Some books people tell you that you simply must read and yet you simply don’t. One book that my Gran has always enthused about and even my mother has always said I must read (both are book obsessed, the later less so at the moment) is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I don’t know if it’s the fact so many people have said that it is wonderful that has made me hold off (overhype can be a terrible thing) or the fact that Nicholas Cage is in the film, which I haven’t seen, and therefore I sadly associate the book with an actor I cant stand, either way I have held off from the book and the author. However when the lovely people at Harvill Secker sent me the new Louis De Bernieres book which is about a village filled with unusual crazy characters I couldn’t hold myself back from reading it almost instantly.
Notwithstanding is not only the title of Louis De Bernieres latest book it is also really the biggest character in the book. Notwithstanding is a fictional village somewhere in Surrey, England not too far away from the very real Haslemere and Godalming. What the book actually entails is some of the unusual and interesting characters and the stories of what they get up to. It is in fact based on an English village that the author actually lived in when he was younger though this isn’t a memoir it’s a fictionalised version. It brings to life those English idylls that are very much still out there and celebrates the quirkiness of village life.
It was a day in middle March, of the kind that for early risers begins sunny and uplifting, but which for late risers has already degenerated into the nondescript gloom that causes England to be deprecated by foreigners. The rooks were breaking off the ends of willow twigs and building their nests with raucous incompetence, most of the twigs ended up on the ground below, whence the birds could never bother to retrieve them. The box hedges were in blossom, causing some people to ring the gas board, and others to wonder what feline had pissed so copiously as to make the whole village smell of cat piss. Out on the roads, squashed baby rabbits were being dismantled by magpies, and frogs migrating to their breeding ponds were being flattened into very large and thin batrachian medallions that would, once dried out, have made excellent beer mats.
The characters are all marvellous in the novel. I say novel but in many ways it reads like a collection of short stories which is what it also is I suppose though characters intertwine with stories and so it comes together as a novel. You have the marvellous mother and son who communicate to each other via walkie talkie… in the same house, Polly Wantage who dresses like a man and spends most of her time out shooting squirrels, several mad dogs, a general who spends most of his time naked, a spiritualist who lives with her sister and ghost of her dead husband and people who confide their biggest secrets with spiders in their garden sheds. It is a huge amount of fun.
Though this isn’t just a funny throw away book. Though there is endless humour the book has a real heart, celebrating the ordinary and delighting in the quirky nature of us English folk. The prose is beautiful and makes everything very vivid so in no time I felt like I had newly moved into the village and was ‘getting to know the neighbours’ as it were. I could happily have moved there tomorrow. De Bernieres also experiments in less than 300 pages with various genre’s of fiction, there is the comic side but we also have a historical tale of the village of old, a ghost story and a mystery.
There are also some tales which on the outside seem to be fun and light but read on and they become much darker and deeper. Two of the stories moved me greatly and one was incredibly sad. The one which hit me most was that of the naked general who ends up in Waitrose with no pants on, at first I was laughing away and then realised that this isn’t a tale of a nudist but a tale of a widowed man who only has his dog for company and is undergoing the onset of Alzheimers. Not so funny then is it, yet in earlier tales its hilarious.
The tale that actually nearly made me cry on two levels was ‘Rabbit’, which also appeared in a collection of shorts by Picador in 2001. This is the tale of friends walking through the fields to find a rabbit with myxomatosis which is described in detail (and is just upsetting) so one of the party decides to go get his gun and put it out of its misery. In doing so the act itself is so horrid to the elderly man it brings back all the killings he endured during his time in the war and even the mercy killing of a friend. A very clever, breathtaking and emotional tale told in just ten pages.
I thought this book was fantastic, it made me laugh out loud, had me on the verge of tears and everything in between. It has also made me want to pack up my London flat and move off into some small random village somewhere and embrace myself in all village life has to offer, maybe not now though, something to look forward to in my retirement. I have noticed I do love a good village based read Joyce Dennys ‘Henrietta’s War’ had me entranced, and I have two more on my bedside table that are village based. ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield as recommended by Elaine of Random Jottings and P.D James ‘Cover Her Face’ the latter being a slightly morbid take on village life after someone is murdered at a village fete. What other village based quirky fiction is out there?
I think I may have to give in to the charms of De Bernieres words more often now and may have to get my hands on a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin finally. Has anyone else out there read it? What did you make of it (no spoilers please)? Oh and how could I forget if you would like to win a copy of the book do pop by tomorrow before the Sensation Season Sunday post (its Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon this weekend) as there will be a little village based competition and giveaway. Now your thoughts on village fiction and Louise De Bernieres please!