In this miscellany of recollections, descriptions, stories, poems and meditations, McGuinness gives us Bouillon, a town on the Belgian/French border, now predominantly a tourist destination, where he spent his childhood amongst his extended family and the town’s many curious inhabitants. While McGuinness left the town aged 11, he nevertheless returned on many occasions after that, although it is the loss of true connectedness at this point that informs much of the writing.
Professor of French and Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College Oxford, McGuinness was born in Tunisia to an Irish father and a Belgian mother. He has published a novel, The Last Hundred Days, 2011 (Wales Book of the Year Award, 2012), and two volumes of poetry The Canals of Mars, 2004 and Jilted City, 2010. Other People’s Countries won the 2014 Duff Cooper Prize, and was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. You can view McGuinness' website here.
'Trying to remember is itself a shock, a kind of detonation in the shadows, like dropping a stone into fine silt at the bottom of a pond: the water that had seemed clear is now turbid (…) and enswirled.'
This passage, from early in the book (and Night Owl's 'pellet'), is one of many instances in which McGuinness explores the complexity and confusions of the process of remembering. While the geographical ‘place’ in question is Bouillon, nevertheless, ‘place’ in this book is just as much a state or states of being, evoked by the imagination as it attempts to distil the elusive sensations of the past. The book is organised into short, creatively titled sections (‘Understairs Cupboard’, ‘The Bouillon History Circle’, ‘Stolen Saint’), and written in poetry or prose, sometimes accompanied by unpretentious, rather dim black and white photographs. Much trouble has been taken to find the appropriate medium to evoke a place of lost belonging. Indeed, variety is something that immediately commends the book; the structure makes it possible to ‘dip in’, but the experience will be all the richer if you take in the whole.
Included is a helpful ‘Dramatis Personae’ which ‘does not include the living’ and a map of the town. The list includes the famous (many of whom have only visited or passed through such as Rimbaud and Verlaine) and the infamous (Léon Degrelle the Belgian fascist leader). The inclusion of the dramatis personae implies the theatrical; murder, suicide, tragedy and loss are narrated and played out, sometimes centre-stage, sometimes stage-left:
‘…the train of sequence and consequence, the instant can open up and swallow the whole life that lay ahead of it.’
The quality of the prose is often a revelation in itself, and McGuinness displays an enviable ability to ignite the image with an electrical charge:
‘Old ladies in colourful dresses could be found in the recesses of rooms you’d forgotten were there, like bright bobbins left in drawers.’
McGuinness’ grandmother, Lucie was a dressmaker and her activities infuse much of the book’s atmosphere. In ‘Linings’ he creates metaphor via ‘seams, hidden pockets, secret compartments, false bottoms, double folds’:
‘Sometimes (the lining) could be spectacular, like someone’s inner life: underneath the grey exterior the world sees, there would be a furnace of shot silk or a pool of seigneurial purple.’
While there is much of the intimate, domestic life, there are also the ‘characters’ of the town’s community, its industry and its relatedness to wider Belgian nationhood.
McGuinness has a particular attachment to railway stations, ‘they are where I do some of my best mourning’ and as a child he spent a lot of time in the quartier de la gare ‘where the old station created around it a small eco-system of shops, cafés and hotels’, but now ‘rail-shaped barren lines are etched into the grass.’ One of the book's poignant poems is about the disused station:
…‘This is still the quartier de la gare,
where the rain comes down like credits on an old film,
a roll-call of lost professions: slate-cutter, game-keeper,’
Like any other town, Bouillon has its plaques, statues and traditions, but McGuinness is suspicious of commemoration, ‘our attention to events prevents us from comprehending processes, besides which events are just the spume that rides the wave’, and he worries greatly about authenticity - tourism makes him defensive; ‘the brothel of packaged sight-seeing.’
As well as playing with his own act of remembering, McGuinness plays with our reading of it too and seems to suggest we should take all this with a pinch of salt. In ‘Picture and Frame’ he describes buying Lucie a photograph frame, later to discover that she had never replaced the mass-produced sample image of a couple ‘generically in love’ which has been sitting on her bedside table until her death. I feel he is saying that, while he can’t completely control the picture we ‘see’, this time, however, he is taking more care with the gift.
On starting this book, I did wonder why I should participate in this very personal and particular experience about a place I have never visited. But the quality of the writing made me trust the process, and it certainly paid off. It will be on Night Owl's bedside perch for some time.
Homes is the fifth American in a row to win the prize. This is her sixth novel. She has written for TV (second series of The L Word) and published This Book Will Save Your Life in 2006. I hadn't read any of her previous work when I read this novel.
To me this is a crazy fable from a land of plenty.
The novel is written from the point of view of a Nixon scholar, Harry Silver (I think Homes is brilliant at writing with the voice of the opposite sex). Harry is also the less successful and older of two brothers, and the novel revolves around the sudden and dramatic collision of their two very different lives. The opening unravels like a Shakespearean tragedy, with adultery, murder and psychological undoing, and later the addition of the customary sycophantic hangers-on (lawyers, psychologists, flotsam & jetsam from the streets and the internet). There is much use of black humour (which it took me a while to adjust to - but that's me being British). Homes says 'I write the things we don't want to say out loud'..'the gap between who people are publicly and privately'(The Guardian). There is also a vividness & intensity that fits with the fact that Homes also writes for the screen.
However, Homes does make the point in the novel that it is important for people to have a private world 'a place he can be himself without concern of disappointment or rejection'. And throughout the book there is a significant distance between the private, scholarly Harry, and the Harry that is caught up and thrown about by extreme events outside his control. It's as though a fairly average but scholarly man with many of the usual human failings is flung into a futuristic social experiment, evolved out of a combination of 'I'm a Celebrity Get me Out of Here' and 'Big Brother' where havoc is wreaked upon someone's life and we all voyeuristically watch what happens.
Harry changes his attitudes and behaviours over the course of the year from one Thanksgiving to the next, but we are never quite sure why he becomes more of a family man, finally being there for those in need, and there is certainly no moralising tone, no clearly mapped psychological road towards a better way of living. Harry is presented with an incredible set of challenges and experiences that only America could produce, and the way Homes sets these out in such a matter of fact way, and without implicit judgements is oddly pre-apocalyptic, like she is warning us of the ultimate destructiveness of excess (indeed, if we all lived like Harry, we would eventually be buried under the remnants of our Chinese take-aways). I was reminded on occasion of my reading of Martin Amis' 'Money' many years ago.
There is a sub-plot about Harry's life's work - a book he is writing about Nixon, which takes a number of twists and turns along with his lecturing career. In interviews, Homes links this to her interest in Nixon, the loss of JFK and the American dream. But I feel that this is an odd way of presenting this theme - at one remove, as the obsession of our main protagonist. Why not, instead, use her admirable understanding of Nixon to set the novel during his time?
I found it hard to make the mental leap from the Nixon scholar to the man who has a brief fling with a girl he meets in a supermarket, later literally adopting her elderly parents while she exits the scene. This is is just one of many darkly funny episodes, but if I am being asked to believe Harry when he searches his soul and pours over Nixon's unpublished works, how can I not become utterly exhausted and unconvinced by all the extreme events that beset Harry, some of which are intended to be darkly funny, but are instead often in bad taste, and too numerous to remain amusing. It's too big an ask of the reader in my view. All this needs breaking down into smaller parts which can be explored and expanded, while maintaining some narrative cohesion and shape. A separate, more serious novel about a Nixon scholar and the American dream perhaps, then some fun, breakneck black comedies about modern American life?
So, if I'm honest, I didn't really enjoy the book, but persevered with it nevertheless. I found that some parts carried me and compelled me to read on, but at times I felt I had to labour through some excessive and, to me, meaningless/purposeless sub-plots and details, most of which read like latent material for other books and stories. I also felt it tried too hard to grab my attention, and in doing so failed. I felt shouted at. The lurch from pathos to the absurd, and back to the quiet, scholarly and erudite was not to my personal taste. I could, however, read more of Homes in smaller chunks. She has a lot to say, and is a valuable voice in our times.
I think what I take from this novel is that navigating what life throws at us is indeed challenging, but moreover, living in the land of plenty presents its own unique problems. This is Night Owl's 'pellet' from this book:
'the twists and turns of party politics braid the cord of information and deal making so much that true change becomes impossible. Who wrote the playbook? And when? Is anyone in charge? It is all such a gnarly web that at best one can only pick at the knots.'
This 'gnarly web' doesn't only apply to party politics; life in general can feel very much like this too. It's difficult to know when we might be acting & thinking independently, and not because we are being thrown about by the twists and turns of politics and society as it muddles on, with power in the hands of the few. How can we be authentic when we are subjected to so many social experiments? So often, we are only able to 'pick at the knots'. But if we can at least untangle them in part, then perhaps we might be able to create that elusive work of art, like the book about Nixon that Harry never gets chance to finish, and moreover, live honestly and in a way that is less selfish towards our fellow human beings.
I have very mixed feelings about this novel and, like others, I am surprised that it featured on the Man Booker Prize 2012 shortlist.
There is much to enjoy, and at times it could be described as a 'page turner'. However, what kept me reading was akin to the unpleasant curiosity of watching an injured creature try to traverse some distance within the limits defined by its species.
Perhaps this was intentional, but to me the book read like an early draft of something with potential. Could it have been an even more spare and stark work, with a greater focus on building the tensions through better worked characters and scenes that more incrementally deepen the reader's anxiety (I think of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw as a sublime example)? Conversely, could it have been filled out with a greater range & depth of description, and broader emotional palette such as you might find in a Ruth Rendell work? But perhaps I am just suffering from not being able to fit this book into a recognisable genre? It didn't match up to the 'less is more' definition (as does my previously reviewed A Week in Winter by Barth Landor which I enjoyed much more).
I battled with the boredom of the early pages of the book, with its minute detail of things that didn't add anything to the reading experience at all for me, such as what the main character 'Futh' does at his sink on the ferry journey. Also, it becomes too much of a pattern to a point of irritation, that almost everything in the present has to trigger a memory from the past. I also didn't enjoy being plunged so immediately into the 'sob story' of the father who started to hit his son as soon as his mother had left ('it was like when birds flew into windows with a sudden sickening thud'), though this is a terrific simile (and can be my'owl pellet'from this novel).
Futh, who is off on a walking holiday along the Rhine re-tracing the steps taken on an earlier holiday with his father, seemed to me to have such a limited range of expression and experience, as though he perhaps had an autistic spectrum disorder of which he was blissfully ignorant. These limits seem only partly explicable by his halted emotional development since his mother left him when he was a boy. As a result of her departure, it seems he is only capable of dysfunctional relationships with women. One is his wife, Angela with whom he has just separated, and another is with Gloria - the neighbour he unpleasantly spies on, and who befriends him after his mother's departure and seems to have no scruples at all - she asks him if he will scrub her back in the bath, though she is having a relationship with his father! Angela is a substitute for his mother (she has the same name). ..and was a school crush he meets again by chance...and nothing seems to go well for them, from the honeymoon onward.
Apart from the difficulty with human relationships, he is paranoid (he has to know the escape route out of every hotel room he stays in) and he also can't quite manage his physical needs (a trait perhaps likely with a motherless boy); he makes himself weak from lack of food, continues walking in painful shoes, and doesn't make adequate use of sun cream. In fact, he quietly deteriorates physically as the story progresses (I liked this). He has strong emotional connections with smells (he's a chemist manufacturing scent, which brings to mind Suskind's 'Perfume' - another story of a child abandoned by his mother who has problems with relating - an understatement!). He latches onto a complete stranger in a way that a child might do (his ferry journey acquaintance). All these things add to the autistic spectrum flavour.
So that is our main character - but then we add in a range of other characters which, for me, are too stereotyped. Ester is a 'tart' running a 'hotel' , sleeping with any male customer who is interested, because she is dependant on a man who is prone to violent jealousy (a second violent male character), and provoking his jealousy is a way of getting at least a bit of the attention she craves. She hangs on to her better memories, while he mocks her 'hoarding' tendencies. These are people living at a basic level of interaction. This is all a bit 'Eastenders'. I've never read anything where there was so little in the way of likeable or engaging characters. I craved an interesting female character, and all the women in this novel were quite stereotyped, underdeveloped (Angela) or just plain boring.
My feelings about the symbolism/use of motifs - the lighthouse of the title, perfume/smells (camphor, violets) and perfume bottles, moths are also mixed.
Though I liked the loneliness of the boys using flashlights to communicate across a darkness that is both real and emotional, to me the lighthouse image was spoiled by overuse and trying to work at the transcendent level as well as being stuffed in a pocket. Both Ester and Futh have lighthouse-shaped perfume bottles - this is too neat for me. Ester didn't need to own a similar object to want to steal it later - she collects moths (bringing to mind 'The Silence of the Lambs'). Futh is fragile like a moth, and significantly, he finds a dead moth on his book in one of his hotel rooms. Ester's jealous husband bathes in camphor fragrance. As we know, moth balls have camphor in them to repel moths - and Futh's last experience is the smell of camphor. But the ending was just too 'Fawlty Towers' to me - I found it hard to believe Futh would really still be holding onto the pink knickers when he went to hide in the bathroom.
The scheme of re-visiting the key scenes in Futh's memories didn't quite work for me. I just felt uncomfortably that the author had forgotten that she had already described them. There wasn't a significantly enough developed context for each recurring memory to bring it more resonance/shed enough new light on our main character. Again - perhaps intentional, like the limits of his experiential range. But if so, some other technique ought to have been used to ensure that these memories were just 'stuck' and our main character stuck with them like a broken record.
One of these memories is the scene when he is on holiday with his parents just before his mother leaves home for good. His father bores his mother with facts about lighthouses, while Futh accidentally breaks the glass bottle inside the silver lighthouse-shaped perfume bottle as he watches them irritating each other. The glass cuts his hand. This is a symbolic wounding, a permanently open wound. But Futh doesn't become enriched by his experiences, instead he gradually bleeds to death, leaving nothing of meaning behind him, except that an acquaintance on the return ferry wonders where he is - which emphasises the bleak meaninglessness of his life (we think of the unopened boxes at his new flat that will conveniently never now be opened). This contrasts for example with David Mitchell's boy in Black Swan Green for whom neighbours' gardens are quite significant, but who instead develops into a poet as a result of all his experiences.
We get to the point of Futh's sad end too easily, and here I think again of Ruth Rendell, and how much she builds character and situation in order for such crimes to occur (I chose to read the ending as death for Futh). Is Ester's husband really ready to be driven to kill? Or, as this actual end is left to our imagination, perhaps Futh should be thought of as dying of fright brought on by his neglect of self and his overall fragility.
The narrative is successful in creating a lasting impression of Futh's stunted life, but I wanted to care about him more, and be drawn in deeper to the people that all fail him in some way through the effects of their own inadequacies. I would also have preferred more description of place, as he could really have been anywhere. In fact, I have been imagining Ester's hotel in a recession-hit British northern seaside resort, with Futh walking a coastal path where lighthouses featured in the present landscape too.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed it enough to finish it, and it will be interesting to see this writer develop.
I've become a fan of Helen Dunmore, A Spell of Winter being a reading experience that has stayed with me. I also recently read her ghost story commissioned by Hammer Horror - 'The Great Coat', which received a lot of media publicity; Guardian review here. This was a perfect 'bite sized' read for Kindle, by a writer with a highly developed storytelling craft. While it didn't have the depth of metaphor and symbol of 'A Spell of Winter', it nevertheless delivered on storytelling, and was a definite 'page turner' (how does that translate to Kindle?!).
Recently I also really enjoyed The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell, which I chose following a feature by Mariella Frostrup in 'Open Book' on Radio 4, which can be listened to here. I'd already read The Hand that First Held Mine and very much enjoyed that. O'Farrell's social observations and her writing about family relationships, and the inner life are particularly good, and Esme Lennox has an excellent twist in the tale towards the end, and a dramatic finale. I do recommend this, especially if you are interested in the way women's mental health was handled by society in the earlier part of the 20thC.
Social media finally came into its own for me recently, when, as a result of a 'tweet' by Sheffield University I ran to buy a last minute ticket to Jeanette Winterson at the 'Off The Shelf' Festival. I was on my lunch break, and the Students' Union box office was just a 5 minute walk away.
Through my student days and onward I read and enjoyed Jeanette's writing, The Passion being a favourite. But it's now perhaps 10 years since I read any of her work.
I'm generally not one to travel about to book signings or author readings, and work and family commitments make it very difficult for me to attend festival events...but magically, this one was on my doorstep!
I didn't even know Jeanette had just published her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? or that this was what she would be reading from and discussing at the 'Off The Shelf' event. I knew she'd had a difficult time recently (from occasionally visiting her website), but had no idea of the extent of it. In that sense, I was very fresh to all that I was hearing as the evening unfolded.
Of course, I have seen pictures of Jeanette, and heard her in interview. But the complete package in front of you is a much more rewarding experience. She was warm and funny, and astonishingly open and generous of spirit, with an idiosyncratic habit of rolling her unruly curly mane around her head like a ball of tumbleweed. Having read so much of her writing all those years ago, I had already 'got to know' this voice, so I had the sense of being re-acquainted. This is reassuring testimony to the way a writer can truly speak to you through their work, and become part of your inner life. But it is also testimony to her early success as a 'fisher of men' as so many of us became 'followers'.
It has become clear to me that her upbringing enabled her to believe in herself as someone with a voice you should sit up and listen to: she has the energy and charisma of an evangelist. Indeed, there is much which elucidates the extent to which her upbringing shaped her personality and ambitions in 'Why Be Happy, When You Could Be Normal?'.
Ironically, she has talked of her childhood as' happy', because she knew no other life, and was made to feel unique and special as a child within a very strongly structured routine - yet this happiness came from an existence far from 'normal' (the title of the book is a quote from Mrs Winterson). Her mother obviously didn't realise that her own daughter's childhood 'happiness' stemmed from a quite 'abnormal' upbringing, and 'normal' was never part of the equation. In this way, Jeanette was equipped early on to work freely with her creative impulses, less hampered perhaps by the self-doubt that can restrain creative impulses in people who hover between conventional and less conventional lives.
Later, I joined the queue to get a signature in my copy. I was near the end of the queue (I tend to do everything very slowly), and Jeanette had already told us she didn't come up north very much, and how she hated Accrington. I wanted to tell her that Sheffield is really great. Instead, I just said that I hoped we weren't wearing her out. She replied quite honestly 'no, not at all' and gave me a wonderful beaming grin with the characteristic childlike twinkle in her eyes, again - the energy of the evangelist - all souls are deserving. I'm so glad she's staying with us on this life journey, because, if you get round to reading the book, you'll hear how she very nearly chose to leave behind this savage parade.
After having read the book in full, I did concede much of the criticism made in the London Review of Books (Vol 34, no.2 by Andrew Mars-Jones). Mars-Jones takes the opportunity for a bit of psychological observation, based on the contradictions of this autobiography and with much reference to 'Oranges'. I agreed with his conculsion that 'In this new book the contradictions of Jeanette Winterson’s character are more evident than any perspective on them. I don’t doubt that she’s wounded, only that she knows her wounds.' However, these unknown wounds have driven her creativity, and, combined with her tremendous capacity for hard work (evidenced in the anecdotes he opens his perspective with) have resulted in a unique contribution to literature. If artists were able to achieve some satisfactory perspective on their own character, they might lose the creative impulse. Where Mars-Jones observes (quoting Winterson):' "Fiction", she goes on, "needs its specifics, its anchors. It needs also to pass beyond them. It needs to be weighed down with characters we can touch and know, it needs also to fly right through them into a larger, universal space." Her subsequent work has seemed short on those anchors, launched onto the tide (or into space, the imagery isn’t clear) topheavy.' - I would rather congratulate Winterson on being able to break loose from the anchors (probably knowing their personal dangers for her as so much is unresolved) and float above and beyond them creating a unique language that speaks at a universal level. With this in mind, I would also rather believe that where Mars-Jones refers to 'a riven psychology, so doctrinaire about it's own wholeness' instead this is an artist who tries to tap into and locate her voice within the wholeness of the human experience more generally, but that the psychological difficulties and evangelical tendencies interfere a little with the communication of the vision.
There's an opportunity to watch the 1994 interview on BBC iPlayer here.
I have been desperately short of time to read in recent months, but have been able to steal time during my lunch hour to listen to audio books on my tiny iPod (my book tardis). I'm just coming to the end of Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain which is read by the author. This was originally produced for television (2007) and subsequently won a number of awards such as 'best history series' and 'best presenter'.
Marr has become a household name with his own high profile Sunday morning show The Andrew Marr Show which replaced Breakfast with Frost after Frost's retirement in 2005. It's telling that the show was originally called 'Sunday AM' but re-named in 2007, because Marr has gained so much in popularity.
British history was lacking in my education for various reasons (time spent in the Far East as a teenager saw me studying South East Asian history for a time), so I am probably the sort of person who can benefit a great deal from Marr's enthusiastic analysis of British (political) history, beginning after the Second World War. I am becoming hungry to understand more about the society I grew up in, and the political forces that shaped it, so this audiobook was an interesting and engaging listen. Of course this is journalistic, not academic, but the balance of content worked for me for what I want at this time.
As he moves through the decades, he brings to life the names I knew but haven't before been able to place in context. When he arrives in the years of my childhood and beyond, so much falls into place. Into the story he brings, not just the playing out of the most powerful political lives, but the popular culture on the street. His analysis helps to show how things are interrelated, and moreover, he tells the story in such a compelling way, it acts as a wake up call to the importance of politics and the personal impact of the most powerful people in the recent history of our country. Following on from this logically, it helps to put today in context. This has certainly made me more engaged with politics in the run up to the election, and I am recommending this audio book, and the television series. I understand that Marr is planning another series about the first half of the twentieth century. One to look out for.
My copy of Housekeeping is within reach. I am visiting Wales next week, and will be able to retrieve it! I may need to re-read this novel to write a review. But this will be a pleasure. This is a book that easily warrants a second read.
I can't say the same for Home however. I'm afraid, after 'Housekeeping' this disappointed terribly. For page after page barely anything happens, and there isn't the richness of description or imaginative scale and scope that there is in Housekeeping. For so long, all that seems to happen is the Reverend being assisted into and out of bed or his chair, neighbours leaving food on the verandah, and Glory hearing Jack opening and closing the porch door countless times! I was so pleased when Teddy turned up at the end, just for another character to add interest, but he turns out to be another missed opportunity to throw some light on the dingy goings on. I really don't know what the fuss was about with this book.
I will read her Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead at some point, to return to this strange town, and just to read some more Marilynne Robinson...
I've really enjoyed Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and plan to write a review (it came highly recommended by being named as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time by The Guardian)...but my copy has been left in Wales...in the meantime, I am reading her Orange Prize winner Home.
Molly Fox's Birthday was shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize (2009), but didn’t win. Madden has had another novel shortlisted for the prize - One by One in the Darkness (2003). However, Madden has won numerous other prizes and awards which you can read about here.
Madden was born in 1960, is from County Antrim in Northern Ireland and currently teaches at Trinity College Dublin.
This is the second contemporary Irish novelist I have read recently, the other being Anne Enright who was born in Dublin in 1962. I read The Gathering, a few months ago which I enjoyed, but not as much as I enjoyed 'Molly Fox’s Birthday'.
I am a latecomer to contemporary Irish writers, but have been fortunate enough to have this late discovery of excellent reading enhanced by a recent discovery of Ireland itself. I first visited Ireland a few years ago, and have returned on numerous occasions since, including several stays in Bray, and some day trips to Dublin (which I am visiting again at the end of this summer). I have, therefore, been able to engage my imagination with the settings of these novels much more rewardingly.
This relatively short novel (221 pages) is set over one day, a particular day – the birthday of one of its characters, Molly Fox, a famous actress who lives only through the reminiscences of her close friend our nameless playwright narrator, who is staying in her house while she is away. Of course the ‘day’ is heavy with meaning, a meaning which we learn as the novel progresses.
'Molly Fox’s Birthday' spoke to me very intimately at times. I re-lived elements of my student days and my early twenties and identified closely with some of the insights that maturity brings to the characters. Madden tackles so many weighty ideas, ideas such as students might discuss late into the night, and it rings true that her characters continue their lives ever in the wake of the conversations of these formative years.
But to speak of weight in connection with this book is slightly misleading, as the syntax is airy, especially at the start. This is another case of ‘less is more’ (see my review of A Week in Winter); the prose gathers depth and perspective while maintaining a surface effortlessness – giving away nothing of Madden’s experience of writing the book as her most difficult. There does seem to be a giveaway ‘sigh of relief’ however, in the lengthy final conversation between two of the main protagonists, in which so much is unraveled and elucidated.
I do feel that occasionally the design leaks through the text, more so in the first half than the second. The time shifts between the present (the entire novel covers only one day – recalling Mrs Dalloway) and our narrator's reminiscences of a number of quite widely separated events in the past, in such a way that the join is sometimes too visible, but this is a minor quibble. There is a lot of coincidence too, in both the past and the present, but this allows a ‘neatness’ which the subject matter benefits from if the novel is to be kept relatively short, especially as the theme of the novel comes to a head; after all there is only so much thinking and reminiscing a person can do in the duration of one day.
The main theme of the novel is identity, how identity is developed and also how another’s identity is perceived and how we can come to a deeper understanding of those close to us. In this case we are examining this idea through a group of closely connected people – a triangle of good friends who share a life in the Arts, and their respective families. The exploration of the mental processes of an actor in becoming someone else is quite brilliant as a way to offset other explorations of self-identity. I was quite staggered to hear that Madden has no experience of acting herself as I found some of these parts of the novel quite the most profound and perceptive.
For example, our narrator describes Molly Fox’s performance as The Duchess of Malfi: ‘I believed in her as a duchess. Her plight moved me, and yet still I knew she was an actor’…”Who is it can tell me who I am?”…(and here is Night Owl's 'pellet' from this novel): 'Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex? Perhaps it is instead the truest thing about us, and it is the revelation of it that is the problem; that so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.’
After the loss of so much in her life, the Duchess had not lost herself, “Iam Duchess of Malfi still”, and I feel that Madden wants to say this about her characters…I am Andrew still, I am Fergus still...and our narrator also subtly refers us back to her own sense of self, which we first start to understand from the encounter with the hare on the train that she is trying to work into her next play.
At the very end of the novel, when we are probably feeling disappointed for our narrator, and when we might expect an outburst of strong emotion, instead we are taken back to something gentle and metaphysical which helps to dissipate the situation, so that we feel that our narrator has not lost her true self in spite of her personal disappointment.
I liked the voice in this novel. I shall be reading some more of Deidre Madden’s writing.
I've almost started to take my fantastic eyesight for granted. A few months ago I had laser eye surgery with Ultralase. It's been one of the best things I've ever done for myself. I had different astigmatisms in each eye, but this was easily correctable. I've been totally liberated from glasses. Swimming is one of the most positive advantages of the treatment. Being able to see clearly in the pool is a great feeling, and in the spa or sauna too. Not steaming up in temperature extremes, or when you open the oven door, are other examples of little things that now make me smile.
However, in spite of great eyesight, I have recently been converted to the pleasures of audio books.
The best listen so far has been Ian McKewan reading his own On Chesil Beach. This was hypnotic and addictive, and I was sorry when it was finished. Perfect for a long train journey. It's an intense and intimate story ideally suited to audio. I am on the look out for similar things.