Review 1872: The Bass Rock

Told in three compelling narratives that take place over centuries, The Bass Rock is a novel about the history of violence toward women. The novel is located on the banks of the Firth of Forth, an area of Scotland dominated by the Bass Rock.

Early in the 18th century, the local priest comes upon some young men raping a very young girl, Sarah. The priest rescues her, but the young men claim she must be a witch because she enchanted them and forced them to do it. Soon, the men have burned down the priest’s house, and the entire household must flee toward the beach.

Post-World War II, Ruth and her husband Peter have recently moved into the big house in North Berwick. Ruth doesn’t quite understand the reason for the move, since Peter works in London. He says it is for the benefit of his sons by his previous marriage, Christopher and Michael, but they are being sent off to school. Soon, newly wed Ruth finds herself left very much on her own with only the housekeeper Betty for company. She begins to discover some secrets in the family.

After Ruth’s death as an old lady, Michael’s daughter Viv is hired by the family to sort through the things left in the house so it can be sold. She has recently had some mental issues and feels like she is the family failure. Almost despite herself, she befriends Maggie, a homeless occasional sex worker who has an interesting take on things. Maggie tells her there is a ghost in the house.

This is a powerful novel. Although its theme is grim, its main characters are relatable and sometimes likable. I loved All the Birds, Singing, and this is another winner from Wyld.

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Review 1871: Four Gardens

Furrowed Middlebrow calls Four Gardens one of Margery Sharp’s most beloved books. At first, I thought the novel was just okay, but gradually it won me over. It’s essentially a character study of Caroline, a woman born into the Victorian era who has to learn to adapt to more modern times.

The novel begins with Caroline as a teenage girl, still in the 19th century. She comes from an ordinary middle-class family and recognizes a big divide between herself and the people she knows and the others from the Common, the area where the wealthier people live. She and her family, for example, work on the annual festival, but they are not invited to it.

In the neighborhood is a deserted house with extensive gardens. Although it is trespassing, Caroline sneaks in there and meets Vincent, an upper-class boy. During the summer, she runs off to meet him in the garden. But once he sees her with her family, he stops coming.

Beginning with this disappointing first romance, Four Gardens follows Caroline as she marries, has children, meets with a change of fortune, gets through World War I, and continues into middle age and older. She is an endearing heroine, realistically experiencing the changes of the times. It’s an affectionate and lovely novel.

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Review 1870: Absent in the Spring

For some reason, I always thought that the novels Agatha Christie wrote as Mary Westmacott were romance novels. Absent in the Spring, however, is a character study with an edge, reminding me more of some of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

Middle-aged Joan Scudamore gets stranded for several days at a guest house on her way from Baghdad to London. Before this happens, there is a revealing encounter between her and an old school friend, Blanche Haggard. Joan is judgmental toward Blanche, thinks she looks old and untidy and blames her appearance on the unfortunate choices she has made in life. Blanche cheerfully admits her bad choices but says she has enjoyed her life. She also hints at something about Joan’s daughter Barbara. We realize we like Blanche more than Joan.

During the five days Joan is stranded, she begins reconsidering her self-satisfied attitude, realizing some truths about herself and her family that she has hidden from herself. It is clear to the reader that she has bullied her husband and children, but she sees her behavior as doing her best for them. She thinks she has helped them to happy lives, but she has tried to make them all do what she thinks is right.

The big question is whether Joan can change her attitude. Let’s just say the novel is much more in the Realism school than Christie’s mysteries.

And by the way, let me just state my objection to this book being relabeled under Christie’s name. On the cover of my edition, the Christie name is more noticeable than Westmacott. Although I see no harm in acknowledging somewhere that they’re the same person, this is a marketing ploy that I don’t agree with. She wrote the book under the name Westmacott, so that should be the predominant name.

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Review 1869: The Widows of Malabar Hill

In 1920’s Bombay, Perveen Mistry is the only female lawyer in the city. She is working with her father at the Mistry law office when a question comes up about the trust for the three widows of Omar Farid. First, the family’s agent Mr. Mukri says the widows want to change the purpose of the trust from support of veterans to the establishment of a madrassa. Further, the wives are giving up their mahr (sort of a dowry) to the trust. That may not be allowed by law. But Perveen also notices that the signatures of two of the women appear to be the same. Since the women are living in purdah, Purveen talks her father into allowing her to interview the wives.

When Perveen visits the wives, she finds Mr. Mukri rude and uncooperative and only Sakina, the second wife, understands and agrees with the requested changes. Sakina is shocked to find out that Razia, the first wife, is the administrator of the trust. Razia is unaware that Mr. Mukri has filed for a change in the purpose of the trust, but she is clearly afraid of him. Perveen also finds out that the agent has not been paying the household’s bills and that the third wife, Mumtaz, is trying to hide a pregnancy from the rest of the household. Perveen believes Mukri is mishandling the estate’s funds.

This novel is being marketed as a mystery, but it is about 80 pages before Perveen goes to see the women and 120 before a murder is committed. That is mostly because Massey devotes about half the novel to Perveen’s personal life, particularly her brief marriage. It seems to me that she could have accomplished what she needed to do in a few paragraphs or a chapter, because we don’t invest much in this relationship. Perveen is afraid of her ex-husband at the beginning of the novel, but the reasons could be explained in a lot less space.

Massey does a good job of giving the feel of the indoor spaces and food and costume, but I didn’t get a good sense of what Bombay was like at this time, something that I look for in a novel set in an exotic location or other time. And, in fact, Perveen’s visit to Calcutta for the first time is an excellent opportunity to describe that city, but there is no description.

At first, too, I thought I was going to object to Perveen being too much out of her time, for I really dislike historical novels where the heroines behave more like they live in the present. This particularly bothered me in the section about Perveen’s romance, but as the novel continued, it stopped being an issue.

This is not a mystery, however. Perveen pokes around a bit, but the solution just depends on her being in the right place at the right time. It is her father who actually finds the most important clues. So, overall I was disappointed in this novel.

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Review 1868: The Swiss Summer

When Lucy Cottrell’s friend takes her to visit an elderly friend, Lady Dagleish, she has no idea how her immediate plans will be affected. Lady Dagleish is sending her companion, Freda Blandish, to spend the summer at her chalet in Switzerland to inventory its contents, and Lady Dagleish tells Lucy she must go along and spend the summer in the chalet, inviting any friends she wishes.

All during her marriage, Lucy has fallen in with her husband’s ideas for a holiday, he preferring to stay in England or Scotland and near convivial friends. But Lucy has yearned for the alpine meadows of her honeymoon, for quiet and beautiful scenery, so she is surprised but delighted by Lady Dagleish’s invitation.

Lucy is thrilled to arrive at a beautiful, large chalet high up in the mountains. Although she was not impressed by Mrs. Blandish when she met her, Lucy herself is an amenable person, and at first things go well. Then Mrs. Blandish’s teenage daughter Astra arrives and makes it clear that Lady Dagleish doesn’t like her and wouldn’t want her there. Mrs. Blandish asks Lucy not to tell her, and Lucy reluctantly agrees.

Lucy finds she likes Astra but is dismayed to learn that Mrs. Blandish expects more guests—paying guests—her friend Mrs. Price-Wharton and her family, and she expects Lucy to keep quiet about it. Utta, the Swiss housekeeper, is certain these people should not be there, but she doesn’t know what to do about it.

Finally, Lucy’s own guests arrive, her godson and a friend who are mountain-climbing in the area. The two young men begin to make friends with Astra and snobbish friend Kay Price-Wharton. Lucy does not quite have the quiet holiday she desired.

This novel has some likable characters and some not so likable. It is full of the beauties of Switzerland in the 50s, and like another novel, The Enchanted April, made me want to go to its setting immediately. I had to laugh at all the references to the characters’ healthy red (or tanned) faces, though. This novel is charming, with just a hint of the sardonic.

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Review 1866: The Bird Artist

The Bird Artist, I find, is listed as the first in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy, of which The Haunting of L. is the third. I’m not sure I understand the grouping, since I have read several other books by Norman and they are all set in Canada, so far. However that may be, I continue to be charmed by his work even though it all seems to explore some dark places.

Fabian Vas is the narrator of the novel, and he tells us right off the bat that he has murdered someone. Then he goes on to describe his life in the remote village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, where he becomes a bird artist and boat fixer, beginning his story in 1911.

Two complicated sets of relationships affect Fabian’s future when he is a young man. One is that between Alaric, his mother, and Orkney, his father. The other is between himself and Margaret, his longtime friend and lover. Margaret is acerbic, and Fabian seems ambivalent. Alaric hates Margaret, so she talks Orkney into arranging a marriage for him with a cousin he has never met. It is this arrangement that kicks off a series of events ending in some fatalities.

That makes it sound like a dark novel, but it is not. In fact, it has a lightness to it, in tone, in its insights in its characters. It is about betrayal and guilt but also about redemption. Another fine novel from Norman.

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Review 1862: Strange Journey

Polly Wilkinson, a middle-class suburban housewife and mother, is leaning on her garden gate, tired from housework. She sees a woman in a Rolls Royce stopped in traffic and wishes she was that woman. For a moment, she is, but it doesn’t last long and she thinks the experience is a daydream.

After that, Polly is periodically removed from her life and takes the place of aristocratic Lady Elizabeth Forrester. After some initial confusion about what is happening, she believes Elizabeth is causing this exchange, and she is put in some awkward positions, such as finding herself in the middle of a fox hunt when she can’t ride. She purposefully makes Elizabeth do things she doesn’t usually do, such as play bridge brilliantly, in a sort of revenge. She also returns home to find the furniture moved and her children demanding stories she’s not familiar with. What could be causing these body exchanges?

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this novel, which reminded me of The Victorian Chaise-Longue, but it grew on me. It wasn’t as dismal as the other novel, and I liked how Polly’s more open and positive personality had an effect on Elizabeth’s life while Elizabeth’s confidence helped Polly and her husband’s career.

Of course, the novel comments on class issues, but Cairnes’s representation of Polly’s suburban life is so realistic that I was surprised to find Cairnes came from a background closer to Elizabeth’s. She doesn’t skewer or patronize the suburban characters. If anything, Polly’s frank kindness opens Elizabeth’s eyes to some truths. Sadly, (small spoiler) the class divide is still strong enough in 1930’s England that the women can’t remain friends in the future.

I received this novel from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1861: Great Circle

After getting fired from a hit TV series with a cult following for damaging the brand, Hadley Baxter thinks her career might be over. However, she is approached about starring in an independent film about the life of Marian Graves, an early aviator who disappeared in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the earth via the poles.

Although the novel sometimes follows Hadley as she tries to figure herself out, its main focus is on Marian and her twin brother, Jamie. As babies, they are on their father’s ship when it sinks, and because he chooses to save them rather than go down with his ship, he serves time in jail. They are raised in Missoula, Montana, by their alcoholic artist uncle, who lets them run wild.

When a pair of barnstormers stop over, Marian is bit by the flying bug. She is already doing men’s work, so she begins working harder to earn enough for flying lessons. But no one will teach her until she meets Barclay Macqueen, a bootlegger.

Great Circle is a broad-ranging novel that takes us from bootlegging in the West to serving mining camps in Alaska to ferrying planes in England before the flight around the world. I found Marian’s story more compelling than Hadley’s but still found the novel fascinating. Since I read it, it has been nominated for the Booker prize, so is part of my project.

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Review 1860: Luckenbooth

I just loved Jenni Fagan’s other books, so I was expecting a lot from Luckenbooth. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite deliver.

The devil’s daughter launches herself off the island where she was born, using her own coffin for a boat. She arrives at a tenement in Edinburgh to take on the function her father has sold her for, to be the surrogate mother for Mr. Uldam’s child with his fiancée Elise.

This is the first of nine story threads that proceed up the nine floors of 10 Luckenbooth Close, a building of secrets and horrors. The novel has a specific structure. It is split into thirds, with each third featuring the tales of residents on three floors of the building, and each thread advancing a decade in time, beginning in 1910. On the second floor, a transgender woman attends a transgressive party in 1928. On the third floor, a black Southern American works in the bone library of a veterinary school in 1939, and so on. The building hides some horrors that are finally revealed in 1999, when Dot, who is squatting in the derelict building, rips out the walls of the lower floors. But these secrets are no big surprise.

The stories are written in modern vernacular, which I suppose is a stylistic choice, but found it grating, especially for Levi’s letters to his brother. He’s the black American from Louisiana, and besides not sounding 1939ish, he doesn’t sound American, he doesn’t sound black, and he definitely doesn’t sound Southern. In fact, the more I think about it, I feel this choice to use modern vernacular indicates a general attitude of laziness. As an example, Levi chooses to explain things to his brother that his brother would know—like the building being called tenement, as if the U. S. hasn’t had tenements for hundreds of years. In fact, Levi is unbelievably naïve for a black man from the American South. The rich get everything while the poor get nothing? What a surprise!

Another example is that for a gothic novel that is supposed to convey the dark history of Edinburgh, there is an amazing lack of a sense of place (except for in the building) until 1999. Does this suggest that the author thus evaded any research into the appearance of Edinburgh in the past?

I can go on about this, but I just want to bring up a few more things. One is the polemic passages in the novel. There are long passages of ranting about such subjects as the treatment of the poor or women. I would have thought these ideas could have been worked in differently.

Next, I don’t know anything about William S. Burroughs, for example, whether he believed what Fagan has him say. All I know is, after the first few paragraphs when he started talking, I started flipping pages.

Finally, there is a gangster standoff in 1977 where what is said is so unlikely that I could barely stand it. It seems like it might have been a juvenile idea of a “cool” scene.

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Review 1849: Much Dithering

Jocelyn Renshawe is a young widow who has always done what is expected of her, that expectation arising from two older ladies, Mrs. Pallfrey, her aunt, and the Honourable August Renshawe, her mother-in-law. She leads a quiet life, mostly doing good works. At the beginning of the novel, she is about to suffer a visit from her mother, Ermyntrude.

Ermyntrude is the most selfish being in this novel, which is full of them. She finds her daughter a bore, and her only reason for visiting her is because she is what Lambert calls a “baby-stealer” and what we would call a cougar. She is interested in cementing her affair with Adrian Murchison-Bellaby, whose parents have just taken a house near the village of Much Dithering, where Jocelyn lives. Ermyntrude wants to show Adrian’s parents how suitable she would be as a wife. However, when Adrian meets Jocelyn, Ermytrude is unable to see that he falls in love with her daughter.

In a thunderstorm on the way back from one of her good deeds, Jocelyn accepts a ride from a stranger who is having trouble finding Much Dithering. He is Gervase Blyth, who has unexplained business in the area.

Soon, Jocelyn unaccountably has three men in love with her. But the one she prefers is most likely to force her out of her protective shell.

It’s not very hard to guess the outcomes of this entertaining light novel, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to read. Its characters’ foibles are all too human, but still funny. This was a perfect light read for me from my Classics Club list.

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