To find out what Night Owl is all about see Owl Pellets
To find out what Night Owl is all about see Owl Pellets
I have very mixed feelings about this novel and, like others, I am surprised that it featured on the Man Booker Prize 2012 shortlist.
There is much to enjoy, and at times it could be described as a 'page turner'. However, what kept me reading was akin to the unpleasant curiosity of watching an injured creature try to traverse some distance within the limits defined by its species.
Perhaps this was intentional, but to me the book read like an early draft of something with potential. Could it have been an even more spare and stark work, with a greater focus on building the tensions through better worked characters and scenes that more incrementally deepen the reader's anxiety (I think of Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw' as a sublime example)? Conversely, could it have been filled out with a greater range & depth of description, and broader emotional palette such as you might find in a Ruth Rendell work? But perhaps I am just suffering from not being able to fit this book into a recognisable genre? It didn't match up to the 'less is more' definition (as does my previously reviewed 'A Week in Winter' by Barth Landor which I enjoyed much more).
I battled with the boredom of the early pages of the book, with its minute detail of things that didn't add anything to the reading experience at all for me, such as what the main character 'Futh' does at his sink on the ferry journey. Also, it becomes too much of a pattern to a point of irritation, that almost everything in the present has to trigger a memory from the past. I also didn't enjoy being plunged so immediately into the 'sob story' of the father who started to hit his son as soon as his mother had left ('it was like when birds flew into windows with a sudden sickening thud') , though this is a terrific simile (and can be my owl 'pellet' from this novel).
Futh, who is off on a walking holiday along the Rhine re-tracing the steps taken on an earlier holiday with his father, seemed to me to have such a limited range of expression and experience, as though he perhaps had an autistic spectrum disorder of which he was blissfully ignorant. These limits seem only partly explicable by his halted emotional development since his mother left him when he was a boy. As a result of her departure, it seems he is only capable of dysfunctional relationships with women. One is his wife, Angela with whom he has just separated, and another is with Gloria - the neighbour he unpleasantly spies on, and who befriends him after his mother's departure and seems to have no scruples at all - she asks him if he will scrub her back in the bath, though she is having a relationship with his father! Angela is a substitute for his mother (she has the same name). ..and was a school crush he meets again by chance...and nothing seems to go well for them, from the honeymoon onward.
Apart from the difficulty with human relationships, he is paranoid (he has to know the escape route out of every hotel room he stays in) and he also can't quite manage his physical needs (a trait perhaps likely with a motherless boy); he makes himself weak from lack of food, continues walking in painful shoes, and doesn't make adequate use of sun cream. In fact he quietly deteriorates physically as the story progresses (I liked this). He has strong emotional connections with smells (he's a chemist manufacturing scent, which brings to mind Suskind's 'Perfume' - another story of a child abandoned by his mother who has problems with relating - an understatement!). He latches onto a complete stranger in a way that a child might do (his ferry journey acquaintance). All these things add to the autistic spectrum flavour.
So that is our main character - but then we add in a range of other characters which, for me, are too stereotyped. Ester is a 'tart' running a 'hotel' , sleeping with any male customer who is interested, because she is in dependant on a man who is prone to violent jealousy (a second violent male character), and provoking his jealousy is a way of getting at least a bit of the attention she craves. She hangs on to her better memories, while he mocks her 'hoarding' tendencies. These are people living at a basic level of interaction. This is all a bit 'Eastenders'. I've never read anything where there was so little in the way of likeable or engaging characters. I craved an interesting female character, and all the women in this novel were quite stereotyped, underdeveloped (Angela) or just plain boring.
My feelings about the symbolism/use of motifs - the lighthouse of the title, perfume/smells (camphor, violets) and perfume bottles, moths are also mixed.
Though I liked the loneliness of the boys using flashlights to communicate across a darkness that is both real and emotional, to me the lighthouse image was spoiled by overuse and trying to work at the transcendent level as well as being stuffed in a pocket. Both Ester and Futh have lighthouse-shaped perfume bottles - this is too neat for me. Ester didn't need to own a similar object to want to steal it later - she collects moths (bringing to mind 'The Silence of the Lambs'). Futh is fragile like a moth, and significantly, he finds a dead moth on his book in one of his hotel rooms. Ester's jealous husband bathes in camphor fragrance. As we know, moth balls have camphor in them to repel moths - and Futh's last experience is the smell of camphor. But the ending was just too 'Fawlty Towers' to me - I found it hard to believe Futh would really still be holding onto the pink knickers when he went to hide in the bathroom.
The scheme of re-visiting the key scenes in Futh's memories didn't quite work for me. I just felt uncomfortably that the author had forgotten that she had already described them. There wasn't a significantly enough developed context for each recurring memory to bring it more resonance/shed enough new light on our main character. Again - perhaps intentional, like the limits of his experiential range. But if so, some other technique ought to have been used to ensure that these memories were just 'stuck' and our main character stuck with them like a broken record.
One of these memories is the scene when he is on holiday with his parents just before his mother leaves home for good. His father bores his mother with facts about lighthouses, while Futh accidentally breaks the glass bottle inside the silver lighthouse-shaped perfume bottle as he watches them irritating each other. The glass cuts his hand. This is a symbolic wounding, a permanently open wound. But Futh doesn't become enriched by his experiences, instead he gradually bleeds to death, leaving nothing of meaning behind him, except that an acquaintance on the return ferry wonders where he is - which emphasises the bleak meaninglessness of his life (we think of the unopened boxes at his new flat that will conveniently never now be opened). This contrasts for example with David Mitchell's boy in 'Black Swan Green' for whom neighbours' gardens are quite significant, but who instead develops into a poet as a result of all his experiences.
We get to the point of Futh's sad end too easily, and here I think again of Ruth Rendell, and how much she builds character and situation in order for such crimes to occur (I chose to read the ending as death for Futh). Is Ester's husband really ready to be driven to kill? Or, as this actual end is left to our imagination, perhaps Futh should be thought of as dying of fright brought on by his neglect of self and his overall fragility.
The narrative is successful in creating a lasting impression of Futh's stunted life, but I wanted to care about him more, and be drawn in deeper to the people that all fail him in some way through the effects of their own inadequacies. I would also have preferred more description of place, as he could really have been anywhere. In fact, I have been imagining Ester's hotel in a recession-hit British northern seaside resort, with Futh walking a coastal path where lighthouses featured in the present landscape too.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed it enough to finish it, and it will be interesting to see this writer develop.
I've become a fan of Helen Dunmore, A Spell of Winter being a reading experience that has stayed with me, so I have made a start on my review (watch this space)...but I also recently read her ghost story commissioned by Hammer Horror - 'The Great Coat' on Kindle - Guardian review here, which received a lot of media publicity. This was a perfect 'bite sized' read for Kindle, by a writer with a highly developed storytelling craft. While it didn't have the depth of metaphor and symbol of A Spell of Winter, it nevertheless delivered on storytelling, and was a definite 'page turner' (how does that translate to Kindle?!).
Recently I also really enjoyed The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell, which I chose following a feature by Mariella Frostrup in 'Open Book' on Radio 4, which can be listened to here. I'd already read The Hand that First Held Mine and very much enjoyed that. O'Farrell's social observations and her writing about family relationships, and the inner life are particularly good, and Esme Lennox has an excellent twist in the tale towards the end and a dramatic finale - I do recommend this, especially if you are interested in the way women's mental health was handled by society in the earlier part of the 20thC.
Social media finally came into its own for me recently, when, as a result of a 'tweet' by Sheffield University I ran to buy a last minute ticket to Jeanette Winterson at the 'Off The Shelf' Festival. I was on my lunch break, and the Students' Union box office was just a 5 minute walk away.
Through my student days and onward I read and enjoyed Jeanette's writing, The Passion being a favourite. But it's now perhaps 10 years since I read any of her work.
I'm generally not one to travel about to book signings or author readings, and work and family commitments make it very difficult for me to attend festival events...but magically, this one was on my doorstep!
I didn't even know Jeanette had just published her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? or that this was what she would be reading from and discussing at the 'Off The Shelf' event. I knew she'd had a difficult time recently (from occasionally visiting her website), but had no idea of the extent of it. In that sense, I was very fresh to all that I was hearing as the evening unfolded.
Of course, I have seen pictures of Jeanette, and heard her in interview. But the complete package in front of you is a much more rewarding experience. She was warm and funny, and astonishingly open and generous of spirit, with an idiosyncratic habit of rolling her unruly curly mane around her head like a ball of tumbleweed. Having read so much of her writing all those years ago, I had already 'got to know' this voice, so I had the sense of being re-acquainted. This is reassuring testimony of the way a writer can truly speak to you and become part of your inner life. But it is also testimony to her early success as a 'fisher of men' as so many of us became 'followers'.
It has become clear to me that her upbringing enabled her to believe in herself as someone with a voice you should sit up and listen to: she has the energy and charisma of an evangelist. Indeed, there is much which elucidates the extent to which her upbringing shaped her personality and ambitions in Why Be Happy, When You Could Be Normal .
Ironically, she has talked of her childhood as' happy', because she knew no other life, and was made to feel unique and special as a child within a very strongly structured routine - yet this happiness came from an existence far from 'normal' (the title of the book is a quote from Mrs Winterson). Her mother obviously didn't realise that her own daughter's childhood 'happiness' stemmed from a quite 'abnormal' upbringing, and 'normal' was never part of the equation. In this way, Jeanette was equipped early on to work freely with her creative impulses, less hampered perhaps by the self-doubt that can restrain creative impulses in people who hover between conventional and less conventional lives.
Later, I joined the queue to get a signature in my copy. I was near the end of the queue (I tend to do everything very slowly), and Jeanette had already told us she didn't come up north very much, and how she hated Accrington. I wanted to tell her that Sheffield is really great. Instead, I just said that I hoped we weren't wearing her out. I know she really meant it when she replied 'no, not at all' because she gave me a wonderful beaming grin with the characteristic childlike twinkle in the eyes, again - the energy of the evangelist - all souls are deserving. I'm so glad she's staying with us on this life journey, because, if you get round to reading the book, you'll hear how she very nearly chose to leave behind this savage parade.
After having read the book in full, I did concede much of the criticism made in the London Review of Books (Vol 34, no.2 by Andrew Mars-Jones). Mars-Jones takes the opportunity for a bit of psychological observation, based on the contradictions of this autobiography and with much reference to 'Oranges'. I agreed with his conculsion that 'In this new book the contradictions of Jeanette Winterson’s character are more evident than any perspective on them. I don’t doubt that she’s wounded, only that she knows her wounds.' However, these unknown wounds have driven her creativity, and, combined with her tremendous capacity for hard work (evidenced in the anecdotes he opens his perspective with) have resulted in a unique contribution to literature. If artists were able to achieve some satisfactory perspective on their own character, they might lose the creative impulse. Where Mars-Jones observes (quoting Winterson):' "Fiction", she goes on, "needs its specifics, its anchors. It needs also to pass beyond them. It needs to be weighed down with characters we can touch and know, it needs also to fly right through them into a larger, universal space." Her subsequent work has seemed short on those anchors, launched onto the tide (or into space, the imagery isn’t clear) topheavy.' - I would rather congratulate Winterson on being able to break loose from the anchors (probably knowing their personal dangers for her as so much is unresolved) and float above and beyond them creating a unique language that speaks at a universal level. With this in mind, I would also rather believe that where Mars-Jones refers to 'a riven psychology, so doctrinaire about it's own wholeness' instead this is an artist who tries to tap into and locate her voice within the wholeness of the human experience more generally, but that the psychological difficulties and evangelical tendencies interfere a little with the communication of the vision.
There's an opportunity to watch the 1994 interview on BBC iPlayer here.
I have been desperately short of time to read in recent months, but have been able to steal time during my lunch hour to listen to audio books on my tiny iPod (my book tardis). I'm just coming to the end of Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain which is read by the author. This was originally produced for television (2007) and subsequently won a number of awards such as 'best history series' and 'best presenter'.
Marr has become a household name with his own high profile Sunday morning show The Andrew Marr Show which replaced Breakfast with Frost after Frost's retirement in 2005. It's telling that the show was originally called 'Sunday AM' but re-named in 2007, because Marr has gained so much in popularity.
British history was lacking in my education for various reasons (time spent in the Far East as a teenager saw me studying South East Asian history for a time), so I am probably the sort of person who can benefit a great deal from Marr's enthusiastic analysis of British (political) history, beginning after the Second World War. I am becoming hungry to understand more about the society I grew up in, and the political forces that shaped it and I am so glad I chose Marr. Of course this is journalistic, not academic, but the balance of content worked for me for what I want at this time.
As he moves through the decades, he brings to life the names I knew but haven't before been able to place in context. When he arrives in the years of my childhood and beyond, so much falls into place. He brings into the story, not just the remote playing out of the most powerful political lives, but the popular culture on the street. His analysis helps to show how things are interrelated, and moreover, he tells the story in such a compelling way, it acts as a wake up call to the importance of politics and the personal impact of the most powerful people in the recent history of our country. Following on from this logically, it helps put today in context. This has certainly made me more engaged with politics in the run up to the election, and I am recommending this audio book, and the television series. I understand that Marr is planning another series about the first half of the twentieth century. One to look out for.
My copy of Housekeeping is within reach. I am visiting Wales next week, and will be able to retrieve it! I may need to re-read this novel to write my promised review. But this will be a pleasure. This is a book that easily warrants a second read.
I can't say the same for Home however. I'm afraid, after Housekeeping, this disappointed terribly. For page after page barely anything happens, and there isn't the richness of description or imaginative scale and scope that there is in Housekeeping. For so long, all that seems to happen is the Reverend being assisted into and out of bed or his chair, neighbours leaving food on the verandah, and Glory hearing Jack opening and closing the porch door countless times! I was so pleased when Teddy turned up at the end, just for another character to add interest, but he turns out to be another missed opportunity to throw some light on the dingy goings on. I really don't know what the fuss was about with this book.
I will read her Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead at some point, to return to this strange town in Iowa, and just to read some more Marilynne Robinson...
Molly Fox's Birthday was shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize (2009), but didn’t win. Madden has had another novel shortlisted for the prize - One by One in the Darkness (2003). However, Madden has won numerous other prizes and awards which you can read about here.
Madden was born in 1960, is from County Antrim in Northern Ireland and currently teaches at Trinity College Dublin.
This is the second Irish writer I have read recently, the other being Anne Enright who was born in Dublin in 1962. I read The Gathering, a few months ago which I enjoyed, but not as much as I enjoyed Molly Fox’s Birthday.
I am a latecomer to contemporary Irish writers, but have been fortunate enough to have this late discovery of excellent reading enhanced by a recent discovery of Ireland itself. I first visited Ireland a few years ago, and have returned on numerous occasions since, including several stays in Bray, where Anne Enright currently lives, and some day trips to Dublin (which I am visiting again at the end of this summer). I have, therefore, been able to engage my imagination with the settings of these novels much more rewardingly.
This relatively short novel (221 pages) is set over one day, a particular day – the birthday of one of its characters, Molly Fox, a famous actress who lives only through the reminiscences of her close friend our nameless playwright narrator, who is staying in her house while she is away. Of course the ‘day’ is heavy with meaning, a meaning which we learn as the novel progresses.
Molly Fox’s Birthday spoke to me very intimately at times. I re-lived elements of my student days and my early twenties and identified closely with some of the insights that maturity brings to the characters. Madden tackles so many weighty ideas, ideas such as students might discuss late into the night, and it rings true that her characters continue their lives ever in the wake of the conversations of these formative years.
But to speak of weight in connection with this book is slightly misleading, as the syntax is airy, almost light, especially at the start. This is another case of ‘less is more’ (see my review of A Week in Winter); the prose gathers depth and perspective while maintaining a surface effortlessness – giving away nothing of Madden’s experience of writing the book as her most difficult. There does seem to be a giveaway ‘sigh of relief’ however, in the lengthy final conversation between two of the main protagonists at the end, in which so much is unraveled and elucidated.
I do feel that occasionally the design leaks through the text, more so in the first half than the second. The time shifts between the present (the entire novel covers only one day – recalling Mrs Dalloway) and the reminiscences of our narrator about a number of quite widely separated events in the past, are sometimes made in such a way that the join is too visible, but this is a minor quibble. There is a lot of coincidence too, in both the past and the present, but this allows a ‘neatness’ which the subject matter benefits from if the novel is to be kept relatively short, especially as the theme of the novel comes to a head; after all there is only so much thinking and reminiscing a person can do in the duration of one day.
The main theme of the novel is identity, how identity is developed and also how another’s identity is perceived and how we can come to a deeper understanding of those close to us. In this case we are examining this idea through a group of closely connected people – a triangle of good friends who share a life in the Arts, and their respective families. The exploration of the mental processes of an actor in becoming someone else is quite brilliant as a way to offset other explorations of self-identity. I was quite staggered to hear that Madden has no experience of acting herself as I found some of these parts of the novel quite the most profound and perceptive.
For example, our narrator describes Molly Fox’s performance as The Duchess of Malfi: ‘I believed in her as a duchess. Her plight moved me, and yet still I knew she was an actor’…”Who is it can tell me who I am?”…(and here is Night Owl's 'pellet' from this novel): 'Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex? Perhaps it is instead the truest thing about us, and it is the revelation of it that is the problem; that so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.’
After the loss of so much in her life, the Duchess had not lost herself, “I am Duchess of Malfi still”, and I feel that Madden wants to say this about her characters…I am Andrew still, I am Fergus still...and our narrator also subtly refers us back to her own sense of self, which we first start to understand from the encounter with the hare on the train that she is trying to work into her next play.
At the very end of the novel, when we are probably feeling disappointed for our narrator, and when we might expect an outburst of strong emotion, instead we are taken back to something gentle and metaphysical which helps to dissipate the situation, so that we feel that our narrator has not lost her true self in spite of her personal disappointment.
I liked the voice in this novel. I shall be reading some more of Deidre Madden’s writing.
I've almost started to take my fantastic eyesight for granted. A few months ago I had laser eye surgery with Ultralase. It's been one of the best things I've ever done for myself. I had different astigmatisms in each eye, but this was easily correctable. I've been totally liberated from glasses. Swimming is one of the most positive advantages of the treatment. Being able to see clearly in the pool is a great feeling, and in the spa or sauna too. Not steaming up in temperature extremes, or when you open the oven door, are other examples of little things that now make me smile.
However, in spite of great eyesight, I have recently been converted to the pleasures of audio books.
The best listen so far has been Ian McKewan reading his own On Chesil Beach. This was hypnotic and addictive, and I was sorry when it was finished. Perfect for a long train journey. It's an intense and intimate story ideally suited to audio. I am on the look out for similar things.
The opening of this book appears to ask little of its reader at first, but this is a clever kind of deception, because when you reach the end, you may have tears in your eyes.The subtle, understated prose is a pleasure to read and the style economic, almost minimalist. But this is certainly a case in which less is more. The book is, as the title suggests, structured around the events of one week. Yet it is in fact the working week, Monday to Friday, which provides the time-scale. This simple structure is vital to the impact of the story as a whole, as it successfully offsets the complex deliberations and vacillations of the protagonist. Within these few pages, (only 143 of them), a timeless tragedy unfolds. In fact it is a double tragedy, the one indivisible from the other: one is finite, irredeemable, the other a contagion within our civilized world - and it is this latter condition that motivates this extraordinarily powerful book.
The main drama takes place within the mind of the narrator. Clark is a weary worker in a remote American consulate in Eastern Europe, disillusioned by his job, his career. He is deeply disappointed by those around him; his hopes for friendship with his colleagues long since faded:‘Once I thought such a fine profession would perfectly suit me; now I find myself disagreeably altered by it. It changes the way I relate to my world, causing me to distort the significance of success.’ He has become an outsider; he sees his name, literally separated from those of his colleagues, on a tick-off sheet, the context of which he cannot discern. He consoles himself by reading great literature. Gradually, his meditations and deliberations draw us in closer and we start to travel with him, with every twist and turn of his conscience as events unfold. We see him managing his young son in the temporary absence of his wife, telling him unlikely tales in order to win his obedience or avoid the directness of his questions and see him struggle with his weakness and exhaustion and with what is contained in each ordinary day - for it takes little to drag him down.
Every nuance of the preparations being made for an important visitor to the consulate irritates him – he cannot partake in all the fuss. He seems paranoid, projecting all his insecurity onto others. Why has he been given the most menial of jobs? But then he makes a connection with someone who is herself an outsider, a persecuted soul, and he finally resolves to follow his instincts against the probable wishes of his superiors by helping her. A chink of light enters his heart and his humanity is re-awakened; for a time he even notices that his co-workers are engaged in tasks as menial as his own and he feels some alliance with them. But then come small but significant moments of personal revelation and lucidity which coalesce gradually into a resolve which never the less vacillates until the moment of action.What he discovers as a result of his decision is an atrocity which cancels any doubt that he is doing the right thing. Yet events occur beyond his control and the agonies of the whole week pour into one moment. Clark is left with one final chance to stand up to his superiors.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptive details which unselfconsciously reveal Clark’s feelings and the way he relates to his world. Owl's 'pellet' from this novel is: the office manager ‘unsurpassed in the art of looking indispensable,’ and of whom Clark wonders ‘whether it really is his enterprises, large and small, which give birth to his purposeful manner, and not the manner itself breeding the enterprises.’ I think many of us encounter this in our daily lives. But the value of this book is far greater than the sum of its contents, for we are taken on a journey of monumental importance to our age which lifts off the page.
Music in the Round Autumn Series 2008
Elizabeth Watts and Phillip Thomas
I knew Liz Watts from the time I was studying for my Masters degree at Sheffield University. Then, it was a commonly held belief that Liz would go on to great things. I watched her perform in the Cardiff Singer of the World 2007 Competition, for which she went on to win the Rosenblatt Song Prize, and have read about her in the local press and heard her on the radio. So, this was an opportunity not to be missed - to catch her giving a recital in my home city of Sheffield.
She started the evening with Mozart, and I immediately recalled the experience of hearing her rich tonal qualities, supported by an immaculate technique, emanating from practice rooms all those years ago. She has evidently been nurturing and maintaining her voice well, as there is little sign of strain. Her lower register is more secure and expressive now, and the top of her range as competent as ever it was - with the addition of an increased finesse that must have developed through all the experience she has gained as a result of her recent successes. One of her vocal characteristics is her ability to maintain an even tonal quality across her registers - something that suggests a rigorous application of technique through training.
There were seven songs in the Mozart group, some familiar, some less so. The more familiar being the 'Als Luise' and 'Abendempfindung' with one composed in Italian in between - 'Ridente la Calma' . In fact, with the addition of the French 'Dans un Bois Solitaire' Liz was opening her recital almost exactly as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf did at the start of her Carnegie Hall recital of 1956. Sandwiching the Italian in between is a treat for the voice at the beginning of a recital - the open vowels allow the voice some help in warming up. Technically Liz was faultless, I only felt a slight lack of variation of tone, and a slight over-forcing in the middle range in pursuit of volume.
Moving on to Liszt, I was rapt, particularly by the dream quality of 'Oh! Quand je dors'. Now Liz was really evoking something special and this repertoire suits her particularly well. The 'theme' of the evening was developing nicely too. Romantic, metaphysical, pastoral and nostaligic with an even scattering of flowers, particularly violets and lilacs and rowing boats! This satisfied our unconscious.
Liz's professional development was evident in her command of the Rachmaninov in Russian to include a Pushkin setting 'Ne poj, krasavica, pri mne'. Liz introduced this song with reference to her own nostalgia for Sheffield! Flattery will get her a return invitation, I hope.
Moving on chronologically to Hahn, and entertaining us with a reminder of the connection of 'A Chloris' with the 'Hamlet' cigar adverts, we were again treated to lilacs and a setting of Hugo's 'Reverie' - excellent for a contrast in pace. But for me the real treat came with the final Robert Louis Stevenson settings. I thought it a good homecoming that she finished in English and for me these settings were very evocative as I remember reading the poems as a child, some over and over. The word painting in 'The Swing' was extremely effective, carried off brilliantly by Phillip Thomas in the accompaniment. I hadn't heard these pieces before and will now seek them out.
The little bit of witty banter between Liz and Phillip was both engaging and reassuring, in that Liz is still very much the infectiously warm and eager young woman I knew before her rise to fame. Liz has made such a secure start to her singing career that there is great capacity for development in her expressive and interpretive abilities and I wish her every success and happiness in her forthcoming career.