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Barbara Comyns – Our Spoons Came From Woolworths

Book Cover

A long time before you could buy Britney’s latest single for £3.99.

Publisher: Virago (Little Brown)
Pages: 196
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08927-7
First Published: 1950
Date Reviewed: 28th March 2015
Rating: 5/5

Sophia marries Charles; neither family is happy about it. The couple lives on the poverty line; Sophia becomes a model for art students, Charles tries to make something of his artwork. They aren’t well matched and the conflicts are worsened by Charles’s outspoken relatives.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a mostly-autobiographical book about the hard years of a young woman.

It is quite difficult not to look at the way in which this book relates to Comyns herself; the way it’s written suggests it was a therapeutic exercise. It is a long tale told in a short time, spanning several years in 196 pages.

The writing – mainly the grammar – isn’t particularly good, however there is the sense that this is part of the problem the heroine suffers. It’s not that she’s uneducated, rather the writing is a subtle addition to what is actually said. Our heroine is weak, a doormat if you will, but does not really realise it. She takes a lot of flack that women, even in her time, would not have put up with. We are never given a direct reason, but one can assume her wish for a nice life and the death of her parents has much to do with it. The prose reads as though hurried, as though if she doesn’t write it all quickly everything will be forgotten.

Sophia’s problem is her husband, Charles. He blames her when she falls pregnant (her knowledge of contraception was non-existent at the time), he lives his own life, expects her to do everything he says, and his family only add to it. The book provides an incredibly damning portrait of a manipulative, highly selfish person, and at times other people.

So this is by and large a sad story, the cruelty is heartbreaking, but Comyns has the odd laugh. Her jokes are jibes at silly social ideas and customs, of local cultural issues. Because they are in keeping with the written style, they end up sounding somewhat innocent even when they aren’t.

The biggest social issue, then, is of the changing domestic situation of the time. Sophia works. She earns more than Charles ever will and this is simply not correct according to Charles and his family. What Charles wants he should get and so this is as much an issue of adults spoiled as children as it is a married couple not seeing eye to eye. Any children Sophia has will be spoiled only if it suits those looking after them. And as Sophia comes to find, Charles is far from unique.

Poverty is a close second. Charles uses up a lot of money but they would be poor anyway. Comyns shows how hospitals could be awkward for the poor even if they had support. Sophia gives birth and from her story emerges a lack of communication. Perhaps Sophia lacks knowledge, but it’s more likely those in charge simply didn’t bother trying to explain to her what was happening, why they were doing what they did. (The book is told from Sophia’s perspective.) There is a marked difference between this and a later hospital stay during which the character has more money.

What’s interesting about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is that the story isn’t particularly, well, interesting, but the book manages to utterly captivate. There isn’t even much of an ending; there’s no climax, just happier times. It’s the story of a woman who is poor, has some luck, but lives an average life overall. You’ll learn a lot from this book and the content it’s so far away from our present day.

This is a book that makes you get involved. It doesn’t ask you to cheer happiness or emphasise with sadness, but it does pull you in and whilst the author may have planned this – who knows? – the character seems oblivious to the effect.

We can’t know why Sophia wrote her book but we can guess why Comyns did, and she succeeds in all she sets out to do. Woolworths may no longer be around but Sophia’s spoons remain and in that fact lies an excellent book.

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Yesterday’s Reburial

A photograph of the statue of Richard III in Leicester

or I once dreamed of this, your future breath
in prayer for me, lost long, forever found;
or sensed you from the backstage of my death,
as kings glimpse shadows on a battleground.

— from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Richard’

 
Emma Healey – Elizabeth Is Missing

Book Cover

Or is she?…

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Pages: 275
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-00350-3
First Published: 13th March 2014 (in translation); 5th June 2014
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2015
Rating: 5/5

Maud can’t seem to get through to her family (or anyone else for that matter) that her friend is missing. Everyone says that nothing is wrong, that Elizabeth isn’t missing, but all the signs seem to point towards the opposite. As a child post-WWII, Maud lost her sister, Sukey, and as she goes about her search she remembers this.

Elizabeth Is Missing is a rather excellent novel about old age and the way others treat the elderly.

Our narrator, accidentally unreliable, is an octogenarian who has become very forgetful. Maud thinks the same things over and over, says the same things, and forgets where she is moment by moment. It is in the details that Healey shows us what she is trying to get across: it’s all very well getting frustrated by those who forget, but remember to view things from their perspective. Maud is patronised and knows she is patronised; she also knows that no one is listening to her even when they should. And the reader knows, even when Maud doesn’t notice, that people are not respecting her, are laughing at her. In amongst this is the question of care homes, of old age care in general, and how the wishes of the person should be respected.

Healey’s writing of Maud is simply incredible. She is believable and, though it does not matter in regards to whether it would affect the tale, very likeable. Because you’re on this journey with her, in her head, you don’t feel any frustration or boredom; Healey makes you understand what it is like. You’re able to chastise Maud’s daughter, Helen, for not listening to her mother (whilst understanding the pressure Helen is under); you’re able to think up the rest of what Maud should say yet be satisfied that she does not say it.

Maud’s memory isn’t static – Healey’s story incorporates the progression of memory loss. She manages to make you feel upbeat whilst you begin to loiter on the edges of upset for the character. Something that is never answered (this is not a drawback) is how long we are with Maud. It’s plausible that we spend a few weeks or months but it could just as easily be days.

The structure of the book is quite simply genius. It makes you keep questioning what snippets of information relate to which part of the story, and of course, ultimately, you have to decide which versions of Maud’s many retellings are true. It’s prudent to say that this book isn’t a thriller in the usual sense – ‘thriller’ is the description on the book, but it’s far from edge-of-seat nail-biting drama. You soon work out a few possibilities for Elizabeth and none of them are particularly amazing. The page-turning factor of this book lies in the way Healey makes you want to stick around, to hang out with her expertly-written main character.

What you may find irritating is the almost predictable way no one will tell Maud where Elizabeth is even when it’s obvious they know. There are two points to this withholding. The first is that there would be no story if people told Maud where her friend is. Of course. And as much as this in itself is obvious, you have to just accept that you’re going to have to keep reading to find out for certain, even if you don’t feel it’s much to look forward to. The second point is that it makes perfect sense no one is telling Maud where Elizabeth is. Maybe they have; she’ll have forgotten. Maybe they don’t because they’re sick of repeating themselves. Maybe, if Elizabeth is dead (which is of course possible given her age) they don’t want to upset her. The end of the book is very much a look at the entirety of this second point.

The second ‘plot’, then, concerns the disappearance of Maud’s sister. It’s a long time before the reason for its inclusion, its creation, comes to light. You’re invited to feel confused and perhaps a bit miffed that Sukey gets all this time when the book is about Elizabeth. This plot is confined to Maud’s childhood so the book is effectively part historical fiction. Maud’s long-term memory allows her to tell the reader about this period of her life in a generally usual way.

The only shortcoming can be found in the words Healey uses for Maud’s own descriptions. Some of the terms are too modern or colloquial and not what a British person of Maud’s age would use. These terms are therefore jarring and can pull you out of the text for a bit if you’re susceptible to them (for example, this may not affect American readers but it is going to affect British readers old enough to have witnessed the introduction of the terms). This, however, is a minor issue overall.

Elizabeth Is Missing is driven by all three ‘drivers’ – character, plot, and society. (I realise society isn’t generally thought of but this book’s commentary on issues requires it.) It’s fabulously character-driven, slow but steadily plot-driven, and what it offers for thought will stay with you for a long time and likely affect the way you think and deal with others (or at least make you constantly aware). It’s not going to take you on a whirlwind journey – Maud can’t take the bus with you alone – but it is going to leave you highly satisfied no matter what conclusions you reach in regards to the excellent and superbly devised climax. (Some questions are left unanswered, but there are enough hints.)

Take your place at Maud’s side and prepare to take note of when the gas needs to be turned off and when the kettle’s on the boil. This is a journey without travel and one you’re likely to enjoy very, very much.

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Some Thoughts On Bestseller Lists

A picture of '#1' on a white background

This is a bit of a rambling, musing, sort of post. I’m looking for your opinions really.

There are so many bestseller lists nowadays and each of varying merit – merit in some cases of course being a question of individual taste. Some seem trivial, especially when you see a book that you and, it seems, no one else, has heard of; on other occasions they are almost the be all end all.

In years gone by – by this I mean the ‘old’ days of book talk being the domain of newspapers and magazines – I used to take more note of lists than I do now (again it’s the sheer difference in quantity and the way they were more special when they were few and thus coveted). These days I rarely read a list unless it’s published on a newspaper website or it’s one a blogger has discussed and included in a post. More often than not, my association with lists is limited to the mention on the cover of a book.

This is all very judgemental of me so I’ll end this point here by saying that bestseller lists can affect my reading choices if I’m partial to the creator of the list or if I’m intrigued by a book but wouldn’t have chosen to read it if I hadn’t known it was so popular. It’s no use saying I don’t ascribe to hype; try as I can, hype will get to me on occasion and sometimes you just have to let it have its way.

So, a new point to get away from the judgement – I may read a bestseller based on its presence on a list however my reading most often depends on whether my fellow bloggers have enjoyed it. A bestseller list is a good place to start your choosing plan, but it’s devoid of the necessary notes on subject matter. The recommendation is mathematical, and words and a personal recommendation win every time.

With bestseller lists there’s that expectation that the book will be good, so you have to keep in mind that the hype might well be just that, hype, and that it might not be the book for you. A bestseller may have won many people over, but ‘many’ isn’t ‘everyone’. I think in many ways it’s harder to accept a book didn’t work for you if you chose it because of a bestseller list than it is if you picked it at random or read a few reviews. I think not liking a bestseller can often cause more confusion for the dissenter than it should (of course a hyped book that most agree isn’t really a good book – you know which I’m thinking of here – is different).

Similarly, a bestseller might simply be a bestseller because of hype, because of marketing spiel or a few choice words, not because people have read and loved it.

I always think it’s worth remembering that some lists aren’t as much of a recommendation as they might seem, that a book can easily make it onto a list if the author or publisher are there at the right time and place. I know that a book can technically be called a bestseller, as far as the cover copy is concerned, if it makes #1 during a few hours on Amazon.

I suppose what I’m saying is that bestseller lists can be good, they can be bad, they can be valid ways of choosing books, but you’ve got to remember that they’re not necessarily about the content.

What do you think of bestseller lists – do they affect your reading choices?

 
Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

Book Cover

He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 424
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-25089-0
First Published: 3rd July 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2015
Rating: 2.5/5

It’s 1686 and Nella moves to the home of her new husband in Amsterdam. She expects happiness but instead receives a frosty reception – she’s not particularly wanted, her sister-in-law is clearly mistress of the house, the servants seem too big for their boots, and her husband makes no move to consummate the marriage. Instead of the life she thought she would have, Nella finds herself living in a mystery and this only increases further when her husband buys her a miniature of their house and the creator she assigns to complete it appears to know an uncanny amount about the family.

The Miniaturist is a book that could have been amazing but is sadly held back by a lack of focus, poor writing, and a decisive gap between the characters and the readers.

Burton seems to have chosen the 1600s to gain the attention of history lovers. The book could have been set at some other time at no cost, and the characters do not at all conform to the time period. By this I do not mean the way they defy convention – indeed servants on a par with their masters is not unbelievable – more it’s the way Burton wields power that is an issue. As an example, Nella has a fit over something most of her era would naturally have a fit about, before doing an about turn and completely changing her option within hours, emulating views of the present day.

Is Nella confident or nervous? Burton cannot decide. One moment her character is close to being obnoxious, the next she’s a delicate flower who will not speak a word. She leaves the house without question one day, then stays in her room and lets people make all the decisions for her the next. It is clear that Nella is a device – this is a plot-driven novel – but there is nothing to hang on to, so to speak. Burton hasn’t made up her mind and wants both worlds.

The characters never come into their own. You’re never given a reason to care about them; they are distant from the first page to the last. A lot of this is down to the way the author chose to write her story – the particular way she uses the present tense, third person narration, does not allow the reader to feel they are at all close to what’s happening. Instead there’s the sense that Burton realised, at some point, that she should have been writing in the first person but didn’t want to rewrite what she already had. Nella does lots of thinking and imagining when dialogue would work better. Everything is too detailed, info-dump is common.

Much of the issue is that The Miniaturist is full of drama. Full of drama to a melodramatic, unnecessary degree. As the book progresses it reads ever more like a prose version of a theatrical production, the problem being that theatre has to be expressive to reach the audience at the back of the room but a book by its very nature has no requirement for it. Disaster follows disaster to a silly level and social issues are packed in like sardines.

As said, this book is not very well written. Whilst modern language is natural – a book in old English would be difficult to read – very modern slang and colloquialisms pull you out of the story. Burton moves between ‘oldy-worldy’ English grammar, modern English grammar, and American grammar, making for dialogue that doesn’t ring true. (The characters may be from Amsterdam, but they would not have peppered their language with Spanish grammar, for example.)

Lastly, it must be said questions are not answered. The question of the miniaturist is never answered. There is a half answer that spells out who they are in terms of background, but you never learn the mystery nor do you ever really meet the miniaturist. The question of what will happen to these characters now they are in a bad position is completely forgotten.

The Miniaturist is strictly okay. Read it if you will, but don’t pass up the chance to read another book for this one.

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