Monday, 16 June 2008

The House by the Thames by Gillian Tindall

This meticulous piece of historical research tells the story of Bankside by focusing on one house, Number 49, and the people who lived and worked there. The book explores the industrial history of Bankside alongside the social history of its inhabitants. Tindall is more neutral about the transformation of Bankside from industrial to cultural activity than she is about the social changes effected by the removal of Bankside's working classes to suburban council developments, perhaps because Bankside, in its early history, was a place for relaxation and entertainment; it has now, mostly, reverted to that role. It's unlikely that the socially diverse Bankside population of the nineteenth century can be recreated with any great ease, given the costs and availability of housing around the area. It was fascinating to learn how many buildings, now acclaimed as monuments, were very close to demolition at various points of history - not least Southwark Cathedral, once facing the axe because its unheated interior was too cold to be healthy. Similarly, the survival of buildings like 49 Bankside was happenstance, influenced by spurious historical assocations that came to be taken as fact. Tindall makes an excellent case for the value of such buildings, not themselves architecturally distinguished, as a focus for our understanding of the development of our towns and cities.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

This year's reading so far

Today's posts update this blog with all the books I've read this year. You can also find my reviews at LibraryThing.

Loving Without Tears by M J Farrell (Molly Keane)

I read this fairly soon after Devoted Ladies, which it echoes closely in theme if not in plot. Camp handsome serving men; thwarted powerful women; ignored and ridiculed weaker women with silly nicknames and physical disadvantages; beautiful American vamps. Probably they need to be read further apart. But it runs along well, amusing and cruel, and Angel, the controlling mother, is finally vanquished in a satisfying set piece. A great sense of place is invoked without much physical description; you can almost smell the salt. Very satisfying too is Keane's use of inexplicable terminology (what is a carnation rabbit?) which the reader quickly accepts as part of the language of the book and the characters.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

I was reading a lot about suburbia when this came out, and was drawn to the theme. But I found this very hard to enjoy. The characters so negative, the place so null, and the writing so doggedly writerly. It went straight onto BookMooch and is now making somebody else's life a misery for 300 pages.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

I enjoyed this until just before the very end; the revelation of how Duncan came to be imprisoned rang a bit hollow to me, and disappointed. The reverse structure was well-handled and the interconnectedness of the characters seemed lifelike and did not strain.

The Closed Door by Dorothy Whipple

Short stories exploring the themes of parents and children, especially the way parents exploit and control children for their own ease or pleasure. Slightly too keen on a happy ending, but the constraints of family life, especially for adult daughters reared to be used as cheap servants for their parents, were well-expressed. An interesting read with Singled Out in mind, showing how difficult it was for unmarried young women to make their own way in the world without their parents' support and consent, and with echoes of E M Delafield's Consequences, in which a mother's iron grip on her daughter is only broken by escape into a convent.

Every Eye by Isobel English

This was a tiny masterpiece. Not unlike Diana Athill's novel Don't Look at Me Like That, this novel shifts between the youth and middle age of a young woman growing up, and middle-aged, in the mid-century, tracking the sometimes benign, sometimes malign influence of her aunt by marriage. The writing is exquisite, the miniature plot well handled and compelling. Isobel English was a friend and contemporary of Muriel Spark and Olivia Manning, and there are points of comparison with both here.

Fattypuffs and Thinifers by Andre Maurois

I re-read this to make sure it wasn't too shocking to be given to a friend's eight-year-old. It wasn't, but was highly amusing and entertaining. The eight-year-old loves it.

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale has developed his characteristic style of shifting narrative voices and timescales to a very high degree here. The characterisation is consistent throughout the novel's timeshifts and the flashbacks bring out Rachel's attractive qualities as well as her difficult nature. Her paintings were beautifully described so that they sang in my imagination's eye. I particularly liked the way that the ownership of paintings given in the Notes starting each chapter hinted at different and emerging relationships between the characters than were apparent at the relevant point in the text. The only slight failure, for me, was the character of Hedley who seemed a bit under-drawn and too good to be true - lacking the subtle qualities of characterisation and narrative elsewhere in the novel. I look forward to reading this again.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Highly enjoyable and finely crafted, this historical novel evokes strongly the impressions of Renaissance Florence, its beauties and horrors. The device of naive Allesandra learning the city's secrets supports the reader's own discovery of another time well, without resorting to clunky exposition. I felt that a couple of the twists and surprises towards the end were a little too much - although probably irresistible.

Mitfords: Letters between six sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley

I meant to keep this as a bedside treat and read a few letters each evening, but inevitably gobbled it down indiscriminately. I was sorry that Nancy's funnier letters, already printed in other collections, didn't make it into this volume as well, as the full extent of her wit is not apparent; the same could be said of Jessica. Diana's famous charm did not come across from the printed page for me - she seemed querulous and tiresome by the end, as if she used up all her bravery during her period of imprisonment and in subsequent defence of Mosley. Debo is the funniest in this volume; Unity can be amusing but it is something of a relief when her letters, with their repetitive refrain of "poor dear Hitler", come to an end. The selection tells the story of the sisters very effectively, letting their own words narrate and expose the complexities of their lives and relationships with each other.

Don't Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

This is beautifully written, like all Diana Athill's books. The development of Meg's rebellions, from her disregard for school rules through to the ultimate rejection of her society's mores when she decides to keep her child, is well crafted and convincing. The blend of contemporary Meg, commenting on her past actions, and Meg as a youth is skillfully achieved; I never felt that youthful Meg had too much self-awareness, because I was always subtly made aware of the narrative's shift to her older, more reflective voice.

The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff

I found this hard to read initially, because the family's anxieties over their journey were so acutely realised. But once they had reached Bognor, their pleasures were equally convincing. The family is on the cusp of a change in the way they take their holidays, partly because the two older children are now adults starting to seek their own pleasures, and partly because holidaymaking itself is changing - Mrs Huggett's shabby B&B will no longer do. This change, and the family's dawning perceptions of it, give the novel its tension and interest.

Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson

As in her book Among the Bohemians, Nicholson extracts an informative and humourous work from published and unpublished sources, interviews, letters and memoirs. The material is spun deftly into a compelling narrative of women's lives. While celebrating the successes of spinster existence, she never underestimates the difficulties of managing alone in a society that was often hostile to single women. I would have liked a chapter on the later evolution of the spinster, and society's shifting attitudes to the single woman, but generally this was fascinating and extremely moving. I had five spinster great-aunts of the generation she covers, and this was an insight and a reconnection to the nature of their lives, already greatly influential in mine.

A few months after I read the book, I heard Virginia Nicholson speak about it at the Charleston festival. She's an entertaining reader and speaker; worth seeking out. She asked the audience to raise their hands if they had been related to, or taught by, the generation of women she described. Almost everybody did. I hope some of those who raised their hands will tell the stories of the spinsters who shaped their lives and memories.

Late and Soon by E M Delafield

On the surface a fairly simple tale of young love rediscovered in middle age, but cluttered with sensational references to premarital sex and homosexuality - which undermine the more genuine shock of a mother and daughter both being involved with the same man. Valentine, Lonergan and the General are sensitively drawn, although Prudence, Hughie and Jess all veer towards caricature. The broad theme of Valentine's wavering efforts to live her own life is well handled, however, and touching, as is the hopeful ending.

No one now will know by E M Delafield

Told in three separate sections, running in reverse chronological order, this novel traces a family saga across three generations. Each layer of the family has its mousy girl, its charismatic, dominating woman, and its charismatic young man. The first section, contemporary with the novel's writing, introduces us to the family through the eyes of Sue in a brief vignette of a family group travelling through the south of France. The second section, from the perspective of Callie, Sue's mother, as a small child transplanted from her grandmother's home in the West Indies to live with her aunt and cousins in Devonshire, sets up the tangle of misunderstandings about Callie's origins that are exposed in the third section. This last section switches narrative focus between Kate, her friend Rosalie, and Kate's two brothers who are both in love with Rosalie, and could both be Callie's father. The middle section tells us that Rosalie will die in a carriage accident; the final section drags rather in reaching this signposted climax, particularly when compared with the pithier early sections of the novel. Delafield stretches the suspense of this final section to its extremes. However, the characterisation of another of her monstrous mothers, and of Kate, are both good. For the other characters, a little less telling, and a little more showing, would have been an improvement.

The Museum of Cheats by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Typically lyrical, tricky stories from STW. The title story is a long history of the eponymous museum spanning several centuries, much in the style of The Corner That Held Them; the story of an institution rather than the characters that populate it. Many of the stories focus on the immediate aftermath of the second world war, with separated couples reunited but unreconciled. It will make a good companion piece to Austerity Britain.