Review – Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

‘In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.’

I could quote from this novel endlessly. Unbelievably, this was the first time I’d read anything by Virginia Woolf. I’m so glad I waited. I genuinely don’t know how I might have reacted to this when I was younger; I get the feeling I might have gulped it down all at once, and not really let it touch the sides.

Instead, I took it slowly, reading this relatively slim novel in even slimmer chunks. I think you have to – or at least, I had to – to truly appreciate the ‘waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved’.

A brief note on plot, although plot really isn’t the point. Clarissa Dalloway, a fifty-something bastion of British privilege, is throwing a party. The narrative follows her thoughts, and those of others – mainly her ex-lover Peter, and a shell-shocked veteran Septimus – through the course of a single day in June. During the course of that day, they wander all around central London, occasionally overlapping, although Septimus’s story is broadly independent of the others. Their minds, though, are elsewhere; in Clarissa and Peter’s case, largely in the past, when they were young and things were different.

I have said this about other classics before, but I was surprised by how, well, modern it all felt. This was partly the style (the somewhat breathless stream-of-consciousness style means this novel will definitely be one I go back to; the access to the characters’ most intimate thoughts (and even more so, their thought processes) is familiar to us now, but was still pretty new in the early 1920s). It was also, though, the subject matter. Despite the shadow of World War I, I wasn’t expecting to read about a shell-shocked soldier. His story forms an agonising counterpoint to the main event, and adds depth to a plot which could otherwise – on the surface, at least – have seemed a little frothy.

The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Clarissa. Married to a man who solemnly declares ‘that no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes (besides the relationship was not one that he approved)’, she is serene and respectable on the outside, whilst the narrative ranges over a complex and exhausting inner life, from worrying about aging and death, to wishing she could have done everything differently, to being – at times – happy, almost content. I found this complexity and depth wildly exhilarating; like seeing the world with the colours turned up. ‘It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.’ That must have been an easy thing to believe, after the horrors of the Great War; maybe it’s an even easier thing to believe today. The joy of this novel, for me, though, was its demonstration of exactly the opposite: ‘Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.’ Quite so.



Review – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I had been looking forward to reading this ever since 2014, when some friends and I went on a girly road trip through the Deep South and I fell in love with Dixieland.

Well. Carson McCullers’ novel, written when she was 23 (23! I find that irritating, to say the least) wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But let’s start at the beginning. This is the story of the misfit inhabitants of a town ‘in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot.’

I say ‘the story of’, but actually, if anything this felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel. I think a lot of that is down to how disconnected the characters are with each other (and themselves). The main character, although it feels odd to describe him that way, is Singer, a deaf mute towards whom a number of the other characters gravitate. His inability to speak inevitably draws other people out of themselves; he communicates little, allowing each of them to fill in the blanks and project a little of themselves onto him. They are not alone in this; the Turks in town are convinced that he’s Turkish, the Jews think he’s Jewish, and so on and so forth. ‘His eyes,’ McCullers tells us, ‘made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.’

Nobody else in the novel, though, seems to be able to connect with each other. There is one scene in particular where Singer, the deaf mute on whom the story hangs together, is visited by all four of his regular visitors at once; used to speaking only to him, they ignore each other awkwardly, until it’s time to leave again. This never improves; if anything, the sense of alienation gets worse, not better, and characters are driven through the book by their desires, rather than their relationships.

The writing is spare and precise and in places simply stunning – like the quote in the second paragraph above, which was one of my favourites. The sense of geography in particular, both in time and space and also in terms of the characters’ place in the natural world, is strong. McCullers (perhaps unsurprisingly, given her age at the time of writing) is also very good on the fizz of adolescent longing; ‘Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.’

There’s politics, too, and anger. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been read as anti-Fascist, which I can definitely see. A couple of the characters are preoccupied with fighting injustice in different ways; there is a doctor who struggles with racial injustice, and a violently self-destructive Communist, trying to open the eyes of the world to everything he finds to be wrong with it. In the end, though, the novel left me feeling a little flat. There was a lot that was good about it, but its vaguely nihilistic world view was a little too much for me – like a teenager trying a little too hard to be cool, I just couldn’t quite believe that someone with such a gift for observing the world could be quite so disillusioned with it. I haven’t read any of McCullers’s later work, but I really hope she grew out of it.



Review – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

No, really, I did. This book will get into your head. For that reason, this is going to be a difficult review to write without spoilers, but I’ll do my best…

For anybody who, like me, has somehow managed to avoid this particular piece of British culture until now:

Our unnamed narrator seems doomed to a harried and unfulfilling life as a paid companion to a brash American (the frankly hilarious Mrs van Hopper), until she meets and falls in love with the tragic, brooding Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind courtship (including, it must be said, one of the worst marriage proposals in literature), the newly-married de Winters return to his familial home, the incredibly atmospheric Manderley. And this is where the trouble starts. Manderley, in the great British Gothic tradition, is haunted. Not literally – although once or twice we may have our doubts – but emotionally, the whole estate is still saturated by the memories of the first Mrs de Winter, the eponymous Rebecca.

This had been on my TBR pile for years. I don’t know why it never made it to the top until now (I’m sure me buying a beautiful Little, Brown hardback edition had nothing to do with it…). Maybe I was slightly put off by a vague association of Daphne du Maurier with ‘romance’, by which I mean ‘romance’ in the awful, sniffy, prejudiced sense that associates the genre (falsely, in so many cases) with bad writing and unbelievable characters and events.

Well. I could not have been more wrong. I mean, there is romance, yes, and melodrama (in spades), and the characters are occasionally annoying. There’s a stretch in the middle, in particular, where I could quite cheerfully have slapped our narrator in the face for being such a bloody wet blanket. But something happens, and she gets over it, and besides, there’s so much else about the novel that’s good. I’m a fan of anything Gothic, and this novel has the Gothic in spades (remote country estate, characters communing with nature, unexplained phenomena – you name it, it’s there). There is also one of the strongest senses of place I’ve ever felt in a novel – Cornwall is never actually mentioned, but it’s everywhere, woven through the fabric of the story; apparently du Maurier wrote most of the novel while she was in Egypt and homesick for Cornwall, and it really shows.

The structure of the novel is intriguing, too. After a few pages at the beginning which make it clear that something terrible has happened, the rest is split broadly into thirds – the courtship in Monte Carlo, the tension-building introduction to Manderley and its residents, and then the breathless denouement, which has so many plot twists it’s like a cross between Downton Abbey and Eastenders.

But what really struck me were the parallels with another Gothic ‘romance’ with a troublesome first wife. I am, of course, talking about Jane Eyre. The character of Rebecca, unlike Bertha Rochester, is never seen, but she is everywhere, driving the narrative throughout – and in increasingly malevolent ways, through her own sinister presence or through the – frankly terrifying – agency of her own Grace Poole figure, Mrs Danvers. Maxim de Winter is, at once, both better and worse than Rochester; suffice it to say that they both play on our sympathies in comparable ways. Our narrator is like Jane Eyre mainly in the things that happen to her, rather than in who she is and how she reacts to them. She is younger than Jane, and less emotionally independent, and her own internal journey is all the more fascinating for that; her imagination gets her into a decent amount of trouble, and we’re never quite sure how much of what she tells us is really true. This adds a fascinating psychological dimension to the story, and kept me gripped, right to the end.


Book Review – War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The title of War and Peace is entirely accurate. The title of this blog post is not. It’s not really a review. Honestly, it’s the literary equivalent of a teenager’s thoughts on One Direction. I just loved this novel. No, seriously, I did. I’m not being sarcastic or anything. And the next 900-or-so words are an undisguised, unashamed, unabashed (does that mean the same as unashamed? Oh well, it sounds good) attempt to convince you to read it, if you haven’t already.

So, my love for this novel. It didn’t happen all at once. I started off strong, keen, and eager to stay ahead of the BBC miniseries. Then I got a couple of hundred pages in and Life Happened (back to work, horrible cold, general January malaise). My reading was confined to the weekends, and maybe a few minutes snatched at lunchtimes during the week. I was enjoying the book but, well, it was in danger of starting to feel like a bit of a chore.

Then something strange happened. I got to around 4-or-500 pages in, and – my priorities changed. I got really, really into it. I spent a big chunk of the weekend before last reading – probably 10 hours or more. I’ve been reading instead of watching TV in the evenings. One morning last week, sensing the end was in sight, I got the bus into work instead of driving, so I got more reading time.  It just got really good. And it stayed good, with minor exceptions, right to the end. (I’m not telling you what the exceptions were, as I’m terrified of accidental spoilers. Read it, and then we’ll talk; or I might post another, spoiler-y review, a little later. But suffice it to say the exceptions are minor, and you should still read it.)

Anyway, enough of me sounding like a 12-year-old fangirl. What did I like about War and Peace, and what can I say to convince those who remain unconvinced by its 1273 short pages? Well here, holiday-ad style, are a few of the delights which await you:

  • Delight in the brilliance of the writing! Tolstoy’s writing is basically the love child of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. From Jane Austen, he takes a lot of subject matter of the ‘peace’ – writing about the minor aristocracy, getting into the minds (and dressing rooms) of his characters, and exposing them to us, gently enough, but with warts and all. From Dickens, there is the breadth of scope, the feeling of the grand sweep of history behind the individual stories, although – for the most part – Dickens’s anger at social injustice is missing; this is not, in the end, a novel about serfs. In common with both Austen and Dickens, Tolstoy has humour. No, really. Parts of this book are really, really funny. (Pierre’s accidental engagement, for example. Or this: ‘Bonaparte was born lucky. He has excellent soldiers. And the Germans were the first he attacked. You’d have to be a do-nothing not to beat the Germans. Ever since the world began, everybody’s beaten the Germans. And they’ve beaten nobody. Except each other.’ I happen to like Germany quite a bit – but, as a Brit, that’s pretty funny and always will be.) And I was amazed at how modern the whole thing felt. OK, it’s long, and there are parts which are a bit slow – but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. On the whole, it’s pacy, and engaging as hell.


  • Fall in love with the characters! Honestly, this is the best bit of the whole thing. The characterisation is wonderful. It’s not your typical character-driven novel, veering off at times into history, philosophy and more (top tip: when you get to the bit about the masons, just take a deep breath and power through it) – but the really innovative thing, to my mind, was Tolstoy’s use of a narrative style which flits between the minds and points of view of almost all of the major characters, almost dizzyingly fast. That style took me some getting used to, but it encouraged empathy for the characters – all of them – perhaps moreso than any ‘classic’ novel I’ve ever read. (Well. I say all. Funnily enough, thinking about which characters I had no empathy for (I’m looking at you, Karagins), I don’t think we ever get inside their heads. So I’m standing by the point.) The character development is supreme. None of them are perfect, but they are all – to a greater or lesser extent – lovable. (Again – not you, Karagins.) My favourites changed throughout the book, and those who’ve read it more than once say that their favourite changed depending on where they were in their lives. Before reading it, I could never have imagined being one of those people, like Andrew Marr, who reads it every year. Now, I can’t imagine not revisiting Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and the rest of them; I finished the book four days ago, and I’m still/already mourning their loss.


  • Learn about the Napoleonic Wars! It’s almost a cliché to comment that War and Peace isn’t really a novel. Tolstoy makes that point himself, in an end note, commenting that ‘It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.’ In other words, ‘Don’t fence me in, haters’. I must confess, ‘epic poem’ hadn’t really occurred to me (maybe it would have done, if I had the ability to read it in Russian), but I might have described it as either of the others. I had a vague awareness of what was going on in Europe in the early 19th century, but really only as it pertained to Britain. I’d have been unlikely to have picked up a non-fiction book about Napoleon, and I probably still wouldn’t, but at least now I know my Austerlitzes from my Borodinos. And all without having to wander half-blindly through a battlefield, without even so much as a uniform. (Sorry, Pierre.)


  • Bask in the kudos of the bragging rights! Actually, I’m lying. This one doesn’t really work for that long. If you can get two weeks out of saying ‘I’m reading War and Peace, you know’ before people start rolling their eyes at you, you’re doing well. Trust me on this. But still, it’s worth reading. I promise.



Review – Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

I was soooooooooooooooo disappointed by this. The preponderance of ‘o’s is completely justified, by the way, because I was enormously looking forward to reading it. It ticked all the boxes, for me – Victorian fiction, strong heroine, doorstop of a novel, grand themes of love and war.

Well. I’m going to try my hardest to be fair. I mean, it wasn’t terrible. Things I liked about it:

  • Thackeray’s sense of humour. You’d think I would have learned by now, but I’m always surprised at how darn funny the great Victorian novelists are. There were points in this at which I laughed out loud, mainly at his tongue-in-cheek observations about the crassness of humanity (whenever they’re on the right side of a sneer, anyway). Becky’s son, calling her out on her shamelessly hypocritical behaviour, is a particular highlight: ‘For Rebecca, seeing that tenderness was the fashion, called Rawdon to her one evening and stooped down and kissed him in the presence of all the ladies. He looked her full in the face after the operation, trembling and turning very red, as his wont was when moved. “You never kiss me at home, Mamma,” he said, at which there was a general silence and consternation and a by no means pleasant look in Becky’s eyes.’
  • The rather post-modern self-awareness of his form also felt like a private joke, but one in which the reader is included – you can’t help but feel that he is poking fun at himself and at our expectations, for example when he notes that ‘The causes which had led to the deplorable illness of Miss Crawley, and her departure from her brother’s house in the country, were of such an unromantic nature that they are hardly fit to be explained in this genteel and sentimental novel.’ There’s also a very short chapter, near the beginning, which I’m fairly confident was written at the last minute before that week’s deadline (this, like so many of the massive Victorian novels, was written for serialisation), and quite possible in the throes of a hangover.
  • Contemporary(ish) commentary. Although written some 50 years later, the novel is set at and around the time of the Battle of Waterloo (indeed, the battle itself provides a major plot point which I’ll try not to give away), and occasionally gems like this are dropped in: ‘”That was the most beautiful part of dear Lord Nelson’s character,” Miss Crawley said. “He went to the deuce for a woman. There must be good in a man who will do that.”‘ Superb.
  • The comparative lack of ‘battlefield analysis’. Although this is a novel of the Napoleonic Wars, it dwells very little on actual warfare (‘We do not claim to rank among the military novelists,’ says Thackeray; ‘Our place is with the non-combatants’.). It may sound odd to like a novel for a distinct lack of something (and I’ll leave it to you to determine whether I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here), but I’m currently reading War and Peace and – although it’s kicking Thackeray’s a$$ in all other respects – the ‘war’ chapters do have their moments.

So, yes, very funny, very clever, a great achievement, etc. BUT. Oh. my. Goodness. Can we please talk for a moment about how badly Thackeray treats his characters?

Let’s start with poor Becky Sharp. I mean that literally, by the way. Here is a girl without money or family, and with only her wits (and one or two other attributes) to rely on. Vanity Fair is famously subtitled ‘A Novel Without a Hero’, and so I assumed – perhaps foolishly – that it would be full of heroines, instead. Nope, not allowed. Thackeray HATES women. They are all presented as either grasping harridans, or slavish nincompoops (see: Amelia’s devotion to George; ‘it was only when George was spoken of that she listened, and when he was not mentioned, she thought about him.’ Yuck.). I don’t think Thackeray has much time for men either, but he seems to reserve special ire for poor Becky. And I know, we’re not really supposed to sympathise with her; she does dreadful things, uses people and then throws them away, even flirting with the husband of her best friend for no apparent reason other than for sport. And she is an appalling parent. But she’s smart, and a born survivor, and almost everything she does is – rightly or wrongly (OK, OK, it’s wrongly) – in the name of necessity, an attempt to support herself and her family. As she herself says, ‘”I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year.”‘

I sort of knew most of that about Becky before I started. But I think I was expecting Thackeray to present her, warts and all, with a kind of amused complicity – maybe even a grudging respect. There are flashes of that, particularly towards the beginning; but for most of the novel, if it’s there, it’s buried pretty deep.

Thackeray’s contempt isn’t limited to his main character, though; and this is another thing which I found more and more wearing as the novel rumbled on. His snide asides, sprinkled through the chapters, about ‘vanity fair’ (a near-synonym for civilised society) and how badly-behaved we all are, start out as caustically funny, but by the end are mildly-and-increasingly uncomfortable – like the elderly uncle who sits in the corner and says inappropriate things at Christmas. Like this misogynistic trio:

  • ‘Who has not seen how women bully women? What tortures have men to endure, comparable to those daily repeated shafts of scorn and cruelty with which poor women are riddled by the tyrants of their sex?’
  • ‘Women only know how to wound so. there is a poison on the tips of their little shafts, which stings a thousand times more than a man’s blunter weapon.’
  • ‘Oh, those women! They nurse and cuddle their presentiments, and make darlings of their ugliest thoughts, as they do of their deformed children.’

Really? Really, though? I don’t even think these are the worst. I only know that by the end, every time I came across one of these, I involuntarily muttered nasty things at the narrator. Since a lot of my reading happens on public transport, I suspect this came across as frankly antisocial.

I think in the end that was my problem with this. I’ve read novels with unlikeable characters, and loved them (the novels, I mean. And actually sometimes the characters as well). A good novel with no likeable characters is harder, but I think they do exist. A novel where the narrator sneers at the characters, and by extension the rest of us, all the way through….900 pages is a long, long time to be in the presence of a voice so out of love with the world. Too long, for me.


Random Bookish Thoughts – 19 October

In the complete absence of any new reviews for the past few weeks, a selection of random, tangentially-book-related musings.

What I’ve been reading

Although I haven’t been writing reviews, I’m on holiday in northern California this week and last week, so I have been reading. After finishing Vanity Fair at the beginning of October, I rewarded myself with the new Salman Rushdie (raced through whilst on trains; I don’t know why, but Rushdie’s stories seem to lend themselves to movement). Then I read a couple of Meg Wolitzer’s earlier novels, having read The Interestings last year and liked it. I think she is getting better with age; The Interestings was better than either The Wife or The Uncoupling.

I also raced through Villa America by Liza Klaussmann; I’ll read pretty much anything based in the Jazz Age. The standout read of the month for me so far, though, is The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant. It charts the story of a woman’s life, from the dawn of the 20th century until she turns 85, and I found it utterly addictive – especially after being a little bit disappointed by Sweet Caress by William Boyd, which was (nominally) along the same lines. I know I’m horribly behind with book reviews, but I’ll post a proper review of this one soon (or soonish, anyway).

Books about authors

I like reading about authors almost as much as people seem to like writing about them. I didn’t notice at first, but there’s been a definite authorly trend in this month’s reading matter. ‘The Wife’ featured a celebrated novelist, and Villa America was studded with the literary stars of the 1920s. I’ve now embarked upon Sophie and the Sibyl, by Patricia Duncker, which features George Eliot as one of the main characters and the ‘Sibyl’ of the title.

Nick Hornby doesn’t like the fact that there are so many novels about writers and writing. In one of his Believer articles (which have been published in two books, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree and Stuff I’ve Been Reading, both of which are very worthwhile for any book nut), he wonders aloud (well, on paper) whether it’s this that is turning reading into such a minority activity – i.e., to read a new novel, you have to have a passing knowledge of every novel that’s gone before. (I haven’t read it for a while, so I may be misquoting, but I think that’s the thrust of his argument.) I’m not sure I agree; I think if a novel is written well, then it should stand on its own, whatever the subject matter. Entirely subjectively, I love reading about authors for any number of reasons: because I grew up wanting to be one, because it helps me to get to know the text, and in some cases simply because they had the most fascinating, glitzy, disastrous lives (yes, Fitzgeralds, I’m looking at you) and I’m a terrible gossip.

The Classics Club Women’s Classic Literature Event

I recently reposted the starter post for this, and I think it’s a fantastic idea. I’ll be scanning down my Classics Club list for the books to bump up to next year, and perhaps adding a couple of new titles as well, including The Yellow Wallpaper as suggested by the fabulous thepocobookreader . Look out for a proper starter post, again let’s say ‘soonish’.

Right, I’m going to go and read for an hour in the California sunshine before starting the day’s adventures. Hope everyone has a great week!

Random bookish thoughts – 21 September

I was going to catch up on all of my reviews tonight, but instead it’s 9pm and I’m still at the office (lovely), so instead I thought I’d take ten minutes to share a few random thoughts that have occurred to me over the weekend.

Man Booker Prize shortlist

I am pretty pleased with this. There was a story in the Guardian asking whether it was the most diverse shortlist in the history of the prize; I’m not learned enough to opine, but it feels pretty diverse to me. It also includes four of my top six, and five of my top seven. Only A Spool of Blue Thread felt – to me – like it wasn’t quite special enough to earn its place. I would have preferred to have seen one of the other family sagas – Did You Ever Have A Family or The Green Road – but it’s a minor quibble. For the first time in a long time, I’d be happy with any of the others as the winner. (There’s also an argument that A Spool of Blue Thread – which I’ve seen described as ‘Anne Tyler’s twentieth and possibly last book’ – is nominated more as a sort of lifetime achievement award than anything else; in which case, fair enough, really.)

On communing with books through food

On Saturday night, I went to a Jamaican restaurant (Turtle Bay, in Bristol) with a couple of friends. I think it may have been the first time I’ve eaten Jamaican food. (It was delicious – jerk prawns, duck rolls, and an explosively hot goat curry with rice and peas.) Turtle Bay is decorated like its walls are made out of shipping containers, and I was thinking about A Brief History of Seven Killings throughout. Yum. (Both the book and the food.)

Contemporary literature fatigue

Towards the end of my Booker experiment, I found I was trending towards giving lower marks to the novels I was reading. Other than a comprehensive re-reading do-over (which – to be clear – I’m not committed enough to do), I have no way of knowing whether it was the books themselves, or a touch of literary malnutrition after reading 13 contemporary novels in a row. Actually, fourteen, as I took a break in the middle and read ‘Us’ by David Nicholls (which oddly enough was longlisted for last year’s prize, and had been sitting on my Kindle for months). The novels themselves were very different to each other, and for the most part they were great, but I was starting to feel the need for something different – non-fiction, maybe, or a big Victorian novel that I could sink into like a hot bath. Which brought me to…

My current read

I am about 650 pages into Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace What-a-great-middle-name Thackeray. It was exactly what I needed – sprawling, historical, and oddly familiar. Parts of it are slightly hard going; like much of Dickens, it was serialised, and in places the padding is not just visible but predominant. But I am very much enjoying watching (well, reading about) Becky Sharp twisting Victorian society around her little finger.