Book Review: Zennor in Darkness

by Helen Dunmore

The British poet, novelist and children’s writer, Helen Dunmore died of cancer at the age of 64 on 5th June 2017. Sad to say, I have only now come to her work with this, her very first novel, published in 1993.

Winner of the McKitterick Prize, Zennor in Darkness could best be described as a rich, intricate, intensely lyrical historical novel. Set in the spring of 1917, at a time when the controversial author, D.H. Lawrence, and his German wife, Frieda (pejoratively referred to as “Hunwife” by wary locals who suspected the unconventional couple of being enemy spies) sought refuge from war-obsessed Britain in a tiny Cornish coastal village close to St Ives. Their story is interwoven with those of finely drawn fictional characters, in particular, Clare Coyne, a young artist they befriend.

This mesmerizing, poignant novel, which explores what it means to belong and how it feels to be an outsider in a tight, ultra-traditional community, seeks to define courage amid a miasma of gossip, scandal and innuendo.

All told, Dunmore published twelve novels. I intend to read each one of them, probably in sequence. Sheer indulgence? Maybe, but I’m thoroughly hooked and have much catching-up to do!

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Book Review: Nightmare Abbey

by Thomas Love Peacock

I must begin by confessing that I had never heard of Thomas Love Peacock or his 1818 novel Nightmare Abbey until seeing it included at No.9 on the Guardian’s list of 100 Best Novels (compiled by Robert McCrum in 2013). However, in my defence, the accompanying article did describe the author as a “half forgotten minor genius”!

A friend of the great English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and very much a part of the artistic in-crowd, Peacock wrote Nightmare Abbey as an affectionate parody of the romantic movement, and indeed, the greater your knowledge of the literary movers and shakers of this period, the more likely you are to fully appreciate his humour.

Nevertheless, though the reader’s enjoyment will undoubtedly be enhanced by at least some prior understanding of Regency high-culture and philosophy, it is not essential to enjoying this short, comic novel. I certainly found it a light and amusing read.

Book Review: Cat’s Eye

by Margaret Atwood

I came late to Margaret Atwood – and by late I mean the first book I read by this Canadian literary phenomenon was The Blind Assassin, her suspenseful 2000 Man Booker Prize winner, although she had been publishing memorable novels since the late 1960s. Well, my Atwood baptism may have been delayed by a couple of decades, but it was no less bracing for all that, and I have ever since been an enthusiastic admirer of this gifted, outstandingly versatile writer.

From speculative fiction, to feminism, to reworking of ancient myths and legends (and the rest) her literary output has moved from the thrillingly unexpected to devilishly inventive. During the 1980s and 90s she produced some of her most memorable fiction – not least her eerily prophetic The Handmaid’s Tale, to name but one – and collected an array of awards along the way. One such novel was Cat’s Eye from 1988, which brought her several prizes (including Coles Book of the Year and the City of Toronto Book Award).

Written in flashbacks, Cat’s Eye vividly retells the life of artist, Elaine Risley, from vulnerable childhood to troubled middle-age. The daughter of a travelling entomologist, her early years are spent on the road with her father, mother and brother, sleeping under the stars and booking into dingy rooms for the night. Only when her family settles permanently in Toronto, and she attends school for the first time, does she realise how vastly different her life has been from those of her new classmates and their small-minded parents. She is compelled to learn big city survival techniques, and must endure mundane cruelty on a daily basis, which is dished out by her ‘best friends’ under the guise of self improvement.

In this perspicacious tale, Atwood explores socialization, femininity, shame and art as an outlet for suppressed memories. It is a truly haunting read and, in my opinion, one of her finest novels.

Book Review: Me Again: Uncollected Writings Of Stevie Smith

by Stevie Smith

Florence Margaret Smith (1902-1971), known to friends and readers as Stevie Smith, was a highly witty English writer, most famous for her perceptive, clever little poems (often accompanied by amusing pen and ink drawings), and her idiosyncratic novels.

Me Again, first published in 1984, brings together many of her lesser known essays, short stories, reviews and poems on subjects ranging from the seaside and very naughty children to religion, loneliness and death – the latter subject recurring frequently throughout her work.

This volume is amusingly eccentric, frequently mischievous and utterly English, in a very Middle-Class, mid twentieth century sort of way. Of particular fun is her 1959 foreword to a picture book, entitled Cats in Colour, in which she describes the pampered felines as “catsy-watsies”, and concludes that: “It is an amiable part of human nature, that we should love our animals; it is even better to love them to the point of folly, than not to love them at all.”

Included are many personal letters to friends, publishers and literary acquaintances – lively and conversational in style . I was also delighted to find that one of her most loved poems (and my personal favourite): Not Waving But Drowning, is included in a piece called Too Tired for Words from 1956.

All in all this is a wonderful addition to the Smith oeuvre, which throws light on her self-contained life and unique personality. The various compositions do, however, vary in quality (though none could be described as ‘poor’), and should ideally be read alongside (or after having explored) her magnificent poetry collections and unique novels – especially Novel on Yellow Paper (1936).

Book Review: The Awakening: And Other Stories

by Kate Chopin

“She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”

This short but impassioned novel, first published at the turn of the 19th century, portrays a new way of thinking; a dissension among the women of North America and Europe, which caused excitement and consternation in equal measures.

Kate Chopin’s clever, lyrical story, set on the Louisiana Gulf coast and in New Orleans, draws on the lives of the Franco-Creole beau monde, using their apparently sparkling lives as a backdrop to highlight the strict social conventions of the day.

The young Edna Pontellier, an attractive, seemingly happily married woman, dreams of putting her needs before those of her husband and children. She is far from contented with her cosseted but strictly controlled existence, and becomes wilful and defiant. Her subsequent behaviour is considered unacceptable and unwomanly in such a patriarchal society.

Chopin is a magnificent storyteller. Her frank portrayal underscores the very real frustrations experienced by her contemporaries and vividly depicts the tremendous courage required for a woman to slip her shackles.