BR: ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James

‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a classic ghost story, set in an English country house, in which a young, naive governess is alarmed by the appearance of malign spirits who attempt to possess her young charges. As the novella progresses, she becomes increasingly unhinged as she tries to save the children from their fate.

It sounds great in theory, but I was disappointed. Reviews I read labelled it as ‘chilling’, so much so that it terrified even the author, but I didn’t find it mildly frightening. It could be argued that 21st-century readers have more exposure to the grisly than the Victorians did, but in this sense I am practically Victorian anyway: I have only ever watched one horror film in my life and I don’t like going down the bottom of my garden in the dark.

The novella simply lacked atmosphere – little time was devoted to building up the creepiness of the setting, which in my opinion is a vital aspect of any horror story. None of the characters rang true for me; the author explained how wonderful the children were at least a thousand times but never really showed why this was the case. The descriptions of the governess’ emotions were rambling and over-complicated, the dialogue oblique and unrealistic; I found myself skimming over the paragraphs, waiting for something truly haunting to happen, but then I turned the last page and that was the end of it. I think James’ intricate, psychologically observant style of writing is much better suited to realistic stories such as ‘Washington Square’, in which the characters’ actions are believable and he is able to showcase his wit, something that was lacking in this book.

Not only was the story disappointing in itself, but the author displayed blatant sexism, not least in the phrase, ‘What surpassed everything was that here was a little boy who could have for the inferior age, sex and intelligence so fine a consideration.’  I suppose this statement is hardly surprising coming from a male Victorian novelist, but on top of everything else it tipped me over the edge. I will not be recommending this one to a friend.

 

BR: ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘The Great Gatsby’ is narrated from the perspective of a fairly dull young man, Nick Carraway, who moves to an affluent suburb of New York and becomes drawn into a world of extravagance, wild parties and deceit. Most intriguing of all is his new next-door neighbour, Jay Gatsby, whose glittering, fantastical world is about to come crashing down.

I feel as though I should have read this a long time ago, but am slightly ashamed to admit that I watched the film with Leonardo DiCaprio first and therefore felt as though I knew everything there was to know about it. However, I can say with confidence that already knowing the outcome did not spoil my enjoyment of the story; the novel’s best features are its beautiful atmospheric writing and insightful social criticism, rather than its plot, which is slightly thin on the ground.

I think one of the reasons why ‘Gatsby’ is so loved is because, even after all this time, it transports you straight into the seductive world of 1920s New York with evocative descriptions such as that of Daisy, ‘drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed.’ Yet alongside this beautiful imagery, there is also a sense of emptiness, of something off-kilter, which never quite goes away. This is particularly apparent in the pathetic pretensions of Myrtle, the poor lower-class mistress of a rich married man, who begs him to buy her a dress, then simpers to her friends, ‘I just slip it on sometimes when I don’t care what I look like.’ There is even something unsettling in the understated mention of ‘children’ singing, ‘Your love belongs to me/ At night when you’re asleep/ Into your tent I’ll creep‘; to me this implied a corruption of innocence, a price paid for the pleasures of a hedonistic lifestyle. It is this dichotomy of beauty and emptiness, squeezed into every line, which makes ‘Gatsby’ such a memorable and enjoyable novella. I would certainly recommend it as a readable and deserving modern classic.

BR: ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ by C.S. Lewis

I think I owe science fiction an apology. It’s never been a genre I naturally gravitate towards; in my mind I’ve never quite been able to separate it from images of trashy B movies and geeky conventions. However, this book has proved my prejudices wrong; it is  beautifully and intelligently written and throws up some very deep questions about the nature of the universe and the way in which we are destroying our planet.

The novel tells the story of Professor Ransom, who is kidnapped by some unscrupulous acquaintances and brought to the planet of Malacandra (otherwise known as Mars) as a hostage. After escaping his captors he fears death at the hands of the planet’s native inhabitants, yet he quickly comes to discover a peaceful and harmonious civilisation who face a far greater threat from humans than he does from them. The narrative unfolds in the charming style of an old-fashioned adventure story, and even though there are no battles or hectic action scenes like those in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, I was captivated throughout.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was its linguistic slant; Ransom is a professor of philology so takes a particular interest in the languages of the Malacandrians. I loved the alien-sounding words such as ‘hrossa’ and ‘pfifltriggi’ and appreciated the fact that the language of each species living there was different. There is also a very clever scene towards the end in which the evil scientist Weston explains his ambitions with pretentious jargon, but when Ransom comes to translate them for the benefit of the Malacandrians, his elementary knowledge of the language means that he must reduce them to their most basic meaning. For example, his glorification of the strength of human armies and weapons becomes ‘we have many ways for the hnau [sentient beings] of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it.’ I found that this exchange offered a clever and refreshing perspective on the things humanity is proud of.

My one complaint is that the ending was perhaps a little anticlimactic, but I did enjoy the epilogue with its promise of future adventures to come. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone thinking of testing the waters of the sci-fi genre, as it is well-written, accessible and – if, for whatever reason, you don’t like it – relatively short!

BR: ‘Into the Blue’ by Robert Goddard

I am very partial to a good thriller, and this is one of the best I have ever read. It tells the story of Harry Barnett, a shabby middle-aged failure, who leads an indifferent life as caretaker of a friend’s villa in Rhodes. However, he discovers a new sense of purpose when Heather, a guest at the villa, disappears, leaving behind only a few photographs. He resolves to track her down and, in doing so, must return to England to confront his past.

The novel was so exciting, with tension sustained expertly over more than 500 pages of twists and turns in the plot. It did take me a while to get into the story, but once it was over I felt something akin to grief at the loss of this fascinating cast of characters and the world in which I had become so invested. Goddard is great at creating atmosphere, slipping description into the story in such a subtle way that it is almost unnoticeable. I loved the idea that long-forgotten events in history can still impact the future, and I also loved the fact that, though the story started off being about Heather, in the end it was about Harry, who was a likeable character in spite of his many flaws.

Overall I would recommend this as a classy and clever thriller, and I will certainly be sampling more of Goddard’s work in future!

BR: ‘Notes from a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson

This book is Bill Bryson’s account of his valedictory tour of Great Britain before he moves to start a new life in America. He travels from Calais to London, traversing the south coast before travelling up through the Midlands and finally Wales and Scotland. At times it made me laugh out loud; Bryson points out amusing quirks of the country which a Brit might overlook. It is also full of interesting facts about obscure towns and historical figures, which makes it perfect for lovers of trivia.

One of the most interesting things about the book is that it enables the reader to compare three different versions of Britain: the version Bryson remembers from his first visit in the 1970s, the one he sees on this trip in the 1990s, and Britain as the reader perceives it today. I’m not sure whether Britain has changed drastically over the past two decades, but I did think the places Bryson criticised for being ugly were odd – Oxford, Cambridge, Lulworth, Exeter – most of which are famed for being beautiful. His aversion to plate glass and chain restaurants did become tedious sometimes – I think we have to accept that, like them or not, these things are just part of the modern world.

However, all in all this book is a very entertaining and light-hearted read, and the enthusiasm with which Bryson enters into everything makes him an endearing companion for an armchair tour of Britain.

BR: ‘The Smell of Apples’ by Mark Behr

This is an unusual novel as, despite being aimed at adults, it is told through the eyes of a young boy, eleven-year-old Marnus, who grows up in an Afrikaans family in 1970s South Africa. At first his life appears ordinary, but as the story progresses the reader becomes aware of the hypocrisy, secrets and lies of the adults he looks up to as role models. The main narrative is interspersed with flash-forwards into Marnus’ future as a disillusioned soldier in the South African army.

‘The Smell of Apples’ is a very understated, subtle novel, with many things implied but nothing ever spelled out. One of the most disconcerting things about it is the sweeping statements Marnus makes, such as ‘the Masai never wash […] and they drink real blood’. It is difficult to tell whether he comes up with these things himself or is quoting from the adults who have indoctrinated him with their beliefs. Also disconcerting is the idea that ‘in life there is no escape from history‘, which adds a melancholy overtone to the book, as the reader knows that this naive, innocent boy will be unable to escape from the actions of his forebears. I thought Behr depicted childhood well; Marnus’ narrative voice seemed disjointed and blithe like a child’s, and his obsessions with things such as whales and fishing rang true.

One thing that I would have liked to find out was what happened to Frikkie and Zelda in the future, as we learned about the fortunes of Marnus’ immediate family but not much more – and, even then, Ilse was brushed over. I think this would have added a greater sense of closure to the story. Perhaps, however, the unsettled feeling I was left with at the end of the novel was the author’s intention. It is certainly not an uplifting or jolly story, but I would recommend it as an interesting if disturbing insight into the Afrikaner mentality, while the beautiful setting and lyrical account of childhood are good for escapism.

BR: ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

‘Atonement’ begins on a summer’s morning in 1935, when thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis is watching her sister and their old family friend Robbie Turner arguing by the fountain in the garden of their country estate. By the evening, she has taken an action which will change all three of their lives forever. The novel follows the consequences of this crime through the wartime years, right up to the end of the twentieth century. The style of writing is laidback and descriptive; with its three-act structure, flexible viewpoints and preoccupation with the role of the writer as an artist it was reminiscent of ‘To the Lighthouse.’

My opinion of the novel fluctuated throughout. I thought McEwan’s ability to choose exactly the right words to describe a situation was impressive, yet I felt that sometimes his descriptions of household furniture were unnecessarily lengthy. I enjoyed the sense of mystery and impending doom that permeated Book One and the vivid and honest descriptions of war in Books Two and Three, but I couldn’t decide whether I liked the main characters or found them irritating. I certainly wasn’t convinced that Cecilia, who found Robbie annoying and had barely spoken to him for years, would realise within the course of a day that she harboured an all-consuming passion for him and was ready to forgive him anything.

It was only when I read the epilogue that I made up my mind. It offered such a clever twist, providing an entirely different perspective on the rest of the novel and allowing the reader to look back on it as a coherent whole rather than disjointed sections. Its comment on the relationship between novel and writer was extremely profound, and I was moved by the portrayal of the major characters sixty years down the line. It almost made me want to go back and read it again, to take it all in under a new light. For this reason, I would recommend ‘Atonement.’

BR: ‘Metamorphoses’ by Ovid

‘Metamorphoses’ is a Roman epic poem which chronicles everything from the mythical beginnings of the world to the foundation of Rome and the deification of Julius Caesar. I was very impressed by the fact that David Raeburn had translated it into hexameter verse, the meter in which it is written in Latin, so that the narrative swings along without losing any of its original charm as a poem. It features some of the best-known classical myths such as those of Daedalus and Icarus, Jason and the Argonauts and Theseus and the Minotaur, but perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the book for me was discovering lesser-known ones such as that of Myrrha, who is changed into a myrrh tree due to her incestuous desire for her father. I also loved the tense debate between Odysseus and Ajax, in which Ovid’s rhetorical training was clearly visible.

Something that surprised me while reading the poem was how little humanity has changed over time. I expected such an old text to be reasonably prudish, but actually there were more accounts of rape – or attempted rape – than I could count, and there was even one incident with a female perpetrator. Ovid’s attitude towards women was also more liberal than I expected – although many were presented as stereotypical virtuous maidens, Ovid was genuinely interested in female perspectives on classical mythology. For example, he gives a voice to Byblis to explain why she is tempted to incest, and seems more interested in Medea than her lover, the hero Jason. The poem was also extremely gory in parts: in the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs, ‘as globules of blood and fragments of brain poured out of the wound,/ the centaur, vomiting wine from his mouth, fell backwards and drummed/ with his heels on the sodden sand.’ I could imagine the author relishing these details with boyish glee!

My least favourite aspect of the book was the long lists of place and character names because they didn’t mean much to me and probably lost some of their beauty in translation. However, on balance I would say that the poem was very pacy and rarely dull because it was split into small stories instead of forming one long narrative. I would certainly recommend it as an exciting and not at all intimidating introduction to classical literature.

BR: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë

This book was given to me as a present, but for years I avoided it, ignoring that wise saying: ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ However, I feel I was not wholly unjustified when the cover of my copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ looked like this:

 

wuthering-heights

Cathy and Heathcliff, childhood friends, are cruelly separated by class, fate and the actions of others. But uniting them is something even stronger: an all-consuming passion that sweeps away everything that comes between them. Even death…’

I laboured under the mistaken delusion that the novel was some sort of 19th-century paranormal romance. This is certainly not my favourite genre, and the blurb was too generic to capture my interest.

However, in this case the blurb and cover gave a false impression. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is much more than a romance. In fact, I would say that the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is less one of love than one of possession and jealousy. The story itself is a family saga, dealing with the intertwined paths of the families at Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. It is darker and more twisted than any other Victorian novel I have read, full of characters abusing one another both mentally and physically. The writing is unusually crisp and fast-paced for the period and I found it very compelling reading.

This was in spite of the fact that I did not actually like many of the characters. Cathy and Heathcliff were both awful people and I wasn’t rooting for their romance at all. The religious fanatic Joseph was amusing, but I found his phonetically-written speech (ie ‘All warks togither for the gooid tuh them as is chozzen, and piked aht froo’ th’ rubbidge’) difficult to wade through. When I tried reading it aloud, it didn’t even seem to resemble a Yorkshire accent! The housekeeper Ellen Dean was alright, but some of the things she said were rather miserable: for example, when her young mistress worried about what would happen when her father died, Mrs Dean replied by way of consolation, ‘None can tell, whether you won’t die before us’! However, I did like the relationship between Cathy Jr and Hareton Earnshaw: it was genuinely sweet and tender, making a contrast to the violent passions engulfing the rest of the book.

The plot was slightly contrived: I found it difficult to believe that the characters would remember what had happened and relate it word-for-word so many years later. I think the story could really have done with an omniscient narrator and the use of flashbacks, but perhaps the form of the novel had not developed that far yet. It was also quite difficult to keep track of which character was which – the same names were recycled multiple times – and how they were all related (I kept wondering whether or not any of them had committed full-on incest yet or whether they had managed to find someone who was just their cousin).

Overall, I am glad I did decide to read this book in the end – I love a good Gothic novel and, after all, it is one of the most influential tales ever written.

BR: ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen

Anne Elliot, the protagonist of ‘Persuasion’, is the oldest Austen heroine by far, at the ripe old age of 27. She was persuaded by her mentor to reject the proposal of her first love and has regretted it ever since. When they are thrown together years later, she finds that he still resents her dismissal and must watch as he becomes entangled with someone else, with the ever-growing fear that happiness will never be hers. This was certainly an interesting premise, and ‘Persuasion’ has been recommended to me by several people, yet it is probably my least favourite Austen novel (the only one I haven’t read is ‘Mansfield Park’).

There were still many enjoyable aspects to the book. I liked the descriptions of the vain Sir Walter, whose room is full of mirrors, and Anne’s selfish sister Mary, who is continually convinced that she is being ill-used by others. Captain Wentworth’s constancy to Anne and final letter to her were also very romantic. As was only to be expected, the text was sprinkled with witty and often scathing remarks from the narrator, such as this description of a very one-sided conversation: ‘minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.’ 

I know that ‘Persuasion’ is supposed to be more serious in tone and subject matter, perhaps because it was written towards the end of Jane Austen’s life, but I cannot help but feel that it does not have the charm of books such as ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. In these novels almost all of the characters have amusing quirks or endearing features, yet in ‘Persuasion’ I found that there was nothing particularly memorable about several members of the supporting cast, such as the Miss Musgroves and the Harvilles. Even the more entertaining characters like Sir Walter and Elizabeth were rather one-dimensional. Captain Wentworth was not my favourite hero – he was clearly very noble and loyal but I never really got a feel for his personality. Anne was a pretty bland heroine, so flawless that her thoughts alone were ‘almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way‘. I realise that I was supposed to feel sympathy for the crippled Mrs Smith but her air of martyrdom just irritated me.

I understand that this review is quite harsh but it is only because I was disappointed. I admit that the first time I read ‘Northanger Abbey’, I did not enjoy it at all, but after returning to it years later it went up hugely in my estimation. Perhaps I will give it a few years and a re-read will persuade me to change my opinion in this case, too.