What the rules are

© C A Lovegrove

A Palace of Strangers by Sam Youd.
The SYLE Press 2019 (1954)

When I have read novels chronicling family life over years, over generations, I think the thing I have most admired has been the way the incidents were set, in time. It is not until one rises to tell such a story that one realizes the art involved — the art, and the artifice. For events do not fall out as conveniently as one would like.

‘A Palace of Strangers’ Part Two, Chapter V

Hinted at by its quote from the prophet Isaiah in the title, A Palace of Strangers explores the disconnect between two of the Abrahamic religions as it affects one particular family, the Rosenbaums. But there are other disconnects too, between siblings and between cultures during times of piece as well as war. And there are those who inhabit a No Man’s Land — agnostics and atheists, and second generation immigrants — who find neutrality is often no different from being regarded as in opposition.

Though it covers barely a half century Sam Youd’s family saga is intense, absorbing and believable, all the more impressive for its apparently accurate portrayal of religious cultures — Catholicism and Judaism — which he wasn’t himself a part of. Though at times the author’s and the narrator’s lives may have overlapped I didn’t get a sense of the latter merely being a mouthpiece of the former; in fact I was largely unaware of the ‘art and artifice’ that Youd has his narrator admire in real memoir writing.

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A man of a certain age

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Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle.
Jonathan Cape 2019

As a man of a certain age myself, the titular character of Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage is a kind of blood brother even though we don’t have the obvious things in common — football, the pub, dogs; for in this collection of reminiscences Charlie (via the author) reveals his bewilderment at changes in the world even while he valiantly tries to come to terms with them, a state of affairs those born in the middle of the last century may well recognise.

As a Dubliner himself Doyle is in an excellent position to portray Charlie’s daily habits in Ireland’s capital with a sympathetic eye — it helps that he appears to share a birth year with his eponymous hero — though we mustn’t be misled into thinking this Charlie is coterminous with his author.

The fifty-two vignettes, written as weekly instalments for the Irish Independent, chart Charlie’s stumbles through 2018, two years into a man-baby’s presidency and another two years before a global pandemic. But many of Charlie’s observations continue to have contemporary and, even with their Irish perspective, universal relevance.

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Back home to me

Whooper Swan: engraving by Thomas Bewick

Swan Song by Gill Lewis.
Barrington Stoke 2021

Somehow this was a profounder and more affecting novella than I was expecting. Written for older pre-teens and later readers it’s written from the point of view of Dylan, a lad who hasn’t made a smooth transition from primary to secondary education and has now been permanently excluded from his urban school.

Taken by his mother to stay with her estranged father in Wales he appears to be at rock bottom, friendless in a strange land and offline to boot. But it turns out to be the best thing that has yet happened to him as he learns to look outwards rather than remaining locked in within himself.

Throw away any preconceptions about this being a mere run-of-the-mill feelgood story. It alludes to childhood depression, the difficulties facing one-parent families, loss of loved ones, trauma and the threat of environmental despoliation. And it shows that, given not only the will and the right conditions but also an innate predisposition, it’s possible to see a way through what seems like an intolerable situation.

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A shoreless kingdom

Cover illustration of a generic Middle European walled city for Le Guin’s Malafrena by an uncredited artist for Panther Books 1981

Having recently completed and been impressed by Ursula K le Guin’s Malafrena (1979), a novel set in her imagined country of Orsinia in the early 19th century, I thought I would compose a few thoughts about its history and geography before posting a review.

I’ve already discussed her bleak but beautiful short story collection called Orsinian Tales, in which a series of vignettes detailing lives lived during a thousand years of Orsinian history gives us a flavour of this fictional nation somewhere east of central Europe. Referenced as Orciny in China Miéville’s fantasy The City and the City, Le Guin’s landlocked country is the sort of polity that may well have existed in Europe’s chequered history which — not unlike Miéville’s twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma somewhere at the edge of Europe — seems to have slipped out of most Europeans’ consciousness.

Now may be a good time to set the scene for what we may expect in a review of Malafrena, and for that we need maps and a bit of historical context.

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Now, and then

River scene (engraving by Thomas Bewick)

The River at Green Knowe
by Lucy M Boston,
illustrated by Peter Boston.
Odyssey / Harcourt Young Classics 2002 (1959)

A prosaic reader might say this is a story about three children who spend an idyllic summer at a mansion in Cambridgeshire mostly messing about on the river, and in this they wouldn’t be wrong. But this is no ordinary mansion, these are no ordinary children, and this is no ordinary river: this is Green Knowe, and these are children alive to imaginative possibilities, and this is a river where those possibilities can come true.

Mrs Oldknow, who owns the ancient Manor House of Green Knowe, has let it out for the summer to the distinguished archaeologist Dr Maud Biggin and her friend, the homely Miss Sybilla Bun. Dr Biggin promptly decides to invite her great-niece Ida and two refugee boys called Oskar and Hsu to stay for the holidays.

Ida (11), affectionately called Midget, along with Oskar Stanislawsky from Poland (also 11) and Hsu, known as Ping, who’s from China, happily get on well together and, left to their own devices, get on with enjoying lazy days and stealthy nights exploring and mapping the river. This being Green Knowe the trio soon find there is unexpected natural magic around every corner.

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Bittersweet symphony

Piazza (image credit: Polina Kostova /Pexels)

Nocturnes:
Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro,
Faber and Faber 2010 (2009)

This quintet of brief narratives told by different musicians and one music-lover, all told in the first person, describe relationships and acquaintances which never quite run smooth. Though ‘nocturne’ strictly describes a nighttime piece of music some of these stories have a daytime feel even when their tones can be dark.

The settings vary, moving from Venice to London, the Welsh Marches to Beverly Hills, and ending in an unnamed Italian town piazza.

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More brief narratives

I recently mentioned that I had several collections of short stories in hand which I intended to get round to in the near future using the tag the Library of Brief Narratives. It’s my intention to include as many short story titles as I can bear throughout 2021, but to get off to a flying start by reviewing a couple of them in December.

I’ve already listed selections and collections with or including realist themes. Now, as a further amuse-bouche for you all, comes another listing of titles with a more speculative range of genres, from SF and fantasy through fairytales and on to horror and suspense.

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To cut a tale short

Collections of short stories are, I’ve found, tricky things to review compared to a solid novel or longish novella. The reasons are as various as the pieces in the collection can be:

  1. there may be too many individual stories to cover them all in any detail;
  2. mere listing of the contents doesn’t, in my view, constitute a review but often that seems to be main option, which is a disservice to those hoping to decide whether to read the volume;
  3. the selection may be uneven in quality with any poor specimens bringing down the standard of the collection and thus one’s overall assessment;
  4. the variety in terms of subject matter, tone, length and order also make an overall assessment difficult.

But without reviews how is one to tread the labyrinth of the Library of Brief Narratives? I have a number of such collections in my purview waiting for my perusal and assessment so I have those paths to follow.

In the meantime, here is an overview of some of the collections I have reviewed, with brief commentary, for those (like, I think, Cath Humphries) hoping for signposts to new pastures. For this first of two posts I look at collections with a realist slant (links are to my reviews).

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Mysterious and mesmeric

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)

Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.

And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.

The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.

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The whole sky ablaze

The Tulip Touch
by Anne Fine,
Puffin Books 1997 (1996)

Everyone thinks they can see things when they look back. It’s nonsense, really, I expect.

This award-winning teenage novel — it was the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 1996 — is a hard-hitting psychological portrayal of an abusive friendship which poses the eternal question, are people ever born evil? It also asks whether it is enough for people to shake their heads and pass judgement while assuming it’s somebody else’s responsibility to deal with the root causes of antisocial behaviour.

But it wouldn’t be enough for a work of fiction to be preachy, it has to engage the reader in personal stories and relationships, and to put that reader in the position of thinking, would I behave like this or act like that, especially if they were an impressionable youngster like the narrator.

And adult readers may also pause to consider how even grown-ups can be powerless to change situations, either because of their own inadequacies or because systems aren’t in place to allow justice to be done. Through moral ambiguities, challenges and personal courage we are led along the narrative path this novel hastens to take us.

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Novels about gardens

Kirsty from The Literary Sisters recently reposted one of their pieces with the title Books about Gardens, which I was so taken with that I’m going to do my version, now, at the height of summer.

As the title suggests, I’m going to refer to books I’ve read, with links to any reviews, that have dealt one way or another with gardens in the modern era. I could have included references to gardens in the wider sense — the Middle Eastern concept of the paradise garden, or Thomas Browne’s 1658 overview The Garden of Cyrus, or turf mazes and labyrinths and the wildernesses of landscape gardening — but I’ve chosen to limit myself mostly to fiction, with just a couple of excursions beyond the paling.

Additionally, I note that these are in the main the grand gardens of English country houses or urban mansions rather than the more modest domestic examples of town terraces and the suburbs or examples from abroad. It’s something I need to address in a future post, whether they exist, say, in Mesopotamian mythology, in Chinese culture, the global tradition of public open spaces or Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories.

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The scribbling itch

Virginia Woolf’s tidied up writing lodge at Monk’s House in East Sussex

Virginia Woolf:
A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’

Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.

Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.

What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.

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Emotional landscapes

Nina Bawden: Squib
Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)

‘Little children understand magic,’ her mother had said once. ‘It’s a gift you lose as you grow older.’

Squib is a marvellous tale about how children of a certain age look to fairytales to help them make sense of the world. In a little waif which they call Squib Kate sees either a changeling or the ghost of her younger brother swept out to sea years before; siblings Sammy and Prue want Squib as an otherworldly playmate but are worried that he’s guarded by a witch in a wood; Prue and Sammy’s brother Robin wants to pursue ‘useless’ subjects like Latin and classical Greek at school but sees himself as a reluctant hero when wrongs need to be righted and Squib needs rescuing.

And the adults, have they truly lost the gift of understanding magic? Kate’s mother — an illustrator of children’s books — believes that ‘in real life there aren’t any right true happy endings. You have to get used to things as they are.’ Meanwhile, Robin’s mother was once a competitive swimmer but thinks she will never have the need to demonstrate her skills in this department again. Is life so cruel then that dreams face being forever dashed?

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What the Dickens!

Engraving of snail by Orlando Jewitt

George Braintree:
Poverty and Oysters; how words inspired Charles Dickens
Gotham Press 1970

“It’s a wery remarkable circumstance, Sir,’ said Sam, ‘that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”
— Sam Weller to Mr Pickwick

One of the most striking things about Dickens’ writings is the range of curious names his characters, places and book titles sport — Micawber, Chuzzlewit, Mudfog, Uriah Heap, and so on.

Georgian literature was replete with artful names, of course, usually suited to the nature of the person so called: Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals, for example, is from the French mal à propos (meaning ‘inappropriate’), and religious allegories like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were chock-full of them.

But the names Dickens invents are altogether more playful and seemingly pointless except for their memorability. Where did he get his inspiration for them? George Braintree thinks he knows.

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Something rotten

Jan Mark: Heathrow Nights
Heinemann New Windmills 2002 (2000)

Three teenage tearaways from Hertfordshire, Adam, Curtis and the narrator Russell, disgrace themselves on an outing to see a performance of Hamlet and as a result are banned from a school trip to Cumbria. Rather than confess to their parents — and having intercepted letters from school — they arrange to spend the week in London. Alas, things don’t go according to plan and they find themselves in limbo wandering around the terminals of Heathrow Airport.

While they do so Russell is able to meditate more fully on his situation: his father having suddenly died, his mother hasn’t taken long to get remarried, to the person who was with his father when the latter unexpectedly passed away on a plane.

His resentment at a changing situation over which he has no control causes him to see parallels between himself and Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the prince learns from his father’s ghost that he was murdered by his uncle Claudius and that his mother Gertrude rushed to wed his uncle.

But is the comparison exact? Are there also parallels between other characters and the people he knows? And what will happen when his week in limbo comes to an end?

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