For months I’ve been acutely aware that I’ve neglected my blog. Why pay for a domain name and not post? Life seems to be so busy with family, volunteering and continuing to work part-time. Not to mention the prevarication brought on by just sitting at your laptop, reading emails and posts, responding to them and then uploading items that you think will interest others. What on earth happened to all the leisure time we were promised for the 21st century? Or perhaps it’s more a case of employing better time management skills.
Six months ago – I can’t believe we’re almost halfway through 2016 – I realised that I’d allowed myself to fall into some kind of semi-hibernation. Mum had been gone for well over eighteen months, and it seemed to be taking a long time to adapt to a life that didn’t involve worrying about, and caring for, her; a period spent constantly on tenterhooks, wondering when the next phone call would alert me of another fall, or an urgent summoning of the paramedics.
So, since the beginning of this year I have made attempts to get out more into the world, or more precisely to go to London, on my doorstep. Of course I’ve kept up with friends (well, to a certain extent) and continued with my volunteering, almost as if I need to care for others as I no longer have mum. But I’ve also made a point of visiting more galleries and exhibitions, especially when I realised that I was paying annually for my Arts Pass card, but never using it and therefore not saving myself the money that I could. I’ve got partially involved with a theatre going group, so am able to see plays about once a month, and now actually have others to chat to during the intervals. But I’ve also managed to get myself back into reading: my first and forever love. If I’d never acquired a passion for reading I would never have improved my own writing skills.
Currently I’m working my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. With only about 100 pages to go before I finish the final book, The Story of the Lost Child, I’m in an ambivalent state. I can’t wait to get to the conclusion, but will also feel bereft to have reached the end of a saga, spanning some five decades, that examines the friendship of two young girls as they grow and mature into older women, as well as painting a broad sweep of Neapolitan life with its background of politics and social change.
So the evolving Sandra is now going out to meet one of her daughter’s for a bite to eat, and will then be attending a thank you party for one of her volunteering groups. I promise to come back very, very soon.
I’ve never ready anything by Maggie O’Farrell before, but tend to find myself drawn to contemporary Irish literature. O’Farrell was brought up in Wales and now lives in Scotland, but she draws on her Irish roots in introducing us to the family in Instructions for a Heatwave.
The Riordans live in London, where they have raised their three now adult children. The novel begins very precisely on 15 July 1976 with the announcement of the Drought Act of that year. The weather had remained exceptionally dry over the previous twelve months, but the above average temperatures that began in June of that year, prompted the government to introduce the Act referred to above, and to appoint a Minister for Drought, Denis Howell.
The novel begins with Gretta, the family’s matriarch, making the same soda bread that she has prepared three times a week throughout her married life. The precision with which she bakes the family loaf echoes the precise elements of the Drought Act. But on this July day her life will change: her husband Robert leaves to buy a newspaper and does not return. Her search for Robert means that she will have to get in touch with each of her children and enlist their help in tracing their father.
O’Farrell teases out the tensions between the siblings. There is Michael Francis, a schoolteacher with marital problems who never completed his PhD; Monica, stepmother to Peter’s young daughters and harbouring a painful secret; and Aiofe, the youngest daughter (whose pregnancy has impacted on Gretta’s health) trying to conceal a skeleton within her own cupboard. With all these buried secrets is it no wonder that Robert’s disappearance will lead to the uncovering of even more hidden truths?
The need to for Gretta to contact her children forces her to confront the past and provides O’Farrell with the perfect opportunity to fill in the younger Riordans back stories. She takes the siblings back to shared events in their childhoods and to episodes from their adult lives and enables us to build up their psychological backgrounds and to learn how their lives impact on the family and on each other. We all come with our own baggage, and the Riordan children are no exception. All three are forced to face the past and mend bridges, both within and without their immediate families. Gretta too, pieces together what has happened to Robert and travels back to Ireland with her offspring and grandchildren to reveal a deeply buried truth.
O’Farrell will seduce you with her prose, force you to turn the pages to reach the conclusion, and make you empathise with the problems and dilemmas encountered by the Riordans, a truly modern family with its fractures and reconciliations.
Penelope Lively has long been one of my favourite contemporary writers. Once more she plays with the idea of memory in a novel that is not linear, but jumps around in just the same way that we remember the past.
Family Album is the story of a large middle class family and is told through the eyes of the parents, and the six children, who are all adults when the novel starts. What appears to be an ideal existence in a large and rambling home, Allersmead, actually turns out to be anything but. There is a skeleton in the family cupboard, and it gradually becomes apparent that it is known and acknowledged, although never explicitly acknowledged by the parents.
It’s often stated that a family that eats together, stays together. But this is not the case and the novel ends with the siblings widely scattered and keeping in touch by email. Thus a tale that starts slowly and that expands gradually, is reduced to the shortened messages conveyed through hyperspace.
Penelope Lively again proves that scratching the surface reveals that things are never quite what they seem, and that we don’t all take away the same impressions from shared experiences.
It was difficult to read this novel without a growing sense of foreboding. The very title can mean retribution, or it can also mean an enemy in North American usage. The very ambiguity of the interpretation of the title feeds into Bucky’s feelings of guilt and makes the reader question why Bucky feels he must shoulder so much blame for the polio epidemic that is raging through New Jersey while World War II is being fought in Europe and the Pacific. Is he really an agent of doom, or can he never forgive himself for not being fit enough to fight in the armed services? Bucky can run, but he can’t hide. The novel also questions the existence of a cruel or a caring God and leaves you feeling unsettled and angry and upset for Bucky, the life thrust upon him, and the choices he has made.