The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood creates a new world

Many of the readers in our group have had experience of Atwood’s creative visions of the dystopian futures we may find ourselves travelling towards. We agreed that she often takes concepts which are already beginning to challenge our world and expounds their possibilities to its extreme limits in order to make us consider the morality behind emerging social and scientific advances.

The Heart Goes Last, our reading choice for September, explores how the financial crisis might implode to completely collapse society as we know it and led to anarchy. She suggests that the wealthy could find ways to exploit the working classes to an extreme, where they may consider a form of imprisonment as a ‘good’ solution. The idea is not new; the masses giving up their freedom for safety. There are many other sc-fi and fantasy writers who have also created worlds where people give up free will to survive and protect their family life. They all point to the hidden horrors which people must ignore in order to remain in these constructed realities and thereby suggesting that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The rich and powerful will use the masses and bodies become commodities in these worlds.

AtwoodAtwood shows how far this concept can be pushed so that people’s bodies are no longer their own but can be broken down into parts and sold for multiple purposes. The imprisoned agree to their confinement because they have one month of making money and one month of living so-called free existences, however, once they are in the settlements they cannot leave and, as we see later, can be sent for extermination at any given time. Some of our group therefore considered how this book made them think about the Holocaust and therefore how human beings have already been treated as nothing more than the sum of their body parts.

We also considered the technology behind the novel and the moral debate over robotics. Atwood likes to explore current debates and the role of robots leads to questions about how suitable they are for certain jobs and if it is acceptable to create robots to do jobs that are considered damaging to humans. Atwood uses the sex industry to illustrate these moral dilemmas. The suggestion is that robots can be created to replace people and that this prevents people from being abused in this industry. She examines this in two examples. The first one is where robots of children are made as sex robots and the second is where the Elvis’ send in a sex robot to ‘finish the job’ when the clients they chaperone want more than a mere companion for the night. We considered how robots already exist to replace people in jobs such as customer care and teaching, and that there very well may be sex robots developed. Atwood therefore is challenging social mores and asking which is the lesser evil and if it acceptable to allow such behaviour under these circumstances.

The group took time to consider how the two main characters, Stan and Charmaine, change throughout the narrative. Charmaine starts the novel as a naïve and caring young wife who is making the best of frightening circumstances. By the end of the novel she has proved herself not only capable of murder, but of killing her husband in order to save herself. She has a hidden side behind the perfect wife which begins to emerge during the torrid affair she has with Max. We asked ourselves to what extent she was always going to be open to this behaviour or how much was she manipulated into behaving in essence out of character. Some of us considered what we knew about her past through her flashbacks with Grandma Win and the suggestion that there was abuse and possible incest in her childhood. These hidden traumas could have made her susceptible to Max’s advances and may be the reason she was chosen by Jocelyn to be at the centre of her plans. We also discussed how she was manipulated throughout the whole story and that in the end she realised that she had chosen to believe she had no free will as acceptance of the status quo was the easy option. One member of the group suggested that ultimately Charmaine’s character was just not believable enough and that she was too boring to be the central character. They did not believe that she could turn from sweet girl into damaged and corrupt abuser.

The ending of the book caused a lot of heated discussion as many could not accept the slapstick comedy as a form for engaging with the serious themes and considered that it did not work, not only as an ending but in the way it contrasted to the beginning of the novel. The point was made that the novel had originated as a short story and it was suggested that it was intended for serialisation which might explain the changing format of the story as the novel progressed. There was a consensus that the start of the book was too much in contrast to the middle and the ending. One member liked the ideas behind the book but felt it got lost half-way through. The ending was just too much for many of the others who could not understand how Conor could turn around from being the typical bad boy at the start into one of the good guys who was to ‘save’ everyone from a fate worse than death.

We discussed how there appeared to be a lack of consequences or resolution in the ending. No one was properly punished for their wrong doing, although we did consider how Ed’s new role as Lucinda’s sex slave might be considered as punishment, even if he was not aware of it. We asked if that said more about our expectations of what made ‘bad’ characters and if a novel should be working towards a resolution. The purpose of the ending was open to interpretation with a question over what was happiness and what was choice. Is the ultimate goa of a given society to have the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people? Is the ending of this novel questioning that very concept?

 

Anthea Cordner

Ian McEwan in a Nutshell

This novel, which was our book choice for July, proved to have the uncanny ability to polarise readers in ways that none of our previous choices succeeded in doing, which lead us to decide at the end of this month meeting that you either love it or hate it. The only reason to sit on the fence is because it can be deemed to be both highly clever and very annoying at the same time. We all agreed that the premise of having an unborn child forced to witness the plotting and murder of his father was a very amusing way to engage with the themes and ideas behind Hamlet, but many readers found the narrative voice just too irritating to set aside their disbelief that a foetus could speak in this manner.

McEwan said the origins of this novel came from an idea he had during a particularly boring meeting where he was thinking about Hamlet and came up with the first line, “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” This was the seed that grew into an exploration of a very different take on the crime genre. We took some time throughout our discussion to think about genre and decided this novel could best be described as a murder-mystery farce. One reader commented how much it reminded him of ‘An Inspector Calls’ where the question about ghosts and reality only unravels at the end. Another reader focused on the many Shakespearean references that pointed to other plays such as the bear in ‘Winter’s Tale’. From the very beginning McEwan sprinkles clues that this novel is an engagement with Shakespeare and he starts by including the following epigraph: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” In this novel McEwan’s Gertrude has become Trudy, the young estranged wife of the poet and editor John Cairncross, and she is having an affair with her husband’s brother Claude, who is a rather obnoxious version of Shakespeare’s Claudius. The entire plot is told from the perspective of an unborn foetus who represents Hamlet as he ruminates over the murder of his father. Just like in the play he is obsessed with Trudy’s immorality, which is described in a very tongue-in-cheek way, literally staring him in the face. Our narrator cannot get away from the “something rotten” which is corrupting his physical space and leads him to contemplate and attempt to “not be” by squeezing his umbilical cord to cut off his life supply. The fear of the afterlife here is not post-death but post-birth and so McEwan twists and plays with concepts of knowability, revenge, distorted truths, immorality, and the power of words.

NutshellThere were some members of our group who had entirely missed the references to Hamlet but found great enjoyment in the humorous play of words and ideas. We all appreciated the cleverness of the concept on which the whole novel rests, that the narrator has not seen the world outside the uterus. Several people commented on how McEwan never confines himself as a writer but likes to explore very different ways of writing, styles and ideas. that is not a re-telling of Shakespeare’s plot as we do not have all the characters and Ophelia is particularly noticeable by her absence. We all agreed that it was not necessary to try to recreate the characters and plot as McEwan’s intentions were more to engage with themes and play with language. Central to this is how he uses the restricted physical ability to see from inside the uterus to explore perception and play with truth and reality.

What was most contentious about the novel was the narrative voice. Instead of the innocent voice that could be expected from an unborn child, it sounded more like a middle-aged, middle-class, middle of the road academic. The language was unusual and we felt that, while it did successfully remind us of Shakespeare, it was debatable whether it was possible to move beyond the smugness and pomposity of the narrator to invest in the plot. Even if we suspended our disbelief enough to accept that a foetus could have some level of knowledge and understanding gained from listening to podcasts, how did this voice remain post-birth? It was suggested that having an adult ‘Hamlet’ recovering his pre-birth memories through some kind of regression therapy would have been more believable.

The plot is where we found most of the comedy and many of us loved the little touches such as the undoing of the murderers by the spiders inside the driving gloves, the slapstick incidences involving hats and glasses and the intricacies of how they used anti-freeze while suggesting in a Shakespearean fashion that it could have worked better by pouring poison in his ear. The restricted perspective of our first person narrator left us with lots of questions about who to believe, and if we were being told the whole story or a very distorted version of the facts. How did Trudy and John first meet, why did they suddenly find themselves separating now she was pregnant when they had been trying for this baby and why was she with such a terrible man? Many readers did not like Trudy or indeed any of the characters as they were all weak and selfish. We also asked who was the father of the baby as no one seemed to be claiming it or caring for it. Elodie’s character was the most enigmatic as there were so many questions about her role in the story. Was she John’s lover and therefore lying in order to entrap Trudy, or was she genuine? She certainly seemed to embody a catalytic purpose in driving Trudy towards carrying out their murderous plans, but it remained up to the individual reader whether we saw her as more than just a friend and writer of owl poetry. Whatever we ultimately think of her is coloured by our narrator’s fluctuating viewpoint. He may prove to be unreliable in many of his strongly held opinions but we are carried with him in the beginning as he holds her in distain: “she might be letting Trudy know that here in London she’ll be overnighting between John’s Shoreditch sheets. She’s staking a claim. I like the sound of her voice, the human approximation, I would say of the oboe, slightly cracked, with a quack on the vowels. And towards the end of her phrases, she speaks through a gargling, growling sound that American linguists have dubbed ‘vocal fry’.” (pp64-5) The duplicity of his feelings towards her are thus echoed in the sarcastic way he describes her ‘likeable’ voice.

One of the most uncanny scenes in the novel happens towards the end when Trudy invites Elodie into John’s study to choose a memento from his vast collection. The preceding conversation revolves around John’s thoughts on poetry and how he has instructed Elodie to “decide, decide, decide” and to “disrupt the beat knowingly”. In this short dialogue we learn a lot about John’s professional life and how he was thought well of by his peers but it is this very conversation which signals the beginning of Trudy’s downfall. McEwan plays with us during this scene by creating melodrama while continuing the farce. John’s library is described as “in mourning” and just as Elodie chooses a book of poetry the doorbell rings exposing Trudy’s guilty fears. The book Elodie takes away is Peter Porter’s “The Cost of Seriousness” which is a tongue in cheek pointer towards John’s supposed suicide and how hidden meaning can be found through the way words are put together. We talked about Elodie’s association with owls and how they can symbolise the route into hidden truths by gaining insight into ill-intent. Elodie may be the tool that helps to expose Trudy and Claude’s lies but her place in this scene is to suggest John was his own undoing: “the cost of seriousness will be death”. John was so busy playing with words and ideas that he did not see “the world as solipsistic as ever’. (Porter from his Collected Poems) McEwan describes how John was dismissive of modern poets and people who think they are poets, which leads the reader back to questioning John’s poetic talents and if he was actually any good at what he did, or if he was someone that elevated his status by quoting other people’s work. McEwan thus leaves us to laugh at the irony of it all.

The ending was not what many of us had expected and for some was an unnecessary anti-climax; did we really need or want the birthing scene? Our mini-Hamlet’s failed suicide attempt leaves him angered at his impotency and he is determined to find a way out of his imprisonment, but not before the murderers encounter the ghost of the dead father. This is the foetus’ ultimate revenge fantasy and he imagines “a terrible expression, both blank and purposeful” which overwhelms his mother. “He stands close before us, exuding a sweet miasma of glycol and maggot-friendly flesh. It’s my mother he stares at with small, hard, black eyes made of imperishable stone. His disgusting lips move but he makes no sound. The tongue is blacker than the lips. Fixing his gaze on her all the while, he stretches out an arm. His fleshless hand fastens on my uncle’s throat. My mother can’t even scream.” This scene brings the reader back to the dead king Hamlet demanding that his son take revenge on Claudius and Gertrude, while we are simultaneously caught up in the narrator’s “spirit of revenge in a secular age” and how he “never gets what he wants”. We see the revenge not emanating from the dead father’s ghostly quest but as the son’s need to see the criminals punished. The message however is clear that the helpless baby has no recourse for all he has witnessed and, on birth he begins to see the world is both as a dangerous place with the prospect of further future imprisonment. He notes that Claude is smaller than he had imagined him to be with a “foxy look” that turns to disgust when he looks at the new born. His first glimpse of his mother is also the moment when he knows the full insecurity of the world he has been born into; she is both loving and murderous. At the very moment of his birth he is thus propelled into danger and the revenge he so wanted will also be his imprisonment as he is dependent for all his needs on the woman who killed his father. Those members of our group who knew McEwan’s other novels discussed how he has explored similar themes of innocence and the vulnerability of childhood in his other novels. McEwan ends with the sentence, “the rest is chaos” which a parting nod to the Bard who inspired this novel by playing with Hamlet’s words, “the rest is silence”. Ultimately we enjoyed this clever engagement with Shakespeare and the very different narrative perspective that was employed in a farcical plot that was never meant to be taken serious but enjoyed for its puns and playfulness.

 

Anthea Cordner

The Gustav Sonata: magic or mayhem

Our reading choice for the month of June was Rose Tremains’ novel The Gustav Sonata, set in neutral Switzerland in the period of the Second World War, and which has been described as ‘a perfect novel about life’s imperfections’. There is however, very little neutrality to be found in this complex story.

Gustav is growing up with his mother Emilie, a cold and unloving woman whom he tries to please but who never seems to be able to return her son’s love. Gustav’s father Erich is dead and his mother describes him as ‘a hero’ but provides her son with no further information. A strong anti-semitic streak shows itself in his mother when Gustav makes friends with the musically precocious Anton, who rapidly becomes his best and only friend and confidante.

Yet Emilie’s miserable temperament wasn’t always so, and Tremain paints a picture of a young woman who grabbed her chance with the handsome Erich, but lived to regret her choice. Lacking in resilience, her life descends into poverty, regret and resentment, and she takes this out on her uncomprehending son, Gustav.

GustavGustav’s friendship with Anton is an enduring bond, with invented scenes and characters that spring from fertile imaginations. While Gustav as a young boy feels over-shadowed by his precocious friend, as they grow older Gustav grows in strength and ability, yet Anton’s talent is challenged and irreparably damaged by his own lack of emotional resilience, mirroring that of Emilie.

There are strong themes in the novel, a sonata of happiness and sorrow, and our group seemed to be neatly divided into those who appreciated the references to Mann’s Magic Mountain, the questionable neutrality of the characters and contrasts of light and shade in the characters’ lives and temperaments. The betrayal of Erich’s kindness is a shocking moment in the story, and a moment which the whole group felt was well observed and drawn out.

Some readers felt that the characters were poorly constructed, that Anton’s Jewishness was ‘sign-posted’, the musical and literary allusions oblique and the novel too bleak with a too convenient conclusion. One reader commented on the unlikelihood of the liberated female characters in the novel, as women of the era in Switzerland in reality, enjoyed very little power and position. Other readers felt that the dialogue was patchy, the author’s phrasing clumsy, and the story contrived and sugary sweet.

In contrast, one reader ‘felt’ the characters’ lives and circumstances and many others enjoyed the themes and questions raised, including the likelihood of achieving true neutrality which they felt the author had drawn out particularly well throughout the novel, comparing it with cowardice and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusion.

A number of readers in the group enjoyed the little snatches of pleasure that sat alongside the overall sadness of the story, and a concluding comment within the narrative from Gustav to Anton that

We have to become the people that we always should have been.

 

Rachel Orange

Bright Lights Big City

Our reading choice for May was Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, described as a comic morality tale of a young man making a hash of his life in 80s Manhattan. Bright Lights Big City taps into the zeitgeist of 80s fast-paced, drug-taking city living with all its glitter and glamour, but the reader who thinks this novel is just about drugs and hedonism would be way off the mark as McInerney’s novel is beautifully and cleverly constructed; a tale of how facing up to the truth can hurt and just how far an impressionable young man will go to bury his feelings.

The group almost uniformly enjoyed this book, with one person who couldn’t get past the characters and the Bright Lights‘preppy, annoying’ quality of the content as she saw it. This book is clever and funny with a smart engaging style, and the narrative voice its most important and revealing feature. McInerney presents us with a nameless second person narrator, a literary device that is different, takes some getting used to, and which is employed to devastating effect. The narrator is a self-pitying young man who can’t seem to get over his model wife leaving him. He has a questionable but dynamic and charmingly coercive friend Tad Allagash, who he hits the bars and clubs of Manhattan with most nights and where he does a lot of drugs. He just can’t seem to resist and is on a downward spiral of destruction.

He works as a Fact Checker in the Department of Factual Verification at a magazine, probably the New Yorker where McInerney himself once worked in the same role. There are so many wonderful characters, wittily and cleverly observed by the narrator in a Chandleresque facetious style, many of whom are chasing the ‘American Dream’, including Megan, who’s moved to New York to better herself but who has a son living back home with his father, and Tillinghast with her

Vassar vowel-sounds, but who’s sensitive about hailing from Nevada.

While he’s being bitingly funny about his colleagues, the narrator suffers from a malaise that prevents him from doing his job which annoys his boss and eventually gets him sacked. He has a susceptibility that makes him a sucker for street vendors who sell him dodgy drugs, a car, a ferret; they seem to sniff him out in his downward spiral. He’s fiercely intelligent, doesn’t seem to fit in at work and has an honesty and self-deprecation that makes the reader wonder where his story is going and what he’s hiding.

Big CityThere are telling themes in the book including the story of the Coma Baby that newspapers are reporting and which the narrator follows assiduously, and his brother Michael who turns up unexpectedly and from whom the narrator runs although we don’t know why. We learn that the Coma Baby’s mother has died and the baby lives, and we also learn that the narrator’s own mother has died from cancer a year previously and that Michael has tracked his brother down to help him stop running away both physically and metaphorically from the reality of the loss of their mother.

As the story moves towards it conclusion, the final moments are beautifully created and the story ends with the narrator walking through the early morning streets, exchanging his sunglasses for a bag of warm bread and experiencing a damascene moment; the smell of the freshly baked bread evoking a memory of his mother baking – and burning – a loaf of bread that they shared together over talk in the kitchen back home. He finally falls apart:

The smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.

We had great sympathy for the narrator, whose lack of name in the book and second person narration showed his disassociation from reality, his separation from his authentic self which stems from his unfinished relationship with his mother. We loved the symbolic nature of bread as a representation of the security of home, the love of his mother, and we felt that the exchange of sunglasses for the bread suggests the shedding of the narrator’s old destructive life for a new, more honest one. It’s an almost religious moment, an allegorical telling of a young man’s descent and re-birth, as one group member concluded

not the shallow book I was hoping for.

 

Rachel Orange

 

Wandering through Istanbul

Our reading choice for April was Orhan Pamuk’s  A Strangeness In My Mind, Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap. Pamuk’s  book  spans over 600 pages and four decades as it followed the wanderings of Mevlut, his family and friends through the cultural shifts and physical changes of Istanbul and its surrounding countryside. This was a long book and we had much to say about its narrative style, content and characters. The vast expanse of the novel is highlighted in the subtitle or strap-line to the novel which reads:

“Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View.”

One of the most striking stylistic aspects of the novel was Pamuk’s decision to vary his narrative perspective from Mevlut, or an omniscient narrator’s point of view, into the voice of several other key characters. It was agreed that, although this seemed strange and a little fragmented at the start, as it continued it became a way of exposing the lack of integration between the different perspectives of the characters.

Boza sellerWe looked at the first example of this where the previous scene described by Mevlut is contradicted by the new narrator. One reader described this as acting much like a Shakespearean aside. We agreed that the different narrative voices enabled the reader to get outside Mevlut’s head, thus exploring the story from different perspectives. This worked particularly well when Pamuk moved across the generations to expose the problems between the old and the new ways of thinking. We also noted how it allowed the reader to see life from the women’s perspective, which helped us to consider the role gender played in shaping the character’s choices. Mevlut’s voice was considered by all of us to be very distinct, and we talked about how it was described in the novel as melancholic; how his calling out to the people in the houses was like the call to prayer, which touched the people who heard it in a way that connected them to the past.

We asked the question as to how autobiographical the novel may be considered, and noted that it had not been well received in Turkey, perhaps because it told some unpleasant socio-political truths. Pamuk shows that Istanbul is not so much governed by its Muslim principles as by western values. He exposes a world were alcohol is consumed, albeit in sometimes hidden places, where prostitution exists alongside crime, hypocrisy and corruption. Pamuk calls the underworld gangs Mafia, which we considered a very loaded word and we wondered if this was the translator’s choice or Pamuk’s own terminology.

We considered that there were two different Istanbul’s in this novel, the physical space and the one in Mevlut’s mind. One of the group pointed to the quotation in chapter nine that highlights the city of the mind:

In a city you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city if that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes. (F&F, 2014. 107)

We considered the poignancy of this image and how it worked on many levels. We noted that it had echoes of James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man in the way both protagonists walked their way physically through the city alongside exploring their understanding of the world they were inhabiting.

The title of the novel is taken from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which is quoted at the start of the opening chapter:

I had melancholy thoughts… a strangeness in my mind, A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place.

This concept is explored at several intervals, including the start and end of the novel, through Mevlut’s experience of walking the streets of Istanbul. It is mentioned in reference to his relationship both to the places he is physically inhabiting and to his relationships, specifically to the mistaken identity of his beloved (marrying Rayiha instead of Samiha) and sometimes both are entwined. In Chapter three, on the way to the village for their official wedding, Mevlut begins to fear meeting Samiha in case the truth about the mistake becomes obvious to Rayiha. She senses something is wrong and he replies:

“There’s a strangeness in my mind,” said Mevlut. “No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in this world.” “You will never feel that way again now that I’m with you,” said Rayiha with maternal feeling. As Rayiha snuggled up to him, Mevlut watched her dreamlike reflection in the window of the teahouse, and he knew that he would never forget this moment. (F&F, 2014. 228)

As he wanders the streets in the years to come, he goes through many emotions but it is his love for his wife that keeps him grounded. When he is afraid of robbers, black dogs and poverty, he thinks of being at home with his wife and the girls. The safety they have together is only undermined when family plant seeds of doubt in their heads. Ferhat and Suleyman prove to be villainous in how they manipulate Mevlut, taking advantage of his good nature and exploiting his morality and work ethic.

The group discussed how Mevlut felt both connected to and estranged from the city. Unlike most of the other male characters, Mevlut is not motivated by money. He accepts the lot that he has been given with both optimism and naivety. He finds ways of coping with the difficulties by remaining, as one of our group suggested, “mentally dislocated” in his head. We considered how the novel could be described as an unconventional love story that begins with a trick leading him to become happily married to the right ‘wrong’ woman and ends with him declaring:

I have loved Rayiha more than anything in this world.

This led us to asking if he was a fortunate man. We decided that he worked against fortune to make his own fate, picking himself up and always seeing the good in others, which enabled him to get alongside the different groups. A comment was made that he had learnt this from his father who taught him as a young boy to ‘read’ people, thus helping him to stay out of trouble and yet also remaining true to himself. We talked about Mevlut’s sense of honour and how his father had instilled strong principles of right and wrong. We also saw his marriage as kismet, the perfect love match despite all the odds.

BozaThe group appreciated how much they were able to understand of the emergence of Istanbul into a modern city. We thought about the symbolism of the two hills and how it is a social commentary of an evolving city where the old fights against the new traditions. The city has its own life in this book and changes in both character and appearance throughout. The descriptions of the houses, the systems and the evolving spaces are breath-taking at times in how they evoke a sensual vision of the place and its people. An example of this is in the final chapter when Mevlut sits on the balcony of his cousins apartment surveying the modern city being built over the hills where he first lived as a young boy.

Mevlut realised that he was looking at the city from the same angle now as he had that time his father had taken him up the hill when he had first arrived in Kultepe. From this spot forty years ago you would have seen factories everywhere and all the other hills fast filling up with poor neighbourhoods, starting from the bottom and working their way to the top. All that Mevlut could see now was an ocean of apartment blocks of varying heights. […]

What faced him now was a vast wall of windows, The city – powerful, untamed, frighteningly real – still felt unbreachable, even to him. The hundreds of thousands of windows lined up along this wall were like so many eyes watching him. […]

Mevlut sensed that the light and the darkness inside his mind looked like the nighttimes landscape of the city. Maybe this was why he’d been going out into the streets to sell boza in the evening for the past forty years, no matter how little he earned from it (178, 179)

Mevlut had pondered a similar thought in chapter 15 where he starts building up a friendship with the holy guide. The group considered the holy guide as being like the oracle in Greek plays, a device to help the protagonist to find their spiritual way. Mevlut thought of him as someone with all the answers and he certainly enables him to see the city in less physical terms. He becomes symbolic of the spiritual side of Turkey which remains present despite the secular spaces and helps the writer to explore how music and art may be in conflict with religion, as for example in the whirling dervishes. Mevlut does not appear as a devoutly religious man but he has beliefs and a strong philosophical side. The holy guide was described by one member of the group as a father figure for Mevlut who challenges him, refusing to answer his questions but enabling him to keep searching for his own answers. It is through seeing him that Mevlut returns to the philosophy of his life:

his long nightly walks weren’t just part of his job anymore, they were something he felt he needed to do. When he didn’t go out wandering the streets at night, his powers of thought and imagination flagged. (350)

One of the thoughts he pondered upon led to his fixation on gravestones and to his framing a picture from a religious pamphlet called The Righteous Path.

Walking fuelled his imagination and reminded him that there was another realm within our world, hidden away behind the walls of a mosque, in a collapsing wooden mansion, or inside a cemetery. The Righteous Path had published a picture of this world as it existed in Mevlut’s mind. The image illustrated a series of articles entitles ‘The Other Realm’. […] Why were the gravestones keeling over? Why were they all different, some of them sloped sideways in sorrow? What was that whiteness coming down from above like a divine light? Why did old things and cypress tress always make Mevlut feel so good? (191)

He refers back to this image later in the book, after the earthquake, when he begins to see the buildings as similar to the gravestones. This suggests a connection between his beliefs about the actual world and the hidden realms. The political and religious backdrop for the main plot strengths the sense of two forces at work in the physical and spiritual realms. The earthquake suggests an inevitability that the new will have to replace the old; that the sad loss of traditional spaces (and their cultural dimensions) is the only way to make the damaged city a safer place to live. Mevlut, who has lived through the changes, is able to see the old beneath the new buildings and becomes a bridge that connects traditional Istanbul with its modern day façade.

Anthea Cordner

 

Exploring the truth of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen

Our book choice for March was Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Eileen’  and  the discussion began by considering how the first person narrative choice forces the reader to question how much they can trust the information that is being filtered through the disturbed vision of our main character.

Some of our group felt cheated when they considered that maybe they had been lied to by our narrator who had been careful to suggest that she was laying everything bear and therefore was a trustworthy witness to the events she was describing. We looked at how the writer achieved this closeness while retaining an element of unreliability through her clever construction of moving back and forth through time to remind the reader that the details were being constructed decades after the events had passed and through the words of a woman who was falling apart. Many readers wanted to believe that Eileen had somehow moved on in her later life to a better place but there was little in the story to convince us that she had done so. Indeed there was much to suggest that she was not in a good place after all she had experienced. The narrative as a whole had to be approached with the question as to how much was real.

CarThe strength of this novel lies in the jarring relationship between the two female characters and how this acts as a catalyst for the unfolding events. Eileen’s description of Rebecca Saint John sets her up as a femme fatale who Eileen hero-worships almost to the point of falling in love with an ideal of womanhood. The crime scene in the novel suggests that Rebecca is the leader both tricking and confusing Eileen into becoming an accomplice. The reader however is reminded that the narrative format forces us to question if it happened as Eileen described and how we can understand Rebecca’s motivations and actions beyond Eileen’s version. The question can also be asked if Eileen is neglecting to add her own motivation to the narrative as there is much of her life that parallels the Polk family so it may be wish fulfilment to avenge her own parent’s abuse that drives her actions rather than merely the weakness of falling in with her new-found friend’s poorly hashed plans to force a confession.

The discussion about the writing style of this novel highlighted the over-sharing of bodily functions, which added to the confessional approach of an ‘I’ narrator who claimed to be telling all. Some readers noted that her 2016 interviews with The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly and The Telegraph hinted that the author had personal experience of alcoholism and eating disorders. This has led Moshfegh to be compared to Sylvia Plath, but we chose to consider her form of confessional style to be more in keeping with modern American feminist writings such as that of Lena Dunham who cites her motivation for her hit series Girls as rejecting the objectification of women. Moshfegh stated in her Publisher’s Weekly interview that she wanted to create “an honest character” that could express hard truths and that she was exploring feminist issues using a mystery/thriller format. Although we appreciated the concept of what Moshfegh suggests may be her motivation, several readers were sceptical that this was her sole intention and that the novel read like a checklist of every unpleasant topic that could be rolled out to create shock value and therefore get her noticed as a writer.

This novel certainly produced a lively discussion and despite its unlikeable characters, anti-heroes and disturbing descriptions of lives falling apart, the group enjoyed this month’s choice and agreed it had real moments of exceptional writing. Moshfegh creates a believable world that expresses the claustrophobia of a small town in 1960s America where an ex-cop’s daughter has to lock his shoes in the car to prevent him causing havoc in his alcoholic rages. The clustering of images suggesting imprisonment fits well with the setting and highlights the confessional purposes of the narrative where the reader must question truth, culpability and how damaging childhood experiences create broken individuals.

We look forward to next month’s book choice which will lead us all in a very different direction. I hope to see you all on 10th April to discuss Orhan Pamuk A Strangeness in my Mind.

Anthea Cordner

One Thousand and One Nights

In February we read award-winning journalist and novelist Hanan Al-Shaykh’s adaptation of 19 tales from the Persian story collection, One Thousand and One Nights. Al-Shaykh had ploughed through more than 8,000 pages of an original version of the tales to distil what she feels are:

the very best into a single, approachable volume.

How Al-Shaykh came to get her hands on the stories in One thousand and One Nights is an extraordinary tale in itself; growing up in Beirut, she heard them dramatized over the radio but as a woman, was unable to get her hands on the forbidden book, as men didn’t want women or children to read the tales for their explicitly sexual nature. As an adult, finally getting her hands on a copy, Hanan Al-Shaykh discovered the beauty of the text:

I felt right away it is one of the most important and complex historical origins of literature.

ScheherazadeAs a group we agreed with this sentiment, but the version of One Thousand and One Nights that Al-Shaykh has created didn’t go down well as an enjoyable read with everyone. One reader described the stories as mesmerising, and said that she had forced herself to slow down her reading to enjoy them for as long as possible. Another reader was so struck by the tales that he had taken the time to read more about Al-Shaykh as an author. Some of us enjoyed the humour of the tales together with the cunning and wit of the women outwitting the men who oppressed them.

We couldn’t help but compare these Arabian tales of powerful djinns, kings and cunning females who are forced to find ways to overcome the men who oppress them, with other forms of story-telling that we’ve come across throughout our literary lives. We discussed other experiences of stories and story-telling, thinking about fairy tales and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales while another member discussed the oral tradition of story-telling by one individual to a group of people, referencing a recent experience that she had particularly enjoyed.

A common feeling amongst us was that the format for each of the 19 stories Al-Shaykh had chosen to re-create is the same over and over again, and one reader in particular said that she began to despair at the beginning of each chapter, knowing that she’d be reading the same themes with the same format in each tale. We may not have appreciated these stories but we did collectively remember and enjoy some of the great characters, notably the brilliant woman Scheherazade, who outwits the bloodthirsty King through her own story-telling.

One Thousand and One Nights should be appreciated as a series of stories that were begun more than 11,000 years ago, and their explicit nature is one that Hanan Al-Shaykh has tried to enliven while introducing a modern graphic.

My own reading this year has so far covered a broad range of genres. I’ve just finished Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days Without End’ which won the Costa prize and other books this year have included Lyndall Gordon’s literary life of Charlotte Brontë and Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’.

Our next meeting is on Monday 13 March when we’ll be discussing ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Rachel

It’s a long story

NWN Durham Reading Group’s first meeting of 2017 presented a challenge as we surfaced from our yuletide excesses to discuss our Christmas read, ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara. Despite the promise of the title it is not a short novel, in fact it is over 700 pages and not an easy subject matter to digest alongside turkey and Christmas pudding. Fortunately, the Durham group can face most challenges head on and the majority present had completed reading the book.

pic 1I was initially seduced by the authors intriguing characterizations and description of a group of accomplished young men who meet at college and form enduring friendships. One of them, Jude, is reticent and secretive about his past, unable to share in childhood reminiscence. As another reader commented, this almost had echoes of Donna Tart and ‘The Secret History’. The author paints a convincing picture of how Jude succeeds in forming relationships without his own self-revelation. Carefully he encourages friends to talk of themselves and deflects their questions without antagonising them. We become curious as to how all their lives will unfold as they navigate careers and relationships. The narrator focuses on their individual emerging identities and the pain of forming identities in their social groupings amongst artists, actors, architects and lawyers. There are numerous references to the pressures imposed by academic, artistic and professional subcultures as each young man grapples with uncertainty, shame and humiliation in his circumstances, whatever his background. Even wealthy parents can be a source of shame for a son who cannot support himself financially, like Malcolm. Choices of employment are subject to the harsh scrutiny of peers, carelessly disapproving of work that does not pursue the true ideals of artists and right thinking people. Corporate sell out is despised. The descriptive detail in this first 200 pages is vivid, skilful and engaging, such as JB’s journey to his studio: –

The other aspect of those weekday-evening trips he loved was the light itself; how it filled the train like something living as the cars rattled across the bridge, how it washed the weariness from his seatmates faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country… watch that kind light suffuse the car like syrup…

The description of JB’s painting and defiance of the art world’s norms is fascinating. At times, the author’s portrayal of artists is astute: –

somewhere inside you, whether you were making out with someone in a bar or having dinner with your friends, was always your canvas, its shapes and possibilities floating embryonically behind your pupils…

pic 2As the narrative progresses, however and we realise that the main story is Jude, his identity as a victim and relentless self -harming I rapidly lost interest with the repetitive nature of the material. I yearned for emotional depth and intriguing plot as I dutifully read the book through. I was repulsed by the emphasis on the details of the self-harming and the predominance of victimhood. Others in the group, however, remained gripped by the intrigue of the relationships and the characters throughout. For several readers, it was a greatly praised novel. Indeed, it came with great expectations arising from its numerous glittering reviews and Booker prize shortlisting for 2015.

We mainly debated the nature of Jude’s relationships. How believable were his relationships with Harold and with Willem? Why did Harold adopt him as an adult? What motivated Willem to be Jude’s carer, and eventually his lover? Can people like this be helped or saved from such tragic lives? What did the title mean? I have since found a passage referring to Willem feeling he had such ‘a little life’ in comparison with his artistic peers. He is at a party being asked about his commitment to his acting and whether he feels he is having to compromise his artistic ideals to be successful. He, Jude, JB and Malcolm are all professionally successful in a big way but he feels diminished in the eyes of those whose values matter to him.

At times, we contemplated the fairy tale or pantomime quality to some of the plot, the abused child being rescued by a fairy godfather, a loyal companion and a handsome prince. This had no fairy tale ending, however and left me craving beauty. I am reminded of Keats lines from Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Yanagihara’s novel describes characters enmeshed in one man’s mistaken flight from being known, forever trapped in deceit: a physically beautiful man forever hiding the ‘ugly’ truth.

Angela Douglas

The Shepherd’s Life – A Tale of the Lake District

Our reading choice for the last book group meeting of 2016 was James Rebanks’  ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ and as a group, we were divided in our liking for and appreciation of this best-selling book.

rebanksRebanks has given us a flavour of his life and experiences as a hill shepherd, a difficult and challenging way to make a living which he acknowledges is best supplemented by additional work to boost fluctuating income. He tells us about the family that shaped him and the people he lives near and does business with, the men and women in and around the Matterdale valley in Cumbria.

After descriptions of his shaky experience at school and a system that failed him, the group felt that this hadn’t held the author back, as he’s fortunate to be blessed with a quick and lively intelligence, a talent for writing and an enterprising and proactive spirit that affords him opportunities to pursue and exploit. He has a warm, generous and loving family around him and a father whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the landscape Rebanks tells us, makes a nonsense of conventional ideas of intelligence.

Rebanks writes with an evocative and poetic style, exploring the physical life of a sheep farmer, inextricably bound with meaning of the Cumbrian landscape and detailing a life where:

landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a million little unseen jobs.

His use of words is delicious and evocative of both the harshness of farming life through the seasons and the beauty of the landscape. Many of us felt Rebanks is trying to get a range of points across, in particular, the value of those who farm in maintaining the fabric and culture of the landscape. He points us to other countries where the lack of farmers in more remote areas creates a dearth in maintaining the cultural element of the landscape.

Rebanks observes the landscape and puts his observations into exquisite language –

Little things you see make it special. Skeins of geese pass over, high in the frosty blue. Ravens tumble over each other down the wind, like a black ribbon descending from the fell. Foxes skulk across the frost­ed fields at first light. Hares watch you with big dark watery eyes” and “the heron folds down the wind heading downstream.

sheepDescriptions of sheep are personal and wonderful and he explains the knowledge and understanding that goes into breading and improving a flock born out of hard work and skill. He tells us:

sheep are cultural objects, almost like art

and we can see exactly what he means.

We were divided in our feelings about the format of the narrative. Some readers felt that the story flowed like the seasons, with the author touching on particular stories at varying points and matching those seasons, where past present and future are always the same, running and flowing into each other. Others were bothered by this and felt that the narrative was random and disjointed, with some commenting that Rebanks touches upon subjects but doesn’t expand on them, one reader stating that she felt the structure could have been improved in order for the depth of Rebanks’ arguments to come out.

One reader felt that in the opening pages, the author seems to be against the very people who are reading his book but as he develops his story, he engages the reader in a positive way. Others were divided in their opinion about how political Rebanks is being in his narrative, some feeling that he makes points but won’t be drawn on them as was their experience when they heard him speak about the book during his appearance at the Durham Book Festival.

The discussion concluded with a reader describing the book as:

a lovely bowl of broth, warm and hearty, where you get a different bit in your mouth with every spoonful and you never quite know what you’re going to get next.

Perfect.

 

Rachel Orange

A Discussion of Two Halves: Jessie Burton – The Muse

Hello to all our members and welcome to Paula and Sam who joined us for their first time at our November discussion. This Monday was also my first session as co-leader and blogger with our group.

the-museWe had a rather lively discussion on Monday evening and I seem to remember a good few laughs which reflected how much we enjoyed this book and how much there was to unpick, particularly about our responses to the characters and the way the plot unfolded over juxtaposing times and places. Rachel led the discussion saying that she had been one of the members who had suggested the novel because she had enjoyed Burton’s previous book The Miniaturist, which also had a painting at the heart of its storyline. Several members thought that the mystery painting was based on a real work of art and were surprised to learn that despite using the name of a real art dealer, Peggy Guggenheim, and the legend of two Catholic saints, the painting only existed in the novel. The comment was made that the author had tricked the readers into believing in its existence. Perhaps this connects to the duplicity of the plot concerning the authenticity of the artist.

There were several tricky aspects to the novel which made it more enjoyable for many of the readers. We liked the depictions of the two stylistically drawn artistic eras, with differing preferences for one section over the other. Our discussion of 1960s London pointed towards the attention to detail, particularly in recreating Dolcis rather than a generic shoe shop. We all loved the story of the lady with no toes and would have liked to have read this as a short story within the novel. There was a lot of laughter over descriptions of London, and phrases such as, ‘well crafted’, ‘nuggets of fun’ and ‘wonderful snippets of the past’ were used to sum up these sections of the novel. We considered how the author had a tendency to use unusual descriptions and her playfulness with adjectives throughout the novel. One reader noted how language was used in an enjoyable way and she read out the following quotation as an example:

I reached for a bread roll and rested it in my palm. It was the weight and size of a small marsupial and I had an instinct to stroke it. Feeling her eyes upon me, I plunged my thumb into the crust instead. (p24)

It was however generally agreed that the opening chapters needed some editing as they sat in contrast to the rest of the book. This was particularly the case when considering the early depictions of Odelle. The question was raised as to why she spoke and thought with a Caribbean accent when this was not done with other characters from different countries, such as Teresa, Isaac or Harold. It was also noted that Odelle’s education would have given her a public school accent rather than the vernacular language used in the opening section of the novel.

Our discussions about 1930s Spain considered the way the author chose to write about war and her use of character. Some readers felt that the Spanish Civil War was more effectively portrayed than others. There was a subtlety about its presence which was described as in keeping with the position of an aristocratic overseas family. We had a lengthy debate over Sarah’s character which highlighted how interested we were in her past and how we wanted to know more about her motivation. We were split on whether or not to feel sympathy for a woman of her generation who despite being a wealthy heiress was trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering husband, or to question her morality towards her children. We wondered why she would leave all her money to her second husband and not to her son and why she was so distant towards her daughter. We were impressed by descriptions of her physical appearance as a way to show us her emotional state but we agreed that it would have been a very different novel if it had been written from Sarah’s point of view and we all wanted more from this fascinating character.

Isaac was the other character we discussed at length, predominantly as he was depicted as the muse from the title. In j-burtonmany respects we felt that Teresa was more of a muse to Olive than Isaac. This was particularly the case for the key painting where she was drawn by Olive and became her inspiration. She remains an enabler of female artistic goals and this nurturing role would suggest she is central to the creative process. We wondered if there were hints that Teresa’s emotional connection to Olive was more than friendship and if jealousy was at the base of her fatal decisions. The siblings had a strange relationship that suggested Isaac was also jealous of Teresa’s relationship to Olive. Isaac was considered by all to be the anti-hero; the exact opposite of everything that he ought to be. He was a mediocre painter who was jealous and petty about Olive’s talents, a coward who used his sister and others to protect himself and an unfaithful lover, who used both mother and daughter to bolster his ego. There was some sympathy for his relationship with Sarah as he suggested his true feelings were for her and that she needed him whereas Olive did not, however this does not excuse his behaviour towards Olive and his role in hurting all the womenfolk. Isaac was ultimately described as ‘the most despicable character in the novel’ despite Harold’s overbearing patriarchy. We noted that Olive and Sarah were oppressed by Harold which highlighted the gender gap of that period. We considered that this was around the same time frame as the Bloomsbury group and how they had created a space of artistic freedom for women which was the exception rather than the norm in Europe during the early twentieth century. We therefore enjoyed how the male characters were portrayed in the novel and how this reflected positively on the female characters.

The final part of our night was a conversation about book covers and most of the readers agreed that the Picador cover played a role in drawing them toward certain books. We noted the illusory use of symbols on this cover to highlight the themes of revolution, writing, art, creation and betrayal. We discussed how there had been a recent BBC4 programme about Virago books which had asked readers to send in pictures of the original green covers, and the difficulties women had in the art world during the 60s and 70s.

In conclusion we found The Muse an enjoyable and easy read despite themes of war and cultural displacement. Most of the readers appreciated the ‘Quick flick’ at the end of the novel (no more will be said on this to avoid plot spoilers) although there were some parts that worked more successfully than others. We enjoyed the way the painting was used to tie the two parts of the novel together, and how fact and fiction were interwoven to make us question depictions of truth, especially as it is recreated over time. Isaac was a character we loved to hate, particularly as his public persona was in complete contrast to what the reader knew. We thought some plot constructs and characters were less believable than others and would like to have heard more from the strong central female characters. The Muse generated a great discussion and therefore would be recommended as a good choice for book group readers.

We’ve decided on the next three books for our group and will be celebrating the Christmas period with a meal after our December group meeting which Alison is again kindly organising for us – details will follow and please get in touch if you wish to be included.

January Book: A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara

February Book: One Thousand and One Nights. Hanan Al-Shaykh

March Book: Eileen. Ottessa Moshfegh

 

Best wishes and hope to see you all Monday 12th December,

Anthea Cordner