The Magus by John Fowles
30 September 2019
Like several other reviewers, I first read The Magus back in the 60s and was mesmerised by it. A holiday on Spetses, the Greek island on which Phraxos, the island in the story, is based, motivated me to read it again. I’m pleased to say it gripped me just as much as the first time, more so in fact. Although Fowles has revised it, the story is for the most part the same. Nicholas Urfe, the narrator, is an unpleasant young man: selfish, narcissistic and careless of other people. He’s also an isolate. At a loose end after leaving Oxford he accepts the post of English teacher at a boys’ boarding school on Phraxos (the school is still there, or rather the building that housed it is). Just before he leaves he meets Alison, an Australian free spirit who has a very 60s attitude to sex. They have a short fling, and Nicholas leaves us with the impression that although he likes her he can put her down, but that she feels more strongly for him.
On Phraxos he meets Maurice Conchis, the magus of the story. Conchis is a mysterious and enigmatic figure. He is obviously immensely wealthy, and he targets Urfe for what it transpires is a bizarre experiment. Over a series of encounters Conchis recounts to Urfe key events in his life, and sets up tableaux and experiences to illustrate these, some of them challenging and some unpleasant. They become increasingly extreme and unsettling to the extent that Urfe is no longer in control of his life – if, of course, he ever was. He becomes obsessed by the world Conchis has created, and he is mystified by what is going on and why. There is a penultimate section in which all is supposed to become clear but doesn’t, and the book ends with a meeting between Urfe and Alison and the question of whether they stay together or not.
Urfe is confused and mystified for most of the book, an experience shared by the reader. One of the things both Urfe and the reader want to know is why Conchis sets up this elaborate performance. The book has been criticised for not answering this, but in reality it’s a pointless question. You might just as well ask why a young boy meets an escaped convict in a churchyard, or why a young woman takes the post of governess for an employer she has never met. The reason why is because if these things didn’t happen there would be no ‘Great Expectations’ or ‘Jane Eyre’. Fiction demands the reader to accept the premise on which the book is based. There’s no right or wrong in this; either the reader does or s/he doesn’t. This accounts for some of the less enthusiastic reviews the book has had.
I enjoyed my second incursion into the book immensely. I was totally absorbed while reading and haunted by it for a time after. So why not 5 stars? The simple answer is that there’s a pretentiousness in some of it that I can’t get over. Urfe, the narrator, is of course a pretentious young man, but I think it’s more down to the author. The reader seems to be expected to have a working knowledge of French, a little Latin and some Greek. Not many people have this. None of us want to be talked down to, but we do want things to be comprehensible, and those who attended schools where classical languages are not on the curriculum have a right to expect translations.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls
28 August 2019
This is one of the very few books outside an exam syllabus which I’ve read, and then immediately read again. It really is that good.
As a former teacher I know the hero, Charlie Lewis. I’ve met a dozen boys like him. Or have I? The more you learn about Charlie, the more you discover he has depths you never suspected. David Nicholls’ skill is in the way he slowly reveals these, as if opening a multi-layered parcel until you finally get to the gift in the centre. And we don’t reach that for some time, not until the end of the book when the love which is the ‘sweet sorrow’ of the title is long past. Or maybe not. Maybe the sweet sorrow is that Charlie still feels the hangover of his teenage passion so much later.
The object of this passion is Fran Fisher, a girl who appears to be out of Charlie’s league but attracts him and draws him into a milieu in which he at first feels out of place – an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet – but into which he gradually settles. Fran is Juliet, and to please her and because it’s the only way to be with her, Charlie takes on and learns the part of Benvolio. At the beginning of the book such a thing is unthinkable; by the time we get to it, it’s perfectly believable. That’s good writing!
There are some wonderful elements to this book. To begin with, the characters are beautifully drawn, not just Charlie and Fran but those in, around and out of the drama group. You would expect this. However, where the book really excels is in the way that it captures perfectly that no-man’s land that 16-year-olds inhabit between leaving school and getting their exam results. There’s the climax (or in Charlie’s case anticlimax) of the exams themselves, the excitement of the prom, and then … nothing. A summer of waiting, and somehow trying to fill the time before it becomes clearer what the next stage might be. Alongside this there is the electric charge of first love. David Nicholls conveys wonderfully well the aching longing, the lust, the mixture of caution and impetuosity, the feeling that it will never end yet the fear that it might.
This is a book I wish I’d written! I’ve tried writing through the eyes of teenagers in my novels ‘Paradise Girl‘ and ‘Aftershocks‘. It isn’t easy for a more mature person to do that, you forget so much, not the events but the emotions, the feelings. David Nicholls remembers it all and conveys it beautifully. Definitely my book of the year so far.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
11 August 2019
I’m a big Kate Atkinson fan and I enjoyed this book immensely. The narrative begins in 1940 when Juliet, the heroine, is conscripted into an odd MI5 enterprise to trap 3rd Reich sympathisers. She’s an attractive character. I love her sardonic, tongue in cheek humour, her refusal to take anyone seriously and her go-for-it attitude. She’s sexy and hopes for romance, but all too often nothing comes of that.
As in her other WW2 novels, Kate Atkinson provides a vivid and convincing picture of life in wartime London – the way many things go on as normal (particularly during the ‘phoney war’) in a context of chaos, the way no one knows what’s going on (although some pretend to), the way things are managed mostly by public schoolboys who are for the most part clueless – all against a background in which human life is held in little regard.
Juliet survives, and the action moves to 1950. The stench of conflict still lingers and she’s now working on children’s programmes at the BBC. As this part of the story unfolds we learn more about her, and some of the things she did back in the war return to haunt her. She still hasn’t found Mr Right, and it seems decreasingly likely that she will.
The conclusion is in 1980, when Juliet is involved in an accident. She has some thoughts about how those who were once our bitter enemies (the Germans) are now our close friends, and those who used to be our friends (the Russians) are now our enemies, and she reflects on the futility of war and the illusory nature of peace.
It’s clear that Kate Atkinson put a lot of time into researching the war, and her story is based on accounts she found in the national archives. That makes the whole thing very convincing. Like other of her novels, Transcription not only entertains you, it makes you think. So why not 5 stars? Two reasons, firstly there’s some jumping back and forth in time (1980 > 1940 > 1950 > 1940 etc etc) which for me didn’t really work. I would have preferred a simpler approach. The other reason is – and this is again a personal view and not necessarily one that all would share – it went on too long. I think it would have been better if it had been several thousand words shorter, which would have injected a bit more pace into some of the spots where I feel it gets a little bogged down. Despite these minor reservations, Transcription is a very entertaining book, not quite up to some of her others, but well worth your time.
The Familiars by Stacey Halls
04 August 2019
Fleetwood Shuttleworth was one of the first occupants of Gawthorpe Hall near the Lancashire town of Padiham, where the book is mostly set. I know the Hall and the Pendle area, and have always had an interest in the strange tale of the Pendle witches. This book did not disappoint. The sense of place is strong and the settings very atmospheric.
In 1611, Fleetwood is 17, married, and with child again after several previous miscarriages. So keen is Richard, her husband, to have an heir that she is desperate that this time her pregnancy should bear fruit. This is the crux of the story, because Fleetwood becomes convinced that the only person who can help her see her term through, and the only she trusts to be her midwife, is one Alice Grey. However, Alice becomes embroiled in an accusation of witchcraft, imprisoned with the other Pendle witches and faces summary trial and execution.
In general Stacey Halls handles her material very well. The story goes at a good pace, although there are places where it does drag a little. The historical background is very strong and convincing. Those who have read books such as ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ will be familiar with the power that husbands in previous centuries routinely wielded over their wives, and the appalling coercion that was the norm. They will also know that the main duty of a wife was to produce children, preferably male ones. Richard Shuttleworth is not a bad man, and there is no doubt that he loves Fleetwood (despite having a mistress shacked up not very far away) but he is a 17th century male and treats her in ways that are totally unacceptable now but were the norm then.
My only quibble – apart from the occasional passages where the narratives stalls – is that Fleetwood is far too swashbuckling. That she should career about the countryside on horseback, on her own, in the dark, and eight months pregnant is really unbelievable, especially as she is desperate not to lose this baby. However, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and I recommend it.
Northern Stars by Laurence Cockroft
These days, when it’s not unknown for the turnout at an election to be as low as 50%, it’s salutary to be reminded of the hardship and sacrifice of those who fought to extend the franchise. The Reform Act of 1832 had disappointed many because it restricted the right to vote to male property owners. The Chartist Movement came about in the late 1830s, with the aim of achieving the voting rights for all men over 21, whether they had property or not. This is the background to Northern Stars, which gets its title not only from the similarly titled radical newspaper, but also from the two children, Ruth and Josh, who are the ‘stars’ at the centre of the story. The story begins in 1839 when Feargus O’Connor, the charismatic leader of the Chartist movement, addresses a mass meeting in the (then) Lancashire town of Todmorden. He calls for a march on London to present a petition to Parliament, for which he aims to get a million signatures. The two children and their father hear the speech and join the 200 mile trek to London. They set out with almost nothing, relying for food and shelter on the charity of those they meet on the way as they pass through Manchester and the Midlands and eventually reach the capital.
The books paints a powerful picture of a time when children as young as eight worked long hours in cotton mills, never seeing any daylight in the winter months and precious little in the summer; a time when the landed gentry and nobility guarded their property and privileges with savage cruelty, when workers could be dismissed on a whim, when magistrates had terrifying powers, and when Peterloo was still for some a vivid memory and the red-coated militia was for all a force to be feared. The journey to London proves to be hard. Food is scarce and not everyone is on the side of the marchers; some are definitely against them, some are wary, and some scared of the authorities, which are a constant threat. To avoid the interception of the Charter, the column divides and the group containing the children continues over Kinder Scout. This is an arduous enough climb with hiking boots and modern clothing; in clogs and with only threadbare woollen blankets to keep out the cold the children are tested to their limit. This is an absorbing book and a gripping read. The historical background is fascinatingly detailed and adds to the drama of the story. The prose is sinewy, in keeping with the subject and the time. The dialogue has an authentically northern ring. The characters are vividly realised – not just Ruth and Josh, but the other children they meet on the way and in London, and the adults who either confront or comfort them. An interesting perspective emerges when some of the women complain that the Charter is all about men; it would be almost a hundred years more before the rights demanded by the Chartist were achieved by women.
Although the main characters are children – and the author tells us in his foreword that he devised the story to tell to his own children – this is a book that will also have a strong appeal for adults. I give it an enthusiastic 5 stars.
‘Bewitcher’ by Hickory Crowl
Bewitcher is set in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire in the mid 1660s. Eyam is famous as ‘the village of the damned’ because of the heroic action of the villagers in accepting voluntary quarantine in order to contain an outbreak of the plague, which had been brought from London by fleas in a bale of cloth. 260 people died in 14 months before the infection burnt itself out. Without this sacrifice the pestilence would probably have spread to Sheffield, Derby, Bakewell and beyond, and many more people would have perished. However, although the plague is a powerful and horrific backdrop, the book is really a whodunnit. Not only is the plague killing people, but a deranged and bloodthirsty murderer is also at large. Or is it a murderer? It might be a demon sent by Satan to punish the villagers. The eventual answer to this questions comes after an exciting journey, with a couple of false trails, and reaches a pacy climax.
A further theme is the tension between the central character, the new Rector, and his predecessor, a Puritan who had been removed from his position because of his refusal to support the Act of Uniformity and accept the Book of Common Prayer. It is because the two men eventually reach a cautious reconciliation that the quarantine is observed by the villagers and the explanation for the murders found.
The book is rooted in history and actual events. William Mompesson, the Rector and hero, existed; so did Thomas Stanley, his rival. Even the unfortunate individual who brought the infected bale of cloth into the village and became the plague’s first victim there was a real character. Because most of the background is so well researched and refers to specific places, people and events, where there are anachronisms they jar. For example, Thomas Stanley uses bifocals, although these would not be invented for more than a hundred years, and some of the language and constructions used in the generally well-written dialogue are not appropriate for the 17th century.
Don’t let these minor quibbles put you off. This is a really good read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The context of disease, death, superstition and squalor is excellently drawn, and the depiction of a village which became a virtual prison is claustrophobic and compelling. William Mompesson is a complex character, well drawn and sympathetic. I’m looking forward to meeting him again in his next challenging adventure.
‘The Other’ by Marilyn Peake
‘The Other’ is an easy book. I don’t mean that rudely – it’s well written, goes at a good pace and is very readable. What I mean is that it’s short, the plot is simple and the characterisation straightforward. That makes it a good read for when you want to be entertained and don’t want to have to think too hard. The premise is intriguing, although not really new. The story features aliens, little green people in an image established in comics and sci-fi folklore, who are not from another solar system or galaxy but are actually Earthlings from the future who have come back in time. There is even an explanation of their bug eyes (convincing) and their greenness (not so convincing). The setting is very contemporary: trouble with North Korea, Russian computer hackers, terrorist attacks, US cults. In the midst of this are alien sightings which are… well, what? Genuine observations? Or mass hysteria brought on as a result of the highly charged environment? The opposing views are well put. The structure is neat: three discrete sections about different women, with a final section which shows how everyone is connected. More could have been made of some of the elements of the story. For example, the stand-off between the armed authorities and the cult could have been more exciting and dramatic. Also there were a few things I didn’t get. I couldn’t see the significance of the hoarders or why so much is made of them – but maybe that’s me reading carelessly and missing something. Having said that, there are also some satisfying features: the main characters learn about themselves and grow; the paradox of how visitors from the future might return without interfering with events and changing them is well put – although I think would have been even better if some reference had been made to modern theories of multi-verses. I enjoyed this book. I came to it after re-reading Moby Dick, which is neither short nor an easy read, so this one was refreshing. To be honest, I could have done with a bit more reflection and discursiveness but I’m happy to recommend it and give it 4 stars as a good holiday read.
Storm Clouds Gathering by Pauline Barclay
I expected Storm Clouds Gathering to be about the build-up to the war, but it’s not. It’s set in the 1960s, and features three couples: Anne and Paul, teachers engaged to be married; Kathleen and Joe, a devoted couple with two children at Anne’s school; Shirley and Jimmy, a childless pair who have found that the spark has gone from their marriage. Around them are several lesser characters who add their own dimensions and tensions. Janet is an older colleague of Anne, a teacher of the old school whose traditional methods are at loggerheads with those of the younger (and more popular) woman. Billy is a local lothario who sets his sights on Shirley. Mary is the bitter mother who doesn’t think her son-in-law is good enough for her daughter. There are others. The story is told mostly through the eyes of the three main female characters, and clearly this means it appeals to women (in fact I think I’m the first man to post a review on Goodreads or Amazon). However, it would be a shame if male readers missed it. Just as the women are sensitively drawn and captivating, so the men are engrossing and convincing. Jimmy is finding it hard to come to terms with his infertility, Paul is driven by ambition and exercises over Anne a coercive control which he himself can’t see, and Joe – well, he has his problems too, but I won’t spoil it by revealing here the blow he suffers. Gradually the narrative builds to a climax, in which the characters show that they have learnt and have developed, but at a cost for each of them. The plot evolves slowly, but that’s a good thing. It gives Pauline Barclay the space to do what she does so well, that is exploring motivation, action and emotion through the layering on of detail. It means that the reader’s knowledge and understanding of the characters builds, and one becomes involved in and with them. The detail contributes to the fascination of this book in other ways too. For example, there is the almost casual but very effective observation – Shirley’s cigarette sizzles as she drops it into the sink, her cardigan scrapes the edge of her plate as she leans forward over the table, fluff floats in the air in the spinning shed – all enhanced by the minutiae of the period setting – Formica, tea cosies, public phones with buttons A and B. It’s a bit like an artist constructing a complicated portrait, little by little, until the viewer can step back and see the whole picture. The effect is cinematic, and in fact Storm Clouds Gathering would lend itself beautifully to a film, or even better to a TV series. For anyone who can remember the 1960s it’s fascinating. And for anyone who can’t it will give a good idea of what they missed. I found it hard to put this book down because I was captivated and needed to know how everything resolved. It’s the first of Pauline Barclay’s that I’ve read but it won’t be the last.
The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
In the year 1879, 16 year-old Sally Lockhart is ‘uncommonly pretty’, plucky and bright. She’s also an orphan. So far, then, a traditional heroine, but there it stops. She may be bright, but she knows nothing of the things a well-heeled young lady in Victorian England ought to know. She can’t play an instrument, embroider, sing, converse in French, or display any of the qualities required to succeed in polite society (success being defined as securing a husband). That doesn’t matter to Sally, because polite society is not what interests her.
What does interest her is what became of her father, how he died and why, and what has happened to the money that should have been in the business he founded. She does have some of the talents needed for this. For example, she knows how to handle a gun and is an excellent shot. She’s inquisitive. She’s determined. She’s very good at figures.
There are plenty of accounts of the story in other reviews, as a quick glance at Goodreads will show, and I don’t do spoilers. It’s enough here to say that Sally sets out on a journey of discovery which takes her to some very unsavoury places and brings her up against Mrs Holland, an extremely nasty (if at times a little predictable) villainess; sort of a Mrs Coulter but without the finesse. Between Sally and Mrs Holland are a collection of other characters, each telling in their own right.
One of the many things I liked about this book was its moral stance. I don’t mean simply making clear the differences between the baddies and the goodies and making sure the former get their come uppance. No, what I have in mind is the stance on the opium trade and the appalling episode in British history when we used that deadly drug to exploit the Chinese and hold them in check.On a more positive note, there’s the egalitarian group in which Sally finds her allies, where money and class and social norms don’t matter, and neither does gender. It’s a 1960s hippie commune but portrayed as it might have been in the 1880s, firmly in the footsteps of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood although with the new science of photography rather than painting at its core.
Lastly, I liked the narrative shape. The novel is beautifully constructed. It has a strong protagonist and antagonist. The story gets off to a cracking start with the required ‘inciting incident’ very early on, and the reader is not only hooked but reeled in. It then proceeds at a cracking pace, with plenty of climaxes on the way. Some reviewers have complained that the ending flags a bit. I can see what they mean, but I didn’t find it so. I think anyone who wants to write an exciting story can learn much from the structure of this one.
I must confess to being a Philip Pullman fan. One of the chief things I love about his work is the counterfactual worlds he creates. This is obvious in His Dark Materials (three books I truly wish I had written), in fact it’s their very foundation. It’s also there in this book, less obviously and more subtly. Sally inhabits the London of Dickens with all its violence, unpredictability, poverty, privilege and squalor; it’s the same as Dickens but in several ways it’s also different. The Ruby in the Smoke is billed as YA primarily because the heroine is 16, but it has adult appeal too. It gets an unhesitating 5 stars from me and I enthusiastically recommend it. I intend to start without delay on the next book in the Sally Lockhart quartet.
A Season in the Sun by Robert Rees
Even though most of A Season in the Sun is set in the Seychelles, it’s very English in tone. And it’s a rather particular sort of English at that: public schools, Oxbridge, London clubs and, of course, cricket. It’s the world of Bertie Wooster, and some of the writing wouldn’t disgrace Wodehouse at his best. There’s a lot of cricket in it. Coming from the county where cricket was, OK, not invented but certainly perfected, I loved that. Robert Rees likes his cricket too, and he knows the game well. The descriptions of the matches are convincing and absorbing. But it’s much more than a collection of sports reports. There are some amusing portraits of Seychellois, lovely descriptions of island scenery, and a tale of skullduggery attempting to corrupt the beautiful game and bringing a nasty stench of modernity into an island paradise. The central character who carries the story is Henry Fanshawe, a commodities trader, who comes across initially as a bumbling has-been, but who is gradually revealed as a man of spirit and backbone and considerable verve, a formidable tactician and tenor sax player. A Season in the Sun is well written, proceeds at a good pace and is an immersive read. I loved it and gave it 4 stars, but I concede it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
The Lost Book Of the Grail by Charlie Lovett
I enjoyed this novel which contains some good writing, but it has shortcomings. It’s a scholarly work which displays the author’s fascination with and knowledge of antiquarian books. The bibliophile references are interesting and convincing. However, there are a few problems. The developing relationship between Arthur and Bethany, and his growing awareness of his feelings for her is well done, but the relationship itself is barely credible. Here we have a beautiful (we are told many time she is), intelligent, sassy, tech-savvy, mid 20s, modern American girl who is supposed to fall for a man who is old beyond his 40+ years, a stick-in-the-mud and a fuddy-duddy. I was unable to swallow that, which of course undermines the basis of the whole thing. I also found Arthur’s atheism hard to take. He loves Barchester Cathedral and attends several services a day there. He knows the liturgy by heart and he’s steeped in the history of the place and feels its numinosity (if there is such a word) to the depths of his being; but he is firm in his lack of belief. Really? Overall the plot moves OK, but there are long periods when little happens. The flashes back in time help to convey the historical associations, but as none of the historical characters are at all developed they’re rather arid and I was tempted to skip over them. Finally the ending. I won’t do a spoiler, but a great deal has been lost by going for the option the author took. It would have been more powerful had Arthur’s choice been different, which – given what we have learnt of him – it logically should have been. This seemed to me to be too easy an option.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Cora Seaborne is newly widowed. Freed from what is hinted at as an abusive relationship with her dead husband, she leaves London for the wilds of Essex, accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis. There she hears of the Essex Serpent, a folktale apparently come to life and terrorising the Blackwater estuary. She meets the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, with whom she is soon entangled in a relationship which fizzes with repressed sexuality.
The people of Aldwinter are a gullible and superstitious lot, only too ready to believe scary tales of a sea monster and to attribute to this happenings which may have natural causes. Perry is very clever at always leaving a measure of doubt; was it the serpent, or was it something else? With Cora’s arrival, everything ramps up. Cora has become interested in Darwinism and starts collecting fossils. She wants to believe in the serpent and hopes it might be an ichthyosaur left over from prehistoric times. Meanwhile hysteria grips the village. There’s an outbreak of madness at the school and a disastrous attempt to hypnotise the rector’s daughter in an effort to discover what has possessed the children.
The book has the feel of a classic and the story unfolds well. The prose is lovely, with lilting cadences that in places reminded me of Under Milk Wood. There are some minor irritations. For example, it takes some time to work out the exact period. Victorian times, yes, but it’s only by piecing together hints that we can see just when. For example, the explosion of Krakatoa is referred to and that was 1883, so it must be after that; the first Housing of the Poor Act was in 1885, and as that too is mentioned the action must be later. Eventually it becomes settled that it’s taking place in the 1890s, but why could we not simply be told? A stylistic niggle is that the author is over enamoured of the colon and semicolon. These can be effective when used properly, but they occur every other sentence, often in places where a comma, full stop or conjunction would be better.
However, there are also great strengths. The contrasts – between wealth and poverty in London, between the bustling city and the pagan backwater of the Essex coast, between the socially conscious Martha and her well-meaning but blinkered backers, between the dedication and passion of the doctor and the blundering and careless Cora – are beautifully drawn. In the rector, Ransome, Perry has managed to portray convincingly a man genuinely in love with two woman at the same time, who takes a lenient view of his own adulterous advances because he dresses them in the formality of his cloth. Hints, shifts, elisions, red herrings, half truths abound, making for a fascinating read.
Sarah Perry has been criticised for not writing ‘proper’ historical fiction and making her characters and their speech too modern. I think this misses the point. In choosing to make her characters ‘modern’ in thought, act and expression Perry is conveying that the 1890s were a very odd period indeed: Britain at the height of its empire, huge social upheavals, an explosion of the arts and sciences and the challenging of orthodoxies that had stood for years are at the heart of the setting. The Essex Serpent is an absorbing read, and the acclaim it has received is well deserved. I strongly recommend it.