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The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell

I'm really not sure how to rate this book. On one hand, it led to some fantastic discussions in my book club, and raised some very disturbing questions about society's perception of individuals. On the other hand, the book isn't the best written I've read, which is a real shame.

Let me give you the gist of the story. Iris is a contemporary working girl, with serious relationship issues (in love with her step-brother and involved with a married man...don't ask!) who one day receives notice that her great-aunt is being released from a mental institution into her care. The problem is that Iris has never heard of this great-aunt as her family never even mentioned her. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that the great-aunt is Esme Lennox, who was a bit of a rebel in her youth and was committed to a mental asylum for the sins of wanting to study beyond basic schooling and not wishing to be married. Iris (and the reader) is shocked by the fact that in the early 1900s, women could be incarcerated for life if their father or husband wished it, and they only needed a GP's signature to do so. In Esme's case, the evidence against her is simply her refusal to conform, and her sister's witness given in spite and jealousy.

Such an interesting storyline, so much potential, but none of them are realised. O'Farrell gives her best, but the story just isn't gripping enough. Her description of the inhuman conditions in the asylum are heart-wrenching, but it has been done better in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Sebastian Barry's A Secret Scripture. I will not lie, I was very interested in the book while reading it, but when I finished it my only thought was "Is that it?"

The best thing about the book was the fantastic evening I had with my book club, discussing the moral issues. Esme was normal by modern standards but spent her entire adult life in a cell, while Iris lives a precarious life and doesn't have to face any censure. It made me feel glad I was born in the 20th century.


R.I.P. IV Challenge

I'm coming slightly late to this challenge due to real-life taking over my reading time, but I have been mulling over my choices for the challenge for well over a week now. That was fun enough, I imagine actually reading the books will be even more fun.

During my teen years, I went through a very intense period when I read only horror/supernatural/dark thriller genres. But my over-active imagination resulted in this phase ending badly. I often dream about the books I read, which is bad enough when you're reading The Time Traveller's Wife, but how much worse when you're reading The Stand. When I moved to my own place, I stopped reading scary stories to spare myself the usual nightmares. Carl's R.I.P. Challenge (now in its fourth year) is the perfect excuse to return to the genre.

I'm going to indulge in Peril The First which is to read FOUR books from the "scary" genrre. My choices are:

Out by Natsuo Kirino - This is an overlap with the Japanese Literature Challenge. I read Real World by the same author last month and I'm eager to get started on this book. This should give me the added impetus.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe - No, I've never read this short story/novella and yes, I've always regretted it. Poe is considered the father of the suspense/thriller genre, and this book will fill in a huge gap in my reading list.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter - I've never read Carter and I think it would be best to ease myself in gently into her world and what better way to do it than with her subversive version of Grimm's fairy tales.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis - An odd choice perhaps. But I have my reasons. Fact 1 - this is an acknowledged classic. Fact 2 - it is known for its graphic description of violence aand is actually banned in some countries. Fact 3 - I would never pick up this book voluntarily unless I had an ulterior motive (book group, challenge etc etc). I'm still not sure if I'll get through this book, but I'll give it my best shot. Then at the very least I can say I tried and it wasn't for me.

As the nights draw in and Halloween approaches, this challenge is pitch-perfect. I'm off to light the fire and heat up some mulled wine


A Literary Life

This is a fun quiz that I've seen on several blogs and thought it would be enoyable to try. The trick is to answer the questions only using titles of books you've read in the last year (2009). It's much harder than it sounds!

Describe yourself: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

How do you feel: All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West)

Describe where you currently live: The House At Riverton (Kate Morton)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell)

Your favorite form of transportation: Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson)

Your best friend is: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Steig Larsson)

You and your friends are: Until It's Over (Nicci French)

What's the weather like: When Will There Be Good News (Kate Atkinson)

You fear: Dark Fire (C J Sansom)

What is the best advice you have to give: Mercy (Jodie Picoult)

Thought for the day: The Unbearable Lightness Of Scones (Alexander McCall Smith)

How I would like to die: One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

My soul's present condition: Love Over Scotland (Alexander McCall Smith)


They Knew Mr Knight - Dorothy Whipple

This was my first Dorothy Whipple; the first of many to come I think. They Knew Mr Knight is the story of the Blake family, an ordinary middle-class family. The father, Thomas, is a salaried engineer working in a factory that used to be owned by his father. His only ambition is to re-purchase the works. His wife, Celia, is mild-mannered, with no burning ambition, and generally content with her domesticity. This difference is made clear in the very first chapter, with their contrasting attitudes to a new morning. Their three children are also ordinary and their lifestyle is, erm, ordinary. Into this ordinary world enters Mr Knight, a financier from the City, who drags Thomas up into a richer world.

This is a very simple book, so simple that the plot is perfectly transparent from the minute Thomas bumps into Knight (literally). What makes it different is Whipple's attention to detail. I loved Whipple's descriptions of Celia, and her thoughts. Celia is the only person in the family to be less than enthusiastic about their sudden rise in the world, and suspicious of Knight's motives. Her bafflement at the speed at which the rest of her family adapt to their new lifestyle is endearing.

As expected, Knight ruins Thomas Blake financially, and the family is thrown back into circumstances more dire than they had ever had to endure. They cope with this turn of fortunes in different ways, and in the end the family emerges stronger than ever.
The characters are all brilliantly drawn. With the exception of Mr Knight, there is no obviously good or evil character, everyone has their moments. Even Freda, the eldest daughter, comes across as flawed rather than unpleasant. I felt terribly sorry for her when she rushes into a less-than-satisfactory marriage. Whipple makes it clear that one of the reasons of the tragedy is Celia's detachment from the outside world. She knows nothing of finance or office, "a man's world". Hence she can neither warn Thomas, nor realise when he's falling in over his head. Nor can she financially support the family when their new world comes crashing around them. This is a lesson on why female empowerment is so important.

Thomas and Mr Knight are second-hand figures, seen through their wives and children. We very rarely get to hear their thoughts, and surely not in the depth we know, say, Celia. I wonder if this is because Whipple didn''t want to attempt a man's voice? I have not read anything else by her, so cannot be sure. Celia's moment of religious fervour was a bit far-fetched in my opinion, but that is probably a sign of the times. Perhaps readers contemporary to Whipple were nodding their heads and approving of Celia's moment of communion with God! My favourite characters were Celia and Mrs Knight. They very rarely interact with each other, but when they do the effect is very comic. My favourite scene is Mrs Knight showing off Field Hall to Celia who wants to buy it off her.

A must-read! I would recommend this to anyone looking to buy a new Persephone.


Goodbye Bank Holidays

I'm back (that is, if anyone noticed I was gone in the first place). After spending the entire bank holiday weekend on the M4 in back-to-back traffic (well, it felt like the whole weekend) I am so glad to be home. Even an overflowing laundry basket and an empty refrigerator cannot cool my enthusiasm. The only thing worse than standstill traffic is standstill traffic when you're supposed to be on holiday!

One good thing that came out of it was that I got to extend the fabulous Persephone Week for myself. I packed They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple with me, and it was the most amazing read. I will be posting the review shortly. Just as soon as I've finished kissing all the door frames in the house. Yes, I am THAT happy to be back.