Monthly Archives: October 2012

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale

I have read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House  which made me keen to read Ms Summerscale’s next work. I checked out a large print version from the library and there wasn’t any images – were the images in the normal version? Anyway, this was quite a fascinating story. Did she commit adultery (I suspect so) or did she just write her fantasies in her journal? The time the story took places also adds to its appeal. Divorce is easier to obtain now than ever before, the pseudo science of phrenology and hydropathy (and what is uterine disease?)  plus the other famous people in the story (e.g. Charles Darwin).

Here is the blurb …

 Headstrong, high-spirited, and already widowed, Isabella Walker became Mrs. Henry Robinson at age 31 in 1844. Her first husband had died suddenly, leaving his estate to a son from a previous marriage, so she inherited nothing. A successful civil engineer, Henry moved them, by then with two sons, to Edinburgh’s elegant society in 1850. But Henry traveled often and was cold and remote when home, leaving Isabella to her fantasies.
No doubt thousands of Victorian women faced the same circumstances, but Isabella chose to record her innermost thoughts—and especially her infatuation with a married Dr. Edward Lane—in her diary. Over five years the entries mounted—passionate, sensual, suggestive. One fateful day in 1858 Henry chanced on the diary and, broaching its privacy, read Isabella’s intimate entries. Aghast at his wife’s perceived infidelity, Henry petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Until that year, divorce had been illegal in England, the marital bond being a cornerstone of English life. Their trial would be a cause celebre, threatening the foundations of Victorian society with the specter of “a new and disturbing figure: a middle class wife who was restless, unhappy, avid for arousal.” Her diary, read in court, was as explosive as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, just published in France but considered too scandalous to be translated into English until the 1880s.

 This book gives a snap shot of what life was like in educated circles in the 1840s, 50s and 60s. It is clear that a lot of research went into the novel, but it is easy to read and very entertaining. It is definitely worth reading if you like social history, women’s history or the victorian era.

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The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst

I borrowed this from the library after reading about it somewhere (I can’t remember where). I enjoyed it it reminded me a bit of Brideshead Revisited.

Here is the blurb …

 Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel in seven years is a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth – and a family mystery – across generations.

In 1913, George Sawle brings charming, handsome Cecil Valance to his family’s modest home outside London for a summer weekend. George is enthralled by his Cambridge schoolmate, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by both Cecil and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will be recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with the author’s signature gifts – haunting sensuality, wicked humor, and exquisite lyricism – The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, and about how the heart creates its own history.

It is beautifully written – I do like beautiful prose – the story unfolds gradually and even at the end I wasn’t sure how aware Daphne was of Cecil and George’s relationship. It was also fascinating to witness the change in characters over time – George young and enthusiastic to confused old age and who would have picked that Daphne would marry three times and have such bohemian tendencies? Even the passage of time on places was interested – Corley Court turned into a school, Two Acres into a housing development. There was a real sense of time passing and certainly for the gay people in the novel more openness and freedom. It is a very masculine world – there aren’t many women and apart from Daphne women are peripheral to the story.

Reviews …

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The Report – Jessica Francis Kane

I read about this novel here and was intrigued and then in one of those strange coincidences my mother had it and passed it onto me.

Here’s the blurb …

An evocative re-imagining of a World War II civilian disaster

On a March night in 1943, on the steps of a London Tube station, 173 people die in a crowd seeking shelter from another air raid. When the devastated neighborhood demands a report, the job falls to magistrate Laurence Dunne.

In this beautifully crafted novel, Jessica Francis Kane paints a vivid portrait of London at war. As Dunne investigates, he finds the truth to be precarious, even damaging. When he is forced to reflect several decades later, Dunne must consider whether he chose the right course. The Report is a compelling commentary on the way all tragedies are remembered.

I enjoyed it – although I have to say I need to read something cheerful next having just read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Casual Vacancy. This novel is beautifully written – the mystery of the disaster unfolding throughout the story until the final sad (but shocking) conclusion. It was also about guilt and redemption and how easily one small act of frustration can spiral out of control into disaster. This novel is definitely worth reading (if only to learn about a forgotten part of World War Two history).

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The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling

I am jumping on The Casual Vacancy bandwagon. I liked it.

Here is the blurb ..

 When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils. Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the town’s council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.

However, it is very dark and I would think twice before recommending this book – you don’t want to be feeling a bit fragile while reading this novel. There is abuse of all sorts – I even wondered if J K Rowling had a list and checked them off as she wrote the novel (rape, incest, wife and children beating, drug abuse, neglect, etc.) The characters are a bit unsubtle and a some editing might have made for a tighter novel.  The novel does have important things to say about community and how we look after the vulnerable. As with all of the Harry Potter novels, the creation of this imaginary world is magnificent. I had a real sense of Pagford – the hills and the houses and the fields – in all their grubby squalor.

This is a novel without an obvious hero or really any particularly sympathetic characters and the world wasn’t a better place by the end. Would I have read it if it had been written by someone else? Probably not, but I am glad that I have read it.

There was a great interview with Rowling here.

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The Mystery of Mercy Close – Marian Keyes

I’ve always been a Marian Keyes fan – I’ve been a bit disappointed of late – but I was hopeful that her old form would return with another story about the walsh family.

Here’s the blurb …

 Marian Keyes, the No. 1 bestselling author of Rachel’s Holiday, is back with her stunning new novel “The Mystery of Mercy Close” and the return of the legendary and beloved Walsh sisters. Helen Walsh doesn’t believe in fear – it’s just a thing invented by men to get all the money and good jobs – and yet she’s sinking. Her work as a Private Investigator has dried up, her flat has been repossessed and now some old demons have resurfaced. Not least in the form of her charming but dodgy ex-boyfriend Jay Parker, who shows up with a missing persons case. Money is tight and Jay is awash with cash, so Helen is forced to take on the task of finding Wayne Diffney, the ‘Wacky One’ from boyband Laddz. Things ended messily with Jay. And she’s never going back there. Besides she has a new boyfriend now, the very sexy detective Artie Devlin and it’s all going well. But the reappearance of Jay is stirring up all kinds of stuff she thought she’d left behind. Playing by her own rules, Helen is drawn into a dark and glamorous world, where her worst enemy is her own head and where increasingly the only person she feels connected to is Wayne, a man she’s never even met. Utterly compelling, moving and very very funny, “The Mystery of Mercy Close” is unlike any novel you’ve ever read and Helen Walsh – courageous, vulnerable and wasp-tongued – is the perfect heroine for our times.

I enjoyed this novel – read it over a weekend. This time it’s Helen’s turn the last of the Walsh sisters and quite a subdued Helen if you remember her feisty personality from the earlier novels. It is not as light-hearted as Keye’s earlier work – where she dealt with serious issues in a witty way (think of Rachel’s Holiday). There is still laugh out loud moments, but the book has a somber undertone. Having said that it is still a comedy with dramatic moments rather than a drama with the occasional funny bit.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe

For book club last month we read The Help. As I had already read it, it was decided I should read Uncle Tom’s Cabin instead.

You can find a plot overview here.

I found this novel to be very confronting. Obviously the treatment of the slaves is appalling, but the narrator clearly feels superior to the slaves. The fact that it appears to be unintentional just makes it worse. There is a lot of talk about their child like, simple ways. I know we’re not meant to judge with modern eyes behaviour from the past, but I am surprised there is not more outrage about this novel.

It is very Victorian in style. What I mean by that is long sentences, lots of authorial intrusion and lots of description. Some sections even reminded me of L M Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame) particularly the bits about Eva. Montgomery wrote after Harriet Beecher Stowe and I do wonder if she had read and been influenced by Uncle Tom’s Cabin (must look it up in the journals).

However, having said all of that, I did think the structure of the novel was clever. There appears to be examples of the different types of slave owners; kind but still prepared to sell their slaves, generous and taking steps to free his slaves, but dying prematurely and leaving them to their fates as chattels and mean – treating his slaves as stock. One extremely disturbing point was the slave owner who ‘farmed’ his slaves – breeding slave children that he could raise and sell. I guess that is the logical conclusion of owning someone, but it is repellent.

I was also surprised by the amount of religion in the novel. Both sides used religion to bolster their arguments and Uncle Tom was a Jesus figure.

I can see how this novel would have galvanised the anti-slavery movement and I am glad that I have read it, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it and I will think carefully about to whom I recommend it.

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Here is a whole page of contemporary reviews …



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