Monday, 10 September 2018

Reading Women #8 A debut fiction

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende

This novel was the critically acclaimed and well-received debut of the author even though it faced initial challenges at the time of publication. Most of the publishing houses turned it down apparently. But, clearly it was born to leave an indelible mark on countless readers who have constantly affirmed how brilliant this book is. I too have joined their league. 

The House of the Spirits written originally in Spanish the novel chronicles the story of four generation of women with the Chilean tumultuous political revolution (from democracy to socialism to military dictatorship) as the backdrop.  But it is the women of the story that will shine across the family saga.

Starting with the Del Valle family whose eldest and youngest daughters – Rosa , the green haired beauty and Clara the clairvoyant will bewitch the reader and keep us turning the pages to find out what happens to each of them. The story unfolds in unpredictable ways and in just a few chapters so much has taken place that you are sure to be left mesmerized by it all. There is a slight element of magic realism at work which blurs the line between the real world and the spirit world. For instance,  Rosa has greenish coloured hair, from birth an ethereal beauty and this green hair comes back to the family in Clara’s grand-daughter years later. Clara is exceptionally gifted in seeing into the future and the spirit world, can move things without touching and has certain peculiar eccentricities which grow on you gradually.

Clara’s daughter Blanca and her granddaughter Alba complete the generations of remarkable women of the Del Valle and Trueba family.  Though there are men who play very significant and memorable roles in this family sage, their lives are first and foremost linked to these women very strongly before being their own. The political turmoil that the country goes through plays a major role in the final denouement but as pointed out earlier it is the personal histories, interconnected lives, acts of redemption and love and hatred that will bind the story together. 

The narration shifts between third person and two first-hand accounts (not naming the characters here, so that the full reading pleasure can be savoured in its slow revelation when you do) and the transitions are smooth. There are many lines which foretell what will happen much later on, leaving us eager to keep on reading. There are hardly any descriptive passage on long winded philosophical treatise on life anywhere in this book, making it an engrossing page-turner.

 It is the spirit of these women that will stay with you long after the book is over. The undefeated, compassionate and  brave acts they carry out – for love, loyalty, their principles, for family – it is a book unlike any other. I hope to read Daughters of Fortune and A Portrait in Sepia – both being prequels to this book but published later. Isabel Allende has become a firm favourite.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Reading Women #7 – A Retelling

The Gap of Time – Jeanette Winterson


The Hogarth Shakespeare is a selection of re-tellings of the Bard’s tales by acclaimed writers set in the 21st century. Launched in October 2015, this ‘cover story’ as Jeanette Winterson calls it, begins the series with a retelling of ‘The Winter’s Tale’.

Jeanette Winterson is a very gifted storyteller. She has a way of bending time and using non-linear narratives which simultaneously may upset our train of thought but yet gives us a greater sense of clarity by the end. The gaps she leaves in between the telling of stories (especially myths and reworking of tales) is fully intended. You will understand this as you start reading her any of her fiction (at least in the ones I have read so far). And in retelling The Winter’s Tale, she uses a ‘Three Act’ structure with two intervals woven in to fit the old story in a new avatar.

In case you haven’t read the bard’s version, don’t worry, she has included a brief overview of the original before the ‘cover version’ begins. The story revolves around King Leontes of Sicily who suspects his virtuous wife, Queen Hermione of having an affair with his best friend Polixenes , King of Bohemia. The jealousy results in him banishing his baby daughter, death of his bereaved young son and the reported death of his wife.  Of course he also tries to get his best friend killed as well. The repercussions of these acts take many years to heal. Even though his actions are deplorable, in this play, one of the last ones by Shakespeare, he seems to believe in second chances and forgiveness.

Jeannette Winterson transports this tale to modern day London and the players are Leo , a fund manager whose wife is Mimi ( a.k.a Hermione) , a popular French singer. His childhood friend Xeno, a video game designer is the one whom he suspects of having an affair with his heavily pregnant wife. The added complexity in this story comes in the background story of Leo and Xeno who while growing up together in a boarding school had been lovers and emotionally dependent on each other. The overpowering irrational jealousy results in Leo acting wildly violent towards his best friend and his wife. None of his actions are excusable, and borders on horrific.

He attempts to get rid of his newborn daughter Perdita, ‘the little lost one'. She ends up being rescued by Shep and his son Clo. They bring them up as her own and then time moves forward to bring us to the inevitable end – Perdita falls in love with Xeno’s son , Zel. They all meet and the truth of her birth mother , who had become a recluse in the meantime is revealed. She comes back to sing on stage. And there ends the tale with the curtain opening to reveal Mimi on stage after a long gap of time. Jeanette Winterson leaves the story there.

She claims a personal relationship to this story – the story of a foundling, a lost baby. Since she herself was adopted in real life, this had become a story she has worked on many times according to her. It becomes a tale of the possibility of the reversal of time, of the power of forgiveness and the possibilities of the future that we cannot foresee but can hope for.

Hogarth Shakespeare series
Obviously writing the first of the series must have been a daunting task, but she has executed it brilliantly. The characters and their inner motivations surprisingly keep us hooked. The danger we feel for their safety (definitely not Leo’s though ) is very real and palpable. This is a great challenge indeed, since the Bard’s tale is already known and  yet the suspense still remains.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Reading Women #6 - A classic novel written by a woman (Not Austen or Bronte)

Middlemarch – George Eliot 

This novel by George Eliot was famously praised by Virginia Woolf as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” It had me intrigued for a while now, perhaps was waiting for a sign from the universe to go ahead and embark on a read of this magnum opus which runs to eight books, eighty-six chapters and over six hundred pages (in my copy that is). And I did go on that incredible journey!   

Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, and indeed it captures the goings on of a fairly large cast of characters over the period of a couple of years in Middlemarch, an unremarkable English town in the 1830s. That time period was a very interesting one in England since the impact of the Industrial revolution was still spreading throughout the land, and other reforms soon followed. Middlemarch touches on many of these issues: political reform, doctrinal religious differences, advancement in medical knowledge, the obligation of landowners to their tenants, education and the role of women in society.

The range of feeling and thought this book covers is incredibly vast – there are many plots, multitudinous characters and each with their own desires and motives. It might sound like a confusing and befuddling story, but that is probably the last thing it is! Just a hundred pages in and you will begin to see the inter-connectedness and brilliance of the ‘web’ of provincial life created by George Eliot. 

Let me sketch out a few characters here which would give you a preliminary idea:

  •  Dorothea  - young, ardent and noble-natured she is idealist and strongly feels that she has to do some good in the world, contribute to make the lives of others happier. Following her own principles she agrees to marry a man much older than her thinking it would lead to a life of service and good acts.

  •  Edward Casaubon – an aging scholar: cold, dispassionate and bitter who nevertheless feels a bond of sympathetic understanding with Dorothea which leads to him proposing an offer of marriage to her.
  • Will Ladislaw – spirited, politically ambitious and a deeply passionate young man who is a poor relative of Casaubon, and who has been financially assisted by him for some time. He understands more than anyone else the sacrifice that Dorothea’s life would become on her marriage to Casaubon.
  • Tertius Lydgate – a young idealistic doctor whose interest in advancing medical knowledge and practices ends up alienating many in Middlemarch. 
  •  Rosamund Vincy – the vain and vivacious daughter of the Mayor of Middlemarch, who is self-centred and quite spoiled. Her flirtatious interactions with Lydgate lead to gossip regarding their relationship which leads to a hasty marriage between them.

  • Fred Vincy – Rosamund’s brother and a young man who is devoted to Mary Garth, his childhood sweetheart . He is without any aim as to what profession he should get into but is guided by Mary’s love to try and become worthy of her.

  • Caleb Garth – the wise and compassionate land manager who is Mary’s father. He is a man who upholds strong values and is gentle and trustworthy. Though he is poor he is very highly held in everyone’s esteem.

Consider each of these characters having three or four other characters that are connected to them and imagine ALL of them being connected to each other. It is simply too vast to detail it out but I suppose this gives one a brief idea of what to expect.

Stills from the 1994 BBC mini-series adaptation
A lack of self-awareness in nearly all the characters creates troubles which they have to encounter and through which they come to realize what they truly desire. They don’t necessarily get what they want but learn to meet the consequences of their actions with a resolved maturity. For some their decisions cannot be changed and the only hope was in enduring it like Dr. Lydgate when he realizes too late that his marriage may have been too hasty.This book also heavily dwells into so many different marriages that it could be a seen as an intensely exceptional study of marriage itself.

Though there are some (dull in my opinion) lengthy discussions on the reform act, medical discoveries, political debates and such through some of the sections. But, it just proves how knowledgeable a writer George Eliot was. To encompass nearly all the conscious and unconscious reasons that propel an individual’s actions is no small task, but that is what she does here.

Out of the history of Dorothea's marriage and domestic life, Lydgate's marriage and domestic life, the love-affair of Mary and Fred, and the adventures of Ladislaw, a number of novels could be made for a lifetime. The style of writing is lively and witty and not one bit dipped in the sentimental romantic notions of what we commonly seem to expect in a Victorian story. One cannot but help admire the wide and in-depth understanding of human nature that George Eliot seems to craft to perfection.

This is a masterpiece like no other. And I feel it that there is a need to make this novel more widely read than it is today. In the lines of the author herself (who is commenting on Dorothea):

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tomb.”

I hope  that if you have never read this book, this short review (hardly doing it justice) will instill a desire in you to pick it up soon. Have patience and let the pages reveal the beauty of a masterly crafted novel to you.  It is one of the greatest fictions ever.


Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Reading Women #5 A book in which the characters are traveling somewhere

A Wrinkle in Time  – Madeleine L’ Engle  (The Time Quintet Series)

“I don't understand it any more than you do, but one thing I've learned is that you don't have to understand things for them to be.”

First published in 1962, this is a children’s classic written by the American author Madeleine L’Engle  who famously stated, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” And so she did. This book is a unique combination of fantasy, science fiction and religion which had an unprecedented heroine – a young girl who liked science and math, who had glasses and braces and who was unafraid of non-conformity. For whatever else the book does or doesn’t, I admire this fact that at a time when science fiction written by women for a primarily young female audience in mind was a rarity, a book like this gave them a protagonist they could love and admire.

Meg Murry is the heroine in this tale of science fiction is an exceptionally gifted child (she can do square roots of really big numbers in her head!) which makes schoolwork tedious and boring to her. This causes her to be seen as an awkward, non-conforming loner in school. Her parents are both scientists and she is the eldest of four children. Her twin brothers are quite normal and boisterous young boys, but her baby brother Charles Wallace is keenly perceptive and is able to read her thoughts even without talking to her. The bond between them is precious.

The trouble which presents itself at the start of the book is that their father, an eminent physicist (Dr. Murry)has been missing for nearly two years and there was no news of him. This throws a shadow of gloom on all their lives. Meg also cant help but getting into small spots of trouble at school too.  The adventure begins one night when a strange old woman, Mrs. Whatsit, appears, "blown off course" while she, along with Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, was “tessering”, or taking a shortcut through time and space. This brings up the central scientific concept of the fifth dimension into the plot of the tale. The father apparently had been trying to use the fifth dimension (fourth dimension is time, fifth is space) to travel across time and space. And it seems like he may have succeeded.

Together with the strangely named ladies, Meg, her little brother Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin, “wrinkle” or travel across time to rescue Dr. Murry, who is a prisoner on a planet ruled by IT, a giant pulsating brain that controls the minds of everyone on the planet. Well, that is basically how the story goes. Though I myself didn’t feel the tug of this widely acknowledged classic , I do feel it will only stand to gain more popularity with the upcoming Walt Disney movie which can boast of a diverse and impressive cast.

The reasons why it didn’t work for me could be due to the fact that I didn’t read this as a child, but as an adult. It may have a certain charm for younger readers who have a central female protagonist, who is different (and not afraid to be so), who loves numbers and scientific ideas (as opposed to writing or poetry as is common), she gets into fights, gets angry, is very curious and in the end leads the way in the battle against Evil. There was also several references to other works embedded in this story including Macbeth, The Tempest, Alice in Wonderland etc. These points definitely gets this book a positive recommendation. And till I read the rest of the series, I probably shouldn’t pass a final judgment.

The book does have clear overtones of Christian analogies – like that of fighting the darkness, becoming the light and a few more. However, it doesn’t override the book in any way. The story progression is slightly confusing and even though they were traveling across space, onto different planets and moons, it lacked a certain level of excitement that could be expected of such an adventure. The ending seemed quite tame considering the build up to it. All this being said, I think a better reviewer of this book would be a younger version of me, who knows what I would see in it? :)