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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.

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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?

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Anne Melville – The House Of Hardie

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Revolution at Oxford, and the early expeditions to China.

Publisher: Agora Books
Pages: 288
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: B07Q4FMJSZ
First Published: 1st July 1987; republished in ebook format by Agora 2nd May 2019
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

In 1874, Gordon Hardie ran away to sea, joining a botanist and becoming an assistant. He comes home to take his place in the family wine business but agrees with his father that before too long he may go to China in search of a legendary lily. Meanwhile, his sister Midge is preparing to attend tutorials at Oxford University; she wants to work in a school and some sympathetic professors are agreeing to teach women so long as they don’t use the main entrances to the colleges. Also preparing for Oxford is Archie Yates, the grandson of a marquess who isn’t too good at studying and plans to have fun. His younger sister, Lucy, longs to see more of the world – she’s hardly ever away from home – and delights in visiting him. With the Marquess a loyal patron of the Hardies, the siblings will meet. It is likely to have a great impact on all of their lives.

The House Of Hardie is the first book in a trilogy, a family saga set in the Victorian era. A story of class, gender, and exploration, it looks at two pairs of siblings and their relationships with each other, as well as the ways they work to achieve their differing dreams.

This book is sensational. Placing an emphasis on the middle class and looking at lesser-known subjects, it offers everything you might want in a historical novel, and then some. (This is provided you don’t mind some romance.) It’s clear that Melville did a lot of research and had a mind to create a work that would be as immersive as possible. Rather like Elizabeth Chadwick, who started publishing her medieval historical fiction in the early 1990s, Melville looks to draw her readers fully into the world she’s writing about. She does not use the sights, smells, and similar details in the way Chadwick does, and she limits her description, but the effect is the same; this book will steal your time and you’ll be very happy for it.

One of the major themes, the success of the social commentary is down to Melville’s dedication to presenting everyday life for Victorians in Oxford and limiting the inclusion of the aristocracy. The Yates’ position, the aristocrats without an inheritance – both a narrative device and realistic – enables Melville to take her discussion where she wants it to be; the inevitable romances allow for further discussion. It’s difficult to move up in the world, and difficult to move down, and where the class lines are less defined – high-born, penniless; profitable ‘every-man’ – there’s another layer of conversation when sparks fly. Needless to say the characterisation is fabulous. There’s a fair amount of introspective but Melville never scrimps on dialogue. And the employment of the second major theme – education for women – allows for a lot of forward-thinking, and brief references to books.

“A woman in England is expected by her husband to shriek at the sight of a mouse but to endure without complaint the pain of having a baby every year, and she fulfils both those expectations. If she were given a different pattern to follow, she would take the mouse to bed with her as a pet and think nothing of it.”

Oxford University is the place of education for the sons of aristocrats, and, as the years pass, women too. More than anything else, Midge wants a degree, and whilst as a woman she can’t receive a certificate she’s allowed to do everything that for a man would mean receiving one. In the space for exposition Midge’s studies create, the author gives a brief history of the early movements towards women’s equal access to education, using Midge’s experiences as a sort of case study to show specifics. This together with the chapters focused on Archie who stays in Magdalen College proper, equate to a well-rounded history – quite apt for a book that looks at two students of the subject. And the author never misses a chance to add to your mental image of Victorian Oxford, having the river freeze over for ice skating, involving everyone in Eights Week (yearly since 1715), and making time for walks and other excursions. It’s a championing of Oxford to rival Philip Pullman.

The romance threads in this book are strong, as well written as everything else; the book is historical romance but not quite at the level the label implies. The class issues are forefront, and Melville puts career above romance. Both relationships evolve in ways that come as a surprise, Melville wanting to look at another aspect of relationships than the easy happily-ever-after. She’s quite diligent in this, including concepts that are the opposite of romance when she wants to show historical context or indeed imply the drawbacks to these siblings of different social classes knowing each other. When the romances had previously been moving along well, these changes can be hard to read, but they make the stories less predictable.

The final section is absolutely fascinating, a story high on adventure in a literal manner. The basic narrative (obvious fiction aside) is as good as any non-fiction account and the author handles the differences between what a Victorian explorer would have written and what we expect to hear about now, with aplomb. For example, her white western characters often think of their discomfort amongst those of an entirely different culture that doesn’t match English standards of behaviour, and then Melville uses description to show the goodness in these ‘savage’ people; at other times the characters try to learn a little about the people around them, hindered only by the author’s concern that they adhere to the thoughts of their time.

Why, then, is this well planned and well executed book not the recipient of the highest rating here? As the story heads towards its final section it starts to focus more on one set of characters, swiftly cutting out the other set altogether. This is all well and good as the look at education and the relationship there had previously been at the forefront, but the narrowing down to one set of characters has an immediate effect on the atmosphere of the book; though it’s right that the atmosphere changes to fit the change in the story, the beauty of the book was in the way Melville switched between the characters and the variety of commentary and content that was provided, the result of the good writing. This naturally becomes a bit lost.

With this comes a change in the way the romance is written. Whilst there had been problems to overcome in the relationships prior to this, the problems in the final chapters are magnified because of the decision to look at the one couple. Maybe it’s the relative silence of the new location, but it becomes repetitive, leaning towards that particular sort of angst that is more device than anything else. And, due to it, the perhaps surprising way in which the other romance unfolded becomes less surprising-but-powerful choice and more way-to-cull-character-count.

The good thing is that these factors only affect the section they are included in – the book might not end quite how you were hoping or thinking, but that doesn’t change the success of the rest of the book. It may be ironic that this is due to the final section changing location and structure but, regardless, it applies.

The House Of Hardie is a great feat. An adventure, a number of lessons, some romance, and a particular attention to storytelling that is at the top end of the scale. Recommended to anyone who likes the idea of taking a trip to the era and reading history in the context of history. You’re not going to be able to put it down.

I received this book for review.

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D H Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover

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Sex and industry.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: N/A (there are a few different editions)
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-44149-8
First Published: 1928
Date Reviewed: 29th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Connie married a baronet; now back from the war, Clifford is different, his newly-acquired disability changing their marriage. More to the point, however, Connie is becoming bored by him, his clique of quasi-intellectual friends, and the pomp surrounding his titled heritage. After a brief affair with one of the friends, and following a conversation in which Clifford suggested that it wouldn’t be bad if Connie became pregnant by another man so that the baronetcy could continue, Connie meets the her husband’s gamekeeper. Like Clifford, Oliver, too, was at war. His experience situated him somewhere in between the social classes. He is distant and cold, but Connie becomes attracted to him.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel of many themes. Most well-known as erotic fiction, the book also looks at class, and the progression of industry over traditional English life.

Lawrence has a lot he wants to say and it’s evident early on that his object is to make his opinion clear, and hopefully easy to emphasise with. Most often when detailing his thoughts – through his characters, looked at in a philosophical manner – he repeats words and phrases until the thought reaches an almost ‘post-‘ level of discussion. Perhaps he saw no other way to get his points across, to rail against the new norms of his day; it’s not hard to liken him to others who behoove their point in a literary manner.

What’s perhaps surprising is that industry is Lawrence’s biggest point, the sex taking second place in this regard. By Lawrence’s time the industrial revolution had reached a particular level; in this book we see the slow but sure change in social make-up, where those who were always rich were starting to sell off their inheritance. Lawrence – of a working class background, the child of a coal miner and a teacher – details the breaking up of estates, the land reused for cheap housing for those who do the literal heavy lifting. The author isn’t too worried, here, about the aristocracy – his sadness lies in rural life changing, in coal mines washing away the peace and beauty of the countryside; if more people had thought as he did perhaps we would have more historical estates remaining today.

The author uses his characters’ minds to spread his opinions. In this respect the book is rather like Anna Karenina – where Tolstoy spreads his thoughts on agriculture enough that his farmer, the rich Lenin, is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the author himself, so too does Lawrence use Connie and Oliver to ‘think’ his own thoughts. Had they been around at the same time, the two writers may have had much to debate.

In talking of industry and as a topic in its own right, Lawrence discusses the class system. He shows how class isn’t always easy to delineate – Oliver, a working class man, has two modes of speech, that of a high-ranking member of the British army, and the dialect of his home and background. Interestingly, Lawrence makes Oliver’s regional dialect the one that is secondary, or at least that’s the effect of it – it seems Oliver’s army English, which is similar to his employers, is now his default; Connie moans at him for speaking in regional dialect because she sees it as affected and not him; part of his character is his struggle between his different lived experiences.

Lawrence discusses the upper class, those with inherited wealth; he dislikes Clifford’s place in the world but is very lenient towards Connie. Connie’s background is somewhere between middle and upper class; in marrying Clifford she’s risen a level, enough that she’s far from Oliver in terms of society but not too high that Lawrence can’t use her for his ‘isn’t the countryside beautiful and industry is ruining it’ monologues. It is unfortunate that Lawrence uses disability – Clifford – as an easy way to justify Connie’s move away from him (though she does care about Clifford), but it is a reflection of the attitudes of the time.

Connie’s desire for sex, that which accompanies love but isn’t necessarily ‘making love’, is fulfilled by Oliver’s arrival in the story. The book is absolutely littered with sex scenes and other references to the act; there’s a reason the title is synonymous with sex and it’s difficult not to argue that despite the theme of industry, the sex shouldn’t be first and foremost in any discussion of the book. (I’ve included it last to subvert this.) Lawrence was not able to publish the book openly in Britain; the publication date of 1928 is the initial, private publication, and the date when it was seen in France and Australia. There was a court dispute in the 1960s; finally Penguin won the right to publish the work in its entirety, years after Lawrence’s death. The sex was still shocking in the ’60s, and it’s still somewhat shocking today. When it comes to these scenes, Lawrence’s phrasing is more poetry than anything else – at least that seems to be what he was going for, with his leaning towards purple prose; there’s a layer of dissociation to it as well. The scenes can verge on being philosophical, like the industrial musings. And it does verge on being too much, unnecessary; it’s both erotic fiction and surprisingly not sexy.

Part of this is down to that dissociation, the gap that exists between Lawrence and his characters. Whilst he writes from Oliver and Connie’s perspective, most often Connie’s, the text reads as though it’s the narration of someone watching and describing what he sees. And a lot of that is down to Lawrence’s writing of Connie herself. The general portrayal isn’t bad, in fact often Lawrence captures her well, but there are unfortunately occasions when he applies the male gaze to her thinking. That Connie thinks about sex in detail works. The way and the how, however, is sometimes at odds, so to speak. This in turn extends to her development as a character – she develops a trait that does not quite fit with who she is; it’s more about Lawrence moving the plot to where he wants it to be.

Lastly on this subject, there is a very minor LGBT element to the story, included in memories of the past. It’s not detailed – understandably, given the era – but it’s there, just enough that Lawrence could probably include it without question.

I haven’t mentioned plot – that’s because it’s very thin, a minor element. The story also doesn’t end in an expected way, instead Lawrence leaves you to decide exactly what happens, and whether or not that’s satisfactory depends on your thoughts thus far.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is both of its time and eternal, with its thoughts of changing times. The stereotype of the book is there for a reason and it’s not a book you can get lost in. It’s best in the context of its fame and publication, and as an eyewitness account and opinion of the era. As a historical document and example of various attitudes, it has a lot to recommend it.

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Monica Ali – Brick Lane

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Left To Her Fate.

Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
Pages: 407
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60484-0
First Published: 2013
Date Reviewed: 20th March 2019
Rating: 3/5

At birth Nazneen was left to fate; she survived. As an adult she is married to Chanu, an older man, and leaves Bangladesh for London. She arrives to a burgeoning community of diaspora, the Bangladeshi population in Tower Hamlets laying roots and working to make a new life. But Nazneen is still leaving things to fate; as the world moves around her she watches; she is the wife Chanu wanted, she’s a friend to others, but she remains somewhat outside, as life continues.

Brick Lane is a novel about the life of an immigrant to London from the 1970s to the early noughties.

Ali’s lengthy book rests on the overall concept of fate, a story the younger Nazneen heard over and over again, called ‘how you were left to your fate’. As such, Nazneen does not often get involved with social events or even friendships when she could if she wanted to; the book is both a reflection of an immigrant’s experience, and the story of Nazneen’s particular life as affected by her mother.

This latter aspect means that Nazneen is a particularly passive character; away from the understandable case of isolation early on, Nazneen has ideas of things she’d like to do but never does anything about it. If this passivity is Ali’s way of writing cultural difference it could have made sense, but Nazneen is among people who are actively part of their local community, and whilst Chanu doesn’t teach her English and does expect the home kept nicely rather than encouraging her to be out and about, he involves her in his educational ideas, discussing neighbours and friends, and invites people over to socialise with them. Effectively, as much as Chanu doesn’t offer active support, it’s Ali herself who puts up the biggest barriers around Nazneen, creating isolation which in the context of the rest of the book is unnatural.

Chanu is an interesting character, at once compelling and utterly irritating. His story is of a potential success; he knows a lot – or, rather, he knows he knows a lot. He can do intellect, but moving forward from that and incorporating the opinions of others, is difficult; he does not get the jobs he wants and misjudges how others think of him. His personality and education means a lot of his dialogue is academic lecture – he’d be at his best in front of a room of students, though he might succeed in sending most of them to sleep.

With Nazneen being the character the book revolves around, there is little story and many dull pages. Due to Ali’s continual application of passivity, the moments that offer real promise are passed over almost as soon as they’ve begun. This is a problem because these moments are to do with conflict – the book’s timeline includes 9/11, the people on the estate are Muslim, and you hear enough from what Nazneen hears about to realise that if Ali had let her be a proper part of her community, like all the other characters, this book would have a lot to say. Where there is a bit included about rioting, most of what happens is missed out.

Nazneen’s life gets a bit more interesting when she meets the young man who brings her clothes to repair, but this is also short-lived and fairly unremarked-upon. That something happens between them doesn’t fit her character – perhaps it serves as a push against fate, but due to Ali’s construction of her personality, it’s effectively a contrived reversal of a contrived character. The ending of the book is what was needed, but coming so late in the day it’s difficult not to wonder whether it wasn’t simply a case of the author noticing she needed to do something with her story if she was to finish it.

The one area where the book is interesting is the letters Nazneen’s sister sends; in Hasina there is good story, and it’s sad that more wasn’t included because Hasina does not let fate run her life. (This is likely the point of the inclusion, to show difference.) It is told in a strange fashion, however, written in broken English when Hasina would have surely written to Nazneen in their mother tongue – and if it is the mother tongue Hasina is writing in, why would it be broken?

A potentially fascinating character and her family are given short shrift, the community seen only through her eyes and thus only seen vaguely, the knock-on effect of a major world event is not given the time it needed. There are plenty of books that cover the various aspects of Brick Lane to better effect.

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Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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