Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

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Interestingly in this digital age, most of us read from the hardback version with the Modigliani cover, a visual delight to savour before opening – it made us appreciate the tactile experience of reading from a book rather than a Kindle or an e-reader.

Mothering Sunday opens with an account of events on March 30 1924 which was as the title suggests Mother’s Day. At that time domestic staff traditionally had this day off to visit their mothers.

The book has an arresting opening line which stops you in your tracks

once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars ….

leaving the reader in no doubt when the action was taking place.  We are soon witnesses to the exchanges of a post-coital couple and the nuances of class distinction so acutely observed give a faint sense of foreboding. Swift is an elegant writer,  and minutiae, that in other hands might seem irrelevant, are accorded their proper due by him  “she would never erase, even when she was ninety, her inner curtsey” The main character is an orphaned maid called Jane Fairchild, the object of a spoilt young man’s fancy but she is no victim.  She enjoys his attentions, knows herself to be his intellectual superior yet accepts her lot uncomplainingly. She has an astonishing willingness to do what she’s told yet she can kick over the traces as the opening incident shows.

It is a book about emotional restraint – the parents grieving the deaths of their sons in WW1 are remarkably self-contained as is Jane herself on receiving bad news. There are no outpourings of emotion anywhere yet it is emotionally truthful throughout – the portrait of the maid is entirely believable.

The author is particularly adept in two areas. Firstly, this is a non-linear narrative, interleaved with descriptions of the day is an account of Jane’s later life told as though she had written it herself by recollection. Swift’s ability to write smooth transitions backwards and forwards across time is exceptional – the reader always knows where they are.

Secondly, Swift makes their 1920’s outlook wholly understandable even though life as we know it today is very different. He doesn’t imbue his characters with a 21st century mindset although, as we read here and now in 2017, it’s a fascinating social comment about the society of the day, particularly what the servants knew about the most private of matters and how discreet they were.

It is also a book about literary consolation and there is so much needing to be consoled in 1924.  When tragedy strikes, Jane turns to reading – several members of the group considered revisiting the work of Conrad which provided her with such solace.

“People read books didn’t they to get away from themselves, to escape the trouble of their lives?”

And why do people write books ? well, the author has an interesting digression about the nature of storytelling at the very end of the novel

It was about being true to the very stuff of life ….

Other than some reservations about the description of Jane’s later life (it was felt by some that details were a little sparse here) we were in general agreement that we loved this book for its brevity and found it an absorbing read. A great way to start our spring reading. Many thanks to Margaret for choosing it.

 

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His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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We had an excellent evening last night discussing His Bloody Project and having found this very comprehensive review am reblogging it for everyone’s enjoyment. It should be said that not everybody enjoyed it (the book that is)

Vulpes Libris

his-bloody-projectHis Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is one of the biggest surprises of this year’s literary prize season. Published by small Scottish imprint Contraband, it’s turned out to be the dark horse of the Man Booker shortlist with its sales apparently outstripping its fellow nominees.

Although set in 1869, the novel’s premise is one that holds modern resonances. A sort of equivalent of the “found footage” trend in film-making, His Bloody Project purports to be “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae”. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed the name Macrae there: our author claims that he has stumbled across these documents while researching his ancestors. Roderick – Roddy – was in his late teens when he brutally murdered three people in his small Highland village. That he committed the crimes was never in dispute because he admitted it freely and immediately. What was under question is…

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Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

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Sandlands by Rosy Thornton was our chosen book for this week.  A mixed bunch of stories set in Suffolk  – all well-written and interesting for their plot variety.

The collection starts off well with The White Doe – a strange tale of the narrator’s mother’s funeral and her own bereavement and the point of release when she can really succumb to her grief. Is this an example of British Magical Realism? High House too was an interesting story of how a retired flood risk engineer gently educates his elderly cleaning lady about the encroachment of the sea and the coming of climate change.  We were in two minds as to whether the characters’ verbal mannerisms worked, but felt on balance that they did.

There’s a recurring theme of single women abandoned by the father of their child once pregnant.  In The Level Crossing, Rosy Thornton neatly captures the cowardice of the errant father

“Matt won’t be coming back. I saw his eyes, that night when I told him – the eyes of the quarry, the wounded fox, already seeing other walls, another bed. ‘I need time,’ he said as he climbed on his motorbike, but the weeks have stretched to months have shown that it wasn’t time he needed after all.  I gave him time – or, rather, I gave him space, and he clutched it between us like the buffering fog.”

Two of the longer stories are two of the best.  The author is very good at developing a theme and then presenting it in a nutshell with some nice, succinct writing.   Nightingale’s Return is a dual narrative of a son visiting a Suffolk farm where his father had been a prisoner of war.  Some lovely observations of the natural world in both England and Italy and a very insightful reminiscence of changes in relationship when offspring become their parent’s carer (P 82).  Whispers is about an academic with writer’s block and has some very pertinent reflections on academic life.  “The library had a quality like no other place, a paradoxical power to make the reader feel himself subsumed into the greater body of collective intellectual endeavour and at the same time secluded, cut off from the world.” (P120)

On the downside we are sometimes given a huge amount of detail particularly on the natural world – for example in Curlew Call there is a discussion on the difference between curlew and avocet beaks.  This level of minutiae can interrupt the narrative flow. That said, the solace of the natural world in times of grief is very evident – rather similar as in Helen MacDonald’s H for Hawk, though of course in this case we are reading fiction.

So overall, well worth a read for a clear sense of place and some crisp observations.

This is London by Ben Judah

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Our theme of Globalisation/Migration was underpinned this evening by Ben Judah’s in-depth study of contemporary London. It is meticulously researched with a very helpful glossary of links to each piece of research quoted in the notes at the back.

The book is generally divided up into various geographical locations starting very appropriately at Victoria Coach Station at 6am where “Every week two thousand migrants unload……. They are all part of the same thing.  The New London” And Ben Judah is a very good guide to this new London.

The lives of the different migrant communities are vividly described, the flight of the poor from central London to the outer suburbs from where they have to travel back every day to do the invisible service jobs that we all depend on.  Particularly telling is the chapter entitled N21 (this is a bus route) which describes a bus stop on the Old Kent Road at 4am. 20 people trying to huddle from the rain under the bus shelter.  “this is just the night shift for the 250 migrant cleaners of London.  The rush hour before the rush hour that makes sure all of our offices are clean.”

We wondered if this was a version of Down and Out in Paris and London for our times and it was suggested that it would be a worthy recipient of the Orwell Prize. Entries open for the 2017 prize on 31 October.  Let’s hope This is London makes it to the shortlist.

There’s a very good review of This is London on The Enlightened Economist blog here

‘Clearances that suddenly stood open…’

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As the holiday season comes to an end, a short piece by the incomparable Seamus Heaney. (one of our first posts – Nov 2013 – is 5 wide-ranging essays on his work)

Seamus Heaney died three years ago today and the world lost one of its greatest poets.

In memory of his passing, here is one of my favourite passages from his poem Clearances.

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

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The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín

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We had a good turnout for our discussion of this collection of short stories from the Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, probably best known for his novel, Nora Webster and also Brooklyn, which was made into a film last year and nominated for three Academy Awards.

The Empty Family was published as a collection in 2010. Some of the stories had been previously published in journals and papers. Like many of Tóibín’s works the nine stories are concerned with themes of ‘exile and return, death and loss, irreconcilable love affairs and conflicting loyalties, the differences between the families we are born into and those we choose for ourselves, or would if we could’ (Guardian).

Tóibín’s lyrical writing appealed to us, and his ability to get so deeply into the heart of his characters. We felt that he’s particularly good at understanding women and the inner conflicts they suffer. The title story, The Empty Family, is a rather torturous examination of relationships. We discussed how Tóibín conveys the poignancy of emigration – you come back and don’t fit in and find everyone else had just got on with their lives.

We found the story, The Colour of Shadows, particularly poignant, ‘a lovely story’, about Paul being called back to Enniscorthy from Dublin when his aunt Josie is taken to hospital. After visiting her, back at her house he’s amazed by how different it seems without her presence: ‘how small everything was, not only the rooms themselves but the objects in them … the place had shrunk in Josie’s absence’.

Some people found the stories, like Barcelona 1975, which contain graphic homosexual sex scenes at bit too explicit and felt they sometimes seemed gratuitous.

We also discussed Tóibín’s tendency to use a structure of talking to a third party and whether we found this worked well for us. Someone felt she eventually became the third party – as if Tóibín was talking to her. But we also felt that it enhanced the separation emigrants can feel on returning home, that the people of their past – especially people with whom they’ve had an intimate relationship – can seem closer than the other people they meet and the memories powerful.

A favourite story was Two Women and it was thought a ‘very skilful story’. There are so many things going on; multiple relationships. We also felt The New Spain was very clever.

We concluded it had been a very successful choice: a book we’d enjoyed but which had also inspired some good discussion.

Kay Gale

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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We were a small but nonetheless very engaged group on Tuesday last and had a really good discussion both on the chosen book, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and then on the current state of the novel in general, inspired by Louise telling us that in a recent lecture at Goldsmith’s College, Will Self had announced the death of the Modern Novel.

 

Firstly, the book itself.  A brief synopsis – the protagonist, Sofia is an anthropologist and offspring of ill-matched and now divorced parents.  Over the years her mother has developed a problem with her legs leaving her unable to walk. Mother and daughter go to a specialist clinic in Spain to try to discover whether mother’s inability to use her legs has a physical cause.

 

In the course of their visit they run into an exotic assortment of characters – the suave, impossibly expensive doctor (is he a quack ?),  an over-helpful bisexual embroiderer and her executive trainer boyfriend. None of these characters are fully developed and in the course of this short novel (217 pages) exasperation sets in (in the reader that is). There is a sense that the author is working through a tick box of requirements – mother/daughter relationships, daughter/father relationships, feminism,  hypochondria, gender fluidity. There’s a fair amount of obligatory psychobabble too – “You are using your mother as a shield to protect yourself from making a life.” So overall there was a sense that Deborah Levy was trying too hard to produce a book with global appeal, quirky enough to get on a major literary prize longlist, and it didn’t quite come off.

 

Which led us on to consider whether contemporary novels try to cram too much in, leaving the reader with indigestible content ?  Is there a hidden list of issues which authors feel they need to introduce in order for their work to be relevant.  And is the all-pervading tone of “elusive ambiguity” – never knowing quite where you are with any character – the dominant theme of current writing ?  Answers in the Comments Please !

40 Sonnets – Poems by Don Paterson

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We seem to be on a roll with our poetry selections – this month’s choice, 40 Sonnets by Don Paterson generated as lively a discussion as the previous two poets we’ve looked at. This is Paterson’s latest collection for which he won the Costa Prize for Poetry. At first glance, a collection entirely made up of sonnets seemed a tall order but we found we liked this form – Paterson makes it work well. 14 lines is just long enough for effective scene setting before (sometimes) delivering a killer punch. Here he is on the subject of sonnets as short poems in an interview in The Herald in Scotland “It’s not going to give the reader the chance to get bored. But hopefully they will get to the end and think: there’s a lot more in this…..and read it again.” We certainly didn’t get bored and enjoyed teasing out the meanings in our discussion.

The poems may all be in the same form but their subject matter and construction is varied. There is a tenderly recounted outing with his sons (The Roundabout), a political yet personal account of a Palestinian father at the bedside of his injured son (The Foot), the banal questions the audience ask at a poetry reading (Requests) spiritual pretensions (The Eye) and the exquisite The Wave where The Wave itself is the voice of the poem “nothing in my head beyond the bliss of my own breaking, how the long foreshore would hear my full confession and I’d drain into the shale till I was filtered pure.”

Paterson has the knack of making the reader present to his subject matter – “on the steel bench knowing what was taking shape, she tried to stand” (Mercies) – we are immediately beside the steel bench in the vet’s surgery emotionally engaged in the life/death continuum of a much loved dog.

There’s a mid-book digression of a couple of pages of prose called The Version about a poet entering some sort of competition solely for the money and with the intent to be ironic. This backfires and his attempts at irony are lost in translation. Highly entertaining and unexpected in the middle of a book of poetry !

So poetry is alive and well in our quiet space upstairs at The Roebuck. Many thanks to Kay for suggesting 40 Sonnets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loop of Jade – Poems by Sarah Howe

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Tuesday evening was full of surprises for us.  Surprise that our usual venue was closed for redecoration so we took refuge in The Mitre. And surprise that a poetry collection by a complete unknown (well until she won the T S Eliot prize that is) turned out to be so good.

The overarching themes in this collection China, Chinese culture and Chinese customs intermingled with personal reminiscences. Sarah Howe is Anglo-Chinese and was brought up in Hong Kong for the first seven years of her life before moving to the UK.  This gives her the outsider’s eye and ear for detail.  In Crossing from Guangdong her description of the border guard at the checkpoint is particularly well-drawn “The lichen-green uniformed official, with his hat brimmed in black gloss, his elegant white-gloved hands, his holstered gun, slowly mounts the rubbered steps, sways with careful elbows down the aisle.”

[There were barnacles……] is another very well-judged short poem.  To say of such prosaic creatures “And when the russet tide came they opened themselves like unfamiliar lovers” is spot on; the reader has a very clear sense of the barnacle’s tentative response to the inrush of water.

The third poem we looked at closely was Tame – a rather gruesome fable based on the Chinese proverb  “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.”  We thought this felt like the reworking of a Grimms fairytale in a Chinese setting. Once we had discovered the story of Sarah Howe’s mother (see this TED talk ) Tame had an added poignancy.

There are some poems in the collection where she overreaches herself and she has been roundly criticised by the old guard. But taken as a whole this is a refreshingly different debut collection which we thoroughly enjoyed.  Hat tip Ruth for suggesting it.