Black dogs – back in Ian McEwan time

blackdogsThis blog is at serious risk of becoming an Ian McEwan fan blog. There is nothing that can be done. Especially when there are free Ian McEwan (and to be fair, Margaret Atwood and Peter Carey) novels on offer from our neighbours.

I realise I am and doing my Ian McEwan reading backwards, from Atonement onwards. I had a very strong reaction to Atonement, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, which has made me approach his other books with caution and a healthy dose of scepticism. However, now that I know what to expect and how much to believe – i.e., expect anything, and believe nothing – I find I love his novels. Black Dogs didn’t require the guard though – in the sense that there is no great trick, just some light themes of the flaws of memory and story-telling, and simple old fashioned suspense.

Like Enduring Love and Atonement, this story is centred around a defining  significant event that has a long-lasting impact on the characters’ lives, namely, the narrator’s mother-in-law’s terrifying encounter with two enormous savage black dogs. The narrator, Jeremy, a now-grown orphan who likes to adopt parents, becomes close with his in-laws, and decides to write a memoir about his mother-in-law, June. June’s life, as she sees it, is vastly defined by her encounter with the dogs in post-war France on her honeymoon in 1946 – it alters her politics, and turns her towards the divine and supernatural, and against her ever rationalising new husband, Bernard. As they each tell Jeremy about their early relationship and marriage, the novel explores aspects of human nature, how to reconcile the rational and practical against the supernatural, against primal subconscious violence, and how these aspects have played out in post-war Europe.

Underlying the story of the parents-in-law is that of Jeremy  himself, who, having lost his parents at age 8, was raised in the violent household of his sister and her then-husband, as well as their young daughter Sally. Sally later herself grew up violent and suffered from addiction.

Told in the late 1980s, partly in Berlin in the days of the wall being brought down, perhaps the personal story is a metaphor for our history, how the destruction and violent past during the war was still being felt and bourne out towards the close of the century. Or perhaps that the in-laws are themselves a metaphor for the people of Berlin, or Europe, or even the world – completely interconnected, but separated by their ideology and trauma.

Has anyone else read this one? What did you think?



The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields

“Well, I didn’t think there were enough novels about women who didn’t make the historical record […] None of the novels I read seemed to have anything to do with my life,” she remembered. “So that was the kind of novel I tried to write — the novel I couldn’t find” (Carol Shields, in a New York Times article by Laurel Graebber)

This quote was published in the New York Times in 1994. I was surprised to see that quote when I was doing my requisite pre-blog googling – I thought, when I bought this book at my favourite market stall where the owner has exactly my taste in reading, that it was the kind of book I read all the time. The usual woman’s-life-through-20th-century-backdrop kind. I loved this book before I even read it! Apparently, in 1994 times were tougher, and perhaps Carol Shields really did start it all. In which case, I owe a thank you to Carol Shields.

The Stone Diaries is a novel about Daisy Goodwill, born in 1905 in bizarre circumstances. Her mother (Mercy Stone), who didn’t realise she was pregnant, dies in childbirth, and Daisy is delivered by her elderly next door neighbour Clarentine and a door-to-door salesman. For no reason obvious to my 2015 eyes, Clarentine takes Daisy away from her stone-mason (geddit?) father Cuyler Goodwill, leaving her own husband in the process, and brings her to live in Winnipeg along with her older son Barker. Eventually, Clarentine passes away, and Barker, what with all his inappropriate feelings for an 11-year-old girl, sends the girl back to reunite with her father.

Daisy appears to float through life, studies, her first husband (and his spectacular death), and then eventually finds her way back to Barker – whom she then marries and has 3 children with, and who inadvertently gives Daisy her passion for gardening, and later, writing a gardening column. Her life is contrasted with her father’s – who falls ardently in love with her mother, and then with his lively second wife, and appears to always have a clear purpose, a passion for cutting stone and building monuments. She is more concerned with the temporary, the living, the botanical. However, that is also what makes her more grounded, compared to her father and also to her husband who live more in the ideal and theoretical.

The novel is written as a diary, along with newspaper cuttings, letters and photographs. It could be what one of Daisy’s grandchildren finds in her cupboard – and pieces her story together from. It is left up to the reader to determine what really happened, or how – like any story that cements itself with time, and hints are given throughout that one person’s memory is not always the full view. In that, it is like a human memory time-capsule – Shields calls it a box within a box within a box.

I hope my summarising hasn’t ruined any surprises – it’s not a “read for suspense” kind of book. In terms of books I have read, it is more like Hanna’s Daughters (Marianne Fredriksson, everyday women’s life stories) meets The Invention of Everything Else (Samantha Hunt, life story meets magical realism). Or the Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood), which has all of the above mentioned threads in one novel. Or anything found at that market stall…

So, does anyone else find they have a very distinct “book type” that they keep coming back to? Do you use anything (genre, cover graphics, prize) as a filter?


Holiday inspiration required…

Happy holidays everyone! In the break I have of course been doing some reading – “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion, “Room”, by Emma Donoghue, and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the night-time”, by Mark Haddon, have all proven to be excellent, mostly feel-good, while interesting and poignant, holiday reads.

However, this post is not about these. It had occurred to me that whenever I review something on this blog, I am raving about it. Now, this is a somewhat filtered view of reality – while I do write my honest opinion about the books I read, it is very difficult (and feels very mean!) to sit down and write five paragraphs slamming someone’s hard labour and toil. This is a reflection of my general dislike of negativity, including giving negative feedback, which I find very difficult to do. I am definitely more of the “bottle up and explode later” variety. So the selection bias is not so much a bias, as a carefully curated sample of only the books I love.

So, in order to gain some credibility in that not every book I read ends up as a post of blubbery effusiveness, I want to also write about some books I’ve been struggling to get into, or require some inspiration to keep reading – enter the list below.

1) The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient has the makings of everything I should love in a book – a historic novel, World War II, romance, and pretty much anything described as moving generally works well… Perhaps its the tone, or the dijointedness of the story, but I got 40 (dense-ish) pages in about two months ago and there it ended. I am very happy reading slow pages of character development, societal portaits of manners of the 18th century, and even Tolstoy’s philosophies on agriculture, but here I am stuck. Is it going somewhere? Should I watch the movie for some added suspense, and then return to the book? Was I just in the wrong mood? Or is it just too shmaltzy?

2) Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

I think this book has also suffered from the same problem as The English Patient – so far, I have found it difficult to get invested in it… I do know what it is about (I think – its about a boy whose father is lost in 9/11?), and that’s not at all why I am finding it difficult to get invested. I hit a stumbling block when it jumped to the man who lost his speech (page 28) – is he real? Is he alive? I am not great with suspense. If it’s good, and I get excited, I read really fast, or have been known to just jump ahead to the critical bit just to find out what happened, and then return to read the details. However, if it’s not that exciting, and I don’t know what’s going on, I just give up – like in this example. I really do want to finish this one, so I will update you on my progress.

3) The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt

In case you have lost all faith me in for posting about books I have read only 30 pages of, this book I did actually finish (prior to beginning the other two in this list). However, it might be the culprit for my inability to finish the previous two – it has all the disjointedness and the non-realism of the other two, except upon finishing it gave me no satisfaction whatsoever.

This is a story about the life of Nikola Tesla, an unassuming, underappreciated, and forgotten inventor/discoverer of many things used today – including alternating current, and radio waves. Which is really a great story without the additon of much, much sentimentality, a sweet Amelie-style maid and her random finding of a just-perfectly-boring-but-sweet young man and on top of that two very typically sweet old men who run away to a US military base to build a time machine, blow themselves up, and then come to get Tesla (maybe, one can never be sure of what really happened there). To be honest, it’s all a little too similar to the story of Up, except Up managed to make me cry in the first 15 minutes and the characters had more gumption.

Luckily for Samantha Hunt, critics disagree with me – the novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009. It does have its positives: the book does portray Thomas Eddison as Willie Wonka (or vice versa) and has a surprise cameo by another well known figure of the time.

So there you go, just a little bit of slamming. Are there any books you feel like you should really love but just plainly didn’t?

The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife (J. Austen)

According to Annabel Crabb’s “The Wife Drought”, these days, in fact, one must possess a wife if one is in want of a good fortune. Particularly if you happen to be female, and “fortune” is more of a personal career success than an Elizabeth and Jane Bennett-style acquisition of Ten Thousand Pounds a Year. According to Annabel’s exemplary use of (many) ABS statistics, a modern-day Mr Darcy’s obtaining of a wife would further increase his fortune, too. If Mrs Bennet could use statistics like Annabel Crabb, well, there would probably be a lot more headaches in Pride and Prejudice.

My attendance at various women’s networking and advice events held by my previous employer – although commendable, eye-opening and useful – has so far more or less supported the view of the desirability of wives. At one of these events, in a leadership panel discussion on pathways to some sort of top, there were four speakers, three female and one male. Two of the speakers had a “wife” in the sense Annabel is postulating. The other two did not – their partners also had careers in the traditional sense. The two with “wives” had children, the two without did not. The female speaker with children had a partner who worked from home and was able to take on more responsibilities with the children, and I think she said she felt lucky, as Annabel Crabb feels, in her family’s situation and her partner’s support. This is what Annabel Crabb refers to as having a “wife” in a gender-neutral sense – she suggests men and women both need wives “on the home front” if they are to succeed in the workplace. Outsourcing, she suggests, is a viable option. Trying to do it all – she does not recommend.

The male speaker at that event also agreed on the subject of the usefulness of wives – he said they were lucky enough that his wife didn’t have to work. This scenario appears on page 2 of the book, and Annabel Crabb has opinions about owners of such statements having their faces pushed into Potatoes Dauphinoise. Because the female speaker’s partner-at-home situation occurs for only 3% of families, whereas the mans occurs for 60%. So the male speaker is not so much lucky but, statistically, can safely expect this to have happened.

According to Chapter 6, What’s a wife worth?, the wife at home’s worth is somewhere between $60,000 and $113,000 a year. However you may have to discount the time when wives want to bake biscuits to take to a friend’s house, because it may not constitute strictly necessary housework (according to my own husband though, this is pretty much the only strictly necessary housework – so clearly opinions on this vary). Secondly, “The Wife drought” makes a point about how “something that just makes sense financially at the time because he earns more” does not quite count as choice – there is a great paragraph on the whole self-perpetuating nature of such choices. But I’m just getting my feminist knickers in a twist, if this man’s wife is happy, then that’s great for her, choices are what feminism is all about, and of course, who am I to comment on this man’s and woman’s familial/monetary situation?

However, telling young women one is trying to retain in the workplace – through this very event – that if they just get lucky and find their Ten Thousand Pound a Year Mr Darcy, they won’t have to work any more – is precisely an exhibition of Annabel Crabb’s thesis that while we think we have undergone siesmic societal shifts, we haven’t actually changed that much as a society over the last 50 years. Women may have, in that many more of them are in the workforce. But society’s expectations, and many men’s expectations, have remained the same.

According to the book, this is as detrimental to women who want more of a choice, as to men – who are, currently, more or less completely stripped of choice altogether. I hope that changes too, for the sake of all the wonderful men I know who appear to thoroughly enjoy spending time with their children, and many of whom have whistfully said they would quite like being a primary care giver at one time or another.

As my husband, who actually bought me this book, says, it’s the “All Annabel Crabb show”, in book form. The first few chapters are pretty heavy on the numbers – I have never read a book that actually analysed the ABS Census, the Australian Time Use survey, and Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey all in one! Annabel Crabb does, however, liven it up a lot. My favourite parts though, was the research and stories of Australian laws and experience of women thoughout the 20th century, as well as the interviews – she interviews Carolyn Pyne, Tanya Plibersek, and a few other politicians, and, of course, her own stories and experience.

Read if… you like getting really indignant. Or if you love the All-Annabel-Crabb-shows. Which I do.

Amy Tan, and how she wrote The Kitchen God’s wife after the Joy Luck Club

Some authors have similar overarching patterns or general “feel”, but the stories and settings themselves can be quite different. Others find a happy niche and really stick to it. Amy Tan seems to be one of those. I hope that doesn’t offend Amy Tan, because I have loved both her books that I’ve read – Joy Luck Club and the Kitchen God’s wife, and have re-read both several times.

The Joy Luck Club is a portrait of four mothers who have immigrated to San Francisco from pre-war China, and their daughters – and the cultural divide that now exists between the parents and the children. To me, the Joy Luck club is about the juxtaposition of generations, cultures, expectations, how the two different generations see the word so differently but also so similarly, while managing to so completely misunderstand each other. The relationship of the daughters to the mothers spoke to me, as, regardless of my background not being Chinese, the challenges for immigrant families are somewhat universal, and likely timeless.

The Kitchen God’s wife starts with Pearl and her family being asked by her mother, Winnie (Wei-Wei) to attend her Aunt Helen’s party (a secret engagement party for her cousin). Their reluctant visit is further extended when Pearl’s Grand Auntie Doo unexpectedly passes (unexpected mostly because Pearl has thought she was already dead), and Winnie would like Pear and her family to stay for the funeral also. This is not a portrait of a happy close knit family – Winnie and Auntie Helen bicker, Pearl is not on speaking terms with her cousins and wants to avoid Aunt Helen altogether. Everybody complained about taking care of Grand Aunt Doo, and now noone wants to come to her funeral. To boot, Pearl actually has multiple sclerosis, which she won’t tell her mother about.

After the funeral, Winnie gives Pearl what Grand Auntie Doo left her – an old altar for the Kitchen God. The Kitchen God was a lucky man who had a good, hard-working wife, but he was mean to her and left her for a young pretty girl. Together they had spent everything the good wife had earned and saved, the pretty girl left him, and he was reduced to being homeless and begging. He was found and fed by a mysterious good woman, who of course turned out to have been his old wife – so, ashamed, he jumped in to the burning stove fire and burned up. Now he is watching everyone’s behaviour from heaven to decide who deserves good luck and who bad. However, Winnie decides that Pearl shouldn’t have the burden of worshipping this kind of God.

Winnie then sits Pearl down and tells her the story of her life in China. A story which lasts about 350 pages. Occasionally, Winnie talks directly to Pearl, and asks her questions, which Pearl doesn’t answer. Disbelief is not really suspended. Disbelief is sitting there smirking quietly in your face. However, that aside, it is Winnie’s story, beautifully painted (you’ll laugh out loud and proclaim aghast and cry with anger) is what why you want to read this book. You’re rooting for Winnie, with pom poms and all. The story is how she came to finally understand the hard way that she can and should make her own fate in life, that it is the women who should be celebrated.

All that other mush, showing that of course, she’s more than an old lady, and that of course there is a deep love amongst the family, under all that bickering, is probably not why you want to read this book at all. Starting the story in the modern-day, I would imagine, is there to show the generational disconnect and misunderstanding. It reads a little as if Amy Tan started to write in the Joy Luck Club mindset, and only mid way through finally stepped into this novel. It does work – there is enough mystery provided that you see there is more to Winnie, Helen, and their Grand Aunt Doo. However, giving Pearl multiple sclerosis for the sole purpose of her having a “secret” she can’t tell her mother seems cruel, contrived and not really necessary.

Summary as always – read if you feel like laughing, crying, and barracking with pom-poms. Warning: Wei-Wei gets put through some pretty sick stuff, so probably not quite a relaxing holiday book, depending on how well you can stomach it. I read it cover to cover, thought about it for a while, and restarted again from page 54.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Now a major motion picture…


So I seem to read a lot of books that are made into movies. This isn’t coincidental – I hear about a movie, and then decide I’d better read the book before seeing it, almost as a “this is my last chance” before the faces of the actors are imprinted into my vision and memory and view of the story. The problem with this, is, however, that this is often too late already! Even upon seeing a preview, or a poster for the movie, the instant you see the scenery and the actors, that becomes the view of the story in your head.

If the  movie is well-cast, it usually doesnt matter. After a while, after you see the movie, your memory of the book is overwritten with the movie imagery anyway. And that’s ok, its often more detailed, brighter. Harry Potter is one example – Hogwarts is so much better in movie view than it was in my head! I just didn’t bother to paint all of the details… I suppose thats why books used to come with illustrations – why does that not happen any more?

At other times though, it is utterly, completely, infuriatingly disruptive to the reading of the book. And Jonathan Tropper’s “This is where I leave you” is unfortunately guilty of this. I had never seen the preview, or the cast, or any posters. All I had was that cover, with the entire cast on the front. So for the first 50 to 100 pages that I had read on the plane, all I could do is wonder – which face corresponds to which character… Eventually I figured out that one of the women is actually the mother, and that none of the women are the wife. This was only resolved upon looking up who was supposed to be whom on IMDB, and after some surprises consciously deciding to disregard the cast altogether. None of those faces looked to me like anyone in that book – sorry casting director!

And now I am ruining it for everyone reading by posting that photo…

Distractions and casting aside, the book itself is a wonderful dark comedy of a family reuniting and finding themselves, individually and together, after the death of their father. As their fathers dying wish, they were asked to sit “shiva” – the seven days of mourning in Jewish culture. The story is told through Judd, the middle son, who has recently found himself alone and mostly homeless after he finds his perfect wife in bed with his radio-shock-jock boss – literally, in the throws of, ahem, bed. When they find out that their father has died after a long illness, the family gathers at the old family house.

There is the eldest daughter who has three small kids and is “married to, technically, an asshole”, while pretending upholding her genetic imperative to keep up appearances. Then there is the ex-up-and-coming-college-scholarship-jock-now-sensible-helper-with-family-business-but-oh-what-could-have-been elder brother. The younger brother is a womanising wonderer. The mother, a famous psychotherapist and writer who made her fame writing about her children (ie Leonard’s mother on Big Bang  Theory, but with fake boobs). There is also the cast of women for Judd to fall in love with.

Sources more qualified than I attest to this being a wonderful depiction of the male psyche. You certainly get the feeling of being inside Judd’s head, with all the worries and guilt and insecurities and haunting dreams – and the constant falling in love. My favourite line of the whole book is “as I walk down the street, I fall in love two more times.” It is a much nicer version of the male psyche than, say, was in The Slap, which made me feel generally much less safe than I’d like through its depiction of the male psyche. So thank you, Jonathan Tropper, for reinstating my faith in humanity a ilttle bit.

There is much history, sadness, hilarity, punching, and much inappropriate love-making, all bitter sweet and page-turningingly sarcastic. If you’d like something not too heavy for the holidays – this is perfect!

So, does anyone else get this distracted by covers/movie versions?

So what’s legal in Amsterdam?


Continuing from last week, I thought I’d post about Amsterdam while I am in my Ian McEwan frame of mind.

The front page in the picture specifies the title – Amsterdam, A novel. I am assuming this is to clarify that this novel is not the “Ode to Paris” in novel form, and one should certainly not expect to learn about Amsterdam. In fact, this is closer to the representation of Hamsterdam in the Wire, minus the war on drugs and the moral investigations of social benefits of libertarianism. What kind of similarity could there possibly be left?

Well, mainly the moral experiment kind. The story centers around four main characters, men of public profile, who find themselves unhappily in each other’s company at a funeral. The funeral is for Molly Lane, who has sufferred a sudden onset of cognitive decline. Clive, a famous contemporary composer, and Vernon, a large broadsheet editor, are long-time friends and Molly’s ex-lovers. They share a disdain for both Molly’s rich but boring husband, George, and the frightfully right wing Brittish Foreign secretary they all know Molly was involved with. The two friends are shaken by Molly’s state of helplessness and unrest during her last days and have both become worried about their own threatening illnesses. To help ease their worry, they enter into a pact should they ever fall terminaly ill – enter Amsterdam, The City. What could possibly go wrong?

This novel, with its fast-paced carefully twisted plot, reminds me a little of a good Seinfeld episode, one of those ones where all the subplots intertwine and the characters each appear to have amazing opportunities but all their actions come together to inadvertently sabotage each other, so that the next episode can start with everyone being in the same position as before? This novel is a little like that in all the good ways, armed with the ability to change the characters status to boot. It is beautiful, twisted, foreshadowed, one of those novels where upon reading it again you feel like you really had enough information to figure it out all along (though perhaps other readers just saw the end coming?)

The characters are all intently solidly unlikeable in the McEwan style that I’ve seen so far (or maybe just what others would call human), but Amsterdam, A novel, is just the right place for them all. The men all smugly struggle with the moral entanglements of balancing their egos with their will for greater purpose and common decency. Even the departed Molly is difficult to root for only a few pages in, even though the others all hold her on a pedestal of morality, adorned by dirty underwear and mouldy wine glasses (the pedestal that is).

It is a perfect novel all the way to the end – except the very final part, only half of which appears to be justified, but all of which is necessary to get to the “Denouement” – and this I found a little disappointing after such a build up. I dont think that destroys the novel though – its still a great read (considering it will only take a few hours!), and I would go far to defend its Booker Prize winning over Atonement. Apparently many are of the opinion that McEwan should have been given the Booker for Atonement instead – however, exactly the part that may be a little flawed in the ending of Amsterdam – is still more believable than the “I dreamt it all” thesis of Atonement, and is written out of a much twistier plot.

In summary, definitely a book worth arguing over, I think in any case! Anyone?

My enduring love for Ian McEwan


Get it?

In all honesty, I’m only half trying to be funny. My feelings about Ian McEwan’s novels in general strangely mimic the many juxtaposed loves and loving hatreds (and probably plain hatreds) that intertwine Enduring Love, which I’ve just finished reading.

Having so far only read three of his novels – Atonement, Amsterdam, and Enduring Love, the best way to describe all three of them I think comes from Enduring Love itself (and ties in nicely with my last reading subject to boot):

[In the nineteenth century] the dominant artistic form was the novel, great sprawling narratives which […] made whole societies in mirror image and addressed public issues of the day. Then [progressively] in literature and in other arts, a newfangled modernism [started to] celebrate formal, structural qualities, inner coherence, and self-reference.

How very self-referential of McEwan. Enduring love is exactly as he describes – structured, exploratory, and centered around a concept… But of course, still complete with his share of moral/thought experiments, which, I am starting to think, is about the only thing one can predict for his novels.

Enduring Love is probably less of a thought experiment than Amsterdam and Atonement, but is still built around a central concept of enduring love – in both senses of the phrase. It starts off with a horrible balooning accident in which Joe, the main character, is somewhat implicated, and through which we meet the other characters. My Atonement experience worried me that this was going to turn sinister again – and I suppose it does, however without the heaviness and dread, and more with a cynical smile and suspense. We also meet Joe’s wife Clarissa, an overly romantic Keats scholar whose love appears fervent but apparently not so much on the enduring side. Then of course there is Jed, who is the prime epitome of the book’s title – who appears to be self-torturously, wholeheartedly, obsessed, ecstatic, and altogether rapturous. Poor Joe appears to have to endure them all, and you’d hope only one of all that amorous activity will persist. There is some shadowy following, a quest to clear the name of an overly altruistic doctor, a whodunit of international dignitories, a gun purchased from angry bogan hippies, much excitement all around – and where would a novel be without someone ending up in a mental institution? I was a little bit confused as to the point of the balloon accident, and the whole doctor quest, perhaps someone saw something i didnt? I suppose they all needed something to do in the middle of all the excitement.

If I had to categorise it in a sentence, I’d probably describe it as if Alexander McCall Smith had a go at writing Engleby, except in a very neat and tight morsel of a novel in that very Ian McEwan way.

One day I will get my thoughs and feelings in order about Atonement, which I love, hate and probably love to hate as well. Of the three Ian McEwan novels, that’s certainly the most enduring for me. Though Amsterdam wins as my favourite, even its not quite burned into my memory. Ok, enough with the self referential now!

So, what do you think of Ian McEwans essays in novel form?

The Victorian obsession with the “fallen” woman

Disclaimer – mass spoiler alerts abound.


Various people over the years jokingly (and possibly even fondly) referred to me as Anna Karenina. At 15 (and long before the release of the Keira Knightly version) I’m hoping they just hadn’t realised that actually they were calling me after a stunning but ultimately turned tragically mad woman who threw herself under a train… I certainly didn’t!

So, after a chance finding of Madame Bovary in the boxes at the book fair, (and being slightly in love with the Keira Knightley Anna Karenina version) I decided to read the three Victorian era novels: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and the Scarlet Letter and compare them. Throw Brick Lane into the mix (certainly not Victorian in time, but somewhat similar anyway) and somewhat of a theme has emerged lately to my reading. Telling everyone that I’m currently focussing my reading on the theme of adulterous women around the world has also been rather fun…

To generalise terribly (only to briefly set the scene of each one): the central theme in all three novels: married woman with somewhat repulsive husband attempts to find comfort and reprieve from boredom and isolation in a more attractive man (where attractiveness is judged by whatever is the key point each book is focussing on – Vronsky is attractive and fun, whereas the priest is, I’m guessing, attractive due to his godliness?). In the end, all three are dead (though Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina die under very different circumstances to Hester in the Scarlet Letter).

Each end is somewhat triumphant in its message, which is perhaps somewhat characteristic to the background of each of the books. Hester’s religion triumphs because, in spite of her sin, she bears it and dedicates herself to charity and the bearing of the sin. Anna’s search to be loved, but finding it in a somewhat vapid environment is juxtaposed with the life of Levin, who searches and ultimately finds his life’s meaning in caring for his family, working the land, and spiritual being. Madame Bovary tries but fails to find interest or meaning altogether, and never realises that she was only truly loved by her husband, boring though he may be, and the general mundaneness and emptiness of her circle continues after her death. Neither Emma not Anna get the last word – apart from Levin’s epiphany, the mundaneness of every day life prevails…

It’s as if the collective bookshelves of the 19th century wanted to say, you can try to disturb the world order, girl, but we’ll all move on and forget about you just the same. However, while that’s the effect, it seems that it probably was more documentary than lesson-intending.

The issues of women’s rights were beginning to be discussed, and such stories were probably on peoples minds. Tolstoy’s inspiration for Anna Karenina came from a woman he knew, who lived unmarried with a man who was losing interest in her. She threw herself in front of a train to avenge her lover. And while the men in Anna Karenina are mostly uninterested in or opposed to women’s rights themselves, the situation of Dolly, whose husband has squandered away their property and she cannot lay claim to her own, and Varenka, a spinster who is dependent on family kindness for survival, as well as Tolstoy’s own experience with his sister’s divorce, all point to Tolstoy’s highlighting the issue on purpose. Further, the thing that bothered me a lot in Anna Karenina, was that originally, Anna never wanted Vronsky’s attentions. She told him to leave her alone, but he insisted until she “fell in love” with him… The steeple chase scene in which Vronsky’s jockeying breaks his healthy and beautiful horse’s neck while it is busy winning a race, suggests that Tolstoy’s message was more liberal than the tragic love story itself would present.

Flaubert, similarly, paints a picture of powerlessness in Emma, who is stuck behind a mediocre husband and cannot advance their position by anything other than her body. Though in that instance, it is hard to tell whether he’s actually trying to say that she is vapid and materialistic, which is what causes her to be in debt in the first place… So I’m a bit dubious of the feminism in that one.

Hester of the scarlet letter stays true to herself and overcomes all hardships thrown on her by all the somewhat unqualified sounding judges and old women through strength of character (or maybe stupidity! Why didn’t she just leave Boston?!) in fact, in the scarlet letter all the men causing her trouble get old and sick and ugly and die, and she and daughter Pearl have a rich life in the end.

In conclusion, on a less intellectual note, what would I recommend out of the three books? 800 pages of Anna Karenina all the way! I even read all the descriptions of the countryside – you can almost smell the wheat fields! Followed by Madame Bovary. Scarlet letter leaves me a bit dry, to be honest, in all it’s full Puritan flavour. I had to google what the point of that book was, and that was even after watching “Easy A” a few times (it doesn’t help).

Do you have a favourite tragic Victorian (or otherwise) fallen woman novel?



The back cover warns that Sebastian Faulks’s new novel is unlike anything he has written before. As a huge fan of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, this doesn’t help to entice me. However, I’m currently unable to break through the first few chapters of Margaret Atwood’s “Year of the Flood”, so I’m willing to give anything a go.

“Engleby” promises to be far from my usual choice: generally, anything described as “a mystery of gripping power,” “contemporary”, “demonic” and “heart-wrenching” tends to me to mean nightmares and wanting to throw the book across the room. Faulks delivers. Nightmares – check, wanting to throw the book – in places – check. However, Mike Engleby enters the brain, and as Faulks put in an interview, he’s quite hard to turn off.

The result is quite unsettling.

In fact, “unsettling” would be the best way to describe Engleby, both the novel and Mike Engleby, the character, himself. He, or rather his mind, is the star of the show, in more ways than one. The other characters inadequately stumble past. Eventually you realise they’re not in the same show.

Mike Engleby first appears as a typically cynical , sarcastic, but perhaps insightful university student, who harbours slightly more than usual distaste for just about everything. Perhaps there is a lesson here for me about the appearance of intelligence, but I take Mike to be somewhat of a post-op Charlie Gordon (Flowers for Algernon). In his superiority, he seems terrified by the idea of being engulfed by the mundane, and yet the detail of everyday suggests that he is drowning. His harrowing tale of experience at the “fancy” public (i.e. private) school propagates this view further. This is the bit, Faulks admits, that’s been known to give readers nightmares. This is not proving to be the easy read that I had anticipated from the first couple of chapters. However, it is not until the end of a nightmare chapter that a real nausea forms, and then my Charlie paradigm lifts somewhat – the tormented becomes tormentor. Yet Faulks moves on swiftly. Life continues, and you begin to make excuses about the past. But page after page, the weight of the realisation becomes heavier – even before Jennifer disappears, you know the story is more sinister than it seemed.

To me, whether Mike was involved in Jennifer’s appearance is not really the main mystery, nor do I think Faulks intends it to be. In that sense, the novel is not really a thriller as advertised. However, the mystery for me lies in deciphering reality. If you’re paying attention, Mike tells us early that he is able to separate, distance himself from what is really happening. He separates feeling from his thoughts – so much so, he rarely appears to have any feeling at all. Throughout the story, his life, he knows something no one else does: he “sees through” people, in his communication with them, his relationships, his work. The twist, the mystery, and perhaps the thrill, if you’re so inclined, lie in the discovery of otherwise.

Many contemporary authors have played with this idea recently. “Atonement” is the most prominent example – McEwan proposes that the written story, the memory told, can erase the actions of the past, and the imagination of the preferred by many can become the truth. Where McEwan tricks to prove the point, Faulks strikes more subtly: Mike doesn’t tell the story to deceive, as he says, he only knows how to tell the truth. Atonement left me feeling duped. Engleby leaves me thinking about the perception of self, about the mental state, about the spell of narcissism. Is Briony really less narcissistic than Mike?

Faulks says some people have wondered whether there is some of Engleby in him. There are some autobiographical similarities. Faulks says even his wife jokingly asked, “You’ve never done anything like that yourself, have you”? He comments that “it always surprises me how most readers, even quite sophisticated readers, have this big problem with the idea that novels are invented.” I wonder if that’s just what Mike Engleby would have said.

Oh dear, I think I just picked up on some autobiographical clues that identified the author.


An interview with Sebastian Faulks about the book that I refer to can be found here: