I feel like a bit of a fraud doing a monthly Miscellany for September, as I have barely been blogging in the last few weeks.
I am hoping the RIP challenge will give me a boost, but busy times at home and work and some health issues have meant I have little energy for blogging. I’m behind on a few reviews, but hope to get those up very soon.
Still, I am reading away as always, so here are a couple of the non-746 related books that have crossed my path this past month.
Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund
The brilliant John Self at Asylum kindly gave me a preview copy of Will and Testament, a book that has caused quite a stir in Hjorth’s native Norway.
Will and Testament is the story of Bergljot, a divorced mother in her fifties who was sexually abused by her father as a child. She has long been estranged from her family but an argument over the inheritance of two summer cabins draws her back in to the family web and forces her to confront her painful past.
The real-life scandal is rooted in the fact that Hjorth was inspired by her own family history, prompting an outcry from her sister Helga Hjorth. Yet Vigdis insists her work is fiction.
Pulled back into the family realm which she has worked so hard to escape, Bergljot, with the support of her brother, becomes convinced that the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father be publically recognised by the rest of her family. Her sisters and her childlike mother deny the abuse occurred leaving Bergljot feeling increasingly vulnerable and unsure when it comes to her place in her family. Despite her hatred for her father and anger towards her mother, she still feels compassion toward them all but has realised that, in order to move on, she needs to be believed.
There is action in the book, which features an overdose, secret letters sealed in a safe and a dramatic confrontation but this is not what drives the narrative forward. Instead, the important parts of the book take within Bergljot’s twisted and complicated thoughts. She thinks about things, thinks about them again, calls her friend to talk about them then thinks about them some more. Emails and phone calls are planned and pored over, with a lot of repetition and circling back over an issue that was previously resolved. The constant racking over facts, words and truths is faithful to the mind of someone trying to overcome trauma, but it can at times be exhausting for the reader.
That is, undoubtedly, the point, as Hjorth vividly and without artifice, conveys what it is like to be not only a victim of abuse, but also a victim of abuse who is not believed. This is an entirely convincing portrait of a family in freefall and how forgiveness is hard to offer when ones truth is being ignored.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Another book with inheritance at its centre. The Dutch House is a poignant and insightful look at family relations over several decades.
Toward the end of World War II, Cyril Conroy, a real estate developer, surprises his wife, Elna and children Danny and Maeve, with the keys to a mansion, the Dutch House of the title. Elna, who was unaware of the wealth that her husband had amassed, is horrified by the luxury and ostentation of the house, which is full of the previous owner’s belongings, portraits and staff. Her antipathy for the house soon turns inward on to her family and when Danny and Maeve are 3 and 10, she disappears. The children are left to be brought up by their often-absent father and the caring staff, but more misfortune arrives in the guise of a stepmother and two other children.
Danny narrates the story of how he and Maeve are pushed out of the home they have come to love and their subsequent devotion to one another. As Danny marries and becomes a doctor and Maeve continues to work in the town where they grew up, the pair regularly drive to the Dutch House and sit outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the life that exists there, a life that should have been theirs.
We had made a fetish of our disappointment…we had fallen in love with it.
Danny may be the voice of the novel, but Maeve is the heart, a wonderfully realised character full of warmth, wit and stoicism. The painting of Maeve, at 10 years old in a red coat, which hangs in the Dutch House, will become a totem for what passes down through families and generations. The final third of the book brings back a long lost character and with it the promise of hope and compassion, is entirely unexpected but feels perfectly judged.
Patchett is astute when writing about the human condition and the decisions that drive us through life. Her characters are recognisable in their emotional fallibility and as such as easy to invest in. Here, the house itself becomes as much of a character as anyone else in the book – it’s high, clear windows allowing the reader a glimpse of lives thrown off track yet brought back together by the passage of time and a sense of acceptance.
A beautiful book from a writer of profound insight and compassion.
I received a copy of The Dutch House from the publisher Bloomsbury in return for an honest review.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!