BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

“When I think back on that it’s always with a sense of having lost something fragile and fleeting, something I can’t quite name.”

I loved every single page of The Great Godden. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously simple and mesmerising: an unmanned narrator recounts the summer in which they fell in love.
Within this slim volume Meg Rosoff conjures up the feelings of summer, with mornings of idleness giving way to nights charged with possibilities.

“The actors assembled, the summer begins.”

During the summer holidays a family is staying in their house by the sea. Here they reconnect with the young couple—soon to be wed—who live close by. Their dynamics change with the arrival of the Godden siblings, the sons of an American actress. The narrator, alongside their gorgeous sister, falls for Kit Godden, who is as beautiful as he is charismatic. Kit’s sullen younger brother, Hugo, is largely ignored by the narrator’s family.
As the young couple’s wedding approaches, allegiances shift, and more than one person will be left heartbroken.

Although at its core this is a love story, one should not approach this novel expecting a romance. The love Rosoff depicts is deeply ambivalent. The narrator, alongside others, is blinded by their feelings.
Rosoff’s writes of a summer that is heady with change, love, and yearning. This is a deeply atmospheric read, one that captivated me from the opening page. The narrator’s voice lured me in, and I found myself absorbed by their observations about the people around them.
I just really loved reading this novel and I already want to re-read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Bad Love by Maame Blue — book review

Bad Love is a compelling debut novel that is part modern love story, part coming of age. The novel’s narrator and protagonist recounts her first relationship, one that blurred the line between ‘good’ love and ‘bad’ love.
Ekuah, a British-Ghanaian university student in London, meets Dee on a night out with her friends. From this very first encounter, Ekuah feels a pull towards him. Dee is attractive, ambitious, and possesses an air of mystery. While Ekuah is inexperienced in love, she is not wholly naïve. Dee’s casual attitude towards their relationship soon begins to test their bond. They exchange bitter words, give each other the silent treatment, they make up, only to fight and make up again. Dee clearly prioritises his music and career over Ekuah, yet he also seem happy to have Ekuah to himself. After eighteen months together, Dee ghosts Ekuah: he doesn’t reply to her texts or calls, nor does he show himself when Ekuah looks for him at his place.
Ekuah is devastated. After graduating Ekuah meets Jay. The two find themselves growing closer thanks to their community-oriented work, and together they organise poetry events. Ekuah, smarting from Dee’s ‘disappearance’, is the uncertain one in this relationship. Her feelings are further complicated by Dee’s ‘reappearance’ into her life and by her parents’ crumbling relationship.
While Blue brilliantly renders all of the places Ekuah visits (such as Venice and Accra), when writing about London, the setting truly comes alive. Ekuah’s voice will undoubtedly hold her readers’ attention. I deeply emphasised with her, even if she wasn’t necessarily always ‘good’ or ‘kind’, especially where her mother was concerned. Yet, Ekuah’s vulnerabilities are rendered with clarity, and I felt on her behalf. Through Ekuah’s story, Blue presents her readers with a realistic portrait of love, one that definitely doesn’t view love through rose-tinted glasses.
While not much happens in terms of plot, Ekuah’s evolving relationships—with Dee, Jay, her parents—had me captivated. Blue’s scintillating prose, her realistic examination of the many faces of love, her nuanced and realistic characters, make for a truly heart-rendering read.
The ending is perhaps the only aspect of Bad Love that I found slightly unsatisfied. And a teensy part of me wishes that the Mafia had been left out of Ekuah’s lightening trip to Italy.
Still, I thoroughly recommend this read, especially to those who prefer realistic love stories.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall — book review

Boyfriend Material reads less like fiction than fanfiction. No one acts their age, we have50225678.jpg an exceedingly angsty protagonist, a plethora of silly side characters who express themselves using a Tumblresque sort of lingo, unlikely interactions, and a lot tropes.
The novel’s sitcom-like structure was predictable and often unfunny. Luc O’Donnell’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had very one-dimensional roles: we have the straight friend who is always having a crisis at work (one more ludicrous than the other), the lesbian friend who is short and angry, the gay couple that share the same first and last name (and are both referred as James Royce-Royce) and have opposing personalities, a few ridiculously posh characters (who had no clue of anything related to contemporary culture or social norms), the fanciful French mother (who is very much the British idea of a French person), the estranged rock star father…
Luc was so self-centred and monotonous that I soon grew tired of him. He has a few genuinely funny lines (when he’s told not to give up he replies: “But I like giving up. It’s my single biggest talent”) but these are far too few in-between. The narrative tries to make us sympathise with him because he’s been sold-out by his ex-boyfriend and because his dad had 0 interest in acting like a father…and yeah, those things aren’t great but they don’t make his self-pitying narcissism any less annoying. Most of the conversations he has with other people, Oliver in particular, revolve around what he has experienced, what he feels, wants, and fears. I just wish he hadn’t been so focused on himself as it made him rather unlikable.
The other characters are really unbelievable and behave unconvincingly. They did not act or speak like actual human beings.
The running gags were just unfunny: most characters treat Oliver’s vegetarianism as if it was an obscure dietary lifestyle they could never wrap their heads around, Luc’s posh colleagues doesn’t understand his jokes, while Welsh characters accuse Luc of being racist against Welsh people (this annoyed me because they kept throwing around the word ‘racism’ when it had nothing to with racism. Luc not knowing about Welsh history or culture is not racism).
The romance never grabbed me as Oliver was such a stilted character as to be difficult to believe in. Luc often acted like a child with Oliver which made their romance a bit…cringe-y.
Sadly, this novel just didn’t work for me. It felt superficial, silly, and juvenile.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

hbg-title-9780349009964-9

“That’s what it comes down to, I suppose. I was obsessed with what I was, because I had no idea who I was.”

Scenes of a Graphic Nature is a thought-provoking and engrossing novel that is far darker than its brightly coloured cover suggests. After reading and being captivated by Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel, Promising Young Women, I had really high hopes for Scenes of a Graphic Nature.
The first person narration is engrossing and adds a sense of urgency to the story which follows Charlie Regan. Charlie, who is twenty-nine, is deeply unhappy: there is her father’s cancer, her strained relationship with her mother and her more successful best friend, her non-existent ‘career’ in the ever competitive film industry. In an attempt to make some extra cash Charlie has even begun selling photos, of a ‘graphic’ nature, of herself online. Given her not-so-great circumstances, Charlie feels understandably lost.
She finds some comfort in her father, whom she idolise, and his stories, one of which an account of his having survived a terrible tragedy. Inspired by this Charlie, alongside Laura, worked on ‘It Takes A Village’ a film that was based on her father’s story. When the film gains the attention of an Irish film festival, Charlie and Laura are invited to the event. With her father’s encouragement, Charlie set off to Ireland, hoping to find some guidance in the country she regards as her ancestral home. It happens that Charlie and Laura end up in Clipim, an island off the west coast of Ireland, and the place in which her father grew up. The people of Clipim however are not very forthcoming about the past, especially towards outsiders. Charlie however is convinced that someone is hiding the truth about the tragedy that irrevocably shaped her father’s life.

Similarly to Promising Young Women, there is a sense of unease permeating the narrative. From Charlie’s awkward interactions with her mother and best friend, to her sense of disillusionment towards her work and love life. Clipim magnifies the story’s ambivalent atmosphere and O’Donoghue does not shy away from portraying the ramifications of the British occupation of Ireland. Over the course of the novel Charlie, who is quick to emphasise that she is indeed ‘half Irish’, realises that she has mythologised Ireland and her own connection to this country. While I was very much interested in Charlie’s journey, and in the story’s engagement with colonialism, national and self identity, and in her shrewd yet nuanced portrayal of Irish–British relations, the plot tangles itself in unnecessary knots. The latter half of the novel veers into clichéd territories: we have the Town with a Dark Secret™, almost a la The Wicker Man, which is almost entirely populated by physically and verbally ‘hostile’ individuals, There Be Strangers™. Charlie herself makes many stupid choices (which do create tension), and seems unable to read a room. Towards the end the story becomes increasingly disconcerting, which in some ways I was expecting given how hallucinatory Promising Young Women ended up being. Charlie hits rock bottom, some bad shit goes on, and then we get a hurried explanation and ending. The violence of certain characters seems totally brushed aside, which was rather unsatisfying. Also, Charlie’s ‘investigation’ seemed less an investigation that her getting drunk and making wild accusations.
Even as the story become increasingly confusing, and frustrating, I was still absorbed by O’Donoghue’s prose. I liked the way she writes and the themes/ideas she explores. Her main character is an imperfect human being who can be selfish and reckless. Her loneliness and her disillusionment however are rendered in an emphatic light. Certain relationships, such as the one between Charlie and Laura, were believably messy.
Yet, as much as I appreciated certain aspects of the story, part of me knows that the Clipim’s residents were depicted in a less cartoonish way. In spite of Charlie’s interesting inner monologue, the storyline could have maintained a better focus. Still, I would thoroughly recommend this books as O’Donoghue’s writing is incredibly compelling and in spite of her blunders Charlie was an all too realistic main character.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro — book review

000219247Never Let Me Go is a bleak novel, that is made ever bleaker by the way in which our narrator normalises her horrifying reality. Although this is a work of speculative fiction, Kathy’s world does not seem all that different from our own one (there were many moments which struck me as quintessentially British). Although Kathy’s recollection of her childhood is incredibly evocative, Kazuo Ishiguro keeps his cards close to his chest, so Hailsham School’s true purpose remains out of our reach. Yet, the more we learn about the guardians and the various rules imposed on Hailsham students, the more we grow uneasy, and suspicious, of Hailsham.
Kathy’s rather remote narration deepens the novel’s ambivalent atmosphere. We know that in the present, years after Hailsham, she works as a carer but we don’t really know what that entails.
Although Kathy doesn’t mythologising Hailsham, or her time there, her narration possesses a nostalgic quality. Ishiguro captures the intense, and ever-shifting, friendships we form as children. Kathy feels a certain pull to the brazen Ruth. Their fraught relationship frequently takes the centre-stage in the novel. There are misunderstandings, petty behaviours, jealousies, and all sorts of little cruelties. Ruth’s is an awful friend, yet I could see how important her presence was in Kathy’s life. By comparison Tommy seems a far simpler person, and I could definitely sympathise with his various struggles at Hailsham.
Ishiguro excels when he writes about ‘memory’. At times Kathy questions the accuracy of her memories, wondering whether what she has just relayed actually happened or not. There is regret too over her past actions or words she’d left unspoken. She also tries to see a scene through someone else’s eyes, hoping perhaps to gain some insight into others.
The novel poses plenty of complex questions and challenges definitions of ‘humanity’ and ‘freedom’. It definitely provided a lot food for thought.
As provoking as Never Let Me Go was, I can’t say that it moved it me as much as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Maurice by E.M. Forster — book review

Untitled drawing

“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)

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Offing by Benjamin Myers — book review

Untitled drawing (5).jpg

“That distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge. It’s called the offing.”

Written in a verdant prose Benjamin Myers’ novel is an ode to nature. The Offing is narrated by the son of a miner from Durham, Robert Appleyard, who, in his old age, finds himself looking back to the summer which shaped the rest of his life. In the aftermath of the Second World War a sixteen year old Robert is restless for change.
Afflicted by a restless desire to lose himself and both to leave behind the constraints of his normal life and to postpone his future as a miner, Robert takes up and travels across the northern countryside.

“I was sixteen and free, and hungry. Hungry for food, as we all were – the shortage continued for many years – yet my appetite was for more than the merely edible.”

Nature, with its flora and fauna, provides Robert with a respite from his impoverished reality. The landscapes around him fills him with a renewed sense of hope. As he observes the trees and flowers around him, and glimpses the wildlife roaming free, his mind drifts away from his worries and from the repercussions of war.

“To those blessed with the gift of living, it seemed as if the present moment was a precious empty vessel waiting to be filled with experience.”

One day he comes across an old lady named Dulcie whose direct no-nonsense manner is almost alien to him. Yet, it is by spending time in her company, doing the odd repair job for her, that Robert experiences a life very different to his old one.
Dulcie is quick to voice her distaste for nationalism and for idealising one’s country. Until this encounter Robert’s fairly ingenuous view of the world resulted in him having rather dichotomous view of war. Dulcie however, in her refreshingly brazen manner, makes him challenge his own binary thinking. She also introduces him to authors and poets whose stories and verses further inspire a young Robert.
During their meals Dulcie almost retrains Robert’s relationship to food. Growing up with food shortages Robert had never developed an appetite. Yet, with Dulcie he discovers that food can be sublime. From the inviting smells and appearances of a dish to its delicious taste.
In the course of this pivotal summer Robert’s mind and body develop. Dulcie encourages him not to limit himself, not to view his future as preordained.
As time passes we also see the way in which Robert’s presence alleviates Dulcie’s loneliness. It is because of Robert that Dulcie decides to revisit of her own past, and so she shares the most wonderful and heartbreaking moments of her life with him.

Benjamin Myers’ novel is a richly rendered coming of age. Without limiting his language he evokes this fraught period of time in a vibrant manner. Much of the narrative revolves around the narrator’s relationship to his environment. Myers’ writing style emphasises Robert’s senses and makes for a vivid reading experience.
There is also a timelessness to Robert and Dulcie’s discussions. I was completely mesmerised by Dulcie’s story and admired the frank way in which she would speak about her society. War, freedom, nature, creativity, love, language. These are some of the things which occupy the minds and conversations of Robert and Dulcie.

A relevant and nostalgic tale of an unlikely friendship and of the different ways one can connect to another person as well as to nature. Robert’s reminiscences of his youth and the past present us with seemingly quiet moments that are as moving as they are beautiful.
Brimming with luscious descriptions and a poetic language Myers’ The Offing is a spellbinding and thoughtful novel, one that will definitely appeal to nature lovers.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — book review

Untitled drawing (7).jpg

The best childhood stories have wolves in them.
Often they are evil and dangerous creatures…and yet, there is something beguiling about them. Perhaps there is a freedom to their unrestrained roaming…the ones in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are undoubtedly wild and ferocious creatures but they are not the story’s villains.

The fairy-tale elements and imagery contribute to the novel’s simultaneously cozy and spine-tingling atmosphere.
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. 

14e926e3506aa7eeee496277c2c6e09e.jpg

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.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James — book review

Untitled drawing (4).jpg

“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

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads