Here is a book you will not forget in a hurry. Once I had begun reading it I could not stop till I had finished. I actually read it in June, but have held off from posting the review until it was published, or about to be -- I think it's due out tomorrow. But in fact it's just been announced as being on the Man Booker longlist, so everyone will now have heard of it and probably know what it's about.
In case you don't -- this is the story of five-year-old Jack, whose birthday it is when the novel begins. Jack lives with his beloved, and loving, mother in a room which, as we soon begin to discern, is not as other rooms. It is, in fact, a converted shed, locked and heavily armoured, without windows, and Jack has never been outside it. In fact he has no idea that there is a world outside. His mother is kept prisoner in there by a man whose name we never learn, and who Jack never sees, as his mother makes sure he is in his bed with the door closed before her captor makes his almost nightly visits. Food is brought, garbage is removed, occasional treats can be requested. There is a TV, though Jack is very much rationed as to how much and what he is allowed to watch. The days are spent doing lessons, doing exercises, cooking, and story telling. But Jack is growing up, and as the novel begins his mother makes a decision -- somehow or other she will enable Jack to escape and get help so that they can both return to the outside world. This is quite a task -- first Jack must become accustomed to the extraordinary idea that there is a world to escape to, and then he must be as brave and strong as any five-year-old can possibly be in order to carry out this very frightening and dangerous plan.
Emma Donaghue's writing of the novel was obviously heavily influenced by real life stories -- among them those of Elizabeth Fritzl, kept in a basement for 24 years by her rapist father, and Jaycee Lee Dugard , who reappeared last August in California having been kidnapped in 1991. One of the most fascinating and initially upsetting elements of Donaghue's novel is the way in which she depicts Jack's response to the outside world in which he ultimately finds himself, and evidently the Fritzl children reacted in much the same ways. But this is fiction, and Jack's story progresses in its own way. What the ultimate outcome is you will have to find out for yourself.
I don't know if this will make the Booker shortlist or win the prize. I found it quite hard to read and impossible to put down, simultaneously, if that makes sense. Jack's language is very much his own, clearly an imaginative invention of Donaghue's, and I found it rather hard going. But the story is an extraordinary and extremely moving one, and of course made all the more so by the fact that we know of so many similar cases.
I know lots of other people will be reading this and writing about it over the coming days and weeks and I will be really interested to see what others think.
After I reviewed Rosy Thornton's delightful novel The Tapestry of Love last week, I found the novel stayed in my mind and there were lots of questions I wanted to ask Rosy. So I did! and she was kind enough to answer them. Here they are, with her replies. Thanks again, Rosy.
people know that you are a law lecturer in Cambridge. What made you want to
start writing novels?
It was something of a Damascus road experience, because it
had never crossed my mind to try writing fiction until I was in my forties. In
2004 I watched the BBC’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and loved it. Via the BBC drama messageboard I found
my way to a website where people were posting Gaskell ‘fanfic’, and decided to
give it a try myself. A few months later I found I had written a novel-length
pastiche sequel to North and South!
It was utter tosh, of course – but by then I had caught the writing bug, and
went straight into writing my first ‘proper’ novel, which was published in 2006
as More Than Love Letters. Anyone
who has read the book will spot the lingering echoes of North and
the genesis of a novel like, for you? What comes first -- plot, characters,
setting or something else?
I always begin with the characters. Two or three main
players, a setting, some initial situation of tension or conflict, and that’s
about it. I just begin to write and see where the story takes me. I have never
been one for plotting and planning in advance. If I ever do think up things for
my characters to do later in the book, I usually find that by the time I get
there, they won’t do the things I have planned for them!
do you find the writing process (and how easy is it to fit it into your busy
life as a working mother)? Where, when, and how, do you write
writing fiction is my escape, my guilty pleasure, my time away from the things
I really ought to be doing: my legal writing, my teaching, and being a mum. So
I suppose it sometimes is hard work (especially editing: I hate editing) but I
never see it that way. I just see it as a wonderful, intense, absorbing hobby.
I write my
novels in the early mornings, before the rest of the house is up. I tend to be
quite disciplined, and normally write from 5.30 to 7am every day, before I get
the kids up and make the packed lunches. Luckily on weekends my clan all like
to lie in, so I might have quiet writing time from 6am until 8.30 or even 9am.
I work on my laptop at the kitchen table, with my spaniel lying across my feet.
But if ideas come to me at other times of day – a snatch of dialogue, a thought
for the next scene – then I will jot things down on paper. I’ve been known to
scribble bits of novel on the back of a shopping lists while sitting at red
research do you need to do for your novels, and what form does it take?
I must admit to being very lazy about research. Maybe it’s
because my day job involves writing which is entirely research-based: I want my
novels to be a break from all that! So far I have tended to set my novels in
locations and milieus with which I am already familiar, to cut down on research
(the most glaring example of this is my second novel, Hearts and Minds, which is set in a fictional Cambridge college!),
and what little I do is shamefully lackadaisical and unrigorous. It’s Wikipedia
all the way! After all, what’s the point of fiction if you’re not allowed to
make stuff up?
latest novel, The Tapestry of Love, is set in France. What made you choose the
Cévennes region for its setting, and did you spend time there while you were
In my dream! Sadly, no, I have not had the opportunity to go
back to the Cévennes – which, for anyone who doesn’t know the area, is a
mountainous region lying at the southern tip of the French massif central, and
the most beautiful place on earth – since spending a fortnight’s holiday there
in 1990. But the place made quite an impression on me: the landscape, the
people, the way of life. Enough of an impression to me to feel compelled to
write a novel about it twenty year later.
I was helped with practical details of the book by my
family, who all now live in France. My brother is married to a Frenchwoman and
lives in the Rhône-Alpes region; his experiences when setting up his own
business there gave me some excellent insights into the convolutions of French
bureaucracy. My parents took early retirement seventeen years ago and moved to
a crumbling old farmhouse in Loire-Atlantique. Some of their experiences have
also been stolen for the book.
writers do you admire, and who would you suggest that people really ought to
My favourite writers tend to be women: Barbara Trapido,
Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley, E Annie Proulx, Ali
Smith, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Salley Vickers, Amy Tan, Rose Tremain… and
I am also a fan of ‘period’ writers such as Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen,
Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald.
Not very original – I’m sorry – but at the moment I am
almost through Wolf Hall and completely
spellbound; that’s the one at the moment that I keep telling everyone to read.
finally, what's next for Rosy Thornton? Are you writing at the moment?
like to say too much for fear of jinxing things! But I have one completed
manuscript which is currently with my agent (rather more serious in tone and
conception than my previous books), and am half way through another, which has
gone back the other way, more towards More Than Love Letters territory: a retro ‘rom com’ set in
Thanks, Rosy! Good luck with the next one -- really looking forward to it.
How well do you know your Greek mythology? If you do, you might perhaps remember the story of Atalanta. She was the daughter of a king who, disappointed in not having a son, left her on a hillside to die. But she was suckled by a she-bear before being found and raised by some hunters. From these beginnings she became fierce and fearless. When she was reunited with her father he urged her to take a husband, but she refused, saying she would only marry a man if he could outrun her. No chance! Many young men died trying, but finally she was defeated when one of them obtained three golden apples from Aphrodite and threw them in Atalanta's path to slow her down.
From this story, the Seven Sisters contemporary dance and performance group have created a highly original and entrancing performance at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I saw it yesterday. As you go into the museum, you are provided with an ipod touch and instructed how to use it. Then, with your earphones plugged in, you set off on a trail around the museum, guided by the film on the ipod. Voices in your ears give you snippets of Atalanta's story, as you are guided to statues, paintings and other artefacts which illustrate the story in some way. And now and again, both on the film and in the flesh, Atalanta herself appears, racing past you and disappearing round a corner as fast as the wind. Amazing and almost dreamlike experience!
The live dancers were only there at the weekend, but the ipods will be there for some time, so if you are in or around Oxford and fancy a really unusual and wonderfully enjoyable fifteen minutes, give it a go!
When I think of post-war England, it's always in monochrome. Must be partly all those old movies, I suppose, though I suspect there was a sort of greyness over everything at that time -- men always in their dark suits and trilbies, women wearing sensible, clunky shoes and never seen outside without a hat on. Everyone is smoking, and so are the chimneys. On the one hand you might think that people were more innocent in those days, but that innocence could easily shade over into ignorance and prejudice.
That certainly is a feature of this fine novel, one of Andrew Taylor's Lydmouth series, of which I have written several times before. These are crime novels, of course, though in this one the crime, or crimes, almost take a back seat while the personal lives of the characters are played out in the foreground. The central players are all here again -- Jill Francis, the attractive reporter on the local paper, her adulterous lover Detective Inspector Richard Thornhill, Richard's wife Edith, her cousin Bernie, and more. In fact there doesn't appear to be a murder at all until quite late on in the the novel, which starts with the suicide of a local man, a much loved and respected widower. He was well known to Edith Thornhill, was who brought up in the nearby village where he lived, and when she decides on the spur of the moment to go to his funeral, a whole tidal wave of painful memories is unleashed which take her in directions she could never have anticipated. For here, Edith is the centre of the novel -- apparently Andrew Taylor was urged to bring her to centre stage by some female crime writers of his acquaintance. And what a good thing this is! In the earlier novels the reader sees her mainly through her husband's guilt-ridden eyes, but here she takes on a vivid life and has some intense emotional experiences of her own. It's fascinating to see her take on Richard and Jill's relationship, and on her rather dull existence as a housewife and mother. And, because the various mysteries and crimes are linked with her own past, she also becomes central to the police investigation. Great stuff.
Much of the plot here revolves around homosexuality, and, of course, attitudes at this period were extremely ignorant and bigoted. Early in the novel Richard consults a psychiatrist who has been treating one of the characters for what he sees as a cureable illness -- and very shocking indeed are the methods taken to produce this supposed cure. Only Jill, a Londoner who has moved in literary and artistic circles, is broadminded and accepting. Fascinating stuff. Do read it!
As you may or may not know (or care) I got back at the weekend from three weeks in France -- and this book was waiting for me. It could not have been a more perfect choice and I plunged in to it straight away. As I'm sure you can tell from the cover picture, it is set in rural France, though not in the north west where I have just been. Here we are in the Cevennes, a glorious, mountainous region in the centre of France, with its own national park, much frequented by tourists who want to retrace the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson who travelled round the area on a donkey and wrote a book about it called, predictably, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
Anyway -- having many times seriously considered moving to France permanently, I was obviously going to be fascinated by a novel about a woman who, divorced and in her late 40s, decides to do just that. Her children have grown up and left home, her mother, in a home, with advanced Alzheimers, no longer recognises her, and her job as an upholsterer and embroiderer can be done anywhere. So it is that on an autumn day, Catherine Parkstone finds herself driving up a mountain amidst a tidal wave of sheep, heading for the remote cottage she has just bought. Brave woman! For this is an area apparently completely free from other relocated "Brits", so Catherine will need to make friends with her French neighbours (a very good thing too, by the way, and all too uncommon in my experience). Luckily her French seems to be more or less perfect, and she is soon dropping in to the local farms drinking strong coffee and home made liqueurs, and managing to persuade many of them to have new curtains and re-upholstered cushions. The most intriguing of these neighbours is Patrick Castagnol, a very attractive, charming, single, middle-aged Frenchman, who speaks perfect English and is soon inviting Catherine round for dinner and taking her on trips to local museums. Oh ho, I hear you say -- but no, it is Catherine's younger sister Bryony who ends up in Patrick's bed while on a brief visit. Bryony soon reappears in France having taken a sabbatical from her high-powered lawyer's job in London in order to see whether the relationship is viable.
I'm obviously not going to tell you what happens as you will have to read the book to discover, but I hope you will. What I found so enjoyable about the novel -- apart, obviously, from the twists and turns of the relationships -- was the way Rosy Thornton dealt with Catherine's experiences of her solitary life in the French mountains. The climate is changeable and often extremely harsh -- pouring rain throughout the autumn, unbearable heat in June, thunderstorms in July and August -- and Catherine has to adapt her living conditions and sleep patterns accordingly. She has to learn what plants, fruits and vegetables will survive in her garden, and how to take care of the bees a kind neighbour donates to her. She has to find ways of building friendships with people who, although she speaks their language, are part of a culture to which she is a complete stranger (how well I recognised all this!). She has to battle with frightful, incomprehensible, slow-moving French bureaucracy (ditto!!). And of course she must learn to deal with the solitude and the distance from her much-loved children back in England. Will she stick it out? Or will it just be a temporary experience to be notched up and treasured? Read it and find out.
I held off for ages. Then I bought The Girl Who Played With Fire in a cheap supermarket edition (yes, I know, we really shouldn't, but I crack occasionally). Big mistake. It's the second in the series, of course, and though I'm not as rigid as some people (Simon of Savidge Reads for one) about always reading books in the right order, this is one situation in which that really seems to be necessary. I started it, just didn't get it at all, and gave up pretty quickly. I might never have got round to this one if I hadn't taken up an offer of a free trial from Audible which enabled me to download two audio books free, gratis and for nothing. I chose this one partly out of curiosity and partly because it was very long, so I got over 20 hours of listening for zilch.
And what happy hours they turned out to be! I have to admit that it took a while to absolutely grab me, but my goodness once I was grabbed I was totally hooked -- I knew that had happened when I found myself gardening while plugged into my ipod, not at all something I normally do. In fact I wouldn't recommend it as a practice -- I gave it up pretty soon as the ipod kept falling out of my pocket into the flowerbed.
What is so enthralling about this novel is the fact that it has a multiplicity of plots which, of course, all turn out to be interconnected. Mikael Blomqvist, his radical magazine Millenium, his court case and prison term, his love affairs, and his political principles, could have made a novel all on their own. So could the hunt for the missing Harriet Vanger, who disappeared without trace some forty years ago at the age of sixteen, presumed murdered though her body was never discovered. And so, of course, could the story of Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous Girl, whose terrible vicissitudes, emotional problems and astonishing brilliance with computers make her the most unusual and fascinating protagonist. So while the heart of the book is of course the thriller, and the crimes that are uncovered are not for the squeamish, there is so much more to relish here. I was particularly interested by the developing relationship between Blomqvist and Salander, and the effect on Salander of this, her first real emotional engagement. But the novel also raises interesting ethical problems -- is it right to conceal a terrible series of crimes to protect the reputation of one vulnerable person? -- can the fruits of illegal computer hacking ever be justifiably enjoyed? -- and even after the search for Harriet has been resolved, there is still Blomqvist's reputation to be cleared. As for Salander, this novel leaves her very much in the lurch. So naturally I can't wait now to get my teeth into no. 2.
Funny, isn't it, how the Swedes seem to have such a way with crime fiction? I was already a huge fan of Henning Mankell -- loved the novels, really liked Ken Branagh's Wallander, then got totally seduced by the Swedish series with wonderful Krister Henricksson. Now, of course, I have to see the movie of this novel. I wonder how it compares to the book?
But who the devil is he? I googled David Foster Wallace and discovered that he was an American novelist who is sadly no long with us. He 'expressed a desire to write "morally passionate, passionately moral fiction"', but whether he succeeded or not I cannot say. I shall have to look out for him!