Feed on

“I love the advice [about handling hawks] given by Nicholas Cox in his 1674 The Gentlemen’s Recreation: ‘You must by kindness make her gentle and familiar with you.’ I think it was this wisdom, passed down the centuries, which made hawks so appealing to me, this insight that an intransigent hawk, whose wildness is never lost and always resides just beneath the surface, can be reached, not by force, but by gentleness and kindness.”—Richard Hines, author

cover GentlenesseIn this memoir of a man’s life, from his problematic childhood in the rural south Yorkshire mining village of Hoyland Common in the late 1950s, through his current, highly successful adulthood in Sheffield, also in South Yorkshire, author Richard Hines, like Nicholas Cox in the quotation (above), makes total connection with his reader in ‘gentle and familiar’ ways. Rarely, if ever, have I had such a feeling of intimacy with an author as he tells about his life and draws me in completely.   The key to his whole life took place when he was just fifteen – the summer that he “manned a kestrel,” a small hawk.  In a kind of reversal from what the reader might expect of someone who ultimately trained several raptors, Hines conveys a feeling, not of his own power and strength, but of earnestness and real vulnerability. Here Hines trusts the reader and opens his heart, just as the kestrels he trained seemed to trust and yield to him, as long as he “[kept] his side of the bargain to provide [them] with food and fly [them] free in the fields.” Ultimately, the author, having entertained and captivated the reader throughout the book, moves on in the conclusion, leaving in his wake many readers whose lives, like that of the author, may also have been enlarged by their contact with him.

author photo hines

The first half of the book focuses on Hines’s childhood, beginning in 1955, when the author is eleven and living in Hoyland Common, a town in the shadow of the coal pits. His father and grandfather both worked in the mines, and as Hines reminisces about family life back then, we see a poor, working family dealing with a typically active young boy who is sometimes in trouble, but is mostly attentive to the “rules.” Close to his father, who is injured on the job more than once, Richard Hines also admires his brother Barry, six years older, an excellent student with whom he shares a bedroom. With his school friends Budgie and Towser, who reappear throughout the memoir, Richard slides down slag heaps, helps rescue and tame injured birds, and once encourages Towser, who brings a Luger under his jacket so he can shoot it into the slurry pond. Always a lover of birds and animals, the author keeps a magpie at home, a bird which, having never lost its wildness, terrorizes the neighborhood and inspires him, eventually, to release it into the wild. Not until he is on his way home from a hike to Tankersley Old Hall one afternoon does he see and get close to his first kestrel, a bird he decides that someday he will bring into his life.

Tankersley Old Hall, photo by A Burtz910/ See link in photo credits for more photos from South Yorkshire.

Tankersley Old Hall, a ruined Elizabethan manor, where Richard Hines first gets close to a kestrel.  Photo by A Burtz 910.  See link in photo credits for more of his photos from South Yorkshire.

By the age of eleven, all the boys in his school take tests for advancement into a variety of new schools, these early tests perhaps reinforcing  some of the class divisions within British society, he suggests.  Though his family, his brother Barry, and Richard himself, had expected that he would go on to a more academic “grammar” school, he, unlike his brother, failed that test and ended up at a Secondary Modern School – and not even in Section 1A, but in Section 1B. The author is thereby destined to deal with the horrors of the local school system with its corporal punishment and unsympathetic teachers. By 1960, when he is fifteen, however, he is reading books about falconry, including T. H. White’s The Goshawk, a passion which stimulates his decision that summer to try to “man” a hawk of his own.   Acquiring a baby kestrel, he teaches himself how to work the hawk as he goes, deciding from the outset that he will never use jesses (cords around the hawk’s legs so that the hawk can be controlled by the trainer). He wants his hawk to be able to fly free.

The kestrel, a small falcon often "manned" by falconers.

The kestrel, a small falcon often “manned” by falconers.

Keeping his first kestrel in an old bunker from World War II on the property where his brother Barry has been living, the author is often watched by Barry who takes notes on the process.  Barry eventually writes a popular book entitled A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which goes on to become a huge success and eventually a prize-winning film in 1970. As a result, it is Barry Hines, the brother, who becomes forever associated with training the kestrel, not Richard, who is mentioned only in the dedication to Barry’s book. Richard does express his annoyance in one interview, saying only that he was “anything but a knave,” as he is shown to be in Barry’s book.  When the film is being produced, Barry goes on to be credited (at his own request) for other kestrel-related activities which he does not really perform.  Though I felt outraged at the slights to Richard, who received no acknowledgment for the work that he put his heart into, Richard himself never betrays even a hint of jealousy or resentment.

David Bradley plays the part of Billy Caspar in the film of "Kes," based on a Barry Hines's "A Kestrel for a Knave."

David Bradley plays the part of Billy Casper, with a kestrel perched on his gloved arm, in the 1970 film of “Kes,” based on a Barry Hines’s “A Kestrel for a Knave.”

The final section of the memoir puts all of Richard Hines’s experience and learning into perspective – the idea of moving on, of rising above, of coming to terms. He goes on to a technology college and eventually attends Leicester Teachers Training College, studying Environmental Studies, and as he does his research for his dissertation, he makes a new and startlingly personal discovery. On a visit to the Falconry Centre in Gloucestershire, in 1969, he recognizes Phillip Glasier, the man who founded the Centre, and he asks him a question. Glasier’s answer is said, “in his posh, loud voice, [which] intimidated me so much I could hardly take in what he was saying.” Richard Hines’s only contact with the upper classes had always been indirect – through the study of falconry – but he is struck, upon hearing this voice, by the gulf between the classes as revealed in the man’s accent and tone of voice. “For the first time I began to value my own heritage,” he says, and he ultimately goes on to complete his degree and  become a teacher, the head of a school, a film maker and writer for the BBC, and a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. Ultimately, he travels to Tankersley Old Hall, described in the opening chapter, where his first close sighting of a kestrel occurred, and it reminds him that “all of us have something of worth; a hidden potential, a talent or aptitude…[and that] this talent can inspire us to do things in life we might have thought impossible.” He, himself, has done this, and the example he sets with this memoir suggests that he, as a teacher and film maker, must also have inspired his students  to believe in themselves. Vividly and honestly created, the book’s final lesson illustrates the four-hundred-year-old quotation which begins the memoir:  “There is no way but gentlenesse to redeeme a Hawke,” a powerful metaphor for his own life.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.barnsley-chronicle.co.uk

Tankersley Hall, the ruins of an Elizabethan manor in South Yorkshire, is part of a collection of photos by A. Burtz 910 on Flicker:  https://www.flickr.com

The kestrel is from an entry on https://en.wikipedia.org/

The photo from the 1970 film of “Kes,” written by Richard Hines’s brother Barry Hines, may be found here:  http://filmsworthwatching.blogspot.com

REVIEW. Autobiography/Memoir, Book Club Suggestions, Non-Fiction, England, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Richard Hines
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Date Published: 05/24/2016
ISBN: 978-1632865021
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


Note:  This novel was WINNER of the Grand Prix du roman de L’Academie Francaise in 2014.

bazn_cerdan_neveu_400“On October 27, 1949, at Orly, Air France’s F-BAZN is waiting to receive thirty-seven passengers departing for the United States…[including] Marcel Cerdan… former middleweight boxing champion… and the violin virtuoso Ginette Neveu…. The tabloid France-soir organizes an impromptu photo session in the departure lounge. In the first snapshot, Jean Neveu, Ginette’s brother, [is] smiling at her, while Marcel holds her Stradivarius and Ginette grins across at him.”


cover constellationThe plane takes off but never arrives in New York – nor does it arrive at the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, where the pilot had planned to refuel for the trip across the Atlantic. All thirty-eight passengers and eleven crew died when the plane crashed into a mountain top fifty-five miles from the airport at Santa Maria. French author Adrien Bosc wastes no time getting into the action of this book, which he calls a novel, though this “novel” is based on real life events and the historical record and feels more like a long piece of journalism or investigative reporting. There is almost no dialogue, something which even “fictionalized biographies” include, and the author interjects himself into the book and speaks directly to the reader, at times, when he is puzzled about the facts as he is uncovering them. Parts of the book feel like a quest story – in this case, the author’s quest for the complete truth about the crash and the fates of all the passengers. Certainly some of the “facts” here are extrapolations which the author himself makes from what he knows, and in that sense the book might qualify as a novel, but most readers will find themselves learning about the crash and its victims, rather than reliving it as one does in pure fiction.

autho photo boscTwo characters are the linchpins of the book: a thirty-three-year-old former world middleweight champion from Algeria and Morocco named Marcel Cerdan, who lost his crown to Jake Lamotta and is on his way to New York to sign a contract for a rematch; and Ginette Neveu, a thirty-year-old concert violinist who at age sixteen won the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Poland in which David Oistrakh came in second. She is on her way to the United States for a concert tour. Cerdan had not planned to take this flight, and three passengers were bumped from the flight so that he could have their seats for himself and two assistants, their lives saved by accident. It was Cerdan’s lover of one year, famed singer Edith Piaf, “The Little Sparrow,” on tour in New York at the time, who persuaded him to come to New York by plane instead of ship so that they could have a four day rendezvous before he had to deal with his upcoming fight. Marcel Cerdan and Ginette Neveu appear and reappear throughout, providing a kind of continuity even as other characters have their own turns in the spotlight.

Edith Piaf and her lover, Marcel Cerdan, the first man with whom she found true love.

Edith Piaf and her lover, Marcel Cerdan, the first man with whom she was able to find true love.

With thirty-eight passengers and eleven crew, Bosc is at no loss for biographical subject matter. The pilot of the plane had participated in World War II, fighting for both the British and the Americans, and he had been part of “history in the making…an extra in the great theater of operations organized by Churchill and Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference.” A short section about Howard Hughes, leads into a section about the stewardess and two stewards, then into a description of a painter who was “portraitist to the millionaires, the leading painter of café society.” A reconstruction of the final moments in the cockpit leads into the story of five young Basque shepherds, part of the “Basque diaspora,” come to the US looking for land. A mother and daughter on their way back to Havana introduce the subject of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and their crime organization there. These passengers sit almost side by side with Kay Kamen, the wealthy investor who saved Walt Disney and his brother and their business and ended up with the merchandising rights for Disney products, such as the Mickey Mouse watch (five million sold) and other products. Dozens of passengers from different countries leading dozens of different lives all find themselves in one plane with one outcome, and each of these vignettes contributes to the author’s study of the vagaries of fate and its inevitability.

Marcel Cerdan gets on the Constellation at Orly on his way to NYC to see Piaf.

Marcel Cerdan gets on the Constellation at Orly on his way to NYC to see Piaf.

Details of the aftermath of the crash add to the drama, and wherever possible the author stresses coincidences, both real and imagined. Ultimately, Air France decides that a re-enactment of the trip in a similar plane might help to explain some of the mysteries of the crash, a decision which eventually parallels the author’s own decision to go to the Azores and find the crash site almost seventy years later. At the time of the crash, local looters found the site first, and Air France’s safety experts later must find every possible piece of evidence so that they can reconstruct what happened. Bodies are shipped back home to France, when they can be found and identified, funerals and burials are held, and in at least one case, bodies get mixed up and have to be exhumed and re-identified. Some questions regarding identity are never answered, and some bodies are never found.

Ginette Neveu, with her Stradivarius. Click for video performance by Neveu.

Ginette Neveu, with her Stradivarius. Click for video performance by Neveu.

Late in the novel, the author seems to be straining for universal lessons where they may not exist. At one point he discusses Pierre Schaeffer’s Studies of Noise, which was broadcast on French television three weeks before the crash. Schaeffer worked with Pierre Henry and founded the Group for Concrete Music Research. Bosc notes that two parts of that work are entitled “Prosopopoeia,” and that their research has focused on arranging noises and composing with concrete elements that, laid end to end, would form a continuous sound, music. Bosc then asks a question that one might also ask of other parts of this work: “What relation does this have to the story of the airplane downed in the Azores and the re-creation of its flight by Air France’s investigative unit?” [Bosc] answers frankly, “Not much, really, except a certain kinship and, looking back and noting strange correspondences, the synchronicity of certain dates.” Talk of “aeronautical music” and “sonar signals” follows this section as the author wonders why the flight deviated north in the archipelago. Other accidents, references to the end of the world, and to the author’s own confused birth certificate add to the novel’s questions, which are ultimately explained as “a matter of constellations.” Perhaps the constellations can explain why, by the conclusion, I felt utterly lost with this book, which started out as a structured and finely detailed story of a plane crash and its victims, and ended up being a little bit of everything.

Air France F-BAZNB

Photos, in order:  Jean Neveu, brother of Ginette, smiles at her as she shows her Stradivarius to famed prizefighter (and lover of Edith Piaf) in the departure lounge before they leave Orly for New York.

The author’s photo appears on http://www.femmemag.re

Piaf and Cerdan at a nightclub.  By the time the plane crashed, they had been lovers for well over a year.  He was the first person she’d ever totally loved, she said, and she was devastated by his loss. http://perthfrenchtutor.com

Cerdan greets the crew and enters the Constellation.  http://www.crash-aerien.news

Ginette Neveu plays her Stradivarius.  For a sample of her music, click the photo.  https://www.youtube.com/

The Constellation F-BAZB, a Howard Hughes plane which is the subject of this novel.  https://www.pinterest.com/

ARC:  Other Press

REVIEW. France, Historical, Non-fiction, Portugal, Azores
Written by: Adrien Bosc
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 05/10/2016
ISBN: 978-1590517567
Available in: Paperback

Louise Erdrich–LAROSE

Note:  Louise Erdrich was WINNER of the 2015 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, WINNER of the PEN/Saul BellowAward for Achievement in American Fiction, and WINNER of the National Book Award for Fiction for The Round House.

“Landreaux had kept track of the buck all summer, waiting to take it fat, until just after the corn was harvested….The buck had regular habits and had grown comfortable on its path…It would wait and watch through midafternoon….Landreaux was downwind [and] he [finally] took his shot with fluid confidence. When the buck popped away, he realized he’d hit something else – there had been a blur the moment he squeezed the trigger….”

cover LaRose 2Within the first two paragraphs of this dramatic and incisive study of human relationships, author Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa (Ojibwe) Indians, introduces a series of powerful conflicts which pit family against family, culture against culture, and generation against generation. In the opening scene, quoted at the top of the review, Landreaux Iron, a careful and respected member of his culture, accidentally kills Dusty Ravich, the five-year-old son of Peter Ravich, a friend and family member with whom he had planned to share the meat from the buck. Racing back to Peter’s house, Landreaux encounters Peter’s wife Nola, who becomes understandably hysterical, and by the time the tribal police, the county coroner, and the state coroner have arrived, the trauma has been felt by all the members of both devastated families.

author photo erdrichA resident of Pluto, a town in the same North Dakota/Minnesota area that Erdrich has used many times as the settings for previous novels, Landreaux is a devout Catholic, and he immediately goes to talk with Father Travis about his guilt and heartbreak. Later, he, his wife Emmaline, and their five-year-old son LaRose take further solace in the traditions of their Indian culture by going to the sweat lodge. There, in their mystical dreams, they have a vision of the future.   True justice and repentance, they decide, can only be achieved if Landreaux gives his own five-year-old son, LaRose, to Peter Ravich and his wife Nola to raise as their own. LaRose, a child who seems older than his years, has inherited a name which has been passed down through each generation of Landreaux’s family for over a hundred years, and each of the LaRoses, both male and female, has shown connections to the spirit world and insights into the most sacred aspects of Ojibwe culture. As he goes to live with the Raviches, LaRose desperately misses Emmaline, his mother, as any five-year-old would, but he also sees beyond himself and adapts to his new situation, accepting the statement Landreaux has made to Peter: “Our son will be your son now. It’s the old way.”

bark house (wigwam)

As Wolfred Roberts and the first LaRose try to escape from Mackinnon, they emerge from the woods, at one point to “a hundred or more [bark houses] set up along the bends of a river,” an event which  changed the lives of Wolfred and LaRose.

Erdrich, a great story-teller, provides generations of back story, helping the reader to understand how the accidents of history have created the present. Of paramount importance is the story of the first LaRose from the earlier generations.  Mink, a wild, uncivilized woman descended from a violent family of powerful healers, worked at a country trading post in 1839. She had given birth to a daughter but had little use for the duties of motherhood, and when her daughter was of school age, she sold the girl to a trader named Mackinnon. His helper Wolfred Roberts, Mackinnon’s clerk, took pity on the child, taught her domestic skills, and gave her a name, Flower, and she quickly decided that she would earn enough to buy herself back. The “healer” skills she has learned from Mink, her mother, hold her in good stead when she and Wolfred decide to escape from Mackinnon.

Carlisle Indian School

The banner, school song, and school yell for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which an early LaRose attended, changed her life by giving her skills that allowed her to survive in the outside world, while changing her view of herself.  Double-click to enlarge.

These parallel stories of different generations continue to alternate throughout the novel as the children of Landreaux and Emmaline grow up beside the children of Peter and Nola Ravitch, with LaRose serving as a bridge between the two families. Erdrich makes her characters reflect not only their own values and the values of their culture but also the weaknesses within themselves as they struggle to lead “good lives,” in spite of all the temptations facing them.   In earlier generations, Mink’s daughter, first called “Flower,” and then “LaRose” by Wolfred, eventually gives birth to another LaRose, who becomes Emmaline’s grandmother, the families of Landreaux and Emmaline having combined somewhere within the generations. The stories of the early generations of LaRose women are shown in stark contrast to the values of the American culture in which they had to live. One LaRose, Emmaline’s grandmother, attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a school which took Indians off the reservation, away from their families. and out of their own culture, and “educated” them to become, essentially, servants of the Americans who wanted them to be assimilated.

During their youth, Landreaux and Romeo Puyat ran off to Minneapolis, where they watched "Little Big Man" eight times. It "affected them deeply."

During their youth, Landreaux and Romeo Puyat ran off to Minneapolis, where they watched “Little Big Man” eight times. It “affected them deeply.”

In the present generation, the stories of the Iron and Ravitch children, their resentments and reconciliations, their problems in school with bullying, and the actions they take to correct those problems occupy much of the last part of the book, and those episodes often alternate with the story of Romeo Puyat, once a friend of Landreaux, now an enemy. Love stories, sometimes complex, sometimes life-changing, develop and then fade away, and mystical moments and ghostly sightings complicate the lives of many characters. The conclusion, which takes place, appropriately, after a graduation, brings together many of the elements of the novel and many readers will find it rewarding in its mellow tones and sense of reconciliation.

A Pendleton Chief Joseph blanket, like the one the Iron family gave to Fr, Travis in honor of their wedding, also covers him as he prepares to explain why he is leaving town.

A Pendleton Chief Joseph blanket, like the one the Iron family gave to Fr. Travis in honor of their wedding, also covers him as he tries to sleep, preparing to explain why he is leaving town.

Erdrich’s descriptions, often memorable, are only as long and complex as they need to be to enliven the episodes and stories within the story here. Emmaline is described as a “branchy woman, lovely in her angularity. She was all sticks and elbows, knobby knees. She had a slightly crooked nose and striking, murky green, wolvish eyes,” a description which clearly ties her to the natural environment in which she lives. The author’s description of Landreaux going off by himself at night after the death of little Dusty, tells of a man who “made fierce attempts to send himself back in time and die…The earth was dry, the stars bursting up there. Planes and satellites winked over. The moon came up burning whitely, and at last clouds moved in, covering everything,” another description which connects with nature, without showing off. The novel will keep every reader occupied on several levels of story-telling at once, though some aspects of the novel – the girls’ volleyball experiences and competitions, for example – could have been compressed or eliminated. A few characters might also have been eliminated, one of which, the priest who replaces Fr. Travis, has a name given for purposes of “humor” which feels totally out of place, even silly. Still, the novel fascinates and and ultimately haunts on every level, and it will be on my Favorites List for the year, for sure.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on https://www.pinterest.com/

Bark houses, “wigwams,” lined the river when Wolfred and the first La Rose emerged from the woods to try to make their escape from Mackinnon.  http://moviemorlocks.com/

Memorabilia from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where Indian boys and girls learned trades valuable to the white world, may be found on https://en.wikipedia.org     Double-click to enlarge.

When Landreaux and Romeo Puyat run off to Minneapolis, they spend hours at the movies, and watch LITTLE BIG MAN eight times.  http://moviemorlocks.com/

As Fr. Travis suffers from insomnia before he tells his friends that he is being transferred from their church, he spends the night curled up in the blanket given to him by Landreaux and Emmaline to celebrate their marriage.  https://www.pendleton-usa.com/

ARC:  Harper Collins

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Native American, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues.
Written by: Louise Erdrich
Published by: HarperCollins
Date Published: 05/10/2016
ISBN: 978-0062277022
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Note:  Andrew O’Hagan was SHORTLISTED for the IMPAC Dublin Award in 2001 for Our Fathers, was WINNER of the James Tait Black Prize for Personality in 2003, and was WINNER of the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Writing in 2010.

“Anne’s flat was like a palace. Maureen loved the story it told, not that she knew it, but a person with taste always has a story…Anne walked to the microwave and turned round. ‘The Rabbit wants his dinner,’ she said. ‘He’s not had a thing all day.’ The rabbit was ceramic, about six inches tall…[and] looked creepy… ‘I know it’s daft,’ Anne said. ‘But it’s okay…He’s awfully hungry.’ ”

cover illuminationsOn the surface, The Illuminations, the fifth novel by Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan, appears to be a simple story about Captain Luke Campbell, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and his grandmother, Anne Quirk, with whom he has always been particularly close. Luke has returned from the fighting with issues which prevent him from becoming close to those around him, perhaps reflecting some aspects of PTSD. His beloved grandmother Anne, now eighty-two, is staying at a co-operative living facility on the west coast of Scotland, where the other residents and a caring staff are trying to keep her from harm as her developing dementia begins to become dangerous. A former art photographer, whose work has recently interested a group which hopes to present a retrospective showing, Anne spent time in Canada, New York, Glasgow, and eventually Blackpool, before she mysteriously stopped doing any photography in 1963 when she was in her early thirties. Luke, whose mother Alice’s issues have always prevented her from becoming personally “engaged” with him, has come to Scotland after the war to try to help Anne. His father, Sean Campbell, also a soldier, died in the British fighting against the IRA in Northern Ireland many years ago,

author photo

Luke’s experiences in Afghanistan are drawn in especially vivid terms, and the author’s own trips to that country add to the realism.   His depictions of the servicemen and their private slang add to the drama there, as Luke feels close to his men and often acts with fatherly concern for them. At one point before a major battle, he requires his men to write letters home to their families, and he is concerned about Major Scullion’s recent split with his wife and his resulting depression. The goal of his group is, literally, to bring light and water to the peasants, “not bomb them to kingdom come,” but as they quickly discover, there is little contact between the Afghan National Police and the British Royal Fusilliers who are fighting their war. Accidents happen, and the men release their tensions any way they can, as they get set for a major battle which will test them all in new ways and leave them vulnerable to second guessing and self-blame for mistakes and errors of judgment.

The Blackpool Illuminations, with virtually every building and property along the water shining with lights.

The Blackpool Illuminations, with virtually every building and property along the water shining with lights. Double-click to enlarge.

Anne, meanwhile, is operating in her own private world, slipping in and out of the real world.  She is obsessed with her memories of Harry Blake, Alice’s father and Luke’s grandfather, who taught her much of what she knows about photography and everything she knows about love when they lived in Blackpool. Upon Luke’s return from Afghanistan, he decides to take Anne from Scotland back to the Blackpool Illuminations on a holiday visit to celebrate the lights and perhaps rekindle memories. Between Luke’s celebration with Anne and his visits with one of her old friends, Luke begins to understand more about Anne and about why his mother has never been close to him.

Goatfell Mountain on Arran Island, photo from Weefuse on Tanner Ba

Goatfell Mountain on Arran Island, photo from Weefuse on Tanner Ba

Though this outline of the plot, in the hands of an author less skilled, might have devolved into sentimentality, easy emotionalism, and sensational revelations, O’Hagan avoids these traps by challenging the very nature of genre and creating for himself some new “rules” of novel-writing. The result is an insightful and unusual study of the interactions of Luke Campbell and his grandmother as they reconnect. Both are facing new crises which the author presents in a straightforward fashion through short scenes which straddle the stylistic line between drama and journalism. Having written stories and articles about real people, and novels based on biographies, author O’Hagan is acutely aware of the how much real people often hide from others – and sometimes refuse to admit even to themselves. At the same time, his work in drama makes O’Hagan’s dialogue sparkle as the characters interact. The combination of the two styles – non-fiction and drama – leads to powerful scenes as the characters confront deeply hidden realities which they may have refused to acknowledge. Universal truths underlie each character’s struggle with memory and forgetfulness, and unobtrusive but revelatory symbolism emphasizes the developing themes, especially symbols of light and dark, warmth and cold.

The Kitchen Sink Photo by Canadian photographer Margaret Watkins, is described here as a photo by Anne Quirk.

The Kitchen Sink Photo by Canadian photographer Margaret Watson, is described here as if it were a photo by Anne Quirk.  Double-click to enlarge.

Though O’Hagan does not belabor any real connection between Anne Quirke and the Canadian photographer Margaret Watson, who lived a similar life to Anne’s and, like Anne, was virtually unknown in her later life, the grounding of Anne in a real personality provides an immediacy and realism which would otherwise be difficult for the author to create for a character whose personality is quickly disappearing into her dementia. When Luke finds a box of Anne’s early photographs, he is particularly struck by one which shows “a kitchen sink with old taps and a pair of breakfast bowls waiting to be washed and a milk bottle filled with soapy water. The sink and its contents shone like nothing on earth…” That description matches a kitchen sink photograph by the early and still almost unknown Margaret Watson, who died in 1969, and gives verisimilitude to the character of Anne Quirke.

The lighthouse on Arran Island contrasts with the image of the snow-capped Goatfell Mountain on Arran Island described earlier.

The lighthouse on Arran Island contrasts with the image of the snow-capped Goatfell Mountain on Arran Island described earlier.

The last third of the novel ties up the details of Anne Quirk’s secret life, her problems as they affect her daughter Alice, and Alice’s own problems with her marriage and her identity as they affect her child Luke. Memory and forgetting, truth and pretense, commitment and lack of it, emotional freedom and crippling guilt, and the accidents of fate which cause people to see their lives in terms of war and peace, all play a part here, and are interconnected through repeating symbols. One such symbol is the snow on Goatfell mountain on Arran Island – cold, isolated, dangerous – which  Anne’s friend Maureen notices while staring out from the coast of Scotland at the beginning of the novel. That image is balanced later in the novel when Luke believes that the lighthouse on that same island is sending him a new message: reflecting a peaceful, quiet place of no enemies, full of light and hope. Packed full of thoughtful imagery, well-developed characterizations, subtle changes which reveal the longings of the heart, and actions which each character hopes will inspire new beginnings, The Illuminations lives up to its title.

The Blackpool Illuminations

The Blackpool Illuminations

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.smh.com.au/

The Blackpool Illuminations are featured here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

Goatfell Mountain on Arran Island, photo from Weefuse on Tanner Ba:  https://thetannerba.com/  

The Kitchen Sink,  by Canadian photographer Margaret Watson, is described here as if it were by Anne Quirk.  Like Anne, she was virtually unknown at the time of her death in 1969. http://www.artnet.com/    Double-click to enlarge.

The lighthouse on Arran Island is seen as a symbol of hope by Luke, a contrast to the feeling of the image of Goatfell Mountain on the same island.  http://www.lochsandglens.com/

The panorama of the Illuminations is found on http://www.thechadwickhotel.com

ARC: Picador

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, England, Literary, Psychological study, Scotland, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Andrew O'Hagan
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 03/24/2016
ISBN: 978-0374174569
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: In 1996 author Graham Swift was WINNER of the Booker Prize and WINNER of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Last Orders. He was also WINNER of the Guardian Fiction Prize for Waterland in 1983.

“It was a strange business, this Mothering Sunday ahead of them, a ritual already fading, yet the Nivens – and the Sheringhams – still clung to it, as the world itself, or the world in dreamy Berkshire, still clung to it, for the same sad, wishing-the-past-back reasons. As the Nivens and the Sheringhams perhaps clung to each other more than they’d used to, as if they’d become one common decimated family.”

cover mothering sundayAs the novel opens on March 30, 1924, the Nivens, Sheringhams, and others throughout England are celebrating Mothering Sunday, a holiday in which the citizens, aristocracy and servants alike, celebrate their mothers. Servants are especially happy, as they all get a day off to travel to their homes and visit with family. Jane Fairchild, who works as a housemaid at Beechwood in an atmosphere much like that of a small Downton Abbey, will not be traveling, however. A foundling deposited at the door of an orphanage shortly after she was born, Jane has never known a mother or a father, does not know any birth name she may have had, and has spent her whole life in an orphanage – until, at age fourteen, she entered “service.” At sixteen she begins working for the Niven family, which, in the aftermath of World War I, has reduced the number of their household servants to two – Milly, the cook, and Jane, the maid.

As we learn in the opening pages, Jane, now twenty-two, has been having a secret sexual relationship for the past six years with the only surviving son and heir of neighboring aristocrats. On the holiday, that young man, Paul Sheringham, will be entertaining Jane in his own house and in his own bed for the first time, and, at his request, Jane will arrive at the estate’s front door as an equal, not at the servants’ entrance. Paul’s parents and the Nivens are off visiting with their friends, the Hobdays, celebrating Paul’s future marriage to Emma Hobday, a woman of “appropriate” class. The wedding is scheduled to be held in just two weeks.

Mr. Nevin takes his wife in the Humber car as they meet the Sheringhams and Hobdays at The Swan for lunch.

Mr. Nevin takes his wife in the Humber car as they meet the Sheringhams and Hobdays at an inn for lunch.

Author Graham Swift sets the tone and mood at the outset with the inclusion of a one-sentence epigraph introducing the novella: “You shall go to the ball.”  And while his audience may be thinking of Cinderella and happy endings, Swift also introduces the opening paragraph with “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed, when there were more horses than cars, and before the male servants disappeared…” The dark ironies involving the shattering loss of four young sons of the Niven and Sheringham families during the war, along with the developing new world order and the changing values of their society at all levels indicate a far more complex story than the happy-ending stories of childhood. As Jane shares her seemingly circumscribed life within which she gradually shows signs of intellectual growth, and Paul tries to survive his differently circumscribed life with some sense of integrity and independence, the reader becomes aware of just how much society has changed with the world war and how much these changes affect the future of the entire nation. The whole notion of personal freedom and independence for all, not just the aristocracy, is challenging the very foundations of social life.

lady cydclist2

Jane leaves Beechwood on “the second bicycle” to meet Paul Sheringham at Upleigh when the Nevins depart for the inn. She is pleased to arrive, not by a back road but by cycling directly to the front entrance and entering as an equal.

Though Paul Sheringham was supposed to join his family, friends, and future wife, Emma Hobday, for a late lunch during the holiday, he has chosen to entertain Jane instead, telling the others that he has to study for some law exams, though “he had as much intention of becoming a lawyer as becoming a lettuce.” His assignation with Jane, passionate and sexual, brings a sense of peace to Jane, who understands what is at stake and knows that this will probably be their last time together, and even as she watches Paul get up from the bed, she believes that “There never was a day like this nor ever will be or can be again.” As for Paul, “he wanted her to be there, [though] it might have been her role in another life, in a commoner comic story, to be already scurrying downstairs, still adjusting her clothing. It was his wish before he left, to see here there, to have her there, nakedly and…immovably occupying his bedroom, so that the image of her would be there, branding itself on his mind, even as he met…his [bride-to-be].” He delays and delays his departure, eventually leaving the house so late that his absence will certainly embarrass his family, friends, and future in-laws, and especially his fiancee, awaiting his arrival at the inn.

The Swan Inn on the Thames, where Paul is scheduled to meet Emma for lunch. Pohoto by Richard Leigh

The Swan Inn on the Thames, where Emma is awaiting Paul for lunch. Photo by Richard Leigh

About halfway through the book, Swift unexpectedly changes the time frame. Jane is now in her nineties, and, as she describes changes in her life over the past sixty-five years, she also provides more information about her early life at the Nivens’ estate, showing the reader how some elements of her early life, especially regarding her interest in adventure books, play out more fully over the course of her adult life. An acute observer of the people around her, she is now living a happy and productive old age, fulfilled in ways which she and the reader never expected when she was in her twenties. It is to Swift’s credit that the reader is able to understand how Jane arrived at her goals though the author has presented this information casually and without much emphasis during the early action of the book, requiring the reader to form conclusions on his/her own. Jane’s long interest in reading, which Mr. Niven encouraged by allowing her to borrow books from his library, allows her to make sense of her new experiences and to feel a new kind of independence. Though she seems to trace everything in her life back to her last day with Paul Sheringham, she regards that time as almost holy, and has never shared that story with anyone else, except the reader.

After her assignation with Paul Sheringham, Jane returns by bike to Beechwood, where she begins Joseph Conrad's YOUTH, eventually reading most of Conrad's work in the aftermath of events.

After her assignation with Paul Sheringham, Jane returns by bike to Beechwood, where she begins reading Joseph Conrad’s YOUTH, eventually reading most of Conrad’s work in the aftermath of unfolding events.

Swift never spells out Jane’s inner quandaries leading up to her arrival at “the ball” during the seventy years between opening and closing of the novel. Instead, the reader follows Jane obliquely as the author provides information which Jane has previously kept private, leaving it up to the reader to fill in the blanks between what she says in her old age and any issues which must have arisen as she matured. The reader, always on her side, shares in her life, despite her reticence, and the novel speeds along on the strength of its characters’ independent decisions and their life-changing moments, however small they may seem to the world at large. Times change, but those who can find a “language” for expressing what they have to say have a chance at getting at the truth, “the very feel of being alive.”


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.enviedecrire.com

The 1924 Humber leaving the front of an elegant house might have been the car that Mr. Nevin drove to his meeting with the Sheringhams and the Hobdays.

The photo of the young woman on the bicycle is part of the collection at http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/

Paul is scheduled to meet Emma at the Swan Inn on the Thames at 1:30 but leaves Upleigh at an embarrassingly late time.  Photo by Richard Leigh.  https://www.tripadvisor.com

After Jane returns to Beechwood, she reads a book from Mr. Nevin’s library , YOUTH by Joseph Conrad, the first of many Conrad books Jane later reads with excitement.  As Conrad was still alive until August, 1924, Jane even fantasizes about having an encounter with Conrad. http://www.famousauthors.org/joseph-conrad

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, England, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Graham Swift
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/19/2016
ISBN: 978-1101947524
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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