Barbara Kingsolver – Pigs in Heaven

Barbara Kingsolver never disappoints, ‘Pigs in Heaven’ is no exception to this literary ‘rule.’ The novel is a essentially a sequel to the earlier ‘The Bean Trees,’ where a child is deposited on the front seat of a Taylor Greer’s Volkswagen in Oklahoma, close to a Cherokee reservation, by a Native American who immediately disappears.  Taylor essentially keeps driving until her car breaks down in 1000 kilometres away in Arizona.

pigs-in-heavenRoll the lives on three years from ‘The Bean Trees’ and, at a visit to the Hoover Dam, the ‘daughter’ who Taylor names Turtle due to her grip, notices someone fall into a drainage channel.  A man with learning disabilities is eventually rescued and mother and ‘daughter’ appear on ‘Oprah’ as a result. One of the viewers is a lawyer from the Cherokee Nation who notices a Native American daughter with a mother that appeared not to be.   The lawyer starts to dig a little deeper and Taylor, worried that she might lose Turtle, flees.  A poverty-stricken road trip with cheap motels and worse jobs ensues which eventually ends up back at the Native American reserve at Heaven, Oklahoma.

Don’t expect a fast moving plot, it isn’t Kingsolver’s style – the narrative is subtle, thoughtful and thought-provoking; the real power of the writing lies in the warmth and depth of the characters, mostly women, women who have been left or have had to leave:

Women on their own run in Alice’s family. This dawns on her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts, which have collected above her in the dark.

There are men, but they are flawed and almost incidental to the plot:

She married him two years ago for love, or so she thought, and he’s a good enough man but a devotee of household silence. His idea of marriage is to spray WD-40 on anything that squeaks. … The quiet only subsides when Harland sleeps and his tonsils make up for lost time.

The final denouement is possibly a little contrived and leaves perhaps too many loose ends – it was probably deliberate, life doesn’t always have tidy endings, novels shouldn’t either. Perhaps part of the reasoning may have been leaving the door just slightly ajar, to allow the potential for developing the characters elsewhere.

Dorothy Richardson – The Interim

I have written about Richardson’s work a couple of times before, both here, in relation to The Tunnel and in my other blog, Running Past, about the first volume of Pilgrimage, and particularly Pointed Roofs. Pilgrimage, is effectively a series of 13 autobiographical short novels which were published separately although were subsequently brought together in four volumes by Virago; they describe the life of Richardson’s thinly disguised fictional self, Miriam Henderson. The Interim is the fifth novel in the tridecology and sees Richardson’s fictional alter ego still in the lodging house in Bloomsbury, still working as a dental assistant.

PilgrimageIf The Tunnel can be seen as a book about exploring London and exploring ideas, The Interim is perhaps more about exploring people – observing those passing through the lodging house where Miriam has an eyrie-like room in the eves, overlooking the roofs of the city. It is a masterclass in people-watching, perhaps only bettered by Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Slaves of Solitude’, written 25 years later in a very similar setting.  Possibly a lodging house is a setting that ideally lends itself to the observation of others.

The focus on the people though doesn’t mean a move away from some sublime descriptions

Windows were being pushed open up and down the street.  The new year changed to a soft moonlit breath stealing through the darkness, brimming over the faces at the doors and windows, touching their brows with fingers of dawn, sending fresh soothing healing fingers in amongst their hair.  Eleven … twelve.  Across the rushing scale of St Pancras bells came a fearful clangour.  Bicycle bells, cab whistles, dinner bells, the banging of tea-trays and gongs.  Of course.  New Year.  It must be a Bloomsbury custom.  She had had her share in a Bloomsbury New Year.  Rather jolly … rowdy; but jolly in that sort of way.  She could hear the Baileys laughing and talking on their doorstep.  A smooth firm foreign voice flung out a shapely little fragment of song.  Miriam watched its outline.  It repeated itself in her mind with the foreign voice and personality of the singer.  She drew back into her room.

The Interim was published in 1920 but much of it was serialised the year before in the ‘Little Review’, an American journal which promoted modernist writing set up by Margaret Anderson with links to the likes of Ezra Pound.  ‘Little Review’ had begun serialising ‘Ulysses’ in 1918 an continued until 1921 when the US Post Office refused to distribute, claiming it was obscene; there was a subsequent trial which found against ‘Ulysses’ and the ‘Little Review.’

It is apt that the work Richardson and Joyce appear side-by-side, both were ground breaking, but is seems strange that Richardson’s work has been largely forgotten – she deserves a much wider audience.


Helen Dunmore – Exposure

Helen Dunmore is one of my favourite modern authors, while she won the Orange Prize in 1996 for ‘A Spell of Winter’ she frequently appears not to get the attention that her wonderful, carefully crafted prose deserves.

exposure‘Exposure’  received generally good reviews at the start of 2016, but in the normal run of events it would not have been a novel I would have not read yet, the paper-back and paper-back priced, electronic editions are not yet out.  But I stumbled across it at the fantastic Blackheath and Greenwich Amnesty International second-hand book fair – held biannually in June and November.

The plot treads familiar ground, both in terms of the Dunmore returning to issues of the Cold War but a pioneering children’s novel that most will be familiar with, even if only via the film version, Edith Nesbit’s Railway Children.  By a pleasant co-incidence Nesbit lived for a while about 100 metres further north along Dartmouth Grove from where the novel was purchased.

The setting isn’t the Edwardian England of Nesbit but a London of 50 years later – a London that, despite the proclamation of Macmillan that Britons had ‘never had it so good’ in 1957, seemed to still be suffering from some of the privations of the early post war years and was ‘home’ to CND demonstrations as the post-war powers began a nuclear arms build-up.  The gloomy autumnal setting added to the rather melancholy feel to the Dunmore’s London.

Unlike the ‘Railway Children’, while some of the tale is told through the eyes of the three children, the narrative is through is generally through the perspectives of all the main adult characters.  As was the case in both ‘The Siege’ and ‘The Betrayal’ there is a real depth and warmth to main female character, Lily, the German Jewish émigré wife of the falsely accused Simon Callington. Dunmore fills Lilly’s life with a vast array of period household detail – much of it probably gleaned from her own upbringing.

Dunmore deftly flits from the 1950s to earlier decades, from character to character, and delightfully evokes both the detail of Muswell Hill as well as the isolated cottage on the coastal fringes of the former Kent coalfield. The twists and turn of the complex plot is subtly underplayed as she creates an excellent novel – it is so, so much more than the adult pastiche of the Edwardian children’s story it could have easily become.

Dorothy Richardson – The Tunnel

It was writing about Dorothy Richardson in my other blog that made me think about starting Unreliable Narratives.  I had been attracted to Richardson via Louisa Treger’s excellent ‘The Lodger’ – a fictional retelling of part of the Richardson’s life, particularly her affair with HG Wells.  The post in Running Past had looked at Richardson’s final Pointed Roofs in Beckenham, but was, in reality, an opportunity to write about Richardson’s fiction.

Dorothy Richardson is the almost forgotten pioneer of stream of consciousness writing in English, predating the internal monologues of Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (serialised from 1918) by several years.

Pilgrimage, is effectively a series of 13 autobiographical short novels which were published separately, although were subsequently brought together in four volumes.  They describe the life of Richardson’s thinly disguised alter-ego, Miriam Henderson.

Pilgrimage‘The Tunnel’, part of the second volume of Pilgrimage, is the fourth in the triskaidecalogy (or tridecology, if you prefer) and is a real coming of age novel, both as an author and for her semi-fictionalised self.  ‘The Tunnel’ marks a growing confidence from Richardson as a writer, a writer who has honed her skills in terms of her narrative style and in her description and is using them to explore ideas, explore her own consciousness, and to explore her new urban environment. There were hints of the former in the closing pages of the previous novel in the series, ‘Honeycomb.’

The coming of age as a person sees Miriam/Dorothy move from being a live-in governess to rich children to becoming a dental assistant on Harley Street, living in Bloomsbury lodgings. There is an explosion of new ideas and experiences from reading, from lectures, and from the people she meets – including a thinly disguised HG Wells.  The novel explores her nascent feminism

They invent a legend to put the blame for the existence of humanity on woman and, if she wants to stop it, they talk about the wonders of civilisation and the sacred responsibilities of motherhood.  They can’t have it both ways.  They also say women are not logical.

The highlights for me, though, are the descriptions of the Edwardian central London which are really brought to life

The trees in Endsleigh Gardens came along, gently waving their budding branches in bright sunshine.  The colour of the gardens was so intense that the sun must be going to set behind Euston station.  The large houses moved steadily behind the gardens, in blocks, bright white, with large quiet streets opening their vistas in between the blocks, leading to green freshness and then safely on down into Soho.  The long square came to an end.  The shrub-trimmed base of St. Pancras church came heavily nearer and stopped.  As Miriam got off the bus, she watched its great body in clear sharp outline against the blue.  Its clock was booming the hour across the gardens though the houses and down into the squares.  On this side its sound was broken up by the narrow roar of the Euston Road and the clamour coming right and left from the two stations.

It is a fantastic novel, beautifully written novel, one of my favourite’s using internal monologues.

Gil Buhet – The Honey Siege

honeyAn utter delight of a novel – an almost timeless tale of French teenagers rebelling against authority after being wrongly accused of the theft of honey from one of the hives belonging to their teacher.  They draw up the village’s medieval castle drawbridge, hoist a red flag and the siege begins.  It is beautifully written by Gil Buhet and  wonderfully translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury.

Buhet paints a delightful picture of 1950s French village life, the fictional Casteilcorbon is beautifully created with (in my imagination at least) a slightly smaller, much more derelict version of the the walls and keep of Carcassonne, and a series of well crafted and all somewhat flawed characters.

The novel was mentioned by Michael Rosen in an interview on his cultural highlights in ‘The Guardian’, it intrigued me, and within a couple of minutes of reading the interview, I had found and bought a copy on-line.  I opted for the Penguin first edition rather than the hardback found by Rosen.

It arrived with the beautiful, yellowing paper with that wonderful slightly musty, ageing smell of the old secondhand book; much as I like the convenience of the Kindle, the cream and orange of an old Penguin is special.

buhetThe back cover seems to give more biographical detail on Gil Buhet, than the entire internet combined.  He was born in St Étienne in 1908, he started writing for a living when he became editor of an in-house ‘journal’ of a grocery chain; was later a literary editor of a Lyon publishing house and then a bookshop owner in his home town.

By the time that Penguin published ‘The Honey Siege’ in 1958, Buhet had published half a dozen novels.  Oddly, Penguin claim that he won the prestigious French literature award, Grand Prix du Romain Français in 1948 – he didn’t.

It is somewhat surprising that the novel has been almost forgotten; this is despite radio adaptations by the BBC in 1954 and 1958, a 6 part television drama in 1959, a reading of it as Book at Bedtime in 1963 and an HTV 7 part anglicised adaptation in 1987; but he is out of print both sides of La Manche.

The little bit of interest caused by Rosen’s interview seems to have plundered virtually all the second hand copies of the novel too, the only copies I could find when writing this post, four weeks after the interview, were £67 for a hardback and £34 for a Penguin edition – a ten-fold increase in less than a month.  Perhaps it is time for a Penguin re-issue, assuming that they still own the rights to it.

Patrick Hamilton – Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is an entertaining, beautifully written trilogy of intertwined semi-autobiographical novellas which were published separately and centre on The Midnight Bell, a fictional London boozer near the junction of Euston and Tottenham Court Roads.

Though it had no wide reputation, all manner of people frequented ‘The Midnight Bell.’ This was in its nature, of course, since it is notorious that all manner of people frequent all manner of public-houses – which in this respect resemble railway stations and mad-houses.

hamiltonThe first novella, ‘The Midnight Bell’(1929), centres on Bob, a waiter and would-be writer, who becomes enchanted by a prostitute he serves in the bar – mirroring events in Hamilton’s own life. In the second, ‘The Siege of Pleasure’ (1932), the focus is on Jenny, the prostitute, and her fall from respectability.  The final book of the trio ‘The Plains of Cement’ (1934),is about Bob’s colleague Ella, torn between the attentions of an older, wealthy man, and her unrequited love for Bob.

hamilton2It is perhaps surprising that Hamilton isn’t better known or more widely read, he certainly deserves to be – his bringing to life of working class Londoners is superb with echoes of Dickens.  The only negative for me is the lack of any real sense of place – the “Twenty Thousand Streets” are little more than street names, just a means of transporting the character from ‘The Midnight Bell’, to perhaps a cinema, a different pub or a Lyons Coffee House – they are rarely described, incidental to the plot.

Sebastian Barry – On Canaan’s Side

Sebastian Barry is, perhaps, my favourite modern author.  His prose is stunningly beautiful, unsurprisingly poetic (he writes poetry too) and he creates wonderful  ‘images’  of the Irish landscape and the other places his narratives take his characters to.  Early 20th century Irish history and its frequent brutality is never far from the surface in Barry’s writing, but it usually done with a light touch.

This is a day the land is being absolutely thumped by rain. Millions and millions of little explosions in the fields, making the soil jump. The roots of things I am sure are delighted by it, if it doesn’t actually kill them.

barryIn ‘On Canaan’s Side’ Barry continues the intertwined tales of the Dunnes – with the 89 year old Lilly Bere, the sister of Willie Dunne from ‘A Long, Long Way’. She recounts and contemplates on her life after the suicide of her grandson who failed to cope with the aftermath of being a Gulf War veteran. The narrative goes from rural Ireland, a flight to New York following death threats, to the ‘glittering Canaan’ of Chicago and then on to Cleveland.  Her life is at times brutal with frequent upheavals, poverty and trauma – but it is a fantastic story brought to life by Barry’s beautiful prose.

I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough

As in the ‘Secret Scripture’ there is a clever twist in the plot towards the end of the novel, which was less easy to spot in ‘On Canaan’s Side,’ although I won’t describe it as I don’t want to ’spoil’ the plot.

There is such solace in the mere sight of water. It clothes us delicately in its blowing salt and scent, gossamer items that medicate the poor soul