Classic Gothic Tale to Give-away

It is thanks to Jo at The Book Jotter that I have now read Rebecca, after she offered copies to readers on World Book Night, one of the conditions being to pass the book on, so what better reason to offer the book as a give-away  If you would like to enter the draw, just make a comment and leave an email address so I can contact you after the draw on Wednesday November 7. You can also assist in selecting the books that will be offered free in the US and the UK for World Book Night 2013 by clicking on the link and nominating your favourite book(s).

View from the Musée d’Oceanographie, Monaco

As a quiet companion to a wealthy dowager in Monte Carlo, it was hard to imagine how this young woman, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, was going to elevate her station in life by any other means than some chance encounter – and indeed Mrs Van Hopper’s convenient two-week malady provides exactly the opportunity that would likely otherwise never have occurred.

There was nothing for it but to sit in my usual place beside Mrs Van Hopper while she,  like a large,complacent spider, spun her  wide net of tedium about the stranger’s person.

And with the change of location from the calm, sun-filled vistas of Monaco and Italy, we arrive at Manderley, the grand estate of many rooms, corridors, wings, ritual, tradition and an established staff, all haunted by memories, both real and imagined of the previous Mrs de Winter, Rebecca.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier has created an extraordinary character who though never physically present, seems to affect everyone from the dog to the most loyal and disturbing housekeeper, Mrs Danvers to the slightly demented grandmother.

The new bride quickly comes to realise how different she is to her predecessor and perhaps being so young is therefore prone to exaggerated imaginings which add to her feeling of insecurity. All of which does make one wish someone would sit her down for a moment and explain exactly what is what, her sister-in-law comes close, but never quite stays long enough to enlighten her young sister-in-law – although that vivid imagination and neurotic behaviour do add to the suspense and excruciating discomfort of someone who feels most out of place in her new world.

Daphne du Maurier

Du Maurier herself was living in Alexandria at the time she wrote Rebecca and was said to have felt uncomfortable with her life and obligations as the wife of a commanding officer, entertaining other wives while surviving the fierce heat of an Egyptian summer.

Both woman in the novel reflect aspects of du Maurier’s own complex character and the duality of her natural inward inclination versus the more extrovert role she was required to play. No doubt these experiences she was living through on a daily basis continued to feed her imagination and enrich the two female characters who really did seem to have little in common, the author giving away few clues as to why Maxim could have married two such opposite types of women.

Intrigue, tradition, a grand estate, a young naïve protagonist with an over active imagination, all contribute to a fascinating and compelling read – a classic that continues to enthrall readers as much today as it did in 1938 when it was first published, not to mention a Hitchcock film!

Don’t forget to leave a comment and your email address if you would like to enter the draw to receive this copy.

Do you have a Daphne du Maurier favourite?

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel tr. Euan Cameron

This month our bookclub chose a slim novella by the French author Philippe Claudel to read, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh; an interesting and somewhat ambiguous title because it can be interpreted in two different ways, already a dilemma for the translator no doubt, because petite fille is the expression used for grand-daughter, but it can also be read as petite ‘little’ and fille ‘girl’.

Something I have often wondered – why is it that there is only one word fille that means both girl and daughter, whereas there are two words for the male equivalent fils meaning son and garçon meaning boy?  The same thing happens with woman and wife, the French word is femme, whereas man is homme and husband is mari.

So did the English translation go with grand-daughter or little girl you might ask? Actually neither, the English title as shown is Monsieur Linh and His Child.  I’m not sure why they stay with Monsieur rather than Mr, I was not under the impression that he spoke in French.  It becomes clear how much of a task translating a novel must be, so many decisions to make or discard with the title alone, already certain ambiguities are lost while other insinuations are made.

Our English speaking bookclub has an international membership, so while we all read the book in French, the discussion is in English. For those of us reading French as a second language, the experience was quite different from reading a book in English.

We all went through a similar experience, starting out with a dictionary close at hand and looking words up, until we got fed up with that and decided to continue reading without stopping, some of us underlining words to come back to.

As you can see, I had my pencil ready and I also downloaded the English version to my kindle and started reading concurrent chapters, only to discover I really was just repeating myself and it wasn’t necessary to do that. But enough of the process, what a stunning novella!

Monsieur Linh has no choice but to flee his country of birth due to tragedy and destruction around him, war or some kind of tyrannical regime have made it impossible for him to stay, and so he takes a boat with his grand-daughter Sang diu, arriving as a refugee in a country across the water somewhere.

In the Shadow of the BanyanThe author does not say where he came from or where he arrives at, making this part of the reading experience, in fact we all had various impressions of where the story may have taken place, my own impression very much influenced by my recent reading of Vaddey Ratner’s novel In the Shadow of the Banyan and my own travels in that part of the world.

Monsieur Linh doesn’t leave the refugee dormitory at first, but when he does he befriends Monsieur Bark and so begins a regular coming together, a special friendship despite the incomprehension of each other’s language. In a sense we are as uninformed as Monsieur Linh, we follow him into the unknown, share his anxieties and fears for Sang diu and feel the deep and mutual appreciation of the gestures of new-found friendship.

Lorsque Monsieur Bark parle, Monsieur Linh l’écoute très  attentivement et le regarde, comme s’il comprenait tout et ne voulait rien perdre du sens des mots. Ce que sent le vieil homme, c’est que le ton de la voix de Monsieur Bark indique la tristesse, une mélancolie profonde, une sorte de blessure que la voix souligne, qu’elle accompagne au-delà des mots et du langage, quelque chose qui la traverse comme la sève traverse l’arbre sans qu’on la voie.

When  Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words.  What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.

When I bought this book, another reader cautioned me against reading any reviews because there is a twist at the end of the book, so I did as mentioned and kept the reading experience pure. There is so much more I could share about how we invest ourselves in characters as readers, wishing things to happen and just as in life, ignoring the niggling instinct.

Irène Némirovsky’s Ida & La comédie bourgeoise

It is a beautiful story and I urge you to read it in English or in French, it is a testimony to kindness, tolerance, suffering and the small but heartfelt joys that friendship brings. Not just a wonderful story, but it has inspired me to be brave and try another short book in French. So I have my pencil ready loving that the novella form is so popular and inexpensive in France, so here is my next foray, – no rush mind you.

So do you read in a second language or like to read foreign fiction?

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Appreciating the rain is something I have learned relatively recently and how appropriate that I have a vision of it today, accompanied by the growing rumble of distant thunder and the occasional flash of lightning.

Until I lived in the south of France I had never experienced a period of two months continuous sunshine without a drop of rain or threat of a grey cloud on the horizon and so I began to understand and live with the dry and dusty consequence, those vast blue skies compensating for the lack of green, for without moisture there is no grass, no lush green of the variety that grows, horizontal, vertical, almost everywhere in that land of the long white cloud of my past, Aotearoa; growth that without vigilance would suffocate all that man has tried to impose in its place.

Children here are a reminder of this different relationship to rain, they adore it and can relate to Tess, the protagonist of Karen Hesse’s wonderful children’s book Come on, rain!  Tess pleads to the sky as she, her friends, her mother and all the plant life around them swelter and suffer in the interminable heat, hoping for some respite.

I stare out over rooftops,

past chimneys into the way off distance.

And that’s when I see it coming,

clouds rolling in

grey clouds, bunched and bulging

A creeper of hope circles ’round my bones.

“Come on, rain!” I whisper.

The Gift of Rain however is the title of Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel.  His second novel The Garden of Evening Mists’ was short listed for the Man Booker Prize this year and after reading a review of that book, it was suggested I should start with his début novel The Gift of Rain, longlisted for the Booker in 2007.

An ancient soothsayer once told Philip Arminius Khoo-Hutton, the half-Chinese, youngest son of a British business man:

You were born with the gift of rain. Your life will be abundant with wealth and success. But life will test you greatly.

Remember – the rain also brings the flood.

She also tells him that his companion Endo-san, his Japanese sensei, a Japanese diplomat, mentor and master of Aikido, that they have a past together in a different time and that they have a greater journey to make after this life. These are words the young man has no wish to hear, nor believes, though they will stay with him and he will see them with greater clarity as an old man, the man we meet in the opening pages in fact, as the story is narrated from dual perspectives, one as an older man recounting his life and relationship with Endo-san to an elderly Japanese widow who once loved Endo-san and has travelled from a small village in Japan to seek him out before her own death, and the second perspective when is that young man.

As Philip shares his and Endo-san’s story, we meet him as a young man living in Penang, a Malayan country ruled by the British with strong Chinese, Indian and Siamese influences.

His story unfolds in the wake of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in World War II when Philip finds that his knowledge of Japanese culture and his close friendship with his teacher can be of benefit to protect his family, though that is not how they or many others in this mixed community see his actions and involvement. He is not always convinced of his own argument and there will be much suffering in consequence.

The story navigates a complex web of connections that crosses cultures and countries, tests friendships, loyalties, duty, offers opportunity and witnesses’ betrayals. It will keep you thinking for some time after the last page is turned.

Duty is a concept created by emperors and generals to deceive us into performing their will. Be wary when duty speaks, for it often masks the voice of others.

Black Count – Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

Mention the name Alexandre Dumas and many will associate it with the classic stories as well-known now through their film adaptations, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Black Tulip and La Reine Margot (Marguerite de Valois) as they are through the novels.

In France the novelist referred to as Alexandre Père Dumas, had a son Alexandre, also a well-known playwright. Less is known about the novelist’s father General Alexandre ‘Alex’ Dumas, born in 1762, the son of Marie Cessette Dumas, a black slave from Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) and a French nobleman Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de Pailleterie, who was from a family of provincial aristocrats with a more impressive coat of arms and title than fortune to their name.

Tom Reiss has researched the life of General Alex Dumas and takes us from the French sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue to the battlefields of the French revolution and to a dark dungeon on an island in the Mediterranean, in recapturing the spirit of this extraordinary man, living in an unforgettable era, that we are all the better off for being reminded of.

Antoine was the eldest of three brothers, required to go out in the world and seek their fortunes, which they initially pursue in the army before Antoine followed his brother Charles to Saint-Domingue. At the time the world’s largest sugar exporter, it generated vast wealth using slave labour, as depicted so vividly by Isabelle Allende in her excellent novel Beneath the Sea.

Charles married into money and established himself as a planter so Antoine joined him, though without the same work ethic or ambition, content to live off his brother, until an altercation caused him to flee with a couple of slaves and his slave mistress. The brothers never saw each other again and the family lost track of the eldest brother believing him to be dead. As the eldest, Antoine was heir to the title and the ancestral estate of Bielleville, however it was passed to a nephew in the belief of his demise, until his sudden and unexpected return to France.

Antoine had fled across the mountains to Jérémie, a coffee plantation area where he settled with a woman named Marie-Cessette and had four children with, including a son born on March 25, 1762 whom they named Thomas-Alexandre.

Bielleville, the family estate

He eventually returned to France, and learning of the death of his parents attempted to claim his title which had passed to the nephew, Comte Léon de Maulde, who employed a detective to investigate the returning heir’s mysterious island interlude and return.

Chauvinault then reported on Antoine’s having bought, in the late 1750’s, the beautiful black woman named Marie-Cessette, for whom he’d paid that “exorbitant price” – implying some unusual interest in her. Before Antoine’s return to France, Chauvinault reported, he had sold three of his children, as well as Marie-Cessette herself.

The detective also brought the interesting news that Antoine’s fourth child, a boy who was said to be his favourite, had not been sold along with the others. This boy was “a young mulatto who, it is said, was sold at Port-au-Prince,” Chauvinaluth wrote, “conditionally, with the right of redemption, to Captain Langlois, for 800 livres.”

On arrival in France Antoine sends for his son and thus begins a different life for the adolescent Alex Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie. His father pawned the family estate and moved them to the rich and fast growing Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on the western side of Paris. Dumas received a superior education, expensive clothes, training in fine manners, riding, baroque dancing and duelling among other equally refined activities. After a falling out with his father, he enlisted as a horseman in the service of the queen just as the French revolution was gaining ascendancy, which resulted in him being promoted through the ranks rapidly, rising to command entire divisions.

Up until the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, nothing seemed to phase Dumas, he was respected by all, he was fair, he introduced many improvements in the armies beneath him and challenged any wrongdoings of others, whilst keeping his head – not so easy during the reign of terror.

General Alex Dumas

Alex Dumas was a consummate warrior but also a man of great conviction and moral courage. He was renowned for his strength, his swordsmanship, his bravery, and his knack for pulling victory out of the toughest situations. But he was known, too, for his profane back talk and his problems with authority.

Alexandre Pere Dumas, Novelist

He was the inspiration behind the hero of his son’s novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘, the story of the young sailor Edmond Dantes who, on the verge of a promising career and life, is locked away without witness or trial in the dungeon of the island fortress Château d’If.

An island dungeon is where Alex Dumas, finds himself after the failed French invasion of Egypt, when he is almost shipwrecked on his return, the ship limping into the south of Italy, which in the meantime has become an enemy of France and sadly Dumas’ influence with Bonaparte has diminished and he is all but forgotten.

Les Fers brisés, Paris

The story is rich in detail and reads more like a novel than the historical account that it is. Tom Reiss has excelled in researching both the vast volume of documentation, which from his account, sounds as if the Generals sent letters at an equivalent rate to which people send email today as well as visiting all of the battle sites and physical locations the General and his family were based.

Reiss encounters his own difficulties in pursuing the research, all of which contribute to making this a most compelling and entertaining read, but above all, one can’t help but admire the man, who lived in an extraordinary period of history, who was born into slavery, witnessed its emancipation, then both saw and experienced it tragically being rescinded. He deserves his rightful place in the historical annals of France, as a role model, a hero and a man of the people.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) kindly made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

Man Booker Prize Winner 2012

Tonight is the grand dinner in the Grand Hall of London’s Guildhall, where invited guests, judges and shortlisted nominees will be dining on porcini soufflé with a warm salad of wild mushrooms, black truffle shavings and cep velouté to start, then roast lamb with all the trimmings and a dessert of autumn textures and scents.

I do love how twitter lends a sense of occasion to an event I am far from, but can so vividly imagine thanks to our ever faithful, if somewhat distracted guests.

Drapers Livery Hall

It takes me back to a time-out year while studying in London and working part-time as a silver service waitress, serving many of the worshipful companies of vintners, weavers, apothecaries, blacksmiths, basketmakers, bowyers, broderers, feltmakers, farriers (ancient trade and craft brotherhoods fraternities), referred to collectively as livery companies, of which more than 100 continue to survive and meet inside some of the most extraordinary inner environments in the City of London today.

The Loving Cup

The livery companies are said to have originated in England before 1066. Guilds or associations were very popular throughout Europe and here in France, they remain prolific, although without all the pomp and ceremony that I was witness to during that year in London.

Ceremony of the Loving Cup

Rose petals in finger bowls and the loving cup ceremony, where two daggers are passed from man to man, while a third man (or woman) drinks in a protective ritual said to date back to Saxon times when King Edward was assassinated (stabbed in the back), place settings for multiple courses, at least 4 glasses for the water, wines and port and women smoking cigarettes in long-stemmed holders.

They had responsibility for standards, policy, educational qualifications, statutory and regulatory functions, and many of the guilds continue to play an important role in those areas today – however I was only witness to their meal time etiquette, which as a foreigner was a fascinating world to me, like living inside a medieval book for a night – surreal and the experience came with no explanation, only how to serve meat and vegetable using a fork and spoon in one hand, while holding a heavy plate with said food in the other. I developed very strong biceps and a unique cultural insight.

Today many of the City’s (London’s inner financial district) street names – such as Milk Street, Bread Street, Ironmonger Lane, Poultry, Cloth Fair and Mason’s Avenue – mark the sites where it all began.

And tonight book lovers and writers gather in that great medieval-style guildhall to celebrate literature and make one writer’s night, one never to forget.

Now that I’ve spent the last hour on a bit of a nostalgia trip, let’s check twitter again to see what we will be reading, will it be Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, the one on the list I have read, or Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists which I haven’t read, though I did just read his first novel The Gift of Rain.

………and the winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2012 is……..

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel!

The White Forest

Adam McOmber’s debut novel is set in Victorian London in an area I know well, at least in contemporary terms.  Jane Silverlake and her friends Madeline Lee and Nathan Ashe live in Hampstead and regularly take walks on Hampstead Heath, the ‘Green Lungs of London’, my favourite London park.  At 790 acres, it is the largest and being wooded, you can imagine it is almost a little wild in parts and certainly the closest relatively untouched inner city natural environment you will find.

Gentle rolling hills, natural swimming ponds, light forest with a few park benches scattered throughout, it reminds us of those who have appreciated its precious gift over the years.

However, most of that is in the future, because Jane and Maddy are living in 18 – – and concerned about the strange behaviour of their friend Nathan, since he returned from the Crimea War and took up with the strange, alluring Ariston Day and his secret society of young, wealthy male followers whom he refers to as ‘Fetches’.

Jane had become a loner after her mother died due to the wary reaction of others to her peculiar sensitivity, until Maddy sought her out and now with Nathan, she is content to have such close friends, even though suspicious of Nathan’s pressing interest in her strange abilities.

Jane has a talent for sensing the mood of objects around her and Nathan is interested in her skill when he discovers her ability to transfer this sensation through touch. Frustrated with his persistence and wish to experiment, she is shocked when she subsequently hears he has disappeared and that the cult he was involved with believe she had something to do with it.

My newfound ability allowed me to  see past those surfaces into another reality – a universe of animate space concealed within the inanimate.

When I looked into the faces of my friends, I became all the more determined to put right the wrongs I’d done.  But in order to do so, I still needed to understand my own nature.

Maddy and Jane decide to take matters into their own hands and try to find Nathan, leading them to a place from which they risk not being able to return.

This is one of those books, where we don’t understand all that is going on with the characters as the author presents them.  Are they really friends these three or is something else going on? Who can be trusted?  Adam McOmber does well to keep the reader guessing without giving things away, though perhaps keeps us on a string a little too long waiting for Jane to embrace her power and use it. She is somewhat the reluctant heroine, but once she finally assumes that role, it is more exciting and less frightening to follow her into the depths of this macabre adventure.

The Crystal Palace, London

Slightly eerie, steampunk literature that I can quite imagine being made into a compelling film, it has the potential to be more scary on-screen, but inhabits an enticing era and parts of Victorian London, including The Crystal Palace, originally built-in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, Southwark now home to the Tate Modern, the hidden Temple area and of course the Heath.

This is Adam McOmber’s debut novel, he also has a collection of short stories out called This New and Poisonous Air, and I have a feeling we will be seeing more from him in the future.

Note: This was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) made available from the publisher via NetGalley.