Summer School Book Two: The Last Runaway ~ Tracy Chevalier

imagesIf I’m honest, I have to say that this was the book that I was least looking forward to reading.  I have had a very mixed history with Tracy Chevalier’s work: some I have loved and others I have been really disappointed by.  However, I had had a specific request to include this in the initial list of fifteen and when it turned up in the final three I had to sit back and go along with the majority vote.  Reading The Last Runaway reminded me of one of the things that I find difficult about this author’s work: she is very direct in her message and that lack of subtlety can often lead to her over simplifying the issues that she is addressing.  I thought that was particularly the case in the way she dealt with the suffragette movement in Falling Angels.  Here, however, perhaps because the topics she was covering were less immediately relevant to me, I was aware of this trait without being particularly annoyed by it and consequently ended up enjoying the book much more than I had expected.

The main thrust of the story, which is set in 1850, is to do with a Quaker woman, Honor Bright, who has left England with her sister Grace to live in a small Quaker community in Ohio.  Here Grace is to be married to Adam Cox, an acquaintance who has made the move earlier to be with his brother, already established in the township. However, Grace dies before reaching their destination and Honor is left alone in a country she doesn’t know, with people who are not particularly pleased to see her.

Once there it is difficult for Honor to avoid knowledge of the activities of the Underground Railway, the system set up to help those slaves escaping from the southern plantations to reach safety by crossing the border with Canada. Received wisdom tells us that in many instances it was the Quakers who were instrumental in setting up and maintaining the lines of communication that allowed these people passage through a state which, despite being officially free, was still bound by the federal law forbidding individuals from helping runaways.  What Chevalier does, however, is question whether that was always the case and what happens when abstract religious principles, which dictate a specific course of action, run up against the reality of every day living.  As Honor muses,

[p]erhaps principles were not as strong a motivation as the reality of losing money and land.

Honor, having married into a local farming family, finds herself in conflict with their policy of non-involvement.  Already dismayed by the separate benches for black members in Quaker Meeting Houses, when she discovers runaways hiding in close proximity to the farm she does what she can to help them despite strict instructions to the contrary from her formidable mother-in-law.  Honor is horrified by the family’s refusal to help but, as we discover, the Haymaker family have previously paid a very heavy price for assisting runaways and their decisions are being made in a frame of reference that Honor cannot even begin to understand.

This led to an interesting discussion about how easy it is to advocate a set of rigid principles when you are unlikely to be called upon to enact them in your every day life.  Being a Quaker has posed no problems for Honor in her family home of Dorset because it has asked nothing substantial of her.  What she realises when she finds herself in a very different environment is that if

an abstract principle [becomes] entangled with daily life it [loses] its clarity and [becomes] compromised and weakened.

It would be very easy to condemn the Haymakers for their attitude towards the runaways and their refusal to live up to the religious principles they avow, but we have not lost a father and a home to the actions of evil-minded bigots.  None of us can know how we would act in a similar situation because we have never found ourselves walking in the Haymakers’ shoes.  Yes, we would all like to think that we would do as Honor does and continue to find ways of assisting those trying to make it to Lake Erie, but we cannot know if that is how we would behave until we have been tried.

The other aspect of the book that raised some discussion was the subject of colonisation.

‘Even in Oberlin [the negroes] are a separate community, and those who have run away are not entirely safe.  That is why we support colonisation.  It seems a better option.’

‘What is colonisation?’

‘Negroes come originally from Africa, and they would be happier living back there, in a new country of their own.’

For some of us this gave pause for thought because it is too close to opinions we hear expressed on the streets of our own cities today.  And Mrs Reed, a runaway who has settled in Oberlin, has the obvious answer,

‘Why would I want to go to Africa?  I was born in Virginia.  So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents.  I’m American.  I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen.  If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well I’m here.  This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

The Last Runaway proved to be a reminder to us all that there are rarely easy answers to issues where the people involved perceive their livelihood and welfare as being threatened and that when any one of us finds ourselves in such a position the principles we thought we so firmly held are likely to be tested.  It may be set in the Ohio of 1850, but the themes it deals with are very pertinent in Britain today.

Summer School Book One: The Tenderness of Wolves ~ Stef Penney

51gTxN+G1cLThe first book that we read for this year’s Summer School was Stef Penney’s Costa winning novel, The Tenderness of Wolves.  For me, this was actually a third read and it says a lot for the strength of the book that I was still able to enjoy it and find new things to think about despite already knowing the text very well.

For anyone who hasn’t read the novel it is set in the Hudson Bay area of Canada in 1867 and tells the story of the search for Francis Ross, a seventeen year old who may or may not have been involved in the murder of a French trapper, Laurent Jammet.  Several parties are involved in the search:  the Hudson Bay Company sends its representatives, his mother sets out with the help of William Parker, an Indian tracker and Thomas Sturrock, a retired journalist, who is actually more interested in a bone tablet that he had hoped to persuade Jammet to sell to him, shows an interest as well.

Inevitably, there was discussion of how well Penney had depicted the harsh Canadian winter landscape, given that she had never visited the country, but most of our conversation focused on the linked issues of characters coming to know themselves better and the wider question of how our perceptions dictate the way in which we react to the world around us and the people in it.

The first time I read this novel I was struck by the images of someone’s vision coming into focus.  The most literal of these surfaces early on in relation to Donald Moody, a naive young man who has made the journey from Scotland to join the Hudson Bay Company.

Shortly after he emerged from the bright fog of childhood, Donald had to acknowledge that he had difficulty seeing objects at any distance…he stopped hailing people…as he had no idea who they were.  He developed a reputation for coldness.  He confided his unease to his mother and was provided with a pair of uncomfortable wire-framed spectacles.  This was the first miracle of his life – the way the spectacles brought him back to the world.

There are, however, much more subtle explorations of the notion that our understanding of and relationship to the people and the world around us is dependent on the way in which we see.  Mrs Ross ponders on this in respect of the landscape that surrounds their small settlement.

Sometimes you find yourselves looking at the forest in a different way. Sometimes it’s no more than the trees that provide houses and warmth, and hide the earth’s nakedness, and you’re glad of it.  And then sometimes, like tonight, it is a vast dark presence that you can never see the end of; it might, for all you know, have not just length and breadth to lose yourself in, but also immeasurable depth, or something else altogether.

And then she expands on that thought to include her husband.

And sometimes you find yourself looking at your husband and wondering: is he the straightforward man you think you know – provider, friend, teller of poor jokes that nonetheless make you smile – or does he too have depths that you have never seen?  What might he not be capable of?

One of the questions that haunts the more thoughtful characters in this novel is how well they may or may not know the people around them, especially those that society has told then they should or should not be able to put their faith in.  Two members of our group have had experience of living in countries colonised under British rule and they were shocked by what they learnt of the underhand dealings of the Government backed institutions in Canada.  As they said, they had been brought up to think that such ventures as the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company were the basis on which good governance was built and while they were aware of the damage done on the Indian subcontinent by the powers-that-be they had still retained their belief in the Canadian fur trading enterprise.

In the wilderness that Mrs Ross and Donald find themselves traversing they have to put their faith in the very people they have been taught to suspect, the native Canadian Indians.  Parker and Jacob see the land in a completely different way to that of the incomers.  Comparing his understanding of the wilderness which has come to him via the written word to the way in which Jacob comprehends the world he has grown up in

Donald has a suspicion that the book-learnt knowledge he imparts to Jacob is not really his to give; he just happens to know how to tap into it, whereas when Jacob tells him something, he seems to own it entirely, as if it comes from inside himself.

The question of the importance society attaches to the written word is one that is raised in this novel but not thoroughly explored.  I was sorry about that because I think it is an interesting aspect of the manner in which we in the West judge indigenous peoples.  We have come to value the ability to record our thoughts and actions through the written word to such an extent that we question the sophistication of those groups who have not seen the need to develop such a system.  As someone said, one of the first reasons for developing writing was to make sure that the people you were trading with weren’t swindling you.  Perhaps, where there is more trust there is no need to develop such a fail-safe.

Our discussion ranged over many other areas.  I will just raise one.  As well as winning the Costa Award, The Tenderness of Wolves was also named Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year.  Several of us (crime fiction readers all) questioned whether or not that was appropriate.  Yes, the book begins with a murder and the action is driven by a quest to discover ‘whodunit’, but does that automatically make  it a crime novel?  I’m not certain where I stand on this.  I don’t find the crime the important part of the book.  I am much more concerned with the journeys of self-discovery that many of the characters are making.  On the other hand, I don’t want to imply that crime fiction isn’t capable of exploring issues of great social and ethical import.  Indeed, at its best, crime fiction is a prime literary means of exposing the problems of society to public view.  I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this and perhaps come back to it in a later post.  In the meantime, what do you think about the question?

Will Someone Please Do My Ironing?

ImageThere are two things which never cease to amaze me about Summer School.  The first is that something which is so invigorating and energising while it is happening can leave me so completely exhausted once it is over.  I love the opportunity to get together with a group of friends to do nothing more than talk about books. (Well, we drink tea and eat a lot of biscuits as well, but the impulse to indulge in that sort of behaviour is built into the DNA of the printed word, isn’t it and so doesn’t count.) I never want to stop when our allotted time is up and fortunately neither does anyone else; we often overrun by nearly as much again.  But, once it is over, I find I need to spend the next twenty-four hours doing absolutely nothing just to recoup all the energy I have spent when I thought what I was doing was replenishing it.  I suspect that what I have been replenishing is the energy of the soul.  Unfortunately, what I need right now is the energy to tackle the mountain of ironing which this morning seems to be even higher than the dreaded tbr mountain.  So, if there is anyone offering out there, you are more than welcome to call round!

The second thing, and it’s one which happens every year, is the way in which the books chosen purely on the strength of having loosely connected themes suddenly start to talk to each other in ways that we might never have expected.  By the end of the week we are talking as much about the books that have gone before as we are about the last book on the list and this year branching out into what the novels have to say about current events as well. I am going to put up posts about each of the titles and reflect a little on the nature of the discussion that went on but I thought today that I would just give you a hint of the type of topics that we found ourselves talking about.

The three books we read, under the overall heading of Breaking New Ground, were Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant.  Of course, we talked about the individual themes of each of the novels and the merits of the books as literature, but there were also specific themes that kept cropping up.

For example, we repeatedly found ourselves discussing the way in which how we see a situation colours our experience of it and how we see an individual dictates our relationship to them.  Coupled with this was the question of how we actually look.  So, if we don’t look carefully enough at something, if we see it only partially, or out of focus, then we are going to misinterpret what we see and find ourselves in trouble because we have misjudged our position.

Another theme that was common across all three titles was that of the conflict between the rule and an individual’s conscience.  Sometimes this surfaced as one of the character’s having to decide whether or not to obey orders laid down by a secular institution he or she was beginning to question. Sometimes it was the more personal dilemma of whether or not to remain true to the religious principles that had previously been the backbone of your existence.

The immigrant experience is, of course, common to all three novels, but a question we perhaps hadn’t expected ourselves to be discussing was brought up in two of the books; namely what happens when one group of immigrants is made to feel unwelcome, especially when we are talking about people who are fourth or fifth generation.  Trying to pretend that the ‘go back where you came from’ lobby isn’t every bit as vocal today as it was in the times when these books are set is to imitate the proverbial ostrich.  As is trying to duck the question of the use of extreme violence to convince your enemies to capitulate.  Discussing various scenes in The Lieutenant two days after the news of James Foley’s beheading wasn’t easy.

So, all in all, a very thought provoking week and one that I hope to give you a flavour of over the next few posts.  I hope you will feel able to comment on them and that by doing so we can widen the participation of the Summer School and extend the discussion even further.

Summer Time Means Summer School…

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280…and Summer School means that I suddenly become very busy indeed.  Although I run the School as a series of seminars and thus, in theory, each of the meetings is led by someone other than me, of course, I have to prepare the books as if I was going to be teaching them myself.  And, given that this year there are two new presenters, that is even more the case than ever.  So, I apologise, but I won’t be round very much now until after August 22nd, at which time I shall reappear with tales to tell of the books we have read and the discussions we have had and eager to hear all about what you have been reading.  If things go well I may get time to visit a few sites, but writing time is going to be difficult to carve out.

Be good now, while I’m away.  If you’re not, then I may have to set The Bears onto you and you really wouldn’t want that!

Happy reading.

Fool’s Assassin ~ Robin Hobb

fools-assassinTwo or three weeks ago I wrote about the phenomenon of the reading obsession and admitted that at various times in my life I had fallen prey to all-consuming bouts of reading from either the fantasy or crime fiction genres.  While I still go back to many of the fantasy novels that have been written for children, only two writers of adult fiction have stayed with me from those earlier heady days: one is Katharine Kerr, unfortunately no longer writing about the people of Deverry, and the other is Robin Hobb, who thank goodness still continues to keep her readers in touch with what is happening in the realm of the Six Duchies.

Last October I had the good fortune to hear Robin Hobb speak and when she mentioned that this year would bring a new novel which would take forward the story of two of her most loved characters, Fitz and The Fool, I admit that I offered up a quiet pray of thanksgiving.  For most readers who have walked the lands of the Six Duchies the boy Fitz will have been their first companion and together they will have suffered the highs and the rather more frequent lows of his existence as a bastard son of the eldest prince of the Farseer dynasty.  Through six novels they will have charted the course of his friendship with The Fool and many, like me, will have mourned when at the end of Fool’s Fate it seems as if the two would be severed forever. Now, eleven years and nine books later their story continues.

Quite deliberately, I went back and re-read the last two episodes in this duo’s story before embarking on the new novel and so what I was struck by most immediately was the way in which Hobb has been able to return to the narrative voice that we had become so familiar with in relation to Fitz.  You can move seamlessly from Fool’s Fate to Fool’s Assassin without being aware of the gap of time that has passed since these characters were last the focal point of the writer’s attention. Much, however, has changed in Fitz’s life in that time.  He finally seems to have found some measure of happiness with his old love Molly and together they have created a contented family home in the manor at Withywoods.  Most of Molly’s children appear to have accepted him into the family, even if, ironically, Nettle, the one child they have in common, still has difficulty acknowledging their relationship. Nettle herself now serves Dutiful as Skillmistress and that in turn has meant that Fitz has, to a large extent, been able to turn his back on the politics of Buckkeep that have dominated his life for so long.  If there are any regrets in his life they are that he and Molly have not been able to have a second child of their own and that there has been no word from The Fool.

And then Bee arrives, a child that neither Fitz nor Molly thought would be possible and one that for a long time the rest of the household think exists only in Molly’s imagination.  But there is nothing imaginary about Bee.  As soon as she is strong enough to hold her own as a narrative voice she shares alternate chapters with her father and we come to recognise what a remarkable child she actually is. Long before Fitz has any inkling we understand that there are elements of The Fool about Bee and so when word reaches Withywoods of an unexpected son who is in some way associated with The Fool and who is the focus of a deadly search by characters from his past, we are reaching for explanations that have yet to find a place in Fitz’s mind.

This book sees the return of many familiar and much loved characters: Dutiful, now King of the Six Duchies and his calm and dignified mother, Kettricken, Chade, still as conniving as ever and solid and dependable Riddle.  It is also filled with as much horror and pure cruelty as were the earlier novels, which makes me ask why I would return to the series as often as I do.  The answer to that question is best illustrated by what occurs between Riddle and Fitz towards the end of the book.  Forced to move The Fool as rapidly as possible to the safety of Buckkeep, Fitz draws on Riddle’s strength to use the Skill-pillars and in doing so, completely unintentionally, very nearly kills him.  Both Riddle and The Fool are moved to the infirmary and tended there.

The apprentice healer was back, a rag wrapped around the bale of a lidded pot. The lid jiggled as she walked, letting brief wafts of beefy aroma fill the room.  A serving-boy came behind with bowls, spoons, and a basket of bread rolls.  She stopped first at Riddle’s bed to serve him and I was relieved to see him recovered enough to be propped up in bed and offered hot food.  He looked past Nettle, met my gaze, and gave me a crooked smile.  Undeserved forgiveness.  Friendship defined.  I slowly nodded to him, trusting him to understand.

And there it is.  The reason I keep returning to the Six Duchies, because if these books are about anything they are about the importance of trust, loyalty and friendship.  You will meet a deeper and purer understanding of what friendship can really mean in these novels than almost anywhere else in literature and it is, I think, a gift that all of us can appreciate.  When the Wolf-Father, who may or may not be a manifestation of Nighteyes, explains to Bee about the importance of ‘pack’ it invokes echoes in each one of us.

For me this was a triumphant return to the world of Fitz and The Fool on Hobb’s part and I am left now with just one regret and that, of course, is that I have to wait for the next two episodes in this trilogy to discover how the story will progress.  I hope that wait will not be too long.

With thanks to HarperCollins who kindly made a copy of this available.

Dead Connections ~ Alafair Burke

47148Recently I was sent Alafair Burke’s latest crime novel, All Day and a Night, to review.  However, as it is one of a series with which I’m not familiar, I thought I would be well advised to read at least one of the earlier books to acquaint myself with the characters and the general background in which the stories are set.

Dead Connection is the first novel featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, relatively recently appointed to the rank from street patrol and, much to her surprise, suddenly assigned to homicide only a year into her post. As we gradually discover, Ellie’s presence in homicide has been requested as much because of her past as because of her policing skills.  Detective Flann McIlroy is convinced that he has a serial killer on his patch and serial killers feature large in Ellie’s family history.  As a child, in Wichita, she watched her father, also a cop, drive himself relentlessly in his attempt to catch the College Hill Strangler.  Convinced that the murderer was still at large despite the fact that the killings appeared to have stopped, Jerry Hatcher alone pursued the case and, when he was found dead in the driver’s seat of his car with a single bullet from his own revolver through the roof of his mouth, the verdict was suicide as a result of depression at his failure.  The Hatcher family, and in particular Ellie, have never accepted this and her own attempts to have his death investigated as murder have made the press.  Ellie Hatcher is a name that says serial killing. This makes her perfect for what McIlroy has in mind as he sets out to prove that three apparently unconnected killings are in fact the work of one man.

As Ellie soon discovers, the connections between the three women are tenuous at best.  The first and second are linked through the weapon that killed them, the second and third through their membership of an internet dating site, First Date.  However, because McIlroy is (in)famous for his unorthodox reliance on hunches that always seem to bear fruit, he is being allowed to work the case as if there was more evidence of serial involvement than there is and he and Ellie set out to investigate the men that Caroline and Amy, victims two and three, had both had contact with through the dating site.

Let me warn you now, that if you had ever thought about using one of these sites this novel will put you off the idea for the rest of your life.  It isn’t so much that Ellie meets only one person (male or female) who hasn’t lied themselves blue in the face while creating their profile, but the possibilities that exist for fraud, both identity and financial, which will really make your hair stand on end.  As Ellie and Flann dig ever deeper into the background of First Date it becomes apparent that the killer has motives that transcend the usual sexual deviation associated with serial offences.

I am not going to pretend that this is a novel of any great literary merit.  However, it was well plotted and a darned good read.  Burke knows how to create believable characters with whom the reader will empathise and, as a result, at one point I had a really good weep.  I have to say that she does make use of some of the best known American crime tropes.  I’m not sure how any villains are ever apprehended in the US given that their various forces of law and order always seem to be odds.  Here it is the NYPD and the FBI who have to learn to work with, rather than against, each other and even when they do you’re fairly certain it is through the most gritted of teeth.  Personally, I think the author’s work would be stronger if she avoided such stereotypes, but maybe they are so true to life that she needs to include them for verisimilitude.

All in all, I am glad to have made Ellie Hatcher’s acquaintance and I look forward now to meeting her again in her latest manifestation.

Blogging and the Familiar Essay

1331108One of the books that I brought back with me after my last visit to the Astley Book Farm was At Large and at Small, a selection of essays by the self confessed literary hedonist, Anne Fadiman.  Having loved Ex Libris, her previous volume, I was hoping for a series of similar delights that I would be able to savour one by one over the dusky summer evenings.  And I’m sure those delights will come, but so far I have read just the introduction and it has set me thinking about the relationship between essay writing and keeping a blog.

In that introduction Fadiman notes that the death of what she calls the ‘familiar’ essay has frequently been predicted.  Distinguishing it from both the critical essay and the personal essay, Fadiman defines the familiar essay as being one that is about the author but also about the world and suggests that perhaps this class of essay is no longer fashionable.

The genre’s heyday was in the early nineteenth century, when Charles Lamb was dreaming up ‘The Essays of Elia’ under the influence of brandy and tobacco and William Hazlitt was dashing off ‘Table-Talk’ under the influence of strong tea.  The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to ‘one’ reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favourite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching out before them.  His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense.  And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a ‘subject’, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy.

Of course, Fadiman then goes on to demonstrate that the familiar essay is far from dead by providing several volumes of the same herself, but writing as she was in 2007 and thus at a time when the world of social media was only beginning to make its presence felt, she might be forgiven for overlooking an area where I think the familiar essay still flourishes and that is in the form of the personal blog.

Undoubtedly, we use our blogs for many things that would not be classified as essays. We keep notes, make lists, comment on day to day events and principally, amongst the company I keep, we write book reviews.  However, more and more frequently, I am also coming across quite lengthy pieces that could, I think, be described as either personal or familiar essays.  Rather than simply reviewing a book, for example, a blogger may use his or her reactions to it as a springboard from which to explore the wider ramifications of the issues that are being discussed therein.  A visit to the theatre or the cinema may prompt a consideration of the way in which society views the particular group of people portrayed.  An item in the news may recall a memory and the two combined force a reconsideration of a previous response to a difficult situation.

Whatever the subject the one thing that all such pieces have in common is the writer’s enthusiasm.  Like the essayists of the nineteenth century, we write about those things with which we are familiar.  We write about the subjects that we love and have come to have some knowledge of.  I keep a blog to do with books and the theatre quite simply because these are the two subjects that have been central to my identity for over sixty years. Our knowledge may not be that of the academic specialist but then that has ever been the case where the informal essay is concerned.  In the introduction to his book The Art of the Personal Essay Phillip Lopate comments that such pieces depend less on air-tight reasoning than on style and intimacy. We don’t set ourselves up as experts, rather we are enthusiastic amateurs and in the British tradition, at least, it has long been acknowledged that such people have as much that is insightful to say about a subject as those who are paid to know far more.

There are, however, similarities other than length and the writer’s relationship to their subject matter. In that same introduction Lopate suggests that

the hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy.  The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue – a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.

It is the very fact that blogging allows such intimacy that keeps us going back again and again to the same sites.  I have met very few of you in person but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel as if I know you.  I have a very close relationship with some of you, a relationship that I would say has progressed to friendship.  Certainly, there is dialogue, indeed, dialogue of a type that essayists from earlier centuries could not have hoped for.  When I click on the ‘publish’ button and this piece goes live I not only broadcast my views to whoever cares to come and read them but also provided those readers with the opportunity to respond to what I’ve written and enter into a dialogue about it not only with me but with anyone else who has taken the time and trouble to leave a comment.

So, I don’t think that Fadiman needs to worry about the familiar essay.  To misquote Mark Twain, reports of its death are not only greatly exaggerated but currently a misrepresentation of the facts.  I do, however, wonder whether or not we make enough of those posts we write that might fall into this category and if there might not be scope for setting up a blog specifically to cater for such pieces.  What do you think?  Would anyone be interested in contributing to such a site?  Would anyone be interested in reading it?  Push the comment button and let me know.

The Shock of the Fall ~ Nathan Filer

str2_ma_1901_p14a Shock Of The Fall Costa Winner 2013One Saturday in May of last year I had the pleasure of hearing Nathan Filer read from his debut novel at a local Readers Event. The Shock of the Fall, which had been published just two days previously, was already garnering praise from all quarters and it was evident that its author was more than pleased, but nevertheless a bit bemused, at its reception.  It was immediately apparent that this was a book I was going to want to read. After all, how can you not be intrigued when the passage you hear begins:

I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother.  His name’s Simon.  I think you’re going to like him.  I really do.  But in a a couple of pages he’ll be dead.  And he was never the same after that.

Well you wouldn’t be, would you?

Unfortunately, I was so certain that this was a book I was going to want not only read but also discuss that I put it on one of my reading group lists as my next selection and as a result have only just got round to engaging further with both Simon and the narrator of this book, his younger brother, Matthew.

We very soon discover that Matthew is not going to be the most reliable of narrators so perhaps we should take his initial assessment of himself with a pinch of salt.

I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not. So  when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred –I cheated.

However, there is that in his opening statement which should begin to trigger questions in the reader’s mind.  What adult is going to see cheating at hide and seek as a major moral breakdown?  Well, in Matthew’s case, one who has suffered from so many other breakdowns that his perspective is no longer as clear as it might be, because when we first meet him Matthew is receiving treatment for what it gradually becomes apparent is schizophrenia, possibly exacerbated by what happens to Simon, but also clearly a trait that has appeared in his family before.

Gradually, Matthew builds a picture for us of the events that led up to Simon’s death and its aftermath in terms of the breakdown that followed in his family life. What is remarkable about the book, however, is the way in which Filer allows us to experience something of the confusion in Matthew’s mind through the style in which the novel is written.  Although we are never less than certain what is going on we can still experience the changes in his behaviour as he withdraws from the programme (medical and social) intended to help him stabilise.  In part this is because much of the book is written in very short sections and it possible to indicate a change in mood or reaction to a medication (or lack thereof) in the turn of a page.  But it is also due to the way in which Filer has caught some fundamental characteristic about  Matthew’s voice and that characteristic stays with him throughout.

This may well be beginning to sound like a seriously depressing read and when I add that as well as dealing with death, mental illness and family breakdown the novel is also concerned with the wanton destruction of public services for those who suffer from mental ill health I am almost certainly confirming that opinion in your minds. However, that simply isn’t the case.  There is a great deal in the book that is really uplifting and a lot that is just downright funny.  Sometimes, of course, there is a wry edge to that humour.  Filer has a knack of putting his finger on a truth about either the illness or the services that makes you smile at the same time as making you wince. Anyone who has had anything to do with people suffering from schizophrenia will recognise the veracity of Matthew’s claim that this illness has a work ethic only too readily.

Filer is also very good at drawing heart-warming portraits of some of his characters. Who wouldn’t want to know Matthew’s Nanny Noo?

My grandmother (Mum’s mum, the one we call Nanny Noo) reads books by Danielle Steele and Catherine Cookson, and whenever she gets a new one the first thing she does is flip straight to the back to read the last page.

She always does that…

Nanny Noo made nice food.  She is one of those people who tries to feed you the moment you walk trough the door, and doesn’t stop trying to feed you until the moment you leave.  She might even make you a quick ham sandwich for your journey.

It’s a nice way to be.  I think people who are generous with food have a goodness about them.

Whatever lies behind it, whether it is food or her need to know what happens in a story before she reads it, Nanny Noo certainly has a goodness about her.

And there is a lot of goodness about this book as well.  Yes, there is heartbreak and there is anger as you are faced with the senseless way in which the state deals with the needs of those who are challenged by mental ill health.  (One in four of us, remember will have mental health problems at some point.)  But ultimately this is a book about the successes that it is still possible for anyone in a seemingly desperate position to find in their lives.  Those successes may be small in the eyes of some but that is their inability to appreciate what really counts.  For Matthew and his family every step forward is one that isn’t backwards and deserves to be celebrated as such.  If you don’t come away from this novel with your heart gladden I will be very surprised.

A Star is Born

dog-blog-mossup-150x160Over the weekend I’ve been to see the RSC’s production of Henry IV Pt I but I’m going to postpone a post until I can couple it with a review of Pt II as I really want to see how the main characters develop before passing judgement on their presentation.  I did think, however, that in an effort to brighten up what might otherwise be a very dull Monday morning, I should draw your attention (especially yours, Briar) to the undoubted star of this season’s RSC lineup, Mossup the Dog.

Mossup is, of course, playing the part of Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The leading canine role in Shakespeare, it is one that the doggie stars of stage and screen only infrequently get a chance to perform on account of ignorant producers and directors not realising that it has the potential to draw in the audiences in exactly the same way as would a well-known actor agreeing to tread the boards in the role of Hamlet.

To be fair to the RSC, they have recognised the compliment that Mossup has paid them by agreeing to join the company, as can be seen by the fact that they have given him his own blog.  You can read about his triumph during the audition process in Exit Pursued by a Pug and his followup piece on the vexed question of To Pee or not to Pee - always a problem, because while every well seasoned canine performer knows that you absolutely shouldn’t, the audience do seem to love it when you do.

For real Mossup fans you can follow him on his dog cam  as he prepares for his role in his personalised dressing room. (You will need to follow the dog cam link on the web page for this.) And of course, WhatsOnStage have interviewed him about his experience of treading the RSC boards.

I wanted to take a photo of his dressing room (which of course is distinguished by a very large star and a bone), but someone had rudely parked a car in the way. Perhaps next time I’m there.  I shall as well, when I see the production next month, be attempting to get Mossup to paw mark my programme, but I would imagine that there will be hoards of his fans seeking exactly the same thing so I may just have to worship from afar.  (Large sigh!)

Well, it’s Monday and we all need something to smile about :-)

Harvest ~ Jim Crace

book-review-harvest-by-jim-crace-L-eZOebDEvery now and again a novel comes along which quite simply takes your breath away.  It won’t necessarily have the same effect on everyone (as the discussion in last week’s book group gave witness to) but for you it will be one of the books that you know you will be returning to for the rest of your reading life.  For me, Jim Crace’s most recent novel, Harvest, proved to be such a novel.

Truth to tell, it was a book I’d been avoiding because I hadn’t got on all that well with earlier novels by the same author.  Oh, I could see that they were real works of literature, not only intelligently conceived but also beautifully written, but they didn’t speak to me.  So, when Harvest turned up on my Wednesday Morning list I’m ashamed to say that I put off starting it until the last possible moment.  More fool me!  Well, at least that gives me a good reason to return to the work as soon as possible because I need to give it a far more detailed read than I was able to last week.  Even so, it still knocked me sideways.

One of the first questions that was raised in discussion was just when and where the novel is set.  This seems to me to rather miss the point.  Although it could be argued that we are somewhere in the Midlands of England at some point in the late Middle Ages an equally valid argument could be made for being in the Scottish Highlands in post reformation days.  (Well, perhaps not equally valid, but the story that is being unfolded would have been just as relevant.)  For this is not about a specific time or place but rather an uncovering of a recurring pattern in the lives of working people who are valued as long as they have something to offer those in power but cut lose the moment a more profitable venture comes along.  In this instance that venture takes the form of sheep, which are to be brought onto the land at the expense of the barley and wheat harvests that have for generations sustained the people of the village at the centre of Crace’s novel.  The people are about to be dispossessed of their lands, their livelihoods and their community without so much as a by your leave.  While it is easy to relate this to fifteenth century Cotswold or East Anglian villages the same thing happened in the Highlands during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and it is a pattern that has been repeated world wide, if not always with sheep farmers as the incomers then invariably to the detriment of those already occupying the land. Perhaps the most important word in the text is the last one, when Walter Thirsk, the novel’s narrator, as he leaves his village home for good reflects

This is my heavy labour now.  I have to leave behind these common fields.  I have to take this first step out of bounds.  I have to carry on alone until I reach wherever is awaiting me, until I gain wherever is awaiting us.

In the book’s final words Thirsk reaches out and connects with each and every reader and reminds us that even now all it takes is for those in power to decide to reallocate the acreage we occupy to other usage and we will be forced to move on.  Discuss this novel with anyone with house or land on the proposed route for the new high speed rail track and they will know exactly what Crace is writing about.

While Walter Thirsk is our principle contact with the villagers who find themselves about to be dispossessed, in terms of village life he is more of an observer than a participant being an incomer of less than twenty years, and this is important in respect of the way we as readers relate to the events of the single week that is the time span of the action.  Although we feel his anguish as he watches the new master of the manor make plans to change the very nature of the land itself, he doesn’t have the same level of commitment to the location as those whose families have been born and bred there over succeeding generations.  This was a sticking point for some of the members of the group because they felt they were being kept at one remove from the very real suffering that was being experienced by the people of the village.  For me, however, it created the necessary distance that allowed me to appreciate the universal nature of what Crace is exploring.  If the narrator had been more deeply entrenched in village life the story would have been particular instead of a singular instance of a wider ill.  Thirsk as narrator works perfectly as far as I am concerned.

However, the greatest beauty of this book for me is the language.  When a student used to come to me and proudly tell me that they had written, shall we say, five hundred words towards an assignment I would always say, ‘Yes, but are they good words and in the right order?’  Not only are Crace’s words both well chosen and definitely in the right order, they have, in addition, a certain rhythm, almost a music, which underlies and reinforces their meaning.  Here he is, for example, talking about the way in which the people of the land understand not just the practical importance but also the symbolic significance of ploughing.

He’s obviously guessed what this day of work will be.  He understands its greater meaning too: that ploughing is our sacrament, our solemn oath, the way we grace and consecrate our land.  Not to mark our futures in the soil before the winter comes is to say there’s no next year.  I cannot admit to that.  The coming spring must be defended.  So, we’ll put the nose before the ear.  And then we’ll plough.

I could read writing of that calibre all day long and quite simply never tire of it.

Not only has this book been a delight in itself but it has also persuaded me that I need to go back and re-read Crace’s earlier novels because I can’t believe that I read them before with sufficient attention to the lyrical writing that swept me along in respect of Harvest.  I also hope that the author will reverse his decision of last year: namely that this would be his final novel.  If there were to be another I certainly wouldn’t be waiting over twelve months from publication to read it.