Sunday Round-Up

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3I was hoping to get several more reviews written over the course of this past week but, as so often happens, life got in the way, so in lieu I’ll just offer a few quick thoughts about the two most recent book group discussions on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The group with which I read The Children Act were most exercised by whether or not the main character, Fiona Maye, was believable. For me, however, this wasn’t really the issue.  I think I’ve reached the point where I just accept that McEwan has no idea how women think and behave and so I let that stand as a given and concentrate on what else I think he is concerned with.  In this novel I was more interested in what it was he was trying to say about the law and the individual’s relationship with it.  It seems clear to me that this is his primary interest.  Why else start with what is an overt reference to Dickens’ Bleak House?

London.  Trinity term one week old.  Implacable June weather.

I decided in the end that what McEwan was trying to examine was the way in which, even in situations where our children’s wellbeing is at stake, we want to place the onus of decision onto an outside body, despite the fact that, in his opinion, this is to abdicate our personal responsibility.  He offers several examples of families passing through the courts whose children are in need of medical or educational intervention and in each instance there is a sense of parental relief when the outcome is decided by someone else.  However, he also provides examples of two such cases where the judge concerned has made a mistake that has had life long repercussions for the families involved and his ffinal* verdict on Fiona appears to be that she needs to recognise her responsibility to exercise judgment in her behaviour towards children outside of the trappings of the court as well as within.

There are a lot of seems and appears in that because I don’t think McEwan manages to make his point of view clear, possibly because, as so many of the group recognised, he doesn’t make Fiona herself believable.  And, while I don’t disagree with the idea that we all need to take responsibility for the welfare of society in general and especially of children, I’m also bothered by an approach which seems to question the centrality of the judiciary.  Yes, they sometimes get it wrong, but what happens if you take the law away?  I have run across a number of literary instances recently that very strongly make the point that if the law is bent, neglected or personalised then the very pillars on which society stands are threatened.  I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice this term and not only The Duke and Balthazar/Portia recognise the irretrievable damage that will be done to the State if Shylock is denied his bond, so too does Antonio, who very definitely has the most to lose.  Then, it’s not long since I reviewed Claire McGowan’s latest Northern Ireland based novel, The Silent Dead, where the question of retaliatory ‘justice’ is foregrounded and in which the ffinal* judgment is that however fflawed* the justice system might sometimes be it is infinitely superior to what would happen if there was no system at all.  And I have never been able to forget the conversation between Thomas More and his son-in-law in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

We take decisions out of the hands of the law at our own peril, I think.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a much happier reading experience. I was so glad that this had been chosen because I have been trying to ffind* time to read more David Mitchell ever since being bowled over by The Bone Clocks, however, he is not a writer you can hurry and there just hasn’t been a large enough space when I could explore his earlier novels.

As far as Mitchell goes, this, I understand, is a comparatively straightforward narrative, although exploring a complexity of issues, mostly to do with the question of translation.  Many of the main characters in the novel are interpreters who work for the Japanese state as linguistic go-betweens for the ruling powers and the Dutch traders of the late eighteenth century.  But, while they may haltingly fffind* the words for a literal translation, interpreting the society behind the words is a very different matter.  Even as the novel draws to a close the reader is left puzzling over a nation that can be so isolationist that it will not allow a son who is half Japanese and whose mother is dead to leave to be with his Dutch father.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation superb, but it is a solid read, so don’t embark on it unless you have the time to give it the attention it deserves.

I hope the forthcoming week is going to be slightly easier, especially as I’ve already got behind in my course on Dorothy L Sayers and could do with a few spare hours to catch up.  I have discovered, however, that it is possible to have too much of a good thing even where books are concerned, and my reading of the Wimsey novels has slowed considerably.  In particular, I fell foul of Five Red Herrings, which I seem to remember not being very keen on when I read the books the ffirst* time round.  I’m now half way through Have His Carcase and should really do my best to ffinish* it over the weekend.   What are your plans for a damp and soggy Sunday afternoon, I wonder?

N.B.  I do know how to spell the words marked thus*, but the WordPress program is refusing to spell them with just one ‘f’.  It’s two or nothing, so I have chosen to go for two.  Is anyone else having this problem?

17 thoughts on “Sunday Round-Up

  1. Five Red Herrings was one of my favourite Wimseys, so I’m sorry you’re struggling. And yes, I had oddness with fs on the ipad this morning. They showed as not there on comments but when I published the comments they appeared – most odd…..

    1. I suspect I had just had one Wimsey too many when I hit ‘Five Red Herrings’ and given that it hadn’t appealed to me at all before I probably gave up too soon.

  2. When I read your first ‘ffind’ I thought it was for a specific reason connected to the book! I haven’t had this problem on my blog and writing this comment WordPress wants to change it to’find’ – a temporary blip! 🙂

    I’m glad you enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – I have it on my TBR shelves, waiting because it does look a solid read. It took me ages to read Cloud Atlas and I’ve been hooked on Robert Harris’s Cicero Trilogy for a while now. I feel I want to read something shorter and more concise.

    I’ve been avoiding The Children Act, having read several critical reviews – I really should make up my own mind about it!

    1. If you do try ‘Jacob’, Margaret then give it time. I found the first fifty or so pages really need stamina but once I’d got into it I couldn’t put it down. And I wouldn’t bother with ‘The Children Act’. There are far better books out there awaiting your attention 🙂

  3. I had a passion for McEwan a few years ago but have not read this one. Your comments on it are fascinating but I don’t think I’ll bother. I enjoyed the Thousand Autumns a lot when I read it a few years back — I’d quite like to re-read it sometime. Love the double ffs — I thought at first they might be a subtle form of criticism, or of questioning your own judgement (i.e. is *ffinal really final?).

    1. Apparently there was a problem with the particular font I use, Harriet, but I’ve just tried on a new post and it seems to have been sorted. At some point I want to find time to read Mitchell through in chronological order because I am so intrigued by the ways in which he moves characters over form one book to another. He is such a ‘solid’ read, however, that I’m not certain when I will have the fortnight/three weeks necessary to spare.

  4. I was beginning to worry you were developing a stutter with the f’s! Silly WordPress. I have not had the ‘f’ problem but autocorrect has done such a number on me several times of late that it made me doubt my own mind! Perhaps there is a secret scientific experiment going on or WordPress is playing a big joke.

    As to the books, I haven’t been able to make myself into a big fan of McEwan and your review doesn’t help me with that. I think perhaps I should stop worrying about it and just leave him to other people. The Mitchell though, I have that book on my shelf, long neglected, and you have reminded me why I wanted to read it to begin with!

    1. It was a fault with the font, apparently, Stefanie. Anyway, it seems to have been fixed now. Have you read any of Mitchell’s earlier work? What i really want to do is go right back to the beginning and read him chronologically as I’m sure there are connections I’m missing going at him piecemeal.

      1. I have not read his earlier work but I did review a book for Library Journal last year that went through his work chronologically and showed how all the books were connected. Made me want to start at the beginning too!

          1. I will look the book up at home for you tonight. It was really good I thought. It goes up through The Bone Clocks and the author even knows Mitchell and spoke to him about many of the connecting elements.

  5. I was waiting for the big meta-textual Jasper Fforde reveal, but couldn’t imagine what it would have to do with either The Children Act or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Although now that I think about it, he is a character particularly suited to sailing through other works of fiction.

  6. I’ve blown hot and cold with McEwan in recent years. When he is on form he’s really good but too often the experience has been a dud. Good to know I dont have to invest time reading The Children Act. I have t had the ff problem fortunately but hate the predictive text on my iPad

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