28 January 2013

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

It was the cover art by Mick Wiggins on a Vintage edition that drew me in at first; a warplane high in the sky while a man looks down at a group of children surrounding him.  Looking closer I found out the book was first published in 1942 and that perspective completely fascinates me.  Writing a war story without knowing how the conflict will all end, the idea is one that makes me shudder with the knowledge of that uncertainty.

Having pretty much immersed myself in literature from the twentieth century during the past four years I am so surprised not to have heard anything about this stunningly good read.  As an author, Nevil Shute was on my radar but the buzz in these circles hasn't been overwhelming enough to tempt me.  For those of you who would like to be pointed in the direction of a stellar novel then read on and for the others who already knew 'why didn't you tell me?!'

John Sidney Howard, sits in a club one evening in London during the war.  Air raid sirens are sounding but he prefers to stay in his comfortable chair, sipping his drink.  The narrator decides to keep him company rather than retreat to the bomb shelter as the scene has become one of normalcy.  At seventy years of age Howard has been a regular at the club for decades but it is the first time the younger man is making his acquaintance.  As the two sit alone listening to the dull thuds sounding off around them the older man begins to share a story about a fishing trip to France that ended very differently than he ever could have anticipated.

The Hotel de la Haute Montagne in Cidoton is considered to be relatively safe as Hitler and his men plot their takeover of Europe.  Arriving at the hotel, Howard quickly becomes friendly with the Cavanaghs, a couple staying at the hotel with their two young children.  Mr Cavanagh works for the League of Nations in Geneva and thinks it best to shelter his family away from any danger and joins them at the weekends.  Rumours begin to swirl at the hotel that all guests will soon be told to leave making room for army officials.  German soldiers have left Dunkirk and Paris has sounded an air raid siren.  Feeling extremely uneasy, Howard decides his place is in his own country and perhaps he could even be useful as a volunteer with one of the many sectors.  He begins to pack up his fishing rods and ask the hotel staff about train schedules.

Mr Cavangh pulls Howard aside to confide that he thinks it best if eight year-old Ronnie and five year-old Sheila were in Oxford with his sister.  Mrs Cavangh will not be separated from her husband and convinced that in two days the children will be safe and sound, far away from troop movement, it seems the best idea.  Would Mr Howard be willing to escort the little boy and girl back to England when he leaves?  The reader now realizes that the narrator has slipped away and what follows is a wonderfully moving account of a gentleman's quest to see children home safely during wartime while the odds are dangerous and increasingly stacked against him.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.  Nevil Shute was brilliant here at creating tension and his pacing was spot on, there were times I held by breath for fear of what would happen next.  His sense of objectivity was also astounding considering the times and given the general opinion of most English citizens concerning Germany and its troops.  As pointed out by John Boyne in the introduction, this is a war story with a different spin in that it isn't about the soldier fighting or the wife left behind, or widowed, it's about an older man doing his bit in his own way.  If you haven't read this book then all I have to say is run out and find it and if you have, which Shute novel would you recommend next?

A warning to anyone picking up the Vintage edition; there is an excellent introduction by John Boyne (The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) but it does contain spoilers.  I started to read it but once I realized this was the case it was saved for the end of my read.

23 January 2013

Loving by Henry Green

'Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch.  From time to time the other servants separately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.'

These opening lines of Loving had me instantly picturing an iron bed in a sparsely furnished room, a narrow darkened hallway and a green baize door.  England is at war and the English male staff contemplate whether it is best to sign up for duty or stay where they are until called upon.  A country house in Ireland provides the backdrop for a story primarily about the lives of the servants but don't expect pages of skin-blistering scrubbing or toiling.  This story centres mostly around the lives and relationships of the staff when their employer, Mrs Tennant, is away...or in another room.  The stolen moments behind closed doors when toiling should be going on but romance or plotting seems like a better idea.

With Eldon's death, Raunce steps into the role of butler.  A bit of a pasty fellow he sets his cap on Edith, a housemaid twenty years his junior.  At times she appears to be an innocent but at others it is apparent she has given a fair bit of thought as to her chances in life and how to get what she wants.  As their level of intimacy increases the lovers begin to reveal their conniving side and how skimming a bit off of the establishment is not only necessary but justified.  The disappearance of Mrs Tennant's sapphire cluster ring and the sightings that follow lend an almost farcical tone to the story especially when an insurance broker is sent out to investigate.  Convinced that the gentleman is from the I.R.A and casing the house, Raunce sends the staff into a state of complete paranoia.  They can't resist the opportunity though to have a good laugh during a very mocking session of the representative's lisp.

For the most past this story is delivered through dialogue and it's a style that I felt completely at ease with.  In fact, I felt it added a slight hint of mysterious allure not knowing for sure whether the characters were being sincere or not in their conversations with others.  There is a complete microcosm composed of just the staff and the relationships between them would create quite the Venn diagram.      

Near the end of the book Edith remarks to Raunce that she doesn't like the way the peacocks roaming the grounds spy on her.  'They've been raised in a good school,' is his reply.  Perhaps the majestic birds represent something of a conscience for one or two of the characters as they feature quite prominently throughout.  I definitely think a re-read will perhaps reveal something of a deeper meaning unless someone can help me out with that one straight away.

By most accounts Green was something of an eccentric which makes me like him all the more.  And many would debate whether or not he is one of the greats in the world of literature.  After reading one of his quotes I am in no doubt that he is, well in my book anyway:
Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone . . .
It is truly a wonderful thing to ride on the coat tails of some of my favourite bloggers, pointing the way to fantastic reads.  Thanks to Harriet and Book Snob I have discovered yet another sublime author and oh lucky me to have two more novels Living and Party Going in my Penguin edition to enjoy on another day.

13 January 2013

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

No visit to London is complete without a visit to Persephone Books.  Last October I was once again standing in the shop with a piece of notepaper in my hand, a couple of titles scribbled on it.  One was Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins and another was Miss Ranskill Comes Home.  The first title was a definite but I wasn't so sure about the second.  It was shortly before closing on a Friday so time was of the essence 'which title is your favourite?' I asked the lovely employee assisting me (I do the same sort of thing to servers in restaurants).  Without hesitation she replied it was Miss Ranskill Comes Home and I showed her my slip of paper.  That clinched things.

Miss Nona Ranskill becomes a woman overboard while reaching for her windswept hat during a cruise.  Pulled ashore a desert island by another castaway from England, the pair become great companions.  The Carpenter spends several years constructing a boat with nothing but a small knife and wood salvaged from the island.  When he dies suddenly Miss Ranskill embarks on another adventure at sea in the new craft hoping for rescue.
 
Eventually spotted and picked up by the British Navy, England has become something of a foreign land with talk of ration books, coupons and black-out curtains.  World War II has broken out while Nona has been marooned and everyone takes for granted that the poor woman knows what is going on.

'And now Miss Ranskill stood outside a prim house.  Facing her was a most respectable-looking door and to her right was a trim patch of garden, so precise and squared, edged and tidied that she was astonished to see a row of lettuces in the narrow border beneath the window, where she was quite certain there should be lobelias.'

Due to the sorry state of her shrunken woollens, borrowed Navy shoes and apparent lack of new terminology, Miss Ranskill is thought to quite possibly be a spy.  The scenario is completely unlikely but that is not the point, what is the point is that Todd has woven a tale for grown-ups so delightful you won't want to put it down.  The whimsy is counterbalanced by a healthy dose of poignancy with the unknown nature of war.

'Mummy would be horrified.  She'd always planned a white wedding and never in May either.  But you can't wait for June in war-time when - when we may only have one week of May ever - for all our lives.'

And who could argue Miss Ranskill's logic for enjoying her butter ration all at once.  The idea being that you can live with the restrictions of war for most days but then on one special day you live life as normal.  While the population is complaining about shortages the goods available are enormous in comparison to those at hand on a desert island.  Another observation is that the confines of society and etiquette can leave one feeling as lonely and restricted as any amount of time stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Miss Ranskill Comes Home is a delightful read and being placed on my list of favourite cosy books, which is a happy coincidence as it's the first book being reviewed here!  Just the thing to brighten up your week or for between more serious books to switch gears a bit.