tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
Something I'm Not by Lucy Beresford

As I floss my teeth, I think about how life is all about choice. What on earth do you do if you suspect you've made the wrong choice? Or if the decisions you made were the right ones, but based on misconceptions?'

I'm not much in to chick-lit type reads but I picked up this one because the subject matter struck a chord with me. The 'I' of the title is Amber, an upper-middle-class Londoner enjoying what seems a happy marriage and a great career. The 'something' she's not is a mother. Yes, this book - quite bravely in many ways - deals with the issue of women who choose not to have children and the difficulties they face in justifying and upholding this decision as more and more of their friends and relatives start families of their own. Amber seems happy with her life and with her and her husband's mutual decision not to reproduce but as more of her close-knit circle of friends embrace parenthood - even Dylan, her gay best friend begins discussing adoption, she feels her world and her certainty come crashing down around her. It's a subject that's close to my heart because, as many of you will know, I've been struggling recently with the increasing realisation of my own apparent lack of maternal ambition. So I thought I might relate to the characters in this book quite well and that reading it might help me feel less conflicted but to be honest, although it was well plotted and a fairly enjoyable read, Beresford didn't really deliver on any of the factors that motivated me to pick up her book in the first place.

First up, the things I did like about this: as I've said, it was a brave subject to tackle and I love the way Beresford subverts conventions of a more typical chick-lit novel which would probably see Amber finally emerge as an ecstatic new mother by the end of the book. This doesn't happen (though it does to one of her friends) but Beresford seems to have a good time implying, for much of the book, that it will only to finally turn that convention on its head. Also the characters were well crafted and sparky - if somewhat predictable in their diversity (the gay guy, the fragile single mum, the career girl, the parents of five who want more etc) and a few of the minor incidents made me laugh. But overall Something I'm Not disappointed me: I couldn't relate to Amber at all: firstly because she doesn't like pets (!?!) and secondly because her incredibly privileged lifestyle was just too alien for me to fathom (who embraces redundancy as a welcome chance to "rest and sort out my head?") The biggest problem I had with the book, however, was how rushed it felt: so many plot strands are introduced but although Amber finds closure with her motherhood issues, pretty much nothing else in the novel is resolved at all satisfactorily, it's all just left hanging. Most unsettlingly, a massive breach of trust occurs between Amber and her husband part way through the story but then pretty much no mention is made of this incident after the fact; as if pretending it didn't happen makes it all OK. That implication rather undermines many of the positive messages that the book has to share about the tremendous value of friendship and the way that no woman should not be forced to conform to social expectation if that feels wrong for her. So that's a shame really because those are damn important messages.

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

Ben Jonson said of his dead child, my sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy. We too easily take what the poets write as figures of speech, as pretty images, as strings of bon mots. Sometimes perhaps they speak the truth.

I like a bit of Margaret Drabble, her novels are always subtle, wise and thought-provoking. This one was no exception. It was also a very fitting read to follow up Esther Waters as the plot is actually very similar: a young, unmarried woman finds herself pregnant after her only sexual encounter and decides to keep the baby, finding tremendous joy and fulfilment in her new role as a mother, despite the disapproval of wider society. The difference is that while Esther lives in nineteenth-century London, Drabble's Rosamund is living in the capital during the swinging sixties and the book throws into sharp relief the problems of a time when casual sex is becoming de rigeur but illegitimacy remains very strongly taboo. The overall message of this book is strongly feminist: motherhood and independence need not be mutually exclusive. It is a qualified message however since like many of the women in Drabble's other books, Rosamund is an academic of upper middle-class origins, a career and background that gives her more possibility of financial independence than many other women in her position, and Rosamund herself recognises that were she from a poorer background many of the options she chooses would simply not have been available to her. While the novel seems to praise the academic life as a valuable avenue of self-sufficiency and independence for women, at the same time, Drabble is quick to remind us that it is Rosamund's intellectual leanings that have kept her shielded from many of the harsher practicalities of life, an otherworldliness which led to her getting pregnant in the first place.

Although in places I felt the prose becoming less like a novel and more like a slightly dry sociology essay, overall this is sensitively written book gives a wonderfully rich snapshot of life among the more privileged classes in 1960s London and paints a generally warm and hopeful - though not too unrealistic - message about the power of unconditional maternal love.

The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones

Tokyo was more than Lucy could have hoped for. Too big ever to be found there, too noisy to have to listen to anything, too expensive to worry about saving any money. And under the chaos, a cool and quietly beating heart. An organ that pumped blood through stooping centenarians, three-year-old Nintendo whizz-kids, office workers with no time for meals or sleep, and university students with all the time in the world

This has the subtitle "a novel of mystery" and it was a very engaging thriller indeed. I was captivated right from the opening page which begins by detailing the arrest of Lucy Fly, a thirty-something British girl living and working in Tokyo. Lucy is the chief suspect in what seems to be a grisly murder case and, while she refuses to cooperate and talk to her interrogators, the narrative delves into her memories and explores the time leading up to her arrest, uncovering the many dark secrets that haunt Lucy's waking and subconscious state. Since Lucy does not talk to the detectives, and her past is revealed only to the reader only as a series of flashbacks, it is up to us to penetrate her icy detachment and ascertain the full level of her involvement in the murder, as well as trying to understand why she has severed all ties with her family in Yorkshire to forge a new life on the other side of the world. I found this narrative technique really succeeded in keeping me glued to every page and I finished the book in just a day.

As well as working as a chilling psychological thriller, The Earthquake Bird is a wonderful piece of travel writing which paints a vivid portrait of bustling Tokyo in all its sacredness and profanity (all of which just adds further fuel to my dream of visiting the city myself). Yet although the novel is brimming with engagingly quirky details of Japanese culture, its overall theme is absolutely universal. Above all, this book is a study of the corrosive power of jealousy which can emerge from nowhere with fatal consequences. I highly recommend this excellent debut novel.

tispity: (Book pile)
Esther Waters by George Moore

Hers is a heroic adventure if one considers it - a mother's fight for the life of her child against all the forces that civilisation arrays against the lowly and illegitimate

Big thanks are due to [livejournal.com profile] pennywren for introducing me to this highly enjoyable but lesser known Victorian novel. First published in 1894 and set in England from the 1870s onwards, the eponymous heroine is an illiterate, working class girl raised as a member of the pious religious group, the Plymouth Brethren. The story begins as poverty forces seventeen year old Esther to leave her loving mother and drunken, abusive step-father and take up employment as a kitchen maid for the Barfields, a noveau riche horse-racing family. Although she comes to enjoy her new life and forms a warm bond with her devout mistress, she also finds herself falling for William, a fellow servant and all too quickly finds herself seduced and abandoned. The remainder of the novel chronicles the hardships that Esther endures as a working class single mother in unforgiving Victorian London. Esther is a very ordinary woman in many ways but utterly heroic in her devotion to her son, Jacky, and in her single-minded determination to see him grow to manhood and settle into a profession.

Moore writes in the same Naturalistic style as Zola (indeed many of the horse-racing and betting scenes reminded me strongly of the race scene in Nana) and as such this novel paints a very powerful and moving portrait of the ills and hypocrisy of Moore's contemporary society. Indeed, although I took two Victorian modules on my Literature MA a few years back and have therefore read plenty of accounts - both fictional and factual - of the suffering of the Victorian poor, I have to say some of the scenes in this book were still eye-openers! In the course of her life, Esther endures the workhouse, abject poverty, domestic drudgery, the scorn of her society, and all the highs, lows and dangers of the gambling life, but every single decision she comes to, every sacrifice or compromise she makes, is motivated by the desire to provide the best for her son. In this respect her story, though pitiable, is also tremendously admirable and makes for compelling reading. Moore is quite progressive in the way that, alongside her suffering, he also narrates the joy that Esther's motherhood brings her. Her life is a sad one, but, significantly, the novelist never suggests - as some of his least savoury characters do - that Jacky is a burden Esther would do well to be rid of. The depiction of Esther's religion is interesting for similar reasons: faith is generally depicted as a positive force in the lives of the novel's characters, yet while Esther is shown to be a very pure in her ideals, the novel also implies that it is just not possible for a poor, working mother like her to live up to these high moral standards. In her devotion to Jacky, Esther frequently compromises her religious devotion: the long hours she works to support him do not allow her time to attend church and although she disapproves of gambling she later comes to tolerate it for the sake of funding Jacky's education, decisions which are narrated with considerable sympathy and understanding.

While the opening and concluding parts are absolutely gripping I found the pace did slacken off somewhat in the middle, and as I'm not terribly well versed in gambling terminology and techniques I found some of the betting scenes rather confusing - though I understood well enough the dangerously addictive power of the pastime and the hypocrisy of the judges who condemned gambling as a lower-class vice while continuing to indulge in it themselves. But despite these flaws, this was an engaging read and one which I'd be quick to recommend to those of you who'd like to head a little way off the beaten track in Victorian literature. And if anyone else can recommend any similarly neglected pre-twentieth century reads I'd be very grateful for the suggestions!

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September 2010

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