Saturday, April 15, 2017

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

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


(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

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


(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.


fiction from Britain

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
originally published as Mánasteinn: Drengurinn sem aldrei var til, 2013
translated by Victoria Cribb


I loved this book. Not only does it satisfy my craving for out of the mainstream different,  but by the time the end came rolling around, I was just plain floored, not just by the story,  but by the absolute, sheer beauty of the writing.  If you don't know Sjón's writing, he is the master of short but downright deadly (in a good way) novels. In this novel he's outdone himself -- jeez Louise, the writing is just brilliant here.

The most striking thing about this book, in my opinion,  is the theme of isolation against the fear of contagion that runs through this novel in more ways than one, and in my opinion, it's what the author does with these ideas that makes it so brilliant. It wasn't until the final page that I understood exactly how near-perfect this novel really was, and a second reading made things much clearer than the first.  The subject here is  Máni Steinn Karlsson, 16, who lives in the attic of a house with his great-grandmother's sister where the two have lived for about the last ten years since the death of his mother.   He's an independent kid who "does what he likes;" he is gay, and earns money by having sex with men. This is not, however, a novel about exploitation -- let's just get that out of the way up front.  Máni  is a "loner" and an "outsider" who loves the cinema, a boy who "lives in the movies," who when not watching them, replays them in his head. He's an interior sort of person who amuses himself
"analyzing the life around him, with an acuity honed by watching some five hundred films in which every glance, every movement, every expression, and every pose is charged with meaning and clues as to the subject's inner feelings and intentions, whether for good or for evil,"
someone for whom "mankind's behavior" is an open book.  He lives in Reykjavík at a rather momentous time in Icelandic history.  It's 1918 -- the spectacular eruption of the Katla volcano lights up the skies and covers houses and streets in layers of ash, Iceland been granted its independence, and the nation that had isolated itself from World War I now faces its own intrusion from the outside as the deadly outbreak of Spanish Influenza lands on its shores.  Through all of it, Máni , who exists on the fringes of Reykjavik society, and whose homosexuality keeps him in dark corners or behind closed hotel-room doors, acts as spectator, impassively watching from the outside until he is thrust into the middle of things with a young woman who fascinates him because of her particular resemblance to a figure in his favorite film.  But life returns to a sense of normal, and well, I have already said enough.

from Iceland Geology

The book is a gorgeous mix of realistic and surrealistic ("mind-bending" is what the cover blurb says which is definitely the case); and the way the author incorporates Mani's love of cinema as well as his favorite films into the narrative is beyond outstanding. The ending seriously left me floored as I realized exactly what the author had done here.

It won't be for everyone;  for example, anyone who has problems with gay sex scenes probably may not want to pick it up. However, if you want to experience a work of excellent, artistic writing, then don't miss it.  I've been so very lucky this year in finding very good books -- and my winning streak just continued with this one.  Just wow.

fiction from Iceland


and now the pros weigh in: my casual-reader self now offers you real reviews, from people who can actually write them 

from The Guardian, by Hari Kunzru
from Lambda Literary, by Nathan Smith
from Open Letters Monthly, by Robert Minto