Farewell happy fields

Books about music can be challenging, though it can be assumed that quite a few of the readers of The Great Passion will have heard at least one thing by JS Bach. Probably many pieces, especially the great St Matthew’s Passion.

James Runcie’s novel open with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, his death is noted by a one-time choral scholar, now some thirty years later, Stephan Silbermann. He goes to Leipzig for the funeral. As a soprano soloist, he had been favoured by Bach during his year at the school where Bach was the Cantor and musical director. Bullied by other pupils for his red hair, he was taken in by the Bach family and for sometime lived with them, attending school but somewhat protected by their kindness, in return he did copying for Bach, a busy time.

Several chorales are mentioned in the novel, and it is not until the final chapters that Bach and his librettist begin on the great work. Reading these last chapters, I did something that I never do, I put on the music. It was a marvellous experience, reading and listening to one of the greatest musical inventions, while reading about the twists and turns that brought it about, and its summation – the day it is sung for the first time – Good Friday 1727.

Capturing and making a familial giant from one of the world’s geniuses, it quite a feat. Most of us think of the composer, and forget the family life: Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena who gave up her career as a singer, their many children, the death of Etta, from scarlet fever, and all Bach’s work. The musicians that came and played, and ate with the family, the ordinary stresses of domestic life for a man who did not earn a fortune; the rivalry between him and other composers.

It was all very enlightening and joyfully presented, a beautifully written novel, with sensitive and impactful moments dealing with great loss and sadness.

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Perfidious Albion

While I am aware that “perfide Albion” was an insult wished upon us by the French, it does seem particularly apt in light of the current situation, regarding the Irish Protocol and the present Government, and all or many preceding British parliaments and regnants, right back to Henry VIII and Elizabeth 1.

Audrey McGee doesn’t actually use the term, but again and again in The Colony it is referred to. The two characters that stay on the island one summer, an English artist – Mr Lloyd and a French-Algerian linguist – M. Masson, known as JP, represent incoming disturbers of the peace. How peaceful the island is without them is not explored, the novel covers just the summer months, from June to September 1979 (though it does actually give the year except by implication)

The island is a rock off the Irish coast, with nothing beyond it bar the Atlantic Ocean and America; there are a few dilapidated houses, and some habitable but not comfortable cottages and the family homes (apparently twenty seven in all but we meet only one family); this family consists of three widows and one son; the great-grandmother Bean Uí Fhloinn, her daughter, Bean Uí Néill, her daughter Mairéad and Mairéad’s son, Seamus (call me James). There is no electricity or running water, no shop or amenities of any sort; fishing is the only trade, but Bean Uí Néill lost her father, her brother and her husband in one single day, so now no one fishes much and James kills rabbits instead.

Two other characters play their part, Micheál and Francis Gillan, Francis is Bean Uí Néill’s brother-in-law.

The Colony is a novel of representation, illumination and perspective. Nothing is exactly what it seems, not the paintings of Mr Lloyd nor the study of the Irish Gaelic language by JP Masson. The great-grandmother only speaks the Irish language, her daughter speaks Irish but understands English, Mairéad can speak English when she wants to, and James is bilingual. JP fears a steady dilution of the Irish.

There is instant rivalry and dislike between the two visitors, and Francis is also less than pleased, but money is required and this is part of the income that supports the family.

The timeline is set between the pages of the story; after each short section of the doings on the island, there is a page with a Name (or sometimes many names) and Death, while the people on the island bicker and deceive each other and themselves, on the island of Ireland The Troubles are taking a regular toll of killings, first one side and then the other. In fact the title of the previous post would have done equally well for this post, but it is the perfidy of Mr Lloyd that is the ultimate atrocity in this narrative.

This is a book written steadily and cunningly, it draws in the reader and brings them into the circle, an onlooker and then punches them in the gut. McGee shows immense sensitivity towards the islanders, most especially Mairéad and Seamus (call me James) who would have been off the island and on the way to America if the calamitous drowning had not occurred. A profoundly moving and observational story.

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“There were atrocities on both sides”

How often have we heard that, or seen it written? Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Ukraine and the Spanish Civil War. Anyone who reads my blog will know that my interest in the Spanish Civil War is fairly extensive, so I would have leapt upon this novel by Maggie Brookes even if had a different subject because I enjoyed her previous novel The Prisoner’s Wife.

Acts of Love and War is the story of two fictional families set against a whole host of actual events and people. Lucy Nicholson is sitting on the staircase when her father, Captain Nicholson, comes in with a strange women, followed by two small boys. Thus, Lucy becomes embedded with the Murray family: Mrs Murray, a widow and her two sons, Jamie and Tom.

The novel proper opens in October 1936, Jamie and Tom are now older, and Tom has seen an advertisement asking for volunteers for action in the Spanish Civil War; Tom is determined to go to fight for the Republicans; his brother Jamie, a Roman Catholic, supports Franco.

This dichotomy is mirrored across the world, civil strife dividing families, neighbours and nations, many of whom have been totally at ease with each other for centuries. The Spanish Civil War was no different, it erupted suddenly: a left-wing Republican coalition was duly and fairly elected, a right-wing military coup followed; this in turn led to an outraged peasantry, who had suffered under a feudal system for centuries, going on a rampage of killing and burning, their anger directed at the Church and the wealthy landowners. Stepping into the breach was a little known Captain-General Francisco Franco, who supported the undemocratic right-wing against the Republicans.

Franco, against all international law, had support from Germany and Italy; France and England both had non-intervention treaties with Spain and this meant that joining the Republican fight was illegal. This did not stop hundreds of people joining the fight, in what in the end was called The International Brigade.

Maggie’s book describes in detail how Lucy Nicholson becomes involved in the international effort to support the women and children refugees who flooded into Barcelona and other cities held by the Republicans. The voluntary efforts were led by a number of (principally) members of The Society of Friends (Quakers) and at this point Lucy’s adventures are set against actual events with actual people. Armed with letters of introduction, Lucy arrives in Spain.

Acts of Love and War is a story of the voluntary services which went to help in Spain, which started small but soon became a huge organisational triumph; it is a love story of a woman who has two men in her life, one on either side of the conflict: Jamie who is reporting on the Fascist side for The Catholic Herald and Tom, who is in the thick of the fighting on the Republican side.

At the end of the book, Maggie helpfully lists the names of the people who were there, in the novel she has used their real names but has minutely rearranged, or embroidered, some of their actions for the purposes of the novel.

This novel transported me into a world of extremes, the acute misery of the refugees, the smells and degradation of thousands of people, thrown into confusion and fear and the endless struggle to supply even the simplest things as Franco’s grip on the country grew stronger. The incredible inventiveness and resourcefulness of the volunteers, their small disagreements and their large generosity are all here in the narrative. What we are spared are the political differences which we know were seriously complicating the scene – the communists versus the anarchists and other distractions that so muddied the waters, which inevitably feature in the non-fiction writings on the war.

This is a marvellous book on any level, I thoroughly enjoyed it and could hardly put it down.

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Unfinished business

I very, very rarely say this: but I couldn’t finish Harsh Times. This is entirely my weakness not the the novel’s. It is clearly an excellently written account, though fictional, of the political upheavals and struggles in Guatemala, ably, diabolically and secretly assisted by the United States.

My trouble is, firstly, that I am not that interested in South American politics, although I fully understand the awful and radical effect it has on the people who have to live under the various regimes, especially the indigenous natives. Then, the mix of fictional and real characters in a country of which I have limited knowledge becomes confusing and tedious. Is Ardiles real, or Arbenz? So it is a constant flick through Google (thank goodness for Google at times) and if they are real, is Marta or the Dominican, which seems unlikely?

However, that said, I do think this book will intrigue and interest some people who read this blog. My failings notwithstanding, Mario Vargas Llosa is a Nobel Prize winner, so his writing is not meritless, even if I cannot grasp the content.

Please don’t take my failure as a guide – look and read for yourselves

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Second of Three

Elodie Harper has now published her second novel in the “Amara” trilogy. The first volume was The Wolf’s Den, which was the designation of a brothel in Pompeii. By the end of that novel (spoiler alert here) Amara had been granted her freedom by Pliny the Elder, Admiral of the Imperial (Roman) fleet. In The House with the Golden Door, Amara is living in a villa in the centre of town, she is now the concubine of Rufus, the three people serving her (actually his servants) are Juventus, a big rather brutish man, who is the doorkeeper, Martha, a Jewish slave, who is her personal servant and does cooking and Amara’s toilette when required, and Philos whom she has known for a long time, as he used to collect her from the brothel and escort her to Rufus, before he set her up in her present dwelling.

In these novels we are given a clear insight into the lives of the women at the time; lives that were restricted by status as much as anything. Servant or slave; freedman or woman, a slave that has been given or bought his/her way out of slavery and patrician – these were the Roman elite. There are many women in these novels, Amara, herself, and her newer acquaintances, Julia and Livia, who accept her into their circle as Rufus’ concubine and Drusilla, whom we encountered in a different relationship to Amara, as she hired Amara and her friend, Dido out as singers to various parties.

Freed she might be, but Amara is now absolutely dependent upon Rufus for her well-being, her estate and her situation. Anything that dislodges her from that position would be disastrous, but she embarks on a project that brings her right up against her previous owner, Felix, the brothel keeper.

Pompeii has left so much evidence behind of its beauty, its streets and houses, the interiors kept intact and beautiful on account of the eruption of Vesuvius that buried it and its people in ash. This makes for a great background to a novel, because so much is there to build upon, the writer just has to fill it with the living. Elodie Harper does exactly that, we hear the laughter, music and roar of life in a busy thriving city. A brilliant tale, brilliantly told.

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The third of three

Although this is a standalone novel, it is also the continuation of a story about Jonathan, a photographer. First met in The Gun Room, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in [], Jonathan grows up with his mother and father on a Norfolk farm; the father takes a gun into the spinney one foggy morning.

The effect on Jonathan is for him to photograph obsessively, as if by looking through a lens, he can see but not take part. As soon as he is old enough he starts to travel with his camera, by the end of The Gun Room, he is in Japan and a beautiful Japanese girl appears in his photographs.

Harvest picks up his story with the arrival of Kumiko, the Japanese girl, at the farm. Jonathan has suggested that she takes an interest in his mother’s garden, as this will please Claire and break any awkwardness.

In this novel, there is a certain amount of back-tracking. We learn in greater detail about the morning that Charles died, we also learn that Jonny had definitely followed his father that morning, had seen what has happened and had returned home without saying anything. This is a secret which he has carried and buried for years; his mother’s explanation – that it was an accident while Charles was climbing over a fence – he knew was wrong, so he was in the double-bind of knowing the truth and knowing his mother was lying, What do you do with that knowledge when you are only little? It is corrosive, but hidden.

Also his brother Richard, his leader in all childhood things, has stayed on the farm; just as Claire has stayed in her garden. Jonny and Kumiko spend time on the farm, held there by bad weather which has delayed the harvest of wheat and barley. So an undercurrent of this part of the narrative is Richard and his pent up emotion, his attachment to Billy and his fierce protectiveness towards the farm. He is pragmatic and emotionally stunted when it comes to the farm. The arrival of Kumiko triggers a break in the dam.

Georgina Harding writes horrid things beautifully; there is a real tension in the language and the things she is describing, this is not prettifying the ugly, it is all put in plain sight but the way she expresses the thoughts and actions of her characters is by using prose of an exceptional quality.

The middle volume is Land of the Living which deals principally with Jonathan experiences in Vietnam; he went there as a volunteer reporter and when his photographs are published it has a lasting effect upon soldiers that he photographed, the ones who survived.

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Another cracking mystery

I first encountered John Banville when he was listed, and then won the Booker Prize for his novel The Sea. To be perfectly frank, I did not think too highly of The Sea, or not enough to think it worthy of the prize; but gave later novels my attention until I became quite a fan.

April in Spain is the second novel about the Detective Inspector Strafford, Snow being the first. The novel has a slow start and at first it is hard to link the two sections, London and San Sebastián or Donostia, which is the Basque name for that area. It gathers pace…

This is a crime novel, but not a who-done-it. All the time we know both sides of the story, we follow the criminal and the detective all the way from beginning to end. It is not until the last chapter that we understand why; Banville exploits all the tropes of the “crime genre” but twists them subtly to subvert the norm, leaving the reader with a taste for more.

There is another character that we might have met before, the whisky-soaked Quirke, Banville wrote a series of novels under a nom-de-plume: Benjamin Black. Also well worth a look.

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The Frozen North

I don’t really know why I find such fascination with books, fiction and non-fiction, about the snowy wastes of the North and South Poles, but I do and apparently I share this obsession with Sven of Stockholm.

The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven is fiction, but based on a real person, Sven of Stockholm. In the novel, Sven is a reader of the adventures of the real-life heroes and explorers of the North Pole: Fridtjof Nansen, Raoul Admundsen and others, Sven is less than impressed by the English and European crews who mostly died, or failed and scuttled back home. He is a solitary child, preferring books to people and remains a dignified isolationist into adulthood; reading rather than joining in. His sister, Olga recognises this aspect of his personality and idly suggests one day that he should apply for a position in a mining enterprise in Svalbard/Spitsbergen.

Nathaniel Ian Miller follows Sven to Svalbard, there a mining accident ruins his features and takes out one eye and thereby hangs the rest of this wonderous novel.

Told entirely from Sven’s point of view, this is a story of great courage, survival and love. Along the way, Sven meets and interacts with a variety of solid men, men who know and understand hardship and loss: the period encompasses both the First and Second World War, during which Sweden remained neutral, and in any case Svalbard was too distant and remote for much news to filter through, but there were men that Sven encounters whose experience was very different, until that is, the Germans arrive in 1942.

Miller’s understanding of the terrain, the environment and the solitude flood this book with an authenticity which must be based on experience. You cannot write about the sudden changes in the weather, the ferocity of the ice-bear, the freezing debilitating cold just from the imagination. It must have some foundation in the lived experience. Sven leaps from the page, and so do the frozen landscapes that he endures.

This is a poetic, wry and sometimes humorous examination of the vagaries of man and his survival; it is a study of mostly male companionship, though the women are fully realised once they make their appearance, which is later on in the narrative. From the very beginning we are taken on a journey, through a mind and through a landscape that most of us will never experience except on the page. But an account like this is just as enlightening, in its own way, as anything written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard or Ernest Shackleton.

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Revisiting the Greeks

Jennifer Saint has followed her novel about Ariadne with a look at the life of Elektra, the third daughter of Agamemnon of the cursed House of Atreus.

There is a great swelling of novels that look again through the Greek myths and its literature to extract from them the lives of the women. So while the myths and legends and, obviously, Homer concentrate on the deeds and adventures of men, these twenty-first century novels pick out, and give voice to the women.

If you know your myths, you will know that Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to get a wind favourable to his expedition to recapture Helen from the Trojans; on his “triumphant” return his wife Clytemnestra kills him in the bath. Elektra is a novel about how the women feature in this myth, not as a side issue but as the central characters.

Told largely by Elektra herself, we watch as the two women prepare for Iphigenia’s marriage to Achilles, horribly unaware of her real fate, and we see Elektra and her sister as the chariot departs; the book opens with Elektra now ten years older, watching for the beacons that will tell of her father’s return.

From the child’s point of view, she loses her mother completely after the death of Iphigenia, and her sole companion is a farmer’s lad, Giorgios. Elektra is ignorant of the history of her father’s family, until Giorgios enlightens her. So she is less surprised than angry, when Aegisthus turns up at the palace and seduces her mother. She continues to hope for her father’s return, assuming that he will expel the intruder. Things turn out very differently though.

This is a compelling, if blood-letting story. Hearing it again with the voices of the women: Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Elektra and even Helen, imposed upon the usual narrative brings into focus the gender divide and rounds up the story. The epic adventures may not be original but they hold the attention which is why we are still reading them, just from a different angle.

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Oh Family! Family!

Of the millions of people who have heard of Abraham Lincoln, the surname Booth will surely ring in infamy; however, although Karen Joy Fowler cannot avoid the man who assassinated the President, he was not her principle consideration, but like her other novel, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Booth is about a family with a monster as one of many worthy siblings; in her previous novel, it was a monkey not a monster whose actions pivotally affected the family. [Fern was a chimpanzee and therefore a primate, but primate does not alliterate with monster – so you must excuse the literary device instead of the literal accuracy].

Booth demonstrates forcibly the “f*****g” effect that parents have on their children. The jacket cover of this book shows an actor playing Hamlet; Junius Booth the, often absentee, parent of several children is a celebrated Shakespearean actor in America, his wife, with whom he has fled to America, escaping from a scandal in England, now resides in a hidden cabin bearing over time ten children, of whom six survive into adulthood.

Booth divides into chapters, the headings tell the reader which sibling is the main focus. The daughters are Rosalie, a scoliotic spinster, who still remembers the children who died and Asia, who does not as they all occurred long before she was born. The boys are June, Edwin, John and Joe. June and Edwin both join their father in the profession. Edwin Booth becomes a celebrated Hamlet, June is less successful. John would become notably unstable, but mesmerising on stage. All of them had a problem with drink, even Rosalie.

Alongside the Booth family drama are the political upheavals of America: the Union and the other States; the question of slavery and the rights of the black men are issues that divide the nation and families and in the end lead to Civil War. On the whole, the Booth family ignore the political in favour of the cerebral, the men and their acting careers are what absorbs them, Asia marries another actor/manager and Rosalie and her mother follow Asia’s family to Philadelphia; intermittently the sons drop by but Edwin and John quarrel. The family are seemingly unaware, or ignoring, John’s sympathies with the Southerners.

Booth is a many textured study of family life. Its hardships, personal tragedies and personal triumphs and clearly the pivotal act when everything goes horribly wrong for them all is a key moment in the book; it is not the thrust of this narrative though. The privations and near-destitution, then apparent riches when Edwin becomes so successful, make for an interesting and enlightening picture of nineteenth century America. Life under the limelight is one thing, but for the women at home the struggles with children, with childbirth and infant fatality is a reality which burdens and mars them for life.

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