Suspending disbelief – in a Nutshell

Ian McEwan’s Nutshell was on my Christmas list in 2016. In 2017 one of my own nutshells noticed and as soon as there was a lull after New Year, I cracked it open and relished every morsel.

I wrote here about adopting the point of view (POV) of someone quite different to oneself and referred to Nutshell as an audacious attempt which would require a writer of McEwan’s calibre to bring off. I think he succeeds. The story is told from inside his mother by an 8½ month foetus. Our hero’s name doesn’t appear to have been discussed yet (although there’s a clue in Uncle Claude and mum Trudy) so I’ll call him U for Unborn. Some practicalities are deftly dealt with: U expresses the readers’ doubts for them by explaining that he has a good command of language and ideas because he overhears his insomniac mother listen to so many podcasts. Anyone who’s spent a day with the randomness of Radio 4 will attest to the vocabulary building properties of such a pastime. He’s also a budding oenophile who can distinguish with appreciation between “a good burgundy (her favourite) and a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta”.

30008702

I can’t see how this foetus will ever be a toddler, so sophisticated is his knowledge already, but as far as I know no one other than authors for toddlers (whom I applaud) has ever tried to write in a toddler’s voice. I’m currently trying to write in the voice of a bright seven year old and even that poses huge limitations on vocab and conceptual understanding. U can discuss the Middle East, modern warfare, the advantages of Norwegian tax arrangements, and he’s an accomplished poetry critic. He can provide a convincingly visual picture of his father’s “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Square”, market value included, but he can’t yet envisage the colour green, although it crops up frequently in his imagery. This may be because the men in Trudy’s life adore her green eyes, and McEwan makes it achingly clear that U loves his mother even through her many faults.

It’s true that young babies, especially before they learn to make much noise other than crying, can often look wise and reflective, fixing their stares, their expressions ciphers. They lose this as soon as they become mobile or verbal, so McEwan hedged his bets correctly in opting for an unborn.

U is going to need all his brains because he has unfortunate parents and his parents have unfortunate lovers. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.” (Surely this generation would talk in centimetres?) Obviously U has little physical strength, but he does find he can manipulate the action of both the penis and the novel with a well timed kick. He has plenty of chances to practise; there’s a lot of sex. In this nutshell of a novel, under 200 pages, McEwan fits the universals of birth, love and death into a tight plot and timescale – there’s no spoiler in noting it’s all got to happen within four weeks at the maximum, before U is born either still or kicking. I apologise for insensitivity but the way his adults behave he should clearly have been on the “at risk” register since conception. “Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads.”

Anne Corlett's scan
34 weeks gestation, with thanks to Anne Corlett. See below for links to Anne’s writing.

Of course, we have all been foetuses, and who’s to say we don’t remember the experience? McEwan is drawing on universals here, and as far as one can tell he succeeds – Nutshell is an exciting, funny, violent, shocking read although curiously unemotional, and the audacity of the author makes him self-conscious: “All the sources agree, the house is filthy. Only clichés serve it well: peeling, crumbling, dilapidated.”

Through U’s eyes – no, through U’s hearing, taste and touch which are so far his most active senses – McEwan describes the piqued poet father and the slimy brother. He’s poignant and perceptive on the pathos of a pleading man no longer loved, and has fun with U’s irritation with Claude, for example his ponderous reading of a menu. The supporting roles – young woman poet, detective – are well evoked from within the stomach wall and McEwan plays with stereotypes: “The sergeant thinks she’s a stickler. Bound for promotion out of his league.”

But McEwan hasn’t been a pregnant woman, and he’s least successful with mother Trudy. I was able to suspend (almost) all disbelief and root for U all the way but this POV of a first time heavily pregnant woman was unbelievable and not in the way tennis players use the word as high praise. Surely no woman at 38 weeks could sink so much drink, endure bags of rotting rubbish in her own hallway or appear so oblivious to the limits on action imposed by her near confinement.

Otherwise, a brilliant book. Now to try an even less comfortable POV, perhaps McEwan could venture out of the professional classes? (To be fair, he goes into this himself, in the Guardian, August 2016.)

Writing this, I’ve remembered another, lovelier, even sadder unborn POV, in “Prayer Before Birth” by Louis Mac Neice (1944). It’s read here by Mark Rylance Actor, director and writer at an Anti-War Mass Assembly in Trafalgar Square on 8 October 2011. (For light relief see the high vis jacketed soundman who arrives on stage just as Rylance is being introduced!)

The scan photo is the baby of Anne Corlett at 34 weeks. Anne, previously shortlisted for the Bristol and Bath short story awards, released her novel The Space Between the Stars in 2017. She offered the photo after I posted a request in Book Connectors, proving you can make some impressive literary connections through Facebook (I refer to the association with Ian McEwan and MacNeice rather than myself).

Below are my own nutshells in December 1993:

nutshell 1993

From next week I’ll be blogging monthly on books and literature for Sally Cronin’s Smorgasbord. My posts there will appear on Saturdays, repeated here afterwards, but most weeks I’ll still be here on Fridays. Comments are always welcome wherever you read the posts!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

Jane Austen recast

When I studied European Literature (Sussex, 1981), our only sources of criticism and commentary were lectures and the library. If you were studying an obscure text, there wasn’t much to go on. For example, for one assessment I compared versions of Troilus and Cressida. I found plenty about the Shakespeare play and lots on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a few books about their source which was probably Boccacio‘s Il Filostrato, and one short chapter on a Scottish poet called Henryson. His narrative poem The Testament of Cresseid featured Cressida punished for her love affair by contracting leprosy. I took as gospel everything the critic said about Henryson, because who else was there to consult? And Henryson took a starring role in my essay, to gain me marks for originality.

Undergraduates often depend too much on second hand opinions partly because they respect more senior researchers (good) and partly because they lack confidence in their own views (bad). Thus, at feedback for my essay on Crime and Punishment, the eminent Professor Thorlby greeted me: “I didn’t know you were a lapsed Catholic.” I’d had no idea, dependent as I was on discussing the words of the only Russian critic I could find translated into comprehensible English, that was the impression I’d given. I  thought my essay was contrasting individualism with social responsibility. (I did know enough to know I liked criticism to be rooted in a social and economic context as well as discussing language and style. So with one confused eye on the semiotics and structuralism then still shunned at Cambridge but a big deal at trendy Sussex, the critics I favoured tended to be Marxist, which also made them easier to read.)

As an exchange postgraduate in France, I had to teach Hamlet to students older and more qualified than myself. I fled back to England, to the Sussex library and in horror found over a dozen shelves in the “stacks”, of Hamlet criticism alone. How to sort out the brilliance from the dead wood? And how much worse this dilemma must be now. I just Googled “Hamlet – critical articles” and found 21,600,000 results.

Since that eye opening Sussex foundation, with more decades of reading and some writing of my own, I’m less blinded by academic credentials and more able to judge whether a critical study is telling me something new. One such is Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now Austen is an author I thought I knew well. But – “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies, forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels,” says Kelly (p.311). Well, I’ve done that, several times32441705. I studied Persuasion for A level (Don’t knock A levels. A good teacher leading on a great book, covering the solid old style A level syllabus, can provide a key to thinking about literature that’s equal to anything on Google or mouldering in the library stacks.) My Economic History A level covered the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the UK, and I studied the French Revolution at university, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Freud. So I was prepared for much of Kelly’s thinking, and I’d never dismissed Austen’s novels as pretty drawing room dramas. I agree with Kelly that if you “…understand what serious subject marriage was then…all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.” (p.31) Even so – take a deep breath.

Northanger Abbey, is not as I thought about a young girl carried away into silly fantasies by reading Gothic novels. 50398Kelly points out, in this novel about reading, how little reading actually gets done. But there does seem to be female masturbation, thinly veiled as unlocking a door: “Jane’s society viewed it as common knowledge that girls, as well as boys, indulged in the ‘secret and destructive vice’.” (p.66) There are a number of footnotes and a short bibliography, but this particular assertion is not backed up though Freud must be drooling in his grave. I found the claims that death through sex and childbirth was a major theme, both overt and coded, more convincingly argued through the sad statistics of social history.

Sense and Sensibility is, to Kelly, about “brass” (money). She points out the imagery of 14935metals, money and jewellery, and how this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, highlights unfair inheritance laws and primogeniture. The money references are given so precisely in Sense and Sensibility, the 21st century reader can calculate the exact incomes of various grades of clergy, army personnel, landowners and their dependents, and understand how patronage makes or ruins them. But here’s Freud again: Kelly highlights sexual symbolism, hinting at abuse, and her delving into the moral character of even apparently worthy suitors raise few hopes for the marriages contracted. If Kelly’s reading is correct, Austen is cynically pessimistic about the future for the Dashwood brides.

Most of us are most familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But here’s a less chintzy angle. Kelly is into her stride now, and highlights 1885
how “the presence of the militia in the novel …introduces layer upon layer of anxiety…Invasions..naval mutinies…food riots…They’re in the background, but they’re there.” (p 128). She situates the novel amid precise historical events through indicators like the style of Elizabeth’s petticoat – not a petticoat at all but a fashion that was definitely old fashioned by the mid 1790s. She also explains the extra resonance in the word “prejudice” for contemporary readers – a strength of Kelly’s book is her ability to decode references that would have been much more obvious to Austen’s immediate audience than they are to us. One thing we’d have to be blind to miss is the criticism of the clergy, represented by the absurd Mr Collins, but Kelly is none too impressed by Mr Darcy’s aristocrat either, even after the proud and prejudiced scales have fallen from his eyes. Whoops – here’s another marriage auguring well but, Kelly implies, too much of a fairy tale to ring true.

It’s always gratifying when an expert echoes one’s own thoughts. For Kelly as for me, Mansfield Park was Austen’s most radical and daring novel, and she is moving on Austen’s disappointment at the lack of reviews. Perhaps, says Kelly – the word perhaps appears often in JA:The Secret Radical: not all Kelly’s ideas are fully substantiated – this isn’t surprising. Mansfield Park is a barely coded attack on slavery. Although the 45032abolitionist cause had much public support by Austen’s time, much wealth was still enmeshed with slavery, from her own family to great landowners and the Church of England. It reflected well on the enlightened British to support abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, but at home nobody wanted to see their standard of living fall, or run short of sugar. Kelly finds child abuse and sadism in the novel, as well as fortunes built on slavery and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. “(Mansfield Park) is filled with infidelities, not-so-genteel-poverty, with bullying and threats of violence.” (p. 168). She points out how the names Mansfield, Norris, Madeira (as in wine) and Moor Park (the type of apricot tree planted at Mansfield Parsonage) would have resonated with contemporary readers, who’d recognise the names of players in the slavery debate; she counts many instances of the words “plantation, slave, chains”. She shows how daring it was for a clergyman’s daughter to write a novel so critical of the Church. No wonder it wasn’t reviewed.

I said in my previous post on Jane Austen that I found the story and character of Emma least interesting of all the novels. Kelly len6969ds more meaning to the story, explaining how the plot reflects the enclosures movement. “Enclosing” covered any kind of fencing, walling, hedging or barring access to common and waste ground. It was at its height when Emma was written. It challenged the poor, who had previously been able to supplement their meagre incomes grazing livestock, growing vegetables, gathering firewood and foraging on such land. Without access, the numbers of destitute people swelled, and there was high population growth too. Kelly shows the landscape of Emma emphasising enclosures, “respectable” people reduced to begging for parish relief, gypsies forced off their traditional sites, and the better off feeling vulnerable too. Mr Knightly is not the kind, urbane gentleman he appears, with his enclosure projects; Mr Woodhouse is perhaps justified in being querulous; the gypsies are not threatening but threatened, in Kelly’s reading. Birth advantages can be taken away; illegitimate children cosseted or cast off at whim; the domestic world of Emma is as threatening as the warring background to Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.

Kelly is least sure of herself talking about 2156Persuasion. She is interesting, but perhaps not original (I don’t know enough about Austen scholarship to say) on the theme of fossils and old certainties giving way to Darwinism, conjecturing Austen may have come across the child Mary Anning on the beach at Lyme Regis. She’s amusing about the idea of marrying to regain an ancestral home and on snobbery – but Austen does that all so well herself with her portrait of Sir Walter Elliot, it barely needs repeating. I felt her writing about Persuasion was like history in the novel: “… disrupted, random, chaotic…You can’t escape the tide of history; you can’t stay firm against that kind of pressure; you have to give way and let yourself be carried, if you want any hope of surviving.” (p 289).

I may give the impression, wrongly, that Kelly discusses only the six principal novels. But she does so in the context of Jane Austen’s letters, of imagined scenes from her life, historical events, her comic verse and fragments of writing, memoirs by the Austen family, contemporary novels and polemic, and the scholarship of others. There are snippets of social history; daring, forthright opinions, and there’s quite a lot of “perhaps” along with a few “undoubtedly”s. It’ s a long time since I’ve been fascinated enough to review a secondary source. I may even go and study literature again.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Six degrees of separation

I found this book game on Janet Emson’s blog Fromfirstpagetolast.*  The idea is to start with a book and then see what other book it leads to and so on for six books. They don’t all have to be linked, only each subsequent one.

35529108Lying on my coffee table is Don’t Panic I’m Islamic. I’d heard of this first on Linda Hill‘s blog. Shortly afterwards, I was visiting my son at Goldsmiths, and came across “The Word” bookshop, New Cross Road. I took him inside to show him the joy of browsing in an independent bookshop – his politics are admirable but he doesn’t read enough books. Immediately, in this small one room shop, I found several things I wanted to buy. Yet in Waterstones I frequently come out empty handed, bemused by the vast choice…Has anyone else found this? I believe there’s a theory about it.

Dowd 17Anyway, Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic… It belongs on the coffee table (or in the loo) because it’s a book to dip into. Very funny, in parts. Sad in others, cheeky, angry too. There are poems, cartoons, colouring pages and paintings as well as essays, commissioned in response to President Trump’s travel ban on Muslims. Most contributors are Muslim, though I’m not sure about Carol Ann Duffy or Chris Riddell. My favourite essay was instructions on how to get through US immigration if you’re a gay mixed race man who’s visited Lebanon and Libya that year (the successful strategy will surprise you). It wasn’t the only article on being Muslim and gay, and it struck chords with Queer and Catholic that I reviewed recently. The Word bookshop didn’t have Don’t Panic... (small shops can’t stock everything) but they ordered it which was a good ruse for getting Rob back in there to pick it up for me.

61twx2rf9vlOne they did have, which Don’t Panic… had reminded me of, was The Good Immigrant – which I reviewed here. It also contains references to barriers for BAME travellers at US customs, a sore point well before Trump’s ban. Both The Good Immigrant, a bestseller essay collection last year, and Don’t Panic… offer timely reminders that Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) can be clever, dense, witty, irritating, funny, peculiar, maddening, thoughtful, cruel, compassionate, generous, devout, autistic, dyslexic, able bodied, queer, unhealthy, scientifically-minded, parents, violent, twee…etc…but only a miniscule minority of Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) are likely to be terrorists.

9780008191153The bookshop assistant (owner?) and I chatted about recent lively, polemical books as I placed the order, which reminded me to ask for Attack of the 50ft Women, which I want to give my son for Christmas. (I think it will be a surprise: he doesn’t read my blog. If it isn’t a surprise, this description of how/why women are STILL not truly equal will fit well with his sociology/media/critical theory/history courses anyway.) 32938157As the Sunday Express review said, “Buy it for yourself, your husband or partner. Most importantly, buy it for your children.” But much as I love them, it’s not out in the cheaper paperback until January – so I browsed other books on what I assume was the minorities/women’s table, and found Words from Wise, Witty and Wonderful Women, a compendium of extracts from Woman’s Hour interviews over the past 70 years. I can’t tell you anything about it, except that it’s another dip-into coffee table/loo book, because on the way home I remembered my friend’s birthday, stopped for paper, sellotape and a card, and took it to her. (There was something cosy and appropriate about being saved from forgetting to buy a birthday present by Woman’s Hour.)

51kykr2uvxlThe same display table yielded Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which I’ve already written about at admiring length here, and the paperback of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. When I got home I realised I’d been given (and not yet read) the hardback last Christmas, so Oxfam did well out of me that day too. I’ve started reading it today, and so far I’m thinking: blimey, this is not the Jane Austen of wet shirted Mr Darcy or gently clopping pony traps! Freud must be rubbing his hands vigorously in his grave (at least I hope it’s his hands) at how Helena Kelly interprets the thoughts of Austen’s Catherine Morland. The Women’s Equality Party could quote her in their manifesto; and Momentum members would enjoy Kelly’s interpretation of Austen’s views on wealth distribution.

32441705So there they are: six – no, dammit, seven – books, tenuously linked. Who’d have thought reading (without panicking) about Islamic drag queens and a Beirut bus driver’s thoughts on Donald Trump’s hair, could lead to Jane Austen?

My choices suggest a penchant for political, radical, left of centre sociology. They make me look like a great reader of nonfiction, but usually I read novels. So I’m tempted to start the game again, with one I read recently, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. If any of you have read that, I wonder where it led you? I bet you can’t guess where it took me…but I’ll leave that for a future blog post.

*Janet Emson found the game on three other blogs. If we add mine, that makes five blogs. Would you like to add yours, and then we’ll have six (or more) book blogs separated only by a link, all playing Six Degrees of Separation with the books they’re reading! What would your six (or more) books be?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Books for older readers

A few days ago I added my own novel to a new Facebook page, Books for Older Readers. It says it’s “for readers over 50 and writers who write books which appeal to this age group. Please join if you write, read, blog or recommend books for the over 50s.”

pennyjenkins-300x225
Singing for the Over 50s
with Penny Jenkins
… fun course is for all singers, any ability, no upper age limit! Rediscover the joy singing brings …make music for many years to come. Benefits to health, happiness, general well-being. 

(Digression #1 – we oldies are allowed to ramble –  coincidentally I had an email today from Jackdaws with a singing course for the over 50s. I went on an all ages course there once and it thoroughly rejuvenated my voice! Recommended.)

I’m broadly in agreement with the aims of Clare Baldry, the retired headteacher and author who set the page up. Of course it raises all sorts of questions, not least: what is “older”? I’m still in my 50s, and never took much trouble to keep very fit, but I’m disconcerted (and worse) to find several university peers already dead, and myself and others beset by serious eyesight problems, cancers, arthritis and so on. The recent death at 51 of  comedian Sean Hughes banged another nail in our collective coffin. And yet…many of us have started new careers and hobbies and the if UK Old Age Pension isn’t now going to start for me until I’m 66 or 67, how can I be “old” before that? Baldry’s 50+ is a wide age group in a country where average life expectancy is now  79 for men and 83 for women. But my local community centre stubbornly continues to offer services for older people from age 55, and many sheltered housing complexes offer flats to anyone over the same age (a complex is what I’d have if I bought one now).older people 4

However, we probably do read different books, or at least in a different way. Everyone’s experienced returning to a book they adored as a young adult to find it either still wonderful, or a bit quaint, or boring, or completely discordant. Fashions in writing style and content change. It seems to me the books I read when younger were wordier, quieter, more thoughtful. Sentences were longer; interior monologues and third person narration and omniscient narrators and multiple points of view and extended scenes and assumptions of background knowledge and intense concentration on the reader’s part were taken for granted. The short sentences, staccato scenes and gasping plots of today’s girls on trains and the extreme violence of some contemporary crime novels are just too shallow and voyeuristic for me, while “cosy crime” is too silly. But a good well written thriller is always fun to read.

(Digression #2: Specific annoyances for a mid 50s woman standing up on a rush hour tube. i) Everyone sitting down is much younger than I am. ii) If they stand up for me it must be because they think I look really old. iii) None of them stands up for me.)

Older people 1
Book “department” – local Waitrose

Of course, most over 50s once had access to good bookshops and/or libraries. We are more familiar with leisurely browsing through hardbacks and paperbacks, not the spurious “look inside” you get on Amazon or the tiny selection of middle and low brow bestsellers and celebrity publications in the local supermarket. We either still do, or once had, better concentration.

Digression #3. It would bore you, and me, if I  researched any evidence for that last statement. (Or would it?)

As an ex teacher, I dislike sweeping generalisations about literacy levels (which are influenced by so many complexities it should be illegal to make them), but many of us were educated (or at least went to school) at a time when vocabulary and style were seen as just as important as phonics and genre, when we wrote “compositions” ourselves and when adverbs were not seen as a disease to be stamped out. My vintage is no doubt betrayed by the length of my sentences and my use of the passive voice. What we read influenced how we wrote as children; how we wrote as children influences how we write now. The editors to whom agents submit are in their late 20s and early 30s now: “whom” just makes them say “what?” and they chuck the (virtual) manuscript straight onto the (virtual) slush pile with a brief “Sorry, I just didn’t love it enough” to the agent,or worse, an out of office reply they’re on maternity leave..

After a while, however perceptive your browsing, you do find you’ve read the same thing rather too often. No more inner thoughts at dinner parties for me! I’m also done with the first  and second world wars (with an exception for A God in Ruins), the Holocaust, the Dustbowl and Depression, most dystopias (I stopped at Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham), university novels, early mid life crises (“…at nearly 40, X worries her life is running away with her…”). The Child in Time by Ian McEwan did child abduction in exemplary fashion years ago and needs no revisit. I don’t think I want to read about the miseries of old age either. As a student I admired and was moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death“. But as a student, I hadn’t yet experienced the death of my own parents, and my back didn’t hurt, I didn’t have to laugh off “senior moments” (how that grates!) and hadn’t started to dislike snow and wet leaves on the pavement.

 

Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was brilliantly written but grimmer than grim, especially describing dementia that started in middle age. Unadulterated old age is tedious: I began to read Margaret Drabble as a teenager and followed her heroines through youth and middle age as we all matured, but she’s twenty years ahead of me. Last year’s The Dark Flood Rises has too much banal details of food spilling, not being able to run for buses, and too much reflected loss of confidence. Her writing, like our skins, is less fresh, less taut. It disappointed me. (I feel guilty, writing that. A book entirely full of old people: how dare they be so visible? They are not so in the street, in public, on the tube. How inconsiderate of them and their elderly author. And my own confidence takes a further tumble. If Drabble, with her stellar career, is past it, perhaps I should stop submitting to publishers much sooner.)

But my rules are made to be broken! The Oxfam shop supplied me with The Lie this morning. It’s about the First World War, but it has the quality mark of Helen Dunmore who sadly, has not lived to be old. I romped through Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, perhaps because the humour and the detective element leaven the awfulness of the heroine’s confusion. Doris Lessing’s readable, poignant, funny, informative memoir Alfred and Emily was published when she was 89, five years before she died. At nearly 100, Diana Athill published an elegant, witty memoir from her retirement home, Alive, Alive Oh!

Good or bad, we can’t only read about old, and much older age. Well written books whose characters and concerns span several generations work well for older readers too, and may be more cheerful, with their cyclical sense of renewal. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Maggie O’Farrells This Must Be The Place are in the same tradition, and we love them because we have experience of all the age groups.

Whoops, another rule broken: as a child I devoured the Jalna books. Mazo de la Roche’s now forgotten series based on a family in the Southern States of the USA fascinated me, and I loved the hero Renny Whiteoak, even though he was already twice my age when I read the beginning of his story in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and and 60 years older when I finished it.

402252I just noticed most of the books I’ve praised here for older readers are by women. Coincidence or is it that I find them warmer? I’m straying on to dangerous ground here (or another blog post) and will redress the balance. If you haven’t read (or rather, viewed) the memoir by Raymond Briggs of his parents Ethel and Ernest, you have a treat in store.

Perhaps older readers just want high quality writing with beauty and style, originality, subjects that will interest and intrigue them, escape… The same as younger readers maybe. In some ways it’s easier to achieve because older readers do I think have a more established reading habit, and in some ways harder because, inevitably, they have less sense of wonder at the world. I’ll be curious to see what Books for Older Readers recommends and wish it many happy anniversaries to come.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

Building without dust

Sometimes episodes in a book echo the reader’s life. It’s reassuring, and can be cathartic. Certainly any book whose style or content makes me react: “That’s me/my thoughts/my situation you’re describing!” during the first few pages is one I’d continue reading. It works whether the moment is essential to the plot or a sideline. This week I read “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, and the number of echoes were uncanny.

29939363

To some extent it’s because Cusk deals with universals. Like a fortune teller (and the book opens with one) she discusses the great preoccupations of life: getting together; separating; maternal guilt; moving house; memory. We can all relate to these, and she explores them with subtlety and depth, going inside her character’s heads and saying the unsayable. “There! She’s said it for me!” the reader thinks with relief, as her nameless narrator admits to not fully responding to her distressed child, to not listening to the students she’s teaching, to absolutely loathing her neighbours. (I’m assuming this is a narrator, not Cusk herself.)

Narrator makes so many observations, some Cusk 2are bound to be true for each reader. Even so, what a lot of coincidences, right from page 1 (where the fortune teller’s junk email expresses her situation for her): “I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come.” (P.2)  Sneering at this resonating description as just a “computer algorithm” reveals Narrator’s own vulnerability. Quickly she distances herself, describing a divorced friend who admits he’s affected by such mailshots too, then moving from him to an estate agent describing his clients: “...the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because  a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it…For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people realise the decree of fate.” Thus at a remove of four or more people (self, friend, agent, clients) Narrator/Cusk expresses how we all feel.

My goodness, that’s only on page 3 and already Narrator’s pinpointed me. I’m currently deciding whether to move to “the country” to a just affordable detached house. In “the country” the houses are all different, unlike London where you know what you’re going to see as soon as you ring the bell. Everything in London is white painted and laminate floored, but elsewhere houses are different shapes and sizes, in quirky states of repair and the decor and contents rumble with the lives of their present owners. (I can’t afford the nicer ones and others have fatal flaws that back in the agent’s office I realise would soon have had my blood pressure on the boil.)

Cusk 9
Shall we move to “the country”?

After recounting her hairdresser’s views on life (I too have an articulate, empathetic hairdresser, who I pay as much for his company as for what he does to my hair), Narrator runs into an old boyfriend. How civil they can now be! How objectively she can analyse the way they treated each other! They swap stories of children and homes, and he wishes her well in her move back to London. Yes, I’ve known that…

She’s moving too, but in the opposite direction. Like me three years ago, she has to find something in an expensive city and has limited resources (it’s all relative: I do realise millions of people are far worse off than I am). Like me, she ends up with a dreadful property, all dodgy wiring, rotting floorboards and creatures you’d rather not think about inside and out. It’s a first floor flat, similar to one I once had. Like me then, she has elderly council tenant neighbours below – but where mine there and in my present house were welcoming and insisted my building projects were no trouble, hers are resentful, filthy and offensive. There’s no doubt the work has to be done, but they resist it every step of the way.

building close up
When you share a wall with a building site

Again, the same story as mine, though from the opposite viewpoint. My charming neighbour here died and next door was sold. Cusk is now holding up a mirror to me of how obstreperous neighbours can seem: it ain’t pleasant. To find Narrator describing her dissenting neighbour as a monster troll is disturbing, knowing my emotions run every bit as strong as those expressed in the foul mouthed tirades she receives from  the basement. “It’s these single skin buildings,” the builder said, shaking his head. “Every sound goes right through them.” (P 51. On cue, drilling has started through my party wall and revolting though they sound, I do sympathise with the neighbours. Not only the building is thin-skinned. I find the monster troll in me is very close to the surface.)

builders everywhere 2
Builders, builders everywhere

As I did, Narrator builds a relationship with her builder, (not a “relationship”, you understand, an affinity), and also with his sub contractors. She’s interested in their back stories, their health and their emotional well being, and they in turn try to protect her from the worst of living in a building site, sometimes by acting off their own initiative in ways that surprise and unsettle her. She seeks out friends having similar experiences: “…(Amanda) couldn’t remember what it was like to live somewhere normal,…where you didn’t have to … thoroughly remove the dust and dirt from your person in order to leave the house, rather than the other way around…she had gone to meetings with grout in her hair and plaster under her fingernails…” (p.169).

I’ve only achieved the title of my proposed novel about building, used for this review pending a text to go with it. But Cusk’s done the lot, and unlike me is able to throw in chapters on the sort of literary festival that would never ask me to speak and on having the sort of creative writing student who would never choose me. Like me, Narrator is still building a new life after divorce and it seems to involve as much mess, as many wrong turns, as much expenditure and clumsiness and mood swings and anecdotes as mine. She recounts them dispassionately, hence the catharsis.

21400742“Transit” is also a novel about new people she meets, new chances Narrator builds or encounters; it’s a novel of glimmering possibilities and foul interactions she must either put behind her or put up with. And it’s about self and other: how others have the same thoughts she does; how the light they shine is only slightly different. She shows how expressing experiences and opinions through them (he said that/ she said she/ I asked her what…) permits just enough distance, enough observational objectivity, for writer and reader to step over the boundaries of what it’s conventionally acceptable to explore and confess. The language is simple and clear, almost clinical: it needs to be, because the thoughts she explores develop in sometimes complex and shocking ways. Yet we should not be shocked, because we have thought them too.

13380846I must now read the first novel in this trilogy, “Outline” from 2015, and also “Aftermath” (2009), which was criticised by some as revenge for the rawness of separation and for involving others beside herself. Other reviewers found it pure and cathartic.“Why can’t we just be normal? Why does everything have to be so weird?”  asks the older son in a desperate phone to his mother, when he’s lost his keys to his dad’s house. “I said I was sorry but I had to go.” (p.133) Sometimes, you can’t provide an answer, although you can keep asking the questions, and you do just have to go. At least reading Cusk you know you are not alone.

I’d be interested to know if any readers have had the same experience of identifying with a book, fiction or not, and the effect it had on them.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Newborn

Sometimes a story arrives from nowhere with the emotional load intact but the end unclear. We were in the basket only checkout queue. The world came to a stop for us and for the cashier when our attention was magnetised by swimming eyes not yet old enough to focus. The baby’s mouth formed and lost small shapes, his head flopped on his mother’s chest, and all without a sound.

newborn Rob

His mother held one hand under his padded bottom, one on the handle of her enormous buggy. Her wire basket was perched against the handle. She leaned back, the baby pinned to her chest by an awkward gravity. Out darted her hand to transfer each item one by one from basket to belt, back it went to steady the baby between each grab. She gauged the risk each time with frightened eyes, but seemed unable to let go of the buggy.

She headshook away offers of help, but her gaze latched onto me, then onto my partner, then turned to the cashier.

“This one’s very new, I think?” I said. You don’t often see such tiny babies out and about.

“One week,” she announced. Her accent was French I think. Her eyes darted from one of us to the other, the pupils wild.

“Your first?”

“Yes. He’s all right in the pram. But not when I take him out. He cries when I take him out.” But the baby wasn’t crying.

“He won’t feed.” She stared us down: “Fourteen hours without taking milk.”

“He looks fine,” I said, because he did. Alert and content, relaxed, quiet. Perhaps nuzzling a little.

“I had to come out for some formula,” she said.

“Oh!” I said before I could stop myself. I’m a full time busybody, and over two decades ago had the luck to find breastfeeding came naturally.

Her face was very white and her stomach still big. I don’t think she heard me.

“He’s lovely,” intervened the cashier. My partner smiled.

At the next aisle, a good natured voice: “Excuse me…” The new mother was absently pushing her empty buggy back and forth, and the twisting wheels had caught in a lady’s trolley. I don’t remember, from my buggy buying days, what those fully rotating wheels were called, but at that time you paid extra for them. My wheels never got caught in anything that I recall. But my buggies were much simpler affairs.

Newborn mum tried to bend, baby and all, to free the wheels. The other customer bent as well. She got there first and they jiggled with the baby scrunched between them until the two contraptions were released.

Ros newborn 2

“You’re brave, bringing him out so young,” I encouraged her. “Well done! I took weeks when I had my first to go out alone with her.”

“He’s fine when he’s in the pram,” she repeated, still clutching him with one hand, still trying to push items along the belt. So why not put him back in the pram? Such an easy thought, at a distance of twenty plus years.

“And I had a C section,” she said. “One week, that’s all.” She repeated this, too. “C section. One week ago.” She needed to retell the story often enough for it to make sense. How vulnerable they both were.

“You’re doing very well.” Busybody me again, with little evidence either way. “But you must take care, take care of yourself, he’s fine.”

“Yes, take care,” said the cashier, and we exchanged looks. Surely this young woman should not be out alone yet with her baby.

“My boyfriend is …ing”. Our faces showed we didn’t catch what she said he was doing. Then they showed we thought he should be there.

We picked up our bags. Time had stopped long enough. Goodbye, good luck. A silent wish she would soon feel more comfortable. Outside, I was reminded of my gratification, once I’d relaxed from newborn nerves, when strangers clustered round my new baby. Once a stallholder shouted “Ow, look at the loverly biby!” (This is not a pastiche. It’s how they really sounded in Walthamstow  market where ‘enery ‘iggins could still have found work if anyone would stand for it.) But her husband added: “Ain’t you ashamed o’ yerselves, bringin’ a little angel like that into this terrible world?” And he gave an enormous chuckle to show it was not ill meant.

Of course, the world is even more terrible now. (And better, in other smaller ways.)

I keep thinking of the young French woman. She disturbed me, out and about, in shock. But at least outside, she can find an easy audience through the beacon of her baby. She can begin to talk out her trauma, with different or less detail each day until the structure of the story falls into place for her and the facts become familiar enough to make sense.

Whoever she is, wherever she went home to, whatever her boyfriend is or does, I hope four days on from this encounter her shock is subsiding. I wonder if the unspoken concern of strangers has been of any use to her and if she mixed the formula. It reminded me of writing the newborn scene in The Infinity Pool, and of how I tried to help my heroine get through.

When there is a birth, not only the baby is newborn.

Newborn Ros
Photos are of my own children, now adults, at about the same age.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

Review of “Exposure” by Helen Dunmore

Exposure
I’ve admired Helen Dunmore for a long time, for the lucidity and fluency of her writing. Her deceptively simple style can be read so easily that the story seeps effortlessly into your mind and you gather detail about the characters and settings almost incidentally. Then a particularly beautiful sentence stops you in your tracks and you begin to appreciate the poetry of what you are reading as well. “Each time the wind slams against the glass, her nerves crisp, but she works on calmly.” We’ve all experienced wind slamming and our nerves crisping at a sudden noise, but few of us can express it so economically. Only once in the whole book does she(or her editor) go wrong and the reason this jars so much is because of the overall perfection: “Julian Clowde’s eyes were like lizard’s.”
This story resonated for me because I am the age of the youngest child in the story; I too grew up in North London; my friends were the children of Jewish refugees, and the Cold War hung threatening in the background. We played English vs Germans in the school playground; my parents had been on CND marches; there was talk on the news and in the fiction I read later of spies, references that I didn’t understand (and still usually don’t) and that at the time were menacing and sinister. As the years pass those stories have become cartoonish, but in the 1960s spy activity represented the interface between civilisation and the Eastern Bloc, with nuclear annihilation the penalty if the delicate balance were to be disturbed.
Helen Dunmore writes of spies and suspicion, but without bringing in too much minutiae. The document and photographs to which the characters’ fate is hooked are not described in detail. Their bearing on world events, if any, is not clarified at all. That fits too, with my general incomprehension of espionage. What is clear is the effect on ordinary lives when they happen to become caught up: domesticity, not the world stage, is under threat here: home comforts, personal security, well being. Any child of the 60s can relate to inadequate heating in a Victorian villa and then a seaside cottage, a temperamental coal boiler and single glazing that rattles. More positively, any teacher (as I now am and as Lily is in the book) can dream with nostalgia of paperwork which went no further than a pile of marking, and of a time when junior school children walked home from school in sole charge of their younger siblings. This book abounds with such details that pinpoint an era as definitively as any set of dates.
Exposure is a clever title, for the exposure here gives another clear glimpse of the period, a time when homosexuality was as disgraceful, or more so, than betraying your country. Youthful sexual experiment that can now shrugged off even by top politicians, was then a criminal offence, individuals, households, governments could be brought down by the scandal. My parents had gay friends who lived openly together: it took many years for me to understand how brave that was. Helen Dunmore and her characters quote Oscar Wilde to haunting effect, before some of them are exposed in a different sense, on the freezing North Kent coast, scrabbling for sea coal at low tide. Throughout the book, objects, feelings, and facts are buried, consciously or subconsciously, for mistaken or sensible reasons, and the fear is that they will be exposed like the roll of film on the crucial Minox camera. None of this would be so necessary in a different society or a different story.
Dunmore references “The Railway Children” too, in an unlikely literary juxtaposition that works brilliantly. This time the children know a little more, the country dwelling and the train are not so friendly, the mother seen as more vulnerable and not always right. But the repeated reminder of a children’s book (in fact two because Dunmore also refers to another classic that I loved as a child, “The Children who lived in a Barn” by Eleanor Graham) is comforting for the reader: children’s stories involve passing through trials to a happy ending, so maybe everything will turn out fine for the Callington family too. After all, “No one will come at this hour, and those are only shadows under the lamp posts.”
It’s for the reader to judge the happiness, actual, potential, fragile or disguised of the ending, or whether a sequel would spell doom. This is real life in the way that only a cleverly constructed fiction can present it, and the consequences of hidden events may not be so simple as they were for the original Railway Children.

copyright Jessica Norrie 2016