The Summer Before The War, Helen Simonson: DNF

The stone terrace already looked older than the house, softened to a pleasant mossy gray under the relentless dripping of English rain, its stone balusters pressed by fat shrubs and draped in twisting vines of honeysuckle, wisteria, and the teacup-sized pale green flowers of a clematis. White roses climbed up the house from beds filled with brilliant blue agapanthus. Beatrice stooped to cup in her hands a waxy blue flower head as large as a hat and to wonder if plants ever sensed how far they were from home . . . Beyond the terrace, a croquet lawn fell away on its farthest edge to a lower terrace of rolling grass . . . Below, the stacked red roofs of Rye poked up from its flat skirt of marshes, and beyond, the sea formed a broad, glittering swath under the wide blue bowl of the sky.

I definitely did NOT think that I would be DNF-ing The Summer Before The War. So certain was I of this that I kept reading, and persisting, and pushing through till I ended up finishing 267 of the 473 pages. It was at this point that I realized I had way too many other books that I actually looked forward to picking up!

I’m not completely sure why I’m DNF-ing this. I remember enjoying Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and have been thinking about re-reading it at some point. This one has a small town as its setting, and has the kind of microscopic focus that I generally enjoy—lives of ordinary people with all its complexities, and ordinariness. This is also a kind-of-coming-into-her-own story of a 23-year-old female who chooses independence over marriage in Edwardian England.

That Beatrice, the 23-year-old, is going to fall in love with Hugh, and he with her, is obvious from the start. That Daniel, Hugh’s cousin is gay, and will most likely meet some sort of heartache is also obvious. I don’t have a problem with predictability. If anything, I like knowing the lay of the land. But in this case, the predictability made the story boring.

The Summer Before The WarAgatha Kent is Hugh’s and Daniel’s aunt, and is along with Beatrice, Hugh, and Daniel, one of the epicenters of the story. She’s the one who gets Beatrice appointed as the Latin teacher in the local school amidst much uproar. She’s a progressive but is not given to crossing boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. She’s also a veteran at navigating the waters of social niceties and its inherent politics and power struggles.

Hugh is a nice young man, and Daniel is a temperamental poet. Agatha’s characterization is compelling but she’s flat as a character. She has the potential to be interesting as when she is “forced to consider whether her sympathetic interest in her staff’s families might have more to do with appearing generous than any willingness to be inconvenienced by their actual problems,” but such bursts of realizations are few and far between.

Beatrice’s character shows promise, and one can see the way she is evolving through the course of the story. Her uneasy alliance with Mr. Poot who’s a sort-of-adversary, and in fact the revelation of Mr. Poot as not just a character inserted for the purposes of foiling Beatrice’s appointment as a teacher, but as one who while sort of flailing around, is also a person in his own right, caught my attention. However, Beatrice gets only a part of the limelight. (And Mr. Poot is there in just a scene or two).

Writing this, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I could not find myself sufficiently engrossed in The Summer Before The War is because of what-felt-to-me the lack of any development in three of the four major characters. They remain at Page 267 pretty much as they were at page 1.

I do want to point that there’s some good stuff in there too. Simonson’s especially skilled at capturing both the rhythms of a small town life, and at evoking the Englishness of her setting. There’s also bits and pieces about war and its paraphernalia that provide some food for thought (and that may perhaps increase in the second half of the book, now that the stage’s been set). Nonetheless, I’m happy with my decision to DNF this, and instead proceed with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Middlemarch and maybe also All The Birds In The Sky!

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn is set in the same world as Pride and Prejudice but the story it tells is a very different one. We get to know the “downstairs” in Longbourn but this is not just a “downstairs” story. Longbourn is a story about another side of Pride and Prejudice—another side of Longbourn, another side of Mr. Bennet, another side of the sisters, Hill the housekeeper, and even another side of Mrs. Bennet, and Mr. Collins. There’s a sense of the characters being fleshed out more fully, and of Jo Baker bringing to light another dimension of these well-known characters.

longbourn jo bakerSarah is the heroine in our narrative and is one of the two house maids in the Bennet’s employ. She wonders why anyone would want another human being to be satisfied with the emptying of the chamber pot and the washing of other peoples’ underthings. She wants another life for herself, a life where she wasn’t “so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies.” She doesn’t want a life that’s a facsimile of those she serves; her dreams, her thoughts, her desires are all her own.

Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, is the other star around which Longbourn revolves. She is the one who keeps everything running smoothly. That she has far more sense than Mrs. Bennet is obvious. Contrast Mrs. Bennet’s joy at seeing Lydia married to Mrs. Hill’s reaction: “Mrs. Hill felt at once desperate for her, and furious: what a poor, poor bargain she had made of herself.” Life has given her a short shrift, and yet she finds it within her to be more forgiving of Mrs. Bennet than anyone else perhaps:

She was a wearying, anxious being, was Mrs. B.; she was always so eager to solicit interest in her sufferings. But if her husband had loved her as a husband should—contentedly, generously, and without reserve—would she then have found it necessary to keep on seeking proofs of love, only to keep on being disappointed?

Baker takes Austen’s characters and looks beyond the surface of who they are.

And so, Mr. Collins, instead of being a pompous fool, is shown to be just another nervous young man who’s eager to impress:

Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances natures and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him. And if he did not know the by-laws of the household, it was because nobody had told him; he was expected to intuit them, and then was blamed for his failure.

Baker does this again, and again. She shifts her perspective of the characters ever so slightly that it seems to be in keeping with who they are, and yet, it also presents them in an all new light—some appear more mellow than they originally had, while others make you wince at their casual thoughtlessness (Looking at you Jane, and Lizzie!). This was one of my favorite parts about Longbourn and it really drove home the point that perspective matters a lot in story-telling—change the lens and you might be telling an all together different story.

Longbourn details the drudgery of the life of the servants in the 19th century, and yet at no point did this make for a dismal read. One reason for this is the writing which is really lovely. Baker is a perfect example of a writer who believes in showing rather than telling, and nowhere is this more evident than in Mrs. Hill’s reveries which though emotionally sparse are brimming with meaning.

Here’s another example of what I mean—I love that anger makes Sarah “rearrange” herself:

Sarah was bristling now; she rolled her shoulders, planted her feet, rearranging herself.

And here is James’s discovery of being in love with Sarah (he’s a footman hired by the Bennets, and is the “hero”):

His thoughts lit in turn on the immediate causes—Netherfield’s being shut up, Ptolemy Bingley’s departure for London—and then bundled into a downhill helter-skelter, through the chances of her happiness, fears for her safety, the dangers of the world beyond, her ignorance of them; and then on into an image of this place without her, without a glare or shrug or roll of her eyes, without a glimpse of her slim figure slipping round a corner; without her unyielding, breathing flesh beside him in the room—to arrive at the shock of a full stop: he loved her.

And here’s a description of a noisy metropolis:

Despite her tiredeness, she could not sleep: the noise—the sheer depth of it, layer after layer of sound—cabs rattling along the street in front, drays rumbling down to the docks, cats fighting or mating in the alleyways, the creak of rope from the wharves, a dog barking, a clock, and another clock, and another still more distant clock chiming out hour after hour of the night, into the darkness, as the Gardiners’ housemaid snored oblivious in her bed, and Sarah twisted and turned and tangled herself up in blankets that smelt of someone else.

Last one, of Mrs. Bennet:

Mrs. Bennet was not one to tiptoe around the edges of disaster, with one eye to the abyss and another to her own comportment: she plunged headlong in, and as she fell, took pains to enumerate of the discomfort and the inconveniences of the fall.

Jo Baker’s tale overlaps with Austen’s account of the Bennets but in Baker’s own words, “it inhabits a very different world.” I’m glad that this rendition of that account exists as well.

Sophie and the Sybil: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker

sophie and the sybil50 pages into Sophie and the Sybil: A Victorian Romance I decided to DNF it. It was way too erudite for me, chock full of references to Greek (or was it Roman?) statesmen and philosophers and people of yore whom I’ve no clue about. (An aside: Greek/Roman mythology and history bores me. . . maybe because there’s only so much headspace that can be devoted to gods and kings and mine is already in the clutches of the Indian pantheon whom I was weaned on) Anyway, deciding that this was more a book for folks with a “classical Western education,” I kept the book aside.

That is till the next day—when I googled the Lucian in the book who held everyone in thrall. And found out that I had been had in a major way. Because, guess what? There exists no Latin Lucian and no Professor Heinrich Klausner and no A Fragment Concerning the Origins of Early Christianity whose lengthy ruminations are read with deep fervor by the characters in the novel!

And so, now properly intrigued, I plunged into the story.

Let’s start with the Sybil of Sophie and the Sybil. She is none other than George Eliot—yes, the one and only, the late great Victorian authoress. Duncker’s Eliot is an interesting creature—charismatic, wise, warm, with just a hint of something about her that puts you on the edge. The thing is Patricia Duncker’s George Eliot is not really that simple. “Nothing could be more morally uplifting and improving than [Eliot’s] books,” to quote the Sophie of the title. “They are proof of her nobility, and the greatness of her soul,” she declares. But are Eliot the author, and Eliot the person, the one and very same asks Sophie’s creator.

On the one hand we experience the full weight of the Sybil’s personality, and are made to see that:

It was not just the generous freedom in her manners, nor her lack of affectation and the clarity of her gestures that formed the basis of her charisma, it was the passion of her attention that made her beautiful still.

On the other hand, Duncker also throws in enough twists in the plots to make the reader question the Sybil’s motives and wonder if she isn’t just an aging, old woman with a “craving for admiration and praise.”

The Sophie of the title is an eighteen-year-old countess born to and brought up in wealth and privilege. She’s boundless with energy, and adores Eliot (at least to begin with). The twists and turns that I mention above have her questioning her idol’s sagacity, and it is through her eyes, that we see the side of Sybil which makes her appear like a “witch” intent on devouring those who step into her circle.

Sandwiched between Sophie and the Sybil is feckless Max Duncker, the younger half of the Sybil’s German publisher (no relation to the actual author of the book!) Though he proposes to one, and marries the other, he understands neither. It is through his eyes that we experience the Sybil’s charm, and Sophie’s untrammeled vigor and thirst for life.

I’ll be honest here and mention that Duncker’s Eliot is not exactly likeable. If anything she comes across as gently menacing. I don’t have the sort of knowledge necessary to gauge the veracity of Duncker’s characterization—but it kind of doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because despite the dichotomy, and despite the clearly ambiguous relationship that she has with George Eliot, Patricia Duncker is unflinching in giving Eliot her due.

And so while the Sybil receives a missive from her “devoted publisher,” Blackwood, saying—

If you have any lighter pieces, written before the sense of what a great author should do for mankind came so strongly upon you, I should like much to look at them.

—the narrator also acknowledges that

Some say the Sibyl was fragile, insecure, lacking in confidence and self-esteem. But do frail and timid women decide to be atheists, challenge their fathers, refuse to go to church, educate themselves to an astonishingly high degree, run off to London, live abroad on their own, fling themselves at married men, beguile women too, and clearly enjoy doing so, edit distinguished literary journals, learn Hebrew, write fiction that will live for ever as long as we remember how to read, become rich and famous, and think for themselves?

Even though Duncker succeeds in making me contemplate Eliot the person with a vague dislike, she has made me really look forward to experiencing Eliot the author.

Emily Eden’s The Semi-Attached Couple

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first. Emily Eden is no Jane Austen, comparisons to her notwithstanding. Jane Austen could tell a story. Emily Eden cannot.

The eponymous couple of The Semi-Attached Couple are Helen, an 18-year-old, sheltered, gently reared, genteel young woman, and Teviot, who marries her at the start of the story.

Their marriage starts with an inauspicious misunderstanding. In fact, misunderstanding characterizes their relationship almost the whole way through. Teviot does not understand Helen and Helen does not understand Teviot. Teviot is jealous of Helen’s love for her family, and Helen is frightened by the intensity of Teviot’s feelings for her.

The Semi-Attached CoupleTheir relationship was the most boring part of the entire novel. They and their relationship was probably a product of their times (the book was written in 1829 though not published until 1860) but really, could they not just have sat down, and had a heart-to-heart to clear up their misconceptions about each other?

If we leave the couple of the the title out of this discussion, then the rest of the stuff is not that bad. In Emily Eden’s own words, The Semi-Attached Couple is a “curious picture of old-fashioned society,” and Eden does seem to have an eye for the going-ons of a certain class of people, and the paraphernalia of their lives.

One of my favorite scenes in the story is the one where Helen, Teviot, and the rest of their friends are guests-of-honor at the opening of a local bridge. Eden infuses the scene with just the right amount of humor as she describes the grandeur of the party’s procession and the cheerful mob that the procession leaves in its wake. She then turns her eye towards the festooning of both the new bridge, and “the mayor and mayoress and their goodly company,” and goes on to regale her readers with a description of the hiccups that the party faces as “the barricade [in front of the bridge] stood firm” as everyone struggled to remove the staves and declare the bridge as officially opened.

The genial air, and the chatty spirit with which the whole scene is sketched makes one feel as if one is reading a letter from an old friend. And this is what makes me want to try out Emily Eden’s collection of letters (rather than her second novel).

There are two characters in the story that I want to talk about.

Lady Portmore’s relentless posturing and maneuvering while wearing is also macabrely funny. Her utter inability to believe that she could be wrong in any sense of the word, and her astonishing dexterity at ushering in any and every situation with a triumphant prescience, no matter which end of the stick she might have been at, so to speak, in the beginning, is a marvel to behold.

Her amazing lack of self-awareness and at-times annoying, and at-times hilarious ability to believe that she’s always had the right of it reminded me of another champion of self-delusion.

michael scott gif

Who else but the one and only Michael Scott?

And of course, in my hunt for the perfect Michael Scott gif, I came across another quote which I heartily wish to fling at Lady Portmore:

Oh god. You’re awful. And you don’t even know how awful you are.

~ The Good Wife

Mrs. Douglas on the other hand is a nice mix of disdain and scorn, whose persecutions very naturally do not extend to her own family members—a sign of humanness that makes her slightly (but just) less annoying than Mrs. Portmore. For the general public however, her persnicketiness is steady, and never-ending, ready to be doled out at a moment’s notice. So great is her prowess that even when “in imminent peril of being forced to praise, [she] escaped with great adroitness.”

Let me end with this marvelous gossipy bit:

Never was the congregation so alert in standing up at the proper opportunities. Old Mr. Marlow, a martyr to the rheumatic gout, and Mrs. Greenland, who had, for two years, made her stiff knee an excuse for sitting down during the whole of the service, were both on their legs before the psalm was given out. The clerk, who had a passion for his own singing, saw his advantages, and gave out five verses of a hymn, with repetition of the last two lines of each verse. Seven verses and a half! But nobody thought it a note too long. . . .

It was a most satisfactory Sunday; and as most of them were addicted to the immoral practice of Sunday letter-writing, the observations of the morning were reduced to writing in the evening, and sent off to various parts of England on Monday morning.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I couldn’t help but feel the invisible authorial hand behind The Light Between Oceans. By which I mean that the story felt a tad too tidily plotted. The grief and the heartbreak were all in too much perfect proportion and with the correct justifications for me to not be aware of the writer behind the story.

Tom Sherbourne is the moral center of the story. A WW1 veteran, he and his wife Isabel live on the tiny island of Janus where Tom works as a lighthouse keeper (do those still exist?). The couple suffers three miscarriages before the ocean washes up a weeks-old baby onto their shore. You can sense can’t you, that things are bound to get complicated and messy for these people?

M.L. Stedman is really good at writing fully fleshed out characters. They hooked me in. It’s easy to foresee the plot twists and I could guess at the scars that the characters were on their way to accruing. I became interested in knowing what they would do with those scars.

Tom’s desire, to do right by his wife whom he loves more than life itself, and by his conscience which he has come about through the horrors of a war, and the conflict between the two causes the tension in the story, and moves the plot forward.

Apart from the characters the other thing that Stedman does really well is the highly atmospheric setting. It is the late 1920s and the action flits between Janus, and a small port town, Partageuese, on the coast of Western Australia. The isolation of a strip of land in the middle of nowhere is captured perfectly. Here’s how Janus is described:

[L]inked only by the store boat four times a year, [Janus] dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easily plummet to Antarctica.

And again:

On clear summer days, Janus seems to stretch up right to its tiptoes: you’d swear it’s higher out of the water at some times than at others, not just because of the rising and ebbing of tide.

Stedman switches between tenses quite a bit (as you can see above). Quite nifty, the technique is, as the present continuous use builds a sense of immediacy.

The writing is also lyrical at times. And was perhaps the third reason I kept reading. Yes, I do feel like I need to list the reasons why I kept reading because. . . while it’s a well-crafted story there’s nothing particularly special about it. Plus, there’s a movie coming out this year based on the book (speaking of the reasons why. . .).

So that’s what I think of The Light Between Oceans. Did you read it too?

A Fantasy, A Regency, and A Historical or Madames Elliott & Heyer and Monsieur Lawrence Norfolk

Yes people I’ve been reading. So without further ado—does anyone have a replacement for this phrase? Hosts introducing moderators, and moderators introducing the panel “without further ado” left, right and center in the World Science Festival has left me feeling a bit exhausted with this phrase—here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been upto reading-wise.

The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott

Oh how MUCH I love this one! It’s big, it’s complex, it’s meaty, it features two kick-ass heroines whose relationship forms the heart of the series and it also explores issues of free will.

I loved the romance that was explored in the series—I love how it’s allowed to simmer so that when things really come to a head between the two protagonists it feels so authentic, like a natural-next step for its two main leads. Then there’s the theme of ownership that was woven all the way through to the end of the story (with a plot twist that I hadn’t foreseen and that made me realize how I really SHOULD NOT jump to conclusions about others’ actions because I really DO NOT know the heart of their stories). I also really liked how one of the two main female characters was so kick-ass happy WITHOUT a strong, big hero in the offing. And I really liked how the ambiguous note that the series ends on politically reflects the one step forward, two steps backwards nature of sustainable, long-term changes in the real world (feudalism/capitalism/democracy/benevolent dictatorship and their ramifications are all discussed through the length of the story arc). And there’s a parallel Caribbean too! Oh just go get your hands on Cold Magic, the first in the series!

On Fantasy

So I went to the Fantasy panel with Deborah Harkness and Lev Grossman at BookCon on May 31. The thing that I like about both these authors is that their works straddle the real and the fantastical. Their magic skids along the edges of the world as we know it. And that apparently is, exactly the reason, why they write the sort of books that they do (rather than straight out fantasies like George R. Martin or Brandon Sanderson).

Grossman said that to him it’s not about the magic. He’s more interested in exploring how you live your life, and what you do with it, when you could conceivably have everything that you want at your finger-tips. For Deborah Harkness, magic is just another skill like being innately smart at studies or good at singing. In each case, how you feel about yourself as a person and your sense of self-worth is not a function of the skill you posses but more about what you think of and feel about yourself.

It was interesting to see some of my own thoughts about fantasy being reflected back to me by these two authors whose books I’ve enjoyed so much!

Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep

I really really enjoyed Black Sheep. I am NOT a fan of the rake to perfect husband trope and didn’t like Venetia, and These Old Shades, two other Heyer romances featuring a rake as a hero. The other two felt over-the-top to me whereas Black Sheep hit the sweet spot with both Miles and Abigail. This time around it also struck me that dialogue is Heyer’s tool of choice for fleshing out her characters. There are pages and pages of conversation between her characters with only a few words spared for the setting or descriptions of any sort.

I think that along with The Unknown Ajax Black Sheep has become one of my favourite Heyers. And now that I think of it both Miles and Hugh Daracott (the hero of The Unknown Ajax) are cut out of the same cloth.

Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast

If you love food and words, go grab the book! The setting is mid-17th century England. The plot is okayish. Indeed, the use of Christian zealot-ism as an integral part of the storyline is tedious. The characters are also nothing spectacular but they serve the purpose—the purpose being to devour the food–words that are dished up through the course of the story! The FOOD! Oh my! The description of the implements of cooking, the depth and breadth of the spices, the process of the ingredients being mixed up to serve utterly sumptuous feasts, the “recipe” that introduces each chapter, ALL of it had me salivating for more! The words are ornate, at times archaic (and I was really glad that I read this one on my iPad which made looking up the meaning easy), but always luxurious, especially the ones that have anything at all to do with food. The scenes that do feature food (and thankfully, there are a LOT of them as this is a story about a 17th century cook) are truly evocative. If you love cooking or eating, or perhaps enjoy both like me, then this is a book that you shouldn’t miss out on!