Archives » Other fiction

The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

Vintage , 2003, 186 p. Translated from the Icelandic Atómstöðin (Helgafell, Reykjavik, 1948,) by Magnus Magnusson.

It is a time of political dispute in Iceland. The US has proposed to lease some land for what is always referred to in the text as an Atom Station. Opponents of this plan regard the potential base as a possible target for nuclear annihilation and in any case a sellout of Iceland’s seven-hundred-year struggle for independence. Our narrator Ugla is a country girl from the north who has come to Reykjavík to work as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament, Búi Árland. She finds him, baldness and all, strangely attractive, his voice alone enough to make Ugla weak at the knees, though she does not express this outwardly. His overbearing wife treats her more or less dismissively. (The domestic environment here for some reason reminded me a little of those in the Norwegian TV drama State of Happiness shown on BBC Four in 2020.) Ugla also has ambitions to learn to play the harmonium and so goes to the teacher’s house to do so. There she meets various people with various parts to play later in the novel.

The Atom Station is a satire (mostly on politics) with heightened descriptions and characters named Brilliantine, the unselfconscious policeman, the organist, Cleopatra, and Two Hundred Thousand Pliers. There is also a strand involving a historical character known as the Nation’s Darling and the prospect of the return of his bones from Copenhagen to be re-interred in Iceland. (When they are it is in two crates – either of which may contain the real bones, or not.)

Ugla’s rich employers vilify Communists, but nevertheless she attends cell-meetings and agrees with the desire of the comrades for Day Nurseries for the nation’s poor. These, of course are derided by the moneyed classes who fail to see why they should pay for the education of the poor.

Ugla remembers, “When we children were little we were forbidden to laugh – out loud; that was wicked.” Furthermore “all cheerfulness which went beyond moderation was of the devil.” To talk about feelings would be “idle chatter,” unseemly. Tears were shameful. Yet later, after Búi Árland has procured his fourteen-year-old daughter an abortion, Ugla, while comforting, her notes her weeping and reflects, “Anyone who weeps does not die; weeping is a sign of life; weep and your life is worth something again.” In this respect rural Iceland is very similar to Scotland. Despite her exposure to a more comfortable existence fripperies are still strange to her. “What is the point of making a picture which is meant to be like Nature, when everyone knows that this is the one thing which a picture cannot be and should not and must not be?”

The text is scattered with sly observations on life. In one of Ugla’s conversations with the organist he says, “‘The reason a man talks is to hide his thoughts,’” and she goes on to tell us, “A man who says what he is thinking about is absurd; at least to a woman.” When someone says he has plenty of money, her reply is, “‘Plenty,’ I echoed. ‘If there is plenty, then it has quite certainly not been well come by.’” The organist has many comments to make, among them, “Nations are not very important on the whole.” He goes on to add that the Roman Empire was not a country, and, “China has never been a country, Christendom of the Middle Ages was not a country, Capitalism and Communism are not countries, East and West are not countries. Iceland is a country only in a geographical definition.” He is astringent on societal arrangements and the abuse of power, “If someone wants to steal in a thieves’ community he must steal according to the laws; and he should preferably have taken part in making the laws himself.”

In a campaign called over the question of the Atom Station Ugla is cynical as electioneering politicians swore they would not give part of the country over to foreigners – “they swore it on the country, on the nation and on history, swore it on all the gods and sacred relics they claimed to believe in, swore it on their mothers; but first and foremost they swore it on their honour. And then I knew that now it had been done.”

She is a strikingly free-thinking woman who, even after becoming pregnant by the unselfconscious policeman and a birth for which she had to go back to a more accepting home, wishes to be an independent person, “neither an unpaid bondswoman like the wives of the poor nor a bought madam like the wives of the rich; much less a paid mistress; nor the prisoner of a child which society has disowned.” “I know it’s laughable, comtemptible, disgraceful and revolutionary that a woman should not wish to be some sort of slave or harlot; but that’s the way I’m made.” She rejects the largesse which Búi Árland offers, “I want money which I have earned for myself because I am a person.”

In the end The Atom Station is not really about politics, and not about Iceland. It is about human relationships and their infinite variety.

Pedant’s corner:- In a footnote; calender (calendar.) Otherwise; a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, fifty minks (I have always understood the plural of mink [the animal] to be ‘mink’, minks would be the plural for the stoles made from their fur,) “I had to muster all my strength not lose touch” (not to lose touch,) “it is an an attack” (only one ‘an’ needed.)

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

World Books, 1967, 186 p, including 9 p Introduction by Francis Wyndham.

This is the fruit of the author’s fixation with “the mad woman in the attic,” the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel is told in three Parts, the first and third from the viewpoint of the unfortunate Antoinette (or Bertha as her husband calls her,) the second, and much the longest, from his and hers.

The first two Parts are set in the West Indies, where Antoinette, the offspring of a Creole family, was brought up. In Part One she describes her early life. Part Two is the story of her (unnamed in the text) husband’s sojourn in the West Indies, where he and Antoinette married quickly after the illness which followed his arrival, and honeymooned in Dominica. There he receives a letter from a man who claims to be Antoinette’s half-brother, telling him he has been duped into the match as Antoinette is unstable and has a past. This is backed up by the attitude of those in Jamaica who knew her. The marriage is thereby doomed, its failure and her husband’s adultery contribute to Antoinette’s mental decline. Part Three sees our heroine locked up in an attic in England (though she is not entirely sure she is in that country) attended only by a nurse called Grace Poole. Hers and Antoinette’s names along with those of her stepfather and stepbrother are the only overt clues to the connection between this story and Jane Eyre. There are of course other correspondences, however; Antoinette/Bertha’s fascination with fire, her taking advantage of Poole’s falling asleep to roam the wider house, her attack on a man who comes to visit her, but this book is complete in and of itself and could be read with no knowledge of the previous book without any detraction from it.

Wide Sargasso Sea is both a commentary on Jane Eyre and on the ramifications of slavery and its abolition. Its illustration of the inequality of power between men and women also reflects the ending of Brontë’s novel where Jane brings herself to marry Rochester only after he has been blinded, when she has the advantage. There is, however, a kind of opacity to Rhys’s writing which makes it something of a chore to read.

Note to the sensitive; there are many uses of the n-word, but that is true to the times depicted.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; diststrous (disastrous.) Otherwise – a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) a comma missing at the end of a piece of direct speech, cocoanut (nowadays spelled coconut,) “the row of small trees outside my window were covered” (the row …. was covered,) 14 completed thoughts, italicised and in parentheses, mostly of one sentence but some with two, giving us the husband’s thoughts while someone else is speaking to him but only 12 of them had full stops at the end, hynotized (hypnotised,) frangipanni (frangipani; as used earlier.)

The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

BCA, 1974, 331 p.

This book, an imagination of a siege during what became known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (Krishnapur being an amalgamation of several besieged British Residencies,) is the second in the author’s loose trilogy examining the legacy of British imperial power. Troubles looked at the Irish independence struggle, The Siege of Krishnapur India, and The Singapore Grip the harbinger of that power unravelling in the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Troubles won the Booker prize in 1970 and The Siege of Krishnapur in 1973.

The main viewpoint character is the man in charge of the Residency in Krishnapur, Mr Hopkins. He is known as the Collector because of his interest in the Great Exhibition, a then recent historical event which is mentioned many times in the book. Others include George Fleury, who has just arrived in Krishnapur with his recently widowed sister Miriam; the local medic, Dr Dunstaple, whose children Louise and Harry, an army officer, are living there; Dunstaple’s more modern minded colleague Dr McNab; the Magistrate, a devotee of phrenology; and Lucy Hughes, a dishonoured Englishwoman who when the siege starts is living in town on her own in a house called the dak bungalow.

The early chapters are devoted to laying out the course of the lives of the European inhabitants of the town, poetry readings for the ladies and so on, manifested in the petty jealousies and rivalries of both the men and the women. A hint of the impending revolt arrives when piles of chapatis begin to be left on people’s desks or doorsteps. The Collector realises this is an indicator of trouble but is at first much mocked for instructing earth barriers be erected round the Residency and the banqueting hall. Lives carry on almost as normal until the neighbouring cantonment of Captainganj falls and its survivors straggle into Krishnapur.

Some of the Collector’s thoughts are of the time, “Speaking a great deal in company is not an attractive quality in a young lady. A young lady with strong opinions is even worse,” but then again on the feelings Miriam expresses towards Lucy Hughes when she thinks Lucy is trying to entrap her brother, “in an attractive woman even faults and weaknesses are endearing.” On his rounds one day during the siege he reflects on women and the ‘natives’ as being alike, “It’s true,” he mused, “they’re just like children,” and, “Women are weak. We shall always have to take care of them, just as we shall always have to take care of the natives.”

A hint of the twentieth century is present in some later thoughts. “Perhaps it is our fault that we keep them so much in idleness? Perhaps we should educate them more in the ways of the world. Perhaps it is us who have made them what they are?” Then the Victorian age resurrects itself. “But no. It’s their nature. Even a fine woman like Miriam is often malicious to others of her sex.”

Once the siege becomes prolonged the aura of complacency regarding British occupancy in India has been deflated. “India itself was now a different place; the fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilisation could no longer be sustained.”

Over time there is a gradual decline of standards as hunger and sickness takes hold, the women sit about in their chemises and bodices, the two doctors quarrel in public over the correct treatment of cholera. Dr McNab’s demeanour does not help his cause, “Scots very often appear bleak in the eyes of the English,” but Dr Dunstaple’s attempt to disprove his colleague’s modern theory leads directly to him contracting the disease.

Despite it being serviceable enough there is something to the text that is unsatisfying, almost plodding. Too much is told, not shown. The characters, too, seem like types, rather than individuals. And (though perhaps this was the point,) there is not much of India here.

As to that Booker Prize, it was nigh on fifty years ago. I doubt The Siege of Krishnapur would win it in the present day.

Pedant’s corner:- Plus points for ‘seated’, “attah of roses” (attar of roses) “the military wre being made to look ridiculous” (the military was being made,) “‘if that attack us here’” (if they attack us here,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “there were a number of windows” (there was a number,) one “Eurasions” (elsewhere Eurasians,) “to staunch wounds” (stanch,) “a taciturn man from the Salt Agency called Barlow” (the Salt Agency is called Barlow?) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “rose to a crescendo” (to a climax, the crescendo is the rise,) “so many of the garrison was already dead” (were already dead,) “A handful of confident zemindars were standing” (a handful … was standing.) “There were a number of Brahmin priests” (there was a number,) “the dining room was to spacious” (too spacious.)

The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh

Secker & Warburg, 1994, 218 p. Translated from the Vietnamese Thân Phân Cua Tinh Yêu, (originally published by Nhà Xuät Ban Hoi Nha Van [Writers’ Association Publishing House], Hanoi, 1991. English version by Frank Palmos based on the translations from the Vietnamese by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao, with Katherine Pierce.

The vast majority of writing about the Vietnam War published in the West has been from a US perspective. This book acts as a kind of corrective as, here, the US, along with the South Vietnamese ARVN, is the enemy. The novel’s viewpoint character is a North Vietnamese soldier, Kien, whom we first meet in his post-war duty of collecting for burial the remains of corpses left over from the war. This is in an eerie place the soldiers named the Jungle of Screaming Souls. One corpse is discovered in a colourless plastic bag and the body seems immaculate. Then it discolours, something seems to escape, and it deflates. The platoon takes this apparition to be a soul departing. This scene is emblematic as, while the memories of combat are no doubt authentic, so much of what Binh describes here is surreal. Many descriptions of war are.

The novel is disjointed, fragmented, as if reflecting the uncanny nature of such experiences. Ninh tells us the sorrow of war is like the sorrow of love, “a kind of nostalgia,” a “sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past.” The novel is a patchwork of such pain, of things unforgettable, surfacing unbidden from memory. “His fighting life was being revived in flashbacks, or in slowly unfolding scenes as heart-rending as a funeral march.” War as an experience is perhaps best encapsulated when Kien remembers trying to dissuade his comrade Can from deserting as it would be shameful. Can replied, “‘In all my time as a soldier I’ve yet to see anything honourable.’”

While combat and its horrors – the blood and entrails carried on the tracks of tanks so that they have to be driven through a river to clean them, Kien’s friend killed when his tank is all-but vapourised by a shell, the dreamlike quality of being on the receiving end of a US air-raid, the self-sacrifice of an inexperienced female guide named Hua who distracted a platoon of US soldiers away from a group of wounded NVA personnel whom she had put in danger of discovery – The Sorrow of War is not merely a story of firefights and military life. The story flits between those and his pre-Army life in Hanoi with Kien’s golden memories of his girlfriend Phuong and of life after the war where it is not only Kien who has been changed utterly but also Phuong, forever scarred by her travails when she accompanied him south to his first posting and her subsequent struggles to subsist in Hanoi.

The end of the war brought to the soldiers no soaring, brilliant happiness such as Kien saw later on film, only memories and nightmares. “Those who had died and those who lived on shared a common fate in this war.” As to the future, “Losses can be made good, damage can be repaired and wounds will heal in time. But the psychological scars of the war will remain forever.” The survivors “had lost not only the capacity to live happily with others but also the capacity to be in love.”

Since Kien later sets out to write about his impressions of the war the novel also contains observations on writing. Binh tells us the author wrote “because he had to write, not because he had to publish.” This is of course the way round the process ought to be.

Despite all its gruesome content and incident, its record of man’s inhumanity to man – and woman – The Sorrow of War is not difficult to read, a testament to both Binh and his translators.

Pedant’s corner:- mosquito repellant (repellent,) “his beard was well shaven and tidy” (if it was shaven it wasn’t a beard, well trimmed perhaps?) “Who’s to know.” (is a question; therefore ‘Who’s to know?’) “All that remained of his mother were some photographs.” (‘All’ is singular, hence ‘was,’) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, “Sue repeated eagerly” (she repeated eagerly,) curriculum vitae (there was more than one; curriculum vitae means ‘course of life’ so its plural – courses of life – is ‘curricula vitae’ in Latin and English – but in English some might say ‘curriculums vitae’. If interpreted as ‘courses of lives’ the Latin plural would be ‘curricula vitarum’, which is a step too far in English.)

The End of an Old Song by J D Scott

A Romance. Canongate Classics, 1990, 214 p, plus iv p Introduction by Christopher Harvie. First published in 1954.

Things lost. The times they have achanged. It is not for nothing that the lament is the signature example of bagpipe music. Scottish authors have always chronicled disappearance. It’s there in this book’s title and its epigraph – the source of that title – is of course the quote from Lord Chancellor Seafield on the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 after the Treaty of Union was signed, “There is the end of an auld sang.” Scots have been struggling with a sense of absence, of incompleteness, ever since.

But there are wider literary echoes here too. This review ought perhaps to have begun with the words, “Last night I dreamed I was at Kingisbyres again,” Kingisbyres being the name of the “big house” where narrator Patrick Shaw had his formative experiences. Indeed, the book could also have been titled “Kingisbyres Revisited”.

Yet this exercise in Scottish nostalgia, displaying the typical Scottish writer’s flair for landscape description, is narrated by one Patrick Shaw who tells us he deliberately cultivated English snobbishness. Indeed, the novel reads as being written with an English sensibility, and people are always described as Scotch, not Scottish. As a result, the Scotticisms, when they occur – “‘Away, man,’” – do so with increased force. Despite his leanings towards Englishness Patrick intuits “the essence of the past of Scotland, its dark, fated, cruel quality and the contrasting strain that ran through it of lightness and grace and gaiety ….. something powerfully charged with love and hate, pride and violence, which, in given circumstances, it might discharge in some tremendous flash of lightning.”

In the 1930s Patrick was a pupil at the nearby fee-paying but far from top drawer school, Nethervale, (his alcoholic father reduced to teaching there) and was invited to Kingisbyres by his friend Alastair Kerr, himself brought up by an aunt in the village and who, local rumour had it, was the natural son of the house’s owner, Captain Keith, who paid for him to attend the school. In Kingisbyres a room once graced by Bonnie Prince Charlie is kept perpetually ready for “the King over the water” to return. One summer, Captain Keith, no longer able to afford the upkeep, lets Kingisbyres to the nouveau riche Harveys (the money was made in biscuits) and Patrick was immediately struck by their daughter Catherine, a presence who is to flicker in and out of Patrick’s and Alastair’s lives for the remainder of the book. Catherine is used to having her own way and even as a young adult knows how to deploy her charms to get it. The establishment of the three’s irregular relationship takes up more than half the novel before the focus shifts to the book’s narrative present after the Second World War.

Captain Keith, like many of the landed gentry, has some very right-wing views and Alastair frequently indulges in casually pejorative mentions of Jews – sometimes not so casually, even after the war. He also has some acerbic comments to make on his countrymen’s attitudes, “being stuck-up is a crime in Scotland. That’s why everybody who makes money leaves it in the end. What’s the good of making money if you can’t be stuck-up?” and the cultural cringe, “like the good wee Scotty I am, I’ve been conditioned to feel that success is genuine only when it’s been registered in London.” He cites those objects of aspiration, “‘That old Kentish manor house,’” along with an English rose for its mistress, two children and a picture in the Tatler but after the war, in its austere aftermath, such longing is obsolete, “‘Now we have to give it up for an apartment on Fifth Avenue.’” When he says, “‘God save us from the romantic outlook,’” Patrick asks him, “‘It’s goodbye to the English dream?’” Alastair replies, “‘Yes,’” and Patrick says ironically, “‘You might call it the end of an old song.’”

The characters in The End of an Old Song are well-drawn, Catherine’s youthful carelessness and flightiness apparent from Patrick’s first encounter with her, Alastair always a hard, uncompromising presence (though Mrs Harvey is a type; a recognisable and all too familiar type, but still a type.) The novel speaks both of its time and to timeless Scottish concerns.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a missing end quote mark from an illustrative passage. Otherwise; gulley (gully,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) “thee fingers of whisky” (three fingers,) “Mrs Mathers’ voice” (Mathers’s,) “Bonny Prince Charlie” (usually spelled Bonnie, as it is on the next page and elsewhere in the book,) “‘If you boys arenie’ to be working’” (usually spelled arenae – and there’s no need for the apostrophe.) “After Dunkirk time I didn’t see Alastair …. for nearly two years … I went abroad … and until early 1943 I was in the middle East” (Dunkirk was in 1940, 1943 is 3 years later, not 2,) glaiket (usually spelled glaikit, is said to mean wandering in one’s mind; I have always understood it as meaning gormless, or slightly dim.)

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Corsair, 2019, 376 p.

People like stories. That is why the novel as a form exists after all. So I can see why this struck a chord with so many readers. It is the tale of Catherine Danielle Clark (Kya,) growing up living in a shack in a North Carolina marsh. And it is a compelling one. Kya is abandoned first by her elder siblings, then her mother (too many blows from her wastrel drunken sot of a husband, Kya’s father) then her brother nearest in age, Jodie, and finally her father; left to bring herself up alone, with only the marsh wildlife and plants to engage her interest. Subject to prejudice, vilified as dirty and ‘trash’, she has only the local, black, seller of bait, supplies and motor-boat fuel, Jumpin’ Jackson, and his wife Mabel, to look out for her, plus later, of course, Tate Walker, a few years older, a friend of the family in the (mildly) better times when her mother was still around. It is a tale of betrayal, loneliness, love, (a bit of) sex and, since we start with the discovery of a body, death. It has things going for it then.

And yet. Perhaps I’m seeing this from a reviewing perspective or even of that of a novelist myself but as a novel I found it deeply flawed.

The body is that of Chase Andrews, quondam local quarterback and lad about town (or whatever the US equivalent is) but pillar of the establishment. He has fallen – or been pushed – from a deserted building known as the fire tower. The absence of footprints round the body (his included) make the local sheriff suspicious. Revelations of Kya’s involvement with Chase mean she becomes the prime suspect.

Given Kya is the focal character our sympathies naturally lean to her side and if she has committed murder, there is not much in Owens’s portrayal of her to lead us to believe she could have carried out the elaborate deception necessary for that. She certainly has motive, a woman scorned always has motive, but her reclusive nature as the Marsh Girl, out where the crawdads sing (Tate tells her the phrase means “Far in the bush where the critters are wild, still behaving like critters”) and her reticence as regards contact with other humans, act as counterweights.

Despite only one day of schooling – humiliated by being unable to spell ‘dog’ she never went back – she becomes a self-taught expert on the marsh fauna and flora and paints exquisite representations of its wildlife. Her friendship with Tate, the only one who understands her deep connection with the marsh, the person who taught her to read – remarkably quickly it has to be said – and encouraged her to send her paintings to a publisher and so responsible for her later financial security, is her anchor until he too leaves her behind to go to College and her loneliness eventually leads her to succumb to the doomed attraction of Chase.

This tale of early 1960s North Carolina has echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird what with the racial prejudice (there is a Colored [sic] Town separate from Barkley Cove,) the class divisions and the courtroom scenes.However, it is anything but as well written. It relies too often on coincidence and has problems with structure and sequencing along with individual sections morphing from past to present tense for no good reason. Witnesses come forward at convenient times for the narrative rather than organically as they would have done. For two of these Owens lets the reader know their testimony exists and is potentially damning but does not reveal it then and there, instead waiting a few chapters to let us see the scene concerned from Kya’s viewpoint. I suppose you could call it backshadowing (in essence the whole book from the body’s discovery in the prologue till Kya’s arrest is backshadowing) but it is really an artificial creation of tension not fair on the reader. Then there are the frequent passages of poetry, especially that of Amanda Hamilton, which strike an off-note. Ownes has her reasons for these but only unfurls them at the end as a deus ex machina.

Some minor characters are less than convincing. Chase’s mother Patti Love Andrews is supposed to have thought she had a strong bond with her son but is said to be shocked to discover he had intimate dealings with Kya. This does not ring at all true. A woman like her would know exactly how a son brought up with his privileges would behave towards those he thought beneath him – especially to women, even more especially to ‘trash’.

Extracts from Kya’s reading on biological topics – for example “one article on reproductive strategies was titled ‘Sneaky Fuckers’” – feel as if they are an interpolation from a different novel entirely but ensure Kya is conversant with the varied tactics of the animal mating game. She tells Jodie, finally returned to see how she is faring, “Most men go from one female to the next. The unworthy ones strut about, pulling you in with falsehoods,” but this comes across as Owens speaking, not Kya. Often in sections relating to Kya’s state of mind, human behaviour is described in terms of biological reductionism – even in the hierarchy of the courtroom.

Some aspects of the contributions to her personality are outlined when Kya says to Jodie, “I never hated people. They hated me. They laughed at me. They left me. They harrassed me. They attacked me.”

As a defendant in her trial Kya is all but a blank to us, though. Yet the narration is from an omniscient third person, we ought to have access to her deepest thoughts. This is not unreliable as such but is profoundly disingenuous (and there are times too when Owens is a bit too eager to tell the reader how to interpret what has been read.)

Perhaps it was with an eye to the film rights (or even thoughts of To Kill a Mockingbird) that Owens chose to make the trial her focus. A trial after all has jeopardy (Owens emphasises the jeopardy,) conflict and drama. But that focus imbalances the novel. The story here is not the trial. Instead it is that of a lonely girl struggling to keep herself alive and make her way in a world to which she is ill-suited and for which she is ill-prepared. And of humans’ capacity for denigrating and despising the other. The murder aspect is incidental to this but is the hook on which Owens hangs the book. And in its dénouement I could not escape the impression that Owens was so determined to have a revelation/tying up of loose ends in her final chapter that it warped all that came before it.

There are things to appreciate in this novel but its central metaphor is laboured, almost trite. Yes, humans are the expressions of their genes. But humans are more than that. And it is the more than that that the novel, at its best, illumines and portrays. Where the Crawdads Sing does that peripherally at best.

It is by no means a bad book. In some respects it is a very good book, though without ever touching the heights. It will probably make a good film though.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘Time interval’ later/within ‘time interval’ count: 17. Otherwise; “Her overalls pockets” (that’s a possessive, hence, ‘her overalls’ pockets’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, indentions (indentations,) “Kya wondered who started using the word cell instead of cage. There must have been a moment in time when humanity demanded this shift.” (Well, no. The word cell does not necessarily mean a place of incarceration. It is a single, repeatable unit, found among others of its kind, as in prisons, but also in batteries and in living things; a cage is never anything other than a place of confinement,) “the sheriff itn’t so sure” (‘itn’t?’Is that North Carolinan dialect; or a misprint for ‘isn’t?’) “bused to Barkley” (bussed.)

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton, 2018, 331 p.

The epigraph quotes a character from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain about the urtext of Western literature. “All of European literature springs from a fight.” And what is the quarrel about? “A woman. A girl really.”

That woman, that girl, is not Helen, proximate cause of the Trojan War as she was. Instead, the object of the fight and so that well-spring of Western letters is Briseis, narrator of this novel (most of it anyway,) torn from the life and comfort she knew as wife to Mynes, king of Lyrnessus, to a reduced existence as slave to Achilles and the unwitting pivot on which the outcome of the Trojan War hinged. This novel is an attempt by Barker to retrieve the memory and experience not just of Briseis, who, after all, like Achilles, Hector, Ajax et al, may be no more than a myth, but of all the women whom myth and history have traditionally made incidental.

The novel is made up of Briseis’s recollections and thoughts with occasional interpolations as if from a reader asking her questions. There are some sections which initially seem like missteps on the author’s part when we shift to a third person focus on Achilles at times when Briseis is not present to observe him but they are there to nudge us in the direction of whose story this really is.

The book starts with Briseis and the women of Lyrnessus waiting for their city to fall to the Greeks, the great war cry of Achilles ringing in their ears. They know what is to come, their men and boys killed, visibly pregnant women speared in the belly on the off-chance they are carrying a son, their futures cut off, any semblance of autonomy erased, taken over as chattels at best and in any case degraded to sexual playthings.

Possibly to bring myth down to Earth Barker occasionally deploys anachronisms. The Greek soldiers sing rugby songs around their tables. When the captured women are paraded before them Briseis hears one of them say, “‘Look at the knockers on that.’” Achilles greets his award of Briseis with the words, “‘Cheers, lads. She’ll do.’” From then her life becomes one of service, and she a thing, not a person; a drudge and object of sexual release. Her only solace is to immerse herself in the sea every evening but she finds the smell of seaweed on her skin and hair arouses Achilles. (His mother was a sea-goddess after all.) There and back, she wanders through the Greek camp in all its rat-infested squalor.

Though Briseis doubts the efficacy of prayers she nevertheless implores Apollo to bring down pestilence on the camp. Whether this is an attempt by Barker to give Briseis some agency is left open but one day a priest of Apollo arrives to plead for the release of his daughter, Chryseis, now Agamemnon’s slave. He refuses. A subsequent outbreak of plague in the camp leads the superstitious sodiers to believe it is Apollo’s revenge for his refusal and Achilles is forced to demand Agamemnon give Chryseis up. He will do so only if Achilles yields Briseis to him. This is the source of their quarrel. An enraged Achilles says to his closest friend Patroclus, “He hasn’t earnt it.” Briseis focuses on that one word: “it. It doesn’t belong to him, he hasn’t earnt it.” Achilles is talking about the honour he’d gained by fighting but she experiences the phrase as being about her. And of course it was. She was the embodiment of that ‘honour’, its symbol, a prize – however unwilling – won for being able to kill people. Achilles cries as she is taken away – but it isn’t for her.

Briseis frequently reflects on the lot of women. “There was a legend – it tells you everything really – that whenever Helen cut a thread in her weaving, a man died on the battlefield. She was responsible for every death.” A slave called Tecmessa relays to Briseis what Ajax said to her when he won’t speak about what’s causing his recurring nightmare, “Silence becomes a woman,” and Briseis tells us, “Every woman I’d ever known was brought up on that saying.” A few days after Achilles kills Hector on the battlefield, the Trojan King, Priam, secretly makes his way into the Greek camp to plead for his son’s body for burial. Kneeling before Achilles he says, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” Briseis can only think, “I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.” She realises though that Trojan songs and stories would survive since their Greek sons would remember what their Trojan mothers had sung to them. (Curiously daughters are not mentioned here, yet they would surely also pass on those tales and songs.)

For this story, however, the pull of myth is too powerful, the legend of Achilles too strong, “make no mistake, this was his story, his anger, his grief, his story…. I was still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”

As for posterity, “They won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No. They’ll go for something altogether softer.”

This is not a book I’m likely to forget.

Aside: I suppose this is all moot if we’re dealing with myth but I have mentioned before the problems I have with the concept of a ten year long siege of a Bronze Age city. Here they are compounded by the fact that the men go off to fight during the day – seemingly with mayhem occurring, certainly lots of bloodshed (so where do the reinforcements come from?) – leaving a few behind to guard the ships. But the soldiers return to their huts in the evening to eat, to drink, to argue and to do the other things soldiers do. The text does imply the use of sentries but no consideration seems to be given to the possibility of a concerted night attack.

Pedant’s corner:- Time interval/within minutes count: at least ten. Otherwise; Mynes’ (Mynes’s; all names ending in ‘s’ – Patroclus, Achilles, Odysseus, Chryseus, Alcimus, Peleus etc, have their possessives rendered as s’ rather than s’s,) “around out feet” (our feet,) ceasefire (x2. It’s an odd word to describe an agreed temporary interruption to a war in the Bronze Age, carried out in the main by hand-to-hand combat, ‘truce’ would have jarred less.) “The sound rose to a crescendo” (no it didn’t; it rose – crescendoed – to a climax.)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, 2020, 384 p.

 Hamnet cover

Is there anyone who reads who does not know that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died as a boy, a name immortalised a few years later in the play titled Hamlet? This is not a spoiler in any case as in a short preface O’Farrell tells us as much, and that Hamnet and Hamlet were the same name, entirely interchangeable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In its writing this novel has echoes of Wolf Hall, whether that be because of the Tudor setting, or that Hamnet’s grandfather is quick with his fists, or a kind of linguistic obscurantism. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Thomas Cromwell was often denoted cryptically as “he,” Here characters are sometimes described simply as “a boy” or “a woman” and Hamnet’s father is never referred to by name, only as, variously, “the Latin Tutor,” “the husband,” or “the father.”

This distancing is quite deliberate on O’Farrell’s part as the novel’s focus is not on the son, (who dies two thirds of the way in anyway,) nor indeed is it on the husband and father. This is the story of the wife and mother, Agnes, pronounced Ann’yes and so liable to be misheard as Anne. It is a beautiful piece of imagining on O’Farrell’s part, evoking life in Tudor England utterly convincingly, illustrating the fluctuating balances of power within families, rescuing Agnes from the sidelines of history, revealing her as a vibrant, complex character in her own right. In it she also manages to provide a better explanation than the usual one for the playwright’s famous bequest – as an act of love.

In part I the chapters mostly alternate between the goings-on in Henley Street, Stratford, in the run-up to Hamnet contracting his fatal illness (where there is actually a fair degree of attention paid to Hamnet,) and the earlier life of his mother and father, how they met, got together, married and had three children. Despite Agnes having the gift of (second) sight, Hamnet’s twin Judith comes as a surprise, is then given up for dead on arrival after him, but subject to Agnes’s frantic efforts to keep her alive and her constant worry thereafter. Agnes is also a dispenser of herbal remedies. There is a passage written from the point of view of a hooded kestrel in an apple store which is quite beautifully done and also a diversionary chapter on the mechanism of how Hamnet may have caught bubonic plague, beginning with a flea in Alexandria, the plague bacillus eventually transferring to England via a glassmaker in Venice. Though never emphasised as such, interplay between the characters suggest the seeds for what was to come in the plays. Part II by contrast deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death and its chapters follow the story linearly. Grief is a difficult sense to communicate in fiction but we see its expression in all of the family and feel it through them.

Use of the present tense can be alienating but O’Farrell’s deployment of the device is superb, keeping the action contingent, reminding us that to the characters the events she shows us were happening in the here and now, there was still the possibility of an alternative outcome. It brilliantly conveys Hamnet’s distracted state of mind as he scurries about the empty house (usually so full of people) seeking help when his twin falls ill. O’Farrell is tremendous too on Agnes’s experience of childbirth. I doubt a man could ever have transmitted the sensations, feelings and worries so effectively. Throughout, the author is totally in control and the final scenes, as Agnes hurries off to London to ask her husband why he dared to use his dead son’s name in a play, are magnificent. The play, after all, has kept that name alive.

Hamnet is a wonderful novel. How it was left off the Booker Prize long- and shortlist last year is beyond me. It did, though, win the Women’s Fiction Prize and the Dalkey Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.

Pedant’s corner:- epicentre (used, wrongly, in the sense of absolute centre,) “the dark maw of the ground” (it was the opening of a grave; not a stomach, then, therefore not a maw,) stoved in (stove in, or, staved in,) “that all is not as it should be” (that not all is as it should be.) “She sits up nights” (she sits up at night,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’.)

Summer by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2020, 391 p.

This is the fourth in Smith’s Seasons quartet, conceived as a response to the Brexit upheaval, but here set, as the novel is, in 2020, somewhat overtaken by Covid. As in all her books it is rendered with an unjustified right margin which still looks odd to begin with but after a few pages does not intrude. Like Spring this instalment begins with a page or so’s discourse on our times, this one on the indifference with which certain people have greeted the flagrant breaking of societal and political norms in recent years, a metaphorical – and perhaps actual – shrugging of shoulders and saying “So?”

A contrast to that metaphorical shrugging comes later on when Daniel Gluck, a child refugee from the Nazis who featured in Autumn, remembers his internment in Britain early in World War 2 and the support the interned refugees received from MPs and from the wider public. Of the British people at the time he recalls his father saying, “They know about fairness now, and why to go to war, and what happens when you do. They know about newspapers that lie for money. They know you don’t put innocent people in prison. The British are just. They’re practical. They’re calm, they’re civilized, now. They’ll put it right.” It is left to the reader to make any invidious comparison. Gluck’s sister Hannah was meanwhile stuck in France and trusted her child to the care of the French couple with whom she lodged while she engaged in working with the resistance.

The novel unfolds through various viewpoints one of whom is environmentally conscious Sacha Greenlaw, whose father has moved in next door to the family home with his new, younger, Welsh lover, Ashley. Sacha is plagued by her younger brother Robert, who has fallen down the rabbit hole of right-wing websites and once told Ashley to go back to Wales as, after Brexit, she wasn’t wanted here. Their mother Grace just gets on with things but has memories of her own. Robert has two heroes. One is Einstein, the other “looks like he’s acting a bit drunk or acting like a boy not a man” and reflects that for a Prime Minister to appear dishevelled is “a brilliant subterfuge to look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing and to make people like him for it.” A (very unamusing) practical joke Robert plays on Sacha leads to her being befriended by Charlotte and Arthur – see Winter – who run a website with “thoughtful analysis of the shapes things take in art and nature” and have been tasked with returning a fragment of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture to a man Arthur’s mother once knew. They are also activists of a sort. Through them Sacha learns about Hero who has been detained by the immigration authorities after being trafficked and she writes to him. The last section of the book contains his reply – from the safe haven of Arthur’s Aunt’s house to where he has been released due to Covid.

Summer really only incidentally comments on political issues but is all the more effective for that. The characters present as individuals and are dealt with sympathetically. I suspect that when she conceived the sequence Smith planned for this last instalment to be a hopeful one (it is titled Summer after all) but the events she is reflecting may have militated against that. There isn’t really much of a plot though.

Pedant’s corner:- “And from those clouds it isn’t rain that fell” (from those clouds it wasn’t rain that fell,) “as she walked along pavement” (the pavement, or, a pavement,) a spoken sentence not capitalised at its start.

There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union by Reginald Hill

Harper, 2009, 363 p.

This is not my normal reading fare but the good lady knew I’d recently read Jane Austen’s Emma and wondered how I’d react to this author’s take on the characters from that book. Hill is the creator of the detective duo Dalziel and Pascoe about whom he has written twenty-four books. This is a collection of his shorter works and was originally published in 1987. That “Featuring Dalziel and Pascoe” is emblazoned on the front cover is a bit of a cheek. Only one of the six stories here does so and that tangentially at best. Also irritating is that all the story titles are rendered entirely in lower case.

there are no ghosts in the soviet union is a detective tale featuring Inspector Lev Chislenko. (I admit that my first thought with that name was of the famous Igor who played for Dynamo. Being questioned whether he is related to that footballer becomes a running joke through the piece.) Chislenko has been called in to resolve the case of a man being pushed into a lift and immediately falling through the floor, which remains as solid as it always was and there is no trace of him at the foot of the shaft. The obvious explanation is that the man was a ghost. Consequently ideological considerations beset Chislenko. “There are no ghosts in the Soviet Union,” is apparently the set-up line to a Soviet joke but also an assertion that he must find a way to uphold. The story is obviously intended as a satire on the Soviet Union – or at least on how Hill imagined the Soviet Union to be – but is equally applicable to any authoritarian regime anywhere. The resolution depends on Chislenko’s delving into the lift’s origins. It was manufactured in Chemnitz (renamed Karl-Marx Stadt after World War 2) in the 1920s and installed in a now demolished building elsewhere before being re-used in a money skimming scam. His investigations also bring him into dangerous contact with powerful figures in Soviet circles.

In bring back the cat! Joe Sixsmith is a balding West Indian (with a balding jacket) who has just begun his career as a private detective. He is called in by a Mrs Ellison to find her cat which has been missing for three weeks. In the course of his investigations all over one afternoon, he uncovers various family secrets and solves another case entirely, thus making his name. There’s an overt consciousness of racism to some of the exchanges. (Sixsmith was later to become the protagonist of another series of Hill’s books.)

the bull ring is set in the British military training camp at Étaples during the Great War. One of the instructors is excessively harsh on recruit Harry. For Harry’s own good he would say; but Harry doesn’t see it that way.

Dalziel and Pascoe do not appear as such in auteur theory. It is the actors who are playing them on a film set who do. The one playing Pascoe has long been on the way down as an actor and is now saddled with a tyro leading lady who is the director’s new wife. It also includes the bearded writer of the novel which is being filmed (we are, I suppose, meant to assume Hill is writing about himself,) who is becoming more and more annoyed at changes to the script. The story starts with a warning injunction, Nothing in this story is what it seems. You should remember that. The metafictional games in it do not lift it above the category ‘diverting’.

poor emma takes up twenty or so years after Jane Austen left off her tale of Emma Woodhouse and her misguided attempts at match-making. The intervening years have not been kind, though Mr Woodhouse continues, like a creaky gate, to, as we Scots say, “hing lang”. Mr Weston has died and his widow, in a sentence carved from early nineteenth century attitudes and would-be Austen impersonation “eventually declined into religion, to such an extent that it came as no surprise, though an incalculable shock to most decent people, when she embraced the doctrines of Rome.” Mr Knightley has neglected his affairs, indulging himself as a bon vivant and taken up a seat in Parliament (which allows him various other indulgences.) His brother John has lost the confidence of his legal clients and now runs Donwell Abbey on George’s behalf. The conflict comes from the wishes of both to protect that inheritance. All the main characters from Emma reappear, save Jane Fairfax, except for mention of her death. Her husband Mr Frank Churchill is involved in the dénouement. The Mr Knightley shown here is far removed from the one Austen portrayed and so too is Emma herself as she indulges in an action which that younger self would surely never have contemplated but which does have the effect of giving the tale a condign ending.

crowded hour concerns the invasion into her home by two armed men of a woman whose husband is somewhat obscurely rich and has absences from home. It begins, “At twelve noon there were three people in that house. By the time the clock struck one, two of them would be dead and the life of the third would have changed for ever.” The story lies in the journey that beginning implies.

Pedant’s corner:- “led him out in to” (into,) humourously (humorously,) “‘How’s you mother?’” (your,) smidgeon (smidgin; or, smidgen,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “his legal practise” (the noun is practice, as used later, I note,) “a codicillary convenant” (covenant, surely?) “had showed” (this may have been an attempt at Austenism; ‘had shown’.)

free hit counter script