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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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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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Valeria Luiselli – Faces In The Crowd

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Stories can haunt you.

Publisher: Granta
Pages: 148
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-847-08507-8
First Published: 2011; 2nd May 2013 in English
Date Reviewed: 18th June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Los ingrávidos (The Weightless)
Translated by: Christina MacSweeney

A woman – generally unnamed but briefly described as Dolores – working as a writer and translator in Mexico, struggles to find Latin authors to put forward as candidates for publication to her boss; she finds the work of a poet – Giberto Owen – in the library and starts to construct a tale of discovering old translations by a famous translator. As she writes the translations herself she tells us the story of the novel she is writing, which appears to be very similar to her own life.

Faces In The Crowd is an incredibly literary book that, as Luiselli has her character write, is ‘a horizontal novel told vertically’ and ‘a vertical novel, told horizontally’ and ‘A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within’; in essence, this is a book in a book that’s possibly in another book that’s possibly not actually fiction at all… but then is, of course, fiction.

If that sounds terribly confusing that’s because it is – Faces In The Crowd is a great read but it can and most likely will do a number on your literary sanity. This is most likely an intended part of the experience. With Luiselli’s concept of ghosts and the reality and fiction meddling together and modifying each other – the author (Luiselli) even has her character write such a thing, possibly with the idea of helping her (Luiselli again) reader’s work it out – there are a lot of hints but their core meaning can be difficult to place against the text.

This novel in a novel, then, is formed of both Dolores’ home life and her work, and she writes about her home life as it happens, thus blending the two together, and goes so far as to call her translation work another life. Luiselli uses the concept of vignettes to separate both ideas and storylines but only loosely – one of the best easy-to-understand aspects of the novel is the way the different vignettes become associated as the narrative continues:

On Sundays, my husband, the children and I listen to Rockdrigo and eat pancakes for breakfast. But not this Sunday. My husband is angry. Through my own carelessness, he’s read some more of these pages. He asks how much is fiction and how much fact.

*

During that period, I took to telling lies.

As a further example, too long to quote, on the page directly following this, Dolores says that her husband got a postcard from a woman ‘in Philly’. In the next vignette, Dolores is just back from Philly, and in the one following that, women contact their first loves and ask to meet in Philly. Later the husband has to go to Philly… but later he, or his ‘ghost’ is still at home.

‘Ghost’ is the word here: with the various narratives gradually moving together, the concept Luiselli introduced early on is unpacked and made easier to understand. There is one ‘ghost’ who starts us off, and that is Gilberto Owen.

This is where we encounter the historical literary aspect of the book: Dolores’ chosen Latin poet is a real Mexican poet from the 1800s – this reviewer could not find out enough about him to be able to say whether Luiselli’s narrative for him is fact or fiction but there are hints as to poetry movements and concepts. Through Owen’s life – whether fictional in terms of Dolores’ ‘translations’ or simply fictional in terms of the novel – we meet the likes of Ezra Pound and Nella Larsen. (Luiselli has taken her title from Pound’s poem, In a Station of a Metro.) The use of fellow poets and writers aids the narrative, both in terms of real life happenings and the mere concepts that follow them, for example it could be said that Luiselli’s writing is styled rather similarly to Imagism – Pound’s school of poetry.

There isn’t much character development here – the plot and the style is the focus – but again, that adds to the narrative. Everyone sounds rather like everyone else, and the book becomes more an ode to interpreting literature and the work of historical writers rather than a book to enjoy. But the writing is very likeable and it’s evident that the translation has placed more prominence on understanding and getting the active point across instead of making words and phrases align which mean you get a firm idea of what the original is (would be) like.

Faces In The Crowd is a tough read – you’ll look at the thin stack of pages and ample white space thinking you’ll spend an hour or so in literary enjoyment and then find you’ve been there for a long time and still not finished; this book requires more attention than an ancient classic. But being able to say you’ve read it is satisfying in itself and if you’ve learned a fair amount about literary constructs and literary people in that time then all the better. If there’s anything else to be said about it it’s that it perhaps goes on too long, which does indeed sound ridiculous.

Perhaps it’s right that words contain nothing, or almost nothing. That their content is, at the very least, variable.

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Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

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Only go with the flow to a certain extent.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-25215-4
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Gil sees his wife standing outside the bookshop, he runs after her, causing himself a fair injury in the process. Daughter Nan isn’t amused – Ingrid disappeared many years ago when she and her sister were children – and she’s very likely dead. But Flora sides with his father and as Gil returns home from hospital the sisters look after him, together with Richard, the man Flora had been sleeping with but had split up with, in not so many words, before she left to meet Nan. The family house is full of books which are stacked on every surface, a few layers deep – Gil has an obsession with finding secondhand books that hold receipts, letters, and marginalia. Mixed in with this story is that of Ingrid’s version of her marriage to Gil, told in letters, that she had slipped in between the pages of various relevant titles.

Swimming Lessons is an utterly sensational novel of truths and lies, mystery and a spot of magical realism, and regret, all held together by the theme of literature and writing. Ingrid’s tale begins at university where she studied English and met Gil, her lecturer. Their story moves on from there, with Gil’s friends warning Ingrid about Gil’s personality and the university putting its foot down. The chapters set in the present abound with literary ideas, criticism, and general conversation.

“Writing does not exist unless there is someone to read it, and each reader will take something different from a novel, from a chapter, from a line. A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader.”

“…often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind. All these words… are about the reader. The specific individual – man, woman, or child – who left something of themselves behind.”

This means that whilst the subject of the book, or, rather, subjects, can get pretty dark, the wonders of the text keep you in a positive state. The darker side of the novel – Ingrid’s revelations, which are effectively revelations to the reader, and the question as to what happened to Ingrid – are written superbly; Fuller’s writing style, plotting, and subsequent literary execution are absolutely marvelous to the point that the book is just as good to read for its prose as it is for the way it unravels its subjects. A good use of the present day setting and decades past round out the writing.

As for the characters they are very well drawn and feel far from fictional. Fuller references I Capture The Castle, and there are, in Ingrid’s love of the beach and writing of it, potential allusions to The Awakening (‘potential’ due to the book not being referenced). In the idea of Ingrid having been lost to the sea there is a minor reference to Virginia Woolf. The inter-textual nature of the book enhances both the atmosphere and the characterisation and also leading you to think that situations may match those in the older novels (which can be the case but not always). Gil has a writing room to which no one else is allowed entry. Flora is often naked. Ingrid found her changed life difficult. Like Fuller’s previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons looks a little at neglectful parenting and favouritism.

This book pairs joyous reader escapism with some uncomfortable subjects. It is a good idea to go in prepared for a blunt look at what can be hidden under the surface, of parenting, of marriage, and then give your all to it. Because it’s a triumph; not the sort of characters you might want to spend real time with but the book itself, everything about it, oh heck yes.

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Claire Fuller – Our Endless Numbered Days

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Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, nor any idea of when it falls.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 292
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-00394-7
First Published: 16th February 2015
Date Reviewed: 25th April 2018
Rating: 5/5

In 1976, when Peggy was nine years old, her pianist mother travelled for work and her father abducted her (Peggy) and took her to a remote hut in Germany. Telling her her mother had died and the world had been destroyed except for the patch of land she could see from the hut, the two attempted to build a life in a tumbledown shack, the few preparations her father having made being not enough for the years ahead. Several years later – 1985 – and newly returned to her mother, Peggy recounts the years she lost as those around her try to work out the mystery of the person she calls Reuben.

Our Endless Numbered Days is a fine novel of survivalism, and the mental effects of extreme physical and emotional neglect and abuse. Set in decades past, the novel sports a particular beauty despite its often horrific contents, making for a book that packs quite a punch.

As Peggy is reporting on her past with the benefit of – albeit hampered – maturity (she’s now 17), the book has an interesting blend of things written with knowledge, and things that are left for the reader to see the reality of. (The characterisation in this book is excellent.) This is where the writing also makes its mark, mixing with the story-telling style and emphasising the horror – consider a scene in which the beauty of the writing somewhat obscures the madness of the father who comes back with the news that the world is gone, before the choice of his daughter to stir the fire means that she sees her passport burning, which she understands the meaning of but perhaps not as much as the reader does. Young Peggy is at times quite mature but the things she does not argue against are things that from the perspective of someone a few years older, or even some more mature nine-year-olds, are very obviously lies, which has an incredible impact.

And so the novel looks at manipulation and parental neglect, the extreme circumstances ever emphasising the situation. It is never said outright whether Peggy’s father is ‘simply’ manipulative or whether during his time he takes a turn for the worse, mentally, and it is partly this that makes the end of the book so full of impact, the semblance of the questions remaining adding to the gut-punch that is the final few pages; but there is also neglect by Peggy’s mother, Ute, that is almost ushered in, revealed incredibly slowly to the point that you see where obvious problems can obscure less obvious but no less problematic others.

Peggy’s mother is sometimes away and there is the issue of the family hosting the father’s survivalist friends. But more so there are issues in the way that Ute, a famous pianist, does not teach Peggy the piano – nor her mother tongue – and in fact actively dissuades Peggy from playing the instrument. Had Ute been more hands on, would she have seen just how far her husband’s ideas and practices had gone? (One thing the father does is make Peggy pack a rucksack within a certain amount of time and make her way down to the mock bunker basement.) Peggy’s dedication to learning how to play on a soundless, rudimentary, ‘piano’ brings to the foreground her strength to survive.

To go back to the writing, it can at times be magical despite its subject matter. The way seasons are used; the heatwave summer when Peggy plays in the garden and visits the overgrown and no longer used cemetery call to mind Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and the use of winter creates a beauty not unlike that found in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. There is indeed a slight feeling of magical realism not unlike that both earlier novels.

The only thing possibly missing is a little more time spent on the intervening years of Peggy’s time away; whilst it makes absolute sense that there isn’t all that much – it would be very mundane – there is a bit of a feeling of the narrative being sped up which has an effect on how much the time away seems to be when reading it, the 300 pages being spread over the before, during, and afterward. However as the narrative has a lot to do with the overall effect of the experience on Peggy’s development, it is far more niggle than active drawback.

Our Endless Numbered Days is a special experience, its themes and the ‘takeaway’ making for something, not necessarily the story itself, that will stay with you for a long period of time. The prose keeps you going through the difficult times and the few questions you will have at the end provide the opportunity to explore the story yourself and fill in the gaps left by the trauma Peggy goes through. It’s a fantastic feat of writing.

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