The second in Massey’s Perveen Mistry murder mysteries set in 1920’s India (the first was The Widows of Malabar Hill). Perveen is a ‘lady’ lawyer, educated at Oxford after discrimination suffered when trying to undertake her law degree in India (this is explained in Massey’s novella ‘Outnumbered at Oxford’). Perveen is constrained by the mores of the time, including British colonialism, and also by her Parsi background (she can’t, for example, be divorced from her violent estranged husband). But never mind, she can look after herself and take on most people. Here she takes a job mediating between a maharani from a far-flung principality in the hills and the British authorities who have legal care for her son – the maharaja-in-waiting. Perveen gets embroiled in a possible murder investigation when she finds the maharani’s other son was supposedly mauled to death on a hunt in suspicious circumstances. The palace is remote, hard to get to, and hemmed in by mist, and there may be a poisoner at work. There is a suggestion of love interest in the form of Colin Sandrigham – a slightly bitter but companionable British agent living in the picturesque but lonely circuit house where Perveen is put up in bad weather before moving on to the palace (much to her chagrin, Colin is the only one there besides a loyal servant ). Some may find the pace too slow, but I love the detail of the setting and customs as well as Perveen’s self-control and no-nonsense approach. She may not, perhaps, be the action heroine that is now ubiquitous but she’s smart, determined and knows she must work within the constraints that are placed on her.
This is one of those strange books that I thought was fantastic and well-realised for the first two thirds and then annoying, boring and disappointing for the last third. Moggach has some insightful, humorous and poignant things to say about the dilemma middle-aged children have when their parents become frail and elderly. Narrated alternately from the points of view of the siblings Robert and Phoebe – one a well-off aspiring writer in an unhappy marriage and the other a single fiftyish woman living in a village doing unsatisfying artwork and having a casual affair with a guy who lives in a caravan in the woods. The siblings’ mother has died and their ex-scientist Dad (with slight dementia) needs full-time care in the home. Neither one wants to give up their life to do this, so they employ a series of carers. The latest one, Mandy, seems ideal: capable, cheerful and efficient. They think they can sit back and relax but things about Mandy start to worry them, and the reader. So far so enjoyable. Then comes a twist that seemed forced and unlikely to me, and at two thirds of the way through, new (and boring) characters are introduced. Moggach lost me at that point. I didn’t want to read the rest but forced myself to.
I think this is an absolutely amazing novel but one that I may well have not read. It was only because it was a daily deal on Audible that I thought, why not? And it has blown me away (read by a wonderful narrator: Brid Brennan). I credit Brennan with bringing Burns’s unique and inventive and charming and funny and dark and unexpected voice to life. Milkman hangs on the point of view of Burn’s first person 18-year-old unnamed narrator – we can call her middle sister because all the characters are named in their relation to others. Even the Milkman of the title is called that because people don’t know his identity – he is just high up in the paramilitary, unforthcoming, dangerous and threatening to our narrator.
The world of middle sister is narrowly confined in the segregated unnamed city. Everyone’s lives are circumscribed by the sectarian splits, and the oppression of the forces from ‘the place over the water’. The fact none of this is spelt out, or even explained – it’s just the ‘political situation’ – reinforces a sense that people just get on with it. For our narrator, it is her accepted world, she just has to learn how to navigate it, how to survive. Almost every family in her ‘area’ has had members killed, every family has sons who join the ‘renouncers’, any innocent action like going to a (state) hospital, or talking to the wrong person, might get you named an informer and summary justice meted out. Much black humour is had at one place when middle sister’s ‘maybe-boyfriend’, who works as a mechanic, gets a much-coveted part of an abandoned Bentley. The fact the car had a flag (from the place over the water) on it made it suspect, and there is much debate about whether the male interest in cars should trump solidarity around hatred of the oppressors.
For something that could be bleak – the narrator is stalked by Milkman who has taken an interest in her and she knows that, in the long-run, she would probably be powerless against him (the rumour mill has it that she is having an affair with him although, in fact, she is terrified of him) – it is really, entertaining, amusing, with flights of linguistic brilliance (Joyce, Beckett, is not a far-fetched comparison). This is not cold pyrotechnics, though: it’s humane, insightful, with acts of kindness and compassion, as well as violence. Who would have thought you could go into the world of the troubles and find it so interesting, absorbing, humorous. Much of this is to do with middle-sister’s way of looking at it: she’s an odd-person out, on the cusp of what her society calls ‘beyond the pale’ – she’s rouses suspicion for her ‘reading while walking’, for her propensity to stay silent, to withdraw – but that’s what great narrators have to be, they have to see things from the outside, from the inside. This is just a great piece of literature – a worthy recipient of the Booker prize. No precis can convey how brilliant this book is, you just have to read it.
Apparently, Rebecca has not been out of print since it was first published in 1938. It was boosted, no doubt, by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, and with many adaptations since (Netflix has one in the pipeline). I first read Rebecca many years ago in my twenties and loved it. First and foremost, it is a very well written mystery. Du Maurier is excellent at misdirection, withholding and building a tense, slightly Gothic atmosphere. It’s not for nothing that the opening line ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’ has gone into the popular imagination.
I have to admit that my second ‘reading’ was really listening to the audiobook narrated by the well-known actress, Anna Massey. Her voice is, I think, too old for the young narrator (in her early twenties) but, in defence of Massey, the novel is narrated in retrospect by the older ‘never mind how many years’ unnamed narrator. I will call her J, for Jane, as the parallels to Jane Eyre are obvious, and we can’t keep mixing her up with the first Mrs De W. Massey adopts a posh, upper class intonation that, initially, is very annoying. However, it is also appropriate – Maxim de Winter is stinking rich. Manderley is a huge stately home with a large number of servants, including the butler, Frith and, of course, Mrs Danvers the housekeeper. She is no char, she runs the large staff, providing Mrs de Winter with a menu in the morning for the day’s meals. It is one of the first instances of her distain for the new Mrs de Winter, that she has no opinion on this. ‘Whatever you think, Mrs Danvers’ is her perpetual reply. Maxim has an estate manager, Frank Crawley, and so doesn’t have to do any very much by the way of oversight. We first meet Maxim, as does J, in a fancy hotel in Monte Carlo where J is suffering the petty humiliations of being a companion to the wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper.
Coming to this book the second time around, there were things that irritated me quite a lot. One aspect was the leisured lifestyle of de Winter. Somehow, because Manderley is so beloved by Maxim, that makes the idea of his immense wealth acceptable. Because of J’s meekness and mildness, there is no suggestion she is desirous of this wealth. In fact, her main concern is not being up to the job of lady of the house. Her, tastes, we are led to believe, are modest and simple: she has shabby clothes that she doesn’t appear to update when she arrives at Manderley, ‘I can see myself now … with straight, bobbed hair and youthful unpowdered face, dressed in an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of my own creation.’ No wonder Mrs Danvers looks on with cold disapproval. Du Maurier cleverly deflects any criticism of J and Maxim by presenting them first to the reader in their exile in Europe: for reasons unknown to us until late in the narrative, they can’t return to their beloved Manderley and are instead made to live a quiet life in small hotels awaiting their the English papers and their tea (No, don’t be silly, they can’t find something useful to do. Poor old Maxim is born into the idle rich. No, they can’t take an interest in the countries they are in. It’s not England. The light is too bright and hurts J’s eyes!) Their exile is obviously painful, (and we want to find out why) so we forgive them their xenophobia.
Then, of course, J is a nobody. She is well-bred and middle class, and has finer feelings, because she cringes at the overbearing antics of Mrs van Hopper. We first meet Maxim when he lunches at the next table in the hotel. Old Hopper pounces on him and, of course, he has to put up with her because she’s wealthy and upper-class New York. Luckily, the old termagant gets a cold and Maxim can whisk J around in his car. Here is the romance trope – wealthy, distant, confident man falls for poor (usually beautiful) but good and sensitive girl. The ordinary woman reader puts herself in place of the girl (if only, she fantasises). Like Jane Eyre, J is not beautiful but ‘plain’, although we suspect the plainness is really a lack of confidence (it is interesting in film/TV adaptations the actresses are not ‘plain’). Of course, thinks the heroine, this rich, confident man couldn’t love me, and from this comes the trials and the tribulations of our Janes.
This brings me to my next gripe. I couldn’t stand J’s diffidence in the face of Mrs Danvers and the county types she has to deal with at Manderley. J is forever hiding behind doors so as not to be seen, breaking expensive ornaments and hiding them, scuttling upstairs when visitors come … Perhaps as a younger reader I could relate to this but now I wanted to scream at J. When Danvers catches J in Rebecca’s old room, J acts like she’s a child caught out, she’s terrified and rooted to the spot while Danvers goes around showing her all Rebecca’s beautiful things – even the nightdress she wore before she died still crinkled with use (icky, but nice touch Daphne!). Yes, I know, du Maurier has to work it so that J is intimidated and jealous of Rebecca so that she can set up the betrayal scene at the ball, but does J have to be that wet?
I also took objection to J’s continual deference to Maxim – yes dear, no dear, of course dear. Somehow in this romance trope, it doesn’t matter what the man is like – that his character, at least on the surface is obnoxious – he has to be distant, brusque, self-confident so that the ‘winning’ of him is all the sweeter. Maxim is pretty much a self-centred arrogant toff. He doesn’t really share things with J, but plonks her down in Manderley and expects her to work things out for herself. He infantilises her but at least she is aware of this and it begins to grate on her. Why he should choose her for his attentions in Monte Carlo is not made clear. The reader hopes it is because he sees that J is fundamentally decent and kind and is in need of rescue from the horrible Hopper. Like Rochester in Jane Eyre his feeling have to necessarily be opaque (they are both hiding secrets) so that the heroine can misconstrue them. However, as the story progresses, we can see that he needed someone compliant, who would love him without making demands of her own, she would lack her own agency, so much so that she would forgive him his transgression. As in Jane Eyre this power relationship is reversed somewhat in the end – Rochester is blinded and disfigured in the fire at Thornfield Hall and needs Jane’s assistance – only after this can she say, ‘Reader, I married him’ at the end – another iconic line. Maxim is emotionally scarred after Manderley’s fire and needs our Jane to aid him in his ‘exile’ and she will keep his secret forever.
[SPOILER – BELOW I DISCUSS THE ENDING]
It is telling, that when J finds out about Maxim killing Rebecca, she is not shocked, is not appalled, only says over and over again ‘he did not love Rebecca’ – there is no moral issue in this murder, only an emotional one. Du Maurier has painted Rebecca so blackly that we want Maxim to get away with it, so J can get her reward i.e. to be with him and to have him confess his love for her.
Which brings me to my next gripe – the portrayal of Rebecca. Rebecca has to be beautiful and glamorous so the more ordinary J is jealous of her and her feelings of inadequacy heightened. Mrs Danvers taunts J with all the lovely things in Rebecca’s room that she keeps as a shrine to her. Rebecca keeps herself well-groomed, wears expensive clothes, goes up to London to shop. So? She’s an upper-class woman married to an extremely wealthy man. Maxim would have known this about her, as well as her love of the good life before he married her. We are supposed to believe she can make herself charming to everybody and she hoodwinked him. On her honeymoon on the French Riviera she tells him the truth (at the very spot he takes J on their first outing – on a cliff overlooking the sea). Maxim is so incensed that he contemplates throwing Rebecca off – nice! Never heard of divorce, Maxim? Rebecca’s ‘sin’ and what makes the shooting of her understandable, and forgivable to our heroine, is that she has some unspecified unsavoury tastes. As far as we can tell, these are parties, drink and promiscuity – the same ‘sins’ that if a man showed them, the wife would be expected to put up with them. Maxim has to kill her because she’s taken to inviting her not-very-nice friends down to his beloved Manderley. By the way, no one else has an inkling Rebecca is anything other than wonderful but to rub it in Du Maurier has her hit on Maxim’s sister’s portly, old fuddy-duddy husband, Giles, possibly for a laugh, possibly because she’s insatiable – she also has an affair with her smarmy cousin, Favell, again, for no understandable reason. In fact, Rebecca is even at fault in her own death, smiling as Maxim shoots her in a sort of suicide-by-husband, we are supposed to believe. The one thing that does make her plainly reprehensible is the threat to put Ben, an intellectually disabled man, ‘in the asylum’ if he breathes a word of her goings on in the cottage on the bay. She should have been able to charm him the way she did everyone else but Du Maurier needs this threat to build tension in the inquest section near the end. I’m sure Du Maurier does not intend it, but Rebecca’s venality here is offset somewhat, by our heroine (and Maxim) referring to Ben as the ‘idiot’ and imputing him with a ‘sly smile’.
This is not to say Rebecca is not a good book in many ways. I admire the control du Maurier has over the story – the structure is masterly, the reader is led down several garden paths, and the atmosphere is beautifully evoked. Many novels (and novelists) go out of favour because of the values they inhere but some, such as Rebecca, manage to dodge this. Perhaps the novel is not seen as literature, and so it gets a leave pass, or we convince ourselves that a life of comfortable idleness abroad is sufficient penance for a murderer and his wife (an ‘accessory after the fact’). But, who cares? She gets her man and that’s the main thing.
I became interested in the lives of Chinese people during Mao’s cultural revolution after reading Jung Chang’s wonderful Wild Swans. Bright Swallow does not have the epic sweep of Chang’s work but is a memoir of Bi’s teenage and early adult life in Beijing and the countryside in the seventies and early eighties. Bi’s parents were educated and well off, and in the case of her mother, musically talented. Such qualities had them labelled ‘rightists’ and penalised. A slip up by her father, compounded the offence and he, and then his sons, were sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated’.
Bi and her mother lived by themselves in Beijing in a courtyard house divided into a number of homes and subsisted as best they could. Vivian – Xiyan in Chinese, meaning ‘bright swallow’ – knows she comes from ‘bad origins’ and will never be accepted because of this. When she is just 15, her mother dies of lung cancer and Xiyan is left on her own and is determined to look after herself learning to cook, clean and budget. In her first year she can’t get the hang of the stove and runs out of money for fuel, so almost freezes. She has a hankering for crispy pancakes sold by hawkers and foolishly buys two, then has no money for food until the monthly allowances comes due. In a time when everyone reports on everyone else, she is fortunate to have a kind woman is her ‘compound leader’ who helps her learn to look after herself.
Xiyan works hard at school, wanting to make something of herself to fulfil her mother’s dictum to ‘live a life’. Helping other students with homework leads to a cadre’s son lending her books of Western classics (something that is strictly illegal so that Xiyan must read the book quickly and return it) She starts with The Count of Monte Christo, and to keep the story in her mind and amuse other children she memorises the text and recounts it. This is something that could get her into trouble, so she carries out various subterfuges to continue doing it, and it becomes a popular event.
The universities have been closed but then Mao miraculously announces they will open. There is a flurry of competition and studying, and Xiyan’s hopes are up. However, just as suddenly, Mao sends all the city high school graduates to do a period of work in the countryside, including Xiyan. Her determination to succeed even manifests itself here and, despite a denunciation by her father (something that she can ever quite forgive), which means she is singled out for tough treatment and humiliation, she throws herself into village life becoming indispensable and accepted, finally getting to look after some working horses, which she loves.
Of course, Mao dies, the cultural revolution ends, and China opens up a fraction, but it is no easy course for Xiyan to make it to Australia still having ‘bad origins’ (she eventually finds a way around this). This is a lovely, honest memoir and gives a great insight into a young girl living in extraordinary times. It shows that in a time of hardship, personal loss, sanctioned violence (by red guards), quixotic government edicts and (often familial) betrayals, there are still kindnesses, generosity and small pleasures. Bi does admit, though, the qualities of toughness, resilience and self-reliance she had to develop to survive on her own have stayed with her – she has never quite been able to soften them.
Charlie is a bit of a no-hoper living in a reimagined London in the 80s. he inhabits a rundown one bedroom flat and plays the stock market on his beat-up computer and makes enough to get by. His love interest is Miranda, a history student, who lives in the flat above. Although it’s the 80s in McEwan’s alternate history, Alan Turing had not committed suicide, so computing technology is far-advanced – the result of this is that a private company (Elon Musk-esque) has developed advanced AI androids. They have just put on the market a trial group of 12 females (Eves) and 13 males (Adams). Charlie gets an inheritance from his mother and, on impulse. Buys an Adam (all the Eves are sold out).
So far, this is perhaps your average SF/spec fic scenario, but McEwan isn’t interested in going there. This novel is not for thrills; it is a philosophical examination of what it means to be human with all McEwan’s trade mark humour, stylistic and structural pyrotechnics, and impressive erudition. Most writers would baulk at depicting Turing discussing AI but McEwan goes right in there with convincing detail and bravura. McEwan grounds the story in complications between Adam, Charlie and Miranda. There are twists and twists and twists – nothing about the narrative is straightforward and tired ideas about android/robot/human interaction are turned on their heads.
This novel made me think about things and challenged my assumptions – it’s a rare thing when a piece of literature makes you look at something anew, from an angle I hadn’t encountered before, and he achieves this through the framework of a very enjoyable and entertaining read. Maybe, if I had to critical, I’d say McEwan can’t help but be a little too clever, and conceited about it.
I began by being extremely drawn to this account of dealing with a difficult parent in their old age. My late mother, too, was a (convincing) fantasist who turned on her daughters as we tried to help her as she declined. The incredible tension experienced when my version of things was not believed by others (doctors, health workers, social workers etc etc) was very potently portrayed by Laveau-Harvie when she encountered this.
However, this is not a blow-by-blow description of what happened to Laveau-Harvie and her sister but more a work of creative non-fiction – moving back and forwards in time, withholding, immersing the reader in mood and the beautiful environment of the Canadian prairie where her parents had their large house (don’t be fooled by the barn-like shack on the cover – think more like Dynasty). The author creates the story through carefully-chosen scenes (often blackly comic) and interior musings.
However, as the narrative progressed, I lost the connection I felt in the beginning as I realised this was not (perhaps necessarily) an impartial account. What is very brave about the book is that Laveau-Harvie opens herself up to being seen as unsympathetic (I’m sure most authors would pull hard against exposing themselves in this way. I felt terrible guilt after my mother passed away – did Laveau-Harvie feel something similar that was expiated, to a certain extent in this aspect of the work? Who knows.) I may have been too close to the story to be impartial myself but I had a strong negative reaction to the fate of the mother and the valorising of the father who, after all, had been complicit with his wife in her treatment of the daughters. The Erratics raises a plethora issues and, after winning The Stella Prize, many more people will get to discuss them.
I started reading this long book by Richard Powers and found the beginning a little tiring (over-detailed, slow). It starts with a pioneering family in the US and the (odd) obsession by one of them with documenting the growth from seed of a chestnut tree (at this time a chestnut blight was systematically wiping out whole ancient forests). Then we abruptly leave this story and move on to another one of a Chinese man immigrating to the US taking with him an ancient scroll. This is how the novel develops, moving from one story to the next, starting with the background of characters, and then following their families. They all, in one way or another, have a connection to trees – although this is sometimes tangential. I don’t know if I would have persisted with The Overstory if I hadn’t decided to listen to the audiobook, rather than read the paper one. I just relaxed back and took in this big, wide-ranging, detailed book with its huge cast of characters. I’m not sure how many main storylines we follow; maybe nine?
Some are more compelling than others. I liked Patricia, a deaf, taciturn and withdrawn plant expert who goes against the conventional wisdom and does research into tree communication (of course, now it is accepted that trees communicate, help and protect each other; even those of different species). I also liked Douglas, an ex-military dropout loner who sees the light in middle age when he encounters clear felling and the practice of the logging companies of leaving a façade of trees along roads, and at the edge of logging coups, to fool the public. He does his bit by joining a regreening work gang replanting seedlings for a logger, until he finds out that by doing this, the company gets a licence to log even more. There is also an Indian quadriplegic programmer who gets rich inventing a game called Mastery, where you start with a virgin planet and develop and civilise it (it takes him a long time to see the implications of this and try to make amends).
As the narrative progresses, some of the characters meet, come together, and protest logging. Peaceful protest is met by force and our small group decide to take more active measures. The consequences of this are far ranging and provide the main narrative thrust of the novel but this is not a linear narrative and Powers is not about to provide any easy answers. I had the feeling often about this book that it was about to end – some profound point had been made, some realisation of a main character’s – but it went on, often switching between storylines at these moments. I won’t spoil the end, but it is in keeping.
My defences were worn down by the narrative; it was relentless, and beautifully and powerfully written, with a cynicism of humanity that I agree with wholeheartedly. I was stuck with the characters, I had to go with them and when it finished, I had that sensation that something deeply satisfying had left me. The ending makes you think about the whole and I realised Powers was doing something interesting with the structure (hint the sections are titled Roots, Trunk, Crown, Seeds). The various sections start out with ‘roots’ – the family history or background of the characters, then they grow independently branching out. I like to think that the little revelations, or narrative stops, I noticed, were the ends of the twigs growing out from the branch. In the end, you just have to step back, take in the whole, and accept it for what it is. Whether you are convinced by the ‘seeds’, I’ll leave up to you.
I think this book is a pretty staggering achievement (apart from everything else, it is highly erudite on a wide range of topics). It reminded me of Middlemarch where Eliot developed the same sense of community and loose interconnectedness, and I felt the same sadness at having to move from that novel as I did with The Overstory.
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.
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.