Simon and I had great fun recording our latest podcast, which tackles the thorny issues of new reads vs re-reads and Dorothy Whipple v. D E Stevenson. Head over to Simon’s blog to listen (and for a list of all the books we mention throughout the episode) or to our itunes page, here. As always, any comments or suggestions are more than welcome – do let us know what you think!
Gillespie and I is one of those books that draws you in from the very beginning, with a story that immediately promises intrigue and suspense. In 1930s London, elderly Harriet Baxter is writing a memoir of the artist Ned Gillespie, who she knew for a short while in the 1880s, when living in Glasgow. Harriet reveals that Ned was a greatly tragic figure, who was compelled to destroy all of his works before killing himself a few years after Harriet first became acquainted with him. She is adamant that she wants to return Ned to the position of prominence that he deserves, to resurrect his ‘forgotten genius’, by telling his story, but it is clear from the mention of ‘the trial’ and ‘white-slavery business’, that Harriet quickly dismisses as unimportant before launching into her narrative, that there is far more to Ned’s story than a tortured artistic temperament, and far more to Harriet than the persona of a harmless octogenarian she attempts to project.
In 1888, Harriet Baxter is a wealthy spinster in her mid thirties who is intelligent and cultured, but somewhat lonely. The aunt she used to spend her days caring for has recently died, and so Harriet, who has family connections in Scotland, decides to leave London behind for a while and go to Glasgow to enjoy the summer exhibition. As chance would have it, practically as soon as she steps off the train, she finds herself assisting a woman who has fainted on the street. Harriet’s lectures in First Aid come in useful when it transpires that the woman’s dentures have become stuck in her throat, and when the woman recovers after Harriet’s ministrations, she declares that she must come and have tea with her and her family by way of thanks. Harriet dutifully goes, having few friends in Glasgow, and finds herself in the home of Ned Gillespie, a young artist she had admired recently at a show in London who is now showing his work at the summer exhibition. The woman she has saved is, coincidentally, Ned’s mother, and the somewhat ramshackle house and studio is shared by Ned, his wife Annie and their two daughters Sybil and Rose, as well as Ned’s wayward siblings, Fred and Mabel. Over the course of the next few weeks, Harriet finds herself increasingly drawn into the Gillespie’s world, becoming a confidante of Annie and the elder Mrs Gillespie, and an advisor on artistic matters to Ned. However, all is not rosy; as Harriet insinuates, something is very wrong with the Gillespie’s elder daughter, Sybil, whose behaviour is highly disturbing, and Ned’s obsession with his work seems to be driving him away from his family. Harriet, convinced that Ned is a genius, will do anything to help the Gillespies, but as summer moves into autumn and Harriet’s short stay seems to be becoming indefinite, a shocking event occurs that shatters their carefree circle, and none of their lives will be the same again.
The narrative moves between the 1880s and 1930s, and the state of mind of the now elderly Harriet allows for light to be gradually shed on the course of events taking place in the past. Harriet projects herself as an innocent, but her barbed comments, pointed silences and clear prejudice towards particular members of the family make it very clear to the reader that Harriet is not necessarily someone to be trusted. However, whether Harriet is just a lonely woman, to be pitied for her obsession with Ned and his family, or a manipulative and disturbing character, capable of all manner of evil, is left tantalisingly open to interpretation. Did Harriet orchestrate the events she narrates, or was she just an innocent bystander? And what really did take her to Glasgow in the first place? Whim or design? As events build to a crescendo, the tension becomes all consuming, and I couldn’t bear to put the book down. I was a little disappointed by the ending, I must admit; the story was so compelling and I wanted an ending that had me gasping, but it just sort of fizzled out with no real conclusion. I appreciate that Harris probably wanted readers to come to their own interpretations, but I would have preferred a tighter ending that offered more concrete answers. Unlike The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which uses a similar narrative technique, I didn’t think there were enough overt clues in the narrative to allow the reader to come to a clear interpretation of events. As such, I felt quite unsatisfied as I closed the pages, despite having been highly entertained throughout. Even so, I would strongly recommend Gillespie and I; it is a truly absorbing novel, with a wonderful cast of characters that are brought vividly to life, and it certainly left me rather haunted by its events. Jane Harris is one to watch!
Is now available here! Please do let Simon and I know your thoughts on this episode’s discussion points – long vs short books and the bildungsroman, with particular focus on The Catcher in the Rye and The Go-Between. We do ramble somewhat, in our completely unplanned and spontaneous way…but hopefully you’ll find we wander down some interesting literary paths…enjoy!
I was hugely fortunate to be invited to attend the award ceremony of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards on Monday. This is the UK’s major award for the best in children’s and young adult’s fiction, with the Carnegie Medal being given for the writing of a novel, and the Kate Greenaway Medal, named after the famous Victorian children’s book illustrator, being given for the best illustrated picture book or novel. A small group of students and I have been ‘shadowing’ the awards at school, meeting at lunchtimes to discuss the shortlisted books. What’s fantastic about this award is that the books are chosen from across a range of genres, and so being part of a reading group of this nature means that you have to read outside of your comfort zone. I know many adults wouldn’t touch young adult literature with a barge pole, and before I became a teacher I would have been one of them, but reading the shortlist for these awards has certainly challenged my prejudices and proven that there is just as much complexity, beauty, power and literary merit to be found in books written for younger readers as there is in books written for adults. Whether it’s romance, friendship, fantasy, horror, history or teen angst, the shortlisted books cover all manner of issues, time periods, cultures and genders, and my students and I often found ourselves having to tackle a novel we would normally have left firmly on the shelf thanks to it not fitting into our perception of what makes a good book. Most of the time, we were surprised at how much we enjoyed a book that we had assumed we would hate, and this taught us all the valuable lesson that holding onto uninformed prejudices can lead to you missing out on a considerable amount of pleasure. The lessons reading can teach you are truly endless!
As part of our reading group activities, we wrote reviews and made them into our own mini magazine, which we entered into a competition that won us front row seats at the award ceremony. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet all of the authors, and we were made to feel very special and important, especially as the ceremony organisers and the writers emphasised how much they valued the views of young readers and expressed how vital it is to children’s development for them to have access to books. Creativity and imagination are increasingly being stamped out in our education system, and to hear how passionate these writers are about ensuring children are provided with adventure and inspiration through the written word, challenging them to view their world from a different perspective and resist the drive to conform to the increasingly limited expectations and pressures of society, was marvellous. As something of an idealist who would quite gladly let my students spend all day reading under a tree than learn spellings, this was music to my ears, and I loved watching the eyes of my little cherubs light up with pleasure as they mixed with the crowds at the ceremony and got to speak to the writers they so admired. It was such a joy to them to be able to make a connection with the people who wrote the words they had loved reading, and they all came away inspired and even more enthused about literature, which couldn’t have been a more perfect outcome.
The winner of the Carnegie Medal, Tanya Landman, is a wonderful, engaging speaker who won for her novel Buffalo Soldier, about a young African-American girl who disguises herself as a man and fights in the Civil War. It explores themes of what it means to be free, and what it means to forge an identity for yourself in a world that views you as inferior. My students loved it and found it inspiring, especially as most of the girls they read about these days are rather insipid creatures who are depicted as only caring about clothes and boys. It wasn’t my favourite from the shortlist, I must admit, despite being a very worthy winner; I loved Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Middle of Nowhere, another novel with a strong female heroine, this time a young Australian girl, Comity, living in the outback in the 19th century, having to battle with a grief stricken father, an abusive lodger and the persecution of her best friend, a young aboriginal boy. I thought it was brilliantly inventive, moving and educational; I haven’t read many books set in Australia before, and I loved learning more about its culture and history. The winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal was William Grill, who became the youngest winner of the award at the age of just 25. He wrote and illustrated Shackleton’s Journey, a picture book retelling of the story of explorer Ernest Shackleton, and his inventive and powerful treatment of a life that has long been overshadowed by his more successful contemporaries is brought beautifully to life. I picked up a copy and was instantly enchanted, and was very much moved by Grill’s speech, where he said he wanted children to take away the message that, like Shackleton, they need never be afraid of failure, because the only true failure is in failing to explore at all. I love that there is so much brilliant literature available for children and young people, and that these writers are being rewarded for their work in opening children’s eyes to a world of magic and possibility that helps to mould their characters and provide them with inspiration for their futures. There has been lots of talk of late about the book being dead, and that younger generations, with their reliance on computers, no longer see the point in literature nor have the attention span to enjoy it. I don’t think this is true at all; the award ceremony proved to me that children’s literature is alive and well, and is just as vital now as it has always been.
What is there to say about Wolf Hall that hasn’t already been said? I am, as always, very late to the party, and am really quite cross with myself for putting off reading it for so long. I was daunted by its length, by its covering a period of history with which I am not excessively familiar, and by its use of present tense narration – a device I normally can’t stand, for no particular reason. Obviously as soon as I was past the first chapter, all of these things ceased to be a problem and I was well and truly absorbed in the world of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. Hilary Mantel is actually a genius; her use of a range of different narrative styles; free indirect discourse, reported speech and indirect discourse, all combine to make a wonderfully immediate and fresh sounding narrative voice that keeps the reader inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell while also allowing an insight into the hearts and minds of the many and various characters who people his world. The language she uses is also different to most historical fiction; it is handled with a deft, light touch; the syntax is only slightly altered, the vocabulary thoughtfully adapted, to create a realistic sense of the past while also ensuring that the dialogue remains crisp, vital and refreshingly modern. The novel is therefore peopled by passionate, emotional, cruel, loving, violent, aggressive and occasionally foul-mouthed creatures who would certainly not feel out of place on the streets of London in 2015, though are still very much rooted in the Tudor era. This ability to bridge the gap between history and modernity, to recreate the past without resorting to formulaic or laboured use of antiquated vocabulary, is really quite extraordinary, and I can’t think of another historical novel like it.
I don’t know enough about Cromwell to comment on the accuracy of Mantel’s portrayal; I know that he is a divisive figure, maligned and admired in equal measure, but Mantel’s interpretation of him is warm and sensitive, rendering him a magnetic force for both readers and characters alike. I was absolutely fascinated by the journey he took from the mean streets of Putney to the private chambers of Henry VIII. The forensic exploration of what kind of a person you have to be: what measure of courage and tenacity and intelligence it takes to drag yourself up from the cobbles of your father’s blacksmith’s yard to be within touching distance of your King is what makes this tale of a man dead for half a millennium so timeless and so utterly relevant to contemporary readers. It is the story of someone utterly self-made, utterly self-reliant, and utterly self-assured; someone who overcomes the most awful of childhoods and the most profound of griefs in order to manoeuvre themselves into a position to make a difference to the world around them, and for that quality alone, aside from all of the wrangles over Henry and Anne, it is worth reading. It is almost magical in its magnificence; Mantel weaves such a mesmerising web that it is hard to extricate yourself from the world she creates, and I could barely drag myself away from its pages. Even if you think historical novels aren’t for you, you have no interest in the Tudor period, or normally run a mile from doorstep length novels, you need to put your prejudices to one side and give this a go. It’s an unforgettable reading experience, and I already can’t wait to get stuck into Bring up the Bodies.