Country Dance by Margiad Evans: a short review

Country Dance by Margiad Evans, a novella, is set in the the border country between Wales and England in the late 19th century. It’s the story of Ann Goodman, the daughter of an English shepherd and a Welsh mother. It’s told in diary form, telling how she left her cousin’s farm, Twelve Poplars in Wales, for her parents’ home in England to look after her mother. She had promised Gabriel, an English shepherd working on her cousin’s farm that she would keep a diary of her visit to England.

Whilst in England her father’s employer, a Welsh landowner, Evan ap Evans, takes a fancy to her. When Gabriel visits her he is infuriated by Evan’s attentions to her, especially as they talk together in Welsh. And it is this relationship that sets in motion the conflict between the two men.

I was confused when I began reading, trying to work out these relationships and I wondered why Ann was living in Wales away from her parents – I don’t think that was ever explained. But anyway as she rejects both men this turns the book into a tragedy, with the English and the Welsh at each others’ throats, divided by language and profound misunderstandings. Ann, herself is equally torn between her dual heritage.

Whilst I didn’t love this book, I did enjoy reading it and would like to read more of Margiad Evans’ work.

Artist and writer Margiad Evans (Peggy Whistler) was born in Uxbridge in 1909. Her work includes Country Dance (1932); The Wooden Doctor (1933); Turf or Stone (1934), and Creed (1936), as well as non-fiction, short stories, autobiography and two collections of poetry, Poems from Obscurity (1947) and A Candle Ahead (1956). 

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Parthian Books (1 Dec. 2012)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 110 pages
  • My Rating: 3*

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Vintage Digital| Oct 2010| 210 pages| my own copy| 4*

I heard of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American years ago. So when it was on offer for 99p at Amazon three years ago I bought the e-book version, with an Introduction by Zadie Smith. It’s one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. The nudge to read it now came from FictionFan’s Wanderlust Bingo as it fits nicely into the Southeast Asia Square as it is set in Vietnam * (see below). I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Vietnam before so I enjoyed it for its setting in Saigon and a glimpse of the situation in Vietnam under French colonialism in the early 1950s.

There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as The Quiet American. (Extract from Zadie Smith’s Introduction)

The Quiet American was first published in 1955 and is about America’s early involvement in Vietnam. It’s only the second book of Greene’s that I’ve read. The main characters are a cynical British journalist, Thomas Fowler, Phuong, a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman who lives with him, and Alden Pyle, a young and idealistic American – the ‘Quiet American,’ of the title. Phuong’s sister is keen for her and Fowler to marry, but he has a wife in England, who won’t agree to a divorce. Matters between all three characters come to a head when Pyle falls in love with Phuong and wants to marry her.

The book begins with a death and then goes back to the events that led up to that death. Although there is plenty of action the book revolves around these three characters and their relationships. Fowler is tired and jaded, addicted to opium and the thought of losing Phuong forces him to face the possibility of a lonely and bleak future. She meets his needs and prepares his opium pipes for him. Pyle, on the other hand is bright, confident and optimistic, certain that he can offer Phuong a better future.

The Americans at this time were not actively involved in the war against the Vietminh and Pyle has been sent to promote democracy and combat communism through a mysterious ‘Third Force’. However he is naive and gets involved in violent action causing injury and death to many innocent people. At that point Fowler realises he has to intervene.

*I know very little about Vietnam and its history, before the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and was a little confused about what was happening during the period in which this book is set and the references to the Vietminh. So, I had to look it up – In the late 19th century Vietnam was controlled by the French. In September 1945 the Nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed its independence. From 1946 to 1954, the French opposed independence, and Ho Chi Minh led guerrilla warfare against them in the first Indochina War that ended in the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. (see Britannica)

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It was first published in 1967 and has since been republished a few times. The copy I read was published by Vintage in 1998. It’s a novella of 189 pages, with a list of characters at the beginning followed by a note, that indicates the truth of the story it tells is in question:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

On St Valentine’s Day in 1900, a party of nineteen girls accompanied by two schoolmistresses sets off from the elite Appleyard College for Young Ladies, for a day’s outing at the spectacular volcanic mass called Hanging Rock. The picnic, which begins innocently and happily, ends in explicable terror, and some of the party never returned. What happened to them remains a mystery.

I enjoyed it immensely. I love the detailed descriptions of the Australian countryside and the picture it paints of society in 1900, with the snobbery and class divisions of the period. It’s a hot day, the picnic at the base of Hanging Rock shaded from the heat by two or three spreading gums was going well, and while some of the party dozed in the sunshine four of the girls walked to the Rock to get a closer view. As they walked up to the pinnacles and crags the plain below came into sight, but infinitely vague and distant and a rather curious sound was coming up from the plain, like the beating of far off drums. They neared a monolith rising up in front of them and:

Suddenly overcome by an overpowering lassitude, all four girls flung themselves down on the gently sloping rock in the shelter of the monolith, and there fell into a sleep so deep that a horned lizard emerged from a crack to lie without fear in the hollow of Miranda’s outflung arm.

Nobody had noticed that one of the teacher had also left the picnic. The day ended dramatically when one of the girls ran screaming down to the plain, back to the picnic grounds. She had left the other three girls ‘somewhere up there’, but she had no idea where that was. Despite lengthy searches only one girl was found and she couldn’t remember what had happened. It was all very strange. There’s an eerie feeling hanging over the whole event – during the picnic two of the adults found that their watches had stopped at twelve o’clock and they had no idea of the time. It was as though time had been suspended.

It’s a deceptively simple story, but with so many layers and undercurrents, making this mysteriously compelling reading. All the characters are believable people, each with their own backstories, and all their lives are affected and changed by the events of that one day. There’s a dreamlike quality to the mystery and a suspicion of the supernatural surrounding it. I loved the ambiguity of it all.

This is a Novella in November contribution and also qualifies as an entry for AusReading Month 2021.

Short Classics: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

It’s the last week of Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca, and the final theme is short classics. The buddy read this week is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and I’ll post my thoughts later this week. Today my short classic is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, which won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.In 1954 Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1954 for his mastery of the art of narrative and for the influence that he had exerted on contemporary style.

Synopsis – This is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.

My thoughts:

A simple story on the surface, told in a few pages, yet full of depth. Hemingway’s language is direct and deceptively simple too, but I was drawn into his descriptive writing, almost a stream of consciousness in placea. I felt the exhaustion of the old man as he struggled to catch the enormous marlin and then to return to the shore with his catch.

It’s one of those books that I find so difficult to write about, a well known story that has received much praise and also a lot of criticism as some people find it boring.. There’s this old man alone on the sea pondering about life and death, what he has achieved and also his failures. He is at the end of his strength and yet he endures. He has perseverance and determination and pride. Pride in his ability and in his way of life. The matter of sin occupies his mind and he thinks it was a sin to kill the fish, even though he did it to keep himself alive and feed many people. Then he thought he was born to be a fisherman:

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

So, yes this is a simple tale and well told – it is more than just a fishing story and it gave me much to ponder.

Novellas in November: Translation Week: Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon, Translated by David Bellos

This week’s  Novellas in November is Translation Week and I’ve chosen Georges Simenon’s Pietr the Latvian, translated by David Bellos (165 pages). It is officially the first Maigret book, although it was originally published in instalments in the magazine Ric et Rac between July and October 1930.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jules Maigret is a Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad in Paris and we get a really detailed description of him – he was a broad heavy man, aged forty-five:

His clothes were well cut and made of fairly light worsted. He shaved every day and looked after his hands.

But his frame was proletarian. He was a big bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers.

He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.

It was something more than self-confidence but less than pride. He would turn up and stand like a rock with his feet wide apart. On that rock all would shatter, whether Maigret moved forward or stayed exactly where he was.

His pipe was nailed to his jawbone. (page 21)

He has received messages that Pietr the Latvian, an international criminal, is en route by train from the Netherlands to Paris. He has a description of Pietr and went immediately to the Gare du Nord to intercept him. But on spotting him he had to let him go because a man had been murdered on the train – and that man also matched Pietr’s description. From that point on. I became increasingly confused. Who is Pietr the Latvian? Was he the man who got off the train or the man who was murdered?

There are many characters and for quite a lot of the book I struggled to work out who was who. Maigret spends his time going from place to place and interviewing many people and I really had little idea of what was going on. The question of identity plays a major part. Pietr was thought to be the head of a major international ring mainly involved in fraud, counterfeit money and forged documents and his known associates seem to be mainly British and American. The setting in the 1930s is a mix of glamorous hotels and bars in Paris, seedy back streets, and the seaside town of Fécamp in Normandy. The book does feel dated now along with the anti-antisemitism some of the characters voiced.

If you haven’t read any of the Maigret books I suggest you start with one of the later books, which are much better. What I liked about it is that it establishes Maigret’s character and appearance right from the beginning. He feels like a real person with solidity and presence. He’s also tough, carrying on chasing around after Pietr even after he’s been shot. I think it’s an interesting story, in which a lot happens and even if I was mystified at first it did become clearer as I read on and I was pleased to find that I had worked out Pietr’s identity before it was revealed.

Pietr the Latvian is included in the Inspector Maigret Omnibus 1. The four titles are Pietr the Latvian, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, The Carter of ‘La Providence’, The Grand Banks Café.

Previously I’ve read:

and

Contemporary Novellas: Fludd by Hilary Mantel

A dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors

5*

Novellas in November began this week, hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. Each week they will take it in turns to host a “buddy read” of a featured book they hope you will join in reading – see their blogs for details.

The definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. The prompt for this week is contemporary fiction, defined as post 1980 and hosted by Cathy,

My choice this week is Fludd by Hilary Mantel, first published in 1989 by Viking. My copy, published in 2010 by Fourth Estate, has 181 pages followed by additional features at the end, including an About the Author section, and an interview with Hilary Mantel.

Description:

Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.

Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?

Full of dry wit, compassionate characterisations and cutting insight, Fludd is a brilliant gem of a book, and one of Hilary Mantel’s most original works.

My thoughts:

It is 1956, set in the north of England in the fictional village of Fetherhoughton, which is loosely based on the village where Mantel grew up. She was brought up as a Catholic and the idea for the story came from a conversation with her mother about her childhood. When she was around four the Bishop decreed that all the statues in the church were to be removed which annoyed the parishioners and she heard the adults talking about what to do with the statues. One suggestion was to bury them. Her mother also told her about a young priest, who everyone liked, and who disappeared. It was assumed that there was a girl involved. The two events combined in her mind and came out as this novel.

Mantel clarifies in a Note before the story begins that the church in Fludd bears some resemblance, but not much to the Roman Catholic Church in the real world. Fludd was a real person (1574 – 1637), a physician, scholar and alchemist and she adds that

In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.

This sets the scene for what follows – there is a mystery that lies beyond the visible world, miraculous things appear to happen and very ordinary things appear miraculous. There is a hint of the supernatural.

The story centres on Fludd, a young priest who comes to the Church of St Thomas Aquinas to help Father Angwin, a cynical priest who has lost his faith. The Bishop, a modern man, is concerned about Father Angwin and wants to bring him and the Catholic community up to date – so the statues in the church have to go. This has a most disturbing effect on all concerned – not just the church and Father Angwin, but also the the nuns in the convent, and the school, both under the stern eye of Mother Perpetua.

Fludd, himself is something of a mystery. When he eats the food disappears, but he is not seen eating. When he pours out whisky for Father Anwin the bottle always remains full. Strange things happen, a wart disappears from one character’s face and finds its way to another’s, one character apparently spontaneously combusts, another disappears and there’s a tobacconist who may or may not be the devil. The real question is just who is Fludd?

I enjoyed it all immensely – partly about religion and superstition, but also a fantasy, a fairy tale, told with wit and humour with brilliant characterisation.

Novellas in November: Novellas I’ve Read in Earlier Years

This is the first week of Novellas in November, hosted by Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books, and like Susan and Annabelle, I’m looking back at some of the novellas I’ve previously read.

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh – set in May 1593, it’s a tense, dramatic story of the last days of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet and spy. Accused of heresy and atheism, his death is a mystery, although conjecture and rumours abound. Louise Welsh has used several sources in writing this novella and it has an immediacy, that drew me in to the late Elizabethan world. It conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of danger surrounding Marlowe; who can he trust, and who is behind the pseudonym of ‘Tamburlaine’, who posted a libellous handbill referencing Marlowe’s plays? He has just three days to find the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer escaped from the pages of his most violent play, Tamburlaine.

The Beacon by Susan Hill – a compelling story, drawing a picture of a family, four children and their parents living in the Beacon, an old North Country farmhouse. It’s also full of tension, of unspoken feelings and emotions as each child, Colin, May, Frank and Berenice grow up and leave home. Except that May came back after a year at university in London, unable to cope with ‘the terrors’ that began to assail her.  As the years pass, May is left at home caring for her widowed mother, after she suffered a stroke. It’s a powerful book about truth and memory, about the ordinary everyday outer lives we  live and the inner turmoil and tensions within us. It’s also about what we make of our lives, how we express ourselves and about how other people see us.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote is a quick read and very entertaining. The narrator is not named, although Holly Golightly calls him ‘Fred’ after her brother. He’s a writer and at the beginning of the book he is reminiscing about Holly with Joe Bell, who ran a bar around the corner on Lexington Avenue. They hadn’t seen or heard from Holly  for over two years. She used to live in the apartment below Fred’s in a brownstone in the East Seventies in New York. Her past is almost as unknown as her present whereabouts. Holly is a free spirit, charming and carefree, but craves attention. She has a cat, plays the guitar and likes to live as though she’s about to leave – all her belongings still in suitcases and crates – and has a great many friends who she entertains with numerous parties. But her life is really a mystery and not all is as it appears on the surface, longing for something wonderful to happen.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck – I love this book. Steinbeck’s style is perfect for me, I could see Cannery Row itself, a strip of Monterey’s Ocean View Avenue, where the Monterey sardines were caught and canned or reduced to oil or fishmeal, along with all the characters – no, it was more than that -I was there in the thick of it, transported in my mind, whilst I was reading and even afterwards as I thought about the novel. There is humour and tragedy, meanness and generosity, life and death all within Cannery Row‘s 148 pages, full of fascinating characters including a group of down and outs, lead by Mack, the shop keeper, Lee Chong, who also owns the Palace Flophouse where he lets Mack and the boys live, Dora, a woman with flaming red hair, the madam who runs the Bear Flag Restaurant, Doc who lives and works at the Western Biological Laboratory and Henri the painter who is building and never finishing a boat.

Wycliffe and the Last Rites by W J Burley – set in Cornwall a bizarre murder shakes the village of Moresk. Arriving at church on Easter morning the vicar discovers the body of a woman sprawled across the chancel steps. To add to the horror, the church is filled with the discordant sound of an organ chord, the notes apparently chosen at random and wedged down.Detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe’s problem in finding the murderer is that all the possible leads pointed to a limited range of possible suspects but none of them matched his specification for the criminal. It seemed he had to believe the impossible. It’s a tightly plotted book, concisely and precisely written and I enjoyed it very much

Novellas in November 2021

I’ve collected together a selection of novellas in advance of Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck. These are all books of under 200 pages.

From top to bottom they are (I’ve given the actual page numbers in my copies):

  • Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge – 159 pages -literary fiction set In a remote cottage in Wales where two urban couples are spending their holiday with the idealistic owner and his protege. The beginning is idyllic but catastrophe lurks behind every tree.
  • The Great Divorce by C S Lewis – 118 pages – a fable and allegory in which the writer, in a dream, boards a bus on a drizzly afternoon and embarks on an incredible voyage through Heaven and Hell.
  • The Invasion of the Moon 1969: the Story pf Apollo 11 by Peter Ryan – 189 pages, non fiction about the flight of Apollo 11 and the men who went to the moon and back.
  • Rebus’s Scotland by Ian Rankin – 131 pages (not including the photographs). Ian Rankin’s guide to the places in Scotland that have provided inspiration for his bestselling Inspector Rebus novels.
  • The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch – 105 pages, philosophy – three essays, exploring questions of good and bad, and myth and morality.
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay 189 pages – a novel for the reader to decide if it’s fact or fiction. On St Valentine’s Day in 1900, nineteen girls and two schoolmistresses visit Hanging Rock. Some were never to return. 
  • On Chesil Beach 166 pages by Ian McEwan, It is July 1962. Edward and Florence, young innocents married that morning, arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their private fears of the wedding night to come. The events of that evening will haunt them for the rest of their lives. (This will be a re-read)
  • A Life of Walter Scott: The Laird of Abbotsford by A N Wilson 185 pages, ‘weaving together the life and the works, and discussing all Scott’s best-known books as well as many which are less familiar.

Novellas in November 2021

I’m glad to see that Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck are once again co-hosting Novellas in November as a month-long challenge with four weekly prompts. Each week they will take it in turns to host a “buddy read” of a featured book they hope we will join in reading.

They suggest 150–200 pages as the upper limit for a novella, and post-1980 as a definition of “contemporary.”

1–7 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson – including a giveaway of a signed copy!

8–14 November: Short nonfiction (Rebecca)

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free to download here from Project Gutenberg. Note: only the first 85 pages constitute her memoir; the rest is letters and supplementary material.)

15–21 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

22–28 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (free to download here from Project Gutenberg)

~~~

I enjoyed taking part last year so I’m looking forward to this year’s event. I read Ethan Frome in 2014 and loved it, so I think I’ll re-read it. Many years ago (I can’t remember when) I read a biography of Helen Keller, or it may even have been her autobiography, so I’ll have a look at that too. I also have several novellas on my TBR shelves to choose from.

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

This is another ‘catching-up’ post about a book I read a while ago. It’s one of my TBRs and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. It’s a novel with an under current of psychological suspense.

Description

Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naïve and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind …

My thoughts:

I read The Dressmaker because I’ve enjoyed other books by Beryl Bainbridge. It’s a novella, really, as it’s only 160 pages. I love her style, clear, concise prose, with fully realised characters and descriptive settings. It was first published in 1973 – my copy is a Fontana edition published in 1985.

The Dressmaker was runner up for the 1973 Booker Prize and also for the Guardian Fiction Prize. The Sunday Times, is quoted on the back cover: ‘ Like the better Hitchcock films Miss Bainbridge suggests a claustrophobic horror … An impressive, haunting book.’

It’s a wartime story of life in Liverpool in 1944, where Rita, aged 17, is living with her two middle-aged aunts, Nellie (shown on the cover of my 1985 copy) and Margo, also called Marge. Her mother had died in childbirth, and she had lived with them as her father, their brother Jack, was unable to bring her up whilst single-handedly running his butcher’s shop. Rita, although she knows he is her father, calls him ‘Uncle Jack’. She is naive and innocent, and after meeting Ira she fantasises about being a GI bride, but her aunts are not taken in by him and view him in a very different light. She dreams about life in America as Ira’s wife:

After the war he would take her to the States, and they’d have a long black car and a grand piano with a bowl of flowers on the table. There’d be a house with a verandah and wooden steps, and she would run down them in a dress with lots of folds in the skirt and peep-toed shoes. Auntie Nellie would tell Mrs Mander how well-off they were, how Ira cared for her, the promotion he kept getting at work. (page 59)

The opening chapter signals with the word ‘afterwards‘ that something significant had happened, but with no indication of what it was. It left me wondering where this book was going. At first it seemed a rather mundane story of everyday life, but as the story played out I began to feel it was leading up to a tragedy – something terrible was coming towards this working class family.

And indeed it was – and it was shocking, particularly given the domestic setting. It’s only with the final denouement that the mystery hinted at in the opening chapter is revealed in a savage and violent climax. Even though I was expecting a tragedy the actual nature of it took me totally by surprise.