More on Women’s Fiction

the postcardLast year I was sent a novel by an author called Leah Fleming and I didn’t really get on with it. So when I was offered her new novel, The Postcard, this year, I hesitated. But I decided I’d give her another go and when I was under the weather a few weeks back, it looked the sort of undemanding book that was fit for the occasion. And in fact it kept me good company over three days. This is another novel that would be classified ‘women’s fiction’, not least because it deals with the kind of situation that only happened to women – how to deal with single parenthood back in the 1930s and 40s when it was a disgrace to be an unwed mother and an impossible economic conundrum too. The result, as in this case, was often a great deal of heartache and distress for all concerned.

But my feeling is that this is also called ‘women’s fiction’ because it takes a broad and multi-generational view in order to find resolution, closure and contentment, in other words, a happy ending. I was very struck once by a survey I read about that sought to identify gender difference at the level of fantasy. A group of people were given the start of a story – two trapeze artists in a circus tent are performing a routine when they fail to catch hands and one starts to fall. Apparently there was a distinct difference in the story conclusions they received. The men mostly chose an apocalyptic ending – death, disaster, even the tent going up in flames. The women mostly managed some sort of imaginative contortion to ensure the dropped artist was saved. The book that contained the survey dated from the 80s or 90s, and it may be that cultural attitudes have changed since then and the gender gap is less pronounced, but it was an intriguing finding. I would definitely have saved the trapeze artist in my own imagination, but I don’t always want a happy ending to the novels I read. So it seems to me that the whole idea of ‘women’s’ fiction rests on a narrow cultural view of women that emphasises their nurturing, tender and romantic nature – a nature that is both idealised and scorned in society, but which is definitely catered to commercially.

Anyhoo, the story begins in 2002 in Australia, with Melissa Boyd’s father asking her on his death bed to discover the truth of his origins. All he owns is a box of decaying keepsakes that includes a postcard addressed to someone named Desmond and written by his mother, promising him she’ll be home soon. Then we travel back in time to the 1920s where young Callie is growing up at the glorious Dalradnor Lodge in Scotland. She has a secure and carefree existence, brought up by her nursemaid, the Belgian Marthe, and the housekeeper, Nan Ibell. Every so often her pretty Aunt Phoebe, a Gaiety Girl dancer in London, comes to visit and spoil her with treats. Callie’s happy existence is shattered when she discovers that Phoebe is not her aunt but her mother, and she is the result of a wartime liaison. Phoebe, awkward and guilty around her own child, bungles her confession and decides simply to lift the child out of her environment and into her care, a move that only deepens Callie’s resentment.

So Callie grows up feeling both kidnapped and abandoned, and it isn’t long before she takes the first opportunity that presents itself to escape Phoebe’s authority. Inevitably escape takes the form of a foolish marriage, and before long Callie finds herself struggling to make a life in the ex-pat community in Cairo. And, destined to repeat what we don’t understand, she ends up following unwittingly in the footsteps of Aunt Phoebe, falling pregnant and taking the baby back to Scotland to bring up alone. When war breaks out again, however, Callie is approached by the secret services because of her language skills and she somewhat recklessly decides she must fulfil her duty to her country. Her choice for adventure will quickly dissolve into a harrowing ordeal with desperate consequences.

I thought this story was particularly good on the consequences of abandonment. Callie is so tangled up in her emotions over her origins that she courts abandonment at the same time as she is full of bitterness towards her mother. It takes her a whole lifetime to sort out her issues, though they are compounded in awful ways by the atrocities she lives through in the war. The war section was the part that worked less well for me as Leah Fleming does too much telling, determined to cram her pages overfull with incident. When she allowed her characters to interact in ordinary situations there was a strong narrative drive at work that kept me turning the pages. This kind of book is all about what happens next, and for the most part, I felt that the storyline was cleverly plotted, especially in the patterns and repetitions that passed down the family line through the years.

This doesn’t pretend to be great literature – it’s a solid and satisfying comfort read if you like multigenerational sagas, which in the right mood I certainly do. And I was glad to try the author again with better success.

 

Various Fires

A couple of things today. First, the latest inbetweenie update of Shiny New Books is available at the site – a further 22 reviews and features. A few of my personal highlights:

The editors discuss the Booker longlist (which we enjoyed doing very much)

Max Dunbar’s wonderful review of Kevin Birmingham’s book about the controversy surrounding the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses

When I was too poorly to read and review Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Simon leapt Sir Galahad-like into the breach and took it on for me. He liked it but didn’t think it worthy of the prize longlist.

Reviews of books I absolutely have to read: Beth Gutcheon’s Gossip, N. Quentin Woolf’s The Death of the Poet, Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhatten, Angela Young’s The Dance of Love, Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath.

TheArsonistFor almost the past two months I’ve been hesitating over Sue Miller’s new novel, The Arsonist, and whether I would review it here or in SNB. I’m a huge fan of Sue Miller and think she is wonderful on the complex networks of emotions that bind families and friends together. She has tremendous subtlety in her writing along with a fine-tuned understanding of the dramatic power of ordinary daily life. In short she does something I love: write about reality in a way that digs deep into the real. When I began The Arsonist, I was convinced it was going to end up on my best-of list for the year, but then the ending left me in all kinds of doubt.

The story begins when Frankie Rowley comes home to her parents in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire after fifteen years as an aid worker in Africa. She is burnt out from the frustrating work, and the strange combination of glamour and destitution she has experienced as someone who would do international good. She has also recently been through a bruising break-up, after the kind of intense but short-lived relationship she is normally skilled at resolving. Although she hasn’t yet told her parents, she isn’t sure she will ever go back.

Parents Sylvia and Alfie have their own troubles. They have recently retired and decided to live in what used to be the family holiday home, thinking that its rural location will be both soothing and energising. But Alfie is increasingly troubled by the early signs of dementia, and Sylvia finds herself in the undesirable position of carer in an isolated environment. Nearby, Frankie’s sister, Liz and her family, are building a holiday home of their own, and Liz is relieved to see Frankie back, feeling that impending responsibility for their parents has rested for too long on her shoulders. But Frankie feels herself shrinking away from family demands. Her relationship with Sylvia is awkward – ‘mothering wasn’t a gift of her mother’s’ – something Sylvia herself doesn’t deny when she realises how much she resents Alfie’s slow decline, and after the demands of Africa, Frankie instinctively veers away from more impossible calls for aid. Alfie, who has always been indulged, does not understand what a burden of care he has set in motion.

Anyway, the first night Frankie is back, she wakes with jet lag and decides to go for a walk. On her return, a car shoots past her and she believes she can smell smoke. It isn’t until the next morning that she learns a neighbouring property has been set on fire and burned to the ground. And it isn’t until several days later that she puts two and two together regarding the car and whom it might have contained. In the meantime, the fires continue steadily. An arsonist is at work, targeting the properties of the summer vacationers, and whilst it seems that care is being taken to choose ones that stand empty, it isn’t long before a mistake is made.

Frankie begins a new relationship with Bud Jacobs, owner of the local newspaper and another escapee from the grind of ambitious careers. He used to be a political journalist in Washington but decided to take on the challenge of local news instead. As the number of arson attacks mount and the residents become ever more alarmed for their safety, Bud searches for all possible angles from which to cover the fires. When he writes that an anonymous source from the state police suggested that ‘the divide between year-round and summer residents could offer a possible motivation for what otherwise seems a series of motiveless crimes,’ he stirs up a hornets’ nest with this possibility of ‘class resentment’. It isn’t long before the summer residents are sending a petition to him, demanding more responsible reportage. The issue is hotter than the fires themselves.

So Sue Miller creates all kinds of provocative and fascinating oppositions in her novel: Will they track the arsonist down before someone’s life is lost? And what will the motivation for the crime be – personal or political? What will happen to Alfie as his condition deteriorates? Will Frankie choose the ‘ordinary’ life of small town America or the big picture of Africa? And what of her relationship with Bud – will that persuade her to stay? What of the dynamics in Frankie’s family – can they work together or will they be torn apart?

But once Frankie and Bud begin their affair, it seems to suck all the heat out of the rest of the story; the least interesting part of the narrative slowly starts to dominate. And much as I do not wish to give anything away, it’s fair to say that nothing is resolved, not any of the potentially enticing and thrilling storylines. You might of course say that Sue Miller remains resolutely true to life in making such choices. But at the same time, after all the lit fuses of the early part of the novel, it’s a letdown that there are no explosive conclusions.

I wondered whether Miller had so acutely put her finger on a series of powerful issues in America that she was unable to resolve them without coming down off her novelist’s fence. It would have been too risky to come out with the motivation for the arson as class resentment, too provocative to have Frankie choose outright for insular concerns over difficult international situations, too awkward to tackle the very real constraints to personal freedom that are posed by serious illnesses – both to those who suffer and those who must care for them. As I say, what I like most about Miller’s writing is how real she is. But she is also an insistently compassionate author; she has her characters admit to awkward, shameful failings and is careful always to grant them every sympathy. Perhaps she couldn’t, at any level, construct villains. But it does make for an uneven and inconclusive novel.

Passing Through

I am still somewhat brainless with chronic fatigue and turgid in spirit (isn’t turgid a good word?), though I don’t know what Mr Litlove’s excuse is. This is an exchange we had just the other evening:

Me: And how were your sandwiches today?

Mr Litlove: Very nice, very tasty. I do like that cheese. And the mayonnaise.

Me: That’s interesting. Considering the sandwiches I made you were ham and tomato.

Mr Litlove: (eyes darting from right to left in concentration) But there was mayonnaise in there… wasn’t there?

Me: You don’t have a clue, do you?

It’s a wonder they still let us drive. The only thing I’ve been doing with any consistency and engagement is, as usual, reading. But so many of the books that have passed through my hands lately have been for the magazine, one way or another. You’ll note the Monique Roffey in my sidebar, and the recent half-review of Archipelago I wrote. I’m actually putting together a special feature about her writing for our next edition because I think she’s an amazing author, fearless in her approach and so clever in her storytelling. She’s asking questions about power and politics, risk and catastrophe that no one else has the guts to tackle.

in love and warI’ve also just finished the new novel by Laurie Graham, who is a writer who really should be better known than she is. Several years ago now I read and loved The Importance of Being Kennedy, and since then she has produced a series of historical novels that focus on a sprawling dynasty at the height of a crisis. Only she is a wonderfully comic author who gives her characters the sort of lines that Maggie Smith would punch the air to have in Downton Abbey. This latest was a joy and my love of her continues unabated. I’m also at the start of a novel by Alex Preston set in the late 30s when a young man is sent (in disgrace) to Florence by his powerful father in order to set up a wireless station for the Faschists. It’s been wonderful so far. Honestly, if any idiot decides to proclaim the death of contemporary fiction, I shall be unrestrained in my scorn. I’ve read – and have still to read – a stream of brilliant books for the magazine.

Given my under-par nature at the moment, I’ve also been reading solidly comforting crime fiction. Last year, thanks to Danielle, I discovered Elizabeth Daly and her gentleman detective, Henry Gamadge. I read Any Shape or Form, set as usual in the grand houses and crazy families of New York in the 1940s and absolutely loved it. Gamadge is visiting his elderly Aunt Alice and obliged to visit the neighbours with her. There, two conflicted sides of a family – the stepmother and her stepchildren – are being brought together by Johnny Redfields, a friend to all concerned, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation. Before the end of the afternoon, however, the stepmother is dead. It was the sort of book that makes me think of Bertie Wooster who, when interrupting Jeeves in his reading of Spinoza, commented guiltily that he bet Jeeves’d just got to the place where they found the second body.

deadheadingI’ve also recently discovered Catherine Aird, though her books are a bit harder to get hold of. She has a hapless Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan (‘Seedy’ to his work colleagues) squashed between a boss half in love with the ill-digested propositions of whatever recent training course he’s been on, and the only reinforcement he can ever lay hands on, Constable Crosby, who no one believes will ever make a decent detective as he is so immune to the niceties of police work. They all take place in the fictional county of Calleshire and are sort of halfway between Caroline Graham with her Midsomer Murders and something a little older and gentler, Margery Allingham perhaps or Ngaio Marsh. I like ‘em.

the last asylumThere have also been a few new arrivals over the threshold, cough. I couldn’t resist historian Barbara Taylor’s memoir, The Last Asylum, about the four years she spent there recovering from a nervous breakdown. Nor The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark by Josh Cohen, which draws on psychoanalysis, literature and life to argue that we cannot lose our basic privacy because we have parts of ourselves that even we can’t access. (Mr Litlove skim-read this one weekend morning and said he found it a bit academic, but I don’t suppose I’ll mind that too much). I’ve also picked up copies of Sue Gee’s Coming Home, about colonial Brits returned from India, and D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, an alternative history novel which begins with the death of Wallis Simpson. Cleopatra had her asses’ milk, I have creamy pages of vanilla-sprinkle words to bathe in; I can thoroughly recommend it as a treatment. But what do we do about Mr Litlove??

 

 

A Geography Lesson

No matter how hard I try – and these past six months I have been attempting regular exercise, for crying out loud – I am doomed to hoard stress the way squirrels pack nuts for the winter. Now that things are a little quieter, and the internal imp who scans the horizon for trouble has relaxed, I’ve been feeling quite dreadful. It seems I can only process emotional wear and tear via a form of illness.

archipelagoBy sheer coincidence, a couple of books I’ve read and deeply enjoyed in the run-up to this week, offered an entirely different approach to stress management: the dangerous journey. In Monique Roffey’s wonderful Archipelago, Gavin and his daughter, Océan, take to the Caribbean seas with their dog, Suzy, as a way to deal with compounded grief. Almost a year ago their house was inundated by a freak flood, whose catastrophic results we only learn about as the story unfolds. Close to breakdown, Gavin decides to reawaken an old dream of his youth and take his trusty boat, Romany, west from Trinidad where they live, out towards the Galapagos Islands. Then in the memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail – or at least 1,100 miles of it – after her mother’s untimely death sends her life off course and her marriage breaks down.

The first thing I needed with these books was an atlas. I confess my geography is appalling. It’s even worse than my historical knowledge, and in both cases, what meagre scraps I own come from literature. I am sorry to say that I had a rather shaky sense of where the Caribbean might be, although I knew it had something to do with America, having adored novels by Maryse Condé in the past. For those as ignorant as I was, Trinidad and Tobago are just off the north-east tip of Venezuela, and the Caribbean sits in the shape of a bird in flight between North and South America. The famous islands stretch off towards the North: Barbados, St Lucia, Martinique, and they curve around towards Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, much larger masses of land that form a rough barrier to the Atlantic. Whereas the travellers in Archipelago hug close to the coast of South America, heading through the Panama Canal and then far, far out west to where the Galapagos sit in solitary splendour.

‘I think I had the Panama Canal mixed up with the Suez Canal,’ I told Mr Litlove.

‘You thought it was the Suez Canal?’ said Mr Litlove, in terms of wonderment, which was rich coming from a man who would hesitate to identify the subjunctive.

wildThe Pacific Crest Trail is a wilderness trail that stretches from the Mexican border in California along the crests of nine mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, Klamath and Cascades, traversing Oregon and Washington on its way. The book had a dinky map in the front of it, useful for following the landmarks in Strayed’s memoir but pretty undetailed in itself. My atlas made it look much more daunting; the colours were the ochres and browns, even into the violet blues, of high altitudes. Despite the huge scale of the atlas, there was absolutely nothing there; no civilisation for inches around.

So two books with one word titles to remind you that serious travellers are a close-mouthed lot. They are too busy struggling with the elements to chat. And in both cases, decisions are made to embark on a physical challenge precisely because words fail and are insufficient for healing the pain. Something intriguingly alchemical goes on in this idea: emotional pain becomes released in physical pain, and physical toughness translates back to emotional toughness. In both cases, the journeys worked their magic, though I wonder whether it doesn’t all boil down to an email apocryphal funny my brother sent me, which said if you want to forget all your troubles, wear shoes that pinch.

Cheryl Strayed does exactly that. Young and inexperienced, she has launched into her hike in a way that shows the difference between things as we imagine they will be, and the lived reality. Her boots are a source of extreme discomfort throughout the trip and I got used to skimming the descriptions of her feet she regularly gave when she took them off at night. She also packs too extensively for her trip, creating an outsize backpack that she calls ‘Monster’, which takes its own toll on her body. You wonder whether she might have saved herself some trouble by just heading downtown and getting herself beaten up:

I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by the pack.’

This hike is all about her powers of endurance for Strayed, who was only 26 when she undertook it, and all about the methods of transcendence she can teach herself. Ways to bypass the boredom, the fear of all that could befall her out alone. As Archipelago is fiction, it has a lot more scope to explore its ideas. In the novel, nature is on trial, understood to be both beautiful and sublime, feared as both vicious and destructive. Gavin isn’t sure whether he is still fighting a losing battle against nature or learning to accept his place as part of it:

He has had a romantic attachment, notions about the sea, but these are fantasies. Now he is aware that the sea isn’t interested in him – and yet he’s fascinated with her. The sea has no feelings towards him whatsoever, and yet she stirs unfathomable moods in him. The sea doesn’t care, cannot care, one jot for him and his boat, his child, his dog, and yet they’ve been held mesmerised. At best, the sea is an accomplice to his restlessness.’

In both books, nature is an accomplice at best – willingly offering up vistas of breaktaking loveliness as reasons in themselves for the pain and the trouble of the undertaking. In Archipelago, nature wears a much crueller face, too, the devastation of catastrophe a magnified version of the ordinary battle for survival. But a lot happens in a silent beyond, in the place where human and nature interact. This is where the humans heal, though as Gavin realises, it is an oddly one-sided attachment where we manage to find far more than just what is visible. Perhaps it’s the sense of perspective that saves all the protagonists in the end; the awareness of their own diminutive size in relation to a wild, dangerous, tenderly indifferent world.

I loved both these books – they were highly engrossing, the Roffey full of glorious descriptions, the Strayed balancing its material well between accounts of the trip and her past life leading up to it. And they both have plenty of adventures to recount. But I am left feeling that the Existentialists were right – people are either thinkers or doers and it’s hard to be both. Travel is not the answer to angst for me: instead I have to be attentive to my internal geography. When I was much worse with chronic fatigue, I used to consider my body as a wild and lawless land, with sacking and pillaging going on in ways I couldn’t control. These days, there is much more of a community feel about my internal world, though every so often we have to hunker down when the Visigoths of stress maraud through.