Monday 31 March 2014

Everland by Rebecca Hunt

In 1913, three Antarctic explorers set off from their ship, the Kismet, to investigate an unknown island. Their voyage is beset with difficulties from the first, and once on the strange and unforgiving Everland they need to muster every ounce of resilience they have to survive. In these hostile surroundings, new alliances are made and old tensions rise to the surface, threatening to tear them apart.

As the novel opens, the geologist of the group is rescued by a search party from the Kismet
Dinners cried for the miracle of being found. He cried for not being driven out of his collapsing body and made to die alone in the cold. And he cried for Napps and Millet-Bass; for the heartbreak and the pity of what had come before. 
Fast-forward to 2012 and an international community at the Antarctic base Aegeus are watching a classic movie about the expedition.The next day, a centenary fieldwork group of three will leave to survey the island's wildlife. Although arriving by Twin Otter rather than dinghy and equipped with the latest satellite communications, their experiences begin to mirror those of the original party. There are questions over selection and at first old hand Decker supports the inexperienced Brix with more grace than their field assistant, Jess. But allegiances shift again as, through storms and set-backs, the strong must support the weak, all the while trying to hold on to their own vitality.

In the movie version of their lives, each of the men in the first expedition has their character set in stone, based on the book written by the ship's Captain Lawrence
The common-room audience were offended by any affection or respect given to that bastard Napps. They knew what to expect and hated him 
Napps, the villain of the piece, is allowed a solitary line of self-reflection
How time tricks us into seeing who we really are...and what choices we make

This moment of soul-searching becomes eerily relevant to the 2012 party, as the harshest of environments takes its toll once more. Disturbing glimpses of the original expedition are uncovered, but it is the island which seems to be the most haunting enigma of all.

When a book has two distinct threads it's easy to prefer one above the other, leading to resentment of precious reading time expended on the second, less interesting strand. One of Everland's strengths is how deftly the overlapping stories of the two expeditions are woven together, with each being equally compelling. The lichen seen by the original expedition will have grown only a millimetre when it's discovered by the centenary party. While the first endures endless night, the second group labours under the harsh ultra-violet of a sun that never sets. There are multiple points of view and reversals of fortune, but the characters remain clearly identifiable.

As we gradually uncover what has happened to Dinners, Millet-Bass and Napps, we begin to appreciate the inaccuracies of the story passed down the generations. Napps has been mercilessly revised by Captain Lawrence into a callous cat-murdering swine, prepared to be equally ruthless with fellow crew-members. Those who could have saved his reputation have their own reasons not to do so, a theme which again finds its echo in the centenary expedition.

Rebecca Hunt's debut novel Mr Chartwell, concerned the black dog of Winston Churchill's depression and was well received for its originality and visual flair.

With Everland, she has again created a distinct and challenging world, one where the human condition is subject to the harshest of scrutinies. Time becomes elastic as the island's inhabitants across two centuries are tested beyond endurance.  Perceptions are manipulated and truth disregarded and if not everything is neatly resolved, it feels fitting that Everland should retain some of its mystery. This is another absorbing and strikingly original novel from Hunt, which succeeds in questioning and entertaining in equal measure.

Thanks to Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books, for my review copy.

Saturday 29 March 2014

Destined to be an Old Woman with No Regrets

It's high time I had another guest blog and my friend Liz has kindly obliged. Liz recently sent me a birthday card with the message

So, this is for all 'women of a certain age' and includes Liz's comments on Alan Chedzoy’s biography A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton.

Destined to be an Old Woman with No Regrets...

Most women I know are smart, intelligent, sassy, fun to be with, loyal, generous, self-deprecating and full of hidden depth. But viewed ‘en masse’, as ‘women of a certain age’, they are too often dismissed, seen as being of no consequence. As Mary Portas pointed out, even clothes manufacturers ignore this cohort, thinking that beige cardigans and shapeless frumpy sacks are enough to satisfy this invisible group.

But peel away the layers, get to know each of these women individually and I challenge anyone, male or female, young or old, not to be impressed by what you find.

On holiday last year I suddenly found myself amongst a group of middle-aged, single women and I confess I felt really out of place at first, being at least ten years younger than most of them. Following a guide who held the obligatory flag aloft, through the streets of a quaint Spanish town, I could see the look of horror on the faces of the motorists who were forced to sit and wait as the group trundled over the pedestrian crossing.  In every conceivable shape and size. At a variety of speeds. What a sight! And horror of horrors, I was part of that group! I was surrounded by sensible walking sandals, emergency brollies (despite blue skies as far as the eye could see), flowery sunhats and the smell of rigorously applied suntan lotion. I kept imagining the looks of amusement that would be on the faces of my 21 year old son or my work colleagues, all far more accustomed to seeing me lead the way, resplendent in suit and high heels, brandishing a smart brief case, with iphone held self-importantly to my ear. 

Yet every one of those women had a story to tell. Of loss, grief, cruel twists of fate, betrayal, loneliness, illness, missed chances, regrets. Of happiness, success in the face of adversity, personal triumphs, examples of love for family and friends. Whatever their stories, each had grown stronger as a result of their experiences, ‘pulled up their socks’ and were now enjoying life to the full. Truly, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Most appeared to have two or three holidays a year and partook in such a huge variety of activities between them, that they left me feeling quite breathless. Although still worrying about their grown up children and grandchildren, they were not prepared to ‘conform’ to their beige stereotype and sit indoors, accepting the passing of time. No, every second was being well and truly made to count.

The author Philippa Gregory amongst others has shown us that there have always been strong women in our history, but their voices weren't recorded. In reality, their stories are often the most interesting and influence our lives in ways we are unaware of. I would urge you to read Alan Chedzoy's biography of Caroline Norton who I confess I had never heard of until listening to an article about her on the BBC World Service. 

Caroline, the granddaughter of Richard Sheridan, was well-educated and well-connected and became a successful novelist, reviewer and poet in her own right. She was a formidable woman who didn't fit the stereotypical ideal of beauty in 19th century England, but her strong personality, sharp intellect and flirtatious manner made her alluring to the powerful men of Victorian society. In 1827, aged nineteen, she married George Norton, six years her senior. However, her close relationship with Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, led to her husband accusing her of committing adultery and to a court case which threatened the government of the day. Although the jury found her not guilty, the scandal never left her. George, a Tory MP and magistrate, was a violent man who beat her and exploited his position within the laws as they stood at that time, laws which did not recognise a married woman as a legal entity in her own right. 

He was thus able to legitimately deprive Caroline of access to her children and take her earnings from her writing. Driven by the need to see her children, Caroline brought about changes to the British justice system. She used her connections in Parliament and wrote well argued and researched pamphlets and papers, until she succeeded in influencing public opinion to the extent that her campaigning led to the first piece of feminist legislation – the Infant Custody Act of 1839, prior to which time a woman had no right to see her own children if her husband took them from her. Her subsequent campaigning led to the first Divorce Act of 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, which made women a separate legal entity for the first time. Her story is heartbreaking and will make you cry, but her courage to fight on despite all that she had to endure, is inspirational. We should have been taught about her in school alongside Disraeli and Gladstone of the same period. Surely her contribution to our history is of no less importance.

When younger, I used to feel sorry for people who were on their own, sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee and a book, terrified that would happen to me. Now I realise that to reach the stage where you not only feel confident enough to go out on your own, but actually want to do so and feel contented in that moment, is a wonderful place to be.

I've now met so many of my contemporaries who are happy with their place in society and what they bring to it. I just wish that the rest of society would place the same value on them as individuals. Let us all stop seeing a mass of middle-aged women, and instead see the individuals and value them. Not everyone can be a Caroline Norton, but in their own way, big or small, each will have made (and will continue to do so) a huge contribution to those around them and to society as a whole.

And I, as one of this age group, intend to keep on pushing the boundaries, working through my ‘Bucket List’ and am absolutely determined to be an old woman with no regrets – no matter what my son thinks of me!

Guest blog by Elizabeth Green.
Image of old ladies dancing courtesy of NYTimes and Mary Portas courtesy of the Telegraph.
Alan Chedzoy's A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton is published by Allison & Busby, London.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is a slow-burning novel in more ways than one. Last year saw the rediscovery of this book about the life of a university lecturer, written some 50 years earlier. And the story creeps up on you until, without quite knowing how, you're enveloped by its quiet, reflective prose.

William Stoner is born towards the end of the nineteenth century into a Missouri farming family, the only child of parents already worn out by the daily struggle for survival. His lot is drudgery and acceptance, toiling on the land, until his father suggests he studies Agriculture at the University of Columbia.

Dutifully, he takes the science courses until, required to complete a survey of English literature, he finds himself troubled by it. Asked by his instructor, Archer Sloane, to explain the meaning of Shakespeare's seventy-third sonnet, he's at a loss for words, prompting the question:
Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years Mr Stoner; do you hear him?
Unable to articulate an answer, something yet has shifted in Stoner and he changes courses to literature. Despite his parents' expectations and the outbreak of the First World War, he completes his studies and stays on at the University to teach.

There's always a fear with a much-lauded novel such as this, Waterstones' Book of the Year in 2013, that it won't live up to its hype. And at first it seems this fear might be justified, as Williams sets about telling the reader that Stoner's life is unremarkable. His childhood is one of few words but, along with his discovery of the transformative power of literature, the book itself is transformed.

Throughout life's problems, his battlefield of a marriage and limited professional success, Stoner's teaching role is integral to his identity and a refuge from failure. He goes about it with great ferocity, yet deprived of affection, still feels a numbness.  Then, life changes again as a result of his relationship with one of his students, Katherine:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
Williams's characters, from Stoner's stoical parents to his University friends and detractors, are astutely drawn. The decline of his mentor Archer Stone, as he sees his values being subverted and diminished by war, is particularly moving. Stoner's wife Edith is a privileged, sheltered girl, unable or unwilling to deal with the realities of life as a college professor's wife. Their daughter Grace, like Stoner before her, finds refuge in a numbness of feeling, as a way of coping with her entrapment between two mismatched parents.

It is the portrayal of Stoner himself, and the final passages as he slips towards the end of his life, which are the most poignant and yet life-affirming. Stoner's existence could easily be categorised as a series of failures yet, in a rare interview, Williams argues he had a good life:
He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important...
Is that enough?  In the end, it seems it was for Stoner. The wonder of this novel is how, despite its sadness, it leads you to reflect on whether you'll be able to say the same.

Stoner is published in paperback by Vintage.

Sunday 16 March 2014

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

Do you ever feel a published book is still one draft short of a final version? It doesn't help that I've recently finished reading both Penelope Fitzgerald and Oscar Coop-Phane's elegant prose, but that's what struck me on picking up The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult.

Sage Singer is a baker in small-town Westerbrook, New Hampshire. She's a bit of a misfit with her own share of troubles but, written in the first person, she comes across as engaging and sympathetic.

At her regular 'grief group' meeting, Sage befriends Josef Weber, pillar of the local community. She finds herself opening up to the elderly Josef in a way she hasn't been able to for a long while, but then he makes a confession she isn't ready to hear. A confession coupled with a request, undermining her preconceptions of the truth and leading to discoveries about the Holocaust which are far too close to home.

Sage's story is absorbing and raises interesting questions about the blurred distinction between good and evil and the need to come to terms with your past. But then the narrative spins off into different strands - the points of view of Josef, Leo the Nazi-hunter and Sage's grandmother Minka. There's also the repeated allegorical fable of the upior (a type of Polish vampire) that threads its way through the book. We know it's an allegory, because it's mentioned regularly.

Minka's story is all you would expect from a Holocaust survivor, and more. It's a harrowing series of episodes, but despite its horrors, this long section isn't so engaging and you might find yourself flicking guiltily through the pages, checking how soon you'll be back with Sage in the present day.

Picoult is a fantastically successful and prolific author, completing each of her books in nine months. I've enjoyed her page-turning novels in the past and there's no lack of ideas in The Storyteller. but it feels messy with, for me, one twist too many at the end. Although it's another huge best-seller, it may just be that a more succinct and satisfying novel lies within.

Picture of Jodi Picoult courtesy of

Friday 7 March 2014

Zenith Hotel by Oscar Coop-Phane

Zenith Hotel is a startling, darkly beautiful book. At less than a hundred pages long, it doesn't mess around with introductions, dragging you straight in to the squalor of a Parisian streetwalker's life:
When I wake up, my teeth feel furry. There's a foul taste in my mouth - a nasty sort of animal taste. Still, it's better than at night, when I have the aftertaste of other people and their filth.
This is the start of Nanou's day, a day of great hardships and small comforts. There's very little back-story, so we don't know what's brought her to this sordid existence. She smokes in bed, drinks coffee and writes without knowing why:
It's not vital, it's not therapeutic. I don't know, I write to keep my hands occupied, like doodling on Post-its when you're on the phone. ..I'm a pen-pushing old slag. How about that?

Between Nanou's words are interludes; individual character sketches of her clients, each one inhabiting a perfectly encapsulated world. Coop-Phane bringing to life the lonely and dispossessed, the mad and sad on the fringes of existence, in a way that earns your sympathy. There's a warmth here, an affection for his characters despite, or maybe because of, their failures:
Robert is a sponge. He soaks up events and people, retaining everything in his thick, yellow foam. But, at some point, if someone grabs him, if he's crushed in the metro or in a cinema queue, he spews out everything in a stream of insults and platitudes
You begin to understand why Robert might seek small solace with Nanou.

This isn't a familiar Paris but a vision of raw brutality, which makes the connections, glimpsed between Nanou and her clients, all the more extraordinary. In the midst of the detritus are precious shards of humanity. But this isn't just one day for her, it's the bleakness of every day:
The rest is chit-chat, answering their questions, laughing at their jokes - that's another form of prostitution.
The words of Coop-Phane are so much more poetic than mine that I could go on quoting him shamelessly. He was just twenty-three when he wrote Zenith Hotel, which won the Prix de Flore in 2012 and has now been translated from the French by Ros Schwartz.

Coop-Phane writes with economy in short, sharp sentences which hit home and stay with you long after you've finished. This, his first published work, has a visceral power which doesn't always make it an easy read. Despite that, searching for a flaw, I could only think it should have been longer, so I wasn't able to devour it all in one sitting. His next novel, Tomorrow, Berlin is due out in 2015 and personally, I can't wait.

Zenith Hotel is published by Arcadia Books on 30th March 2014. The jacket cover features quotes from book bloggers and twitter, which I love (and envy!).
Thanks to Arcadia Books for my review copy.