Wednesday, 31 October 2012

"The Woman in Black," by Susan Hill

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I finished reading "The Woman in Black" a couple of days ago, but I hadn't yet got around to writing a post about it.  I have a case of book burnout at the moment; I feel like I have lost my blogging mojo.  However, I just remembered that it is Hallowe'en tonight and so it would be fitting to put up this post now...

I was loaned this book by a friend, having - in a reversal of the normal way of things - seen the film first.  I knew that the ending of the novel is meant to be different from the play (which I haven't seen) and different again from the film, and the framing narrative made a significant factor in this difference obvious from the outset.  However, the set up for the story is the same: Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor, is sent to an isolated old house in a marsh to sort through the disordered paperwork of a deceased client.  Spooky stuff happens.

I find Susan Hill's prose style difficult, and I find it hard to explain why.  The experience of reading a page of her writing, for me, is rather like sliding at speed down a vertical glass wall, unable to find anything to grip on to and stall my descent.  I get to the end of a page and sometimes have to re-read it, finding that nothing has stuck.  It isn't that her style is particularly complex; more that her writing is quite descriptive.  It is a salutory exercise in what a lazy reader I have become, sliding over passages of description to get to dialogue or a development in the plot.  It is entirely a problem with me as a reader rather than her as a writer, which I think has been exacerbated by a reading diet of entertaining but not particularly challenging books.  I need to rectify this.

Once I'd got over this problem and managed to get a grip on her writing style, I enjoyed this book.  There is a peculiar skill in writing about things not happening: in prolonging the tension in the expectation of an event to an almost unbearable level, or in something happening in obscurity so that its significance isn't fully understood.  Susan Hill is particularly good at this, and also at another staple of the ghost story genre; making something familiar into something strange and threatening.

In addition, I realised that the ghost story in writing can cope with one of the problems of the ghost story/horror genre better than film can, by which I mean the occasionally stupidity of characters that, when I'm watching a horror film, leaves me shouting at the screen "No, you idiot, why would you want to go in there?" (or words to that effect)*.  I felt that "The Woman in Black" excels at taking you inside the thought processes of Arthur so that, instead of wondering why he does something, you can understand his initial denial, the rationale for his actions, and his attempts to master his mounting fear.  I think that the first person narrative works particularly well in ghost stories - the stories of M.R. James are the epitome of this - because they take you into the fear that the protagonist experiences and invite you to share in it.  When Arthur is scared, Susan Hill takes you into his physical and emotional reactions as the person experiencing them and not as a distanced third person observer.

This novel - along with "Howard's End is on the Landing" - has gone some way to get me over my SusanHillophobia (which I think had its roots in having to read "Strange Meeting" at school) to the extent that I looked for her other ghost story novellas when I was last in the library.  Sadly they didn't have any on the shelves.  Maybe I should pick "Florence and Giles" by John Harding as a further Hallowe'en read?  Or you can't go wrong with an M.R. James ghost story....

*The brilliant Eddie Izzard does a brilliant routine about this problem which I just rediscovered on Youtube, which you can watch here.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

"Moranthology," by Caitlin Moran

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I enjoyed "How to be a Woman" so much that, when I heard that Caitlin Moran had a new book coming out, I was first in the queue to borrow it from the library.  I was so keen that I had a reservation on it before their stock had even been delivered.

So, I was very concerned when I got hold of the book and discovered that it contained an essay about Aberystwyth.  I went to university in Aberystwyth, and I loved it there: even though I went away, a part of my head and an even larger part of my heart are still riding that slightly unsafe looking cliff railway.  I had to flick through this essay first, because I would have had to take the book back unread if she didn't like Aberystwyth.

Thankfully she does ("It had a gothic university like a castle, castle-ruins like a smashed cake, a cliff-top Victorian theme-park that appeared to have been commissioned by a pissed H G Wells...").

I am starting to feel about Caitlin Moran the way that she feels about Tracey Emin, with whom she has had a "close, decades-long, totally imaginary friendship."  The only other writer I've felt a similar kinship for was Antonia Quirke, whose book "Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers" made me feel that she would be a fun person with whom to talk about films and men over a glass of wine.  I'm at the start of a totally imaginary friendship with Caitlin; the stage where you first meet someone and end up having a ridiculously over-enthusiastic, gabbling conversation with them when you find that you are passionate about the same things.  In this case, I might as well be the target audience for a large proportion of this book: her subjects, as well as Aberystwyth, include Eddie Izzard, David Tennant, libraries and "Sherlock" ("There are women who cry when you say the words 'Benedict Cumberbatch' - and not simply because they are trying to spell it in their heads, and failing").  These all rate highly on my list of favourite things in the world.

In her preface to one article, she writes that when people say that they enjoy her columns she thinks that they mean her insightful articles on politics and society - then she finds out that they actually mean the column in which she tries to convince her husband to call her by the pet-name Puffin.  I'm afraid that I am guilty of this (by which I mean guilty of preferring her humorous articles, and not that I have ever tried to convince my husband to call me Puffin).  She does write some great social comment articles, but - as I admit to being slightly ashamedly shallow - my favourites are always going to be the ones which make me laugh; the ones about the actors I like and the television programmes that I enjoy (such as the review of "The Great British Bake-Off" episode which featured the infamous squirrel cameo).

Of course, I might be biased towards this book, as my loyalty towards my friends - even imaginary ones - means that I am now obligated to like her books....

Saturday, 13 October 2012

"Winter at Death's Hotel," by Kenneth Cameron

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I had a very complicated and confusing relationship with this book.  This novel is a slow burn - well, it was for me - and it took me quite a while to get into it; even as late as about page 200 I was considering giving up on the book and reading something else.  It is testament to how much I liked the central idea that I stuck with it.  It was round about that magic 200 page mark that I finally got hooked, and I read the last part of Cameron's novel pretty quickly.  I was then quite unsettled by the denouement and, although admiring of the skill with which it was written, I felt quite conflicted over whether I was glad that I read it.

I'm going to do something which I have never done before, as an experiment.  This review will be in 2 parts.  The first part will be spoiler free - in the teaser paragraph next I'll write a bit about how the plot unfolds at the start of the novel, but I'll try not to give away too much (as usual).  I'll write a spoiler free bit about the book, but in the second section - don't worry, I'll give you plenty of warning - I want to try to rationalise why the book unsettled me so much when I finished it last night.  If you think you might read this book, then please don't read the spoiler section.  I will try not to say outright who the killer was but, in explaining why I found it disturbing, I will need to give away significant plot developments at the end of the novel.

Kenneth Cameron's novel is set in New York in 1896.  Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle stays at New Britannic Hotel with his wife, Louisa, as he embarks on a lecture tour of America.  Whilst in the hotel, Louisa reads a paper which talks in oblique terms about the gruesome murder of a woman, and Louisa believes that she recognises the woman in the sketch accompanying the article - however, Arthur doesn't want her to become involved and finds her interest in the murder unseemly for a respectable woman.  Then Louisa has an accident while they are leaving the hotel and badly sprains her ankle; on her insistence, Arthur continues the tour without her, leaving her in New York and able to pursue her fascination with the murder in his absence.

Louisa's discovery of New York and of herself is particularly well done; she is respectable, happy in her marriage, misses her children, and yet finds within herself a spark of rebellion and independence.  Sometimes when I am reading a female character will resonate very strongly with me, and I felt this with her.  It isn't so much that I put myself in their place; more that I can imagine wanting to play the part if it was adapted for film or television (I can't act, but I wish I could).  I put myself in their place as someone plotting out how they would play a part.  She is the strongest and most memorable in a panoply of very strong female characters and it was primarily her character that kept me reading.  It's an excellent exercise in literary transvestism on Cameron's part - I can honestly say that I can't think of a more convincing example of a male author writing as a female protagonist.

The main strengths on this book are the two elements that made me want to read the book in the first place: the idea of Conan Doyle's wife as detective, and the period New York setting.  In some superficial ways - primarily the evocation of old New York - this book reminded me of Jed Rubenfeld's "The Interpretation of Murder."    Louisa at first finds New York to be exciting and vibrant, but as Cameron's plot unfolds she finds that, in many ways, the city is as hidebound by social convention as London.  In depicting New York, Cameron also brings in historical figures from the time: Louisa and Arthur themselves; Teddy Roosevelt, then Commissioner Roosevelt, plays a significant part in the narrative, as does novelist Marie Corelli, actor Henry Irving and feminist Victoria Woodhull (in a cameo).  I'd never heard of Victoria Woodhull but she sounds fascinating (she was apparently the first woman to put herself forward for the American presidency at a time when women weren't even able to vote).  I found this historical backdrop engrossing and, as I visited New York a few years ago, I am very partial to books that are set there.

Despite all the things that I like about this novel, I am confiicted over whether I would recommend this novel to another person.  And this is why.....

***************** NOW THE BIT WITH SPOILERS *******************

For a crime novel, this novel is quite unconventional in two or three significant ways.  The combination of these unexpected developments deeply unsettled me.  

Firstly and most significantly, the fate of Louisa.  I already wrote earlier in this post how strongly I felt for this characters and how much I associated myself with her.  She is the heroine of the novel: the character with whom you spend the most time; the one whose internal processes you follow and the one with whom Cameron asks you to sympathise.  It is conventional in many crime novels for the hero or heroine to leave the narrative comparatively unscathed - maybe not totally, but mostly, and with the promise of recovery.  This is really not true of Louisa.  She is brutalised by the murderer and sexually assaulted in a way that Cameron writes about uncompromisingly.  It is very shocking and disturbing precisely because Cameron has done such a good job of making you care for her fate, and even associate yourself with her.  She doesn't die, but the final image - of Arthur getting back to New York, embracing her, and her screaming and trying to fight off his touch - leaves you with the image of a woman who has been completely traumatised and broken by her ordeal.  I was left with the very real feeling that this was an experience from which she would not recover.

Secondly, it is also conventional in a crime novel for evil to be punished and order restored.  In this novel the murderer, although injured, escapes and flees across New York.  So Cameron ends the novel with a traumatised woman and no sense of - and I use this word reluctantly, as it seems a bit cliched - closure.  Related to this, thirdly, because the criminal is not caught and questioned by the police, he is never ascribed any motivation for his actions.  The open-endedness of this - no motivation besides homicidal madness with a side order of sexual gratification, no retribution - makes the violence random and somehow unrooted in specifics.  It's almost as if the ending leaves the murderer as a free-floating bogeyman, an avatar of male hatred, who might turn up if you look into a mirror and say his name three times.

This all takes place in a time period that was more socially repressive for women than today's society, and the way Cameron uses this backdrop adds to my unease.  The murders are very gruesome and the victims are mutilated, and this violence is very specifically gendered: all the victims are women.  This is largely what drives Louisa; she feels a solidarity with the victims as a woman, and is determined that their deaths will not be forgotten or ignored.  The brutalised Louisa is rescued by women and finds solace in their protection, and there is a strong feeling in this novel of men and women working against each other rather than with each other.  Victoria Woodhull argues in her cameo appearance that the "Bowery Butcher" is a hero to men; that in violently subjugating women he is doing what most men wish to do.  That is a deeply unsettling idea - which Louisa refuses to believe at the time, and I don't believe it either - but the lack of resolution or motivation, allowing the murderer to disappear anonymously in the morass of men in New York, lends itself to the idea of the violent murderer as an everyman/anyman archetype.

I hope my rationalisation of why I felt so disturbed by this novel makes some sense.  It is a very well-written book with strong characters, but the extremity of the sexual violence inflicted on Louisa in particular left me with a strong distaste.  I think that means - much in the same way as there are some actors that I dislike because they play repellent characters rather too well and, in doing so, are tainted by it - that Kenneth Cameron does what he sets out to do too well, if such a thing were possible.

I'm very aware that my response to this novel is personal and is proscribed by my gender.  I would be very interested to hear if there are any male readers who have read this, and how they responded to it.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

"The Girl on the Stairs," by Louise Welsh

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Earlier this year, I posted a picture of my pile of review books.  My intention was to catch up on these.  I have been incredibly bad at this, and my pile has grown rather than diminished.  So, when my husband was away for a couple of nights, I decided to read a book from my review pile.

In "The Girl on the Stairs," pregnant Jane moves to Berlin to live with her girlfriend, Petra.  Petra has a demanding job, and Jane is often left alone in an unfamiliar city where she barely speaks the language.  Jane, in her isolation, becomes obsessed with a teenage girl in a red coat who she meets on the stairs, believing - having heard violent arguments from the apartment next door - that the girl is being abused by her father. 

This is Louise Welsh's fifth novel, but the first of hers that I have read.  It's a compact book - about 270 pages, when most of the books I read are nudging 400 - and very economically written.  It's a novel that is driven by character and plot, and her writing style powers this along without a great deal of extraneous detail and description.

The central character of Jane is very effectively written, and the story unfolds through her experiences and perceptions.  If this were made into a film, the actress playing Jane would be in every scene.  Jane is anxious and uncomfortable in her own skin, especially now that she is sharing it with someone else.  She still smokes - continually flirting with giving up - doesn't eat properly and puts herself in danger; at one point she thinks "only a fool would put their unborn in danger," before going on to do exactly that.  Jane is an interestingly ambiguous and flawed character - a classic unreliable narrator -  and Louise Welsh raises more questions about her past than she answers.  This would normally annoy me - I normally like answers rather than unsatisfying loose ends - but Welsh does it well enough and sparingly enough for me to not find this irritating.

"The Girl on the Stairs" gathers momentum towards a great Roald Dahl-y denouement (meaning it has an unsettling "Tales of the Unexpected" feel, and not that they end up in a chocolate factory).  It is a quick read - it took me two evenings - and I enjoyed it as a good psychological thriller in a domestic setting.  I'm trying to be ruthless and, when I have finished books, I'm taking them into work for our swap shelf - however, this is one that I enjoyed so much that I am considering keeping it to reread in the future.