Clarissa thought she knew who she was, she thought she’d come to terms with her mother’s abandonment years ago and she thought she was close to her father. But following his death, she finds her birth certificate with another man named as her father. Then it turns out her fiancé, whom she’s known since childhood, knew about this all along, prompting Clarissa to flee to Lapland in search of the Sami priest she believes is her real father. Her quest takes her through the artic landscape where she meets people who once knew her mother, including the Sami priest. Still no closer to the truth, she eventually meets her mother in the far north wilderness, though this is not a happy reunion. The woman who named her Clarissa, after Samuel Richardson’s heroine “with the hope that you’d rewrite history” is intent on evading questions about her own past. I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say, Clarissa is just as deft as her mother in refusing to be a victim of her history. The story unfolds at quite a pace, full of innovative descriptions, with a very contemporary voice.

I’ve not read Richardson’s Clarissa (the longest novel in English!) but what I’ve gleaned from plot summaries reminds me of Henry James’s The Portrait of Lady – Isabel Archer is determined to choose her a life compatible with her own ideals, resisting traditional expectations. The unforeseen consequences of Isabel’s choice, her inability to find a way out, bound by her very own ideals, is so tragic. It’s one of those books I often return to, hoping to trace where she went wrong, secretly wishing it would turn out differently! Thankfully Vida’s Let the Northern Lights has a far more optimistic ending.

On the last page Vida acknowledges Galen Strawson’s essay “Against Narrative” as an inspiration for this novel – she was “curious about the kind of person who would see their past as unconnected to their present.” It’s a thought provoking essay questioning the model of narrativity for the way the mind works – pointing out that some people favour form over narrative, seeing greater significance in episodes and abstract ideas rather than in cause and effect narrative.
Let the Northern Lights certainly explores the idea of self-narrative – though I did wonder if didn’t owe as much to an earlier interview with Strawson (published in the Believer) which explores his thoughts about free will.


When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own. – John Berger

Back from hibernation! My reading over the last few months certainly included books with wintry themes – but as often happens with reading plans, another pattern emerged – one of identity and voice.

Voyage in The Dark by Jean Rhys
An essential part of my interest in this novel is the closely biographical aspect, as it mirrors Rhys’s experiences, before she became part of the bohemian Paris literary scene in the late 1920s. She had published a collection of stories and two novels before Voyage in the Dark was released in 1934, but it draws on her earliest writing.

Anna Morgan grew up in Dominica and after the death of her father comes to England with her stepmother, who soon withdraws financial support, forcing Anna to make her own way. The social realities for a young woman with few family or monetary resources in pre-war 1914 England, are depicted with unflinching honesty. Ever present are Anna’s recollections of Dominica introducing strange ways of seeing and articulating, counterpointed with her observations of the wet, grey English streets.

“It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different, the smells different, the feelings things gave you deep down in yourself was different. Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness; purple, grey. But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy.”

Anna initially works as a chorus girl but the constant moving and damp climate result in recurrent illness. Then she meets Walter, who sets her up in a hotel room in London and gives her money for clothes. As Anna becomes increasingly emotionally and financially dependent, it becomes clear that they have very different expectations of the relationship. Class and gender politics come to the fore as Walter inevitably breaks it off with Anna. She falls in with other women making their own way in London; a masseuse who maintains a veneer of propriety and caution, and a fun-loving girl who more clearly relies on the generosity of her many male “friends” to get by. The observations of the way women use clothes to bolster their esteem, and the link between hope for a better future and spending are still relevant. Anna has several short relationships, each more disappointing than the last, often prompted by being desperately short of money. As she descends into depression, a clarity of voice emerges which one hopes will see her through.

“It’s funny when you don’t want anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you can hear time sliding past you, like water running.”

St John (1988) by Gerhard Richter

St John 1988 by Gerhard Richter

When the novel concludes, Anna’s future is far from certain, her doctor’s reassurance that she’ll be “ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt” reverberates in her mind as “starting all over again, all over again”.  This is what Rhys does so well – the singular perspective, entailing all the messiness of memory, acute observation and painful emotional interactions – emerging as a clear and distinct voice.

Rhys’s moody style and lonely characters, especially in her short stories (my favourite is the collection Tigers are Better-Looking) prompted me to return to her work. Now I’m curious about the next phase of her life, fictionalised in Quartet, which charts her affair with Ford Maddox Ford.

Patrick Gale has long been a favourite author of mine, ever since a chance encounter years ago when I was working in a Melbourne bookshop. He was looking for recommendations on gardening books, explaining that Australian natives grew well in the part of Cornwall where he lived. Before long the warmth and rapture of his description of Land’s End had me curious not only to find out more about Cornwall but to read his books as well. I’ve enjoyed his entire backlist and each new book surpasses his earlier ones in tone, form and complexity of issues. I always look forward to being reliably swept along into the heart of a family, as “real world” surroundings drop away, and the characters persist long after I’ve put the book down.

Notes from an Exhibition is the story of Rachel Kelly a brilliant artist, manic-depressive, wife and mother of four children. From the very beginning I was immersed in Rachel’s visual world, her creative impulse and the bipolar disorder that accentuates it. Significant moments in Rachel’s life depict the absorption of an artist, the moods and ideas, and inevitable distractions having a family entails. The still points are found in her art and her husband Antony, who rescued Rachel from a troubled life in Oxford and brought her to his home in Cornwall.

The central question Notes from an Exhibition asks is how best to love someone – a wife, a mother, a sibling. For Antony it was clear –

He had done the right thing in bringing her here. It was a healthier place, far away from bad associations and bad love, where she could paint again and meet other painters, like-minded souls rather than corrupt academics…Rachel would mend. She would become the person she was meant to be, unwarped by influences and needs.

Antony is a Quaker, a group renowned for their truthfulness and tolerance. It’s a faith that has no dogma, just a belief in the essential goodness of people. Meetings are held in companionable silence and The Friends, as they’re also known, form a reliable community. The quiet resilience exemplified by the Quakers provides Antony with a way of coping with Rachel’s extremes of temperament, his patience ‘the unchanging pavement under Rachel’s weather’.

The beauty of the novel is the way in which this same spirit of acceptance is extended to each of the characters – each taking a different path, as their natural propensities and individual history shapes them. Moments of clarity and insight – an artistic vision or a better understanding of the motivations of another – are the gifts of this practice.

The chapters alternate between Rachel’s perspective and those of her family, where the effects of living with someone with bipolar disorder are more clearly drawn. Here is Morwenna on her tenth birthday

She had not meant to cry. It was pointless with Rachel. It was different with Antony but tears never reached their mother. They seemed to confuse and freeze her. Laughter reached her. And affection. Had Morwenna laughed at her and hugged her she would have caught Rachel’s attention like a finger-click.

Each of the characters is portrayed with emotional veracity and glimpses of self-awareness which create a ready empathy. As in the son who takes on the role of keeping them connected

Hedley smiled on them all and made his face a mirror to give them each the version of himself that would least unsettle them. It was a trick he had learnt in boyhood: in a family of committed truth-tellers, someone had to tell a few kind lies to keep the whole thing together.

In recent interviews Patrick Gale has likened his authorial role to that of a psychotherapist, with narrative being a means to establish truth, and to my mind, create a sense of wholeness. The telling moments and secrets revealed are opportunities to get closer to the truth about Rachel. The opposing traits of creative intensity and quiet calm played out in this family, further illustrate the way people choose to live out the quest for truth.

The varied prisms of perspective all contribute to this portrait of Rachel, enhanced by exhibition notes at the beginning of each chapter. The exhibition is a retrospective where we glimpse an objective view of her life and work. The notes describe a painting or artefact from her studio and evoke images – the tools she used, the smock she wore, the colours and shapes of her paintings and the talisman objects which have significance for her children and feature in her work. This structure gives cohesion and points to the themes explored, suggesting a direction for the mind’s eye.

I was so impressed by Notes from an Exhibition, the clear prose and skilful insight making the depth of complex emotions easily grasped. True to form the family in this story has occupied my thoughts for several weeks, as have the visual images. Lastly I’m left with a deep sense of the compassion which informs the quest for truth and the whole story.

I only realised by reading the bio at the start of this book that A.M. Homes is the author of The Safety of Objects – which has been made into a film that I really enjoyed. The film brings together a cast of ordinary suburban characters, linked by their proximity and a tragic car accident. It’s a depiction of the way people surround themselves with objects and roles to fulfill, in order to cope with the tragedies large and small. I really appreciated the way each character’s motivations are laid bare but not criticised, as the characters are pretty good at doing that for themselves. It all sounds rather glum but ends with some transcendence for most of them, as they eventually find shelter in each other.

So I was rather optimistic about This book will save your life.

We learn early on that Richard Novak has a comfortable life, he made plenty of money in the share market and now spends his days at home. His carefully orchestrated life is based on routine, and surrounding himself with people who take care of the mundane tasks like housekeeping, preparing nutritious meals and exercise regimes – and minimise the necessity to get involved or look for pursuits outside of his daily study of the patterns of the stock market. Each morning he dons his noise-cancelling headphones and gets on with it, until one morning:

After years of making sure that he is left alone, he is suddenly afraid to be alone, afraid not to hear, not to feel, not to notice.”
The cause of this shift, his experiences in the previous 24 hours, recounts the excruciating pain which culminates in being rushed to hospital, undergoing inconclusive tests and on his way home in the small hours, stopping at a doughnut shop where he makes an unlikely friend.

So begins the journey, where people, both known and new, and even the landscape all require Richard Novak to engage and navigate his way through unexpected and ever-changing events. And he does so admirably, getting to know his employees, neighbours, family and of course himself better. At each turn Richard keeps facing up to challenges and attempts to come to terms with how he got to this point in his life.

The story is set in L.A., a city in which the precipitous landscape of the area also plays a part in events. The characters – the immigrant doughnut shop owner, the famous actor neighbour, the macrobiotic nutritionist, the reclusive author, the internist who gives zen-like advice, and of course Richard, represent the diversity of the city and the American dream it embodies. All these signposts, the familiar self-help remedies, the difficult father-son relationship, point to larger issues which we can choose to make something of or not –

as the reclusive writer Nic says “We live in a time when no one wants to remember. We pretend we are where it starts. Look at the way we live—we build houses on cliffs, on fault lines, in the path of things, and when something happens, we build it again right on the same spot, bigger, better. . . Fallout accumulates. What we’ve got now is a blend of fact and fiction that we’re agreeing to call reality.”

What I most admired about this book was the opportunity to witness people’s everyday struggles to do the right thing. It is narrated without criticism or judgement, and the humour is derived from genuine human foibles. There are no easy fixes in this novel and Richard is left literally floating, but definitely present as he assures his son “I’m here,” he says, “I’ll always be here, even when you can’t see me, I’m still here.”

My positive take on the book was further confirmed in this interview from the Independent where Homes is asked about the vice-like pain – physical, existential, psychic – that seizes Novak in the opening pages of This Book Will Save Your Life but in effect liberates him from his emotional prison. Had Homes known such pain herself, readers wondered. She jokes about paper cuts and the use of the imagination, but then says, “Yes, I’ve been in that much pain. I’m constantly in that much pain. Life fills you with that much pain… It’s a question of what you do with it. I’ve worked to be compassionate, a participant in my world, to not close my eyes to things and to be present and accountable. At the same time, that leaves you incredibly vulnerable and open to excruciating pain. But I don’t know that there’s a better way.”

This book will save your life – it is funny, poignant and deftly illustrates E.M. Forster’s guiding principle “only connect”. Just don’t expect it to spell out how, that’s up to each of us.

A Sense of Place

August 30, 2007

One of the things I enjoy when reading book blogs – aside from reviews about books (those I’ve read or more often books I’d like to read!) – is the links to articles, and quotes from books that can start you off on a whole new unforeseen journey.

Kate’s book blog was the starting point of one such journey, with Nicola Krauss’s essay “The Walker and the Walk”. It begins by comparing walking and writing

~ I like to walk to be alone with the world, not to be alone. In this way, walking is a lot like writing. Both writing and walking (as I know it) are fueled by a desire to put oneself in relation to others. Not in direct contact —some aloneness wishes to be preserved — but contact through the mediation of language or shared atmosphere of a city street.~

then draws on Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City”

~ With each walk the territory expands until it contains everything — past, present, literature, childhood, longing, metaphysics; a lifelong answer to the question Kazin’s mother asks, looking out at the dusk: “Where is the day taking us now?”~

Her essay concludes with recollections of her own walks in New York, the different layers of time and events that converge on one particular street corner.

In the Guardian, V.S. Naipaul’s “Caribbean Odyssey” recounts his reading of Derek Walcott’s poems, illuminating the cultural climate of the West Indies at the time

~ And when, in the 1940s, middle-class people with no home but the islands began to understand the emptiness they were inheriting they longed for a local culture, something of their very own, to give them a place in the world.~

When Naipaul meet him in the 1960’s Walcott was languishing in Trinidad, writing articles for the weekend paper and scripts for locally staged plays.

~From this situation he was rescued by the American universities; and his reputation there, paradoxically, then and later, was not that of a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting. He became the man who had stayed behind and found beauty in the emptiness from which other writers had fled: a kind of model, in the eyes of people far away.~

Another interesting piece (again thanks to Kate’s book blog) is Peter Carey’s “A New York Writer’s Catch-22”. He begins

~ I am a Marshian, from Bacchus Marsh, Australia, a place where the commonly accepted rules of alternate-side parking and literary publishing have never applied.~

He then goes on, in his usual entertaining style, to compare his early anonymity, writing at his kitchen table in Melbourne, with the opportunities (and ambitions) his writing students at Hunter College, New York have access to.

~ Of all the things I do at Hunter, this seems to me almost the most important, to close that huge, lonely gap between the kitchen table and the world of literature. ~

And he concludes with admiration and encouragement.

~No one reads fiction anymore? Says who? We are living in the middle of a roar of literature. The national newspapers are performing the surgical removal of their book-review pages like slick lobotomies, but the fiction writers continue like so many thousands of song-and-dance Rasputins who refuse to die. They’ll be there when we wake from this dark time and realize what all those “true stories” have really been. Imagination Dead Imagine.~

The depiction of the literary culture in those specific times and places is interesting. The tenacity and solitary nature of the writing life is highlighted in all. Picking up on Nicola Krauss’s idea of how a writer relates to others, I’m wondering if that can be extended to places as well. What role does the way we identify with our surroundings play in writing and in life? The position of writer as observer is a starting point, and there are a myriad of impressions and factors which combine to give a sense of place

~ those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging ~ (wikipedia)

So to what extent does a writer’s sense of place inform their perspective? I’m off to Paris for the weekend, which epitomizes the delights of recognition, association and memory, that a city can inspire.