Mrs Engels – Gavin McCrea

Many of you will know that I have a very good friend in Eric of the marvellous book blog Lonesome Reader, which you should all be dropping in on regularly if you aren’t already. His is an opinion that I value highly, though don’t always agree with which makes for great bookish chatter when we catch up, bookish bickering some might say. Ha. One of Eric’s absolute books of the year last year from the moment he read it was Gavin McCrea’s Mrs Engels which, I was kindly left a signed copy of on one of my trips to London when I stayed in his book nook. So naturally I read it very soon after, pondering if it would be a book we agreed on or a book we would bicker over? Well…

9781922247957

Scribe Publications, hardback, 2015, fiction, 352 pages, kindly put in my hands by someone whose book taste I (still) trust implicitly

No one understands men better than the women they don’t marry, and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.

So opens Mrs Engels and instantly we are thrown into the world of Lizzie Burns as she leaves the workhouses of the north for a life of polar contrast in London as the mistress of social scientist and philosopher Frederick Engels just as his plans to form a revolution with his friend Karl Marx start to come into action. From the very start of the novel we are instantly asked to question why it is that Lizzie has ended up with Frederick is love a chemical thing or a practical one? Is it love from both parties, pity from one of them, a hope of some kind of security or future for the other or are the lines in love a blurry concoction of it all?

If you are worried this might sound a bit dry, or indeed you might need to have read everything about The Communist Manifesto fear not (funnily enough it has never been bedtime reading of mine either) because actually Engels and Marx are really supporting characters. This is the story about Lizzie and of the plight of many people, particularly women but also men as we see as we read on, who have become forgotten voices in history, Lizzie is a voice and a force to be reckoned with and indeed a vessel for McCrea to give an account of many who could not speak up or write about their experiences. It is a book looking unflinchingly at the classes of the times from a factual voice who got lucky in many ways, not so in others, rather than an idealistic one.

I go hard at it – my sleeves rolled, my face lathered – and I don’t let off till, out the side of my eye, I light on a crowd of four women coming up the road from the Hill side. They, in return, catch sight of me when they’re a few doors away. By my own deeper wisdom, I know they are headed in my direction. I put my attending back on my cleaning, but I’m aware of myself now and don’t feel inside the task.
They come to stand in a line over me. I twist my neck to look up at them.
‘Might we see the lady of the house?’ says the one in the high boned collar.
I stand. Brush the hair off my brow. Flatten my pinny. ‘Come on, Lizzie,’ I says to myself, ‘don’t be so easy to the blush.’
When it dawns on one, it passes through the others like electricity. ‘Oh!’ – they clutch their chests in the spot where the air has been knocked out – ‘How novel!’

For me the narrative of Lizzie Burns is the constant highlight of Mrs Engels and full credit needs to go to Gavin McCrea for this creation, as should the fact that all the research he clearly did into an unknown woman is never showy or forced. Huge round of applause from me. If this is ever to be adapted then I am sure there will be many actresses that will be vying for this role because Lizzie is not a woman or character that you are ever going to forget. Yet, for me, the strength of Lizzie in some ways became somewhat detrimental to the rest of the novel. She appears so completely and utterly that the rest of the characters and indeed some of the settings and atmospheres, though when we go back to the times working in the workhouse with her sister, often I felt paled by comparison. It seems quite a backward compliment that, but it is a compliment none the less in an odd way.

What I felt I was doing in the end was reading the novel for Lizzie’s voice and not for the actual story. This means of course we get the voice of the unheard through her, yet because I wasn’t really bothered about anything going on around her in London, much more interested in the Manchester parts of the book, I think it lessened the effect of their plight and for me was much more about how poor Lizzie got on as a mistress than where she had come from. From me it became an odd dichotomy rather than a powerful and moving sum of all its parts, if that makes sense?

The revolution has happened. In my parlour.
Chairs overturned. Empty bottles on the chimneypiece. Half full glasses among the plants in the pots. Fag-ends in the necks of the lamps. The clod from someone’s pipe stuck onto Jenny’s horse painting, right where its bit ought to be. And on the sofa, head to foot and snoring, their clothes screwed tight about them, morning wood standing up in their breeches: men I don’t recognise.
Another fancy evening for the comrades. Another night spent with cotton in my ears and a chair against the door. And now another day spent with yesterday’s smoke clogging up my lungs.

I have talked before about how whatever a reader has read before will of course affect and inform everything they read after, here is a prime example. and here was where a major issue for me lay with Mrs Engels, through no fault of its own. You see if I had not read that many historical novels of this ilk before I would probably think it was more than just a corking narrative. Because I have read the likes of Jane Harris, who if you haven’t read go and get both The Observations and Gillespie and I right now this instant, not only have I seen this sparky, saucy, snarky, northern charming and compelling voice before, I have seen it done with everything else done as vividly and strongly; all the secondary characters, the streets and houses, the atmospheres and smells in full technicolour, even if in smoggy tones.

I thought that Mrs Engels was a novel filled and brought to live with a passionate heart; it just lacked the full body for me personally. As I say though this is through no fault of its own much more mine for the books that I have read before it, it is a strong debut and I am sure will find a legion of loving readers as it deserves. I will be intrigued to see what Gavin McCrea writes next as I am sure it will have another narrative force to be reckoned with.

Head here to read Eric’s marvellous review. If you have read Mrs Engels I would love to know what you made of it. I would also love to hear of any other historical novels which have a real narrative propulsion as I sometimes find them a little too dry and research heavy and need ‘a voice’ to get me through them, that is why you don’t see the genre reviewed on here as much as I would like.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff

I mentioned a week or so ago that I have decided to try and get involved, unofficially, with the Tournament of Books this year. The title, and indeed the author, that I have heard the most positive murmurs about both her in the UK and when I was in the US was Lauren Groff and Fates and Furies. I knew nothing other than the fact that lots of people I trust love her writing and this book and so I went into it completely blind with no idea of what to expect from the plot or the prose which can sometimes be the best way in. What unfolded was a book which I enjoyed very much indeed and has grown on me all the more since I read it.

9781785150142

One of the things that has always bothered me most, and left me with some sleepless nights, is the fact that you can never really know exactly what someone else is thinking ever. Be it your family, friends or your partner. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel that looks at this conundrum thorough both sets of eyes in a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde seem like the perfect couple, in fact when they meet in their early twenties at a party everyone looks on as two of the most beautiful people first set eyes on each other and Lotto proposes on the spot. They soon become the envy of their friends, she the mysterious intellect who no one really knows and he the well known promising actor and loaded lothario who pretty much sleeps with whoever he wishes.

Despite many people, including their closest friends, thinking that this marriage will end before it has even started Lotto and Mathilde create a marriage that not only lasts after the initial honeymoon period but can weather any storm be it disinheritance, poverty, depression, unemployment you name it. Mathilde has tamed Lotto; Lotto has captured the mystery that is Mathilde. This is the version we are given in the first half of the book as we see the relationship through the eyes of Lotto, along with the history of his life up to the point he meet Mathilde. The question is will his perception be the same as Mathilde’s as we switch to her point of view in the second half, what secrets (good and bad) do they have from each other; do they really know each other?

He touched her hand. He bent down on one knee and shouted up, “Marry me!” And she didn’t know what to do; she laughed and looked down at him, and said “No!”
In the story he told of this – spun at so many parties, so many dinners, she listening with her smile, her head cocked, laughing slightly – she said, “Sure.” She never corrected him, not once. Why not let him live with his illusion? It made him happy. She loved making him happy. Sure! It wasn’t true, not for another two weeks when she would marry him, but it did no harm.

I thought Fates and Furies was a fascinating read for many reasons; the problem is how to tell you about them all without giving anything away. Often with a story told from two sides you feel that the author is with one character more than the other, or one character is the good one and the other will be the bad. Come on, it’s true. Not so with Fates and Furies as we discover both characters are flawed, both have faults and flaws as they do generosity and kindness, both come off the page fully formed, both are often oblivious to little things going on with the other, both are equals in the eye of the author and therefore the reader. Groff then treats us readers into hear both sides and so feeling a mixture of spectator/voyeur, confident and accomplice to everything that follows. You also feel at once clever, shocked and emotionally torn when you figure everything out just when Groff wants you to. All this I found particularly refreshing and rewarding reading.

I also think that whilst the tale of the secrets of a marriage is nothing new, the way that Groff deals with it all is from a new stance. At one point you very much feel that Groff gives you her thoughts on fiction and what she wants to do with it through Mathilde. She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off. I won’t say it was quite like a bomb, however the way in which Groff delivers Fates and Furies is quite unusual, and you just have to work at it sometimes. This is no bad thing and actually I think this is why it has stayed with me and grown on me since.

Sometimes the perspective of the narrative will shift in Lotto or Mathilde’s narrative, not to the other person in the marriage but to an ominous third person or indeed one of their many ‘friends’ or relatives, it might only be for a sentence or a paragraph and it’s done with such a deft sleight of hand you don’t notice until a little while after. As Lotto becomes a famous playwright some of the sections are summed up with the title of the play, an excerpt of it, a review or glimpse of the writing process which mirrors or says something about the place the marriage is at. In one part of the book we jump from month to month or year to year from party to party to get a glimpse of where Lotto, Mathilde and those around them are at. Nothing is done randomly here, Groff always has a reason, and you just don’t instantly see it. You could string together the parties Lotto and Mathilde had been to like a necklace, and you would have their marriage in miniature.

Not only is Groff quite something stylistically, which makes the book a challenge but over all a joy to read, her prose is wonderful. In a sentence she can set the scene within a few words or lines. Sunset. House on the dunes like a sea-tossed conch. Pelicans thumbtacked in the wind. Gopher tortoise under the palmetto. She also has an incredible ability to make things so vivid so effortlessly that sometime you forget that the memories are of the characters rather than your own for the emotions they evoke. The place smelled of her, talcum and roses. Dust a soft gray skin over the chintz and Lladro. Also mildew, the sea’s armpit stink.

Another aspect that I thought was great was that fairytale and myth, in particular Greek tragedy, play a huge part in Fates and Furies resonating and rippling through the book. Mermaids, witches and goblins are often referenced or show up in some way, soon turning out to be nothing magical at all, linking into the whole idea of facades and the fantasies we build in our heads versus the reality, just as Lotto and Mathilde seem the perfect fairytale romance. The Greek tragedy elements (apt as I will be surrounded by Greek ruins when this goes live) appear both in the plays that Lotto chooses to adapt and then Mathilde’s storyline as it unfolds, hints of which lie in the title of the novel. I loved all this; some might even say I revelled in it.

There were a few niggles along the way that I should mention. I found the first half of the book overly long, whilst I understood why after finishing the novel I actually think Lotto’s story could have been a third of the book and Mathilde’s two thirds and remained just as visceral, intricate and poignant when all becomes clear. Two literary tropes which I am never keen on, even with writing as wonderful as Groff’s, touched a slight nerve; the writing about the cultural world and theatre and art was a tad overegged as was the poor rich boy who fails then becomes famous, but these get on my nerves as tropes in general and in the hands of other authors would have severely ticked me off rather than slightly bothering me. Also on occasion the switch in style would throw me, only to then reward me a little later on so I soon forgave it. Oh and I could have done with a little more fury towards the end, only a sprinkling more in the direction of one character who you will undoubtedly love to hate as much as I did. These were minor moments though within a fantastically large and larger than life (and all the better for being both) novel.

I would highly recommend Fates and Furies. It is a novel that intricately and intelligently looks at how you can only hazard a guess at what people are thinking or only hope that those closest to you are telling you what they really feel or are experiencing in their heads/lives and yet you’ll never really know. The story and characters are compelling, the style exciting, the prose second to none and the questions around secrets, when they are bad and when they work for the good, really thought provoking. It will also punch you in your emotional weak points, make you laugh and remind you to cherish what you have and be honest with those you love.

See, it just keeps on growing and growing on me the more I think about it. I have to hunt down Lauren Groff’s other books, any suggestions on where to start next? I would also love your thoughts on Fates and Furies if, or once, you have read it.

5 Comments

Filed under Lauren Groff, Review, William Heinemann Books

The Tomb of the Kings, Paphos

I was a huge, huge fan of the Indiana Jones films as a kid (not so much the last one as an adult, it’s probably best if we all forget that it happened) and have always quite liked the ice of going off for an adventure into some old caves, ancient sites or tombs investigating and finding old relics. It was possibly this side of me, along with the gothic elements to, that lead me to take up a role as a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery. So when I discovered that there was a necropolis in Paphos that looked like an Indiana Jones film set I had to go.

 
It’s is quite surreal as you enter the park that within metres you realise that you are not surrounded by natural caves but by tombs. From the outside they look like a rocky natural cavern and then you go inside and discover there is much more than meets the eye. Who knows what might be lurking in them.

 
These are not actually tombs of kings but really a series of tombs built by the rich and aristocratic of the area. As you get towards the centre it all gets more and more showy. The more tombs you go in.

 
Until you get to the centre and possibly the grandest tomb I have ever seen, and believe me there are some corkers in Highgate, nothing quite on this scale though.

 

Quite something indeed and actually quite spooky when you get down there and there is just you and all that space…

 
The spookiness (and stillness and quiet) was part of what I loved about it all. As you descended or ascended each staircase you were never quite sure what you might find.

 

Bar a few small incidents of some Cyprus Lizards (which are pretty big) a pair of unsuspecting pigeons and a pair of fellow tourists popping their heads out when I least expected it I was very brave. (I did almost scream in the couples face when they suddenly appeared.) So maybe there is still time for me to become an intrepid explorer…

 
…Maybe! Or I could move here and become a cave/tomb guide. I do now really fancy some tales of adventure in the Indiana Jones style though. Know of any series or novels like that? I fancy getting lost in a few jungles, tombs and forgotten/hidden valleys, any recommendations?

1 Comment

Filed under Random Savidgeness

A Cove of Ones Own, A Perfect Reading Retreat

So on our adventures after visiting one of the archeological sites, which I will talk about later in the week in bulk so you aren’t overwhelmed by ancient stuff, we accidentally came across a place which may be the closest thing to my idea of seaside heaven. A cove with caves and a shipwreck and stunning blue waters. Best of all with no one there but us, a picnic and some books. So I thought I would share it with you.

 
  

It felt like a Famous Five adventure might take place at any point and was the perfect place to read in the sun in silence. Wonderful. If you’re ever in Cyprus head to the Edro shipwreck and the coves around it, perfect hidden reading retreats.

8 Comments

Filed under Random Savidgeness

The Baths of Aphrodite, Cyprus

I mentioned a while back that I wanted to do more things on whim so I decided that this should be the case on this holiday to Cyprus with the beard and so instead of joining the various day trips out supplied (note – at extra cost) on this trip I insisted that we hire a car and go off on our own whimsical adventures. The first of which was to the opposite side of the island to the Akamas National Park and mountain range to find the Baths of Aphrodite.

 Aphrodite is everywhere on this island, in fact it’s become something of a joke with me and The Beard that everything secretly has Aphrodite in front of it from chemists to public restrooms, however she was born from the foam at the seas edge here so you can’t blame them can you? But the idea of seeing the place she bathed (below a palace, we mere mortals cannot see, on the surrounding mountains) and where she and Adonis met was just too tempting. It seems the classicist roots from my mother are still in my blood. And so off we headed and found the grotto in question.

 

I wasn’t as bowled over by it as I expected to be (we’ve slightly more delectable grottos in my hometown of Matlock Bath) this still didn’t stop us both using the water on our skin for its magical youthful properties which are supposedly magical.

 

As the sun was out and the surrounding area was an abundance of flowers, butterflies, lizards (two massive ones), goats and stunning views of the sea we decided to follow the Aphrodite trail to a temple above and an oak tree where she would sit and contemplate the world both mortal and godly. And 7km isn’t far is it?

 

Well it turns out when it’s up a mountain over rocky terrain it is but wow were the views worth it. I actually said at one point that I felt like I was up the beanstalk in the land of the Giants.

The Beard was slightly sniffy that an oak tree would exist in these parts and indeed if one did there were bound to be loads. How wrong was he? After quite a walk we turned a corner and suddenly were faced by a single oak tree, there were no others, and the most silent and still point in the whole wood on the whole mountain. A mini valley cum glade that honestly felt quite other worldly even if you can’t tell from the picture. I will never forget it.

 
After a small bit of contemplation we realised we weren’t even half way on the walk and so headed up even higher and we’re just beginning to worry the mountain would never end when we reached the summit and were greeted by this…

 
I could completely understand why people felt that this could be the home of the gods. And then we turned a corner and it got even better…

 
Just amazing. We sat and just watched the world in all its quietness and stillness for quite a while just taking it all in. We then had to get back down which involved some interesting manoeuvring following mountain goat paths and looking like graceless goats, of which thankfully there is no photographic proof. We had to remember to watch our step and not just stare at the scenery till we fell off the precipice. A hairy scary but stunning decent down where bar four other walkers we saw no one. It felt like we were the last people on earth. And we quite liked it.

Quite the start to the holiday. Heartily recommend it if you are ever in Cyprus.

2 Comments

Filed under Random Savidgeness

Savidge Reads in Cyprus…

We have arrived safe and sound in Cyprus after a very early start and a very pleasant flight, which didn’t take anywhere near as long as expected. Hoorah. You know how I feel about planes. We are now safely ensconced in our hotel, which is wonderful…

 

And have been off exploring the local Paphos area, mainly wandering along the waterfront as the sea is the harbour is mesmerising and very clear. I might have to have a dip or two at some point.

 
Next up planning what to do for the next week, most of it will be Aphrodite based (which my mother will be proud of as a classicist), halloumi based or reading by the pool/sea based. I may report back in between blog posts I’ve scheduled just to share the experience, hopefully it won’t bore you all too much – we all know what other people’s holiday photos can be like don’t we? Ha.

6 Comments

Filed under Random Savidgeness

The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood

As this goes live I should hopefully be out on a (half) Turkish isle, which is a slightly dubious link to my review today, as Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic starts off on a remote Turkish island. Admittedly one that is cold and snowy as opposed to the (hopefully) sunny one I will have descended on. I have purposefully headed to Cyprus for a reading retreat, the characters in The Ecliptic however have gone away to help harness their creative endeavours. So I thought it was an apt time to discuss a book which I read on another reading retreat last year and have been thinking about a long time since for all sorts of reasons…

9781471126703

Scribner, 2015, hardback, fiction, 480 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Portmantle, on the Turkish island of Heybeliada, is a retreat for artists away from the world where they can either rest or recuperate their genius or let that genius loose of their minds and bodies on full cylinders. Here there are strict rules, you must change your name and not only forget the world outside it’s grounds but also endeavour not to refer to it, designed to harness the purity of your concentration and focus. At Portmantle we meet Knell, a painter, along with Quickman the novelist, Pettifer the architect, MacKinney the playwright who have become a little clique, that is until the arrival of a new young artist, Fullerton, whose arrival sets tongues wagging and (as can be the case when anyone new enters a situation) alters the equilibrium between the group. Knell in particular finds herself drawn to Fullerton and his seemingly slightly tortured and mysterious soul.

Of the four of us, it was surely Quickman who valued his detachment most. In the early days, we could not look at him without thinking of the famous photograph on the back cover of his novels – the sunflower lean of him towards the lens, arms crossed defiantly, the brooding London skyline on his shoulders. We had grown up with him on our shelves, that stylish young face squinting at us over bookends, from underneath coffee mugs on our bedside tables. His real name was known in many households, even if it was not part of daily conversation; in literary circles, it was a synonym for greatness, a word that critics added esque to in reviews of lesser writers.

It is hard to say much more about this section of the book for fear of some spoilers which lead to an incredibly gripping, twisted and wonderfully gothic story which I was completely enthralled by. This dramatic conclusion, which is roughly under a third of the book, then sees a sudden shift where we go back to Knell’s life before Portmantle when she was known (and indeed became very well known) as Elspeth Conroy. We follow her life and career as she becomes an assistant, to artist Jim Culvers, after university and then becomes a much acclaimed artist herself in the years that follow.

Now I have to say that the shift in tone niggled me a little at first though Wood soon lulled into the world of the art scene in London (with periods in New York, one of the books strands takes place on a voyage between the two) in what the fifties, yet cleverly has a timeless feel like Portmantle does. As we follow her through the discovery of her creative genius, for that is what she becomes hailed as, we watch as she falls in love, gains confidence, then questions herself as her raise to fame brings other pressures and changes her world for the good and the bad. This is where I found Wood does a marvellous turn at looking at how wonderful the arts and culture world is and also how utterly bonkers and absurd.

I never understood why all this glitz and pageantry was required to sell a picture – it certainly had nothing to do with art. Every painter I respected worked alone in a quiet room, and the images they made were intended for solemn reflection, not to provide the scenery for obnoxious gatherings of nabobs and batty collectors wearing too much perfume. After a while, the company of such people became the norm, and I was expected not only to enchant them with my work, but also to fascinate them with my personality. If I baulked at placating these strangers, it merely served to enthral them even more.

I am not renowned for being a huge fan of books about the arts, in fact often quite the opposite (odd considering I work for a cultural team and love that world, maybe it feels a bit like a busman’s holiday) yet I was converted by Wood because of his writing – which reminds me of Colm Toibin for some reason, which is a big compliment. Firstly the character of Elspeth is such a vivid one, I genuinely felt as if I was with her along all these varied and different through both the highs and the lows. I also thought Wood evoked the era and the places wonderfully, whilst also giving them a slightly surreal edge too almost like a fairy tale but without the magic. I also really liked the feeling that something was coming, again no spoilers here, that would then lead Elspeth to Portmantle and to a life as a pseudonym. I was gulping it all down, especially once we then return to the gothic world of Heybeliada where everything gets all the more odd, sinister and surreal.

There is however a but coming and it is this that I have been thinking about for months since I finished the book and it all revolves around the denouement that you don’t see coming yet sense in the air as the tension gets more and more fraught as The Ecliptic’s conclusion arrives. I think this nameless moment is probably a huge divider for anyone reading the book. People will either love it or they will possibly be a little bit miffed by it, even when another little twist follows. I sadly fell into the latter camp, though I know I am one of the few and far between as many people who I love and trust the opinions of loved it. I felt tricked but not in a good way. I love endings I don’t expect, I love authors doing something different and Wood does these wonderfully. I just think the manipulation that many see as marvellous, and I admire, just lost me and completely unintentionally. I should have worked for me as it has for so many, but it just made me a bit peeved. This was definitely one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ moments as Benjamin as he had me with him for 80% of the book.

Months later the scar from that slight jolt (so dramatic Simon, ha) has passed and as I mention above I can completely understand why what happens happens, the purpose of it and why many wonder at it. I am just in a minority, possibly of one. That said I look back on The Ecliptic and instantly the two worlds of the gothic Portmantle with Knell and the glitzy art world and all behind its facade with Elspeth come straight to the fore because Wood’s writing and characters are superb. I shall definitely be heading to The Bellweather Revivals in due course and think maybe The Ecliptic is a book I may need to take off my shelves in years to come and revisit again because it has certainly stayed with me and made me think about it long after I read it. I would recommend many of you give the experience a whirl and come back and tell me all about it. A perfect book group book if any of you a pondering your next choice, much to ponder and talk about.

1 Comment

Filed under Benjamin Wood, Review, Scribner