Monday, 26 February 2018

The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride

The Lesser Bohemians follows Eily, a first year drama student, newly arrived in London from Ireland, throughout the school year, though college is definitely not the focus. She is keen to experience all that student life in a big city has to offer, first on her list – losing her virginity. She succeeds in this aim when she meets an actor twenty years her senior in a pub and ends up back at his bedsit. Thus begins a tumultuous relationship in which she struggles with his habit of promiscuousness and when hurt does things that she instantly regrets. As the novel progresses they grow in emotional intimacy and we see the emotional damage that causes Stephen to struggle with letting love in.

We are not told their names until quite late in the novel, Stephen’s especially comes so late that it feels almost awkward, but perhaps this is an attempt to indicate a better depth of knowing the characters. Alongside the disclosure of names there is also a shift to more access to dialogue between them, and the terms of affection that they use, perhaps an indicator of the move towards, and acceptance of, affection beyond desire.

The narrative style is instantly striking, described by McBride as stream of experience rather than consciousness as it deals with far more than the mind. There is something poetic about the writing that sweeps you along in it. An entire book in a type of stream of consciousness would usually be far from enjoyable for me, but not so here, so expertly crafted that it feels entirely natural. Experiencing everything as Eily does gives us a real sense of intimacy with the characters and a rawness to the emotions. When it feels that disaster is being foreshadowed your heart will break at the thought of it.

Stephen is kind to Eily on their first night together, her beliefs about his desire causes a souring in relations, but he still shows a level of care in the morning. They seem to constantly be hurting each other at just the moment the other makes a real effort, but underneath it all there seems genuine affection. The way Stephen treats Eily is at times difficult to watch, especially when we see how it impacts her beyond their time together. Despite the difficulties they seem drawn to each other, and you do find yourself rooting for them to find a way to happiness together.

A beautiful, intriguing novel, recently revealed to be the first of a trilogy. It feels complete as it is, but I doubt I’ll be able to resist the sequel.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

What Belongs To You, Garth Greenwell

Greenwell’s debut novel is told to use by its unnamed protagonist, an American teaching in a school in Sofia, Bulgaria. He meets a male prostitute, Mitko, and becomes somewhat obsessed by their relationship. The first section, initially published as a novella, tells of their encounters and the increasing intensity of the narrator’s feelings. The second section focuses on the narrator’s upbringing and difficult relationship with his family, and the third brings us to two years after the last described scene with Mitko. We see the narrator vulnerable and conflicted, we gain a sense of how his sense of self was formed and the shame he feels in desire, and in the final section we are shown how far he has come, or perhaps how little has changed.

His relationship with Mitko is an interesting one, there is a blurring of the lines and Mitko seems to want to make him believe that they are close friends. He also spends a significant amount of time speaking with other male clients and arranging to see them when he has agreed to spend the night with the narrator. Mitko expects more than is offered, ordering too much food and buying expensive bottles of alcohol when he is not the one paying. The narrator lets him do these things but it is never entirely clear whether this is out of genuine concern or guilt. There’s also a sense of fear that permeates their relationship and could contribute to his pliability.

The narrator is determined to recall events accurately, but he finds Mitko’s behaviour confusing and so cannot shed much light on his motives. There’s also the fact that he is not fluent in Bulgarian, often reporting that he hadn’t entirely understood what was being said. The fact that he is recalling events years after they happened also contributes to the idea that he may not be an entirely reliable narrator. His preoccupation with intimacy is clear however, whether from his descriptions of rejection and shame in his youth, or watching children’s intimacy with parents and acknowledging that in a few years' time those same actions would be deemed inappropriate.

A short, powerful novel that explores the lasting impact of childhood impressions and the complex task of attaining genuine intimacy in adulthood.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Sport of Kings, C. E. Morgan

C. E. Morgan’s epic is ostensibly about horse racing, but don’t let this put you off if it’s not something that appeals – it’s a multi-faceted beast which deals with racism and womanhood as well as a plethora of other hard-hitting issues. First we are introduced to the Forge family, a wealthy farm owning family that has a tendency toward tyrannical fathers. Henry hates his father John Henry and ignores his wishes for the family business, but as the novel progresses we see Henry follow in the footsteps of his father in the treatment of his own family. Next we are introduced to Allmon Shaughnessy, son of a black mother and an absentee white father. We see him struggle with the racism that is endemic around him. He is forced into illegal activity in his desperation to help his mother with her medical bills. Her condition and suffering highlights the problems within the health service of America in a truly harrowing fashion. Allmon ends up in prison and it is this which eventually gives him the skills to gain a job at Forge Run Farm, an establishment we are told one of his ancestors was a slave at. The interconnectedness is painful, but Allmon is determined to be the one with the power in the future. He hadn’t reckoned on Henry’s daughter Henrietta however, a strong-willed, intelligent woman who participates in a seemingly endless string of one-night stands and holds within her the possibility of happiness but also destruction.

She is an intriguing character. Her mother left when she was still a child, confiding that men always want something from you, but believing her new love was different. Their relationship fizzles to almost non-existent and she is left at the mercy of her father. He exposes her to activities not suitable for her tender age, and we see his father’s obsession with continuing and strengthening the family name manifest itself in an even more sinister form with his daughter.

Allmon’s life is difficult from the start. He and his mother are rejected by their local community because of his having a white father, but he is subjected to all the prejudices of the police as if he didn’t. His arrival at Forge Run Farm could prove his saving grace, but Henry is unlikely to make it easy for him.

The juxtaposition of these two characters, with such different upbringings but both trapped within a world in which they have very little control, both finding their own way to fight against these restraints form the crux of the novel and lead us into its eventual climax.

A verbose, complex novel that hops around in time and voice. Oddly addictive, this heart-wrenching novel is a wonderful read and definitely worth persevering with.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Woman in White, Charing Cross Theatre, 4th February 2018

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2004 flop has been reinvigorated in Thom Southland’s revival at the Charing Cross Theatre. Condensed from its original three-hour length and with a set design more evocative of the nineteenth century from which the story was born, it is a pleasant evening at the theatre but has lost the intensity of Wilkie Collins’ novel on which it is based.

The action revolves around a trio of women – Laura Fairlie, Marian Halcombe, her elder half-sister, and the mysterious woman in white. Percival Glyde and Count Fosco work together to trap Laura and gain her fortune. Laura is encouraged into marriage with Glyde despite her love of the drawing tutor Walter Hartwright. A mystery unravels before us as they try to save Laura and discover the secret of the woman in white. Glyde portrays none of the charm apparent in the novel, instead being harsh and abusive almost instantly. His accomplice, Count Fosco, is not as sinister as the original and indeed provides comic relief in Act Two with his rendition of You Can Get Away With Anything, skillfully delivered by Greg Castiglioni. 

The performers are at the top of their game, seemingly breezing through the more challenging vocal elements. I felt. However, that I was constantly waiting for a signature Lloyd Webber showstopper that never quite materialized. There were familiar strains in some of the songs but they were overall forgettable, however skillfully delivered.

The costume and set design are again not to be faulted, making the most of a small performance space and successfully transporting the audience through the scenes with minimal set changes. The production overall seems to have lost the mysterious, disturbing heart that makes the novel such a joy to read. The characters and plot are subdued to feel more like a saccharine period drama. An inoffensive, well performed piece of musical theatre that is unlikely to inspire many repeat viewings.