Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Rebecca Miller

This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to but they do.
They fill you up with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have kids yourself.
Philip Larkin

Larkin provides an eloquent and accurate indicator of one of the central themes of Rebecca Miller's book The Private lives of Pippa Lee'. As the book opens we are brought into the front living room of the Lee's where they are celebrating with their friends the move to an up market retirement community. Pippa is in her early 50's and her husband Herb is 80. One of their friends gives a speech in which he describes Pippa:

'I've known Pippa Lee for a quarter of a century,but I'll never really know her. She's a mystery, a cypher...a person not controlled by ambition or greed or a crass need for attention, but a desire to experience life completely, and to make life a little easier for the people around her.'

But this seeming paragon has a dark side and when Pippa experiences episodes of sleep eating, smoking and driving it is clear that all is not well with the Lees. Indeed, Pippa herself does not agree with their old friend's description of her, preferring to think of herself as

'One of those shiny used cars that have been in a terrible accident. They look perfectly fine on the outside, but the axle is all bent.'

The novel is split into four parts, the first, third and fourth are told in the third person and the second in the first. It is in the second part that Pippa comes sharply into focus and it is the retelling of Pippa's early life and experience that forms the core of the novel and where Miller's writing is at it's best. We learn of Lee's childhood, the teenage rage and rebellion against her mother that leads her to flee her home and her subsequent behaviour that is most definitely not virtuous - despite Pippa herself praying to Jesus 'I am begging you to make me good,please'.

It is this desire to be good that leads Pippa into marriage with Herb Lee, a man 30 years her senior, and the married life she builds for herself. 'Marriage' Pippa says 'is an act of will' and Pippa is willing herself to be good, and she is so good at marriage and making life a little easier for the people around her that she all but disappears as a person and becomes a shadow of the 'old' Pippa - and this I think is the intention of the third person narrative. Rebecca Miller, who herself has said in an interview with Julia Llewellyn Smith for the Telegraph Newspaper ' I wouldn't be able to maintain my sanity if I gave up who I was. I just wouldn't be able to exist', has created a distancing of the reader from the central character in the first and last parts of the novel which cause us to disconnect from Pippa in the same way that Pippa is disconnected from herself. Whilst these parts are not as effective as the vibrant first person narrative, they are essential in understanding how far Pippa has moved from her true self so that she just does not exist any more in any meaningful way.

And what of those parents that Larkin castigates? Pippa has two experiences of a smothering intense love, that of her mother from whom she flees and her daughter who she can not flee in body but who she can mould - and the result? reread Larkin's poem.

A seemingly slight book, this is a novel that you can come back to again as you think about the mother - daughter relationship, the expected role of women in marriage as the nurturer and the issue of female identity after marriage.
A great book club read.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Secret Scripture
Sebastian Barry
' I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar...and be made the author therefore of themselves'
Roseanne McNulty is living in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, an asylum for the insane. She is believed to be 100 years old and has decided to write the story of her life which she keeps under a loose floorboard in her room. She regards herself as 'only a thing left over,a remnant woman' but through her narrative we are asked to consider the nature of history and Barry's central premise that
'History,as far as I can see, is not the arrangement of what happens but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth'
The history of Roseanne is told in the first person - with all that implies about the reliability of the narrator. Indeed, we are given our own detective in the form of Dr Grene, Senior Psychiatrist at the hospital which is due to be closed. He has been charged with the task of assessing the patients to see who should be moved to the new facility and who can be moved out into the community. Thus begins the dance between Dr Grene and Roseanne with the Dr wanting to establish the circumstances under which Roseanne was admitted and Roseanne herself keeping back information.
We are also given the history of Ireland, the competing versions of freedom and truth during it's wars and the enormous and insidious power of the Catholic Church through the priest Fr Gaunt, who Dr Grene describes as 'obviously sane to such a degree it makes sanity almost undesirable'.
Roseanne's history is intimately affected by Ireland's past, her father is caught up in an attempt to bury a dead Irregular fighter and involves Fr Gaunt which results in her father loosing his job as grave digger to become rat catcher to the town of Sligo. Roseanne herself is accused of telling the Free State Soldiers about the Irregular fighters, which results in their deaths. Her mother sinks into madness and her father dies - by his own hand or murdered? Just one of the competing versions of truth Dr Grene has to untangle.
Happiness and marriage to Tom McNulty are again interrupted by the power of Fr Gaunt who has his own views on Roseanne and her proper place and who has previously tried to take Roseanne under his wing - despite her being a Presbyterian. It is Fr Gaunt's view of Roseanne and her actions that result in Roseanne being committed to the asylum where she spends the rest of her long life, consigned to the margins of society and the footnotes of history - as many women were.
Sebastian Barry has created a novel full of repeating images: cliffs, feathers, music, temples and murder, the repetition of which act as a beat within the novel over which is laid the melody of Roseanne's life and, as counterpoint, the life of Dr Grene who is supposed to be assessing his patient but who instead is consumed by his own life and mistakes. Each character's life has an echo in the other which finally intertwine at the end of the novel.
And a note about the end of the novel, which has been much talked about. I do not believe that the author who created such memorable prose and characters would be so careless as to sink to soap opera plotting for his finale. I prefer to believe that Roseanne's life is once again affected by outside forces and that our view of her once again shifts depending on the knowledge we have of her - and that maybe Barry was so involved with his character that he wanted a little spark of happiness at the end.
A book to savour and read slowly - again and again - and attempt to come to grips with the untidiness and unresolved nature of history and memory.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Hi and welcome to Midleton Book News, a blog run by Midleton Books for book lovers. We hope to bring you details of new releases, book world info, reviews and general musings about life behind the counter of a bookshop. Our first major post will be on the 1st April with news of the new releases for the month ahead to be followed by a review of the potential Booker long-lister and Giller winner 'Through Black Spruce' by Joseph Boyden.

Keep us updated with what you are reading and what you think of the book via comments to the blog.

We are also considering nominating a book of the month to be reviewed by us and hopefully read by and commented on by you.

We will not be restricting ourselves to adult books, children and teen fiction is a very exciting area at the moment with a lot of good new titles and we hope to bring you reviews and news of these.

Is there a book you loved or loathed and you don't feel that a mere comment will do it justice - why not email us a review and we will consider it for a post of it's own on the blog.

The intention is that this becomes an active forum for book lovers so the more we hear from you the better.

Best Wishes

Midleton Books