in a day was David Mitchell’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks.  If you’ve read this you’ll know that it’s not the sort of book to read in small bursts if you want to have any hope of following what is going on.  The plot is so convoluted and so intricately interwoven from one section to another that you really need to have a good run at it in order to keep everything straight in your mind.  This is the first novel of Mitchell’s that I’ve read and I have to say that I enjoyed it very much indeed.  Because I’m interested in structure the manner in which he divides his text up into what appear to be six separate sections only then to have them all run into each other in one way or another fascinated me.  It is a high risk strategy, however.  If you happen to come across a section that is written in a style that annoys you he does run the risk that you will put the book down and not go back to it.  This very nearly happened with me where the fourth section was concerned.  Had it been any earlier, I might just not have gone on.

Is there anyone reading this who is a real Mitchell addict?  I heard an interview with him in which the interviewer seemed to suggest that in fact the interweaving is not just in each individual novel but that it carries through from one book to another.  Is that the case, does anyone know? Certainly, there is a reference in this one to Black Swan Green, although it doesn’t seem to be anything more than a passing mention of the place and one character.  If it should be so, then somehow I am going to have to find time to go back and read all the earlier ones just to see how he manages it.

Enough for today.  Same time, same place, next week, I hope.

Monday Miscellany

DSC_0382I’m sorry that I’ve not been around that much over the past week or so.  There have been two main reasons for this.  The first is that I always forget just how much extra time is going to be taken up once the university term starts at the beginning of October.  It isn’t just the sessions themselves and the planning that goes into them, but also the time taken travelling back and forth.  During the summer months I faff around complaining that I am not getting enough stimulation and, as a consequence, when autumn events, both academic and cultural, start to be advertised I sign up eagerly without giving sufficient thought to the practicalities of what I am committing to and the effects that will have on my rather fragile health.  This year I have definitely over committed and I am going to have to spend reading week pruning my diary and cutting back my expectations.

The second reason is less easily dealt with.  I am having problems with my eyes again and this is obviously curtailing the time that I can spend reading and writing.  We have tried a number of medications, but at the moment are struggling to find anything that doesn’t actually make the situation worse.  As you can imagine, this is frustrating in the extreme.

So, excuse me if I don’t visit your sites as often as I would like until we can get something sorted out.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t care or that I don’t miss you.

The Long Way Home ~ Louise Penny. Defying Expectations

abLouise Penny has, for some time now, been one of my favourite crime writers.  I was, therefore, very pleased to be given the opportunity to read her most recent novel, The Long Way Home, in advance of publication in order to write a review of it for Shiny New Books.  You can read that review by following this link.

However, much as I enjoyed this book, it did give me pause for thought.  As you will see from the review, I found myself questioning whether Penny, like the central (though absent) character in this novel, Peter Morrow, shouldn’t be asking herself whether or not she wanted to continue as a crime writer.  The Long Way Home doesn’t need a murder to make the point that Penny is exploring: namely the impetus behind the creative process and what examining that impetus means for the people involved.  But, Penny is a crime writer.  Her readers expect a murder.  Or perhaps, more importantly, her publishers and their publicists demand a murder because they don’t have faith in her readers to follow a writer they love into something rather different.  As I say in the review

there may perhaps be stories to tell about Three Pines that don’t require a death to drive them.

More pertinent perhaps, is the question would her publishers ever allow her to tell them.

What I didn’t go on to to say in that review is that in this novel Penny herself references some of the writers I think she has the skills to emulate.  When I read her more recent books with their insightful dissections of the ways in which people and communities respond in moments of crisis, the authors I think of are Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo and perhaps especially, Elizabeth Strout.  I would love to turn any of these loose in Three Pines and see what they had to tell us about the social chemistry of the village, but I shouldn’t need to because Penny is more than capable of telling us herself.

This isn’t the only crime novel I’ve read recently where I’ve felt there was a rather different type of story fighting to get out.  Val McDermid’s most recent freestanding story, The Skeleton Road, which I reviewed here, is another where I thought the author was much more interested in the background story than in the crime that was the excuse for telling that story.  Would her publishers have been prepared to take the risk, however, on a novel that they couldn’t advertise as the latest McDermid murder hunt?

You begin to understand why, when J K Rowling wanted to break out in a new direction, she was so insistent on doing it under another name.  Maybe it wasn’t simply (or perhaps that should be even) that her original audience wasn’t prepared to try something new, but that, where their best selling authors are concerned, publishers will only accept more of the same.

But, a good writer is a good writer whatever the genre they choose to adopt and to tie someone to the same patterns repeatedly is to deny them the opportunity to develop and grow.  It also denies the reader the opportunity to develop as they follow their favourite authors into new fields.  It might be a vain hope, but it would be good to see the book world taking responsibility and helping both readers and writers stretch their creative wings and, like Peter Morrow, discover that they have more than one type of story to tell, that there is more than one type of story to read.

A Traumatic Weekend.

IMG_0001You will have to excuse me if I don’t post anything lengthy or sensible today.  The Bears and I have had a traumatic weekend.

This should not have been the case.  It certainly wasn’t what we had planned.  The only thing in the diary for these two days was a visit to Stratford to see the RSC’s new production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  You may have read about it.  It’s been staged along with Much Ado About Nothing (which the theatre’s powers-that-be have decided is the missing Love’s Labour’s Won, but that is a conversation for another day!) setting one on either side of the First World War.  It’s not the first time that Love’s Labours has been located in the Summer of 1914.  Ian Drury placed it in an Oxbridge College in that year and closed the show with a shower of bright red poppy petals.  It tore me apart.  And, to be fair, this production is every bit as good, if not better.  As I took part in a well deserved standing ovation, I was in tears at the end.  However, brilliant or not, it does not excuse what happens just before the interval!

My trusty companions and I were really excited because it was clear from the rehearsal stills that one of the leading actors was a Bear.  Now, just because, when Shakespeare drew up the cast list for this play, he forgot to put the Bear in doesn’t mean that it isn’t perfectly appropriate for Lord Dumain’s faithful friend to accompany him when he signs up to study with his King for the next three years.  When I go to stay anywhere for any length of time The Bears always come with me.  And who else should Dumain try out his romantic verses on if not someone who has loved him since he was a boy?  All perfectly logical and indeed highly proper.  This was a performance we were looking forward to.  Theatrical Bears finally coming into their own in the country’s leading theatre.  Imagine then, our anguish when the thespian Bear playing the role of Bear Dumain, far from being treated with the dignity that his character’s unswerving love and devotion deserved, was dangled by the ear over the parapet of a roof top!

Well, as you will not be surprised to hear, I had to be forcibly restrained from climbing onto the stage and carrying out a daring act of rescue.  It is not enough for the Company to insist that the Bear has never been dropped and that there is no intention that he ever will be dropped.  All I can say is that he has never been dropped YET and that doesn’t mitigate the trauma this poor ursine must go through every performance wondering if this is the time he has to learn how to bounce!

Of course,cruelty to Bears is nothing new to the RSC.  There was the never to be forgotten performance of Richard III in which Anton Lesser kicked the Duke of York’s Teddy Bear!  You can tell how shocked the audience were. They had sat through the murders of Clarence and Hastings without so much as a murmur but, when Richard unleashed that unkindest kick of all, the intake of breath that went round the theatre was deafening.  You might have thought that following such a reaction as that the Company would have learnt its lesson, but it appears otherwise.  The RSPCB will have to be notified.

And so, even as I write to you, The Bears are composing a letter of sympathy to the intrepid performer, assuring him of their support should he wish to take this matter up with Equity.  They are doing it, however, through blearily eyes, because, as you will understand, they had very little sleep last night due to bad dreams.  And, as much as I assure them that I will never dangle them by the ear over a rooftop parapet, it is too late; they have seen it done.  They have witnessed the cruelty that we humans are capable of and their faith in humanity has been shattered.  I hope the RSC realise just what they are responsible for.

What I Loved ~ Siri Hustvedt

whatilovedI’ve said it before but it bears repeating, one of the best things about belonging to a book group is that it puts you in the way of books that you might otherwise never have read.  I’ve had Siri Hustvedt’s 2003 novel, What I Loved, on my radar for some time now but the necessary push to pick it up off that never ending mountain only came about because a fellow reader chose it as the focus for this month’s discussion.  If you’re reading this Jen, then thank you, because while this book may be, as some of the group pointed out, flawed in certain ways, in my opinion, it is a flawed masterpiece.

How to even begin to tell you about this novel?  Well, it’s set amongst the artistic and academic communities of New York’s Manhatten and covers roughly the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties.  It focuses on two families, those of Leo, the narrator, an art historian and academic and of Bill, an artist and, ultimately, Leo’s closest friend.  We watch, through Leo’s eyes, as Bill develops from a painter, struggling to make a living, to an internationally recognised installation artist. We also watch the growing dismay that surrounds Bill’s only child, Mark, as it becomes apparent that he has serious mental health problems and finds it almost impossible to empathise with other individuals, however close to them he might appear to be.  Both Leo and Bill make a living from trying to analyse aspects of the world around them and then presenting those analyses in ways that will illuminate their subjects to any who come into contact with their work. The irony is that while they are busy dissecting and reinterpreting external matters neither of them has any real understanding of the situation closer to home: of the damage that Mark has suffered and which in turn he is inflicting on others.

More interesting than the plot line for me, however, were the various ideas that Hustvedt explores as she takes us through the lives of her main characters.  These are so many and varied that it would be impossible to discuss them all.  For example, if you are interested in the art world and the way it is manipulated by a small number of individuals, you will find it examined here.  If your concerns are more to do with the relationship between physical and mental health problems, then that is scrutinised too.  Consequently, I am going to concentrate on just one aspect of the novel, that is, what Hustvedt has to say about our relation to story, partly because it was what interested me the most and partly because I think what Hustvedt is saying in relation to this topic also finds echoes in respect of the other issues she covers.

In the very first paragraph Leo reflects on

the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again

and this notion of what might be seen as a palimpsest of narratives building up over time, each telling either adding weight and meaning to those that have gone before or concealing something of importance from a previous experience, is relevant both to Bill’s work, which focuses on revealing the unexpected hidden in the depths of the ordinary, and in the way in which those around him fail to understand what is happening to Mark.

As I made my way home, I realised that two narratives about Mark had unfolded inside me – one on top of the other. The superficial story went something like this: Like thousands of other teenagers, Mark had hidden parts of his life from his parents. No doubt he had experimented with drugs, slept with girls and maybe, I was beginning to think, a couple of boys…like so many children his age, he had tried on various persona to discover which one suited him. He behaved one way with his peers and another with adults. This version of Mark story was ordinary, one tale like a million others of a normal, bumpy adolescence.

The other story was similar to the one that lay above it, and its content was identical: Mark had been caught lying. He had formed a friendship with an unsavoury person I privately called ‘the ghost,’ and Mark’s body and voice changed depending on whom he was speaking to at the moment.But this second narrative lacked the smoothness of the first.  It had holes in it and those gaps made the story difficult to tell.  It didn’t rely on a larger fiction about teenage life to fill in its ragged openings but left them gaping and unanswered.

I find the idea that we tell stories about the people we know which fit the template of a generic fiction we carry around with us, rather than seeing the actual narrative of their lives both compelling but also very disturbing.  And yet, it is difficult to see how society could function smoothly if we didn’t.  It is only when something goes radically wrong that we realise how superficial our knowledge of another really is.

Eventually, however, Leo changes his view of the way in which Mark relates to story.  From believing that

Mark’s life was an archaeology of fictions, one on top of the other and [he] had only just started to dig

he shifts his position because

[a] story is about making connections in time, and Mark’s stuck in a time warp, a sick repetition that just shuttles him back and forth, back and forth

until finally he is forced into the belief that

he doesn’t understand what language is. It’s like he never figured out symbols – the whole structure of things is missing.  He can speak, but he just uses words to manipulate other people…It’s more than that.  Mark doesn’t have a story…he doesn’t know what it is.

Can you imagine anything worse than not being aware of what your story is, of simply existing moment by moment without being able to make the causal linkage that moulds those moments into a meaningful existence?  As Leo says very early on in the novel

stories [are] like blood running through a body – paths of life

imagine what it must be like to live your life lost in a wood, surrounded by trees and with no path to help you chart your way through.  I caught the tail end of a discussion on the radio the other day in which someone was claiming that he didn’t think narrative was that important and that we all made far too much fuss about the way in which it related to human existence.  I’m sorry but I couldn’t disagree more.  For me, Barbara Hardy was spot on when she wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind.  The fact that when you read about a character who has lost the ability to make any narrative sense of his life you are not only chilled to the core but unable to find any point of contact with him, unable to get any handle on the way that he thinks and what motivates the way in which he behaves, only goes to emphasise how vital that sense of story is.

I could continue to explore the ways in which Siri Hustvedt moved me in this novel, but you must by now be getting the idea.  If you haven’t read What I Loved then I can only suggest that you do so as soon as possible.  You may not get out of it the same things that I did, but I can promise you that you will come away from it thinking deeply about some of ideas that she considers because there is something in this for everyone to engage with.

The Secret Place ~ Tana French

The-Secret-Place-187x300The Secret Place is the fifth novel in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad sequence and by my reckoning, the best yet. Rather than featuring the same group of characters in every novel, French links each successive book through the reoccurrence of a relatively minor player from the previous episode in a more significant role in the next.  Enter centre stage Detective Stephen Moran, at present a member of the Cold Case Unit, but desperate to find a place in the elite Murder Squad.  The opportunity appears to have been presented to him on a plate when a sixteen year old school girl brings him evidence relating to a murder enquiry that stalled twelve months previously.  This is, however, no ordinary schoolgirl.  We last saw Holly Mackey giving evidence as an eleven year old in another case; giving that evidence to Stephen to whom she comes now because she can trust him not to treat her like a chicken.  Furthermore, we are well acquainted with Holly’s father, Frank Mackey, who is part of the undercover unit and who has featured in several of these novels as well as playing the central role in Faithful Place.  Nobody takes Frank Mackey for a ride and it seems that his daughter has inherited much of his calculating astuteness.

Both Stephen and the reader would do well to remember this as they delve further into the murder case that is now re-opened under the leadership of Antoinette Conway, a member of the Murder Squad but someone who finds it hard to work within the team.  As a junior investigator the previous year, when the body of Chris Harper was found in the grounds of St Kilda’s Girls school, Conway was frustrated by the silence maintained by the girls in respect of the dealings between themselves and the boys from St Colm’s, where Chris was a pupil.  Knowing that it is likely the powers that be will take the case from her, she and Stephen go into St Kilda’s quickly and hard and very soon narrow their focus to two quartets of fourth years, Holly and her friends Julia, Selina and Becca and their sworn foes, Joanne, Gemma, Orla and Alison.

The difference between these two groups is crucial to the motivation behind the murder.  Joanne is one of those sixteen year olds that I, certainly, would quite willingly swing for.  She sees herself as queen of all she surveys and manipulates the other three in her dorm to service her own needs.  If someone had murdered Joanne they could have legitimately pleaded public interest as a defence.  Holly, Julia, Selina and Becca are a different matter entirely.  They have that sort of intense friendship that can only come about during teenage years: a friendship where the needs of the group and of the other members of the group are automatically placed above your own.  And while Stephen recognise this and its importance to the case, he also envies them their closeness.  It is a type of relationship he has searched for and never found.

Such intense relationships can breed problems however and the reader has a type if access to what such problems might be that is denied to the two detectives.  French maintains a strict structure in this novel.  The actual investigation takes place over a matter of hours but the chapters that tell that part of the story are interlaced with others that chart the journey of the friendship and the pressures to which both it and the individual four girls are subjected.  French knows the teenage psyche only too well and the narrative she relates detailing the passage of the last months of Chris Harper’s life is only too believable to anyone who has worked extensively with young people of this age group.  In fact, this leads me to my only criticism of this book.  If you have worked with teenagers you know very early on who the murderer is and why the crime was committed.  You also know what the damage is likely to be to those who are left.  Once I realised where this was going I found it very hard to continue to the end.

Indeed, when I think back on her earlier novels I realise that French specialises in charting the harm that crime does to those who are neither the immediate perpetrator nor the most obvious victim and I find myself wondering, therefore, why I look forward to her books with such pleasurable anticipation.  Part of it is because she writes so well.  Take, for example, the closing lines of this conversation between Holly and her friends, which capture precisely a type of moment we all know but which we would be hard put to define even to ourselves.

In a while Holly says, “Hey, you know where Cliona is? She’s in the library, looking for a sonnet to copy that Smythe won’t know.”

“She’s gonna get caught,” Becca says.

“That’s so typical,” Selena says. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just write the sonnet?”

“Well, totally,” Holly says. “This always happens. She ends up working harder to get out of doing the thing than she would just doing the thing.”

They leave space for Julia to say something. When she doesn’t, the space gets bigger. The conversation falls into it and vanishes.

As long as French continues to tell me stories not only so exquisitely written but also so perfectly observed I am going to be waiting eagerly for whatever comes next.

All Day and A Night ~ Alafair Burke

Screen-Shot-2014-09-17-at-2.42.32-pmHave you had your flu’ jab yet this winter?  Those of you who know about these things will be aware that it is a different concoction every winter and apparently I am not alone in finding this year’s mix more potent than usual.  It is taking quite a lot of people out for a couple of days.  Consequently, I am very glad to be able to tell you that Issue 3 of Shiny New Books is out and to be able to do just a short post to point you in the direction of my review there of Alafair Burke’s latest Ellie Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night.

I reviewed the first in this series, Dead Connection, some time ago and made the point then that Burke’s work is hardly great literature, but even that book was a rattling good read and this, the NYPD detective’s fifth outing, is considerably better.  Like all good crime fiction, the novel is concerned with a specific situation that is indicative of a current societal issue, in this case, the question of the mistrust between the police and the public they serve, and Burke offers no easy answers to a problem that is as relevant on this side of the Atlantic as it is in America.

If you haven’t yet discovered Burke’s New York novels then you have many happy hours of reading in front of you.  She has certainly gone onto my list of authors whose new books I am looking to read the moment that they become available.

Station Eleven ~ Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenHCUS2Every now and again you come across a novel which is so compelling that the moment you finish it you simply want to turn back to the beginning and start reading it all over again.  That such a book should exist is remarkable enough but that it should be a book you would never normally have given a second thought to had it not been for a chance discussion overheard on the radio makes the occurrence extraordinary.  Emily St John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, is a post-apocalyptic tale.  If asked to read this I would have said that I had had enough of the apocalypse to last me a life time, thank you, and passed.  That would have been a mistake.

Mandel’s premise is that one of the several influenza variants finally causes a pandemic.  While the catastrophe starts in the Republic of Georgia, the incubation period is so short that people fall ill while they are in transit between continents and in a matter of weeks the world as we know it has gone.

Arthur Leander is ‘lucky’.  He is struck down on stage by a heart attack in the middle of a performance of King Lear just as the contagion reaches Toronto.  In many ways Lear is a metaphor for what is to come.  Kingdoms will fall apart.  Life as those who are left have known it will come to an end.  Many will not be alive to continue but those that are will discover the truth of the play’s closing lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young,
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Moving with ease between the period before the pandemic and the lives of the survivors twenty years on, Mandel explores what it has meant for those who have had to go on to find themselves walking out of one world and into another.  Principally, we follow the fortunes of The Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who tour from settlement to settlement performing concerts and Shakespeare’s plays wherever they find an audience.  Shakespeare’s works have been chosen not simply because of their value as literature but because the playwright also came from a time that was defined by plague and his stories speak to a people who likewise know what it means to live each day in the shadow of death.

Foremost amongst the troupe is Kirsten.  Only a child when she appeared in that final production of Lear, she has brought the memory of the great actor with her, along with his last gift, two comics which tell the story of Dr Eleven, also a survivor after a disaster which has wiped out his planet and left him and a small group of followers striving to make a new life on a station cobbled together from what remains after their disaster.  Art and life are intricately woven together, because as the members of The Travelling Symphony know, Survival is Insufficient.  It isn’t enough simply to live.  It is also necessary to try and make something greater out of the disaster.  The fact that the quote comes from Star Trek: Voyager simply emphasises the fact that art travels with diverse person and in diverse places.

While there is no pretence that life is not both difficult and dangerous for those who have survived the pandemic, this is not the horror fiction that so many post-apocolyptic works are.  Yes, there are occasions when those who only want to live out a peaceful existence are forced to defend themselves to the death, but there is no gratuitous violence and far more prevalent are instances of real empathy and affection and acts of pure kindness and gentility.  This is supported by Mandel’s writing, which has a calmness and grace about it that encourages the reader to see the situation as one that has real grounds for hope built into it.  Civilisation as it was known may have collapsed, but communities are surviving and slowly but surely a new way of life is being forged out of the wreckage.  So much of this type of fiction seems to have been written by those who think little of humanity.  Mandel clearly believes that for the most part we are pretty decent individuals.  Perhaps I like this book so much because I happen to agree with her.

I haven’t read Mandel’s other three novels, simply because until a week ago I had never heard of her.  I understand that this is something of a departure for her.  Perhaps, with Station Eleven she has found her niche.  Nevertheless, I will now go back and explore those earlier works because this one has convinced me that she is a writer who has something really quite profound to say about the nature of humankind, our relationship to each other and to the world in which we live.  Station Eleven was a surprising and remarkable discovery.

The Short Story Project ~ The Sacristan of St Botolph

IMG_0046I’m willing to lay a small wager that you all thought I’d forgotten about The Short Story Project, but not a bit of it.  I simply had to make my way first through a number of books that I’d promised to post reviews for on specific dates.  In future such promises will be contingent on it being possible to fit the books in around more pressing and more interesting concerns.

As I said in my last post on the subject, I’m starting out with A S Byatt’s edited collection of English Short Stories for OUP.  This proved to be a felicitous choice because independently a friend had selected it to use as a set text for a new module she is teaching this year on short fiction, so we will be able to compare notes as we go.  The collection is arranged chronologically consequently that is going to be one of the first factors I shall be taking into account when I have enough data to begin drawing some conclusions.

Having said all that, chronologically speaking, I got off to a bad start with the initial story which is credited to a William Gilbert who lived from 1540 to 1603.  This would make the text something of an anomaly as all the other stories are from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries but, when I read it, I was quite willing to think that it was from the Early Modern period because the tale, entitled The Sacristan of St Botolph, would fit in well to an age in which the conduct of churchmen was constantly coming under close scrutiny from one side of the religious divide or the other.  However, thinking it would be useful to know something of the particular religious stance of the author before setting out on an analysis I discovered an editing error.  Yes, there was a William Gilbert with roughly those dates (1544 – 1603) and he wrote – a lot, but not short stories.  In fact he was a scientist and is known as the father of electricity. The William Gilbert who should have been cited was very definitely a nineteenth century man (1804 – 1890) and the story anthologised dates from 1866.  While this doesn’t change the results of my analysis it does throw an interesting light on what I found.

The Sacristan of St Botolph is the story of Geoffrey Cole, the eponymous churchman.  Mr Cole is not a man whose acquaintance I am in a hurry to make:

Although something of a miser, intensely selfish, and most uncharitable, both in the matter of giving alms, and in his feeling towards his neighbours, he was extremely punctilious in all the external forms and ceremonies of the Church, and he flattered himself he was not only very religious, but even a model of piety.  The more he studied the subject, the more certain of his blissful state he became, till at last he believed himself to be so good that the saints alone were his equals.

You get the picture.

Now, the sacristan has a bit of a penchant for widows and it is to one of these that he makes the claim that he would like to be subjected to the same temptations as was St Anthony to see if he could resist them.  Well, we all know, don’t we, that you should be careful what you wish for.  Arriving home that night he requested a neighbour’s wife to light his lamp and his fire for him (I have other suggestions as to what she should have done with whatever combustable she used!) ate a hearty meal and retired to bed.  You’ve probably worked out what happens next.

The sacristan is visited by an imp.  What is more the imp is accompanied by a very large, very stubborn and very truculent pig and we have the archetypal three occasions on which the self-aggrandising Mr Cole is forced to suffer total humiliation despite his best efforts to maintain the standards of living and personal dignity to which he has become accustomed.  The last of these three episodes differs from the other two in as much as a completely new set of characters are introduced and the sacristan is surrounded by a group of musicians and dancers all of the most fantastic and many even of the most horrible shapes.  He is led into what I thought was going to be a dance of death.

The sacristan now danced with all his might, his grotesque figure flying about in all directions, while he performed the most eccentric steps.  He became more and more excited with the scene, and danced with still greater vigour.

However, suddenly everything vanishes and Mr Cole, left stranded, on a dark heath in the pouring rain, has a moment of enlightenment and resolves henceforth to be a better human being, becoming

a good charitable man, doing his duty in the church, giving alms of all he had to the poor, and contend with being thought no better than his neighbours.

No, I didn’t believe it either.

But, what you really want to know is how the story stacked up in respect of its narrative structure.  Well, this text certainly is a full story in as much as it has all the elements I outlined when I was discussing The Three Little Pigs (all, of course, far more civilised than the one the sacristan encounters). Present are the exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and resolution.   So, as far as my theory goes, this is a counter example.  However, it isn’t a very satisfactory story, especially in terms of its beginning and its end, which has set me off wondering if I shan’t find myself taking into account factors other than the grammatical narrative structure. Of course, this kind of thing always happens once you start looking at real data.  It’s where the fun of research lies.

The problem at the beginning seems to stem from the fact that the inciting moment, that is the event that kicks off the event line, comes before the exposition.  In a full length novel that is not that unusual, but the difficulty here is that the action that gives the initial thrust to the story is the repeated absence of one Master Walter de Courcey from church and as his name is the first thing the reader mets in the text it sets up the expectation that the narrative is going to be about him.  We never met him again.

At the end the difficulty comes about for two reasons. In her introduction to the volume Byatt comments on this text that the end is not fully achieved, and that is something of an understatement.  We are simply told

The spell under which he had been labouring for some days past was broken, and he found he had been making a great fool of himself.

You might be excused for thinking that this is the nineteenth century equivalent of and then I woke up and it was all a dream.

This is then compounded by the fact that the sacristan experiences a complete change of heart in the space of half a dozen lines and becomes a reformed character.  It simply isn’t believable.

I suspect that there is something contextual going on here and that if I had read this in 1866 when it was first published I would have responded to it in a very different way.  Reading it for the first time in 2014, however, I find myself thinking that in organisational terms there is a similar problem at the end to that at the beginning and that those problems lie not in the grammatical structure but in the referential organisation.  In both cases there is a disjunct where a character is concerned.  In the first instance because the elusive Master de Courcey is given thematic prominence we are led to expect, inaccurately, that he is going to be of some importance to the story.  In the second everything that we have been told of the sacristan’s character is suddenly reversed and we seem almost to be reading about a different man.  So, I have been digging about in my files this afternoon to find my copies of the papers of Tom Trabasso, who did a lot of work on the ways in which different parts of stories relate to each other.  It may be that this text is a one off where this type of issue is concerned, but just in case it isn’t I want to be prepared.

The Winter Foundlings ~ Kate Rhodes

the-winter-foundlingsI was lucky enough to stumble across Kate Rhodes’ work just after the first Alice Quentin novel, Crossbones Yard, was published.  Two things struck me immediately about that book, the quality of Rhodes writing and her knowledge of London.  Rhodes, who is a Londoner by birth, is also a published poet and both these factors are clearly influential in her series of crime novels about a psychologist who reluctantly finds herself working with the police to apprehend criminals who are also seriously disturbed individuals.

The Winter Foundlings is no exception to the established pattern.  Alice has taken a six month research placement at Northwood, a high security hospital where she is hoping that she will have time to recover from her last assignment with the Metropolitan Police Force.  However, a series of child abductions which has so far resulted in three murders, proves to have links to one of the Northwood inmates, Louis Kinsella, and although it is impossible that he can have been physically involved it is clear that in someway he is inspiring the current kidnappings.  Reluctantly, Alice agrees to try and interview him in order to seek information that might lead to the arrest of whoever is responsible and the rescue of the latest victim, Ella.

Northwood proves to be a place where many of the employees are damaged individuals themselves, which forces both Alice and the reader to ask questions about the nature of those who choose to work in such an environment and the harm that such employment can do to people who take it up.  It also, of course, provides Rhodes with a plethora of suspects.  It very soon becomes apparent that there is a connection between the crimes and the Foundling Museum which commemorates the Hospital established by Thomas Coram in 1739 where mothers who could no longer care for their children could leave them to be raised.  Kinsella, who at the time of his arrest was headmaster of a school, had always taken a particular interest in children from troubled backgrounds and the theory that emerges is that he has influenced at least one of these damaged minds to the extent that in adulthood they have followed him into a life of crime.  But which one?  It was only twenty pages from the end when I felt confident that I could predict the villain of the piece and even then the way in which the final scenes would play out was unclear.

One of the structural features of this novel is a narrative split between the main aspects of the story as they feature Alice and the events as they are seen from the point-of-view of ten year old Ella, the most recent victim.  Normally, I find this method of story-telling very difficult to deal with.  It often seems to have been adopted only as an excuse for introducing gratuitous violence and I tend to agree with the Ancient Greek playwrights that such actions are better kept off stage and reported to the audience via a convenient messenger.  Here, however, the second narrative is a vital part of both the story and the psychological phenomenon that Rhodes is exploring.  Ella may be a child, but she is mentally very mature for her age and capable of thinking clearly and understanding the situation she is in.  Her captor, on the other hand, though physically adult, is still, in many respects, the damaged youngster who fell under the influence of Kinsella before he was caught and committed.  What I found interesting was that while such individuals might most commonly be thought of as still being a child, when you observe them in the company of an astute child like Ella you can see that that isn’t an accurate description at all.  The damage that has been done to them may have in some way retarded their emotional and psychological development but they are nothing like a child and I wonder how much more damage society inflicts by not realising the difference.  Perhaps this is something of which professionals who work in places like Northwood are well aware, but this book certainly made me stop and think about my own perceptions.

Kate Rhodes is fast becoming one of my favourite crime writers and certainly one I can recommend to you if you haven’t already encountered her work.  I’m very grateful to Mulholland Books for sending me a copy of this latest novel for review.