Well I certainly made up for last month! Here are a selection of books I read in March…
Like almost every other Irish person on the planet, I’ve spent some time in Australia. It’s a country with a way of burrowing under your skin- somewhere so absurdly beautiful and otherworldly that you can’t help falling a little bit in love.
It’s also a country that tends to be a little neglected by fiction. One of Australia’s best-known writers, Peter Carey, has done much to remedy this. Novels such as Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang have brought the nation’s history to life. He’s a great writer, and I adored the only other Carey novel I’ve read, 2010’s Parrot and Olivier in America.
On paper, I should love his second novel, Illywhacker. The story of 139-year-old Herbert Badgery, who may or may not be making up his extraordinary life, and who has lived through some of the most notable events in Aussie history, should be right up my alley. I love the picaresque, and I enjoy a bit of magic realism. And it’s Oz, and it’s Peter Carey. So why did it leave me so cold?
Firstly, Illywhacker is long. The book is divided into three acts- Herbert’s marriage to Phoebe, a (literally) flighty lesbian poet, his life on the road with their children and the dancer Leah Goldstein, and finally, his son’s adventures in running a most unusual pet shop in Sydney. I found the book a slog to be frank- a lot of Herbert’s stories reminded me more of a dirty-minded Grandpa Simpson without the latter’s bizarre charm.
The characters in Illywhacker are fairly charmless too- Herbert far too self-aggrandising (he never meets a woman who doesn’t want to shag him), Leah too austere, Phoebe an almighty pain in the behind. Only the hapless Charles emerges with any likability, and his eventual fate is so dark it casts a pall over the rest of the book. There is also Herbert’s grandson Hissao, who suddenly becomes a psychopath on the flimsiest of motives. The novel’s ending is one of the darkest I have read in a while, and I can’t imagine it pleased too many Aussies.
I can’t say I was overly impressed with Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black either. I reviewed her debut The Thirteenth Tale back in September, and while it stretched belief at times, it was a wonderful read for a winter’s evening. This time around, Setterfield has stuck with the Victorian era, and has decided to focus on its obsession with death.
William Bellman killed a rook with a catapult as a child, an event that haunted him ever since, no matter how hard he tries to repress it. As he grows into adulthood, he becomes a successful mill owner, well-liked, a fair boss, and loved husband and father. And then it all starts to go wrong.
Eventually Bellman opens a mourning emporium in London to capitalise on the fashion for funerals. This too, becomes a roaring success, but Bellman is terrified of his sleeping partner, a mysterious man in black who only shows up in graveyards.
Setterfield can write, and it’s a story you will absolutely tear through. However it’s very slight, and not in the least scary. The focus on business and stock too may weary some readers.
Far better is Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love. Mantel is in the habit of writing door-stoppers; her Thomas Cromwell novels weigh in at well over 400 pages each, and her French Revolution tome, A Place of Greater Safety, is almost 1000 pages long. So therefore, it’s a bit surprising to pick up her 1995 novel, An Experiment in Love. Clocking in at 250 pages, short it might be, slight it is not.
Carmel McBain is a northern English girl of Irish Catholic descent who studies law at the University of London (parallels abound with Mantel’s own path in life). We first meet her many years later when she flicks through the Daily Telegraph and spots a picture of an old schoolmate, the glamorous and wealthy Julianne Lipcott.
Carmel tells us the story of her first year in university, spliced with scenes from her childhood. Carmel begins uni in the early 70s, alongside Julianne and the studiedly unimaginative and cynical Karina. Carmel and Karina have been friends since early childhood. Forced together by circumstance and the pressures of their respective parents, Karina bullies Carmel and constantly subtly undermines her.
But there is no point in Carmel reporting this to her domineering and dismissive mother- it’s hinted at that Karina’s parents were victims of the Holocaust and Carmel’s mother won’t have a word said against them.
Carmel can only hope that her and Karina’s paths diverge, but they both win a scholarship to the Holy Redeemer, a Catholic grammar school, and both end up in London. Julia, a doctor’s daughter who Carmel befriended in secondary school, cannot stand Karina, and insists that they use university life as an excuse to shake her loose.
They become friends with bright and kind Lynette, the shy Sue and conservative and judgemental Claire. A succession of boyfriends pass through the all-female dorms. Carmel christens them ‘Rogers’ because she can never remember their individual names, and she names the wealthy Sloanes who populate the college ‘Sophies’. She remains loyal to her teen sweetheart, Niall.
The first generation of women to have access to the Pill and therefore casual sex, the men themselves become trivial and unimportant, and remain sketchy figures throughout. Even Carmel’s gentle but ineffectual father is barely drawn- she found, after puberty, she never knew what to say to him.
Mantel never wastes a word and yet she packs in themes of identity, sexuality, religion, guilt, female friendship, enmity and the female body, without ever hitting the reader on the head with it. Carmel lives on a miniscule grant, and her pride prevents her from asking her parents for more. She never had a positive relationship with food. As a child, her mother gave her small portions of miserable meals, and there was never any pleasure associated with eating. She decides that if she has to save money, proper meals can be jettisoned.
Carmel is a perfect psychological candidate for anorexia, or the ‘Slimmer’s Disease’ as it’s rather quaintly referred to in ’70s slang, and it soon grips her. However, as Carmel herself insists in the present day, eating egg and toast in her kitchen, that there’s more to the story than an eating disorder.
At its heart, An Experiment in Love is a story about women, the relationships they have with themselves and others. Karina, for example, tries her damnedest to be English, Catholic and sensible, possibly because of the trauma in her family’s past- “don’t be daft” is her constant refrain to Carmel. She is an intriguing character, inhabiting a moral grey area. Julianne is dismissive of Carmel too, but she is glamorous and charming, and is there when she is needed.
Personally, even though I went to Catholic girls schools over thirty years after the action of this novel and in a different country, I found a lot to identify with in this novel. The pressure to be the best and well-behaved you can be, and the minefield of all-female dynamics has not changed much since the 1960s/70s.
Yet another fantastic Mantel novel, ensuring I will be devouring the rest of her output as soon as I can.
Finally, a word about Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. The story begins in 1962. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton are falling in love on the set of Cleopatra in Rome, but meanwhile, a young American actress turns up at the Hotel Adequate View on the Ligurian coast, run by college dropout Pasquale. She is dying, and has come to stay for her last days.
Beautiful Ruins’ plot is far-fetched, to say the least, but it hardly matters. The author takes us on a journey from Italy to LA to Idaho and London, exploring how the events in Liguria have reverberated through time. If you like multi-narrator novels set in exotic places, this novel will be your perfect beach read this summer.