19 February 2018

Concluding by Henry Green

Why did I think this book was going to be a cosy read?  This is Henry Green after all, and now that I've read three of his novels it's apparent you end up with far more than you bargained for.

Published in 1948 the plot of this pastoral scene reads like something from an episode of Midsomer Murders.  It's the day of the Founder's Ball at a girls' boarding school in the English countryside and two of its pupils have gone missing.  Mr Rock, a retired scientist, lives in a cottage on the grounds and occupies himself with his mini-collection of white animals - a pig, a goose, and a cat.  He's afraid of the dark and never opens his mail.  Two aging spinsters, Miss Edge and Miss Baker, run the school and are sometimes referred to as 'harpies'.  But then the reader discovers that the two women have 'risen in the State Service...'.  Is Henry Green portraying a socialist community post World War II?  Also, as each pupil is introduced I realized their names all began with the letter M, possibly as a way to illustrate uniformity.

Despite Green's political views or any ulterior motive behind this story, his humour continually shines through...

As a result, this receding vista of white and black lozenges (tiles) set from the rugs to four feet up the walls, in precise and radiating perspective, seemed altogether out of place next British dragons in green and yellow; while the gay panelling above, shallow carved, was genuine, the work of a master, giving Cupid over and over in a thousand poses, a shock, a sad surprise in such a room.

Miss Edge and Miss Baker are desperate to get their hands on the cottage occupied by Mr Rock.  They're also keen to be rid of Sebastian Birt, a twenty-seven year old economist and tutor at the school.  The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is that Mr Rock is entitled to live in the cottage until he dies.  His daughter Elizabeth is frequently ill and has moved into the cottage after suffering a nervous breakdown.  Sebastian and Elizabeth have fallen in love and spend many delightful hours in each other's arms in the dappled shade of trees in the surrounding woodland.  Both characters seek outcomes from the relationship but lack sincerity.

You can see how a novel set in a single day can be padded out to fill 245 pages.  Now cue the missing girls - Mary and Merode.  In a surreal atmosphere, swags of azaleas to decorate the hall are being constructed while Miss Edge and Miss Baker tell the students not to go near the weedy pond.  The insinuation being they might stumble upon a body.  Watching the heads blissfully distract themselves while hoping the girls will turn up safe and sound is both frustrating and unsettling.  But as Eudora Welty states in her introduction....

Particularly do you stand a chance of being left in the power of Concluding - of all that has deliberately not been said, has been mysteriously implied.  The spell comes each time from his style, a fact which explains nothing, for style is as mysterious a thing as any spell.

As the dance gets underway the pupils, who have previously been portrayed as innocents, involve Mr Rock in an event that could be deciphered in several ways.  Looking back at my notes, I scribbled a bit of swear-y language down to unexpected twists and turns.

I read this book with mixed emotions.  It is fascinating, strange, beautiful, clever, unsettling and ridiculous in turns...and unforgettable.  If you go into this novel, as I did, looking for a twee bit of distraction you'll wonder where it all went wrong, but as speculative fiction it's absolutely brilliant.  I'll most definitely be reading this book again.

Separating Fighting Swans by Stanley Spencer (1891 - 1959)

8 February 2018

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor)

*No spoilers....

The stacks of books at Costco always warrant a browse but they're usually available at the library, predictable, bereft of prose, and many simply fail to grab me.  I held up a copy of this book to show my husband what is currently gaining a long list of holds at the library.  Then I read the first sentence....'The baby is dead'As first sentences go, that's pretty heavy-hitting, and not my cup of tea.   But then I read the blurb on the first page stating it had won a literary prize, the Goncourt.  A prize awarded to the author of 'the best and most imaginative prose work of the year.'  Well, now I'm intrigued and my husband is heading towards the meat and cheese section with the cart so there's no more time for deciding.  I choose another copy from further below the pile and continue shopping.

Myriam and Paul live in a handsome building on Rue d'Hauteville, in Paris's tenth arrondissement.  Their home is of the proportion we usually associate with Europe, small but well utilized.  She is a lawyer, and he works in a famous recording studio.  Their story is as familiar as the sun rising each morning...once a couple bring children into the equation, life becomes even more of a balancing act and, at some point, you have to entrust them into someone else's care.  Enter Louise.  Petite, blonde, and fastidious to the point of a compulsion disorder.  She looks younger than her forty years and has a gift for drawing children toward her by knowing what will make them laugh.

The 228 pages of this book read like a novella.  The chapters are short as the reader is moved from apartment to park, from workday to weekend, from drinks after work to home.  I found myself  scrutinizing every new character.  Each person is from a cross-section of everyday life; perfectly average with slight behavioural differences which makes us all unique.  Sometimes those differences piqued my suspicions and there were several times I changed my mind about the possible perpetrator as it is almost too horrendous to contemplate the reality.  I was riveted!

This was a brilliant read and exactly the gear-shifting book I needed after bingeing my way through five volumes of the Cazalet Chronicles.  The Perfect Nanny is clever, with clean prose and fabulous pacing.  There's something about Slimani's writing that reminded me of Sarah Waters' books....a directness with words and structure that doesn't muck about and yet creates images of vast scope.  Slimani has a new fan.

Canal St-Martin in Paris's 10th Arrondissements

4 February 2018

All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Were there a Book Six in the Cazalet Chronicles, I would happily take it up today.  But, sadly there is not, so I have decided to completely switch gears with The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani as something of a 'palate cleanser' from 1950s England.  Although, being immersed in that world has been a welcome diversion from our frigid weather.  Cosy reading sessions filled with the Cazalets navigating their way through domestic situations, dressing for nights out, and incredible passages about food have whiled away many indoor hours while we're surrounded by snow.

The last book of this series closes at the end of 1958.  Entering into a new phase of technology and etiquette, it's a world the Brig and the Duchy would have been hesitant to enter into to.  As for the beloved governess Miss Milliment, she has ventured from teaching lessons and inspiring her female pupils towards the benefits of feminism, to requiring the benevolence of one of her former charges.  It was sad to see her will diminish with age but she remained as dear a character as ever, making me laugh when it was reported she thought 'magazines (excepting the Royal Geographic Society's) were generally for people who found reading difficult.'

Read with the perception of a modern age that frowns upon the indulgence of carbs, my eyes widened at the insistence of eating bread....before more bread.  Perhaps portions were smaller, and less sugar was used in recipes, but I never fail to be surprised by the amount of bread and cake consumed in books from this era.  Or is it simply a case of cake being used as a plot device for bringing characters together?  Whatever it may be, I lap up every word of it.

The Lestranges had arrived in time for a late tea in the kitchen, presided over by Nan - a piece of bread and butter before they could go on to jam sandwiches and cake.

There are other edibles with somewhat reduced appeal, such as kidneys, and another dish I'm not likely to forget....thinly sliced cabbage fried with butter and a bit of Marmite.

Whereas the first book featured women giving up their jobs and careers upon marriage, this new generation of Cazalet women strive to retain their independence while in a relationship.  The pursuit of an extra income becomes necessary when the the family's lumber business shows signs of financial weakening.  The realization that belts will have to be tightened translates into a slight change of lifestyle for some, while others have a world of reckoning before them.  And may I say that Elizabeth Jane Howard created a wonderfully vile, spoiled brat of a character in Diana, who offers the suggestion of cutting back the cleaner to once a week for a whopping savings of £2.  Reducing her three vacations a year, family and friends included, is not up for discussion - or so she thinks.  In the end, Edward has made his bed and must lie in it.

One interesting observation to be made is how often the colour green is mentioned.  I began to notice this by the third book...green curtains, green camisoles and knickers, emerald jewellery, green fabric and green dresses.  I plan to read Artemis Cooper's biography A Dangerous Innocence at some point this year so perhaps there will be something of a clue regarding Howard's fondness for the colour green.

Now that I've finished this series and dug around a little bit, there seems to be a divide on whether this last book was necessary.  With eighteen years between books four and five, it's easy to understand the willingness of some readers to leave the characters as they were.  In my case, having all five books to read in quick succession, I'm very glad about having more information about where everyone was headed.  Well, a few characters were left out of this final installment, but as Diana Gabaldon replied at a book talk I attended when someone questioned her about the disappearance of a character.....'they simply went about living their life'.  My only bone of contention was a rather awkward plot line heading towards an incestuous relationship but thankfully, derailed.  And I thoroughly enjoyed a new generation of children and their hilarious antics, especially Georgie with his ever present rat, Rivers.

With a handful of pages to read until the end, I noted a paragraph depicting a scene filled with simple pleasures...

     Clary offered to go and help with it and found Mrs T, as she called her, sitting in her housekeeper's room with her feet up, watching television and eating Black Magic chocolates.  So when Clary said that they would just have sandwiches in the drawing room and that she didn't have to do any more, she realised how tired she was, and when Miss Clary carried the trays for her, she made herself a turkey sandwich, boiled water for her hotty, put all of her presents into a basket then walked over to the cottage and plodded upstairs to the attic.  She was going to eat her sandwich in bed and start one of the Barbara Cartlands that Miss Rachel had given her for Christmas.  What could be more luxurious than that? 

Elizabeth Jane Howard was ninety years-old when she died, shortly after this book was published.  I like to think that a good book and a box of chocolates was not only Mrs Tonbridge's idea of luxury, but the author's as well.

A portrait of Elizabeth Jane Howard by her first husband, Peter Scott, depicting her as Fritha in The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico.  Scott illustrated the book in 1946.