I seem to be having a bit of a novel spree at the moment, although Mt TBR has a nice big wodge of non-fiction coming up. If I’d thought about it, I could have alternated a bit. But I like reading my books in acquisition order, so I’ll leave that be. Two excellent novels in this update – not similar in subject or location, but both very much products of the locations in which they’re set.
Mary Webb – “The Golden Arrow”
(16 June 2012, Oxfam Bookshop, Oxford)
Mary Webb is the great novelist of Shropshire country life. Her books can seem a bit overwrought, with the small figures of the local folk struggling against blind fate and cruel destiny, the Bible and the seasons woven into their desperate lives. They’re quite easy to parody, forming, of course, the main source for Stella Gibbons’ “Cold Comfort Farm”. But I find Webb to be firmly on the Hardy end of the Hardy-Lawrence continuum of my liking. Certainly, there are heaving passions and dreadful encounters with grim Bible bashing elders, but her books have a psychological detail and impact that is impressive, and this, her first novel, has that in spades.
We meet Lily and Deborah, contemporaries but contrasted in every way possible – fair and dark, sex and love, surface and depth, respectively. For all their differences, they end up entering into parallel relationships, Lily with Deborah’s somewhat stolid brother, Joe, and Deborah with the exciting blond newcomer, Stephen. Ah, yes, the incomer in fiction – where would so many stories be without them. And here he is, breezing in, asking questions of Deb that he really ought not to ask, and showing his unsuitability from the very start by his nervousness and discomfort around nature (shades of Hardy and the attitudes to Egdon Heath in “The Return of the Native” here). Hearts are ready to break, and all this is played out against the slow turning of the seasons and the pull between the landscape symbols of the white cross-like signpost and the huge brooding outcrop that forms The Devil’s Chair, and against the love of families, and the traditions of countryside myth, magic and community.
Such an engaging book. It was a page-turner right to the end, setting up the rivalry between the two girls expertly and twisting the reader into a dread of something terrible and doomy which always seems to hover just around the corner. It’s a masterful portrayal of depression, too, although it’s never given this name, and of the love between parents and children. An absorbing, uncompromising read.
Ann Bridge – “Illyrian Spring”
(22 June 2012)
Lots of people I know had been raving about this one, and when I found out that it was set in Dalmatia, a part of what is now Croatia which I have visited and loved, I splashed out on the pretty newly reissued version (it’s done by Daunt Books but could quite easily be a Persephone or Virago). I was expecting it to be pretty darn near perfect, and really I can’t think of any criticism I could make of it. It’s charming and absorbing, with lovely characters but a moral and truth-seeking core that supports it well. We meet Grace, aged 42 and mother of three, fleeing in the 1930s from the family that has started to scare her and make her nervous. She feels that things might have gone irreparably wrong between her and both her husband and daughter (and in the former regard, a tiny chime of anti-Semitism made me wince early on and worry for my liking of the book, although it was brushed away by the author), and basically goes into hiding in Europe, moving from Venice to Split and then to Dubrovnik. Complicating matters somewhat, she falls in with a mysterious young man; while they are both painters, which is fine, a crisis soon arises which is only really resolved by a series of comical and charming coincidences which you can deliciously see coming from a fair way off. And the ending is nicely done, with some changes to the wife who Walter has grown comfortable with, some possible new blossomings of careers and romances, and some reassessments all round.
The modes of discourse are interestingly done, with Grace’s sections simply told, contrasted with her daughter’s slangy, bright letters to a friend and some curious interludes of Socratic discussion with a middle-aged German bachelor which are curiously reminiscent to me of some articles in a 1940s encyclopedia I have, in which a young brother and sister are instructed about the workings of electricity, the sewerage system, etc. (this is not to the novel’s detriment: it gave me a cosy feeling).
The sense of place is palpable. I didn’t much go for Dubrovnik when I visited – too touristy and it reminded me of nothing so much as Canterbury – but the descriptions of the city, the nearby villages, Split and Venice are beautifully done and hugely evocative. I was only slightly disappointed that they didn’t visit the coast and islands in between Split and Dubrovnik (the bits I know), but that is a very minor quibble.
A lovely, satisfying book, well worth the wait between purchase and reading, and well worth re-reading in the future. Thank you to all who recommended it to me!
Coming up I have the aforementioned non-fiction delights, including a reprint of the first year’s report of Mass Observation and one on Australian Olympic equestrianism. And have you noticed that these reviews were a bit more full than the ones I usually jot down? I’m going to try to be a little more expansive from now on (when I have the time) – do let me know if you like the new style. And a tiny plug: I have published my new book, Going It Alone at 40, all about my first year of self-employment. It’s available from all varieties of Amazon. I’ll be doing a big fancy launch once I have the cover image sorted out and a few reviews …
And of course, I’d love to know … what are you reading at the moment?