Two for the Reading a Century of Books here, and we’re very firmly in January 2014 acquisitions now, at least, so keeping up with myself (a bit). Two very different books again today: I can’t pretend that they have anything in common, one being a novel set in small-town Ireland and the other being a travel memoir and history book set in Australia!
Mary Lavin – “The House in Clewe Street”
(21 January 2014, birthday present from Laura)
A lovely old Penguin with a dust jacket, one of a group of books bought by my friend Laura to fill in gaps in the Century of Books, and doing that very well. I thought I had the author mixed up with someone else, as I was reminded of a very miserable book full of doom and abject poverty – when I checked my archives, there it was, “Mary O’Grady” by the same author, read back in 2008! This was a bit doomy, but only in a Hardyesque way rather than grinding poverty and misery.
It’s set in a small walled town in Ireland, and we meet three generations of the Coniffe family, and their neighbours, including the liminal Soraghan family (liminal in that they live on the edge of society and literally on the border of the town, right by the ramparts of the decaying town walls, and occupying temporary positions when people need them, then fading away when not needed). The Conliffes are apologetic New Money, thanks to Theodore’s property empire, but make sure they don’t show it off, and anyone going against the grain doesn’t have the best luck. Theodore has three daughters, and from one of them, the heir issues.
Gabriel tries to break free of the stifling life of the town, with convention and with the harsher family conventions, moving to Dublin to stay with his less conventional friend, the artist, Sylvester, whose ramshackle lodgings and group of friends provide both an uncritical background and the roots of a fall.
There’s an interesting sub-text to the book, although the Penguin edition doesn’t have an introduction and I couldn’t find much about it apart from a review from my friend Verity from when she was reading ALL the Viragoes (I don’t know if she managed that in the end – I certainly wouldn’t want to try!). But I couldn’t help noticing that going against convention left you pretty well chewed up in one way or another. The women in the book are doomed to flaring love, some kind of embarrassing, atypical childbirth experience and early death, or grim spinsterhood, the only alternative a sort of blowsy, grubby motherhood. It’s a pretty damning assessment of the paths that women can take and the traps that society places for both men and women.
It’s a good, solid read, and very enjoyable in the way that Hardy is enjoyable, with interesting but not often kind characters and a feeling of fate hanging over them.
Alice Thomson – “The Singing Line”
(BookCrossing 05 January 2014, picked off Gill’s pile before it could go on the cafe shelf)
More interesting than I thought it would be, this is the story of the man who installed the first telegraph line linking Adelaide to Darwin (and thus to Asia and Europe), and his wife, after whom Alice Springs was named. This chap was the author’s great-great-grandfather, and there’s been an Alice in every generation since his wife’s; this version pieces together her ancestors’ lives from archives in both the UK and Australia, and makes her own journey (with her husband) across the Australian interior, recounting the Victorian and modern-day struggles with the terrain, heat and lack of facilities.
The Aborigine question is addressed, not without resistance from the local population (it was interesting that we watched a programme on the TV that featured the Inuit of Northern Canada and their parallel path to distress via the colonialists at the same time I was finishing this book), and both the historical and modern stories are told well and with humour and modesty, benefitting from the author’s background as a journalist.
A good selection of pictures and maps and a good read overall.
I’m currently still reading “Through the Language Glass” (when I’m not working on that book on historical philology) and I’ve borrowed the final set of Hardy short stories and the middle volume of the Mary Hocking trilogy from Ali, both to hopefully read this month. I have some big books from the beginning of the TBR to look at when I have time and room, and then it’ll be almost time to hit the back shelf, leaving a little pile of Viragoes and Persephones for next month …