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Thursday, December 12, 2013

A sweaty business: Maggie O'Farrell and Instructions for a Heatwave

I don’t know about other families, but in mine, it was quite normal to reminisce about the ins and outs of the 1976 drought for some years after it happened. I was not born until the rather wetter summer of 1982 and even I grew up well acquainted with how the grass went brown and the lawn cratered and an uncle slept in the garden after a family party. Of course, this was extreme weather, British style, which is to say that actually, it wasn’t that bad. But there is something about elemental oddness that puts people on edge and makes them remember things that would otherwise be forgotten. It is this truth that Maggie O’Farrell puts forward in her now Costa short-listed novel Instructions for a Heatwave.

The characters of the novel are members of the Riordan family, Irish, Catholic and living in London without enough water. The man of the house, Robert Riordan, quiet, unassuming and recently retired, has gone out to buy a newspaper and not returned. This inexplicable disappearance fetches back his 3 adult children to their mother Gretta. It is an event which ricochets through their relationships, unravelling loyalties, loves and misapprehensions left, right and centre.

The Rhiodan children cut very different figures on the stage of parental and cultural expectation. The eldest, Michael Francis is a frustrated academic, forced into school teaching by the pregnancy of the English girlfriend who he was forced to marry and who was in turn, forced by motherhood into giving up her degree. His family has been formed and the relationships set in a defensive pose, with nobody being quite the person they want to be. Monica, who in my view was by far the most irritating character in the book, is the Rhiordan’s second child and has always been the favourite and the most overtly loyal. She has in her closet, a morbid fear of childbirth, a failed marriage and a limping attempt at a second marriage and step family. The baby and rebel of the family is Aoife, who is a charming and perceptive outsider whose significant mind is almost wholly taken up hiding her illiteracy from all who know her.

I am not sure that the family atmosphere of the Irish diaspora which O’Farrell captures really exists any more. This was a world in which “no Irish” signs were easily remembered and in which to be Irish and in England was to be thought of as something less than the English. I am not sure that the grandchildren of Robert and Gretta would really be aware of this now. Such casual prejudice has largely been transferred to other groups and many Irish names and indications now go unnoticed by the English. But in 1976 things were different. Thus Gretta clings to her Irishness, and uses it as an anchor for her identity. Her grown up children all reject it to greater and lesser degrees, but are bound to it nonetheless.

The reality of family life is that all parties are hiding things from those they love, in some cases major facts and in some cases simply their state of mind. Artificiality has become a way of life and the consequence of this secret keeping is that relationships have suffered and individuals have been isolated. Here we have a classic Maggie O’Farrell tale of family revelation and the redemptive power of the truth. Although I will not reveal it here, all is not too bad in the end.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Long live Longbourn!

As a rule, I recoil at the suggestion of reading Jane Austen fan fiction, sequels, variations or any other shade of sexed-up increments. As far as I am concerned, the original is always the best. So, I am not quite sure, how I found myself reading, nay, loving Jo Baker’s Pride and Prejudice inspired novel, Longbourn. But I did, and I am not sorry. It was excellent.

Longbourn is the imagined story of the servants of Longbourn – known to literature as the home of the Bennett family in P&P. The story takes place simultaneously with its better known upstairs incarnation, and in fact, continues for a short period after the P&P narrative ends. It takes for its heroes therefore, figures who are hardly more than shadows in the Austen original. Some with names, and some without, in P&P they are scurrying figures who deliver letters and assemble hairstyles. Jo Baker names them, gives them stories and loves and loses and makes them the heart of her narrative. In doing so, she shines a light on the parallel universe of back breaking toil that enabled the clink of tea cups in the regency drawing room.

The main characters from P&P are of course present, some far more present than others. However they are mostly off-stage. This is not a book about Lizzy and Mr Darcy as glimpsed from the servant’s hall. It is about the servants. Reading on my kindle, I rejoiced that Mr Darcy is not even mentioned until nearly 40% of the way through the book. I have always thought that he was over-exposed anyway. Of course, for those who know P&P very well, there is the gratification of knowing exactly where the “Longbourn” story is in the upstairs story line. Baker is also clever in the subtly different ways that she presents Austen’s main characters. She doesn’t radically change any of them, but she does reduce the romance of them.

Jo Baker’s work is more, not less successful because she has attempted something that Jane Austen would never have done. Austen’s work has become synonymous with the so-called 2 inches of ivory; the perfectly rendered account of a small landscape, with no deviations beyond. She would never have attempted to write an account of washing day, let alone the broader vistas of slavery and exploitation which underpinned the comfort of her world, because she knew nothing of them. Jo Baker steps into the space left open by Austen’s approach and is remarkably compelling.

Her writing is beautiful, and her characters are bold and real. The narrative focuses on the interlinking stories of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, James the footman and Sarah the maid. To the extent that Longbourn has a Lizzy below stairs, it is Sarah although I must say that it was the development of Mrs Hill that most touched me. In P&P Hill is often present in fleeting shadow form (and for those who have seen it, who could forget Alison Steadman’s Mrs Bennett constant screaming refrain “HILL”…). In Longbourn she is a complete person, brave, loving, intelligent and cruelly used by life.

Pictures are of the book, the author and the Longbourn of the 1995 series. Happy reading all.