A shiver down the spine

Jen Campbell:
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Two Roads 2018 (2017)

A dozen short stories do not a novel make — this last was what the author’s agent was originally expecting, but at least she didn’t shout when informed otherwise. Yet for all that these are diverse pieces – some, one suspects, semi-autobiographical, others sweet, yet more being fractured fairytales or freeform musings – they share themes and points of view which, in a weird way, could connect them into one long rambling narrative.

In fact the epigraph quotes Frankenstein’s Creature declaring, in the hopes of his creator furnishing him with a mate, that “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” This suggests that there are indeed connections between these tales, however curious and eccentric they may appear if we are expecting conventional narratives; but it also hints at a personal apologia. A self-declared queer writer with physical deformities, Jen Campbell brings a distinct perspective into her writing while managing to render her stories universal, a task that she somehow manages effortlessly. Or so it appears.

I shall avoid listing and discussing all twelve tales as being an arid exercise; instead I want to draw out from a select few the aspects that appealed to me most in the expectation that you may find my remarks useful.

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Coming attractions

On my occasional jaunts to the cinema my eye is inevitably drawn to the movie posters, particularly to those advertised as Coming Attractions. An art form in themselves—quite apart from their function of selling the films they advertise—I’m always struck by their individuality as well as how they sit with each other, rarely clashing but mostly complimentary.

In like manner I’d like to share with you this picture of some recent book acquisitions, perhaps the first in an occasional series (if I can be fashed). Now I shall blather on a bit about design and about content, and if you can bear it feel free to join me.

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A score of stories

Rye, Landgate

Joan Aiken:
The Monkey’s Wedding, and Other Stories
Introduction by Lizza Aiken
Small Beer Press 2011

In the introduction to this posthumous collection of short stories Joan Aiken describes the three ingredients that have gone into the making of these tales: fantasy elements (“witches, dragons, castles…”), realistic elements culled from everyday life (“mending punctures, winning raffles…”) and, finally, dreams (“an old lady hunting for lost things…”). Unlike her longer novels, the tales aren’t planned but spring from a chance combination of two or more of these ingredients; in The Monkey’s Wedding you can marvel at how these elements appear and re-appear in limitless permutations, always surprising, always entertaining, and always haunting.

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Winners and losers

Malcesine, Lake Garda: photo by kries [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Rumer Godden: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
Introduced by Anita Desai
Virago Modern Classics 2015 (1963)

Speaking as someone who has holidayed there, I can confirm that Lake Garda is a jewel, one of Italy’s many natural delights and the largest of its lakes, nestled at the foot of the Dolomites. When viewed from Limone on the western shore the picturesque town of Malcesine is dwarfed by the bulk of Monte Baldo rising behind it two kilometres into the sky, but in Malcesine itself the eye is drawn by the waters, to the craft which ply its surface and the changing outlook determined by the time of day and the weather. It was so in the nineties, and it was so in the early sixties when this novel is set. But for one of the main characters in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita trouble is looming, just as Monte Baldo looms above the seemingly impregnable castle of Malcesine.

Fanny Clavering is unhappy in her Home Counties village of Whitcross: she rattles around her home, her army officer of a husband is often abroad, her children preoccupied with their own lives. She finds herself attracted to Rob Quillet, who is directing a film in the vicinity, and they begin a chaste affair, meeting clandestinely for quiet meals and outings. There comes the inevitable moment when, rejecting her husband Darrell’s advances, she escapes, divorcing her husband and eloping with Rob to the Villa Fiorita near Malcesine. Here she discovers an idyllic existence on the borrowed property, one she had hardly ever dreamed of. But, like the sudden squalls that sometimes buffet the lake, a tempest is on its way to the villa in the persons of her two youngest children, Hugh and Caddie.

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Angels and daemons

Angel memorial, Westbury-on-Trym churchyard, Bristol [own photo]

Congruences in recent and current reading always fascinate me, not least because I believe a workable definition of synchronicity is “a coincidence that has significance”.

Of course that significance doesn’t have to be universal, and the congruences that follow are therefore personal to me; but you might find that they also appeal to you — or at least entertain.

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More or less imperfect

Pencil sketch by Charlotte Brontë (right), which recent research reveals is a self-portrait, alongside George Richmond’s more famous portrait

Inverted Commas 6: Imperfect characters

Though I describe imperfect characters (every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line) I have not undertaken to handle degraded or utterly infamous ones.

Charlotte Brontë introduces her authorial voice into Shirley (1849) a few times, including here in Chapter V. Now, Jane Austen intrudes herself rarely in her novels and that usually very briefly towards the end, in the last chapter or so. Charlotte, who (as discussed here) didn’t anyway have a high opinion of Austen, had fewer compunctions and here justifies her inclusion of flawed humans.

Child torturers, slave masters and drivers, I consign to the hands of jailers; the novelist may be excused from sullying his page with the record of their deals.

So it is that her leading actors in this novel (set around 1812 when Jane was in reality revising First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice) allude to the Napoleonic wars, politics and social unrest, unlike Miss Bennet or Lady de Burgh, Mr Darcy or Mr Bingham (Austen’s novel had first been drafted a score of years before).

And yet, imperfect though some Austen characters may be, Jane doesn’t show potential protagonists in quite so unflattering a light as Charlotte does. Robert Moore for example declares that the poor “ought to have no sympathies; it is their duty to be narrow. Poverty is necessarily selfish, contracted, grovelling, anxious…” Though Caroline Helstone appears to be more ‘in the model line’ and the epitome of the kind, generous and intelligent young woman that one may admire, she is revealed as brittle, doubting; while other females — such as Robert’s sister Hortense — are more abrasive.

And yet we thrive on imperfect characters in fiction, do we not? Without their imperfections how can they progress to happy or tragic ends, how can they grow or become corrupted, how may they achieve great things or alternatively fail to realise their potential? What is a narrative about a perfect human being but a parable or allegory, a homily to pointedly indicate our weak wills and unspiritual natures?

However, despite the author declaring that she will not ‘handle degraded or utterly infamous’ personages in Shirley we will find that there are villains sufficient to create the external tensions that drive the plot forward, unlike the difficult conversations and misunderstandings that mostly animated Austen’s novels.

Maybe the charge of imperfection that Charlotte laid at the door of her characters was a reflection of her view of herself: a probable self-portrait underlines the low opinion she had of her appearance when we compare it to the more idealised chalk drawing by George Richmond in 1850, completed five years before the author’s death.

Both real and magical

Newgale beach, Pembrokeshire

Cath Barton: The Plankton Collector
New Welsh Rarebyte 2018

Winner of a New Welsh Writing Award for 2017 in the novella category, The Plankton Collector is one of those dreamlike pieces that at odd moments rises unbidden to the surface of this reader’s thoughts like a bubble from unknown depths. To describe it as magic realism is not the whole story, yet the narrative does in fact drift like a leaf on a pond from one magical moment to another before catching on the rocks of reality, the reality of authentic lives lived with pain and sorrow and maybe, ultimately, hope.

We begin at the seaside with a beautiful piece of nature writing, as lyrical, say, as anything Charles Kingsley wrote in Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. Here we meet the Plankton Collector himself, a shapeshifter who sifts sand and shells for living creatures, ultimately to show them how they might fit into the mysterious patterns of existence.

Lest the prologue, all told in the historic present, should appear too airy-fairy we may note that it is titled ‘In the Beginning’—as with Genesis we shall find that all is not perfect in the garden, that there’s a worm in the bud which will upset a family’s idyll for some time to come. The novella gropes towards a resolution that at times seems just out of our grasp.

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