Monday 30 April 2018

Diamond Star Halo, Tiffany Murray

Murray sets her second novel at Rockfarm, a residential recording studio in Wales, echoing her own childhood at Rockfield Studios. Our protagonist, Halo, is just five at the opening and we see her grow into a young woman with a family of her own by the end. The residents of Rockfarm are an eccentric bunch - Nana Lew with her potions and wall of deceased rock stars' photos, Ivan and Dolly whose love is intense even after years of marriage, and Halo's siblings; Vince a cross dressing devotee of David Bowie, and her younger sister Molly, headstrong and maturing at a much faster rate than Halo. They are a close family who enjoy telling each other stories of big family events such as births and the falling in love of their parents. There is a sadness hanging over them however as there was another brother, Robert, who tragically died during a game of hide-and-seek. When an American band, Tequila, leave a newborn, Fred, at the farm, Dolly takes him in eagerly as though he can fill the gap.

Halo has felt a connection to him since the moment she touched his mother's pregnant belly, and it does not weaken over the years. He insists on sharing her bed and continues to call her Lo Lo when he is more than old enough to pronounce 'Halo'. In time, he proves himself capable of cruelty, knowing Halo loves him and kissing her before throwing up the barriers of their brother-sister relationship once more. It is an interesting relationship in which Halo seems to have very little power. The parallels Murray draw with Wuthering Heights are a little heavy handed albeit relevant. Halo is not the only one devoted to Fred and as he becomes a successful rock star the family are forced to wait for his return, talking about him to distract from their worries. The precedence he is given when he does return infuriates Molly.

This is a love story but also a coming of age tale. We see Halo move to London but she cannot escape the lure of home and runs back when given half the chance. She struggles to move on from her feelings for Fred and passes over the opportunity to be happy with another. 

An intense story of love and loss that will keep you guessing for most of the book. It questions what constitutes family and how much people are willing to sacrifice for success. It also raises the question of what success means and examines the different forms it can take as the Llewellyn siblings try to forge an identity and slice of happiness for themselves. It took me a little while to get into but by midway I was entirely entranced. 

Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon

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Cannon’s debut turns a magnifying glass on the residents of the Avenue after one of their number, Mrs. Creasy, goes missing. Ten year old Grace and her friend Tilly decide they will investigate and believe that if they can find God, Mrs. Creasy will come back. The Avenue is a close knit community except for the occupant of number eleven, who is ostracized by the others and blamed for anything that goes wrong. It soon becomes apparent that the street holds a collective secret as well as numerous individual ones.

Flipping between 1976 and 1967 the reader is led to suspect and then given tantalizing glimpses of the origin of the secret, often without giving full answers. Walter Bishop and the fire at his in which his mother perished is at the heart of the residents’ collective guilt. We are never shown Walter doing any of the terrible things he is accused of however. It’s an interesting study into how an outsider can be unfairly held up as a villain and tormented by his nosy neighbours whose distrust of him is swept up in a communal, ignorant judgment.

We see the stress of the residents rise at the thought of Mrs. Creasy’s return when they consider how much she knew about each of them. The street becomes claustrophobic, constantly watching each other, and a need to toe the accepted line becomes apparent. There’s an interesting host of characters – Dorothy and Harold Forbes whose conversation is always dominated by Harold and his belief that his wife talks nonsense, convincing her that she is suffering early onset dementia; John Creasy with his escalating OCD after Mrs. Creasy leaves; ‘thin Brian’ who is stuck living with his overbearing mother; Mrs. Morton, whose widowhood left her feeling humiliated due to the circumstances of her husband’s death; Eric Lamb, a kindly widower who tends to his garden with great care; and Grace’s own parents, unhappy in marriage, her mother seemingly unable to cope with motherhood. Tilly’s mother never makes an appearance but it is clear the others don’t think much of her. Grace is shown to be more perceptive than many of the adults but also shows her young age in her interactions with Tilly and desire to impress the slightly older Lisa.

This is a gentle whodunit that leaves much unresolved as if we’ve just dropped in on the characters for a little while but leave before all the drama has unfolded. At times a little far fetched (their obsession with a creosote stain resembling Jesus seemed a step too far) but otherwise a touching story with believable characters. 

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Wednesday 18 April 2018

Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile, 1870-1904

The Tate Britain's current offering has suffered a lot of criticism for its misleading title. It is true that a lot of the work displayed is not Impressionist and perhaps they have wavered somewhat on the aim of the exhibition. That being said, as one with much still to learn, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

It opens with a room explaining the devastation in Paris due to the Franco-Prussian war with some heart-rending paintings by Doré (whose Soeur de la Charité is captivating) and a handful of photographs to show some of the war damage. Its aim is to explain how many of the artists featured came to be in London in the first place, and the stark contrast of circumstances in the two capital cities at the time, a recurrent comparison. It's true that many of the paintings included were created later, on holiday or business trips, but it is nonetheless useful to be reminded of the historical context that must surely have left a lasting impression.

James Tissot has a room to himself showcasing his society paintings followed by Alphonse Legros and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, whose works are not breathtaking, the sculpture shining brighter than the paintings. 

Pissarro and Sisley's sunny, peaceful depictions of the suburbs are a far cry from the fog-laden paintings that are still to come. They ignore the bustle of the inner city and focus instead on the idyllic rural outer reaches. This is the point at which the Impressionists begin to take centre stage.

The two penultimate rooms are atmospheric and have some utterly entrancing paintings. Monet's Leicester Square can be appreciated at length, drawing out the many layers. de Nittis and Whistler (whose inclusion is welcome but again not strictly within the remit as he is not a French emigré artist) help focus attention on the Thames with their interesting renderings focused on light and fog. Finally, visitors are treated to a group of Monet's famous Palace of Westminster paintings. It's wonderful to see them together and to be able to reflect on the subtle differences.

An interesting exhibition that strays far from its supposed intent but brings out works by lesser known artists to be enjoyed alongside the masters. I certainly left feeling that I'd learned something and experienced some truly magnificent art. If you are an Impressionist enthusiast you may leave disappointed but for the general art lover it is worth a visit. 

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Middlemarch, George Eliot

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Middlemarch, Eliot’s epic study of provincial life, presents the reader with a host of frustrated characters. Dorothea is initially painted as a strong, intellectual woman, giving the impression that she will be an independent character that could be seen as a role model. Her decision to marry Mr. Casaubon, an aging reverend, because she admires his mind seems to confirm her strong will. Unfortunately, her simpering obedience to his wishes seems a stark contrast, and one I found disappointing. She does, however, redeem herself by the end of the novel. Lydgate, a medical man with high aspirations, believes he has chosen well in marrying Rosamond whose prettiness and empty head is just what he believes a wife should provide. He soon comes to realise his mistake. She is unable to cope with the reality of their debt and goes behind his back a number of times in the hope of avoiding the humiliation of moving to smaller lodgings.

The role of women is a recurring theme, and one not as feminist in its leaning as you might imagine from a novelist whose life rejected the social norms of the day. Women are shown both to be frustrated by the lack of occupation in their life, and that men believe they do not possess the capacity for serious thought. It is also shown, however, that they have great power of the men in their lives, even if they do wield it by fits and tears.

For men the main issue is vocation. Will Ladislaw is looked down upon in our first meeting because he has not committed to any line of work and enjoys the leisure provided by Casaubon’s financial assistance. Lydgate has noble aims for his career, despite his wife’s attempts to convince him to change course in order to provide a greater income. Fred Vincy also struggles, and considers becoming a clergyman despite his inclination until Mary Garth makes it clear that she will not marry him if he does. Thus we see the domestic power of the women in the novel.

A sprawling novel with a complex web of characters dealing with the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. It does what it professes to do, showing the lives of a provincial town. No exaggerated drama occurs, it is an entirely believable tale that promises no happy ending. The opening seemed promising and the last hundred pages or so draw you back in but you would be forgiven for drifting during parts of this eight hundred page novel. Not what I was expecting from my first Eliot but an interesting character study that represents the realities of married life in a fashion almost unheard of at the time.

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Sunday 1 April 2018

The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre, Wednesday 28th March 2018

The Birthday Party returns to the London stage to celebrate its 60th anniversary with an all-star revival. Set in a seaside boarding house, we are introduced to a bizarre host of characters. Meg (Zoë Wanamaker) fusses over Petey (Peter Wright) as he tries to enjoy his cornflakes, banal conversation passing between them. She frets that Stanley (Toby Jones) isn’t up yet and goes to wake him, treating him as though he were the son she never had. He in turn behaves petulantly and easily takes on the juvenile role, showing signs of jealousy when it is mentioned that other guests are expected. The eventual arrival of Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) adds a sinister edge, Goldberg’s friendliness clearly a front. When Meg mentions that it is Stanley’s birthday (which he denies) they insist on throwing him a party, in which chaos descends.

Stanley makes an intriguing central character whose history is called into question. A failed pianist that has been the sole guest at the boarding house for the past year, he seems to lack many social skills. Lulu’s (Pearl Mackie) attempts to tempt him to go for a walk fall flat, and he is prone to tantrum. He plays the drum Meg gives him childishly before working himself into a rage and flinging it across the room. He is reluctant to join in at his party, and during a game of Blind Man’s Bluff he attempts to strangle Meg. His interrogation by Goldberg and McCann suggests that he may have once been part of the organization that sent them.

The audience are given no background to the characters, and what is revealed is often later contradicted, leaving you with more questions than answers. If you want a play with a clear narrative and logical action then this is not the play for you. It swings between everyday conversation to jarringly bizarre scenes of intimidation, leaving the audience confused. The everyday is presented in an accurate degree that isn’t particularly enjoyable to watch, and the more intense scenes feel out of place without any narrative context. It’s a play that leaves you mulling over the characters after the event, a pastime perhaps more enjoyable than the act of watching it unfold. An intriguing play brought to life by a talented group of actors.

The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 14th April.