How to be both

by Ali Smith

Fantastic book!  I picked it up in the library, having heard about it (from someone in my book group, I think).  I’ve never been tempted to read anything by this author before.  So glad I selected this book, on impulse, during an equally impulsive visit to the library.

George is a teenager whose mother has recently and suddenly died.  Much of her story is to do with the process of her mourning, finding a friend who helps her along the way, and also reflecting on a visit to Ferrara in Italy with her mother the previous spring, to see a painting by Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa.

The other half of the book is del Cossa’s story, told in the artist’s own words.  This section gives a very convincing portrait of fifteenth-century Italian society and the world of artists and their patrons.

I’ve read that two versions of the book were published simultaneously.  I read the version with George’s story first and Francesco’s second, but the alternative version has the two stories the other way around.  I really don’t know how I would have responded to the novel, had I read this version first.  As it is, I was spellbound.

Smith deals with loss, grief, justice (and injustice), chance, growing up, gender (and gender ambiguity), and most especially art.  The words used by del Cossa to describe the process of drawing and painting and its effect on the artist ring very true.

I can think of several books written in recent years which take a work of art as the start of an adventure, either in factual narrative (The Hare with Amber Eyes) or fiction (The Girl with a Golden Earring; The Goldfinch; The Miniaturist). The painting which is the main work of art referred to in this novel is a fresco in a palazzo in Ferrara.  Though I have not seen or read up about this painting, the publisher has helpfully printed two images from it in the flyleaves of this book.

One thing still puzzled me slightly: the front cover of my library copy of the paperback has a photograph of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy as young girls, walking along a shopping street in conversation with each other.  It is a beautiful photo of two lovely women, and it is referred to in the stories.  But I am unclear as to its significance to the story.  Perhaps this is the kind of relationship that George and her friend H aspire to (and it is H who introduces George to this photo).  Perhaps it is the slightly androgynous figures that these two very young women present.  Either way, it is a delightful cover picture.

I also picked up, on the same library visit, another of Smith’s books entitled Public Library and other stories. Hard to resist, when I was myself indulging in the joys of a spontaneous library visit.  On to that next.

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The Siege

by Helen Dunmore

The siege of Leningrad is not an event I had any prior knowledge of.  I had heard about Stalingrad, of course.

This story is of a family in Leningrad during the time of the siege, and the most enduring images are of how they cope with the privations and survive (or not).  Anna Levin is the main protagonist, together with her lover Andrei, her father Mihail, younger brother Kolya, and her father’s lover Marina.  Anna’s mother features in the story but she had died before the narrative begins.

There is not much of a plot, unless it is the historic situation itself and its effect on ordinary lives.  I suppose this is why, writing my review more than three months later, I am finding it hard to remember exactly what happens in this book!  I find that Dunmore’s writing generally is like this – personally touching accounts of relationships help the reader to understand and perhaps identify with the characters, but the story IS those relationships.

 

The peculiar life of a lonely postman

by Denis Thériault

Although this was an easy read (100 pages, simple language) it is a long time since I have felt so disinclined to read something.  Selected by our book group, I had some difficulty getting hold of a copy of the book, as it was not available on Kindle and nor was there a copy in our library, except as an ebook.  So I downloaded the ebook and the app for reading it on my phone, having decided eventually that I didn’t want to configure my laptop for reading just this one book or acquire a bunch of dubious software for converting it to Kindle format.  Perhaps the constraint of reading on a small screen predisposed me to dislike the book.

It’s neatly written, with crisp, clear prose and a careful translation.  There are spots of humour, and some delightful haiku and tanka poetry (along with a certain amount of information about what these forms are, and how they work).  The story is written as if it were a fable, and indeed, the ending is particularly fabulous.

I think that the author constrains his story to fit the pattern of his narrative, and also to keep it within the confines of a fable.  The secondary characters are ill-formed, and the main character, Bilodo, is extremely annoying.  There are many loose ends to the narrative – how can Bilodo afford to continue renting two flats and at the same time take six months’ unpaid leave from a low-paid job?  Why does he only take one day off work when both his parents are killed in an accident (and why are these parents not mentioned anywhere else in the narrative)? Why does he consider Robert to be his only friend when, even early on in their relationship, he sees the man to be manipulative and bullying?

There seem to be no positive aspects to Bilodo’s character that the reader can latch onto and identify with.  The author is a psychologist, and no doubt wanted to explore the way some people live out their lives in fantasy.  The relationship between Robert and Bilodo is also an exploration of a bullying relationship between adults.  Tanya’s response to Bilodo is hard to fathom, especially when she comes back to him after her humiliation, and unknowingly rescues him from his planned suicide.  She seems less shocked than one might suppose by his unkempt appearance and apparent transformation into his predecessor, Grandpré.  Perhaps she really loves him, and love conquers all.  I am not convinced.

Grandpré’s name was also somewhat annoying.  I couldn’t help thinking of him as ‘grandpère’, and imagining a grandpa figure.  Maybe this was the author’s intention.  It is he, after all, whose writing and lifestyle in equal measure guide Bilodo on his new route in life.

I am pleased to have got to the end of this little book within a couple of short sittings, and not to have to waste more time on it.  To add insult to injury, the book group member who recommended it has now left the group, and won’t be present when we discuss her book choice next week!

The Rector’s Daughter

by F M Mayor

This book was recommended to me by Pat Ranson, who had rediscovered it among the books she had kept since her youth (it has her maiden name written in the fly leaf) and highly recommended it.

I found the language somewhat hard-going to start with.  The novel was written in 1924 and it shows its age.  True, the author uses her characters’ language to help us understand them.  Kathy and her ‘set’ use the fashionable slang of the time, which comes across as disrespectful and at times shocking (she is free with expletives and mild swearwords). Mary’s father, the rector of the title, on the other hand, is very careful and proper with his language.  He speaks little with Mary, and is as undemonstrative as Kathy is open and engaging.

The book’s success lies in its well-developed, beautifully understood characters.  The unfulfilled love that Mary and Mr Herbert have for each other is desperately sad, but entirely believable, as each of them gets locked into a life that is not what they would have wished for.  In their own ways, each of them manages to live a fulfilling and fulfilled life; though it is with some relief that we see Mary die not long after her fortieth birthday, having seen and felt her trepidation at the prospect of living into her eighties, as her father did.

Even the minor characters, such as Kathy’s friends and Mary’s friend Dora and her family, are well-drawn and easy to imagine – and this is not because they are stereotypes.

I don’t think I would have persevered with this book if not from loyalty to Pat, who lent me the book.  But I am so glad that I did.  This book really moved me, and gave me a new insight into the power of fiction to help readers to better understand the range of human emotion, by showing a truthful glimpse into the lives of others.

[Footnote: Flora Macdonald Mayor was herself the daughter of a rector and scholar.  She was born in 1872.  She became engaged but her fiancé died, and she never married. She died aged 59.  Juliet Stevenson has read the novel for BBC Radio 4’s Neglected Classics season, but the recording is unavailable on the internet at the time of writing.]


3 October 2017

Having recommended this book for our book club, I needed to read it again and re-familiarise myself with it.  I’m not sure that I enjoyed it as much this time round.  I became increasingly frustrated with Mary, who seems incapable of letting go of her infatuation with Mr Herbert even after she has embraced her new spinsterly life.

What did ring true was the depiction of Mary’s grieving process after the death of her father.  And Mayor includes many delightful observations about human nature which are satisfying to read:

“It may be because shy people have suffered so much from being left out that they, above all others, make their guests feel at home.”

“To have the hand pressed in an overflow of enthusiasm for some one else is specially uncomplimentary.”

(describing Mrs Herbert) “If Kathy had probed her, Mrs Herbert would only have repeated it was a pity . The ladies of her generation were incapable of discussion . They were as inarticulate as the uneducated, though often almost erudite.”

“The English doctors got rid of patients to the Riviera, the Riviera doctors sent the poor shuttlecocks back to England.”

If I could sum up the impression this book leaves me with, it is: gently understanding, with humour and compassion.