Friday, October 25, 2013

One by One in the Darkness by Deidre Madden

The story is set during one week shortly before the IRA ceasefire in 1994. Three sisters, Helen, Sally and Kate relate and recollect their childhood during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland. The catalyst for these recollections is the return of the eldest sister Kate, (who now refers to herself as Cate), who abruptly leaves London where she works as a successful journalist for a glossy magazine as an event has forced her to re-evaluate her life.
The book’s chapters alternate between the return of Cate to Ireland and the three sister’s recollections of their childhood. Cate’s life changing event is not that difficult to guess and strangely it is revealed rather early on the book so breaking any sense of tension regarding that particular plotline.
The sister’s childhood is almost idyllic. Their parents own a farm an hour’s drive from Derry. This distance from the cities and towns of Northern Ireland keeps the horrors of the troubles at arm’s length as it also must have felt to those on mainland Britain. The girl’s only connection to the Irish troubles was during their visits to towns like Antrim where they would witness preparations for the Orange Walk; Union Jacks hung out of windows, Orange arches with symbols of a compass, a set square and ladder painted brightly on them.

“And yet for all this they knew that their lives, so complete in themselves were off centre in relation to the society beyond those fields and houses”

However, this insular life soon changed when the British troops moved into Northern Ireland in 1969. With British Army checkpoints around their county and the subsequent visits to the sister’s farm by soldiers the troubles in its many nefarious guises had intruded into the sister’s childhood.
With the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday in 1972 the troubles also came to mainland Britain with the bombing of the Aldershot Headquarters by the IRA. I mention these events as I believe that the sister’s farm may be alluding to the British mainland during the same period of time of the 1960s and 1970s.
I found the story interesting but not fascinating. Each of the sister’s characters was used as clichéd ciphers for Ireland. The eldest sister Kate loves Ireland but needs to leave its sectarian bigotry and religious intractability and becomes a success which she wouldn’t have found if she had stayed in Ireland. The middle sister, Helen becomes a lawyer and defends terrorists even though a horrific experience has befallen her family. The third sister, Sally becomes a primary school teacher like her mother. She hates and loves Ireland in equal measure but stays due to her loyalty to her mother.
The dialogue is rather lumpen and incongruous. There were times when the dialogue did not ring true especially that spoken by the sisters.
Helen’s gay friend David is a superfluous character and seems only to have been shoe-horned into the story to possibly prove how open minded Helen is.

Of all the fictional books that have been written about the troubles, Cal by Bernard Maclaverty or Gerry Seymour’s Journeyman Tailor to name but a few, One by One in the Darkness in my opinion would find it difficult to a part of the any list of the top twenty books on the subject of Northern Ireland and its conflict.

Friday, October 18, 2013

I was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn

Amelia Earhart is arguably one of the best known aviatrix of the twentieth century. Earhart set many records most notable being the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her death has fuelled as many conspiracy theories as those that surround 9/11.
On June 1937, during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, lost radio contact, ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Jane Mendelsohn’s novel is a fictionalised account of what happened to Amelia Earhart after she lost contact with Howland Island, her destination, and the navy.
Mendelsohn’s novel is at once a story of a driven, unhappy possibly reckless woman who does not feel alive unless she is flying. The author weaves fact and fiction, the present and the past using first and third person narrative. First person narrative is used as Earhart’s own personal point of view while third person narrative is utilised to portray Earhart’s life. This moving to and fro, in and out of time and space allows the author to blend, like some exotic biographer’s cocktail, layer upon layer of fact and fiction, present and the past, real or imagined until the reader feels drunk from bibliophilic  pleasure.
But there is no hangover or altitude sickness as a consequence of imbibing this particular cocktail. Instead one feels the need to continue drinking the book without stopping for breath or coffee.
The novel is written in the style of a diary with short, usually one paragraph long, entries.

“Back then, a plane was called a ship. There were still cabins and a sense of voyaging. There was a reverence for flight because it was so dangerous. People lost themselves. There was no safety.”

This diary style way of writing gives the novel a sense of urgency. One feels that Amelia Earhart is writing down her thoughts before either she dies, possibly by her own hand, or before she forgets. In the author’s hands Amelia has something of a death wish. The aviatrix is trying to make sense of the world she lives in and the decisions she made. She enjoys the celebrity that has come with her exploits but feels guilty at doing so. She regrets her marriage to the publisher George Putnam but understands that were it not for him she would not have had the success she achieved.

“He’s the husband who made her famous, who devoted himself to her, even when she hated him, even when he hated her back. She needs him so that she can fly, so that she can escape from him, so that she can escape from the very people who worship her.”

At only 146 pages in length the book is short but very sweet. Jane Mendelsohn has taken the ‘goddess of flight’, as she was described by the press, and brought her down to earth by encasing her feet in clay. But, though the author has endowed Amelia Earhart with flaws, insecurities and an occasional hint of self loathing, Amelia Earhart still remains a heroine.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Cordelia Grinstead is a wife and mother to three children. Her husband Sam, a doctor, recently suffered a heart attack, (though Delia, as she is commonly known, refers to it as chest pains). At or about the same time her father died after Delia had cared for him for some time in her own home.
Her children are all teenagers and have become more independent and less reliant on their mother. Delia’s husband has become distant and less attentive. Delia has becoming unsure of her role as a mother, a wife and in the world in general.
While on the annual family holiday with her family and her sisters, Eliza and Linda and the latter’s children, Delia asks a young man who was working on the holiday home to drive her to a place she knows nothing of. She asks the young man to stop at a small town and there she begins a new life with only the possessions she is wearing and what is within her tote bag.
On the surface, The Ladder of Years appears to be a run of the mill novel about a middle aged woman going through the proverbial mid-life crisis. This appearance seems justified when you throw stroppy, mumbling, uncommunicative teenagers and an inattentive older husband in to the mix.
However, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Anne Tyler has written a novel that defies cliché, stereotype and one’s preconceived ideas of what a woman’s mid-life crisis looks like. A clever choice on Anne Tyler’s part was to write the book in the third person. It would have been easier to have written the novel in the first person and allow us the reader to get a better and easier understanding of Delia’s motives and thoughts on her behaviour. But writing the novel in the third person puts the reader at a slight distance from Delia so making it harder to empathize or sympathize with her. It makes the reader have to work that bit harder in getting to understand Delia and her reasoning and in this process makes the reading of the novel that much more satisfying.
I also believe that writing in the third person allows many male readers to follow Delia’s character without feelings of being uncomfortable in their male skin than had the novel been written in the first person. It is possible that many male readers would have found it uncomfortable or off putting to follow the character had they had access to her inner thoughts and feelings. By writing in the third person male readers are allowed to keep their distance and not made to feel that they inhabit a female persona.
All the characters within The Ladder of Years are rounded three dimensional people and as a reader I felt that I knew and understood each of the novel’s inhabitants by the end of the book. This knowing and understanding is from the perspective of a friend of the family and not as a family member. By this I mean that as much as I believed I knew the character’s motives and reasons for what they did and how they lived I still couldn’t be sure I was getting the full picture. This I believe was intentional on the author’s part. I believe that Anne Tyler was trying to communicate that we never fully know someone else even when they are family. There are times in our lives when we feel like we are an outsider within our own family group looking in through a window that becomes more opaque as time moves on.
Anne Tyler’s novel is a well crafted moving and at times funny novel that will not disappoint any reader, even the male of the species.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Eveless Eden by Marianne Wiggins

This novel is both a thriller and a love story inextricably linked to the major events that took place between 1986 and 1991: the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the downfall of the Ceausescu and the subsequent ending of the Communist regime in Romania. In the novel’s foreground are Noah John and Lilith da Vinci, a journalist and photographer respectively, who embark on a torrid affair that will inevitably, like the times they live in, change their lives forever.
I believe that any novel’s protagonists should have at least one good virtuous characteristic, one redeemable trait that a reader can use to justify following the character’s story through the novel. But in Noah John there is nothing to hang that particular hat on. He is a weak, charmless character who commits an abominable act halfway through the book that is never fully addressed. Though this act is an allusion to what is happening and will happen in Germany it still cannot be forgiven and for me was a emotional distraction as I read the rest of the book.
Lilith da Vinci is a more redeemable character but still not that likeable. She is a strong, brave character, sexual permissive and has a belief in highlighting, through her photographs, the horrors of war and the world we live in.
The backdrop that the novel is set against and the protagonist’s part in these events is what makes the novel interesting and worthwhile reading. The novel’s allegorical structure, set as it is within the historically tumultuous five years that shook the world to its political and social foundations, allows the lover’s affair and characterization to reflect and imbue the time they are living through.
Many of the novel’s minor characters are poorly and lazily drawn. For instance Noah’s Scottish friend is called Mac and is a heavy drinker. The author writes some of Mac’s dialogue in the vernacular but spells the words phonetically.
The novel’s backdrop and how these world events and the reader’s knowledge of how these will affect the 1990s and the 21st century is what makes this book readable, not the main characters Noah and Lilith who at times appear nothing more than ciphers to decode a world in upheaval. Then again maybe this was the author’s intention.