Friday, 29 August 2014

My Notorious Life by Madame X, by Kate Manning

Ostensibly based on a true story, My Notorious life follows the story of Axie Muldoon, New York street urchin and general ragamuffin as she claws her way up the fashionable ranks of the rich and privileged to her eventual position as a wealthy but notorious women’s physician. It documents the birth of midwifery, the stifling social oppression and dual standards that were rife in the Victorian era and the pretty grim lives of ordinary women 

Foul mouthed and filthy, living with her Irish Immigrant mother, sister Duchess and baby brother (Joe) in on of New York’s numerous slums, Axie’s family’s life is changed forever when a philanthropist sends her and her siblings East to ‘better lives’. Unfortunately the Muldoon matriarch has lost an arm and is sadly incapable of looking after her children so consents to send them to the prairies. Axie’s more amenable siblings are adopted but she returns to New York, foul mouthed and wild as ever, determined to return to her mother and rescue Dutchie and Baby Joe from their captors. When her mother dies in childbirth shortly after Axie’s return, she goes into the service of a midwife and learns the trade over the course of the following years- always spurred on by the thought of saving women from the fate that befell her mother.

With the help of her fellow orphan-train returnee turned husband Charlie (whose business acumen and penmanship help get the business up and running) what starts off as a few remedies sold from a tray soon becomes a mail order success, then a small surgery and on and on. Until Madame de Beausacq, Axie’s professional alias is one of the most notorious figures in New York. Hounded by the judges and the journalists but visited in secret by their very wives and daughters, Axie has brought midwifery out of the hands of doctors and into the hands of women and paid the price. Condemned for her “Murderous” practices, her compassion for her patients' circumstances and situations has brought women’s physicians to the attention of the law, practises that have always been technically illegal but largely ignored are suddenly becoming more and more heinous and public.

I had sort of mixed reactions to this book. It is quite soapy and a tad melodramatic. The book opens with a dead body in the bath and Axie making the decision to use its demise to fake her own death...this is the big mystery that I suppose is supposed to keep the reader's interest engaged, but it was not interesting or mysterious enough to warrant such a dramatic fell a bit flat because of how easy it was to guess the body's identity. It would've been better told in sequence. Some of the characters were more thoroughly developed than others, Greta the German housemaid turned prostitute turned receptionist really isn't very well developed at all. She appears to exist purely to set up situations for Axie. Secondly, midwifery really isn't an area that I would ever choose to read about. Some find it fascinating. I would normally have avoided this book had it not been a Book Club choice. I also found a lot of the editorial choices (the censorship of scandalous words, for example) to be quite off putting.

However, I liked the character of Axie, I liked how she fought tooth and nail for her position in life and made a success of her meagre lot- a proper little  American Dream success story. The fact that she was never a proper ‘lady’ was also a nice touch, proof that all the money in the world can’t buy class and you will always swear like a fishwife if that's who you are underneath. I found her relationship with her husband Charlie to be a bit confusing. I understand that orphans can never really trust as they have always been abandoned- but it just seemed to hinder the development of the characters really, her doubting his fidelity and his intentions just distracted from the story. The novel did a good job of demonstrating the lopsided obligation of men and women when it comes to reproduction. Axie is driven partially by the need to save the lives of mothers and babies, but also by the social injustice that places so much blame, infamy and judgement on women, for what is at best a joint mistake, at worst entirely the fault of the man’s desire and force. She becomes a champion of preventatives, advice and “obstruction” medicine, allowing women to plan their families for the first time.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is one of those novels that feels like taking deep breaths of fresh air. It just fills you with something that feels substantial and essential. All in, it's a rich and vibrant historical novel that asks questions about women's lots throughout history, the nature of justice and its connection with the press, the history of mental illness and the cult of the paranormal.

The book follows the life of Grace Marks “celebrated” murderess, one time mental institution inhabitant and one of the most infamous Women of Canada’s 19th Century.  Convicted at the age of 16 (along with the surly stable hand) of murdering her wealthy employer and his housemaid mistress, she is spared the gallows at the last moment and sentenced to life in prison. She claims to have no memory of the day that her employer died, but gave several differing accounts of her whereabouts and actions during her court appearances, which certainly didn't  do much for her defence case.

Doctor Jordan, a well-bred but financially unstable specialist in mental health (or as expert as it is possible to be, considering the time) takes an interest in Grace’s case. He aims to coax the details of the murder from her, convinced that she has buried them deep within her memory and sets about arranging weekly meetings with her in the home of the prison warden.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship based initially on vegetables. The doctor writes many letters to his colleagues, friends and mother detailing the contemporary medical theories on women, hysteria and afflictions of the mind. His narrative attention frequently finds itself returning to thoughts of Grace, considering her story and remembering her posture, complexion or some element of the press’ reportage of her case.

Grace’s narrative is complicated, occasionally contradictory and thoroughly tragic. The reader is never really sure whether she is disclosing the truth to Dr. Jordan or only telling him what he wishes to hear, maybe simply telling an elaborate story to amuse herself. She could be a skilled manipulator and liar; the whole thing could be an impressive performance. We're never even sure, as the reader, which parts Grace is saying. The line between thought and speech seems purposefully vague and the relationship between action and idea recurs regularly- Grace herself points out at one point that "If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged".

I'm thoroughly convinced that Margaret Atwood will turn out to be like, the Dickens of the post-Dickens era. Her ability to get inside the heads of her characters is uncanny. Even the most fleeting characters instantly jump off the page. The book is based on a true story; Grace Marks was a real person that spent X many years in prison for the murder of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear. Contemporary newspaper articles and likenesses add context and authority to the story- I loved Atwood's decision to keep referring the reader to the contemporary press articles relating to the Marks case. We assume that media influence and one-sided news reporting is a new phenomena, but Atwood points out that as early as 1840s, papers were printing (potentially) slanderous and thoroughly contradictory stories, pointing fingers and passing judgement. , and it’s practically impossible to tell where the fact ends and the fiction begins. Each seems so dependent on the other, but neither dominates. It’s hard to describe fictionalised fact when it’s done so well and so seamlessly. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

This was my 2014 summer holiday read (Tenerife, if you're asking) on account of its immense, breeze-block proportions and I could not have picked a better one. It's a book that demands a fast, intensive reading because it takes place over a short period of time, every segment ends on a cliffhanger and it is just incredibly absorbing. I loved the intricacy of this book and was blown away by the storytelling skill and the sheer vision that unravelled through the story. Let me join the queue of people wanting to shake Stephen King's hand and declare him a genius.

Under the Dome begins 11:44 AM on Saturday October 21st of an unspecified year; the small Maine town of Chester's Mill is suddenly and inexplicably separated from the outside world by an invisible and semi-permeable barrier of mysterious origin. The immediate and unexpected appearance of the barrier causes a plane crash, a lorry collision, a multi car pile up resulting in several fatalities, a severed hand and subsequent bleed out and a bisected squirrel. The borders of Chester's Mill are undeniably closed, and you are either trapped on the inside or trapped on the outside, though it's a while before this can be realised (the in/out rather than the this side/that side). Former army Captain turned fry-cook Dale Barbera, 'Barbie' to his friends, is on his way out of Chester's Mill after a car park ruckus with the town's troublemakers when the barrier comes down. He's the first on the scene of much of the action and remains the main character and hero, albeit reluctantly at times, throughout.

Having said that, there is no central narrative. It's the story of the town and its inhabitants, rather than a person. King spins the story in his omnipotent narrator fashion, looking down on Chester's Mill like the bacteria in a petri dish and picking up and leaving off the actions and thoughts of various characters periodically. The story frequently switches from resident to resident and from group to group, creating connections, overlapping and combining and framing events in ways that the reader can begin to assemble the pieces of Chester's Mill long before any of its residents can see the full picture. We follow the interweaving stories of Barbie, representative of Marshall law and slander campaign victim; Julia Shumway, the town's newspaper editor and journalist and her Corgi Horace; big Jim Rennie the town's ambitious second selectman and master manipulator; his psychopathic small town bully-boy son Junior and his twisted friends; Rusty Everett, the put-upon physician's assistant and familyman and 'Scarecrow' Joe McClatchley, the 13-year old strategy wizard and computer genius. These main characters are supported by a rich and authentic supporting cast, including an atheist Reverend, middle class drug addicts, stranded academics, holiday makers, jacks of all trades and some bloody brilliant dogs.

It's an ensemble novel, full of brilliantly crafted normal people living perfectly ordinary lives until the dome. Families, sassy old ladies, small time cops and skater kids and hoards of regular Joes. They are so well constructed, that even the characters introduced simply to die mere sentences later feel real. We're talking some seriously short character lifespans here, but it's never forgotten that somebody will miss them. Somewhere, the narrative is strengthened or affected by their death.  Amongst other themes, the book is about the corrupting influence of power and the idea that if a state (or town, or village or anything) is cut off and inaccessible in every sense- then effectively, there is no accountability and no consequences. If there is no possibility of personnel entering or leaving the Dome, then it becomes entirely at the mercy of its most powerful and determined residents, as there are always people that will seize an unlikely opportunity from an otherwise tragic situation. Under the Dome also looks at collective behaviour, how otherwise peaceful and neighbourly people can, if the circumstances are manipulated just so, become riotous, murderous and incredibly cruel. Or they can become heroes. It shows how fear and suspicion can bring out the best and the worst in people, and how revealing it can be when people's true selves are revealed. There are such acts of cruelty and violence that it seems that maybe the Dome, for all its transparency, is just the veil that the individuals have been waiting for to finally drop the act of "civilisation" and descend into total barbarism.

For such a long novel, the pages fly by. King builds up an entirely living, breathing (lol) community struggling with their sudden imprisonment and later, their fame and fate. He explores the pressure of being at the centre of a nation-wide media frenzy, the subjects under the microscope for reasons that nobody can fathom and the impotence of the World's political might. The characters are complex and brilliant, the pace is staggering and the prose is unmatched. It is simply a masterpiece. To maintain such a breathless pace throughout such a behemoth of a novel would be impossible for any other author. In places the tension is unbearable and building up to the novel's spectacular finale is kind of exhausting. But it's worth every page. An absolute stunner.

I've gone out and bought about 7 other Stephen King books, based on the jaw dropping quality of Under the Dome and The Shining.

It's also answered a question that's bugged me for years. "Can you love a book, but hate the ending? Or will a disliked ending always taint the preceding plot?" I've swung between Yes and No for years, never quite sure. The answer is yes; you can love a book and completely hate the ending.

Friday, 1 August 2014

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars is a skillfully written coming of age story about long, hot, idyllic summers with kindred spirit cousins on the family's private island. It's also about how wealth and suspicion can tear families apart, how people change as they grow up and how complex a machine the human mind is. There's memory loss, the complexity and manifestation of grief and guilt and the strange effect it has on the perception of real life, and most importantly, the arrogant invincibility of youth.

15-year old Cadence Sinclair introduces the reader to her rugged, blonde, athletic, wealthy and emotionally repressed viper pit of a family in the first paragraph; “Sinclairs are athletic; tall and handsome. We are old money democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, our tennis serves aggressive”. She has a wonderfully appealing turn of phrase- she’s charming, self-deprecating and dismissive of her obvious privilege. Cadence narrates the novel, and she’s a really likeable narrator, but she doesn’t really know the whole story. She’s a broken and fragmented speaker, one trying to assemble the pieces of the picture from fragments of memory and inference. She doesn’t expand greatly on the family members or the presumably lush locations, there’s no elegance or style to her narrative. She’s telling it for her own piece of mind, talking herself through what she recalls in the hope of cracking open the memory that she's convinced is still buried deep down somewhere.

The author does an amazing job of isolating the convalescing narrator- recovering from some mysterious injury and suffering headaches, she's desperate to return to the island after a few absent years to see her cousins; the only people that she feels really get her. Despite their long separations (without correspondence) during autumn, winter and spring, the cousins remain as close and as ever and pick up where they left off each summer. Cadence, Johnny and Mirren, her cousins and Gat a child-of-a-family-friend who nobody's sure if he gets to be there or not make up the four ‘liars’. At the age of 15, Cadence falls for Gat, but at the end of that summer, she has some sort of accident or meltdown, but can’t remember the reasons or the circumstances. Her only recollection is being found in her underwear on the shore, the surf crashing around her.

The novel casts a flinty eye on the lives of the American elite. It turns out it’s not all regattas, Ivy League schools and summerhouses in Martha’s Vineyard- wealth brings its own set of problems that gnaw away at families from the inside. The Sinclairs, like the most ordinary families, are tormented by deaths, addiction and tragedy. Their privilege does not buy them immunity from tragedy, but it does allow them to hide their raw emotions behind their smiling faces. Pain, like money, is simply not spoken about.

The book has an excellent hazy, dreamlike quality to it that's really effective in giving the impression that something is wrong, although it’s impossible throughout most of the narrative to properly identify what it is that doesn’t add up. The reader just can’t pin it down. It's so full of mystery and secrets, Cadence rakes through the family's behaviour, lies and omissions searching for clues and answers and the build up to her discovery is genuinely thrilling. I loved the gradually increasing sense of unease and sickly suspense throughout this novel, but unfortunately the ending sort of popped the balloon that had been slowly inflating (for me, at least).