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The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

“We all lived in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all all nations into one great suffer body.”


This is the third novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and I’m afraid to say that it just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached The Pull of the Stars with such high expectations. Or maybe these kind of historical novels are just not my ‘thing’ (I was similarly underwhelmed by
A Long Petal of the Sea and The Night Watchman).
Given the current pandemic The Pull of the Stars, set in a maternity ward in Dublin during the 1918 influenza and the close of WWI, makes for an eerily pertinent read. This is a meticulously researched novel, from the blow by blow descriptions of medical procedures to the grimly evocative depiction of the environment in which our narrator, a nurse, works. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, Donoghue renders all too vividly the stark circumstances of the various women under Julia’s care. We witness the physical and emotional toll that result from too many pregnancies, the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the mistreatment of their children, and the extreme abuse that ‘fallen women’ experienced in the Magdalene laundries. The lives of these women and children are shaped by injustices—such as sexual/physical abuse, poverty, illness, being forced into labour, being separated from your child—and Donoghue is unflinching in revealing just how horrific their realities are.
In spite of this, I just couldn’t help but to find the bluntness of her prose to be detrimental to my reading experience. While her unvarnished style does suit both the setting and the subject matter, it also distanced me, especially from Julia. She felt like a barely delineated character, often seeming to exist in order to explain things or provide ‘modern’ readers with context (especially one of her later discussions about the ‘homes’ and Magdalene laundries with Birdie). She was a very undefined character, a generic take on a good ‘nurse’. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a far more interesting figure, sadly plays only a minor role in the story. Birdie was okay, although at times I had a hard time believing in her. The romance sprung from nowhere and didn’t really convince me either (and this is coming from someone who sees everything through sapphic-tinted glasses). If anything the ‘love’ story seemed to exist only to add an unnecessary layer of drama, unnecessary especially considering that the novel was quite tragic without it. The ending, more suited to a historical melodrama, was painfully clichéd.
The thin plot too did little to engage me. Although the lives and stories of the women in the ward were both compelling and distressing, I just didn’t particularly care for Julia’s narrative. Perhaps if this had been a work of nonfiction, I would have appreciated it more.
I don’t consider myself squeamish but The Pull of the Stars was almost relentless in the way it detailed EVERYTHING. Maybe readers who watch One Born Every Minute will be able to cope with it but I just could have done without it.
Another thing I could have done without is the lack of quotations mark. When will this trend stop?

Although The Pull of the Stars wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m sure that plenty of other readers will find this more riveting than I did.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Maurice by E.M. Forster — book review

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“No tradition overawed the boys. No convention settled what was poetic, what absurd. They were concerned with a passion that few English minds have admitted, and so created untrammelled. Something of exquisite beauty arose in the mind of each at last, something unforgettable and eternal, but built of the humblest scraps of speech and from the simplest emotions.”

There is much to be admired in E.M. Forster’s Maurice. While it saddening to think that although he wrote Maurice in the 1910s he was unable to publish the novel during his lifetime, Forster did at least share it with some of his closest friends.
Maurice follows the titular character of Maurice Hall from boyhood to adulthood. In the opening chapter a teacher, knowing that Maurice’s father was dead, feels the need to educate him on sex. Maurice however doesn’t find this conversation enlightening, if anything it cements his aversion towards women and marriage. It is perhaps this incident that makes Maurice begin to question his sexuality. Although he never does so explicitly, his otherwise privileged existence is marred by self-questioning and doubt. Throughout the narrative Forster depicts the way in which homosexuality was regarded in the early 20th century: Maurice himself doesn’t know what to make of his desire towards other men. The country’s general attitude towards “unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde sort” range from pure denial, so they will dismiss homosexuality as “nonsense”, or “condemn it as being the worst crime in the calendar”.
At university Maurice becomes acquainted with Clive Durham. Clive, unlike Maurice, is a scholar, and lover, of ancient Greek philosopher and is apt to quote their teachings. While Maurice is simply enamoured with Clive, Clive wishes to attain a higher form of ‘love’ (“love passionate but temperate, such as only finer natures can understand,”) and believes that by being with Maurice their “two imperfect souls might touch perfection”. Unlike Maurice, Clive finds the idea of their becoming physical intimate to be distasteful, implying that it would spoil their relationship.
When the two are no longer at university together the two no longer have many opportunities to spend time together. their physical in their relationship, Clive insists on adhering to his ideal of love. Later on, Maurice finds himself pursuing a relationship with Alec, Clive’s gamekeeper.
The first half of the novel brought to mind Brideshead Revisited. This is quite likely to the university setting and the various hierarchies there are at play there. Both Maurice and Clive come from wealthy families. They are fairly pretentious, prone to make snobbish remarks, and are fairly misogynistic. Forster himself points out all of their flaws and is unafraid of poking gentle fun at them. Because of this I felt less disinclined towards them, even if I didn’t strictly like them.
This isn’t a particularly happy novel. There is bigotry, self-loathing, heartbreak, and suicidal contemplation. At one point Maurice is diagnosed with ‘congenital homosexuality’ and even attempts to ‘cure’ himself by way of a hypnotist. Yet, Forster’s prose is full of beauty. There are plenty of stunning passages in which he discusses and contrasts romantic and platonic love (Clive/Apollonian vs. Maurice/Dionysian), physical and intellectual desire, or where he describes beautiful landscapes. Forster adds a poetic touch to negative emotions such anguish and despair, so that even when his narrative never really succumbs to the darkness experienced by Maurice and his moments of introspection carry definite beauty.
Perhaps the thing that kept from loving this as much as Forster’s A Room with a View is the lack of chemistry…Alec appears towards the end and in no time Maurice seems in love with him. Alec’s personality is somewhat reduced to his being of a lower class. Still, while Maurice may not join what I consider to be the holy trinity of classic LGBT literature (for those who are wondering: The Charioteer, Giovanni’s Room, and The Price of Salt/Carol) I still think that it is a brave and illuminating novel (Forster’s afterword alone is worth reading).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up)

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton — book review

Untitled drawing.jpgStep aside, Becky Sharp. Move over, Scarlett O’Hara…make way for Undine Spragg, the most unscrupulous anti-heroine I have ever encountered.

“[S]he could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired.”

Wharton once again focuses her narrative on a young woman’s unrelenting attempts at social climbing. While Wharton does inject her depiction of Undine Spragg’s ‘trials’ with a dose of satire she nevertheless is able to carry out an incisive commentary regarding New York’s ‘high society’. Through her piercing insights into privilege Wharton is able to render a detailed and engaging examination of the intricate customs that prevailed among America’s ‘elite’ society, exemplifying the discordance between their values and their behaviour. Wharton emphasises their sense of entitlement and their idleness. While they often believe themselves to possess the most impeccable manners, readers know just how cut-throat they truly are.
Armed with gossip or ready to form conniving schemes, most of them will hesitate at nothing in order to augment their wealth and reputation (ideally ruining someone’s life in the process). Marriages are business manoeuvres and one makes friends on the basis of whether they might be later on be put to good use (‘networking’ is everything for these people).
By bringing together these different themes and subjects—marriage, divorce, class, wealth—Wharton is able to present her readers with a nuanced and in-depth examination of New York’s upper crust.

As a character in the novel observes, Undine Spragg is the “monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph”. Undine, who was raised by two loving parents who spoiled her from a young age, possesses a solipsistic worldview and her values are exceedingly materialistic.
Undine is an appalling protagonist. She is Lily Bart’s monstrous little sister. We first ‘meet’ Undine when she still seems to be a simple, if pampered, ‘country’ girl. Soon however we begin to see that in spite of her simplicity (she definitely lacks Miss Bart’s charisma and acumen) Undine Spragg is entirely egocentric and lacks both self-awareness and empathy.

“It never occurred to her that other people’s lives went on when they were out of her range of vision.”

As noted by the narrative and the various characters, Undine’s conceitedness, as well as her perpetual sense of boredom, may be the likely result of her upbringing. Her parents’ leniency definitely played its role in making Undine feel as if she should only be concerned with her own happiness, and to be truly happy she has to marry well.
Undine believes that as long as can enjoy an extravagant lifestyle and be favoured within certain circles, she won’t be bored. As much as I loathed Undine—for her selfishness, her lack of creativity, and for her frivolous tastes—I was always aware that she did grow up in a society that values appearances.
Undine was never made to feel as if she needed to cultivate any real interest. Her main concern are her own beauty and reputation, the two means through which she will be able to find a satisfactory match.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Undine becomes a woman who is thoroughly disinterested in the lives of others. She sees no reason why she should be preoccupied with her husband’s ‘menial’ work. She is unable to see why she should be held accountable for other people’s misery.
There was something oddly compelling about Undine’s determination not to allow her desires to be comprised by anyone or anything. She is more than willing to have affairs, lie, drive her husband(s) and family into debt, and blackmail and manipulate others.
While the narrative definitely accentuates Undine’s cherubic appearance (from her creamy complexion to her beautiful golden locks) readers are made aware of what lies beneath her rosy surface: Undine’s vision of happiness is rather limited. She lacks imagination, so much so that she often merely tries to emulate the women around her.

“Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel.”

And while I certainly thought her to be a horrible person (her behaviour is reprehensible) there was a part of me that found her egocentrism and cruelty to be strangely compelling. Whether she is merely a product of environment or innately selfish, her total self-absorption was transfixing.
Wharton portrays a scathing picture of her society: were “the average American looks down on his wife”, were women’s sense of self is dictated by a cult of aspiration, were marriages are entirely transactional, and were young individuals are trapped by old traditions and customs.
In spite of Undine’s many romances, there is little if any love to be found within the pages of The Custom of the Country. And maybe that’s for the best given that Undine is no heroine.
While I certainly didn’t find this novel to be as moving as Wharton’s
The Age of Innocence, and Undine’s misadventures lack the poignancy of Lily’s ones in The House of Mirth, I would still recommend this. Wharton’s percipient prose, her sophisticated use of satire, vividly renders the customs and values of New York’s high class.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Stoner by John Williams

Initially I found the seemingly unassuming prose of Stoner to be full of insight. The very first page coldly announces the eponymous protagonist’s death, and I was drawn in by the unromantic story.
The novel focuses on William Stoner’s life: his rather miserable marriage to Edith as well as his studies and his academic career. Urged by his father to enrol to agriculture school, Stoner begins studying at the University of Missouri were his simple and lacklustre existence is changed by a the introduction of literature into his life. His passion is such that he decides not to return to his parents farm, opting instead to continue his studies. He meets and marries Edith, and this ‘happy union’ soon reveals to be a deeply unhappy one, which shouldn’t be that surprising since from the very start Edith was a bit of cypher. She passively accepts Stoner’s offer of marriage. As time goes by her motivations and her cruelties seemed – for the most part – irrational. John Williams paints a depressing yet somehow realistic portrait of marriage. Petty arguments, vendettas, annoyances, all abound in the relationship between Stoner and his wife.
Stoner’s decision to remain at the University during WWI rises interesting question. His reputation suffers but we are told clearly that his actions were not the ones of a coward. His love for literature and teaching is such that Stoner needs to stay at the University. Stoner acts in a similar manner when he approaches the age of retirement.
I enjoy reading about Stoner’s love for his profession. However, I found the whole situation with Professor Hollis Lomax and Charles Walker to be almost unbearable. I was frustrated at the entire situation and I was uninterested in this prolonged animosity. Both Stoner’s wife and his daughter were incredibly dreary. Not only I did not warm up to their temperaments, but I felt dubious about the reasoning behind their actions. They walked the line between seeming realistic and being stereotypes of a neurotic woman…
The initial chapters, when Stoner starts his studies, promised so much more that this. While I enjoy John Williams’ plain style, I did not feel involved by the storyline or the characters. I might have appreciated the down to earth look at a regular man’s life but I read about Stoner’s life with growing disenchantment.

My rating: 3 stars

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The Absolutist by John Boyne

A challenging and emotional novel that is both engrossing and difficult to read. Boyne offers us a tale of war, love, jealousy, and the way in which one’s principles can dictate one’s life. It is a gut-wrenching story and it was impossible not to feel affected by what Tristan – our main character – experiences before, during and after the Great War. From the very start we know that something tragic – a personal loss – has happened to him. Tristan professes diverging feelings in regards of what has happened to Will, a young man who he befriends during his training, before his time in France.
The characters are as compelling as the story itself, in a few lines Boyne is able to depict believable individuals who inspire a range of conflicting emotions within the reader: given the strenuous situations they are it is natural that their actions and words showcase all manners of complexities. I was, for the most part, taken by Tristan: I often found myself wanting to hug him or shake him. I didn’t always understand his actions but I believe that is because he didn’t always understand them himself. I was frustrated by him and for him, no matter what I found his voice compelling and heart-rendering.
There is a feeling of growing unease that made me both eager and terrified to read on. The plotline is unpredictable, Boyne delivers a few ‘I did not see that coming’ moments. I read this book quickly, desperate – and anxious – to know what would happen next. And while Tristan’s story is emotionally draining, I also didn’t want to leave him. Terrible things happen and yet I was so engaged by his story that I kept at it. It is also a novel that makes you think by challenging your own moral code without giving us predictable outcomes and or answers.
The Absolutist made me cry, it made me angry, it made me hopeful and it left me bereft. It isn’t an easy read but I recommend it to those who are looking for something more substantial.

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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