by Hilary Mantel

Recommended by our book group.  I am reading ahead, so had better make some notes as we are not due to discuss this book for another two months!

I have read other books by Mantel: Beyond Black, Giving up the Ghost, A Place of Greater Safety, Wolf Hall.  This is the first one that our book group has taken on, and I anticipate it will get a very mixed response.

I found that I couldn’t put this book down.  The writing is very direct and engaging, and draws the reader into what is, after all, a slightly fantastic story.  On one level, it is the story of a young nun’s sexual awakening when she comes into contact with, and eventually runs away with, a young man who may or may not be a priest.  The setting is an important part of the story: a remote and backward working-class community near Manchester; cotton mills; wild moorland; daily toil.  The surroundings are unremittingly bleak.  Mantel has evidently based this story on the area in which she grew up, and the date when the events in the story unfold mirrors a similar event in her home community, when the local Catholic church removed the statues of various saints.

On another level, the story is about religion, superstition, the hold that faith can have on an individual and a community, and the dangers (and pleasures) involved in breaking the rules.  At no point does the reader feel inclined to urge Sister Philomena (or Roisin O’Halloran, to use her real name) not to run away from the convent.  And indeed, the other nuns – with the exception of Mother Perpetua – seem inclined to encourage her.  Mother ‘Purpiture’ (as she is known in the neighbourhood) gets her come-uppance, and again this story can be read on various levels: did she spontaneously combust?  Or did the ever-lurking Judd McEvoy have something to do with it?  As Father Angwin muses: “It is a wise man who can tell the firefighter from the arsonist”.

Demonic figures abound: Judd McEvoy is seen as a demonic figure, though he is, in his own words, merely an onlooker.  Fludd himself is apparently a con-man: neither priest nor doctor, but convincingly impersonating the new curate.  Is he an incarnation of the devil, or simply an opportunist?  I find it intriguing that Mantel chose to name the book after this character.  He is intriguing and also rather attractive in his self-assuredness and his ability to get the parishioners, priests and nuns (apart from Purpiture) onside.

Mantel deals in this novel with great complexity in the Catholic faith.  This is not just a tale of one Catholic’s rejection of the religion they grew up with, and the associated guilt.  The religious storyline takes in Father Angwin’s attachment to the old rites (statues of saints, Latin mass) as opposed to the bishop’s iconoclastic tendency – and touches on the hypocrisy that allows the bishop to take this stance, when in his earlier life he was a vocal proponent of everything Angwin holds dear.  It goes into minute and ridiculous detail on matters of doctrine: it is permissible to fry fish in beef fat on a fast day?  Can you eat jam on a fast day?  Mantel clearly knows (or has researched) her Catholic doctrine.  But she is not just sending up the faith of her birth.  She takes in penitence, contrition, evil (in various forms), and suffering.

Philomena/Roisin is Irish, and there is a contrast drawn between the firm faith shown by Irish Catholics, and the catholicism she encounters in North West England.  She is drawn to the former, and abhors the latter.  But in the end, she makes a her choice and leaves both behind her.  The reader is left wondering what will become of this woman.  I can’t help thinking that hers will not be a good end.


Travels with my Aunt

by Graham Greene

My book group selected this book.  Though I wasn’t at the meeting when it was chosen, I felt quite excited about reading (or re-reading) this book.  I believe it is the only Greene novel I have ever read – and yet I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I had enjoyed it.

I set about trying to find a copy.  And then the thought occurred to me that if I had already read out, I might still have a copy.  And luckily I do.

It’s a fairly short novel – and I have noticed a trend within the book group to select whichever book is the shortest out of the three or four presented!  But in the case of this book, it packs quite a punch and makes up in density for what it lacks in volume.  I would say it took me as long to read as a longer, lighter book might have done.

So – why do I like the book so much?  More than anything, it is Greene’s style of writing that appeals.  His prose is very well-formed and yet neither heavy nor stuffy. True, the narrator of this tale, writing in the first person, could be said to be a stuffy sort of person.  Henry Pulling is an early-retired bank manager in his fifties, whose life so far has contained nothing more exciting than selecting a new variety of dahlia for his garden or deciding which of his clients is deserving of a loan.  When he meets ‘Aunt Agatha’ his life changes dramatically.  He undertakes journeys full of adventure and excitement, and pretty soon decides that this life is superior to the “boring” but safe one he has been used to.

The characters are intriguing and well-developed.  Aunt Agatha herself is much more than the ‘little old lady’ her exterior presents.  Her valet/companion/lover from Sierra Leone, Wordsworth, is not the simpleton that his broken English and servile attitude presents, but a devoted and ultimately shattered lover.  The Tooleys – father and daughter – are likeable despite their quirks.  The only major character who remains elusive is Mr Visconti, hard to figure out even when we meet him.  But his function in the novel is as a foil for Aunt Agatha’s pure and blind devotion.

This novel depicts a rite of passage, even though the person undergoing the journey is a mature man.  Learning early on that the woman whose funeral serves as the setting for the novel’s opening is not his real mother, he eventually finds out (and the reader, perhaps, guesses rather sooner) who she is.  Henry learns about life, love (a little) and what matters.

The novel is light-hearted and barely believable, although it deals with serious subjects. Greene is often laugh-out-loud funny, and invariably insightful.  I think the strength of this novel lies in its easy tone which at the same time exposes universal truths.

Mary Barton

by Elizabeth Gaskell

Why is it harder to ‘review’ a book that is a classic and that I have read more than once?  Really, it ought to be easier!

My aunt Wendy introduced me to Gaskell’s work some 20 years ago.  Her novels had not been part of my school education.  Even though I took English at A level, the range of our reading was quite narrow, and until recently I felt much better read in German classics than in the literary legacy of my own language.

I have read North and South and Cranford as well as (I think) Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. For some reason I have never read Ruth.

So, what can I say about this book?  It shows what one may assume to be an honest picture of working-class life in northern England in the mid-19th century.  Though sentimental in parts, there is also violence and brutality.  The story is gripping and the characters well drawn.

I suppose I may come back to this book one day.  It is probably my favourite out of the small selection pos Gaskell’s oeuvre that I have read.