Bookses • Jan/Feb 2019

Here are brief reviews of six books I’ve read recently:

  • Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

  • Beryl Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing

  • Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca

  • Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

  • Mary Renault, The Mask of Apollo

  • Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness

Mantel, Hilary. Beyond Black. 2005 novel about a medium in the suburbs of London.

My favourite book I’ve read in the past year. The story follows an overweight medium, Alison, who communicates with ghosts and had a horribly abusive upbringing. She has a personal assistant or business manager of sorts, Colette, who is a pressed, iron grey curtain of a human. They navigate being spiritual entrepreneurs while dealing with personal trauma and suburban living. Mantel develops a view of the afterlife that is unique and terrifying. An incredible achievement: I’ve never read anything else like it. But be warned that it is a very dark book.

 

Bainbridge, Beryl. The Bottle Factory Outing. 1974 novel about two women who work in a wine-bottling factory in London.

What an odd book this is! Two flatmates work at a nearby wine-bottling factory that is run as a mini-dictatorship. Everyone there is Italian and barely speaks English. They plan a day out with the factory workers. Things go awry. Whatever that summary sounds like is not what it feels like to read this book. It’s something like the meeting point between Muriel Spark and Patricia Highsmith.

 

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. 1938 novel about a young woman who marries a wealthy man with a big house and a dark past. 

Yes, yes, yes. We have an innocent young woman who gets the Jane Austen hero marriage in the first pages. They go to his enchanting estate, Manderley (say it with dreamy passion), but the influence of his previous wife, Rebecca, smothers everything. That beautiful, brilliant, dashing, incomparable woman died in a boating accident less than a year ago. What if you, as the Austen heroine, were just a sad thing who could never live up to expectations, who mumbled where you should quip? That is our narrator. But was Rebecca all that? This book is ridiculous and wonderful and I loved reading it.

 

Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. 2002 historical novel about two women and a lot of plot twists. 

The most fun I’ve had reading in a long time! I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll leave it at this: it sexes up the Victorian novel and keeps you guessing until the very end.

 

Renault, Mary. The Mask of Apollo. 1966 historical novel about an actor in the time of Plato.

I love Mary Renault! She wrote eight historical novels about Ancient Greece that compel you to use words like vigorous and forceful as descriptors. This one is is the life story of Nikeratos, an actor who finds himself caught between the Autarchs of Syracuse and Plato through his devotion to Dion, the Syracusean aristocrat who inspired the Symposium. Renault, a lesbian herself, writes about male-male love in an astonishingly straightforward manner for the time. (The predilection for catamites is a part of that love.) The primary tension in the novel is found where autocracy, Platonic philosophy, Athenian democracy, and reverence for the gods meet. Her choice to write theatre as the centre of the tension works beautifully.

Taylor, Elizabeth. The Soul of Kindness. 1964 novel about a family in London. 

The Soul of Kindness is as brilliant as it is boring. Essentially plotless, it follows several members of a family and their friends, centred on Flora, who believes herself to be the “soul of kindness.” She is, however, self-delusional. A subtle analysis of psychology that manages to weave together insight into some ten characters in just 200 pages, it is quite a remarkable achievement. Taylor’s writing is unimpeachable, moving from character to character with detail given simply and at the proper time. She’s a remarkable writer! The problem with the novel is easy to state: the characters are tremendously dull and nothing much happens. Whether you even consider that a problem is up to you. It’s certainly worth a read!