Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book

Alas, summer has ended but autumn is starting and I wait with anticipation for the joys of warm jumpers, hot cups of tea, falling leaves and conkers.

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This year is the hundred-year anniversary of Tove Jansson’s birthday. A Swedish speaking Finnish author and illustrator  She is the world-renowned  author of the Moomin stories, and is not recognised for her novels for adults particularly.

Anyone fascinated in the changing of the seasons would do well to read Tove Jansson’s  The Summer Book, originally published in the 1970s and based loosely on Tove’s own experiences of life in the isles. A beautifully understated book about nothing, and everything.

 ‘it was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own  pace’ (41)

 It is a very simple story with two main characters and barely any plot- it is simply about the  everyday happenings of a grandmother and her six-year old granddaughter on an island in  the gulf of Finland. Each chapter is split into snapshots of their lives together exploring  the island, playing in the sea and witnessing the changing seasons together. But don’t let  the novel’s simplicity put you off for underneath the charming descriptions of nature are  real important discussions on love, death and family told through the voices of a naive little girl and her wise artistic grandmother.

Having been to Finland this summer and seen the beautiful islands of Finland I was really intrigued to read Tove’s portrayal of the Finnish isles, and I recommend this to anyone interested in travel, the seasons and rediscovering the pleasures of reading.

More information on her works can be found here: http://www.tove100.com/

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 7#: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

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This book is radical and new in both its style and its content. It took Eimear McBride almost ten years to find a Publisher willing to take on the novel- and the world is glad someone eventually did! A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is an important book, with awards to justify (like Bailey’s women’s prize and Goldsmiths prize) what a great book it is- and why it stands out as an example of exceptional writing that redefines fiction, and the conventions of fiction writing.

The nameless protagonist is an Irish girl living with her neurotic Catholic mother and older brother who has a life threatening brain tumour in an unspecified place and time. It is told in chronological order- from a foetus to a young woman. There are few events within the novel and you get the sense that the plot isn’t really what McBride is interested in.  It is about the unstable mind of the protagonist reflected in the chaotic syntax and grammar (or lack of) of the prose. The novel is told in a stream of consciousness, taking in all experiences the protagonist has from smells, sights, inner thoughts, to interactions with others- all blurring together to give an insight into a very confused and upset individual.

The protagonist’s older brother’s illness is at the heart of the narrative, and indeed the narrative is addressed directly to him. He develops a brain tumour as a child, which is operated on and leaves him disabled. His illness pushes the family apart, leaving them detached and unable to communicate- as if the awareness of human fragility and mortality makes it too risky to love someone. The mother blames his illness on the children’s lack of Catholic faith and believes that if they pray and abstain from alcohol, and sex he will be saved.

Unfortunately the mother’s negativity and control alienates the protagonist, leading her to seek solace in sex and alcohol. The novel boldly tackles the issues surrounding female sexuality, without preaching or generalising about it. The protagonist’s experiences are uniquely her own, and McBride invites the reader to see her as an example of female experience rather than the standard.  Indeed the protagonist’s sexuality is paradoxically, both a coping mechanism for traumatic experience and a basis for further trauma- thus perpetuating her sense of failure and self-hatred. McBride offers a view on female sexuality that refreshingly acknowledges the protagonist’s desire but still shows how it is central to her feelings of distress concerning her brother. She uses sexual encounters as a way to regain control- every time she feels anxious and stressed she seeks it out as a distraction and an affirmation of her self-loathing.

Indeed the novel’s descriptions of sex are pretty horrible to read. It needs the reader to interpret the words….so sometimes I was not sure whether acts were consensual or not, particularly with her Uncle (though undoubtedly even if she is consensual sex with a thirteen year old is never okay). As the novel progresses her ‘need’ for violent and often un-consensual sex occurs more frequently showing her deterioration- as her brother’s body deteriorates so does her mental state.

The prose is directed at the protagonist’s brother. I was not sure whether to take this address at face-value or whether she uses her brother as her other; the antithesis of her. She constantly refers to him as youthful and innocent, a reminder of what she herself is lacking. Though whether this is the case or not, the novel shows how events in childhood can affect dramatically adult life, and how damaging things can be when not discussed openly.

A Girl is a Half-formed thing is a love story, showing how the protagonist feels about her brother but cannot express in words, and a lamentation to her lost childhood and innocence.

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 6#: A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book

Discovered in the tunnels underneath the Victoria and Albert Museum Phillip Warren, a homeless young aspiring potter, is whisked away by the influential museum curator Prosper Cain to aid the eccentric potter Benedict Fludd. On his journey Phillip encounters many people that bewilder and amaze him with their liberal ideas, and glitzy obsession with fantasy and pleasure. Through his eyes Byatt begins a novel that both criticises and celebrates the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the political and societal changes present at the turn of the nineteenth century.

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The Children’s Book is an ambitious historical novel that spans approximately twenty five years and looks at how change affected the families and relationships; how liberal ideas clashed with rigid social expectations, and how wealth and gender influenced the expectations and prospects of characters.

Along with Phillip and his sister, the novel focuses on four other families. The Wellwoods of Todefright, run by matriarchal Olive Wellwood, a fairy tale writer and attention-seeker along with her husband Humphrey, and a throng of children cared for by Olive’s overlooked sister Violet.  Humphrey’s straight-laced brother Basil Wellwood living in London with his wife Katherina and two children. The Fludds, a family ruled by the paranoid potter Benedict evoking terror in his his wife and children and Prosper Cain, the widowed museum curator and his two children.

A.S. Byatt, like the author Olive Wellwood, spins magical tales of friendship and love amidst tragedy and secrecy in which the children of the novel are ultimately betrayed by their parents.

Ghosts occupied their minds, and crowded in the shadows behind them. They all had things they could not speak of  and could not free themselves from, stories they survived only by never telling them…’ (Byatt 2010, 614)

For this is The Children’s Book, a detailed discussion on the ways children are influenced by their parents’ choices and ways of behaviour, and have to live with the consequences. Unfortunately I cannot give much else away without providing spoilers….. Just know that this book is a beautiful and thoughtful read, which challenges the reader’s views on the differentiation between adulthood and childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 5#: Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

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In the early morning hours of 30th June 1860 a terrible murder occurred at the Kent estate. Three-year old Saville Kent was taken from his cot, brutally murdered, and tossed into the servants’ privy.  The nursemaid had woken up in the night to find his cot empty and had presumed he had gone to sleep in his mother’s room, but panic ensued when the nursemaid and the mother arose and the boy was with neither.  The house and grounds were searched until his body was discovered by a neighbour. Saville’s body had several stab wounds and his neck showed signs of strangulation. Everyone in the house professed their ignorance to the murder. The police searched the house for any signs of an intrusion but none were found. The perpetrator of the heinous crime had to be one of the residents of the house…  

Thus began a national obsession with the intricacies of the case. Newspapers, writers and citizens discussed their opinions on the case from the clues found, to the motive of the murder.  Everyone knew the ins and outs of the case, and there was a general consensus that until the crime was solved nobody was safe- the murder came to represent not only a singular act of violence but proof that crime could be an internal danger, and not just an external threat, to every home.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is an eerie reconstruction of the Road Hill House murder case, including newspaper articles, photographs of the family members and floor plans of the house- which makes it disturbingly real and relatable. It shows an ordinary family in an ordinary house, yet a murderer lives there and goes undiscovered. Kate Summerscale’s work cleverly shows her modern reader the very threat the case held for Victorian society by using these details- the notions of Victorian traditional values and respectabilities were unveiled to show secrecy and horror that could affect anyone and everyone. Although our modern fears are slightly different from that of the Victorians (heavens knows we’re used to the idea of surveillance in our homes) we share an instinctive human fear of danger- the security/insecurity of the home is still as disturbing and uncanny for modern readers as it was for the Victorians. Indeed I found myself slightly ill at ease turning out the lights after reading…

And these are all signs, not just of an informer, but a story teller. Kate Summerscale creates a detective story without compromising the real-life events or the culture the case was embedded in. It slips between fiction and reality intermittently, cleverly omitting facts and accentuating certain details to create suspense for the reader and mask the identity of the murderer. Indeed several years after the murder a member of the Kent family confessed to it and was convicted. However Kate Summerscale provides alternative versions of the tale, suggesting the implication of other family members alongside the confessions of the ‘murderer’- this elusiveness is the key to creating fear in the reader for the case is never resolved.

What I loved most about the book was Kate Summerscale’s ability to look at the case as a catalyst for fictional forms. She discusses authors’ interpretations of the case- showing passages of letters from Dickens to Collins about their ideas on motive, and the ways detective and sensational fiction were influenced by the case, for example there are links between Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (which  was being serialised in All the Year Round during the time of the case) and the case when Constance is in custody under suspicion so is the heroine of Collin’s sensational novel- confined to a mental asylum under false accusations. Kate Summerscale also shows how the Road Hill murder case changed public views on the role of the detective through Mr Whicher’s involvement in the case- influencing the creations of literary detective heroes known for their superhuman ability to discover clues and read human behaviour such as the omnipotent Inspector Bucket of Dickens’ Bleak House, or Sir Conan Doyle’s  exceptionally brilliant Sherlock Holmes.

Kate Summerscale’s ability to engage in the cultural forms of the time shows her sensitivity and creativity whilst looking at the facts of the case. Literature, and other cultural forms shape our understandings of history both collectively and individually, and without it I think her book would have been incomplete- just another non-fictional emotionless piece for the bookshelves.

 

 

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge 4#: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

With phenomenal skill David Mitchell navigates a fictitious world that jumps centuries and continents within six narratives that intertwine to form a perplexing insight into human nature. A bloody good read!

The novel shows the Nietzschean idea of recurrence, whereby time is not linear but cyclical and events that have occurred once are destined to reoccur infinitively.  This idea is suggested by the characters’ shared comet-shaped birthmark, and the way the novel acts as a mirror, visiting each narrative once and then begins the cycle again but in reverse. Each character can therefore be seen as a reincarnation of the same soul in a different time and space. This motif of inevitability seems to link to the dystopian elements that tie the novellas together to form Cloud Atlas– a text that suggests our world will always be governed by human nature and the greed and power inherent in all humans.

Cloud Atlas is morality fiction, showing through various different depictions of the same soul in different times and places amidst violence and oppression, be it in nineteenth century barbaric colonialism Adam Ewing witnesses or the subordination of Sonmi-451 in a totalitarian future where clones are used as brain-dead slaves.  a warning against real barbarity and immorality through fictional representations of how forms of violence and oppression are inevitable in every era and every continent. If we, like David Mitchell’s characters, are merely puppets being given predestined roles our prospects appear bleak; we are condemned to repeat violent acts against each other forever…….

      I’m honestly going to review a happy book soon, I am not normally this morbid honest- too much Dexter and American Horror Story. I read this book on my travels so unfortunately this review is less detailed than my other reviews. 

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge #3: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud’s latest novel is female, angry and disturbing.

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The narrator Nora is an American forty-something elementary school teacher with withered dreams of becoming an acclaimed artist. She is also a seriously angry woman embittered with the world for forcing her to give up her artistic aspirations; angry with her parents for needing her in their old age; and most of all angry with herself for desperately needing approval from everyone. She describes herself as the woman upstairs: ‘we’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting…’ (6).

       The Woman Upstairs is a powerful example of a text dealing with the subject of female anger. Perhaps the first novel I have read that has dealt with the issue so openly. It’s something within the spheres of both literature and society we are uncomfortable with. Women are meant to be likeable characters, doting mothers and daughters, without a sense of irritation or loss at how their life could/might have turned out if things were different…and this novel shows the anger hidden behind a ‘good’ woman. Female anger is often seen as hysterical, a sign of madness or PMS. The novel’s title and recurrent theme of the ‘woman upstairs’ echoes the discussions of female experience in Gilbert’s and Gubar’s ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic’ which is a text most English literature students will have studied time and time again and Messud definitely draws from this. Messud’s writing definitely draws from feminist discussions of women’s experience under patriarchy, but is does not aim to provide answers. It never pins female experience to anything particular, rather emphasising its fluidity which is simultaneously liberating and terrifying.

Her feelings of anger at life are exacerbated by the Shahids. Reza Shahid, a new boy from Paris, moves into her elementary school class and thus starts a friendship between her, Reza and his parents that changes her perspective on life- making her feel that the life she wants is in reach- however ultimately the family/her imagination disappoint her wishes. The novel is cyclical starting with Nora after the betrayal of the Shahids (don’t worry I won’t give any spoilers); a harsh awakening to reality and her own mediocrity that leads to her uncontrollable rage and then a recap of her life before and during the betrayal.

Messud’s writing is unrestrained and raw. Dappled with moments of lucid awareness and self-criticism portraying gaps in Nora’s reality and fiction. Is she as ordinary as she imagines or does she just ignore her own virtues? You could argue the power of the Shahids over Nora is their ability to represent her ideal -exotic, wealthy and deeply comfortable with their identities. Neither Nora nor Messud ever make it clear whether the Shahids are really as fantastic as they appear, or simply an illusion fabricated by Nora’s suppressed self.  I love that these questions are raised and never answered. There is an active engagement between the reader, Nora and the author. Something that most writers cannot achieve.

This novel definitely fits my vague impression of contemporary literature. It really shows the complexities of female experience and the uncertainty of contemporary society that both puzzles and entices the reader to think. 

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge #2: Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared

Apologies for the late review, I have been interning in London for the past month so haven’t had much time to write! But have read quite a few novels so hopefully more will follow soon.

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This is the second novel I am reviewing for my contemporary fiction challenge. I picked this novel partly due to its endearing title and partly due to friendly recommendations. Also, I must admit I was kind of curious to read something distinctly Scandinavian but without the Scandinavian doom and gloom of The Killing.  It is light-hearted and silly: the kind of book to read on a rainy day with a mug of hot chocolate.

      The Hundred-year-old Man who climbed out of the Window and Disappeared is a whimsical biography of Allan Karlsson; a fictitious explosives expert and reluctant centurion. On his hundredth birthday Allan decides to escape his Malmköping care home (and the bossy Director Alice that runs it) in exchange for adventure. Thus starts a novel that intertwines Allan’s present day road trip around Sweden with his past impact on the biggest events in modern history. From a Siberian concentration camp to the top of the Himalayas; from socialising with President Truman to saving General Franco’s life Allan has done everything and been everywhere. His modern-day adventures are no different to his younger years. He impulsively steals a suitcase stuffed with cash from a gangster, meets some comical criminals (anyone reminded of that scene in Tangled? Cue ‘I have a dream’ scene) and goes on the run from the police in an old school bus with an elephant named Sonya.

I struggled to accept Jonasson’s absurd representation of modern history, Allan’s extreme influence over pretty much everything related to explosive warfare, and his ability to foil the police at every turn.  However the novel never pretends to be a serious commentary on modern history, old age or ignorance, it simply portrays the life of a funny old man who longs for adventure. Anyone wishing to read something light and fun will have their wish granted, and those hoping to see a Swedish interpretation of modern history, or a novel dealing with the psychological effects of age will have to look somewhere else…

My only particular qualm with the novel is the lack of empathy developed for the character Allan himself. I can see past the two-dimensional and clichéd whirlwind of characters Allan meets during his life, but Allan himself? The novel is like a Swedish reinvention of Forrest Gump without the moments of tenderness. The plot is absurd, and all realism and belief escapes the window with Allan and his pee-stained slippers…  Whilst working as a waiter in the Los Alamos laboratory he listens to scientists working on nuclear reactions, and happens to figure out from their discussions and from his own self-taught knowledge of explosives how to make an atom bomb! He is also sent to a concentration camp for annoying Stalin at a dinner party along with Albert Einstein’s idiotic half-brother Herbert… Unfortunately, the novel’s farcical nature leaves Allan as little more than a tool for amusement. There is no sense of his personal views or feelings and frequently his lack of interest appears disturbingly amoral and apathetic.

But maybe I am being too pessimistic here. After all the story is clearly meant to be ridiculous and unbelievable so why expect anything less from the characters within the story? One important thing to take from this book is the almost magical and mysterious way Jonasson shows old age.  Allan may be old but in spirit he is as cheeky and optimistic as he was in his youth. This novel reminds me how little I think of the lives of my elderly neighbours and the grey-haired, wrinkled strangers I meet at the bus stop. They have stories to tell, perhaps not as wild as Allan’s, but who asks? Old age is inevitable but growing up is not: just because our bones get old it does not mean our hearts and souls do too.

This novel was really fun to read but personally just not complex or vivid enough for me. Some stories stay with you long after you read them and this one unfortunately is not one of them.

My Contemporary Fiction Challenge #1: George Saunders’s Tenth of December

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Now I’m not gonna lie, I picked this collection of short stories to read and review predominantly because of its critical praise. I’ve got to start somewhere right? As I write more reviews I aim to stumble from the path of critically-acclaimed-books-are-the-best to learn more about books that do not conform to my idealised notions.

Saunders’s Tenth of December offers ten different pictures of the sinister and disturbing aspects of American life.  His language is both satirical and empathetic, blending colloquial discourse with alienating consumerist language. The stories are alarmingly realistic in their descriptions of suburban mundanity but  also show the violence and cruelty that hides beneath the surface of human interactions. As a reader you feel that Saunders has a respect for your intelligence, expecting you to be able to extrapolate a lot from a little (very noticeable in the extremely short story ‘Sticks’ about a father’s insistence in dressing a garden pole for every occasion and season).   He doesn’t spoon feed you his opinion of different scenarios but instead enables you to come to a conclusion on your own.

Indeed the theme of responsibility and choice runs throughout the collection from Kyle’s hesitation to save Alison from abduction in ‘Victory Lap’ to Marie’s undisguised rejection of a puppy due to its dysfunctional owners in ‘Puppy’. In both scenarios the characters choose whether to go against their expected behavioural patterns or not. Kyle, the ‘beloved one’, decides to ignore the threat of his parents’ disapproval and attacks the abductor, whereas Marie decides to leave the puppy due to her feelings of disapproval and ignores the consequences. Saunders shows that however much is stacked against us- be it the social codes we live by, society’s behavioural norms, or negative consumerist drivel we still have power over our own actions, be them morally good or bad.

Some of the stories are more easily forgotten than others, perhaps paralleling the insignificance of the lowly loser-like characters they are about (Al Roosten anyone?) and my only qualm with the collection was the irrelevance of some of the stories, for example both ‘Home’ and ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’ felt contrived and repetitive in relation to the other stories. However two of the stories in particular stayed with me after I read them. Perhaps it was their similar fierce didacticism that compelled me.

‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is about a prison that forces convicts to test drugs that chemically alter emotions and moods dangerously, a punishment which is ironically far worse than any crime they have committed. In the course of the story the protagonist Jeff feels extreme lust, love, pain, suicidal depression, clarity, forgetfulness…the list goes on. Saunders is undoubtedly paralleling this dystopian prison camp to our own modern reliance on the pharmaceutical industry- if you have a headache you can take an aspirin and if you feel anxious or depressed you can go to the GP and they can dish you out a drug with a ridiculously long and unpronounceable name to “stabilise” your feelings. Saunders shows a world where murderers can be victims and socially ‘beneficial’ institutions can inflict suffering, demonstrating the fluidity of good and evil and the ways our world is similar to the world he shows. I am not saying Saunders believes us all passive idiots that believe everything the media and society throw at us, I am merely suggesting that his story reminds the reader of their own power and choice over how they feel and govern their lives.

‘The Semplica Girl diaries’ is my favourite (and the longest) short story of the collection. The un-named narrator and diary writer is a suburban father documenting his life at times pretty boring and at other times horrifying. Saunders creates a reality where women from poor countries (known informally as SGs) become garden decorations for wealthy Americans. They are attached to each other with an invisible wire called a microline and strung up to display wealthy families’ gratuitous financial success to their neighbours and friends. I read this story as a warning of how easily we can forget others in our selfish pursuit of economic happiness. Capitalism alienates us from what makes us human but there is chance of redemption- which I found represented in Eva the diarist’s daughter. She is the only character that shows true regret and remorse for how her society treats underprivileged immigrants, showing that even in this bleak representation of capitalism eradicating human empathy there is hope.

Saunders stories are excerpts on how modern America is a messed up dystopian system that traps individuals in situations they can no longer control and alienates them individually and socially. If you were looking for self-gratifying happy tales of the American life do not read this collection. It rips apart fallacies and leaves them bare. Saunders, however, does not leave the reader sobbing on the floor in blackness but offers an alternative to rejuvenate and repair the faults in society: compassion and empathetic awareness.

In relation to my post on contemporary fiction’s place on the bookshelf I would place this collection on the side of literature for it deals with issues that perplex the modern reader, acting as a searing example of the mood of present society for future generations.