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? :)


Friday, 16 February 2018

Reading Women #4 A short story collection

Asleep  – Banana Yoshimoto ( Translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich)

Banana Yoshimoto is a Japanese author who has been on my radar for a while now. Her novel Kitchen is on my TBR and that’s how when I saw this book with her name on it, I decided to give it a try. 

First published in 1989, this slim volume of three novellas feature young women who are afflicted by loss and exhausted both in mind and spirit. Longing for something or someone they have lost, they have been “bewitched into a spiritual sleep”, as the blurb proclaims.

The three stories are narrated by young Japanese women, who are seemingly stuck in a temporary literal or psychic sleep as a result of trauma. Each one is in mourning one for her beloved brother's death, another at the end of a painful affair and the titular tale is about a woman deeply involved with a man whose wife is in a coma.

In the first story, ‘Night and Night’s Travellers’ two cousins Shibami and Mari are dealing with the loss of Yoshihiro ( brother to Shibami, lover to Mari) a year after his tragic death. The ghost-like presences they become, especially Mari, is conveyed via the narrator’s deceptively calm and dreamlike sequence of events. The mixing of reality, memory and dream often interweave – forcing us to be dragged along in their attempts to fill the void left behind by his death.

In the second tale, ‘Love Songs’, the narrator Fumi dreams a strange dream which makes her remember an old rival in a love triangle. When she mentions the dream to her boyfriend he tells her this dream is quite common and it indicates someone who was dead was trying to contact her. This leads her to investigate further about her old rival. It turns out that she was indeed dead, and Fumi sets out to get in touch with her. Sleep and dreams indicate an in-between state that could be used as a space for the mingling of reality and the supernatural. The way these two intermingle will leave us believing in the reality of the characters and also the supernatural presence of spirits who wait to communicate in the pauses we all take in our lives daily.

In the last tale, titled ‘Asleep’, Terako, who is involved in a romantic affair with a married man whose wife is in a coma, finds that she can’t seem to stay awake. She is also mourning the death of her friend Shiori who had taken her own life.  In each of the stories, the dead seem to exert so much of a hold on the ones who are alive that a sadness overpowers their existence. But, as they each learn to live with the darkness and the absence, the instability of ‘now’ and the transitory aspect of life becomes all the more striking. 

At the core of each of the novellas is a bond between two female characters, and in each tale this relationship is realized to be the key to the understanding of their existence. The themes of depression does strike one as a very obvious one, but it is conveyed in a surrealistic atmosphere described by the calm and cool narrators that we are left with an optimistic feeling for the future of the characters than an overwhelmingly sad one. 

I would definitely be picking up more of her writing.  Highly recommended!