Book Review: Love

by Hanne Ørstavik

Winters are bitingly cold in northern Norway, with an average temperature of around -17°C. Yet it is to a bleak little village in this region that Vibeke moves with Jon, her eight-year-old son, in order to make a fresh start. The story begins as the circus arrives, on the eve of his birthday.

Both mother and son are intense, cerebral individuals, who lose themselves in daydreams and struggle to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others – she chain-smokes, he continually blinks. Even so, they are overly trusting of strangers and have oddly naïve personalities. The greatest void, however, is between the two of them, and they seem to view each other from opposite sides of a wide crevasse. There is love (adoration on his part), but it is ill-defined, unfocused.

“She gets through three books a week, often four or five. She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes, and a warm nightdress on.”

Voted the sixth best Norwegian book of the last 25 years, Love, by Hanna Ørstavik (originally published as Kjærlighet in 1997), has been translated into English by Martin Aitken, and is due for release in February 2018. It is an existential novel, with narratives drifting back and forth between Vibeke and Jon – they all but merge when either one or both of them become anxious. As the story develops, Ørstavik skilfully effects a feeling of dread – an unpleasant, tense, vaguely sinister sensation of impending catastrophe pervades the icy air.

Has anything significant been lost in translation? I think there probably has, but as an inveterate unilingual English-speaker I simply cannot judge. Nevertheless, I am able to say with certainty that Love is an intelligent, thoughtful, if melancholy tale, which demonstrates what can happen if we become too internalised and fail to be mindful of those we love.

Many thanks to Steerforth Press for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: Aphra Behn: A Secret Life

by Janet Todd

The 17th century dramatist, Aphra Behn, is a notoriously tricky subject for biographers to tackle. For such a gregarious and ostensibly dissolute figure, facts about her are rudimentary and her background is almost impenetrable – but that hasn’t stopped the British scholar Janet Todd from achieving a phenomenal feat with her freshly revised life history of the dynamic playwright.

Behn is celebrated for being one of the first English women to earn a living from her pen. She courageously shattered many cultural conventions of her day, while in some ways remaining in step with her times. She was a major influence on female writers for years to come, but her prosopography is murky, which to some extent was intentional on her part.

“Aphra Behn is not so much a woman to be unmasked as an unending combination of masks and intrigue, and her work delivers different images and sometimes contradictory views.” – Janet Todd

Believed to have been born around 1640, Aphra Behn rose from obscurity to work as a secret agent in Antwerp for the newly returned English King. She lived through a time of immense political upheaval, when the decadent Charles II and his court returned from exile, ushering in a new era both in fashion and the arts.

Todd’s research into the period is breathtaking, and the limited knowledge we possess about Behn is used to create a stout and thoroughly detailed biography, which reveals much about the people with whom she associated and the places she frequented in Restoration London. Inevitably, there is speculation over the man she married, her intimate friendships and bisexuality – though, there is a wealth of information pertaining to her plays and poetry – however, this volume is as close as we are likely to get to the woman behind the mask.

A gripping portrait of an enigmatic character.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc for the advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: In Search of Nice Americans

by Geoff Steward

Geoff Steward is keen from the outset that his readers are fully aware he’s not the type of lawyer who wears a wig. He is, in fact, a specialist in “litigation, with a focus on intellectual property, sports and competition law.” In other words, he’s a solicitor. When we first meet him, at home in West Sussex, he’s feeling overworked, harassed, restless, middle-aged and has a hankering to go on an American road trip – about which he hopes to write a book.

And so, it came to pass. The result of Geoff’s 2016 sabbatical is the light-hearted In Search of Nice Americans, subtitled, Off the Grid, On the Road and State to State in Trump’s America, a disorderly but entertaining drive across the USA, ending with a memorable few days in Costa Rica before returning to Blighty.

A Kerouac-type odyssey this is not – and there is nothing impromptu or bohemian about the trip. For starters, he receives professional help creating his itinerary, and endeavours to stick as closely as possible to the travel agent’s pre-booked hotels, tours and meals. He also has in tow Jackie, his volatile Irish wife, whom he deliberately, and rather sadistically, I feel, irritates and generally discombobulates at every given opportunity. I imagine that twenty-five years in the legal profession doesn’t always bring out the best in a person.

Twice wedded, and with several children from both marriages (his step kids are referred to throughout as his “spare children”), Geoff loves music, movies (especially those starring Tom Hanks) and books, so he has great fun exploring New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. He is in his element when visiting The Johnny Cash Museum and the Grand Ole Opry, but is the first to admit that he is easily irritated by people, and therefore enjoys lampooning elderly American couples on his Alaskan cruise. He has an immense liking for the affable, easy going Nashvillians and their incredible Music City; less so for the reserved Angelenos, but he meets many fascinating characters along the way.

Each chapter comes with its own soundtrack, so, for instance, Chapter Nine, in which he passes the Dakota Building in New York, has the sub-heading, Soundtrack: John Lennon – ‘Nobody Told Me’. Whether in Utah, Yosemite or Savannah, he faithfully recounts amusing conversations, describes his accommodation in detail, takes an interest in the wildlife and is generally witty and facetious about everything and everybody, including himself.

This is no spiritual journey, but it is entertaining, and I could imagine sitting in my local pub listening to Geoff regale fellow drinkers with anecdotes about his jaunt to the USA.

A light and humorous read for chilly autumnal evenings.

Many thanks to Biteback Publishing for gifting an autographed copy of this title.

Book Review: Hortense and the Shadow

by Natalia O’Hara & Lauren O’Hara

I seldom read children’s literature these days, but I made an exception for this exquisitely illustrated book about a young girl who hates her shadow.

Sisters Lauren and Natalia O’Hara, from the north of England, have created a magical allegory with an old world feel. As youngsters they were excited by fairy tales and animal fables, and loved listening to their Polish grandmother tell stories on cold winter nights – and there is a palpable Eastern European look and wisdom to the spare narrative and snowy landscapes.

“Through the dark and wolfish woods, through the white and silent snow, lived a small girl called Hortense. Though kind and brave, she was sad as an owl because of one thing . . . Hortense hated her shadow.”

A delightful Christmas gift for a young person with a lively imagination.

Many thanks to Penguin Random House UK Children’s Puffin for supplying a copy of this title for review.

Book Review: In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein

by Fiona Sampson

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is remembered above all for creating a monster – the grotesque but perceptive creature from her 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – although, at the time, she was renown far more for her scandalous behaviour.

Following her death in 1851 she was immortalized as widow of the doomed Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and as daughter of the founding feminist philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft and radical theoretician, William Godwin. For some years thereafter the bulk of Mary’s literary output was tied up in a beribboned box marked ‘lady scribbler!’ and neglected by all but her most committed devotees.

Modern readers of the Classics are generally familiar with the basics of her biography, quite simply because there has been so much written about the influential literary and philosophical movement of which she was a part. It is likely, therefore, you will be aware her mother died shortly after giving birth to Mary in 1797; that she outraged Regency England by ‘eloping’ with her married lover; and she lived an unconventional existence surrounded by some of the foremost writers and radical thinkers of the day. In addition, you are almost bound to have some knowledge of her being widowed in 1822 when Percy drowned in a boating accident off the Kingdom of Sardinia (now Italy).

For quite some time, however, next to nothing was known of her inner life, intellectual influences or sizeable body of literary works. Muriel Spark did much to redress this bewildering neglect in her excellent 1988 life history, Child of Light: Mary Shelley, but there is now an accessible, insightful biography coming out in 2018 to coincide with Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary celebrations.

British poet and writer, Fiona Sampson MBE, attempts to understand the intensely private young women behind a novel of obsession, pride and hunger for love. She endeavours to “bring Mary closer to us”, ask what we know about “who and how and why she is” and “about how it is for her.” For instance, she examines how being pregnant and grieving over lost infants for a significant part of her married life reflected in Mary Shelley’s writing; and wonders from where an eighteen year old girl living in such a misogynistic era developed the strength of character and prowess to compose a unique Gothic masterpiece. Sadly, a trunk of her juvenilia was lost in Paris when she eloped in 1814, and many of her letters were subsequently destroyed, but Sampson’s detailed analysis raises a number of interesting questions and she works hard to restore Mary’s often maligned reputation.

While Percy was without doubt a talented, enlightened, beautiful wild child, he could also be self-serving, fickle, sexually incontinent and in many ways typical of his day in the treatment of women. Mary was his intellectual equal, but was seldom treated as such. You can at times detect something of Sampson’s exasperation at the selfish behaviour of the men and various female dependants in Mary’s life. In modern parlance, we might well describe her a ‘doormat’.

Mary survived her husband by almost thirty years, supporting herself and their only remaining son, Percy Florence, with her pen. She received little sympathy from those around her following the former’s death (with the possible exception of Lord Byron), and for the most part was left to cope alone. Nevertheless, her groundbreaking horror novel is now recognised as a landmark work of science fiction, and scholars regard her as being a major luminary of the Romantic movement.

In Search of Mary Shelley is an engaging and powerful portrait of a complex and often misrepresented figure. Indeed, it offers an ideal introduction to the life, work and times of an extraordinary woman.

Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for supplying an advance review copy of this title.