Posted in Book Reviews

Girl, Balancing & Other Stories by Helen Dunmore – Herald Review

Girl Balancing

Girl Balancing

Girl, Balancing & Other Stories

Helen Dunmore

Hutchinson, £20

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017, leaving behind an illustrious literary legacy of award-winning novels, short stories, children’s novels, and poetry. Some months after her death, her family, agent, and publisher, came together to plan a posthumous collection of short stories, fulfilling one of her last wishes. The result is thirty-three stories, arranged in three sections; the Nina stories, the present, and the past.

Dunmore had a keen eye for the telling detail that illuminates her characters and their worlds. This is apparent in the four Nina stories, following her from childhood to young womanhood. In Cradling, little Nina has an earache and is being comforted by her father. She curls up in his arms, ‘like a snail inside its shell’, and hears ‘the little pock sound of someone lighting a cigarette’. In The Towel, Nina is living on her own for the first time in a bedsit. She struggles with the bathroom geyser and ends up taking a cold bath, too unsure of herself to ask for help. As the bath water drains it sounds like, ‘an old person clearing catarrh in the morning’. In the title story, Girl, Balancing, Nina finds herself unexpectedly alone at Christmas in a large, empty house by the sea. She decides to go roller-skating, using her old, adjustable skates, along the deserted promenade. She is reliving her childhood by performing turns, jumps, and arabesques on one leg, and finding a sense of balance in her life.

Dunmore had a forensic ability to find the cracks and crevices where people hide their most embarrassing or humiliating moments. She was never cruel in her observations, but always true to her tale. Her characters may not always be likeable but their authenticity makes them compelling. Many are outsiders, people who are looking in on other peoples’ lives while forgetting to live their own. Some have hidden depths, like Binnie, in Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with Ribbons. Binnie is something of a family oddity, never marrying and dressing like an explosion in a charity shop. But Binnie is loving and generous and finds her own way of expressing herself. Stories are never tied up with a neat bow. Like real life, they are often messy and confused but frequently have a kernel of hope for the future. There is a precision and lyricism to Dunmore’s writing that makes it such a pleasure to read. A ‘warm wriggle of oil’ drips into a child’s ear; a baby’s elbow is ‘so soft and dimpled that it fits into your mouth like a plum’; sweat trickles down a forehead ‘tickling like an insect’; and someone is old enough to remember ‘what it was like to fossick about with Tipp-Ex’.

In About the First World War, Mrs Jackson is having tea to celebrate her hundredth birthday. A young man is there, someone she doesn’t know, and he keeps taking photographs of her. She knows he is going to ask her about the First World War, as young people always do. ‘I’ve seen the whole world die in my time’, thinks Mrs Jackson. Dunmore skilfully slips between Mrs Jackson’s past and present, subtly showing that her memories of the past burn brighter than those of the present.

In the Past section, Dunmore gives voice to Grace Poole, the servant who looked after the first Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Grace’s eyes, Jane Eyre is a sly, conniving creature, while Mrs Rochester is just a troubled soul who is being unfairly treated by her husband. It is fascinating to read part of the classic tale from a different viewpoint, with Jane being the villain of the piece. Grace says of Jane, ‘you could put your hand through Miss Eyre and never grasp her’.

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Posted in Book Reviews

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter – Herald Review

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter
John Pipkin
Bloomsbury, £18.99

AMERICAN author John Pipkin’s second novel is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chiefly concerns the fate of two women called Caroline. Caroline Herschel is based on a real person, while Caroline Ainsworth is Pipkin’s invention. Their stories are set in a time when exploration of the sciences flourished, especially the study of the night skies, provoked by The Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1744. Visible in London for weeks, it scared some into believing, “that there is a hole in the sky’s vault leaking the bright essence of heaven itself.” It was also a time of revolution. The recent French Revolution was descending into a blood bath while discontent in Ireland grew.

Caroline Ainsworth has grown up in the comfort of a grand house in rural Ireland with her widowed father, Arthur. He has become obsessed with astronomy and Caroline, considered unmarriageable because she has a withered arm, becomes his willing helper. She is faster than her father when it comes to the complex mathematics involved in plotting and predicting where the planets should be. Together they dedicate their lives to probing the night skies and recording their observations. Arthur is convinced that a new planet is waiting to be found, one he calls Theodosium, after his late wife, Theodosia. When musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel declares that he has found it, Arthur loses all reason. He looks at the sun through his telescope in a vain attempt to prove Herschel wrong and before long is blind. When Arthur sickens and dies, Caroline finds out the truth of her origins. Left penniless and feeling betrayed by Arthur, she leaves for London and a new life.

For anyone not familiar with astronomy, but also for those who are, Pipkin’s detailed explanations of how Arthur and Caroline study the night skies will prove fascinating. Their instruments are basic and their telescopes are crudely made by local tradesmen. The long, slow process of casting and polishing the special mirrors used in telescopes reflects the the long, slow process of mapping the planets and stars.

Caroline Herschel was the sister of William Herschel who became Astronomer Royal to the court of George III. Initially, William came to Bath to pursue a career in music but soon his hobby became all-consuming after he discovered the planet Uranus. Caroline’s growth had been stunted by contracting typhus and she had the tell-tale scars of smallpox on her face. Like the other Caroline, she was judged unsuitable for marriage and became a drudge in her mother’s house. William brought her to England and she became his housekeeper and soon his assistant as they investigated the skies. Caroline meticulously noted down William’s observations, what she called, “minding the heavens”. Although overshadowed by her brother, Caroline would go on to discover eight comets and received a small stipend for her work from the king. She was the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.

Arthur Ainsworth was obsessed with discovering binary stars, pairs of stars that help astronomers map the heavens. Pipkin weaves this theme of couples into the novel. Caroline and Arthur Ainsworth, Caroline and William Herschel, Arthur and William, and most prominently, Caroline and Caroline, whose lives closely mirror each other. Then there is Caroline Ainsworth and Finn, the blacksmith’s nephew with whom she falls in love and who brings her back to Ireland as rebellion breaks out.

The 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule, inspired by the French and American revolutions, was a bloody and brutal affair that lasted four months. Pipkin does not shy away from describing the cruelty and horrors committed on both sides. As Finn is forced to join the rebels, Caroline Ainsworth patiently waits for his return.

Until the latter stages of the novel, it feels as if one strand of the story isn’t relevant and the effect is a little disjointed even when it is resolved. The tale is told in the third person, focalising on each of the main characters in turn. However, the authorial voice is strong which means that the characters sometimes feel as distant as the stars they observe.
Pipkin’s novel is a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human in an ever changing world. The vastness of the heavens is matched by the passions of the men and women who explore it. Beautifully written with layers touching on science, politics and social change, it is a novel to be savoured and not rushed.

Posted in Book Reviews

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen – Herald Review

Six Tudor Queens

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

Alison Weir

Headline Review, £18.99

Divorced, beheaded, died/divorced, beheaded, survived, goes the familiar aide-mémoire to help schoolchildren remember the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII. It is not wholly accurate because Henry had his marriages to Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves annulled, and Anne survived longer than Henry’s final wife, Katherine Parr. It does, however, highlight the continuing fascination with Henry and the six very different women he married. Alison Weir, historian and award-winning author, has set herself the task of writing a novel about each of Henry’s Queens, starting with the tragic figure of Katherine of Aragon.
Katherine is often portrayed as a sad, embittered older woman, who refused to accept the reality of how far Henry Tudor would go to have a son and heir. In Weir’s hands she is transformed into a pretty young princess and, as the daughter of the powerful King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, highly desirable for a political marriage. She speaks little English when she arrives in England, where the food, customs and even the dresses are so different from her homeland. She marries Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir to Henry VII, but Arthur is a sickly young man and dies not long after they are wed. There has long been speculation as to whether Katherine and Arthur consummated their marriage, and Weir gives her own opinion in a sensitively written bedroom scene.

Katherine was an habitual letter writer, detailing not only the facts of her life in England but her feelings too. Weir has drawn upon these letters to breathe life into Katherine as a young woman, living in limbo after the death of Prince Arthur. She is optimistic, even though a disagreement over her dowry between her father and father-in-law means she and her retinue live a hand-to-mouth existence. Her clothes are shabby and food is scarce and she is forced to sell personal items to keep up appearances. Nonetheless, Katherine is very aware of her position as a princess of Spain and Weir portrays her as intelligent, loyal, and occasionally a little naive.
While waiting for her future to be decided, Katherine becomes a pawn in the royal marriage game. She finds herself in and out of favour at the English court, and even considered as a wife to the recently widowed Henry VII. For seven years Katherine had to box clever, obeying her father while not offending her English hosts, and Weir presents her as a thoughtful and wise young woman. She even served as her father’s ambassador in England, which gave her a little more prestige at court than as the almost forgotten widow of Prince Arthur. Katherine was probably the first female ambassador in Europe and performed her duties with aplomb. Weir manages to untangle the complex web of 16th-century politics, shown through Katherine’s duties as ambassador, and her astute reading of the games being played. This adds greatly to the heft of the character, demonstrating what a competent woman she was becoming.

Katherine married Henry VIII in 1509, when she was 23 years old and he is almost 18. It seems like a love match, Henry showering her with presents, poems and songs. However, Weir foreshadows Henry’s later behaviour, hinting at the storms that are to come. Once Katherine marries Henry, the details of her life are more familiar than those of her early years in England. She endures six pregnancies with only a healthy daughter, Mary, to show for her efforts. From being so trusted by Henry that he makes her regent while he is in France on a military campaign, she is pushed to the side-lines as Henry becomes infatuated with Anne Boleyn, one of her attending ladies.
Weir’s research is extensive and it adds greatly to the sense of period and place. At times the it does slow down the narrative, with blocks of information about how the Tudors lived reading more like a text book than a novel. For the most part, however, it is a fascinating look at a much maligned woman who was one of the most popular queens in English history. Weir has thus rescued Katherine of Aragon from being a bit player in the tumultuous years of Tudor England.

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The Last Bookaneer – Herald Review

Matthew Pearl: The Last Bookaneer (Vintage)

Towards the end of the 19th century, before the copyright of books was internationally recognised, there was a brisk black market trade in works acquired from popular authors and then published abroad.

This trade was particularly fecund between the US and Europe. If a book published in Europe could be pre-emptively published in America, or vice versa, there was a good deal of money to be made, but the author and the original publisher rarely saw a penny. Matthew Pearl takes this as the starting point for his novel about an elite class of literary pirates he calls bookaneers, men and women travelling the world to obtain new or rare literary works by fair means or foul. Pearl frames his tale using two narrators, an American boy and the unusual Englishman he meets who recognises and encourages his love of books.

Clover, a black waiter working in the dining cars of trains run by the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company, opens the story. A bright young man, the highlight of his day is when Mr Fergins, an English bookseller, brings his cart onto the train. Fergins allows Clover to read one of his books for the length of time it takes him to push his cart from one end of the train to the other, selling his books to the passengers. Clover is fascinated by the friendly bookseller and when the train is delayed, he listens as Fergins regales him with his adventures in the literary trade.

Fergins takes over the narration and explains to Clover how he went from owning a moderately successful book stall in London to travelling the world as an assistant to one of the most successful bookaneers, an American called Pen Davenport. Fergins is told that the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson is completing a new novel that is said to be his masterpiece. This piques Davenport’s interest. To acquire what will likely be Stevenson’s final novel – the author’s always precarious health is deteriorating – will not only be financially advantageous, it will be a major coup for Davenport. However it won’t be easy as Stevenson is firmly ensconced on a remote Samoan island. Infiltrating Stevenson’s household and then stealing the manuscript seems impossible to Fergins but not to the wily Davenport. There is one more hurdle to overcome. Belial, Davenport’s nemesis in the world of bookaneers, is rumoured to be setting out on exactly the same mission. Davenport tricks Fergins into accompanying him as he attempts to reach Stevenson before Belial.

What follows is a rousing expedition to the South Seas that pastiches Stevenson’s own writing. Pearl’s description of the Samoan islands and their peoples is vivid and he also manages to weave the unstable political situation into the fiction. Germany, America and Great Britain all had designs on Samoa, each supporting different factions within the Samoan communities as they fought for supremacy over the islands. The two men meet Stevenson, known in Samoan as Tusitala, ‘the teller of tales’, on Upola island and are invited to his home, Vailima. Pearl portrays Stevenson as a sickly, patrician figure who is respected by his Samoan servants and neighbours. He does not reveal any new insights into the man but demonstrates how closely involved he was in island politics, writing about what he saw as mistakes by the colonial powers. Stevenson’s family, his mother, wife, step-daughter and step-son, while away their time on the island as best they can. The appearance of visitors from the world they have left behind is a welcome distraction and something that Davenport is relying on.

While Pearl may be aping Stevenson’s style, the duo of Fergins and Davenport brings to mind the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle, Stevenson’s Scottish contemporary. Davenport, who seems to absorb details other miss and is always one step ahead, is not unlike Sherlock Holmes in his brilliance and sudden mood changes while Fergins, a more reserved and stolid character, plays his Dr Watson. Although engaged in a nefarious trade, Fergins and Davenport behave more like a pair of master detectives than criminals. It engenders some sympathy for them and their quest although Davenport’s ruthlessness does become shockingly clear.

Occasionally Pearl lets the pace drop a little but overall the novel proceeds with enjoyable speed. Cameo appearances by characters from Pearl’s previous novels will please long-time fans of his work while a final twist in the tale reveals the astonishing identity of the last, true bookaneer.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – review

Here is my review of Jessie Burton’s marvellous debut novel in the Herald.

Jessie Burton: The Miniaturist (Picador)

Review: Shirley Whiteside

Saturday 26 July 2014

Jessie Burton’s gripping debut novel is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, on the surface a rather prim and proper city which almost succeeds in hiding the damp and mould that creeps into every home and every life.

It opens with 18-year-old Petronella Oortman arriving to begin life with her wealthy husband, Johannes Brandt, a merchant trader and one of the most powerful men in the city. Nella is not met by her husband but by his stern sister, Marin, and the house’s two servants, Otto and Cornelia. It is a strange and unsettling welcome for a teenage bride from the country and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Things do not improve when Nella does meet Johannes. He is kind to her but treats his dogs with more affection, which angers his sister Marin who wastes no time in scolding him. It is through this hot exchange of words that Nella learns that it was Marin’s idea for the reluctant Johannes to marry. To appease the women in his life, Johannes buys Nella an expensive and minutely detailed replica of their house which she is to furnish as she pleases. Nella is dismayed, feeling that Johannes is treating her like a child, but she decides to take her wedding gift at face value and employs a miniaturist to make pieces of furniture for it. She never meets the miniaturist face to face but when pieces she hasn’t ordered arrive with disturbing, cryptic messages, Nella becomes increasingly convinced that she is being spied upon.

Burton’s narrative centres on Nella and her relationships with Marin and the overly-familiar servant, Cornelia. Nella is a little afraid of Marin, who not only runs the household but discusses business strategies with Johannes, which both surprises Nella and makes her jealous. Cornelia behaves like no servant Nella has ever met, with her constant chatter and gossip, but her loyalty to Johannes and Marin knows no bounds. Nella soon realises that without Cornelia, her life in the Brandt household would be even lonelier. Because of her family’s precarious financial position, she cannot consider leaving her ‘good’ marriage and returning to genteel poverty in the country. Young as she is, she must find a way to make her new life work.

Nella has to grow up very quickly and Burton handles her development well. Occasionally Nella feels a little too modern in her views and attitudes to be a young woman of the late 17th century but this is a minor criticism of such an appealing character. Burton employs a light, formal style of language throughout which, alongside a scattering of Dutch words with their unfamiliar sounds, evokes a palpable sense of another time and place. There is a strong sensation of looking through a window into the lives of 17th-century Dutch families and seeing past the public faces and into their most private moments.

The wintry city of Amsterdam provides a gloomy setting, the cold and constant damp an ominous reflection of life with the Brandts. Burton gives succinct explanations of the workings of Holland as a trading nation and the rules of the various guilds. Johannes spends a lot of time at the bourse, the commodity trading centre, and at his warehouses where the goods he buys and sells are stored. It is when Johannes takes on a sugar consignment to sell for a former friend that the seeds of the Brandts’ destruction are sown. Slowly the sugar begins to spoil and the secrets that ruin Nella’s dream of a happy family unfurl.

After the deep unease of the opening, Burton slowly ratchets up the tension until the Brandt family faces ruin or triumph in a scandalous court case. Will the great and good of Amsterdam value the guilder and business over what passes between adults in private? What happens next is as brutal as it is hypocritical but in a strange way it is the making of Nella.

Burton set herself no easy task when she decided to write this complex novel, full not only of beautiful historical details but of rounded characters that are easy to care for. It is a delight to read such an intelligent page-turner.

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