Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters

It is the late 1940's and Hundreds Hall is, much like England, a shadow of it's former self. Colonel Ayres is dead and the Hall is inhabited by his widow and surviving two children Roderick and Caroline. The Hall has sunk into disrepair and ruin as money has run out, the family selling of land to sustain them. Things are changing in England, the old order is being swept away - with all that implies for the social order of society.

Dr Faraday is a country doctor who would seem to typify this social change, his mother was a servant at the Hall, his father a grocer's boy. His parent's gave everything they had to see him achieve their ambitions for him but he is a lonely middle aged bachelor in the village of Lidcote until called to the Hall in his colleague's absence to tend to Betty the 14 year old live in maidservant. Betty is faking her illness in the hopes of being sent home as the house gives her 'the horrors' but Faraday's attendance on her brings him into contact with the Ayers family - Roderick who was with the RAF in the war and suffered extensive burns in a crash, Caroline who 'was noticeable plain, over-tall for a woman, with thickish legs and ankles' and Mrs Ayers herself who, despite wartime austerity and rationing still manages to display good breeding and 'a Frenchified air'. As the four take tea together in the collapsing house their social differences are brought to the fore as Caroline and Roderick recall stories of past family servants and Dr Faraday feels 'the faintest stirring of a dark dislike'.

Matters take a more supernatural turn when the family dog has to be destroyed following an incident with a child and Roderick becomes more withdrawn. Burn marks begin to appear on the walls and it appears the house itself starts to hound the family with unexplained noises, fires and writing on the walls

'Rod stood perfectly still, in that still room, and watched as the shaving-glass shuddered again, then rocked, then began to inch it's way across the washing-stand towards him....It moved with a jerky halting gait, the unglazed underside of it's porcelain base making a frightful, grating sound on the polished marble surface.'

Sarah Waters has created a Gothic ghost story which will have your hair standing on it's end. This is achieved not with blood and guts and gore but with supreme confidence and suspense. All the elements of the ghost story are here, an isolated country house and a finite cast of characters with questions about their motives and soundness of mind abounding. But this is so much more than just a ghost story, the book charts the decline of the great country houses after the war and indeed the decline of the landed gentry as the working and middle classes loose faith with the old order and the new phenomenon of the self made man and new money begin their inexorable rise.

As the story unfolds and we watch the fall of the House of Ayers who will be left in possession of the land represented by Hundreds Hall, who will be the victor in the class battle unfolding in England at the time and, more important, who will be last man standing as one by one the various characters succumb to whatever haunts the Hall and who or what is responsible?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The House of Special Purpose - John Boyne

In 1915 16 year old Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev saves the life of the cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, from this point his life is changed beyond recognition. A farmers son with little education he is catapaulted into the heart of the Royal Court in St Petersburg. Given the task of looking after and mentoring the young heir to the throne Alexei Romanov, Boyne has created someone who is at the heart of one of the greatest upheavals of the 2oth Century.

Intertwined with the story of Georgy and the royal family is the story of Georgy and his wife Zoya living a quiet life in London in 1981. Zoya is in the last stages of cancer and Georgy looks back over his life and that of his wife since leaving Russia in 1918. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, the Romanov strand moves forward in time whilst the post 1918 story goes backwards in time until both stories collide in 1918. This device allows Boyne to cover a lot of ground and whilst it is effective in moving the narrative on (or backwards) at a clipping pace it is also a source of frustration as potentially interesting episodes, such as the death of their daughter and Georgy's war work, are dropped and people appear and disappear in the lives of the Jackmenev's very quickly.

The two emigres life after 1918 is quiet and unassuming which contrasts nicely with Georgy's life in the Winter Palace. We see him at the centre of events as Rasputin excercises control over the Tsaritsa Alexandra, the Tsar continues his disasterous campaign against his Cousin Kaiser Wilhelm across the battlefields of Europe, the Bolshevicks take control and the history of the House of Romanov is played out in the House of Special Purpose. Boyne's Georgy is a passive narrator, there is no attempt to analyse the events of the day or the reasons for the fall of the Romnov's other than occasional references to the poor conditions in which the general population lived and the luxury of the royal family's life. However, Boyne manipulates the narrative effectively so that when the two stories collide anyone who does not know the history of the Royal Family will see how the otherwise quiet and unassuming life of the two Russian exiles begins and ends in 1918.

The lack of analysis or anything approaching an exploration of the ideas and ideals of the various factions in Russia at the time places the book firmly in the young adult fiction camp. It would be a good starting point for an interest in what was happening in Russia during the First World War together with the later controversy over the identity of those members of the Royal family who were killed. A good story well told.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Winter Vault - Ann Michaels

Those who read and loved Anne Michael's first book 'Fugitive Pieces' have had to wait over a decade for her second novel 'The Winter Vault'. This is a complex and ambitious novel which carries forward some of the themes found in her earlier novel particularly that of our connection with the land in an elemental sense, not just where we are born or live but where we belong.

The book initially centres on recently married Avery and Jean who are in Egypt. Avery, an engineer, is involved in the dismantling and relocation to another site of the Abu Simbel temple, the site of which will be flooded to make way for the Aswan Dam. As Avery works on the deconstruction of the temple he and Jean at night work on the construction of their relationship, telling each other about their history and past. They are building an enviable relationship filled with intimacy and silence and talk.

'It was as if, long ago, a part of him had broken off inside, and now finally, he recognized the dangerous fragment that had been floating in his system, causing him intermittent pain over the years. As if he could now say of the ache: "Ah. It was you."'
But around them, not only is the temple being relocated, thousands of people whose villages will be inundated with water are being moved to new settlements hundreds of miles from where their ancestors have lived and are buried. Avery is haunted by the fear that by moving the temple he is merely creating a copy of the original, that something significant will be lost and this concern is echoed in the creation of the new villages for the displaced, where villagers were neighbours they are now thousands of miles apart and families are torn asunder.

When a tragedy strikes Jean and Avery are unable to deal with the scale of their loss together and agree to separate. The novel then takes a turn away from the joint story of Jean and Avery to concentrate on Jean and her journey back from loss. This narrowing of focus acts as a lense for Michael's to move away from the larger themes of the loss suffered by whole peoples down to the personal tragedies and losses of individuals.

The second part of the novel finds Jean and Avery in Toronto living separately. Jean becomes a guerrilla gardener, planting in public spaces at night as a way of evoking memories in passers by when they smell the scent of the plants she has placed in the ground. She meets Lucjan aka 'The Caveman', a graffiti artist and Polish emigre with whom she begins a relationship. Lucjan lived in the destroyed wastes of Warsaw during the Second World War and helped in it's rebuilding - an almost exact copy of what had been destroyed. This fact provides a link between the two men in the novel together with the the need for Lucjan to tell his story in much the same way that Avery and Jean told theirs at the beginning of the book

'I need you to listen as if theses memories are your own. The details of this room, this view from the window, these clothes heaped on the chair, the hairbrush on the bedside table, the glass on the floor, everything must disappear. I need you to hear everything I say, and everything I can't say must be heard too'
Lucjan's story is also of displacement and relocation. Neither he nor his circle of emigre friends has settled in their new homeland, they remember and relive their homeland every day, leading us to question the wisdom of Michael's apparent premise that we are inextricably linked to our ancestral home. For if we are unable to move on into our new life (as some undoubtedly are) we become stalled forever living in the past. A question that has particular resonance for the Irish both historically and now when so many are once again leaving.
'The Winter Vault' is a story of loss. Loss of earth, land, history, town, home, family, life, past, partner and child. It is also a story of exile and grief and asks the question what is home. A winter vault is the building the dead are stored in the winter when the ground is too hard to dig a grave, it is where they wait until they are returned to the ground. To me the winter vault is that time of exile, before settlement in a new home, land or life. Lucjan has failed to emerge from the winter vault his life has become carrying with him his past,unable to move into his new life in Canada. Can Jean and Avery emerge from the winter vault their lives became after their personal tragedy?
As previously stated this book is a complex work filled with information, questions and ideas. It is not a quick read (hence the amount of time since my last post!) and is dense with language. Whilst beautifully written and asking big questions the book lacks the narrative impetus of 'Fugitive Pieces'. Undoubtedly 'The Winter Vault' will be loved for it's ambition and language but a little more space within the narrative would not have gone astray, it is a book in which it is difficult to see the wood for the trees.