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Sheenagh Pugh

                      I dream
of grey, of urban sprawl, in all
its stupendous misery.

Tamar Yoseloff has long been known as a poet who conjures poetry out of urban landscapes, often in a state of decay. So this quote, at first sight, is no surprise, but appearances partly deceive: although the actual landscape of London does figure largely in this collection, so does the landscape of the human body, which, with its inevitable malfunctions, is observed in much the same forensic detail as some rusting vehicle or abandoned building.

A diagnosis of cancer, in the opening poem, leads to thoughts on mortality and memories of the dead, particularly a mother. The Grenfell Tower disaster, happening while the narrator undergoes treatment, entangles the public with the personal in "Cuts", with its brilliantly punning title:

    On the street the air is strange;
    my secret's blown. Fag ends stub
    the pavement, the Standard blasts
    Inferno – a tower fixed in flames.

    There has to be someone to blame.

Here, as in the previous quotes, there is a great deal of soundplay. The alliteration, the half-internalised, sometimes semi-accented rhymes in "Emoji" (sprawl/all, grey/misery) recur in other poems, notably "Disappointment" and "Holiday Cottage", and in the latter they are getting quite close to cynghanedd:

    Rain saddens brick, a sodden blackbird
    huddles under shrubs. We hunker down
    in the stygian kitchen, where even
    the knives don't shine.

I don't recall quite so much of this in her former collections, and if I were feeling fanciful, I would speculate that an increased interest in rhyme and form can sometimes mirror a desire to make sense of something, to bring a baffling universe into some kind of order.  Whatever the cause, the sound-patterning layers and deepens the poems.

The subject matter, the vision, of these poems may sound dark, and so in some ways they are, but the grimness is offset by the poet's characteristic wry humour. Whether observing the social media reaction to Grenfell ("we've become experts on cladding"), nailing the irony of an ancient jade coffin as "the emperor's new suit", or resolutely maintaining a sense of proportion about personal matters ("Everyone dies – get over yourself"), the voice is consistently unsentimental, laconic, serious without being solemn.  It is also a voice of great clarity and accuracy in its choice of words. That "stupendous" misery; the agonisingly perfect verb in "Fire laddered the walls". Perhaps this shows most clearly in the endings. I seem to see far too many poems in which the endings look strained-after, trying to make an impact but not really justified or emerging naturally from the poem. Here they are part of the voice, the natural and often powerful climax of an organic process. This is the end of "In Clover", about a protagonist who collects four-leaved clovers:

    She started when she was seven. An auspicious number.
    The casual hunt grew to obsession as she got older.
    And now she can't face the world before her, only

    the ground we will all go to.
Sheenagh Pugh

This is the sequel to the justly praised The Clockwork Crow, reviewed here.  If you recall, this was set in the late 19th century when the orphaned Seren had come to live with her godparents in their remote Welsh mansion. The house was sad because their son Tomos had been stolen by the Tylwyth Teg (Fair Folk, who are fair only in the sense of good-looking) and Seren, with the aid of a cantankerous dabbler in magic who has been enchanted into the form of a clockwork crow, frees him on Christmas Eve.

The Clockwork Crow was wintry, all silver and snow; indeed the key to its mystery was a snow globe. This sequel is autumnal, and the artefact through which the Folk exercise their malignant power is a toy carousel.  They feel they have a claim to the house, and return to recommence tormenting its occupants when Tomos unwisely boasts of his escape:

Tomos tossed armfuls into the air. "I'm safe! They will never get me now! Never!"

As soon as he yelled the words a gust of cold wind came out of nowhere. It whipped the leaves, scattering them like red rags over the grass, flinging them angrily aside.

Seren shivered. It was a strange, icy wind. It smelled of danger.

"Tomos, I don't think you should…"

"We beat the Fair Family, Seren!"  He laughed as the leaves fell on his upturned face. "You and me and the Crow! We're safe from Them now!  Safe. Forever!"

The wind lifted the leaves. They swirled in strange patterns, high into the air. A vast arc of them gusted down the driveway, past the gate.

And Seren blinked. For the red and copper and golden leaves shimmered and transformed, condensed and clotted into a strange glittering mass; it became a red carriage with four wheels and two bright-chestnut horses, galloping towards her out of the swirl.

As we may guess, this vehicle is carrying the latest manifestation of the otherworldly beings who caused all the trouble last time, and this parallel world is created with all Fisher's usual infectious imagination and ingenuity. But alongside the otherworld, events in the real world are fascinating too. The previous book looked to have ended with Seren having found a home; here it looks less secure and we are made painfully aware of her precarious position as a not-quite-member of the family. The Fair Folk's machinations may be to blame, but her adoptive family are too quick to mistrust someone to whom they owe so much. Though by the end all seems well, we sense that the otherworlders have not finished with the house and that Seren may again need the Crow's help.

The Crow of course is as bad-tempered and as little inclined to suffer fools gladly as ever. Fisher avers that it is his character that made this book a "blast" to write. One can believe it, because the momentum throughout is terrific. Just like last time, this was unputdownable. With the first book, this was mainly down to the writing style and the sense of danger in the otherworld. This time, there is an added ingredient: the developing real-world situation of Seren. I honestly didn't think anything could top The Clockwork Crow in its field, but I think this is one of those times when a sequel may actually have outdone the original. I would guess there is going to be a third, and I really hope so.
Current Location: Sandwick
Sheenagh Pugh

"A what? Denham was apprehensive.
"A reading circle. You all study some book together and meet and talk about it."
"What for?"

Crewe Train was first published in 1926, but with Macaulay coming out of copyright lately, some new editions are emerging of novels that used to be hard to come by. I got into her work via The Towers of Trebizond, a staggeringly powerful, memorable book, but I don't think she could write an uninteresting one and this is well worth a go too. Denham (she was named after her mother's favourite village) is an orphaned young woman with a habit of asking awkward questions like the above, principally about social niceties the rest of us take, sometimes unwillingly, for granted. Denham, brought up by an unsocial widowed father who had left the ministry because he couldn't stand having to pretend interest in the lives of his parishioners, and settled in Andorra because it was hard for visitors to get to, finds herself in London, surrounded by people and baffled not only by how to relate to them but why it should be necessary to try. As her harassed aunt observes, "She can't understand why she must live in a way she doesn't much care for. More, she can't understand how people who care for each other are bound up together and must each give up something."

Denham is semi-feral, like a child before it is corralled into conventional adult speech and behaviour. Her frankly expressed views on the prospect of having children herself caused the book to be attacked when it was first published, but even now, women who think as she does might well be nervous of saying so:

"Well, I don't care about them much myself. They're no use when they're quite young, and they're awfully in the way. You can't take them with you on days out and they're always wanting something or other done for them."

It would be all too easy, these days, to medicalise her behaviour and decide that she was autistic – a reviewer of the time called her "a mental case". I don't think she is either, in fact; she is simply, partly due to her upbringing and partly to heredity, very self-sufficient and genuinely prefers her own company to that of any other. In some ways she might have an easier time today, when marriage is not quite so slanted toward the husband's convenience and a woman, indeed, can have a sex life without it. And her preference for climbing cliffs and exploring secret caves rather than attending London literary dinner parties would perhaps elicit more sympathy from a contemporary audience.

Yet even today, there is an awful lot of emphasis on touchy-feely togetherness and a corresponding distrust, even disapproval, of lone wolves, also perhaps, an envy of them, among some who have already got resigned to a domesticated life. I began by thinking the last sentence of the book was as sad an ending as I had ever seen in a novel. I now think it is ambiguous, because we have no way of knowing for sure what will happen next. Either way, it is, like everything else of Macaulay's that I have read, hugely original, unusual and daring. Denham's constant questions – why should people want to read reviews, rather than trust their own judgement; why should loving someone mean having to do things you don't like – are the kind of questions that children ask and embarrassed adults ought to.
Sheenagh Pugh

Imagine, if you will, a biography of Shakespeare written by someone who, though perfectly competent to write historical biography, is by profession a theatre director. You'd get the normal biographical details, but also a fascinating slant provided by this area of expertise – in this time period we see comedies with two heroines, one tall, one short, so he's clearly got two boy actors of that description; from these lines we see that pocket-watches are coming into fashion: even the Globe is named for the new interest in world travel.

This is what happens when a conductor writes a biography of Handel. It focuses very much on his music, but not in the way a musicologist might; she is far more interested in how it gets staged, sung and received by the public. The extent to which Handel's writing, especially in his operas, was shaped by the availability of particular singers and what they could and could not do comes across very clearly; he seems to have been brilliant at showcasing the strengths of a singer or concealing their failings, as occasion demanded. Indeed he was basically a pretty good boss, who nurtured and believed in the talents of his staff: true, he was capable of dragging an un-co-operative soprano over to a first-floor window and threatening to throw her out, but when she squandered her vast earnings he was equally capable of helping her with a benefit concert. Handel did not like to waste money (he lived simply and got out of the South Sea Bubble well before the crash) but he was unfailingly generous to those in need and did a great deal of free work for the Foundling Hospital.

The London of Handel's era must have been a fascinating place; obviously in this book the facets of it that are thrown into focus are those that impinged most on Handel's career. This means the goings-on in the Hanoverian royal family, whose commissions for coronation odes, wedding marches and other celebratory music, not to mention a regular pension, provided much of his bread and butter, and the progress of the English musical world in his time. The resentment against the fact that opera was sung in Italian was clearly remarkably bitter, given that the practice then was, at what must have been considerable expense, to provide libretti in both English and Italian for the audience so that they could follow the plot. In fact, they probably understood more than I ever did in my opera-going days, for I could seldom make out what the Operatic Voice was saying even when it did speak English.

Though Handel's character in itself may not be the main focus, it comes across as well via his working life as by any other means: gruff, plain-spoken, kind, but above all absolutely driven when it came to his music. The man's work rate and output were phenomenal; his singers and musicians must have been exhausted by the end of each season but he seems to have been able to keep up this rate with no loss of quality.

This biography may not be so rich in anecdote as some of Handel that I have read, but two which, because of their musical connections, do make it in are unforgettable. One concerns the triumphant first performance of Messiah in Dublin, which was nearly hindered when the Dean of St Patrick's, whose singers were to take part, suddenly objected. This Dean was none other than Jonathan Swift, already showing signs of the dementia that would soon kill him. Luckily the Chapter had noticed the signs too, and quietly shelved his orders.

The second is the work Handel was engaged on when his sight finally failed: Jephtha, with its airs "Welcome as the cheerful light", "Therefore, tomorrow's dawn" and the one during which he laid down his pen, with a note that he was unable to go on due to his weakening eyes; "How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees, all hid from mortal sight".
Sheenagh Pugh

"This is not the time for self-delusion" says our protagonist, about 267 pages too late for his own good. This is a first novel with a very ambitious unreliable narrator. There are clues scattered from early on to suggest that Lucas, who lives alone and spends an unhealthy amount of time online, may not be seeing things exactly as they are. But not until halfway through the novel did we get a really big reveal, which genuinely took me by surprise and was, I think, very subtly managed. It isn't easy, when writing in first person, to convey that the eyes through which we are seeing are themselves deluded; it has to be done, as it is here, by recording the reactions of others who do see clearly, but though the reader must get the point, the protagonist-narrator must not, and this failure must be credible.

I must choose quotes carefully, because even after we realise that events inside Lucas's head do not tally with those in the real world, we only gradually become aware of just how far they diverge, and I don't want to give away too much. Lucas is Glaswegian and appropriately gallus; his dry, deadpan voice often engaging:

"I consider myself a patron of the arts. One time I visited the Art Galleries—as normal people call it, it’s officially called Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum—with my cousin, and they had a box asking for donations, a recommended £3. I was more than happy with my visit having seen a stuffed elephant, and was about to oblige the coffers when my cousin said, You know that’s the price of a pint around here? Bloody West End. A whole pint. I put the money back in my pocket. Saving the art world could wait."

Also, like most delusional people, Lucas is not delusional all the time – in fact much of the book's interest derives from our uncertainty as to when he is and is not seeing clearly. When he observes "Graeme’s probably dead because Kenny can’t forgive him for spitting all over his face while chatting on a night out drinking. Men have died for less", it maybe takes the reader a few seconds to realise that this last sentence is all too true: the outside world may be less delusional than Lucas but it isn't all that sane, either.

I won't lie: quite apart from violence there are an awful lot of bodily fluids in this book, one way and another, and if you need your protagonists to be slim, handsome and hygienic, this isn't the novel for you. But Lucas, loser though he may be, is not impossible to feel for, and I found the gradual unfolding of the disconnect between reality and his vision of it consistently intriguing. To tackle (and so adeptly) such an advanced narrative technique in a first novel shows a commendable ambition. Right now, although there might possibly be a print edition later (in which case some typos could usefully be removed), this is only available in Kindle – here's a link. Give it a go.
Sheenagh Pugh
Review of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey, pub. Macmillan 2017

"The destroyers came from out of the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them for years, a marauding band of black-robed zealots armed with little more than stones, iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness. […] The zealots roared with laughter as they smashed the "evil", "idolatrous" statues; the faithful jeered as they tore down temples, stripped roofs and defaced tombs. 'These shameful things', sang pilgrims proudly, 'our good Saviour trampled down all together.'"

Aye, those early Christians could be a right band of thugs, and vandalism was not the only disquieting resemblance they bore to Taliban or ISIL fanatics. They also craved martyrdom, to the extent that the church eventually had to discourage them from actively seeking it. One sympathises with the Roman governor of Asia, Arrius Antoninus, who got so exasperated by the queue of Christians at his door eagerly confessing their faith (which he would as soon not have known about) and demanding to be martyred, that he exclaimed "Oh you ghastly people, if you want to die so much, can't you throw yourselves off a cliff?"

Unfortunately they were also a danger to the lives of others. The story of Hypatia of Alexandria, torn to pieces by a mob for being a learned mathematician, is well known, but anyone who has read Philip Pullman's recent novel La Belle Sauvage and suspected him of drawing the long bow in his description of the League of Alexander should note John Chrysostom's recorded exhortations to the faithful to spy on and betray their friends and neighbours, not only for practising non-Christian worship but for sins like going to the theatre: "Let us be meddlesome and search out those who have fallen. Even if we must enter into the fallen one's home, let us not think twice about it."

Chrysostom, sounding even more like a Taliban sobersides than usual, rejoiced that "the tyranny of joy and the accursed festivals has been obliterated like smoke". Obliterating joy was something in which he and his kind took a suspicious pleasure: the exaltation of pointless pain and suffering (on the assumption that the more pain in this world, the less in the next) dates from this time. So does a poisonous distrust and resentment of learned people, even of learning itself ("Intellectual simplicity, or to put a less flattering name on it, ignorance, was widely celebrated"). This was partly what caused Hypatia's murder; the Christians of Alexandria, and the mobs they encouraged, had decided they had no time for experts.

This is a scholarly but readable history, in which people like the pagan philosophers Libanius and Damascius, adrift in times which have rejected and devalued all they have learned and believed in, come alive affectingly. One cannot but be moved by Damascius, finally leaving Athens when he is forbidden to teach, setting out in his seventies for somewhere he can go on being the person he has been all his life. And two quotations near the start sum up the theme rather neatly. On the one hand St Augustine: "That all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims." On the other, the pagan Symmachus: "We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?"
Sheenagh Pugh

A book about a book: what it says, how it came to be written, lost and rediscovered, what far-reaching effects it had on human thought, and about the man who hunted it down.

The book is Lucretius's De Rerum Naturae, pretty much the sole remaining repository of the beliefs of the great atomists Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus; the book-hunter is Poggio Bracciolini, who spent the early years of the fifteenth century traipsing around Europe trying to hunt down ancient classical manuscripts. (He even got as far as England, but was disappointed, advising his friends "you had better give up hope of books from England, for they care very little for them here".)

Poggio was book-hunting because, like so many humanist scholars of his day, he worshipped the writers of classical Greece and Rome and thought his own time could not equal them. Whether he realised how radical the world-view of Lucretius actually was in its contentions - that matter consisted of atoms constantly in flux, that if there were gods, they could not possibly care two hoots about the doings of humans and that pain was a thing to be avoided, all diametrically opposed to Christian views of the day - is an interesting question. It is possible that he simply admired the style and elegance of Lucretius's Latin without paying too much attention to the message, and that is certainly the defence humanist scholars tended to put up when accused of preferring "heathen" works to those of the church fathers. On the other hand, Poggio did not much like the monks among whom, of necessity, he sought his ancient treasures; the monastic libraries were where old manuscripts were to be found, but he thought monks fairly useless people and declined to take holy orders himself, despite the career advancement this would have brought him. He also expressed, in a letter to a friend, such unstinting admiration for the "heretic" Jerome of Prague, whose trial and execution he witnessed, that the alarmed friend advised him to be more careful with his language in future.

The organisation of this book is pleasing: it begins with the book-hunt and progresses through an account of the book itself to its effect on its own and later times. It is a proper history, with notes and bibliography, but is written in a readable style and is never less than fascinating. It makes Lucretius's own book sound even more so, and will surely cause me to rectify my ignorance of the man. Since I enjoyed it so much it seems a shame to have to end with my usual complaint against so many modern non-fiction works, namely their inclusion of a preface in which the author witters on about his reasons for writing the book and its personal significance in his life. Please, editors and publishers, spare us the bloody "journey". I don't care why the author wrote the book; since he is a Harvard professor I would assume he did so out of a love of scholarship and that's fine. I certainly don't need to know about his mother's neuroses, as if he were Leonard in The Big Bang Theory. As usual, I must advise Gentle Reader to ignore the preface completely and dive straight into the text.
Sheenagh Pugh
Review of "Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World" by Steinunn Sigurdardottir and Heida Asgeirsdottir, trs Philip Roughton, pub. John Murray 2019

This is a memoir of a real woman, Heida Asgeirsdottir, an Icelandic sheep farmer, written down by a novelist and poet, Steinunn Sigurdardottir. The latter admits to being influenced in her narrative methods by the books of Svetlana Alexievch, which are based on interviews with many different people. They're good too, I like them myself, but am not sure the technique works so well for reporting one person. The chapters are mainly short, some only one paragraph, and read like bits of random conversation transcribed, then cut and pasted into what sometimes feels like a fairly arbitrary order. The organisation into four seasons does help, but within that pattern, different autumns, winters etc are jumbled together; the book veers wildly between childhood and adulthood and from subject to subject. Also, the story of Heida's fight against the proposal for a huge power plant that would wreck her farm is interspersed with the life of the farm. To me, this narration is too bitty and stop-start.

Heida is interesting on the daily routine of the farm, and often very enlightening:

"If I manage to shear all the sheep on the same day I bring them in, that's a dream because they're like marshmallows, all dry and puffy. The ewes mustn't be inside for more than one night before being sheared, otherwise their wool gets spoiled and has to be marked as second-rate. It's crucial to keep the wool from becoming moist or wet, so that it doesn't start to get mouldy."

Who knew? There's a lot of this and it is fascinating. it would be more so if this book had the map it really needs – I do know roughly where's where in Iceland but needed far more detail about this district, the distances between places and the potential effect of the power plant. A map would have given all of this.

Another problem is the poems, some Heida's, some quotes from famous Icelandic poets. Since all alike come across as total rhyme-led doggerel, I suspect there is a translation problem, related to a determination to preserve the rhymes, which I have come across before in Icelandic novels that contain poems. I think a lot of epigrammatic sharpness goes missing because most prose translators do not really have the specialised expertise to translate poems.

To sum up: much interest but a terribly bitty structure.
Sheenagh Pugh
This announces itself as being about the "lives and afterlives" of Edward Whalley and William Goffe, two signatories to Charles I's death warrant who, on the eve of the Restoration, escaped to America. Lives, in the sense of what became of them in their new land; afterlives in the sense of their posthumous reputation there and its effect on later events.

This is the sort of odd corner of history that always attracts me, but I felt the "afterlives" bit was considerably the more interesting, and where the book really came alive. You would think that two men trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the officials sent out to arrest them would make a gripping narrative. If it doesn't, I think that is because Whalley and Goffe never really come alive as people. From the chapters dealing with the war and the Commonwealth, we learn that they were both good soldiers and very religious, which one might have guessed, and later we learn that Goffe was prone to depression and always felt a stranger in America. But that's about it. These men had wives and families in England, and were in correspondence with them, but we learn nothing of their personal relationships, and much as I sympathised with their cause, it was hard to get really interested in the fate of two men practically without personalities. In fact, the interest lies more in how their survival becomes tangled up with the political differences between Charles II and his already-murmuring American colony.

This may not be altogether the author's fault, because to judge by the fragment of Goffe's diary that remains to us, and is included as an appendix, he at least was an obsessively god-bothering bore of the first order. It is after he and Whalley die that they become part of America's mythology, and a good deal more interesting in legend and fiction than they ever were in life. The story of the "Angel of Hadley", which just might, fascinatingly, be true, has Goffe surfacing from hiding to lead the inhabitants of a town in fighting off an attack by indigenous tribes (who, you may not be surprised to hear, were entirely in the right of the quarrel). Hawthorne may have had this tale in mind in his short story "The Gray Champion", where an ancient Puritan returns from the dead at critical moments in his country's history, and the Angel story, true or not, is clearly related to legends in which other countries' champions - Arthur, Joan, Theseus, Holger Danske - appear to soldiers in battle centuries later. Other stories cluster around these two in folk memory - everyone seems to have wanted to claim a family connection to them, especially at times of conflict with England.

Their myth was helped to prosper by an astonishingly silly act on the part of the English government, which I hadn't previously known about. In 1662, just after the restoration, a statute was passed decreeing that the anniversary of Charles I's death, January 30th, should be observed in all churches of England, Ireland, Wales and the dominions as "an anniversary of fasting and humiliation" on which sermons should be preached lamenting disobedience to monarchs. Given that many, certainly in New England, regarded the day in question as anything but lamentable, this was a provocative folly which served only to keep grudges and resentment alive. "30th of January sermons", both in England and America, quite frequently became subversive, drawing attention to the faults of kings rather than their supposed divinity.

The way the two men become part of a country's myth and fiction is intrinsically interesting, and well documented here, as is the way their star rises and falls in popular estimation according to what is happening in politics at the time - heroes during the War of Independence, less so after the murders of Lincoln and Kennedy, both of which, at the time, were described as "regicides". I think the writing style could be livelier, and less inclined to repeat points already made. The contemporary pictures and engravings reproduced in the book are welcome, if a bit blurry.
Sheenagh Pugh
Pub. Virago 2019

"How much there is to delight the eye in this bright and beautiful world! Oh, the pleasure of vagabondizing through India." – Fanny Parkes

This book began as so many do: the author was researching a quite different book (about eighteenth and nineteenth-century courtesans), found someone who didn't quite fit the theme but was interesting anyway, and went off at a fascinating tangent. The life of diplomatic and Army wives in British India, not to mention the annual "fishing fleet" of young ladies hoping to become wives, has been documented in several books that draw on these women's own diaries and letters but this book goes further back than most, to the wild early days of the East India Company when sobriety was unheard-of and India was regarded as a repository for dissolute sons. Women hardly figured at all at first, and those few who did needed to be tough and resourceful characters.

It has to be said that she-merchants, though they are mentioned, do not figure nearly as much as gentlewomen (I still don't know where the buccaneers came in). The source material is heavily based on private diaries and letters, in which of course one can hear the women's voices, and I am guessing that the merchants were far too busy trading to spend much time writing letters home or keeping diaries, whereas gentlewomen, with time on their hands, did a great deal of both. But there are other sources, and ways of building up character, and it is a pity, I think, that we do not see more of entrepreneurs like Mary Cross, import-export trader with Persia, professional portrait-painters Sarah Baxter and Catherine Read, not to mention Poll Puff, who sold apple pastries in Calcutta.

What we do get is a very disparate group of women, from various social classes, and while some never settle in their strange new surroundings, most of those we meet become fascinated by India and curious to find out more about it. Henrietta Clive busily collects insects and minerals during her extensive travels; Julia Maitland is warned by other English wives in Bangalore to stay away from the "native" bazaar in the old fort; her response is "so I went the next day, of course". Biddy Timms goes further; she becomes Mrs Meer Hassan Ali and spends a decade living in her husband's zenana in Lucknow. Many of the English emigree women were intensely curious about their secluded Indian counterparts and some managed to make good friends across the cultural divide. They also managed to travel a great deal and, sometimes, to break through class barriers that were still impenetrable at home.

I do find the pre-Victorian parts of the book the most interesting. This is partly because the Victorian period has been more documented but also because life in British India was by then becoming more regulated and stuffy than in the early days of the Company. I think the author may also have avoided certain potentially interesting memorialists from this period, like Iris Portal, because they figured in Annabel Venning's "Following the Drum" (2005), about army wives. For this period Hickman leans heavily on non-army sources, like Fanny Parkes, wife of a Company official, who is admittedly a mesmerising force of nature, and the Eden women, Emily and Fanny, wife and sister of the Governor-General, whose languid cattiness can get a bit tiresome. And the 1857-and-after period feels rushed.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book very much. It is impossible not to become invested in what happens to women like Charlotte Hickey, London prostitute reinventing herself in Calcutta as a respectable wife, Fanny Parkes, at ease in Indian society, hopelessly out of her depth in her own (but never aware of how earnestly her hosts wish she would be going), Eliza Fay, intrepid traveller, careless alike of grammar and social barriers – E M Forster's nastily patronising dismissal of her in his introduction to her letters ("her mental equipment was that of an intelligent lady's maid") has made me think the less of him for ever. These voices come over as clear as they did when they wrote: as Eliza says, "this story must be told in my own way, or not at all".
Sheenagh Pugh

Sell me, the house says, sell me.
I'm tired of you,
the way you neglect me,
don't quite see me any more.
The way you gaze through me every night
as if you wanted something else. (The House to its Owner)

This lippy house is one of several opinionated edifices and locations in Catherine Fisher's long-awaited new collection. An ominous row of conifers near Avebury deters a walker; a woman living in a building converted from a cinema finds her flat full of images from its past:

In bed she sleeps among the other couples,
a rapid flicker of embraces

while, in what for me was a stand-out poem, "The Building and the Boy", a classic fairytale castle in a forest entraps and defeats a potential explorer as it has done many before. This building has mixed feelings; it develops a fondness for its hapless challengers:

He leaves a trail of breadcrumbs,
unravels wool his mother made him bring,
marks corners with his name, doors with initials

The building smiles. The building feels quite tickled.
Rather likes the artless images.
Closes the gate carefully. Withdraws the bridge.

Fisher has always played variations on myth, but while some of those here are recognisably traceable to different sources, like the Odyssey and the Mabinogi, others, like the sentient Building, the "Clockwork Crow" and the "Daughter of the Sun", feel more archetypal, indeed as if their ultimate source might be the inside of the poet's head. And even the Sleeping Beauty sequence subverts its source; this sounds more like a princess in a coma, who may always have been more conscious than she looked. The back cover's description of "darkly resonant" is more apt than these sometimes are; there is a thread of darkness running through most of these poems. The cover picture is a detail from Botticelli's "Primavera", and it relates to the poem "Post-War", about the moment when Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and others happened on a cache of priceless paintings stored in Montegufoni castle for fear of bombing. The painting is an allegory on the coming of spring, and the poem too ends on an optimistic note, of rebirth "despite the dead. Despite everything". Yet when one looks carefully at the detail selected, things are more complicated. The image shows Flora's hands and arms against her dress covered in red-pink flowers. Her lacy sleeves are red-tinted too, and look for all the world as if the arms beneath are bleeding. Which could be so, because in Ovid's version, which this poem references, Flora was originally a wood-nymph, Chloris, ("green"), who is ravished by the West Wind and, in the act, turns into the goddess of spring, "flowers spilling from her mouth". The story may be a fanciful gloss on how green shoots turn to blossom, but it is a dark tale, the red flowers too reminiscent of blood for any sentimental comfort. Spring survives the war, as did the painting, "despite the dead", but that does not alter the facts of death and suffering.

It is the dark thread, the blood among the flowers, that gives these poems their vigour and vim. Those already familiar with Fisher's acclaimed YA fantasy novels will find the same blend of lyricism and violence here. There's even a clockwork crow.
Sheenagh Pugh
Departure, take-off, ascent. From the air the Thames is a wiggling serpent. It has not always had this shape, it will not in the future. The seas will rise, the barrier will not hold them. Like everything, London is a temporary place, a temporary condition.

Some of the reviews I have read of this novel seem to me to miss the point badly. Readers who complain of confusion were looking for a single protagonist whose storyline they could follow, but the protagonist is London in 2016/17, and that can only be brought alive through a multitude of characters whose lives constantly intersect, merge and diverge.

The body of a woman, fished out of the Thames, cannot be identified, though indications are that she was a suicide. Two men, Pete, the policeman who worked on her case, and Alan, who makes a TV documentary about it, become invested in finding out more about her  (in Pete's case obsessively) and the story mainly follows them, their ramifying families and friends and the neighbours Alan and his wife Francesca encounter in the district of London to which they have just moved. The word "stranger" in the title might lead one to expect a focus on isolation, on lack of connectedness in the big city, but this is not so. The characters actually interconnect in a lot of ways, some of which they are unaware of, and the London built up in the novel is one of neighbourhoods, separate, sometimes seeming alien to each other, but still crossing and interacting.

Most of the characters, though, either first arrived in London as strangers or have parents or grandparents who did so. The ethnic diversity of London is constantly stressed, and one theme which emerges very strongly is the way in which, after the 2016 referendum and the 2017 London Bridge attack, people who had long felt at home there began to sense hostility from their neighbours. It is in this sense that the city, rather than those in it, begins to become a "stranger".

This creeping unease is well conveyed, though it is possible to wonder if it might be overdone. That one of our characters might suffer a race-related attack is credible; when the tally gets to three, I do wonder if it still is. Though, not being a Londoner, I have no way of knowing for sure. I don't know, either, if the description of the deportation trains is accurate:

    With the thaw, Alan spent even more time sitting alone at the end of the garden, his ear cocked for the thrumming on the rails of the occasional deportation trains diverted along their branch line, the filthy engines spattered with mud coming down from the north-east. The carriage windows were blacked out, desperate fingers scratched away at the paint. […] Rows of human monitors along the track held up placards of protest and solidarity. Most days he joined them on the bridge.
          Inside the trains the deportees raised their palms, pleading at the glass. The deportation infrastructure formed a network of cross-hatching across the eternal landscape of England, its woods and remaining patches of forest, its indigenous trees and its invaders, oaks, rills, brooks, ditches, barrows, mountains, faint vestiges of enclosed commons. Across all this, solid lines of track were moving towards temporary detention centres and on to airports and sea ferries.

Some readers' reviews have dismissed this as exaggeration, an attempt to invoke the Holocaust.  To me it sounds likely, though as I say I can't know for sure. In a way, this is the point: that this issue fractures society to the point where some will find it eyebrow-raising but credible, while others will dismiss it out of hand. Pete and his wife Marie have this argument at one point:

     If you lived in a coastal port, you had to expect people would come in as well as go out. Some of them would be bad 'uns. He'd tried to explain that to Marie. You couldn't have London without foreigners, it wouldn't be the same place, would it? It'd be some lily-white National Trust mock-up with volunteers dressed in mob caps and packets of shortbread in the gift shop.

Actually of course it could be something a whole lot worse. Francesca at one point stumbles on an enclave known as "the Island", though it isn't one, which has managed to insulate itself from most of the change around it. It is an inward-looking community, hostile to outsiders, mostly ageing; the only two children in evidence show signs of mental incapacity. Anyone with any get up and go has long since got up and gone. The message is clear: communities that resist change and outside influence do not just stay the same, they stagnate and turn sour.

The denouement of the body-in-the-Thames thread doesn't feel quite right to me; I could have wished for more mystery to remain. And I did, sometimes, lose track of the myriad characters and think "who the hell was Johanna?". Hint to litfic writers: genre authors sometimes give readers, at the start, a list of characters with identifiers ("Johanna, Alan's work colleague"). It isn't the worst idea.

These are minor points about a novel as pulsing, colourful and alive as the city that is its protagonist. I enjoyed it greatly, and I'm not even a fan of London.
Sheenagh Pugh

This is an anthology of poems inspired by aspects of Scotland and predicated on the idea that Scotland is a place with a split personality, veering between extremes. The editors put up online a list of topics, which were then chosen by individual poets. In fact the topics came in pairs, though the poets worked alone, to suggest these extremes.

I'm not sure the idea itself convinces me, because the older I get, the less I believe in so-called national characteristics and the more I incline to the view of Confucius – "people's natures are alike; it is their habits that drive them far apart". Yes, Scots, or some of them, have "attitude", as several poems suggest; so do Danes and Russians and no doubt so did ancient Babylonians. But because the poets chose their topics, rather than being set them, there is a lot of interest in how each interpreted the aspect they chose.

In fact, over and over, the chosen aspect evokes not so much a place as a place in time and a family member associated with that time: mothers, fathers, grandparents and indeed childhoods haunt these poems. The garment in Mandy Haggith's "Tweed", long gone to some jumble sale, is craved for its connection with a now-dead mother:

     So now, although I hunger to shrug it over my shoulders,
     put my hands into her pockets

This is moving, because most of us have been there and can identify with the situation, but its power, indeed its universality, comes from the lost garment's connection with the lost person: the fact that its fabric was tweed is incidental – habit rather than nature, as Confucius would have it. John Glenday's "The Numbers Stations", allegedly about the Arbroath smokie, in fact uses it as an image in a sombre poem about a childhood of the 50s and 60s, haunted by fears of what used to be called the shadow of the bomb:

    smoke-grey rucks of skin sloughing from his flesh

    and the cured flesh peeling easily from the bone.

Here again, though local references abound, the experience was universal; Anne Berkeley's collection The Men from Praga (Salt 2009) records just such a bomb-haunted 60s childhood at the other end of Britain.

Some poems, of course, do focus more on their particular, nominal subjects. Dawn Wood and Marjorie Lotfi Gill, paired to write about artists Joan Eardley and Eduardo Paolozzi, both enter sensitively into their subjects' ways of working, while Angus Peter Campbell in "William Topaz McGonagall", does a fine job of imitating his subject's cadences without, I'm glad to say, mocking him, for he was a man who deserved better than mockery.

I was glad also to see a concrete poem a la Edwin Morgan – Rebecca Sharp's "The Declaration of Barrbru"- for one problem with this project was that Mr Morgan had already dealt so well with some of these topics that I was hearing his voice instead of those on the page. He needed to echo in this book somewhere. The most interesting poems, perhaps, were those that somehow managed to find an unexpected angle on their subject, and where how something was said became at least as important as what was said. Tracey Herd's gripping little psychodrama "Bible Joanne", Tessa Berring's freewheeling "Caryatid" and Gerry Loose's incantatory "Gruinard Island" are among them.

With this format – different aspects of a nation – there will be both something to please most people, also something that goes over their heads, for generational or other reasons (from the poems where they appear, I gather Orange Juice and Arab Strap must be bands, but frankly they might be Chinese emperors for all I knew). It's a very diverse, lively anthology and very nicely produced. A deil o a broth, as Dilys Rose remarks in "Cullen Skink".
Sheenagh Pugh

This is a pamphlet in a Seren series celebrating poems of place (the others are Pembrokeshire, Snowdonia and the Borders). There are 27 poems: one is mine, but I am following my rule that one poem doesn't disqualify me from reviewing a book.

It's tricky to review poems about a place one knows really well. I am conscious that "Clare Road" and "Animal Wall" evoke an immediate response in me that wouldn't happen in someone unfamiliar with the city.  But I can say that Cardiff's essential gallusness comes through in many of them, for instance Oliver Reynolds' "Taff":

     is a thief river
     stealing from little hills
     sneaking to Cardiff
     to paint the town black

     has a dirty mouth
     and colludes with the sea,
     French-kissing the channel
     all the way round to Brest

For all the Taff is a lot cleaner these days, that still resonates. Most of these poems, in fact, come from recent times, which means that some once-iconic sights and smells of Cardiff – the vivid steel-town sunsets, the aroma of malt that used to pervade the city from Brains' brewery – are missing. But a sea town it always was and still is, and some of the most evocative poems are those with a sea connection, like Philip Gross's fine "Sluice Angel" about the great lock gates at the barrage, and Mike Jenkins' "Kairdiff Central Seagull", a bird with attitude:

     It struts around me:
     I am surrounded by a single bird!

This also highlights the sardonic, irreverent humour that is so much part of the city, as does Peter Finch's "St David's Hall", poking fun at the great and good coming out of a concert feeling "enormous cymrectitude". I had just recovered from that coinage when he capped it with his description of their attire, "those woollen celtic/drapes that make you look like an overweight bat". Finch on form is the Ken Dodd of poetry; the sallies come faster than you can react to them. His other poem here works less well for me, but that's the point of him; he takes risks, and sometimes they come off.

Of course certain things are common to all cities, in one form or another, and I should think Abeer Ameer's "Roathed" would strike a chord with most city-dwellers, because every city surely must have a slightly precious, hippy-dippy but pleasantly relaxed suburb like Roath, where one can "swan off with the swans".

There are a few poems I like less, and a few that I don't feel have much to do with Cardiff. And things I miss. The city's multiculturalism doesn't come over as much as I would like. But the attitude, the humour, the liminal nature of this city that is edgy in all senses is there, also the arcades with their niche shops, their oddly haunting quality perfectly captured by the king of nostalgia, Paul Henry:

      Already you're gone, fixing your eyes
      on a road's darkening arcade.

     What song do you sing as the light fades?

     The music shop you work in has closed
     but I have to believe it is not too late.

     Is it your eyes or your laugh I miss most?

     I'd buy you those boots or that bracelet
     your mother wore, or an amber ring

     to prove it is not too late to sing,
     to prove we are more than worn-out ghosts.

     Dream in arcades, love. Dream in arcades.
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Vanitas by Ann Drysdale, pub. Shoestring Press 2019

I watch you go, as all have gone before,
lurching from accident to consequence.

This is a collection that is upfront about where its poetry comes from. A long life of wide reading is one source. The title of the first poem, UPON FIRST LOOKING INTO A GIDEON BIBLE, invites an overt comparison with Keats's breathless mind-travelling through Homer. But the travellers the hotel bible addresses, who "measure out your lives in rented rooms", are on no such epic journey. What the book might have to say to them is irrelevant, since they are unlikely to take it out of the drawer; it becomes, instead, a rather ironic symbol of permanence in their transient world:

     that you are simply a coincidence.
     I am a constant, a sad paradigm
     for shrinking distance and compressing time.

This is an unusually overt literary reference, most of them are more embedded, the natural consequence of wide reading. This gives the poems a deep hinterland, as when in "Just Desserts", a poem in which cooking and eating are used to exorcise the ghosts of past relationships, the casual phrase "The crimson currant merges with the white" distantly echoes a Tennysonian love poem.

Many are rooted too in real land, the rural setting in which the poet practised shepherding. In "The Lyke-Wake Talk", an imagined funeral, a life is distilled to, and recalled by, various places that were focal points in it, in a way reminiscent of how the custom of beating the bounds was meant to fix a local landscape in people's minds.

One of the most notable features of this collection is its wide verbal register, all the way from the formality of the opening poem through to dogspeak (think Les Murray and cows) in the first poem of the sequence "Dog Days". I especially admired the forensic accuracy, not to mention sheer interest and unexpectedness, in "A Sea View". Beginning in a deliberately alarming, disorienting way:

     There are crisp legs spread all over the balcony
     pink and white, artless and opened up to the sky

we soon meet the culprit:

     The white bird tumbles clumsily out of the sun
     carrying a small crab like a novelty reticule
     held ostentatiously in its tight tweezer-beak,
     every leg pedalling, each one on its unicycle

That "novelty reticule" is pitch-perfect, as indeed is the whole poem. So, most of the time, is her more colloquial register – Jack the house-martin with his "new build" under the eaves. The only time it ever jars is on the few occasions when it slides into the non-adult. I don't know if this is just my personal quirk but for me, words like "whiffy" and "stinky" are too much the province of schoolchildren to look at ease in adult poems.

If animals and birds figure prominently, so do childhood memories, and they are all well evoked, but though this is natural subject matter for any writer, there is a problem in that we have all read so many "I remember" poems. It's a theme, therefore, that needs something special in order to work, and the best example of that in this collection is "Too Much Sky", a war memory that only announces itself as such via the date in the epigraph. Here the memory is enough out of the common to startle, yet because we are seeing through a child's eyes we can identify with it. She finds a similarly original way into the much-used theme of bereavement, not many have adopted her technique of allowing the loved ghost to age in her mind:

     There on my left, as ever, lies your ghost,
     hunched in the still-familiar position.
     I’ve let it age with me so I won’t lose it.
     Pursing my lips I blow the fine white hair
     that strives to hide the vulnerable scalp
     making a place to plant a phantom kiss

Her concerns range from the very serious, like bereavement here, and incipient dementia in "Connie Calls", to the completely whimsical, like the dung-beetle likened to a football player dribbling a rather unusual ball. The whimsy will not work for everyone, for nothing is so personal a taste as humour. But it is the ever-present consciousness and possibility of humour that often humanises the darker poems and staves off any hint of sentimentality. The sign-off in "Way To Go", where the speaker's ghost hops down from a horse-drawn hearse to help the street urchin coming behind with his bucket, is wryly typical.

Vanitas is available from Shoestring here

Sheenagh Pugh
27 February 2019 @ 07:24 pm

Writers and displacement

Now and then, someone organises a scholarly conference on the importance to writers of a sense of place (generally in some place unreachable by public transport). But the other reason I never end up going is that, with a few exceptions, or apparent exceptions, the writers who fascinate me do not have a sense of place so much as a sense of displacement.

Though I think this may always have been so, I became conscious of it while teaching on the University of Glamorgan's Masters in Writing degree when I was successively tutor to three poets, all émigrées to the UK from the USA – Tamar Yoseloff, Karen Annesen and Barbara Marsh. What struck me about all of them was that they observed the place where they now lived differently; they noticed and highlighted things that for a native-born poet might not have stood out, and over and over, their sense of the place where they were was informed by their equally keen sense of that other place where they had once been, but now were not.

A perfectly adjusted organism would be silent

- E M Forster: A Passage to India

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Sheenagh Pugh

The first thing I'd say is, give it a chance. It does look puzzling at first; the narrative techniques he is using are not immediately clear. But they become so, pretty quickly, and it is worth sticking with the story through the initial puzzlement because it soon becomes very moving.   

You might also want to look up "bardo"; leastways, I'd never heard of it. It turns out to be a Buddhist concept meaning "an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth". I'm not altogether certain that this is exactly what it means here, because there is no hint of rebirth; rather, the bardo seems to be a sort of waiting room for people whose remains of consciousness won't allow them to admit to themselves that they are finally, irrevocably, dead. 

Indeed this refusal seems wholly understandable, for at the back of this whole novel is the intrinsic unfairness of death, the arbitrary wiping out of a conscious, feeling personality. None of the souls we meet in the bardo (which seems to be bounded by the cemetery fence) had finished with life: all had reason to want to stay in the world of the living. Hans Vollman was looking forward to consummating his marriage when a beam fell on his head; Roger Bevins, just after he slit his wrists following an unhappy affair, realised the extreme beauty of the world and how much more he craved of it. Elise Traynor, dead at 14, is tormented by thoughts of the sexual and emotional life she never lived to have: "and the choise being made, it would be rite, and would become Love, and Love would become baby, and that is all I ask". Which doesn't seem much to ask. 

If death is unfair on the dead, it is equally so on the bereaved, and this is where Lincoln comes in, for his 11-year-old son Willie has just died, and even in the middle of a war, with people criticising his policy and vilifying him personally right and left, this is a catastrophe to put all others in the shade. The action moves between real life, in the days just before and after Willie's death, and the world of the bardo, the souls hanging on at the edge of consciousness. The narrative in the bardo is carried by the speech or thought of several different narrators, while that in real-life consists of extracts from historical books and papers (most are factual, a few are not).  One thing this technique does is to show how subjective is historical truth; there is one short but telling chapter about a particular occasion, a party at the White House, which consists entirely of quotes from different guests about the moonlight that evening. There was no moon at all, or a crescent, or a full moon; it was silver, golden, green, blue…. not for nothing do policemen say there is no one less reliable than an eyewitness.

Lincoln, musing in the cemetery where he comes to visit his son's coffin, articulates the pain that has always occupied human minds: " Trap. Horrible trap. At one's birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget."

When the souls in the bardo are troubled by the thought that they might actually be dead (they prefer to think of themselves as sick), they cite their own consciousness in support of their belief: "To whom do you speak? I said. Who is hearing you?" This form of words recurs, and it puts me in mind of a poem of Paulus Silentiarius in the Greek Anthology, a universal epitaph which takes the form of a dialogue between the dead person (or perhaps the words on his tomb) and the living reader of those words. It ends with a question from the living person to the dead:

Who are you that speak,
To whom do you speak?

The poem is bleak, implying that what one was in life matters very little after death. The novel on the other hand seeks for some redemptive factor in the "horrible trap". It might be the sense Lincoln's own grief gives him of communion with the grief of others:

His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow, toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that all were suffering, that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content, all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood) and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact, that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time. 

It might also be Roger Bevins's ecstatic sense of the smallest details of life, which causes him to manifest as a being with innumerable eyes, ears, noses and hands, the better to experience them, or the way in which Betsy Baron, alcoholic and inadequate parent, eventually manages to see herself clearly. When her form flickers between all the things she was in life plus those she never attained – "attentive mother, mindful baker of bread and cakes" – there is a sense that these things too were a part of her, even though they were never manifested in life. At the end, one of the bardo-ghosts, temporarily inhabiting Lincoln's body along with him, slips for a moment into that of his horse and immediately feels at one with the animal as well. It is this sense of shared consciousness, experience, destiny, that most lingers from the novel.

Sheenagh Pugh

Review of The Intriguing Life and Ignominious Death of Maurice Benyovszky, by Andrew Drummond, pub. Routledge 2018

"It Made His Story A Little Suspicious"

Just so we know where we are. Andrew Drummond is a novelist with a background in languages and history. His adult novels to date have all been set in the past and combine surprising but true historical facts with a wildly inventive and slightly deranged imagination. Now he has written a genuine history book, published by Routledge no less, with proper sources, index an' all, but luckily nobody told him he should make it academic and dull, so he has written it as he does his novels, ie with a pleasantly pawky sense of humour (the chapter headings, of which the above is one, are all quotes from historical sources and include "Short And Incomplete, It Is Written With A Bias"  and "Foreign Paper With Horizontal Writing", among others). Oh, and the nominal subject is an historical figure with a wildly inventive and slightly deranged imagination.

It is set in 18th-century Russia, as was his novel Novgorod the Great (also distinguished by its eccentric chapter headings) and concerns both the actual life and the memoirs of the eponymous Maurice. Benyovszky was one of those fantasists, like the Welsh sailor-author Tristan Jones, who genuinely did lead a life full of adventures but who felt driven, and entitled, to embellish them. However, Jones was basically quite an amiable character, while Benyovszky was not. He resembles far more closely a fantasist who came, like himself, from eastern Europe and was known as Jan Hoch until he changed his name to Robert Maxwell.

Benyovszky's actual life bears only a passing resemblance to his memoirs, as becomes apparent when Drummond interweaves them with those of other eyewitnesses to events. These are sometimes fascinating characters in their own right, especially Ivan Ryumin, clerk, and Benyovszky's polar opposite, a conscientious recorder of facts with a positive mania for counting and listing things. His "Description of the capital city of Paris", in full, is a list of numbers – streets ("excluding alleys"), nunneries, bridges, street lights and much, much else. I took greatly to Ryumin and was massively pleased at how things turned out for him.

The events of the book centre on a daring, and historical, mass escape of prisoners from Siberia and what happened to them afterwards, which was exciting enough though nowhere near as exciting as Benyovszky makes it. But its real theme, I think, is truth, and how fiction gets made out of it. Translation plays a big part in this, often acting more as a barrier than as an entry into another culture – as when someone, translating a French description of an island, mistranslates "inhabité" as "inhabited" when in fact it means the reverse – an error which could have meant life or death to any sailor relying on the information. At one point, Drummond finds himself citing a book called Description of the Land of Kamchatka by Stefan Krasheninnikov, published in 1755. It was translated into English by James Grieve in 1764. Grieve had lived in Russia for 30 years, so should have been well qualified to translate such a work, but he had an interesting notion of a translator's rights and responsibilities:

"The third part of this work has been most considerably abridged, as in treating of the manner, customs and religion of this barbarous nation it was loaded with absurd practices, idle ceremonies and unaccountable superstitions. Sufficient examples of all these have been retained to shew the precise state of an unpolished, credulous and grossly ignorant people."

This is, of course, not only the translator as liar but the filtering of a culture through colonialist eyes, another way in which reality becomes distorted and one which becomes more important as the book progresses. I don't want to give away too much, because the actual facts, and fictions, and downright lies, are so much fun for a reader to discover. You couldn't make it up, except where Benyovszky did.

Sheenagh Pugh
25 December 2018 @ 11:56 am

"People can change their minds about little things but on the big ones, they'd rather die first. A used-up planet scares the piss out of them, after they spent their whole lives thinking the cupboard would never go bare."

It's incredibly hard to write a novel on Current Issues without making it sound like a lecture or a sermon. One mistake many authors make is to forget that the heart of a novel, the reason readers persist with it, is never The Issues but rather the characters: if these are no more than a peg to hang issues on, readers will soon be off elsewhere.

Kingsolver is too old a hand to make this error: it would be very hard not to get involved with Willa, wondering why, when she and her husband have done everything "right" – steady jobs, family, etc – they now, in 2016, haven't a spare penny to bless themselves with and stop their house falling down. Or with Thatcher Greenwood, in 1871, trapped in the wrong marriage and trying to teach proper science in a school whose principal still believes in Noah's Ark.

For Thatcher lived over a century before Willa, albeit on the same plot of land, and their stories alternate and interlace. This is the other device whereby Kingsolver manages to come at her message obliquely rather than head-on. One thing Thatcher and Willa have in common is that both live in times when people are frightened of the new and try to cling to old certainties, even when this means ignoring evidence and trusting to faith, or instinct. But it is Thatcher, back in 1871, who witnesses a demonstration against a Darwinist in Boston:

the crude effigy dangling from a noose, the monkey's tail pinned to the stuffed trousers, the murderous crowd chanting Lock him up!

and Thatcher's boss who begins little notes with "Fact!" before citing lies.

Thatcher and Willa do not seek intellectual shelter in comforting myths, but they cling to other, emotional, shelters: he to a marriage that is going nowhere and she to the hope of financial security for her family (and incidentally, if British readers ever doubted the importance of the NHS, Kingsolver's account of Willa's problems getting care for her ailing father-in-law should convince them). Even Willa's daughter Tig (short for Antigone, her father is Greek), who has figured out that there is little point in getting attached to material things when "the world is running out of the stuff we need", is not immune from seeking shelter in caring for her half-orphaned infant nephew. Without shelter, the novel says, we stand in daylight, but we also feel extremely vulnerable. The only person in the novel who arguably does do without shelter of any kind is Thatcher's scientist friend Mary Treat (an historical person).

Willa's security is in material possessions, what her daughter calls "stuff", and not till close to the end does she realise that the more stuff there is, the better chance that whatever of it really matters will get lost, swallowed up in the mass of the inconsequential.  It would be wrong to betray to potential readers how the various protagonists eventually decide to confront their problems. I will say one thing. I have heard some folk who have been listening to the radio dramatisation, which I've been avoiding since I hadn't yet read the book, and who have been disappointed. Don't judge the book by the adaptation.  It's the first novel I have read which not only addresses recent political events but reaches beyond them to what Tig, representing a new generation, sees as the root cause, a world no longer adequate to the consumer demands being made on it:

"There's a lot of white folks out there hanging on to their God-given right to look down on some other class of people. They feel it slipping away and they're scared. […] Total fantasy. I mean, look around, who do you see that's living la vida white man? Really it's just down to a handful of guys piling up everything they can grab and sitting on top of it. And a million poor jerks like Papu still hoping they can get into the club. How long can that last?"

Just as she did in The Lacuna, Kingsolver has written a Great American Novel for our time, but not just for America. It is both powerful and uncomfortable, because the solution, if there still is one, doesn't just involve changing one set of politicians for another, but rather one lifestyle and set of life goals for another.