Friday, 5 April 2013

"The Daylight Gate," by Jeanette Winterson

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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.

In my last post I admitted to not having read very much Oscar Wilde and to neglecting the classics in general. In this post, I have to admit that I have read very little of Jeanette Winterson's writing. I think that I read "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit" a long time ago, but nothing else since. And, to be honest, I am not sure that I would have found my way to reading this novel, had I not been loaned it by a friend and Hammer horror fan (this is published by Hammer).

In common with the last book that I read and reviewed on this blog, "Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol," Jeanette Winterson's novel takes its starting point from historical events.  In "The Daylight Gate," she takes real-life figures from historical records of the 1612 Trial of the Lancashire Witches - both the accused and the accusers - and weaves them into a fictional narrative. This was something that I know little about, but since reading this novel I have been finding out more about the history from this fascinating website.

Although I enjoyed the story and the historical background was interesting, I don't think that this has inspired me to seek out other novels by Jeanette Winterson. I do concede, though, that as I have not read much by her before I don't know how typical this novel is of her normal writing style.  I found that her prose was very bare - quite short sentences, to the point, with not much extraneous detail - and I think that it was probably too bare for my taste.  It's odd that the same friend who I borrowed this book from had also loaned me "The Woman in Black."  When I wrote about Susan Hill's ghost story here, I wrote that I found her descriptive writing hard to grip on to.  Curiously I found it hard to get a grip on Winterson's writing in this novel due to the paucity of description.  Just call me awkward; I'm sure my husband probably does.

I also felt that, although there are grim and gruesome parts of this book, it wasn't especially scary - and I did have the expectation that it would be because this was published by Hammer.  In this respect I felt that "The Woman in Black" was more effective, although I should admit that my limited horror reading does incline more towards the ghostly than the witchy (despite having called our cat Pyewacket, which is the name of a witch's familiar in a play I love called "Bell, Book and Candle").  One reason why I favoured "The Woman in Black" was that Susan Hill took us more into Arthur Kipps's fear, reactions and emotions - and fear can be incredibly catching - while Jeanette Winterson's sparse style seems to take the dictum of "show, don't tell" to extremis.  I didn't feel that I got much of a sense of the inner life of her characters - although the lesbian love story part of the novel was poignant and effective - and I wanted more insight into them.  

If you are interested in reading or watching something about witchcraft and history, I would be more inclined to recommend "Vinegar Tom" by Caryl Churchill.  This is a theatre work which I have never seen staged, but I remember reading and enjoying the script when I was at university.

Although this did not necessarily work for me, I am still intrigued to read more that has been published by Hammer and I do like a good ghost story.  In particular I am keen to get my hands on "The Greatcoat," by Helen Dunmore....

Monday, 1 April 2013

"Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol," by Gyles Brandreth

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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.

This is the most recent in Gyles Brandreth's series of novels that feature Oscar Wilde as detective, and you can also find reviews of some of the previous entries in the series on this blog.  This novel takes place at a time nearing the end of Oscar's tragically short life, so it looks likely that this is the last in what has been an entertaining series.

The framing narrative for this novel takes place after Oscar Wilde has left Reading Gaol.  Oscar is in Dieppe, and is approached by a mysterious man who asks him to write about his time in prison - it is this account that forms the spine of the story.  This finds Oscar at his lowest ebb, having just been found guilty of gross indecency, suffering dysentery in prison, deprived of books, writing materials, fine food, drink and society.  In the solitary hell of Wandsworth Prison, a brutal warder bursts into Oscar's cell at night, raging against him, and then drops dead.  When Oscar is moved to Reading Gaol, the mystery follows him.

This is a more pared down entry to the series with a smaller cast of supporting characters by dint of its claustrophobic, insular setting.  Neither Conan Doyle nor Bram Stoker feature as characters - and I did miss them - but, according to the acknowledgements, many of the other characters were real-life figures at the time who Brandreth has similarly fictionalised.  The lack of Conan Doyle, although he is mentioned, does mean that the element of reverse engineering of Holmesian plots - which I wrote about in previous reviews of the series, and sometimes found problematic - is less prevalent in this novel.

I am still less adept at recognising where Oscar Wilde ends and Brandreth begins than I am spotting the Conan Doyle allusions.  I keep thinking that I should read more of the classics - I have read very few since leaving academic life - and then I get distracted by the latest Janet Evanovich or Howard Jacobson (granted, the latter is rather more literary than the former). I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," so some of Brandreth's phraseology might be trying to emulate it in ways that I am too poorly read to recognise.

This is a good breakfast book series, which I enjoyed (although I am not sure reading about dysentery is the best breakfast reading) and I always find it interesting when an author merges real historical figures with fiction.  They are entertaining mysteries that draw on Wilde, Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker but - aptly as I did write that I should read more classics - I do feel inclined to go back and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories or novels, "Dracula," or "The Picture of Dorian Gray" while I doubt that I would return to read this series again.