Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Birgit Vanderbeke – You Would Have Missed Me

Book Cover

They certainly might have.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 114
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90867-052-6
First Published: 2016; 15th June 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (I am glad, that I was born)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Birthday number 7; a kitten is still wanted but won’t be coming, mother still brings up her wealthy ex-fiancé, and father remains emotionally distant. As does mother. As the days move on our young narrator talks about her life as a new resident of West Germany where life is plentiful but, for her, still troubled. She misses family friends, struggles to understand house rules, and would like it if her mother let her have a drink more than twice a day.

You Would Have Missed Me is a novella written in the style of a stream of consciousness. A semi-autobiographical work, the book shows the realities of everyday life in 1960s Germany (both sides), and the further realities of life for a child whose parents could be a lot better.

The narrator works through her past, wrapping memories back around every so often, showing the impact of a life of neglect on the psyche of a child. The affect of this neglect, and outright abuse – both emotional and physical – causes problems for the girl who isn’t yet fully able to understand what is going on; she has a fair idea, but there is a lot more for the reader to pick up from the subtext of what Vanderbeke is saying. The abuse is accounted for very slowly, dripping through the narrative.

The differences between East and West Germany are shown often, mostly as items and social mores in the background. In the context of the narrator’s childhood life, the particulars are obviously more noticeable than the general, political, aspect, but there are moments when these are covered enough to clue you in to the wider social contexts. Sometimes the parents’ insults can seem to meld with the standards of living – it’s worth having a quick read up on the intricacies of life in Cold War Germany if it’s not a topic you know much about.

Between these strands, created by them, is the narrator’s fantasy of travel, escaping from everything that has happened in her life to somewhere better, if only for a moment. A snow globe, a gift from a friend in the East who knew a lot about the world, and their later gift of a book she had been wanting to read, H G Wells’ The Time Machine, are key.

The age-appropriate prose has been translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has worked on a good few other Peirene Press publications. Bulloch has opted for a mix of general comprehension and word-for-word; the book both seeming to echo what is surely the original language whilst translating into the English emotional dialect, if you will, the few things that would not work so well, the end result a careful, wonderful, rendering.

As a slice-of-life story that nevertheless recounts a lot of details on a specific few themes, You Would Have Missed Me is very character-driven, almost topic-driven, and whilst it does have an ending, there is a fair amount left for you to decide; the narrator’s story is only on year 7, and so there is plenty of scope to decide the likelihood of the various directions her life could go in regards to the personality she presents you, and how much her fantasies of better places are a part of it (looking at the book as a work of fiction). This is a book about the impact of the Cold War on the general public, and of an upbringing on the rest of someone’s life. It’s difficult to read, it’s sometimes shocking, but it’s a good dose of reality, history, and things that still today need improvement.

I received this book for review.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Woman In The Lake

Book Cover

Too beautiful to lose. Too dark to keep.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45694-5
First Published: 26th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2019
Rating: 4/5

Lady Isabella Gerald would like her husband dead. Lord Gerald is a bully, an adulterer, and involved in shady practices; and he is often violent towards her. Meanwhile Isabella’s maid, Constance, isn’t as silly and sweet as Isabella thinks she is – in fact Constance is spying on her Lady for her Lord. One day, Isabella declines to wear the new dress her husband has bought her; after raping her he tells Constance to destroy the dress. But Constance doesn’t destroy it, although its presence seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. Centuries later, young Fen Brightwell visits Lydiard House, but upon walking into one of the rooms she finds herself alone; there’s an angry man in the next room, who is dressed in historic clothes and screaming at her to take away the dress that is lying there. She does so, and keeps it. Years later, after an abusive marriage and the death of the grandmother she lived with, the dress comes back into her life, together with thoughts and propensities she thought she’d left behind.

The Woman In The Lake is an appropriately fast-paced novel full of secrets and crime. Set in two time periods – the 1760s and the present day – it doesn’t use time travel/slip to the same extent as Cornick’s previous two dual-plot novels, instead spending time on both eras equally, the extra time afforded by the relative lack of travel spent on a stunning few ideas that slowly become more complex and exciting.

The story is good but it is specifically Cornick’s construction and execution of the various elements that makes this book what it is. The novel is like a whodunnit doubled, or even tripled; the amount of thought and planning that’s gone into it is obvious and it is as much this easy-to-see display of composition as the actual effect of it that makes the reading experience so vibrant.

This remains true even on those occasions wherein secrets and answers are predictable (sometimes they’re not hidden from you at all). The predictable nature of a fair number of plot and character elements may seem at first a drawback; but it’s not. Cornick has populated her novel with a fairly standard number of main and secondary characters but because she’s brought the use of secrets to them all – some more than others, of course – those secrets that are predictable are often of the sort that you need to know to be able to work out others. And even if you do work out more secrets than you may have been expected to, you’ve still got that complexity of the writing itself to enjoy.

The use of history is brilliant, and where it turns to historical fantasy it’s well thought out. You may need to suspend a bit of belief but that is part and parcel – if you’re happy reading a book where someone slips back in time, you’re going to be okay with the rest of it.

So there is a lot about the process to like about this book, and it could well be the best part, but the rest is right up there. The plot is paramount in general; the characters each in their turn bring the focus to their small section of the world, their individual lives within the whole. Cornick uses some social history here, particularly the alcohol smuggling that went on in Swindon, and then there’s Lydiard House and the parkland; in a break from her work in this genre so far, she populates her locales with fictional characters for both eras, using Lydiard Park and its past inhabitants for inspiration and spinning her own story from there. (A word about Lydiard House: Cornick’s history about the house as its own entity is based in facts – the council owns it now and it’s open to visitors. The council uses the upper floor for meeting rooms and so forth, so the bedroom as a museum piece is downstairs, a recent creation, as are other rooms that may have been upstairs; this is to say that if Fen’s visit confuses you at all, this is the reason. I wrote about the House and Park last year, including photos.)

The characters are good, but considering everything discussed so far, you may not find in them much to take away; they do each propose things to consider and the historical people provide food for historical thought but it is those ‘things’ that will likely stand out to you most, the characters interesting enough but more of a vehicle for the plot. No one is particularly winsome, however this is part of the point of the narratives. The historical characters are mostly loathsome, even those who have been treated badly aren’t very nice, and the present-day characters have many flaws to their traits; Cornick’s tale looks beyond perfections and dreamy heroes, in fact you may not be one hundred percent sure about any of the relationships or friendships. It’s a good reflection of reality and often also a good reflection of humanity in general. (The narrative is written from four points of view as a whole, with three taking the majority of the time.)

Domestic abuse is an important thread in both of the narrative eras with different stories behind them, the differences in society weaving into them in their own ways. In conjunction with this, Fen’s life includes a lot of child neglect, which combines with her married past. Cornick looks at Fen’s experiences as a fact-of-the-matter – Fen’s been hurt, and still is hurt, but it’s been happening for so long that emotions are largely off the table. It’s a hard-hitting tale that Cornick is careful not to tie up too neatly – some people never change.

The Woman In The Lake is a spooky book, a somewhat Gothic tale, that might just keep you up a bit longer than you’d thought, the story taking twists you may not have seen coming in terms of the way the characters deal with them, and Cornick being unapologetic in her writing of it. This is a solid work of fiction, factual when needed and when it works with the fantasy, and fantastical where it fits. It looks a various concepts with care and consideration. But most of all, it’s simply chock full of good literary action.

Related Books

Book coverBook coverBook cover

 
May 2019 Reading Round Up

Other than May being the month when I finished books – discussed last week – this month also marked my first non-fiction book of the year; I read two, in fact. (The scary thing to discover was that I haven’t read non-fiction since last February.) May was a very long month, cold and wet – it’s been pretty wintry here – but full of goings on. There have been book awards and interesting new releases, concerts, days out, and time with family.

The Books
Non-Fiction

Book cover

Dolly Alderton: Everything I Know About Love – Alderton looks back on her twenties, her previous decade that was full of parties, drinking, and spending time with friends. An okay read.

Book cover

Guy Stagg: The Crossway – Hoping to heal from depression, Stagg embarks on a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem, following ancient roads, staying in religious guesthouses along the way, and learning more about himself and the famous religious people of the various regions he passes through. A good book, but it could have done with more information about the journey itself and more positive descriptions of those Stagg meets on the road and stays with.

Fiction

Book cover

Maria Edgeworth: Belinda – A young woman, the last of several nieces to be taken under the wing of a notorious match-making aunt, enters society and surprises everyone with her differing personality. Worth reading – I believe – if you find a copy of the first or second edition, those that talk about interracial marriage.

It’s hard to choose a favourite here because I don’t really have one; the reading experience of the books above was good, but in terms of enjoyment the one in my mind is Michelle Obama’s memoir which I haven’t finished yet.

For June I’ve a rough plan to spend half my reading time on two books – Obama’s included – that I started in May, and half on ‘new’ books, which includes a reprint of an early 2000s novel and the Nicola Cornick I haven’t yet got to.

How many books have you read so far this year? (I’m on 19.)

 
Reading Life: 31st May 2019

A macro photograph of the side of a blossom

As I’d planned at the start of this month, I’ve put my reading time in May to use in finishing books, a couple of which were starting to languish on my list.

I’d been reading The Crossway for a few weeks, which isn’t a bad time for a book I’m not too sure about; it’s a good book, but there was a lot less about the pilgrimage itself that the author makes than anything else – the ‘whys’ were covered, but most often the ‘hows’ were left out. The best aspect of the book as it is, to my mind, is the history, for which Stagg has done a lot of research to expand on the stories he heard and read about along the way.

Belinda, if you saw my review last week (my last post in fact; it’s been a hectic week) you’ll note was partly problematic due to my having read the wrong edition (or the right edition depending on the era of the reader, and therein lies the problem). I have a mind to find a copy published by Oxford World Classics, try to work out exactly what I missed, but at the same time I’m loathed to make it a priority; I’m expecting that it’d be a case of finding a few paragraphs – which would be easy enough – but then combing through the text for the rest.

Having finished these books, as well as the Dolly Alderton that was a quick read, I’m now making my way through Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Peirene Press’ upcoming You Would Have Missed Me, the English translation of a Birgit Vanderbeke, their second book by the award-winning German author.

I read the first chapters of Becoming for my post on the British Book Awards, and knew at that point, already, that it was going to be a good read. Now, on chapter five, I can say it most definitely is. The pages are flying by. It’s a very open book, and the information about the social history of Chicago, provided by way of the story of her childhood, is fascinating.

I’m 40 pages into the 122 page Vanderbeke and I’m on a roll with it; I’m planning to go back to it after publishing this post, and I’m aiming to finish it tonight. Having struggled with Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway I thought twice before starting – like the Woolf, Vanderbeke’s is written in a stream-of-consciousness manner – but it’s brilliant. The ‘stream’ here is used to return to previously discussed topics – it’s much like the way stand-up comedians loop back to their opening subjects during and at the end of their allotted time, just without the humour – and the voice, adult but in the context of the character as a child, and the themes, are fantastic. I’ll save the rest for the review.

There has been a lot less literary study or literature-inspired internet rabbit hole journeys this month; it’s been strange to write this post feeling something’s missing. I have been watching literary-related programmes however, most notably the BBC’s Gentleman Jack, which I’m loving almost as much as the first series of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel (though I know they are very different!) The acting is superb, the breaking of the fourth wall a lot of fun (I’ve assumed this is so that we can hear from the source material itself, unedited), and the general execution of the story as a screen adaptation just very compelling. Unfortunately Anne Lister’s diaries are not on Project Gutenberg – I checked, though I think it’s likely that due to them being rediscovered and decoded recently, ownership – Shibden Hall, probably – will continue for a while.

 
Maria Edgeworth – Belinda

Please note that this is a review of the Third edition with conjecture added in light of the First and Second. The First and Second editions include the marriage of a black servant and a white servant, but the Third edition changes the black man to a white man. This article provides more details; the sum of it is what you’d expect – Edgeworth’s ideas were too revolutionary for our ancestors, which unfortunately included her father. Also in the First and Second, Belinda almost marries a different person than she does in the Third. Project Gutenberg’s edition, which is where Girlebooks source their material from, appears to be the Third (I’ve used Girlebooks’ book cover). Oxford World Classics uses the Second. There is an additional publication on Amazon that states it uses the First.

Book Cover

Dear Emma Woodhouse, thank you for your kind offer, but I’ve got that life-stage covered.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1801; 1810 (third edition)
Date Reviewed: 24th May 2019
Rating: 3/5 (third edition rating; given the content differences, I’d likely give the other editions 4/5)

Mrs Stanhope’s match-making is the stuff of legends; the lady has managed to get 6 nieces husbands, using wily and pressure tactics to land rich men – or at least that’s how society sees it all. Belinda is her last niece; everyone knows how this will go – but to everyone’s surprise, Belinda is sent to stay with Lady Delacour, a well-known wealthy woman with a good few enemies (what 21st century people might call frenemies). As well as this change in tactic, Belinda herself seems at odds with the Stanhope ‘teachings’.

Belinda is one of the later novels by a popular author of the 1700s-1800s. Whilst less known today, Egdeworth was a favourite of her contemporaries and the generation that followed; Jane Austen cited Belinda in Northanger Abbey, and clearly borrowed aspects of the story for her own.

When people speak of Edgeworth today they most often talk of the book she published a year prior to BelindaCastle Rackrent – and her other novels that deal with political issues. There is good reason for this; whilst the Anglo-Irish writer wrote a lot of good material, Belinda is quite the non-entity, despite its foresight in regards to race and dysfunctional families.

Most obviously, perhaps, is the fact that this book isn’t really about Belinda; it is about everyone else. It does revolve around her in a way – the balance is just about in favour of the actions and reactions in the book being in some way due to her presence, but she herself is a bit-player in a drama about other people. Despite being a living, breathing, person, Belinda has less pages spent on her than Rebecca de Winter. Perhaps Edgeworth’s point is similar to Du Maurier’s but she doesn’t have the story to keep it up, at least not in the context of what we expect from a novel today.

The ‘star’ of the show, then, is Lady Delacour – quite apt, you might say, considering everyone in society knows her, her notoriety helping Belinda, who is an unknown quantity and regarded only in relation to her disliked aunt. Lady Delacour is a good character in terms of fictional interest – she has a lot more going for her in terms of content, with more dialogue, opinions, and the like, than Belinda, but she’s also very difficult to get on with. She fits a certain stereotype, the one of ladies from yesteryear needing smelling salts and finding things all too much to handle, but in Lady Delacour the stereotype is turned up high. The drama and attention-seeking, irritating as they are, are not a match for the child neglect that becomes apparent as the book continues. Prior to the book’s beginning, Lady Delacour farmed off her young daughter Helena to someone else; essentially Lady Delacour did not understand her and made no effort to change that. As Helena re-enters her mother’s life at Belinda’s suggestion, whilst her mother starts to acknowledge that, perhaps, Helena is worth knowing (“I did not know Helena was worth loving”), she also demeans the girl and creates a home situation that we would now call ‘walking on egg shells’. Edgeworth does address the whole situation in the form of commentary: ‘Lady Delacour,’ she writes ‘was governed by pride, by sentiment, by whim, by enthusiasm, by passion – by anything but reason’ and addresses certain aspects separately through dialogue; but it doesn’t quite make up for the difficulties of the character in terms of readability. This all said, there are times when Lady Delacour is a genuinely good character, times when she finally stops trying to get the spotlight on herself, and these moments are excellent. She is also the chief – really the only – person who provides the light, comedic, aspect of the novel. Certainly it could be said the novel should bear her name; the reason why it does not is because Belinda is the catalyst for the change she undergoes.

“As to that, said Clarence, “I should be glad that my wife were ignorant of what everybody knows. Nothing is so tiresome to a man of any taste or abilities as what every body knows. I am rather desirious to have a wife who has an uncommon than a common understanding.”

Another character who has more page time than Belinda is Clarence Hervey. Early on and a fair way through the book, Clarence is a good enough character; he’s not exactly memorable and it’s difficult to see what people see in him – Belinda herself seems half completely taken by him and half completely indifferent – but it essentially ‘works’. However in the latter half of the novel he undergoes a personality change; whilst not something previously delved into, nevertheless Clarence’s preference for a wife (a woman who is a blank slate on which he can impose his teachings) is effectively a device Edgeworth employs to do – well, it’s hard to say. Clarence’s change brings some more content into the book (a Dicken-esque word count issue?), but as Edgeworth brings the book to a close, she makes another change so that Clarence doesn’t end it looking as awful as she had been making him. It’s hard to feel actively against Clarence because it’s really not his fault – it’s Edgeworth’s – but his taking on as a ward a girl who has been isolated from the world by a paranoid grandmother, and continuing that isolation whilst bringing in a governess to mould her into what he wants in a wife, which includes changing her name because he doesn’t think it suits her (the girl is in her late teenage years) is pretty horrific. There is a slight commentary here, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but unlike Lady Delacour’s actions, Clarence’s are never held up to scrutiny except by himself, momentarily. And the girl – Rachel, who he calls Virginia after a character in a (real) book, and who is referred to by this new name by Edgeworth herself – is understandably obedient, knowing no other way to be. Clarence is the patronising aspect of Austen’s Henry Tilney, exaggerated; he’s Newland Archer without Wharton’s stunning ending.

Hot on Clarence’s heels both literally and figuratively is Mr Vincent. Mr Vincent, another of Belinda’s suitors, is Creole; when this book is written about academically, his inclusion is often the subject. Mr Vincent brings with him from the West Indies his black servant, Juba, who is considered with more kindness and less prejudice than black people in many other books of the period, providing a bit of a relief from other narratives. But then comes the word I’ve used, ‘figuratively’ – whilst Juba escapes any form of authorial sanctions, Mr Vincent is, like Clarence, given a personality change so that Edgeworth can take the story where she wants it to go. Edgeworth does at least use Mr Vincent’s vice to inform another character’s actions, and he is effectively repatriated into the novel, but like Clarence, it’s difficult to move on from it. Certainly, had Edgeworth not fouled the characters of the two rivals for Belinda’s heart, the book would have been much better.

(Conjecture on my part: as Edgeworth’s changes are so illogical, this situation of personality change may well be due to the changes Edgeworth made for the Third edition.)

Where Belinda works, then, beyond the patches of good commentary and characterisation discussed above, is in a few areas not yet considered. Let’s pull out that idea of inspiration and Austen again – Belinda can be filed under the same category as Northanger Abbey when it comes to the perspective from which it’s written – it’s less overt than Austen’s story but Edgeworth’s is also a book about books, a book about the process of writing in the context of the time, wrapped in a thin sheet of theatre:

“My dear Miss Portman [Belinda], you will put a stop to a number of charming stories by this prudence of yours – a romance called the Mysterious Boudoir, of nine volumes at least, might be written on this subject, if you would only condescend to act like almost all other heroines, that is to say, without common sense.”

Suffice to say the very last sentences of the book are exceptional in their effect.

Of books and their value, and Edgeworth’s commentary on Clarence’s awfulness, Rachel is allowed to read romances because they’re considered worthless and thus nothing to worry about… Edgeworth follows the concept glanced at by Charlotte Lennox, both authors paving the way for the author whose name I’ve noted far too many times already.

Belinda’s sense of agency, in a time when such a thing for women wasn’t often considered, is also very good. Though aided in turn by Lady Delacour, Belinda’s decisions – bold, even brave – are her own from the outset (it’s what helps set her apart from her aunt’s marriage mill) and comments on it are left to the other characters, meaning that the decisions are generally accepted, if after a small shock, and after discussion (that is usually with Lady Delacour who is herself very independent – though married – and not always interested in going along with what society thinks). Edgeworth’s silence speaks volumes; a woman, or at least some women, should chose for herself.

Lastly there is the contrast to Lady Delacour’s situation with Helena, provided by the family Helena lives with (people who the Lady inevitably dislikes), a forward-thinking, fairly equal-minded group of people who don’t get nearly as many words as they ‘should’ but are wonderful to read about. Edgeworth actively compares them to the Delacours, citing the ways they are different.

So there is plenty to like about Belinda, it’s just that the good isn’t enough to out-way the bad, and there’s not enough interesting conversation to get past the era’s preference for conversation over action. If you’re after a broad sense of Edgeworth’s impact and writing, you’d do better to look at the books more commonly cited by today’s critics. Belinda is the book to read if you want to learn for yourself the specifics behind other writer’s novels and if you want to know about bestsellers of the past that have been largely forgotten. It is, of course, excellent for that. (And if you buy the Second edition from Oxford you’ll also have that benefit of reading about the interracial marriage.)

A word about the Oxford World Classics edition if you like contextual footnotes – although notes are included for a number of referenced books, people, and other things that have been lost to history, be aware that there are unfortunately many references that the editor has overlooked and so you may have to set aside a bit more time to fill in the gaps.

My asking a question in a review is a first: if you’ve read the first and/or second edition, could you comment in regards to the personalities of Clarence and Mr Vincent?

Related Books

Book coverBook cover

 

Older Entries