No 610 Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason, the archetypal madwoman in the attic does not speak. Everything we learn about her comes from Mr Rochester and his brother-in-law and everything confirms the evidence of her madness. Alcoholism, adultery and insanity are blamed and Rochester explains how he was forced to marry this Creole woman and bring her back to England. A plot device rather than a character, she serves to represent the darkness in our pasts that can reignite in the present with devastating consequences.

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In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys doesn’t so much as give Bertha a voice, she gives us a new way of looking at such a well-known book. She challenges and questions it, illuminating what has gone before and reminding us that,

There is always another side, always.

The book is told in three parts, in the first part, Bertha, or Antoinette Cosway as she is before being renamed, is detailing her childhood brought up by that ‘infamous mother’. The second part begins to dovetail into Jane Eyre, as we hear from the point of view of Rochester and in part three we are in familiar territory as Antoinette takes over the narrative again, this time from her attic room in Thornfield Hall as she becomes increasingly unravelled and unable to distinguish between dreams and reality.

In Part One, before becoming Bertha Mason, Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress living in Jamaica. Like Jane she is an orphan and like Jane, she is a pariah in the eyes of her neighbours, and the book opens with the family mansion being torched by ex-slaves and a girl she once thought of as a friend hitting her with a rock. This is no island paradise and Rhys is wonderful at evoking the oppressive and threatening nature of so much sunshine, so much colour.

Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.

This is a different type of gothic from Jane Eyre –the cold and the wind replaced with a different kind of heaviness, the weight of a relentless heat.

I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look

Into this landscape comes Mr Rochester (unnamed in the novel) who, initially intrigued by Antoinette’s beauty, becomes poisoned against her by the tales of her mother’s madness. Their bitter romance reaches its peak in Part Three when Antoinette is now quarantined in the attic of Thornfield Hall, being looked after, or guarded by Grace Poole. As the narrative becomes increasingly unravelled and confused, the book ends where Jane and Rochester begin, with the fire that kills Bertha and disfigures Rochester. Antoinette’s journey from youth to death is a mirror opposite of Jane’s journey, as depicted by Brontëand her story hides a truth that Jane can only glimpse as the two novels merge together.

Wide Sargasso Sea surprised me in that it doesn’t feel like a prequel, which is what I had expected. It is so much more than that – a deeply political book in its own right that explores the post-colonial landscape and gives a voice to not only Bertha’s unheard story, but the unheard stories of those marginalised whether it be by race, class or gender. Antoinette is a clever woman, but to her family she is simply another item to be included in a transaction. To Rochester she is an acquisition to be named at will. Unhappy with the similarity of her name to her mothers, he calls her Bertha as a means of asserting his control over her

Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too

Rochester may feel he is superior to those around him, but as Antoinette points out, he is performing his own kind of black magic on her by making her something she is not.

The book is rife with the imagery of illusion and reality, featuring mirrors and opposites and references to heaven and hell. Just as Rhys is holding up a mirror to Jane Eyre, so too is she reflecting Antoinette’s past and her present.

There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us – hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?

Bertha is ultimately disenfranchised and disinherited, taken from all she know and labelled to suit her coloniser. It is a harsh reality that cannot be changed by magic and just as dreams are portents to Jane Eyre, dreams become Bertha’s escape and her inability to separate her dreams from her reality is ultimately what causes her to die.

Rhys writes beautifully and evocatively. The prose is laden with images of heat and fire with the colour red taking on particular significance, yet this is a chilling book which transcends its starting point to become glorious in its own right.

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I read Wide Sargasso Sea as part of Jacqui Wine’s Reading Rhys week and I am incredibly grateful for the nudge.

Read on: Book
Number Read: 137
Number Remaining: 609

The Privileged by Emily Hourican

 

Emily Hourican’s The Privileged, is a well-written entertaining story focusing on the friendship between three south side Dublin girls on the brink of adulthood. The title gives it away, but this is a tale of upper middle class teenagers with upper middle class problems, which means that sometimes it’s hard to be as sympathetic to their plights as the plot would wish us to be.

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Stella and Laura are life-long friends who are outsiders at their exclusive school (I’m unsure as to why) until they form an unlikely friendship with the beautiful and popular Amanda O’Hagen who draws them into her world of wealth and privilege. The three become inseparable, until Amanda’s work in the modelling industry leads to constant partying and drug taking. The arrival of a Huw, a rich English man with his own penchant for self-destruction, eventually drives a wedge between Amanda and everyone around her.

The book opens with the women now in their thirties as Laura, a journalist and Stella, a lawyer, meet in London to try and save Amanda from a very public and dangerous downfall.

The book skilfully moves from present to past, exploring the lives and career paths the three girls have followed and exploring how friendships, no matter how strong, can disintegrate at an alarming rate. Hourican is also effective at exploring Amanda’s toxic relationship with her mother and how it ties in with her self-destructive descent into drug addiction. The heady atmosphere of that time between school and university when the world is there for the taking is also well captured and the bonds of teenage friendship and the belief that it will last forever will be recognisable to many.

Ultimately though, these are characters who are often hard to care about. The very privilege that allows the story to flourish, also means that the stakes never feel high enough. These are the children of artists, solicitors and stockbrokers and their disappointment at where their lives have ended up is dramatically unconvincing. To my mind, Laura is the most interesting of the three girls, but her story is somewhat eclipsed by Amanda’s Amy Winehouse-style fall from social grace and Stella’s tangled love life. As Hourican is herself a journalist, Laura’s work life in the newsroom, trying to balance ethics with the problem of declining newspaper sales, is vivid and intriguing in comparison to Stella’s sterile work in a New York law firm.

However, this book is about Amanda and while it is to Hourican’s credit that Amanda’s descent into a life of addiction and degradation is convincing, I found Amanda herself to be a bit of a cipher. Amanda is beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, charming, charismatic and adored by all and yet little of a personality comes through.

They had read into her something that spoke more clearly of their own dreams and hopes than of anything that was actually there. Photographers saw a muse, her mother had seen glory, Stella and Laura escape, their friends from college excitement.

That is maybe the intention, the idea that we can never really know someone, but as the lead character of a book, it leaves a bit of a vacuum. As a reader, I was interested in Amanda, but not invested in her and the ‘betrayal’ between the three, which changes the course of their friendship, is equally underwhelming.

Despite these issues, Hourican has crafted a very readable and timely story. She writes well and has a skill in capturing those moments in youth that can feel momentous and life-changing, but overall the book didn’t wholly convince.

I received The Privileged from the publisher through Netgalley in return for an honest review

20 Books of Summer 2016 – how did you do?

Well, that’s it – 20 Books of Summer is officially over!

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Did I do it? Just about. I’m two thirds of the way through book 20, so I’m calling this one a win!

It’s been a hectic summer and it has flown by and if the reviews weren’t so plentiful at least the reading was great. I picked 20 really fantastic books this year and that made my challenge much, much easier. I didn’t really read any that I didn’t enjoy and while I had some issues with My Lover’s Lover, Sister and Blue Nights, I’m still glad I read them.

On the plus side, I really loved quite a few of my summer books. Stand outs were MJ Hyland’s mesmerizing This Is How and the heartwarming charm of The Republic of Love by Carol Shields. A quick search has told me that I have a couple more of her novels in the 746, so I can’t wait to read those. Honourable mentions should also go to A Crime in the Neighbourhood, The Keep and The Age of Innocence, all of which were great and I’m glad I made one swap, as Belinda McKeon’s Solace was a quiet gem.

So how did you all do? I know a few people finished all 20 a few weeks ago, which is fantastic, but as long as we all had fun, that’s the main thing.

I’d really like to thank you all – all 82 you! – for taking part and making it a great summer challenge. I was overwhelmed by how many of you got involved. A particular shout out must go to our Australian friends, for taking part in 20 Books of Summer during the midst of their winter – although often their temperatures were better than mine in Northern Ireland!

Every year I say I’m never going to do this challenge again, and then summer rolls around and I go for it. We’ll see how it goes next year, but if I do it again, I will have to do some serious planning!

So, what’s up next for the 746? Well, I have A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf lined up next for Heaven Ali’s Woolfalong and I also hope to take part in Jacqui Wine’s Reading Rhys – a week devoted to the work of Jean Rhys starting next Monday and I have Wide Sargasso Sea lined up for that.

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I also have a bit of a back log of recent Irish books to review which will keep me pretty busy, but there are some gems in this little pile that I’m really looking forward to!

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I’m also tantalizingly close to getting the TBR into the 500s – only 10 to go, so I hope to do that by the end of the year.

But the main thing I hope to do over the coming months is catch up with reading and commenting on all your fabulous blogs. I’ve been so very slack and I am looking forward to reconnecting with you all.

Thanks again for all the support and I hope you all had a great summer.

x

August in Review

August has been a very busy month here at 746 Books.

Well, not so much on the blog at 746 Books, but in the real life of 746 Books!

August was the final full month of 20 Books of Summer and I watched in envy as several participants tweeted details of their 20th review! What I’ve discovered this year about my summer challenge is, that the reading itself is not the problem. 20 books is a totally acceptable amount of books to read within that timescale.

So, it’s not the reading. It’s the reading and reviewing 20 books is the problem for me! Although I am just about to start book number 20 (with 3 days to go!!) my reviewing has stalled at 13. I will round up on the last 6 I have read here, but we are talking 2 or 3 line reviews rather than 2 or 3 paragraphs, which is disappointing to me as there are a few of these books that I would love to have looked at in a more in depth way.

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I think I may have been able to dive in to this challenge better if I hadn’t started a new job in the middle of it. I am loving my new position as Arts Programmer at the new Seamus Heaney HomePlace Arts Centre, it’s challenging and exciting but it has also been all-consuming. The building opens to the public on 29 September and we are all working very hard to get everything ready for that. It has meant that after work, kids, dinner and anything else I have to do, I have had very little energy for posting on my blog. I am hoping that things settle down over the next few months and I will get back to my usual regular posting schedule, I mean it’s not as if I won’t be surrounded every day by amazing literary inspiration!

Quick plug – do check out the website for the HomePlace – if anyone is visiting, please do say hello!

I was also on holiday last week with the family to the beautiful Rathmullan in Donegal. We had a wonderful week, the kids made friends with a neighbouring cat and the weather was kind to us. No mobile coverage also meant it was a very relaxing week and I got a lot of reading done. Some of it outside at the picnic table no less – a phenomenon that is often unheard of in Donegal!

But today has an autumnal feel. The twins went back to school, starting in P2 and yet again there were tears. And yet again, they were mine and there is a distinct chill in the air here in Northern Ireland. I can’t deny that I’m an autumn kinda girl, so I’m looking forward to coats and tights and scarves and all things cosy!

And finally, I have just found out that 746 Books has made the finals of the Littlewoods Irish Blog Awards in the Books and Literature category. I am so delighted to have made the final 7, it’s such an honour and am currently frantically trying to source a babysitter so the hubbie and I can put on our glad rags and head down to Dublin for the ceremony on the 15 September! Thanks to all of you who voted for me, it was much appreciated.

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So, back to books – here is a very quick run down of the last 6 of my 20 Books.

No 616 The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

As expected, Wharton didn’t disappoint. I loved The Age of Innocence, not as much as The House of Mirth, but it was still wonderful. I found this one to be more biting and often more funny in its dissection of New York society than the other works have read and it has a final scene that is poignant and perfect. Now to watch the movie!

Read on: Book
Number Read: 131
Number Remaining: 615

No 615 Small Island by Andrea Levy

This was another winner for me, with the multiple viewpoints bringing a depth and insight into the story. Perfectly formed with a range of incredibly authentic voices, I enjoyed it very much.

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Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 132
Number Remaining: 614

No 614 I Am No One You Know by Joyce Carol Oates

I adore Joyce Carol Oates short stories as she usually veers towards the darker side of humanity in her shorter works. This collection is no exception, featuring some stunning stories that explore those moments when we do something impulsive, or make a small decision, with no idea of the often devastating consequences that might follow.

Read on: Book
Number Read: 133
Number Remaining: 613

No 613 Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

‘You must have wished a million times to be normal.’
‘No.’
‘No?’
‘I’ve wished I had two heads. Or that I was invisible. I’ve wished for a fish’s tale instead of legs. I’ve wished to be more special.’
‘Not normal?’
‘Never’

I loved this book, which I have been meaning to read for a long time. Telling the tale of the Binewski family, circus ‘freaks’ featuring the megalomaniac Arturo the Aqua Boy, telekinetic Chick and sometime prostitute Siamese twins, this is a dark, funny tale is narrated by bald, albino hunchback Olympia which explores sibling rivalry, family loyalty and how society judges between the beautiful and the ugly, the weird and the normal. A must read.

Read on Book
Number Read: 134
Number Remaining: 612

No 612 The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

This is the one occasion where I wish I had time to write a full review, as The Republic of Love is my book of the year so far. A smart, sprawling, witty and heartwarming exploration of love in all its forms, the story follows Fay McLeod and Tom Avery as they stumble through failed relationships, muse on the impossibility of finding a partner, meet, fall in love at first sight and try to navigate the pitfalls that great romance can bring. If this makes it sound slight, it’s not at all. It is a wonderful musing on all aspects of love and is one of the most charming, humane and entertaining books Ihave read in a long time.

Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 135
Number Remaining: 611

No 611 Solace by Belinda McKeon

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The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that Solace was not on my original 20 Books of Summer list. I should have read Moon Tiger, but it was on my iPad, which I hadn’t brought on holiday, so I turned to Solace instead. I’m glad I did. I adored Tender, Belinda McKeon’s second novel, which was my favourite book of the year last year. Solace is like Tender’s quieter little sister – not so showy or attention grabbing, but a book with real depth and beauty. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Solace starts slowly, exploring the relationship between Mark and Joanne as they deal with a pregnancy not long after they have started dating. It changes pace halfway through following an unforeseen tragedy and excels in exploring familial bonds and the relationship between fathers and sons against the backdrop of agricultural Ireland before the financial crash.

Read On: Kindle
Number Read: 136
Number Remaining: 610

So there we have it. 19 books of my 20 books of Summer read, with just Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon left to read and I am determined to finish it by Monday – although I doubt I will manage a review before then! Plus, I’m a little excited that I am only 10 books away from getting in to the 500s of the 746!

So, how are the rest of you doing with your challenge? Are you looking forward to Autumn or pining for the last few days of summer?

‘Clearances that suddenly stood open…’

Seamus Heaney died three years ago today and the world lost one of its greatest poets. 

In memory of his passing, here is one of my favourite passages from his poem Clearances.

When all the others were away at Mass

 I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

No 617 Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

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Marisha Pessl’s debut novel was published amid a storm of hype – publishing bidding wars, support from Jonathan Franzen, that famous head shot and articles in The New York Times, and all before it hit the shelves. It is a heavy burden of expectation for any book, but Special Topics in Calamity Physics almost fulfils it. Almost.

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The novel is the first-person narrative of Blue Van Meer, a precocious and bright teenager who since her lepidopterist mother’s death has travelled with her father Gareth, an academic on the move, taking up visiting professorships in schools around the country. Brilliant and arrogant as he is, he is devoted to Blue and her intellectual stimulation and they travel across the country Paper Moon style, discussing books, poetry, theatre and film which leaves Blue almost pathologically bookish.

It was always Dad and me, the way it was always George and Martha, Butch and Sundance, Fred and Ginger, Mary and Percy Bysshe.

For her final year of high school, they settle in a private bohemian college in North Carolina where

We have the highest number of graduates in the country who go on to be revolutionary performance artists

Here Blue encounters a group of elite students, the Bluebloods and their charismatic and mysterious Film Studies teacher Hannah Schneider with whom she is immediately captivated.

Most extraordinary though was the air of a Chateau Marmont bungalow about her, as sense of RKO, which I’d never before witnessed in a person

Blue is surprised when Hannah invites her to join their elite little group and begins to question Hannah’s interest in her, but a mysterious death and an even more mysterious suicide, means that this coming-of-age high school novel shifts gears and turns into a full on detective thriller.

If this sounds a bit like The Secret History, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, well, it is probably meant too as this is a novel about literary borrowing and literary conventions. The book is presented as a syllabus, with each chapter named after a great work of literature (Othello, Madame Bovary) and it finishes with a ‘final exam’. The narrative is peppered with literary quotes and references, many real, but some made up.

The doorbell rang. I was terrified and immediately imagined all kinds of wicked Bible salesmen and bloodthirsty misfits (see O’Connor, The Complete Stories, 1971)

These Tourette’s like bibliographical references are amusing at first, but have a tendency to bog down the story. As a means to show Blue’s Salingeresque bookish, self-aware nature and the influence of her father’s intellectualism on her life, they do serve a purpose, but at times they are shoe-horned in with a certain lack of subtlety.

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Marisha Pessl

 

However, the source of a lot of the pleasure that is derived from Special Topics, is that very literary knowingness which brings the reader – feeding our pride in our own ability to recognise her references. The literary net spread wide across all the characters, from Blue’s dull potential suitor who is like ‘a 12-line poem of repetition and rhyme’ to the gas station attendant with a King Lear obsession.

In the writing itself, there is also much to justify the hype. Pessl’s prose is energetic and often dazzling, veering off in marvellous directions, sometimes sweeping the reader along and sometimes leaving you gasping in its wake. Undoubtedly, she has great descriptive flair. A pair of red-haired twins ‘resembled two oily portraits of King Henry VIII, each painted by a different artist’ while Blue’s headmaster

smiled encouragingly, but I doubt it meant much; he seemed to hand out smiles like a guy in a chicken costume distributing coupons for a free lunch

Others though, miss the mark. A character ‘bites his nails into thumbtacks’ which seems clever but doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny and often the characterisation can feel like it lacks a depth despite all the surface charm.

As more and more alliteration, metaphor and imagery is piled on, this book can often be tiring to read, but it kicks into gear in the final third as it morphs into a real page-turner of a mystery when Blue turns detective to try to unravel the death of Hannah Schneider. The turn of events is unexpected but it is clear that everything up to this point has been a laying of ground work, a perfectly paced and smartly structured work of fiction, whose clues have been there all along if we had just paid attention. The brave ending, which is both resolved and open ended explores the isolation and pain of adolescence – that time when things we thought we knew and could take for granted are less solid than we believed.

Underneath the literary illusions and clever narrative structure, there is a really solid and substantial novel here. Your enjoyment of it will entirely depend on your reaction to the writing style. The book ends with a true or false final exam for the reader which suggests that everything we have read is open to interpretation, and that in life, the reader, like Blue, can never be sure of the real truth, because a definitive truth rarely exists.

And the idea that none of us can truly know anything at all – not the lives of our friends or family, not even ourselves – is a thought they’d rather be shot in the arm with their own semi-automatic rifle than face head on. Personally I think there is something terrific about not knowing, relinquishing man’s feeble attempt to control. When you throw up your hands, say ‘Who knows?’ you get on with the sheer gift of being alive’

This is probably the right approach to take with Special Topics in Calamity Physics, to just accept the sheer gift of it. While it can at times be too clever for its own good, it has at heart a love of fiction as a transformative power, a belief in knowledge and learning, and a massive amount of ambition.

Read on: Kindle

20 Books of Summer: 13/20

Number Read: 130

Number Remaining: 616

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irish Blog Awards – I’ve made the Shortlist!

 

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Given how slack I have been on the blog lately, I can’t quite believe this, but 746 Books has been shortlisted for Blog Awards Ireland in the Books & Literature and Arts & Culture categories! I’m so delighted, I really wasn’t expecting to make it this year.

I’m really delighted to get this far, particularly given the good company I am in on this fab shortlist;

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But now I have to ask for your help. If you could spare a few moments then please click on the Vote Now image below and vote for 746 Books in the Books & Literature category.  The public vote goes towards 20% of the overall score and I would be eternally grateful for your support. It would be amazing to be a finalist! The voting opens today and continues until Tuesday 23 August!

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Congratulations also to No More Workhorse, the great entertainment site where I review theatre productions, who are nominated alongside me in the Arts & Culture category.

And no, I haven’t forgotten about 20 Books of Summer, I’ve been reading away like mad (I’m on Book 16) but haven’t had time to review. I’m loving my new job, but it is taking up a lot of head space and leaving room for little else. There will be a review before the end of the week and then I’m off on holiday next week to the wilds of Donegal, so hopefully the break will refocus me to kick the butt of this challenge!

Right, I’m away for a celebratory cup of tea and maybe a bun!