The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service

by Rosina Harrison

I’m not at all sure what prompted me to read this.  It was a cheap buy on Kindle, and I suppose it was one of those impulse browse moments.  I’m glad I took the plunge.  This is an easy read and very enjoyable.

Rose (as her employers called her – her own family dubbed her Ena) was, by any standards, plucky, ambitious, confident and with bags of common sense.  With a life in service as the only career option open to her, she decided at an early age, encouraged by her mother, to aim high and work towards becoming a lady’s maid.  The reason for this choice was that she wanted to travel.

Her family made the sacrifices required to allow her to stay on at school for an extra two years till the age of fourteen, and then to start a dressmaking apprenticeship.  She knew that she would need excellent dressmaking skills, as well as a knowledge of French.  Her first job was as a “young lady’s maid” to a 17-year-old girl, but pretty soon she moved on to working for a lady, and from there she moved into the Astor household, where she remained for 35 years, most of it as Lady Astor’s maid.

Inevitably, the story is as much about Lady Astor as it is about Rose.  The servant has an intimate view of the family she serves, and Rose was bright enough (as well as discreet enough) to tell their story well.  True, she manages to gloss over some of the more dubious aspects, such as the activities of the ‘Cliveden set’ in the 1960s; but her time with Lady Astor, who died in 1964, was drawing to an end by then, and the lady and her household no longer lived at Cliveden.  Rose does however show her lady’s character warts and all.  It is clear from this account that Lady Astor was not an easy person to get on with; she could be temperamental and was often rude.  Rose puts up with her behaviour after a succession of lady’s maids have failed to do so.

The book abounds with delightful anecdotes that not only shed light on the relationship between a wealthy family and their servants, but also read as good stories in themselves.  Witness the account of a journey to Istanbul with Lady Astor and Dame Edith Lyttelton, where the Dame – an absent-minded academic – keeps losing things.  Rose eventually and assertively takes charge.

An engaging narrator and a fascinating story, beautifully told.

 

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All the light we cannot see

by Anthony Doerr

My friend Meryl lent me this book – but when I got it home I found it was a book I had marked up on a ‘wish list’. So clearly I was meant to read it!

I was not disappointed. Though the staccato writing occasionally jars, and the references to German or French places, names and expressions are not always idiomatic or contextually accurate (or even correct: muséum instead of musée), the story itself is spellbinding, human, full of drama but also full of descriptive detail that is almost always relevant, never superfluous.

The main protagonists are Marie-Laura, a French girl who loses her sight at the age of six, and Werner, a technically gifted young German. The main story takes place between 1940 and 1945, with two final chapters telling us what happened to the survivors after the war. The characters are so real and engaging that you really want to know.

Historically, it is interesting too. The occupation and relatively late liberation of St Malo, a fortified French town, is the backdrop to a large part of the story. The chapters flip between Marie-Laure’s and Werner‘s stories, and the action moves back and forth between the early 1940s and the crucial days in August 1944, when St Malo was besieged and eventually taken by the Allies.

This book is full of action, but is also reflective and soulful. A really satisfying read.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

by Joël Dicker

I had read reviews about this book and put it on my ‘wishlist’, and then when I saw it at a book sale for £1 I immediately picked it up.  The seller recommended it as well – and that was good enough for me.  Having read it now, I am in two minds about this novel.

Positives:  It is an intriguing whodunnit, and keeps the reader guessing almost to the end.  Many of the characters are stereotypes, but there is enough interest in them, and an ambiguity that leaves you wondering, even about the most apparently innocuous character, “could he/she be the murderer?”.  The relationship between Marcus Goldman and the detective is interesting and plausible – they complement each other’s abilities, and solve the mystery together, and yet maintain a healthy distance almost to the end. The book’s structure is compelling, even if a little forced at times: the older writer and mentor, Harry Quebert, coaches Goldman in bite-sized chunks of advice, chapter by chapter, as the story (and his book) unfolds.  The New England setting is recognisable from Stephen King, Philip Roth and John Updike’s work, and is convincing enough to someone who, like me, has never been there.  I am not qualified to say whether it would convince a New Englander.  After all, the author is Swiss – but as I know only too well, most educated Swiss have the opportunity to spend time in English-speaking countries.  The best thing about this book is the translation: fluid, idiomatic, utterly believable.  Given the North American setting and Sam Taylor’s superb translation, it is quite hard to believe that this book was actually written in French.

Negatives:  The book is too long.  I was totally gripped until about two-thirds of the way through (the length of an average novel) and the last third was a bit of a slog.  Some characters are frankly unbelievable, and these tend to be the female ones. Goldman’s mother is a stereotypical Jewish mom whose only concerns seem to be a desire for her son to be married, and paranoia that he might be gay.  Tamara Quinn is obsessively concerned with her position in society and finding her daughter a suitable match – and yet she manages to run a successful café business which she then passes on to her daughter.  The women in this book, without exception, are not ‘movers and shakers’.  Perhaps this reflects the Swiss culture of the author!  Luther Caleb, a promising young man from a humble background who experiences a brutal and disfiguring attack early in his adult life, is portrayed as dim-witted as well as physically disabled.  Can he really achieve no better position than that of chauffeur, after such a promising start in life?  Perhaps he suffered some brain damage as well as a damaged facial expression and speech defect – but this is never stated, even implicitly.

Critics have made comparisons with Roth, Franzen, Bellow.  I can’t comment on the latter, having – to my shame – never read anything by Saul Bellow.  I don’t see any particular similarity to the Franzen works I have read.  I did read a French review accusing Dicker of, effectively, plagiarising Roth’s The Human Stain.  I haven’t read Roth’s book (which appears to have a very different plot and characters), so can’t comment on whether the college professor/writer relationship bears any similarity.  But even if it does, this can be understood in the acknowledged fact of Dicker’s admiration of the older writer.

Let’s not allow this accusation to spoil our appreciation of what is, after all, an achievement of some quality from Dicker and Taylor.

The End We Start From

by Megan Hunter

I chose to read this book largely because I sort of know the author.  She was a house-mate of my deceased son Ben in Brighton, twelve or so years ago.  Since Ben’s death I have kept in vague contact with Megan via Facebook – enough to know that she had written and then published this book.

Then I saw the book prominently displayed at the Liskeard Bookshop which I go to whenever I am visiting my aunt Wendy.  The book seemed to shout “buy me” and so I did.

The first thing to note is that this is a short book, with short phrases, paragraphs and chapters.  Without reading the bio, it seemed to me that the author must be a poet – and indeed she is.  There is a poetry lifting off every page of her sparse but poignant prose. (At this point, as an aside, I should perhaps note that although none of the posts on this blog relate to poetry, I do in fact love to read it, so perhaps I should ‘review’ some of my favourite poems/poets/volumes of poetry here too.)

All the characters in this story are named with a unique letter – apart from the narrator, who is not named at all.  Somehow this is not confusing but actually serves to engage the reader in the personalities of the characters, even the babies, without being distracted by any connotations their names might suggest.  The story is of a cataclysmic event – a serious flood – that upsets the country (we assume England) and neighbouring countries just at the moment that our narrator gives birth to her first child.  Her story is one of new motherhood, with all its excitement, delights and fears.  Somehow the backdrop of a huge and terrifying disaster, with the attendant disintegration of society and displacement of huge numbers of people, is secondary to the real and immediate tasks of motherhood.  Any parent can surely relate to the descriptions of childbirth, breastfeeding and teething – all sparsely told and yet immediately recognisable.  Baby Z is not remarkable, and he is not put on a pedestal, even by his mother.  He simply is, and her job is to care for him no matter what circumstances she may find herself in.  She finds friendship – indeed almost everyone in this story behaves honourably in a crisis – but loses her partner, whom she then sets out to find.

The story closes with Z’s first steps, and a reunion of sorts.

Thank you Megan – a brilliant debut.  I wish you all the success you deserve, in your family as well as your literary life.

Troubles

by J G Farrell

This book gave me some ‘troubles’ to read.  I don’t know why exactly.  The writing style is quite dense but well-structured and beautifully phrased.  The physical format of the book (1970’s Penguin paperback, small print, yellowing pages, some of them falling out) made it a bit of struggle to read, but I don’t think this would have deterred me if I had become really engrossed.  (It does make me pause for thought, though, about the relative quality of paperbacks 40 years ago compared to now.  Modern books seem to be more robust, and also, in many cases, much more appealing on the outside.)

So, what was wrong?  Sometimes it is not the book itself, but the state of mind of the reader.  I have a pile of books – some bought, some borrowed – waiting for my attention, and I added to the pile with both new and secondhand volumes on my visit to Cornwall two weeks ago.  So maybe part of me was thinking “I’d rather be reading something else”.  The fragility of the physical book deterred me from packing it in a rucksack or reading it in the bath, so I interspersed my reading of it with other things.  In the end, though, I am forced to conclude that it was the book itself that was off-putting.

There is not much of a plot.  The central character, known throughout as “the Major” although we do learn his real name, travels to Ireland after the First World War to claim his fiancée Angela, whom he met whilst on leave and hardly knows except from her letters.  Much of the narrative is concerned with Angela’s family home, the Majestic Hotel near the town of Kilnalough, both of which have seen better days.  The decline of the Majestic appears to be metaphor for the decline of the established Anglo-Irish order, threatened by ‘he Troubles’ – the name given at the time to the conflict between the republican IRA and the British imperial forces, specifically the Black and Tans.  The ‘Troubles’ of the book’s title can be applied equally to the political situation, the decline facing the hotel and the family who run it, and the emotional life of the Major himself.

There are no likeable characters.  Humour there certainly is.  Edward is Angela’s father, somewhat  pathetic and totally out of control of the business and of his family.  He develops a fondness for the Major, who tries to iron out the most outrageous goings-on.  And yet the Major himself is a passive character, always seeking to retain the good opinion of others no matter how outrageously they behave, putting manners and ‘political correctness’ before honesty and compassion, and missing out on the chance of a happy relationship with Sarah, a Catholic girl for whom he develops an attraction from the start of his visit.

I struggled through to the end.  There are some vivid, haunting scenes (many of them imbued with dark humour – the invasion of cats and Edward and the Major’s attempts to get rid of them with a shotgun, for instance).  There is little superfluity in the writing, though elements of the plot do seem unnecessary, such as Viola O’Neill’s apparent pregnancy diagnosed by Dr Ryan a few pages before the end of the book – is this supposed to show us that the doctor is indeed senile, or that Viola’s innocence is not what it seemed – and if the latter, what possible relevance does this have to the main story, where this character appears no more than a couple of times on the sidelines?  That the wild behaviour of the twins ends up with the two of them in bed with the Major seems to show us a debauched side to his character – and yet he is portrayed as upright throughout, concerned only about how this will look to others.

I wonder whether this book really deserved the ‘lost’ Booker prize for 1970.  To be fair, I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted books, and perhaps I never will.

We are due to read The Siege of Krishnapur for a book group meeting in January.  I have read it before, and found it more appealing than Troubles.  I started The Singapore Grip shortly after the Siege of Krishnapur (four or five years ago) but gave up on that, possibly for largely the same reasons as I am not excited by Troubles.  I think I need a character to whom I can relate, or at least try to understand and perhaps feel a little sympathy for.

I know why the caged bird sings

by Maya Angelou

Of course, this is one of those books that you ‘should’ read.  And maybe this is why I didn’t read it until now!  I picked up a (surprisingly clean, probably unread) secondhand copy a year or two ago and it has been sitting on my shelf since then.  Maybe it was reading other books about the African American experience (Sacred Hunger, The Underground Railroad) that made me turn to this book just now.

Whatever the trigger, I am so glad that I did.  This is a life-affirming story.  Yes, Maya suffered some uncomfortable and potentially damaging experiences at a very early age: rape at age eight, driving her intoxicated father back across the border from a Mexico trip at fifteen, a physical fight with her stepmother… and yet her zest of life shines through.  Here is one bright, determined young woman who, despite these isolated incidences of abuse, was mainly raised in a caring and disciplined environment by her grandmother, ‘Momma’.

Momma is a rock of the black community in a the segregated small town of Stamps in Arkansas.  Maya experiences one episode after another of racial prejudice from a very early age, ranging through being ignored, despised, hated and threatened.  She does not flinch at describing her experiences and the emotions that they induce.  A most vivid recollection is the way the white woman in whose household she works part-time aged about eleven decides, on the prompting of a friend, to shorten Margaret (Marguerite)’s name to ‘Mary’. Marguerite is outraged, deliberately smashes a prized object of her employer’s, and leaves – but not before her employer, in her anger and frustration, shows remorse for the misuse of her name.

It is vivid stories like this, together with a real sense of the atmosphere of the place and time (though descriptive passages are few), that carry the reader along.  As well, of course, as Maya’s compelling personality.

Not sure I will get through all six volumes of this autobiography.  But I certainly intend to read the next one or two.

The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

Is one permitted to enjoy a book on slavery?  I can honestly say that I did enjoy reading this; the character of Cora is so compelling and her adventures so fascinating.  She is lively and determined, and meets her often appalling fate at every turn of the way with courage and spirit.  The story, too – though unbelievable in the many successful escapes that Cora achieves – is fast-moving, and it is easy to be swept along, as Cora herself is by her adventures.

I read this book immediately after Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, and I did wonder whether two books about slavery was a bit of overkill.  But the two books are very different.  Unsworth’s book is set a century before Whitehead’s, and deals with the Atlantic slave trade rather than life on the plantation (and in other environments)within North America.  The language, too, is different.  In Sacred Hunger much use is made of an English style reminiscent of 18th century language – especially in the speech.  Annoyingly (to me at least) the second part of this novel makes heavy use of Pidgin.  The Underground Railroad uses good, eminently readable modern English.  Even if Pidgin was spoken on the plantation, it is not used in dialogue and the reader is only vaguely aware that the slaves have received less (= no) education than the white people.

Whitehead’s book reminded me more than anything of Stephen King’s novel The Stand, which I read about a year ago. Like this book, that one is essentially a road trip, peppered with adventures, clear-cut goodies and baddies and the improbable survival of the protagonist through all the brushes with death they encounter along the way.

I have also read Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Herself, on which this novel draws.  That book too was barely believable, and yet one has to assume that it is based in fact (and certainly this is how it is put across).  The brutality is just so extreme.  In The Underground Railroad, Cora is raised on and later escapes from a particularly brutal plantation in Georgia.  She experiences a settled life in a ‘model’ community in South Carolina, where black and white populations live alongside each other, apparently tolerant although each has its own separate realm.  But even here, the whites have their own agenda, the slavecatchers are still after her, and Cora migrates again.  This time she arrives in North Carolina, where a recently imposed extreme regime of racial persecution and murder leaves both Cora and her hosts facing death if she is discovered, hiding in a cramped attic space.  Captured (but not murdered), transported through a bleak Tennessee landscape devastated by wildfire and yellow fever, Cora escapes again, rescued by members of the underground railroad (other members of which have assisted her along the way).  She is taken to the idyllic Valentine farm in Indiana, managed and worked by black people in a surrounding area of white settlers.  The idyll cannot last; a white posse attacks the Valentine residents and Cora is recaptured by her nemesis, the evil slavecatcher Ridgeway.

Cora’s successive adventures and narrow escapes are reminiscent also of the best adventure novels – echoes of The Count of Monte Cristo.  Unlike the Count, she does not reinvent herself but knows herself well enough to fit into each new environment with its many constraints.

Aside from the successive steps in the narrative – one can hardly call them twists and turns, for though they are sometimes unexpected, the help the sequential story along – there is one great twist underlying the whole story.  Whitehead has imagined what the metaphor of an underground railroad would look like if taken literally.  He has the escapees descending through cellar trapdoors onto sometimes dank, sometimes opulent platforms and boarding a variety of real trains that travel through tunnels to the next destination.

At first, I found this translating of the railroad metaphor into reality an unnecessary complication in the story; indeed it rather tended to destroy, for me, the believability of the rest of the novel.  But on reflection I realised that, as a plot device, it enables the story as imagined by the author.  He is able to depict the various environments Cora finds herself in, without taking up narrative space depicting how she got there.  Each state she passes through has its own unique take on the question of race and how (or whether) the black and white populations should coexist.  That one escaped slave should experience all this is unbelievable – but the ‘real’ underground railroad allows us to suspend disbelief and imagine “what if…?”.

I did enjoy this book, and feel encouraged to explore the background and work out just how much of Cora’s experience is based on reality.  Also to read more about the underground railroad as really implemented.