Day 1224: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire

Cover for The Alphabet of Heart's DesireThe Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is about an incident in the early life of Thomas De Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bare bones of fact are that De Quincey, as a young man, was given an allowance to use in his travels around the country, which he stopped getting when he fell out of touch with his family. Destitute, he was rescued by Anne, a prostitute. This novel tells their stories, along with that of Tuah, a Malay slave who is taken in by Archie, who sells used clothing.

I had a lot of trouble reading this novel and kept putting it aside to read other books. I almost decided to quit reading it when I realized I was 80% done, so I finished it. My problem was that I didn’t find any of the three major characters, De Quincey, Anne, and Tuah, particularly interesting. Here is a situation where the author tries to invoke interest in his characters by making bad things happen to them, trying to raise our sympathy from these unfortunate events rather than from the characters’ own personalities.

link to NetgalleyI also found this fictionalized interpretation of a short period in De Quincey’s life to be relatively pointless. All it serves is to wrap up Anne’s fate in a pretty bow. In reality, she disappeared into the London stews.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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Day 1207: White Houses

Cover for White HousesAmy Bloom’s latest novel, White Houses, leads me to a topic that I’ve mentioned before. I think it is important, when writing fiction about real people, to keep their characters true to that of the original person. Historians disagree about whether Eleanor Roosevelt’s warm friendship with Lorena Hickok was a full-blown lesbian affair. Those who believe it was, base their supposition on Eleanor’s exuberant letters. Those who do not, base it on Eleanor’s dislike of being touched. I think that’s significant, and I think people these days misinterpret the tone of letters from earlier times, when friends expressed themselves more affectionately than we do.

Amy Bloom has chosen to believe that the women’s relationship was a lesbian affair, and that’s what White Houses is about—and all that it’s about. It is written from the point of view of Lorena Hickok—or Hicky, as she was called.

link to NetgalleyThe novel paints a relatively convincing portrait of Eleanor, although I don’t buy the bed bouncing, and it is a sad story and ultimately touching. Its premise, though, makes me uncomfortable for the reasons stated above.

Franklin does not appear in a positive light, and in terms of their marriage, he should not. The character study of Hicky as a downright, plain-speaking reporter who gave up her career for love is a good one, and one I can believe.

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Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

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Day 1177: Song of a Captive Bird

Cover for Song of a Captive BirdI have this little quirk. I’ll pick out a book, but when I actually get around to reading it, I don’t look at the blurb to remind myself what it is about. If I’d done that, I would have known that Song of a Captive Bird is about an actual person, and that knowledge may have affected my reaction to it. On the other hand, a novel should stand or fall on its own merits, not because of what you know or don’t know about it before you begin reading it.

In the 1950’s and 60’s Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad is having a difficult time with the strictures of her culture. She wants to be a poet, but the role of women in her country is still only that of a wife and mother. She has always been a difficult child, and as a young woman, her first act of rebellion is in trying to select a husband for herself. She chooses her cousin Parvez because of a shared interest in poetry.

She marries Parvez but at the cost of losing the regard of her father, a powerful general under the Shah. But marriage isn’t what she expected. Instead of staying in Tehran, her husband takes her home to his small village where they live with his disapproving mother. In the village, her every action is scrutinized.

link to NetgalleyThe novel follows Forugh as she pursues her career as a poet and later a film director despite being slandered, attacked, and viewed as a prostitute by most of Iranian society. It is interesting in its evocation of this time and culture, especially the details of everyday life and the build-up to the Iranian revolution. However, something was missing for me. The novel did not seem particularly successful as an inspiring and moving story of one woman’s courage.

I think my reaction was because of Darznik’s choice to write this novel in first person. There was something about that perspective that didn’t work, particularly at the end of the novel. Although I think I would have ordinarily been touched by this woman’s story—she was certainly gifted and courageous—something about the novel kept me from getting fully involved.

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Day 1168: Hodd

Cover for HoddI was never one for the romantic legends of Robin Hood. I always thought that, if he did exist, he was probably just the leader of a gang of thugs. And such, apparently, is indicated by the older ballads about him. In Hodd, Adam Thorpe weaves a story of the man that is closer to that told by the older ballads.

This novel is all about the manuscript, as the text of Hodd is supposedly the find of a medieval manuscript, written by a 13th century monk. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is writing the story of his youth. The novel includes scholarly notes from its translator and comments by its discoverer, a soldier in World War I. Some of these notes are funny, and some, I think, are meant to be parodic.

The narrator is about 14 when he is traveling with his master, a monk named Thomas, to Nottingham. They are held up by Hodd’s men and the narrator’s harp is stolen. He decides to go back and get it and is captured by Robert Hodd and his men.

Hodd is actually a sort of lunatic cult leader, who believes that there is no sin and that he is better than God. His followers believe him. He keeps himself intoxicated and has constant visions. He and his men are utterly ruthless and cruel. But rather than killing the narrator, Hodd decides to keep him as one of his men. He is a musician, and he can write songs about Hodd.

The narrator tells a parallel story of his education and upbringing by a holy hermit. This story continues throughout the book and comes in strongly at the end.

I think Thorpe realistically imagines the workings of the medieval mind, showing us strange beliefs. As such, this is a very unusual novel. I could have done without some of the religious moralizing, which filled the novel, as it would a medieval manuscript.

If you are a reader who needs a character to like, this is probably not the book for you, for even the relatively innocent narrator is perfidious. He so much wants to be loved that his jealousy turns him against people.

This is another interesting book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1158: Mrs. Engels

Cover for Mrs. EngelsBest of Five!
Lately, I’ve realized that the novels I enjoy most have a strong narrative voice or sense of character. Mrs. Engels, the debut novel of Irish writer Gavin McCrea, is one of these. I had the fortune to read it as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project.

Lizzie Burns is the Irish mistress of Frederick Engels, long accepted as Mrs. Engels. She has a lot to put up with. Although Engels supports Karl Marx’s entire household, liberally, so that Marx can work on his book, he is very careful about what is spent on his own household. Further, Lizzy suspects him of yearning for her sister, Mary, who was his mistress before she died. And Lizzy is aware that Frederick is not faithful. Finally, he is completely devoted to a Communist revolution, so he often opens the house to his comrades or sends Lizzy on errands for the cause.

Mrs. Engels is a vivid imagining of Lizzy’s life, beginning in 1870 and looking backward to the past. A poor worker in Engels’s cloth mill, she leads a penurious life until Mary takes up with Frederick Engels. She becomes involved with the Fenian movement through her lover, Moss Óg. All in all, she’s a strong presence, funny and putting up with no nonsense. As she becomes more involved with the Marx family after she and Engels move to London, she begins to learn more about Frederick and what he will do for the cause, which to him means Marx.

This novel is beguiling, drawing me, at least, into a topic that I wasn’t much interested in. It tells Lizzy’s story with wit and creates a wonderfully realized setting and character.

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