Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

days-without-end Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; having enjoyed his last three novels, The Temporary Gentleman, On Canaan’s Side and The Secret Scripture, I began to read his latest one, Days Without End, not really knowing or caring what it was about. I knew I could count on Barry to have produced another beautifully written novel and I was sure that would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t – I still found things to like and to admire, but this just wasn’t my sort of book.

Thomas McNulty and John Cole are “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world” who meet in Missouri as teenagers while sheltering from the rain together under a hedge. It’s the 1850s and Thomas, having lost his family to the famine in Ireland, has fled to America in search of a better life. John, who was born in New England, is the first friend Thomas has made in his new country and the two quickly become inseparable. The first thing they need to do is find employment and here their youthful good looks prove useful when a saloon owner offers them a job as dancers, on the condition that they dress up in women’s clothes to entertain the local miners.

At seventeen, considering themselves too old to continue their dancing act, Thomas and John leave the saloon and join the US Army. Fighting first in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War (on the Union side), it’s a difficult life and the two young soldiers face dangers and obstacles ranging from hunger and illness to extreme weather and encounters with Native Americans. Throughout all of this there are two things that sustain them: their love for each other and their relationship with Winona, a young Sioux girl separated from her family during a raid.

Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty and this provides a link with several of Barry’s previous novels which tell the stories of other members of the McNulty family (he has also written several which focus on another Irish family, the Dunnes). Thomas, though, is obviously from an earlier generation of McNultys; the other novels are set in the 20th century, which makes this one feel a bit different. Another difference is that this book is set in the American West rather than Ireland – and I think this is probably why I had a problem. Westerns are not a genre I would usually choose to read (although I did love Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers) and too much of this novel just didn’t interest me at all.

If the setting does sound of interest to you, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this book even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it myself. Sebastian Barry is a very talented writer and there are some beautiful passages in this novel; the poetic narrative voice didn’t always sound very convincing coming from the down-to-earth soldier, Thomas McNulty, but that didn’t really matter – the beautiful, poetic writing was the reason I chose to read this book, after all.

What I did struggle with was reading page after page of descriptions of army life, buffalo shooting expeditions and battles against the Sioux. I don’t think the balance between these aspects of the story and the more personal aspects was quite right and I very nearly gave up on the book halfway through. I kept reading mainly because I wanted to know what would happen to Winona – and I was rewarded with an interesting and dramatic ending to her storyline.

Days Without End has its good points and its bad points, then, and I think my disappointment with it is entirely due to my personal reading tastes. I shouldn’t have assumed that just because I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sebastian Barry I would love this one too, despite a setting and subject which didn’t appeal to me. I’m still looking forward to going back and exploring his earlier novels; I have a copy of Annie Dunne, which sounds much more like the kind of book I would enjoy, so that’s probably the one I’ll be reading next.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

the-woodlanders I love Thomas Hardy but have been resisting the temptation to rush through his novels too quickly. I’m dreading there being none left for me to discover for the first time, so since reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 2010, I have been limiting myself to one or two a year. It’s been a while since my last Hardy, The Return of the Native, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to read another one.

The Woodlanders, published in 1887, is set in the small woodland community of Little Hintock. For generations, the people of Little Hintock have made their living from the trees around them. The timber merchant George Melbury, however, is keen for his daughter, Grace, to experience life outside the woodlands and so he sends her away to be educated. The novel opens as she returns to the village after several years of absence and finds herself looking at her old home through new eyes.

Although Grace is promised to Giles Winterborne, a neighbouring woodsman, now that she has become used to a different way of life she can’t help noticing his lack of sophistication, causing her father to question whether the marriage he had planned for her is still appropriate. Grace’s return to Little Hintock coincides with the arrival of a newcomer – Edred Fitzpiers, a young doctor whom Melbury decides will make a much more suitable husband for his daughter than Giles. Despite his good intentions, however, Melbury’s meddling only succeeds in making everyone unhappy in typical Thomas Hardy fashion!

One thing I love about Hardy’s books is that although most of them are set in his fictional Wessex, each one covers a different aspect of Wessex life, from the rural farms of Far From the Madding Crowd and the country fairs and markets of The Mayor of Casterbridge to The Return of the Native’s wild and beautiful Egdon Heath. In The Woodlanders, we see how the lives of the characters have become defined by the woods which surround them, we see Giles Winterborne cutting down trees and pressing apples to make cider, and we see his neighbour, a young woman called Marty South, stripping bark from branches and shaping wood into spars to sell for thatching. It’s the two outsiders in the story – the newly arrived Dr Fitzpiers and the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond – who disrupt the harmony of life in Little Hintock, and Grace who is caught between the sophisticated, cultured world they represent and the simple traditions of her childhood home and friends.

Although this book isn’t as dramatic or tragic as some of Hardy’s others, there were still some scenes near the end that moved me to tears and others that had me holding my breath – and I found the final page beautifully sad and poignant. Not everyone gets the happy ending I would have liked, but that’s true to life, I suppose, and I don’t really expect happy endings from Hardy anyway.

The Woodlanders was apparently one of Hardy’s own favourites; he is quoted as having said, “On taking up The Woodlanders and reading it after many years, I like it as a story best of all”. Now that I’ve read more than half of his novels, I have to say that I think I agree with him. It’s not as powerful or as heartbreaking as Tess or Jude the Obscure, for example, but I really enjoyed it and would definitely include it in my top two or three Hardy novels read so far.

My Commonplace Book: November 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

tensyoin

“Barbarians,” she murmured in tones of disbelief. “Barbarians.” Perhaps if she said the word often enough she could defuse the threat. “But in that case…we’re finished. We’re all dead.” It was just as Lord Nariakira had warned. These were not gentle Hollanders. These were other beings, those nameless hordes who’d rampaged across China. Barbarians like those didn’t come in peace. They threatened their lives, their world, everything they knew.

Things were spinning around her. The world was turning upside down. But she couldn’t help feeling curious as well. She wished she could catch a glimpse of these exotic creatures with her own eyes.

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer (2016)

~

“And then do ye wait and see more; there’ll be plenty of opportunity. Time enough to cry when you know ’tis a crying matter; and ’tis bad to meet troubles half-way.”

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy (1887)

~

My family were not readers, but Xavier Mountstuart’s writings had inspired and transported me. I had devoured The Courage of the Bruce and The Black Prince, then graduated to the Indian writings: The Lion of the Punjab, of course, and the tales of bandits and rebels in the foothills of Nepal. I had read of white forts and marble palaces and maharajas’ emeralds; of zenanas and nautch girls in the Deccan; of the sieges and jangals. I had even read a short tract about Hindooism, vegetarianism and republicanism, which had left me a little confused. Mountstuart seemed to me the very acme of Byronic manhood. It was not simply that he was a poet and writer of genius, but that he had lived his writings.

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter (2014)

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highwayman

“Now, what mean you by that?”

“Just that I am a common highwayman, Miss Betty.”

She stared at him for a moment, and then resumed her work.

“You look it.”

John cast a startled glance down his slim person.

“Is that so, madam? And I rather flattered myself I did not!”

The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer (1921)

~

“No, I don’t care for novels,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve never really understood them, if I’m honest.”

“In what way?” I asked, confused by how the concept of the novel could be a difficult one to understand. There were some writers, of course, who told their stories in the most convoluted way possible — many of whom seemed to send their unsolicited manuscripts to the Whisby Press, for instance — but there were others, such as Jack London, who offered their readers such a respite from the miserable horror of existence that their books were like gifts from the gods.

The Absolutist by John Boyne (2011)

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britannia

Frances struck an attitude, sitting upright with head poised high and left hand outstretched as though she grasped an invisible weapon. “Of course, when I am really posing for Roettier, the engraver, I shall wear a helmet and hold a trident and I shall have flowing, Grecian robes. It was altogether the King’s idea, but James of York thought it should be called Britannia. To represent the nation’s might.”

Lady on the Coin by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1963)

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“My thoughts are my own,” I answered: “and though you keep my person prisoner, these are beyond your control.”

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott (1824)

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“Not to my knowledge, sir,” said the Viscount.

“I’m glad to hear it! But if you had agreed to the marriage I planned for you a son of yours might have been sitting on my knee at this moment!”

“I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but I find myself quite unable to believe that any grandchild attempting — at this moment — to sit on your knee would have met with anything but a severe rebuff.”

Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer (1970)

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aemilia-lanyer-poetry

She has a soft spot for little Peter; he had asked why he needed to learn to read when he first arrived.

“Because without reading you only have half a life,” she’d said, watching his puzzled face. “Reading will open doors for you to new worlds.” He had looked at her in wonder then.

“Like the men who sail to the Americas?”

“Yes, something like that.”

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle (2016)

~

Favourite books this month: The Woodlanders and The Strangler Vine

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter

the-strangler-vine I love a good historical mystery and when this one was recommended to me recently (thank you, Pam!) I remembered that I already had a copy on my Kindle and couldn’t leave it to languish there any longer. Having read it, I wish I’d found time for it earlier – it’s an excellent book – but on the positive side, there are now two more in the series which I can read sooner rather than later.

The Strangler Vine is set in India in 1837, when large areas of the country were ruled by the British East India Company. Our narrator is William Avery, a young officer with the Company’s army. Originally from Devon, he has grown up reading the work of Xavier Mountstuart, a fictional author and poet whose writings sound similar to Rudyard Kipling’s and which have given him a romanticised view of India. Having spent nine months in Calcutta, however, he is starting to feel disillusioned with “the monstrous climate, the casual barbarities of the native population and the stiff unfriendliness of the European society”.

Disappointed that he still hasn’t been summoned to join his cavalry regiment in North Bengal, Avery is growing frustrated and bored – until the day he is asked to accompany an older officer, Jeremiah Blake, on a special mission. It seems that his literary hero, Mountstuart, has gone missing while carrying out research for a new poem and Avery and Blake have been given the task of finding him.

The Strangler Vine is a wonderful, fascinating novel; there are so many things I enjoyed about it that I’m not sure where to start! First of all, there’s the relationship between the two main characters, Avery and Blake, who, like all good mystery-solving duos, are two very different people who complement each other perfectly. Young, naïve and loyal to the Company, Avery is more instantly likeable and although he can be slow to pick up on clues, the fact that he never seems to know any more than the reader does makes him the perfect character to guide us through the novel. There’s a sense that where Indian culture, politics and history are concerned, Avery is learning as he goes along, which means background information tends to be given in large chunks rather than being lightly woven into the story. This style won’t appeal to every reader, but I found it all so interesting that it didn’t bother me.

Jeremiah Blake is a more unusual and intriguing character; although he still has connections to the East India Company, he no longer actively works for them – his knowledge of Indian languages and marriage to an Indian woman have aroused the distrust of the other officers who consider him to have ‘gone native’. His attitude towards Avery is abrupt, rude and dismissive and because we only see him through Avery’s eyes, he is a complete enigma at first. Eventually his true character starts to be revealed, but I was still left with the feeling that we have more to discover about Blake.

The mystery element of the novel is quite complex and what seems to Avery at first to be a straightforward search for a missing man soon develops into something with much deeper implications. It all revolves around the cult of Thuggee – organised gangs of thieves and murderers who worship the Goddess Kali and who are causing widespread fear and panic amongst the British in India. Mountstuart is thought to have been researching the Thugs at the time of his disappearance and so Avery and Blake, following his trail, also become drawn into the mystery and controversy surrounding the cult.

I loved The Strangler Vine; apart from the aspects of the novel I’ve already mentioned, I also really liked MJ Carter’s writing; it’s intelligent and detailed, she brings the setting vividly to life and, while I can hardly claim to be an expert on the India of the 1830s, if there were any inaccuracies or anachronisms I didn’t notice them. I can’t wait to join Avery and Blake for another adventure in The Printer’s Coffin.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

watch-the-lady I’ve fallen behind with Elizabeth Fremantle’s books; having read Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason shortly after they came out, the publication of her next book – Watch the Lady – seemed to escape my notice and now there’s also a fourth novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower. I discovered that my library had both and decided that Watch the Lady, her novel about the 16th century noblewoman Penelope Devereux, would be the next one I read.

Penelope’s story is one that is not often told; she has appeared as a minor character in other books I’ve read set during the Elizabethan period, such as Elizabeth I by Margaret George, but this is the first novel I’ve come across in which she is the main character.

Penelope is related to Elizabeth I through her mother, Lettice Knollys, a granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth’s aunt. Lettice has incurred the Queen’s displeasure by secretly marrying Robert Dudley, the man said to be Elizabeth’s own love interest, and has been exiled from court. Lettice’s children, however, are still welcome and Penelope’s handsome, dashing brother, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, has become a particular favourite of Elizabeth’s. As Essex rises higher and higher in the Queen’s favour, his enemies plot to pull him down and Penelope must do everything in her power to protect her brother and keep the family’s ambitions alive.

While Essex’s turbulent career, which is marked by military defeats, trials and banishments and ends in the Essex Rebellion of 1601, is followed in detail, Penelope herself is the real focus of the novel. Penelope is considered to be one of the beauties of the Elizabethan court and the inspiration for the poet Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence. The real nature of her relationship with Sidney is uncertain, but Fremantle gives one interpretation here. Penelope’s unhappy marriage to Lord Rich and her later love for Charles Blount are also described, but I was less interested in these parts of the story and I don’t think the balance between the romance and the politics in this book was quite right for me.

I did like the way Penelope is portrayed – a strong, intelligent and ambitious woman, but one who is still convincing as an Elizabethan woman, rather than feeling like a modern day character dropped into a historical setting – and Essex, if not very likeable, is always interesting to read about. Elizabeth’s adviser, Robert Cecil, however, is very much the villain of the novel; there are several chapters written from his perspective and from the beginning he is shown to be working against Essex and his family, acting on his father’s advice that people need someone to hate and that if he can learn to be that hated person he will be indispensable. I think Cecil does a good job of making himself hated, and it wasn’t until near the end of the book that I began to have some sympathy for him.

I enjoyed reading Watch the Lady and getting to know Penelope Devereux, but this is not my favourite of the three Elizabeth Fremantle novels I’ve read so far, partly because, as I’ve mentioned, Penelope’s love life didn’t interest me all that much, and also because I prefer the periods of Tudor history covered in Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason. I’ve now moved on to The Girl in the Glass Tower and am finding it a much stronger novel; my full thoughts on that one should be coming soon.

Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer

charity-girl Continuing to work through my library’s selection of Heyer novels, I came home last Saturday with both her earliest book and one of her last. The first one I decided to read was Charity Girl, which was published in 1970, towards the end of Heyer’s career. It doesn’t seem to be one of her more popular Regency romances; I’ve seen other readers describe it as a recycling of Sprig Muslin and The Foundling, but that wasn’t a problem for me as I haven’t read either of those yet. While I did find a lot to enjoy, though, I would agree that this isn’t one of her best.

The hero of Charity Girl is Viscount Desford who, as the novel opens, is being berated by his father for not marrying his childhood friend, Henrietta Silverdale, and providing him with grandchildren. Desford and Hetta have been insisting for years that, although they are the best of friends, they are not in love – and nothing has changed now that they are both in their late twenties. Following this uncomfortable interview with his father, Desford goes to visit family and ends up attending a party at which he meets a vulnerable young girl called Charity – or Cherry – Steane.

Cherry’s mother is dead and her father has abandoned her, leaving her at the mercy of an aunt and cousins who treat her like a servant. The next day, Desford encounters Cherry walking along the road to London with a suitcase, determined that she is running away from her aunt. Unable to persuade her to go back, Desford accompanies her to London to find her grandfather, Lord Nettlecombe. However, the old man is away from home, so Desford turns to Hetta Silverdale for help. Cherry goes to stay with the Silverdales while he continues to look for her grandfather and absent father, but people soon begin to talk – why is Desford so concerned for Cherry’s welfare? Has he fallen in love at last?

I found Charity Girl an entertaining read, as have been all of the Heyer novels I’ve read, with plenty of the witty dialogue, peppered with Regency slang, which I love in her work. There are some funny scenes too, especially whenever one of Cherry’s disreputable family members makes an appearance. Despite this, though, Charity Girl has not become a favourite Heyer. I liked Desford, but he isn’t a particularly strong or memorable hero, and instead of having so much focus on his search for Cherry’s family, I would have preferred more time spent on his interactions with Cherry and Hetta. I couldn’t tell, at first, which of them was going to be his love interest and, when it eventually became clear, I didn’t feel that I’d seen enough of them on the page together.

Still, I didn’t think this was a bad book at all, so I don’t want to sound too negative about it. I have just started to read the other Heyer novel on my library pile – The Black Moth – and am so far finding it very different from this one!

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

a-chelsea-concerto I had a nice surprise a few months ago when I unexpectedly received two ebooks from Dean Street Press who were launching their new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow (in conjunction with Scott from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog). The first one I chose to read was A Chelsea Concerto, a Second World War memoir originally published in 1959.

Frances Faviell lived at 33 Cheyne Place in Chelsea – one of the most heavily bombed areas of London during the war due to its location, close to the Royal Hospital and to several bridges over the River Thames. Her memoir opens in the early days of the war, a period known as the Phoney War because it seemed as though very little was actually happening. During this time, as well as continuing her work as an artist, Frances becomes a Red Cross volunteer, taking part in air-raid drills and trying to ensure that the people of Chelsea are as fully prepared as they can possibly be for whatever may follow.

What follows, of course, is the Blitz, which Faviell describes in vivid detail. Night after night, people living in Chelsea are subjected to one bombing raid after another, emerging from the shelters each morning in fear of what they might find: their home destroyed; a friend or neighbour dead; the roads blocked; an unexploded bomb in the street. With her work as a volunteer, Frances is often at the centre of the action, experiencing and witnessing the most horrifying things, while throughout it all, the Green Cat – her most treasured possession – sits in her window as a symbol of safety and prosperity.

Serene and aloof he sat in the window in the sunlight, surveying with contempt the activities in the street. Everyone begged me to put him down in the cellar with some of the paintings which I had stored there now. But I would not move him. Was he not the Guardian of the Home? He must be treated with respect.

Before the war, Frances had travelled widely and learned to speak several languages, something which enables her to offer help and support to the refugees who have fled to Britain as the Nazis sweep across Europe. There are some real characters amongst the refugees – in particular ‘The Giant’, a large and outspoken Belgian fisherman – and some funny moments, such as the story of Monsieur D, who is suspected of being a spy when mysterious lights show from his window during a blackout. Many of these people, though, are frightened and traumatised and look to Frances for advice and protection. She becomes particularly close to Ruth, a Jewish refugee from Germany, who attempts to kill herself, leaving her young daughter in need of Frances’ care. Nineteen-year-old Catherine, who arrives in London pregnant and unmarried, is another troubled young woman whom Frances finds herself taking under her wing.

Despite the terrible things going on around her – and the terrible things she experiences herself – Frances keeps her sense of humour and often manages to see the funny side (when she remembers a government information leaflet on what to do if German parachutists land, for example, or when she talks about her dachshund, Vicki, known as Miss Hitler).

The wording of the pamphlet which we knew was designed to try and avoid the same panic flight as in Belgium and France caused such hilarity everywhere that every current show included some skit on the arrival of parachutists. In the FAP we went about chivvying one another with the words of the clauses about seeing anything suspicious and “Be calm, be quick, be exact” became a joke in every place of work or exercise which we had to carry out with the Civil Defence.

Most of her memories are quite harrowing, though, such as when she describes the horrors of trying to reassemble pieces of bodies blown apart by bombs and the time she was lowered headfirst into a hole in a collapsed building to assist an injured man. But the most vivid and dramatic episode of all comes near the end when Faviell’s own home is bombed – and although we know that Frances must have survived to be able to write this book, the tension and the sense of danger come across so strongly in her writing that we worry for her anyway.

I haven’t read many wartime memoirs and I couldn’t help comparing this one to the few that I have read. It didn’t have quite the emotional impact that Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth had on me, for example, but I still found it a fascinating and moving read. Frances Faviell wrote several other books which are also available from Dean Street Press; has anyone read any of them, and if so, which would you recommend?