MARCH READING: Merivel by Rose Tremain


 Aaah, just like meeting an old friend! Sir Robert Merivel: the most human of human beings you are ever likely to meet. Flawed in many ways like all of us, at times unlikeable, but ever committed to trying to do his best in life, trying to improve himself both emotionally and materially, open to others and other ideas, he could be a man of any time including our time.

Robert Merivel was first introduced to us in the novel 'Restoration', which I reviewed in December. Some say you don't need to have read 'Restoration' to enjoy this novel; I disagree. Sir Robert is a very complex fellow, who has an extraordinary time during the early years of King Charles II reign. In a nutshell the book covers his rise to a position of prominence in the court, and then his fall from grace, and personal restoration. I would not have enjoyed 'Merivel' so much if I had not known the background to the type of man he is now, some 15 years after 'Restoration' ended.

Sir Robert Merivel is now 57, again at a crossroads, as he tries to decide what to do with the rest of his life. His beloved daughter Margaret, is now a young woman wanting to become more independent and spread her wings. So Sir Robert, back in King Charles' good books, obtains a letter of introduction to the French court and heads off to Versailles. He does not manage to meet the King, but along the way, in his rakish fashion, does develop a relationship with a particularly beautiful and well-connected married lady who falls madly in love with him, plus acquires a bear.

Things take a darker turn when he returns to England - his daughter is seriously ill with typhoid, his ex lover is dying of cancer, the local rural population is becoming restless and unhappy with the excesses of the royal court, the bear also does not last the distance. Melancholy sets in and poor old Sir Robert wonders what it is all for. After all late 50s would be considered old age in this period of history. The aging King takes a shine to the lovely Margaret and Robert frets and frets about her becoming yet another mistress to the King.

But never fear, love is still here. His old flame in France is committed to marrying him, which would solve many many problems, but, in true Robert fashion opens the door to other problems as he deals with a number of internal conflicts.

This novel does not have quite the same depth and scope as 'Restoration', but I enjoyed reading it so much more. As I said it was like meeting an old friend, and I felt genuine affection for this silly old fool. By the end everything is very neatly resolved with the reign of King Charles over and Sir Robert looking forward to a new life in Switzerland. Such a worth while sequel to 'Restoration'.

READING IN MARCH: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis


Wow, does this book polarise readers and reviewers. Missing from the picture to the left is the sticker on the copy I read - " 'I can't remember when I read anything that moved me quite this way, besides Toni Morrison' Oprah Winfrey". Endorsement enough you may think, after all Oprah's Book Club List is notable for some great reading, as well as some not so great, and she has a massive following in the US. So you kind of get the feeling that you should love this, especially if you are of African-American descent, but it would appear not. It is moving, but not as moving as I would have thought.

It isn't so much the subject matter that seems to be the problem.  Hattie Shepherd is a young teenager when she moves with her mother and sister from the violence and segregation of Jim Crow Georgia (being white middle class female living in the racially harmonious paradise of New Zealand I had to look this up) to Philadelphia in the 1920s as part of The Great Migration ( I had to look this up too). Naturally things do not go as planned for Hattie and at 17 she finds herself married to August and the mother of twins. Things rapidly go downhill from thereon, and 55 years later, when the book ends, Hattie has had eleven children and one grandchild - the twelve tribes of Hattie.

The biblical references are everywhere in this novel, as are the trials and tribulations that Hattie's children are burdened with. The problem with this book is in the way the story is told. Each chapter is set in a different year over the 55 year period and about a different child. So there is a fair amount of jumping around. Some of the chapters have Hattie, the mother, as a dominant character, others barely mention her, in others she is a strong presence but only in a background way. Equally so the father, August, who is continuously  portrayed as as a useless, lazy, drunkard. In fact none of the men, including the sons, seem to have a single redeeming feature. 

The children all seem to be damaged in some way: the 15 year old boy left with a life long scar after a childhood accident who discovers he is a gifted preacher; the young man who goes to Vietnam and realises he is a clone of his father; the daughter who makes a respectable marriage to a doctor who continually feeds her sleeping pills; the daughter who is schizophrenic, and so it goes on. It is bewildering to me that out of a family of 11 children, nothing seems to go right for any of them. Two we don't really know about as they are babies. One is adopted by Hattie's sister - the pain in this chapter is Hattie's, and the other is not August's child - again the pain is Hattie's.

Each of the chapters reads more like a short story rather than a continuous thread, and this for me is the problem. There is no interconnection between the chapters, not only in time -  from 1925 to 1948 to 1950 to 1954 to 1968 for example, but also in subject matter. What happens in one chapter has no relevance to the previous or the next chapters, the last two chapters excepted. Throughout the book there is very little about the family as a whole, about aspirations and dreams the parents may have for their children, and very little if any background as to the circumstances that led each child to be in their current predicaments. I wanted to know more, and it simply wasn't there.

Perhaps the most surprising omission was anything to do with the Civil Rights Movement. This lack of rights is what led to Hattie being in Philadelphia in the first place, possibly the single most significant event in her life. And yet not one single chapter/child has anything to do with this crucial time in America's recent history.

Despite all this, the quality of the writing is stunning. The author gets inside the heads of her characters, so cleverly we feel sympathy, frustration and annoyance that they are in their current predicaments. How easily do we really control our own destinies, or are we are a product of our upbringings.  Poor Hattie has a tough road as a mother of 11, and wife to the hopeless August. Who wouldn't have a tough road with all that going on. Perhaps it is hardly surprising the way things turn out for her 12 tribes, and I am sure this novel reflects the lives of many, many women and families around the world.  Above all else this is really a story about motherhood and love. You wonder as a mother if you have enough love to give all your children, whether you have two or twelve. It may be patchy at times,  hidden while dealing with all the other stuff, either not expressed or expressed in strange ways, but if this book is anything to go by, it is definitely there.


A LONG WAY DOWN by Nick Hornby

Suicide - not a subject one normally associates with humour and entertainment. In this novel, the author somehow manages to walk the fine line between serious and funny, managing to entertain the reader and make them laugh, yet at the same time never straying far from the desperation that drives people to want to kill themselves. 
The reasons for killing oneself are many and varied but they seem to come back to people feeling as if they have lost control of their lives and there is no way at all to get it back. In this novel, we have Martin - motive - shame. He is mid-40s, ex-family man, disgraced TV celebrity, convicted and imprisoned for having sex with an under age girl. There is Maureen, early 50s, alone, only caregiver to a severely disabled teenage son; her motive hopelessness. There is JJ, an American who has failed in his dream to become a rock musician, and also lost his girlfriend; motive - disappointment. Finally Jess, 16 year old daughter of a politician, usual teenage issues, nothing out of the ordinary except extra doses of precociousness; her motive - no one loves her - like I said ordinary teenage girl looking for attention.
One New Year's Eve, these four, purely by chance find themselves on top of a building in London, aptly named Toppers' House, for obvious reasons.   Because none of them want to be the first to jump they end up leaving the building to find Jess's missing boyfriend so as to find out why he dumped her. Very bizarre I know, why would four very different people band together on New Year's Eve to deal to some flaky teenage boy. I don't think they really know either, other than it gives them a united sense of purpose and something to do instead of arguing on the roof of a multi story building. It also keeps them together, this very small group of what many would call a bunch of nutters - safety in numbers. 

Once the boyfriend situation is sorted out, the group instinctively stick together simply because they have nowhere else to go, and slowly, over a period of 90 days, the four of them begin to put their lives back together, meeting up fairly often and working through each others' various crises.  The slightly incredible thing about this story is that these four very unhappy misfits who would never normally have anything to do with each other somehow manage to get on and begin to heal. 

There is no getting away from the fact that none of them are particularly likeable, and they are never really very nice to each other. They obviously don't like themselves, this carries over into their interactions with each other, and the world at large. But, slowly things change, and in March, 90 days after New Year's Eve, they are all still alive, bickering away with each other, and also trying to move on with their lives. And, strangely enough, I found myself liking these four people, admiring them for their efforts and encouraging them onwards. 

The story is narrated in turn by the four characters, so the reader gets each person's back story, as well as a version of events told with a slightly different perspective by each. The key to the  whole story, is of course communication, so often lacking in the lives of people who want to kill themselves - reaching out for help and not knowing how. So there is a lot of conversation and dialogue in this story, because as we all know, a problem shared is a problem halved, and talking is the way to do it. 

FEBRUARY READING: Picnic at Hanging Rock ny Joan Lindsay


Way back in the mid-1970s my high school English class did a class trip to see this movie. Oh my goodness, did it leave an impression on a bunch of 14 year old teenage boys and girls!  Take a look on You Tube at a film clip of the four school girls walking up the tracks around the rock on Valentine's Day 1900 - beautiful, scary, ethereal, and oh so sinister. And three of the girls, plus one of the teachers  simply disappeared into thin air. Poof! One is found a few days later by a besotted young man: unconscious, injured and her memory wiped of whatever had happened.

Set in a rural community in Australia, the film very closely follows the plot line of the book, which was first published in 1967. At an elite girls' boarding school, the girls are preparing to go on a Valentine's Day picnic to Hanging Rock. It turns into a day they will never forget. The ripples from the strange events of that day spread rapidly through the local community, affecting people in different and disturbing ways. The story actually ends up being more about the remaining characters rather than the three who disappeared forever that day. 

Although Hanging Rock is is real place, the book is a work of fiction. However the author opens the book with a very cryptic comment - "'Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is Fact or Fiction or both, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important". As a result of this peculiar statement many, many people apparently believe that the events described in the story really took place. The author didn't actively discourage such belief, but she certainly didn't go out of her way to dispel the mysterious events of that day! In 1987, three years after the author's death, in accordance with her wishes, the final chapter - Chapter 18 -  of the novel was published. This reveals what really happened to the girls. It can be viewed in the author link.

Throughout the story, from the very beginning to the very end, the tension is kept at a high level. It is almost if, as readers, we are entering some sort of unreal dream like world where time ceases to matter. But apparently the author was a stickler for time, and this is seen in the constant reminder to the reader of what day of the week we are on, the number of days elapsed since the picnic, and often the time of day. Almost as if we also are in some sort of time warp. It is spooky to read, you know bad things are going to happen, but, much like the girls drifting up the tracks on a lazy hot day, you are slowly sucked into whatever this mystery is. Trekking through the internet, the film seems to have almost reached a cult status and I think is a very fitting tribute to the book.