“Most fairy tales begin with an act of cruelty; gingerbread houses, someone abandons a child in the forest or whatever, but this one begins with an act of kindness — a man saving a swan.” Patrick Ness said of his latest novel The Crane Wife at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the 25th of May.
Kindness is among many reoccurring themes in The Crane Wife, which Ness described at the festival as a “fantasia” based on a Japanese folk tale that he was introduced to as a child. In Ness’ tale, George, a mild-natured, 40-something divorcee, is drawn out of his bed in the middle of the night by a keening sound, that “tore at his heart like a dream gone wrong, a wordless cry for help that almost instantly made him feel inadequate to the task, helpless to save whatever was in danger, pointless even to try.”
But try he did, racing out into his back garden half dressed, to find a magnificent crane with an arrow shot through its wing. He helps it — it flies off. As this seems a somewhat an unlikely occurrence in a small back garden located in the outer suburbs of London, everyone George tries to tell about the crane suspects he dreamt it.
George goes back to his life managing a printing shop and amusing himself by making small, artistic cuttings out of old book covers. Until the striking, mysterious Kumiko enters his shop one day, and they begin a relationship.
As an artist, Kumiko collaborates with George by fusing his book cover cuttings with her elaborate artworks made of fine white feathers. Together they begin to make quite a lot of money.
Kumiko has an almost magical presence, even George’s daughter Amanda is somewhat mystified by her, though she is uncertain of the speed at which Kumiko and George’s relationship seems to be moving.
George is close to his daughter Amanda, who at the festival Ness described as “kind without being nice, which is so interesting to me.”
Amanda has a hard time connecting with others, mostly due to a tendency to say the wrong thing at the worst moment, and what George describes as a “slash and burn” approach to trying to find herself as she moves through life. I found Amanda to be a fantastic character; frustrating, heart-jerking but very real.
As time continues to pass, Kumiko remains mysterious, and George becomes greedy for more knowledge of her. He wants to be able to place her, he is upset by the idea that there seems to be so much more for him to learn about her, and she is evasive about her past, laughing: “’I do not like talking of myself so much. Let it be enough that I have lived and changed and been changed. Just like everyone else.’”
The story is interspersed with another tale of a crane and a volcano in love, and the destruction that their love brings.
When he spoke at the festival last weekend, Ness said:
“When you fall in love you’re writing a story about someone and hoping they’re writing the same story about you.” Ness concerns himself with truth, stories and perspective heavily in this tale-within-a-tale, in which Kumiko explains to George: “’…Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’”
But George cannot bring himself to be satisfied with the story, to merely live with the extraordinary. The result is a tragic and moving, in this intricate novel that concerns itself with what it is to love, and how knowledge, power, possession and kindness interconnect with it.
This is my third Hardy novel, but I’m getting the feeling I should have stopped after my first. Both A Pair of Blue Eyes and Far from the Maddening Crowd are very different to the more nuanced, and at times dark, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The former two read more like very typical Victorian-era, romantic fiction, where as the latter is much richer in both its content and gorgeous prose.
That said, I enjoyed A Pair of Blue Eyes much more than Far From the Maddening Crowd. The heroine Elfride Swancourt (who was based on Hardy’s first wife Emma Gifford) is flawed, but immensely likeable. The male leads are slightly annoying though, especially Henry Knight and his rather possessive and condescending nature. Knight’s views on women certainly highlight the oppressive and sexually-prejudiced atmosphere women existed in during that time. His attitude comprises one of the main themes of the novel and provides plenty of material that will aggravate modern readers, but is interesting from a theoretical perspective.
The bulk of the plot was pretty predictable and didn’t really grasp my attention that well. But this meant I was taken by complete surprise when Hardy chose to end the story in a way totally contrary to my expectations, which I loved.
Best. Concept. Ever. Stealing the blurb from the back cover, Zombies vs Unicorns is “a short story feud that pits horned beasts against the shuffling undead.” A great group of authors have contributed stories about unicorns and zombies to this anthology, with the aim of convincing the reader that either stories about zombies or unicorns are better. Editors Larbalestier (Team Zombie) and Black (Team Unicorn) punctuate the collection with commentary about the mythical origins and influences behind each story, while also arguing why their fantastical creature is far more entertaining to read about. The result: a hilarious, whimsical and poignant collection of short fiction.
I won’t describe every story in the book, the other excellent posts linked below have already done this and I’m feeling lazy today. But I think overall I enjoyed the stories about unicorns better than the stories about zombies. So I hereby pronounce myself Team Unicorn. My favourite short story in each category was:
1. TEAM UNICORN: Purity Test by Naomi Novik
I absolutely could not stop laughing when I was reading this one. A practical unicorn defies convention and seeks out a non-virgin, modern girl to aid him in his quest to rescue baby unicorns at risk of being sacrificed.
“”So what do you need a virgin for?”
“Do you see hands at the ends of these?” the unicorn said.
Alison cracked open an eye enough to see that yes, the unicorn was still there, and it was waving a silver hoof in her face. There wasn’t any dirt on the hoof, even though the unicorn was standing in the middle of a torn-up meadow.
“What does being a virgin have to do with opposable thumbs?” she said.
“Nothing! the unicorn said. But will anyone else in the herd listen to me? Of course not! They go off and grab the first thirteen-year-old who coos at them, and then it’s all, “Their purity will lead the way,” blah, blah, blah. Lead the way to a whole bunch of dead baby unicorns maybe. I want a little more competence in my heroine.””
2. TEAM ZOMBIE: Bougainvillea by Carrie Ryan
I loved this story about the daughter of a dictator in control of the island Curacao, a settlement closed to the outside world that shoots down refugees in order to remain safe from the zombie infection. Fifteen-year-old Iza struggles with her father’s power over both her and everyone around her, before discovering that she can be a powerful woman in her own right. Iza’s loneliness and isolation dominates the mood of Bougainvillea, giving the piece of short fiction a moving quality.
In short, Zombies vs Unicorns is completely amazing . Thanks to it I now have a whole bunch of new-to-me authors to try out. And I’ve already ordered a copy to give to a friend for Christmas.
In order to relive my November trip to South East Asia, I decided to bump The Beach by Alex Garland up my to-be-read list. It’s told from the first-person perspective of Richard, a gap year student in Thailand. When a half-crazed Scotsman named Daffy gives Rich a map to a hidden island, he and some fellow travellers decide to set out in search of it. Once they reach the secluded island and join its commune they declare it to be Eden, and do their best to forget about The World. But as tensions arise in the community and too many drugs start to distort Richard’s view of the Thai paradise, it begins to turn into a nightmare.
What struck me most about The Beach was the social anxiety constantly underlying the action. From the very beginning Richard puts a strong focus on recounting the reactions of all the other characters to everything he says or does, he details his often petty reasons for disliking someone and retells every social misunderstanding. This added to the tense atmosphere of the book and put me on edge. As the drama on the island begins to escalate so too does Richard’s tendency towards social anxiety, until he becomes very paranoid.
I also found Richard’s fascination with the Vietnam War interesting, he begins by just making occasional references to films set in the war, but as the novel progresses he actually starts referring to people as VCs (Viet Congs) and wandering around thinking in army speak.
As you may have guessed by now, seeing the beach from inside Richard’s head isn’t always a comfortable experience. On top of all of his other quirks, he suffers from vivid and violent dreams, which later progress into full-blown hallucinations. His personality also undergoes a journey, he starts off being rather likeable, but eventually shows himself to be completely self-absorbed and unconcerned with the lives of others. In fact by the end of The Beach the only two characters that I thought had any redeeming qualities were Étienne and Jed.
The tensions present in The Beach between group thinking and individuality, combined with its focus on the brutal side of human nature, make drawing comparisons between it and The Lord of the Flies by William Golding unavoidable. It’s an uncomfortable but thrilling experience for the reader, and while I admired it I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it.
My Cousin Rachel is my third Daphne du Maurier, and the first I’ve read told from a masculine perspective. It’s told by Phillip Ashley, an orphan brought up by his older cousin Ambrose Ashley, as his heir. The narrator Phillip is older and looking back on events past knowing there is no altering them now. He opens his story by recounting a time that as a young boy he was goaded by Ambrose into throwing a rock at the hanging corpse of a man who was strung up for murdering his wife. As he recalls the episode, he ponders how to endure his life: “No one will ever guess the burden of blame a carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I still cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty? Maybe I shall learn that too, in purgatory.” We learn of Phillip’s intense desire as a young boy to be just like Ambrose. We read his thoughts that “The boy who stood under her window on his birthday eve, the boy who stood within the doorway of her room the evening that she came, he has gone, just as the child has gone who threw a stone at a dead man on a giblet to give himself false courage. Tom Jenkyn, battered specimen of humanity, unrecognisable and unlamented, did you, all those years ago, stare at me in pity as I went running down the woods into the future? Had I looked back at you, over my shoulder, I should not have seen you swinging in your chains but my own shadow.” And so the first chapter concludes, and in just a few pages du Maurier has foreshadowed the events of the novel and set an intensely gothic and dramatic tone.
Then the plot commences with Phillip as a young man in his twenties, who gets left behind at the estate as Ambrose leaves for Florence due to his poor health. Before long Phillip learns that Ambrose has married Phillip’s cousin Rachel, whom Phillip has never met, and he feels overcome with an intense jealousy and hatred. He imagines Rachel as a hundred different women, all completely detestable. Before long Phillip receives a worrying letter from Ambrose which indicates that he is unwell and expresses concerns about his doctors and suspicion of Rachel. Phillip leaves for Florence, but by the time he arrives Ambrose is dead and Rachel has left. He returns to Cornwall and eventually receives word that Rachel is coming and, believing her responsible for his cousin’s death, he intends to make her pay. But once she arrives he becomes completely obsessed and infatuated by her. But what are her motives? What happened in Florence? Is she Phillip’s evil seductress, or is she a victim? Is Phillip naive? Paranoid? A victim? Mentally ill? As Phillip indicates in the first chapter, the reader will never completely know the answer.
My Cousin Rachel is a novel of considerable technical skill. I think the most accurate analysis of Phillip’s character was given by Sally Beaumont in the novel’s introduction “Phillip Ashley is twenty-three, but old before his time, willingly imprisoned by the reactionary, chauvinistic, anti-intellectual and misogynistic beliefs of the older cousin-guardian he worships.” This aspect of the character and Phillip’s male gaze that both imprisons and obscures Rachel’s true character from the reader were the most interesting aspects of the novel for me. Beaumont described this aptly when she said “We see Rachel, and hear her speak yet she remains essentially unreadable, her features distorted by the male gaze of the possessive, jealous and infatuated man describing her. We can never see her because Phillip Ashley, blind to his own Oedipal impulses, obscures her – in which context, the semiotics of the possessive pronoun used in the title is not, one feels, accidental. As that “My” signals, an act of appropriation takes place in this narrative, one that denies Rachel autonomy. Forced to fit inside the fictive prison Phillip Ashley constructs around her, she cannot be herself; she has to be his belonging, his adjunct and chattel – and she is merely another item on a long privileged Ashley list: my house, my estate, my money, my family jewels… my cousin Rachel.”
All this takes place in the subtext of the novel, in the foreground the reader analyses whether Rachel is corruptive or pure. But who is really doing the poisoning? It seems the whole story is poisoned by Phillip’s point of view. And how much can the reader trust Phillip as a narrator anyway? He is, after all, no objective bystander. And so in a novel seemingly about a mysterious, dangerous woman and a naive boy, du Maurier explores the concept of male authority.
I think I preferred the My Cousin Rachel from an analytical perspective to the reading experience, partially because Phillip was so damn annoying and his voice permeates the novel. It was such an interesting read though and so different to Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I think it’s the most interesting examination of male authority I have ever read in a fictional novel.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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?
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.