Archives » Other fiction

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Penguin, 2005, 296 p

The Jane Austen Book Club cover

This book does what it says on the tin. Six people are brought together by co-ordinator Jocelyn to read the novels of Jane Austen and meet – or not depending on circumstances (a hospitalisation for example) – to discuss them, one each per month.

The novel therefore consists of six chapters, one per month but they are more about the characters’ lives than any book discussions. We are also granted a prologue and an epilogue. Six pages devoted to synopses of Austen’s novels follow the epilogue and these give in turn to 25 pages of responses to Austen’s work – 2 pages of comments by her family and friends, the rest by critics, writers and literary figures – all accompanied by 61 bibliographical Notes. (Then we have 3 pages of those naff “Questions for discussion” sometimes appended to modern books. But I suppose that is what book groups do.)

There are some parallels between the lives of the group’s members and incidents in Austen’s novels, Jocelyn’s attempts at match-making notable among them, but they are really just grace notes.

In effect, what Fowler has done here is conceived a way to collect six short novellas – or six longish short stories – under the umbrella of a novel. Yes, there is some character development – Jocelyn’s initial dismissal of only male group member Grigg’s enthusiasm for Science Fiction (“She didn’t actually have to read science fiction to know what she thought of it. She’d seen Star Wars”) overcome by his introduction to her of the works of Ursula Le Guin being a case in point.

The book is clearly targetted at readers familiar with Austen’s œuvre as there is frequent mention of incidents/dilemmas/characters from the books plus an update of her most famous aphorism in the form of “‘Everyone knows,’ Prudie said, ‘that a rich man is eventually going to want a new wife,’” but even those unfamiliar with the works will find it readable enough. I somehow doubt, though, that any aficionados will come away from this enthusing about it. It’s not a patch on We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves or even Sarah Canary.

Pedant’s corner:- Whenever a section starts with a piece of dialogue the opening quotation mark is missing (this is one of those publishing habits with which I disagree,) teepees – also teepeed (tepees – tepeed,) “the lay of the land” (it’s “lie” of the land,) “playing the bagpipe” (bagpipes,) the occasional missed comma before a quote, L.A. at the end of a sentence not followed by the full stop. In the Responses: “there would be more genuine rejoicing at the discovery of a complete new novel by Jane Austen than any other literary discovery, short of a new major play by Shakespeare, that one could imagine” (than one could imagine.)

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley

William Morrow, 2005, 472 p

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land

Lord Byron, of course, never wrote a novel – except perhaps the beginnings of one. Or, if he did, it is lost to the mists of time. Crowley’s conceit here is that Byron completed it, and that his daughter, Ada Lovelace, “the first computer programmer,” burned it due to her batty mother’s insistence, but, before she did so, encrypted it in a series of numbers. Those numbers have turned up in papers belonging to Viscount Ockham, Ada’s son. A website called strongwomanstory has gained access to these and sent a reporter to look them over. This aspect of Crowley’s novel is related in a series of emails and letters between the reporter “Smith” and her mother “Thea” but expands to include her father. Smith’s relationship with her father is much the same as Ada Lovelace’s with hers – sexual indiscretions resulting in estrangement – except the modern story holds the promise of reconciliation. Included in these exchanges is the observation that Ada’s story contains ‘a monster parent, but it’s not her father-it’s her mother’ and the observation about Byron’s notorious lack of punctuation “Printers in those days could punctuate. Imagine. Now hardly anybody can.”

It would of course be impossible to proceed with this scenario were the “novel” by Lord Byron not to appear in these pages and it does take up by far the largest part of the book. Crowley has done an impressive job in ventriloquising the poet’s voice even if at one point he does have Byron pre-echo Tolstoy with the thought, “Happy endings are all alike; disasters may be unique.” Its protagonist, Ali, born in Albania as the result of a liaison with a wandering British aristocrat, Lord Sane, is in young adulthood sought out by his father to become heir to the Sane estate, somewhere in Scotland. This tale, The Evening Land, is as Gothic as you could wish, involving a gruesome death, misplaced accusations, possible amnesia, an impersonator, a clandestine seduction – everything you would expect from a book with such supposed origins and complete with the verisimilitudinal inclusion of archaic spellings such as dropt for dropped, segar for cigar and soar’d for saored. We are also given Ada’s commentary on the text of The Evening Land, in the form of “her” notes on each chapter, wherein she wonders if her father could ever have imagined a family not riven by disputes. (There is, too, a respect in which, notwithstanding the fact that The Evening Land’s contents bear resemblances to incidents in Byron’s life, this overall endeavour might be said to be more about Ada than Byron.)

Then we have the wonderful cover illustration featuring Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,) and the rough-cut page edges making the book resemble one from the early 19th century show a pleasing attention to detail.

Crowley came to my attention back in the 1970s with books such as Little, Big, Aegypt (I note here the appearance in the text of The Evening Land of the spelling Æschylus,) and Engine Summer but dropped off my reading register till I noticed this book. I’ll be looking for more of him now though.

Pedant’s corner:-
In the back cover flap blurb: “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” (Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.) Otherwise: “‘into whose recognizance’” (recognisance – I doubt Byron would have used USian spellings, others, such as honour, are rendered in the British way. Plus recognizance is a US legal formulation rather than a Scottish one,) “‘these lands and goods was truly yours’” (were,) “Kendals drops” (Kendal drops,) Bachus’ (Bachus’s.)

Winter by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2017, 328 p

 Winter cover

The novel starts with a reference to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, “God was dead: to begin with,” but is set around a curious Christmas visit to his mother Sophia’s home by Arthur just after his girlfriend Charlotte has left him but he wishes to disguise that fact. Accordingly he hires a woman he sees at a bus-stop to pretend to be Charlotte. His mother has been neglecting herself, and has no food in the house so Arthur summons his aunt Iris to rescue the situation. Since Iris, a lefty, and Sophia, a staunch Tory, have been at loggerheads – indeed not speaking to each other – for years this leads to some strained conversations, not least when Charlotte’s impersonator rather lets the cat out of the bag and reveals her name is Lux – and that she hails from Croatia.

In the incidents from the sisters’ lives we are regaled with a short history of the Greenham Common protests – what happened at Greenham changed the world Iris says. She is also less than pleased with the prevailing climate in the country, “‘The furious grumpy faces, like caricatures on some terrible sitcom on TV. England’s green unpleasant land,’ and complains of the Prime Minister’s background, “what kind of vicar, what kind of church, brings up a child to think that words like very and hostile and environment and refugees can ever go together in any response to what happens to people in the real world.’” The there is, “Google. Not so long ago it was only the mentally deranged , the unworldly pedants, the imperialists and the naivest of schoolchildren who believed that encyclopaediae gave you any equivalence for the actual real world, or any real understanding of it. ….. But now the world trusts search engines without a thought.”

Lux compares modern life to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline “it’s like the people in the play are living in the same world but separate from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds.” Later we find, “She is explaining to him how it is that she can be from somewhere else, and have been brought up somewhere else again, but still sound so like she grew up here. ‘It takes hard work. Real graft and subtlety. It’s a full-on education being from somewhere else in your country right now.’” Smith is also careful to give Sophia’s points of view but for some reason they didn’t strike much of a chord with me. Maybe it didn’t really with Smith either. In a coda, reflecting on Trump’s “Merry Christmas again” speech she tells us, “in the middle of summer it’s winter,” and adds, “God help us, every one.”

Like most of Smith’s novels there seems a sort of – I can only say coldness – at Winter’s centre. Her Seasons sequence (I reviewed Autumn here) was supposedly conceived as a response to the EU referendum result. The relevance of that to the content of Autumn was muted but here, while it is not the main preoccupation of the characters (Charlotte’s social media trolling of Arthur is a sort of running joke in the narrative,) it is undeniably the sea-swell under their surface interactions. And it is all presented with that unjustified right margin Smith’s books always seem to have.

Pedant’s corner:- “Oh for Christ sake” (Christ’s,) “each other’s worlds” (strictly, each others’ worlds.)

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

Bloomsbury, 2000, 540 p (including xii p Glossary of Arabic terms.)

The Map of Love cover

This novel is set in two time lines, the Egypt of its present day, the late 1990s, and of the same country in the 1900s. The present day sections are told from the viewpoint of Amal al-Gamrawi whose brother, ‘Omar, a famous musician, has fallen into a relationship with US citizen Isabel Parkman, but its main thrust comes via the letters and journal of Isabel’s great grandmother, Lady Anna Winterbourne, which relate to her experiences in Egypt almost a century before. Isabel’s discovery of a trunk containing her grandmother’s letters was recognized by ‘Omar as a family connection and he encouraged Isabel to take them to his sister in Egypt for transcription. While in Egypt Lady Anna had formed a mutual attachment to Amal’s great uncle, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi, an Egyptian patriot, and married him; much to the dismay of all but two of the English contingent in Egypt at the time. Anna’s letters and journal track the course of that love affair and marriage. Isabel is their descendant and so related to Amal and ‘Omar. Some sections of the narrative are Amal’s imaginings of incidents from the past, others are seen via the viewpoint of Layla, Sharif’s sister.

Soueif wrote this in English but in some respects the novel feels like a translation as its immersion in Egyptian culture is total, though the Western perspective is acknowledged. But it is Egyptian concerns and history that dominate. “Egypt, mother of civilisation, dreaming herself through the centuries. Dreaming us all, her children: those who stay and work for her and complain of her, and those who leave and yearn for her and blame her with bitterness for driving them away.” (Yet, barring ‘the mother of civilisation’ and with just the name changed, that quote could apply to almost any country. It certainly does to Scotland.)

There are multiple resonances between the two times. The trouble with contemporary Israelis in Palestine – “putting things on the ground that will be impossible to dismantle,” ….. “It’s either Israeli domination – backed by America – or the Islamic radicals. Take your pick,” is mirrored by events in the 1900s when 50,000 Russian Jews escaping from persecution wanted to settle in the Holy Land. “Europe simply does not see the people of the countries it wishes to annex – and when it does , it sees them in accordance with its own old and accepted definitions: backward people , lacking rational abilities and subject to religious fanaticism.” At one point Layla says of the de facto ruler of Egypt, “‘Lord Cromer is a patriot and he serves his country well. We understand that. Only he should not pretend that he is serving Egypt.’” Cromer’s attitude ignores that, “We in Egypt have been proud of our history; proud to belong to the land that was the first mother of civilization. In time she passed the banner of leadership to Greece and then Rome, and from there it reverted to the lands of Islam until in the seventeenth century it was taken hold of by Europe.” As one Egyptian says to Isabel, in a phrase that perhaps prefigures and goes some way to explain the attack on the twin towers only a year after the novel was published, “all the Americans I meet are good people, but your government’s foreign policy is so bad. It’s not good, you know, for a country to be hated by so many people.”

The politics may be an essential background but it is not the focus. That is the love story between Anna and Sharif and the ever fascinating nature of human interactions. Soueif’s ability as a novelist to portray these is not in doubt. The tapestry triptych which Anna weaved on the loom Sharif bought for her and of which one part had disappeared in the intervening years is perhaps a little too obvious a metaphor, though, and I did have a reservation at the introduction of a further possible twist in the net of relationships here, a thread picked at but not truly resolved.

Nevertheless this is a very well written, engaging novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, which, while not, quite, in the absolutely highest class is certainly not far off.

Pedant’s corner:- Abd el-Nasser (in the epigraph it was ‘Abd el-Nasser,) hostess’ (hostess’s,) occasional unnecessary spaces after quotation marks, the odd missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “more that an eccentric Englishwoman” (more than,) Selfridges’ foodhall (I know the shop is now named Selfridges but it was founded by a Harry Gordon Selfridge as Selfridge & Co so its possessive should always have been Selfridge’s, therefore Selfridge’s foodhall,) staunched (stanched.)

Best Reading of 2018

Listed below in order of reading. 16 in total; 7 by Scottish writers, 4 SF or Fantasy (+ 1 non-fiction about SF,) 3 in translation, 10 by men, 6 by women:-

Living Nowhere by John Burnside
All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky
Science Fiction: A Literary History Edited by Roger Luckhurst
The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
Hame by Annalena McAfee
I Remember Pallahaxi by Michael G Coney
Not so Quiet …. stepdaughters of war by Helen Zenna Smith
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez
Time Was by Ian McDonald
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Elephant Walk by Robert Standish

NEL, 1968, 252 p. First published 1948.

Elephant Walk cover

The Elephant Walk of the title is a very prosperous tea (once coffee, till a disease blighted the crop) plantation in Sri Lanka (Ceylon as was) whose founder, Tom Carey, built “the Big Bungalow” across a traditional elephant trail. Despite being dead for years Carey’s attitudes and prescriptions for life still dominate life in the bungalow – as mediated through the main servant Appuhamy (who periodically talks to the old master at his graveside) and with the parrot Erasmus ensuring Carey’s voice is still heard regularly – with open house for other local planters. Carey’s almost middle–aged son, George, takes a trip to England. (Here, in an incidental conversation with a pair fascinated by Buddhism, “George … remarked that the only Buddhist priest he had ever come in contact with had seemed to prefer small boys to mysticism.” Some things are universal and timeless it would seem.) George is attracted by the charms of Ruth Lakin; chiefly her ability at tennis. He soon proposes and Ruth seizes eagerly at her chance for a more comfortable existence.

Back in Ceylon the presence of a woman in the Big Bungalow puts all sorts of noses out of joint, while George’s drinking puts a strain on the marriage. An accident in which George breaks his leg throws Ruth into closer contact with George’s assistant Geoffrey Wilding. The Sinhalese plantation workers soon infer, wrongly to begin with, that their working relationship has improper aspects, but the seeds for an eternal triangle have been sown. Once the relationship has been consummated Ruth finds herself in thrall to her feelings for Wilding.

The advent of the Great War throws a spanner into their lives. Without knowing he is the father of Ruth’s unborn child Wilding leaves for Europe and news eventually comes he is missing, presumed dead. Ruth resolves to make the best of things. Wilding has been captured though and escapes to Holland. His return to Ceylon precipitates the book’s, and Ruth’s, crisis, not helped by the fact that Wilding’s war experiences have changed him.

The web of character relationships here is complex, and each has his or her own motivations. The oddnesses and assumptions of colonial life are well depicted. Appuhamy’s devotion to having things just so – as they have always been that way even if extravagantly wasteful – his acceptance of minor change to avoid dismissal, the jealousies of the beautiful Rayna, a Sinhalese outcast girl whom Appuhamy procures in an attempt to distract Wilding from Ruth. Standish’s desire to portray the Big Bungalow as a character in its own right doesn’t quite work though and while the occasional foray into the thoughts of the bull elephant injured while navigating the trail when the bungalow was being built are necessary for plot and dénouement reasons they do not accord with what knowledge of elephants I thought I possessed. (Only remembering the bungalow when approaching it? A bull elephant leading a herd rather than being solitary? Do Asian elephants differ in these regards from African ones?)

Standish didn’t have pretensions, there’s no fine writing here, but it’s a good solid piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- strategem (stratagem, spelled correctly later.) “George’s attentiveness and solicitude was impeccable” (attentiveness and solicitude were.) “‘Blame then?’” (Blame them,) “his little brain” (of a bull elephant? Big brain I should think,) “two whiskies-and-sodas” (two whiskies-and-soda: at least Standish spared us “whisky-and-sodas”,) “‘I like to to be exclusive’” (only one “to” needed,) “‘it does no look much now’” (does not look,) at one point George Carey makes a comment on information which the reader already knows but he hasn’t been told.

On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson, 2001, 345 p.

Love, sex, and death, again. Literary fiction doesn’t seem to stray far from those. Though I suppose there isn’t that much sex here, and death is mostly off-stage. Set in the late 1950s as they turn to the 60s, the love is that between Mary van der Linden, sojourning in Washington DC with her diplomat husband Charlie (whose career has stalled somewhat, perhaps because he is too fond of the bottle) and journalist Frank Renzo who is making a slow return after disfavour in the McCarthy years.

The book does describe the progress of what I assume is supposed to be a great love affair but unlike in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger I didn’t really feel it, was never convinced. When Mary states her feelings for Frank they more or less come out of the blue as far as the reader is concerned. (His affections – or perhaps I should say intentions – were discernible from the outset.)

To add a bit of colour incidents from the characters’ earlier lives are incorporated into the narrative – Mary’s first lover, who died in the Second World War, Frank and Charlie’s almost forgotten meeting at Dien Bien Phu – as are contemporary events, particularly the first Kennedy-Nixon TV debate and Charlie’s breakdown on a visit to Moscow which sharpens the tale with a dose of Cold Wear paranoia. And everybody smokes like a lum.

I remember the author’s earlier novel Birdsong with some affection. On Green Dolphin Street, while readable enough, is no Birdsong

I did though learn that there is a Dumbarton Street in Washington DC!

Pedant’s corner:- USian usages – fender, hat-check girl, laundromat, elevator, the fall, bake sale, sidewalk etc – but aluminium not aluminum and railways [sic] sleepers not railroad ties. Otherwise; Commonweath war cemetery (at the time it would have been an Imperial war cemetery,) “sluiced it down” (twice in the space of a page or so is once too many,) croci (crocus isn’t from Latin, so crocuses,) “under the instructions of a man with a crew-cut called Don Hewitt” (why does his hair-do have a name? A minor edit would have got rid of this,) “which even in this light she could see where shot with blood” (were shot,) on to (onto,) railways sleepers (railway sleepers,) sprung (sprang.)

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Andre Deutsch, 1987, 211 p.

Moon Tiger cover

Claudia Hampton, a professional historian and, though unmarried, mother of Lisa, is on her deathbed. The doctor mentally notes that birth and an earlier miscarried child. While various important people in her life come and go at her bedside Claudia’s thoughts roam over her life. Her reminiscences are presented in the first person but sometimes scenes (even the same ones) are given to us in the third person from a different viewpoint. Claudia tells us, “I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy…. Chronology irritates me…. everything happens at once.”

She recognises her inadequacy as a parent and is pleased her daughter is not overly gifted, “Intelligence is always a disadvantage. Parental hearts should sink at the first signs of it.” The two most important of her relationships were those with her brother Gordon and with Tom Southern, the lover she met on a trip up to near the front during her stint in Cairo as a War Correspondent in World War 2. Love came on her as a surprise, “She has reached the ripe old age of thirty-one without knowing this particular derangement. For derangement is surely what it is; only by stern physical effort can she keep herself from looking at him, touching him.” This being wartime the affair ends abruptly. The child she miscarried was of course Tom’s.

So. Love, sex and death, here we are again. But Lively has conjured a wonderful book from those ingredients, well worth its Booker Prize win in 1987. Her treatment of the desert war is full of incidental detail rather than grand sweep and is more immediate for that fact. Tom tells her, “‘An astonishing amount of piety goes on out here. You’d be surprised. The Lord is frequently invoked. He’s on our side, by the way, you’ll be glad to hear – or at least it’s taken for granted that he is,’” and that, “we will win the war” – “‘in the last resort we have greater resources. Wars have little to do with justice. Or valour or sacrifice or the other things traditionally associated with them. War has been much misrepresented, believe me. It’s had a disgracefully good press.’”

Lively’s knowledge of Egypt is put to good use (the Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes) and the casual racist attitudes of the time are noted. “It was always mildly satisfying to see British racial complacency matched if not excelled by French xenophobia; the contempt with which Madame Charlot and her friends could invest the word arabe was more pungent even than the careless English ‘Gyppo’ or the curious pejorative use of ‘native’. It made us seem positively liberal-minded,” yet Claudia’s reflections on life conclude, “unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.”

There is more than a hint of the unusually close about the sibling relationship. “Until I was in my late twenties I never knew a man who interested me as much as Gordon did…. I measured each man I met against him, and they fell short. I tested myself for the frisson that Gordon induced, and it was not there.” This is underlined by the thought, “Incest is closely related to narcissism.” Plus we have, “I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve ever loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things – love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness.”

Lively portrays very well the heightened awareness, the stark but total recall, of a passionate relationship. The descriptions of the remainder of Claudia’s life after Tom’s death – eventful and readable though they are – are subtly flatter. Her complicated relationship with Lisa’s father, Jasper, is also handled perfectly.

This is literary fiction at its best.

Pedant’s corner:- waggons (wagons,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, maw (as a mouth. It’s a stomach,) “The bridges wear necklaces of coloured lights; all along the banks the houseboats are ablaze, glowing against the dark, swirling patterned water” (this was in wartime Cairo. Surely it must have had a blackout. There was one in Alexandria. Then again, Lively was there herself during the war,) staunches (stanches.)

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun

I was attracted to this book by its title, which appears to indicate a fairy tale or children’s story containing a moral. (Compare, for example, The Little Engine That Could.) That it was written by a Korean only confirmed my desire to read it as I had never sampled Korean fiction before. Given the story’s allegorical/fabular nature (though the illustrations are resolutely realistically sketched with the odd hint of Japanese style) I doubt it is representative of the country’s fiction writers: more so as the author is primarily a poet.

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher is an exploration of the latter stages of the life cycle of a salmon. Its main protagonist is Silver Salmon, so-called because he does not have the usual dark upper body colouring but is easily visible to predators from above and thus requires to be surrounded by the shoal in order to protect him. (The author makes the claim that Pacific salmon shoals in the necessary formation resemble downed Boeing 747 aircraft.) Other named fish include Clear-Eyed Salmon, with whom Silver Salmon is mutually in love, the shoal leader, Big-Mouth Salmon, and a misfit, Bent-Back Salmon. The Green River, the shoal’s homing grounds, is also sentient and capable of speech.

Talking animal stories are always in some sense about human behaviour otherwise there would be little point in writing or reading them but I must admit I found the concept of salmon being in love a bit of a stretch. Prior to this development of their relationship Silver Salmon tells Clear-Eyed Salmon that he sees little point in a goal in life that consists solely in the laying of eggs but of course a salmon’s destiny is to circle back to its beginning.

The tale outlines the problems the salmon encounter on their life’s journey, and the fact that their greatest foe is humanity. The crux of the tale comes when they are faced by the rapids in the Green River and discover the opportunity to avail themselves of a human provided fish ladder. In the shoal’s discussions on how to proceed Silver Salmon says, “If we start by taking the easy way then our children will naturally want to follow in our footsteps, and soon it will be the only way they know. But if we leap up over the rapids, then our legacy will instead be all the suffering and joy of that single moment, the fear and exhilaration of putting everything at risk.” Here is our moral laid out.

The book is enhanced by occasional illustrations but the tense in the text changes from past to present and back again seemingly at random, sometimes within the same sentence. I assume this is a reflection of the original Korean and is intended. It certainly helps to give a sense of disjunction. It is a neat touch though that the book’s structure exactly mirrors a salmon’s life cycle.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Virago Modern Classics, 2003, 346 p plus vii p Introduction by Valerie Grove. First published 1949.

I Capture the Castle cover

This is the journal of Cassandra Mortmain, whose reclusive father – a writer of a succès d’estime called Jacob Wrestling but whose experimentation has been overtaken by others and now suffers from writer’s block – and whose family, sister Rose, step-mother Topaz (a former model given to roaming the local hill at midnight while naked) and brother Thomas along with lodger Stephen live in Godsend Castle in a fair degree of penury. Strictly speaking, since it is written in three sections, The Sixpenny Book, The Shilling Book and the Two-Guinea Book, these are the journals.

Much is made of Cassandra’s speed-writing – which helps to keep her secrets – and the journals do mostly read like the jottings of a girl on the cusp of adulthood (she writes, “‘I know all about the facts of life. And I don’t think much of them,’” and the introduction says one critic described Cassandra as a young girl ‘poised between childhood and adultery’ which to my mind is going a bit far; she seems too in control of herself for that,) but there are occasional subtle signs of true authorial interjection nudging the whole into the form of a structured story. Smith apparently laboured mightily over the details of the book.

The early parts reminded me strongly of the Sunday afternoon TV serial of long ago, giving it a kind of familiarity, we know there is going to be an element of star-crossed love somewhere; but that is to some extent misleading, I Capture the Castle is also undoubtedly its own thing. The title may derive from Cassandra’s early habit of stating she wishes to capture a particular character or other in prose but she (or Smith) soon gives up on the phraseology.

After the laying out of the family’s straitened circumstances, the daily grind of making do, things begin to change when half-brothers Neil and Simon Cotton from the US inherit nearby Scoatney Hall, to whose owners the rent of Godsend Castle is due. They come upon the Mortmains inadvertently and seem to be intrigued.

To be sure, what will then transpire appears to be laid on tram-lines and somewhat predictable, especially Cassandra’s lack of full awareness of the extent of Stephen’s regard for her. But that, I would assume, is precisely the point. Cassandra is supposed to be not yet worldly-wise. Smith, of course, isn’t unaware of it at all and does, to a degree, subvert the expectations.

To Cassandra’s and Rose’s minds Simon’s beard makes him resemble a devil but despite her initial desperate flirtation with him (she has already said she would do anything to escape poverty) he eventually becomes enamoured of Rose, giving the novel’s plot its drive. Both Simon and his mother are familiar with James’s novel and enquire as to his current work, thus sending him scuttling back to his study. Yet much to Topaz’s discomfiture Mrs Collins eventually manages to encourage James out of his writer’s block.

It is Simon, though, who brings Cassandra out of her rawness, playing her music she is unfamiliar with and telling her that, “art could state very little – that its whole business is to evoke responses.”

Evoking responses is something Smith does well here. This book must (have) be(en) irresistibly enchanting to adolescent girls but also has its recommendations to other readers.

Pedant’s corner:- on the cover blurb; dessicated (desiccated.) Otherwise; missing commas before quote marks at the start of a piece of direct speech (numerous instances,) “we were gloriously bloat” (nowadays that would more usually be rendered bloated.)

free hit counter script