GEORGY GIRL by Margaret Forster
'Hey there Georgy Girl, There's another Georgy deep inside, Bring out all the love you hide, and oh what a change there'd be, the world would see a new Georgy Girl'. Anyone growing up in the 1960s and 1970s would instantly recognise that song by the Seekers, from the film by the same name. Being a little girl myself at the time, I always wondered about this Georgy Girl person, and then I found this book! This is Margaret Forster's third book, published way back in 1965 when she was only in her mid-twenties herself. Is any of it autobiographical? I sincerely hope not! I wonder if she knew people who had the characteristics of the people she writes about - maybe. They are certainly very diverse, and actually none of them particularly likeable.
First up there is Georgy's parents who are in the employ of the wealthy but childless James Leamington. They are bitter and disappointed about their lives. The only joy in their lives, if you could call it that, is their daughter Georgy, now in her early twenties, trying to make her own life, but with really no idea on how to go about doing it. Mr Leamington has always treated Georgy as his own child, paying for her education and helping set her up as a dance teacher. A sad and lonely man in his late 40s, he makes Georgy an offer that she refuses, wanting to make her own life for herself.
Georgy is actually quite a nice person and not stupid, but is a complete doormat for other people to walk all over. She flats with the truly awful Meredith, a narcissistic spoilt brat of a person who rather bizarrely is a classical musician. Meredith is pregnant to her boyfriend of the moment, Jos, with whom Georgy is madly in love. In a peculiar turn of events, Jos and Georgy end up together, looking after the baby that Meredith refuses to have anything to do with. In such circumstances the relationship is doomed from the start, with Georgy giving all her love to the baby, and none left over for Jos.
It sort of all works out in the end and Georgy would appear to be happy in the final decisions she makes. But I can't help wondering, in the new wave of feminism sweeping through the 1960s, if her decision really was the right one. It is almost as if she is caught between the very traditional and clearly defined values of post-war England and the new hedonism and opportunities available to young women of the post-war young generation. Maybe a sequel would reveal how the next few years of Georgy's life may have turned out.
Rather than enjoyable I did find the book interesting, but I didn't really find any of the characters very enjoyable! They were all really quite awful and unlikeable. Georgy could have been likeable, but I was annoyed at her because she didn't really like herself and spent most of her time trying to please others. It was really only towards the end that she did begin to find that other Georgy inside and begin to make decisions for herself instead of for others. Much more 1960s.
CUBAN HEELS by Emily Barr
Ah, chick lit. What a delightful little divergence from the realities of our usually mundane lives of work, children, family, friends, dog walking, food shopping, peace and quiet, not necessarily in that particular order. Attractive, successful, slightly flawed heroine strikes a bit of a rocky patch; attractive, successful, not at all flawed hero in the background just waiting to pick up those broken pieces...a light frolicky bit of froth.
And then there are the slightly darker novels, which although distinctly still chick lit, have sinister overtones, characters who aren't what they appear to be, who do strange and peculiar things. As our heroine does in this particular story.
Poor Maggie's life has fallen to bits. Her long term relationship is over and she has moved from Edinburgh all the way south to Brighton. Her job at American Express is actually something else, her parents live in France, her very pregnant sister in Norwich: she is lonely, depressed, directionless. Quite by chance she finds she can eavesdrop on the lives of a young couple, Libby and David, who live in the building she lives in. Libby has just had their first child and is having some trouble adjusting from being a high-powered lawyer to being a new mum. Maggie listens into all this and begins to see the couple as her only friends and yet she finds she can not actually bring herself to introduce herself or even contrive a meeting.
David has the opportunity to learn Spanish for a year so that he can be in charge of his employer's Madrid office. And what better place to learn in than Cuba! Libby and David's decision throws Maggie into a complete tail spin and she resolves to also go to Cuba and become a part of this family who have become so important to her.
Bizarre behaviour by any stretch of the imagination! Despite the very peculiar and ridiculous coincidence of Maggie just happening to be in Cuba and learning Spanish at exactly the same time as her neighbours, life for all three of our characters starts off very well. The three of them get on extremely well and Maggie finally feels as if she has found a place to belong and people to belong to. But lingering over everything that Maggie says, thinks and does is the tragedy of her younger sister's death when Maggie was just thirteen years old. It takes a while for this to be disclosed to the reader, and as we find out more of what drives Maggie, slowly the delicate wall of self protection she has built around herself begins to crumble away.
All of course is satisfactorily resolved in the end, but it is a bit of dark and deadly path before we get to that point. I know chick lit is escapist, but at times this did stretch the imagination! It is a deeper story than your average chick lit, and actually quite well written. Characters are believable and well rounded, and the plot addresses a number of issues probably quite pertinent to many modern young women - relationships, ticking biological clock, adjustment to motherhood, sexual abuse, the nature of friendship, and how our modern lives contribute to loneliness and isolation in our communities.
I don't read a lot of chick lit because it can all be a bit fluffy and ridiculous, but this was a good story, with a number of unexpected occurrences and I really quite liked it. I now want to go to Havana - just as interesting a character as the real people in the story. Not so sure about Brighton however...
SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward
Remember Hurricane Katrina that hit the south east coast of the US in August 2005? This became the most expensive natural disaster in US history. Virtually all the media coverage we saw of this event was focused on New Orleans: the apparent lack of preparation, the flooded streets, floating corpses, the inability of the city to cope afterwards, the President's apparent lack of interest - I am sure you remember. But what we never really saw or heard about was the devastation in neighbouring states and communities. Especially Mississippi. This state was the hardest hit by the hurricane, with all areas suffering widespread damage. 235 people died, most of them in the coastal areas, which is also where the greatest damage and destruction occurred. In common with New Orleans and those images forever imprinted on our minds, is that it was the poorest who suffered the most. Mississippi, along with Louisiana and neighbouring Alabama are among the poorest states in the country. The effects of such a disaster are going to be much greater on the poorest than on others.
Such a family lives in the fictional Mississippi coastal town of Bois Sauvauge. Four motherless children left largely to bring themselves up: 17 year old Randall - way older than his years; 16 year old Skeeter who lives only for his fighter dog China in whom he sees the source of financial salvation for the family; 14 year old Esch, pregnant and desperately trying to deny it; and 7 year old Junior, who never knew his mother and is almost feral. Their father has never gotten over the death of his wife, and tries his absolute best to parent and provide for his children, but the family's hand to mouth existence makes this an almost impossible task.
Beginning twelve days before Hurricane Katrina strikes, Esch narrates the family's attempts to prepare for the storm which they know is going to be bigger than anything else they have had to deal with. The children try to stock pile food, their father works on getting bottles filled with water, and on ways to protect the house and shed, Skeeter proves to be a better mother to China and her pups than China is herself. Esch loses herself in morning sickness, her mad crazy love for the teenage father of her baby, and having no mother looks to the sorceress Medea from Greek mythology for inspiration and direction.
Each chapter is one of the twelve days. At the core of each chapter is the ominous threat of the approaching storm, the exhausting heat and humidity, the dirt and dust the family lives in, the constant hunt for food. But also the enormous love andhige reliance these children have on each other for the survival of their precarious family unit. Their father is really a background figure simply because he is so powerless and ineffectual, plus he is often drunk. Their relationships with each other, and with their peers in the local community are what are what drives them - the rivalries, love affairs, the graphically violent but beautifully drawn dog fights, and Skeeter's utter devotion to the dog.
This book won the National Book Award 2011. Very inspirational, it is a marvellous story. It is raw, it is violent, there is little stability in these kids' lives, but above all they have each other. And that is a difficult thing to tear apart, something not even Hurricane Katrina has the power to do, although she has a damn good time trying.
OUR LADY OF ALICE BHATTI by Mohammed Haniff
This is the latest novel from Mr Haniff, writer of the brilliantly clever and satirical 'A Case of Exploding Mangoes'. This novel was set around the plane crash that killed Pakistani President General Zia in 1988, along with a number of other dignitaries. Long listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, this is a many faceted, ingenious, very tightly plotted and held together novel. Such a great read I couldn't wait to start this latest novel from Mr Haniff. Not quite in the same class I am afraid.
Once again, he takes a whole raft of issues that seem to characterise the complete inability of Pakistan to get its act together. Unlike India just next door. Primarily this is a novel about the lowly status of women in Pakistani society, but also takes up religion - Christianity vs Islam; corruption; the state of the hospital system; untouchables; the power of the police; crowd hysteria and riots - a huge variety of issues. Alice Bhatti is at the centre of the novel. Alice is a nurse, Catholic, she has a certain healing gift, and has just started a new job at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in a poor part of Karachi. She has to navigate her life around the usual list of misfits that are part of hospitals - corrupt doctors, injured criminals, officious supervisors, rich and poor dying mothers and their sons - and all the time really trying to do the right thing. She reminded me so much of the very human TV character Nurse Jackie.
She rather suddenly and unexpectedly falls in love with a most unlikely husband in anyone's book - Teddy Butt, about as unlike Nurse Jackie's husband as you could possibly get! Teddy is, I am afraid to say, thick. Not a brain in that skull of his. He is an apprentice to the Gentlemen's Squad of the Karachi police, in other words tidies up and disposes of the human messes that the Karachi police make in their daily line of work. I just did not understand this love affair, not at all. Its reason for being, the courtship, why she ever married him, the fact that the marriage takes place on a submarine!! It is just so fantastic as to be ridiculous.
Being considerably smarter than her husband, Alice cottons on rather quickly that her husband is not as ideal as she led herself to believe he would be and the storyl finishes fairly soon after that.
And that I afraid to say is all that goes on in this novel. Alice's daily life is used as a backdrop for the author's commentary on how Pakistan is doing in the 21st century, and it is not doing very well at all. It is not so much what he is trying to say, however, that is disappointing; it is that compared to 'Mangoes' it isn't said very well. This book really goes nowhere, I thought all the characters unrealistic and not well drawn, it felt very disjointed and jumpy to read, and parts of the plot were just plain silly - the submarine, the miracles that take place. All in all a most disappointing read.
THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY by Horace McCoy
This is a remarkable book. First published in 1935, and apparently never out of print since, at just over 100 pages, this novel brims over with suspense, desperation, and tragedy. At the same time we are shown a darker side of the Hollywood dream that so desperately captures young people across America and the world. The reason perhaps for this book's durability and continued relevance? That young people still pursue the Hollywood fame dream with as much determination, stubbornness, and stupidity now as they did then. How all this can be conveyed in just over 100 pages is really quite amazing, and yet not a single word is wasted, and there is not a single word too many. Beautiful and mesmerizing writing that haunts us long after the finishing.
It is during the Depression, Los Angeles, mid 1930s. Robert, the narrator, is in the dock about to be sentenced for the murder of Gloria. Both are drifters from small towns, both are following the American Dream of money, fame and success by coming to Hollywood and making it big in pictures. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We know from the first page it ends in tragedy.
Robert recounts how he meets Gloria in the street and she talks him into entering a marathon dancing contest. These dancing contests were a major form of entertainment during the 1920s and, increasingly the Depression of the 1930s. For the participants, some of whom became very successful and followed the marathon circuit around the country, they were a major form of income as the prize money was quite sizeable for the time. For the desperates and wannabees, taking part, developing a gimmick, becoming a crowd favourite were crucial to be noticed by promoters, movie agents, producers who would go to the contests looking for talent. These marathon dance contests would go on for weeks - the contest Robert and Gloria enters is for 2500 hours. It is hardly surprising that you would go slightly mad taking part in such an event, and that is probably what happens to both Robert and Gloria as they fight with every ounce of their beings to stay in the contest. The cover epitomises perfectly the desperation of each couple as at all times the dancers have to be on their feet and moving.
Even though this novel was written nearly 80 years ago it has as much relevance now as it did then. In the pursuit of money, fame and success people will always resort to desperate and dangerous methods. And at the same time there will be heartbreaking sadness and futility. Like one of Aesop's fables, such a strong message conveyed in so few words.
FAR TO GO by Alison Pick
From December 1938 to September 1939 approximately 10,000 Jewish children left the countries of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland and Germany for England on organised transports that came to be known as the Kindertransport. A number of different organisations and religions were involved in the huge project of saving the children's lives as it became apparent in the late 1930s that Hitler was determined to exterminate all traces of the Jewish race in Europe. The intention was that after the war the children would be reunited with family members, but of course only a very few of the children ever saw any family members again.
This is the story one such family who gave their son a second chance at life by putting him on one of the trains that would ultimately take the boy to a new and safe life in England. Pavel and Anneliese Bauer are a young couple of Jewish descent but non-practising. They live in a town in the Sudentenland, which prior to WWI was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the war, the area became part of the newly created Czechoslovakia. Being populated mostly by ethnic Germans, it was high on the list of priorities for Hitler to reclaim in the expansion of his German empire.
The Bauers live a very comfortable life with their five year old son Pepik and the boy's nanny, 21 year old Marta. The story is told from Marta's point of view. She would appear to have no family; she considers the Bauers her family and even though she is their servant she seems to genuinely love and care for them, especially Pepik. She is young, naive and finds herself increasingly conflicted as Hitler and his Nazi tentacles rapidly spread across Czechoslovakia. She is seduced by Pavel's married business partner, the latter realising how much he has to gain by being Pavel's friend and ultimately his betrayer. Marta is possibly typical of how many non-Jewish people found themselves behaving during these years. Jews had been part of their communities forever, and they now found themselves having to face actions and make decisions that they probably knew were wrong, but didn't know how to deal with.
As for the Bauers, they refuse to believe that the world as they know it is going to end and, as time goes by they realise they have left it too late to get out of Czechoslovakia. And so they have to make the heart breaking decision to send their child away, never knowing what may have happened to him.
Running parallel to Marta's story is the story of another woman, a researcher who, in the present day, is putting together the stories of the children who came to England on the Kindertransport. This character is important to the story, but it does take a frustratingly long time for the relevance to show itself. It is almost as if we are fed titbits, enough to keep us interested but not enough to tell us all!
I am not giving anything away by saying that, as one would expect, the story is heart-breakingly sad. Jewish parents left in Prague was never going to end well, and many of the Kindertransport children did not have happy childhoods in their new lives. The book is beautifully written; we feel the Bauers pain and confusion, Marta's conflicted life, and the sadness that is inevitable.
The author herself is half Jewish. Her grandparents fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and took five years to make their way to Canada. Still frightened they raised their children as Christians and it was not until the author was a teenager that she discovered her heritage. Her grandparents' pre-Holocaust life
inspired her to write this story which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2011.