Wednesday 26 November 2014

When Rosa Came Home by Karen Wyld

When they open the door for their wayward daughter, Rosa's parents are not prepared for who else turns up at the Ambrosio family vineyard.

....the spirit of a poet, nurses who crochet magical rugs, a beautiful bearded lady, elephants from the dreamscape, a m├ędecin sans medicine and his dancing python, a jealous stable-hand, acrobatic pirates of the dark web, a sleeping beauty with a secret or two, and a young girl who longs for a new sister....

Angelita Ambrosio narrates the stories of her secret sister’s time on the road, and yearns for adventures of her own. Amid precious tales, graciously shared by Rosa's eclectic friends, a fractured family is reunited.

Not everyone is pleased to see Rosa return - peril lurks in dark places. Fear not: with a sprinkling of cosmic dust, a cloud of sawdust and a touch of magic, a new dawn will bloom - now that Rosa has come home.

Goodreads description

Karen Wyld is a fellow writer on the Magic Realist Books Facebook Group and I was keen to read her new book, having seen her contributions to the group and the Magic Realism Blog Hop. I was not disappointed - the book is delightful. 

The narrator is Angelita, a bright child who used to sing like an angel but who has become mute. The choice of this narrator provides both opportunities and challenges for the author (and therefore the reader). Angelita's muteness makes her the perfect listener, making her at times invisible to the adults around her and also meaning that they confide in her. As a succession of visitors to the sleeping Rosa reveal aspects of her life, the child listens and tries to piece together what happened to make Rosa leave and what she did afterwards. In this Angelita acts for the reader, but Angelita is a child so she is limited as an intermediary. 

Angelita's childish innocence means that she doesn't always understand the significance of what she is hearing. Angelita believes that everything will turn out for the best, that Rosa will wake up, that the book's one antagonist will not hurt her. There is the opportunity here for the writer to use more dramatic irony to increase tension with the adult reader seeing potential danger, however the author seems to back away from doing so. 

Over on my writer's blog, prompted by reading this book, I talk about some of the issues around using first-person narration. A lot happens off-screen in this novel. Most of the time that is part of the book's charm, but it felt unsatisfactory towards the end. I wanted to know more. It does seem to me that Karen painted herself into a bit of a corner by her choice of first-person narration.

The book has many strengths. There are some beautiful descriptions of a child's world in which magic really does exist and of the fascinating and fantastical beings that enter it. I particularly enjoyed the way that all Angelita's senses feature in those descriptions. The author draws on many traditions - myths, fairytales and of course magic realism. The realism lies in the family and sexual relationships that are revealed through the course of the book. Despite this realism there is a charming gentleness about When Rosa Came Home, a gentleness that stems from its exceptionally well-drawn narrator.

This is a lovely debut from a highly talented writer. I look forward to reading her next book.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Berta La Larga by Cuca Canals

Berta, born under a rainbow, has special gifts. And she is very, very tall. Depressed by her height, she has grown into a quiet, introverted girl. However, at 16 she falls in love with a very tall postman and finds that her moods have an amazing effect on the weather and just about everything else.
Goodreads description

My regular readers may have noticed I missed a review last week. You may also have noticed that I am now reviewing a book that was not scheduled until December. The reason for both is that my mother-in-law died a few weeks ago and my plans have had to change. As a result I am not in the Czech Republic where the books for November are sitting on a bookshelf awaiting my arrival (now scheduled for January).  In addition I don't feel I can give last week's planned book Of Bees and Mist a fair review, as the antagonist in that book is a totally evil mother-in-law.  I think I would have found this a problem had I not been mourning the death of a lovely lady, but as I was the problem was insurmountable. 

So I have been reading Berta La Larga instead. The comparison with Of Bees and Mist couldn't be greater. Human beings are shown lovingly with their aspirations, their faults and their strengths. The book focuses on the life of a small village in the middle of nowhere and its people's rivalry with the inhabitants of a neighbouring village. Berta falls in love with Jonas, the postman from that other village, and so the scene for a Romeo and Juliet story is set.  But this is no tragedy. The story, even though some of the main characters die during the course of the war between the two villages, is often humorous.

Canals draws a picture of a very real village in which magical things happen, but people don't always realize - contrary to the Goodreads description no one links the weather to Berta's moods, not even Berta herself.  The portraits of the various village characters and their petty squabbles - from the old woman who keeps everyone awake with her singing, the mayor's wife who never stops talking, the priest with very attractive legs and even the donkey - will all be familiar to anyone living in a small community. I was reminded of Clochemerle. Canals' style is witty and light of touch. The narrative is interspersed with comical illustrations, such as a picture of Berta's body with pointing hands indicating which parts which Jonas is allowed to touch and which not, and ends with a series of amusing appendices, which had me giggling.  

This is a delightful book, clever in its simplicity.  

Wednesday 5 November 2014

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Growing up in Edwardian south London, Alice Rowlands longs for romance and excitement, for a release from a life that is dreary, restrictive and lonely. Her father, a vet, is harsh and domineering; his new girlfriend brash and lascivious. Alice seeks refuge in memories and fantasies, in her rapturous longing for Nicholas, a handsome young sailor, and in the blossoming of what she perceives as her occult powers. A series of strange events unfolds that leads her, dressed in bridal white, to a scene of ecstatic triumph and disaster among the crowds on Clapham Common. The Vet's Daughter is a uniquely vivid, witty and touching story of love and mystery.

Goodreads description

I hadn't planned to read (and review) The Vet's Daughter this week, but I found it in a bookshop and started reading it in the cafe. I was so impressed by this book and the author's ability that I had to continue reading to the end. 

The first thing that impressed me was the faultless use of first-person narrative in the book. This is a tremendously difficult thing to do at the best of times, but to do this when the narrator is a naive young woman is extremely hard, and yet Comyns never allows Alice to know more or have more spirit than is appropriate. We readers glimpse what lies beneath and watch with horror as we see, as Alice can not, what certain developments might signify.  Not everything is explained, but that is because not everything is shown to Alice. 

The book was published in the Virago Modern Classics series and is a devastating study of the appalling and powerless position of women in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Sadly it could be the tale of many women in many parts of the world now. Both Alice and her mother are trapped in their dreary home with Alice's tyrannical father. Alice's description of her mother early in the book is haunting:  
Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.  

This fascinating book was first published in 1959 (before the arrival of magic realism in  British mainstream fiction). We are now used to the likes of Alice Hoffman using magic realism in modern contexts, but that was not the case then. The book was therefore ahead of its time. At the same time it looks back at the golden age of English 19th century literature. There is something Gothic about the book and the portrayal of the monstrous father. Many of the other characters verge on the grotesque in a way that reminded me of those of Dickens. 

One would like Alice to escape and gain happiness. And for a time the levitational powers that are the magic realist element in the book do give Alice an opportunity to control something in her life. But in the end they become a tool for her father to gain money. This may be a modern fairytale, but it doesn't come with a happy ending. If you want to identify with the central character you will have problems. This is feminist magic realism, but the magic does not empower and the realism accurately portrays Alice as a young woman of her time.