This one by Duncan Grant. Thanks again to Joel Fletcher! And apologies for continued silence. I'm reading Little Dorrit and enjoying it very much, but am very short of time at the moment so its slow going!
Sorry about the long silence! I've been away for over a week and have only managed to read one book in that time -- but my goodness I did enjoy it. Set in a wonderfully well imagined 1920s, this is the story of three young women who travel (first class, by sea) to India. Eighteen-year-old Rose is going to be married, to a young man she hardly knows. Her friend, bubbly, insecure Victoria (Tor) is to be her bridesmaid -- delighted to escape from her domineering, critical mother, she also hopes to find herself a husband. The third, Viva, is a few years older but has managed to get her fare paid by the girls' mothers in return for acting as their chaperone. Brought up in India until the age of eight, Viva has lived in England ever since and has mixed feelings about returning to the country where both her parents and her older sister died. Also in Viva's care on the ship is Guy Glover, an unstable sixteen-year-old, whose peculiar attachment to Viva will be the cause of some very dangerous and frightening events later on. I really liked the way the narrative moved between the three girls' stories, and this technique made the novel even more tantalisingly readable, as when one girl's chapter ends -- often with a bit of a cliff-hanger -- you have to wait for two more chapters to pass until you find out the outcome of whatever situation each has got themselves into (if that makes sense). Being already a lover of India and knowing Bombay a little bit, I found the descriptions of life there all those years ago absolutely fascinating. The choice of historical period was an interesting one -- although it would be another twenty years before India achieved independence, the rumblings are already making themselves felt, Gandhi is already on the scene, and the British are feeling increasingly insecure. Nevertheless, life for these privileged young people is pretty easy and luxurious, though Viva, somewhat impoverished and needing to support herself, comes into contact with a rather different side of Bombay life when she gets a job in an orphanage. Of course there are love stories, some with happy endings and others less so. All in all this is the most marvellously attractive book. Comfort reading, in a sense, but high quality comfort reading. I look forward very much to Julia Gregson's forthcoming Jasmine Nights, and must try to get hold of her earlier novel The Water Horse. An author to watch.
When I was offered this book for review by Sourcebooks recently, I was a bit hesitant. Not that I thought it would be a bad book, but just because it seemed to be rather outside my normal range of preferred reading. But then I thought it might be good for me to step outside my comfort zone, and I'm glad I did. This is indeed a fascinating, often chilling, account of life in a strictly religious Muslim country. Dr Qanta Ahmed, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, made a spur of the minute decision to take her impressive medical credentials to Saudi Arabia when she was unable to renew her US visa. Her assumption was that her own Muslim background would stand her in good stead in the Saudi kingdom. But she was very quickly to discover how wrong she had been. From the very first day, when she is taken shopping for an abbayah -- the traditional black veil in which Saudi women are swathed head to foot by law -- she is plunged into a world which is frightening in its unfamiliarity. Patrolled by the powerful religious police known as the Mutawaeen, this is a society in which women must be invisible, and in which they have no rights of any kind. Her initial shock is very great, but slowly she comes to discover a life beyond the veils and the imposed secrecy, a world where women support each other and in which human feelings can and do still exist. A long central section of the book describes Qanta's experiences as she participates in a holy pilgrimage, the Hajj, and despite occasional feelings of confusion and experiences of puzzled racism from other pilgrims, emerges from the experience feeling purified. Later she meets, and finds herself attracted to, a young Saudi Academic, and her friendship with him and with other colleagues gives her many valuable insights into the world of intelligent, internationally educated Saudis and the ways in which they attempt to cope with the demands of the harsh regime in which they are forced to live and work. Qanta Ahmed is now back in the United States, where she practices medicine in South Carolina. But, she writes, she has gained immeasurably from her time in Saudi, not least because it left her with the realisation that she had always possessed "a place in Islam no matter how displaced I had become". She ends with a moving tribute to the Saudi women, who, she says, really opened the door of their society to her:
It is these same women who hold the keys to change, through their daughters and their sons but most of all through themselves. It is the voices of these mothers, wives, sisters, aunts and daughters that we crave and their voices that narrow men fear. It is women's voices that are becoming audible, women's actions that are becoming visible, and through their actions, Saudi women who are daily becoming more powerful. Nothing is as fierce or imbued with goodness as the oppressed who have overcome their cowardly oppressor. It is these small women, scurrying around in their abbayahs, who will seize their justice from the jaws of extremists and wrest their new place beyond the gender apartheid which is still in the kingdom.
If you know anything about the history of British theatre in the last fifty years you will have heard of Peter Gill. Equally celebrated as a playwright (Cardiff East, Certain Young Men, The York Realist and many others) and as a director, he made his name in the mid-1970s as the founding artistic director of the innovative London venue Riverside Studios, went on to become Associate Director of the National Theatre, and founded, in 1984, The Royal National Theatre Studio, which is still functioning today as "a resource for a wide range of artists working throughout British
theatre, providing an environment in which writers, actors and
practitioners of all kinds can explore, experiment and devise new work
free from the pressure of public performance".
Born in Cardiff, Peter Gill came to London as a very young man in the late 1950s. Just out of drama school, he managed to get work as a rather junior actor at the Royal Court Theatre. This was indeed the place to be at that period: the English Stage Company, founded in 1956, was producing a series of exciting and challenging new plays by unknown playwrights, many of which were received with shock and horror by audiences and press alike. In 1962 Gill joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, by this time under the leadership of Peter Hall, and later that year was cast in a production of Bertolt Brecht's play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Not only was this the first professional production in England of Brecht's celebrated play, but it was to be directed by a Royal Court trained director, William Gaskill. Excited by the opportunity to be part of this project, which had been allotted both an unusually long rehearsal period and an exceptionally large cast, Gill started to keep a diary to record the progress of a production which "was being undertaken at the outset with seriousness and a spirit of enquiry which, as a 22-year-old, was what I wanted to be part of". It is this diary, rediscovered by Gill only a few years ago, which forms the basis of this fascinating book.
At only 119 pages long, Apprenticeship is a very short book, but it is one which manages to pack in a terrific range of material. The story of the Brecht production, told through the medium of the diary, is an extraordinary and valuable one. The company wrestles with the unfamiliar material, with Gaskill's improvisation techniques, with the masks they are called upon to wear, and most of all with Gaskill's decision that casting should be done democratically, deciding as a group who should play which part. This last issue, eliciting Gill's longest diary entry, gives rise to "hot and miserable" discussions in which the values and beliefs of everyone in the company are called in question. Alongside this story, though, there are astute comments on the early days at the Royal Court and the characters of its first directors, disquisitions on European Expressionism and Modernism, dips into the history of British theatre in the early twentieth century, into Shakespeare, and into the Medieval Mystery plays. Then there are some delightful anecdotes, in one of which Gill falls down a waterfall on a picnic outside Dublin, wakes up to find himself being given the last rights by a young priest in a hospital in Dun Laoghaire, and is visited by Dame Sybil Thorndike. Earlier on the same trip we find him taking tea at Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel with the aged actress Marie Lohr, who tells him a story:
"I went to have my shoes mended in the Edgware Road.... 'Name?' said the man when I handed him my shoes. 'Marie Lohr', I replied. 'There used to be a very famous actress called Marie Lohr', said the cobbler. 'The same'", she said, bowing to me as if to him, as women riding in landaus must have bowed while driving in Hyde Park or in the Bois de Boulogne".
Entertaining and informative, Apprenticeship is essential reading for anyone with an interest in theatre history. Highly recommended.
About a month ago I wrote about how much I had enjoyed Frances Iles' classic novel, Malice Aforethought. I bought this one at the same time, but have only just got around to reading it. And I have to say that, good as I thought the first one was, this one is even better. In the small amount of criticism I have read, the two novels are sort of lumped together as being ground-breaking psychological thrillers, and so indeed they are. Both of them reveal the identity of the murderer in the first paragraph -- in MA it is Dr Edmund Bickleigh, whose increasingly troubled mental world is brilliantly depicted as he slips further and further into psychosis and self deception. Here it is Johnnie Aysgarth, husband to Lina -- Lina, who has "lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realised that she was married to a murderer". But the comments I've read so far have rather missed the point about Before the Fact, I think. Yes, we do indeed get an insight into the mind of the murderer himself, but the real interest of this extraordinary novel is in what it reveals about the mind of Lina herself. At twenty-eight, when she first meets Johnnie, she suffers from very low self-esteem, comparing herself unfavourably with her very pretty younger sister Joyce, though in fact, as Iles makes clear, she is both intelligent and attractive. Johnnie, on the other hand, is totally gorgeous -- confident, good-looking, amusing, and oozing with charm. He sets out to woo Lina with such energy and concentration that, despite her misgivings -- she is an heiress, with a respectable private income, and fears he may be after her money -- she is completely swept off her feet. Early married life is bliss beyond anything she could ever have imagined, and Johnnie seems to be absolutely besotted with her. But after the honeymoon she receives the first of a series of shocks. Johnnie is absolutely penniless, having borrowed £1000 to marry her and having spent it all, though not on the rent or the furniture, which are yet to be paid for. Lina, appalled and distressed, agrees to bail him out, and he promises to do better, to get a job, and to be more responsible. Lina believes him. And that, essentially, is the pattern into which this terrible and tragic marriage falls into for the next ten or so years. Lina adores Johnnie. She adores him so intensely that as more and more of his failings appear she manages, after initial anger and tears, to forgive him, even when he sells her antiques, forges her signature on cheques, gambles, lies, and cheats. She does leave him once, when she discovers he has been serially unfaithful to her throughout their marriage, but even then, after almost committing herself to a much nicer, kinder and better man, she is unable to resist Johnnie's promises that he has reformed and will never stray again. But it is after they make their hopeful new start -- Lina once again convinced that Johnnie does indeed adore her as much as he says he does -- that she discovers evidence that he has murdered her father. That is when the real slippery slope opens up in front of her, and the last part of the novel shows her agonies of mind as she tries to make sense of this, and of further dreadful revelations. The end of the novel is indeed very shocking, but in fact does have a dramatic rightness in the light of what has gone before.
So the real psychological interest here is not the mind of Johnnie Aysgarth, who the reader (though not Lina) realises is an amoral crook right from the start. It is the mind of poor self-deceived Lina, a co-dependent in the clearest sense, whose desperate need to feel loved coupled with a powerful inferiority complex leads her deeper and deeper into self-deception. Of course Lina has moments of clarity when she fully realises what Johnnie is and what he has done (and what he plans to do) but she is unable to act in what she knows, deep down, would be the only moral, ethical, and safe way. Indeed it is her confusion and muddle that are so compelling here. I expect everyone knows a Lina -- not, hopefully married to a murderer, but prepared to forgive infidelities, cruelties, fecklessness, mental and physical abuse, all for the sake of what they see as true love, probably far beyond what they think they deserve. Yes, a real tragedy, and a really fine book. Hitchock made a film of it, Suspicion, with Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant. I think I may have seen it but am setting out to find a copy now. But even if you have seen it, please do read the book. Superb.
BTW I've just looked up the film on imdb and see that Hitchcock changed the ending!
Plethora is a good word, isn't it. But it actually means excess, over-fullness, too much of something. Can you have an excess of books? Too much of a good thing? Well, I have begun to think so. What's brought it home to me is that I am in the process of repainting my living room. The nice deep cream colour you can see behind the books here is being replaced with a lovely pale grey -- not before time, as the cream went on seven years ago when I first moved into this house and had begun to look pretty shabby. I've painted three of the walls, but the fourth wall is almost all books -- this picture shows less than half of them, so you can imagine how many there are. Then there are books in the bookcase on the landing, books in the office, books on the coffee table, books in my bedside cabinet, books in a box in my bedroom, and books on the floor by my bed. In order to paint this fourth wall I will have to take all the books out, obviously. So I thought this would be an admirable opportunity to get rid of some of them, so that the inhabitants of the coffee table and the floor could be put away. I got out several plastic bags and started trawling the shelves, but at the end of it I had filled just one bag. All the other books I decided I just had to keep. But hang on a minute -- what am I keeping them for? Am I likely to want to re-read them? It's conceivable, certainly -- a good many of these ones, as you can probably tell, are classics of various kinds, and you never know when one of them may become absolutely necessary to my happiness, or that of some member of my family. But should I be more ruthless? The plastic bag, or bags if I succeed in filling any more, will go to a charity shop, and that is obviously a good thing -- someone else can enjoy them, and I'll have done a tiny bit for the poor or sick or disadvantaged. I also have a few books that are worth a bit -- not a huge amount, but every little helps these days. Should I start selling them, and if so, how? Or should I just give in and put up some more bookshelves?
This rather saucy picture, painted by A. Bernard in 1780, is called 'Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard'. Clearly, she isn't actually reading, though, is she -- rather, she is lost in a rather exciting romantic dream. But if you know a bit about the book she's reading, that's understandable:
Abelard and Heloise are one of the most celebrated couples of all time, known for their love affair... and for the tragedy that separated them. In a letter to Abelard, Heloise wrote: "You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you."
You can find out more about this famous couple here.
Joan Aiken is a very fine writer. Best known, and certainly best known to me, as an author of children's books, she also wrote several Jane Austen sequels. I read her continuation of JA's unfinished novel The Watsons earlier this year and have just finished this one. I've read rather a lot of sequels recently, ranging from dreadful through acceptable to excellent, and I'd put this one into the third category, though I did have some quibbles about the ending.
Just before the novel begins -- about four years after the end of Mansfield Park -- Sir Thomas Bertram has died. Someone is needed to settle business at the estates in the West Indies, and Lady Bertram is unwilling to let her older son Tom, now the new Sir Thomas, to go, as she fears he might have a return of the fever that threatened his life some years earlier. Edmund is more than willing to go, and Fanny -- who never actually appears in the narrative -- insists on accompanying him, taking their newborn baby along. Their older child, three-year-old Mary, is to be left in the care of Fanny's younger sister Susan Price, now living at Mansfield and taking Fanny's place as Lady Bertram's companion and carer. It is Susan, now eighteen and an intelligent, good-hearted, though sometimes rather outspoken girl, around whom the plot revolves. Soon after Edmund and Fanny's departure, Susan is faced with a considerable challenge. New tenants have arrived at The White House in the village, the one-time residence of Mrs Norris (who, we learn, has also recently died at the house in Keswick where she was living with the divorced and disgraced Maria Bertram). Those tenants turn out to be none other than Mary Crawford and her brother Henry. Susan is in some distress at this news, knowing that Tom has no time for the Crawfords, as he holds them to be to blame for Maria's bad behaviour. But when she discovers that Mary is gravely, probably fatally, ill, Susan starts to visit her and a genuine friendship develops between them. Mary is a chastened woman with an unhappy marriage behind her, and what she tells Susan about the truth of Maria's relationship with Henry is startling, to say the least. When Susan actually meets Henry, an instant rapport develops between them. Tom, meanwhile, is feeling ready to settle down, and has his eye on a wealthy and charming girl from a neighbouring village. She, however, shows signs of preferring Susan's brother William, now a Captain in the navy...
I can't even begin to enjoy a JA sequel unless the language is right, and Aiken scores top marks for this -- I couldn't fault her once. Her characterisation is also astonishingly right. Lady Bertram, Tom and Mary Crawford are exactly as we remember them -- I was particularly impressed with Mary, who speaks and acts exactly as she did in JA's novel, or rather as she would have done had she been in pain and seriously ill. Julia Bertram, now Mrs Yates, has developed into a horrendous carbon copy of her Aunt Norris, and treats Susan as badly as Mrs Norris did Fanny. And the new characters, invented by Aiken for the novel, are absolutely convincing. I particularly liked Mrs Osborne, sister of the vicar who has come to replace Edmund during the West Indian trip. The widow of an Admiral (unfortunately washed overboard on a sea voyage) she is warm, intelligent and delightfully relaxed. As for Susan, I thought she was great. No shrinking violet, she has had to learn to moderate her natural ebullience and her tendency to speak her mind, but she is a true Austen heroine in her natural sense of right and wrong. But, as I said at the beginning, I was not totally happy with the ending. It seemed to me almost as if Aiken had scrambled through to a conclusion in a bit of a hurry, and I was disappointed by the choice Susan eventually made, which I thought had not really been prepared for in any convincing way. But others might disagree. All in all, I had enormous pleasure in reading this, and wished it had been longer.
A couple of weeks ago I read and rather enjoyed Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles. It was pointed out to me that in fact this writer was Anthony Berkeley, who produced many crime novels under his own name. So I thought I'd try one of them, and this was it -- supposedly Berkeley's best known (which, I suppose, means thought to be best) novel. It's a bit of a curiosity, and I think somewhat less appealing than the Iles one I read before. The idea is an interesting one -- a group of amateur detectives, led by one Roger Sheringham, sets out to solve a puzzling case of murder. A young woman, Joan Bendix, has died after eating several chocolates from a box which her husband has brought home. Oddly, though, he had acquired them rather by chance, having been given them in his club by an acquaintance. The chocolates prove to be laced with strong poison. But who was the intended victim? And who could possibly have perpetrated this ingenious crime? The club members take a week to investigate the background to the case and then meet together for each to give their own solution to the problem. Each solution is extremely ingenious, but one by one they are disproved by the other members. Clever. But I found it all a bit tiresome, really -- the tone was relentlessly flippant and failed to make me smile as it was undoubtedly intended to do. Probably 1930s humour does not wear very well. So -- a little disappointing, really.