Does the onlooker see more of the game? Klara and the Sun Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is not the first author to use the technique of examining a non-human’s reactions, thoughts and feelings to discover more about human thought and emotion, and perhaps in the end, to come nearer to knowing what is unique about a human being.

Ishiguro has created an android, an Artificial Friend or AF. Klara is sympathetic, engaging and considerate: she has to be – that’s how she’s programmed. Her story has poignancy and pathos – that’s how Ishiguro writes.

In Ishiguro’s near-future world, teenagers study from home, on mobiles, and rarely meet their friends, which partially explains the existence of AFs. Moving through the book a reader realises that this society has differences, even gulfs, between haves and have-nots, between those who have elected to have their children’s intelligence boosted, and those who either lack the means or do not wish to do so, between those who are employed and those who are not – possibly because they have been replaced with robots or other forms of artificial intelligence. Jodie, the daughter of a successful business woman, chooses Klara.

From the first phrase a reader is immersed in Klara’s viewpoint, and experiences the world through the filter of Klara’s interpretation. Klara’s way of recognising what she sees is to divide her view into areas or ‘boxes’, and then subdivide what she sees in each box into recognisable shapes, and then recombine them into an object that she is familiar with, maybe a person she knows. The process is like a drawing tutorial, or of course, computer facial recognition. Klara’s naivete charmed me.  But it was hard to believe a robot (or AF) who had sufficient intelligence and knowledge to help Jodie’s friend, a teenager who designed and made a flock of robotic birds, would not understand the differences in the way an AF depends on sunlight and the way a human does.

The book is written in the first person, so I was interested to see what pronoun other characters used when speaking about Klara. Even the group of teenage boys who objectify her as Josie’s new AF, consistently say she and her. It reminded me of how most people speak of babies and pet animals, whose gender may not be obvious. Usually, a speaker opts for either he or she, or avoids the dilemma by using a phrase like ‘lovely baby’ or ‘your dog’. In my experience most people avoid saying it, except, now I think of it, when talking about pet snakes or stick insects. I now have to go back to I, Robot (Isaac Asimov) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K Dick) to see what happens there.

Ishiguro suggests that one of the drivers for human actions is people’s fear of loneliness. One of the outcomes of Covid lockdown has been the increased number of pet owners, and questions are being asked about whether there is any danger these animals will be neglected when lockdown conditions cease. By the end of the book Ishiguro is asking what responsibility a human would have towards an AF once the human’s need for the AF has passed. I cannot forget that Anna Sewell asked a similar question (about horses) in Black Beauty. I like to think that another behaviour driver for many people is sympathy, even empathy, for non-humans – and that the appeal of characters like Ginger in Black Beauty, Boxer in Animal Farm, and Flush as described by Virginia Woolf, is justification for that belief. But maybe this is sentimentality, which is often characterised as being mawkish, or self-indulgent? I need to read more!

Will I re-read Klara and the Sun? I already have, and now I’ll certainly lend it to friends with a note inside saying ‘please return’.

Does considering human life through Klara’s viewpoint help me to understand more about human nature? It has helped me be more aware of which aspects in my own I want to nurture and which to try to eradicate.

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Why is so special about Margery Allingham? More work for the Undertaker … and all her other writing

Why do I prefer reading (and re-reading) Margery Allingham’s novels to those of any other crime writer? I should write, ‘to those of any other crime writer I’ve read so far’, I suppose. But I’ve enjoyed reading detective stories for most of my life. Perhaps saying that I enjoy re-reading Margery Allingham’s novels more than any detective stories I’ve read in the last fifty years gives an idea of how highly I rate her books.

How do I explain this preference?

There are her characters. Like most authors Margery Allingham created a cast of supporting players around her detective, and these characters appear in many of her stories. Unlike her contemporary, Rex Stout, or Donna Leon more recently, Allingham’s characters mature and she allows their lives to continue – both during her stories and between them. Mr Campion not only gets older, he develops quirks and imperfections linked to his age (unlike Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey, who becomes closer and closer to Sayers’ ideal). Margery Allingham interweaves family life with detection, and gives the latter grounding.

Her world has characters who are well-meaning, intelligent and humorous, and who are both fun, and challenging, to spend time with. Who wouldn’t want to be at Minnie and Tonker’s midsummer party, in The Beckoning Lady, to listen to the Swedish nightingale, to laugh, then gasp at the Augusts’ repartee, to catch up with the Fitton family and to enjoy ice-cream brought by London’s most esteemed bookmaker? Not to mention discussing the art displayed in the barn with critics and artists, eating peas that were podded by eminent members of the CID, while drinking champagne, tea and more champagne, in perfect English summer weather.

Or, in Dancers in Mourning, wouldn’t it be fun to join Lugg, Campion’s ex-burglar cockney manservant, as he entertains the forlorn young daughter of the house by teaching her country house maintenance and etiquette, and how to pick locks? Margery Allingham has a flair for describing poignant, ignored youth – in A Fashion in Shrouds Campion and his fiancée console the son of an actress who only occasionally remembers she has a child.  

It is challenging to try to keep up with the allusions dropped into conversation by the Palinodes, in More Work for the Undertaker, but fun to imagine doing so. (Allingham plays the quotation game with more subtlety than Sayers.) I am not sure I’d actually want to spend time with the eponymous undertaker and his son, but I greatly enjoy his devious conversation and machinations, all supplied with a flavouring of deliberate Victorian Gothic.

Margery Allingham was always willing to experiment, she was never satisfied with simply relocating a Surrey houseparty to a cruise ship or a Riviera villa. Her books have varied settings that differ from each other in atmosphere and population as well as geography, and the crimes committed in them depend on their setting and the year the book was written. Except that murder is always dreadful. One early book (Look to the Lady) invokes the supernatural, in war-time stories Campion must defend the nation against enemy plots, and some later tales concern crimes carried out by international corporations.

Many of Margery Allingham’s books are funny. The humour is slipped in, blink and you miss it, (another reason to re-read). One example, one which I have thought of and smiled about even when not reading the book, is in Coroner’s Pidgin. The eccentric (in name, appearance and character) Miss Pork is leading Mr Campion and two police detectives down the stairs into her dark cellar. She warns them that the second step from the bottom is faulty, which means that the descending detectives suddenly concentrate on each footstep, rather than on detection.

Allingham’s descriptions of settings, the homes and the people within them, show her familiarity both with rural, coastal Suffolk and with central London’s squares. She is as confident recording the speech and attitudes of Suffolk countryside dwellers during her era, as she is in describing the mannerisms, foibles and conversation of artists and intellectuals living in London’s Little Venice in Death of a Ghost. Her descriptions of impoverished, smog-filled, battered London in The Tiger in the Smoke, make this reader feel the grime on her skin, and inhale the dank, smoke-flavoured air. (The characters are compelling, too).

Margery Allingham’s characters reflect her experience and the times in which she wrote. She created Amanda Fitton, a woman who becomes a talented aeroplane engineer and also marries and has a family. We first meet Amanda using her mechanical aptitude at home to keep an ancient vehicle running (Sweet Danger) and find her in a later one, (The Beckoning Lady) jury rigging a lighting system. But Amanda is exceptional. Working-class women are often married, and earning a wage for menial jobs, but most of Allinghams’s upper-class women have full time roles as wives and mothers. In The Fashion in Shrouds, two successful career women are shown as feeling they not only need a male companion, but also that, in one case he should be a protector, and in the other, have authority in their relationship. I can accept these characters within the world where they lived, but I find it far harder to accept, in another of her books, that a man who blacked his wife’s eye in an argument, then repents, is so easily forgiven.  

This has turned into a subjective mountain of justification for my personal preference, so, in conclusion:

I reread the Margery Allingham novels because they are novels, rather than mere detective stories. The plots are clever, the detective is engaging and those who commit crimes are punished, but there is far more. There is description of, and comment on, slices of English society over a period of thirty years. There is humour, drama and sometimes pathos. Margery Allingham’s writing is persuasive, vivid and captivating.

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Too eccentric to be believable? Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout

Can characters be too eccentric? Nero Wolfe is certainly a most eccentric character.

After writing about the Brunetti novels, I went back to another detective series whose protagonists do not age: Rex Stout’s series that nominally concerns the cases of Nero Wolfe. I say nominally, because the cases are recorded in the first person by Wolfe’s assistant, Archie Goodwin. I read, and re-read the stories in order to spend more time with Archie. Rex Stout gave Archie an eidetic memory and a talent for reportage.

Archie’s voice is witty, his observations astute and his use of language individual, consistently in character, and hilarious. It is a little like reading Wodehouse, but the slang is 1930’s New York gumshoe rather than upper-class London dilettante (it turns out P.G. Wodehouse and Rex Stout were friends). Unlike the Jeeves books the settings reflect the year each book was written, and the liberal political outlook of their author. Like the Brunetti stories, the chief protagonists do not age, although they are affected by outside circumstances and remember their experiences in later novels.

Stout gave Nero Wolfe a huge intellect in an enormous body. Wolfe is a sedentary man mountain, almost as difficult to move to any kind of action as the dark mountains of his birthplace – Montenegro. He has two passions in his life – orchid breeding, and fine food. He spends four hours (ten to twelve and four to six) every day in the top floor of his New York town house, with his orchids and his plantsman, Theodore Horstmann. He takes lunchtime and dinnertime seriously; at these times he enjoys elaborate meals and intellectual conversation. He spends a great deal of time planning menus with his Swiss chef, Fritz Brenner.

Wolfe would prefer, when he is not thinking of orchids or food, to spend his time reading or studying maps. But Stout has given expensive hobbies to his detective, and Archie is there to remind him they need to be able to charge fees if salaries are to be paid, and food and orchids purchased.

The crimes are convoluted puzzles, while the characters involved are rarely complex (although, of course, not always exactly what their first appearance suggests). Beautiful women in their early twenties are usually involved, Archie appreciates and charms most of them. He’s just under six foot, in his early thirties, a well-read, wisecracking, competent, strong man-of-all-trades. He charms me, even though I’ve read his dismissal of ladies too old to be able to keep holding up the parts that he mostly notices. Archie’s admiration is not enough to prevent some of the most attractive women being murdered, whatever crime is initially committed, there is always a murder to solve.

So – can characters be too eccentric? It is true that if eccentric means a long way from the central norm, then Wolfe, not to speak of Fritz and Theodore, are eccentric. But I still go back to the novels more to spend time with Archie Goodwin, Wolfe and the other inhabitants of Wolfe’s brownstone, and to enjoy Archie’s wisecracks, than to pick up clues to the murder that I missed first time through (although that’s fun too). When I’m immersed in Stout’s clever, consistent narrative then disbelief is suspended, and I can enjoy a ride as Archie drives through New York’s streets, where the traffic still moves, or I can sit near the globe in Wolfe’s office, and eavesdrop on the conversation there.

As another (eccentric?) character said – I’ll be back.

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Close-up or long view? The Commissario Brunetti Novels Donna Leon

I wondered what to re-read after The Darkest Evening. It had to be crime, and I decided to stick with one where the protagonist was a member of a police force, then thought of Donna Leon’s books about Commissario Brunetti.

Guido Brunetti is a member of the Venetian police force, and works from a questura whose staff are composed of honest, hardworking Venetian locals (in particular Brunetti, Vianello and Signorina Elettra), and venal, lazy incomers from the South (the Vice Questore, Patti and his sidekick Scarpa).  The uniformed carabinieri are expected to be stupid. One character, Alvise, reminds me of the buffoonish desk sergeant in the television version of Montalbano. Anyone holding a political post, or governmental authority is assumed to be corrupt unless proved otherwise. Italian bureaucracy is invariably inefficient, either slow or faulty, often both. So far so stereotyped, so why did I not only read but buy and re-read so many of these books?

Here are two reasons: Donna Leon’s descriptions of Brunetti’s family, and the facets of Venetian life that are interwoven through each story. Architecture, art, food, canals, tourists, the lagoon – they all play their part, not merely background but often shaping the plot. When Guido Brunetti returns to the family home he must walk through narrow calles, then climb stairs to the apartment. The journey is worthwhile, he usually finds his wife, Paola, and his children there. Paola is the erstwhile-rebellious daughter of a Count, so her character is free to espouse anti-establishment causes and work part-time as a lecturer, while still enjoying financial security, and having access, for herself and her husband, to the most aristocratic levels of Venetian society when his investigation requires it. Like her husband Paola quotes from literature of different centuries, in several languages. But it is unusual to find her reading anything but Henry James. Donna Leon causes Paola to cook enormous, complicated feasts for her family’s suppers, which are devoured by husband Guido and Chiara and Raffi, their two well-mannered, studious, intelligent children.

Sounds like more typecasting? The structure is redeemed by Leon’s marvellous writing, so that the reader sees, smells, tastes each delicious mouthful of the family meal and eavesdrops on family conversations so convincing that this reader joins in. Through these conversations, and the cases Brunetti investigates, Donna Leon explores contentious, contemporary issues such as the exploitation of illegal immigrants, misappropriation of charitable funding and environmental crimes. She uses her characters to express not only her own distrust of organised religion and her despair at the failings of Italy’s government but also her deep appreciation of Italian culture in general, and its expression in Venice in particular.

Donna Leon has given Brunetti (and his wife and most of his friends) a deeply cynical, almost despairing view of the way their country is managed and governed, but this despair is relieved by satisfying, loyal relationships and the introduction and appreciation of reassuringly scrupulous, conscientious minor characters in each book. And most of these characters are allowed to survive.

Checking Wikipedia (where else?) I find that Donna Leon has written twenty-nine Brunetti novels. I haven’t read them all, but in those I have read the protagonists do not age. Chiara and Raffi are forever thirteen and sixteen. In the past I was disappointed, I bought the next book as much to see what happened to them as to unravel the latest crime. Then I heard Donna Leon explain that although she wrote one book a year, the events did not cover a year. However, unlike many sit-coms, where nothing changes, some of her characters die and others do undergo life-changing events, whose consequences affect future books. I look at the books differently now from how I did twenty years ago, not as episodes in a saga, but as a series of vignettes, looking in depth at moments during the life of Donna Leon’s characters and their city. Close-ups, rather than a long view. And as such, rewarding to re-read, because there is always more detail, more observation to discover.

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The persistence of images The Darkest Evening Ann Cleeves

It seems images make stronger impressions on our brains than sounds or print. Not so long ago I was ironing and listening to a repeat radio broadcast: Simon Russell Beale in one of Le Carré’s George Smiley books. I knew it was Simon Russell Beale, but the only person I saw was Alec Guinness. Alec Guinness first played Smiley on television more than forty years ago! You may say that the experience proves how powerful an actor Alec Guinness was, and that impressions made in relative youth are more long-lasting. (The latter is probably true, in the cinema Gary Oldman temporarily erased Alec Guinness, but the effect didn’t last long.) I remember a lecture at Sussex: on a giant screen we saw a woman say ‘ooh’, while the sound system played ‘aah’. When the lecturer asked us what we had heard, the audience said ‘ooh’.

Which I suppose explains why, when I read The Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves’ most recent novel to feature Detective Vera Stanhope, Brenda Blethyn stalked across the Northumbrian moors, and waded through the snow. I have only ever caught occasional episodes of the television series, and I have read an article where Ann Cleeves explained how much less attractive was her conception of Vera’s face and figure than Brenda Blethyn’s appearance. It made no difference, I saw Brenda Blethyn while I read about Vera.

This is the first of Ann Cleeves’ ‘Vera’ novels that I have read, and the start resembles the beginning of a 1930’s crime novel. A dinner party in an isolated, country house with guests trapped by a snowstorm, then a police inspector interrupts the party – it could be Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Or (without the snowstorm) the stage could have been set for a performance of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.

But what’s going on here is not The Mousetrap, because before Vera arrives at the house, she has found a baby, and in the very first pages we have been introduced to the baby and his mother. We know they are important. Ann Cleeves weaves her story of a murder investigation into a tapestry of stories about troubled relationships – and in each of these stories a child may be the problem, or its solution. More Priestley than Christie.

The story is told through the points of view of the investigating police officers and the party’s hostess. Motives, means and opportunity are revealed, as are characters and the complexities of the relationships between them; nothing seems contrived, the narrative flows smoothly – and the book is hard to put down. The bleak Northumbrian countryside is not a mere background to the narrative, it drives and informs it. And in sly acknowledgement and updating of the book’s gothic overtones, the teenage part-time waiters at the dinner party are Goths when they are free to dress as they wish.

All the main characters develop during the novel, and those who survive are left with possible happy futures, the crime is solved, and confounding circumstances explained – a satisfying end for the reader.

There is some repetition, Vera’s tea consumption would lower the level of Kielder water, and the number of biscuits she eats would make it impossible to fasten even her capacious coat against the extreme Northumbrian weather. I wonder if there is any truth in her theory that families who serve home-made biscuits (as opposed to shop-bought) are more likely to have unhappy secrets? In future I’ll be less smug when I offer what I’ve baked to visitors. If there are ever visitors again…

I enjoyed reading this book, and I am looking forward to seeing how some of the twentieth century detective novels on my bookshelves compare with it.

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Is there a good reason to (re-)read this book? Peter Abelard by Helen Waddell

The connection between Helen Waddell’s 1933 novel, Peter Abelard, and Sebastian Barry’s A Thousand Moons may seem tenuous. But my head was still full of Winona’s voice when my eye was caught by this book, sitting in a bookshelf on the landing. I remembered how Helen Waddell had carried me back into Heloise’s world many years ago, and picked it up to see whether it happened again. Although the book is rarely mentioned now, when the book was first published it was a best seller, and Google tells me ‘this work has been identified by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it’. Wow!

At the time I first read Peter Abelard I had not heard of the story of Abelard and Heloise, and knew almost nothing of their world. I think Helen Waddell would have expected her readers to know more than I did then, her world was that of a scholar of mediaeval history, and the story of Abelard and Heloise was repeated and retold throughout that period. So, although it may be a plot spoiler, I am going to tell some of what is known of the history of Peter Abelard and Heloise of Argenteuil.

At the beginning of the twelfth century Peter Abelard was a theological scholar, (there was little opportunity to be any other kind of scholar at that time). Abelard thought Christian theology should be developed by examination of many sources, including Greek philosophers. When sources were contradictory then the arguments of each side should be compared, and conclusions drawn. He was not prepared to accept what was written by any one particular saint as the final word on any aspect of theology. This contradicted the accepted practice of the church at that time. Abelard was a charismatic speaker, he gained great support among young men who came to study in Paris. He also seems to have been assertive and arrogant, and he certainly antagonised the church hierarchy. The worlds of theology and academic study were not separate in Abelard’s time, scholars usually took holy orders of some kind, and although they were not forbidden to marry, marriage was frowned on and would prevent a scholar gaining any kind of preferment, or – as we would now say – promotion to, or even retention of, a university post.

Abelard agreed to tutor the niece of a clergyman, Canon Fulbert, in lieu of paying rent for a room in the Canon’s house. The niece was Heloise of Argenteuil, who had already established her reputation as a brilliant scholar, an exceptional achievement for a woman at that time. Abelard and Heloise fell in love and had an affair, there was a child and then a secret marriage. It is usually said that it was the Canon, whose trust Abelard had betrayed, who arranged for Abelard’s castration when the marriage became public.

What happened afterwards is the reason the story of Abelard and Heloise has continued to be told. For Abelard didn’t die, nor disappear into some kind of secluded exile. He and Heloise both took holy orders and joined religious communities, while both continued to be scholars, in their separate institutions. Much later in their lives they wrote letters, which still exist, to each other, partly about personal matters but they also discussed theology and details of religious life.

I read Helen Waddell’s book decades ago, and I remember being carried up into exalted realms of scholastic rigour, religious fervour, and ecstatic romance. Since then I’ve learned more history, studied some theology and philosophy, and examined ideas about a teacher’s responsibility to their students. So, what do I feel re-reading the book?

First, I feel great respect for Waddell’s scholarship, her work is full of historical detail and quotations. Waddell assumes her reader can follow her, through contemporary quotations (translated at least), through the back streets of early twelfth-century Paris, through the complexities of theological disputes. I probably appreciate more of this now, when I first read the book I was simply swallowed up by Helen Waddell’s world, and lived it, most of her references washed over me, unexamined. Now I read more critically, and am happy that those few details I am familiar with, and biblical references I recognise (among the many from twelfth century poetry, then-extant theology and other religious writings that I must take on trust) give me confidence both in her description of early twelfth century Paris and in her interpretation of the protagonists in her novel.

Helen Waddell tells most of her story through three points of view, those of Abelard, Heloise, and their (presumably invented) confidant Gilles. Waddell’s Abelard is not perfect, his reckless arrogance invites attack, but she portrays him as brilliant, intellectually honest, and her Abelard absolutely loves and respects Heloise. His initial despair after his castration is within the character she has described. Beyond the pain and mutilation, Abelard, who has never accepted being anything but best in any field he enters, must cope with what he sees as the ultimate humiliation.

Waddell’s Heloise (aged nineteen) chooses to be Abelard’s lover. Waddell describes Heloise as wishing to support Abelard in whatever way he needs, and choosing to suborn her own preferences to that end. This may not be a role that a twenty-first century woman, from a privileged European background, might be likely to choose; but Heloise made her choice in 1117. Over eight hundred years later I knew many women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations who considered this the right way to live. As Helen Waddell describes her, Heloise’s character is both consistent and admirable.

What did I gain by re-reading this book? First, the chance to spend time with interesting characters, to get to know them better, to feel involved with them and care what happened to them. Second to re-appreciate why the story of Abelard and Heloise has meaning in the twenty-first century. Beyond the romance, Abelard’s approach to learning anticipated the way we build knowledge today, and his ideas influenced thinkers such as Saint Thomas Aquinas more than a hundred years later. Heloise showed a degree of self determination which is rare in a heroine of the time, some of Heloise’s writings have been praised as early feminist works. I feel it is important to understand more about the circumstances of philosophers whose ideas have influenced history, and therefore our lives. How wonderful to do this while reading a great work of literature.

When I finished re-reading Peter Abelard I was disappointed; the book ends before Abelard and Heloise meet again, or begin to exchange letters. It seems that Helen Waddell intended to write sequel(s), but family and academic responsibilities, then illness, prevented her from doing so. How sad that is. I was doing some internet checking of what I have written here when I found that, after years of the book being out of print, less than three years ago Pan published a re-issue of Peter Abelard with a forward by Kate Mosse. It is good to know that Helen Waddell’s work is still admired.

As usual, I’m replacing the book in its niche with a promise I shan’t leave it there so long this time.

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What makes a character engaging? A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

We meet Harry, the protagonist of Patrick Gale’s novel, as he endures horrific psychiatric ‘therapy’ in an asylum. Why then, for almost the first third of the book, do I find it so hard to care about Harry, or to accept his view of the world? The cause is not his gender – I identified with Atticus, cared about Thomas McNulty, wanted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to survive – to mention a few of the characters I’ve read about in the last four weeks. (Harry Cane is not the first hero I have failed to sympathise with, I remember some years ago deciding that if Edward Waverley had been hung for treason in an early chapter then Sir Walter Scott and I could have been released sooner to read/write something else.)

So why is Harry Cane’s character not initially so engaging as Winona’s? Maybe because, at first, he is over-accepting of what happens to him, he follows others’ dictates and avoids confrontation. However, this changes, by the middle of the novel I was gripped by the story, and cared a great deal about what happened to Harry, and to his friends. This was true on re-reading the book, too. I was impatient for Harry to become independent, while telling myself that this early exposition helped explain Harry’s reactions to events and people he met in Canada.

Like Sebastian Barry’s A Thousand Moons, Patrick Gale’s book, A Place Called Winter, was inspired by stories about the author’s family. Patrick Gale did not need to go so far into the past as Sebastian Barry, his novel is set between 1910 and 1920; and his ancestor emigrated to Canada, not the United States. But the themes of forbidden homosexual love, racial bigotry and rape are common to both books.

Patrick Gale’s protagonist, Harry, is a shy, privileged young man, who marries Winnie, the quiet sister of his brother’s girlfriend. Then Harry is seduced by another man and falls in love. In order to escape the consequences of exposure as a homosexual he leaves his wife and emigrates to Canada, enticed by advertisements that promise homes and success to would-be colonists. He is transformed into a determined prairie homesteader, with the stamina to learn the skills and grow the muscles needed to survive as a farmer in the Canadian outback. And he has the luck to find love, and to build an unconventional family; further similarities to Days without End and A Thousand Moons. But we know something goes wrong, because the book’s initial scene has Harry enduring treatment in an asylum. The story unfolds against a convincing background of hostility to homosexuals, emigration from Europe to ‘the colonies’, persecution of Native Americans, WW1, Spanish flu, and (at-the-time) novel psychiatric treatments. Plus, another similarity to A Thousand Moons, there is one unrepentant villain.

While I’ve been writing this, I’ve realised that for Harry to arouse greater empathy in me, Patrick Gale would need to show Harry being more troubled, and having more sympathy, for victims he is not closely attached to. He is depicted as being very caring about wives and close families, but his reactions to the fate of (for example) the Cree village and Ursula are not dwelt on. That may be partly because the pace at the end of the book is very fast, there is little time for contemplation. Satisyingly, at the end of the book outstanding plot questions are answered. Satisfying also, because there is the possibility of happy lives for the characters who have survived this far.

Will I re-read it a third time?       Probably.

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What will I find re-reading To Kill a Mocking-Bird immediately after reading A Thousand Moons?

After I’d spent a few days inside Winona’s head I wondered how To Kill a Mocking-Bird would stand up to a re-reading. The links and differences between A Thousand Moons and To Kill a Mocking-Bird jumped out at me as I wondered what to read to follow Sebastian Barry’s work. Both books concern racial prejudice and rape in the South of the United States. Harper Lee’s Pullitzer prize winner was published sixty years ago, based on events which occurred about eighty years after the setting for A Thousand Moons. Both are told in the first person, by a female protagonist, but Scout is younger by ten years in age than Winona, and by more than that in experience.

I hadn’t read To Kill a Mocking Bird for many years, although I read Go Set a Watchman soon after it was published. (I’ve learned that this book, though set in its future, was the first version of To Kill a Mocking-Bird.) What did I find different in the experience of re-reading To Kill a Mocking-Bird, written in the 1950s by a woman from Alabama, and that of reading A Thousand Moons written in the 2020s by an Irishman? 

I thought I remembered To Kill a Mocking-Bird, but I had forgotten so much: the detailed description of life in a small southern town, Miss Maudie who lived over the road, Dill who came for the summer holidays, the flowers in the gardens, the food they ate. What I remembered was emotion – and that came flooding back.

Everything is told through Scout’s perceptions, as she observes adults behaving in ways she doesn’t always understand. The reader is inside Scout’s thoughts as she grasps occasionally comprehensible phrases in adult discourse, trying to piece together what is happening, like someone watching a film in a foreign language without subtitles. Harper Lee gives her audience a stereoscopic vision of what is happening, Scout’s view, and the reader’s own.

Harper Lee gives her younger protagonist less insight into other characters’ motives than Sebastian Barry gives Winona; there is acceptance that Scout cannot fully understand Calpurnia’s viewpoint. To Kill a Mocking-Bird has more incident, less reflection and less internal dialogue than A Thousand Moons, but both build the tension of approaching tragedy in ways I find compelling.

In 2021 I still find To Kill a Mocking-Bird a wonderful, compelling, heart-breaking story, about trying to change things and learning to live with what can’t be changed as fast, as far as one might like. And about learning to live in some-one else’s shoes, as Atticus requires of his children.

This time I shan’t leave it so long before I reread it.

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Walking in another’s shoes A Thousand Moons Sebastian Barry

Cultural appreciation or appropriation? There is so much discussion about when admirable cultural appreciation shades into inappropriate appropriation. Concern about when artistic inspiration and interpretation descends into insulting, simplistic stereotype. Determination to support creative freedom while preventing promulgation of hostility towards any group of people.

In A Thousand Moons the author Sebastian Barry, a white, sixty-five-year-old Irish family man writes in the voice of a Native American seventeen-year-old orphan girl, and from the first sentence Winona-Ojinjintka is present, a person with a complex history and a compelling, convincing voice.

This novel is set after Days without End, but it is not necessary to have read that book to follow what happens in this one. The characters are making a precarious living in a smallholding in Western Tennessee soon after the end of the Civil War. The sort of living John Grisham described in A Painted House, or the way the Waltons lived on Spencer’s Mountain. The sort of living where you just get by if nothing goes wrong, but something always does go wrong eventually: bad weather, crop, animal or human disease, wide-spread harvest gluts or dearths all threaten a small farm’s economic survival. And that’s in a place and time where people can rely on the rule of law. Which was not true in Western Tennessee in the early 1870s.

What goes wrong in A Thousand Moons is violent, and cruel, and all too credible. Winona’s reactions, too, carry conviction. Her self-questioning and confusion, fear and determination are believable – and distressing. Sebastian Barry writes with such compassion, his identification with Winona’s point of view is total, I cannot believe any reader could avoid being carried into her world, her time – and suffering with her.

For me this book is a triumphant vindication of the right of an author to create and inhabit any character, to produce a work that increases a reader’s understanding of human nature. That the writer will have done the necessary research cannot be enough, s/he must walk in their characters’ shoes. Winona’s mother used the phrase a thousand moons to describe impossibly long time and distance. Sebastian Barry has walked a thousand moons in Winona’s shoes. As his readers we are privileged to go along for some of the journey.

I read the book in two nights, and yes, I’m reading it again. For many of the reasons I’ve listed before, but mainly because the characters Sebastian Barry has created deserve that much respect. I want to enjoy again the moments of delight that he describes in Winona’s voice, to rejoice in the loving care her hotch-potch found family have for one another, and to hear again their conversations.

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Reading a play like a novel. Hamlet (Shakespeare) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (Tom Stoppard)

Stories come to us in so many ways – through our eyes as printed or electronic type, through our ears whether broadcast or podcast – through eyes and ears in stage, TV, video, film productions. And some of these ‘deliveries’ can be paused while we reflect, check back or take a break. Others plough ahead whether they have our attention or not, their story’s momentum continues in their time, not ours. So is it possible to read a playscript as one reads a novel? Does reading a play’s script improve the experience of watching it? And if it does, is it better to read a script before or after seeing the play?

These questions were on my mind while I pursued the theme I started to follow when I read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. In that novel she contends that Shakespeare gave his dead son fresh life in the character of Hamlet, as well as creating a memorial to Hamnet. I last read Hamlet when I was at school, and was amused this week that the copy I picked from the shelf at home was one my daughter had bought and used while studying for her A levels. But is Hamlet the man Shakespeare would like his son to have become? I can’t answer that question, Shakespeare gave Hamlet both determination to do the right thing, and difficulty in deciding what that right thing should be. He famously didn’t give him a happy resolution to his quandaries.

At first I checked my reading at unfamiliar words and consulted the footnotes, but soon found that the flow of dialogue made most of the meaning clear. And so many of the phrases are familiar – if Shakespeare truly intended the play to create a memorial for his son, then its language has been a lasting one, in almost every scene I recognised an idiom or expression that is in common use today. Did I read the play like a novel? Eventually, yes – but as a novel I’d heard abbreviated into a radio play, the outlines of the plot and characters were familiar, only details could surprise.

I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead on my Kindle. While I read, I saw again the Old Vic production that I’d watched, streamed to a local cinema, in 2017. Daniel Radcliffe played Rosencrantz, Joshua McGuire Guildenstern and David Haig was the Player King. I saw their faces as I read their parts; and saw them against the set in that production. So I didn’t read the script as a novel, I read it both as a reminder of watching a drama – and as an extension to that drama. The recent reading of Hamlet gave more context to the modern play than my hazy memory had done; and being able to pause, and also to read Stoppard’s stage directions, reinforced detail I’d missed. As I watched the play I (of course) developed a strong sympathy for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that emotion flooded back when I started to read the script, so I was immersed in the narrative faster.

For me the tragedy of the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that they have no past, and no future; they have only each other, and no one else to either care for or be cared for by. The coin tossing, and which-hand-guessing, pointless pastimes while they can do nothing to affect events, is given further poignancy in our present Covid isolation. And the violation of the laws of chance emphasises their isolation from any familiar world.

Is it possible to read a playscript as one reads a novel? That’s not what happened with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, but for both plays reading the script provided an emotional experience, beyond simply following the story of what happened next. Does reading the script enhance watching the play? It did this time. And will I reread these two scripts? I hope so: both use language in interesting ways, both evoke emotional responses, both are witty. And both required me to concentrate to follow them.

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