Ferney by James Long: a Book Review

Whether you believe in reincarnation or not Ferney by James Long is a most enjoyable read. It’s difficult to write about it without giving away too much. I liked the balance between historical fact and imagination as the story of Ferney and Gally unfolds.

When Gally and her husband Mike buy a derelict cottage in Penselwood in Somerset they meet Ferney, an old man of 80 who knows the history of the cottage.  When they first see the cottage

It was not much more than a shell, and a green wet-looking shell at that, though the roof was still on. Long and low, the jumbled lines of its random stonework told of many changes and additions over all the busy years. The roof-line took a little step downwards towards the far end. Stone lintels topped window holes filled only by ivy and from the middle of the house a buckled, wooden lattice-work porch jutted out, tilting down on to its knees from the weight of the creeper that had massed on it, sensing an easy opponent.

Gally thinks it is perfect. Despite his misgivings Mike agrees to buy and renovate the cottage because after Gally’s miscarriage he wants to keep her on an even keel and this promised to bring her “more peace and happiness than he had seen since they first met.”  At this point in the book Gally is very fragile, tormented by nightmares and mentally unbalanced (or so I thought).

But right from their first meeting with Ferney he startles them both. Gally sees him as “a  philospher king with a sword in one hand and a book of verse in the other.” And as the bond grows between Gally and Ferney, Mike is upset immediately feeling on the defensive, irritated, and pushed out. And he is quite right to feel like that. Mike is a historian but he finds it hard to believe Ferney’s stories of the past and insists on having proof. The contrast between the two men is a focal point with Gally torn between the two of them.

I loved the way the narrative slips effortlessly from the past to the present as time slips for Gally and she finds herself reliving scenes from long ago. Just what effect does the cottage and the Bag Stone that stands outside have on their lives? And how will the relationship between Gally and Ferney be resolved? I just had to read on and on to find out.

This is the 12th library book I’ve read this year.

Sunday Salon – this week’s books

Once more my current reading bears very little resemblance to the Currently Reading Section on the sidebar. This is partly because my reading this week has been rather different from usual as I’ve been reading mainly children’s books – out loud to the grandchildren.

wutheringBut I did manage to squeeze in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which I first read many years ago. I was a bit wary about re-reading it in case I was disappointed by it now, but I needn’t have worried as it’s even better than I remembered it. It’s the writing that enthralled me. Parts of it were like reading it for the first time and parts were just so familiar, I think I must have read some sections many times over.  My over-riding memory of the story was of Lockwood spending the night in Catherine Earnshaw’s bedroom and his dream in which he heard a rattle on the window panes. When he opened the window his fingers closed

on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of the nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, “Let me in – let me in!” “Who are you?” I asked, struggling, meanwhile to disengage myself.

… Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, “Let me in!” and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear.

This still sends shivers down my spine.

I had forgotten that a large part of the book covers the story of Catherine’s daughter, Cathy and Heathcliff’s son, Linton, but I found that just as gripping as the beginning of the book. Linton Heathcliff is the most exasperating, weak character so easily controlled and manipulated by his father’s brutal cruelty. I was impressed by the way Emily Bronte managed to make me feel sorry for such an unsympathetic character as Heathcliff, full of bitterness and driven to gain revenge for Catherine’s betrayal even whilst his love for her never diminished, bordering on insanity. Even though she was so self-centred and rejected him, years after her death he was still obsessed and haunted by her:

I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, in every tree- filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day – I am surrounded by her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women – my own features – mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!

The Falls – Ian Rankin

The Falls (Inspector Rebus, #12)

I loved The Falls by Ian Rankin.  This is set in Edinburgh where a university student Philippa Balfour, known as ‘Flip’ to her friends and family has disappeared.  DI Rebus and his colleagues have just two leads to go on – a carved wooden doll found in a tiny coffin at The Falls, Flip’s home village, and an Internet game involving solving cryptic clues. Rebus concentrates on the tiny coffin and finds a whole series of them have turned up over the years dating back to 1836 when 17 were found on Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano within Holyrood Park, east of Edinburgh Castle. DC Siobhan Clarke meanwhile tries to solve the cryptic clues.

There are many things I liked about this book – the the interwoven plots, throwing up several suspects; the historical references to Burke and Hare, the 19th century resurrectionists; the spiky relationship between Rebus and his new boss Gill Templeton; Siobhan Clarke whose liking for doing things independently matches Rebus’s own maverick ways; and above all the setting in and around Edinburgh. All the way through I kept changing my mind about “who did it” and it was only just before the denoument that I worked it out.  This is a very satisfying book and I’m looking forward to reading more Rebus books very soon.

The Madonna of the Almonds

I’ve just finished reading Marina Fiorato’s new novel, The Madonna of the Almonds, which will be out on 14 May. It is a love story above all, but there is so much more as well. It’s set in Italy in the 16th century, about a young widow, Simonetta di Saronno, struggling to save her home, who meets the artist Bernadino, a protege of Leonardo da Vinci. 

 I was fascinated most of all by the artist Bernardino Luini who is employed to paint frescos in the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Saronno, just at the time when Simonetta is trying to cope with the death of her husband at the Battle of Pavia. Little is known of Bernardino’s life. He was born around 1480/82 and died in 1532 and I enjoyed how Marina wove descriptions of his paintings into her story. Now I want to go to Saronna to see the actual paintings and to the Monastery of San Maurizio in Milan where his frescos adorn the church walls.

madonnaBernardino was so captivated by Simonetta’s beauty that her face is the face of every female Saint, every Magdalene and every Madonna that he painted. Simonetta at first resists Bernardino’s advances but of course eventually falls in love with him, causing scandal in the local community. Bernardino has to leave Saronna for Milan, leaving Simonetta to fend for herself. With the help of a Jew, known as Manodorata (because of the golden hand replacing his own hand that had been chopped off by the Spanish Inquisition) she discovers how to make a delicious liqueur, Amaretto, from the almond trees, the only crop growing on her estate. The persecution of the Jews  forms a chilling strand in this book as Manodorato flees from his burning house with his two young sons, unable to rescue his wife from the flames.

Interwined within the story of Bernardino and Simonetta’s story are many tales of the Saints which inspire him to paint the frescos, seeing them in his mind’s eye as he listens to their stories told to him by the Abbess, Sister Bianca. Eventually he returns to Saronna determined to marry Simonetta if she is still free. But there are yet more obstacles to be overcome …

I love the story-telling aspects of this book, its rich descriptions of art and the detailed history of the period. I love Italy, history, art history and almonds, especially Amaretto, so this book just could not fail to delight me.

This Time Five Years Ago

I’ve previously written about what I was reading ten years ago so when I read Literary Feline’s post about the books she read in January 2004. I thought I’d have a look at what I was reading five years ago. It was in that month that I once again tried to keep track of my reading – I hadn’t recorded my reading since February 2003!  Even then it seemed to be a bit of a hit and miss affair.  I just jotted down a few details about each book.

The first entry in January 2004 is Iris by A N Wilson. A year earlier I’d read John Bayley’s iris-by-conradibiographies of Iris, which I found rather uncomfortable reading with maybe too many personal details for my liking. Iris had died in February 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I’d also read Iris Murdoch: a Life by Peter J Conradi. This is a very different account of Iris. I’d noted that it was “very long and detailed – mainly a literary biography – OK when I had read the books – most interesting when about events and descriptions of her and John.”

iris-by-wilsonA N Wilson’s biography is very different yet again and all I noted was that it was interesting because of that. This book received some very critical reviews, but I didn’t know that when I read it.  It made me want to read more of her books so I then read The Italian Girl as that was the only book by her on the shelf in the library. I thought it was “quite strange with unattractive characters”. I enjoyed it though and thought it “does make you want to know more about them, what happens and why. Not a book to re-read.”

Unlike the next book I read – Middlemarch by George Eliot, which I thought was “very good, middlemarchvery long and in places too wordy, but excellent in character description, analysis and plot development. I’d seen it on TV but long enough ago to forget what the characters looked like so it was easy to use my own imagination. Lots of different characters and much social background of 19th century England.” I still dislike having TV or film adaptations of books intruding into my own vision of how the characters look.

solitaireThe last book I wrote about in January 2004 was The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder (who wrote Sophie’s World, that I’d read earlier). I described this as full of philosophical ideas, a story within a story – fantasy/reality/philosophy – about a boy and his father travelling from Norway to Greece in search of the boy’s mother. A dwarf gives the boy a magnifying glass and a baker gives him a miniature book telling the story of a sailor shipwrecked on a desert island in 1790. There is also a pack of playing cards with lives of their own, including a Joker (his father collects Jokers). These are all things he needs to solve the mystery. Unlike Sophie’s World this doesn’t mention specific philosophers but discusses ideas about destiny, the supernatural, conincidences and the reality of the everday world.

I wouldn’t mind re-reading these books, even The Italian Girl!

Still a Favourite

Rebecca001

Rebecca begins with a dream:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

That first line has never failed to delight me and that dream sets the tone for the book. I’ve read it many times and each time I fall under its spell. Identity is a recurrent theme, just who was Rebecca, what was she really like and what lead to her death. I still want to know the narrator’s name and her awe of Rebecca still exasperates me. Daphne du Maurier described the book to her publisher as:

a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower … Pyschological and rather macabre.

Dreaming is another theme. The new Mrs de Winter is in awe of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, and has nightmares about her. She daydreams, imagining what Rebecca was like, how beautiful she was, how much Maxim and everyone else must have loved her and how capable and talented she was. She pictures what she thinks life was like for the family in the past and imagines what will happen in the future. She builds up false pictures in her mind and lacks the courage to demand the truth.

Then of course there is the house, Manderley:

A thing of grace and beauty, exquisite and faultless, lovelier even than I had ever dreamed, built in its hollow of smooth grassland and mossy lawns, the terraces sloping to the gardens, and the gardens to the sea. (page 73)

There is a nightmarish quality to the house, approached down with a dark and twisting drive, that turns and twists like

“a serpent … very silent, very still … like an enchanted ribbon through the dark and silent woods.

Then coming out of the dark woods the drive is edged on either side by

a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were among the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddeness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me for them. they startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before. (pages 71 and 72)

The “slaughterous red”  symbolises blood and death. The rhododendrons intrude into the house, not only are they growing outside the morning room “blood-red and luscious”, making the room glow with their colour, but they are also filling the room – on the mantlepiece, on the writing desk and floating in a bowl on a table. There are more shocks lying in wait for the new Mrs de Winter, a shy and socially awkward young woman, married to a man twice her age, haunted by Rebecca and as she struggles to fit in with the social class, her confidence is continually undermined by her own insecurity and the hostile and resentful presence of the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose eyes were “dark and sombre” in her “white skull’s face”, “malevolent” and “full of hatred”.

A novel where secrets are only just  supressed, like a ticking bomb waiting to explode revealing the devastating truth.

Looking Ahead to The Tiger In the Smoke

I’ve just realised that Cornflower Book Group’s next book is The Tiger In The Smoke  by Margery Allingham – to be discussed on Saturday 13 December and I haven’t even started it. I’d better get going. The good news is that it’s only 224 pages, but the bad news is that’s in a small font size. An interesting note at the start is:

Only the most pleasant characters in this book are portraits of living people and the events here unfortunately never took place.