Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. First Published 1860-61. Penguin Red Classic 2006.

I consider myself lucky I was able to come to this book unspoilt by the plot. Our Christmas telly is so saturated with Dickens that I know Oliver Twist and Bleak House (the 2005 BBC adaption is brilliant) inside out. I have done my best not to see the plot of Great Expectations especially when the film came out and so all I really knew of the book was of the iconic Miss Havisham still wearing the old finery of her wedding clothes and an orphan called Pip.

Pip, grudgingly brought up by his sister, is destined for the life of a blacksmith but dreams of being a gentleman. His fortunes suddenly change when he encounters a convict called Magwitch in a foggy graveyard and is sent for by the mysterious Miss Havisham.

Despite my efforts to not see the plot of Great Expectations; it was not the plot that wowed me in this classic but the writing. The plot itself was gothic and melodramatic but neither impressed me or left me cold. What really made this book stand out was Dickens’s ability to bring his enormous cast of characters to life and his talent as a dry comic. I wasn’t expecting how funny this book would be or how often I would be smiling through it.

“Oh!” she said. “Did you wish to see Miss Havisham?”

“If Miss Havisham wished to see me,” returned Mr. Pumblechook discomfited.

“Ah!” said the girl, “but you see she don’t.”

I also loved reading the colourful descriptions of characters, like the lawyer Mr Jaggers “he seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it,” to the beautiful and “heartless” Estelle. It only occurred to me after I had finished the novel how much British writers owe to Dickens as I saw shades of his characterisation reflected in other later works.

Reading Great Expectations hasn’t tempted me to see any visual adaptations because the plot wasn’t strong enough for that. Rather I now want to go back and read the works that I already know; Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol because from what I’ve read here no adaptation could possibly do Dickens justice as a writer.

 

 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

tarttThe Secret History, Donna Tartt 1992, Penguin 1993

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….

This book was very excellent at escapism. I read through it in two days and hardly put it down. It was never boring and like all great storytellers Tartt made me forget sometimes I was reading a book and made me see the story playing out in my head.

It is like watching a modern Greek tragedy from very close up looking at this story through the protagonist, Richard. But if we had seen it through the other characters it would have been like being in the tragedy itself.

Except for the sullen unrequited desire for Camilla, Richard does not seem to feel any depth of emotion at all.

There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty- unless she is wed to something more meaningful- is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.

This for me mirrors the concept of this whole book. It is the argument that the French teacher Laforgue makes as to Richard as to why the Greek professor heading this elitist group is not perfect. I think the main problem I had while reading this book (not that I didn’t enjoy it very much!) was that the snobbish clique did not appeal to me and I found it shallow and ridiculous.

The other characters Charles Francis, Camilla and even Henry, we find, are driven almost mad by their passion and love and jealousy but in a way Richard is like Bunny and just jealously watches from the outside unable to feel the frenzy for himself.

I would have liked to actually see the bachnaal instead of just hearing hints about it from the other characters. In fact the love affairs, the bachnaal experiments, the luxury rooms in Italy were all heard from the other characters so I kept expecting Richard would experience something of this for himself but it never happened.

This is a mystery well worth reading. As the author said herself its not so much a whodunit but a whydunit. We know the character Bunny dies from the first page but the slow eerie build-up to his murder is still horrifying to watch and still a surprise when it happens. Tartt is brilliant at building a slow cold tension and the book is claustrophobic and fairly suffocating to read.

I think if I had read this book when I was sixteen I would have loved it and loved the idealised light the characters paint themselves in and the elitist world they build for themselves but now I see them building themselves from surface and pretensions.  Tartt shows us the pretty decadent looking world and then hints at the sham that it is.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

cloudsClouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers, 1926, New English Library 2003

I don’t usually read crime series and in fact this may be the first “proper” modern crime novel I have read. I want to start reading more in this genre because I love reading or seeing the same protagonist over a series of books and delving deeper and deeper into their character as the series goes on. It’s why I first started reading urban fantasy (which is a bit like a supernatural crime genre). The problem is my reading tastes have changed over the years and I don’t enjoy the style with which many urban fantasy series are written now.

I started with Dorothy Sayers because I’ve seen her name mentioned a lot and know she is supposed to be one of the best modern crime writers. This is the second book of her Lord Peter Wimsey series and the story starts with Wimsey taking a holiday after his last case while back in England his brother is suspected of murdering his sister’s fiancée.

It took me a while to get used to the characters and I wasn’t easily drawn to them. At one point I put the book down for nearly three weeks and had to force myself to pick it back up. The problem was I was slightly irritated that Wimsey was investigating his own brother’s case and was given respect and privileges by the police because of this merely because he is a Lord. Of course Sherlock Holmes is technically also an aristocratic “amateur” detective but the difference is that Holmes could have been born into any family and you would imagine he would still end up with the ear of Scotland Yard because of who he is as an individual.

When I picked the book back up I was more in a mood to enjoy it and started to see the humour in Sayer’s writing.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Peter; “it’s so uncommonly jolly findin’ all you Yorkshire people so kind and hospitable, what? Nevermind who you are, always a seat by the fireside and that kind of thing. Excuse me, but do you know you’re leanin’ on the gate so as I can’t open it? I’m sure it’s a pure oversight, only you mayn’t realise that just where you’re standin’ you get the maximum of leverage.”

I finally got engaged when I started to enjoy Sayer’s writing and it didn’t matter so much that I wasn’t a fan of Wimsey. The rest of the cast grew on me too especially Lady Mary. The mystery and suspense of the book was very well written and it is because of all of these things I’ll probably read another Wimsey book. There’s still a chance all the characters will grow on me and I did enjoy reading Clouds of Witness.

Review: The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

booksThe Cutting Room is a beautiful hybrid of literary fiction and a crime novel. A tight and gripping plot, suspense, murder, a doggedly persistent protagonist and handed to us in lyrically crooked prose.

An ageing auctioneer Rilke discovers some disturbing photographs in a client’s house and goes on a dangerous journey in finding the fate of the people in them.

Rilke is a character that really surprised me. His seedy and caustic perspective and dour pessimistic view of himself tricks you at first into thinking that is all there is to him but as the story progresses we see past his voice to the bleeding heart underneath. Despite his sour words his actions prove him to be one of life’s optimists when it comes to humanity.

The story flickers through shades of an overcast sky and Welsh illustrates again and again the petty cruelties Rilke and his circle do and have done and how it is nothing compared to the evil some human beings are capable of.

Glasgow is filtered through every part of this book enough to be a character in its own right. Welsh has strewn the dark, the seedy glamour and the desperation of its underbelly throughout the story. It is so visual I could see the characters in the dark rainy weather. Welsh paints physical appearance so vividly I could see them instantly. The boy too young for Rilke that he is infatuated with, the detective inspector, the old lady with the house full of treasures and Rose, Rilke’s partner in the auction house.

Later that evening I stretched myself across Rose’s Emperor-size bed, playing with the glass of wine she had given me, holding it up to the light, watching the flame through the ruby filter and beyond it Rose’s reflection, bathed in the dim glow of the trembling offertory candles.

“So good for the complexion.”

It was restful watching Rose metamorphose into herself. She sat at her dressing table shrine, slightly flushed from her bath, her damp hair piled high on her head. I was conscious of a pride that heterosexual men must feel. I was going out on the town with a beautiful woman. It was just a shame about where we were going.

The only criticism I have is the quotes that introduce each chapter. The book didn’t need them and although I like the snippets from Blake, Poe, Rimbaud and others I felt they made the novel seem like it was trying to be something it wasn’t.

I want to see more of Rilke. I think he’s a strong enough protagonist to carry a string of crime novels. Louise Welsh has made me greedy for more literary crime. I will definitely be reading her other books (my reading list is now way too long).

Review: A Study In Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlock1“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

I have only read one Sherlock Holmes book, a few years ago, but I have seen so many adaptations of it that I feel like I know the characters very well.

The first version I grew up with was with Basil Rathbone who I automatically pictured in my head when I went to read the Hound of the Baskervilles. I’ve seen bits of the version with Jeremy Brett and the action thriller version by Guy Ritchie. Sherlock, the modern-day adaptation, by Moffat and Gatiss is my favourite. I like the way they’ve basically made it with the same attitude behind the Rathbone version but for our time.

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock adventure and begins with Doctor John Watson returning from Afghanistan and meeting his soon to be best friend Sherlock Holmes. Through Watson’s eyes the reader learns more about the man, his profession and the criminal world of London. The story revolves around Holmes but because we never see things from his perspective we are constantly guessing at his motives and thoughts just as Watson is.

It is written in first person and although I am normally not a fan of this I can’t imagine the book written any other way. The immediacy we get to the characters is such that can only be achieved with this technique. The story distances itself in the second half as we go into a character’s back story which involves Mormans, survival, love and America. For a second I thought the novel had ended and this was a separate short story; I had to flick through to make sure. Despite this abruptness Doyle still drew me into the narrative and I did come to be interested in the story of these temporary characters.

Overall the Sherlock Holmes history is fascinating. I can see how this would inspire countless adaptations like Rathbone’s and Jeremy Brett’s and now with Sherlock all building on each other a delving deeper and deeper into the psychology of the characters and illustrating them for a modern audience. Despite my love for these I still want to read the originals not just because I feel I should but because I genuinely do enjoy reading about the adventures in the original world of Sherlock Holmes.

Review: My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

In Istanbul, in the late 1590s, the Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day- in the European manner. But when one of the miniaturists is murdered, their master has to seek outside help. Did the dead painter fall victim to professional rivalry, romantic jealousy or religious terror?

This book is beautiful! It took hold of me right from the beginning where we hear the laments of a corpse at the bottom of a well. Orhan Pamuk has such artistry with language and the translator has transported it like a murderous lovely dream full of voices and stars into English.

Pamuk switches from starkly different voices as easily as embroidering the story with a new colour of thread. I don’t know quite how he does it but he is one of the best writer’s I’ve ever experienced in immersing you in day to day life of his world so vividly that you hear the noises of the bustling coffee shops, the crowded narrow streets, the heat and the cold and the loneliness and horror of the bottom of a well. His writing is literary escapism, I forgot I was inside my own body.

Throughout the mystery of who killed the miniaturist we see the story though the eyes of people, paintings, animals and even a piece of gold. When I reached the chapter of the thoughts of the colour red and the voice Pamuk uses for it in all it’s vibrancy and colour I couldn’t stop smiling in glee at the mastery of this storyteller.

The culture clash between the artists of East and West was a major thread in the plot and I learnt that I knew almost nothing of art of the Ottoman Empire which was described so frequently and detailed throughout the story. Having grown up in Britain I am used to European art so at first when looking at art from different cultures they seem unusual. I have not considered before what European art must look like to other parts of the world.

Pamuk illustrates differences beautifully in the chapter from the voice of a painting of a tree.

A great European master minituarist and another great master artist are walking through a Frank meadow discussing virtuosity and art. As they stroll, a forest comes into view before them. The more expert of the two says to the other: “Painting in the new style demands such talent that if you depicted one of the trees in this forest, a man who looked upon that painting could come here, and if he so desired, correctly select that tree from among the others.”

I thank Allah that I, the humble tree before you, have not been drawn with such intent. And not because I fear that if I’d been thus depicted all the dogs in Istanbul would assume I was a real tree and piss on me: I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be it’s meaning.

As we are introduced to a number of human voices and the cast of characters it is tempting to try to figure out which is the murderer seeing as it is definitely one of these people. I did not especially love any of the characters the only one I was a little attached to was Black, the man who attempts to find the murderer and deal with his love for the beautiful Shekure.

I recommend this book for the beautiful use of language and surprising use of narration, the mysterious and philosophical plot, the depiction of the culture clash in Eastern and Western art and the stunning portrayal of Istanbul. It is funny, dark, provoking and intelligent and I will definitely be reading another Orhan Pamuk novel.

Review: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Nine travellers try to outrun the plague that is sweeping England but as they find themselves thrown together it is uncertain whether it is the plague that is the most dangerous or the secret that each of them is hiding.

This only took a short time to read since the style was captivating and the secret that each character carries kept my attention as I tried to work each one out. I liked the way the author purposely gave enough clues so that the reader works the answer out just before the narrator does. The story is told in first person from the view of an old Camelot, a medieval peddler, who’s voice is brusque and hard but his actions are more tender-hearted as seen throughout the book. First person can very easily annoy me but after the first few pages I grew used to the style and found it easy to see the story through.

Folktales are interwoven into the story as each traveller tells their own embroidered history and the narrator makes up about five different histories for himself throughout the book. My favourite was the swan boy whose history was a haunting gory fairytale.

“At that the storyteller threw back his purple cloak and there was a gasp from the crowd so deep that for an instant everyone seemed in two minds whether to turn and run or push towards him. From under the cloak the storyteller withdrew his left arm, except that it wasn’t an arm, it was the pure white wing of a swan.”

I only had a vague  knowledge of the plague from what I learnt at school and you do not need to know more than this to read the book. Maitland intertwines many gruesome customs and histories into the novel alongside the characters. She seamlessly incorporates the custom of the cripple’s wedding or the corpse road in with the plot.

I grew to like some of the characters but due to the tense and growing oppressiveness of the story I was constantly on edge and certain terrible things would happen to them. Only one character was very two-dimensional for me and since it was a pivotal character in the plot I felt the book suffered, especially the ending which reminded me of Goosebumps.

This book is a fast paced, creepy historical read and a twisting dark thriller of a book. Maitland tells a well plotted and enjoyable story. I now want to read other books by this author as she has written two more set around the same period.