State of the Nation or just A Dinner Party

Having come to the end of Sebastian Faulks ‘A Week in December’, a title reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s similarly named ‘Saturday’, I’m not convinced of its label as the ‘state of the nation’ novel of the 21st century, though it does provide an interesting glimpse into the media focus of the first decade.  It is the week before Sophie Topping is to hold a dinner party for her politician husband and during the days leading up to the event, we observe the lives of some of the guests and the issues confronting them, real and imagined.

Jenni Fortune isn’t one of the dinner party guests; she is a London underground train driver with a court case pending over a jumper (suicide) survivor, whose parents are claiming negligence. Representing her case, Gabriel is one of the few non-millionaire/billionaires attending the dinner party (not quite a typical dinner party then). Jenni spends her evenings in an online ‘parallel universe’, while Gabriel’s brother Adam lives in a psychiatric facility with what seem like very real voices, a remnant of his recreational drug induced schizophrenia.

John Veals is a fortunes trader living in another alternate universe, one that will have a greater impact on the world, though none of it traced back to him. He is a deal maker for the thrill of it and oblivious to much else that doesn’t impact on his game. Like the film ‘The Inside Job’, it is disturbing to absorb such blind obsession without heed for its devastating consequences. His reclusive son Finn is fine tuning his own fascination for gambling, participating in a fantasy football team, while his mother, more concerned with appearances, is reluctant to intrude on her son’s perceived need for privacy.

A second generation Pakistani family, their fortune made in lime pickle, will also be present; their son Hassan has been given everything but feels like an outsider. Searching for purity, he judges how others spend their lives and is disappointed with himself when he experiences reluctant joy in the same things. He finds solace with a group of young Muslim radicals, while Finn finds it with expensive drugs, reality TV and his football.

Through the lives of these dinner guests, we observe how people communicate and interact; many have lost their social graces and ability to openly and honestly connect or to even know each other. People live in different worlds, yet in the same world, disconnected. Similarly, global interconnectedness has become a complex mirage of companies, names, contracts and invisible links between banks, traders, importers, middle men, the many who work in the in-between world where nothing is actually made or produced, but where vast fortunes are skimmed off before the reality of this invisible transactional world is exposed, too late seen for the bluff that it was which will then be paid for by those in the real but mundane economy who will lose their jobs, pay higher taxes, while the government bails out those all-important ‘bonus winning’ gamblers bankers.

Ironically, just as I finished reading this, I hear on the news that HSBC, who has been fined £10 million by the FSA for mis-selling financial products to elderly and disabled clients, has decided to hit back on bonuses. One almost wonders if it is a public relations strategy, such little faith we have left in these grandiose institutions.

I haven’t mentioned the snarky book reviewer, indeed references to books abound and you will be endlessly entertained finding parallels between the worlds these characters inhabit. It offers an insight into a few not quite typical London characters, the makings of a terrorist and the arrogance of the financial markets.

And now, a welcome escape into magic realism and the snows of Alaska, watch this space for ‘The Snow Child’ coming soon…

The Woman in Black

Long awaited and much anticipated (by me), Susan Hill’s ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’, though first published in 1983, is experiencing something of a revival with the film premiering this month and the ghost story genre currently ‘à la mode’.

Adapted to the stage in 1987, the play has been running continuously since then (it is the second longest-running play in the history of the West End of London), thus I have been eager to discover what lies between the slim covers of this intriguing book myself, since reading ‘A Kind Man’ and ‘The Beacon’ last year and becoming a fan of her books.

Knowing that Susan Hill is one of those writer’s whose work and combination of words I like to savour, I take my time and let the language wash over me, as I come to know Arthur Kipps, while he sits by the fire on Christmas Eve listening to his stepchildren narrate ghost stories. Though it is a festive occasion, a grain of discomfort winds itself between the lines on the page and there is a flicker of an unwelcome presence, a glimmer of something he does not wish to recall, despite being far removed from his past now.

The story unfolds as we are taken back to his early days as a young solicitor, journeying to the cold, misty, windswept marshes of Crythin Gifford where he must wind up the affairs of the recently deceased Mrs Alice Drablow. Ever prosaic, he takes the responsibility in his stride and tries to ignore the reluctance of locals to engage with him or have anything to do with the matters of the deceased widow and the eerie Eel Marsh House.

While I very much doubt that I will be seeing the film, though I am sure it is excellent and well-made, utilising known techniques to ensure viewers experience ever heightened tension, heartstopping anticipation and chilling unease to elicit that emotionally wrung out feeling – I say this if like me, you have an acute sensitivity to music which accentuates all those senses (I succeed in scaring those who weren’t scared by the movie), I do love how Susan Hill uses details of nature and the physical environment to keep the reader and her protagonist grounded in reality.

There is no music accompanying the reading of this book and so I too hang on to that ambiguous reality. When Arthur visits Eel Marsh House and for practical purposes stays the night (yes, he is rather stubborn), he reassures himself and us by opening all the windows, understanding the layout of the house, going for a walk, venturing out in the dark against his better instinct only to be confronted with something that may or may not be able to be explained. And it’s not just him, even Spider the companionable dog responds to the lure of noises that sound familiar but could indeed be sinister.

It’s the perfect ghost story, because so much is left up to the interpretation of the reader, you can be a believer or a non-believer and regardless come away from this story feeling intrigued, satisfied and wanting to talk to someone about how you understood it. I am already looking forward to the next Susan Hill book that comes my way.

That Deadman Dance

Bobby Wabalanginy is a young Noongar Aborigine boy who loses his parents and thus spends more time than most among the ‘Horizon people’, those who came to his land on ships from somewhere beyond the horizon. A happy boy, his people believe that family includes the fish, birds and animal-life who communicate messages like the wind and the sky, all of whom they read with ease whilst the newcomers marvel at their abilities, as if it is by chance that they can predict the turning of the flames of a raging fire.

Bobby befriends Mr Cross who is trying to tame a piece of land in order to bring his wife and children to join him. Mr Cross teaches Bobby English and learns some of the protocols of respect between Aborigine people and begins to understand the logic of their ways. After his death, Bobby continues his lessons with Mrs Chaine and her twins, Christine and Christopher.

‘these men from the ocean horizon or wherever it is they come from, they do not leave even when the rains come and that wind blows across the water right into their camp.’

Kim Scott evokes the simplicity of Aboriginal life and their close affinity to nature and the environment, they are part of the natural habitat and leave little trace of their inhabitancy though they are adept trackers and can see things others can’t. The European’s bring a different way of being and a different relationship to the land, its climate and tendencies, they seek to tame it and turn it into something that resembles that which they are familiar with, thus they impose their will and their ways.

“we learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours…”

Killer Whales by Badlydrawnstickman at

As the settlement grows, more people visit, interactions with itinerant whalers herald the beginning of their semi-dependency on the horizon people, who use their labour and reward them by trading food and goods, this becomes a turning point, because the whaling era comes to an end and the indigenous people are then without resources, they begin to resent that these people take their land as if they own it, use their animal brothers and then punish them for wanting to take a sheep or something else in return.

Tolerance degenerates into mistrust, laws are imposed and the European colonials assert their perceived superiority, enforcing these new rules by making an example of Bobby and others, throwing them in jail. They ensure his silence for anything he may have seen which would imply law breaking by the colonialists.

The old man snorted his contempt for Bobby’s song: those foreign words, that horizon people’s bleached and salty tongue and prickles of strange melodies. There are too many whales ashore, he said and too many people from all around, and do not greet us when they arrive or say goodbye when they leave. We are pressed by strangers from the sea now, and from inland too.”

It is a book that meanders, on plot and when it attempts to delve into a character, which it never really succeeds in doing, though Bobby is the common thread throughout. Some characters are memorable while others churn in a sea of names making the briefest of appearances. The story slows down and drifts aimlessly midway, seeming almost to lose its way, a reflection of what was happening to the population, lost in confusion.

Image courtesy of Nambassa Trust & Peter Terry

While not everyone may have the patience for this literary walk-about, Scott’s book touches something deep within, it is a window into the Aborigine people’s incredible relationship with the natural environment, how song and dance communicate knowledge and wisdom down the generations, something that if we ever knew it, has long been lost in our own western cultures, which have become less rooted in our landscape and surroundings as we seek to infuse each location we inhabit with known familiarity.

“he came alive in the Dead Man Dance and gathered together all the different selves. …It was like Bobby was them, was showing their very selves, inside their heads and singing their very sound and voices:…”

In my own virtual meanderings, I came across Cultural Survival and learned that it was only in 2007 that the United National General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which includes:

the right to live on and use their traditional territories; the right to self-determination; the right to free, prior, and informed consent before any outside project is undertaken on their land; the right to keep their languages, cultural practices, and sacred places; the right to full government services, and, perhaps most significant, the right to be recognized and treated as peoples.

It is sad it has taken this long for the hard work of many for this to become a Human Right, and there is much to do to continue to maintain it. I hope this book, quite apart from being an entertaining read, will help to increase awareness of the rights and cultural heritage of the many indigenous populations worldwide.

I am reminded in closing of the wonderful music of Yothu Yindi, an appropriate complement to the unique voices channelled by Kim Scott in this book ‘That Deadman Dance’ and winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the South East Asia and Pacific region. Do click through and listen to the powerful and beautiful ‘Tribal Voice’

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky

This is the second novel I picked up from the library, the first being ‘Fire in the Blood’ a tale of the consequence of indulging forbidden love. ‘All Our Worldly Goods’ has a similar theme but with different circumstances and this is more a story of what happened in the early 1990’s to those who preferred to make their own decisions regarding matrimony rather than follow the sage advice of their parents or in this case Grandfather. It is also a prelude to Némirovsky’s masterpiece ‘Suite Francaise’.

This is an era where marrying for love can be serious enough an outrage to find oneself disinherited. When there is only one son and heir and the family fortunes are dwindling, it is necessary that said son marries a woman with a significant and esteemed dowry. Pierre Hardelot follows his heart rather than his head and becomes estranged from his family just before being conscripted into the army to fight in the First World War.

Returning to the ruins of home © IWM (B7688)

With the onset of war, their families are forced to abandon the village, some fleeing by car, others on foot, only to eventually return to ruins, which they set about rebuilding in the hope that something as horrific and terrible as this war they have experienced can never be repeated.

However history has a habit of repeating itself, and so it does in both love and war. Another generation and an heiress banished by her family due to long standing interfamily resentments, and another son called up to war.  Fortunately death, destruction and shared traumatic experiences can provide the necessary ingredients for forgiveness, especially when strong, capable, male resources become a scarce commodity.

It is an interesting story depicting the lead up to the forced evacuations by families from the cities and provinces to find safety from the advancing invading armies, though it is dealt with lightly and there is nothing of the terror that one assumes must have consumed Némirovsky herself, knowing what her own family went through. In this story we are never confronted with the invaders and neither do we have a very real feeling for how war must have changed Pierre.

First published in 1947, five years after her death at Auschwitz, this book can now seen in context with the more recently published collection of Némirovsky’s works, unearthed by her biographers.

What the Dickens!

I couldn’t let the day pass without acknowledging that it is 200 years today since Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest English novelist of the Victorian era, the second of eight children, was born on 7 February 1812 at Landport, near Portsmouth, Hampshire. So…


Happy Birthday Dickens!

Though not poor as such, the family went through difficult times and young Charles Dickens certainly experienced and saw hardship first-hand, images and memories that stayed with him and manifested themselves over and again through the pages of his life’s work.

Photo via wikipedia

I’ve yet to start one of his books this year, though I have plans to read his last novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and ‘David Copperfield’, the latter said to be close to his own childhood experiences and perhaps less painful for him to write than his abandoned attempt to write his own autobiography, which he found too distressing to continue.

It is a testament to his popularity that his works have never been out of print and continue to be read as much today as they did when they were serialised in publications in the 19th century.

To experience or learn more of Dickens world, there is Claire Tomalin’s recently published ‘Charles Dickens,  A Life’ , an exhibition at the Museum of London and a brilliant website where you can get completely lost in Dicken’s facts and memorabilia.

My favourite commemoration thus far, would have to be Dovegreyreaders scribbles in relation to his support and inspirational campaigning for England’s first children’s hospital, the great and wonderful GOSH, Great Ormond Street Hospital.

So, do you have a favourite Dickens novel or plan to read one this year?

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

It is interesting that I should plunge straight into this story after reading Edith Wharton’s ‘Ethan Frome’. I picked this up in the library; Irène Némirovsky novels becoming a bit of a sensation after lost manuscripts hidden and deposited with friends during WWII resurfaced recently to be published to great acclaim, including the wonderful masterpiece ‘Suite Française’ which I very much enjoyed and also recommend.

I found a similarly themed story of the consequence of forbidden love, the bind of marriage and sacrifice, only this is a Ukrainian born French woman writer, so in accordance with cultural differences, as discussed in the recently reviewed ‘La Seduction’, in this story there is less holding back, the suffering occurs on account of having indulged the emotion rather than from refraining in following it through and burying it deep.

Moulin à Eau by Madeleine Merlin

The title ‘Fire in the Blood’ could be said to be an apt theme in both novels, though Ethan’s fire was dampened somewhat in its manifestation, through societal expectations and the cooling effect of a frigid New England winter.  It is a reference to youth and daring, the thing that can incite recklessness.

We enter the lives of a family in Issy-l’Evêque, a village where young women marry to escape their circumstances, where

everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn’t give a thought to the rest of the world.

The narrator Silvio, is a man who observes the young and recalls his own restless and chequered youth, he is reminded how little things change yet how impossible that was to accept back then, especially when one had fire running through the veins. He watches events unfold and resists involvement as slowly the implications of his own youthful behaviour are revealed.

Irène Némirovsky’s family fled the Russian revolution in 1918 when she was a teenager and she became a bestselling novelist in France until forced to hide out with her husband and two daughters in the village at the centre of this novel during the 1940 German occupation. She was arrested and deported to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her daughters remained in hiding and survived and it is thanks to them and the efforts of Némirovsky’s biographers, that her previously unpublished manuscripts are now being read.

The story of Irène Némirovsky’s life and the gift of her manuscripts are as compelling as her fiction, now experiencing a deserving revival in French and in English.

Do you have a favourite French author?