BOOK REVIEWS

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”

First published in 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper is a disquieting short story that has become a seminal piece of feminist literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents her readers with a brief yet evocative narrative that will likely disturb even the most hardened of readers. What struck me the most about this story is that it does not read like something written at the close of the 19th century. Perhaps this is due to the way this story is presented to us. There is an urgency to the unmanned woman’s journal entries that comprise this story, her later entries in particular seem to have been written in haste and secrecy.
John, the husband of our protagonist, is a physician who insists his wife ought to rest in order to recuperate from the classic female illness which consists in “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency”. John, alongside his sister and other doctors, insist that his wife ought not to overwork or excite herself so he forbids her from writing or performing any chore. He believes that nourishing meals and restorative walks will do wonders for her health. Our narrator however disagrees. Over the summer the couple is residing in a mansion that perturbs her. As the days go by her journal entries express her increasing fixation with her room’s yellow wallpaper. When she voices the wish to leave the mansion or to see others her husband insists that they should remain.
John’s blindness to his wife’s spiralling health exacerbates her illness. Her morbid fixation with her wallpaper leads her to believe that something, or someone, is hiding beneath its pattern.
Gilman’s haunting examination of female madness will definitely leave a mark on her readers. The narrative’s Gothic and oppressive atmosphere emphasise our protagonist’s stultifying existence. Her husband’s dismissal of her worries and his firm instance that she merely needs rests and walks outside to recover force her down a self-destructive path.
The journal entries are extremely effective in that they convey their author’s deteriorating state of mind. Her descriptions of the wallpaper—from its pattern to its colour and smell—are certainly unnerving as they place us alongside her.
John’s ‘cure’ for his wife is far worse that her malaise as he isolates her from the rest of society, confines her person to a room, and cuts her off from her creative pursuits and hobbies. The protagonist’s breakdown is brought about by those who wish to contain and or cure of her more ‘alarming’ emotions (such as sadness and grief) by locking her away.
If you are interested in reading more about this story or the portrayal of ‘female madness’ in Victorian literature I really recommend Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a favourite of mine so I was expecting Crime And Punishment be right up my street…aaaaand I hated it.

Many consider Crime And Punishment to be one of the most influential books of all time…and I have to wonder…how? The Idiot, although certainly flawed, tells a far more cohesive and compelling narrative. The central figure of Crime And Punishment is an angsty and hypocritical wanker. I do not have to like a character to ‘root’ for them but Dostoyevsky, man, you gotta give me something…anything! Instead we have this appealing main character who for reasons unknown to me manages to captivate everybody’s attention.

Crime And Punishment is divided in six parts. In the first one—which I actually kind of liked—we are introduced to Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished young man who dropped out of university and is now forced to go to a pawnbroker for funds. He believes that his financial circumstances are the only thing standing in the way of a ‘good’ life so he decides to kill the pawnbroker, telling himself that she is a callous old woman who sort of deserves to meet a violent end. In this first part Raskolnikov has various monologues, in which he argues with himself. A letter from his mother, informing him that his sister is engaged to an older man of affluence, he kind of looses it. He also meets another ‘tormented’ soul, Marmeladov, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who basically tells Raskolnikov his life story (his incoherent ramblings go on for pages and pages and pages).
Raskolnikov uses an axe to kill the pawnbroker but things, predictably, don’t go quite as he had planned.

The follow five parts haven’t all that much to do with this murder or with the detective who is pursuing Raskolnikov. After committing this crime Raskolnikov falls ill, he faints more often than Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Lots of people try to help him but he remains an asshole. Razumíkhin, who was also forced to drop out of university due to his finances, is utterly loyal to him. And…why? Even prior his ‘madness’ it seems that Raskolnikov was a noxious mix of moody and unpleasant. Then these two are joined by Raskolnikov’s sister and mother, and by the two ‘bad’ men who are interested in his sister. And of course, we also get some more of Marmeladov and his family, in particular his daughter, a beautiful prostitute whose childlike appearance (insert puking sounds here) and inherent purity make Raskolnikov besotted with her.

Everyone goes on a tirade, no one makes any bloody sense. Ramblings here, ramblings there, ramblings every fucking where. The dialogues are repetitive, the plot makes no sense (convenient coincidences aside it seems odd that Raskolnikov would not think back to his article on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ criminals just once in part one or two given what he wanted to and what he ended up doing), and I have 0 tolerance for grown ass men finding women attractive because they have ‘childlike’ physiques, temperaments, or features. And of course, here we have women who tremble like leaves.

There were so many over the top moments and whereas I found this fantastical realism amusing in The Idiot here they just annoyed me. Raskolnikov is dumb, he isn’t a brilliant criminal, or a genius, or master manipulator, or even charming…he just is. He makes so many avoidable mistakes, which made me wonder why it took the detective so long to finally confront him. Speaking of the deceive, his scenes with Raskolnikov had this very ‘anime’ feel to them (which works in parodies such as Love is War) and I could not for the life of me take them seriously.

What kind of point was this book trying to make? I have no clue. I did not enjoy the discussions on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ men, which seem to suggest that the reason why the detective is so in awe of Raskolnikov is that he considers him to be an ‘extraordinary’ individual, one who should not be punished as hard as ‘ordinary’ individual should. Yikes.

To quote Nabokov: Dostoyevsky’s “sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway”.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

MILD-SPOILERS

At first I thought that The Shape of Darkness was going to be a spoof of Gothic novels. The dialogues were corny, the two main characters are exceedingly frail, and the ‘murder mystery’ storyline struck me as somewhat theatrical (or perhaps I should say more suited to a film than a book). But I was willing to read on, thinking that these exaggerations were intentional and that Laura Purcell was lampooning Victorian ghost stories…but the more I read the more the narrative seemed to try to impress upon me that it was telling a ‘serious’ story. Having now finished this novel I can safely say that it was very clichéd and unimaginative, the setting of Bath is barely rendered, the two main characters sound like the same person, and the big ‘twist’ was extremely predictable (I mean, I can think of two films—one in 1999 and one in 2001—that have a similar reveal). Also, The Shape of Darkness is yet another book that proves my least likely person is the culprit theory.
Anyhow, Agnes seems to believe that she is being targeted after the very first death. Which is…okay. The plot must go on I guess.

Anyway, the story starts with Agnes a silhouette artist. She has yet to fully recover from an illness that struck her a few years prior the start of the novel. She lives in a nondescript house with her orphaned nephew and her elderly mother. Her past is ‘mysterious’ and she’s clearly suffered more than on heartbreak. Her only friend happens to be a doctor who was married to her now deceased evil sister. Her few customers start turning up dead and Agnes worries that someone is after her.
Pearl is a medium who also happens to have an evil sister who forces to host seances. Pearl believes in the ghosts and there are scenes that seem to point to ‘otherworldly’ presences. Pearl is also, like Agnes, kind of sickly. The two characters in fact sound very much like the same person. They lack interiority and are mostly defined by how ‘frail’ and vulnerable they are. For quite awhile I thought that they were more or less the same age but I was surprised to discover that Pearl was 11 and Agnes in her 40s (yet they both sound like teenagers).

Agnes and Pearl end up ‘finding’ one another and Agnes convinces Pearl to help her contact her now deceased customers. We have two or three scenes in which Agnes is actually doing her job and we see Pearl doing two seances at the very beginning but after the 40% mark the narrative no longer focuses on these things.

The story takes a quite a few leaps in logic, there are a few too many convenient coincidences, the plot is dull, the characters uninspired. Although the story is set in Bath there are only a couple descriptions—a few sentences really—describing the city’s architecture. Agnes shows a surprising lack of awareness towards her norms of her time and there were a few inconsistencies. For example, a couple of pages after we are told that Agnes’ hands are swollen (possibly due to a combination of arthritis and chilblains) she does a silhouette for a customer. This requires her to use her fingers and I guarantee you that if her hands had truly been as the ‘swollen lumps’ we were told they were, she would not be able to move them very much, let alone being able to doe painstakingly controlled movements with her fingers. Instead we don’t even get a mention of her hands and fingers during this scene (we could have been told how difficult and painful it was to be using her hands when they were so swollen).

The story tries to be somewhat serious or creepy and yes, descriptions of Pearl’s father—who’s phossy jaw is rotting away—were not pleasant. But the narrative’s ‘supernatural’ undertones and ‘murder mystery’ storyline were bland and galaxies away from being remotely scary (or even atmospheric).

Here are a few examples of why I did not like the author’s writing: ‘But it cannot be, not after all of these years’, ‘her heart flutters its wings inside her chest’, the idea fills her with a sweet glow, ‘in her face are those simmering, witchy eyes’, ‘her slender trunk’ (this to describe a woman’s figure), ‘frightened whispers of her own conscience’.

Towards the end the story becomes so dramatic as to be frankly risible. There were a few scenes that were meant to inspire suspense or whatnot but they way they go down would have suited more a B movie.
If you liked it, fair enough, but I for one am glad I did not have to pay for my copy (the ‘perks’ of being on NetGalley).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.

“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”

Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).

In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.

Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.

As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.

Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.

A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.

There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).

There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on.
Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies.
Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material.
Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams.
The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman

To say that I am incredibly disappointed by this final instalment would be pretty accurate.
I enjoyed The Dark Days Club and I thought The Dark Days Pact was the perfect sequel. Goodman’s writing painstakingly depicted the Georgian era, its customs and language. Lady Helen, our main character, was both sensible and diplomatic, and she could also kick some serious ass. The slowest burn of them all, her infatuation with Lord Carlston was thrilling. Throw in some demons, action, and a lot of letters, and you get the perfect ‘Fantasy of Manners‘.
Or so I thought…
After reading The Dark Days Deceit I no longer feel fond of this world. This last novel left me with a bitter taste: nearly everything that I loved in previous instalments…I now sort of hate.

Positives:
Goodman’s writing is still par excellence. She makes the setting come life. Each scene that takes place is described with extreme detail, and the elegant prose resonates with the historical period itself. While there are plenty of dramatic and serious occasion, the style often comes across as satirical, poking fun at traditions and beliefs of that era.

Negatives
Where do I start?
It might be because the previous instalment came out nearly two years ago but it took me quite some time to readjust to this world. There are plenty of characters or things that have happened that I could not remember. The terms used to refer to the ‘supernatural’ elements were easier to remember but I was not a fan of the whole ‘Grand Reclaimer’ bond between Helen and Carlston. All of a sudden they seem able to share telepathic conversions?! And other people sort of notice?! Are they just obviously staring at one another? Subtle. Why even bother with the silent conversations.
Helen acted in such an irritating manner. The whole marriage plot was pointless and a real drag. Why save the world when you need to prepare your wedding? The world can wait. Worst still is that she was such a horrible friend. Carlston ‘s jealousy and short-temper made him just as likeable as Helen. Helen’s friends and the other members of the Dark Days Club seem to fade in the background, only to be (view spoiler)[ killed off (hide spoiler)] to make Helen feel as if ‘she had failed them all’.
The worst thing however is the ‘twist’ which made the whole plot ridiculous.


MY RATING: 2.5 of 5 stars


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No Name by Wilkie Collins

I love Wilkie Collins’ humour, the quirkiness and mannerisms of his characters, and the intricate plots of his novels. No Name focuses on a rather unconventional heroine, Magdalen Vanstone, who in a short amount of time finds herself orphaned and – due to an idiotic a legality – penniless. Her rightful inheritance lands in the hands of her cruel uncle who refuses to help his nieces. While Nora Vanstone, the older sister, becomes a governess, Magdalen will resort to all sort of tricks and subterfuges to get her inheritance back. Aided by a distant relation, Captain Wragge, a cunning man who prides himself for his transactions in ‘moral agriculture’ aka all sorts of frauds and schemes, and his wife, Mrs Wragge, a gentle soul in the body of a giantess. Magdalen will use her incredible skills of mimicry and acting to trick those who have robbed her and her sister of their fortune.
For the most part No Name was a fun read. Captain Wragge and his wife offer plenty of funny moments, and secret war between the captain and Mrs Lecount kept me on my toes. However, the latter part of the novel does drag a bit. There were a lot of instances where I think Magdalen should have remained in the limelight, given that she was the protagonist. My favourite part remains the first act, before the tragedy struck the Vanstone family. We get to see the lovely dynamics between the various family members and their routines. I loved those first 100 pages or so.
The ending sort of made up for all that Magdalen endures but…still, part of me wishes (view spoiler)[she had been able to get her fortune back by herself and that she had not fallen ill…I am glad that she ends up with Kirke but it seemed a bit rushed that ending. (hide spoiler)]

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars


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Crossings by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.

Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear.
To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.

As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’.
The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity.
While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators.
The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating.
This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres.
While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley — book review

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“Under the gas lamps, mist pawed at the windows of the closed shops, which became steadily shabbier nearer home. It was such a smooth ruination that he could have been walking forward through time, watching the same buildings age five years with every step, all still as a museum”.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street mostly takes place during the 1880s in London. One of the main characters is twenty-five year old Thaniel Steepleton who works as a telegraph clerk at the Home Office. His mundane and solitary existence is thrown into upheaval after a mysterious pocket watch saves him from a terrorist time bomb. Believing that the maker of his watch is somehow connected to this attack, under false pretences Thaniel moves into the watchmaker’s residence on Filigree Street. The watchmaker, who goes by his surname, Mori, hails from Japan. Mori, who seems to have a polite and quiet disposition, is more than happy to have Thaniel around. Thaniel too finds himself warming up to Mori and his customs. While Thaniel soon realises that his new landlord is indeed hiding things from him, he questions whether his involvement in the terrorist attack.
Alongside Thaniel’s story we also read of Grace Carrow who studies physics at Oxford. Grace wants to pursue her studies and experiments but thanks to her parents she will only be able to do so as a married woman. Given that no one seems interested in marrying such an ‘uncompromising’ and ‘eccentric’ woman, Grace has few options left…
While Thaniel and Grace’s paths do eventually converge, readers might be surprised by the consequences of their acquaintanceship.

Thaiel and Mori were easily my favourite characters. There is a faltering quality to their friendship. In spite of their age, class, and cultural differences they soon became used to one another.
For the most part Grace struck me as the usual protagonist of certain contemporary historical novels, which often star heroines who are unfeminine and uninterested in marrying or adhering to the social norms of their time. Her main characteristic is her ambition, which does make her somewhat admirable. Later on however she makes some increasingly maddening choices that were not clearly explained.

Natasha Pulley does an excellent job in giving her story a Victorian atmosphere. Whether she was writing about London or Japan I found her historicism to be accurate and evocative. Her novel’s storyline could be best described as being part period mystery, part gentle adventure. One of the main ideas the story plays around with is as clever as it is fascinating…so much so that part of me wants to reread this book in order to pick up on what I’d initially glossed over.

The narrative also has a lot of steampunk elements—which range from gaslights to clockwork automatons—as well aspects that struck me as belonging to the magical realism genre.
I particularly appreciated the realistic depiction of being a Japanese expatriate in Victorian London. Mori, alongside other Japanese characters, is routinely exposed to racist behaviour and attitudes. Grace’s story instead emphasises the way in which gender discrimination oppressed, repressed, or constrained women lives.
A portion of the narrative is also dedicated to Japan. Here we read of the divide and conflict between conservatism and Westernisation, which made for some engaging reading material.

The budding friendship between Thaniel and Mori was extremely sweet and filled with a quiet sort of yearning, for above all companionship. Part of me wishes that instead of having sections dedicated to Grace we could have had some more insight into Mori’s character as he was a lot more interesting. Grace’s later behaviour made her particularly unlikable…yet the narrative seems to imply that we should condone her actions.

Grace aside, I really loved this novel. It is a slow-burn mystery and not for those who are looking for anything too ostentatiously fantastic. Pulley’s writing is a pure pleasure to read: from her vivid descriptions to her humour. What began as a seemingly unassuming story soon conveyed brilliant depths.
I thoroughly recommend this one, especially to fans of Victorian settings or steampunk.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 stars)

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — book review

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“IT WAS DUSK – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was one of my favourite books as a child. We have a winter-y and atmospheric setting, an evil governess who alongside some other knavish characters is up to no good, intrepid children—possibly an orphan or two—who outsmart wicked adults, and, last but not least, wild and ferocious wolves.

The fairy-tale elements and imagery contribute to the novel’s simultaneously cozy and spine-tingling atmosphere that really brought to mind Jane Eyre (the first part of the novel, when Jane is a child).
Set in an alternative history of early-19th century England, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase follows the adventurous of two cousins as they try to escape from the evil clutches of their new governess and her cronies. We have bold Bonnie, daughter of Sir Willoughby, and her more timid cousin Sylvia who is an orphan and was raised by her frail aunt. When Sir Willoughby takes his wife onto a voyage for her health, he leaves Bonnie and Sylvia at Willoughby Chase. The two girls soon realise that their new governess Miss Slighcarp is up to no good. What follows is an engrossing adventure starring two brave children, train rides across dark forests, wicked governesses and teachers, a horrid boarding ‘school’, and many dangerous treks across forests teeming with wolves.

Aiken’s deceptively simple language ingeniously conjures Bonnie and Sylvia’s adventures in a way that reflects their ‘young’ point of view. The adults have a certain Dickensian quality to them that is apparent through their names and appearances.

There is so much to love in these pages. We have snow, sumptuous meals, hidden passageways, shipwrecks, and daring escapes. In spite of the many injustices Bonnie and Sylvia are made to experience, there is always an undercurrent of hope in this narrative.
Perhaps I love this novel so much because it speaks of my childhood, perhaps I simply recognise for what it is (a truly lovely and entertaining tale).

my rating: ★★★★✰

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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James — book review

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“A large fortune means freedom, and I’m afraid of that. It’s such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn’t one would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking; it’s a constant effort. I’m not sure it’s not a greater happiness to be powerless.”

The Portrait of a Lady focuses on a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who comes into a large inheritance. Even before Isabel becomes financially independent she was unwilling to fulfil the responsibilities and obligations her gender thrusts on her. To restrict herself to the role of wife would not only be oppressive but it could hinder her journey of self-discovery. It is because Isabel craves to experience the world—free of wifely and motherly constraints and duties—that she declines some rather promising marriage proposals.
Ralph Touchett, Isabel’s newly acquainted not-quite-American cousin, perceives in Isabel a latent potential for greatness. Believing that his cousin is meant to “rise above the ground”, Ralph decides to provide Isabel with the means to do so: a lot of money. It just so happens that Ralph’s father, Mr. Touchett, possess a vast fortune. Ralph convinces his sick father to bestow on Isabel a large part of his estate. During their conversation Mr. Touchett asks his son the following question:
“Tell me this first. Doesn’t it occur to you that a young lady with sixty thousand pounds may fall a victim to the fortune-hunters?”
As with Chekhov’s Gun, the fact that ‘fortune-hunters’ are mentioned pretty much insures their appearance. The story that follows sees Isabel predictably falling into the path of two wannabe Machiavellian American expats.
Set against a European backdrop, the narrative contrasts the values and customs of the New World against the ones of the Old. This juxtaposition of New vs. Old, America vs. England, English-speaking countries vs. the rest of Europe, serves as a backdrop to the exploration of themes such as personal freedom, duty, ambition, wealth, art, self-sacrifice, and morality.

“She lost herself in a maze of visions; the fine things to be done by a rich, independent, generous girl who took a large human view of occasions and obligations were sublime in the mass. Her fortune therefore became to her mind a part of her better self; it gave her importance, gave her even, to her own imagination, a certain ideal beauty. What it did for her in the imagination of others is another affair.”

The first ‘volume’ of this novel introduces us to the various players of the story. The narrative, which occasionally slips into a first-person point of view, presents Isabel Archer as its central figure, often affectionately referring to her as “our heroine”. This switch between perspectives and seeming self-awareness, brought to mind Middlemarch. Contrary to popular belief, James’ writing is far from stale. While it would not be wholly inaccurate to describe his prose as being the antithesis of concise, the fact that he seems to lose himself in long-winded observations and digressions does not mean a lack of clarity on his part. In fact, his narrative has a really nice flow to it. His refined use of the English language gives his prose an almost polished quality.
While James’ narrative is not as effervescent as the one of Edith Wharton in
The Age of Innocence (which also happens to have an Archer as its protagonist), he is nevertheless able to inject his portrayal of this upper society with a subtly oppressive, and very Whartonesque atmosphere.
Money and class do not necessarily provide his characters with happiness or love…if anything they seem to make them all the more miserable. In spite of her attempts to carve her own path Isabel is still a woman, one whose financial independence does not result in actual personal freedom.
I really enjoyed the character dynamics that were explored in this novel’s first volume. The characters were nuanced and compelling and it was interesting to hear their views on America, England, and Europe. Given their contrasting beliefs, they are all eager to influence Isabel one way or another. Isabel’s resolve, admiringly enough, does not waver. Even if she unsure what she is ambitious for, she remains firm in her desire not to marry, opting instead to travel and to gain some life experiences.

The second volume of this novel was tepid at best. Our heroine is pushed to the sidelines, with the narrative focusing instead on Gilbert Osmond, his “attractive yet so virginal” daughter Pansy, and her self-pitying suitor, Edward Rosier. These three characters were annoying and uninteresting. Gilbert was presented as some sort of clever manipulator but he struck me as a half-unfinished caricature of the fastidious and cold husband (Casaubon’s less convincing descendant).
Isabel’s sudden character change was almost jarring, especially if we consider until that point James had taken his sweet time exploring her sense of self and her various ideas. Worst still, Ralph and Isabel suddenly became martyrs of sorts. Isabel in particular spends the remaining narrative doing Mea culpa…which struck me as quite out of character.
Gilbert and Madame Merle are presented as this morally-devious duo, the typical fox and cat who try—and often succeed in—tricking our hapless and helpless protagonist. Which…fair enough. I have been known to enjoy villainous duos (such as Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde in
The Woman in White)…Gilbert and Madame Merle however seemed to lack purpose. Their characters do not seem to be as important or as profound as they are made to be. Later on other characters (who have no reason to defend them or forgive Gilbert and Madame Merle) make it seem as if these two have their own valid feelings, of tortured variety, so it would be unfair for us to judge or dislike them or their actions.
I was so irritated by the story’s direction and by Isabel’s character regression that I was unable to enjoy the remainder of this novel.
My interest was sparked only when the characters discussed their cultural differences. As an Italian I always find it vaguely amusing to read of the weirdly incongruent way Italy is portrayed by non-Italians during the 19th century. James’ clearly appreciated Italy’s history and its landscapes, but throughout his narrative a distaste for Italy’s ‘present’ state (Italians are regarded as lazy and somewhat primitive). I also appreciated the way in which James’ depiction of masculinity and femininity challenges and questions established norms (such as the qualities that the ‘ideal’ man and woman should posses). However cynic, his depictions of love and marriage could be deeply perceptive.

“The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching.”

Having now read one of James’ novels, I’m not at all surprised that his work has gained him a reputation for wordiness and digression. Yet, his logorrhoea aside, I’m puzzled by the dislike his work seem to entice, especially in other writers (Mark Twain, Jonathan Franzen, Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, Jorge Luis Borges…you can read some of their comments here:
Writers on Henry James).
One of my favourite ‘harsh’ comments was made by Lawrence Durrell: “Would you rather read Henry James or be crushed to death by a great weight?”. Although many of these writers/readers make rather exaggeratedly disparaging observation about James and his writing, some of them hit the nail on the head. Oscar Wilde, for instance, wrote that: “Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.”
I, for one, was not annoyed or deterred by Henry James’ prolixity. However, as noted by Wilde, I do think that James occasionally overworked certain passages and that his story/characters never seem to reach their full potential. And while I am not entirely sure why Vladimir Nabokov called Henry James a “pale porpoise” (alliteration?), I do agree with him when he says that James’ writing has “charm . . . but that’s about all”.

Why did I read a book that was authored by someone who has gained such an unappealing reputation? Curiously enough, part of me wanted to ‘read for myself’ whether James’ style was as frustrating as some made it out to be. What finally convinced me however was that his name kept popping up in the introductions to Edith Wharton’s novels. Having now read a novel by James’ I find myself wondering why his name needs to feature in so many reviews and articles discussing Wharton’s works…yes, he could certainly write well, and they do explore similar themes, but his work is far less insightful, engaging, and memorable than Wharton’s.
Sadly the clarity and nuances demonstrated by James’ narrative in the first half of The Portrait of a Lady are then obscured by a predictable storyline. With the exception of busybody Henrietta Stackpole (easily my favourite character), the characters become shadows of their former selves (I could not see why Isabel fell for Gilbert) and I no longer felt invested in their stories.
Given that this novel is considered one of James’ best, I’m unsure whether to try reading more of his work…perhaps I will give his novella The Turn of the Screw a try.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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