Journeys into fiction

When a friend loans me a book, I know it’s important. It’s not unusual for books to visit my house fleetingly, but generally they’re on a journey without a clear destination. They might land up at the charity shop or with another friend, and there’s no time-frame for when that happens.

I’ve several shelves carrying that kind of load. I can only rarely tell you where any of them came from, or how long they’ve been there. In fairy tale terms, they’re passive, Sleeping Beauties, waiting to be woken.

A loaned book needs to be a different kind of heroine. She’s got a purpose.

‘You really ought to read this,’ my friend says, drawing a paperback with an understated cover from her bag. ‘I think you’d find it interesting.’

I’m intrigued by the binding. It’s expensive looking, made from thick, textured, cream-coloured card. The title jumps out at me, The Murderess. Beneath it a ribbon of stylised drawings of a woman’s face, in crimson and grey, half in cross-hatched shadow, are repeated across the cover and onto the spine.

My friend tells me no more. I thank her, and open the book, wondering if it can be short stories.

It’s a translation of a novel first published in 1903. The author is Alexandros Papadiamandis – a new name to me, but a glance at his biographical notes tells me he is ‘one of Greece’s most important writers‘. If the first hook was a recommendation from someone who’s judgement I trust, the second is this offer of getting insight into the literature of another culture.

All these years I’ve been dipping in and out of Greek myths, and I’ve not really thought about what was written after them. Starting with a modern classic seems like another good reason to get on and read this.

I skip past the introduction, no tour guide necessary, thank you. I’m looking forward to sharing this journey with the narrator. I promise to come back later, though. It’s always interesting to share notes, afterwards.

She half-sat, half-lay beside the fireplace, her eyes shut and her head propped against the hearthstone, but Aunt Hadoula, often called Yannou or Frangissa, was not asleep. She had given up sleeping to watch beside the cradle of her little sick granddaughter. The baby’s mother, who had given birth less than forty days previously, had fallen asleep a short while ago on her low sagging bed.

A good narrator is a joy to travel with, even when the tale is dark. This one knows exactly how to draw me in. The story is neatly intersected with snippets of information about how life is on Skiathos, at a time when education is only just being offered to girls, and men are emigrating to America.

A Social Tale’, says the sub-title. Even when I was involved in what was happening, but especially in the gaps when I put the book down, I thought about the whole title. The first part foreshadowed every event. While reading, I was tense, wondering who would die, how, and when. At the same time, the story brought me back, again and again, to the way the described society was organised. It was local, personal, global and absorbing.

It was about how big questions impact on a personal level. It could be read simply as the first half of the title suggests, or it could lead the reader to think. It could make you look again at that cover, that line of cross-hatched faces, and wonder why they are repeated. Other copies have opted for different images. I like the subtlety of this one, by Nikos Akrivos.

This book will complete it’s own journey and get back to its owner in good time, not because I saved it from languishing on my TBR shelf, but because it more than delivered on its promise, and I made some unexpected discoveries along the way.

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The first book from my Summer-of-Reading list.

I’ve had a busy week, so I decided to start my ten-books-in-three-months challenge with something easy. Everyone knows that books for children are light, and short, particularly when they’re described as ‘especially good for reading aloud‘. Charlotte’s Web seemed an obvious choice.

My first surprise was to discover that it’s illustrated. How could I have forgotten that about books for the under twelves?

Possibly because I rarely notice pictures in text. Unless I’m reading a comic-strip, or graphic novel, illustrations are an interruption. As my family will tell you, it takes a lot to break me out of a book. This one hooked me from the opening.

‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

‘Out to the hoghouse,’ replied Mrs Arable. ‘Some pigs were born last night.’

‘I don’t see why he needs an axe,’ continued Fern, who was only eight.

If my jaw didn’t physically drop, my mind leapt. We’re talking violent death, and the realities of farm life and food production, in a book for children, quite small children. There surely wasn’t any way back from this. As Fern ran out, in tears, to confront her father, I had to turn the page.

I’m not spoiling anything by telling you she saves the piglet, only simplifying the beautifully concise and convincing argument she has with her father. That conversation is a fine demonstration on rounding out characters. I loved this.

I loved all of it. It was the attention to detail, as much as the power of the story that continually surprised and pleased me.

Forward movement never pauses. Fern names the piglet, Wilbur. She feeds him from a baby’s bottle, and for two months he follows her nearly everywhere. In the process, there are some lovely descriptions of what Spring means for children. There’s no time to get complacent about the outcome, though. By the end of chapter two, Fern’s father insists Wilbur must be sold.

I knew what that meant, but I wasn’t sure if a child would. White makes it clear that on the farm, and in nature, the issue of death is never far away. He uses that understanding to build tension, and foreshadow the moment when an old sheep tells Wilbur: ‘…they’re fattening you up because they’re going to kill you...’

There’s a surprising amount of detail to come on that subject.

‘Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer as soon as the real cold weather sets in. There’s a regular conspiracy round here to kill you at Christmastime. Everyone is in on the plot…even John Arable.’

‘Mr Arable?’ sobbed Wilbur. ‘Fern’s father?’

‘Certainly. When a pig is to be butchered, everybody helps. I’m an old sheep and I see the same thing, same old business, year after year. Arable arrives with his .22, shoots the…’

‘Stop!’ screamed Wilbur. ‘I don’t want to die! Save me, somebody! Save me!’

The cause, the point of this story, is finally out in the open. It’s been there all the time, in one form or another, but it’s been easy to forget or ignore the death references because we’ve been concentrating on Wilbur. He is, as the goose tells us, ‘a very innocent little pig’, and charming.

We’re about a third of the way into the book. The stakes are as high as they can get. Wilbur, who has already failed to run away; who has realised that he is too young to survive alone, will die, unless someone comes up with a plan.

Although Fern saved him from the first threat, she’s become increasingly passive. She agreed to sell Wilbur, and on her visits to his new pen, stays on the other side of the fence.

Luckily, she’s been replaced by an interesting range of new characters. Wilbur’s invited every animal on the farm to play with him, and if death is the ’cause’ in this story, friendship is the big theme. His overtures have provided a range of responses and justifications. Only when he touches the depths of disappointment does he find success, and it’s not what he expected.

‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I’ve got a new friend, all right. But what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty – everything I don’t like. How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?’

Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend…

Rusty and I settled to read this in a chair by the window, yesterday evening. There was still daylight. As I came to the last few pages I was leaning forward, tilting the words towards the sunset, rather than break my connection with Wilbur and Charlotte by rising to switch on the lamp.

I’m sorry I missed this book as a child, it would have resonated on so many levels, but I’m glad to have found it now. I dismissed it as a light read, earlier, I won’t make that mistake again.

* All illustrations by Garth Williams.

Hotel life.

This week Elizabeth Bowen took me to the Italian Riviera. It was 1927. There, I watched a group of seasoned travellers fritter their lives away in aimless drifting.

The start of the story had promise.

Miss Fitzgerald hurried out of the Hotel into the road. Here she stood still, looking purposelessly up and down in the blinding sunshine and picking at the fingers of her gloves. She was frightened by an interior quietness and by the thought that she had for once in her life stopped thinking and might never begin again.

I was prepared to like Miss Fitzgerald. All kinds of situations were possible. I rarely read the blurb on the back cover. It’s usually either wrong, or gives away key moments. So I had no expectations.

Inside the hotel, Miss Pym responds to the same situation.

She, after a short blank pause of astonishment up in her room, had begun to creep down the stairs warily. She listened; she clung to the banisters – tense for retreat at every turn of the staircase.

Something momentous has happened. Miss Fitzgerald has made a ‘violent exit’ from Miss Pym. She has said something terrible, ‘discharged with such bitterness of finality‘. The phrasing hints at secrets shared in trust, and weaponized in moments of crisis.

What I admire about Bowen is her economy. She moves the story forwards and backwards at the same time.

‘At this crisis of ungovernable agitation Emily (how well they knew each other!) would have taken to the hills. Miss Pym could see plainly her figure stumbling up in the glare towards the shade of the olive-trees, breast to breast with the increasing slope. She must be given a little longer to get away.

If only we could have stayed with these two women. By the second page, though, Mrs Kerr enters. She ‘stood beautifully, balanced either for advance or immobility‘. Who is she? What is she? It’s hard to say.

Though she is a focus of the attention of most characters, we’re not allowed access to her thoughts. Occasionally she tells someone about her emotions, but I’m not sure I always believe her.

Her profile did not commit her: it expressed an ironic indulgence to fashion in the line of a hat-brim, the soft undulation of hair, an earring’s pendulous twinkle, the melting suave lines of a scarf round the throat. Mrs Kerr took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.

That’s as close as we get. I read on because I trust Bowen. She’d presented me with a group of repressed Brits sharing bathrooms, dining rooms and tennis in a sultry foreign landscape, surely something must break.

Theo Champion (1887 – 1952)

There were moments when I was interested. Passion is suggested and characters behave badly. There was comedy and some farce. But the truth is, I didn’t care. I tried to, but I began to feel that really, Bowen didn’t want that.

The guests at the Italian Villa mostly kept mannered distances from me, as well as each other, even in moments of tension. In our previous meetings, Elizabeth Bowen’s been a wonderful hostess. She’s introduced fascinating people, who’ve shared their joys and heartbreaks, and I’ve been sorry to reach the last pages of their stories.

I began to question whether this disconnect was a problem with me. Was I meant to be so conscious that these characters have too much money and luxury? A lot of literature produced up to this point in the twentieth century focused on the rich and privileged, and I don’t usually complain about it.

There was one exchange that offered an alternative explanation. On a rainy afternoon, as Joan, one of three pretty sisters, is writing a letter, Colonel Duperrier, who is a little younger than her father, starts a conversation about one of the few eligible young men in the hotel.

‘Can’t young Ammering get a job?’

‘No he can’t,’ Joan said defensively. ‘It worries him awfully. The War’s come very hard indeed on our generation. I don’t think people understand a bit.’

‘Perhaps they don’t,’ said Colonel Duperrier, who had also fought.

‘We have to make allowances for ourselves,’ continued Joan. ‘You see, nobody makes them for us. I know young people are always supposed to be fearfully idealistic and that sort of thing, but I suppose we can’t help feeling that, considering how hard things are on us, we aren’t really so bad.’

Perhaps, then, the novel intended me to feel uncomfortable. In this 1927 view life has not changed for the better, for the privileged at any rate. There is an emptiness at the heart of their comfortable lives. Behaviour, sex, class, marriage, careers and education all come under the spotlight.

I stuck it out to the end of the novel, and I’m glad to have read it. But it’s not one I’ll be keeping.

I’d like to recommend ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’

This, Maria Donovan’s first novel, is good. I’ve been enjoying reading her short stories ever since I discovered ‘Pumping up Napoleon‘, in Mslexia magazine, some years ago.

If the truth be told, I’ve looked out for her. I’ve not been disappointed. She’s taken me on an interesting range of short, but often resonant, journeys. What I’ve liked is her humour, humanity and inventiveness. Brevity, I’ve thought, was her forte. So when I stumbled onto her blog site, and discovered she had recently written a novel, I wondered what to expect.

I’m always a little nervous when writers shift from one form to another. It’s a long time since I believed that authors who produce short fiction are practising, building up to the moment when they will write their novel, or that novelists turning to the short forms are clear about how they can work.

It’s true there are some shared skills, in the two forms. Could I list them? Certainly, though if I tried to now, you, or I, would immediately name some short story or novel that refuted my proof. Since I’d rather not set myself up to fail, I’ll get back to talking about this novel.

Let’s start with the first line. It should be good. It should interest/intrigue the reader.

The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

I’m hooked. Apart from the murder, I want to know how anyone can be poisoned using a cheese sandwich. Who is this narrator? Almost as that question is forming, it’s being answered.

Break time he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic? George Bull: he’s George to the teachers, Georgie to his dad, but to me he is just Bully. He let me nod, and breathe, and walked me off to a corner of the field.

The first page of this novel is a master class in how to deliver information without stepping to one side and entering lecture mode. Our narrator, the voice that we have to decide whether to trust or not, is that of a twelve-year old boy, Michael. Reading him, I was thrown right back to my junior school days again. His interests, his questing connection to the world, even his reminiscences seemed true. Had you forgotten that children have a view of the past too?

Janey’s birthday is in April and mine is October so she started school before me. Sometimes her mum looked after me, and I would curl up in an armchair on rainy afternoons and doze and dream, waiting for Janey to come back in her uniform smelling of pencils. I was happy when I first started school, because I knew Janey would be there.

Creating an authentic child-voice is tricky. The author must hold firmly to the sight and understanding that belongs in the age group. Their vocabulary might be fairly sophisticated, but it cannot imply an adult understanding of all that they see. Though it can ape an adult view, as in Michael’s idyllic description of how his life used to be:

Photo from Newsflare

You could knock on anyone’s door, open it, call out hello and just walk in. Sometimes I used to climb through the dog flap in Irma’s kitchen door and help myself to biscuits. If she came home and found me sitting at the kitchen table she didn’t mind. When the dog died she still kept the dog flap and though Janey said it was for the dog’s ghost, so he could come and go, I knew it was for me.

The beauty of using a child narrator is that it forces the reader to become involved. The other day, one of my students was asking about unreliable narrators. This novel is a lovely demonstration of how naivety can create that effect. The view of a child is, generally, limited, not always because of their lack of size. Adults have shaped their world, for good or bad reasons.

Ted is the only thing I have that was my dad’s. Before he met my mum and ‘went to the bad’. I’m not really sure what bad they went to. Nan won’t talk about it.

I’m not going to tell you much more either, in case I give the game away. This is one of those novels that both is, and isn’t, what it seems to be. It’s called The Chicken Soup Murder because there is chicken soup, and Michael believes that a murder has happened. There are moments when lives hang in the balance.

There are also revelations about various types of death and lives and, even, sex. It’s a story about growing up, family, love, grief, friendships and determination. It’s set in 2012, on a Dorset street, and visits Cardiff. There, that should be enough to wet the appetite.

Bridport Boxing-Day swim, photo from Bridport News.

I’ve just read Stoner, by John Williams. Do you know it?

The blurb on the cover says this is ‘the greatest novel you’ve never read’. High praise indeed, and maybe it carries some credibility coming from the Sunday Times, though does that include in America?

When my brother handed me the novel he said, ‘You ought to try this. It’s interesting.’

‘In what way?’ I probed.

‘It’s different,’ he said. ‘Unusual.’

‘But you liked it?’

‘In a way,’ he said. ‘I kept reading it.’

I could get no further comment from him, so having a few moments to spare the other day, I skipped past John McGahern’s introduction and looked at the first page of story.

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.

This was not the usual sort of hook. I could see no hints of a great issue to be solved, no situation that needed to be explored. Where was the characterisation? It read like an obituary notice. What, I wondered, was the book offering? So far there was no hope that William might be an Indiana Jones type, with a secret second occupation. Perhaps I needed to read a little further.

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.

What? The central character will be dead by the end of the novel, and has so little charisma that his students can’t remember him? I haven’t met him yet, and I’m wondering why I should want to.

Yet, I read on. Was I, perhaps, influenced by that recommendation on the cover? Not really. I’ll admit to a contrary streak that makes me suspicious of statements like those, particularly when they’re plastered to the front of re-issued novels.

It wasn’t my brother’s recommendation that kept me reading, either. Much as I love him, I value the fact that our tastes in the arts are individual.

It was, in the first place, the writing I fell for. I liked the apparent simplicity.

He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the village of Booneville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University.

There is an elegance in presenting the concrete details without flamboyance. The story, this style seemed to promise, was yet to come. The first nineteen years of William’s life is covered in two pages, because it needs no more. It describes, without detail, the long hours of monotonous labour that are small-farm-life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only then do we move in closer to the characters.

His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away.

This is economy. Here is no high drama, it is a domestic scene. Look at how William takes his father’s suggestion that he should go to the new school at the University in Columbia, the College of Agriculture:

William spread his hands on the tablecloth, which gleamed dully under the lamplight. He had never been further from home than Booneville, fifteen miles away. He swallowed to steady his voice.

I was four pages into the novel, and I believed it. From that point, I stopped counting. I forgot to notice how the pages turned, or the morning passing. It’s not a long novel. I finished it by lunchtime.

To tell you more would be to spoil what is a beautifully paced and presented tale-of-a-life. If you’re looking for a new read, I’m recommending this book, though I offered it to a visitor a couple of days later, and she said, ‘Read it. I hated it.’

When I saw my brother again, I pushed him for an opinion, but he wasn’t to be shifted. ‘Odd,’ he said. ‘Not like anything else I’ve read.’ So I suppose that will have to do.

I hear there’s talk of turning it into a film. I don’t think I’ll want to watch it. Talking through a book is one thing, seeing how someone else envisions and understands it, that’s a wholly different type of spoiler.

Have you tried reading pre-historical-fiction yet?

This is a genre that fascinates me. How did our very early ancestors live? What kind of value system did they use, and how did they communicate it? Author and blogger, Jacqui Murray explores these questions, and more, in the first book of her new Crossroads trilogy, Survival of The Fittest.

At the centre of the story is Xhosa, a young tribes-woman. ‘”Females weren’t warriors”, but Xhosa has hidden skills and a driving ambition, and in a world where only those who are strong survive, that’s just as well…

Five tribes. One leader. A treacherous journey across three continents in search of a new home.

Chased by a ruthless and powerful enemy, Xhosa flees with her People, leaving behind a certain life in her African homeland to search for an unknown future. She leads her People on a grueling journey through unknown and dangerous lands but an escape path laid out years before by her father as a final desperate means to survival. She is joined by other homeless tribes–from Indonesia, China, South Africa, East Africa, and the Levant—all similarly forced by timeless events to find new lives. As they struggle to overcome treachery, lies, danger, tragedy, hidden secrets, and Nature herself, Xhosa must face the reality that this enemy doesn’t want her People’s land. He wants to destroy her.

Question about the book for Jacqui: How did Xhosa count?

Xhosa and her People also had no need for counting. This is true even today with primitive people. Many count only to two (which is the method I’ve adopted for Xhosa). Beyond that, numbers may be described as handfuls or how much room they occupy in relation to something else. Counting people was unnecessary because all Xhosa had to do was sniff, find everyone’s scent, or notice whose she couldn’t find.

Book information:

Title: Survival of the Fittest

Series: Book 1 in the Crossroads series, part of the Man vs. Nature saga

Genre: Prehistoric fiction

Cover by: Damonza 

Available at: Kindle USKindle UKKindle CAKindle AU

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for TeachHUB and NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Quest for Home, Summer 2019. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

I’d like to recommend: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.

Sadly, my title is not a new form of weather forecasting, it’s the title of a Julia Strachey novella, first published in 1932. It was republished by Persephone Books in 2009, and I admit that it was for that reason I pounced on this one when I spotted it in the charity shop. In my experience, Persephone seek out interesting literature for their re-prints.

Otherwise, I might have hesitated about that title. One thing I’m not keen on is sentimentality, and in my experience that’s what wedding plots so often are. Still, it’s a short book, only a hundred and fifteen pages with wide margins, and since I’ve learned that I don’t have to finish every story I start I’m happier to take reading-risks, so I bought it.

Which brings me to the first lesson I’ve been reminded of since reading this. Never jump to conclusions about a title until you’ve had time to think about it from several angles.

It’s tough getting titles right. Good ones create a balance between suggesting what might be included, and never quite pinning down where the plot will take you. Strachey, it turns out, created a peach of peaches with this one. The more I think about it, the more shades of irony I perceive.

Take that adjective, cheerful. Isn’t it an unusual choice to go with weather? Particularly since the morning opens, we’re told on the first page, ‘grey and cold’. Oh yes, it does get sunny later, but the setting is early spring.

A kind of brassy yellow sunlight flooded all the garden. The arms of the bushes were swinging violently about in a really savage wind. the streaked ribbons from a bush of pampas-grass, immediately outside the door, streamed outwards in all directions. this bush remained squashed down as flat as a pancake to the level of the gravel terrace in a curious way, and it looked unnatural, as if a heavy, invisible person must be sitting down on top of it.

If there’s one thing I like in a story, it’s contradictions between what’s being said, and what’s shown. This is a story that is layered with misdirection. Oh, there is a wedding organised for that day. The opening paragraph gives us a little more information than a notice in the Times would have:

On March 5th Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her eldest daughter, Dolly, who was twenty-three years old, to the Hon. Owen Bigham. He was eight years older than she was, and in the Diplomatic Service.

On the surface, this is straightforward information. We are looking at the middle-classes.

Here though, is lesson number two: the wedding might be the main event, but the first character we meet is not the bride, it’s her mother. I knew, right then, that I was going to enjoy this narrator.

What this straightforward manner delivers is the between-the-lines bits that any socially aware reader of the paper would have known. Mrs Thatcham, I perceive, is a force. The Hon. Owen is a ‘catch’ and I’m immediately wondering why Dolly is marrying him.

The next paragraph reveals that ‘It had been a short engagement, as engagements are supposed to go – only a month’, and now I sense secrets. That these two do marry, I have no doubt, since the narrator is using the past tense. But something, I soon realise is to be learned between five minutes past nine, when the story starts, and ‘Dolly, on her way through the drawing-room to breakfast, ran into Millman, the middle-aged parlourmaid‘ and the actual ceremony.

What happens, and doesn’t happen, in the course of a few hours is beautifully described. Here is economical writing. It reminds me of a Katherine Mansfield story, The Garden Party. The detail is precise, and illuminating, the characterisation light, and yet devastating. This picture of middle-class respectability is not kind, though it is subtle.

In the preface, Frances Partridge says that Strachey admired Chekhov, James, Proust and Groucho Marx. Yes, I can see how that works.

I’d like to recommend, C.S. Forester.

There are authors who lie unattended on bookshelves for decades, and some deserve to. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of fiction. I started young, raiding the boxes of old novels my grandfather used to keep in his spare bedroom.

Even then, I knew most were flimsy. Now, I realise they were largely pulp fiction. They often used expected stereotypes, strong men and women who needed to be rescued, and kissed, or married. Occasionally, though, there were some gems. It was there I first read, The African Queen, by C. S. Forester.

Forester is probably better known for his Hornblower series. Horatio Hornblower, a British naval officer of the Napoleonic wars was played by Gregory Peck on the big screen, in 1951, and by Ioan Gruffud for a tv series between 1998 and 2003.

The African Queen has, so far, only been filmed once. But, it was a good one. Made in 1951, it starred Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Yes, the set looked a little suspect at times, and the dialogue was occasionally clunky, but I don’t think it was for technical details this movie was preserved in the USA National Film Registry. I think it was for the same reason I fell for the novel when I first read it, aged about fourteen: the characterisation.

On one level, the story is about Rose and Allnut’s plan to ‘strike a blow for England‘ in the heart of German controlled Africa. On another level, their battle is against nature, in terms both of environment and personality.

Rose has been blindly loyal to her older brother all of her life. She had gone with him to Africa at the age of twenty-three. She’s now thirty-three.

‘She had been his housekeeper and the most devoted of his admirers, his most faithful disciple and his most trusted helper…’

It is the death of her brother and the presence of the Germans that forces Rose out of her rut, and provides the motivation for her to become an unlikely heroine. Allnut, her companion, is just as unlikely a hero.

Allnut had played lone hands occasionally in his life, they were not to his liking. Sooner than plan or work for himself he preferred to be guided – or driven. He was not avid for responsibility. He was glad to hand over leadership to those who desired it, even to the ugly sister of a deceased despised missionary. He had arrived in Central Africa as a result of his habit of drifting, when all was said and done.

The story of their journey along the river Ulanga has no obvious glamour. Both protagonists are mid-life, and flawed. We see them in glimpses, Rose has a ‘big chin‘, ‘thick eyebrows‘ and she exists in a ‘frozen spinsterhood‘.

Yet, at the very beginning of the novel there is a hint that we should be careful how we prejudge her. Despite her respectability, and knowledge that ‘no woman of the age of fourteen and upwards ever appeared in public’ without a corset, Rose has (on account of the hot climate) reconciled her conscience and abandoned hers. She’s even considered ‘wearing no underclothing at all beneath her white drill frock.’

Allnutt is largely presented through his cockney accent. As with Rose, physical details are occasional, but telling.

In later years Rose could never picture Allnutt to herself without a cigarette – generally allowed to go out – stuck to his upper lip half-way between the centre and the left corner of his mouth. A thin straggling beard, only a few score black hairs in all, was beginning to sprout on his lean cheeks.

The two characters spend most of their time sweating, and dirty, and arguing. In that process, though, they are revealed to each other, and to us.

There is one thing bothers me. For a novel with such a powerful African setting, we meet few Africans, and those we do are stereo-typically of the period. This might be because mostly they are described either through the consciousness of one of the protagonists, or by them, and in terms of their absence. Villagers have either been conscripted by the German colonial chief, or disappeared in order to escape capture.

It is this rounding up, that has already taken place when the novel opens, that provides the spark for the rest of the story. In his book, African Settings in Contemporary American Novels, Dave Kuhne says that the river Ulanga is ‘the only important African character in the plot‘. It certainly held a more central role in my consciousness than Von Hanneken managed to.

Six degrees of separation: from Fight Club to Weaveworld.

This week I can’t resist joining the monthly Six Degrees Meme, where the challenge is to create a literary chain that starts from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club.

I liked the film so much I had to read the novel, and loved that even more. So, I expected finding my first link would be easy. It took a little more thought than I expected, but I found it in the text.

Three weeks and I hadn’t slept.  Three weeks without sleep, and everything becomes an out-of-body experience.  My doctor said, “Insomnia is just the symptom  of something larger.  Find out what’s actually wrong.  Listen to your body.”

I just wanted to sleep.  I wanted little blue Amytal Sodium capsules, 200-milligram-sized.  I wanted red-and-blue Tuinal bullet capsules, lipstick-red Seconals.

chapter 2

That list of drugs took me straight to Michael Chabon’s, Wonder Boys. In his novel another first person narrator, Professor Grady Tripp also has a close relationship with pharmaceuticals. “Looks like my old friend Mr Codeine…” the injured Tripp tells his student, James Leer, as he rifles through a friend’s luggage. They’ve just been hiding the body of the dog James has shot in the boot of Tripp’s car.

The dog belongs to the husband of the woman Tripp has been conducting a five year affair with, Sara Gaskell. She’s chancellor of the Pittsburgh college where he teaches Creative Writing.

The time frame is a mere weekend, but the roller-coaster of events are epic in scale. It is, on one level, a reworking of Homer’s, The Odyssey, so this is my third link.

Homer’s epic could take me in a variety of interesting directions. I choose Penelope, wife to Odysseus. One of the strategies she uses to fend off the unwanted suitors who claim Odysseus must be dead, is weaving.

Who else for my fifth link, then, but Silas Marner, George Eliot’s ‘weaver of Raveloe’. The story opening takes us back to a time, when hand-loom weavers lived in villages:


‘… – there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.’

Chapter 1

It is this suggestion of ‘otherness’ that leads me to my sixth link, Weaveworld, by Clive Barker. In his novel, a magical race known as the Seerkind have woven a secret world, called ‘the Fugue’, into a carpet.

Maybe I’ve always been fascinated by rugs. All I know is that after reading this novel, I became certain there was something waiting to be seen.

The naive narrator.

I picked up Kit de Waal’s Six Foot Six while I was waiting to pick up Ray, because I’d given him a lift to work and although it was time to go home, he was still talking to students. There were no magazines in the lobby, not even tatty ones. But amongst the donated books by the coffee table was a slim paperback from The Reading Agency.

I’d heard about this project to encourage new readers. Penguin commission well-known writers from a variety of genres to produce short texts. My literary head whispered, novella, but I knew publishers don’t like to use that term, so I shushed it.

Inside, the font size was larger than I usually buy. I liked the look of it. There was no knowing how long I’d be waiting, and by skim-reading I might finish it. If not, a few pages would give me a flavour of Kit de Waal, who I’d not read before, and an idea about how Quick Reads work.

I told myself it was professional interest. I like to believe I’m efficient, and put my time to good use. Much better to claim professional curiosity than admit I’m forever losing myself in imaginary worlds.

Besides, I wasn’t intrigued by the cover. The blurb said a young adult would get involved with a desperate builder, and have to ‘collect money from thugs‘ which didn’t sound promising. It was not something I expected to invested emotion or imagination with.

I liked the opening paragraph though, which ticked four of the orientation boxes for creative writers: who, where, when and why – while raising all sorts of sub-questions at the same time.

Timothy Flowers stands at the corner of Gas Street and Yew Tree Lane. It’s the third of November and it’s Friday and it’s fifteen minutes past eleven o’clock in the morning. In a few minutes, Timothy will see the number forty-five bus. It will be the new Enviro 400 City Bus with the back-to-front design. It’s electric. You can get the internet on the new Enviro 400.

The precision of this information, and the detail about the bus was intriguing. Although it’s third person narration, by the end of the paragraph I knew it was focused through Timothy’s consciousness, and that he thought in short, simple sentences.

The second paragraph confirmed that syntax: ‘Timothy has seen the new bus before. Once.’ Using third person narration allowed de Waal to control the content, and include some background information. It was, we are told, Timothy’s twenty-first birthday, and he was as excited by that as about seeing ‘the new Enviro 400 City Bus‘ go past.

This repetition of the bus type could, I first supposed, mean Timothy was the road equivalent of a train-spotter. Then I thought not.

I realised I’ve seen him on the corner of a road I take to work, watching the traffic pass. It’s a busy road, and I’ve wondered about him, and worried about his vulnerability.

When Timothy was accosted, at the bottom of the first page, with an, ‘Oi, mate!‘ I worried for him, too. Timothy’s mum, the narrator told me, ‘…says that sometimes, when his brain hasn’t had enough rest, Timothy gets confused, so she makes sure he goes to bed by nine o’clock.’

A man in the basement of a derelict house across the road kept calling to Timothy, who knew he should ‘never ever talk to strangers.‘ I worried. The man kept intruding. ‘As well as shouting, the man is pointing at Timothy and waving. ‘Yes, you!’ he says. ‘You! The Longfella! Here, down here.

When Ray came out of the office Timothy had crossed the road to talk to the man, and I couldn’t leave them like that. I bought the book.

Naive narration is a tricky voice to maintain. It’s easy to unintentionally slip in explanations, or anomalous vocabulary.

There is a deceptive simplicity about this short novel/long story. The events of Timothy’s birthday are logical and straightforward: each triggers the next.

However, because Timothy’s understanding is limited to what, where and when, it was me who supplied the how and why aspects of the situations, and all to often, I later had to admit, I miss-judged them. This was one of those reading experiences where not only had the protagonist experienced a change through the course of the story, by the time I turned over the last page, I too had learned something new and important about Timothy’s world.