Category Archives: Middling

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

4 stars

4/5

If you are a fan of Ian McEwan’s writing then Sweet Tooth shouldn’t disappoint.

Jonathan Cape, 2012 edition, 336 pages – gift

Set in the early 1970s in the shadow of the Cold War and IRA violence, the story follows Sylvia Frome, an attractive and bright young woman as she muddles her way through Cambridge university and then after a brief affair with an older man, tries to find her feet in the secret service. At a time when women were considered most usefully employed as paper-shufflers or secretaries Sylvia’s expectations are fairly low until she becomes involved in a special mission to seed literature with appropriate political undertones into public consciousness.

Sylvia is a likeable character – passionate about reading and knowledge. She has a quality about her which Spark’s Miss Brodie might call ‘instinctive’. She doesn’t always seem to know what path she is treading but makes the best of what is given to her. She doesn’t pass as a true ‘heroine’ because she isn’t quite formidable or solid enough – the reason for this lies at the end of the novel.

I admit that I was thrown a bit by what I expected from the novel (from the premise and early part of the story). I would recommend that you don’t pick this up thinking ‘ooh Ian McEwan does female James Bond!’ Sweet Tooth is really much more a book about character development, the feeling of a certain era and literature, with the spying element being more of a vehicle for this. Have I confused you enough with that explanation?

The pace of the novel is fairly leisurely and McEwan – skilled writer as he is – uses language to create sounds, scents and to pull the reader into his character’s memories. I marked the page for this short but lovely sentence;

“It became one of those childhood paradise places burnished by nostalgia”.

I found it fascinating to read about how the government tried to influence people’s political views through literature, especially in light of some of the recent discussions I’ve heard since the Olympics about China’s use of “Soft Power” to increase it’s national profile worldwide.

It is worth mentioning that critics of Sweet Tooth, would probably say that it doesn’t really go anywhere concrete, and some readers may feel tricked by McEwan. It won’t be for everyone (especially if you are  looking for a thriller) but I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I rather like to be led down unexpected paths when I’m reading.

An enjoyable and surprising read for me, and thanks Simon for giving me a copy for my birthday – his review is here.

Have you read or would you like to read Sweet Tooth?

And here are the books I read while I was away…

Over the past few months I guess I maybe haven’t read as much as I usually would. I’m not sure if that was just being very busy doing other things, or a bit of reading-fatigue.

I do think I felt less motivated to read as my head was so full of ‘to-dos’ and, as you may have gathered from my previous post on blogging principles it had started to feel a bit like a chore. Participants of Riverside Readers will also recognise that the selection below are almost exclusively book group choices. When you’re on a slow-reading run, reading a monthly book group choice can mean you don’t get to read much else but thankfully our members made some good choices.

Favourites;

Wide Sargasso Sea was my choice for Riverside Readers, a dark and moving tale which imagines the background and once vibrant personality of Antoinette Cosway a character Rhys plucks from Jane Eyre. Rhys’ sparing prose and darkly vivid descriptions of post-colonial Jamaica kept me spellbound. One that I would like to re-read.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus will always bring me fond memories, as I was reading it during my holiday to Prague where I became engaged to be married. It was such a delight to read about the magical world of the circus and it’s also a romantic story on many levels. Unusually for a book I’m enjoying, I found myself wanting to read it slowly so that I could savour it. One of the things that I loved was how the circus popped up all around the world (including Prague) so I could enjoy the descriptions of all the places that I have been. I also loved the imaginative characters.

Sweet Tooth is the last book I put down. A certain Savidge Reads gave me a copy about a month ago – we are both big fans of McEwan. I was a little uncertain about how much I would enjoy it as his last book Solar (review here) was was well written and topical but I wasn’t blown away with it as I was with other novels like Atonement or Enduring Love. In the end, it was that perfect combination of being both enjoyable to read and clever too. I also enjoyed reading from the point of view of Serena and the secret service plot-line although the storyline turned out a little differently than I thought it might – in a good way.

Worth checking out;



I also enjoyed Charlotte Rogan’s debut The Lifeboat which uses the plot device of  a stranded lifeboat to examine human behaviour in a claustrophobic and life-threatening situation. For me it read like a very well written television series – it was gripping but ultimately accounts of human behaviour under pressure such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Shute’s On The Beach (review here) disturbed me much more deeply.

God’s Own Country was excellent and also very dark. In the wild setting of the North Yorkshire countryside we meet local Sam Marsdyke who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young girl who has just moved to the area with her family. Raisin keeps the reader in an ambiguous haze as to Sam’s mindset – is he just a naive country bumpkin or are his motives more sinister?

The House of Sleep is the first novel that I’ve read by Jonathan Coe and one that I very much enjoyed. Featuring an insomniac and a narcoleptic who have a tormented relationship as well as a slightly evil doctor who studies sleeping habits it is an original and involving story. I found the narrative at the start of the book which jumps between different time periods a little confusing, but the way that the plot develops towards the end is very satisfying.

Fifty Shades of Grey. Well a friend gave me a copy of this though I’m not ashamed to admit that I was intrigued to read it. Long story short – a bit racy (oh I sound like a maiden aunt don’t I?!) but not that racy in the scheme of things (you’re wondering what else I’ve been reading now…). Not a literary feat, but not as terrible as I had been led to expect. Am I intrigued to find out what’s next for Christian and Ana…? Erm… kinda. Will I get prioritise reading Darker and Freed… probably not.

The Rough Guide to WeddingsThe wonderful Claire (of Paperback Reader) who comes along to Riverside Readers book group with me, and is going through her own big life-stage moment doing her new house up, gave me this one. I’m not going to lie – I at first thought “Ooh that’s absolutely lovely but I don’t need this, I am not after all BRIDEZILLA!”. Well you know what. I do need it and it is great. I started reading it on the tube home and I’ve read it cover to cover and referred back to it at least ten times already. It is also the most un-bridezilla wedding book as it is very practical and encourages you to think carefully about how nuts you want to go. Or maybe it is a bit bridezilla but I just can’t tell now because I’ve already transformed!

Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Manis one of those that I really enjoyed reading at the time but now can’t really remember much about except that I enjoyed it. I remember it being quite clever and prompting a good book group discussion but main threads… gone!

The rest;

Jasper Kent’s Twelve was Sakura’s choice for book group. I was really quite excited about this as the synopsis sounded thrilling – a vampire novel set in the Napoleonic wars in Russia. I was expecting a romp. It was a bit long and drawn out and not quite romp-ish enough. The main character was also really annoying and the female characters were totally unexciting. Overall quite entertaining but I wouldn’t read the next one unless I was on holiday, it was on the hotel bookshelf and I’d run out of books.

The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe was quite good but paled in comparison to The House of Sleep as mentioned above. It follows a some poor bloke whose life is falling apart as he goes on a mission to sell a prototype toothbrush to the furthest corners of the UK which involved going a long way out into the middle of nowhere and going slightly batty talking to his Sat Nav. Nice Novel Insights was thinking ‘poor old Maxwell Sim’ and nasty Novel Insights was thinking ‘oh sort it out!’

The Curfew (Vintage Contemporaries)by Jesse Ball was the choice of one of our lovely book group members Armen. I look forward to Armen’s choices because he always picks something I wouldn’t have heard of and often from a far-off land. This one just didn’t do it for me though. Maybe it was just a bit ‘too Kafka’ for me and you know I don’t always like that

I hope you enjoyed that whistle-stop tour of the books I’ve been reading and maybe saw one or two you are interested in.

What books have you read in the last six months that really stood out as favourites?

Anne Frank – Diary of a Young Girl

5 stars5/5

At almost twice the age Anne was when she write the last lines in her famous diary, I think back and try to remember back to my own inner-monologue as a teenager.

Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl Penguin 60th Anniversary Edition

Penguin, 2007, 60th Anniversary Edition, 368 pages - personal library

On one hand I wonder at her expressive writing and then remember that I as a young person I naturally had a certain freedom of expression and might have been as bold, although not as eloquent! I believe it is Anne’s candidness, which is both innocent and knowing that has made Anne’s diary appeal to millions of readers. As a young person you instantly relate, and as a ‘grown-up’ you suddenly remember what it was like to feel all those complicated emotions. Although it cannot be denied that Anne is self aware, there is an unguarded spirit that is not usually found in adult writing. I can see why some people have refused to believe it was real, because she writes so well, but then it is my view that people often do not give young people credit for the ability to question and for their depth of thinking. Perhaps those people have truly forgotten their youthful selves and how serious and important their concerns were to them.

I picked up my copy of The Diary of a Young Girl when I visited Holland last August. In my Religious Education classes at school I learned the contextual significance of Anne’s diary but I didn’t actually read it, and I have to admit that going to visit the Anne Frank Huis wasn’t top of my list of things to do. Then a friend at work warmly recommended I add it to my itinerary on my visit to Amsterdam and I’m glad to say that it was a truly excellent because of how thoughtfully the exhibition was put together. It also made me want to finally read the diary so I picked up a copy in the shop and when Savidge Reads chose it as one of his books to read before his 30th (his recent review is here) I bumped it up my TBR.

Bookcase - Hidden Stairway - Anne Frank

Amazing - the hidden stairway behind the bookcase - and rather appropriate for a book-blog don't you think?

Well by the 5 star rating and my effusive comments you must have guessed already that I found Anne’s diary to be a fantastic read. I was completely drawn into Anne’s world, shared her moments of speculation, boredom, anger, claustrophobia and fear, sheer delight at simple treats and her emotional ups and downs with her Mother (some seriously harsh words!), her much-admired Father, Peter, and the aggravating Mr Dussel and Mrs van Dann. At times Anne is petulant, irritating. At times she is grateful. Throughout she remains honest and her words sound out her feelings as clear as a bell. Curiously, I didn’t feel overly emotional while reading it, but when I read the afterword her story really hit home. I suppose it’s because by the end of the book I felt as if I had come to know Anne, warts and all, and then to read in black and white what I already knew – that she died in a concentration camp after all that time hiding away – I just felt such sadness. What a waste of a life, and how representative of the lives wasted in that war, through hatred and ignorance. Well I’m really getting on my soapbox now, but it is a story which compels you to consider that fact and it is a heavy warning.

The funny thing is that though we know that the story ends sadly and there are  bitter moments of expression – Anne’s ‘violent outbursts on paper’, but the diary is mostly joyful and optimistic – full of beautiful words and thoughts.

“I’m young and strong and living through a big adventure; I’m right in the middle of it and can’t spend all day complaining because it’s impossible to have any fun! I’m blessed with many things: happiness, a cheerful disposition and strength. Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and  the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is. With all that, why should I despair?”

The Diary of a Young Girl is unmissable piece of History, and more than that it is a great piece of writing.

To sign off, a couple of photographs from my trip to the Netherlands last year which I never got around to posting at the time. [Photo credit goes to the OH as usual]. “Memories mean more to me than dresses” – Anne Frank.

Houses on the Canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands / Holland

Houses on the canal, Amsterdam.

Windmills - Kinderdijk, Netherlands.

Have you read Anne Frank’s diary or studied it at school?

Do you remember how you felt as a teenager (if you’re not any more!)?

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

4 stars4/5

In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant takes a fleeting moment in the Old Testament of the Bible and transforms it into an epic narrative.

The Red Tent

Pan, 2001 edition (first published in 1997), 386 pages - personal library

Dinah is a biblical character around which a violent set of events occur. If you are religious or at all acquainted with theology, you will know what they are. The Red Tent turns the story on its head by telling the story through the eyes of Dinah herself and turns her from a victim, into a fascinating protagonist.

This is a book to read if you love folklore and storytelling. Dinah’s narrative drew me into the world so that I felt as if I was sitting down next to her, listening.

“We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.”

From the very first line I was excited to know more about this woman and I felt it was going to be a story of adventure, love and betrayal.

One of the strongest themes in The Red Tent is women’s relationships. How Motherhood, Sisterhood and female hierachies work in a situation where it is perfectly normal for a man to have multiple wives. I’ve no idea what it was really like of course, but Diamant’s vision of this time in history feels so authentic, it is as if she was there observing as part of the family of Jacob. She imagines the concerns of the women in the group and the dynamic between them created by their contrasting personalities. Leah is arguably the strongest of the women and mother to Dinah, beautiful and tempestuous Rachel, and the ‘lesser wives’ generous and humble Bilhah and spiritual Zilpah. As you would expect in such a situation, feelings of jealousy and spite are present but are also tempered by the bond connecting the women and the common experiences of childbearing and daily rituals. While the narrative never makes a clear moral comment on a man having multiple wives, perhaps it is telling that the real romance in the book is that of Dinah and Shechem who is the prince of Egypt who have an intense and exclusive love.

The real drama in the book comes from the action taken by Simon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers. What makes the story so heartbreaking is that as a reader you have come to know and empathise with these strong female personalities and appreciate the loving bonds between them, yet just a moment of unwanted violent revenge spurred by illogic male pride changes everything.

A word of warning, The Red Tent is a book more sympathetic to female characters than male and the first half of the book is pretty much all about the relationships between the women. For anyone with a very traditional view of the story of Jacob, I can also imagine that it would be challenging as it plays so strongly with the received view of events. That said, male or female please don’t let these things put you off. The Red Tent is a fascinating story – a real yarn – that has the power to transport you to a completely different era.

Thank you to Anirban from the Riverside Readers book group who gave me this a year ago in a ‘Secret Santa’ book swap.

Have you read The Red Tent and if so did you enjoy it?

Reading notes 2 – Feat. Edmund de Waal, Kazuro Ishiguro and Juli Zeh

A little while ago I did this post of mini reviews which I found rather a good way of catching up with myself. Sometimes a girl is rushing around so much she realises she’s read lots of books that she hasn’t gotten around to reviewing yet!

I don’t know about you but I find it’s quite therapeutic jotting down thoughts in shorthand sometimes. Here are those virtual post-it’s again…

The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

3.5 stars3.5/5

Synopsis: 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox: potter Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in the Tokyo apartment of his great uncle Iggie. Later, when Edmund inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger than he could ever have imagined.

Dark Matter, by Juli Zeh

4 stars4/5

Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But after graduation, their lives took very different paths; while Oskar holds a prestigious research post in Geneva, Sebastain worries that he hasn’t lived up to his intellectual promise, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy. A few days after a particularly heated argument between the two men, Sebastian leaves his son sleeping in the back seat while he goes into a service station. When he returns, the car has disappeared without trace. His phone rings and a voice informs him that in order to get his son back he must kill a man. As Sebastian’s life unravels, the only person he can safely reach out to is Oskar…

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, Kazuo Ishiguro

3 stars3/5

In a sublime story cycle, Kazuo Ishiguro explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time. From the piazzas of Italy to the Malvern Hills, a London flat to the ‘hush-hush floor’ of an exclusive Hollywood hotel, the characters we encounter range from young dreamers to cafe musicians to faded stars, all of them at some moment of reckoning. Gentle, intimate and witty, this quintet is marked by a haunting theme: the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance, even as one gets older, relationships flounder and youthful hopes recede.

*dusting off hands* Well that’s my little wrap up for the week!

Have you read any of these books. Did you find The Hare with the Amber Eyes what you expected? Have you been lulled by Ishiguro’s short stories or baffled by Juli Zeh’s physics-themed murder mystery?

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Discovering Daphne Readalong #4

4 stars 4/5

Thanks to Simon lending me his library copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories on Monday (after I was able to hunt out my own last weekend), I am able to conclude Discovering Daphne! This copy might have travelled some 200 miles from its home in Manchester, but within the pages of this short story collection I travelled much further, from Venice to Israel, Crete to Ireland.

Don't Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier

Penguin Modern Classics, 2006 paperback edition (first published as a collection in 1971), 272 pages - loan

Don’t Look Now is the first story, and the most famous (made into a film with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christy in the 1970s), was a re-read for me, yet it lost nothing in the telling. I decided on a whim to read all the stories in a muddled-up order instead of one after the other, which I usually do.  I feel it was rather apt to finish Discovering Daphne with the spooky Don’t Look Now on Halloween! Daphne du Maurier is a mistress of atmosphere and as she does in Rebecca where she takes the reader through the gardens of Manderley, she conjures the labyrinthine streets of Venice, romantic by day, haunting and oppressive by night. A couple are on holiday in this beautiful city, there trying to forget the loss of their little girl and mend their relationship, but the story takes a turn for the unusual when they bump into two strange old ladies. Don’t Look Now is probably my favourite short story, or at least it’s my favourite short spooky story. Luckily I hadn’t seen the film the first time I read this (although I have now and I have to admit it’s rather dated but creepy in the way that 70’s horror movies almost inherently are), so I was quite taken aback by the nasty little twist at the end and I found it almost as suspenseful the second time around. This is a brilliant, chilling tale.

Not After Midnight is about a schoolmaster who takes a holiday in Crete. Looking forward to enjoying painting the Mediterranean seascape, he finds that his peace and quiet is shattered by an over-loud American man, named Stoll who is staying at the same hotel with his long-suffering wife. As the story develops, the schoolmaster has a disconcerting feeling that something is not right on his idyllic island. When I first picked up this collection of stories and read Not After Midnight perhaps I was just not in the right mood because I found it a bit dull, but for some reason the second time around it really unsettled me. I think I missed the little hints of what was to come when I read it before and this time I was really absorbed. It is a strange little tale and perhaps would lose something for a reader with no understanding of Greek myth but I really enjoyed it.

In A Border Line Case a young aspiring actress, goes on a journey to Ireland to find an old friend of her recently deceased father. While on the Emerald Isle she is practically kidnapped by the locals and spends an unusual night with her father’s old comrade. I don’t want to give anything away but suffice to say this is one of the more shocking tales in the series! I’m not quite sure whether to think it’s a little too bizarre or just brilliantly nasty.

I enjoyed the descriptions of Jerusalem in The Way of the Cross but wasn’t really gripped by the storyline. All the characters were horrible apart from poor hormonal Mrs Foster and pathetic Miss Dean. This doesn’t normally put me off but I think that perhaps there were just too many different personalities in a short story for me to really be invested in what was happening with them.

The Breakthrough was a curious experimental piece – a mix of the spiritual and scientific (something that du Maurier also plays with in The House on the Strand.) It wasn’t quite my cup of tea and I also wasn’t convinced by how quickly the main character came to believe in the research that he was doing, but it is original and I liked the idea that something amazing could be discovered unbeknown to the rest of civilisation in a little backwater somewhere.

Although some stories in this collection stand out much more for me than others, overall I think it’s a perfect way to dip into du Maurier’s work. It is also interesting to read because it was written much later than her better known novels, so feels quite modern. If you like a good scary story then it’s worth buying for Don’t Look Now and some of the others in the collection are just as dark if not more so. My advice is to make you’ve got a nice cup of tea to take away the chills after reading this one.

The Guardian also chose Don’t Look Now as a reading choice for October – you might enjoy heading over to read the comments and commentary here, or read this excellent review by Simon, my lovely Discovering Daphne co-host.

Did you join in with the Don’t Look Now readalong or have you perhaps been tempted to pick up a copy?

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne readalong #5

5 stars5/5

I’ve been pretty busy lately and left my reading of the fifth Discovering Daphne choice rather late, but I’m rather glad now that I did as my tardiness resulted in me sitting down to read it in a couple of long reading sessions. When my mind is bothered by the to and fro of everyday life there is something really wonderful about holing myself up with a book, and what better novel to consume within thirty-six hours, than the utterly mesmerising Rebecca? I get a little anxious about re-reading much-loved books in case I find them lacking the second time around, but I needn’t have worried.

Avon press, 1971 paperback edition (first published in 1938), 380 pages - personal library

For those that don’t know the plot of this famous book, I’ll try to summarise without giving too much away. Rebecca is written from the point of view of a young un-named woman who while acting as a companion to a rather tactless and sycophantic American woman – Mrs Van Hopper – is introduced to Maximilian de Winter. Our protagonist who is hampered by a crushing sort of shyness and self-consciousness about her youth which she believes makes her terribly unsophisticated and unattractive, however Maxim de Winter is drawn to her in part because of her sweet and innocent nature. It seems that he is running away from some former life, seeking escape in this fresh young personality. When Mrs Van Hopper decides to leave Monte Carlo, where they are staying and go to her daughter in New York, Maxim makes a rather straightforward proposal to our narrator – that she should come and live with him as his second wife at Manderley, his grand estate in Cornwall back in England. The second Mrs de Winter is rapt by the beauty of Manderley and it’s wonderful gardens, yet from the moment that she sets foot in the house she feels ill at ease, not helped by the fact that the housekeeper Mrs Danvers who adored the first Mrs de Winter (Rebecca) looks down on her as an unwelcome intruder and unworthy second mistress to the great house.

Rebecca is a beautiful and disturbing novel about jealousy, hatred and obsession. The narrator, in her innocence should almost be irritating, yet because as a reader I was let into every little moment of her experience, I understood her fears and her little fluttering moments of joy – I sympathised with her as a friend might do. One moment she is full of anticipation and the next minute her spirit is crushed. She adores Maxim and in seeking to understand his feelings for his dead wife her mind runs away with her into dark tunnels, not helped by the disconcerting and ever-present personality of Mrs Danvers who adds to the seeds of doubt in her mind. I had forgotten some of the specifics about how the story plays out so on re-reading the novel I actually felt for the first half of the novel almost sympathetic to Mrs Danvers. Perhaps I thought, she is just looking for the new Mrs de Winter to step up and take charge, but after the fancy-dress ball I had to concede that she was simply cruel and twisted. If I really give her the benefit of the doubt I can see how being in the thrall of Rebecca might have made her that way but it is from the young Mrs de Winter’s perspective that the story is told so it is her that I really feel for.

Antique print of Menabilly, Cornwall - the inspiration for Manderley (from antique-prints-maps.com)

Perspective… I do wonder, how Rebecca would be as a novel if it was told from the point of view of the other characters. How would Mrs Danvers tell the story? How would Rebecca herself describe her life and relationship with Maxim before her death. Normally, I can’t help but have a sneaky respect for the anti-hero in a novel but somehow this just wasn’t so for me when reading Rebecca, but it does make me wonder if had we had Rebecca’s own account (as you might in a Wilkie Collins novel), or the story of her cousin Favel, I might have felt differently. Even though I was mentally in support of the second Mrs de Winter, I have to admit that she is just as blinded by obsessive love for Maxim de Winter as Mrs Danvers is for Rebecca’s memory.

Apart from a fabulous and twisted plotline one of the things that I find so special in Rebecca it is the atmosphere that du Maurier creates. The way that she personifies Manderley, making it into a living and breathing thing. It is part of the narrator’s nightmares and her dreams. I revelled in the descriptions of the gardens and the beautiful images that du Maurier creates, yet, almost every sentence holds a counter-point, an edge of darkness:

“The daffodils were in bloom, stirring in the evening breeze, golden heads cupped upon lean stalks… Too early yet for blue bells, their heads were still hidden beneath last year’s leaves, but when they came dwarfing the more humble violent, they choked the very bracken in their woods, and with their colour made a challenge to the sky.”

The unusual blood red colour of the rhododendrons, associated so closely with Rebecca suggest passion, but also something uncomfortable and unnatural. When the narrator returns to Manderley in her dreams she sees the gardens engulfed by ‘malevolent ivy’ and a ‘half-breed plant’. Reading these sinister and voluptuous  descriptions I was completely drawn into the world of Manderley with our narrator and shared her simultaneous sense of attraction and fear of the place.

I could go on forever about this novel. It is just so beautiful and absorbing, and also utterly unsettling because du Maurier fixes on the dark human fears and emotions that concern us all. As our narrator treads the thin line between perception and reality, so do we as readers question what is reasonable, who is right, and are reminded how slight the divide between happiness and ruin can be. It was also fascinating to read this novel after sampling a wide variety of du Maurier’s works this month. I smiled to myself as I noticed common themes – stormy seas, classical references (the ominous satyr in the garden) and mad urges to drive off a cliff reminded me of The House on the Strand, however even though I notice these trademarks more and more now, I always feel as if I’m experiencing something different with du Maurier. Of all her novels, I think this is the one that really gets under my skin and even though Jamaica Inn will always be my first love, I have to admit that I think Rebecca is du Maurier’s masterpiece.

Do pop over to read Simon’s thoughts at Savidge Reads and tell us what you thought of Rebecca as once we’ve come out of our Manderley haze I’m sure that we’ll do a bit of a wash-up post with links to the Discovering Daphne posts from this month.

I’ll also be putting up my thoughts on the spooky Don’t Look Now and Other Stories tomorrow (belatedly, but rather aptly on Halloween don’t you think?).

The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne Readalong #3

3.5 stars3.5/5

“Curiouser and curiouser”, said Alice famously, after descending the rabbit hole to Wonderland and drinking a mysterious draught from a flask. Unlike Alice, whose body becomes etiolated, in The House on the Strand it is our protagonist’s mind that is altered when he drinks a drug concocted by his professor-friend Magnus Lane, and ‘curious’ would be my take on this unusual novel.

Virago Press, 2003 paperback edition, 353 pages - personal library

Dick Young is temporarily staying in the house of his friend, a biophysicist in Kilmarth, Cornwall. He agrees to play guinea-pig in an experiment, testing a drug which appears to have the effect of transporting him back in time to the 14th century. Although Dick’s mind is transported his body remains in the present and as a result he traipses around the countryside oblivious to the existing surroundings until he inadvertently bumps into an obstruction. On each trip, he finds himself witnessing the lives of the people he finds there, in particular a woman named Lady Isolda Carminowe and a steward named Roger who he finds he is compelled to follow. Unfortunately for Dick, his wife Vita and her two sons come to join him in Cornwall from America, which he finds frustrating because it interrupts his visits to the past which he finds he is more and more addicted to. Vita becomes increasingly worried by Dick’s strange behaviour as he is drawn further into his medieval world.

I found The House on the Strand frustratingly slow-going for the first half of the book and I didn’t find myself wanting to pick it up much in the first few chapters. Firstly I was a bit unsure about the pseudo-scientific explanations that Marcus gives for why the drug takes Dick back in time (although in hindsight, this may have been deliberate on the part of du Maurier). Secondly, I couldn’t get to grips with the medieval characters for some reason – compared to the people in the modern day they just didn’t seem as real or as interesting. Again, perhaps this was for a good reason!

I did say on the phone to Savidge Reads today that I found it sad that Dick seemed to be missing out on enjoying the present because of his obsession with the characters from the past and that maybe du Maurier was making a point about this. Since reading Picardie’s Daphne, and a range of du Maurier’s writing I’ve started to see more recurring themes in her novels. At times I felt that Dick’s escapism was akin to du Maurier’s own sense of affinity with other worlds, but I also thought that at times she projected a part of herself onto Vita, the wife left bemused by her distracted husband. This goes to something else which I found interesting about The House on the Strand, which is that it is written from the perspective of a man, but this was initially quite ambiguous and I didn’t attribute the gender of the narrator as male until I had read a few pages in. Daphne du Maurier is said to have been a tomboy when she was younger and after her death it was revealed that she most likely had lesbian relationships (although she never openly admitted this) so perhaps it is not surprising then that she plays with gender and questions of sexuality. There are also strong hints at a homosexual undertone in  The House on the Strand – I’ll need to re-configure my Gaydar if Professor Lane is not supposed to be secretly in interested in Dick (no pun intended), and although it is not suggested that Dick is interested in the Professor sexually, he does feel very connected to him. To add to the mystery, although Dick seems to have next to no interest in sleeping with his wife, he does seem quite spellbound by Isolda! What a mixed-up character.

So, hopefully you can tell by now that I became more and more intrigued by The House on the Strand as it developed. I can’t say that I ever really got into the parts of the book that were set in the 1300s, but I really did enjoy the contemporary parts of the novel. It probably helped that I really curled up with the book properly today and became absorbed in it. It also helped that around page two-hundred, du Maurier starts to work her dark magic and embellishes the story with some nasty little twists and turns. Looking back, I’m not quite sure if I think The House on the Strand is a too flawed to be an example of Daphne du Maurier’s genius or whether some of the flaws that I perceived were actually intended (such as the spurious scientific ideas!). I’m happy to give her the benefit of the doubt, as even though I struggled at times with this book, yet again I’m impressed with her ability to experiment with such varied concepts in her writing and I know that I’ll be thinking about the story of The House on the Strand for years to come.

Mary Anne, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne Readalong #2

4.5 stars4.5/5

I read Mary Anne a couple of months ago, and now sitting down to pull together my thoughts, my enthusiasm for this book hasn’t dampened. I was delighted by Mary Anne. I was surprised, because although I always expect wonderful writing from Daphne du Maurier, I anticipated a tough read because it looked from the cover like a dense historical novel. What I discovered instead was a book, packed with with witty lines, and a richly described period setting which creates the backdrop for the story of a fascinating protagonist based on du Maurier’s own great-great-grandmother.

Virago Press, 2004 paperback edition, 320 pages - library loan

Mary Anne, set during the Regency era, follows the rise of Mary Anne Clarke right from being a little girl, living in Bowling Inn Alley, a very poor area of London through her early disastrous relationship with her first husband, who she leaves and then sets herself up in ‘business’ as a high-class prostitute to support her family and lifestyle she aspires to. She catches the eye of the Duke of York, who is beguiled by her beauty and wit. At first it seems that he is the ultimate companion for Mary Anne in her desire to climb the social ladder, however his extravagant lifestyle is not backed by sufficient wealth, leading his mistress to find ingenious ways to keep herself in the style she is accustomed to. It is her entrepreneurship that leads to a huge scandal that shakes up the government and sees Mary Anne boldly fighting her case in the British Pariliament.

I was completely absorbed by Mary Anne. Du Maurier writes her protagonist into life with such passion and skill, making it clear why she makes every decision and how these choices shape her journey through society. Despite being a single-minded social-climber, as a reader I forgave her her every mis-step and couldn’t but help admire her tenacity. From the early days when as a young girl she uses her quick wit, to keep money rolling in by copy-editing in secret, to setting her self up in the house at Tavistock Place, so much of what she does is driven by a desire to provide stability for her family and find it for herself. Of course she also loves her luxuries, and it is this that actually keeps her always only a thin line away from destitution, but also drives her forward and furnishes her with the front she needs to keep moving up. She creates this image for herself, even in the worst of times abiding by idea that it is important to “keep face, to show a bright facade” and that “when faced with a doubtful decision… audacity first.”

Mrs Clarke The York Magnet - Image from The National Portrait Gallery website

“Audacity first” at times leads to disaster for those who have helped her along the way – for example the suicide of her first husband’s brother, who after some bad advice from Mary Anne, loses all of his money on the stockmarket. However, it is Mary Anne’s boldness that makes this such an interesting story and leads her right into the halls of Parliament to hold court there – “…standing before the bar of the House of Commons, the only woman in a world of men.” Mary Anne, is a strongly feminist novel and du Maurier uses the difficulties of the female position at this time juxtaposed with her character’s extreme forthright and wilful behaviour to show just how remarkable she must have been to make the connections and live the lifestyle that she did. Mary Anne is not an angel by stretch of the imagination, but she is a warm and entertaining human being. While she is responsible for bringing the Duke of York to scandal, she never loses sight of the fact that she loved him and it is very hard to call – is she to blame for everything, or is he getting his just deserts for using and disposing of her? Du Maurier lets the reader decide for themselves by simply showing Mary Anne in all her complexity as the story plays out.

"Archers" - Mary Anne Clarke hunting her prey? Courtesy of Madame Pickwick Art Blog

My favourite thing about this book is the humour that runs through it and the fact that Mary Anne never takes herself too seriously. I loved the little touches such as her seal on letters being  Cupid riding on an ass, which must have come from real life. I loved being a party to her inner thoughts and observations of people, “The creature stared at her. The expression was stolid, dumb worship. Could she be slightly mental? Were the eyes a trifle vacant?”  In fact there are so many passages that I would like to quote from this book that I would probably breach copyright if I put them all in.

Satirical Cartoon of Mary Anne Clarke auctioning military commissions from The National Portrait Gallery website

Daphne du Maurier evidently found the story of her great-great-grandmother fascinating, and although according to the introduction in my copy, she didn’t feel as if she had done her justice I can’t disagree more. It makes me wonder actually why on earth this hasn’t been picked up for a film or television series as it is really quite brilliant. If you look at ratings of this book you’ll see it gets around a 3.5/5, but when you read the reviews in detail you can see that opinions are completely polarised between those who don’t like the character, or are disappointed that it’s so different from Rebecca and those how are completely blown away by it.  As you can probably tell by now, I fall into the latter category and I love the fact that it is so different from her other novels and shows again, how versatile an author she could be.

Did you readalong with Mary Anne and if so what did you think? Or have I tempted you with my glowing review 🙂 ?

Daphne, by Justine Picardie

4 stars4/5

My copy of Daphne, by Justine Picardie had been sitting on a stack of unread books for some time looking forlornly at me. ‘Why haven’t you read me yet?’ it reprimanded. ‘Why – when you love Daphne du Maurier so, haven’t you picked me up?’

Daphne

Bloomsbury, 2008 paperback edition, 416 pages - personal library

If I’m honest, even though I was interested to read it, I’m not a huge fan of things biographical. I don’t know why (perhaps I’m allergic to real life!), but even if a person is particularly interesting I rarely want to read a biography. With Discovering Daphne on the horizon, I decided it was about time to give it a go. What I found out is that Daphne is the perfect blend of biography and fiction that suits someone like me.

There are three voices in Daphne. Daphne du Maurier herself, who we meet when she is aged 50 and struggling with her husband’s illness and the collapse of her marriage. Then there is John Alexander Symington, a scholar who Daphne has contacted to help her with her research on a new biography that she is writing about Branwell Brontë, the famous black sheep of the Bronte family. Finally, fast forward to the present day, and our third narrator is a young woman who is writing a PhD thesis on du Maurier and becomes intrigued by Daphne du Maurier’s hunt for the truth about Branwell Brontë and the letters between her and Symington which seem to suggest a literary scandal at the heart of them.

What a thoughtfully planned novel this is. Picardie evidently researched Daphne in great depth in order to create what feels like a faithful representation of her at this stage of life, while keeping a light touch in her writing and avoiding it becoming overworked. She also creates clever little parallels in her novel to the du Maurier’s own work which as a literary device really worked for me as I love spotting references. If I was being very critical, I could say that the parallels are unsubtle – for example, the young PhD student if I remember rightly has no name, just as the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, and suffers the same kind of feelings of inadequacy in her marriage. However this style really worked for me and I believe that Picardie is making her own observation that du Maurier’s depiction of the fears and emotions of the second Mrs de Winter are in fact part of a pretty universal experience that most women have encountered at some point in their lives.

I liked that all the characters in the book were doing their own bit of literary detective work, hoping to uncover a mystery or scandal that they could call their own. Perhaps the one conclusion that they all come to is that real-life stories don’t have a neat key to them.

In many ways, Daphne is a book to curl up with, it’s comforting, especially if you are a fan of du Maurier’s books, because there are elements that feel familiar. However, Daphne is certainly not a frivolous read. Picardie draws out quite a few dark themes around professional jealousy, fear of failure, as well as obsession hinting that Daphne du Maurier suffered from mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and even hallucinations. Symington fights his own emotional issues, and has a temperament which makes him at times detestable and at others, pitiable. It is his feeling of failure that eats him up.

I think it would be remiss of me not to admit that I don’t think Daphne would hold quite as much appeal to people who haven’t read du Maurier’s novels, however I’d like to think that it might inspire those who hadn’t to do so. Picardie’s portrait of du Maurier was to me, utterly convincing, and while in many ways her novel is homage to the author, it is also quite brutal as it explores the darkest corners of her family history. I wonder, if Daphne du Maurier, who used her wonderful skills of observation to expose the deepest corners of her own characters’ souls would have approved?