The Paying Guests

08/29/2015 at 8:39 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

Set in post-war London, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters paints a bleak picture of how returning soldiers came back to no employment and most women were in mourning for lost sons or husbands. The pious Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances, having once being members of the genteel class, are forced to take in lodgers, a young couple of the “clerk class” to maintain their stately home in South London. The arrival of up-and-coming and fashionable married couple Lilian and Leonard Barber transforms the path in life Frances resigned herself to of being her mother’s carer as their tenancy ends up with her becoming part of a love triangle and as a result also being entangled in a complicated murder case. Frances has always been good at keeping secrets but she cannot but help battling with her conscience when an innocent life is at stake.

The Paying Guests

Source: Goodreads

This is the first Sarah Waters novel I have read so Frances revelation about her sexual history surprised me given the attitudes of the time period the book was set in. I am not sure if The Paying Guests should be categorised as historical fiction or romance or suspense because it features all those themes. Strangely enough, this book just like The Last Dance is also about adultery but of the more emotional rather than physical sort although the latter isn’t ignored. The protagonist of this book, Frances, didn’t charm me being the hard-edged soul that she was. The whimsical Lillian Barber was a bit of an enigma to me especially her actions in the last part of the novel; were those motivated by love or selfishness or revenge? The character of odd Leonard Barber was the easiest to read. Mrs Wray seems far too close-minded and very judgmental when it comes to women behaving in ways contrary to her expectations. In more minute roles, other characters also feature: Lillian’s extended family, Leonard’s confidante and business associate, Charlie Wismuth, the immediate family of Leonard, Mrs Wray’s companion, Mrs Playfair and so on.

The Paying Guests starts quite slowly so I was expecting this to be a gruelling read until the affair was discovered. However after a new and unexpected friendship blossoms between Lillian and Frances, the plot starts to move faster due to developing frustrations and mounting passions. That being said there was a lot of dwelling and reflecting on unnecessary points making me feel The Paying Guests would be a better reading experience if reduced in amount of mundane detail.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Strays

08/27/2015 at 10:19 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , , , )

Although fictional, the debut novel and Stella Prize winner The Strays by Emily Bitto is somewhat influenced by the story of the Heide Circle of Melbourne and is a fascinating narrative of idealised dreams, emotional sacrifices and conflicted loyalties mostly set in the atmosphere of 1930s depression-era Melbourne.

The Strays Book Cover

Source: Goodreads

Only child Lily makes a connection with Eva, the middle daughter of the Evan and Helena Trentham, on her first day at school that evolves into a complex and deep friendship. When tragedy befalls her family, Lily takes the opportunity to stay with Eva and the community of bohemian artists who are given residence to pursue their creative passions at the Trentham home. It becomes obvious this is not an appropriate environment for children as the artists are far too engrossed in their work to do any thing as mundane as looking after the kids, who need a responsible adult in charge. As they navigate their teenage years, Eva starts to keep things from Lily until she realises things have gone too far when she finds out Eva has been having a sexual relationship with an older resident artist who she had thought was interested in her and that starts the cracks in their trust. Upon being exposed, the artist who has also been upstaging Eva’s father leaves but not alone (he leaves with not one but two girls) leaving a scandal in his wake.

What stood out the most to me was how much power author Emily Bitto’s prose gave to the mediums of art and literature, also my passions. The descriptive passages were not too long-winded and the characters were of sufficient interest to keep reading The Strays until I found out how Lily responded to the invitation she received at the beginning.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Last Dance

08/26/2015 at 9:46 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

9781921901973

Source: Goodreads

So it turns out during my December vacation this year, I will be heading off to the exotic destinations of Spain, Portugal and Morocco with my cousins. This reminded me of The Last Dance, a present my sister’s boyfriend gave me for my birthday, because some of the most climactic action in the book takes place in the bustling alleys and bazaars of Morocco. So i’m pretty excited I have the chance to see this North African country in person.

The initial impression I had of The Last Dance was it was a spy thriller but as it progresses the romance takes precedence. The two main characters first meet at a ballroom dance where Stella has resorted to selling herself as a dance partner to earn an income. The mysterious Montgomery, who is charmed by Stella, organises a position for her as a governess at Harp’s End, home of the well-off Ainsworth family. I was wondering at this point if this was some kind of tribute to  Jane Eyre but I was wrong on that score.

Stella is responsible for tutoring Grace, the daughter of Douglas Ainsworth. Coming from an impoverished background and given her position, she struggles to fit in with the grand household or the servants as her employer insists dinners are taken with the family but she is still hired help. When Stella finally comes to face her married employer, she realises the family has a lot of secrets but the forbidden love that sparks between them becomes the hardest to conceal because this story is really about an affair. The palpable tension in the house after an accidental slip of the tongue by Grace almost drives Stella away but she somehow finds enough courage to accompany the family on a cruise to Morocco. As the setting is pre World War II, the trip turns out to be fraught with peril and conspiracy as her employer is not quite who she knew at Harp’s End. It turns out it was for the best Stella went on the cruise as she is able to enjoy a brief romance and witness events of significant importance before her world gets shot to pieces. While the sacrifice that is made is bittersweet, Fiona McIntosh gives birth to hope because of the way she reconciles the end.

The last impression I have of The Last Dance is that in spite of the not so savoury motivations of many of the characters, it was still entertaining.

Permalink 2 Comments

The Luminaries

08/24/2015 at 10:24 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , )

18709559

Source: Amazon

I am a fan of Dickens which is why I picked up Eleanor Catton‘s zodiac-inspired novel, The Luminaries, with its golden spiral formula that helped it win the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Set in 1866 in the New Zealand goldfields, the book imbues its following twelve main characters with traits of the astrological star signs.

  • Te Rau Tauwhare (greenstone hunter): Aries
  • Charlie Frost (banker): Taurus
  • Benjamin Lowenthal (newspaper man): Gemini
  • Edgar Clinch (hotelier): Cancer
  • Dick Mannering (goldfields magnate): Leo
  • Quee Long (goldsmith): Virgo
  • Harald Nilssen (commission merchant): Libra
  • Joseph Pritchard (chemist): Scorpio
  • Thomas Balfour (shipping agent): Sagittarius
  • Aubert Gascoigne (justice’s clerk): Capricorn
  • Sook Yongsheng (hatter): Aquarius
  • Cowell Devlin (chaplain): Pisces

The traditional qualities tied to each sign forms the foundations upon which Catton builds full-fledged characters. These twelve characters provide with each individual version of events the missing links in the story pertaining to a series of unsolved crimes. They are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger who will have a key part to play in a trial because he becomes privy to all their secrets. He and another set of characters associated with traditional planetary bodies listed below are also characters key to unlocking the mystery.

  • Walter Moody: Mercury
  • Lydia (Wells) Carver née Greenway: Venus
  • Francis Carver: Mars
  • Alistair Lauderback: Jupiter
  • George Shepard: Saturn
  • Anna Wetherell: The Sun/The Moon
  • Emery Staines: The Moon/The Sun

In spite of its technical prowess, the book didn’t connect with me. It didn’t give me the emotions I felt upon reading Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or Little Dorrit although it attempts some social commentary and contains all the elements of a Dickensian Victorian-era novel: a man is killed; a will is missing; a politician is hiding a secret; the governor accepts a trade off the books; an opium addict is mistreated and so on. While I hold it in high esteem for its structural cleverness, The Luminaries failed to capture my heart.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

09/29/2014 at 10:26 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , )

Source: myvictorianbooks.blogspot.com

Source: myvictorianbooks.blogspot.com

I first encountered the The French Lieutenant’s Woman after finishing The Collector by John Fowles but had to return it to the library before I had the chance to finish. I gave it another go and was able to make it to the end of the book before it was time for overdue notices!

Sarah Woodruff is a governess who is looked upon with contempt by the  English community of Lyme Regis due to falling for a French naval officer who left her behind after he allegedly ‘ruined‘ her.  In spite of her pious employer’s warnings, she walks by the cliffs pining for her lost love.  Meanwhile Charles Smithson is a Victorian gentleman engaged to Ernestina , the daughter of a wealthy tradesman who is residing with her aunt Tranter  in Lyme Regis. After Charles accidentally stumbles across Sarah, he becomes fascinated by her history and tries to convince her  to go to London where her tale of scandal is less likely to be outrageous. But Sarah is not amenable to that particular course of action and asks Charles to compromise himself by meeting her in secret in order to give her emotional support while pretending she lacks the will to alter her life. During the course of these meetings, Charles begins to find himself falling for her despite warnings from her doctor that Sarah’s mind is not in the best state and may drag others down with her. 

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a tragic melodrama but now the story starts to veer off in a different track as the narrator begins to intervene in the novel and supplies three possible endings. Each offers a possible ending for Charles’s pursuit of Sarah: the first ends with Charles married to Ernestina without him explaining the details of his meetings with Sarah, the second with a recreation of a relationship with Sarah which hints of a future reconciliation, and the third with Charles ending partnerless deprived of both Ernestina and Sarah. The narrator explains the fairest way to end The French Lieutenant’s Woman is to present all the ways in which it could possibly end.

I think The French Lieutenant’s Woman is really clever and ingenious with all the interpretations given to the reader to finally conclude. But I feel it also shows the limitations of plot devices and how much authors are constricted by the rules governing writing. There are few authors who pushed through that boundary and Fowles was one of the early ones.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Wild Girl

08/14/2014 at 11:33 AM (Australian Literature, Books, Romance) (, , , , , )

the-wild-girl

Kate Forsyth intrigued me once with her spellbinding retelling of Rapunzel in Bitter Greens. When I saw she authored The Wild Girl, I did not hesitate. This time, she explores the story of Dortchen Wild who is credited as having told many of the fairy tales belonging to the collection of the Brothers Grimm.

Set against the backdrop of the German kingdom of Hessen-Kassel in the early nineteenth century, we learn about boy next door Dortchen fell in love with the first time she saw him, her best friend’s brother, the poor but handsome scholar Wilhelm Grimm, who has returned from Marburg. War interferes in their newly budding romance because Napoleon’s army conquers their kingdom, takes over the palace of the Kurfürst and begins an oppressive regime setting French decrees. So the Grimm brothers embark on a mission to preserve the folk tales of their heritage and publish them in a book.

Dortchen, having grown up in the care of Old Marie, knows several beautiful old stories. These include Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King, All Kinds of Fur and Six Swans. She has to tell them to Wilhelm in secret as her tyrannical father opposes her plans to get married to Wilhelm and as the story progresses we learn it is for the darkest of reasons. Although their ardour deepens, Dortchen has to guard a dark secret but Wilhelm remains mostly oblivious even when she tells him the truth in the guise of a story. For Dortchen, as time passes and all of her sisters find husbands, marriage to Wilhelm seems an unlikely outcome.

Does this teller of fairy tales who has her heart trampled and spirit wounded get her happy ending? You’ll have to read The Wild Girl to find out. This may be a darker forbidden love story but both the protagonists have better fates than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Permalink 3 Comments

The Light Between Oceans

08/08/2014 at 8:15 AM (Australian Literature, Books, Historical) (, , , , )

The Light Between Oceans was a heartbreaking story about the consequences of a momentous decision made in the throes of grief and haste. Tom Sherbourne is a lighthouse keeper living on  Janus, a remote island off the West Coast of Australia together with his wife Isabel. He harbours Lucy, a baby who washed up on to the shores of the island in a boat, because of guilt over his wife’s miscarriage. However when a chance encounter with the mother of the child preys on his conscience, he can no longer keep silent. When his wife learns of his betrayal, they drift apart while Lucy tries to acclimatise herself to the stranger who keeps calling her Grace and makes a claim that tears the fabric of existence she has hitherto known.

The decision the couple makes to pass the child off as their own has heartbreaking results. Lies quickly unravel, unflattering truths come to light and a lot of pain and hurt is felt. In the middle of this, Lucy navigates trying to find her true identity while locked in a battle of two mothers vying for her custody, one with a legal claim who had never seen her since she was a baby and one with no legal claim but one who raised her in her formative years. M.L. Stedman’s poignant, riveting novel received several literary accolades and awards and since then Hollywood rights have been acquired for film production by Dreamworks.

Three characters stood out to me in this novel because of the internal conflicts each faced and weathered. Isabel struggles to cope with the loss of her baby but the arrival of Lucy changes her life but by the time she is willing to admit the truth, it is too late to not hurt anyone which nearly made a villain out of her to me due to her selfish desires. Meanwhile Tom is guilt-ridden because he feels survivor’s guilt after escaping physically unscathed from the war. This is why he goes against his straight-laced ethics when he decides to omit details in his logbook to keep Isabel happy. Hannah is sympathetic as the mother who thought her child was literally dead but has to fight an uphill battle to convince Lucy of the truth of the situation. The Light Between Oceans plot is complex as it encompasses a moral dilemma and it is possible to be empathetic to both the female leads but as the story unfolds, it shows justice for one party can lead to tragic loss for the other party. The conclusion however just might surprise you.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Burial Rites

06/26/2014 at 12:34 PM (Australian Literature, Books) (, , , , , )

I just finished reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent for my book club at work. It is a historical novel set in 1830s Iceland based on the factual story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman who was publicly executed there. She was accused of murdering two men, including Natan Ketilsson for whom she worked as a servant. Björn Blöndal, the district commissioner, clearly the villain, is unsympathetic toward Agnes Magnúsdóttir, because she is clever, intelligent and literate but he does indulge in her request for a new spiritual advisor of her choosing. This is in spite of the chosen reverend’s lack of experience in providing spiritual nourishment for criminals. With a year left to live, Agnes is sent to reside at the farm of Margrét and Jón and their two daughters in Kornsa. From then on, details of her life prior to the murder of Natan is narrated through discussions with her priest. The people who mistrust her when they are forced to take her in find it difficult to let her go when they finally hear her side of the story.

The Icelandic naming system can be confusing on introduction and while tempting to give up, it is not as bad as the Russian names in Anna Karenina. If you understand Agnes Magnúsdóttir stands for Agnes, Magnus’s daughter and Natan Ketilsson stands for Natan, Ketil’s son and decipher in that manner, you will manage okay. Although the first two chapters were slow going, the pace suddenly picked up and I finished the book in about three days by reading during my commute to work. For myself, it started to become interesting when Agnes first met Margrét. The evocative prose is simple enough without being verbose for all readers to engage with it but I felt something in it was a bit too contrived. This may be due to the author trying to conform her novel with plausibility as lots of attention is given to snippets of actual historical details. The book is very typical of the type of novel to win a literary award and so it has –  it won the Writing Australia prize for best unpublished manuscript which led to obtaining an agent and mentorship of Geraldine Brooks. So as a reader, I only recommend this if you like historical novels in the vein of literary fiction.

For those not interested in reading, Picador Press stated in their blog, Jennifer Lawrence signed up to star in a film adaptation of Hannah Kent’s novel. This is her first novel completed towards her PhD and a phenomenal achievement as she is only 28 years old. In the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Etherington claims Nielsen Company’s BookScan has revealed Burial Rites sold over 50,000 copies in Australia since May 2013, at a RRP of $32.99. 

Permalink Leave a Comment