Monday, August 7, 2017

I LOVED this book: Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

9780525427360
Viking, 2017
259 pp

hardcover

"Every life has its days of happiness despite the ugly Fates."
                                                                                         -- 209

There comes the time when you find that book -- you know, the one that you put down when you've finished and just sit and stare off into space for a while because you're so taken with what you've just read that you can't move. I haven't felt this way since I read Lincoln in the Bardo earlier this year.    How coincidental, since both novels have made it to this year's Man Booker Prize longlist. I'm a huge fan of Sebastian Barry's novels but really, I think he's absolutely outdone himself here.

Just very briefly, and without any sort of spoilers, Days Without End follows young Thomas McNulty, who makes his way from Ireland during the Great Famine and eventually ends up in Missouri, "Way out on those mudflats beyond old St. Louis."   It is there that he first meets John Cole, while taking shelter under a hedge as "the heavens were open in a downpour." They were, as McNulty reveals, "only children obliged to survive in a dangerous terrain," but this meeting was the beginning of what would turn out to be a life-long relationship. These "two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world" soon find suitable work in Daggsville at a saloon at the young ages of 13 and 15; after their time there is over, they decide to move on and enlist in the army.  As America continues its westward expansion, McNulty and Cole are sent first to Northern California to protect settlers there from the Yurok Indians; they will move on to Ft.Laramie and the Great Plains before they re-enlist upon the outbreak of the Civil War. The novel follows their adventures not only through these troubled times, but also takes us into their lives after the wars are over and people are trying to get on with life.  While the horrors of the battlefields (and much, much worse) come vividly alive through McNulty's eyes here, it is ultimately what he shares with John Cole that sees McNulty through it all and what makes this book so beautiful  in the long run.

That's really all I want to say about plot here because really,  Days Without End is one of those novels that is experienced rather than just simply read.  I mean, I could give away plot points here but for me it isn't really about plot when all is said and done, but far more about long-lasting, unbreakable bonds of love and friendship that  help people to withstand various forms of adversity and keep some men sane while others fall apart.  There's so much more, of course -- history, the immigrant experience, etc. etc., but it's the relationships here that are so meaningful for me and which made me just sit in awe after I'd finished the book.  My only small qualm here is that the ending probably shouldn't have actually gone the way the author gave it to us,  but truth be told, I'm happy things turned out the way they did.

As I'm fond of saying, I'm not a critic, just a very casual sort of reader, so if you want to get much more in depth as to what's going on in this book, do NOT miss this excellent interview with the author from NPR where he explains a lot about where he was coming from in the writing of this novel.   Readers for the most part are loving this book but there are still the naysayers who don't care for the violence and the bleakness depicted here to which I say well, to each his/her own, but the truth is that these terrible, bleak, and violent events actually happened in America's history, in Ireland, on the ships that brought immigrants to North America, and none of it was pretty.

I LOVED this book and most definitely think it's one everyone should read.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle (ed.) Elaine Showalter

0813520185
Rutgers University Press, 1993
326 pp

paperback

"It is just when a man begins to think he understands a woman that he may be sure he doesn't!" -- Edith Wharton, "The Muse's Tragedy"

Elaine Showalter begins this most excellent book with the observation that  when we stop to consider "the literature of the fin de siècle, the writers who come most readily to mind are men."  She has a great point -- I own quite a hefty library of fin-de-siècle literature and sure enough, all of the books I own,  without exception, are written by men, although I will say that I've started to remedy that problem as I was going through this book and looking up author biographies and bibliographies. She goes on to say that while "women were a major presence in the new literary world of the 1880s and 1890s," they had also been "overshadowed" not just by the major male novelists of the time (Conrad and Wilde are the examples she offers here), but also by those she calls "minor novelists," such as Stoker or Haggard.  The women represented here (and others writing at the time) were writing
"with unprecedented candour about female sexuality, marital discontent, and their own aesthetic theories and aspirations; and speaking to -- and about -- the New Women of the fin de siècle." 
According to Karen M. Offen in her book European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, the term "new women" had been in existence elsewhere in Europe since the 1830s, but for our purposes, it had "reemerged in English from a published debate between the British novelists Sarah Grand" (whose work appears here) "and Ouida in 1894," and that the importance of these "New Woman literary works" lies in the fact that
"their authors addressed issues ... about the constraints of marriage, about work, about the possibilities and difficulties of self realization..." (189),
in short, about the growing dissatisfaction among women re the restrictions put upon them by Victorian society.

Daughters of Decadence contains seventeen short stories and other brief pieces by thirteen of these women, both British and American;  there is also a brief chapter containing a send-up* of George Egerton's "A Cross Line" published by Punch which, according to Showalter, "gives a good sense of the ways Egerton's view of feminine nature shocked and startled readers of the 1890s."

With one exception, the stories in this book were all completely new to me as I opened the cover, and it is truly a treasure trove of great writing. Truth be told, aside from Kate Chopin, Vernon Lee, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton, I hadn't read a single thing by any of these of authors; even the ones I just mentioned have been limited to a book or a story here and there but that's about it. I've listed the contents below without any discussion; there are three stories which were my particular favorite. First,  "A White Night," by Charlotte Mew, which takes place in an old Catholic church in Spain while a wife, her new husband, and her brother are touring the countryside while the newlyweds are on their honeymoon.  It's not so much what happens in this book that's behind why I enjoyed it so much (although I must say, it was pretty horrific and the setting heightens the reading experience)  but rather the outcome as husband and wife are later going over what had happened there. If ever this book provided an eye-opener, well, it's found in that story.  In second place on the favorites list, "The Muse's Tragedy," by Edith Wharton, which is just plain sad, but actually reveals an awful truth; and finally, "The Fifth Edition," by Mabel Wooton, which focuses on an "exploitative male novelist" who is asked to look at an autobiographical novel given to him by its female author.  Like most works of the  fin de siècle, the rather uneasy relationship between art and life is a major theme here, as it is with many of the stories in this book.   Just as an FYI,  Wooton's tale is not the only one featuring a woman writer and her relationship with a male author -- Vernon Lee picks up this idea with her splendid Lady Tal, as does Constance Fenimore Woolson in Miss Grief, both of whom had Henry James in mind while writing their stories.

 As Showalter notes,
 "a century later the utopian dreams of fin-de-siècle  feminists have yet to be fully realised, but reading their stories we can take heart from their talent and courage to look with hope to the new century, and to another beginning of a new world for women."
There is this great scene in Olive Schreiner's "Three Dreams in a Desert" which sort of speaks to the overall book as a whole in terms of what these women were trying to accomplish through their writing.  A woman coming out of the desert  is looking for "the land of Freedom," and must, as part of her journey, cross a "dark flowing river."  When she asks about a bridge, she is told there is none, that the water is deep and the floor is worn."  She might "slip at any time" and be lost.  When the woman asks for the track to show "where the best fording is," she is told that "It has to be made."  That's exactly what I felt after finishing this book -- that these women had helped create a new path, knowing all the while that the journey wasn't going to be an easy one.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in women writers of the period or in the history of women writers in general.

*********


The table of contents:


"An Egyptian Cigarette," by Kate Chopin
"Theodora: A Fragment," by Victoria Cross
"Suggestion," by Ada Leverson
"A Cross Line," by George Egerton
*"She-Notes," by 'Borgia Smudgiton'
"By Accident," by George Fleming
"The Buddhist Priest's Wife," by Olive Schreiner
"The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"A White Night," by Charlotte Mew
"The Fifth Edition," by Mabel E. Wooton
"Miss Grief," by Constance Fenimore Woolson
"Lady Tal," by Vernon Lee
"The Undefinable: A Fantasia," by Sarah Grand
"The Muse's Tragedy," by Edith Wharton
"Emancipation: A Life Fable," by Kate Chopin
"Three Dreams in a Desert," by Olive Schreiner
"Life's Gifts," by Olive Schreiner
"The Valley of Childish Things," by Edith Wharton


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Beguiled, by Thomas Cullinan

9780143132400
Penguin, 2017
originally published 1966
372 pp

paperback

"Seems like none of us ever stop to think how evil can collect in us"

I actually read this book some time back but I haven't forgotten it, and neither will anyone who decides to read this novel.

As the blurb tells us, we find ourselves in Virginia,  "during the height of the Civil War."  The residents of the Miss Martha Farnworth Seminary for Young Ladies find their routine interrupted when thirteen year-old Amelia Dabney is out picking mushrooms one day and comes upon a wounded Union soldier. Surrounded by cannon fire, she helps him to his feet and takes him to the school.  Corporal John McBurney tells her he'll be there long enough to get his injuries tended to,  and then he'll leave immediately and "be no further trouble."

That's what he says, but as the story progresses, we learn that we can't always take McBurney at face value. Far from it. As each of the women and the girls at the house interact with him, his presence interrupts the regular, familiar routine of the house, and worse. He preys on each of these women/girls psychologically; his manipulative behavior makes already-existing but simmering rivalries come to the forefront and in some cases explode; it causes deep and dark secrets to be revealed, and sets off of a bizarre chain of events that no one could have predicted. Wait.  I take that back -- the one person who realized from the beginning that "You chil'ren have brought destruction in this house" is the slave Mattie, who sees McBurney for what he really is, but who cannot convince the rest of the women otherwise before it's too late.

The story is related through the alternating points of view of the small group of females at the school, which gives it a much more complete feel than it may have had from a third-person narrator alone. As perspectives shift, we start to realize just what it is about each person's psyche or past  that draws them to McBurney;  we also get different interpretations of the same events, which are often misinterpreted, bringing in a fuller picture of exactly what's going on in the house. And just as the school is isolated because of a war that has divided the country, the divisions within also serve to isolate its residents until they are forced to come to a consensus over what needs to be done to bring things back to the way they were before.  The question is, though, how can any of these lives ever be the same again?

The Beguiled is a page turner of a great book, and Cullinan is a master of ratcheting the psychological tension to the point where I couldn't put it down. Unlike a LOT of readers, I thought the alternating points-of-view approach was a great one.  And also unlike a lot of readers, I didn't judge the novel on the old Clint Eastwood film made from this book, which was nerve wracking, for sure, but very different from the original story. There's so much psychological tragedy going on in the novel, and while the film version didn't spare the horror, it's of a different variety altogether than what's in the book.

Very highly recommended -- I was just floored after finishing it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black

9781627795173
Henry Holt, 2017
309 pp

hardcover

"...it is called a wolf on a string... Isn't it a strange thing that two parts of the same instrument, instead of making delightful music together, should be so disharmoniously at odds?" -- 189

When I saw that Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)  had a new novel out, I ordered it tout suite and didn't wait too long after it arrived to delve into it.  Black has given me some of the best hours of my crime-fiction reading career with his Quirke novels set in 1950s Dublin, which I thought were just terrific. So I rushed to start this one, and while it starts out in a fashion not unlike a crime fiction novel with the main character stumbling onto a murder, as I got more into it I realized that there's much more going on here than just crime. It reads to me as much more of a historical novel of court intrigue that looks at a young man who arrives in Prague and finds himself unknowingly caught up in a power struggle and has no idea who he can trust; flying blind, he has to make choices without really knowing what's going on or indeed, just what might be at stake as he becomes a pawn in the players' end game.

The story begins in 1599, and young Christian Stern has made it to Prague. Barely "five and twenty," Stern, who is recalling this part of his life decades later,  had just recently graduated from the University of Würzburg, where he'd "amassed a great store of learning," and served as tutor to "the dull-witted sons of the the city's rich merchants." Ready to move along, Stern arrives in Prague
"... in the reign of Rudolf II, of the House of Hapsburg, King of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduke of Austria and ruler of the Holy Roman Empire."
In Prague he'd hoped to
"win the Emperor's favor and secure a place among the scores of learned men who labored at His Majesty's pleasure and under his direction, in the fabulous hothouse that was Hradčany castle,"  
 including the "wise savants" Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

On Stern's very first night in the city, unable to sleep in the lice-infested Blue Elephant inn where he'd ended up, he made his way through the streets with a stranger, who after a heavy night of drinking, suddenly takes off, leaving Stern alone to get lost in the "maze of winding streets" while trying to find his way home. It was then that Stern found himself in Golden Lane, and stumbled onto the body of a young woman "where it lay a-sprawl in the snow."  He tries to lift her up and in doing so realizes that her throat had been cut.  Abandoning the body, he finds his way to a sentry to report his findings.  The sentry is reluctant but Stern eventually convinces him to follow him to the body, where the sentry makes a stunning discovery: the body doesn't belogn to a whore as he'd originally thought, but rather it's the young daughter of "the Emperor's sawbones and one of his chief wizards." Christian finds himself under arrest for her murder and thrown into a cell, but is saved by the Emperor himself, who now wants him to discover who killed this young girl, who just also happened to have been his mistress. Christian's life greatly improves with this strange commission, but as time goes by and another death occurs, he makes no inroads into the case at hand, realizing that nobody is telling him anything.  He's also quite naïve, with an "innocent heart," and while the reader gets the picture early on, this poor guy absolutely doesn't get until it's too late that he's being set up, used, and made a player in a game with high stakes.   He will eventually have to choose in whom he can place his trust, and hope for his own sake that he's made the right choice.


Emperor Rudolf II 

In the Author's Note section of this book, Black/Banville describes his novel as "a historical fantasy," saying that "real life at the court of Rudolf II was entirely phantasmagorical," which is brought out very nicely in this book. Alongside the scientists Tycho Brahe and Kepler, Rudolf surrounds himself with magicians, prophets, astrologers and alchemists; we are reminded from time to time of the "magus" John Dee and then there's Edward Kelley (who is now locked away in a castle at Most), who spends his time "writing a voluminous treatise on the philosopher's stone" while imprisoned, and much, much more.

One thing I learned while reading this book is that I really need to follow my own advice about not having expectations going into a novel. I let myself down in a big way by assuming this was going to be another crime novel, so when there was seemingly little going on, I started getting quite frustrated about the snail's pace this book seemed to be taking. Once I came to the conclusion that this book was more intrigue and less crime though, I had to do a serious rethink, and as it turns out, I ended up liking this quite a bit for what it is, rather than bemoaning what it was not.   Lesson learned.

While it's necessary to wait until the very end for all of the answers, and I was not as satisfied as I probably should have been, it was still a fun, entertaining and rather dark read.  Historical fiction fans will very likely enjoy this one, especially people who like stories set in Prague.

****

See this real review by Clare Clark writing for  The Guardian, but do NOT  read it until after you've finished the novel.


fiction from Ireland


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Tale of Aypi, by Ak Welsapar


978784379834
Glagoslav Publications, 2016
originally published 2012
translated by W.M. Coulson
163 pp

paperback

"What a twisted world, where weakness spurred men to mete strife out to each other, with the mortal weapon of fear in their hands. Until they put it aside, injustice, tyranny and war would not be laid to rest in the world." -- 51

I have to give credit where credit is due. I need to thank the awesome people at Glagoslav for my copy.  The link is on purpose: I've read a number of Glagoslav titles now and they continue to  impress. I've also been trying to keep up with what's out there from smaller presses across genres, and Glagoslav, it seems, never sleeps.  Anyone interested in discovering more works in translation might benefit from visiting their website and perusing their offerings -- as noted there,
"The primary focus of Glagoslav Publications is to bring out translations that embody values that are uniquely Slavic in nature and celebrate universal values as reflected in diverse cultural demographics of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other nations in the region. Every book that we publish has already achieved an engaged readership in its native land, has been recognized by international critics, and, in many cases, has either received or been short-listed for prestigious national and international awards."
It's a win-win from where I sit.

the author, Ak Welsapar, from his website

First, a bit about the author.  Born in Turkmenistan (a former Soviet Republic), in 1956, Ak Welsapar obtained his first Master's degree in Journalism, then went on to get another in Literary Theory (1989) after joining the Soviet Writers' Association.   In 1993, a piece he wrote about ecological issues in Central Asia got him kicked out of the Soviet Writers' Association, and he was put under house arrest.  At this time, and through 2006, Turkmenistan was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, who according to Paul Theroux writing for  the New Yorker,
 "treated Turkmenistan as his private kingdom, a land in which everything belonged to him."  
Welsapar's work didn't at all sit well with the government -- he was declared a "public enemy,"  the government wouldn't allow his work to be published, and all previously-published works were banned, "confiscated from bookstores and libraries, to be burnt." The author left in 1993 to avoid both imprisonment and persecution of his family, and they became residents of Sweden the following year.  To this day, he is still a "black-listed" writer in his native country. So we are beyond fortunate that Glagoslav has chosen to publish it. It is significant, as author Brian W. Aldiss notes in a brief intro to the book, since it is "the first novel ever to emerge from Turkmenistan." It is also a winner of the English Pen Award in 2014.

and now to the novel:

Several years before this story actually begins, the small fishing village that is the setting for this tale was visited by a "group of medical scientists" who discovered that the coast there was "simply a natural wonder." According to their findings, the place would be great for a "sanatorium for asthmatics and people with other respiratory diseases," and soon government officials began to arrive from the capital. At first the people in this village were quite proud and thought this was a good thing:
"Look here, if they hadn't been living for generations in such a health-giving, astounding location,"
thinking the government would build "nice new brick houses" for them.  Trailers were brought in for the construction workers, and building began on the new sanatorium. Then, when the money ran out, construction stopped, only to start up again several months later. This time was different -- the villagers soon found out that they were ordered to leave the area, "without causing any interruption to the ongoing work."  Now these people are being "deported" and relocated to a town a few hours away by government order. As the relocation begins and the fishermen become slowly adjusted to their impending move, there is one among them who refuses -- Araz Ateyev, with a wife and two young children.  Their age-old way of life has been proscribed since sturgeon fishing is now illegal, but Araz continues to fish and believes that the coast is the "inheritance" left to him by his father.  Without it, he'd "be nothing."

At this point, the author goes back three hundred years earlier, to introduce the legend of Aypi, a local woman who was out gathering stones one day from the beach as was her regular custom.  A "group of strange men from unknown lands"  had found their way to this  part of the coast, and "not being particularly timid," she began to talk to them. When their conversation was over, the men left her a "stunning ruby necklace," and back at the village, she was told that by talking to these men she would bring "calamity" on them all. It wasn't so much what she'd said, but rather it was the fact that she'd had "dealings" with these outsiders that brought fear to the villagers, so they decided to get rid of her, and her husband threw her into the sea from an island cliff just off the coast.  The story goes that from then on, the people living and working on this coast were "haunted by the fear that those uninvited guests would return someday, bearing not gifts, but weapons."

 Aypi continued to slumber under the sea,  but
"the regret from her life lingered in the living world lingered in the living world, she could not leave it, that was impossible."
And now, it seems, Aypi's spirit has returned to the "living world" to exact her own form of vengeance.  As she moves swiftly through this modern world, the story begins to encompass not only Araz's resistance to the powers that be while trying to protect his birthright, but it also explores the conflicts between men and women, based on her idea that men want "dependent wives," since, according to her, "The thing men most fear is independent females." She believes that
"in every man's heart was the dread of being weaker than his wife and so losing her. This provoked them to their false bravery, brutality and inhumanity," 
and wonders how women could "be content" with the situation.

Aside from following the story of Araz, The Tale of Aypi also, among other things,  examines generational divides as well as the differences between traditional and modern ways of life, making for plenty of food for thought in this deceptively slim book. It may be short, but there is a lot going on in here.

Recommended, and as soon as I have word that there are more of Welsapar's novels in translation, I'll be picking them up as well. It's one of those books where the beginning made me think it was going to be one thing, but in the end, I got a whole lot more than I expected.  How rarely does that happen??


fiction from Turkmenistan


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

9780374530945
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
originally published 1991
232 pp

paperback

(read earlier)

"It is a characteristic of human beings, one I've often noticed, that if they don't have a family of their own, they will invent one." 

Wise Children is a lovely book in which there is never a dull moment, and I do mean never. It is funny, audacious, bawdy, and often flat-out farcical crazy, and I loved every second of it. Why is that, you might want to ask, and my answer is that above all, it is just teeming with life.

The novel begins at 49 Bard Road, Brixton, London, South West Two. It's a special day -- the Chance sisters ("Chance by name, chance by nature") are celebrating their seventy-fifth  birthday. Notice I used the word "their" -- the women are twins: our narrator, Dora, was born just five minutes ahead of her sister Nora.  On this day, Dora  gives a "little shiver," because she knows that "something will happen today." She doesn't "give a monkey's" what it is -- as she says, "Just as long as something happens to remind us we're still in the land of the living."  It's also the day of the centenary birthday celebration of their father,  the actor Sir Melchior Hazard,  "though not, ahem, by any of his wives."  Notice also the choice of last names here: Chance and Hazard, which you'll understand more as you go through this book.

The title of this book comes from an old saying that is brought out now and again here: "It is a wise child that knows its own father," and one thing Carter does quite well in  Wise Children is to examine the idea of parenthood -- not just on the paternal side, but the maternal as well.

As Dora notes at the beginning, some readers may want to know "Just who is this Melchior Hazard and his clan, his wives, his children, his hangers-on," so her role is to "provide some of the answers:"
"It is in order to provide some of the answers to those questions that I, Dora Chance, in the course of assembling notes towards my own autobiography, have inadvertently become the chronicler of all the Hazards..."
and with that, we are launched into a saga which, as W.B. Gooderham notes in a Guardian article
"contains all the juicy Shakespeare tropes of ambition, greed and revenge; fathers and daughters; brothers and sisters; twins, mistaken identity, incest and adultery."
In and around all of that, there's a lot happening in this book about these twins (just FYI, twins and twinning play a huge role here)  and this rather odd family with roots in the theater.  As just one example, Carter's biographer Edmund Gordon points out that the author wrote books  about "performance and self-invention in one way or another," and that is certainly the case here.  He believes that at its heart, Wise Children is
"about what happens to women's identities as they grow older and the culture ceases to treat them as sexual beings." (375)
and quotes Carter as saying that
"Show business, being a showgirl, is a very simple metaphor for being a woman, for being aware of your femininity, being aware of yourself as a woman and having to use it to negotiate with the world."  
Whether anyone concurs with Gordon's idea or not, women's identities are definitely a huge, unmistakable  part of this story.

Throughout this zany, but excellent family history as related by Dora, another thing that is also quite obvious is the ongoing contrast between legitimate and illegitimate, between high culture and low, between lower class and upper class. The book  begins with Dora welcoming us to "the wrong side of the tracks."    As she reveals, though, "you can't trust things to stay the same", and I think that's one of the most important ideas to come out of this novel. Nearly everyone in this story has ties to the English theater, which like the Hazard clan, is also a mix of legitimate and illegitimate, and we are treated to a rather unique look at its history that happens to coincide with that of the family.  So well done!  

I would love to just go on and on about this book, but time and all that. So I'll finish by saying that I'm sure I could read this book another two or three times and find something new I'd missed before -- that's just the sort of book  it is.  Anyone who hasn't read this novel is in for a treat -- I can promise that this book is one of a kind, and that it is a story not soon forgotten.   It's a lovely book, really, and it's sad to think that this was the last book Angela Carter ever wrote.

There's a reason I love her work, and this book is just one example of why.

******
For a more in-depth examination of this book, you can read (after you've finished, of course),

this essay by Kate Webb, "Seriously Funny: Angela Carter's Wise Children", which I highly recommend. Actually, I highly recommend the whole book that this came from, Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter, ed. Lorna Sage. 




Monday, April 10, 2017

Harriet Said..., by Beryl Bainbridge


9781844088607
Virago Modern Classics, 2013
originally written 1961;  published 1972
175 pp

paperback

(read earlier this month)


"It was all his fault. We are not to blame." 



Harriet Said ... is neither  horror nor  thriller, and after looking at  several reader reviews,   I do feel badly for those readers whose cover blurbs promised them either one of the other, and I can understand the low ratings given that expectations based on said blurbs didn't match up to what's actually in this book.  I also get that people may have been expecting a rehash of the Parker-Hulme case of 1954,  since publicity re  Bainbridge's book made the comparison.  There are readers who also expected something along the lines of Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" and this book didn't go there.

But hold on a second -- perhaps there is a tie-in here.   In 1994 Jackson noted that he wanted his movie to "focus on the incredibly rich friendship between the two girls, rather than the end result," -- as he says, "an intense relationship that went terribly wrong." While very, very different, this same sort of thing happens in Harriet Said... a dark, psychological portrait where the focus is on two very young teens (13/14) who are trying to make an entrance into the adult world while still in many ways just children, and who have no idea what they're about to get themselves into.   In that sense, they're at a time of transition -- as Linda Grant says in her excellent introduction, they are "young girls in the confusion of puberty."  Harriet is the older of the two girls, much less innocent than her friend who is the narrator of this tale; she is extremely manipulative, and has a "chilling disdain and ignorance of youth for the complexities of adult life."

The beginning of this book is actually its ending -- obviously something terrible has happened, and Harriet tells her friend (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) that they "are not to blame."  She goes on to give the other girl instructions while they walk home:
"When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don't stop running, just you keep going."
However, it's not until our narrator sees her mom on the porch of her house that her screaming begins (and after finishing the book and going back to the first chapter, the significance of this particular moment really hit me), after which Harriet's parents are brought in and the police are called.  We have no clue as to what's happened, just that it has something to do with a certain Mr. Biggs. The remainder of the book (which I'm not going to reveal in much detail because once again, telling is spoiling), leads us to this moment as the story goes back in time, beginning with our narrator having "come home for the holidays," while "Harriet was away with her family in Wales."  Without Harriet, we discover that the narrator was "irritable and bored," is friendless without her, and significantly, that she was kicked out of private school when younger, and that "they," as she says, "were scared of me and Harriet being so intimate."

It's when Harriet comes home that certain decisions are made that set the girls on their course toward the ending.  The narrator has seemingly developed a crush on the very married Mr. Biggs, whom the girls refer to as "The Tsar," and as the novel progresses, Harriet develops "a good plan" to help her, as she says,  "get over my active love for the Tsar."  Even though the narrator isn't sure that she wants to "get over it," she can't tell Harriet, who at a certain, pivotal time decides that the narrator must actively go after him, and "humiliate" him.  The narrator does what she can to place herself in his vicinity, opening up another line of inquiry here -- she seems to be pursuing Biggs, but the reader has to ask, given other hints that are thrown out here and there, if Biggs wasn't pursuing her at the same time, a possibility about which the girls have absolutely no clue.

To this point, I once again turn to the introduction of this edition where Grant notes Bainbridge's understanding of
 "the men whose marriages, jobs, homes have led them to the beach, to look out to sea with hope, longing and despair, their backs against the land. Part of what they have lost is their own youth, life has slipped past under bowler hats and heads rested against antimacassars. They are lost and lonely..." 
and this description describes Mr. Biggs in a nutshell, as we find out here and there throughout the book.

 There are a number of telling moments about the relationship between Harriet and the narrator, one of which comes when the narrator decides to stay at home to be "nice" to her little sister since she's had to "push her from me for her own sake, because of Harriet and me." As she states,
"I did not want her to be like us. God willing she would grow up normally and be like everyone else."
According to Vicky Janik in her Modern British Women Writers: An A-Z Guide,
"...there are implications that the narrator harbors secret erotic desires for Harriet..." , (10)
which may explain her willingness to allow herself to be so horribly manipulated by Harriet, but then again, after I'd  finished this book, I seriously had to question the narrator's own reliability.  Once I read it through the second time, thinking about this story as the product of an unreliable narrator, well, it changed quite a bit.

I'll end there, except to say that unlike several readers I enjoyed this book very much, as I have also enjoyed a number of novels written by Beryl Bainbridge in the past.  It's not an easy book to read for sure, but certainly well worth the time it took me to read it twice. I suppose it all depends on expectations, but as I am so fond of saying, going into a novel with no expectations is what I do and it generally works out well.

Recommended.


fiction from Britain