Are You Still There Blog Readers? It’s Me, Alex.

It’s been a while, blog followers. I’m sorry about that. You see there’s only one chapter left to write of The Empty Mirror. Four or five thousand words standing between me and the finish line. And yet now that I’m this close to completion, I find that I can not concentrate on writing. Still this hasn’t stopped me trying. If I’m not sitting at my desk, staring at my screen, I am re-writing the same paragraph over and over, trying to find the right arrangement of words that will propel me forward. But so far, so stuck . It seems I have entered a literary cul-de-sac.

This has happened before. Then, I wrote my way out of it. I wrote about everything and anything: short stories; poems; articles; letters; this blog. But it seems whatever ‘block’ I’ve got this time has  been less selective and applied itself to my general ability to communicate.  This time, I am attempting to read my way out of it.  Here’s how I’ve been refuelling (the higlights):

The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall

This book winked at me from the shelves of my local bookshop. ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ said it’s beautiful cover: a riot of gold embossed cream petalled flowers and scrolling green leaves climbing up a matt turqouise background. Opening it up, I was delighted to find that the end papers were equally lovely, carrying the same floral design through in a one tone colourway so as not to detract from a series of four sun bleached polaroid shots which refer to visual memories of the story’s protagonist, Beth Lowe. In my opinion books should be beautiful. It’s only right that a bit of effort should go into the design of the front cover when so much effort that has gone into creating the words within. And, in the case of The Book of Summers, the words within are every bit as captivating as its cover.

It’s a good story. A heartbreaking story. Hall imagines what happens when a mother chooses to leave her husband and daughter to pursue a life in a different country. Or at least that what we are made to believe has happened. The Book of Summers charts the life of Erzsébet (Beth) Lowe across seven years through the ages of nine to sixteen, during which time her summers are spent with Marika, her mother, in Hungary and the rest of the year is spent with her father, David, in Devon. But events are turned on their head towards the end of the book when we realise that Beth has been living a lie. A mother’s abandonment of a child is a hugely emotive subject. As a mother myself, I could not imagine choosing to leave my daughter, but Hall handles the results of such an incomprehensible decision with great skill.

In  large part the novel works so well because of Hall’s deft characterisation of mother and daughter – for me this was the central relationship in the story.  I felt both Beth’s anxiousness and hidden heartache as well as Marika’s vivaciousness and restlessness acutely.

‘I shut my eyes, and my mother’s voice sounded at once very close and dreadfully far. But her words seemed to wrap themselves around me, curl under my armpits and tuck behind my ears, with a gentle music. It was a different sort of mother that spoke to me. A honeyed version, laying words like garlands. I curled into the chair in the hallway and put my lips very close to the receiver. I tried hard not to cry, in case my tears fell into the telephone and cut off the connection. My cheeks ached after a while, from all the beaming.’ (p.55)

‘I always knew that my mother was different from my father and me. She’s blown by different winds, he used to say, but that made her sound flimsy, and I knew better. She snapped like a firecracker when she was mad and cried the Danube when she was happy, but she always did exactly what she wanted. She was tall and proud and relentlessly foreign, with a scarlet stain for lips and hair like a flock of ravens.’ (p.32)

But I was most impressed by Hall’s writing style which is strong and evocative and conjures wonderful images of a childhood split between two countries. The differences between Beth’s ‘worlds’ are marked out by the articulation of every day events: eating, sleeping, relaxing. In Marika’s vivid, chaotic world in Hungary, Beth spends her days swimming in a forest pool and eats  sweetcorn on a stick, salted and smeared with butter; cold cherry soup; raspberry cake; bullet hole cheese; bleeding tomatoes and peppers the colour of bananas. In her Father’s rain lashed Devon, she eats chops and peas, crumpets and toast and pushes dominos around the kitchen table.

There was a lot to like about the structure of the story too. The main body of the narrative is segmented into chapters dedicated to each of Beth’s summers with the whole framed within  a prologue and epilogue that contains mirroring content. This was a nice touch and gave the whole thing a feeling of completion without the notion that Beth’s story had truly ended.

I was really sorry to finish The Book of Summers. Being thrown in and out of Hungary made for an exhilarating read and by the end of it I was hankering for some paprika crisps and a ride down the Danube. Gorgeous writing from a debut novelist. I look forward to her next book with real interest.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Here lies writing excellence. This Booker Prize winning story is so exquistely crafted that it deserves to re-read and re-read again. Moon Tiger is a very slim volume and every single word in it works hard to earn its place.  We first meet Claudia Hampton, an author, historian and war correspondent stationed in Egypt during the second world war, on her death bed in hospital. From here she narrates her life story dipping in and out of her past as she goes in and out of consciousness, flitting between past and present from paragraph to paragraph with a few point of view and tense changes thrown in for good measure. Often the same incident is retold by three different characters on the same page. Sounds complicated? It is a bit, but it really works.

And what a life Claudia has had. Love, death, war, politics, film and incest all feature and her retelling is packed with the kind of straight talking, intelligent prose that lifts this book into the ‘Wow’ category.

I was absolutely enthralled by Moon Tiger and nothing I can say can do justice to the real thing. So to save me waffling, just read it and be amazed.

Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich

I have been reading this wonderful book for about three months and I am still reading it. I read a paragraph, a few pages and then I have to put it down. The reason for this sporadic approach is that its content enrages me. As the title suggests it’s about motherhood and it discusses the issue in feminist terms in a social context. Inevitably she talks about patriarchy, describing it as a

‘familial-social, ideological, political system in which men – by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education and the division of labour, determine what part women shall or shall not play, ad in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.’

Elsewhere she quotes sociologist, Brigette Berger:

‘…until now a primary masculine intellect and spirit have dominated in the interpretation of society and culture – whether this interpretation is carried out by males or females….fundamentally masculine assumptions have shaped out whole moral and intellectual history.’

You can see why I start to get annoyed. Imagining a  world where women are considered equal in every sense would apparently require us  to start again and, amongst other things, start a new language because language is at the root of all power (I’m massively paraphrasing here).  So it’s a stirring book. I read it and feel inspired, not necessarily to write, but to live my life less submissively and to try to instil a confidence in my own daughter that is rooted in all the qualities that make her female.

So that’s how I’ve been filling up. For a complete list of my recent reading history see Reading List 2012.