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Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

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When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

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Hiromi Kawakami – The Nakano Thrift Shop

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Neither something old, nor something new.

Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-846-27600-2
First Published: 1st April 2005; 4th August 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 31st August 2018
Rating: 3/5

Original language: Japanese
Original title: 古道具 中野商店 (Furudogu Nakano Shoten – Nakano Antique Shop)
Translated by: Allison Markin Powell

Hitomi works at the Nakano Thrift Shop; named after its somewhat peculiar owner, the shop sells second-hand items, but not, as the owner would want to point out, antiques. Every day brings new customers, new items, and stilted conversations; the owner often starts a conversation with the end of a sentence – ‘you know what I mean?’ As the months go by, Hitomi finds herself interested in her very quiet co-worker, Takeo, and becomes interested in the life of Mr Nakano’s artistic sister, Masayo.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a novel formed of short stories about the day to day workings of a shop in the context of the workers’ lives. Referred to by many as a ‘slice of life’ novel, the storytelling is done via a first person narrative.

There isn’t all that much storytelling – in the normal sense – here. The narrative is most often very simple, sometimes verging on boring, although there are a handful of poignant moments wherein the theme of a chapter/short story melds into an aspect of a character’s life. (Each chapter concerns an item from the shop or a food, so, for example, in the chapter ‘Apple’, two characters converse vaguely – dialogue is used sparingly, with a lot of detail left to the reader to fill in – discussing a type of apple, the way it is too tart for the shop owner. Later, after this has been related, one of the speakers finds it too tart herself.)

It’s in these emotional moments that the book is very good, the emotions adding more substance. The pity is it’s only for seconds at a time; it becomes the primary method of character development which means development is sparse and the narrative doesn’t go anywhere significant.

The translation is very western, with ideas and idioms changed to ones that work in English; Markin Powell’s method is more about the feeling behind the words than a literal translation. There are times when the western elements become too much – very modern western-centric grammar, for example – but it’s generally well done. Markin Powell has used italics and description as sparingly as Kawakami uses words so anyone who knows a bit about Japanese popular culture or those happy to research as they go along (this book won’t work as well without it) will find this enjoyable. The times when the description is too long or the occasional repetitions are down to Kawakami.

The reason to read this book (in translation) is to get a sense of Kawakami and modern popular Japanese literature in general. There’s very little to take away beyond that and for a short book it can be a slog to get through, the character development as sparse as the text and taking too long to begin.

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Rosie Travers – The Theatre Of Dreams

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Lights, camera, and action… are all badly needed by this group of people.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 300
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-721-12292-9
First Published: 1st August 2018
Date Reviewed: 21st August 2018
Rating: 4/5

Actress Tara’s director boyfriend becomes interested in a rising reality star and the resulting fallout shatters Tara’s professional image. When she receives a letter from an elderly woman, inviting her to take over a dance school (the real reason is to help save the old pavilion) she decides to go for it, moving from London to the south coast. But there’s more to Kitty’s request than she included in the letter, more than any meetings and debates with councils.

The Theatre Of Dreams is a contemporary story of historical conservation, with a healthy dose of mystery. Told via two characters, one in the first person, the other in the third, it gives a good view of the past and present and ensures all questions, whether explained openly to other characters or not, are answered for the reader.

Travers has constructed a good tale; seemingly nice but ordinary for a while, there comes a point where the first mystery element makes an appearance, and this then runs parallel to the main story, pushing the interest up several levels. It adds a completely new dimension and genres that move the novel, particularly the final third, into page-turner territory, somewhere between a casual whodunnit and a cosy mystery, whilst never losing the easy-going nature of the narrative.

Characterisation is fair, with most time understandably going to Tara, who gets a complete, realistic, life change. She’s as important as the fight to save the pavilion.

The pavilion itself is what the story revolves around but it would be prudent not to expect to see a result here – the book is about the journey to start the restoration rather than about the restoration itself, with Kitty desperate to find a way out of the bind her family have put her in of selling off the pavilion to developers. The fictional history looks at stories from factual places (the building is based on Lee-On-Solent’s old Lee Tower) and calls to mind similar, factual, stories of campaigns to save history.

There’s but one issue and that’s in the book as a product; there are a lot of proofreading errors – spelling, grammar – that, whilst not on every page, are numerous enough to be noticeable and do on occasion mean you have to stop reading to work out the meaning behind the sentence. The language itself is good and Travers’ style confident – the errors are an editing stage problem.

Besides the errors, the book is great. It’s one you can pick up for a chapter or two but quickly find yourself wanting to carve out time for, and the subtle elements of mystery that Travers includes make you want to race through the end to find out what’s happened.

I’ve met the author a couple of times.

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Kirsty Ferry – Watch For Me By Candlelight

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Not only at the first stroke of midnight.

Publisher: Choc Lit
Pages: 302
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 9B079H1LTJB (ASIN)
First Published: 3rd April 2018
Date Reviewed: 8th August 2018
Rating: 4/5

Kate lives in Suffolk where she runs a local history museum, set up in a row of old cottages. Originally from Cambridge, she fell in love with the village she found there, feeling drawn to it. One day a new visitor to the museum, Theo, arrives; Kate begins to slip back in time, into the shoes of someone who looks very similar to herself and who knows someone who looks similar to Theo.

Watch For Me By Candlelight is a time-slip romance with a well-constructed fantasy thread. At first understandably seeming to be an editing error, Ferry’s seamless integration of Kate into her historical past is excellently done, with Kate effectively becoming her historical counterpart whilst remaining herself, able to apply modern concepts to what she is hearing but knowledgeable of what she actually ought to be saying in context. On occasion she does lose herself completely in Cat, Ferry intentionally bringing the history further into the proceedings so that you get to know Cat as well, albeit not as much as Kate.

Partly as a result of all this, the romance is a good one – well plotted and paced. Ferry doesn’t dwell long on minor conflicts, letting the plot go where it will – for example a problematic, more minor, part of life will be solved in good time to aid the path of the main story.

The author’s decision to use a pretty ordinary backdrop and characters allows the spotlight to be on the fantasy, and allows the story to feature a strong dose of reality (the time-slip itself being not so unrealistic). Kate is friends with the family who own the local historic estate, and counterpart Cat was a relative of their ancestors – neither are particularly privileged. Theo/Will (it’s not a spoiler to say he has a counterpart) is well placed in an equally ordinary situation, and it’s this that creates the main conflict in the historical sections.

The writing is good – any anachronisms are the result of the time-slipping and thus not an issue, and the grammar on most occasions is refreshingly super.

There are little things at odds, but the main element that invites question is the ending – it’s not at all as the plot leads you to believe; the mystery is not predictable but might have been better if it was predictable, more suitable.

Apart from that, as described, Watch For Me By Candlelight is a good book. It’s understandably an easy read, enjoyable both in terms of its genre and for the cleverness of the construction, putting genre first to great effect. It’s the second in a series but can be read as a standalone, the references to the first book intriguing and informative.

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Claire Fuller – Bitter Orange

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When friendships sour.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 274
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-34182-7
First Published: 2nd August 2018
Date Reviewed: 30th July 2018
Rating: 4/5

When a historic estate is purchased in 1969, the new owner asks Frances to stay at the house for a time and create a report on a bridge in the grounds. Upon arrival, she meets Cara and Peter, a couple who are there so that Peter can report on the house itself. Cara’s moods change quickly, her stories fantastical, and Peter sometimes seems overwhelmed by her actions. Staying in the attic above the dilapidated rooms Cara and Peter have been assigned, Frances finds a Judas Hole that gives her further information about their strange relationship. The couple captivate her, Peter in particular, but as she starts to find her rooms amiss, she wonders what is going on.

Bitter Orange is Fuller’s very fine third novel. It’s a tale that balances the aspects of a great summer read with a fantastically subtle suspense thread that may well surprise you at the end but in a good, literary, manner.

The book revolves around Frances’ acquaintance and interactions with Cara and Peter but particularly the former. Told in the past tense, we see an older, very ill, Frances looking back on her life to the time when she was impressionable, feeling grown up but with mistakes and misunderstandings she was yet to mature out of, and easy to win over. Coming across at times as somewhat of an unreliable narrator, Frances’ younger thoughts of the couple can be at odds – though not too much, which is where the ‘somewhat’ of the ‘unreliable narrator’ comes in – with what the reader sees under the surface.

Suffice it to say the characterisation is very good. There is a lot of depth in Frances as a character – you see a lot of her personality, insecurities, and Fuller spends a good amount of time showing the effects of Frances’ childhood on her adulthood. Cara and Peter are well drawn, too, and only held back from being easier to read due to us knowing them through Frances’ understanding of them; Cara the self-described Italian who creates melodrama in church, tells stories of death, and makes awful threats, and Peter who, seen though Frances’ rose-tinted eyes which may or may not tell the truth, is constantly trying to keep the peace, stop Cara going off the rails, and saving himself.

Woven in carefully, the effects of Frances’ childhood are excellently explained. The older Frances speaks to the reader (or to herself – she is talking because an old acquaintance is asking about her life but whether she’s actually voicing the thoughts are not always known) of the emotional and psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother – the major reason for her lack of understanding when it comes to reading the personalities and interactions of others and making the correct choices. It’s a sobering story that highlights how abuse that is often not recognised can impact someone’s sense of self so fundamentally and for years and years after the abuse has finished, defining the novel in a quiet way.

Set in August and published in August, late summer is a great time to read this sun-drenched book. It has all the breezy laziness of a heat-glazed day and all the fantastic history and surprises of a good historical fiction, the setting of the 1960s interlaced with stories and ideas of a house from an earlier period, with spooky goings on that would be right at home in a ghost story.

The fruits may not taste very good but the packaging is brilliant; Bitter Orange is a great novel that rewards its reader handsomely with luscious writing and literary pleasures… which is just as well because by the time you come to the end you’re going to want something sweet you help you mull over the final revelations.

I received this book for review.

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