Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Dysfunctional families (page 1 of 6)

Capturing her memories…

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher

shockaholicIn my review of Fisher’s previous slim volume of anecdotal memoir, Wishful Drinking, I wished she would write a full memoir a couple of years down the line. Instead, she has done more of the same, but you know what, I don’t care that it’s not the full memoir I previously craved, I loved being back in her company, however briefly.

In this volume she tells us about half a dozen episodes in her eventful life, all recounted with her characteristic tell-it-like-it-was wit, very self-deprecating humour and plenty of insight and true emotion too.

At the end of the introduction, she neatly paraphrases Proust to nail the flavour of the following pages:

So, before I forget, what follows is a sort of anecdotal memoir of a potentially more than partial amnesiac. Remembrances of things in the process of passing.

As you might guess from the title, she starts with an account of what it’s like to undergo ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), which is often seen as a treatment of last resort and portrayed in the media often as if it had never moved on from the original violent fitting effects when it was first devised.  Now carried out under mild anaesthesia, it takes just minutes. It blows away many of the effects of depression and mania, but at the cost of memory – mostly recent memory and an inability to form new memories for a short period.

Another thing is that I find myself forgetting movies and books, some of which I only recently enjoyed, which, if you think about it, is really not that bad, because now I can be entertained by them all over again. And grudges? How can you hold on to something you don’t remember having to begin with!

Having got the pretext of ECT out of the way, we dive into the episodes, starting with a story about briefly dating a senator in the mid-80s and holding her own at dinner against a usually dominating Ted Kennedy who continually tried to quiz her about sex – this was hilarious.

The next story tells of what you’d think of as an unlikely friendship with the ‘otherly’ Michael Jackson. However, both being addicts from dysfunctional families, they had a unique understanding and she personally witnessed him as a great father to his own children. Jackson had some redeeming features for her, despite his alleged inappropriate friendships with kids and the consequences; she gives her take on that, which is fascinating.

Another of Michael’s friends was of course, Elizabeth Taylor. She was Fisher’s step-mother for some years, Eddie Fisher having dumped Debbie Reynolds for Taylor, who later ran off with Richard Burton.  Taylor, famously loved to receive jewelry (Fisher’s spelling) and Michael Jackson obliged.  However Fisher recalls some other jewelry:

I remember coming into her dressing room one time and she was wearing this diamond as big as a doorknob that she always wore – the famous diamond Burton had given her. ‘What did you do to get that?’ I asked her. And she smiled sweetly and softly said, ‘I was loved.’

Presumably, this was Taylor’s ring containing the Krupp diamond (33+ carats) bought for her by Burton in 1968.

Taylor and Fisher had always had a distinctly frosty relationship until one day at an Easter Egg hunt at her ranch, Taylor pushed Fisher into the swimming pool for making fun of her in a speech at an AIDS benefit. This finally broke the ice, and Fisher has the photographs of the event to prove it.

Running through this collection of anecdotes though are memories of her father who died in 2010. Largely absent during her childhood, they would later get together when his star began to fade and she was turbulently married to Paul Simon:

Eventually (and/or after a year) my father moved to an apartment around the corner from Paul. And it was not too long after that that he began sneaking drugs to me.  This was when, like most fathers and daughters, we begain doing coke together. Our relationship had started with me longing for him to visit, eventually evolving into my being desperate for him to leave, setting finally and comfortably into us being drug buddies.

The final chapter is again about her father, but this time his last months, when addled by marijuana use and suffering dementia she became a carer, and she reflects how glad she was that they had managed to develop a relationship despite that difficult childhood.

Whereas Wishful Drinking was derived from her successful stageshow and sometimes came across as a performance on paper, Shockaholic is still just as wise-cracking but, tempered by the loss of her father, comes across as more thoughtful in tone. I do hope for more installments to read of Fisher’s fascinating life. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Shockaholicby Carrie Fisher (2011). Simon & Schuster 2013. Paperback, 176 pages.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008).


Shirley Jackson Reading Week

Shirley-Jackson-Reading-WeekIt’s Shirley Jackson Reading Week – hosted by Simon, Jenny and Ana. I had been planning just to scan the posts as my pile of books I must read (e.g. Anthony Powell) is rather large, but what hey! Why not read a book too? It’s not as if I didn’t have a Shirley Jackson novel ready and waiting on my shelves thanks to Simon who reviewed several of hers for the first issue of Shiny New Books.

I’m not entirely new to Shirley Jackson, having read and loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle – which I read pre-blog in 2008. I have consulted back to my master spreadsheet to see what notes I made about it then…

MerricatA creepy tale of a big house where the two Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat, live with their old uncle. The local villagers treat them with suspicion and hate, after six of the Blackwood family died one night from poisoning. Constance was tried and found innocent. The sisters and Uncle Julian try to live quietly in their mausoleum; Constance tends the garden, Uncle Julian sees to his papers, and the beloved Merricat patrols and protects the estate with ritual and amulets. However, one day cousin Charles arrives – and life will never be the same after that.

This short novel is an excellent exercise in paranoia, the whole ‘did she didn’t she’ question over the poisoning, the villagers’ suspicion (and jealousy, for the Blackwoods are not short of a penny, although they don’t flaunt it at all), and then the catalyst that arrives to upset everything. A very intense read and beautifully crafted tale. (10/10)

I read it in a Penguin Deluxe paperback produced for the USA. Love that cover.

But which did I choose to read this time?

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

sundial-195x300In one sentence The Sundial is a comedy about an upper class family who all hate each other thrust into a, to quote Private Fraser from Dad’s Army “We’re doomed!”, situation with Armageddon coming at the end of August. After the paranoia of WHALITC above, I hadn’t quite expected The Sundial, which preceded it by a few years to be so funny – it was absolutely hilarious!

It starts off with the Halloran family returning from Lionel’s funeral. The huge house they live in having reverted to Lionel’s parents. Even in the first paragraphs, the extent of there being no love lost between the Old Mrs Halloran and the Young Mrs Halloran, her daughter Fancy and the others is clear:

Young Mrs Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”  […]

“I am going to pray for it as long as I live,” said young Mrs Halloran, folding her hands together devoutly.
“Shall I push her?” Fancy asked. “Like she pushed my daddy?”

As for Mrs Halloran herself, when asked by her invalid husband Richard:

“Did you marry me for my father’s money?”

“Well, that, and the house.”

Over the next few pages we are also introduced to Aunt Fanny (Richard’s spinster sister); Essex – the house librarian and Miss Ogilvie – Fancy’s governess, and the scene is set for constant bickering between the lot of them. Now that she is in charge of the house again, Mrs Halloran decides to let Essex and Miss Ogilvie go, and tells them so. However, an event happens (and we’re still in the first chapter), that will change everything…

Fancy and Aunt Fanny are walking in the further reaches of the garden. Fancy runs off and Aunt Fanny is temporarily lost and panics, but eventually finds her way to the huge sundial – in the middle of the front lawn and inscribed with the words “WHAT IS THIS WORLD?” – only to be faced with an apparition of her own long-dead father who tells her that the end of the world is coming and that only those in the house will survive. She makes it back inside and faints.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.
“Splendid,” Mrs Halloran said. “I was getting very tired of all of them.”
“The imbalance of the universe is being corrected. Dislocations have been adjusted. Harmony is to be restored, inperfections erased.”

The strangest thing is that Mrs Halloran decides to take Aunt Fanny’s ramblings seriously. She senses the opportunity for a real powerplay with herself as Queen Bee.

At this point, Jackson injects some new characters into the narrative. Mrs Willow and her two daughters, ‘friends’ of Mrs Halloran. Then Gloria, the daughter of a cousin turns up unexpectedly. With all this upheaval Essex and Miss Ogilvie are given a reprieve, (for of course Essex will have to be one of the sires of the new race after the apocalypse).

More new characters appear – amongst them we meet the Misses Devonshire who run a shop in the village; Edna’s True Believers who believe that aliens will be landing at the end of August, and the household acquires another male ‘the captain’, who is obviously not, but plays along with everything. Aunt Fanny sets about provisioning the house, meaning that the library has to be converted to a storeroom – and they burn the books – criminal! They discover that Gloria can see ‘visions’ in an oiled mirror and these confirm what is to happen…

You all know the story of Chicken Licken who believed the sky was going to fall on his head? It’s a much-loved tale that Disney had adapted in 1943 in an animated short made for the purpose of discrediting Nazism, his version having the moral of don’t believe everything you read. Jackson may well have been influenced by that with Aunt Fanny as Chicken Licken and Mrs Halloran the unscrupulous and manipulative fox. But, in the late 1950s the Cold War was really ramping up. In the timeline of the Cold War, in 1957 the US strategic air command was put on 24/7 alert against pre-emptive strike from Soviet ICBMs (not stood down until 1991!), and in November that year a report urged Eisenhower to review defense capabilities and build fallout shelters for US citizens. Aunt Fanny’s bunker mentality is well to the fore here.

Jackson takes all these elements of Gothic melodrama and puts them in a pressure cooker which will eventually explode in a brilliantly conceived ending. The humour, as we’ve seen, is often wickedly dark and the old Mrs Halloran is positively Machiavellian in her plans – I don’t think I’ve ever read such a funny apocalyptic novel.

My only quibble is that during the first third or so, I found it hard to keep up with who was who. Apart from some periods of extended description of the house and garden, the novel is almost all dialogue, and you have to keep your wits about you to know who said what, especially as Jackson is free and easy toggling between the formal names and Christian names of most of the characters or leaving the dialogue unfettered by not noting who said it. This confusion only increased whenever new ones were introduced, but the pace of the drama keeps you going.

Ultimately I preferred WHALITC, but The Sundial is also mighty fine (9.5/10) and, if the world were to end at the end of August, I’ll have had a good time that weekend at Jamie Oliver’s and Alex James’s Big Feastival so can go out on a high!!!

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 176 pages.
The Sundial (Penguin Modern Classics), paperback, 240 pages.

First person plural…

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

virgin suicidesTwo things prompted me to promote this novel, which had been in my bedside TBR bookcase for ages, to the top of the pile.

Firstly, although not written for teens, I cited it in the post I wrote trying to comprehend the current vogue for suicide-lit in teen novels (see here).

Secondly, after reading reviews of Weightless by Sarah Bannan by Victoria at Shiny and Harriet on her blog. (I desperately want to read this book now!) Weightless is not about teen suicide, although it does appear quite dark – but it is written in that rarest of styles – the “first person plural” – as is The Virgin Suicides

This novel was Eugenides’ 1993 debut – a very daring one at that.  Fancy publishing as your first novel a story about a family of five unconventional teenaged sisters who commit suicide and told from the collective point of view of the group of teenaged boys who had worshipped them wanted to get into their pants!  It hits you right from the start:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how hast we go.’  He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

We’re then told of Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide, slitting her wrists in the bath. Cecilia, at thirteen the youngest of the Lisbon girls, survived this. She gets patched up in hospital:

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

The Lisbons’ five daughters were born a year apart. Somehow I couldn’t help but mentally compare the family to the Bennets in Pride & Prejudice!  The girls are very close-knit, and Lux (14) is definitely a Lydia-type. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, perplexed by his five daughters, so not unlike Mr Bennet in that regard. Mrs Lisbon is the antithesis of the flighty and voluble Mrs Bennet though – she is steely, closed and authoritarian, a strict Catholic – and to be honest we never find out much more about her. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, and seems to be liked well-enough there, but is totally under the thumb at home. But enough of the Austen comparison!

The Lisbon family kept themselves to themselves. The girls weren’t allowed out on their own, and weren’t generally allowed to have guests home either. No wonder the girls are the subject of speculation and a challenge to the local teenaged male population. A while after Cecilia returns home from hospital, Mr Lisbon persuades his wife to let the girls have a chaperoned party at home – the first and only one they’ll have. Their friends and neighbours join the girls in the basement and things are getting going when Cecilia, wearing a cut-down vintage wedding dress, quietly asks to go upstairs – and defenestrates herself, impaling her body on the railings.

This is the beginning of the end really, although it will take a year before the other girls follow suit. The family is never the same, Mrs Lisbon is even more closed in, Mr Lisbon becomes an emotional wreck, their house starts to get shabbier and shabbier. The girls close ranks too whether by choice or confinement. Only Lux has a wild, feral air about her – sneaking out at night to have assignations with countless partners on the roof. Then the anniversary of Cecilia’s death approaches… naturally I can’t tell you more about what happens.

All the while the boys watch and talk about the Lisbon girls. They collect anything to do with the girls, from the news articles after Cecilia’s and later the others’ deaths, to Lux’s discarded album sleeves, to copies of medical reports later smuggled out for them. These items form a catalogue –  ‘The Record of Physical Evidence’ as they try to come to terms with and understand the events of that tragic thirteen months. Everyone has their own theory about why they did it, but will they ever really know?

VirginSuicidesPosterThere is a dreamlike quality to this novel, contrasting sharply with the events within. I remember that feeling came across very well in Sofia Coppola’s feature-film debut – she wrote and directed. Kirsten Dunst (having turned down American Beauty) was troubled teen Lux, with James Woods and Kathleen Turner as Mr and Mrs Lisbon. I must watch it again, I remember it as rather good.

I read Eugenides’ epic second novel Middlesex pre-blog – I remember finding it rather drawn out (in the same way as Donna Tartt to me). The Virgin Suicides is much shorter, coming in at just under 250 pages. If you think that makes for a fast-paced read though, think again. Although it’s not long, the months between the bookending events are explored in much detail. This does make for a slightly flabby middle – as  the boys recount the events in hindsight, collect their evidence and present it to us through their team leader narrator. We never get to know which one of them narrates and we never get to know how long after the events they’re actually telling the story. If you’re looking for answers and resolution, this isn’t a novel to give them to you – in fact it’ll leave you with more questions.

The Virgin Suicides certainly marked the emergence of a great new American writing talent though, and I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, 4th Estate paperback, 260 pages.
The Virgin Suicides [DVD] [2000] dir Sofia Coppola.

"I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me"

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

love and fallout Tessa is one of those middle-aged women that do causes. She co-runs a (failing) green charity running workshops for schools and colleges and she’s always got a local campaign on the go – this time saving the playing field from development. She doesn’t take much time for herself (or her family arguably) and lives in jeans and baggy jumpers. Her long-suffering best friend Maggie and husband Pete have had enough of this and as the novel starts they have organised a surprise TV makeover for her. The doorbell chimes:

Smiling at me is a thin woman in her early forties who has the gloss and wing-mirror cheekbones of a former fashion model. Behind her is a camera crew. A camera crew. And there, waving, is Maggie. For a few stupified seconds I can’t work it out: in some bizarre co-incidence she’s stopped by at exactly the same moment as a TV crew.
‘Are you Tessa Perry?’ asks the thin woman.
Partly shielded by the door and ready to close it at any moment, I confirm my identity.
‘Excellent,’ she says, ‘because we’re here to…’ Then she raises her arms along with her voice and everyone cries in unison, ‘Make you Over!’
The penny teeters, bright and coppery at the edge of my comprehension then drops into a slot and rolls away. Maggie has brought these people here. Before I know what’s happening, they’re piling inside.

Tessa is horrified, but when Pete says they’ll mention the Heston Fields campaign she reluctantly submits to get the publicity for it. When, after they’ve finished filming she’s left fully dressed and made up, Pete wants to go out. Tessa says ‘Right, give me ten minutes, I’ll just get changed.’ Exactly the wrong thing to say to Pete who had wanted to show her off.

Cut back to 1982, and Tessa having finished school is working in a dead-end job in Stevenage and has recently split up with her boyfriend. She decides to go and visit the anti-cruise protestors at Greenham Common, and maybe stay at the camp for a while. Surprisingly, her mum and dad are broadly supportive, realising that it’ll give her the break from Stevenage that she needs, and after all, she’ll not stay for long …

Tessa finally gets to Greenham, and finds a diverse band of women, young and old, mothers, grandmothers, Europeans, all are here. Bumping into a young woman called Rori, she finds a group to camp with at the Amber gate. She soon realises that life is not a bed of roses – it’s cold and muddy, water has to be carted from the standpipe, latrine trenches dug and so on. There is little direct action other than being there to witness what the military are doing. As in any group there are tensions – Angela who is one of the key organisers doesn’t think Tessa belongs there – indeed, Tessa doesn’t really know herself at first, but she gamely mucks in and makes herself useful. The strong bond that Tessa forges with Rori will become tested to its absolute limit over the months to come – there will be betrayals…

Interspersed with the Greenham sections are those charting the increasing disintegration of Tessa’s home life after the programme. If she doesn’t get funding, her charity will fold; she and Pete are going to relationship counselling – but it’s not going well; her children are alienated, especially her daughter Pippa. It takes a visit from Angela, who had seen her on the television, to bring her life back into perspective, finally bringing closure to her Greenham days.

I actually worked in Stevenage for a whole seventeen years and lived there for fifteen, first arriving in 1983 just after Tessa goes to Greenham. I lived in a couple of different estates, before ending up in a nicer newbuild development, but, having moved down there after living in Cambridge (where Tessa later lives!), I can understand why she’d want to move away from the indentikit houses, and the town centre certainly wasn’t up to much back then.

Simmonds builds a strong picture of what it was like to be at Greenham, and includes the real life events such as ‘Embrace the Base’ when 30,000 women linked arms around the perimeter, and when Tessa gets imprisoned after climbing the walls and dancing on the silos. We’re shown what a hard life it was and how everyone had to muck in, but also how much cheer the women were able to generate from their sisterhood. Although Tessa doesn’t get on with Angela in the camp having allied herself firmly with Rori – she herself becomes an Angela type later organising her causes, especially once her children don’t need her parenting so much.

Tessa is fallible though, taking Pete and her family’s silent acquiescence as permission to take them for granted. Thank goodness for the jolt caused by the TV show and the memories it brings back to the surface. Ignoring relationship ruts is not a good thing, and we hope that Tessa and Pete can find some kind of path forward; Tessa needs more of a makeover than just a new outfit. I found this aspect of the novel a little uncomfortable to read. Whatever her faults though, because Tessa is inherently a good person with good intentions we are on her side throughout the story.

There is much to admire in this debut novel from one of my favourite indie publishers, Seren Books. Tessa’s story is told with humour as well as truth and sadness. Who knows, if I had met Tessa in a Stevenage pub, I might have been inspired to join her in her quest and that is the mark of an engaging novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love and Falloutby Kathryn Simmonds. Seren Books, June 2014, paperback original, 352 pages.

P.S. Quote at the top from ‘I’ve never been to me’ – by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch, sung by Charlene – it reached No 1 in the UK in June 1982.

Looking for 'Chap Last'

Thinkless by Sophie McCook

Thinkless_CarouselIt’s not often that I respond to a direct request from an author to review their book, but Sophie McCook wrote me a lovely note and she and her book sounded worth investigating. Thinkless comes from small publisher Limehouse Books in London, and Sophie who is based in Scotland has written for radio, TV and a wide range of other media and productions.

Actually once I saw the book’s cover on the Limehouse website, I was won over already. What you can’t see clearly in the small version to your left is, that amongst the tousled curls of the girl are words – see the detail below:

Thinkless_MainBook2 Capricious, Fickle, Undependable, Lovelorn, Naive and Mercenary are just some of these words – and they are all used to describe the main character – not usually all at once – but certainly in multiples! Miriam Short is in a real tangle (sorry!) – we’d better meet her …

I’m of no fixed salary, abode or career. I live in the moment, which I hear is very spiritual. The trouble is, the moments keep happening. I’m one long moment.
My ex-boyfriend maintains a holding pattern around my brain. Who knows when this obsession will end? Let’s call him Chap 1. All communication between us stopped. …
This black hole in my head is gradually growing. It’s sucking in the horizon and all the time, the city heat increases. I stuff Kleenex down my bra to stop the sweat river. I don’t have a fan. I have to get out of here.

Miriam is her father’s middle child. In her late twenties, she has an older sister and a younger brother – both by different mothers. Her father is currently with ‘Wife-to-be-Number-Four’. Having recently split up with her boyfriend, she’s reliant on her successful little brother to help her out by loaning her his flat while he’s off on business for she’s jobless and broke. It’s high summer though, London is sweltering, and the break-up with Chap 1 still hurts too much. When she sees an advert for a house/cat-sitter for three months, she sees a chance to escape.

So Miriam ends up in a hamlet called Toft Monks in Norfolk, cat-sitting for Marjory, who lives with her cats and many dogs in a tiny cottage full of blue things and dog-hair near Toft Hall, the local Manor. Luckily Marjory takes the dogs with her and leaves strict instructions about the Good Cats and the Bad Cat which can never be in the house at the same time.

To cut a long story short, it’s not long before Miriam meets the inhabitants of Toft Hall. There are two brothers: Kit, who’ll charm a woman into bed in moments it seems and Wym, who looks after the Hall and farm.  Then there’s Lord Hebbindon, known as Prop, their ageing father who is more than a little touched it seems and hates his wife the Marchese … As Kit is now Chap 2 (sic), Miriam asks him about their father…

‘But why is Prop Prop?’
‘Oh his name deserves a blue plaque. When he was seven, Prop and his father went hill-walking in North Wales with Lloyd George. Young Prop was the right height for the former Prime Minister to lean his elbow on, and he was leant on all the way up the mountain. From then on, he was a Prop.’
I lie in his arms and shuffle through my brain index card and find this situation amazing. If sex were top-trumps, I feel I’ve scored well.
‘So in general, is it better being rich or being a Lord?’
Kit jumps on me.
‘You mercenary little cow!’

Miriam may project a laddette-ish attitude, but is she a gold-digger?  She would have you believe it’s much more complicated but, as the lost middle-child of a very dysfunctional family herself all she really needs is direction and to find that Chap Last – her true love.

Of course, this is a rom-com and things will get far more complicated before they can begin to detangle (to continue the hair analogies!), especially once Miriam’s sister turns up on the scene. Eventually we’ll get to see all the main characters for who they really are – there’s not so much of a difference between them and us in this novel as you may think. Of course we hope that all’s well that ends well too but we can have a chuckle along the way!

I thoroughly enjoyed Thinkless – it’s a comedy blend akin to Jilly Cooper meets The Archers with added London sassiness. Being a South Londoner myself and having survived living in Norfolk for two years at the start of my working career, I could strongly identify with Miriam’s fish out of water situation. Living there didn’t suit me – but maybe in this novel Miriam is ready?  Great fun. (7.5/10)

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Source: Author – Thank you and good luck with the book!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Thinkless by Sophie McCook. Pub Sept 2014 by Limehouse Books, trade paperback, 288 pages.

784 pages – Was it worth taking the time to read…

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt


It’s very likely that had our bookgroup not picked this novel, that The Goldfinch would have stayed on my shelves, unread, (beside Wolf Hall and The Luminaries), for much longer.

I had to read it (well, I could have cribbed notes but didn’t), but I’m so glad I took the time to read its 784 pages in hardback, the weight of which is almost enough to give you a wrist injury propping up the book. (Shame about how they plastered the paperback cover with plaudits by the way.) So much has been written about the book that I won’t dwell on the plot, just jot some thoughts down…

Tartt is a descriptive writer – she tells you everything about a scene – she wants you to see her vision, not to have your own about what you’re reading. This leads to some very long sections – for instance: the bit where Theo is back in New York and bumps into Platt Barbour who tells him all about his father’s death; this took acres of print – much like some of the scenes in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (which is even longer at 900+ pages) where one poker game in the latrines took over twenty pages of small type.

While Tartt’s descriptive writing is lovely and you could, if you wanted to, relish every word, it is at the expense of pace and the novel always takes a long time to get anywhere. I know a lot of you did love her long-windedness but I longed for an editor to help produce the five hundred page literary thriller that lurks underneath all those extra words. It almost feels like heresy to say it, but I felt the same way about The Secret History when I read it twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I did I really enjoy reading The Goldfinch, but the middle does sag a bit plotwise and could have been tauter.

There were, however, two things about The Goldfinch that I adored – the first is Hobie.

He was six foot four or six five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink. His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows around his eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken. Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels fell almost to his ankles and flowed massively around him, like something a leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still impressive.

I won’t begrudge Tartt her description of Hobie for first impressions do matter! (Note she uses ‘gray’ rather than grey – very poetic.) I immediately identified Hobie as a gentle giant Ron Perlman type but with some of the growl of Tom Waits – and an ideal surrogate father for Theo. Hobie was a real gent and I loved him.

The second is Boris – an out and out scoundrel, but his heart is in the right place when he befriends Theo. They met at school in Las Vegas:

The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper into his seat. He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark’s Place, comparing scars, begging for change – same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and – as it turned out – one of the great friends of my life.

Although nothing in this novel is ordinary, these two characters lift the narrative immensely. Theo is very much a blank canvas and these two paint his life and help him to unchain himself from the goldfinch’s perch he would otherwise end up on. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist that last sentence.)

No-one in our book group hated the novel although some, like me, wished it could have been shorter. We had extensive discussions – somewhat unusual in a book that everyone liked, but not surprising for a novel of this quality, there was universal agreement that Hobie and Boris were utterly brilliant characters.

In answer to my question at the top – was it worth taking the time to read? Emphatically, Yes! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, pub Oct 2013 by Little Brown. Abacus paperback 880 pages.

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