Reading group choices and responses 2008

January
Persephone Reading Group: Every Eye by Isobel English
This is a decpetively slight novel, 118 pages including the afterword. I read it three times, and gained more from the experience each time. The writing is lucid and vibrant. Images and recollections move from pastr to present seamlessly. It is a wander though memory, exquisitely told. It feels incredibly modern. Highly reommended.


Reading for Pleasure: Atonement by Ian McEwan
An excitingly good book. The story is compelling and I guess most of us have read it or seen the film by now. We are doing a tour of Stokesay Court on September 14th: contact the shop for more details. back to the book; I completely loved it, and think this is a book that will still be being read a hundred years from now. The writing is fabulous, and as well as the plot, which is fascinating, McEwan layers in explorations of what it means to be a writer, or a reader; What is fiction; Where is truth; Why does fiction matter and what does it mean? A very wonderful book.

February
Reading for Pleasure: The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly
Karen Connelly won the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers this year with the the Lizard Cage. It’s the story of Teza, a song-writer/political prisoner, and a young, nameless orphan boy who lives in the prison. The story begins seven years into a 20 year sentence of solitary confinement. That’s the bare bones of it. What Connelly does with this story though, is to take something that’s unremittingly grim and heart-breaking, and transform it into a story of redemption, compassion and love. Connelly is a Canadian and a poet, and like Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces – winner of the Orange prize-winner in 1997 - her writing is so beautiful, and so moving, that even as we turn away from the horror she portrays, on some level we embrace it as she does, knowing that we must know; we must bear witness. This is also a story of language, the power of words to change worlds. The boy sleeps with books under his head that he cannot read, he doesn’t even have an alphabet; these books are his friends, and it is the depth of his desire to read that eventually sets him free. I couldn’t help but think of Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling as I read: sometimes the truest freedom is wrenched from the darkest prison.

March
Persephone Reading Group: They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple

When I read my first Dorothy Whipple, Someone at a Distance, I read it in one sitting, unable to drag myself away from the story, but bereft when I’d finished it. I had exactly the same experience reading this one. Luckily I’d got a rare day off (I teach a dance class on a Monday, but it was half term), so in an empty house I settled myself down on the sofa in the bay window to enjoy the bright February sunshine, a couple of cats on my lap, and a new book! When I put the book down, it was dark outside and the cats were hungry, but I had been transported to another world.
The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. The book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family's swift climb and fall. The fact that we know from the beginning that tragedy is inevitable in no way spoils the suspense, or the drive of the narrative. Whipple’s story-telling is superb, and we are drawn ever inward to the doomed world she portrays so brilliantly.
The Blakes are ordinary, yes, but it’s an ‘ordinary’ that we scarcely recognise. While their house is so small that one can call out on the landing and be heard in the kitchen, they nevertheless have a full-time cook, who prepares Thomas’ breakfast of bacon and coffee and who magnificently rustles up shortbread, bread and butter (thinly sliced) and toast and honey for an impromptu tea when the wife of the financier comes to call unexpectedly.
Celia is, of course, a stay-at-home wife, who knows little of her husband’s working life, nor is she expected to. They work well as a team, whether in the garden of a week-end - she likes to tend and tidy, he to uproot and cut down – or on family day trips into the countryside. Theirs is a warm marriage, where each supports the other, and where passion has been replaced by friendship, respect and mutual love.
Thomas though, is influenced by Mr Knight and starts to speculate, making just enough money at first to buy back the engineering firm which had once had his father’s name above the door. Inevitably, his speculations increase, with disastrous results that I shan’t spell out here. Whipple shows just how easy it is to slide down the slippery slope to ruin. Even Celia, all innocent homeliness, comes to a point where she too is seduced, and indeed, it is when they both throw caution to the winds that the tragedy draws even nearer.
The children, two girls and a boy, are fully part of the story, each with their rĂ´le to play: Freda, the fashion–conscious little snob, who dreams of a better, more moneyed life; Ruth who spends all her time scribbling, and is warm-hearted and down-to-earth, and lastly young Tom, who dreams of becoming a great chemist, in opposition to his Father’s dream of passing on the engineering business to him. There are also wonderful minor characters, drawn beautifully and simply; the unloved wife, the put upon Mother-in-law, the feckless brother. And interestingly, each character experiences some kind of transformation that causes us to reconsider our perceptions of them.
Although I learned recently that Virago modern classics refused to republish Whipple because they thought she wasn’t good enough (they even had “a Whipple line”!) I fully applaud Persephone’s decision to publish four of her novels, and I recommend them to you highly.