Saturday, 7 November 2015

Bronte revisited

We've had some Dickensian fogs in south-east England recently which have provided a suitable backdrop to my Bronte reading this month!  While I was waiting for the publication of Claire Harman's new biography of Charlotte Bronte I re-read Wuthering Heights.  Although I adored it as a student it is harder to read when you are older because the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy seems so overblown.  But in a way that's how it should be because those intense emotions are the preserve of the young.

What doesn’t change when you re-visit Wuthering Heights are Emily Bronte’s beautiful poetic descriptions of the natural landscape. Edgar Linton placing a bunch of golden crocuses on the dying Cathy’s pillow which remind her of the first spring flowers at Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s burial in a corner of the kirkyard ‘where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor and peat mould almost buries it ' and the fantastic scene where the young Catherine puts primroses in Hareton’s porridge to make him laugh.

I was interested to read in Claire Harman’s biography that it was her sister Anne’s Agnes Grey and Emily’s Wuthering Heights which inspired Charlotte to create the story of a governess with a passionate nature and a steadfast refusal to be suppressed which became Jane Eyre. The longed-for literary success of Jane Eyre is of course overshadowed by the loss of Emily and then Anne. Harman’s depiction of Charlotte searching the moor in December to find a living sprig of heather to take to her dying sister is heart-breakingly sad.

It’s a meticulously researched biography and Harman is not over-awed by the genius of her subject. There are some cool asides about the sometimes bizarre behaviour of the Rev Bronte and some excellent analysis of Jane Eyre. However, I’m still not sure that this is the definitive biography of Charlotte Bronte.

Just a word about the stunning cover which is a Chloe Giodarno embroidery commissioned by Penguin. You can see her amazing embroidered animals on her website.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

febbre Ferrante

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore. Elena Ferrante
Spent yesterday afternoon in the cafe pavilion at my local park enjoying the last of the summer sunshine and re-reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I’m re-reading the first volume of the Neapolitan series because I’ve just finished the newly published fourth volume The Story of the Lost Child and fallen in love with it all over again - the sea, the stradone, the island of Ischia, the siren call of Naples and the brooding shadow of Vesuvius.

The Story of the Lost Child covers the late seventies and early eighties. Elena and Lila are now in their mid-thirties and resume an uneasy friendship. Elena has had considerable success with her writing career and left her husband for her lover, Nino, causing her mother-in-law who is highly influential in publishing circles to ostracize her and her mother to react with her usual fury. Lila is having considerable success in business in the early days computing and has regained some power and status in Naples.

The writing is intense and relentless. I found myself routing for Elena when she stands up to her mother-in-law while simultaneously condemning her for putting her lover before her daughters. Lila remains enigmatic and Elena always has the feeling that she is one step ahead of her. Both women become pregnant and there is a traumatic incident where Vesuvius erupts which triggers a nervous breakdown in Lila. The volcano seems to serve as a metaphor for Lila’s mental health. Bringing their daughters up together and sharing their care the two friends become close again until the traumatic event at the heart of the novel which changes everything and the quatrain ends as it started with the disappearance of Lila.

Have you caught Ferrante fever yet?

Sunday, 7 June 2015


Just back from a bright and breezy weekend in Brighton and Hove. One of the pleasures of Brighton is the big Waterstones which has five floors and a nice coffee shop on the top floor where you can glimpse the sea.  I bought Lily King’s Euphoria which has been top of my wishlist for a while. I knew when I read the reviews and blog posts that a 1930's love story set on the Sepik river based on the early life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead would be just the kind of literary novel I enjoy.

Christmas Eve, 1932.  Fen and his wife Nell, anthropologists studying the river tribes of Papua New Guinea, board a boat intending to leave the country. Wearing filthy clothes, suffering from tropical sickness and nursing cuts and bruises they contrast with the other couples on the boat, the ladies in stiff party dresses and men in dinner jackets passing around gin. From a conversation with the women on the boat Nell learns that a book she has published has caused quite a stir in her home country.

At the clubhouse they meet Bankson another renowned anthropologist who has been working with the Sepik river tribes for many years. Lonely and traumatised by the loss of his brothers Bankson is drawn to Nell and tends her wounds and persuades them both to stay on and work with another tribe. Thus begins a bitter love triangle between Nell, her handsome and manipulative husband Fen who ‘smells of Cambridge and youth’ and the kind-hearted and vulnerable Bankson. 
I should say that the character of Nell is only loosely based on  Margaret Mead and she is attractively drawn as a perceptive, methodical and hardworking scientist with an affectionate heart. I loved the description of Nell re-telling the story of Romeo and Juliet to the Tam tribe who find it hysterically funny.   
When a talented writer breaks away from ‘domestic fiction’ there a huge creative possibilities. I’m thinking of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood BibleEuphoria is the best novel I've read this year.  There is an excellent Vogue interview with Lily King here if you can get past all the ads.  Cluttering literary interviews with fashion ads is sooo last year dahling! 

Friday, 10 April 2015

All My Puny Sorrows

Nora will live on the top floor in the attic, with the squirrels, me on the second with the mice, and my mom on the main floor, close to the skunks.  We will be able to step out of our broken back screen doors at different levels and break into song like they do in La Boheme. 
I didn't expect a novel about the suicide of a beloved sister to be breezy and uplifting but All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, although heartbreakingly sad, is a life-affirming novel.

Elfrieda is 'glamorous and dark and jazzy like a French film star.'  She has an international career as a concert pianist and a loving husband.  She also wants to die, has attempted suicide before and will do it again.  Her younger sister Yolandi has teenage children, a couple of failed relationships behind her, a fondness for red wine and carries the kind of to-do list in her head which runs 'airport, car door, shower curtain, get divorced.'

Yoli is terrified that the psych ward will discharge her sister and has running battles with an elusive team of care workers, a 'mobile-phone hating nurse' and a flippant psychiatrist who makes the nurses giggle 'as though they were standing next to Elvis in Girls! Girls! Girls!.'

While Elf is a dazzling character - literary, musical, street smart yet highly strung - it is Yoli who holds extraordinary appeal for the reader.  Whether madly cycling along the path to visit her sister in hospital and flinging her bike on the grass without locking it or trying to secure an oversize Christmas tree which comes crashing to the ground or drinking a glass of wine or three with her friend Julie she is a staunch and loyal friend, daughter, wife and mother who is desperately trying to stop her circle being depleted by one more.

I really wanted this book to win the Folio prize, shame it didn't, but I hope it will be nominated for more literary prizes.  My main picture is the hardback, but it's just out in paperback (on my sidebar) which has an attractive green/blue variation on the original cover illustration.   Brilliant book!  

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Leaving Before The Rains Come

I don’t often get to listen to Radio 4's Book of the Week because of work but I took leave a couple of weeks ago which happily coincided with some bright sunshine and the serialisation of Alexandra Fuller’s new memoir Leaving Before The Rains Come. You may remember the first memoir of her African childhood Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and the second volume Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness in which Fuller is unsentimental about coming of age in a family of white settlers in war-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in the seventies.  This book examines what happens after she met Charlie, an American running a safari company in Zambia.

Leaving Before the Rains Come is like catching up with old friends - Bobo (Alexandra) her sister Van (face-of-the-eighties), their mother (Nicola Fuller of Central Africa), stoical father Tim and mildly stoned cook, Adamson, are all here.  Fuller is brilliant at conveying the beauty and stupefying heat of the landscape.  Living with Charlie and their first baby, Sarah, in a cottage on the banks of the Zambezi river she has to purchase a 'wearable mosquito net cloud' and nurse the baby under it because of an outbreak of yellow fever.  When the heat becomes unbearable in February she moves the bed out onto the veranda:
And, lying under the mosquito net with my child and my husband next to me, listening to the shouting hippos, the pulsing night insects, the shrieking bush babies, I fell deeply back in love with the land of my childhood.
 It is when they decide to move to Wyoming, that illness, debt, pressures of work and an accident take their toll on the marriage and Fuller struggles to reconcile her hardy South African self with risk-averse American middle-class life.  However, the memoir really gets into its stride during her Wyoming years and Charlie's family are charming with an intriguing history. 

In an interview Louise Erdrich once said ‘To be mixed blood is a great gift for a writer. I have one foot on tribal lands and one foot in middle-class life.'  Fuller's conflict has made for a poignant and highly-readable memoir.

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Road to Middlemarch

I've read two charming biblio-memoirs this year.  The first was Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year and I've just finished Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch.  Mead is a New York based journalist who has read and re-read George Eliot's Middlemarch and found it resonates at different times in her life. She writes of her English childhood by the seaside, her academic years at Oxford , marriage and motherhood with Middlemarch providing a reliable source of sustenance through life's successes and failures. 

Mead is a perceptive literary critic and there is some delicious detail about the life of George Eliot in this memoir.  I didn't know that Eliot re-read all of Jane Austen's novels before embarking on Middlemarch which may account for the comic skewed dialogue between Dorothea and her sister Celia, particularly Celia's horror that her earnest and beautiful sister is going to marry the 'dried up husk' of an academic Casaubon who has reached the advanced age of fifty.  (Eliot was 52 when she wrote Middlemarch!) Best of all this book will make you want to re-discover George Eliot.

I'll wish you all a happy New Year and leave you with a lovely snowy quote from The Mill on the Floss:
Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of colour;  it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees till it fell from them with a shuddering sound ...  The Mill on the Floss, 1860, George Eliot

Friday, 28 November 2014


Have you caught Ferrante fever yet? No, me neither. Until last week that is when I was wandering around Waterstones on my everlasting search for well-written contemporary fiction with my birthday book tokens burning a hole in my pocket. I picked up Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend initially attracted by the cover and one of the ladies working in the store highly recommended it and told me a little about #ferrantefever. Elena Ferrante’s three novels, known as the Neapolitan trilogy are becoming something of a literary sensation, partly because they are so readable and partly because the identity of the author is a mystery. I started reading My Brilliant Friend last Friday night and then couldn’t put it down all week.
It’s a coming of age story about the friendship between Lila and Elena which begins when they are eight or nine growing up in a small village in Naples during the 1950's. Their friendship is intense and competitive and life among the poor working classes in their village is pretty brutal. There is a lovely account of the day they decide to skip school and leave their village for the first time to walk to the Napoli coast near Vesuvius. They confidently set out with no concept of time or distance and soon are hungry, tired and wary of a violet light in the sky indicating an impending thunderstorm. When they turn back Elena’s mother has gone to the school to meet her holding an umbrella to shelter her from the rain. When she discovers Elena has lied her mother whacks her with the umbrella while Lila’s parents don’t even notice she has gone! Some readers have found the harsh realism in this novel a little excessive but I prefer to read about life as it is rather than ‘cosy' fiction.
My Brilliant Friend reminded me a little of Lorrie Moore’s Who will Run the Frog Hospital? a highly readable novel which leaves you wondering how much is fiction and how much is memoir.  I’ve already started the second volume The Story of a New Name and I'm going to save the third volume Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay for my Christmas read.  There is more about Elena Ferrante here and here, but I warn you #ferrantefever is infectious!