Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Some things you've got to stop thinking about

A Kind of Intimacy Annie Fairhurst wants to start a new life. When A Kind of Intimacy opens, she is dancing naked around the home she is leaving, kicking the sofa she has always hated. You might think her reaction a bit strange, but in the circumstances, understandable. How did she put up with the hated sofa for so long? "What starts off as intolerable, [-] eventually becomes merely irritating and in time, in a matter of months or years, you become immune to it. You've got to, haven't you? Some things you've got to stop thinking about, or you'd never survive." Annie gradually reveals throughout the rest of the book what it is she has to stop thinking about.

Annie's awkward attempts to make friends of her new neighbours are sad and funny. You can see how she might take a dislike to Lucy next door, who makes derogatory comments about Annie's knickers "on the line: like bloody parachutes." With anger management problems and an inability to read friendly signals, Annie see-saws between absolutely terrifying and painfully embarrassing. I often wished I could put my hand over my eyes and read through my fingers.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The law does not always punish the guilty

Anatomy of a Scandal "The truth is a tricky issue," asserts prosecuting barrister Kate Woodcroft QC, at the beginning of Anatomy of a Scandal. After losing a case, the "forty-two years old; divorced, single, childless" woman is reflecting on the nature of the justice system in the UK, in which "you can win even if the evidence is stacked against you provided that you argue better." At the end of the chapter, Kate is presented with her next case.

We're then introduced to Sophie Whitehouse, "the most calm and controlled of individuals, who was brought up to temper any unpleasant feelings with dry humour or to keep them firmly suppressed." Her husband James is an up-and-coming junior minister and close friend of the Prime Minister. In the morning Sophie is a happy mother and wife, but by the evening her world is thrown into disarray by the discovery of her husband's five-month affair with his parliamentary researcher, Olivia Lytton. Handsome and charming, "someone who exercises strong self-control and is capable of great discipline," James confesses to the affair, but worse is soon to come, when Olivia accuses him of rape. This is the case that Kate must prosecute.

Sarah Vaughan see-saws the narrative of the story between the present day court case in London, and twenty-three years earlier at Oxford University, where James and Sophie met. We discover that something significant happened during their student days, and for the canny reader, the text carries plenty of clues.

It's a fast-moving story and covers several themes, including privilege, 'relationship' rape, and especially justice, or rather injustice, since "the law does not always punish the guilty."

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A pair of star-crossed lovers

Brighton Rock A stick of Brighton rock is sickly sweet, often pink, and so hard it can break your teeth. It's a perfect metaphor for Pinkie Brown, the nasty protagonist of Graham Greene's book.

The story opens with Hale the journalist who's visiting the English seaside town of Brighton on a bank holiday weekend. In the guise of Kolley Kibber he surreptitiously places cards in public places, which entitle the finder to ten shillings (about 25 GBP today). His mind is not on his job 'tho, because he knows the local mob will murder him before the day is out.

Graham Greene admitted in an introduction to the 1970 edition of the book that he had intended to write "a simple detective story", but ended up with a book that discusses "the distinction between good-and-evil and right-and-wrong and the mystery of the 'appalling strangeness of the mercy of God'."

Pinkie and his girlfriend Rose have both been raised as "Romans," understanding the consequences of mortal sin, the concepts of Heaven and Hell. Together, the characters serve to highlight what is evil and what is good. "What was most evil in him needed her: it couldn't get along without goodness." Their beliefs are different to those of Ida Arnold, amateur detective and nemesis of Pinkie. She is "a bit sly, a bit earthy, having a good time." Her morality doesn't depend on what happens after death, it comes from a living sense of what's right and what's wrong: "Vengeance was Ida's, just as much as reward was Ida's, the soft gluey mouth affixed in taxis, the warm handclasp in cinemas, the only reward there was. And vengeance and reward, they both were fun."

Apart from Ida's optimism and joie-de-vivre, Brighton Rock is a bleak read. There can be no salvation for Pinkie, and under his influence, Rose's desire for martyrdom is particularly grim. The poverty caused by the 1930s Great Depression in the UK infuses the novel too, when a "twopenny ice from an Everest tricycle" was the only luxury. Thankfully, the enjoyment of excellent literature does not depend on it being light and happy. Pinkie and Rose are just as captivating as that other pair of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Other stuff

Check out the excellent Brighton Rock (1948) movie with a screenplay written by Greene and Terence Rattigan. It stars Richard Attenborough as Pinkie and the original Doctor Who, William Hartnell as Dallow.

The book has also been adapted for stage twice (1943 by Frank Harvey and 2018 by Bryony Lavery), for radio in 1997, turned into a musical in 2004, and a second film in 2010.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Power and powerlessness

The God of Small Things The God of Small Things opens with the return of Rahel to her childhood home in Ayemenem, in the south-west of India and to her twin brother Estha. Why did she leave? "It all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem."

Arundhati Roy has said that the theme of much of what she writes is "the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they're engaged in." In The God of Small Things, there are characters who attempt to escape their 'powerlessness', and those who scheme to maintain, at all costs, their superior position. Within the family, divorced Ammu and her twins must be informed "of their place in the scheme of things." Baby Kochamma resented her niece Amma, "because she saw her quarrelling with a fate that she, Baby Kochamma herself, felt she had graciously accepted."

The incessant pettiness and bitterness throughout the tale makes for quite a depressing read, and that's before considering the 'laws' of interraction that must be upheld not only when dealing with different classes, religions, ideologies, gender or nationalities, but also between members within these societal constructs. In the book, prejudice and contempt are manifestations of "unacknowledged fear - civilization's fear of nature, men's fear of women, power's fear of powerlessness," and eventually, in one of the most shocking scenes, "man's subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify."

The narrative jumps between the present and the past and occasionally the writing style is exhausting and creates a barrier to moving the story forwards. However, there are vivid images that jump from the text, for instance the "dissolute bluebottles" that "hum vacuously" in the hot May weather, and Baby Kochamma's feet that are "puffy with oedema, like little foot-shaped air cushions."

By the end of the book we realise that, "to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it. [-] it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.

Other stuff

John Crace digested classic in The Guardian