I've been meaning to read Lila ever since...well, ever since it came out last year, I suppose. I read and absolutely loved Gilead, to which I guess we'd have to call this the prequel, but somehow never did get around to it until I saw it pop up on Audible and decided it was time to give it a go. Yes, I listened to it rather than reading it, but as I loved it so much I shall now be buying the book. However it was superbly read and every minute was a huge pleasure.
By a strange coincidence, when I was about halfway through, my friend, Shiny co-editor, and blogger supreme Simon posted, or rather reposted, a review of the novel which was so spot on that I was tempted just to point you to that and leave it alone. But no, you are going to get my thoughts on the novel, though I urge you to take a look at Simon's review as a supplement.
So -- this is the story of Lila, who readers of the earlier novels (there's also Home) will know to be the wife of John Ames, the elderly minister who, until he met her, had been living alone for decades following the death of his wife and newborn baby. Lila is only sketched in in the earlier books, but there are hints that she is still, after some years of marriage, a bit of a mystery to her husband, who, however, loves her deeply. Now we are going to be privy to that mystery. The whole story of her previous life is now revealed slowly, mostly through her memories -- although this is told in the third person, it is entirely from Lila's point of view. So we discover that she was rescued as a tiny child from a situation in which she was clearly being abused or at least severely neglected. Her rescuer was a woman named Doll, who obviously has a fascinating back story of her own which we never discover. Having pretty much stolen the child, Doll becomes a wonderful mother to her, but the life she gives her is unusual, to say the least. For Doll is attached to a group of wandering outcasts, who move from town to town taking whatever work happens to be available. The group is led by a man named Doane, who for a long time holds this disparate collection together, until circumstances cause the group to break up. Then Lila's life, up to now secure in its way, becomes scary and appallingly unpleasant until one day she wanders into a small Iowa town and encounters John Ames.
The story of their remarkable growing relationship is told with the most beautiful and moving delicacy. Lila's past has left her incredibly wary, and though she is drawn to John from the start, she is not used to trusting anyone or to committing herself. The two of them are, on the surface, as different as could be -- and yet there is an incredibly strong bond between them pretty much from the start. Here's a moment early on when John gives her a locket to wear:
'I'll take that chain now, whatever it is'.
'Excellent', he said, 'you should put it on. Its a little difficult to fasten. My mother always asked my father to do it for her'.
Lila said, 'Is that a fact'.
He studied her for a moment. 'You'll have to do something with your hair. If you could lift it up'.
So she did, and he stepped behind her and she felt the touch of his fingers at her neck, trembling, and the small weight of the locket falling into place. Then they stood there together in the road, in the chirping, rustling silence and the sound of the river. Then he said, 'So, are we getting married or not?' and she said, 'If you want to. It's alright with me, I suppose. But I can't see how its going to work'.
One of the most remarkable and touching things about the novel is the way this new relationship feeds into John Ames firm Christian beliefs. The son and grandson of ministers, and the best friend of another, he knows the Bible back to front, but when Lila starts to read it -- choosing difficult books like Ezekiel and Job -- she asks questions which perhaps he has never quite known the answer to, and causes him to question (though not doubt) his own belief system: 'You must think I say the things I do out of habit and custom, rather than from experience. That is inevitable, I suppose'.
Essentially, then, both these two people learn from each other, and, though we have only seen them together for about a year by the end of the novel, it's clear that their relationship, and their love for each other, can only grow deeper over time. And this despite the uncertainty that John continues to feel that Lila may one day leave him, taking their child with her, and indeed that Lila feels that maybe one day she will do that. Of course if we have read Gilead we know that she is still with him seven years later, which is a comfort! And indeed, though it is only at the very end of this novel that Lila is able to tell John that she loves him, we really know that she does, perhaps before she realises it herself.
Simon says in his review that he believes Robinson to be the greatest living writer, and it's hard to disagree. Her novels are few and far between, and it's actually astonishing to realise that Gilead was published ten years before Lila, but that somehow she was alive in Robinson's imagination even then, so that her brief appearances in the earlier novel appear to be informed by all that the later novel simply uncovers. So, if you haven't read these wonderful books, please waste no time. I'm back to Gilead now, which of course will have an added depth now I know so much about Lila and the way she and John got together, and I also have Home (which actually deals more with another family) on order too. So expect to hear more about Marilynne Robinson before too long.
I must admit I'd never heard of Gavin McCrea's debut novel before it appeared on the Guardian's Not the Booker longlist. Sadly it didn't make the shortlist, but anyway it was offered to me by the publisher and I was intrigued enough to accept. I've just finished reading it and I was well impressed.
This is the story of Lizzie Burns, an Irish woman from Manchester, who lived for many years with Frederick Engels. To write Lizzie's story was obviously a challenge in many ways, because Lizzie left no written records and is barely mentioned in biographies of Marx and Engels. But, as Eleanor Marx (known here by her childhood nickname Tussy) wrote, Lizzie 'was illiterate and could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet'. And my goodness, Gavin McCrea really brings her to life.
The novel swings between Lizzie's present, in 1870s London, and her youth in Manchester. It was her sister Mary who Engels first began a relationship with, when he was working there in his father's factory. A fascinating, difficult and ultimately unstable woman, Mary died at the age of 40 and Engels swiftly moved on to Lizzie, who remained with him till her death. All this is fact, but of course what brings this novel to life is Lizzie's voice - tough and vulnerable, honest and secretive, Lizzie is a wonderfully convincing creation.
As the present of the novel begins, Lizzie and Frederick have just moved to a rather grand house in London's Primrose Hill. They've come to London to be near to Karl Marx and his large family, who have been more or less totally supported financially by Frederick for many years. Lizzie is both pleased to be living in such a house and furious at the responsibility it brings with it and the need to have servants, who she first tries to bond with and later to control, neither very successfully. She doesn't think much of Karl, is rather dubious about his aristocratic wife Jenny despite her attempts to be friendly, but is fond of Tussy. As for the Marx's long-term maid Nim, Lizzie is extremely bothered by the fact that the illegitimate son she gave birth to a couple of decades ago is believed to be Frederick's son. She has to entertain large numbers of Frenchmen fleeing from the recent unsuccessful revolution, to go to grand dinners at the Marx's. All this she endures, with rather a bad grace. But Lizzie has a secret life -- she has managed to find her old lover, Moss O'Malley, now living in London and organising a group of angry Irish Fenians, and finds she can't keep away even though she knows, or thinks, he is only seeing her for the money she manages to slip to him from time to time.
All this barely scratches the surface of what goes on in this highly readable, complex and thought-provoking novel. Lizzie is so pragmatic about relationships:
I’ve seen enough of this world to know that most of us have to accept men we don’t feel for, and I’m not sure it’s for the worst in the end. A marriage of emotions can’t be lasting. It wouldn’t be healthful if it was.
And yet... Certainly she enjoys her physical relationship with Frederick, and feels deeply threatened if she suspects him of infidelity, though she herself is attracted to other men. She is, in fact, a wonderfully convincing mixture of emotions, and hugely likeable.
I didn't know much about Marx and Engels, and wasn't sure how much more I really wanted or needed to know. But the view of them I got from Lizzie's perspective was so refreshing and entertaining that I don't suppose I'll ever be able to take them all that seriously anyway.
So -- as you can tell, I really loved this novel. I'm not sure how good a job I've made of telling you how great it is, but believe me, it's truly excellent. Why not read it and find out?
I was happy to be asked to participate in the blog tour for this novel -- so here's my review.
Doug Johnstone is an amazing writer. This is the third of his novels I've read, each of which is brilliant and each entirely different. I loved The Dead Beat and reviewed it on Shiny New Books last year, and then I read Gone Again, which I don't seem to have reviewed but which I also admired enormously, though it is intensely disturbing. And now we have The Jump.
In fact I think if there's one word for Johnstone's plots, it might be daring. The Dead Beat takes a protagonist with mental problems and a taste for substance abuse, and manages to make her not just interesting but also likeable and attractive. As for Gone Again, terrible events take place towards the end of the novel, and Johnstone offers no comfortable resolution, so we are left wondering what the future holds for the troubled protagonist and his little son. And now we have Ellie, who lives in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge, off which, some months before the novel begins, her teenage son Logan has inexplicably committed suicide.
No note. No previous attempts. No cries for help. No overdoses or slashed wrists. No self-harming or mood swings or depression, no trouble at school, no bullying they could uncover....And now he was dead.
I don't know about you, but I can't even begin to think how I would cope with such a thing. Ellie and her husband Ben cope, if that's the word, in very different ways. Ben has taken refuge in conspiracy theories involving toxic chemicals which may affect peoples' minds, and spends most of his days either online or leafleting the neighbourhood. Ellie broods. She posts messages on Logan's Facebook page, watches over and over again on her phone the footage of Logan's jump, which she has managed to obtain from the security cameras. She walks on the bridge, swims in the waters below. And one day, on the bridge, she sees a teenage boy poised to jump from the very same spot where Logan had plunged to his death. Knowing now all about suicide prevention techniques, she manages to talk him back to safety. Then she takes him home. Not to his home, to hers. She hides him, first in Logan's room, then later on the boat she and Ben own, or in a disused warehouse. She is hiding him from Ben, and also from his own family, because she has discovered Sam's reason for his attempted suicide and realised that his home is not a safe place for him to be.
I can't really tell you any more about the way this already tense and somewhat crazy situation develops without giving too much away. But the way events turn out is wholly unpredictable and often shocking. Really this is so far from being an ordinary crime novel as almost not to deserve the name, except of course for the fact that crimes do get committed. But if you're expecting neat resolutions, think again. As in Gone Again, you will be left wondering how everyone's lives, and the state of their minds, will pan out after the events they have witnessed and participated in.
Although The Jump is written in the third person, the novel is focused entirely on Ellie, and Johnstone does an amazing job of entering her troubled mind. He seems to understand the destabilising effects of grief extraordinarily well. I was particularly impressed by the way he handles Ellie's relationship with Sam. To say she uses him as a substitute for Logan is partially true, especially at first, but there's a very understated but just perceptible element of sexuality that seems to creep in at times too. Or at least I thought so.
So -- altogether another winner, and highly recommended.
Yes, the Shiny Book Club is up and running, discussing Sarah Waters amazing novel The Paying Guests (see my review from Shiny 3 below). Have you read it? Do go over and comment!
Phew! Well, the term unputdownable is often bandied around – I’ve done some bandying myself – but there were times when Sarah Waters’ latest novel actually became unpickupable. I got to a point in the central section where I simply couldn’t bear to go on, and only overcame it by rationing myself to daytime reading rather then my preferred bedtime. I hasten to say that of course this doesn’t mean The Paying Guests is a bad novel – on the contrary, it is superb. But there’s some strong stuff in there which makes it, to use another well-worn phrase, not for the fainthearted.
The novel begins in classic Waters style. It is a Sunday afternoon in 1922, and Frances Wray and her mother are awaiting the arrival of their new paying guests with great trepidation. Their over-large house has become an intolerable burden since the death of Frances’s father, the revelation of his bad debts, and the loss of two sons in the war. Servants have become unaffordable, and Frances spends most of her time cleaning, cooking and scrubbing floors, something she does with grim determination. So the advent of young Mr and Mrs Barber – Len and Lilian – will make a huge difference to the very shaky economy of the household:
It was two weeks’ rent. Fifty-eight shillings. Frances could already hear the rustle of the pound notes and the slide and chink of the coins. She tried to arrange her features into a businesslike expression as she took the envelope from Mrs Barber’s hand, and she tucked it in her pocket in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone, she thought, could be deceived into thinking the money was a mere formality, and not the shabby heart of the whole affair.
The shame and misery of these two women’s lives is conveyed with exquisite sensitivity, and the shudder they both experience at the thought of taking into their home two people whose origins are decidedly of a lower class (“the clerk class”) than their own is sadly understandable. But though it is difficult to get used to meeting the Barbers on the stairs, having them pass through the kitchen on their way to the outside privy, and listening to them as they, or Lilian, decorate their rooms, slowly Frances comes to see Lilian in a different light. The two become tentative friends, take walks in the park, visit Lilian’s family. At last they start to share confidences, and Frances tells Lilian about her love affair with Christina, and her inability to be brave enough to embark on the life together they had planned. Lilian’s initial shock gives way to curiosity, and soon the two are engaged in a passionate love affair.
There are two places where the novel suddenly shifts gear, and this is the first one, which is a slight shock as the tone shifts from the rather sad depiciton of Frances’s unfulfilled life to a very direct representation of intense sex between two women. The second, which is a direct outcome of the first, is the bit where a strong stomach is required, but I’m not going to say anything about that for spoiler-avoidance purposes.
Sarah Waters is noted for her ability to recreate the past, as she did brilliantly with the Victorian period in her first three novels, and the mid-20th century in her two most recent ones. This is her first venture into the 1920s and it seems to me faultless. The shabby gentility of the Wrays is wonderfully contrasted with the lively outwardness of Lilian and her family – her mother, in particular, is a wonderfully imagined character, whose unappealing exterior conceals a heart of gold. As for beautiful, mysterious Lilian, who loves gaudy nicknacks but dresses herself in beautiful homemade clothes, the fact that we never really get to know what she is thinking is clearly deliberate, and necessary for the ambiguity that runs right through to the final page of the novel.
But it is Frances herself who is central to this story – Frances who has a secret life even before the novel begins, though now it may just take the form of a cigarette at bedtime:
she rolled a neat little fag … she liked to smoke like this, naked in the cool sheets, with only the hot red tip of a cigarette to light her fingers in the dark.
Frances, who is viewed as ‘unnatural’ by anyone who knows the secret of her sexuality, who is fiercely feminist and deeply regretting her inability to have seized the chance of happiness with her first lover, is frightened and confused by the powerful feelings aroused in her by the events of the second half of the novel, angry with herself for her confusion, full of fear and dread, but true as she can be to her feelings for Lilian, though these are sorely tested. Though the events of the final section are exciting in themselves, the real fascination here is to watch the many fluctuations of Frances’s mind as she sits as a silent witness to them all.
There’s only so much one can say about The Paying Guestswithout venturing into areas that can really only be discussed with other people who’ve read it. All I can say now is that having waited impatiently for the novel to be published, I was certainly not disappointed. Very highly recommended.
Actually 'Interior with Woman Reading' by Poul Friis Nybo (Danish, 1869-1929). I've noticed (or maybe imagined) that Scandinavian painters are particularly good with light effects, which I assume (or imagine) to be something to do with living half the year in semi darkness.
Yes, Shiny Extra, otherwise known as Extra Shiny, formerly 'the inbetweenie' is out today. There are no fewer than 22 new reviews and features there for your enjoyment, plus we are opening the Shiny Book Club discussion on Sarah Waters' brilliant novel, The Paying Guests (see my review here), is now open. And there's a great new feature -- our first writing competition, which is actually a Poetry Competition. So, any poets out there should click on this link and start writing!
As always, we've had huge fun compiling this, writing our own reviews and commissioning others from our increasingly large and superbly talented team of reviewers. Hope you will have fun browsing, too.
This very sweet painting, 'Sainte Madeleine Lisant' (St Madeleine Reading) is by the mysteriously named Master of the Female Half-Lengths (c. 1500–1530), a Dutch painter specialising in painting the top halves of women.
I've just come back from a wonderful week in a beautiful house in Italy belonging to some very kind and generous friends. As Julia is a writer and a reader, I knew there would be plenty of books around, so I took the rather daring step of only bringing one of my own to read (with some on my iPad for back-up). I thought it would be good to explore someone else's bookshelves, since so many of the books I get to read these days come with a 'please review' implication attached to them. So -- how did I get on?
Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel was the one I took with me. A late novel by this queen of golden age crime, it was sitting on my bookshelf, having appeared from who knows where, and though I've read lots of her books, I realised I'd never read it. As I didn't want to be weighed down by a heavy tome. this one looked perfect, being delightfully thin and light. Well, thin it may have been, but it kept me happy for a couple of days. It's rather a lighthearted affair, but none the worse for that. Set over Christmas, as the title suggests, it features Agatha Troy, the wife of Marsh's detective Roderick Alleyn, who is spending the season in the ridiculously opulent house of an antique dealer who has commissioned her to paint his portrait. An eccentric chap, he has taken on a group of five convicted, though now released, murderers as his servants. So when someone gets killed, they naturally come under suspicion. Some wonderful English eccentrics here, and of course the handsome, suave, exceptionally brilliant Alleyn comes in at the end to solve everything. Lovely.
My first browse of the bookshelves turned up Stolen, by Deborah Moggach. I've read several of her novels with huge enjoyment, including the one that gave birth to the film of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I'd never heard of this one so I had no idea what I was embarking on (the cover was different, or I might had been able to guess). So -- told in the first person, this is the story of a woman who falls madly, passionately in love with a man from Pakistan. They marry, have two children. All goes well at first, then she gets bored and starts an affair. When he finds out, he takes the children to Pakistan and she is left devastated. What happens in the end I am unable to say, because at this point I'd just had enough. Although naturally I sympathise with anyone who loses their children, I thought she was a total pain, I'm afraid, and found I didn't care what the outcome was going to be. So I gave up and will never know unless someone is kind enough to tell me.
OK -- time for something a bit more intellectually challenging, I thought to myself. I have a very ambivalent relationship with AS Byatt -- I was really irritated with Possession (all that cod Victorian poetry) but very much enjoyed The Children's Book. So although I knew that this was part 3 of what's called the Frederika Quartet, I thought it sounded interesting and intriguing. But oh dear. I did manage to get to the end of it, but there was a great deal of skipping involved, including long passages of a 'novel' written by one of the main characters (and a more unpleasant novel written by a more unattractive character it would be hard to find). I was interested in Frederika and her story -- here she manages to leave her horrible violent husband and gets embroiled in a divorce and custody case -- but got horribly bored by long discussions about art, and education, and lots of other things which may be OK in their place but really seemed irrelevant to the actual plot. Call me a philistine if you want -- I don't mind.
Babel Tower was a very long book, so by the time I'd ploughed through it, it was time to set off for home, and the iPad was now the only option. I've ended up with a lot of stuff on there which I obviously must have bought but can't at all remember why -- usually either someone's good review or a 99p Kindle Daily Deal that sounded appealing. I think it must have been the latter in the case of The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle as I'm sorry to say I can't imagine anyone whose opinion I value giving this a good review. The novel is told in alternating chapters by two characters, Elizabeth Pringle, who has just died aged 96, and Martha, who has inherited her house on the isle of Arran. I wish I could think of something positive to say about it -- I suppose if you wanted to know more about the history of Arran you'd learn something, but the plot and the narration really rather reminded me of a Woman's Own story (anyone remember those?) or a Mills and Boon novel. In fact I discovered this morning that the novel was shortlisted for a Bad Sex Award, though I must say I didn't think the sex was any worse that lots I've encountered elsewhere. It was the relentless sentimentality and utter absence of irony that really got to me.
A relief to get home, then, and resume my reading of Mrs Engels, which I am enjoying enormously. Lots of good stuff coming through the door, too, so hopefully you'll find me in a less condemnatory mode next time.
The August 'in between' issue of Shiny New Books, Extra Shiny 6a, is coming out on 20 August, and looks like being a mini-bumper, if there is such a thing. I'm only reviewing three books, and one of my reviews is a re-jig of my review on here of Go Set a Watchman. The other two are (very different) non-fiction books, fitting as I am the non-fiction editor.
Mermaids by Sophia Kingshill is a gorgeous little book, beautifully illustrated, which tells you everything you always wanted to know, and lots you never thought of asking, about those mysterious sea-women. Did they, or do they, really exist?
The celebrated barrister Jeremy Hutchinson, who is still going strong despite having turned 100 in March this year, defended some of the most famous cases in 20th century legal history: Christine Keeler, one of the Great Train Robbers, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Last Tango in Paris and many more. A fascinating book about an admirable man.