Natash Pulley Double Bill Review: The Bedlam Stacks & The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

It’s easy to think that nobody could really arrange the world like clockwork. All sorts of things would get stuck in the mechanisms … But clairvoyants have a knack for arranging time, and it was not without a sense of irony that Keita Mori was a watchmaker.
In his workshop, it was difficult to see what he was making until it was done. A sort of organised chaos characterised the way he worked, so much so that he could be constructing something for months or years and it would it only look like a tangle of something generically worrying – right up until it got up, walked off, and turned out to be an octopus.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, “Prologue”, Natashy Pulley, pIX

I have read Natasha Pulley’s full catalogue of published novels to date – 3 in total: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. I loved every single one and whatever comes along next, you can bet I won’t be waiting for the paperback. Hardbacks ahoy.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, with The Bedlam Stacks being an expansion of the same world with cameos from Keita Mori – the eponymous watchmaker. And the world is intoxicating. When I read The Watchmaker, I would have called it magical realism, but The Lost Future and The Bedlam Stacks have leant more deeply into fantasy and sci-fi. The Watchmaker alluded to magic while the storyline was still very firmly rooted in the human experience. But in these two subsequent novels, the storyline is far more affected by the magic and its mechanics that I would change my classification. My old bookseller pal will be pleased – he insists that fiction steals all the good stuff due to intellectual snobbery… but I digress.

You can read my full review of Watchmaker here.

Let us first turn more specific attention to The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. We return to the tale of Keita Mori, watchmaker, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman, and Nathaniel Steepleton, telegraphist, pianist, translator and Londoner. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow takes Mori back to his roots – Tokyo. Thaniel gains a position at the legation as a translator and so their new adventure begins.

Returning home isn’t an easy experience for Mori, as politics of family and government rake up the past and obscure the future.

Natasha Pulley does a fantastic job of creating mystery and intrigue throughout this novel. Unlike her key character, you cannot predict what’s going to happen and in spite of all you know about Mori, you are guaranteed nothing.

New characters bring new dimensions – unknowns are a must for any sequel, but even more so when clairvoyants are part of the mix. Recurring characters are used sparingly but effectively – their familiarity to the readers being undercut by their function in this story, primarily as providers of instability and narrative upset.

As the story progressed, I was pleasurably distressed by the events. I had fear and hope jostling against this magical world’s complex mechanics.

The only thing that falls down is the science. I recall this was the same in The Watchmaker. When Pulley’s characters start going into detail about how and why this world is the way it is, it fails to elucidate the reader effectively. However, I don’t hold this against the reading experience; it is notoriously difficult to explain physics with verbage.

As with The Watchmaker, the story is carried by enigmatic characters and challenging relationships.

Superhuman, preternatural Mori might be, but he is not immune to fallability – is perhaps the most fallible. He might be able to organise the machinations of governments; but try as he might, he cannot overcome his personal fears and shames. Is it brave to live in a world where you know exactly what’s going to happen? Or to live in a world where even the smallest possibility of disaster plagues your every waking moment? Exactly what characterises Mori’s insecurities or his feats is never revealed to the readers. Pulley allows us to see through the eyes of his companions, his lovers, but not Mori’s own. And there is nothing favourable about the perspective of a lover – who else is more likely to fret and fray, to find fault and worry at all the possibilities. Is he evil? Does he love me? Can he love anyone? Is he invincible? These are the questions we are asked to consider.

He’d always thought that Mori was brave because he always knew what was going to happen, but that turned out to be a serious misjudgement of character.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, Natasha Pulley, p458

The Bedlam Stacks is a separate narrative, but if you read them in order of publication, the overall timeline is consistent and there are lovely nuggets and easter eggs for the keen observer to discover and smile conspiratorially.

The Bedlam Stacks takes us to Peru, where smuggler and horticultural expert Merrick Tremayne is sent by the East India Co. to find Cinchona trees. These trees are the only source of quinine – a vital component for malaria treatment.  But Peru is guarding its resources, so smuggling is the only route out.

When Tremayne arrives, the settlement he stays in during the expedition becomes far more interesting than quinine. The native religion, the way of life in this place so removed from western civilization, called uncivilised by western travellers, is nothing but. This is an ancient and reverential place; living simply does not mean being unsophisticated. Call it folklore, magic or religion – the history here is undeniable.  But put history up against the frantic appetite for “new” and “more” that characterises the EIC and the sprawling destruction and appropriation of the British Empire, and folklore will struggle to stand its ground.

The wooden statues that guard this place are emblems of a timeless culture and a civilisation that began hundreds of years before our own. But these guardians are far more than that. The way of life in the region – as with the country – is being eroded by the west. And the people of the Bedlam Stacks are the bridge between the old and the new. They live in contradiction, the result of generations before being forced to leave behind tradition. But while habits are easily broken and forgotten, the induction of thought and emotion engendered by the generations before is not so easily taken away.

It’s a miracle, actually; sickly prematurely ageing worrying inbred horsey idiots have managed to convince everyone else their way is best by no means than firmness of manner and the tactical distribution of flags. I can’t believe no one’s called our bluff yet.

The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley, p300

In The Bedlam Stacks, folklore fights back.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that immense good humour that froths on every page Pulley writes. Her characters are brimming with it and I cannot but hope for them, live for them, turn hundreds of pages for them.

Review: “The Tobacconist” by Robert Seethaler

The Tobacconist

By Robert Seethaler

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The Tobacconist is Robert Seethaler’s new release, following his Man Booker Shortlisted novel, A Whole Life (2016) (click here for my review of A Whole Life). I adored A Whole Life and was very eager to get going with Seethaler’s new novel when I got wind of its publication.

Vienna is on the brink of World War II. The city and its people are still recovering from the previous war, but Hitler’s influence is spreading and a restless populace is growing evermore so. Franz Huchel, a naive teenager from the salt mines, has been sent to work as an apprentice in a tobacconist’s. Franz’s employer, Otto Trysnyek, is a veteran, having lost a leg back in the war. He lives a simple and honest life and finds an unexpected ally in his dedicated apprentice. The tobacconist shop is the social equaliser: cigarettes and cigars, newspapers and pinup girls in a private drawer; everyone has their usual order, even a certain Jewish psychologist by the name of Freud.

As “Heil Hilter!” becomes a more regular greeting around the city, the lives of Otto, Franz and Freud grow ever more challenging. By the time his apprenticeship ends, Franz will be a boy no longer. He’ll learn about friendship, love and respect in a city about to be overrun by hate and fear.

“Maybe that’s it, he thought: just stop and stand here like this and never move again. Then time would drift past you, you wouldn’t have to swim with it or struggle against it.”

Now, I’ll be honest, it’s nowhere near as good as A Whole Life. But then I have put that book on something of a pedestal, so I had a lot of expectations going in. Seethaler’s stoic yet emotive description that so captured me before makes sporadic appearances but not nearly enough, in The Tobacconist. However, the characterisation and the plot development are more reminiscent of the writing I remember. Seethaler’s success is in taking everyday people with extraordinary struggles and infusing them with quiet strength. It is the noble example his characters set that I hope will continue to make his novels worth seeking out.

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review for A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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Review: “The Child that Books Built” by Francis Spufford

The Child That Books Built

By Francis Spufford

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Possibly even the best. Spufford’s masterful storytelling and delicious, effusive creations captured my imagination in every possible way. Sensuous experience, corporeal characters, and a plot that transports and invigorates its reader; Golden Hill is the kind of book that forces any reviewer into excessively compounded, erudite sentences. This book is awesome.

I’m not even reviewing Golden Hill  and I have fallen into raptures (click here for my review). But to segue, the reason I am now reviewing The Child That Books Built is because of Golden Hill. I couldn’t get enough of Spufford’s voice. I read GH and immediately went in search of more.

To my dismay, Spufford has yet to publish any more fiction. The title I settled upon, therefore, is a biography. I am not, generally speaking, a non-fiction reader and have never read a biography cover-to-cover before. Needless to say my Spufford infatuation has changed that.

This book is precisely what it says on the tin – The Child That Books Built is about how books were his friends and teachers as he grew up. Interspersed with light psychology (which I am partial to), some frank confessions and plenty of books, all in fabulous Spufford style. Entire passages deserve to be read aloud and I did just that. My colleague was much bemused to find me sat alone on the work sofa reading to myself.

“We can remember readings that acted like transformations. There were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed. Suddenly a thousand crystals of perception of our own formed, the original insight of the story ordering whole arrays of discoveries inside us, into winking accuracy.”

The title of this book, unlike many books, sums up the content admirably. Titles often outright ignore their purpose of being informative, something Spufford discovered to his frustration as he got older:

“If a children’s book was called The Blue Hawk, it would have a hawk that was blue in it … Perfectly straightforward. Adult authors, on the other hand, seemed to be constitutionally incapable of giving a book a truthful name. … The Centaur did not contain a centaur: it turned out to be just some bloody metaphor.”

Spufford’s voice perfectly combines observational humour and gently fluttering revelations, making his experience universally empathetic for book lovers. He recounts and relives his experiences of literature as a child, re-reading his favourites as he writes the book. His enthusiasm is contagious and one could not be blamed for seeking out all the books he rhapsodises throughout – from the magic of Narnia and The Hobbit, to action packed James Bond, to the eloquent sci-fi of Ursula Le Guin, to metafictional Herman Hesse, a lifetime of books. A love story, an addiction that persists and experiences that fuse with one’s very being.

 “It is the directions [books] can point us in that we value – and then the way those interact deep down in our reading minds with the directions our own temperaments are tentatively taking.”

“When a fiction does trip a profound recognition … the reward is more than an inert item of knowledge. The book becomes part of the history of our self-understanding. The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own.”

This adult was built by books and I hope I am too.

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

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“Nod” by Adrian Barnes – Book Review

Nod

Adrian Barnes

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“Nod” is a dystopian sci-fi set in Vancouver, Canada.

One morning, Paul wakes from a beautiful dream to learn that no one else slept the night before. And this happened everywhere, all around the world. Apart from a few individuals, no one sleeps from that day on.

Biology continues in every other way and the countdown is on for when the human race can no longer survice without sleep. Paul however, who still sleeps, must be a sober witness to his world going mad. His wife is losing her mind and everything he once held dear is disintergrating. People begin to turn on each other and factions start appearing. New religions and new theories are emerging; the world is a new and terrifying place. Chaos reigns.

But what of people like Paul, who still sleep and dream? And then there are the children who dream and sleep. They have stopped talking and isolated themselves from the chaos. They smile and play and seem to have a world of their own. What will be their future?

Barnes raises many questions in this novel, and with his protagonist being a writer, he is well placed for some existential indulgence. There are some obscure literary references – not quite enough to alienate this particular reader though I suspect others might find it jarring.

“During my time in Nod, I came to believe that if something can be imagined it must be possible. Want proof? We imagined space flight, then it happened for real. We imagined holograms and they happened too… So is a Rice Christian or a Blemmye or a burning ice cube or a green sun or a widowed scarecrow just some meaningless assemblage of sounds and letters? Or, in some way, are they all real? Wow, I’m really babbling here in Babylon, holed up in my tower of words.”

Overall, I found this novel to be a bit disappointing. There is a lot of potential in the ideas expressed but instead of resolving these issues, they are left completely open ended. I’m all for literature making one think more deeply about the world and our fellow humans and I’m not asking for all the answers to be handed to me. But I feel the novel would have benefited from a little more direction if it is to be regarded as a successful story and not just an exploration of ideas.

Review: “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall

The Well of Loneliness

By Radclyffe Hall

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“The Well of Loneliness” is not to be read lightly, for its title does not exaggerate. It is tragic and powerful; it shudders with empathy and spiritual resilience.

First published in 1928, it tells the tale of Miss Stephen Gordon: a woman who identifies as a man, who loves other women and must suffer the condemnation of all for her “abnormality”. Incredibly ahead of its time, as far as public opinion was concerned, it was the subject of an obscenity trial at the time of publication. It was published in the same year as D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”. Hall was part of an oncoming wave that rose in the years that followed World War I. It was a wave that saw taboos transforming from absolutes into debatable ideas, and – even more importantly – it was a wave that streamed into the public forum. Ideologies, and the courage of those who lived them, were coming to bear against received wisdom.

“As though gaining courage from the terror that is war, many a one who was even as Stephen, had crept out of her hole and come into the daylight, come into the daylight and faced her country: ‘Well, here I am, will you take me or leave me?’”

The scope and breadth of this highly empathetic and emotional work is without compare. It crosses a number of social boundaries. It begins in the well-to-do grounds of Morton, the home of Stephen’s father, Sir Philip Gordon. We then travel with Stephen to the front lines of the First World War, where she becomes an ambulance driver. Then, the war over, back to Paris, where Stephen mixes with the greats and the groundlings of society’s so-called “inverts”. Having made a name for herself as an author, she is privy to a very exclusive circle. Stephen meets many prominent men and women of cultured society, including writers, poets and artists whose characters often have real life counterparts. From a young child to a middle aged woman, Stephen’s life is a landscape and a broad reel of life, love and loss.

Stephen’s life has many ups and downs, but it cannot be denied that tragedy has the final word. Radclyffe Hall – christened Marguerite – is quite clearly writing from personal experience and Stephen Gordon is modelled on herself. Existential turmoil and fear of and anger against public opinion battle vehemently with pride and courage.

“She would clench her hands in a kind of fury. How long was this persecution to continue? How long would God sit still and endure this insult offered to His creation? How long tolerate the preposterous statement that inversion was not part of nature? For since it existed what else could it be? All things that existed were a part of nature?”

Courage does not win very much in this novel; it is a thoroughly depressing read. But it is so wholly courageous and forward thinking when hope does make its sporadic appearances.

“We’re all part of nature. Some day the world will recognize this, but meanwhile there’s plenty of work that’s waiting. For the sake of all the others who are like you but less strong and less gifted perhaps, many of them, it’s up to you to have the courage to make good.”

The most readable sections of the novel are those set in the grounds of Morton with the young Stephen. Pastoral descriptions are full of English pride and a liberating sense of natural freedom. Stephen is at her most free when she gallops across green hills and fields with her faithful horse Raftery.

“The gardens lay placidly under the snow, in no way perturbed or disconcerted. Only one inmate of theirs felt anxious, and that was the ancient and wide-boughed cedar, for the weight of the snow made an ache in its branches … But it could not cry out or shake off its torment.”

These early episodes make wholesome use of natural metaphors that are infinitely more successful than the later episodes contained within inner-city Paris. The gay bars that Stephen and her partner Mary frequent later in the novel are dirty and degrading and Stephen is appalled that she must be forced to mix with the people for whom life has “at last stamped under; who, despised of the world, must despise themselves beyond all hope, it seemed, of salvation.” They are described as “haunted”, “tawdry” and “shabby” and it is sections like these that betray a hint of classist bias.

Maureen Duffy, in her introduction to the novel, expresses it thus: “The Well certainly has its shortcomings both as a work of literature and as an apologia for a homosexual way of life and love; nevertheless, for decades these have been outweighed for many readers by the novel’s mere existence in telling them that they were not alone, and by the courage of its author in both writing and defending it.”

“I am one of those who God marked on the forehead. Like Cain, I am marked and blemished. If you come to me, Mary, the world will abhor you, will persecute you, will call you unclean. Our love may be faithful even unto death and beyond – yet the world will call it unclean. We may harm no living creature by our love, we may grow more perfect in understanding and in charity because of our loving, but all this will not save you from the scourge of a world that will turn away its eyes from your noblest actions, finding only corruption and vileness in you. … And when you come to me for protection, I shall say: ‘I cannot protect you, Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless, I can only love you.’”

“Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford – Review

Golden Hill

By Francis Spufford

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Woe-betide anyone who dared in to interrupt me mid-chapter! A glittering gem of a book, this historical New York adventure satisfies every requirement for a fantastic novel. Language that glitters and glides across every page. Delightful use of old English gave this historical novel authenticity and a sense of old-world grandeur. Combine that with a festival of characters, delicious and imaginative description and the perfect amount of mystery. Francis Spufford’s “Golden Hill” is encrusted, gilded, sheathed with magic. Pleasure beyond measure.

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye.”

Twists and turns through every chapter kept this reader well and truly glued to the page and though I am generally a slow reader, I steamed through this book within a couple of days. It’s a testament to any book when its reader cannot have a spare moment that isn’t filled with hastily consuming another chapter – or three.

The more I like a book, the shorter the review is. Let this suffice.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce – Review

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

By Rachel Joyce

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Harold Fry is now an old man. He’s lead an unremarkable life and never really committed to anything. He lives with his wife Maureen. They drifted apart a long time ago. Their son left a long time ago. And a long time ago, a simple, kind woman named Queenie Hennessy did Harold a big favour that he never thanked her for. One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie. She’s dying from cancer. Harold writes a letter, walks down the road to the letterbox and keeps walking. He will walk to Queenie Hennessy. From his home in Kingsbridge on the south coast to Queenie’s bedside in Berwick-on-Tweed on the Scottish border. 500 miles, he would walk; he would say thank you, he would save Queenie’s life. He believed in something for the first time in a very long time and gave others something to believe in too. As Harold walked, and as Maureen and Queenie waited, each would share in his pilgrimage and find comfort, courage and relief.

Rachel Joyce’s book is utterly moving, but equally full of joy, charm and humour. When Harold starts walking, he is an introverted, lonely, apathetic man. But the more he walks, the more he opens himself to the world around him. From the simple joy of walking through green fields, to his belief in the kindness of strangers, Harold finds so much to be thankful for.

“He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”

After he unwittingly shares his story with a journalist, Harold’s pilgrimage becomes national news. Other everyday people, with their own everyday problems are inspired by Harold and go in search of him, believing that they too might find some relief, if only they can achieve something.

“They believed in him. They had looked at him in his yachting shoes, and listened to what he said, and they had made a decision in their hearts and minds to ignore the evidence and imagine something bigger and something infinitely more beautiful than the obvious.”

“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (Or “The New Hamlet”)

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Nutshell

Ian McEwan

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What a refreshing change from his usual bittersweet format; Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” is like no book I’ve ever read. Told entirely from the perspective of an unborn baby, the intellectual life of this foetus is a fascinating retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The bliss and boredom of existing afforded to the unborn promotes the excess of existential thought exhibited by the eponymous Hamlet, who battles vehemently with the notions of life, love and death.

There are moments of fantastic introspective clarity as well as hilarious observation throughout the book, as he makes use of what he hears and feels of the outside world. His observations and sensations are filtered through his mother – her hormonal/emotional/digestive responses are also his. Don’t think that means he has no emotions or opinions of his own, being in fact very frustrated by having to share in everything she feels and eats. But, he has excellent hearing of his own – a known fact of unborn children – and so his commentary and accounts of conversations can be taken as reliable.

He has some very sophisticated tastes for a foetus, not least his penchant for a good vintage – thanks to sharing his mother’s food and drink – and his appreciation for poetry and literary criticism – thanks to having a poet for a father and late night podcasts that his mother listens to when she can’t sleep. The sophistication of this foetus is fantastically absurd. “Milk, repellent to the blood-fed unborn, especially after wine, but my future all the same.” Small talk “is an adult device, a covenant with boredom and conceit.” “God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually.” These statements contain a wonderful meshing of childish bluntness with old-age boredom. Things children say because they don’t know they shouldn’t. Things old people say because they no longer care. One thinks of another famous Shakespeare quote – “second childishness”.

Of all the Shakespeare adaptations that exist – books, films, plays, TV – this is one of the most successful I have come across. It rather puts “The Wyrd Sisters” (aka “Macbeth”) by Terry Pratchett to shame, a book I read alongside “Nutshell”. Hamlet is one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters and rightly so. His soliloquys are the most infamous, powerful and elegant. It is particularly this feature of the play that McEwan has fabulously reworked in “Nutshell”. The passages I enjoyed most were exactly what you expect from Hamlet’s monologues: powerful exaltations and lamentations on human nature; the wonder that it is to think and be. Consciousness in overdrive. Besides their evident connection with Shakespeare, these passages are also incredibly modern and relevant with regards to politics, science and social analysis.

“Elsewhere, everywhere, novel inequalities of wealth, the super rich a master race apart. Ingenuity deployed by states for new forms of brilliant weaponry, by global corporations to dodge taxes, by righteous banks to stuff themselves with Christmas millions. China, too big to need friends or counsel, cynically probing its neighbours’ shores, building islands of tropical sand, planning for the war it knows must come. Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism, by sexual sickness, by smothered invention. The Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war. And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with ever new handgun. Africa, yet to learn democracy’s party trick – the peaceful transfer of power.”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a highly cerebral soul and that is his fatal flaw. Hamlet fails to be active or effective in the real world and this is precisely what escalates the tragedy in the play. Hamlet thinks and fails to act. Others complain he is too melancholy, too lost in his thoughts. What McEwan has done, by making Hamlet a foetus, is remove the blame that was laid at Hamlet’s feet. A foetus cannot be blamed for its inability to act. Where Hamlet’s is a cage of the mind, the baby is physically caged within his mother’s womb. By replacing a mental cage with a physical one, McEwan also gives us a powerful metaphor for depression, anxiety and even psychosis.

“What’s an imagination for but to play out and linger on and repeat the bloody possibilities? Revenge may be exacted a hundred times over in one sleepless night. The impulse, the dreaming intention, is human, normal, and we should forgive ourselves.”

Equally though, McEwan is crediting the relevance, the potential of a soully conceptual existence. For the foetus, to think is its only activity, aside from giving mum the odd kick, and as such, thinking is the only way it knows how to be. It may observe, speculate, look forward to existence beyond the womb, but at least for now, this warm, moist sac is his world, his universe.

“Just think: nothing to do but be and grow, where growing is hardly a conscious act. The joy of pure existence, the tedium of undifferentiated days. Extended bliss is boredom of the existential kind.”

Throughout the book, the baby is a witness, incapable of taking action, but that does not detract from its contribution to the plot. McEwan gives us an entirely inactive character as our narrator, but does that mean the story does not progress? That the child’s existence has not played its part in the story, or at least, in the telling of it? No.

McEwan has reinvigorated “Hamlet” and reminded us of the value of Hamlets in literature and art in general. “Hamlet” and “Nutshell” are artistic masterpieces because they deal with ideas. We feed off ideas, we exist because of ideas. We think, therefore we are.

Book Review: “The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald

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A short and utterly compelling novel that I read within the space of a few hours. I simply could not sleep until I reached the final page… and then wrote a review.

Florence Green has a simple desire to open a bookshop in her quiet Suffolk town of Harborough. There’s an old, damp, unwanted building, stood empty for years and Florence has the idea to repurpose it as The Old House Bookshop. The old farts and local council botherers don’t like change and decide to kick up a fuss.

Mrs Green is an astonishing woman. Not in any sensational sense of fame or great feats of strength or ability. Hers is a quiet courage, juxtaposed with moments of delightful bluntness that the majority of her peers find intolerably rude. “Her courage, after all, was only a determination to survive.”

Half-baked officials for the Something-Or-Other Committee periodically appear out of the damp woodwork, as the self-important Mrs Gamart engages in ruthless tactics, determined to see the shop fail. Mrs Gamart, a petty woman and chair of various local committees, “always acted in the way she felt to be right. She did not know that morality is seldom a safe guide for human conduct.”

Some of my favourite moments in the book are the correspondence Florence is obliged to enter into it with the various officials that pop up. Letters filled with verbal parrying and barely concealed contempt are quintessentially British and delightful to read. When Florence’s decision to market a certain “unduly sensational novel” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov – gets a surprising amount of local attention, a certain prominent member of society sees fit to seek legal representation:

December 4 1959
Dear Mrs Green,
               I am in receipt of a letter from John Drury & Co, representing their client Mrs Violet Gamart of The Stead, to the effect that your current window display is attracting so much undesirable attention from potential and actual customers that it is providing a temporary obstruction … and that she, as a Justice of the Peace and Chairwoman of numerous committees (list enclosed herewith) has to carry out her shopping expeditiously.

 After much back and forth, Florence exhausts the pretence of polite correspondence and brings it to a close rather succinctly:

December 11 1959
Dear Mr Thornton,
Coward!
Yours sincerely,
Florence Green.

The descriptions of small town society and their petty commander-in-chief made me laugh out loud. While scenes shared with her ten-year-old assistant, Christine, and aging neighbour, Mr Brundish, are peaceable moments that deflate the barriers of age and status. The misanthropic Mr Brundish and the terse ten-year-old are her closest companions and biggest supporters of her bookshop. Neither of them are great talkers and Florence is fine with that. Moments of silence are used to great effect throughout the novel, demonstrating the ease with which mutual understanding can be found between kindred spirits without need for words.

Florence is quietest when among friends, while she is at her most effluent, ready with a quip, when confronted with her opposers, her letters being great examples of this. The silence also allows for the presence of the mysterious ghost that resides in the Old House, referred to as “the rapper”, as well as the absence of her husband, whose death is only briefly alluded to. Altogether creating a sense of lonliness to the novel, but it is not a self-indulgent or overwhelming. The silence, the lonliness, is an accepted part of her existence, and becomes a thing to be shared with her chosen companions.

“Lonliness was speaking to lonliness.”

The most touching stories are the ones that don’t try to be so. A Whole Life, The Book Thief, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. These titles are treasures because of their quality of being uncomplicated and reserved; their pages gently exude warmth and compassion with honest emotion, eschewing the kind of melodrama and tragedy that some authors pump into their chapters, determined that we should burst from the pressure of it all. No, the stories that stay in my heart, in my stomach, are the ones that creep up on me with their unassuming tones and humble offerings. To this list of pearls within oysters, I now add “The Bookshop”.

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such must be a necessary commodity.”

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