A Wordy Title for a Wordy Novel

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Angela Carter never fails to both impress and confuse. Her 1972 picaresque novel is a science-fiction tale of blind love, surrealism, and liberation from modern ideologies. Desiderio, a man without imagination, is sent on a mission to seek the sinister Doctor Hoffman, who with the help of his infernal machines, has broken the rules of reality and blended physics with the transcendental. Wrong is right, right is left, Nebulous Time develops its own infrastructure and ecosystem, and a selection of slides in a travelling peep-show eerily predict the outcomes of his journey. Infatuated by Albertina, a mysterious woman made of glass, he discovers on his way disturbing forms of rape and counterculture, both of which in many cases go hand in hand. Sexual desire, or “eroto-energy,” as she calls it, is a big theme throughout the tale, and while at times it feels heavy and disturbing, it still by all means works.
The way Carter bends time is fantastic. She reveals the ending at the beginning, deliberately gives away surprises before they have arrived, and yet still leaves you shocked by her sheer power of words on page, for even then she is captivating. It pulls us into Desiderio’s world of unreality and unwoven time, and left me sympathetic when he ultimately made his choices.
While much of this novel is brilliantly constructed, and wonderfully theoretical, the use of metaphor and simile was, in my opinion, very heavy, and the intertextual references were enough to alienate me at times. She, herself, commented on how she struggles with dialogue and prefers working with descriptive text, which is evident in this novel, but I felt like much of her theoretical analysis could have been pared down, or even simplified.
I would recommend any of her works, for she is something of a literary heroin of mine, and a master of literature, but the sheer density of this manuscript leaves me advising only to read this book if you fancy a challenge. You will learn a thing or two from investigating this story. I certainly did.

My rating: 3.5/5

A Sad, Sad Tale

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John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner is, by a mile, the saddest and scariest story I have ever read. Not for any dramatic, heart-wrenching, gut-punching reason, but simply because what happens to the protagonist so easily happens to all of us.

William Stoner is no hero; he isn’t anybody at all, really. He is unremarkable, unlucky, and a prime example of the everyday man or woman. He is born, lives a life of disappointments, and dies. That’s it. And John Williams’s bland literary style perfectly captivates the list-like day to day continuations of Stoner’s life.

He marries the wrong woman. His job consumes him and yet disheartens him. He has very little friends. He tries little, and fails in most. But it is in this reality we can see ourselves. His distance from the remarkable (set between the world wars, too) shows us exactly what happens to most of us, in drifting to our end, and how disheartening it is for much of our efforts to result in nothing.

But the gloomy context is, in itself, an enlightening experience. It teaches us to live while we have life in us, and take every opportunity when it comes to us. It gives the invisible majority a voice, and what a fantastic voice it is. An amazing opportunity to smile, to cry, and to fall in love with what we have around us, which is, unlike the novels we so often read, utterly normal.

My rating: 5/5

The Color Purple – An American Masterpiece

 

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The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, follows African-American sisters Celie and Nettie through the hardships women faced in the early 1900s, before the African-American Civil Rights Movement, under the oppression of sexism and racial segregation. If you have seen the movie (with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey) or the hit Broadway musical, you will surely understand just how masterful this work is.

 

Admittedly, I initially had some difficulty adjusting to Walker’s literary style, but this is simply because the diary/letter format was written so clearly in the voice of the characters, particularly Celie. Indeed, the difference between Celie’s condensed, pointedly un-educated voice and Nettie’s progressively eloquent style is a very powerful tool to show just how differently their lives pan out.

 

There are simply too many things to talk about with this novel, and I don’t really know where to begin. Should I discuss the religious discussions in the text? The differing attitudes towards God and their reflections on the expectations of society? The white-man Jesus and whiter bearded God and Christianity’s slow burning and unwitting racism? And what of Celie’s relationship with men? And women? Just see how the husband she is forced to marry has no given surname, and is simply referred to as Mr -, as is her husband’s father. A simple yet effective tool to show how she views all men in the same light, yet we know exactly who she refers to every time, and need no name to feel like we are sitting in the same room as them.

 

A character I particularly admired was Sofia, played in the film by Oprah Winfrey. She was perhaps Walker’s greatest tool of addressing the societal attitudes towards men and women. When a woman stands up for herself, why is this considered masculine? Why is she now “wearing the trousers”? Why must the woman clean pots and the man make sure they’re spotless? She is undoubtedly the strongest person in the novel, and goes through the worst hardships (imprisonment, slavery, degradation, physical abuse), and the gradual decline in her health and spirit are arguably the most tragic. Yet, against all odds, she still comes out on top, and demonstrates the finest example of fighting the good fight and maintaining a supportive inner dialogue when external voices are telling you that you’re worthless.

 

Another topic beautifully discussed is Celie’s love for lounge singer Shug Avery. Her sexuality is never admonished, but it is an important factor in the story, considering attitudes towards homosexuality, not just then, but now.

 

And then there’s the philosophical discussions in the text! This is the most interesting factor for me. The discussions of God, and of nature, of sexuality, and of men, women, slavery, are often discussed for the sake of discussion, to ask questions, to suggest answers, to learn, which I personally love. But it seems to me (and is reflected in the attitudes of the characters), that many don’t appreciate the luxury of existential thought. But when Mr – finally questions his purpose in life, it seems to Celie, and to me, that this is the first time we gain an empathy for him. Perhaps he isn’t such a bad guy after all. After all, none of us are born bad. We are only shaped by what we see, and how we are taught. Celie has not had the luxury of learning much, so she is like a child. We learn with her.

 

On many occasions, just seeing the film is a justifiable response to my suggestion of reading the book, but not this time. Read the book. Feel its roots. Experience the Color Purple. Delve into thought. The end may even bring a tear to your eye. It did mine.

 

My rating: 5/5

 

A Dark Short

I wrote this piece in honour of Angela Carter, something of a literary heroin of mine. Turning the fairy tale genre on its head, I ask the question: what defines good and evil? Nobody writes themselves as a villain in their own story, however tragic these stories are and however twisted their views are. In times like this, it’s important to look at the villain and ask what allows them to justify the wrong they do, and whether they’ll truly be happy when they finally get what they want. Grim imagery and metaphor were my friends in this dark, dark tale, I hope you enjoy.

Please leave a comment at the bottom with your thoughts. I’m always looking for feedback, and would love to share thoughts on the subject with you!

 

O, Mirror

 

Who says a Queen can’t rule an empty city? Why, she is the fairest of them all, for she suffers no comparison.

 

            A pearl-white castle rests atop a hill. The drawbridge lies open. A low wolf-like wind howls through the courtyards and fills the inner halls with a drone, a hum of isolation, an ambient, solitary soundscape for this glorious, solitary space.

 

            Winged gargoyles admire their stone garden from atop the tower roofs. They have grown ugly and sardonic with age; their open-mouthed grins laugh at the gnaw of time as it corrupts these cupids into demons of malice.

 

The great halls and smaller rooms swell with the living breath of abandonment, and that breath is cold, frost-bitten, harsh to the stone floors, plush armchairs, and ornate hand-woven tapestries. The cloths tell stories of lavish parties, princesses in voluminous pink ballgowns, and dark-red battles with gouged-out eyes and gashed necks. What lies they tell! crow the bitter hearths. When has a party graced these halls? When have we entertained the brass-buckled shoe, the gold-hemmed skirt, the cocktails or the canapes? These are the fantasies of some dreaming weaver. What good those dreams did him, mortal unlike his cloth, buried six feet under without a single spectator to share his name.

 

            Small shacks and shanties surround the castle like a dried-up moat. Pots of rice and beans are half-full (or half-empty, depending on your disposition), and pans of dried chicken undulate under a fiesta of maggots squirming and writhing for a nibble. Straw dolls lie buried beneath tattered sheets on the raked earthen carpet; their funerals unattended, their graves flowerless. Cups of nettle tea lie cold. Soups are sealed beneath a thin film of mould. An oil painting of a riverbank remains half-drawn, the paints dry, the brush dropped. A talent unfulfilled.

 

            The markets sell rotten fruit to the ghosts of abandoned promises. The baker’s once-famed fresh bread has dried into dust. The silk weaver’s cloths are picked apart by ravens. The rain beats a funereal march on the drummer’s abandoned drum as the sky weeps for this lost civilisation, the town that had enough, the people who decided no more, the hopes left to die a slow, unyielding death.

 

            Hungry luminescent eyes reflect the moonlight: the silver leash to the lycanthropic. They would climb the hill to search the castle – the Queen would prove a hearty meal – but animals have heightened senses compared to you and I and know to steer clear of fouler things. No creature but the snake and spider tolerate such unnatural wrongdoings. The black cat is curious, but arches its back on discovery. The raven bluffs, then cowers. The newt hides and covers its eye in fear of cliché.

 

            Cirrocumuli swirl about the highest tower and encircle the balcony. There, the lady of the land admires her kingdom and reminisces. Once upon a time, she could execute with a dismissive wave of her finger, and chop: Blood-jam tarts for supper. The lowly peasant could not do such a thing, but she, she was chosen by god, she was born into this world with an evil-smiting axe. The world commanded it so. She cannot be evil. She could feast on a thousand babies and still the crown atop her head would govern her choice as divine. The highest towers govern what is good and what is not, but who can question her when all the other rooms are dark? The lords, ladies, maids and footmen left long ago when the city was deemed nonsensical to inhabit. Pfft, she grunts as she turns from her view, who needs them?

 

            The shrill tune of a songbird, the friend of mankind, titters up the brickwork and coos in her ear. She peers over the balcony again, scours the desolation. There, on another balcony, high above the wolves’ domain yet low below the Queen’s: The source of the song. She knows its verse better than any. She taught its melody; its queer inflections and celebrated rhythms are a reflection of her own, back when she cared for such melodies, when she combed her long black hair and sang such songs. Now the tune rings sharp and makes her blood run cold. She listens with distaste. She sees much of herself in that little bird. Its white frills, cream beak and raven-black crown were hand-me-downs from herself and her dear departed king.

 

            Thank you, husband dearest, for gifting me your lands. A pity you had to leave so soon. Whatever was in that drink?

 

            Roaming hands slide over her shoulders; she swoons. My, huntsman, what big hands you have.

 

            All the better to feel you with.

 

            She turns to see her lover: The third inhabitant of this lonely land. He stands tall, muscular, bare-chested, his great endowment covered only by a loincloth; nobody nears to warrant decency. Indeed, she only wears her long black cloak to maintain her own illusion of importance and to shroud her fragile frame from the cold. Beneath, she is naked.

 

            He fetches her food; he fends off the hounds; he brings home the bacon; he is under no enchantment but the captivating twinkle in her eye. He thinks so, anyway. He knows nothing of the powers in her basement.

 

            ‘Your brow furrows, my Queen. What troubles you so?’

 

            ‘The bird, my love, the bird. She fills our desolation with disillusion. She is my mirror, and it ages slower than I.’

 

            ‘What would you have me do?’

 

            She considers his request, the reason for her fleeted flock. Before plastic cleansed rich skin, the dark arts kept us young. Neither show lasting effects, but tell that to the spellweaver.

 

            ‘My little bird fetches flowers before supper. Go to the field and fetch me her heart. I will eat well tonight, and bathe in youthful oils.’

 

            ‘But, my lady, would you not miss her songs?’

 

            She would, of course, and the fantasy of the empty cage weighs heavily on her heart. But she cannot bear to watch her reflection outlive her. Not when the powers at her disposal promise otherwise. O, Mirror, I will be the fairest. Just you wait. You will see.

 

            ‘Needs must. I cannot be the fairest in the kingdom while my mirror image wears black better than I.’

 

            Hours later, the sun lowered to slumber behind the distant mountains and the huntsman set out with spear in hand. He draped his vascular shoulders in cloth – the cold bites at dusk – and ventured forth. His queen awaited supper.

 

            He hid in a shrub of rhododendron, the pink bush of caution, and spied his prey. But wait! here she comes. The bird fluttered near, flowers in her delicate grip. She jumped excitedly from sprig to bush, smelling the sweet fresh scents of possibility, dropping one as she picked another.

 

            What a sweet bird, mourned the huntsman, it breaks my heart to ready my spear. He observed her fawn over nature: What could be purer than this? She fluttered unfettered, singing her winsome song. The spear loosened in his hand. Her gentle titter made him smile. It had been long since he’d felt such happiness; the queen does not inspire gentility, rather primitive passion followed by hours of silence. She fights her reflection much of the day, his cock by night. He had never minded before, but he had not felt such soft affection since his mother passed washing linen.

 

            ‘Enough!’ he cried. The weapon fell into the grass with a muffled thud. He straightened his back, his spine popped and cracked, and he stepped amidst the clearing. I will make amends with the kind bird. I will tell her to flee into the woods. There she may make a new life, she may find friends. My lover will not harm her this night.

 

            But the bird saw a great monster, of frightening stature and mammoth breadth, rise from the shrubbery and screamed.

 

            ‘No, little bird, be not afraid!’

 

            It flew backward, running from harm, and turned beak-first into a tree. A great oak held out its root and sneered. Trip. Fall. Snap went her avian neck. Nine months to start a life, half a second to end it.

 

            The huntsman wept. He fell on his knees and wailed for the dainty, affectionate thing, the little one he’d melted for. Salty tears rolled down his cheek. His strong hands held the pure vessel gently, and he showed his love in the only way he knew: with primitive passion.

 

            Good conquers evil. Now the queen wore the girl on her arm as a trophy. The moral of her story is sometimes dreams do come true.

 

            Now the bird aged faster than she, for it dried and fell under the ravenous nibble of blowflies. The queen of the empty lands lived happily ever after, forever laughing triumphantly at her magic mirror, the rotting corpse, the reflection she’d conquered, as the huntsman stood aside and watched the regression of her disposition. My, is that a grey hair I see?

 

The Cement Garden – A Winning Title

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Ian McEwan’s  1978 novel The Cement Garden, it’s not to underestimate the power of a great title: it can hold greater  power than the entire contents of the story.

Browsing an independent book store in Camden, I had no real intention of buying anything: I had already bought three books that day. But tediously flicking through titles, running my fingers along the worn spines, the unusual and strikingly morose title caught my eye and made my heart skip a beat. There was no blurb on the back, just testimonials to the impressive nature of McEwan’s debut novel. But I didn’t need any convincing. The title had me sold, and a couple of hours later I was reading the first page on the tube.

The story itself is more of an extended short. It’s only 120 pages, and follows a boy called Jack and his siblings, Julie, Sue, and Tom. McEwan uses wonderfully grey imagery, with desolate landscapes, and an emphasis on decay, and carves in stone a horror of real life, shockingly vivid incest, and the importance of a child coming to terms with mortality.

The narrative has not been particularly developed, and I can’t say an awful lot happens. It starts where it should and ends in the right place, but when I finished, I wasn’t quite as blown over as when I’d bought it. I enjoyed the journey, and understood the intentions behind every action, but would have enjoyed it more if it had been a collection of short stories I could move on to. It was frustrating, too, because the ending was a good one. I just wanted a longer narrative.

As it’s so short, I can’t really tell you much of the plot in fear of giving anything away. But I would say this: I am excited about reading more of Ian McEwan’s work, considering the vivid descriptions and intelligently written characters. If the title interests you as much as it did me, then go ahead and give it a try. You just might find yourself sighing at the end. I know we’re supposed to be left wanting more, but how little is too little?

My rating: 3.5/5 stars.

The Bloody Chamber – a review

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The Bloody Chamber is a masterfully written series of short stories by the late, great Angela Carter. Re-imagined fairy stories at their finest, this amalgamation of chilling tales shows Carter at her finest. Her frighteningly wicked and illustrious vocabulary is used to paint beautifully haunting scenes of “winter and cold weather” and fearlessly writes with astonishing detail. The detail can, at times, appear shocking and somewhat trite, but the pornographic scenes are definitely important to reflect the harshness of the reality she has carved.
The stories vary in length (the first is about 46 pages long, the Snow Child is only 2), but that doesn’t mean one is of less value than another. That couldn’t be less true. And what is so wonderful with her work is her subtle links between one tale and another, so that her entire collection is a subtle collection of intertextual references weaving between themselves, paying clever homage to their originals and counterparts, whilst establishing themselves as fully original stories.

One could pour hours over this collection and still find things to talk about (indeed, I studied two from this book for my A Level English Coursework), but equally, one could easily sit back and read it without having to pay too much attention to her details.
While playing to the cliché, I can honestly say (or rather, warn) that this little bundle of joy is not for the faint of heart.

My rating: 4/5 stars

A Classic that Never gets Old

Book Lovers! Here is a book I recommend without a doubt. The Earthsea Quartet, by Ursula Le Guin, is a collection of four epic, beautifully-written tales in the archipelago isles of Earthsea. Set in a world of wise wizards, mile-wide fire-breathing dragons, and the ever-shifting balance of light and dark, the focus of this quartet is not the epic setting, nor the magic, but the brilliant development of people emerging into adulthood.

A Wizard of Earthsea, the first novella, follows Ged as he discovers his innate magical powers and becomes a wizard, rumoured by many to be the greatest of all time. When training, dared to show his power and summon someone from the land of the dead, he is left running for his life from a shadow seeking to overcome him.

The Tombs of Atuan, the second, follows Tenar, a young girl destined to be lead the cult of a long-forgotten religion. Born into a world she does not understand, when the wisened wizard Ged infiltrates her domain in search of a forgotten relic, her perspective of her world and the world outside are forever changed.

In The Farthest Shore, rumours spread across Earthsea of magic losing its power. Songs no longer have meaning, crops no longer grow, and the dragons forget themselves. Ged and Arren, a Prince, journey across Earthsea to discover the root of the evil.

The first three are written in a very condensed, fable-like structure, and waste no words in painting a clear picture of Le Guin’s world. A fantastically confusing feeling is left at the end of each story, thanks to their suitably abrupt, and brain-twistingly bitter-sweet endings. At the end of the third, I just wanted to go back to the beginning again and relive it again. I didn’t want to believe how it had finished.

And Tehanu, the fourth and final of the quartet, is a slower-paced story that deals with the shattering aftermath of the third, and Ged’s story as he must learn to live with himself, when his magic, his crutch, is taken from him. Tenar, now all grown up, is a foreign woman in a foreign land, alienated because of her accent and skin-colour.

The final book takes a strikingly different style to the others, in that it sheds its archaic fable tone, and adopts a more modern, personal approach. The dragons and magic are still there, but are stripped back under a magnifying lens, and conversations over dinner take precedence over journeys over land and sea. The underlying issues of inequality between men and women are addressed forthright, and it deals with the day-to-day struggles of normal people getting by.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of this series is the lack of a main antagonist. Yes, there’s a bad guy or two, but the focus is not good guy defeats bad guy, more-so child becomes adult. No villain can be so one-dimensional. It is the journey Ursula Le Guin focuses on, the issues of her world that reflect our own.

This is an example of fantasy in its highest form, and I would recommend anyone reading this, turn over the first page: It’s a book impossible to put down. Please, give it a read.

My rating: 5/5