21 September 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

When the Man Booker longlist was announced recently, it was Warlight that piqued my interest with its setting in post-war England.  A few days later, a customer at the library returned her copy and was promptly asked (ever the inquisitive circulation clerk) what she thought of it, to which she replied 'I think it's a masterpiece'.  A label like that sets the bar pretty high so when my hold came in soon afterwards, other reading plans would simply have to wait.  So, with a riveting first sentence, I dove it.

'In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.'

Nathaniel and Rachel are young teens, living with their parents in Ruvigny Gardens, London.  Within a few pages, their parents announce they'll be leaving for Singapore on an extended business trip for Unilever.  Their father flies on ahead with remarkably little fanfare as Rose's carefully considered wardrobe is packed into a large travelling trunk.  The teens have been enrolled in separate boarding schools and a guardian, whom Rachel and Nathaniel refer to as The Moth, has been left in charge of their home.  As Nathaniel later learns, his mother has known The Moth for several years as both were fire watchers on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel during the war.  Or, at least that's what the siblings have been told, because once their mother's trunk has been discovered, hidden in the house after her departure, their bubble of security has been burst.

Within a couple of weeks, Nathaniel decides that living at home with a stranger is preferable to life at boarding school.  The trajectory of his life will be forever altered.  The Moth makes an unsettling decision to invite a former boxer known as The Pimlico Darter to join the household.  His particular talent is smuggling greyhounds into England using the night skies as cover while gliding along the Thames on river boats.  Nathaniel is pulled by the sense of adventure and becomes The Darter's steadfast companion, honing skills that will come in handy for better or worse. 

As the years progress, Nathaniel and Rachel form attachments to the various people who come and go from their home in Ruvigny Gardens.  Some are suspect from the beginning but others have layers that are revealed over time, the point being that the people living among us conceal things from the simple to the implausible.  Trading the pavement of London for the paths of Suffolk doesn't necessarily mean guaranteed immunity from the covert actions of people with connections, or unfinished business. 

Ondaatje weaves the story of some of Warlight's characters through time, backwards and forwards.  Were all of the connections made as characters' paths crossed plausible?  I did have a couple of moments of cynicism, but at the end of the day, this is a ripping good read.  Warlight is clever, entertaining, and at times the tension made me forget all about watching the clock when it was almost time to leave for work.  Going back through my notes I found it interesting there wasn't a single bold scrawl that says 'QUOTE' as I often do while reading, but there are seven pages of clues and suspicious behaviour.  Apparently I was as much 'on the case' as Nathaniel.  Warlight is the sort of book that would be fun to read over again with the gift of hindsight.

I was disappointed yesterday when the Man Booker Shortlist was announced and Warlight wasn't on it.  At the end of the day, there are many winners of various prizes for all kinds of books, but if they don't appeal to me then it's a moot point.  Warlight suited me down to the ground.

Cornish Children by Harold Harvey

8 September 2018

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Next month is the ninetieth anniversary of Orlando (1928), Woolf's sixth novel.  What began as a diversion shortly after publishing To the Lighthouse has resulted in being a strong favourite with readers of Woolf's novels.  I wonder what she would think of her 'folly' being so relevant in 2018.  While parts of the world have made great strides when it comes to accepting people as they are, we are still a society that likes to create policy, define, and label.  That Woolf, many decades ago, could transition her main character from a man to a woman without so much as a sigh feels refreshingly uncomplicated.  As for the novel as a whole, Orlando reminded me of Saturday mornings as a nine year old, reading fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.  There's a lot going on that doesn't make sense, but you're willing to believe anything is possible.

The story begins in Tudor England with Elizabeth I on the throne and the young noble has caught her eye.  Orlando spends time wandering through town as Woolf paints a picture of his day to day life....past the stables, around hawthorn bushes, through the park with its herds of roaming deer.  In the distance lies St Paul's.  After a few pages filled with observations, time jumps ahead to a new monarch on the throne.  Britain is blanketed by The Big Frost and the Thames has frozen solid.   Orlando sees the Russian Princess Marousha skating on the ice and falls head over heels in love.  But there's hitch, he is already betrothed to another.

Because Orlando magically travels through the centuries, aging at a snail's pace, let's just say he breaks some hearts and has his broken in turn.  As Orlando rises in favour to the subsequent King Charles, word spreads about his allure and, of all things, his beautiful calves.  Then, during a festive evening, in a swirl of ringing bells, clocks striking the hour, Turkish guards from the Imperial Body Guard along with British Admirality, Orlando goes to bed, in something of a trance, for seven days.  Upon waking, Orlando is now a woman.

'Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath.'

Woolf then goes on to state that although Orlando had changed in appearance, everything else about her character is exactly as it was before.  Leaving Constantinople with a gipsy, Orlando embarks on a journey over hills and through valleys, while writing an epic poem called The Oak Tree.  When the atmosphere among her fellow travellers begins to feel ominous, Orlando jumps onto a ship bound for London.  She's also realizing a few things....

'She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled.  'Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,' she reflected' 'for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature.  They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.  There's the hairdressing,' she thought, 'that alone will take an hour of my morning; there's looking in the looking glass, another hour, there's stays and lacing; there's washing and powdering; there's changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there's being chaste year in year out...'

Orlando meets other characters who appear to be one sex but are simply masquerading as the other for one purpose or another.  As time passes, Orlando begins to take on more of the traits one would associate with being stereotypically female, as in being afraid of fast carriages or modesty.  The underlying message is that men and women assume roles.

As Orlando moves through the centuries, I thoroughly enjoyed the many historical and geographical references, such as London's Great Fire and the plague.  She is also amazed by her first sight of a bookshop, trains and cars.  I love stories centred around time travel and that moment of wonder (or fright) when a character first encounters something we take for granted.

Vita Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicholson, has been quoted as saying Orlando is 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature.  Reading this novel on the heels of a book of letters between the two women, I would most humbly agree.  But it's also a tribute to Knole, Sackville-West's ancestral home in Sevenoaks, Kent.  From the gardens to the number of rooms, and even the names of the servants and housemaids (I smiled at every mention of Basket and Bartholomew) all from the country house's records.

Orlando ends at the twelfth stroke of midnight on Thursday the eleventh of October, 1928, the date it was published.  I've just checked the calendar....that date falls on a Thursday this year, as well.  I digress.  This story amazed me on so many levels, from Woolf's incredible imagination, her keen observations, her foresight concerning gender issues, not to mention her general knowledge of so many historical details.  The copy I read was borrowed from the library but I will be buying a lovely edition to keep. 

Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicholson by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos