Pastors and Masters, & The Guest Cat – two from my #10booksofsummer list

In case my title has you saying, ‘hashtag what?’ I’ll quickly remind you that back at the beginning of June, I volunteered to join the summer reading challenge set by 746 Books.

Still lost? Here’s the recap: I listed 10 books I intended to read, and review, before September 3rd. So far, I’ve completed one.

I know, I’m woefully behind. I’ve got six more Mondays between now and the end of the challenge, and next week I’m planning to do the Six Degrees one, instead. So even my dodgy maths confirms I’ve got to do some doubling-up, if I’m going to fit nine books into five posts.

Hence, this week, Ivy Compton-Burnett gets paired with Takashi Hiraide. The combination results in a title that seems to me suitable for an intriguing leap into magical realism. Perhaps I could have read alternated chapters from each. It’s a fleeting thought, probably indicative of hysteria. I have come through the other side of the combined 238 pages feeling a little disorientated.

I began in the suburb’s of Tokyo, in the late 1980s. My unnamed narrator led me quietly around the home he and his wife rented, explaining in great detail what it looked and felt like, and how they came to live there. I learn a lot about them and their lives, even before Chibi, the cat of the title, appeared.

This is a gently paced, reflective tale. When I checked up on the author, I was not surprised to find that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. The shaping of the story, the attention to detail, the presentation of key images seemed to lead me into areas of quiet contemplation. Even the opening, a description of a window in their kitchen, intrigued.

The small window in the corner of our kitchen bordered on a tall wooden fence, so close a person could barely pass by. From inside the house, its frosted glass looked like a dim movie screen. There was a small knothole in the wooden fence and the green of the bamboo hedge – which was about ten feet wide, to the north of the alley – was always projected on to the crude screen. Whenever someone walked by in the narrow alleyway, a figure formed, filling the entire window. Viewed from the dark interior of the house, sunny days seemed ever more vivid, and working perhaps on the same principle as a camera obscura, the figures of people walking past were turned upside down.

That window, it seemed to me, was the key to the way the narrator presented his world. There were backstories, digressions, contemplations and forward movement. It was one of the most relaxing and yet entertaining reads I’ve ever had. I read slowly, savouring the scenes.

What slowed me up with Pastors and Masters, on the other hand, was the need to concentrate. With hardly any description at all, and no scene-setting hints, I had to pick up my clues from a series of sharply observed dialogues between a challengingly large cast of characters for a small book.

It opens with a tirade that sets a pace, tone and style that never relents.

‘Well, this is a nice thing! A nice thing this school-mastering! Up at seven, and in a room with a black fire…I should have thought it might have occurred to one out of forty boys to poke it…’

The school remains unnamed, and so does the English university town. I finally pinned the period down during the dinner party that concludes the novel.

‘Well, we were certainly classed by the state with paupers and idiots and children, before we had the vote,’ said Miss Basden. ‘I mean we women were.’

Women in England who were householders, and over the age of 30, got the vote in 1918. But I got closer than that when a little later Miss Basden says:

‘I think these changes in the divorce laws will do a great deal towards equalising the position of women’…

I looked that one up and found The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923. The novel was published in 1925.

I enjoyed the repartee, though after getting lost twice in the first chapter, I wrote myself a character list. I was still using it at the end of the book for the dinner party.

How glad I was only to be an observer at that feast. It was littered with snide asides, direct and indirect personal verbal attacks. Whoever repeats that old saying about sticks and stones should check out the interplay between these characters. Part of the power of their exchanges is created by the absence of authorial comment or explanation.

Compton-Burnett has been described as dangerous. She’s been compared to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Pinter. I’m inclined to agree. Maybe I’ll track down another of her novels and see how they compare. But when I do, I’ll set myself a gap from any other kind of reading.

30 thoughts on “Pastors and Masters, & The Guest Cat – two from my #10booksofsummer list

  1. I have long wanted to read The Guest Cat and your review reinforces that I must get to it, Cath! I’ve not read anything from Compton-Burnett and I’m intrigued by your impressions. I certainly like the period. I’ll look out for this one 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I always love such informative reviews, even if I never get round to reading the actual titles reviewed! These sound the sort of books I’d actually enjoy provided I wasn’t already snowed under.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Those books prove a writer has many ways to tell the story. Both sound intriguing. Well done for knocking another two off your list. Not sure if my blog is running to speed again after receiving no responses to my last one a week ago. Ah well. Keep up the reading. I must follow suit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Lynda. It’s good to get re-started on the list, and I’m optimistic that the rest will prove as entertaining and intriguing.

      Your blog is there today, Lynda. I’ve just dropped by – I’ve been running a little slow this week though, still catching up.

      Like

  4. Well, as a pastor’s kid I’m immediately curious as to what naughty things those British pastors are up to 🙂 But these both sound like relaxing reads for summer. I’ve three books I hope to get through in August; we’ll see if my kids allow it!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow Cath! You make reading books even more fun! I love appreciating book reviews as well …. they help me zoom in on the best books around. Thanks for sharing your perspective! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ivy C-B is a favourite of mine. She’s razor sharp and darkly funny. That technique of dialogue carrying the narrative is brilliantly done – almost like reading a play script – except it’s not always clear who’s speaking. Requires concentration, but worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Good reminder to read more Ivy Compton-Burnett. And I have this one on the shelf too.
    “To read in these days a page of Compton-Burnett dialogue is to think of the sound of glass being swept up, one of these London mornings after a blitz.” – Elizabeth Bowen.

    Liked by 1 person

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