Review: The Vet’s Daughter, by Barbara Comyns

The Vet’s Daughter is Alice Rowland, the 17-year-old daughter of an abusive father and a very unhappy (and abused) mother.  Alice tells her own story in stark and simple prose, such as this scene at her mother’s deathbed:

As I climbed upstairs I could hear the breathing again, now that everything in the house was still. I went to Mother’s room and she was still asleep. Her face was flushed, and her breathing was certainly very loud. Although it seemed cruel, I shook her; but she still stayed asleep and the heavy breathing seemed to come louder. I didn’t know if it was a good thing, this heavy-breathing sleep, or if I should send for a doctor although it was so late at night. I even wished Father would come home and tell me what to do. Eventually I left her well propped up with pillows so that she would not suffocate and went to bed. (p. 36)

After her mother’s death, Alice lived in fear of her father and even suspected him of having done something to hasten her mother’s passing.  Her father quickly took up with another woman and ignored Alice.  Alice knew her life wasn’t “normal” or “happy,” but was powerless to change it.  Her only escape was an apparent supernatural power, the ability to levitate at will.  Was this real, or psychological dissociation?  Comyns lets the reader decide.

Barbara Comyns’ novels are oddly fascinating, and I never know what to make of them.  Her no-frills, unemotional writing style is about as exciting as reading a newspaper, and yet this is still an intense and tragic story.  This is my third Comyns novel, and I’d say they are very much an acquired taste.

Review: A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel

Ralph and Anna Eldred began their married life as missionaries in 1950s South Africa, and returned to England in the 1970s, where Ralph manages a charitable trust.  In addition to their four children, Ralph & Anna also give shelter for disadvantaged youth who are sent from London to the country for rehabilitation.  The book opens in the 1980s, and moves seamlessly backwards and forwards in time, gradually filling in the details of Ralph and Anna’s life together, and the lives of other significant figures, like their children and Ralph’s unmarried sister Emma.

For the first third of this book, I thought it was a fairly typical story of missionaries, and their adjustment to life “back home.”  But I was wrong — A Change of Climate is a beautiful story of marriage, the lasting impact of tragedy and suffering, and the power of forgiveness and healing.  There were several moments in this book that hit like a ton of bricks:  Emma’s loneliness after her lover’s death, which goes unacknowledged by almost everyone; the reason Ralph chose his profession which, in turn, influenced Emma’s decision to become a doctor; the secret Ralph and Anna harbored for twenty years, and how it influenced absolutely everything they did, every day. There were also a myriad of moral issues, all laid before the reader in a way that allows us to form our own opinions.

While the plot and the moral dilemmas were captivating, I was also impressed with Mantel’s use of characters.  Emma, in particular, stands in the middle of the “action,” usually as a stabilizing force that holds the family together through its darkest moments.  Hilary Mantel has gained recognition in recent years through her historical novels.  This is a much earlier work that embodies a similar quiet style: not a lot of action, and most of it happens in people’s heads.  But it was, for me, a book with even greater emotional impact.

Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey

I assumed this novella would be “cheerful,” as its title implies, but I was wrong.  It’s actually a rather dark portrayal of Dolly Thatcham’s wedding day.  All of the “action” takes place in the bride’s house, even during the ceremony, because this book is not about the wedding, it’s about reactions to the wedding.  As Dolly gets dressed, and her extended family and friends sit down to a wedding luncheon, it becomes clear that no one is very happy about this wedding, not even the bride.

This state of affairs is revealed slowly, through a quirky cast of characters.  Mrs Thatcham books multiple guests in the same bedroom, confuses the staff with conflicting direction about meal service, and flaps about in a scatterbrained fashion.  Two boys fight over wearing appropriate socks. Dolly steels herself for the afternoon ceremony by slowly draining a bottle of rum.  And Joseph, a former suitor, mopes about downstairs waiting for Dolly to emerge so he can have the last word before she becomes a married woman.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is supposed to be funny, I think.  Yes, there were moments of wit, and characters like Mrs Thatcham who were so over the top that I had to laugh.  But I expected a continuous chuckle, and maybe a laugh-out-loud moment or two, and this was not that sort of book.  The cover blurb compared this book to Cold Comfort Farm, another “hilarious” book that failed to resonate with me.  Perhaps I just can’t appreciate this type of quirky humor.

Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?  (p. 199)

Richard Papen transferred to Hampden College in New England, after attending one year of college in his California hometown.  He immediately fell in with a select group of students studying Classics: Henry, Francis, Bunny, and twins Charles and Camilla. Their professor fostered camaraderie among the group, and isolation from the rest of the college and its social scene.  From the first page, we know that Bunny dies, and that the rest of the group played some part in his death.  The book showed how these events came to pass, and the profound impact Bunny’s death had on the others.

This book was seriously creepy, and as Donna Tartt set the stage for Bunny’s demise, the suspense grew.  I couldn’t put it down, even though it evoked feelings like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Strangers on a Train, and invaded my sleep for several days.  I really don’t want to say much about the details, because it would spoil the story.  Suffice to say this was a shocking and yet somehow realistic portrayal of friendships gone bad.

Characterizations are one of The Secret History‘s strongest elements. Richard, as narrator, is the everyman through whom we see the others.  We learn of their personalities, their histories, and their dysfunctional behaviors.  We can even (almost) understand the circumstances leading to Bunny’s death, and sympathize with its aftereffects on their lives and friendships.  And oddly, these strong characterizations were also the book’s main weakness.  None of them seemed like 19-year-olds, even ones who attend a prestigious liberal arts college.  It wasn’t just their unfettered access to ridiculous sums of money, but also their extreme independence from adult figures, and some elements of their conversational style.  As much as I was caught up in the suspense, I was also conscious of suspending disbelief.  But if you can do so, you will fully enjoy this novel.

Review: Burger’s Daughter, by Nadine Gordimer

My first experience with Nadine Gordimer was her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Conservationist.  I found the book and Gordimer’s writing oddly fascinating, and in said my review, “despite my rather lukewarm reaction to this particular novel, I will definitely be reading more of her work.”  This year I finally got around to it, first with None to Accompany Me (read my review), and more recently, Burger’s Daughter.  And now I think I’ve had enough of Gordimer to last me a very long time.

Burger’s Daughter explores the idea of legacy through the character of Rosa Burger.  After the death of her parents, both South African activists, Rosa tries to come to terms with what it means to be the daughter of such notable public figures.  She is accustomed to dealing with the authorities, and with having to keep certain activities and relationships secret or risk arrest.  She never knows whether people are interested in her for who she is, or for whose daughter she is.

That sounds kind of interesting, doesn’t it?  Well it was, up to a point.  But  I missed the prerequisite course in South African politics and the issues of the day, and this time Gordimer’s writing completely failed to engage me.  I read about 1/3 of this book but it was just too much of a struggle.


Review: The Ant Heap, by Margit Kaffka

I knew nothing about Margit Kaffka until I picked up this book, which includes an extensive introduction describing  her life and career.  Kaffka was born in Hungary in 1880, and overcame extreme prejudice to establish a literary career.  She was educated in a convent, and became a feminist thinker long before the world at large knew of such things.  She was not afraid to take unpopular positions, and spoke out against World War I.  Her life was cut short by Spanish Influenza, and the world lost an important female voice.

With that background, I was keen to dive into The Ant Heap, a novella of life in a convent school.  This is not a story of piety and virtue; rather, Kaffka depicts the very human nature of nuns and priests.  There are flirtations, and inappropriate alliances.  And there’s ambition, especially after the convent’s Mother Superior passes away.

The Ant Heap was probably controversial when first published.  However, I found it boring and a little trite.  The characters were not well-developed and I felt no emotional attachment.  The language is very basic. Usually I can find at least one quote-worthy sentence, but not this time.  I am inclined to blame this on the translation.  And that’s a shame, because I can’t help feeling I’ve missed out on something.

Review: The Soul of Kindness, by Elizabeth Taylor

The Soul of Kindness is ostensibly the story of Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful but selfish woman who manipulates everyone around her while managing to leave them thinking she is working only in their best interests. I say ostensibly, because while the storyline unfolds that way, I thought the plot was secondary to this book’s real strength: character development.

Elizabeth Taylor combines her unique powers of observation, attention to detail, and irony to infuse life into even the most minor players.  On the main stage, we have Flora and her husband Richard.  When the book opens they are newly married, but the next chapter takes place four years later and Flora is pregnant.  Flora has Richard, and pretty much everyone else, wrapped around her finger.  One pouty look from Flora, and he’ll drop everything to make amends. He’s a devoted husband, but some of his behavior could be interpreted otherwise, and he’s completely oblivious to the danger until it’s almost too late.  She’s also had a profound impact on Kit, the younger brother of her friend Meg, and an aspiring but not very talented actor.  Flora is the only one who believes in Kit, and he fawns after her because of it.  And then there’s Patrick, whom Flora tries desperately to pair with Meg, refusing to acknowledge his homosexuality.

While these main characters advanced the plot, I found the parallel stories of peripheral characters even more interesting.  There’s a rather pathetic woman, Liz Corbett, who initially struck me funny but whose jealousy turned her into a tragic figure.  And Flora’s mother, Mrs Secretan, who has been in service to Flora all her life.  When the baby began to take priority in Flora’s life, Mrs Secretan lost her sense of self-worth and became increasingly concerned about mortality.  Flora was oblivious and insensitive, but Richard proved himself yet again by quietly taking command of the situation.  Taylor’s magic as a writer is being able to tell these stories in a way that made me laugh, while also tugging at my heart.

While I would have preferred a deeper storyline to go with the characterizations, this book is still a strong example of Taylor’s talent as a writer and on that basis I can heartily recommend this novel.

Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Middlemarch is a Victorian novel about ordinary people in provincial England.  In writing it, George Eliot defied the traditions and expectations of her time by exploring real issues and allowing “bad things” to happen to her characters.  As in real life, misfortune and unhappiness are common.

Central to the story is Dorothea Brooke, who early on marries the intellectual Edward Casaubon.  But she is disappointed in marriage:

How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?

As Dorothea struggles to find happiness, two other couples are forging their way: Dr. Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, and Fred Vincy and Mary Garth.  Will they marry or won’t they?  And if they do, will they be happy?  Middlemarch is quite unpredictable in this regard.  And Eliot uses these couples, and the large cast of characters surrounding them, to explore how seemingly isolated events can ripple out to affect a broader population in ways large and small:

Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbors’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.

Along the way Eliot adds liberal doses of humor and irony:

But we all know the wag’s definition of a philanthropist: a man whose charity increases directly as the square of the distance.

I read Middlemarch over a period of several months, which required frequent consultation with my notes to keep the characters and plot lines straight in my mind.  I was most impressed with the women of Middlemarch.  I started out thinking Dorothea was a bit of milquetoast, but came to like her a lot.  She had a strong social conscience which both trapped her into marriage and provided her path to long-term happiness.  Rosamond Vincy, however, lowered in my estimation with each turn of the page.  And then out of nowhere Rosamond’s aunt, Mrs. Bulstrode, rose up and showed herself to be an amazingly strong woman.  Where the typical woman of this period was meek and obedient, Harriet Bulstrode stood up to the most serious social pressure she and her husband had ever faced:

But this imperfectly taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her–now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him. There is a forsaking which still sits at the same board and lies on the same couch with the forsaken soul, withering it the more by unloving proximity. She knew, when she locked her door, that she should unlock it ready to go down to her unhappy husband and espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach. But she needed time to gather up her strength; she needed to sob out her farewell to all the gladness and pride of her life.

Well, I could go on.  Eliot covers a lot of ground in 880 pages, and it’s filled with memorable moments and brilliant writing.  Sure, I could have finished several shorter books in the time it took to read this one, but I have no regrets.

Review: Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”

That’s how school children remember the fate of King Henry VIII’s six wives between 1509 and 1547.  Bring up the Bodies is set in 1535-36, when Henry is married to his second wife, Anne Boleyn.  Thomas Cromwell has risen from humble birth to a place as the King’s Master Secretary.  He engineered Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  But Anne has been unable to deliver Henry a son and heir, and Henry turns on Anne:

Henry beckons her to approach.  Beckons her till her face is close to his own. His voice low and vehement: ‘Why not geld me while you are at it? That would suit you, would it not, madam?’

Faces open in shock. The Boleyns have the sense to draw Anne backwards, backwards and away, Mistress Shelton and Jane Rochford flapping and tut-tutting, the whole Howard, Boleyn clan closing around her. Jane Seymour, alone of the ladies, does not move. She stands and looks at Henry and the king’s eyes fly straight to her, a space opens around her and for a moment she stands in the vacancy, like a dancer left behind when the line moves on. (p. 175)

Cromwell knows what needs to be done, and that he must be the one to do it.  He carefully builds the case against Anne, whether that case be real or imagined.  Henry looks for loopholes in marriage law that would allow him to declare his marriage invalid.  But Cromwell finds a stronger case against Anne, one of adultery.  It’s never clear how true the allegations are; but just as Henry can twist marriage law, Cromwell can twist off-hand remarks and connect them into a pattern of escalating flirtation.  Before you know it several key people are arrested and locked up in the Tower of London to await their fate.

And yet Cromwell is such a likeable character.  He is assured and confident in his abilities and his standing at court, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his power.  He also knows he could use that power to have any woman he wants.  But at heart he is a family man, mourning his dead wife and children while nurturing his one remaining son and others he has mentored into adulthood.  And as things get tense at court, Cromwell knows that everything he has can be lost in an instant.  In Bring up the Bodies, he is successful.  History shows Cromwell died in 1540, after Henry’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves.  And that will be the subject of Mantel’s last book in this trilogy, which can’t come soon enough for me.

Review: The Rising Tide, by Molly Keane

In The Rising Tide, Molly Keane captures perfectly early twentieth-century Irish gentry: a social class in decline, although its members were certainly unaware of it.  Lady Charlotte French-McGrath rules her family and their estate, Garonlea.  She is a distant, cold woman: “mean, although not so mean as her husband whom she had taught to be mean.” Lady Charlotte treated her daughters with disdain, wishing they would marry well but looking down on all aspiring suitors.  As a result, eldest daughter Muriel never married.  Enid married for love, but paid a high price.  Beautiful Violet chose a man beneath her, but since “she was twenty-four and still unmarried the outlook seemed gloomy enough to justify the acceptance of the gentle ornithologist’s slightly abstracted suit.” And Diana attached herself to her brother’s wife Cynthia, whom she adored.

Cynthia is a beautiful socialite whose life revolves around horses and the hunt.  Everyone loves her, even Lady Charlotte.  But when Cynthia comes into power at Garonlea, her darker side emerges.  She is hard on her children, who fear the hunt much more than they enjoy it.  She toys with people’s emotions, and manipulates them to her advantage.  She gets worse with age and with drink.  As her children come of age, the power struggle begins again.  Cynthia struggles to hold on to a certain lifestyle, even as the younger generation is looking for something very different.

The characters made this book.  Lady Charlotte is really awful.  Cynthia is simultaneously likeable and horrible, and her son Simon is a more sympathetic character, uncomfortable with the station he was born to.  The loyal Diana is ever-present as Cynthia’s doting conscience.  And there are many others who revolve in and out of Cynthia’s life, all drawn with Keane’s trademark wit.  While this isn’t my favorite Molly Keane (that would be Good Behaviour), it was still an enjoyable satire.