Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Post 86: Madness, Marriage and a Glimpse into Publication

After somewhat of a dearth of posts this year, I am now giving you two in a matter of weeks, but sometimes I feel compelled to respond to a book immediately after completing it.

I said that I was enjoying the opening chapters of Signs for Lost Children; I finished reading yesterday and really want to share it with you.  This is the first novel I have read by Sarah Moss, and I'm certainly going to be seeking out her other titles.  She writes in a very gentle voice, reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro, and deserving of comparable critical acclaim; she seduces the reader into the story and creates characters with depth and compassion.


The story is set in the late nineteenth century and explores madness, marriage and culture. The central characters are Tom Cavendish, who has the rather niche job of lighthouse engineer, and his new wife Ally. It is her story that fascinated me the most. A qualified medical doctor, Alethea Cavendish does not fit the mould of late Victorian society.  Her education and intelligence are met with much scepticism, many refusing to use her title of Dr with anything beyond sarcasm. It is telling that much of the opposition comes from other women who seem incapable of comprehending Ally's desire to practise medicine. Though equality still has some way to go in 2019, we have travelled significant distance since corsets, teas and calling cards.

Central to the book is madness.  Since being enthralled by Bertha held captive in Thornfield's attic in Jane Eyre, I have had fascination for the dual subjects of women and madness. As an undergrad, (yes, a long time ago), I read Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady  and the collection of essays compiled by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in Madwoman in the Attic, and the fascination for mental disorder and its portrayal in literature was firmly rooted.

Ally's section of the book is set in Cornwall, Manchester and London.  Each setting is significant to her development and the development of theme. She is brought to Cornwall as a young bride, clearly in love and longing to find meaning and comfort in marriage. Their marriage has a very challenging beginning however, as Tom is about to embark on months of travel to Japan where he has been commissioned to advise on and build lighthouses. They are together for only a few weeks before he leaves.

It is arranged that Ally will work voluntarily at the Asylum. This was the most evocative and compelling part of the story for me. Moss writes with insight and compassion about the patients and the staff, conveying Victorian attitudes whilst allowing her character to be a voice that is suggestive of change and progression. Ally despairs at what she sees, but she sees beyond the forced feeding, the straitjackets and the isolation to the women whom she treats.  She asks questions about sanity and, in particular, the expectations and restrictions on women's life. She points out that a woman is more likely to be criticised for her action than for inaction, for speech rather than silence, acknowledging that in most situations for a woman to be considered sane, she should conduct herself in the way best calculated to drive any reasonable adult to distraction.  Brilliant.

Ally's character is complicated by a dead sister and overbearing mother, and appeased but not solved by a loving and indulgent London Aunt who tries to bathe her in luxury in order to protect her clever niece. The role of each of these women is worthy of an essay, but I'm hoping to provide you with a genuine curiosity so that you are encouraged to read this book for yourselves.

Central to Ally's life is the absence of her husband, who has left her to begin a new life and a new role unsupported. This strand - of a woman making her way independently - portrays the real isolation of female trailblazers in previous centuries.

Tom Cavendish is not cruel or thoughtless. Like Ally, he is intelligent, moral and has integrity. His sections are predominantly set in various places in Japan, and Moss evokes Japanese culture in the 1880s with a lightness of voice and depth of authenticity.  Tom is appalled by the covetousness of European collectors, and more appalled that he has agreed to act as buyer for one, for a fee that will be life-changing for him and Ally. He is appalled by the attitude of the British ex-pats whilst acknowledging that his own conscience is never fully clear. He seeks to understand the country which is his host, and sometimes he succeeds. He explores myths and culture and craftsmanship, and falls under the spell of Eastern life. Moss writes with warmth and respect as Tom explores the magic of fox mythology in the midst of a foreign rurality, where he concludes that even the light in one place is distinctive...the sun shines differently and the very air seems to have another composition. 

Adjustment and readjustment, compromise and integrity form the backbone to this story. Sarah Moss writes about the late Victorian era, but speaks into what it means to be human. There is quiet humanity throughout this book that resonates beyond historical boundaries.

Halfway through the year, this is definitely my top read of 2019 so far. At this point I'll reveal that the author is a leading light in the Warwick Writing Programme, but as she has never been my tutor, I can write without bias or sycophancy.

And I owe a thank you to the students on the Warwick MA who formed the committee to bring our anthology to print. We had a fabulous launch in Waterstones, Piccadilly where I was terrified and excited to read a section of one of my short stories. This was followed by a visit to the Salon Des Refuses art exhibition in Camden the following day to see my sister-in-law's exhibited artwork. A talented artist, Bernie Grist has been a continual support to me in my writing, and we share the excitement and struggles of trying to work authentically and enthusiastically in markets where it is difficult to get exposure. The launch of Chimera gave me a glimpse of publication, but the MA as a whole has given me tenacity and opened new ways to approach my work. I have discovered how I write, how to improve my writing and how to find satisfaction in the process of writing. It has, so far, been a year of my life for which I am profoundly grateful.

Writing, and reading the writing of others is enriching and affirming.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Post 85 From Silver Service to Sausage Baguette

We've been living the high life so far this month. It began with a local visit to The Waterside Inn, Bray.  Very fancy.  Kind friends had clubbed together to buy us a voucher for this exclusive restaurant. Very different from anywhere we've before, someone was even employed to meet us at the door and park our car for us! I'm still giggling about that now, (and immensely relieved that we had, by pure chance, cleaned my car).
Despite feeling a little nervous about lunch in such an upmarket place, we had a fabulous time.  The food was incredible, the staff friendly, and we enjoyed being treated like VIPs for a couple of hours. Excellent.

We followed such gourmet delights with a trip down memory lane to Cromer, North Norfolk, where we swapped haute cuisine for Starvin' Marvin's sausage baguettes on the sea front. Equally enjoyable!

Hubby's parents once owned a guest house in the seaside town, and he fondly remembers serving hearty breakfasts to visitors during his uni holidays. I also remember it vividly, not least because it was where my father-in-law-to-be learnt of my rather alarming sleepwalking habits—causing him to prowl around the upper floors in the middle of the night armed with a poker, looking for a commotion that seemed to have emanated somewhere in the region of room 6!
And room 6, as it turns out, is now the family bathroom, complete with a Victorian bath by the window providing a view over the sea. It was lovely to be welcomed by the current owners and given a tour of the much- improved kitchen and living quarters, as well as enjoying a stay in room 4 where, in former times, Martin family new year gatherings all took place. If you fancy a Norfolk break I recommend Albury House.

It's not all been unadulterated fun.  An intensive week of humanitarian law gave me great sympathy for Child 2 and all the facts he's currently storing in his brain for his law finals. It also made me despair somewhat for the human race and how incalculably cruel we can be to one another. It resulted in a journalist-style article on international justice after conflict and atrocity. Very interesting and stimulating, but hard-graft.

This course also meant that I read a lot of books on retribution and restorative justice which you'll be relieved I have no intention of reviewing in my blog!  I am however going to include The Politics of Exile. The title might make you want to run a mile, but I'm going to rank this as one of my best reads of the year, so stay with me!
Autobiographical, it reads like a novel, and is very short.  The Canadian author, Elizabeth Dauphinee, tells of her epiphany as she worked to publish a scholarly book on the conflict in former Yugoslavia.  It was during the final stages of completion that she employed the services of a Serb speaker to check her foreign language quotations. From the first page she engages us with the relationship between them, "I built my career on life of a man called Stojan Sokolovic. And I would like to explain myself to him. I would like to ask him to forgive me...but I don't know how to begin."
He threw all her research and ideas into free-fall, as she  realised that everything she had written had to be re-thought and reconsidered.  It is a human story about the difference between theory and experience. It hinges on friendship, trust, and a reluctant awakening from naivety. Elizabeth Dauphinee shares struggles of self-doubt and loneliness.  She takes the reader to uncomfortable places as she considers what it is that forms morality—how it is that we discern right from wrong.
There are some disturbing scenes in the book, but nothing is over-egged, and its thriller-style structure keeps you reading to the conclusion.


Another book I have finished since the last blog entry is The Woman On The Stairs by Bernhard Schlink.  I really enjoyed The Reader and so I was excited to buy this.  It is a very different read.  Less compelling, but I did enjoy it. Opening with an evocative description of a painting of a naked woman on a staircase, the novel follows Irene's life and those of three men who have been involved with her. One of these narrates the story and so the reader is drawn into his version of events.  The plot moves from a staged kidnapping in Germany to an isolated island in Australian bush country where Irene has lived alone and separate from any of her former liaisons for many years.
But now she is dying and she wants to be found.  She exhibits her painting in a Sydney gallery, confident that the three men will seek her out.  She has something they want, and she knows it.
Like The Politics of Exile, this book explores what it means to be human. It explores what we need and want from life, what we conform to, what we rebel against.
It begins like a thriller, but ends as a philosophical narrative.  It was this marrying of two forms that made the book less cohesive for me.  But I liked Irene and part of me admired her for her independence and assertion of control at the end of her life. The narrator was fully formed,but the other two men were never fully convincing.


Lastly, Patrick Gale.  Many of you will know that I am a bit of a fan.  He writes people
gloriously well. He is also ruggedly handsome with perfect hair, and has a gentle, deep timbre that makes him a delight to listen to at literary festivals.
His latest novel came out in paperback last month, Take Nothing With You, and I was in the Bodleian Library to hear him speak about it in Oxford in April. I was also one of the first in the queue for signed copies and was delighted that he was happy to sign the first book I had read of his, Notes from an Exhibition - the novel that launched me into fandom!
The early chapters of the latest novel find Eustace isolated in a hospital room having radiation treatment so toxic that the medical physicist has to hand him the tablet with a pair of tongs. As Child 1 is currently in the middle of training for this very job, the line "Eustace tried and failed to imagine the journey whereby a woman became a physicist in a hospital lab" had resonance.  I confess to some disappointment in my authorial hero when the fact that the scientist was a woman was such an anathema. And I have to admit that though the story is good, it is not my favourite Gale. A bildungsroman, I expected some teenage awakening, but this is no Jane Eyre and the scenes were a bit too salacious for me! I'm sure I am a prude, but there are some things I really don't need to know.
That said, the parallel story involves music.  A cellist himself, Gale writes evocatively and convincingly about learning and playing the instrument.  Poetic and lyrical, I could imagine the sound of the cello and believe in the passion behind the determination to play.
The story is good, and the complexities of relationships across generations are well-told.

I have also just finished Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore. I can't write much about it as I'm going to use it as an example in my historical fiction essay for my final unit at Warwick (just one more piece to write - it has gone so quickly!), but I will close with an absolute recommendation to read. Set in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution, Dunmore explores what it means to be remembered or forgotten.

I'm currently reading Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children... good so far!

As always, thanks for reading my blog, and being patient with my lack of regularity as I complete this MA.