What struck me about Rachel Joyce’s debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry when I purchased it was that older characters are gaining momentum as protagonists in literary novels as I couldn’t help thinking of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. After I finished it, my thoughts on the book changed because this felt more like a kindness of strangers story as it had no political symbolism.
Harold Fry is motivated to deliver in a letter in person after he hears from an old friend living in a hospice who once did him a big favour twenty years earlier. When Harold first plans to post a reply to the letter his intention is to go to the local postbox but the chance conversation he has with a girl prods him forward on his pilgrimage through the British countryside to his former saviour. As he walks, Harold starts to believe that his friend Queenie Hennessy will still manage to be there when he arrives.
Along the way Harold encounters various characters who could have been unkind but are not and finds serenity in the task at hand. He also develops the courage to come out of his shell in the absence of his wife Maureen who has so far regarded him as a defective spouse and father figure. In a cruel twist of fate, his wife, stunned by her husband’s abrupt departure and lacking a way of getting back in touch because he failed to take a cellphone, begins to desire his return home.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has both good and bad points. I was really into the beginning of the book but as various hangers-on join Harold on his walk and the journey halfway becomes a full-fledged media circus, my interest waned. While I get this is a love story which addresses the rekindling of a marriage, the liberally applied sentimentality was not to my taste.
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.
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.
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.
I bet you have heard of the saying don’t judge a book by its cover but sometimes in the cases of authors like Cecilia Ahern, it pays off to be seduced by cover art. Armed with the knowledge that it was written by the best-selling author of PS, I Love You (which is an awesome chick flick tearjerker btw), the salmon pink, vermillion and peach yellow cover of Thanks for the Memories (also the title of a catchy Fallout Boy song) with a bottom border of white hearts captivated me despite screaming ‘fluff’.
The back cover blurb persuades you thus:
How can you know someone you’ve never met?
Joyce Conway remembers things she shouldn’t. She knows about tiny cobbled streets in Paris, which she has never visited. And every night she dreams about an unknown little girl with blonde hair.
Justin Hitchcock is divorced, lonely and restless. He arrives in Dublin to give a lecture on art and meets an attractive doctor, who persuades him to donate blood. It’s the first thing to come straight from his heart in a long time.
When Joyce leaves hospital after a terrible accident, with her life and her marriage in pieces, she moves back in with her elderly father. All the while, a strong sense of déjà vu is overwhelming her and she can’t figure out why …
Naturally you’re hooked – we’re all suckers for unknown phenomenons that cannot be explained although some of us are a little less communicative than others about it. In my opinion, stories by Cecilia Ahern seems like Disney distilled into content for adult women. Still, it’s a great formula for success as demonstrated by her penchant for successively making it into bestseller lists.
Justin, on the other hand, can be a bit of a pain to figure out but you realise he’s not as selfish as he is made to look. The support and reunion orchestrated by the friends and families of the main characters is what infuses the book with that grown-up ‘magic’ and combined sense of indecision and spontaneous adventure.
The near misses experienced due to the idiosyncrasies of Justin and Joyce manages the right balance of frustrating the reader without making it exasperating. Three of the characters definitely stand out and Joyce’s Irish father who ultimately gets Justin to think straight is a highlight as you realise how much the old man cares for Joyce while she seems to take him for granted. But given the emotional turbulences she was subject to, it excuses her a little because her trauma was a deep one.
The only place I have recalled a similar storyline was in an episode of Neighbours when Rachel felt a connection with the donor who received the heart of her partner, Scotty, after he fell from a roof and later died from an aneurysm. Although other soap operas could have done this to death and I have no idea because I don’t watch them. That storyline didn’t work out quite as predictably as Thanks for the Memories. With this, you will get the icing on the cake you want when you read these types of stories.
I have shared my opinions about some of the recent Western films but it has been a while since my exploration of foreign films were publicised.
Tada, kimi wo aishiteru (Heavenly Forest)
In the Japanese movie Tada, kimi wo aishiteru (aka ‘Heavenly Forest‘), we are introduced to Makoto (Hiroshi Tamaki). He is a shy photographer who is a loner, partly because of an embarassing skin condition and finds it difficult to share confidences with others until he meets Shizuru (Aoi Miyazaki). She befriends him just before their university orientation after he takes a snapshot of her trying in vain to get cars to stop at a crossing. Their budding friendship allows Makoto to tutor Shizuru in the art of photography in a special location – the ‘heavenly forest’ of this title.
It is clear that although Shizuru is very small for her age and has odd quirks, she genuinely cares for Makoto. He on the other hand is infatuated with Miyuki (Meisa Kuroki) who has a rather disturbing obsession with weddings. Finally realising her feelings are unlikely to be requited, Shizuru makes friends with Miyuki herself. Prior to graduation, Shizuru requests a special birthday kiss from Makoto. He agrees only because she says it is for the purpose of a photography competition. When he makes no acknowledgement of having feelings for her after the kiss they share in the forest, Shizuru disappears completely from his life.
It is only when she is missing that Makoto realises the big impact she had on his life and takes it on to search for her. Except he does not know that Shizuru has kept her own secret from him throughout their friendship, although she discovered his. Then he hears from Miyuki there is an opportunity to see Shizuru once again. The meeting turns out to be completely different affair from what he expected.
This film tells us not to take what you get for granted because you might only realise what you had after you lose it, promotes the beauty of the natural world through the stunning still photography and even the haunting music is captivating because this story is deeply engaging with a universal theme.
Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
You might know of the animated title of the same name which won several awards that was directed by Mamoru Hosada. This live-action Time Traveller: Girl Who Leapt Through Time movie contains similar themes but uses a different plot. The 2010 film stars Akari (Riisa Naka) – the same actress who voiced the protagonist of the animation – as the daughter of Professor Kasuko, who is given a mission to deliver a message to Kazuo Fukamachi (Kanji Ishimaru) in the year 1972 when a bus accident makes it impossible for her mother to fulfill a promise. The time travelling is possible because Akari’s mother develops a formula that enables her to return to and from the past.
Unfortunately Akari mixes up the dates and ends up in 1974, two years later from the actual date, where she meets Ryota (Akinobu Nakao), a budding filmmaker. His friend, the cameraman Gotetsu (Munetaka Aoki), has a deep connection to Akari but this realisation does not strike her until she returns to the present. Meanwhile Ryota and Akari share a sweet but sort of awkward chemistry which is obvious through the significance of the movie reel she is able to take to her present. Most of her time in 1974 is focused on her search for the elusive Kazuo. Even her own mother whom she meets is unable to help her. Ryota gives her help with her search by accompanying her to put an ad in a newspaper that requests Kazuo to meet with her. After she delivers her message, she remains in 1974 because she wants to prevent an accident but she is kept from altering the course of history by Kazuo himself.
So when Akari is forced to return back from the past, it’s a bittersweet pill to swallow given what could have blossomed. This too is one of those movies that depict images captured on film can leave a legacy. Both emotional and powerful in its climax, this is not one to discount in its effect.
Just before Valentine’s Day, I finished reading Middlemarch by nineteenth century novelist George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans). This story of hers about the life within an English provincial town is not the easiest to follow because of the style of writing she employs but for those who can manage the vocabulary, we are drawn into the centre of a plot starring the intellectual and ardent Dorothea Brooke who is full of moral convictions. Fantasies of glorious achievement by transcending the limits of self are dreams possessed by many of us and the way she encompasses this longing into the narrative train of her novel demonstrates how contemporary the thoughts of the author were for her time. She uses Dorothea as the leading vehicle to invigorate the spirit of quest through a web of interconnected characters in Middlemarch.
Yet we learn even Dorothea, knowledgable as she is, can be prone to mistakes in judgement. This is what leads to her union with the much older Edward Casaubon because she feels by assisting in completing his seminal work (which is a useless research piece), it will be of benefit to the world. Despite her wealth and position, Dorothea is constrained by the liberty to do nothing which was the fortune of a gentlewoman in 1829. It is when she meets Will Ladislaw, the young cousin of her husband, Dorothea finds a companion within her wavelength but their association is subject to mean spirited speculation regarding inheritance.
In contrast to her, we have Dr. Tertius Lydgate who also desires to do good in the world but similarly ends up in an unhappy marriage through poor judgement with the frivolous Rosamond Vincy. In addition, his initial benefactor Nicholas Bulstrode struggles with demons of his own leaving him in the lurch. Other practitioners in the town are resentful of his progressive ideas and this leaves him alienated. While the paths of Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate collide at the end to the benefit of both, tales of many other characters and their individual preoccupations on using their gifts to help the self and their surrounding environment perpetuate the novel such as the romance between irresponsible Fred Vincy and pragmatic Mary Garth.
The pair of failed marriages and unrealised ambitions make up the trajectory of Middlemarch as well as its setting in the period just before the Reform Bill of 1832. The characters in the novel are all drawn together into a motley cast and we are given insight into the habits and idioms of the diverse groups as they pursue their goals of self fulfillment.
If you are interested in watching a television adaptation starring Juliet Aubrey as the regal Dorothea after reading the novel, you can find it here. The role of Fred Vincy, you might like to know, is played by Colin Firth’s younger brother, Jonathan, who has an impressive resume of his own.
I love Reese Witherspoon as an actress. She is a lady of many versatile talents as can be demonstrated through her career in film. Just Like Heaven, Legally Blonde, Vanity Fair and The Importance of being Earnest are all part of her resume. But then I was invited to watch How Do You Know. Now I wish I had saved it for Black Swan instead because watching this movie that could have been resolved in the space of half an hour had me endure it with stiff muscles for two whole hours!
There is nothing wrong with chick flicks and they are generally predictable but this film had absolutely nothing new in it to recommend it. Reese, what are you doing by putting this nasty blot on that magnificent CV of yours? In the movie, her character Lisa suffers a mid-life crisis after being cut from the USA softball team. In the middle of this, she is caught between a love triangle between a corporate guy who is framed as guilty of an act he did not commit and her baseball playing beau who is beginning to think that Lisa might possibly be the woman he is meant to be with. The lives of three intermingle in coincidental circumstances and makes significant changes in their relationships with each other. James L. Brooks, the director of the film ( yes, the very same responsible for The Simpsons) has infused it with witty dialogue to be sure but for me, it was more fun to listen to because of the good scripting rather than to watch due to poor film editing.
Kathryn Hahn as Emily the pregnant secretary, stands out far more than the main actors and the re-enactment of a proposal to not propose between her and her baby’s father steals the thunder from the stand by leading roles. The conversation within the film sometimes gets a little verbose and it seems this was aiming for a higher potential of humour but failed to fully make it. This is a case of a lost storyline with intelligence behind it that just required a better way of execution.