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Rites of Passage by William Golding

Why - it has become, perhaps, some kind of sea-story but a sea-story with never a tempest, no shipwreck, no sinking, no rescue at sea, no sight nor sound of an enemy, no thundering broadsides, heroism, prizes, gallant defences and heroic attacks!

Subconsciously, I'd imagine I was drawn to this because it's ostensibly a piece of naval fiction set in the early nineteenth century and there was a part of me still pining for all that (and if I'm honest, just to start reading The Terror all over again, but that would have been excessive). But this novel couldn't have been more different from Simmons'. For a start, and as my chosen quote suggests, very little actually happens here in terms of adventure and action. The story takes place onboard a rather aged and unnamed vessel, converted from a warship to a passenger vessel and now making the long and dangerous voyage from England to Australia. The voyage is already underway when the narrative begins and the novel ends before the ship arrives. Rather than high seas survival and derring-do, this is really a story about class tensions. Golding's protagonist is the priggish and snobbish Edmund Talbot, heading out to the colonies and a minor governmental position obtained for him by his godfather. The action is narrated as a series of entries in Edmund's journal which he intends his godfather one day to read. The book captures very effectively the minute sights, sounds and (often very unpleasant) smells of life on the waves. The close proximity of the ship's confines brings Edmund into close contact with people from all walks of life, from the pimp masquerading as a gentlemen, to the sickly families travelling in steerage and dreaming of a fresh start, through to the crew of the vessel itself, including its abrasive and avowedly unreligious captain. The main action concerns one newly frocked parson, the Rev. Colley, a very different sort of character from Talbot who suffers intensely as the ship slowly progresses.

As well as painting a very vivid picture of the painful conventions of the C19th class system, the novel deals with some major questions about the nature of faith and the power of shame. I have to say I found this pretty slow going and it took me a while to get through it, but once I finished it, the narrative - and particularly Golding's very powerfully realised characters - really stayed with me. Rites of Passage is the first part of a trilogy and though it does stand alone I think I will read the other two at some point. I don't feel a burning urgency to do this (the slowness of the long voyage somehow infects the narrative too) but I would like to find out what happens - or perhaps doesn't happen - to the unnamed ship and her passengers during the rest of their trip. A thought-provoking slow burner of a sea-story.

Childfree and Loving It! by Nicki DeFago

My choice to be childfree threatens people sometimes because it acknowledges a dark and hidden truth that our society cannot tolerate; namely that being a parent is not a nirvana for everybody. But saying these things - it's like confessing a dark secret.

My first bit of non-fiction for pleasure this year (boring library studies textbooks don't count). There are so many books out there aimed at prospective parents but not half so many that discuss the question of whether or not to become a parent in the first place. But I firmly believe this is a question that needs to be asked: a lot of people I know have fulfilled long standing ambitions by starting families in the last year or two and I'm genuinely happy and excited for all of them but this world is too overpopulated and there are too many unwanted children out there for anyone to have a kid just to bend to social norms. I believe that as far as possible all children should be genuinely wanted and welcomed. So this is an important book. Nicki DeFago is in no way a child hater, she just encourages women to think carefully about whether motherhood is really for them, and urges us to remember that there should be absolutely no shame in deciding it isn't because it's perfectly possible to lead a full and rewarding life without children of your own too. DeFago writes in a really chatty, friendly way and her book is stuffed with amusing anecdotes and facts. At times the diehard academic part of me would have liked a few more corroborated references to support those facts but hey you can't have everything and what Childfree and Loving It! is about, above all, is choice and providing a range of emotional perspectives and experiences. In this respect it really delivers: in addition to discussing her own relationship, DeFago interviews a fascinating range of people: childcare workers, lad's mags editors, feminist campaigners and opinionated teenagers, through doting parents, to the extremely elderly looking back on a happily childfree life ('free' implying choice, as opposed to the less deliberate sounding 'childless'). The book also goes into detail about environmental issues and questions of population control, something that I have to confess I worry about quite a bit already.

I didn't agree with everything in the book (DeFago's environmental argument for not reproducing is somewhat undermined by her section on how those without children have more freedom to travel the world) but it was an enjoyable as well as thought provoking read, and - as somebody who has been struggling not to feel guilty and/or a bit of a freak due to my own complete lack of maternal instinct when more and more of my friends are happily starting families of their own - I have say I did find myself nodding along to much of what I was reading. This definitely struck a very personal chord for me and it was reassuring to find in print so many of the same thoughts and emotions that have surfaced in my mind since, well, pretty much as long as I can remember really (I'm sure I've said before, even as a child I refused to play with dolls. Sure, I had a pram but I would only put cuddly bears and bunnies in it!) It seems to be the most militant side of the childfree movement that gets all the media attention but this book isn't like that at all. I found it an empowering read, aimed to encourage those who are uncertain about parenthood to think carefully and feel confident in their decision and life choices, whatever those may be.

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tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
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September 2010

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