Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield


Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2018
461 pp


"...he must exist forever in between the two states..."

"Grief is a powerful force, and who knows to what a man might be driven when his child is lost to him." 

England, at some point in the late nineteenth century.  It is solstice night, the "longest night of the year."  Everyone knows that it is 
"a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen."
Whether or not the solstice had something to do with the "strange events at the Swan," well, that is but one of the questions that arise in this story, and as we're told,  the answer is a matter of judgment on the part of the reader. 

The Swan at Radcot, just a day's walk from the source of the Thames, is a "very ancient inn," well known for its centuries-old "specialty" of storytelling.  As this story begins, Joe Bliss, the husband of the landlady, is just beginning a story of his own to entertain his customers when, as the dustjacket blurb reveals, something "extraordinary" happens.   At a time "late for a newcomer," the door opens, and in walks a man carrying what turns out to be a little girl.  He collapses, the local nurse is sent for, and finds that the girl is dead.   However, as the dustjacket reveals (so this isn't a spoiler), while the locals at the Swan are contemplating these strange events, a "miracle" occurs:  some time later the little girl opens her eyes, fully alive but mute.   As the word gets out about this "impossible event," at this point in the story, as in the case of the "streams and rivulets" that feed into the Thames,  the author brings in "tributaries" to add their own "volume and momentum" to this strange story.  These come in the form of the people who may have some claim on the child at the Swan.   I do believe that's all I should say at the moment about this book, since everything later, if you will, begins to flow from that point.

The author nicely interweaves folklore, superstition and legends into this book, which is at its heart a story about storytelling and grief; it is much more character driven rather than one relying on plot.  The legend that continually pops up, unsurprisingly, is that of  of Quietly the ferryman.  As the story goes,  his daughter went missing, and three days later was found dead downstream.  A year later, her mother gets a shock when her daughter returns, telling her mother she'd been "on the other side of the river," where her Daddy had come for her. But a price had been paid: it had cost him his life, and "it cost him his death too."    The ferryman, it is said, "for all eternity,"  exists "forever in between the two states,"  watching the river, helping those who "get into trouble" there to make it home safely.  If it is "their time," though, he "sees them to the other side of the river."  An understanding of this particular story among all of the stories told here, I think, is part of the key of reading these characters, who each in his or her own way, sort of exist "in between...two states."  I won't go into it so as not to wreck things,  but my own reading took that particular approach and it worked very well.

I do have to admit that after the initial events occur at the Swan, the story sort of meandered (it seems I can't get away from the river metaphor here) a bit, picking up for me somewhere around page 150, where, coincidentally, the full story of the ferryman appears.  At that point things started to click in my head and come more into focus, and then I didn't want to put this book down.  There were times I felt that where a particular story (this is after all a book of several stories) was heading became  a bit too obvious, and toward the end I ran into what I felt was a bit of awkward, even cringeworthy  (actually, pretty bad) dialogue between a father and his son that could have come right out of the The Empire Strikes Back. On the flip side, though,the story of the little girl captured me and   I did enjoy the focus on the natural world as well as the interplay, again quoting the dustjacket, of "folklore and science, magic and myth."   In her two previous novels, she has focused on these elements, as well as the nature of grief, a huge theme here,  in crafting some pretty captivating stories within stories, and she's done it again here.   Don't worry if you're not into what just might be a supernatural edge in your reading; as I said in the beginning, if it is or isn't is up to you.

Just a final word:  if you play by the 50-page rule and give up on this book early on,  you'll be sorry.  I know, because while I don't have a set limit about when to let go, I ended up giving it a chance when I thought it was going nowhere,  which was in my case, a very good decision.

Monday, November 26, 2018

continuing to work through my shelves of long-neglected books: The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disaster, by Robert Edric

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press,1992
first US edition, 2002
369 pp

"She's seen us coming, opened a door for us and then slammed it tight shut behind us." 

The US edition of this book came out in 2002, so it has been sitting on my shelf for the last sixteen years, and it's another one I'm kicking myself for not reading sooner.    In The Broken Lands, as the dustjacket blurb says, the author has chosen as his subject the 1845-1848 Franklin mission to discover the Northwest Passage and "re-creates what may have happened to this doomed expedition."

To this day nobody really  knows what happened to the men who sailed with Franklin on HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.  Along with important scientific discoveries, there has also been a lot of speculation and theorizing, but despite everything that's been discovered since this book was first published (including the discovery of the two ships in the Canadian Arctic),  the mystery remains.  Truth be told, I love a mystery, and it's that sense of the unknown that has drawn me to anything written about the Franklin Expedition, fiction or nonfiction.  The author has given us what I feel is a  plausible story here, and his research is highlighted throughout this book in which  he incorporates the historical facts into his account, which begins and ends with James Fitzjames of the Erebus  It is largely through his eyes that the story unfolds.

As the dustjacket blurb reminds us,  "The Broken Lands" is "a treacherous labyrinth of ice through which the fabled Northwest Passage was sought for centuries."   The book is not unexpectedly bleak, with the men eventually succumbing one by one to their long ordeal.  While the expedition starts on a high note with hurrahs and hopes for success, as time goes by the mission becomes one of survival and desperation.  While there are ongoing mentions of possible human causes contributing to this disaster,  in the end it comes down to the ice as the true master of them all.  As Harry Goodsir, the assistant physician and scientist notes:
"We pin our hopes on brute strength and ingenuity and whereas the latter might be the most admirable and readily acknowledged of our qualities, deep down we are convinced that without the former it is all to no avail...Look around you. What have we done but pitted our strength against the ice, barging and blasting our way into this miserable dead-end? where is the ingenuity of that?" 
Or, even more fittingly, while ice masters  Reid and Blanky set out in late August to assess the nature of the ice and to seek out possibilities of a lead by which the ships might escape, Blanky realizes exactly what they're up against:
"Nine summers out of ten we wouldn't have come halfway from Barrow Strait to get here...She's seen us coming, opened a door for us and then slammed it tight shut behind us."
I see that several readers weren't as fond of this book as I was, and that's okay.  A lot of people found the first chapter of the book a bit boring, but I saw a lot of foreshadowing here in terms of attitudes toward the Eskimos and  of the fate of  the expedition itself.   As I said, I wasn't at all disappointed with this book. 

Since I'm just a casual reader and not a reviewer/writer,  I'll link to what I think is the best review of this novel, found here,  written by Russell Potter whose blog Visions of the North  I discovered a couple of years ago.   Not only is he extremely knowledgeable about the Arctic, but his review says everything I would say if I could actually write one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, by Luigi Pirandello

Spurl Editions, 2018
originally published 1926 as Uno, Nessuno e Centomila
translated by William Weaver

"The capacity for deluding ourselves that today's reality is the only true one, on the one hand sustains us, but on the other, it plunges us into an endless void, because today's reality is destined to prove delusion for us tomorrow, and life doesn't conclude.  It can't conclude. Tomorrow if it concludes, it's finished." 

One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand is a novel which, in the author's words,  "deals with the disintegration of the personality. " It is a very dark read, in which a man  reaches a most extreme "cure" for the "sickness" that all started with  a conversation between a husband and wife about his nose.  Once his eyes have been opened to the awareness that his nose tilts, twenty-eight year old Vitangelo Moscarda finds himself  in a serious existential crisis.  While that may seem to be a somewhat absurd premise, the story that develops from that point is anything but, as Moscardo's sense of reality and self awareness veers off course and he becomes determined to untangle his true self from all of the others that have been constructed for him.

It is the initial short exchange that begins this novel between Moscarda [aka Gengè, a name (and likewise a self!)  given to him by his wife Dida] and his spouse that sets the stage for all that is to follow.  She wants to know what he's doing standing in front of the mirror looking at his nose.  He tells her he's looking inside one of his nostrils, which, when pressed, makes him feel a little pain. It is then that Dida changes the course of Moscarda's life by saying that she thought he was "looking to see which way it tilts." She clued him in to other things as well that he didn't know about himself: 
"My eyebrows stood over my eyes like two circumflex accents, ^ ^, my ears were badly placed, one protruded more; and there were other shortcomings..."
It isn't so much that the "slight defects" have any importance to him, but Moscarda's personality is such that he is prone to "plunge...into absysses of reflection and consideration," so her comments start him pondering.  In serious contemplation of his tilted nose, he starts to wonder if it was possible that he didn't even know his own body, but even more importantly, he begins to question whether other people had been aware of his tilted nose all along. As he says,
"And I didn't know, and, not knowing, I believed everyone saw me as a Moscarda with a straight nose, whereas everyone saw a Moscarda with a bent nose."
It is then that the "first germ of the sickness" started taking root, as he became "obsessed" by the thought that "for others I was not what till now, privately, I had imagined myself to be."  And if that was the case, he wondered, "if for the others I was not what the one I had always believed I was for myself, who was I?"  This obsession begins to grow as he engages in "pantomimes ... at every mirror in the house," discovering "the outsider, opposite me, in the mirror,"  but never his "self," making him "no one." He also realizes that it is not his real self that others see, but rather the Moscarda who is constructed by different people from different points of view in different contexts,  "the hundred thousand Moscardas that I was..." In order to free himself from their perceptions, and to get down to truth of who he really is,  he comes up with the idea of an "experiment of the destruction of a Moscarda."   In short, as the blurb from the Spurl edition states,
"his self-examination quickly becomes relentless, dizzying, leading to often darkly comic results as Vitangelo decides that he must demolish that version of himself that others see."
What I've posted here is just the rudimentary plot, and doesn't even begin to convey the depth of this fine, dark, and mind-boggling novel. 

I love books which explore perceptions of self and others and the delusions inherent within  (my true raison d'être for reading), but  One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand is unlike anything I've read before, presenting a portrait of a fragmented and torn man whose understanding of his own misperceptions of  his self set him on a path that takes him smack into the  "endless void" of the quotation I placed at the beginning of this post.  It is frightening on one hand, comic on the other, and all the while we are caught in Moscarda's head as he undergoes his "sickness", in which was found the "remedy" that would eventually cure him. It's extreme, and for me, a bit sad,  to say the least. 

 I won't lie to you -- the book is challenging, philosophical in nature, and in my opinion, it requires the reader to stop and think along the way and even more so at the end of this story, which makes it right up my reading alley.   One more thing: for anyone who might wonder how a book written in 1926 is relevant to our times, I'll refer you to social media, an entire universe of constructed realities.

My huge thanks to Eva at Spurl for my copy of this book; it is so disturbing that it will probably never get out from underneath my skin.  I loved every second of it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

another hidden treasure discovered on the shelves: The Vet's Daughter, by Barbara Comyns

NYRB Classics, 2003
152 pp


I've been sitting here trying to think of ways to describe this book, and no matter what I write, it seems that nothing I can say can give it the justice it deserves.  It's one of the rare few novels that left me sitting  in my chair unable to move for a while, unable to stop thinking, and it followed me on into the rest of my day.  While I was completely absorbed in this story, I was even more impressed and carried away because of the writing.  It is, in a word, brilliant. 

The vet's daughter is young Alice Rowlands, seventeen, and she lives in a household completely dominated by her father.  It takes no time at all to discover that there is something utterly monstrous about this man, who, when given animals to be put down, sells them instead to the vivisectionist.  He has always been a cruel man, but the disappointment he'd suffered upon buying what was to supposed to have been a "flourishing practice" along with a "commodious, well-furnished house" only to discover it was nothing of the sort seems to have scarred him for life.  His frustrations are taken out on his wife and daughter -- his wife is timid, looks "scared," and is afraid to speak in his presence; she eventually falls ill and even then tries to hide her illness from her husband. Alice is treated much more like a servant than a daughter, sometimes subjected to cruel treatment at his hands, and mainly ignored.   Life is bad enough for Alice, but when her mother dies and is replaced three weeks later by a barmaid ("a strumpet if ever there was one"), things move from bad to worse.  Somehow though, Alice discovers something within herself that allows her to detach from it all, a power that manifests at her lowest moments.

At this juncture, just before Alice is about to escape from the tyranny of her father and his mistress, we move into the world of the strange. All along, Comyns writes so believably, eloquently mixing the mundane with the horrific so that when we get to the point of Alice's discovery, what happens now seems no stranger or any less plausible than anything in this novel so far.  Alice is so trapped in her world that her newly-found ability makes sense as way to escape for a while, or to detach herself from her situation, even if only for a short time.

The Vet's Daughter is bleak, sad, and difficult to read emotionally, but at the same time it is hauntingly beautiful. The story told here is one of overwhelming loneliness and powerlessness, the stuff of many a novel, but recounted in a unique way that sets this book apart from others with the same themes.   Not one word of the author's exceptional writing is wasted here -- she has this knack of not only  making the horrific seem normal but also of turning the implausible into something believable in the world that her main character inhabits.

I can't recommend this book highly enough or offer enough superlatives about it.   It won't be for everyone, especially those people who insist on strict realism in their reading, but for it is perfect for readers who want a great combination of captivating story and superb writing.  This is my first book by Barbara Comyns but far from the last.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Watson's Apology, by Beryl Bainbridge

Carroll & Graf, 1985
222 pp


"I have waded in blood ... and it was not of my doing."  
July seems to have been the last time I made a post here which is like eons ago but I've been been gone, busy, gone, reading in other areas and what have you.  My current push is to read some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever so I'll definitely be filling up more space here from now on.  Seriously committed to this project, I started in the room that holds all of the British/UK fiction with J.R. Ackereley's charming and delightful Hindoo Holiday (NYRB) which I won't write about but which is a book I'd definitely recommend.

 Then it was on to this book, Watson's Apology, which is based on a real-life murder that took place on October 8, 1871 on St. Martin's Road, Stockwell.  The back-cover blurb reveals that the murderer was "a Victorian clergyman, John Selby Watson," and that he bludgeoned his wife "brutally to death." 

from The Sun
 Moving from the cover to the inside we discover right away what Bainbridge is going to be doing with this book from her "Author's Note," in which she says the following:
"This novel is based on a true story. The documents presented have been edited here and there to fit the needs of the narrative, but are otherwise authentic. Almost all of the characters are drawn from life, as are the details of the plot...What has defeated historical inquiry has been the motives of the characters, their conversations and their feelings.  These it has been the task of the novelist to supply."
 And what she supplies is a look inside of a miserable Victorian marriage, beginning with letters from Watson to the woman who he had briefly met "some years ago" while attending Trinity College in Dublin, Anne Armstrong.  Anne, whose socially-prominent family fell into decline when her father had "lost all his money," now  lives with her sister Olivia in a lodging house under destitute conditions, doesn't remember Watson at all, but with a "present so drab and the future so bleak," decides that "she would use him to free herself." She had written him
"telling him of the poverty of her existence and the vexations she endured, day after dreadful day, through being force to live, cheek by jowl, among people who were inferior to her in intellect and imagination." 
During their brief courtship it becomes obvious to each of them  that all is not quite right, but neither says anything to the other and they eventually marry.  At first she is convinced that she's made a "love match," while he is "astonished at how easily he'd adapted to marriage," but as time goes on, he finds himself in "an existence that is unpleasing," feeling rather victimized and at a point where he feels that "my marriage has destroyed me."  On her part,  Anne feels that all she's done has been "out of love;" at the same time she remains haunted by her family's past.  In the marriage, events begin to take their toll, sparking a desperate downward spiral for both Watson and his wife.   Where sympathy should lie is, I think, one of the big questions asked here, and the entire story made me wonder if the title of this book is meant to be a sort of "apologia" on Watson's behalf rather than an apology in the true sense of the word.  Whether Watson's wading in blood is or is not of his own doing is also a question, and the answer to that one will be down to the reader.

Very nicely done, and  although many readers thought that the courtroom scenes were dull, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from its beginning to the very last page.  Then again, I'm a huge fan of Beryl Bainbridge and have many more of her books on my shelves waiting to be read.   I'd advise patience in reading this book and would recommend it to thinking readers rather than to those who just want a rehash of an old Victorian crime. This book is not that.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Dream of the Celt, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
originally published as El Sueño del Celta, 2010
translated by Edith Grossman
358 pp


"...he told himself that his life had been a permanent contradiction, a series of confusions and cruel complications, where by chance or because of his own clumsiness, the truth of his intentions was always obscured, distorted, turned into a lie." 
                                                    -- 208

I came to this book in a sort of roundabout way, after recently finishing Robin Furneaux's  The Amazon (1969).  Chapter eleven of that book examines  "The Putamayo Affair," which focuses on the Peruvian Amazon Company, the largest rubber enterprise on the Peruvian side of the border between Peru and Colombia.  I hadn't known about Casement's work in the Amazon, so I was glued to this chapter, and I wanted to know more.  After a bit of research linking Casement to the Putamayo, I came up with Dream of the Celt, a book I actually owned.  I was familiar with Casement and his work in the Congo having read Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which is a book that in my opinion, everyone should read.  But I have to say that I was not as happy with Dream of the Celt as I think I might have been .     Let's put it this way:  I think it is absolutely outstanding that the author brought Casement's story into the public eye, but reading this book was beyond frustrating since the fictional narrative that could have emerged felt overwhelmed by what felt like a recitation  of the author's research findings.

from RTE

The Dream of the Celt begins in a cell at Pentonville Prison, where Casement is hoping that a request for clemency will come through and that he will escape the death penalty.  But the news isn't good -- evidently Scotland Yard has discovered Casement's diaries, "portions" of which have been "circulating everywhere," have been "the only topic of conversation in the city," and evidently might have some sort of damaging effect on his case.   While Casement continues to wait for news, and while his friends are doing whatever they can to help, we are taken back into his past, beginning with Africa.    It was there, as a very young and idealistic man, that he bought into the civilizing mission --  "the emancipation of Africans from backwardness, disease and ignorance," only to later go on as British consul  to gather evidence to detail the horrific atrocities against the natives in the Congo by those who  supported and oversaw King Leopold II's rubber trade, "the abuses committed here in the name of so-called civilization."  He meets and befriends writer Joseph Conrad, and inspires E.D. Morel to form the Congo Reform Association in 1904.  But it is also in Africa, as Casement reveals in a letter, that
"this journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her reality. In these jungles I've found not only the true face of Leopold II. I've also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman." 
It was his African experiences that caused him to question whether Ireland wasn't also a colony, "like the Congo," and which made him decide to devote himself to learning about and understanding the "history and culture of Ireland."

Later, Casement is called upon by the Foreign Secretary to investigate the truth of reports made by two Americans who had been in the Putamayo region (along the Peruvian/Colombian border)  who had collected  evidence of atrocities against the indigenous peoples there, once again in forced service to the rubber trade.  This time though, the company under scrutiny was registered in London, with three British directors, and when the Americans had their findings published in Truth magazine, the government couldn't just sweep things under the rug.  By 1910, Casement was on his way to South America.  [Anyone who is interested can read a brief history of the "Putamayo Atrocities" here, at the website of the Latin American Bureau.]    Here, he comes to another realization linking the oppressed peoples of the Putamayo to his Irish kinsmen:
"We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited, and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom.  They will never give it to us." 
The only way to freedom for the people of the Putamayo, he says, is for them to rise up in arms "against their masters;" for the Irish, it must be "an irresistible pressure" that "can only come from weapons."  To gain freedom, one must "fight to achieve it." 

Throughout the first two sections of this novel, it becomes apparent that his experiences in the Congo and in Amazon left Casement a conflicted man -- he served the British crown, but he knew that the only road to Ireland's freedom meant that he would have to turn against it.  Part three picks up in Ireland, after Casement's retirement from consular service where he brings with him his dream of a liberated Ireland.  As he says, it was time for him to "concern himself with other natives, the ones from Ireland."  It is just after the outbreak of World War I when he decides on a bold move that takes him to Germany, which eventually leads him to a major betrayal and to Pentonville Prison. 

The book is more than simply the question of Casement as hero or traitor, though, since Casement is portrayed as a man filled with contradictions and prone to self examination and even second guessing.  He does constant battle with his physical health, and in Germany was told that his mental health had become "destabilized" and would become undone without some rest.  He was also a man who had to keep his homosexuality hidden,  but made notes in his diary about his encounters.  In a big way, we can also see that the political and the personal are hard to separate in this man, for example, when at one point he notes that while Africa was a place of "enormous suffering," it was also
"a land of freedom, where human beings could be mistreated in wicked ways but could also express their passions, fantasies, desires, drives, and dreams -- without the whipping and judgment that Britain used to drown out pleasure." 
In the epilogue, the author explains that
"... a hero and a martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection, but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodo wrote, 'is many men,' which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality." 
 Controversy over the "black diaries" still exists, as does controversy over Casement himself, but I think that for me a major part of this book asks the question of what it is that we expect from people we view as heroes or champions for a cause, especially considering that the very people who supported him throughout his career as an advocate for human rights were dropping their support at the end. I understand the reluctance of his friends to support his actions as a traitor to the British during the war, but it was the diaries revealing his homosexuality that seemed to seal his fate, more so than his actual crime.  If only we had had less facts here and more (albeit fictional) insight from Casement himself here, or had we heard more from his friends and supporters,  this could have been a great book -- as it is, the novel becomes somewhat of a chore to read which is, as I said earlier, a shame.  However, I would certainly recommend it because it is most certainly well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Feathers of Death, by Simon Raven

Valancourt Books, 2018
originally published 1959
226 pp


I picked up this book based on its description as a "gripping thriller," but I'm not so sure I'd agree with that label. Thriller, no.  Gripping, yes: once I started it I couldn't stop reading.

The Feathers of Death centers around the army regiment known as Martock's Foot,  which dates from England's Civil War and has been now posted to a fictional country known as Prepomene,  a British colony where there have been "rumblings of rebellion." The regiment is a sort of closed little society within itself, professing standards, "moral or otherwise"  that are "liberal, tolerant, civilized and worldly," according to the narrator of this story, Captain Andrew Lamont.  He reveals that
" is usual in regiments where most officers have reckonable social standing quite apart from their Army rank, relations between the officers were very informal," 
and that "a very easy relationship could and did exist between commissioned and 'other ranks.' " We also learn that the men were "by nature respectful, docile, loyal and, above all, responsive to kindness . . ."  so that there was none of the "prying into mess bills, complaints about gambling, or investigations of sexual morals so common in the dowdier regiments."  Even when some of the officers become aware that Lynch has become attracted to young Malcolm Harley, they pass it off as "infatuation at worst. Passing fancy. Here today, gone tomorrow."  But as the situation between Lynch and Harley becomes more widely known,  tensions begin to grow both among the officers and among Harley's companions, threatening the long and carefully-established order within the regiment and ultimately leading to a moment of personal reckoning that results in tragedy.

Obviously, there's much more to this book but I don't want to give away any more than necessary.  I was fascinated by Alistair Lynch more than by any other character -- the author has afforded him a level of complexity that allows the reader to simultaneously blame him for his abuses of power, yet  in a way, admire him for breaking the rules. But there are also questions of complicity, justice, of class tensions, male friendships and more that arise throughout the story, as well as the qualities that hold this small but close regiment together.  All of these factors taken together make for an intense few hours of reading.  I will also say that while this is a story written in the 1950s and set within the space of the British military, this book does not end up as either an indictment of or a moral commentary on homosexuality -- on the contrary, the author approaches the subject in his thoughtful, well-grounded and no-nonsense approach  to this story.

Very very much worth the read; I so wish I could say more but that won't be happening.  It is a very human story, and one I recommend highly.

ps/don't miss the fascinating introduction to this Valancourt edition, but save it until the end.