Hilary Mantel and Elizabeth Strout

There was a moment, a few weeks back, when I was listening to four audio books (not simultaneously, obvs): Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Autumn by Ali Smith, Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout and They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie. And I thought to myself, wow, what a line-up. Does it get any better than this?

Alas, Autumn has fallen by the wayside. I love Ali Smith so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the novel. What I suspect is that her style doesn’t translate well to audio – so few styles do. I love her whimsicality on the page, but it doesn’t come across so well when you’re listening. I must get hold of the book. And the Agatha Christie was a delight, but you probably don’t need me to tell you anything about it. You will either love Agatha or not, as the case may be, but if you love her, it’s a really fun and clever outing on her part.

Which leaves me with two novels to talk about here, one of which I expect lots and lots of people have read, the other of which I expect lots and lots of people are intending to read. And what fine novels they both were.

Bring Up The Bodies will scarcely require a summary. The second of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, we’re following Thomas Cromwell through the wreckage of Henry’s love life. Cromwell is mostly definitely Henry’s right-hand man, but this is rather like being the enforcer for the Godfather. Cromwell accepts this, in fact, he almost welcomes it. But you do sense that this is at least in part because he knows that a fall from grace at this stage will mean death; so doing Henry’s bidding, however crazy or daft it might be, is a no-brainer nevertheless. And it’s hardly as if Cromwell needed the mental focus that would ensure.

When the novel begins, Henry is falling in love with Jane Seymour. She’s described as quiet, whey-faced, retiring, prudish, submissive. All the things, in other words, that Anne Boleyn is not – and this is not a coincidence. But Anne is in the early stages of pregnancy and so her position on the throne is relatively safe. Jane Seymour’s brothers and her father are in no doubt about the upswing in their fortunes that Henry’s infatuation might bring them. Jane is primped ready to meet the king’s needs while Anne is with child. But this never happens. Anne loses the child and, already out of love with her, torn by the desire for a male heir and by the desire for Jane, Henry starts to whine. He decides that this abrupt u-turn in his feelings can only be accounted for if Anne actually bewitched him into loving her in the first place.

Honestly, men! It’s bad enough they come up with this nonsense, but to see a long, inevitable chain of events unspooling from this ridiculous notion that will lead to Anne’s death is quite another matter. If ever a reader were in any doubt as to why power should be controlled by law and divided by as many people as possible, this is the book to clarify the reasons.

Ironically enough, Anne’s execution is facilitated by the death of the first queen, Katherine. While Katherine was alive, Henry had a reason to stick to his guns over Anne, out of stubborn contrariness if nothing else. But when she dies, then Henry starts to feel how lovely it would be if he and the Pope were on better terms again. Anne was an interloper, she put Henry in disfavour with the Catholic church, she has caused him problems without producing the required male child. Oh poor Anne; as spiky, egotistic and loveless a character as she is in Mantel’s version (and Mantel is brilliant in her portrayal), the sheer mendacity and corruption of the case that is brought against her is enough for outrage on her behalf.

Oh and lots of other things happen too: Cromwell is gearing up for his assault on the monasteries, an indication, I felt, of the general overreaching that is creeping into his management of the king’s affairs. Henry is often described as a big baby, and Cromwell, in that case, becomes his over-indulgent mother, giving him everything he really ought not to have. But in doing so, in the ever swifter dynamic of tending to the king’s needs with no hesitation and the experience of power it brings, he is starting to lose sight of the integrity he might once have possessed. If this book had been a movie, a sequel to Wolf Hall and a precursor of the final conclusion to Cromwell’s life, it would probably have been a mess of storylines without satisfying resolution. The kind of in-fill number that you are cynically made to watch if you want to follow the entire story. But in Mantel’s hands it’s all kinds of wonderful. Sharp, insightful, dramatic, gripping and exceptionally written. I expect you’ve heard other people say that, too.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is also a sequel of sorts to her huge hit, My Name Is Lucy Barton. In it, Strout returns to Lucy Barton’s home town of Amgash, Illinois, and tells the stories of a number of characters who received only brief mentions in the first novel. Do you remember all the local histories Lucy’s mother tells her about, all those failed or difficult marriages that she recounts while Lucy is in her hospital bed? Well, along with Lucy’s siblings, those lives now take centre stage.

It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read the first novel, because the real beauty of this novel – comprised in a series of interconnecting stories – is how the dots are all joined up between the people who feature within it. There was a moment in every story, a gorgeous AHA! moment, when I realised who it was we were reading about, which of the characters who had made a short appearance or been referred to in an earlier story. As in Lucy Barton, it’s a way in which the structure of gossip is used so cleverly and given such unexpected depth. It’s a gossipy small town situation that we always find ourselves in, and if you feel inclined to find that insignificant in any way, there’s plenty of times when you’ll say: Oh, so that’s what happened to so-and-so! And you’ll realise that gossip is storytelling at its most compelling.

What Elizabeth Strout also does with supreme narrative efficiency is draw us into lives of quiet anguish and the unexpected compensations they contain. Strout’s characters suffer: they have trauma in their past, and poverty, and deep, abiding sadness. But these sorrows are balanced by the genuine rewards that sometimes enter their lives – and Strout knows exactly what a real, honest reward looks like. Patty Nicely, a counsellor at the local high school, is bruised by an encounter with an ugly-mouthed teenager, who lets it be known that Patty’s worst secrets are common knowledge. But Patty finds her equilibrium when she summons the strength to understand the young woman and actively help her. How does she find it? Well, in between these two moments, she reads the latest book by Lucy Barton, a warts-and-all memoir of her childhood, and it delivers the grace of insight. ‘The book had understood her’, Strout writes in one of her devastatingly simple sentences. And I wonder how many people feel understood now in their ordinary sadness by Strout’s luminous writing.

There are so many wonderful stories in this narrative that it’s tempting to go on too long about them. My favourite was probably the one about the artist who comes to town for a week’s conference and is lodged with a couple who seem very respectable on the surface. Until the guest goes to bed and the hosts go upstairs to watch her do this on the webcam they have planted in her room. And I did love the story where Lucy briefly returns (as part of her book tour) to Amgash and a reunion with the brother and sister she hasn’t seen in seventeen years. It goes as well and as dreadfully as you might expect.

It’s funny when I think back on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and remember that I really didn’t like it. It was one of the very few books back at that time in my life that I didn’t finish. I’m not sure which one of us has changed. But I feel that Strout’s writing has more emotional balance to it now, and that it makes all the difference. Boy, does she know how to do anguish! And she can take you to places that are almost too painful to tolerate – such ordinary humiliations, such unspeakable losses. In Anything Is Possible, though, the title holds a clue. People can be so reliably surprising; life can be so unexpectedly, ironically generous. These are the touches of grace that we live for, and which Strout captures so beautifully on the page.

New at Numéro Cinq

Way back in January I had a properly wonderful experience. I went to the studios of two very talented women: the painter, Miranda Boulton, and the poet, Kaddy Benyon, and spoke with them about their creativity.

The results were fascinating. Two amazing artists with two perspectives on creativity that could hardly be more different. We spoke about fear and anxiety, about process and productivity, about inspiration past and present, and about the roads their careers had taken them down.

The interviews are now up at Numéro Cinq and I think they’re both reassuring and encouraging for anyone who wants to live a creative life or simply explore their own relationship to art.

Storytelling and Compassion

One of the many wonderful things about books is that they give us a safe space in which to encounter difficult and frightening thoughts. The structure of a book, with its perceptive narrative voice and its promise of an ending, guarantees us at least one of the four great anti-anxieties: meaning, wisdom, truth and resolution. Whatever darkness the story brings, these four are the light.

How much darkness we can take, how much light we need is, I think, a very personal ratio. When I was younger, I had a lot more capacity for difficult and demanding novels. I had more stamina for reading about suffering. These days I can endure a great deal less. I’m sure this is in part because I am increasingly interested in what it means to be compassionate in the world. I’ve been reading a book lately that defines compassion as a two-part process. The first part is to look squarely at the pain, but the second, and equally important, is to think how suffering can be eased. This is not to say that bad events and the pain that accompanies them can be avoided. Alas, no. But what it does mean is that whatever pain we – or others – endure, the important part is to seek to minimize the extra and sometimes unnecessary suffering that clusters around it. The news, for instance, only thrusts the pain of the world in front of us – it has nothing to say about what can be done about it – and so it is essentially unkind. But literature is quite different. A well-told story is constantly helping the reader to stay clear-sighted and engaged while conflict takes place, so that we can think about it without being overwhelmed.

These thoughts have been running around my mind lately, after listening to two quite dark tales. The first, Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, was very rapidly dubbed the ‘harrowing book’. Set in World War Two, it follows the fortunes of three young friends – Mary, who skies down to her finishing school the moment she hears war declared and packs her bags, hoping for adventure; Tom, who is in charge of education in a capital soon to be deserted by evacuation; and Alastair, Tom’s friend who has been working at the Tate as an art restorer, but who signs up immediately.

Mary is set to work as a teacher – not at all the sort of adventure she was longing for – and finds it surprisingly fulfilling. In particular, she forms a bond with Zachary, a dyslexic child (though no one understands this in 1939) whose father works in the Black-and-White Minstrels show in the West End. When Zachary returns from the country, having learned that rural prejudice is more dangerous than German bombing, Mary ends up in charge of a class of rejects. Children with learning difficulties or behavioural difficulties for whom the beauty pageant of evacuation has been a disaster. She also begins a love affair with Tom, who cannot help but admire her daring, courageous intentions, even while deploring the trouble she causes by them. People tend to have this mixed reaction to Mary – her well-born, well-bred mother, and her best friend, Hilda, being other examples. There is a long-held tradition of Mary pinching Hilda’s men, and so when the friends go for a double date during Alastair’s leave, the tradition raises its head in especially dangerous ways.

So far, I’ve made this book sound quite appealing, I hope, and mostly about love and friendship. But the majority of the narrative is concerned with the experiences of these characters during the Blitz and – in Alastair’s case – in Malta during its lengthy siege. And oh my lord, Cleave does not hold back with the horror of wartime. In fact, it is fair to say that the characters now undergo a series of traumas that will leave them broken and spent. I found long sections of this book very hard to listen to, and quite often I put my fingers in my ears and sang la la la la a lot. I only listened to a certain amount of it each night, so as to get to sleep. And then, when the horror never abated but seemed to be piled on and on, relentlessly, I found myself starting to laugh because I just couldn’t stay in that engaged place. Sometimes more is just too much.

Why did I stick with it? Well, essentially because of the quality of Chris Cleave’s prose. Here I owe the man an apology, because I seem to have contracted a prejudice about him. I thought he wrote just sensational stuff, all about making an audacious impact. And whilst this is sort of true, he can really, really write. He also keeps the characters’ interactions light. I’m not sure that everyone in wartime was this witty, but it’s nice to think so. There’s a real British spirit operating here (Brits really do whine during good times and then discover a sense of humour in awful crises), with the characters quipping away at one another, refusing to show they are rattled by means of deadpan humour. When a group of men are clinging to a too-small life raft off the coast of Gibraltar, the talk is all of the fish and chips they’ll have when they reach Brighton. The dialogue is very good, sharp and smart and pithy. Does it make up for all the characters go through? No, not really. It’s a bit like glitzy nail varnish on a corpse. But the ending is very gently hopeful, and the story is apparently based on the experiences of Cleave’s grandparents during the war (this bit was missed out of the audio book – shame!) and so you do believe there was the possibility of a happy ending eventually.

The second book I listened to was Salley Vickers’ Cousins. This was a very different beast – still beautifully written, but in a more straightforward way, less consciously literary. It was also very much informed by Vickers’ previous job as a psychotherapist, something that always thrills me in novels as I love a properly astute psychological framework in a story.

This novel begins with teenage Hetta being woken in the night by her parents. They have just received a phone call that changes everything: Hetta’s older brother, Wil, was climbing the tower of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, where he is a student, when he fell. The family make a stricken dash through the night from Northumberland to Cambridge, fearing that Wil may die before they arrive. In fact, what happens to him is worse than that.

What happens next in the story is, essentially, the slow, gradual retelling of a long family saga. We have to understand Wil’s fall as the culmination of all sorts of family tensions and secrets which Hetta is determined to uncover. In the immediate present, the fall seems to be linked to a forbidden relationship between Wil and his cousin, Cele, a young woman who has been much neglected by her mother, and who has sought refuge while growing up in Hetta’s family. Brought up almost as brother and sister, Wil and Cele have been a great deal more to one another than that. And this turns out to be a repetition of an earlier family root. Hetta’s grandparents were also first cousins, but they managed to marry – though not without an indiscretion of Hetta’s grandfather which produces a child, Nat. Nat’s mother is killed during the Blitz, and so Hetta’s grandmother brings him up as if he were her own. In fact, she feels closer to Nat, more loving of him than she does of her other children – Belle, Cele’s selfish mother, and Beetle, Hetta’s timid and sensitive father. Then tragedy strikes Nat, and a long string of family consequences ensue.

This is a novel of two parts. The majority of the narrative is concerned with retelling family history, and it switches between the hands of Hetta, her grandmother, and Belle. But the latter stages are quite different, a courtroom drama of sorts, and I found the change of pace and direction a little disorientating. However, there is much emotional resonance in these events, as it feels as if the unpunished, unseen ‘crimes’ of family life finally reach a sort of fruition in an actual court of law. And what happens here, how the crisis is dealt with by the family, is an outright attempt to make amends for all that has gone before.

Cousins is not a smooth book. The start is rather slow, the end is rather surprising, but I enjoyed it very much. Salley Vickers has a gentle hand with tragedy, allowing the narrative to touch it and then move away. Funnily enough, this was the book that brought me to tears on a couple of occasions, which goes to show that you do not have to put the reader’s heart through the wringer to be assured of creating an effect. In fact, I often think it is kindness and simplicity that are really tear-inducing. And maybe that’s because we weep when we encounter compassion, since we are so sorely in need of it.

 

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Although the title of this post is definitely a Mr-Litlove-esque one, I am sorry to say that Mr Litlove has not done anything comical for several weeks and so this is about books.

I’m wondering why my reading experiences have been so mixed lately – is it me or is it the books? I do think that audio books test a narrative severely and that something like The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild, a 17-hour listening slog, might be a much more entertaining book if you could zip through it on the page. As it was, I felt that this novel probably had a very good idea lurking deep within it, but the narrative flourishes including scheming Nazis, lost masterpieces, alcoholic mothers, desperate heads of auction houses, many, many international multi-millionaires, overnight success, murders and a truly ludicrous ending diluted that idea beyond redemption. After a while I re-named it: The Improbability of the Plot.

The story wasn’t helped by having a heroine who simply refused to become sympathetic despite having the entire catalogue of woes thrown at her. Or rather, it was because every fashionable device for creating sympathy was deployed that she drifts beyond the reader’s reach into boring incoherence. Annie is recently divorced and poor, living alone and lonely in London where she is hoping to earn a living as a cook. When the story begins she buys a dusty painting from a junk shop for a fledgling boyfriend – it’s his birthday – but alas the cad stands her up and Annie spends the night sobbing, unaware that she’s purchased a sleeper. The painting knows. The painting gets its own voice and its own chapters to tell us all about its fête galante fabulousness, daahling (I didn’t mind these). Then Annie’s alcoholic mother, Evie, comes stumbling back into her life and she thinks the picture might be worth something. Off they trot to the Wallace Collection where guide and amateur artist, Jessie, falls instantly in mad crazy love with Annie (it’s properly mad – she spends most of the book discouraging him after an opening in which she is longing for love, so who knows why either of them sticks with it). Jessie does all he can to get the picture authenticated for her, while Annie doubts and loses patience and can’t be bothered and oh all sorts of things that fail to whip up any interest in the reader.

Now I’m heading into big spoilers in this next paragraph so be warned. So, Annie goes to work for high class art dealers, Memling Winkleman (a 90-year-old in unbelievably good nick) and his put-upon daughter, Rebecca. The portrait of Rebecca is every bit as incoherent as that of Annie. Rebecca loves her father and yet is ground down by her father. When she discovers that he is not the sole Jewish survivor of a German family lost to the Holocaust, but a dirty Nazi who has funded their business with a huge stash of stolen art, she is so horrified by his lack of ethics, and so upset that the good name of the family will be tarnished, that she instantly puts out a hit on the art critic who has found Memling out, and then frames Annie for theft and murder. Wait, what?

There are good bits in this avalanche of narrative, and I was pretty much going along and enjoying it until about the halfway mark, when I began to lose the will to live. I think the art world is fascinating and I’d love to learn more about it, but this book is just too silly for words.

Moving swiftly on, then, to Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff. Now as books go, this one is a tricky little Munchkin.  If you hold it up to the light one way you get a very witty and amusing comedy about a man with hilariously clever dogs. If you hold it up to the light the other way you get a farcical take on depression and relationships and working in New York that is too crazy and all over the place for the big topics it’s wielding. I think to Rosoff’s credit, she is trying to pull off the very difficult trick of writing a book that is serious and funny at the same time. But again, the monster that is incoherence gets too good a grip on the middle section.

Jonathan Trefoil is a nice man but a lost one. He doesn’t understand what’s going on in his life, and he doesn’t have much idea about what he wants, but in an ideal world he’d like to be a grown-up doing grown-up things, like earning a living and marrying a woman he loves. However, his job is in an ad agency that is so superficial and absurd that it’s destroying him. And his girlfriend, Julie, is the organising sort who’s agreed to a wedding because the bridal magazine she works for is putting together a special edition and paying for it to feature. To add to his life woes, Jonathan is living in a dodgy rental and dog-sitting for his brother who’s working in Dubai. Although the previous sentences might lead you to think this is a book about Jonathan, it’s really about the dogs, who upstage every single character in every single scene they appear in. Really, the dogs are completely hilarious and adorable. In fact, the dogs could pretty much do without half the plot and half the characters, too, and just sort of improvise across the narrative. And I say this as someone who isn’t even into dogs.

So, Jonathan’s inability to get a grip on his life is entirely at odds with the iron grasp that fate seems to have got on him. The result is a severe breakdown in which he loses his ability to speak in anything but nonsense language. Ha, ha… no, not quite funny enough, somehow. Believe me, I was totally convinced by Jonathan’s character. I think he represents a fair slice of the male population. But you do long to give him a kick up the backside, and when it’s perfectly plausible that two canines have more instinct and drive than the human who feeds them, something is out of balance in your narrative. It makes Jonathan’s happy ending the implausible bit, because you don’t feel he’s had much agency in it.

What really redeems this book, however, is the brilliance of the writing. Meg Rosoff is SO funny. There’s scarcely an un-witty line in the whole thing. It’s like a masterclass in how to be funny in print, and how to use the absurd (so mishandled in most novels, cf The Improbability of Love) to its full effect. It’s sort of a shame that all this wonderful inventiveness is used in the cause of an ordinary rom-com.

Okay, I have, as ever, bypassed my 1,000 word limit without reaching my final book. But I’m not sure what to say about Elizabeth Strout’s novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, other than it’s wonderful. Spare, simple, direct storytelling that uses silence and the unsaid to devastating effect. Lucy is in hospital suffering from a strange, inexplicable infection after a routine appendicitis operation. While she is there her mother comes to visit her for five days. This is extraordinary – Lucy’s family is dysfunctional, poor, violent, full of shame and unresolved bitterness. When Lucy married she left and has not seen a single member for years. But now her mother has come and as she sits, sleepless, by the side of Lucy’s bed, they chat in an inconsequential way that thrills the once-neglected Lucy to the core. Her mother tells her stories of people from their home town but won’t be drawn into anything more intimate, anything more telling. But Lucy’s reaction, the patchwork of memories she gives the reader, her exquisitely rendered emotions at her mother’s presence, indicates the wealth of drama that is being played out under this most unassuming facade. I loved it.