The Gate of Angels

Over the course of my book club attending life, two things have been rare occurrences.  One, a consensus between all members on their like (or dislike, in this case) of a book. And second, that opinion being completely at odds with the vast majority, if Goodreads reviews are anything to go by.  Oh, and by virtue of being a Booker Prize nominee.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels managed to tick both of these boxes. I didn’t know anything of the author before reading other than she became a published author late (in her earlier 60s I believe). So I came to the novel with no pre-existing prejudices. I struggled to get into it, struggled in the middle, struggled with the metaphor of the ghost story that abruptly takes place towards the end, and struggled with the ending itself. That in itself is unusual for me, in that I tend to take some enjoyment out of everything I read, but I finished the book mentally frazzled and more than a little puzzled.

Maybe just me, I thought, but everyone at Germany Book Club had similar feelings. Most had trouble with the university section that bookends the novel, which is essentially a dry satire on the puffed up ridiculousness of the physics department at a Cambridge house, but also trying to make serious points on the limits of science in human experience, all through the eyes of student Fred Fairly. Or so I’ve heard. This was our main problem – that the themes of the novel are so buried in context and under layers that it’s difficult to extract them and easy to lose interest. I have no problem with having to do a little work to get to the jist, but this felt much like needle in a haystack territory.

The story of Daisy Saunders was better, and a nice contrast to the pompousness of the university. She works as a London nurse struggling to make her way in the world and undertaking long shifts of hard graft to do so. Here the theme was more explicit and better explored, showing Daisy’s progression in a profession hitherto exclusive to men. Indeed, most of Daisy’s experiences with men could be described as seedy, not flat-out misogyny but with disdain and never as an equal.  Also her efforts to be seen as a free individual at a time when women mostly fulfilled dutiful housewife roles rang true.

The aforementioned ghost story was nothing more than an oddity for us, no-one could really work out its purpose.  Perhaps a foreshadowing of Fred and Daisy’s relationship after the cycling accident that throws them together? Who knows, but the supernatural element just felt out of place.

Fitzgerald called the ending the happiest she ever wrote, which struck us as odd as I think most found it ambiguous. It’s a play on the title of the novel, as Daisy helps a man who has collapsed on college grounds and then leaves through the gate, only to run into Fred. The end.  I think it’s deliberately left up in the air so we can ponder if a man of facts and science and a ministering ‘Angel’, to use the title, can ever be together. Again, I don’t mind having to make up my own mind, but this deliberate obliqueness became frustrating for me, and I think for all of us.

Goodreads will tell you a different story though, so maybe we are just all philistines who need to read more books!

Where the Crawdads Sing

Looking at the Goodreads page for the novel Where the Crawdads Sing, this month’s choice in my occasional visit to the Germany book club, I was struck by how highly rated the book is. 4 and a half stars out of five from nearly 50,000 reviews is a stonkingly high commendation, definitely the highest I’ve ever seen on that website.  So the big question is, does it live up to the hype?

Happily, on the whole, yes it does. I only gave the novel 4 stars as it happens, but then I’m a hard taskmaster and something of a curmudgeon.  And it is easy to say that the book is beautifully written, especially for a first novel. The author Delia Owens has a lovely, almost poetic prose as she tells the story of the ‘Marsh Girl’ Kya Clark, an abandoned girl who lives in the marshes on the edge of town and leads a solitary life among the plants and animals.  Some reviews have criticised the slow pace of the early part of the book, focusing too much on descriptive passages instead of story, but I enjoyed the scene setting and the rich evocation of the landscape.

The book develops into a back-and-forth narrative between a coming-of age tale as Kya grows up and falls in love, and a murder mystery surrounding the unexplained death of a local white student, Chase Andrews.  Both strands are dealt with convincingly.  The latter was reminiscent to me of two other classic examples of courtroom drama surrounding racial injustice, A Time to Kill and the great To Kill a Mockingbird. For this book to be mentioned in the same vein is its testament. It has all the great hallmarks of the genre, genuine suspense, evidence that swings you one way then the other, and a verdict that is difficult to predict. I’m not going to give away the ending here but the twists on the final pages don’t feel deceitful and raise many questions about the validity of what has come before. A book that will have you discussing and arguing its outcome long past completion can only be a great one.

It’s not all judges and juries though. The coming-of age tale is one that could easily slip into cliche, so well worn are its tropes. But Owens manages to pull it off with instantly believable characters who, whilst not necessarily the nicest, are always honest and hard to dismiss. Kya walks the tightrope of doubt and loneliness and whether to give in to her desires with a balance that is eminently relatable to anyone who had a powerful yearning for someone as a teenager (which we all did, let’s face it).  Even when she makes poor decisions you can see the reasoning behind them, and her relationships, especially with the odious Chase, are very well drawn.

If there are gripes, I would comment that some of the developments that raise Kya out of poverty seem easy to come by.  If it was that straightforward to become a published author I would be shouting it from the rooftops of my penthouse suite in the Caribbean.  Kya does also seem to adapt remarkably well (and quickly, it must be said) to the loss of both her mother and brother when they walk out on her. But it all hangs together enough not to completely smash the suspension of disbelief.

As I said at the top, the strengths of the novel are enough to warrant its remarkable rating. I finished it a week or so ago and find myself thinking about it at random moments. Such is its power, and its quiet beauty.

Snobs

I realised as I gatecrashed my sister’s book club in Cologne once more that it had been nearly a year since my last visit. So nearly a year since I last experienced the pleasure of chewing the fat about a book for a few hours (with a rather copious amount of alcohol mixed in this time, too!), and it reminded me how much I’ve missed it. I really need to get involved in one in my local area, or better still start my own. One of these days I’ll get around to it.

I am possibly in a minority of one in that I have never seen an episode of Downton Abbey. Not even a fleeting glimpse. I’d heard of its creator Julian Fellowes, the author of our book choice Snobs, but never having seen any of his work, I was in the unique position of going into his novel completely blind, and with no previous experience to influence my thoughts about it. Which is a nice position to be in really, with no existing prejudices to cloud judgement.

And I quite enjoyed it. The plot, such as it was, covered well-worn territory. Girl marries man for money, then wonders if she did the right thing, has affair, then realises the error of her ways. Pretty standard stuff. But Fellowes uses this threadbare story as a vehicle to go into vast, often very humourous observation about the British upper-class/nobility. It’s almost a field guide to the nature of aristocracy in this country, sketched by a man who knows both its foibles and strengths and isn’t afraid to talk about both.

I can’t say I was anything more than pleasantly distracted by the novel, but that can be a finer way to pass the day than some books have been. Talking about it in the group, I was struck by how much the class system still has a role in British society, how you can be defined by how much money your parents have, or where you went to school. In Germany these distinctions are less defined and more importantly, less cared about.  In some ways I envy them that, but I know I’m guilty of a bit of class stereotyping as much as the next British person. This novel propelled this discussion, which was interesting and insightful, and for that I’d recommend it.

The Road Home

This weekend saw my occasional visit to my sister’s book club in the wonderful city of Cologne, Germany. It was my third appearance and since my last, at the beginning of this year, the makeup of the group has changed somewhat, with a couple of long-running members leaving for various reasons.  Book clubs can contain some friction between members, primarily over choices for forthcoming meetings, which sounds fickle but can result in some real arguments over the direction of the club. Anyway, ths turbulent passage has passed for the Cologne club and the core group is the same, so there were plenty of familiar faces to catch up with and an interesting book to discuss.

Rose Tremain is probably most famous for her novel The Gustav Sonata, which I believe was a Man Booker winner. Our choice was The Road Home, her tale of immigrant Lev, who comes to London from an unnamed European country (a stylistic decision which I found a little grating) to try to provide a better life for his family back home. In the current political climate this topic is something of a hot potato, so I was looking forward to a warts-and-all story of hardship and toil which sunk its teeth into the issues surrounding those who seek a better life in a faraway country.

Unfortunately I came away from reading the book a little disappointed. Whilst Lev does go through many travails as he attempts to carve out a niche for himself, the narrative never gave an impression that these problems would prove unable to  solve. Indeed, Lev’s rise from humble sawmill worker to leading chef required an enormous suspension of disbelief to get your head around. The plot was unrealistic to me. On a number of occasions I thought Tremain relied on a perfect coincidence or a vast gesture of goodwill from a fellow character to propel Lev’s journey along. The right person tended to pop up at exactly the right moment, either with financial help when he most needed it or the offer of a roof or employment.  I wanted to enjoy the kindness of the strangers he met, but I’m afraid my possibly world-weary cynicism prevented me from doing so.

There were some very jarring episodes in the story that felt completely out of place, too. Lev gets into a relationship with fellow kitchen worker Sophie, a woman many years his junior, and after it breaks down, there is a bizarre, borderline rape scene which is explicit in detail and is glossed over with very little explanation or fallout. Later on, Lev goes to work picking fruit on an East Anglian farm and there is another peculiar scene where two Chinese workers seduce Lev after a night out.  Again, it’s as if Tremain forgets this ever took place, for it is barely mentioned the next morning. The flow of the story is interrupted by such acts and just added confusion and a hint of ugliness that is completely at odds with the charm and romanticism of the rest of the narrative.

I wanted to like this book more than I did, for I admired some of the minor characters greatly and Tremain skeched them with a lot of skill. And I liked the positive theme of human kindness that threads through the book. We could all be more empathetic to our fellow human beings, after all. But the narrative flaws were too much for me to get over and as such I’d have to say that the book is an gallant, but flawed exploration of the immigrant experience.

German Return- Stones from the River

So, after an absence of four months, I returned to my sister’s book club in Germany for the first time in a year.  As i suspected, being out of a book club after my return from Australia has been tough – I miss my group very much and have looked on at their forthcoming book choices with envy.  I was pleased to be invited back to the Cologne group, it is a smaller group with a more intimate feel, mostly because the members are regular and they have no one-off participants.  It is also held at a member’s house rather than in the pub which feels more homely, and there’s plenty of home cooked food to eat as well which is always a bonus!

The book choice for the month, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, was one that I struggled with in its opening stages. The main narrator of the story, Trudi Montag, is a dwarf growing up in a fictional rural German town.  The first few chapters highlight her issues with her disability and the abuse she suffers as a child in one particular horrifying event that I won’t spoil here.  It also starts to describe the people of the town of Burgdorf, some in little potted portraits, others sketched in more depth.  These characters weave their way in and out of the story as it progresses.

The first 150 pages or so I found a bit of a drag, not really engaging fully with the narrative.  But once the spectre of World War II approaches, the pace starts to quicken and the character building that has gone before starts to fall into place.  The fascination of this tale for me was twofold.  One, how each character reacts as the Nazis begin to take a stranglehold on society.  Some turn the other cheek, others actively resist and are removed from the town without warning, Trudi and her father secretly help others to build a tunnel to hide those in danger. Second, was how the regime didn’t insert itself with fanfare and a great explosion, it was much more insidious than that.  Rights were encroached upon slowly, quietly, and curtailed in small increments.  To start with, some agreed with these restrictions, through coercion or fear or belief.  Then, as things got worse, they realised how much had been lost, but far too late.  The regret this caused led to some characters making awful decisions that destroyed lives and families.

Hegi explores these two themes with great skill – the town almost feels like a character in itself, how it changed from a bucolic village to one of fear and oppression.  The heightened state of events gives the narrative pace and the middle third of the book contains its most powerful passages.  How each character makes their stand is fascinating, and their decisions are always explained with empathy, if not approval.

The last section of the book dragged a little, and I think overall the book could probably lose 50-100 pages and improve for it – the love story involving Trudi and Max could have been cut down and its conclusion was rather obvious – but on the whole I enjoyed the book, and most of all, thought it was an excellent discussion piece for native Germans, who are only a generation or two removed from these events.  It was fascinating to hear how modern Germans approach the Nazi regime, how comfortable they are to discuss it, how it happened.  I felt from the discussion that the struggle to reconcile their feelings on the monstrousness of Nazism is still going on, along with a still lingering sense of guilt and shame over what happened. For this book to bring these issues into public discourse is to its great credit.

 

Adventures in a German Wonderland

I’ve recently returned from a trip to the UK for Christmas and one of the highlights of my trip was spending a weekend visitng my sister in the German city of Cologne. Best of all was recieving an invitation to participate in her January book club, which I accepted without hesitation.

I was interested in attending for a number of reasons. Most of all was my curiosity about how this book club would differ in dynamic from my own, particularly as about half the group are native German speakers reading a book in their second language, which poses extra difficulties that we do not have to deal with. Because of this, the book club has a rule that every choice has to be written by a native English speaker, which rules out a vast swathe of European and African authors. This is a shame, but the reasoning behind it is to keep anything which may be too challenging from being chosen. I can understand this, but it still seems a shame.

The other main difference is that my sister’s group are much more organised than our ramshackle group. They already have the dates and choices made for the whole of 2016, which is a far cry from us, who generally only work a month or two in advance. My sister put this down to the usual German efficiency, which raised a smile. I guess it is good to know choices ahead of schedule for planning purposes, but I’d be surprised if this level of organisation ever becomes a trait of my book club!

The friendship of the German group is something that I envied as the evening wore on. The group was started about three years ago when the organiser put an ad in his local paper, and after early teething problems they have had the same core of regulars for a long period. This is something that we have struggled to overcome – this is partly because our club was set up on the Meetup platform, which allows anyone to join and attend meetings. We have a large number of people who turn up for one meeting and then never attend again, or come once a year. This is perfectly fine, and allows for fresh perspectives every month which keeps us on our toes. We do have a group of four or five regulars who turn up every month and are active socially outside of the meetings as well, and that’s great. Familar faces allow a club to have a stable nucleus and make meetings more comfortable, and I wish we had more of them. The German book club is currently closed for new members and so they have the same people every month, and they have a really nice rapport with each other. And this familiarity hasn’t lessened the strength of debate, judging by my visit.

This comforting feel is exacerbated because the group meets in a member’s flat, rather than the pub. And everyone brings a bottle of something or some food (exceptional food going on what I ate that night!) which is rather lovely.

The book that was chosen for this month, my sister’s choice in fact, was the famous children’s classic Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I was sure that I had read this novel as a child, but after completing it this time I’m not so sure. The book has become a large part of the public’s consciousness, with numerous adaptations, films, plays, and of course the famous illustrations that accompany the prose and have been drawn by some of the great illustrators of the age. My memories of it are more likely drawn from some of these sources rather than the original text.

What to say about it? Well the novel is a blend of literary nonsense containing puzzles, wordplay, riddles, parody, logic problems, you name it. Most of these puzzles seem to have no clear solutions as Alice negotiates Wonderland, most famously the Mad Hatter’s riddle and the Queen’s croquet game. Logic, or the lack of it, is the theme. Anything is possible, and Carroll plays with language to express this point. Many words have multiple meanings and interpretations, and nothing is ever what it seems. Alice uses the word ‘curious’ throughout to describe her experiences.

Of course, at the novel’s conclusion we find out that Alice was having a dream the whole time, so the characters of the world of Wonderland are mixed in with aspects of Alice’s subconscious. This adds to the slightly hallucinatory feel of the novel, as does the Caterpillar’s mushroom, which Alice nibbles on to control her fluctuations in size. These changes in size and her confusion with them may have been used by Carroll as a metaphor for puberty and the fears of growing into adulthood.

These word games and riddles caused frustration in some of the group. I think this novel must have been very difficult to translate and as such some of the puzzles either lost their meaning or, because they are steeped in 19th century Victorian culture, made little sense. I found some of the wordplay a little hard to grasp, so someone reading this book in their second language must have found it very tough.

This is not to say that the English speaking of the group was basic. I was staggered by the quaity of the English of all the group, which was probably better than my own. I have enormous respect for anyone who can speak another language and am in awe of it to be honest. My sister speaks two languages fluently and it still amazes me when she conducts a conversation in German. I frankly feel inadequate and a little rude not being able to have the ability to speak to a German in their own language, particularly when they were such welcoming hosts. It is something I would like to address.

So it was a novel that I enjoyed, a playful, somewhat anarchic read. And the warmth shown to me by my German friends will linger long in the memory. Wunderbar!