The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I have been coveting a copy of The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham ever since I saw the gorgeous 2006 film adaptation starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. For the first half of the book I felt the film was very faithful to the novel, but towards the end a major difference arises which makes each little like the other.

The Painted Veil centres on the character Kitty Fane, a shallow socialite who marries Walter Fane, not because she loves him but simply to get away from her mother and be married before her younger sister. The fact that he’s a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong seems an added bonus to her for the extra distance it will put between herself and her family. Unsatisfied with her marriage to Walter, who is as devoted to her as a dog but so painfully reserved that she knows next to nothing about him, Kitty starts an affair with the charismatic Charles Townsend. When Walter discovers their relationship he is crushed and furious. He exacts a bizarre and horrible vengeance on Kitty by forcing her to accompany him to his new posting in a remote region of China which is in the grips of a cholera epidemic. Kitty fears he has done this in the hope that she will die, and becomes bitterly lonely and isolated until, subtly, something within her begins to change.

At times I found Maugham’s tone towards women and the Chinese a tad chauvinistic and confronting, but once I got past that I found it to be a beautiful novel. Bleak, but beautiful. As Kitty throws herself into charity work in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, she works on her inner self and attains a greater understanding of the world around her and how she has impacted on others. I enjoyed reading about her going through this process of self discovery and betterment.

I’m going to discuss the different endings in the book and the film now, so if you haven’t read or watched either skip past this bit to my favourite passages. In the film as Kitty begins to find an inner strength she and Walter fall deeply in love with each other, making his horrible death very poignant and tragic. In the book Kitty begins to have sympathy for but never falls in love with Walter, she acknowledges this a number of times leading up to and after his death. This gives the book a much bleaker tone. But I just can’t decide which ending I preferred, both left me in tears and both worked well. I think having seen and fallen in love with the film first it has a more special place in my heart, but reading The Painted Veil was an intense and moving experience.

My Favourite Passages:

“I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like some one who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel a new courage. I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.”

“She was accustomed to his habit of meeting with silence a statement which you would naturally expect to evoke an exclamation, but never had it seemed to her more devastating. He said nothing; he made no gesture; no movement on his face nor change of expression in his dark eyes indicated that he had heard. She felt suddenly inclined to cry. If a man loved his wife and his wife loved him, at such a moment they were drawn together by a poignant emotion. The silence was intolerable and she broke it.”

“Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whisky and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads to nowhither.”

Other Reviews:

A Book Blog. Period./Book-a-rama

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Teaser Tuesday: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“Walter looked at his guest with a cold and ironic gaze, but he was evidently not a little amused by him, and he made an effort to show a civil interest in topics of which Kitty was well aware he knew nothing. A faint smile lingered on his lips. But Kitty, she knew not why, was filled with awe. In the house of that dead missionary, over against the stricken city, they seemed immeasurably apart from all the world. Three solitary creatures and strangers to each other.”

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham p 79.

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Light Boxes by Shane Jones

The first time I heard about this surreal little gem of a novel was over at Savidge Reads, where Simon gave it a rave review. A visual, violent, unique, magical adult fairy tale? Sounds like Light Boxes is for me, I thought, so I immediately ordered myself a copy. And I’m so glad I did because I adored it.

The blurb on the back of the cover probably describes the plot of better than I can:

“The inhabitants of a closely knit town are experiencing perpetual February, and that means unending cold and darkness. It turns out that a godlike spirit, named February, is punishing the town for flying and bans flight of all kind, including hot air balloons and even children’s kites. It’s February who makes the sun nothing but a faint memory, who blankets the ground with snow, who freezes the rivers and the lakes. As the punishing weather continues, children go missing and adults become nearly catatonic with depression, all but giving up hope. But others find the strength to fight back – and launch a war against February.”

The novel is stitched together by the short accounts of many different characters, a la As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Sometimes a character only gives a sentence on an otherwise blank page, or at most talks for two pages.

The imagery in Light Boxes is absolutely visceral. Jones’ descriptions of the War Effort members in bird masks, or the dead bodies found with snow in their mouths, or the plague of moss that overtakes the town, or the painted on kites snaking up Belinda’s arms before she disappears evoked such clear images in my mind that it was like I was actually watching the story unfold in front of me. I don’t want to give away anything more about it because part of the book’s charm is its mystery, but I can’t recommend it enough.

Apparently Spike Jonze of the film Where the Wild Things Are is currently adapting the book into a movie, which sounds like such a great pairing that I’m already excited about seeing it. Also Jones’ second novel The Failure Six seems to have been released this year. It sounds great, but I’ll have to wait until The Book Depository stocks it, as it’s too expensive to ship to Australia from Fugitive State Press’ website.

Favourite Passages:

“Thaddeus, Bianca and Selah painted balloons everywhere they could. They pulled up floorboards and painted rows of balloons onto the dusty oak. Bianca drew tiny balloons on the bottom of tea-cups. Behind the bathroom mirror, under the kitchen table and on the inside of cabinet walls balloons appeared. And then Selah painted an intricate intertwining of kites on Bianca’s hands and wrists, the tails extending up her forearms and around her shoulders. How long will February last, Bianca asked, stretching her hands out to her mother, who was blowing on her arms. I really have no idea, said Thaddeus, who watched the snow fall outside the kitchen window. Finished, her mother said. You will have to wear long sleeves from now on. But you’ll never forget flight. You can wear beautiful dresses – that’s what you can wear. Bianca studied her arms. The kites were yellow with black tails. The color melted into her skin. A breeze blew over the fresh ink and through her hair.”

“One possibility is to attack with bees, I said. I could send thousands. The stings would force February to peel the clouds away. It’s an idea. It could work. I told this to Caldor Clemens while we sat in a balloon basket staring up at the sky, under where the two holes were rumored to be. The balloon itself rippled, was deflated around us on the snowy plains like a gown. Go ahead and send them, Clemens said. Thaddeus would try it. I tapped my head. A swarm of bees moved up my neck and formed a funnel extending skyward. The bees disappeared through the clouds, and there was a terrible buzzing sound. Then, seconds later, the funnel collapsed and thousands of dead bees rained from the sky and filled the basket. Their little bodies were hard and cold. Clemens stood there staring at me while I shielded myself from the falling, dying, bees. The sadness was overwhelming.”

Other Reviews:

Simon at Savidge Reads/Bart at Bart’s Bookshelf

Links:

Shane Jones’ website

Teaser Tuesday: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

“For worse, far worse to me than John’s assaults on my ears, the primary sounds so to speak, were the secondary ones: the gigglings, whisperings and chokings of Larry and the Contessa across the table, too intimate to break into, too murmured to penetrate. For a woman with as piercing a shriek as the one the Contessa normally employed for her conversations, her soft register was remarkable. It required every ounce of my agonized concentration to decipher on-tenth of the words. She was apparently inviting Larry to a gas-chamber. “It will be enormous,” she whispered. “Oh yes, I intend to kill off a-very-one. Hundreds of them. Oh three or four hundred at least. Do come. In some minutes now I will give you the address.””

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy p 78.

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

I first heard about this incredible book over at Savidge Reads and I thought it sounded amazing, so I popped my name on the reserve list for it at the library. O’Farrell’s writing is so beautiful and evocative and I think the way she links the stories of two women from different times in The Hand that First Held Mine is really well crafted.

The book switches back and forth between London in the 1950s and the present day. The chapters set in the past focus on Lexie, a recent graduate who moves to Soho to escape her small home town and soon embarks on a passionate love affair with Innes, a married man whose malevolent wife refuses to divorce him. Lexie is unnerved by Innes’ daughter, who blames Lexie for her father’s absence and threatens to make her pay. In the present day Elina has recently gone through a birth so difficult that she almost died. She and her boyfriend Ted are struggling to cope with looking after a newborn. Just when Elina begins to find it more manageable Ted starts to fall apart, becoming distant and suffering from some strange neurological symptoms.

Throughout the novel I was trying to work out what the connection was between the two stories, other than the physical connection of them both taking place in London. When it was finally revealed I was so taken aback, I had not seen it coming at all. I think that when a twist is a total surprise like that it’s a sign of a great book.

Lexie is such a great character, I instantly took to her. She’s unconventionally strong and independent for a woman living in the 50s and so likeable. Elina is a good character too and her struggles with her new baby are written in a way to evoke a lot of sympathy without being depressing. The descriptions of the baby and caring for it are alternatively touching and terrifying (to me anyway!).

I’m really looking forward to reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox next by O’Farrell.

Favourite Passages:

“She moves the rattle from side to side and the coloured beads ricochet around inside their clear globes. The effect on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide, his lips part in a perfect round O. It is as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being, with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. She shakes it again and again and the baby’s limbs move like pistons, up, down, in, out. She thinks: this is what mothers do.”

“He saw that Elina had lived everywhere, all over the world, that she arrived and left and moved on. That secret thing she had, what she did up there with her paints and her turpentine and her canvases – she only needed that, she didn’t lack anything else, any anchor, any gravity. And he saw that if he didn’t take hold of her, if he didn’t tether her down, if he didn’t bind her to him, she would be off again. And so he did it. He laid hold of her and he held on tight; he sometimes pictures this as him tying the string of a balloon to his wrist and getting on with his life while it floats there, just above his head.”

“She is twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two. She is wearing a blue cotton dress with red buttons. A yellow scarf holds back her hair. She is marching across the patio and she is holding a book. In her bare feet she stamps down th steps and across the lawn. She doesn’t notice the seagull, which has turned in the air to look down on her, she doesn’t notice the trees, which are tossing their branches to herald her arrival, she doesn’t even notice the baby as she sweeps past the pram, heading for a tree stump at the bottom of the garden. She sits herself down on this tree stump and, attempting to ignore the rage fanning through her veins, she balances the book on her lap and begins to read.”

Links:

Maggie O’Farrell’s Official Site.

Other Reviews:

Savidge Reads

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier follows 23-year-old Mary Yellan as she carries out her mother’s dying wish that she seek out and live with her Aunt Patience. Mary makes a sad journey across the bleak moorland of Cornwall to reach Jamaica Inn, her aunt’s home. The coachman warns her against going to Jamaica Inn, telling her that “Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica any more… We whip the horses past and wait for nothing.”

When Mary arrives she encounters her uncle Joss, who quickly establishes himself to be an intimidating, drunken brute. Aunt Patience is no longer the smiling woman of Mary’s childhood memories, but a beaten-down, half-mad, cowering person who has aged beyond her years. Mary decides against fleeing, and stays at Jamaica Inn for the sake of Patience, hoping to eventually convince her to run away. But soon she discovers her uncle’s violent secret; he is much more than a mere brute.

I’ve tried not to reveal too much about the main plot points, since I think if I had known more about the story I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much. Du Maurier did a great job of establishing the setting, her descriptions of the desolate moors surrounding the inn enhanced the book’s gothic feel. The violent characters of Jamaica Inn and the prominence of the moors reminded me a lot of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Mary’s romance in the book is an unusual one, in that it was not made very prominent and both Mary and du Maurier dealt with the relationship with a clear cynicism of romance in general. I liked this, I felt it suited both the tone of the book and the natures of the characters involved. Mary knows courtship will be replaced by the mundanity of married life, with the man “calling sharply that his supper was burnt, not fit for a dog, while the girl snapped back at him from the bedroom overhead, her figure sagging and her curls gone, pacing backwards and forwards with a bundle in her hands that mewed like a cat and would not sleep… No, Mary had no illusions about romance. Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all.”

Du Maurier drew inspiration for the novel from her visit to the real Jamaica Inn in the 20s. It still stands today, catering to tourists with ghost tours and a smuggling museum.

Don’t read Jamaica Inn with the expectation of it being as good as Rebecca. It isn’t. But if you can appreciate it for what it is and not force it to stand in the immense shadow of du Maurier’s most-loved work, it’s an excellent, gripping read.

Links:

Jamaica Inn.

Other Reviews:

Things Mean A Lot/A Striped Armchair.

Broken Colors by Michele Zackheim

In Broken Colors Michele Zackheim tracks the life of Sophie Marks, a fictional English painter. The novel begins with Sophie’s childhood, spent with her bohemian grandparents; one a poet and the other a painter. Their existence during this time is idyllic and filled with colour, poetry and nature. But before long World War II breaks and a tragedy befalls the Marks family that Sophie will spend the rest of her life struggling to live with.

Zackheim paints a rich story that deals with love, death and grief with complexity and in vivid, emotional prose. While Sophie’s story is at times horrific, Zackheim’s writing is so expert and so beautiful that the novel is moving without being overwhelmingly depressing.

Some of my favourite passages:

“She began to hire models. Like her grandfather, Sophie was interested not in pretty people, but in people with the world in their eyes. After the war they were certainly easy enough to find: in soup kitchens, sleeping in doorways, sweeping the streets… She was moved to paint the moisture that was pooling at the corners of an old woman’s hungry mouth. She painted the expressive fear in a man’s eyes, using a modeled black, with highlights of zinc white; she painted the benevolence that a charwoman was revealing toward an unfair world, not using black at all, but instead a burnt sienna to tone down the emotion. They spoke to her while she painted. Their stories, their opinions, their dreams – all helped Sophie construct their portraits.”

“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” (Quoting Anais Nin.)

Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard

Bard falls in love, consumes delicious food and alternatively battles and embraces French culture in Lunch in Paris. A simple concept, but one foodies, travel buffs, romantics and the French crazed will enjoy. Each chapter is punctuated with several recipes, which I must admit, not being much of a cook, I usually skipped over.

An American in London, Bard begins a fling with a Frenchman – hopping on the Eurostar after work each Friday for a weekend in Paris. Eventually her romance with Gwendal becomes more serious, she moves there and they become engaged. Hilarious accounts of cross-cultural marriage incidents ensue:

“Gwendal is expanding his range in English. Although he is used to giving straight-laced scientific papers at international conferences, his colloquial English is a mix of spaghetti Westerns, Fred Astaire and early Beatles lyrics. One evening when I was making dinner, Gwendal decided to scrub down the bathroom. He emerged with a bottle of Ajax in one hand and a sponge in the other. “That was some dirty bathroom,” he said, leaning against the door like John Wayne surveying the landscape from the porch of a saloon…

I have to censor myself. I never noticed the way I spoke English until I had someone mimicking me like a parrot. My vocabulary is a disorganised closet full of fifties slang and phrases plucked from my favourite nineteenth-century novels… I’ll be on the phone… gossiping about an old friend. “I don’t know what she thought of him, but clearly he thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas.”

“The cat’s pajamas,” said Gwendal later that night. “Can I use that?

“Not unless you want to get your ass kicked.””

Lunch in Paris is not the book for you if you’re on a diet. It made me crave wine; a couple of glasses of it seemed necessary while reading about Bard’s journey. It made my stomach growl. It made me want to bake. The following is one of many passages from the book that provoked my hunger:

“When le dessert finally arrives, it looks like an innocent upside down chocolate cupcake, accompanied by a small cloud of freshly whipped cream. But when my spoon breaks the surface, the chocolate centre flows like dark lava onto the whiteness of the plate. The last ounce of stress drains from my body… the menu says Moelleux au Chocolat Kitu.”

Light, funny and mouth watering, Lunch in Paris is a satisfying trip through France.

Links:

Elizabeth Bard’s Blog

The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

The gorgeous cover art and silver-edged pages of The Girl with Glass Feet was enough to pique my interest. On the back cover Patrick Ness described it as “a rare orchid of a book, beautiful and eccentric and exquisitely sad.” I picked it up anticipating something wonderful. But while it came close, in some ways it missed the mark for me and I have found it difficult to put my finger on why.

The Girl with Glass Feet opens with Midas chasing the perfect photo in the woods near Ettinsford, on the fictional St Hauda’s Land. A photographer, Midas copes with the word by seeing it through a camera’s eye. In the woods he comes across Ida, who once was a free spirit but is now anchored down by a foot condition. One night while she sleeps Midas peeks under her socks to discover that her feet are turning into glass:

“Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass. Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease between the joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bed sheet diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet… those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialized faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily white and precise near her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in denser layers. In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places in the glass where the petrification was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there a fine blonde hair.”

As their relationship blossoms Midas begins to reveal the emotional issues he has as a result of his cold, cruel father; he doesn’t want to be like him,  and yet as a result of him he has difficulty being close to anyone. Ida opens up to Midas about her feet, and he tries to help her by going to see the mysterious Henry Fuwa, who she thinks might know something about her condition because of his contact with another highly unusual, secret, magical aspect of St Hauda’s Land: palm-sized, flying cattle:

“It had butterfly wings, like flakes of patterned wax. Under the wings it had a hairy body with tiny horns. Its fur looked very dry in the hot summer rays. It had an ox’s head, no bigger than her thumbnail, with a pink muzzle drawn into a grimace. A white splodge between its nostrils. The impossible detail of a scar on its bottom lip. There was warmth and a heartbeat in its body like that of a newly hatched chick.”

As the passages I’ve selected show, in The Girl with Glass Feet Shaw has created a poetic, imaginative novel. It also has a very strong sense of place with regular descriptions of the cold, marshy, rocky, boggy island. But as it gained momentum I started to feel a little disappointed with it, I just wasn’t enjoying it as much anymore and I think the problem was there was too much going on and too much of a focus on the past. Shaw goes into not only Midas’ parents’ back story, but also Ida’s, whose parents’ history is somewhat similar to Midas’ in some respects, making the novel a bit repetitive. Its inclusion was unnecessary to Ida’s character development. Carl Maulsen, who is obsessed with Ida’s dead mother, who married someone else, also plays a significant part in the story. But I would have liked Shaw to include less of Maulsen and Ida’s parents and more of Henry Fuwa and the cattle.  I loved the sections these fairy-like cattle featured in, and Shaw brought them to life so effectively that I think they merited a larger role.

While The Girl with Glass Feet has its flaws, but I still highly recommend it and am glad to have read it. It is an extraordinary book and quite an accomplishment for a debut author.

Links:

Ali Shaw’s Website.

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher is a memoir I’ve long been keen to read, due to both the book’s hilarious cover and being a Star Wars fan (I even had a Star Wars themed dress up party when I was a child). After reading Emily’s review of it at Books, The Universe and Everything last month,  I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer. And a good thing too because I enjoyed Wishful Drinking so much that I read it in one sitting, chuckling all the way through.

Fisher gives a humorous account of her life; from being raised by two Hollywood celebrities (Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher), to her experiences on the set of Star Wars, struggles with addiction, tumultuous love life and experiences with bipolar. Since Singin’ in the Rain is one of my favourite movies, I really enjoyed reading Fisher’s stories about Reynolds and getting a sense of what she is really like. Also I loved how Fisher dished the dirt on various celebrities, including Chevy Chase and Elizabeth Taylor. So many stories in Wishful Drinking made me laugh, but I’ll leave them for you to discover if you read it, and instead leave you with a few of my favourite quotes:

“Anyway at a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“Right after I got sober (the first time), an interviewer asked me if I was happy, and I said, “Among other things.” Happy is one of the many things I’m likely to be over the course of a day and certainly over the course of a lifetime. But I think if you have the expectation that you’re going to be happy throughout your life – more to the point if you have a need to be comfortable all the time – well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.”

Other Reviews:

Books, The Universe and Everything

Let’s Eat, Grandpa! Let’s Eat Grandpa! (Punctuation Saves Lives)

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi is transfixing, disturbing and unnerving. Oyeyemi’s talents are very impressive.

The novel focuses on Miranda Silver, who has run away, barefoot, into the night. Narrating the events leading up to her disappearance (or escape?) are her twin brother Eliot, friend Ore and the spirit of her malevolent mansion. We learn all has not been well with Miranda: her mother has died, her appetite for non-nourishing items such as chalk and plastic is wasting her away (a condition called pica) and she has a strong sense of the spirit world.

I read the first 100 pages of White is For Witching while suffering from heavy allergies and drinking two glasses of a light red wine (not a sensible combination I know). The combination of the alcohol, the allergies and the sheer atmosphere of madness the novel creates through its content and experimental structure made me feel really weird – a bit sick, and I didn’t sleep well that night.

This experience probably effected my enjoyment of the novel. I put it down for a few days but when I picked it up again I started to get into it more. I think it’s a really striking and well-crafted book, but definitely something you must be in the right mood for. I was impressed to learn the author is only 24-years-old. She has two prior novels; The Icarus Girl and The Opposite House, which apparently deal with similar themes to White is for Witching: family relationships, hauntings, superstition and madness.

Other reviews:

Eva at A Striped Armchair/Paperback Reader/Jenny’s Books/Bird Brain(ed) Book Blog

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Having gorged myself on a literary diet of predominately young adult and vampire fiction for the past few months, last week I felt it was time for another classic. I’ve always wanted to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and was lusting after the pictured new penguin classics hardcover edition, so I settled on it. Hardy’s gorgeous writing, tragic heroine and moving story did not disappoint.

All I’d ever heard about the plot of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was that involves a rape, and I  assumed wrongly that this was to be the crux of the story.  Tess of the D’Urbervilles opens on John Durbeyfield’s discovery that, despite his current poor state, his ancestors were the D’Urbervilles, who are descendants of one of the Knight of The Royal Oak, and that Durbeyfield is a corruption of this grand name. He informs his family and, following a tragic event further depleting the Derbeyfield’s income, his wife hatches a scheme to send his daughter Tess to a nearby rich branch of D’Urbervilles to claim kinship and hope for help in forging an advantageous marriage. In doing so Tess is put at the mercy of the abhorrently amoral Alec D’Urberville, who takes advantage of her situation and forces himself upon her, obliterating her maidenhood and perhaps any chance she had of happiness in her conventional society.

Challenging conventional values is a major concern of Hardy’s and he uses Tess’ fall to call them into question. The following passage conveys both this theme and the rich writing he utilises to convey it:

“A wet day was the expression of irremediable grief  at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend as any other. But this encompassment of her own characterisation, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’ fancy  – a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she was terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she. Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. But all the while she was making a distinction where there was no difference. Feeling herself in antagonism she was quite in accord. She had been made to break a necessary social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly.”

Years pass and eventually Tess takes a position as a milkmaid at Talbothays Diary, set in a luscious part of the country side. There she finds relative mental peace, until attraction blooms between her and Angel Clare, a pastor’s son learning the art of farming. Hardy’s descriptions of the settings in the narrative are always artful, but never more than at Talbothays Dairy, where he mingles love with milking cows, leafy green trees, vast pastures and the hum of nature. Here are two of my favourite passages from the section:

“They met continually; they could not help it. They met daily between that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet or pink dawn; for it was necessary to rise early, so very early here. Milking was done betimes; and before the milking came the skimming, which began at a little past three… The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degrees of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of the evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse. Being so often – possibly not always by chance – the first two persons to get up in the dairy-house, they seemed to themselves the first persons up of all the world. In these early days of her residence here Tess did not skim, going outside at once after rising, where he was generally awaiting her. The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead, impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve.”

“How very loveable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation. And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth. To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. He had never before seen a woman’s teeth and lips which forced upon his mind with such a persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filed with snow. Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand. But no – they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.

But how will Tess’ past affect Angel’s feelings? Should she tell him of her violation at the hands of D’Urberville?

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver by Lois Lowry

As The Giver begins, the protagonist Jonas’ community seems almost perfect; its citizens are polite to a tee, are required to talk openly about their feelings to promote emotional well being and seem to be without a care in the world. Gradually more disturbing aspects of the society become apparent; citizens have very little choice over the direction their lives will take, at twelve they are assigned careers and later in life spouses. They do not give birth to their own children, but take medication to suppress their sexual urges and apply to The Committee to be allocated children, who are born by women given the role of  Birthmothers. The children never meet their true mothers or know which other children have the same Birthmother as them. Each live with a sibling also not related to them by blood in their assigned family unit. Once children move out of their family homes the “parents” go and live with the Childless Adults and after that they live in The House of the Old, where the elderly are looked after, but also physically disciplined when naughty.

Despite all of this people are very content – the only complaint ever made is how hard it is to change any of the society’s rules. The source of this widespread happiness becomes clear when Jonas is chosen as the community’s new Receiver of Memory when he turns twelve and is allocated a career. The Receiver of Memory’s job is to hold all the memories of the past, spanning back prior to the establishment of the community, on the behalf of its citizens, bearing the burdensome pain of wisdom and knowledge of both the good and painful events of the past. The Receiver has this role so that when the community is faced by a problem The Committee can turn to him for advice in light of his knowledge of the past. The current Receiver, an elderly man, becomes The Giver when he begins to train Jonas in preparation for his lonely task and transmits memories to him.

Lowry’s simplistic and direct writing is perfect for younger readers, but despite using a stark style Lowry manages not to lose any of the story’s appeal to adults; it almost makes the dark themes more disturbing somehow to have them presented so simply.

 

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I wish I’d had the time to post about Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates immediately after reading it because now, a month later, it’s nowhere near as fresh in my mind. At the beginning of the year I bought a copy after watching the movie left me in tatters, for months after that it sat untouched on my shelf because I knew it would be a heavy-going experience emotionally, so I was waiting for the right mood. I was right, it did turn out to be an oppressive and upsetting read. But it was definitely worth it, Yates’ writing is so beautifully crafted and he depicts the characters in such a realistic way, to the point that at times his descriptions are downright nasty.

The story revolves around the Wheelers’ tragic marriage in 1950s American suburbia. From the outside everything seems perfect; Frank is known for his cleverness, April is a beautiful housewife and together they have two young children; a boy and a girl. But they’ve both always assumed they were destined for great things and are bitter at the turns their lives have taken. They plot an escape to Paris to save themselves from a life of mediocrity, and from there things start to crumble for the Wheelers.

I’ve read a few reviews of the book and many readers seem to find all the characters completely repulsive and can’t empathise with them at all because of the abhorrent, selfish things they do. But to me they felt like real people and I can’t help but feel an incredible sympathy for them all, trapped by society, their choices and their own shortcomings and ultimately meeting a tragic end through attempting to change their lot in life. To me Revolutionary Road is a critique of 50s society; a study of a marriage and a warning against conventional gender roles and the importance of women having other options in life than getting married and starting a family. I finished it at midnight one night and felt so shaken by it I had to watch a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother in order to get to sleep. It really falls into the “books that wound and stab us” category Kafka so highly recommended.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book:

“Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort. ‘Synchronize watches at oh-six-hundred’, says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of brining two tiny pointers into jewelled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead: the prosaic, civilian looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control. Good, it counsels. Looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time.”

“I had this idea there was this whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere ahead of me as the seniors of Rye when I was in sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I’d been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they’d know it too. I’d be like the ugly duckling among the swans… It’s the most stupid, ruinous kind of self-deception there is, and it gets you into nothing but trouble.”

“Oh for a month or two, just for fun, it might be alright to play a game like that with a boy; but all these years! And all because, in a sentimentally lonely time long ago, she had found it easy and agreeable to believe whatever this one particular boy felt like saying, and to repay him for that pleasure by telling easy, agreeable lies of her own, until each was saying what they other one most wanted to hear – until he was saying “I love you” and she was saying “Really I mean it; you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” What a subtle, treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way!”

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

My mum and my sister have been telling me for years that I MUST read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. “Oh yeah? What’s that one about again?” I would ask, with one of them replying with something along the lines of “Well it’s about killer plants…” before quickly insisting that this didn’t mean it was silly. I finally picked The Triffids up in August and found myself totally captivated, finishing it in one day.

Killer plants are a large part of The Triffids, but it’s far more multifaceted than that. A supposed comet causes a spectacular light show, only to plummet the world into darkness; the intense light has left the majority of the population blind. The sightless stumble the streets in hysterics, desperate for food. At first many die in the ensuing violence, are killed in tragic accidents, like mistaking windows for doors, others, not willing to live in perpetual darkness, suicide. The seers and the blind that survive the first few days find themselves in perpetual danger from a new and unusual threat. Without the power of sight mankind is left at the mercy of the triffids, plants that were created via genetic engineering in Russia and prior to the disaster were harvested commercially across the globe for their oils. The triffids are not your average plants, they are about six-feet tall, able to hobble along on their roots, and are equipped with poisonous, whip-like stingers that lash out at high speeds and reach several feet. Once a triffid has stung it will sit by its victim for days as the body decays, digesting bits of rotting flesh. The novel follows Bill Masen, one of the few whose sight remains intact, and his struggle to survive.

The Triffids was first published in the ’50s, and true to its era it oozes heavy themes of Cold War paranoia. Not only are the Russians responsible for the creation of the triffids, but Masen reveals that prior to the disaster people were living in constant fear of weaponry satellites circling the earth, created as a part of the arms race: “It was by no means pleasant to realise that there was an unknown number of menaces up there over your head, quietly circling and circling until someone should arrange for them to drop – and there was nothing to be done about them. Still, life has to go on – and novelty is a wonderfully short-lived thing. One became used to the idea perforce.”

Despite the heavy contextual impact of the Cold War, The Triffids has stood the test of time because Wyndham’s story is one of human nature and survival; ageless themes contemporary authors continue to wrestle with. It has influenced post apocalyptic writers for the past five decades and as a result its traces can be seen in many modern works (The Happening, I Am Legend, The Handmaid’s Tale…). Wyndham might have been preoccupied with the events of the ‘50s, but he also managed to foreshadow modern concerns about genetic engineering and bio warfare, increasing the text’s longevity even further.

All of this aside, The Triffids is simply so well written. Wyndham paints a vivid, thrilling, disaster story that successfully walks the line between frightening and funny without ever becoming overwhelmingly dark; a fate many post-apocalyptic works often succumb to.

I’m dying to read more of Wyndham’s works, and next on my list is The Chrysalids, which, according to Wikipedia, some fans consider his finest work.