Tag Archives: Family Histories

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?

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 🙂 ?

The Loving Spirit, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne Readalong #1

3.5 stars 3.5/5

Yesterday I lounged in the garden in the wonderful sunshine, enjoying the luxury of several hours of complete absorption in The Loving Spirit with several cups of tea (in an appropriate mug)…

…and the companionship of a little friend.

When planning Discovering Daphne month, Savidge Reads felt it was only right and proper that we should start our journey with du Maurier’s first published novel. Although neither of us are new to du Maurier, reading lesser-known or early books by an author that one loves can be quite a voyage of discovery.

Virago Press, 2003 paperback edition, 420 pages - library loan

Originally published in 1931 The Loving Spirit takes it’s title from Brontë’s poem Self Interrogation. (Read it in full here)

“Alas – the countless links are strong
That bind us to our clay,
the loving spirit lingers long,
And would not pass away”

The book tracks the lives of the Coombe family over several generations, starting with Janet who in 1830 is a young woman with a passion for adventure and a love of the sea. In the small town of Plyn, she marries her cousin Thomas, a boat builder, and knowing that she will never be able to fulfil her seafaring dreams, settles down to raise a family. When her youngest son, Joseph is born, she passes on her spirit of adventure and somehow Mother and Son are connected by an unbreakable bond which at time seems to defy even the rules of time and space. The reader follows four generations of the Coombe family over a period of a century as they tread their own distinctive paths, while remaining connected by a sort of invisible thread which is the immutable ‘loving spirit’.

The Loving Spirit is certainly not a perfect book. In fact if I read the synopsis I’ve written above, it all sounds a little flowery and improbable. Some of it is improbable, but, du Maurier plays with spiritual themes in her novels with dexterity. Unlike Rebecca, the spirit in this novel is tender, however it is also tempestuous. There are echoes of Wuthering Heights in The Loving Spirit, with the theme of a bond of love that is all-consuming and transcends death, as well as in the stormy atmosphere of the novel. I think that most readers would find Janet’s relationship with Joseph unsettling. There are passages that are quite sensual at times, and Janet, seems not only to see Joseph as her child but also as her soulmate and at times Joseph’s looks and fiery nature make him seem almost like a male mirror-image of his Mother. Pretty dark, no? A fore-runner of things to come in du Maurier’s later novels, certainly.

Having said all that, there is a great innocence to many of the characters. For example Christopher, Joseph’s son is a lovely appealing sort of person, who fundamentally just wants to make his own way and to please his father and his new family. Du Maurier uses dialect to convey feel of the simple, rural life in a way that reminds me a little of Thomas Hardy novels and also makes me think of Lorna Doone (although I’ve never read it!). With the west-country dialects and vividly described natural landscapes, at times I started to worry that she was creating a sort of chocolate-box olde worlde charm, but of course, just when everything is getting  a little too cosy, she throws in a spot of madness, or a villainous character.

I’ve been really impressed in reading  The Loving Spirit and also Mary Anne (which I got a head-start on a couple of months ago), with the skilful way in which du Maurier conveys the passage of time. The book feels epic but by highlighting only the most important moments of the most interesting characters’ lives there is also a concentrated energy about her writing.

Curiously, in the final part of the story the tone of the book changes. Perhaps it is partly because the turn of the century marks a shift into modernity, or perhaps it is to do with the voice of Jennifer. She is the most grounded of the characters in the story, and though I may be reading too much into her writing, I felt that she was the closest that du Maurier really gets to putting a bit of herself into the novel. There are also some quite humorous moments where Jennifer’s partially deaf grandmother keeps mishearing conversations and accusing her of inappropriate behaviour which I felt must surely have been plucked straight from life! I can’t help but think it would have been nice to have some more of these amusing moments earlier in the story though.

In my mind, The Loving Spirit is Daphne du Maurier striking out boldly as a new writer, trying out her own personal style, inspired as much by the wild Cornish landscape that she adored, as the writing of Emily Brontë who she evidently admired. I really enjoyed the plot, atmosphere and the vibrant characters, and while I didn’t find it as satisfying a read as I have done other books by her, it was truly fascinating to see where Daphne du Maurier started her journey as a writer.

Have you read any debut novels by authors you love after reading their masterpieces? Did they give you a special perspective on the author and their writing?

Find out what Savidge Reads thought of The Loving Spirit here.