The Wilding

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Wilding
Maria McCann
(faber & faber, 2010)

The Wilding explores a secretive, closed world a generation after the English Civil War. Jonathan Dymond’s uncle dies, starting an unravelling of the tangled past by his nephew.

Jonathan, a cider-maker, narrates his journey from an innocent to an experienced man as he tries to uncover who his uncle thought had been denied their birthright. He visits his stern widowed aunt Harriet, and encounters a beggar woman, Joan, and her daughter who live in the woods behind his aunt’s house. Within his story, letters written by the unusually literate beggar woman are embedded. She tells her tale carefully as she suggests his aunt is her callous half-sister and that, when the soldiers came to the village, Joan was cast to them to hide another shameful secret. Harriet – and Jonathan’s father – both claim Joan went willingly to the soldiers to become a camp follower.

It’s quite hard to sum up the plot. It’s straightforward enough, but each time Jonathan thinks he has discovered the truth someone tells him something new that turns his world over.

Throughout, the world of cider apple growing and cider making is used both as a means to allow Jonathan to travel in a time when people rarely did and as metaphor for squeezing the truth out of the hard, sometimes bitter people he encounters. The cider he makes at his aunt’s keeps going wrong, turning sour in the barrel, whilst the cider at home is sweet and sharp. A wilding is a bastard cider apple tree, sown by accident and growing where it is unwanted.

Overall, the novel is an enjoyable historical in the Chevalier pattern. Its plot is not as densely packed as a Chevalier or a Waters, where I always find myself utterly immersed, but the theme is as dark and the prose races along so that I was keen to get back to it each evening. McCann manages the trick of allowing the reader to be half a step ahead of the narrator, so you fear what you suspect will be true because of how it’ll affect him.

***
I was slightly wary of this book: it’s the first book I’ve received as an early reviewer so I planned to read it over the break not because I favoured it over the many books on the to be read shelves but because it’s part of the deal. Free book = read and review. I’m relieved the first one I’ve done like this was actually enjoyable.

Love and Time Travel

Thursday, 20 October 2005

After a recent long look at the dreaded to.be.read pile, I mentally instructed myself to not bring any more books into the house (discounting research books because, yes, I am starting to work again after the fallow summer). I even mentioned it in Annie’s ’7 things’ meme and since I have made some headway with one thing listed there, I decided to be strict.

At which point someone lent me The Lady and the Unicorn and The Virgin Blue by Tracey Chevalier. This was my own fault for telling anyone who cared how much I enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring (see several previous posts). On the plus side, I did also get two books off the mountain and read them as well: Longtitude by Dava Sorbel and The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The former was found in a charity shop but had been on my ‘ought to read one day’ list whilst the latter was in a 3 for 2 with Going Postal and The Lambs of London. Running through the books are themes of craftsmanship and/or time, so it seems like my recent reading has at least been compiling ideas. So…the books…

The Lady and the Unicorn
by Tracey Chevalier
fiction | C20th | historical
Multiple narrators in two worlds which run in parallel. Some characters cross from one to another, most notably the painter Nicolas des Innocents, but also the middleman Léon Le Vieux. The interweaving of the narrators and perspectives clearly mimicking the tapestries about which the novel revolves. Unfortunately, for me the voices of the different narrators were not distinct enough. Whilst the language they used varied according to their social position, gender etc, the tone seemed more constant throughout. Did it create a field of colour containing characters restricted by circumstances? Yes, but it didn’t engage me with them.

Longtitude
by Dava Sorbel
non-fiction | C20th | historical
In contrast, the recounting of a family’s attempt to master longtitude in bitter competition to the Royal Astronomer and others, captures the emotions. It’s the classic underdog story, obviously, which automatically puts the reader on the side of the Harrisons, but Sorbel explains the logistics and mechanics of creating time so simply that you marvel at the story. The way in which time became delineated and contains is something which fascinates me: I love the way in which time in Britain was unified by the railways and that, until then, everyone ran on their own time according to their longtitude.

The Time Traveller’s Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
fiction | C21st
This is one of those books that everyone appears to be reading, so I read it. The plot is very neatly fractured and then reconstructed. The whole grandfather paradox element is given very short shrift: the protagonist tells his wife that he has tried and concluded that the multiverse theory of time travel doesn’t work. All of which is fine and it is enjoyable to see a SF conceit being used well in contemporary fiction: quite why people treat SF as contemptible whilst reading and watching a lot of popular fiction (written, televisual and cinematic) based on SF premises is beyond me. However, the main problem I had with The Time Traveller’s Wife is that I am not fond on contemporary American fiction. The clipped straightforward sentences with their lack of rhythm do not engage me with the story. The denoument of the novel should contain pathos, a sadness about the inevitability of the protagonists to change events, which should make me care. For me, it didn’t. Technically, this is a good book but that excellence is in the narrative and the structure, not the prose itself.

Carter Beats the Devil

Thursday, 13 May 2004

Carter Beats the Devil
Glen David Gold
( sceptre, 2001)

I was utterly captivated by this novel, despite working out one of the mysteries quite early on. It tangles together stage magicians, childhood tramas, fate-dictated romances and the American Secret Service. The opening of the second section, dealing with Carter’s childhood reminded me sharply of Citzen Kane, although doubtless the mentions of (William Randolph) Hearst were also responsible for that. In fact, the entire book reminds me of Welles and his fascination with magic and illusion. There are the occassional moments where Gold spells things out a little too hard, and one supporting character who really should work very well as a hard-boiled anti-hero has a curiously lacklustre storyline despite some excellent character pieces. Overall, though, a great read.

(Any Doctor Who novels fan reading this will be hopelessly reminded of Sabbath as well, I should warn you)

Empress Orchid

Tuesday, 6 April 2004

Empress Orchid
Anchee Min
( bloomsbury , 2004 )

This is a fictionalised biography of Tze-Hsi, the Dragon Empress who ruled China through her son from the 1860s until 1902 (IIRC). She is a remarkable parallel to Queen Victoria, the contemporary Empress of India, and was, in real life, fascinated by the British woman who could rule in front of the screens.
I’ve read this for work purposes: it comforms to many of the genre rules of ‘Chinese female semi-fictional autobiography’ writing (for example, Wild Swans, Women of China etc etc) in that it is first person, it emphasises the subservience expected and yet has a feisty heroine who overcomes adversity. Tze-Hsi is a figure who was demonised in the West for many years, and this sets out to reclaim her. Yet it stops at the precise moment in which she becomes the Dragon Empress, as if aware that some of Orchid’s well-documented decisions and policies of her later reign, especially her response to the 1898 reform and the 1900 Boxer War, are difficult to shed favourable light on.

I enjoyed the novel but for a more complex portrait of Tze-Hsi I would recommend Marina Warner’s biography instead (especially the revised edition).

The Daughter of Time

Thursday, 1 April 2004

The Daughter of Time
Jospehine Tey
(Penguin, 1981 edition of 1951 story)

I had, as I suspected, read this before. Tey specialises in historical crime novels in which the past is uncovered layer by layer (there was a lovely one she did about son coming back from the dead – Brat Farrar – which is allegedly being filmed with Brad Pitt in the lead). In The Daughter of Time, a police detective laid up in hospital sets out to find out whether Richard III did kill the Princes in the Tower. This is historical research, the process of it, laid out in the forensic police procedural style and a light easy read. There is even a nod to the parallel between criminology and writing, in that a character within the novel plans to write a book about the process of the policeman discovering the past from his hospital bed.


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