The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu

It’s so difficult to write about a book like Genji. I’ve been reading it over the last six weeks & it’s been a wonderful experience. Written around 1000 at the Heian Court of Japan by an author whose name we don’t know (Murasaki is the name of one of the main characters & may have become a nickname of the author), this is the earliest novel to be widely read today in competing translations that all have their admirers.

The story is in two parts. Two thirds of the book tell the story of Genji, the son of the Emperor by one of his Intimates. Genji’s mother came from a nondescript family & her position at Court relied solely on the Emperor’s love for her. He favoured Genji above his legitimately born son but politics would not allow him to make Genji his heir. Instead, after the early death of Genji’s mother, the Emperor gave Genji the surname Minamoto which enables him, as a commoner, to have more freedom than a member of the Imperial family could have. Genji will be fabulously wealthy & also play an important role at Court, rising up the hierarchy to eventually be giving the honorary title of Retired Emperor. Genji is also devastatingly handsome, exuding a wonderful perfume, charming & skilled at the courtly arts of painting & poetry. As he grows up, his relationships with women will dominate the narrative.

Whoever chanced to lay eyes on Genji was smitten by him. After one glimpse of the radiance that attended him, men of every degree (for the crudest woodcutter may yet aspire to pause in his labors beneath a blossoming tree) wished to offer him a beloved daughter, while the least menial with a sister he thought worthy entertained the ambition to place her in Genji’s service. It was therefore all but impossible for a cultivated woman like Chūjō , one who had had occasion to receive poems from him and to bask in the warmth of his beauty, not to be drawn to him.She, too, must have regretted that he did not come more often.

Genji’s actions are not always noble or chivalrous but they reflect the dominant role of men in Japanese society. He marries a well-connected young woman, Aoi, a few years older than himself. The marriage is not particularly successful, Aoi resents the match to a younger, illegitimate son of the Emperor, but they have a son, Yūgiri, before Aoi dies. Genji, meanwhile, has fallen in love with his father’s young wife, Fujitsubo, & their affair results in the birth of a son who will eventually succeed to the throne, his origins kept secret. When Genji is just a young man, he spends an evening with his friends as they discuss the different kinds of women & the different kinds of love. In some ways, he spends the rest of the novel investigating these kinds of love. Eventually he will build a palace, his Rokujō estate, where he will install a lover in each of the four wings.

Genji’s most important & lasting relationship will be with Murasaki, Fujitsubo’s niece, who he meets when she is a child of twelve. He takes her into his house & brings her up, eventually seducing her. She becomes the mistress of the east wing at Rokujō and, although they have no children together, Murasaki brings up several other children, & their relationship is close & loving. After his father’s death, Genji is sent into exile as a result of the machinations of the new Emperor’s mother.
During this period of exile, he meets another of his loves, known as the lady from Akashi. She has a daughter & Genji brings them both to live at Rokujō when he returns in triumph.

Genji agrees to marry the favourite daughter of his half-brother the Emperor who wishes to retire from the world. This is a mistake as the girl is a very ordinary young woman with no talents to attract Genji. He feels obliged to go through with the marriage & is horrified when she is seduced by another man. The boy, Kaoru, is assumed to be Genji’s child & his mother is installed in yet another wing of Rokujō. At the same time, Murasaki’s health is failing & Genji spends all his time with her. Her death devastates him & although he often declares that he wishes to leave the world & become a monk, he doesn’t do this but dies soon after.

The last third of the novel takes place some years later & introduces a younger generation. Kaoru & his friend, Genji’s grandson, Niou. These chapters are much more of a piece, telling one tragic story. The two young men become rivals for the attentions of the daughters of a Prince who has retired from the world to live at Uji. The elder daughter, Ōigimi, is courted by Kaoru but he is also attracted to her sister, Naka no Kimi, who is eventually seduced by Niou. Niou installs Naka no Kimi in his palace where she is made unhappy by his philandering. Meanwhile, Kaoru, a serious young man, hesitates to pursue his suit & Ōigimi, distressed by her father’s death & her sister’s fate, starves herself to death. Kaoru is grief stricken but is intrigued when a young woman appears who is the unrecognised illegitimate daughter of the Uji Prince. This young woman, Ukifune’s, story is the most tragic of all as she is pursued by both Kaoru & Niou.

This is a very basic description of the plot which ranges far & wide over the 1100 pages of the book. The style of the narrative is allusive, with most characters referred to by their titles which keep changing. I found it confusing but decided to just keep reading & hope that I would remember who was who. I found that if I didn’t read it for a few days (usually because I was at work & couldn’t carry the book around with me), it took me a while to get back into the story again. There are hundreds of characters &, as well as the tragedy, many very funny scenes. The narrator also looks at Genji’s behaviour, especially his ready recourse to tears, with a satirical eye & by no means approves of his seductions & the pain he causes Murasaki.

Many ladies lived this way under his protection.He looked in on them all, fondly assuring each that despite his long silence he was always thinking of her. “My only care is the parting that no one evades. ‘I know not what life remains…'” he would say, and so on. He loved them all, each according to her station. At his rank he might deservedly have swelled with pride, and yet he seldom advertised himself, treating all instead with tact and kindness as place or degree required, so that just this much from him sustained many through the years.

The setting of the story, in Imperial Japan, is so different from anything I’ve ever read before, that I felt I was learning about the culture as well as reading an involving story. Everything about the period & the country was strange to me. The houses, the rituals, the pastimes. The courtly emphasis on poetry was fascinating. There are over 700 short poems in the text which illuminate behaviour & feelings. They also illuminate character as the ability to compose a suitable poem at any moment is a prized accomplishment. The detailed descriptions of clothes, furnishings, entertainments create this world that is involving yet so removed from the world outside the Court & the privileged classes. There’s little mention of politics or war; the pursuit of happiness & the entanglements of his relationships are all that matter to Genji & his circle.

I was also interested in the social rituals. Women’s lives were so circumscribed. Men could not approach a woman directly. He would not even see her but speak through intermediaries. If he was in the same room, she would be seated behind a curtain. There are many scenes where men peer through cracks in walls or take advantage of the wind blowing aside a curtain to catch a glimpse of a lady. Men had all the power as is seen in many of the stories in Genji. If a man forced his way into a woman’s presence, she was compromised. The men & women in the novel are never alone – solitude seems to be a foreign concept – yet determined young men are able to seduce or rape women almost at will as the servants count for less than nothing in this world of privilege. Even Kaoru, who is more sensitive than his wilful friend, Niou, is capable of causing pain through selfishness when Ōigimi is ill,

He sat near her as usual, and the wind blew the curtains about so much that her sister retired farther back into the room. When the disreputable-looking creatures went to hide from him in embarrassment, he moved closer still. “How do you feel?” he asked through his tears. “I have prayed for you in every way I know, but none of it has done any good, and you will not even let me hear your voice. It is so painful! I shall never forgive you for leaving me this way.”

I loved this final section of the book. At around 300pp it’s the length of a novel on its own & the narrative is more coherent with just one storyline. It’s full of interest & tragedy from the fate of the Uji sisters to the contrast between Kaoru & Niou.

Religion is also an important factor. Characters often long to leave the world & enter the religious life & many do so. The supernatural in the form of evil spirits & possession is ever-present & there are several exorcisms where the evil spirits speak to the monks who are trying to remove them. I also loved the descriptions of the countryside & the weather. The details of dress, the correct colours to wear for mourning or at different times of the year, were all fascinating. The book creates a complete world that it was a real delight to disappear into for hours at a time. I read the Penguin Deluxe edition translated by Royall Tyler & the notes & line drawings were a real help in visualising Genji’s world & understanding the allusions in the text. I can definitely imagine rereading Genji & next time I’ll try a different translation.

My only problem now is what to read next! I often feel this way after reading a long book that was as absorbing as this one. I’m still listening to The Romanovs & reading Leon Roch with the 19th century group but I need something else. I’ve been picking books up & putting them down for a few days now but nothing has really grabbed me. Maybe some short stories? Something completely different is called for although that won’t be difficult as there’s nothing else quite like The Tale of Genji.

The Woman in Blue – Elly Griffiths

Cathbad is house sitting for a friend, Justin, who lives in a house next to St Simeon’s in Walsingham. As well as the house, Cathbad is also looking after Justin’s cat, a defiant black tom called Chesterton. When Chesterton escapes one night, Cathbad follows him through the churchyard & sees a woman, dressed in white & wearing a blue cloak, standing next to a tombstone. As Walsingham has been a site of pilgrimage for worshippers of the Virgin Mary for centuries, & Cathbad is a druid, unfazed by spiritual experiences of any kind, Cathbad is not afraid but interested. Next morning, though, the body of a young woman, Chloe Jenkins, dressed in a white nightdress & blue dressing gown, is found carefully laid out in a nearby ditch with a rosary on her chest. Cathbad’s vision was all too real.

Chloe was a patient at The Sanctuary, a clinic for people with addictions. She was a beautiful, blonde young woman, a model who had become involved with drugs & spent several periods in clinics trying to overcome her problem. DCI Harry Nelson & his team soon discover that security at The Sanctuary wasn’t particularly rigorous & Chloe wasn’t the only patient who had slipped out that night. Harry is also disconcerted by the resemblance of Chloe to his wife, Michelle, & their daughters. Harry’s marriage had been shaky for a while when Michelle discovered that Harry had had a brief affair with archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway & that he was the father of her daughter, Kate. Harry wants to be part of Kate’s life & Michelle agrees that he should but her own unhappiness has become more apparent, especially as she has become emotionally involved with Tim Heathfield, one of Harry’s team.

Ruth is surprised to be contacted by Hilary Smithson, who she knew when they were both post-graduate archaeology students at Southampton. Hilary’s career has changed course & she is now a priest. She’s going to be in Walsingham at a course for women priests with ambitions to become bishops. Hilary has been receiving disturbing anonymous letters, addressing her as Jezebel & abusing her & all women priests as unnatural. Ruth convinces Hilary to show the letters to Nelson & soon there appears to be a link with the murder of Chloe Jenkins when one of the women on the course, Paula Moncrieff, is also murdered. Both Chloe & Paula were blonde & attractive, both killed in Walsingham. Could there be more of a connection? Could the same killer be responsible? There seems to be a religious theme – the rosary left on Chloe’s body & the fact that Paula was a priest. Nelson & his team find clues in the past & in the connection of both women to Walsingham. The action spans the weeks from early spring, when the snowdrops cover the ground in the ruins of Walsingham Abbey to the performance of the Passion Play on Good Friday when everything becomes clear.

I love this series. The relationship between Ruth & Nelson is just wonderful. Ruth has had several inconclusive relationships since Kate was born but she really seems to be in limbo, unable to forget Nelson, despite the tenuousness of their relationship. Nelson is also torn between Michelle & Ruth, wanting to do the right thing & not hurt anyone but continually wrong footed & mostly making himself miserable. Nelson discovers that Michelle has been seeing Tim in a very dramatic scene that results in a reconciliation of sorts with Michelle. Ruth’s life as a working mother isn’t easy. Her boss, Phil, is still irritating & she feels inadequate as a mother, although Kate is happy, healthy & has lots of friends. Cathbad & his partner, Judy, now have two children & are very content, although Judy is anxious to get back to work in Nelson’s team as soon as her maternity leave is over.

It’s so lovely to find out what’s been happening with Ruth, Nelson, Cathbad & their families. Nelson’s Sergeant, Dave Clough, is as enthusiastic & as clumsy as ever & there’s a new member of the team, Tanya Fuller, who tries a bit too hard & gets on Nelson’s nerves because she isn’t as empathetic as Judy. The suspects are a reliably creepy lot with potential motives all over the place. As in the best mysteries, hardly anyone is quite what they seem & everyone has secrets. The religious & historical themes are also fascinating & there’s even an archaeological angle as Ruth investigates the results & the finds from a couple of digs that took place at the abbey in the past, looking for the site of the holy house where pilgrims came to worship a phial containing the Virgin’s breast milk.

My only problem with this series is that I read them so fast (less than two days for this one) & then have to wait a year for the next book. I couldn’t even wait for my library copies to arrive & bought the eBook on the day it was published. It’s the mark of a great mystery if I read it that fast so I’ll just have to sit tight & wait for the next instalment.

The Ghost Fields – Elly Griffiths

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is excavating a possible Bronze Age cemetery when she’s called to a nearby field to examine the remains of a WWII plane. The pilot’s body is still in the cockpit but Ruth soon realises that he hasn’t been there since the 1940s.  DNA testing reveals that the pilot was related to local landowners, the Blackstock family. The family knew that Fred Blackstock had been killed in a plane crash during the war but thought he had crashed at sea. His body was never recovered. So, where has Fred’s body been for the last 70 years & why is there a bullet hole in his forehead?

DCI Harry Nelson & DS Dave Clough investigate Fred’s death & meet the present day members of the Blackstock family, still living at the lonely family farm near the crash site. Fred’s brother, Old George, is still alive & living with his son, Young George & Young George’s wife, Sally. George & Sally’s son, Chaz, has started a pig farm on some of the family land, & their daughter, Cassandra, is an actress, recently returned home. The land where the plane was found belonged to the Blackstocks but has recently been sold to a developer. The construction work on the new estate uncovered the plane.Old George is the only member of his generation left. His older brother Lewis disappeared after the war & Fred had moved to the United States before the war & was thought to have been killed in a plane crash after joining the US Air Force. The Blackstocks seem to be an unlucky family. Old George’s mother said the land was cursed & that the sea would reclaim it one day, before drowning herself & Old George himself has become quite odd in his old age, his “funny turns” only whispered about by the family.

Further complications arise when a TV company wants to use Fred’s story as the focus of an episode of their new series The History Men, looking at historical events through the personal stories of those involved. Fred left a wife & daughter in the States when he was killed & his daughter, Nell, travels to Norfolk for his funeral & to meet the family she barely knows. She’s also agreed to appear in the TV program. At the funeral, a mysterious man with long grey hair appears & soon after, Cassandra is attacked in the churchyard. The investigations into Fred’s death lead Nelson to suspect that one of the Blackstocks was responsible for moving Fred’s body from its original burial place to the cockpit of the buried plane. He also suspects that one of the family was responsible for Fred’s murder.

I love this series. It’s an absorbing combination of archaeology, history & police procedural but, above all, it’s the characters that make the series so compelling. Ruth & Nelson had a brief relationship that resulted in their daughter, Kate. Nelson has stayed married to Michelle, the mother of his two daughters, although he feels a protective concern for Ruth & Kate. Ruth has had half-hearted relationships with a couple of men (Frank Barker, the American historian Ruth met in the last book, returns to Norfolk with the film crew in this one) but she loves Nelson, even though she knows he won’t leave Michelle. Nelson’s team – Dave Clough, DS Judy Johnson & newcomer Tim Heathfield – all play an important role in the story although it’s their personal connection & loyalty to the team that is paramount. Clough is the rough diamond of the team, rescuing Cassandra Blackstock from her attacker, & surprised by his own involvement in the Blackstock story. Judy Johnson is now living with Cathbad, Ruth’s Druid friend, & very pregnant with her second child. Tim is a good policemen but there’s something reserved in his manner that hints at a secret that prevents him bonding with his colleagues completely.

I enjoyed all the personal subplots, especially the fact that Cathbad’s predictions about future events, usually foolproof, prove to be way off the mark on a couple of crucial points. Ruth is such an appealing character. She is always doubting her abilities as a single mother & dithering about her relationship with Frank; resenting Nelson’s picky comments & over-protectiveness, yet wanting him to be part of Kate’s life, & her own. The Norfolk landscape is the other attraction. The loneliness of the marshes where Ruth lives & the coastal areas is described so evocatively. The Ghost Fields is a very satisfying mystery & although I had an inkling about one of the characters, there were still plenty of surprises a second murder & two attempted murders to keep me occupied until the last page. My only problem with Elly Griffiths’ books is that I read them too quickly & now I have another year to wait for the next installment.

A Reckoning – May Sarton

Why do we stop reading an author? Sometimes we grow out of them, sometimes we stop reading what they write eg science fiction or Regency romances. In my case, I stopped reading May Sarton because I read a biography of her by Margot Peters & didn’t like what I found out about her. This is not logical or reasonable, I know. But I can remember being so annoyed by the fact that the wonderful journals Sarton wrote about her solitary life in New Hampshire & Maine with her house, her garden, her pets, were not what they seemed to be, that I stopped reading her altogether. In the journals – Plant Dreaming Deep, Journal of a Solitude, House by the Sea – she presents herself as a solitary woman, working in isolation & exploring the joys of solitude. Discovering through the biography that she was hardly ever alone during this period was a real shock. I know that journals written for publication are often shaped just as much as a novel, but I was still annoyed. I couldn’t quite bring myself to get rid of my Sartons but they’ve sat on the shelf, unread, ever since.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was listening to The Readers podcast & Thomas mentioned that he’d had an email from a woman in Melbourne about May Sarton & how they were going to revive her reputation between them. I immediately wondered if this could be my friend L, & it was! I’m also interested in why a writer’s reputation often suffers a dip after they die. This has certainly happened to Sarton since her death in 1995. Maybe it’s because she was one of the first writers to write about lesbian relationships as though they were just like any other relationship. In Journal of a Solitude, Sarton wrote “The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing… to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality ..” Once a subject becomes more mainstream, the pioneers who first wrote about it are often marginalised.

So, I decided to reread one of my favourite May Sarton novels, A Reckoning, which was published in 1978. This is the story of Laura Spelman, a 60 year old woman who has terminal lung cancer. Laura decides that she wants her death to be on her own terms. The cancer is inoperable but she refuses treatment that might prolong her life in favour of making the most of whatever time she has left. Laura wants to remember the real connections in her life & to try to understand some of the more contentious relationships, particularly her relationship with her mother, Sybille, & her daughter, Daisy.

In some ways, Laura’s life is quite ordinary. She had a long, happy marriage to Charles, who died a few years earlier. She has three children – Brooks, married to Ann with two children, Ben, an artist & Daisy – lives alone in a comfortable house in Boston with her dog, Grindle & cat, Sasha. Laura has worked as an editor with Houghton Mifflin & is keen to keep working as long as possible, especially as she’s just started work on a novel by a young lesbian writer, Harriet Moors. Harriet’s novel is based on her own life & her partner is terrified that she will lose her job if it’s published. Harriet’s parents disapprove of her lifestyle so she’s torn between upsetting her parents, maybe breaking up her relationship & publishing a book that she believes should be published.

Laura’s plans to go on this final journey alone are soon stymied by her family & her own body. Brooks & Ann feel shut out when she reluctantly tells them of her illness but refuses any help. Her sympathetic doctor, Jim Goodwin, arranges for a nurse to live in, & though at first, Laura is opposed to this, she soon realises that she can’t cope alone. Mary O’Brien becomes, in fact, one of the most important people in Laura’s final weeks, with her sympathetic, detached presence. Laura’s family are divided into those who are shocked & upset & thinking more about themselves than Laura like Brooks & her sister, Jo & then there are others like Aunt Minna, who comes to read to her, & her sister Daphne, who takes Laura on a journey to their childhood summer house on the coast.

This is a very quiet book. Much of it takes place within Laura’s consciousness as she remembers the past & analyses her relationships, looking for those real connections that are so important to her. She visits her mother, Sybille, now suffering from dementia, & remembers a childhood dominated by this beautiful woman who wanted to be an actress but never really connected with any of her children. All she was able to do was dominate them & try to control their lives, often with disastrous effects. The most important relationship in Laura’s life was her friendship with Ella, a young woman she met at the Sorbonne when she studied in Europe as a young woman. Their friendship was passionate, not explicitly sexual, but the most profound relationship of Laura’s life. Sybille did her best to separate them when Laura spent two years in Switzerland, recovering from tuberculosis. Laura realises that her closest connections have been with women. As she grows physically weaker, she has to let go of all these memories & prepare for her death in her own way.

I enjoyed reading A Reckoning again after so many years. It’s the kind of novel I enjoy – quiet, domestic & grounded in the everyday. Laura concentrates on beauty, flowers, Mozart concertos, the desire to see the spring one more time & gradually retreats within herself. The novel is a long reflection on one woman’s life & the final journey towards death.

… Laura felt joy rising, filling her to the brim, yet not overflowing. what had become almost uncontrollable grief at the door seemed now a blessed state. It was not a state she could easily define in words. But it felt like some extraordinary dance, the dance of life itself, of atoms and molecules, that had never been as beautiful or as poignant as at this instant, a dance that must be danced more carefully and with greater fervor to the very end.

Invisible – Christine Poulson

Jay & his family are settling in to a new house. But this isn’t a planned move. Jay is in witness protection & his wife, Mia & son, Sam, seem unsure & a little apprehensive about their new circumstances. Next morning, a devastating explosion kills Mia & Sam & leaves Jay with physical & mental scars.

Five years later, Jay is still in hiding, but from who & what, we don’t know. He is having an affair with Lisa, a single mother caring for a teenage son, Ricky, with cerebral palsy. Lisa & Ricky lived with her father, Lawrence, until his recent death & she is still grieving for him & the support he always gave her. Lisa & Jay met through a mutual interest in Chinese culture & continued to meet one weekend a month, always in out of the way cottages. The relationship suited Lisa. Ricky & his needs always came first & Jay understood that & never wanted more than she was willing to give. Lisa’s ex-husband, Barry, had left when Ricky was a baby, unable to cope with his disability. He had always contributed financially but has had no contact with Lisa or Ricky for years. Suddenly, Barry turns up with a proposal that disconcerts Lisa & threatens to change her relationship with her son.

Lisa told no one about Jay, although she suspected that Lawrence had an idea that she was meeting someone on her precious weekends away. They lived in the moment so it didn’t seem odd that Jay never talked about his family, his past or the scar on his face. But, after a visit to a stately home one weekend, things changed. Jay became reluctant to leave their rental cottage, no more visits to museums or eating out. Then, Lisa arrives for the weekend & Jay doesn’t show up. At first, she’s desperate, thinking he’s had an accident or has been taken ill. She can’t contact him, he doesn’t phone or write, & she begins to discover how little she really knew about the man she loved. As her friend, Stella, says, “In my experience these things hardly ever come out of the blue. So often there are warning signs, just little things that you didn’t want to see at the time. It’s only when you look back that you realise.” Stella thinks that Jay was married & that he’s dumped Lisa when he was found out. The truth is so much more complicated, as Lisa discovers when she begins to look for those little moments, those hints that something was not quite right.

Jay, on the other hand, has realised that falling in love with Lisa was the biggest mistake he could have made. He’s working on a plan to take revenge on the man who forced him into witness protection & killed his family. He knows he can’t contact Lisa but doesn’t realise that, as well as putting his own head above the parapet, he’s also put her in great danger.

Invisible is a great thriller. I can’t say too much more about the plot because the twists & turns are the whole point of reading a book that wrong foots the reader at every turn. I really needed to concentrate, especially in the beginning as many characters are introduced & their relevance only becomes clear as events unfold.  In the end, I just put aside an afternoon to finish it because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. Invisible is more than a conventional thriller though, because we have the domestic, ordinary story of Lisa & Ricky alongside the story of Jay. This was the real attraction of the book for me. I’m not a fan of thrillers which are just one long chase after another with a little violence thrown in. As a fan of Spooks (I never missed an episode), I also loved the way Jay carried out his plans & Lisa’s trip to the British Library – I can’t say any more! Christine Poulson kept me reading by giving out just enough information to intrigue & puzzle so that I had to read just one more chapter. That’s why, in the end, I just dropped everything else & read the last half of Invisible in one sitting.

I loved Christine’s earlier series of crime novels featuring Cambridge academic Cassandra James & I still live in hope that there will be another Cassandra mystery one of these days. The series is available in ebook format, & the first book, Murder is Academic, is available in paper from Ostara Publishing, which has a great classic crime list. I read Invisible as a Kindle ebook & it’s also available in paperback. There’s more information at Christine’s blog, A Reading Life.

Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers – Alexander McCall Smith

A new Scotland Street novel is always a treat even though I race through them in a day & then have to wait a year for the next instalment.

Bertie’s seventh birthday is finally approaching & he’s very excited – if only his mother, Irene, didn’t insist that he invite as many girls as boys to his birthday party. He would also love a penknife as a special birthday present from his parents but he knows that he’ll receive something non-violent & gender neutral instead. Art gallery owner Matthew & his wife, Elspeth are still getting used to being the parents of triplets. They decide that their wonderful Danish au pair, Anna, needs an assistant au pair but their choice isn’t a complete success.

Angus Lordie, newly married to Domenica, has started sleepwalking & is encouraged by Domenica to see a psychiatrist. They also have a fascinating conversation about the order in which we think of the names of our married friends. Domenica feels that the order of the names is important & Angus is quite sure that everyone thinks of them as Domenica & Angus rather than the other way around. When their friend, Antonia, writes from her convent in Tuscany to invite herself to stay for a few weeks while she finishes writing her book on early Scottish saints, Domenica analyses every phrase of her letter in great detail. Antonia arrives accompanied by a nun from the convent, Sister Maria-Fiore, who has a talent for stating the obvious. The unfortunate affair of the blue Spode cup has not been forgotten by Antonia & causes some uncomfortable moments for Angus & Domenica.

Pat McGregor’s love life seems to be improving when she meets an attractive young cabinet maker but their first date at a local bar becomes an embarrassment when Pat’s father arrives accompanied by a very odd woman. Coffee shop owner Big Lou is always unlucky in love but decides that although her romantic relationships have been disastrous, she has a lot of room in her heart & in her life & becomes foster mother to young Finlay.

Irene Pollock wins a trip to a literary festival Dubai in a competition & Bertie & Stuart are eager for her to go. The trip doesn’t turn out quite as Irene expected although Bertie & his father, while concerned for Irene’s safety, settle down to enjoy their unexpected freedom.

As always, there are some very funny moments in this book as well as some poignant ones. McCall Smith’s gentle humour & sense of the absurd is ever present & it’s always a joy to catch up with the residents of Scotland Street.

Pictures at an Exhibition – Camilla Macpherson

The author of Pictures at an Exhibition, Camilla Macpherson, emailed me recently to ask if I would like to review the book for the blog. I had so much else to read that I said thanks but no thanks. But, the blurb was intriguing & we had copies at work so I borrowed one & I loved it. I read it in just a few days & it was a struggle to put the book down at lunchtime & go back to work.

The novel is the story of a young woman, Claire, who has had a miscarriage & can’t get over her loss. She blames her husband, Rob, for not being there when she needed him. Her grief is so all-consuming that she has lost interest in her work as well as her marriage. Everywhere there are reminders of her lost baby, Oliver. Then, one day, a parcel arrives that will give Claire a new interest in life. Claire begins reading the letters of a young woman called Daisy Milton who was in London during the Blitz. Daisy was writing to Rob’s grandmother, Elizabeth, in Canada & the letters have been left to him in his grandmother’s will. The letters are full of Daisy’s life in London, the horrors of the Blitz & the boredom & irritations of life in wartime. Daisy decides to visit the National Gallery every month where one painting from the collection was displayed (everything else was stored in caves in Wales for safe keeping) & she describes her visits & the paintings in her letters to Elizabeth. This was part of a Government project to keep up morale which also included a famous series of lunchtime concerts by renowned pianist Dame Myra Hess.

Claire decides to follow Daisy’s example & each month after reading Daisy’s letter to Elizabeth she visits the painting in the National Gallery. She becomes fascinated by Daisy’s life as well as her reactions to the paintings on display. Daisy was engaged to Charles, a young man about to be sent overseas to North Africa. Charles has a very conventional idea of their future. They will live in a house in the country & Daisy will look after the children & the house while he earns a living. Daisy isn’t entirely sure that this is the future she wants, or at least, not yet. She enjoys working, although she struggles to see how her work as a typist in a Whitehall ministry is helping the war effort, no matter what her boss says. One day at the Gallery, Daisy meets Richard Dacre, an artist who has a commission as a war artist. They begin meeting at the Gallery to look at the paintings & Daisy knows that she’s falling in love with Richard. Her letters to Elizabeth become a way of working through her feelings about Charles & Richard & the decisions she makes that will affect them all.

Claire & Rob grow further apart & she meets a man at the gallery who is obviously attracted to her. Dominic is handsome, knowledgeable & confident & soon Claire has confided in him about Oliver & her marriage as they drift towards an affair. Claire finds she has to make some decisions about her future as Dominic pursues her & Rob seems to have given up waiting for her to forgive him & let him back into her life.

The parallels in the lives of Claire & Daisy are highlighted by the paintings both women see. This is what makes Pictures at an Exhibition stand out among the many novels set in two different periods. If you have an iPhone, you can scan a QR code at the beginning of each chapter to see a reproduction of the painting. I just searched for them on my iPad. The paintings include Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, Apollo and Daphne by Pollaiuolo, Madonna of the Basket by Correggio & Constable’s Weymouth Bay. The paintings provide a link between two time periods & two women whose lives are at a crossroads. Claire isn’t always a sympathetic character as her absorption in her own grief shuts out Rob as well as her family & friends. She finds a way to deal with her emotions through becoming absorbed in Daisy’s story & she begins to heal. Her search to find out more about Daisy & what became of her helps her to reconnect with her own life & accept her loss.

I’m very grateful that Camilla Macpherson emailed me because I hadn’t heard of her book & I probably wouldn’t have found it without that little push. I always find it interesting to think about how I decide what to read next. Even though I had so much to read I was intrigued enough to download a sample from Amazon & then get hold of a copy from work. Serendipity has a lot to do with my reading choices & this was an especially fortunate example of that.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – Paul Torday

If you would just like to read my review, feel free to skip this paragraph of technological explanation.

As I’m reviewing this book, which I was halfway through when my e-reader had a glitch, you can assume that the problem is fixed. Well, you’d be half right. One of the problems is fixed & I have no idea how we fixed it. I find that’s often the way with me & technology. It’s a fluke if something electrical starts working again & I can never work out how I fixed it. My friend P came over to hold my hand & we updated the firmware (which was already up to date ) & attempted to update the Reader software but the updates wouldn’t work. However, I accidentally tapped on a purchased e-book that I hadn’t been able to access & I was able to get in to it. By that stage I wasn’t looking for reasons I was just pleased to be able to read a book I’d paid for. I still can’t sync with the Reader software though. We uninstalled & reinstalled the software & I tried a couple of other clever ideas of P’s but no luck. Trying to contact Sony Support by phone or email is a nightmare so I may just have to take it back to the Sony Centre as I’ve only had the reader 4 months…

Anyway, enough of my technological woes. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a book about a project that, on the face of it, seems to be impossible. A very rich Yemeni landowner, Sheikh Muhammad, wants to introduce salmon fishing into his country. He instructs his estate managers to investigate the possibilities & Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, the project manager, contacts Dr Fred Jones of the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence. Fred’s initial reaction is that the idea is ridiculous but he is pressured by the head of his department to meet with Harriet.

Harriet & Fred meet Sheikh Muhammad at his estate in the Scottish Highlands & Fred begins to see that the Sheikh is not just a rich dilettante but a serious fisherman & a man with a real vision for the future of his country. Unfortunately not everyone in the Yemen feels the same way & the Sheikh is in danger from religious & political extremists who see the project as yet another imposition of the West & the Sheikh as a traitor. Fred’s scepticism diminishes as he becomes interested in the project from a scientific & logistical point of view. He also becomes more involved with Harriet although she is engaged to a soldier serving in the Middle East. Fred’s marriage to Mary, a financial advisor, is tepid to say the least & his experiences with the Sheikh & Harriet expand his horizons & lead him to reassess his life.

The project is hijacked by political considerations in the UK as well. The PM’s communications advisor, Peter Maxwell, sees it as the perfect good news story from the Middle East in contrast to the usual stories of death & destruction. As the problems of transporting fish to the Yemen, creating a suitable environment for them & eventually creating a new industry to being prosperity to the Yemen are being overcome, Maxwell’s main priority is the chance for a photo opportunity for the PM at the opening.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is in the form of emails, diary entries, extracts from Peter Maxwell’s memoirs & the interviews at the enquiry that takes place after the events at the opening ceremony. The reader isn’t aware of what has happened until the end of the book & the ending is quite different from that of the recent movie. I enjoyed the movie, it’s what prompted me to read the book, but it didn’t have the satirical edge of the novel. The ending of the book is quite sombre as Fred reflects on the project & the way it changed his life.

Peter Maxwell is the typical political manipulator, ready to dump the project when the fishermen of Britain object to the salmon being taken from their rivers to stock the Sheikh’s wadi but happy to jump back on the bandwagon when he realises that all those fishermen vote & would love to see the PM in waders with a salmon caught in the Yemen.

The Sheikh is an interesting character. A man so rich he doesn’t have to count the cost of anything. He drinks whisky in Scotland but only water at home in deference to his Islamic heritage. He’s a man of faith who inspires practical, unemotional Fred to embrace a seemingly laughable idea & eventually believe in his vision. There’s a lot of detail about salmon breeding, salmon fishing & salmon culture. I probably know more than I needed to know but I enjoyed reading about it. It certainly didn’t feel as though the author crammed in every bit of his research because Fred was obsessed with his work & his single-mindedness was an important part of the story.

I enjoyed reading Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It’s drily funny, romantic & full of obscure information about salmon that I probably won’t be able to forget.

The Light that Failed – Rudyard Kipling

I haven’t read much Kipling. I’ve never been very interested in his themes & the subjects of his books. I suppose I’ve been influenced by his reputation as the poet of the Empire & associated him with the jingoistic poem by Newbolt, Vitai Lampada, with the famous line, “Play up! play up! & play the game!” comparing war with a game of cricket. So, when my 19th century book group chose The Light that Failed as our next book, I wasn’t very enthusiastic.On the other hand, I’ve discovered some real gems through this group & there was a lovely new edition of the book by Victorian Secrets, so I put aside my prejudices & started reading.

The Light that Failed is Kipling’s first novel & is based on incidents from his own life. I knew a little about Kipling’s miserable childhood as I’d read a biography of his mother, Alice MacDonald, & her sisters who all married famous Victorians (A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders). Kipling & his sister, Trix, were sent home to England from India by their parents as so many children were at that period. They were sent to board with a woman who exploited them & mistreated them. All Kipling’s experience as a miserable little boy is evident in the first chapter of The Light that Failed. Dick & Maisie, two children boarded with uncaring Mrs Jennett, find happiness in escaping together to play with a revolver on the beach near their home. It sounds dangerous but the nearest thing to tragedy is that Maisie’s pet goat eats a few cartridges. Both children have parents or guardians far away but can only rely on each other as allies. Eventually Dick goes to school, only returning in the holidays & Maisie is sent to France by her guardians for further education. Dick & Maisie plan for their futures & Dick, already in love with Maisie, decides that they will always be together.

Some years later, Dick is an artist, working for a newspaper as a war correspondent with his closest friend, the writer, Torpenhow. He’s knocked around the world a bit but his talents as an artist are finally being recognized &, on his return from the Sudan, he becomes quite famous. He meets Maisie again, quite by accident, & discovers that she is also learning to paint. Dick has never forgotten Maisie & expects that they will pick up their relationship where they left off as children. Maisie, however, is quite cool & uncommitted. She is sharing a flat with a red-haired girl (we never know her name) & studying art. Dick pursues her, visiting on Sundays to criticise her work but his love is not returned.

Dick’s success goes to his head for a while & he starts producing potboilers instead of the work that Torpenhow & his other friends believe he is capable of. Dick takes Maisie back to their childhood home, to the beach where they’d played & escaped from Mrs Jennett, hoping to spark some response in her but this also fails. While they’re on the beach, Dick watches a ship sailing off to Australia & starts to get itchy feet. Maisie is completely uninterested in his plans, although she is sympathetic & pities him while being unable to return his feelings. She certainly has no intention of accompanying him on his travels & sets off for France with her flatmate to study.

While Maisie is away, Dick starts to experience trouble with his eyes & learns that he’s going blind, the result of an injury he suffered in the Sudan during the war. He refuses to tell Maisie & begins work on what he believes will be a great picture. Just as he finishes it, he loses his sight. Torpenhow cares for him when he falls into a fever & discovers the story of Dick’s love for Maisie from his ravings, which Dick had kept secret from his friends. Dick descends into misery & self-pity, desperate at the loss of his vocation & determined that Maisie shouldn’t feel obliged to marry him now that he’s helpless. Torpenhow puts his career on hold but, eventually, he has to set off for another war zone. Before he leaves, he goes to France to find Maisie & tell her what has happened.

The Light that Failed was a qualified success when it was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1891 with a happy ending which was not what Kipling had originally written. It was published as a book soon after with the ending we have here. Over the next few years it was reprinted several times with either the sad or happy ending but the 1892 standard edition which has been reprinted by Victorian Secrets is the book as Kipling intended.

The reviews were mixed. It was praised for the “good touches of character, excellent bits of description, deep knowledge of a certain kind of life.” But other reviewers were repulsed by “the pretentious brutality, the obtrusive and cynical coarseness, and the calculated sourness of its tone.” I thought it was a fascinating book, influenced not only by Kipling’s childhood but also by an unhappy ten year love affair he had with Florence Garrard, who was the inspiration for Maisie. The scenes in the war zone are beautifully done & also the scenes of Dick’s wandering in Egypt after he parts company with Torpenhow & his newspaper work before he returns to London to begin work as an artist.

The relationship of Dick and Maisie is also painfully believable. Paul Fox, in his Introduction to this edition, says that Maisie & the red-haired girl were lovers (as a reflection of Florence Garrard’s lesbian relationships) but I didn’t see that. There’s even some evidence that the red-haired girl falls in love with Dick. I thought that Maisie had been so damaged by her loveless childhood that she was almost incapable of returning Dick’s feelings or of sustaining any kind of relationship. Dick has held on to the idea of Maisie through all the lonely years they’ve spent apart & when they meet again, he assumes they will pick up their relationship from where they left off as children. Even back then, it was Dick telling Maisie that he loved her. Maisie allowed herself to be loved & she hasn’t changed when they meet again as adults.

The Light that Failed is a fascinating insight into the way that a writer uses his personal experiences as the basis for fiction. An author’s first novel is often based on their own life, especially when they begin writing at a young age. The Introduction, biography & reviews in this edition were useful in bringing out the connections in Kipling’s life & made it a very rewarding reading experience.

Shirley – Charlotte Brontё

I’ve found myself rereading the novels of the Brontё sisters over the last year or so. I reread Jane Eyre & Wuthering Heights nearly every year but the other novels not so often. I read Villette again last year & The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as well but this is the first time I’ve read Shirley in years. I’ve only ever read Agnes Grey & The Professor once so I feel I need to read them again as well.

Shirley is a historical novel, set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars in early 19th century England. Shirley Keeldar is an orphaned heiress who has returned to her family estate, Fieldhead, after years of living with her guardian & his family. She was given the name Shirley in the expectation that she would be a boy as it was originally a boy’s name (Shirley Temple has changed the way we think of the name. In 1849 when Shirley was published, readers would have been surprised to find a heroine called Shirley). Shirley is beautiful, spirited, wilful but essentially a kind, loving girl. She is determined to look after her estate & her tenants. However, she returns to a community in disorder.

The war with France has been devastating for the local cloth manufacturers. There have been riots by workmen laid off due to the introduction of new machinery in the factories that will mean less hand labour is needed. Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Flemish, half-English mill-owner, has boldly introduced the new frames to his factory. His methods have been a little brusque, a little unfeeling to the fears of his workers who have been laid off. Moore is determined to press on with the innovations as quickly as possible. The consequence is that the first delivery of new machinery is attacked & destroyed by a gang of frame-breakers determined to stop progress at any cost. Shirley champions Robert & loans him money to keep his factory afloat as restrictive laws limit the market for his cloth. Robert is handsome & Shirley is beautiful & rich. Rumours are soon about that they intend to marry.

Caroline Helstone is a quiet young woman, niece to the Rev Helstone, a cold, distant man whose unkindness is said to have driven his wife to an early grave. Caroline’s childhood was unhappy. Her father was a drunkard & her mother left him & Caroline & hasn’t been heard of for years. Caroline is a distant cousin of Robert Moore & his sister, Hortense, & spends her days at their house, The Hollow, improving her French & her sewing. Caroline is in love with Robert but his thoughts are on his business & his future. The rest of her time is spent as a helper at Sunday School & acting as her uncle’s hostess at tedious social occasions.

When Shirley arrives at Fieldhead, she & Caroline become friends. Caroline’s uncle forbids her to see the Moores after he quarrels with Robert & Caroline gradually pines away with unrequited love & a sense of hopelessness as she has no purpose in life. Practically uneducated, unwilling to think of marrying anyone but Robert, who seems to be in love with Shirley, Caroline sinks into a dangerous illness.

Shirley is a fascinating but not wholly successful novel. The first two volumes (my OUP edition is divided into the original three volumes) are wonderful. From the opening chapters with the attack on the factory machinery to the story of Caroline’s love for Robert & her frustrated lack of purpose & the arrival of Shirley who rejuvenates everyone around her, the story is gripping. The chapters about Caroline’s illness are incredibly moving, especially with the knowledge that Charlotte was writing these chapters just after the death of Anne, her last remaining sibling. The chapter about the old maids of the village, Miss Ainley & Miss Mann, is full of all the withering scorn Charlotte was capable of. Charlotte knew the likely fate of unwanted women all too well in a society that was content to have undereducated women languishing for want of useful work. Caroline can see her fate in that of the old maids & it leaves her demoralised & depressed.

The attack on Moore’s mill is exciting & full of tension as is the attack on Moore himself that leaves him close to death. The portraits of the Yorke family (based on Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor’s family) & the three curates, Donne, Malone & Sweeting (based on curates Charlotte had known at Haworth. Apparently when Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte’s future husband, first read Shirley, his landlady heard him shout with laughter & stamp his feet as he read the opening chapters) are truly felt & observed. Charlotte based Caroline & Shirley on her sisters, Anne & Emily, using wish fulfillment as well as her memories in her portraits. She said that Shirley was Emily as she would have been if she’d had wealth & she uses the true episode where Emily cauterised a bite on her arm from a dog suspected of rabies & gives it to Shirley. The historical background is based on extensive research into the newspapers of the time as well as her father’s recollections.

It’s the third volume that falls off in interest & credibility. Robert’s brother, Louis, has been tutor in the family of Shirley’s guardians, the Sympsons. When the Sympsons visit Fieldhead, Caroline is surprised that Shirley hadn’t mentioned knowing Louis. Unfortunately Louis is not an interesting character & his journal entries demonstrate all the difficulty Charlotte had when trying to write from a male perspective. Seeing Shirley change from the vibrant young woman of the first two volumes to someone looking for a master & content to be ruled by another is a real anticlimax. Shirley does say that she felt she had to defer to Louis so that he wouldn’t be embarrassed by their difference in fortune & status, but I wasn’t convinced. Their courtship is stilted & drawn-out & the part played by young Martin Yorke & Henry Sympson very awkward.

Even with my reservations about the relationship between Louis & Shirley, I enjoyed revisiting Shirley very much. Charlotte promised her readers “Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning“, and after the romance & mystery of Jane Eyre, that’s what they got. All Charlotte’s strengths as a writer are here – the strong female characters, the domestic details, the true relationships between uncle & niece, mother & daughter, friends & lovers. If I don’t love Shirley as I love Jane Eyre, I can certainly enjoy revisiting some of the most vivid characters ever created by one of my favourite authors.