The Eyre Affair

Jasper Fforde is a magician.

His first novel, The Eyre Affair, is quite simply like nothing else you will ever read. It is a sojourn into an alternative England of the 1980’s. There is no Thatcher or The Smiths or The Cure or working class strikes. Instead there are time travellers, England had successfully been invaded by the Nazis, equally successful was the repulsion of the Nazis by the mythical creature of Goliath Corporation. There is constant war in the Crimea, a socialist republic of Wales and there are Literary Detectives.

This is a world of wonder and delight, a world where literature is the equal to the 21st century obsession with celebrity. Thursday Next is our host, a Literary Detective with a military background. Her extended family, beyond her reconditioned Dodo, Pickwick, includes the genius Mycroft and a father being hunted through time.

For Fforde, the futuristic element is clear. Time and space is fluid. What has happened is happening and what will happen is happening. This is a neatly constructed novel that enables an escape from reality with a mirror held to our own society. Thursday is critical of the melodramatic media and the position of Goliath Corporation as society’s answer to any possible question. Thursday is a brilliant central character, compassionate and strong willed, confident and intelligent with real life scars.

The Eyre Affair begins with a crime. The original manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen. With this Thursday’s nemesis, Hades is introduced. All of Thursday’s brilliance is matched by Hades evil. Within the intricate world of Thursday is a crime novel layered with speculation about the power of prose and a Corporation that will do anything to make a profit.

Soon Hades is believed to be dead. But to Thursday, his plan is clear, to take Mycroft’s latest invention, a Prose Portal, and remove the beloved literary characters from novels. Hades motives are not clear; he is simply a socio path.

Opportunity brings Hades to the original manuscript of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Thursday is charged with brining him in. Thursday’s time in Bronte’s Jane Eyre hunting Hades is a stunning example of Fforde’s simple but articulate construction. The confrontation between Thursday and Hades in Thornfield Hall is theatrical while being a well controlled piece that leaves many questions answered and one lingering.

Some may think there is too much in the first Thursday Next novel. The history that is introduced of this alternative England, the literary references, offset against the unrequited love story and the crime fiction element. A critic of this novel could only be jealous of Fforde. I know I am.

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The Silver Linings Play Book…

I have heard the hype around the film. I had seen a brief trailer. I promised, like all novel to film adaptations, to read the novel first.

The main surprise was the literary quality of the novel. Recently, many people, myself included, have lamented the fact so many novels read as if constructed for that lucrative film option. Matthew Quick doesn’t do that. For me, this was not a cinematic novel. This is not a simple novel made for a possible shot at Hollywood. Instead, this is a character driven novel. It is Pat’s world. It is middle America. It is hopeful. But before the hope, comes the pain.

There are things Pat tries to forget and there are things he tries to remember. He was once a teacher, a successful coach, a son with a sole connection with his father via their favourite football team. These parts are important. He clings to the love of American football and little things that relate to the ‘before time’.

He was a poor husband. He longs for his now ex-wife, Nikki. She is a shadow over the novel. Because of this broken relationship, this is one of those novels that is quirky and layered with pain. Pat’s therapist, the irresistible Cliff and Pat’s long suffering mother are compelling pieces in Pat’s attempt to complete the jigsaw puzzle of his life.

The catalyst for Pat’s ‘away time’- being institutionalised-is given to the reader in tiny snippets. Here the first person narrator ideally suits. We learn, as Pat re-learns. It is not as if Pat is a voice over, the prose is too authentic for that. The pain is clear, it becomes the readers. Quick allows Pat to share that this is his therapy. This writing is a part of Pat’s recovery, in turn it becomes the readers. I felt I owned the characters, that these characters could be a family I know.

There are two more elements that make this novel a special read. The first of these is how Quick deals with the human desire to please. This is Pat’s obsession. He wants to please Nikki, he reads her favourite novels, he works his body, building it into something strong and commanding. He wants to please his mother and father. It is only when he tries to be happy with himself that he sees Tiffany as an individual dealing with her own tragic situation.

That’s the other delight to Quick’s writing, how tragic events are used. It isn’t shock and awe. It is what isn’t shown that compels the reader. There is a polite understatement and illusion to how and why some incidents can turn the complex brain of humans to mush.

I read the novel in a day. I don’t think I need to see the film. The elegant and heartfelt words are enough.

Book 70 – HHhH

How does a writer make a novel set during World War Two?
This can not be answered, there are only more questions.
Can there ever be another original novel that explores the people of the war, of the Holocaust? How
does a writer respect history and still make a novel? Before all that, why even select this period?

That scene, like the one before, is perfectly believable and totally made up.

The narrator is a writer. His obsession is not just the war, but the Nazi Heydrich. For each exploration into the history behind the novel, there is the voice of the narrator who struggles with the same questions posed above.

The dead are dead, and it makes no difference to them whether I pay homepage to their deeds. But for us, the living, it does mean something. Memory is of no use to the remembered, only to those who remember. We build ourselves with memory and console ourselves with memory.

Novelists, wanna-bes or respected literary greats, or popular writers of fiction, are a tortured lot. As much as the horrid actions of the Nazis are examined through the eyes of writer researching the people and the events of one action (the assassination of Heydrich), it is the hesitation, the re-writes, nervous interior monologues from the writer that hold this piece together. This is not your atypical war novel.

This is what I think: inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather in the words of my brother-in-law…it’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.

The novel was easy to read. It was a pleasure to read from the perspective of a writer. The narration does act a bit like the commentary on modern films, when they are released on DVD. The structure, of the World War Two era pieces living around research, girlfriends and personal insecurities, is not a literary trick.

The content, the plan to kill Heydrich, the political intrigue, the tableaux of death and destruction wasn’t, isn’t, and never will be easy to comprehend. The death of the heroes, the reaction from the SS to the murder of Heydrich, are not a pleasure to read and never will be. That is why novelists are obsessed with this time and place, that is why readers will continue to be.

The truth is that I don’t want to finish this story. I would like to suspend this moment for eternity…

Book 69 – The Gathering

Her brother has died. She knows how and she knows why. She wants you to know. Everything always begins with an older generation, that of her grandparents, in Dublin, between the wars. Yes, Anne Enright’s novel ‘The Gthering’ was awarded the Booker Prize, I once read it had ‘only’ sold 500 copies in Australia. Those 500 people would also find that they had been rewarded. This is an astute and subtle novel of class.

history is such a romantic place…

Veronica is Enright’s narrator. She is clear and honest in her observations of her family life. If these are true representations matters to her, however, without hyperbole or sentimentality, Veronica knows that history, that the memory of events of a family evolve over time and are merged with reactions and the lack of responses to the same events. It is the lack of reaction to the personal violation that raises Veronica’s questions about her guilt and the family’s part in the death of Liam.

There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love is important…There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.

The more Veronica gives us of her family, the darkest moments, the untimely deaths, the loss of hope and desires overreaching logical decisions, the more we learn about her. The novel is an act of therapy for Veronica and the Hegartys. Her marriage is not perfect, her children opposites, her mother doesn’t remember her name. And the memory of her brother makes her wake at night.

We each love someone, even though they will die.

The prose is that of a mother, writing at night, as her closest family rests and the wider family wakes. Some say of Hemingway that his vocabulary wasn’t grand, conversely, it were his characters that had the simple language to describe often complex emotions. It is the same here. The anguish of the family is the language of Veronica.

It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and waking dreams.

While Veronica is physically travelling to Brighton to retrieve her brother’s body, she takes us to the world of her grandmother and mother. These are not idealised as simple times, instead of places of contradictions. The sibling descriptions are indents on the wider reflections. There is so much to Veronica, and her story of the family are sprawling tendrils of life and death and of tragedy.

…I know it is true that this happened, I do not know if I have the true picture in my mind’s eye…

Book 68 – The Submerged Cathedral

Across landscapes and characters, Charlotte Wood’s 2004 novel is not just an Australian
novel, but a unique walk through the garden of the period of post war 1960’s and that time when the youth of baby boomers grew old. The prose is sparse, controlled, at times diluted of surface emotion, instead relying on the reader to react effortlessly.

Of the four distinct parts, it is love and all its tumbles and turns that draws the reader into the characters. The descriptions of Pittwater and the Blue Mountains could easily be described as Winton-esque, but that would be too easy. The fragmented visions and heighten dialogue of a marriage breaking a part under violence is elegant and measured. The pregnancy coming between two sisters and who they want to be directs the absence that haunts the novel.

For each vivid and lovingly recreation of Australia, there is a worldliness to the novel. The isolation of the abbey, in the Victorian country side, is of a transported Europe. When Jocelyn travels, at first to be with her sister in London, then through Europe, there is also an isolation, of the self. It seems the loss, of a boy during birth, acts as a catalyst to lose one’s self. This motif of the path comes back throughout the novel. Through the garden that Jocelyn is obsessed with and Martin’s well worn path to the site above the abbey.

As she walks her eye falls on contours, spaces, verticals and horizontals. In her head a path forms, between the functional and contemplative, meanderings and pauses offering places to rest, or transitions from one quiet way of being to another. At the front, from the porch, she stares across the dead lawns towards the paddocks and imagines shallow terraces; the murky dam becomes a pool, the merging of her garden into the bush.

If the simple desire for love is caught between the characters, it is of importance that the death of children, adults and the landscape around them, that underlies the most humane responses. This constant reminder, of lost love, lost life and of punishing land, is not romantised. There is no god, yet that doesn’t mean the characters can’t search for meaning of their existence.

She still dreams of catastrophe.

Wood is a very good writer. The moments of tenderness are also moments of remorse and reflection. There is nothing wrong with being compared to Tim Winton, but for Wood and the character study of ‘The Submerged Cathedral’ it is in the worldliness of Australia and Australian conjured that sets her a part.

Book 67 – We Had It So Good

This is a special book of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends. Those secrets, from and of each other, form the tender and harsh elements of the novel. Linda Grant’s distinct voices for each of her characters is handled with care and expertise. Others may confuse the voices, but the recorded reflections from each of the characters that intersect the wider plot come within the grand oral tradition of narrative. The characters tell each other their stories, and the act of listening to each other is the art of civilisation.

The stories your parents tell you have many ellipses, Marianne explained to her younger brother. You cannot rely on them for the truth. Parents, by definition, are liars.

Escaping from the height of the Vietnam war, Stephen is the son of a Jewish immigrant. The American accent, as a Rhodes scholar, allows him to inhabit an Oxford that comes with the real and imagined ’60s. A science student, he is persuaded to help create LSD, he is promptly and suddenly removed from the college. His friends, finding the prospect of returning to conscription and south east Asia, propose a marriage.

Stephen settles with Andrea, and London becomes the background for their life together. There is a constant contrast with the California of Stephen’s youth. He doesn’t want to be an outsider, but still plays upon his American background. London is exotic, the new and old, the post-war and redefining of cultures.

The pair of females the young nerdy Stephen happens upon are Grace and Andrea. They are much like the contrast of America and England. Grace embraces the counter culture, even when it becomes the mainstream. She is idealistic, while being cynical, brash, and confident. She is present in the memories of all, yet absent in such a way that her character is just as influential when absent. Andrea settles into a pattern. A home, a private practice, children and the one constant, Stephen.

‘She stayed true to the sixties, I suppose.’
It’s a shame the sixties didn’t stay true to us.’

The finely drawn and well defined children of Stephen and Andrea are a highlight. Whereas Stephen escaped the Vietnam war, his daughter, a photographer, travels to them. Max, the son, is a saviour after the 7/7 attacks. The marriage of Max and Cheryl gives another generation of stories, the narrative of life continued.

There are many plot paths here. Stephen and his father, an alleged survivor of the Holocaust travel back to Poland. There are abortions, married lovers, arrivals and departures of the mythical Grace and there is London and the east coast of America, one of fog and one of froggy. There is reconcilation. But more than the lines that draw the lives together, it is how Grant does this. Her writing is clear, concise, not verbose or full of hyperbole.

Everything that goes on in our heads is hard-wired to understand that there is the option of change, and change is in our own hands, not some guy on a cloud.

Book 66 – The Stopping Place

Please don’t stop reading. This could be two novels. Helen Slavin’s 2008 novel ‘The Stopping Place’ is an example of all I love about novelists and where the search for uniqueness can hinder an author.

The opening part is a cliché piece of light humour, comparable to Food Court Thai. At times it is an irrational and naïve, recount of daily events and boiling the kettle and catching the bus and reminding us she doesn’t wear make-up. We are meant to react like this. She is compulsive, trying too hard to be mysterious, while trying to be Woody Allen. Then, suddenly, this character, Ruby, appropriately in first person, makes you feel for her. She is alone. She works in a library. The contradiction being that she wants to be both of those things. She is consumed by the past, her own and the achieve of photographs she has been given. When the novel stops trying to be funny, it becomes sad and filled with tension.

TheStoppingPlace

While the pretensions of the first half are forgotten as a man arrives at the library, seeking a woman. Here Slavin takes us back, turns from first person to third. The pain of the centre third of the novel is heightened because the read realises that the sleeplessness and attention to everyday deatils are because of what has come before. The tension of the man with the photograph and automatic authority of law enforcement continues through Ruby’s back story. Thanfully, the recount of the first part is absent and the prose weaves with accute dialogue. While the first emotional reaction is to feel sorry for Ruby (aka Jeannie), instead, it was the male characters who I felt sorrow for. Their behaviour and treatment of the female characters is drawn in all its ugliness. Ruby, you see, fights on, moves on, leaves, stops the cycle. While it may be that she has to run, it is her choice and she sticks to it. The revenge isn’t weak and justice is served.

The narrative does turn back to the library and its inhabitants, but instead of distain, there is an affection for Slavin’s characters.