Agnes Ravatn: The Bird Tribunal (transl. Rosie Hedger)
A book so ice-cold and chilly, that you will have to stop reading and put on an extra jumper! A sense of growing menace and discomfort on every page, yet it achieves all that without any hardcore violence or shocking language. It is so civilised, so discreet, barely a few ripples on a very calm fjord, belying the treacherous waters below.
It is also an extremely claustrophobic read. Yes, most of the action takes place outdoors, in a rather beautiful natural setting, but this is nature at its most sinister. The violet mountains of the fjord seem to close in on the remote, run-down property where Allis works as a housekeeper/gardener/cook for the mysterious Sigurd Bagge. The garden is ‘a grey winter tragedy of dead shrubbery, sodden straw and tangled rose thickets.’ There is an infestation of mice, but the traps she sets catch nothing but birds. Robins crash against the window panes, there are locked doors of Bluebeard memory and remnants of burnt objects in the woods. Even the full moon is not romantic, but tainted by a lunar eclipse. Yet Allis chooses to ignore the threats, most of the time, focusing instead on the gentle lapping of the water, the balmy summer evenings, sharing an occasional bottle of wine with her employer.
The claustrophobia is heightened by the fact that there are only two characters circling each other, swooping in and out, like rapacious birds. Their actions are strange and unpredictable. Bit by bit, we eke out pieces of Allis’ story, how she is trying to escape from the notoriety which surrounded an affair she was embroiled in. Her desire to go underground and hide, her instant attraction to the Heathcliff-like moodiness of her employer, her curiosity about his missing wife and her utter revulsion at the nasty gossip hinted at by the local shopkeeper all show her to be a less than reliable narrator. We also find out more about Sigurd, but only from their conversations; we are never in his head. The dream-like atmosphere is further emphasised through their storytelling. Allis tells Sigurd about Norse myths, especially the story of Balder, god of patience and forgiving, and how mischief-maker Loki seeks to destroy him. Meanwhile, Sigurd talks about a bird tribunal, something that seems half-imagined, half-real.
The way this book builds up tension, the currents of feeling rippling below the surface, reminded me of two other Scandinavian novels: Therese Bohman’s Drowned and Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver. This is calm, collected prose, where you need to allow every word to sink in, so precise and exquisite in its English incarnation (and probably in its Norwegian original). Or perhaps it’s poetry…
Another winner from Orenda Books, proving they have books for all tastes and all seasons.
The historical Nineveh was one of the greatest cities of the Assyrian Empire, although it was built on a fault line and therefore periodically ravaged by earthquakes. It then fell into ruins following a period of civil war in the region. The Bible portrays Nineveh as a wicked city, worthy of destruction, although it is ultimately spared by God because its inhabitants repent and fast.
In this book by South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes, Nineveh is the name of a modern gated development on the outskirts of Cape Town, but it’s impossible not to read something more metaphorical into the name of the settlement and the storyline. The hopelessness of fighting against nature, or overcoming a colonial heritage, or simply the fear of the ‘other’ and the illusion of staying in control: there are hints of all of this and more in this quietly atmospheric story which avoids any of the obvious loud party tricks and twists. The property developer also points out that there is no connection between the Assyrian Nineveh and this contemporary ‘paradise’: one of the early investors was from the Middle East, that’s all. Ha! Believe that at your peril!
Nineveh is pristine, luxurious, but empty: homeowners cannot move in because there is an infestation of mysterious insects. Katya Grubbs has followed in her father’s footsteps and is a pest controller (or relocator, rather, for she specialises in humane entrapment and movement of pests, rather than exterminating them). She is called in to free Nineveh of this nuisance. She moves in and succumbs to a sort of strange spell. The place is ominously quiet and antiseptic in its cleanliness. She explores the surroundings, the swampland and shanty-town bordering the development. Everything about Nineveh seems wrong, yet oddly attractive. Katya is already planning how to trick the property developer into giving her permanent free on-site accommodation. And yet… and yet… there is a pinprick of menace, which grows and grows. The insects seem beautiful individually, shimmering in their iridescent colours, yet it’s only a matter of time before they start swarming.
Along the way, Katya has to mend fences with her father and handle an irate employer. There is an earthiness to her humour, a pragmatism to her style, which makes her flawed but endearing. This is a book which whispers (rustles and crackles and pitter-patters, hisses and sweeshes and hums) rather than shouts, but it is entertaining and thought-provoking, an increasingly rare double feat.
It’s a delight to see that Henrietta’s book has now been published in the UK and US (the South African edition came out in 2011). A French translation has just been published by Editions Zoe.
Memoir is a genre that is not immediately appealing to me. Unless it’s a thoughtful autobiography of an artist or writer whom I admire, and therefore at least partly about the struggle of creativity, it just feels too self-indulgent or egocentric a project. So it’s a bit hit and miss whether I will enjoy reading one or not.
For instance, Romain Gary’s pseudo-memoir La promesse de l’aube was wonderful, even when I could see the ways in which the author was manipulating our emotions and exaggerating some scenes (or perhaps fictionalising them) for the maximum benefit and enjoyment of us readers. However, Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heartinfuriated me, and I don’t think it was because of a gender division of the topics addressed, i.e. men go to war and are therefore interesting, while women drink and sleep around and are therefore dull. On the contrary, it’s usually the women I usually find more interesting, but not in that particular case. I think it was because the focus was not on the readers, but very much on the author/narrator.
Then there are the books which weave nature observations and personal narrative, harking back to the great Romantic tradition of philosophising about nature and how humans relate to it (or how the urban environment encroaches upon it and changes us humans). This is where you might find allusions whooshing over your head, but also the occasional tangential riffs and unusual erudite connections which will gladden your heart and make you feel smart. Two books which I heartily recommend in this respect are: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in the English Weather.
Where does Amy Liptrot’s tale of alcoholism and life spinning out of control fit in? It’s a strange beast, straddling the two sub-genres – memoir of self-destruction and nature writing. After a hedonistic lifestyle in London, almost but never quite successful in finding work, housing, relationships, the authors spirals into alcoholism and ultimately finds redemption by returning to her home in the wilderness and isolation of the Orkneys. It was largely the nature writing which appealed to me. Confessional writing is so prevalent nowadays and praised as ‘brave, raw, visceral’ and all those other adjectives, but it can come across as self-absorbed and repetitive. So my advice would be: do not read this book all in one go (as I did while tending my sickbed), but just dip into it a chapter at a time, sipping it cautiously like tea which is in danger of scalding you or ice-cream which could freeze you. Because it blows now hot, now cold, and I was often not quite sure if I loved it or thought it merely average.
The nature/lost soul parallels and the rebuilding of self can feel a little forced or obvious at times:
I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I’m putting myself back together. I am building my defences, and each time I don’t take a drink when I feel like it, I am strengthening new pathways in my brain. I have to break the walls down a bit more before I can start to build them up again. I have to work with the stones I’ve got and can’t spend too long worrying if I’m making the perfect wall. I just have to get on with placing stones.
Yet there is an artless charm and wonder in this rediscovery of nature that is very hard to resist. There are quiet observations about lambing or bird-counting which refuse to sentimentalise life in welly boots. There is a bemused sense of ‘how did I get here from my passion for all things trendy and urban?’.
I never saw myself as, and resist becoming, the wholesome ‘outdoors’ type. But the things I experience keep dragging me in. There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy.
These are the kind of moments I remember from my childhood spent in a very under-developed countryside, probably far more backward (though less remote) than the Orkneys. They illustrate joys which become greater in post-event storytelling, when you forget about most of the hardship. But it never fails to amuse me how popular nature writing is in Britain, which has so few truly rural, undeveloped areas left (there are far more isolated villages and communities in France, for instance). Amy is seldom far away from the nearest internet connection, tweeting or posting images of seals and chatting to her London friends on Skype. Yet she and her readers hanker for reconnection with nature, both in its beauty and roughness – perhaps a nostalgia for a bygone age and unspoilt world.
Despite these quibbles, I did quite enjoy the book. The exhilaration of certain passages is infectious, such as this one describing the Northern Lights (known locally as the Merry Dancers):
I let me eyes adjust to the dark for the time it takes to smoke one cigarette then say, ‘Bloody hell’, out loud. In the past I have seen a greenish-tinged, gently glowing arc, low across the north, but tonight the whole sky is alive with shapes: white ‘searchlights’ beaming from behind the horizon, dancing waves directly above and slowly, thrillingly, blood red blooms. It’s brighter than a full moon and the birds, curlews and geese, are noisier than they usually are at this time of night, awakened by a false dawn. There is static in the air and it’s an unusual kind of light, the eerie glow of a floodlit stadium or a picnic eaten in car headlights.
Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that a shorter book (or a series of essays) would have been just as good.
September didn’t bring the much-awaited additional reading time, since my older son did not start school until the 19th, while other real-life items grated annoyingly on my little reading bubble. Still, it’s been a far better month than August and I’ve even managed to write some reviews. But most of the reading has been rather dark…
Crimeish fiction has made me travel to modern France, Imperial India, Yorkshire, war-torn Germany, post-war rubble of Japan, remote valleys in Basque country, the school gates in Australia and… Culver Valley in England.
So 15 books, of which 1 DNF, half of the remaining ones crime fiction, equal measures of male/female authors, 5 in translation. However, pretty much all of them were quite sad. Maybe I need to cheer myself up with some lighter reading?
Plans for October include: reading more from my Netgalley backlog, which means Gilly Macmillan’s A Perfect Girl, Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes and Nicotine by Nell Zink. Have the feeling they are not going to be all sunshine and butterflies though…
Sometimes it’s serendipity and sometimes it’s your subconscious deliberately selecting books which speak to your innermost needs and fears. I’m going through a bout of reading about mothers and children (occasionally fathers are involved too, but it’s mostly mothers and sons I’ve been eavesdropping on). Fiction has always provided me with more inspiration than any number of self-help books.
Patrick Ness: A Monster Calls
The sinister black and white illustrations by Kay perfectly match this story about a 13-year-old boy whose mother is dying. Conor’s deadpan refusal to be impressed or frightened by the monster is realistic and brings a note of fierce humour in what could otherwise be a very bleak story about denial, anger and ultimately acceptance of loss. As for that final dialogue between Conor and his mother – oh, my! I borrowed it from the library with the intention of giving it to my children to read, but after emerging from it a tear-stricken mess, I decided better not. Not just now.
Louise Beech: The Mountain in My Shoe
A chilling tale of parental neglect and the difficulties of navigating the social care system, seen through the eyes of a young boy (also called Conor, incidentally). The ‘lifebook’ is an inspired method for conveying all the different stories and voices present in Conor’s life, and the quite dry factual content of many of the entries merely make the sadness all the more palpable, while avoiding sentimentality. The title of the book comes from a statement that the little boy makes around the Muhammad Ali quote: ‘It’s not the mountains ahead which wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe’ – and Conor has a whole mountain in his shoe. Luckily, there is also much love in the boy’s life through the three mother figures, although they don’t always know how to express it.
Tessa Hadley: Clever Girl
An example of Tessa Hadley’s subtle humour, choosing a title like Clever Girl and then proceeding to show us how her main protagonist, Stella, demonstrates a lack of ‘cleverness’ by making what many might perceive as the ‘wrong choices’ and ending up with quite a difficult life as a result of it. Yet, as the story progresses and Stella’s two sons grow up, we realise that perhaps we need to rethink our definition of ‘clever’, as she ultimately succeeds in raising happy and reasonably well-adjusted children, and achieves some sort of contentment herself. Of course, there is also the slightly patronising tone of ‘clever girl’, which you might utter to a dog performing tricks… A writer who is simply masterly at elevating the mundane detail and making it appear full of significance, while also providing a great insight into character.
Romain Gary: La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn)
I will do a more detailed review of this book in another post, as it has been every bit as wonderful as Emma promised. For now, let me just say that I adored this mother but would dread to become like her. Not quite a memoir (although autobiographical, it has been fictionally heightened in parts for the utmost effect), it is largely the story of Romain’s arrival in France as a refugee with his mother. Above all, it is about motherly love and self-sacrifice, about her unbridled belief in her son’s glorious future, and that son’s attempts not to let her down. In this book, Gary pays tribute to a larger-than-life character who pushed him to so many achievements later in life. It is beautifully written – tender, passionate, like an informal conversation with a friend, very poignant at times, and also very funny and self-deprecating.
To this set of imperfect, absolutely human mothers, now also add the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, in which a mother can no longer cope with her ‘difficult’ child, and the effect this has on the entire family. I just watched that on Saturday with my own children and what do you get? ‘No, I’m NOT crying, I just have to blow my nose because I have a cold, all right?’
Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession: no person has given me greater pleasure throughout my life than David Bowie. Of course, maybe this says a lot about the quality of my life. Don’t get me wrong. There have been nice moments, some even involving other people. But in terms of constant, sustained joy over the decades, nothing comes close to the pleasure Bowie has given me.
How could I resist this opening paragraph? Here was someone who understood me perfectly, who felt the same way I did. This slim volume of essays (although that seems too pretentious a word, perhaps ‘meditations’, as they call them on the blurb, or ‘riffs’ would be more suitable) is perfect for Bowie fans to dip in and out of.
Each chapter is quick and easy to read, but provokes you to think deeper, with references to Roland Barthes (bane of my student days), Nietzche, Georg Buchner, Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett. This is a philosophy professor with a passion for music, after all. Yet he keeps it all very down-to-earth and accessible, simply talking about his own personal emotions and thoughts while listening to and watching Bowie. In describing these, however, he touches upon the universal:
What’s striking is that I don’t think I am alone in this view. There is a world of people for whom Bowie was the being who permitted a powerful emotional connection and freed them to become some other kind of self… Bowie was not some rock star or a series of flat media cliches about bisexuality and bars in Berlin. He was someone who made life a little less ordinary for an awfully long time.
This was a library loan, but I think I will buy a copy for myself.
Smile Please is Jean Rhys’ autobiography, or rather a collection of vignettes about her life in Dominica, London and Paris, left unfinished at the time of her death. She revisits much of the same ground that she has already addressed in her fiction, although it is dangerous to assume that her fiction is confessional. However, it is close in subject matter and style to her short story collection Sleep It Off, Lady, so this is the comparison I shall make.
Where Jean Rhys succeeds so well, to my mind, is how she takes a certain experience from her own life (her husband’s jail sentence, an abortion, being educated by Catholic nuns, being abandoned) and heightens it, polishing it until it catches all the light of universality.
The first tales in both books are remarkable for their vivid evocation of the Caribbean smells, sounds, heat and colours. But what is remarkable is how there is always something sinister under the lovely trappings. In Smile Please the author does allow herself some wallowing in nostalgia when describing her aunt’s estate in Geneva or carnival or riding or musical evenings, although she also mentions her terrifying nurse Meta, the Englishman who superciliously declared her ‘not a pretty little girl’, the racial tensions. But in the fictional accounts of her childhood the danger is much more apparent, the disillusionment all the more acute. In ‘Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose’ a twelve-year-old girl is inappropriately fondled by an old Englishman, a war hero, on holiday in Jamaica. In ‘Fishy Waters’ white privilege, sense of entitlement and child molestation all come together to create an unpalatable truth which is never explicitly stated, only hinted.
What we do get to see in Smile Please is Jean’s family: her opinionated, generous and charismatic father, her withdrawn, cold mother, early separation from her older brothers and sister, a slight resentment but also protectiveness towards her younger sister who ‘was now the baby, the spoilt and cherished one’, and her great sense of loneliness. She found companionship and consolation in books.
When she goes to England however (where the dominant first impression is of a grey, cold, unwelcoming place), she loses her love of books for many years. Scenes from her first encounters with London, falling asleep in the Wallace Collection, her mediocre acting career, dirty bedsits and suspicious landladies are very similar in both books and have indeed been described in other books. This is the landscape and state of mind we associate with Jean Rhys. The narrative voice so often echoes the author’s thoughts that it’s no wonder we confuse the two, yet it’s worth remembering that she liked shape and said, ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’
You can detect some of this ‘shapelessness’, a meandering through memories (where one memory gives rise to another), in her autobiography, and not just in the unfinished second part of it. There is a rawness and immediacy to her work in Smile Please. The words are perhaps less carefully measured out than in her fiction, but we feel we are participating in the author’s thought processes.
Is the following truth or fiction? And does it matter? It certainly explains the self-destructive and passive tendencies of the female characters in Rhys’ novels and stories.
I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.
Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. There remains something untamed about the narrator. Her language is simple, eloquent, almost child-like in its simplicity. The narrators come across as pathetically naive at times, cynical and world-weary at other times, but they often surprise the men in their lives or the reader (and even, occasionally, themselves).
Inevitably, you’ll find the fictional account (because it was finished) far more lucid about the fear of illness and old age, the inevitable decline and raging against it, and finally some kind of troubled acceptance of death. But there is a lot more self-deprecating humour in her autobiography. Take for instance, her delightful anecdote about being a governess to a small, solemn little boy and getting lost on the way back from the park. So typical of the well-meaning but accident-prone and muddled heroines of Rhys’ novels.
Sometimes now I smile when I think there is a middle-aged, or even elderly, man in Paris with an unnecessary hatred of everything English, and vague memories of a thin Englishwoman in black who tried to kidnap him.
In today’s world, when everyone bares their soul and the kitchen sink on their blogs and in personal memoirs, does Jean Rhys’ brutal honesty still have the power to shock? Perhaps not, but it’s not about the subject matter, the relentless drabness and numbing one’s senses in alcohol. It is about transcending greyness, about turning it into luminous prose. Thank you to Eric and Jacqui for initiating #ReadingRhys week and thereby reminding us once more just what a consummate artist she is.