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Category Archive for 'England'

In a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly at the very margins of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two women who live on their own terms at the very margin of social acceptance. Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends when they first meet in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen. Suzanne and Lucie are actually aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives “as sisters.” As they grow up, they become part of the avant-garde artists and philosophers in Paris, eventually being forced to leave for the Channel Islands as World War II breaks out. Following their story from 1920 to 1970, Rupert Thomson creates a fascinating story of two very unusual women.

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It is not an overstatement to say that in his Last Stories, published posthumously, Irish author William Trevor has presented a collection of stories so powerful and so memorable that many readers will consider this to be his life’s masterpiece. Here he illustrates the observations he has made during his lifetime regarding how people face and adapt to three of life’s biggest challenges – love, memories of the past, and death, with all the emotional involvements that those subjects embrace. Love, as we see it here, can be pure passion, but it can also include friendship, simple acquaintance, admiration from afar, and hope for the future. Our memories, Trevor shows, are often affected by our conscience, sense of guilt, regret, secrets, dreams, and the amazing ability of humans to “edit” their memories to make them more palatable. Death, of course, can be sudden, long-awaited, accidental, or intentional. Frequently, these themes overlap. Despite the complex themes, Trevor’s stories remain firmly grounded in earthy narratives connecting very real characters, most of whom create their own worlds to help them deal with personal issues, and the stories here appear to have been arranged in order from least to most complex and from short to long. This extraordinary collection feels like a gift from William Trevor to his readers, ranking with the best of the best. If you like carefully wrought stories, do not miss these.

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“If our mother had ever thought to phone us from wherever she was, we would no doubt have lied cautiously and said everything was fine, not mentioning the strangers who happened to be crowding into the house at that moment. They did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson. The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow moving opera singer…”

As Nathaniel Williams, age fourteen, makes these comments to the reader, he is dealing with the absence of both of his parents as World War II and the aftermath of the blitz are paramount in England. His father has purportedly been promoted to take over the Asian office of a business. His mother, who plans to join him, stays behind with the children in London for the summer, sharing stories with Nathaniel and his sixteen-year-old sister Rachel about her early life growing up in rural Suffolk. When the school year is about to start again in September, their mother disappears, supposedly for Singapore to meet their father. The children remain behind with an assortment of characters like those mentioned in the opening quotation. Who these people really are and what they have done during the war become the main questions for the rest of the novel, as Ondaatje explores who we are, how we interpret our pasts, and what we can do about our futures.

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Each new book by Jane Gardam is an homage to her own love of ink. Though a small number of other fine authors may come close to her in terms of prizes, awards, and even titles bestowed by Queen Elizabeth, Jane Gardam may stands out among them for the sheer joy of writing which is so obvious in her novels. In The Flight of the Maidens, Jane Gardam is clearly having fun, and no matter how beautifully crafted her characters, how clever her use of irony, how accurate and often unique her descriptions, and how much empathy she may show for those who are having problems coping with the uncertainties of life, it is the “smile” which appears in her work which many of us love and celebrate. The Flight of the Maidens, written originally in 2000 and recently republished by Europa Editions, begins in 1946, as Britain begins its recovery after World War II, a time in which women’s issues began to become better recognized. Three young women, all aged seventeen, prepare for college during the summer and grow up in important ways.

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After I remarked to some book friends that one of the joys of having finished my schooling and my teaching career was that I would never again have to read a novel by Henry James, both of these friends responded that I really should read The Beast in the Jungle (1903), which they found to be quite different from many of his other works. Though I admit to having loved some of the films of James’s novels, I did not love reading any of the six novels I had had to read for classes, and I have always found James’s prose style to be so contorted, by today’s standards, and so artificial, that I have often had to reread and self-translate it into less formal English in order to come close to understanding what James is saying. My friends persuaded me by their enthusiasm, however, and I decided to try reading Henry James again after so many years of avoiding him. Voluntarily returning to his company, it turned out, was a mixed blessing. I admired much of the book and, for the first time, I really began to feel as if I were beginning to know who Henry James really was as a man, not just as a writer. The Beast in the Jungle parallels what we know of his life very closely, and it feels so autobiographical that the reader cannot help but believe that it is based on a very real inner turmoil in his life and may also explain some the mysteries which have always surrounded him.

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