Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a little gem of a book (152 pages) – hard and bright. Silvie is an adolescent girl who goes with her father and mother on an experiential archaeology week in the Northumberland countryside – her father has a lay interest in iron age English culture and somehow has tagged along on a university field trip with a professor and three students. The novel is prefaced by a description of the human sacrifice of a young woman, one of the bog people whose bodies are preserved and whose fates have been much speculated about. This scene hangs like an eerie tension over the narrative.

Silvie is a great character; at once knowing and competent (her father has taught her survivalist skills since she was a little girl), and sheltered and innocent. She is bewildered by the students, especially Molly, the only other female (except for Silvie’s cowed mother). Molly’s nail polish, her humour and cynicism (she goes off to a shop nearby to secretly buy food when they are supposed to be living off berries and leaves, fish and rabbits). The killing of the rabbits, and graphic skinning and gutting of them, is something that Silvie is used to, although she’s sad for the things that were running around only the day before, while Molly is disgusted and refuses to eat them. Silvie’s father is scornful and full of derision at such soft modern sensitivities.

Although we see the story from Silvie’s point of view, the case against the father is built up slowly and circumstantially. She can see that he knows as much as the professor, in his own way, and that, living as iron age people, he is the one who would lead. Even the professor starts to rely on him, and they spend days apart while Silvie and the others are relegated to foraging or cleaning up camp.

This novel is at once a fantastically detailed portrayal of living in, and off, nature and a psychological study of repression and complicity. We all know where it is heading but I couldn’t work out how Moss was going to get us there. But she does, shockingly and convincingly.

Skylarking – Kate Mildenhall

Mildenhall’s novel has some lovely descriptive writing of life in a small lighthouse-keeper community on the NSW south coast in the 1880s. Two teenagers, Kate and Harriet, are close friends enjoying a lot of freedom running around picnicking and playing dares at the cliff’s edge. This idyllic time is threatened when the girls’ nascent sexuality emerges and Harriet, in particular, wants romance, and we assume marriage. Kate is more of a free spirit. McPhail, a man in his thirties, arrives on the cape as a fisherman. Despite being an unlikely object for Harriet’s interest, she is aware of her sexual power over him and toys with encouraging him. This complication draws Kate in, and a tragedy plays out. The novel is based on a true story and I think this constrained the writer so that the motivations are sometimes unclear. The ending is extended way too long, lessening the impact of what is already a fairly low-key narrative.

Black Inc have given the novel a beautiful evocative cover.

2018 books in review

Of the 53 books I read in 2018, 14 were by male authors and 39 by women (27% to 73%) The year before it was was even fewer by men (22%). A fifth of the books I read were non-fiction and the rest fiction. The year before I lamented the amount of ‘shlock’ I read (the guilty pleasures) with only eleven books being classified as ‘literary’. Unfortunately last year I fared no better – I managed just twelve literary fiction works. In my defense I did read a lot of ‘serious’ non-fiction. A new thing is the number of audiobooks listened to. These are turning out to be supplementary to my reading of physical and ebooks so I’m fitting more books into my life which suits me. Here are my highs and lows for 2018.

Best book of the year: Educated. ‘Wild Swans’ blew my mind in 2017 and ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover blew my mind last year. It is a searingly honest account of growing up in a survivalist family, revealing her complicity in it. Education is her eventual way out but she, and we, are educated in another way by reliving the violence, trauma, beauty and belonging of the narrative. As with the most successful of these real-life stories – ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed is another example – ‘Educated’ is cleverly and beautifully structured. It deserves the acclaim that has been heaped on it.

Book that opened my eyes: Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser. One of the things about borrowing audiobooks through the local library is having to trawl through the limited range to find something I might like. For some reason I thought I might try ‘Marie Antoinette’ by Antonia Fraser. I don’t know why as I had no particular interest in this period of history. Historians who take on well-trodden material have to have a new angle and Fraser’s is to write sympathetically about a woman who has been traduced in the popular imagination. As with most things, the story is more complex and less black and white, and as with much of history, women are viewed through the misogyny of male record keepers. Fraser presents a woman who is of her class but who tries to do her best in the circumstances meted out to her (Marie Antoinette was an outsider, a German, so held in suspicion by the court). She is circumscribed by dress codes and the minutiae of court traditions. She appears to have cared for the king and been a loving mother to her children at a time when they were often left to be brought up by nannies and tutors. When the revolution began she was vilified brutally in pamphlets, even accused of incest with her eight-year-old son. It did remind me of the ‘lock her up’ hatred thrown at Hillary Clinton.

Most absorbing page turner – The Living and the Dead in Winsford: Isn’t this the sort of book we yearn for? Something that draws us in as gives us a deep satisfaction? There were a couple of contenders for this. ‘Lorna Doone’ was a rollicking read and I really enjoyed ‘Snap’ by Belinda Bauer, but two psychological thrillers really gripped me: ‘Fear’ by German writer Dirk Kurbjuweit and ‘The Living and Dead in Winsford’ by Swedish writer Hakan Nesser. I chose the latter as it is one of those stripped down, taught novels that use a small canvas to build up tension and apprehension. The narrator is a woman living under the radar in a rented cottage in remote Exmoor with her dog (coincidentally she reads Loorna Doone also set in Exmoor to while away the time). The reader slowly finds out why she is on the run and what she has done but by that time we are totally on her side hoping she can remain undiscovered. It has one of the great first lines: ‘The day before yesterday I decided that I would outlive my dog. I owe him that.’

New author discovery – Amie Kaufman: I had heard of Amie Kaufman and the phenomenon of the Illuminae files but had never read any of her books. In 2018 I read her children’s book ‘Ice Wolves’ an enjoyable fantasy where selected children have special powers. Our hero, Anders, finds out he is an ice wolf, a regimented life he is not looking forward to. His eyes are opened to the problems of his society when he finds out his twin sister is a scorch dragon, a sworn enemy, thus making her an outcast. I was interested enough to seek out more Kaufman such as her YA fantasy, ‘Unearthed’ (with Meagan Spooner). An immensely fun adventure set on a seemingly dead planet where archaeologist, Jules, is marooned with artefact scavenger, Mia. Mistrust and misunderstandings abound but they have to work together to solve the clues left by the Undying in their labyrinthine temple. I usually eschew double author narratives but as the story alternates between two voices (Jules and Mia) it works well in this instance.

Best audiobook: Lorna Doone. I was spoiled for choice here. I listened to many fantastic audiobooks. Tim Curry narrating Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series was a delight. I loved his characterisations (dear Mogget and lovely Disreputable Dog). ‘The Living and Dead in Winsford’ and the Elena Ferrante books were also beautifully narrated. However, my overall favourite was ‘Lorna Doone’ narrated by Jonathan Keeble. What a fantastic narrator he is bringing this wonderfully funny, poignant and wise picaresque narrative to life. That many people dismiss this book as a mere romance is so unfair. You may as well say that ‘David Copperfield’ or ‘Great Expectation’ are romances. I adored Lorna Doone.

Most disappointing book: The House at Bishopsgate. Why did I persevere with this long and boring book by Kate Hickman? It sounded so good. Set in the 17th century, a married couple – he a merchant, she weak from a devastating experience – return to England from Constantinople to the eponymous house. Seeking help for his wife, the merchant allows another woman to insinuate herself into their lives. How could people with such interesting backgrounds be so tedious? Does the wife, Celia, have to be so pathetic? What on earth does the subplot around the merchant’s brother and their father’s crumbling estate have to do with anything? Who cares?

Best non-fiction book: I Am, I Am, I Am. This collection of autobiographical essays by novelist Maggie O’Farrell was a delight. Each essay read like a beautifully executed short story and combined they had the interconnectedness and thematic depth of a novel. Absolutely revelatory and wonderful.

 

The Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

This novel could have been a lot better than it turned out to be. It has an interesting premise. A mother, Anne, takes her autistic daughter for a long bush walk, a moment’s inattention and the daughter runs off and cannot be found, despite searches for her. As times passes Anne comes under increasing suspicion and vilification. Lorenzo writes well and evocatively, and her portrayal of Anne is nuanced, drawing the reader in to her plight. However, the promise of tension and conflict isn’t really achieved. Perhaps we are given too much detail of Anne’s everyday life and Lorenzo is more focused on the dynamics of interpersonal and family relations, rather than on creating a sense of threat and confrontation (although she does do a great portrayal of an ordinary middle-class woman tainted by an accusation of harming her own child and having to face hostility and abuse). This is the strongest aspect of the novel and reminded me of that other great book on a similar theme, Emily Ruskovich’s ‘Idaho’.

I felt Lorenzo and her editor allowed too many extraneous threads to remain in the novel, for example a subplot around an Iraqi asylum-seeker that went nowhere. There was a sort of feel-good bagginess about some aspects of the novel that detracted from the central focus and made for a more pedestrian pace. The cover probably says it all – the publisher categorised it as a family relationships novel, rather than a thriller. Nevertheless, it is a nicely written and insightful account of a woman in extremis.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers

If you have read “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (see my review), the plot of Sally Vickers novel is surprisingly similar, so much so that I felt this book was a literary tribute to the former novel. Both are set in the ’50s, both have a youngish woman as a heroine who loves books (one starts a bookshop in a small English town, the other takes up a position of children’s librarian in a similar town). Things initially go well for both: the bookshop is set up and becomes a small success and, in the other story, the heroine (Sylvia Blackwell) makes changes to the library to bring the magic of books to the children of the town. Both women, by perhaps not understanding the narrow-mindedness of such towns, fall out of favour, and are cut down. Both books are peppered with nostalgic references to books loved, and books that might be recommended. I felt that Vickers’ heroine had the same rather distanced, naive, but also perceptive voice, of Fitzgerald’s heroine, Florence Green. However, while I found Fitzgerald’s book both annoying and frustrating, Vickers gives us more of a satisfying story, with Sylvia putting up more of a fight than Florence was able to muster. Fitzgerald packs Florence off into an uncertain future (all the more bleak because Florence is in her forties, not her twenties like Sylvia, and so we assume it would be harder for her to start over). While Sylvia, too, moves on, Vickers provides a coda in the last section of “The Librarian” where we move into the future and see the effect of Sylvia’s influence on some of the children she encouraged. Both books are more hard-edged and less sentimental than a you might expect from their titles and plot-lines.

Goodreads review

Pigface and Other Stories review

Like most anthologies, there is a great variety of stories here: realist and more fantastical, bush and city, sad and amusing. ‘Pigface’ by Andrew Roff (the winning story of the Margaret River short story prize), is a great piece of controlled prose, and unfolding tension. Kat is a ranger in an eco-resort; she knows she has a good job but the pushy guests she takes on a bush walk test her patience: she tells them about the plant pigface and a guest ‘stabbed a question at her-“Latin name?” Like a fork pointed across a dinner table’. Luckily, she knows the answer! Of course, tension builds and tempers flare as the walk goes on and I, for one, hoped one or two of the guests would get their just deserts.

In another story, ‘Living With Walruses’ by David Wright, a group of walruses inexplicably takes over the beach of a small coastal town. The locals love it (it brings tourists) but soon the smell and noise turn them against the creatures. It’s a quirky story about tolerance and cruelty, with a slight supernatural edge. I also loved ‘Setting Sail’ by Zoe Deleuil, a quiet story where a gentle encounter with a neighbour offers hope to a woman in a controlling marriage. ‘Descent’ by Fiona Robertson is a wonderfully tight, controlled story where the whole relationship between a father and his young son from a previous marriage is revealed in one bush walk up (and down) a mountain. The father is a great character – self-absorbed and obnoxious – and his relationship to his new wife and young daughter is acutely observed, as is the character of the teenage son (whose growing confidence in standing up to his father is the centre of the story).

In a more amusing vein, ‘Small Fish’ by Penny Gibson skewers a particular type of Aussie male – here seen on a fishing trip – although, in the end, the story is more poignant than harsh. I didn’t think I would feel empathy with any of these men but the author achieves this. I also enjoyed Tiffany Hastie’s ‘The Chopping Block’, a moving, beautifully-written story about a woman and her dog, and loneliness and resilience. An underlying sense of tension is built (and a certain amount of blood spilt!). ‘Habitat’ by Cassie Hamer is a clever piece of writing that covers a lot of issues on a small canvas – it, almost imperceptibly, builds up a sense of unease and angst in the everyday life of the main character.

Tara Westover’s confronting ‘Educated’

Tara Westover was brought up in fundamentalist Mormon family in Bucks Peak, Idaho. Her memoir follows her childhood, her struggles with her domineering father and violent brother and the existential internal conflict she experiences in trying to break free of her background. From the outside, what happens to Tara appears a sort of brainwashing, from the inside, she feels she is in a loving family (she has a sister and five brothers) who follow the precepts of a loving God through the teachings of Joseph Smith. Westover does convincingly bring us into this family– they are isolated and close knit and live in a beautiful valley beneath the picturesque peak. When she was young her father joked and laughed, although he believed they were in the end of days, so he prepared stockpiles of food, fuel and guns. Her mother fulfilled the compliant role allotted to her, and made herbal remedies (for some reason the father felt that the medical establishment was evil).

As Tara grew up however, things became more extreme. Along with his suspicion of doctors, the father also thought schools were a thought control tool of the government, so the kids were home schooled, if they were schooled at all. The boys were supposed to work in the father’s scrapping, junkyard business. And when the father needed more labour, Tara, also was forced to work there. It was hard, dirty and dangerous and she was only eleven. The utter hypocrisy of the father doesn’t seem to dawn on Tara (the older sons are allowed to go away to earn their living trucking because they will have to support families, the role of women is to be mothers, yet the father forces Tara to labour in the junk yard).

A number of gruesome accidents provide the turning points in the narrative. Tara’s brother, Luke, is horrendously burned on the legs in a welding accident on the property and the father dumps him on eleven-year-old Tara to administer medical care, while he puts out the resulting brush fire. Every time someone is in extreme pain, the mother gives a tincture of skullcap and lobelia–Tara, herself, admits this provided no obvious relief. The next accident is to her older brother, Shawn, resulting in a head injury. This exacerbates an earlier injury caused when the father drove their van thought the night in a snowstorm and caused it to roll (the mother was also injured in this accident causing possible brain damage which might or might not explain her later belief that she had special powers from God to heal). The utter, helpless, compliance of the family is illustrated in the fact that a couple of years later, the father insists yet again they drive through the night in bad weather forcing his son Luke to do the driving, although he has worked all day and is tired – ‘the angels will fly with us’ the father says. Yep. Another accident, more injures to the family and Luke takes all the guilt on himself.

The immense pull of this book is the hard-to-accept fact that for all the father’s selfishness, unquestioning and unquestionable zealous faith in an Old Testament God, and his utter disregard for his children’s physical well-being – they all come back time and time again to live under their father’s tyrannical rule and, this is the unbelievable part, profess to love him. Because Tara herself makes excuse after excuse, turns blind eye after blind eye, the reader is left to feel the rage towards this repugnant, unhinged man that, really, she should have felt. However, it is not the father’s actions themselves that provide the final straw for Tara but, rather, her brother Shawn’s violent behaviour. Perhaps this too can be sheeted home to the father as Shawn was the victim of head injuries caused by the total lack of any safety procedures in the junkyard, and the father’s prohibition on seeking any medical help. Shawn’s sick violence and misogyny is directed at Tara once she reaches puberty. The mother pretends not to see these awful acts of harm to her own daughter.

I won’t spoil it by revealing how Tara gets out of it, but it is a long time coming, and by the time it arrives, for this reader, it was way too late. If you have ever wondered why women stay in violent relationships, this quite remarkable book takes you to that dark place. I was often frustrated at Tara (and her mother) but Westover brought me to the inside and made me see it from her point of view. Quite simply, you just cannot put this book down. It is one of the most compelling things I’ve ever read. I guess the reader is ‘educated’, as well.

The odd case of The Bookshop

2018 film tie-in cover

I was drawn to buy Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, ‘The Bookshop’, because of the arresting image on the cover of actress Emily Mortimer as the novel’s heroine, Florence Green. Mortimer is dark, attractive, bookish, brooding, in stylish retro orange shirt and striped skirt standing outside a quaint small-town bookshop (which, let’s face it, every lover of books has once or twice fantasised about owning). The novel was published in 1978 but is set in 1959 Britain, in the small East Anglian town of Hardborough. The novel has been reissued a number of times, most notably in 1997 where it was reviewed favourably in the New York Times.

If I thought the novel was going to be actually about opening a bookshop, I was sorely disappointed. If I thought it was going to be about a strong, independent woman standing up to sexist forces against her, I would also be wrong. Why it has now been chosen as material for a film, is also perplexing to me. What does it have to say to audiences in 2018? If the crowd of women of, shall we say, a certain age at my local cinema is any indication, it is presented as one of those quirky films about starting over in a picturesque place somewhere like rural France, Tuscany, a Greek island etc. etc. meeting resistance, and finally being accepted. Casting Bill Nye as the curmudgeonly recluse who warms to Florence, suggests the filmmaker intended to move the film in this direction, but I think she was trying to be faithful to the source material, so this felt false and was, quite frankly, excruciating.

2003 cover

So back to the novel. I found this short novel (156 pages) to be extremely frustrating, continually subverting expectations. It was nominated for the Booker prize in 1978 (Fitzgerald won it the following year for ‘Offshore’), surprising for such a weird, inconsistent and improbable tale. Many critics view it as a comedy of manners but I think this misses the mark – there are certainly comedy-of-manners aspects to it, the society party thrown by Violet Gamart where Florence is subtly belittled, is one, as is the bizarre tea party between Florence and Mr Brundish (Bill Nye’s character) – but the tone veers wildly from comedy to realism to satire, even to the supernatural, so that the reader is pretty much always at sea.

Speaking of sea, I find it quite interesting that the covers for the earlier editions depicted scenes of nature at the seaside (the film, also has Florence often sitting on the wintery beach when, really, she should have been running her bookshop!) In the book she only goes once or twice, but these scenes are very brief and she is certainly not a communing with nature, again the reader/viewer wants Florence to be something that Fitzgerald is just not going to let us have.

No character in ‘The Bookshop’ is without flaws, even Florence herself. The most venal is Violet Gamart, who, on a whim, wants the building that Florence has bought and partially renovated, for her own pet project of an arts centre. Florence stands her ground but then seems to forget she has created an enemy. Raven, who is a nature man, gets the sea scouts he leads to help Florence through putting up shelves and painting, yet he also sets up an eleven-year-old paid assistant for her resulting in Florence falling foul of labour laws (Florence has previously worked in a big bookshop where she met

1978 cover

her late husband so she should have known better). We also meet Miles North, a BBC type, who spends his time in a cottage with his girlfriend avoiding actually doing any work. Miles is weak, is emotionally abusive to his girlfriend, and a sycophant to Violet, yet Florence inexplicable befriends him, and even, when she loses Christine her underage assistant, agrees to employ him part time (Why would someone who works for the BBC want to work for Florence, especially as we know he is a lazy sod? Why would Florence employ him when we know, at this stage, she is in financial difficulties? Why would any bookshop owner in her right mind order 250 copies of ‘Lolita’ to sell in a small town? Why would a bank manager lend Florence the money to purchase the premises when everyone in town knows it is riddled with damp?) There are many improbabilities that pile up to conspire against Florence. She meanwhile contents herself with writing silly letters to her lawyer and being duped by everyone. Mr Brundish in a fairly ineffectual way tries to warn Florence but she remains oblivious. He takes it upon himself to confront Violet – the only positive act in the novel to help Florence – but in a final stroke to frustrate and annoy the reader, this comes to nothing.

The final sentence, I suppose reveals Fitzgerald’s cynical and satirical intent: ‘As the train drew out from the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for ten years had not wanted a bookshop.’ No, Florence, wrong. You are not a heroine, not a fighter for a greater purpose, you are the victim of the malice of one privileged person and your own passivity and misplaced trust. You are a fool who acted on a whim, and didn’t have the sense or fortitude to carry it through. It is quite clear that the town did want a bookshop, as initially the shop did well. Florence made some bad decisions on the stock, the people she employed, and the condition of the building. If anything, this is a cautionary tale of capitalism: it’s dog eat dog and you have to be tough to survive. That’s why we all dream of owning a bookshop, and leave the actual running of them to people who know books are a commodity. Poor Florence.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

This is a book of (mostly) gentle anecdote as Susan Hill discusses books she is reading, and has read, the comings and goings of animals and birds around her house, and reflections on writers she has known (quite a lot of well-known ones such as J B Priestly, Iris Murdoch and Julian Barnes) – all set amidst the changing seasons. Of course she also reflects on her own writing and her writing life, quite amusingly about being pestered by school students to explain the meaning of ‘The Woman in Black’ which is a set text (it would never have crossed my mind to do this when I was a student but email is a double-edged sword). There is a sense of nostalgia but she is never sentimental and, to me, there is something very satisfying about an intelligent person just speaking her mind as though you are a long-standing friend who doesn’t require being pandered to.

Reviewed also at Goodreads

The pleasure of essays

 

I’m pretty much a fiction reader, although I have read non-fiction over the years, mostly biography and history. I remember reading a book on the early Christian saint, Columba. I was much taken with it but I have never been able to find that book again. I also read a biography of Isadora Duncan that started an infatuation of free-wheeling arty women of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, leading on to Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

Lately, however, I’ve found myself gravitating to more non-fiction and admiring it for its writerly qualities. A book that opened my eyes was Cheryl Strayed ‘Wild’. On the face of it this was a relatively simple story about a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail in North America but Strayed made it into a riveting narrative that was tense, insightful, introspective and a wonderful invocation of place and exploration of embodiment. I couldn’t quite work out how she’d pulled it off.

After Strayed, I was dumbstruck by a book that I had dismissed because it was a bestseller (and Oprah and everyone loved it) – ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang. What a staggering book this is – beautifully written and structured covering an incredible period in history (late imperial China through to post-Mao) with the unique insight of the author’s parents who were early party members (not even their loyalty or rank could protect them from the ravages of Maoism).

After recovering from this, I stumbled on to Helen Garner’s collection of essays, ‘Everywhere I Look’. Taught, acutely observed, these essays made me realise that the pleasure of language, used with art and precision, could apply equally to non-fiction as fiction, and an essay can yield all the punch and meaning of a short story.

I found this also in Maggie O’Farrell’s book ‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death’. While some of these brushes with death are more serious and dramatic than others, each essay is a master class in constructing a narrative. O’Farrell brings all her fiction writing skill to bear on instilling meaning, reflection, emotion, horror and humour in these gems of stories. The first one in the collection, which deals with her encounter with a man on a lonely path by a lake who turns out to be a rapist and murderer is like a novel in miniature – what wonderful economy of style to achieve this. O’Farrell recalls all these events from the present time and so can move back and forward in time weaving around them threads of meaning. She also creates resonances between the pieces so, for example, we find out in a later essay why Maggie was sickly and bullied in school in an earlier piece. She is unsentimental about her younger self, and the reader is sometimes frustrated at her actions, but after ‘Cerebellum’ I had to reassess my reactions.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Penelope Lively’s ‘Dancing Fish and Ammonites’ (bizarrely also published as ‘Ammonites and Leaping Fish’). Now eighty years old, Lively writes wonderfully on the trials, indignities, frustrations but also freedoms of old age. Again, a fiction writer whose prose is muscular, studied and a joy to read. She reminded me of why I love George Orwell’s essays so much (‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, for example) ­– wry, humorous and just so beautifully written. Lively also touches on her childhood (she wrote a wonderful autobiography around this time in Eqypt in ‘Jacaranda, Oleander’) and the essay here conveys what it was like coming back to cold and grey post-war Britain). Other sections of the book deal with her reading and writing life, and an extended essay on memory where she over-philosophises somewhat (the least interesting section for me) but, still, a writer at the top of her powers.