Andrew Miller’s Pure won the 2011 Costa Book of the Year and appeared in paperback in 2012. It is set in Paris in 1785 and, although it is a work of fiction, really evokes pre-revolutionary France.
A young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, has only one bridge to his name, but he is employed to excavate and remove all the bodies from Les Innocents cemetery in the heart of Paris, and to demolish the church. The cemetery had been over-filled and pollutes the surrounding area, even tainting the breath of those who live around its precincts and rendering the food unpalatable.
Baratte’s task finds him friends, including the neighborhood whore, Héloise, and the charismatic organist, Armand, who plays to an empty church. However, a range of emotions, including murderous ones, is aroused by the task he has undertaken.
This is fiction, not history, but it is based on real events which caught Miller’s attention and prompted him to recreate the story. Pure reads like history when characters such as Dr Guillotin enter the narrative. We are aware, all through the story, of the tensions and events that were to come.
It isn’t far from where I am writing to Pendle Hill and I grew up with the knowledge that there had been witches at Pendle at the start of the seventeenth century.
In The Daylight Gate, Jeanette Winterson has used the facts of the trial of the Lancashire witches of 1612 and woven the story that lies behind it.
“Of course we know that witches don’t exist and never did; they were just social outcasts, poor starving widows and misfits, victimised by men and people in power!” That was my attitude when I started reading this seductive story and at first, Jeanette Winterson seemed to be confirming my view.
Then we met the noblewoman Alice Nutter, strangely youthful for what must have been her advanced age. We found her sheltering one escapee from the Gunpowder Plotters (they too were to be found in Lancashire, an area of the UK that remained resolutely Catholic after the plot was unveiled and they had to flee).
Slowly but surely, in an exciting narrative, we realize that indeed witchcraft was rife, though perhaps not in compact with the Devil and not effectively practised by the riff-raff of the novel but as a positive and effective form of magic.
If you were asked to list female dramatists, I wonder how many you could name. It is astonishing isn’t it? I would be surprised if you managed two or three. It is a bit the same with crossword compilers, prime ministers, philosophers and, of course, military generals. However, it isn’t true of childminders, waitresses, cleaners or concubines.
In one sense, that is what Caryl Churchill’s play is saying. Her three acts do not appear in chronological order of the events they portray, so she is certainly not presenting us with a traditional play about character development in the context of events.
In Act one, five women of note from various epochs of history are dining and drinking with Marlene in a restaurant (the silent subservient waitress is there too!) They are celebrating her appointment to the head of the Top Girls employment agency. Their own stories are also stories of female triumphs, but in contexts where they were almost slaves, reluctant wives or exploited peasants.
Act Two presents us with interviews in the agency at the start of the Thatcher period of monetarism. There is a certain ruthlessness about the three interviewers who are successful in their world – a world still defined by male terms. The women who are interviewed, and the wife of the man who was passed over when Marlene was appointed, present a range of different attitudes to the positions and roles of women at the start of the eighties (now too, perhaps!)
We also meet Angie, a resentful sixteen-year-old who is not ‘going anywhere’ and hear her harrassed ‘mother’ Joyce.
The final act, which takes place a year earlier, fits together some of the pieces of the jigsaw for us and really leaves us reflecting on what we have experienced. This is provocative theatre with a difference, not the conflict and crisis of the male tragedies and dramas we have been reared on but a feminine voice that makes us think.
I’ve been re-reading several old favourites and I am always surprised how some of them never age. The dust jacket of my copy of Tennessee Williams‘ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof refers to its ‘heady cocktail of sex, greed, frustration and betrayal …’ It won Williams his second Pulitzer Prize for Literature but it was banned in Ireland and Britain when it opened in Broadway in 1955.
Haven’t we come a long way since then … or have we? The play opens with what is almost a monologue by Margaret who is speaking to her alcoholic husband, Brick. He has lost his interest in her as a sex object while she is desperate to conceive a child.
The second act brings in the bickering family who have gathered for the patriarch’s 65th birthday. Big Daddy is dying of cancer and they all know it except the patient and his adoring Big Mama.
Greed is a dominant theme and the odious Mae and her husband, Brick’s older brother, Gooper, are determined to get their hands on the family wealth. Big Daddy believes the fiction (though we know the truth) that he is merely suffering from a spastic colon.
Margaret was Williams’ own favourite but we wonder how she will deal with her odious in-laws and how she can conceive that child that will secure her future and protect the husband she still loves.
This play is almost sixty years old yet it still strikes a chord.
Snow-covered Shetland is the setting for this gripping crime thriller. The landscape and the people come alive in Ann Cleeves‘ writing. Fran Hunter is walking home after taking her small daughter to school when her eye is caught by ravens circling over a splash of colour. It is the red scarf of her neighbour, Catherine Ross, whose eyes are being pecked out by the circling birds.
In Agatha Christie style, we are given an immediate suspect, the dim-witted Magnus Tait who was already accused by the community of the death of another girl years earlier. Catriona Bruce disappeared and has never been found, but it is soon apparent that both girls had called on Magnus shortly before their deaths.
Perez is the local detective who is initially in charge of the case and, with him, we interview and suspect a range of local characters. We see into the minds of Magnus, Fran and Sally, Catherine’s closest friend. The pace hots up when a third girl disappears. This is a truly evocative and exciting read and I can’t wait to lay my hands on the next Ann Cleeves book in the Shetland series, White Nights.
Sadegh Hedayat‘s The Blind Owl has been called one of the most important literary works to come from Persia. He wrote it when he was living in India in the thirties but it is timeless and could have been written yesterday.
However, it is very strongly related to the places it evokes and, because it is harshly critical of aspects of Persia, has been a banned book in its source country.
Reading it is a frightening experience. The European reader recognises aspects of European thought and literary practice (Hedayat attended a French school and completed his studies in Paris), but the surrealistic narrative is a new form of reading and we sink, with Hedayat’s narrator into an opium addiction where the experience of a lost love is revisited in a revolving set of gruesome or haunting images.
Hedayat’s own vegetarianism (probably the result of his years in Bombay) is evident through the gory recurrent image of the four cadavers of sheep brought on the backs of bony horses to the butcher’s he watches from the window of his self-imposed exile.
A trial by cobra, a murder, a clandestine burial – all of these images resurface, used in different contexts as we build up our awareness of the narrator’s frightening state, by means of obsessive painting of a romantic scene or passionate retelling of his story to his shadow.
For a different style of reading, I really recommend The Blind Owl.
Before Christmas I wrote about EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and it led me to think about our changing attitudes to the classics that used to stir powerful repressive responses. I remember my father, who was a Justice of the Peace, hiding the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that he had been asked to read in a cover of brown paper in order to avoid corrupting his children.
Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman was banned for many years in Argentine, his country of origin. It is now recognised to be a classic experimental novel, dealing with the political issue of the repressive dictatorships of Argentina’s dirty war prior to the Alfonsino ‘democratic’ government of 1883 and the issue of homosexuality.
Molina, the homosexual ‘queen’ and Valentin, the Marxist activist are together in a prison cell with Molina expected to earn the confidence of Valentin and betray his political group to the authorities. With no narrative voice but only the voices of the protagonists, interviews with the authorities and real and invented documents in note form, we are allowed to participate in the narrative and become part of the action that moves towards a series of unexpected outcomes.
The Spiderwoman image recalls, in a way, the Scheherazade story where the lovely young girl tells her nightly stories to put off the death threat that hangs over her. Here Molina recalls romantic films he saw in the forties and tells them to Valentin, originally to ‘soften him up’ and to pass the time, but ultimately as part of their shared desire to escape the unpalatable reality of their situation. It is the image of the spider woman who spins her webs but is ultimately consumed herself.
Many years ago I saw the play and I have just re-read the novel, surprising myself by the difference of my own response. This is what reading is all about isn’t it?
Some of us remember the fuss when the first unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterly’s Lover became the subject of a trial for obscenity in 1960 under the Obscene Publications act of 1959. The chief prosecutor asked whether this was the kind of book ‘you would wish your wife or servants to read’.
With regard to EL James Fifty Shades of Grey, the servant problem has disappeared for most of us, but those of a sensitive or unworldly nature who can’t guess what BDSM might mean probably shouldn’t read this either: Jane Austen it definitely is not.
The principal female character’s name is indeed Austen-ish: Ms Anastasia Steele, but that’s the nearest it gets. It’s an every-day story of the “innocent new graduate meets billionaire with hangups and (we must suppose) marries him after many misunderstandings” genre.
The author’s style isn’t Austen either. Surely nobody says “Holy cow” any more, even inside their own heads? A classic epistolatory novel is one thing, but multiple listings of emails become tedious after a while. Even bodice-ripping (well, not exactly) can pall after the twentieth panting description…
Nevertheless, a lot of people have read this or are reading it, and, as seems to be compulsory nowadays; it is a trilogy as well. You might need to express an opinion on it, as it seems to be provoking the installation of a new set of real (or virtual) shelves in book stores real (and networked) groaning under similar works. Twenty shades of Teal, Thirty shades of Tangerine, … It’s becoming a rainbow out there!
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was justifiably a bestseller and caught the imagination of young and old alike. I found myself just as gripped by The Red House, even though it is a very different type of novel
Haddon is again dealing with flawed human beings. Richard, newly married to Louise, has invited his sister Angela and her husband Dominic and family to share a cottage in Wales for a week. Brother and sister have been distant for sixteen years and met again at the funeral of their mother.
As the week progresses, we move into the worlds of both families. Melissa, Louise’s teenage daughter, has her private drama about her nastiness in her relations with almost everyone. A stillborn child haunts Angela. Daisy is coming to terms with her sexuality and Alex, on the verge of manhood, is attracted to the women but frustrated by the apparent incompetence and inadequacy of the adults.
As relationships develop and crumble, we wonder just how violent and disturbing individual reactions are going to be. It is almost a relief when the final people carrier arrives and the cottage is to be prepared for the next week’s inhabitants.
Isabel Carey is newly married and attempting to cope with living in rented accommodation in East Yorkshire during the years of austerity after the end of World War II. Her doctor husband is usually away from home, attempting to establish himself in his career as a country doctor and Isabel is always cold and haunted by the hostility of the landlady and her ceaseless pacing on the floorboards overhead.
The discovery of a greatcoat stuffed into the recesses of a cupboard changes everything. Isabel is warm beneath its weight on her bed but increasingly involved with the figure of an airman who comes tapping at the ice-covered window.
Isabel becomes possessed by Alec, the airman, who relives the time between his 26th and 27th bombing raid and brings to life, for the reader too, the East Yorkshire wartime airfield. Alec and his relationship with Isabel become more real for her than her life with Philip and, with her, we wait on the side of the airstrip for the Lancasters to return – or not.
This is a gripping ghost story that captures superbly the penury of the early fifties and the relationships, griefs and joys of that period. I simply couldn’t put it down until I had reach the beautifully crafted final moment.