Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary British literature’

I got Clare Morrall’s ‘The Language of Others’ a few years back while browsing in the bookshop. I liked the description of the story and so thought I will get the book. Morrall’s first book ‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ was shortlisted for the Booker prize. ‘The Language of Others’ is her third book. I have wanted to read it for a while now, and so now I thought I will read it as part of the British Women Writers series. Here is what I think.

The Language Of Others By Clare Morrall

‘The Language of Others’ is a story which has plot strands set in three time periods and tells the story of Jessica, who at the present time is in her forties, and who is a librarian and also a musician who gives piano concerts with her friend Mary. Jessica has a grown up son who is in his middle-twenties, has his own business and lives with her. Jessica is single. One day Jessica gets an email from her ex-husband Andrew, who says that he wants to meet her. After this the story moves back and forth between three time periods – the present, the past when Jessica is a young girl living at her parents’ place, when she is shy, introverted, likes being left alone with her piano and doesn’t like talking to her parents, sister or cousins and a third time period which is in between these two times, when Jessica is in college studying music where she meets Andrew and falls in love with him. What happens between Jessica and Andrew and why they have reached the situation they are in today, why Jessica is working as a librarian when she trained to become a musician, why Jessica’s grown up son still lives with her, why Jessica was quiet and introverted and wanted to be left alone when she was a child and whether she is still like that now – the answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.


I loved ‘The Language of Others’. Clare Morrall’s description of music is very beautiful and one of the most natural that I have read. Most of the time, when an author writes a book which has a classical music backdrop, I find that the description of music is very general and very soon the story explores love, death or other themes and the music part of the story is ignored. I suspect that this might be because the author doesn’t have expertise in music and for a non-expert it is difficult to write about music naturally and authentically (beyond mentioning a few composers, a few musical instruments and then saying that the music was divine or heavenly or enveloped the audience warmly like a cloud). But Morrall’s passages on music are brilliant, authentic and natural – they have enough technical information without intimidating the musical novice and they are also beautiful and transport the reader inside the story into the music scene. It is a difficult art and Morrall is an expert at it. It must have helped that she is a music teacher too. This was one of the first musical passages which made me fall in love with the book.


The violin player started to play sections of concertos – Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Beethoven – carelessly, tossing them off into the air like quick flurries of rain. Each one swirled around in the wind for a few seconds, sharp but brilliant, uncertain whether to settle for a serious downpour or move away and give up.


For a book which I fell in love with, it also made me angry, quite angry. There were many scenes in the story where the heroine Jessica gets bullied by different people and it continues till the end, till she learns to resist them and fight back. I hate bullies and I hate nice people being bullied and the scenes where Jessica suffers at the hands of bullies were quite realistic and they made me quite angry. I am normally quite calm and never get angry when I read a book, but this was an exception.


I liked the old-fashioned way of storytelling that Clare Morrall had adopted. It almost read like a Victorian novel written in modern language. I don’t think that there was a word or a sentence or a scene wasted and the sentences were constructed beautifully and they all made the story move forward. All the characters were well fleshed out. My favourite characters were Jessica, her friend Mary, her son Joel’s girlfriend Alice, her mother Connie and her piano teacher Thelma Gulliver. Jessica’s ex-husband Andrew and her cousin Philip were two characters that I didn’t like (and who made me angry) but they were important characters in the story. Traditional storytelling, interesting characters, beautiful prose, musical backdrop, powerful scenes which make one angry and happy and sad, an ending which had a surprise but which was also very satisfying – what else does one need? ‘The Language of Others’ is a perfect novel. I can’t believe that I waited for so many years to read it. I know we have not reached the half way point of the year yet, but I can safely say that ‘The Language of Others’ is and will be one of my favourite books of the year. I can’t wait to read other books by Clare Morrall. I want to read all of them.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


I couldn’t really understand what Andrew saw in me. It was as if a shaft of brilliant sunshine had decided to push its way into a dark corner of the house where it wouldn’t naturally go, turning a corner to get there, penetrating walls that obstructed its progress, breaking all the laws of physics.


I was fascinated by the way people changed when they dressed up, became someone different. They shimmered and glittered and it was like placing them in front of a mirror, turning them through 360 degrees, and finding them altered when they came back. The same people, the same features, but subtly different. The nose that had seemed too big became elegant, the lips that protruded too much became full and individual. Skinny people became slim, fat people warm and shapely. I began to see what attracted people to each other. A glistening aura that was not normally on show.


Her left hand started to stroke the repeated A flats with a gentle insistence, establishing a constant presence, but taking a passive role, hardly there at all. The right hand sang out, cantabile, easing its way through the simplicity of the melody. Rubato, indulgent, taking its time. Each phrase rose and fell, shaped and polished with love. This was how you played Chopin. It was music for the nineteenth-century salon, a piece to impress George Sand and the cultured circles of Paris, who, like Thelma Gulliver, were all slightly in love with the consumptive, temperamental composer from Poland.


Pretence gives you room to get round obstacles without touching them, the space to observe that there are other sides to people, not just the abrasive, challenging attitude that you can’t cope with. You have to view people from new angles, see where the light falls, discover which edges have been worn down and softened with time. Otherwise you get so caught up in the negatives you can’t see anything else.


I want to hear the echo of nothing for miles around. I want to be the only person who can disturb the air when I walk through my house. I can feel it parting to let me through, closing up again behind me. The silence soaks into my mind, an invisible medicine that drips down, melting hardened arteries, easing its way into neglected and forgotten places.

      Apparently, loneliness is a twenty-first-century disease which leads to alcoholism, drug-taking, depression, suicides. It’s better to be married if you want to live longer. I defy all of this research. I thrive on the emptiness of my house.


Have you read ‘The Language of Others’ by Clare Morrall?

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While browsing through my book collection, I discovered an interesting trend in it. Across the years, I had collected books by British women writers, writers who were probably well known in their circles, but who were all new-to-me. In the case of most of these books, I picked them up because I liked the plot. In the case of some books, I picked them up, because there was something about the writer that I found interesting, and in some cases, the book had won a literary award. Some of these books were also long / shortlisted for the Booker prize or the Orange prize. So, a few days back when I thought I will pick a new book to read, I decided to take all these books I have by British women writers and read them together. I thought it will be fun to compare their different takes on life and their different writing styles if I read them together.

The Whole Wide Beauty By Emily Woof

The first book that I picked up for reading, in this series, was ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’ by Emily Woof. I bought Emily Woof’s book because I had discovered her through a different context. A few years back I had seen the movie version of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’. It is about a young woman who wants to grow out of her village roots and become a sophisticated person, but she keeps getting pulled back to her village by her childhood sweetheart, while the doctor that she is in love with, though he is sophisticated, is not exactly the nice person she assumes him to be. This young woman’s search for love and how circumstances and the social setup of that time foil her plans form the rest of the story. Emily Woof played the role of this young woman and I loved her performance. So, when I saw ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’ and discovered that it was written by the same Emily Woof, I couldn’t resist getting it. I have a soft corner for artists who are talented in multiple fields and who find expression for their creative impulses in diverse ways. ‘Have a soft corner’ is putting it mildly. I love these artists and am extremely jealous of them. I am especially biased towards actors and actresses who write novels. I have read and loved novels by Steve Martin (‘Shopgirl’) and Ethan Hawke (‘Ash Wednesday’) in the past. So I had to read Emily Woof’s ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.


‘The Whole Wide Beauty’ is about Katherine who teaches music in a school for special children and her life and loves. Katherine used to be a dancer before, but she has given up dance after she got married to Adam. She and Adam have a son called Kieron. Adam’s parents David and Kay are very literary – David is a poet and also manages a foundation which is attempting to preserve the literary heritage of Northumbria, while Kay teaches literature and poetry at school. David organizes a fundraising dinner which also features poetry readings. Stephen, a poet who is mentored by David, is one of those who participates in the readings. The audience loves his poetry. And Katherine falls in love with him. How Katherine manages her relationship with Stephen and that of her family form the rest of the story. This is, of course, summarizing the plot simplistically. The novel is also about David’s attempts at raising funds for his literary foundation and the problems in doing so. It is also about the complex relationships that David has with May (his wife), Gregory (his brother-in-law), Katherine, Stephen and other characters in the story. From one perspective the novel is the story of Katherine. From another perspective, it is also the story of David. Though the novel is just around 300 pages, like George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, the book has many characters, many stories, interesting surprises and beautiful prose. The main characters were all fully fleshed out and complex and flawed and humanly beautiful. Though I liked Katherine and Stephen and some of the other main characters (I didn’t really like David much) my favourite characters in the story were May and Ken (David’s gardener).


Some of the interesting things I noticed while reading the book were these : one of the characters was called Kieron (Katherine’s son) and the word ‘pollard’ was used (in the sentence ‘the pollarded plane trees seemed to push up…’ – if you are a cricket fan you would probably know about Kieron Pollard); Katherine looks at her mobile phone to find out the time (which seems to be a very contemporary practice – I remember reading about this in two other novels recently); the singular form of the verb is used with the noun ‘a couple’ (in the sentence ‘A couple was crossing a side street.’ – today the plural form is used quite regularly though it is grammatically incorrect and it has even started sounding right to our ears, for example, if we say ‘A couple were crossing a side street’).


I liked ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’ very much. I read some parts of the novel rapidly and I now regret doing that, because it is a novel which needs to be read slowly because only when we read it that way, the novel rewards us with its magic. I can’t wait to find out what Emily Woof comes up with next.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


May knew that he was reassured by her mischievousness, as she was by his indignation.


When he spoke to Katherine about May, David always referred to her as ‘your mother’ rather than the familiar ‘Mum’ which presumed an intimacy he resisted. It was part of his stubborn Northern heritage. ‘Your mother’ was used by men to distance themselves from the family; ‘your mother’ seemed to Katherine to mean, ‘she’s your mother and neither of you have anything to do with me’.


Once people were introduced to poetry, they would change forever. Poetry was a quiet permission for people to embrace their own mystery.


David : His work is conceptual, very abstract.

Christopher : Art has to look like something for me, I’m afraid.

David : Artists like George Gull need you.

Christopher : What on earth for?

David : They need to be rejected.

Christopher : I see. The perversity of the artist. Longs for success but thrives on disdain.


They probably took their dog on the same walk every afternoon. May imagined their lives, conventional, their marriage so faithful and unchallenging. They were perfectly moulded to each other, like two bowls on a kitchen shelf. She could never have chosen a life like theirs, but as she got in her car to drive to Carlisle, she wished for a small measure of their contentment.


The poem held a new intelligence. The language was arresting, almost disturbing, s though he had pounded and bullied the words, pushing them to the limits of making sense. It was a raw excavation of the human need for love and the struggle to sustain it.


Have you read Emily Woof’s ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’? What do you think about it? Do you like reading novels by actors / actresses or creative artists from other fields?

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After reading Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ sometime back, I decided to read another Julian Barnes book. As ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ seemed to be the most celebrated book of his, I thought I will read that. Though it was a thin book at around 190 pages, I read it slowly across a week. Here is what I think.

Flauberts Parrot By Julian Barnes

‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ is described as a novel. It also has a narrator called Geoffrey Braithwaite who tells the story in the first person. But the book is not really a novel. It is a love letter to Gustave Flaubert – the man who wrote such diverse books as ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Sentimental Education’ and Salammbô’. Some regard Gustave Flaubert as an innovator who broke away from the romantic school of writing and introduced a realistic school of writing in French literature. He himself, disputes it. He also gave a lot of importance to style – to finding the perfect sentence, the perfect word to describe exactly what he wanted. Well, how do I know all this? Am I an expert in Flaubert? No. Have I read his biography? No. Or have I read essays on him by his contemporaries? No. Then how? Well, I got all this from this book J For such a slim book, it packs in a lot of information. Information which we can use as a base to learn more about Flaubert. The title is based on the parrot which is a character in Flaubert’s short story ‘A Simple Heart’. The underlying story in the book is about how the narrator, who is a sixty-five year old retired doctor who has lost his wife, explores the real life origins of this parrot. Through the narrator’s words, Barnes explores different aspects of ‘things Flaubert’ – a chronology of Flaubert’s life from three different, interesting perspectives, what would happen if a secret collection of Flaubert’s love letters to his fiancée (who is not suspected to have existed) are found, about the animals that Flaubert wanted to be, about critics’ opinions on Flaubert and how even if they are telling the truth they are missing the point, Flaubert’s opinions on trains and the important train moments in his life, the books Flaubert wanted to write but couldn’t, Flaubert’s life as told by his mistress and lover Louise Colet, how the narrator’s own life is connected to Flaubert and ‘Madame Bovary’, how Flaubert’s works and thoughts will make an interesting examination paper. The chapter on chronology was quite interesting because it provided a chronology of Flaubert’s life from three different perspectives – the first was a regular chronology made up of the important events in Flaubert’s life, the second was made up of all the tragic and sad events in Flaubert’s life and the third was a collection of his diary entries across his life. The three versions read so differently that one felt that it is impossible to sum up a life with a chronology.


The blurb said that the book was a ‘compelling weave of fiction and imaginatively ordered fact’. So, I was expecting some fact and a lot of fiction. When I did some research and read a few essays on Flaubert and some of his letters from a different book, I discovered that there was more fact than fiction in ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. For example, I discovered that Louise Colet is a real person. I also discovered, much to my surprise, that Enid Starkie, who is the critic whom the narrator Braithwaite has a problem with, is an actual Flaubert expert. This knowledge made me like the book more. Clearly Barnes is a lover of things Flaubert and has done his homework.


‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ is not a book for everyone. If one is looking for a plot with a beginning, a middle and a surprising end, this is not that one. If one is looking for long, beautiful passages and philosophical commentaries on the modern world, like ‘The Sense of an Ending’ so beautifully provides, one won’t find them here. But as a love letter to one of the great writers of the 19th century, this book is unparalleled. It is beautiful, passionate, intelligent, literary and an absolute pleasure to read. I loved reading every page and every sentence in it. It was like reading a memoir, a biography, a collection of essays, literary criticism, all in one book. It is no surprise that it didn’t win the Booker though it was shortlisted (I don’t know a Booker prize winner which is similar to ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’), but it is also no surprise that it won the Prix Médicis (French readers would have loved it because of the theme of the book). If you like a book which is a love letter to a writer – a bibliophilic book and a literature lover’s dream – you will love this book.


I have fallen in love with Flaubert after reading ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. Now I want to read his short story ‘A Simple Heart’. And after that ‘Madame Bovary’ and after that ‘Sentimental Education’ and after that Salammbô’.


After reading ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, I read a few essays on Flaubert by his contemporaries – Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant and Henry James. I liked Zola’s essay very much. In a short space of around nine pages, Zola talks about his first experience of meeting Flaubert, about the differences between Flaubert the writer and Flaubert the person, about Flaubert’s views on modernity and progress, on how Flaubert worked on his prose, searching for the perfect sentence and the perfect word and how he would wait for days and weeks for it to arrive. It is a perfect essay and an education in essay writing.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book and from Zola’s essay.


From ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’


Is it ever the right time to die? It wasn’t for Flaubert; or for George Sand, who didn’t live to read Un cœur simple. ‘I had begun it solely on account of her, only to please her. She died while I was in the midst of the work. So it is with all our dreams.’ Is it better not to have the dreams, the work, and then the desolation of uncompleted work? Perhaps, like Frédéric and Deslauriers, we should prefer the consolation of non-fulfilment : the planned visit to the brothel, the pleasure of anticipation, and then, years later, not the memory of deeds but the memory of past anticipations? Wouldn’t that keep it all cleaner and less painful?


You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on our point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did : he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.


When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.


Nowadays we aren’t allowed to use the word mad. What lunacy. The few psychiatrists I respect always talk about people being mad. Use the short, simple, true words. Dead, I say, and dying, and mad, and adultery. I don’t say passed on, or slipping away, or terminal (oh, he’s terminal? Which one? Euston, St Pancras, the Gare St Lazare?), or personality disorder, or fooling around, bit on the side, well she’s away a lot visiting her sister. I say mad and adultery, that’s what I say. Mad has the right sound to it. It’s an ordinary word, a word which tells us how lunacy might come and call like a delivery van. Terrible things are also ordinary. Do you know what Nabokov said about adultery in his lecture on Madame Bovary? He said it was ‘a most conventional way to rise above the conventional.’


…perhaps the sweetest moment in writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a  definite shape, which never needs be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.


…when readers complain about the lives of writers – why didn’t he do this; why didn’t he protest to the newspapers about that; why wasn’t he more involved in life? – aren’t they really asking a simpler, and vainer, question : why isn’t he more like us? But if a writer were more like a reader, he’d be a reader, not a writer : it’s as uncomplicated as that.


Ellen. My wife : someone I feel I understand less well than a foreign writer dead for a hundred years. Is this an aberration, or is it normal? Books say : she did this because. Life says : she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.


‘The whole dream of democracy’, he wrote, ‘is to raise the proletariat to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeoisie.’ That line often makes people edgy. Isn’t it perfectly fair? Over the last hundred years the proletariat has schooled itself in the pretensions of the bourgeoisie; while the bourgeoisie, less confident of its ascendancy, has become more sly and deceitful. Is this progress? Study a packed cross-Channel ferry if you want to see a modern ship of fools. There they all are : working out the profit on their duty-free; having more drinks at the bar than they want; playing the fruit machines; aimlessly circling the deck; making up their minds how honest to be at customs; waiting for the next order from the ship’s crew as if the crossing of the Red Sea depended on it. I do that criticise, I merely observe; and I’m not sure what I would think if everyone lined the rail to admire the play of light on the water and started discussing Boudin. I am not different, by the way : I stock up on duty-free and await orders like the rest of them. My point is merely this : Flaubert was right.


‘In the ideal I have of Art, I think that one must not show one’s own, and that the artist must no more appear in his work than God does in nature. Man is nothing, the work of art everything…It would be very pleasant for me to say what I think and relieve Monsieur Gustave Flaubert’s feelings by means of such utterances; but what is the importance of the said gentleman?’

      This demand for authorial absence ran deeper still. Some writers ostensibly agree with the principle, yet sneak in at the back door and cosh the reader with a highly personal style. The murder is perfectly executed, except that the baseball bat left at the scene of the crime is sticky with fingerprints. Flaubert is different. He believed in style; more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness; perfection – but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde. Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject-matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always ‘out there’ somewhere; the writer’s task is to locate them b whatever means he can. For some this means no more than a trip to the supermarket and a loading-up of the metal basket; for others, it means being lost on a plain in Greece, in the dark, in snow, in the rain, and finding what you seek only by some rare trick such as barking like a dog.


From Emile Zola’s essay


My first visits to Flaubert were a great disillusionment, almost an ordeal. I arrived with a complete image of Flaubert already in my head, an image based on his work of a Flaubert who was the pioneer of the century, the portrayer and philosopher of our modern world. I saw him as clearing a new path, founding an orderly state in the province conquered by romanticism, marching into the future with strength and confidence. In short, I went expecting to find the man of his books, and I encountered a shameless joker, a paradoxical thinker, an impertinent romantic who made my head spin for hours with a deluge of astonishing theories.


When he set himself to write, he began by rather rapidly writing a passage, a whole episode, five or six pages at the most. Sometimes, when a word would not come, he would leave the space blank. Then he would attack the passage again; and there would follow two or three weeks, sometimes more, of intense work on those five on six pages. He wanted them perfect, and I assure you that his perfection did not come easily. He weighed every word, examining not only the sense, but the structure. Avoiding repetitions, rhymes, roughness – that was just the coarse part of the job. He reached the point where he did not want the same syllables to occur in a sentence; often one letter exasperated him, he tried to find words in which it did not appear; or else he needed a certain number of r’s to make the period roll. He did not write for the eye, for the reader who reads silently to himself by the fireside; he wrote for the reader who declaims, who pronounces the sentences in a loud voice; indeed, this is the key to his whole working method. To test his sentences he would “bellow” them, alone, at his desk, and he was not satisfied with them until they had come out of his mouth with the sound he wanted them to have.


Have you read Julian Barnes’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’? What do you think about it?

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I got to know about Sarah Hall when I read reviews of her book ‘How to Paint a Dead Man’. Most of the reviews raved about the author and this book. I went and got the book, but postponed reading it for later. Then I discovered that one her novels ‘The Electric Michelangelo’ was shortlisted for the Booker and so I went and got that too. During one of my subsequent visits to the bookshop, I saw ‘The Carhullan Army’ and I didn’t want to leave that, and so got that too. Unfortunately, all the books ended up on my bookshelf, unread.  You might think that I am crazy for getting so many books by the same writer and not reading them immediately, but I was in one of those book acquiring sprees those days –  if I discovered a new writer who I thought I might like, I went and got many books by the same writer. Those book acquiring sprees were crazy. I am glad I am out of them now. This week when I was looking for a new book to read and I wasn’t happy with any of the choices that were available, I thought I will read ‘The Carhullan Army’. It had all the things I was looking for at that point – a comfortable size which is not very long (207 pages), comfortable font-size and an attractive first paragraph. I read the first page and it was gripping and before I knew I had dived deep into the book and came out only after I had finished it. Here is what I think.


‘The Carhullan Army’ is set in a dystopian world in the future. England is ruled by a totalitarian government headed by the ‘Authority’, elections have been suspended, freedom has been curtailed, people are sharing apartments and are in meaningless jobs, women are fitted with contraceptive devices, wars are waged across the world and the country is falling apart. An unnamed woman narrates her story as it happened at this time. She calls herself Sister and refuses to reveal her real name. She seems to be in prison and the story seems to be her confession. Sister has one of the meaningless jobs in a nearby factory. Her husband Andrew works at the refinery. Their marriage is falling apart. One day the government decides that all women should wear contraceptive devices. Sister tries postponing her turn, but she is not able to do it for long. She feels violated. She thinks about all this for a while. She wants to escape from her situation – from the meaningless job, from the restrictive life, from her joyless marriage. She has heard of a place called Carhullan where there is a commune of women who have managed to create a self-sustaining way of life. This community at Carhullan is outside the confines of the official system and they are treated as ‘Unofficials’. Sister yearns to go away from home and join this commune. One day she gets up early, leaves her home and journeys towards Carhullan. When she reaches there, she doesn’t get a warm welcome. She is treated as an enemy and she is put in isolation. But she survives that. When the women who run the commune at Carhullan discover that Sister has come there to join the commune, her isolation ends. She is warmly welcomed, is made to feel part of the commune and she finds something useful to do. She even falls in love – with another woman. But beautiful times don’t last for long. A dark cloud hovers over the horizon and the women of Carhullan have to decide how to handle the threat. What they do and whether this ideal community survives forms the rest of the story.


I liked ‘The Carhullan Army’ very much. I haven’t read many dystopian novels (I can’t remember reading any except ‘Matched’ by Allie Condie) and so it was interesting to read one. I liked the main character Sister and how the story describes her escape from the confines of her life into a new world and how it transforms her as a person. I also liked the way the love between her and another person in the commune, Shruti, is depicted. I loved Sarah Hall’s wonderful prose and the many beautiful passages in the book. The last sentence in the book gave me goose bumps.


One thing which comes to the top of my mind when I think of this book is that it was gripping from the beginning to the end. It was a real page-turner. I also felt another thing when I read the book. I don’t know whether I am generalizing this without any real evidence – it will be interesting to think about this as I continue reading books by more authors. One of the things I discovered about English women writers was that in their books, the plot always came first. There were no long monologues and philosophical passages unrelated to the story with the plot getting the short shrift. Of course, these books had their beautiful passages, but they were part of the plot and went along with the plot. It is a traditional way of storytelling and it works wonderfully. Whether I read 19th century writers like Jane Austen or George Eliot or modern writers like A.S.Byatt, I noticed this feature consistently in their books. Now I am happy to see that Sarah Hall belongs to the same school of writers who focus on sculpting a good plot. I don’t know when this accent on beautiful passages and philosophical monologues went up and the focus on the plot went down. Many of the literary prize winners these days have plots which can be written in two pages and the rest of the book (that is literally hundreds of pages) is filled up with beautiful passages. I think there is room for both kinds of books in the literary landscape and I hope more writers try to write gripping plots. As for me – I love myself a gripping plot and so I am happy that this book was very satisfying that way. I can’t wait to read more books by Sarah Hall now.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


But now I was safely away, beyond exposure and explanation. I was alone. Here in the empty Lakeland village I couldn’t have explained to anyone exactly how secure I felt, even if there had been someone around to listen to me. The village reverberated with silence, with human absence. There was not a soul to be found and I liked it. It had been so long since I had felt that. Even on the Beacon Hill above Rith I could see people moving in the streets and I knew they were close by. Here I was breathing air that no one else’s breath competed for. I was no longer complicit in a wrecked and regulated existence. I was not its sterile subject.


Sitting beside me she seemed too inanimate for her voltage, too kinetic under her restfulness. It was as if her skin could barely contain the essence of her.


Our company seemed defined by a gentle sadness now, as if we had never really had the opportunity to fall out of love, and everything begun had been curtailed instead of aborted.

      I might have walked away completely, avoided her around the farm, to make it all easier, for myself at least, attempting to convert the relationship into a mistake in my head. But she made a point of maintaining a bond. She offered to wash my clothes with hers, left flowers on the crate next to my bunk. There was more grace in her than I could have managed, and without hers I would have found none. It brought a gentle ache to my chest to have her hug me at the end of a dinner shift and then walk away to her bed, or rest a hand on my shoulder and ask if I was faring OK when she saw my cuts and bruises, my newly shaved head…Shruti held back, as I did. Instead, she offered me a quiet, spiritual friendship.


Have you read ‘The Carhullan Army’ by Sarah Hall? What do you think about it?

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