Wednesday 29 January 2020

Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime, Claire Harman

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On 6th May 1840, Lord William Russell is found dead in his bed in a quiet Mayfair street, his throat cut so deeply it is almost severed. The house is in disarray, the result of a seeming faked burglary designed to throw the police off the scent. It soon becomes apparent that it was an inside job and all the in-house staff fall under intense investigation.

The culprit is discovered about half way through the book, but their arrest is far from the end of the story as they release multiple, contradictory confessions, in one blaming William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard, in which the notorious criminal is the hero, for giving them the idea. This leads to a discussion of the popularity of ‘Newgate novels’ and the impact they had on criminal behaviour. Books were becoming increasingly affordable and, at a time before intellectual property law, cheap knock-offs and plays proliferated, making these gruesome tales accessible to most members of society. A number of criminals were said to have been influenced by these novels, and division in the literary world emerged.

Dickens’ Oliver Twist could easily have been classified as a Newgate novel, something he was keen to avoid. Ainsworth on the other hand embraced the trend, and although initially it brought him fame and fortune, the specific mention of his novel by the condemned caused an abrupt change in its popularity. He continued writing throughout his life but never regained the status he’d originally garnered from Jack Sheppard.

A book examining the link between fiction and true crime is an interesting concept, but the connection is not as important in this particular tale as perhaps the blurb suggests. It is however, an interesting book that places Lord Russell’s murder in the wider social context of the time. An era where criminal celebrities were emerging and public executions were still a public spectacle that attracted tens of thousands, yet on the cusp of moving toward less barbaric, more private, punishments.

A slightly slow start is worth persevering with as you’re led into the dark underworld of Victorian respectability. Harman closes with comments on some of the unresolved mysteries of the case, suggesting possible answers, but ultimately leaving you wondering what really happened that fateful night.

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Wednesday 22 January 2020

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose

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In 2010 the performance artist Marina Abramović held a retrospective at MoMA, also staging a new work, The Artist is Present in which members of the public were invited to sit opposite  her while she sat silently staring into their eyes. People really connected with the performance and by the final day they queued overnight for their chance to sit with her. Rose sets her novel around this extraordinary event, creating characters that are all drawn to the exhibition during times of personal difficulty. The two that receive the most attention are Levin, a composer whose wife is seriously ill but has put in place precautions to keep him away from her care home, and Jane, a recently widowed teacher who is travelling alone on a journey she’d hoped to make with her husband. They are both grieving, Levin at times thinking it would be easier if his wife had died - the feelings would be more straightforward, he’d be subjected to less judgment from their friends and family, and he’d know where he stood. Instead he finds himself living in a home that was meant to be theirs but in which Lydia has never lived, not sure that he quite recognises himself without her. Jane is still in the early stages of grief, setting a place for her husband at the table and being unable to concentrate as she’s always listening for him. They find something compelling in the gallery and go to visit every day. They do encounter each other, and the host of characters all have some connection to the art and a sense of loss, but their meeting is fleeting and they ultimately remain on their own separate journey. Rose skillfully weaves the threads of many lives so that they fit together neatly without ever feeling contrived.

Alongside the fictional characters, we also learn about Abramović's strange yet compelling artworks. Her relationship with her mother Danica is difficult, controlling. We see a glimmer of reflection in the relationship between Levin and his daughter Alice, yet the roles are somewhat different. Alice has always longed for more attention and approval from her father, and for him to do better for her mother. Both Marina and Danica, and Levin and Alice, are faced with impossible situations, mistakes are made, but they are doing their best, trying to protect their loved ones.

A thoughtful, beautifully written novel that seamlessly weaves fact with fiction. The characters, even if they appear only briefly, are interesting and complex. A brilliant, absorbing read that will make you think about your own relationships. Through the eyes of the characters we are given a part of the healing and fascination they experience at The Artist is Present.

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Wednesday 15 January 2020

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

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The Mortmain family live in Godsend castle, crumbling and increasingly sparsely furnished as Cassandra’s father continues in a writer’s block that has impoverished his family. When the Cottons, a wealthy American family who have just inherited nearby Scoatney Hall, arrive they see an opportunity to marry Rose off and provide them all with some much needed financial stability.

Cassandra, our narrator, is seventeen and hoping to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an author, believing that writing a journal will help train her in telling stories. The narrative style creates a real closeness with the characters. It is realistically written, her filling us in when she hasn’t had time to write for a couple of days. Both her and Rose seem younger than they are with an innocence and naivety that has presumably sprung from their secluded home. Cassandra is an honest narrator, explaining and questioning her own motives even when they don’t paint her in the best light. She is sweet and willing to do all she can to help Rose succeed in wooing Simon Cotton, even braving a freezing nighttime swim with his brother Neil to give them more time alone.

There are many glimpses of normalcy that feel entirely natural throughout, the awkwardness of the Cottons enquiring whether or not her father will be releasing a sequel to his popular first novel Jacob Wrestling is painfully familiar to all who have ever been subject to questioning on a sensitive topic at a family gathering. The scene also gives extra context to his struggles. His novel was experimental and well received but others have built on and surpassed his work in the interim. He seems paralysed by the pressure and instead of writing spends his days reading detective novels and doing crosswords while his family makes do with what they have.

Stephen, who carries out errands for the family and is utterly devoted to Cassandra, contributes any income he can to make life more comfortable for them, although as Cassandra says, she never feels hard done by in their situation. She is also largely oblivious to Stephen’s affections but tries to rebuff him gently when encouraged to do so by her step-mother Topaz. Former model and a big believer in communing with nature, she completes the bohemian lifestyle and brings some light dramatics. Cassandra’s brother Thomas is largely absent throughout but does play an important role in an unexpected plot to encourage their father to start writing again.

This is a book I’ve always heard good things about but thought perhaps I’d missed the boat with. I was wrong. This is an enchanting, delightful read at whatever age you come to it. Cassandra’s voice is distinctive and honest, creating such vivid descriptions of their home and lives that you feel you could easily step through into her world. An absolute treat of a book.

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Wednesday 8 January 2020

Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano

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Saviano’s bestselling exposé of the Camorra, the mafia that dominates Naples and the surrounding regions, is full of unimaginable violence, ordinary people struggling to make a life for themselves, and teenagers being dragged into this dark underworld that will likely see them dead before they reach forty. He shows how the Camorra hold the lives of Neapolitans in the palm of their hands. Many work in unauthorized factories that legally don’t exist, meaning that they are entirely reliant on them for mortgages and leases. We learn also of the escalating mortality rate from cancer due to the dumping of illegal toxic waste and that they test new guns by shooting at shopfronts. For those living under the Camorra there are reminders of their position at every turn.

It is the individual stories that really hit home. Many knock-off brand clothing is produced in Southern Italy, of high quality but selling at a fraction of the price. The workers are highly skilled yet are paid a pittance. For one, who creates a beautiful suit for Angelina Jolie, the recipient unknown when he made it, is a source of both great pride and sorrow when he sees her wearing it on the red carpet on TV. A couple of months later he is assigned as a truck driver, ruining his circulation and therefore his ability to make fine clothes. Another particularly harrowing scene is that of the guinea pig drug addicts used to test drugs are safe before being put on the market. Abuse of the addicts’ desperation means they know there’ll always be someone willing even though they know there’s a high risk of death.

The book is full of detail and names who appear only briefly before being killed or sent to prison. There is never a shortage of members waiting to become a boss, and violent power struggles are a part of daily life. With so many vivid descriptions of cruel killings and torture it is a stark reminder that even in such acceptance of the dangerous lives they lead there are still some deaths, some brutality, that breaks through and shocks.

An interesting, at time gruesome read that can feel a bit of a slog. A detailed account of the brutality of life in the System by one who places himself at crime scenes and in warehouses to give a first hand account of the Camorra.

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