You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2007.
The late Carol Shields wrote an article about The Girls of Slender Means for the Guardian in 2003, where she talked about the experience of re-reading a novel she had first read when in her early twenties, and how she saw it very differently the second time around. I read the book at a similar age (22) and have to agree with her that I missed the sense of foreboding that becomes very clear on returning to the story. She put her reaction down to no longer trying to relate to a group of women of her own age living in an environment similar to her college experience; I’m not sure that I can articulate my own initial impressions at all after so many years.
The novel begins with news of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, a priest who has been killed (martyred really) in Haiti. We are then taken back to 1945, when Nicholas became fascinated by the May of Teck Club, a residence in Kensington for young middle class women of reduced means. He becomes infatuated, and has an affair, with one of the girls, Selina, and his contact with the residents lead to the events which result in his conversion to Catholicism. In addition to Selina we meet several of the other girls, including Jane, whom we first meet ringing round the others to tell them of Nicholas’s death, and who had introduced him to the club; Joanna, a vicar’s daughter who gives elocution lessons and is often heard in the background reciting poetry; and a number of minor characters including one of my favourites, Pauline, who may be mad and spends her evenings pretending to go out to dinner with Jack Buchanan. We learn a lot about the girls lives and the things they share, including a Schiaparelli evening gown which has a key role to play.
It becomes clear that Nicholas’s conversion is a direct result of the tragedy which strikes the May of Teck Club, and a particular event that he witnesses there.
I remember being vaguely unsatisfied with this novel when I first read it, but coming back to it almost 25 years later it has had a more powerful impact than I had expected, and may even make it to the list of books I regularly revisit.
It’s been very quiet around here lately as the Book God and I have been away on our annual holiday for the past three weeks, touring around the Scottish Borders and the north of England, seeing beautiful places such as
and one of my absolutely favourite places
Not many books got read, but quite a few were bought, and I’ll say more about some of those over the next few posts.
When Muriel Spark died last year I decided that I would read all of her novels and short stories as a tribute of sorts to an author that had given me a huge amount of pleasure since I was a teenager. I first read her in my final year at school (1978 or 1979, I can’t remember which term exactly) as part of studying the Scottish novel, and was hooked at once. It was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the story of school life in 1930s Edinburgh, far removed from the west of Scotland in the seventies, was fascinating but in some ways not so different. I can’t remember my school motto, but loved the Marcia Blaine Academy’s “O where shall I find a virtuous woman, for her price is above rubies”, and I did have a languages teacher who referred to us as the creme de la creme. To add a bit of glamour, one of the girls in my class was an extra in the Scottish TV series starring Geraldine McEwan, although I still see and hear Maggie Smith when I think of Miss Brodie.
My re-reading faltered after the first five novels, but recently I decided to look at the chronological list again and saw that Jean Brodie was next. I didn’t quite read it in a sitting this time as I had in previous years, but it lost none of its power on South West Trains; give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life seems to refer to the author as much as her character. The issues of influence and betrayal against the backdrop of the pre-war period had a real impact on me as a sixteen year old and I have always classed this as one of my absolute favourites, to be taken out often and savoured. Most of her novels are short but perfectly formed, and I would recommend her to anyone who loves good writing.
A bit of a stack this month with one or two familiar names as well as one or two speculative buys. To start with the familiar, two of my favourite Canadian authors – Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder and Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock. I’m particularly interested in the latter because of the Scottish link and the family history thing, which is a particular hobby of mine I won’t bore anyone with now! I also picked up a crime favourite, Tess Gerritsen’s The Mephisto Club; I’ve been waiting for this to come out in paperback for a while and am looking forward to reading it soon. I also decided to take the opportunity of being bored one evening to order the three Merrily Watkins novels by Phil Rickman that I didn’t yet have in my collection (it’s the completist thing, you see) – The Smile of a Ghost (not in the picture as the Book God appears to have secreted it somewhere), The Remains of an Altar and The Fabric of Sin – lovely gothic stuff.
Three of the books pictured were mentioned in my earlier post about visiting the London Review Bookshop, which just leaves the two books I bought in the British Museum shop – Unfortunate English by Bill Brohaugh and A Brief History of Secret Societies by David V Barrett – just couldn’t resist that one!
I have to say up front that I absolutely loved this book, but also that whenever I picked it up I wanted to eat something savoury, because cheese figures very heavily in the plot of the novel. The main story is set in 1969 when Edward Trencom, purveyor of cheeses and owner of a quite remarkable nose, finds out that his family has been subject to what appears to be a curse for nine generations, going back to the Great Fire of London in 1666. He finds a large box of papers and begins to delve into his family’s past to try and discover how each of his direct forbears met their fates, and why they were obsessed with Constantinople and the Greeks. As Edward’s story goes forward we are presented with vignettes from the lives of said ancestors, usually at the point at which they meet their ends. Can Edward be saved from the same fate by the intervention of his wife, Elizabeth, or will he make the same mistake as those before him?
This is really, really enjoyable stuff, and you pick up quite a bit of knowledge about cheese (and history) along the way. Even though you know from the outset how Edward ends up, you aren’t told how and why until the end, which is very satisfying. I’m already pushing the Book God to read this, and would urge anyone else to give it a try also.