Thursday 15 December 2016

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

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du Maurier's last bestselling novel is set in the familiar surroundings of Cornwall, narrated by a young man, Philip Ashley. Philip has been raised by his cousin Ambrose in his large estate which houses only men. This deliberate exclusion, almost distaste of women, makes it surprising to discover that having travelled to Italy for the sake of his health, Ambrose has met and married their cousin Rachel. The bliss of married life does not last long however and soon Philip receives disturbing letters indicating Ambrose's distress and hinting at his suspicions of his new wife. Philip's rushed journey to be re-united with him proves fruitless and he returns to Cornwall bitterly despising Rachel who he suspects of playing a part in his cousin's demise.

When Rachel arrives, uninvited, in Cornwall he intends to treat her with nothing but hostility. He soon falls for her charms however, and his resolve melts with every passing day. Thus ensues an intriguing tale whereby Philip is constantly thrown around by doubt and determination, alienating those around him as his affection and blind-sightedness grows. Rachel remains an enigma to him and even once events have drawn to their conclusion he admits '...every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?'

The reader is often led into confusion with our unreliable narrator and his ever changing assumptions. Indeed, there is little to be trusted throughout - Ambrose's letters could have been the result of a fractured mind, his brain tumour making him lose his grip on reality (if we are indeed to believe he was afflicted in this way). Rachel, who seems so calm for the most part, does occasionally let her mask slip, and her defence is natural to one attempting to cover a misdemeanour. As we are only ever able to see her through Philip's eyes we are given merely a refracted view - how are we to judge her without bias? Similarly Philip's jealousy of, and hostility to, her confidante Rainaldi can colour the reader's view. How are we to know who to trust? Paranoia and mental instability run in the Ashley family and the strange misogynistic upbringing Philip experienced with Ambrose, whose remarkable similarity is commented on many times throughout, is bound to have impacted on his view of the world and the drama in which he suddenly finds himself embroiled.

This cast of characters lead the reader along a winding path with no clear-cut end. Forming your allegiances early may be the only way to have some sense of closure, following our narrator's lead and making of the story what you want. It is a delightfully ambiguous plot with du Maurier's characteristic skill at storytelling and creating intense atmosphere making this an enjoyable read.

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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Christmas at Kew

Enter the lush world of Kew Gardens for a magical, festive evening frolic. Tall silver trees proudly mark the start of the trail, Tom Baker’s jovial voice welcoming guests. Walk along the glimmering tree lined paths to reach some beautifully designed illuminations. The displays range from the traditional – a series of fire based installations taking their inspiration from The Twelve Days of Christmas to hundreds of bulbs reaching beyond the pathway, creating a mesmerizing display of changing colours.

Music accompanies your walk, whether choral, pop, or live performed by ‘elves’ with the accompaniment of passing children. The music adds atmosphere and enhances the magic of the winter walk.

There’s also ample opportunity to purchase over-priced hot drinks to help banish the cold, and tempting Christmas bakes. There’s a café stop halfway round for those wanting something a little more substantial as well as a small fairground for children to enjoy. One of the great things about Christmas at Kew is that it can be enjoyed equally by children and adults. Younger visitors will revel in the live performances but adults too can’t help but be drawn in to the beauty of the lights. The final illumination a beautiful, impressive light display projected onto the Palm house had all entranced and made a wonderful end to the evening.

Kew gardens is always a special place to visit and it was a real treat to see it decked out in lights for the festive season. Beyond the shining lights there were also opportunities for education – certain trees having been picked out for the Christmas trail, notes illuminated for ease of reading. Almost all highlighted the damage humans cause, leading many species to be in danger of extinction. This adds a more serious, thoughtful note to the evening as you marvel at the natural and man-made wonders mixing harmoniously to create a spectacular walk.

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The story opens with aggression - Papa throwing a book across a room and smashing Mama's figurines, the importance of which will become apparent later. This reaction to his son Jaja's disobedience throws the reader straight into the claustrophobic, violent family life of Kambili, our narrator, and Jaja's younger sister.

They are both intelligent, high-achieving teens, but their father demands perfection and they are punished if they ever fall below his impossibly high standards. He minutely controls their lives, keeping them on strict schedules which exclude them from their peers. He also enforces separation from his own father who he sees as a heathen for not following the same religious practices. Papa's fierce dominance is in stark contrast to the image he portrays outside the family, where he is highly respected. Despite the obvious negative impact the oppressive atmosphere at home has had on Kambili, she takes pride in others' good opinion of her Papa.

There are some haunting scenes of domestic violence - Papa carrying Mama down a flight of stairs, dripping blood after he has beaten her to the point of miscarriage. The image of Kambili and Jaja cleaning her blood is poignant, and one that will stay with both Kambili and the reader. The children do not avoid the physical abuse - on discovering that they have spent time with their grandfather without his permission he pours boiling water on their feet. It is in this moment, amid the horror of his actions, that we are given a glimpse into his motives. He reveals that similar was done to him as punishment in his youth. This continuation of abuse combined with his moral absolutism adds to the sense of hopelessness.

Their Papa reluctantly allows his children to stay with his sister, Aunty Ifeoma, in the University town  of Nsukka, and this proves to be something of a turning point for their family. Not only does the experience show them that family life does not have to be so restrictive but opens their eyes to the suffering that they have been protected from. Nsukka is something of a microcosm of Nigeria, a single powerful figure whose actions lead to the suffering of the people as jobs are lost and resources are scarce.

Witnessing this first-hand allows Kambili and Jaja to mature as their understanding grows. This, combined with the freedom to flourish and express their own opinions, enables them to begin to form their own identities. This is both heartening and distressing for the reader as it is clear independent thought will never be agreeable to their Papa.

By this point the reader is desperate for Kambili, Jaja, and Mama to find a way out, while despairing at the seeming impossibility of this. The conclusion suggests that escaping their Papa’s influence will be even harder than imagined and can leave you feeling a little bleak.

A well written, evocative novel that easily draws the reader into the world of the characters, feeling their frustrations and fears.

Thursday 10 November 2016

George Balanchine – Mozartiana/Brahms-Schönberg Quartet/Violin Concerto – Paris Opera Ballet, 25 October 2016

Brahms-Schönberg Quartet
© ZsaZsa Bellagio
This autumn, the Paris Opera Ballet pay tribute to Balanchine, as well as his muse Violette Verdy, who sadly passed away earlier this year. The three abstract ballets - Mozartiana, Brahms-Schönberg Quartet and Violin Concerto demonstrate the diversity of his choreography.

Mozartiana is a pleasant, pretty start to the evening. Students of the Ballet School join the principals on stage seamlessly - a sure sign that they're not short of future talent. Probably the most traditional of the night's ballets, it is not without its Balanchine signatures. A beautiful, clean piece.

The curtain fell and rose again on an empty stage, a screen suspended above. A video tribute to Violette Verdy was shown - her energy and bright spirit clear. Mathias Heyman and Myriam Ould Braham then danced Sonatine, a treat for the first five performances of the run, and a piece that was danced by Verdy at its premiere in 1975. Two dancers and a pianist on stage create an enchanting trio. Balanchine always placed emphasis on the important relationship between music and dance, and the presence of the piano on stage makes this explicitly a conversation between the two dancers and the music. They dance as though responding to each other's movements rather than following strict choreography. It feels a connected, intimate piece.

Following the interval we were treated to the Brahms-Schönberg Quartet, an addition to Paris Opera Ballet's repertoire earlier this year. Designs by Karl Lagerfeld evoke the grandeur of historic royalty, an impressive achievement without a heavy set - a simple backdrop and gorgeous costumes more than fulfilling the brief. The four movements are distinct yet all fit together with their romance, lyricism, and clean lines. It exudes the rosy, carefree lifestyle of the privileged in ages past and has a celebratory air to it. A joy to behold.

The final piece of the evening, Violin Concerto, is a stark contrast - gone are the flowing romantic tutus, replaced by plain leotards that would not look out of place in an RAD exam. The movement however, is the most experimental of the night. It is symmetrical and at times almost acrobatic, and once again Balanchine's focus on the music is apparent - his choreography clearly showing his personal response.

All in all a stunningly beautiful evening that pays homage to the diversity and skill of a truly great choreographer. 

Thursday 3 November 2016

Anastasia, The Royal Ballet, 29th October 2016

Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia started life as a one Act ballet. Several years later he expanded it to three acts, the original becoming the final section – Anna Anderson (a real person who believed herself to be Grand Duchess Anastasia) in an asylum, haunted by Rasputin’s menacing figure, constantly bothered by visitors either accepting her or rejecting her. The two preceeding acts are in stark contrast to this sparse, claustrophobic scene. They attempt to give context to the final act – portraying the hazy constructed memories of Anderson as Anastasia. The fact these are meant to be recollections is not immediately obvious, only subtle design choices hint at their fabrication.

Act one shows the happy royals enjoying a picnic on their yacht, oblivious to the bloody fate that awaits them. From the marketing of the piece it was something of a surprise that it opened with such a bright, light-hearted feel. It closes with the news of the outbreak of war – a fact the audience could be forgiven for missing due to the underwhelming response of the Tsar. Not quite the gritty, psychological drama at this point, but nonetheless a really rather enjoyable start to the evening.

Act two is again seemingly about the royal family enjoying their wealth, holding a ball at the palace, and very little to do with Anastasia who is supposedly the crux of the ballet. It is only when you realise that these scenes are constructions of her imagination that she seems present beyond the third Act. The lavishness of the ball is interspersed with revolutionaries planning their attack and the curtain falls after the death of the royal family. The characters fail to have distinct personalities and although the typical flag waving revolutionaries make a dramatic sight there is not much depth.

Act three is drastically different in design and choreography. Cuthbertson plays the tormented Anderson with great energy and emotion as she dashes around the stage, desperately trying to regain some sense of her own identity. The repeated appearance of silent, gun wielding revolutionaries and the seemingly endless stream of characters clearly disturb her and it is difficult to watch the fracturing of a mind. The closing Act is by far the most powerful, let down somewhat by her final, strange, procession around the stage on an unfortunately noisy motorized bed.

MacMillan’s fascination with the real Anderson does not translate into his best work but it is an enjoyable, occasionally dramatic few hours of dance. The desire to add context to the third Act is understandable but for a first time viewer does not aid comprehension and can feel frustrating when such an intriguing story is promised. Nonetheless, the range of style means audiences who have a soft spot either for pretty, more regal narrative ballets, or those who prefer something more modern and dark can both find something of pleasure within. Flawed but undeniably enjoyable, I for one am glad that the Royal Ballet decided to revive this lesser known of MacMillan’s ballets.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

The Tempest, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells, Friday 14th October 2016

Pre-show talk:

The audience at the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s penultimate performance of The Tempest in London this season were treated to a pre-show talk with Kit Holder, Lachlan Monaghan, and Sally Beamish. Holder introduced the evening, speaking of the Company’s focus on Shakespeare in this anniversary year. The only production that hasn’t been related to Shakespeare this year has been The Nutcracker - its sheer popularity making it nigh on impossible to cut. The Tempest is the final production in this year long celebration and they invested in it fully, commissioning a new score and set.

Sally Beamish spoke of her pleasure at being commissioned to compose a ballet, a first for her, and something she has desired for some time. She talked of the creative process – that David Bintley (Choreographer and Director of BRB) sent her a storyboard which included how long each dance would be and who was in it, but not what emotions were being expressed. This was supplemented by Skype sessions before she started work on a new scene in which they would discuss issues of character and emotion, to make sure they were both focusing on the same ideas. It took her eighteen months to compose and unusually she wrote it as an orchestral score and then had to create a piano version for rehearsals (composers would ordinarily do the reverse).

Beamish and Monaghan went on to speak of how the dancers responded to the music and how different it was to have in mind the dancers’ needs when creating. The emphasis on clear beats, albeit not so far as to make it monotonous for the audience to listen to, was a new challenge for Beamish and Bintley rejected some sections as too lyrical, meaning the dancers would have struggled to know where they were in it. The cast themselves didn’t hear the full score until two nights before opening night and had some moments of difficulty trying to pick out beats that had been obvious from the piano but once they were woven into the percussion suddenly became more difficult to discern.

Monaghan spoke briefly of the pleasure of having a piece created on him. Neptune was created for him, and although he is Caliban in the second cast he was still witness to a lot of the creative process. Neptune is not a character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and so was an entirely new character, there were no previous examples for him to look to. For Caliban there have been various versions to draw from, and he watched this version being created for Tyrone. He spoke of the need to make a role yours, whether it be one that has been performed many times by many performers or a brand new role. He spoke of Bintley’s skill at bringing out individual strengths. Having delighted the audience for half an hour, the dancers had to rush backstage to prepare for the evening’s performance.

The show:

The stage is set as a watery expanse, gold glimmering in the centre. Ariel (Max Maslen) floats to the gold, swimming through the ‘water’ elegantly. Before we know it there are waves crashing across the stage, a skillful use of billowing silk, strobe lighting adds to the drama, and it is a spectacular start. The staging throughout must be commended, Rae Smith (of War Horse fame) having done a first class job transporting us to a magical, ethereal world. The costume is also a delightful mix of the Elizabethan and the magical, and yet the choreography does not quite hold up to the impressiveness of the aesthetics. When I think back to the performance I barely remember any sequences of dance, what remains is the staging.

The dancers are not to be criticized, they showed their skill, of which they have plenty, yet there was something missing. The complexity of the characters was not developed and although the narrative was carefully followed it lacked the power of the play. There was humour with Trinculo and Stephano, their drunkenness and circus-esque performances added a light tone to the evening but Prospero, despite his impressive standing does not have opportunity to show his struggles. The divertissements of Act Two, although perfectly pretty, are too lengthy, reminiscent of the Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty where you are left wondering if it is really necessary to give so much time to extraneous characters.

There are moments of stillness with almost the whole Company on stage which were quite stunning but the movements themselves did not encourage the audience to engage with the narrative. Beamish’s score adds atmosphere to the proceedings, and is a pleasant change with the prominence of percussion. Overall, a visually and aurally enjoyable evening that could be great with a little more attention to the choreography.  

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Michel Faber in conversation with Stephanie Merritt

Continuing London Literature Festival, Michel Faber and Stephanie Merritt sat down in front of an enthusiastic audience in London’s Southbank Centre to discuss Faber’s two latest books – The Book of Strange New Things and his first published collection of poetry, Undying. Both of these books came from an incredibly difficult time in his life – the novel was written during the period his wife Eva was battling with incurable cancer, and the poems were written in response to her illness and death, and the grieving process that followed.

Naturally then, conversation turned to Eva frequently throughout the evening. He spoke of her determination that he should complete his novel and desire to be involved in the editing process as she had been with his previous works. The poems that came to him during the final months of her illness are very frank, almost brutal – a style that is rare in poetry on this topic. His intention had not been to publish them, he spoke of feeling that it would be perverse not to write them down. It was only when he read some at events that he realised they were affecting people, that it was not just him offloading.

He spoke heartbreakingly honestly about his failing memory, and the fact he is already losing parts of their early marriage. It was something they were both aware of and had to come to terms with. He is writing her biography for the family so he will have that when the memories fade but most poignantly he keeps her memory alive in the way he behaves – not reverting to how he was before they met. He also commented that this loss of memories means he does not have the same tools that many authors draw on – mining their youth for inspiration for their novels.

Faber spoke often of his wife but what also became clear was his passion for effecting change in the world. He sees his novels as always having multiple layers, that they always have a political or social angle. He spoke of his anger and feelings of helplessness in major political decisions such as the Iraq wars. He was so disillusioned by what he referred to as ‘humans and their incurable stupidity’ that he stopped writing for a while and then thought of writing a novel purely about aliens, with no human characters. Although this idea proved impossible it did feed into The Book of Strange New Things. In contrast to the norm for human characters in sci-fi he made his almost supernaturally tolerant, as he believes they would need to be in such situations.

The conversation then turned to deeper topics still – questioning if we need the bad in life to have the good, if being a bit messed up is an essential part of what it means to be human. He also tackled the question of religion. Both himself and Eva were brought up in religious homes but lost their faith. He makes it quite clear however that he would not make fun of religion, that the faith involved is something he wishes he could have. He spoke of the terror of living in a world where there is nobody to look after us. The ideas of loss and how to deal with it are themes in The Book of Strange New Things.

The talk wasn’t relentlessly heavy however, he also touched on his writing habits – not particularly rigid as some writers claim to maintain, he writes until there is no more, and perhaps unusually for an author, only rarely reads fiction. He also mentioned that he has no intention of writing another adult novel, partly because he likes to write in different genres to make it interesting for his readers, and has used them all now (except crime). For those feeling bereft at the idea of no new Faber prose to devour – he aims to turn his attention to Young Adult writing and produce something utterly magical.

We may have only had an hour but Faber was fearlessly honest about his views on the world and his personal tragedies. It was fascinating to hear how he approaches his writing and admirable how present he is in the real world, how deeply he clearly cares.

Thursday 6 October 2016

The Time Machine, Southbank Centre London

Opening London Literature Festival 2016 audiences were treated to a very special reading of a much beloved tale – Christopher Eccleston performing H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. On entering the Royal Festival Hall we were greeted with the music of James McVinnie, his mastery of his impressive instrument clear. The stage was bare but for three chairs and accompanying microphones, the huge organ standing proud above. Three figures walked on, all in black with top hats on (which thankfully didn't remain), the lights went down and the transformation began.

Eccleston made a humourous, somewhat eccentric Time Traveller who was not without his integrity. There were clearly many fans of his other famous time traveller role, spatters of laughter emerged at every mention of the phrase ‘time travel’. Nikki Amuka-Bird and Emma Hamilton made the perfect companions, easily slipping between roles and narrating when the Time Traveller had moved beyond the realms of other humans. The occasional moment of panic flickered across Eccleston’s face when one assumes he’s lost his place, but no cues were missed, and the three brought the story to life wonderfully. The lighting and music added atmosphere, the swirling lights of the time travel induced sympathy for the nausea induced by the experience for our pioneering protagonist.

I had forgotten quite how wonderful a wordsmith Wells was, and it was extremely pleasant to have his prose performed by such actors, able to bring the text to life as their voices resounded around the Hall. His famous story is said to have laid the foundations for many a time travel tale that have come since and his thinly veiled allusions to the prominent fin-de-siècle themes of his day are not irrelevant to modern audiences. The helpless Eloi and violent Morlock are characters who form the basis for many futuristic visions created today.

This incredibly influential book, adapted into an hour and a half of intense performance, continues to enthrall. We may have entered the Hall on London’s South bank but we were transported across the centuries by this thoughtful adaptation. An excellent start to London Literature Festival 2016.

The full festival listing can be found on the Southbank Centre’s website.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg

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Hogg’s oft-neglected novel was first published in 1824 and quickly faded into obscurity, where it remained until the second half of the twentieth century. Justified Sinner details the life of Robert, likely an illegitimate child, rejected by his mother’s husband and raised by Reverend Wringham, a radical autonomian Calvinist. He is indoctrinated with the belief that he will attain heaven regardless of his earthly actions, and sets out on a bloody life, destroying those he considers unholy. He is egged on by a mysterious doppelgänger who goes by the name of Gil-Martin and whose influence eventually becomes too much to bear.

We are presented with two unreliable narratives – that of the editor who provides details he would not possibly know without being omnipresent, and Robert’s own confession, which paints his story in a rather more sympathetic light. He shows himself to feel regret at others taking the blame for his wrongdoing and his initial reluctance to commit murder. He is also accused of crimes he has no recollection of – whether this is a symptom of his fractured mind or simply Gil-Martin acting in his place is never clarified, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Despite his failings, it is difficult not to pity Robert as his world becomes increasingly claustrophobic, Gil-Martin an unwelcome presence in his life.

Often cited as laying the foundations for popular tales such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this is both an interesting dissection of one man’s psychology, and a satire of Calvinism and the effects of extremist beliefs. The confused state of Robert’s mind is reflected in the structure of the storytelling, making it a challenging read. What initially feels almost a comedy quickly turns much darker, and the refusal to give a solid answer to the many questions raised ensures continued intrigue. This feels like the kind of book that would benefit from a second reading, allowing time for the ideas to settle and develop.

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Monday 19 September 2016

The Lord Treasurer of Botany; Sir James Edward Smith and the Linnaean Collections, Tom Kennett

The Lord Treasurer of Botany is the first full-length biography of Sir James Edward Smith, something of an unsung hero in the world of botany. Born the son of a Norwich textile merchant he was on the path to becoming a physician when he made the fortuitous acquisition of the collection of Carl Linnaeus, an influential eighteenth century botanist, physician, and zoologist. For appearances’ sake he continued with his studies but botany had won his heart and he had every intention of making it his life’s work. He founded the Linnaean Society in 1788, an institution still in existence today, and one that was central to scientific study in the nineteenth century.

Smith was often unwell and had a weak constitution but could be intrepid and determined when the need arose. He did not suffer fools lightly and had a number of very public disagreements with other prominent figures. His defining legacy is described as his binomial system and standardization of terminology, which proved to be a great contribution to botanical study. He published a number of works, most notably his mammoth set of volumes, English Botany, produced over a twenty-year period with James Sowerby. Smith’s concise descriptions paired with Sowerby’s hand-coloured plates opened the subject to a broader audience than previously.

This biography reveals not just the scientific contributions made by Smith but also the colourful life he led. He lived during such pivotal moments in history as the French Revolution, and this wider historical context is woven neatly through the narrative. The book is firmly rooted in documentary evidence, despite the lamentable fact that his wife Pleasance destroyed most of his personal correspondence after his death. Overcoming this loss, Kennett succeeds in illuminating the character of this determined, influential figure.

Monday 12 September 2016

Don’t Point That Thing At Me, Kyril Bonfiglioli

Don’t Point That Thing At Me is an irreverent romp through the seedier side of London’s art scene with the foppish Charlie Mortdecai as our guide. Written in first person narrative Mortdecai often speaks conspiratorially to the reader, including us in in-jokes that we can’t always understand, suggesting that we would agree with some of his morally questionable opinions. He is cocky, wealthy, and judgmental – attempting to trick those he does not like into revealing their ignorance of the finer things in life. What he lacks in physical aptitude is balanced out by his manservant/live-in thug Jock. He seems to be one of the few people that Charlie has any lasting affection for and in some scenes their relationship has moments rather surprisingly bordering on tenderness.

The plot is somewhat all over the place as Charlie crosses continents in an attempt to deliver a stolen Goya. He proves himself to be inept and cowardly at times, Jock displaying unshakable loyalty as they find themselves in rather sticky situations. There is so much that is farcical in their tale that the moments of sincerity are often mistrusted.

Despite the alcoholic, misogynistic narrator whose belief system would have been outdated at the time of original publication, you can’t help but smile at moments while reading this. His brazen behaviour in the face of his nemesis Inspector Martland and the simple yet cunning techniques he uses to cover his crimes are amusing. There’s just about enough intrigue to keep your interest but the story arc is not strong enough to be truly gripping. Humour, snobbishness, and peril abound in this easy, light read that isn’t likely to linger long after reading.

Saturday 3 September 2016

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

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The opening chapters of A Little Life introduce you to four talented young men on the cusp of adulthood – William, JB, Jude, and Malcolm. In these early passages we are given snippets of their past lives, the roots of some of their insecurities, and a glimpse of the concerns and preoccupations that they struggle with. There is a certain focus on the forming of identity and their uncertainty of who they are and what they want to become. It is clear that they have come through some difficult times but it is nonetheless jarring when Jude, who remains something of an enigma throughout, comes to Willem in the middle of the night, bleeding from a self inflicted wound.

The story then begins to focus in on Jude with Willem the main supporting character, JB and Malcolm melting away into the background. That night we are introduced to Andy, Jude’s long-term doctor and friend. Certain recurring issues make their first appearance in these scenes. One aspect of the novel deals with responsibility – Andy’s ongoing dilemma as to whether or not he should have Jude committed, Willem’s responsibility to Jude, an unspoken understanding between the group of friends that he is the one who can help him best, and Jude’s own responsibility to those who love him, even if beyond his comprehension.

As the novel progresses we witness flashbacks to Jude’s youth, slowly revealing the abuse he survived, and giving us an understanding of how he has been shaped. It borders on frustrating to begin with – his self-deprecation when he is clearly loved and admired by those who know him. This frustration quickly evaporates when we come to know what he has been through and how remarkable he is. We see him struggle to open up to people, to understand that he can be loved. We also see his desire for control informed by the feeling that he has never had much, the sense that life is something that happens to him without him playing an active role. His physical injuries add to this and he attempts to hide how much he suffers and the potential help he will need as his condition deteriorates. This need for control in part manifests itself in his self harm and reluctance to accept help.

Jude’s story is devastating but it is not without its positives. He is incredibly successful, he inspires great devotion from Willem and Harold, his once teacher who becomes personally close. In a fascinating interview with Yanagihara in the Guardian she claims this was intentional, that everything is heightened. Yes, there are many incredibly upsetting scenes and detailed violence, but this is balanced by an excess of love and success. This deliberate exaggeration is rare in contemporary novels, but while the novel holds you in its thrall the technique feels entirely appropriate.

The story of Jude’s endless struggle to cope with life and intimacy, to attempt to come to terms with what has happened to him, will break your heart several times over. It is a consuming tale that will stay with you long after the final page. The characters feel alive and the closeness forced upon the reader is brutal but important. It does not allow you to look away or expect a quick fix and this makes it very real. An utterly devastating, brilliant read.

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Thursday 25 August 2016

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, British Museum

The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus once lay at the mouth of the Nile. They were  submerged over a thousand years ago in a similar fashion to the fate that threatens Venice. The British Museum’s latest major exhibition showcases items excavated by Franck Goddio and team from the site of their resting place in the depths of the Mediterranean. The museum’s vast exhibition space has been decorated in turquoise and blue to emulate the water that many of the items emerged from, a constant soundtrack attempts to add to the atmosphere. Vast statues stand proudly dominating the space, a quite remarkable sight, especially considering how well preserved they are after centuries in their watery grave.

Large sculptures highlight each room but there are many smaller, more every day items, which they attempt to use to reveal more about the culture and interlinking of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian custom. Barely ten percent of the remains have been excavated and a tinier proportion still are on display. The exhibition is padded with items from the museum’s own collections as well as some from further afield, a water symbol on the labels clearly identifying those from the excavation site. They attempt to bring to life the bustling cities that they were in their prime; Thonis-Heracleion holding a position of importance in the commercial world, and Canopus more focused on the worship of Egyptian gods. It becomes clear that their positioning on the Nile afforded many opportunities, but also that they tried to emulate civilisations that had come before in order to add legitimacy to their own.

The exhibition is genuinely breathtaking in its earlier stages and an introductory video details the amazing discovery of the lost cities, heightening the curiosity. Short videos and photographs are dotted around the space showing objects in situ and in the process of being recovered, giving them context beyond the walls of the museum. Attempts have been made to make Sunken Cities family friendly with separate exhibition notes and activities. There were a number of children visiting at the same time and their reactions suggest this was a welcome addition.

Coming to this exhibition with little to no knowledge of the cities and their discovery, and only a basic knowledge of the period covered, it is engaging and informative. If I had one gripe it would be that the labels in some sections were too repetitive – a fact that would doubtless have been more exasperating for a more knowledgeable visitor. Sunken Cities gets off to an impressive start but loses its way slightly by the end. Nonetheless, this is an exhibition which affects in a way I’ve not experienced before. If you can get beyond issues with the sponsor it’s definitely worth a visit.

Sunken Cities is at the British Museum until 27th November 2016.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Fire! Fire!, Museum of London

The Museum of London's immersive new exhibition on the Great Fire of London opened last month to mark 350 years since the disastrous event took place. The exhibition space is darkly lit, a fake London street has been partly constructed, genuine artifacts adding to the authenticity. Fire! Fire! has been designed to appeal to all ages with plentiful activities throughout and simple questions to help children engage with the topic. They have the balance right - it may be accessible for young visitors but it does not feel like a children's exhibition, having plenty to offer adult guests. The layout is logical, taking you through how the fire started, what happened while attempts were made to put it out, and finally the aftermath. It leads the visitor to ask questions that are answered later in the exhibition, a solid technique.

The enormity of the fire is really brought home as you walk through the space. The timeline detailing the major events in the spread and curtailment of the fire and the map of London being consumed by (virtual) flames evokes the seriousness and horror of the inferno. The firefighting equipment on display highlights their ineffectiveness against such a blaze when all conditions aligned perfectly for its rapid spread. The section designed as a camp for the tens of thousands made homeless feels claustrophobic, the devastation it wrought on those who were in the most part without homes for eight years is palpable.

Overall a very well put together exhibition which successfully takes such a well known event and adds to it, dispelling many a myth along the way. There are items on display that were salvaged from the wreckage with x-rays to give a clearer view, but a highlight for me were the designs proposed for a new London. The rebuild was controversial for its dedication to the original road layout -  a topic that continues to be hotly debated by historians today.

Atmospheric, original, and informative, this is definitely worth a visit. Fire! Fire! will be at the Museum of London until 17th April 2017.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Wilderness Festival, 4th-7th August 2016

Sunset over the campsite on the first night
Over a long weekend in August Cornbury Park's ancient woodlands were transformed into a playground for adults and children alike. Thousands descended on this peaceful Cotswold estate for Wilderness Festival 2016. Revellers enjoyed the refreshing cold of the lake or stayed safely in the boats gliding along the surface if they did not wish to brave a bracing swim. Wandering the main festival site snippets of debates and talks escaped from marquees, latecomers lounged in the sun nearby, raucous laughter erupted, the strains of music could be heard, and the smells of a wide array of street food constantly tempted the tastebuds.

The Atrium
With talks ranging from Artificial Super Intelligence  to Brexit, the  Brontëto dinosaurs, it proved a hard job choosing where to spend the days. The Atrium became a hub for the arts - dancers from top companies gracing the stage that moments before had been inhabited by excited toddlers. It also played host to a Disney singalong, a pop-up cinema, and a Bowie tribute concert. Variety and quality are the hallmarks of this festival that celebrates all things culture.

Making good use of the natural beauty of the surroundings, the Oxford Shakespeare Company performed an excellent, concise version of Love's Labour's Lost. There’s something quite magical about being led into the woods for an afternoon in the sun watching talented actors perform without all the modern theatre technology we are accustomed to, bringing us closer to the way original audiences would have experienced the play.

The annual Wilderness cricket match
Sunday morning saw the annual Wilderness cricket match, an event in which almost anything goes. Amusing commentary, players casually drinking on the field, and twenty-two streakers (which was eight off the current Wilderness record), this was not your average cricket match. Play itself was not without its appeals however, the Remainers plucking victory from the Brexiteers’ grasp in a nail-biting conclusion.

The Valley
As the sun set there was plenty to distract from the evening chill. Nouvelle Vague, stepping in for Daft Punk on the Atrium stage were a definite highlight. Their high-energy performance had the whole crowd dancing. Sadly, the headliners on Sunday did not quite achieve similar. The staging of the Flaming Lips’ set was visually impressive – colourful and unusual (a curtain of lights obscuring the band for the most part). Wayne Coyne’s performance lacked the energy needed however, and he struggled to hit the high notes. There was plenty for night owls to enjoy beyond the main stage; from the Folk Barn to the Valley – an intense experience of pounding music, lasers, and a huge crowd partying deep within the trees. No piece about Wilderness would be complete without mention of the Saturday Night Spectacle which this year featured tightrope walkers performing feats that made my stomach churn just watching them, illuminated performers providing a soundtrack on the field below.

As the forest and lights fade the memories will not. Wilderness provides the opportunity for all to enjoy losing themselves in nature – to think, to dance, to be free, if only for a weekend. 
The boating lake