Review 1570: The Body Lies

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

The Body Lies opens with the body of a woman lying in the cold. We don’t have any context for this scene for some time during the novel.

The unnamed narrator is pregnant when she is attacked by a complete stranger in the street. Three years later, when she is ready to return to work after a break for child care, she is still afraid, so she looks for a job outside the city. On the basis of her published novel, she is offered a job at a university in the north. Her husband Mark says he can’t leave his job immediately, so he comes to visit as often as he can.

The narrator’s inexperience results in her getting more and more work piled on her by her department head. But more worrisome is the contentious tone between some of the members of her MA creative writing class. In particular, Nicholas Palmer, who seems talented, takes an aggressive attitude toward Steven Haygarth, who opens his crime novel with a nude girl’s dead body.

The narrator finds herself unwittingly getting involved with Nicholas in a way she doesn’t want to be. Nicholas says he’s trying an experiment with fiction never tried before. She has no idea how it will affect her.

At first, I was a little impatient with the student compositions, especially Nicholas’s, even though I knew they would be important to the plot. However, this novel slowly becomes very suspenseful. I have liked all of Jo Baker’s books, and they’ve all been different from each other.

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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 662: The Mermaid’s Child

Cover for The Mermaid's ChildI was really delighted with Longbourn, Jo Baker’s twist on Pride and Prejudice. I have more mixed feelings about The Mermaid’s Child, Baker’s latest.

Malin Reed is raised by her father, who tells her she is the daughter of a mermaid. Her father, the ferry operator, is affectionate, but everyone else in town treats her with disdain. Malin herself is an odd mixture, a girl naive enough to believe in mermaids but hard schooled, bullied by the village boys and by her teacher. But she has seen a mermaid herself, when the circus was in town.

When her father dies, her grandmother tells her she can’t control her (although we see little evidence that she is uncontrollable) and sends her to “Uncle George” to be a skivvy and bar maid. There she is mistreated and learns to service more than the bar.

Then one night she walks off with a stranger, a man who has given her a smile. He has promised to deliver a rain machine to the village, which is in a terrible drought. With her myopic naivety, she hasn’t even realized he is a con artist.

So begins a picaresque journey for Malin that eventually becomes a search for her mermaid mother. This search takes her to many unlikely places.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this novel. Were it not for the realism of Malin’s situation, I would take it more for a fantasy, and that is how it is being marketed. But it isn’t really a fantasy except possibly in the narrator’s mind, nor is it magical realism. Unlikely is the word to apply to her adventures but then again, I’m not sure we’re supposed to take Malin’s story that literally. She tips us off in the first few pages that she may be an unreliable narrator.

Still, there is not much to anchor this book except Malin’s character. Most of the other characters are one-dimensional, and anyway we don’t spend much time with them.

This is just an observation, but I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say this is the fourth historical novel I’ve read this year in which a girl is disguised as a boy. So, what’s up with that? Are historical novelists bothered by the restrictions a woman was subject to in the past?

http://www.netgalley.comI guess I would sum up by saying I found the novel mildly entertaining. It starts out fairly believably and quickly becomes rather grim but with each adventure also becomes less likely. It’s as though it wants to be closer to something like The Rathbones but doesn’t quite manage to push out the boat.

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Day 654: Longbourn

Cover for LongbournBest Book of the Week!
There has been a plethora of Pride and Prejudice reinterpretations and sequels in the past few years, and I haven’t found the ones I’ve read to be very interesting. Longbourn, however, looks at the novel from a completely different angle, from the point of view of the servants in the Bennet household.

Sarah has been a housemaid for the Bennets since she was a child. Although she is grateful for the kindness shown to her by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill, she chafes against the limits of her existence and the sheer hard work. She has begun to wish for more.

Mr. Bennet unexpectedly hires a servant named James Smith. There is some mystery about him, for Sarah overhears Mrs. Hill having a heated discussion with Mr. Bennet about him. At first excited to have a new member in the household, Sarah is disappointed by his unkempt appearance and the fact that he never looks at her. Besides, she soon meets the handsome and exotic Ptolemy Bingham, Mr. Bingham’s mulatto coachman.

Aside from presenting fully realized characters and an interesting story, Longbourn imagines a completely different view of the Bennet household and the action of the original novel, which here is only peripheral. We find unexpected sympathy for Mrs. Bennet through Mrs. Hill’s knowledge of her history. Mr. Bennet turns out to have a secret. Lizzie and Jane are still the most likable Bennet girls, but they think nothing of sending Sarah to walk to Meryton in the pouring rain to buy roses for the girls’ dancing shoes. The viewpoint from the kitchen is certain to be an unexpected one.

This novel is fascinating, providing its own rich story while carefully observing the events of Austen’s novel in the background. I loved this truly original re-imagining.

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