The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

Sunday, 2 May 2010

I’ve no idea why I am reading so much stuff set between 1900 and 1950 at the moment. I’m not working on any ideas set then. Quite the reverse, in that I’ve broken the cardinal rule of being a writer and turned down the chance to pitch for a couple of collections because I simply can’t manage full time work, writing and being pregnant. The energy runs out. So I’m back to reading.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
Frances Stonor Saunders
(faber & faber, 2010)

My knowledge of Mussolini, prior to reading this, boiled down to his death and the myth that he made the trains run on time. That there had been attempts on his life was unsurprising. That the one that got the closest to him was a shot fired by an Irish aristocrat who’d turned to mysticism and religion was utterly surprising.

Stonor Saunders’ book takes the increasingly common format of a dual biography: she works backwards and forwards from the moment Violet Gibson shot at the dictator. How did these two very different people end up on that piazza? What became of them, afterwards? With Mussolini we know that twenty years later he is shot and then strung up ‘like prosciutto’. Violet, we discover, spends the thirty years after her attempted assassination locked away in a mental asylum. But was she mad?

Probably not, is the book’s conclusion. What Violet Gibson was was a non-conformist. Raised in the Victorian Anglo-Irish aristocracy, she chose to rebel in her choice of politics, religion and spiritualism (I always enjoy a book where Madame Blavatsky pops up – see my tweet of delight). She didn’t marry, didn’t become the stoical supportive spinster daughter one of her sisters became. Her thinking and romanticism of both Italy and martyrdom eventually led her to firing the shots. Chapters of the book are devoted to the realpolitik involved in getting her out of Italy alive and the decisions her family – and the British diplomats then loving Mussolini – made on her behalf.

Throughout the biography there are mentions of Virginia Woolf and other intelligent women who were constrained and sometimes physically restrained in order to maintain the social order they threatened. There are also multiple references to Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I get the impression that there is another book beneath this one where the focus would have been on the medicalisation of female independence and self-possession, but that for some reason the focus was shifted onto the Mussolini biography instead. There’s no doubt there are some interesting parallels between Mussolini and Gibson, not least that both remade themselves into radicals, but the glimpses of the other possible book left me wanting to have read that more.

The Bird Room

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Bird Room
Chris Killen
(Canongate, 2009)

Don’t you hate blurbs that deceive you? The Bird Room promises to be “a candid, funny and joyous portrait of love and desire in the modern age”. Only one of those adjectives actually applies, and then only if you assume the candid refers to the sex and don’t expect it to equally apply to love and desire (neither of which are the same thing).

The prose limps along, never enabling you to engage with the characters or care about them. Alice, the “smart, sexy” love interest, doesn’t get to narrate and her words and actions, as relayed by Will (the putative protagonist), make her seem as broken and emotionally blank as the other characters. There’s certainly no joy in the book, and pitifully few laughs.

You can see the glimmerings of themes, lurking behind the facile plot. William, Will’s friend, is his more cool double: the one who left Manchester for Glasgow, the one who travels, the one who gets girls despite not being a looker, the one who isn’t paranoid about things. Clair puts on the identity of Helen so she can be all the things she isn’t: she leaves home (although not Manchester); she wears contacts; she leaves her old job to be an actress in online porn.

The problem is any potential themes are drowned by a deadened prose style and minimalist plot. It feels like reading a book where someone has mistaken ‘graphic’ for ‘adult’, and thus splattered references to sex on every page. To be honest, I read far better sex scenes in fanfic, and at least there the characters tend to be engaging and have a complexity of emotions. Each character in The Bird Room has one state: paranoid; shallow; narcissistic; confused.

It’s taken me a week to read it. Not because it’s long (a mere 200 or so pages in B-format paperback) but because after an initial session with it, I put off reading the rest of it until this morning.

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.

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