Saturday 25 September 2010

Two More Books

I don't want you all to think I have been slacking, having not posted much recently, especially on the book front. I have had several things on the go at once, and to be honest spent too much time just blog browsing. I am doing well with War and Peace, up to page 50 (maybe a little behind schedule) but am following the story and wondering if it is going to irritate me too much. It has something of Jane Austen about it, all upper class polite society and social manners, though the men are much less well behaved.

Anyway I have finished two over the last couple of days; firstly Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler. I went through a bit of an Anne Tyler phase a few years ago and read many of her books but this one is a little different from others I have read. She is very much a character writer, her books frequently being small stories about ordinary people, set in small town America, but also very much about communities. This book is a community too, but on a very small scale, one living inside a single house. The house in question is a boarding house, owned at the outset by Mrs Pauling, who's daughters Amanda and Laura have just arrived for her funeral. The book centres however around Jeremy, their slightly odd brother, artist and agoraphobe. The book's chapters are told from the perspective of different people in the story; Amanda, Jeremy, Mary, Miss Vinton and Olivia. Only Jeremy's are told in third person, from the outside watching him rather than giving his version of events.

So, the middle-aged Jeremy's isolated and self-contained existence is thrown into confusion by his mother's death and the arrival of Mary and her daughter, with whom he becomes besotted. It reminded me strongly of a book I read a couple of years ago call 'Send in the Idiots' by Kamran Nazeer which is about autism, and in it he described the process by which autistic people have to quite literally learn how to behave in social situations, because they do not pick up on social cues or often really understand what is going on, so they learn to play a role. Jeremy is forced to do this because he wants to get to know Mary, and the process of being around others and communicating with them is so alien to him. So begins a most peculiar relationship that we follow through the next decade of children and domesticity. The book is all about the atmosphere of the house and different people's perception of it, but mainly about Jeremy, who's focus on things is so intense he seems to hear everything at once, and you come to appreciate why he has to try and shut it all out:

"For the first time that morning he listened to what was going on downstairs, sorting out the separate noises from the steady hum that was present all day long. Someone was playing a Sesame Street record and someone else was running the blender at high speed - Olivia, no doubt, fixing one of her peculiar meals of seed-paste patties or fresh-ground peanut butter. The blender ran at the level of scream, on and on, spitting when it came upon nuts as yet unbroken. A child was crying, but not very seriously. He could not hear Mary anywhere. What time was it? He looked at the clock on the windowsill but it had run down, long ago. It occurred to him that he had not bathed or shaved or changed his clothes in days. He had a musty yellow smell and his teeth seemed to be made of flannel. Well, when he had finished cutting the tin he would take care of all that. He would come downstairs newly washed and freshly dressed, and locate Mary among all those jumbled voices. He pictured himself descending into the noise as he would enter the sea - proceeding steadily with his hands lifted and his mouth set, submerging first his feet and then his legs and then his entire body, last of all his head."

But of course he would rather not deal with the outside world, or think about anything except his work, which absorbs him totally, so Mary packs up and leaves. Jeremy is forced to think about what is really important and to confront his worst fears, but I was left with the message at the end that perhaps you cannot really break free from your own true nature. I love Anne Tyler's writing, it is quiet and lyrical without being pretentious and she really engages you closely in her character's lives. She won the Pulitzer prize for 'Breathing Lessons' and is certainly a writer worth trying, this one was a very enjoyable read.

'The Behaviour of Moths' by Poppy Adams is at the other end of the spectrum. While Anne Tyler is a well respected and experienced author Poppy Adams is a newcomer, this novel shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award. It is described on the back as a gothic tale, which was strange because I didn't find it very dark, even the climax of the story.

It is the story of Virginia and Vivien, sisters, and their parents who live in a Victorian mansion in Dorset. Their mother is a bit of a social bee but their father studies moths and is a typical slightly scatty, reclusive scientist. The book happens over the course of a weekend when the elderly Ginny's isolated life (can we see a theme here:-) is disrupted by the reappearance of her sister. As she tiptoes uncertainly around her sister and watches her breezy comings and goings from behind the curtains she tells snippets of their childhood and family life, their expulsion from private school and Vivien's subsequent escape to London.

Then the story begins to get complicated. Ginny becomes apprentice to their father Clive and joins him in his research full time. Their mother Maud takes to drinking and also takes to abusing Ginny, who thinks that she is doing the best thing to hide what is happening and protect the rest of the family from the truth of Maud's decline. She then dies falling down the cellar steps and Clive decides to retire and books himself into a home. Running alongside these events is the arrival of Arthur, Vivien's boyfriend and then husband. Because of a childhood accident she is unable to have children and she asks Ginny to bear a child for her. The consequences of this request and resulting pregnancy echo down over the years and become the cause of the final showdown, when the bonds of sisterly affection are tested to the limits.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It has been my 'breakfast table' book for over a month and at times the book was far too slow, you could see she was building the atmosphere and while it was incredibly well researched, at times I found all the details about moths rather tedious. There was obviously an extended metaphor going on through the entire story, though I was not entirely sure what it was; metamorphosis perhaps? What I did like was the description of how a pupa becomes like primordial soup before it transforms into a moth, that was amazing, I assumed the caterpillar grew in some way into another creature rather than dissolving and being recreated. I was not surprised by the ending, which was a pity, nor did I feel like I really understood Ginny, although the story is told by her, her motivations remained a mystery. Like Jeremy above she lived her own little isolated life, with her own narrow concerns, never really getting to grips with the outside world. Give it a go if you like trying new writers and you want something with a bit of intrigue.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. You've made me think I'd like to read "Celestial Navigation". Not sure about "The Behaviour of Moths", though. Sounds as though it might fall between two stools.


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