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Monthly Archives: September 2011

I’d already read a few of Alan Warner’s books before starting this, and had enjoyed The Sopranos, his novel about a group of teenage girls from the Port, a small town in Scotland, who travel to Edinburgh with their school choir for an ill-fated singing competition. The girls are full of life and desperate for adventure, sex, binge-drinking and the drama of the big city. The characters seem very real, especially in their vivid dialogue, which reveals the dynamics of the group, the girls’ insecurities and the friendships they form. While Alan Warner writes about the typical teenage conversations about clothes, make-up, alcohol and sex amazingly accurately, the girls also come alive as individuals, not as stereotypes.

The Stars in the Bright Sky revisits the same central group of girls, now in their early 20s, as they meet at Gatwick Airport to book a last-minute holiday. Some are still living in the Port – Manda, who now has a baby son, is managing a hairdressers, Chell is working in the Tourist Information Office and Kylah, who has a beautiful voice and ‘could have been in Hear’Say’ as Manda points out, is working in Woolworths. Finn and Kay have both left the Port and are now students – Kay is in London, training to be an architect, while Finn is studying philosophy in Edinburgh – and the girls are joined by Finn’s glamorous and mysterious university friend, Ava. So the novel dramatises the culture clash between those who’ve left their childhood home, are middle-class and more educated, and those who have stayed in the Port, although in the end these differences don’t seem to have a massive impact on their relationships.

As with The Sopranos, I found the book’s dialogue very entertaining and it’s difficult to believe it’s not just a transcript of real speech. The dialogue forms a large part of the novel, and it’s strange how interesting a book mainly consisting of drunken conversations in bars or hotels can be. Each girl’s relationships with the others is revealed, especially through the moments of understanding and honesty between individuals that occur when they break away from the group for a while. The group as a whole is dominated by Manda, who is a terrible, overbearing character and has to be in control and the centre of attention at all times. It’s very realistic the way the other girls are terrified of disagreeing with Manda, but then complain about her among themselves and are constantly trying to work out how to deal with her, although they do have a certain amount of affection and tolerance for her. Manda is a great comic and grotesque creation, as reading one of her over-excited rants will show.

I hope this won’t be too much of a plot spoiler, but I’ll just say that quite a large proportion of the book takes place in Gatwick Airport, as the girls encounter problems that delay their departure. I found the idea of setting a novel in an airport interesting. It’s a place people perhaps don’t give much significance in their minds, as it’s usually just a stopping point on the way to the real destination. Although an airport can be the backdrop to strong emotions, I know I personally tend to put the experience out of my mind with relief as soon as the plane has taken off. On the rare occasions that I fly, I suppose the anxiety I feel and the need to navigate this disorientating environment make me move through the whole process in a slightly detached way and then instantly forget about it. So the way the book focuses on this transitional experience, which most people (I’m guessing…) don’t think much about, is unusual, in that it’s bringing something neglected to the foreground. Leaving characters stranded at the airport also prolongs an experience that should only be temporary so that it becomes a repetitive nightmare. And now I’m thinking of those occasional (true) stories of homeless people who end up living in airports undetected for months or years. It’s scary to think that it’s an inbetween place where you can fall through the cracks and no one would really notice.

The physical appearance of the airport also makes it an intriguing setting. Alan Warner describes it in a way that creates a kind of poetry out of these intimidatingly huge, impersonal and space-age places. The book seemed to suggest that the airport is created by an extreme mixture of capitalism and technology. It’s bland – in that you’d find those same chain shops and business hotels anywhere in the country – but also awe-inspiring, as it’s so vast. It’s a luxurious place, in a way, as almost every food, drink or shopping desire you may have can be catered for, if you can afford it, but this whole strange city is ephemeral and has no history – it’s been created in a hurry to meet the needs of travellers, has been set down in the landscape and could just as easily be dismantled and removed. I liked the way this novel makes the airport expand into a complete world so you feel as if you know it all too well by the time you finish the book! I think I’ll be on the look-out for novels with a similarly weird and unexpected setting, as it’s something I found interesting.

I began this book wondering why Carson McCullers was so drawn to writing about girls of around twelve or thirteen, like Mick from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or the musical teenager from Wunderkind. This novel follows another adventurous and unhappy young girl, Frankie, over the course of a strange weekend in which many things change for her. The story is set in the 1940s and begins with the news that her brother Jarvis is about to get married to a woman he met just before he was posted to Alaska with the army. This announcement stirs up a violent burst of emotion in Frankie, a mixture of jealousy, restlessness and a wish for belonging, which soon turns into the daydream that the newly married couple will take her away to live with them after the wedding.

Frankie lives in a small town in the South and she is lonely. She is not a member of the club formed by the older girls who organise parties in their clubhouse. ‘She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world…an unjoined person who hung around in doorways’. Frankie’s mother died on the day she was born, and she lives with her father, who owns a jewellery and watch repair shop. There is the sense that she is just waiting until this transitional phase of life ends and she grows up. She spends most of the long summer afternoons hanging round in the kitchen with Berenice, the black housekeeper, and John Henry, her small, scrawny and odd six-year-old cousin, where they eat endless meals, play cards and have meandering conversations.

Although the characters are often bored and just passing time until something more exciting happens, these parts of the book are actually the most interesting. Their conversations are strangely compelling, expressing their longings, histories and speculations about life. I could empathise with Frankie, but I liked Berenice the best, especially her stories about her four ex-husbands and the way she responded kindly to Frankie’s constant emotional turmoil and questioning.  One interesting talk they had was about the repetition of events, about how a person can go through a wonderful experience and then always, forever after, wish to relive it. Essentially, it’s a warning that wishes and daydreams can become part of someone’s personality and difficult to escape from. Berenice warns Frankie about her fantasies of running away with her brother and his wife, and asks her, ‘Will you be trying to break into weddings for the rest of your days?’

Frankie is an imaginative girl, daydreaming about far away places like Alaska, often packing her suitcase and fantasising about leaving town, about being a boy and going to fight in the war. I felt the book really captured teenage anxieties about appearance and growing up. Frankie is always worrying about being so tall for her age, and fears that, if she continues growing, she may end up as a fairground attraction like ‘the Freaks’ at the local fair that fascinate her so much. The fact that she looks so grown-up for her age actually gets her into major trouble later in the book. But the way she feels a connection with the Freaks reflects the curiosity about unusual, damaged and marginalised people in all the books by Carson McCullers I’ve read so far. Frankie starts wondering about the lives of the Freaks, how much money they earn and whether they ever get married. In a similar way, she sees herself as a criminal, identifying with another outcast group, and is drawn towards the town jail. ‘Often some criminals would be hanging to the bars; it seemed to her that their eyes, like the long eyes of the Freaks at the fair, had called to her as though to say: We know you.’

This novel also made me realise how the radio and news of the war were a big presence in the 1940s. The radio is constantly playing in Frankie’s house all summer long as background noise, and is described as a babble of different sounds, voices from a distant country, ‘a war voice crossed with the gabble of an advertiser and underneath there was the sleazy music of a sweet band’. However, Frankie feels disconnected from the world and the war, feeling that they are both irreconcilably separate from her own life, and that she is shut out from the significant events that are happening in the world. It expresses how someone living in a small town can feel her life doesn’t matter and she is somehow remote from reality. When she’s fantasising about travelling away with her brother and his new wife, she tells Berenice defiantly that one day she will talk on the radio and be asked to give an eye-witness account of something; that is part of her idea of success, of being an important person.

Race wasn’t mentioned often in the novel, not explicitly, but Frankie understands how Berenice’s life is even more constrained than her own because she is black. After reading about the ‘pane of glass’ dividing black and white areas in the town in Time Will Darken It, I noticed that there was a similar border crossed in The Member of the Wedding, when Frankie passes through ‘the unseen line dividing Sugarville from the white people’s town’. To me, it’s interesting to see how this division is represented in fiction, and also how the narrators in these books can cross those borderlines, go everywhere and see everything, unlike the inhabitants of the town.

One thing I was struck by in reading this book was the many objects and people that were divided, half one thing and half another. One small example was an expression that’s partly friendly and partly angry, as different feelings compete inside one person. There are loads of examples to do with gender, like one of the Freaks at the fair, who’s ‘divided completely in half – the left side was a man and the right side a woman’. Once I’d started noticing this, I saw it everywhere in the novel, and wondered if that’s partly what interested Carson McCullers about her young girl characters. Frankie is a mixture of child and adult, she looks almost grown-up but still has many childlike emotions, she has a new longing for freedom and adventure but her closest companion is her six-year-old cousin. Someone whose life is undefined in this way, pulled one way then another, is an interesting character for an author to explore. These strange hybrid things and people remind me of a Greek mask, half-smiling and half-sad. And it seems appropriate because Carson McCullers’ books are themselves such a mixture of tragedy and comedy.

 

Although there have apparently already been hundreds of film and TV adaptations of Jane Eyre, I hadn’t seen any of them so I was really looking forward to this new film and didn’t have the jaded attitude seen in many of the reviews! I am interested in the novel, which I first read as a child. It is the story of a young orphan girl, who is brought up by her bullying and neglectful aunt and cousins, and then sent away to a strict boarding school, where she suffers equally cruel treatment from the teachers. When she grows up and finally escapes the harshness of school, she needs to earn her own living and so becomes the governess at Thornfield, an isolated mansion with a mysterious owner, Edward Rochester.

The first time I read Jane Eyre, I was so scared by the appearance of Mr Rochester’s mad wife, who is described as a sort of inhuman witch-like creature roaming the corridors of Thornfield at night, that I had to stop reading it halfway through. After a day or two, when I had recovered from the shock (seriously, the book is very gothic and spooky so I don’t blame my younger self for having nightmares about it), my curiosity made me open the book again and I finished it. Although I always preferred Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre was still very strange, atmospheric and exciting, although I was probably too young to understand it properly. The next time I can remember reading it was at university when I was studying Jean Rhys’ novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a really interesting book which looks at the Jane Eyre story from another angle or two, imagining both the history of the ‘mad wife’ from the West Indies and Mr Rochester’s own story of his earlier life and how he came to marry Bertha.

This film doesn’t really explore the colonial aspect of the book like Wide Sargasso Sea did, but mainly concentrates on the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester, and does this in quite a moving way. The focus is the two characters, and how they are drawn to eachother and begin to form their relationship. First of all, we see how Jane manages to survive her sad childhood. Her rebellious tendencies and her will to fight back seem to have been crushed out of her by the time she is an adult, but she is left with qualities of determination and stoicism even while she outwardly acquieses to what happens to her. I think the book brings out Jane’s subversive side to a greater extent than the film, but the film does show her to have a strong sense of self-possession and honesty.

While at school, she befriends another girl, Helen, who is the only person to show her any affection. Helen is very religious and, in contrast to the younger Jane, experiences her suffering passively and believes in forgiving the people who mistreat her, rather than feeling anger towards them as Jane does. Although the teachers at school use their religion as a means to persecute the pupils, accusing them of being sinners and punishing them harshly, Helen’s religion does not lead her to such hypocritical behaviour but gives her suffering a meaning and is more idealistic and visionary, as shown when she tells Jane that the air is full of spirits watching over her. I think religion is shown in an ambiguous way (in the film, at least). Jane has an intense friendship with Helen, who has a great impact on her childhood, but Jane herself has a different, more individualistic and rebellious attitude to life. Later on, she is also unable to accept the watered-down love of St John and become a missionary’s wife, but instead follows her own desires and is rewarded for it.

Jane does not use her unhappy life as a way of making people pity her. When Mr Rochester first meets her, he teasingly asks her for her ‘tale of woe’, as all governesses must have one, but Jane just gives the simple facts of her upbringing and schooling. Her pride surprises Mr Rochester and makes him respect her more. Jane’s reaction to him at the first meeting is interesting; she is a mixture of frightened, defiant, and attracted, but she is not daunted by his sarcasm and worldliness. Rochester’s dissolute past is more mysterious than Jane’s and we don’t really know much about what’s happened to him. I think that the power the two characters hold over each other is what makes the story so absorbing. Even though there are romantic, gothic elements to the book, Jane is definitely not a victim who is seduced by the typical Byronic hero, but makes her own choice to come back to him.

Jane Eyre is about a very passionate, restless character, whom other people consider to have no emotions and no significance. She is someone without any advantages in life, and therefore her feelings go unnoticed. The book describes the inner life of a character who is full of emotion but is seen by others as fading into the background and as beyond hope of romance or passion (Charlotte Bronte’s novel Villette also does this, even more vividly, but with less of the wish fulfilment aspects of Jane Eyre). The speech Jane gives to Rochester just before he asks her to marry him is a perfect expression of this…

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion.  “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?  Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup?  Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!  And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

The main reason I liked the film adaptation was the two leads, who are both quite compelling to watch, brought a lot of feeling and sympathy to their acting, and created a sense of chemistry between Jane and Rochester. It also has a beautiful gothic atmosphere, with bleak scenes of the rainy, windswept moors and the grey, gloomy Thornfield. It was definitely a good way to spend a bored Wednesday afternoon when I was in need of escape!

 

I finished this book a few days ago, after dragging out the experience as long as possible, savouring every word and saving the last couple of chapters because I didn’t want it to end. I loved Time Will Darken It and think it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

The book is set in Illinois in 1912, and is about the marriage of Austin and Martha King. It begins when Austin’s cousins, Mr and Mrs Potter and their adult children Nora and Randolph, arrive from Mississippi for an extended stay. It is clear from the start that Austin and Martha don’t really want the visit to take place; Austin has invited them ‘in order to pay off an old debt that someone else had contracted’ and Martha, who has just found out she is pregnant, is angry with Austin for inviting them. Many characters in the book allow themselves to be influenced by other people and Austin especially is dutiful and reliable, wanting to be good and to think of himself as ‘a good man’ more than anything else, but there are destructive consequences to this way of living. The cousins’ visit has very negative effects on Austin’s marriage and his reputation in the town, starting when Nora falls in love with Austin.

In addition to the main storyline, there are vignettes, almost like short stories in their own right, about the lives of the Kings’ neighbours, friends and colleagues. The novel’s title comes from a book about landscape painting and it does very much take a wide view that encompasses the whole town. There are many interesting characters but the character I liked the best was probably Martha. She is very insecure as the book opens but she is more of a free spirit than Austin, and I felt sorry for her as her marriage began to go wrong. Nora is a complicated character; I partly sympathised with her as she is a thoughtful, intelligent, adventurous person who doesn’t really fit in with the rest of her family and yearns for a different kind of life. However, she can be quite irritating at times, and almost deliberately innocent, as she doesn’t seem to realise the effects her actions have on Austin and Martha. The story of ‘the Beach girls’, two sisters who live next door to the Kings, is a very powerful part of the novel, and it is painful to see how their lives are outside of their own control. The book also takes a look through the ‘great pane of glass, opaque from one side, transparent from the other’ that divides the street between the comfortable houses at the top and the shabby neighbourhood in which the Kings’ cook, Rachel, lives. The story of Rachel, her children and her violent husband is woven into the novel.

One thing I like about William Maxwell’s writing is his incredible insight into people and their inner lives. He can write dialogue that is full of hidden meaning, that says more than it appears to on the surface, and that reveals so much about the character who is speaking, and their relationships with the people around them. He presents individual scenes, one after another, some momentous and some inconsequential, not directly telling us what the characters are like, but allowing us to eavesdrop and form our own conclusions. I also like the way he can create a whole cast of plausible and complex characters, so that you see the world from multiple angles, a world that you almost live in yourself during the time you’re reading the novel. I liked the way the town and its characters came to life, as a sepia-tinted photograph does. There is an old-fashioned, autumnal feel to this novel. I suppose I am hoping to be transported into another world when I read, and this novel definitely did that for me.

It’s not just a form of escapism though as I think the ideas William Maxwell writes about are ones that are very important to me and probably to many people reading his novels, questions like what is the best way to live your life, and how people try to become independent and free. He expresses the pain that comes from feeling constricted and powerless, from loneliness and love that ends in disaster, as well as the way in which the opinions and personalities of other, more powerful people (family, employers, neighbours) influence the characters’ lives.