Sunday, 31 August 2014

THE HISTORY OF MARY PRINCE: A WEST INDIAN SLAVE by Mary Prince

This short book is Mary Prince's account of her life as a slave in the West Indies and later in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

What struck me particularly in her account was the huge variability in quality of her life, which entirely depended on the whim of her owners. Obviously, at all times slavery is completely immoral, but in the first family to who she belongs she is treated quite well and expresses great affection for the children she looks after. However, when she is then sold, she is separated from her mother and siblings and goes to a very harsh couple. With them, she works incessantly, from before dawn to well past dark, and is beaten for even small infractions. Unfortunately she is then sold again, to an even worse family, who force her to work collecting salt. All the slaves have to stand in salt water all day, so they acquire terrible boils. Sometimes they have to work all night, in which case no alteration is made; they still have to work all the next day. This couple then takes her to England with them when they go their on a visit. Now apparently at this time slavery was illegal in England, but legal in the colonies, so she is theoretically free to leave at any time. It struck me as very odd that her owners did not think she would leave, but curiously she does not for many months, until their treatment becomes so terrible that she goes to see some of the abolitionist activists, who assist her to leave. Her previous owner bizarrely then tries to blacken her name, so she can get no other employment and will be forced to come back to him. Even more weirdly, when he is offered her full price for her freedom (so she can go back to Antigua and be there free also), he refuses this too, presumably out of malice.

This book has a lengthy preface, in which the abolitionist who assisted her tries to convince the British public of the honesty of her words and the importance of total abolition across the Empire. It was very interesting to see what were the real debates of the period. It appears that many people did not believe that such awful things could possibly be happening. For example, Mary tells us that one of the old men was tortured by the owner, who kept throwing extra salt in his wounds so he would never heal. He didn't do this to the other slaves. You can see where this seems so unimaginably horrible that you might doubt it's reality, and he spends much of the pamphlet explaining that slavery brutalizes owners also. I find it interesting, just by the by, how little one hears about the efforts of abolitionists, which was after all really key to ending slavery. Perhaps, as they were mostly religious people, it is because they are now unfashionable?

There are also a couple of pages at the end by a West African called Asa-Asa, who tells us how he was abducted. This is very sad. The neighbouring people set his village alight, and then returned over the course of about a month to capture any and everyone they could. He does not know what happened to his family as he hid in a tree and they kept running when their enemies came. It sounds pretty much exactly like what you hear about happening today in DRC. He also tells us he changed hands as a slave five or six times within Africa itself, before he was sold to a white person, which also says something pretty sad about slavery in Africa at the time.



Tuesday, 26 August 2014

THE LIVES OF OTHERS by Neel Mukherjee

When I saw this novel described as a Dickensian romp through Bengal in the 1970s I hit BUY NOW without thinking. I do love a sweeping novel of the twentieth century in India. I am you will therefore find strangely well informed about subjects such as Partition. Not that I could tell you much about the actual border of Pakistan, but how people felt about the border with Pakistan, that I am well informed on. I am not sure why I like this kind of fiction so much; I suspect that it is because India’s history in the twentieth century mirror Africa’s in an interesting way, so it is like reading about your own story in a new setting.

This novel tells the story of one extended family living in a single house. The sons of the house are slowly losing the modest fortune acquired by the patriarch. It is full of interesting characters, from the bitter and unmarried sister, to the neglected child prodigy, to the older son who is becoming an alcoholic. The story is intercut with letters sent home from one of the children, who has become a Naxalite. Get ready to have your mind blown, and to feel you are a wussy: these are middle class university students who choose to go and live in poverty with the villagers so as to enlighten them about capitalism and forment a class war. Yes, that is their plan. It is pretty crazy. For example, these ordinary middle class men murder a money-lender in cold blood to provoke an uprising. They suffer a lot (though not as much as the money-lender), and do not meet with unmitigated success. However, extra points to the Kindle dictionary, for having a definition for Naxalite, and minus points to me: where is my idealism? All I thought about in university were grades and boys.

The novel is not profoundly memorable, but it is soothing and absorbing, and has some good writing. Here we are on the unmarried sister, who Mukherjee likes to emphasize is very very ugly:
Every since Chhaya had learned to identify the face looking back at her from the mirror as her own, she had been intimate with the fact . .. .of her own ugliness, and harder still, with the awareness that the world outside shared the knowledge too. To know that you are ugly is one thing, but to grow up with the imprint that it leaves on others’ thoughts, facial expressions, murmurs, talk, gossip is quite another; the former is a reckoning with oneself, the latter an instilling of that most adamantine knowledge of all: that the world is at is, and knocking your head against its hard shell is only going to break you, not dent the world.

In the end, there is death by torture, and death by suicide – yawn – contemporary fiction loves a good despairing finale. But it’s a good book over all, and I recommend it, particularly if you stop about twenty pages before the end.

SOME HOPE by Edward St Aubyn

SOME HOPE is the last book in the Patrick Melrose trilogy, and the weakest. Patrick is in his thirties, over his drug addiction, and attending a party. Many of the characters from previous books resurface, to various degrees of resolution.

Patrick is less fun now than when he was a drug addict. There’s an awful lot of moaning, and blaming everyone’s parents. Sample: “as his struggle against drugs grew more successful, he saw how it had masked a struggle not to become like his father.” Barf.

Three books in the social milieu is also getting a little wearing. There’s only so much of self-congratulatory snobbery one can handle. Poor old Patrick tells us he still believes that ‘rich people are more interesting than poor ones, or titled people more interesting than untitled ones.’ The mind boggles. There are also an awful lot of social climbers. Here’s one gold digging wife, on her new husband:
He may be worth two hundred and forty million dollars, but is he going to spend it? . . . . You think it’s all going to be private planes, and the next thing you know he’s asking for a doggy bag in a restaurant, or implying that you ought to be doing the cooking. It’s a complete nightmare.
I can’t believe anyone is actually like this; certainly I’ve never met them – but perhaps they do exist, and I should be glad I don’t have the kind of money that would mean I would meet them.

St Aubyn is a fine writer, and if I didn’t enjoy all the books quite the same, I’m certainly glad I read this trilogy.

BAD NEWS by Edward St Aubyn

In this novel, the second in the Patrick Melrose series, Patrick is in his twenties and struggling with a major drug addiction.

As with the other novels, there is much precise prose to enjoy. As, for example, “he could feel the onset of withdrawal, like a litter of drowning kittens in the sack of his stomach.” Or, this, on stepping out into bright daylight: “This must be what the oyster feels when the lemon juice falls.” Or: “Kay told him about her own dying parents. ‘You have to start looking after them badly before you’ve got over the shock of how badly they looked after you,’ she said.

However, I’ve yet to read a novel about addiction that isn’t fundamentally dull, and this novel is no exception. St Aubyn does his best, structuring the novel around a few days during which Patrick is collecting his father’s ashes, but there’s not much he can do with the boring routine of wanting to shoot up, and then shooting up, and then feeling bad and wanting to shoot up again. I guess ex-addicts remember it as thrilling, but I struggle to find it so. There are some particularly bad pages where he recounts the various fragmented voices he heard while high, which are almost as bad as a dream sequence.

I know it’s mean of me, but it’s also hard to feel bad for someone who admits he never “spent less than five thousand dollars a week on heroin and cocaine,” and who gorges on expensive wine he doesn’t really taste. Presented with a large bill:
He was secretly pleased. Capital erosion was another way to waste his substance, to become as thin and hollow as he felt, to lighten the burden of undeserved good fortune, and commit a symbolic suicide while he still dithered about the real one. He also nursed the opposite fantasy that when he became penniless he would discover some incandescent purpose born of his need to make money.

There’s also a bit of misogyny. Here is his entirely unbelievable attempt to write from a woman’s perspective:
It was enough to make a girl feel guilty about being so attractive. She tried to avoid it, but she had spent too much of her life sitting opposite hangdog men she had nothing in common with, their eyes burning with reproach, and the conversation long congealed and mouldy, like something from way way way back in the icebox, something you must have been crazy to have bought in the first place.
I knows boys think that girls think like this, but I've never met one that does.

So, Book 2 not quite as good as Book 1. I have hopes for Book 3.


HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson

Well, this is a book of an entirely different order. It makes you want to lay down your weapons and surrender, in the face of such an enormous achievement.

This is Robinson’s first novel. There is twenty five years between it and her second, GILEAD, which I read recently, and which also amazed me.

HOUSEKEEPING is the story of two young girls who are dropped off by their mother with their grandmother in the small town of Fingerbone one afternoon. The mother then commits suicide by driving into the lake there. The grandmother later dies, and the two girls are looked after by their aunt, who has been homeless for some decades. She still lives as a transient even in their home, pinning money to her clothes, sleeping with her shoes on, and so forth. The older girl, Lucille, leaves home as their aunt’s behavior grows stranger. The younger, Ruthie, eventually runs away with her aunt to become a transient also when the town threatens to separate them.

This being Robinson, the homelessness in this novel is not just homelessness. Instead, it is a meditation on our larger loneliness in the world.
Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are won and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apples leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.

In this world, everything has other layers, and purposes, as if it was not just a random collection of facts, but had some greater design or meaning. It’s steeped in the Bible in a way I’ve not encountered in any book written in this, or even the last century. It’s like taking a break from our prosaic times. Here she is in Fingerbone’s lake, imagining it at the resurrection:
Add to them the swimmers, the boaters and canoers, and in such a crowd my mother would hardly seem remarkable. There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbours and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole.

It’s also very well observed; here she is on walking in the forest: "But the deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among those great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral."
And on a teenage girl’s experience of other people’s opinions: "Lucille had a familiar, Rosette Brown, whom she feared and admired, and through whose eyes she continually imagined she saw."

And here she is on Fingerbone:
What with the lake and the railroads, and what with the blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.

But what’s so powerful is the alternate meanings she sees in the ordinary. I fear she has forever destroyed for me puddles. Here she is, after discussing Noah and the flood:
And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven. Still, they taste a bit of blood and hair. One cannot cup one’s hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up.

I hope also to be able to forget eventually this description of the dawn chorus:
“That’s what frightens the birds,” Sylvie assured us, because she had never seen the sun come up but the birds first rose and cried what warning they could.

I am usually a great one for plot and character, and while I did not greatly care for either the plot or the characters, I still felt like blubbing at the end of this almost impossibly good novel.

Friday, 8 August 2014

THE THIRTY NINE STEPS by John Buchan

In my never-ending quest for something to read I have taken to scanning the Penguin Classic lists on my Kindle. This was the only one in the first fifty or so I hadn’t read, though I have seen the play, so I thought I’d give it a try. Basically, stick with the play. This is a very silly boy’s own adventure, though I did enjoy that the boy was a colonial from Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe). The British people in the novel seemed to regard anyone who had survived Africa with awe, and consider him capable of all kinds of derring-do. I don’t know why I never get this kind of response from the British.

NEVER MIND by Edward St Aubyn

I read MOTHER’S MILK, the last of the Patrick Melrose novels, first, and enjoyed it so much that I’ve decided to go back to the beginning, and read them all.

In MOTHER’S MILK Patrick is in his forties, but in NEVER MIND he is just five. The books are similar though in being lucidly written, witty, and extremely well observed. Here is Patrick’s view on puddles:
In winter there was ice on the puddles, you could see the bubbles trapped underneath and the air couldn’t breathe: it had been ducked by the ice and held under, and he hated that because it was so unfair and so he always smashed the ice to let the air go free.
Nothing will destroy the a cheerfully comic tone of novel quite like a five year old boy being raped by his father, which is what happens about half way through this book. It’s particularly sad, given that the book is apparently autobiographical, and it becomes clear why the entire novel is focusing on just this one day out of Patrick’s childhood.

The father, we learn, is a controlling and unpleasant man, who has thoroughly browbeaten his wife. At one point, after she complains that figs are going to waste, rotting under the tree they have fallen from, he makes he get down on he hands and knees to eat them all. The mother only feels happy in her Buick because to her the “car was like a consulate in a strange city, and she moved towards it with the urgency of a robbed tourist.”

While the father is unpleasant, so too are most other characters. Patrick’s family and friends all live on inherited wealth, and I found it bizarre how much time the spent showing off about their finances. I was surprised by how repellent I found it. I can see showing off if you made the money yourself, but what is the point of showing off if it was your great-great-great grandfather that made it? Perhaps I am just jealous?