26 December 2018

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

While shelving a cart of holds at the library a couple of weeks ago, I found one waiting for me.  I looked at the cover (beautiful, by the way!) but had no recollection of placing the hold.  Turning to the first page I read the opening paragraph and instantly wished I could have pulled up a chair and forgot all about work.  Don't you love it when the first page does that?

`There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day`s walk from the source.  There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider, each one had some particular pleasure to offer.  The Red Lion at Kelmscott was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of  love.  Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation.  If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot.  The Swan at Radcot had its own specialism.  It was where you went for storytelling.`

The story is set in the late 1800s with a mysterious incident occurring on the evening of the winter solstice.  A man, battered within an inch of his life, walks into The Swan carrying a small child.  Both are soaked through; the little girl has no pulse.  Rita, the village nursemaid, stitches the man`s gaping wound and then goes to examine the corpse of the child.  Her skin is pale, her pupils dilated, she`s not breathing.....and then Rita feels a pulse the throb of a shallow pulse.  It doesn`t make sense.

So begins a fascinating thread of storytelling that kept me turning pages when I should have been doing other things.  I absolutely loved the way Setterfield created her characters, from the strong and wise Rita, a vulnerable Lily who desperately clings to the hope that things will come right one day.  Robert Anderson with his large pockets filled with treats to delight the children and animals he meets along the way.  The best sort of man.  And then there are characters best steered clear of; the sort who take advantage.

This is a book to get lost in; a fusion of Dickens and the Brothers Grimm.  Setterfield`s ability to create a village so clear in my mind  that I could feel the dampness of the ever present river and see the low light of a candlelit pub in the evening makes this such an atmospheric read.  And then there`s her creation of an eerie legend about a man named Quietly who retrieves bodies from the river`s current while weaving his punt back and forth in the night`s mist.  If someone is very lucky, Quietly will see an unfortunate villager back to the safety of the shore before meeting their end in the water.   

The less revealed in this post, the better.  There are so many layers and delightful turns to this story, they`re best waded through in blissful ignorance.  I absolutely loved this book and can`t recommend it highly enough for perfect `cuddle up` reading this winter.  While we were at Ben McNally Books in Toronto the other day, my husband heard a woman ask for a good book to read over Christmas.  The salesperson pointed to Once Upon a River and said `This is the one`.  I couldn`t agree more.

I have no idea who to thank for their review, glowing enough to make me place the hold, but thank you wherever you are!  Now it`s back to Miss Buncle`s Book, rudely set aside because of the looming library due date for this book.

3 December 2018

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

My healthy respect for Virginia Woolf's writing began a few years ago, but her books were at the deep end of the pool, so to speak, and I wasn't sure about the testing the water.  After spending an afternoon at Monk's House in East Sussex while visiting London in 2016, Woolf's writing seemed a little less insurmountable for realizing that she was, after all, human.  A few postcards and a copy of To the Lighthouse were chosen from the souvenir shop and I was delighted when the woman ringing up my purchase asked if I would like the book stamped.  Yes, please!  Being ridiculously precious about the whole thing, the book was popped on the shelf to wait for the right time.  A year and a half later......

Set just prior to the Great War, Mr and Mrs Ramsey have gathered their eight children at their summer home on the Isle of Skye.  Also staying with them are a few friends of various ages and backgrounds.  Charles Tansley, one of Mr Ramsey's philosophy students, is something of a bore, a misogynist, and rather pedantic....

   'She could not help laughing herself sometimes.  She said, the other day, something about 'waves mountains high'.  Yes, said Charles Tansley, it was a little rough.  'Aren't you drenched to the skin?' she had said.  'Damp, not wet through.' said Mr Tansley, pinching his sleeve, feeling his socks.'

Charles Tansley is also quick to share his opinion when it comes to the skill sets of women; he doesn't think they can paint or write.  Which is very interesting as another guest, Lily Brascoe, has made a goal of painting Mrs Ramsay's portrait while on a break from keeping house for her father in Old Brompton Road.  Despite contemplating the downward turns of her own marriage, Mrs Ramsay seeks to play matchmaker between Lily and Mr Bankes, a childless widower just past middle-age.  Another match orchestrated by Mrs Ramsay is between a young couple, Paul and Minta, who seemingly trust the instincts of their hostess enough to go along with the idea.

While many of the characters in To the Lighthouse feel some level of affection for Mrs Ramsay, her husband is cold and distant.

'I am by way of being devoted to her.  Yet now, at this moment her presence meant absolutely nothing to him: her beauty meant nothing to him; her sitting with her little boy at the window - nothing, nothing.  He only wished to be alone and to take up that book.  He felt uncomfortable; he felt treacherous, that he could sit by her side and feel nothing for her.  The truth was that he did not enjoy family life.'

And then, with a skill that sets writers apart, Virginia Woolf begins a pin-point sharp examination and concise volley from Mrs Ramsey....

'I'm so sorry,' said Mrs Ramsay, turning to him at last.  He felt rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and done dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them.  Yet he must force his feet into them.  He must make himself talk.  Unless he were very careful, she would find out this treachery of his; that he did not care a straw for her, and that would not be at all pleasant, he thought.  So he bent his head courteously in her direction.'

Tragedy and sadness crumbles the traditions of the Ramsey family and their holiday home is left to ruin.  After sitting empty for many years, the housekeeper arrives to give it an airing.  I absolutely loved the description of the beam of light from the Lighthouse casting its eye over the debris left behind and the rat, swallow and thistle that have taken up residence. 

To the Lighthouse is a book to be read very, very slowly.  There were times when I read paragraphs, and sometimes pages, twice because they was so beautiful or thought-provoking.  At other times it was because I had forgotten who was speaking because of Woolf's long sentences where 'She' can suddenly morph into a different person if you're not paying attention.   

So what did I take away from this book?  To the Lighthouse reminded me of Mrs Dalloway for its atmosphere of perception, perspective and Woolf's well-honed art of observation.  There's a myriad of thought and emotion flowing through every character, how much they choose to conceal or convey could change the course of events for better or worse.  It's something we all play at many times throughout our day which makes Virginia Woolf feel both modern, and of her era.  Another interesting aspect is the way in which Woolf portrays married versus single women; there is joy and pitfalls in both camps.  Pressed to choose which book I preferred, Mrs Dalloway edges ahead of this novel but it might have something to do with the smatterings of London porn.  Another possibility is that I found myself paying quite a lot of attention to the writing in To the Lighthouse, so much so that the characters probably suffered for it. 

My next read in Woolf's oeuvre will be Night and Day, but I'll end this post with one last quote from To the Lighthouse simply because it's too lovely not to.....

'For in the rough and tumble of daily life, a sense of repetition - of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.'

Portree, Isle of Skye by Jonathan Wheeler