Monday, 19 March 2018

Guest review by Mary Hoffman: BIRDCAGE WALK by Helen Dunmore

Mary’s first book, a YA novel, was published in 1975. Since then she has written 120 books, mainly for children and teenagers but lately also a couple of adult novels under pseudonyms. After graduating in English Literature from Cambridge and spending a couple of years studying Linguistics at UCL, Mary wrote courses for the Open University for five years but then went freelance. She recently started The Greystones Press, a small independent publishing house, with her husband. Mary’s books have been translated into 30 language and won some prizes. She runs the popular History Girls blog, which can be read every day. Mary lives in a converted barn in West Oxfordshire with her husband and three demanding Burmese cats. Her three daughters are all grown up: one is a writer, one a theatre producer and the youngest, a designer, is sailing round the world. Mary has four grandchildren and her latest picture book, Pirate Baby, is dedicated to the two on the boat.

Helen Dunmore’s death last year was a great loss to the world of literature. She had written fifteen novels, four short story collections, eight YA novels, seventeen books for younger readers and twelve poetry collections.

The last of these, Inside the Wave, posthumously won the Costa Book of the Year prize, announced at the beginning of this year, an award that met with universal approval and poignant pleasure. Helen Dunmore was, in words of the cliché, much loved. But clichés are sometimes true and no-one has a bad word to say about her, whose death at 64 robbed her friends and readers of surely more fiction and verse.

So what of her final novel, Birdcage Walk?

The ambience of the story is immediately arresting: Bristol in the late 18th century, a time when it was a meeting place of radicals, many producing political pamphlets and other ephemera. It was also the site of a property boom and canny developers were building grand terraces above Clifton.

One woman, Lizzie, the daughter of radical Julia Fawkes, forms a link between the two since her marriage to John Diner Tredevant, one of the speculators building a terrace above the gorge. That is an uneasy in-law relationship and Lizzie is torn between the political ideas she has been brought up on and the capitalist ideology that underlies the source of her husband’s potential wealth.

Helen Dunmore herself wrote two months before her death (Guardian, 4th March 2017: Facing mortality and what we leave behind) that she wanted to acknowledge the people who leave no mark on history, no legacy of written words: “Historical record does not know them but fiction can imagine them.”

Of course, at that stage she was aware of her terminal diagnosis and she does leave a great legacy of writing in so many genres but Julia Fawkes is a fictional unknown, whose overgrown grave is found by a man walking his Jack Russell in a rather awkward present day Prelude to the novel. Birdcage Walk is a path leading to a graveyard in Clifton, Bristol, where Dunmore had walked and explored for forty years.

The discovery of Julia’s grave leads the unnamed seeker to research on the Internet and in local archives but although he can find details of Julia’s second husband, Augustus Gleeson, nothing of her life remains. And the dog-walker fades out of the story, not returning at the end to add the second bracket to the framing device.

Still the main story doesn’t begin straightaway. After the Prelude there is a kind of prologue, in 1789, in which a man buries a woman in a deserted glade rear a river. Only eight pages and three years later does the action of the novel proper begin.

Lizzie wakes in a post-coital dawn and extracts herself from her husband’s heavy embrace. This is the powerful, strong John Tredevant, who prefers to be called Diner and who wants plenty of sex but no children. We know from the beginning that he has a temper and is possessive about his wife, not wanting to share her love with a child.

But a child there is and it’s not because Diner forbears to satisfy himself in other orifices or that Lizzie forgets her mother’s advice about what to do with a little sponge and some vinegar. It is Lizzie’s own mother, the great Julia Fawkes, who has the child, a boy, and the tragedy of his birth leaves him in need of mothering.

Diner is jealous of the love Lizzie lavishes on her little half-brother and issues a series of ultimatums. It is clear that all the women in the story are afraid of him and Lizzie’s true alliances are with Hannah, her mother’s old servant and young Philo the Tredevants’ own maid. There is a sort of conspiracy of sisterhood among the women to keep Diner pacified and the baby Thomas (named for Tom Paine, as the son of two radicals) properly cared for.

Meanwhile, Lizzie and Diner have moved into one of the terraced houses he has built – what we’d now call a “show home” - to encourage buyers but the terrace and the pavement outside it are incomplete, suppliers are demanding payment, the workers are threatening to down tools and buyers are not forthcoming. None of this is good for Diner’s temper and Lizzie lives in an atmosphere of brooding menace.

At the same time, in Paris, the deposed King Louis has gone on trial. Lizzie is living in a time of great change both personally and publicly. It seems almost inevitable that she will meet someone else and she does: a young man being sheltered by her stepfather Augustus. Will Forest is everything that Diner is not – tender, a poet and interested in Lizzie’s opinions.

And into this powder keg of high emotions is dropped the match of Diner’s dead first wife, Lucie. Her godmother turns up, asking to see Lucie’s grave.

This must be Helen Dunmore’s last novel and it is laced through with forebodings about death. Because of her previous prize-winning output and the sadness at her loss, we want it to be a masterpiece but unfortunately, it isn’t.

It is, as you would expect, very well-written and often fascinating but the construction is off -putting and the prologue of the man burying the woman leaches all the tension out of Diner’s story. There are little nods to other treatments of the same theme, as when Diner says of Lucie, “one may smile too often,” evoking Browning’s My Last Duchess and “all smiles stopped together.”

In her Afterword, Dunmore says, “I am writing not only about a particular period of history but also about the ways in which the individual vanishes from historical record.” This is where the interest of the novel lies, in the imagining of Julia Fawkes as one of those “lost people,” albeit a fictional one, whose mark on history disappears like a fingerprint in kneaded dough but whose influence lives on.

Her Words Remain Our Inheritance is carved on Julia Fawkes’ headstone. It might as well stand as Helen Dunmore’s own epitaph.

Birdcage Walk is published by Windmill Press.

Read Writers Review's tribute to Helen Dunmore here.

Monday, 12 March 2018

EDUCATED reviewed by Adele Geras

Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She’s working on a historical novel for adults. She lives in Cambridge.

The cover of Tara Westover's Educated  is striking. The passage quoted on the back of the book tells you something of what this memoir is about: the author's journey from Idaho to a PhD from Cambridge, a path strewn with astonishing descriptions of life in her extraordinary family. It also demonstrates some of the power of Westover's writing style: plain, sinewy and elegant, all at once. 

You couldn't make it up... that's what people say when what they've read or seen takes them aback to such an extent that they find it an effort to (in another popular form of words) get their heads round it.

I read Educated about two months ago and I'm still thinking about it. It's been universally praised. I predict that it will be on every shortlist it can possibly be on. It will be passed from one friend to another and anyone who reads it will come away moved, touched, horrified and above all knocked sideways by Westover's gift for telling her story in such a powerful and resonant way. She writes most beautifully, with a gift for conveying at the same time the terrible, violent, abusive things that attended her childhood and family life and at the same time, the tenacity of the bonds she feels binding her to her parents and siblings.

She sees them clearly as they are: a man and a woman adhering to a Survivalist Mormon belief so powerful and paranoid that the children are unregistered with school or any other government agency and have spent their entire lives working in their father's scrapyard (with no Health or Safety supervision) or, in the case of the girls, helping with their mother's herbal remedies for family and neighbours. Westover's mother is a self-taught midwife and in thrall to her narcissistic and overbearing husband. Some of her siblings are more sympathetic than others, and one brother is a brutal abuser. The physical harm described in the book is startling and deeply shocking. If this were fiction (you couldn't make it up) your editor would say: you can't put that in your novel. No one would believe it. But it did happen to Westover and how she escaped her family and gained a brilliant PhD from Cambridge University can be seen as an (again, scarcely believable) happy ending.

But Cambridge is not unalloyed bliss. Tara Westover has suffered greatly and hasn't been in contact with most of her family for years.

I finished this book full of admiration for its courageous and hugely talented writer and I hope very much that she finds happiness in her life from now on. I can't wait to read her next book, whatever it turns out to be, and I can safely say that if you start reading Educated, you will not be able to put it down. And you certainly won't be able to forget it.

Educated is published by Hutchinson.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Guest review by Graeme Fife: MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history, four studies of the mountain ranges of southern Europe and, like many of us, waits with the patience of Job for decision on a number of manuscripts.

At this teeming novel’s heart lie both the essential impulse that sustains human endeavour – above all love, and in this case, the sodality of men in extremis – and the tragedies which compromise the search for answer, survival, triumph, endeavour. Ahab’s monomanic obsession with the whale, symbolised by the artificial leg carved from its bone, a doom-laden clumping along the hollow deck keeping the men below awake, epitomises the folly of human struggle when it’s driven by a narrowness of ego, bereft of fellow-feeling. Ahab has married late in life, he has a little boy whom his mother will carry ‘to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s sail’. When the mate Stubb pleads with him to abandon his insane pursuit of the creature, Ahab declares, like the enraged prophet before the priests of Baal: ‘Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.’ The ‘divinity which shapes our ends,’ no less. He even baptises his harpoon ‘in the name of the Devil’, fully aware that, in Melville’s words, ‘the infernal nature has a valor often denied to innocence.’ For the challenge of courage underpins the epic chase of the White Whale, incarnation of Nature’s elemental powers: we either ride out life’s climactic storms, by fortitude, or succumb by moral failure, knowing fear and overcoming it. ‘I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of the whale,’ declares Starbuck, ship’s mate.

The innocence reflects that of the America in which Melville was formed, in its infancy as an independent unity of states – just as the ship comprises many parts, its crew a unity of disparate individuals. Like young Ishmael, face to face with a new world of dangers, callow America needed to wise up, toughen up, embrace the pioneer spirit, as on land, so on the sea.

Bulkington, ‘six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer dam,’ strides briefly into the narrative, a man who, ‘by deep, earnest thinking,’ goes to sea, rejecting the pull of the land, precisely because ‘in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God’. The highest knowledge is, surely, self-knowledge.

Two things bind the crew of the Pequod (named for an Algonquian tribe): the thrill - and danger – of the chase, and the intimacy of friendship. The bond between the novice whaler, Ishmael, and Queequeg, master harpooneer, is a friendship which Melville characterises as closer than marriage perhaps because (though he does not say so) it eschews sex. It is of the higher union, the spiritual. Not the love that dare not speak its name, rather the greater love, expressed in laying down one’s life, thus Queequeg, leaping into a turbulent sea to save a crew member who’d fallen overboard.

Early in the book, Melville warns the reader against becoming snared in the digressions about whales – their place and representation in culture, history, art – and about whaling per se. Eschew them, if you will, these treatises on an animal which inhabits the profundity of the ocean yet must rise to the surface, periodically, to fill its lung with air. A creature of two worlds: the mortal and the mysterious. Does chasing and killing it, draining its flesh for oil to fill the lamps which light the world, spooning out the ambergris to supply perfume to scent the rooms lit by those lamps, condemn or ennoble the men who go out in the oared boats, facing the possibility of catastrophe when the Leviathan is speared and held tight on the rope till it tires and dies? That is the nub of Melville’s tragic crux, the clash at the heart of his poetic drama, wherein ‘man’s insanity is heaven’s sense’.

Poetic? Why, yes. I think of Whitman’s poetry, in its search for a diverse new language to fund the examination of this burgeoning America. Melville’s sonorous writing shows many influences - Bible, homily, Shakespeare - maybe not to every taste, memorable, nevertheless.

Melville unfurls a compelling story pitched on ‘the great shroud of the sea [which] rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’. It is part of Melville’s own meditation on America in the heave and swell of its gestation: what is this vast land? What tribulation and beauty does it contain? Who people it? How is it theirs? How do they live? In what and of what is their being?