Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Hot on the heels of having read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I recently found myself reading yet another modern take on the Victorian novel. Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith is a rip-roaring yarn set in 19th century England. Waters draws on the tradition of social realism, combining it with a good dose of the Gothic, to create a page-turner of a novel. The plot flies along, taking the reader on what is a pretty entertaining ride. This is a Victorian novel seen through a contemporary lens. Characters swear and have sex, something that doesn't happen much in Dickens.

Waters writes skillfully and entertainingly but at times this book stretched the bounds of believability for me. Somehow everything works out a little too neatly and the coincidences and connections are forced at times. I found the experience of reading Fingersmith very much like reading Waters' more recent novel Nightwatch. Both were great fun but neither really stayed me. Waters' writing seem to promise something that it doesn't quite deliver. Fingersmith plays around the edges of some really interesting ideas, such as the role of women and women's sexuality in Victorian England, but it never quite soars for me. I'm interested enough in Waters' writing though to want to read her novels in the future, just to see if they ever really fly.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

A bit of this, a bit of that

The new school term started on Monday and, as usual, that means not much time for reading or blog-writing in this part of the world. However the beautiful autumn weather (we even had dusting of snow on the surrounding hills the other day!) bodes well for cosy indoor activities ahead.

I've been slowly making my way through Tristram Shandy, a book that I am finding quite easy to read in fits and starts because that is how it is written. It is funny and playful, but at the same time I think Sterne creates some wonderful characters. Uncle Toby is my favourite so far, with his unwavering obsession with the battle that left him, well, not quite all man.

I also squeezed in a quick read for my book group which met last week- Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. This is a short novel, translated from the Norwegian, about a man, Trond, reflecting on some of the formative experiences of his youth. It is written in a very distinctive style. There are long, almost dream-like sentences, describing the idyllic Norwegian countryside of Trond's youth, and the countryside that he has now returned to as an ageing man. Petterson describes the simple physical tasks of rural life with great beauty. I could almost feel I was there.

As with all literature in translation, I sometimes wondered how much of the word choice was down to the translation process. Sometimes there is a slight awkwardness to the words and the phrasing, but it suits the character of Trond and I like to think it would be there in the original too.

Out Stealing Horses has a fairly pedestrian, coming-of-age plot, that falls into cliche at times. I won't give away too much here but when Trond's father's secrets are revealed I thought it was all a bit too predictable. In some ways the plot doesn't live up to Petterson's skillful descriptions and thoughtful insights into character. Still, this is an enjoyable read and a reminder that they do write novels that aren't crime fiction in Scandinavia.