N21 Book Matters
Welcome to the book reviews column for N21.net
The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt
The Children’s Book is the story of four families at the turn of the 19th Century. The adults create a dream of Bohemian life to bring up their children. But as those children grow they find themselves thrust into the real world and betrayed by their parent’s dreams.
“Nutcracker Cottage, like many English things, appeared at first sight to be an instance of pure whimsy, but was in fact more complicated.” A S Byatt, The Children’s Book.
The Children’s Book is Nutcracker Cottage in novel form. What appears to be a historical tale-set in the Bohemian Arts and Crafts scene of Edwardian England turns out to be so much more. A.S. Byatt is a fierce and powerful writer and in her hands this detailed, finely crafted novel becomes many different novels.
The first is that historical novel, complete with period detail and meticulous research. You can feel the atmosphere of the new Victoria and Albert Museum. You can see the crowds at the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1900 and feel the passion of the reformers and artists who surround the Wellwoods in their cottage in the country.
The second novel is about the power of creativity. The book is set around the sprawling Wellwood family. Olive Wellwood is the matriarch and primary bread winner who writes children’s novels. Every experience she has is transformed into a story, no matter the consequences to her children and loved ones. Across the Downs is Benedict Fludd, the mad but brilliant potter who’s creativity and rages rule his family. Byatt draws the creative impulse exactly; she marries the madness and the need to be creative clearly and compassionately.
But the bulk of the book is a coming of age story. Byatt, she of the great scope and roving mind, doesn’t give us the story of just one child growing up. Instead she gives us six children as they grow into the new century. These children are neither Victorians nor children of the 20th century. They have been brought up in a world that really only exists in their parent’s ability to create it. As they develop desires and passions of their own they find their parents constructed lives unable to contain them and their truths.
Byatt also creates the work of her fictional authors. So Olive
Wellwood’s work for her children is created in authentic style. Later, Julian, one of the children, writes poetry in a World War I field hospital. This is Byatt’s party trick, she did it to great effect in Possession and she hasn’t lost her ability to write convincingly in the style of different eras.
The Children’s Book is mesmerizing; Byatt layers her prose with detail and authenticity. Like the artists in her novel, she creates a world that is more real than the world we actually live in.
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The Plague of Doves – Louise Erdrich
A grisly murder begins this novel set in the plains and Native American Reservations of North Dakota. Told by a collection of characters who tell their stories and then melt back into the narrative, A Plague of Doves is the hypnotic tale of two intertwined communities and their powerful shared history
“Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood.” Louise Erdrich The Plague of Doves
Louise Erdrich is virtually unknown in the UK, but in America she is a respected writer who brings the experience of Native Americans into fiction. She writes of Native American Culture and how over time it has woven into the history of whites and Indians in the American Midwest. She writes lyrically about the effects of a bloody and complicated history on contemporary life. She’s also a damn fine writer.
A Plague of Doves, her latest book, is a collection of interwoven stories told by a cast of narrators who tell their part and then slip back again into the narrative. The backbone of the novel is Evelina Harp, a sharp Ojibwe girl. She grows up listening to the stories of her grandfather, Mooshum and great uncle as they sit, sneaking whisky, tormenting the local Catholic priest and telling the stories of their past.
From her Mooshum Evelina learns about a massacre of a white family and the subsequent lynching of a group of young, innocent Ojibwe men. Since the murders the white town of Pluto and the reservation Ojibwe’s have intermarried and the skeins of blood, revenge and history are irretrievably tangled.
Other characters take up the story though Evelina disappears into the narrative and then reappears as she grows up in this dying community. The other major narrator is mixed blood Judge Antone Bazil Couts, and keeper of the secrets of the white residents of Pluto. He sees a great deal in his dealings in the murky side of the intertwined lives of both peoples. His is privy to some of the deep secrets of both communities and tries through his love of Evelina’s Aunt to help mend the communities.
Along with the serious themes of inter-racial relationships and history, the book is also filled with a sense of the ridiculous. Mooshum and Evelina band together at Halloween giving out popcorn balls and trying to scare the neighborhood kids. They find them difficult to scare and resort to increasingly silly ways of getting them to shriek.
If you let the magnificent, magical realism flow over you and sink into Erdrich’s poetic lyricism, you will be carried away into a world you’ve never been before. Her descriptions of people and places are magnetic. Her understanding of her underreported world is second to none and she should be read by anybody trying to understand contemporary American life.
Reading a Plague of Doves can also be a frustrating experience. Sometimes, like Evelina, you want to jot down a family tree (or three). Some of her earlier novels, Love Medicine or the Master Butcher’s Singing Club may be more accessible to new readers. But in any case, reading Erdrich will bring music to your heart and a deeper understanding of human frailty.
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The Odd Women - by George Gissing
Rhoda Nunn does not believe in marriage but finds herself in love. Monica Madden marries without love to improve her life. Their choices and how those choices affect themselves and those around them are the subject of George Gissing’s tale of love, sex and the consequences of society’s expectations.
“I don’t care if we crowd out the men or not. I don’t care what the results are, as long as women are made strong and self-reliant, and nobly independent”. George Gissing, The Odd Women.
That quote feels modern, perhaps from a book of the last 50 years. But George Gissing wrote this, in 1893. The Odd Women is a contemporary and compelling book which happens to also be a Victorian novel. It is a gem hidden among the better known Victorian blockbusters.
The Odd Women of the title are women with no mates in a society where marriage is the highest good for women. Rhoda Nunn and Marry Barfoot are two such women who choose to educate single women to earn their own money and control their own lives. Into their circle come Monica Madden and her two sisters.
Monica finds herself orphaned, impoverished and working a mind numbing, soul destroying job in London to support herself. Then marriage to a man of means offers a way out for herself and her sisters. Rejecting Mary and Rhoda’s ideals of independence she chooses marriage to Mr. Widdowson, a traditional Victorian man who believes that women need to be protected from themselves as well as the dangers of the outside world.
Meanwhile Rhoda Nunn, who firmly believes that marriage is an evil that women can ill afford, finds herself in love and in conflict with her principles. Gissing charts the two women’s stories with an understanding of the issues, emotional and political, that is precise and acute.
But this is not merely a polemic on the wrongs or rights of marriage; it’s a good Victorian novel. The kind that makes you want to get a cup of tea and a blanket and camp out on the couch on a rainy Saturday. It is full of period detail including pea soup fogs, trains to the continent, calling cards and afternoon visits.
All the stalwarts of Victorian fiction are here but with a twist. There are fallen women, or have they?. Women seduced but men seduced too. . Gin is drunk by despondent women, but they are not judged as sinners. Gissing had two difficult marriages himself and lived on the edge of poverty and this seems to give him real compassion for his characters.
He describes his characters emotions in a way that many contemporary writers should envy. His description of Mr. Widdowson’s battles with jealousy and doubt allows you to understand the depth of his passion and uncertainty. Rhoda and her lover’s “perfect day” is as sweet as any romantic scene in chick lit.
It may be that the lack of romanticism and moral certainty condemned this thoroughly modern book to the dusty corners of literary history, but it’s time that it comes out into the light.
Read it and see how far we’ve come and how many of the issues we still grapple with were articulated by an obscure novelist in 1893.
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