Friday, October 31, 2008

The Two Elizabeths

I'm currently reading two very English books, from roughly the same era (well, mid-twentieth century-ish) and which are both written in a really delightful, quiet, precise and beautiful way. They are both also, co-incidentally, written by women called Elizabeth.

Elizabeth David's cook book French Provincial Cooking is justifiably famous. This is a cook book that is easy to read cover to cover. Even the lists of ingredients are poetic and evoke long, warm summer nights in Provence or other such picturesque French country experiences. I'm only just realising what a debt so many modern celebrity chefs owe Elizabeth David. Her writing sounds remarkably contemporary, despite the fact that this book was written in 1960. Her promotion of fresh, seasonal ingredients and simple, clean flavours would be right at home in any modern cookery writing.

My favourite bit in the book so far is when Elizabeth David writes about Provence:
Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on to a train. Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place at all. But now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm, stony, herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of a piece of orange peel scenting a beef stew.

It is really lovely writing, and whether I ever cook anything from it or not, it is worth reading.

The other Elizabeth I am reading is Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbour in one of those lovely dark green Virago Modern Classics paperback editions. I have to admit to having been hopelessly ignorant about Elizabeth Taylor (the writer, not the actress of course) and had not heard of her until I picked up this novel. But so far I'm loving the precise observation and insight into character in this novel set in a quite English seaside town after WWII. Beneath the calm surface, tensions abound in the village, with the story centering around Beth, her husband Robert who is the local doctor, and their neighbour Tory, who is Beth's best-friend but who is also having an affair with Robert. I can't wait to see how it's all resolved but so far Taylor has avoided any sense of melodrama in a plot that could tend that way.

More on both books as I work my way through the provinces of France and the intrigues of English village life...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Carry Me Down

Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland is a disturbing and brilliant novel (a combination of adjectives that applies to some of my favourite pieces of literature). It totally divided my book group last week. There were some who hated it so much they could hardly even discuss the book- and these are lovely, educated readers- and then there were those of us who just fell totally in love with the beautiful writing and the bizarre world that Hyland creates (I like to think we were right!).

The book is set in Ireland in the 1970s and is told from the point of view of 12 year old John Egan. John would have to be one of the most unusual and fully realised characters in recent writing and his world is definitely a strange place for the reader to spend time in. John is physically mature beyond his years and is verging on a kind of madness (although the nature of this was hotly contested in my book group- some saw John as a dangerous sociopath, others, myself included, preferred to think of him as a troubled child who is reacting to the traumas he experiences). He is an only child who enjoys a disturbingly close relationship with his depressive mother and feels a kind of rivalry with his handsome, unemployed father. The family lives with John's grandmother on whom they depend financially, a situation that is fraught with tension.

John believes he is a human lie detector and uses his skill to interpret his interactions with those around him. And while he dreams of making it into the Guinness Book of Records with his unique skill, those around him expect him to grow up and fit into society's expectations. He is a boy whose physical body has outstripped his child's mind.

Hyland plays with the idea of madness and explores the way in which children can live in imaginative worlds that resemble the worlds constructed by the insane. She asks us to question the effect of a child's environment on their behaviour, particularly when the action moves to an extremely grim housing estate outside of Dublin. She also explores what we consider 'normal', ending the novel with a welcome hint of hope for John and his parents (or that is how I interpreted the ending, others in the book group felt it was a relentlessly depressing ending).

Carry Me Down is at times a very bleak book but I found that overall the beauty of the writing and the fascinating characters made this book un-put-downable. At times John is a funny, astute narrator who I genuinely liked, despite his confronting behaviour. It won't be a book for everyone, and it's not one to read if you want a light read, but it's definitely one of my favourite reads of this year.