Wednesday 26 February 2020

The Dry, Jane Harper

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Harper’s debut novel throws you straight in with an eerie opening description of flies finding the bodies of the Hadler family, their youngest, Charlotte, crying with nobody there to answer. It seems a cut and dry case – Luke was driven mad by the crippling drought suffered by Kiewarra and snapped, killing his wife and son before shooting himself. The local police officer, Raco, is not entirely convinced however, there are a few small details that don’t add up. When Luke’s childhood friend Falk, also now a police officer, returns for the funeral, he finds an ally to carry out some unofficial investigations with. It’s not long before we realise there’s another mystery haunting this town, one that drove Falk and his father out twenty years before. The local community haven’t forgotten his disgrace and he receives a cold welcome from most.

Cleverly plotted to keep you reading, you’re taken in by every new apparent lead, only very subtle clues hinting at the real murderer. The finale plays on the drought-ridden surroundings as they head out into the bush. Indeed, the struggles facing the town because of the lack of rain are alluded to throughout. Businesses are only barely surviving, the school is falling into disrepair and tensions are high. The school’s headmaster and his wife have recently moved to the area, hoping for some peace and safety away from the city, but hadn’t realised how isolating and tough it would be. Even Falk, who grew up in Kiewarra, reflects on the psychological effects of looking out across your land and not seeing any sign of another human.

The difficult conditions and remote location means the locals band together. Anyone who wrongs them or who doesn’t fit in is shunned across the board. It is unsurprising therefore that Falk only intends to stay for a day.  His plans are scuppered however as he finds himself more deeply invested in the Hadler case as well as wanting some answers for the mystery that has haunted him for decades.

The parallels between the two mysteries make you question the assumptions made. The heartache of Luke’s family over his perceived crime is realistically drawn and makes them question his past behaviour. An enjoyable read but not one that lingers after you turn the last page.

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Wednesday 19 February 2020

Educated, Tara Westover

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Westover was brought up in a Mormon family on a farm in rural Idaho, sitting in the shadow of Buck’s Peak. Her father’s beliefs are extreme – he prepares for the end of the world and goes through a crisis when the clocks tick over into 2000 and nothing happens, he’s so paranoid that the government is trying to infiltrate their lives that Tara didn’t even have a birth certificate, no schooling, and no professional medical attention, no matter how seriously injured. There’s a strong belief that women should be subservient to men, and her mother bowed under the pressure to conform. When her older brother Shawn becomes increasingly violent and jealous, not just with his girlfriend but also his sisters, their parents turn a blind eye, refusing to admit the truth. They prefer disowning their daughter to confronting him and protecting those around him.

She realises that her only way out is through education and despite having never been to school manages to gain a place in college. This proves to be a huge shock – her classmate’s behaviour is as outrageous to her as hers is to them – she doesn’t wash her hands after using the bathroom and leaves food to rot in the fridge. Her studies reveal parts of human history that she has previously been entirely ignorant of – in one class she asks what the word Holocaust means, much to the horror of her fellow students who think she is making light of it. The more she learns the less compatible she becomes with the rest of her family, although she continues to go back and hopes for reconciliation.

This is a remarkable story of academic success against the odds but it is also an honest account of a life punctuated with abuse and the struggles of trying to form a sense of self when your own family tries to stifle your potential and deny your memories. She is completely open about the fallibility of her own recollections, detailing how she pieced together some scenes from the memories of others who were also there, often with conflicting tales.

The scenes of abuse are hard to read but the casual attitude to daily mistreatment depicted is harder to swallow. She lays bare the damage her family life has done to her, making it almost impossible to hold down a relationship and causing numerous mental breakdowns. She also explains the way she can see attempts at rewriting her own story over the years, seeing the way she reimagines events in her journal, denying the true horrors.

The amount of serious physical injuries they all incur is astonishing, although not surprising considering their work practices, but they survive beyond the odds with the application of home remedies. This only goes to further boost her parents’ reliance and belief in their abilities and God’s favour. It can be infuriated reading of the negligent behaviour of her parents, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like living in such a family, even though she does an excellent job at conveying her own experiences.

This is a brilliant, emotional read that doesn’t have a neat happy ending. She is still living with the fallout from her choice to get an education and tell the truth. It is heartening however that she does have moments where she is able to feel free, to be honest about her upbringing with her friends and colleagues. Her tale is a remarkable one of self-preservation and success without ever sugar-coating the reality of what she experienced as a child and continues to have to cope with. At times difficult and infuriating, it is eye-opening and absolutely worth a read.

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Wednesday 12 February 2020

Tales of Angria, Charlotte Brontë

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It is well known that the Brontë siblings wrote stories in imagined worlds in their youth. The world of Gondal, Emily and Anne’s creation, is sadly largely lost to time, but more of Branwell and Charlotte’s writings on Angria have survived. In this book, Heather Glen brings together the last five of Charlotte’s Angrian tales, written in her early twenties. They were written with an intended audience of her siblings, the knowledge of the history of the characters assumed. Glen helps to bridge the gap with concise introductions to each piece, allowing the reader to jump right in and enjoy the early works of such a well-loved writer.

The tales are mostly narrated by Charles Townshend, a gossipy commentator on the aristocratic lives within. He plays roles of varying importance in the stories and speaks directly to the reader at times. The main male protagonists are ageing former heroes - the Duke of Zamorna, whose many infidelities feature, and the Earl of Northangerland, whose daughter falls under the spell of Zamorna in the final tale. These fading heroes were inspired by Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, the heroics of which were fading into distant memory by the time Charlotte was penning these last Angrian tales.

The female characters at first seem alarmingly subservient – Mina Laury declares herself hopelessly devoted to Zamorna, whose inattention does not weaken her affection. She is, however, also intelligent and able to hold her own. ‘Strong-minded beyond her sex, active, energetic and accomplished in all other points of view, here she was as weak as a child. She lost her identity. Her very life was swallowed up in that of another.’ Zamorna has long lost interest in her but refuses to give her up, leading to a duel with Hartford who has fallen for her.

In the final piece, Caroline Vernon, we see again Zamorna’s lack of morals, leading to a desperate dispute between him and Northangerland in which we see a very different side to the latter. Glen in her introduction highlights the Byronic characteristics of both the men and women as well as Brontë’s tongue in cheek response to Gothic traditions.

A recurring theme is also that of colonisation. Most of the characters are not Angrian natives but have taken control of the land. There are many mentions throughout of discord between the different regions of Angria and the temperaments of the natives. On the surface these may seem like frivolous tales of the upper classes but there’s a lot more bubbling just beneath the surface.

Brontë was not writing mere childish scribbles but informed, intelligent responses to the political and literary world that she inhabited. From the first her character sketches are witty and cutting, concisely setting up characters in their first introduction. She alludes to contemporary trends and issues that her readers would have picked up on but also those closer to home – in Henry Hastings we see a sister’s response to a brother’s disgrace.

The Roe Head Journal fragments are the least easy to read because of the lack of narrative cohesion (that was never intended) but it’s fascinating to see her continual pre-occupation with Angria, the frustration of not having the time to write, and what it was like to have Branwell decide the fate of characters she had created.

A lot of reviews suggest these tales are difficult to get into and are only of interest to scholars. I found quite the opposite to be true. Of course you have to approach them as short stories or vignettes rather than a novel, but they are genuinely absorbing. The characters are not all likeable but they are not designed to be. Their misdemeanours are central to the plot and Brontë’s characteristically rich, clever prose is apparent in these early works. A thoroughly enjoyable, enlightening read.

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Wednesday 5 February 2020

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

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Atwood’s much anticipated sequel to the increasingly popular The Handmaid’s Tale opens up the view of Gilead with three perspectives – Aunt Lydia, Daisy, who has grown up in Canada, and Agnes, a girl who has lived her whole life in Gilead, and although devout does struggle with the restrictions imposed on her. Set roughly fifteen years after the previous book, we are given a glimpse into the fall of the regime, as well as further insight into the early days and the hardships the founder Aunts had to suffer. Aunt Lydia, in her former life, had been a judge and worked with women’s charities, a far cry from the horrors she inflicts in her new role. At her own admittance she chose her own safety over that of others. Her account is written with a future reader in mind that she believes will judge her for the decisions she’s made. She points out though, that they will never know what they would have done in her place. Atwood giving her the compassionate background that she does really hits home that anybody can do terrible things, she wasn’t inherently evil, and any one of us put in that situation may well have chosen the same path.
Lydia shows herself to be cunning and tactical from the moment of her acceptance into Gilead as a founder Aunt, being careful not to give away too much of herself but carefully storing potentially useful facts about the others. This calculated behaviour has made her almost untouchable, the Commanders fear the secrets she knows. With time she seems to have become less willing to dole out unnecessary physical punishments where others still delight in it, she sees herself as quietly looking out for the handmaids. It’s also commented that the new waves of aunts lack the hardness of the founders – they haven’t had lives before Gilead, did not experience the brutal initiation suffered by them, and know of the outside world only in theory.
It is interesting to hear the perspective of a Gilead daughter. Their view highlights how much has been denied them in not teaching them to read. They are taught subservience through ignorance, reinforcing the repeated theme of ‘knowledge is power’. Even in their innocence they know enough to be afraid, are taught to consider the handmaids as sluts, a painful label for women who are repeatedly abused. There is shame of having been born of a handmaid. The girls are taught to fear men and not to provoke them into lust, and they internalise this, becoming overrun with anxiety when marriage is arranged for them, many choosing suicide over life as a wife. It seems nobody is truly happy in Gilead. Men dispose of wives leisurely but even the most powerful Commander lives in fear, constantly on guard. Nowhere is completely private, and nobody is safe.
For Daisy growing up in Canada, Gilead is taught in school but can never be fully understood from the outside. She is shocked that her parents are civil to the Pearl Girls who pass by, sent from Gilead to bring back converts. It seems bizarre that the government allows such migration, but it is made clear that war with Gilead has not gone well for other countries. Self-preservation again plays a role.
A sequel that feels less subtle than The Handmaid’s Tale. The twists are not hard to see coming and everything is laid out in plain sight. The final sections are fast paced but the culmination of the story is over quickly. Everything’s a little too neat and predictable and at times it feels as though Atwood is playing to fans of the TV show. I would have preferred more separation. Not a bad read but not as original or revolutionary as some of her other books. 

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