Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood


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‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ So begins The Blind Assassin, the next six hundred pages explaining the circumstances that led to this dramatic action. The narrative is slightly complex in form – split between the present with Iris as an old woman, writing her autobiography of sorts. This  is interspersed with contemporary newspaper reports and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, a novel published posthumously under Laura’s name. Within this one of the characters tells the other stories and as we progress through the book it becomes clear the lives of these characters reflect those of those within Atwood’s novel.

Laura and Iris grow up in a wealthy family, their father having inherited the family’s factory business after his brothers were killed during World War One. When their mother dies in childbirth it becomes clear Iris will be expected to take up the role of heir. In an attempt to save the business she is married to Richard Griffen, her father’s main competitor and seventeen years her senior. Married life proves itself unpleasant, Richard’s sister Winifred is always around, controlling the minutiae of Iris’s life. She soon realises her role is just to ‘open my legs and keep my mouth shut’. Their marital relations are a particular source of dread for her as Richard ‘preferred conquest to co-operation, in every area of life.’ When Laura is forced to live with them she makes no secret of her intense unhappiness and eventually Richard and Winifred have her institutionalized. Iris is refused access to her sister and no letters or messages get through. There are many secrets embedded in their history, subtly hinted at throughout. It is only in its conclusion that the reader is shown in full the series of tragic events suffered by the Chase sisters.

The book is firmly set against the historical events affecting Canada at the time it is set – labour relations between the wars, the Great Depression, the personal implications of war, and the social pressures and patriarchy that created such unhappy lives for our female protagonists. The newspaper clippings show how superficial public concerns were and highlight events that Iris hasn’t yet told us about. When she does fill in the gaps she points to the inaccuracy of some reporting. As for Iris herself, how far can we trust her version of events? She is writing for the sake of her estranged granddaughter Sabrina, relies on memories of events that took place decades earlier. She also shows us her ability to successfully conceal truths in the confessions she makes. In old age she is penniless, bitter, and reluctant to accept help. Her organizing the publication of The Blind Assassin turned Laura into a martyr and she has no time for devotees of her sister. In youth resentful of the constant need to look after Laura and in old age feeling as though she is still living in her shadow, it is not unreasonable to think she may embellish her story.

This is a hugely interesting book that deals with a plethora of issues both familial and universal. Carefully plotted to keep you wanting more, each strand captures the imagination and gradually reveals more insight into the characters and the world they inhabit. Criticised by some as too black and white, there’s little ambiguity over who you should be rooting for. Nonetheless, Iris and Laura are expertly crafted, Atwood shows the roots of their future in the passages on their youth. As for Winifred and Richard, their manipulations and scheming will make your blood boil. A fantastic read that I didn’t want to end.

Pick up a copy:
Foyles
Waterstones
Book Depository

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Silver Week 2019

Today marks the end of Silver Week 2019, an initiative run by The Silver Line to help raise awareness of the isolation experienced by many older people and to raise funds to allow the charity to continue its excellent work. I thought, therefore, that this would be a good opportunity to look at some books with older people at their heart.

Three Things About Else, Joanna Cannon

Florence Claybourne is a resident at the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly and relies on her lifelong friend Elsie to keep her sane and help her remember things. When an all too familiar face turns up it throws their monotonous life into disarray. A tender, heartfelt book that movingly demonstrates the challenges that come with being labeled ‘old’. Full review here.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old

Set in a care home in Amsterdam this book takes the reader through a year in
the life of one of its more lively residents. Not content to sit around comparing ailments with his neighbours our protagonist sets up the Old But Not Dead Club with a few of his friends. A humorous novel that isn’t afraid to deal with the big issues. Read the full review here. The sequel was published in English in 2018 and I’m looking forward to reading it.

A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon

George Hall has recently retired and is convinced he’s going to die of a cancer that doctors have diagnosed as eczema. A gentle look at the challenges of parenting adult children and adjusting to retired life.

Grace and Mary, Melvyn Bragg

Bragg’s Grace and Mary is a touching portrayal of a son desperately holding on to his mother as Alzheimer’s takes away her memories and sense of self. We see John struggle with guilt and grief as he attempts to care for his mother as best he can, reconstructing her life for the reader. The full review can be found here.

I haven’t read the following books but they are popular novels with older protagonists.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson

A few years back this book seemed to be everywhere, so it’s definitely about time I picked up a copy. Allan Karlsson escapes his care home just before his hundredth birthday party, thinking he’ll see how far he can get. He soon finds himself embroiled in far more than he’d anticipated and being followed by both criminals and police.

These Foolish Things, Deborah Moggach

Possibly better known by the title of its film adaptation, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this book follows a group of British retirees to a residential ‘hotel’ in Bangalore. It promises to be an amusing, relatable story.

If you have a favourite book that focuses on the older generation let me know in the comments below.


Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Hired: Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, James Bloodworth


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For six months, James Bloodworth went undercover in low-wage jobs around Britain to experience first hand the uncertainty and hardship caused by the current ‘gig economy’, a phrase that he derides for the positive spin it puts on exploitative work models. He acknowledges that he is something of a tourist in these industries, that although he lives in the squalid conditions many workers are forced into he always knows there’s an end point and money in the bank. Nonetheless, it gives a voice to those without the luxury of time and comfort to write a book. It is an eye-opening account of the appalling conditions of workers across the country and a reminder that our use of cheap and convenient services such as Amazon and Uber perpetuate this uncertain job market.

His first job was in an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley in which all staff were on zero hours contracts and conveniently ‘released’ (their word for firing, part of a wider language used to mask the reality of shocking treatment) before they reached nine months and a permanent contract. They were regularly underpaid and fobbed off by the agency who recruited them and consistently treated them with disdain. The working conditions were exhausting and unrelenting – a half hour lunch break fell far short when considering time taken to get to the canteen and through security. Their actions were constantly monitored and they were penalized for too much time idling (including toilet and water breaks) as well as being disciplined for taking a day off sick.

The local community were disgruntled by the outcome that Amazon’s arrival had created. They were promised local rejuvenation but in reality locals did not take jobs at the warehouse. The largely Eastern European workers were shocked that Bloodworth, an Englishman, would choose to work there. People knew the working conditions were substandard and were reluctant to put up with it. It was known that the workforce was largely made up of migrant workers but it was not their presence they were upset about as much as the town’s declining prosperity.

Next he tried his hand at being a care worker in Blackpool. What he discovered was that it was surprisingly easy to get such a job and that the training was inadequate. Most staff were on zero hours, minimum wage contracts and worked long hours often without a break. Bloodworth was clear that it is not a lack of genuine desire to help on the part of the carers so much as unrealistic expectations or insufficient training that led to low levels of care.

Between 1979 and 2012 the amount of NHS and council provided nursing home beds fell from 64% to just 6%. Privatisation has resulted in the focus shifting to profit rather than care. The poor treatment of staff was harder to bear than at Amazon because of the knock-on effect is has on the ‘customer’. The tight schedule meant you weren’t able to just chat to them, something most of them craved. It also encouraged cutting corners as you knew any delays would cause a backlog for the rest of the day.

His third job was working for Admiral in a call-centre in Wales, and although the least offensive of the roles, there was nonetheless a sense of constant surveillance and a false sense of community spirit – enforced ‘fun’ and cringe worthy roleplaying and singing. There was also the intense boredom inherent in so many modern jobs and one of the most challenging aspects of such work.

His final foray into low-wage work was driving for Uber in London. A company that sells itself on the freedom its drivers experience soon proved anything but. The cost to the customer is set by Uber and the driver isn’t told the destination when a job pings through on their phone, meaning they can drive far out of their way for what ends up being a £5 job (less once Uber have taken their share). Drivers are also penalized if they reject too many jobs and are encouraged to stay out for longer and longer hours. They get no workers’ rights because technically they are self-employed yet have to accept work entirely on Uber’s terms. Bloodworth describes a feeling similar to that experienced when gambling, seeing how much you can earn in a day (although it often works out as less than minimum wage).

This book comes highly recommended and will open your eyes to the struggles of thousands of workers around the country. Bloodworth spends time getting to know people in the communities in which he lived and worked, providing a much broader view than his own narrow experience.

Pick up a copy:

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Looking for Alaska, John Green



Green’s debut novel follows teenaged Miles from his home in Florida to Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama. He is unpopular but mostly unconcerned by this, preferring instead to stay in and study. He chooses to leave home in search of ‘the Great Perhaps’ and instead finds himself embroiled in pranks and falling in love with Alaska, a fellow student who is intelligent and fun but also deeply damaged by events from her childhood which manifest in erratic behaviour. The chapter headings ‘… days before’ and then ‘… days after’ mean you know something big is coming and can fairly safely assume it’s not going to be anything good.

Miles is not always likeable but he does feel realistic. He struggles with his feeling for Alaska, isn’t sure what’s meant to happen when he gets his first blowjob, and finds himself changing his behaviour to fit in with his new friends. This seems something of a departure from his original introduction where he seemed less socially sensitive, but as he says, Alaska opened up a different side of him.

Alaska is well known in the school and although she has her rivalries is generally looked up to. She is an expert prankster, supplier of cigarettes, provider of sex advice, and generally loyal. She hides the pain that sits just below the surface for the most part but lets it shine through in passing comments, for example, when she claims they smoke for fun but she smokes to die. Eventually she does reveal her trauma but instantly shuts down any further discussion, suggesting she wanted her closest friends to know but hadn’t quite figured out how to deal with it. Perhaps she was asking for help, hoping somebody would see beyond the banter.

This is a book of contrasts. On the one hand it is a boarding school book with all the pranks and mischief you’d expect. On the other it makes you think twice and consider how we can never truly know even those closest to us.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Duo & Le Toutounier, Colette (trans. by Margaret Crosland)

* Spoiler warning - Le Toutounier continues the story of characters from Duo. This review will therefore contain some spoilers *

Duo portrays an uncomfortable time in the marriage of Alice and Michel as they try to navigate the difficult fact of her previous infidelity. They work together to put on shows and work is important to Alice as she was brought up with her sisters to understand the importance of earning their keep. The potential disintegration of her marriage therefore poses a double threat as it could also limit her ability to work.

The book doesn’t detail an explosive argument, instead we’re witness to the intensely uncomfortable days where they’re being overly careful around each other, admitting difficult truths and occasionally behaving spitefully. Their gentle breakdown is unbearable but contrasts to the suggestion that Maria, their servant, is being abused by her husband. There is also some subtle suggestion that there may be some force used between Michel and Alice too but it is never detailed. A theme that will continue into Le Toutounier is that of keeping up appearances and the toll it can take.

Le Toutounier follows on from Duo – Alice is still in mourning for Michel and has returned to Paris and two of her sisters, Hermine and Colombe. In some ways they seem close but it is also shown that they do not pry into each other’s lives. Even when Hermine bursts into tears during a meal they do not press her as to why, preferring instead to pretend nothing has happened. Both Colombe and Hermine have fallen for married men and almost envy Alice for having lost her husband to death rather than choice. This is clearly a callous opinion and Alice feels that her sisters don’t feel they can behave with her as they used to. They don’t discuss Michel’s death or the events preceeding it.

I found Le Toutounier a more absorbing read than Duo. The sisters’ relationship with each other is curious and their dalliances with married men are generally kept at the periphery until absolutely necessary to be brought to the fore, fitting in with the assertion that Colette was generally disinterested in her male characters. Their approach to sexual relations is not what you might expect – they do not crave marriage and seemingly feel no remorse for their affairs, at one point it is suggested that one takes pleasure in knowing the misery they cause. Colombe is nonetheless quite innocent and Alice always insisted on twin beds in her marriage, contradicting the bohemian lifestyle suggested by some readers.

Their cramped living conditions and financial struggles are an interesting insight into the lives of unmarried women in the first half of the twentieth century. An intriguing novella in which much depth is hinted at allowing the reader to fill in their backstories from the snippets Colette cleverly reveals.