The other end of the spectrum: I’ve read William Trevor’s Love and Summer in one day. So if Wolf Hall was about three times as long, why didn’t I finish it in three days? Reading is more than simple math. As dense and full of characters as Hilary Mantel’s historical tale was, Trevor’s is a “little” novel about love, loss, regret, guilt and innocence. It’s on the human level: person to person. No grand scale here.
But Trevor’s novel is charming, quiet and attuned to the emotions of the heart. Ellie Dillahan is the hub around which other characters traverse. Ellie, an orphan, nurtured in a Nun run home for ‘foundlings’, is placed as a housekeeper in the home of a widowed farmer. Slowly, by increments, we learn of the tragic loss of the farmer’s wife and child. The details are withheld for most of the book. Eventually, Ellie accepts a marriage proposal from Dillahan. She’s content with this settled life. Home and hearth. Even though they are unable to bear children.
Then stranger comes to town. Ellie’s heart is shaken by the appearance of one Florian Kilderry, a would be photographer. There’s a sort of seer-prophet-mad man in town (Orpen Wren) who wanders around gently and cryptically accosting the town residents . He’s like a magnet for the plot. Or should I say, anti-magnet. His presence propels most everyone in a different direction than the one they had been headed toward.
A local rooming house is owned and run by a Mrs. Connulty. Her mother’s recent death- the funeral opens this short novel – has allowed her to finally take the reigns of the place where she has toiled under her mothers glare for her entire life. The chance to escape ended badly. Abandonment. Forced abortion. Mrs. Connulty’s life seems to her to foreshadow a natural bond between herself and Ellie – a bond that heretofore has Ellie delivering eggs to the rooming house once a week. The extent of their interaction. As Mrs C begins to speculate on the relationship between Ellie and ‘the stranger’, Florian, her motivations are apparent:
‘If Dillahan turns her out, she’ll come here,’ Miss Connulty promised with sudden, fierce determination. ‘Ellie Dillahan will live in this house and hold her head up.’
Trevor’s prose is spare and at times haunting. As here, his portrait of small town life:
The dog days of August came; Rathmoye was quiet. Small incidents occurred, were spoken of, forgotten…The priests of the parish catered for the faithful, heard sins confessed, gave absolution, offered the Host…No crime of a serious nature had been committed in Rathmoye during the summer so far; none was now. In all, twenty-one infants had been born.
…The paving stones on both sides of Magennis Street were scheduled to be replaced by the end of October. Permission was given for a neon sign at the radio and television shop in Irish Street…It was agreed that next year’s Strawberry Fair should be one week earlier.
I never miss a chance to quote out those observant passages that only dog lovers (or cat lovers for that matter) place in their fiction. Here, Florian and his dog – a companion for many years.
Jessie wasn’t there, waking up in the open doorway when Florian did. She wasn’t in the kitchen, and he looked for her in the garden and then walked to the lake, calling her….In one of the empty attics, huddled in a corner, she tried to wag her tail at him.
‘Poor Jess,’ he murmured.
He warmed milk in the kitchen and took it back to her but she didn’t want it. He cradled her in his arms but she struggled slightly and kept slipping away. He put her down in the place she’d chosen and crouched beside her.
‘Poor Jess,’ he said again, and she made another effort to move her tail, to thump the floor the way she knew she should. An eye regarded him, demanded nothing, trusting features that had always been trusted. Her tongue lolled tiredly out. She tried to pant. A few minutes later she died.
He dug her grave in a corner where she used to lie when the sun was too hot, or in spring, watching for rabbits.
A little whisper of a book. But you know whispers. They make you pay closer attention. They get your ear.
Well, I finally finished this fascinating book. I’ve had very little time to read lately – so besides being a “big” book, I had to take my reading as I could. But man, what a story! And Mantel delivers her history as a total immersion experience. By so doing, she brings these historical characters alive like no other (Shakespeare excepted). And not just Thomas Cromwell, who is the portal through which we experience this immersion.
As widely and as deeply as Cromwell is drawn, incredibly Mantel does the same for Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Katherine of Aragon. The myriad other characters that are a part of this history are also given their due. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, to be sure. We mostly know all these historical figures. Or thought we did. How Mantel turns the Man For All Seasons (Thomas More) inside out is a marvel.
Speaking of the cast of characters, thank God for the 5 page list at the front of the book which I referred to constantly. Talk about “dog-eared” pages. Because Mantel took each character seriously as real living and breathing beings, her history also lives and breathes. The Booker Award was well deserved. I can”t argue with the selection one bit.
Wolf Hall is a novel about power and wielding it. Mantel delves deeper and deeper into the mind and political acumen of Cromwell, until you think she can go not farther. Then she does. I just don’t know how this can be done as successfully in a straight non-fiction rendering of the times.
It is wise to conceal the past, even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expressions of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.
Cromwell was, if not a man for all seasons, then at least he was a man for that certain seminal season and many seasons to follow. The world was changing. Cromwell wanted to manage that change, and secure his place. Explaining this to those whose world was shifting beneath their feet was sometimes frustrating. Getting Henry Percy up to speed for instance.
How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
This lesson has been learned only too well by the likes of people like Richard Cheney, Lord of the Potomac. They don’t behead, draw and quarter, or burn people at the stake these days. So life is good for the power brokers.
10/6/09: Hilary Mantel has been announced as the winner of this year’s prize. I started it (it’s my current read), but I’ve been so busy lately that my reading has lagged. I need to get back to it.
Sarah Hall’s latest novel weaves four stories together in alternating, short chapters. It’s a novel of the senses, of art and creation. Of creating our world through our perceptions of it as demonstrated through our creations.
Susan is a photographer and a twin. She’s dealing with the loss of her brother (2 of 2, Susan being 1 of 2). Her brother is her mirror image, and of course, as a photographer, the image is the thing. Hence, the chapters headed The Mirror Crisis.
In the chapters called The Fool On The Hill, Susan’s father is a curmudgeonly independent and rather famous landscape artist. Half way through the book, Peter, out hiking, has an accident and finds his leg lodged inextricably between two boulders. Trapped, ironically by the subject of some of his best work, a painter of giant boulders.
As a young man, Peter admired the work and wrote to a revered still life artist, Giorgio (Translated From The Bottle Journals). Giorgio, except for a series of self portraits, paints only bottles. Having lost his wife in the holocaust, he’s lived what would appear to be a rather lonely life, but his art has sustained him. The portrait of Giorgio, dying of cancer at the end of his life, is nothing if not a portrait of contentment.
Before being stricken, Giorgio has begun to volunteer at a local school, where he befriends the fourth main figure in Hall’s gentle story, Annette (The Divine Visions Of Annette Tambroni). Annette is legally blind,and eventually loses her sight altogether. She arranges flowers as part of her families small business. Just before Giorgio dies, he gives her a blue bottle that she later regularly fills with flowers on his grave.
Before the novel sort of lost its way about 2/3 of the way in, I was leaning toward this one as one of the best of the Booker long-listed novels. I still regard it highly, and was impressed by Hall’s lovely and evocative style.
Here, Peter remembers his younger days in The Village. Or does he? He’s known as something of a storyteller, prone to exaggeration. Well, why not? If life is good, why not expand on it?
The fact is he can’t exactly remember his legacy, can’t entirely defend himself, and say, as a matter of fact, O petty disbelievers, O ye of bolshy attitude, I am telling the absolute truth. He has contaminated the water supply with piddle, so to speak. The Big Bumper Book of Peter’s Life and Times is a white-paged, ad-libbed tome. But he does recall, with some clarity, the hot gothic stoops in the Village, the cooking summer steps against which they lolled, and the desperation for an old brass rotary fan found in somebody else’s trash, saved and re-wired…If he concentrates, he can remember the extraordinary districts of San Francisco. The Asian tatoo parlours. The views, Rivera’s frescoes. He remembers the feeling of anti-climax when everything began to fade, when life began to look too real again.
Susan has attracted tragedies it seems. Not only has she lost her brother, but as a child she lost her best friend to a deep and never ending coma – an endless sleep.
Her sisters send you Christmas cards each year on her behalf – the secretarial custodians of Nicki’s half-life. How could they know if a week after The Decision was made – after they had brushed her hair and changed her nightgown a last time, and told her ‘goodbye we love you darling girl’ – that this was not the week she was due to sit up, finally, and ask what she got for her A level history, say she fancied a Rich Tea biscuit, and wonder if her boyfriend Andy had been up to see her. Only to find out the prick had married her younger cousin, a year after she went under.
When Annette is taking painting lessons from Giorgio, she tells him of her progressive blindness.
Signor Giorgio sighed deeply and gently put a hand on her shoulders. ‘You are an illumination,’ he said. It was then that he told her about the mind’s eye. He said that between the articles of reality and their depiction lay an invisible place, which was filled with as many things as could be seen in the visual world and more. This was the place to which Annette would go when her sight eventually failed her. She could go there to see her beautiful flowers. He said that, in the history of art, painted flowers were treasures that defied time.
As a novel concerned with art should, Hall writes some very images.
AKA, the SHORT List:
The Booker Dozen has been culled down to the final six, with about a month before the winner is announced:
* A S Byatt The Children’s Book (Random House, Chatto and Windus)
* J M Coetzee Summertime (Random House, Harvill Secker)
* Adam Foulds The Quickening Maze (Random House, Jonathan Cape)
* Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall (HarperCollins, Fourth Estate)
* Simon Mawer The Glass Room (Little, Brown)
* Sarah Waters The Little Stranger (Little, Brown, Virago)
I’ve read three of the final six (and I have Wolf Hall tbr on hand). Not surprised that Lever and Samantha Harvey didn’t make the final cut. I’m a bit surprised that Sarah Waters was selected over Toibin (although that’s not necessarily how it went). Coetzee is the best of the lot that I’ve read so far, but though brilliant, I’m not sure that his later books (like this one) have that universal thing that wins prizes. Maybe that makes no sense. Of those not selected, I have Sarah Hall”s on the way and I’m close to getting William Trevor’s from the library.
I probably won’t now read O’Loughlin, Scudamore and I very likely won’t read Byatt either – even if she wins. (Don’t make me… puleee-ze). I’ll read Simon Mawer’s at some point if he wins it. Such is my skewed logic.
The two main characters in Adam Foulds’ historical novel based on real people and events, are Dr Matthew Allen, the owner of a private hospital for the insane (High Beach Private Asylum), or moderately off – afflicted with ‘madness’. Sometimes the facility was used to hide from society a family embarrassment (at least temporarily). One of the residents of the place is John Clare, the “Peasant Poet.” From these two main characters, the two main story threads spring.
Foulds certainly writes impressively and revealingly about the nature of madness. He takes us into the minds and delusions of Clare, as well as other residents. Besides Clare himself, there’s especially Margaret (sometimes’Mary’) with her religious delusions. There’s the morose – clinically depressed in today’s terms – brother of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, Septimus. There are other minor players like Clara the witch, Simon the idiot. There’s even one Charles Seymour who is not mad at all. He’s put there to keep the good name of his family intact, discouraging him from eloping with a ‘unnsuitable’ girl.
Dr. Allen is an interesting case. He’s ‘mad’ in his own way, a genius of sorts, but one without a feet on the ground business sense. He’s a slave to his impulses and dreams. Unlike the inmates whom he oversees (and it’s a very progressive facility for the times), his actions impact far more than himself. There’s his wife Eliza, their children: Abigail, Hannah, Dora, and the heir apparent, Fulton Allen.
In the fractured personalities of John Clare, in the delusions of Margaret, in the civil wars between brothers (Dr. Allen and his brother Oswald), Foulds wants us to consider identity, self. This is especially true, and most engagingly drawn in the adjunct story of one of Dr. Allen’s daughters, Hannah.
Surprisingly, Foulds has invited us into the minds of the mentally ill, and the visit makes more sense that most novels with the same intention have made. If not a place I necessarily want to dwell, Foulds does not leave the reader stranded, confused or impatient (a danger in novels of this sort).
But it’s probably in the nature descriptions where Fould’s has excelled,
He looked up again and saw a fox trotting silently across the lawn, its low body slung from its spine, its narrow head angled to the ground. How light it was in its movements, and quick, all travel and purpose.
but truth be told I was more impressed with some of the more simple sentences which don’t necessarily stand out:
The world is a room full of heavy furniture. Eventually you are allowed to leave.
The maze of a life with no way out, paths taken, places been. He heard his door unbolted, saw a wooden plate of food shoved in.
Foulds is not crossed off my list by any means (I’ve heard too many good things about his earlier books), but it’s doubtful that I will be revisiting him any time soon. And I’ve got a few ahead of him on my Booker recommended list.
This Tuesday (September 8th), the long list will be pared down to six. And on October 6th, the winner will be announced.
Right away I see this is different. Boy has a well…boy on the cover. Youth has a young businessman on the cover, buttoned up and starting his career perhaps. The cover of Summertime has a pick-up truck that seemingly has veered off the rutted dirt road-path. Tail gate down. It looks abandoned. Something seems to have gone wrong.
Fragments of notebooks, which turn out to be notes from John Coetzee from the 70’s. This then from the time he turns from poetry to prose. Then the shock. This is not part III of Scenes From a Provincial Life. At least not in the way the other two slim volumes were. JMC had distanced himself from the character John Coetzee by referring to him only as “he” and it is clear only in a few instances that this “he” is a John Coetzee. Ah, but now JMC further distances himself from this John Coetzee by giving him a life of interest to a biographer/critic. Both the biographer/critic and John Coetzee are now characters in a book by J.M. Coetzee.
John is no longer with us. Enter Jula.
Julia (Dr. Frankl) is being interviewed by a Mr.Vincent who it appears is doing research in order to write a book about John Coetzee. Coetzee had become a rather famous writer before his death. As Julia tells the story (as she sees it) of her relationship with John, she tells Mr. Vincent at one point
Don ‘t smile. I am perfectly aware how much I was behaving like a character in a book – like one of those high-minded young women in Henry James….But then what are books for if not to change our lives? Would you have come all this way to Kingston to hear what I have to say about John if you did not believe books are important?
He has read Henry James. He knows how easy it is to be bad, how one has only to relax for the badness to emerge.
This is vintage, rich, inter-textual Coetzee.
When she’s told that John had told many people that Julia was an important part of his life, she is taken aback. Not quite believing it. Who did he tell?
I mean, he never wrote about me. I never entered his books. Which to me means I never quite flowered within him, never quite came to life.
And it’s always a kick when Coetzee’s characters rebel against the author – or any writer.
I warn you most earnestly: if you go away from here and start fiddling wiyh the text, the whole thing will turn into ash in your hands.
So who is this John Coetzee then? When he hands a proof copy of Dusklands to Julia…well, it’s finally clear. There is no doubt. This John is J. M. himself. But not so quick. When asked “What is it?…Is it fiction?”, Julia is told, “sort of”. As John Coetzee is “sort of” J.M. Coetzee.
John’s cousin Margot is interviewed in the next part. The interviews taking place during the first 6 months of 2008. As children they had, in the way of young children, grown fond of each other, but John – like the rest of the Coetzee men, according to Margot, never amounted to much. The feeling was that John had abandoned the family.
Next up for interviews: Adriana Nascimento, born in Brazil, she came to South Africa by way of Angola, then found herself a widow. A former ballerina, she’s become a Latin dance instructor. Her daughter took English classes with John Coetzee. Adriana’s first impression was like everyone else’s it seems. In fact, John C would not disagree with these almost universal assessments.
..he struck me at once, I can’t say why, as celibataire. I mean not just unmarried but also not suited to marriage, like a man who has just spent his life in the priesthood and lost his manhood and become incompetent with women.
Cousin Margot had said much the same thing about John. Adriana also thought of John as “soft”, not manly. Another echo of Margot. “Not a man” she said, but “still a boy”.
At the end of her interview (late 2007), Adriana’ expresses her belief that John Coetzee was “not a man of substance” and incredulously asks, “was he really a great writer?”, because
…to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You have also to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little ma, an unimportant little man.
Tepid is the word Adriana uses for John Coetzee, an assessment with which the interviewer/biographer more or less agrees.
…I would say he was steady. He had a steady gaze. He was not easily fooled by appearances.
It’s all as if J.M. Coetzee wants to look forward to the time after his death (a time which he must believe is approaching and he is preparing for). To look forward so he can look back. Do I ask myself again, should I confuse this John Coetzee with the writer J.M. Coetzee (surely the writer J.M. Coetzee wants us to ask ourselves this question). So, as a reader, we may say to ourselves…keep them separate, keep them separate. Then Adriana, asks her final question. Asks did John Coetzee ever really write about women? And the interviewer tells her she must read a book by John called Foe. He spells it out for her: F-O-E. About a woman who spends a year shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Brazil. Originally the shipwrecked character was a Brazilian, but changed her to an Englishwoman. Suggesting that Adriana may have been the inspiration for the character, and that if so, she should be very proud. Coetzee forces us once again to confront our assumptions.
The Adriana section is followed by a brief interview with “Martin” The interviewer starts right off by quoting to Martin a passage from the notebooks of John Coetzee that
I suspect it was intended to fit into the third memoir, the one that never saw the light of day. As you will hear, he follows the same convention as in Boyhood and Youth, where the subject is called ‘he’ rather than ‘I’.
So an unnamed third memoir “never saw the light of day”? What then are we reading here? Summertime, like Boyhood and Youth before it, are all subtitled “Scenes from Provincial Life”.
Sophie Denoel was a colleague of John’s in Cape Town. Both teachers, they had collaborated on a course on African Literature. She questions the methods and the intent of the interview process, asking if he has researched things like letters and diaries. Of course he has, but
…What Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as factual record – not because he was a liar, but because he was a fictioneer.
The interviewer insists that, for the truth,
you have to go behind the fictions they [diaries, letters, notebooks] elaborate, and hear from the people who knew him directly…
Sophie points out that we are all fictioneers of our own lives. Is one person’s fiction of another any more reliable than that person’s fiction of his self? When they get to talking about John Coetzee as a “great” writer (Nobel Prize winner and all that), Sophie allows that he was “clever”, had a “certain” style, but as for a “special sensitivity”? No.
…no original insight into the human condition. He was just a man, a man of his time, talented, maybe even gifted, but, frankly, not a giant.
It’s almost as if J.M. Coetzee is writing his own epitaph.
Coetzee turns the biography upside down and inside out. After all, the body of work referred to as written by “John” are all in fact actual works written by J. M. Coetzee, the (yes) Nobel Prize winner. But whereas the earlier books could stand in for once removed auto-biographies, this one is clearly different. After all, he’s deceased. John that is. And there’s the strange factor of the dust jacket photograph. In all his recent works (including Boyhood and Youth), the author photos are contemporary with publication. Here, the jacket photograph is some 35 years old or so. Shaggy hair and bearded, this is the unkempt “John” that is the subject of this “auto” biography. Delicious.
The book ends up where it started, with fragments of notebooks (this time ‘undated’) from John Coetzee. These fragments included notes on his father’s cancer and operation, his thoughts of suicide (listing ways to do it) and
Idea for a story
A man, a writer, keeps a diary. In it he notes down thoughts, ideas, significant occurrences.
The book ends abruptly, almost, but not quite, in mid-sentence. Life ends that way for the most part, really. Boom. Fin.
Kind of fun in places, but as a serious contender for a literary prize? Hard to fathom. Purported to be the memoir of Cheeta, the chimpanzee who starred in the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weismuller, it’s a spoof on the Hollywood tell-all book. And Cheeta can dish the dirt with the best of them. His main targets are Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and the several wives of Johnny. Cheeta has some seriously nasty things to say about the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If you’re a fan of films of the 40’s and 50’s, you will probably get a big kick out of this.Cheeta is a world-class name dropper. The monkey is jealous of anyone who takes Johnny’s attention way from himself. Herself. This seems to change. The best writing in the book is when Cheeta is at his bitchiest.
Here, Cheeta describes the woman who starred as Jane, Maureen O’Sullivan-
There were really only two notes in her voice, nagging and cooing, and it could get on your nerves, though you wanted to like her. She wasn’t really talking to you but to the children she could already feel lining up inside her.
Cheeta on Hollywood:
If you’re a star, Hollywood is a playground, and if you’re not, they’re right, it is a jungle. It’s a town of heartless bottom lines and harsh decisions and betrayals so ugly that from time to time the very earth beneath it shudders in contempt, like its teeth have been set on edge.
On his acting:
For three decades I think I “phoned it in” a bit.
It happens with actors. Look at De Niro. There’s been that musty been-lying-in-straw joylessness to his work for so long. You can just tell he’s had to be beaten around the head in order to be dragged in front of the camera, can’t you? Meet the Fockers?
There are not enough of these good bits though, to really sustain a whole book. It’s really as series of episodes, careening from one to the next. The book tends to ramble a bit. In fact, it digresses over and over and then owns up to digressing. Clever, but not particularly original.
Jake Jameson is an architect. A middling architect as it turns out. Most of the buildings he has designed and had built have already been torn down. He’s outlasted them all. They’ve been renewed. He has not. It seems the one building that is left is a prison. Metaphorically fitting for a man about to retire, and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
We relive the crucial events of Jake’s life such as they are – in two ways. In lucid telling, and again in circular and murky snatches of remembrance. Although Harvey’s characters are never sharply drawn (or all that likable), and their stories are not told with enough style and spark to much care for them, she does touch the mystery and wonder of the terrible disease in touching ways – especially towards the end.
Characters. I’ve read two of the ‘Booker Books’ before this one, and both had compelling characters that kept a fairly high level of interest. You know. Those books where we don’t exactly want to finish, because that means leaving the characters behind. Here…well, these characters will probably fade from memory fairly rapidly, much like the people in Jake’s life will fade from his mind.
Jake had married his wife perhaps too quickly. Before they had really gotten to know each other. Sometimes though, when they really connect, it’s like they’ve known each other all their lives.
It was such a powerful state, to be in agreement, like two streams meeting to form a river.
Jake’s disease starts as difficulties with ‘middle distance’ memory loss. His short term and long term memory is still intact.
All of this he remembers and can see as plain as day – he just can’t say when it happened. Like a photograph that cannot be placed anywhere specific in the album.
Before reaching the stage where self-awareness has evaporated, Jake is able to dissect what is happening to him.
Is this a normal life? All these deceptions; he will not be able to maintain them when the brain goes. Maybe it is the deceit that has rotted the brain.
Near the end though, Jake doesn’t know who he is, nor does he know if his life is just beginning, or his life is over. A blank slate is a blank slate, whether it arrives new and fresh and pristine, or it is slowly wiped clean.
Samantha Harvey has written a novel that is, in parts, deeply affecting. If only the people that fill the pages of her novel were more alive to us.
There are similarities between Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. Firstly, both are very much concerned with class. Here, the dissolution of the landed gentry, what with the ‘values’ they hold dear (as well as the very structures built up to support those values), crumbling all around them.
After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china . . .
And a bit later, as the daughter of the estate shows the country doctor around:
Over the stable door was a great white clock. ‘Twenty to nine,’ I said, smiling, looking at the stuck ornamental hands. Caroline nodded. ‘Roddie and I did that when the clock first broke.’ And then, seeing my puzzled expression: ‘Twenty to nine is the time Miss Havisham’s clocks are stopped at in Great Expectations. We thought it awfully funny, then. It seems a bit less
funny now, I must admit.
In Brooklyn, young Eilis, though terrified and hesitant of the move, got out while the getting was good – though class and intolerance follow her to the new world.
But more importantly is the focus of the writers. Both probe deeply, very deeply, into their characters. The motivations of Toibin’s characters seem clear enough. It’s just that the logic of them occasionally ring a false note. Sarah Waters writes characters that seem to change their thinking – but we’re never sure what’s been kept from us and what has been revealed. Waters’ story is a mystery, after all: a ‘ghost’ story.
As a ghost story, the characters are sometimes overwrought. Their is high emotional tension. There’s fear and madness lurking in the haunted house of the Ayerses. Or is there? This is the tension for the reader, and the very thing that keeps the pages turning in the readers quest to uncover the ‘truth’.
Dr Faraday, is a country doctor whose mother once toiled at the Ayrses’ estate. How much of an inferiority complex does he have from this? He’s made his way in the world through hard work and family sacrifice. Yet he seems to lust after the mantle of the gentry. Never a part of the glories of the elite class, he wants now to preserve it all (and to become a part of it perhaps?). Caroline, the heir apparent after her brother must be hospitalized for another ‘nervous breakdown’ wants nothing more that to sever herself from her past. Emigrate to Canada, or perhaps America. There to join the great middle class.
Two fish out of water. You can take the girl out of the Manor, but you can’t take the rarefied manners out of the girl.
I had already had the sample of this on my kindle when the Booker Long List for 2009 was announced. I had already been anticipating Coetzee’s Summertime, to be released here in early September. So I thought I’d get started with the one I had, and try and read as many Booker nominees as I could (if available) before the list was whittled down, or at least before the Prize was announced.
I’ve read Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship and his The Master, which I quite liked. Brooklyn led me right along. I read it in two or three sittings. Although there is a book here somewhere about the Irish immigrant experience, about cultural change and adaptability, about opportunity, about the different ways that apparent freedom can engulf you, about loneliness and family obligations, this is all in the background. This is really a book about what happens in the life of Eilis Lacey. This is what pulls us in as readers. We really want to know, and Toibin writes with such a deep feeling and concern for his characters that we too care about her. But this is not enough to make this a great novel by any means. It’s good, entertaining and engaging, but in the end unsatisfying. We would have liked more.
Furthermore, although Toibin spares no details about his characters, and their thought process, I’m skeptical of Eilis’ inability to know her own mind. As an accomplished work, I’d place Brooklyn somewhere between the two others I’ve read.
Wonderfully written but limited and a minor work, I’d not elect this as a finalist for the short list were I to judge.