Still a Favourite


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.

Pompeii by Robert Harris


Recently I’ve been going from book to book and not finishing any of them, apart from Pompeii by Richard Harris. If you’ve read my recent posts you’ll maybe understand why I’ve been unable to concentrate on reading, but even if the words have not been making much sense as I read them I find the actual process of picking up a book, turning the pages and reading the words to be therapeutic.

Somehow Pompeii made more sense than any of the other books I looked at these last few weeks. For one thing it’s so easy to read and you know the broad outcome right from the start. Vesuvius erupts destroying the town of Pompeii and killing its inhabitants as they tried to flee the pumice, ash and searing heat and flames.

Part of the book’s appeal to me was because I visited Pompeii and had a trip up to the summit of Vesuvius some years ago and so I could picture the location. It was not only Pompeii that was affected – the whole area stretching from the town of Herculaneum in the north of the Bay down to Stabiae in the south suffered from the eruption.

Vesuvius Crater

The summit of Vesuvius, today looks flat from below and climbing to the top reveals the enormous crater as a result of the eruption.


Frescoes at Pompeii

The remains of luxurious villas with their frescoes can still be seen and most poignantly some of the inhabitants perserved by the ash that killed them.

The story begins just two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and builds up to a climax. Whilst most people are blissfully unaware of what is about to be unleashed upon them one man – the engineer Marius Attilius Primus realises the danger when the aqueduct Aqua Augusta fails to supply water to the people in the nine towns around the Bay of Naples. Attilius realise that the problem lies somewhere to the north of Pompeii, on the slopes of Vesuvius. The tension mounts as he tries to repair the aqueduct and persuade people of the danger, hindered by the disappearance of Exomnius, his predecessor and the disbelief of the town magistrates. The power behind the town officials is the former slave Ampliatus who made his fortune after the last earthquake had devasted Pompeii. Harris gives vivid descriptions of the luxury of the town – its villas and baths – the corruption of its leaders, the poor living conditions of the general population and savage cruelty shown to the slaves. Ampliatus helps Attilius but only under his own terms – to continue the financial arrangement he had with Exomnius.

Interspersed with the story are details of the ingenuity and skill of the Romans in engineering, and of the nature volcanoes. I’m not technically minded but I found this more than interesting and added to my enjoyment of the book. I particularly liked mixture of fictional and historical characters and the inclusion of Pliny, then the Admiral of the Fleet, as he watched and recorded the progress of the eruption and the account of his death. But my favourite character is the hero of the book, Attilius – incorruptible, resourceful, stubborn, determined and an expert at his job. All in all I found the book brought history to life and I could feel the danger and fear as Vesuvius inevitably destroyed Pompeii.

This is Harris’s description of the horror of the impact of the eruption:

Pompeii became a town of perfectly shaped hollow citizens – huddled together or lonely, their clothes blown off or lifted over their heads, hopelessly grasping for their favourite possession or clutching nothing – vacuums supspended in mid-air at the level of their roofs.

This is the only book I’ve read by Robert Harris, but I would like to read more of his, particularly Imperium, again set in Ancient Rome and following the career of Marcus Cicero. I’d also like to read The Last Days of Pompeii, although I suspect I may not like the melodramatic style of this book by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton written in 1834, but it would be an interesting comparison.

A Splash of Red, Antonia Fraser

Jemima Shore, writer and presenter of the television programme “Jemima Shore Investigates” is flat-sitting for her friend Chloe Fontaine, also a writer. The block of flats is a controversial development in a large Georgian square close to the British Library, which is ideal for Jemima as she plans to spend most of her time there researching for her next novel. 

“The Splash of Red” is the title of an enormous painting of a woman’s figure, slurred with red, a painting by Chloe’s ex-lover Kevin John Athlone. The painting, hanging on the bedroom wall looks as though blood has been splashed on the wall. After Chloe leaves Jemima thinks she’ll take down the painting – she doesn’t need reminders of Kevin John and his violent relationship with Chloe. As Jemima settles down to enjoy her stay, alone in the flat apart from Tiger, Chloe’s long-haired golden cat, her peace is shattered by an anonymous threatening phone call.

From that point on the mystery deepens. Chloe has disappeared. Her parents were expecting to see her, but she didn’t arrive. Chloe had told Jemima she was off to the Camargue, to write an article commissioned by Isabelle Mancini, the editor of the magazine, ‘Taffeta’, but it turns out this was a lie. Jemima bothered by yet another threatening phone call is distracted from her own research and returns to the flat to find Chloe in a real splash of red – lying across the bed with her throat cut. I thought I’d worked out who had killed Chloe from the numerous suspects, but I was completely wrong – which was good as it meant that I read with anticipation and was surprised by the actual culprit.

Who is Chloe’s mystery lover, ‘the most divine angel in heaven’ and who is the ‘new angel’ in her life with whom she had a surprising casual or carnal encounter? Then there are a number of suspects –  Kevin John, her ex-lover; Adam Adamson, a squatter in the building and one of the objectors to Sir Richard Lionnel’s development of the concrete building that had replaced an elegant 18th century house; Sir Richard himself and his wife; Valentine Brightman, Jemima and Chloe’s publisher; and even Isabelle.

Jemima of course solves the mystery. This is the first Jemima Shore mystery I’ve read although I remember the TV series back in the 1980s with Patricia Hodge as Jemima. Now I’m going to have to add the other books to my ‘to be read’ list.

Keeping the World Away by Margaret Forster

Keeping the World Away

I expect a book by Margaret Forster to be good and this one is no exception. It is essentially the story of a painting, a variant of Gwen John’s The Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, as over the years it passes from one woman to another.


I knew very little about Gwen John before I read Keeping the World Away and now I want to know more. (Fortunately there is a list of books about her in the back of the book.)

The title of the book comes from a quotation from Gwen John’s Papers in the National Library of Wales:

“Rules to Keep the World away: Do not listen to people (more than is necessary); Do not look at people (ditto); Have as little intercourse with people as possible; When you come into contact with people, talk as little as possible … ” 3 March 1912

It seems from this novel that Gwen John was completely infatuated and in thrall to the artist Rodin. She became his lover and tried to please him by being tranquil and calm and striving for harmony in her life. Inwardly, however she “felt volcanic, as though burning lava filled her and would explode with the force of what was beneath it, her overwhelming passion for him.”

Her room was the image of how Rodin wished her to be and she painted a sunlit corner of it where it was “all peace and calm and serenity” in contrast to Gwen herself who “radiated energy”. She rearranged the room and painted several versions; with the window open, with an open book on the table, with flowers on the table, with and without the parasol.

I wished that the whole book had been about Gwen John. However, it’s about the painting and how its successive owners acquire it and what it means to each of them. It gets lost, is stolen, turns up on a market stall, is bought, given away and fought over. As each new owner is introduced there are links between them, but each time the painting passed to a new person I wanted to know more about each of them.

The painting is seen as expressing a yearning for something unobtainable, having an air of mystery, conveying a sense of waiting, of longing, of anticipation of someone’s arrival, painful, soothing or uplifting, empty, and symbolic of an independent, simple life free of entanglements. It becomes part of the lives of its owners. The novel starts with Gillian, the school girl reflecting that art speaks for itself, regardless of the artist’s intention. “She was convinced  that art should be looked at in a pure way, uninfluenced by any knowledge of the artist or the circumstances in which it had been painted.” It ends with Gillian, the aspiring artist, reflecting on the nature of art and the purpose of this painting – “Had that not been its purpose? To keep the world away, for a few precious moments, at least every time it was looked at?”

I can’t quite agree with Gillian. I can see that seeing a painting in isolation from the artist can be a pure experience, but I’m always filled with curiosity both about artists and authors – who they were, when they lived, what was going on in the world they lived in and how it affected their work. However, I also think that a painting is like a book in that they can both be interpreted in many ways regardless of the artist’s or author’s intentions.

This is a remarkable book, which I’m sure I shall read again and again.

(This book meets the criteria for the Celebrate the Author Challenge – Margaret Forster’s birthday is in May.)

“It is impossible to read too much” – Virginia Woolf

Catching up with books I read in January and February

We’re already into March and I still haven’t got round to writing about all the books I’ve read so far. I’ve read 16 books in total. Looking back at 2007 I’d also read 16 books and that was when I was when I had a full-time job, so being retired hasn’t resulted in more time to read books!

These are the books I haven’t written about:

The Man in the Picture: a Ghost Story, Susan Hill
This was a Christmas present. It’s a small book – in size and in length and I read it very quickly at the beginning of January. It starts with great promise of a sinister ghost story, set partly in Cambridge and partly in Venice. The narrator is having a meal with his old college professor one bitterly cold January evening, listening to a strange tale of a Venetian painting, of death and damnation. It’s really a novella and I was a bit disappointed that it was so short and although there is a good build up of atmosphere – dark places, a mysterious isolated country house and panic and terror in Venice – it didn’t send shivers down my spine.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
I don’t think I can do justice to this beautiful book in just a few words. Cassandra Mortmain is the narrator. She lives in a tumbledown castle miles from anywhere, with her family. There is her beautiful older sister, Rose, her once glamorous stepmother Topaz, her little brother Thomas and her eccentric father, who once wrote a novel. I love the opening of the book: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’

It’s written in such a seemingly simple style, but it captures so well the innocence and naivety of youth and hope for the future. It’s just, well, so English. I first read it as a teenager and it didn’t fail to live up to my memories of it. Definitely a book to re-read.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
This is a book that somehow I have never read until now. From the back cover I learnt that this is Mark Twain’s most popular book and I suppose the story is well known, although I knew nothing of it. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this book, from the episode of the whitewashed fence and the ordeal in the cave to the trial of Injun Joe. It’s an amusing tale with sombre undertones of the realities of adult life. A tale of superstitions, murder and revenge, starvation and slavery.

The Ropemaker, Peter Dickinson
I moved from one fantastic children’s book to another. This time by a modern author. This is truly a fantastic story of sorcerers, witches, magic and mystery. Put simplistically it’s a story about Tilja, Tahl and their respective grandmother and grandfather who are on a journey to save their homes from destruction. On a deeper level it’s about saving a way of life and relationships between people, about growing up, being rejected and feeling the responsibilities of power. If you like the tales of the power of magic and above all the mysteries of time – ‘the great rope of time‘ then you will like this book.

The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett – I shall write a separate post on this book.

A God Divided, Christopher Catherwood I only just finished reading this a few days ago and I need to think about it before putting down my thoughts. It’s sub-titled ‘Understanding the differences between Islam, Christianity and Judaism’.

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

My Celebrate the Author Challenge book for February was going to be one by Amy Tan or Alice Walker, who have birthdays in February. However, I was reading The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster, whose birthday is also in February, so I changed my list. That’s a good thing about this challenge – I don’t have to stick with the books I originally thought I was going to read. Somehow there is an obstacle in my mind about challenges. I love the idea of them and deciding what to read but when it gets to the time I’m ‘supposed’ to read a book for some strange reason I don’t want to read it. After all I’m reading for pleasure and I like to read as and when the fancy takes me – not to a fixed programme.

From the title The Book of Illusions I expected to be deceived, that people and events would not be as they seemed and I was not disappointed. This book is full of illusions. It tells the stories of two men, David Zimmer, a professor whose wife and two sons were killed in a plane crash and Hector Mann, a silent movie star who disappeared mysteriously in 1929. David is plunged into depression and ‘lived in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity’ until he watched a clip from one of Hector’s films. It made him laugh. He became obsessed with Hector, the man in the white tropical suit, with a thin black mustache, which Hector used as an ‘instrument of communication’, speaking a ‘language without words, its wiggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code – the mustache monologues.’ In typical silent movie style Hector with his slicked-back hair, thin and greasy little mustache and white suit is the target and focal point of every mishap.

David takes leave of absence from the university and studies Hector’s films, eventually writing a book about him, intrigued by his disappearance. Then he receives a letter from Hector’s wife, in which she reveals that Hector is alive and wants to meet David before he dies. He asks for proof that Hector is indeed alive. The rest of the novel reveals what happened to Hector and why he disappeared, in a series of melodramatic incidents. It’s a tense tale as David accompanied by Alma, directed by Hector to persuade David to visit him, rushes to the Blue Stone ranch in New Mexico, where he finds Hector on his deathbed, guarded by Frieda his wife who seems to resent David’s presence.

There are stories within stories; subterfuge, crime, shootings, issues of identity, love, death, disguises and deception abound in this book. A few quotes give the flavour:

‘The world was an illusion that had to be re-invented every day.’

‘I was writing about things I couldn’t see any more, and I had to present them in purely visual terms. The whole experience was like a hallucination.’

‘The world was full of holes – once on the other side of one of those holes, you were free of yourself, free of your life, free of your death, free of everything that belonged to you.’

‘Life was a fever dream – reality was a groundless world of figments and hallucinations, a place where everything you imagined became true.’

‘If I never saw the moon, then the moon was never there.’

Truly a book of illusions – about films that are in themselves illusions, the illusion that we can know another person, that there is a future, illusions about love, and identity – it moves in and out of reality. There are many layers to this novel; it’s a detective story with gothic overtones, a love story and a novel about the passing of the 20th century, ending as the last weeks of the century approach, that century which ‘no one in his right mind will be sorry to see end.’ It’s a circular story as well, ending with the hope that it ‘will start all over again.’