Wednesday, 29 January 2020

It was grim oop North

Union Street If you want a cosy story that takes you out of your day-to-day existence, Pat Barker's Union Street is definitely not for you. It contains seven chapters, each tracing the story of a woman who lives on the eponymous street. Other reviewers have described the book as dark, but it's more accurate to label it as authentic, or truthful.

It's set in the early 1970s in north east England, when industry was in decline and traditional working class communities and values were beginning to fracture. Older people were terrified of ending up in a care home converted from "the Workhouse", family reputations were ruined if unmarried girls got pregnant, so they were banished. An embarrassing father might "hawk phlegm up whenever his son was in the room, or lift one buttock from the chair to fart". The housewives hurried "home from the shops to get the tea ready before the men came home". If the men had lost their jobs, the women worked all day and then "were anxious to get home, to cook the dinner, to make a start on the housework".

This is not a rose-coloured, romantic view of the world, although there are occasional bursts of humour, such as the mother who always turned to housework when she was especially distressed: "It was a tribute to her stoicism that so little got done". Pat Barker writes using the language of the communities that she's describing. It's stark and reflects the reality of life as survival. However, no matter what hardships and experiences the women endure, there is at the end of each chapter the glimpse of a possibility that things might get better.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells

The Thirty-Nine Steps The thing about Richard Hannay, protagonist of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is that he's bored. "I was tired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and race-meetings" he tells us. In other words, he wants an adventure. If John Buchan hadn't made this so obvious in the first paragraphs of his book, it would be impossible to suspend belief and follow the frankly ludicrous story.

Hannay lets a stranger into his flat named Scudder, who spins him a tale of intrigue. Scudder is subsequently murdered and Hannay must go on the run. He's in danger of being the next victim of the murderers, has lied about Scudder to his man Paddock, might be accused of the murder by the police, and can't alert the authorities because that would play into the murderers' hands. So, he flees to Scotland.

The remainder of the story follows Hannay across the hills and glens, regularly trusting total strangers to offer him free bed and board. After all, he says, "A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower."

Published in 1915, the book is of its time and a century on is unintentionally funny. According to its wikipedia page it was very popular with soldiers in the First World War. It's a thrilling read and in spite of, or more likely because of its fantastical story, it was "greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing."

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Consequences of the little misplacement of a silver thimble

The Abbess of Crewe The Abbess of Crewe is about the political manoeuvering of Alexandra, who has recently been elected as the head of the Abbey of Crewe. In the first few pages we learn that her ancestry is impeccable, "fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France", she has electronically bugged the Abbey to listen to the nuns's conversations, and she has a secret, "most profitable pact" with the Jesuits. She also has a plan to discredit Felicity, the only other contender for the position of Abbess, which unexpectedly results in an "international newspaper scandal." The remainder of the book explains what happened, how it started "merely from the little misplacement, or at most the theft, of Sister Felicity's silver thimble".

Muriel Spark's book is short, humorous and littered with extracts of poetry. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but rather farcical in its treatment of the political shenanigans of the players. The titular Abbess embodies the privilege of the elite. They believe the "rules" don't apply to themselves and are ruthless in the pursuit of their ambitions. Alexandra will stop at nothing to get what she wants, has no pity for those who stand in her way, such as Felicity, and is willing to make scapegoats of her supporters, such as Winifrede. It's considered to be an allegory of the Watergate scandal of the 70s but it also brings to mind the political antics of some leaders today.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Rather a sad tale

The Vet's Daughter The Vet's Daughter is a curious, gothic, magical tale. It follows the adolescent Alice Rowlands, as her mother becomes ill, dies and is replaced with Rosa the "strumpet" by her cruel father. Life is neither easy nor happy for Alice.

Barbara Comyns tells her story in a simple and straightforward style, rather like a fairy tale. The characters are mostly grotesque and mostly concerned only with their own lives. It's rather a sad tale.

Monday, 30 December 2019

I loathed Mexico

The Lawless Roads Graham Greene "was commissioned to write a book on the religious situation" in Mexico in 1938, which resulted in The Lawless Roads travel memoir, as well as inspiring his novel The Power and the Glory.

"I loathed Mexico" admits Greene, and after reading of his experiences it's no surprise. He travels by bus, train, boat and plane, but most memorably over the mountains by mule. He stays on the border, visits Mexico City, and promised himself to spend Holy Week "in Catholic Las Casas, to see how it was observed in a city where the churches were open - so I was told - but the priests not allowed inside." His travels are filled with mosquitos, black beetles, discomfort and dysentery, and yet on his return home Greene tried to remember his hatred. Like many travellers he finds "a bad time over is always tinged with regret."

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Why Bournemouth?

The Fog There's no hanging around waiting for things to happen in The Fog. James Herbert has disaster strike at the end of the first chapter and follows up with scenes of violence and madness that tumble one after the other. It's as if he's imagined as many unconnected examples of people and animals behaving in a deranged, uncontrolled way as possible, then makes up the "fog" as a spurious device to link them. About half way through, after the Bournemouth episode, the plot eventually kicks in and the authorities, aided by the hero Holman, must work out how to stop the horror.

The horror is of course the point of the book. Other reviewers have pointed out some of the very graphic scenes, but what Herbert really does well in The Fog is to induce tension through anticipation. The reader imagines what is going to happen: What will that man do with that axe and those nails? What will he do with those gardening shears? You don't need to read on to picture the horror, but to confront your own worst nightmare.

There's an anti-establishment theme running through the book. Some of the people affected by the fog feel they've been treated badly by those in authority; the poacher had "been dragged along by his collar as though he were riff-raff"; the office security man earning a "pittance of a salary and the privilege of having snot-nosed execs bidding him 'Good morning' or 'Good night' when they felt like it." The protagonist Holman carries out undercover investigations for the Department of Environment, but his reports rarely lead to action because "when politics - business or governmental - became involved, he knew the chances of prosecution against the offenders were slim." He wonders cynically "how you qualify to be a "special" person" to gain access to the underground bunkers, and asks if there are other shelters "for the ordinary people."

Unexpectedly there's also a bit of black humour in the horror. I chuckled at the vicar and sniggered at the homing pigeons. Then, remembering a holiday in Bournemouth, I tittered at the seaside resort's tragic fate. Had James Herbert himself spent a week's vacation there?

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Grey Goose vodka, Louboutins, and Miu Miu

Codename Villanelle (Killing Eve, #1) It's difficult to read Luke Jennings's Codename Villanelle without imagining the Killing Eve TV series (see trailer below), but here goes.

The book opens in an Italian lakeside villa where a group of twelve men are meeting to discuss their European business interests, which are being threatened by a Sicilian mafia boss. The men unanimously decide he must be killed. We then meet the assassin Villanelle and her handler Konstantin.

The story follows Villanelle as she carries out assassinations on behalf of the shady group of twelve, taking in Paris, London, Beijing, Russia and elsewhere. Villanelle is a psychopathic killer who enjoys a "Grey Goose vodka Martini," "her feet in her strappy satin Louboutins," and wearing a "Miu-miu sweater". There's a lot of named merchandise in the story. By contrast, Eve the British agent on Villanelle's trail, is a more nuanced character who becomes obsessed with finding the female assassin, to the point of harming her marriage.

It's a fast-paced plot, written primarily in the present tense, which gives the impression that one's reading a screenplay. Some may find that this places them within the action, but it can also promote a sense of detachment, which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it's used to reflect Villanelle's thoughts and actions. It also serves to focus Eve's tension in a particularly enjoyable scene where she and her colleague have broken into a house.

There's no resolution at the end of the book. Some may find this a clever way to encourage readers to buy the next instalment. Others such as myself consider it an annoying ploy.