Good grief, this was bleak and boring. Sure it ends on a hopeful note, but I am just so done with this book.
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Good grief, this was bleak and boring. Sure it ends on a hopeful note, but I am just so done with this book.
Slowly, amidst intolerable noises from, on the one hand, the street and, on the other, from the large and voluminously echoing playground, the depths of the telephone began, for Valentine, to assume an aspect that, years ago, it had used to have--of being a part of the supernatural paraphernalia of inscrutable Destiny.
The telephone, for some ingeniously torturing reason, was in a corner of the great schoolroom without any protection, and, called imperatively, at a moment of considerable suspense, out of the asphalte playground where under her command ranks of girls had stood electrically only just within the margin of control, Valentine with the receiver at her ear was plunged immediately into incomprehensible news uttered by a voice that she seemed half to remember.
While I am really tempted to just power through the rest of The Silver Darlings, I really need something with more bite, more wit, more ... just something more engaging.
And I miss Christopher Tietjens and his complicated love life.
The story is still mostly about the "plague" (the cholera outbreak), fishing, and Finn growing up in the mids of the impotence of the people against their circumstances, but there are some beautiful passages:
"Finn had often heard of Cape Wrath and now had plenty of time to gaze on its towering crags against which white sea-birds floated like blown feathers, their high cries sounding afar off and inward, in echo of rock and cavern. It inspired the crew with awe and held them to silence, and none the less because the sea around it was to-day comparatively calm with, however, that ominous long swing and heave of the waters that broke in deep white. Peril was clearly held on uneasy rein, and the rock-brows stared over crested seas to an uttermost Arctic."
(Cape Wrath. Image found on the interwebs.)
I am sure my fellow readers in the Library Book Club will love this.
It's full of sympathy for and detail of the hardship of the crofters during and after the Highland Clearances and full of detail of the emerging fishing industry.
What I am lacking is a gripping story or an interesting character or some sort of of gripping tension or conflict or something other than what the story is providing.
I mean, the sections that dealt with the community's response to an outbreak of cholera were great, and so were the sections that deal with any sort of ... action ... or drama ... but the long sections in between are mostly about young Finn growing up, which is not very interesting at all. It could have been if we got see it from Finn's point of view, perhaps, but we get told Finn's story from a 3rd person narrator point of view.
It's a worthwhile read, but probably less so if the local interest story holds no interest.
but ... Holy crap! Du Maurier really did write this little apocalyptic story in 1972?
Emma looked at her bedside clock – it was a few minutes after seven – and then switched on her radio to the local station. But there was no time signal, no announcer with the news, nothing but an interminable hum that must mean there was a fault somewhere, and it wasn’t any better when she tried the national programme. The hum persisted, with crackling and spitting thrown in for good measure. ‘Oh, to hell with it!’ She pushed the transistor aside and lay back on her pillow, her hands behind her head, transposing ‘To be or not to be’ from Hamlet into a critical assessment of her own ambivalent life. To leave or not to leave, that is the question; whether ’tis nobler to continue living, sharing Mad’s life, her home, her whole existence, or to break here and now with all dominion, cut myself loose, start on a separate road …
The trouble is, which road? That was the rub. No openings for girls with or without the right exams behind them. Secretarial pools all jammed with applicants. Men, women, boys, girls, jostling for position, scrambling to obtain the few jobs worth the holding, and ever since the government had backtracked and pulled out of Europe – dissension amongst the Ten was the official reason, and a national referendum had given the government of the day a thumping majority – things seemed to have gone from bad to worse. So Pa said, and he ought to know, being a merchant banker.
Daphne du Maurier - Rule Britannia (Virago Modern Classics Book 120) . Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
They watched him until his mouth fell open.
“I think I’ve got something.” He gulped, then pulled—but the line refused to come. It came a little way and then pulled back. “It feels like a whale,” he said, his eyes round, his head cocked.
“O God, it’s something heavy indeed!” Excitement got hold of them all strongly. What if it was a whale?
The forked stick was very nearly jerked out of Tormad’s hands. He had to let out more line quickly. Then a little more. Leviathan was moving away from under them!
Their hearts went across them. The boat rose on the heave of the sea. Now that they were clear of the land, a gentle wind darkened the surface of the waters. A small ripple suddenly slapped the clinched planking like a hand slapping a face. The sound startled them. Ronnie looked at the sea. “We’re drifting,” he said. “The oars, boys—quick!” cried Tormad. “Quick, or all the line will be out!” Ronnie and Ian each shoved an oar out, and Ronnie pulled the bow round so smartly towards the wind that Tormad, on his feet, lurched and fell sideways, clutching at the line, which all at once went slack in his hands. On his knees he began hauling in rapidly. The line came to a clean end. Sinker and hooks and cross-spar were gone.
Tormad stared at the frayed end against his palm. No one spoke. Tormad stared at the sea. It came under the boat in a slow heave and passed on.
“When one place is no good, you try another,” he said quietly. “Let us go farther out.”
Despite my original misgivings about the bleakness of the book (which may still set in later on) this has started as quite a gripping story.
This is set after the Napoleonic Wars. Tormad and his wife were moved from their home during the Highland Clearances and are now trying to survive, like others, in a barren stretch of land on the coast. The men, in their despair to find some source of steady food, have taken to fishing, but this really is their first attempt at it. There certainly is no expertise or skill of any experienced fishermen around that they could make use of.
What immediately struck me is that the men went out on the open sea - which is known to be choppy and freezing - in what seems to be nothing more than a rowing boat. I'm getting seasick just thinking about that.
Men, at any rate never fulfilled expectations. They might, upon acquaintance, turn out more entertaining than they appeared; but almost always taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it. You had not been for ten minutes in any sort of intimacy with any man before you said: 'But I've read all this before...' You knew the opening, you were already bored by the middle, and, especially, you knew the end...
Sylvia (Christopher Tietjen's wife) cracks me up.
It is, in fact, asking for trouble if you are more altruist than the society that surrounds you.
I've avoided Ford Madox Ford for a while after reading about his relationship with Jean Rhys (the author most famous for the brilliant Wide Sargasso Sea).
I can't remember what exactly put me off but from what I remember (and I may be wrong here), there seemed something very patronising about him that just put me off.
Having now read Some Do Not..., the first part of Ford's magnum opus Parade's End, I am more sympathetic to Ford's work again because his characters seemed to reflect that Edwardian sense of being caught up in the still very Victorian mores while also sensing that there is a shift, something that unsettles them.
'How do you get rid of a baby? You've been a servant. You ought to know!'
That had been the great shock, the turning-point, of Valentine Wannop's life. Her last years before that had been of great tranquillity, tinged of course with melancholy because she loved Christopher Tietjens.
This was just one of the refreshing examples of Ford's characters openly mentioning topics that hadn't been - or don't seem to have been - discussed in other novels of the time.
"Some Do Not..." was written in 1924 and is the first of four novels describing the implosion of British society in the lead up to and during the First World War.
Ford does this by focusing the story on the mathematician Christopher Tietjens, whom he describes as "a Tory", and who is basically a modernised version of Don Quixote on a chivalric quest to remain true to his morals in world full of hypocrisy and backstabbing, which soon culminates in this first book with the outbreak of the war.
"On the next day came the war. That was a nightmare of pure suffering, with never a let-up, day or night. It began on the morning of the fourth with the arrival of her brother from some sort of Oxford Communist Summer School on the Broads. He was wearing a German corps student's cap and was very drunk. He had been seeing German friends off from Harwich. It was the first time she had ever seen a drunken man, so that was a good present for her. Next day, and sober, he was almost worse. A handsome, dark boy like his father, he had his mother's hooked nose and was always a little unbalanced: not mad, but always over-violent in any views he happened for the moment to hold.
At the Summer School he had been under very vitriolic teachers of all sorts of notions. That hadn't hitherto mattered. Her mother had written for a Tory paper: her brother, when he had been at home, had edited some sort of Oxford organ of disruption. But her mother had only chuckled. The war changed that. Both seemed to be filled with a desire for blood and to torture: neither paid the least attention to the other."
I really liked Christopher and the people close to him: his estranged wife Sylvia seems to despise him at first but turns out to be fiercely loyal. His brother, whom he has nothing in common with, supports him without being judgmental. The young Suffragette, whom he rescues from a mob on a golf course, seems totally opposed to him in attitude and yet she defends him.
Ford's writing requires some getting used to. There is a flow and poetry to the language that is no longer in use in today's novels. There is also an attempt at stream of consciousness narration that, at times, is confusing at the start of the book but then blends in with the rhythm of the novel.
The book ends on a cliffhanger where Christopher, after turn of convalescence from shell-shock, returns to the front, and I really look forward to reading the next installment.
He said, he remembered: 'But...for ever...'
She said, in a great hurry: 'But when you come back...Permanently. And...oh, as if it were in public...I don't know,' she had added.
'Ought we?...I'd be ready...' She added: 'I will be ready for anything you ask.'
THIS, FIONA DECIDED as her taxi halted in heavy traffic on Waterloo Bridge, was either about a woman on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error of professional judgement, or it was about a boy delivered from or into the beliefs of his sect by the intimate intervention of the secular court. She didn’t think it could be both. The question was suspended as she looked to her left, downstream towards St Paul’s. The tide was running out fast. Wordsworth, on a nearby bridge, was right, either direction, best urban prospect in the world. Even in steady rain.
Well, this was interesting. At least the first half of the book was. The second half of the book confirmed to me why I can't read McEwan - his writing either bores me stiff or enrages me. With this book, we have a case of the latter.
I only picked this book because I wanted to know the story before watching the film and because the audiobook was narrated by the fabulous Lindsay Duncan. (She's still fab even tho the book was disappointing.)
The Children Act is about Fiona, a High Court judge, who struggles to balance the demands of her work at the Family Division with her personal life.
On the night that her husband tells her that he is going to have an affair, Fiona is asked to preside over a case where a minor (he's 17), who is a Jehova's Witness, is supposed to receive a life-saving blood transfusion.
So far so good. We get a good picture of the characters and a potentially gripping plot, with some hopefully interesting exploration of the legal, social and moral issues connected with the case. We also get a relatively interesting relationship drama.
Unfortunately, the court drama is over and done with within a chapter or so, and the rest of the story takes a nose-dive from there.
Well, actually, some parts of the story had taken a bad turn a bit earlier. One of the first things that made me cringe is McEwan's description of the people who aren't of white middle-class or professional backgrounds. There is a distinct separation of lives between the main characters environment, mostly judges and academics, and ... anyone else.
For example, when Fiona takes the controversial decision to visit the 17-year-old at the heart of the transfusion case in hospital to find out more about his decision to refuse a transfusion, the judge is met by two nurses who somehow seem to never have seen a court room drama or understand the legal process behind the non-treatment requests, which just seems silly as I am pretty sure that this part of the mandatory training for nurses (at least in the NHS).
So, instead we get this:
Finally she [Fiona, the HC Judge] said, ‘What about this transfusion business?’
All humour vanished.
The Caribbean nurse said, ‘I pray for him every day. I say to Adam, “God don’t need you to do this, darlin’. He loves you anyway. God wants you to live.”’
Her friend said sadly, ‘He’s made up his mind. You got to admire him. Living for his principles, is it.’
‘Dying you mean! He knows nothing. This is one confused little puppy.’
Fiona said, ‘What does he say when you tell him that God wants him to live?’
‘Nothing. He’s like, Why should I listen to her?’
Just then, Marina opened the door, raised a hand and went back inside.
Fiona said, ‘Well, thank you.’
In response to a buzzer, the Filipina nurse was hurrying towards another door.
‘You go in there, ma’m,’ her friend said, ‘and please turn him around. He’s a lovely boy.’
So many questions! Starting with why do we need that the nurses are of Caribbean and Filipino origin?
Do nurses really bring in their religious views to persuade patients to change their minds? It doesn't sound very professional... Why did McEwan write this in this way?
A few minutes after the meeting, we get the next cringe-worthy scene when the 17-year-old boy who apparently only has days to live falls in love with Fiona (59). This happens instantly.
The boy can hardly breathe.
It just makes no sense.
After Fiona's judgment, the boy has the transfusion and recovers so well that he starts to stalk Fiona, sends her letters, and even manages to follow her on a circuit session to Newcastle.
Now, again this make no sense whatsoever.
Never mind that the boy has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old child, has very little knowledge of the world outside of his own closed community, or that it is relatively unlikely that he would find out Fiona's schedule, but we are asked to believe that a High Court Judge would not have some sort of security detail when travelling on Circuit business.
And yet, the boy somehow manages to track Fiona down to a remote manor somewhere outside of Newcastle - a long way from London - without a car.
What sort of Special Ops teen are we supposed to believe the boy to be? Seriously,...
Anyway, they meet and discuss what happened after the boy received the transfusion. This discussion is supposed to enlighten us as to the boy's infatuation with Fiona, but I came away from this scene just shaking my head.
We get a description of what sounded me like the author inserting himself. Alas, the comments are either arrogant or stupid:
‘Sounds like your anorexic friend managed it.’
‘Yeah, well, actually, anorexia’s a bit like religion.’
When she looked sceptical he improvised.
‘Oh, you know, wanting to suffer, loving the pain and sacrifice, thinking that everyone’s watching and caring and that the whole universe is all about you. And your weight!’
It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up. You knew all along but you didn’t say. You just asked questions and listened. All of life and love that lie ahead of him – that’s what you wrote. That was your “thing”. And my revelation.
Come again? Anorexia is a bit like religion? Last time I checked, anorexia was an illness. And the people arguing the religious reasons for refusing the transfusion were behaving like children?
As with many other throw-away statements in this book, we don't get a fuller explanation here, but I can only assume that the comment was meant to be another dig - there have been several - at why people may choose to do or not do something for religious reasons. Even if I disagree with the religious point of view, the line of argument in this book is preposterous. What is even more disappointing is that for a book that intends to focus on a court case as the main event of the story, there is very little discussion of the issue, the legal aspects, the law, the consequences, ... nearly nothing. There are a few cases etc. being mentioned, but they do not seem relevant at all. From a court room drama perspective, this has been such a disappointing read.
And when we look at the second storyline, the relationship between Fiona and Jack, her husband (the one who wants to have an affair), the story gets even worse.
Let's recap - Jack wants to have an affair because Fiona has neglected him in favour of her work. He confronts her with it and rather than giving her a chance to respond, he leaves on the same evening. Is that believable? For a character who says he wants to save his marriage, Jack sounds like an ass.
So, he goes off on a jolly (and has his affair). Fiona changes the locks, sees a solicitor, and tries to come to terms with her failings, such as not giving Jack children.
Now, let's remember that they are 59 and 60.
I am going to assume that the question of children should have come up before. Why does it feel like this is the first time it is mentioned? And why do they not discuss things?
Oh, yes, that's right... Jack ran off to shag one of his younger colleagues.
Somehow, tho, McEwan turns this all around to make it look like it was Fiona's failings that caused the marriage to break down, and when she's finally confronting her own anger, we're supposed to dislike her:
The work of the Family Division went on. It was an accident of the listings that so much marital conflict came Fiona’s way. Pure coincidence that she was in conflict herself. It was not usual in this line of work to be sending people to prison, but all the same, she thought in idle moments that she could send down all those parties wanting, at the expense of their children, a younger wife, a richer or less boring husband, a different suburb, fresh sex, fresh love, a new world view, a nice new start before it was too late. Mere pursuit of pleasure. Moral kitsch. Her own childlessness and the situation with Jack shaped these daydreams and, of course, she was not serious. Still, she buried deep in a private mental domain, but never let it affect her decisions, a puritan contempt for the men and women who pulled their families apart and persuaded themselves they were acting selflessly for the best. In this thought experiment, she wouldn’t have spared the childless, or at least, not Jack. A cleansing spell in the Scrubs for contaminating their marriage in the cause of novelty? Why not?
Then we get to the point where the story completely looses the plot:
When Fiona and Adam, the boy (he's 18 by then), meet in Newcastle (where he followed her to), Fiona sends him away - quite sharply and rightly so. She arranges for her assistant to accompany him to a train station.
‘You must go.’ Lightly, she took the lapel of his thin jacket between her fingers and drew him towards her. Her intention was to kiss him on the cheek, but as she reached up and he stooped a little and their faces came close, he turned his head and their lips met. She could have drawn back, she could have stepped right away from him. Instead, she lingered, defenceless before the moment. The sensation of skin on skin obliterated any possibility of choice. If it was possible to kiss chastely full on the lips, this was what she did. A fleeting contact, but more than the idea of a kiss, more than a mother might give her grown-up son. Over in two seconds, perhaps three. Time enough to feel in the softness of his lips that overlay their suppleness, all the years, all the life, that separated her from him. As they withdrew, a slight adhesion of skin might have drawn them back together. But there were approaching footsteps on the gravel and on the stone steps outside. She let go of his lapel and said again, ‘You must go.’
Not only was this a weird scene, but it tried to sexualise a relationship that was never sexual.
Also, McEwan uses the same word (in a different scene) to describe Adam and Fiona playing music and singing on their first encounter at the hospital and when describing Fiona's and Jack's lovemaking after they first met. Those are the only two times that McEwan uses the word "din". I'm calling the literary BS card here.
And when Fiona finally tells Jack about the scene with Adam (after Jack returned to her from his affair), Jack immediately jumps to the conclusion that she's having an affair with the boy. We've already established that Jack is an ass but I also could not help feeling that McEwan might be an ass, too.
He seems to recognise the double standards that are play here, but the second half of the book to me seriously read as if we're supposed to believe that Jack is trying to make amends and Fiona is the one who causes the rifts in their relationship.
Jack Maye had come of age in the 1970s among all its currents of thought. He had taught in a university his entire adult life. He knew all about the illogic of double standards, but knowing could not protect him. She saw the anger in his face, tightening the muscles along his jaw, hardening his eyes.
None of this crap even made sense.
So, just over half-way and one of the main issues seems resolved, even if I anticipate there will be a fall-out. Please let there be a fall-out.
I really don't want to read McEwan's thoughts on another late-50s middle-class couple's marriage falling apart for what is just under half of the book.
Oh, but what are the chances if the next chapter starts with:
"IT WAS HER impression, though the facts did not bear it out, that in the late summer of 2012, marital or partner breakdown and distress in Great Britain swelled like a freak spring tide, sweeping away entire households, scattering possessions and hopeful dreams, drowning those without a powerful instinct for survival."
Despite my plans for tea, book, and duvet yesterday, I mostly napped and when awake had only the mental capacity to watch films. Not even good ones. I turned to Shaknado at some point. And I can't even remember much of that one. Tho, that may not be a bad thing.
Anyway, ... the experience made me long for a story with substance, at which point I came across The Children Act. I haven't watched the film, yet, but given that Emma Thompson plays the main character, this is clearly something I will correct shortly. After I read the book, that is.
The thing is, McEwan is one of the authors whose work I have tried on several occasions but have DNF'd or hated at a higher proportion than almost any other's.
There is just something about his writing that disagrees with me.
So, imagine my surprise and delight, when a third into the book, I am actually enjoying this one.
No doubt, much of it is helped by Lindsay Duncan's fabulous narration (I'm reading along in the old kindle/audio companion act). I really like Lindsay Duncan. She's much underrated.
Port Scatho, who had already fallen two paces away from the table, now fell two paces back, almost on top of it.
Sylvia's nostrils were dilated.
She said: 'Tietjens shall not resign from your beastly club. He shall not! Your committee will request him formally to withdraw his resignation. You understand? He will withdraw it. Then he will resign for good. He is too good to mix with people like you...' She paused, her chest working fast. 'Do you understand what you've got to do?' she asked.