Saturday 12 December 2015

The Japanese Lover

The house stood in a privileged position on top of a promontory between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.  At first light, the thick mist rolling in from the sea like an avalanche of cotton wool often obscured the Golden Gate Bridge altogether, but in the course of the morning it would lift and the elegant red iron structure would gradually emerge against a sky dotted with gulls, so close to the Belasco's garden that it seemed possible to reach out and touch it. The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende

I once read a couple of chapters of The House of the Spirits and decided Isabel Allende was Not My Cup of Tea. I’m now eating my words because her new novel The Japanese Lover is smart and funny with the kind of assurance in the text that only the best writers have. San Francisco’s Lark House residence for the elderly attracts ‘left-wing intellectuals, oddballs and second-rate artists.' It’s also home to the aloof and aristocratic Alma Belasco, a former silk screen artist who goes to yoga class, wears bright red lipstick and a 'masculine fragrance of bergamot and orange blossom.’ Every week she receives a box of three gardenias from a mysterious donor, she owns a cat called Neko (Japanese for ‘cat’) and every so often she disappears on mysterious visits taking an overnight bag.

When Irina, a kind-hearted young drifter finds a job as a care worker at Lark House she befriends Alma and along with Seth, Alma’s grandson who is besotted with Irina they uncover a love story between the young Alma and the son of a Japanese gardener which spans forty years and encompasses the harrowing treatment of the Japanese in America following Pearl Harbour.

This book has a satisfying story, a warm and witty narrative and a rather beautiful cover. An ideal Christmas present in fact.
Happy Christmas!

Saturday 7 November 2015

Bronte revisited

We've had some Dickensian fogs in south-east England recently which have provided a suitable backdrop to my Bronte reading this month!  While I was waiting for the publication of Claire Harman's new biography of Charlotte Bronte I re-read Wuthering Heights.  Although I adored it as a student it is harder to read when you are older because the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy seems so overblown.  But in a way that's how it should be because those intense emotions are the preserve of the young.

What doesn’t change when you re-visit Wuthering Heights are Emily Bronte’s beautiful poetic descriptions of the natural landscape. Edgar Linton placing a bunch of golden crocuses on the dying Cathy’s pillow which remind her of the first spring flowers at Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s burial in a corner of the kirkyard ‘where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor and peat mould almost buries it ' and the fantastic scene where the young Catherine puts primroses in Hareton’s porridge to make him laugh.

I was interested to read in Claire Harman’s biography that it was her sister Anne’s Agnes Grey and Emily’s Wuthering Heights which inspired Charlotte to create the story of a governess with a passionate nature and a steadfast refusal to be suppressed which became Jane Eyre. The longed-for literary success of Jane Eyre is of course overshadowed by the loss of Emily and then Anne. Harman’s depiction of Charlotte searching the moor in December to find a living sprig of heather to take to her dying sister is heart-breakingly sad.

It’s a meticulously researched biography and Harman is not over-awed by the genius of her subject. There are some cool asides about the sometimes bizarre behaviour of the Rev Bronte and some excellent analysis of Jane Eyre. However, I’m still not sure that this is the definitive biography of Charlotte Bronte.

Just a word about the stunning cover which is a Chloe Giodarno embroidery commissioned by Penguin. You can see her amazing embroidered animals on her website.

Sunday 13 September 2015

febbre Ferrante

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore. Elena Ferrante
Spent yesterday afternoon in the cafe pavilion at my local park enjoying the last of the summer sunshine and re-reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I’m re-reading the first volume of the Neapolitan series because I’ve just finished the newly published fourth volume The Story of the Lost Child and fallen in love with it all over again - the sea, the stradone, the island of Ischia, the siren call of Naples and the brooding shadow of Vesuvius.

The Story of the Lost Child covers the late seventies and early eighties. Elena and Lila are now in their mid-thirties and resume an uneasy friendship. Elena has had considerable success with her writing career and left her husband for her lover, Nino, causing her mother-in-law who is highly influential in publishing circles to ostracize her and her mother to react with her usual fury. Lila is having considerable success in business in the early days computing and has regained some power and status in Naples.

The writing is intense and relentless. I found myself routing for Elena when she stands up to her mother-in-law while simultaneously condemning her for putting her lover before her daughters. Lila remains enigmatic and Elena always has the feeling that she is one step ahead of her. Both women become pregnant and there is a traumatic incident where Vesuvius erupts which triggers a nervous breakdown in Lila. The volcano seems to serve as a metaphor for Lila’s mental health. Bringing their daughters up together and sharing their care the two friends become close again until the traumatic event at the heart of the novel which changes everything and the quatrain ends as it started with the disappearance of Lila.

Have you caught Ferrante fever yet?

Sunday 7 June 2015


Just back from a bright and breezy weekend in Brighton and Hove. One of the pleasures of Brighton is the big Waterstones which has five floors and a nice coffee shop on the top floor where you can glimpse the sea.  I bought Lily King’s Euphoria which has been top of my wishlist for a while. I knew when I read the reviews and blog posts that a 1930's love story set on the Sepik river based on the early life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead would be just the kind of literary novel I enjoy.

Christmas Eve, 1932.  Fen and his wife Nell, anthropologists studying the river tribes of Papua New Guinea, board a boat intending to leave the country. Wearing filthy clothes, suffering from tropical sickness and nursing cuts and bruises they contrast with the other couples on the boat, the ladies in stiff party dresses and men in dinner jackets passing around gin. From a conversation with the women on the boat Nell learns that a book she has published has caused quite a stir in her home country.

At the clubhouse they meet Bankson another renowned anthropologist who has been working with the Sepik river tribes for many years. Lonely and traumatised by the loss of his brothers Bankson is drawn to Nell and tends her wounds and persuades them both to stay on and work with another tribe. Thus begins a bitter love triangle between Nell, her handsome and manipulative husband Fen who ‘smells of Cambridge and youth’ and the kind-hearted and vulnerable Bankson. 
I should say that the character of Nell is only loosely based on  Margaret Mead and she is attractively drawn as a perceptive, methodical and hardworking scientist with an affectionate heart. I loved the description of Nell re-telling the story of Romeo and Juliet to the Tam tribe who find it hysterically funny.   
When a talented writer breaks away from ‘domestic fiction’ there a huge creative possibilities. I’m thinking of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood BibleEuphoria is the best novel I've read this year.  There is an excellent Vogue interview with Lily King here if you can get past all the ads.  Cluttering literary interviews with fashion ads is sooo last year dahling! 

Friday 10 April 2015

All My Puny Sorrows

Nora will live on the top floor in the attic, with the squirrels, me on the second with the mice, and my mom on the main floor, close to the skunks.  We will be able to step out of our broken back screen doors at different levels and break into song like they do in La Boheme. 
I didn't expect a novel about the suicide of a beloved sister to be breezy and uplifting but All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, although heartbreakingly sad, is a life-affirming novel.

Elfrieda is 'glamorous and dark and jazzy like a French film star.'  She has an international career as a concert pianist and a loving husband.  She also wants to die, has attempted suicide before and will do it again.  Her younger sister Yolandi has teenage children, a couple of failed relationships behind her, a fondness for red wine and carries the kind of to-do list in her head which runs 'airport, car door, shower curtain, get divorced.'

Yoli is terrified that the psych ward will discharge her sister and has running battles with an elusive team of care workers, a 'mobile-phone hating nurse' and a flippant psychiatrist who makes the nurses giggle 'as though they were standing next to Elvis in Girls! Girls! Girls!.'

While Elf is a dazzling character - literary, musical, street smart yet highly strung - it is Yoli who holds extraordinary appeal for the reader.  Whether madly cycling along the path to visit her sister in hospital and flinging her bike on the grass without locking it or trying to secure an oversize Christmas tree which comes crashing to the ground or drinking a glass of wine or three with her friend Julie she is a staunch and loyal friend, daughter, wife and mother who is desperately trying to stop her circle being depleted by one more.

I really wanted this book to win the Folio prize, shame it didn't, but I hope it will be nominated for more literary prizes.  My main picture is the hardback, but it's just out in paperback (on my sidebar) which has an attractive green/blue variation on the original cover illustration.   Brilliant book!  

Sunday 1 March 2015

Leaving Before The Rains Come

I don’t often get to listen to Radio 4's Book of the Week because of work but I took leave a couple of weeks ago which happily coincided with some bright sunshine and the serialisation of Alexandra Fuller’s new memoir Leaving Before The Rains Come. You may remember the first memoir of her African childhood Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and the second volume Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness in which Fuller is unsentimental about coming of age in a family of white settlers in war-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in the seventies.  This book examines what happens after she met Charlie, an American running a safari company in Zambia.

Leaving Before the Rains Come is like catching up with old friends - Bobo (Alexandra) her sister Van (face-of-the-eighties), their mother (Nicola Fuller of Central Africa), stoical father Tim and mildly stoned cook, Adamson, are all here.  Fuller is brilliant at conveying the beauty and stupefying heat of the landscape.  Living with Charlie and their first baby, Sarah, in a cottage on the banks of the Zambezi river she has to purchase a 'wearable mosquito net cloud' and nurse the baby under it because of an outbreak of yellow fever.  When the heat becomes unbearable in February she moves the bed out onto the veranda:
And, lying under the mosquito net with my child and my husband next to me, listening to the shouting hippos, the pulsing night insects, the shrieking bush babies, I fell deeply back in love with the land of my childhood.
 It is when they decide to move to Wyoming, that illness, debt, pressures of work and an accident take their toll on the marriage and Fuller struggles to reconcile her hardy South African self with risk-averse American middle-class life.  However, the memoir really gets into its stride during her Wyoming years and Charlie's family are charming with an intriguing history. 

In an interview Louise Erdrich once said ‘To be mixed blood is a great gift for a writer. I have one foot on tribal lands and one foot in middle-class life.'  Fuller's conflict has made for a poignant and highly-readable memoir.