Book Review: Fireside Gothic

imagesA recent acquisition for Christmas was Andrew Taylor’s Fireside Gothic, a title bound to appeal to me. Christmas is a time for reading ghost stories by the fire, with a well-documented tradition, with Charles Dickens and M R James being the most well-known participators. It’s a tradition I like: Christmas may be warm and cosy, but it also brings nostalgia to the fore, allowing us to reflect on times past. The nights draw in, and as we sit by the fire – even in modern centrally-heated houses – the darkness pools outside and contains hidden threats. Human nature loves the thrill of fear, and so the ghost stories come out at Christmas. Also, as Marina Warner suggests in No Go the Bogeyman, sometimes naming our fears acts as a way of warding them off; the stories present not just a thrill, then, but a way of exorcising our demons. Recently I read one of E Nesbit’s ghost stories, and a selection of Christina Rossetti’s ghost poems, as part of a festive evening at the Birmingham Midland Institute, and the creepiness of the stories is brought out well by nineteenth-century buildings, dimly-lit.

On Christmas Eve I sat by the fire at home, port in hand, reading Andrew Taylor’s book. Taylor is well-known as a historical crime novelist, and these novellas play to a similar concept, but with an added supernatural frisson. The first story, ‘Broken Voices’ is very much in the style of jamesM R James: two schoolboys are left in the care of an elderly teacher over the Christmas holidays, and listen to his stories of the nearby cathedral, and eventually take action. The description of the cathedral at night is excellent, with some truly heart-stopping moments, and while the ending isn’t entirely unsuspected, the creepiness of the story stays with you. The second story, ‘The Leper House’, is modern, with a man on the way home from a funeral breaking down and visiting a cottage, which later has vanished. The story turns out to be a rather unexpected tale of revenge. The final tale, ‘The Scratch’, seems more modern still: a soldier returned from Afghanistan wreaks havoc with a couple’s lives, unintentionally, and with a twist at the end which I didn’t see coming.

The atmosphere of all three stories is well-drawn, making them perfect fireside reading as they encourage you to draw nearer to a source of warmth and light. There is a chill to all of them, both in the supernatural creepiness and in the weather and cold buildings marleys_ghost_-_a_christmas_carol_1843_opposite_25_-_bldescribed. Being a Gothic purist, I’m not sure how much I see them as Gothic; perhaps, in the modern tradition, which defines it more loosely, they are, but the contemporary inclination to label anything ghostly as Gothic offends me. A ghost story need not be Gothic, though it can be: it is the combination of many things which makes a work Gothic (see here for further ranting). I think these stories are more traditional ghost stories than they are Gothic, then; they show little of Gothic’s usual preoccupation with societal issues, for example. They are, however, particularly Gothic in one aspect: their preoccupation with place, and with buildings. The first story is clearly the most traditionally Gothic, with a questioning of faith whilst taking place in a cathedral; the second, the building which may or may not exist is central to the unravelling of the plot, and in the third, the shed and a cave which the soldier experienced in Afghanistan are paralleled. Place is important for Gothic, especially when it is rooted in historical events or experiences, and this Taylor draws on effectively.

I’m nit-picking in saying I don’t think these stories are completely Gothic, however: they are worthy inheritors of a tradition of English Christmas ghost stories, and an evening by the fire reading them is not an evening wasted.

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Book review: Mothering Sunday

9781471155239Graham Swift’s latest novel (novella?) Mothering Sunday is subtitled A Romance, but, with its title and subtitle, is misleading; it’s certainly no celebration of motherhood, nor is it, in the conventional modern sense, a romance, despite the naked reclining woman on the cover (a Modigliani, if you’re wondering). I like the initial sense of misdirection, though – it makes one think more carefully about the book. The action of the novel, such as it is, takes place during one day, Mothering Sunday in 1924. A young orphaned maid, Jane, has a rendezvous with her lover, Paul, who is engaged to another woman and is, in the terms of the time, above her station. The first part of the novel describes what takes place, which might be erotic but isn’t, due, I think, to Jane’s holding-back of emotion, her uncertainty about what this relationship is and where it might lead. It’s what follows which is much more significant: the novel is not about Jane’s illicit relationship, but about her life, and though the action is confined to a day, that day is used to construct her entire life, flicking back and forth through time as though glancing through the pages of a book. The small space of time, coupled with the third-person narration which focuses on Jane’s point of view, makes this a tightly-controlled novel, which is significant because this is fiction about constructing narratives, and how we construct our own stories.

Jane, we learn early on, is not typical of a maid: she is clever, she can read, and she borrows books from the library of the house she works in, cheerfully ignoring convention. Language is fascinating to her, and she frequently comments on how we use words to make things real – or seem real – and her thoughts indicate her awareness of how language is used to construct thought. The early section in which she is in bed with Paul is significant mostly for its demonstration of how Jane sees and thinks, then; Paul’s thoughts are absent, and as the story moves on into the afternoon of the day he becomes more a turning point for her than a significant character in his own right; he becomes mythologised in her mind. This is no 7250146-3x4-340x453‘fallen woman’ narrative, then; Jane is a modern woman who pursues her own path and becomes a writer – a very famous one. We learn about Jane’s past, but also about what she doesn’t reveal in interviews when she is old – Mothering Sunday indicates the parts of her history that she leaves out of her novels and her public persona, and it becomes increasingly clear that she has constructed her own life, and constructs other fictional narratives too.

Jane is an appealing figure, then – liberated, for her time and background, with the audacity and emotional coolness to follow her ambitions. Perhaps it is telling that her favourite reading is boys’ adventure stories, such as those by RL Stevenson; she doesn’t relate to traditionally female novels (such as romantic novels) but instead is inspired to create her own adventure and sense of freedom, against the odds of her circumstances. It is the carnivalesque space of Mothering Sunday, when maids are allowed a day off, which seems to begin her path to success. And after all, if Jane had been visiting her mother like the other maids, she would have been confined to a different domestic space rather than lying in a man’s bed thinking about words and books. The novel itself also works as a space in which language constructs and deconstructs, telling truth and lies, with omissions and half-truths covered up by words. This might seem a slight novel, in length and perhaps events, but it is more complex the more one considers it; it seems to move aside the layers of fiction, the delicate nuances and gentle indications, to uncover the truth that there is no truth: that all fiction is constructed only of words, and words, ultimately, can mean whatever we want them to mean.

Book review: Lost for Words

Edward St Aubyn’s novel Lost for Words seemed to be both feted and reviled in the press when it was first published and subsequently vanished, despite winning the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. However, I was intrigued by the reviews I read and I have to say, the book hasn’t let me down. It’s a satire on the world of literary prizes, and indeed contemporary literature more widely, and as satire it doesn’t particularly have characters you love or empathise with (though some are more appealing than others); what it does is exaggerate familiar stereotypes and provide a humorous though sometimes painfully accurate depiction of some of the issues which beset modern literary prize committees. I’m interested in literary prizes: I have tried, in the past, to read the Man Booker long list, but it’s not just the literature I’m interested in but the process of judging and the politics which come into it. St Aubyn skewers these, and whilst it’s funny, and literary, it’s also rather uncomfortable reading, because ultimately the novel is asking what literature is for in the twenty-first century.

The main characters are either prize judges, or writers. The judges are, it is quickly made clear, chosen for politic reasons rather than for love of literature, apart from one slightly pompous female academic, and they all have their own agendas when it comes to choosing a novel to win. They read reluctantly, and are searching for ‘relevance’ or ‘social inclusion’, or else currying favour with someone. Literary merit only matters to the academic, Vanessa, whose choice of novel (‘the only literature on the shortlist’) is clearly doomed from the start. What especially appealed to me was the extracts from these invented novels – examples of ‘gritty’ Irvine-Welsh-derived prose, an overwritten historical novel, and so on – are perfect examples of work that shouldn’t win any prizes, and the characters’ reactions to these meta-texts tell us everything we need to know about their characters. After all, someone’s literary tastes, interests and what impresses them, are very telling indeed.

Edward-St-Aubyn-011The novel also indicates the effect of the prize, and it’s concomitant publicity, on the authors and their friends; there is something very genuine about Sam’s struggle to write his next book, for example, and I was greatly entertained by the French theorising of the French theorist, Didier, whose lengthy sentences will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever read Foucault, Lacan or Barthes. Occasionally, I actually thought he made more sense than any of the other characters, which perhaps suggests that I, too, have been a bit brainwashed.

“Evidently,” said Didier, “we are in the presence of the text-as-textile, as the fabric-ation that weaves a dissimulating veil over its apparent subject, expressing the excess of figurative language over any assigned meaning or, more generally, the excessive force of the signifier over any signified that tries to contain it.”

Ultimately, what Didier does is to rationalise, in his postmodern way, why ‘good literature’ isn’t necessarily the concern of literary prizes. His theories cover up the ‘old fashioned’ view of what makes literature ‘great’, seeing that approach as reductive and restrictive, not to say elitist. Instead, we live in a post-literary age, Didier and the novel imply, in which the most feted work of fiction might not be fiction at all, and might not to be written by the author, either. After all, Barthes has told us that the author is dead, and the significant factor in literary production is the reader, so by what standards do we judge a book, and how can we ever know anything about literature?

I suspect that my comments on Lost for Words – a book that ultimately does suggest we should all be speechless at the state of modern literature – will make it sound particularly appealing only to those who share my interest in literary criticism and the world of books. In fact, it’s a highly entertaining and fast-moving book which I read in a couple of days because, aside from my pretentious lit-crit enjoyment of the metafictional aspects of the book, I simply wanted to know what happened in the end. This isn’t – in my view – a novel to fall in love with, but it entertains and it makes you think, and that’s good enough for me.

Book review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I must adjacksonmit, I bought and read this book entirely on a whim. Recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics, I idly read an excerpt on the Penguin website and decided I deserved to read something for fun. Besides, it sounded Gothic, and I have a bit of an obsession with Gothic castles. Shirley Jackson is a cult name in modern Gothic fiction, I think, but although I’m aware of her short stories and, most famously, The Haunting of Hill House, this is the first of Jackson’s books I’ve read, though I’m interested to read more now.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat to her family. There aren’t many of her relations left, though, because they were all poisoned several years before the start of the novel. Merricat and her sister, Constance, live alone in the Gothic Blackwood house, isolated because of the local conviction that Constance was a murderer. The sense of loneliness combined with the remarkable family unity of Merricat, Constance and elderly Uncle Julian, living a peaceful but deeply peculiar life barricaded into the house is brilliantly evoked: early on we see Merricat going into the village, suffering the stares of the neighbours as she changes her library books and buys groceries, and the disdain in which she holds them and the fear and suspicion they emanate towards the Blackwoods sets up a creepy atmosphere. This is heightened by the very gradual discoveries that the novel allows us to make.

The house itself, the castle of the title, is hugely significant. I’m always telling students that the castle is virtually a character in Gothic; the castle is ‘where Gothic happens’, and provides a metaphor for both the bodies and the minds of the characters. This is equally true here. The events of the novel are focused entirely on the house, as a ‘safe’ place away from the threatening outside world, and yet it is also the scene of murders, anguish and – it becomes increasingly clear – complex psychological disturbances. The house is both source of life and shelter to the Blackwood sisters, and equally a place of darkness and danger, and as the events of the novel unfold the house itself undergoes dramatic transformations (but I don’t want to give too much away). Merricat’s obsession with her home becomes clearer as her unique and idiosyncratic narration explains the rituals and forms of magic with which she attempts to defend the house from the outside world, and though she is clearly an unreliable and rather disturbed narrator who seems much younger than her eighteen years, she is also, in her combined innocence and naive madness, both appealing and convincing. In this, the castle parallels her psychology.

Shirley_Jackson_PortraitThe threat from the outside world appears much greater than that inside, however, when a long-lost cousin appears and tries to persuade Constance to resume a normal, public life. Castles offer claustrophobic spaces for terrible deeds to happen, thresholds to cross which lead to knowledge one might be better off not knowing, and represent the history that always comes back to haunt us in Gothic literature. This is all true here: it is all the more eerie for the happy moments of homemaking which the sisters share; after all, when something attacks the place where you live, where you think you are safest, what can you do? And this is even more of a problem when that threat comes from within.

What is particularly surprising, perhaps, is that this is also a wickedly humorous novel. Merricat and Constance are likeable, though clearly highly unusual, and they play jokes on each other and other people (for example, offering them cups of tea which they imply might be poisoned). It also raises questions about fear and what we are, or should be, afraid of; how we demonise those we don’t understand, and how happiness is sometimes found in the most unexpected places. As an example of mid-century Gothic, it’s both a period piece and timeless, and I couldn’t put it down.

Book Review: The Buried Giant

This is a highly unusual, and frequently disorientating, novel. The author, Kazuo Ishiguro, seems to write incredibly varied novels; in genre, in period, in approach and in characters, his novels differ hugely, perhaps sharing only his meticulous dialogue, sympathetically constructed characters and situations which haunt readers long after the novel is finished. They also, perhaps, share an attention to sadness, to loss, and to cultural memory, and it is these in particular that characterise his latest novel. The Buried Giant  is a historical novel, of a kind, set in a post-Arthurian world in which Saxons and Britons have mostly forgotten their fights, and where dragons and other magical creatures still exist. It is, as this great review from the Guardian points out, a novel which owes much to Tolkien. It’s also self-consciously historical, though, sometimes addressing the modern reader, aware of its own status as fictional historical narrative.

The story itself is deceptively simple. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, devoted to one another, set out on a journey to find their son. The journey is the story, because they are battling the mists that have descended and cause forgetfulness. They cannot remember much of their past lives, and both long to remember and also fear it. Snatches of memory return to them from time to time, some happy and some not, but they pursue not only their son but, ultimately, the source of the memory loss, the breath of the female dragon Querig. There are clear parallels with the dragon in Beowulf, but this creature is more problematic, it turns out: does the mist of forgetfulness serve a purpose? Because, of course, this is an Ishiguro novel, and the story isn’t simple at all: what are the couple, and everyone else in Britain, trying to forget? What will happen if they remember? Perhaps some things are better forgotten. The dilemma at the heart of the novel, I think, is the clash between the individual and society, and their different needs. The couple meet many people along the way, who have different, fractured recollections of the past fighting, and are coming to terms with it in their own ways. Forgetting makes the creation of individual identity – and indeed the consolidation of long-term relationships – difficult, but remembering would break the fragile peace of the country.
 The novel is playing with genre, then, pulling together and breaking apart fragments of different approaches and styles, yet weaving them together so skilfully the reader hardly notices. In some ways it reminds me of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which also uses a story of apparently ordinary people to express the effect of war. In The Buried Giant, the reader feels somewhat adrift from the start; if you begin this novel then don’t be put off by the sensation that you’re somehow missing something because, as I soon came to realise, you are, and that’s the point. Axl and Beatrice are adrift too, on the island of their own forgetting, and we are forced to share the isolation and confusion that this causes with them. This makes it a powerful read, subtle, but which will stay with you. It also reminds us that every society has its buried giant and its dragon to help us forget; this novel can be read as a powerful metaphor too.

Books, music and art at Port Eliot Festival

IMG_1976The Port Eliot festival is one of my favourite events of the year. Held in a beautiful country estate in Cornwall, it’s a weekend filled with books, music, food, gin and general jollity. It’s impossible not to find something to inspire you, and although it’s exhausting having so much fun it’s also inspiring (and I came home with a large pile of books to read). I even heard some comedy I found funny – Shappi Khorsandi (I don’t usually enjoy comedy). There are always small tragedies of the writers you don’t get to hear because they clash with something else you simply must do – but I’ll try not to dwell on that! I won’t test your patience with a rendition of my notebook, but instead will just go through a few highlights. First, music. I went to a singing workshop run by the Chaps Choir, where we sang gospel songs, a Finnish reindeer call, and a great arrangement of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love‘. I love to sing, and this has really inspired me to go and find another choir; I haven’t stopped singing since (especially as we got to perform the song in St Germans Church on Sunday). The singing was also inspired by hearing Fishermans Friends, the Port Isaac group who sing sea shanties (and drink beer and laugh whilst singing). I love the shanties, and sing them with my son, who would have loved their show, which had everyone singing along. We also heard Stealing IMG_1985Sheep, and the Unthanks, who were great in concert (‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw‘, with its socio-historical roots, especially appealed to me).

The writers I heard included Rachel Holmes talking to Shami Chakrabarti about her forthcoming book on Sylvia Pankhurst. I’ve bought her previous book, on Eleanor Marx, and even had a quick chat to her about the nature of feminist biography, and the Pankhurst book should be a good addition to the canon of works on the Suffragettes. Next, I listened to Laura Barton talking about music and sadness – how we bring our own sadness to music we listen to, but how music can also be a way out of sadness, a concept echoed by Matt Haig the following day, talking about reading and writing as a way out of depression, perhaps because it forces us to IMG_1990externalise our emotions and make connections.

In the pouring rain we listened to Owen Sheers (whose book Resistance I have bought but have yet to read) talking about his new book, I Saw A Man, which I bought for my husband, as well as his diverse other projects including a film-poem commemorating the disaster at Aberfan. His comments on Welshness and poetry – that poetry is well-supported in Wales, perhaps better so than in England – interested me. As a complete contrast, we also heard Luke Wright performing his poetry; he’s a great performer, with poems about parenthood, suburbia, politics and failed dreams.

The biggest draws of Saturday were Sarah Waters and Simon Armitage, speaking to packed marquees (the strange angle of the photographs indicates that I was on the floor directly in front of the stage!) I enjoyed Waters’ talk, as I enjoy her novels (though her latest, The Paying Guests, is probably my least favourite). She talked about her research, the periods in history she is interested in (she plans her next novel to be set IMG_1982in the 1950s), and her apparent obsessions with houses, mothers and daughters, gender and class. In The Paying Guests she wrote about the Twenties because it was a period she knew little about, and intentionally undermined the stereotype of the Roaring Twenties, instead focusing on the class conflict and quieter lives of those bereaved after the war. Her interests are often in ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary events, rather than extraordinary characters. I’m interested to hear that The Little Stranger is to be made into a film and The Paying Guests a TV series.

Simon Armitage, recently elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach for one of the most famous (living) British poets, He talked about his books Walking Home and Walking Away, in which he walked first the Pennine Way and then the South coast, ‘testing poetry’, as he put it – giving readings along the way to support himself, and asking what payment people felt he deserved; though he is an optimist about poetry, he felt that he should take poetry to people to see their response, and on the whole he seems positive about this (again, I have both books but haven’t yet read either!) The extracts IMG_1983he read are not only poetic but humorous too, and suggest that both in the people he met and in the landscape itself he found, unexpectedly, a strong and positive sense of Britishness.

I managed to catch some of a conversation between the sculptor Alice Channer, Nicholas Serota of the Tate, and Chris Stephens, focusing on Barbara Hepworth, the subject of an exhibition at the Tate currently. I was particularly interested in Channer’s comments about how Hepworth makes a solid, hard material look somehow elastic, as though she has changed its very nature in the process of her work. The relationship of people and places to sculpture is something the exhibition has encouraged me to think about too, and the three of them in conversation on Hepworth were inspiring.images

Finally, I was especially inspired by a discussion between Philip Marsden and Tim Dee. Both nature writers (or travel writers), they discussed, among other things, how we use language to construct nature, poetically, socially, historically, and these days politically and ecologically. This is, of course, to nature’s complete ignorance of it: a blackbird has no idea it is a blackbird, or that we have all kinds of cultural connotations of blackbirds; it just is. Obvious but needing stating, I think. And the naming of nature is itself a colonial project, they suggested, implying our dominion over it in a way which is uncomfortable. I’ve only recently become interested in ‘nature writing’, so was fascinated by their discussion about ‘the new nature writing’ – particularly around the resurgence of interest rising-groundin it which is, perhaps, stemming from our disconnection with nature in the modern world, as well as a desire to capture what seems to be a vanishing world (though both of these have been the impetus for much nature writing for centuries). It’s also politically motivated, very often, though, raising awareness of the changes in ecosystems, threatened species, etc; we are looking into the abyss. I’ve bought Marsden’s book Rising Ground, on the ‘spirit of place’ in Cornwall as a way of thinking about how we connect to the landscape more broadly, and how this gives both individuals and cultures meaning. It’s yet another book I can’t wait to read!