We know what we are, but not what we may be*

Me and the Bard have enjoyed a close relationship over the years, not always out of choice on my part. A traditional grammar school education put Shakespeare at the heart of the English curriculum and as preparation for S level (Special? Scholarship? Stupefyingly Senseless?) I read his complete works. Hamlet has always featured heavily: I did’ it at A level, then for one of my Finals papers. I’ve seen countless productions of The Danish Prince ( the most memorable, for all the wrong reasons, being a three man version with badly fitting wigs and codpieces ) and wouldn’t go to another even if Swoony Clooney was strutting his stuff on the ramparts. Well, perhaps I would…

There followed years of teaching the plays: from old GCSE favourites like Macbeth ( blood and gore guaranteed to get the little blighters interested ) to the occasional obscure A level choice of Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus. Don’t get me wrong, apart from most of the histories ( yawn ), Will is obviously the top man and it wasn’t until I was comfortably into middle age and able to forget about having to know what the plays ‘mean’ that I really got, with heart as well as head, the whole Shakespeare thing. I’ve always enjoyed some screen adaptations ( think Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, Branagh’s Much Ado, Zeferelli’s Taming of the Shrew) but when I discovered that two of my favourite authors – Ann Tyler and Margaret Atwood – were writing novels based on, respectively, Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest I was, like, Come what sorrow can, it cannot countervail the exchange of joy ( Romeo and Juliet. Showing off. )

Although nothing that Tyler writes is ever less than entertaining, Vinegar Girl disappointed in the sense of feeling like an exercise in adaptation rather than something with its own integrity. There’s huge skill in how the Shakespearian plot is rendered: Kate Battista lives with her ageing father who’s an academic claiming to be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. The latter can only happen with the help of Pyotr, his assistant, whose work visa is about to expire, and marriage to the resolutely single Kate would resolve matters. The novel is fun and very readable but for me it was like when you try to paint over something and what remains underneath is still visible when you hold it up to the light.

On the other hand, Hag- Seed, Atwood’s novel, is an amazing multi layered take on the Shakespearian tale. Felix is ousted from his job as big shot theatre director on the eve of his production of The Tempest. In time he gets a job as a teacher in a prison and there he puts on a version of the same play as part of his revenge. He takes the role of the magician Prospero in the play and he is Prospero-like in real life as he proceeds to conjure up the ‘magic’ of the production. His daughter, Miranda, is dead in actuality but alive in the play. The novel is playful, clever, funny and sometimes poignant, its source becoming its essence.

Both books form part of a series of adaptations to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death ( Penguin did the same recently with Jane Austen ). “The world’s favourite playwright. Today’s best-loved novelists. Timeless stories retold” proclaims the publicity tag line. The marketing ploy is shameless but at least worth a giggle ( imagine it read in the deep, sonorous tones of the American guy who does all the move voiceovers ) Incidentally, for humour I’d also recommend the BBC’s 60 second Shakespeares such as the tabloid take on The TempestI’m a Magician, Get me out of here!’ And don’t get me started on the ‘jokes’ ( Pencils puzzled Shakespeare – 2B or not 2B…) because ‘With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come’ ( Merchant of Venice. Sorry, done now )

* Yes, it’s good old Hamlet.

As a mother…

My two August reads ( yes, only two. A week at the Edinburgh Festival followed by an essential recovery period displaced reading in the best possible way this month ) were both about mothering. Holly McNish’s Nobody Told Me, a mix of diary and poems, addresses the issue head on while Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon approaches it more tangentially. I’d recommend both books which have each attracted critical acclaim: McNish won the prestigious Ted Hughes award while de Waal, known for her short fiction, was short listed for the Costa with this, her debut novel. Nobody Told Me doesn’t sit comfortably in any existing category: the performance type poetry and diary entries come across as raw, unpolished writing ( though of course this might well be an artifice itself!) My Name is Leon, on the other hand, is a conventional prose narrative set in the 1980s.

McNish’s book is a memoir of the author’s pregnancy and her first three years of motherhood. I saw an interview with her at Ullapool Lit Fest earlier this year and her brutal honesty combined with a warm and funny personality are very appealing. She details the emotional and physical changes that she underwent, describing giving birth as ‘ pushing a bowling ball though my arse.’ She also explores the gender bias inherent in others’ attitudes towards her changed status. As a new mother she gets used to hearing the term ‘mushy mummy baby brain’ whereas men simply say they’re ‘bloody knackered.

My only niggle is about the fundamental premise on which the book is based, namely what a big deal is made of it all, in particular breast feeding. It goes without saying that becoming a parent must be one of the most significant events of an adult’s life. The trouble is it tends not to go without saying! Why do so many, having sprogged, behave (a) as if they have experienced something unique and (b) thereby have been elevated to some semi mystical state. ‘As a parent… or… as a mother/ father’ ( often used by politicians to prove how they’re in touch with humanity ) are guaranteed to get my hackles rising ( note to self – must check out meaning of hackles- dog related? ) and I’m a mum of four. How much worse must it be for those who are childless, by choice or not.

The eponymous Leon in de Waal’s novel is taken into care with his baby brother Jake, after having been neglected by their mother. His foster mum, Maureen, is in many ways the epitome of a ‘good’ mother: she takes good care of the boys, feeding them well, giving physical affection and imposing boundaries for Leon who for the first time experiences stability in his life. But it doesn’t last long. As a white baby ( Leon is mixed race ) there’s no shortage of would be adopters and social workers decide the two boys will be better apart. Then Maureen falls ill, necessitating a long stay in hospital, and Leon has to stay with Sylvia, her distinctly unmotherly sister. Leon starts getting into trouble and a downward spiral seems inevitable. Yet ( minor spoiler alert ), while Leon’s story was never going to be happy ever after, at least he does end up being loved. De Waal’s skill lies in the way that the reader ( or at least this one ) can feel sympathy for Leon’s mum, despite her serious inadequacies. At least she knows that she’s let her children down while some, though not all, of the professionals seem oblivious to the damage they’ve inflicted on Leon.

My brilliant week in Edinburgh was down to a bit of effective planning and management but mostly luck: reasonable weather, some outstanding shows chosen at random etc. (It’s also worth remembering that, unlike some, I have the resources to go there in the first place) I can’t help thinking that’s not a bad parallel to the whole parenting thing!

Time for Crime

Until relatively recently, I thought I didn’t like crime fiction. Since devouring Agatha Christies at school, as we all did, nothing from this genre had managed to whet my reading appetite: I’d decided that even the more sophisticated how and why dunnits as opposed to whodunnits tended to be more about plot than character, to deal in crude stereotypes and were often stylistically constipated. Maybe for 50 years ( agh!) I was simply reading the wrong books. Or maybe crime has expanded to the extent that now there’s something for everyone ( Recent figures suggest that crime is worth £200m annually, outstripping other genres) Perhaps high class crime drama on telly – Happy Valley, Scott and Bailey, Line of Duty – with strong female roles fuelled my interest. Without doubt, having a couple of my own crime stories published didn’t go amiss. Whatever the reason, I’m hooked. I particularly love psychological thrillers such as the recently televised Apple Tree Yard which ranks as one of my all time favourite page turners. I’ll now try any crime novel, with the obvious caveat that Jeffrey Archer will always remain a no no.

Graham Norton’s Holding might well be shelved under ‘cosy crime’ in the sense that it’s about a small rural Irish town shocked by the discovery of some human bones on a local building site and the reader is never in any doubt that the answer will lie within the tight-knit community which ( surprise, surprise, ) is riddled with secrets. Yet I was expecting a comic novel ( yes, it is the Graham Norton !), possibly even with shades of Father Ted, and it wasn’t. In fact, a sense of melancholy underpinned much of the book. Holding was quite rightly well reviewed for its pacing, plotting and the strength of its female characterisation. Interest for the reader lies primarily in the characters’ back stories rather than the crime itself.

Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen goes even further: the person responsible for the gruesome murder of Lennie, a wife, mother and potter, is never found. The focus of the book is on the lives of those affected by her death, in particular her best friend Tess. The murder forces Tess to examine her own relationships: with her husband, her children, Lennie’s husband ( her former lover ) and the arrival of a new love interest, the family liaison officer. Such is the strength of the writing that never discovering the identity of the murderer, let alone why s/he acts as they did (Lennie’s heart is cut out ) does not result in an unsatisfactory feel to the novel. My only niggle with Something Might Happen is that I do struggle with the complete absence of speech marks, particularly when the text is a naturalistic one in a contemporary setting.

Last year I went to Harrogate Crime Festival which I chiefly remember for its BIGNESS. There’s a massive Alice in Wonderland type grass covered chair outside The Old Swan Hotel where the festival is always held ( of course I took a selfie sitting on it- the chair, not the hotel) ) and you are given a number of HUGE bulky crime novels as freebies. ( As the average age at any lit fest must be 50+, I couldn’t help wondering what percentage of the audience reported to their GP the following week with arm strain.) Incidentally, The Old Swan Hotel is where Agatha Christie holed up after her famous 11 day disappearance in 1926. While checking this date I discovered that meanwhile her husband had fled with his mistress to Godalming: this is where I went to school. Only connect… as E.M. Forster famously said or holy shit as I did.

Talking of crime related events, on Wednesday September 20th I’m really looking forward to chairing an event: A Life of Crime featuring two regional crime writers, Nick Quantrill and June Taylor, both of whom I admire. If you’re local, please do come along. In November there’s the Hull Noir Festival with some very big names which promises to be stupendous. It would be criminally negligent not to attend either or both of these if you can!

Hot Stuff

If I can self-plagiarise a 2014 blog ( and, let’s face it, who will remember or care): ‘Phew What a Scorcher!’ Maybe June’s heatwaves have slowed my book consumption and / or my sun-soaked brain has simply forgotten what I’ve read but the latter appears to amount to only three novels. There’s also been several jolly jaunts this month, including a week in France and three days at a spa, during all of which time it was hot ( will you stop going on about the bloody weather? Ed ) so my books often ended up shading my face rather than having their pages turned.

At least my three reads, all by well established authors, have been very worthwhile. For a lot of the time Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata felt as if it was heading for a bleak ending. Instead it was, if not a happy ever after, certainly one that was ‘as good as it gets’ ( the title, incidentally, of one of my all time fave films ) It’s the story of the friendship between two boys, Gustav and Anton, in wartime Switzerland though the focus is always on the impact of history on individual lives than the events per se. The Observer called it a ‘masterful, meditative novel’ and I’d agree.

Don’t cry over spilt milk, so the saying goes. I didn’t cry over Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk ( or laugh or feel anything much really ) and it’s been difficult to try and work out the reasons for my disengagement. Set in southern Spain, the novel has a dream-like quality. The narrator, twenty five year old Sofia, is there with Rose, her mother – who may or may not be a hypochondriac. She is seeking treatment from a doctor – who may or may not be a charlatan. Sofia and Rose exist in a complicated co-dependency: Sofia has given up her PhD to care for Rose and back in London works in a coffee shop. One moment she is the archetypal caring daughter trying to find the ‘right’ kind of water to satisfy Rose, the next she is leaving Rose and her wheelchair in the path of oncoming traffic. During their time in Spain she visits her Greek father and his new family and has affairs with two locals, the bohemian Ingrid and a student lifeguard. The reader perceives the world through Sofia’s fragmented inner life and maybe it’s this which makes the book so unsettling. Apart from the fact that Hot Milk was shortlisted for the Booker, it’s obviously an accomplished and sophisticated novel which would probably benefit from a re-read in a slower, more chilled frame of mind.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett follows six siblings from a blended family over a period of fifty years. It’s a novel which unfurls in an understated yet compelling way. One of the plot strands involves Commonwealth being the title of a highly successful novel written by the older lover of Franny, one of the main protagonists. The novel within the novel is based on traumatic events in Franny’s childhood and the shock waves generated by what some of the family see as a breach of trust not only make for great observations of family dynamics ( at which Patchett excels ) but also cleverly questions how much material a writer is entitled to borrow / steal from real life. Towards the end of the novel there were so many divorces, re-marriages with new offspring and their extended families that it became difficult to remember who was who. However, I think that was probably the point!

We’ve now had rain for two days which is good for the garden but it’s been so cold! We had to put the heating back on. Perhaps that was it – we’ve had our summer! A bit warmer today than it was yesterday, though, and they say the weekend will be nice, Saturday better than Sunday. Not that rain is forecast for Sunday but it’s due to be overcast. Talking bollocks about the weather: it’s what we do so well….

Food for Thought

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Ingredients

Late Victorian background with a dash of Gothic.

A generous helping of ideas: science v religion, advances in medicine, modernity, obsession with geology, palaeontology.

A feisty protagonist, the recently widowed Cora, who is rich, attractive and dresses like a bag lady.

A serpent / dragon who is real, metaphorical, folklore, depending on viewpoint.

A dollop of illicit sex.

Method

Mix together with a lot of hype, an attractive cover and serve up as a multi prize winner. Not the most satisfying of dishes but fills a gap if you’re hungry enough.

Do Not Say We Have nothing Madeleine Thein

A hearty main course ( you will need time to munch your way through this ) made with a number of fresh and worthy ingredients – not least China’s Cultural Revolution – but ultimately very hard to digest even when consumed in small portions and periodically reheated.

So I am Glad A.L. Kennedy

An acquired taste, certainly not mine. To give you a flavour of this unusual concoction: Jennifer, whose real name is Mercy doesn’t show any when engaged in hard core S&M. Someone comes to live in her shared house who glows in the dark and turns out to be the reincarnation of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Black Water Louise Doughty

Not what you would have expected the author to serve up after the success of Appletree Yard but this is a mouth watering triumph. Again a psychological thriller but made to a different recipe with subtle aromas of Graham Greene and John Le Carre. Set in the context of the genocide in Indonesia in 1965 and the 1998 riots this is the story of the protagonist, John Harper’s, personal guilt and possible redemption as well as one of political intrigue and multinational double dealing. A dish baked to perfection, it’s one to savour.

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