Friday, 29 May 2015

The Kindness by Polly Samson

I enjoyed Polly Samson's recent novel, The Kindness, more than I expected - it's one of those books where you just have to keep reading to find out what really happened. It is largely the story of Julian, a young English literature student whose life is never the same after he bumps into Julia, a married woman about ten years older than he is.
    Julian can't take her eyes off Julia because she is strikingly beautiful and looks terrifically dramatic when he comes across her exercising her husband's hawk who is named, prophetically, Lucifer. Julian has been reading Milton's Paradise Lost, and there are references to Adam and Eve throughout Polly Samson's beguiling novel. The two soon become lovers and Julian discovers he must rescue Julia from a violent marriage.
    Although young, Julian is more than up for the task and with a baby on the way he remains positive and energetic because he and Julia are so in love. Beginning a family has its ups and downs, but Julian discovers a talent for rewriting the stories of history using the voices of eye-witness dogs. He is a runaway success at this and when his old family home, Firdaws, comes on the market he decides to risk everything to buy it.
    Firdaws really is paradise, but it might just be paradise lost if things don't improve - Julia is hating having to commute to her garden design business in London and then their daughter Mira becomes ill. Her illness creates a turning point and in the story and everything seems to spiral downwards from there.
    Around this ill-fated couple Samson has created a cast of characters that tempt and persuade or generally make things difficult for Julian and Julia. These include Karl, the friend who saved Julian's life when he was attacked by wasps and Katie, Julian's ex-girlfriend, suddenly single again when Firdaws is up for sale. Julian's mother Jenna challenges family members to swim the river that runs through the land nearby and wouldn't you know it, the river is home to a snake.
    There are forbidden fruit too - figs ripening and attracting more wasps, and oranges grown by Julia in her greenhouses. The fields are lush and reflect the changing seasons but Julia also makes beautiful settings for her family in their London flat. All of this adds loads of atmosphere.
    The Kindness is a story about betrayal and misunderstanding where everything hinges on an event that happens early on, with the jumps forward and back in time that have you guessing just enough to keep you reading on. There's even more to wonder about with the similarity of the main characters' names or working out which particular event is the 'kindness' of the title.
    I had my doubts about Julia - is she a terrible temptress or is she just as much a victim of bad luck as Julian? With his imaginative talent and boyish passion for love and life, Julian seems to earn more of our sympathy.
    But in the end it doesn't much matter what we think of the characters as they seem to be the playthings of bigger things like luck and fate, coincidence and bad-timing wrapped up in a carefully wrought storyline. These components are brought together by the fine writing talent of Samson who has created a unique and intelligent novel.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson

William Nicholson has carved a niche for himself writing intelligent novels about relationships, following a collection of interconnected characters over several generations. He does historical settings really well, and this novel features two time periods, the first is present day from the point of view of Alice Dickinson. She's a London copy writer researching the characters from the second time period for a screen play - the 'lovers of Amherst' of the title: Austin Dickinson (no relation) and Mabel Todd.
    Mabel is the young wife of an academic newly arrived at Amherst College and Austin the much older and unhappily married brother of American poet Emily Dickinson. It is 1885 when the two fall in love, meeting secretly in Emily Dickinson's house. Emily approves of their passion and while she is too much of a recluse to meet Mabel in person, she listens to their trysts through the dining room door. Who could resist writing a screenplay about that?
    Alice has her own issues with love. While she has broken the heart of Jack Broad, they remain friends and Jack offers her a contact in Amherst: the handsome older lecturer, Nick Crocker, who was once romantically involved with Jack's mother. Of course the inevitable happens, and Nick and Alice mirror the story of Austin and Mabel, told in alternating chapters.
    While this would make enough fodder for a reasonable love story, the novel goes a lot deeper than that, with discourses on the nature of love and happiness. Alice begins to learn the workings of her own feelings, chorused with snippets of Emily Dickinson's pithy and insightful poetry.
    It becomes a novel full of quotations and while I enjoyed lingering over the verse attempting to make connections to what is happening and for the glory of the poetry itself, I did tend to skim over Austin's and Mabel's effusive love letters - they wrote all the time to each other apparently. I also had reservations about the awkwardness of Alice and Nick's relationship, their often terse conversations, the see-sawing emotions.
    Towards the end though it begins to make more sense, as other characters step in, offer insight and help Alice grow up a little. I liked the advice Jack gives Alice about her screenplay.  As an English teacher who teaches 'narrative structure', he suggests she needs to start by figuring out how the play will end and that will define the story as a whole. Alice of course finds that the ending isn't quite how she'd originally imagined it and Nicholson ties this in nicely with an interesting conclusion to the novel as well.
     The Lovers of Amherst is well researched and evokes brilliantly its Massachusetts college town setting. The writing is assured and the characters well rounded and interesting, reminding me it is time I read some more of these interconnected novels. You can tell Nicholson really cares about his cast of characters, as he can't seem to let them go. I am reminded a little of Mary Wesley in this respect and wonder where Nicholson will take us next.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel is both a love story and a war story. And whoever said 'all's fair in love and war' couldn't have come up with a better story to illustrate the point, complicated as it is by the hand of fate and the capriciousness of the gods.
    While this is definitely the story of Achilles - immortalised by Homer as the greatest Greek warrior of his day and a key figure in the war the Greeks waged on Troy - the story is told from the point of view of Patroclus and includes a fascinating retelling of the lengthy siege the Greeks inflicted on Troy.
    You will remember it all began when Helen was abducted by Paris; she was his prize for choosing Aphrodite in a beauty contest. Helen was the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ as well we know, and they were Greek warships brought from numerous Greek kingdoms, all converging on Troy to regain not only Helen for her husband Menelaus, but to defend Greek honour and teach the Trojans a lesson.
    At first I had to get over my recollections of the movie Troy which cast Brad Pitt as Achilles - an alpha male Holywood idol kind of Achilles. Miller’s Achilles is not like that. With the goddess, Thetis, for a mother, this hero has amazing fighting skills that always find their mark. But he's also sensitive and musical and his unusual golden hair and green eyes give him an ethereal beauty. She takes us back to Achilles' youth and the development of his love for Patroclus, his boyhood friend and lover, which plays an important part in his fate at Troy.
    Patroclus has had a difficult start in life. He is a disappointment to his father and when he accidentally kills another boy, is exiled to Phthia where its king, Peleus, fosters a number of boys, one of whom will eventually be chosen as companion for his son, Achilles. Surprisingly to everyone, Achilles chooses Patroclus. When Patroclus joins Achilles for lessons with the centaur Chiron, he begins to get over his inferiority complex and develops skills of his own.
    The two become inseparable, but when the war on Troy is declared, Achilles, in spite of Thetis' efforts to hide him, must muster an army from Phthia and join the fleet. Patroclus of course goes with him. Achilles lives under the curse of all that makes him great and his fate, as written by the gods, cannot be avoided.
    Miller is a classical scholar and has done her research to make this so much more than a sword and sandals drama. The relationship Patroclus has with Achilles is tender and makes the story poignant and real. She does wonders showing how the efforts of man to create his own destiny are in constant battle with the whims of the gods, which may have seemed strained and artificial in less skilled hands. The power play that develops between Achilles and Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon, who is proud and cruel, makes the story hum along.
    You can see the lasting appeal of these classical stories written so long ago by Homer and others such as Virgil and Aeschylus. There is plenty of fodder here for some more classical adaptations - the genial but wily Odysseus, for instance, would make a terrific subject for another book, to say nothing of what happens next to the family of Agamemnon.
    In the acknowledgements, Miller states that this novel has been a work in progress for ten years. I sincerely hope that she has learned to speed up the process, because I would love to see some more of these stories brought to life as she has so vividly with The Song of Achilles. This is a haunting story that will stay with this reader for a long time.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

It's a few more months before Robert Goddard's third book in his James Maxted trilogy comes out, and fancying some period spy drama I couldn't resist picking up Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd. And it certainly didn't disappoint when it came to page-turning action.
    Lysander Rief is an actor - with a name like that what else would he be? - and we first encounter him on his way to an appointment with a psychologist to discuss a problem of a sexual nature. This is 1913 in Vienna, a city Freud has put on the map for the development of psychoanalysis. In the waiting room Rief meets Hetty Bull, a compelling young English sculptor, and his life is never the same again. Rief manages to solve one problem, but it is soon replaced by another.
    When Rief finds himself under arrest, he turns for help to Alwyn Monro, another client of Rief's analyst. Munro happens to work at the British consulate and manages to help Rief get home safely but at a price. Back in Blighty, Rief takes up his acting profession again, but World War One gives him a chance to pay back that debt that has been hanging over his head since Vienna.
    With his excellent French and German - Rief's mother is Austrian - and his ability to assume a role and dramatically change his appearance, Rief is ideal for a spot of espionage when secret information about troop and supply movements at the front is being passed to the Germans. He must make contact with the known receiver of the stolen information and somehow extract the key to the code from him. He does this with a novel method that might well put you off visiting your dentist.
    But that is only half the problem; back in England, someone is sending the information on, classified information that only high-ranking officers have access to. Fortunately for the reader Rief is soon installed in The Directorate of Movements on some pretext or other and gets to finish the job off.
    There's a lot going on in Rief's personal life as well. He has been engaged to lovely fellow actor, Blanche, but he can't forget Hetty and suddenly his current leading lady has begun to give him the come-hither look. All in all there is certainly plenty happening in the plot to keep the reader amused. Add to that the atmosphere of pre-war Vienna and mid-war England, the theatre set and tea and biscuits in the war office and you can certainly feel transported to another time and place.
    And if Rief isn't particularly likeable - he's foolish with women, and has got away with things that he should feel well ashamed of - he's interesting fodder from a psychological point of view. His very faults are what give the story a bit of heft and allow for fate to play with him - a little like his Shakespearean namesake. In the end Rief gets the job done and manages to select the woman he wants to spend his life with, but will he really be happy?
    Boyd has made a name for himself as a top-notch storyteller with even a James Bond title to his name. This is the first William Boyd novel that I have read and it is certainly diverting enough in that classic style of storytelling - a modern John Buchan perhaps. I'm still looking forward to the new James Maxted book though.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the Whitshank family, and to begin with it is mostly about Abby Whitshank and her husband Red in the later stages of their marriage. Abby has become confused, sometimes wandering off and forgetting why, so it's time for the younger Whitshank members to return to the well-proportioned house their grandfather built to discuss their parents' future.
    It is an awkward gathering, particularly when it is suggested that Red and Abby might be happier in some kind of retirement home. We already know that Red is the stubborn one, and still turning up at the family building business every day, he isn't likely to accept change easily. Abby is the opposite, an overly caring mother, with a habit of bringing home waifs and strays connected with her social work. But even Abby doesn't see the need for any fuss.
    They have raised four children, no-nonsense Amanda with her sharp business suits, Jeannie who works for the company business along with younger brother Stem who has taken on its management and is so much like Red in many ways. Which is a little strange because Stem is adopted, while Denny, two years older, drifts from job to job and never manages to keep a relationship. He disappears for months and sometimes years without anyone knowing where he is. The story of Stem's adoption is quite heart-breaking but also reveals what an incredible softy Abby is.
   The baggage which is hinted at between Stem and Denny is a story slowly unravelled, like the blue thread of the title. There is also the story of how Abby fell for Red  that creeps in towards the end of the book, and after that the peculiar courtship of Red's parents Junior and Linnie Mae. The blue thread is subtly there in odd corners - the blue of the shirt that Abby makes Red for their wedding, also the colour Linnie Mae requests for the porch swing of the Whitshank family home.
    There are enough disturbing secrets and revelations to keep the reader interested in the plot of the novel. But what Tyler is so wonderful at is the way she describes families. I found I could relate to events she describes, and even her characters sometimes reminded me of my own family members in a different country and hemisphere. It seems families are alike the world over. And like many families, the Whitshanks have come through some difficult times, but Tyler leaves us with the hopefulness of new beginnings and the promise of continuing generations.
    Throughout the novel there is the humour of Tyler's dialogue and her talent for capturing characters through tone of voice and idioms: Red's 'What the hell!' rejoinders; Linnie Mae's mispronunciations that indicate her humble origins. It is altogether a rich tapestry of American and family life, and another classic from the author of favourites like The Accidental Tourist and Searching for Caleb.