‘On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.
I struggled to construct my chain this month, but … here goes.
We start with The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene, A book about a man, a woman, God, and several other secondary characters. Our hero, Bendrix finds it easy to get in touch with hatred and bitterness, and it’s quite hard to reconcile this with the love he feels for Sarah, the woman he had an intense affair with over several years, while maintaining friendly relationship with her civil servant husband. Apart from Sarah’s relationship with God, much of the reason for the End of this Affair comes down to poor communication.
Which leads to my first link: Slaughter, by Rosanna Hildyard. The three stories which make up this slim volume are set in the northern Yorkshire Pennines. Here, life is bleak, tough. Characters who inhabit such a landscape are tough too, and get through life by doing, by surviving. Communication, one with another, is not their strong suit. In the first, set at the time of Foot and Mouth Disease, a young townie tries to get to grips with her dyed-in-the-wool country farmer partner, wondering the while if the epidemic is a punishment for farming in the first place. Outside are the dogs features another mismatched couple. If only they could communicate! But they can’t. Not even the dog can help. The final story, Cull yaw is shocking, involving a would-be-ethical farmer and his vegetarian partner. This couple too communicate in silences, and attack their difficulties with desperation. This is not a comfortable read – especially in this time of Covid. It illustrates well the possible consequences of failing to talk meaningfully. It paints a powerfully bleak picture of the landscape and surroundings in this part of England, whilst pointing up its raw beauty too. This is, I think, a book which will stay with me.
A different kind of mis-communication comes next, where the expectations of the young people who journeyed from the Caribbean on the Windrush in 1948 to begin a new life in the Promised Land come up against the blank uncomprehending prejudices of the existing population. This Lovely City, by Louise Hare is above all the story of 19 year old Lawrie, and Evie, his young mixed race neighbour. It’s a story of racism, both casual and unthinking, and hate-fuelled. It’s a crime mystery too. It refers to many issues connected with the attitudes of the time towards ‘coloureds’ and women, but despite this it’s in many ways an easy, engaging read. I found the ending just a little too neat and this was disappointing, but Hare has written an involving book and I’ll be glad to read anything she writes in future.
Blonde Roots, by Bernadine Evaristo turns this world upside down. Black people are in charge, whites are their slaves. Feudal Britain, eighteenth and nineteenth century worlds, the modern age and a dystopian future all combine in this world of toil and truble (sic) in which Doris, kidnapped from her home into slavery, finds herself. There’s much to enjoy and admire in this early novel from Evaristo: the playful place names such as Londolo: details such as the efforts of whyte (sic) women to achieve the curly Aphro (sic) looks of their former masters. The speech patterns of the slaves, rooted in those of their black masters didn’t work for me, and overall, this was an only partially successful attempt to demonstrate that tyranny rules when we begin to regard others as inferior to ourselves.
A different kind of underdog – a man with dwarfism – features in The Smallest Man, by Francis Quinn. This story is based on – though is in no sense a biography of – Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf in the court of Charles 1. This is a charming tale, telling the rags-to-riches story of Nat Davy, who avoids being sold as a fairground attraction when his father, who wants rid of him, gets a better offer. Intelligent, witty and a quick thinker, Nat becomes the unhappy queen’s confidante. But Stuart England is a hotbed of political and religious discontent, and Nat is soon at the heart of the action, and doesn’t always make the best choices. An enjoyable, immersive and-despite the weighty matters of the period – ultimately quite a light and easy to read book. An impressive debut from Frances Quinn.
From one curiosity – a dwarf- to another – a monkey. The Hartlepool Monkey, by Sean Longley. I’m a bit in two minds about this book. Largely, I enjoyed this retelling of the true story of the monkey who was hanged as a spy in Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars. The book had three narrators: the doctor who ‘adopted’ the monkey; the courtesan whom the doctor loved; and Warren, the one guinea brief who defended Jacques the monkey in court. It was full of charming and idiosyncratic detail. But this led to the book being longer than perhaps was justified. The monkey also learnt to talk, and this improbable detail let the story down for me, quite considerably. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable and readable book.
My next and last link is a bit of a stretch. It includes not one, but two animals in its title, but no further connection exists. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon has been widely feted, but not by me. It took me at least 250 pages to begin to become remotely interested in the lives of the characters who inhabited The Avenue in that sweltering summer of 1976: one I remember well, as I was pregnant with my first child, and for once in my life didn’t relish the heat. I had difficulty remembering which character was which and I didn’t believe in the young heroines, Grace and Tilly, who seemed remarkably unworldly. I was an extremely unworldly 10 year old once, but even I wasn’t as credulous as them . Most of all, I resented Cannon’s polished little metaphors and similes. They were clever, but Cannon all but put them in italics to make sure we noticed them. The plot seemed pointless. Some parts stretched credulity. For example, virtually the entire neighbourhood turns out to look at some rust-stained drainpipe that apparently looks like Jesus. Really?
And how that links back to Graham Greene’s book is anybody’s guess.
Next month’s starter is Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under the Sea, which is jostling for a place on the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.