Tag Archives: British literature

After the War is Over: Altogether too many descriptions of hats

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Here are a few reasons I didn’t enjoy Jennifer Robson’s *After the War is Over*:

1. It was altogether ridiculously predictable in plot: to the point that I anticipated the union of our lower-class protagonist with her Lord for so many chapters I skimmed through yet another obstacle-in-the-path-of-true-love, stopping only to admire the frequent use of ‘visage’ and ‘shirtwaist’ (and other lovely period diction).

2. On the subject of unnecessary attention to historical particulars: It included many (many) pointless detours in plot with the sole purpose of showing off historical detail. Details that were only there (I can only assume) because the author holds a PhD in History and seems quite taken with historical specificity for post-Great War era fashion, dances and food. Detours like visits to dress shops, or bedroom dance lessons. Page long descriptions of historical bathing suits. Really. Detours with no discernable relation to character or theme development. Detours entirely devoted to hats.

3. The protagonist is a repressed, self-righteous free spirit just waiting for the right (rich, handsome, rich, cultured, sensitive, rich) man to liberate her from her self-imposed dourness and expose the true glow of her unique petals of utter stunning beauty flower.

Here is 1 1/2 reasons I did:

1. Because Downtown Abbey got it right: there’s something fascinating about the historical moment of 1919 in which class and gender hierarchies (nevermind accepted and expected rules of decorum) get shaken.

1.5 Because it includes a beautiful scene of our protagonist casting her vote in the first election that allowed women (of certain classes) to vote. And because this reader cannot resist swelling feeling of gratitude and respect for those women (and men) who fought – and fight – so hard for franchise.  That said, this scene takes up the first three pages of the book. So you could read those and then… stop.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Canadian Literature, Historical Fiction

Higher Ed: Bulimia isn’t the worst part

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Tessa McWatt beat me to the novel I haven’t written in Higher Ed. The novel takes up the current state of higher education in Britain (to be fair, I’d write the novel about Canadian higher ed, so perhaps there’s still a market – not). Through the interwoven narratives of five characters – the administrator, the film professor, the waiter, the law student and the civil servant – the novel explores the way we live in alienated, precarious and exhausted existences and how we might live otherwise.

Metaphors work to give contour to this exploration. Our administrator, Francine, works as a Quality Assurance officer at the University, helping programs through the absurd and demeaning process of justifying their existence by way of forms, counts, assessment checks and more forms. Francine, our character-stand-in for the university itself, has a distorted self image and bulimic practices. She wants to be ever trimmer, ever more efficient, to see herself, and more importantly to be seen by others, as successful. Yet, as any bulimic would know, in the attempt to purge, all she succeeds in doing is wasting energy on what isn’t important (and getting – ironically – bloated in the process). She sells out her ideals (and her body) to get ahead, only to discover that in the process of proving her worth to others she’s forgotten her own sense of self and priorities. Read the last paragraph again replacing “she” with “the university” and you see how the metaphor works in the novel.

Enter the civil servant who works disposing of the forgotten or “lonely dead,” those who have no one but the state on which to rely when they die. The civil servant, Ed, works with his once estranged daughter, the law student, Olivia, to bring some kind of meaning to these sanitized and bureaucratic deaths complete with mass graves and – again – forms. Their attempts at meaning take the shape we all recognize as meaning-makers: song, storytelling and poetry. As the two characters make this lone and ultimately futile (like life, the novel poses) effort, they deepen their relationship and come to trust and rely on one another. Pitted against the horror of the forgotten, lonely, death this quickening of a relationship is meant – I suspect – to offer us some hope and solace.

And there’s the crux. The novel suggests we live and function among cold and uncaring bureaucracies that are driven by profit and absent either individual or community. Yet, against these efficiency efforts the novel offers budding relationships and clumsy romance. As if to say we may have forgotten how to reach out to one another, how to use poetry to understanding our humanity and how to speak to one another in words not in text(s), but we are not so far gone that we can’t try to, maybe, hazard the attempt at, remembering and connecting.

In other words it’s not an overly optimistic or heartwarming story. Instead, as a sort-of administrator in higher ed myself, I find the call for connection, for real conversation, for extended empathy as at one and the same time entirely appealing and utterly insufficient. We live in the tragic gap, says Parker Palmer, between the reality we recognize and the reality we imagine as possible. In this novel we sit precisely in that space between what the university (what our society) is– profit driven – and what it could be – people driven. And from this gap we’re meant to both witness and imagine. If only we had a way to do that. Oh wait, we do: we can read.

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Filed under Book Club, British literature, Canadian Literature, Fiction

Mr Mac and Me: In Praise of the Small

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Landscape Near Walberswick, 1914Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me sets out to tell the story of the impact of the beginning of the First World War on a British coastal village and the people who live there. Ranging from the introduction of blackout and rationing to the surveillance of ‘enemy aliens’ to grief in response to devastating casualties to the introduction of local building code restrictions the novel charts the pervasiveness of the changes. It does so beautifully, fully and quietly.

By focusing on the narrative of one – foot twisted – teenage boy, Thomas, the reader is offered a particular, if expansive, lens through which to view the depth and extent of the impact of the war. In the opening moments of the story Thomas befriends a tourist couple, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald, who speak German and use binoculars to look at flowers (dangerous, indeed). [Not being much of an art follower I didn’t realize Mackintosh (the titular “Mac”) was a “real life” artist until doing a bit of reading beyond the text. Turns out he’s a big enough deal to have his own “society” and a number of proper biographies]. The collected experiences of Thomas and Mac are not grand or typically heroic, they are, instead, small and sincere (for instance Thomas borrows Mac’s binoculars in an attempt to save him from prison). Yet in the smallness of their story are woven the titanic changes of the time and the contours of total war: shifting gender roles, cataclysmic technological changes, xenophobia, state control of movement/habit and economy and the uncertainty of what is to come (I found this most impressive, that as we readers know how and when the war will end, Freud achieves the opacity of the future for her characters in a subtle, yet masterful, way).

The uncertainty of what is to come concludes the novel. I am, myself, uncertain about how I feel about the conclusion. Rather than spoil anything, I’d encourage you to read Mr Mac and Me and to let me know how you reacted to its ending and what you think it means for the power – and limits – of self-actualization and imagination.

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Filed under British literature, Historical Fiction

Vernon God Little: What we avoid

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There’s no question DBC Pierre’s first novel, Vernon God Little, is an excellent piece of fiction. The book takes a school shooting in Texas (is it Texas? Somewhere near Mexico, anyway) and explores the community reaction to the event – spectacle, denial, scapegoating – through the darkly comedic story of Vernon, falsely accused and prosecuted for the crime. The first person narrator of Vernon is masterfully represented in his fixation on shit and young women, as well as use of diction, phrasing, pace and image that moves past conjuring a character to allow the reader to fully accept and inhabit him (if not identify with – a problem to come to). The narration also does well to explore his complicated feelings around the massacre, the (failure) of adults to take responsibility or engage with grief, his expectations of justice and the justice system and his attempts to reform himself and his relationship with others.

Despite the brilliant narration and the timely thematic questions (what is the role of the press in perpetuating/perpetrating crimes? how does collective culture sublimate grief? how do we understand and make sense of the senseless? what are the effects of poverty on access to justice?) I read this book knowing it was great, but feeling at a remove. If literature is great because (and if) it can allow (or require) the reader to adopt different perspectives, to explore experiences unavailable in lived experience AND because it is masterfully constructed in literary technique, Vernon God Little shines in the latter and wavers in the former.

I should say this book sat on my shelf at work for eleven months before I finally read it. And not because I lacked time or opportunity. I tried reading it twice before. It wasn’t until I’d forgotten my book at home and it was a choice between no novel (a gasp of impossibility) or Vernon God Little that I gave it sufficient time (the 60 minutes of my lunch break) to get invested enough to read the whole thing. It wasn’t a novel that grabbed me. Is it that the first person narrator repulsed me a little? Maybe. (and maybe he’s meant to) It’s not that the experiences in the book are too far removed for me to care about – all kinds of my favourite books are those that I love precisely for their ability to take a seemingly distant experience and make it relevant and poignant for me and to let me see my world and relationship to it differently – it seems more the case that Pierre didn’t do enough to make these foreign experiences connected to this reader. There wasn’t opportunity for empathy, or even sympathy, no chance for identification or care.

So I read the book with a respect for the writing, an understanding that it was an important topic and explored with great literary skill. And yet I found myself unmoved and unchanged in its reading. Uninterested in what becomes of Vernon. Is that a problem of this reader or of the book? You read it and tell me what you think.

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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner