Heloise – book review

Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Here it is!  Hot off the press, the Christmas book for your intelligent friends, the perfect answer to the question – read anything good recently?

In Heloise, Mandy Hager retells the ancient, true story of Heloise & Abelard,  a love affair between two brilliant, medieval French scholars.

Heloise of Argenteuil is my kind of heroine: she’s a thinker, smart and ambitious, she knows what she wants (education) and is argumentative and forthright.  But because she was born around 1100 she has a totally different frame of reference to a modern heroine and she understands the world through a filter of medieval religion. Everything starts with an understanding of God. That axiom makes her humble, deeply compassionate, with a strong morality. I can’t help thinking that if Heloise had been born this century she would have set the whole world ablaze.  She is a heroine to applaud.

The story opens with Heloise, aged 5, shackled in a pig sty.  She is rescued by her Uncle Fulbert who takes her to a nunnery and eventually to live with him in Paris. Her legend grows as she hunts scholars and philosophers to feed her mind, and eventually hones in on the academic genius of the day – Peter Abelard.

I found lots to interest me in this book. The love story is fabulously confusing, twisted, ultimately unfulfilling and terribly disappointing. What a prick (just saying). But the book’s setting is equally beguiling with cloisters, nunneries, ancient universities and wonderful descriptions of Île de la Cite in Paris, where “the houses are planted as tight as podded seeds.”  Underneath it all is a strong academic backbone – education in the middle ages meant debate and argument, you proved things were true by philosophical logic as much as science.  Educated people of the day had a quote for everything – I know so few people now who remember quotes, and no one who has the mots justes to illuminate a point in debate as beautifully as do Heloise and Abelard.

The background history is a powerful tide that carries the story along. The whole of France is in a state of religious upheaval as the State and Church grab power, redistribute wealth and rearrange laws to keep control of the masses. It all sounds a rather familiar tune, playing down the centuries. If your interest is in history the detail here will add real zing.

Mostly, I loved the complexity of the characters and how they were immersed their times. In an age of sanctioned domestic violence, the kindly Uncle Fulbert recommends Abelard beat Heloise if she doesn’t perform her studies correctly. Fulbert gets old and bitter and resentful of his young charge, betrayed, he also beats her senseless and yet she continues to love him in a complicated way. From Fulbert’s ambitious friend Stephen de Garlande I expected betrayal but he remained surprisingly steadfast to Heloise, a better man than expected. 

And so, I come to Peter Abelard, the great theologian and scholar, the rock star of the Cathedral school of Notre-Dame, the lover of Heloise. Even now I don’t know how I feel about him. Part of me wants to boo, but like Heloise I found his brilliance extraordinarily attractive.  He is impulsive and calculating. He saves and deserts. He is a loving rapist. On balance, I think he was a totally nasty piece of work, a man with huge natural arrogance that is exacerbated by his sycophantic followers.  Or perhaps he is driven to madness, and deserves sympathy and understanding? Mandy Hager leaves us to decide.  I think I will leave it to Heloise.

The Sellout – book review

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.”

Hackles up, right? But this book won the Booker Prize, so remember that opening line. It will be handy at Quiz Night.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout continues in this sarcastic, racist vein, blitzing through page after page of flippant, un-PC banter to the last chapter, which is appropriately titled “Unmitigated Blackness”. That pretty much sums up the book. Personally I believe with every generation we are moving towards a “post-racist” world – obviously way too slowly for Beatty and I accept that anger, but will this diatribe help?

If you’re a sensitive PC whitey, prepare for an uncomfortable read.

Here’s my caveat though: I read the The Sellout because the writing is brilliant.  I squirmed for about 30 pages. Then, like five minutes into a Shakespearean play,  I clicked, and began to enjoy the wit behind the colloquialisms and pop-culture language. Although I never laughed out loud (you probably need to be American for that) I was amused by the stand-up comedy style gags.  Bear with it – if you’re struggling to make it past the prologue, soothe your hackles, go with the super-quick flow, allow yourself to laugh.

I found myself rooting for the narrator, a damaged (his father hog-ties him to teach him disadvantage), intellectual farmer who reinstates slavery and segregates his town. Why? He finds people are better behaved. It brings a sense of community. He thinks it’s worth a try. He’s a good man, I felt for his tribulations.

The supporting characters are sharp and larger than life: his father a maniac sociologist with a  “doo-wop base deep” voice who terrifies his son in intellectual debate and uses him as a subject in his social experiments – if he publicly thrashes the boy, will anyone come to his aid?  (Um, no. Turns out the bystander effect has a twist in the black community, they join in the thrashing).  But his father is also a “nigger whisperer” – just as it sounds, he coxes people back from the edge.

Fading TV personality Foy Cheshire,  (“Foy was no tree of knowledge, at most he was a bush of opinion,”)  rewrites classics: Huckleberry Finn is rearranged with the word “nigger” changed to “warrior” and “slave” to “dark skinned volunteer.”  Which got me thinking I might have enjoyed The Sellout more if “nigger” was replaced by “black,” throughout, but there I go again, missing the point.

There is an aged actor, Hominy, who volunteers for slavery,  a group of black intellectuals who meet at Dum Dum Donuts, the one-true-love bus driver Marpessa who is married to a gangsta rapper. All fully formed and sprouting their racist opinions on each page.

The story line is just a platform for the characters and the gags: the town name of Dickens is removed from the map and our narrator gets it reinstated; he goes to the High Court for slave owning. And through it all the characters weave and swear and get themselves in and out of ludicrous situations.

Towards the end Paul Beatty explains the reason why I found this book is so difficult to read.  A black comedian at Dum Dum Donuts berates a white couple for laughing at his jokes: “What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at?”   And: “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

Beatty has written a brilliant book, but racially segregated to such an extent that I’m afraid I  have to agree with the comedian. This shit ain’t for me.

 

The Necessary Angel – book review

The Necessary Angel, by C K Stead

I’m always a bit suspicious about an older bloke inventing a protagonist with three delicious women on his plate.  So I read C K Stead’s The Necessary Angel  as a wistful story with more than a touch of fantasy.

As an exploration of relationships I did find I had to suspend belief. Are women (especially young, attractive and bright women) really so susceptible to a middle-aged married man’s charms?

Even Max’s high achieving wife, who disdainfully ejects him from the family home and children, seems unrealistically warm and understanding as she sets him up downstairs in a shag pad. You don’t get the feeling that they are so particularly estranged that he would immediately start exploring other women, it is hardly a way to win back the affection of his wife and continue a relationship of mutual respect with his children. Perhaps a holiday might have been a better way to re-charge the marriage rather than bringing a couple of hot young colleagues home to bed.

But this is Paris and the additional love-interest women are both embroiled in other relationships anyway. So, all good, then.

Paris is gorgeous to walk around with C K Stead. He has the poet’s ability to give an intense feeling of place in so few words. I did find myself re-reading some lovely phrases over again and out loud. It feels real. Narrow streets, leafy squares, roadside eating and the November wind. The incidental characters, too, are perfect: the concierge, the beggars, Skipper the dog.  The lead character doesn’t need to be a New Zealander – a Brit would serve just as well, and Max, who lecturers at the Nouvelle Sorbonne on war poetry, feels more European than any kiwi I know. But I still have enough of a chip on my shoulder to get a bit of a buzz when a kiwi (albeit a fictional one) has a prestigious starring role.

By any other author I would suggest the academic citations are slightly pretentious. Of course this is a story about literary academics and C K Stead has every right to name drop Flaubert, Amis, Lessing, Naipaul, Mansfield, Houellebecq, Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemmingway, Edward Thomas, Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Claude Simon, Wallace Stevens, Gurdjeff, Robbe-Grillet … come on! Keep up!  Perhaps it was the characters intimidating me rather than the author (in which case, great writing!),  but I did rather felt Stead glaring at me every time I was obliged to hit google.

There’s a sub-plot, the mystery of who stole the (so-called) Cezanne. The painting itself has a strange provenance which makes interesting reading, but we know who stole it.  The sadness and wantonness of the result of this event I thought rather wasted as  a finale. Holy shit! That’s not an ending, there will obviously be a discovery and a reckoning and what happens then, to Max and the easy truce with his forgiving wife?  This sub-plot would have made a cracking main story.

Je Suis Charlie! is a sudden loud note against the background noise of political unrest, migration and terrorism – a rise in the tension that flickers in the corner of the story like an unwatched TV.  The Necessary Angel of the title could be many things, Helen’s lithium, Helen herself, Sylvie, or tout le monde who come out onto the Paris boulevards to stand against terror.

Put your sophisticated socks on, settle down in a quiet place and do read this book. Prepare to be agitated and frustrated by the characters, challenged by the story and then suddenly and often delighted by the very elegant writing.

The Colour – book review

The Colour, by Rose Tremain

Probably my favourite New Zealand historical novel is by an English author.

Rose Tremain’s The Colour I can re-read over and over again and I have to keep buying new copies as I give mine away to guests. It’s a beautifully written, literary novel, with a strong woman at its heart – the wonderful Harriet Salt (unsaid: of the earth). She gets on with things, Harriet, and I love her for it.

Harriet emigrates from Norfolk to Christchurch in the 1860s with her asinine husband Joseph Blackstone (black heart, perhaps? He is running away from a nasty crime) and his harpy mother.

Harriet my girl, it was never going to be easy.

They build a “cob house” and attempt to farm.  Tremain’s descriptions of colonial life are so evocative and detailed she might have experienced them. Details are real and frustrating: the crumbling walls, the sickness, the snow and floods, isolation and irritation. Characters are numerous and colourful but never overblown – this is the decade of the gold rush and the South Island was indeed populated with thieves and prostitutes, prospectors and chancers, mystical Maoris and opium smokers.

There is a nice contrast with the neighbours, Dorothy and Toby Orchard (the name alone indicating these are successful colonials). The balance is important – the Orchards have the life to which Harriet and Joseph aspire, but step by step Joseph tramples on their chances of a successful future. He puts his house in the wrong place, builds from the wrong materials, doesn’t love his wife, carries sins, doesn’t prepare for weather and finally, and terminally, falls under the spell of a dusting of gold lifted from the creek. There’s not much Harriet can do. Joseph heads for the goldfields.

Harriet eventually follows and there is an intermingling of stories over the mountains and down to the west coast mines: the Orchard’s son and his dreamy Maori nurse Pare, Joseph’s many failures on the goldfields (both moral and economic) and Harriet’s chance relationship with a sympathetic Chinese gardener.

Harriet Salt is on my list of great female characters.  I like to think her pioneering spirit lives on down the generations of “get on with it” New Zealand women.

 

 

Lilac Girls – book review

Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly

Usually I shy away from war stories.

Too often, I find they are written as entertainment, like any other fiction, with enhanced heroes and baddies and a guided narrative that tells you how to think and feel, peppered with examples of man’s inhumanity to man, with lashings of mass murder, rape and torture and without any wonder that people should behave in this way at all. I don’t want to be entertained by violence.

There are exceptions, of course, but these are by extraordinary writers who handle war with great care and purpose. And the purpose should not be gratuitous entertainment, not even solely “lest we forget” (which is better served by non-fiction). It is to explain and help us come to some understanding. If an author is going to have a character do horrendous things, there must be some insight into their psychology other than the fact they were at war and everyone behaved that way. Lesser writers should leave well alone.

And so to Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, who gets two out of three characters spot on, but doesn’t begin to reveal the third.  It’s a book about Polish children subjected to horrific abuse in Nazi concentration camp, a tall order for a first novel and the kind of book I usually avoid at all costs, but given to me with strong recommendation.

The cover has three women walking companionably arm in arm. Wrong!  The three women who tell the story do not, at any time or in any sense, walk arm in arm.

  1. Caroline is a New York socialite, a rich do-gooder who, despite the silver spoon in her mouth, is a terrific heroine. She sticks her oar in every way she can from the comfort of home with relentless energy and helps the unfortunates of Europe with a clear moral purpose. I love to think that such people existed, and yes – she is based on a true character. Kelly invented a lover for her, which was unconvincing and detracted from her story.
  2. Kasia is a rabbit. A Polish child captured with her sister, friend and mother and sent to Ravensbruck where the girls are experimented on like rabbits, their legs cut open and infected with tetanus and gangrene, rubbed with dirt and broken glass to test the efficacy of sulfa drugs. This is a true crime, though Kasia is a composite character.
  3. Herta joins the story early and we rather like her, a young German medical student from an educated home who is ambiguous in her humanity, but appears liberal and ambitious. She worries about boys, her father’s health, money. She practices surgery on the meat in her uncle’s butchery and to earn her school fees she allows his weekly rape. “There was curious comfort in the sameness of it.” Really?   She progresses from working in a clinic with children who suck their thumbs to her first murder at Ravensbruck relatively quickly, because she needs the money and wants a more advanced job. Then she befriends Kaisa’s mum, but tortures Kaisa and the other “rabbits” anyway. This is beyond comprehension.

In the author’s notes, Kelly asks “How could she have done what she did and especially to other women?” I think, without any insight into this problem, Kelly should not have given this character a voice.

The doctor’s character aside, the novel does service in illuminating this episode and the fact that it is so widely read and discussed is testament to the serious research behind the novel.

Lest we forget.

 

 

Knowledge of Angels – book review

Knowledge of Angels, by Jill Paton Walsh

A story with such a title, set in medieval times on a Mediterranean island with a wolf child and written by Jill Paton Walsh – I was smitten before I started reading.

Paton Walsh writes with the beautiful clarity of the best English writers for children, with clear simple phrasing, elegantly expressed ideas and a compelling other-worldliness. You dive into her books and are submerged.

This is an adults’ book – I think I read it first in my late teens and found it quite disturbing, but have re-read it often since and find the reading a vivid experience. I recently walked on the rocky shores of just such a place as this is set and recognised the world she describes: the monastery with the orange grove and the goats on the mountains and everywhere the view of the “hazy dazzle” of the sea.

The question that underlies the story is this: if a child has no human contact – raised by wolves in this case – will she come to recognise God instinctively?

The enigmatic Palinor “falls in” from an unseen ship and swims ashore. He claims to come from an island no one knows and the local prefect tells him must register as a visiting Christian, Saracen or a Jew.  He claims to have no religion, so is locked up. “A man of no religion might do anything.”

As a heretic, he is condemned to death unless the gentle scholar Beneditx can convert him. The men read and talk and discuss proofs of God but Palinor is not convinced and  Beneditx eventually questions own beliefs.  Palinor’s last hope to escape death lies with the child rescued from wolves on the mountain.

As an experiment, Amara the wolf child is kept in strict confinement at a monastery, where she is taught to speak but there is no mention of God.

If she discovers God on her own, this is proof that everyone is born with knowledge of divinity. If she has no concept of God, this proves that religion is not innate and must be taught, and therefore a man, like Palinor, who has never been educated in God is not guilty of turning away from God, but pitiable and ripe for redemption.

An Inquisitor from Rome arrives, hell bent on burning heretics at the stake.

God certainly moves in mysterious ways.

 

Not Forgetting the Whale – book review

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger

This is my “go to” book when someone asks for a good read. It’s light and lively, a good tale, with a back story that dives deeper than the whale.

Apparently there are three, three letter words that can bring down civilisation.

War. Oil. Flu.

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger, tells the story of Joe, a young, clever analyst who uses modelling to predict the coming of the third – a flu with the destructive force of a plague, capable of disrupting the world and tipping us into apocolypse.

It’s pretty big stuff for a story set in a little town in Cornwall, with nicely recognisable characters, networks of romance and relationships, and a visiting whale (cue book club discussions on symbolism, metaphor and allegory).

In the growing disaster as the fragile connections that underpin our world collapse, the town becomes an Ark as Joe and the locals close the borders and struggle to survive.

Joe’s modelling predicts that if Oil, War or Flu should bring us down, total collapse is inevitable.  But his clever computer, which analyses economics, supply chains, political activity and journalist reporting world wide, has missed the human factor.

Give this book to the pessimists in your life.

 

The Wish Child – book review

The Wish Child – by Catherine Chidgey

If you’d asked me what I thought of Catherine Chidley’s The Wish Child as I was reading, I might have been slightly ambivalent. The writing is poetical and descriptive but I had to concentrate to hear the different voices of the characters – Eric, an adopted boy from Poland, Sieglinde from Berlin and a third, unexplained, narrator.

But ask me now I’ve put the book down and and I’ll say: here is a book that needs to be read. The story and the confusion over the shadowy narrator is a slap in the face that haunts me.

The story is set in Germany during WW2 and told through the everyday lives of Sieglinde and Eric’s families. The fact that Sieglinde’s father is employed to cut words like “love” and “truth” out of books is just one strange part of the slowly twisting background of their world. The is an horrific and violent event – and I guess brutality is a byline of every war story – but I felt this was slightly gratuitous.  It feels raw and clumsy in the otherwise gauzy read – maybe that is quite deliberate, but I almost put the book down there.

I’m glad I didn’t, because the poignancy of ending made me go back and read the whole thing again, immediately.