Friday, 15 February 2019

'Tis not wealth makes men

Moonfleet Moonfleet is a cracking good children's adventure story with a moral. It begins with John Trenchard, aged 15, inspired by a story of buried treasure. He sets out to make his fortune by finding it.

John himself relates the tale, and most of the action takes place on the Dorset coast, in and around the fictional village of Moonfleet where he lives. The residents are poor but generally happy, as they make the most of what little they have. John becomes a surrogate son to Elzevier Block, a noble character in spite of his smuggling exploits. Dastardly Magistrate Maskew's betrays the villagers to the Revenue men. John's Aunt Jane, who raised him after the death of his parents, was "too strict and precise ever to make [him] love her", and Grace Maskew is rather too saintly to be credible. But the characters are not as important as the adventure which takes John far from the home he loves.

J Meade Falkner wrote the book in 1898 and set it in the mid-1700s, so the writing style is old-fashioned. Regardless, his descriptions of the sea are wonderfully vivid, and readers may experience feelings of giddiness and vertigo in the episode when John and Elzevier escape customs officers by climbing a cliff.

By the end of the book, young readers may have learned "'tis not wealth makes men", and that "a good woman's love is worth far more than all the gold and jewels of the world".

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Regretting is always pointless

Moon Tiger "Regretting is always pointless, since there is no undoing". So says Claudia Hampton as she lies dying in a hospital bed. She has been writing "a history of the world. [-] The Life and Times of Claudia H."

Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger is Claudia's story, primarily narrated by Claudia herself, warts and all. Working as a war correspondent in Egypt during WW2, she describes herself as "by far the best looking [woman in a predominantly male occupation]. As well as the most resourceful, the most astute, the least deceivable. And the most immodest." She is dismissive of her brother Gordon's wife Sylvia, and leaves a lot to be desired as a mother, admitting, "I was no good at kissing away tears or telling bedtime stories -any mother can do that: my uses were potentially far more significant." But one can't help admiring her, and feeling a great deal of sympathy for her.

The writing style may initially put some readers off. Sections shift between Claudia's personal voice and a narrator that tells the story from other characters' points of view. It also moves between the present and past tenses, so readers need to concentrate. It's well worth the effort tho'.

Friday, 1 February 2019

People like us don't go to plays, let alone act in them

An Awfully Big Adventure An Awfully Big Adventure opens with a mystery. A girl, who we soon discover is Stella Bradshaw, insists she's "not the only one at fault" whilst an adult, Rose, declares "God forgive us, but it'll be good for business." Beryl Bainbridge then slowly reveals the events that have led to this tragic occurrence, and explains what Stella's role has been.

The story is set in a Liverpool repertory theatre company shortly after WW2, inspired by Bainbridge's own experiences working at the Liverpool Playhouse. Stella's Uncle Vernon encourages her to take up acting and takes her to the theatre for a job. Meredith the director, and Bunny the stage manager make it " plain to Stella that neither man liked the look of her", but spite of this, the girl develops an unrequited crush on Meredith.

It's worth noting that the book's title is a reference to Peter Pan, and the Epigraph quotes several lines spoken by The Lost Boys, which is one of the plays staged by the theatre company. Stella's own mother "lost" her, and much of the girl's character is defined by this. The story also deals with relationships and sex from a humorous, working class perspective. Stella's sexual knowledge is gleaned from library books, which told her "Penetration [-] was inescapably painful unless one had played a lot of tennis or ridden stallions." Her attitude was that "It had to happen sometime and now was as good a time as any. She wanted to get it over with." People like her didn't talk about these things, "Emotions weren't like washing. There was no call to peg them out for all the world to view."

It's the second Beryl Bainbridge book I've read, the first being The Bottle Factory Outing. Both deserve a second reading, as it took several chapters to get into them. In An Awfully Big Adventure, there are an awful lot of characters to remember, and it didn't help that two names, Dotty and Dawn, were similar. The writing style can suddenly jump from one scene to another without warning, as does the narrative point of view. However, by half way through I was hooked, and the ending was very satisfying.