Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally
Hell was concentrated essence of a winter morning after a sleepless night of self-distaste.
I’ve been meaning to write a review of The Singing Sands since I first read it but, as is the case with books I really like, I’ve just never really found a way to start.
The things about The Singing Sands is that the idea of the book is rather sad: Tey wrote the book while terminally ill. She did get to correct the typescripts for the book, but the book itself was published posthumously a few months after her death in 1952.
I find it impossible to disconnect the circumstances of the writing process from the book.
And yet, the story told in The Singing Sands is not a sad story at all. Quite the contrary.
The book begins with Alan Grant suffering from burn-out and increased anxiety attacks. So much so that he is signed off work and takes off on a holiday to visit his sister in Perthshire to go for an extended fishing holiday.
‘Have you any hobbies?’ the doctor had asked, his admiring glance going on to his shoes.
‘No,’ Grant had said shortly.
‘What do you do when you go on holiday?’
‘I fish.’ ‘
You fish?’ said the psychologist, seduced from his Narcissian gazing. ‘And you don’t consider that a hobby?’
‘What is it, then, would you say?’
‘Something between a sport and a religion.’
This is not the first time in the series that we see Grant suffering from mental health issues. Tey introduced the reader to this in previous books, and for me it is one of the reasons that I really like her main character. He’s human, and like so many of his generation – suffering from PTSD after the horrors of WWI – he is trying to cope as best as he can. Grant is not edgy or dark, and he doesn’t require the help of drink or other addiction to cope like so many of his noir counterparts. He’s just trying to get on, even if the spells of anxiety make things difficult for him.
Tey portrays this in a quite realistic way. There are two great scenes in the book that show the irrationality of Grant’s situation and how much of a fight he has to put up.
The first scene happens at the start of the book when Grant embarks on his travels up north, and is confined to a train compartment.
Alan Grant, watching the lights of the yard float past beyond the steamed-up window and listening to that gentle sound of the wheels clicking over the points, was glad because the end of the journey was the end of a night’s suffering. Grant had spent the night trying not to open the door into the corridor. Wide awake, he had lain on his expensive pallet and sweated by the hour. He had sweated not because the compartment was too hot—the air-conditioning worked to a marvel—but because (O Misery! O Shame! O Mortification!) the compartment represented A Small Enclosed Space. To the normal eye the compartment was just a neat little room with a bunk, a wash-basin, a mirror, luggage racks in assorted sizes, shelves that appeared or disappeared as bidden, a fine little drawer for one’s hypothetical valuables, and a hook for one’s presumably unhocked watch. But to the initiate, the sad and haunted initiate, it was A Small Enclosed Space. Overwork, the doctor called it.
On arrival, Grant is alerted by the train attendant to an unresponsive passenger. This takes Grant’s mind off his own problems but he absentmindedly picks up a paper that the dead man has left behind. When Grant later looks at the paper he is faced with a riddle.
The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sand,
That guard the way To Paradise.
It is the riddle that sets of the mystery plot of the story and sees Grant travel to the fictional island of Cladda in the Hebrides, where Grant looks to find “the singing sands”. (Btw, they do exist...just in a different location.)
In all honesty, the mystery plot of The Singing Sands is not great. In fact, the mystery part is really far-fetched and ridiculous, but I did find it highly entertaining because it is such a stark contrast to the sobriety and realism of the rest of the story.
But then, I love Tey’s books (all of them) and that for reasons that have nothing to do with the mysteries. In fact, I believe that her very first book, The Man in the Queue, in the Grant series was a deliberate mockery of the mystery genre altogether.
So, no, I don’t come to Tey for mystery.
It’s always been the background and observations of the author about her surroundings and the times she lived in that have made Tey’s books special for me. And she was a very astute observer, which is also shown in her plays (written under her other – earlier – pen name of Gordon Daviot).
One of Tey’s bones of contention that she picks up on and that provides some light relief in The Singing Sands is the rise of Scottish nationalism in Tey’s time. For various reasons of her own, she was not a fan, and I find reading about her take on the issue hilarious because it is on point:
‘There’s nothing wrong with Archie Brown’s head,’ Laura said tartly. ‘If he hadn’t had the wit to think up this rôle for himself he would be teaching school in some god-forsaken backwater and even the school inspector wouldn’t have known his name.’ ‘
He’s very conspicuous on a moor, anyhow,’ Grant said. ‘He’s even worse on a platform. Like one of those awful souvenir dolls that tourists take home; and just about as Scottish.’
‘Isn’t he Scots?’
‘No. He hasn’t a drop of Scottish blood in him. His father came from Liverpool and his mother was an O’Hanrahan.’
‘Odd how all the most bigoted patriots are Auslanders,’ Grant said. ‘I don’t think he’ll get very far with those xenophobes, the Gaels.’
‘He has a much worse handicap than that,’ Laura said.
‘What is that?’
‘His Glasgow accent.’
‘Yes. It is pretty repellent.’
‘I didn’t mean that. I mean, every time he opens his mouth his audience is reminded of the possibility of being ruled from Glasgow: a fate worse than death.’
I often wonder if Tey would have changed her mind had she lived in our times.
It’s a thought that occupied me especially a couple of weeks ago when I had a chance to see two original corrected typescripts of The Singing Sands at the National Library of Scotland.
I know, it’s geekdom gone mad, but the typescript was available and I was very close to Edinburgh for a work trip anyway…so I asked the library to reserve the material for my visit:
I was presented with two corrected typescripts - one with editor's notes - and two more corrected typescripts of two of her plays, and some music/songs.
Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures.
One of the plays, Dickon, was about Richard III, and had her notes to the actors on the historical background in the back. I do have an electronic copy of the play and the notes are in there too, but I had not read it when I went to library, and since I didn't know what exactly was in the archive box, it was a great surprise. The notes in the back btw. seemed to me like her blueprint or outline for The Daughter of Time, which, if you have not read it, I recommend. It is and it isn't a "Golden Age mystery".
It was something very special to handle the same copies that Tey would have handled, and see her handwriting up close. There was a distinct difference between the notes to the editor and the notes to herself, and I don't just mean legibility.
It was also very eerie to know that she would have been very ill when she did handle the papers.
I may have giggled a few times, too, but obviously had to control my giddiness or risk being shushed. (Not necessarily by library staff. The NLS is known for patrons shushing other library users.) However, there were some hilarious typos and corrections.
One was a deletion she made when describing the character of Wee Archie in The Singing Sands. The character was a type of Scottish nationalist that annoyed her very much, and in the passage that was ultimately deleted, Tey let rip.
So with all that background, imagine how much I had to laugh when I stepped out of the library and landed right in the middle of an Independence march! The route of the march led down the street that the library is on. They say there were about 200,000 people.
Anyway, back to The Singing Sands.
If you read it for the mystery, have some wine nearby. If you’re not reading it for the mystery, enjoy your trip to the singing sands and to the place that helps Grant find the resolve to battle his demons.
I'm at home today because it is time for the electrical safety and gas safety checks. Thankfully, my landlord has arranged for both of them to happen at the same time.
However, I've now got two chaps pottering about asking questions I could not possibly answer.
This is not conducive to reading!
And since the electricity is off every 2 minutes, I can't play on the interweb either.
So, I am kinda forced to write reviews on the laptop.
It's a good thing, I guess. At least I look busy, right?
Hear ye! Hear ye!
As of the time of posting, we have a three-way tie on the selection of the next Flat Book Society read!
Can anyone interested in reading the next book please take a look at the voting page and vote for their favourite?
Voting closes tonight at 10pm UK.
Thank you all. :D
Anyway, Huggins, as always, links to the current list of nominations/votes.
When Guy came in, Harriet was impatient to talk about Codreanu, but he showed no interest. He had heard all the stories before.
“You must admit,” she said, “that the Iron Guard concepts are not so very different from your own.”
Guy glanced up sharply and, with a gesture, indicated that here and now, in the absurdity of this statement, he could pin down the root trouble of the world.
“Codreanu,” he said, “was a murderer, a Jew-baiter and a thug. He had a following of nonentities who wanted only one thing – power at any price.”
“But if, having power, they could remake the country . . .”
“Do you imagine they could? The incompetence of Carol’s set would be as nothing compared with the incompetence of Codreanu’s bunch of thugs.”
“Well, one could give them a chance.”
“Before the war there were quite a lot of sentimentalists like you. They did not realise that while they were being mesmerised and misled by the romantic aspects of fascism, they were being made to sell their souls . . .”
Having used this phrase inadvertently, he paused, and Harriet, feeling ignorant and something of a fool, leapt in with: “If the fascists make you sell your soul, the communists make you deny it.”
Guy grunted and picked up a newspaper. She knew he had no use for religion, seeing it as part of the conspiracy to keep the rich powerful and the poor docile. He was prepared to discuss very little that did not contribute towards a practical improvement in mankind’s condition. Harriet’s own theories, of course, were too simple-minded to matter.
Gaaaaaahhhh....!!!! Why are we still having these same conversations?!?!?!
Before moving to another Woolf or Lawrence, I'm taking a break and return to Manning's Balkan Trilogy. If on has to write a story without a real plot, I guess Manning has mastered the challenge for me. There is something about her writing that just works, and it is not just that the characters are all brilliantly fleshed out. Maybe it's the sad knowledge of knowing how the hopes of the characters will be disappointed by history in the end? Maybe it's being able to have sight of a snapshot of life at the time that Manning describes - beginning of WWII, when Rumania is being threatened by invasion from the west and the east and the division this causes among people as to which is the greater evil, and thus which side to support, Germany or Russia.
While they were talking, the sound of the last post came thin and clear from the palace yard. The sunset clouds had stretched and narrowed and faded in the sky, leaving a zenith of clear turquoise in which a few stars were appearing. The square below was lit not only by its lamps but by a reflection from the sky that was like a sheen on water.
She thought she had made Sasha talk enough and Guy might soon be back. She slid down from the wall and said: “I must go, but I’ll come again.” Before she left, she handed Sasha the paper. “It says your father’s trial starts on August 14th. The sooner it is over, the better. After all, he may be acquitted.” Sasha took the paper, which could not be read in this light, and said: “Yes,” but his agreement was simply politeness. He knew as well as she did that the law required Drucker’s conviction before his oil holdings could be forfeit to the Crown. What hope then of an acquittal?
As she set out across the roof area, Sasha went to his hut. When she turned to descend, she could see he had already lit his candle and, kneeling, was bent over the paper that was spread on the ground before him.
Mrs. Ramsay sat silent. She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge? Aren’t things spoilt then, Mrs. Ramsay may have asked (it seemed to have happened so often, this silence by her side) by saying them? Aren’t we more expressive thus? The moment at least seemed extraordinarily fertile. She rammed a little hole in the sand and covered it up, by way of burying in it the perfection of the moment. It was like a drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past.
As much as I hated this book on my first read, I really enjoyed my re-read of it. That is, I enjoyed the act of reading the book this time. The re-read has only slightly improved my enjoying of the book itself.
Woolf's writing still drives me nuts. The stream of consciousness babble that jumps from one idea to the next without really developing any of them just does not work for me.
And while I get that the jumping around is an expression of the fleeting moments of life that connect people with other people, with their surroundings, and with their own thoughts, I find it really alienating and just frustrating to read. The only impression that I got from this style is a doubt over whether the author had any idea what they wanted to say in the first place...before they added several pages of internal thought process from another character's point of view.
It was his fate, his peculiarity, whether he wished it or not, to come out thus on a spit of land which the sea is slowly eating away, and there to stand, like a desolate sea-bird, alone. It was his power, his gift, suddenly to shed all superfluities, to shrink and diminish so that he looked barer and felt sparer, even physically, yet lost none of his intensity of mind, and so to stand on his little ledge facing the dark of human ignorance, how we know nothing and the sea eats away the ground we stand on — that was his fate, his gift. But having thrown away, when he dismounted, all gestures and fripperies, all trophies of nuts and roses, and shrunk so that not only fame but even his own name was forgotten by him, kept even in that desolation a vigilance which spared no phantom and luxuriated in no vision, and it was in this guise that he inspired in William Bankes (intermittently) and in Charles Tansley (obsequiously)and in his wife now, when she looked up and saw him standing at the edge of the lawn, profoundly, reverence, and pity, and gratitude too, as a stake driven into the bed of a channel upon which the gulls perch and the waves beat inspires in merry boat-loads a feeling of gratitude for the duty it is taking upon itself of marking the channel out there in the floods alone.
Seriously. WTF? Get on already with telling us why they yet again can't make it to the flipping lighthouse.
Nope the writing was as annoying as on my first read. However, this time around I was better prepared for the sheer onslaught of words that do not seem to support any discernible plot at all.
So, when I got over being annoyed by the writing, I did manage to get something out of the book:
1. I had not realised how much WWI played a part in this story. Seriously, I had totally forgotten that the story is divided in a part before the war and one set after it. And with that realisation this time (I am not sure how I missed this on the first read ... other than really hating the book), there is a point to the different outlook of the characters, and indeed there is also some character development. My favourite of which was that of the character Carmichael. Though, of course, Lily Briscoe, the young artist, also becomes interesting. I kind of saw her as a modernised continuation of Mrs Ramsay in the third part of the story, and I rather liked this portrayal.
2. Which brings me to Mrs. Ramsay. Wowser. What an interesting woman stuck in the customs of her time. Seriously, on this re-read I ended up constantly comparing Mrs. Ramsay to E.M. Forster's Mrs. Wilcox of Howards End.
Both are women brought up and living the mores of the previous generation at a time when the next generation already seem to have moved so far ahead that the Mrs. Ramsays and Mrs. Wilcoxs of the world seem lost and out of place. The tragedy is compounded when both characters express how they are fully aware of their situation but cannot see a way to change.
3. There was quite a lot angst and anxiety in this story: whether it was Mrs. Ramsay feeling trapped in her own life or Lily wallowing in self-doubt after Charles (was it Charles?) tells her that women can't paint (...or be any other kind of true artist).
Was there some of Woolf's own in this? I don't know. However, I really wished that Woolf had dismissed her plan of jumping from thought to thought and from character to character and spent more time with the individual characters themselves.
In summary, I did get a lot more out of the book on the re-read BUT I still dislike the writing style and lack of narrative clarity of the book immensely.
It's not a book I would recommend to anyone. In fact, I'd sooner recommend Mrs. Dalloway, and that one was not a favourite either.
Be sure your sins will find you out, especially if you're married and her name's Bertha--
This made me laugh.
And then I was almost immediately sobered up and grossed out by the following:
So he was pleased, and very tender with his daughter, as if the unborn child were his child.
This was my first read of Lawrence's work, and I am not sure how representative his writing in this book is with respect to his other works, but seeing he's revered by so many, I am really unsure how the above sentence has found its way into the book. It was part of a really great scene...my admiration of which basically wiped out entirely by that sentence.
However, this wasn't my only problem with the book:
My main gripe is that I could not shake the feeling that Lawrence did not like any of his female characters. Not only is Constance an insufferable airhead, but behind a veneer of modern ideas of social change and freedom, the book still seems have underlying messages that ultimately a woman exercising free will is "bossy" and a "bully".
'Did you hate Bertha Coutts?' she asked him.
'Don't talk to me about her.'
'Yes! You must let me. Because once you liked her. And once you were as intimate with her as you are with me. So you have to tell me. Isn't it rather terrible, when you've been intimate with her, to hate her so? Why is it?'
'I don't know. She sort of kept her will ready against me, always, always: her ghastly female will: her freedom! A woman's ghastly freedom that ends in the most beastly bullying! Oh, she always kept her freedom against me, like vitriol in my face.'
So, while some of the ideas Lawrence put forward were interesting - at least the ones he didn't turn into lectures - they feel hollow.
The romance aspect was entertaining, but I may have suffered a repetitive strain injury from rolling my eyes at the overuse of more cringe-worthy expressions.
No. The only aspect I enjoyed - and one that I had not expected from the book - was the portrayal of the war trauma that marked the lives of everyone.
In the wood everything was motionless, the old leaves on the ground keeping the frost on their underside. A jay called harshly, many little birds fluttered. But there was no game; no pheasants. They had been killed off during the war, and the wood had been left unprotected, till now Clifford had got his game-keeper again.
Clifford loved the wood; he loved the old oak-trees. He felt they were his own through generations. He wanted to protect them. He wanted this place inviolate, shut off from the world.
The chair chuffed slowly up the incline, rocking and jolting on the frozen clods. And suddenly, on the left, came a clearing where there was nothing but a ravel of dead bracken, a thin and spindly sapling leaning here and there, big sawn stumps, showing their tops and their grasping roots, lifeless. And patches of blackness where the woodmen had burned the brushwood and rubbish.
This was one of the places that Sir Geoffrey had cut during the war for trench timber. The whole knoll, which rose softly on the right of the riding, was denuded and strangely forlorn. On the crown of the knoll where the oaks had stood, now was bareness; and from there you could look out over the trees to the colliery railway, and the new works at Stacks Gate. Connie had stood and looked, it was a breach in the pure seclusion of the wood. It let in the world. But she didn't tell Clifford.
This denuded place always made Clifford curiously angry. He had been through the war, had seen what it meant. But he didn't get really angry till he saw this bare hill. He was having it replanted. But it made him hate Sir Geoffrey.
The weather came rainy again. But after a day or two she went out in the rain, and she went to the wood. And once there, she went towards the hut. It was raining, but not so cold, and the wood felt so silent and remote, inaccessible in the dusk of rain.
She came to the clearing. No one there! The hut was locked. But she sat on the log doorstep, under the rustic porch, and snuggled into her own warmth. So she sat, looking at the rain, listening to the many noiseless noises of it, and to the strange soughings of wind in upper branches, when there seemed to be no wind. Old oak-trees stood around, grey, powerful trunks, rain-blackened, round and vital, throwing off reckless limbs. The ground was fairly free of undergrowth, the anemones sprinkled, there was a bush or two, elder, or guelder-rose, and a purplish tangle of bramble: the old russet of bracken almost vanished under green anemone ruffs. Perhaps this was one of the unravished places. Unravished! The whole world was ravished.
Some things can't be ravished. You can't ravish a tin of sardines. And so many women are like that; and men. But the earth...!
A tin of sardines?
I will finish this tomorrow.
What I can say about the re-read so far is that I am glad I picked this up again. I got a lot more out of the book than on my first read, even tho that is not saying a lot. I think this was a 1* book on my first read.
Oh, and can I just say how much I love the Everyman's Library editions?
Many thanks to Moonlight Murder for my lovely card for this year's Halloween Bingo.
As with previous years, I will update this post as we go along - with Harriet & Peter covering squares I have read, and The Gang popping up on squares that have been called.
I am also listing the books I plan to read / have read for each square - with () being planned reads, Italics being books in progress, and bold being books I have read:
Row # 1:
Southern Gothic: Sanctuary - William Faulkner
Cozy Mystery: She Died a Lady - John Dickson Carr
Dark Academia: The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh
Diverse Voices Genre: Suspense (Transfiguration Card #2): The Taste of Murder - Joanna Cannan
Full Moon: The Sittaford Mystery - Agatha Christie
Row # 2:
Genre: Horror: Dracul - J.D. Barker & Dacre Stoker
Amateur Sleuth: The Mystery of the Skeleton Key - Bernard Capes
Halloween: Hallowe'en Party - Agatha Christie
Darkest London: Two for Sorrow - Nicola Upson
Black Cat: Katzengeschichten - Patricia Highsmith
Row # 3:
Cryptozoologist Dystopian Hellscape (Transfiguration Card #1): The Kraken Wakes - John Wyndham
Locked Room Mystery: The Singing Sands - Josephine Tey
Free Space: Rule Britannia - Daphne Du Maurier
Gothic: The Monk - Matthew Lewis
Film at 11 Deadlands (Transfiguration Card #2): Pyramids - Terry Pratchett
Row # 4:
Ghost Stories: The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters
International Woman of Mystery: People Who Knock on the Door - Patricia Highsmith
Relics and Curiosities: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J.K. Rowling
13: Busman's Honeymoon - Dorothy L. Sayers
Truly Terrifying: The Remedy - Thomas Goetz
Row # 5:
Spellbound: Circe - Madeline Miller
Sleepy Hollow: Blood Rubies - Michael McDowell
Creepy Carnivals: Watson's Choice - Gladys Mitchell
Fear The Drowning Deep: Danger! - Arthur Conan Doyle
Monsters: Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Unallocated but in progress: n/a
Transfiguration Cards available: 0 of 3