Review 1685: Our Endless Numbered Days

In 1976, eight-year-old Peggy’s father James spends his time talking with his survivalist friends while her mother, Ute, prepares for a concert tour. Ute has been gone several weeks when James tells Peggy they are going on vacation. They travel from London to Germany camping in a tent, finally arriving at a small cabin that is falling down. James tells Peggy that everyone is dead and they are the only people left in the world, which has been destroyed.

In 1985, Peggy has been returned home to Ute and her brother Oscar, who was born after she and James left. She is struggling to adapt to the real world.

This novel reminded me very much of Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, only with an added twist. Still, it is absolutely gripping, as James gradually loses touch with reality.

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Review 1681: Mamma

Diana Tutton only wrote three books. All of them feature dysfunctional families, although Guard Your Daughters is a quirky but relatively traditional romantic novel. Mamma is more unusual.

Joanna has been a widow for 20 years, because her husband died unexpectedly in the early days of their marriage. Although only 41, she has a 20-year-old daughter, Libby, with whom she has a close and loving relationship.

Joanna has just moved when Libby comes for a visit and informs her that she is getting married—to an Army major named Steven. The marriage is to be soon, because Steven expects to be deployed overseas within a few months.

At first, Joanna is not sure what attracted Libby to Steven. She finds him unattractive, and at 36, he is closer to her age than Libby’s. However, circumstances throw them together to live with her, and she begins to understand that she and Steven have more in common than Steven and Libby. With her feelings for Steven growing, Joanna must figure out how to navigate this emotional situation.

Tutton depicts these relationships skillfully, in a way that makes you feel only sympathy for the characters. It is an empathetic and emotionally astute portrayal.

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

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Review 1678: The World My Wilderness

Seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston has grown up running wild in occupied France and was a member of the enfante maquis of the French Resistance. Now that the war is over, she doesn’t seem to know the difference and is still involved with the maquis, which is hunting down collaborators. Her mother, Helen, was neglectful while happy with her stepfather, but now that he has died, they’ve had a falling out. Helen decides to send her to London to live with her father, Gulliver. Also going is her stepbrother Raoul, who is to study and learn his uncle’s business.

Barbary is a fish out of water in her father’s upper-middle-class home. He is too busy with work to pay attention to her, and his wife, Pamela, dislikes her. In many ways immature, Barbary believes her parents would reunite if it weren’t for Pamela and her baby son, so she is determined to dislike them. Her father enrolls her at the Sloane and just assumes she goes there, but she and Raoul roam the streets and find a ruined section of London that reminds them of home. Soon, they are associating with deserters and thieves.

Macaulay treats all of her flawed characters with empathy, but it was hard for me to relate to Barbary. However, this novel made me realize how chaotic post-war France and London must have been. I haven’t read any other books that deal with that subject.

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Review 1677: Sisters

September and July move suddenly from Oxford with their mother to a decrepit and dirty house on the moors. They have lived there before—the house belongs to their father’s family—but to July the house seems freighted with a depressing atmosphere and full of odd noises.

Something bad happened at school, but July can’t remember what it was. Her depressed mother spends all her time in bed, leaving July and September to fend for themselves. Judging by their games, I thought at first that the girls seemed only about ten or eleven, but we find out later they are several years older. September is the leader, insistent and fiery, sometimes cruel. July is the appeaser, but she has trouble with her memory and sometimes has waking dreams.

In a section from their mother Sheela’s point of view, we learn that she worries September might be demonstrating the same kinds of traits that made Sheela afraid of the girls’ father. Her relationship with him, it appears, was of both love and hatred. Sheela has also worried about the closeness between the two girls, which shuts her out. They behave like twins even though they are 10 months apart.

This novel is a fabulously atmospheric character study. It pulls us forward, making us wonder what is going on. What happened at school? What will happen next? The writing is at times poetic in quality.

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Review 1670: Classics Club Spin Result! The Brothers Karamazov

I selected The Brothers Karamazov for my Classics club list because I read it many years ago for Russian Literature and found it fascinating. I was curious how I would regard it now.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, but it is complicated by the characters’ relationships and several subplots, some of which are only tangentially related. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons whom as children he left to be raised by the servants. The oldest, Dmitri (or Mitya), is an ex-soldier whom Fyodor has cheated of part of his inheritance from his mother. Now, although Dmitri is engaged to Katarina, a girl of high moral values, he has fallen madly in love with Grushenka, a girl with an unsavory past, and Fyodor is trying to compete for her. The second oldest, Ivan, is a cold intellectual atheist. The third son, Alexei or Alyosha, is studying to be a monk.

In my old Penguin Classics edition, the novel is split into two volumes. It is not until the second volume that the action takes place that is the centerpiece of the novel. Fyodor is murdered. Mitya has been working himself into a frenzy and making threats so is immediately the prime suspect. Did Mitya kill his father or was it someone else? If so, who?

We readers know what Mitya did that night, so we can answer the first part of that question but not the second part, at least not right away. Dostoevsky (I’m going to use the spelling of his name that I’m accustomed to, and that indeed is on my old Penguin copy rather than the one shown on the title page above) isn’t interested so much in that but in what happens next. And ultimately he is engaged in pitting atheism against belief in God.

In my student days, I found the long philosophical passages in this novel fascinating. These days, I don’t have as much patience with them and I actually skipped a couple of chapters once I got their drift. The amount of time spent on Father Zossima, for example, a relatively minor character who dies in Book One, is a little inexplicable to me now. I can’t help feeling he might have been based on a real person whom Dostoevsky revered, but his presence in the novel doesn’t seem important enough to warrant several chapters being devoted to his life and sayings.

This is not to say that I didn’t find the novel compelling. Although it is long and sometimes difficult, there was something about it that made me want to keep reading it.

The novel is written with an unusual approach to point of view. The narrator is an unidentified person from “our town.” But the narrator is privy to scenes he could not possibly have witnessed. Yet, the point of view is not omniscient. For example, we see what Mitya does on the night of the murder even though there is no actual witness to that, but we don’t see the murder.

As usual with Dostoevsky, most of his characters are in a frenzy. Were 19th century Russians really this excited? Well, they’re not in Tolstoy, but most of Tolstoy’s characters are upper class, while Dostoevsky’s are not. So, I don’t know whether this is a class difference or a difference in the author’s perceptions or what. And speaking of class, the attitude toward peasants here is not great, and there are also other politically incorrect comments on occasion. Just a warning.

The Brothers Karamazov is considered Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, so if you are interested in Russian literature, you should definitely read it. Dostoevsky’s preoccupations are not mine, however, and I think even less so as I get older. I couldn’t help parsing some of the arguments and thinking about an implicit slant to them. The best example is an assumption—a sort of cognitive leap—that is very important to the plot and is stated several times by different characters. The cognitive leap is that if God doesn’t exist, “everything is permitted.” Only one character questions this assumption—that there is nothing within humans besides religion to stop them from doing horrendous things. But his suggestion is brushed aside because Dostoevsky wants you to conclude that there is a God and his arguments don’t work as well if you believe in inner goodness or inherently moral or ethical behavior. I guess.

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Review 1669: Young Anne

Young Anne is Dorothy Whipple’s first novel but unfortunately is the last one I’ll be reviewing, because I’ve read and reviewed them all. Like many first novels, it is at least somewhat autobiographical.

We meet Anne at age five and see her again at eleven and eighteen before the bulk of the novel when she is an adult, but these ages are enough to get to know her. At five, she is prone to misunderstand her parents. Her father is severely critical of her while he spoils his oldest son. He is a martinet, and Anne becomes defiant of him as she grows older. Her mother doesn’t care about anything happening in the household.

As Anne gets older, she becomes quite naughty, but she is sent away to school because she laughs at her father while he is singing. This is shortly after she destroys her father’s copy of Boswell and knocks all the berries off a holly bush while getting carried away playing schoolteacher.

As a young woman, Anne loses her father, and the household is broken up. She is sent to live with her Aunt Orchard, who constantly complains about her ingratitude. Her only comfort is the maid, Emily, who has always been her staunch supporter and follows her to work in Aunt Orchard’s house. That and her friendships with Mildred and Mildred’s cousin George.

I found the character of Anne very appealing as she, in her straightforward way, has trouble navigating in society. Some of the scenes, especially with Mildred’s kind but social-climbing mother or the one where Aunt Orchard reveals her true self to the rector, are quite funny. This novel seemed true to life and was sometimes very touching. I liked it a lot.

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Review 1666: The Winged Horse

It’s going to be hard to describe this novel without either giving too much away or being too vague. The description on the Virago back cover focuses too much on the role of business tycoon J. G. Baron, when really he is more the catalyst of the action.

Harry Levitt is an American on his way to England for a job with J. G. Baron. He and Baron’s entourage are on shipboard along with Baron’s oldest daughter, Celia, who has been living in the States but is now separated from her husband and moving home.

J. G. is an unlikable person. He surrounds himself with yes men and is hypocritical and self-deceptive. He dislikes two of his three children and terrifies the third. Celia is the only one who doesn’t try to please him, as she dislikes him back.

When we meet Harry, he is a practiced dissembler who feels insecure about his Midwest background so has invented Californian origins. Despite a bad start with Celia, while living in England, Harry develops a close relationship with her siblings Tobias and Liz and with their friend Anthony Carey, a mediocre sculptor known to the family as Thank-God-for-Anthony. Anthony seems perfectly assured and the only person who is not afraid of J. G. The Barons consider him the epitome of probity.

Harry, as he grows to love England and feel accepted, becomes calmer and more assured. However, there is a family tragedy, and subsequent events allow Frankau to explore themes of power, truth, and dishonesty.

At first I had trouble being interested in these characters, but eventually I became involved in this story. I did find irritating the way Frankau handled the characters’ inner thoughts, just as if they were dialogue, which seemed artificial. But this is a minor criticism.

I read this book for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1660: Breakfast with the Nikolides

Because of the war, Louise and her children are forced to return to her husband Charles in India for the first time in many years. There, they take up what is apparently a toxic relationship.

Louise is a fearful, sometimes hysterical woman who seems to dislike Emily, her 12-year-old daughter. Louise considers her sly and deceptive when in actuality Emily is very truthful but seems unable to behave naturally with Louise. Emily loves India, but Louise only sees its dirty and ugly sides, not its charm.

The situation between husband and wife and between mother and child comes to a head over Emily’s dog, Don. In a crucial moment, Louise chooses to lie to Emily rather than tell her the truth as Charles advises.

In general, I liked this colorful novel, which, as always with Godden’s India novels, is luminous in its descriptions and sympathetic to its characters. However, for modern audiences there is a recounting of a rape scene that is handled in a very problematic way. For me, it detracted a good deal from my enjoyment of the novel.

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Review 1655: Warlight

In 1945, Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents enter their young teen children into boarding school and leave for a year in Singapore. Hating school, the two children run away and end up at home in the care of their parents’ friend and boarder, whom they call The Moth.

Their lives become chaotic. Their house is filled with eccentric people. Nathaniel and Rachel grow apart, Rachel going off on her own while Nathaniel skips school to help the mysterious man called The Darter engage in low-level criminal activities.

They never see their father again, and it becomes apparent that their mother is engaged in some sort of espionage, which eventually proves dangerous for them.

This moody novel is intricately plotted, so that its secrets are revealed slowly, like peeling an onion. As Nathaniel becomes a man, he begins to look into the truths behind his formative years. What really went on? What did he know but forget? What was he oblivious to? This novel is dark, enigmatic and deeply engaging. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1628: My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career is the very singular story of the life of an Australian teenage girl in the bush in 1901. It isn’t so much singular in its plot as in the personality of Sybilla, the main character.

Sybilla’s childhood was spent in comfort, as her father was a prosperous horse breeder. However, well before this novel starts, her father decided his talents were wasted, so he sold his property and began a career selling livestock. He was unsuccessful, and he drank heavily in entertaining prospective clients. When the novel opens, the family is struggling to run a dairy with their father drinking away the money he makes selling butter.

Sybilla at 15 is admittedly a difficult person. Her mother never gives her a kind word, and her mother and brother twit her about her lack of good looks. She angrily resents their life of endless labor for no good result. In fact, she is ambitious to become more but doesn’t know how to go about it. She is an unusual mixture of self-confidence and self-hatred and is angry and rebellious.

Sybilla’s mother becomes so angry with her that she arranges for her to go live with her grandmother farther into the bush. There, Sybilla blossoms under the kind treatment of her grandmother, her uncle, and her Aunt Helen. Her aunt helps her look more attractive, but she never gets over believing she is ugly. Romance even seems to be on the horizon.

I thought that the view this novel gives of Australian frontier life is really interesting, and I was particularly struck by the amount of traffic going by the grandmother’s house and the number of homeless, wandering men. However, I was unsatisfied with this novel, and to explain why, I have to include spoilers, so be warned.

A feminist interpretation of this novel might be that the heroine chooses to write a novel instead of getting married, but that would be ignoring Sybilla’s difficult personality. Continually, she seems to bite off her nose to spite her face, and in the case of marriage, really declines out of a sense of inferiority rather than anything else. She decides not to marry Harold and stays in a life she hates because she can’t believe he loves her and she thinks she is not good enough for him. I find that really frustrating. It’s not that I wanted a romantic ending so much as it bothered me how she never really sees herself or is able to get past being told how worthless she is by her mother.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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