First Written for Shiny New Books
“‘The past is what you leave behind in life, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’”
Atkinson’s exceptional debut novel open with the birth of Ruby Lennox and follows her as she comes of age in England in the second half of the twentieth century. In the meantime we are introduced to her family, the Lennox’s, who live above their pet shop and where she and her sisters often work and play. Ruby’s life is told in the first person and she makes an interesting eye into her life and her family. Alternate chapters offer flashbacks; going back to her great grandmother Alice and then following each generation through wars, affairs, bereavement and love. These chapters are told from the view point of each individual. The women are given more space than the men and we are shown what it was like to be powerless, to be a mother, to suffer loss and to find a way to save yourself. Ruby’s mother Bunty in particular is a fantastic character. She is frequently frightful, difficult and unlikable, but she is so completely recognisable. Sibling relationships and female relationships, mothers and daughters, are investigated throughout Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
There are several brilliant comedic scenes. The wedding that has been timed to coincide with the 1966 World Cup final, where England played West Germany and for the only time ever won is a masterclass in written comedy. At no point does it seem farcical as disaster piles upon misunderstanding until the whole wedding is a riot. Later on the family go on holiday with their next door neighbours. This was disastrous for many reasons, one of the most obvious being that one should never holiday with both your husband, your secret lover and his wife. Putting all together in a small cottage in a remote area of Scotland along with a bunch of children and a surly teenager was not a winning start, but a fabulously entertaining read.
When the first chapter opened I wasn’t sure that this was going to be the novel for me, however it very quickly picked up and became a wonderful, fascinating read. The ending fell a little flat as our favourite characters had quickly changed and grown away from the surroundings and history that made her. However the bulk of the 500 page novel was a compulsive read. Referring to the title there is a saying that we are the curators of our own lives, which perhaps has little meaning to others. This is a museum of Ruby that stretches back to a rare set of photographs taken of her great grandmother and travels down through the decades to her. It is also fascinating how characters keep repeating the patterns of their ancestors without realising it; almost as though a combination of conditioning and genetic memory keep these things in the family. This is also a story of mothers and their children, often losing their children.
Some members of the book club felt that the quantity of characters made things confusing. This isn’t something I found though. The novel is concerned with the history of one family and a family tree at the beginning of the novel may have been useful. However in this case I feel it should be the other way round. A traditional family tree branches out however with this one it feels as though the focal point, the point of connection should be Ruby, with the branches reaching out from her and into the past.
Behind The Scenes at the Museum has a very strong awareness of space and time, of how different people, families and generations can inhabit one space. Atkinson suggests that elements linger on in the buildings and in ruins. In the first few pages our protagonist has this to say “there has been a building on this spot since the Romans were here and needless to say it has its due proportion of light-as-air occupants who wreathe themselves around the fixtures and fittings and linger mournfully at our back”. This idea is touched upon throughout the novel. Much later on Ruby states “if I stand on the stairs and close my eyes, I can hear the voices of the household ghosts being carried hither and thither on the current of air. Do they miss us, I wonder?”.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum is very readable, in the best sense. It is one of the many popular novels that shows you can tackle the big themes and ideas of life through strong entertaining character driven plots that do not trip over themselves to be ‘literary’
Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, (Transworld Publishers, London, 1995) 490, Paperback
“You see the title of this record? It’s called The Rotter’s Club. The Rotter’s Club: that’s us Lois, isn’t it? Do you see? That’s what they used to call us, at school. Bent Rotter, and Lowest Rotter. We’re The Rotter’s Club. You and me, Not Paul. Just you and me.”
Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club takes us back to 1970s Birmingham. Beginning in 1973 it takes in the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments before ending with the day of Thatcher’s election and the start of the long 80s. Being from the West Midlands reading this novel felt familiar and important as it catalogued the industrial power hub in its final days. From my father’s generation nearly every man you meet from the West Midlands will have worked at some point in one of the many car factories and at secondary school our tutor groups were named after car manufacturers that used to use Coventry as their base: Alvis, Humber, Triumph … It is difficult to exaggerate how important this industry was and how the impact of its demise is still being felt. This coming of age story is deeply funny and irreverent throughout. The lives of the adults in particular are convoluted at best but their effect is perhaps best felt through their children who take us with them on their riotous journey to the end of adolescence.
Benjamin Trotter is essentially the novels main character however his group of friends take up the backbone of The Rotter’s Club as they navigate their school days at a direct grant all boys academy. Alongside Doug, Philip and Claire Benjamin passes through adolescence trying to discover himself through music, writing and an unrequited love affair with Cicely Boyd. Benjamin is one of the least interesting characters and yet because of that he is interesting. Coming from a relatively stable middle class family his life and future seem mapped out. It is the way those around him move and change that is so vibrant. Benjamin is a great entry point for the reader as we often share his view on the evolving world around him. As each of his family members seek out the stability, love or intellectual entertainment they find themselves moving further and further away from each other. As the decade closes will they still exist as a cohesive family unit or will life have exploded their domestic comfort?
The resurrection of the school paper brings together an eclectic mix of people and the desire to shock, to create copy that will be read and not necessarily inform is particularly pertinent to today. Rivalries and love affairs are bought out into the open as the power struggles of the outside world also take place within the supposed safety of the school walls. From the prefects, to the highly select Closed Circle debating society and most dominantly between the school’s two leading athletic and intellectual stars: Richards and Culpepper. Richard’s as the only black pupil faces racism and then false acceptance as he works to be the first member of his family to make it to University. Culpepper, an unpopular contemporary has it in for Richard’s from the start. This rivalry escalates throughout with very real effects. At the same time unionists, management, racists and progressives are all fighting to have their voice heard at the still booming British Leyland plant. Coe incorporates many real life events and people into the novel with excellent effect, drawing the reader in to the hub of the action.
Class and class divides are expertly scrutinised throughout the novel. The nature of fee paying private schools, and the hierarchy that comes with it parallels that of the Leyland employees and highlights how each person is affected by their class. Will Richards, from a working class background, be able to use education as a stepping stone to something more? For people like Benjamin is an easy life guaranteed? When writing for the school paper he is confused and disappointed that he is the only writer who seems unable to stir any controversy. Significantly the novel ends on a positive note however with Thatcher’s electoral victory in the background the reader is aware that what comes may have significant or even devastating impact on our much loved characters.
The title comes from Benjamin’s relationship with his older sister Lois. It is here that moments of pathos and the disappointment of life are best shown. At 16 Lois meets Malcolm, aka the hairy man. Soon they become a couple but the end of their affair is devastating. Coe is careful not to overdo this. After coming to the end of their chapter it is difficult not to be moved by what has happened. It is a reminder that the violence of the world, the politics and power plays, involve real ordinary people.
The only slight query would be as to the last chapter. Short and told from Benjamin’s perspective it is written as one sentence. Perhaps to show the joy and freedom the character is feeling at this point? Does the stream of consciousness show how he has now been freed from the constraints of school? According to the BBC the final chapter is made up of a 13,955 word sentence, making it the longest single sentence in the English language at the time of publication. This rather unique accolade however seems to do little for the actual telling of the story. A BBC TV series of The Rotter’s Club made more of the adult story lines that are only peeked at in the novel. In case of the affair between Barbara and Mr Plum this worked excellently and proved to be one of the funniest points of the series.
Excitingly the Author’s Note at the end of the book says that there is a sequel. Called The Closed Circle it meets up with the characters in the late 1990s. I am very keen to read this. The Rotter’s Club was my first introduction to Jonathan Coe’s writing but I hope to read and review the follow up for you all in the near future.
My daughter passed this book onto me thinking I might enjoy it and I would happily recommend it to others. The Rotter’s Club is such as good story with plenty of twists and turns. Coe must have lived through that time in history. The way he evoked the history of the unions and civil strife in late 70’s Birmingham was similar to how I remember it being. Red Robbo is mentioned in the book. This took me back to the day that as an apprentice I saw shop stewards from the Transport and General Workers speak to a field of union members before they declared strike action on his behalf (that if memory serves only around one third of people actually voted for!). The relationship between the car industry and the local community defined our lives but now that time has passed. I liked the way the character Stephen was used to show up the inherent racism in the system. The way that life will always be easier for some than others. The writing was witty and wry and made me laugh out loud. There was one particular scene, between Lois and the Hairy Man, that made my heart twist. It started as a sweet lovely evening out but turned into something that nearly made me cry. It was not overdone but told simply and delicately. This scene has stayed with me.
Jonathan Coe, The Rotter’s Club, (Viking, London, 2001) ISBN 0375413830. 414pp., Hardback
We meet Rosie Kitto, our Cornish heroine, on her arrival in New York. She turns up to a job interview in a fancy Manhattan apartment soaked from the rain, wearing a blue suit, hat askew and red brogues. From the off she is clearly full to bursting with life and optimism and she has set out to say yes to the world. Rosie is a bit like a ray of sunshine breaking into the household and throwing light on the cold corridors and wall of staged photographs.
Rosie has travelled to New York with the intention of saying yes. She is running away. The opening pages give a brief glimpse into her previous life. A relationship loved and perhaps lost, and a child never conceived despite being wanted so badly. Having endured the pain of trying and failing to get pregnant Rosie is breaking away. A primary school teacher in her thirties she soon finds herself being interviewed by the imperious and intimidating Glen Wilder – Bingham for a nanny position.
The setup is clear from the beginning. Rosie is all bright colours, vibrancy and life emanating from her. In clear contrast is Glen Wilder – Bingham. The family matriarch she is stiff and perfectly presented in everything she does. However the family are not as impressive as the name would suggest. Glen rules the roost. Then there is her husband Thomas, who refuses to fully retire in his 80s, terrified by the knowledge that death is coming and he seems unlikely to have sex again. Next is their alcoholic, spineless son Kemble who has been broken by his divorce and the relentlessness of his mother’s expectations; an older grandson Teddy who has largely managed to escape it all and the two sparky young twins Red and Three.
Rosie quickly becomes a vital part of the young boy’s lives and bit by bit becomes immersed into the comings and goings of the whole family. Presented with the convoluted lives of the wealthy, of those who have never had to think much further than their own needs, Rosie brings a much needed openness and curiosity to the household. As her relations develop with the male members of the Wilder – Bingham family it starts to seem as though Rosie is a time bomb with one more ‘yes’ setting off an explosion that will echo through this Manhattan Upper East Side family. A life of embracing ‘yes’ can have unexpected consequences. Rosie finds her life altered dramatically in her short American adventure.
The characters verge on the exaggerated and there are a few scenes that seem a little staged. Although Rosie is there to say yes to life some of the situations that she enters into seem unlikely and out of character. The first two thirds in particular were funny and kept the reader amused. There is a change of pace in the final third as the results of her saying yes come to term. Things become a little more serious although the absurd fringe remains. This is something that some reviewers have had a problem with it however when opening the novel for the first time if one sets aside your sense of disbelief it is easy to be carried away and find the hours fly by. French has a flare for writing and will hopefully continue. This is her third novel, and each of them offer something completely different. It would have been easy for her to take the simple route and offer up cheap recycled laughs however each novel shows research and a keen eye for capturing people. It is just a minor point but that a novel that has been through the editing process should not really have any spelling mistakes and grammatical inaccuracies. Hopefully this will be improved upon for French’s next effort. The Amazon and Good Reads reviews are a mixed bag and it probably falls somewhere in between.
According To Yes book came into my life when I needed something entertaining and humorous with heart and did the job excellently.
Dawn French, According to Yes (Michael Joseph, UK, 2015). ISBN 9780718159177. 365pp., Hardback.
Ghana Must Go was the surprise book club choice for October. Written by Taiye Selasi, her debut novel met with universally positive reviews.
The title comes from a Nigerian phrase from the 1980s regarding incoming Ghanaian refugees, moving away from the political unrest that dogged the nation. In many ways this is an immigrant story. Of a Ghanaian man and a Nigerian woman trying to make sense of themselves in their adopted American homeland and in turn of the effect that this has on their children. Selasi does not repeat history with bullet point notes or detailed explanatory footnotes but instead captures the events through the experiences and feelings of those affected by it.
The novel opens with Kwaku Sai’s death. He steps out to look at his garden when his heart begins to fail. His death is intercut with scenes from his life. This is how we are introduced to his former wife Folasadé Savage, to his children and his current wife, sleeping unawares upstairs. Kwaku is a Ghanian surgeon who immigrated to America with his Nigerian wife. Leaving behind all that they had known they push aside their pasts and set about creating a new life and their own family in America. They both have been hurt by their countries, and make a point of never talking about their birth homes, these hurts are passed on in different forms to their children, (““They were hurt…. Their countries hurt them””).
Many have made the same journey as our protagonists which is something that Kweku is fully aware of. As he lay dying he is aware of the feeling of not being unique, special, but instead one of the many that lived the same life and made the same journey. “He had no need for remembering, as if the details were remarkable, as if anyone would forget it all happened if he did. It would happen to someone else, a million and one someone elses: the same senseless losses, the same tearless hurts”. Selasi observes and captures each moment while displaying a wonderful and unusual use of description. At first it can seem a little excessive, almost overwritten, however after the first few chapters it draws you in. The language used is often lyrical and poetic, one favourite short example: “had absconded with the tide in the moonlight” The constant focus on the emotional and internal can at times come at the expense of plot development, there being a few key plot turns and character actions that seem a little unlikely .
Kweku greatest difficulty in life is that he cannot bear to fail at anything. To fail would be to let his family down after all they have given him. He is bewildered by his son who at times puts seeing his family before celebrating his academic success. His talented and promising wife turned down her place at law school in order to raise their four children: Olu, twins Kehinde and Taiwo and the youngest Sadie and support him, saying that “one dream’s enough for the both of us”. This lives on with Kweku who feels “that her sacrifice was endless. And as the Sacrifice was endless, so must the Success … to be worthy of Fola, to make it worth it for Fola, he had to keep being Successful”. This turns out to be one of the key driving points of Ghana Must Go.
You care strongly about the characters, are disappointed in them and feel joy and fear for them. Fola’s relentless hard work and energy holds everything together “there was the sense in her house of an ongoing effort, of an upswing midmotion, a thing being built: A Successful Family, with the six of them involved in the effort, all, striving for the common goal, as yet unreached”. They determine their own lives and only being to stumble when outside influences cause ruptures in the steady ‘upswing’. This momentum is broken when the family breaks down and ends up scattered across cities and continents. Kwaku’s sudden death throws the family back together again as they piece together what is left of their family. Their rootlessness is felt also by their children: “with no living grandparent no history, a horizontal – they’ve floated, have scattered, drifting outward, or inward, barely noticing when someone has slipped off the grid”. Throughout his slow death we met his children, see his rise and fall that has resulted in his return to Ghana and the breakup of his marriage, and also get to see into the hearts of those he left behind. Kwaku’s death scene is a little prolonged but this comes to make sense at the novels close. So as not to give away too much of the story line it is perhaps best to leave it there and allow each reader the chance, the joy, of meeting each character for the first time.
It is refreshing to see a novel about African migrants and first generation immigrants in America that find success and buck the trend for negative stereotyping. The big reveal in Ghana Must Go is not as surprising as Selasi probably intended and is a little disappointing in a novel that tries so hard to subvert negative ideas and preconceptions.
Ghana Must Go is a remarkable debut novel from a very talented and promising young writer.
Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go, (Viking, London, 2013). ISBN 9780670919864. 318., Hardback
First Written for Shiny New Books October 2016
The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor concerns itself with the potential marriage between the teenage Elizabeth Tudor and Thomas Seymour. The book focuses primarily on Seymour, his story being less well documented. This is the story of his rise and fall and of the risks that the young Elizabeth faced as a princess without the protection of her parents. The stage is set with the death of the much loved and feared Henry VIII in 1547.
Thomas Seymour was brother to Jane, Henry VIII’s third wife and the one that finally bore him a son. As Jane became Queen and royal mother her family’s status significantly improved. In time his older brother Edward went on to become Lord Protector of England during Edward VI’s minority. As uncle to the King Thomas, envious of his brother’s success, allowed his vanity and entitlement to guide him he set out to raise his own status. His schemes, political plots and spying make for the most fascinating of political intrigues.
Seymour married Henry’s sixth and final wife Catherine Parr. Already widowed three times by her early thirties she was finally in a position to marry for love and it seems Seymour returned her feelings. Shortly after Henry’s death they, rather scandalously, married. However, before this Seymour had already courted the attentions of Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, and also possible the child Jane Grey, making his hope to marry into royalty and power clear from the start. He was a power hungry and charming courtier who saw his opportunity to climb to power in the aftermath of Henry VIII’s death. In late 1547 Elizabeth was only fourteen years old and living with her step mother the Dowager Queen, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour.
One particular story is often touched upon in documentaries; the famous scene of Seymour tearing up the young princesses dress with his sword as she is held by her stepmother Catherine. There was more to it than this one scene though. The domineering Seymour would enter Elizabeth’s chamber early in the morning, trying to catch her still in bed dressed only in her nightdress, where he would proceed to ‘tickle’ her, sometimes even with the assistance of Catherine. This flirtation seems to become increasingly overt and threatening, with the result that Elizabeth, at the risk of scandal, is sent away out of Seymour’s reach. Her line in the succession makes her both powerful and vulnerable to attack. As the daughter of convicted adulteress Anne Boleyn many expected Elizabeth to behave in the same way so she was particularly vulnerable to rumour and gossip.
After Catherine’s death Seymour acts in an increasingly reckless manner until he is arrested for treason, thus endangering the very existence of the princess. Norton delves into this chapter of her life in detail and picks out the happenings and feelings that go on to form Elizabeth’s character. Without the threats she faced as a result of Seymour’s interest in her Elizabeth’s path in life might have been very different. Norton argues that is from this episode that she learned that relationships could be dangerous and scandalous. Although Elizabeth is not known to have expressed a clear desire for or interest in Seymour, in the sixteenth century a princess’s virtue and reputation could be threatened by rumour alone.
One of the main arguments of The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor is that her early bruising experiences of her flirtation and thoughts of marriage with Seymour resulted in Elizabeth’s decision to remain unmarried; becoming the ‘Virgin Queen’. Although this is likely a contributing factor it seems unlikely to be the only cause. This is a rare portrait of the early romantic life of the princess, instead of the frequent focus on Robert Dudley and her international suitors when Queen. As this is more a biography of Thomas Seymour’s political life and death rather than of Elizabeth’s youth or early romantic relationships the title is perhaps a misnomer; catchy and intriguing but slightly misleading. The lines Norton chooses to end on do not fully fit with the narrative thrust of the rest of the book when she suggests that ‘he was her temptation’.
The sibling rivalry and consternation between the Seymour brothers is a particularly interesting counterpoint to the royal siblings who appear to have shown remarkably little jealousy or rivalry despite their much closer proximity to power. Some elements of the scandal seem remarkably relevant to today’s tabloid magazine articles; the question over virginity, pregnancy, secret pregnancies, interfamily love triangles and affairs.
Norton is an accomplished and prolific writer, having written multiple biographies of royal women. It is rare to find a history book that is so readable and enjoyable. Fortunately a family tree is included at the back, which is necessary for following the relationships between the two closely connected families. This is a well-studied period of history, but Norton has found a section that can go towards feeding the ever present Tudor mania. Her sources show a wide and thorough reading and research that went into forming this intellectual yet lively investigation.
The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor is a vivid and entertaining read, on occasions full of suspense and intrigue. It shows how a young royal could become trapped, used as a pawn, between the competing factions looking for political dominance in the court. The extent to which Elizabeth, and her younger sibling Edward, had control of their own lives is debateable. This is certainly one of the most comprehensive and interesting accounts of Thomas Seymour. The backstabbing and political machinations make for a deeply involving account; one can easily see why this period of history still has the power to fascinate.
Elizabeth Norton, The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor (Head of Zeus, 2016). 9781784081737. 368pp., paperback.
In 2010 poet and national treasure Simon Armitage set himself a challenge: to walk the Pennine Way, from Kirk Yetholm to Edale in Derbyshire armed only with a sock and a headful of poetry. He covered 265 miles in three weeks and described his adventure in the travelogue Walking Home. Three years later Armitage was again to be found embarking on another long distance walk. Feeling restless, as both a walker and a poet, in 2013 it was time to set off again. He began in Minehead, Somerset and headed in the direction of Land’s End with the hope of making it on to the Isles of Scilly. This journey would take him along the northern coast line of much of Devon and Cornwall; the South West Coastal Path. So why did this Yorkshire man decide to attempt another long distance walk, this time about as far as you can go from his home (hence the title Walking Away)? “I conceived the walk as a test of my poetic reputation … in some ways I felt as if I was testing the reputation of poetry itself.” Would it be possible for a poet to survive so far away from his home and the urban performance spaces he was used to, and be able to use nothing more than his reputation and his poetry to sustain him for the three weeks or so or travelling?
Unlike Walking Home Armitage was more prepared this time. He is accompanied by his monumental suitcase the Galapagos Tortoise, well-wishers, walkers and organisers of readings and rest stops. Part of the experiment was to see how well one could live and travel relying only one’s wits and talents and this Walking Away appears to prove. However he is well equipped, beginning his tale with “I have bought a hat” and the story of a holly stick that makes him look like Moses. This journey is more organised than his last, having sourced free accommodation and pre-arranged multiple poetry readings in advance. On occasions the sock does come out for listeners to contribute as they wish. Some of the more interesting donations include a signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain, McDonald’s vouchers, sweets, seashells and one hard-boiled egg.
There is a touching moment in the first few chapters when a journalist calls him asking for a quote about the recent news: Seamus Heaney has died. The death of the poet and friend strikes a chord. His wife Sue dashes down to his B&B where they spend the night reading Heaney’s poetry by the glow of a mobile phone. Heaney was, and still is, a towering figure in modern poetry and had that natural touch that meant his work was welcomed in the most surprising of places. Would Armitage be received in the same way? He is very well received in general with his poetry finding an audience wherever he goes. The one exception to this is his first overnight stop at the holiday resort Butlin’s in Minehead where he is unable to gather the courage to compete with the red coats and cabaret. This was perhaps a shrewd move on his part.
There are only four new poems in the book, leaving his fans and readers hoping for much more. After all he is a poet first and foremost. Fortunately he does bring his way with words and interest in the natural landscape to the text, which feels intimate and immediate; as though he wrote notes as he travelled. This adds to the honesty that runs throughout Walking Away. One feels his moods go up and down with the coastal path, with his weariness coming through at times. This is a realistic image of a middle aged man trekking the frequently difficult coastal path. At times we share his innermost thoughts; when he feels tired, in pain and the landscape has gotten boring and the company is more of a hindrance than a help.
Armitage makes for a humourous, relaxed and companionable partner through the wilds of the south west. However did his prior organisation impinge on the journey itself? There is a constant need to keep walking, to meet deadlines. When it comes to his walking partners and hosts there is a lack of real feeling and depth, with little time given over to getting to know his companions well. At times he even seems a little disinterested and when his mood drops so does the quality of description. An entertaining and worthwhile read the purpose of Walking Away seems a little unclear. Armitage had a direct personal connection to the path he trod in Walking Home that is missing here. As he told The Telegraph “Although I got lost in the Pennines sometimes, I did feel at home. I don’t here. I feel like a stranger.”
On his journey Armitage did manage to take in many seaside holiday destinations. Walking Away took me back to many a childhood holiday destination and I felt myself in his steps revisiting the beaches and seascapes of my youth. For several years I lived on Cornwall’s south coast and have an enduring love and fondness for the area. Although he only briefly visited tourist hubs such as Falmouth and St. Ives it was a relief to see his generous and friendly musings on the county peppered with his customary self-depreciating humour. He has a keen eye for the absurd and unusual. Part of his challenge was to take his poetry away from the urban arts scene and into the fringes of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall: arts centres, hotels, friends’ houses and anywhere else that can hold a poet and his audience. One thing that shines through is the exceptional kindness and hospitality of his fellow walkers and accomplices on this coastal wander across cliffs, beaches and roads. The poetic wanderings of one of Britain’s most beloved poets’ helps to prove that there is always an interest and affection for linguistic beauty and hopefully it will encourage more artists and writers to break away and take their work to the beautiful south.
Simon Armitage, Walking Away, (Faber and Faber, London, 2015). ISBN 9780571298359. 276pp., Hardback