Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts

by Mary Gibson

An ‘impulse buy’ on my Kindle, which had received encouraging user reviews and sounded like a good read.  And so it proved to be.

This is quite a long book and there is a lot going on.  The narrative starts in 1911, when the main character, Nellie Clark, is sixteen years old, and concludes in early 1919.  The ‘custard tarts’ are the women who work in the Pearce Duff factory in Bermondsey, East London, manufacturing custard and other sweets. Life is hard, and the circumstances of their hand-to-mouth existence are vividly captured.

Nellie, whose mother has already died, is attracted to a young man who is active in the labour movement, campaigning for higher wages for the custard tarts.  Another young man competes in vain for her attention.  The story follows her loves, hopes and disappointments against a background of poverty, industrial unrest and, in the second half of the book, war.

The story is told entirely from Nellie’s point of view, which I find more believable than if there had been descriptions of battle scenes at the Front – but the author imagines the reality of work, home life and war in working class families in the early twentieth century very effectively.

The Blue Afternoon

by William Boyd

I’m always ready to read something by William Boyd.  I picked up this novel at the twice-yearly book sale in Winchcombe church, and, along with Brazzaville Beach which I bought at Exeter Bookcycle a year or two ago, it has been waiting on my ‘to-read’ shelf.

With Boyd, you never know quite what to expect.  His settings and characters are so diverse, and his imagination so fertile, that each story is a new adventure.  I never find myself thinking “oh yes, another version of the same story” as might be the case with other authors.

What is a characteristic of Boyd’s writing, however, is the way a story may turn on a chance encounter, missed opportunity or unwise decision.  Our lives are not mapped out, but rather, our paths develop according to decisions made, opportunities taken or not taken, and ‘stuff’ that happens to us, often without us being able to influence it in any way.  One book which demonstrates this haphazardness of life in a highly dramatic way is Ordinary Thunderstorms.  It is a theme, too, of The Blue Afternoon.

The main story takes place in the Philippines in the early years of the twentieth century, and the ‘outer’ story begins in Los Angeles in the 1930s, when a young architect meets Salvador Carriscant, a man who purports to be her father.  They undertake a journey together, in which he recounts the story of his career as a surgeon and of his great love, Delphine Sieverance.

As a love story, it is touching and at the same time quite shocking.  Carriscant’s attraction to Delphine is animal and overwhelming.  Both are already married; they plan to run away together but the plan fails and they are separated for many years. Carriscant enlists the help of his daughter to find Delphine again.  For me, the trip and the eventual reunion are somewhat unnecessary and almost contrived.  The real story is what happens in the Philippines, and Carriscant’s efforts to find his lost love in later life are touching, but not central to the narrative.

I confess that I did try to skip ahead – so maybe the story did not engage me as much as I would have liked.  But it is nevertheless a very good story, with interesting (if not exactly likeable) characters.

Silesian Station

by David Downing

I bought and downloaded this as soon as I had finished the previous book in the John Russell series, Zoo Station.

I didn’t find this book as enthralling as the previous one. The backdrop of Nazi Germany in the months before and immediately after the outbreak of war was interesting and believable, but the spy action didn’t get me very excited and the characters, especially that of the ‘hero’ John Russell, are starting to be unexciting.  I also find it totally unconvincing that he buys a car and then proceeds to drive everywhere, including around Berlin. Surely travelling by tram would be more expedient, more affordable and, above all, less conspicuous.

Downing would do well to have his text proof-read by someone who understands German.  Unnecessary typos or grammatical errors spoiled my enjoyment somewhat.  ‘Das deutsche Post’….?

I may not bother to read any more in this series. Stettin Station, Potsdam Station, Lehrer Station and Masaryk Station have been published so far.

Effi Briest

by Theodor Fontane

I read some Fontane at university, and probably at school as well.  I remember reading Irrungen Wirrungen, a novella about a love affair between a well-to-do young student and a shop girl, which ends sadly.

I’m not quite sure what led me to get a copy of Effi Briest.  Perhaps it was the fact that it is often compared with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, both of which, like Fontane’s novel, were published in the second half of the nineteenth century and deal with marriage and female adultery.  I have read Flaubert’s novel a couple of times, in French and in Lydia Davis’ excellent translation.  I must have read Tolstoy’s novel too, though it was some time ago and I only retain a vague recollection of the story and characters.

Effi Briest completely bowled me over.  This book is now firmly one of my ‘all time greats’.  Why?  For one thing, the use of language, and especially dialogue, is completely effortless and natural.  The characters could be having their conversations today.  German is like any language in that its usage changes over time.  Dialogue in novels can often appear stilted, even when read by contemporaries.  But Fontane’s dialogue feels real – and through it, his characters are real and accessible.

The characters are also real in the sense that they all have their flaws.  Effi herself is in many ways a likeable character.  She is energetic, often described as “childlike” and yet possesses a capacity for mature self-analysis.  Despite her extreme youth (she is seventeen when she marries a man more than twice her age, and barely twenty at the time of her affair) she is honest with herself.  She shows real remorse and shame at her behaviour.  Effi’s parents are ineffectual and yet endearing; they have a caring relationship with each other and are a worthy example of a good marriage.  Baron von Innstetten demonstrates, in everything he does, the importance of proper and seemly behaviour, status and rank in the Prussian world-view; and yet he learns, too late, that compassion and forgiveness are even more important.  The ancillary characters are believable and likeable.  Even Crampas, though clearly without a conscience, is not portrayed as a villain.  The servants are human beings with their own lives and stories, and not just accessories to the ‘main’ story.

I could read this novel again and again – and I probably shall.  Effi appeals to me more than Emma Bovary, though it is hard to say why.  Perhaps it is because she sees the danger of her relationship with Crampas from the very start, and tries not to be led into temptation.  She is not innocent – but she has a pure heart.  My reading of Emma Bovary, on the other hand, is that she is foolish and, at the same time, scheming.

Another parallel between the two books is the central role played by a pharmacist.  In Flaubert’s book, the pharmacist is a despicable character who helps to secure Emma’s husband’s ruin.  Fontana’s pharmacist, Gieshübel, is universally liked, an affable, gallant, somewhat old-fashioned man who dotes on Effi and shows her great kindness.  I wonder whether Fontane deliberately introduced a kindly pharmacist in an allusion to Flaubert’s story?