Sense and sensitivity

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Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 (2017)

Eleanor is a mass of contradictions: a classics graduate familiar with dead languages but having problems understanding metaphors; sensitive and yet not always displaying ‘common sense’; a creature of habit yet one who can surprise herself by occasionally straying beyond her comfort zone; seemingly happy with her own company but unprepared when she has to admit to herself to being profoundly lonely. Despite her mantra of being ‘completely fine’ she most decidedly is not.

This is a very percipient portrait of a vulnerable young woman living alone in Glasgow, how she goes through crises and what she puts herself through in order to survive. (You know what must follow in these pages when the very first section is headed ‘Good Days’.) It’s also a very funny book for all that it treats with abuse, near-death experiences, anxiety and depression: Eleanor has acquaintances who support and advise her, employers and work colleagues who turn out to be sympathetic and a therapist who understands her, and it’s her reactions to them and the everyday situations she meets that provide the leavening in what could otherwise be a very dark read.

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Childhood’s dreams

Vanessa Tait: The Looking Glass House
Corvus 2016 (2015)

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.

That “childish story” composed “all in the golden afternoon” that has been the springboard for so many studies, films and novels receives a new treatment in Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House: the wellspring of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Liddell sisters’ governess, Mary Prickett, about whom we know relatively little.

What gives added interest to this version is that the author is the great-granddaughter of Alice herself, with access to documents and family traditions from which to draw. Ultimately, though, the question is whether this stands on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right.

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The most perfect book

Signe Hammarsten with Sophia Jansson, around 1968 (image: Margareta Ströšmstedt)

Tove Jansson: The Summer Book
Sommarboken (1972) translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (1974)
Foreword by Esther Freud
Sort Of Books 2003

This is just the most perfect book; so perfect that I can scarcely bear to discuss it for fear of spoiling it. But I shall try; if at times I appear to be threading my way lightly round and through it, it’s because I fear my clumsy tread will destroy its sublime delicacy.

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Bittersweet

Cleveland, Ohio in the 1920s

F Scott Fitzgerald:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories
Penguin Books 2010 (2008)

This selection of seven short stories, which includes pieces published in 1920 and 1922, plus one from 1932, was issued to coincide with the title story’s appearance as an Oscar-nominated film. Written in the interwar period often termed the Jazz Age, their abiding scent is bittersweet, an adjective frequently applied to Fitzgerald’s work (though I have to confess this is my first ever taste of it). Despite in most cases their being almost a hundred years old the whiff of nostalgia is often overwhelmed by the smells of busy streets, the tang of disappointed relationships and the stench of hypocrisy (which is an everlasting odour).

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Managing change

Alison Croggon: The River and the Book
Walker Books 2015

“All writing comes from the inside,” said Ling Ti. “It burns you with wanting to be written. It’s the writing that matters.”
— From Chapter 25, The River and the Book

Rivers and books have so much in common, don’t they? They each have a beginning, a middle and an end. They’re ever-changing, never quite the same — even a little way further on. If you ever revisit them they are different again, their compositions have somehow altered — either in their elements or the relationship between those elements — and outside influences have meant that your perception has had to permanently adjust. Which is why Alison Croggon’s novella, The River and the Book, works so well, each aspect of the title informing the other and complementing it.

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Drowning sorrows

Jem Lester: Shtum.
Orion 2017 (2016)

For many of us life already makes huge demands — relationships, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, managing a work-life balance — but when you have a dependent with severe autism those demands are compounded, and can bring one close to breaking point. However much love is given out. Jem Lester’s Shtum is about a man in just such a position; but while it is drawn largely on the author’s own experiences bringing up a son on the autistic spectrum it is nevertheless fiction. Still, autism runs as a major strand throughout. Shtum is also about how its manifestation here fits into a bigger picture involving individuals, institutions and collective responses.

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The naming game

Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the 'real' Tarzan's birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on.
Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the ‘real’ Tarzan’s birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on. Here Tarzan is teaching himself to read using a picture book.

I’ve talked before about character names in fiction, for example in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I’ve noted that certain authors are drawn to choosing significant names for their protagonists, authors such as A S Byatt in The Biographer’s Tale and in Angels & Insects. Donna Leon chose to call her truth-seeking heroine in The Jewels of Paradise Pellegrini, after the Italian name for a pilgrim, and the magizoologist Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them bears names that mark him out as a scientist (Newton) whilst also being able to transform (from larva to eft to newt) and survive in different environments (the newt, a kind of salamander, lives both in water and on land, while the Scamander is a river near ancient Troy).

Yet it appears that many authors don’t go in for universally significant or symbolic names for their leading men and women, especially when it comes to realistic novels set in a contemporary world. For example, Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child has the parents of Luke, Helen, Jane, Paul and Ben simply as David and Harriet Lovatt, and unless these names had personal significance for the author (as a difficult ‘family’ member had for Lessing’s life) I can’t see that these are anything other than what any ordinary middleclass family might choose. Again, in Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January is it apparent that Rydal Keener or the couple Chester and Colette MacFarlane have anything special about their names other than they seem typically North American? Perhaps the fact that Chester and Rydal are both derived from place names is more noteworthy than I can fathom.

But if the characters’ names neither obviously conform to the conventions of their setting nor have a personal resonance for the author (or at least one that they wish to share) do we have to fall back on significance or symbolism as guiding spirits? What do online gurus have to say about choosing the names of characters? I’ve selected three of these advisers.

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