Friday 28 February 2014

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

I haven't read any of Penelope Fitzgerald's work before, in fact, I've been known to confuse her with Penelope Lively. But Hermione Lee's 2013 biography brought her renewed media attention, so we decided, in my book club, to address our collective ignorance.

Penelope Fitzgerald came to writing late in life and wasn't published until she was sixty. She made up for lost time though, by winning the Booker Prize in 1979 with Offshore, to the surprise and dismay of many in the literary establishment. In all she had nine novels published, as well as biographies, essays and reviews. The Blue Flower was her last novel, published when she was seventy-nine and winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US.

The Blue Flower begins in 1794, a fictionalised account of the younger years of Fritz von Hardenberg, later to become the poet and philosopher Novalis. It's the annual washday at Fritz's Saxon home in Weissenfels, seen through the eyes of his companion Jacob Dietmahler:
Here I am, a stranger to your honoured family, knee deep in your smallclothes
With this striking imagery, we're introduced to Fritz's many siblings, whose numbers are still being augmented regularly by a timid mother and sternly devout father.

The family is noble but far from affluent, rubbing by in a pickle of genteel squalor. Fritz is young and idealistic, influenced by the revolutionary zeal pervading France. Against his father's wishes, he registers to study history and philosophy at university, bringing him into contact with leading thinkers like Schiller, Ritter and the great Goethe. This is a world of new ideas, where the old practice of bleeding a patient to restore health is replaced by 'Brownismus', a prescription of exercise, sex and fresh air, combined with a balance of opium and alcohol.

Fritz's imagination catches what others don't see, but he must earn his living as a tax collector for the salt mines, lodging at the house of a presiding magistrate. On arriving there for the first time, he compliments the magistrate's niece Karoline, in her shawl and housekeeping apron. He's admonished, but replies:
When I came into your home, everything, the wine-decanter, the tea, the sugar, the chairs, the dark green tablecloth with its abundant fringe, everything was illuminated.
He's written the beginning of a story about a mysterious blue flower and asks Karoline for her interpretation. In her failure to compose a satisfactory answer, she feels she's lost the chance of his love. But, in reality, she's denied by Fritz's meeting with twelve-year-old Sophie:
'Let time stand still until she turns round' said Fritz, aloud.
His friends and family are astonished, not only by Sophie's extreme youth, but also because she doesn't seem all that exceptional. She can barely compose a letter or keep still for a portrait and she doesn't understand the blue flower, either. And it's the meaning of this flower, always sought but rarely glimpsed, which is revisited many times in this novel, like the echoes of a dream.

The past is brought to life so convincingly in The Blue Flower that it doesn't feel like historical fiction, but a vividly-realised tapestry of believable characters. Fitzgerald's prose is quietly imaginative and as elegantly spare as poetry. With the wisdom of her years, she reflects on the hopefulness of youth, but also on its losses and disappointments.

Instead of rushing ahead, I found myself having to recalibrate my reading to savour each word. Like the blue flower of the title, this novel is sometimes a puzzle which I wasn't confident of solving, but always intriguing and worth the pursuit.

The Blue Flower is published in the UK in paperback by 4th Estate.
Image of Penelope Fitzgerald courtesy of The Telegraph.

Friday 21 February 2014

Jane Eyre at Bristol Old Vic

I have to confess that Jane Eyre wasn't my favourite book at school. Not only was I coerced into reading it, but as a biddable child I also failed to appreciate Jane's wildness. It just goes to show that you don't have to like, or even to have read, Charlotte Bronte's classic to love this new production from Bristol Old Vic. In an epic scales-falling-from-the-eyes piece of theatre, director Sally Cookson ably demonstrates just how relevant Jane's story is to a contemporary audience.

Jane Eyre, the play, is staged in two parts over four-and-a-half hours, which does demand a certain commitment from the average theatre-goer. But what a rewarding commitment this is, because it creates so much more space for the exploration of Jane's childhood; from her very first cries as a mewling infant to her early orphaned life with cruel Aunt Reed and schooling at the austere Lowood Institution. Jane's awkwardness at the affectionate goodbye bestowed on her by the maid Bessie and her first friendship with class-mate Helen Burns are not only affecting, they also underpin her innate self-reliance and make sense of the heart-rending decisions she's forced to take in adulthood.

The set is deceptively simple, a bare wooden platform and ramp with steep metal ladders and the different levels are fully explored with great physicality. The highest of ladders is the preacher's pulpit and simple wooden frames, suspended from above or held in front of Jane's face, are the windows she gazes out of restlessly. In the centre a band plays live music and from the beginning, this is an integral part of the story, haunting the fluid transitions between scenes with an eerie purity as stripped back as the story-telling itself. 

With minimal props and seamless role-switching, the cast conveys long coach journeys by running on the spot, the passing of months by chanting in lessons and Jane's interior voice by surrounding her with questions. Her changes from child to woman to bride have her being dressed on stage in clothes that often have a life and meaning of their own.

Madeleine Worrall captures Jane's spirit perfectly, as childish willfulness develops into the strength she needs to survive the emotional turmoil of love. Felix Hayes is imposing as the brooding Mr Rochester, reawakened to life through his relationship with the new governess, shouldering his responsibilities yet ultimately willing to risk all to be with Jane. There's humour too as Rochester brings his sardonic wit to bear, along with his unruly dog Pilot, energetically played by Craig Edwards. Laura Elphinstone is excellent as Adele and St John Rivers and portrays a host of other characters with equal conviction. And woven throughout is the sublime singing of Melanie Marshall, who then becomes the secret at the heart of Thornfield Hall, the incendiary reason for Jane's flight.

Benji Bower's score deserves particular mention, because it is so atmospheric yet difficult to define. It mixes original composition with sourced music which enhanced the feeling of timelessness. Only once, with the albeit exquisite rendition of Gnarls Barkly's Crazy was the spell almost broken by over-familiarity with a song.

With a story as complex and densely plotted as Jane Eyre, even in two parts, it must be as difficult to decide what to leave out as what to include. This production is not only an acting triumph for the company, they also devised the whole play from the book in a matter of eight weeks. When I first read about this undertaking, I thought it an act of either lunacy or genius. In Sally Cookson's hands it is the latter; as courageous, bold and original as Jane herself.

Jane Eyre is at Bristol Old Vic until 29 March 2014
My tickets and all photography courtesy of Bristol Old Vic.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Revolt by Qaisra Shahraz

From its very first lines, Qaisra Shahraz's latest novel Revolt captures the intrigues and simmering tensions at the heart of the fictional Pakistani village of Gulistan. Here is a melting pot where the happenings in the landowner's hevali or mansion are dissected in minute detail, edging out news of suicide bombers or fighting against the Taliban. Where mobile phones and western fashion can be found alongside grinding subsistence and the belief that a woman who has miscarried will cast a perchanvah or evil shadow on other pregnancies.

At the centre of this story are Gulbahar, Rani and Mehreen, three wealthy sisters who live by traditional values. Their dress is expensive but modest and they confine themselves to the women's quarters of their homes, the only men they meet without a chaperone being their husbands and sons. But, one of the lessons of this novel is that families sending their children to the city or overseas to be educated, should not expect them to return with their values unchanged. Problems arise as the younger generation casts off the accepted etiquette of arranged marriage; Gulbahar's family has already been torn apart by the actions of her daughter and there's more trouble when Mehreen's son flies in from England to marry his cousin, a secret already in tow.

This division between eastern and western values is reflected in more humble village families too. The greengrocer's wife
prided herself on having a perfect family of two sons and two daughters; sons were needed for looking after the parents but daughters were a must for the household chores.
Whereas the goldsmith's pampered daughters with their city education, western clothes and ipads are unable to help with their own laundry
moaning about their broken nails and twisted wrists after washing just a few items. All three had tried to tackle the mound, which resulted in a hearty squabble as to who had done the most and whose hands were in the worst condition. 
The community is united, though, in its excitement for the forthcoming nikkah or marriage ceremony, a feast which will feed the whole village.There's a huge cast of characters woven into this novel's rich tapestry, which at times makes it difficult to keep track of them all, from the gossiping laundry woman Massi Fiza to the unfortunate quiltmaker's daughter Salma. It would be useful to have a map of the village streets with the inhabitants' names written by each dwelling, but there's no doubt that Qaisra Shahraz knows the hierarchy of Gulistan intimately, so vivid and realistic is the detail with which she paints her picture. Indeed, her writing is so full of warmth and understanding that even a figure of comedy like Massi Fiza develops into a person of great resilience with her own deep sorrows to bear.

The English sections of the novel are used to mirror the prejudices and racism of Gulistan, but these could have been more developed. The preoccupations of a woman living in a multi-cultural area such as Liverpool and studying for a doctorate felt less complete and convincing than the rest of the book.

Qaisra Shahraz, recognised as one of 100 influential women in the Pakistani Power 100 List, was born in Pakistan but raised in England and this shows in the authenticity of her writing. Revolt is her third novel, viewed largely from a female perspective, with passion oozing out of its pores. Dialogue is not 'said' but 'scoffed', 'beseeched' or 'whimpered', which initially seems intrusive. But then, flying through the pages, absorbed by Shahraz's fluent storytelling, I realised that, along with her liberal scattering of Pakistani words, this only serves to heighten a certain sense of melodrama which fits the novel perfectly.

Revolt is often comedic and always colourfully teeming with life. Yet, at its core, this novel raises fundamental questions of whether eastern and western values can co-exist. In its epic narrative, many characters do shift significantly in their attitudes, and it's the compromises they reach in recognition of friendship and love, which ultimately make Revolt such a fulfilling read.

Pictures courtesy of and Arcadia Books and thanks to Arcadia Books for the review copy.

Thursday 13 February 2014

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

Joanna Rossiter's debut novel The Sea Change is the Big Bath Read at this year's literature festival and, a couple of Monday mornings ago, new Artistic Director Viv Groskop was at the box office handing out copies. I tweeted how sorry I was that I couldn't be there and was mightily impressed when she offered to put one aside for me.

The Sea Change is the interwoven story of estranged mother and daughter,Violet and Alice, and the causes of the distance between them. Set in the 1970s, Alice impulsively has married James on the southernmost tip of India, waking up the day after their wedding to find herself engulfed by a tsunami. Violet, meanwhile, unaware of her daughter's predicament, is revisiting the abandoned Wiltshire village of Imber where she grew up during the Second World War. She is forcing herself to face up to events of the past
Mama said that, even if there had been no evacuation, there would have been other wars, other threats that would have overtaken us. But in my mind we had a course mapped out, which once lost could not be caught again, only ghosted. The men and women we would have married, the children they would have given us: everything remains locked in some parallel universe.
The young Violet is strongly rooted in the way of life of this rural community tucked away in the Downs, where her father is the village vicar. She revels in its isolation, regretting the arrival of the telephone and roaming the countryside with her friend Annie and local farm labourer Pete. Her sister Freda, however, is less contented and aspires to a more sophisticated lifestyle away from the soil.

Fast-forwarding to the 1970s, Alice is facing a struggle for survival in the unforgiving aftermath of the giant wave that has swallowed up the Indian village where she's staying. She's been separated from her new husband and rescued by a local man who speaks no English. As she searches desperately for James, we begin to learn more of what has brought her to this remote place and of her strained relationship with Violet. And back in Imber in the 1940s, as the storm clouds of war gather, Violet's life is also ripped asunder...

This is a novel with a complex and ambitious structure, moving back and forth between decades and locations, as Rossiter explores the parallel lives of its protagonists. In essence, though, it is Violet's story and hers is the much more absorbing one. The haunting village evokes a particularly strong sense of place and time, all the more authentic because Imber is a real community which was actually evacuated in wartime. Alice's struggle to survive the wave, by contrast, feels much less vivid. I kept forgetting the tsunami referred to is in the 1970s, rather than the more recent 2004 Boxing Day tragedy, and found myself skimming through Alice's lines in my eagerness to get back to Violet.

There's a sense of restraint pervading this novel, of damage caused by words unsaid and deeds undone, which stayed with me long after I'd finished. Although it has its flaws, this is an enjoyable read and a great book club choice, just because it offers up so much for discussion. Is the structure overly-complicated? Are some relationships more believable than others? Could some of the characters be more rounded and clearer in their motivation? Without giving too much away, the reasons behind some actions, especially where Freda and Pete are concerned, aren't necessarily transparent.

We've seen debut novelists make a huge impression recently (Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and Nathan Filer's The Shock of The Fall being the most prominent), which must mean their second book is an incredibly daunting one to write. With The Sea Change on the other hand, it feels like Joanna Rossiter is just getting into her stride. One to read and one to watch, as surely her best is yet to come.

Details of the Big Bath Read book group can be found on the Independent Bath Literature Festival website.  There is also a book group discussing The Sea Change on Goodreads.

Thanks to Viv Groskop and Penguin for my copy of The Sea Change. Photos are courtesy of the Guardian and the BBC.