Though I’ve been binge-reading detective fiction, I’ve also been dipping in and out of other genre. To be honest, most of it has been old favourites, because I’ve not really been up for an emotional challenge – though I got one all the same.
But I’ll start with the old favourites, and Rose Tremain. I hadn’t read any of her books for a while, and after I’d finished Islands of Mercy, I wondered why on earth not. She tells a great story. She has such eccentric and intriguing, if not always likeable characters. She gives you a lovely skewed slant on history. And she has a really brilliant knack of setting up lots of threads and slowly, carefully and beautifully knitting them together towards a highly satisfying story.
Which is exactly what I got from this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Jane, the Angel of the Baths, is a Victorian woman who won’t be caged by her crinoline. In fact, though this was set in the High Victorian period (which I’ve been writing for the last while myself) there are very few of the classic props – and that’s one of the things I love about Rose Tremain. Instead, we get the medical world of Bath, a place where people have been seeking the cure for hundreds of years, and where quacks mingle with men (and women, in Jane’s case) at the forefront of medicine – another of Tremain’s recurring themes. We see the mighty engine of progress tamed and traumatised by nature, and the overarching theme of the great wonders of nature and the great ignorance of ‘man’ is ever-present in this story.
But the people are centre stage. Jane is a woman who believes she has a destiny though she hasn’t a clue what that might be – save that it’s something other than the life she’s living, as a healer. Should she be content, in this repressive patriarchal society, at having so much more than other women – an indulgent father who respects her mind, a doting aunt who encourages her to be herself, and an adoring doctor who wants to marry her? Perhaps, but Jane is not content. She wants more, though the more remains quite undefined. She is waylaid on her journey to ‘greatness’ by her lover Julietta. Then she is waylaid by thinking she might marry. And then…
But I’m telling you the plot, as Kenny Everett used to say (once again giving away my age here!). Of course the issues of a female role underpinning this story are a big part of why I loved it. Jane is not the only female protagonist to make her way, there is also Clorinda and Jane’s aunt. How to combine love and independence is a key question and perhaps, in the case of Clorinda, it’s a faff – but then again, there is the dubious morality of Clorinda’s start in life.
Nothing is simple in this book, and yet it is a very simply told story. And here, I think, is why Rose Tremain is such a masterly storyteller – a linear narrative, several story strands, all of them concluded, giving the reader that happy sigh at the end of it. And then come the questions and the issues and the wondering what if, and whether she meant this, or this – so the story unravels in your mind, and you want to go back and read it again.
Which is what I did, with my next book, Trespass, after a gap of about ten years. I was always going to be biased to loving this, since it’s set in the south of France which is one of my favourite bits of the world, but at first there’s hardly a character in Trespass who is likeable: they are every one of them selfish, self-obsessed and determined to make changes they know will cost one of the other characters dear. In fact, you so heartily dislike on the characters – Anthony – that you keep reading with fingers crossed hoping he’ll get his come-uppance.
What I think Rose Tremain does fabulously is draw you in to the inner world of each of the characters to that you’re not just fascinated but you start to empathise without realising. She’s the master of the slow reveal, drip-feeding you little titbits, twisting and turning your sympathies so cleverly you don’t even realise that you’ve switched allegiance. Her landscapes are always characters in themselves, and they too change from beautiful to sinister and back again, winding themselves around you until you’re in so deep that you can’t put the book down. I couldn’t. I read this in two big gulps and as soon as I was at the end I wanted to start again.
And so on to another old favourite author, Anne Tyler, who writes beautiful, lyrical prose about ‘ordinary’ people dealing with trauma. In Back When We Were grown-Ups, the trauma was old – the death of a husband decades before – and for much of the book you’re kind of wondering, what is this story actually about? The emotions are gently explored, they are not often on the surface, and even the character experiencing them sometimes isn’t aware that they are going on. You have to work a bit at ‘getting’ the book. This one was about loss, obviously, but also about age and perspective and time. As with many of Tyler’s books, the main protagonists find themselves at a cross roads (not necessarily an obvious one, as in this case) and they are tempted to take a sudden turning that surprises everyone. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.
I do love Ms Tyler’s books, but this one fell short for me because ultimately it didn’t seem to go anywhere. There were loads of interesting issues, but it felt ultimately unsatisfactory because none of them seemed to be addressed. Life goes on, was the conclusion I took from it, in the same way as before is how it felt, though I think the message was more affirmative than that – the right decisions had been made. I was left feeling a little bit – hmm, what was the point of that? But often with Tyler, you get to the point after thinking it over a bit, and then you think, maybe I didn’t give this enough of a chance. And in my case you think, maybe I’ll dip into another of hers straight away – which is what I did with Vinegar Girl.
Kate is the vinegar girl of the title, the eldest daughter of a widower scientist who has reared her younger sister, and is feeling that life has passed her by as she approaches her thirties. So far, so very Anne Tyler. I liked Kate and I empathised with her thoughts and her choices. I felt for her trying to be the person others wanted her to be, and rebelling all the time thinking, look at me, look at me, while not ever letting anyone in. She was a fabulous character, and the premise – that her father decides to use her to get his assistant a green card – had great potential.
But it was way too short – in fact, I got the distinct impression it was a short story stretched to a novella. It should have been a novel. Kate deserved more space. And the resolution as a result, felt so rushed and hurried, with a frankly trite epilogue. Oh dear. This was a funny and touching book that could have been so much more. And I think would have made a great film. I would love to read it again, in the full version it merits.
I have a book club WhatsApp group with my mum and three sisters, all of whom are avid readers like me. Our tastes are wide-reaching and eclectic, though they don’t always coincide. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was adored by one sister, recommended with reservations by another, and loathed by another. I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel, but it was compelling, extremely thought-provoking, and it gave me nightmares, all of which I guess was the point.
I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it by talking of the plot. Suffice to say that I did figure out quite quickly the gist of what was going on, and that didn’t detract from the compelling nature of the novel at all. For me the point of the book wasn’t the mystery at all, but the emotional and moral ramifications of it. If it had been based in the future it wouldn’t have been quite so awful, but setting it in the ‘now’ within living history added to the slow-seeping moral horror of reading it. This could happen. It might have happened. It may be about to happen. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, someone must have mooted it. It may have been an experiment that’s still under wraps.
What really traumatised me was getting into the minds of the three protagonists. The set up of using an upmarket boarding school, a place where the students felt themselves to be elite, where the outside world looked at them (they believe) with awe, was so very clever. Anyone who has read the classic children’s boarding school stories would have drawn the parallels – with Mallory Towers, or the Naughtiest Girl in the School books that Enid Blyton wrote, or even with the Four Mary’s from the Bunty comic. There were all the little cliques, all the rituals, the slang, the love affairs with teachers that are so easily recognised from that genre, and which were so very cleverly played upon. There weren’t any tuck boxes (oh, how I wished for one of those) but there were games, and treasures, and art work. And rules that only those who had been to the school understood and obeyed – a whole moral code that only they understood.
Except they didn’t. They knew they were pawns. They knew their destiny. Except they didn’t completely understand. Oh my goodness, that aspect of it was truly horrific. There were rumours that they wanted to believe so very desperately that were heart-breaking. They thought that they were ‘real’ people – but no-one else did. There’s a pivotal moment when Kath and Tommy finally track down Madame and discover (spoiler alert) that it was believed they had no souls. Why, poor naïve Tommy asks, would anyone think that? From that point on you know in your bones there’s absolutely going to be no chance of any form of happy ending. It’s something you’ve not even been aware of nurturing yourself, this notion of a form of happy ending, just as Tommy nurtured it – what powerful writing that requires. But the ending is as true to the story as the rest of the book, and I am so relieved, and so appalled that it was.
The quality of writing, the imagination it took to create this world is awesome and intimidating and a bit scary. I’ve already taken a look at the author’s next book, but I’m going to do a bit more escapist reading before I tackle it. As I said, I’d never say this was an enjoyable read, but it was one of the most powerful novels I’ve read for a long time.
Finally, to The Crow Road by Iain Banks. I haven’t read any of Banks save The Wasp Factory, and that was a very long time ago. I found this a very surprising read – for a start because I thought the book was set in Crow Road in Glasgow!
In fact, this is a coming of age with a bit of a mystery and a lot to cultural references that hit home with me, set in Argyll, which also hit home with me, since it is – ha! – my home. I think it’s been made into a TV series and I can understand why, I’d like to have seen it. In many ways this is an idealistic book, the characters not precisely stereotypes (deliberately so) but a number of them were walk-on ‘types’ rather than characters, if that makes sense – the twins, for example. It’s also a class-ridden book, gently taking the p**s out of Prentice and his gang, who are so classically middle-class it’s sometimes toe curling. I wanted to read more about his grandmother who blows up at the beginning of the book (what a fab opening line), and I must say, I could have done with a bit less of Kenneth and Rory. But on the other hand, where this book excels is in the complexity of the generational relationships and at the sibling rivalry. So, while I enjoyed this, I think it would (like much of Dickens) make better TV.
These are just some of my reviews. You can read them all, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.