Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Heart Of The Country by Fay Weldon

For two thirds of its length, The Heart Of The Country by Fay Weldon is a brilliant, surprising, humorous, bitchy study of adopted and original rural life. Rural industries, agriculture, and yokel identity rub shoulders with antique dealers, long-distance commuters, owners of computer stores and benefit claimants. Pretty normal stuff, I hear you say.

The book examines their interactions and relationships, especially how public virtue interacts with private vice. Natalie, who was born with attributes of beauty and desirability, has suffered the confusion of many with her birthright. With the world available to her, she chose Harris, whose business acumen eventually matched his other skills.

At the start of the book, he has just gone bust, but has not told his wife or family. He has also just run away with that bit of fluff he used to see when... So Natalie, bestowed Natalie, is left penniless, mortgaged up to the hilt, carrying her husband’s abandoned debt and still trying to provide for his children, whom, of course, he left behind. A pity, therefore, that the local nob she used to visit every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for a bit of light relief did not entertain an emulation of her husband’s life change. There are limits to alliances, after all.

And then there’s Sonia. Sonia has seen it all. She is living off the state. She is on the take, depending on your perspective. She is on family credit, the dole, the social, whatever. Natalie happens to splash her one day as she drives past on what petrol is left in the tank of the car her husband used to fund, just before the credit people appear to repossess it. Sonia has analysis. She knows things. She can spot a person up to this, or doing that at a distance. Whether an antique dealer, a respected farmer, a man with a computer business, of even a man who drives an Audi with an eye for a floosie young thing flashing her thigh, she picks up the vibes, registers them, keeps them on file. She knows the ropes, and can spot where they have been tied. She feels she has been hung by each and every one of them several times. 

She’s on the social and knows how to cook from tins. She runs the kind of household where she would experience surprise if introduced to the contents of her refrigerator. She’s also a cynic, a closet psychopath with axes to grind. If The Heart Of The Country had continued to explore these local, colourful and humorous rivalries, then the book would have been ultimately stronger.

Unfortunately, Fay Weldon moves into other, broader, bigger issues, and has her local people voice their significance. She delves into agribusiness, diet and supermarkets. She examines economic and professional, rather than merely social integrity. She stops short of macrobiotic diets, but only just.

Eventually, the book becomes something of a mishmash of ideas it could easily and profitably ignored. Its original thrust of human beings being as complicated as human beings are in order to create, effect and endure consequences would have been much more powerful.

View this book on amazon The Heart of the Country

Before The Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

In Before The Knife Carolyn Slaughter describes her childhood, a fraught, anxious prelude to an adulthood that continued to suffer from its heritage. She tells us early on in the book what caused this anguish, and what gave rise to its associated self-pity, self-abuse and anger. She was raped by her father at the age of six. But then the book unfolds almost without another mention of the trauma until its reality is finally recognized, long after the father, the self-tortured mother, and even the younger sister have gone to their graves.

Carolyn Slaughter’s life, though not fully acknowledged in the book, could only have been lived in a narrow window of history. The British Empire, always eager to install a white face in a position of colonial authority where people of race might not be trusted, elevated many lower middle class émigrés to effective aristocracy. It meant that they could only feel at home, that is, only attain the status they assumed, if they lived outside of the Sceptred Isle.

Carolyn’s mother had been born and brought up in India. She had grown used to a life with servants, where sewing, cooking and cleaning could be delegated to the competent. This created time for the important things in life, like deciding what to wear for dinner, what would go with what, and whether the lunch invitees would gel. Not that there were many expatriates to invite in the Kalahari Desert.

Carolyn Slaughter seems to have lived an itinerant’s life. More significantly she seems to have adopted an itinerant relationship with life. It happened as a result of denial, as a result of not accepting or acknowledging what happened to her. The father, a shop worker back home, was a District Commissioner in the Empire when his white face provided his main qualification. His wife, Carolyn’s mother, unable to accept what the daughter had told her or, indeed what evidence proved, slumped into a private depression that never left her. The author’s African childhood was almost wholly unhappy, even depressing. Her tantrums angered others, her self-abuse threatened her own life, and yet the father who was the source of the tragedy soldiered on, apparently stoically, delivering whatever duty the assumptions of Empire might demand. 

There were times when I lost touch with the sense of depression and foreboding, periods in the book when I knew things were lighter and brighter than the reminiscences suggested. Occasionally, the weight being borne got too much. But then I had a happy childhood, without abuse, indeed with love, affection, and support throughout, so who am I to criticize this insight into a world I never knew?

So, towards the end of the account, when the horror of the abuse can be re-lived in later life and thus partially expunged, we can sense the destructive havoc it has wreaked through the family’s life. It’s a rather one-paced account, but the seriousness of its focus justifies its form.

The South by Colm Toibin

The South by Colm Toibin is an intense, though fitful chronicle of a woman’s life, a life as yet incomplete. It presents a patchwork of detail amidst vast tracts of unknown, like a painting that has a suggestion of complete outline interspersed with patches of intricate detail. Thus, eventually, we know some amazing things about Katherine Proctor and we have shared much of her life. She remains, paradoxically, largely anonymous, however, as she probably does to herself.

The title carries an agenda for Katherine Proctor’s life, since aspects of the word provide setting and context for phases in her life. We meet her having just left her husband and her ten-year-old son. She was unhappily married to Tom. Richard was her spitting image. We never really get to know why she left, why she so definitively broke with a past that appeared both secure and fulfilled. A part of her motives may have sprung from her status as a Protestant in Enniscorthy, a small town near the sea in the south of Ireland, in the south-east. She thus inherited a status that bore its own history, a history of which she was aware, but minus its detail. But it could only have been part of an explanation, because it was her husband and her life, her private concerns, that she fled.

In the 1950s, she went south to Spain, settling in Barcelona. There she met Miguel, a man with his own history. He had fought with the anarchists in the Civil War. He still had friends, colleagues from the fight. Katherine falls for him. They move to a stone house in the Pyrenees. He paints. She paints. She bears him a child. Katherine meets Michael Graves, an Irishman, doubly coincidentally also from her home town. He is working in Barcelona. He seems to be an ailing, gently cynical character, who is clearly besotted with her. When things with Miguel turn unexpectedly sour, he offers solace and comfort.

This time, however, Katherine had nothing to do with the split, a separation that also took away her young daughter. She painted more, hibernated. And then there grew an urge to trace the son she had left behind many years before. He was still in their family house, the one she had deserted, where he lived with his wife and daughter. There are tensions. They are solved. Michael Graves is also back in Ireland. Katherine rediscovers the south, her homeland, through painting it. Though penniless, she gets by, sometimes appearing to live off her own resources of passion and commitment. Though perhaps not conscious of it herself, she is always striving for a fulfilment she believes she never attains. In fact, she has it all along. Though a victim of circumstance, she is ready to grasp any opportunity and live it. 

“Only a protestant would go into sea so cold,” Michael says to her. She gets wet. He doesn’t. And in the end, though we still hardly know her, we like Katherine proctor, and we respect her. The South alternates its narrative between first and third person in a subtle way tat allows the reader to sculpt its main character. She becomes wholly tangible, but rarely are we told anything about her. She lives. We meet her, and we react. Colm Toibin’s achievement in this, his first novel, is considerable.

View this book on amazon The South

Monday, September 1, 2008

2030 The Lottery by Peter Moore

2030 The Lottery by Peter Moore is a pseudo-Orwellian poke into a possible British future. In contrast to Orwell, who placed his all-powerful state almost forty years into the future, Peter Moore sets his just twenty-three years hence. This suggests that the author believes that many of the changes in Britain’s social and political fabric that he depicts in his book have already taken place. Indeed there are references to a certain war that no-one wanted, changes to the country’s sovereignty status and well reported, now familiar questions concerning political integrity.

But still, the 2030 that the book depicts is considerably further removed from the present that its twenty-odd years of displacement might suggest. The position of the Royal Family has been undermined, parliament has lost all authority and, indeed, credibility, and the country’s interests and assets have been sold off to foreigners. Perhaps it’s not so far-fetched, some might argue. Britain is under the despotic rule of Cromwell. His political style is to brand anyone who is not wholly with him as being utterly against him. This is not a tolerant regime. And those who are against him are ruthlessly pursued.

Wat Tyler and his wife, Pandora (who has a box!) lead an opposition group. Wat is arrested and tortured, and though the authorities have perfected chemical tortures that leave the body apparently unharmed, Cromwell has his captive murdered and Pandora opens the box. A full scale revolt ensues, but only after it starts with a women’s protest. A leading opposition politician takes up the cause and there is a good deal of mayhem.

Throughout Peter Moore uses character names and settings to evoke previous wars, revolts and rebellions. Cromwell sanctions a civil war in response to Wat Tyler’s peasant revolt. But in 2030 The Lottery, it is Bradley tanks and fighter aircraft that engage in locations where pikes, swords and muskets were once employed. The book requires considerable suspension of belief- it is a novel, after all. It will appeal to readers who like to poke a finger of ridicule in the direction of public figures who have lost political trust. 

View this book on amazon 2030 The Lottery

Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room by Keith Geddes

In Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room author Keith Geddes has his principal character, Tom Thorne, address a series of challenges. Thorne, this principal character, is a pre-school principal, or headmaster, depending of the regime in question. His first task is to manage and strengthen a Twickenham prep-school, to bolster its students’ performance in common entrance exams. Along the way he has to deal with unruly parents, some of which are so despicably attractive that they quite put his off his stroke.

There are problem teachers, some of whom scheme, wheel and deal, or even take days off sick. There are, inevitably, students. Some of them perform, others under-perform. Some are almost anonymous, while some excel. There are sports fixtures where the school could do better, and there are success stories that outnumber the disappointments. And amid this, Tom Thorne finds himself a new wife, a new family and, believe it or not, a new job. Tom takes up the challenge of a headship in a Kenyan school, near the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, right on the boundary of the Game Park.

There he institutes a similar mix of curriculum reform, staff management, pupil stewardship and parental relationship that he used in Twickenham and, you’ve guessed it, things work out well. Tom is certainly kept busy. In addition, Kenya provides him with occasional experiences that Twickenham would not, such as snakes, hippos, lions and even flowering plants.

Please Sir, There’s A Snake In The Art Room is not really a novel. In the tradition of Gervase Phinn, it’s more like a fictionalised professional diary, a diary containing the things that were too unprofessional to put in the real thing. It remains of interest to a general reader, because we have all been to school and so we can all empathise with the events, many of which are displayed with considerable humour. Head teacher Tom Thorne, we realise quite early on, bears a strong resemblance to a certain Keith Geddes, whose own life history has witnessed the exact transformations that the author inflicts on his fictional hero.

And so Keith Geddes’s book begins to read more like an autobiography than fiction. It is an anecdotal, light and light-hearted depiction of the professional and personal challenges that a head teacher has to address. And throughout it is also an enjoyable and often humorous experience for both pupils and teachers, despite the fact that navigating its waters is rarely plain sailing.