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Their Finest Hour and a Half

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Their Finest Hour and a Half
Lissa Evans
(Black Swan, 2010)

Film was a precious commodity during World War Two. Not so much the films that were playing at the picture houses as there were plenty of Hollywood imports to give the audience an escape, but the actual stuff to film on. It was, like so much else, rationed out. So Laurence Olivier gets colour stock to make his unsubtle patriotic Henry V but the infinitely more cinematic Powell and Pressburger worked in shadowy black and white for many of their wartime films like A Canterbury Tale*. Their Finest Hour and a Half is set in 1940-41 and follows four seperate people as they are slowly drawn in to making a propagandist film about Dunkirk for the Ministry of Information.

Catrin is a Valleys girl who ran away to London with a socio-realist painter, one of the (fictional?) Paddington group. She’s a copywriter on adverts who is drafted in to write “women’s dialogue” at the MOI, eventually scripting a fictionalised account of two female twins rescuing soldiers from the French beaches. It’s hard not to feel this is the character the author expects the audience to identify most strongly with. She’s more modern than Edith Beadmore, a costumier at Madame Tussards; more worldly than Arthur Frith, the military adviser to the film who tries not to remember the real rescue; more compassionate than Ambrose Hilliard, a former leading man struggling to accept the world sees him more as a character actor now.

This is an undemanding read, one that whizzed by in a couple of nights. The Blitz is something that causes changes: two near misses makes Edith move to the seaside where she encounters the film crew (and a subsequent bomb triggers another change in her life). But it’s not the focus of the book and the closest it comes to showing the horror of it – the pyschological as opposed to the physical damage and social upheaval it caused – is when Ambrose is asked to identify the body of a friend. There are great details, such as people not wanting to bother with the shelters and the bureaucracy involved in doing something as simple as travelling to the coast.

The details of making a film under wartime conditions works well, although the description of Catlin’s first visit to the MOI seemed to be straight out of Brazil (an impression probably increased by the description of Senate House). I seem to be reading a few books with Soho as a setting at the moment, and this novel did conjure up those familiar side-streets.

It’s ideal for reading whilst travelling, or if you want something fast and surprisingly light. It’s romantic, without romanticising the period or becoming too sentimental.

* that’s one reason why they go delirious once they get to work with colour, producing films that use it as part of the narrative and theme (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus). I’m digressing because I love P&P so much…

The Little Stranger

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Little Stranger
Sarah Waters
(Virago, 2010)

Sarah Waters has been gradually moving forward in time. She started out specialising in lesbian Victoriana, but her fiction has moved into the twentieth century and into hetrosexuality. The Night Watch was set during WW2, going backwards in time to pre-war era. The Little Stranger is set in the immediate post-war austerity period, leading up to the launch of the NHS in 1948. By chance, my non-fiction reading at the moment is Austerity Britain, 1945-1951, covering the same period.

Faraday is a country doctor, the son of a servant at Hundreds Hall, who may have been educated out of his Warwickshire accent but is still looked down on by the middle-classes in his neighbourhood. As a child, he was captivated by the Hall. As an adult, when he is called in to treat a servant he becomes obsessed with it as well as its occupants, the now down-at-heel Ayres family. Mrs Ayres has the faded beauty of a rich socialite, even as she does what she can to keep the now wild garden from encroaching on the Hall or sits huddled under shawls in one of the few rooms they still use. Her daughter Caroline, a plain outdoorsy girl, had to return home from life in the WRAF to nurse her younger brother Roderick, who was badly burnt when his plane was brought down. The servant girl, Betty, claims the house is haunted. Roderick starts to see things in his room, and mysterious marks start to appear on the wall. Then the first fire breaks out…

Waters has written a haunting story, strongly in the style of real post-war fiction such as Du Maurier. The reader hesitates between real and unreal explanations. Our narrator in this world is a doctor, a man of science, who provides rational, psychological reasons for events. The strange events are related to him by various members of the Ayres, so we get them second hand. Yet they are so strongly evoked that, having read Roderick’s haunting at my own bedtime, I had to think of something else for a while before I could sleep. Is Betty playing trick on them? Is the house haunted by Mrs Ayres’ first, long dead, child Susan? Or is the house itself malevolent, trying to reject the family that inhabits it?

The book is also about that change in British society. In Austerity Britain, there is a telling anecdote about how attitudes to the upper classes was changing: a porter, being addressed as “my man” by a public school boy, replies “there’ll be no more of that”. The Ayres, along with the other families of their class in their pocket of Warwickshire, fear the new socialist government and think they are being drained by them. The doctors, including the once working class Faraday, think the arrival of the NHS will destroy their practices. Hundreds Hall, once a proud symbol of the country’s social hierarchy and the Ayres’ place at the top, is falling into ruin. Damp has seeped in, the gardens have gone wild, and the parade of live-in servants has been reduced to one maid of all work. Without the working classes that ran the house, it has crumbled. Betty doesn’t even want to be in service, she wants to be a factory girl.

So, what is wrong at the house? Tricks, pyschodrama or a real ghost? Is the house dying in the brave new world of a socialist Britain, and trying to take the Ayres with it? Like all truly good ghost stories, the novel refuses to reveal a reality or provide an explanation. And that, along with Waters’ classic simple prose and clear narrative drive, makes it a damn good read.

I have my own theory. The Little Stranger is a euphemism for an unborn child. If there was a ghost, someone that haunted the house, it was Faraday himself and what he accidentally represents. Faraday, as a child, stole a tiny acorn from a plasterwork frieze in the main hall of Hundreds Hall. During the novel he becomes haunts the Hall, calling on the Ayres all the time. In the epilogue, Faraday keeps being drawn back to the Hall’s location. Faraday, a working class child turned middle class professional, symbolises the new society growing in the ashes of WW2 despite his own dislike of socialism. He – and all his baggage – is the real ghost.

Mrs de Winter

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Mrs. de Winter
Susan Hill
(Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd, 1993)

The first du Maurier I ever read was Jamaica Inn. The second was Frenchman’s Creek. The third? Rebecca. I can’t remember if I’d already seen the Hitchcock film by then (by the way, Joan Fontaine? Still not dead) but it seems highly likely I had given how much I love Hitchcock. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that du Maurier’s gothic romances were a mainstay in our house. Virago Modern classics have done a wonderful reprint of them all.

So when I spotted Mrs de Winter last year, I had to add it to my pile of published fanfiction. Or sanctioned follow-ups. Or meta-fiction. Or whatever you want to call them. Mrs de Winter is set a decade or so after Rebecca. The de Winters have spent it all abroad, travelling to avoid any unpleasantness (including, it seems, the second world war) but a family duty drags them unwillingly back to England.

There are many things these meta-novels need to achieve to be a success. The new author has to clearly understand the original’s style and tricks. Hill does. She ladens the opening pages with carefully observed descriptions of the Cornish countryside, scattering some dark birds amongst it to make the reader recall du Maurier’s The Birds. Rebecca opens with the famous line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”. Mrs de Winter starts with the de Winter’s return to Cornwall. Hill also ensures that the narrator remains nameless, defined solely by her relationship with her husband. She is always “Mrs de Winter”, denied her own identity.

Hill also understands that one of the key things that drives a reader through Rebecca is sheer frustration with the narrator. The second Mrs de Winter is so aggravatingly timid and passive that you want to grab her by her drab twinset and shake her into action. Maxim remains an equally annoying alpha male: silent, unemotional, stern. Their co-dependence is galling.

Yet you keep reading. I switched from reading a couple of chapters a night, to reading it whenever I got a chance. The chap’s attempts to talk to me whilst I had the book open were doomed. Even as you despair at the heroine’s inaction, you want to keep reading. You want her to have a happy ending. When she does finally take action, when she starts to build a stable future for herself, it goes diasterously wrong. Her solo trip to London reconnects her with the past they’ve been fleeing all this time, and it slowly, painfully crashes back into their new life. That’s another du Maurier trick – the slow, creeping build up to the heroine’s world suddenly overturning. It’s why she was such good source material for Hitchcock.

If you loved Rebecca, this works as a sequel. If you’ve never read Rebecca then you really should.

A Good Plain Cook

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Good Plain Cook
Bethan Roberts
(Serpent’s Tail, 2009)

I bought The Good Plain Cook in the Oxford Street Borders closing down sale. It may have been cheap but it wasn’t a bargain. It promised “love, class and cooking”. Except there didn’t seem much by way of love just lust. And the class was not really explored unless you count a couple of chats between a poet and a gardener. And there was very minimal cooking. This was not, in short, an English-set Chocolat.

An author’s note explains it is loosely based on a period of Peggy Geggenheim’s life when she lived in Sussex and employed a local girl to cook for her. All the chapters are told from the point of view of either the Peggy analogue character (Ellen), her daughter or the local cook (Kitty). I only finished this three nights ago and I’ve already forgotten the daughter’s name. That’s not a great sign, even with my memory. In theory this structure should work, but the failure to differentiate the voices of the characters means the whole thing falls apart like Kitty’s pastry. We’re told by others that Ellen is upper-class American, but her narrative voice is identical to the local Sussex girl. So straight away a potential powerful signifier of class is thrown out and we’re left with…not a lot.

I suspect the cookbooks I also bought in the sale will have a more lasting impact than this book. It’s already in the pile to go to the comics and books exchange.


Sunday, 28 June 2009

Like a Victorian romantic heroine, I’m prone to headaches at the moment. Fortunately, I don’t need to lie in a darkened room, take laudenum, or visit spiritualists for a laying on of healing hands. My attempted solution is instead a reduction in screen time, which means I’m starting to pick up speed again on my reading backlog.

Sarah Waters
(Virago, 1999 edition)

In the time this has spent on my to be read shelf, I’ve read The Night Watch but for some reason this sat waiting until this weekend.

The novel is simply structured: two women are trapped by society. One, a young spiritualist, is literally imprisoned in Millbank for fraud and assault. The other, a lady of leisure, is mentally trapped by her spinster life with her mother in Cheyne Walk. Margaret has been depressed since her ‘friend’ Helen married her brother and her father died. A friend of her father suggests she may find use in visiting the poor wretches in the prison. At Millbank, she becomes drawn to Selina, the spiritualist, and finds her life reawakening as they plan to escape their entrapments.

As with a lot of Waters’ work, she plays with time in order to tell her story. Both Margaret and Selina’s stories are told through their diaries. Magaret’s is set in 1874, as she starts her journey into the prison, whilst Selina’s is set in 1872 in the months leading up to her arrest. The two stories, though, come together to reveal all at the end. I found this more satisfying than the ‘backwards’ narrative of The Night Watch which seemed to fizzle out at its conclusion. This explodes.

The spiritualist elements were well explored, and some of the examples mentioned are historically recorded elsewhere. Millbank prison (a panopticon design) is bigger than I’d previously thought. The choice of Cheyne Walk for Margaret’s family home is perfect: rich enough to hint at the family wealth whilst also within easy walking distance of Millbank. Overall, it evokes the period well, with fogs, snow and restrictive dresses. Margaret reads her mother Little Dorrit: a deliberate nod to another imprisoned Victorian angel. Is the book fast paced? No, but it packs meaning and I couldn’t put it down.

The Blind Assassin

Thursday, 16 October 2008

I have a trait, which may be very bad, of reading truly dreadful fiction when writing. Books so bad that I refuse to admit them into my LibraryThing catalogue. I mean awful tie-in fiction (and I mean really awful, not good stuff that gets called ‘Anji FAIL’ by fans) or 5-for-a-quid Regency bodice rippers (I once wrote a spoof Mary Sue Regency bodice ripper involving Vic’n'Bob* – thankfully, did not exist then).  I’m not even sure why (the bad reading habit, not the Mary Sue) but I think it may be as my brain can switch off whilst reading, or reassure itself that at least I’m not that bad a writer. Afterwards, like someone emerging from a desert, I drink up ‘proper’ fiction that I had previously been unable to get through. So it was with this.

The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood
(Virago, 2001)

I knew I should enjoy it. Quite aside from it ticking all the boxes of fiction I like – stories within stories, unreliable first person narration, non-chronological storytelling, fictional factual reporting – I just stalled on around page 30 a couple of years ago. Friends had told me it was good, that it was ‘my sort of thing’, but I set it aside with a postcard marking my FAIL point. Unlike some books you abandon,  I knew I should read it: I just couldn’t.

Then, all done with writing an unreliable first person narration (involving vampires and kawaii blokes in suits), I grabbed it from the “you’ve started so you must finish” shelf and flung it in my bag for a long work trip. This time, I raced through it, finishing it halfway home a few days – and lots of eating out – later.  I’m glad I did, as it is exactly the sort of book I ought to have read and all those recommendations were right.  I liked the way the pieces of the story assemble to form a whole, and the slightly waspish narrator’s voice. I love that it is a novel, called The Blind Assassin, about someone writing a non-fiction account of someone writing a novel called The Blind Assassin. That kind of recursiveness, and reflection on the act of creation, is beautiful when done well – and Atwood does it well.

The main flaw I found – and it’s a classic which is as much about the reader as the writer – is that the ‘twists’ seemed obvious from about one third of the way in.  I did entertain doubts: was Atwood the writer double-bluffing, or was the writer within The Blind Assassin going to surprise her readers? How to Read a Novel talked about the intertextuality of fiction: had I ‘solved’ the puzzle merely because I have read so many novels within novels? Or because the sub-genre of “ooh, I’m using ‘genre’ tropes in ‘proper’ literature!” novels is never as smart as it thinks it is and any reader of PKD would have worked it out just as quickly (c.f. Time Traveller’s Wife)? Of course the twist is not the key theme of the book: storytelling in its various forms is. And there’s no denying The Blind Assassin is a good read, and a smart and enjoyable one, which explores that theme wonderfully. But overall, I’m glad I didn’t force myself to read it sooner as I’d be annoyed. After the desert, though, it was just the right sort of novel.


*based on this dreadfulness, and I had forgotten this brilliance.

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