Beginnings and Endings in January 2021

January”s theme: beginnings and endings. Two books from the 1001 Books list (Middlemarch by George Eliot and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis). Light relief: The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy and some long-neglected books (What Happened at Hazelwood, a whodunnit by Michael Innes plus a memoir of grief by Simone de Beauvoir).

In January I ended up reading two books from the 1001 Books list (Middlemarch by George Eliot and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis), finishing a couple of books which have been on my shelf since I started going to BookCrossing meetings (What Happened at Hazelwood, a whodunnit by Michael Innes and a memoir of grief by Simone de Beauvoir). I finally finished reading Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming and read a lovely story about building a community using the power of libraries and books, The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, borrowed from my local library before lockdown back in August last year and automatically renewed, given the libraries haven’t been reopened since (until last week, 19 May 2021!).

Every month I tell myself I’m going to write an overview of what I intended to read and what I actually read, but somehow I never do. So I’m going to try to rectify that. If nothing else, it will give me an easy to way to link through to my short reviews on Goodreads and to longer reviews on my blog if I finally get round to writing them. This time round, I’m going to post relatively brief reviews for each book in this blog post. The BookCrossing Ultimate Challenge theme for January was Beginnings and Endings, so I tried to read some books related to that, however tenuous some of the links are; death is a pretty final ending to a relationship and the edge of Europe is another ending. Other books date back to the very beginning of Mount TBR and The Old Devils must be one of the first books I bought as an adult.

What I read in January 2021

What Happened at Hazelwood by Michael Innes

Unfocused distractability with everyone milling about after Christmas made me idly pick this up, then got stuck with it when one of the cats sat on me, so decided to continue reading and I’m glad I did. Mind boggling! This somewhat humorous country house crime novel kept me guessing until the end. It was a cross between Wodehouse, Christie and good old British farce, with people climbing up and down trellises, posing as other characters, dressing up, making hoax phone calls and generally causing confusion and provoking moral outrage.

Once I started reading, I was surprised that the author and book weren’t better known, but it appears that he was more known for his Appleby series of crime novels. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the fact that this story has particularly non-PC aspects. The brothers George and Denzell Simney had been on youthful ‘blackbirding’ raids round the Pacific islands, i.e. they had been involved in small-scale slave-trading, though I’m not entirely sure where this was supposed to have taken place and exactly what it involved. As a result, they were on the run from the Australian authorities, but seemingly more so because one of them had shot at an anthropologist, rather than for the slaving raids themselves. Though this was used as one of the many examples of their appalling behaviour, there isn’t much moral outrage about these exploits. As for the language, not only is there the ‘blackbirding’ itself, but ‘the N word’ is also used. What is more, Mervyn is described as an effete mummy’s boy, Willoughby has aspersions cast upon his manliness because he is an artist and another character has had extensive psychotherapy to cure him of his aversion to marrying his beautiful fiancée Nicolette, a woman every other male character finds totally irresistible. This is definitely not a novel that translates well into 21st century sensibilities. The story, however, does stand the test of time and could be filmed as an entertaining period piece, bar the racism and homophobia.

Oddly enough, I discovered that I had two copies of this obscure whodunnit and, bizarrely, the title is spelled incorrectly on the cover of one of them, even though it is correct inside the book itself! One of them names the country house as Hazlewood on the cover instead of Hazelwood. I have to admit, the more I saw the word, the more I began to doubt my sanity, even though checking that sort of thing is part of my job.

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

A delightful story of a rather stuffy traditional librarian in rural Ireland who is gradually persuaded to become involved in a campaign which could revitalise the local community and the local area in a grassroots initiative, taking back control from centralised bureaucracy and vested interests. Just the thing for a dull January weekend. First in a series, apparently. I borrowed it from my local library, very happy to find a book in English that wasn’t a thriller or romance.

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

It’s safe to say the film version of Diamonds are Forever is more exciting and the dialogue is far more witty than the book. I started reading this for the 1956 Club and wrote a review back then, but I actually finished reading in the New Year.

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1001 book)

I have mixed feelings about this book. Some of it was extremely difficult or confusing to read, yet other sections I flew through. On the whole I enjoyed it, but it was extremely long, with a few chapters which seemed there only to slow down the plot. There was a stage at which I felt sure that Lydgate would have been perfectly justified in snapping and strangling the spoilt, self-centred Rosamond with her self-destructive obstinacy and underhand ways; it could have easily turned into the explanation of a murder, especially if it had started with a beautiful woman’s body. What possessed her husband to commit the crime…? That wasn’t this book, though.

Alternative title: Will and Willfulness? If Jane Austen hadn’t already laid claim to the title, this book might just as well have been titled Pride and Prejudice. So many of the characters assume something about other people because of their background or gossip. Yet more are too proud to actually express what they feel about somebody; Ladislaw and Dorothea being prime examples. There are also numerous occasions where straight talking would have made things a lot easier, not the least between Lydgate and Rosamond, but also Dorothea and Ladislow. Misunderstandings are rife as people talk in coded terms, disguising offers of loans in ambiguous terms (Farebrother), being too modest or high-principled to declare one’s feelings (Dorothea, Farebrother). Straight talking would also have cleared up Dorothea and Casaubon’s relationship. Without all those ‘delicate feelings’ and pre-empting other people’s feelings, much of the gossip would have been quashed. Pride is considered a sin, so why is everyone so concerned to do things their own way, without help; Ladislaw and Lydgate are both victims of their own pride.

It was extremely frustrating that there was such a large number of people who were overly keen to sacrifice their own happiness to avoid anybody else being inconvenienced. Or to insist that they could only prove their worth by making their own way in the world (Ladislaw and Lydgate). So much pride!


Een zachte dood/Une mort très douce (A gentle death) by Simone de Beauvoir

My first Simone de Beauvoir, read in Dutch, and I’m disappointed. I really know nothing about her or her views and this book is definitely not the book to read to find out more. I also wonder why she wrote it. Was it to shock people by breaking the taboo of speaking about dying unpleasantly in general and cancer in particular? Because I suppose it is a relatively recent thing to talk and write about cancer other than in hushed tones. I’d worry about people affected by cancer reading this now and assuming that’s what it’s like, because treatments have progressed immeasurably and become more bearable since 1979, though not all suffering can be eliminated. Would someone read this and decide they didn’t want any treatment? I have heard of someone who said she wouldn’t want to go through the chemotherapy her mother did, but that was 40 years ago and things have (supposedly) progressed. That’s the danger of reading something so dated.

The thing that stands out above all others is the guilt that both daughters feel about lying to their mother about what was happening to her. Nowadays a patient with cancer is told exactly what is wrong with them and told what the side effects of their treatment will be. It is entirely their own choice if they go through with it. And in this case, the mother had little choice because her suffering was due to a wound failing to heal and bed rest due to a broken hip resulting in horrendous bedsores; her suffering was less to do with the cancer itself. Having said which, she didn’t give permission for that operation. She was tricked, then not told what it was for. A surgeon would probably be struck off for that now!

Perhaps what was most unexpected was the lack of depth to the author’s ideas about death and dying; I’d expected more. I was also disappointed by the style of writing. This may have been the translation, which I can only describe as pedestrian. Having read some reviews with quotations from the English translation, it seems more fluid and literary, which is what I had expected. And I did also occasionally wonder what the original French had been because it felt like a phrase had been translated as individual words which didn’t convey the same meaning. Of course, I have no way of checking this, but it was interesting that on the evening I finished reading this, I happened to watch a BBC Storyville documentary about the fire at the Notre Dame, French interviews, subtitled in English. I noticed they translated ‘soulagé’ as ‘relieved’. This was a word I had reverse looked up earlier to find a possible original of something that had felt ‘off’. Suffice it to say it hadn’t been translated as ‘relieved’, which fitted the context better.

To sum up, a disappointing read that has been taking up room on my shelf for far too long with far too little reason.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1001 book)

Having recently finished the nearly 900-page 19th-century smalltown novel of relationships and social commentary, Middlemarch, The Old Devils didn’t seem like such a struggle any more. Another small town, more convoluted relationships. This has been on my bookshelves for about 30 years. I started it once or twice, but didn’t get far. This was its last chance and only because it is on the 1001 list and I have read one other book by Kingsley Amis which I thoroughly enjoyed, many years ago. No, not that one; I’ve never come across Lucky Jim. The one I read was the infinitely shorter alternate history of The Alteration, read so long ago, all I can remember is that it is about a chorister who is about to become a castrato.

From what I’ve picked up in passing, Amis was considered misogynistic, racist and was an alcoholic and serial adulterer, though a great wit and charming with it. If so, he used it all to good advantage in this, one of his later novels. Not so much the humour, though there is some slapstick in descriptions of the problems of becoming old, overweight and inebriated, some of which is lavatorial. Why do so many British male authors feel the need to revert to 13-year-old level? Like Middlemarch, it feels at first like there are many characters, paired off in mostly unfulfilling marriages, but I kept a cheat sheet and they soon became (mostly) distinct from each other.

On the surface, these middle class retirees have nothing much to offer us. Many pages are spent describing how they are wasting the remainder of their lives, the men at the pub, the women meeting up what seems like every day sloshing back the wine at each other’s houses. Every day is another chance to talk about what’s wrong with the modern world, husbands/wives and each other. Life is boring and stagnant. All changes when old friends return from London where Alun has led the life of a celebrity spokesman for Wales and supposed expert on Dylan Thomas’s fictionalised clone, Brydan. Ironically, the media’s current Welsh representative of choice includes Rob Brydon, though this book predates his rise to fame by many decades. Alun and his attractive wife Rhiannon throw a cat among the pigeons because Alun is a serial adulterer who intends to revisit all his previous conquests and wastes no time in doing so. Rhiannon also has a romantic past with at least two of the other men, but her role is to put up with her husband’s exploits; they still seem to have a connection. She puts up with him because he always returns to her; a very long-suffering woman!

Many reviewers complain that Amis doesn’t fully flesh out his female characters. Indeed, I noticed that he tends to tell their stories in dialogue and descriptions, whereas we get to hear the men’s own thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, the women do play a strong role in this book. Sophie is a shoulder to cry on, the listener of the group and strongly supports her husband Charlie who has nightmares and is scared of the dark. It was another reviewer who mentioned this was probably a result of his alcoholism. Some of these people are terrible people, notably Alun, but also the awful jolly hockeysticks Englishwoman Muriel who verbally tortures husband Peter and drops a bombshell on him on their son’s wedding day, thus ruining the ceremony for him.

In spite of all the ancient history between these couples, Alun’s ability to sweep all the women off their feet just doesn’t ring true. Teenagers and university students in friend groups do tend to exchange partners, but this doesn’t mean the same feelings remain forever, nor do aged libidos miraculously recover once an old flame turns up. Maybe this was the ultimate fantasy for a pre-Viagra generation of men, confronted with the pre-HRT-health-scare generation of women. Nevertheless, I ended up enjoying The Old Devils, however staid their devilry was. The final chapters were poignant, with satisfactory endings for several of the characters and a comeuppance for one that was undoubtedly deserved.

The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell: review

Moral dilemmas abound in this tale of class, obsession and how people can justify the appalling actions of someone they love.

Questioning your own moral judgments

Ruth Rendell's Tree of Hands

This book gripped me from the start, but it didn’t go where I’d expected and it wasn’t the crime novel I’d expected, either. I’ve only read a few of Ruth Rendell’s books and every one I’ve read has had the same effect: unputdownable. The way Rendell incorporated the psychological sides of crimes, big and workaday, is sublime and, certainly within this novel, it will leave you questioning your own moral judgments. You’ll find yourself sympathising with criminal behaviour, wondering if – just in this one case – it might be justified, rooting for someone to get away with something truly criminal (until you think it through) and being on the side of someone who is spying on his girlfriend and perhaps turning into someone who could have carried out a crime passionel.

The first protagonist, Benet, is an author, giving Ruth Rendell the opportunity to comment on writers and how they relate to other people. When her mother suggests letting her work while she reads. “Benet shook her head. The peculiar conditions necessary for writing – some measure of solitude, a contemplative atmosphere, a certain preparation of the mind – she felt unable to explain to anyone not involved in the process.” (p.16)

When a doctor comments on her book, that makes her happier than if he had been interested in her as a woman. “It was somehow as gratifying as getting her first good review had been.” (p.44)

The tree of hands, motherhood and a ruby ring

First sentence: “Once, when Benet was about fourteen, they had been in a train together, alone in the carriage, and Mopsa had tried to stab her with a carving knife.”

The title, the cover and the first sentence initially put me on the wrong foot here. The first tree of hands is one that the protagonist at the beginning, Benet, sees at a hospital, with paper hands decorated by the children instead of leaves. Initially she finds it macabre, perhaps because of her state of mind at that point. However, it seems rather bizarre for her to later paint a similar tree of hands on Jay’s nursery wall. Nevertheless, the tree plays a minor role in the plot, so I wonder why it was chosen as the title. It did occur to me that the title would have made more sense if Benet’s novel had been called The Tree of Hands; I wonder if Ruth Rendell considered that idea. Tied in with this is the image on the cover of my edition of an elegant woman’s hand wearing a ruby ring, dripping blood, so we’re set up to expect murder, but that really isn’t what the plot is about; the ruby ring is a minor detail.

Talking of minor details: looking at my own hand, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to manoevre a hand into the position shown in that image!

Perhaps the first sentence, referring to Benet having being attacked by her mother as a teenager, is more relevant to how the adult Benet eventually behaves than I first realised while reading. Although the relationship between the two women is explored in the first half of the book, its effects on Benet seem underdeveloped in relation to things that happen later. At one point, Benet reads about the effect child abuse has on its victims. Ruth Rendell never expands on this, yet it does seem one of the things Benet might have grasped as a justification for her actions, acting as a rescuer for another victim. Or maybe it was the reason she became so independent, thus casting herself off from real friendship and closeness with other adults whose advice and confidence she might have sought.

What’s in a name?

There was one theme running through the book that intrigues me but wasn’t specifically mentioned: the influence of changing your name. Benet chose her name herself, distancing herself from her childhood name of Brigitte (after Bardot). This is also tied in with the fact that she had gone up in the world after the success of her novel so that she was able to move away from the rough part of London she lived in before her success and move to the well-off area of Hampstead. I have a pet theory that changing your name can change your personality or, at least, it can make you feel a different person. If this happens in childhood, it is can make you feel split; not to the extent of schizophrenia, but off-balance. Maybe the arrival of her mother, who insists on calling her Brigitte, throws Benet back into more childish thought patterns. The theme of names is also an issue for the child in the story.

Snobbery, stereotypes, assumptions

Apparently Ruth Rendell was known for her depictions of class differences. In The Tree of Hands, there is a contrast between the middle class Benet and the working class characters such as Carol, Barry and Terry. Benet is snobbish in her expectations about Carol and Barry and hence her ideas about how they treat their son, her expectations of neglect, even before she had evidence. Incidentally, we never have any proof that it was Carol who hurt him; it could just as easily have been any number of people who were roped in to babysit. Benign neglect is not the same as harm. Benet is also prejudiced against Jason simply because she considers him ugly, which is hardly his fault. She only seems to develop an interest in him when he shows some talent for drawing and is surprised that a child of his background should be gifted or intelligent. I did find that rather grating.

Another odd detail that surprised me was the prevalence of cooked lunch. There are several mentions of soup and beans on toast and the like and nary a mention of sandwiches, which would have been far more likely in the 1980s, even for people who were at home at lunchtime. Perhaps I’m showing the class I grew up in? Or maybe it was just what Ruth Rendell was used to.

Attitudes to single mothers in the 1980s

This novel was written in the 1980s and that is reflected in how women are portrayed. Marriage is still the norm, living together is frowned upon and having a child out of wedlock is still somewhat scandalous. Edward is peeved that Benet won’t marry him and accuses her of using him to get pregnant though I had the feeling she didn’t originally intend it that way; however, by letting him believe that, she could end the relationship first time round and he could tell himself it was her fault not his that the relationship failed.

The men are almost all really weak and morally corrupt. Barry is a fool for love, obsessive and paranoid. Terry is using women to fund his expensive tastes, then taking revenge, then starts to become paranoid as he fears being caught. Edward only wants Benet when he’s down on his luck, when his thoughts turn to blackmail.

Motherlove: it’s complicated

Benet’s dilemma when she finds out what her mother has done should have been straightforward, but by trying to protect her mother, she loses all sense of reason. Why is she so keen to protect her? Embarrassment; as a famous novelist, she doesn’t want the notoriety. Her judgment is obviously clouded by her own state of mind at the time. Nevertheless, her initial reaction is horror. She has repeated opportunities to come clean, but, like a lying child, keeps on rationalising the deception. The feeling of anger at her mother for putting her in that situation should have been enough to guide her decision. The child’s obvious desperation to get back to his own mother when he sees her on the television should have told her she needed to take him back, whatever her reservations about how he had been treated by his family.

Characters

Benet: unable to commit to adult relationships

Mother: unstable, self-obsessed

Carol: an unfit mother, an unfaithful partner

Barry: drew the short straw, becoming obsessed with a woman who was a born liar, a thief and utterly unfaithful. Caring, hardworking. He is the only one who seemed to actually miss the kidnapped boy. He’s not all good, though; his love is physical, turning into obsession and more or less becoming a stalker. Maybe he’ll be able to make a new, normal life for himself now he’s free of Carol.

Terry: out for what he can get, conman for love, loveable inept criminal. I was rooting for him, but only in the context of fiction; in real life I would definitely disapprove. Did his Caribbean-bound lover get what she deserved? Possibly, just for her taste in decor!

Truth is stranger than fiction

The dedication at the front of the book is “For Francesca, my godchild, with love.” This is Francesca Witt, who was left £ 300,000 in Ruth Rendell’s will  and thanked her in a tweet:

Bizarrely, in an incident that her godmother could have written herself, Francesca Witt found a machete under the floorboards in her house. When she phoned the police, they told her to dispose of it herself, but after she contacted the local press, the police decided to collect it after all.