Sunday, November 13, 2022

Reading group: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

John, who had suggested this book, and had read it more than once before, said that he thought it was a truly great book (in the sense of its literary stature), but that he both loved and hated it.

It is the story of the Bundrens, a family of poor farmers of the deep American south, exeriencing the death of their wife and mother Addie, and then taking an arduous journey to bury her, according to her wishes, in Jefferson from where she came. They are delayed by various difficulties including floods and a fire, and the body in the coffin on the wagon begins to rot as vultures wheel overhead. The whole expedition - and the family rivalries and the characters' various additional ulterior motives for taking the journey - is conveyed in a series of multiple vernacular interior monologues: the thoughts, observations and memories of the family members and others they encounter.

Clearly a landmark book in the advent of Modernism in the early twentieth-century, it thus eschews entirely the prop of an objective narrator, and relies on the characters revealing themselves and each other through their inner stream-of-consciousness thoughts, often unreliable and incomplete in understanding, and leaving readers having to piece together the story and its implications for themselves.

John said he loved this experimentalism and in particular the stress on psychology, which is rendered with such searing insight, but it was certainly a novel that worked the reader hard, both for the reason stated above and because the southern vernacular was very hard to penetrate, particularly before you got used to it. As Doug and I interjected, some of the sentences seem at first impenetrable, even unfinished, until you attune to their logic, particularly as part of Faulker's project here is to render with veracity the way our thoughts can be sometimes muddled, incomplete and inconsistent. It took me a second reading to understand these sentences from the only section in the voice of the (more literate, ex-schoolteacher) Addie:

'I knew that [the word] fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride who never had the pride. I knew that it had been, not that they [ie the schoolchildren she had taught] had dirty noses, but that we had used one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching.' 

Addie's preoccupation in this whole section is, significantly, about the uselessness of words, and their inability truly to represent experience, or, as the second sentence conveys, to create connections between people. (At one point there is a gap in the text illustrating the impossibility for her of expressing one particular feeling). For this reason, having initially thought that the beginning of the second sentence was referring back to the previous sentence ('it' being fear or pride or both), I then thought I was reading an unfinished sentence, as apparently indicated by that comma, interrupted by a new thought about the schoolchildren. Only after a double-take did I realise that 'it' in the second sentence referred to the reason (for her hating the children and beating them), which wasn't, as she had once thought, their dirty noses, but because she couldn't connect with them through the impossibility of words.

Everyone agreed that the book was hard work, so that no one could say they had actually enjoyed it, but all found it extremely interesting. We all felt we really needed to read it again, sure that we would get a lot more out of it a second time. (There were plot points about which some of us were still unclear, and ironies that, having resolved them in our discussion, we felt we could relish better a second time around; John said he'd enjoyed the book best on this his third or so reading.) Another thing that made the going harder for the reader at the start was the sheer number of characters (fifteen I think in all), most of them speaking early on. We all agreed that the early part of the book, as these characters are allowed to establish themselves, was slow, and that it was later that the book really got going with some pace. (Doug said that he had started the book years ago but had not got past the early part, and I, who thought I had read the book before, must have done the same, as I had absolutely no recognition of the more dramatic events of the rest of the novel.)

Someone suggested that another problem was that the voices weren't all that distinct from each other, and our initial reaction was to agree, but when we talked about it, it seemed that perhaps we were seeing them too much through their vernacular, and that within it there were indeed distinctions: Addie, as I have commented, is more literate and speaks/thinks in more abstract terms, as do the doctor, Peabody, and the Whitfield the priest. The language of Darl, the second of Addie's five children, more insightful, observant and imaginative than the rest and given the greatest number of sections, often takes a poetic turn; Cash, her first-born, a carpenter who has made her coffin, is distinguished (before the end of the novel) by being a man of few words, his only two early sections consisting of a short list and a single paragraph respectively; the youngest, Vardaman, the only non adult of the children, is strikingly distinct in his muddled thought and language. Those of the only girl, Dewey Dell, begin as fairly straightforward, but turn convoluted and disconnected as she becomes emotionally desperate. Anse, the feckless father, is distinguished by his repetitive self-justifications and whining manipulations, contrasting with the down-to-earth voices of the farmers who help the family out on their travels. (Jewel, the most different of Addie's children, taller than the rest and filled with a distinctive vicious streak, is given no monologue of his own and thus remains to the reader the outsider that the plot will reveal he is within the family.)

We had a fairly intense discussion about the fact that, although the characters speak chiefly in the vernacular, and although a main point seems to be the difficulty for them of articulating their private reality, they quite frequently come out with sophisticated concepts and insights expressed in abstract Latinate vocabulary that was unusual even to us. Darl describes the motion of the wagon as they travel as 'so dreamlike as to be uninferent of progress' and Dewey Dell as 'watchful and repudient' (my italics). Even Dewey Dell, whose outlook is simpler, calls the cow's breathing 'stertorous'. Most people felt that this detracted from the authenticity of the voices, Doug in particular finding that it jarred, and that although it can perhaps be accepted as poetic/novelistic licence in a novel so groundbreaking at the time of its publication, it wouldn't be accepted in a novel written today - the voices would be expected to be much more accurately realistic. Mark objected that he didn't see how Faulker could have done it any other way: if such characters don't have the language to express their own feelings, then the author has to provide it. Doug and I said, But that doesn't work in interior monologue mode, since an interior monologue is meant to replicate a character's thought (and language) - it just makes it feel inauthentic, and brings in for the reader a sense of the author telling the story, after all. Mark said again that he didn't see how it could be done otherwise. Personally, I think it can be done, although it is one of the hardest things to do in writing, and I thought there was an instance in the book that illustrated how: Addie talks of how, trapped in her unhappy premarital life, she lay in bed and heard 'the wild geese going north and their honking coming faint and high and wild out of the wild darkness'. This is a concrete visceral image/symbol that left me with a far more vivid and lasting sense of her longing and feelings of being trapped, left behind and cut off, than any of the abstract musings of her section could or did.

Quite often, the text will break suddenly for a short space into italics, and Doug said he hadn't been able to work out the point of this. I said I'd noticed that in the cases of Vardaman and Dewey Dell, the italics tended to represent troubling thoughts that kept recurring to them, often in a non sequitur way. Doug agreed, but pointed out rightly that there wasn't consistency throughout the novel over this, and that it wasn't clear what the point was in Darl's sections, for instance.  

Much of the commentary we have come across finds the book fundamentally tragi-comic, but none of us found much in it to laugh at. We did all find funny the moment where the neighbouring farmer Tull tells how the Bundrens laid Addie the wrong way round in the coffin so that they could splay out her dress in the wider space meant for her shoulders, and I and others found funny the self-justifying section of the priest, Whitfield, who has felt that he should confess a sin to the Bundrens but argues himself out of the need for it now that Addie is dead. And the very ending of the book - the last sentence - is very funny as well as grim, and, we all agreed, quite brilliant. Mostly, however, we found the situation of the family gruellingly tragic. 

All in all, although most of us said that we probably wouldn't have taken up this novel out of choice, we were all really glad to have read it and found it very interesting indeed.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Reading group: Turbulence by David Szalay

This book of linked episodes won the Edge Hill Prize for short stories, and as one of the three judges that year (along with Sam Jordison and Tessa Hadley) I of course admire it greatly and was eager to share it with the group.

It takes a large cast of characters connected by flights, each section dealing with a character only briefly or loosely connected with the character in the previous section. It's a short book, and the sections are fairly brief, but manages to convey huge psychological complexity, and to make the situation of each character moving. One thing that really moved me was the way the book portrayed the paradox of the interconnectedness of this global world - and of us all to each other - and our simultaneous aloneness with our personal dilemmas. Another thing I found very moving was the changes in viewpoint and perspective, the difference between how characters are seen by others on the one hand, and their inner lives and personal reality on the other. An early instance of this concerns a pilot: in the section dedicated to him we learn, as he flies a cargo plane from Dakar to Sao Paulo, of the death of his sister when they were children, and the way that, clearly, it has affected him for good, and see his vulnerability and his sensitivity. The next episode opens with the viewpoint of a young female journalist about to take an important flight to Toronto and desperate to get rid of the man with whom she had a one-night stand the night before - a desperation we are made to share along with her anxieties about her commission. It is a moment before we realise - and a little shock when we do - that this is the pilot we came to know in the previous section, seen through her eyes as a piece of inconvenient meat she needs to get out of her bed. 

Doug, Mark and John very much agreed with me, Mark in particular saying he found the book quite brilliant (and not, he said, just because of his past career as a flight attendant). John said he didn't understand how Szalay managed to make the characters, so briefly dealt with in terms of physical space in the book, so  convincing and moving. I said I'd noticed that often when we share a character's point of view here, that character is not named, which makes for psychological veracity - people don't name themselves when they are lost in their inner thoughts, and so it's distancing to name them (which a lot of authors don't seem to have noticed!) The main thing that makes the book so moving, I think, is the way Szalay adopts the techniques of both short stories and novels (the book has in fact been marketed as each, at different times). It uses the short story techniques of economy: implication rather than explication, and omissions and jumps that create moving juxtapositions (connections and contrasts), while also embracing a novelistic overall story arc and forward motion, culminating in a satisfying novelistic link to the beginning.

Doug did say however that the one thing he found unconvincing about the book was that ending, which he found artificial and forced. I have to say that on this, my third or fourth reading of the book, it did strike me that there was a psychological element missing from the last section, which did have the potential for making it seem a little manipulated (I won't say what it is, in order not to plot-spoil), but I must also say that the first two or three times I read the book it never occurred to me, and, apart from that psychological aspect, I still found moving the way the general direction was steered back to the beginning, underlining the theme of our disconnectedness yet surprising connectedness. Mark and John I think felt the same.

Our only real dissenter was Ann, who I'm afraid had found the whole thing too schematic. She had guessed right from the start that the book was going to take us in flights around the world back to the same point (and had quickly flicked through to see that this was the case) and couldn't read it without a sense of the sketched plan Szalay must have drawn up to follow, with all the obvious representative characters ticked off, right down to the Syrian refugee. None of the rest of us had had this reaction. Personally, I couldn't see anything wrong with an author having such a scheme: I saw it merely as the openly disclosed framework for something much more subtle in terms of themes and narrative surprises.

Doug said he didn't think it was a novel, though, as you could read the stories entirely in isolation. Someone else disagreed that that was the case: the stories were much richer if read in sequence through the prisms of the previous stories, which of course is how you read a novel.  Doug said however it didn't have the feel of a novel, it felt like something else. I commented that the novel has always been subject to change and innovation, its very name meaning new. In any case, as with Tove Jansson's Summer Book, which we read earlier this year, I thought that, apart from the pressures of marketing, from a literary point of view there was no need to categorise the book: it was what it was, very successfully in the view of most of us.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here  

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Autumn writing

This photo sums up how I'm feeling right now. After a summer of crazy activity, I'm back to the quiet of home, the curtains drawn on the outside world in the evenings, and the novel in my head still enticingly misty, but forming a web of connections...

It's a great time of year for writing, I always find, a time when the shortening days and the need to shore up against the cold pull you closer to your inner world... It was the time of year I wrote Too Many Magpies in six weeks flat. Not sure this new novel will be done that quickly, though!

Friday, September 09, 2022

Accoun Buzz review of Astral Travel

Just after I posted the last entry, I discovered another review of Astral Travel that my summer in Snowdonia had caused me to miss. Those periods away from everything are essential, really, I find - I must say that although I didn't get much actual work down on paper this summer, the ideas and images have been churning - but you do need to keep in touch with things (the constant writers' dilemma) and I completely missed this great appreciation on Accoun Buzz, in which Joshua R Conley calls the story of the book 'engaging and compelling', and the novel 'A beautiful book written with a lot of skill and empathy.' Thank you, Joshua!

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Back to civilisation and a new review for Astral Travel

I've been out of radio contact most of the summer (up a mountain with dodgy internet), trying to write but being hampered (delightfully) by visitors and wonderful company and distracted (more nail-bitingly) by some big family events.

One thing I now discover on my return is a belated review for Astral Travel on Goodreads, reproduced from the Halfman, Halfbook blog. I'm grateful to Paul for reviewing it - bit non-plussed that he finds my antihero quite so upsettingly nasty (but then you can never legislate for readers feeling the same about your characters as you do), and really glad that he finds it 'a good read'. Pleased too that what he likes best about the book is the way the protagonist has to unpick the truth from all of the stories she hears about her father, since that of course is what the book's essentially about: the contingency of story (the stories we can live by); stories as truth versus stories as lies.

The thing for me about writing a novel is that I really do need a solid, uninterrupted block of time to keep it going and get it completed according to my original conception, and I simply haven't had that this summer. Each time I've turned back to my current project, I have found myself in a different alignment to it, wanting to scrap it and go back to the beginning on a different tack. And then in the middle of all that, events of the summer gave me an idea for a completely different novel that's now singing in my head and replacing the other in my dreams and preoccupations, and I may have to leave off and write that first...

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Reading group: This Census Taker by China Mieville

Warning: plot spoil.

This was a short novel - Doug's suggestion - which most of us found utterly compelling, but which ultimately left us puzzled. Set in an imaginary place and time, it opens stunningly as the narrator presents the picture of a boy running from an isolated house on a hill to the town below, his hands covered in something he believes is blood, but which is not blood, a boy whom the narrator says was himself. Arriving where the watching townspeople are waiting, he cries that his mother has killed his father. Right away it is clear that this novel - in which the boy is referred to sometimes as he, sometimes as I, and once or twice in the second person - is about identity and uncertainty. His father, we soon discover, has not been killed. So what did the boy witness?  He himself isn't sure. His mother has disappeared. Was it that his father killed his mother? His father is violent and kills animals, battering them to death with his hands, and drops the bodies into a deep pit in a cave; the boy suspects that he has overheard his father killing visitors, customers who come up from a town clearly wrecked by a past war and industrial decline to buy the keys he makes, keys that have seemingly magical properties. The boy is deeply afraid of his father and makes attempts to run away to the town and its strange population of homeless children, only to be brought back by the town officials. Yet his father is consistently gentle towards him. And his mother, who appears to have left a note saying that she is going away, was undemonstrative and insular. And there are hints that both she and the father have been sleepers, the father having come from another country. Meanwhile, there are strange double gunshots on the mountain and mysterious figures half-appearing and then disappearing in the mist. Finally, in the father's absence a census taker with a double-barrelled gun arrives at the house. He hails from the boy's father's country and is briefed to record all those from that country living here (although the father will say that the census takers, the 'tallymen', are supposed to have gone). Taken by the boy to the pit in which he suspects his mother's body has been thrown, the census taker lowers himself down into it, but it is never revealed what he finds. He then takes the boy away with him to be his apprentice, at which point it becomes clear to the reader that 'this census taker' refers to the narrator himself. The novel ends inconclusively, with the census taker and the boy descending the mountain away from the boy's home.

We were very taken by the evocative mystery of all this and the vividness of the imagined world, and I was thrilled by the language, which is lyrical and muscular with archaisms and resonant neologisms - a wood is a 'boscage' for instance. Unfortunately however we felt the need to work the mysteries out, but were unable to do so. The novel it seems is also about writing and recording. The narrator explains early on in the novel that he is tasked to write three books, each with a different purpose. The first is a 'book of numbers', a record presumably (a census), intended for everyone 'though almost no one wants it or would know how to read it', the third will be a book of secrets, written only for himself. The second is the book he is writing now (and that we are reading). It's for others to read and is 'performance', the mentor has told him, but it can still hold secrets and send hidden messages. What all this signified precisely, however, we were unclear. We were full of questions: what precisely is this novel saying about writing? What value are we meant to assign to these different aspects of writing/recording? Is creating records the instrument of repressive governments, as implied in the catechism of the narrator's predecessor (who, significantly, has gone missing)?:

The Hope is So:

Count Entire Nation. Subsume Under Sets.

Take Accounts. Keep Estimates. Realise

Interests. So

Reach Our Government's Ultimate Ends.

If so, what are we to make of the census taker being the boy's saviour, and the boy's becoming a census taker in turn? Are the father and mother examples of those who slip such repressions? But then isn't the father violent and cruel? There is much about language and communication: the father isn't fluent in the language of the town; the boy, taught to read inadequately by his mother, and whose viewpoint we share for most of the time, is cut off from much understanding of the world. We were quite clear that the novel was about uncertainty, but what was it saying about uncertainty? And what was it saying about identity? The first pages promise an exciting exploration of the fluidity of identity and the uncertainties of storytelling, but none of us felt that we had come away with any clear message about that.

I had turned to look at reviews to see what others had made of the book. Most reviewers, impressed as we were by the language and the author's imagination, seemed to avoid the matter of interpretation (as if, possibly, they felt there must be an interpretation, but that they hadn't actually got it), but at least one reviewer castigated those who would expect a meaning or a message, seeming to imply that it was a bourgeois requirement. This was a notion that we had in fact heard expressed elsewhere, mainly by writers in writing groups. However, the fact is that everyone in our group did want to be able to take a meaning from the book, and we discussed this matter. We acknowledged that, as John pointed out, there are authors, such as Beckett, who refuse to say what their work means, and whose work defies single interpretation, but their works are in fact open to interpretation. So why do we want a meaning when we see a play or read a book? It is because, we decided, we want to come away with a sense of having been moved on in our insights. Reading and writing were otherwise mere diversions, we felt, and we preferred a more serious purpose.

We did not however make the assumption that China Mieville did not intend a meaning - everything about the book seems heavily weighted with significance - and Mark expressed the view that the novel was simply flawed, and that Mieville had dropped the balls he had thrown in the air. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Reading Group: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Clare suggested this internationally bestselling debut novel written in English by a celebrated Vietnamese poet. A family saga narrated alternately by a grandmother and her present-day granddaughter, it deals with four generations of the Tran family, and depicts the extreme trauma they experience through the French occupation in the twenties, the barbaric practices of the Communist land reforms, the American involvement in the second Indochinese War, and the continuing legacy of the use by the Americans of Agent Orange. During this time, grandmother Dieu Lan sees her father beheaded, is forced to flee from her farm with her children and loses her grown children to the damaging conflict in the south.

This was subject matter that, on the intellectual level, alerted the interest of all of us, and Clare, introducing the book, declared her appreciation of the fact that the book addresses a viewpoint and experience that has so far had little attention in accounts of this history, a point with which we all agreed. However, although she appreciated the lyrical descriptions, she found the narration plodding, and therefore not in fact all that engaging. We all felt the same. In fact, I didn't find the descriptive passages as lyrical as Clare did, but rather cliched and clumsy and thus alienating rather than engaging. All felt that the characters were hard to engage with as they never came to life. As Ann pointed out, they were ciphers, each created to illustrate a particular aspect of Vietnamese history. Someone also commented that the book was sentimental.

It was clear to us that it had been a dynamic political choice to write the book in English, as those who need most to hear its message are Americans and the West. We felt it a shame therefore that because of this lack of emotional involvement with the characters, we engaged only intellectually with the message, since the real potential political power of fiction is in its ability to make readers identify with a message on an emotional level. Mark - who wasn't at the meeting - also pointed out later that it was sometimes hard in any case to grasp the history, since there was no differentiation between the two alternating voices, and sometimes he got muddled about what had happened when. It was also his cynical view that the book's huge success is down to American guilt about Vietnam, a guilt which indeed preceded its publication, and thus paved the way for its reception.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Reading group: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

As I predicted, having Covid put me right off my stride with my new novel, and as a result I have since re-conceived the whole thing - for the better, I think! This has taken up much time and preoccupation (as conceiving a novel always does, I find - trying out different starting points, different voices, persons, tenses etc, and waiting for the direction of the whole thing, and the deeper meanings, to become clear to me before I can properly launch into it) and  I've also been very involved with family matters, while also reading reams for a literary prize, so my reports for the reading group have lapsed. This catch-up report and the next will be necessarily brief, partly as my memory of the discussions will inevitably be less detailed, but also because we didn't in fact find much to say about either book.

All of us present enjoyed reading Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. A short book, it's the semi-autobiographical portrayal of life for a young girl, Sophia (who in real life was Jansson's niece), and her grandmother (in reality Jansson's mother) on the tiny isolated Finnish island they occupy with Sophia's father during the summer. Ann, who had suggested the book, said that she was very engaged by the relationship - two rather crotchety yet utterly bonded characters delineated movingly yet without a hint of sentimentality, often with humour. Everyone strongly agreed. The book is episodic, with chapters devoted to isolated incidents - the grandmother losing her false teeth, the visit of one of Sophia's friends, a night that Sophia tries camping, a storm - but overall is the sense of summer swelling and then fading. Overall too, is the sense of death - Sophia's mother is dead, and there is much of the grandmother's failing physicality - but this runs alongside a sense of the richness of life and nature. The thing that impressed me - and Doug - most was the prose, which seems very simple but somehow manages to create a striking vividness and an evocative atmosphere, so that the island with its teeming life and seasonally changing nature lingers in the mind. We were never sure whether the book is meant to portray a single summer or several consecutive summers - Sophia appears to become older, more sophisticated in her speech, but then later to regress - but this didn't really seem to matter, as the whole thing has a dreamlike quality with the magical logic of dreams. 

Mark was perhaps the least enthusiastic, feeling that the episodic nature of the book hardly qualified it as a novel. The rest of us had no problem with this, and my feeling was that there was no need to label the book. Whatever it was, we enjoyed it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Monday, March 28, 2022

A Covid glitch and 'Tides' at WORDTheatre

I've been away from this blog for some time, at first because I was very involved in trying to get a new novel started - it's often for me the biggest part of writing a novel, finding the right structure and voice so the whole thing can take off: it takes up all my consciousness so that I can think of very little else, including getting the usual practical things of life done. Then I went down with Covid, and was pretty rough and have since been suffering exhaustion. During this time the novel pretty much slipped from my mental grasp, and I may be back to square one with it when I tackle it again.

Still, I'm getting some energy back now, which is just as well, as a couple of weeks ago I travelled to London to an exciting WORDTheatre event at the Crazy Coqs cabaret venue in London's Piccadilly, where my story 'Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told' was read by the brilliant actor Nina Sosanya. 

WORDTheatre was founded by the amazingly energetic producer Cedering Fox. The mission is to promote short stories by having them read by renowned actors at live events which are filmed for later screenings, with readings recorded for free podcasts. The event I attended was devoted to Salt's yearly Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle, who was there to talk about the series. Five stories had been chosen by Cedering from out of the ten anthologies published so far. Alongside my story, which appeared in BBSS 2014, there were stories by Hilary Mantel, David Constantine, Hanif Kureishi and Courttia Newland, read by Nina, David Morrisey, Gina Bellman, Indira Varma, Derek Riddel and Rhashan Stone.

It was a really lovely evening in the very stylish Art Deco setting of Crazy Coqs, with musical interludes on the piano and violin. Nina read my story brilliantly, bringing out all the multiple meanings I had intended, with all of the emphases I'd had in my head as I wrote it, and I felt very moved. 

Find out about WORDTheatre and membership here.

'Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told' is included in Best British Short Stories 2014 and my own collection, Used to Be, both published by Salt.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Reading Group: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

There seem to be two schools of thought about Wallace Stegner, who founded the creative writing school at Stanford University (1946) and taught many well-known American novelists. One is that he himself is somewhat minor as a novelist, and another is that he is in fact one of the greatest American writers and unjustly overlooked, partly or mainly because he is a novelist of the American west (rather than the fashionable east coast) with an environmentalist stress on landscape. 

Perhaps as a result of this schism no one in our group had heard of him, I think, apart from Mark who a few years ago had read this, Stegner's final novel, and remembered enjoying it. Acknowledged to be semi-autobiographical, it is the story of the lifelong friendship between two couples, narrator Larry Morgan and his wife Sally, and Sid and Charity Lang. The novel begins in 1972 near the end of this journey, with Larry and Sally waking in the Vermont compound where over many years they spent summers hosted by Charity and her family, and where Charity is now clearly dying. Then in flashback we follow the story from the beginning in 1938, as Larry and Sally arrive in Wisconsin for Larry to begin teaching in the English Department at the university, where Sid is already on the staff. It is Charity who immediately befriends the new couple, swiftly visiting Sally in their basement flat, the pregnancies of both women forming an instant bond between them. It is clear from the start that Charity is a woman of force. Although Larry and Sally are much poorer and lack the family connections the Langs enjoy, the Langs are very keen to take them under their wing and to form a close friendship with them, quickly inviting them to dinner and then constantly arriving on their doorstep to whisk them away to picnics etc., and the Morgans are clearly flattered. The Langs then spend many years helping the Morgans out both socially and financially.

Very soon there is no doubt that Charity is controlling. She is determined that she and Sid will have a prominent role in Wisconsin academia. Larry rapidly achieves success as a short story writer for prestigious magazines and soon also gets his first novel accepted for publication, but although eventually Charity will enthusiastically engineer a publishing job for Larry through a family connection, bent on an academic career for Sid, she discourages Sid from the writing he would like to do and thus ultimately destroys his prospects as a writer. An incident in which she is particularly controlling is one that will end in tragedy for Sally and Larry. On one of their stays in Vermont, the two couples take a walking trip with a packhorse (leaving their children behind with the hired carers). It begins with an embarrassing confrontation when, just as they are due to set off, Charity demeans Sid by publicly insisting that he unpack and repack to be sure that the matches he said he packed are really in there. Once they set out she insists that the four walk by the compass, leading them into bogs and other impediments. By the end of the trip, Sally has come down with polio, which will disable her for life, and, although it is not stated, there is a between-the-lines implication that Charity's behaviour is responsible. Now, in 1972, it will turn out, Charity has orchestrated a scenario for her own death in which she has commanded everyone to be present - although in fact Larry and Sally have not seen her for some years - and has even drawn up a list of women of her own choice as potential marriage partners for Sid after she is gone.  

Objectively for the reader therefore Charity is something of a monster. In her Introduction to the 2013 Penguin edition, Jane Smiley states that ' is clear early in the novel that Charity rubs Larry the wrong way, and that probably the two of them would never be friends without Sid ... and Sally, who loves Charity.' However, most of us in the group felt that there was much more narrative ambivalence towards Charity than this implies. Larry is initially almost, if not quite, as bowled over by her as Sally: 'All right. I admitted it: a charming woman, a woman we couldn't help liking on sight. She raised the pulse and the spirits, she made Madison a different town, she brought life and anticipation and excitement into a year we had been expecting to endure stoically.' The 'all right' and the 'I admitted it' do indicate some prior doubts, but the rest of the statement serves to sweep them away. As the novel progresses, Charity is revealed as more and more controlling; meanwhile, there is more and more insistence on the fact that the Morgans loved Charity, and the dichotomy becomes stronger. Several admiring critics have seen this as a subtle portrayal of the paradoxical complications of friendship, but it did not strike most of us in our group like that: most of us found it simply inconsistent and were left with a strong sense of disingenuousness, and consequently the sense that  Larry was prepared to swallow any flaws for what Charity could offer him and Sally (the social and financial 'safety' of the title perhaps). Most strongly betraying disingenuousness and insincerity, perhaps, however, is the prose: two or three people in our group commented that there appears to be to be no authorial irony in the depiction of Larry - narrator and author seem very close - and for much of the narration there is a telling coyness and sentimentality. He describes the Vermont compound:

A happy, orderly, lively corner of Eden, as hushed as a hospital at quiet times, jumping with activity as soon as the social bell sounded ... Sid over the barbecue, Lyle and I over the firewood; Aunt Emily, Aunt Heather, and the hired girls over the smaller children...

a passage that goes on for several pages.

Some of us found it hard to understand why otherwise Larry and Sally would have anything more to do with the other pair after the first dinner party, when Charity uses a police whistle to marshal people into dances and songs, and when, much worse, there is antisemitism in the air as a clearly uneasy Jewish couple, who do not know the dances and songs, are made out to be ungracious, jealous and downright wet blankets.

But no, after the party the Morgans and Langs walk together wrapped in the burnooses provided by the Langs and 'fell into a four-ply laughing hug, we were so glad to know one another and so glad that the trillion chances in the universe had brought us to the same university at the same time', a sentiment later cemented in the fact that, once their daughter is born very soon after, Larry and Sally call her after the other two, Lang. And it is hard to see past one of the early, establishing sentences of the novel, describing Charity's compound:

There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.

But then it is Larry himself who seems most strongly to express the antisemitic attitude. 'And there sat the impossible Erlichs.' he says, 'smiling and smiling, with their useless book open on their laps and their mouths shut, hating what they envied.'  He describes the atmosphere after the pair, the Erlichs, have summarily left the party in angry disgrace:

Altogether a lovely scene. I felt guilty and triumphant. There we were, still in the warmth and light and grace of that room, while those who didn't belong, those who hated and envied, those who were offensive to Athena, went out into the chilly darkness. I knew how they felt, and I hated it for their sakes. But I also knew how I felt. I felt wonderful. [My bolds.]

'I hated it for their sakes,' he says, and 'I knew how they felt', but one would hope for a stronger self-condemnation, and the passage is in any case haloed by his earlier reaction to the Erlichs: Marvin Erlich, he says, is

' of the high-crotch, baggy-tweed contingent ... loading his pipe and scattering tobacco crumbs all over my desk... I had reacted to him as if he were ragweed, and I was not especially happy to see him now... His wife (I reconstruct this without charity, small c) gave us a smile that I thought curiously flat in so plump a face. It struck me then, and strikes me again now, how instantly mutual dislike can make itself evident. Or was I only reacting to their indifference? They did not appear to value me, so the hell with them.' 

Post 1972, narrator Larry does wonder more generously how the Erlichs, among others, fared in life, but in the light of this quite vividly portrayed distaste, the later sentiment and the above comment on his own lack of charity do seem disingenuous. And the last sentence of the last-quoted paragraph indeed strikes me as particularly self-centred. Now, as he recounts the party incident, he muses: 'Maybe we were all anti-Semitic in some sneaky residual way,' but then immediately lets himself off the hook: 'but I don't think so.'

For me there is a lot of disingenuousness and self-centredness surrounding the issue of the comparative literary fates of Larry and Sid. Narrator Larry portrays himself as sympathetic to Sid's difficulty and embarrassed about his own success in comparison with Sid's failure, but the narrative stress on his own success and on the admiration of others, including Charity and Sid, seems to me to belie this. One of Larry's short stories is accepted by the prestigious Atlantic. On a walk on the same day, Sid reveals that as an undergraduate he published poems in small (lesser) magazines, and Larry asks him to recite one:

But he won't... He would be overcome with embarrassment to expose them to a real writer, one with the Atlantic's letter in his pocket.

While we can take this as a replication of Sid's attitude - ie Larry assumes that Sid thinks of him as the real writer of the two, and indeed goes on to protest and tell Sid that he shouldn't let outside pressures stop him writing - for the whole of this book there is the sense for this reader that that's Larry's view too, so his sympathy with Sid's dashed promise came across to me as disingenuous and patronising, and his bashfulness about his own success as humblebrag.

John was shocked too by the self-centredness, finding it even in the first chapter, which others of us, including me, hadn't. Larry rises early, before Sally, and walks in the compound, relishing the surroundings: '...a road I have walked hundreds of times, a lovely lost tunnel through the trees, busy this morning with birds and little shy rustling things, my favourite road anywhere.' Looking back in the context of the whole novel, however, I can see what John's bullshit detector lit on:

We didn't come back to Battell Pond this time for pleasure... But I can't feel sombre now... Quite the reverse. I wonder if I have ever felt more alive, more competent in my mind and more at ease with myself and the world.

In other words, it's not really about nature, about the beautiful surroundings, or his disabled wife lying asleep back in the lodge, helpless should she wake, or the sombre reason for their visit, it's all about him.

John was shocked too by the sexism. When Larry's first novel is accepted for publication he throws an impromptu party to celebrate. During the evening, Sally, heavily pregnant, indeed about to give birth, has to retire to the bedroom of their basement flat, while beyond the wall Larry relishes being kissed by two women: 'I am flooded with a Turkish feeling of being surrounded by desirable, affectionate women... More kisses. Smooch, mm.' (Though of course, true to form, he denies there is anything sexual in it: 'both delightful, charming sisters I wish I had'). Larry is quite happy to have Sally, whose face he says is the picture he wants to carry beyond the grave (or words to that effect - I can't find the quote), spend her whole time typing and editing his manuscripts before she is disabled. Narrator Larry says:

Nowadays, people might wonder how my marriage lasted. It lasted fine. It throve, partly because I was as industrious as an ant-eater in a termite mound and wouldn't have noticed anything short of a walkout, but more because Sally was completely supportive and never thought of herself as a neglected wife - 'thesis widows', we used to call them in graduate school.

There is acknowledgement here of course of the outdated patriarchy of the situation, but the tone is complacent and somewhat offhand ('It lasted fine'). (And there is of course complete ignorance of unraised consciousness, along with self-justification, in the excuse that 'Sally never thought of herself as a neglected wife'.) This is one of the very few comments on their marriage, and most in our group agreed that Sally is nothing more than a cipher in the novel.

People wondered why, in a semi-autobiographical novel, the author should have made the non-autobiographical choice to make the narrator's wife disabled, noting that it sent her to the sidelines of the action. We never get any sense of any involvement of Larry with her care (they employ a woman for that) even though at the end of the novel Larry is able to bask in Sid's congratulation for carrying the burden. In one scene, Larry holds her up to watch a procession she is excited by. 'Anything she was enchanted by she was entitled to', he says, but then there is laughable stress on the discomfort it's causing him: 

My feet were getting cold, and were punctured by the gravel embedded in the roof ... 'Sure you're not cold?' [he asks her] ...then her hand went up and down my back, pressing the cold cloth of my pajamas to my skin. 'But you are! You're freezing!'

Others remarked on the constant references to servants, including the girl employed full-time to look after their baby, as 'our girl' or 'the girl'. Clare pointed out in disgust that at one point one of the nanny helpers is compared to a cow. Someone noted that there is nothing in the novel of the Morgans' years with a growing child (we never ever get to know Lang, their only child). The attitude to children and childcare was to me laughably shocking. John picked out the fact that Larry, trying to hug Sally over her pregnant bump, refers to the baby as an 'intruder', and the attitude is carried over once the baby is born. Taking a sailing trip on the lake, the two couples are caught in squally weather and the boat overturns. Although their lives seem to be in danger, there is not one thought of the baby at home with the minder, and once Larry and Sally arrive home they refuse to take the baby screaming for its long overdue breast feed and demand that the minder girl holding her pour them a steaming bath:

Ellen came out of the bathroom with Lang purple-faced and unappeasable on her shoulder. We crowded past them into the steam and shut the door.

Once Sally does take Lang, there is a certain distaste in Larry's attitude to her:

Burly, fat-faced, obviously overnourished at Sally's expense, she did not get my sympathy.

One period in the later past life of Larry and Sally that is dwelt on in detail is the year they spend with the Langs in Florence on Guggenheim Fellowships, once their daughter has departed for university. While narrator Larry states that the four were excitedly and humbly aware of their luck and keen to learn, John, agreed with by others, couldn't help feeling that they were in fact horribly pleased with themselves for being there, the prose being particularly coy in this section, this paragraph perhaps encapsulating an underlying arrogance and patronisation:

While buying gas [at Gubbio], [we] heard a passionate crie de coeur from the girl who manned the pump. She said she was trapped in this medieval prison of a town. She turned her lips inside out when we protested that it was the most picturesque town we had ever seen... if we had wanted a maid, a driver, a cook, a sarta, a concubine, a faithful follower until the first better opportunity showed, we could have had that girl for a thousand lire a day ...We regretted afterwards that we hadn't asked her. It would have been interesting to see her expression when she found herself expected to stand respectfully before the Della Robbia lunettes in the Pazzi chapel, or asked to wait with the car outside Santa Maria Novella.

'We were once again four in Eden', he says, a reference back to an earlier and apparently unironically self-aggrandising comment about the four in Vermont:

Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God's plan, and one I recommend to Him next time He makes a world.

Mark, who in spite of enjoying the book in the past found he couldn't even read it this time around, defended it however from criticisms of sexism and snobbery by saying that it was of its time, and suggested that it was no more sexist than Updike or Roth. Most in the group didn't find that any excuse. The book was first published in 1987 when many writers were writing with very different attitudes. Ann commented rightly that these things often overlap in the development of artistic trends, and we agreed that it was in fact an old-fashioned book for its time in terms of both attitudes and prose style.

Clare was irritated by the constant lists of plants, which struck her not so much as appreciation of nature as showing off a knowledge of taxonomy. I noted that, although Stegner has been lauded as a writer of the American landscape, there has also been objection to the fact that he overlooks completely the role of Native Americans in its history. The only references to Native Americans in this book are the moment when the young Larry, arriving for the first time at the Vermont compound, comes upon Charity's mother reading Hiawatha to a group of children, and the couple of occasions when Larry makes a jokey stereotype parody of Native American speech which made me distinctly uncomfortable. Most people were also irritated (and bored) by the way the characters constantly quoted, sometimes at length, from poetry, and some thought it pretentious (on the part of both the characters and the author). 

However, although we so thoroughly demolished this book, Ann, John and I had to say that we were fascinated by it, Ann because the situation with Charity's family echoed some of her own American family history, John because the attitudes of the two couples reminded him of the parental distance and snobbery of his own childhood, and he and I because we simply couldn't believe it and kept looking for the savage irony we expected but didn't find.

Jenny had been quiet all this time and she now spoke up, saying that she had enjoyed the book and that she found our criticisms totally unnecessary and indeed 'sour'. She thought it completely wrong that we brought the author into our discussions, and didn't just attend to the story, which she thought was a really good one - the story of how two couples ended up being friends for so many years. Mark replied that it was potentially a really good story, and an unusual one, but that we hadn't liked the treatment. Jenny however would not be moved. She strongly disagreed that there was no irony in the narration, and, apparently disgusted with us, said we would just have to agree to disagree on that. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Monday, January 24, 2022

Reading group: Candide by Voltaire

We haven't read many real classics for this reading group, and our usual lit-crit mode of discussion seemed hardly appropriate for a book (suggested by John) that is considered a staple of the Western canon, and indeed one of the most influential books of all time. Published in 1759 and the most famous of Voltaire's works, it is the picaresque tale of an ingenue, Candide, who has been schooled by his tutor Pangloss in the Leibnitzian philosophy of Optimism - the idea that, since God made this world He must have sufficient reason for its shortcomings, and that therefore it is 'the best of all possible worlds'. Ejected from the comfort of his royal home after being found paying sexual attention to the princess of the castle, Guneconde, Candide embarks on a series of travels and adventures that open his eyes to the horrors of the world and turn him against such a philosophy. An attack thus on Optimism, the book is a satirical takedown of all the established institutions and belief systems of society, most notably organised religion, but many others, including rank, the army, money systems and slavery.

Some of us had already read it, others hadn't; Doug had read it in the original French for A-level. John was pleased to experience again its biting and sometimes laugh-out-loud comedy; Jenny, who hadn't read it before said she was very glad that she now had, although she wouldn't have appreciated it properly had her edition not had an explanatory Introduction that also delineated the real-life historical events to which the novel was referring. Everyone said, however, how pertinent the satire nevertheless is to the present day, and everyone had enjoyed it. We relished reading the phrases coined in this novel that have become common currency, such as pour encourager des autres (the satirical reference here is to the 1757 court-martial and execution of Admiral Byng for failing to prevent the French from capturing a British stronghold on Minorca) and 'cultivating one's garden' (which Candide and his companions decide is the only sensible alternative to trying to make sense of a cruel, mad world). We did find that it took a bit of reading, that although it is a short work it seemed longer, which I thought was partly due to the picaresque form, which strings events out in a linear fashion (and, I find, makes it easy to forget them). Ann commented that since the book had actually been banned after its (secret) publication, one wonders how many people actually got to read it at the time, which makes it all the more impressive that it has had such an impact (which goes to show, perhaps, not just its wit and profundity, but also the unintended consequences of banning books, or maybe the power of reading elites, or both).

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Reading group: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Another universally praised book, suggested by Jenny, (by the author of Brooklyn, which we discussed here), but which I'm afraid didn't get universal acclaim from our group. Another novel set in the author's home town of Enniscorthy , it is the story of a widow's struggle in the late sixties-early seventies to carry on as a mother in the aftermath of the untimely death of her schoolteacher husband. Jenny, who had been attracted to the book by the scenario of a grieving widow, was its champion, identifying strongly with Nora's situation, and it seemed that those most favourable to the book in our group were bringing personal experience to its reading, although John, whose father died when he was fifteen, was one of those who were least favourable.

One complaint was that for much of this pretty lengthy novel nothing actually seems to happen. Things do in fact happen: necessity forces Nora to sell the family holiday home and to be railroaded by her own relatives into returning to work in the office from which she was freed by her marriage. Here she must suffer the vengeful management of a woman whom the young Nora and her friend once despised and laughed at. She visits and is visited by relatives and friends who pressure her with their expectations. Eventually, taken under another woman's wing, and through the intercessions of a nun, she begins to find new ways of relating to the world: she helps out at a distant pub quiz night, she joins the local music society and is taught to sing, she decides to redecorate the house. She goes abroad on holiday with an aunt, and finds the courage to get herself a separate room when the aunt's snores keep her awake. She manages to make a stand when her younger son is unfairly moved to a lower class in school, and to get the decision reversed. Towards the end of the novel, Nora's university-student daughter becomes involved in Bloody Sunday, and finally Nora experiences being visited by her dead husband Maurice. While much of this might seem inconsequentially minor and domestic, there is potential for plot here, but Toibin is famed for eschewing plot, and also for his restrained prose, and his way of representing this series of events is indeed undramatic. On several occasions a situation promised a drama or crisis but ended without either. When Nora and her new friend run the quiz night, there is a strange rising confrontational hostility on the part of some male locals, but no confrontation ever happens. The potential for drama when Nora's daughter goes missing after Bloody Sunday is quickly dissipated when in no time at all - as far as the space and attention the novel gives to it goes - she is discovered to be fine, and the whole subject is summarily dropped from both the novel, and, it seems, from Nora's preoccupation. Textually, the episode is given not much more weight than her decision to redecorate the house. This lack of plotting or shaping resulted for us readers in a sense of a lack of forward motion, and almost all of us said that we were shocked to suddenly realise towards the end of the novel that three years had passed. 

Toibin is also routinely praised for his empathic portraits of women, but a more major problem for some of us was that, as with the character of Eilish in Brooklyn - in fact even more so - we found it very hard to get to grips with the character of Nora. The whole novel purports to be located in Nora's viewpoint, but is written in an objective third person that allows for withdrawal from direct - or even indirect - portrayal of Nora's emotions or even thoughts, and once again we found that too much is consequently left unsaid, unillustrated or unaddressed, or is even glossed over, so that it was difficult to assess Nora's precise emotions and motivations at too many given moments. For instance: Donal, the elder of the two children she still has at home (two boys) has a stammer that he developed during an extended stay at an aunt's while his mother attended to his dying father. Wondering what must have happened to occasion it, she visits the aunt only to be roundly told that the stammer was the effect of Nora never having visited or contacted the boys the whole time they were there. Nora's emotional reaction to this is neither spelled out nor illustrated with indications of her demeanour, nor implied symbolically (eg via her perceptions of her surroundings). (Did she feel it was unfair? Did she feel guilty?) Several reviewers, seeing the novel as a woman's struggle for autonomy in a repressive society, have chosen to interpret this as an example of the unfair pressures on Nora, but the fact is that it is very hard with a close reading to know her precise emotional reaction, and the possibility arises that she was simply unaffected, and that therefore her lack of attention to the boys at the time of their stay had indeed amounted to inexcusable neglect. For much of the novel it seemed to me that it was indeed intended as a sympathetic portrayal of a woman struggling heroically against societal pressure, but there were moments when I felt that this couldn't be the case. In particular, there is a moment, late in the novel, when it strikes Nora that she has not so far considered the happiness or unhappiness of the boys in the aftermath of their father's death. I have read reviews that have called this moment 'moving' and an example of the complexity of Toibin's character portrayal, and Doug, who didn't attend the meeting, wrote too that he found it moving, an illustration of the difficulty of dealing with enormous grief, Toibin's portrayal of which he found 'very real'. Jenny also defended this moment of Nora's revelation as realistic, saying that the grief of a widow can be so overwhelming that there is just no room emotionally for others, even children. However, because by then I was still feeling outside of Nora's whole emotional experience, I was simply alienated. I had a similar reaction to her response once her politically involved daughter Aine is discovered to be safe: having bothered to travel to Dublin with her elder daughter Fiona and Fiona's boyfriend to look for Aine, on hearing from another party that Aine is safe, Nora simply announces that she will now go back home and promptly does so without even seeing or speaking to Aine. There is no indication of her feelings or motivations in the moment she makes this decision, (and from this point on we hear no more of the matter), and so for me my own feelings about such a situation came to the fore (I wouldn't have just rushed back home so coolly and promptly!) and I was once again alienated from Nora. There are other hints from other characters that Nora is recognised in her family as a difficult, prickly or perhaps cold character, and my experience of all this in the reading (and that of others in the group) was of cognitive dissonance rather than character complexity. (It was interesting, we thought, that this novel more or less begins with an appearance by the mother of Eilish, the protagonist of Brooklyn, in which, seemingly out of the blue, she explains to Nora her motives in the episode at the end of that earlier novel, motives about which our group was unsure and divided, and which we couldn't solve by reference to the text of Brooklyn.) 

It is well recognised that Toibin is an autobiographical writer and that this novel in particular relates to his own childhood experience. His own schoolteacher father died when he was twelve and like the boys in this novel he was sent elsewhere to be cared for while his father was dying. Like Donal he emerged with a stammer. Crucially, his mother was distant, and his writings are consequently full of cold and neglectful mothers. This novel is clearly intended to redress the balance and present the mother's point of view. Looking at it from a writer's perspective, it seems to me that the project, though admirable, is not entirely successful, not simply because we are kept at such a distance from Nora's emotions, but also because  in those moments that I experience as dissonant the author's feelings of hurt come to the fore, disrupting the empathic intention.

The novel has been seen as a magnificent portrait of grief, and Doug wrote that 'the pain and dignity of loss, and the need to persevere, but not really succeeding, are really well conveyed in the early section of the book.' However, both Ann and I found it hard to share Nora's grief, since, as Ann pointed out, there was no real sense of what had been lost. Grief surely is characterised by a preoccupation with what has been lost, and since we are taking Nora's viewpoint we could expect some more vivid sense of Maurice as a person and Nora's relationship with him than is provided. We are told that Nora had always agreed with him politically, and it is implied that this was simply a result of her being subsumed by him.  People in our group had come away with different impressions of him as a person, some feeling, because of this, that he was somewhat stiffly patriarchal, others noting that at one point Nora thinks to herself how amusing and charming he was, while Nora is constantly presented by the members of the community with eulogies about his worth and kindness as a teacher. Although we are constantly with Nora throughout the book, we are not party to her surely inevitable dramatised memories of Maurice to corroborate any of this. It is stated that a deep pain for her is having to move from the status 'we' to that of 'I', and Doug found this 'brilliantly portrayed', but Ann and I would have liked a more visceral sense of this than the brief moment when Nora wonders if she is going to have to say more now in political discussions. It seemed to us too that the potential implication that what Nora was really grieving was the status that marriage had given her made her rather shallow, but Jenny robustly defended this as a real matter of concern and unhappiness for many widows.

Mark and John were the strongest in their criticisms. John found the prose - which others have found careful and judicious - bland (rendering the whole situation bland) (although he did admit that there was something about the prose that to his surprise kept him reading). Both he and Mark criticised the lack of a story arc and the dogged linearity, with unconnected events appearing one after the other. They found especially tedious the many longeurs describing, for instance, the totting up exercise Nora has to undertake on the first day of her employment, or the nights she has to suffer the aunt's snoring on holiday. Ann commented that this last - the holiday - seemed somehow extraneous, and said that she had very much got the impression that Toibin had been compelled to write down everything that his own mother had experienced, at the expense of a story arc (always a potential danger in autobiographical writing).

Doug too, in spite of his praise, had some criticisms: he also found the office episodes unsatisfactory, lacking in tension and, although drawn out, seemingly there merely as a device to illustrate Nora's return to the world. On the whole he was less enamoured with the second half of the book - 'Lots of minor characters flitting in and out without much purpose. The moment on the beach with the nun just seemed corny' - and he found the later stages of Nora's recovery 'a bit saccharine and contrived.' Jenny had an opposite reaction: she liked the second half better, as that was when the book started to 'gallop'Clare, arriving late, said she had enjoyed the book, but she did see what we meant about not being able to get to grips with Nora's character. Mark ended the evening by saying that if it hadn't been for two of us women expressing the same opinion he wouldn't have dared to say what he felt, which was that this novel doesn't really display a deep understanding of women.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here