I’m sorry, blogging friends, I should have made it clear in those first sentences of the previous post that I wasn’t leaving immediately. But this IS the last post now, so you needn’t worry that you’ll be saying goodbye and bon voyage endlessly!
But a few final reviews before I go. First up, Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton. We have long been big fans of Crompton in this family as my son has loved the Just William stories since he was little. He still listens to them on tape while falling asleep at night and they have entertained us on many a long car trip. I had no idea that Crompton had written adult novels, however, until alerted to the fact by the wondrous blog world, and Danielle’s posts in particular. Well, Family Roundabout is everything I had hoped it would be. It’s the story of two families, the Fowlers and the Willoughbys, each headed up by powerful if very different matriarchs. Mrs Fowler is gentle and distracted and infinitely loving. Mrs Willoughby is strong and fearsome and completely controlling, and the difference in their managerial style, particularly in the absence of husbands (both are widows when the novel begins) means that they are set up against each other as alternative possibilities of mothering. In the early stages of the novel, Mrs Fowler’s approach seems infinitely preferable. Mrs Willoughby’s children are completely under the thumb, unable – and not in any case permitted – to think for themselves, which causes all kinds of problems for her daughters in particular, whose husbands justifiably resent the extent of their mother-in-law’s meddling in their lives. Mrs Fowler, by contrast, remains the epitome of loving kindness in her children’s minds, and nowhere is quite as wonderful as by her side. Her children are more disparate in temperament but, as the story progresses, it turns out they are not noticeably better at dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
I call them children, but we’re talking about young adults on the brink of their independent lives here, and the narrative follows their passage through the complications of love affairs, marriages, decisions about what profession to undertake. The families are joined (awkwardly) when bossy, smug Helen Fowler marries the eldest Willoughby son, Max, a jolly, mindless type who now runs the family business. This is a triumphant union, against which their siblings measure themselves. Anice, Helen’s sister, burns with old, tenacious jealousy; Oliver, Max’s brother, tries to summon the spirit to evade the family business and find an occupation that’s truer to his spirit; whilst Peter, Helen’s brother, struggles in marriage to the manipulative, hysterical Belle, who uses her beauty to fulfill her almost psychotic need for fraught emotional battles. As the years pass, the generation of grandchildren grows up to face its own difficulties – a hated boarding school, the uncertainty about a lost father, a sad, shrewish mother. It’s a book about reaping what we sow, but it’s also about the way that life, in its brutality, outwits us all, but provides us, in its unbidden bounty, with a series of crux points in which we have the chance to change our ways, learn our lessons, or expand into a new level of being. Mostly, Mrs Fowler’s and Mrs Willoughby’s children make the usual human choices; they take the easy route, the one that salves their pride or conforms to their egotistic image, and thus they end up with decidedly mixed fortunes.
In the end, Crompton is exquisitely even-handed in her evaluation of different kinds of mothering. Both Mrs Fowler and Mrs Willoughby suffer and emerge with dignity, their children still loyal and more or less loving, even if somewhat bruised from life’s collateral damage. This was a delightful read, as I’m coming to expect from Persephone, compassionate, insightful and most of all, very amusing. Crompton has a glorious turn of phrase, which I would be quoting here, if I hadn’t already lent the book to my mother.
The other books I must review are a bit unusual. The Ox-Tale books are four collections of short stories (Earth, Water, Fire and Air) that feature the work of some of the best and most exciting authors writing in English at the moment. For instance, the collection entitled Earth features stories from (among others) Kate Atkinson, Jonathon Coe, Marina Lewycka, Rose Tremain and Hanif Kureishi; the collection entitled Water features Zoe Heller, Esther Freud, William Boyd, Joanna Trollope and Michael Morpurgo. Vikram Seth has written a cycle of element poems that are spread across the volumes, too. They’re the product of a collaboration between Profile Books, Oxfam and Hay literary festival to raise money to combat poverty; all royalties from books sold will be going to charity. Frankly, I would be behind this venture on the strength of the writing alone but the good cause makes them irresistible.
One reason why I wanted to read them was as a way of sampling several authors who interest me but whose novels I have yet to tackle. The majority of the pieces compiled here are short stories, but in some cases authors have submitted a self-contained piece from their work in progress. In the Fire volume, I read a piece by William Sutcliffe about a hopeless father left to look after his two small children on the beach that was funny and true, until it suddenly turned dark – that’s a novel I’ll be looking out for. In the Earth volume, I read a story about the death of Tolstoy by Rose Tremain that made me wonder why I had ever held back from her work. Hanif Kureishi provided a story about a grown man meeting his long dead father in the pub and returning home with him, giving him unexpected and illuminating insight into his childhood. I’d be interested in reading something longer by him now. Geoff Dyer is another author I’ve long wanted to read, and his contribution, an essay about three potentially disastrous events that occurred to him but from which he escaped unscathed, is clever, bleak and compelling; his work is most certainly on my list. But naturally, I’ve also been enjoying stories from authors I love. Zoe Heller wrote an acidic little story, ‘What She Did On Her Summer Vacation’ that details a shocking loss of innocence, and Kate Atkinson’s extraordinary story, ‘Lucky We Live Now’ is touched by the fantastic as a young woman realizes that everything she owns is reverting to the state of nature from which it was made. That’s been the standout story of any of the collections so far and shows that she’s a writer at the height of her powers. I’m looking forward to the contributions I have yet to read from Ali Smith, Esther Freud and Lionel Shriver.
These stories are really edgy and contemporary and enticing and the quality of the writing so far has been excellent. I’ll be taking one of the books with me on holiday, although what goes too is still undecided. I will probably take The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and possibly Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. But then I’m torn between Anita Shreve’s Testimony, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, Owen Sheers’ Resistance, Tana French’s In The Woods and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves. Aren’t decisions tough? Well, I hope everyone in the blogworld has a peaceful and fulfilling fortnight – take care and enjoy your reading while I’m gone.