Monday, 28 September 2009

Book Review - Frost in May by Antonia White

Antonia White

I went to a Catholic convent school from the age of seven to sixteen. The fact that I am not Catholic was irrelevant to the military nuns drilling us in the 'art of confession' and obedience. I don't know which was worse, the fact that in an all girls secondary school we were not allowed tampon dispensers in the toilets because "the use of tampons means that a girl is no longer a virgin" or the Bronco toilet paper. If you don't know what Bronco toilet paper is you never need to know and you are a very lucky person. Rumour has it that Bronco manufacturing ceased in the late 1980s - I was at school until 2000 - but the nuns had an attic full of the stuff along with boxes of soap left over from when the school was a laundry for 'fallen women'.

I cannot believe, therefore, that I have only just picked up and read Antonia White's novel Frost in May. This hugely autobiographical novel is succinct and compelling. Fernanda Grey's father is a convert to Catholicism and the novel opens with Mr Grey taking his daughter to the Convent of the Five Wounds to start her Catholic education. A naturally spiritual and imaginitive child Nanda struggles to feel equal to her peers who are from wealthy Catholic families. Not only is her family not wealthy, they are not Catholics. This pushes Nanda to become completely indoctrinated and to spend considerable time worrying about her vocation, on her first night at the Convent she prays:
Nanda felt a wave of piety overwhelm her as she knelt very upright in her bench, her lisle-gloved hands clasped on the ledge in front of her. "Oh dear Lord," she said fervently in her mind, "thank you for letting me come here. I will try to like it if You will help me. Help me to be good and make me a proper Catholic like the others."
Nanda settles in to life at the boarding school. The nuns are a constant presence of routine, discipline and instruction and Nanda starts to find reassurance in this. However, Nanda cannot quite suppress her imaginative and passionate self. She gets caught reading literature that the nuns do not allow and she makes close friendships with a small group of girls. This the nuns do not encourage as it is a self-indulgence to have close friends. Self-sacrifice is a recurring theme and is something that, like any young girl, Nanda cannot always achieve.

The self-assurance of the nuns that they are truly conducting God's work is startling and, for me, a memory. They deny the enquiring mind and censor all correspondence between pupils and the outside world; between parent and child. The nuns are not bad women, they are genuinely trying to save the souls of their pupils and to raise good Catholic women. But for Nanda, the saving of her soul by Mother Radcliffe leads to a personal tragedy that the reader knows will have repercussions for years to come.

'"I am only acting as God's instrument in this. I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed." Nanda glanced at the nun's face. It was pale and controlled as usual, yet lighted with an extraordinary, quiet exaltation.'

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Review - Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Autumn is my favourite time of year for many reasons. I love the crack and sparkle of bonfires, the smell of woodsmoke, the crunch of leaves underfoot, frosty mornings and conkers. I love walking through London and looking in at the activity through the warm, lit windows. Autumn is the season of red, gold, brown, green and orange; my favourite pallette. But, ultimately, autumn is the perfect season for reading as I can huddle on my sofa under jumpers and blankets with a big mug of tea, the lamp on and the cold outside. It is the season for cosy reading and there are no better books for hours of cosy reading than those written by Dorothy Whipple.

One of my favourite novels by Whipple is Someone at a Distance; beautifully published by the wonderful Persephone Books. Someone at a Distance follows the North family as their world is spun by the arrival of Mademoiselle Louise Lanier, a young and beautiful French woman who has been employed by Ellen North's Mother in Law as a companion.

Ellen North is married to Avery, they have two children, Hugh and Anne. They live in a beautiful house in a quaint English village. Ellen manages the household and raises the children, Avery goes and works hard to earn the money to maintain the North's happy home. Ellen is that rare and unfashioable woman, a very happy housewife. Her love for Avery is shining and constant, her children are well mannered, happy and joyful. Ellen is grateful for her home and family and then Avery's head is turned.

The girl was so beautifully finished: the cool suit, the white Juliet cap on the smooth dark hair, the white lawn blouse - all exactly right.

Louise is youthful and vain, she takes endless care of her appearance and she hasn't had two children and doesn't know the tiredness resulting from managing a family. Ultimately, she is sexy and flirtatious. Avery is bored and Louise is there to entertain him when Ellen is busy in the kitchen or garden or at the shops. Louise plays a skilful game and Ellen finds herself out of her depth.

As Avery succumbs to the charms of Louise, the family is torn apart. Ellen is steadfast and resolutely believes that her husband will do the right thing and put his family first. Avery is weak, indecisive and selfish. He finds himself carried along by the excitement that Louise promises before thinking through any consequences. Before long his actions are irrevocable and he has to face up to the choices he has made. It is a stark realisation indeed for him to consider what he has lost. As Ellen slowly builds a new life her love for Avery remains constant.

Dorothy Whipple's final novel was published in 1952 and is a gripping account of a middle-aged man's folly and the repurcussions that occur. Whipple's novel is a searing examination of human frailty and there is a distinct moral message as Avery North and Louise Lanier get their come-uppance. But overriding this, is a sense of hope. Hope for Ellen, a genuinely good woman whose tale has been told so many times by so many people throughout time. But it is Dorothy Whipple who recounts this tale with insight, honesty and clarity which combine to create a unique portrayal of a deceived wife and foolish husband.

The endpapers, pictured above, borrow from the autumnal pallette and this is absolutely a book to read when the rain is pattering on the window, the fire is glowing, the cat is asleep and the hot cup of tea warms your heart as Ellen learns that,

Life is like the sea, sometimes you are in the trough of the wave, sometimes on the crest. When you are in the trough, you wait for the crest, and always, trough or crest, a mysterious tide bears you forward to an unseen, but certain shore.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Teaser Tuesday

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.
The talk ran on herbaceous borders, hens, and parochial treats, the roads, the rain. There were shakes of the head over the bad manners of the young people, the deterioration of the servants, the sad state of England.
The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor

Monday, 14 September 2009

Book Review - Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Having set myself this challenge I am very, very slowly working my way through the longlisted titles for the Booker Prize. So far, I have only read three out of the thirteen titles. Although I have until 6 October I am juggling a full time job and, of course, other books (no excuse, I know) so I am not sure if I will succeed. Still, I am determined to read them all at some point even if I do not meet my deadline.

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced whilst I was on holiday in Suffolk and I had just finished two of the longlisted titles - one that made the shortlist and one that didn't. Unfortunately, Brooklyn did not make the shortlist and, frankly, I was really disappointed about this.

Set in Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s Brooklyn follows Eilis Lacey as she struggles with post Second World War Ireland, a country suffering from a poor economy and few jobs - sound familiar? Despite her qualifications and hard work Eilis cannot find permanent employment and, as all her brothers have done before her, she leaves the country. Her older sister and mother openly encourage her to leave making it clear that they want a better life for her and Eilis finds herself on a boat to America, mostly out of a sense of duty to her mother and sister.

Once in Brooklyn the local Priest, Father Flood, arranges employment for Eilis in a local department store. Her days fall into a new routine as she goes to work and returns in the evening to a boarding house full of similar Irish girls. However, Eilis is suddenly struck with homesickness and loneliness as she tries to adjust to her new life. As an act of kindness Father Flood enrols her onto some prestigious evening classes so that she can qualify as a book keeper, something that she was aspiring to be back home in Ireland.

As Eilis works hard she finds happiness which is affirmed when she meets Tony at a local dance in the Parish Hall. Eventually, her life moves away from her life in Ireland and Eilis becomes more and more at home in Brooklyn. Through hard work and determination she is able to realise opportunities for herself that were not possible in Ireland. Her relationship with Tony becomes more and more serious, until disaster strikes at home and she is called back to her mother and the small town of Enniscorthy.

On her return, Eilis is aware that she is no longer just plain Eilis Lacey, her time in Brooklyn has made her glamorous and mysterious. When an old flame reappears Eilis has a difficult decision to make between her old life and her new, free life; duty or personal choice.

Colm Toibin's novel is certainly one of the best that I have read this year. It's subtle power is gripping and the simple, entrancing language carries the reader along so that Eilis's decision is a weight for us to bear. Eilis is a true heroine, she steadfastly works hard to improve her life and tries to make the most out of difficult situations. She is honest and embodies a simplicity which is admirable - her head is not easily turned but she is ambitious.

Running alongside Eilis's experience is the examination of a variety of cultures coming together and living side by side for the first time. Brooklyn in the 1950s is portrayed as a melting pot of the Irish, Italian and Afro-Caribbean communities. Communities ebb and flow together as they struggle to leave their old lives behind and pursue the American Dream without forgetting their heritage.

Toibin manages to encapsulate so much within a short novel - only 250 pages - but he does so through a simplicity which guarantees emotional engagement as human struggles are splayed open for all to see clearly.

I read this book in a bit of a quandary about work, life, the usual. When I finished I immediately enrolled onto two evening classes - a small homage to the power of reading.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

East Anglia - books and beaches

Secondhand Bookshop in Holt, Norfolk
I have just returned from a wonderful holiday in East Anglia. Not only is the area packed full of treasure trove antique shops but there are secondhand bookshops galore. By far the best that I encountered was the above bookshop in Holt, Norfolk. The shop is reassuringly higgledy-piggledy with many wonky floors packed full of books on every subject. The fiction section is at the very top of the building so I busied myself amongst the cobwebs and found many, many gems. A whole host of old penguins and Virago Modern Classics jumped out at me and my budget withered away. Still, seven books for £13.00 is not bad.

I found:
  • Devoted Ladies M.J. Farrell (Virago Modern Classic)
  • That's How it Was Maureen Duffy (VMC)
  • Frost in May Antonia White (VMC)
  • The Ha-Ha Jennifer Dawson (VMC)
  • Ordinary Families E. Arnot Robertson (VMC)
  • A House and Its Head Ivy Compton-Burnett (Penguin)
  • The Rector's Daughter F.M. Mayor (Penguin)

I have some work to do to catch up with Paperback Reader's admirable collection of the green Virago Modern Classics - but this wonderful little shop in Holt has helped.

As well as antique shops and bookshops, East Anglia has many stunning beaches. Holkham Beach on the north Norfolk coast is one of the most striking places that I have ever been to. If you have seen the film Shakespeare in Love then you will recognise it as the beach that Gwyneth Paltrow walked along in the final scene. Utterly breathtaking.

Holkham Beach, Norfolk

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Holiday Reading

I am going off on holiday for a week in two hours time and have just finalised my reading list for the week ahead. Firstly, I will finish Colm Toibin's Brooklyn which has had me gripped and I cannot wait to read the rest tonight. My other choices are:

Sarah Waters The Little Stranger

A.S. Byatt The Children's Book

Richmal Crompton Family Roundabout

Two Booker longlisted titles and one Persephone - these should keep me going, in between pub lunches and Suffolk walks. And, of course, I may find a bookshop on my travels...