Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Short novel about Paama, the competent heroine of a folktale who is temporarily given divine power in the form of a Chaos Stick when one of the immortals proves himself unworthy to wield such power. I felt I should have liked this more than I did. It had a pleasant sense of humour and interesting themes but there was something a bit wooden about it. Sometimes it feels like it’s just these little short books that drag. I think this one was an incompletely converted short story. Part of it is a retelling of a folktale and while I could see where the author got the idea to combine the story with her own narrative it seemed awkwardly grafted.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Memoir of the daughter of a married Catholic priest, which is supposed to be humorous more than anything. I found the father too awful to be funny and Lockwood’s sense of humour is largely a quirkily random wordplay-based kind of thing that doesn’t do much for me, though sometimes her language is apposite. However, I found the book strangely immersive considering that I found it a bit of a let-down so far as its most advertised quality went. I suppose the determination to make something out of experience and perception was something that I got out of the humour’s presence. Writing is one of the things the book is about. It’s rather good on growing up in a religious family and on oppressive religious authority and trying to love family members and being unable not to. There’s not much examination of the whole being a married Catholic priest contradiction that you might expect, though.
Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett
Years ago I read the first book in Dunnett’s Lymond series, which is her best-loved work. I enjoyed it, but then I bounced off the second one. It had been a bit too long an interval and I didn’t find it as easy to get into as I expected which perhaps contributed to the allergic reaction I experienced towards Lymond himself. I decided I just didn’t want to spend any more time with that character. He’s a fermented Lord Peter Whimsy, urbane, elegant, best at everything and very self-contained, with an iciness that hints at unusual heat beneath. It might seem as if he is not nice but that’s because he is misunderstood. He deliberately misrepresents himself because it amuses him to mislead others and because he is above seeking approval by explaining himself. It is his lonely fate to pursue his aims under false flags. He’s part of a tradition I associate with the 20th century and British writing, which tries to have its cake and eat it where emotion is concerned, with intensity crammed down and praised as the more genuine, the more deserving our sympathy for its refusal of demonstration and sentiment. It seeks an excess of emotional gratification while preaching restraint. This is all more than half invented as I only sampled the series and it was years ago now. Anyway, the impression I was left with that I still liked the idea of Dunnett but wanted to try her without Lymond.
So eventually I got round to her other series, which seems to be generally thought of as less shiny, being Lymond-less and starring a dyer’s apprentice who will become a merchant with his fingers in lots of pies. The beginning made me feel as if Dunnett was showing clips of film played so slowly they were slightly distorted, as if it was the detailed exhibition itself that seemed to obscure and possibly disguise some sleight of hand. Claes is a seemingly ingenuous apprentice in 1400s Buges, with a kind of plankishness accompanied by a quickness in amusing others. It becomes slowly clear that Claes, who will become Nicholas, is a lot brighter than he lets on and has a ruthless, vengeful streak. Dunnett’s love of intelligence is again the dominating factor in the characterisation of Nicholas as of Lymond, though this is initially disguised and it remains to be seen quite who Nicholas will be now he’s hatched out. He will, at any rate, be the vehicle for Dunnett to explore fifteenth-century European trade and the people and events connected with it, directly and indirectly. Dunnett loves the physical stuff of her world and she loves the interconnectedness of wheeling and dealing and intriguing. She puts a high premium on being in the know; it’s what makes people interesting to her and she shapes her narrative around what we don’t know. Her way of making business deals and the like interesting is to only gradually illuminate them. I’m not sure yet whether the parcel is wrapping paper all the way down or not.
Consequences by E. M.Delafield
1919 story of Alex Clare, who is cursed with the inability to make anything of her life. We meet her as a child, domineering over her siblings in the nursery and insatiable for admiration and spoiling from her mother’s friends in the drawing room. When she is sent to a convent school she suffers from the educational culture of this time and place, which looks on “exclusive friendships” as dangerously adjacent to perversion and treats them as criminal. She has a great hunger for emotional fulfilment and a growing conviction that human relationships are the only nourishment that might sustain her but a charisma vacuum and an unattractive personality that is either doormatty or power-seeking renders it impossible for her to form the kind of relationship with someone “who understands” which she longs for. All she manages at school are hopelessly unequal danglings after withholding types which are not allowed by the nuns to be their own punishment. When she leaves school she enters adult life as a late Victorian debutante. She’s pretty enough, and is bought expensive clothes and introduced to tons of people who are all seeking to form suitable connections. Somehow she is unable to capitalise on these advantages and it becomes slowly clear that there seems to be no route ahead. At this point she falls under the spell of a charismatic nun and becomes a nun herself for a decade, as Delafield did for a shorter amount of time. The prospect of divine and infinite love is held out to her as a consolation for the lack of human love. Alex progresses through the various stages of taking her vows, waiting for access to this consolation. Throughout her life, she is always waiting and hoping that the next thing will finally bring her relief. A nervous breakdown forces her to admit to herself that God’s love means little to her and she defiantly insists on her inability to live without human attachments and is finally released from her vows. Cast back upon a changed world, her limitations assume a more final aspect.
The beginning of this novel drags Alex into the dock and convicts her straight away of being a miserable failure, aggressively telling rather than showing, though even in the beginning it has a certain crude propulsiveness. The lambasting creates a kind of inadvertently comic distance which relieves some of the depressingness. Later, Alex is inhabited as well as exhibited, which perhaps increases the depression but lessens the sense that Delafield is treating Alex as her Nurse treats her. Not that Alex is ever unconvicted; her characterisation has that overly-personal harshness that makes you wonder whether it deals with an alternate universe self of the author’s. Alex’s conventional upper-class background, with a family that, if it isn’t warm and close, isn’t particularly unhappy and dysfunctional, has two purposes that to some extent contradict each other. On the one hand it is an occasion for Delafield to voice her frustrations with the stifling petty restrictions of this environment, which has carefully refused Alex resources with which to supplement her defects. On the other it is a demonstration that Alex is dealt some pretty good cards — which makes her inability to play them more tragic. The darkest part of Consequences is that to a large extent Alex’s tragedy is that of being herself, not of extrinsic happenstance. The philosophy of life that Alex settles on is the necessity for understanding and forgiveness of the weak and erring. It would perhaps have added more layers to the novel if there had been other failures in it for Alex to practice this sympathetic understanding on as subject rather than imploring object.
Evan Harrington by George Meredith
Victorian novel about the children of a tailor, with whose death the novel opens. The Great Mel somehow contrived to cut a superlatively gentlemanly, charismatic figure and socialise with aristocrats while keeping a small, failing tailor’s shop. His three daughters have all married above their station and keep their origins a deadly secret, while they have done their best to drag their brother Evan up the social ladder with them. Their work is threatened when their mother convinces Evan that he must work as a tailor to pay his father’s debts. Evan oscillates between gloomily resigning himself to his humble fate and mooning after an upper-class girl. There’s much chewing over the nature of the wonderful state of gentlemanliness, which feels noncommittal in that it neither espouses equality nor ultimately puts Evan in his place — playing with unconventionality without getting too political about it. Meredith must have had more skin in the game than shows at this distance in time, though, being himself the son of a tailor. The flaw of this book is that Evan is very dull. His sister, a Portuguese countess who spends the novel deflecting threats of exposure, carries the book on her shoulders. Described by other characters as “the female Euphues” her love of performatively sophisticated language and her adroitness with complex plots give her a likeness to the author. This novel, like the others I’ve read by Meredith, is something like Oscar Wilde run several times through Google Translate and reminiscent of a classic stage comedy with confrontations and reversals of fortune. I don’t know that I reliably make much of Meredith sentence by sentence yet somehow as a whole I really enjoy the texture of his writing.
The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
Noir novel about a missing heir to millions who may or may not be who he appears to be. So good I almost wondered if it couldn’t be better. Macdonald vividly illuminates many fragmented stories but perhaps more emotional impact could have been gained if he had committed to fewer characters. But very enjoyable and left me wanting to read more Macdonald.
Lavengro and The Romany Rye by George Borrow
I can’t entirely account for having read this rather long nineteenth-century semi-fictionalised account of contrarianism and cultural appropriation. Death is a great lender of charms. To trace the personality of someone who doesn’t exist anymore is one of my favourite things. Borrow the character grows up with a passion for languages, more especially those that are out-of-the-way or denigrated, makes the acquaintance of gypsies, which he is proud of and eager to define himself by here, and embarks on a picaresque road-trip. To hear a foreign culture or language praised makes him come over all Brexity. To hear a socially progressive idea argued for makes him conservative. And don’t get him started on the Catholics. Witnessing the crowds line the streets for Byron’s funeral sets him off on a vehemently anti-Byron train of thought before he grudgingly admits that popular though he was, he did have something. Borrow’s interest in Romany, Welsh and Irish culture stems more from a love of secret knowledge and a contrary determination to like the unpopular than a sympathy for the downtrodden. He consoles himself for his lack of confidence in his ability to compete in an orthodox way with his originality: I resumed the newspaper and, as I was before struck with the fluency of style and the general talent which it displayed, I was now equally so with its commonplaceness and want of originality on every subject; and it was evident to me that whatever advantages these newspaper-writers might have over me in some points, they had never studied the Welsh bards, translated Kaempe Viser, or been under the tutelage of Mr Petulengro and Tawno Chikno. There are allusions to the neurotic fear and hatred attracted by marginalised languages: “Where did you get that language?” “It is no language at all, merely a made-up gibberish”. “Is it broken language?” Borrow is also interested in thieves’ slang. Anyway, I haven’t read anything quite like it. There was something engaging in Borrow’s saturnine, wilful eccentricity and I liked the way the stories of the people he meets on his travels interconnect.
The Player’s Boy by Bryher
Looking at this author’s other work, it seems as though all her novels are about the passing of an age. This one is about the passing of the Elizabethan age, seen through the eyes of James Sands, a players’ apprentice, stolid yet dreamy, who never really finds a place for himself. Service and love are the same thing for Sands, only he never finds the right person to serve. I was trying to read this in short bursts and it’s not at all a book that works in these circumstances, lacking narrative momentum while at the same time requiring emotional investment. The wistful pathos of this tugged at my sleeve enough to prevent me abandoning it and became quite distinct when I was able to give it time.