The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (1969)

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If you had asked me 30 years ago to list my favourite books this would have featured prominently.  I’ve always felt an attachment to it because it was one of the first novels I read when I went away to college and an essay on works by John Fowles (of which this was my favourite) scored me a rare A-Grade.  I’ve read it a couple of times since but not for many years.  Last summer I went for a day trip to Lyme Regis and walked along The Cobb which has a prominent part to play in the novel as well as in the 1981 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and whilst doing this felt once again that I wanted to be immersed in Fowles’ 19th Century world.  My copy was ancient and yellowed so I treated myself to a new one at Serendip, one of Lyme’s healthy smattering of book shops and have spent the last week or so discovering whether time has been good to this novel.

What remains impressive is how Fowles has condensed the foibles of Victorian society  in a way which makes it seem authentic.  This has been done many times since, most splendidly in Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” and in other titles which tend to feature highly in my end of year lists.  What I hadn’t experienced before reading this the first time was Fowles the modern author stepping back from the Victorian novel to comment and digress using a modern perspective.  Once again this is a common trick now but when I first experienced it (and perhaps even more so when it was published a good decade or so before I got round to it) it seemed radical.    It’s enough of a feature of the novel for them to attempt to convey something of this in the film (not wholly successfully) by having a modern strand which stepped back showing the making of the film and depicting actors playing Fowles’ characters, so Meryl Streep was both playing Sarah Woodruff and the actress chosen to play her.

Charles Smithson, a keen fossil-hunter and fan of Darwin spends the summer of 1867 in Lyme Regis where his betrothed, the somewhat vapid Ernestina is holidaying with her aunt.  There, on The Cobb, which stretches out to the sea they encounter a swathed, mysterious figure known locally as Tragedy, reputedly waiting for her French lover to return.  Charles becomes obsessed with this woman which challenges Victorian beliefs in decency, class and duty with the double standards we now expect from this period.

I love the plot.  Fowles, however, does like to move away from it and remind us of the artifice of his fiction.  At one point he inserts himself into the action observing Charles in the midst of his dilemmas.  It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.  This accusation could be levied at other of Fowles’ work which may explain why his reputation has faded in the years since his death in 2005.  There were a couple of titles I can remember abandoning (and this from someone who has done this very rarely) due to this inaccessibility, although I do have a copy of “The Collector” (1963) which I also loved and should get round to re-reading to see how that holds up.

This is an impressive novel of great richness and worthy of a five star rating yet it still has flaws which seem a little more  obvious this time round.  I’ve never fully got my head around the multiple endings which makes the last third of the novel less satisfying.  I could tell from my trip to Lyme that the townsfolk are still proud of this novel (as they are of Jane Austen who features it in “Persuasion”) and actually it is only when it moves away from Lyme that it slightly falters.  I still feel very attached to it, however.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman was first published in 1969.  I read the Vintage paperback edition.

A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom- John Boyne (Doubleday 2020)

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Here is an author who, in my eyes, achieved virtual perfection with his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017), certainly one of my all-time favourite novels. I still have plenty of John Boyne to read, having only read three of his children’s/young adult titles and two of his adult works but I’ve experienced enough to know that his latest is a marked departure from what I’ve read before.

This Irish writer is no stranger to the historical novel but here, in a book which can truly be called epic, he has taken on the whole of world history starting from Palestine in AD1 to the present day and beyond to 2080. This has been done, and here is the conceit of this novel, with ostensibly the same main character, or different manifestations of this character throughout history. It can certainly be seen as a novel of reincarnation with the main character (never named) moving on with his life in different times and different locations. There’s an obvious spiritual element here with its implied growth towards wisdom which initially made me a little nervous as to make this too explicit often results in leaden writing I’ve found (Paolo Coehlo springing to mind). I hoped Boyne would handle this with a lightness of touch to make it work.

He has to a very large extent. The novel reads like a series of interlinked short stories. At one point we move from Sweden in 1133 to China in 1191 and to Greece in 1223 with the narrative thread remaining fairly constant and with easily identifiable characters having regional variations of their names so the reader can pick up from where the plot left off each time adapting to the new setting and the often subtle changes which keep the narrative appropriate. This sounds confusing but it works well and builds an involving plot. Admittedly, there were times when I was enjoying a tale so much that I felt disappointed when it shifted onwards. He really has written 52 mini-novels in one, the amount of historical research must have been phenomenal.

This shifting means Boyne can have us visiting significant places at significant times introducing us to characters such as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Attila The Hun and Donald Trump (he’s certainly not going to like this book!) This at times does run the risk of feeling laboured, a literary version of the TV series “Quantum Leap”. I actually prefer this novel when the historical figures are in the background and the location imbues the narrative with its sense of time. There are also occasional echoes of former lives through a sense of déjà vu with the Mayan figure Spearthrower Owl periodically creating a presence.

I’ve read books with a similar epic scope in terms of time (Edward Rutherford likes to do this) but nothing as ambitious as this which is extraordinary and I’ve begun to expect nothing less from this man but as a reading experience it is not quite up there with his very best. I think it just falls short of my rarely given five star rating. If you are interested in historical fiction and can’t quite decide what era to read about this is a perfect entry into discovering whole new literary worlds.

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A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom will be published in hardback by Doubleday on    23rd July 2020. Many thanks to the publishers for tracking me down and providing me with an advance review copy.

The Poisoned Chalice – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I should really crack on with this series.  I  read  the first one “The Sanctuary Seeker” (1998) back in 2017 and it has taken me this long to get round to the second.  I have another 8 of them on my shelves and at this rate I’m not going to complete them until 2032 and then there are the other five Bernard Knight has written that I do not currently own.

My experience with this one was much the same as the previous which introduced us to medieval coroner Sir John De Wolfe.  I found it took me quite a while to get into it and never felt totally immersed in Knight’s vision of late twelfth century Exeter.  Set a month or so after its predecessor this tale begins with an inspection of a shipwreck then moves back to largely within the city walls as a local silversmith finds himself implicated in two crimes involving daughters of notable families.  Relationships between the characters are further established.  We know that the coroner is going to continue to be pitched professionally against his brother-in-law, the sheriff, an inevitable consequence of the redefining of legal boundaries at the time and is also going to experience a fair amount of conflict with his wife Matilda, preferring the more welcoming arms of his mistress, pub landlady Nesta.

Knight packs quite a lot of history into his text which initially makes it a dense read as the historical significance of events require backtracking and a glossary of medieval terms needs to be frequently consulted but once the plot hits its stride around mid-way through this becomes less of an issue as the events in Exeter are brought to a satisfying conclusion.  I think, on reflection, I did enjoy this more than “The Sanctuary Seeker” which bodes well for the series.threestars

The Poisoned Chalice was first published in 1998.  I read a Pocket Books paperback edition.

 

The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles (Two Roads 2020?)

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Not an author I’d heard of before this and I thought it was due for imminent publication but checking on Amazon it seems to have been pushed back to February 2021 which may mean it is one of the casualties in how the publishing industry is having to deal with COVID-19. If this is the case then this is very advance notification of a book seriously worth your consideration.

Janet Skeslien Charles is the American author of “Moonlight In Odessa” (2011). At one point she worked as programmes manager at The American Library in Paris and it was this institution which is the inspiration for this novel.

Written in two narrative strands, one set during World War II and the other in Montana in the 1980s, both strands feature Odile, who obtains her dream job when she gets to work at The American Library in Paris in 1939. The real-life Library was set up during the previous war from two million American donations with it becoming revolutionary in being one of the first to allow subscribers to browse the open shelves and introducing story-times for children. By 1939 it was a much loved, over-subscribed establishment and its war years are dealt with here very impressively. The author has placed Odile alongside real-life characters who actually did do their utmost to keep the library functioning in Occupied Paris led by the extraordinary Dorothy Reeder (good name for a librarian). Skeslein Charles has turned these staff members into vibrant characters and placed them in a plot which certainly mirrors actual events.

Alongside this we see an older Odile, now living in the US, largely through the eyes of her young neighbour Lucy who is fascinated by the elegance of her neighbour becoming quite the Francophile amidst her small-town American life. I was very involved in both strands and this was a very involving read. I loved Odile’s obsession with the Dewey Decimal System which has her constantly categorising and found the relationship between her older self and the younger Lucy touching and convincing. I loved the whole aspect of the establishment doing what it could to support its subscribers and once again the importance of libraries is brought home as well as in the non-fictional “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean (2019). I also loved the way the fiction was weaved through a fascinating historical situation that I did not know about.

I hope that if this book is to be delayed until the New Year that it can be launched with enough momentum to give it a chance of achieving the sales it deserves.

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The Paris Library is currently scheduled (according to Amazon and I can’t find any information about it yet on the publishers site) to be published in the UK in February 2021. Sorry about confusion here but we might get quite a bit of that over the next few months. Many thanks to Netgalley and John Murray Press/Two Roads for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018)

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I’ve got round to another of the books I highlighted in my 2019 What I Should Have Read Post. This is a major prize-winner picking up the Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction, also the Stonewall Prize and gained prestigious shortlist nods for the Pulitzer Prize and US National Book Award. In the UK it has remained fairly under the radar, the paperback (which I read) was published in 2019 but that still didn’t lift this book to the commercial recognition it deserves. (Amazon currently has it as #2727 in Literary Fiction with a 4.4 rating from 509 reviews).

Two parallel narratives with one set in mid/late 1980’s Chicago and the other in Paris in 2015 with a handful of characters who feature in both. In the Chicago section the Boystown area is being decimated by the AIDS virus and Fiona is losing those she loved. The novel begins with the memorial for her brother Nico whose lifestyle was rejected by his family causing an irreparable rift between Fiona and her parents as she cannot cope with his lover and friends being excluded from saying goodbye.

In 2015, Fiona, now a mother herself, is searching for her missing daughter last known to be a member of a religious cult in the US before a sighting of her is flagged up in Paris. The Fiona in the later narrative is still clinging to the events of thirty years before which has affected her ability to parent. She is a flawed yet very real character.

In the eighties narrative it is her friend Yale who is central. In a relationship with activist and magazine publisher Charlie. Yale is far more conservative, working in funding for art and following a tip off from Fiona regarding her great-aunt’s collection seeks the acquisition which would make both Yale and the gallery he works for names.

I really enjoyed both plot lines (with a preference for the earlier narrative) which are superbly handled but the strength is really the relationships between the characters. The AIDS crisis is pushing them together as much as it is tearing them apart and the repercussions of this are ever-present in the later narrative and that is why this is such an excellent work.

You will find yourself invested in these characters, you will laugh with them, be totally frustrated by their actions as well as egging them on and will cry with them and for them and for all that to happen convincingly as far as I am concerned everything needs to be top-notch and here it is. Expect me to be recalling this book in my end of the year round-ups. I thoroughly recommend it.

Rebecca Makkai is a straight woman and there could have been potential criticism in this current climate of her immersing herself in a story which is not hers to tell, which should be the province of a gay male writer, especially with so much talk about appropriation but the fact that this has won a major LGBTQ literary award with The Stonewall Prize shows that this is not an issue. This is a novel for everyone, for those whose lives were touched by the events of the time where they will be brought back with chilling clarity, for those aware of them in some degree and perhaps even more importantly for those who were not even born then. It wasn’t easy reading about a killer virus whilst in lockdown due to another killer virus and I really did feel quite purged by the end but with the sense that I had received a tremendous reading experience. Rebecca Makkai has published three novels before this. I would certainly imagine this to be her masterwork to date but I will definitely be looking out for her other titles.

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The Great Believers was published in the UK by Fleet in 2018. I read the 2019 paperback edition.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Faber 2020)

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C Pam Zhang’s striking confident debut places us in the nineteenth century American West in the dying days of the Gold Rush. Prospecting turns to tragedy for one family of Chinese heritage. The novel opens grimly with the father’s corpse and two young siblings Lucy and Sam taking to desperate measures to obtain two silver dollars to close their father’s eyes.

Uprooting themselves once again the children are forced to grow up during their search for a new settlement with the prospect of gold as their salvation. They bring with them their father’s dead body looking for a place to bury him. One section switches from third person narration to allowing the dead father to tell his story which does answer the questions the readers will have about the characters and their predicament.

Main character Lucy is hard to get a grip on. I wasn’t always sure of her motives. I was hoping for something from her viewpoint but this never happened. Her motivation seems to be based on the notion “family is family”. Much easier to read is Sam, thirsting for adventure with the same ideas as their father that gold would provide solutions.

Where I liked this novel most of all is when it slipped into backstory, the father’s narration and the family’s life before the events at the start of the novel where their pregnant mother encourages Lucy to get an education from a man besotted by the family’s exoticness. “Beauty is a weapon” Ma informs her daughter but that’s not always easy to use living hand to mouth in the open air of the American West.

As much as I admired the writing I wasn’t always sure here this novel was heading and once again I find present tense narrative distracting.  Lucy’s “education” is completed in a town called Sweetwater where she settles at one point in a section with a distinct change of tone. Sometimes the writing is feverish which gives the work a haunted, nightmarish quality which puts demands on the reader whilst at other times it reminded me both of Sebastian Barry’s recent novels (perhaps brought more clearly into focus as I have so recently read “A Thousand Moons”(2020) and I did find Zhang’s novel stronger) and of the New Zealand set “The Luminaries” (2013) by Eleanor Catton in more ways than its prospecting for gold themes. That book became a Man Booker Prize-winner so I think Zhang is on very strong ground here to turn heads with this literary debut.

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How Much Of These Hills is Gold is published today (April 9th 2020) by Virago in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Thousand Moons – Sebastian Barry (Faber 2020)

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Irish author Sebastian Barry’s last novel “Days Without End” (2016) won the Costa Book Of The Year and I read it when it made the 2017 Booker longlist. I enjoyed its unlikely coupling of the two main characters and its “adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America” but was a little put off by the present-tense narrative. I was fascinated to hear that Barry was to revisit his characters in what is loosely a sequel to its predecessor. This was one of the titles I focused in on as wanting to read in my start of year Looking Back Looking Forward post.

The main character here is Native American Winona. I had highlighted her and the relationship with Thomas McNulty and John Cole, her adoptive parents, as one of the strengths of “Days Without End” so I was looking forward to her (not present tense) narrative. After the years of wandering and adapting to their environment in the first novel the main characters have settled as farm workers in Tennessee. Their world has very much shrunk and the two men do fade into the background a little here becoming supporting characters and that is disappointing.

Winona’s life consists of risking the antipathy of the local town population because of her heritage in her trips to assist the local lawyer. A young man who works in the dry-goods store, Jas Jonski, takes a shine to Winona and that is where her troubles begin. It’s far less of an adventure tale but the need for survival and the suffering of injustice are once again present and Winona is a positively vibrant and complex character, who like her adoptive parents challenges stereotypes.

As one would expect of an artist of Barry’s calibre it is very well written but for me it just seems to simmer along and never really takes off in the way the last novel did. I missed the epic sweep of that book.

It may be because it is a much quieter novel anyway but given these characters and what we have had from them in the past this quietness was surprising and on this reading just a little disappointing.

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A Thousand Moons was published by Faber and Faber in hardback on 17th March 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

The Animals Of Lockwood Manor – Jane Healey (Mantle 2020)

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With Sarah Waters absent from fiction since 2014’s “The Paying Guest” here comes the latest author who has incorporated the feel and themes of some of her work into their debut novel. This also reminded me slightly of Sara Collins’ 2019 debut “The Confessions Of Frannie Langton” and that as well as selling well was one of the most critically acclaimed titles of last year scoring the Costa First Novel Award. Jane Healey here has produced a commercial literary novel which has the potential to do well.

Set largely in the early years of World War II museum director Hetty Cartwright is evacuated together with a sizeable collection of stuffed mammals to Lockwood Manor where recently widowed Major Lord Lockwood lives with his daughter Lucy. Hetty has much to prove in the male world of museums and she attempts to do this professionally in this large country house populated by a dwindling staff who view the extra work caused by the displays as a nuisance. Someone begins tampering with the collection but is it human or supernatural? The Major’s wife had been turned mad by the house which had proved to be too alien for her Caribbean upbringing (shades of “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca”) and her surviving daughter fears for her own sanity in the stifling atmosphere which proves conducive to nightmares.

Narrated alternately by Hetty and Lucy there is generally a good feel for the period but I think the author could have ramped up the tension of life in the house but as the novel progresses I feel that this is lost a little with the focus moving to the relationship of the two leading female characters (incidentally, I felt exactly the same about “Frannie Langton.”)

I found it easy to read, polished it off quite quickly and was involved throughout and enjoyed the turns of the plot but it never managed to crank up to the higher gear which would have made this more memorable. For me the standout book I’ve read in recent years of this type is still Laura Carlin’s “The Wicked Cometh” and as diverting as this is I don’t think it came up to that debut’s standard.

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The Animals Of Lockwood Manor is published by Mantle on March 5th 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Shadow Play – Joseph O’ Connor (2019)

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One of my selections of books I  highlighted in my  2019 What I Should Have Read post which I just managed to fit in before the end of the year where it ended up in 4th place in my  Books Of The Year.  Short-listed for a Costa Award (losing in the final judgement to Jonathan Coe) but victorious in the Irish Book Awards Eason Novel of the year this is Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s 9th novel. I’ve not read his celebrated work “Star Of The Sea” (nor anything else by him) but I will be looking out for this to read this year as I feel I’ve made a real discovery here.

This is a beautifully written historical work which represents pretty much a love triangle between actor and impresario Sir Henry Irving, founder of the Lyceum Theatre, hugely popular actress Ellen Terry and “Dracula” author Bram Stoker. As well as his using various narrative techniques as in Stoker’s most famous work O’Connor drops seeds of inspiration throughout showing how Stoker came up with his iconic creation. Largely unknown as a writer in his lifetime, Stoker earnt his living as general manager and dogsbody in Irving’s theatre, attempting to find time to write against his employer’s wishes. All three characters are a little obsessed with one another and this proves fascinating reading.

Also fascinating is spotting the allusions to “Dracula”, some obvious (characters called Mina and Harker) and some more subtle and beautifully interwoven into the text.

It is the quality of the writing that makes this book a joy. O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time. The narrative touches in at different parts of their lives and an undercurrent to all are the crimes of Jack The Ripper.

The main narrative thrust ends with the death of Irving but then there is a Coda which I initially didn’t warm to feeling it unnecessary but this change of atmosphere achieved here really drew me in and was so beautifully written that I felt close to tears at the end. For an author to change the pace and mood of the piece feels brave, for it to work so well is a real achievement.

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Shadow Play was published in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. The paperback is due in May 2020.

The Familiars – Stacey Halls (Zaffre 2019)

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This is a good quality debut historical novel rich in detail and with a good air of authenticity. Set in 1612 around what is now Lancashire and Cumbria this takes the case of the Pendle witches as its inspiration. Using the names of real life residents of Gawthorpe Hall and those accused of witchcraft at the Lancaster Assizes the author effectively conveys the paranoia and suspicion towards those who associated themselves with traditional remedies, paranoia which led to the accused naming names of others they believed were following witchcraft.

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is in her teens and has been married for a number of years already to Richard, Master of Gawthorpe Hall. She has endured miscarriages and while desperate to give her husband an heir is well aware of the precariousness of childbirth and fears for her own life. She encounters Alice whilst on a walk in their wood and Alice’s keen understanding of the properties of herbs leads Fleetwood to appoint her as her midwife. Meanwhile a local landowner has been accusing women of crimes associated with witchcraft, possibly in an attempt to curry favour with King James I, who is encouraging a national purge against “Daemonologie”. Is Alice a witch? Does she associate with those who follow witchcraft, who reputedly have animal familiars, and will she even be around by the time Fleetwood is due to give birth?

Narrated in first-person by the Mistress of Gawthorpe so we know that she survives her childbirth ordeal but nothing else is assured as suspicion, injustice and prejudice begins to sweep the locality. Stacey Halls gets this over very well, making you care for the main character and weaves a convincing tale. I will certainly be looking out for her next novel “The Foundling” due in February 2020.

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The Familiars was published in 2019. I read the Zaffre paperback.