On the bookshelf: May roundup

Didn’t get a chance to read too much last month as big changes are afoot. Perhaps I’ll blog about them when I get a chance… 

More books. Always more books!

More books. Always more books! (via Wikimedia Commons)

There are certain motifs and plot twists that have become overused in modern fiction. It’s a problem that plagues The Somnabulist by Essie Fox; this gothic mystery isn’t any mystery to anyone who has read mid-range fiction. For that reason, it doesn’t quite satisfy, despite having all the ingredients of a truly enchanting tale.

Seventeen-year-old Phoebe Turner lives with her bright and vivacious aunt Cissy and her miserable, pious mother Maude. Cissy is a singer in the theatre, and Phoebe wants to follow in her footsteps. Things take a dramatic turn when Cissy dies, seemingly by suicide, and to save the family from ruin, Phoebe becomes a lady’s companion to the increasingly frail and unstable Mrs Samuels. Her husband, Nathaniel, has a mysterious history with Aunt Cissy…

Unfortunately, many elements of the plot are lampshaded quite well in advance, and nothing comes as much of a surprise. There is also several anachronistic jars; Phoebe thinks and feels just like a 21st century teenager, and the repressed atmosphere of Victorian era Britain isn’t invoked to its full potential.

It’s not all bad; Fox writes well, and characters like Mrs Riley, Cissy’s best friend, leap off the page. She also writes well about sexual awakening; and most women will probably find Quin, Mrs Riley’s assistant, drool-worthy. One for light summer reading, which I doubt was Essie Fox’s intention.

Serendipitous finds are often the best. I found myself at a car boot sale recently, and as any bookworm would, I headed immediately for the boot with the books. There I picked up Sara Gruen‘s Water For Elephantswhich was made into a 2011 film starring Robert Pattinson. Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s a charming, atmospheric novel which captures the spirit of the Great Depression beautifully.

Jacob Jankowski is roughly 93 years old, and lives in a grim nursing home. A new resident arrives, a lawyer who Jacob despises instantly. When the newbie tells a gaggle of impressed ladies that he used to carry water for elephants at the circus, Jacob snaps. A retired veterinarian, he knows exactly how much an elephant drinks; besides, he worked in Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Circus.

So begin Jacob’s recollection of his journey with the circus train. A catastrophic car crash kills his parents right before his final exams and Jacob learns that he has inherited massive debts from his father, also a vet. His parents remortgaged the house to put Jacob through college; due to the Depression his dad had been doing much of his work pro bono or for eggs or milk. So owing thousands and unable to concentrate on his finals, Jacob jumps a train. It just happens to be a circus train.

So begins a fascinating insight into a lost America; an America that is at once impossibly romantic and darker than we can imagine. To Gruen’s credit she never shirks from depicting the darkness and despair of the Great Depression; the isolation and hopelessness of the many people displaced and those facing extreme poverty. Jacob’s tale also takes place before the end of Prohibition and the consequences of that near-sighted law riddle the book; Camel, the man who gets Jacob a job in the circus, is left paralysed by the cheap booze he ingests. Nor does Gruen shy away from the horrific conditions of circus work in the thirties; for both animals and people, life is precarious.

Jacob falls in love with the beautiful Marlena, but she’s already married to the mercurial and cruel August. The arrival of Rosie the elephant changes their fortunes forever.

Despite the darkness, this is a really uplifting book; and it’s a treat for anyone who loves animals. At times, Gruen’s prose is a little pedestrian; but Jacob is such a distinctive character it hardly matters. There is also a needless prologue, which ruins a plot twist; luckily there are more surprises awaiting us; and the book is so wonderful it can’t be spoilt.

Here's a nice picture of a pretty lifeboat. This book is nothing like that. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a nice picture of a pretty lifeboat. This book is nothing like that. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Uplifting is definitely not a word I would associate with Charlotte Rogan‘s The Lifeboat. It’s 1914, and young married couple Grace and Henry are sailing back to America on The Empress Alexandra. A mysterious explosion blows the ship apart, but before it sinks, Henry secures Grace a part on a crowded lifeboat. So begins three weeks of endurance as the passengers become increasingly physically and mentally frail and fraught.

Mr Hardie, the mate in command of the boat, struggles to contain the anger and despair of the passengers, and the quietly domineering Mrs Grant soon proves herself a rival to him. Paranoia abounds, and soon it becomes clear that some must die for any to survive.

For the first few chapters, I couldn’t get the spectre of the Titanic out of my mind. My mother is a massive Titanic buff, and having read so many first and second hand accounts of the event (never mind seeing the 1997 movie around 400 times), the narrative just seemed all too familiar. Bravely, Charlotte Rogan addresses the elephant in the cabin early in the book, mentioning that shipping routes and lifeboat regulations have been changed (but the Empress Alexandra managed to find a loophole, ensuring many of the men couldn’t get on a boat). I’m open to correction, but I find it very hard to believe that a boat could find itself lost on the Atlantic for three weeks; it feels a bit like being stuck on the M50 for days without seeing any other cars. Again, this is explained by the outbreak of World War I, but perhaps Rogan would have been better off setting the action thirty years earlier in a quieter ocean rather than relying on coincidence.

Mrs Grant remained rather anonymous to me, and certainly I couldn’t understand the hold she had over the rest of the passengers. She simply wasn’t in it enough, and certainly not as a figure of malevolence.

But on the plus side, it’s written beautifully, and you can feel the sea breeze on your cheeks and taste the salt in the air. The despair and madness the passengers find themselves in is described excellently; at its best it echoes novels like Lord of the Flies for its exploration of the savage side of human nature.

Bleak and haunting, it just about manages to overcome its flaws to become a deeply affecting read.

Just three books this month- disgrace! But there are more reviews to come in the next few days, watch this space. 

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