The Ballad of Peckham Rye

by Muriel Spark

This is only the second book I have read by Muriel Spark, the first being the rather lightweight The Abbess of Crewe.  Well, perhaps I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie when I was a teenager – I’m a bit hazy about that. This novel certainly has more about it than that did The Abbess.

The story: a young Scot named Dougal Douglas (alter ego: Douglas Dougal) moves to Peckham and takes a white-collar job in a factory.  He appears to have no relevant experience, other than an arts degree.  He is given the freedom to define his own role, which appears to be a mixture of what would today be called HR, process engineering and marketing.  He talks a lot about psychology, and wins over his management and the people he encounters with his apparent understanding of human nature.

The narrative develops through his encounters with his colleagues and the girls and men who work in the factory. He spends more time out and about than in his office.  We learn at the very start of the book that he has left Peckham, leaving a trail of human devastation behind him.  Douglas is not a likeable person – more than this, he is depicted, and perhaps believes himself to be, some kind of devil –  but the way he behaves and the behaviour of others towards him are beautifully observed and described with a black humour.

This book would encourage me to read more by Spark, whereas The Abbess of Crewe left me cold.

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I am, I am, I am

by Maggie O’Farrell

Why do I get Maggie O’Farrell and Margaret Forster mixed up?  I suppose the names are somewhat similar, and perhaps their writing styles bear some resemblance.  Anyway, this book – a memoir – is definitely by the younger writer, who is about 15 years younger than me (whereas Forster is almost 20 years older).

I’ve read at least one of O’Farrell’s novels.  She has an easy style, and I think I will read more now.  So that is at least one positive effect of reading this memoir.  Actually, it is probably the only one.  I read the book very quickly but I can’t say I enjoyed it.

The chapters are named for parts of the human body: Neck, Cranium, Abdomen etc.  Each chapter purports to describe a ‘near-death experience’.  I would prefer to call these ‘near misses’. There are 17 chapters, and at the outset I thought “surely one person can’t have had so many brushes with death”.  Well – brushes perhaps, but in most cases these are not what I would call near death.  Two (or three?) of the stories are of swimming exploits in which the author might have drowned – but didn’t.  One is a case of amoebic dysentery contracted and treated in China.  A couple of the experiences, it is true, are quite scary, involving people of evil intent who don’t manage to murder Maggie, but of whom the reader can well believe – as she does – that they might have done so.  To my way of thinking, the only two experiences which are serious medical emergencies that could easily have resulted in the author’s death are the mishandled birth of her first child, and her childhood encephalitis.

OK, so much for the hype and my response to it.  Now for the stories themselves.  They are well told, and reveal (or appear to reveal) quite a bit about the author.  She is engaging, often funny, sometimes tragic.  But I still find myself thinking: so what?  I could have written this kind of thing about my own life.  OK, I wouldn’t have written so well, and I wouldn’t have found many readers, even assuming I could find a publisher (I wouldn’t).  It seems to me that only the already-famous can write this kind of memoir.  Plenty do, and sometimes it packs a punch(*).  For me, this just doesn’t.

 


(*) For instance, John Updike’s Self-consciousness

Exposure

by Helen Dunmore

This was a book group recommendation.  I ordered, read and returned it to the library quite quickly, in order to be ready for the discussion next Thursday.  The two books but Dunmore that I had read previously.  I don’t even recall the first one – I think it had something to do with loss, and I read it not very many years after we lost our son Ben. The second book, which I found more substantial, was The Siege.

I didn’t have high hopes for this novel, either.  I find spy stories difficult.  How are you supposed to keep track of which side anyone is on?  I find I am easily bewildered by plots which involve agents and double-agents and their handlers.

So let me start by saying that this is not a conventional spy thriller. Yes, there is danger (mortal danger, indeed) and some very dark deeds. Yes, there are goodies and baddies.  Luckily for me, it is fairly obvious from early on who the goodies and baddies are, and they don’t switch places. Despite this, there is plenty of tension in the narrative, and some very believable characters.

One character, Giles, is in a hospital bed for nearly all of the time in which the narrative plays out.  We know that he is the real spy, but the author does not give anything away as to how the falsely-accused Simon will get out of the charges against him – if he does.  Simon’s character, his past and present life and that of his wife is very well drawn.  Even Lily’s mother, a German refugee who has retired to Brighton, is a person one can imagine and believe in, despite her relatively minor role in the story.

I am sensitive to anything in fiction which touches on an area of knowledge in which I consider myself to be well-versed if not expert.  Language is one such area, and I had to suspend disbelief when Lily finds she no longer understands German.  Really?  You spent the first eight or nine years of your life in Berlin, with German parents, and move to England with your German mother… I would find it hard enough to believe even that Lily has no accent, let alone that she has forgotten the language completely.

Well… this doesn’t really detract from the story, which is a good one.  Highly recommended – 8 out of 10.

 

Before lunch

by Angela Thirkell

Though I looked forward to starting this book, I wondered if it was really worth reading.  Thirkell’s writing is somewhat lightweight, and I had just finished part one of Proust’s À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (for a new, informal book group consisting of myself and two neighbours).  There is some common ground between these otherwise very different reading choices.  Both books deal with social manners, and both authors offer some psychological insight into their characters.  They were also both written in the first half of the twentieth century.  But otherwise, the two books don’t stand much comparison.

Thirkell writes well, seems to understand the comfortable, ‘county’ setting of her characters and action, and delivers well-drawn and almost exclusively likeable characters.  Even the domineering and slightly ridiculous Lady Bond is sympathetically drawn.  Miss Starter is an unattractive character, obsessed as she is with faddy diets, but she quietly and accurately observes the people and relationships going on around her, and when she states her observations stated aloud, the plot turns.  Mrs Tebben is faintly ridiculous, with her constant attention to money-saving measures – but perhaps even she is not unattractive, as such a woman may well have had to watch her outgoings while mixing in more well-to-do company.

I read ahead – and could have guessed the outcome even if I had not done so – but I was still disposed to finish such an enjoyable read.

I feel like ordering the next Thirkell novel from the library; but perhaps I need to focus on my ever-growing reading list.