Monday, February 19, 2007

The Witch of Exmoor

There is a particular kind of social milieu that Margaret Drabble often explores in her novels. She writes about the British middle-classes, usually intellectuals who have perhaps risen from working class backgrounds to have successful careers, raise families and who, in middle age, are forced to confront issues of family and the past. This is probably an unfair generalisation but having read The Peppered Moth and The Radiant Way last year, and having just recently finished The Witch of Exmoor, these kinds of characters and issues seem central to Drabble's work.

It occurs to me to wonder why I keep coming back to Drabble and why I enjoy her work so much given these preoccupations of hers. I'm not particularly interested in the British upper-middle classes and I'm hoping any mid-life crises are a way off yet. But Drabble's writing still resonates with me.

The first Margaret Drabble book that I read was The Millstone. This is a short, early (1965) novel of hers about a young, single woman who falls pregnant. It is a youthful novel and one to which I could immediately relate. The characters and situations were so vividly drawn that I felt I would follow Drabble wherever she might do after that. And I have, perhaps despite of her choice of subject matter.

The Witch of Exmoor is a wonderfully female novel. By that I mean that Drabble writes such realistic female characters and particularly excels at depicting the relationships between women. At the centre of The Witch of Exmoor is the monstrous mother figure of Frieda, who has retreated to a decrepit mansion on a clifftop overlooking the ocean, from where she continues to terrorise her family of grown up children and grand children. Frieda is a typical Drabble character. She has pulled herself up by the bootstraps from an ordinary beginning in northern Britain to become a successful writer. She weds and has three children but then divorces and begins a life of international travel and exotic affairs. She manages to wipe away nearly every trace of her children's father, leaving them with only her and her enormous personality; a personality that continues to oppress her family, despite Frieda's self-imposed exile.

Frieda manipulates her family from afar, playing favourites with her Guyanese son-in-law and exposing the flaws in her children's lives and relationships. Despite this she is still a likable character- a powerful woman who has chosen the path her life has taken and is essentially guilty of little more than revealing to others the truth about themselves. A softer side of Frieda is revealed when her children discover a friendship of hers with another elderly women which seems utterly normal, even mundane, suggesting that Frieda may not entirely be the monster her children believe her to be. Drabble explores what it means to be a mother- Frieda is certainly not a conventional maternal figure to her children but is this a crime in itself? To what extent can we continue to blame our parents for problems we experience in adulthood? What does a mother owe her children once she has raised them and sent them into the world?

I think these are interesting and probably universal issues. Drabble writes about a very particular demographic but it is her ability to ask big questions and raise issues that have broad implications that will keep me reading her work.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mansfield Park So Far...

Scanning my list of 'recently read' books last week, I noticed that my recent reading has been heavily waited towards contemporary novels and young adult fiction. Time for a classic! Hence, I am now reading Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

I've never read this novel before, and it's been a while since I've read anything by Austen, so it has been very nice revisiting her world. I love Austen's writing and particularly her development of character. Can any other writer so deftly paint a character in so few words? There is a dry humour in her observations of human behaviour that makes her novels really enjoyable.

While I'm enjoying the novel, I'm finding myself in the unusual position of not liking the characters that I'm obviously supposed to feel sympathy with. Fanny Price is, frankly, an annoying and insipid character and it's hard to feel she can carry the story. Similarly, Edmund is overly earnest and self-righteous. I'm sure I don't remember other Austen heroes and heroines being quite so wowserish. I suppose this is simply a reflection of the values of the time, and I am trying to suspend my own decadent twentieth century morals, but I still can't really warm to Fanny. Maybe she will improve as the novel goes on, as I can't take much more of her bursting into tears every time someone talks to her. For God's sake, get a backbone woman!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Magic of Margaret Atwood

I am currently reading Margaret Atwood's collection of short stories, Moral Disorder. Each time I read something by Atwood it only confirms my opinion of her as one of the best contemporary writers. A passage I read today shows her talent for evoking a scene:

On a day like this it was hard to resist dozing off, drifting down into reverie or half-sleep. It was afternoon, it was May, the trees outside were flowering, pollen was eddying everywhere. The classroom was too hot; it was filled with a vibration, the vibration of its newness- the blond wood of its curved, modern metal-framed desks, the greenness of its blackboards, the faint humming of its fluorescent lights, which seemed to hum even when they were turned off. But despite this newness there was an old smell in the room, an ancient fermenting smell: an invisible steam was rising all around, oily, salty, given off by twenty-five adolescent bodies stewing gently in the humid springtime air.
Or maybe it's just because I work in schools that this seems so vivid?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

I Capture the Castle

I finished I Capture the Castle last week in a flurry of page turning. It was so fantastic I couldn't put it down. It is clever, funny and truthful in its depiction of life as a teenage girl. Cassandra Mortmain, the novel's narrator, is my new favourite character from literature. She is a passionate writer, determined to 'capture' the world around her, including her eccentric family and the wonderful run-down English castle in which they live. So many of the characters are memorable. One of my favourites is Topaz, Cassandra's bohemian step-mother, a former artist's model who loves nothing more than communing with nature in the nude, frightening many a local villager in the process.

From the beginning I thought I knew how I Capture the Castle would end but, without giving too much away, I am really happy that Smith doesn't fulfill all the reader's expectations and chooses to end in a particularly strong and realistic way. For a moment I was disappointed, but as I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that the ending is perfect for the novel.

I have not seen the film version, but I remember the reviews being dire. Having enjoyed the novel so much I'll think avoid it. Has anyone else seen it?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Falling in Love with Books

One of the reasons that I love reading so much is that feeling of being totally swept up in the world of the novel. My fondest memories of childhood are of reading, and of being so engrossed in a novel that I could read almost anywhere- on the school bus, over breakfast, under the bedsheets with a torch. As an adult reading has sometimes become a more analytical process; reading for university courses, reading as a teacher, and reading novels that I should read but don't necessarily love with a passion.

Lately, though, I've had a couple of wonderful reading experiences that remind me of those adolescent bookish obsessions. The novel I'm reading at the moment, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, has me totally hooked. I bought this one partly for school (it's a classic YA novel) but am totally won over. The narrator is utterly endearing and the world she creates is vivid and fascinating. Although it was written in 1949, it doesn't seem to have dated much at all and is, in fact, surprisingly open-minded about lots of issues. Plus it had me laughing out loud in public today. And I can't put it down, I had to drag myself away just to write this!

The other book that I have passionately loved recently is very different to I Capture the Castle. JM Coetzee's novel, Disgrace, has an unlikeable middle-aged academic as its central character. It takes place in South Africa and deals with some of the complex problems that that country faces today. It's a confronting read- there is a brutal attack at the core of the novel- but the elegance and power of Coetzee's writing made this compelling reading for me. Coetzee describes family relationships, particularly between the central character and his adult daughter, with genuine insight and originality. I read Disgrace in one sitting and felt completely wrapped up in Coetzee's world.

I am loving this run of great books and hoping it continues. I'll be reading lots of blogs for more good recommendations and would love to hear about anyone else's recent literary love affairs...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Trashy Summer Reading

At the height of summer the long, hot days, the six week break from school and the many alcoholic drinks consumed seem to destroy my brain's ability to comprehend complex and serious literature. Enter Dominick Dunne and the ultimate trashy summer read, An Inconvenient Women.

I try not to read books like this too often. Life is short and there are so many really good books out there that I should be reading. But I find a guilty pleasure in the bitchy, superficial, 'high society' world that Dunne creates in his novels. Vanity Fair readers would be familiar with his monthly diary that appears in that magazine. Dunne is obsessed with wealth, celebrity and scandal and his diary mostly concerns criminal trials involving the rich and famous. His books cover the same ground.

An Inconvenient Women contains some of the least convincing dialogue ever written. Mostly characters speak in order to spell out plot points for the audience. Occasionally they are meant to sound suave and enigmatic, but usually they just end up sounding cliched and dumb. The 'sophisticated' young writer Phillip Quennell is the worst offender, wowing the female characters with such killer lines as 'You're the most fragile tough girl I ever knew', or 'Somehow you don't strike me as the kind of woman who stays away just because someone tells her to stay away'.

Dunne seems to be working on the Dan Brown principle of assuming that your audience is so dumb that they can't retain even the most basic of plot information for more than a few pages. This leads to the most outrageous repetition of whole paragraphs of detail. If I was to read once more about van Gogh's White Roses, a painting that hangs over the fireplace in the wealthy Pauline Mendelson's library, I was going to scream. Each reference to a character has to include catalogue of information about them, a technique that wears very thin, very quickly.

So on all objective scales, An Inconvenient Women is a terrible book. It is predictable, clunky and totally unconvincing. However there is a certain fun to be had with its depiction of outrageous behaviour and gloriously glamorous lives. Thankfully now I can hide it away on a shelf and get back to some decent reading until my next bout of summer madness...