#Victober Round 1

It’s the start of October. The air has turned crisper, leaves are changing in color or else dropping down on the muddy ground, and the days are getting increasingly shorter. What says October and autumn more than moors and storms? Yes, that’s right – it’s time to reach for those Victorian stories of large mansions, courtship, rapid societal changes, parties and life on the moors. Hosted by four ladies on Booktube (Ange, Kate, Katie, and Lucy), October is #Victober time. Victober is a month long reading challenge in which you read Victorian literature during the month of October. Truthfully, Victorian literature isn’t something I normally read much of, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to do so.

I made a whole TBR (to-be-read) video talking about the four books I wanted to read for the challenge, two of them actual Victorian books and two contemporary works of nonfiction about the Victorian period. But today I wanted to talk about two of them specifically, which I am currently reading.

Anne_Brontë_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë_restoredFirst up in my Victorian fiction is Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, published in 1846. In many ways Anne seems to have been the forgotten sister – what with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights gaining a popularity that does not seem to be comparable to neither Agnes Grey nor her other novel, The tenant of Wildfell Hall. Although she seems to have been slightly overlooked because of her sisters, Anne Brotnë of course was an accomplished writer in her own right – after all, she is still being read and studied more than 150 years later. So what is Agnes Grey all about?

Agnes Grey follows the slightly naive and pure of heart Agnes, who after their family faces some economical problems decides to start working as a governess to help support her family financially as well as gain some form of independence. It was not a good idea. Although it’s easy enough to understand her motives for getting out of her family house to try her own wings, leave the nest, see what she can do and all that – it doesn’t quite go the way she had anticipated. The first family she workAgnes_Greys for have horrendous children, one worse than the other. Their parents are impossible, according to Agnes – demanding her have full control of the children without using force (basically any violence in making them do things) nor is she allowed to really deprive them of anything (as threats, to make them do things against their will). That is really unfair, thinks Agnes. Well, it goes to hell with her first job and the family finally decides she has done no progress with their kids and lets her go. Disappointed with her failure, Agnes decides to try again – to be able to hold her head up, and to save her pride. She finally gets a new position, which in truth isn’t that different from the first except the children are older, they end up being fewer (the sons of the house are sent off to school soon after her addition there), and while no one in this house is exactly pleasant to her or understanding in any meaningful way, they are also not as hostile as the previous family were.

That’s about as far as I have gotten into the book, so I can’t say where Agnes finally ends up. One thing that becomes obvious early on as a modern reader is that the discipline of children is seen, through Agnes, to be requiring violence, threat of violence, or threat of deprivation of some sort. The parents themselves use these methods when they have to, mostly it is expressed through our heroine since she is the one given responsibility for the children and the control of them. The idea of discipline and guidance to children through these means is also reflected in the way the characters behave towards animals, only worse. While this way of gaining authority over individuals is less obvious in childcare of the 21st century, you can definitely see remnants of it in the care for dogs and other animals still. Is it just me who sees childcare as a big part of the 19th century illu_217.jpgnovels? A book I read just a few weeks ago, The Scarlet Letter, similarly had interesting constructions of childhood, childcare, and especially in relation to a ‘broken’ home/marriage; the consequences an unstable home situation has on a child. While The Scarlet Letter more indirectly deals with childcare and childhood – in the way the character, Pearl, is written; Agnes Grey clearly focuses on children, childhood, the disciplining and schooling of them as well as the ideal familial situation.Who knows what the remaining 150 pages will bring, but I don’t expect I will feel much fondness for any of the characters under 18 years old. Actually under twenty. Or any of the characters quite possibly, since I’m not sold on either Agnes herself as some pure and well bred Christian girl who only does what’s right, or the parents of the children who can’t be bothered to fix any of the less than charming characteristics in their children but still expect them to excel in society.

29467289The other book I am currently reading is the first of my nonfiction titles about the Victorian era. It’s none other than Therese O’Neill’s Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manner. So far it has been most strongly focused on body related issues. Of all kinds truly, everything from toilets (and more!), how to hide your wrinkles or fix your saggy breast, body image, clothing of the body, etc. I suppose one of the common threads through this book is the horrifying things people did to look ‘beautiful’ or passable in the era, or the horrifyingly dirty reality of the Victorian era, and don’t get me started on the lack of understanding and knowledge of some of the common poisons of the time (and their long-term effects) either. Lead on the face, no problem. Cocaine for weight loss, sure. Actually I’m not going to go into details, it’s a bit stomach turning to read but if you’re interested – pick up the book!

This would probably be a much harder to book to read if O’Neill weren’t such a humorous writer. It’s clear she is here to entertain first and foremost, while at the same time being helpful in guiding you through some of the more significant (dirty) sides of the era. Educational and funny, who thought it could be possible? Of course it’s not the only book of its kind, but it’s one of the fewer in my experience that doesn’t lose out on its educational content for the sake of jokes. You’ll never read a Victorian novel the same way again, trust me. It’s already shaping my reading of Agnes Grey. Being almost halfway into Unmentionable I’ll say that while her humorous writing style can sometimes be a touch on the too-much, and I am never not cringing or wincing when I read this book, because of horrendous Victorian practices and habits, it’s also been a delight and enlightening in more ways than I thought I would ever need or want.


That’s all for round 1 of my #Victober reading.

Are you participating in Victober 2017? What are you reading? Do you have some favorite Victorian novels or nonfiction books about the Victorian era? Or do you perhaps have a favorite historical fiction book set in the Victorian period with a modern take? I’d love to hear all about it.

Until next time, Happy Reading!

Natalie

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The Dumb House • Book Review

I knew, pretty much instantly, that I was going to find much to like in John Burnside’s The Dumb House, from that rather striking opening scene of the experiment gone wrong, the twins being killed by the protagonist, Luke. From the things I’d heard of this book I had thought it was going to focus on the experiment, but while it is important it’s not so much the focus of the plot as the catalyst for the other events of this book.

I haven’t read Lolita but I imagine people who have will see some similarities in The Dumb House, particularly to do with seeing the reasoning behind sexual assault and domination over women from the assailant himself, through his eyes – what is most interesting with this perspective is I think the normalizing, the logic, the rationale behind said actions, and aftermath. In The Dumb House, Luke meets a woman called Karen with a child who is mute; he meets her because of her child, as he is looking into some things to do with his plans for the experiment – I’ll get back to that later. His relationship with Karen is clearly dysfunctional; he uses her in more ways than one and oversteps any moral rules or bounds – both in terms of his relationship with her child, but also with Karen herself. He has sex with her while she seems to be either unconscious or drunk, after which follows his excusing his own behavior as acting on mutual wants and needs, acting on her invitation, and so forth. While the actions of Luke are often condemnable and could easily have been the fall for this novel, it’s dealt with purposefully and the fact that Luke is justifying himself within the text is also a sign that he sees a problem with his actions, if not from his own point of view then from society’s at large. I’m not sure I’m making myself clear but what I found interesting about Luke’s action in relationship especially to the women around him, while I found the actions and his reasoning to be clearly wrong, I thought the way Burnside explored this process of neutralizing and normalizing to be interesting.

The experiment I’ve mentioned above, that Luke is trying to do, has as its main aim to find the soul. Basically he wants to know where in the body the soul is, to find some sort of evidence for it in the design of the human body, and this search leads him to focus on language learning. Specifically he wants to isolate a child from birth, with no access to any form of language, and see if that child develops a language without having an environment that would be responsible for it – basically if the ability for language is a skill we learn or if we’re born with it. The twins – a boy and a girl – that are introduced in the first chapter of the book returns in the last part of the book. The book is actually divided into three parts; the first focuses on Karen, the next on Lillian, and the last on the twins. So while the twin experiment is an important part of the entire book – his meetings with the other two women and all of his actions are part of his process to getting to the making of the experiment – the actual realization of the experiment is only one third of the book.

I thought there was a lot to like in this book. While the point of view of Luke and seeing his rationale for all of his actions was interesting, my main enjoyment came more from an intellectual side of things. By that I mean I found the many ideas to do with research, language, discourse, the soul, the body, humanness; all of these concepts and ideas to be both endlessly fascinating and thought provoking. It might be that many of my interests fall right into the themes Burnside explores in this novel – for example discourse and language is clearly at the heart of it, he talks for instance about what sort of role language plays in humans lives and I found both the discussion and the effects it had on the protagonist, to be really interesting. While a lot of the things Luke does is more ‘obviously’ wrong, there’s a lot of moral ambiguity for other things and I found that so much fun as a reader to explore. For example, he talks of the ethics related to research and science in general – what should and could be allowed, what kind of role a scientist has, etc. Or he speaks of the desire to understand the human body – and the only way to really see it in full is to open it up while the body is still alive. I think I really liked the ambiguity because it allowed me to think of things in new ways and not be limited to norms and ‘correctness’ – to go beyond the ways of thinking that is generally accepted so to speak, and be put in different perspectives.

All this said, I sometimes found the book as a whole to be a little lacking in direction, as if the three parts weren’t quite sewn together so that the cracks were visible. At points I found the story to be wandering off from the main points – like the whole Jimmy trouble, it didn’t seem to serve much of a point other than the ‘end’ of the problem so to speak. There were also quite a bit of repetitiveness in the writing towards the end, the same words and phrases being used with only a few pages in between – almost like Burnside had forgot he wrote them already. For example towards the end Luke says something about him being afraid of the twins, they seemed malevolent and then only a page or two later, he again says the twins were malevolent – as if it was new information. It just seemed a bit sloppy to me. I could understand if the repetitiveness was intentional – to show Luke’s ‘going mad’ as he himself explains he started to feel like he was going mad, started to hallucinate, etc. – but while it’s clear his actions and the Luke of the time of the events are starting to lose control of his ‘mind’, the Luke who is narrating is further on in time, he’s no longer in the same mind-space and should then not be this disordered in the writing for that reason. It doesn’t quite seem to fit. So anyway, I thought it was a shame that some of the writing wasn’t spot-on especially in the last section of the book.

I feel like what I got most out of this was the questions it raises, and the way Luke is navigating these themes, and part of the writing was quite beautiful and well-crafted, but it wasn’t perfect. I’m definitely going to be reading more Burnside though and I have a strong inkling I’ll be returning to The Dumb House in the future.

Foxes Unearthed |Book Review

I heard of this book when it first came out last year, had my eye on it for a while but wasn’t sure I’d be interested enough in the topic of foxes for an entire books worth. Lately I’ve been really craving writing on animal life, and this ended up being the first book I picked up. It helps that it’s absolutely beautifully published, with cover design by Nathan Burton and illustrations within by Tim Oakenfull. I’m definitely the type of reader to judge a book by its cover, at least partly, and this book sold me immediately. But, it bears little of the share for my love of it.

Lucy Jones has written a very well balanced, engaging, and quite thought provoking book on foxes – both foxes in terms of the many ideas, characters and myths surrounding it, and foxes in the flesh. The book is divided into parts, firstly Jones goes into the history surrounding the especially literary depiction of the fox, the sneaky, manipulative animal to the more endearing heroes of more recent cultural characterisations of the fox. She moves on to some more classic nature writing, describing fox as a species and its nature, habitat, situation all over the world but Britain in particular – as this book is at its heart focused on Britain’s relationship with the animal. The last chunk of the book explores the quite complicated situation and the controversies surrounding the animal – the fox hunters, farmers, city folks, parents, animal rights activist, etc. – all of the many different sides to the question of whether foxes poses a problem or not, whether hunting should be legal or not, if there’s a need for culling, and so forth – the two strongest sides of this lies with pro-hunting people on the one hand, and animal rights activists on the other. Lucy Jones further explores people who sabotage fox hunts (to discover illegal hunting, and if so – put a stop to it), people who take care of foxes in different ways, people who work within the culling side of things, hunters, etc.

As I stated earlier, it’s quite a balanced rendering of the somewhat complicated relationship humans have with foxes (at least in Britain but surely in other places of the world as well). While it is clear Jones is against hunting to a certain extent, and also believes much of the “problem” of foxes lies with humans – she says as much in the epilogue outright – she does make a point to give all sides of the topic a voice, highlights the value in each concern and side to the story. She points out for example farmers side of things, or the value in protecting certain other species and wildlife from foxes – in particular birds.

I enjoyed all of these parts immensely. I never realised for example how very much the behaviours of the fox resembles, to me at least, a dog’s behaviour. Jones actually does make some comparisons to dogs in the book. Cats, too. There were a lot of things to do with the political side of things I knew little off, I hadn’t even considered the fact that people could get so aggressive in this debate – this is especially concerned the meeting between hunters and saboteurs. I said earlier too that I found the book quite thought provoking, and most of these things had less to do with foxes specifically but with grander questions like humans relationship with animal life and with nature. Jones raises a few questions towards the last part of the book, that concerns just this – the boundaries between man-made environments and wildlife, the clash between the two and the “over-stepping” of one into the other, the things humans have done to create the current situation with foxes and other animals – where the urban areas grow wider and branch further, thus changing the homes of these animals, also making our “territories” closer, making meetings more of an everyday thing.

I also really liked the parts of animal rights activists, both in terms of politics and opinions, ideas, but also in actual actions, in the sabotaging; what should be legal and not, where one crosses a line, where the rights lie, who decides these things, and oh so many things. Another thing to be enjoyed that comes not from the actual contents and facts – is Jones’ writing, the way she goes about telling you the story of foxes. While not exactly extraordinarily beautiful in prose, with a few exceptions perhaps, I found her writing to be so utterly engaging and passionate, it really made me want to read on and on forever. I think this aspect is so important in nonfiction, especially with controversial topics or where there is a controversy – get people thinking, seeing sides and all that is important – but it’s much more likely to really get to people when it’s written with such an engaging tone. I will say towards the last few pages the book or the contents started to feel a little thin – like she had run out of things to say based on the research she had done/she had available, it felt like the rounding up was perhaps a little over-drawn. It was only really the last few pages, hence why it’s only a slight dent on the book and not a reason against it in my book.

All in all, a well worth read I would recommend to anyone who likes foxes, nature writing in general, animal wildlife writing in particular; or perhaps are just as fascinated and mesmerised by Britain’s nature as I am.

The Notebook; The Proof; The Third Lie

This trilogy of books, alternatively called The Twins trilogy or The Book of Lies, was published in a bind-up by Grove Press, I would highly recommend reading the novels right after the other as part of their value comes from the way they make a larger story together.

The Notebook is written in first person plural, therefor in “we”format. It’s quite an odd and unusual way of writing, and I think, likely to be done badly in more cases than not. However, Agota Kristof manages to create this narrative with precision and with elegance; never in this first book of the trilogy did the narrative feel distancing or like a gimmick. Because the “we”is really the twins – Lucas and Klaus – they resemble one person in many ways, because they are twins and the way they narrate the story you get the sense they are extremely close and have a very hard time being separated even for a short amount of time. They often think like one, behave and act like one, and generally stand as one. Therefor, although the narrator is done in plural it feels intimate, in comparison to one other instance I’ve read this form of writing where I felt very distanced by the use of “we”. The Notebook follows Lucas and Klaus as they are left by their mother to live with their grandmother, during the wartime – and to be left there until the war is over. We see them grow up, learn things – about the world around them and about people, humanity in its many perversions, weaknesses, evilness, desperation, kindness, and so forth. All of the sides to people that they meet, and their interaction with people in turn.

This book is incredibly haunting to read, filled with disturbing and stomach turning scenes and details – Kristof doesn’t stop at any taboo. I’m sure there are many parts in this book that would make many readers incredibly uncomfortable, uncomfortable enough not to keep reading. While I obviously found the book disturbing – and so very, very, sad, I couldn’t help but be in awe for Kristof and her craft. Part of this has to do with the narration being absolutely seamlessly done. Another reason for it is that because of our narrators being young, there’s sort of a lack of critical thinking within the narration. Because of the narrators being who they are, children, everything that happens to them and around them are not told in words of judgement or of spelling everything out, of analyses, or off shaping your reaction to it. There’s enough information for you as a reader to picture every horrifying detail of their situation without having everything being told in words – it’s still there, but it’s done with a subtle hand. There’s room too for different interpretations, especially with the dimensions of truth and lie, of reality and illusion – and having the writing be done in such a way as to leave room for such ambivalence, is the major reason I think The Notebook is far superior to both The Proof and The Third Lie.

The Notebook also quite resembles a fairytale. It has more obvious connections to fairytales in terms of themes and characters or roles, but also shares a sort of structure in the story telling that reminded me much of a fairytale. A fairytale has a certain melody in the writing that Kristof seems to be using too, in The Notebook – each chapter is quite short, filled with different “events” and “truths” the twins are noting down. They tell each other they will only write down true things, facts, and the book is supposed to be what they are writing between them as part of their ‘education’. Each chapter is short and filled with only a few key elements, then there’s the repetition in words, sentences or sentence structure, themes, all of the repetition also serves a purpose and because of this, never feels dull to read either. As I said some of the characters resemble roles out of a fairytale too – like ‘the priest’, or ‘the foreign officer’, or even ‘grandmother’; the majority of the characters have titles such as these rather than names – which strengthens the feeling of a caricature or a template of a person.

The Proof – the second book in the trilogy – is written more traditionally, in third person singular, and resembles other historical fiction I’ve read – especially focusing on the WWII era about, like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. We are now following only one of the twins, as a man, in his everyday life – but get glimpses of his twin brother from time to time. Much of what this book does is to open up to question a doubt that will likely have been planted already in The Notebook for many a reader; the question of whether the twins exist, meaning – if they were really twins, or a sort of invention by one lonely boy in the midst of political turmoil and uncertainty. This question isn’t necessarily answered in The Proof although it comes more to the forefront of the story. The Proof picks up right after The Notebook ended, but because the narration is written completely different it does feel like you’re reading a completely separate thing. The plot in this is interesting enough, and it’s still well-written – actually, I could really see this book work as a movie, but in comparison to The Notebook it’s definitely not as original or complex in my opinion.

Then comes the finale book in the trilogy, The Third Lie, which is definitely my least favourite of the three. I will say that while I think both The Notebook and The Proof could stand on its own and been read for their own merit – I could definitely see The Proof standing on its own, and The Notebook doesn’t necessarily ‘need’ the other two books; but The Third Lie is in my opinion entirely dependent on the previous two books. The Third Lie is interesting as a contrast to the previous books but has little value on its own – which is why it’s definitely the dullest to read, often I felt like I was peeking “behind the scenes”- like seeing an unfinished manuscript of a story. The Third Lie is sort of a continuation of The Proof – but mostly changed perspective to the other twin brother, and going back in time. The first part of The Third Lie is told in first person singular – so we get to see yet another style of narration by Kristof with the same narrators – which is definitely an interesting contrast. For the most part I would say that The Third Lie serves as an alternative telling of the first two stories (The Notebook and The Proof); it writes the story in a different way, following the same events and people, while putting them in different places – and I suppose it could seem as the “true” side of the story, the real way things unfolded, but it’s really quite uncertain which telling of the story is the true one – or even if either telling is true, whether it’s a mix of fact and fiction. The trilogy is called “Book of Lies” for a reason.

The Third Lie is interesting for its alternative telling of the story, for its ‘behind the scenes, let’s get to the bottom of this’ style, and for shifting the narration to the other brother after The Proof. But in all I found it less enjoyable, less enchanting or impressive, than the other two books.

I would highly recommend giving the trilogy a try, or even just the first one or two. But either way you go about it – I think there’s much of Kristof’s strengths that are on display in this trilogy and I would love to read more by her, and seeing what else she is capable of.

The Road Through the Wall

The Road Through The Wall is Shirley Jackson’s debut novel. It follows a small community on Pepper Street, their everyday until the everyday shifts into something different, darker. Jackson’s known for her sinister, creeping style of writing – putting suburban drama into a light so bright you can see all of the ugly details, the unsettling sides to the individuals within her stories. Although the suburban drama is clearly present in this novel – the build-up was less impressive than my prior experience with Jackson, it didn’t feel seamless. Actually for the most part I felt the novel followed ‘normal’ suburban drama, with the kind of drama that is simply part of any community – even more so perhaps if the community is small and isolated. But the ending put the classic twist on everything, yet it felt like it came out of nowhere for me. Were there clues to get to that point? It might’ve been and I missed them. But unlike her other writing where I’ve felt dread the entire time even when I hadn’t necessarily known anything was going to happen, I didn’t while reading this book.

The story reminded me a bit of The Virgin Suicides. As I said, it’s the whole suburban drama thing but also that it follows the children of the community as closely as it does the adults. The novel opens up with some of the girls having written the boys in the community, letters – love letters, and the parents find these letters – spoiler, they’re not happy. Scandal! Shock! Disappointment! So the first 50 pages or so largely circles around these letters – although other things happen too, but it’s seen as a big deal by some of the adults in the community, where love letter writing apparently shows a lack of moral, and break of decorum.

On the whole I thought the suburban drama thing was enjoyable enough to read – it’s a bit like reading those #richpeopleproblems type stories where people are cheating on each other left and right, going bankrupt, have addiction problems, etc – you know the stories, it’s all good and fun since you know you’re from a distance, and also Jackson definitely makes fun of a lot of things and plays with things in her writing, and makes it therefor more relatable and poignant. Like for example how the people react to the end – the twist if you will – her description of the group reaction is so on point.

Unfortunately there was more I didn’t like about it. There was the sometimes questionable use of stereotypes and of people’s ethnicity, religion, or even mental states, things like that, as plot points that I wasn’t too keen on. Like the “Chinaman” who two of the girls of Pepper Street meet – what was the purpose for having him in the story? Why was he described and dealt with in such a stereotypical and problematic way? Was it meant to be a parody, or was it just outright racist? What I mean is that it wasn’t clear whether things like that was part of the story to add to the uncertainty of this community and dread of the time of having foreigners as part of their communities – in which case, problematic – or whether it was part of the exploration of the communities, if that makes sense. I get this was published in the 1940s, but I haven’t come across this sort of issue in Jackson’s writing before. It wasn’t just the “chinaman”, there was the way people reacted to some people in the community, sometimes I feel like there was hints of someone having a disability and I’m not sure I liked the way they portrayed the person. Even the ending I had some issues with, the implications of it. Like you can or are supposed to be able to predict a certain outcome from a certain set of attributes or personalities – which is I suppose a whole other story but it bothers me, especially because it’s damaging to have such a black and white sort of view on causality. Anyway, long story short – there were some things in the details I found questionable – did they have a purpose or not, were they a reflection of Jackson’s thoughts and her context, or where they there to drive the story, to highlight the communities reactions, to highlight the issues – but I’m going to leave it at that.

The major problem comes from the way the story was told, and sort of the aim of the novel. Jackson basically tries to do the same thing as J. K. Rowling does in The Casual Vacancy in that they create an entire community, try to delve into and explore community relations – group dynamics – and especially with tragedies or events happening within the community – the reactions to said events. While Jackson is clearly less ambitious, both novels share a weakness because of the way the narrative is written – the characters have less airtime, they shift very often, there’s a lot of people to keep track on, and you don’t really get to spend that much time with anyone – you only see glimpses of them at different times during the time span they follow. Which means it’s hard to get to know any of the character’s in any meaningful way. And for me this resulted in not caring about any of the characters. Since I didn’t care about any of the characters, even when shit started happening, it literally created no reaction from me.

Clearly I don’t like the narrative that I described above – while I like the idea of group dynamics and I find it fascinating as an object of scientific research and study – I don’t enjoy it as much in fiction because of the impact it has on character development. I think I would much rather read a story like this is a nonfiction format, than fiction.

So on the whole, it was an okay book and definitely entertaining while having some parts that were hitting my warning lamps, and other parts that were the dullest of dull – Skip the prologue! – but there you go. Now that I’ve read Jackson’s debut, I’m eager to return to the stories of hers I have enjoyed.

Rebecca

Rebecca is probably Daphne du Maurier’s most well known and well loved work – it’s the first of hers I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. I had heard of her ability in creating atmosphere especially – the gothic tone to her stories, and my expectations for atmosphere was met. What I didn’t know before was how utterly beautiful her prose is, obviously this is rather a subjective thing but for me her writing really had the melody of poetry, sentence by sentence. It was also one of the reasons my reading pace was rather slow at first, because I kept reading the book from “the outside” – being very aware of the words chosen to convey the story, before I was able to “disappear” as it were, and become part of the story. Any way you look at this novel, it’s wonderful – it’s clearly well written, it’s very atmospheric and beautiful and in that sense has quality to it, but it’s also rather ‘fun’ to read.

The novel follows a young woman who has joined a lady she works for, Mrs van Hoper, to Monte Carlo – as sort of an assistant I suppose. There she meets Max de Winter – a man who has lost his wife about a year prior to death and seems yet to be in mourning. The two of them become found of each other, leading to a marriage after an acquaintance of only a couple of weeks, and after some time spent on their honeymoon, Mr de Winter brings his new wife home to Manderely. And therein starts the trouble, first creeping up on you, eventually turning to quite the thrilling chase in more than one way.

When it comes to the atmosphere of the novel, Manderley is key. Of course, even the setting and atmosphere before the couple actually gets there shows promise but it’s the creation of Manderely as a place and the air of the place, the fragrance of the rose garden and the ocean, of the slightly suffocating feeling of the house – the places were she has been and is no longer. It’s clear quite early on that the place is haunted, not in a literal sense but still with consequences on all of the people involved in the estate. The new Mrs de Winter’s feeling within the house, with the staff of the estate, feeling out of place and like she is filling up someone else’s place, is so strongly described and evoked that I sometimes found this book claustrophobic. This is especially the case early on in their marriage when Mrs de Winter and Mr de Winter isn’t communicating much, and she as a newly moved in and with a personality that is easily influenced and swayed, feels trapped but can do, will do, nothing to change anything. It’s so uncomfortable to read at times, and yet the reason for it is really the strength of Maurier’s writing, and even though Mrs de Winter’s actions are at times incredibly frustrating to read – I could also sympathise with much of her feelings of being out of place and how one acts in such places, how to deal with that discomfort.

This is such a thrilling story too, because of the sense of mystery – it’s not hard to see there will be twists and turns coming right from the start of the book, and some of the twists are not entirely surprising either – but the best part is that even though they are not always surprising, the way to them are such fun to read. It really is like walking straight into disaster, and at one and the same time it’s a feeling of foreboding, dread, and thrill that keeps one moving forward to that coming disaster.

I feel like often, when reading suspensful books, one just wants to get to the “good parts” but in this book – the process, the journey to that final destination Are the good parts. Because most of the story is actually told in a very slowed down pace, without hinting too much in advance, much of the book it’s not that easy to see where the story is going to go. As I said earlier it’s not that difficult to see something bad will happen, but what that bad thing is is less clear. Or how it will happen. Because it’s actually rather “methodical”, I think this will be such a fun rereading experience – returning to this book actually knowing what will happen. I feel like, again, often with mysteries this is just the problem – when you know what’s going to happen they lose all of their spark. But not so with Maurier’s writing. I can’t wait to reread this, and seeing what else becomes visible with the knowledge of the end.

So dramatic, so much fun! I am looking forward to reading more of Maurier’s work in the future.

Until next time, happy reading!

What is Not Yours is Not Yours

What is Not Yours is Not Yours is a short story collection written by Helen Oyeyemi, published in 2016. Ever since hearing about it prior to its release, I’ve been interested to read these stories focused on and around keys – real and imaginary, with fairytale themes and magical realism elements woven in there. Unfortunately on the whole, it was a disappointing reading experience. As with all collections there will be a mix of good and bad (almost all), but in this case it was a definite leaning towards the less impressive that made up the bulk of the reading for me.

The first story, “books and roses”, was one of my favourites – it’s possibly the longest one in the bunch and is not only long in the actual page count but is perhaps also the most intricate, with stories within stories. It follows a young woman who as a baby has been left in the care of a religious house of some sort if I’m not mistaken, and she’s taken care of there – but then we see parts of the story of her life, and parts of the story of a woman she gets to know – and how their two stories have unexpected connections. It’s kind of hard to sum up this story because it goes in several directions and moves from character to character, it doesn’t focus in on this one woman even though that’s where it starts off and where it ends. All I can say really is that it’s magical, it’s got a sense of being a tale told and re-told, a “folkore” feel to it actually rather than fairytale, which is to say it feels a bit more grounded in history than in the surreal although it definitely has its elements of magic too.

Another story I really liked was “a brief history of the homely wench society”; which is basically about two secret societies, one brotherhood sort of society and the sisterhood society that is created as a sort of response to the “only-boys” allowed rule, there’s a bit about the societies, the rivalry between them, and about a girl – set in the present – who is part of the homely wench society, and one particular moment in her life where the societies meet. Again, I don’t think I’m making myself that clear since it’s a bit hard to sum up Oyeyemi’s stories in few words, they have so many threads going at the same time. But I liked the blend of history, feminism, and a sort of tongue in cheek attitude that seeped through this story.

When Oyeyemi is on her game she’s great. She can be so effortlessly entertaining and funny at times, poking fun at modern society in all its silliness and glory. Often times I found myself smiling or even laughing at an especially cut-to-the-core kind of truth that will lose some of its edge with time, which is certainly one of its strengths now but might not be in the future. Another thing I really liked was her magical touch at times – especially in the above two stories but it’s obvious she’s got a wonderful imaginiation and much beautiful imagery in these stories – that was lovely to read.

However, there were quite a few stories here that I thought lacked direction and precision. They felt too chaotic; not in the sense of them being magical realism and done on purpose in that way but rather that they weren’t planned out in advance, just taking shape and not being re-shaped and re-constructed after the fact. As I said earlier, a lot of these stories have several threads going; which would be fine if one is able to connect them all, weave them in so as not to leave strands hanging – but personally I don’t think she manages to make them all come together. It felt sloppy at times, even when the threads were made of gold and shimmer – the actual execution left something to be desired. I do think part of this has to do with my taste as a reader – what I expect from a short story especially. For me a short story needs extra direction, in comparison to a novel where there’s time to go off tangents and develop a more complicated backdrop. A short story should in my opinion be planned, weighed, have not a single word in it that doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s fine to have stories with magical elements, to be taking the route of direction in unexpected ways – it doesn’t have to be linear. But I think a story that doesn’t have some sort of direction – even the irregular ones – end up being long-form poetry, or if they’re not beautifully written – just ramblings. That’s my two scents on short stories, feel free to disagree.

I know the interconnected stories was one of the reasons people like this collection as a whole; that it’s clever how they connect to eachother. For me, this added nothing and in fact I found it instead to be a lazy plot device that was distracting and took me out of the stories. But again, this might be a personal taste thing – I just didn’t think it added anything to the stories, maybe it would’ve if I read the stories closer to eachother, or if I read them again. But as it is, I didn’t think the connections added anything aside from the one detail of who set fire to the house.

All in all, I think there’s potential in Oyeyemi’s writing and I like many of the themes and imagery she plays with, but ultimately this was kind of a sloppy mixed bag for me and I hope I will get on with her novels better. Only time will tell.