Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher


DATE READ: June 2011 (audiobook)

NOTES: The King of the Badgers shows Philip Hensher at the top of his form. If you liked The Northern Clemency you will love this. Set in a fictional North Devon town, the book is inhabited with a huge range of (mostly awful) characters. On the surface everything seems fairly conventional but it doesn’t take much scratching to find out the reality of their lives. In these genteel streets there is adultery, betrayal, cheating, lying, lying and megalomania! Catherine is thrilled that at last her son is coming to visit – and is going to bring his boyfriend. But David never succeeds in attracting a boyfriend and persuades the desirable Mauro to accompany him and pretend to be his partner to please his mother. Kenyon and Miranda seem like the ideal couple except he is having an affair and their daughter is an appalling. Sam is a cheerful owner of a cheese shop in a long-term relationship with Harry but this doesn’t prevent them from joining in the local gay couplings. The gay orgies portrayed are shown to be funny but at the same time somewhat pathetic. And then there is John Calvin the mad-as-a-hatter Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator.

The part of the book that is definitely not funny is the disappearance of China, a child from the local housing estate. Actually I retract that statement – there is much comic material here in the attitudes surrounding the disappearance. But the part dealing with what happens to her subsequently is unfunny in the extreme. He uses a different writing style and relates the shocking details as if he were telling a fairy tale.

The whole book buzzes with ideas and observations. Among the choices for Miranda’s book group are Roberto BolaƱo’s Nazi Literature in the Americas and The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. (Ye gods, I’d be drummed out of my book group if I made suggestions like these!)

A sharply observed black comedy.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Burying the Bones by Hilary Spurling


DATE READ: June 2011

NOTES: I have been fascinated by the books by Pearl Buck that I have read…..especially The Good Earth which paints such a vivid picture of peasant life in China. However I knew virtually nothing about the author so was intrigued to read Hilary Spurling’s biography.

Pearl Buck had an amazing life that Hilary Spurling brings alive to the reader. Buck’s
parents went out to China in 1880s as missionaries. They were met with indifference from the local people and at times antagonism. But they also had to face dirt and disease. Spurling recounts the heart-rending events of losing three of their children in quick succession to cholera and fever. Pearl’s father was a driven man who cast aside everything except his work of proselytising; her mother was lively and sociable. Spurling acknowledges the contradictions in their lives. They were happy to ride roughshod over Chinese culture to encourage the conversion of souls but gave Pearl a Chinese tutor (as well as an amah) who taught her Confucianism as well as Calligraphy. Her ability to understand and communicate with so many different strata of Chinese society is what made her so different from writers at that time. She was able brave enough to tackle some taboo subjects: the subjugation of women, infanticide and marital rape.

From an early age Pearl Buck seems to have felt compelled to write but was only really keen to publish when she needed the funds. Spurling points out the irony that in her later life Buck was referred to in China as an interfering imperialist while back in America her espoused liberal causes made her a target for McCarthy.

This is a beautifully written book that sweeps the reader into the world of a fascinating woman writer.

The Beacon by Susan Hill


DATE READ: June 2011

NOTES: A well-crafted novella that creates the atmosphere of a northern farmhouse and the somewhat dysfunctional family living there. It began well with some good characterisations and interesting plotting. An unprepared and unsupported May Prime goes off to university in London but suffers from mental problems and returns home after a year. This episode rings true – especially the way in which there seems to be no support system for May either at university or at home.

The central theme of the book is the rift in the family caused by the second son Frank. We have to wait a long time to find out the cause and when it emerges it raised some questions. If Frank had decided to break with the family why would he have taken photographs from his childhood with him? I don’t want to give away the plot but surely newspaper reporters would have approached the Prime family for their side of the story….

There are ambiguities in the family and hints of hidden memories. The way in which The Beacon was written made it a gripping read but was ultimately unsatisfactory – especially the ending which was really a bit feeble.