Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

A classic of fantastic literature, Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet is the occult twin to Alice in Wonderland.

One of the first things ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby overhears when she is given an ornate hearing trumpet is her family plotting to commit her to an institution. Soon, she finds herself trapped in a sinister retirement home, where the elderly must inhabit buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes, endure twisted religious preaching and eat in a canteen overlooked by the mysterious portrait of a leering Abbess. But when another resident secretly hands Marian a book recounding the life of the Abbess, a joyous and brilliantly surreal adventure begins to unfold. Written in the early 1960s, The Hearing Trumpet remains one of the most original and inspirational of all fantastic novels.
Amazon description.

I am a fan of Leonora Carrington's art (an example of which is above) and I recommend liking her Facebook page: where new pictures and sculptures are regularly posted. She was a prominent surrealistSalvador Dali called her "the most important female artist". But since reading this delightful book I've become a fan of her writing as well. 

One of the joys of the book is Carrington's portrayal of old women. The heroine and narrator of the book, Marian, is a ninety-two year old woman with a "gallant" beard, ignored and despised by her unpleasant family.  Carrington is brilliant at portraying a woman who at times is forgetful but is far from "senile". Indeed the portrayals of all the elderly inhabitants of Lightsome Hall are wonderful - each an individual woman, but the best is undoubtedly that of Carmella, Marian's friend, a first class eccentric, given to flights of the imagination:
You might escape to Lapland...We could knit a tent. 
At first the reader is inclined to see Carmella as a slightly dotty old lady, but as the book goes by this view changes. Carmella is often remarkably astute, as in possibly the best line in the book: People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats.

This is another magic realist feminist novel.  The old women rise up against their oppressors and release ancient magic. Marian feels attracted to the leering portrait of the Abbess, identifying with her even though Marian reads a censorious book written by a male contemporary of the Abbess. Later in the book she is mystically part of a Jungian trilogy of women. 

I wondered whether the book would be more surreal than magic realist, but was pleasantly surprised to find the opening to be very realistic. The magic realism grows during the course of the narration, rather as it does in OneHundred Years of Solitude. We start with the hearing trumpet: prior to receiving it as a gift from Carmella, Marian is badly deaf but afterwards she is able to eavesdrop through walls. Then Marian moves to the residential home, which sounds like a bad theme park with houses made in the shape of toadstools, boots and towers. By the end of the book we are passing beyond realism to the surreal and symbolic. One of the magic realist devices that Carrington uses is that Marian will add realist modifiers to the magic/surreal elements: This of course might have been an optical illusion.  

My one criticism of the book is that the ending feels rushed. The details that made the body of the book so enjoyable are dropped and Carrington relies heavily on the surreal and on symbolism.  Nevertheless this book is a joyous and fun read, with some serious points underpinning it. I recommend it to you.

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Wednesday 17 April 2013

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Fat Charlie Nancy is not actually fat. He was fat once but he is definitely not fat now. No, right now Fat Charlie Nancy is angry, confused and more than a little scared right now his life is spinning out of control, and it is all his dads fault.

If his rotter of an estranged father hadn't dropped dead at a karaoke night, Charlie would still be blissfully unaware that his dad was Anansi the spider god. He would have no idea that he has a brother called Spider, who is also a god. And there would be no chance that said brother would be trying to take over his life, flat and fiancee
, or, to make matters worse, be doing a much better job of it than him. Desperate to reclaim his life, Charlie enlists the help of four more-than-slightly eccentric old ladies and their unique brand of voodoo and between them they unleash a bitter and twisted force to get rid of Spider. But as darkness descends and badness begins is Fat Charlie Nancy going to get his life back in one piece or is he about to enter a whole netherworld of pain?
Goodreads description

I have been a fan of Neil Gaiman's writing ever since I found Neverwhere on a bookshelf in a flat I was staying in for a city break. Instead of visiting the sights I spent a whole day in the nearest cafe reading the book. I just loved the dark edge to his writing. American Gods followed, which was even darker and which I enjoyed even more. I also enjoyed Good Omens, the book that Neil Gaiman wrote with Terry Pratchett.

Gaiman's books to my mind stand on the fantasy edge of magic realism. In American Gods the settlers to the New World brought with them the gods of their homelands. These gods exist unrecognised alongside mortals but they retain much of their power. Anansi Boys picks up on this theme, but focuses on one god - Anansi, the trickster spider god brought from Africa to America and the Caribbean. Fat Charlie Nancy is a typical Gaiman central character - an ordinary sort of guy who discovers that he has hidden reserves and talents. There is nothing groundbreaking in this book therefore; Gaiman is following a successful formula. 

The main difference is the tone. Gone is the darkness of his earlier works and instead the treatment is often humourous and the characters are more predictable, even on occasion somewhat two-dimensional. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy reading this book - I did. It was just a less demanding and inspiring read and whereas I still have memories of scenes in Neverwhere and American Gods (even though I haven't read them for years) I know it won't be the same with this book. 

This a great book to take on holiday. Preferably take it on holiday to a small Caribbean island, such as the one on which the book ends. This is a mellow story suited to the Caribbean god, which slips down like a cocktail. There are some great lines to have you chuckling over your drink: It was not that he was feckless, more that he had simply not been around the day they handed out feck.  

The book is less about the interaction between the gods and men, as was the case with American Gods, as it is about storytelling and the power of song. Anansi's power lies in his ability to tell stories and this is transferred to his son.

Stories are like spiders, with all they long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each.

What’s that? You want to know if Anansi looked like a spider? Sure he did, except when he looked like a man.

No, he never changed his shape. It’s just a matter of how you tell the story. That’s all. 

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Sexing The Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

In a fantastic world that is and is not seventeenth-century England, a baby is found floating in the Thames. The child is rescued by the Dog Woman, a murderous gentle giant who names her newfound trophy Jordan and takes him out for walks on a leash. When he grows up, Jordan, like Gulliver, travels the world, but finds that the strangest wonders are spun out of his own head. The strangest wonder of all is Time. Does it exist? What is its nature? Why does every journey conceal another journey within its lines? What is the relationship between seventeenth-century Jordan and twentieth-century Nicholas Jordan, a naval cadet in a warship? And who are the Twelve Dancing Princesses?
Goodreads description. 

At the heart of this novel is the relationship of mother and son. The mother, the Dog Woman, may be larger than life (in every sense of the phrase) and her (adopted) son Jordan may be a teller of fantastic fables, but the relationship is very real, as is their love for one another.
When Jordan was a baby he sat on top of me much as a fly rests on a hill of dung. And I nourished him as a hill of dung nourishes a fly, and when he had eaten his fill he left me.
I should have named him after a stagnant pond and then I could have kept him, but I named him after a river and in the flood-tide he slipped away.

That sense of impending loss and then the loss itself will be familiar to any mother. It is this relationship which anchors this book in reality. At times the book is close to the fantasies of Rabelais, but the relationship pulls us back to reality.

The Dog Woman has to be one of the great creations of English literature - a giant of a woman, a bawdy, unapologetic murderess (there is no person dead at my hand who would be better off alive), but capable of tenderness towards the son she pulled from the River Thames as a baby. In the form of the Dog Woman Winterson turns the image of womanhood on its head and Dog Woman is still a woman. She is an active supporter of Charles I and sets about murdering Puritans, collecting their eyeballs, which she gives to her dogs, and their teeth, which end up in her watercress bed. It seems strange that such a rebel should support the king, but the author makes it clear that it is the Puritans' hatred towards the body and sexuality (and therefore of women) that the Dog Woman is fighting.

The other main narrator is Jordan. He is a poetic dreamer. His narration contrasts with the Dog Woman's earthiness in its fantasy and his retelling of fairytales. At the core of his narration is an interpretation of the Grimm Brothers' tale The Dancing Shoes. I found the section in which each of the twelve dancing princesses tells her story in a single page very powerful indeed. Far from being an interlude, it acts as an magnifying glass to the themes in the book. It is an excellent example of the use of fairytale in fiction. 

Jordan leaves his mother to search for foreign worlds and their treasures, and to seek Fortunata, one of the dancing princesses. He finds her, but she will not return with him, thus allowing Jordan to remain the romantic rather than face the disappointment of married life, as narrated by the princesses. Jordan is always a seeker and admits that he is seeking himself: I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me.

The author has written that the book is a cross-time novel moving through time, but also operating outside it. The book opens with the following: The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist. What does this say about time? And there certainly is a timelessness about the book. Nevertheless the Dog Woman and Jordan live in a well-drawn 17th century London, with the sights and smells (particularly the smells) of the time. I have written elsewhere of the use of magic realism in the portrayal of history. As Winterson says on her website: the past is strange.... There are as many narratives as there are guesses and this work is a good example of historic magic realism. For me the last part of the book, where the novel shifts its basis in time to the modern albeit with echoes of the past, doesn't work as well. I understand what the writer is trying to do, but it feels an add-on. Or maybe it's just that I am more interested in the Woman and her son.

So let us end with their relationship. One of the sadnesses in the book is the lack of articulation of their love and the misunderstanding this produces. Jordan says: I want to be like my rip-roaring mother, who cares nothing for how she looks, only for what she does. She has never been in love, no, and never wanted to be either. She is self-sufficient and without self-doubt…. I think she loves me but I don’t know. She wouldn’t say so, perhaps she doesn’t know herself. But we are party to the Dog Woman's thoughts:  I wanted to tell him things, to tell him I loved him and how much I’d missed him, but thirteen years of words were fighting in my throat and I couldn’t get any of them out. There was too much to say and so I said nothing. Now that is a situation which is truly timeless.

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Wednesday 3 April 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions.
Goodreads description

What if we had a chance to do it again and again... until we finally got it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful? As a historian I often ask my self "what if "- it's the basis of alternative history novels. What if Hitler had been assassinated? What if the authorities had heeded the warnings of Pearl Harbor? On a personal level we take decisions every day, which could result in catastrophic outcomes for us or others, e.g. whether to cross a road. Kate Atkinson's latest book explores this brilliantly. Ursula dies and is born repeatedly throughout the novel. As a writer I constantly play with alternative outcomes with my plots and so I wondered whether Kate Atkinson was inspired by the writing process to do the same, but in a recent BBC interview she says not.

The recurrent death and rebirth theme changed how I reacted to the book. The first part of the book is made of many short chapters ending with the words Darkness fell indicating that Ursula has died again. I knew that Ursula would be reborn, so there wasn't the sense of engagement in Ursula's survival that there might have been. Instead I became interested in either how she would die this time or how she would evade death. And whilst I admired Atkinson's inventiveness, I found
the approach resulted in a detachment which worried me: it wasn't until the second third of the book that I really settled down and started to enjoy it.

The highlight for me was the section set in London during the Blitz. The approach absolutely fitted with the circumstances: in wartime London death was random and frequent and women's experiences expanded beyond the home. Through Ursula's several wartime lives, we are able to explore those experiences and the fate of more people than the heroine's - for example her younger brother Teddy. Atkinson doesn't pull any punches about the horrors of the Blitz - unidentifiable body parts shoveled up, a man who whose body came apart like a Christmas cracker. The repetition in this section takes on a poetic quality.

As an alternative to the Blitz story Atkinson places Ursula in Germany. This has two endings: in on Ursula shoots Hitler in 1930. This was the least credible storyline in the book. It appears at the beginning of the book, but isn't justified by what happens elsewhere and I think sets the reader off in the wrong direction. The other version of the story, in which Ursula is trapped in Berlin as it falls to the Russians, works well as a parallel to the story of the Blitz. 

Atkinson's writing is superb, at times poetic: Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
The strange repetitive structure allows the writer to tint descriptions of the mundane activities with added meaning, a foreshadowing of danger, something which is reflected in Ursula's increasing sense of deja vu. 

One of the things I loved about the book was Atkinson's portrayal of family life. It's good to read a book where the family members are normal, generally likeable people (with one exception). I would have liked to know more about Sylvie, Ursula's mother, and I am not surprised that Atkinson is considering writing a novel with Teddy as its central character.

So is this a magic realist book? If it weren't for Ursula's deja vu and her acting on it, then you could say the life after life approach was simply a literary device. But the deja vu introduces magic realism to the book and makes it better for that. There is an ambiguity within the book about the structure and central concept, which caused me problems when I tried to write this review. But ambiguity is central to magic realism and often causes problems for both the reader and the writer. 

Note: I received this book gratis from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review.