All posts in the Books category

Review of A Bit on the Side by William Trevor

Published 03/09/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Reading William Trevor is like coming back home to a warm fire and a pair of comfy slippers. He is a gifted story-teller, especially of short stories; less is more. He crafts his characters, both physically and psychologically, and their emotions, using the fewest number of words possible. He moves easily from Ireland to England, but his turns of phrase and use of idioms and vernacular leave the reader in no doubt where each story is set. In stories like ‘Justina’s Priest’ he has no need to explain that she is backward; he has already made that clear to the reader without needing to spell it out. You find yourself under the skins of many of the characters, sometimes they arouse sympathy, sometimes annoyance and sometimes just pity. But the effect, as with many of his other stories, both short and long, is of a modern day Chekhov. You experience an ache and a longing for what has been missed or what could have been avoided.

Review of The South by Colm Toibin

Published 28/08/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

<a href=”; style=”float: left; padding-right: 20px”><img alt=”The South” border=”0″ src=”; /></a><a href=””>The South</a> by <a href=””>Colm Tóibín</a><br/>
My rating: <a href=”″>5 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
I read my first Colm Toibin novel (Brooklyn) a few months ago and am a complete convert.  The South was his first published fictional novel and he shows many of the concerns of his later work in this earlier one.  There is a female protagonist, there are life changes, displacements and moves away from, and back to, home.  Enniscorthy features again and helps Katherine Proctor reach conclusions about her life, as well as being a place where she renews relationships.  Katherine travels, physically and metaphorically, between Spain and Ireland as she travels through her adult years.  She develops and matures, learns insights and suffers loss, but Toibin never judges her.  He deftly paints her and her surroundings, as she too takes up art.  He is more of a water colourist than an oil painter, but he writes deftly and precisely, getting under your skin and leaving lasting imagery with you.
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The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Published 20/08/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I have to admit that Helen Dunmore can do no wrong where I’m concerned. The Betrayal picks up on the story of Andrei and Anna in post-war Stalinist Leningrad. I was impressed by the way Dunmore worked the earlier novel, The Siege, and her evocation of the sensations of hunger and cold that formed the background to Leningrad during the siege of 1941/2, and this later tale is equally impressive.

The reader is sucked into the story of the young couple, and those around them. I found myself reading the book as if I were also waiting for that dreaded knock on the door. The fear and tension are palpable, as are the feelings of living under a totalitarian regime, where people can be arrested and accused of non-existent crimes merely because of the delusions of a paranoid dictator and the machine that grinds away under his wheels. It’s a story that makes you care desperately about the characters it depicts, even the less sympathetic ones, as you’re aware that everybody is a victim, even those who appear to wield power.

Dunmore researches and writes meticulously; you will feel as if you are in cold war Russia, struggling to survive and maintain your dignity.



The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Published 22/07/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

The Enchanted April (Virago Modern Classics)The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a find! If a friend hadn’t invited me to join Bright Young Things I would never have come across Elizabeth Von Arnim or The Enchanted April. Such a delightful early twentieth century fairy tale of the change that comes over four women who decide to share a medieval castle on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. New love is discovered, marriages are repaired, the gardens change as the weeks advance and everybody has an enchanted month away from England. Nearly a hundred years ago women didn’t have the independence and autonomy that we take for granted, but they have the capacity to be happy, and that is what is so heartwarming about this clever, witty novel.

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How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Published 05/07/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

<a href=”; style=”float: left; padding-right: 20px”><img alt=”How To Be a Woman” border=”0″ src=”; /></a><a href=””>How To Be a Woman</a> by <a href=””>Caitlin Moran</a><br/>
My rating: <a href=”″>4 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
Every woman I’ve spoken to recently knows about this and is either reading it or has put it on their list.  Caitlin Moran (who makes a point of mis-pronouncing her own first name) runs through a whole list of topics, the sort of things that most women discuss amongst themselves.  She begins as an overweight teenager and works through various rites of passage: pubic hair, and what to do with it, menstruation, masturbation, sex, love, marriage, childbirth and abortion.  On the way she also engages with pornography and striptease, the differences between men and women and our attitude to ‘celebs’.  Her style is lively, intimate and chatty (although the screaming upper case letters do tend to annoy) and she makes many interesting points without writing a polemical novel.  In fact this is not really a novel, more a mixture of memoir and observational comedy.  She would make a very good stand up commedienne (perhaps that should be comedian if I’m writing from a feminist point of view) or after dinner speaker.  I was almost rofling (her style is catching) at her description of waxed female porn stars: ‘it’s all hairless down there: close-ups are like watching one of the Mitchell brothers, with no eyes, eating a very large, fidgety sausage.'<br/><br/>This is a book that every woman, from eight to eighty, should read.  It should also remind you that you don’t need to hate men to be a feminist; you just need to believe in the female sex and that we should have exactly the same opportunities as men.
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The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Published 27/06/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

The HoursThe Hours by Michael Cunningham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is far superior to the film it inspired. Michael Cunningham interweaves the stories of three women: Virginia Woolf’s initial attempts to write ‘Mrs Dalloway’, Clarissa (‘Dalloway’) Vaughan as she prepares for a party to celebrate a literary prize awarded to a former lover, and Laura Brown, who is trying to arrange a birthday party for her husband, but who is finding difficulty concentrating on the baking and cooking as she is absorbed in reading ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

Cunningham’s novel is a kind of homage to Woolf’s novel. He develops and embroiders her plot and ideas, but the reader (if he/she has read Woolf’s original) cannot fail to recognise the echoes and the parallels. The time scale, the parties being organised, similarities in the plots, in the names of some of the characters and in some of the themes. He inhabits the psychology of the three women, just as Woolf does with Clarissa Dalloway, and writes in a similar style, including the use of parenthetical brackets. Above all, the three protagonists are examined over the course of one day with ample descriptions of cityscapes as they walk the streets of New York and Richmond, just as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway walks through London.

The three tales interconnect and weave seamlessly and leave the reader with a strong feeling of satisfied enjoyment. I’m tempted to return to Woolf’s original tale to remind myself of Cunningham’s literary skill.

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August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien

Published 12/06/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

August Is a Wicked MonthAugust Is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read anything by Edna O’Brien for a long time, but still have fond memories of the Country Girls trilogy.

August is a Wicked Month was written in 1965 and may seem rather dated now. Ellen has left behind her life in Ireland (repression, Catholicism and Magdalen Laundries) and now lives in ‘Swinging London’. With no commitment forthcoming from her latest lover, she books her first visit to the South of France and yearns ‘to be free and young and naked with all the men in the world making love to her, all at once.’ However her dreams for her holiday don’t turn out at all how she imagines them. August is a wicked month for her in several ways.

O’Brien’s style is often languid and sensual, inviting the reader to share in the senses and sensations of her protagonist. Ellen is adrift where she doesn’t quite belong and often wants to return home to Ireland, rather than to England. She arrives back in London ‘not happy, not unhappy’ to face ‘a cool and lovely autumn’ that will contrast with the five sizzling days suffered by Londonders during August.

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Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Published 21/02/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I was struck by the parallels between Ireland in the 1950s and life in Eire as it is today. In the novel Eilish Lacey has to leave Enniscorthy to find work in New York and sixty years later many Irish people are again leaving their homes and looking for employment abroad.

In many ways this is a novel of the different journeys made by Eilish. There is the transatlantic crossing made under stormy conditions when she is even locked out of the bathroom and is reduced to vomiting in her cabin. She travels away from her family and her roots, realising as she does so that her older sister, Rose, has sacrificed her own future so that Eilish can have the opportunity to better herself. In Brooklyn she overcomes homesickness by studying bookkeeping at evening classes in order to improve her prospects. She also meets, and falls in love with, Tony, a young Italian. However, when a sudden death in the family necessitates her return to her home town she learns the pain of grief and finally has to make a choice so difficult that she tries to ‘imagine nothing more’.

The writer is sympathetic to his heroine but conveys her faults as well as her good points. When she goes to the dance in the church hall with Dolores, the newest resident of Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house, the other girl informs her that she is the only fellow lodger who is not a bitch, yet Eilish makes a point of ditching her once she has met Tony and spent the evening with him.

Brooklyn is beautifully imagined by Tóibín and evoked from Eilish’s perspective. Dislocation is one of its main themes, but through this trope the protagonist is able to mature into an independent young woman. Despite this, small town Ireland is never far away; whether in her Brooklyn boarding house, peopled by other émigrés or those of Irish descent; at the dances run by her local church; and finally the options open to her when she returns to Enniscorthy. The novel is deftly written. We share Eilish’s experiences and feelings, urging her to follow her heart, although we know that there will be those that suffer and others that gain in the long run. I didn’t want to put it down, but neither did I want to reach the last page.

Margaret Drabble: The Seven Sisters

Published 11/02/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

More than thirty years ago I was an avid reader of Margaret Drabble novels, but have neglected her of late.  We’ve both grown older and the contents of her earlier novels, written as a young woman, have been displaced by the concerns of older women.

Candida Wilton, the sometime narrator of The Seven Sisters is adjusting to life in London as a recent divorcée.  Not only is she getting to grips with life as a newly single woman, but she has also bought herself a ‘modern laptop machine’ into which she regularly types her diary.

Moving to Ladbroke Grove from rural Suffolk involves her in joining the health club that has replaced the evening classes where she had started to study Virgil.  She gathers up friends in her new neighbourhood and adds them to those from her schooldays and her time in Suffolk as wife to the headmaster of a boarding school.  She very slowly grows in confidence and eventually (after a windfall) organises a trip to Tunis and Italy to retrace Aeneas’s steps in the Aenied.  Her novel switches from confessional diary through third person narration of the journey to the Mediterranean, and then switches abruptly to a section narrated by her eldest daughter.  We learn later that this is Candida herself, trying to focalise her own life (and fictitious death) through her daughter’s eyes.  The final section of the novel returns to the diary form as the narrator attempts self –analysis using the perspective of her daughter, Ellen.

This novel should be required reading for all women of a certain age.  Drabble’s narrator is a deft observer of the life around her, but more than that, she is a reminder that we are never too old.  Candida manages to adapt to life as a divorced older woman, to (partly) come to grips with modern technology, she keeps fit at her health club, makes new friendships and travels abroad.  She starts to rebuild relationships with her adult daughters and with men of her own age and ends on an optimistic stance: ‘I am filled with expectation.’  She has travelled a long way from the hesitant woman who stated on the book’s first page that ‘Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again.’

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Published 04/02/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Sarah Waters moves away from lesbian literature for this novel, in which she assumes a male persona, writing as Dr Faraday, a Midlands GP, in the period between the end of World War II and the setting up of the National Health Service.  It’s difficult to place this latest work in any particular genre as it fits several: love story, ghost story, gothic novel or state of  Britain tale meditating on the changes to class and society.

The research taken for the period is meticulous and encompasses the clothes worn in the late 1940s, the concerns for the soon to be born NHS and his unheated carThis leads to an overall sense of the time in which the novel is set and takes us back to a post-war Britain experiencing one of its largest seismic shift in respect of the crumbling upper classes and the demise of the servant classes.  Dr Faraday conveys an acute awareness of his own class and juxtaposes his mother’s former employment as a nurserymaid at Hundreds Hall with her employers, the higher born Ayres family, the current incumbents of the decaying Hundreds.  His first person narration is somewhat unreliably skewed through his perspective and leads to the question of whether he intends to repair his own working class background by proposing marriage to Caroline.

Not only does Water juxtapose the classes in her novel, but she names her narrator as Dr Faraday.  It’s not enough to have a doctor relating what appear to be supernatural occurences, but she puts us in mind of Michael Faraday, the person we consider responsible for the discovery of electricity; it’s interesting that the narrator of the novel uses electrical therapy to treat Roderick’s wasted muscles.  However, the trope of using a scientist to relate a story that supposedly deals with ghosts and poltergeist phenomena is an interesting one as it leaves us as arbiters.  Is Hundreds really possessed by the spirit of the dead child, Susan; are the family members mad or is Dr Faraday the agent of the supernatural occurrences?

Is the novel a metaphor for the changes to society that the Ayres were unable to accommodate, or is it a gothic exploration of England in the middle of the twentieth century?  Fears of change have been used to examine and interrogate England in the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries.  Why can’t this do the same job although retrospectively?