Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

This rather slight novel draws together Rotherham, an Anglicised German refugee with a Jewish father, working for British intelligence and cross-examining Rudolf Hess; Karsten, a German POW struggling with the shame of surrender; and the eponymous Esther, encountering foreigners (including the English) for the first time. The parts of the novel dealing with Hess, while interesting, seem a little bolted-on and disconnected from the main narrative which focuses around Esther. Esther is an interesting character, drawn to transgressive acts but ultimately returned to something like convention, although this is built on half-truths and deceits. It's all beautifully written, but a bit too much like three linked short stories to make a satisfying novel.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters remains in the late 1940s for her latest work, which revolves around a country house, Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, the Ayres family who live there, and their doctor, first-name-less Dr Faraday, whose mother was once a housemaid at the Hall and who has traversed, but not forgotten, several social boundaries. Initially called to the Hall to treat the current housemaid Betty, the doctor gradually develops an intimacy with Mrs Ayres and her adult children Caroline and Roderick. Through this friendship, and his uneasy romance with Caroline, he becomes party to various strange events at the Hall; a fire, rappings and knockings, writing appearing on walls. The Hundreds Hall he remembers from his boyhood is decaying before his eyes, the estate mostly sold off, rooms closed up and paper peeling away. Dr Faraday is the voice of rationality in the book as the Hall's inhabitants become increasingly convinced that the odd events are supernatural in origin, but he cannot prevent tragic consequences through rational argument. I'll try not to spoil the ending for those who have yet to read the book.

Although Sarah Waters has returned to a chronological narrative order for this novel, there is still much that is interesting in her narrative choices. Dr Faraday, as first-person narrator, is often absent from the strange and unsettling events at the Hall. Sometimes he hears about them directly from witnesses, so the reader encounters them in Caroline's voice, for example; at other times he recounts them himself, using reportage that increases the reader's distance from the events themselves and ratchets up the sense of ambiguity. His narration of the uncanny is flat and scientific, highly reminiscent of the dry academics who so often narrate the ghost stories of M R James, but - the uncanny aside - the lives he depicts are generally flat and limited, with few options in a period of deep austerity and financial constraint. The first-person narrative and the focus of the novel on a house are something of an homage to Rebecca, but there are other similarities too; the influence of a long-dead character, the awkwardness of Faraday as his friendship with the family grows, and his increasing power and agency as the mysterious events pile up. I wondered if the choice of a doctor as narrator was a hint, given the famously unreliable narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; when I went to hear Sarah Waters speak about this book, however, she suggested that a doctor was chosen because he would have access to the house and permission to ask impertinent questions. His position as the voice of material rationality - during the course of the novel he conducts a research project and writes it up for presentation at a conference - is also an effective contrast to the variety of levels of belief in the supernatural he encounters at the Hall.

Every book I read at the moment seems to be partly about class, and this is no exception. Of working-class stock, Faraday has moved through several social classes to get a grammar-school education and then qualify as a doctor. The seriousness of his mother's final illness was kept from him to ensure his studies were undisturbed, and his move into middle-class professionalism damaged his relationship with his father irreparably. His later transition into friend of the Ayres, and would-be lover of Caroline, proves equally disruptive and damaging. For the Ayres, Faraday personifies the rapid social change of post-war England, but he is also affected by it; the nascent NHS is both a threat and an opportunity for him. The Ayres are trapped and tormented by their social role as they attempt to preserve it in impossible circumstances. The barriers of class infect the narrative, limiting the freedom of conversation and preventing Faraday from asking questions, and the Ayres from giving away family secrets.

It's probably not giving anything away to say that the end of this novel is ambiguous; readers can draw their own conclusions. Is the Little Stranger a genuine manifestation of the uncanny, of shared hysteria, or of individual neurosis? Is Faraday's interest and influence on Hundreds Hall benign, or does he somehow contribute to the sinister happenings there? What of Betty the housemaid, convinced that the house itself is somehow bad? I have my own theory, and you'll probably have yours too.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Party in San Niccolò by Christobel Kent

A murder mystery set in Florence links the expatriate community with the local underworld, subverting the beauty of a dolce vita in sunlit Renaissance gardens by reminding us that criminality and corruption lurk even in the loveliest of places. Gina, taking a much-needed break from the demands of suburban family life, is our guide to this new world, introducing us to an oddly assorted group of characters. There is Gina's old friend Jane, married to Niccolò, a successful English-Italian architect; Jane runs a cookery school and is strongly controlled and perfectionist, her life superficially without flaw. There is generous and kindly Frances, in her seventies and planning her annual birthday party; and Frank, a journalist who has long since abandoned the search for a major scoop. In the first two pages of the book, however, two young women are found dead: Evelina, a Nigerian girl trafficked into prostitution, and Natasha, a beautiful English girl thrown through the plate-glass window of a local antique dealer. Natasha is the best friend of Beatrice, Niccolò's daughter and subject of Jane's unwilling stepmothering, and it is this younger generation that links the rest of the expats to to the local criminals centered around grey-haired Stefano, dealer and pimp.

Kent constructs a complex plot, with blind alleys and several plausible suspects for the murder, and into this weaves a good many observations on the nature of love and marriage, and the proximity of apparently perfect lives to seedy degradation. The plot resolution is reached after deftly built suspense, and in Frank, Gina and Frances Kent creates genuinely appealing and rounded characters, who stop the novel becoming formulaic.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

New Grub Street details the lives of those attempting to earn a living from writing during the 1880s. A group of writers, journalists and scholars, linked together by professional and family connections, are at work in London: we have Jasper Milvain, who looks on the production of literature entirely as a trade, and at the other extreme is Mr Biffen, quietly starving in his garret as he works at his realist novel Mr Bailey, Grocer. If the novel has a main protagonist it is probably Edwin Reardon, whose view of culture is placed somewhere between these two points. A published author, he is struggling to produce another novel; with a wife and child to support, he is finally persuaded, in part by his wife Amy, to compromise his aesthetic principles to produce something sensational that will sell. However, the money he is able to earn from his work continues to dwindle, and he returns to his former work as a clerk, causing a major rift in his marriage. Unacknowledged in print, but working daily as a researcher for her father is Marian Yule, Amy’s cousin, who contributes to the support of her small family through her efforts at the British Library.

The novel’s main interests are the effects of the business of writing. Is it possible to make a decent living from writing culturally valuable work? Or is it only possible if artistic integrity is compromised? Based on the fates of the various characters, the latter is true – only Jasper Milvain achieves any sort of financial success. The novel also criticises the constraints of the publishing industry and the tyranny imposed on the writer required to produce a three-volume novel by the circulating libraries. Reardon in particular is tormented by the need to stretch a story out to three volumes, and there’s a certain amount of evidence of Gissing’s own torment in this respect. The novel is definitely padded in places, and makes use of cliched plot devices, although this gives insight into the validity of Reardon’s complaint. The book is also interesting on matters of class. Marian Yule’s parents have married across the class boundary, to the everlasting regret of her father; Amy and Edwin separate when his move to clerkdom threatens to declass Amy. Lack or loss of social status results in social isolation and degradation, and limits opportunities for advancement and connection. The Reardons are increasingly isolated when their increasing poverty makes it impossible for them to accept the hospitality of others, since they cannot return it; the threat of compounding this isolation through crossing a class boundary is too much for Amy. Unmarried men may attempt to challenge that social status: Mr Biffen lives like a pauper in a garret, in a poor (and, it turns out, dangerous) area; but women and married men cannot transgress class boundaries without serious consequences. Those serious consequences are played out in the tensions of Marian Yule's home and the lack of opportunity in her life. While the book celebrates, to an extent, the joys of bachelor life in a dingy garret, it also reinforces rigid social stratification.

Like the other Gissing novel I've read (In the Year of Jubilee), the book deals ambiguously with its female characters and with attitudes to women. Some misogyny might be detected in the way wives are presented as a curb to literary and creative ambition, millstones around the neck of writers who might otherwise create works of genius. Although Amy is not entirely sympathetic to her husband's desire to create better-quality work, focusing more on what will sell and support her and her child, she is portrayed as strong and enduring, helpful to her husband and struggling to manage on the little money they have until they separate. This view of Amy is, however, undercut by her (probably unwitting) contribution to Mr Biffen's final decline, and her marriage to Jasper Milvain at the end of the novel. Hard-working Marian Yule might be a proto-feminist character: at first undertaking scholarship to support her father's work, she progresses to writing published under her own name. But her self-sacrifice in order to support her family, and her passivity in the face of Jasper Milvain's reluctant and reduntant courtship, undermine her agency. She is whisked off to run a library in the provinces, solving her family's financial hardship and Gissing's problem of how to end her story at one stroke.

This fascinating book foregrounds the labour of literature and locates writers, socially, as workers - but workers continually attempting to balance society's demands and their own aesthetic principles. This reminds me of the continual tightrope walk performed by members of the lower middle/upper working classes, attempting both to preserve their gentility and make enough money to live on. Throw artistic aspirations into that mix and you have a triangle that is impossible to reconcile.