Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There are some books that as soon as you have turned the page on the final full-stop, you know that you will never forget them. These are the books that will always occupy a corner of your mind, their characters and scenes waiting to pounce on you at a moment’s notice. “Was that character okay in the end? How did this other character feel just then?” You may ask yourself on the train home one night. This is one of those books.

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The book follows the various destinies and desires of a group of interconnected people in Nigeria and later Biafra throughout the 60’s and the war which descends upon them all: Ugwu, a houseboy who leaves his village to work for the charismatic intellectual Odenigbo in the university town of Nsukka; Olanna, a privileged young woman who gives it all up in favour of living with Odenigbo and becoming a teacher; and Richard, an Englishman abroad who falls madly and irrevocably in love with both Igbo culture and Kainene – Olanna’s twin sister.

Before picking up this book I knew nothing about the Nigerian-Biafran war. Nothing. Nada. Zip. It simply isn’t a subject which is covered in most curricula. As far as I can see there are three reasons for this:

  1. The question of time. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school week to cover our own history properly, never mind anyone else’s.
  2. British schools have a real issue with teaching anything in living memory. If you’re lucky you might go up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and if you’re even luckier you might get to the collapse of the Soviet Union – but only those specific events. For instance, all I know about Ireland and the Troubles I know from my own research and from classes I took from an Irishman in France. I don’t think it often occurs to the Department of Education or exam boards that just because they remember it, it doesn’t mean we do.
  3. It doesn’t fit the narrative. European and American historians and media have built a very specific post-War narrative – which we have all been complicit in propagating, both in spreading it and in swallowing it without question. As far as most of us are concerned the post-War story is the Cold War, Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Woodstock and the Berlin Wall, – with a sprinkling of Civil Rights and Space Race chucked in for good measure. There’s no room in that narrow, clean, linear narrative for the expansive messiness of Algeria, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Biafra; because God forbid that more than one thing happened at a time.

The only thing worse than mangling history, is ignoring it. Anyway, the result of this madness is that I had no pre-knowledge, no preconceptions going in and you know what? I could have picked far worse places to start.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love me a non-linear timeline and this book has that a plenty. The time-hopping is used sparingly and  for dramatic effect, rather than as a nifty bit of post-modern illusionism – which is refreshing for a piece of “literary” fiction. (The inverted commas will be explained in an article one day…) As a result of the disjointed timeline the contrast between before and after the outbreak of war becomes painfully pronounced,  as well as giving you more space to focus on the characters and their personal conflicts, – but without going full Brecht and giving the entire plot away. This is reflective of an entire style which not only puts the story first, but is immensely readable.

Speaking of the characters, I love them. Well, most of them. Of the “main cast,” so to speak, I never really warmed to Odenigbo. Perhaps I have known too many people like him, to truly love him, – student-like idealists who think they can change the world by quoting critics and concepts. All the same, I admire him as a character for being generally progressive and well-intentioned, mainly because of Ugwu, and his faith in the Biafran dream shattering is one of the more quietly heart-breaking things in the book. Olanna and Kainene are beautifully-realised three-dimensional women (you’d be amazed how rare that is). Olanna is a sympathetic point of view character, and whilst her outlook on life is affected by her socioeconomic status that isn’t who she is. It would have been so easy to have her as a rich bitch and keep it at that. Like Odenigbo we never actually have a chapter written from Kainene’s point of view, instead the reader has to rely on the perspective of her sister and her lover to build a picture of her character – Richard’s fascination and Olanna’s regret. As a result she comes across as cynical, intoxicating and sometimes vulnerable. And I love it. She has a character type which we often see in men in fiction, but rarely women – that combination of hardened, enigmatic worldliness and likeability that makes Messrs Darcy and Rochester intriguing romantic heroes. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see more of her.

Although, as much as I love Kainene my heart belongs to Ugwu and Richard – my two favourite POV characters. Whilst Adichie makes it clear that Ugwu isn’t really on the same level of education as the other main characters, she also makes it clear that he is still an intellectual and emotional being in his own right, capable of surprising even the reader. (He will, wait until the end). You’ll just have to read the book to discover what a likeable and amazing character Ugwu is, but rest assured – he is both. Richard is, I fully recognise, a far more problematic proposition. He is the only truly sympathetic white character in the book, and whilst his love of Biafra and Kainene are sincere, it’s difficult to say how much of his view is tinged with romanticism as an outsider. The other characters view him as a combination of mildly ridiculous and sweet as a direct result, the quintessential Englishman abroad; whereas he sees himself as just being emotionally and intellectually invested in his adopted country. The truth is somewhere in between.

This is where I should write a paragraph about the depiction of the war. About how masterfully Adichie depicts war from the points of view of those who suffered the most, what conclusions she comes to about foreign backing of Nigeria and the apathetic world media; the debate over who has the right to tell this particular story. This is where I should write about the woman and the calabash. But I am not. I am going to hand it over to you, the reader. Buy it, borrow it from a friend or library – just read it, I implore you. You won’t regret it.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller By Italo Calvino, translated by William Weavers

This will be the most meta book that you have ever read, I can guarantee that right now….

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You are the hero of this story. You have picked up a book that you’ve been meaning to read for a while, you get comfy and read the first chapter. Except this isn’t the book that you wanted to read. It’s a completely different book. What begins as a simple quest to find a good book will become a journey which will span countries, genres, philosophies and the very idea of fiction itself.

I do believe that this is the first book which I’ve reviewed that I have to thank my degree for introducing me to. It’s a very odd and out of left field choice – even for a module on European post-modern fiction – but I’m glad that the choice was made. Let’s start with the structure: The chapters alternate, one being a present tense ongoing plot starring “you” in quest of a good book, the other being the first chapter of a book that “you”‘ve found on your quest; each representing a different genre and style, –  thrillers, period pieces, westerns and so on. And every. Single. Time you’re just getting into the new story it breaks away to the next chapter about “you,” as “you” discover that there is no chapter two, or circumstances in the main narrative render reading it further an impossibility. This is a stroke of genius on the part of Calvino, as you are put into exactly the same state of enjoyable frustration as “you.” I would still love to get my hands on the rest of the western novel, even though I am fully aware that it doesn’t exist.

The characters in the story of “you” start as reasonable and realistic, and become increasingly anarchic as the narrative does. They operate on a kind of internal logic that Douglas Adams would have to co-operate with Franz Kafka to achieve, and yet makes a weird kind of sense in its own way. Even “you” are not immune, as “you” get pulled into the story and end up a very different “you” from the one who simply wished to sit down and read a book. It’s through these characters and the crazy journey that you go on that traditional notions of character function and ideas of what literature is for get questioned. Look out for the sister of the woman “you” fancy, she teaches literature at university level in spite of never reading any of the books, instead choosing to run them through a machine which tells her the most frequently occurring words – which she then bases her analysis on. Want to know the scary and hilarious thing there, children? I’ve read essays by genuine academics based on this approach.

If you like Welcome to Night Vale and your stories fast and tight, with a healthy does of surrealist irreverence then I highly recommend If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, as it is a very compelling, and very funny, novel which is tour de force of both writing a translation. The ending, for instance, is one of the most satisfying I’ve read in a long time. However, literary navel-gazing isn’t for everyone and I can understand why some of my class avoided writing about this thing like it was dirty laundry in the corner, but it would still make a very good gift for a literary-minded friend you dearly wish to frustrate.

The Great Gatsby (Baz Lurhmann 2013)

It really didn’t need to be in 3-D…

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Yeah, I know it says “Book Vampire” up there but I have said that I might review some adaptations in the past (approximately two posts ago, I do believe); frankly, since I drew on the publicity and the pressure behind/on this film within my review of the book (https://bookvampire.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/the-great-gatsby-f-scott-fitzgerald/), I do feel somewhat honour-bound to look at the film itself. And it’s my blog, so I’ll do what I like. So, with that pouting aside and a blanket spoiler alert being put out there, let’s begin shall we?

The plot itself sticks very closely with that of the book, with the plucky young innocent Nick still coming to New York to try and make his fortune on the stock market and still finding his mysterious neighbour Gatsby obsessed with the something across the bay – only to find that it’s Nick’s very own spoilt, beautiful (and married) cousin Daisy. And to say that they have unfinished business is an understatement. Luhrmann adds a framing device into the film, with Nick (played by Tobey Maguire) as a recovering alcoholic in a clinic years after the event and still struggling to come to terms with it all. Usually the point of adding a framing device to a piece of Drama is to intrigue the audience whilst giving them the necessary information they need to navigate the plot to come. Funnily enough, for me, the opening fails somewhat in this respect. This particular section of the script screams “exposition!” Whilst, of course, not everyone will be au fait with 1920’s America (the person I saw it with wasn’t) Nick doesn’t have a psychologically valid reason to be spewing contextual material to a Doctor who lived through the same things just a few years earlier; I think it was meant to underline the jaded aspect of Nick, but it just came across like the plan for a GCSE History essay question with Gatsby thrown in at the end for good measure. Oh and Nick paraphrases that Gordon Gekko quote. Which is really distracting; it’s like Mr Rochester turning to Jane Eyre and saying: “You took the words right out of my mouth, it must have been while you were kissing me.”*

That bit aside, once we get into the story proper it works extremely well and is very tightly-structured. Certain bits were expanded upon and brought up earlier so that they were made less abrupt for the non-Fitzgerald fan in the audience – particular as regards to Gatsby and the extent his interior fantasy logic is explored, making him a far more tragic character than previous adaptations have.  As far as I’m concerned, Leonardo di Caprio is the best Gatsby I’ve seen – including Robert Redford – as he manages to balance out the stylised performance that the character puts on, with the inner dreaming naivety and insecurity; we’re drawn in by the first, we stay for the second. Redford gave you the impression that Gatsby was a bit of an idiot who had a crush on the wrong girl and should probably just move on; with di Caprio you are struck by the fact that he isn’t in love with Daisy so much as what she represents (cultural capital and a fairy tale ending) and that he would never be even capable of letting her (and that) go – which makes his blind optimism in the face of her eventual rejection and his own death that much more tragic.

On the subject of performances, I feel honourable mentions need to go to Joel Edgerton for his portrayal of Tom Buchanan – Daisy’s racist, philandering husband. It would have been so easy to play him as a boorish two-dimensional villain, but he is instead presented in a rather more nuanced light as someone who can be alternately superior, cunning, antipathetic and (in one scene) actually sympathetic. Edgerton embodies a disappearing old world sense of entitlement that’s at its most vicious when on the defensive to devastating effect; he completely dominates the hotel scene as he senses the weaker links between Gatsby and Daisy and picks at them. Mercilessly. Considering that Edgerton had the hardest job in creating a character almost from scratch, as all previous screen-Toms have very much been of the “what a bastard!” school of thought, as is the one on page – to a degree, I think he probably deserves the most credit.

The visuals were stunning; but did they really need to be in 3-D? I saw this in 2-D and I’m glad I did. With some of the Speedy Gonzales-esque extreme zooms, and things flying through the air it would have been migraine-inducing. Even the Art Deco concertina effect which bookends the film, which I admit was perfect for 3-D, still looked amazing in 2-D. But, hey. That’s what 2-D screenings are for, right?

Okay, it’s now time to address the soundtrack controversy. I think it works. Mostly. On the positive side, the Lana del Rey and Florence and the Machine Tracks are amazing and fit perfectly – particularly within the context of their uses in the film. Heck, Florence’s track is an extended homage to my favourite moment in the book  which other people rarely notice. (I am going to ignore the fact that the actress lip-syncing in the film couldn’t possibly sing it reclined at that angle). I don’t normally like Lana del Rey as an artist; I liked “Video Games”, and then I realised  she was an emotionless performer. Funnily enough, both “Video Games” and “Young and Beautiful” work for precisely that reason. When shooting the closing shots of Queen Christina, the director ordered Greta Garbo to keep her face as blank as possible; he wanted the audience to see their own emotions reflected in her. And that is why “Young and Beautiful” works so well as a recurring haunting musical motif, such poignant lyrics with such a blank performance draw the audience into the unwinding tragedy onscreen as they interpret it as they choose. On the downside, the rap side doesn’t work as well for me. It’s generally more distracting and made even more so by the sampling of tracks from the era like “Let’s Misbehave”, because you wonder why the hell they didn’t just go with that.

Overall, it’s an ambitious film which works really well over all as a disciplined, faithful adaptation of a notoriously hard to adapt book. The visuals and performances are stunning, with only the odd scripting or logic-clunk – when it fails it isn’t for lack of trying. I think it’s the best version yet, and certainly the only one to produce both magnificently frenetic party scenes with treating the characters as engaging, motivated entities and not as just shadow-puppets. It depends on whether you see ambition as a virtue or a flaw, but I’ll take over some anaemic effort any day.

*You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth is a track by the God of Rocking Out, Meat Loaf – in case you’ve been living in a musical wasteland. This is the chorus and for the record it would make complete sense if he did. If it weren’t for the fact that Mr R is a very… Speech-happy lover.

The Passion of New Eve – Angela Carter

Oh Angela, it’s been a while…

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I haven’t reviewed any Angela Carter for quite some time, and I haven’t reviewed any since I began to write half-decent, lengthier reviews. And now now it’s time for me to stop saying “review” and just do it. Evelyn is a man. More specifically, an Englishman moving to America just in time for the mother of all Civil Wars to break out; militant feminists, child religious crusaders,  oft-referred to but barely seen”blacks” and God knows who else fight, not only to survive, but to come out on top afterwards. In the midst of all this, Evelyn starts the road-trip of a lifetime that will see him go from a man in New York to a woman in California.

I love Angela Carter. I really do. That’s why The Passion of New Eve makes me sad. It’s mesmerizing and meaningful stuff in places, but in others it’s just stodgy and silly. It represents Angela Carter at the height of her thing for the trinity of myth, allegory and metaphor, before she would go to a more pared-back and streamlined approach in The Bloody Chamber. Take the scenes in which Evelyn is taken to the underground desert city of Beulah, and is has to take part in a ritual before being forcibly turned into a woman – with a view to making her pregnant with her own child, using the seed procured from him before the operations. (Don’t ask). In fact, forget just the ritual – let’s look at the whole Beulah section. It’s generally just silly. I get that it’s partly a satire on the feminist strand of the Mother Goddess cult – which was enjoying a resurgence at the time, – and partly uber-indoctrinated cyber-Amazons preparing for war; but the dialogue and the symbolism are very difficult to take seriously, the dialogue especially clunks a lot in this section – as they all appear to speak in concepts, not in sentences. As for the satire… It goes on too long and takes itself a little too seriously for that angle to really cut ice.

Dialogue generally is a major issue in this book, more than any other Carter novel it clunks like hell generally. Carter herself acknowledged that it wasn’t her strongest point, largely leaving dialogue out of The Bloody Chamber, and she did improve infinitely later on – Wise Children is a masterpiece in voices – and even when she did have the odd clunk in the future it would never be quite this bad. (If I say “the new century”, fans of Nights at the Circus will know precisely what I mean). As I said before, many of the characters – not just in Beulah, but apparently across America – speak in concepts and ideologies. This is a direct consequence of Carter being at the height of her allegorical phase, as Eve(lyn) travels through America she encounters characters that aren’t so much characters as representations of systems of thought and speechify accordingly. Zero the misogynist, impotent poet that insists his “wives” growl and bark instead of speak, anyone? In the tradition of road trip movies, some of these encounters do get a tad repetitive.

However, there are things in this book which are incredibly well done. I love the first act in New York, and how the scene is built up and set there – there are some beautiful moments of characterisation as well as description, as Evelyn’s less than healthy relationship with Leilah – a dancer – is established and explored in a subtle and sensible manner; he isn’t the Big Bad Wolf, he’s just a man programmed to think and react in a certain way. Also, I really do like Leilah as a character – she’s a charismatic cocktail of innocence and experience that leaves a very big impression on the reader from first to last. I’m also very fond of the cinema motif, and the running references to old Hollywood and the actress “Tristessa” which just underline the themes of illusion and gender-perception; and there is a marvellous set-piece which goes from echoing Sunset Blvd to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. And I don’t think all the road-trip stuff is always too repetitive, the child crusaders make for a nice rhythm-breaker, with the leader being a strangely uncanny foreshadowing of George. W. Bush…

The Passion of New Eve is Gulliver’s Travels on LSD. In America. Yeah, in places it’s silly and it probably needed a re-draft or two, but it’s still worth the read – it’s probably one of the best descriptions of New York that I’ve ever read. Because when it’s good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’s absolutely awful I’m going to give this one a 2.5/3 out of 5 – maybe I’m too young to get some of the references, but sometimes it just falls flat. And good books shouldn’t have a sell-by date.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

… Or “Why I don’t envy Baz Lurhmann.”

Gatsby_1925_jacketYes, this is a shameless cash-in on the up-coming (admittedly, awesome-looking) Baz Lurhmann film but hey, nothing that brings a new audience to this great story can be all that bad. Touch wood.

I’ll admit my immediate reaction when I heard that Baz Lurhmann was to direct the first big-screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby since the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version was something along the lines of: “Arrgh! But, but, he was responsible for Moulin Rouge! Why would you do that?!” For the record, I have more than reconciled myself with the choice of director (he did have a career before Moulin Rouge, and damn… Those ads look amazing). The other main problem, not just for me but for everyone who loves this book, is that pretty much everyone has their own version of The Great Gatsby in their heads; everyone knows how they’d do such-and-such a scene and with who. The inner frustrated director in most readers will be prepared to hate any adaptation done by someone else who dared to get in there before they did, (because they totally were going to make that film). So what is it about this book which inspires both such cultish blind devotion to it and outright hostility towards anyone who might wish to touch it?

Our narrator and reader-substitute in this story is Nick Carraway; a relatively blank-slate from old money in the Mid-West come to make his fortune on the stock-market in New York. With a view to saving cash, he moves to the small peninsula of West Egg – the less-legitimate of the two “Eggs” in the book – and soon  realises that his next-door neighbour is rather less then ordinary. He doesn’t only realise this through the fabulously decadent and meretricious parties which Jay Gatsby throws every week, despite not engaging in them at all himself. He mainly realises it when he seems him staring across the bay at East Egg, more specifically at the green light at the end of the jetty belonging to Nick’s married cousin, Daisy. Beyond that, there is very little I can say that won’t give away anything to do with the plot, aside from that the emerging tale is one of thwarted hopes and dreams, class, money, love and one of the last true idealists of fiction standing against the world.

I love the characters in this book. Not from a point of view of affection, as such – they’re mostly fairly abhorrent characters in their own ways – but more from a technical standpoint. Every character, no matter how walk on their role may be, is given due time and attention and are developed verbally, visually and as a function of the story. You could probably write a thesis on the supporting characters in The Great Gatsby and still get a first. As far as the main quintet is done (Gatsby, Nick, Jordan, Daisy and her husband, Tom) none of them are two-dimensional which could have so easily happened with both Tom and Gatsby, with the first as a philandering villain and the second as a knight in shining limo;all of them have a degree of ambiguity, even Nick whose reliability as a narrator is something which we’re occasionally called upon to question. Although as much as I love Nick* (and yes, I do – I think he’s sweet) and the character development he gets somewhat unusually for a theoretically tabula rasa device, it’s Gatsby who is the key to this book.

Let’s face it, like with Villette, the affection the reader has for this book is usually in direct correlation with that they have for the main character. Jay Gatsby is essentially Don Quixote in spats, and yet there is always this feel of the con-man conjurer about him; he’s too fantastic to be true, his lies are too obvious and badly-made. But for all that he is pure idealism and with surprising sense of innocence and vulnerability behind it; he feels like one of the few characters in fiction who acts like he belongs in the fictional world, a more fictional world than the one which he inhabits. It almost feels as though he has gone through fairy tales and literature and Onegin-like has underlined and made annotations on desirable character-traits and tried to assimilate them into his own personality. Compared to some of the other characters, he comes across as an otherworldly innocent, but it’s heavily hinted that the source of his wealth is illegal and that he’s done some less than chivalric things in his life to reach his current  position. See, this is how good the characterisation is: Fitzgerald has me writing about Gatsby like he’s a real person. Gah! 

The story’s well-written and concise, alternating between the witty and satirical, and the bittersweet and lyrical in the prose. I would say that chapter one can be a bit hard-going if you’re less than at your focused best, but stick with it – once Fitzgerald gets into his stride he rewards your loyalty by the champagne-bucketful. It is a novella and the chapters are knitted together very tightly, so I would recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible and paying it full attention – it’s not exactly something that you can just dip in and out of. As for your concentration, almost literally everything is relevant either to plot or theme in some way as well as there being a couple of blink and you’ll miss it, and at least one character death you’d miss if you were semi-skimming the book.

So, that’s The Great Gatsby – read it or regret it. The world which Fitzgerald conjures is so vivid, both palpable and dreamlike at the same time, that it’s little wonder that people who love it get so truly possessive and attached to “their” Gatsby. So Baz, good luck mate – better you than me.

*For the record, I completely ship Nick and Gatsby. Go Natsby!

Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson

Virginia Woolf – eat your heart out!

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This would make the most magnificent, yet fiendishly difficult to adapt, film.

Our protagonist/chronicler is Ruby Lennox, whom we follow from her reluctant conception right up until the present day; alongside of this is her attempt to map out the history of her family from the 1880’s onwards and bring all those loose and unresolved narratives and dark secrets together into one coherent strand.

This book is a great advert for the modern novel and a marvellous rebuff to all those who say that books are redundant in the age of cinema; even though I’ve said that Behind the Scenes at the Museum would be a great film, it would never quite manage to capture the crazy chronology and selective narrative omniscience of the original (there’s more than a few narrative twists). I do like the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey* structure of this epic of the mundane, as it makes an otherwise rather unremarkable story of family life set alongside Great British Events of the 20th Century (the Queen’s coronation, the World Cup, The Beatles etc.) far more interesting and lends it an air of a real exhibition at the eponymous museum that the reader, or visitor, has accidentally viewed the exhibits in almost – but not quite – the right order.

The characters are also extremely well-realised and skip nicely over the border of likeability and back again (or not as the case may be) and shows each of their individual evolution not as some grandiose X-Factor style journey, but just as the natural and occasionally regrettable changes that a person’s character can undergo in the course of their lives.

I give this book 4 out of 5, on the grounds that no matter how much I like the chronology, characters et al the ending (and about thirty years) is wrapped up with lightening speed with at least one stupidly convenient contrivance concerning a nurse. Still, it’s a great way to pass a couple of afternoons.

 

*”People tend to think of time as a strict progression of cause to effect, but from a non-linear,non-subjective viewpoint  – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… Stuff.” Blink, Doctor Who.

 

 

Villette – Charlotte Brontë

Not as universally well-known as Jane Eyre, but just as good in its own way.

Despite being a hit and a half upon its release in 1853, it has now become a relatively obscure novel with a cult-following amongst Brontëites and Victorianists. Which is a shame, because it does things that nobody writing in English had really done before in quite such a searing and unapologetic manner.

Lucy Snowe is in her twenties, plain, studious and on her own. She has spent the last few years as the paid companion of a wealthy, bed-bound old lady – but now the latter is dead and Lucy must find her own path in the world. Despite not knowing a word of French, she decides to go to the capital of Labassecour (a fictionalized Belgium), Villette (Brussels) as so many English people have to live inexpensively and start anew with no history. More by accident than design she ends up at Mme Beck’s Pensionnat de Desmoiselles, where she begins as the nurse to Mme Beck’s children and ends up as the English teacher. This is where the action really begins. Cue a bitterweet story of appearances and deceptions, surveillance, prejudice, religious doctrine, love, despair and disillusion.

How much you like this book really depends upon how much you like the protagonist. If you find Lucy Snowe annoying, because you dislike her cynical, sardonic, sensitive and sometimes lyrical voice, you’re screwed – it’s not only first person, but unashamedly subjective. Lucy has such a distinctive narrative voice and interior monologue, the contrast between that acerbic dry wit and the generally dismissive perceptions of her by the other characters as a plain and unremarkable thing leads the reader to feel outraged on her behalf;  it also has the effect of underlining the difference between appearance and reality which is a key theme throughout. It’s a book of double-identities, symmetry, oxymorons, contrasts and pseudonyms; ironically enough for the last, Brontë had long since been outed as an author – and yet Villette was still published under her own pseudonym, “Currer Bell.”

The actual story itself is very well structured and uses the three volume format to its advantage, closely echoing the three acts of a play in terms of plot arc and emphasis. One could hardly accuse it of lacking in incident either; there isn’t really a section which you skip over when you read it again because sweet F.A. happens for ages, which (let’s be honest) does happen quite a lot with Victorian fiction. The characters and the settings are brutally realistic (in the psychological – not the kitchen sink sense), any and all bits supernatural ephemera only exist to be unpicked and smashed to pieces almost immediately; so no bizarre instances of telepathy jammed in there and left hanging.

Villette is a bit like ox-heart. It doesn’t necessarily sound like the most appetizing of ingredients, and it’s a bit tough in places – but treated properly it can be simply delicious. 5 out of 5, over and out!

Horrible Histories

Some fun stuff to while the hours away…

Horrible Histories was originally (and remains) an extremely popular series of children’s history books by Terry Deary, that refuses to leave out the gory, stupid, dark or funny bits and explains everything simply with  a dry sense of humour, without patronising its audience. A few years back CBBC, (the children’s section of the BBC) started airing a sketch show based on the books which is, quite frankly, one of the best things airing on TV at the moment.

One of the many things the show does marvellously well is songs. The four King Georges as a boyband? Works for me! For anyone curious to know the basics about the Georgian era.

NB: As fans of Lucy Worsley will know, George III was George II’s grandson NOT son. To be fair to Mat Baynton, (the actor playing George II), he did amend this gesture in future performances; I chose this video because it’s the one in which it’s easiest to hear the actual lyrics.

Over and out. P.S. I promise another review post is coming soon, it’s half-written!

The original review of Lucy Worsley’s Courtiers can be found here: https://bookvampire.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/courtiers-lucy-worsley/

The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli

Not as sinister as it has been made out, case of Richard III-ing at work?

For the record, I am reviewing the latest Oxford World Classics edition, with notes and translation done by Peter Bondanella and an introduction by Maurizio Viroli.

Okey dokey, let’s get a few things out of the way: Machiavelli is in no way some sinister, conniving advocate of tyranny as the Platonic ideal of leadership. It is a deliberately pragmatic, cynical and – in places – sarcastic analysis of what an invading/ascending Prince (used to mean leader, not in strictly royal sense) should do to retain and consolidate that power in their principalities, using years of political experience at the top of the Florentine Republic and examples from recent and ancient history to back himself up. I repeat, this is not an ideal world scenario – it is a reaction to the situation in which Machiavelli found himself in. That situation was that the Medicis had taken back Florence, after they had been booted out by a period of Republic, Machiavelli had lost his position at the top of Florentine government, been arrested and tortured and seen the Republic he had helped build turn back into a dictatorship; “the Prince” that he addresses is none other than Lorenzo de’ Medici. I think The Prince is sheer pessimistic sigh of “so this is how it’s going to work from now on, then?” If you want Machiavelli getting idealistic on us, then try Discourses on Livy.

Having said that, Machiavelli was a clever bugger. There are political leaders today which would benefit from following some of the advice, David Cameron for one would have been well-advised to have made himself more feared than liked by his back-benchers – whom, in case you don’t know, like to make trouble for him on a regular basis. (Incidentally, this puts Machiavelli against conventional wisdom of the time, which said the opposite. He reasoned that people will more easily betray someone they like, rather than someone who puts the fear of God into them). Equally, Louis XVI could have avoided the Revolution if he’d heeded Machiavelli’s advice that it is better to take the people’s side against the nobility, rather than the other way round; on the grounds that there are more of them and it is their support which gives you your authority, whereas the nobility can be taken care of relatively easily in comparison – by removing their privileges etc – and are a walking liability to the Prince.

The Prince is an extremely concise and lucid book, the translation in this edition is equally so – a quality rarely found in Renaissance classics. Yes, it is Machiavelli and not just Bondanella’s translation that’s clear; I know this because no translator, however good, has ever been able to make Tolstoy lucid. Machiavelli assumes a short attention span and accordingly gets on with it, telling his historical examples as if they were merely anecdotes to back up a point that he was making to a friend over dinner, and never dwelling on a subject longer than necessary. It’s also Italian History 101, as all of his contemporary examples link up to form the recent collective bloody history of the disparate duchies and city-states.

5 out of 5, the notes are actually invaluable, the translation’s good and the content is pretty damn sly and very well put. Old Mackers was a master of rhetoric, and likes to use my favourite rhetorical device – chiasmus – from time to time, so I’m inclined towards him on the grounds of sheer flair. All the same, a state run precisely like this book doesn’t bear a lot of  thinking about. I’m sure that’s partially the point.

Brixton Beach – Roma Tearne

Self-conscious to the point of awkward.

We follow the trials and tribulations of Alice Fonsenka and her family through political upheaval and personal tragedies in 1950’s Sri Lanka , to cold London and a struggle to find self-expression and retain cultural identity that takes us up to 7th July 2005. It’s a classic example of the current batch of post-colonial  fiction.

It was interesting to approach this from the angle of  an inhabitant of an island that rarely teaches its own history properly, never mind anyone else’s; it’s a dilemma which all writers of post-colonial fiction will face eventually – the audience’s lack of shared history. Funnily enough, the sections of the story which directly deal with the roots of civil war and the realities of the nascent  Tamil – Singhalese conflict are probably the most successful. These are the bits that ring true emotionally, whereas for the rest of the book Tearne remains largely divorced from her protagonists – as if rather apathetic to their fates, (Alice’s childhood and adult-life – most of the book – are almost non-events).  More importantly, these moments of injustice are handled casually – rather than with bombastic flourishes of righteous anger – as though Tearne is shrugging and saying: “So what? It’s not ideal, but it happens everyday”, which emphasises the cruel and casual nature of what is depicted.

The story hops uneasily between an impressionistic Sri Lanka which is portrayed as a sort of technicolour Eden with major issues left behind by the British and wet, cold and monochrome London (what British post-colonial novel is complete without a Grey Britain passage?) for the first two thirds – and suddenly creating a decidedly sunnier London for the final third in order to smash it apart during the pages which take place on 7th July 2005.

Meh… 2.5 out of 5. Some of it works quite well, the first chapter is really quite promising and some of the character-work on Alice’s mother is very well done; but the trouble is that it feels as though Tearne loses interest in the book and only decides to try to pick it up again in the final third, only to find that it is too little too late. A major problem this leads to is that Tearne doesn’t really attack anything from a new angle: Spices, colours, saris, heat, beaches, cold Britain, the struggle for integration, the inspirational teacher etc. are all very old ground now in post-colonial fiction and if you’re going to use them you need to be damned sure that you can carve a new path on old ground. I couldn’t help thinking that Brixton Beach didn’t do anything that Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things or Meera Syal’s Anita and Me didn’t do better first.

Over and out.