The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton

It’s with a sense of loss that I finished reading The House at Riverton. I felt as though I’d now lost contact with the characters and the worlds they inhabit. I say worlds because this novel is split into two time zones, so widely different in all aspects that they could be separate worlds.

The novel opens in 1999 (reminsicent of Du Maurier’s Rebecca) with Grace’s dream of the night in 1924 when Robbie Hunter, a poet, committed suicide at Riverton Manor. Grace’s memories are revived after Ursula, an American film director who is making a film of the suicide had asked for her help as the only person involved who was still alive.

Grace had worked for the Hartford family during the period 1914 – 1924 , first as a housemaid at Riverton Manor house, then in London as lady’s maid to Hannah, one of the Hartford sisters. The social life of the upper classes during the Edwardian period is the setting for this part of the novel, vividly bringing it to life and contrasting with life and society in the 1990s. The secrets concerning both Grace’s past life and her relationship with the two sisters, Hannah and Emmeline are told in a series of flashbacks as Grace records her memories on tape for her grandson, Marcus (and there is a mystery surrounding Marcus too).

This is a richly descriptive book, well located both in time and place, indentifying the differences in the social classes in 1914 on the eve of the first world war and the immense changes that followed. The characters are well-drawn and believable. The tension and the pace of the novel held my attention throughout, so much so that I had to concentrate on reading just this one book, instead of picking up several as I normally do.

This is a book about strong characters, about families and relationships within the family, particularly between sisters; about privilege; effects of war and change within society; and there is a mystery as well. Definitely a book worth reading.

 

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

I finished reading Arlington Park over a week ago and I’ve been pondering since then why I found this book so interesting when it is about an ordinary day, when nothing much happens, in the lives of bored, suburban housewives.

This book starts off well for me with the opening sentence: ‘All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.‘ The entire chapter is then devoted to a description of the rain falling on this English suburb contrasted with the neighbouring city. This was very apt because as I started to read the rain was falling and continued to fall for some considerable time. Rachel Cusk’s writing is most impressive in this description of rain.The monotony of it is emphasisied by the numerous repetions of “It fell…“; its sound is reproduced: “like the sound of uproarious applause. It was if a great audience were applauding. Louder and louder it grew, this strange unsettling sound … as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.

This was only one of a few books that I was reading, so I hadn’t finish it when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published and that was just one book too many to add to my piles of reading. Unusually for me, I decided to concentrate on reading just one book at a time and read Harry Potter straight through.

Then I decided to finish, one by one, the other books I’d started. Surprisingly, this worked quite well and as I was away from home I did have more time to just sit and read. The weather was good too, so that helped. I sat on the patio at Twilles Barn enjoying the sunshine, cups of tea, glasses of wine and my books. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman was next as I was two thirds of the way into that – more about that in another post.

Then I picked up Arlington Park again and when I began to read I wished I’d not put it down. I was about half way through it and the rain had stopped falling on Arlington Park and the sun was shining there, bringing people out from their cars, houses and streets down the paths into the park. This section reminded me of Virginia Wolfe’s short story Kew Gardens with its descriptions of people in the park on a sunny day. Location is important in this book, with vivid well-drawn descriptions of places as well as the people who live there and their relationships. It’s a well-written, easy to read book that makes you want to read on, which is amazing really as it’s about an ordinary day in the lives of several women, their relationships and the everyday minutiae of life.

My overall view of Arlington Park is that it is a book about angry, discontented women who are feeling either inadequate, or as though something they cannot identify is missing from their lives, blaming their discontent and frustration on their husbands and children. We meet Juliet first, who is a part-time teacher, married with two children. It is morning and Juliet is upset, feeling that she is the person who does everything, angry at men and the way she perceives they treat women, ‘All men are murderers’, Juliet thought. Juliet and Benedict are invited to the Langhams for dinner in the evening.

Then there is Amanda, a perfectionist who appears cool and detached (she loves her car) and in control of her life, whereas she actually feels that she is inadequate and boring. She has invited other mothers for coffee and is preparing for their visit, when her sister phones with news that their grandmother has just died. She appears to be in the novel as a link, as one of the mothers who visits her is Christine Langham (who gives the dinner party in the evening) and it is Christine who is next in the spotlight, when she, Maisie and Stephanie drive to Merrywood Mall, the shopping centre three miles from Arlington Park. I would have liked to know more about Amanda and how she dealt with her feelings on hearing of her grandmother’s death.

We see the shopping expedition mainly from Christine’s point of view. She contrasts the refinement of living in Arlington Park with the surrounding areas they cross to get to the Mall. She is afraid of ‘inauthenticity which seemed to reveal to her the vulnerability of her grasp on the real, the authentic life.’ The Shopping Centre makes her feel good, that life is full of possibilities – but how it makes her feel good and what these possibilities are seem also to be beyond her grasp. I particularly like the description of the shopping mall:

It was like an illustration of the heart: people were carried upwards by the escalators, eventually to re-emerge, oxygenated by shopping.  The place was full of people, on the escalators, all along the glass-fronted galleries milling on the broad avenues that led off the main hall, yet the acoustics and saturating glassy light deadened the sense of human congress so that they seemed almost to be swimming or floating rather than walking.

The there is Solly, who has no connection with the other women apart from the fact that she also lives in Arlington Park. She too feels she’s a failure – ‘a sack stuffed with children, a woman who had spent and spent her life until there was none left‘. She’s pregnant and dreading the birth of yet another child. Children are either ignored or considered to be a nuisance or a hindrance to most of the women in this book.

Back then to Juliet and her boredom with life. It is now late afternoon and she is taking the after school Literary Club. Juliet’s disillusionment with life is expressed in her thoughts on the pointlessness of it all:

And what was it all for? What was the point of it? In what sense did the girls, even the scientists, profit from their hard work and their grades? Sooner or later they would meet a man and it would all be stolen from them. The girl with her chemistry textbooks would meet a man and little by little he would murder her.

More doom and gloom follows when we enter Maisie Carrington’s house and are confronted with her melancholy. She feels divorced from life, as a character in a play, seeing herself ‘always animated by a nameless dissatisfaction.’ She is driven by her needs into her marriage, her job, house and children, but always feeling ‘not right, like a boat in a harbour where the tide has gone out, lying helplessly on her side in the mud with the neutered fin of her rudder drying in the air.’

This sense of the hopelessness of these women’s lives concludes the book with the dinner party in the evening at the Langhams, where Juliet and Benedict Randall, Maisie and Dom Carrington and a new couple Dave and Maggie Spooner meet. By this time Christine is at the end of her tether, preparing for the dinner party (reminders of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway?) and feeling that all life is work and that she has to do it all, Joe, her husband arousing feelings of mutiny within her. I did enjoy this description, needless to say I’m glad I was reading it and not having to eat the end result:

With a knife Chrisitine slit open a chicken breast and forced the herb
butter into the jellied flesh with her fingers. It was hard to get the butter to
stay in. It kept coming away on her fingers. She prised open the slit and wiped
her fingers all over the veined insides. Liquid ran out and coated the gobs of
butter and made them slippery.

Christine, like Juliet is an angry, self-centred woman, dissatisfied with her life. ‘You’ve got to love just – being alive’, she says more in despair than in hope, it seems. Yet the final paragraph in this book does hold out some hope for Christine, but only through Joe. She looks at him and ‘sees his face as a form of safekeeping, the whole world of herself concentrated on this little stage.’

To me this is a book about the depression, discontent and the despair some women feel trapped in lives that they find meaningless and futile. I am amazed that such topics can be made so entertaining and enjoyable. I think I like it because of Cusk’s style of writing – the descriptions of people and places so that they are real, I can see and hear them in my mind. At times I laughed out loud and at other times I was irritated by the attitudes and prejudices, but at all times I was entertained. It was nominated for the Orange Prize, but lost out to Half a Yellow Sun, which I have waiting to be read. I only hope that I enjoy it as much as Arlington Park.

July’s Books

I’ve given all the books I finished reading in July a five star rating and have thoroughly enjoyed all of them, for different reasons. I’ve already mentioned Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin and Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, both excellent books.

I also briefly referred to Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, which he based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote. This book won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. It is the story of Lyman Ward, a wheelchair bound retired historian who is writing his grandparents’ life history and also gradually reveals his own story. It’s a long book, but completely enthralling.

I now know much more about the early days of the opening up of America’s western frontier than I learnt from TV cowbow series and films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid etc. The story is of Oliver Ward’s struggles with various mining and engineering construction jobs, contrasted with Susan Ward’s efforts to support him against great difficulties. This is made more difficult when she compares her life with that of her New York society friend, Augusta.

There are long letters from Susan to her friends which I think are taken directly from Mary Foote’s own letters and these are such descriptive letters that I could imagine what life was really like at that time and place. My only criticism is that I felt the ending came too quickly and was too compacted. I wanted to know more about Susan and Oliver. It was as though Lyman became too disappointed with how their life turned out, or maybe it was because he was too engrossed in his own problems, his illness and difficulties in his personal life. Ted suggested I’d also like Crossing to Safety, so that’s also on my to be read list now.

I interrupted my reading of The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman and Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk to concentrate on reading JK Rowling’s final (?) book of the series – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I finished all three last week whilst staying at Twilles Barn.

What can I say about Harry Potter? A N Wilson says it so much better here than I can. I’ll only add that I was glad not to find one single Quidditch match and I thought the ending was well worth waiting for. I particularly liked the section near the end when Harry was talking to Dumbledore.

Northern Lights

I’m in the middle of writing a post on our visit to Lancashire, but I must write about Northern Lights as I’ve just finished reading it.

I know many people are in the middle of Harry Potter fever and reading the lastest book and I will get to that next week, but in my opinion Philip Pullman puts J K Rowling into the shade. Northern Lights is the first book in his trilogy His Dark Materials and it is brilliant. I can’t think why I’ve not read it before now. It is set in a universe similar to ours, but different. It begins in Oxford, ever so like our Oxford to tempt you into thinking it is our Oxford and moves from there into a different London and along the canals, with the “gyptians”, eventually travelling to the far north, all so beautifully described that you are convinced of the reality of this universe. Lyra, the main character, is a real child drawn into terrible dangers, helped by Pantalaiman, her daemon, amongst armoured bears and witches. The book deals with many themes such as the relationship between the body and soul; the nature of friendship; loneliness; and the corruption of knowledge.

I can’t wait to start the second book The Subtle Knife.

Mistress of the Art of Death

Once I started to read Mistress of the Art of Death I had to stop reading the others I had on the go, so that I could finish it. Then I was sorry that it was all over. So thank you Ann at Patternings for your recommendation. It’s one of those books that captures my imagination and makes me wish I was doing historical research and could write like Ariana Franklin does.

The book is a murder/mystery book set in Cambridge in 1170 during the reign of Henry II. A child has been murdered and others have disappeared (also found murdered). The Jews are suspected and have been held in the castle for their own safety. Henry is keen to find the culprit, as the Jewish community in Cambridge are major contributors to his exchequer. He enlists the help of investigators from his cousin, the King of Sicily to find the murderer. Thus Simon of Naples comes to England, accompanied by Adelia, a female doctor, who specialises in studying corpses, hence the title of the book. Running the risk of being accused of witchcraft, Adelia cannot openly carry out her investigations in England in the 12th century and has to pretend that Mansur, a Muslim eunuch (her bodyguard) is the doctor. Despite this, she manages to infiltrate into Cambridge life, making friends and finding romance as she does so, not to mention a dramatic episode when her own life is in danger.

This brief description makes the books sound trite, when it is anything but. I loved the start, which is reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, with sketches of the pilgrims returning to Cambridge from Canterbury – nuns, knights with their squires, a tax collector, a merchant and his wife, a minstrel and a prior and three monks, plus the investigators from Sicily.

Here they come. From down the road we can hear harness jingling and can see dust rising into the warm spring sky. Pilgrims returning after Easter in Canterbury. Tokens of the mitred, martyred St Thomas are pinned to cloaks and hats – the Canterbury monks must be raking it in.

Medieval life is vividly brought to life. There are accounts of medical practices and treatments, using reeds as a catheter as one example and of the post mortems of the murdered children carried out in the primitive conditions in medieval England; plus wonderful descriptions of the everyday life of the townspeople, the nuns and the aristocracy. Add to this, details of the religious conflict between Jews and Christians (and also the crusades) and the question of who has murdered the children and why.

All in all, I was enthralled throughout the book and can’t wait to read another one by Ariana Franklin. I see on Amazon that she has also written City of Shadows, a murder mystery set in Berlin in 1922.

June Books

I finished reading seven books this month. I’ve already written about Jenny Diski’s On Trying To Keep Still here, John Pollock’s Wilberforce here and Anne Tyler’s Digging To America here. The other books –

  • Death’s Jest-Book – Reginald Hill
  • The Poe Shadow –  Matthew Pearl
  • King of the Streets – John Baker
  • Theft  – Peter Carey

all deal with crime and death. It seems that murder has become somewhat of a theme in my reading, especially as the next book I’m reading is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a fascinating novel set in 12th century England concerning the investigation into the death of three children in Cambridge by a Adelia, a doctor from Salerno – more in a later post on this one.

However it may look, I don’t have a reading plan at all and pick up a book as it appeals to me. So, I am surprised to find connections between the books, even when it seems that they are widely different. For example, The Poe Shadow contains many references to slavery, one of the main topics in the Wilberforce biography and is set mainly in Baltimore, as is Digging To America, although more than a century later. The Poe Shadow is a long novel about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s death in 1849. It is based on authentic details, combined with the results of research in various archives and libraries. It uses historical figures as well as fictional characters in the search to explain how Poe died in a hospital in Baltimore, after being found in an inn, dressed in dirty, shabby clothes. His visit to Baltimore was unexplained and over the years numerous theories have been put forward to explain how he died. The novel also explores who was the real ‘Dupin’ of Poe’s mystery tales. Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was on my parents’ bookshelves and I dipped into them as a teenager. I’ve now dug out a copy and have started to read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring Dupin. I was surprised that the opening of this tale is a detailed analysis of analysis, using as comparison the games of draughts, chess and whist.

I have always found Poe fascinating and previously read The American Boy by Andrew Taylor, a novel about Poe’s childhood. The Poe Society has much more information on him.

Murder is of course a staple subject of the detective story, and Reginald Hill and John Baker are both experts in the field. Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book and John Baker’s King of the Streets cover violent murders in graphic detail, some of which I found hard to stomach, but as one of the characters in the Mistress of the Art of Death says: ‘To ignore his [ie man’s] capacity for evil is as obtuse as blinding oneself to the height to which he can soar.’

I read Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book quickly, even given that I had to look up the meaning of several words and the long, rambling letters from Roote, an ex-convict, which troubled Pascoe so much that he became obsessed with finding Roote guilty again. There are a number of sub-plots running through this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, particularly exploring the psychology of the criminal mind.

Baker’s King of the Streets is also a quick read, although the subject matter of the abuse and murder of children is neither easy nor pleasant to contemplate. This is the third book I’ve read by Baker, all featuring the private detective, Sam Turner and his assistant Geordie (naive, but street-wise). It’s well written, giving insight into the minds of both the detective and the criminal characters. I particularly liked the nickname ‘Gog’ for one of the ‘minders’, who trashes Sam’s office. Gog is, as the name suggests, a huge giant of a man, with little reasoning power, but plenty of brawn, looked after (not very successfully) by his brother, Ben. Gog and Magog, hills near Cambridge, crop again in Franklin’s book, ‘British giants as pagan as their name’. Baker also refers to Gulliver’s Travels in describing Gog as ‘Brobdingnagian’. All, very appropriate.

Theft, by Peter Carey, ends this month’s list of books. This is a very different book from the others, but is still on the theme of crime, although the sub-title is ‘A Love Story’, which it is as well. This time it is in the art world, with forgeries and details of the international art scene. The book ranges from Australia to Japan and America, split between alternating accounts from the two Boone brothers, Michael the artist, and Hugh his ‘Broken’ brother, who he is ‘looking after’. Another shared theme in the King of the Streets and Theft, is that both books feature brothers, one of whom is ‘damaged’ and cared for by the other. Hugh’s sections of the books counter-balance Michael’s, giving additional insight into the action of the book. I found it hard to read in parts, not knowing anything of the technicalities of the art world, but feel I’ve learned quite a lot. This is only the second book by Carey that I’ve read, and whilst I prefer Oscar and Lucinda I think Theft is still worth reading.

Digging to America – Anne Tyler

I’m so glad I’ve read Digging to America. I’d been resisting reading it because when I first heard about I just didn’t like the sound of it; I think what put me off were the names of some of the characters, particularly Bitsy who came over to me as a know-it-all bossy woman. It just shows you shouldn’ make snap judgements like that.

This book had me captivated right from the start, with the description of two contrasting families waiting at Baltimore Airport for the arrival of two Korean babies they have adopted. The story develops as the two girls, Jo-Hin and Susan (originally Sooki) are integrated into their families – one American, the Donaldsons, outgoing and confident and the other the Yazdans, American/Iranian, reserved and restrained. Each year they have a party on ‘Arrival Day’- and it is through these parties as well as in their everyday lives that the contrast between the two families is revealed and how they are gradually brought to a greater understanding and appreciation.

There are a number of themes running through the book as well as the cultural differences between the families – what it means to be American, being one. But it’s not just specific to America. There are universal issues such as not being able to have a child; being an outsider or a foreigner, or being different; illness and death; growing old; family relationships between the generations, in-laws and the extended family; traditions, pride and independence; and in particular friendship. Even though it was a quick read, there is so much in this brilliant book, giving insight into human nature that I think it will stay with me for a long time. I shall certainly be looking for more books by Anne Tyler.

By the way, Baltimore is also, coincidentally, the setting for The Poe Shadow, which I had to stop reading once I started to read Digging to America.